England, Scotland and the inadequacy of charts alone

The argument that Scottish independence would greatly damage the acceptance of the music and culture often euphemistically called “urban” in England is exhibit A for the case that mere charts, mere lists of self-selecting, fairly narrow popularity, are not enough in themselves.  Music in this style is invariably less popular in Scotland in terms of pure sales (and now, presumably, streams), sometimes very markedly and conspicuously so (the general rule is that artists of the black Atlantic sell less well unless they do Eurodance-style songs, hence why Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” was a Scottish number one without topping the UK charts, and that acts from mainland Europe sell better unless their songs have an “urban” flavour, hence Oliver Heldens’ “Gecko (Overdrive)” bucking the trend by failing to replicate its UK number one status in Scotland).  There are many reasons why this might be: a less multiracial and multicultural demographic even in urban Scotland, less pressure to like it for post-colonial reasons among people outside its core audience because Leftism stuck to its pre-68 self there and so could remain a mass, socially conservative phenomenon (if ’68 had never happened, I don’t think I personally would ever have taken to it, half a lifetime ago), a general sense where whatever is small-town music in England (currently, the David Guetta continuum, seemingly on the racks but now with its umpteenth new wind) is big-city music in Scotland, whereas Scottish small towns and villages, to some extent, actually are what their English equivalents are fondly, delusionally imagined to be by the Dorset Echo and its ilk, in terms of not being wholly dependant on global mass culture.  But surely, those who take popularity polls in isolation would say, if it is less popular in Scotland, then Scotland being in a separate state would strengthen its cultural share in England, push it further up the charts by removing the sales of sceptics, give it a measurable demographic boost?  This, I fear, is a classic example of ignoring the wider social context which charts, unless it is absolutely unavoidable (and it rarely has been in recent times), by their nature leave out.

Charts can often shine a light on the world around them, of course; the Rolling Stones’ 2005 album A Bigger Bang (the one with “Sweet Neocon”, an unexpectedly accurate dissection of the dilemma an entire generation found itself in by this point, just in the slipstream of Katrina) narrowly missed the long, late years of TPL by literally a handful of copies, the difference made entirely by its low sales in Northern Ireland which may reflect the fact that, out of the generation that would still have been interested in what the Stones might have come up with by then, a disproportionate number in Northern Ireland (of both traditions) prefer folk and/or country over rock.  Marcello Carlin has already written about a similar situation in Scotland being a reason why there was never a “Clydebeat” to compare with Merseybeat and indeed what happened in London, when Glasgow was one of the very few other places to have comparable access to black American music through being an Atlantic port, but in that 2005 situation where Northern Ireland kept an album out of TPL (and also prevented the same act having number one albums consisting wholly of new recordings over a span of over forty years, something which has never in fact come to pass) there is another intriguing element; the album that stayed at number one in the UK because it stayed at number one in Northern Ireland, just on the brink of the “heir to Blair” speech, was James Blunt’s Back to Bedlam.  The fact that this was just after the IRA had finally announced an end to its armed campaign … the idea of people from strongly Catholic or nationalist backgrounds buying an album by an Old Harrovian with a background in the British Army at such a moment, in terms of pop’s reflecting the shifts around it, is almost too carmodic to be believed.

But that is a context that everyone gets and understands; it was impossible to live in Britain for most of modern history and not get some grasp of it, however it was filtered.  One thing which is, conversely, hardly being discussed at all in the wider talk about the possible effects of Scottish independence hinges on an important difference: that between London as seat of feudal-turned-neoliberal power, and London as centre of global pop-cultural hybridisation.  The two are entirely distinct, two Londons fundamentally at odds with each other, but some Scottish independence supporters don’t appear to know the difference, as has been shown by the regrettable blurring of the edges between criticism of London dominance couched in terms of the global plutocracy and financial elite (which, always assuming it doesn’t blur over into “hidden hand” anti-Semitism, I could support wholeheartedly other than for reasons which, I know, will come over as selfish to many I’d like to love) and criticism of London dominance couched in terms of cultural fear of diversity (the other, less admirable face of Scottish nationalism which some on the English Left still don’t want to admit exists).  They are two entirely different Scottish nationalisms, and if there is a Yes vote they will rapidly fall out and hate each other as viscerally as they are now linking arms enthusiastically; they have utterly oppositional visions of an independent Scotland, which even the absence of ’68 as a divisive factor splitting the Left could not hold together if Scotland had to fend for itself.

