August 31, 2004

Might and right

Whenever there is a stupid fuss in the newspapers about immigration - that is to say, almost every single day for about the last ten years - I ponder the question of whether I should not set up a nice small single-issue organisation to be called something like The Campaign To Promote Immigration, or some more imaginative title that would produce a snappy and appropriate acronym. Its members would respond to the hysteria by writing to the newspapers, or appearing on the radio and television, to argue that immigration is an unequivocally good thing, that it benefits the host society and those whom it receives, that it produces neither unemployment nor a drain on the exchequer, that objections to it are ignorant in nature and malign in intention, that there is no more happy or enthusiastic citizen than the immigrant made welcome, and all the rest of it.

According to the temperament and outlook of the particular member, we might also argue that rather than merely tolerating or even celebrating immigration, we should promote it, should go looking for it, should actively seek to entice and encourage people from other countries to do us the favour of coming here. Or even that a fund should be established to do so and that this fund be created from a special tax on sale of the Mail, the Telegraph and the Express. Or indeed of any other paper which seeks to debase public debate in the way that they daily do.

Instead, what passes for public discussion on the subject is almost entirely constituted of wilful ignorance and culpable stupidity. (Seeing as we're debasing things here, I reckon that just using words like discussion or debate to describe this process debases those words to the core.) It is the principle of the saloon bar - the less that people know about the subject, the louder their opinions. Which is harmless enough when it comes to discussing the England football team, but when it comes to discussing immigration and asylum, it smells less of beer than of Zyklon B. And it's not so much the enthusiasm with which bigotry is propounded that makes me shudder, but the enthusiasm with which it is embraced. You can combat ignorance with books and argument. If I thought otherwise I wouldn't be a librarian. But you cannot combat ignorance that wants to be ignorant. Ignorance that loves it. Ignorance that isn't really ignorance, but something that has looked at the truth and prefers the lie instead, because only the lie enables them to give somebody else a kicking.

Sometimes in my imagination I see smashed windows, and burning mosques, and think of the beatings and the killings and the roundings up, what they would be like, what I would do when they happened, whether I would be afraid to say anything and what excuses I would make to myself in my shame. And rationally I know that this is not likely to happen any more than Trafalgar Square is likely to fill with banners and red flags and march on the House of Commons. But rationally, there is no reason to think that racial tension in this country is any less acute than national tensions were in Yugoslavia, even after the death of Tito. Rationally, I know that it has happened in the past in societies no less enlightened or more brutal than this one. Rationally, I have a sense that history continues and that history recurs. And rationally, I know that the utter irrationality of the permanent asylum scare is making irrational outcomes more likely all the time.

Well, rhetoric, rhetoric, it is what you do when you have plenty to say but no way of making yourself heard. Or no way of making yourself heard in which you have any confidence. Or when you think that what you fear may happen probably won't, but are afraid, nevertheless, that it might. Might, might not, probably won't. Even so. I really ought to think up that acronym.

August 26, 2004

Philosophy football

Late in 1986 I briefly attended the University of East Anglia to do a teacher training course that lasted for six weeks. I was living in a house with several other leftists including a gay rights activist and Socialist Workers' Party member from Wigan called Siobhan. She was extremely serious-minded (as opposed to humourless) and certainly had not the slightest interest in football. So I was most surprised one evening when she asked me:

"Have you ever heard of Mark Hughes?"

I wasn't sure if she was joking. He was at the peak of his fame, having only just moved to Spain, against whom he had scored his famous goal, the year before, with his bicycle kick. It was like asking if I'd heard of Wayne Rooney. But this was 1986 and postgraduate students hadn't always heard of footballers back then. Maybe she'd heard him mentioned and wanted me to fill her in on the basic facts? But why on earth would she be interested?

"Mark Hughes? Yeah, course I have. Manchester United, Barcelona. Scored a great goal for Wales against Spain last year. Why do you ask?"

Something was wrong because she was giving me a look like I was taking the unwelcome piss and she certainly had no idea what I was on about. "No", she said. "The philosopher. Marcuse!"

August 25, 2004


Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. If the career of Mark Thatcher has any merit, it can only be that it demonstrates - as does the career of George W Bush - that given money and the right connections, it's really, incredibly hard not to succeed no matter how much talent, ability and sense you lack.

The wonderful thing is that he still might balls it up regardless.

Cheek by Jowell

My local football team are Dulwich Hamlet. Last season I went to see them play maybe four or five times at their home ground. One of these games took place just before Xmas, and sitting in the clubhouse after the match, watching the results come in on the TV, I could hear, from the other end of the bar, a great deal of excitement and commotion occasioned by the draw for the Supporters' Club Annual Raffle. Not having a ticket, I took no particular notice - until several days later, when I found out from the newspaper that the winner had actually been none other than Tessa Jowell, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, and Minister for Condemning Satirical TV Programmes Without Having Seen Them First.

She wasn't actually present, which was just as well, given the minor danger of the drink talking and instructing me to tell her to her vacuous face exactly what I thought of her. I hadn't previously thought of her as a Dulwich fan, although I suppose there would be nothing inconsistent in first attacking Chris Morris without having seen his programme, and then supporting Dulwich Hamlet without having seen them play. No doubt she often attends home matches - just not on the few occasions I have been there - and it must therefore be her experiences of Champion Hill that have persuaded her that sporting competition is such a good thing. Which would be a curious conclusion to draw from watching Dulwich Hamlet, who rarely show any signs of benefitting from sporting competition.

Tessa's big idea of the day is to force schools to make competitive sports compulsory. (I say idea. It's actually unlikely that Tessa ever has anything quite so intellectually distinctive as an idea. It's for this reason that it's so hard to distinguish her from the similarly emptyheaded Harriet Harman. At least Patricia Hewitt stands out from the faceless Blairite crowd for her sheer arrogance and ambition.) Needless to say she is unable to do this without identifying herself with the notion that somehow schools are dominated by trendy teachers set on preventing their charges from engaging in competitive games for no better reason than political dogma, and naturally in this context one invokes "political correctness" as certainly as if one were obliged to do so by contract:

We have got to move beyond the politically correct nonsense of the 80s that competition damages children and sports days are undesirable. You only have to look at what young children do in the playground to see that they thrive on competition.

