18 September 2015

Before the Teds

The other day I caught Simon Heffer's televised essay on British war films of the 1950s. Although originally from 2013, it had been rebroadcast in August and showed up on the BBC's iPlayer for about a month. In the way of these televised essays about culture, it was a bit superficial in that Heffer would show us a clip from a film, followed by an interview with a personage associated with it, and then would lead us to his conclusion. There was no attempt to explore alternative interpretations. This is fair enough given an hour to play with, and a requirement to cover the whole of an era running from about 1951 until 1961. (I did think he could have made a bit more of Jack Hawkins and The League of Gentlemen.)

I would like to pick on one point Heffer made. He introduces the idea that from 1951 (perhaps not so coincidentally the year the Conservatives returned to power) to about 1955, the British war film reigned supreme over a country that was 'at ease with itself', as Sir John Major put it. Then came the scourge of American rock 'n' roll, which unleashed the barbarous Teds, who liked nothing better than to rip up cinema seats to a rock 'n' roll soundtrack of films like Blackboard Jungle The British war film reinvented itself somewhat in the face of this threat, but the great dams of British culture had been breached, and the hedonistic Sixties spoiled much that was good. (For some reason, partisan columnists like Heffer always overlook the hedonistic Eighties, made possible by their beloved Mrs Thatcher.)

The problem for this aspect of Heffer's thesis is that the pass may have already been sold to American culture before Bill Haley rocked around the blackboard jungle. When reading a book like Dominic Sandbrook's Never Had It So Good, one is regularly reminded that the guardians of British culture stood constant watch against the threat posed by America. (Another interesting book on this topic is Adrian Horn's Juke Box Britain, which starts the story of the American threat during the years of the Attlee government.)

The history of the influence of American pop before 1953 is the absence of 'pop chart' information. But have a listen to The Stargazer's 1953 #1 'Broken Wings'. I would suggest it isn't so far removed in character from American hits like Jo Stafford's 'You Belong to Me' or Les Paul's and Mary Ford's 'Vaya Con Dios'. One of the two founders of The Stargazers was Dick James, whose short American obituaries did not go far enough in explaining how he was a key figure in British music, with a performance lineage going back to Henry Hall. The Stargazers were founded in 1949 (or maybe 1950), a half-decade before Heffer's arrival of Americanisation.

And let's leave the trad jazz fad of the postwar period with just a mention, or this post will get far too long.

The sort of popular 'historiography' on display in Heffer's programme is simplistic, and arguably reflects more of a focus on a kind of 'living memory'. Heffer's parents will certainly have remembered the 1950s scaremongering about the Teds. He and I were born a matter of weeks apart, and Teds were still a bit of a 'thing' in the 1970s and 1980s. It might be more interesting to think about the fears of Americanism in 1950s Britain in the context of the American presence from 1942 until 1944. Are we seeing a fear of allies turning into occupiers? Or are people like Heffer and myself projecting into the past concerns about the way globalisation is destroying the local, at least how it is viewed through the kind of mass culture distributed by major corporations?

08 September 2015

A Last Call for a Bit of Old Soho

You have about a week left to catch a radio dramatisation of Keith Waterhouse's famous play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. It has an amusing moment or two, but more in the nature of tragi-comedy than side-splitting slapstick. I strongly recommend giving it a listen if you want gain an idea of an eccentric corner of London Life during the postwar era. It could be considered a sort of parody of the Algonquin Round Table, a place where civilly vicious quips were replaced by out-and-out drunken insults and so will pass largely unmemorialised.

Bernard is the sort of person who disproves my fundamental notion that the English-speaking world has a culture that transcends the national boundaries that divide it. He drifted from job to job within journalism, eventually fetching up in Alexander Chancellor's version of The Spectator, a magazine long associated with the Conservative Party in Britain. Bernard wrote a weekly column under the characterisation, 'Low Life'. In this, he described a life largely empty of middle-class achievement, but one full of the kind of incident that could amuse, such as the story of the racing cats featured in the play.

