Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Don't shade your eyes

I'm posting from work, because this is (unusually) a work-related question. And I do mean 'question': I will be expecting comments. Look sharp.

I'm formulating a research proposal, building on the work I've done on what went on in Italy between 1966 and 1980. Basically, you have two successive waves of protest: one which starts in the universities around 1966, spreads to the factories and goes crazy around 1969 before subsiding; and another which starts in the factories around 1972, spreads to working-class neighbourhoods and from there to the universities, and goes crazy around 1977 before subsiding.

I've made them sound reasonably similar, but there was one crucial difference between the two. The first wave died away because Communist-affiliated trade unionists got behind it, with the result that the workers basically got what they were asking for (on the condition that they stayed with the union). By the time of the second wave, by contrast, the Italian Communists were in their ultra-respectable phase: the second wave died away largely because the police forced it off the streets using armoured cars and live ammunition, with the Communists' full support. So in one case the protest achieved a lot and stopped because, for most people, it wasn't needed any more; in the other case it achieved next to nothing and stopped because, for most people, it wasn't worth the aggro any more.

What I'm looking for is examples of the same scenarios happening in Britain. Either:
  1. Protest starts
  2. Protest spreads
  3. It all kicks off in a big way
  4. Demands are more or less met with a little help from Labour
  5. Protest dies away because most people don't see the need any more
  1. Protest starts
  2. Protest spreads
  3. It all kicks off in a big way
  4. Public order clampdown with full support of Labour
  5. Protest dies away because most people don't think it's worth it any more

I don't think I'm going to have an enormous amount of difficulty thinking of examples of the second scenario - the 1993-4 period springs to mind straight away. I could do with some suggestions for examples of the first scenario, though. There have to be some...

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Becoming more like Alfie

It seems to be compulsory for reviewers of Charlotte Gainsbourg's 5.55 to get in a couple of references to her father. This is unfortunate; the fact that the singer is the daughter of the more famous Serge is certainly an angle, but it's not one that tells us a lot about this album.

So forget Serge; forget Charlotte, even. Consider 5.55 for what it (mostly) is: a set of songs composed and played by Air, with lyrics by Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon. Godin and Dunckel, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon, together at last. And a French actress supplying the vocals.

No, it's not as good as that sounds. But it's not far short.

Air never were particularly spiky, and over the years they've lost a lot of the rough edges and homed in on a lush, lounge-friendly sound; played after "Cherry blossom girl" or "Alone in Kyoto", Premiers symptomes sounds positively avant-garde. The instrumentation of 5.55 is very lounge; most tracks are dominated by Dunckel's grand piano, backed by a string section. What redeems it and makes it interesting is a couple of oddly spare, pared-down elements amid the general lushness. One is the composition itself, which centres on simple, repeated patterns of five or six notes on the right hand; not so much Air, more Beta Band. The other - and the really unique feature about the album - is Gainsbourg's singing voice, which is quiet, light, delicate and frankly rather weak. But the contrast between that voice and that accompaniment - the sweeping strings and the lush, circling piano figures - is arresting; it makes you listen.

And there's a lot here to listen to. There are three songs which slide back and forth between English and French. The Godin and Dunckel composition "Tel que tu es", beautifully sung - and beautifully enunciated - by Gainsbourg, had me struggling for a translation: "such as you are"? "how you are"? "just the way you are"? The last verse is in English; the line is "Come as you are". Very nice. "Jamais" similarly plays with the different expressive qualities of the two languages. Each verse sets up a rejoinder of "Never", which is delivered in French:
You think you know me, that's your trouble
Never fall in love with a body double
The word 'never' is an undramatic trochee - one stressed syllable and one 'uh'; 'jamais' is much more satisfactory, with two good vowels and a stress on both syllables. Lyrically it's fine stuff:
I can act like I'm dumb, I can act like I'm clever
You thought that was me? Well I never!
And then there's the title track, a fragile, bruised meditation on insomnia, which gets a lot of its effect from the sound of that pre-dawn time-check in English and French: 'five fifty-five', resigned, hopeless, here I still am; 'cinq heures cinquante-cinq', nagging, insistent, isn't it morning yet?
A cinq heures cinquante-cinq
Nothing will ever change
On the altar of my thought
I sacrifice myself again
And again and again
Five fifty-five
Two songs are co-written by Neil Hannon, who even plays guitar on one of them; I suppose he must have been passing. "Beauty mark", I'm sorry to say, stinks. I've never really understood - or believed - the classic film reviewer's dismissal of porn as 'boring', but I must admit that this track's attempt to conjure a certain kind of atmosphere rapidly gets tedious. "This darling bud... this little death..." Yes, yes. Put it away now.

