Saturday, 25 September 2010

Modern-Day Mass Observation

It all began with a letter published in the New Statesman on 30 January 1937. It was jointly written by three diversely talented young men: Tom Harrisson (an anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (a painter and filmmaker) and Charles Madge (a poet and Daily Mirror journalist). The letter announced the founding of Mass Observation, an organisation which aimed to investigate daily life in modern Britain in the same way that anthropologists were studying remote, tribal societies.

It invited volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, an “anthropology at home … a science of ourselves”. Its list of suggested topics for investigation read like a surrealist poem on the hidden strangeness of mundane life: “shouts and gestures of motorists … beards, armpits, eyebrows … behaviour of people at war memorials … anthropology of football pools … bathroom behaviour … female taboos about eating.”

I was just wondering what a similar list today might look like:

Noises made in the quiet zone on Virgin Pendolino trains.
The tone of humourless earnestness on newspaper comment sites.
Queues for posh pie shops at summer festivals.
The strange svengali status of Simon Cowell.
Facial expressions of people conducting mobile phone conversations.
Twitter etiquette.
Anger towards speed cameras.
The counter-intuitive embrace of the discomforts of camping.
The varied topiary of the goatee beard.


If anyone has any other suggestions, let me know …

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The quotidian is what is humble and solid, what is taken for granted and that of which all the parts follow each other in such a regular, unvarying succession that those concerned have no call to question their sequence; thus it is undated and (apparently) insignificant; though it occupies and preoccupies, it is practically untellable, and it is the ethics underlying routine and the aesthetics of familiar settings. At this point it encounters the modern. This word stands for what is novel, brilliant, paradoxical, and bears the imprint of technicality and worldliness; it is (apparently) daring and transitory, proclaims its initiative and is acclaimed for it.’ – Henri Lefebvre

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Britain's shame

I wrote a piece for today's FT about Made in Dagenham and other factory films which is too long to paste in here but here it is:


And this is my last defining moment for the FT:

At a press conference held at the Treasury on 15 December 1976, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, looks to be sharing the nation’s anguish. He has just announced a drastic package of public spending cuts in an emergency mini-budget. The headline in the Sun the next day is “Britain’s Shame”.

The autumn of 1976 had seen a catastrophic loss of confidence in sterling. On 27 September, Healey, due to fly out to a finance ministers’ conference in Hong Kong, had to abandon his trip at Heathrow because the markets were so nervous, go back to the Treasury and apply to the IMF for a loan. From October to December the government negotiated tensely with the IMF, which was demanding £2.5bn cuts in government spending in return for a $3.9bn loan.

The IMF crisis has become part of national political memory. For the Thatcher government of the 1980s, it was rivalled only as a moment of national ignominy by the winter of discontent. And it is often cited today by ministers – for example, by George Osborne in his recent speech at Bloomberg - as they stress the importance of cutting the deficit and maintaining the confidence of the markets. Britain, the mantra goes, must never again become a charity case.

The reality is more complicated. The situation at the end of 1976 was not uniquely dire. The government had already made two applications to the IMF at the end of 1975, with far less publicity, and the balance of payments had been in much greater arrears then. Healey later claimed that the Treasury had grossly overestimated the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, the key figure used during the IMF crisis, and that if he had been given accurate figures he would not have had to ask for the loan at all. He also said that accepting the IMF’s strictures was a “Pyrrhic defeat”, forcing him into the proto-Thatcherite fiscal stringency he wanted to practise anyway.

But in 1976, just as in 2010, few Britons understood this language of exchange rates and public spending figures. What was really significant was the crisis’s symbolic elements: Healey’s volte-face at Heathrow, caught by the TV cameras, the arrival of the anonymous IMF team in the UK on 1 November with its humiliatingly infantilizing connotations, and the “shame” of the mini-budget. As often with the markets, what everyone thought and felt was just as important as the economic reality.

Friday, 10 September 2010

The poetry of Tony Blair

Since the publication of A Journey, much has been made of Tony Blair’s writing style, and his rather touching pride in it, but I believe one aspect of it has been missed. I think someone once produced a book called The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld pointing out that the gnomic statements of the former US Defense Secretary actually made much more sense if you arranged them into lines that finished before the end of the page. I have found that some passages of our former PM’s memoirs can also be turned into poems. See what you think: I contend that there is something of the delicious ambiguity of Wallace Stevens, or perhaps John Ashbery, about them.

