Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Survival of the fittest

In Richard Mabey’s new book A Brush with Nature, I found a lovely piece about the free market written last year with both the financial crisis and Darwin’s bicentenary in mind. Darwin’s phrases ‘the struggle for existence’ and ‘the survival of the fittest’ are, Mabey writes, ‘like psychologists’ ink-blot tests: how you interpret them depends on your own beliefs … they’re now being quoted by apologists of the ruthless greed that has brought the world’s economic system to its knees. “The free market is a force of nature,” one banker recently proclaimed. I don’t know what is saddest about this, the spectacle of supposedly sophisticated humans denying they are in control of their own affairs, or the belief that ecosystems are as crude and inelegant as the global financial machine.’

According to Mabey, Darwin’s idea of ‘fitness’ in the theory of evolution does not simply mean healthiness and vigour but ‘fitting in’: organisms survive that are best adapted to their environments, which mostly means they have to cooperate, albeit through self-interest, rather than destroy each other. ‘Supporters of the unregulated financial markets like to believe that they work “naturally”, creating myriads of new business species and economic habitats,’ Mabey argues. ‘In reality, as we now know, human ambition and greed give the Hawks and Bullies a free hand, and the economy becomes dominated by immense, predatory super-species.’ This is all very far from evolution’s ‘ceaseless generation of diversity’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day … Eating, sleeping, cleaning – the years no longer rise up towards heaven, they lie spread out ahead, grey and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won. Washing, ironing, sweeping, ferreting out fluff from under wardrobes – all this halting of decay is also the denial of life; for time simultaneously creates and destroys, and only its negative aspect concerns the housekeeper.’ – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Modernisation and mistrust

This piece by me appeared in the Guardian this week:

In his recent book, Dear Granny Smith, the pseudonymous postal worker, Roy Mayall, introduces us to the Pegasus computer application, part of the modernisation programme at the Royal Mail. A little cartoon man walks though a computer-generated postal round and tells real posties how fast they should be walking – provided, that is, they never have to stop for a pee or talk to a customer. Mayall shows that efficiency innovations can actually create inefficiency if they do not assume a basic level of trust in workers to use the skills they already have: in this case, their ability to put one foot in front of another.

The strikingly consistent aspect of “modernisation” in the public sector has been its attitude of mistrust towards entrenched interests, its belief that unionised workers or professional cliques must be shaken out of their complacent, hidebound ways. Explaining the higher education cuts – the devilish details of which were announced last week, with three-quarters of institutions facing real-term budget reductions - Lord Mandelson accused academics of being “set in aspic” and of using arguments about funding “as a screen behind which resistance to any sort of change and reform can be conducted”. Thus, I suspect, will the inevitable further cuts in the public sector be explained, not as the responsibility of the perpetrator but of the victim, for being resistant to “change”.

Ever since the 1988 Education Act, which effectively nationalised Britain’s universities, this suspicion of academics as a self-interested elite protecting its own privileges has been enshrined in policy. The recent government paper, Higher Ambitions, proposes the same solution used over the last 20 years – centralised data management - but more of it: more statistics about teaching standards, student dropout rates, how research impacts on the economy, and so on.

This desire to drag academics out of their ivory towers through paperwork is not, in fact, so modern. In Germany from the sixteenth century onwards, university beadles, or their hired hands, would spy on professors and impose fines for incompetence, and insist that they deliver records of their reading lists and the number of students who attended their lectures. The attitude of the professoriate to this bureaucratic disenchantment of its world can, perhaps, be imagined.

What saved the professors, for 200 years at least, was the rise of professionalism. As the historian Harold Perkin argued, the idea of professionals as “privileged observers and benevolent neutrals” offering esoteric, specialised services was reliant on trusting them to make disinterested judgments independently of the market. But the Thatcher government believed that such professionalism was essentially a mask for vested interests. And there is some truth in this. All professions are self-serving by nature, and a certain scepticism towards their truth claims is healthy. Professions should, as far as possible, be responsive and accountable to their audiences.