My recent hiatus was due in part to the necessity to leave Canada, and during the journey to my new location (Boca Raton, FL), I bumped into the Waterhouse play while lying in bed one morning in Lexington, SC. Wherever I had wifi and time, I would listen to it. I have heard parts of it multiple times during the past month, and it has sent my memory (and my internet searches) back in time to 1980s London. for some of that time I was working for a publishing company just off St Martin's Lane. I had also been, for some years already, a loyal Spectator reader, and would read Bernard's column on occasion. Of the men I met who knew Jeffrey Bernard, apart from his brother Bruce, they seemed an insecure lot ready to intimidate with shouts and words in order to establish some kind of pecking order. Bernard does not come across like that here, but I have to believe he could give as good as he got from the likes of Graham Mason.

So, I encourage you to have a listen to this play (or you can look for a filmed version on YouTube; there used to be a few) before its iPlayer time is up. Many people see Bernard as something of 'a man's man', for those of you interested in issues of gender. His Anglospheric connection is made through the Canadian author Elizabeth Smart (here presented with a cringe-worthy accent), who wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and worked for Queen magazine. That bohemian Soho of which Bernard was a part will surely, before long, become a popular subject for academic research (if it hasn't become so already). Because, apart from the drunkeness, metropolitan intellectuals kind of all live like that now.

05 September 2015

Michael Kazin's 1924 Nightmare

Michael Kazin provides a good illustration of one of my themes here about “history being politics by another means” in his discussion of Donald Trump’s deportation talk. He proposes that the 1924 Immigration Act (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act), created a backlash among the many southern and eastern Europeans (mainly Catholics), so they voted Democratic for years afterwards, starting with their support for Al Smith, the Democratic nominee in the 1928 presidential election.

Unfortunately, Kazin omits one key fact that completely undermines his idea, and omits a second fact that shows life is more complex than politicised history would permit. Let’s start with the latter.

Kazin proposes that

All this made white ethnic workers natural recruits for the new unions established, through sit-down strikes and other forms of pressure, in the steel, auto, longshore, aircraft, and electrical industries during the 1930s and 40s....Between 1933 and 1945, unions added nine million new members to their ranks. As it surged, organized labor had become a rainbow coalition—and a mainstay of the Democratic Party.
The omission in this paragraph is that Kazin refers to the unions that were part of the Congress of Industrial Organisations, a collection of unskilled workers who only were able to organise once New Deal policies backed them in their battles with their employers. The union organisation that existed in 1924, the American Federation of Labour (AFL), supported the exclusionary elements of the 1924 Immigration Act because immigrants were believed to suppress wages. This had been an AFL theme from its beginnings. (Al Smith, by the way, was an opponent of the New Deal.)

More recklessly, though, Kazin overlooks another provision of the 1924 act, which is that there were no quotas imposed on immigrants from Latin America whatsoever. In other words, the act restricted the flow of immigration from Europe (including countries favoured by the act, such as Britain), but allowed Mexicans, Central Americans and Colombians to journey north in search of new opportunities in just the same way as they had been able to do before the act.

Kazin is playing tricks here. I’ll leave it to you to decide whose interest is best served by this attack on Trump’s immigration rhetoric, by suggesting the Republican Party will lose elections for a generation. It might be that those losses had more to do with the mismanagement by the government and Federal Reserve of the economy from 1928 onwards, than any effect of imposing quotas and restricting immigration more generally.

15 February 2015

The Romantic is Dead

The day after St Valentine's is as good a moment to turn away from a current writing project for this blog and look at this book review which was linked by someone I follow on Twitter. I would propose this thesis: that the Romantic Movement, as an attempt to transform the Enlightentment, will be seen by future historians as effectively haveing expired during my lifetime. It seems likely that its last gasp involved various gestures made in politics and culture starting in 1956. (The abandonment of Communist parties by many on the Marist left after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the This Is Tomorrow exhibition at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts are two examples of inspirational moments for these last romantics. This romanticism is not just a feature of the culural left, as the career of Russell Kirk represents. All of these were transformed during the era of what might be called High Post-Modernism (roughtly the late 1970s unitl the early 1990s) into forms more appropriate for our New Enlightenment era.

