The Destruction Of The White Collar Class

EM Forster, that most perceptive and class-conscious of novelists, has a terrific sketch of the incipient decline of the upper-middle classes in his novel Maurice. Noting that Anne, the wife of estate owner and magistrate Clive Durham, was “delightful and accomplished”, Forster tartly adds that “she belonged to the same class as the Durhams, and every year England grew less inclined to pay her highly”. This, written in 1912 (though not published until 1971 due to its homosexual theme), is notably far-sighted in view of the decline of the dividend-owning class following the First World War, with the decline in the value of the pound and the disinclination of the Colonies to keep providing Britain with low cost raw materials. To be “delightful and accomplished” were no longer enough in a Britain facing sharp competition from Germany, the US, Japan, and discontent in the colonies.

Another wave of class destruction is evidently underway in the austerity UK of the present day. But now it is not the dividend-drawing class being bested by economic megatrends. It is the white-collar classes, the professionals and managers and administrators who had done so well out of the post-war settlement. Consider: in 1951 non-manual workers comprised 30.9% of UK workers (manual workers 64.2%), but in 1981 they had become the majority with 52.3%, with 47.7% manual workers. Some attribute this to the expansion of university places and therefore the need to provide employment for a more educated workforce, but in his seminal book The New Industrial State (1967), economist JK Galbraith ascribes the rise in white collar employment to the broader influencing and planning functions of the corporation. Sales, marketing, forecasting, R&D: all called for an educated, literate workforce. With modern businesses often of enormous scale – with most markets are dominated by three or four fairly evenly matched rivals – and products requiring significant investment of time and money, corporations spend much of their energies stimulating and managing the market for their products, rather than actually manufacturing them. The margins in creating products are slim, the work tedious. From Nike to Apple, modern business is about marketing (in the sense of managing your market), not manufacturing.

What we are now finding, however, is that the same process which largely eliminated manufacturing from the UK is now swiftly killing off white collar jobs. Advertising and marketing are now largely done digitally, where their returns can be far more precisely analyzed. Customer service is now more likely to be part of “digital outreach” and is far more cheaply done by a social media-savvy twenty-something than a long-time employee who knows the company inside out (and who had pesky things like a pension). Inventory and logistical management are far easier and far more efficiently done online. Bank managers, with whom you had a relationship and who gave you a mortgage over lunch, are long gone. In this way, entire white-collar professions have been or are being wiped out. Capital divests itself of whatever burdens it can: this is the genius, and terrible peril, of capitalism. The same thing of course happened with manual jobs, but because they were considered low-skilled, this was seen as economically just, or even politically desirable, when such industries had the impertinence to be unionized. But now we get into the puzzling and confusing situation where the remaining necessary manual jobs are trades, such as plumbing or engineering, and relatively highly paid.

The numbers are frightening, if you are a white collar worker, or aspire to be one. The employment opportunities for the educated classes, for those of us who are “delightful and accomplished”, are receding dramatically. The phenomenon of “hipsters on food stamps” (as the superb essay called it) by has been well noted in the US, where perhaps the process is more advanced. An education system which creates graduates who are advanced in their consumer preferences, who have studied Humanities and now are in their thirties, enormously in debt, sharing a flat and working in a low-paying service job, is not fit for the society it serves. No more than one which created ladies who were refined and genteel and wanted to be married to landowners. An MA in English, like elocution lessons and a finishing school, is no longer economically viable. If you can afford to study for one in Oxbridge, your family connections are such that the professional benefits of this qualification are negligible.

The collapse of the economic basis of a class is a frightening, worrying thing. Only the most oblivious free-market cheerleaders fail to note the second word in “creative destruction”. When manufacturing declined, slowly but surely, in the postwar period, we had white collar jobs and the expanding service sector to take its place. This was alright: the profits of industrialized nations could support them. But with Asia snapping on our heels, such advantages can no longer be assumed. The question therefore is: where are jobs coming from? An Atlantic article from 2012 showed the five employment categories which will add the most staff in this decade in the US (we can probably assume the same economic trends will catch on over here): food preparation and service; customer service representatives; home health aides; registered nurses; and personal and home care aides. Much of our future employment, then, will go into caring for the sick and elderly. This is our medium-term future: cleaning up the shit of the Baby Boomer Generation, as they get ill and then die.

