Saturday, 31 July 2010

The everyday by numbers

I came across some interesting stats in the Virgin trains magazine, Hotline, a widely read but unheralded piece of literature. Last year the Virgin onboard shop sold 117,000 KitKats, 58,000 flapjacks and 45,500 Gin and Tonics. As for the 390,000 people who spent £1.30 each on bottled water when they could have bought it much cheaper at the station, I suppose there’s no fool like a thirsty fool.

Statistics can often be used to gloss over the everyday with soulless abstractions. ‘Numbers in all their impersonality are democracy’s ideal language, suited for gods, machines, and collectives’, writes the philosopher John Durham Peters. ‘The metaphysical status of numbers is profoundly ambiguous: They are concrete and imaginary, precise and intangible, mechanical and intellectual, human and inhuman.’ The lived world is erased by what Peters calls ‘the serene indifference of numbers’.

On the other hand, statistics, as the Virgin shop’s ledger book shows, can also make the everyday visible. Cultural theorist Ben Highmore calls them ‘the mass-regularities of the daily’, these figures about how many million cups of tea we drink, how many times we flush the toilet every day and so on. ‘Data, as used to map regularities, quantities, frequencies, probabilities, and so on, produces a landscape rich in surreal potential,’ he writes. ‘Facts about tea drinking and dog excreting are produced via a range of information: they coalesce as a composite form – one giant dog, one giant turd, one monstrous orchestrated chorus of tea drinking.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Truth is anecdotes, narrative, the snug opaque quotidian.’ – John Updike, Self-Consciousness

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A legend in its lunchtime

I did this piece on street parties for the Guardian at the weekend:

This Sunday sees the second annual Big Lunch, a national network of street parties that last year attracted nearly a million participants. Across the land, thousands of miles of asphalt will be cleared of cars, covered with furniture and surrendered to a transient community of amateur musicians, facepainters and unicyclists.

The Big Lunch website claims the street party as a long British tradition. In fact, it is quite a recent one. There were street parties to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, but many police forces banned them at the end of the First World War, for obstructing rights of way and encouraging general rowdiness. Street parties were granted official sanction for George VI’s coronation in May 1937. But by the early 1950s they were already being nostalgically evoked as a dying ritual, and the suburbs never embraced them. “In poorer areas, the streets are thick with bunting and there is much enthusiasm for street parties,” a Mass Observation author reported from Burnley during the Queen’s coronation in 1953. But “out of town, there are rows of undecorated semis”.

In his recent book Family Britain, David Kynaston suggests that the organisation of street parties in 1953 was often a fraught, ill-tempered business. Rather than emerging organically out of an existing feeling of esprit de corps, they arose more out of an expectation, a sense that they were the “emblematic celebration, the one closest to most people’s sense of what was fit and proper”.

The street party, it seems, was never what it used to be. It was always a romantic ideal rather than an expression of a neighbourliness that was already there. Every age conjures up its own idea of the street party in response to its own particular concerns. In 1953 it was meant to celebrate the end of postwar austerity and honour the working-class solidarity that had helped to win the war. For the newly formed Institute of Community Studies, based in Bethnal Green, the Coronation street parties symbolised the neighbourliness of the tightly knit East End streets, in contrast with the newer, out-of-town estates, where neighbours peered at each other warily through net curtains.

Now we are entering rather than leaving an age of austerity, the Big Lunch is appropriately designed as a lesson in sustainable living. The brainchild of Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project, it urges lunchers to grow their own food and make bunting from recycled clothes. Its search for a lost sense of community comes in response to new anxieties about work-life imbalance, the virtual relationships conducted through social networking sites and the growing number of single person households.

In a society fragmented by free market globalisation but still suspicious of state solutions, a lot is being invested in this idea of the street as a model of a vibrant civic life – what used to be called, in an election campaign long ago, the “Big Society”. According to its organisers, the Big Lunch is “the start of a journey into rebuilding our communities”, an exercise in “human warming”. It might seem a lot to expect from a bit of shared quiche and a few games of pavement Twister. But then the history of the street party suggests that a sense of community is rarely a naturally occurring phenomenon; it has to be continually created by these acts of faith.

