“They ******* promised us rain, the ********”.

One of the corollaries of greater access to information is the proliferation of wiseguys.

We’ve heard of the mistrust of experts – anti-intellectualism gone rampant.  I wonder how much of that is fuelled by the shrinking dividend between the wages a graduate can receive over a working lifetime compared to someone without a university degree.  This mistrust has been blamed for Trump’s election, and played a huge part in the run up to the EU referendum in the UK.

On the one hand the democratisation of information sounds like something from Foucault.

On the other hand, post-modernism of the Foucault variety has been blamed for the aggressive abuse of the comfortable, established order represented by academics, politicians, journalists and other “thought leaders” (cf. On Offence by Richard King).

In the middle of the recent heatwave in the UK, I heard a middle aged man on his phone lamenting in all seriousness “they fucking promised us rain, the bastards”.

What would it take for the information that people have at their fingertips to translate into intelligence?

 

 

 

 

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Twot.

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It’s summer 2018 in the UK, one of the longest and hottest ever.  And I’m fed up with people complaining that it’s “too hot”.

Get used to it.  It’s too hot precisely because you drive your car too muchBecause you use too much waterBecause you leave too many lights onBecause you eat too much meatBecause you fly too muchBecause you drink too much proseccoBut mainly (20%) because you put the heating on as soon as you feel slightly chilly, and then leave the windows open.

No doubt the response of these people complaining of the heat is to put the air conditioning on.  Life is too complicated, isn’t it?

The Lives of #MeToo

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The film director Michael Haneke described the #MeToo campaign as a “witch hunt” earlier this year.

A common response to worries about witch hunts and other surveillance is “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”: which is attributed, amongst others, to Goebbels and repeated by William Hague.

But in the digital age, the politics of sex aren’t as simple as that anymore, are they?

It might be true if the rules don’t change.  But plenty of #MeToo accusations took place a long time ago.  I’m not trying to dismiss them to forgive cases of abuse and sexual assault – the rules around violence and threats of violence remain the same.  But flirting and innuendo, suggesting and perhaps leading to sex, are a wide open goal that can be moved anywhere on the pitch.

Words someone said or typed years and years ago in the course of a casual conversation remain retrievable whilst fads and sensibilities come and go, until the #MeToo Stasi get hold of them and he’s brought in for questioning.  Informants knew exactly what was coming next – ignorance is no excuse for treachery.

 

Pretence and lies – which is worse?

I’ve noticed a strange similarity between socialist realism and the back cover of Blur’s Parklife album.

Look closely at the two images.  Can you see it?

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Did you see it?

Yes! All of the people in the images are pretending to be working class.  The interesting thing is that like the Emperor in his new clothes, everyone else can see the hilarity of the obvious pretence.

I remember watching the Nine o’Clock News piece in 1995 when Blur went head to head with Oasis.  On national news.  It was staggeringly weird – nowadays it’s commonplace for bullshit consumerism to be touted as “news” by media outlets, desperate to placate the braindead, but it certainly registered amongst me and my teenage friends as a sign that something freaky was going on.  I also remember thinking that I liked Blur because they had intelligent tunes and had sympathy with ordinary people by singing about parks and going to work in the morning with a hangover and had an album called Modern Life is Rubbish which I found prophetic.  It is, isn’t it?

Oasis also had nice tunes – but which ripped off the Beatles with nonsense lyrics – so I dismissed them as talentless boneheads riding the gravy train to success until it ran out of steam.  Blur made art, Oasis made money.  Blur were genuine people, Oasis were capitalists’ tools.

And then years later I heard Damon Albarn jamming with musicians in Mali on the radio and admitting he was bollocks.  I admired his honesty but, yes, it was true: he’s not a musician, despite making some decent albums with Blur and Gorillaz.  He’s a pretty boy who was in the right place at the right time but had principlesAlex James now owns a farm, makes cheese and has a show on Classic FM.  The bassist ran to be a Labour MP – see?

Oasis turned out to be popular with the hoi poloi.  It turned out everyone else knew all along that Blur were posh.

In other words, my idea of who “the people” were was all wrong – just like Soviet apparatchiks had no clue that “the people” sniggered at oil paintings of earnest workers in railway carriages and used the novels of love in steel mills as ballast.

Which is why only people like me root for Jeremy Corbyn.  He’s great.  He says all the right things.  He has the right principles.  I would vote for him every day of the week.