Thomas Kohut's review of Rüdiger Safranski's book on Romanticism starts with describing what Romanticism is: The Enlightenment’s vision of a rationally functioning, lawful universe created by a deistic God seemed a “monstrous mill” or a “perpetual motion machine” to the Romantics, and they pushed back against the sterility of such a world. In response to the “disenchantment of the world” through secularization and the triumph of empiricism, the Romantics sought to satisfy the “appetite for mystery and wonder” that religion traditionally had satisfied.Romanticism also reacted against the emergence, in the 19th century, of the modern rationalistic society, with its efficiency, its specialization, its emphasis on economic utility—and its monotony.

The key here is 'specialisation'. In the Anglosphere we now live in a world that is thoroughly compartmentalised. It is the idea which we find at the root of those courses on Business Administration, of The Model as the basis for analysis and understanding. In other words, instead of treating human beings and their institutions as individuals with distinct personalities and problems, the most appropriate model is identified and applied. Arguments are more about which model to apply than questioning the suitability of the approach itself. Subsequently, through practice, adaptations will be made if the case seems especially intractable, but the expectation is that the institution will respond by conforming more closely to the model. We even find Safranski himself embracing this attitude, if the quote by Kohut does not omit any crucial context: If we fail to realize that the reason of politics and the passions of Romanticism are two separate spheres, which we must know how to keep separate...we risk the danger of looking to politics for an adventure that we would better find in the sphere of culture—or, vice versa, of demanding from the sphere of culture the same social utility we expect from politics.

One could argue that Romanticism itself was tainted by the Enlightenment from the very beginning. This would repressent its Achilles' Heel, which is what would be exploited in the conflict between the heirs of the Enlightenment and those of the Romantic Movement in the years after the mid 1950s. Safranski identifies the French Revolution as a point of intersection between the two, which created tensions among the Romantics: Beginning with the French Revolution, Romanticism and politics came together, as “questions of meaning that were formerly the precinct of religion are now aligned with politics. There is a secularizing impulse that transforms the so-called ultimate questions into sociopolitical ones.” Initially inspired by the French Revolution and then opposing it, especially during the period of the wars against Napoleon, Romanticism became politicized in Germany.

One might think one knows where this is going, but Safranski does not include the Nazis among the descendants of the early Romantics. Kohut disagrees. It is a question that makes an interesting academic exercise, but with the passing of time seems less and less relevant to an attempt to understand how the Third Reich could happen in a civilised country. The important thing is that Safranski apparently sees the student rebels of 1968, whom both agree were heirs to the Romantics, as an ephemeral phenomenon. In fact, their attempt to universalise the kind of highly personal, gnostic, movement that Romanticism represents is exactly that Achilles' Heel. Universal values are part of The Model, something the Enlightenment inherited from its Christian roots. Romanticism is about discovering what each person values, allowing each to neglect those values which seem less relevant to their personal situation.

Romanticism could not survive in a battle for intellectual supremacy with the Enlightenment because the religious impulse it sought to supplement or replace had a universalist dimension that it could not mobilise. What happens when my rights or my gnosis conflicts with yours? Christian religion asks us to draw on our charitable feelings at that point, and for both parties to understand each other and come to some compromise. People always fall short of that standard, but that does not invalidate the underlying principle. 'Try, try again', is at the heart of the Christian message. Indeed, on this day after St Valentine's, it seems appropriate for couples, too.

06 February 2015

Farewell Soho, Welcome 'Lone and Level Sands'

I am not especially fond of the Metropolitan Media Class lamenting the passing of some icon that they probably stabbed in the back only a few years earlier, but I found eulogy in The Guardian to Soho rather touching. I had the good fortune to encounter the dying embers of Swinging London's Soho by virtue of working nearby in the middle 1980s. People I knew were still lurking around the Colony Room or the Coach and Horses, and Kettner's still served a cheap hamburger with its cocktail piano. I was only on the very fringes of this scene, but it meant a lot to a boy whose journey from the white edges of Detroit's had brought him to the heart of the capital of his own cultural world.

