Mundane quote for the day: 'Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm of blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.' - Thomas Mann, The
Saturday, 31 December 2011
Time has no divisions
Mundane quote for the day: 'Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm of blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.' - Thomas Mann, The
Wednesday, 28 December 2011
Wednesday, 21 December 2011
The Christmas cookbook nativity
Sunday, 18 December 2011
A Christmas Poem
Christmas trees lined like war refugees,
a fallen army made to stand in their greens.
Cut down at the foot, on their last leg,
tied, they are driven through the streets,
dragged through the door, cornered
in a room, given a single blanket,
only water to drink, surrounded by joy.
they do their best to look alive.
Saturday, 17 December 2011
The Great Snow
Sunday, 11 December 2011
Mundane quote for the day: Habit, n. A shackle for the free. - Ambrose Bierce
Saturday, 3 December 2011
Nazism had ironed out some of the differences in continental practice,
In 1955, the Swedish government held a plebiscite on the issue. 'Leftists' and 'rightists' waged a fierce propaganda war, at the end of which 82 per cent voted to keep left. But the two main parties ignored this thumping majority and in 1963 cut a deal to force the change through. In a project masterminded by Lars Skiöld, director of the Right-Hand Traffic Commission,
What happened instead resembled a Situationist artwork, a poetic transformation of daily life. The changeover was preceded by a ban on all but essential traffic, while new traffic signs were uncovered and old ones covered up. Despite the early hour and the ban on traffic, traffic jams developed as tourists and TV cameramen swarmed on to the road to witness the change. At 4.50am all the traffic on
Why, if Sweden had managed the seemingly impossible, could Britain not do the same? A big problem was that Britain had a much bigger bus population than Sweden, and ministry of transport studies showed that the conversion of buses to have entrances on the right-hand side would have been the costliest aspect of the operation. The issue rumbled on and, after Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, some Europhobes were worried that the Economic Commission for Europe would press for uniformity. But by the end of that decade, the costs - in new road signs, road layouts, right-hand drive cars and buses - were too high to contemplate a change. Driving on the left side of the road has become so ingrained that the suicidally absent-minded motorist who drives the wrong way down a British motorway today – a fairly common occurrence in the 1960s – usually makes the evening news.
Thursday, 1 December 2011
Anarchy in the UK?
Historians of punk have tended to see this moment, combined with the release of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ at the end of November, as a pivotal event. In his book England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage argues that the song’s ‘ringing phrases … were powerful enough to insert the idea of anarchy, like a homoeopathic remedy, into a society that was already becoming polarized’. But punk’s success in ‘inserting’ these ideas into society may be exaggerated. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ sold 1800 copies on the day after the band’s appearance on Today but by Christmas it had only reached number 28. The number one record was ‘When a Child is Born’ by the easy-listening singer Johnny Mathis, with ‘Under the Moon of Love’ by Showaddywaddy (a rock’n’roll revivalist band discovered on New Faces) at number two. The atmosphere of moral panic around punk soon abated, reignited briefly during the Jubilee summer of 1977 when the Sex Pistols’ song ‘God Save the Queen’ improbably described the Callaghan government as a ‘fascist regime’. But the cultural work had begun to incorporate punk safely into the mainstream. An issue of Woman’s Own in October 1977 carried an article, ‘Punks and Mothers’, which showed photographs of smiling punks with their mothers accompanying a text which stressed their benignity: ‘It’s not as rocky horror as it appears … punks as it happens are non-political … Johnny Rotten is as a big a household name as Hughie Green.’
Tuesday, 29 November 2011
George Harrison day by day
Call George in
Sunday, June 16th 1985
George H calls from
Saturday, 26 November 2011
Enter your pin please
'People really do define themselves by their jobs, even when their job is humble. That's why the lady behind one of the many counters of the department store proclaims her ownership of the goods you wish to purchase from her. ('I've only got it in these two colours at the moment but I should have the complete range in again by Saturday morning.') At the supermarket, the person on the cash desk will ask you to enter your pin number even after you have already begun to enter it. ('Can you enter your pin number for me?') The person is really telling you that he or she is an indispensable part of the process. We should try not to smile knowingly: in the same position we would do it too. And in any kind of cooperative venture, to make light of somebody's job is the quickest way of making an enemy.'
Work defines us. 'Why do half the things we do,' asked Thomas Traherne, 'when one could sit under a tree?' But sitting under a tree would soon get boring, wouldn't it? Thoreau said we should not calculate our wealth by how much we earn or own, but by how much free time we have left over when our basic needs have been met. Bob Diamond, the CEO of Barclays, seems to have this Thoreauvian idea of work, because he refers to his large salary as 'compensation', as though it were keeping him from more important stuff he could be getting on with. But Thoreau always seemed to me to be pretty confident, if not overconfident, about finding things to do with his free time.