It’s just that “the people” can see straight through the socialist realism of wearing caps, of caring about people in Mali, of having principles, of class solidarity: they’re what posh people do.  Renting an allotment is posh.  Wearing hats is posh.  Singing about everyday travails is posh.  Worrying about climate change is posh.  Shepherd’s Pie is posh.  Camping in Cornwall is posh.  Class solidarity is posh.

Those things may have been what “the people” did in the 1960s.  But now the children of ordinary, working people are in debt, go on foreign holidays, drink prosecco, put down decking and watch Netflix and do not care a flying fuck about class solidarity or screwing the rich.  They do not want jobsworths reminding them of their class betrayal.

Theresa May doesn’t have the same problem.  People know she’s lying when she claims to be interested in the people.  They expect that of Tory politicians.  What they don’t appreciate is pretending.  Theresa May doesn’t have to pretend to be anything else other than a politician: but any politician who aspires to any kind of principle will be judged by how closely they adhere to it themselves.  Authenticity is the emperor’s new clothes.

What exactly were we celebrating?

I’m used to seeing the English flag flying from upstairs windows in multi-ethnic, inner-city England.  I imagine these proud patriots are advertising their identity, staking their claim in a territory they feel is being eroded – calling out “you may be Pakistani or Hungarian; I’m English”.

And yet walking through wealthy white suburbia before the World Cup semi-final I spotted a rare sight – the English flag flying from an upstairs window.   My explanation didn’t hold in this setting: pretty much everyone is white and English.  What could be the reason for the solitary flag? I imagine something along the lines of “I’m supporting my team”.  Really?  The team can’t see the flag, and why don’t you hang your club team’s flag out of your window during the season?  It’s possible to support something without any visible display of that support.  So that’s far too simplistic an explanation: there’s got to be a reason why the flag is so proudly visible.

“It’s patriotic” might be another explanation: or “I’m celebrating my country”.  These explanations make more sense, especially in the context of “and if you’re not displaying the flag, you’re not patriotic.  Or you’re Polish”.  Now we’re talking.  Maybe it’s about forcing people to display their allegiances.  You’re either with us or against us.

The typical Englishman or woman doesn’t usually display patriotism in a whole host of other decisions.  Foreign holidays are far more popular than “staycations”.  Foreign beer is more popular than English beer.  Sales of our staple potato are declining (other than in potato crisps).  Italian prosecco sales are booming.  We watch American films and listen to American music.  The fastest growing supermarket chains are both German.  We are addicted to gadgets (made in China), to French, German or American cars., to clothes made in Bangladesh.  Even our banks aren’t British.

So it’s strange that a nation that is otherwise completely unpatriotic in its consumption suddenly pretends to be patriotic when its national football team progresses beyond the round of 16.

Or maybe the World Cup, like the 2012 Olympics, allows us temporary respite from the shame of being English.  For once, England and the English are good at something.

Because ordinarily we live in a country where the trains don’t run on time, where ancient infrastructure can’t cope, where we treat our old and our young with contempt, where we have to wait to be treated by a health system reliant on immigrant labour to cope with the demand.  Where we crawl in traffic to work unproductively, where public transport grinds to a halt when it’s too hot, too cold or too wet, where we breath in hazardously polluted air and where the endless noise messes with our sanity.  Where nature is being despoiled at accelerating rates, where one third of us are obese, where we’re lonely and miserable, where teachers and nurses are quitting their jobs in droves due to the endless pressure, where crime is a tempting escape or carrying a knife is a rational response to the horror.

The world has moved on, whilst we were wallowing in hubris through the 90s and 2000s, the rich scraping off the profits through deregulation under a seemingly Labour government rather than investing in decent services, decent infrastructure.  Now the only ways to cope are nostalgia and nonsense.  This is why we fly flags for a failing football team:

There’s nothing else to celebrate.

Student accommodation. Second homes.

Mention housing to almost anyone in the UK and the conversation will inevitably, it seems, turn to the question of affordability – in particular how young people are ever meant to get on the housing ladder.

Surveys have shown how over 40% of young people believe they will be renting all of their lives.

The causes are many, but mainly around the expansion of credit boosting demand way beyond supply.

That sounds a straight forward explanation.  But it covers a whole host of contradictions.  Firstly: demand and supply of what? Dwellings? Or accommodation? It’s a fine point, but essentially it boils down to bedrooms.  Danny Dorling makes the point in All That is Solid: there are more spare bedrooms in London than individuals on housing waiting lists across the country.

