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 Observer (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.