But if you add the two Londons which feed into the two anti-Londons, and think of the fact that only in London, north-west England and north-east England (pretty much the regions with the least stereotypically “English” identities) did Labour beat UKIP in the European elections within England, you can imagine a little-discussed counterpart to the well-discussed idea of secessionist movements in northern England aiming to join Scotland; a kind of London nationalism (actively encouraged, as nationalisms often are, by one of its great enemies, in this case Peter Hitchens) opposed to the rest of the south of England, which it has often resented for living off the city’s wealth yet dismissing its diversity, taking but not giving back, and to some extent opposed both to the residual elements of feudal power in that city and its recent takeover by the global super-rich.  Like the good bits of Scottish nationalism – in a sentence, those which attack “London” as a concept for its elite rather than its mass – it would have many positive and admirable elements for those who could be truly part of it.

But that very exclusivity and exclusion – all a knock-on effect from other secessionist movements – would make me seriously worried for how my own life might end up.  Even in an age of always-on global media, when it would obviously be wholly impossible to block “urban” streams and confine my life to what those of a feudal bent would consider “appropriate”, there would still be other practical restrictions (not in terms of what could be heard on a superficial level, of course, but in terms of identities and freedoms that could be taken on, absorbed on a meaningful level which affects your judgement and understanding of the world around you), deeper resentments and fears which a barely-reformed feudal state perversely holds in and controls, renders milder and less obstructive than they might be otherwise.  In present circumstances, it is comparatively easy for me to be culturally metropolitan while still riding horses and walking on the cliffs.  If surrounded by a regressive, reflective nationalism defined against multiple others/Others, it might not be so.  Where is all this leading?  To the point that the acceptance of “urban” pop and the wider culture in England, at least in such parts of it as I live in, is dependant on multiple outside factors which have no direct connection to pop and its casual consumption or to the wider social concept of youth ritual, and that if you remove the safety valve of a place where it appears to be less widely accepted among pop’s core audience, you can open the floodgates for resentment from an “outside” audience being stronger in a place where those most intimately close to pop are more orientated towards it.

To simplify, there have always been two main approaches to pop and its place in modern history; that shaped wholly by Gambo/Rice Bros, Alan Freeman (but not his rock shows), Simon Bates, Dale Winton, Tony Blackburn und so weiter (including, for a long time as it was taking shape, the child molester), and that defined principally by John Peel and the post-punk culture which has now been struggling for the best part of twenty years to cope with its offspring suddenly being mainstreamed (which was in fact, when it happened in my teenage years, the development that led me to hip-hop).  The former has, of course, been deeply shaken and traumatised by the revelations and trials of the last two years; the latter hasn’t been immune either – even if Roy Harper isn’t found guilty, the ’68 generation / PIE connections will leave their own stain – but still feels empowered and vindicated by the discrediting of those it always saw as a State safety valve for pop and youth ritual (it would be interesting to see if such self-aggrandisement among soixante-huitards could survive a guilty verdict in the Roy Harper trial; one possible effect of such a verdict might be to reverse the rapprochement with “pre-77 Peel” which has gained strength among his post-punk audience in recent times).