Hannon's other song, "The songs that we sing", is one of the album's highlights.
I saw a photograph:
A woman in a bath of hundred-dollar bills
If the cold doesn't kill her the money will

I read a magazine
That said, by seventeen your life is at an end
Well, I'm dead and I'm perfectly content
What really lifts this track is the animation in Gainsbourg's voice; it's a perfect match with the lyrics.
And these songs that we sing,
Do they mean anything
To the people we're singing them to?
Tonight they do
The vocal on this track is particularly powerful precisely because of the contrast with the previous track and the next track; it's certainly not that strong in itself. (Charlotte Gainsbourg sings Ethel Merman will not be appearing any time soon.) It's a trick that can be pulled perhaps twice in the space of an album. The second time, and the album's other highlight, is the penultimate track, "Everything I cannot see". By the standards of this album it's a big production number. Gainsbourg pushes her voice to the limit: she peaks with a kind of petulant mew, bizarrely affecting in the emotion it doesn't quite convey. Dunckel's piano-playing similarly lets rip, sprouting flourishes and curlicues of melody in all directions. Even Jarvis's lyrics jettison all traces of irony and pitch for heartfelt without worrying about overshooting:
You're my friend, you're my foe
You're the miles left to go
You are everything I ever wanted
And you are my lover
After that, the album closes with "Morning song", whose lyrics (in English) are by Gainsbourg herself; it's either about falling in love with a ghost or about spending the night with an ex-lover, it doesn't really matter which. All that matters at this point in the album is the still, trembling presence of Dunckel's vibraphone and Gainsbourg's half-whispering voice, gently promising or warning:
Ah, but to get to the morning, first you have to get through the night...

On the subject of Serge Gainsbourg, I'm pleased to report that What I wrote is now hosting the first in a series of extracts from the recollections of Sir Frederick William Jefferson Bodine, a man equally at home in theatreland, Hollywoodland and the Land of Green Ginger. In part 1 of his showbusiness memoir Remembering Judy Garland, Sir Frederick brings to life the Serge Gainsbourg he knew:
the uke had to go, for a start. The songs got a lot slower, and of course their lyrics had to be translated into French, pretty much in their entirety. Even then, they didn't really take to him. Eventually I realised the name was giving us problems: we'd changed everything else, but Alfie was still going out with an English name. So out went 'Khaki' Gainsborough and in came 'Serge' Gainsbourg.
And more, much more than this.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Just like they said they would

There's a point in some political arguments where opposition turns into personal antagonism, which itself is liable to turn into smouldering, resentful bitterness - normally I wouldn't think anything of it, but seeing that he's one of those people.... We're lucky in this country - as compared with, say, the USA - that it's very rare for people to view other people's political allegiances as this kind of personal threat or affront. I've had Tory friends, and while I'm quite sure they thought I had idiotic and dangerous ideas, I never had any sense that they thought I was a dangerous idiot. (Is there an inverse correlation between levels of political activism and the tendency to take politics personally?)

There are exceptions, of course. The miners' strike of 1984-5 was one; Ireland has often been another. I remember one day in 1988 when the office where I worked ground to a halt for a morning while we debated the 'Death on the Rock' shootings in Gibraltar - and Michael Stone's attack on the victims' funeral in Milltown cemetery. Everyone had an opinion - and a strong one, which coloured their view of anyone who disagreed. Not that many people did. The view with regard to Gibraltar was that the SAS commando were reacting on the spur of the moment to an imminent threat, and had no choice but to act as they did; I was in a minority of two in dissenting from this. The view with regard to Milltown, on the other hand, was that there were all kinds of murderous headcases on both sides, and Michael Stone might well have been working for the IRA to gain them public sympathy by making them look like victims. I was in a minority of two on this one as well, although I had a different fellow-dissenter this time. Things were a bit tense in that office for the next few days.

