On choosing to keep treasure hidden

It was the day before That Night In Barcelona – though for me, it will always be the week “Sweet Like Chocolate”, the moment the other 90s and the other 00s met, was number one – when I first noticed, back when a long train journey to Westminster Library (or from somewhere in Shropshire to the old brutalist Birmingham Central Library, or whatever) was the only way to check these things, that Minnow on the Say had been dramatised by the BBC in 1972, albeit under a different title (I’d find out, much later, that it had also been on Jackanory in 1966 – the Canadian TV adaptation of 1960 feels like one of the last gasps of the old English Canada, at a time when the country was already playing a vital role in Britain’s transition, whether in the development of Armchair Theatre or that of the supermarket trade; in the latter case, precisely as a result of their historically closer ties, their involvement did not feel so much like an admission of defeat in the way actual American involvement would have done, just before the modern Anglo-American relationship was truly formalised and accepted).

I’d already imagined that it might have been televised in that decade – envisaged in my head a Southern Television adaptation (I already knew that it couldn’t have been Anglia, because I think I already knew that they never made any children’s drama, ever, not even one contribution to Dramarama) because I knew that their work, especially in that field, was more quasi-BBC, or to be precise closer to a particular idea of BBC-ness, something deeply necessary for them when the two main parties represented each other’s supporters in broadcasting policy, before Toryism became Whig, and before the accompanying cultural revolution within the more privileged or the aspirationally so (I was once mocked for using, if only by implication, the word “revolutionary” to refer to this change and its direct manifestation, for which I make no apologies; revolutions aren’t only things that the Left approve of, or that you yourself approve of, or that the working class benefit from.  The anti-capitalism – and yes, just because it wasn’t in South Yorkshire or South Wales doesn’t mean it can’t be called that, in my opinion – which would still have existed in the Wimborne Minster of forty years ago has disappeared so utterly and completely that it is fair to call its usurping revolutionary.  That it hasn’t been usurped by socialism, or anything even vaguely resembling it, doesn’t make it any less so.  Marx knew that very well indeed).

It was a weird thing to be an enthusiast for any such field or era of television back then; everything was so incredibly closed off, there seemed barely a moment’s chance of ever actually seeing any of it.  Everything was hidden, closed off, dreamt of from far distance (I still wonder how Cornell, Day & Topping got to see some of what they wrote about back in 1993).  Imagining what certain things might be like was its own kind of sport, its own private fascination.  The motif of elusive treasure rarely seemed more apt.

I found out that the BFI had a copy of Treasure Over the Water (the BBC would also appear still to have the original 16mm film, presumably taken in the summer of “Lady Rose” and “Banner Man”, the one which should have been the summer of “Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey”, which no doubt would have been too long for Douglas Muggeridge, in the UK singles chart as well) but it was in too poor a condition to be viewed by the public (and I had seen some then-rare – in some cases, it actually still is – material at Stephen Street – no, that isn’t the producer of multiple TPL entries to come, and engineer or producer (don’t be fooled by two of those URLs!) of a few we’ve already seen – myself, and seventeen years on, I can still beat myself up for messing up one of the times I went).  The last I checked, a decade ago, this was still the case.  Certainly, it isn’t in the Mediatheque.  Maybe if it were, I could break out of the Fear and face myself again.  Maybe.

Or maybe I wouldn’t want to.  It isn’t just that an entire cultural movement, and others latched on, tried – my God, did it try – but ended up getting it all so wrong.  It’s more that you can want the world, and when you get the world – and by any comparison to any time in the past, we pretty much do have the world as set out and defined in paragraph 3 – you might not want it so much, you might want to pull away a bit, hold yourself back, hide yourself for fear that it might simply be too much to face before you lose yourself and can’t get yourself back.  You might want to “normalise” yourself for a moment (yes, that word again, the word I can never escape), breathe out, keep hold of your sanity.  Maybe listen to the new Miguel album.  And then, if there’s time, open the box and get to what was once kept out of sight but is now right in front of you, in hope that you won’t hurt yourself too much at the thought of the world you might have lived in, as opposed to the one you actually did.

In other words, there is something appropriate about the fact that the hook for this piece – which grew some way from the squib it started as – is based around the motif of searching for treasure.  In an earlier piece here, I explored the way the implications thereof seem different, and not always more admirable or easier to relate to, when you have passed over into genuine adulthood (which is not to infer or imply any kind of reactionary attitudes, least of all with regard to music, but to infer frame and balance of mind).  But maybe there is a simpler analogy.  You can search for all the treasure in the world, but when it’s right in front of you, you don’t always want to open it, gorge yourself on it, relish and savour its specialness.  You might sometimes prefer to edge yourself out of the world completely, if only to make things seem more palatable when you choose to come back in.

Treasure Over the Water is a good analogy.  Even if that is still hidden, there is a huge range in front of us which used to be kept on the other side of an unswimmable lake, not part of the same lives the rest of us lived.  Now the water has disappeared as I wish the English Channel could – as a state of mind, even if not as a physical object – and the treasure is rapturously unveiled.  I must be careful with my words here.  I don’t think too much treasure is a bad thing.  The more of it the better, for whoever can love it and lose themselves to it unequivocally.  I’m not remotely romanticising the glamour of scarcity.  I went there, I did that and I never, ever want to go there again.  But just because it is there, and just because you recognise it as a good thing, doesn’t mean you always want to open it out yourself.  Sometimes the pain is too real.  You see your parallel self too instantly, and you don’t always want to be shown it.

When I met Philippa Pearce in August 1998, a brief mental flash came through my mind.  I wondered, for a second, whether I might push her into the River Cam, such was my hatred and guilt over what I thought were the possible politics I might be endorsing, the worldview I might be legitimising.  I was, of course, profoundly immature – the way I talked that day of her brothers dying as if it were the equivalent of ticking off names in a book!  (Or identifying names in the closing credits of Dad’s Army, safe in the knowledge that you never knew any of them yourself.)  I’d realise, soon afterwards, that the Countryside Alliance – who had sponsored a Top 40 single that very week – didn’t have a monopoly on my territory, and maybe for the first time in my life, started to create something genuinely new as a result of it.  But maybe that fear had some sort of grounding, some sort of reason.