Clement Attlee and the State

The post-1980s reduction of the welfare state aims to return provision for the poor to charitable institutions and community groups. This is one of the broader intents of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. While this soundbite/slogan has been lost in the grind of government, I believe he is sincere in his belief that greater community and charitable involvement is preferable to the state handling such matters. To the wealthy, community involvement is a fine thing, demonstrating leadership and compassion, while the state is cold, impersonal and prone to bureaucratic bloat. Cameron (though he’s never articulated this) is I imagine a Burkean conservative, a right-wing communitarian who sees inherited rights (of property, etc) a better basis for society and government than abstract rights or progressive ideals. (He has often said that conservatives work with “the grain of human nature”). However, as is typical for the wealthy, he’s looking at it from the perspective of those giving. To those on the receiving end, it looks rather different.

Clement Attlee however knew better. He served as a MP for Limehouse in the East End of London, an area of serious poverty and associated social problems. He knew what it was about. His famous quote about charity goes:

Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.

The full quote, with qualifications, is:

In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways – they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community. The first way is intolerable, and as for the third: Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient’s character, and terminable at his caprice.

One should not have to feel gratitude or subservience for sustenance in a wealthy society. George Orwell has a memorable section in Down And Out In London And Paris, where he describes the aggressive behaviour of the tramps towards a church which distributed food to the homeless.

Outside the church quite a hundred men were waiting, dirty types who had gathered from far and wide at the news of a free tea, like kites round a dead buffalo. Presently the doors opened and a clergyman and some girls shepherded us into a gallery at the top of the church. It was an evangelical church, gaunt and wilfully ugly, with texts about blood and fire blazoned on the walls, and a hymn-book containing twelve hundred and fifty-one hymns; reading some of the hymns, I concluded that the book would do as it stood for an anthology of bad verse. There was to be a service after the tea, and the regular congregation were sitting in the well of the church below. It was a week-day, and there were only a few dozen of them, mostly stringy old women who reminded one of boiling-fowls. We ranged ourselves in the gallery pews and were given our tea; it was a one-pound jam-jar of tea each, with six slices of bread and margarine. As soon as tea was over, a dozen tramps who had stationed themselves near the door bolted to avoid the service; the rest stayed, less from gratitude than lacking the cheek to go.

The organ let out a few preliminary hoots and the service began. And instantly, as though at a signal, the tramps began to misbehave in the most outrageous way. One would not have thought such scenes possible in a church. All round the gallery men lolled in their pews, laughed, chattered, leaned over and flicked pellets of bread among the congregation; I had to restrain the man next to me, more or less by force, from lighting a cigarette. The tramps treated the service as a purely comic spectacle. It was, indeed, a sufficiently ludicrous service–the kind where there are sudden yells of ‘Hallelujah!’ and endless extempore prayers–but their behaviour passed all bounds. There was one old fellow in the congregation –Brother Bootle or some such name–who was often called on to lead us in prayer, and whenever he stood up the tramps would begin stamping as though in a theatre; they said that on a previous occasion he had kept up an extempore prayer for twenty-five minutes, until the minister had interrupted him. Once when Brother Bootle stood up a tramp called out, ‘Two to one ‘e don’t beat seven minutes!’ so loud that the whole church must hear. It was not long before we were making far more noise than the minister. Sometimes somebody below would send up an indignant ‘Hush!’ but it made no impression. We had set ourselves to guy the service, and there was no stopping us.

It was a queer, rather disgusting scene. Below were the handful of simple, well-meaning people, trying hard to worship; and above were the hundred men whom they had fed, deliberately making worship impossible. A ring of dirty, hairy faces grinned down from the gallery, openly jeering. What could a few women and old men do against a hundred hostile tramps? They were afraid of us, and we were frankly bullying them. It was our revenge upon them for having humiliated us by feeding us […]

The scene had interested me. It was so different from the ordinary demeanour of tramps–from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we outnumbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor–it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.

To receive charity is to place someone into a subservient position, and any healthy person will resent this. The only healthy way to provide welfare is through the state, as Attlee knew. His 1945-1951 PMship is still venerated on the left (and even praised by the Daily Mail) for its progressive reforms: the National Health Service, sustaining the full employment sustained by the war, nationalising the dangerous and inefficient mining industry, nationalising steel and rail, decolonisation of India, nationalising the Bank of England.