It is occasionally a struggle to think of a comment from a Government Minister that could not have been made by Richard Littlejohn, and this ain't the one. And it makes no more sense than that qualification would suggest. Look at what young children do in the playground. Well, if I do that I will sometimes see boys, or mostly boys, kicking a ball about and having fun. I will also see other boys and girls absenting themselves from the game because they don't enjoy it, or want to do something they enjoy more, or because nobody wants to have them on their team on account of their size or their age or their lack of skill or because they are the class scapegoat. I will also see children being picked on, children being bullied, children called names, children fighting. What would happen if we actually wanted children to take their values from their experiences in the playground?

The code of the schoolyard, Marge! The rules that teach a boy to be a man. Let's see. Don't tattle. Always make fun of those different from you. Never say anything unless you're sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do.
On second thoughts, you can see how this might appeal to a New Labour toady.

Tessa continued:

What competing in sport in childhood does is to teach children how to win and lose - which is not only good for them when they're at school but stands them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

This is tosh, and I say so as somebody who enjoyed school sport and occasionally did well at it. What teaches you about winning and losing in real life is real life. The lessons that sport teaches you are about sport. When I played sport at school, I learned lessons like these:

  • Keep your eye on the ball when you're trying to take a catch
  • Don't set off too quickly in a long-distance race
  • Try and pass to a teammate who's running into space
  • Develop your pieces and get your king into safety.

I learned lessons like these, and nothing of greater philosophical or practical import - and I was an enthusiastic pupil more than willing to learn. In fact the whole idea that the lessons imparted by the struggle to succeed at games is contradicted by the reality that those who learn those lessons best, those who excel at sport and become international and world-class performers, very often become dysfunctional human beings as a result. From whom should we really take our lessons in how to live? Bobby Fischer? Geoffrey Boycott? Diego Maradona?

Many people find school sport a humiliating and valueless experience which has the potential to make them shudder decades after it is over and done. This is the genuine, rational, practical reason why many teachers turned away from the idea of compulsory competitive sport. It is because they considered they were there to nurture the children in their care, not to humiliate them.

In truth it doesn't have a great deal to do with the welfare of schoolchildren. It is the middle of the Olympics, and there are national flags to fly and a potentially lucrative 2012 Olympic bid to promote. There is something deeply troubling in the way in which the rights and wrongs of school sports are discussed in connection with the nation's success or failure in international sporting competition. Should that really be the goal to which the health and happiness of children should be subordinated? Andy Burnham, a backbencher who wants competitive school sport to be compulsory, clearly thinks so:

We can't celebrate an Olympic gold and yet agonise over whether competitive school sport is right or not. School sport cannot be about egg and spoon races with prizes for everyone.

All shall not have prizes. We must create millions of young losers so that a very small number of adults shall be winners. And sport, which I have enjoyed for more than thirty years, becomes a curse, a punishment, becomes something to be inflicted on people whether they like it or not.

August 23, 2004

Pay-off line

Something else I should probably read is Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry. At least going by this excerpt from Frank Kermode's review, in the London Review of Books, of Jonathan Coe's biography of its author, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of BS Johnson.
The most amusing of the novels (and Johnson had considerable comic talents) is the brief Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973). Christie is a clerk in a Hammersmith cake factory (as Johnson himself had once been). Having mastered double-entry book-keeping (which I have heard described as the invention that made the modern world possible), Christie applies the principle - 'every Debit must have its Credit' - to his own dealings with that world. Whenever he suffers an injustice he credits his side of the ledger appropriately. Beginning with trifles, he progresses to larger evils. 'Socialism not given a chance' is balanced by £311,398.

Closing down tale

The rather humourless socialist moral behind the last posting is that about twenty years ago the government saw to it that large swathes of the country lost their mines and manufacturing industry and the jobs that went with them. This was justified on the grounds that these weren't real jobs. My first instinctive response to a phrase like that is that the sort of people who say it don't really grasp (not least, because that never really meet them) that the people who do those jobs are real. My second is that it is an obscure and warped version of reality where making cars or digging coal isn't a real job but being a "lifestyle consultant" or a "professional relocator" is.

I really must get around to reading Capital.

August 22, 2004

Unproductive labour

Forget financial services management consultancy. Forget even colour consultant, a job I saw mentioned in passing in a newspaper article the other day, provoking the thought that it was the sort of job that only exists in London. Not to mention lifestyle consultant, as in Cherie Blair and Carole Caplin. Eric Clapton remarked of cocaine that it was God's way of telling you that you had too much money: lifestyle consultant ought to have the same effect. I'm not kidding. What does a lifestyle consultant do? They tell you how to spend your money. If you need somebody to tell you how to spend it, then pretty much by definition, you've got too much.

No, my current favourite on the list of Professions You Never Realised We Were In Need Of cropped up in the puff for something called Get A New Life that my health and temper make it unwise for me to watch on BBC2 tonight.
Series offering advice on how to set up a new life abroad, with professional relocators Scott Huggins and Melissa Porter. The Kew family try out life in Brittany and they're not going to let their lack of French get in the way. But jobs are scarce, and the new schools prove difficult for the four children.
This is funny in all sorts of ways, not least because if you threw in a career in publishing and a cottage in the Cotswolds it'd be the blurb for a chicklit novel. (I have started reading these aloud in bookshops. This would not be with the purpose of encouraging people to buy them.) But what, in the name of God, is a professional relocator? And do you get feng shui thrown in with that?

August 21, 2004

A bad sort

There's something I call "security reporting", a way in which civil conflicts are covered, especially by television, designed to render it all but impossible to sympathise which either the actions or the motives of the party which the reporting doesn't favour. It doesn't even have to be designed as such - it just requires that the reporters talk almost exclusively to one side rather than the other, and that they don't want to make waves by querying the official account of events. "Embedding" was (and is) a way of producing security reporting without actually forcing anybody else to do so. So is reporting by attending press conferences given by military or government spokesmen. This is how Iraq is being reported by the main news bulletins, and even, on the whole, by Newsnight, whose interviews with Iraqi government figures have become noticeably unchallenging.

