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

Some thoughts on Scottish independence

It was reading Yvonne Ridley’s tweets on this matter which finally got me to write this. It isn’t the absolute, definitive text I’ve been promising for years, but it’s probably the best you’re going to get.

The one thing that matters about Scotland, the one thing from which everything else comes and to which everything else returns, the one thing that is always ignored by people who think they’ve found the key to this conundrum, is this: 1968 never really happened there, and therefore neither did its principal legacy in the rest of Europe (but especially England), the separation of economic Leftism from social and cultural conservatism, the rendering incompatible of these two once-allied forces. This is why England can’t be Scotland (and why Scotland can’t be England, for those soixante-huitards and Black Atlanticists who would find Scotland unsettlingly folksy and homogeneous). In the end, that is all it is, and whether or not an English Leftist supports and sympathises with Scotland’s claims to nationhood depends entirely on what sort of Leftist he or she is, which criteria (1945 or 1968, basically) he or she considers most important. Maybe that’s all I need to write.

But it isn’t quite, of course; I have to write something more because I am in equal parts both kinds of Leftist; my basic inability to take sides (in itself a very English thing rather than a Celtic thing, as detailed further below) has me taking in equal parts from the 1945 and 1968 traditions, and thus from traditions with fundamentally oppositional views of the merits and worth of Scottish independence. Yvonne Ridley, of course, is the ultimate anti-68-er (on a scale of one to ten, with the most hardline soixante-huitards rating ten, she’d be way, way down minus one); not only has she allied herself with forces of extreme social and religious conservatism (as much of the international Left has admittedly done), she has actually joined up with such forces herself, become not merely an ally of convenience but an actual believer (which the great majority of the Western Left has not) and moved to Scotland because within it her sense of the Left – the most extreme form of a world where 1968 never happened – seems to her to be protected and preserved. And there is nothing more unpleasant and extreme than the zeal of the convert, with which she is infected on two subtly-related fronts. Her take on Scottish independence is not the most appealing; there are others rooted in far more humanistic values, an approach to the world far closer to mine, which may be critical of the Israeli state but does not share her aggressive paranoia. I can easily forget it when reading Ridley’s religious self-assurance, but there are plenty of visions of Scottish independence which evoke a world in which I could happily live.

Except that that is not my grounding, and somehow it never can be (if I had taken it up as my own quasi-religious conviction, I suspect it would sound every bit as artificial and desperate as Ridley, every bit as far from its many genuinely progressive elements); I am caught between multiple worlds every second of my life, and never have I felt it so keenly and irreconcilably as over this. The most traditionalist parts of both Right and Left in England share a conspiratorial mindset, a belief that the entire modern world represents a conspiracy against them and their approach to life; reading about the Traditional Britain Group, which represents a quasi-fascist, Third Positionist undercurrent which in my worst nightmares exploits the instability of England after Scottish secession to create a totalitarian state from which Puerto Rico status seems like a positive relief and national saviour, I could not help thinking of elements of the old Left in England, lost and homeless and yearning for what their Scottish counterparts can cling to in hope of escape, the belief that everything has been permanently corrupted and the only way out is a total retaking and restaffing of all institutions (John Pilger’s sense of the entire media saturation of the present age as a grand-scale lie, an organised delusion from a deeper truth, has more than a little crossover with this part of the Right). There is a shared hatred for both economic and social liberalism, each hating the one their broader side has loved in my lifetime just as passionately as the one their broader side has hated. Both yearn for a moment in history when everything was perfect, uncorrupted: it’s just that for one that moment was a notional pre-capitalist mediaeval state of being, and for the other it was 1945; one calls the world that is out to get them “cultural Marxism”, the other calls it “neoliberalism”. But both share an elemental romanticism which has been a far stronger political undercurrent among both mainland Europeans and Celts than among the English (Searchlight notes with some accuracy that the European intellectualism of the Traditional Britain Group may very easily turn off many of the sort of people in England they are aiming to turn on).

And both, in their own ways, are trying to find answers to the question which Scottish independence, or not, asks for their neighbours, and inwardly screaming (it can only be inward: they are, after all, English) that no comparable question can give them in turn something to live for. Living alongside something so seismic is so hard to take in isolation that it can only be that very English distrust of elemental romanticism which stops both old Left (the current New Statesman editor has traces of his precursor half a century ago, in terms of feeling, with a hint of envy at Scotland where such views never came to be seen as suspect on the Left, a certain wariness at young people creating their own forms of cultural expression lest it weaken the sense of a common culture) and old Right from being far stronger forces in England than they are.

In the Scottish referendum every argument from either side can reasonably be counterbalanced by the other: the Yes campaign can say with total justification that, if you can’t block out whatever is channel 865 on Sky then you can’t block out BBC1, and the inference by some in Westminster that you could is, like so many other stances taken from that end, stupid and counter-productive (if you believe the Westminster government even want Scotland to remain in the Union; I am not averse to the conspiracy theory that certain elements within it do not). The No campaign can respond, equally reasonably, that if you can’t control the global spread of media and you don’t even attempt to, then the point of secession is negated and undermined. The Yes campaign can say, quite reasonably, that Scotland’s role in Europe is being held back by people and institutions far more sceptical of the EU and its purpose than the general Scottish population; the No campaign can respond, also with a good deal of truth behind it, that Hollywood and rock’n’roll have been as important, as foundational, to proportionately as many Scots as English people (certainly there is a tendency on the part of some Yes supporters either to deny this or almost to infer that a Yes vote could eliminate it, wipe it from the folk memory, and in the process to divert too far from the far more universally applicable economic reasons for independence; if there is a narrow No vote, this would probably be the biggest reason, just as the unfounded scaremongering, which might well partially be driven by a desire to eliminate politically inconvenient socialist tendencies from the Anglosphere, would be the main cause of a narrow Yes).

The Yes campaign can argue with some credibility that the Daily Record supports the Union because it is more concerned with the interests of its big brother the Daily Mirror, i.e. achieving a Labour government at Westminster by any means necessary, than with the interests of Scotland itself.  Simultaneously the No campaign can counterargue that The Scottish Sun‘s long-term sympathies with the SNP, and flirtation with a Yes vote, have nothing to do with Scotland and everything to do with its proprietor wanting to take as much of the United Kingdom as possible into a de jure United States of the Anglosphere, but knowing that the Scots would never accept it so wanting them out of the way to make his vision of England easier to achieve in practice.  People in my position frequently, with some justification, accuse the Yes campaign of selfishness (and also of hypocrisy, since they see themselves as above and separate from the drift in such a direction in post-1979 England) – of being concerned purely for their own social democratic idyll and of being indifferent to the fate of the rest of us. The Yes campaign can respond, perfectly reasonably, that we are the selfish ones for wanting to use others to give us what we cannot give ourselves.

Or maybe it is a matter of tone, a fundamental psychological difference between the English and the Celts (I am putting myself, in terms of my cultural grounding and emotional upbringing, wholly in the former category here; had I been closer to my father’s side of my family it might have been different)? Over and over again I find myself agreeing with the basic meat of what Scottish independence supporters have to say, but being turned off by what often (although by no means always) comes over to me as a rather arrogant, combative, dismissive tone to it. It was once said that, to understand Enoch Powell, you had to be conscious of his Welsh ancestry because it was the source of his “un-English, but Celtic, passion for going all the way”. And sometimes it seems to me that, much as part of me wants to, underneath it all I fundamentally don’t have that passion, I respect the ideas but cannot fully identify with the more emotive and exclusive elements of their application. I get on with Celts, on the whole, better than the rest of the English because I sense and feel their lack of shame at emotion: I envy them for being able to let out what I must keep in. But I still must keep it in. I look at others but cannot take what they have.

Does this mean that, underneath it all, I’m a Tory as well (at least in the gentle, diffident shire sense that Powell, the proto-Thatcherite child of a great industrial city, very definitely wasn’t part of)? Some people would say yes, no doubt, and yes I can hear all the jokes about moderation to excess starting already. But I prefer to think of myself as a liberal humanist – in TPL terms, in the tradition which runs from On the Threshold of a Dream to ELO’s Time, and the pieces about them, not the vast, unedifying swathes of proto-Cameronite muck to come. Psychologically, I’m far more German than English (I’d love to say more Scandinavian still, but I’m not sure that’s quite the case). But I do – despite myself and despite itself – cherish the English liberal humanist tradition which has been so eroded and threatened in recent times (the cabinet reshuffle pushes it further towards death’s door, and strengthens the feeling that a desperate, morally bankrupt Tory party is looking to Scottish independence as its only real hope), and I don’t want it to be weakened still further, turned more than ever into a defensive, bull-headed nationalism, defined far more by what it is against rather than what it is for, which bears disturbing resemblances to Serbian nationalism as it developed in the early 1990s. Scotland has its own traditions, and they can no doubt thrive better apart. What worries me is the survival, or not, of the liberal traditions I myself was brought up to inherit, which I fear need the help of others to thrive now because those theoretically brought up for them increasingly don’t really understand them.

The frustration caused by the gulf between my identification and sympathy with some aspects of Scottish independence aspirations – my basic belief that it represents a positive, progressive social model for those who can be part of it – and the way I must live, the way I am confined to live, is a cause of almost unbearable pain. In the end – for the purely emotional side of me, for the 1945 side of me – “I want the one I can’t have”. That Morrissey – precisely the sort of English Leftist who could only have thrived and really been understood if England had been Scotland – could be a wise chap, when he wanted to be.