The former has ignored the wider context surrounding the lists and names and numbers it treats as gospel truth; the latter has, to some extent, ignored the wider context within which its cults existed, and universalised its own experiences (a post-68, and especially post-77, dichotomy which perhaps can be most accurately described as “turning the Mirror into the Mail“).  What I have tried to do, over something like fifteen years now (fumblingly and with half-knowledge, if that, at the beginning) is to bring the two together; describe both the context of the charts and the charts of the context.  To come at Guinness with the perspective of the cult-studs academic – to flesh out the mass consciousness with the legacy of Raymond Williams and all who followed him – and simultaneously to use data so often trivialised by anoraks, and sometimes dismissed as unnecessary and implicitly Tory by the CCCS graduates, to shine a light on the context in which cult-studs developed and formed itself.  The separation of these knowledges so institutionalised by the wider class-based feudalism and tribalism of, at least, England, and especially the division between those who absolutely need strict divisions between the two parts of their lives (people educated at the “old” universities are quite often worse for this than those with no advanced education at all), and those educated in the newer, broader traditions has created a deep, profound distrust of each area of knowledge in the “other” field; a belief among exponents of both that knowing the other is a betrayal, a compromise, a sell-out.  I was given that world; I didn’t make it.  All I’ve ever tried to do, not necessarily all that well until recently, is bring the knowledges and understandings together, to know what people governed by fear – whoever and whatever that fear is of – will have trained themselves not to know.  And if I’ve failed, I can at least say that the institutionalisation of those fears is such that it might not be entirely my fault.

The thing most ignored by those who take charts in total isolation – whether they’re presented by Alan Freeman or Jameela Jamil, Tom Browne or Marvin Humes – is that the most important people in the wider context of each wave of pop and its tolerance and acceptance aren’t the people who choose to listen to it, but the people who don’t, the people whose choices are, precisely, not reflected in the charts from week to week.  And they are the reason – especially in England – why separating a place where a music and its surrounding culture are less popular won’t necessarily improve its fortunes in every respect in the place that is left behind.  And should anyone doubt what I have written above – and the reasons why people who want to live as I want to live in such a place as I want to live like it have to oppose Scottish independence, however ruefully and regretfully and even if it is with the same sadness we feel when we reconcile our huge admiration for the principles on which the Open University was built and the social good it has done with the fact that Tom O’Carroll and Peter Righton worked for it – they might ask themselves a question that only has one answer: why, when they do not have a vote on the matter and would ostensibly (so we are repeatedly told) not be directly affected by it, do Simon Heffer and Roger Scruton – people who have dreamt for decades of eliminating all hybridised modern culture from England – support Scottish independence?

Abuse: whose share of the PIE?

Watching Antonioni’s Red Desert at the weekend – his first film in colour, his last before he reimagined the eerie London which is now further away, chronologically, than the London of Humphrey Jennings was when the City exploded and Canary Wharf went up – I thought despite myself of the recent book on 1965, the year of the film’s UK release, by Mail on Sunday writer Christopher Bray, which makes connections and comes to conclusions which even a decade ago, let alone when Ian MacDonald first came to them, would have been about as likely to come from a Mail contributor as a defence of paedophilia.  Even at that early stage, there is emerging a battle of modernities: an artistic vision rarely equalled before or since, but also airs and echoes of those who would exploit it for cruder ends.  In the signs and symbols of capitalism in the films that made his name – how much more modern a 1960 cityscape after how much more total a year zero is that of La Notte compared to any in Britain at that time, how much more like the world that exists today, even as it is outsourced from the West, are the colours of Red Desert compared to those of mainstream English-language films of the era; in their very stylisation, they speak of what was to come – you can already see the barely-understood backdrop of his Anglo-American adventures, those of an interested outsider in all the right ways (and, as we shall see, many others in the same place and time as Blow-up were so in all the wrong ways), observing the battle between those for whom pop really did mean enlightenment and those for whom it simply meant profits, the twin radicalisms that would half-marry 30 years later.