I have been on a research fellowship this year so I haven't been doing any of my normal teaching or admin. In September, although I was officially on leave, I kept being interrupted by knocks on the door by people who didn't know I wasn't officially supposed to be here. But people twigged soon enough: the knocks became more spread out, the phone stopped ringing, emails became less insistent. Much office conversation is spontaneous and accidental, and people don't stop by unless they need to. An MIT study conducted in the 1970s found that office workers are four times more likely to talk if they are sat six rather than 60 feet apart, and that people seated more than 75 feet apart hardly speak at all. We like to imagine we are in some way indispensable; in fact everything goes fine, if not better, in our absence. It is salutary to get this little inkling of a semi-posthumous existence when our jobs will go on without us.
Absorption in daily activities, even if they are as meaningless as the emptying of an in-tray, is a way of giving our lives rhythm and pattern, and the idea that there is something better we could be doing with our time is perhaps a comforting delusion. 'Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame', reflects Mrs Dalloway. 'All the more … must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries …'
According to Clive James, the most tragic line in Shakespeare is 'Othello's occupation's gone.'
Mundane quote for the day: 'Our life becomes divided between "work" time and "free" time. Both are part of that grand illusion, the Spectacle. Within the society of Spectacle all time is spectacular time. Sometimes we are the commodity and sometimes the consumer. In our "free" time we buy back what we made during our "work" time. "Work" time and "free" time serve each other.' - Guy Debord
Saturday, 19 November 2011
A single oak tree
I’ve posted before about the work of the painter Stephen Taylor, who spent three years in a field in West Bergholt, East Anglia painting the same oak tree in different lights, seasons and weathers. Now he has collected much of this work in a book entitled Oak: One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Painters (Princeton Architectural Press). ‘The branches from the lower part of the trunk had been pollarded (cut back), so its upper part seemed to float,’ writes Taylor, explaining how he chose the tree. ‘From the field in winter, it had a dramatic, clear structure against the sky. In summer, it was a magnet for birds, and as the sun crossed the sky it reflected sunlight in such a way that you did not see its shaded side, making the tree look quite flat. The whole thing lit up like a colour-changing emblem.’
Sunday, 13 November 2011
On 11 November 1937, an ex-serviceman, Stanley Storey, interrupted the two minutes’ silence at the Cenotaph. Breaking through the crowd and running into the road, he screamed “All this hypocrisy!” and something else that sounded like “Preparing for war!” Half a dozen policemen gave chase and, just yards from the Prime Minister, clambered on top of him and muffled his cries.
It turned out that Storey was an escapee from a mental asylum. But his shattering of the two minutes’ silence struck a chord. The Daily Mirror argued that the silence was now “a silence of shared impotence … what is the use of paying homage when every day we drift nearer and nearer to another war?” According to a 1938 Mass-Observation survey, 43 per cent of people were against continuing the tradition of the silence.
Nearly seventy years later, however, the silence remains unbroken. The British Legion, which has long campaigned for its observance on Armistice Day proper as well as Remembrance Sunday, is organising a big event this Saturday on the same scale as the Cenotaph service: an hour-long ceremony in Trafalgar Square which will culminate in the two minutes’ silence, followed by an RAF flypast, the Last Post and the scattering of poppies in the fountains.
The ebbing and flowing of observation of the silence has always mirrored political anxieties. In 1919, with much of Europe in revolutionary turmoil, it seemed like a good idea to have a secular ritual that could unite the people without demanding too much of them. “Capital and Labour were as one for two minutes,” the Times wrote approvingly of what was then called the Great Silence, “and the eloquence of the agitator was stayed by an impelling force.” The government moved the silence to Remembrance Sunday after World War II because it felt that commemorating the exact time of the 1918 Armistice was disrespectful to the dead of the more recent war. The revival of the silence on Armistice Day dates from 1996, following a two-year-long, rather bullying crusade by the tabloids to get the BBC and high street stores to observe it. The crusade began as a backlash against John Major’s ill-advised plans to “celebrate” the anniversary of the D-Day landings with spam-fritter frying competitions.
But the two minutes’ silence is more than simply a vehicle for the righteous anger of tabloid editors – partly because it hauntingly confirms John Cage’s observation that “there is no such thing as silence”. Jonty Semper’s CD, Kenotaphion, collects together recordings of the silences held at the Cenotaph since 1929. In each case the chimes of Big Ben are followed not by silence but by ambient noise: birdsong, distant traffic, shuffling feet, babies crying, the rustling of leaves. This is why the BBC lobbied hard in the 1920s to broadcast the silence from the Cenotaph. It knew that simply shutting down the airwaves for two minutes would not have the same impact as this resonant near-silence. The silence was a paradoxical by-product of mass society: a temporary stilling of the chaos of urban life which required all the accoutrements of modernity, like radio time signals and newspaper propaganda campaigns, to make it work.
Collective silence is now the default option to commemorate events of very different import, from the Indonesian Tsunami to the death of ex-footballers. No one is sure what these silences are for. So we have arguments about “silence inflation” - whether to raise the bar to three minutes for large-scale disasters – or wonder if it is more appropriate to clap than stand there silently. We seem to want silence to carry a freight of meaning that it can never bear, and to prescribe what effect it should have in a way that is likely to lessen its impact. The two minutes’ silence on Armistice Day, initially intended as a one-off, became a national tradition precisely because its meanings were so unstable and various. As one journalist wrote in 1919, it was an opportunity to unite in “thanksgiving, rejoicing, pity, life-long pride and grief”. The silence works by maintaining a delicate balance between public coercion and private reflection. All it requires of us is that we are silent.