Yewtree, moral responsibility and the impossibility of a way out

It couldn’t have been timed better. We know the story well enough: the post-war liberals who fled the sterile consumerism of Australia, where even the Supremes barely charted during the 1960s, and made Britain fresher, more tolerant, more open, back before Anglospherism curdled, and another wave came from the same direction to revise our future, to replace post-war paternalism with something nastier, pettier, more closed, the opposite of the genuine improvement we’d looked likely to get before. The complicated story – in its own way, as much a battle of post-colonialism as anything involving any former British colony which does have a Left pass – hinted at in the Then Play Long and Music Sounds Better with Two pieces about the Seekers (if MSBWT had dealt with “Sun Arise” – an NME #2 – back in 2011 the same sense would have no doubt come through, but at this point it had not brought the NME charts back in, probably one of several factors – the others are more directly related to what I will write about below – in its slowing to a trickle). But BBC Four’s transmission of the first part of its Rebels of Oz series – you could say it’s about one set of rebels who fought a long pitched battle with another, and eventually won liberal-intellectual battles but lost the wider capitalist wars – seemed almost a living counterfactual when set alongside the outcome of two trials related – one by extension, one directly – to two rather different Australians, one of which showed how much the dominant forces of neoliberalism have staked on retaining their hold, and how hard it has become to even imagine removing them, the other of which would be said by some to have only happened because the British state’s ritualistic attempt to retake power had been stillborn and impotent, and showed that there was no idyll, no perfect, morally incorruptible world before neoliberalism, no lost Eden.

I know why the conspiracy theories about Yewtree exist: that it was stirred up so as to discredit, and destroy any attempts to recover, the post-war public culture, just at a time when even Elisabeth Murdoch was rehabilitating it and arguing that some aspects of it could be revived and modernised, when Charles Moore was finally beginning to realise that socialism (in its 1945 sense as opposed to its post-1968 one) is the only way his idea of standards can ever be protected, and when it was clear that the Leveson Report would call for its effective, or at least attempted, restoration by statute. There is no doubt that there was, in an incredibly short period after The Sun launched in its current form in 1969 and the Daily Mail did likewise eighteen months later, an effective revolution within British popular journalism (the third such, after the development of such newspapers in the first place at the beginning of the 20th Century – the long-term legacy of the expansion of education in 1870 expanding literacy among those who would have found The Times and its ilk unapproachable, just as most current government policies represent the endgame of those instituted during the 1980s – and the Daily Mirror‘s reinvention of itself in terms of campaigning journalism during the Second World War, with all that would lead to politically) which did more than anything else to unseat and destabilise the old paternalistic establishment and lay the foundation stone for Thatcherism and everything after. There is no doubt that the attempt at a statutory body for press regulation was an attempt to take that power back. There is no doubt that its impotence, and the lack of any real commitment towards it on the government’s part, has been a sign of how hard these forces are to defeat, and of how happy the government is to leave them in place, knowing that its own tactic of dividing and conquering – its long-term victory in the great clash of freedoms which emerged during the 1970s – would be impossible without them.

But I never believed that public culture was perfect: I always knew it had faults burnt right into it, faults on which its very existence was conditional. I always knew, specifically, that its handling of pop – and especially those parts of pop which were conspicuously “black” in the sense that that is a political identity in itself – was its greatest flaw, which would probably have rendered it unsustainable even without Thatcherism. I always had a sense that those astounding achievements that still echo today were conditional on pop being treated as a mere passing fancy, a mere fad that left no deep cultural marks, and that if the Hierarchy of Art Forms had been broken then it might have been impossible for the great canonical works in the rest of British television to be made in the same way with quite the same feeling behind them. That we had a fundamental and irreconcilable choice between two cultures which I sometimes thought I was the only person in the world to love and feel and sense equally, and want them both to thrive and prosper. And even before October 2012, it hurt me. But that was not something a lot of people could understand or grasp. If they went no further into black pop than “Sing Baby Sing” or “It’s Time for Love” or indeed “Three Times a Lady” – and that was the case with huge numbers of basically admirable people, people politically far closer to me than not; it was also, tellingly, the case with a lot of people who loved many of the same things I did and had the grounding I was raised for even as it was dying around me deep in their hearts – then the post-war public culture, even in its declining years, gave them all they really wanted or needed in pop terms.

But they know what it means now, just as much as anyone who ever revered James Brown, or in the very last years of the old duopoly Public Enemy, always knew what it meant. And it would be cruel, vicious, callous and a disgrace to all we have ever stood for to dismiss the victims of that public culture’s faults – the holes within it which were the inevitable result of the lack of equal application of moral responsibility in all fields, the belief that some fields were inherently more worthy of such responsibility than others (an attitude which, in the cases of Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris, was simply a self-fulfilling prophecy) – as “inconvenient victims” or “the wrong kind of victims”. It would be a travesty of everything the Left should stand for, just as it was when certain people on “our” side dismissed and almost mocked the victims of the 2014 floods in England. If “liberal humanism” is to be an insult, then we might as well give up now and let “them” bring back the workhouse. We should show nothing but sympathy and understanding for those who suffered from the exploitation of those areas which paternalism could not understand or grasp the importance of, the small-time exploitation – a use of the brute force of monopoly which Reith never imagined when he enshrined that guiding principle – which the multichannel era has made much harder, and if facing the latter shakes our basic principles of what broadcasting should be, perhaps it must. Nobody said you could always go through life never having your expectations shaken. Even if some of what happened to these people is being used for the wrong reasons, we should never – for one second – use that as an excuse to pretend it didn’t happen at all, but rather as a starting point to use it for the right reasons, even if those reasons are unbearably painful and unanswerable and chimaeric.

The thing is – see the Adrian Tempany piece I wrote about here in March for an example – that certain people on “our” side had almost imagined that child molestation was invented on 3rd May 1979. That’s a deliberately exaggerated metaphor, of course, but there had been a definite tendency to imagine that humanity had fallen to earth in my lifetime, that deregulation, or the prioritisation of entertainment over Reithian ideas of culture, had almost created these terrible things and the parts of people’s minds and thoughts which drive them to do them. This was probably especially marked in my own case: born after the Winter of Discontent, I had from an early age constructed a private universe – my own kingdom, the sort of childhood I could only have in my head, not in the world that would have existed around me in any era (indeed, in any previous era it would have been very considerably worse) – based around an idealisation of a world I hadn’t been around to see, an overriding sense that I had been betrayed, cheated, denied my inheritance, even my kingdom. And of course this world whose dying embers I kept smelling as hard as I could, aware that the fire would soon be out forever, would have been a place where no bad things could ever happen: built into it was the implicit subtext that any kind of abuse of power and responsibility was a recent imposition, forced on an innocent world by the forces of neoliberalism in whose heartland I was raised but which I instinctively rejected.

Among a certain set of people older than me with interests not entirely removed from my own, the whole business has simply strengthened their paranoia at the very concept of cultural studies, their fear and anger that their childhood is being “stolen”. But life is never that simple, and we can’t go through it pretending it is. All my life I have built for myself private kingdoms, wanting everyone else to live in a common culture – the same common culture whose underbelly, of separation of high and low, of posh and pop, was exploited by the likes of Savile, Hall and Harris (Max Clifford was something entirely different, a first-generation Murdochian exploiting the early manifestation of the wholly separate culture which would eventually largely supplant BBC light-ent) – as a compensation for not being able to live in one myself. Expecting everyone else to “make up” every second of their lives for what I cannot be. Now I know that there is no way out: no way out, within the current economic and political system, of the power that was merely shaken but not exploded altogether by phone-hacking, and no way out of the problems caused by – pace Elisabeth Murdoch, in late August 2012 just before the balance of power shifted back again – the worst of the old Britain. Both are deeply problematic and disturbing. Both are inexorably bound up: step out of one, fight one, even defeat one, and you’re confronted with the other. That might be the single most appalling fact of any of our lives, which freezes you to the spot and takes you out of social interaction, out of what you thought you knew. You always thought that there was a world without either. Now you wonder.

You can build your own kingdom – if you are as I am, you have to – but you can’t sit on a crown of thorns. For a lot of people, the “other” BBC of the Yewtree years is a model, a vision, a dream. I know entirely why it is. There are many reasons why it deserves to be seen as such. For many years, it was to me. For quite a big part of me, it still is. I wish it could be so completely, then I could convince myself that these terrible abuses happened despite what was going on in the next studio, the next office, in a separate city-state in a building of fiefdoms mutually contemptuous towards each other (you remember that it took John Birt really to change that, and if it is possible an even deeper wound is opened). But there is this unsettling voice in your head telling you that they happened because of all the other stuff: that it was the same system facilitating greatness and vileness through the same methodology, and almost for the same reasons. I know the case against saying this. It’s a strong one. If I believed it entirely I could walk through the world with a good deal more confidence, could ride horses again, could blend into the crowd again. I just cannot stop myself thinking that, if the one that deserved to be stopped had been stopped, the one that didn’t deserve to be stopped would have had to be stopped too, far before its time (indeed, part of me still believes that this could be its time, if we had the will, and part of the thrill of summer 2011 to autumn 2012 was actually being able to half-believe that), and it crawls under my skin, eats away at my soul.