The 1960s and what followed emerge more and more as a battle of liberalisms: between the one that brought Antonioni over, that aspired towards and imagineered true cosmopolitanism and recognised that the mainstream American cinema was on the brink of being rendered obsolete by actually existing popular culture, and the one that simply wanted to make as much money as possible out of individualistic aspirations and the rituals of pop, and in the process create something arguably less cosmopolitan than the tightly-structured post-war culture that both opposed. The latter won out in the long term, of course – even to the point where it took over many of the symbols and shibboleths of the former – but it wasn’t inevitable or certain, and whatever the Stalinists I once almost envied might still think, they were never the same thing, for all that they shared a set of passions and feelings and antipathies. What the story of those years and everything after does tell us, however, is how promises of liberation can blur into exploitation if people aren’t sufficiently careful, how easily dreams of a more egalitarian world can become a nastier, cruder one if people don’t know exactly what they’re doing and exactly what they mean. How easy it could be – still can be – to give the Stalinists ammunition when you thought you were destroying them for good, and how easily it could be – and this certainly still applies, not least to those on the English Left who think that what most people in this country think of as pop culture is a meaningful bulwark against UKIP – to make friends out of people who should be your sworn, ultimate enemies.

And so, inevitably, we come to another unholy alliance which haunts us today more than ever: the Paedophile Information Exchange and its legacy (immense for such a tiny organisation; how often do we say that about fringe groups that emerged from those times), and its connection to wider abuses in the same era which appear (I put it no more strongly) to have happened in and among other, more conservative institutions. For me, the best analysis of how and why these abuses could happen and become, for a time, accepted and seen as normal and even desirable in certain circles is still that written by Christian Wolmar some fourteen years ago, reproduced here. I would urge my readers to read this in full before continuing with this piece, because it explains and describes all the things I expand on and develop – in the light of new knowledges and new realisations – below; I aim not to replace it, but to fill its gaps and openings. I have myself, in the past, written about PIE as the sort of horrible phase that might have to be gone through while a series of dangerous assumptions are in the process of being overturned, however much we might wish it didn’t. For things to be better in the long term – and as Wolmar rightly says, they indisputably are; if they were not, there would not and could not be the public sympathy and feeling for the victims, whatever the environments and social contexts in which they suffered, that there is today – there may have to be terrible mistakes made in between, before the fog has lifted and a new realisation and understanding becomes clear. But somehow that doesn’t seem remotely enough; more has to be said, written and thought.

The right-wing media today have of course, for their own reasons, placed most emphasis on the New Left tendency within PIE, and a good many such people were obviously involved: Peter Righton, one of the few people in history whose very surname could be considered by some to be a sick joke in itself, will have been a major influence on many of a New Left bent through his 1974-82 stint as Director of Education at the National Institute for Social Work, a career which naturally appealed to many of such a grounding, who would have seen themselves as taking it in a more progressive direction, one much closer to the needs and desires of children, than the less specially-trained “old dears” who had held similar jobs before. He had a clear and significant influence, one of several “unknown revolutionaries” of his time with dubious views in one field or other, whose opposition to the post-war norms seeped through into the lives and practices of many people who might never hear their names; others include Oliver Smedley, and there is a sense in which, as Smedley and his fellow offshore radio entrepreneurs were not part of pop culture themselves but were attempting to use it for neoliberal ends, Righton was equally not part of it but attempting to exploit liberation politics for his own chilling intentions. Others followed in his footsteps; if the treatment of women in the newly-liberated pop culture (which merged, within BBC Radio 1, with an institutional culture already questionable from another age and for other reasons) was, often, far worse and more exploitative than that enforced by such things as the Hays Code – the 1960s needed second-wave feminism arguably even more than second-wave feminism needed the 1960s – then how much worse, potentially, could be the treatment of children?

And it is impossible, even if you were specifically aiming to mock and parody the concept, to imagine a more soixante-huitard academic position than that of Head of Sociology at the University of Essex, a position once held by a PIE supporter. (The Essex University connection has multiple layers, of course: as local resident James Wentworth Day ranted against the evils of radical students, the cover shots of Fairport Convention’s What We Did on Our Holidays were taken there, placing it firmly at the beginning of the Left-Right battle for control of the entire English ruralist territory which, like so many related things, only reached an uneasy, unsettling truce in the Cameron era with the deeply troubling halfway house of Mumford and Sons et al. And even though they were in wholly different parts of Essex – the University is not in the commuter belt but the K.M. Peyton / Martin Newell landscape which has been, or at least was during their first real upsurge in the 1980s, surprisingly resistant to the most radical and extreme forms of neoliberalism considering where it is and the associations it brings on – there are the comparisons with the other radicalism that would have its heartland in that county later on sharing an equal contempt for the paternalistic ancien regime but wishing to put something wholly different in its place. But that must be a separate argument for a separate piece.)

