Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Around the A4074

Hope you all had a mundane Christmas. Here’s a bit of quotidian ethnography for the festive season … A couple of months back I spent an interesting afternoon with Felicity ‘Felix’ Ford, a postgraduate student at Oxford Brookes doing a practice-based PhD on ‘domestic soundscapes’. You can read more about her work on her excellent blog:


As part of her PhD Felicity produced a radio show celebrating the hidden world surrounding her own regular commute along the A4074 road between Reading and Oxford. The interview she conducted with me forms part of the programme which aired on Boxing Day on BBC Radio Oxford. It’s on iPlayer for the next few days here:


The programme sounded great but unfortunately I had to stop listening after two seconds when I heard my own horrible voice. Why did no one tell me I sounded like that? So you can listen to it for me if you like and I might pluck up the courage later on. FYI, if you write and research about everyday life the BBC is obliged under its charter to refer to you as ‘quirky’ and/or ‘offbeat’.

I also wrote about my favourite history book of the year for History Today magazine:


Mundane quote for the day: ‘The symptoms of the freeway – monotony, obsessive time and space, fatigue – do not exist for us; as soon as we get on it we get off again and forget it for five, ten hours, all night long. What can it matter to us if we barely see it, segmented as it will be in more than sixty pieces, brochette of serpent instead of a whole and hissing snake?’ – Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop, The Autonauts of the Cosmoroute

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christmas special

Before this blog shuts up shop for the Christmas break, there's just time to include a slightly longer version of my article in yesterday's Guardian. Merry Christmas everyone.

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in the Pax Britannica of three and four-channel television, Christmas properly began with the family purchase of the double issue of the Radio Times. This seasonal institution, first published in 1969 with the arrival of colour on all channels, was founded in the confident belief that television was our lingua franca and the nation would join together at Christmas in a diasporic community assembled in 20 million living rooms. In those days every sitcom or quiz show, however secular and unenchanted, had its own Christmas show. I would trawl the Aladdin’s cave of TV listings in search of any old rubbish with a festive theme, from Val Doonican in a reindeer jumper to Christmas Celebrity Squares.

One programme is routinely cited as the apex of this golden age of communal television: the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas special which, according to the Guinness Book of Records, brought together 28.5 million people to delight in Eric and Ernie and various BBC presenters performing “There is nothing like a dame” from South Pacific. There is a long tradition in British culture, running all the way from William Langland to T.S. Eliot, which supposes that we once possessed an organic common culture that has been fragmented by modernity. This is the televisual version of the myth: a lament for the lost capacity of TV to create shared moments.

History, of course, is rarely so neat. Television ratings in the 1970s were fiercely disputed. The figure of 28.5 million viewers for the Morecambe and Wise show came from the BBC’s own audience research. ITV’s figures, which the British Film Institute now prefers to rely on because they sampled households using electronic measuring devices attached to TV sets, suggest that their 1977 Christmas special was only the 11th most viewed programme of the 1970s, with 21.3m viewers, and the 10th most viewed was the Mike Yarwood Christmas Show which directly preceded it on BBC1, with 21.4m. So perhaps, instead of Morecambe and Wise bringing the nation together in laughter, they made 100,000 people turn off or switch over when they came on.

The point, though, is that people really want to believe there was a moment when most of the nation congregated around the TV, and this yearning for community runs counter to the market logic of the last three decades. Ever since the Annan Committee on Broadcasting reported in 1977, the received wisdom of government has been that broadcasters are an unelected elite imposing their uniform vision of the world on the rest of us. Thatcherism championed the notion of consumer choice against this BBC-ITV duopoly. The irony is that, in the less regulated, market-led environment created by the 1990 Broadcasting Act, those who watched television the most - old people - were the most ignored because they were least appealing to advertisers. Instead broadcasters wooed the ELVs or “elusive light viewers”, such as teenagers and young singles with disposable incomes. Then, with the rise of digital and catch-up television in the 2000s, the era of “linear viewing” was supposed to come to a definitive end. Just as we could create our own playlists on an iPod, we could now personalise an evening’s viewing like the atomised individual consumers the post-Thatcherite market wanted us to be.

Only it hasn’t happened. Saturday night event television like the X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing has revived the concept of live shows watched by whole families. True, the viewing figures are smaller than in the 1970s but in some ways the potential for collective involvement is greater because there are so many opportunities to comment and participate. Twitter, with its improvised invention of the hashtag to allow similar content to be searched and tracked, has allowed vast virtual communities to meet to discuss shows while they are being broadcast. There is also far more discussion of popular culture in serious newspapers and so even people who have never seen the X Factor know more than they would like to know about it. For better or worse, such shows revive Dennis Potter’s vision of television as a mass democratic form that could break through the intellectual and class hierarchies of theatre and print culture.

One of the defining qualities of TV remains that it can be viewed by lots of people at exactly the same time. Over the next few days it will once again create this ephemeral, undemanding form of togetherness as millions of viewers sit down to watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special, the new version of Upstairs, Downstairs and the Top Gear team driving to Bethlehem. Even as our politicians continue to recite the mantra of individual choice, the continued popularity of Christmas telly points to this longing for a collective life.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Brine town

I’ve always been fascinated by those moments when daily life breaks down and becomes visible beneath its thin veneer of taken for grantedness - such as when snow falls and we are suddenly aware of the elaborate collective apparatus that lets us get to work, buy food, take children to school and otherwise allow our mobile lives to function.

When I was travelling round the motorway system for my roads book, I kept coming across these strange, unmarked pieces of architecture by the side of the road. They turned out to be salt barns for storing and dispensing road salt. One massive specimen sits by the edge of the M5 in Worcestershire. 21 metres high and 21 metres in diameter, it holds about 2000 tonnes of rock salt. Locals know it as the ‘Christmas pudding’.

Road grit is a mixture of sand and rock salt. Sea salt is too fine and dissolves too quickly to disperse snow and ice, so all salt used in gritting comes from salt mines. Towns like Northwich, Middlewich and Nantwich take their names from the salt mines, ‘Wych’ meaning ‘Brine Town’.

Sheep and deer are often killed on the roads when they lick the rock salt left by gritters. Sweet-toothed sheep are also partial to the new type of grit, coated in molasses, which is used because it is less corrosive to cars. Seaside species like Danish scurvy grass and lesser sea-spurrey thrive on motorway verges because of the rock salt spread on the tarmac in winter.

Our lives are intertwined with grit. And how dare our masters nearly run out of it, like they nearly ran out of it last winter!

Mundane quote for the day: ‘While the earth has slumbered, all the air has been alive with feathery flakes descending, as if some northern Ceres reigned, showering her silvery grain over all the fields … In winter, nature is a cabinet of curiosities, full of dried specimens, in their natural order and position.’ – Henry Thoreau, ‘A winter walk’

Monday, 29 November 2010

Our man at the BBC

I’ve been reading, for professional reasons, John Birt’s autobiography. I won’t bore you with the politics and the management theory, but I liked this quote from Malcolm Muggeridge, who described the BBC as an organisation that ‘came to pass silently, invisibly; like a coral reef, cells multiplying until it was a vast structure, a conglomeration of studios, offices, cool passages along which many passed to and fro; a society, with its laws and dossiers and revenue and easily suppressed insurrection.’

