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.

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Music I’ve Gone Off

Oddly enough, there isn’t a great deal of music I’ve gone off over time. I tend to remain loyal to stuff I liked when young, even if I objectively know it’s dreadful now (i.e. hair metal); or just not really like it much to begin with. Still, some music just doesn’t hit me as it once did. Here’s a few examples.

Tricky

Tricky I suppose is a relic from my pot-smoking days. When a student, I took to hash like a duck to water; it enhanced my imagination, made studying more interesting (if far from efficient – I would wonder down mental tangents for minutes at a time then have to backtrack) and made music more sensual, colourful, and vivid. Studying an arts/humanities course is very agreeable to pot, too, in that your class time will probably be no more than a few hours a day, leaving plenty time for “self study”. It took some time to find the right musical accompaniment, as I’d been too much of a goody-goody to indulge whilst at school (too chicken, also), so it was a case of suck-it-and-see. I first thought the dazzling technicolour of the Beatles’ psychedelic period would suit; but no. It was too bright, too pretty. Once I tried Pink Floyd’s sonorous early rhythms, I was on the right track, and hearing Tricky one day at a friend’s room, I was all over it like white on rice.

Tricky’s first album Maxinequaye is a masterpiece of deep lush rhythms, sensuous atmospheres and understated melodies, with occasional floaters of anxiety and paranoia darkening the emotional palette. Songs like “Abbaon Fat Tracks” are almost preposterously sensual, without being explicitly, juvenilely sexual – this is 4am hash-smoking session getting it on: no rampant animals spirits, but a heightened sensory experience with a languid physical response. “Hell Is Round The Corner”, with its Portishead sample, is similarly languid (with the nice touch of vinyl crackles), but counterpointed by a lyric of ghetto darkness and social breakdown. There are up-tempo songs – “Brand New You’re Retro” takes the riff from “Bad” over which Tricky and Martina both perform great raps, but still sounds deep and fluid in its rhythms; while “Black Steel” is a thrash metal version of a Public Enemy song which left critics non-plussed (they rarely know how to interpret the more aggressive strains of rock), but which effectively breaks up the homogeneity of atmosphere and tempo. The album is not consistent – it declines quite markedly after “Brand New You’re Retro” – but it hits numerous enormous bulls-eyes, and deserved its nomination in numerous “Best of 1995” lists.

Maxinequaye however got Tricky rather pigeon-holed into “dinner party music”, nice “trip-hop” categories. And he didn’t seem to like that at all. But rather than outgrow this with quality output, he reacted in an I’ll-show-them way. His next three or four albums become increasingly dark, sinister and paranoiac. Check “Vent” as an opener to third album Pre Millennium Tension: the thundering drums, the ominous feedback loops, Tricky’s rasping vocal (“can’t hardly breathe!”), sharp guitar attack, and lack of melody or rich bass tones make it a marked development, and a skillfully developed atmosphere, but you have to be enormously creative to sustain people’s interest in such a dark, oppressive ambiance. (C.f. Joy Division). And Tricky just isn’t good enough as a musician. Pre Millennium Tension does start well, with “Vent”, then the understated menace of “Christiansands”, while “Makes Me Wanna Die” is stark and affecting. But tracks like “Tricky Kid” are boring hip-hop braggadocio, and “Ghetto Youth” a long boring raga, while “Bad Things”, “My Evil Is Strong” and “Piano” evoke an atmosphere (yup, a dark, oppressive one), but do nothing with it – Tricky just rasps his familiar lyrical motifs, and that’s it. It’s boring.

Next album Angels With Dirty Faces is a further progression along this route. Dispensing with melody almost entirely, the album comprises tracks of skittering beats and breakbeats, over which Tricky and Martina (there’s rather less or Martina on this album) mumble or wail their problems. When it works, as with “Singing The Blues” or “Broken Homes”, it’s very good – both creative and effective. But usually, unfortunately, it’s just boring. “Carriage For Two” does nothing much, nor do “Tear Out My Eyes” and “Analyze Me”, and… well, the whole second half of the album, frankly.

After this Tricky had clearly backed himself into a corner and took three years to release his next album (and re-think his entire approach). Comeback album (I feel that should be in neon: COMEBACK ALBUM!) Blowback saw Tricky with about a dozen guest performers, from the Chilli Peppers to Alanis Morrissette to Cyndi Lauper. (Yes, really). And while the album is more varied and melodious, it’s really just sad and embarrassing, feeling and sounding like famous wellwishers grafted on at record company behest to help pull Tricky out of his hole. Some of the effects are diabolical – the Nirvana cover “Something In The Way” features perhaps the worst raga you’ll ever hear. It’s atrocious. And that was where my patience snapped and I gave up.

