Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Hills Have Eyes

I was reminded yesterday of what Paul Merton once called the 'spontaneous poetry' of live Teletext subtitles. I was waiting to be served in a pub and there was a feature on some local news programme that included a snippet from the Olympic opening ceremony; the bit that included William Blake's thoughts on the building of Jerusalem among the 'dark Satanic hills'.

Monday, 30 July 2012

A gratuitous plug

I assume that we all start from the position of seeing Danny Boyle's national pageant as a work of genius, an evening of terrific, mood-altering entertainment that cost around £27 million and, coincidentally, attracted a TV audience of around 27 million. For a quid a head, this is great value.* And the BBC are even good enough to offer a version on iPlayer without commentary.

It would be churlish to find fault with anything that was included (that's what we have backbench Tories for) and absurd to imagine that it could cover anything more than a tiny fraction of its potential subject-matter. Having said which...

My only regret is that the section celebrating British music, movies and television seemed to reinforce what's becoming a default position in the media: that popular culture started in 1963, 'between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP'.

And that's rather late for me. Just in terms of rock and roll, I'd have loved to have seen an acknowledgement of British pop in the pre-Beatles years: Rock Island Line, Move It, Maybe Tomorrow, Shakin' All Over, Telstar: that would have been sufficient.

Happily, the artists who made those records - and many, many more - will feature in the exhibition of Harry Hammond's photographs, Halfway to Paradise, which finally reaches the V&A in London this October, after touring the country for two years. And it will be accompanied by a reissue of the book of the same name.

Just thought I should take the opportunity to plug one of my own books.

*Just by way of comparison: Liverpool paid £35 million for Andy Carroll and are currently trying to off-load him for £20 million, after just 56 appearances for the club. Assuming they get that figure (which they probably won't), and assuming that half those appearances were at the 45,000-capacity Anfield, that works out at £11 a head. (There is another way of evaluating his contribution: since Carroll's job is to score goals, and he's scored eleven times for the club, perhaps one should see the return as being somewhere around £1.3 million per goal.)

Friday, 27 July 2012


It's obviously not worth getting too upset by the misuse of apostrophes in modern society, but even so I feel that this example is too good to pass by without note:

It comes, splendidly enough, from an article by Peter Hitchens (who, I suspect, rather cares about such things), published in the Daily Mail's Right Minds pages, which are edited by Simon Heffer (who very definitely cares).

Sunday, 22 July 2012

An Absolute Disgrace

All day the news bulletins on BBC Radio Five Live have been reporting the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, as saying that the proposed strike by border staff at Heathrow scheduled for next Thursday is 'an absolute disgrace'. Well, he did say that, but a little context might help.

The comment came from an interview conducted by Garry Richardson on the Sportsweek programme this morning. Richardson seemed to lose sight of the fact that he's supposed to be an unbiased, impartial reporter working for the unbiased, impartial BBC. But this was serious stuff. Someone was failing to be swept up in the BBC-sponsored Olympic fervour, and Richardson was having none of it.

'They're a disgrace, aren't they?' he demanded of Hunt, and Hunt duly accepted the words being put in his mouth, albeit with a significant change in pronoun: 'It's an absolute disgrace.'

Richardson wasn't finished. 'A quick thought for you,' he offered. 'Why not just let those people go on strike, and when they want to come back after they've done all their disruption, say: Sorry, your job's not there anymore. Sack 'em.'

Hunt tried to explain that he was keen not to escalate the conflict with such talk, but Richardson was even more keen that it should be escalated: 'The real militant ones, you'd love to see them sacked,'  he urged.

There have been some very dodgy political repercussions to having the Olympics in London, but I never expected a situation in which a Conservative minister is obliged to try to calm down a BBC reporter demanding that workers be sacked for engaging in a legal strike action.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Spice of Life

I’ve written before about political diaries – one of my favourite forms of literature – and I’ve just been reading another example of the genre in the form of Michael Spicer’s The Spicer Diaries, published earlier this year by Biteback Publishing.

First, a word about Biteback itself. It’s terrific. Back in the good days of Politico’s Publishing, when it was still run by Iain Dale, you could be sure of getting hold of political memoirs and studies of current affairs that no one else wanted to touch, because sales were never likely to be sufficient to pique the interest of a major publisher.

This was particularly the case with books about the Tories at a time when the Conservative Party was at its lowest ebb. Politico’s published biographies of Ann Widdecombe and William Hague (by Nicholas Kochan and Jo-Anne Nadler respectively), reflections on the nature of office by Gillian Shephard, and Simon Walters’s magnificent account of the Hague years, Tory Wars. None of these were huge hits, but they made a major contribution to the historical record, for which I – amongst many others – am extremely grateful.