And this presumably unintended witticism from Margaret Thatcher: ‘I never listen to the Today programme. It was particularly bad this morning.’

And this account of Birt hearing the politest of activist chants from his office in Broadcasting House (the famous stairs of which are pictured above) one morning:

‘What do we want?’
‘Radio 4!’
‘Where do we want it?’
‘Long wave!’
‘What do we say?’

As for news of the royal engagement, I am reminded of the poem that Pam Ayres wrote as an epithalamium on the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles:

My mother said, “Say nothing,
If you can’t say something nice.”
So from my poem you can see
I’m taking her advice.

Mundane quote for the day:
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
- Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Dreamers’

Saturday, 20 November 2010

In praise of Ken Barlow

This article by me about Ken Barlow appeared in the Guardian last week.

On 22 November a resident of No. 1 Coronation Street will become the longest running fictional character in television history and next month, along with the soap opera in which he appears, he will celebrate his half century. And yet still the nation refuses to love him. Never mind that he has had the sort of eventful love and working life that would give most of us nervous breakdowns. Ken Barlow remains our national archetype of a boring man.

Only, I don’t find him boring at all. Rather, I think Ken Barlow is a fascinating prism through which to read the political and cultural history of the last half century. In the first episode of Coronation Street we saw him living at home while studying at Manchester University, clashing with his postman father over the snooty look he gave the HP sauce bottle on the dinner table. I don’t know if the Street’s creator, Tony Warren, had read Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, published three years earlier, but Barlow was certainly the incarnation of Hoggart’s scholarship boy: the “uprooted and anxious” figure whose education had alienated him from his working-class origins.

The last few decades have been even more difficult for Ken. He was, after all, part of the left-liberal intelligentsia against whom Margaret Thatcher launched her long kulturkampf, blaming it for decades of national decline. And had he not already left the public sector, he would, as this newspaper’s most famous fictional reader, have been worried by Norman Tebbit’s prediction this summer that the spending cuts would “fall on Guardian readers, not Mirror and Sun readers doing essential jobs”. But Ken’s biggest problem is that, after 50 years of consumer populism, his own self-image as the street’s intellectual makes him seem so priggish and humourless. Clever people are now supposed to respond to contemporary culture with savviness and sarcasm, not judgmental earnestness. It is hard to imagine Ken watching a programme like The X Factor with the requisite combination of knowing irony, kitsch enjoyment and casual cruelty.

Ken’s life also sums up our equivocal attitudes to places like Coronation Street. The serial may have been instantly popular with viewers but Granada’s first chairman, Sidney Bernstein, thought its bleak imagery was the wrong image for “Granadaland” and many northerners agreed with him, blaming it for perpetuating southern stereotypes of the region and dissuading businesses from investing in it. Harold Wilson embodied this ambivalence by promising to demolish the nation’s Coronation Streets while professing to love the programme itself. The soap’s millions of viewers were still expected to follow the advice of the Tory MP Charles Curran in 1967 and rely on mortgages and the consumer boom to take them on “the escalator from Coronation Street”.

One stubborn soul failed to follow this advice: Ken Barlow. In the first episode, he was embarrassed about letting his new girlfriend see his humble surroundings and he has flirted with leaving the street many times, recently taking the drastic step of cancelling his order for the Guardian at the newsagents in preparation for going off to live on a barge. But once again he could not bring himself to leave. Unlike James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, who is rewarded for staying in his home town of Bedford Falls by a visit from an angel who reminds him how rich and fulfilled his life of thwarted ambition has been, Ken simply carries on with his imperfect marriage and dull life. He has been, among other things, a teacher, a journalist, a taxi driver, a waiter, a supermarket trolley pusher, a male escort and a Father Christmas. Rather than taking the escalator out of the class into which he was born, he has led what Hoggart once called a “carousel life”, a life not of the upward trajectory of the professional career but of living from year to year and taking whatever job turns up.

This is why Ken is so out of his time. He has refused to go along with the last half century’s stress on consumer aspiration and meritocratic elitism. Today’s young Ken Barlows might be lucky enough to win places to study at prestigious universities, but these institutions, as the recent Browne Report makes clear, will now be conceived solely as engines of economic growth and as places where students will pay higher fees in return for higher salaries when they graduate. By these lights, Ken has wasted his education and his life. He has played little part in “wealth creation” – fifty years ago, they didn’t call it wealth, they called it money – and is still stuck in the same house he lived in when he was a student, leading his carousel life, stoically and decently. What a dinosaur. No wonder we think he is boring.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

On weeds

I’ve been reading Richard Mabey’s new book, Weeds. ‘Plants become weeds when they obstruct our plans, or our tidy maps of the world,’ he writes. ‘If you have no such plans or maps, they can appear as innocents, without stigma or blame … I’m inclined to offer them a second opinion, to wonder what positive features we might glimpse in their florid energy.’

Mabey is in distinguished company. John Clare was the great poet of weeds and Darwin was fascinated by them as examples of accelerated evolution.

Naturally, I can't help drawing parallels between the common dismissal of mundane vegetation - except, I suppose, for the narcotic variety of weed - and our dismissive attitude to the human-made everyday. For buddleia and fat hen, read roundabouts and bus shelters.

I’ve also been reading Ronald Blythe’s new collection and found this in Mabey’s introduction, which summed up why I like Blythe’s writing so much, even if I occasionally find the lack of self-revelation tantalising:

‘Over the past half century we have been slavered with self-indulgent memoirs and egotistical confessionals, the literature of the “me” generation. Ronnie’s personal writing offers something far more valuable and noble: the literature of “us”, where the “I”, so to speak, becomes the eye, fascinated with the world beyond itself.’

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The gift

In his classic anthropological study of 1925, The Gift, Marcel Mauss showed that the ritual of gift-giving in tribal societies is rarely motivated by selfless good will, but is a tangled web of mutual obligation, duty and status-seeking. Mauss’s insights about ritualistic exchange could equally be applied to modern-day retail anthropology. Christmas shoppers will have been struck in recent years by the rise of the non-transferable gift: the product that no one would think of buying for themselves, and whose only function is to serve as a nicely packaged, reasonably priced present for someone else. At Christmas time, department stores devote large areas of floor space to these ‘gift ideas’, and newer stores like the Gadget Shop make a virtue of selling things of little practical use. The bizarre gizmos in the much-mocked and now-defunct Innovations catalogue seem to have been reincarnated on the high street.

There are several types of pointless gift. First, there are the ‘accessories’ linked to particular hobbies. Golfers fare particularly badly here, fobbed off with ball monogrammers, digital score cards, shoe bags and telescopic ball retrievers. Second, there are items that promise to provide their owners with a sense of humour by proxy, and which are usually associated with mildly loutish behaviour. Examples include beer belts (‘holds an entire six pack – hands free for convenience’), Friday afternoon hammers (‘It’s Friday afternoon. Get hammered: handy beer bottle opener with hammer’) and handbags inscribed with the words: ‘I smoke – deal with it’. Third, there are gifts that feed into media-created anxieties about health and hygiene, like talking calorie counters and ‘brush guards’ (toothbrush covers). Lastly, there are objects that do have a prosaic use but need to be given a veneer of classiness or labour-saving wizardry to turn them into gifts. Battery-operated corkscrews and metallic car tax disc holders fall into this category.

