Friday, 28 May 2010

“Watching the wheels go round”

So, first, a question: what do these countries have in common? Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, Norway, Romania, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine and the UK?
Answer: all these nations’ entries in the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest are sung in English.
I fetch back a recollection of the first EVSC I ever saw, in 1961, when a UK duo, The Allisons, came second with a bright and harmonious number called Are You Sure. What I remember of the other contestants is a kaleidoscope (if you can have a black-and-white kaleidoscope) of language, costume, dance, performance and minstrelsy which ranged from the picture-postcard quaint through the exotic to the bizarre.
I also remember thinking how, as they watched, viewers in each country must be ranking the performances on a spectrum that rose towards “extraordinary” from a base point of “ordinary” which was settled in their own country’s contribution.
What I didn’t twig was that the Allisons, (who may well, with their finger-clicks, Brylcreamed-hair and dinner suits, have appeared outlandish or barbarian to Latvians or Romanians) were unwittingly helping to build a bridgehead into Europe from America; nor that, in two or three years, that bridgehead would become the causeway for a cultural traffic which caused a social revolution.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” and so on, in the years when the initials IT stood not for Information Technology, but for the International Times.
If the Molotov cocktail of the (45 and 33 rpm) youth revolution was fashioned from vinyl, its howitzer was broadcasting; but it’s sorry end for the process that one of its primary obstetricians – television – should have so flattened European musical diversity into homogenised Anglopap that the originally weird and absorbing phenomenon of the EVSC has been reduced to a spectacle which is more grotesque than exotic, and absolutely ersatz, and which ought now, maybe, to be called Europe’s Got Talent.
But didn’t we, sitting in that revolutionary nerve centre, Goode’s CafĂ© in Tavistock, Devon, fingering our espresso cups and unsold piles of the IT, chafe at the difficulty of forging an International out of the confusion of European vernaculars and traditions, let alone the world’s?
(We also fretted about the IT’s execrable prose. Some hard-liners argued, though, that “good” writing was elitist, and it was therefore the duty of the proletarian author to be unreadable.)
Already we knew the truism that, throughout history, changes in the systems of production precipitated fundamental changes in the structure of society. Well, the progress of the EVSC demonstrates in vivid cameo how changes in the systems and channels of communication are equally influential, even though broadcasting, for example, purports only to reflect, and not to direct, the evolutions of society.
Around the time that I saw that early EVSC, my father took me to my first General Election hustings. This was at a time when every candidate, if he or she was to have a prayer, had to attend a public debate with his or her rivals not just in every constituency city or town hall, but in every village hall, or church hall or schoolroom.
Our village meeting was packed. I saw spittle-flecked fury and red-faced indignation, fingers pointed and chairs banged, ideological passion, hungry self-interest, and moral outrage.
Political sensibility was local, quick and collective. Party was embodied in the physically present M.P., not an Olympian and absent P.M.
The last hustings I witnessed, now as a reporter, were in a town square in Launceston in the mid 1970’s. As I recall, vegetables were thrown at the Tory candidate and the arrival of the Liberal, Mr John Pardoe, standing on planks across the back of open-top Land-Rover, was attended by a Cornish version of the messianic ecstasy which Monty Python’s Life of Brian satirised in 1979.
Within another decade, the only way a backbench M.P. could hope even to half-fill a meeting (and then just with party subscribers, and not on an sunny or rainy evening) was to invite along a member from elsewhere who was a “known T.V. face”.
This year that last vestige of the hustings, the morning Press Conference broadcast from Westminster, at which journalists were the electors’ simulacra, vanished from the General Election schedule, to be replaced by televised leaders’ conferences in which the ordinary voters in the audience were injuncted to stay quiet.
Back in the 1960’s, public-spirited individuals still used their cars to scoop up the lame, the elderly and the lonely and take them to church on Sundays. The advent of the televised church service provided a reason to leave the lame, the elderly and the lonely alone in their front rooms with the dubious sacrament of the cathode ray.
Meanwhile thousands of the able-bodied stopped going to church anyway, and stayed home to watch Songs of Praise or Highway, “religious” programmes which began with a gestural stab at “worship”, but eventually did what all TV programmes do, which is, turn their subject matter into TV programmes: in these two cases, a travelogue-cum-interview-cum-music request show.
TV wildlife programmes – never quite Paradise Lost, but almost always Losing Paradise – created a huge and benign shift towards eco-consciousness.
On the other hand TV holiday programmes – never quite Paradise Regained, but almost always Paradise Regainable – spawned (or at least, directed) mass tourism.
