Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Observing the 1980s

I did this for yesterday's Guardian:

In her new memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, the pop musician Tracey Thorn bristles at how the decade in which she first became famous is lazily remembered. “Scenes which I never witnessed in my life - yuppies chugging champagne in City wine bars, toffs dancing in puffball skirts to Duran Duran – have now become the universal TV shorthand used to locate and define the era,” she complains. Thorn’s book is in part an alternative history of the 1980s: one populated by political rallies, “Meat Is Murder” and “Dig Deep for the Miners” badges, benefit gigs and literate musicians with an Indie DIY aesthetic like herself worrying perpetually about not “selling out”.

A new, publicly available digital archive just released by the University of Sussex, Observing the 1980s, aims to give substance to this subterranean history and helps to free the decade from the simplifications of popular memory. Among other resources, it brings together contributions by the volunteers who wrote about their daily lives for the Mass Observation Archive in that decade. The attitudes of these writers seem more passionate and polarised than we are used to today. “The Tories will get in again and if we were ten years younger we would emigrate,”writes one Mass Observer on the eve of the 1987 election. “The appeal to greed and self-interest, which characterises the approach of the Tories, is disgusting bordering on the evil,” declares another.

The archive also includes a selection of 1980s ephemera, mostly radical pamphlets about travellers’ rights, the Poll Tax or the “assault on the unions” created, in the days before desktop publishing, with typewriters and Letraset. They are a reminder that much of the radicalism of the 1960s survived into the 1980s, alongside a brief flowering of countercultural creativity and political activism among students (in the last age of full maintenance grants) and the growing ranks of unemployed people.

Here, in place of yuppyish hedonism, we find a moral and political earnestness that is alternately funny and touching. In 1987, for instance, the alternative newspaper the Brighton Voice gave a platform to a “men’s anti-sexist group” with a strict code of behaviour aimed at not intimidating women in public, including“wear bright clothing so you can be easily seen – do not creep around in silent footwear” and “carry a paper or magazine on public transport so you have somewhere to put your eyes”.

Thorn recalls her own fixation on remaining politically “authentic” with a mixture of fondness and bafflement. When asked by the teen pop magazine Smash Hits in 1985 about the last book she had read, she told them: The British in Northern Ireland: The Case for Withdrawal. When, she wonders, did this ideological intensity disappear and everything had to be seen instead through an “ironic tinge”?

There are whole books still to be written about this collective mental shift. But Lucy Robinson, one of the historians involved in the Observing the 1980s project, hints at one reason when she points out that this was the last decade before the internet. The Google search gave us a way in which we could skate over the surface of cultural and political life, slickly knowing a little about a lot of things. Perhaps it also gave people an internal edit button as they feared guileless or undeveloped ideas could be shot down quickly by internet flaming. Nowadays, an unusual book choice for a teen magazine might be ridiculed in an avalanche of Twitter retweets.

We like to give decades a uniform character as they retreat into history, safely burying the past by turning it into retro kitsch. The Observing the 1980s project is valuable because it does not treat the decade like this, as a story we already know the ending to. Instead it becomes an era of still-to-be-decided tensions and possibilities - one in which people sincerely people that David Steel might be prime minister (“my pin-up!” says one Mass Observer), that Margaret Thatcher might lose an election, or that the neo-liberal economic revolution might still be reversed. How I miss that sense of earnestness – and I mean that without a trace of irony.

Monday, 25 February 2013

The sound of my own voice

If you would like to listen to the inaugural professorial lecture I delivered on 6 February, ‘A Short History of Everyday Life’, there is a link to the podcast here:

I’m afraid you’ll have to conjure up my Powerpoint slides out of your vivid imaginations. I’ve been told that my lame jokes are met with the sound of tumbleweed, and not the polite laughter I remember. I maintain that this is because the mic didn’t pick up the audience, but I suppose that’s what they all say.

Not that I will be listening myself, because among other things I cannot stand to listen to my own voice – a common experience, of course. ‘Preserved on tape one’s voice is an ambivalently narcissistic object,’ writes Susan Sontag in her essay ‘The aesthetics of silence’. ‘Its rhythms, intonation and frequencies are material evidence of part of the self become not-self, disconcertingly familiar and alien … Unmoored form the body, speech deteriorates. It becomes false, inane, ignoble, weightless.’

One of the reasons our recorded voices sound so odd to us is that we hear ourselves speak through the bones of our skull rather than through the air as other people hear us, which makes our voices sound deeper. (Stick your fingers in your ears to cut off this bone conduction and your voice always sounds higher.) ‘We scarcely remember when we could not speak; we are scarcely conscious of how we speak,’ wrote Hilda Matheson in her 1933 book, Broadcasting. ‘Confront any man or woman with an audible record of his speech, and his feelings will vary from rage and incredulity to shame and embarrassment.’ According to Simon Elmes in his new book Hello Again: Nine Decades of Radio Voices, an early broadcaster told his listeners: ‘I must apologise for my voice. Since my last talk I've had the somewhat alarming experience of hearing my own voice on the Blattnerphone [an early recording device]. I was frankly horrified. It struck me as being almost the most unpleasant voice I'd ever heard.’