Pointless presents are linked to the burgeoning science of retail management. Companies now spend fortunes researching which areas of the store customers find most alluring, what forms of lighting and piped-in music make them buy things, and how shop layout and fittings can encourage customer traffic flow and ‘stopping power’. Shops spend most time and energy on so-called ‘point of sale’ displays situated near the checkouts, or in the queuing aisles at the checkouts themselves. These areas are called ‘impulse zones’, and are designed to sell customers things they never knew their friends and relatives needed. A logical move, given that not many people enter a store with the firm intention of buying an office voodoo kit.

Market analysts have seen these geek playthings as part of a new ‘kidult’ economy, as adults embrace grown-up toys to escape from stressful lifestyles and prolong their childhoods. But this assumes that customers make rational choices based on clearly defined needs. People don’t actually want any of these things; if they did, they would buy them for themselves, all year round instead of just at Christmas. In The Gift, Mauss discovered tribal communities that tried to drive each other to economic ruin by perpetually exchanging gifts of ever-ascending monetary value. At least there’s not much chance of this happening with grooming kits and screwdriver sets. The aim of pointless presents is to routinize the social minefield of gift-giving, making it profitable for companies and relatively painless for the rest of us.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The cardboard car

One of the memorable sights of the weekend of 11 and 12 November 1989, after the Berlin Wall came down, was the endless stream of mustard yellow Trabant P601s, or ‘Trabis’, trundling through the checkpoints from East to West. Jubilant onlookers celebrated with the Trabiklopfen, an energetic thump on the car’s roof.

During the Cold War, while Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen spearheaded West German economic success, the Trabi was the command economy on wheels. Nicknamed ‘the cardboard car’, it was made from Duroplast, an unrecyclable resin strengthened by Soviet cotton wool waste and compressed brown paper. Its two-stroke engine burned a petrol and oil mix producing ten times as much pollution as Western cars, although the accelerator pedal did have a point of resistance halfway down to discourage excessive fuel consumption.

The Trabi remained in production, virtually unchanged, for a quarter of a century. It was produced as either a ‘limousine’ or ‘estate’ car, in ‘standard,’ ‘special request’ and ‘de luxe’ versions, the latter having such exciting additional features as a different-coloured roof, chromium-plated bumpers and headrests. There was also a convertible Trabi with the trendy name, ‘Tramp’, a civilian version of the GDR army jeep.

After reunification, the East German market was flooded with used Western cars and the Trabant factory in Zwickau quickly went bust. East Germans, who had been on 10-year waiting lists for Trabis, now abandoned them in the street or exchanged them for more valuable currency like Western cigarettes.

But the process of kitsch recuperation soon began. Street artists made makeshift sculptures from these abandoned cars, and smart café bars recycled Trabi parts as furniture. Today, Berlin shops sell Trabi T-shirts, key-rings and die-cast models, and modish young people drive Trabis with jazzy paint jobs and souped-up engines. Tourists can go on a ‘Wild East Trabi Safari’ tour. You drive around East Berlin in a Trabi convoy, with a tour guide in the lead car providing a radio commentary, and at the end receive your ‘Trabi driving licence’. Trabi chic is part of the vogue for ostalgie, a tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for the old GDR which sees its pretensions to state-of-the-art modernity as endearingly dated. We can view the primitive rustbuckets of the past with a mixture of comedy and sentiment, safe in the knowledge that we will never have to drive the things.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The terrible privacy of the Toyota Prius

I’m appearing at the Off the Shelf Festival in Sheffield this Saturday with Jonathan Coe. Come one, come all: I’m not sure of the details but I imagine it involves exchanging folding money with someone, although I don’t anticipate ticket touts and teeming hordes.

Coe’s novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, has some parallels with On Roads. It’s about a sales rep who drives off to Shetland in a Toyota Prius, hangs out at service stations, falls in love with his satnav voice, and loses his way in the motorway system in a similar manner to Donald Crowhurst in the Doldrums on the solo round-the-world yacht race in the late 1960s. There are some telling descriptions of the motorway as non-place:

There was absolutely nothing to see, nothing to look at, apart from the little punctuation marks that broke up the motorway itself – roadsigns, chevrons, gantries, bridges, all of which merged into one indecipherable, meaningless sequence after a while anyway. There was countryside on both sides but it was featureless: the occasional house, the occasional reservoir, the occasional glimpse of a distant town or village, but apart from that, nothing. It occurred to me that the areas bordering our motorways must make up a huge proportion of our countryside, and yet nobody ever visits them or walks through them, or has any experience of them other than the monotonous, regularly unfolding view you get through the car window. These areas are wastelands; unaccounted for.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The outlook is bleak

It’s odd how attached we get to the weather forecast, that little extempore lecture to the nation, that consoling quotidian ritual that comes after the news. There has been a forecast on the BBC almost every day since 26 March 1923. The exception was during the Second World War, when the radio forecast was suspended in case it was helpful to the enemy, although the government partially relented in October 1944, allowing information to be given about the weather the day before yesterday. ‘Most people,’ the BBC bulletin stated laconically on the day the ban was lifted, ‘will have cause to remember it because in most parts of the country it just rained and rained.’ ‘Weather forecasts are a welcome return,’ wrote a Mass Observation diarist when the weather forecasts returned properly in 1945, ‘and we don’t care how many deep depressions threaten from Iceland or anywhere.’

Emine Saner from the Guardian contacted me on Thursday with the dismaying news that three of the BBC’s weather presenters are to be culled in a cost-cutting exercise. I was happy to express my admiration for one of the threatened presenters, Rob McElwee:


The journalist Brian Cathcart, author of an excellent short book about rain, recently tweeted that McElwee’s weather forecasts were ‘prose-poems’. It’s true, they are - and they also tell you what the weather’s going to be like, which is not as common as you might think.

This little efficiency drive is all, of course, just an amuse-bouche for the gargantuan main course of Wednesday’s announcement of the spending review results, which will I suspect feel similarly arbitary and illogical.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘If news and sports are of the same stuff and texture, then the weather report plays a literally pivotal role in the inversion and return from tragical or serious impressions of everyday events to their comical or farcical identities …

The programmers appeal to the archaic side of the divining arts in order to produce a timeless climate of myth … the myths which structure the manifold allegories also fabricate the news which frames the weather. In this fashion the meteorologist gives credence to catastrophe by forcing news to be subject to daily rhythms seemingly more timeless than the present currents of international events. He underscores their potentiality by folding them into patterns of the everyday, allowing us therefore to conclude that a balanced meditation on death (the news) and life (the weather) will allow anything to pass through the interstice of history and myth …

A most extraordinary and most everyday production of le quotidien, then, is the weather. It establishes a split between news just passed and future events and allows the occasion, in the time of the climate, for a fake presence to body forth through the report.’ – Tom Conley

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Don't burn your books

This piece by me about ebook readers was in the Guardian earlier this week:

The relentless rise of the ebook is turning me into a resentful Luddite. I want to snatch that smugly tiny ereader from the woman reading in bed in the Sony advert, and give her a doorstop of a hardback that will make her arms ache. As for that trendy young couple reading on the beach in the Amazon commercial, I want to kick sand in their third generation Kindles until they stop working.