I’ve perhaps laboured the point, but there was a time when I felt Tricky was outstanding, and Maxinequaye was a very fine album (up until track nine). But he’s a clear example of someone with a very clear musical vision which was all used up after two albums.

Cypress Hill

There was a time when I was interested in rap and hiphop. This was the early 90s, so it would be oldskool stuff, I guess, like Ice T, Public Enemy and NWA. The progression is pretty natural for rock fans who like anger and dissent in their music; and with the injustices featuring in Public Enemy etc both genuine and demonstrating the ugly face of the ruling class and culture, some felt even more into it. While I liked Public Enemy, whose skewering of American institutions, myths and culture was both brave and immensely skilful, the others I went off of very rapidly. Tales of ghetto histrionics and bravado are just fucking tedious to me, and symptomatic of a sterile destructive culture. Subsequent artists in this vein, from Snoop Dog onwards, I just despise.

There was a time that’s embarrassing to recall though, when I thought Cypress Hill were good. Simple funky rhythms and “fuck-the-law” lyrics and all that. I liked it for about a month when I was thirteen, then the repetition of the beats became glaringly obvious, and their appeal wore out like cheap chewing gum. Fin.

(If you’re wondering why I’m embarrassed to recall a musical passion at age 13, well consider that at that age I had already discovered Nirvana, the Sex Pistols, Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd, The Clash, Slayer, etc, who in their various ways I still love).

The Smiths

It’s not so much I’ve gone off The Smiths, maybe, as that my adolescent infatuation with them wore off. When I was in the grip of it, I listened to them daily, religiously; now, I put on The Queen Is Dead, Hatfull of Hollow or Best of Vol 1 occasionally, but that’s about it. With the best will in the world, they are something of an teenager’s band – their lyrical preoccupations particularly. The music is dazzlingly lyrical, running the gamut of emotions, but with a few mordant slabs of sadness, gloom and even downright self-pity, they were easy to dismiss as miserabilists. As I’ve aged, what’s become more important to me in music is lack of affectation, a reality, the conveying of true emotions passionately felt. You get this in abundance throughout the greats, from Miles Davis to Bob Marley to Kraftwerk (once they’d hit their stride). With Morrissey’s lyrics, one sometimes feels a distancing, so that his word-play and allusions become not verbal pleasures but self-protection from revelation. There have even been books about the interpretations people place on his lyrics, such are their opacity/allusiveness. Take “What Difference Does It Make?”:

All men have secrets and here is mine,
So let it be known
For we have been through hell and high tide
I think I can rely on you
And yet you start to recoil,
Heavy words are lightly thrown
But still I’d leap in front of a flying bullet for you

I’ve always thought this was about someone telling a friend (or desired lover?) that they were gay. But equally it could be an argument, a confession about anything, etc.  Allusion and resonance are nice, but there comes a time when you ask “Where’s the beef?”

Other things that irritate about Morrissey’s lyrics are their preciousness, and the preening intellectual pretension. Again, fine when you’re fifteen, and you’re just discovering DH Lawrence and EM Forster and Martin Amis. But when you get to 30+ and you’ve read a book or two and aren’t afraid of using, you know, big long type words, it gets a bit tedious.

What does remain about The Smiths are Marr’s unerringly fantastic guitar playing – which is yet never wankily flashy, which makes for a great relief in the 1980s – and when Morrissey’s lyrics are genuine and heartfelt. “How Soon Is Now?” (despite the dreadful pretension of the opening lines) remains painfully true:

I am the son
and the heir
of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir
of nothing in particular

You shut your mouth
how can you say
I go about things the wrong way
I am human and I need to be loved
just like everybody else does

“Back To The Old House” creates a brooding, desolate atmosphere, heightened by a stark Marr accoustic finger-picked piece:

I would rather not go
Back to the old house
I would rather not go
Back to the old house
There’s too many
Bad memories
Too many memories

When you cycled by
Here began all my dreams
The saddest thing I’ve ever seen
And you never knew
How much I really liked you
Because I never even told you
Oh, and I meant to
Are you still there ?
Or … have you moved away ?
Or have you moved away ?

While the sharp observation of “Girl Afraid” is rich with biting humour and pathos:

Girl afraid
Where do his intentions lay ?
Or does he even have any ?
She says :
“He never really looks at me!
I give him every opportunity!
In the room downstairs
He sat and stared
In the room downstairs
He sat and stared
I’ll never make that mistake again !”