However, Attlee, perhaps through naivety, perhaps through decency, seemingly did not appreciate that merely handing functions to the state would not be enough. Curiously, there seems to have been little thinking about the state, or more precisely the governance, needed to run the new functions taken up by Attlee. There seemed to have been an assumption that simply to have welfare run by the state would be enough to make it both dignified and efficient. Subsequent experience over the “welfare state years” (1945-1979) disproved this. (There was a similar failure to consider whether the state had the tools to run the nationalised industries effectively, but that’s a different story for another day). As any common or garden economist will tell you, it’s all down to incentives. With government running welfare, health, pensions etc, there was far fewer alternatives from churches and local charities, so the state became a monopoly provider. While the left was happy with this, as provision through the state would be “democratic”, “for the people”, and other undigested ideological bulletpoints, the right-wing criticism of monopoly provision seems to me to be spot on. Lacking incentives to be anything other than basic, and working with the least empowered sections of society, the British welfare system might have been equitable but it lacked dignity. This can be most acutely seen in situations where state provision was to the politically weakest members of society – in prisons, the mentally ill, and the truly destitute. (On the other hand education, which had to provide for the middle-classes, attained a good quality of service – at least in middle-class residential areas, a post-code segregation which blights the UK to this day).

There are fascinating documents capturing the ignobility, inhumanity and oppression of state services to these weakest sections of British society. The 1977 TV drama (and subsequent 1979 cinematic remake) Scum dramatises the failings of the “Borstal” system of corrective discipline for youth offenders (and, more broadly, the entire public sector). It is a shocking indictment of cruelty and hopelessness. The photos of Dave Sinclair show a sclerotic Liverpool in the 1980s. Council housing was as variable as education: some areas held a mix of working- and middle-class residents in decent quality buildings, while some sink estates became notorious. (Not so much because the tenants were inherently bad people, but because some areas were used to house various strands of the disenfranchised, from immigrants to unemployed youth, leading to a vicious downward spiral). Even Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), with its evocation of the bullying teacher, indicts the education system.

It is perhaps unfair to attribute all the failings of the UK welfare state to to Attlee, who set it up in expectation of full employment, and who would not have foreseen the economic strife of the 1970s. The welfare state of the 1980s was clearly not up to the job, but it had an 1940s design which had not been retooled or rethought. But the question of state provision remains: if the state is the sole actor/distributor, how can you ensure it does not ossify, as monopolies do, into arrogance and contempt for its “customers”? The classic economic answer is competition: companies, institutions and people stay on their toes when there’s a rival. The state, public sector, answer has tended to be checklists and targets.

While John Major was best known for introducing competition into areas such as education and health, under his premiership the state was encouraged to identify performance targets every year and to report on their achievements. The opening-up of the black-box of the state really came to fruition under him, an under-appreciated achievement. Also notable is the way that the public sector had to make year-on-year improvements without additional funds. One saw this in areas from the Post Office to the railways to school league tables. The targets incentivised areas to compete against neighbouring colleagues and sections, of course, but the key was the provision of information to the public and the year-on-year identification of improvements. One can imagine only too well the complaints from the unions, wanting a tit-for-tat, and their shock to discover none forthcoming. Yet Major’s reform was a significant success, with improvements in welfare and public services significant and sustained.

Blair’s first term saw a maniacal use of targets on the public sector, as Major’s reforms went into overdrive. But being bidden from the centre, they failed to get accepted by those at the sharp end, ending up distorting the outputs. NHS waiting lists might go down, but there would then be waiting lists to get on waiting lists, and so on. In time, Blair would come to realise that Major had the right idea and made “choice” his mantra for public sector reform. (See, for example, A Journey). Brown came to the premiership with a far more statist concept of public services, but by the latter phase of his time of in Downing Street, he too was advocating choice as the guiding principle. (See the excellent Brown At Ten for this about-turn).

What is interesting about all this is that Labour, as the left wing party, and therefore most closely associated with the state and with the public sector, rarely even had a theory of state provision. It seems that they expected ministers to instruct the civil service to provide, and that was enough; government provision was democratic provision, and therefore ideologically and politically sufficient. Not so. A monopoly is a monopoly, wherever it occurs, and unless it is fiercely minded, it will decline into the shambolic DHSS centres of grim 1980s memory. Now perhaps we have a better understanding. How we provide high quality state provision in education is the current foremost battlefield. If we can solve this, we will stop wasting the potential of half the children in our society.

