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Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square

The main effect of bigging up Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square will be to give a new lease of life to the men already bigged up there. Most of us had long ceased to notice the men  and were happy to leave them to the mercy of pigeons overhead and dogs down below. Fawcett adds one more ugly monument, in Gillian Wearing’s very obvious signature style, to those already there and its newness will temporarily revitalise the entire graveyard.

The common desire to big up dead heroes, some of them not so heroic of course, is probably too atavistic to challenge - though there are strands in religious thought (Wahabbi Islam the most notorious) which object to the practice. The desire has always been a competitive one, as can be seen in any old Roman Catholic graveyard where the wealthy compete to have my drooping angel bigger than your drooping angel. 

Graveyards eventually get bulldozed and nobody much minds. But it is very hard to get rid of these public monuments raised by Public Subscription to assert the importance of this hero or that. There are just too many of them now, cluttering up public space, but there will always be objectors to pulling any one of them down, including the ones who turn out not to have been heroes at all. The only solution is to pull them all down. Individuals are people best remembered in our heads, in the books we read, the museums we visit, and in the causes we support. Hectoring plinths occupied by larger-than-life tasteless monumental sculptures are tiresome and best toppled. A good start could be made in North Korea.

Bodies mummified in bronze are very different to collective memorials, like the Cenotaph just up the road from Parliament Square, to which individuals can respond each in their own way provided only that the monument has  a certain abstractness, a certain symbolic character, which is entirely lacking in the banal literalism of Gillian Wearing’s monument.


For more on this topic, see the chapter "Death Rituals" in my The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016 or yours for a penny on Amazon)

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Long Live the Ruritanian Monarchy!

Prince Charles has been made a grass-skirt wearing High Chief in Vanuatu and the BBC can't get enough of it. I leave you to look up Vanuatu and the pictures.

Rule Britannia!
The sun never sets!
Bring back the 1950s!
Bet you're jealous Putin!
Coming next: Dr Fox's Patent Trade Deal with Vanuatu!

(Those wishing to place a bid on the grass skirt, Lot Number 2018, should contact ....)

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Disorderly Brexit Has Already Begun

When Thomas Hobbes fled from London to Paris in 1640 he proclaimed himself, rather proudly, as “The first of all that fled” from England’s looming civil war.

I recalled that when it occurred to me that it is not so much that England risks a disorderly Brexit as that we have one already. The moment Theresa May wrote her political obituary, her Article Fifty letter, individuals and organisations began to make their own moves.

The Lithuanian, Polish and Romanian workers began to go home and fruit and vegetables began to rot in the fields though I don’t know how many newspapers apart from The Financial Times printed the photographs. EU nurses and doctors began to go home too, or look for jobs in Remain EU countries. The NHS authorities are now pleading with the government to admit more non-EU foreign workers to replace those who have been lost. 

The European Union itself began to pack up its agencies in the UK, including the European Medicines Agency. Quite a few UK citizens contemplating the limitations of the threatened blue passports found their Irish roots and applied for Irish passports. Dual nationals switched to the better side.

A few companies have moved out and perhaps a few vulture firms have moved in, sensing the chance of a kill when companies go bust or top end house prices fall or the USA gets the permission it wants to dump chlorinated chicken and unfit milk on the UK.

As I write, we are bracing for Unilever’s announcement that they will abandon their UK headquarters and work exclusively from their Dutch one. Easyjet has already launched its contingency plan with a new base in Austria.

Anyone and any company with any sense is hoarding euros. And so it goes on. This is already disorder, though merely a foretaste of what is to follow when the factories start to close, the food banks become even more essential, the criminals start to celebrate. As a writer in The Financial Times observed, a civil war is starting in a country hopelessly divided. The worst is yet to come.

Added 5 April: Here's a link to a Financial Times article which is just one story of what is already happening:

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A Simple Solution to the Hollywood Problem

Just don't go there.

Since I deleted the Hollywood-obsessed Guardian and Huffington Post from my Favourites bar, must be over a year ago now, I find I know so much less about Hollywood and it's a good state to be in. As for the actual films, I am sure that occasionally a decent one slips through the net, but that's certainly no reason for enduring the others.

Back in 2014 I had some time to kill in London and, finding myself in Leicester Square, decided to re-visit a cinema which once specialised in arthouse movies. They were screening Darren Aronofsky's Noah. It was all right, Noah as a Californian hippy, but there is only so much surround sound someone like me can tolerate. I haven't been back.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Deadly New Flu Virus Targets Daily Express readers

A mutant flu virus is causing worrying concern to Boris Johnson. It targets older voters and especially those whose brains have been addled by The Daily Express. What makes it worse, Boris is reported to have said, is that it comes at a time when my enemies in the Cabinet have starved the NHS of funds. So these people don’t have a chance. It’s very bad news for me.

