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.