But not as tense as they must have been in a lot of other workplaces, a short hop from Holyhead. My other memory of 1988 is the New Statesman column which reprinted a poem in praise of Stone that was circulating in Loyalist areas of Northern Ireland - a broadsheet, really. It consisted mainly of a list of the various Sinn Fein worthies who were at the cemetery, each of them described as panicking, running away, soiling his pants and so forth as the noble Stone took them on. (A completely fanciful description, incidentally - Martin McGuinness for one reacted by heading towards Stone, showing what can only be called courage under fire.) The poem ended by apostrophising Stone:
Your brave deed today
Against Sinn Fein/IRA
Put you top of the heap - BOY YOU'RE GREAT!
Michael Stone was a folk hero in certain circles - a symbol of intransigent opposition to the 'Shinners'. And this despite the fact that this symbol had not only attempted to murder McGuinness and Gerry Adams while they attended a funeral, but succeeded in killing three other mourners.

Eighteen years on, Stone is clearly a troubled man:
“Michael had become obsessed with the idea that the IRA were going to shoot him with the gun they captured from him [at Milltown] before any peace deal was finally concluded. That is why he turned against the Good Friday agreement after initially supporting it. He was totally paranoid and receiving treatment.”
“He saw a deal between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein coming, and he believes there will not be a deal until he is dead. He has been trying to get put in jail for about the past nine months.”
There are two bitter ironies here. On one hand, Stone's current state of mind isn't a million miles from a rational response to his particular situation; if he is paranoid, he's got more than most to be paranoid about. On the other, his current condition isn't so far removed from a state of mind which - as that poem suggests - many people over many years have been quite happy to condone, even celebrate. Quoting from the same piece in the Times:
He wrote a book and launched a career as an artist, mainly based on his notoriety. The signature on the back of paintings was the print of his right index finger, which he told buyers was “Michael Stone’s trigger finger”.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

It's no problem, you can't have it

Robert Skidelsky, author in 1975 of a rather nasty biography of Oswald Mosley (on which I've commented before & will do again), is going strong as a cross-bench peer and occasional newspaper commentator. Witness this piece in last Friday's Indie:
The elements of a "whole Middle East" peace settlement are easy to see, though they will be hard to achieve. These elements include: a federal Iraq, with an agreed formula for sharing out the country's oil resources between the three main provinces; a fully-independent Palestinian state roughly within the 1967 borders, with an internationally-patrolled demilitarised zone along Israel's borders; a phased withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East in return for a guarantee of an uninterrupted oil supply; a nuclear free zone, without which Iran will never give up its nuclear ambitions (but Israel will have to give up its bomb as well); finally, a reactivation of the suspended customs union between Israel and Palestine, with a phased extension to Jordan and the Lebanon, and with a "Marshall Aid"-style programme to get it started, as happened in Europe in 1948.
Such ideas may seem crazily unrealistic. But sometimes crazy ideas are the only realistic ones: it is the cautious people who are the real crazies.
There's a false opposition in that last sentence, or rather a dishonest and wishful conflation of two separate oppositions. I'm reminded of something Terry Eagleton wrote in the current LRB:
the fixed is not necessarily to be regretted, or the fluid to be celebrated. Capitalism is endlessly fluid, whereas the demand that the Israelis stop mistreating the Palestinians should be unwavering. The belief that the malleable is always preferable to the immovable is a postmodern cliché. There is a good deal about human history which ought not to alter (educating our children, for example), and quite a lot of change which is deeply undesirable. Change and permanence are not related to each other as radicalism is to conservatism.

The opposition between change and continuity is not the same thing as the opposition between the cause of righting injustices and the cause of preserving them - and it doesn't do anyone any favours to pretend that it is the same thing, unless there's anyone whose interests are served by confusion. Similarly, the opposition between radicalism and caution is not the same thing as the opposition between what can realistically be achieved and what can't. Boldness of vision may be a political virtue (the Skidelsky who worshipped at the shrine of Mosley certainly thought it was) but boldness alone doesn't overrule reality. On the contrary, the truly bold vision is the one which identifies a real opportunity for change and formulates it in way that makes it realisable. The true critique of political caution, in some historical conditions, is precisely that it isn't adequate to reality.