The post-war public culture was my kingdom (what does it say about me that the only kingdom I ever felt I had was one in which I had never actually lived?): its greatest and most emblematic space – the South Bank, back when I almost lived on trains – was my palace. I wish it still could be. But somehow I don’t feel it can anymore; somehow I can’t get that sense of myself back, can’t grab that connection before it passes. The love can still be there from a distance, but even as others love it all the more passionately as the world that existed in parallel is viciously tainted, I find I can’t love it quite as fervently now; where for others it confirms what they already knew, it makes me wonder whether I knew quite what I thought I knew. I have to find a new love, a new feeling, a new sense of myself. A new kingdom. This is, without doubt, the most nakedly honest piece I’d ever written. What a shame that it takes unthinkable abuses to others to bring it out of me.

The World Cup, the Anglosphere and the dehumanisation of thought

It wouldn’t really have mattered which Belgian player it was who didn’t score when he could have done: in the minds of Danny Murphy, and maybe even Steve Wilson, they’re that bit less “authentic”, that bit more anonymous, than those playing for the USA. That bit less to be trusted as truly human. All they are to him is numbers; because they do not come from the Anglosphere, they cannot be names. So when Danny Murphy condemned such a player for having over-thought on the ball, for having hesitated, for not coming from a world where there is a feudal class separation between thinkers and feelers, he inadvertently summed up a much deeper problem in England: the belief that thought is in itself unnatural, a betrayal of basic human authenticity, and the belief that the peoples of mainland Europe are almost universally inhuman in this respect because, in their cultures, there is much less of a separation of responsibilities (especially between a knowledge of football and a knowledge of the wider world), much more – even half a century after (and yes, I know the ironies here, of Liverpool, of Ireland, of Anglospherism as dream turned to nightmare) Lennon, pace MacDonald, drowned himself in it – a sustained simultaneity of awareness.

This is the tragedy of English football in itself, of course (there is a conspicuous tendency for certain people on certain forums to celebrate deregulation and choice as long as it comes from the Anglosphere, and to call anyone who suggests that Sky might have too many film channels a communist, but to turn into Hoggart the elder or even Reith if it is so much as suggested that there might be channels consisting of football from outside the Anglosphere): the basic need to compete on equal and level terms with peoples you see as fundamentally unnatural, not real people, lacking in the basic emotions that drive your own life, and the impotent frustration at your inevitable failure. It is as if a people, a social tribe, were trying to compete in commercial terms of global pop music while seeing, say, the Portuguese or Hungarians as more “real” and “human” than Americans.

Let it be known that I have no problem whatsoever with the USA team, that I see it and its support as a positive and progressive force within the wider American social context. The sheer insanity of the Right-wing parts of the US media’s equation of soccer with socialism, if not communism (presumably they don’t know that the dominant sport in Cuba and Venezuela is baseball; presumably they also don’t know that the English Premier League is one of the most extreme examples of neoliberalism anywhere in the world) is so far gone, so far off the scale, that there really aren’t words (though it actually has its roots in a particular form of paranoia which only occurs in declining powers: Britain had obviously fallen far further by 1956 than the US is likely to for quite some time, but I still think our equivalent paranoia was over rock’n’roll, where what in America was all about race was in Britain all about Suez). The belief that liking soccer in itself reduces someone’s American-ness fits as perfectly into the national humiliation over Syria – the realisation that they no longer hold every ace beyond question – as the belief that liking Little Richard in itself reduced someone’s Britishness fitted into the aftermath of Suez which did so much to set up the national dichotomy of which Danny Murphy is an unwitting victim (in the brief period when it existed, at least in the major centres, but Suez hadn’t happened yet, ITV had been losing money hand over fist; would that have been reversed so quickly otherwise?). Before anyone starts, I obviously wouldn’t approve of such cultural or sporting xenophobia even if it is directed against a set of powers which haven’t always had the full Left pass, and getting Juergen Klinsmann makes perfect sense just as much as it would to get a comparably great figure of, say, basketball in the United States if you wanted to develop that sport here. The one is no different from the other. Call me what you want, but don’t call me a Little Englander in Left garb.

But I still feel that there was a deep subtext coming through the Belgium-USA commentary that the peoples of the Anglosphere are somehow more “real” than peoples from outside it, that thought and rationality are “inhuman” badges of elitism and inauthenticity and must be discouraged, that football almost needs to be saved from itself (and still they wonder why they fail in the global football context; still they think they can defeat others simply through dehumanising them, as if a whole class and culture, reduced to a parody of its own political tradition, had become Anthony Eden in 1956). I think of Danny Murphy’s Liverpudlian background and I think: is the real subtext of the hatred of The Sun in Liverpool (which most certainly does not extend to a wider cultural repugnance, and nor could it) that Liverpudlians know, as people in Kent or Essex don’t, what a cultural affinity to the oppressed peoples of America over and above the hierarchies of Europe could have meant, because they were at the heart of it, and feel particularly keenly the betrayal of what it eventually curdled into? It is possible for people in south-east England to hear the Beatles and see The Sun as it exists today as their logical conclusion, because in that region they were much more a manifestation of nascent consumerism and the identification of your own self, your own kingdom; it is not I think possible where they actually came from, just as the 1994 albums of both Blur and Oasis have subtly different meanings depending on whether you lived in the same world as their makers. But whatever the ramifications of that, it is the implications and aftereffects of the dehumanisation described above which damage many lives every day.

And I still hold within me a deep and personal fear that certain people are being reminded that Jimmy Savile spoke in terms of his sense of logic and his distrust of emotion and, in line with the general prejudice on this front built into Anglosphere cultures, equating anyone who seems “strange” – at least on Danny Murphy’s terms – with that level of abuse (in every meaning of that word). I still feel that there is a dangerous equation of high-functioning autism with moral callousness, of a merely different wiring of people’s minds with active evil and exploitation, which would never be allowed in mainland Europe where what I am is, on the whole, seen as normal and unremarkable. And I have the right to be worried when (and rest assured that I am only referring to some aspects of the BBC’s World Cup coverage, which still suffers from the vestiges of the “it’s only trash culture for the plebs” outlook which allowed Savile to get away with it in the first place, here; it is only private organisations who are reading that into Savile’s abuses) a universally publicly funded organisation is exploiting it, encouraging it.

Speaking of which …

Michael Gove, the Hierarchy of Art Forms and the Murdoch connection

When I read about the overwhelmingly scathing response from what might best be called liberal-intellectual circles to Michael Gove’s removal of certain books from the GCSE curriculum, my immediate thought was that a certain set of people very much including Gove – that part of the Right which is set in equal terms against both F.R. Leavis and Stuart Hall, most prominently heard for the last three decades at The Times and The Sunday Times – owed the rest of us a deep and profound apology.  For years they had been painting liberal-intellectual Leftists not only as anti-American bigots, but as “the real nationalists”, “the real racists”, “the real xenophobes” (rather as Baroness Warsi, with all the anti-Muslim bigotry in the world potentially to confront in the Tory tabloids, cites Polly Toynbee as the worst example in the British press of such prejudice).  They had interpreted the way people on “our” side pick up on the way certain people unswervingly accept “billion” to mean a thousand million (a de-Europeanising change), but would regard driving in kilometres as a mortal sin, actually to be worse than the most xenophobic Sun headline or Daily Mail smear campaign (they were by no means universally supportive of the Mail, but when they criticised that paper it was largely over its streak of Old Tory realism in foreign affairs).  Gove himself wrote just such an article in The Times just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  But now they actually have power, here they were playing the conservative nationalist card of which they had previously seen themselves as the antithesis, a reinvention of their movement, and here were liberal-intellectual Leftists defending the artistic and cultural endeavour of a country which, a decade ago, “they” had accused “us” of imagining to be populated entirely by 30-stone rednecks, even on its coasts.

The sick joke of all this is, of course, that the media empire with which Gove’s entire career is indelibly and inexorably bound up is responsible for spreading far more of the stuff that pre-Thatcher conservatives would have roundly disapproved of (but which Gove’s ilk actually need to strengthen the separatism of responsibilities and interests which they instinctively depend on) than even the most relativist academic ever could.  For people like Gove, a theory or position making logical sense is an active pejorative, an active point against it, but the only conservative position which actually could hold up in practice what he expects his older supporters to imagine he believes (whereas in fact he does not believe it even in theory) is what could be called English Gaullism, opposed in about equal parts to the deregulated market and to socialism.  This never became a mass theory in England, and what foothold it had was effectively destroyed by Thatcherism (this applies as much to the anti-Blairite Left as to the active Right and to Blairites: whatever The Sun may imagine of him, Tom Watson does not support the IBA model of broadcasting any more than Rupert Murdoch himself does), but there were isolated moments in the past when it could have become dominant: the New Elizabethanism killed by Suez was (appropriately, considering the French connection) very close to it, and it could easily have thrived had Edward Heath won a second term (especially if the victory of a more consensual approach had killed Selsdonomics, or anything close to them, in the long term).  When Auberon Waugh opposed Murdoch from the Right, English Gaullism was his starting point.  A Scottish variant of this theory is not entirely unrepresented within the modern SNP.  But Gove has denounced and distanced himself from his homeland, aware that it can more easily see through his position, logic and consistency not being so instantly dehumanised there.