The Evisceration of the Media

I’ve recently come back to the UK after six years in China. I never watched Chinese TV news, it being transparently propaganda (they call it “correct guidance of public opinion“). The English-language news channel CCTV9 was mostly lightweight content-free bullshit, but occasionally you got a glimpse of the iron fist behind the velvet glove – usually in relation to Japan, as mentions of Tibet, Taiwan and the Dalai Lama were verboten. I kept up on UK and Western news via the Guardian, people posting on Twitter, and blogs like Mike Tomasky. But I didn’t see TV news at all unless I was staying in a hotel. Now I’ve come back and occasionally watch TV here (mostly the BBC and ITV: I’ve never liked Sky News), and I find the standard of journalism dreadful.

Maybe this is because in China I edited a magazine in which we regularly interviewed six, seven eight people per issue. So I got a lot of practise in. With the magazine targeted at managers, execs and professionals, I had to make sure I was interesting and pertinent, to avoid leading questions and to encourage the interviewee to open up. I would normally start by asking some background questions and then move onto aspects of their current post and the broader industry. This wasn’t always successful (hotel general managers were generally the least forthcoming, for some reason), but I did some good pieces. I was the first editor to feature “the China-watcher’s China-watcher” Bill Bishop (of Sinocism and the NYT) for example, while I’m quite proud of the one I did with economist Patrick Chovanec, to take two examples. In all cases, a good interview takes time and research.

These qualities seem to be completely lacking in the interviews I have seen recently. The most egregious are in the sports media. (Check this article for a good analysis of the reasons for this). Football hacks seem completely unaware of what a question actually is. Time and time again, they ask something to which the athlete or manager can only answer “Yes”. (And that’s before we get to Alan Partridge-level stupid sexism from John Inverdale, or the grotesque racial slur of Don Imus calling a women’s basketball team nappy headed hos“!) For example, I was listening to the Celtic vs Ross County game on the radio just yesterday, and in the pre-match interview manager Neil Lennon was asked if he hoped the new signing Derk Boerrigter “could provide a bit of excitement for the Celtic fans?” HOW COULD HE SAY ANYTHING BUT YES?

Most footballers go along with this shit-for-brains charade, but a glorious few cannot be bothered. Sir Alex Ferguson had little but contempt for most football journalists. Gordon Strachan has a classic array of sarcastic retorts to moronic questions:

Reporter: There goes your unbeaten run. Can you take it?
Strachan: No, I’m just going to crumble like a wreck. I’ll go home, become an alcoholic and maybe jump off a bridge.

Reporter: There’s no negative vibes or negative feelings here?
Strachan: Apart from yourself, we’re all quite positive round here. I’m going to whack you over the head with a big stick, down negative man, down.

Reporter: Welcome to Southampton Football Club. Do you think you are the right man to turn things around?
Strachan: No, I think they should have got George Graham because I’m useless.

Reporter: What is your impression of Jermaine Pennant?
Strachan: I don’t do impressions.

Reporter: So Gordon, any changes then ?
Strachan: Naw, still 5ft 6, ginger and a big nose!

Gary Lineker: So Gordon, if you were English, what formation would you play?
Strachan: If I was English I’d top myself!

It’s not just sport. Politics is a great example of where the facts can’t be allowed to get in the way of a good story (“the narrative”), and interviewers will persist in a line of questioning to the point of absurdity. (Check out Max Atkinson’s blog, where he looks in depth at political interviews, speeches and communications). Fox News made an ass of itself (yeah, really) demanding to know why a Biblical scholar wanted to write a book about Jesus Christ, given that he is a Muslim! Andrew Marr’s asking whether Gordon Brown was on prescription drugs I found contemptible, like school bullies harassing an incompetent teacher. Paxman I admire, because he gets to the nub of an issue and goes after it with extreme tenacity; but gimps like Adam Boulton, Nick Robinson, and John Humphrys always seem to have an agenda (even if only their own self-promotion). On the other hand, I like Jon Snow, Ian Hislop, Eddie Mair, Khamel Amed, Michael White and Allegra Stratton, because you get the sense of them finding stuff out and thinking about things.

The sorry state of political discourse isn’t entirely the media’s fault: politicians often refuse to engage in debate if it’s unprofitable for them. (No matter that the public fucking hate this). Ed Milliband’s repetition of the same answer no matter what the question is sheer effrontery.