It is heartening to observe at close quarters all this feverish and largely thankless activity, most of it done by women, to hire ice-cream vans or hang home-made decorations from lampposts. And then, on Sunday evening, it will all have to be cleared away – leaving, perhaps, a more convivial neighbourhood, but with no guarantees or firm evidence. There is something touching about so much time and effort being spent in search of the ephemeral and the intangible: a moment of togetherness which, like an incantation, hopes to become true by announcing itself.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Happy Birthday Social Trends

I would like to wish a very happy birthday to the government publication Social Trends, the fortieth anniversary edition of which has just been published. The news stories about Social Trends tend to follow the headline figures provided in the press releases – that there are more obese people, more people living alone, more people going to university, and so on. But what makes Social Trends such a gripping social document are the surprising, apparently inconsequential details buried in the rest of the document. I discovered from this year’s edition, for example, that for some reason there has been a 438% increase in people holidaying in Slovakia over the last four years, that the most borrowed non-fiction book in libraries a couple of years ago was Semi-Detached by Griff Rhys Jones, a book I have never even heard of – my apologies to Griff Rhys Jones, but then I suppose it’s possible he’s never heard of my books either - and that 5.7 million people have now bought a copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits. And none of these people are me.

This year there is a wealth of detail comparing Britain today with forty years ago – when a third of all adults read the Daily Mirror and there were 45.5m calls to Dial-a-Disc, which played callers a song down a telephone line. At a guess, I would say that this number has now declined to … nil.

I for one am glad we don’t still live in 1985, when just under a quarter of people thought that there should definitely or probably be a legal right for schools to expel children with AIDS.

How strange human behaviour is when seen collectively like this and how it defies the expectations of social observers. The rational humanists must be tearing their collective hair out at the most popular answer to the question about religion: ‘I believe in “something” but I’m not sure what.’

And how about this statistic: in 2009, 83 per cent of people felt that the financial situation in their household was either ‘good’ or ‘neither good or bad’. Yes, despite all those responsible warnings from politicians that we are going to hell in a handcart, the British people persist in being quite inexplicably and irresponsibly happy. Now what on earth are we to make of that?

Mundane quote for the day: ‘When I’m chamoising the car in the front drive and some half-familiar face walks past and smiles and raises his stick and points approvingly at a sprinting patch of deckle-edged ivy, don’t imagine I can’t hear the voice we all give free lodging to in a room at the back of our skulls: the one that goes, fine, all right, fair enough, but someone else – someone who might have been you – is even now sledding through a birch forest in Russia, pursued by wolves. On Saturday afternoons, as I track the lawn mower carefully across our sloping stretch of grass, rev, slow, brake, turn and rev again, making sure to overlap the previous stripe, don’t think I can’t still quote MallarmĂ©.’ – Julian Barnes, Metroland

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Rate my baby

I did this piece on baby shows for the FT magazine last weekend:

The image, from a 1952 edition of Picture Post, is of a lost ritual: the baby show at the summer fĂȘte, with a group of proud mothers in their best floral frocks – and one father in the vanguard of social change – dandling bonny babies on their knees.

These infant carnivals were first staged in the early years of the last century, to encourage standards of mothercraft. They were often held in the first week of July, unofficially “Baby Week”. The babies would be examined by doctors and public health officers and judged on age, weight, general fitness and cleanliness. There was an award for best baby, but often every child who showed that they – and their parents – met general standards set by the judges would win some kind of prize, such as baby clothes, presented by the local mayor in his chain and robes.

By 1952, however, the baby show was no longer a useful form of health propaganda. The infant death rate had fallen dramatically and all these babies look the picture of health, a tribute to the post-natal care of the new National Health Service. The baby show became more of a simple “bonny baby” competition, the entrants judged on the quality of their rosy cheeks and wide eyes, with no sign of a white-coated public health official among the judges.

Sometime in the 1970s – perhaps not coincidentally, at the same time that the ethics of women’s beauty contests were also being challenged – it became unacceptable to hold a beauty parade of babies and award a prize for best in show. Mothercraft was outsourced to childcare manuals and eventually to television supernannies.