The idea of placing restrictions on the deregulated market so as to preserve the idea of “cultural standards” would be by no means off the scale within the mainstream of French conservatism, which is why it fits so perfectly into that “alternative 1974” counterfactual.  It has its own deep and profound faults, of course: it is possible (though I simply don’t know enough about current French politics to judge) that the drift of the mainstream French Right towards something closer to “Anglo-Saxon” neoliberalism under Sarkozy might have been a factor in the recent success of the Front National (who are not natural allies of UKIP, who they would regard both as mid-Atlantic neoliberal imposters and as straight-down-the-line rosbif thugs: despite the whiff of “fascism can only happen with those unstable, shifty continentals” that comes from him as from pretty much everyone in the Mail titles, Hitchens Minor isn’t wrong when he says the two parties come from wholly different traditions and starting points).  I propose it purely and simply as someone who recognises that, in many ways, Stalinism is closer to Mailism than it is to Trotskyism, and that Murdochism is in turn closer to Trotskyism than it is to Mailism, and who would like to see a realignment that actually reflects the fact that the Cold War has ended (Putin’s essential position is, in Owen Hatherley’s words, pre-Soviet, and many of his Western admirers see in modern Russia the Mayberrys or Walmington-on-Seas for which they imagined they were fighting the Soviet Union, not realising that the West had changed behind their backs), rather than as someone who particularly admires it himself (indeed, the libertarian, anti-State streak in English conservatism might be the saviour of myself and those who think like me in the event of Scottish independence).

There have been occasions when the anti-elitist streak in the Murdoch press has rendered it preferable to its rivals on the Right; compare The Times‘ admirable reporting of the St Paul’s School / Colet Court abuse allegations with The Spectator‘s odious response.  But its support for pop culture As Long As It Knows Its Place has made it curiously appealing – as a sort of ally of convenience – to those of the Left for whom any form of pop which isn’t “Tutti Frutti” is a straight road to an ELP triple live album, as if much of the most stimulating rock music ever made in Britain never existed (which, for the music press many of them grew up on, it might as well not have done – you might find more references to Tales from Topographic Oceans as a ubiquitous swear word in one issue of NME from that period than references to Peter Hammill or maybe even Robert Wyatt over several years’ worth of it).  More than twenty years ago, the Murdoch papers were running articles ostensibly “purely” about pop culture (there is never such a thing, in any sense), but in reality codifying a deeper political agenda, whose legacy is now running directly through the terror vandalism being directed at British education.  When I think of the virtual disappearance of the German language as a subject of study in many British schools, I think of a Caitlin Moran article which appeared in The Sunday Times in November 1992 mocking the idea of pop music even existing outside the Anglosphere and invoking pop and rock’s legacy to promote the concept of the world outside the Anglosphere as unknowable and untouchable, which at the time would have been dismissed as juvenile nonsense by anyone associated with any curriculum or exam board, but which would have been an active inspiration, cheered to the echo, for many now controlling such organisations, quite possibly including Gove himself.

Let me take a particular example from my own past (and let me also remember that, when deeply frustrated in 1996 with the apparent absence of a genuinely new cultural dichotomy at the very top of British society even a third of a century after Beatlemania, I actively assumed that such a dichotomy would have to be better than the one that came before it; I was deeply and profoundly wrong).  Ten years ago, I got into serious trouble for suggesting that someone I had encountered who expressed disquiet at the idea of hearing grime in Norfolk, even if he had been thinking in terms of the integrity and subcultural strength of the music, was invoking a dangerous crossover with the far-right.  I probably shouldn’t have compared his position directly to that of the BNP – it would have been better to invoke a less emotive and extreme comparison such as the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph – but I still find such a vision troubling.  In isolation, it fits well within the politics of that time, where I was trying virtually single-handedly to transcend the division of “progressive cities vs. quasi-fascist countryside” – the dichotomy of foot-and-mouth, the Countryside Marches, the pro-hunting invasion of the House of Commons, Mumford and Sons as unimaginable as the Rolling Stones in 1958 – and found, aghast, that vast numbers of my fellow Leftists, people I’d have liked to love, were perfectly happy to play the exact same games as the Right, unashamedly and unabashedly playing along with people they affected to despise.  They needed an enemy, and were only really happy and content as long as they could be sure that everyone in Norfolk or Dorset was their enemy; when they found people in those places who wanted to be their friends, they were unsettled, challenged, even disturbed and frightened.  If they couldn’t pigeonhole everyone in a particular place as their enemy, they could not manage the world around them so easily – because within the context of grime itself, they were merely cultural managers attempting to push its creators in directions many of them actively did not want to take – and then where would they have been?

But years later it got really interesting.  I was told that the person with whom I had fallen out (who shall remain nameless here) had in fact been working for the News of the World at the time, and suddenly everything fell into place: as an extreme souixante-huitard who had no real understanding of older socialist ideas, working for Murdoch would have been the ultimate snob-baiting gesture, the ultimate two fingers (or, perhaps, just one finger) to the paternalism which the New Left had once defined itself against (this is why some who have their roots in the New Left would feel torn on Murdoch’s power this century: they would worry themselves – I think mistakenly, but understandably in that generation – that if he went, much as they would applaud it on purely political grounds, the elitism and hierarchy they had once kicked against would have to come back).  Moreover, because he was offended (even if for different reasons) by the same kind of thing that long-standing Times and Sunday Times readers are also offended by, he also wouldn’t have taken exception to the stuff they cynically throw in to appease the people who have been reading The Times since it still had small ads on the front page.  While he would no doubt affect to despise Michael Gove now, the underlying politics of the Murdoch organisation were not only no threat to him, he actually felt closer to them than he did to quite a number of Left-wing ideas (if we must persist with Cold War language).

What all this has been getting to is that large swathes of the British Left, while they are right to despise Gove and his policies and ideas, do not really understand where they come from; do not in fact understand the whole drift and direction of British politics and culture in most of my lifetime (and a significant chunk of theirs), and so inadvertently play into Gove’s hands.  The root cause of Gove’s position is this: he resents John Steinbeck or Harper Lee not because they are “vulgar, jumped-up colonials” but because he seems them effectively as “the wrong kind of Americans” (if they were firmly in either the pre-FDR or post-Reagan lineages he’d have nothing like the problem that an earlier generation of conservatives in this country would have had).  More specifically, Gove wants a strict separation, an absolute and unbridgeable delineation, between what young people experience and absorb in their lives outside school and what they learn about within it.  Far from feeling threatened by “it’s only pop culture, it’s just a bit of a laugh” (an approach which cannot but make us think of the moment when the Rolling Stones definitively lose the compelling, multi-layered power they had once had and become straight, unequivocal predictors of neoliberalism), Gove actively applauds and celebrates such an approach.  What is imagined to be “anti-establishment” – even “anti-Gove” – by a certain axis of the pop-cultural Left is actually welcomed by Gove because it shores up the financial and commercial security of his career’s sponsors and bankrollers.  The ongoing, tragic and regrettable misreading of punk which has long become its own kind of orthodoxy has now become an active hindrance to any critique of the ruling class.

That certain exams are dismissed as “too easy” when in fact they contain far more multi-layered ideas than Gove’s hierarchical approach would ever allow or countenance is entirely orchestrated to push the right Mail/Telegraph buttons: Gove in fact (in common with many others who affect to believe otherwise) knows full well that these exams (the best example probably being Communication and Culture) offer a precise challenge to many aspects of the lives and assumptions that young people have inherited, challenges he does not want them to take or be diverted by.  Young people are bombarded with a vast array of culture which they will not, in most cases, have the inherited parental knowledge fully to understand the meaning of (and will often, of course, have understandably rejected it if they do); if their education gives them the informed eye with which to view the wider culture which dominates the rest of their lives, they are that much less likely to give their money to the bulwarks of the capitalist system (very much including those whose dominance is confined to the internet era, should anyone doubt this) for which Gove is a mere placeman, a mere messenger boy when he should be an agent of destruction if he understood the full implications of his public neofeudalism (which I don’t think he does; he simply says whatever sounds best to perpetuate the Spectacle).  If their education has perpetuated and re-institutionalised the high/low divide, the “low” part of young people’s lives will most likely simply be a strengthening of global commerce in all its forms.  If their education has been run on wholly different principles, there is a much greater chance – the germ, at least, will be there – that their mass-cultural interests will lean much more towards those marginalised within global capitalism, those who pose an active threat to its perpetuation of inequality and divisions, those who are using the forms of mass entertainment to critique the methods by which it is consumed and sold, and therefore will make them, and their children, less likely to support the likes of Cameron, Osborne, Johnson and Gove in the long term.