Boy afraid
Prudence never pays
And everything she wants costs money
“But she doesn’t even LIKE me !
And I know because she said so!
In the room downstairs
She sat and stared
In the room downstairs
She sat and stared
I’ll never make that mistake again !”

“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, “Never Had No One Ever” and “Last Night I Dreamed Somebody Loved Me” are in the same direct, emotional, vein. But notably, of course, all focus on doomed romance and loss, the typical narcissistic adolescent complaints. The emotional resonance of this is somewhere around zero for me, and so despite The Smith’s numerous great gifts of expression, I’ve just don’t listen to them much these days.

Books That Have Been Crushing Disappointments

Crap booksI really should focus on books a bit more. I guess it’s because there’s very few authors who I like throughout their entire oeuvre, unlike with bands where you can relatively easily compare and contrast across albums. Take two of my favourite authors, George Orwell and EM Forster – both of them were pretty so-so until their final two novels, but then both pairs (Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four; and Howards End and A Passage To India, of course) are some of the finest in the twentieth century. I’m excluding Orwell’s non-fiction here, of course. Where bands can reproduce essentially the same album over and over again (I’m looking at you, AC/DC), writers can get stale very quickly (I’m looking at you, Irvine Welsh) and attempts to branch out can be bewilder their audience (I’m looking at you, James Joyce). It rather depends on their style, of course. Character-based writers like Irvine Welsh use up their share of meaningful stories early on, and then have to fall back on increasingly-hackneyed plots and melodrama; whereas plot-driven writers, such as those working in crime or mysteries, or genre fiction, where you work within set parameters (such as horror, fantasy or westerns).

Nonetheless, there have been a number of books which been intensely disappointing, whether following an outstanding precedent or which fail to capture their potential.

The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith

On Beauty, Smith’s third novel, was the first of hers I’d read. It’s a homage to Howards End, set in a New England campus, so it has the traditional campus comedy (of manners) in the mix too: departmental politics, the clash of ego and political correctness, the hilarity of smart people having oh-so-human weaknesses. It’s really pretty damn good, even if the media epithet of “prose wizard” overcooks Smith’s talent: she is deft, for sure, but too much in love with writing and novelising to prevent a certain obtrusiveness. Still, it was one of the best novels I’d read for some time, certainly for  new writer. I was in China at the time, so I could only find The Autograph Man, rather than her much-lauded debut White Teeth. But my, how completely boring was The Autograph Man! It completely failed as both fiction and as literature. It was awful fiction because there was no compelling plot or characters (protagonist Alex-Li Tandem (gettit?) only seems to be mixed race Chinese-Jewish, but have no other traits worth notice or mention: his career of autograph hunting is only because it’s easy), nor are there memorable character arcs. There was, most damningly, no sense of pattern: there was some events you didn’t care for, then another event, then… dribbling pointlessness. It failed too as literature because the symbols and themes were either not brought out (the emptiness of fame and celebrity is a decent idea, but it was never really elucidated) or obvious: yes, autograph hunters are parasites, etc etc. No doubt Smith had a publisher clamouring for product to keep the public and media interest high – collections of short stories are often good holding-manouveres – but The Autograph Man will have to go down as “the difficult second novel”. If Smith can grow out of the precious “I’m a writer” attitude and stick to her craft, I’ve no doubt she will produce compelling work.

The Silmarillion, JRR Tolkien

Much though I love The Lord of the Rings, I simply cannot make any headway on The Silmarillion. All those bloody elves! I find them the least interesting of the races and forms in LOTR, with their righteousness and effeteness. Boring! I far far prefer the homeliness of the hobbits, and much enjoy the opening and closing chapters set in the Shire. The rustic humour and essentially suburban concerns of the Shirefolk make a terrific contrast to the awesome devilry of Mordor and the pride and majesty of Minas Tirith. Remove this, and an essential antithesis is removed. The Silmarillion even takes away men and and dwarves,: it may be mythic and majestic, but its poetic frame of mind is not congenial to me.

Post-Misery Stephen King

Writers, like musicians, dry up. Their inspiration declines, their vision expires. Creativity, in composing something entirely new, is brain-busting, intense, utterly demanding work. After a time, most artists stick to the parameters they have set out in their early work. With Stephen King, though he was always quite hit and miss (I don’t care for early books like The Tommyknockers or Salem’s Lot), he seems to me to have dried up almost entirely after Misery, or after about 1992, or after (though this is an uncomfortable thought), since he kicked drugs and alcohol. Since then, several characteristics seem to have set in: his protagonists are far too often writers and the setting is generally upper-middle class north-east USA. In other words, his experience of life has become too thin to sustain sustained creativity; he has come too far from his period of struggle to remember the broader range of emotional experience and of humanity. His earlier works (particularly some of the short stories) were enlivened by thoroughly nasty situations and people: “Night Shift” remains one of the best horror stories I have ever read, while the demented black humour of “Survivor Type” is very much to my taste. (I did write a gruesomely vivid zombie novel as a joke, you know). But since 1992 or so, King’s fictional world has been repetitive and boring. Bag Of Bones, The Ghost Of Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, Needful Things, Cell – every single one of them has been ultimately tedious. That’s five for five out of his post-1992 work. He can still create character effectively, but his weaknesses – the insane overwriting, the melodramatic ending, the thinness of the conception – are no longer concealed by his strengths.