But those conditions can't be conjured by an act of philosophical will - or by the exercise of imperial force. Under current conditions, Skidelsky's 'crazily unrealistic' ideas suggest nothing so much as a longing for somebody - or a lot of uniformed somebodies - to get stuck in and cut the knot of rebarbative reality. But the point is not to erase our starting conditions but to work within them. Debord had it right, again: "A critique seeking to go beyond the spectacle must know how to wait."

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Never be your woman

Yesterday I was giving a talk on the egocentricity of the digital revolution ... and afterwards stood around chatting to some media lecturers, all seemingly left wing intellectuals. They were dolefully discussing how their students showed no interest in criticising brainless, celebrity-obsessed and pornographic magazines, deeming it to be purely a matter of choice what one reads, and whether a woman chooses to be photographed naked. One of these academics said that it is only around five years since every class contained at least one out-spoken feminist, but that these have either disappeared, or been silenced by a new majoritarian view that it is arrogant/pretentious to take up political positions in such a way.

Five years. The Blair government has coincided with an important generational-cultural shift, just as the Wilson government did 30 years earlier. If racism and sexism started to become unacceptable in the late 60s, thanks to a post-war generation that refused to accept them, then perhaps the defence of rights started to become unacceptable in the late 90s thanks to a post-Thatcher generation that refuses to accept it, on the basis that political rights arrogantly trump consumer rights.

Today the newspapers report that sexual harassment of teachers and pupils in schools is widespread, and that girls are starting to accept sexist language as the norm ... Have I simply dragged some value set from the distant past, which I want to see imposed upon this new social avant garde? My sense of frustration about this is doubtless no more morally sincere or keenly felt than that of the 60s conservatives, who despaired at what the kids were doing then. In each case, a moral gulf opens up, and politics struggles in vain to bridge it.

If history really is repeating itself, expect to see a 'conservative' backlash, whereby those born between 45-79 seize power and attempt to force some traditional values on the youth (more or less what we're already seeing, even from Ken Livingstone), followed by a bright new political dawn around 2020, in which a young fresh-faced child of Thatcher marches down Downing Street in a hoodie, swigging from an alco-pop, and announcing in faux-cockney tones that he's a pretty straight guy who used to be into 50 Cent.
The horror, the horror.

I don't know about the last paragraph - I just kept it in because it's funny. The part about sexism is interesting, though. Here's a comment I posted on Will's blog:

I am not a Hegelian... oh all right then, I'm a recovering Hegelian... but I think there's more historical cunning at work than your academic friends allow. As little as thirty years ago, it was widely assumed that women's only roles were to be decorative and look after children; women who 'made it in a man's world' were freakish oddities. (When Thatcher became leader of the Tory Party, a popular slogan on the left was 'Ditch the Bitch'. Right on, brother.) If seventies feminists did a lot of shouting, they had a lot to shout about.

So it's true on one level that magazines like Nuts and FHM take us back forty years, to the days of Titbits and Reveille - and it's true that pornographic imagery is degrading, oppressively so when it's ubiquitous. But it's also true that some of the core feminist arguments have been won, or at least conceded. The very language in which these students defend those magazines reflects the radical liberalism of mainstream feminism, or of the mainstreaming of feminism: why shouldn't a woman be a doctor/bus-driver/MP/astronaut? why shouldn't a woman go where she likes and wear what she likes? why shouldn't a woman take her clothes off for the cameras if she wants to?

Feminism also meant a much harder set of arguments, having to do with dignity rather than freedom of action. These are questions of what's good for women as women - and, more importantly, who gets to decide. I'd say that the problem on this front isn't that the gains of women's liberation have been rolled back, so much as that they were never really made. "Women shouldn't have to look sexy all the time" is a fine liberal argument - it's a subset of the belief that nobody should have to do anything. "Women shouldn't be expected to look sexy" is another matter, and finds a lot of liberals on the other side of the fence - after all, why shouldn't people have expectations of one another, and why shouldn't people sometimes choose to comply with other people's expectations?

