Friday, 28 August 2009

An Edwardian petrolhead

I’m off to the Shrewsbury folk festival tomorrow so I thought I would post something for everyone else stuck in a Bank Holiday traffic jam. It’s from a book, The Complete Motorist, first published in 1904 by an Edwardian petrolhead called Alexander Bell Filsom Young. People don’t tend to get quite so excited about tyres on tarmac today.

‘The miles, once the tyrants of the road, the oppressors of the travellers, are now humbly subject to the automobile’s triumphant empire, falling away before it, ranking themselves behind it. The wand of its power has touched the winds to a greater energy, so that the very air it consumes is crushed upon it with a prodigal bounty, sweetened with all the mingled perfumes of the fields and the seasons. It flattens out the world, enlarges the horizon, loosens a little the bonds of time, sets back a little the barriers of space. And man, who created and endowed it, who sits and rides upon it as upon a whirlwind, moving a lever here, turning a wheel there, receives in his person the revenues of the vast kingdom it has conquered. He lives more quickly, drawing virtue and energy from its ardent heart. Even if it should threaten to rob us of a few of the melancholy days of old age, this new slave or ours has won back for us the roads …

The motor car restores to our journeys their true value and importance, making them not a matter merely of departure and arrival, but of deliberate and conscious progress, in which every mile, every yard, is of equal importance with the beginning and the end …

The driver never overtakes the road; it is always before him, just round the next corner, wriggling away like a snake from his pursuing wheels, always cheating, always beckoning, always eluding him, always going on …

I doubt not that when some of us who have fallen into this bondage lie a-dying, the last image of the world present to our minds will be the picture that thousands of miles have photographed on our memory; of the road stretched white and narrowing, of the trees hurrying to meet us, of the snug homesteads left behind in the dusk, of the eternal Unknown that lies just beyond the turn of the road.’

Saturday, 22 August 2009

On the slow train

This song by Flanders and Swann about the Beeching cuts never fails to make my eyes moist:

It has the same effect on my favourite radio DJ, Stuart Maconie, who in his recent book Adventures on the High Teas says it ‘will have anyone with a heart dabbing at their eyes within a verse’. How strange that it should make us both cry when:

1. Neither of us has any memory of the pre-Beeching era, so we might as well be getting nostalgic about a dream.

2. Many of the railway stations that Michael Flanders incants, with their beautifully evocative names, actually escaped the Beeching axe. I heard the song being played on Alan Titchmarsh’s show on radio 2 last Sunday and he blamed these discrepancies on Flanders getting the list of doomed stations from the Guardian. Dunno if that’s true …

3. As Matthew Engel points out in his new book, Eleven Minutes Late, the branch lines have only been loved posthumously. ‘The elite expresses sped past thousands of slow, dirty trains carrying disgruntled commuters dreaming of a new motor car,’ he writes of the pre-Beeching era. ‘To use an old Lancastrianism, what Britain had was a fur-coat-and-no-knickers railway, the opulence of the show disguising the threadbare reality underneath.’

What is sentimentality? In his book Dog Years, the American poet Mark Doty describes it thus:

‘That’s how sentimentality works, replacing particularity with a warm fog of acceptable feeling, the difficult exact stuff of individual character with the vagueness of convention. Sentimental assertions are always a form of detachment; they confront the acute, terrible awareness of individual pain, the sharp particularity of loss or the fierce individuality of passion with the dulling, “universal” certainty of platitude.

'The oversweetened surface of the sentimental exists in order to protect its maker, as well as the audience, from anger. At the beautiful image refusing to hold, at the tenderness we bring to the objects of the world – our eagerness to love, make a home, build connection, trust the other – how all of that’s so readily swept away. Sentimental images of children and of animals, soppy representations of love - they are fuelled, in truth, by their opposites, by a terrible human rage that nothing stays. The greeting card verse, the airbrushed rainbow, the sweet puppy face on the fleecy pink sweatshirt – these images do not honor the world as it is, in its complexity and individuality, but distort things in apparent service of a warm embrace … in this way, the sentimental represents a rage against individuality, the singular, the irreplaceable.’