Still, an eighteen year (1974-1992) period of creativity is a good one for any artist – especially a writer who produces two novels a year.

John Lennon Letters

I thought Lennon’s letters would be quite literary, in the same style as those of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin: lengthy, revelatory, funny, insightful. But the “letters” are in fact often postcards and notes – one of them is even a shopping list! There is only one letter to Cynthia whilst the Beatles are in Hamburg, none to Yoko (allegedly because when apart they were on the phone “twenty times a day” – I call bullshit), none to friends like Shotton. Only the ones to Derek Taylor sustain the interest; the rest seem to be scribbled notes to fans, postcards to family and colleagues, and the odd half-page letter, to Julian or musicians. The legend of Lennon the literary intellectual gets shot in flames by this book; though it’s my guess that Yoko Ono has a cache of correspondence which she refuses to release.

While Lennon’s style is of course distinctive, with his puns and neologisms and Joycean coinings, it will be familiar to anyone who has read In His Own Write or A Spaniard In The Works. In the end, the sole interest of the Lennon letters is for biographical revelation, and on that count it is remarkably thin. Lennon was never one to examine himself and his methodology, or rather to verbalise this: he preferred to keep it instinctive, visceral, natural. This is probably of benefit to his creativity, but it makes the book a weak, insubstantial, unsatisfying book.

Songs Which Mean Something (To Me)

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There are just some songs which stick in your head and in your heart. Sometimes it is simple nostalgia (as I’ve said about my youthful infatuation with hair metal), but sometimes – who knows why? – a song just clicks with something going on your life. This is something utterly magical, and something I don’t really think happens, or certainly not to such a strong extent, with other art forms. I’ve never looked at Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist: No 1, 1950 and thought, “Holy shit, that reminds me of when I was doing an IT postgrad.” Or rather, it does – but entirely without the piquancy and vividity of a musical association. I still remember the song playing during my first youth club disco kiss (“Eternal Flame” by The Bangles – not too bad), the one going through my head when my daughter was born, and so on. But then there are songs which just feel richly symbolic to me, which seem to mean or allude to something…

So then here are some songs which just MEAN something to me, for whatever reason.

1. The Smiths, “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”

I had this particular adolescent period I find unusually memorable but find to hard to convey why. Maybe it happens to everyone, but there was a time when everything was keenly felt and rich with poetry. Yeah, I was in love. It hit me like a megaton bomb, radically affecting every part of my life. It was at this time that my writing took off – I had done some furtive scribbling previously, but during this love-lorn year it exploded, and I wrote ceaselessly. Fortunately by this time I had massively broadened my musical taste via The Beatles and the nascent Britpop scene, so the sense of new music suited my feeling of delicate tender exposure. This song is by no means The Smiths’ best, but there’s just something about it – the drama and urgency of the introduction, the restrained (by Morrissey’s standards) vocal but that breathlessness passion, the tight structure, the simple but effective solo (Marr is remarkably lacking in ego for being such an amazingly talented guitar player, more into serving the song than wanky pyrotechnics). In my occasional synaesthetic moments, I get strong vibes of purple and grey off this song – a pinkish purple, not a blueberry/Ribena shade. It constantly brings me back to those mooncalf days of insomnia in warm summer nights, discovering DH Lawrence and EM Forster, long walks through nearby countryside (I used to leave about 9pm and get back about 3 or 4am), and the constant tantalising sense of possible rapture. Aaaah, being fifteen.