It's an argument which was never really won - and, I would argue, it's come back to bite us in the shape of the hijab debate. Twice over, in fact: advocates of hijab play a distorted and sexist version of the dignity argument ("why should a woman be expected to put herself on display?") while advocates of other people's right to wear hijab play a version of liberalism that seems equally distorted by sexism ("why shouldn't a woman have the right to shield herself from prying eyes?").

So I think you can add to your list of prophecies that feminism will be back, but it won't be so liberal next time. And it'll probably be wearing a pinafore dress over jeans. (Why do people do that? Women mainly.)

While I'm in philosophical mode, a swift plug for Clive's dissection of Blair's weird and sinister maunderings on the 'social contract', which he seems to want to replace with... well, an actual contract (only this time round they would impose it on us, not the other way round). I rarely succeed in getting through Blair's statements, what with being overcome by outrage, panic or sheer pedantic irritation (no, look, it doesn't mean that...). Fortunately Clive is made of sterner stuff.

Q: Why is the Italian government letting convicted fraudsters out of prison?
A: It's all because of the Christian Democrats.
Q: But the Christian Democrats ceased to exist over a decade ago, didn't they?
A: Indeed they did, my knowledgeable questioner. But they're still making the political weather.
Q: Oh. What's that about then?
A: Read "Open up the nicks", new from me at the Sharpener. The second in a six-monthly series of commentaries on Italian politics. Possibly more interesting than it sounds. (I can't really tell - I mean, it sounds pretty interesting to me...)

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Just the power to charm

In a post yesterday, I pointed out that Tony Blair - currently in Pakistan to meet president Pervez Musharraf - at least did not feel the need to salute the military dictator's 'courage, strength and indefatigability', as George Galloway famously did on meeting Saddam Hussein.

But I've just heard the World at One on Radio Four. There was Blair, praising Musharraf's 'courage and his leadership in taking Pakistan on this journey of change and modernisation'.
Modernisation, eh? This touches on something Chris wrote recently:
[the] invocation of modernity is one of Blair's common rhetorical tropes ... Managerialists like Blair don't like the language of value judgment and choices. So they try to pass these off as things that are inevitable, modern. David Marquand has said that this is the "myth" of New Labour:
There is one modern condition, which all rational people would embrace if they knew what it was. The Blairites do know. It is on that knowledge that their project is based, and by it that their claim to power is validated.
One more quote, this one from myself back in 1997:
Perhaps the strongest theme in the repertoire of New Labour - certainly the most inspirational - is that one word: New. Curiously, among the true believers - many of whom seem to be former Communists - the fervour for 'renewal' coexists with a passion for 'realism': a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don't really oppose the status quo - nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn't plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. (This combination of ideas also enables the party's ideologues to claim that Labour's policies had to change because they were 'old': a deeply dishonest presentation of a transformation which was entirely political, and by no means inevitable.)
Like David Marquand, I think there's more going on here than 'managerialism'. 'Modern', in its New Labour usage, reminds me strongly of the old Communist term 'progressive'. Both terms have an emptily circular quality - the leaders of New Labour (or the CP) call for commitment to the progressive cause (or modern values), but the only way to find out if a specific policy is modern (or progressive) is to ask if it's supported by the leadership of the Party (or the Party leadership). At the same time, however, progress (or modernity) is seen as a real political value, rousing genuine commitment - even fervour - in Party loyalists. To be modern, as Marquand suggests, is to be cutting with the grain of history. Things are changing, in ways nobody can resist; great forces of historical change are working their purpose out in the world. (The pseudo-religious language is deliberate; Christopher Hill suggested in The world turned upside down that one way to understand the Puritanical sense of being part of a blessed revolutionary elect may be to think of the Marxist sense of working for the forces of historical progress. And, perhaps, vice versa.) 'Modernisation' (or 'progress') is both a world-historical force and a tangible fact; the only question is whether we are going to let ourselves be crushed by the steamroller or climb aboard - and, posed in those terms, the question answers itself.