The treasure is unlocked and out there in a world moving ever further away from it and everything it stands for, and having the two together isn’t always quite what it might be for those who are not wired as I am.  Minnow on the Say was published the year before the die for the next six decades was cast, in terms of who was closest to whom, when France still could not face the fact that Germany would, at some point, have to be its closest ally.  Many fewer British people know that the Beatles cheered Britain up after de Gaulle said “Non!” – giving us another way out of what had seemed a maze from which there was no escape – than know that they cheered America up after two months of mourning JFK.  Multiple different people, in different walks of British life, have wildly different reasons for not wanting people to know that.  The thought that being in an already gradually unifying Europe might have once seemed like a national salvation is hard to grasp today.  But it absolutely was, and if it had been, would pop even have been necessary?

When you wake up, the treasure will look different, and darker.

The only edition of Treasure Hunt in the BFI Mediatheque is mainly there, I suspect, because it puts in a very jolly-hockey-sticks heritage Englishness context the heritagisation of the former industry of north-east England (as also discussed in Adam Curtis’ The Attic, which rescued me from This England, the Mail and the Telegraph when I needed it).

Once you reach adulthood, you know that there is no treasure.  The proliferation of former rarities in the present era simply confirms what was probably always true anyway.  And what you thought was a panacea might be a chimaera.

But life can always surprise you, and at isolated moments you can still get the thrill you got when isolation was that much more complete, that much more total.  And if I had chosen to deny myself that thrill in the name of treasure, maybe I would now have thrown myself off that cliff, maybe I would be lying somewhere under the English Channel, unconsciously and unknowingly drifting out to beach – beyond consciousness, certainly far beyond dreaming – off France, the land of a million half-dreamt treasures.

Thinking the Unthinkable

Those deluded and pseudo-patriotic enough to support EU withdrawal love to accuse people like me of “whataboutery”, an insult which hurts sufficiently that I try not to accuse others of it (although in some cases, on other, largely unrelated issues, it is almost unavoidable, as for example when alleged Marxists dismiss the victims of the Iranian state as “inconvenient”).  Those who believe EU withdrawal is a universal national panacea rather than the Union-unravelling chimaera it would actually be love to invoke the concept of “the art of the possible”; that what they talk about is possible and what I talk about isn’t.  They don’t always even deny that the EU is in no way or sense whatsoever the greatest threat to our “sovereignty”; they simply say, in that nauseating shrugged-shoulders way (in no culture but that of England could a party like the modern-day Conservative Party even exist), that they are concentrating on threats that actually can be reversed or turned around and I am not.

Apart from defining the terms and criteria of the anti-EU whingers – the cynically anti-political nature of it all – it also reveals their desperately narrow political horizons.  The other, far more profound and far more total, changes could still, even now, actively be reversed if only anyone had the will.  Reversing the tides of media deregulation and American-led pop culture, and of the hollowing out and stripping to nothing of our public culture and institutions, would of course require a deeper and more profound effort, a far greater commitment to changing every aspect of our lives, which is precisely why the whingers aren’t prepared to commit themselves to it – the only change they’re prepared to make is one which involves ticking one box on one day and then just doing everything exactly the same way they’re used to, which is a big part of the reason why their cause is so useless, hollow and empty.  But it is all perfectly possible.  It would simply require a genuinely patriotic government at Westminster, and we have not had one of those which was strong or potent enough to do anything on those lines, whether in the Tory or Labour traditions (if indeed we have had one at all, in either tradition) for thirty-six years.

But that’s not my fault.  It’s the whinging Europhobes’ fault, absolutely, entirely, 100%.  But I’m not going to be blamed for what I am (which is really another way of letting them define me, which I have fought against for so long).  It’s not my fault that they can only see what is directly in front of them, not what might be.  It’s not my fault that their outlook on the world is so mundane, banal, predictable.  Above all else, it’s not my fault that they are not prepared to think the unthinkable.

(apropos what I wrote below, it occurs to me more and more that the strange and overnight resurrection of Williams’ career and his first solo TPL entry, which did absolutely no business at all for its first two months, was a direct response to the wheels dramatically coming off the Oasis bandwagon at exactly the same time; in other words, he filled the gap Liam had left, and probably would always have left once the Blair government actually existed.  No doubt TPL will get to this and come up with a reasoned analysis of it, when the time comes.  But enough of that.)

Robbie Williams and the heat death of the white working-class hero

(or: TFI, the sequel and aftermath and logical end point)

I keep thinking about Williams at the 2002 Brit Awards, just before the royal events which decisively set the tone for the effective merger of pop culture and the culture that is ritualistically showcased this time every year, 55 minutes from Waterloo (which is why that event feels worse than it once did; it isn’t quite as much a museum anymore, its connections to the wider mass culture are much greater).  His speech attempted to render class politics explicit in his attack on the man, also destined to feature repeatedly (not as often, but in the end more lastingly) on TPL, whose rise to fame had just confirmed the scale and the extent of the cultural revolution within those who would once have been genuine Tories but had become Whigs, specifically in terms of their view of commercial television; “you want to take my food from my table, stop my kids going through school …”

(Something that might be relevant here is that the Tory ministers who had turned up at the Brit Awards during the first phase of Toryism-as-Whiggery – Tebbit, Baker, eventually Thatcher herself – were exclusively those Who Had Worked Their Way Up, albeit via the grammar school route which pop had decried in favour of multiple other options even when most areas still had such schools; you can’t begin to imagine Heseltine or Hurd or Moynihan showing themselves.)

