Something for Nothing

January 4th, 2014

Progress can breed a lot of dodos. Now that we have personalised playlists, who needs Radio DJ's to anticipate our needs? We all have camera-phones, so who needs a Wedding Photographer to catch the moment? With DIY Wills, who needs a Lawyer? Who needs Editors and Publishers when you can self-edit and self-publish? Who needs delivery-men and taxi drivers with driverless cars?

None of these professions is as doomed as the dodo (never underestimate people's resourcefulness to survive) but the specialist shine of the creative professional seems to be fading. A hundred years ago it happened to those who underwent years of apprenticeship to hand-craft cars, albeit at prices that few could afford. Henry Ford's revolution in mass production had no use for such people and so the car was liberated from the wealthy and went on to empower millions. As prices fell, so expectations rose. But the shadow cast by this leap was a vision of an impersonal world that was dominated by the standardised, the cheap and the commercial, with no place for individual and independent expression.

As certain media and creative industries become more mainstream, or democratised, or liberated, so it becomes harder to earn an individual and independent living from them. Increasingly habituated to having services and products provided for free (talk about a 'something for nothing culture') we shy away from giving a professional an incentive by paying them the necessary fee for a quality job. You might as well expect a flower to bloom whilst refusing it water. It might be increasingly hard to differentiate between professional work and that of a talented amateur, but who will know or care if the quality suffers from doing the job ourselves, when the bar of quality descends further into the devalued and uninspired depths of 'that'll do'?

When did professionalism, experience, artistry, craft and quality lose our respect? Have they been bracketed together with the word 'elitist'? Perhaps not – we doubtless still respect such things in themselves and the people who have them. Professionals are, after all, just amateurs who didn't quit. We just seem to balk at paying them more than just compliments for their time and effort, for some reason. A climate where loyalty is too high a price is one that no Professional can adapt themselves to. There will always be niche markets who will keep paying for individual and personalised services, but the majority of us may ultimately wake up to a world where everything is free and find that we are poorer for it. You can only get back what you put in, after all. 

Size Matters

November 5th, 2013

In 1913, Emily Davison stood in front of the King's horse as a protest for women's suffrage and was killed. A century later and many people say that they don't bother to vote – it's a waste of time. Why? For all that they legislate, so much seems beyond the reach of politicians. They no longer seem to be the prime shapers of our daily lives; Sir Tim Berners-Lee has done more for us than MP's. Politicians seem powerless, obedient to the more powerful dictates of 24/7 media, security against terrorism and the making of big money, rather than to the wishes of an electorate.

Other people say they no longer know who to vote for. Neither Left nor Right can offer a way forward that appeals any more. As Maurice Saatchi ponders, our experience of socialism didn't create wealth and our experience of free-market economics has soured to ballooning corporate greed and growing social inequality. Yet we still seem expected to choose between having either big government, or big companies. As Saatchi says – we no longer know which is worse. 

What do these two things have in common? One word: BIG. Whether you are the Citizen of an over-bearing State, or the Customer of a corporate conglomerate that straddles the globe, the end result is the same. There comes a point where size goes beyond inspiring and starts to feel crushing. You feel dwarfed, intimidated. What you face is simply too big to comprehend and digest. You feel your smallness and thence your powerlessness. You feel peripheral, at the bottom of a long chain of command, shut out. You can't help but ask what can one person do and end up by walking away. In such a big environment, who is going to miss you?

If there is a way forward that might hold some appeal, maybe it would be one with a healthy sense of proportion towards government and business in relation to people. Keeping both on a more human scale would mean people feel they belong and that they count – rather than belonging as yet another number to be counted. If government or business are at a size that people can comprehend, then it will feel workable and they will feel a willingness to engage.

Revolution/Evolution

June 17th, 2013

Britain is long overdue a Revolution, according to Kevin McKenna. You can't argue with the litany of Britain's current problems – social inequality, corporate tax dodging, police kettling of protesters, political corruption, child poverty, food banks and the penalising of the working poor: all in need of resolution. 

What's disquieting is the way that McKenna almost seems to be wishing for something more radical than the 'few riots' we have so far managed. A wistful tone in his article seems to say that if only we could just have a Revolution, then everything would be better. He doesn't glorify the 'casual brutalities' of the Russian and French Revolutions, but adds that 'at least the Russians and the French got there in the end.' Aside from the fact that Russia and France have problems of their own, it makes you wonder just what extremes he might deem necessary in order for Britain to get wherever it needs to get to. Whether McKenna sees Revolution as the skilled surgeon conducting major, clean and neat operations on Britain's body politic, or if he is prepared to accept some messiness and collateral damage, he should be careful what he wishes for. Revolution is something to shout about, but when it takes on a life of its own, a Revolutionary can't try applying the brakes without becoming a Reactionary.