But in almost all cases (the principal exception must be Islington, site of far and away the worst things ever to have been done in the name of the ’68 generation), the people the soixante-huitards in PIE were in practice defending, the people with whom they were effectively allying themselves and for whom they were making excuses, seem to have been the very people they would otherwise have despised, seen as their arch enemy, the bulwarks that had to be ground down: Tory MPs, prep and public school masters, priests, figures from the BBC light-ent side of pop culture who they’d have seen as a paternalistic, State-imposed barrier in the way of revolution and liberation (if you’d asked New Leftists to define the inadequacy of the BBC’s response to pop and the related ideas of youth ritual of which the ideas some of them had of children “expressing themselves” through sexuality, as though that could be distinguished from adult exploitation, were largely an extension, many if not most would have summed it up in two words: Jimmy Savile). The prep school masters in PIE, or the choirmaster member who was so close to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber (and who is defended by Rice – also a “good character” witness in Jonathan King’s trial – in his autobiography), seem – and this pretty much explodes the dangers of even attempting to extend the New Left’s broader worldview to this field, the blatantly obvious fact that the soixante-huitards were being humiliated on what they saw as their own ground – to have been far closer to the core of the movement. As would happen when New Leftists merged in the 1990s and 2000s with the radical capitalists who had grown up in parallel, they were being laughed at behind their back by forces they couldn’t control.  (Not that the Blair connection is the only aspect of the latterday Left indicted by the PIE legacy; I don’t think the tendency of some Leftists – in this case an alliance of third-worldists and residual ghosts of the pre-68 Left – to regard Islamists who stand for everything they don’t as beyond criticism, out of a misguided application of identity politics, will be looked back on any more positively, when we reach the middle of the present century, than the similar invocation of identity politics a comparable length of time ago in defence of PIE.)

Of those charged thus far, the one great exception to the general rule – that New Leftists were defending people with whom they barely had more in common than the modern secular Western Left has with Islamists – is Roy Harper. You could argue that Max Clifford, unlike the light-ent types, was a first-generation Murdochian who at least shared a common paternalistic enemy with the soixante-huitards, and that William Mayne – still for me the most troubling and haunting of convicted child sex offenders – was part of the post-war paternalistic culture, revered and heralded and protected by the state-led enlightenment that the soixante-huitards and Murdochians alike despised, and which even the light-ent types, who directly benefited from its preferred model of monopoly capitalism, barely tolerated.  For the record, like so many of those who would eventually respect his feeling for what Julian House and Jim Jupp would, sadly, embalm in an attempt to resuscitate – Mayne’s feeling for landscape, place, isolation and the power of the past are without rival or equal in their field, even when they’re accompanied by chilling, frightening characterisations which feel now like mere objectifications – I barely knew of, and probably wouldn’t have understood, Mayne when I was in his notional target audience.

But Harper was a bona fide soixante-huitard icon and hero; I myself knew an Essex University graduate – retaining the anti-BBC resentment so common to people of his generation and worldview (which had not in his case mutated into Thatcherism, but rather into a Leftism which denied, out of a basic desire for comfort and reassurance, that the collapse of paternalism had even happened at all) – who actively revered him on a direct, personal level. Even for me, born after his cultural peak, much of his music has meant almost everything – “One of Those Days in England (Parts 2-10)”, which I quoted on Sea Songs back in the mirage that so soon faded, is the only real caught-on-a-train people’s history in its field, and “When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease” is as great an evocation of a place, a time, a world, a state of being, as Mayne at his very best (the uncodified, engulfed class war of Sand, the frozen East Coast lost world of Winter Quarters, which latter could be David Peace writing I Often Dream of Trains). But Harper’s 1974 song “Forbidden Fruit” – which, if he is convicted, would feel permanently like a Peel-show “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)?”, and would be just as unplayable – even now, when nothing has been proved, feels like a blatant codifying of PIE’s invocation of liberation, a sort of late-night, cult-studs companion piece to Paul Gadd’s crude exploitation. It feels as if the objectification had two faces – one for the student set, one for daytime – just as PIE itself did. Quite possibly some of the more soixante-huitard PIE supporters – who’d never have touched anything remotely connected to Glitter, King or any of the Yewtree types, indeed seen those people as simply a repackaging of pre-1960s non-enlightenment – listened to “Forbidden Fruit” keenly, sensed and felt its message.