That doesn’t mean that everyone could happily move to London and rent a box room in an elderly woman’s house in Wandsworth.  But the point is that under-occupation is chronic in the UK, largely due to increasing life-expectancy and those couples staying on in their family houses well after their adult children leave home.  They stay there for a whole host of reasons – one of which is “just in case”.  Just in case sudden unemployment, relationship breakdown, illness or some other emergency means those adult children return.  To be fair to those elderly parents, the risks of those things happening are high.

But there’s a similar push that ends up in a far more concrete (literally) impact on the housing market.  Whereas the construction of care homes or retirement villages incentivizes those elderly residents to sell-up and downsize, the construction of purpose-built student accommodation removes developable land from the housing market and reduces supply of other forms of housing.  Why?  Because students usually live somewhere else as well, and have a bedroom ready waiting for them.  In other words, student homes are pretty much second homes.

And yet, a key villain of the “housing crisis” in the eyes of those same young people is the second home owner: the well-paid city-based professional who heads to his or her pad in the countryside at weekends.  It’s ironic that students joining the clamour for “something to be done” about housing affordability in the UK are highly likely to be directly contributing to the problem by living in two places at once.

“I’m too old for this”

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Every day, this man and around three others sit at the computers in my local library.  They are searching online for jobs, and sending off applications.

Every day I go to the library, they are there.  They are waiting promptly outside, waiting for the doors to open.  They know each other well – joking to each other about jobs they’ve seen, computer issues, the ordeal they’re going through.

This week a different woman was sat at a computer in the library.  She was in her 60s.  Within seconds of me sitting down at a table with a book, she approached me.

“Excuse me – you’re good at computers.  Can you help me?”

The scale of the issue quickly became apparent: she could not even understand the simple message, in point 28 font, stating that she’d been sent a verification email from the job site some other kind soul had registered her with.

Whilst I struggled to simply explain without intimating that this was merely the very, very beginning of her pain, she said “I’m too old for this”.

Eligible recipients need to be 65 in order to receive the state pension, currently.  That has been increased to 67, and then to 68 for people born after certain dates.  This is an inevitable response to a declining birth rate, increasing life expectancy, flatlining productivity increases and an ever-increasing range of demands and their costs.  The unmentionable taboo is that we are living longer, whilst working conditions have changed completely.  The problem the library job-seeker crew has is that they are Sleepers, waking up in a completely alien planet several decades into the future.  Yet they didn’t fall asleep – instead they lived in a deprived corner of a dying country, working in dying occupations in dying industries, hubris and arrogance making them ignorant to the revolution going on in the world beyond their immediate environment (incidentally, the Brexit vote in the UK is probably their response to how they feel about that).

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Woody Allen in Sleeper (1973).  Image courtesy of http://www.imdb.com

This taboo co-exists somehow with double-standards over “the price of human life”.  News broke this week of a poor quality investigation into a case where a doctor at a hospital in Gosport in the 1990s had over-proscribed opioids to elderly patients.  An inquiry said there was a culture of “disregard for human life” at the hospital.

Quite.  And yet no similar charge is made against MPs who “drag their feet” over action against criminally high air-pollution levels in the UK which annually contribute to an estimated 40,000 premature deaths.  Or voting to contribute to military engagements in far away countries, knowing that there will be civilian deaths, for obscure objectives.  Or against managers who decide to install cheaper cladding as part of refurbishment of housing, directly resulting in the horrible deaths at Grenfell Tower (instead of disregard for human life, we call it reverse engineering – or best practice in financial management).

Or against shareholders and regulators who continue to allow excessive remuneration, aggressive tax avoidance and the endless consolidation of monopolistic corporations, whilst eroding employment rights and working conditions – creating environments where the desperate need help from strangers simply to search for, let alone apply for, let alone be shortlisted for and let alone secure a new job paying minimum wage, with no guarantee of any hours, on a temporary contract, tied to a stick.

Mental health and inequality.

1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, according to Mind.   How we cope with those problems is changing: incidents of suicide and self harm are increasing.  Rates of violent crime are also increasing.

Of course how these are reported will skew the figures from one year to the next; and rising awareness will also raise the figures.  But all things being equal, let’s assume the trend is upwards.  What could be causing it?

Is it because of cuts to those agencies that would otherwise be policing external factors affecting our mental health?  I’m thinking of Local Authority noise pollution and environmental protection teams, social workers, support workers in schools and housing, community policing, even support offered by employers.