My dislike of the ebook is partly motivated by selfishness: as an author I would like my words to end up in some concrete, permanent receptacle, not an erasable computer file which the reader does not even properly own. But mostly it is motivated by irritation at the orthodoxy, typified by Amazon’s widely publicised announcement this summer that its American ebook sales had overtaken those of its hardbacks, that there is an irresistible momentum in favour of digital downloads and the days of the printed book are numbered.

In search of counterevidence, I turn to the experience of the most Luddite author of the last century: George Mackay Brown, the reclusive Orkney poet who regarded the industrial revolution as a terrible wrong turning, warned against our worship of the “synthetic goddess” of progress, and used his column in the local newspaper to moan about voguish inventions like transistor radios and telephones. “What brisk hard-headed common-sense dehydrated little manikins we are nowadays,” he admonished his fellow Orcadians in 1955, “strutting around with our cheque-books!” He reserved his most caustic comments for television, which finally arrived on Orkney in the mid-1950s and which he feared would deliver a death blow to the already endangered activities of reading and communal storytelling.

Time passed, and television found its place on Orkney. It became a mild addiction, which weakened but did not come close to destroying the art of pub storytelling or the pleasures of the printed word. In his later years, Mackay Brown reluctantly gave “half a genuflection” to the goddess of progress. He belatedly acquired a black and white TV, a telephone, a fridge and a digital watch, becoming fascinated by its “dance of dark numbers”. He even listed watching TV as one his recreations in Who’s Who, alongside reading, while he carried on writing in longhand about twelfth-century Orcadian sagas.

I believe that Mackay Brown represents, in extreme form, how many of us late adopters respond to new technology. As the historian of technology David Edgerton argues, our understanding of historical progress tends to be “innovation-centric” rather than “use-centred”. We obsess about exciting new inventions and underestimate how much they will have to struggle against the forces of habit and inertia in our daily lives. Old-fashioned but serviceable technologies often prove surprisingly resilient. There was much amusement last year when the expenses scandal revealed that the former MP Chris Mullin, the Mackay Brown of Westminster, still had a black and white television set – yet, according to the most recent count, more than 28,000 other households also still have monochrome licences. A few decades ago we thought radio a dying form, but it is now thriving in the age of new media. Listeners remain emotionally attached to their analogue radios and a recent report from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport recommended that the switch-off of the FM signal be delayed, possibly indefinitely.

The valedictories for what is now disdainfully called “dead tree publishing” may be similarly premature. The lessons from history are that technological progress is uneven, that consumers are often sceptical of techno-hype, and that new technologies do not supplant old ones in linear fashion. Look at the iPad’s ebook reader: your book purchase is stored on a real-looking wooden bookcase and you take it off the shelf and flip its virtual pages over with your fingers. Why, it’s exactly like … reading a book! So long as the ebook continues to pay it the compliment of mimicry, I suspect that the printed book need not fear for its life just yet.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

So many tapeworms

All the anniversary programmes about the Battle of Britain have reminded me of the ‘scrap for victory’ campaign that began in summer 1940, aimed at collecting and melting down scrap metal to build Spitfires. The most controversial part of this campaign was the removal of the railings around London’s parks and squares. The Times welcomed the scrapping of the railings on aesthetic grounds, as one would the removal of ‘an unbecoming pair of spectacles’ on ‘the face of a pretty woman’; others saw it as a democratic, egalitarian gesture, allowing access to squares which had been reserved for the well-to-do residents of the surrounding houses. Unsurprisingly, the inhabitants of the squares were less keen, believing that the removal of the railings threatened their property values, and presented an open invitation for the lower classes to play football and sunbathe on their private property. They pointed out that the scrap value of the railings was probably less than the cost of removal, and that less symbolically charged items, such as redundant tramlines, had not been uprooted. Since tanks and spitfires cannot be made from cast iron, many rumours circulated that the railings proved to be unusable and had to be secretly dumped into the English Channel, the North Sea or some remote Welsh valley.

In his Tribune column in August 1944, George Orwell praised the removal of the railings as a social experiment which had opened up more green spaces to ordinary people, allowing them to stay in parks until late without being ‘hounded out at closing times by grim-faced keepers’. He noted that, with the end of the war imminent, they were erecting makeshift wooden railings around London squares so that ‘the lawful denizens of the squares can make use of their treasured keys again, and the children of the poor can be kept out’. For Orwell, the resilience of England’s ‘keep off the grass’ culture was an acceptance of the legalised theft of land ownership, and a victory for the few thousand landowning families in England who were ‘just about as useful as so many tapeworms’.

Orwell used the railings controversy as a way of imagining what sort of society Britain would become after the war. If there was to be a true social transformation, he suggested, it would occur in the mundane spaces and practices of daily life, where inequities of money and class were naturalised. Orwell was not alone in thinking like this. In the Architectural Review, Gordon Cullen developed the concept of ‘townscape’ in articles about park railings, public squares and traffic roundabouts. One of his concerns was the needless restriction of access, the replacement of ‘Common Ground’ with an ‘Urban no-man’s-land, germ-free, hygienic but socially utterly sterile’. He particularly criticised the ‘railing mentality’ that cordoned off public space and then compensated with a token gesture towards amenity such as a flower bed or rockery.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I like to have time and comfort in the loo. The bathroom is important and I couldn't live in a culture that doesn't respect it.’ – Tony Blair, A Journey

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.


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)

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The road to Eden

Every year I like to ‘get back to the garden’ by spending a weekend at the Shrewsbury folk festival, which I've just got back from. Granted, I only camp out for one night and someone else kindly puts up the tent for me. But still I like to venture out at first light along with the other alpha male hunter-gatherers and go foraging at every corner of the campsite for the last copy of the Observer. We return to our caves triumphant only to find that we have earned the displeasure of the womenfolk by buying 4 copies of the same newspaper.

These thoughts about getting it together in the country have also been prompted by my reading of Rob Young’s excellent new book, Electric Eden, which is partly a twentieth-century history of folk music and partly an exploration of the idea of an English rural idyll. It begins with the unforgettable account of the long-forgotten – then remembered again through a mobile phone advert – folk singer Vashti Bunyan, who in 1968 set off on an 18 month trek along Albion’s roads, in a gypsy cart pulled by her horse Bess, heading for the remote Hebridean island of Berneray.

This chapter includes this eloquent summary of the anti-mythology of the British road:

‘The land mass of the British Isles is not large enough to have generated a culture of the open road. Leaving aside such one-off terrace chants as Tom Robinson’s “2-4-6-8 Motorway”, the culture of British travel is more commonly linked to the sense of a quest, a journey undertaken for purposes of knowledge or self-restoration. In that sense, the British road is a road to the interior, of the imagination rather than a physical coverage of distance. Its poetic energy is supplied by lanes, forest spurs and hillside tracks, not motorways and slip roads.’