2. Sex Pistols, “Submission”

There was something about the Sex Pistols that just resonated with me. It wasn’t just Rotten’s outraged nasal sneer, or Jones’ powerful riffing, or the gleeful pissing on so many national monuments. The Sex Pistols just sounded like the late 1970s to me. I have no idea why this association should exist, given that I was born in 1979, and I don’t think I’d ever seen any of the (now many) documentaries which use punk as an aural signifier of UK political/economic decline, when I first got into the Pistols. The association was so strong that I used to wander round parts of town which seemed similarly “seventies” – there was a closed factory near the centre which strongly gave off that vibe, for me at least. It’s weird because I was only about 13 at the time and so didn’t really know about the Winter of Discontent or the IMF bailout etc. But somehow this vibe communicated itself to me…

This song was written at the instigation of Malcolm McLaren who wanted the band to write a song about “submission” and bondage. Rotten both took the piss and showed his wit saying “How about a submarine mission?” The song is really more about the submission (in the dissolution of the self sense, rather than naff S/M wank fantasies)  to the mother-ocean-goddess figure of male archetype.  This, funnily enough, didn’t strike me at the time: the song then suggested to me something about someone not wanting to work offshore (which in those days meant fishing, not oil – I come from a long line of mariners) but giving in and winding up in that backbreaking industry. Kind of like Kes and the kid ending up working down t’pit. (Those were the days when industry meant the destruction of potential and talent, rather than being venerated for economic generation). Though that impression has declined as I veer to the other reading of the song, it’s one of those examples where a song creates all these emotions, atmospheres and impressions on me.

3.  XTC, “Ball and Chain”

One of the happiest times in my life was in the latter half of my first year in China. Teaching was fun (and easy), the students were lovely, I had some good friends, no bills to worry about, and my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife) was going great. Ah, happy days!  And this was when I got into XTC, through their several mentions in the inestimable Bad Wisdom, the greatest novel ever written. My god, but listening to that song brings back such vivid memories! Just chilling out in my teacher apartment, drinking a not-really-earned G&T with the Bombay Sapphire I bought in Nanjing. (The local supermarket only sold Gordons). Spending 10 hours playing pool on my days off (I got REALLY good that year). Visiting Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou and Wuxi for the first time. Inviting all my chums round for a big dinner and introducing them to the shower scene from Porkies. The huge party I threw for my girlfriend on her birthday (the kind of party where language no longer mattered, all that existed was hilarity and goodwill and epic drunkenness). Starting to discover the Chinese internet and blogging scene. My sweet, kind, optimistic, industrious, students. Good times.

This song is typically upbeat XTC (they surely are the most Beatley band of the 80s) with a typically XTC under-cutting-the-happiness lyrics, though actually on the subject of urban “regeneration” rather than bemoaning marriage or relationships. The album English Settlement was much played by me at that period – though, again typically for XTC, it is uneven, in this instance having a classic side 1 and “meh” side 2. (I think only their masterpiece Skylarking is consistently strong – though I realise this is a bit of a circular argument). Still, with songs like “Senses Working Overtime” and “Jason And The Argonauts”, who’s complaining?

4.  Sade, “Smooth Operator”

Though an eighties child, being born in 1979 means that while I was exposed to the pop culture of the day, I missed out on the meaning or context of most of it. (My sister was the true eighties child, the one who was a Duran Duran, Wham!, Michael Jackson, Five Star fan). There are some songs though which just connect me to that decade, and this is one. Although I obviously never went to a wine bar then (the idea of even going to a bar and ordering wine was miles off my radar until I was over 30), this song just makes me think of 1980s wine bars and the pseudo-sophistication, the kind of thing absolutely slaughtered in American Psycho, the tasteful jazz, the absurd way that the upper-middle classes disguise getting pished with notions of taste and discrimination etc! Not that I think this is a bad song: on the contrary, I am a big fan of Diamond Life. It’s just so evocative of a particular time and place, one that is now rather despised for its gaucheness. The same dynamic occurs in cultural as in one’s own life: so easy to despise what you once were, even though it made you what you are now.

5. Bjork, “Venus As A Boy”

What was it Garth from Wayne’s World said about “Dream Woman”? “She makes me feel funny, like when we had to climb the rope in gym class.” The first time I saw Bjork was on – The Late Show? Later With Jools Holland? Something Friday night BBC2 anyway. I just remember feeling… enthralled yet mystified. This is when she had those cute ringlets (as in the video here) and whooo, I just felt something I’d never felt for a woman I’d seen on TV before. This was when “sexy” women were presented as dolly birds, the time of Benny Hill and The Two Ronnies and ludicrous nonsense like that. The idea that women could be creative and cool and sexy and funny and smart was new to me. Stupid of me, but it’s true. Anybody who tells you about how feminists want everything and it’s not fair and poor men boo-hoo-hoo – slap them.

Bjork’s delicious melismatic singing, the sheer joy in her face, the understated sensuality of the music…whoa. Really takes me back. You remember how Friday nights used to be absolutely fucking awesome for TV? (Sorry, this is for Brits). Both BBC2 and Channel 4 had terrific shows, from Red Dwarf to The Word to Whose Line Is It Anyway? to Naked City to Later to Passengers to Crapston Villas to Jam.