The effect is to produce an account of events which follows a familiar pattern. First, the reported activities of the unfavoured party are activities of violence. They shoot people, they let off bombs. Second, the reported activities of the preferred party are always in response to the bombings and shootings. Third, the shootings and bombings, and the hostility of the first party to the second, are the product of hatred or other irrational (or abstract) causes.

It's important that all these things are true to some extent. It's not manufactured news and it doesn't have to lie as such, or even seek to do so.

It's how Northern Ireland was reported for the two decades or so before the ceasefire, a period in which the Provisional IRA did of course let off bombs and shoot people, in which the RUC and the Army did arrest people who were subsequently imprisoned because they were engaged in activities of those kind, and in which among the motivations for those activities were both simple nationalism and a personalised hatred of the Brits. All this was true - but it was only part of the truth, and not necessarily the largest or most important part of the truth. Presented as it was, it could only give an entirely lopsided and functionally false view of what was happening north of the Border, and why.

Similarly with Iraq today. Most of the time you wouldn't imagine there was any activity in the country other than armed insurrections and bombs going off, or any reason for them other than religious fundamentalism and an attendant anti-Americanism. Actions are drained of reason and our ability to comprehend them is negated. You could not take the reporting at face value and do anything other than take the side of the "coalition" and the Allawi government - there would be nothing to discuss. And that, itself, renders the resistance to the occupation even more irrational - because if so many Iraqis continue to oppose the US even though it's obviously stupid, irrational and violent to do so, what sort of people must they be? Religious maniacs, that's what kind. And how reasonable it is for the US to show such restraint and have such sensitivity to their irrational sensibilities.

Naturally, that's a partial approach in itself, and not a particularly original one. More diverting is this oddity from ITV Teletext earlier today:
The militants have yet to give up control of the Iman Ali shrine, saying that certain issues still need sorting.
Still need sorting. I suppose that al-Sadr and his followers might have acquired their vocabulary from early-Nineties British rave culture. But I suspect that it's not a direct translation.

Leave it out

I'm going to be back at work on Monday, if all goes well. I've been away for nearly three months and I'm nervous about it: about going back, about the consequences of going back, about the consequences if it doesn't work out, about the consequences of getting nervous. I have had a anxiety-free eleven weeks, or at least one where the anxiety has not bothered me on a daily basis but has retired to the wings to make occasional appearances, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whenever the central character is feeling agitated or insecure. Man still delights not me, but I have had eleven weeks lying on the settee watching the cricket, or going to art galleries, or sleeping, or playing with the cats, and I have got accustomed to it, actually. But at the same time, I have been in libraries, from the British Library to South Norwood library to the neat and refurbished library at Scarborough, and I want to be back in a library, with its quiet and its aisles.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
As I go back, sick leave seems to be a growing preoccupation in the world outside, with the emphasis naturally on the assumption that it is largely about skiving public sector workers taking as many sickies as their union can help them get away with. I'm not sure whether working for Imperial College counts as public sector these days. It is as as far as I'm concerned, but not, I think, in the eyes of Richard Sykes. If it is, then I have at least done my bit to contribute towards the shocking statistics.

Or staggering, as Newsnight said last night of their figures which had BA employees taking seventeen days a year off sick. I tend to think the use of adjectives in news coverage is rarely advisable and this is especially so when industrial relations are concerned.

There was also the recent story about Tesco insisting that new employees will not be paid for the first three days of any period of sick leave, an innovation for which the adjectives petty and punitive could advisably be used. (Naturally it would always be possible to stay off work for a fourth day to recoup one's losses, but without leaving the section of the dictionary in which we have already arrived the word probation, for those new employees, may be helpful.) What we will have is bullying, and unhappiness, and people working when they should not do.

Which is the aspect that bothers me the most. Or, I think, the aspect that bothers me the most is that it goes unmentioned in any public discussion of the subject. There's a parallel: on any given day you can find stories in the mass media complaining about benefits that are paid out when perhaps they should not be, either because they are being claimed fraudulently or because the newspaper concerned doesn't like the morals or the nationality of the claimants. But all the benefits fraudulently paid or unreasonably claimed, put together, are a widow's mite compared to the amount of benefit legally and morally payable, to entirely upright citizens, which goes unclaimed. If we really want a reckoning, if we really want everything unpaid which should not be paid and everything paid which should be paid, then the public purse would be a great deal worse off.

And so it is with sick leave. Because people work when they should not do. All the time. Of course they skive and take days off when they should not. But they also work when they should not. They do this a lot. With sniffles, with serious illness, with stress. They work hours for which they are not paid and they work on days when they are supposed to be on holiday. They don't get any money for it, and they don't get very much thanks for it, and they don't get a Hero Of Soviet Labour medal for it. And they're the same people who take the sickies and get told they're costing the nation billions of pounds as a result. They may very well be. But far fewer billions than the nation gets from them when it should not, if they were playing by the rules.

It's why you end up with strikes over sick leave. It's the moralising people don't like. Everybody knows they shouldn't really take sickies and they can't really justify it straight up. But at the same time people know that they have a good attitude to work. They put in much more than the minimum. Much more than they could get away with. And they don't expect to get any credit for it. But when they get told that they're skivers, that rankles. It rankles, about one part in four, because they know there is some truth in that. But three parts in four, it's because they know that the real figures are on the credit side of the ledger. Yet all the emphasis is on the debits.

I've done it once, I think. In the first few weeks after starting my first job in Oxford. I took half a day's sick leave when I wasn't really sick and went to watch the cricket in the Parks or something. I suspect that in the seventeen years since, I've given back rather more than half a day in excess hours. The world owes me one, I reckon. The world probably owes me more than one.

Not to mention all the days I've worked when I was sick. I've been off now for eleven weeks. I've been sick every day of those eleven weeks. And I've probably been sick for every day of the two and a half years which went before them. But I worked every day of those two and a half years that I could. I didn't do it because I was a Hero of Soviet Labour. I didn't do it for Imperial College. (Dear God, I swear I did not do it for them.) Mostly I did it because I wanted to. I'm a librarian for the same reason. Because I wanted to. I work in what I think is the public sector because I want to. I understand that and accept it and accept what goes what it.