But the emptiness of the concept remains. In 2006 as in 1997, for Blair to describe something as 'modern' means nothing more specific than that he supports it and anyone who opposes it is deluded. The positive content of 'modernity', in other words, is all in the type of commitment it evokes; the term itself is purely rhetorical, and can be applied to any policy, any regime, any change, any resistance to change. What interests me about Blair's invocations of 'modernity', in other words, is not the indiscriminateness with which he sprays them around, but the reverse. If we could track the specific ideas, things and people Blair has identified as 'modern' over the years, I suspect it would give us a pretty good picture of how Blair's thinking has evolved - and of which specific all-powerful historical forces have populated his personal cosmology at different times. In 1997 'modernity' had something to do with Thatcherism; now, apparently, it has something to do with Pervez Musharraf.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Mistakes were made

The incomparable Emma Brockes has turned music critic:
The orchestral arrangements for [the ballet] Chroma were commissioned last year by Richard Russell, head of the XL record label, as a gift to the White Stripes' Jack and Meg White. Three of their songs, The Hardest Button To Button, Aluminium and Blue Orchid, were re-arranged by Joby Talbot of Joy Division
I've commented before now on my admiration for Joby Talbot; he's a bright lad. But he was never a member of Joy Division - not least because the band ceased to exist when he was nine years old. A howler like that could be quite embarrassing for Ms Brockes (and her editors). It's just as well nobody's likely to read this stuff. It's only a ballet review, after all.

On the front page. Of the Saturday edition.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Still wearing flares

Do you have some jeans that you really love,
Ones that you feel so groovy in ?
You don't even mind if they start to fray
That only makes them nicer still
I don't have a lot in common with Donovan Leitch, but I can agree with him on this one. I wore the jeans that I really love last weekend, briefly - they were £5 from Dunne's Stores and worth every penny - but I had to change out of them later; the fraying certainly makes them nicer still in my eyes, but it's reached a point where few other people are likely to share this view.

In short, they're now my decorating jeans. For wearing outside the house, they had to be replaced some time ago, even at the cost of another fiver. (It's a good five years since I stopped paying proper money for jeans. Not having a permanent job will do that.) On that occasion Dunne's Stores came up with a bit of a curate's egg: a pair of jeans whose cloth is a pleasure to behold in both weight and texture, but whose cut features a high waist and what I believe professional tailors refer to as a huge baggy arse. I tried to persuade myself I'd get used to the style, but it was no good - I had to haul the waistband up to my navel, which left me feeling as if I was auditioning for the Drifters.

So it was back to the mostly-reliable Dunne's Stores, where a "20% off" promotion gave me a third pair of jeans for a mere £3.20. (I know, but I wasn't going to argue.) The cloth isn't as nice this time round, but at least the waist is where it ought to be. The cut of this pair does have one disconcerting feature, though: the leg's got a slight flare.

I haven't worn flares since 1977. For the benefit of readers who don't immediately understand that statement (I know that some will), 1977 was when everything changed: music changed (both what it sounded like and who could make it); politics changed (what mattered and who could say so); and, perhaps most enduringly, trousers changed. Robert Elms said once that punk was first and foremost a trouser revolution, and I have to admit that the slimy little soulboy has a point. I was wearing flares in 1972 (and the kids I looked up to were wearing big flares). I was wearing flares in 1975; at my sister's wedding in that year I wore a brushed denim suit with aircraft-carrier lapels and, yes, big flares. I was forcibly reminded of that suit this summer - the evidence is preserved in my sister's wedding photographs, a set of which we found when we were sorting out my mother's things. (Not visible in the picture is a pair of fudge-brown platform shoes with chocolate-brown piping, of which I was enormously proud. Those were different times.)

Come 1977, I was still wearing flares - at least at the beginning of the year. And, if you were around at the time, so were you. The flares, the wide lapels, even the platform soles became mainstream after a while; the soberest 'business suit' would have broad lapels and a discreet flare. One of the less obvious changes made by punk was to banish the flare and return jacket lapels to their previous modest, Graham Parker-ish proportions. Punk, in short, didn't just change what the kids wore; it changed what the next generation of kids wore, and even what the kids' parents wore. By 1979, if you were wearing flares, you were by definition still wearing flares. It's hard to imagine any subsequent wave of musical fashion - the cocktails and zoot suits of the early 1980s, say, or the tatty jeans and lumberjack shirts of grunge - having effects as far-reaching as this.