6. Happy Mondays, “Step On”

This one isn’t such a personal connection, but a cultural/national one. I was in Sanlitun one night with my good lady wife, and in whatever bar we were in, “Step On” came on. I really like the song and started semi-drunkenly grooving along with it (that’s the only kind of grooving I do, I’m afraid). This piqued her interest, and I wanted to explain the whats and whys and wherefores of the song. But, really, how can you hope to do that to someone Chinese? How can you explain “rave” culture, the late 80s ecstasy explosion, the remaking of Ibiza into some kind of sun-kissed drug haven (though long since, of course, degenerated into a tourist ripoff attended by the UK’s Darrens and Sharons), the conversion of the football casual hardcases into beaming euphoric whistle-blowing goons, and the “Summer of Love II”? (Most Western musical revolutions, it seems to me, are drug-led and the rave thing seems to be about the last organic bottom-up pop culture boom – just as hippy was led by acid, mods and punk  by speed and folkrock, to some extent, by grass). You can’t, of course. So I probably just mumbled something about it being a cool song.

Legends I Just Don’t Get

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I remember when in my final year of studying English and working on my dissertation (“Philosophical Subtexts in the Works of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh”). Talking with others, I was always a bit mystified by their choices. Why would they choose Yeats, or Sir Walter Scott, or Derrida (whom I consider an absolute fucking charlatan)? But of course taste is always personal, and, as I once read somewhere, somebody who quite likes everything doesn’t really like anything. Studying English brought immense pleasure from those I liked (Larkin, Eliot, Pinter, Ginsberg, Joyce, Keats, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Baurdillard, etc) but immense yawns from those I didn’t (Austen, Scott, Plath, McIllvanney, Shelley).

It’s the same with music. There are some greats that I simply can’t get my head around. People whose opinion I respect rave about them, but somehow it just passes me by. I’m not talking about stuff I actively despise, like Coldplay, Kean and all that mortgage rock/landfill indie banality; the Stereophonics and their gormless stupidity, or Snoop Dogg and all that ghetto mentality hip hop. (I can just about appreciate Ice T, because he talks about it with dramatic irony). There are some greats that I just don’t get…

1. Bob Dylan

According to the excellent allmusic.com, Dylan’s “influence on popular music is incalculable“. I don’t dispute the excellence of songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, but when I listen to Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, I come away thinking, “…Meh”. I just don’t come away with any sense of delight or wonder or rapt pleasure that I would expect for someone so rabidly esteemed. It’s not that I don’t like folky music: when I listen to Nick Drake (for example his magnificent songs “Hazey Jane I” or “Cello Song“), I am prostrate before such eloquence and vision. I just don’t understand what Dylan is trying to do or say, and this annoys me! (The exception is Nashville Skyline, his first all-out country rock album, where he clearly has a vision and executes it beautifully).

2.  Bruce Springsteen

To be honest, I haven’t listened a great deal to Springsteen, only Born To Run and Born In The USA. Maybe his darker albums Nebraska and Tunnel Of Love are better. But it seems to me that Springsteen suffers from a fairly common trait (one also suffered by New Order, XTC, Moby, The Verve, U2 and later REM) – utter blandness. It doesn’t matter how emotionally you posture (check his “passing a kidney stone” level of emoting in the “We Are The World” video), if the music is bland it’s all meaningless. Though I guess you can’t deny the power of “Born In The USA”, most of Springsteen’s other songs are just so much “meh”. Even with a sax player as good as Clarence Clemons!

3. Tool

Although a metaller when young, I had pretty much grown out of it by 1994ish. My taste in metal is thus utterly stagnant – good old Metallica, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Megadeth, etc. After that, my interest fades severely. Numerous friends however have extolled the virtues of Tool, citing their dark intelligence and sharp musicianship. Trouble is, the singer’s whiny nasal voice bugs the shit out of me.

4. The Police

Same as with Bruce Springsteen – “Every Move You Make”, great song. The rest, meh. There’s roughly a zillion bands from the same period who are far more interesting.

5. David Bowie

I guess this is the same as my feelings about Dylan – I have listened to his great albums on numerous occasions and come away feeling mildly pleased but also puzzled. Where’s the immensity, the awesomeness, the majesty? Now, I think Hunky Dory is a very good album (probably because of its overt similarity to Transformer), Low leaves me staggered at his vision and future-awareness, and who can resist the swagger of “Jean Genie”? (Can someone tell me if The Sweet pinched the riff for “Blockbuster”, or was it the other way round?) But…! Station To Station, Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall…, Heroes – all of these are critically esteemed as exceptionally good albums, and which leave me cold.