But don't be getting on my back and telling me I'm a skiver because I'm off sick a lot. Don't you do that. Don't you dare.

August 20, 2004

Negative reaction

There's a passage I often quote from an essay I often quote: George Orwell's comments on Cyril Connolly's Enemies Of Promise in his essay on Henry Miller, Inside The Whale.

Towards the end of [the book] there occurs an interesting and revealing passage. The first part of the book, is, more or less, an evaluation of present-day literature. Mr Connolly belongs exactly to the generation of the writers of 'the movement', and with not many reservations their values are his values. It is interesting to notice that among prose-writers he admires chiefly those specialising in violence - the would-be tough American school, Hemingway, etc. The latter part of the book, however, is autobiographical and consists of an account, fascinatingly accurate, of life at a preparatory school and Eton in the years 1910-20. Mr Connolly ends by remarking:

Were I to deduce anything from my feelings on leaving Eton, it might be called The Theory of Permanent Adolescence. It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development.

I often cite the passage to discuss why Oxford University has such a hold on the people who went there, both on those who liked the place and benefitted from their time there, and on those like myself to whom neither applies: that in abstracting people from the world outside, both socially and intellectually, at such an important time in their lives, it produces an intensity of experience, and a relationship to the institution involved, that can never leave you and never stop affecting you. In my experience only the Roman Catholic Church and marriage (formal or otherwise) are capable of producing such a strong attachment and such a permanent resentment. Perhaps that's why so many Oxbridge alumni find themselves giving so much money to them - and why some others, including some known to me personally, refuse even to discuss the place, or even sometimes, to hear it mentioned.

But the follow-up interests me too. Orwell goes on:

When you read the second sentence in this passage, your natural impulse is to look for the misprint. Presumably there is a 'not' left out, or something. But no, not a bit of it! He means it!

This springs to mind quite often, when listening to senior management or company spokesmen. My door is (not) always open. We are (not) extremely concerned by the bad experience you had in using National Express coaches. Or any sentence that includes the word committed or appears in a mission statement.

There's a variant on the theme which observes that any political statement is meaningless unless you can imagine somebody saying the opposite. For instance, in the last Presidential election Al Gore made the bold statement:

I am for the people!

As I recall being said at the time, you can scarcely imagine anybody in a democratic election, or indeed at any other time, saying I am against the people! (Not that it was a particularly empty remark by the standards of Al Gore, or by the standards of American Presidential elections, but there you go. The most remarkable aspect of the current election is that the Democrats have managed to pick a candidate so turgid he makes Al Gore look like Abbie Hoffman. Which mention brings to mind the title of Hoffman's autobiography, Soon To be A Major Motion Picture. That phrase passes the same test of meaninglessness - who would ever use the term Soon To Be A Minor Motion Picture?)

I digress. The molehill that brought to birth this mountainous chain of thought was simply and trivially this. I was walking along Effra Road in Brixton this morning when I saw a personalised number plate that puzzled me. It read:


But where's the DON'T?

August 18, 2004

Swear box

Television is driving me to madness, or to misanthropy. Or just to foul-mouthedness. I swear at it as easily as I switch channel and I switch channel all the time. It doesn't just bore me, or even irritate me, it causes me to erupt in obscene indignation every time I detect insincerity or an attempt to sell me something that I do not want. And given that television is driven by insincerity and funded by advertising, it has an effect on me as swift as Samuel Jackson's mushroom cloud and little less destructive.

A typical exchange:


TV: and here's Carol with the weather. Hi, Carol!
Carol, with enormous smile at half-past six in the morning: Hello!
Me: Fuck off, Carol!


I never used to be this bad. I used to shake my head all the way through the adverts, which irritated anybody else in the room far more than I was irritated by the original irritation, and which amused any rational-minded individual whether or not they actually told me out loud that:

(a) these were adverts
(b) they were only adverts
(c) they weren't important
(d) they would be over soon.

I couldn't help it. The first unlikely claim, or the first sign of people pretending to be enthused by a product which never enthused anybody in the history of the world, and my head would start vibrating side to side with sheer intolerance at the insult to my intelligence and integrity that it represented. This would go on all through the break, and through the next one. It would go on for years and years.

The next step was Friends, which made me so angry that I couldn't watch it in silence without, quite literally, biting into my arm in order both to stop my mouth and create some distracting pain. Nothing else has ever been quite so bad again, but nobody ever advised me, as they ought to have, that if I didn't want to lose my temper at loud, conceited and narcissistic airheads then I should neither live in London nor accidentally watch Sex And The City.

Possibly getting older, and hence developing a permanent mood of disappointed irritation, made it worse. That, the aforementioned move to London, and a certain general deterioration in both health and language - I swear generally rather more than I used to, which was never sparingly, and some of the terminology I use is terminology that I would never have used before. And possibly the invention of the remote control made it possible to pile irritation upon irritation when once - as when I used to hate listening to what passed for news during the miners' strike - it was as easy to leave the room as to switch the channel.

Or maybe the programmes really are getting worse, as there must have been a time when Friends did not exist and news programmes were not filled with the viewers' inane text messages and emails - which prove nothing more than that it is possible to produce three-second opinions for all sides of a question and for three-second opinions to be equally facile regardless of the merits of the case. And maybe they didn't always have weather presenters as stupidly cheerful as breakfast show DJs, and maybe they didn't always say "now back to you two" as if the simpering presenters were actually a simpering couple.

Or maybe car adverts actually used to be about cars. Or maybe the characters weren't always playing self-consciously smug twentysomethings pretending to like football while actually depicting the sort of person you would like to be if for some Godforsaken reason you wanted to be like the sort of people who appear in television adverts and you wouldn't actually rather die than spend fifteen seconds in the same café as them.

Or maybe it is just imitation on my part. Just as the Daily Mail school of "thought" imagines that we acquire all our bad behaviour from watching similar bad behaviour on television. I probably get it from reading about television. Specifically, this passage, from Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes:

Watching the Mercedes until it was out of sight, I walked slowly back to the ward and with Snow White [the nickname of a fellow inmate on the ward - ejh] watched Ed Sullivan. Snow White had a running dialogue with all his performers. Ed said, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen"; Snow White replied, "Fuck you, Ed."
I read it two or three years ago. And ever since:


So wrap up warm everybody! I'm talking to you as if you were schoolchildren!