Young also reveals that the Beatles song ‘The long and winding road’ was inspired by Paul McCartney’s purchase of a country retreat on the Mull of Kintyre. It is ‘the B842 from Kintyre to Campbeltown rendered in treacle’.

I loved the names of the more obscure folk groups from the sixties and seventies, themselves redolent of the Edenic ideal: Midwinter, Oberon, Dulcimer, Madrigal, Amazing Blondel, Wooden O, The Druids, Fresh Maggots, Alphane Moon, Our Glassie Azoth, The Owl Service, Plough Myth International, The Straw Bear Band, Stormcrow, Tinkerscuss and Trembling Bells.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

On kindness

I wrote this piece about kindness for the School of Life column in the Observer magazine:

Does modern society suffer from a deficit of kindness? In a recent book on the subject, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor argue that kindness is an unfashionable, endangered virtue. They attribute this to the ascendancy of free market individualism and the lack of trust it engenders, which creates “a life of overwork, anxiety, and isolation”.

It is certainly true that kindness is rarely invoked in contemporary public rhetoric. The voguish word for our straitened times is not kindness but “fairness”. When everyone must bear their “fair share” of economic pain, kindness is likely to be regarded as a luxury we can ill afford, perhaps even as a form of sanctimony or concealed self-interest. Kindness now tends to be outsourced to specific groups, such as care workers delivering “care packages”, or reduced to the scripted concern of the customer-server relationship: “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

But in our daily lives, there is no evidence that kindness is in decline. Each era creates its own types of kindness. Children, who consume more of their parents’ lives than ever before, generate networks of kindness as adults share chauffeuring, sleepover and cooking duties. And while the casual cruelty of internet comments pages might suggest that kindness requires face-to-face interaction, the internet’s interactivity also inspires random acts of kindness among strangers: the recent lovebombing of Keanu Reeves, after he was photographed looking fed up on a park bench, is an example.

Granted, it may be easier to be kind to glamorous film stars, but surely the point about kindness is that it is spontaneous and can’t be legislated for. If, as philosophers from the Greek Stoics to Rousseau have insisted, we have a natural empathy with our fellow human beings, then kindness will surely survive the temporary setback of hard times.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

My day out

This little piece by me appeared in the Guardian travel section yesterday under the heading "My perfect day out in the UK". Er, I'm not sure I'd go quite that far ...

I wonder if I am the first person who has ever taken the train to Spaghetti Junction. I got off at Gravelly Hill station, northeast of Birmingham, and walked down the hill through a quiet suburb with Tudorbethan houses, gravel drives and faded neighbourhood watch signs. Then suddenly it was in front of me, the parabolic curve of a sliproad on the Aston Expressway - and beyond it, all the other roads on stilts: 18 of them, on 559 concrete columns. A giant pub called the Armada marked my last human outpost before I descended into the morass of underpasses underneath the Salford Circus roundabout.

I’d been inspired by French travel writers like Francois Maspero and Jacques Reda, who make intrepid journeys to mundane places like commuter suburbs and the undiscovered lands underneath elevated roads. I wanted to explore this place at the heart of the motorway system that most motorists pass through in a few seconds.

I had read that in the mid-1990s the council created a gravel beach here, with brave locals bathing in the network of canals underneath the junction. I now wondered if this was an urban myth, a joke designed to lure unsuspecting tourists into this wasteland. There was some sand and gravel, but no evidence that it had been placed there on purpose. I wandered around the whole 30 acres of the junction, and I saw some strange human remains – a Loohire chemical toilet turned on its side, some ripped hi-vi trousers – but no actual human being.

After a few hours I realised I was lost. My atlas was, naturally, no help, because it only showed the roads looping above me. When I tried to retrace my steps I kept encountering unpassable pylons crackling with electricity. Eventually I scrambled through a gap in a fence and walked across a mudbath of football pitch which led me back on dry land recognised by the Birmingham A-Z. On the suburban train back to Birmingham New Street, I got some odd looks with my shoes caked in dirt. I had returned from another country: the terra nullius underneath our elevated motorways.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Whitsun Weddings

I did this piece about Philip Larkin for the FT last week:

On Saturday August 13 1955, Philip Larkin, the poet and head librarian at the University of Hull, boarded a train at the city’s Paragon station. The slow train was bound for London and this journey inspired one of the nation’s best-loved poems: “The Whitsun Weddings”.

In the poem, Larkin sets out from Hull on a “sunlit Saturday” and gradually realises that the train is being boarded at each station by newly wed couples, all brought together briefly on this “frail travelling coincidence” of a railway journey. With a sceptical but generous spirit, Larkin captures the fragility of the human search for love, happiness and community. “The Whitsun Weddings” had a long gestation, being first broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme in April 1959 and later appearing in Larkin’s 1964 collection of the same name.

Larkin’s fateful journey, it should be noted, did not actually take place at Whitsun. In his recent book, Family Britain, the historian David Kynaston pins down this three-month discrepancy, a forgivable piece of poetic licence. Larkin noted when he finished the poem in 1959 that he took the relevant trip in August 1955, and his itinerary that month means that it must have been on the 13th. Whit Saturday in 1955, meanwhile, fell on the day before a planned national rail strike, and the so-called “Hermit of Hull” would never have boarded a long-distance train without a definite means of getting home.

Larkin did not find his return journey quite so inspiring. “I had a hellish journey back, on a filthy train,” he wrote to the friends he had visited in London, “next to a young couple with a slobbering chocolate baby”. While Larkin’s misanthropy and casual racism caused a temporary dip in his reputation after his death, his status as one of the great 20th-century British poets now seems assured.

Hull is currently hosting a five-month festival marking the 25th anniversary of his death, culminating in December with the unveiling of a bronze statue of Larkin by the sculptor Martin Jennings at Paragon station. It will complement another Jennings sculpture, of Larkin’s friend John Betjeman, at London’s St Pancras station, just across the road from King’s Cross, Larkin’s destination in August 1955.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The ant and the grasshopper

I did this piece on the importance of play for the Guardian last week:

At this time of year, the out of office auto-replies ping back with the certainty of Federer volleys. Everyone is “away”. We don’t call it holiday any more, as if, even in August, we need an unspecific euphemism to assuage our guilt at being absent from work. I am not away. I am still in the office in high summer. My name is Joe and I am a workaholic.

I should, at least, feel at home in the current political climate. One of the side effects of the recession-led reiteration of the need for “fairness” is a moralistic emphasis on redirecting limited resources to the industrious and deserving. Incapacity benefit shirkers must pick up their crutches and work; university lecturers must forego their long holidays; idle, nest-feathering managers must be culled and Stakhanovite frontline workers retained. Whatever the economic rights and wrongs of these arguments, I detect a mean-spirited, puritan streak in them. We must work, work and work to cut the deficit. Like Vershinin in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, we believe that one day life on earth will be beautiful, provided we put in a few hundred years’ hard labour first.