I repeat: Gove doesn’t want education to ignore mass culture because he thinks mass culture is worthless trash, he wants education to ignore mass culture so that he and his ilk can more easily control and manipulate mass culture, which he thinks is great in a disgusting kind of way, that same balance of revulsion at the ugliness of the lumpenproletariat with a sort of vicarious pleasure – well, at least it’s On Its Level, at least it’s not threatening our bank balances like all those Marxist dramatists before Maggie Sorted Out The Beeb used to do – that same combination of vicarious pseudo-offence at populism with gleeful celebration of its reinforcement of their own ownership of the levers of control, which has become the default mode of many Telegraph bloggers and makes “noblesse oblige” seem the most progressive thing in the world by comparison.  Gove and his cohorts also stand to benefit massively from the perpetuation of successive generations – by now grandchildren, they hope even great-grandchildren – of neo-Claptons, my term for those principally from the middle class, and/or the small towns and shires, who take from the music and culture of the black Atlantic without giving back, and rapidly slip back into ignorance of where it came from because they have not had the educational background to contextualise it.  A strict high/low divide between what is studied and the rest of young people’s lives will make it harder for the feeling so many young people have for this music – even if that feeling in itself does not last – to be channelled into a serious break from the prejudices (whether purely racist, as perhaps in “conservative Labour veering towards UKIP” strongholds such as Rotherham, or more classist as in Gove’s own constituency in Surrey) they may have been surrounded by, and much easier for them to return to fear and insularity in the way so many sec-mod castoffs did, largely through no fault of their own, so soon after first hearing Motown.  If that tendency in British society did not exist, Gove – who, despite his current rhetoric, wouldn’t be where he is if he were a genuine paternalist – wouldn’t have a market, and neither would the entire Murdoch organisation which had given him a career long before he entered front-line politics, the career where he cleverly thought ahead long-term, in terms of how to fill the gap once the Blair illusion ended, and built his current career.

And still we have people who think “dumb rock music” will shake Gove’s private universe to its foundations, and affect to despise Gove while actually feeling threatened by the same fields of academic study – seeing them as a kind of theft, the act of dangerous interlopers merely with “middle-class” as an insult rather than “Marxist” as in Gove’s case – as he himself does!  The unfortunate truth is that a certain part of British Leftist thought is running well behind the Right’s curve on this front (I once, almost unbelievably, encountered someone on the John Peel mailing list who insisted that Cameron could not really like pop or rock music because he was so clearly of the Right: by those criteria Tony Benn in 1981 – and I can bet the person concerned supported Benn at that time – would have had to be a fascist).  Just as this part of the British Left have for years denied and refuted the fact that pop and rock music originating in the Anglosphere, and especially in Britain, have long been treated far better and with far more overall respect in the media, especially radio, of mainland Europe – have in fact seen such an approach as “posh” and “poncy”, a betrayal of the music’s “authenticity” – and just as they pretend to be “anti-establishment” while in fact actively joining in with prejudice and resentment against the one area of music which is still despised by the British establishment, they are actively pretending that Gove feels threatened by their own no-theory approach when, in fact, he loves it because it enables him to divide and conquer with far greater ease and security.  The same streak in The Guardian – a paper which still has a lot of very good things hidden in it – which thinks bad grammar or its style guide’s officious discouragement of “Hallowe’en”, “encyclopaedia” and “dreamt” (while citing Arctic Monkeys as if anyone in the present government seriously worries about them) are, like, really really rebellious, that Gove worries himself about such things every bit as much as he worries about post-structuralism and encoding and decoding infesting the academic lives of vulnerable lumpenproles.

Much the same can be said about the enforced budget cuts on the pop/youth side of the BBC which, having already appealed to populist resentment at the funding of an entire TV channel, have now resulted in the dismissal of three more 1Xtra specialists.  The inequity between the treatment of Radio 1 & 1Xtra and the ringfenced budgets of Radios 3 & 4 are clearly intended to make the latter stations’ core audiences think that the current government cares about and is concerned with their interests, that it supports their idea of fixed standards as against the passing fancies of the young.  But if the latter (or at least the conservative parts of the latter; what has made Radios 3 & 4 so singular is that they are, just as their precursors were fifty or sixty years ago, the only real place where the Guardian and Telegraph tendencies of the English bourgeoisie and intellectual elite come together, the only media outlets which really have to balance out the concerns and priorities of both) believe that, they are kidding themselves.  Gove and his ilk not only gleefully encourage the forces which really erode the old fixed standards (and which actually are the uncritical, unquestioning purveyors and promoters of mass culture which they wrongly and crudely accuse all post-68 academics of being), but they actively want such people to triumph because it would strengthen their own bosses’, their own business connections’, profit margins.  They are publicly speaking in the language of “no Paul Morley on Radio 4” diehards while viciously and vicariously laughing at them behind their backs in private.  In its way, it is a crude exploitation of snobbery, so much more cynical and harmful even than the real, putatively English Gaullist thing would be.

Nothing I have said in this probably wildly overlong piece will be news to those who have followed what has really been going on over the past two decades: huge numbers of people, on all sides, backing up people who stand for everything they don’t (whether hierarchical conservative traditionalists with Murdoch, or large swathes of a despairing, fragmented British Left with Islamists), first-past-the-post preventing any realignment beyond populist reactionary moaning, a general tone of cynicism and nihilism and negative doom-politics from all ends.  But in the case of Gove specifically, and the broader position of the present government more generally, I feel the case is more specific, more direct, nastier, more urgent.  I could as easily have written the C-word 3906 times and left it at that.  But that would have been the coward’s way out.  Just as much as was the case in 2012, this is still an emergency.  We are, frustratingly, further from a clear way out than we were then.  In England, we do not have our fate wholly in our own hands.  But we need to know what we are up against, and we need to know what it actually stands for and what it actually means, not what it suits some people’s delusionary self-image to pretend it stands for and means.  Whether 1945 socialists or souixante-huitards, we will be betraying ourselves, and history, if we do not unite.  Michael Gove, in The Times in December 2001, said that those who went on to the beaches on D-Day with the intention of creating a better society once the war was won would always, eternally, be less British than those who used it to perpetuate what he was proud to call “ancient pettinesses”.  Combine that with the current extreme manifestations of forked-tongue politics and you have something lethal and corrosive such as we have scarcely seen before.  If anyone in any of the diverging, and often actively hateful towards each other, traditions of the British Left ever doubts whether or not they should vote Labour next year, especially if its task has suddenly been made harder, they should read this piece, and think on.  Time will judge us very harshly indeed if we ignore what stands before us now.

Thoughts on the British withdrawal from Afghanistan

Some things are what they used to be, hard as that might be for some to believe, but wars aren’t among them.

Once we had big wars which lasted a flick of the eyelid but left legacies that could never be cancelled out or overturned.  Leaving aside all the other lingering “late colonial” wars which spanned the twenty years after The Really Big One – the ones that Peel and the Pythons and even Peter Gabriel were trained for little else but to fight, even though they were already ghost wars, where every shot fired was merely in thin air, battles fought in cartoon motion after you’d fallen off the edge of a cliff – we had two definitive such wars in the second half of the last century, one in the first period the Cold War really was hot, the other in the second.  The one we lost, in 1956, destroyed a set of illusions.  The one we won, in 1982, created a whole set of new ones.  The former was at least in a global geopolitical flashpoint.  The latter was in such an insignificant dot on the map that the very thought of its having any great impact at all would have been laughingly mocked had anyone imagined it (it is the most extreme example, at least in Britain, of real, still-echoing history as Alien Space Bats, the term used in alternative history circles for something far too ludicrous to be believable).

Of the two key momentary wars – the first lasting a fraction of the time The King and I would spend as the number one album, the second lasting less time than Sulk (released in its midst, and arguably doomed long-term by its impact) would stay on the album chart – the first destroyed the idea that Britain could be culturally self-sufficient (and thus finished off New Elizabethanism, which was opposed in about equal measures to the socialist modernism of the Festival of Britain and capitalist mass culture), scuppered the chances of a close relationship between Britain and France (which would have been no more a break from history than the relationship between France and Germany which developed instead), led directly to the foundation of what is now the European Union and defined the terms of our uneasy, uncertain relationship with that institution, and created a void which only pop could hope to fill.  The second plugged into a desire which had been rising and gaining in strength throughout the previous decade to overpower the strength of the organised working class (but which had until then been rather melancholy and licking its wounds, not seriously expecting to get its big moment), defined the victory of populist pro-ruling-class nationalism aimed at the working class over pro-pop socialism (yes, yes, I know all the paradoxes), or of Murdoch over the likes of Hugh Cudlipp and the Bernsteins, or of one idea of “the people” over another, represented the tipping point for the forces fighting to erode the social gains of 1945, and destroyed what might otherwise have been a permanent place for British pop music in the cultural Eurosphere.  Both still surround us in ways which are so ingrained that it is easy to forget their origins.

Wars haven’t really been like that since the Soviet Union collapsed.  They are now much more likely to drag on for years, with no perceivable end or beginning, in a way that the Cold War climate made much harder.  But as even Max Hastings has acknowledged, it was this very sense of unending war – without a particular reason or cause or objective that can easily be sensed, let alone as a socially unifying force – which ended the twenty-year public enthusiasm for intervention, for Being Great Again, which was unleashed by the unbelievably, and undeservedly, lucky fluke events of 1982.  For much of the period I grew up in, public excitement at war seemed as unkillable as the power (by that time far greater than mere politicians) of Max Clifford.  But the two great wars of the 2000s changed the rules, even among significant parts of The Sun‘s readership.  Most of the people whose instinctive feelings provided a wave for Ed Miliband to ride in the late summer of 2013 – how much easier would it be for him to ride such waves, powered by a public which theoretically supports many of his policies but cannot easily relate to their “human” (in the Anglospherist, intellectuals-aren’t-real-people sense of that term) face, had politics not largely been reduced to personality and image – would have been virulently gung-ho about Syria had Iraq and Afghanistan not happened.  Few are “progressive Leftists” in any real way, and many live in commuter-belt swing seats – which is precisely why their support is as important for Miliband as it was for Thatcher and indeed Blair before his wars – and most like the idea of wars that can be over in a season, or less than the chart run of “Blurred Lines” or “Happy”, as long as they can win them and feel safer and more secure afterwards (just as they did when the Falklands removed many of the threats to their buying their own council houses).  But they know from recent experience that those circumstances were freakish ones which political reinforcement and reassurance tricked them into seeing as representative, and they don’t want the recent wars – far more representative of the long history of human conflict than either 1956 or 1982 could ever be – to be replicated.