6. Deep Purple/Rainbow

My prog rocker dad and uncles were natural fans of the Purp, and would extol them as great musicians, intelligent music, etc etc. Trouble is, if you’re a musician trying to convince people of your technical skills or intelligence, you’re going to forget to do basic things like entertain or convey emotion. Deep Purple and Rainbow seem to me to be long-winded pompous smug selfindulgent wanky “intelligent” crap. I don’t care how long you can do a solo, I don’t care about how technical your music is, I don’t care how many literary allusions are in your lyrics: it matters not one rat’s ass. The only thing that matters is what emotion is conveyed. In Deep Purple and Rainbow’s case, the emotion I perceive is overcompensation.

How about you?

Life Changers

I’ve rather neglected the books aspect of this blog so far: mostly ideas for posts occur to me as I’ve been sat on the laptop, listening to music with headphones on, working away at something else. (Is there any greater spur to blog than having some work to do?). But obviously books are very important to me: I’m a voracious reader, always have been. Some books have had a massive effect – what was it Cathy said to Nellie Dean in Wuthering Heights?

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

If books are waking dreams, then this is undoubtedly true for me. Books have affected the colour of my mind, the shape of my ideas, the texture of my imaginings. So in this blog I want to chart the books that have been deeply influential.

1. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardobe

This is the first “great” book I ever read, where it just kept getting better and better as I kept reading. I think at the time I had mostly been reading Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, but TLTWATW felt magnificent, epic, compared to them. Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong but Blyton or Dahl – I loved all the Famous Five, Malory Towers, Twins at St. Clairs, and Five Find-Outer series, and Dahl’s gruesome imagination tickles my humour-spot, even now. But TLTWATW had great themes, like sacrifice and betrayal and redemption (I didn’t pick up the whole Christian symbolism until much later on), even while its setting seemed familiar and (as with Mr and Mrs Beaver) homely. It was the first book I ever read which expanded my vision of what life was about.

2. The Lord of the Rings

My dad and uncles, being 1970s prog rock types, were natural Tolkien fans, and were keen to press The Hobbit onto me as soon as I was old enough. Oddly enough, I didn’t think it was all that great (it suffers, as Tolkien himself regretted, occassional instances of him writing down to his audience). It did though clear the way to Lord of the Rings, and I still vividly remember the first time I took it out the library. I asked the elderly gentleman librarian (he used to wear a panama hat) if they had it; he was standing by the stack of books to be returned to the shelves, and by happenstance had it to hand. He passed it over with a great look in his eyes, one that said “You are REALLY going to enjoy this, my lad.” I spent about an hour just leafing through it before I took it out: I loved the dwarvish runes and the elven script in the opening pages; I loved the cover, a magnificent, monstrous depiction of Mount Doom; I loved the appendices with the alphabets and timelines and family trees; I loved the sense of a complete world, an imaginary universe, just waiting to be explored.

Though I barely had the reading maturity to comprehend it all (I remember getting confused between Sauron and Saruman and having to backtrack several chapters), Lord of the Rings completely swamped me. My first attempts at writing were absurd imitations, and I spent ages trying to read sundry Tolkien books like The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales before I realised that I wasn’t interested in the “unexplored vistas” of Middle Earth. But there can be no doubt that LOTR truly is an astonishing creative effort, one in which many people are indeed happy enough to reside in.

3. Educating Rita

After Lord of the Rings, I spent a lot of time reading horror (mostly Stephen King, Shaun Hutson, and James Herbert) – hey, I was 13-14 and massively into heavy metal. Goes with the territory. I can’t say that, except from King’s fine novel IT, many of them left much of an impression. Eventually, though, we started doing books at school which spoke to me in some fashion. Educating Rita was the first: the story of a working-class woman who wants to improve her mind through an Open University course in English Lit., it dazzled me with its demonstration of how one’s mind, one’s life, could be improved through literature. Though my family were readers,  they inclined towards best-sellers rather than literary novels etc. Not that there’s anything so wrong with that, but there was a whole world out there beyond my ken. Suddenly, there was Rita reading Ibsen, Forster, Blake, Shakespeare, Ferlinghetti, and the like. This led me to seriously extend my own reading range, and I became an insanely ambitious reader, trying out DH Lawrence, EM Forster, James Joyce, Martin Amis, William Burroughs, Oscar Wilde and James Kelman within the next year. Which leads me to:

4. Maurice

Yeah, EM Forster’s homosexual-themed novel. What can I say? I was young, callow, adolescent – in other words, I was 15. But I loved Forster’s feeling for the countryside, his subtlety and lyricism, his symbolism and his rejection of conventional, unthinking morality. Maurice led me, of course, to Howards End and A Passage To India, the true greats in his canon.