*

Simon Hoggart subjects political statements to what he calls “the law of the ridiculous reverse“. If the opposite of what you were saying is absurd, there is no point saying it. Any politician saying “I want the best for British people” (you mean, you don’t want them to be tortured?) should be laughed at. Henry McLeish tried to define himself as a “progressive pragmatist”, but given that few would identify as ideological reactionaries (except maybe Nicholas Fairbairn), it just means nothing. Similarly, if a question is asked in which one answer would be absurd, it should not be asked.

Editors – get your thumb out, check what questions your journalists are asking and provide some rigour. Your laziness impoverishes the dialogue of the whole country.

Charlie Brooker, RedLetterMedia and the Critical Stance

There have always been critics in society, those who explicate, analyse and comment upon other people’s creative efforts.  They first went professional, I suppose, in the era of the first daily newspapers in the early 1800s: people like William Hazlitt (Michael Foot’s favourite essayist), and so on. The previous generation of critics had generally been published in pamphlets; writing for an intellectual audience, they included writers and thinkers from Adam Smith to Jonathan Swift. Further back, the critic can be seen in religious enquiry such as by St Thomas Aquinas, and all the way back to the philosophical debates of the Ancient Greeks. From the beginning, the critic has been a figure of intellectual authority, bringing deep knowledge of his or her field and authoritative judgement to the edification of their readers (or listeners, in the case of Plato and chums). This tradition worked across fields from film and music to politics to, I don’t know, queer studies and post-gender body dismorphia. (Completely off-topic: I once read a queer-studies analysis of William S Burroughs that is probably the best book on him out there – it totally makes his works comprehensible, if not, you know, that much better). Famous critics include Roger Ebert, Lester Bangs, and Noam Chomsky, to take three disparate examples. You’ll doubtless have a few favourites of your own: mine include George Orwell (90% of the time, a better essayist than novelist), Stephen Thomas Erlewine (of Allmusic fame – surely the best music review website on the internet), Jon Savage, Michael White and Paul Krugman.

With the internet making everyone a critic nowadays, it has thereby necessitated a change in the stance in the critic. While their essential function is still the same – they look at what other people have done and make observations, hopefully in an entertaining way – the way they present themselves and their information has shifted dramatically. This can be seen in two of the most popular critics to come from the post-2000s, namely Charlie Brooker (of Screen Wipe and the Guardian) and “Mr Plinkett” of the RedLetterMedia Star Wars prequels analyses fame. (See: The Phantom Menace, Attack Of The Clones, and Revenge Of The Sith; each one is about 70 minutes long).

With Charlie Brooker I actually wasn’t overly aware of his broader work until recently. Though I am a pretty devoted “Guardianista” (I curdle with shame at how I used to read the Independent, because I thought it actually was  independent – it became intensely “Blair-lite” in the mid-90s, probably chasing market share), I only read Brooker’s columns and no more. I was in China when Screen Wipe was on, so missed it completely. I did see Dead Set, the zombie show he wrote, and Nathan Barley, a satire of the “Shoreditch Twat“, but found both far too heavy-handed to be genuinely enjoyable. The targets were too obvious, the humour too self-satisfied. But recently, freshly back in the UK, I watched several episodes of Screen Wipe, and found them to be extremely good. Their dissection of TV, media and popular culture is blisteringly funny, fiercely acute and scatologically profane – so the three things I enjoy most, then.

I can’t remember how I encountered the RedLetterMedia analyses – probably just through YouTube’s “Suggested Videos” sidebar. Their flaying of George Lucas and the prequels were just so absolutely dead on-the-money, though, that I recommend them to any fan of cinema, not just Star Wars fanboys. Laced with comic surreality and intense black humour, the reviews are some of the most intelligent takes on film I’ve read in a long time, when sadly the media has abdicated its critical faculties in the pursuit of advertising and movie star (imagine as a blinking gif – MoViE StAr!!!!!1!) access. This is even true of supposed “film journals” like Total Film and Empire. (This is even more observable in music media, from NME to Q to Mojo, where sycophancy runs desperate riot).

What do Charlie Brooker and Mr Plinkett have in common that I’ve lumped then together? They both take the traditional role of the critic, true – they analyse, dissect, observe, and pass judgement in an entertaining and enlightening way – but that’s not their USP. Both of them make repeated efforts to present themselves as idiots, even as deeply unlikeable. The stance of the critic, urbane, sophisticated and effortlessly knowledgeable (think Roger Ebert, Barry Norman, Frank (or indeed Mark) Kermode and Lord Kenneth Clark), is unsustainable in a world where any idiot with a computer can pass judgement. (Just look at me, heh-heh-heh). Those critics were better than us. Instead, Brooker and Mr Plinkett acknowledge the impossibility of being this kind of critic any more and – to show they aren’t superior to us – present themselves as deviants and plain misanthropes. Mr Plinkett has his voice slowed, making him sound almost like Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs, while his creepily tongue-in-cheek asides present him as a abductor of women, murderer, and rapist. Brooker meanwhile contents himself with visceral hatred (of himself and all others), leering, profanity, and mimed (I hope) masturbation.