Saturday, 12 November 2011
Britain in a Day
The resulting archive will be edited into a film that will be shown in cinemas and on BBC2 next year.
It follows Life in a Day, a similarly crowdsourced film about a single day – Saturday 24 July 2010 - lived all over the world. They received 85,326 clips from 198 countries, from Burkina Faso to French Polynesia. The film, which was shown on TV a few weeks ago, opens with the sound of a thousand concurrent breaths. Highlights include the Mexicans who produce a time-lapse film of the life of a pizza, from the dough being kneaded to the empty plate being washed up, and the man who takes viewers on a tour of Roanoke, Virginia, stopping to appraise his favourite lifts.
There is of course an Ur-text for these films and other similar projects: their inspiration is the Mass Observation Day Surveys, the first of which was on Friday 12 March 1937. Volunteers were asked simply to describe what happened to them on the 12th day of each month, however mundane. On 12 March, in Liverpool, a young office worker accidentally knocked down an elderly woman on his bike, and a labourer told him off for not ringing his bell. He went out at lunchtime to buy a hat for his wedding, and then ate at a Lyons Corner House with a friend. In a Birmingham suburb, a housewife was awakened from a strange dream about the author Aldous Huxley by her five-year-old son singing nursery rhymes. She waited for a man to call to read the gas meter, before going out to return some library books. In Northumberland, an accountant rose at 7.50am and decided to postpone shaving because he was going to a dance in the evening. At lunchtime he withdrew some money from the bank. On the evening train home, he noticed his fellow passengers had made little circles in the steamed-up windows with their coat sleeves so they could look out, which reminded him off ‘wiping the bloom off a plum’.
As the Belgian situationist philosopher Raoul Vaneigem once wrote: ‘There are more truths in twenty-four hours of a man’s life than in all the philosophies.’ One problem: I don’t have a video camera. Enjoy filming, the rest of you.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘The early editions of the evening papers had startled London with enormous headlines: “Remarkable story from Woking.”’ – H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
Sunday, 6 November 2011
Under the office
Office life is never news because, however unfulfilling it might be, it seems unproblematic and apolitical. Office politics are not real politics; they are petty, gossipy, personal, unchangeable. Office life is invisible to anyone who isn’t a part of it. According to the sociologist Ulrich Beck, the dynamics of modern, deregulated economies are increasingly hidden in this way: ‘The place of the visible character of work, concentrated in factory halls and tall buildings, is taken by an invisible organization of the firm.’ City-centre offices might serve as the company’s brand statement, with their high-rise towers, mirror-glass walls and welcoming atria. But the essential drudgery takes place where land and labour are cheap: in anonymous, shed-like buildings in out-of-town office parks, surrounded by parking lots and security barriers, without even a logo outside identifying the company.
Since this kind of mundane existence is how many people fill their days, it is odd that we reflect so little on its history and politics. With a few exceptions, like C. Wright Mills and David Lockwood in the 1950s, sociologists have steered clear of office life, preferring to focus on more obvious forms of social inequality. It has mainly been left to creative writers to cover this terra incognita. In Joshua Ferris’s novel, Then We Came to the End, rituals like ‘the great unsung pastime of American corporate life, the wadded paper toss’ continually subvert the managerial insistence that our working lives be creative and meaningful.
After World War II, William H. Whyte noted the rise of a management style that sought moral legitimacy through its emphasis on the employee’s ‘personality’ and ‘soul’. Whyte’s ‘organization man’ was suspicious of authoritarian leadership and viewed the group as the appropriate space for negotiating and resolving problems. But as Whyte noted perceptively, ‘if every member simply wants to do what the group wants to do, then the group is not going to do anything’. He invented a term, ‘groupthink’, to describe the forms of irrational collective psychology that developed in office cultures in which the overriding aim was consensus.
By the early 1980s, human-relations management had mutated into an evangelical new concept: corporate culture. In their book In Search of Excellence (1982), Tom Peters and Robert Waterman argued that the best companies had strong cultures, in which all employees felt part of the firm and bought into a common ideal. This book, the first management text to make the New York Times bestseller list, appeared at an opportune moment – in the middle of a recession in America, when the Japanese work model of company songs and other rituals of belonging seemed to be the future. Britain was also going through a recession at this time, as well as supposedly suffering from the more chronic ‘British disease’ of mediocre management and demotivated workers. Fostering a strong corporate culture, particularly by urging workers to have a positive, can-do attitude, soon became a ruling motif in transatlantic business life.