5. Trainspotting

Irvine Welsh exploded into my life like the Sex Pistols: noisy, anarchic, visceral, ugly, truthful, real. Living in Scotland was then to wallow in this great sentimental image of national life, one of twee Scottishness and a ridiculous feeling of superiority over England. (Measured ever-watchfully, of course). They (the English, of course) were racist, were hooligans, had more poverty and worse schools, were less community-minded, were war-mongering, Thatcher-voting snobs. You name the lazy prejudice, it was smugly applied. Welsh exploded all those myths with a novel of extreme bravery: the first book I’d ever read which mocked the Scottish cultural cringe, the first which explored the council estates in all their gaudy, brutal, helpless squalor. (Kelman’s characters were usually so good, so honest, so stymied-by-exterior-circumstances: Welsh’s were the full technicolour range of characters you might meet down your local pub).

I immediately recognised the truth of what Welsh was saying and spent ages trying to write like him, in dialect, with working-class characters, concerning drugs and crime etc. Took me a while to realise that these weren’t really my subjects, or to find a way to something different with them. Also, Welsh’s career has been a sad decline from the visceral Trainspotting to the adequate Filth and Porno to the abject Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. Still, I very much look forward to reading his prequel, Skag Boys.

6. Bad Wisdom

Being Scottish, I absorbed all the new Scottish writing, things like James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Duncan Maclean, Jeff Torrington. All are good writers – at one point I felt Kelman was as good as Joyce, which I now think highly overvalues Kelman, who isn’t much fun to read – but most of them have a highly realist style, jagged and impressionistic perhaps, but always trying to avoid seeming literary. Fidelity to the moment and capturing the reality were always the priority. There wasn’t much space for florid metaphors, put it that way. But as Wilde says, a truth in art is one whose opposite is also true. Consequently, when I first discovered Bad Wisdom I was absolutely enthralled precisely by its overblown prose, its insistence on imagination and fantasy. Written by two musicians, Bill Drummond (formerly of the KLF) and Mark Manning (Zodiac Mindwarp), chunk by chunk, the Manning sections contain the most (intentionally) ludicrously over-the-top prose you are ever likely to read: it makes Nabokov read like Hemingway. The subject matter is as OTT, with insane fantastical sections about supermodels wrestling in shit, biker vikings with a chainsaw execution ceremony, shamanistic rituals concerning “the Lost Chord” and the destruction of the world, and the key of Elvis to world peace. It’s just jaw-droppingly mind-blowing. Never have I read such rich metaphors, such juicy adjectives, such dazzling lush prose. Bad Wisdom is an amazing tour-de-force and one which completely changed the way I look at the world. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

7. The New Industrial State

Bilbo tells Frodo in Lord of the Rings that paths lead to paths, that the road is endless. The same is true if you’re a reader: books lead to other books, albums lead to others. For example, the Velvet Underground is one of my all-time favourite bands, and reading that their “Sister Ray” was an attempt to do a free-form jazz song in a rock style led to me explore Ornette Coleman, Cecil Tyaylor, Archie Shepp, as well as less wild stuff like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, which I rather prefer! Reading a book from the library called Fifty Key Modern Thinkers, I was blown away by the entry on Jean Baudrillard, my head exploding with understanding and implications. Unfortunately, I don’t find many of Baudrillard’s works very comprehensible: I can read explications of his theories and understand, but I don’t have much of an engagement with him personally. Anyway, so one book of his I did like and which is easy enough to understand is The Consumer Society, much of which is a critique of The Affluent Society by someone called JK Galbraith. I hadn’t heard of Galbraith before, but one day browsing through a second-hand book store I found a copy of The New Industrial State, and so bought it. Until then, my understanding of industry and work had been adolescently Marxist (yeah, I know), but reading TNIS gave me a sense of how the post-war economic structure actually operated. Galbraith is essentially a Keynesian, but his analysis of how corporations function and how they aggregate into a broader system seemed to accord with reality far more than anything I had ever encountered. Some of his descriptions are pre-1973, or pre-Reaganite, or pre-Milton Friedman, however you prefer to look at it, but given the current world economic troubles, Galbraith’s points seem more salient than ever.

TNIS gave me a taste for books about finance and economics, and those are the books I still tend to read: for some reason, I don’t have much of an appetite for fiction these days. So this is the last life changer amongst the books I have read.

How  about you?

https://booksandmusicandstuff.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/life-changers/