“Why should I let the toad work squat on my life?” asked Philip Larkin, weighed down by his in-tray, in 1955. But Larkin was writing at a time when most people believed in an automated future, when labour-saving machines would rule over the workplace and the problem would be how to fill the endless hours of leisure time. They needn’t have worried. Today’s political culture is dominated by the middle-class conservatism of Thatcherism, which was born in a Grantham grocer’s shop and which believes that work, and receiving just rewards for it, are central to human identity. The clichéd way of complimenting key voters in the New Labour years was to call them “hardworking families”. Hard work has become the definition of citizenship.

In their recent book, Bugs Britannica, Peter Marren and Richard Mabey remind us that these anxieties about doing useful work are part of our folklore. Perhaps the earliest example is Aesop’s smug little fable of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper spends the summer lounging about while the ant works away gathering food for the winter, when the grasshopper, unaided by the ant, dies of hunger. I prefer Richard Lovelace’s version: a cavalier poet writing during the civil war, he reversed the tale to castigate the sanctimonious ant who would not even allow himself an hour “to lose with pleasure, what thou got’st with pain”. Lovelace would surely have approved of the Muppet Show’s take on Aesop, in which the ant gets trodden on and the grasshopper drives off to Florida for the winter in a sports car.

The problem with work, as Aesop never acknowledged and it has taken me 20 years of work to realise, is that it never ends. This world is run by money, and there will never be a point at which money will say “enough”. The market goes on forever and it always demands more. The virtual markets which managerialism has brought to the public sector engage in a similarly infinite pursuit of “excellence” and “quality”. You could spend a lifetime of toil in search of these elusive abstract nouns.

Of course, work is a good and necessary thing in its place. It stops you from starving, directs your energies and can even, if you are lucky, offer friendship and community. But nature writers like Mabey have pointed out that seeing work as the meaning of life is a human, metaphysical invention; it has little basis in biology. Play, not work, seems to be the defining essence of life on earth. Elephants push over trees, penguins belly flop on the ice, birds chase each other or drop and catch sticks in the air, cranes leap up together like ballet dancers – and all just for the hell of it. While the new austerity requires us to put a price on everything, play remains priceless precisely because it is pointless: a way of simply enjoying and celebrating life when life is all we have. Play is also free, egalitarian and equilibrium-loving: it costs nothing and asks for nothing in return and is therefore an excellent model for sustainable living with scarce resources. “Thus richer than untempted kings are we,” writes Lovelace in his poem in praise of the grasshopper, “That, asking nothing, nothing need.”

At the beginning of the financial crisis two years ago, there seemed to be a brief possibility that it might allow us to reassess our priorities and value more those aspects of life – play, pleasure, friendship, free time - that do not show up in growth figures. But now the ants are on the march again, all of them warning that the grasshoppers will die in penury, just as Lovelace did. I don’t care for this joyless, ungenerous attitude in which we must constantly prove to each other how much useful work we are doing. I may be an honorary ant, but I have a soft spot for grasshoppers. Their days in the sun may soon be ended by the harvest sickle, or the scythe of government cuts. But until then, whether they are “away” or on holiday, I hope they can guiltlessly enjoy the sweet idleness of summer. Work is not the meaning of life. Take it from an ant who knows.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Not many dead

If only Charles Baudelaire, the author of today’s mundane quote, had lived into the 21st century, he would have been shocked by the capacity of modern news to regurgitate the self-evidently non-newsworthy, from the survey that reveals the bleeding obvious to banal details about the lives of the famous. Nick Davies has called this sort of thing “churnalism”.

Here are some of my favourite entries from Not Many Dead, an anthology of non-news stories from British newspapers collected by the Oldie magazine:

Fiona Bruce, the BBC Ten O’Clock News presenter, read the headlines last night assisted by a pair of glasses for the first time. – Daily Telegraph

Television entertainer Ruby Wax wrote the landlord of a pub near Bath an IOU for £3.15 after finding herself short of cash to pay for her bar snacks. – Western Daily Press

The letter “e” has mysteriously vanished from the side of the Tesco Express store in Thornwell. Someone who wished to remain nameless, said, “To be honest, I hadn’t even noticed it had gone missing.” – Monmouthshire Free Press

A garage on Silk Mill Road, Watford, was broken into. No property was stolen, only moved about in the garage. – Watford Advertiser

A windscreen wiper on a Skoda in Chapel Road, Brightlingsea, has been bent. – Frinton and Walton Advertiser

A police car sped to the centre of Wells on Friday afternoon after information that there was an incident and shouting was heard. But police found no trace of anyone. – Wells Journal

A housewife who reported all the washing stolen from her line to the police at East Grinstead phoned later to say she’d found it. – East Grinstead Courier

Lech Walesa, the symbol of resistance to Communist rule and former president of Poland, has shaved off his moustache. – Daily Telegraph

Mundane quote of the day: ‘Every newspaper, from the first line to the last, is nothing but a web of horrors. War, crime, rapine, shamelessness, torture, the crimes of princes, the crimes of nations, the crimes of individuals, a delirium of universal atrocity. And it is with this revolting aperitif that the civilized man starts his morning meal every day. Everything, in this world, reeks of crime: the paper, the walls and the face of man. I cannot comprehend how clean hands could touch a newspaper without a convulsion of disgust.’ – Charles Baudelaire

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.

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 fête, 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

Saturday, 26 June 2010

The last resort

I’m looking forward to Travis Elborough’s new book, Wish You Were Here: England on Sea:


I wrote these reflections on the seaside resort a while ago:

In 1986 the photographer Martin Parr published a book called The Last Resort, about New Brighton, a seaside town across the Mersey from Liverpool. Parr showed working-class day trippers surrounded by concrete and litter, snacking on lethal-looking hot dogs and turning unbecoming shades of crimson. The book made Parr's name but, understandably, New Brighton wasn't best pleased.

Parr's book alighted on an eternal preoccupation of the British seaside resort: social class. As the historian Harold Perkin has shown, this was often a question of land ownership. Where one or two landlords bought up all the land, as in Southport, the resorts had genteel pretensions. Where land was sold off in bits, as happened in Blackpool, "democracy created its own Coney Island".

When New Brighton was founded in 1830, it aspired to poshness: the houses were built on one side of the road only, to give residents a fine sea view. But it was soon swamped with rough sorts from across the water and by the 1950s had three million visitors a year. Then cheap air travel arrived, the tower (taller than Blackpool's) burned down, and tidal changes swept much of the sand away.

From the 1960s onwards Britain's fading resorts became a familiar metaphor for national decline, as described in Paul Theroux's The Kingdom by the Sea (1983): "So much had withered and gone, and reckless people had done damage with their schemes . . . The British seemed to me to be people forever standing on a crumbling coast and scanning the horizon."

Since Theroux wrote these words, however, our seaside resorts have met differing fates. If they are within second-home and mini-break distance for the so-called DFLs (Down from Londoners), they have acquired restaurants presided over by television chefs, and assorted downshifters. Beach huts sell for the price of New Brighton houses.

Less fortunate resorts rely on council-led regeneration schemes. After a flirtation with a Mr Blobby theme park, Morecambe has renovated its art-deco Midland Hotel, and Blackpool is pinning its hopes on stag weekends and casinos (while also applying to be a World Heritage Site). Sea and sand are barely mentioned. But the fate of resorts seems to depend more on location and the middle-class grapevine than large-scale projects.

