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.

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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.

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

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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.