But of course it didn’t work, and couldn’t have worked; what makes it worse is that it didn’t deserve to work.  If pop culture as a (white) working-class phenomenon had reached the end point of Robbie Williams, I don’t blame those who were exposed to it on no other level and in no other way – and for whom all manifestations of purely working-class pop would simply have been too much, not on the John Harris/Stuart Maconie New Old Left level but on much simpler, consumerist, commercial radio terms – coming to the conclusion that it had reached the end of its natural life.  Far more explicitly than Liam Gallagher (precisely because Williams’ peak era was when the Blair government was a reality, not a dream, and is the natural conclusion which TFI hysteria leaves out), he represents the moment where sheer hubris, arrogance and contempt for the rest of the world finally brought the concept of “working-class boy made good/bad/good” which had sustained much of pop culture for the previous four decades crashing to the ground, and made it pretty much inevitable that what remained of the old “respectable working class” would end up preferring the likes of James Blunt, because even he was – by mistake and by default – closer to the social values that class had once cherished, before there was pop (which of course was where much of the UK, in many ways, ended up again).  If he was all that people knew about it in the present tense, in a sense that they could relate to and see as on their level and in their world (and I know there are many reasons, and unsettling ones at that, why they did not feel that way about certain artists who the industry was doing its best to ghettoise, but let us take the empirical approach here), it shouldn’t be a surprise that it fell in the way it did.

I don’t want to romanticise boomer rock culture; there were plenty of people within that who were happy to take the toffs’ wealth as long as absolutely nobody else from their background ever had it (“here’s to the salt of the earth” was never about redistribution of wealth; those who attended schools some of my own friends went to, in no way reformed even to the extent that they were in most of the United Kingdom – Kent now probably has more institutional social ghettoisation than any other part of the UK, not least because it has the pockets of genuine poverty that, say, Buckinghamshire doesn’t – were only glamorous to the extent that their glamour didn’t take the spotlight from Jagger’s own).  I sort of became famous, long ago, for taking such a stance when it was a considerably braver and rarer position to take than it is today, after all.  But at least there were isolated individuals within that culture who didn’t simply want their children to make such schools less institutionally formal without changing them in any other sense (which of course is what actually happened to them, and precisely why this government can exist) and who didn’t simply want to dine while others starved.  Not enough, by a very long way – indeed some of them were further from that mould than the ruling elite of the day – but enough to make it wholly believable that, with different politics subsequently, we might have no reason to have the doubts about the era’s pop-cultural impulses that we do.

By Williams’ time, all that had dissipated entirely; there was no attempt whatsoever on his part to deny that he only wanted food on his own table, and his kids in Wellington College for all I know; how could he possibly be expected to be taken seriously or given any respect at all when his only objection to people more privileged than himself in his own sphere of activity was that their power might prevent his own children from joining the very same class?  How did he expect to be taken seriously on socialist terms when socialism is all about the abolition of social class, not simply perpetuating it as long as your own children can do well out of it, and damn everyone else?  His objection to Will Young was merely that Young supposedly wanted to keep his class for himself and keep everyone else out of it; Williams’ desire actually to abolish those privileges was nil.  Indeed, he was casting himself as The Right Kind of Working Class – manna from heaven for the mean-minded little Tories in the industry, for whom some of the crossovers of the previous three years had been worrying and threatening, The Wrong Kind of Profits from The Wrong Kind of People – and glancing ahead with cynical accuracy to a time when Noel Gallagher would complain that if his children were not educated privately, they might pick up Multicultural London English, as if it were a contagious disease.

It would be casting him in far too positive a light to describe Robbie Williams today as a tragic figure; to call someone that is largely a term of praise, which implies respect and admiration for someone of huge personal gifts thwarted by the nature of the world in which they found themselves, and maybe by aspects of their own personality as they translated in purely social terms, the obvious and directly relevant example in this case being Gordon Brown.  He was far too obnoxious, far too riddled with greed and self-love, and most importantly, far too successful for far too long to befit that description.  What he eventually became was rather someone who simply could not face the implications of why he had fallen and why those who had replaced him had replaced him, hence his rant to (of course) The Sun about his kind of pop still being “a despised art form”, as if the entire transition from actual Toryism to Whiggery, and the entire marketisation of society, not to mention a profound shift of attitudes among what remained of liberal intellectualism, had never happened.  It must indeed be very tempting for someone in Williams’ position to pretend that these changes have not occurred.  If he did, he might have to face the reasons for his eclipse.  It isn’t the comfort you probably need in the loneliness that must have befallen him, before he eventually did arrive at fatherhood, and no doubt the enforcement via such a means of elite control.

The albums he kept at number two in the UK were by R.E.M. (hey, coincidence! – although in that case they were much further behind), Gabrielle, My Chemical Romance (they were held off by Rudebox, which actually, and tellingly, represented some kind of commercial peak for him in mainland Europe), André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra, and Gary Barlow.  I can’t see any of these, even the last, inspiring a TPL epic.  All I can see is a long goodbye.  Even the fact that you can’t see him being one of the lumpenproletariat whose presence at Royal Ascot is, contrary to popular myth, precisely what the ruling elite want doesn’t make him seem any less of a social and cultural embarrassment, someone who justified everything he said he was against simply through being what he was.  Could anyone’s life be less justified than that?

On his third TPL entry, though, he almost uniquely reached for some kind of ideal, and got it; “The Road to Mandalay”, considerably nearer on Popular (where it will appear, a year after the album came out, as the less prominent part of a double A-side with a rather depressing “this is me” new song) remains a wonderful song, and is really the only thing he did that I’ve ever liked or felt able to like: momentarily, he evoked what might lie behind his facade, and got close to some kind of notional lost Eden.  Even if (like all such concepts, and we’re dangerous fools if we pretend otherwise) it could only exist within the human mind, it stripped down all the greed, all the arrogance, all the basic contempt for others and for anything vaguely social.  Even if it could only be a dream, it was a beautiful one.

But behind the frosted glass there are no dreams.  And that’s where white pop – the only pop Harris and Maconie consider “legitimately” working class, the fools – left us, and died.  Pop as a whole is, in many ways, more alive than ever.  But what a shame it is that the closest thing to a meaningful escape route should have made so many dangerous friends and allies, even out of “convenience”.  Homelessness is a cloak we must all wear, even those of us who never became so famous that all we could do in the end was destroy ourselves.