The 1970s, it seems to me, really were different times. Looking through my mother's old photographs - and there were plenty of them; even the ones taken by my father go back to 1950 - I was suddenly struck by how different the clothes didn't look. Show me a flared trouserleg and an acre of lapel, and I immediately know we're in the early 1970s - but where were the blatantly obvious fashion statements which signalled the 1960s, the 1950s, even the 1980s? Before and after the 1970s, people just seemed to be wearing stuff.

There's a school of fashion writing, associated in particular with men's tailoring, which I find unutterably boring; I just don't understand how Elms (among many others) can get excited about the presence of four cuff-buttons instead of three, or about a chalk stripe being 1/12th of an inch across instead of 1/16th. A set of those tiny differences adds up to a whole different style, I realise that - and consequently much of the history of fashion is ultimately about these tiny differences. I realise that, but it doesn't move me. Why should I choose between white and pale blue when I'd rather choose turquoise? Why should I agonise over switching from dove-grey to battleship-grey, when I could be wearing jet black with a purple lining? And if I couldn't, why not?

The history of counter-cultural fashion (hippie, punk, goth) is the history of sweeping challenges like these, just as the history of mainstream fashion isn't. Perhaps what happened in the 1970s - something that may never have happened before or since - was that the boldness of a particular counter-cultural fashion went so unchallenged for so long that it actually permeated the mainstream. (It's only a shame it had to be that particular fashion.)

Or perhaps I'm just more conscious of fashions that were around when I was a teenager.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The curse of the underground

I've started another blog, What I Wrote. As well as being a homage to the second greatest double-act ever, it's a home for relatively long-format stuff that I've written but not blogged - articles for the radical press, columns for small-circulation magazines, position papers for now-defunct organisations, and various pieces that somebody should have published but nobody did. Not that I'm trying to put you off or anything. There's going to be some funny stuff in there too.

I've kicked it off with two pieces, one written in 1997 about why I hadn't just voted Labour and one from 1993 about the former Yugoslavia. I'll be updating it a couple of times a week - I've got what's technically known as a bunch of stuff to draw on - so stay tuned, or indeed subscribed.


Monday, November 06, 2006

The sound of the keys as they clink

Back here, I wrote:
my children are far closer to being 'colour-blind' than I'll ever be. The other day my son got picked on in the swimming pool; we asked him to describe the kids who did it, and when we asked him whether they had brown skin he said "yes, but why do you ask?" That told us.
What I didn't mention, probably because it hadn't happened yet, was the sequel: a note from the police, passed on through the school, to the effect that they'd be interested to take a statement from my son, particularly given that there was a possible racist motive. (My son said he just wanted to forget about the whole thing, so we let it drop.)

So there's one obvious reason to be sceptical about Manchester councillor Eddy Newman's letter to Saturday's Graun:
The study to which you refer suggests that Asbos are used disproportionately against ethnic-minority groups. In Manchester, by contrast, about one in 10 of Asbos include conditions banning racist abuse, threats or harassment. In this way Asbos can be used to combat racism and promote community cohesion.
The two sets of ASBOs - "used disproportionately against ethnic-minority groups" and "include conditions banning racist abuse" - aren't mutually exclusive. But even if they were, there's an even more obvious reason for scepticism: put simply, the fact that 10% of ASBOs have anti-racist strings attached says nothing about the other 90%. But the numbers are less important than the mood music. Let's not worry about how ASBOs have been used - think about all the good things they can be used for! Never mind the evidence, just think of all the bad people out there - and trust us to deal with them.