But the decline of formal office hierarchies comes at the cost of uncertainty about where work begins and ends. The academic Andrew Ross, who spent several months in a trendy, Manhattan media firm in the late 1990s, calls it ‘no-collar’ work. Its first-name etiquette and dress-down culture tend to blur the distinctions between the office and our social lives, reframing work as an ‘existential challenge’ and enlisting ‘employees’ freest thoughts and impulses in the services of salaried time’.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘An unreasonable world, sacrificing bird-song and tranquil dusk and high-golden noons to selling junk – yet it rules us. And life is there. The office is filled with thrills of love and distrust and ambition.’ - Sinclair Lewis, The Job
Monday, 31 October 2011
M25 at 25
The M25 is 25 today. On 29 October 1986, Margaret Thatcher cut the ribbon across an eight-mile section of the London Orbital near Watford, the final and crucial bit that closed the circle. If there are any official commemorations of this anniversary, I have missed them; a birthday party for the most hated road in the country would perhaps not be well attended. Our antipathy to the M25 reveals much about shifting attitudes to roads over the last half century. In its thrilling early days, the motorway system was known by its epic cross-country routes (the M1 being called, with some fanfare, “the London-Yorkshire motorway”) but it is now the M25, mentioned daily on traffic reports as a vortex from which none can escape, that best sums up the public mood. The motorways that once carried hopes of uniting the nation now evoke images of eternal circularity, encapsulated in those mythical tales of foreign tourists (or, in some versions, confused pensioners or naïve northerners) who drive round the M25 for days in the mistaken belief that it is the M1.
But perhaps the anniversary should be celebrated, if only as a reminder of how distant the year 1986 now seems. For one thing, the M25 was opened by a prime minister prepared to attend a road opening and celebrate it as “a showpiece of British engineering skills, planning, design and construction”. In response to those who were arguing that the road was already congested, Thatcher said: “I can’t stand those who carp and criticise when they ought to be congratulating Britain on a magnificent achievement and beating the drum for Britain all over the world.” The M25’s popularity, she argued, was a sign of its success, and criticisms of it put her in mind of an old saying that “nobody shops at Sainsbury’s because of the queues”.
The prime minister was not alone in this attitude: the inauguration of the M25 was the last major road opening to generate real public excitement. The queues at both ends of the final section were much longer than usual because drivers were itching to be the first to complete an orbit. When the Guardian’s Terry Coleman drove along it shortly after the cones had been removed, he saw crowds waving from the bridges just as they had done when the M1 opened in 1959. His main complaint was that, at just three lanes, the M25 was not big or bold enough. It was also “absurdly too far out from the centre, which must be obvious even to those bicycling protectors of disused allotments, and the like who ensured by their protests that it should not be closer in”. The M25, Coleman argued, summed up “the mangy poverty of our present expectations”.
The completion of the M25 now seems to symbolise the high water mark of Thatcherism. It was accompanied by that mid-1980s phenomenon, a huge surge in house prices, all the way round its perimeter. Property prices in west Kent, in towns like Sidcup and Sevenoaks, rose by a quarter in 1986, exceptional even for the south-east equity bonanza of the period. The M25 also opened just two days after Big Bang, which ended restrictive practices in the City and ushered in a frantic era of takeovers and salary hikes. Some of these high-flying City traders quickly realised that the M25’s 117-mile circuit could serve as an illegal racetrack. They would meet up at a service station in the early hours of a weekend morning and race round the Orbital in their Porsches and Ferraris, the Dartford tunnel serving as an impromptu pitstop. The story of these Cannonball runs was uncovered by a young reporter for The Times, called Boris Johnson.
It all seems so eighties, a vanished world of red braces and mobile phones the size of bricks. But the M25 is still here and, even if nobody loves it, it hasn’t taught us much. The coalition government has made the same connection as Thatcher did between roads and entrepreneurialism, and recently declared an end to the “war on the motorist” by raising motorway speed limits. City traders no longer use the M25 as a racetrack, but the mood of braggadocio that inspired those midnight runs survives in certain quarters, undented by recent events. 1986 seems so long ago; and yet so little has changed.
Saturday, 29 October 2011
The art of walking
Nicholson suggests that the longest ever uninterrupted walk was probably taken by the adventurer Sebastian Snow (1929-2001) who walked 8700 miles from Tierra del Fuego to the Panama canal in 19 months. ‘By some transcendental process,’ Snow wrote in his book The Rucksack Man, ‘I seemed to take on the characteristics of a Shire [horse], my head lowered, resolute, I just plunked one foot in front of t’other, mentally munching nothingness.’ He had intended to walk all the way to Alaska but got bored.
Nicholson does not mention another epic walk, made by the comedian Ronnie Barker, as recounted in his autobiography, Dancing in the Moonlight. As a young man he worked unhappily as a hospital porter until, desperate to get into acting, he joined a touring mime company in 1950. After a few weeks of ‘misery and despair’, the tour collapsed in Cornwall without enough money for train tickets, and Barker had to walk all the way back home to Oxford.