However, I knew some time ago the game was up for my London. There was a sort of last sputtering of the fire during Tony Blair's first term, which clouded my judgement somewhat. Memory suggests that I came to the realisation that clinging to central London's Bohemian past was a hopeless effort in about 2005 or 2006, if not a year or two earlier. From that point on, I began thinking about how to make a dignified exit. But enough about me, let me briefly comment on two points raised by the article.

From the 1960s onwards, the legend of Swinging London, which still partly defines the way the city is seen, was traceable to the coming-together of working-class talent and loose-living bohemia – precisely the elements that are now in danger of being chased out of the centre of central London altogether. From the mods, through the punks and on to the New Romantics and creators of what was eventually called Cool Britannia, these people pioneered the subcultures that ensured so many of us were gripped by the London-obsessed mentality Julie Burchill memorably called capitalism.

This is not some romanticised image of the past. What made London a cultural magnet, and Britain from 1945 until 2005 possibly the best place to be in the world was the remaking of the realm into a more socially, economically and culturally mobile country that was denounced by a class of people who believed it to be anything but that. As things changed and got better, people could only grumble about how the class system was constricting British potential. Anyting but! @Thatchersrise is marking the ascent to a political office of a woman whose father kept a shop in a small English town. And she succeeded the son of a humble Broadstairs carpenter, at a time when the son of a factory chemist was prime minister. Meritocracy indeed.

Since November, a group called Save Soho.. want(s) its warren of streets declared a Special Policy Area, an instrument already used to protect the tailoring trade in Savile Row and the art business in St James’s. The group’s co-founder, a musician called Tim Arnold, tells me that he is in conversations with the Greater London Authority; he has raised the latter proposal, only to be told Soho is “too diverse”. His bafflement is obvious. “So they’re telling me that what should be protected amounts to the reason it can’t be protected,” he says.

Yes, Mr Hudson, it is a sad fact that our lives are now dominated by the concept of The Model. This is taught in business schools to MBAs, and their attitudes have seeped into the entirety of society. The Model pares things down to the essentials, The Core of the Project, and discards organic accretions that distract from an entity's Mission Statement. KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid — prevails. Conglomerates are a thing of the past. Old-timey Soho has no place in this world. There is no room for sentiment in The Model approach. It underlies consumer segmentation, YouTube subcultural channels and everything that is going to separate my world from that of my children's. It is, of course, ruthlessly scientific, characteristic of globalisation and rooted in industrial society.

The thing is, the Metropolitan Media Class find the Law of Unintended Consequences has undone all their good works. It was their relentless assault on the traditional institutional structures and attitudes that allowed this to happen. Their dislike of the Church, of smug suburbia, of out-of-touch judges and the House of Lords, removed the entire institutional framework that stood in the way of the The Model approach. If one removes all the social measures of value — an ephemerally absolute as opposed to a constant relative standard — all one is left with are the monetary ones. The Metropolitan Media Class always wanted Britain to be more like somewhere else, whether it was America's convenience and enterprise or Continental cafés and city-centre living. So, of course, everyplace becomes like everyplace else, and nothing beside remains.