Jesus Christ!

And now back to you two!

Jesus H Christ!


I'll be there for you!

Jesus H Christ! Jesus H Christ on a bike!

>click! click!<

How can I quote you happy?

Jesus HR Haldeman Christ!

>click! click! CLICK! CLICK! CLICK!<

I only got any rest in my room in Scarborough by working my way forward to Channel Six. There is of course no Channel Six. The setting consists only of static. I turned the sound off and watched the screen and beamed in the silence.

August 17, 2004

Calling the Kettle a hack

Nasty-minded piece by Martin Kettle in the Guardian today attacking Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It includes the following passage:
I just wish that...readers would face the fact that people who believed what Tressell believed spent much of the 20th century murdering millions of people and enslaving countless millions of others in a system which did not work.
There are many things which could be said about this, but let's stick to three before tomorrow's letters appear:

  1. Is there any word in the language that should be employed less loosely than the word fact?
  2. Is this not one of the most outrageous examples of literary McCarthyism you've ever seen?
  3. Is it not a "fact" that people who believe what Martin Kettle believes - or at least, share more of his opinions than Robert Tressell shared those of Joseph Stalin - spent much of the 20th century murdering millions of people in the Great War, the destruction of Vietnam and sundry other episodes besides?
Should that, therefore, disqualify Martin Kettle forever as a writer of whom we should take notice, as he would like to disqualify Robert Tressell?

I guess it doesn't really matter. He'd disqualified himself already with his own appalling paragraph.

August 16, 2004

Reach out and grab ya

There's a Diary piece in the latest London Review of Books, all about the Tour de France, in which the author, Graham Robb, tries to explain how a professional cyclist needs to avoid being distracted by the slightest thought - "on a long, fast ride, the run-of-the-mill cycling brain can turn the tiniest flaw into a grinding, unignorable obsession." He quotes from The Rider, by Tim Krabbé, author of The Vanishing, on the cyclist's mind:

Its almost perfect lack of surface structure ensures that it strikes nothing that might end up in the white circulation of thought....a pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone.
I read this just after I'd got back from the British Chess Championships - quite appropriate, as Krabbé is a chessplayer and writer himself - and that's right, I thought, that's what it is: the inability to clear the mind which I was writing about before, the distraction of thought, its maddening intrusiveness. I mentioned anger, magnified and otherwise (actually, I'm not sure I have any "otherwise") but other things, other distractions, break in when I need them least, when I am standing back and calling for a calm appraisal of the balance of forces.

So its almost always, when I am trying to think clearly rather than hard that this happens. Thinking not necessarily, or even usually, about the calculation of variations, but more likely trying to achieve some perspective, a calm assessment of the position distanced from immediate tactical considerations. A stocktaking, an appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses, actual and potential, of each side's position, a reminder to oneself neither to panic or to be overconfident, for each side has chances.

When the struggle is at its peak and all that either side cares about is "I go there, then they go there", it is not so hard to concentrate (though harder to think well!) when circumstances leave you without any alternative. The product of panic can be clarity: immediacy does at least have the virtue of making one prioritise, become alive to dangers, disregard the trivial. Nothing concentrates a man's mind more than the knowledge that he is to be hanged in the morning.

But when more abstract effort is required, then the creepy-crawlies come. The thoughts, the externalities, the distractions. The trivia. The anger, the magnified anger, that as well, but mostly the trivial and irrelevant which unignorably obsess my mind when I want it to examine advantages of time and disavantages of space.

Earworms are the worst. You can imagine how they might easily distract and dull a cyclist's mind, adapting themselves well to the rhythm of the ride until the ride itself adapts to their own rhythm, the mind dulled until the dissonances in the race without are erased by the smoothness of the tune within. And this affects the chessplayer too, who may not want a mind almost emptied quite as much as the cyclist may, but who certainly wants a mind that can be emptied of distractions. The absence of mobiles, of chatter, of traffic and of smoke, all rendered pointless by some unsummoned melody and its inescapable lyrics.

The lyrics. It would have been bad enough having Abracadbra going through my head even if I had not replaced Miller's own notoriously dreadful lyric with something worse of my own inadvertent devising. More than once last week I found myself, while sitting at a chessboard in the Spa Centre at Scarborough, humming a melody to myself with a lyric presumably inspired, though not improved, by its topicality:

Moqtada, Moqtada al-Sadr
Moqtada al-Sadr.

I said it was something worse. I suppose it would have been worse still had I mixed the two and kept the original last line.

August 13, 2004

The young people today

Overheard outside Scarborough public library, a boy, maybe ten or eleven, talking to his friends:
I tell you what I'm going to do when I grow up. I'm going to get insurance.


I was watching BBC Breakfast this morning - or Dog's Breakfast as I started calling it after they dropped the News bit - and one of their email or text messages ("your messages have been flooding in this morning", lucky old us) insisted there was a simple solution to all this cheating at the Olympics. Simply test all the medal-winners without any exceptions, it declared.

Great idea! Except of course that they already do. Cue outpouring of abuse from my direction and bad start to the morning. Couldn't saloon bar sages at least wait until the pubs are open?

August 07, 2004

Scarborough and other fare

I'm off to Scarborough tomorrow, to play in a sub-tournament (the Harry Baines Week Two) at the British Chess Championships. Two hard games of chess a day isn't really the ideal way to recover when you've been off sick with stress since the beginning of June.

Nor is agreeing with the Occupational Health doctor on a Friday morning that you'll come back to work on the 23rd and then finding on the Friday afternoon that said doctor has emailed my boss saying I have agreed to come back on the 16th (which I haven't, and which I won't). So now I have to worry about whether I'm going to be expected to come back a week earlier than I'm planned, whether it's going to look like I'm swinging the lead, whether some sort of difficulty or conflict is going to come out of it. None of which makes me feel anything other than anxious, stressed, and destabilised, worried about going back to work, worried generally. So well done, doc.

I realised what that gated community reminded me of: a Jewish settlement in the West Bank or Gaza. I don't suppose the yuppies are going to go round trying to shoot down the kids off the council estate (or vice versa) but otherwise the attitude, and the alienation, of the implanted community in relation to its surroundings isn't so very different.

