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.

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.