03 February 2015

Maggie's Draws

In one small corner of the Internet, I am notorious for my opinion of 'the dreadful Mrs Thatcher'. Thanks to the magic of retweets, I find there is a Twitter account commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the election of Lady Thatcher to the leadership of the Conservative party. Several of the tweets reproduce excerpts from the newspapers of the time. I have copied two of these below.
The first is from the Sunday Times, and the second is by the Sunday Telegraph's Peregrine Worsthorne, a particular favourite of mine.*

What is striking from both these excerpts is how Mrs Thatcher is seen as something different, someone who represents a break with the past. Events would prove both of these comments prescient, but I think Worsthorne does a better job of capturing that difference than the Sunday Times' writer. One wants to fall off one's chair reading that prior to Mrs Thatcher the Tories were not 'a class party'. Throughout their history, the Conservatives have been the very definition of a 'class party' — the class being the people who own the country. But the clue there as to Thatcher's real significance is in that comment 'to rebuild the...position of the middle classes'. The fact is, the mischievous 1970s in Britain had much to do with different sectors of British society demanding to maintain, in TradeUnionSpeak, 'differentials'. The skilled workers believed they deserved more than the unskilled. The accountants and sales directors believed they were entitled to more than the skilled workers. The idea that your 'value' in wages depended on the colour of your collar was at the root of Mrs Thatcher's appeal.

And that leads naturally on to Worsthorne's comment. He refers to Sir Keith Joseph, who was the first well-known politician to present the monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman to the British voters. Worsthorne uses those words that should have been fatal to any person running for the leadership of the Conservative party, that the party leader would be a 'liberal' in the old-fashioned sense of that word. The Conservative party was rooted in the idea of being the natural leader of the country as a whole, balancing the interests of the other classes while preserving an institutional structure that dated back at least as far as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and its accompanying ideology of 'English liberty'. For Lady Thatcher, and her éminence grise, the equally dreadful Rupert Murdoch, the old establishment had lost the will to confront the enemies of those who own the country. People needed to be judged by their individual achievements in mobilising the resources of a market economy to become a good earner, not by their location in a social order that sought to control change. If the establishment's institutions got in the way of this battle between the market and its enemies, they must be put down from their seats. The previously humble, at least those who showed the gumption to get on in life under a free-market economy, would be exalted now.

For people like me, who admired that institutional structure that had seen Britain to victory in two world wars and had both started and accommodated a welfare state that indeed had reduced 'differentials', Lady Thatcher's years in government were to be a profound disappointment. But, even for those who hoped the unleashing of enterprise would lead to revitalised British economy and a classless meritocracy, Britain forty years on must seem to have failed the liberalising spirit that Lady Thatcher promised in 1975. I do hope @thatchersrise will continue the story at least up to 1979, so people can compare ambition with results, and join me in seeing in hindsight that Lady Thatcher's legacy of failure was present at her creation.


* I saw him in 1996 with some of his acquaintances at the Renoir cinema near Russell Square in London. For the second time in my life I found myself a few feet from a writer who had given me great pleasure over the years, and declined to go over and offer my compliments. I feel bad about these missed opportunities.

02 February 2015

A Note Prompted By the Passing of Gough Whitlam

[NB — The extended hiatus from last autumn was a result of my wife's cancer returning. It is a long story, and I prefer to keep it short. We finally got a firm diagnosis of the extent of her problem just before Christmas. We are hopeful that she will be with us for a few more years, but it was still disturbing news and only now is my life beginning to return to what could be called 'normal'.]

The death of Gough Whitlam three months ago reminded the world of Australia's 1975 political crisis. The crisis became fodder for those who see the secret hand of the CIA or the United States at work in so many curious incidents around the world. However, it also brought into question the relationship of the Commonwealth Realms to the British royal house. It is fair to say that the the question of the continued presence of the monarchy in Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada is going to become a significant over the coming decade. The Queen may yet reach 100, and defy such a prediction, but the probabilities suggest we will be hailing King Charles III before too long. Whether the 'white dominions' of Canada, Australia and New Zealand will be willing to continue with the link to the House of Windsor is a matter certain to be raised. Each of these will, I suspect, return answers that suit their own particular circumstances at that moment. So in this post I am going to consider two political crises that raise important questions about a change from dominion status to one of a republic.