But, as Mayall’s account of the marginalising of the first-hand experience of postal workers suggests, there is a point at which mistrust of specialised expertise becomes counterproductive. If you don’t at some stage in the process take a risk, live dangerously and let people do their jobs, it just produces inertia. If you want someone to do their job better, you have to manage them: to encourage, cajole or criticise them. The paradox of the New Labourite managerialist revolution in the public sector is that it seems on the surface to be neurotically control-freakish, but in reality it is the antithesis of management: it is un-management. In its search for an objective, formal system that will somehow drive the process independently of all those untrustworthy, self-interested human beings, it creates a strange, parallel world made of paper and PDF files, populated by clean fonts, bullet points and abstract nouns like “excellence” and “transparency”. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that all of this is as absurd as a computer programme that tells you how fast to walk. But it has a similarly virtualised, unreal relationship to the messy real world.

Governments are as susceptible to inward-looking groupthink as professions. And it is worth questioning this constantly reiterated argument that all these different public sector employees, from postal workers to academics, are equally resistant to “change”. The leitmotif of the New Labour era has been the unstoppable nature of such change: doing nothing is not an option, we can’t stand still or we will roll backwards. Often this is a way of shutting off argument (who on earth would want to roll backwards?) by claiming ownership over the future and insisting that this is the only way things can be. “Modernisation” offers only a particular version of the future inspired by a particular idea of the market: in order for the market to be free, the workers must be incentivised and corralled into line. But that is only one dimension of markets. They also rely on cooperation, specialist knowledge and trust - and when that trust breaks down the whole system grinds to a halt, however incentivised people might be.

The government preoccupation with the public sector, over a period of nearly thirty years, has been with transforming entire cultures, with dragging supposed Neanderthals out of their caves into the cold light of modernity. This is now such an ingrained idea that any demurral, any questioning of “change” as it is defined by someone else, will have you instantly branded as one of the usual suspects, set in aspic, thoroughly unmodern.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Me on the map

I was interviewed by Mike Parker (author of Map Addict) for this programme in this radio 4 series about maps:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00rghjp/On_the_Map_Motoring_Maps/

And while we’re on the same theme, this is from an article in The Times in 1908: ‘Many people love a map for a map’s sake. A good map gives them a peculiar kind of pleasure and makes their imagination glow. Before a journey the study of a map suggests all kinds of delights. The road down a mountain valley is almost seen by the mind, with a rock wall on the one side and a foaming torrent on the other … Thus we of the wheels think before beginning our tours … For it is a plan of the earth laid out on paper, a diminutive reality, though miles are but inches. And the motorist who has a soul will dote on his maps, cherish them, and thus keep fresh in mind past pleasures and the hope of future delights.’

Which I’m sure is what you were thinking the last time you looked at the AA Truckers’ Atlas.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The birdman of academia

This piece by me, about birdwatching at the office, is in the Times Higher this week:

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=410844&c=2

Note to the sisters: mea non culpa on the un-PC headline, which the sub-editor chose after rejecting my admittedly lame original (see above).

Incidentally, there is some quite good stuff about motorways in Mark Cocker’s book Birders: Tales of Tribe (which I mention in the article), because the golden age of twitching in the 1960s and 1970s was also the golden age of hitchhiking. So a large sub-group of hitchhikers in this period was made up of birdwatchers travelling to remote parts of Britain to see exotic birds. “Back then,” Cocker writes, “if you could have got into some hypothetical control module in space where you could monitor birders’ movements around Britain’s road networks, the screen would have appeared as an endless chaos of random blips, each one representing young twitchers hitching back and forth across the country. There would have been occasional patterns – clusters heading towards Norfolk in May, a brief lull in July, a further rush towards Shetland in September, or Cornwall in October.”