Only, when the mass of tourists arrived at their destinations they found, for example, that the display of local colour they were seeking – the festival, the parade, the be-costumed ethnic dancing and singing, now sanitised and repackaged as part of the package tour – was curiously empty of zest and integrity and cultural meaning; that, in fact, the 2-D version on the TV screen appeared more authentic than the 3-D version in the flesh.
These are just a few exemplary social effects, randomly chosen, none planned nor intended by broadcasting organisations which were regulated heavily for decades, and then supervised more lightly as commercial pressures multiplied and new technologies (which were themselves not susceptible to regulation) began to transform electronic communication and weaken the dominance of orthodox media.
This latest transformation is radical and radicalising. Now that it’s bedding down, a new series of unintended consequences is working itself out through society.
When electronic interactivity took off from the campus into the secular world, experts and exponents envisaged it primarily as a top-down and paternalist affair – the doctor remotely treating patients, the teacher remotely teaching students, the government remotely soliciting opinions, issuing permits, collecting information and levying imposts.
Unforeseen were the citizen journalist and the flashmob, the back-chat of Twitter and the egalitarian irreverence and candour of the social media.
Already – to return to the electoral theatre – people-powered satire on the Internet has destroyed the huge and hoarding-hogging political poster as a propaganda tool.
With no authority invigilating it, no movement propelling it, no party organising it, no programme shaping it, the world wide web has forged sudden and unexpected ad-hoc coalitions which flourish, dissolve and regroup, using technical and ideological inspiration to debunk the pompous, unmask the liar, flush out the conspirator and destabilise the tyrant.
At the same time, while the monologue afforded by broadcast was the making of presidential-style government, the Internet’s border-agnostic dialogue has, by supranationalising business, left those governments and their presidents impotent to do little more than spray vast quantities of their taxpayers’ liquidity at the conflagrations ignited by 21st century capitalism’s greed and irresponsibility.
Eleven years ago, in a book called Ghostly Demarcations, the American critic Fredric Jameson wrote presciently about the two contradictory forces – one democratic and unpoliced, one oligarchic and uncontrollable – which the Internet has uncaged. “Globalisation,” he said, “... sets the stage for a new kind of politics, along with a new kind of political intervention.”
Recording his support for the notion that the net might forge “a new International,” he added: “the cybernetic possibilities that enable post-Fordism along with financial speculation, and generate the extraordinary new wealth that constitutes the power of the modern business establishment, are also available to intellectuals today on a world scale.”
There’s a trace there of that old, top-down paternalism. For it seems to me that the subversive power of the web reposes precisely in the fact that the multitudes of new actors on its lower stage are not just (or not only) “intellectuals,” but people whose lives are at once more humdrum and less fastidious, more challenged and more volatile.
(And anyway, most left-wing intellectuals, after the fall of communism, happily retreated behind the academic stockade and espoused the IT theory of writing, churning out wodges of impenetrable jargon to explain to each other – but not to the players – the events that brought down the Wall).
The patrician Lord Reith, first director general of the BBC, described the institution in his care as “a potential social menace of the first magnitude.”
Who knows what he would have made of the Internet?
And who knows what songs they’ll be singing in the Supranational Song Contest of a few years’ time?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A new belt for Bunter

“I say you fellows, all the more stickies for us now Wharton’s bagged the top job, eh?” The Fat Owl of the Remove rolled his eyes and rubbed his ample belly with a grubby paw.
“What rot are you jawing now, Bunter?” yawned Bob Cherry, momentarily closing his tattered copy of Hillard and Botting’s Latin Primer.
The boys of the Greyfriars Remove were enjoying the May sunshine under an oak tree by the old tower, some sprawled on the turf, some perched or sat cross-legged on the fallen pillars that were all that remained of the ancient Franciscan monastery which had given the school its name.
“I mean, now Wharton’s been elected head of the National School Assembly, he’ll make sure his chums at the alma mater don’t go short in the jam tart and cake department,” said Bunter.
“Sadly I think the tartlessness of the future will be terrific,” murmured Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, the Nabob of Bhanipur. “Neither can I be foreseeing many abundancies of cake.”
“Eh?! Ow!!!” Sitting up suddenly, an alarmed William George ("Billy") Bunter had banged his unlovely cranium on a fragment of flying buttress.
“Still,” said Skinner. “At least Harry Wharton saw off the oiks from Courtfield County Council School. At blooming last. Talk about bad losers. Now we’ll show ’em who’s boss.”
“I don’t think,” Frank Nugent remarked severely, “that Harry wants to turn his victory into an excuse for a school war. Or a class one.”
“Isn’t that how it usually goes? We’ll see,” said Sidney Snoop. “Hey, Mimble” – Joseph Mimble Esq, the Greyfriars porter, was approaching at an amble, with an envelope protruding from the pocket of his long, black, calico apron – “how do you feel, Mimble, about Greyfriars chaps being back in charge of the Assembly again?”