Since the 1980s New Brighton has had regeneration plans - for a seafront theme park and a "pleasure island" set in an artificial lagoon - which all turned out to be castles in the sand. A few years ago the government has rejected a £75m scheme after a planning report criticised the "strong feeling of nostalgia" in its visions of a lido and model boating lake.

I visited New Brighton recently on a windy Saturday and, 20 years after Parr's book, the litter has gone and there is still plenty of beach, although the view of the Mersey Tunnel ventilator shaft may be an acquired taste. The appeal of the place is that it remains the seaside of our childhoods: mini-golf courses, flower beds surrounded by railings, coin-slot telescopes and shops selling windmills on sticks. The acts at the Floral Pavilion Theatre - Chris Clayton's Viva Elvis and Sooty's Izzy Wizzy Holiday Show - could have been playing there for 40 years. But the beach is deserted. Seaside nostalgics such as myself love New Brighton - but there aren't enough of us to pay the bills.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Here is another everyday life, unrecognizable yet recognized with its swimming-pools, white lacquered telephones, antique furniture … yet there remains one insuperable superiority: the demi-gods do not live in the quotidian, whereas the common mortal, his feet glued to the ground, is overwhelmed by it, submerged and engulfed.’ – Henri Lefebvre

Thursday, 24 June 2010

U and non-U

I’ve been on tenterhooks all day today, in emotional bits, wondering whether Andy Murray would bow to the Queen. Now the waiting is finally over and I can relax, I’ve been inspired to cobble together these thoughts on etiquette.

Anxieties about etiquette often respond to specific historical dilemmas. After World War II, middle-class commentators noted the increased incivility of workers who seemed reluctant to return to pre-war standards of class deference, what the writer J.L. Hodson called ‘a mild revolt against society’. A 1957 Times leader pointed to the ‘anger of the middle classes’ at the loss of a common system of manners, and complained that ‘it is nowadays hard to have a relationship with a subordinate which rests on mutual consideration based on acknowledged authority’.

Alan Ross and Nancy Mitford’s famous distinction between ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ in the 1950s addressed the problem of the genteel poor, which meant that the upper classes now had to differentiate themselves linguistically, by saying ‘napkin’ instead of ‘serviette’, and ‘how d’you do?’ instead of ‘pleased to meet you’. The lower orders could be kept in their place with subtle putdowns, such as the use of ‘civil’ to describe the behaviour of non-U people who knew their place (‘The guard was very civil’).

Nowadays, the changing nature of public space creates its own potential frictions. Places like supermarkets, hotels and airports often require no human interaction at all, just a series of anonymous contractual obligations: ‘queue this side’, ‘sign on the dotted line’, ‘key in your ID number’, ‘have your boarding card ready’. We can get through complex manoeuvres in daily life without actually talking to any one around us. But we are endlessly available to absent friends and colleagues through the use of mobiles and pagers. Hence the need for quiet zones on trains, and the silent seething of fellow passengers when we abuse them.

New technologies also generate uncertainty over protocol. In the 1980s, one etiquette expert ruled that it was an unforgivable solecism to hang up on an answering machine, claiming that leaving a message was ‘exactly the same in modern terms, as leaving one’s card with the footman’.

Twitter seems to have its own protocol – about following people who are following you, replying, retweeting, thanking tweeters who’ve retweeted you, etc. I fear I may already have unwittingly stamped over this protocol like a beered-up England fan with a vuvuzela in the Queen’s Enclosure at Ascot.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The true poem is the daily paper.’ – Walt Whitman

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Wish you were here

Why do holidaymakers still bother sending postcards? Now that we can relay instant text messages and snapshots on our mobile phones, the postcard seems like the definition of a redundant technology. By rights, it should be going the way of the telegram.

But the point of the postcard is that it is a material object, with its own elaborate rituals of sending and receipt. Tourist etiquette demands that it is purchased at the place it depicts, is rendered personal by a handwritten message on the back, and is posted (rather than handed over) to someone back home, even if it arrives later than the person who sent it.

So the postcard is the epitome of what linguists call phatic communication: a message with no inherent content, sent for its own sake and simply saying “hello, I’m here and you’re there”. The most touching item in Martin Parr’s cult book of Boring Postcards is a postcard of Reighton Sands Holiday Village, on which someone has scrawled the words “our caravan” in blue biro, next to one of about fifty identical-looking caravans.

The compound adjective, “picture-postcard,” to describe a scene of exaggerated prettiness, is misleading. Postcards have an inclusive, non-judgmental aesthetic. Often cheaply and locally produced, they have consistently expanded our definitions of the picturesque. In postcard land, as Parr’s collection shows, the Chiswick flyover and the Arndale Centre in Crossgates are as worthy of attention as the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower.

The messages written on the backs of postcards are also a social leveller. Before the arrival of the postcard in the late nineteenth century, there were Byzantine rules about how to open and sign off a letter, depending on one’s social status and familiarity with the sendee. It was bad manners to send a short letter, because the recipient often had to pay for the postage. But even the barely literate could write a brief postcard message, and they did not have to worry about whether to put the effusive “yours sincerely” or the more formal “yours truly”. The postcard message was the equivalent of today’s text message: non-elitist, informal, and laid back about spelling and syntax.

In his book The Post Card, the philosopher Jacques Derrida argues that postcard messages are a strange mixture of the public and private, circulating “like an open but illegible letter”. The message is written casually and can be viewed by anybody, including the postman; but the sender often writes in private codes and assumes a body of knowledge only shared with the sendee.

Tom Phillips’s anthology, The Postcard Century, which relates the history of the twentieth century through thousands of cards, is full of these kinds of semi-decipherable messages. The banal evasions of postcard language – “wish you were here,” “having a lovely time,” “we saw this and thought of you” – can hint at the much larger world of happiness or misery behind them. Senders of cards rarely produce the expected or appropriate responses to historical events, as their everyday anxieties intrude into era-defining moments. “I have been gardening all this week,” declares one 1911 card which carries a photograph of a condemned man in an electric chair. Another message from Berlin just after the fall of the Wall in 1989 complains to the recipient that it is “definite thermal undies weather”. The postcard message, as Phillips says, “bumps into history as a ball on a pin-table hits or misses, by hazard”. If all the postcards sent this summer were collected into an archive, their mundane, barely legible messages about missed flights and dodgy weather would eventually make for an equally gripping historical record.

Mundane quotes for the day: ‘It was Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless; and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has yet to show than a rainy Sunday in London.’ – Thomas de Quincey

‘The boredom of Sunday afternoon, which drove de Quincey to drink laudanum, also gave birth to surrealism: hours propitious for making bombs.’ – Cyril Connolly

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The girl chewing gum

Hooray! Someone has put John Smith’s short film, The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), on YouTube:


The film consists almost entirely of a single continuous shot of Stamford Road in Dalston Junction, a downbeat area of east London. The camera is mostly trained on the offices of a plate glass company at the corner of the street, and records passers-by as they go about their business. The conceit of the film is that everything that moves or appears within shot - pedestrians, cars, pigeons, even clocks – is following the instructions of an omnipotent director who appears to be behind the camera: ‘Now I want the man with white hair and glasses to cross the road … come on, quickly, look this way … now walk off to the left.’ Pedestrians put cigarettes in their mouths, talk to each other, eat chips, take their glasses off, cast a glance behind them or look at the camera, all at the apparent behest of this offscreen director. The mostly-fixed camera suggests a proscenium frame in which the pedestrians are actors waiting to come in from the wings of a stage set.