Biteback is a continuation of Politico’s by other means. Again run by Iain Dale, it’s again putting out books that other publishers would turn down without a second thought. Including this one.

Michael Spicer was one of the key figures in the failed Tory rebellion against the Maastricht Treaty in the early-1990s and a leading backbench Eurosceptic. He wasn’t as well known to the public as some of his noisier colleagues, say Bill Cash and Teresa Gorman, but as he explained: ‘If you want to be effective, don’t go for recognition.’

The Diaries are, to be honest, more useful than they are interesting. Spicer doesn’t have the eye for gossip and human detail that makes for a genuinely great diarist. Instead we get over six hundred pages chronicling an endless round of meetings and telephone calls, many of them concerned with episodes and issues that barely touched the public consciousness at the time. A few years on, it’s hard to care a great deal about a letter that the MP Christopher Gill wrote (but didn’t send) to the Daily Telegraph concerning fishing policy; but it still warrants a page of its own, dutifully recording discussions on the question with Michael Howard, John Redwood, Eric Forth and John Townend.

As I was reading it, I was constantly reminded of Woodrow Wyatt’s diaries and for a while I couldn’t quite work out why. After all, Wyatt – despite the irritating snobbishness and the tedious stuff about wine and horse-racing – was at heart a social-climbing gossip. But then it twigged. With the exception (in both cases) of Margaret Thatcher, none of the key collaborators or interlocutors are women. The likes of Teresa Gorman, Ann Widdecombe, Edwina Currie and Theresa May wander past occasionally, but they really don’t interest Spicer at all.

Instead, this is an almost exclusively male vision of high politics, as practised in the back-corridors of power, in gentlemen’s clubs and at private dinners.

It’s also striking that there is hardly any mention of Spicer’s electorate, just the occasional reference to local party officials in his Worcestershire constituency. There's not much about the media, either, since Spicer was seldom to be seen or heard on television or radio, and hardly a glimmer of humour anywhere to be found. Consequently, it feels like a terribly old-fashioned account of a political life.

So it’s not really a book for the general reader. But then that’s the point of Biteback. When historians look back at the Maastricht debate and its fallout, they’ll be grateful that The Spicer Diaries exist.

Monday, 16 July 2012

What I Shouldn't Have Said in Cardiff

I was in Cardiff at the weekend as the guest of Llafur, the Society for Welsh People's History, at the invitation of Dr Martin Johnes from Swansea University.

Martin was giving a talk on changes in Wales in the post-War years (he recently published a book on the subject, Wales Since 1939), which was superb. Some of the developments he was talking about - the growth of material comfort accompanied by a rise in spiritual insecurity - are applicable to Britain as a whole, but other parts are specific to Wales: particularly the transformation of the physical landscape in the wake of the Aberfan disaster.

He was followed by Rhodri Morgan, former First Minister, whose personal reflections on Wales during that priod were fascinating. I've never heard him speak at length before, but he's hugely entertaining and funny and insightful. I was especially taken with parallels he drew between the mood of the 1940s (a determination never to return to the Hungry Thirties) and the creation of the Welsh Assembly half-a-century later, with a feeling that it could provide 'insurance against the return of Margaret Thatcher, against the return of John Redwood'.

And then I did my bit, a talk entitled The Gramophone Is in the Home, rambling through some stories about the early days of cinema, radio, record-players and television in Britain more generally. Which was okay, except that my laptop cut out halfway through and had to be rebooted, and except that I still haven't quite got the hang of speaking in public and misjudged the length of my talk.

This meant that I didn't have time to develop what was supposed to be my conclusion. That running right through all the developments in entertainment technology in the last century has been a struggle between an elite establishment, in thrall to a refined Western European concept of culture, and a mass of the people who would actually prefer to make common cause with American popular culture. And that the Left has - wrongly - sided with the elite on every occasion.

It's wrong, firstly, because if you seek to represent the people, you shouldn't be quite so keen to express contempt at their cultural expression. And secondly, because it means you're always on the losing side: despite Maynard Keynes's concept and creation of the Arts Council, the general public still preferred Hollywood to opera and ballet. There are a lot of people who would rather visit EuroDisney in Paris than spend a week in Provence, and I think it's worth acknowledging and trying to understand that, instead of just railing against American cultural imperialism.

It seems to me that, at a time when the internet is making the issue of participatory culture so significant, we should have moved on beyond simple denunciations of popular taste. As Luke Haines pointed out recently in the context of modern art, the relevant question isn't 'But is it art?' Rather, it should be, 'But is it good art or bad art?'