But the strange alliance of convenience that was the Paedophile Information Exchange does actually shine some kind of light on New Labour, but a light that cannot be seen or felt by those for whom neoliberalism is unchangeable and unalterable. A small number of people of the soixante-huitard generation were willing to ally themselves with those they would otherwise have condemned as the “repressive Tory establishment” because they saw a misinterpreted, misunderstood sense of liberation in what those very Tories actually, in their vileness itself, understood better – as pure exploitation of the vulnerable and isolated. Twenty years later, a much larger number of people of the same generation and tendency – when they became Blairites – were similarly willing to ally themselves with those they might otherwise have seen as their enemy – global plutocrats – because they similarly saw the radical, anti-traditionalist element in a global capitalism which, ultimately, came down to exploitation and abuse. Both movements represented – and keep in your minds here what I wrote recently about Scotland as a place where 1968 never really happened – an element of the Left allying itself with the Right at its crudest and most indifferent to the plight of the voiceless because it saw the latter’s potential to sweep away the narrowness of the world which they were the last generation to have seen in the flesh. There is not, of course, a direct comparison between even the worst manifestations of global capitalism and child molestation (and obviously, whether or not abuse was justified on soixante-huitard terms matters little to its victims; they’ll be just as permanently traumatised and damaged, just as unable to become humans as most people use the term, high-functioning or otherwise, whatever the imagined reasons). But in terms of how allegiances of convenience are formed and work in practice, there is.

And so there are connections between PIE and New Labour after all. Just not ones that the Mail titles – with the partial exception of Hitchens Minor, who delights in quoting Marx’s faith in the radical potential of capitalism, and himself likes global capitalism far less than most of the modern Left, though he baulks in fear at where that should take him, because he still thinks logic is inherently un-English – would begin to understand or grasp. Because they don’t really understand capitalism or Toryism, they still think PIE was a completely soixante-huitard project, and cannot face the wider lessons of those times for fear of being indicted themselves. One of those days in England, indeed. Sometimes I think we’re all trapped. How selfish it must seem to wish for others we respect not (Billy Bragg wildly overstates what he and his ilk could practically do on this front) to trap us more.

Why I didn’t vote in the Portland Town Council election yesterday

A level of government
That has no power or meaning
But survives as a sop
For Tories who don’t know what they voted for
But still they moan about foreigners

It should have been removed
In ’74 or ’94
But the facade must be maintained
(Compare and contrast ’86)
And still they moan about foreigners

Their vision of the world
Comes from plutocrats abroad
They think themselves to be separate
But are actually dependant
And still they moan about foreigners

They talk of independence
They talk of distinctive ways
But they live in global suburbs
And couldn’t cope beyond
And still they moan about foreigners

They think they’re taking something back
But those who have taken away
Are never fought or opposed
And the innocent are guilty
And still they moan about foreigners

They know no more their inheritance
Than deconstructionists or Trots
Blackburn knew it no more
Than Hall or Jacques or Ali, T
And still they moan about foreigners

Cadbury knew their future
As he railed at the IBA
They take “Hotel California”
To the level of “Linden Lea”
And still they moan about foreigners

They thought Liege and Lief
Was for grammar school Marxists
In their White Plains sec mods
In the first wave of Murdoch
And still they moan about foreigners

Further north are others
Who actually know what they mean
When they talk of community
And don’t have a foreign culture
And that’s why they don’t moan about foreigners