The poor sod. I know how he feels.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Be yourself

‘When Lady Gaga performed in The X Factor in 2009 wearing a tight, reflective leather cat costume and dancing inside a giant ten-foot bathtub, she was briefly interviewed afterwards and asked what advice she had for the contestants. “Be yourself,” she answered, without a moment’s hesitation or a flicker of irony.’
- Tracey Thorn, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star, p. 231.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Alternative inventory

Two women from Estates knocked on my office door the other day and asked me politely if they could carry out an inventory of my room. We are moving to another building soon so every moveable and reusable object must be accounted for and ticked off. As they recited the different moving parts of the office to each other (‘two operators’ chairs, two beech bookcases, two filing cabinets, one hatstand, one anglepoise lamp …’), I wondered what an alternative inventory, full of the past life of my office, might look like:

  1. A pebble from Brighton beach which I picked up on my last day there before I came to Liverpool.
  2. Bits of foam on the floor which have escaped from my office chair, which has been sat on so much that the seat cushion is almost a block of wood.
  3. A drawer full of no-longer-sticky blu tack and broken rubber bands.
  4. A million thoughts that came to nothing.
  5. The echoing sound of furious typing and then the backspace tentatively deleting what I’ve typed.
  6. A door worn down to its hinges by ten thousand knocks.
  7. Ghosts of students past, laughing, sometimes crying, asking for their essay back.
  8. An air of quiet disappointment.
  9. One middle-aged academic. Some signs of wear.

I think that’s everything.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The mucilage of daily life that cements our genuine moments of being … accumulating at the side of the story but not claiming any importance for itself’ - Carol Shields, Unless

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The light is back

‘Every year, in the third week of February, there is a day, or, more usually, a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky. Today, a Sunday, is such a day, though the trees are still stark and without leaves; the grasses are dry and winter-beaten.

The sun is still low in the sky, even at noon, hanging over the hills southwest. Its light spills out of the southwest, the same direction as the wind: both sunlight and wind arrive together out of the same airt, an invasion of light and air out of a sky of quickly moving clouds, working together as a swift team.’
- Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines (London: Sort Of Books, 2012), p. 91.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

A warm fog of acceptable feeling

A thought for Valentine’s Day …

‘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 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 honour 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.’

Mark Doty, Dog Years (London: HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 13-15.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Are you all sitting comfity-bold?

When Kingsley Amis taught at University College, Swansea in the 1950s, the college principal, J.S. Fulton, was such a stickler for academic protocol that he once objected to a professor and a lecturer appearing together on the same radio programme. This, he said, was like mixing officers and men.

One of the more positive aspects of what A.H. Halsey called ‘the Decline of Donnish Dominion’ is that those days are gone, thank god. But the word ‘professor’ still has an odd purchase in the cultural imagination. These thoughts are occasioned by having to do my inaugural professorial lecture last week: an odd, nineteenth century ritual which has somehow survived into the 21st century.

The first professor I knew about was Professor Yaffle, the woodpecker in the stop-frame animation series Bagpuss. Oliver Postgate modelled him on two figures he knew in his childhood: his uncle, the historian G.D.H. Cole and the philosopher Bertrand Russell. His reedy voice and condescendingly benign manner made him a professor out of central casting. I have never met a professor remotely like him.

There was a time when, presumably because the title still had a lot of cachet before donnish dominion declined, there were lots of fake professors. There was the comedian ‘Professor’ Jimmy Edwards, who went round in a gown and mortar board; Max Wall’s character Professor Wallofski, who is said to have influenced John Cleese’s Minister for Silly Walks; and Professor Léon Cortez, a cockney comedian who translated the works of Shakespeare into rhyming slang.

But my favourite was Professor Stanley Unwin, who (like a few other professors before and since), employed a language that bore a tantalisingly close relationship to English. When his children were young, he began inventing special ‘fairly stories’ for them at bedtime. ‘Are you all sitting comfity-bold, two-square on your botties?’ he would ask them. ‘Then I'll begin. Once a-ponny tight-o . . .’ He would then launch into a well-known story, liberally festooned with gibberish but always somehow recognisable: ‘Goldyloppers trittly-how in the early mordy, and she falloped down the steps. Oh unfortunate for the cracking of the eggers and the sheebs and buttery fullfalollop and graze the knee-clappers. So she had a vaslubrious, rub it on and a quick healy huff and that was that.’ Professor Unwin could try his hand at most genres, including sports commentating: ‘There’s a great gathering round one goal mode as the net is folloped flat: what a clean groyle there as they kicking it on the bocus and the mable … all these people doing a very fine suffery in the cause of sport.’

I am tempted to say that Professor Unwin made a great deal more sense than some actual professors I have known. But I won’t, because one of the things I have come to hate is the low-level, low-intensity hostility to academic life in public discourse over the last few decades. Nowadays ‘professor’ is often employed with a sneer to point to the supposed disconnection of academics from the ‘real’ world. And the only extant fake professor I can think of is the rap artist Professor Green, although I can’t claim to be familiar with his work.

Anyway, everyone was so nice after my lecture that I decided this nineteenth-century ritual wasn’t quite so odd after all. Which just goes to show that I really don’t know what I think about anything. But then that’s only to be expected, when I am now officially an absent-minded professor.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Welsh words for rain

bwrw – to rain
glawio – raining
dafnu – spotting
pigo – spotting
glaw mân – drizzle
gwlithlaw – drizzle
brasfrwrw – big spaced drops
sgrympian – short sharp shower
cawodi – showering
arllwys – pouring
tollti – pouring
dymchwel – pulling down
brylymu – pouring very quickly
llifo – flooding
towlud – throwing
taflu – throwing
hegar law – fierce rain
lluwchlaw – sheets of rain
chwipio bwrw – whiplash rain
pistyllio – fountain rain
piso – pissing down
curlaw – beating rain
tywallt – absolutely bucketing
stido – thrashing down
tresio – maximum intensity
Mae hi’n brwr hen wragedd a ffyn – It’s raining old women and sticks

From Sue Clifford and Angela King (ed.), Local Distinctiveness: Place, Particularity and Identity (London: Common Ground, 1993), p. 19.