It's funny, when you hear reports of "settlements" you tend to think of homesteads or something, like it was Shane. Then you see photographs of them and they look like the MI5 building, but in the middle of the desert. And I suppose that's none too surprising, either, when you think about it, as the idea of the Westerns was to give the impression of a few brave and isolated settlers fighting against incredible odds, whereas the reality, of the West, of the America that created the myth, and of Israel today, is of forces which have all the firepower and all the odds stacked in their favour.

I'd say the same was true of the gated community too. There they are, imagining that they're cowering under their beds at the fear of crime, but who is having the greater and more destructive impact on whom?

(I should have said, not least in order to escape all this negativity, that there are some lovely co-operative estates just round the corner, across the Caledonian Road. Clean, nice, friendly. And nobody is fenced in or gated out.)

That Stella music turns out to be La Forza del Destino by Verdi. I thought it sounded like Verdi. Perhaps, when I get back, I will try to say some things about classical music, why I have come to love it and why I think it has an emotional range, a depth and nuance that pop music doesn't really possess. I have been typing while listening to Tchaikovsky's Fifth, the Symphonie Pathetique, which I videoed a few days ago from a broadcast of a Prom. Perhaps I tend to the overwrought more easily than most, but when they play that unbearable theme, I cannot write, cannot do anything, but sit and wait for it to stop.

And so original, too

Some slogans worn on summer T-shirts: young man with long hair, red T-shirt with the word "Bollocks" repeated as a motif; young Chinese man, "Everyone needs something to believe in. I believe in beer"; 10-year-old boy, "Nirvana"; 12-year-old girl, "Little Miss Naughty"; thirtyish man with black rectangular specs, "Like a barrel of oil, the oilers are going down"; plump young woman, thirtyish, pink T-shirt: "You've scored!"; dark-haired girl, aged about 20, "Kill, Pussycat, Kill!"; good-looking guy in his 50s, "Resistance! Globalise Resistance." ; youth holding hands with girlfriend, white on black, "Fight poverty together"; young Asian man, black T-shirt with Union Jack, "FCUK for England"; fresh-faced young mother with child, "FCEK - Cork City's French Connection"; girl with mouth stud, white on black, "Love Angel."

There must be a PhD in semiotics here somewhere.

- Mary Kenny, The Guardian, 31 July 2004.

Philip has long since given up trying to follow the details of Boon's argument, but the general drift seems to be concisely summed up by his lapel buttons:


In spite of himself, Philip is quite amused by some of the slogans. Obviously it is a new literary medium, the lapel button, something between the classical epigram and the imagist lyrics. Doubtless it will not be long before some post-graduate is writing a thesis on the genre. Doubtless Boon is already doing so.

- David Lodge, Changing Places, 1975

August 06, 2004

All things in moderation

I've always been irritated by the use of the term moderates in political discourse. It's essentially a means of avoiding a discussion rather than of illuminating it: it says, without further ado, that the people to whom the epithet is attached are good people, to be contrasted with their rivals, the extremists. What counts towards those descriptions is contentious - I never felt it was moderate to spend many millions of pounds on nuclear weapons, nor extreme for people to oppose it, yet that was the way the terminology was employed in the labour movement twenty years ago - but what it really means is that being towards the middle of the political spectrum is something commendable, something admirable in and of itself, as if the virtue of any opinion lay not in what it is but in there being opposing reasons for disagreeing with it. (It is probably for this reason that the political centre so often seems to be lacking in any substance, that it consists of people who have placed themselves there - triangulated is the modern term - rather than being there because of anything they positively believe.)

It has its uses sometimes. When I was in CPSA, the Moderate Group who ran the National Executive Committee used to issue election leaflets which gave their opponents' names with the message STOP THE EXTREMISTS! written all over them (which, apart from anything else, is another example of defining oneself not by one's own opinions but by those of one's opponents). This was extremely helpful in helping me decide who to vote for, as the "extremists" seemed likely to be people of whom I would approve.

Nevertheless, the terms are unhelpful at all but the best of times, and not uncommonly absurd, particularly in foreign news coverage, where "moderate" tends to mean "someone currently viewed sympathetically by the Foreign Office" rather than any particularly temperate outlook on life or any restraint in the employment of political violence. I'm quite sure I've seen Gulbuddin Hekmatyr described as a "moderate" during times when he's been considered friendly to British and US interests as opposed to times when he's been opposed to them and been redesignated an "extremist".

However, I've never seen a more absurd or anachronistic usage of the term that the one I noticed earlier this week in the British Library's exhibition of old and famous manuscripts, on a card accompanying the Lacock Abbey Magna Carta of 1225. The card discusses the Papal Bull that denounced Magna Carta, and recording that this denunciation was followed by a civil war, the death of King John and the accession of a youthful Henry III, it continues:

William Marshall, the Regent, looked to convert moderate barons to the young king's cause by reissuing Magna Carta, with suitable revisions, in 1216 and in 1217.
I like that. Moderate barons. I wonder how their "moderation" manifested iself? How could you tell a moderate baron from an extremist one? Answers, possibly, on a Papal Bull.

August 05, 2004

Only disconnect

I was at the Barbican last night, to hear the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, perform Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony in memory of the late Edward Said. The Beethoven was gripping, the Tchaikovsky a little less so - perhaps because Tchaikovsky always meanders a bit, perhaps because a young orchestra finds it harder to maintain their performance all the way through a longer piece, perhaps because it was a sweltering evening and Barenboim himself was forced to mop his brow with one hand while conducting with the other, and occasionally leaning back against the support at the back of his podium. For whatever reason, I lost concentration about halfway through and never got it back until the encores. (It's a measure of how little I know that the second of these encores was known to me by no title more accurate than "the music from the Stella Artois ads"!)