Another great pedestrianist was Phyllis Pearsall (1906–1996), the founder of the London A-Z. (Nicholson once wrote a novel, Bleeding London, in which a character tries to walk every street in London using the A-Z.) Here is the account in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
Back in London in 1935 Phyllis Pearsall made a living painting portraits, but she was disillusioned by the pretentiousness of the art world and ready to take on a new challenge, and when she got lost one evening in the streets of London and subsequently realized that the most recent street map of London dated from 1919 she decided to produce her own. Starting with the Ordnance Survey sheets she walked the streets of London for eighteen hours a day, compiling a 23,000 card alphabetical index of streets, which she kept in shoeboxes under her bed, and produced the first London A–Z Street Atlas in 1936.
What the ODNB doesn’t mention, but which I read somewhere, is that Pearsall then took 250 copies of the A–Z in a wheelbarrow to W.H. Smith’s, and they bought them from her.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘Walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the same street each with the lamplight of the living-room shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of wheels.’ – Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums, cited in Nicholson, The Lost Art of Walking
Sunday, 23 October 2011
Mind you, that was before they discovered lamination. I wonder if Shelley would have felt differently about Ozymandias if he’d been immortalised in a non-biodegradable table mat. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that it was very nice of the photographer Edward Chell to send me some of the table mats from his recent photographic exhibition, ‘Gran Turismo’, at the Little Chef, Ings, on the A591 into Windermere, some of which incorporated quotes from On Roads. Chell has another solo exhibition, Viewing Stations, investigating the landscape of the motorway verge, in London in November. You can find out more here: http://www.edwardchell.com/. Chell is also co-editing a book, In The Company of Ghosts; the Poetics of the Motorway, to be published by erbacce-press next spring.
I note that, in his new memoir, Alan Partridge writes that one of the programme ideas he unsuccessfully pitched to the BBC, co-devised with Bill Oddie, was Motorway Rambles: walking the hard shoulders of British trunk roads with special permission from the Transport Police. Chell is one of several people – others include the vicar John Davies, who wrote a rather excellent book a few years ago about walking the M62 - demonstrating that this is not in fact a remotely Partridgesque activity but a worthwhile and enlightening one.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘The question should be, then, not how we break through the sludge of habit to rediscover the hidden strangeness of things, but how we ever managed to convince ourselves that anything was not a dissemination of intelligence. Boredom is the amazing achievement, not wonder. Our senses can catch only a narrow portion of the spectrum: the cosmic rays, rainbows above or below the range of visible light, or tectonic groans of the earth all elude us. What the moralists have said about the universe, science since Faraday has proved to be empirically true: We are immersed in a sea of intelligence that we cannot fully understand or even sense.’ – John Durham Peters
Wednesday, 19 October 2011
An ecstasy of concrete
Mundane quote for the day: ‘Science owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to science; without the dyer’s art there would be no chemistry; metallurgy is mining theorized.’ – Clifford Geertz
Sunday, 16 October 2011
Seen from the window
The characteristic features are really temporal and rhythmical, not visual. To extricate the rhythms requires attentiveness and a certain amount of time. Otherwise it only serves as a glance to enter into the murmurs, noises and cries … Over there, the one walking in the street is immersed into the multiplicity of noises, rumours, rhythms … But from the window noises are distinguishable, fluxes separate themselves, rhythms answer each other.
I’ve been looking out of the window more often than usual lately. I am on a research fellowship this year so am not teaching, and my office at work is directly above a terrace where students and members of staff walk and sometimes chat between classes. I used to see people gossiping, laughing, exchanging cigarettes and lighters, and blowing their smoke into the air: that international, wordless language that breaks down the inevitable awkwardness between people who are not quite strangers and not quite friends. Now, because the terrace constitutes part of the building and is covered by the smoking ban, the smokers have been banished to the steps below the Anglican cathedral, where they sit on their own looking, at least from a distance, pensive and disconsolate. Now, instead of cigarettes, a hundred mobile phones flip open as soon as the students come out of lectures. You could write an MA thesis about the anthropological significance of the facial and hand gestures that people adopt when they are talking on their phones. The person on the other end of the line can’t see you, you know! And of all the windows in all the world, these little gestures, tics, glances and snatched conversations came to be seen by me out of mine.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.’ - Bruce Robinson, Withnail and I
Saturday, 8 October 2011
Crisis? What crisis?
It is now normal to read these popular entertainments as a kind of wilful distraction from political events. But perhaps these trivial preoccupations point to a more complex account of late 1976 than the media rhetoric of crisis suggested. The mid-1970s ‘crisis’ was experienced most keenly by opinion-forming elites. The early and influential converts to monetarism – mostly in The Times and the Financial Times - tended to talk up the possibility of impending national disaster, and to remind readers of the dire predictions about Britain’s future in American right-wing media like the Wall Street Journal and CBS News, which had more than one eye on US domestic politics in seeking to present the UK as a cautionary tale. These moments of banality in daily life in the run-up to Christmas 1976 suggest that not all Britons were convinced by these apocalyptic narratives.