McKenna asks why Britain never had a 1789 and 1917. Is it, as he suggests, because warfare and high taxes in the 18th and 19th centuries kept the populace distracted and placid? Another answer might be that responsible local government and civic minded social reformers (not bloody minded revolutionaries) helped to lift the poor out of poverty. Change has unfolded in Britain over the course of centuries, rather than in a few years: Magna Carta and de Montfort's Parliament; the Black Death and the Peasant's Revolt; the Reformation, Civil Wars, Commonwealth and Glorious Revolution; the Industrial Revolution and the Great Reform Act; Lloyd George's People's Budget, the World Wars, Attlee's Welfare State and Thatcher's Free Market.

For McKenna, our adaptability makes us half-hearted amateurs, lacking the guts to drive change to the root by force as France and Russia did. Others see our embrace of change and willingness to compromise as a fortunate escape. French Ambassador Paul Cambon remarked in 1920; 'I have witnessed an English revolution more profound and searching than the French Revolution itself… The governing class have been almost entirely deprived of political power and to a very large extent of their property and estates; and this has been accomplished almost imperceptibly and without the loss of a single life'. McKenna is more frustrated than admiring, asking why 'we simply grumble and stage good-natured and orderly marches'. Would he rather see disorderly and violent mobs plundering the offices of Amazon and Google, lynching their shareholders and guillotining their CEO's? Obviously not, but he does wonder why we aren't all angrier. Why hasn't the direness of our situation and the distance of our politicians driven us to violence? Are we too doped with Royal Jubilees and Olympic Games? 

Might it be because we know that violent Revolution doesn't ultimately solve anything? The French guillotined King Louis and wound up with Napoleon. The Russians shot Tsar Nicholas and got Stalin. In Britain, zealotry is there to be sniggered at, not followed. McKenna's right when he says that we don't deserve a Revolution, but it's not because we're unworthy of it. Rather, it's because we know we deserve better, can do better and so can do without it. He should give us more credit.

Margaret and Cleopatra

April 9th, 2013

Margaret Thatcher's passing was never going to be a quiet one; first woman Prime Minister and one of only two to change the country since 1945. Both remarkable and controversial, I can understand why some will not be moved to mourn. The barefaced glee that some have shown over her death is disturbing, though they qualify that her legacy is the object of protest – Thatcherism, not the person they call Witch and Bitch. 'Sticks and stones', she would likely reply.

Such reactions bring to mind another leader: Cleopatra VII. Though she was reared as a goddess (and Margaret as a grammar school girl) both of them sought to restore what they perceived to be national decline, both of their downfalls were dramatic and both stirred strong emotions in life and continue to do so after death, their presence remaining in our collective consciousness. Cleopatra's extraordinary afterlife makes you wonder how Margaret's will unfold. Will great poets put words in her mouth? What will she become synonymous with? What will her name be lent to?

In the test of time, Margaret would want to be assessed on merit alone and I can imagine Cleopatra, and indeed all of us, desiring the same. Cleopatra's misfortune was that her enemies had the last word. Margaret may yet share in that, but both have had and will have to endure the notion that a powerful woman is unseemly, an offensive display of immodest ambition, a repudiation of so-called 'femanine' qualities (in a word 'unnatural'), making her both fascinating and a reason in itself to be hated, regardless of her record. Wondering how Margaret can be hated as a person whilst her legacy remains untouched, Cristina Odone argues that such misogyny is the root cause of it.

Bidisha is one of many women who reject Margaret for her policies and dismissal of sisterhood, but she also notes that "Thatcher was no worse than many of the men before her, or since, or now. It disturbs me that she is held up and bashed with especial hatred, base insults and grotesque mockery while male public figures far more loathsome are treated more respectfully." Judged by our own standards, Cleopatra may be favourably compared against her contemporaries, but her enemies explained away her success by twisting her authority into shameless temptation. Will Margaret's opponents wind up reducing her into another femme fatale?

With no memory of Britain before Margaret, or of her in power, I am in a poor position to judge. But as it is impossible not to form an opinion about her, here is mine. She won many battles, but lost her war. She 'freed' us from the state, but failed to remake us as hard-working, thrifty, self-reliant and morally upright Victorians, in short – like her father. He was a pillar of Society. She didn't believe in it. I reject that, along with the soulless materialism and excessive individualism that has become associated with Thatcherism, but I remember too that they were not, at heart, what she was about.