“Well, Sir, on the one hand, it do seem to be t’natural order o’ things to ’ave you boys on top,” ruminated Mimble, stroking his long white sideburns. “But on t’other, it be a shame, I allus says, that t’lower orders can never take up t’reins o’ t’carriage without endin’ up, in a manner o’ speaking, stabbin’ each other in t’back an’ tryin’ to push each one t’other off t’driving seat. Seems as how us’ll never lairn t’meaning o’ t’word ‘solidarity’. Any road, ’ere’s a letter for ee, Master Bunter.”
Bob Cherry whistled. “Hallo, hallo, hallo – here comes Wharton. But who’s those fellows with him?”
The tall, handsome figure of the Captain of the Remove had turned the corner of the old crypt, arm and arm with a smaller boy, who looked rather like a rabbit, with wide, startled eyes and a cockatoo crest. An older, worried-looking lad trailed behind them.
“That,” said Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, “is young master Mick Pegg, the esteemed headboy of Rookwood School. At rearwards is the boy who is being his deputy, Quince Gable. Greyfriars and Rookwood are now in a sharingness of the Assembly.”
“What?” expostulated Sampson Iffley Field. “Sharing with Rookwood? But we beat them at Cricket. And Hockey. And, and, and Fives, too. They’re div two, and no mistake.”
“Now, now – no more school wars,” repeated Frank Nugent.
“Hmm. That'll be a first,” Field muttered.
“Cripes! Yaree! My postal order! It’s come at last!” yelled Bunter, waving a piece of paper over his head.
“Thank you Bunter, I’ll take that,” said Wharton, sternly. “I’m afraid the Assembly purse is rather short of brass. Almost empty, in fact.”
“But... but... but...” Bunter howled.
“But,” added Mick Pegg, “Quince here has brought you all a present.”
Quince Gable opened large canvas bag and handed everyone a new leather belt.
“I say, thanks.” The Fat Owl struggled to loop the belt through his chequered trousers – but then, no matter how hard he tugged, buckle and strap obstinately remained a good six inches apart.
“Stupid thing doesn’t fit,” he snorted.
“It will, Bunter, it will,” smiled Harry Wharton.
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” chortled the boys of the Famous Remove.
Thanks to Tony Hiam’s Greyfriars Website for memories and accuracy checks.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Here comes the coalition

You can speculate about what kind of sentient creature a population becomes when combined into an electorate in the way that entomologists speculate about the collective behaviour of swarming bees, or ants, or clouds of fruit flies.
This creature of the masses wanted to punish Gordon Brown – to continue his endgame – and it did. It wanted to break a two-party system which it saw as increasingly corrupt and self-serving, and perhaps to remind M.P.’s that in their origins they represented the people against the depredations of crown and court, and that now, all but sporting crown and coronet, the M.P.’s were acting as if they had inherited the roles of crown and court. The reminder was duly served, and despite the anticlimactic Lib Dem vote, I think the system has been broken.
Now what? Possibly –
1. Brown and Clegg go into alliance or coalition, the deal being electoral reform at the top of the agenda. As soon as it becomes expedient and publicly tolerable, Clegg detaches, brings down Brown, and a second general election transforms British parliamentary democracy.
2. Labour contrives to ditch Brown (notice that Lord Mandelson did not reject this possibility on the BBC this morning). Alan Johnson, maybe, succeeds to the premiership, and likewise unites with the Lib Dems, presenting a government that seems refreshed. I think this would narrow the space in which Clegg could manoeuvre. We’d still get some kind of PR, but the ensuing split would appear more cynical, and, for the Lib Dems, would be more hazardous.
3. Labour and the Lib Dems fail to get it together, and Cameron becomes PM of a minority government, resisting electoral reform. The SNP and Plaid Cymru (as they have promised to do) demand significant subsidies for Scotland and Wales in return for their votes. At a critical moment, Cameron declares this an intolerable burden on far more numerous English during a period of savage austerity; goes to the country; returns with an overall majority. But the strain this exerts on the Union would be severe, and the outcome, possibly, disintegration.
A long night, my friends. I’ve now voted in 10 UK general elections. This has turned out to be by far the most intriguing – and portentous.
Footnote, May 12: Prediction 4, it turns out, was the right one in the short term. Must have left it out by mistake...

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The wrong-side-of-the-rainbow election

High up in Hampstead live the really rich characters, and that’s where you’ll see most Labour posters. The People’s Soviets of Parliament Hill, and Nassington and Tanza Roads (average house price, £2,000,000) are militant for Gordon.