Saturday, 20 March 2010

On doing the dishes

It was good to see in the BBC4 documentary The Man Who Ate Everything this week (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00rh9cw/The_Man_Who_Ate_Everything/) that Andrew Graham-Dixon and a few other people are also fans of Alan Davidson and his wonderful Oxford Companion to Food. This entry, on washing up, is a perfect example of his mix of dry humour, anthropological observation, easy elegance and arcane scholarship:

Washing up (or “doing the dishes”, “faire la vaisselle”, and so on) has in most cultures been seen as an activity which is not an intrinsic part of preparing, cooking and consuming food … A better way of regarding it is as the climax of the whole cycle (gathering, preparing, cooking, eating) and as a piece of ritual which should have engaged the attention of anthropologists and the like to a much greater extent than the questions which have tended to preoccupy them, such as whether food is boiled or roasted. The purification of the utensils has to be the final, culminating stage of any meal, the stage which in effect sets the scene for the next meal and permit’s life processes to continue … the sight of a washer-up standing, dominant, at the sink while the other celebrants of the meal, typically, loll in chairs recalls irresistibly the similar scenes enacted so often in places of worship – the priest standing before the altar, the congregation seated, the timeless ritual unfolding for the thousandth time but charged with as much significance as on the first. As the utensils begin to emerge in pristine purity, as the dancing mop-head and caressing linen cancel out any recollections of the grosser aspects of appetite and eating, even the proudest shoppers and cooks, exalted by witnessing the true climax of the meal, must acknowledge the precedence of these acts of completion.

As my favourite reference book, Davidson’s book just edges out Brewer’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics by William Donaldson – a good deal funnier but also, I suspect, rather less reliable.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Motorway sightseeing

After reading On Roads, Noel Whittall has kindly sent me his co-authored book What’s That Over There?, a motorway sightseeing book published in 1993, detailing the landmarks that can be seen while driving along the M1 and A1. Here you will find some intriguing information about the ‘particularly ugly loft conversions’ in the houses on the first stretch of the M1 before Scratchwood Services (now renamed London Gateway by some soulless Roundhead with no sense of history), the British Shoe Corporation Distribution Centre and the rhubarb sheds near Wakefield where ‘on quiet nights you can hear it creaking as it grows’ – although presumably not from the motorway.

I hadn’t come across Noel’s book before but it forms part of a long if sporadic tradition of motorway sightseeing. Margaret Baker’s 1968 handbook Discovering M1 was the first ever ‘glove-compartment guide to the motorway and the places of interest that can be seen from it,’ written for car passengers and ‘arranged for easy assimilation at around 60mph’. It valiantly listed visual highlights like the radio aerials at Daventry, the granite rocks of Charnwood Forest and the medieval ridge-and-furrow fields near Crick. The vogue for motorway sightseeing enjoyed a brief revival more recently with the motorway sights guides written by Mike Jackson, a director of location shots for Antiques Roadshow, who got the idea for them while driving round the country with its then presenter, Michael Aspel. Jackson spent months travelling up and down the motorways, writing about landmarks like the Penrith factory where they make the dough balls for Domino’s pizzas and the globular salt barn on the M5 in Worcestershire known locally as the ‘Christmas pudding’.

According to Jackson’s M5 sights guide, it costs £1m a year to maintain a Moto service station, which means that each square metre of toilet area costs £2350 a year – and that’s at 2005 prices. Since the service stations are obliged by law to supply free toilets 24/7, you might think about this figure the next time you pause over the price of a Ginsters pasty in the service station shop. I am also indebted to Jackson for the information that traffic police on the M5 are rumoured to play a game called ‘motorway snooker’, which involves stopping a red car for speeding, then looking for another colour equivalent to the colours of snooker balls (ideally a black car, worth seven points) then another red, and so on until the highest break wins.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The town seethed like Laocoon within its concentric ring roads. I followed the signs for the centre, but, after I’d spent fifteen minutes obediently going where the signs told me, they had brought me back to where I’d begun. The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. I didn’t know that TS Eliot had been on the Basingstoke Urban District Council Highways (Ring Roads and Street Furniture) Committee.’ – Sebastian Faulks, Engleby