Gilding the Smut

March 29th, 2013

Alan Bennett's latest play takes us to crumbling Stacpoole House in South Yorkshire. Dorothy, the owner, is under pressure to endow it to the National Trust (who are enraptured by its collection of still full chamberpots), but she is also tempted by a shady art dealer (who believe that the presence of other people spoils things) and by a pornographic film-maker (she has a plentiful supply of four-posters). Bennett's point is that, as with stately piles, so with England: the past can no longer be taken for granted, graceful decay must be halted, 'heritage' is better than history, the inherent value of things is less than their market value and the rot set in during the eighties

Both the National Trust and the Church of England get it in the neck for adapting to the money ethic of the eighties. Dorothy's sharp Archdeacon sister envisions 'celebrity eucharists', though her Bishop is still a stock figure who bumbles onto a porno shoot (as they inevitably seem to do). Bennett imagines the Trust to be "entirely without inhibition, ready to exploit any aspect of the property's recent history to draw in the public and wholly unembarrassed by the seedy or the disreputable", since they roped in Jeffrey Archer and Soho to help 'sell' Britain's heritage.

You can't argue with the point that a price tag cheapens whatever it is attached to (Wilde said the same in 1890). The irony is that if the Trust is unembarrassed by the seedy and disreputable in getting an audience, then neither is Bennett – witness the porn set in Act 2 of 'People'. If the Trust wants to shed a tastefully dead and cosy public image for something more provocative, then Bennett has distanced himself from 'Winnie-the-Pooh' with the likes of 'Smut: Two Unseemly Stories'. If the Trust exploits history, then Bennett exploits his own and acknowledges this urge (common to all writers) in 'The Lady in the Van', where he splits himself into a Person and a Writer, the latter of which is hungry to take advantage of the tramp Miss Shepherd and to commodify her, however sympathetically, on page, stage and the airwaves. 

What’s in a Name?

March 23rd, 2013

When someone becomes famous, or infamous enough, their Name joins common parlance, repeatedly invoked to illuminate the present. The real person behind the Name becomes fainter and fainter, as we continue to substitute them for their Name, re-using it to within an inch of its life until it suggests a type, a stock figure, instantly connecting us to a supply of images and words that we think sufficient to sum up a person and their world.

A prime example is Marie Antoinette. Say her Name, think Profligate, think 'let them eat cake' – an old chestnut even in 1775, the year when she didn't say it. The Name (and by extension herself) is invoked whenever a public figure appears oblivious to reality, conforming to the perceived type. The Name has been linked with Paris Hilton, because we judge them both to be rich, frivolous, empty-headed and extravagent types. Such comparisons would falter if we based our judgment on human beings. If a Name can become quick and useful shorthand, it then transmutes into a casual and unhelpful shortcut.

It's not just Marie Antoinette. Say Cleopatra, think Seductive – regardless of her other multitudinous capabilities. Say Richard III, think Hunchback – never mind the findings of The Richard III Society. Say Hitler, think Evil, forgetting that it is more frightening to see what an obnoxious person can do if conditions permit and with enough popular support. You can be associated with Hitler's Name (and the crimes that go with it) if it suits the person who disagrees with your views, whether liberal or conservative. 

If we want clarity then we should presumably take care, rather than casually copy, but if it's lazy to think in types then that's why we all do it all the time. There's not a lot we wouldn't do for convenience's sake.

History, Heroes and Histrionics

February 9th, 2013

Max Hastings wonders if our native Film Industry will ever give us some patriotic pep with a heartily unembarrassed story of British pride and glory, in the mould of Spielberg's Lincoln and Mel Gibson's Braveheart. Our own efforts appear abashed by comparison – the porphyria of George III, the widowhood of Victoria, the stammer of George VI and the dementia of Mrs Thatcher. Surely Britain can match America in the heroism stakes with the derring do of Nelson and Wellington? Our comparable Lincoln would probably be William Wilberforce in Amazing Grace. Exceptions to Max Hastings' argument would include the more legendary (and therefore less problematic) retellings of King Arthur and Robin Hood, Olivier's Henry V and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

The Madness of King George, Mrs Brown, The King's Speech and The Iron Lady could be called patriotic, if only in that understated and self-deprecatingly British way. Crowds turn out for Royal pageantry, but there is a difference between flag waving for a flesh-and-blood Queen and feeling the same emotion for a made-up actor in a movie. Shakespeare knew that the stories which prod us in the belly with their flawed heroes of complex greatness are more satisfying than easy hymnodies to lionised idols that pat us on the back. If all drama is conflict, then a conflicted hero will beat a virtuous one every time. Besides, the British are good at taking each other down a peg. Having your life turned into a celluloid narrative could certainly be construed as getting above yourself. 