Yet the “best in show” ethos is making something of a US-led comeback, in virtual form. Parents can post pictures on websites such as ratemybaby and crazyaboutmybaby. Visitors are asked to vote on the children’s cuteness – and ratemybaby displays not only a top 10 ranking but a bottom 10. The Baby Show, held at Earls Court in October, is already soliciting entries for the 2011 “Face of the Baby Show”. The prize for this “perfect little smiler”, a sort of national bonniest baby, will be a contract with the child modelling agency Truly Scrumptious.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Is anybody there

In Mike Leigh’s film, Topsy Turvy, W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) answers the phone to an employee of the D’Oyly Carte company. They bellow at the top of their voices: ‘Are you there?’ ‘Yes, 8505.’ ‘Hello?’ ‘Is that you, Mr. Gilbert?’ ‘Good morning Barker.’ ‘This is Barker speaking.’ ‘Gilbert here.’ ‘Good morning, Mr. Gilbert.’ Hanging up proves equally problematic. ‘I’m going to hang up the telephone now.’ ‘Indeed you are, sir.’ We don’t know if anything like this conversation ever took place – although we do know that Gilbert was one of the first people in London to install a telephone, in 1882.

When the telephone was invented in 1876, there was confusion about what the callee should say on picking up the receiver. The contraption’s inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, suggested ‘Ahoy! Ahoy!’, as used on ships. Other early contenders included the rather brusque ‘What is wanted?’ and the arguably redundant ‘Is anybody there?’ Only in 1880, three years after the introduction of a commercial phone service in the US, did ‘Hello?’, a formulation suggested by Bell’s rival, Edison, become the standard. This word, which at the time was used like ‘ahoy’ to excite someone’s attention, may even have entered everyday language because of the telephone, since the OED’s first reference to it is from 1883.

On the phone, there is no need for the opening words to be a greeting at all – Italians say ‘Pronto’ (ready!) and the Spanish ‘Diga’ (speak!). But in the Anglophone world, the word ‘hello’ has won out over other contenders.

I suppose this goes to show that, from an anthropological point of view, the truly interesting part of any human encounter is its beginning. I can instantly identify friends and colleagues from the rhythm of their knock at the door, or the slight pause before they identify themselves on the phone - those tiny gestural and auditory signatures, both idiosyncratic and culturally produced, that make us human.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The Middle Ages never forgot that all things would be absurd, if their meaning were exhausted in their function and their place in the phenomenal world, if by their essence they did not reach into a world beyond this. This idea of a deeper significance in ordinary things is familiar to us as well, independently of religious convictions: as an indefinite feeling which may be called up at any moment, by the sound of raindrops on the leaves or by lamplight on a table.’ - Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Speed freaks

The pioneering motorists were invariably well-to-do, and dismissive of the slow-moving hoi polloi who blocked their way. This often developed into a proto-fascist extolling of speed, masculinity and war – as in the case of Filippo Marinetti, whose Futurist Manifesto of 1909 outlines his disgust at racing through the narrow streets of Milan and having to swerve into a ditch to avoid two sluggish cyclists. Marinetti wrote contemptuously of ‘the city’s watchdogs – useless guardians of spatial boundaries and private property … thrown against the doorsteps or flattened by tyres’. By March 1911 he had amassed ten convictions, including three for dangerous driving, and had his licence suspended for three months.

In 1916, in the middle of the First World War, Marinetti wrote of his fantasy ‘that the acceleration of life would cut down the arabesque of valleys and straighten the meandering of rivers, that someday the Danube would run in a straight line at 300 kilometres an hour.’

In Britain, which Marinetti berated as ‘a nation of sycophants and snobs, enslaved by old worm-eaten traditions’, they were not so sure. The UK was the first country to make racing on public roads illegal. In Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, the bright young things go to a motor race. Most ruthless and ridiculous of the speed demons is an excitable Italian artist called Marino, obviously based on Marinetti.

Nowadays, I suppose, we would put Marinetti in a reasonably priced car, send him round a racetrack and fete him on Sunday night telly.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behaviour. Drive ten thousand miles across America and you will know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together.’ - Jean Baudrillard, America