For anyone of the generation and class of Cameron, Osborne and the rest, the Falklands War will have a mythic importance – their earliest meaningful memories will be of a constant sense of being under siege (developed over a long period but suddenly accelerating in their childhood), that the working class were out to get them, that their old security and stability could never be recovered.  For all that in the short term it strengthened the self-made working-class model of Conservative politician, that redirection of working-class loyalties towards the ruling class and its conquests will have convinced them that they might be able to rule after all, certainly made them feel confident and at ease with themselves in a way they had never known previously and might well have thought they would never grow up to know.  These are very obvious and direct reasons why the Cameron government wanted and needed its own Falklands, and why some of its members may actually have been deluded enough to think a Syrian intervention could be it.  But if that was its ambition in the late summer of 2013, it might as easily have climbed a tree expecting to walk into the works of Enid Blyton.  Its ambition was laughably unworkable, and – more importantly still – the public knew, and that is why the public, including much of its most natural support, was not with it.

The relationship of Nigel Farage and UKIP to the events of 1982 seems more and more double-edged: without the Falklands War and its legacy, it might not have had such a strong sabre-rattling nationalism and resentment at Meddling Statist Foreigners to pick up on among the public, but it is also very much a product of an increased anti-war sentiment well beyond the bounds of any sort of Left, a return to the Western naval-gazing and acceptance of a lesser, limited role which characterised the 1970s and which the Falklands, in the British context, did so much to blow out of the water.  When Farage praises Putin for his political skill which left the West utterly impotent over Syria in those first days of September, he is speaking for a significant number of former hawks and Cold Warriors, people for whom Russia is the closest thing left to the West they once thought they were fighting for.  He is speaking to, for and of an undercurrent of his moment, at least in England, in a way Cameron cannot do – a desire to have an essentially culturally conservative nationalist party untainted by decades of abuses of power, only without any hints of socialism and genuine folk culture such as Salmond invokes, because the Problem of England, along with (horrendously problematically) many of the progressive impulses and desires in modern England which UKIP despise but which might also help them as they tie up economic Leftism with something more culturally and generationally specific, renders that impossible.  He is, in his own repulsive way, filling a void – and it is the void caused in large part by public disillusionment with wars that never end, that cannot have the definitive outcome of the war which created the mood which enabled them to happen in the first place.

So this is how we leave Afghanistan, thirteen years on, never less coherent and never more nihilistic as a direct result of it (and Iraq even more so).  In England, the main legacy of these wars has inevitably been to strengthen the extra-parliamentary, anti-political Right and weaken any sense of belonging to the mainstream of that movement.  Alex Salmond and the SNP are the other side of this coin, of course, and I’ll get to them here soon.  Hopefully.

The unquiet ghost of the anti-Beatles Left

To sense a tendency of thought surviving as an intellectual force, in one sense despite itself and despite history and in another sense because of itself and because of history, you have to know that it existed in the first place.  And most people today don’t know that the anti-Beatles Left ever existed at all; their caricatured conception of the 1960s allows only for antipathy towards mass culture as a statement of working-class expression and intent coming exclusively from harrumphing old colonels, the Henley Regatta rather than the Durham Miners’ Gala.  Even Paul Johnson’s The Menace of Beatlism – briefly well-known in the 1990s, if only for the light it shed on how the redefinition of the Left pushed some of its leading thinkers to the Right (and also, it must be said, for the way New Labour’s very existence had completely refuted its final conclusion, that the people listening to pop and rock music would never hold positions of high office) – has fallen from public view; its 50th anniversary at the end of February was pretty much universally ignored.

Which is a shame, because it sheds some kind of light on quite a lot of stuff being written today, which has been hopefully attempting to rehabilitate ideas and judgements on mass culture once rendered obsolete by Trotskyism and an intellectual wave ridden in the 1980s by Marxism Today, certain aspects of the NME, the Monthly Film Bulletin (though never, for one second, Sight & Sound until its 1991 Year Zero) and the TV magazine Primetime, but which have almost been forcibly reawakened in response to the embrace of pure, unfettered neoliberalism by those very former Trotskyists in government.  And however ludicrous much of it appears to be now, it very definitely reflects the true complexity of thought in 1964 Britain, where much resentment of pop culture came from Leftists who felt it was eroding the unity of the working class, its strength against exploitation and abuse.  Frederick Wragg, the retired colonel who returned his medals in protest at the Beatles’ MBEs in 1965, had been a Labour supporter (he amended his will to remove a substantial bequest he had made to the party).  Things were much more complicated than they appeared to be, for many NME-raised sub-Marxists, before the Blair conundrum clouded everything again.

Which brings me to the following article published last weekend in The Observerhttp://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/mar/08/how-football-lost-touch-young-fans (I have to link this way because, ludicrously, WordPress apparently does not allow me to put in proper links without paying, and if anyone knows otherwise I’d be delighted: I felt, as I usually do whenever I have the desire to start doing this again, that I needed to use a platform such as I hadn’t used before, to create the sense of a wholly new start, untainted by a dubious, flawed past).  Let no-one doubt that I have a considerable sympathy with many of Adrian Tempany’s arguments.  I agree with much of what he has to say about neoliberalism and its alienating social effects, and I wish – as he does – that English football could, in the parallel world I have so often envisaged in my mind, have moved away from the squalor and deprivation of its crisis years (football’s problems at the time were so completely bound up with the broader class-war scenario of that era that they cannot really be separated – and hence depoliticised – as they so often are) without falling into the hands of plutocrats and an exploitative overclass.  Like him, I wish, in short, that England had been Germany.  Obviously the unhealed wounds of class divisions, and the impossibility here of a genuine year-zero moment even in 1945 compared to its absolute necessity there, would have made it much harder, but it needn’t have been impossible.

It’s just that …

(And these are the most painful words in the world: the same “it’s just that” that, for me, was some sort of problem with the late Tony Benn, the conundrum and dilemma of whose life is of course central to these arguments; I have some lengthy thoughts on that subject but I am not sure if I want to make them public yet, it still feels too soon and too raw, but this piece has emerged in my head, as I have written it, as some sort of cypher.)

For a start, there are the general thoughts on the 1970s which have a considerable resonance and meaning for a significant part of the British working-class experience (much of the “Britain falling apart” rhetoric was basically “the ruling class is falling apart”, equating one class with the entire nation; when Max Hastings says that the Falklands War saved Britain he does, of course, mean that it saved his class, and damn everyone else), yet still do not tell the whole story.  Let it be rendered clear that I hold no brief and have no great love for Dominic Sandbrook, who I suspect is Tempany’s main target; I am not contented or satisfied with the set of social and economic norms that Sandbrook is so clearly wholly at ease with.  But the central point of Sandbrook’s work – that individualistic consumerism wasn’t invented in one afternoon in 1979 or even 1983, but had been bubbling away and building up as a force in British life for many years beforehand – is, in itself, far truer than it isn’t.  You don’t have to agree with the conclusions he uses these facts to arrive at to recognise that, in isolation, they are facts, any more than you have to agree with the conclusions reached for ideological reasons (whether far-Left, far-Right, or – these days – often both at the same time) based on the facts of war crimes, or imperial abuses of power, to recognise that the facts themselves are incontrovertible.

The “play to win with Gola” ads shown at the beginning and end of – irony of ironies – The Big Match ad breaks in 1977, presented in such a way as to resemble sponsorship bumpers today, or the consecutive ads in a summer 1976 break exhorting their audience to take home Carling Black Label (and thus break with the collective unity of pre-Sky pubs, or the handed-down social rituals of ale) or to buy Elseve Balsam because they were worth it, make this eminently clear.  There is never an unchanging idyll shattered in one second by forces of aggressive, anti-social media and politics (whether this moment is made out to be 1964, as with Peter Hitchens and other writers dimly recalled from the Daily Mail I absorbed in young-fogey childhood, 1979 as with Tempany, or both as with David Lindsay).  There is rather an unending battle of ideas, and sometimes (as very largely happened in this case) the forces that won it won almost despite themselves, or through fortuitous accidents of history.  But they were only able to win in the first place because the forces that gave birth to them had been building up for a long time, and for multiple reasons.  And this is before I even think of the significant numbers of people – many of Tempany’s own generation, many with (usually undiagnosed) conditions very similar to mine – who lived through something close to a living hell precisely because they were “abnormal”, precisely because they could not fit instantly into those collectivist norms.  You do not have to believe in all the conspiracy theories about What Happened In North Wales, or all the stuff that gets mixed up with it, to know that such a wilful “no such thing as a paedophile” vision ignores what a measurable number of people went through, and it isn’t neoliberal to point it out (no, this doesn’t mean that everything is perfect now in the treatment of people born with conditions which bring on social isolation – I know from direct personal experience that it, obviously, isn’t.  Why do certain people assume that criticism of one state of affairs amounts to absolute praise of another?).