The democratisation of knowledge the internet brings has not, of course, led to a democratisation of insight, wit, or learning, yet the opening of access (to content) makes it harder to present yourself as an expert when there’s been no equal opening of access (to media opportunity). It’s not harder to be an expert these days, but it is harder to present yourself as one, when there are thousands of others out there who can claim to have better knowledge of your field. So if the social value of the critic is devalued by its inflation (just look at how many crappy blogs there are out there), best to satirise yourself first. The criticism of the critic extends first of all to themselves. There is, too, a touch of “get your retaliation first” about their stances – call yourself a sad, ludicrous prick before anyone else does, and you seem less aloof, and less vulnerable if anyone else does it. Brooker and Mr Plinkett therefore adopt the ironic stance of seeming as grimly pathetic as the rest of us – “sitting next to Mr. Waddilove, stinking of shit!” as Pauline from The League of Gentlemen says – to head off criticism, ingratiate themselves with the masses, and attest to the absurdity of their position in society.

So is the critic dead? No, he’s merely in his basement, cutting off someone’s head, or wanking off to low grade Albanian porn. Just like the rest of us, so we feel less patronised. But what does that say about us?

Best Of, 2012

writing

This blog has been running about 18 months now, and I’ve managed to keep going at about a post a week. Hopefully you can see that the posts I write are mostly quite lengthy (about 1000 words) and so do take time. I haven’t really gone out of my way to publicise it – I don’t even tweet or Facebook most posts, so the audience (you lovely people) has grown slowly, steadily and organically. Thanks to everyone for stopping by, and especially to those who have commented. It really does spur you to keep on writing when you feel there’s an audience there.

To round off 2012, I thought I would simply take a leaf out of Froog’s book and recap on what I feel were the most interesting posts. Here’s six of the best from me to you (again). The order is simply chronological.

1. “Biographies”

Bit of a monster post, going over ten of my favorite biographies (by which I also include memoirs, letters and diaries). Being a lapsed intensive diarist and journal-keeper myself, I find these kind of books fascinating and just devour them. From William Burroughs to Oscar Wilde to Alistair Campbell to Philip Larkin, here are some of my most recurrent interests/obsession.

2. Punk-Rock-O-Rama

Twenty great videos from twenty different punk (in the broadest sense) bands, from X-Ray Spex to The Exploited to 999 to Stiff Little Fingers. Yup! 😀

3. BANGIN’

I like this post for the opening sentence:

I may have given the impression in the blog that I take music waaaay too seriously, that I sit and pore over every last bar and nuance like a lepidopterist gingerly analysing the skeletal remains of a rare and exotic butterfly.

Also a nice and perhaps slightly off-the-beaten-track selection, for me at least. I mean, no Beatles??

4. Favourite Bands Through Time

Interesting to look back in time and see the bands and artists who entranced you. Fortunately, nothing too embarrassing there! My journey through music, from Queen to Tricky to Miles Davis, has been enormously entertaining and endlessly interesting.

5. Three Top British Films

Bit of a monster post here, too, culled from three individual posts from my old blog. Obviously I’m more of a cultist when it comes to films; I just get so utterly bored by films which lack imagination or creativity (hello 2012!). Maybe I should do a Three Top American Films in counterpoint?

6. An Introduction to John Lennon

This is by far the most viewed single post in the blog, though not the most commented (that’s the “I Hate Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” post, now at 22 comments and counting – they’re still coming in!). It’s the introduction to the putative biography of Lennon during his Beatle years which I have been yearning to write. I think this is probably the best writing I’ve posted.

How about you, dear reader? Were there any posts you liked more than this selection?