Australasia is certainly where my knowledge and familiarity of Anglosphere history is weakest. Nonetheless, I am going to risk floating a comment because Whitlam was a very interesting political figure not just in his own country, but within the broader context of Anglospheric political trends. Whitlam in one sense was a 'Blairite avant la letter (or, better, Tony Blair was simply a Whitlam clone, part of Rupert Murdoch's Australianisation of Britain). Eric Hobsbawm famously in 1978 proposed that the historic role of the industrial proletariat as the decisive force in the revolution against the capitalists' power was coming to an end. While neither the British nor Australian labour party was in any way Marxist, it is fair to say that they both were organisations rooted in that industrial proletariat. This constituency had repeatedly failed to deliver parliamentary majorities for twenty-three years, and Whitlam looked to other sources of electoral power for the party. He found them in a variety of socially liberal causes, such as race, unfair pay for women and the urban and suburban constituencies poorly served by the welfare measures of the Australian state. While Labour parties were not "sound" on these issues, tending to put the interests of a largely male skilled and semi-skilled workers above all others.

Thus, when Whitlam came to power in the 1972 election, he put just as much weight on a policy agenda that appealed to middle-class liberals who wanted to ameliorate the hardships of disadvantaged groups at home and abroad. Whitlam's basic outlook was to promote welfare clientelism — a dole handed out to the unfortunate. Rather than focus on the hard task of attacking the foundations of international capitalists' power, Whitlam preferred the easier task of attacking the 'colonial' remnants in the Australian state, at a time when Britain's Establishment for over a decade had been eagerly shedding as much of these legacy responsibilities as it could without causing offense.

During 1974 and 1975, Whitlam found himself in an economic and political crisis of some severity. Confronted with an apparent political deadlock, the Governor-General appointed by Whitlam, Sir John Kerr, made use of reserve powers completely on his own initiative. These sorts of reserve powers are inherent in all constitutional arrangements where the head of state is intended to be a figurehead somewhat above politics.

Canada has in its history a similar confrontation between a prime minister and the reserve powers held by a head of state who represents a monarch resident overseas. The "King-Byng" affair is, I imagine, largely forgotten outside of Canada, and based on my own experience living there for six years seems largely forgotten within Canada, too. (Canadians are a people who prefer to forget their past, even to discard it altogether.) We see something similar happen here, except with a key difference. After the general election of October 1925, Governor-General the Viscount Byng of Vimy allowed the incumbent prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to have the first attempt at finding support in the House of Commons. Arguably Byng should have given the Conservative party, which had won the most seats, a go before King. However, Byng could be seen as accepting his prime minister's advice, which is how constitutional monarchies should work. After King had clearly lost his support in the Commons in June 1926, Byng declined to follow his prime minister's advice for a dissolution. The question that Byng had to answer was 'who spoke for the electorate?'. King's government was threatened with censure by the same house that had supported him nine months earlier, which saw King's party not even possessing the most seats. The October mandate had been inconclusive, and the largest party had not been given a chance to find a majority in the House of Commons. Whichever course of action Byng chose to adopt, he would have alienated a large number of Canadian voters. In fact, Byng handed the Conservative leader a poisoned chalice. The Conservatives could not secure a majority either, and a dissolution took place in a matter of days. King's party won a slim majority in the 1926 election.

In both cases, replacing the office of a vicegerent governor-general representing a monarch resident overseas would not have changed the dynamic of the crisis. In both cases the essential problem was between the government and the parliament. The head of state was required to arbitrate, and in both cases chose not to follow the advice of the prime minister. However, in both cases there were perfectly sound political reasons to take the course of action that was followed. Kerr needed to find a government that was capable of getting a budget sorted out in the midst of an economic crisis of the incumbent government's creation. I don't see how an elected Kerr could have failed to reach the same decision, nor is there any evidence that the relationship between Australia's monarchy and Britain's came into play here. Likewise, an elected Byng would have faced the same problem that an appointed Byng did.

In neither of these two crises did the 'colonial' position of the dominions come into play. Nor would a 'republican' polity have changed the crises in any way. Both are examples of how people in pursuit of power are prepared to kick at the foundations of their constitutional order, without really thinking about the long-term risk to the political system. In other words, image trumps reality when the stakes are highest.