The Falcon that heard the falconer

The shelves were empty, 4pm darkness
Snow such as we hardly saw even at the end of ’10
The edge of capitalism, the last stop before you fall over
Such as no generation will know again

A town that crumbled and decayed; turned round in ’00
No next generation will know the journeys beyond
Isolation, one step out, what couldn’t be obtained
An edge which fell between all and pleased few

(The Beatles vinyl my mum wanted, when I was a young fogey)

iTunes, YouTube and Spotify can have no equivalents
That might have been a problem for Tories in another time
But all they are today is Whigs; Marx phase one without phase two
And the fewer gates are kept the better

Last day in another town, first colour ad on Southern
The shelves were emptier still, it was Lawrence
Filthy dark, cold, instant inspiration
And never did I know better that you can never go back

(Author’s note: the subject of the last verse here led directly to something I wrote on my first site.  The usual reservations apply, but in this case, its inspiration actually liked it.)

On not reading my old stuff, and staring my past in the face

When we left the house I grew up in twenty-one years ago – the Friday before the release of Definitely Maybe and The Holy Bible, and just as the last Russian troops were leaving the former Soviet empire, when everyone assumed that would be the end of the story, for good, forever – a box was thrown out in the process.  Probably not even recycled.  It contained the teachers’ notes for most of the schools programmes we had followed during my primary-years home education (all but one of the music programme brochures has since been recovered via eBay, but most of the others are still missing) and relevant material for the various children’s clubs I had been a member of, at the end of a culture which, for all that it very obviously does not represent the full social scope and range of Britain during its core period, deserves a full, definitive study (Valerie Grove’s biography of Kaye Webb suffered more than anything else from being by Valerie Grove, and managed, towards its end, simultaneously to internet-bash and Gordon Brown-bash in the same sentence).  The material from my brief membership of the Junior Puffin Club before it ceased to exist in that form (some of it was on eBay, but slipped through my fingers), the material from my substantially longer-lasting membership of the Young Ornithologists’ Club (Facebook friends may have seen my recent thoughts on this; for the record, all but two of what I assume to be the relevant magazines have been recovered, again via eBay) … and, I am pretty sure, the material from my membership of a club which shared its name with an ITV children’s programme, the same programme from which I believe (it was found at what is now ITV plc’s base in Bristol; the programme concerned was made by HTV West) the footage of a current inmate of Stafford Prison, who was loved and appreciated by millions of people in a way that none of the others ever really quite were, drawing a former wrestler from Leeds and saying to him that “we go back a long way together” comes.

I have never searched for any of the last-named on eBay.

There you have it.  You have the one.  You have the other, too, not to mention the fact that William Mayne was never allowed to sit next to a child at any Puffin Club gatherings, and had already been dropped from Oxford University Press in the year that Eleanor Graham had retired from Puffin, six years before the club existed; it was known, sort of, but at the same time it wasn’t known.  I myself know that I was one of the lucky ones.  Had I had the same condition and been born twenty years earlier, I shudder to imagine what might have happened to me.  Some of the children who were abused in Rochdale had similar conditions and were only very slightly – a year or two, in some cases – my senior.  Alienated as I was from the state education system, I used – based on a misreading of what was itself a deliberate misreading; while not as explicitly political as Anthony Buckeridge’s only non-school story (I wish he’d written more), A Funny Thing Happened, whose conclusion is an unbelievably direct metaphor for a completely unreformed feudal community accepting and coming to terms with the Attlee legacy and inheritance, the Jennings books portray an infinitely nicer and more pleasant world than the vast majority of prep schools came anywhere near in the 1950s, and are very clearly the work of a socialist painting a picture he wished could be real – to imagine myself attending a prep school, blissfully unaware of the reality that someone as socially introverted and private as me would have found everything infinitely harder even than I already found it.  And abuses in such schools were still, in quite a few cases, an occupational hazard.

So it is obvious that my childhood takes on a strange look at this distance; living, largely out of my own choice, in a world that was already largely ceasing to exist, I created an entire private universe.  And, as I now know (previous pieces on here may be of relevance), private universes can only ever crash and crumble and leave you on the cold hard ground, staring at the world beyond with less knowledge than ever of how to get back into it.  The fact that for people like me they are usually the only way to live doesn’t mean that I don’t know that you can’t permanently and sustainably continue to live in them.

And when I have gone somewhere, I never go back to it (I have never revisited the town, or even the county, in which I grew up since that day, which was also in the week “Parklife”, the song, was released as a single).  I never re-read any of my old stuff, even the Sea Songs era (though doesn’t the last post I wrote there seem newly relevant after tonight’s match in Cardiff?).  The embarrassment is always too profound; there’s always something that jars, leaps out at you, hits you in the face.  That is why, although the childhood memories I wove together when I wrote a 2001 piece which I alluded to in my last essay here are still very strong and potent in my mind, and I know exactly how I combined them and how I worked them out in my head, I have no desire to return to the piece itself.  It’s far too blithe, far too superficial, far too basic and emotionally incomplete, getting to the surface but no deeper.  I doubt whether most people could do better at 20.  I also know that the temptation to write like that in times such as those (it was April of that year, as I recall), when minor differences as to whether to vote Labour or Lib Dem in which seat, and which would be the best option to push the Tories even further to the fringe, were major national headlines, is much greater than the temptation in times such as these.  But in the end that piece was the work of a very young man for whom childhood was maybe not even the day before yesterday yet, just yesterday; what I am writing now is the work of an adult who can grasp what all this stuff actually means and who understands, as no 20-year-old really can, what time actually is and what it actually does.  It contained far too many aspirations to be TV Cream / Andrew Collins “normal”; if I couldn’t be that kind of “normal”, and if its gatekeepers mocked me for not being so (as they already were doing), maybe I could out-normalise them, hyper-normalise myself, pretend that my narratives were on that level and maybe they actually could become so and I’d be what I couldn’t be.  I have no such ambitions now.  It is the “Tracy Jacks” syndrome again, to keep the argument within Britpop (which seems weirdly appropriate, since so much of that movement was about, initially, ironically aspirational “normality” which so quickly and unequivocally became the real, plain thing); as a Melody Maker critic memorably observed at the time, Damon Albarn’s obsession with being normal just wasn’t normal.  It was the sign, as we’ve all realised since, of someone suffering very much the same internal crisis that I was seven years later.