As an English, male academic I suppose I am meant to be suspicious of sentimentality and this passage by Doty is the most eloquent example I have seen of the case against. But I just don’t have the heart to be unsentimental. I think in this case it has a lot to do with the softly sonorous quality of Michael Flanders’s voice, like being gently lowered into a warm bath of deep Englishness. What a powerful and omnivorous human urge nostalgia is.

PS Not my usual bolthole but I had a couple of pieces in The Times this week that you can read at:

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Really rather impressive

In Michael McCarthy’s new book Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo I found this account of his introduction to the culture of civil servants when, as environment correspondent for the Times in the late 1980s, he shadowed the Department of the Environment:

‘It was the language of the officials which really fascinated me. It was in effect a private code, which I thought of as “dynamic understatement”. It seemed to have arisen as a means of expressing strong disagreement between gentlemen without lapsing into incivility, so certain words which might appear anodyne became charged with sharper meaning. A good example would be “unhelpful”. This expressed dissatisfaction, irritation, even real anger, in the guise of a sort of rueful acceptance. I once left a senior official momentarily lost for words when he said to me, “That piece you wrote was unhelpful,” and I replied, “It wasn’t meant to be unhelpful. It was meant to be true.” It was as if, by being literal, I had switched languages.

This drawing the sting of expression extended to both praise and blame. I marvelled at the form of words used for the highest acclaim, which in the outside world would be “fantastic”, “tremendous”, “sensational”, “wonderful”, “world-beating”, whatever. In Whitehall it was: “rather impressive”. Once, and only once, I had “rather impressive” used of something I had written; I glowed for weeks afterwards. Conversely, the means of expressing the harshest criticism was similarly defanged: an action which the world at large might consider “catastrophic”, “terrible”, “appalling”, “disgusting”, “the pits”, would in Whitehall be termed “unfortunate”, or on very rare occasions indeed, “most unfortunate”. Again, once and only once, I saw “most unfortunate” used directly to an individual about his conduct, and it sent a chill down my spine: I never wanted it used of me.’

I must say I found McCarthy’s book quite impressive, if not indeed rather impressive. Something else I found rather impressive recently was Andrew Martin’s piece on pipesmoking in Granta: I’m not a great fan of jokes on the page. I like humour that is tinder dry and elegant and that emerges organically out of the style and tone. As anyone who used to read Martin’s column in the New Statesman will know, he is the master at this.

And while we’re on the same riff, it’s raining here and the summer is nearly over. It’s all rather … unhelpful.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘When we were young … his poetry was the poetry of everyday life, of shop-windows, traffic policemen, ice-cream soda, lawn mowers, and an uneasy awareness of what the newsboys were shouting. In addition he displayed a sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and cigarette stubs: he could have written the words of “These Foolish Things”. We were grateful to him for having found a place in poetry for these properties.’ – Philip Larkin on Louis MacNeice

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Townscape with figures

I don’t suppose this blog will ever have a zillionth of the clout of the Richard and Judy Book Club, but just in case my recommendations don’t fall on entirely stony ground … Richard Hoggart is mainly known for The Uses of Literacy (and perhaps being played by David Tennant in a TV dramatisation of the Lady Chatterley trial) and he’s not a particularly fashionable figure in academic cultural studies at the moment, probably because he writes a form of English that people might actually want to read even if they weren’t professionally obliged to. But I have got so much out of his books, particularly the three-part autobiography he published in the early 1990s and Townscape with Figures (1994), a portrait of his hometown of Farnham in Surrey. With ‘a bundle of literary, intellectual and social impulses’ he sets out to describe ‘the typical, the unique, the humdrum and the strange life of this small English town towards the end of the century’. Stefan Collini aptly called Townscape with Figures ‘a kind of Uses of Literacy for the garden-centre age’. There are some memorable descriptions of Argos, supermarkets and tribes of commuters waiting for the train into London. I liked the account of the young female office workers on a railway platform ‘stroking or turning their engagement rings like one-bead rosaries’, and the description of the easy listening LPs at Woolworth’s as ‘a concentrated musical soup-cube’.