Another problem with heroic British tales is the fact that we judge the past by our own standards. Thus, Imperial Victorian heroes are now the villains of our post-colonial world, whilst the steadfast trials of the Marian Martyrs would baffle a mostly secular country. Things are further complicated by the fact that Britishness encompasses English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish identities, a rainbow of different ethnicities and a multitude of faiths.

Also, are we perhaps too far removed from the likes of Boudica, Alfred the Great, Harold Godwinson, Hereward the Wake, Wat Tyler, Gerrard Winstanley, John Churchill, James Wolfe and The Tolpuddle Martyrs for them to hold any relevant appeal? Who is to say that an Hispanic American, Asian American or Native American would relate to a 19th century Kentuckian as a symbol of America, any more than today's Italy would look to the Emperor Augustus, or modern Egypt identify with Cleopatra VII?

No Comment

November 22nd, 2012

We all have a voice and the Internet gives us a greater chance than ever to be heard. Each of us is able to offer a comment on what's going on, from Comment is Free, to Twitter, to this blog. Such observation, analysis and discussion is a liberating part of free speech. If there is something about it that sticks in the throat, it is when people feel obliged to pass comment on something about which they are actually indifferent, such as the appointment of Justin Welby. Such cases feel less like constructive comment and more like sticking an oar in. If we don't care about such things, then why bother to comment as much? If we've got different priorities, then why let such low ones get in the way? In the same vein, why say that the CofE has lost credibility by vetoing women Bishops if you don't believe that its inspiration never was credible? Rather than passing comment merely because we can, can't we just sometimes say 'No Comment'?

A Worm’s Eye View

November 5th, 2012

Andrew Marr's History of the World in eight hours inevitably tells of the movers and the shakers who changed the destinies of nations and of man. Such a narrative stands in contrast to another documentary, relating the short and simple annals of Christina Cok (d. 1345), a Hertfordshire peasant from Codicote. Why use someone so insignificant to look at the tumultuous early years of the 14th century? Does a worm's eye view lead to any greater understanding than a bird's eye view? Dan Jones remarks that "fetishising the ordinary voice isn't just a historical trend; it's a hallmark of modern society. We all think we matter, and there's less respect for the people in power. In some ways that's great, but we can forget just how pointless and inconsequential most people's lives – including our own – are. They might be illustrative but that's not to say they are important." 

The vast majority of us may be middling, though Facebook encourages us to think that even the most banal tidbits of information are important enough to be written down, minute by minute. However, the great people of history don't exist in a vacuum. It is us, the inconsequential and pointless chorus, who have to make the best of their achievements and failures and who endure long after the stars have made their exits.

The preoccupations of ordinary people during great events provides an answer, a shrug, to power. History may be in the making, but we've all still got our own lives to lead. The death of the King? "Had a super evening. Got a long way with Dorothy. She's lovely, the best girl i've ever had. Find my history book at school… Dull morning". Exploding the atom bomb? "Lever Bros have launched a new powder, Surf, and send thro the post coupons to those on the voting list, which entitle the recipients to buy 1/11 size for 7d."

History may mark us as either important or as merely illustrative, but from the Earth's point of view mankind is wholly illustrative.

"The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it." – Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, George Orwell

I Am Camera

October 28th, 2012

We are One Nation under CCTV. Increasingly sophisticated, cameras may serve their purpose, but the risk of misuse means some will never trust their merciless glare, or the authorities behind them. But it's not just the state that has cameras. We all do. It's not enough to call someone with your phone, you have to be able to take pictures with it. Power is on our side and are we to be trusted with it? For better or for worse, we all live our lives in an increasingly public way. Though we retain a measure of control over what we share, how can we trust each other when we can't be sure who might be turning our private lives into public knowledge?

If the state has its eye on us, we turn a glaring public eye on them. Those who step into its gaze may find the slightest blots magnified into grounds for resignation. A democracy may need a scathing public spotlight to scour it of hypocrisy, dishonesty and incompetence, but keeping all-too human public servants on too tight a leash of accountability will leave us waiting for angels to form a government. Democracy is not the answer to our prayers. It's the best of a bad bunch.

Giving us all a camera and disregarding the necessity of a private space for honesty does not in the end create good government, good behaviour and a feeling of security. Uncompromising transparency breeds another kind of fear that breeds another kind of dishonesty. The presumption is that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. But we all have something to hide, for we all have a past. Once we were warned that even secret sins would be seen by God, "who alone knows the secrets of all hearts". This put no one off, but God's omnipresence was only half his omnipotence: "if thou Lord wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? But there is mercy with thee, therefore shalt thou be feared." (Psalm 130)