There are some people I never google, because I want to keep them there.  There was one particular poster on the political newsgroups in the early 2000s whose support, rooted in an aggressively urban version of Leftism which has always differed quite fundamentally from mine, for the invasion of Iraq more or less amounted to “the Rolling Stones were inspired by the blues so we have a duty to do this” (Michael Gove was saying similar things in The Times already, but not quite the same thing).  With one exception, I doubt whether most of my eventual readers ever had any contact with this man, or knew his name.  I’ve never sought him out in any other context.  But he, more than anyone else, was the reason why Carmodism, as it developed (in the sense that Mark Sinker observed that John le Carré and David Hare were “totally bamboozled by Thatcherism and Murdoch and America and ‘the 60s'” which are “all connected without going the full Carmody” – my italics), took shape.  How to come to terms with the fact that a culture I so loved, and valued and cherished so passionately and saw as a great progressive development, could be used openly to justify something I so fervently abhorred?  While heavily influenced by Ian MacDonald, and framed (consciously, I hope in retrospect, and aware of the implications) in the slipstream of his decision to leave this world, the reassessment of everything I thought I knew which came out in the way it came out came almost entirely from my encounters with someone most of my acolytes and critics alike never had the slightest idea even existed, and who I had met in a part of the internet which was already becoming archaic and falling into ghostlike disuse.  I’m gruesomely intrigued with how he dealt with the way that the people he regarded as his ultimate enemies, the people against whom the war had to be fought – the Etonians, the “toffs”, the shire types – openly embraced what was in effect his position and took it up as their own from 2005 onwards (if the invasion of Iraq happened today, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if The Daily Telegraph might use the socio-cultural arguments he invoked in favour of it unequivocally and with those words in that order, whereas in 2003 even its Murdochian rival could only print them in an adjusted, diluted form).  But not enough to want to know how, and if, he actually did.

Similarly I have had no contact for a very long time now with someone I once thought of as a very close friend, and who instinctively responded and related to my thoughts on Minnow on the Say (which also contain a line which in the post-Yewtree context seems creepier, perhaps, than it once did, however great our desire not to judge by association); the sadness of the last political years would, I know, have eaten away at him even more than it has eaten away at me, because he actually was there the first time.  I am forever haunted by his words to me shortly after the 2005 election – before Cameron had emerged as the leading choice by any means – that a Tory comeback rooted in pop culture had become inevitable.  I know all too well that The Guardian‘s refusal to print the letter I wrote them (and to which his words were a response), probably ten years ago this week, suggesting that there was nothing surprising about Cameron having his particular tastes, and that there had already been a long-term connection between Toryism and pop culture such as the paper was deliberately refusing to admit existed, tells its own story about what is still, even now, even after all that’s happened, a deliberate and active form of denialism in some cases, which lingers on painfully refusing to die.  John Harris wrote the article concerned.  Of course.  If the person I’m writing about is reading this, perhaps he could tell me.  But I still won’t google.  There’s less pain that way.

I don’t have the letter concerned, or indeed the vast majority of my emails from when email was still dominant.  That wasn’t planned, or deliberate.  But I don’t wholly regret that it worked out that way.  What I do still have are the books of poetry – in some cases in my family since the George Mitchell Minstrels could have number one albums, imaginary cream in non-existent coffee – on which I was brought up and which, whenever I’m in my deepest mood of melancholy, are still there.  Reading them is my passport, my voyage, my journey to a place where what makes no sense in normal life – that word again – suddenly does make sense, where order and structure and art on its own terms can make sense of my being.  But even then, I knew that on its own this could not convey everything, and there are other books too, books which convey and describe the dismantling of that world, the loss of that certainty.  Somehow I never read those so often, precisely because I know they’re truer, and so are a harder fit for self-comfort and self-justification.

When I was a child, the Jennings and Famous Five books (both of which I loved and could re-read to the point of exhaustion) could still just about be superficially updated – decimal currency, jeans in the cover illustrations, dates and number plates subtly changed – and the vision could be sold on credible capitalist terms; such was the delusion of the heritage boom (in the context of most of what surrounds it, the Jimmy Young-voiced ad in the clip linked to above, fourteen months before Michael Ryan, is the sight and sound of capitalism eating its own and Cameron, Johnson and Osborne, who knew where it could lead them even then, cheering it on).  How could anyone, even then, have thought that anyone possibly could take seriously the idea of a Billy Bunter book in which his postal orders were for decimal amounts?  What audience did they think they could ever have?  Who on earth were they aiming at?  The answer, I regret to say, was me.  Toryism as if the market didn’t exist was where I existed in my head.  Only as an adult would I realise the full implications of this, the extent of the lie which was being sold, and in different forms and under different names, is still being sold.  Adulthood can make the memory of childhood turn as nasty as it is calming, as threatening as it is reassuring, as much a force for self-hatred as for self-comfort, and in no sense whatsoever any kind of solace for self-respect or self-justification.

My copy of Minnow on the Say is to all intents and purposes – it would appear – the original text, perhaps with the odd casual, unthinking use of then unremarkable phrases (as late as 1978, the broadly liberal Monthly Film Bulletin editor Richard Combs surprisingly let through Tom Milne’s use of the phrase “n***** in the woodpile”, and if I ever knew that what may be seen as racist was simply generational, if there were ever a case where I knew the David Irving defence would not just be weasel words as it obviously was when Irving himself used it, it would be in the case of a critic like Tom Milne) discreetly removed, but there is a curious moment where the OUP of 1989 has presumably changed a reference to a text of 1588 to being “over four hundred” years old.  I remember the anniversary of the Spanish Armada myself – remember the TSW-produced series using the well-worn News 39 to News 45 technique, the sort of thing it gets harder and harder to believe was ever shown during ITV’s children’s time – but I would never have had any sort of problem with acknowledging that it had not been that long ago a reasonable amount of time before (as long ago, precisely, as “he’s not staff and he’s not village” and Just-Like-Eddie and Gang of Four not getting on Top of the Pops and “Fade Away and Radiate” are now).  Because my life was so dependant on it and existed so much on its terms, I always knew that there was something called The Past, and I knew there was something called The Present, and I knew what separated them and how and why they played by different rules, observed different social norms and conventions and assumptions.  And it never surprised or flummoxed me that people who seemed real, in terms of fiction, could know things I didn’t know, and not know things I did.  The gulf did not seem remotely unbridgeable.