In early 1977 a Gallup international survey revealed that Britons believed themselves to be among the happiest people in the world. In 1978 the Washington Post’s London correspondent, Bernard Nossiter, argued in Britain: A Future That Works that the ‘voices of doom … the scribes and prophets of disaster’ had been wrong about the UK, that its levels of state spending and taxation were normal by European standards and the overall postwar trend of rising affluence, which had doubled living standards since the war, would survive the world recession. ‘Is it possible,’ he asked, ‘that the whole episode is a case of hypochondria?’
Mundane quote for the day: ‘”I see the news is bad again.” The banal phrase punctuates my memories of the late 1930s. I remember an adolescent anger that people would not name the things that were happening: the invasion of Austria; the cession of the Sudetenland; the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Albania – all packaged as “the news”.’ - Raymond Williams
Saturday, 1 October 2011
The modern English style
As the historian Ross McKibbin reveals in his book Classes and Cultures, ballroom dancing has long been a political minefield. The Official Board of Ballroom Dancing, established in 1929, was specifically formed to stamp out the ‘freakish’ steps of jazz-inspired crazes like the Charleston and the Varsity Drag, which threatened to ‘turn the ballroom into a bear garden’. The OBBC sanctioned only four official dances – waltz, foxtrot, quickstep and tango – and rigorously policed any illegal steps, lifts and sidekicks. Victor Silvester’s seminal textbook, Modern Ballroom Dancing (1927), claims that the basic principles of ballroom are ‘as permanent as the law of gravity’.
This ‘modern English style’ was an attempt to stem the inexorable invasion of imported American music and dance. One dance teacher lamented ‘the admission of jazz music and dubious steps into decent places’, insisting that they originated ‘in low negro haunts and had au fond a prurient significance’. The ruling bodies were terrified that dancing might be seen as sublimated sex, and indeed the churches often condemned the dance halls for their vulgarity and immorality. So the dancers’ feet had to be parallel, their hips straight and their knees kept together.
The social research organisation, Mass Observation, thought these rigid rules threatened the whole future of social democracy. The ballroom was creating supine, apathetic citizens by pointing them ‘away from social feeling and activity and towards a world of personal superstition and magic’. Mass Observation even calculated that people who went to dancehalls were 12% less likely to vote than average (an uninformative statistic, since under-25s were the most likely to go dancing and, then as now, the least likely to vote). The regimented ranks of ballroom dancers were sleepwalking to ‘the paradise-drug of the American dance-tune’ with ‘the same surrender of personal decision as that of uniformed Nazis’. Mass-Observation claimed in 1939 that anti-fascists broke up a demonstration by Walter Mosley’s black shirts by ‘doing the Lambeth Walk’, and they suggested that the communal, improvised nature of this dance could teach us ‘something about the future of democracy’. The Lambeth Walk was frowned on by the dancing professionals, along with other communal dances like the Conga and the Hokey-Cokey.
But even Mass Observation conceded the startling contrast between the ‘mechanized barbarity’ of dancehall music and the wordless decorousness of the dancers’ movements. In order to request a dance, a young man would simply touch a potential partner lightly on her elbow, and they would move silently on to the floor. It was quite normal for partners to dance for hours without speaking to each other, before going their separate ways. The ballroom was a world of conscious artifice and unspoken courtesies, as pointlessly beautiful as the laws of cricket. Its rules were simultaneously hierarchical and egalitarian. Dance steps were rigorously policed, but every local palais had learner nights where the most physically inept could be taught the same basic moves.
The modern English style was one of Britain’s last imperialist successes, spreading unopposed throughout Europe, America and the Empire. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes about spending endless hours of his student days in the early 1940s practising foxtrots and waltzes to a crackly phonograph record, encouraged by his idol, Victor Silvester.
Mundane quote for the day: 'You are always alone with the oddness of modern consumption. Walking under the white lights of Sainsbury’s you find out just who you are. The reams of cartons, the pyramids of tins: there they stand on the miles of shelves, the story of how we live now. Cereal boxes look out at you with their breakfast-ready smiles, containing flakes of bran, handfuls of oats, which come from fields mentioned in the Domesday Book.' – Andrew O’Hagan
Saturday, 24 September 2011
Rendering unto Caesar
I always used to like the way a single person, with the title of Inspector of Taxes or somesuch, used to write to you in person and command you to let him know all about your taxable income and capital gains. He sounded like someone with the anonymous, unchallengeable authority of the Wizard of Oz or Big Chief I Spy, although like Big Chief I Spy, I imagine he got one of his redskins to do his filing. Nowadays HMRC have dispensed with this formulation, and make no attempt to keep up the charming pretence that a single person can be arsed to check though my calculations about my freelance writing. Anyway, I have rendered unto Caesar, in my case the HMRC Area Manager, and await the dreaded bill in the post.