But it's also true that I'm never really able to keep my concentration any more, not during a symphony, not during a film, not during a game of chess. Thoughts break in, angry thoughts more often than not, or just thoughts, imaginary conversations, or conversations with myself. If Tchaikovsky meanders, so do I, from one subject to another and on to a third. There is no emptying of mind, not for music and not for silence - I used to have the same experience even when I used to meditate, my mantra leading to a series of internal discussions rather than the clearing of all thought from the mind and the subsequent contemplation of nothingness. It's partly the inability to disconnect, and partly the tendency to do precisely that, to find it impossible to keep to the subject, or to keep off a subject, or to keep to only one subject at a time. It's sometimes as if I were a record that were intermittently jogged, so that the needle came down someplace else, carrying on playing at the same speed as before but singing another song entirely. I lose myself, because I cannot let myself go.

There is a quality of not being entirely there, which we usually employ, as a phrase, about people who are far more disconnected from reality than I am, who chatter to themselves or who give answers wholly unrelated to the subject of the question they were asked, something we usually ascribe to drugs. But that isn't really what I mean. What I mean is a certain awareness, a certain feeling that other people fit in but we do not - and that, for this reason, we are not, really, entirely there. That we do not go entirely observed. It is a feeling of translucence rather than invisibility. A feeling of being muted rather than being unheard. A feeling of being at an angle to the rest of the world. To be always entering and leaving at a different place, and in a different way, to everybody else.

I once saw a documentary about Syd Barrett in which the figure that seemed to me most striking - most striking in so far as he reminded me of myself - was not Barrett himself, but Robyn Hitchcock, filmed in what appeared to be the beer garden of a country pub. I don't know anything more of Hitchcock than the name and the fact that he is a musician. I know nothing of what he has done, what he has experienced, what travails he has survived. But he had something of that same somewhere-else feeling about him, of having crossed a line or two and left something of himself behind each time - just a little, just a little certainty or self-confidence or self-esteem or just the quality of concentration, barely perceptible but perceptible nonetheless. And I could imagine him - or, more likely, imagine me - sitting in a lot of beer gardens on a lot of afternoons, always thoughtful but always a little bit distracted, a certain sort of white middle-class Englishman who had lost his bearings and was never really going to find them again.

August 04, 2004

Capital defence

I got Capital out of the library last week. I first got it out of a library about twenty-five years ago, when I was intimidated by the largeness of the volume and the smallness of the type. So, like Harold Wilson (but without his First in PPE) I never got round to reading it, other than the tenth chapter, on the struggle for the ten-hour day, which Marx himself recommended we read as an introduction. The ten-hour day later became an eight-hour day, eight hours being coincidentally the scheduled duration of my coach journey to Scarborough next Sunday, which should give me plenty of time to get stuck into the first nine chapters.

It’s not a complete exaggeration to say that Marx wrote Capital because he had nothing better to do, and that’s something worth bearing in mind when people - few of whom will ever have read a word of Marx - tell you that he’s outdated and irrelevant to the modern world. Marx arrived in England as a political activist and refugee who would have liked nothing more than to get involved in radical politics in this country, insofar as the police would have allowed it – and he did know a number of the working-class leaders and organisers of the time. He arrived only a few years after the largest single general strike of the nineteenth century, the “Plug Plot” of 1842, and only a few months after the huge Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common. He must have expected great things to occur.

In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. Chartism died, almost overnight, even though its demands were not met until decades later. The working-class movement shrivelled. The great meetings, the great subscription newspapers that had characterised the previous period disappeared. It was to be nearly twenty years before the Trades Union Congress was formed – and these were not twenty years of industrial upheaval – and large-scale unionism among the poorly paid never showed its face until after Marx was dead. The First International never added up to much more than a small number of groups with a small number of members, and Marx and Engels had it killed off rather than let it fall into the hands of the anarchists. (Where the labour movement is weak, the anarchists thrive.) By the time the Paris Commune revitalised Marx, Capital had been written and published and had made Marx’s name.

What had happened? Firstly, the defeat of the radical movements had happened – it will nearly always take a generation or more to recover from great defeats, as the generation who fought for them are disillusioned and exhausted, while the generation after that grow up taking the absence of radicalism for granted. (Meanwhile, the new generation of the affluent classes will take their success, and their right to it, for granted, and a smugness, a triumphalism, will come over their political thought and the social attitudes. This is as all-pervasive now as it was then. One doubts that the Times is so very much different in 2004 to what it was in 1854.)

Secondly, the economic success that made social peace possible. When you look at historical maps, it’s in the second half of the nineteenth century that Africa really started turning pink, and it was then that cheap goods started flowing into Britain on a grand scale. It was also then that Britain’s industrial strength reached the point where – with the intervention of the heroes of Marx’s tenth chapter – the horrors of child labour and seven-day weeks were no longer required, and both the purchase of goods, and the time to enjoy them, began to be enjoyed by working people. Inequality may have risen faster than living standards, but life improved for the large majority of people. When we see the historical pictures of barefoot children in Hartlepool, or of disgusting tenements in the East End, we should remember that it wasn’t like that for everyone, and that those who escaped the worst conditions of Victorian society included a large proportion of the working population.

They were not comfortable, for working people never really are unless they escape the insecurity involved in selling their labour power to an employer, but they were better off than they had been, and cleaner than they had been, and less tired than they had been, and well aware of all of these. And they were not black, or Irish, or Jewish, nearly all of those who felt happy with their lot. For the third strand of middle-Victorian social peace was racism, though the term was unknown then.

What I am saying – what I am obviously saying – is that as it was then, so it is now. It’s popular to talk about “modernity”, or “new times”, or any numbers of concepts and phrases that basically say this: people are much better off than before, they identify with their personal possessions, they are different from people in the past who used to be poor, and have strong unions, and identify with socialist politics. The idea is that there has been a qualitative change in the way we live, that society, and therefore the politics to which it gives expression, has altered irrevocably.

But what is wrong with it, as so often with ideas that make comparison with a particular version of the past, is that the past was not what it is claimed to be. When Marx wrote, it wasn’t all poverty and desperation and fighting on the streets. It was cheap food from exotic places, it was a piano in the corner, it was Sunday at the cricket match, a son in the Army and a picture of Queen Victoria on the wall. Soon, it was to be the music hall, the popular press, free primary education for all (Forster’s Education Act comes just three years after Capital was published) and voting for the Conservative and Unionist candidate for fear of the Irish people in the neighbouring street. Or moving to the suburbs to get away from them.