But then I know, now, that most children do not have anything like the developed sense of passing time that I sort of had – even without knowing the full implication of it – even then.  For them, at least in my childhood, something like that may have seemed subtly and sociologically necessary, as a sort of reassurance, as a sort of grasp and grip.  But could it have been believed?  Maybe, back then.  But not now.  Adding a proviso like that is a means of sealing your own project’s built-in obsolescence, in total contrast with (but dangerously easy to confuse with) the status of the work itself.

What would have been the “yesterday” which much of my childhood reading was from the day before?  Maybe the 1970s, which were scarcely talked about or really understood, yet, at that point (the house in which I grew up was one of the few in which ABBA hadn’t fallen down a memory hole, where this album seemed more real than life itself on gapingly long afternoons); the day before that seemed easy to walk into, not to envisage right in front of you, nor even see as quite the next room, but maybe a few paces down the corridor.

But when you reach genuine adulthood, you realise that what was a few paces down the corridor has become a permanently locked door, and when you attempt to prise it open, you are both there and not there, your 20-year-old self in some ways more of a child than you were as an actual child.  It’s not just the obvious narrative of, in Dennis Potter terms, Mickey and Sylvia waiting; it’s also that you’re now familiar with Angela Lambert’s No Talking After Lights (which, like that series, perhaps deliberately confuses its timings; a clearly specified 1952, but with “Stranger in Paradise” and “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” played and playing to death) and, thus, with the utter inversion and destruction of the tropes of an imagined past, the sheer vicious cruelty and failure of real life.  That was childhood too.  We just didn’t want to talk about it.  And girls’ boarding schools were the least of the problem.

And so when I went back into Minnow on the Say this week after an, alas, incomplete political epoch’s absence, I was struck much more than I would once have been – how could anyone possibly, seeing what is finally being closed off for good in front of us, not be? – by the dominance of the overriding trope of genteel poverty, such a recurrent post-war theme; the family who had once had an assumed status in the local hierarchy reduced to near-penury, only saved from being isolated from the one place they knew by the sort of thing that only really happens in children’s books (and when that increased equality eventually receded, those families would never become central again, would in many cases in fact end up as servants themselves).  I know better than I once did the implicit reactionary politics of many who would have lamented that situation, mourned that socialism had upset the natural order; I’m not suggesting the writer necessarily suffered from them, and indeed in my direct personal company she seemed to come from very much the same, essentially liberal humanist, world that I do, but it seems less abstract, more in our face, in the knowledge of what actually is happening, what cannot be avoided as it could in the days of the 2001 government’s abolition of politics (how could I not know more now, knowing what Florence Welch’s grandfather had to say about Noddy?).  And the dangerous historical precedent of Birmingham as the great other, the great threat, is now better understood; I know that it didn’t start with racism – Stanley Baldwin, after all – but I know where it was leading and what it was getting bound up with, and I know what happens when the core, the motor of the country is excluded from that country’s central narrative and mythos; after all, it is happening all over again, right in front of us, right now (the sceptre of EU withdrawal is as much about doing that within England as it is about casting the last and longest shadow over the idea of Britain).  They are not simply words on pages now as they once were, only marginally more meaningful than they are to the computer on which I am writing this.

I know, in short, why adults don’t usually read children’s books.  Well into my adulthood, I didn’t really know this.  I can’t now see myself reading them as if there were nothing else as I was capable of doing even a few years ago.  And I am maybe that bit more critical of someone like Kaye Webb, who was without doubt a great enabler of the post-war public culture, a great encourager and a great force for good … but I know better now the difference, articulated (I think; somehow – and yes, the reasons are the same I articulated earlier – I haven’t looked at the archive reviews on the BFI site yet) by Robert Brown in a 1983 Monthly Film Bulletin review of the Children’s Film Unit version of William Mayne’s A Swarm in May without knowing the full implications of what he was saying, between “children’s culture” and “culture for children”.  I was never able to create a culture of my own as a child, nor was I able to collaborate with any of my contemporaries to create a new one almost by mistake or by fate.  In my late twenties, I dreamt of the childhood I never really had.  The camaraderie, the togetherness, the solidarity (in the truest sense) with the children I was with in this dream … it was as if I had willed into being something that never really existed, never could have existed at all.  And there is nothing that hurts you more than being confronted, by your own imagination, with the difference between your imagined self and your actual self.

I also understand far more the motif of death halfway through Minnow on the Say (and the obvious absurdity of flashing forward to some notional, almost open-ended post-1988 time a world in which men lost in war, and lost men half gone from this world imagining that they might return, are the unremarkable norm, not disproportionate – and newsworthy precisely for that reason – South Atlantic or Gulf exceptions); it starts to hit you harder and more dramatically at this age (and I must now be past the chronological age – and these times are so different that that is about all that age then and now have in common – that Philippa Pearce was when she wrote it), not just a literary norm which is observed because it has to be observed in the same way that you clock on at a certain time and clock off at another.  Maybe, when history had been suspended, death seemed more like clocking off than it had done before and would again.