Political Memoirs – Jenkins, Callaghan, Foot

You might think this is terribly geeky, but I’m something of a political buff, and enjoy reading political biographies and memoirs. Of UK politicians, I have reads books on or by Tony Benn (3 different ones), Denis Healey, Richard Crossman, Michael Foot, Winston Churchill, Neil Kinnock (3), Margaret Thatcher (4), Tony Blair (2), James Callaghan, John Major (2), Roy Jenkins, Gordon Brown, Julian Critchley, Harold Wilson, Alan Clark (3), and Jonathan Aitken – pretty ridiculous, but there you go. Other people’s hobbies always seem strange – I don’t understand why anyone would do cross-stitch or Morris dancing.

 

I’ve reviewed three of these on Amazon,  on Roy Jenkins, James Callaghan and Michael Foot, and I thought that I should corral them into one place.

 

Roy Jenkins

Roy Jenkin’s lived a full and varied life, as a highly successful politician, writer and bon viveur (his enjoyment of claret was famous), and his memoirs, first published in 1988, certainly captures this. As a portrait of the Wilson governments they match the Castle, Crossland and Benn diaries (with greater perspective allowed to diarists who are inevitably by their medium caight in the moment), and he takes into the formation and eventual rupturing of the SDP.

But first he tells us how he got there. Rather like Gordon Brown, Jenkins was not born into a wealthy family but rather an family of some local political importance. He proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, where he wryly admits to only ever attending one lecture, and meets future political allies and adversaries such as Tony Crosland and Ted Heath (president of the Oxford Union, generally a route to future success) and also captures some of the excitement of the 1945 Labour victory. As a political buff myself it was heartening to find that others followed politics with such avidity!

His life as a Minister is well captured; Jenkins was also a highly-admired political biographer (with Asquith, Churchill and Gladstone some of his subjects), so it is no surprise that he writes so elegantly and with teasing irony on ministerial life. There are few remarkable surprises or soul-bearing disquisitions as marked the Alan Clark diaries. Rather, Jenkins gives the impression of a man of great intellect and power who knew his worth. (I find it rather telling that he constantly refers to “Wilson”, even though as PM and Chancellor they had to work closely together; he is not dismissive but it’s clear he feels that he would have made a better Prime Minister).

Some sections of the book are engrossing, especilly chapter when as Chancellor he faced a daily struggle with the value of sterling and the British economy. The passage where, in 1968, a run on the pound almost capsizes the entire government, is thrilling to read and gives an impression of the phyisical and mental stamina required at the top-levels of politics. Similarly, the early days of the SDP, where opinion polls had them at 50%, seem tremendously exciting, and given the height of the ambition (to break the British two-party system, no less) and how close he came, so they must have been. The subsequent fallout and disillusion are also keenly evoked.

However some are less captivating sections. The period as President of the European Commission is one. Perhaps it is because most readers will be less familiar with the cast of politicans from the various EEC (as it then was) countries. The post was concerned more with coordination than with policy creation, and given the near-standstill the EEC reached whilst considering the British rebate, it must have been rather tedious compared to being Chancellor or Home Secretary.

Jenkins also fills us with a sense of his “hinterland”, his enjoyment of good food, cigars, travel, books, tennis and wine. One has the sense of a rich and varied life, and he enjoys teasing other politicians (like Barbara Castle) who seem unable to switch off from politics. But little is conveyed of the character of the House of Commons, of being an MP, again unlike Alan Clark’s diaries. Perhaps this is inevitable when he was a Minister for so long, and the leader of the SDP afterwards.

It should go without saying that you’d need to have an interest in British politics to find this book enjoyable. But if you do, then its elegance, proximity to major events, historical sense and effective portraits of major postwar political figures (from JFK to Margaret Thatcher) make it one of the best of its kind.

 

 

James Callaghan

Political memoirs have become such a growth industry in recent years that it can be difficult to remember their novelty and usefulness, in the days of far less leaky Cabinets, for the average reader. Until the 1970s and the Crosland, Castle and Benn diaries, there was very little account of the actual workings of government. Callaghan was the first PM to give a fully extant memoirs (if you exclude Wilson’s “The Labour Government 1964-1970” and “1974-76”, which I do, for being more an administrative record).

Callaghan’s memoirs take him through his childhood, his early days in the Inland Revenue and the Navy, which really do show that a politican should have a film grounding in a career before starting in political life. Not just for the experience, but to give a sense of how people at the sharp end of governmental policies are affected. After 1945 Callaghan is swept into the great Attlee landslide, and thereafter his story is essentially that of the Labour movement in the UK – the early successes, the 13 years of opposition and the Bevan/Gaitskill split, the vast hopes and gradual disillusion of the Wilson governments.