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The everyday remains

I’ve just finished Frank McDonough’s gripping account of the life of Sophie Scholl, and I am struck once again by the slightly surreal resilience of everyday life in the most tragic and chilling circumstances. Distributing leaflets about the White Rose resistance movement at the University of Munich on 18 February 1943, she decided on impulse to throw the leaflets down the long stairwell of the entrance hall known as the ‘Lichthof’, and ‘they fluttered down like confetti at the exact moment the students started to pour out of the lecture theatres and seminar rooms’. Sophie and her brother Hans were shopped by one of the university porters and executed a few days later. It made me think of some of my own students, putting up posters about flatshares and adverts for bass players.

It is interesting how many of the great theorists of everyday life were formulating their theories in periods of historical crisis. Siegfried Kracauer’s work on office life was conducted during the death throes of Weimar Germany, as the aftermath of the 1929 Crash destroyed the fragile social reforms and economic recovery of the Stresemann era; and his theories of film and photography were forged out of his subsequent experiences of fascism and exile. Henri Lefebvre wrote his first book on everyday life in France in the immediate postwar era, when fuel, food and housing shortages made the simplest matters of quotidian life of pressing concern. The everyday can seem like a banal continuum existing outside of historical change; but historical crisis also makes the everyday visible, makes its taken for granted routines suddenly seem hard-won and precious.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘History appears as a transcendental reality occurring behind its back and bursting into the everyday in the form of a catastrophe into which an individual is thrown as “fatally” as cattle are driven to the slaughterhouse. …While the everyday appears as confidence, familiarity, proximity, as “home”, history appears as the derailment, the disruption of the everyday, as the exceptional and the strange. … History changes, the everyday remains.’ – Karel Kosik

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The golden age of telly

I’m working on a new book provisionally titled Television: An Intimate History, although it won’t be finished for years. So I’ve been reading the diaries of an avid television watcher, Kenneth Williams. It was interesting to come across these crabby entries about the supposed golden age of family telly, the 1970s, including some off-message judgments on now fondly remembered programmes:

‘We saw the television “Christmas with the Stars” – stars indeed! What a joke. It’s all the “jobs for the boys in the BBC” stuff with inane excerpts from Dad’s Army etc. Television has really succeeded in creating a number of rep companies, with all the same provincial tattiness and the same sort of factious following and internecine rivalries. Utter muck.’

‘Saw Ronnie Corbett on television. Jokes about “The vicar gives me a blessing and I’m getting home & the wife says ‘You’ve been blessed again, haven’t you?’” The blatant denigration of religious practice made one sick. I turned it off.’

‘Saw Richard Briers in a comedy series [The Good Life]. It was terrible. Not a laugh line in it … it was all tasteless and unpleasant … when a cock bird was indifferent to a hen, Briers’ line was “perhaps he’s a queer …” Oh dear.’

‘That ghastly series Porridge about prison life was showing … How that ever became accepted for television is beyond me! The tastelessness, the romanticising of villainy …. The business of making criminals attractive … the winking of corruption within the prison service … it is sickening and disgusting.’

‘We saw a bit of TV but it was dire. Benny Hill looks more and more like a desperate adipose decrepit.’

‘Louie and I watched Dr Zhivago on TV in the evening and it was extraordinary to see so much expense and time taken over with such tedious rubbish. If there was one close-up of Omar Sharif looking dewy-eyed there was two: he looked about as Russian as my arse.’

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Mr Cube the sugar lump

This piece by me, about Mr Cube the sugar lump, was in the FT today:

On July 28 1949, a strange cartoon character appeared for the first time on packets of sugar manufactured by Tate & Lyle. Tate & Lyle was Britain’s leading brand of sugar and these packets entered almost every household in the land. The cartoon was of a cube-shaped, sparky-looking man with spindly arms and legs, angrily crossing out the S in “State” to leave “Tate”. He was Mr Cube the sugar lump, and over the next two years he was to become as familiar and popular a character in Britain as Aleksandr the Meerkat is today.