And above all else, I can’t grasp the social norms and ways anymore, can’t imagine myself walking into them, as I sort of walked into their last echoes a few times as a child, fanning embers and turning dreams to life.  I know what they are alright; it’s just that I can’t imagine what it would have been to live in them.  In some ways, there has been a reversal of my response to different elements of this story; once, the motifs and passings and rituals were just names and ideas and the broader narrative background was remarkably un-strange considering how long ago it already was, not remotely creepy or even eerie, just something that could come to life in the same way that a tourist guide or brochure or an old newspaper or magazine could.  Now the relationship has turned around with age; the social signs and appeals to myth and memory are fully understood, and they aren’t always understood more positively as a result, and the wider backdrop has become a painting you can’t leap into, not a collage in which you could imagine yourself hiding quietly and contentedly.

It’s always like that, staring your past in the face, because that’s the closest you can come to staring yourself in the face as well.  You realise what made you what you are, and where you can’t go back, and where you can.  And the anthems and unremarkable observations of another time echo through your mind not as the superficial signifiers they once did – understood on the page, but not pushing through to the soul – but as genuine emotional stones carved deep out of you, not just something you can shake off and which can be described but not felt, but as spiritual dividing lines, going deep to the soul and staying until your last moment.  No surprise, seeing how they come from a time when, for most people in the West, death seemed far closer in life, far more real. I once took out of a vast array of cassettes which it seemed as though nobody except me would ever buy – more in the next posting – an album called Home is in Your Head.  Never have those words been truer, more necessary, more an emergency, more the only possible path.

Murdoch by other means: the SNP’s strange crossover

I have already written – here and elsewhere – about Rupert Murdoch’s desire to isolate inconveniently semi-socialist outposts from the core of the Anglosphere and separate them geopolitically so as to provide much less inconvenience to him.  I suspect nobody is more pleased at the thought of the SNP leaving the UK in response if it leaves the EU; the West divided into a United States of the Anglosphere and a United States of Europe, with the United Kingdom partitioned between the two, would be the conclusion of his life’s work.  But the SNP have, to a very substantial extent, brought this unholy alliance on themselves; specifically, they have not fully realised how similar – even if they espouse it for different reasons – much of their rhetoric is to classic Murdochian ideas, and do not really have the right to complain that they are being used for geopolitical reasons, promoted and pushed so as to help other forces within a Great Game which, at root, has very little to do with Scotland.

I do not dispute that many SNP members and voters are genuine Scottish patriots; I do not dispute that many of them feel a genuine revulsion at neoliberalism and all its works; I do not dispute that many of them feel they have the best possible intents at heart.  I do not challenge the fact that the British state and its institutions have often treated Scotland appallingly, as much on the Left as on the Right.  I may disagree with them about whether or not their aims can be achieved without disastrous effects on the very existence – the very right to exist in their own country – of a very substantial number of people who know no country but England, but I do not doubt their sincerity in what they claim to believe.  But, and it is a very big but indeed:

National self-determination has to include a cultural element or it is nothing, and it also has to recognise where the main threats to its nation’s cultural sovereignty come from – and just as importantly, where they don’t come from (even if they once did).  And the SNP at times remind me of the owners of the Croke Park GAA stadium in Dublin in an era which already seems far distant, who before they allowed soccer and rugby to be played there (leading to one of the key reconciliations of 2007), still forbade “English sports” but happily allowed American stadium rock bands to perform there.  Both have suffered from a tendency to fight old battles so long and so far that they have lost sight of where the real intrusion is coming from now.  And in that respect they are very useful and convenient for Rupert Murdoch, much of whose drive and determination comes from the exaggeration and perpetuation of a mythical “establishment” long after it has actually ceased to exist, and appealing to Anglo-British (increasingly, openly English nationalist at least in rhetoric, though Anglosphere nationalist in practice) populist patriotism while selling a wholly foreign culture draped in the Union Jack or, increasingly, the Cross of St George, and trusting in the ability of the lumpenproletariat not to know the difference.

If others do something alarmingly similar elsewhere, just dressed in a Saltire, who can blame Murdoch for lending them his fervent support, the better that they can be used for a deeper geopolitical goal?  More specifically, the SNP and Murdoch share a profound enemy: the BBC.  The SNP will make maximum levels of political capital out of age-old resentments – many of which undoubtedly existed historically for huge and justified reasons, and may well still do so in some cases – about an institutional bias against Scotland and specifically towards south-east England.  I do not doubt that the BBC, in common with other London-centred old-establishment institutions, has in the past treated Scotland poorly and contemptuously on occasions, perpetuating nasty, played-out, unfunny jokes and stereotypes.  But attitudes are fundamentally different now; even if largely by default, the BBC has become far more committed to areas which it relatively ignored in the past (which was part of the reason why ITV tended to do better the further you got from the south-east in the duopoly days; Scotland has at least, and very much unlike northern England, retained the mass-audience commercial channel which “hammocks” the big English or globally-rooted hits with its own output, though not everyone in northern Scotland has been happy with Grampian’s absorption, something which Sky of course rendered much harder to avoid).  It is wholly unfair, in my opinion, to suggest that there is as great a cultural bias and disapproval as almost certainly existed for much of the BBC’s history.

Most importantly, the obsession with the BBC as the sole and only threat to Scotland’s cultural self-determination does not simply play into Murdoch’s hands – even if its origins are different, and even if it would keep the principle of public broadcasting alive in a way he would not, and even if the SNP’s idea of public broadcasting could be far more blatantly state-controlled because Scottish definitions of Leftism were never really influenced by libertarianism as English ones were in a way which pushed elements in the English Left towards their own kind of “same means, different ends” ambiguity about Murdoch – but it ignores the, by any standards, far greater threat to the things a reasonably culturally conservative social democratic nationalist party is supposed to defend by the proliferation of deregulated broadcasting, a door which he largely pushed open and has continued to gatekeep.  Are Scotland’s Historic Market Towns (where romantic nationalism was once strongest, but which came through for the Union when they had to) and its former heavy-industrial areas (where the new nationalism has its strongest core of support) really full of people adopting the speech, manners and dress sense of Reithian formality (and there is another irony: the BBC’s roots are very substantially in a kind of Anglo-Scottishness which England and Scotland have abandoned in about equal parts and revolted against in directions which may seem oppositional in every sense but which are brought together by Murdoch’s desire to use them both) such as have been greatly compromised even in their longest-lasting heartlands in the same era which has seen Scotland gain ever greater autonomy (and which indeed declined largely under the influence of the same government which authorised that autonomy) or the speech, manners and dress sense brought through the global tide of deregulated media, which have far fewer historic ties to Scotland and far less meaningful connection to any idea of Scottishness, but which – as in Ireland – are sometimes embraced as a “lesser evil” (The Stage and Television Today digital archive confirms that at a time of intense frustration and anger in Scotland in the wake of the rigged 1979 referendum and the effects of Thatcherism, Dallas was more likely to be the BBC’s most-watched programme in Scotland and Northern Ireland than elsewhere, which undoubtedly reflects the fact that the BBC’s own output had more of a Home Counties vibe at the time than that produced by the ITV companies combined, but also reflects an outlook which, if transferred from the closed broadcasting environment of 1982 to that which exists in 2015, is every bit as pseudo-anti-establishment as that of Murdoch himself) and which, every bit as much as in England, you can’t get on the wrong side of if you want the most circulated newspaper to support you?