Here are some selections from the later works of Hoggart.

On Margaret Thatcher: ‘She is in many ways my Aunt Ethel come back to life. I was brought up with, precisely, hauntingly, that shrill, nagging, over-insistent way of speaking, that bossy-pants way of walking, that remorseless insistence on always being right.’ (An Imagined Life, 1993)

A description of those video screens they used to have in post offices for advertising postal services: ‘While thus penned [in queuing channels] you are treated to a VDU display with running commentary on the virtues of this or that new Post Office service, or of someone’s photo-processing, or someone else’s cure for a few common ailments – backache in bed, say. Formerly nationalised services which have now been privatised, or made into executive agencies which have been ordered to act as if privatised and to develop aggressive commercial habits, drop their old sobriety and do promotional high-kicks – like a teetotaller who has been urged to take to the bottle for therapeutic purposes. By comparison, some of the shrewder large commercial concerns begin to look like church wardens.’ (Townscape with Figures, 1994)

On the phrase ‘a close-knit community’: ‘This is jargon-hiccup-speak. The word is now entirely threshed clear of substance, is a substitute for thought, a hidden assertion doing duty for direct examination and so a way of avoiding difficulties of definition and unwelcome perceptions.’ (Townscape with Figures)

On the phrase, ‘the chattering classes’: ‘It suggests rooks, magpies, starlings – chattering in the eaves – nattering away endlessly but weightlessly, very much for its own sake and for self-display. The phrase makes a harsh and philistine judgment but one sufficiently well aimed to be embarrassing. Not power without commitment, but talk – opinions, views, attitudes, postures – without commitment’ (The Way We Live Now, 1995)

I also liked the story he tells in The Way We Live Now to illustrate the casual class assumptions we make. A Glasgow comprehensive-school teacher asked her working-class pupils to write down the job they hoped to do. She misheard one boy’s ambition to be a ‘carpet layer’ – he actually said ‘corporate lawyer’.

PS There was a belated but belovely review of my book by Craig Brown in the Mail on Sunday but frustratingly I can’t seem to find it on t’internet. I feel a bit like a fisherman who caught a twenty-pound carp and forgot to take his camera. You’ll just have to take my word for it …

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Paean to the pigeon

In case you didn’t read my piece ‘In defence of the everybird’ in the Guardian last week, here is a slightly longer version. And I don’t mean to get heavy or anything, but anyone who has any interest in the mundane – which I guess includes you if you’re reading this – is obliged, according to the bylaws of this blog, to like pigeons. Them’s the rules, I’m afraid. I don’t make them up.


Now that two mayors of London have successfully rid Trafalgar Square of its pigeons, their policy is being rolled out across Britain. Hawks and falcons, in the employ of pest control firms, are scaring away pigeons in the Scottish Parliament Building, at Wimbledon, and in other city centres. These firms have a “no-kill” policy, but how this works in practice I am not sure. Training birds of prey not to kill pigeons sounds a bit like training crocodiles to tickle fish.

There is no doubt that overbreeding pigeons can be a nuisance en masse, and cleaning up their droppings is a costly chore. But there is a lot of hyperbole in anti-pigeon propaganda. They are blamed for carrying diseases like encephalitis, tuberculosis and psittacosis, but no one ever cites statistical probabilities: how many people have actually died from excessive contact with a pigeon? I suspect the war on pigeons is mainly to do with the trend for turning city centres into continental-style outdoor spaces with pavement cafes, piazzas and staged outdoor events. The messiness of nature must not be allowed to intrude into this well-managed, tourist-friendly urbanism.

The feral pigeon has long been maligned - even by birders, who prefer to trek to Cornwall or the Hebrides in search of rare, exotic breeds. Sadly, the great scholar and defender of the pigeon, the BBC wildlife presenter Eric Simms, died earlier this year. In his book The Public Life of the Street Pigeon, Simms painstakingly deciphered all the different pigeon coos, from distress calls to territorial signals, and showed how these savvy birds survived by scavenging on the tarmac and intuitively identifying soft-hearted humans to scrounge off. Simms won the Distinguished Flying Cross in the second world war, and his admiration for pigeons stemmed from their own distinguished flying record as part of the crew of Lancaster bombers, their job being to send word back to base if the plane was shot down.