During all these moments Callaghan rose and rose, to the point where he was made Chancellor in 1964, only to spend three years fighting a losing battle against devaluation. When it came he was tarnished, but not irrevocably and swapped places with Roy Jenkins, then at the Home Office. Callaghan did not continue Jenkins’ liberal reforms, more’s the pity, but seems to be far more of a social conservative than his great rival (and also than Healy, another right-wing LAbour rival). We then see Callaghan fighting for the “renogotiation” of the EEC terms once back in office in 1974, which he relates with a straight face, which must have been difficult.

Upon Wilson’s resignation in 1976, Callaghan fought successfully for the Labour leadership (and thus Prime Ministership). But, interestingly, he says during this point that an autobiographical piece he wrote was the only one he ever wrote. The lack of self-reflection this displays seems unusual for a politican these days, given (as said above) the spate of self-justifying memoirs from even minor Cabinet ministers. Also, Callaghan during his account of his PM-ship seems only focused on the day-to-day, even while he was accounted a successful Chairman style PM: there is little sense of an overriding ideological sense guiding his choices, but rather a practical wish to incrementally improve standards in his various hobby horses – the Navy, education, social services. One really senses that for some PMs (Major being another), high public office is a goal in itself rather than offering the ability to carry out some cherished ideals.

Callaghan also mentions his farm, his wife, his abundant family, amidst the toil of being PM, to complete the sense of him as a man. He seems to have been a very good person to work for – it’s often suggested that he was a better PM than he was Chancellor, or Home or Foreign Secretary. In the end, though, despite it all, Callaghan seems now destined to be remembered for the Winter of Dicontent, which shows the truth of the adage that “all political careers end in failure”. Callaghan’s failure is more important than many others, and for this reason his memoirs are well worth reading.

 

 

Michael Foot

Michael Foot is now sadly remembered as the most unsuccessful Labour in the post-war era, leading the party to the calamitous 1983 General Election defeat. But as this biography shows, Foot was a sucessful politician in the 1974-1979 government, as well as a pre-eminent journalist, author of many books, bibliophile and debater (in his schooldays winning a trip to the USA).

Foot’s journey through life is practically that of the Labour party in the UK, for Foot was born into a family of Liberals and started there himself politically, but shifted to the Labour party, as many post-WWI Liberals did. We learn a great deal about Foot’s family, especially his practically biblio-manicial father Issac who was a towering influence. Foot as a young man was not blessed socially (a trait worsened by asthma and psoriasis) but was a scholar of great ability and a speaker of confidence. But from his large family Foot gained an empathy with women and married Jill Craigie.

Following his time at Oxford, Foot worked as a journalist, for many years under the employ of Beaverbrook, who then had a reputation equivalent to Rupert Murdoch. Mervyn Jones shows how well Foot thought of Beaverbrook, though he does not really show what this would have been thought of in the wider Labour party. Foot then became an MP, initially for Plymouth (his home town), but following defeat in the 1955 election and Aneurin Bevan’s death, was selected for Bevan’s old seat in Wales where the Labour votes could have been weighed rather than counted!

Foot’s time as an MP could be split into four (such was his longevity): firstly his time as a “maverick” backbencher (when such positions were far more respected) until 1970; on the front benches and government (1970-1979), during which he was Employment Secretary and Leader of the House (working closely with Callaghan in his minority administration); Labour party leader (1980-1983); then a venerable backbencher (1983-1992). Each period is well represented – Foot’s backbench period was important because of his skill in defeating the Lord reforms, for example.

Foot’s period as leader is tackled sympathetically – perhaps too much so, for Jones does not really give a sense of the crisis which Labour found itself in in 1983. His election as leader is in fact hailed as helping to keep the Labour party together, when in fact it was taken as proof of a shift to the left (Callaghan would not have countanced unilateral disarmament or withdrawl from the EEC). Foot’s inability to adapt to modern (TV-based) electioneering is similarly sympathised with, rather than condemned for letting the Conservatives win the arguments by default. And this is my main criticism of this biography – Jones seems rather too close to Foot and hesitates to criticise his failures where appropriate, for Foot, regardless of his effectiveness as a Cabinet Minister, was not suited as a party leader. His handling of Tony Benn for example was far too lenient.

Nonetheless, this is an excellent, highly informative, at times moving (Foot’s wider family did not have their troubles to seek) book. Anyone interested in UK politics, in the Labour movement or indeed in post-war journalism would enjoy it greatly.