And that is before we even get to the effect of Sky on how even the leading clubs of Scottish football have fallen so far behind financially in modern times (I am wholly aware of the problems built into the Old Firm’s existence, and I would not wish the way Rangers have been treated by successive owners even on that part of the working class, by far the most problematic for people like me throughout history, and I think the Scottish top flight has probably been better off without them, though it would be better off still if the team rooted in an equally ahistoric, and now deprecated, view of Ireland rather than England-as-Britain, could be challenged seriously for the title, but the fact that Rangers, and to a lesser extent at that point Celtic, once had a comparable income and financial clout to even the leading clubs in England, and well above that of the middling and lower sides in what was about to become the Premier League, seems almost unbelievable now, and it isn’t the BBC which has caused that situation).  Worse, there might even be a tendency within the SNP which thinks Murdoch is really Scottish simply because of his surname and ancestry, and feel that his struggle with the old paternalistic English establishment – which he has perpetuated in his mind long after it ceased to exist out of sheer fear of being exposed as an establishment titan in and of himself – is also their struggle, equates the two in its mind (just as Welsh nationalism generally and Plaid Cymru specifically are stunted at birth in most of Wales by the basic inability of any movement which says “we were here first and the English are really German” to make any moral claims to be above those in England who say “we were here first and people of Pakistani descent who know no country but England are really Pakistani”, you can’t really condemn English Murdochians who effectively say, with the usual racial inferences of that kind of Anglosphere nationalism, “all white Americans are really English” if you’re willing to make similar claims yourself when it suits you).

Show Murdoch anyone who makes their central enemy, the guiding force of their hatred, the mythical enemy of BBC / Home Counties Englishness (which has in reality been utterly compromised and weakened for three decades – when I happened this week to re-read Philippa Pearce’s Minnow on the Say, a book I wrote about, sort of, in a former online life fourteen years ago, I found it harder and harder to believe that it seemed relatively normal to me as a child, something that I could imagine happening at least the day before yesterday, just as I find it harder and harder to believe that Eleanor Graham’s Puffin Book of Verse, a book which among much else clearly articulated Reithian Anglo-Scottishness, seemed comparatively unremarkable and almost easy to get my head round – in line with the silent and almost entirely unacknowledged, but of course intimately Murdoch-led, transformation of Toryism into neo-Whiggery) as if 1955 had never ended, and he’ll love them in a heartbeat and never let them go.  Show him someone who recognises the vastly increased challenge that deregulated multichannel broadcasting poses to the maintenance of national cultural sovereignty (in any nation, anywhere in the world, and in this context both to the United Kingdom, for those who still believe in it, and to its constituent parts for those who believe in those in and of themselves) and he’ll make it his life’s work to freeze them out and isolate them from any kind of power, permanently and for good.

The SNP have done the former obsessively for decades, vastly exaggerating its power, strength and potency in the modern day in exactly the same way that the incarnation of The Sun which painted Nicola Sturgeon as some sort of Communist holding the country to ransom continues to do, arguably more than the version of the paper which hailed her as a conquering hero.  It has never lifted so much as a little finger to do the latter.  I have no doubt that its wariness on that point comes from a desire to seem as inclusive and right-on as it can, as indeed do many tendencies of thought in modern England which in the end, in the harsh geopolitical realities in which we live, come out as implicitly and accidentally pro-Murdoch.  I have a good deal of sympathy for the argument that any feeling on the SNP’s part that a return to the BBC/IBA model in an independent Scotland would be implicitly totalitarian and quasi-fascist comes from a place far closer to the soixante-huitard English deregulators of the Left – Marxism Today when Sky launched from Astra, basically, and it could still be imagined to be what Marx thought mercantile capitalism could be – than to the full-on cynicism of the Cameron/Osborne position.  But facing the Anglosphere, from its core to its fringes, as it is as opposed to how everyone who thinks like me wants it to be, how can the SNP, truthfully and honestly, complain when the global oligarch of neoliberalism sees it as a force he can work with?

If the SNP had realised that their central aim, however well-meant and however well-thought-out in and of their own terms, could so easily be used by forces which I have no doubt that many of its members and at least its longer-term supporters despise, and had sensibly and empirically adjusted some of its tactics in response – placing more emphasis on the damage done to a putatively independent Scotland’s cultural sovereignty by the scale of the global mass media, and moving away from the absolute, unrelenting emphasis on attacking the BBC out of a sensible realisation that there were stronger and more powerful anti-BBC forces against whom, if it came to a battle of anti-BBC positions, the SNP would have no chance whatsoever – I could admire it with far fewer doubts and far fewer reservations.  As it is, the party is fatally compromised.  Undoubtedly honest in what it believes, and undoubtedly genuine in some of its ideas.  But still fatally compromised by Salmond’s Faustian pact with forces which could make mincemeat of the party if they wanted to, which could in the end render it as desperately trapped as those in England most likely to feel an affinity with it as long as they are unaware of that pact’s full implications.  Which is the ultimate extreme definition of being desperately trapped, I think anyone could agree.