As the film progresses, though, this impression of directorial omnipotence is slowly undermined. The director’s instructions become increasingly complex and his voiceover starts to lag behind what is happening onscreen. He cannot keep pace with the action, as people arrive in shot whom he has not mentioned, and events take place that he has not prescribed. He becomes breathless, coughs and stumbles over his words. The world will not obey his instructions.

The Girl Chewing Gum was inspired by Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), a film about the making of another film. Smith was particularly struck by a scene in which the director gives instructions to the extras as well as the main actors, and even tells a dog to piss up a lamppost.

The pedestrians’ movements in Smith’s film – which have, in case you haven't worked this out by now, simply been filmed rather than directed - seem very strange when watched in this concentrated way. People do not just pass by: they stop, fold their arms and then walk back to where they came from; they read newspapers while walking, oblivious to where they are going; they flap their arms about for no apparent reason. And the strange fashions of the mid-1970s (tartan fleeces, collar-length hair, horn-rimmed NHS spectacles, flared trousers, sideburns and Afros) make the passers-by seem like they belong to a lost world.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

In defence of insincerity

In case you didn't see it already, I did this piece for Guardian last week:

When Big Brother began ten years ago, the critical consensus was that it would reward a new breed of addictive attention-seekers, all searching for their brief moment in the pages of Heat magazine. “Camcorders and the internet have stolen our sense of shame, and soon the inhibited will be a minority,” argued Cosmo Landesman, fairly typically, in the Sunday Times. “The British are on the brink of becoming a nation of exhibitionists and voyeurs.”

As the programme begins its final series, it is clear that this wasn’t the whole story. True, the inhabitants of the Big Brother house over the last decade have not exactly been self-denying anchorites. But the housemates who proved most popular with viewers were those who seemed to be sincere, authentic and consistent in their behaviour. Meanwhile, the most reviled contestants, from “Nasty” Nick Bateman onwards, were the incorrigible flirts, the look-at-me poseurs, the two-faced operators. Anthropologists tell us that gossip is a basic human activity, a vital means of sharing information, forming friendships and oiling the wheels of social life. And yet the worst crime in the Big Brother house was to be caught talking about someone behind their back. No one anticipated how moral the Big Brother viewers would be, what high standards of sincerity and integrity they would expect from contestants – standards they would probably never live up to in their own lives.

The virtual forms of self-disclosure that have grown up in the age of Big Brother point to a similar shift in our understanding of public and private space. When people uninhibitedly lay bare their private lives online, from posting photos of themselves in states of inebriation to updating the world on their changing relationship status, it seems to me almost the opposite of exhibitionism. Like the Big Brother housemates who really do appear to forget that the cameras are there, these social networkers have simply lost any sense that there is a different type of language and behaviour that is appropriate for public as distinct from private life. Their default mode is that of a freeflowing, private conversation, albeit one that strangers can overhear.

More than 30 years ago, in his classic work The Fall of Public Man, the sociologist Richard Sennett warned against this confusion that was arising between “public and intimate life” and worried that “people are working out in terms of personal feelings public matters which properly can be dealt with only through codes of impersonal meaning”. Politicians who flourish in this new culture, such as Tony Blair and David Cameron, are those who can master what the linguist Norman Fairclough calls “public-colloquial discourse”, a hybrid style that combines formality and casualness, ceremony and empathy, publicness and privateness. Those who are more comfortable with traditional forms of oratory and rhetoric, such as Michael Foot and Gordon Brown, struggle to fit in. Our leaders are now supposed to give a convincing impersonation in public of how they would look and sound in private, which is why it is such a disaster when they inadvertently leave their microphones on (removing your microphone being, significantly, a disciplinary offence in the Big Brother house). But not all forms of public discourse can or should be conducted like a private conversation. Politics, as David Runciman pointed out in his recent book on political hypocrisy, is a necessarily public activity and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a politician saying one thing in public and another in private.

It is not only politicians who must adapt to this new type of public sphere. Over the last few years I have noticed a very common neurosis among friends and colleagues. It is the fear, particularly felt by high-achieving professionals, that they will somehow be “found out”, that however many examinations they pass or however well they perform in their public roles, they will eventually be exposed as fakes and frauds. My hunch is that this anxiety is at least partly a product of our modern cult of sincerity, which has affected the nature of work in two important ways. First, formal work hierarchies have flattened out: first names, casual dress and open-plan offices are now common, and we are allowed to address our superiors in a fairly natural, spontaneous way. Second, both public and private companies stress the importance of fostering a strong corporate culture, in which all employees have to buy into a common ethos and embrace it enthusiastically. Modern workplaces value communication skills, teamwork, empathy – the sort of emotional intelligence that is so rewarded on Big Brother. I can recall watching the first series in 2000 and being amazed at how much the housemates hugged each other.

In our emotionally literate public culture, work has been reinvented not simply as the exchange of labour for money and status but as a source of existential meaning, something that fundamentally defines who we are. Of course, invidious hierarchies, cant and hypocrisy remain as resilient as they have ever been at work. But it is not enough, in this imperfect world, to be ordinarily efficient and competent; we are expected to be “on message” and believe wholeheartedly in what we are doing.

This is an unreasonable expectation, and it devalues the often heroic efforts we put into acting out a public role. One of my childhood heroes was John Noakes, everyone’s favourite surrogate uncle on Blue Peter. I remember the feeling of disappointment when I discovered that in real life Noakes was not the puppyishly enthusiastic, swashbuckling adventurer he presented on screen but a more introverted, cautious character who often resented the diktats of his BBC employers. “Noakesy was an idiot I invented,” he admitted later, “a stupid fool, my doppelganger who comes alive in the TV studio.” On reflection, however, I admire the extraordinary care and energy that this former actor must have invested in the creation of the semi-fictional character, “John Noakes”, who just happened to share his name. The man was clearly a pro, and his seamless performance showed great respect for his young viewers.

It is not only Walt Whitman who contained multitudes: we are all a complex mix of public and private versions of ourselves. Who is to say that the depressive, indiscreet, solitary self we might reveal in the pages of a diary written late at night is any more authentic than the measured, polite, urbane self we present to others during the day? A public self is also real – perhaps even more real than a private self, given the enormous amount of thought and effort we put into its successful realisation.

In public we may be more inclined to deceive and dissemble, but we are also more likely to be ironic, witty, playful, tactful, kind – all those rhetorical effects that make living with each other bearable, and which we deploy because we understand that the public is not the same as the private sphere. Sincerity may be a worthy (if sometimes unattainable) goal in our private lives. But what a suffocatingly earnest world it would be if we all had to act as if we were Big Brother contestants, behaving in public as we do in our living rooms.