So far the virus seems not to have targeted Daily Mail readers, but a spokesperson for the CBI, who did not wish to be named, commented, “We can only live in hope”

Thursday, 1 February 2018

The Biggest Demonstration Ever - To What Purpose?

The usual suspects are telling us they will organise the biggest demonstration ever if Donald Trump visits London. They may well succeed. It will conveniently avoid confronting the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has led his party into an alliance with the Donald Trump wing of the Conservative party to deny young people the rights and opportunities which those older have benefitted from. One third of Leave voters have a good opinion of Trump.

There can be no Big Tent in British politics because the country is split down the middle over Brexit.  Demonstrating against Trump can be no more than  feelgood politics for those who are not so much disenfranchised as deprived of a political party - but unwilling to confront that glaringly obvious fact.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Re-defining the word "Intimate": Modern Bollocks, Number III in an occasional series

"Prince Harry and Ms Markle will get married in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. It holds about 800 people, making it a more intimate setting than the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's wedding in Westminster Abbey."

BBC News website, 28 January 2018, explaining why President Trump does not have an invitation

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Wind The Bobbin Up: Mumsnet and the Satanic Mills

A user on Mumsnet has called out the nursery rhyme Wind the Bobbin Up. I have cut and pasted from the Internet:

“Wind the bobbin up originated in the cotton mill towns of the north of England in Victorian times,” she wrote.
“As anyone who knows a bit about a bit history can tell you, the cotton mills were horrendous places which horrifically exploited women and children, forcing them to do dangerous work in appalling conditions for little pay.”
“How can it be right to trivialise these horrors by getting children to sing a light-hearted ditty about it… It’s offensive to the memory of all those who suffered these horrendous conditions and experienced serious injury or even death as a result of hideously exploitative working practices,” she finished her post.
The author does not tell us who originated this "ditty", though it may well have been some of those horrifically exploited women and children; the Opies date the rhyme to Yorkshire in the 1890s. If its origins are humble, then the Mumsnet writer in downgrading it from a singing rhyme to a "ditty" might be accused of trivialising their imaginative creation.

When I sing the rhyme to myself I use the words Wind my bobbin up which is a corruption but one which reflects the fact that songs and rhymes get their living meaning from what we now do with them rather than what they might once have meant or been used for. Children singing this rhyme in a school today are not being prepared for a grim life in satanic mills; the rhyme is employed because it is fun and promotes hand- eye co-ordination and so on. In this case, I am prepared to give schools the benefit of the doubt on their motives.

It's rather a tribute to the memory of those who worked in the mills that this rhyme is not simply a museum piece, but something which new and hopefully more fortunate generations can enjoy,

The Mumsnet post may be a hoax, designed to draw out the Political Correctness Gone Mad headline; but the surfeit of adjectives and adverbs simply suggest bad faith.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The Social Function of Political Correctness: Do Your Shoes Shine in the Right Kind of Way?

This Blog post has been rewritten 25 March 2018

In all societies, at least some important goods are scarce. In all societies, goods are unequally distributed. Some societies are more rigid than others but probably none prevent all kinds of upwards social mobility. In a despotic monarchy, a king surrounded by unreliable nobles, each with their own power base, may choose to promote to high office a complete outsider -   someone who has no title, who owns no land, and who may even dress badly and speak coarsely. That person is completely dependent on the king and so the high office does not strengthen an existing power base. That is why the person has been favoured.

It’s supposed to be the case that in caste societies you cannot move up from your caste of birth, or down for that matter, but that in class societies you can. Nonetheless, in class societies it’s blindingly obvious that though those one step up are obliged or even willing to admit newcomers to their ranks, entry is always policed in one way or another. If too many people are trying to climb the ladder at some historical moment, you can be sure that more rungs will be added to it to make the climb more difficult and to reduce the numbers of those making the upward ascent.

When Britain was numerically dominated by an industrial working class, some members of that class sought to differentiate themselves from the mass and thereby achieve a sort of internal mobility. If you played your cards right, you could make yourself better off than those around you. The key to this internal mobility was respectability which took you away from the roughness of those around you. Over time, the markers of respectability evolved but for most of the industrial period they included habits of religious observance, sobriety (which quite often meant total abstention from alcohol), avoidance of coarse language, primness, cleanliness and thrift. When you got down to the smaller details, they might include shining your shoes, having net curtains, and reading The Daily Mail rather than a workers’ rag like the Daily Herald (now The Sun).