There is a definite tendency on much of the Left to prefer being in opposition, to wallow in melancholy because in some ways it is easier to control emotionally, easier to take what pass for simple pleasures out of, than the inherently problematic position of being in power, which by its nature requires compromises with people who would rather you did not exist as a social and cultural force at all.  It is relevant to Stewart Lee’s piece, a few pages away from Tempany’s in the print edition of The Observer, which evokes very much the same dystopia of England After Britain – a permanent, thousand-year UKIP reich, institutionalised fascism in Hush Puppies – which I myself have been playing with since 2008.  But he and I must both be aware that this is not the most likely outcome, even if Scotland does secede; the institutionalised inertia in England which prevents any meaningful social progress, and makes even neoliberalism seem progressive by comparison, would also be likely to prevent something quite as extreme as that, even if it did dress itself up in the clothes and language of moderation.  It is just that there is something within us which … doesn’t quite want it exactly, but almost sees it as inevitable, takes a perverse enjoyment in active sadism.  Or thinks that those who don’t think like us deserve it, and we ourselves are powerless to change it.  The glamour of defeat, the glory of obliteration.

There are two ways to respond to having been marginalised for three decades and having all the odds of power stacked against you: either you retreat into yearning and anti-modernism – seeing the whole of mass culture as it exists now as a conspiracy against your outlook on life, thus dooming yourself to absolute defeat before you start – or you become proactive, attempting to reclaim that same hated modernity as something that can work in your favour, something that can strengthen you against them, rather than the other way round.  In the mid-1970s, many on the Right would have preferred the former approach, which would have rendered them impotent against the strength of popular culture as a working-class movement, and it took a lot of harsh, aggressive persuasion to lead them towards the latter approach which eventually redefined Britain, and much of the rest of the world, in its own image.  If the Left are now in the same position as the Right then, Tempany’s approach is – I deeply regret to say, because I want to agree with him, or at least I want to want to agree with him – very much the equivalent of the former approach, and thus hopeless for any kind of broader socio-cultural recovery of the Left; it is, very specifically, redolent of those anti-Beatles Leftists of half a century ago, people who – however well they meant – were arguably the broad Right’s long-term best friends (especially if we identify that broad Right with the Rolling Stones).

There is a definite tone of antipathy when Tempany refers to global “communities of interest” and their power among the young, but what was the driving force behind the Beatles, in the end, but an early example of global communities of interest, young working-class people bypassing the insularity of their physical environment to form alliances with those suffering comparable oppression abroad?  The English working class today are suffering enough discrimination as it is: why should they not build bridges with others suffering in similar ways in other environments?  Obviously it isn’t always anything like this in practice, but quite often it is, and lines of descent through the generations, and the absolute bonds of families and their cultural inheritances, were being challenged by the global community of interest – such as such things could exist then – that exploded into Beatlemania at a time when neoliberalism was, if anything, beyond the absolute margins of acceptable ideology.

Tempany puts great stress on young people learning and absorbing social norms, and having strong bonds with their fathers (and in the context of English football as it once was it is, very specifically, fathers).  No doubt there is much to be said for togetherness as a social force; no doubt some kind of mutual generational understanding is needed to avoid absolute social implosion; no doubt we don’t have enough of it at the moment.  But I would not regard young people as even remotely close to the main offenders on this front, and is it not also healthy for each generation to find its own means of self-definition, its own social norms and rituals and behaviours, outside the control of their predecessors?  The commercial exploitation of youth ritual over a long period has, of course, clouded these issues and made it harder to see where they came from in the first place, but “Rebel”, “My Different” or “German Whip” are, in their own way, every bit as much statements of defiance, even if recorded in an almost unimaginably harsher (at least in terms of job security, etc.) social environment, as the great Animals singles were half a century ago.  And the latter were routinely dismissed by people of Tempany’s political ilk at the time, precisely because they did not represent an entrance to the social norms of the adult world, as mere passing “entertainment” compared to passed-through-generations “culture” (of which more below).  The instinctive emotional need and desire of the young to find their own forms of identification, separate from all previous generations, was not simply created by the specific social separations of post-1979 Britain; when Eric Burdon sang “it’s my life”, he had no desire for it simply to be passed from national corporatists to global billionaires, any more than Ghetts, Rascals or Meridian Dan want to remain under the control of those same billionaires.

And what, also, of the large number of young people in places such as the one I live in, who may find themselves leaning towards outsiderdom and radicalism but who can find no deep basis for it in their own physical environment, certainly not as there is in English football’s traditional heartlands?  They – and even though I’m in my thirties, I still feel to some extent that I can say “us”, because I feel that “they” are more of an “us” than the demographic “us” I am aligned with by the forces of capitalism and plutocracy – have no option but to find global communities of interest.  Should they be dismissed as illegitimate because they involve individual acts of consumption and transaction made outside the control of a physical community and one’s elders, as though all such acts were as in hock to the ruling class as One Direction fandom?

Also redolent of the Paul Johnson Left – which very quickly found that it could no longer be the Left, and which attempts (understandable, of course, in the post-Blair context) are now being made to resurrect – is the opposition to “entertainment”, the use of the word as some kind of pejorative; “culture” good, “entertainment” bad.  However admirable the roots of such rhetoric are, they did lasting damage to the Left in the 1960s and beyond by making it appear (however unfairly) to oppose working-class cultural self-determination (this was, of course, the root of the late Stuart Hall’s challenges to many of his comrades, especially – one suspects – Bennites); had “entertainment” not been a sort of swearword among the Old Left, the Right might not have been able to promote themselves as the movement of mass consumerism (which itself required a considerable effort and a breakout of old assumptions for them) so successfully.

Tempany’s antipathy towards “entertainment”, as with his other rhetoric, was once used to promote the notion that Motown or Trojan could never truly be “culture”, could only ever be a false-consciousness distraction from the struggle; well-meant and heartfelt it obviously was, but it laid the foundation stone for those who already seemed irrelevantly old to Tempany as a child to abandon the struggle as something they could never fully participate in, because they feared they would be seen as an illegitimate, bought-out presence.  The Old Left’s division of “culture” and “entertainment” played a significant role in leaving an entire generation with no real home but a rootless, individualistic form of Toryism; Tempany should be aware of the risks of alienating another generation in a similar way.  This is especially regrettable because Motown and Trojan were culture, in the truest and deepest sense (the use of that word in roots reggae, while it may have its roots in reclamation of the language and imposed models of the imperial ruling class, seems loaded and meaningful in other ways as well); why cannot the forms being developed by young people within the internet era, outside the control or awareness or grasp of their parents, also be recognised as culture rather than passive, one-way Cowellism?  Blairism wasn’t the sole and inevitable end point of the New Left; it could have finished up in many other places, there were many other directions open for it to be taken in.

(a propos the challenge – however oblique, and however little so many people of that generation really understood it – that the “1964 moment” posed to racist and isolationist tendencies among the British working class itself – “every brother ain’t a brother”, to take a line from the most comparable American context, which would pejoratively have used the N-word to refer to British working-class racists, as a symbol of subservience and fear among any oppressed class – I note that Tempany does not, in that piece at least, mention the ugly racism so common in football grounds here in the period he writes about.  No doubt he does in the fuller content of the book he has written.  But I think its absence from the Observer piece might give something away, at least about what kind of Leftist Tempany is.)

It is the age-old dilemma of the Left, of course; even if (for example) Sky Sports is obviously built on neoliberalism and brutal divide-and-rule politics (the more internationalist BT Sport wouldn’t be quite the same thing, for all that it only exists because Sky does), should it be considered accidentally progressive, progressive by default on Marx’s model of 19th Century mercantile capitalism, if it opens people up to new territories beyond the scope of what may often be narrow and restrictive physical communities, or should it still be condemned for other, deeper reasons?  There is no one definitive answer; there is no absolute final conclusion that can close down debate forever, and nor should there be.  But ultimately, when I write a piece such as this, I cannot but think of Akala’s response to Sun and Daily Mail readers, UKIP supporters and their ilk who talk of “wanting their country back” – the brutally simple, knife-like (in that respect on a par even with Chuck D’s very best lines) “it never was yours”.  That might not fit into the narrative of romantic, nostalgic socialism whose resurgence is of course wholly understandable – the Blair government must have made all those within the Left who had seen Trotskyists as alien, bourgeois intruders feel some sort of vindication – but in the end, and especially in the case of football, it is the truth.  In the place and time Tempany remembers so fondly, the clubs were controlled by what Paul Weller, frustrated at some deep level that the striking miners could never love him as he loved them, aptly referred to as “every small town institution” – and you did not have to be remotely, or even putatively, neoliberal to feel yourself “chained and shackled by the dirt” of small-time capitalism, forever penny-pinching and undercutting new ideas.