All the great naturalists have been suspicious of the anthropomorphic pecking orders we impose on animals, and have found ecological worth in the ugliest of creatures. Darwin’s love of the unlovely earthworm is well-known; fewer people are aware that he also bred pigeons and crossed the Victorian social divide to fraternise with their largely working-class fanciers. To the untrained eye every pigeon is alike, but Darwin identified 228 varieties, many of them created by pigeon fanciers artificially selecting desirable traits and breeding from them – a speeded-up version of natural selection. Strangely, the crucial role of pigeons in developing the theory of evolution was written out of the Darwin bicentenary TV documentaries I saw earlier this year; for some reason, their producers preferred to send their presenters to look at the rare creatures on South Sea islands.

A lot of recent nature writing has followed Darwin’s lead in dealing with the mundane aspects of the natural world and has focused on tribal, unglamorous animals – Mark Cocker on crows, Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon on ants and Bee Wilson on bees, for example. If there was a wildlife equivalent of Celebdaq, that virtual stock exchange in celebrity reputations, I would now be frantically buying shares in rooks. But I wouldn’t waste my money on pigeons. They will always be bottom of the bird FTSE, a perennially toxic brand.

Aside from pets, we seem to look down on animals that live cheek-by-jowl with us, or that remind us too much of ourselves. But that’s what I like about pigeons: they are the tamest wild animals in the world, the most comfortable with human routines. They fly around the tables in railway station cafes and loiter in the middle of roads, responding only sluggishly to car horns. They have even been known to make journeys on London Underground trains, and, according to a New Scientist article published in 1995, they are “travelling with intent” in a way that is “not necessarily motivated by hunger or ignorance” – which, strictly speaking, makes them fare dodgers. I think of them as the avian version of that 21st-century everyman, Homer Simpson. Like him, they are bird-brained, docile and not much to look at, but basically benign. Can’t we learn to live with them?

Saturday, 1 August 2009

My back pages

I haven’t really got time to blog today so I’m afraid this is going to be like one of those episodes of Friends where they show old clips and pretend it’s a new episode. All I can find trawling though my D: drive is this little amuse-bouche. I wrote it in my second year at university, when I was wading through careers guides and getting ever so slightly browned off by their relentless cheeriness. It was published in a magazine called Poetry and Audience, alongside someone called Carol Ann Duffy. Whatever happened to her? This piece was written at the beginning of the last recession and it is sadly topical again, with new graduates likely to be the main victims of the credit crunch.


For those students who are still unsure about what to do in the world outside, we are asking recent graduates to talk about the career paths they have followed. Doug Robinson graduated from Manchester University last summer with a 2:1 in Economics and Accountancy. Here he tells of his adventures in the job market.

‘Even in my last year at University I still had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. Most of my friends seemed to be going into safe careers in banking, law or the public sector. But I knew somehow that this gentle 9 to 5 existence was not for me. In many ways I felt that University had failed me. My dynamic mind had been stifled by three years of vertical thinking. Now I wanted to do something different, something exhilarating, challenging and rewarding. But I read through piles of careers guides and could find nothing that really interested me. Then my tutor made a suggestion which really set me thinking. He asked me: had I considered taking to a life of crime? The answer of course was no, I hadn't. But he put me in touch with a London gang and I found I liked the way they worked. I saw the gang for what it was - a group of highly motivated individuals with a common aim. I signed up straight away.

I suppose this might be regarded as a somewhat odd career choice. My formal education had not prepared me for a life of crime at all. The simple fact is that, like most professions these days, crime is hungry for graduates. Many gangs are even arranging day-release for university courses for those who joined them straight from school. The good news is that most gang-leaders will consider graduates from any discipline, although they will be looking for a good 2:2 or above.