In a recent post, I speculated that the to-do list was of recent vintage. But Nicola Shulman writes in Graven with Diamonds, her recent biography of the Henrician poet Thomas Wyatt, that ‘Thomas Cromwell had a habit of writing down his “remembrances”, that is to say, to-do lists for the business of the moment.’ The mea culpa is on my to-do list.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘Life isn’t Hollywood, it’s Cricklewood.’ – Eric Morecambe
Sunday, 18 September 2011
Pylons have been in the news again this week as the shortlist of designs in a competition to create new versions for the 21st century went on display at the Victoria & Albert museum. Pylons also featured on the One Show, with Professor Valentine Cunningham, an expert on the literature of the 1930s, reading from Stephen Spender’s 1933 poem ‘The Pylons,’ an ambivalent response to ‘those pillars/Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret,’ whose ‘quick perspective of the future’ dwarfed ‘our emerald country by its trek’. The presenter of the piece, the former England spin bowler Phil Tufnell, mentioned the Pylon Appreciation Society and the website Pylon of the Month, but fortunately with only the contractually obligated degree of archness.
This is from Rob Young’s book Electric Eden:
In 1928 Britain’s first electricity pylon was erected just outside Edinburgh. The steel structure was skeletal and vaguely anthropomorphic, with six arms to carry the three-phase cables across large tracts of terrain. Most of today’s pylons are variations on the original design by Sir Reginald Bloomfield, the architect responsible for remodelling London’s Regent Street as a curving neoclassical terrace. Blomfield was a fervent horticulturalist whose 1892 book The Formal Garden in England had reintroduced the idea of gardening as stiff upper-lip horticulture; among other opinions, he claimed to despise the ornamental fancies of William Morris’s organic tapestries. In 1953 a new crop of National Grid power stations was rolled out (including the one at Bankside in London, now Tate Modern), and the electrification of Britain was accelerated with the imposition of a “supergrid”, carried by the newly designed PL1 pylons that are still the dominant model fifty years later. Britain’s open fields and moors had become parade grounds for an army of steel wicker men.
Interesting fact from yesterday’s Guardian: Pam Ayres’s father was a linesman for the Southern Electricity Board, a Berkshire version of Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman. There is a buried romance to the life of the linesman, just as there is in the design of pylons, which may have to be the subject of a future blog post …
Wednesday, 14 September 2011
Trains of thought
The train carriage has always brought people together in an awkward mix of tolerance and irritation. Its forerunner, the stagecoach, was a garrulous mini-community by comparison. In 1818, William Hazlitt remarked that “you will hear more good things on the outside of a stage-coach from London to Oxford, than if you were to pass a twelvemonth with the Undergraduates or Heads of Colleges of that famous university”. When the railway carriage arrived in the 1830s, its greater comfort encouraged musing and window gazing, and made solitary, silent activities like reading and sewing possible. By 1862, the Railway Traveller’s Handy Book was complaining: “Generally speaking, the occupants of a railway carriage perform the whole of the journey in silence … This is most unnatural and unreasonable … Why should an Englishman ever be like a ghost, in not speaking until he is spoken to?”
When the earliest, brick-like mobile phones appeared in the late 1980s, this etiquette began to change. What might have been seen only two decades ago as unBritish self-display – having an uninhibited conversation in public - is now grudgingly accepted, without some of us ever quite getting used to it. It is not just that train passengers disagree about the nature and value of silence, but that mobile phones occupy the user and repulse strangers more comprehensively than books or newspapers. In doing so they have subtly altered the already fragile social dynamic of the train carriage, making us seem ever more absent to each other. In A Book of Silence, the author Sara Maitland argues that our ambivalence about silence stems from two conflicting contemporary ideas: first, “that we feel ourselves to be happy and fulfilled only when we are interacting with other people”, and second, “the equally popular mythology that stresses individual autonomy and personal ‘rights’.” Some of the occupants of a train carriage want to be left alone to get on with work; for others, such “work” involves noisily conversing with other people.
The expectation that other people should be silent seems to be an arbitrary, changeable affair. Actors increasingly complain of mobile phones putting them off in mid-soliloquy, but theatre audiences were not always expected to be quiet. In his recent history of celebrity, Fred Inglis traces this convention of sitting in reverential silence back to the actor-manager David Garrick, who in the mid-eighteenth century “taught the London audiences, bit by bit, to suppress their chatter, their zoo noises and bursts of ribald song, their bombardments of fruit onto the stage”. Perhaps today’s noisier theatregoers are simply returning to a pre-modern, natural state. Maitland sees the interruption of silence as an artificial affliction of modernity, but I am not so sure. Certain environments have certainly become noisier: libraries now seem actively to encourage conversation and clatter. But many things are quieter than they used to be: you no longer hear the incessant hammering of the typing pool, and today’s warehouses and factories are places of cathedral-like calm compared to a generation ago.
I share Maitland’s love of silence, although not enough to challenge anyone disturbing me in a quiet zone. But I cannot decide if the desire for it is natural or unnatural in our herd-loving, compulsively communicative race. When I was a student, I happily wrote essays in crowded common rooms; now I cannot write if there is so much as a creaky floorboard in the room above me. It is amazing how much noise you can get used to, and then how much silence you can become accustomed to demanding. So I am not surprised that the quiet zone of a train carriage is such an area of conflict: for I am never so estranged from my fellow citizens as when, in the middle of their never-ending noise, I feel the need for silence.