This is a phenomenon which could bear a bit of deconstruction, some time. As might the fact that The Guardian, journal of the left-leaning radical, is the newspaper of choice for lone diners in restaurants serving sushi, the national cuisine of the profoundly conservative Japanese.
Anyway, drop down a few contours from Hampstead (as house prices also drop, by more than a half) to Parks Tufnell and Dartmouth, and the Lib Dems predominate. Descend still further, among the bedsits, scruffy flats and sub-prime territory surrounding Kentish Town and Camden, and you’ll see, it’s true, a meagre scattering of Labour red and yellow, but almost all the windows are blank.
Conservative posters? I’ve spotted about three (one in Pang’s Kitchen, Kentish Town). But this may be psephologically misleading, since in London NW5, if not NW3 (Hampstead), a window favouring the Tories is likely to be sought out and visited after closing-time by a flying brick.
Usually I get a feeling for the result from the pattern of these favours, but not this time. The easiest to predict was in 1974, when I was living in South East Cornwall. While commentators were confidently asserting the return of Ted Heath’s Tory government, every time a phalanx of placards appeared in a field, or a series of placards on sticks along a hedgerow, advertising our local Conservative M.P., the affable Bob Hicks, they got torn down overnight.
The election produced a hung parliament, and after brief uncertainty, Harold Wilson entered Number 10 for Labour. Actually I was among those doing the tearing down (in what was an entirely uncoordinated campaign conducted by dissidents who had no knowledge of each other), so I think you can deduce which way my sympathies lay. That time we were looking over the rainbow. This time we all know we’re on the wrong side of it.
Part of the problem predicting this year’s campaign maybe because during the leader’s debates it became what’s been widely called “The X-Factor” election.
Now, as you know, “The X-Factor” is our modern variant of “Opportunity Knocks”. But the difference is this. Where “Opportunity Knocks” simply searched for naturally talented individuals, “The X-Factor” (like it’s BBC coeval, “Over the Rainbow”) riffs off one of the more recent capitalist scams, which is that anybody who wants to be somebody can only be somebody by being somebody else, viz, a celebrity, dead or alive, whose demeanour, attire, hairstyle, lifestyle, accoutrements, song or act they have to purchase, ape and retail.
This makes it easy for the consumer to identify with and buy into unknown source (contestant) through its resonance with well-known target (celebrity) and has the added benefit of investing the source (contestant) with that other capitalist desideratum: rapid obsolescence.
So in an “X-Factor” election, three contestants step up to the rostrum to pose as somebody they’re not, selling a familiar persona which will theoretically resonate with the audience. “Tonight, Alastair/Adam/David, I’m going to be Mr Fixit, Hod-Carrying Repairman of our Broken Society /Mr Freshface-Plague-on-Both-their-Houses /Parson Thunder, Only-Protector of your Welfare and Work.”
Well hoopla, says you. Wintle’s woken up at last to the fact that politicians are actors. Okay – but in the past there were also the daily leaders’ Press Conferences, at which a mob of aggressive journos interrogated furiously from all directions, trying to tear off the actors’ masks and expose the true nature of the characters underneath.
As they succumbed to television’s clamour for TV debates, the leaders realised they could ditch the Press conferences. So what we’ve had this year has been almost all mask.
We also endured a few one-on-one interviews, most notably Paxman’s. “Jeremy, Jeremy, if I may just, Jeremy, please, Jeremy, let me make my poi.. but Jeremy, no...”
In our post-modern word, the visual always signifies more than the verbal. Paxman and leader sat mesmerizingly alone in the middle of a vast, overlit, empty office space. Every day in London, going hither and yon, I pass on the bus these vast, empty office blocks, built in greedy expectation during the boom, now standing empty in the bust, presumably racking up huge debts for the developers.
In debates and interviews, three words kept going round like a chorus:
“Change.” Meant to be attractive, but contemplated soberly sounds more like an invitation to a good time in a darkened alley.
“Progressive.” Hmm. By some official measures, the UK is now more unequal than at any time since before the second world war.
“Modernisation.” How exactly do you modernise in a post-modern world? In the modern world, modernisation meant things like sanitation, slum clearance, universal suffrage, state education, a health service free from cradle to grave...
And in the post-modern world? New improved surveillance? An end to old-style, fuddy-duddy presumptions of innocence until guilt is proved? Imprisonment without trial in the interests of national security? “Efficiency savings” – a.k.a. automation, offshoring and redundancy?
“One cannot,” says the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson; hang on, I’ll go back to ensure you pick up the double negative: “One cannot, not periodise.”
Just so. We had the Thatcher period, with added Major, during which that period’s contradictions erupted and it imploded. And then we had the Blair period, with added Brown, during which ditto, and, presumably, ditto.
What happens next, I wonder? See you on Friday.