And the left? There was no left. The Labour Representation Committee is not formed until 1900. In all this half-century which we have come to identify with the exploitation of labour, its imagined dissatisfaction with its lot had no political expression whatsoever. Unless, perhaps, we include the tiny groups which Engels was involved with - which didn’t exist at all during Marx’s lifetime – and of which Morris wrote in News From Nowhere:

there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented.
Who controls the present, controls the past. The people who have done best out of Thatcherism and its aftermath believe that everything has changed - and that consequently, nothing will ever change again. But they thought the same thing, for the same reasons, when Marx was working away at the British Museum, because there seemed to be nothing better to do. And it is possible that, to understand the present epoch every bit as much as to understand the age of Marx, there is nothing better to do than to read Capital.

August 03, 2004

Lightning reactions

I was at the Oval today, watching the cricket and the building work, when an electrical storm took place over London early in the afternoon. There was no apparent rain, and the light was not poor, but after a number of lightning forks had entertained the spectators, Mervyn Kitchen and Peter Willey decided to take the players off the field. After a few minutes the announcer told us that this had been under the rules allowing the umpires to stop play if they were concerned about the players' safety.

Not that I had any objection, having no desire to see anybody, even Mark Ramprakash, perish in the cause of cricket. No need to play on as if Sir Henry Newbolt were watching. What puzzled me, though, was that none of the building workers in the stand opposite saw the need to rush for cover. (Perhaps they would have if UCATT were still a force.) Moreover, as the players left the field of play, the groundstaff rushed on, with covers and plastic sheeting to protect the pitch and the run-ups from any rain that might occur. And, while the lightning continued unabated, they stayed there, exactly where the players had been, as if acting as a collective twelfth man in the absence of the players. Or as if acting as a collective lightning rod instead.

I don't know, are cricketers in danger from lightning strikes but groundstaff not? Is lightning attracted, as PG Wodehouse was not, to men wearing white flannels? I was taught as a child that you should never shelter under a tree if there was a storm. In future I shall also make sure never to take shelter next to a cricketer.

An exclusive development

I saw the most grotesque gated "community" today, a few hundred yards north of King's Cross. What was most grotesque was the gate itself - a huge thing, wooden, thick, almost like a drawn-up drawbridge. It formed an enormous barrier at the end of the street, made to seem even more enormous by the size of the development, and even more offensive by the otherwise open design, a courtyard surrounded by several storeys of flats, each boasting large windows and a balcony with chairs and a table. The message could not have been less subtle. You can look, but you can't touch. And they can look at you.

So solid, so forbidding was the gate, so large the buildings behind it compared to the houses on the street, that the gate itself seemed to tower over them. These were council houses, a terrace, presumably occupied by the people that the gate was designed to repel - which given the respective sizes of the buildings gave the impresssion of an elephant protecting itself from a mouse. The terrace ran into one of the other buildings at the end of the street - or what the gate had decreed was the end. The gated community seemed to have landed halfway along a street and crushed the unlucky half beneath it, permanently blocking the street to the survivors.

But it also reminded me of the way that houses in a medieval city would often be huddled together against the walls of a castle. They did this to be as close to shelter as possible, for protection. Now the purpose of the drawbridge is not to protect the peasants, but to exclude them.

August 02, 2004

Financial services management consultancy

I have a friend who used to work for a trade association representing companies who make corporate videos. This was described (by him, as well as me) as the ultimate non-job, until I came across a Friends Reunited entry in which a former pupil of Cheltenham College described his current employment in four words which, with sleek and unsurpassable economy, give a perfect impression of absolute social worthlessness.

August 01, 2004

Mary, Mary, quite the contrary

Mary Kenny appears to have been contracted to write for the Guardian on the same principle as Anne Widdecombe: to provoke the liberal readership. Unfortunately people can generally spot a pantomime dame when they see one, and particularly one as witless as Kenny, who either has no opinion on a subject (as here, where she is "agnostic" on one topic and has "completely contradictory responses" on another) or expresses mutually exclusive views (as here, where she both demands Eurostar's fares be more flexible according to demand and then complains that they're already too complicated).

To be honest, it's hard to believe that it's not all an act, a variation on the columnist in What A Carve-Up! whose torrent of opinions - and the strength of that torrent - was in no way stemmed by knowing nothing about anything she wrote about. A nicer variation, sure, provided you prefer ruthlessness and arrogance replaced by the most patronising manner I've ever come across. Everybody else is "darling" - or "a dear, nice person", or "I know that many Muslims are good people" (gosh, thanks, Ma'am!). In fact she does so much of this that half the time I'm sure it must be an act, nobody could have that little self-awareness. Except that I've come across a few upper-crust airheads in my time, and they were very much like that. Dismiss everybody else with a "don't be silly, darling!" every time they disagree with you and of course your own opinions never have to come under any scrutiny at all. Either Kenny herself is like that, or it's an extremely well-observed study of a particular type.

In fact, she - or the character who she's playing - seems to regard almost everybody else as some sort of child to be patted on the head - see her ludicrous comments about all the little clubs hanging out their flags, for instance. Or try this week's piece in which the proles are only interested in "three-dimensional mobile phones, DVDs, bargain foreign holidays, iPods, TV's Big Brother, the Sun". And what a terribly original point she's making, as if nobody on the Left had ever thought of it before. (By God, no wonder people can get away with this stuff and don't even realise they're getting away with anything, if the Telegraph or the Guardian thinks this is worth paying for.)

Unfortunately though Kenny's point is rather undermined by the fact that she can't even get her quote right. She has Shelley writing:
we are many, they are few

which is not what he wrote. She says "no, darlings, they are many", meaning the proles, with their iPods and the rest. But actually, addressing the same multitude, he told them:

ye are many, they are few

which rather than being the opposite, is exactly what she said herself. The multitude are many. There's no reference to the revolutionaries, or the left, or anything. None at all. There is no "we".

How hard would that have been to get it right? Well, she could have looked up The Mask of Anarchy on Google or something. Or she could have got a researcher to do it (surely somebody could have helped out for the price of an iPod).

Or she could have looked at the programme that everybody who attended the funeral was given, where the words were correctly printed.