Sunday, 11 September 2011
This reminds me of a bit in the late Gordon Burn’s book Best and Edwards: Football, Fame and Oblivion where George Best is marooned in his white-tiled modernist house in Bramhall: ‘The papers got very excited by the fact that he could lie in bed and open and close the curtains, dim the lights and open the garage doors at the flick of a switch. He could flick another switch and the television could disappear up the Scandinavian-style chimney … The remote for the gadgets went on the blink, with the TV yo-yo-ing up and down the chimney and the curtains opening and closing of their own volition …’
I am also reminded of an episode of the American sitcom Cheers in which the bar regular, Norm, is transfixed by a bank of big screen, satellite-linked TVs on the wall. ‘Well Normie,’ says his friend Cliff, ‘this is the information age. We can get up-to-the-minute stock prices, medical breakthroughs, political upheavals from all around the world. Of course, we’d have to turn off the cartoons first.’
Mundane quote for the day: ‘Arthur Koestler's satire of academic conferences, The Call Girls (1973), included an extreme leftwing French professor whose secret comfort was to lock his door and retire to bed to read The Three Musketeers while eating chocolate truffles. I sometimes thought of him when I indulged in my own curious vice, which was to watch Blind Date when working out on the rowing machine. This prototype for many far worse versions of humiliation television took my mind off the hamster-wheel boredom of static, indoor exercise. In fact its true awfulness and the glimpses of young macho-macha life in this country proved utterly gripping. The girls were often the crueller, when putting down their artificially selected partners, and it was hard not to feel sorry for the inarticulate and pathetically boastful young males. They could not see how things had changed and how they had become potentially redundant in the brave new world of mass communication to which they had exposed their own pitiful inadequacies.’ - Anthony Beevor
Saturday, 6 August 2011
Writing at the terminal
In his recent documentary series, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Adam Curtis tells the story of Bill Hamilton, a brilliant but eccentric evolutionary biologist who thought that all human behaviour could be explained genetically. As Curtis explained it, Hamilton would sit for hours on the platforms of Waterloo Station, looking at the commuters, trying to figure out the secrets of human behaviour as an entomologist might examine the movements of ants. I think Curtis meant to suggest this was how deranged Hamilton had become, a judgment which, as a student of the everyday, I naturally flinched at. Whether or not people behave like ants, I am sure you could discover a lot from spending time in a commuter station and watching closely the patterns of lovers kissing and parting, and people dashing for the train or anxiously peering at the annunciator boards or just looking for the toilets.
According to Hamilton’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the truth may be more prosaic. Hamilton was not looking for the secrets of life but for somewhere to work. He ‘found it difficult to interest his fellow biologists in his work, and to get it published. He had failed to interest any potential PhD supervisors in the basic problem. They seem to have feared that it had something to do with eugenics. He did the work alone—in libraries, in his bed-sitting room, even on the platform of Waterloo railway station. He had no desk in a university department.’
Hamilton later wrote of his time at University College London: ‘I never had a desk there nor was ever invited to give any presentation to explain my work or my occasional presence to others. Most of the time I was extremely lonely. Sometimes I came to dislike my bed-sitting room so much that I would go to Waterloo Station, where I continued reading or trying to write out a [mathematical] model sitting on the benches among waiting passengers in the main hall.’
I am a fan of Curtis, by my way, but my ‘leap in logic’ warning light usually comes on about halfway through his brilliant documentaries, which I think of as works of art rather than argument … which is why I like them.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘We rarely get to prepare ourselves in meadows or on graveled walks; we do it on short notice in places without windows, hospital corridors, rooms like this lounge with its cracked plastic sofa and Cinzano ashtrays, where the cafe curtains cover blank concrete. In rooms like this, with so little time, we prepare our gestures, get them by heart so we can do them when we're frightened in the face of doom.’ - Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs*
*Thanks to Marc Hudson for sending me this quote. His own rather excellent blog is worth a good look at http://dwighttowers.wordpress.com
Sunday, 24 July 2011
Lighthouse keeping is a somewhat melancholy profession, partly because promotion is not on merit – it is difficult to outshine your colleagues in job performance, after all - but on vacancies or ‘dead men’s shoes’. There is little to do on a light except linger over meals and make ships in bottles.
The lighthouse keepers are often articulate about their strange, lonely lives:
‘Somehow you’re the only person left in the world, everyone else has disappeared; there aren’t any other people anywhere, no one else alive but you … Sitting on your own looking out of a lighthouse window; it’s a funny sort of existence.’
‘The first day or two on land it hurt you to walk even half a mile on the flat; it was like someone had been kicking at the back of your knees, because all your leg muscles was used to was going up and down the stairs.’
‘Sometimes when I was on middle watch in the middle of the night I used to switch on the radio transmitter and sit and listen to ships talking to one another, just so I could hear the sound of people’s voices.’
There is also a cautionary tale for authors. Parker asked one keeper, Barry, what he thought of a Margaret Drabble novel he was reading: ‘He struggled, opened the sitting room window and threw it out into the sea.’
Now that is what I call a bad review.