Mr Cube was Tate & Lyle’s aggressive response to the Labour government’s pledge of April 1949 to nationalise the sugar-refining industry. Capable of an endless variety of facial expressions and simple enough to be easily printed, he spouted speech-bubble slogans such as “State control will make a hole in your pocket and my packet”, “Leave it to private enterprise” and “If they juggle with sugar they’ll juggle with your shopping basket”. The message was always the same: under nationalisation there would be less choice, sugar would cost more and the quality would decline.

The Attlee government had already founded the National Health Service and nationalised the coal and steel industries. But Mr Cube’s campaign helped to crystallise a growing popular mood against state controls. In these years of rationing and austerity, sugar had become a symbol of the sweet things in life that, four years after the end of the war, people now thought of as their due. (Sugar was one of the last items to come off the ration, in September 1953.)

One newspaper cartoonist depicted the 1950 general election as a bicycle race between Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill, with Attlee hampered by Mr Cube clinging to his coat tails. Although Labour narrowly won this election, the Tories defeated them in October 1951 and were to remain in power for the next 13 years. The threat of further nationalisation was over and Mr Cube retired, his work done.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The true counterstroke against the office machine, however, is the world vibrant with colour. The world not as it is, but as it appears in popular hits. A world every last corner of which is cleansed, as though with a vacuum cleaner, of the dust of everyday existence.’ – Siegfried Kracauer

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Unbroken Britain

In the unlikely event that you are an avid reader of this blog, you’ve probably gathered by now that I don’t get out much. To be more specific, I don’t get out much in the daytime, preferring to ensconce myself in the darkened corridors of academe like a vegetarian vampire until the witching hour commences.

So it was an unusual event, as I travelled down south to meet my public – and yes, some of them did turn up – to find myself in the centre of Bath in daylight on a Tuesday afternoon. And I thought: who are all these people wandering about the streets at quarter to four as if they’ve got nothing better to do? They can’t all be appearing at the Bath Literature Festival. OK, using my enviable powers of Descartian deductive reasoning I managed to work out that those little people in uniforms carrying bags were probably children coming home from school. So I’ll let them off. But what about the rest of you? Why aren’t you all at work?

The audience at Bath Litfest is not exactly a tough crowd. In fact, if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s like being gently lowered into a warm bath of nodding heads and polite laughter. The citizens of Bath – which admittedly, is probably the only place in the known universe where I have any mileage as a bit of northern rough – are so polite that they even whisper on their mobiles on trains so as not to disturb you.

The words ‘broken Britain’ fail to spring inexorably to mind.

One thing I forgot to mention in Bath was that the historian Rosemary Hill mentions it in her book on Stonehenge, arguing for a direct lineage between this ancient megalith and a very British example of traffic engineering. In the mid-eighteenth century the architect John Wood modelled the Grand Circus in Bath on the beautiful proportions and sacred geometry of Stonehenge. The Grand Circus inspired other traffic circuses in London and elsewhere, eventually devolving ‘into that favourite piece of traffic planning, the roundabout’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Sociology, the study of what is common, recurrent and predictable in human life, is essentially the study of clich├ęs … The fact that the queues at supermarket checkout points will all be roughly the same length is a matter of sociology. To say “I love you” is pure sociology, however sincerely one may mean it. For the Romantics, it is tragic that we are forced to express our most unique individual feelings in phrases shop-soiled by millions of others; for the modernist, it is only by the use of such phrases that we can express our feelings to ourselves … There used to be whole slices of dialogue which cropped up on both large and small screens with striking frequency, such as “Take a seat” … “Thank you, I prefer to stand!” … “As you wish”, or “But that’s blackmail!” … “Let’s just call it a business arrangement.” Most Westerns statutorily included the following metaphysical exchange: “You’ve got to stop running. What are you running from anyway?” … “I dunno. Maybe – myself” … Cliches may be stale truths, but they are usually truths even so; and they contribute to our liberty by making social life predictable, automating parts of it so that we are free to attend to others.’ – Terry Eagleton