For GB

Our minds moved fast and at that point in sync.
When others were present,
We felt the pace and power diminish,
Until, a bit like lovers desperate to get to love-making
But disturbed by old friends dropping round,
We would try to bustle them out,
Steering them doorwards.

Regret

I can say that I never did guess
The nightmare that unfolded
And that too is part of the responsibility.
But the notion of responsibility
Indicates not a burden to discharge
But a burden that continues.
Regret can seem bound
To the past.
Responsibility has its present
And future tense.

I forgot to say that I’m appearing at an event at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road on Sunday 12th at 4.45pm, a panel on ‘How to write non-fiction’. Hope someone can tell me …

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Slide rules rule OK

I wrote this piece for the Guardian last week about my love of stationery and slide rules. Bonne rentree, everyone ...

“It is typical of Oxford,” says Charles Ryder after his return from an idyllic summer at Brideshead, “to start the new year in autumn.” Evelyn Waugh presumably meant to suggest that this was a characteristically perverse thing for an ancient university to do. It has never seemed perverse to me. Granted, I was the sort of studious child who was secretly pleased by the sight of the “back to school” displays in the shops. But I always liked the idea of starting the new year in September when, instead of that post-Christmas fagend feeling, you got the excitement of stocking up on new stationery.

The contents of a pencil case were my first encounter with the aesthetics of material objects. For me the smell and feel of a new eraser are as evocative of autumn as falling leaves. Stationery was also my understated introduction to the idea of utopia, the triumph of hope over experience. Forgetting all the false dawns of autumns past, I believed that if I could just find a pen with the right nib or highlighters in ideal colour combinations, I would at last have the tools to accomplish great deeds.

My affection for stationery even extends to those mathematical instruments, like set squares and protractors, whose purposes remained obscure throughout my school career but whose uniformity and symmetry I enjoyed. So I was puzzled recently when Melvyn Bragg, in the middle of complaining that his former employee, ITV, was obsessed with audience ratings, said that it had been “taken over by slide rules and suits” – in other words, overrun by sharply dressed, number-crunching managers going on about focus groups and audience share. I associate the slide rule, by contrast, with gentle, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking engineers, calculating formulae for jet engines in sheds.

You never see anyone using a slide rule in a film. Matinee idol scientists always work out algorithms unaided in their brilliant minds, or scrawl them manically in chalk on giant blackboards. By the same token that unfairly condemns people with colour-coded ring binders as the owners of overly tidy minds, slide rules are supposed to belong only to the pedantic foot soldiers of science, the plodders who have to show us their workings out. But slide rules are lovely things: pleasingly solid, elegantly mysterious in their markings, the perfect marriage of form and function. Since scientific calculators rendered them obsolete in about 1980, some people (not me) even collect them.

I worry that today’s schoolchildren are being deprived of these tactile pleasures. Isabel Nisbet, chief executive of Ofqual, has questioned the future of paper exams because, she claims, pupils are no longer used to writing by hand. Hoping this isn’t true, I go to the “back to school” section of my local supermarket for reassurance. And there they all are - pencils with rubbers on the end, felt tips, even Tippex – just as they have appeared in late summer since time immemorial. I am happy to report that the death of the analogue classroom implement has been exaggerated.

Indeed, I can foresee a renaissance for these objects for the same reason that knitting and embroidery are again in vogue. People are embracing the texture and solidity of material things as a rearguard action against the growing touchlessness of the world, the tendency for our jobs to become an endless cycle of virtual exercises, an eternal exchange of emails and other digital surrogates. Not all of us know how to knit, but we can all buy something from the “back to school” displays, whether we are going back to school or not. We can sharpen our pencils, open a crisp new exercise book and create the world anew. Once a year, at least, we can imagine ourselves as noble artisans, transforming our little part of the universe with ink, graphite and paper. What we need, in these uncertain times, is some pencil case therapy.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The miner finds understandable pleasure in sending his pigeons winging afar off through the blue to distance places. There is Viking blood in English veins, so to me it is a pathetic sight to see those grown men sailing model boats on the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens on a Sunday morning. Once we were a nation of sailors, not – as we are today – of civil servants. Their blood is the bacteria-free plasma from the cold deep-freeze stores in Whitehall.’ - Gilbert Harding, Master of None (1958)