If we had been Germany, we would have been so much more democratic in the first place that a bigger, glossier form of anti-democracy wouldn’t have seemed the only way out.  But – in the end – our history, and the wars we thought we’d won, prevented us from being Germany, and it is not the fault of the English working class who live now that we could not be so.  It is not the fault of those who know nothing but neoliberalism that they very largely choose global “communities of interest”.  You can only respond to – and, somehow, cope with – the situations that exist within your own personal experience.  The young people who are suffering from this vengeful, hateful government, wilfully denying them any kind of future (and yes, I know the 1977 ironies that scream out of that sentence), cannot be blamed for their disconnection from their elders: I know I have used this analogy before, but they were given this world, they didn’t make it.  And if their chosen ways out of it are different from those their elders might have regarded as most legitimate, that is not in itself neoliberal or anti-social.

Ultimately, it is with the greatest sadness of my life that I cannot fully agree with Adrian Tempany.  I’d love nothing more than to agree with every word of the piece that inspired this one, as a cypher and a cover for a million other pieces I could have written in a million different places and times.  It is simply my experience of life – and the things I have learned and absorbed – which mean I cannot.  I mean Adrian Tempany no ill-will or ill-thought.  It is just that, in the end, there have to be other ways.  Without them, the evolution and development of humanity – and especially of working-class culture – would cease altogether.  Yes, there are always exploitative forces overlooking them seeking to turn them into pure consumerism, pure genuflection to those who are “waiting to exploit their lives away”.  But that does not mean that is all they are.  Keep your eyes focused on plutocracy and its divide-and-rule tactics, especially as manifested in the Premier League.  Keep your razor-sharp focus on those forces, and give them the hate they deserve.  But don’t lump working-class self-determination, especially among young people, with it.  Firm up your hatred for the abuses of the modern world.  But don’t hate that entire world along with it.  Otherwise you might – through no fault of your own, and without knowing it – end up a sad ghost of yourself, surrounded by “newspaper cuttings of your glory days”.  And nobody with Tempany’s strong socialist convictions should ever end up that way.

Ultimately, it’s not any of our faults.  It’s the problem of England.  And, in the end, that’s why I’m still writing this.  Maybe I’ll hide in the summer, absent myself from this sort of environment of rhetoric, this sort of exchange of ideas.  But whatever happens, I’ll still be here after September.  Somebody has to fill this gap, and it might as well be me.

Craig Douglas and the Brook Brothers considered as models for David Cameron


I’m not Arthur Marshall – I’m not Philip Larkin, even – but I like old girls’ stories.  That’s not an easy confession to make in public, so let it be rendered clear and absolute that there are no dubious sexual connotations involved, just the arcing/arching eye of the amateur historian, prevented by his own mental condition and social limitations from ever formalising his study, and in any case taking – as previous generations generally didn’t, or at least found harder – from anywhere, however obscure or ostensibly insignificant or arcane.

And yet in the end I always walk away rather exhausted and melancholy from charity shops, the places where you can most easily chance upon these things; there are just too many memories which for me aren’t even that, too many ghosts that even I don’t really want to awaken, too many echoes of Ray Davies singing, as he suddenly realises that his vision of a world he never knew is not only doomed but might even destroy him in the end, “don’t show me no more please”, too strong a resonance of Morrissey admitting he will never go back to the old house, because in the long run that is no way of fighting the battles on whose frontline the late Tony Benn stood, the one thing less satisfactory than the capitalism of Miami Vice and Five Star (which is why it is so apt that the Would-Be-Goods – who, at a few isolated and sporadic moments these last thirty years, have made the records Florence Welch and Laura Marling should have made – ended up covering the song; their world, the utter opponent of Morrissey’s world in the decades of class war, was doomed by the same forces long term, and they knew it).

So it’s not often now that I walk into one of these places to dredge up what is rotting wood (to quote from another of the definitive texts of 1988) and whenever I do, it usually tells me something depressing about the things I find depressing, without having remotely intended to do such a thing.  Sometimes there’s a surprise: just this week, amid all the usual suspects (the biggest sellers of the recent past, when the CD format was still a cash cow, who nobody had any real feeling for even at the time: Boyzone, Dido, Stereophonics, all the long-term Then Play Long problems) I came across Skinnyman’s Council Estate of Mind.  But then there was the book which appears at the top of this post, and suddenly I had a new insight into how and why we are what we are today, without – in pop terms – even the radical capitalism of an early Now or Hits album.

In 1961 (almost all British annuals were produced in the year before the one that appears on the cover) School Friend found itself half in existential crisis, half calm and collected: it knew that the world it had represented was dying, but it still had a reasonable confidence for the future because the world that now presented itself – the world of the Bobbys and Gidget – required a relatively seamless adaptation.  The one time – until our time – when we had a technological, pop-culture-driven future which was wholly compatible with unrepresentative elite rule.  So it now advised its readers on how to barbecue hamburgers (authentically socially avant-garde at the time, especially if we use this term – relating to the 1960s – as Ian MacDonald used it), gave many more tips on the embryonic manifestation of what would now be called style culture, and compared to their earlier annuals, the stories are set much more elsewhere in the Anglosphere (Australia or Canada as classless idylls where you wouldn’t even have to leave the reassurance of home comforts behind) and much less in English girls’ boarding schools.

When this period first fascinated me, it did so because it represented an alternative, parallel model for modernity and the present which had happily been left on the fire, but which intrigued as a means through which we could have escaped Edward German and The Arcadians without anything else much changing at all.  Imagine, I used to say around 1997, if the models for mass culture weren’t “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” but “War Paint” and “Ain’t Gonna Wash for a Week” by the Brook Brothers!  But I didn’t know at that point that history would bite back, and that such an alternative vision would actually come to be, with disastrous consequences for the whole of British public and political culture, or what is left of either.

Some time around 2002 or 2003, British mass culture and consumerism slipped into a sort of ersatz 1961, where the social advances of a third of a century – a period topped and tailed by otherwise very different utopian-modernist Labour moments – were quietly and subtly thrown on the fire.  Because this was done in a quiet and unobtrusive manner, and because technological advances obviously weren’t reversed, most people didn’t realise that this was what was happening.  Most people, no doubt, couldn’t really believe it.  Most people still haven’t, and this is why they get the Cameron government so wrong.  But this is, indisputably, what happened at that point: Coldplay as a new model of paternalistic, caring capitalist (a sort of in-place-of-strife One Nation Toryism, as if what would follow would even be that good, or that equal), Simon Cowell as Carroll Levis, his proteges (all classes now seamlessly together) as Adam Faith.

All the good stuff in British pop comes from the twin moments of Tory crisis of confidence: Suez / Donegan and Profumo / Beatles.  All the stuff worth fighting for – all the stuff that, perhaps, Tony Benn’s failure to understand was his greatest fault, all the stuff that the late Stuart Hall did understand in the face of mass resistance from his comrades – comes from those twin moments of ruling-class retreat and working-class assertion of unity with other oppressed peoples.  All the bad stuff comes from the moment in between, the consumer boom of which that School Friend annual is a perfect artefact (the Girls’ Crystal annual published at the same time even had white picket fences on the cover!) – the moment of one-way, passive absorption of the overclass.  And, as if in revenge for UK Garage’s great moment of crossover, and the genuine insurrection that followed (the last time I ever paid attention to Top of the Pops was when I saw Oxide & Neutrino doing “Rap Dis” and thought to myself that this could be as great a culture-war moment as ever seen on British television, if only the mass audience had still been paying attention, or seen it as part of their vague responsibility, or been doing anything other than watching Coronation Street), the legacy of the consumer boom bit back and swept all before it (there’s a whole other article to be written about how the initial launch of 1Xtra, which wouldn’t have happened without the UKG moment, actually helped to push it back underground until non-FM radio became easier for most people to hear most of the time, and the ruling class had bigger fish to fry).

Suddenly – the Golden Jubilee was also a huge factor, showing that pop and aristocracy could co-exist seamlessly and without any sense of crackling tensions and divisions – it really was like the Beatles had never happened (this is why Alex Niven’s sense of Definitely Maybe as an “end of history” album is so apt).  We’d restarted as if the British future of 1961 (I have to specify British because this was, very definitely, not JFK’s future) had been the model and blueprint – in other words we were now in a situation which had only applied for a very few short years before it appeared to be yeah-yeah-yeahed into oblivion in the last quarter of 1963: where technology and pop-culture-driven modernity were compatible with unaccountable quasi-aristocratic rule, and everyone else frozen out of the mechanisms of power.  The Brook Brothers really had been more influential than the Beatles!  The relevance of this to how and why the present British political situation could happen should be too obvious to need further hammering home.

In pop terms, happily, such a situation didn’t entirely last.  From the very late 2000s onwards there has, in terms of the singles chart, been some kind of resurgence of the Beatles lineage, the lineage of hybridisation and cross-fertilisation.  But the people who set the tone for the current political state of affairs – Lily Allen as the ultimate useful idiot, the ultimate Tory sticking plaster – cannot leave us alone, cannot break apart from us.  And they are hardly likely to when they know that, without them, it would have been that much harder for most members of the current government, the Mayor of London and even the Archbishop of Canterbury (there’s a whole other Christian-socialism-as-establishment-culture parallel history of the immediate post-1945 years if William Temple had lived, with potentially serious aftereffects for the British Left and British pop) to get where they are.  And if seeing a schoolgirl annual brings on such thoughts and such desperations, it should be obvious why I don’t usually choose to enter those ghost ships that don’t know they are anything of the kind, why – more than ever – I prefer not to fan the embers long enough to sometimes catch their flames.