I find it impossible to describe to my friends what my job involves. ‘Crime’ is such a broad term that it is very difficult to define. But the OED defines it as ‘an act or acts punishable by law, as being forbidden by statute or injurious to the public welfare,’ and I often think how apt this is!

At first I found the results-oriented atmosphere of the firm a little daunting, but I was very impressed by the way new bugs like me were made to feel at home. I also found the social side of the job very rewarding. Our motto here is ‘Work hard, play hard!’ Recent social events organised by the gang have included cheese and wine evenings, buffet suppers, beetle drives and even a trip to Alton Towers.

Being a hardened criminal, I simply do not know what each day will bring. Armed robbery, illicit gambling, loansharking, phonetapping. I could be doing literally anything. So it's very difficult to describe a typical day - but let me try anyway. My alarm goes off at precisely 6:30 a.m. (no lie-ins in this job) and I catch the Morning Prayer and Today on Radio 4 before I have to sprint for the 7:19 train to London. I skim through The Times on the train (financial pages first) and I normally arrive in the office at 8:30 a.m. I remember being told in my first week here, ‘It's not all swag-bags and striped jerseys, you know.’ In fact, about 80% of my work is office-based. I'm firmly implanted behind my desk at 8:32. Two cups of coffee and I feel human again. The next thing I do is sort out my in-tray. It's always crammed full of papers, which means things to do and people to see. In this job they don't waste time with years of training - they give you projects to deal with as soon as possible.
At 9:30 a.m. Marcus (my senior) and I have a meeting with some shopkeepers from Fulham. Marcus leads and I take notes. We have to persuade these people to accept our ‘protection’ and they're none too keen. Our interpersonal skills are stretched to the limit here, and the meeting is a long one which lasts the entire morning. My lunch break has to fit round my work schedule. Sometimes we’ll have a big meal in Soho with some colleagues from Manchester, catching up on all the gossip from our northern office. Or else I just have time to snatch a sandwich from the canteen and eat it at my desk.

In the afternoon, Marcus and I have to phone various people in the world of crime (or ‘the underworld’, as us old lags call it). We're hoping to do a raid on a building society in Knightsbridge and we're looking for five people to underwrite the scheme. We get straight rejections for two hours and then – bingo. Marcus comes up trumps with three successful calls in succession. This gets the old adrenalin flowing and suddenly we know we're on to a winner. It gives me a real kick to see our hard graft bringing in tangible results (in this case, £80,000 in used notes).

Of course, the job does have its negative side. There is no pension scheme as such, and failure to meet a deadline can mean instant death. And, of course, it's bloody hard work, but if you can't take a bit of that I don't suppose we’d want you any way! If you like what you hear though, why not join us? The underworld takes in about 6500 of Britain's best graduates every year and the number is still rising. Gangs advertise in the nationals, but the unsolicited letter can often be the best way of getting your foot in the door. (And do check the spelling on your CVs, as gang-leaders are such sticklers for good English.) With a fully paid-up mortgage and a salary five times as high as the richest of my friends, I certainly feel that my career up to now has been very worthwhile. I would strongly urge all new graduates to get into crime in a big way.

Well, it’s 5.35 on my typical day and I finally leave the office. Normally I join my colleagues now for a glass of dry white wine in Berwick Street. But today I've got to rush home to see how my Boeuf Flamande is doing in the Slow Cooker. I'm holding an end-of-job dinner party for two or three of our clients. This should be a fun evening and will take my mind off work for a while, so that by tomorrow morning I'll be fresh for the chase yet again. Heigh ho, the glamorous life!’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Reading through such CVs now I see that in no way did they reflect my real existence or document my life. They spoke only of things unimportant to me, news from a grey world. A true chronicle of key events would be quite different, for the great cluster of formative discoveries and unconscious insights occurs in early childhood and is only repeated with variations in later life. Important shifts of awareness become less and less frequent as one goes on: this is the opposite pattern to one’s perceived career, a story of ever increasing achievements and higher honours.’ - Tom Phillips