Those who pursued respectability were most often taking their cues from what was then called the lower middle class of people who did very modest jobs that did not involve getting their hands dirty. There was no such thing as rough lower middle class and the lower middle class as a whole renewed itself by recruiting from the ranks of respectable working class or their children. The daughter of a miner might become an elementary school teacher; the son of a factory hand an office clerk. But the entrance tests, the signs you had to display to move up, were quite demanding and, of course, differentiated by sex. The use of a swear word which might be tolerated in a male could be fatal to the aspirations of a female.

A very obvious site for the struggle of the respectable to separate themselves from the rough was school uniform and to this day a depressingly familiar newspaper story informs us that head teacher has sent all the pupils home for breaches of some set of wilfully elaborate school uniform rules. He or she has stood at the school gates, assisted by highly paid deputies. School budgets in England always contain a significant slice to pay this Uniform Police time. It’s one reason why there is so little learning in English schools.

The industrial working class and the lower middle class, symbiotic with it, are no longer with us, though it is a bit unclear what is with us.

My own lifetime has been marked by the advent of mass higher education, every polytechnic and technical college turned into a university to keep young people out of the labour force for three more years after the end of a schooling extended to eighteen. This expansion does not appear to have been associated with an expansion in the number of jobs for which a university degree was traditionally an entry requirement. Nor do the degrees with which young people graduate obviously equip them for new jobs which have emerged. Instead, many graduates now face the prospect of working in low-paid, low-status jobs which do not make any use of what they studied at university. In other words, the graduate barista.

But there’s some nice work if you can get it and for that work there is fairly intense competition. Most people would like a decent salary, decent career structure, decent pension. It is in this context that I believe we should understand what is called political correctness at least insofar as it is something driven by organisations like the National Union of Students and by young graduate employees. The social function of political correctness is not to make society a nicer place in which to live; it is to keep potential competitors away from desirable jobs. It is a sharp-elbowed politics of exclusion rather than a cuddly-bear politics of inclusion.

The topics which agitate the sharp-elbowed are simply a revised and updated version of those which agitated the defenders of respectability. The emphasis on unacceptable language is the most obvious example. Where once coarseness would block upward mobility, especially for females, now language which can be construed as racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic … will halt you in your career tracks.  Tellingly, the list keeps getting longer and the barrier raised. Words which were acceptable to those who first thought of political correctness no longer are. I think this is indicative of the real intensity of competition for scarce goods. 

There is one key difference. Whereas one hundred years ago, women were most likely to fall foul of respectability tests, which were always set higher for them than for men, today it is men who are most often tripped up. That may reflect nothing more than the fact that mass higher education has hugely increased the participation of females in higher education, where they often form a numerical majority. At the same time, more women want to participate on a permanent basis in economic activity. The truth is, sexual equality in the job market cannot be achieved without some men going down the social mobility ladder and faults against political correctness are one way of kicking them down. Just as in the past, coarse language excluded women from respectability so now the wrong words can exclude men from desirable employments.

Time and time again, those who fall foul of the vigilantes of political correctness are groups like male-dominated or male-exclusive sports clubs and other “fraternity” outfits. They are not organisations which appeal to me - they are too much  like permanent stag do’s -  and I realise that the mass expansion of higher education means that some students are not just rough but downright unpleasant.  But I am not convinced that the vigilantes always occupy the moral high ground.  In the past, dreadful things went on behind the net curtains of respectable homes. I am pretty sure that some dreadful things are said and done behind the closed doors of righteous groups who self-identify as this-or-that. Just as with the deranged headteacher at the school gates, measuring hair and finger nail length and goodness knows what else, political correctness can and does assume absurd and grotesque forms – hence all the stories of “Political Correctness Gone Mad”. But the madness is not just a mental disturbance; it has very material roots.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Going Viral?

At this time of year, I spend a lot of time trying to avoid viruses. But I think I should make it a year-round preoccupation. There are so many things which go viral. Admittedly, their half-life is very short. But, still, all of them are best avoided. They do damage your mental health. Right now, there are people all round the world sitting at home thinking about how they can make themselves go viral. Don't encourage them. Disconnect from Twitter and you are already half way back to living a viral-free life.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Modern Bollocks II: Stars in Their Words › News › Donald Trump

Trump Refers to "S***hole Countries" During Immigration Meeting With ...

President Trump denies making 's******e countries' comment during a ...

Question: Who is Being Protected from What by Whom?

Modern Bollocks

Police had been unable to tell the age or gender of the victim because the body was so badly charred

BBC News 12 January 2018