Over the weekend I was also gobsmacked (like Jamie) by Nick Cohen's latest:
For the first time in British history, there are asylum seekers who could attack the country which gave them sanctuary. I don't think people realise how unparallelled this change is.
For the first time in British history, by gum. Never before have murderous foreigners lurked among us, plotting anarchy and destruction under cover of our fabled British hospitality. The Fenians in Victorian England don't count, obviously - nor do the revolutionary exiles who converged on England from across Europe and beyond in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Conrad thought they were pretty threatening - The Secret Agent even has a suicide bomber as one of its central characters - but he was obviously exaggerating. There was a great deal of alarm about German exiles in Britain when the Great War broke out, but all that was just hysteria, obviously. Same with the Russian revolutionary exiles, around the same time. Sidney Street? A storm in a teacup. Things got a bit more lively in the late 1930s, mind you:
In September 1939 there were a total of 71,600 registered enemy aliens in Britain. On the outbreak of the Second World War the police arrested a large number of Germans living in Britain. The government feared that these people might be Nazi spies pretending to be refugees. They were interned and held in various camps all over Britain. Like other refugees they were eventually appeared before tribunals which classified them into three different groups. 'A' class aliens were interned, whereas 'B' class aliens were allowed to leave the camps but had certain restrictions placed upon their movements. The vast majority of refugees were identified as 'C' class aliens and were allowed to go free. When Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies on 10th May 1940, Italians living in Britain were also interned. This included 4,000 people with less than twenty years' residence in Britain.
But still, there's no comparison: For the first time in British history, there are asylum seekers who could attack the country which gave them sanctuary. Or if it's not quite the first time in history, well, never mind. Just think about all the bad people out there, and trust us to deal with them.

I used to read Nick Cohen regularly; I used to think of Eddy Newman as a reliable voice of the municipal Left (he's a solid Old Labour councillor from way back, one of a very few Manchester councillors to have built a personal reputation in the Stringer period and hung on to it). These are strange times for the Left - it's easy to forget just how strange.

Update 7/11

As Andrew points out in comments, Nick is a troubled man:
When, at the age of 13, he found out that his kind and thoughtful English teacher voted Conservative, he nearly fell off his chair: 'To be good, you had to be on the Left.' Today he's no less confused.
I'll say he is.
Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam that stands for everything the liberal-Left is against come from a section of the Left? After the American and British wars in Bosnia and Kosovo against Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansers, why were men and women of the Left denying the existence of Serb concentration camps? Why is Palestine a cause for the liberal-Left, but not, for instance, China, the Sudan, Zimbabwe or North Korea? Why can't those who say they support the Palestinian cause tell you what type of Palestine they would like to see? After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington why were you as likely to read that a sinister conspiracy of Jews controlled American or British foreign policy in a liberal literary journal as in a neo-Nazi rag?
I can actually sympathise with parts of this; back in the early 1990s those of us who thought the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was worth defending against armed Serb irredentism seemed to be in a very small minority on the Left. Seeing sizeable swathes of the Left apparently signing up for the Genocidal Bastard Fan Club (and no, the RCP wasn't its only chapter by any means) isn't an experience you forget.

But if I'm not with Neil Clark, I'm not with Nick either. This synopsis is sloppily written even by the standards of its kind (I don't recall any "American and British war" in Bosnia, apart from anything else), but as far as I can tell Nick's main concern isn't that the Left has chosen some dodgy causes lately. He's not even harping on the Left's wilful blindness to the historically unprecedented menace of the lurking foreign mad bomber. For whatever reason, the point Nick really seems to want to make is that supporting the Palestinian cause is wrong. Or rather, it may be right, but only if you a) support several other causes as well b) oppose the politicians Palestinians actually elect and c) oppose criticism of Israel. (Like Andrew, I really hope that last line isn't a reference to Mearsheimer and Walt. I'm tempted to dismiss the idea out of hand - you'd have to be wearing a very strong prescription indeed to see a 'sinister conspiracy of Jews' in M&W's LRB piece, let alone to imagine that it could appear in a 'neo-Nazi rag' - but the reference to 'a liberal literary journal' is disquieting.)

A Left critique of the Gleichschaltung of the 'anti-imperialists' might have been useful and telling; unfortunately it looks as if Nick has found another cause to be gleichgeschaltet by. These are, as I was saying, strange times for the Left. As Victor Serge never wrote:

- What's to be done if it's midnight in the century?
- What, already?

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