I'm reminded of a friend who was told in the early-1980s by a member of Militant that there was no objective difference between Dallas and the Sex Pistols. That sort of thinking fails to win converts to the cause.

However, I ran out of time, garbled a few random words and made a bit of a mess of coherent thought. On reflection, I would have better off stopping before that point. Instead of leaving much of the audience to conclude that I was attacking the BBC (I was kind of taking it as read that we all broadly approved of the Corporation).

On the other hand, there were a number of contributions from people that centred on how appalling is the fare that's being foisted on the public: all cookery shows and reality television. People don't choose this; it's all made solely in pursuit of profit. Which did sort of illustrate my point. These are the same condemnations that were made of Hollywood in the 1930s, American comics in the 1940s and rock and roll in the 1950s.

So, anyway, I was a bit annoyed with myself for lacking the craft and professionalism of Martin Johnes and Rhodri Morgan. It's all still new to me, and being on stage facing an audience isn't my natural habitat. But I'm starting to feel a bit more comfortable with the idea.

I also ought to thank Christine Chapman, the Assembly Member who hosted the event, and the good people of Llafur, who were wonderfully welcoming and kind. I really enjoyed it all, despite cocking up the ending.

Monday, 9 July 2012

What I Should Have Said on Panorama

My thanks to Adam Shaw and Mark Alden for being so kind to me in the filming and editing of the interview I did for this evening's Panorama. I liked the programme, and it made think further...

Much of what I write is the story of modern British politics, as filtered through popular culture. And the justification for this approach is that I think the changing mood of the nation can be detected through its sitcoms and soaps, pop music and pornography.

I claim to be a historian, rather than a commentator on the present, since my knowledge of contemporary culture really isn't extensive enough. And I'd add that the one thing that can be learnt from history is never to make predictions. But, for the purposes of this blog, let's ignore those two caveats...

It feels to me that the last fifteen to twenty years have seen a fairly major shift in popular culture away from elitism and towards a celebration of the everyday. On television, for example, you can see the trend start with the toe-in-the-water docusoaps of Airport, The Cruise and Driving School, before moving into full-blown reality TV with Big Brother and its derivatives, and on to The Only Way Is Essex.

You can see it in music, with the notion of stardom being replaced by overblown karaoke contests on mainstream TV. You can see it in the British response to American porn. You can see it in the making of Jade Goody into an ersatz star.

And, most of all, you can see it in the rise of the internet, particularly those parts that look like a local radio phone-in writ large.

Running parallel to the democratisation of culture, however, has been the rise of a super-rich elite. Wealth inequality is back to levels not seen since the 1920s, and is widening on a daily basis.

There's an inherent tension between these two forces, which was okay during the long period of growth from 1992 to 2008. But now, with the economy likely to stagnate for years to come, I'm not sure that the current arrangement is sustainable anymore. Self-evidently we are not all in this together.

Politicians, from Tony Blair onwards, have sought to keep up with these developments. But they fall between the two stools, and all they've done is persuade ever increasing numbers to turn away from Westminster politics altogether. They try to use the imagery of mass culture, but fail because they simply don't belong to the same world (the picture of Ed Miliband in Gregg's is hard to forget). In any event, they are inevitably attracted more towards the super-elite.

And there's a problem here. Through the twentieth century, the parliamentary system continued its pretence of being representative, even though it was originally constructed with a far smaller electorate in mind, and with the intention of keeping the power of the monarchy in check. The democractic deficit was made up by the media, which held politicians to account in the name of the people.

Now, politics and the conventional media have effectively merged to form a single class. And it is fast losing its claim to democratic legitimacy.

Where we go from here is a mystery to me. History takes odd, unexpected turns. I don't think it was obvious in the 1970s that the crisis of confidence in politics would have resulted in the oldest and most successful party in the country being hijacked by the entirely alien forces of Thatcherism.

Where we should be now is in a different political landscape altogether.

When Paddy Ashdown was in talks with Tony Blair in the 1990s, he argued for a realignment of parties. What we needed, he thought, was a Eurosceptic Conservative Party, a centre party that included Blair, Kenneth Clarke and Ashdown himself, and a Labour Party that retained its union links. But it didn't happen and instead we have three parties chasing the same, dwindling band of swing voters. And increasing numbers of people feeling disenfranchised.

I don't believe this can continue. New political forces will emerge, whether within the existing parties or outside of them.

As I said, predictions are futile. But it feels to me that there is a parallel with the 1970s, and that things are about to change quite radically.

Thursday, 5 July 2012


This seems an appropriate time to celebrate the artwork of Josh Cedar, who does a nice line in portraits of bankers: