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.