Or is it more to do with technology that creates more of those external factors?  Online banking is incredibly frustrating, but add to that the fickleness of broadband, the hassle of customer support, the built-in obsolescence and dependency that drives our use of technology.

Then consider how much of that technology also undermines our ability to cope: the endless distractions, the corner of your brain that’s permanently listening out for the pings from your smartphone, the other corner of your brain that’s scanning for great Instagram posts.  Our addiction to dopamine hits seems to be inhibiting our ability to deal with a lot of modern life.

Or is it because the gap between rich and poor is now so great that it’s more and more noticeable, and the risks of failure that much more serious?

Most probably it’s a combination of all of those, and other factors.  Austerity, growing inequality, less regulation, more technology, greater competition, more serious implications of poverty and greater visibility of the lifestyles of the rich and famous – they’re all making us ill, and we’re less able to cope.

Choose Life. Choose unit sales.

Trainspotting is one of the few films that I’ve bothered to watch twice at the cinema because I enjoyed it so much.  It’s a great film.  So much so that everyone seems to forgive the surreal sequence tucked away in the middle that could be straight out of a “GREAT Britain” marketing campaign.  You may have forgotten it (or removed it from your memory).  It’s a series of short clips of people in Edinburgh, set to music.  It may only last 30 seconds or so.  It’s to set the context (as far as I can remember) for the scene in which Begbie mugs the American tourist after he stumbles into the wrong bar and opens his mouth in a loud sports jacket.  Perhaps it’s ironic – showing the difference between tourist Edinburgh and the grim toilet-bowl reality experienced by Renton and co.  But if it is, then there is no shred of irony whatsoever in the sequence: it really could be straight from an advert.

And 20 or so years later, Trainspotting has probably done its own fair share of contributing to Britain’s “image” – the reputation, the imagery, the modern mythology, the material for posters and the milieu that Lonely Planet writers and newspaper travel columnists get invited to feature.  That sounds like a more interesting irony – that the ironic “Visit Britain” sequence turns out to have been far more effective at attracting visitors than shit-stained toilets, dead babies and heroin addicts were at putting them off.

This “soft power” explains the rush for selfies in front of the Hollywood sign, and the clamour from politicians for new concert venues or to attract the cameras for the next Game of Thrones.  The steps before – the market research, the visioning, the planning for the infrastructure and attracting the finance, is called “boosterism” – bigging up London more than Paris to win the right to host the Olympic games, for example.  Boosterism is almost the opposite of market forces: investors and capitalists are meant to interpret signals to make predictions, from which they take risks and then reap the rewards of success.  But where there is no data, they’re vulnerable to boosterism – also known as bullshit.

Some of the biggest boosters were in Soviet Russia, or modern-day China.  It’s not simply a Capitalism con.  And the boosters appear everywhere: the BBC runs the New Generation Artists scheme, supporting talented young musicians from across the world.  One of those previous artists is the Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani – and I listened to a radio programme where he discusses the different musical traditions between Armenia (European-influenced) and Iran (not European-influenced), formed by the creation of a new border in 1828.

It made sense – Armenians looked towards Russia and possibly France for their cultural influences.   Or rather bourgeois Armenians with pretentions at government positions, university educations and emigration.   I’m sure there are bourgeois Iranians with the same pretentions but maybe not so many.  Or they were persecuted or fled.

Ostensibly the programme was a contrast between disparate musical styles between neighbouring countries.  So why did it feel as if Iran’s lukewarm interest in classical music was as a problem?

I blogged previously about the effect that the drive for unit sales atomises us into thinking our personal relationship to music is unique and special, when in reality it is entirely commonplace.  But if something is commonplace, why bother spending money on it?  Similarly, the need for selling tickets for big-name soloists or conductors, such as Esfahani, drives the format.  Form follows function, after all.

Music that takes a communal and improvisational form can’t be easily sold.  It’s music to dance to, to celebrate to, to pray to.  The “artist”, the auteur, the composer are all irrelevant: or rather, they’re simply the performers, who in turn are the audience.  Maybe that’s what the problem for Esfahani to solve was – exploring a new frontier for cultural imperialists to exploit.

Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy expands this idea brilliantly: that money corrupts the way we consume things.  Money is such a powerfully simple idea –  translating the value of everything into currency that it’s one of the key steps of our social evolution, along with fire, story-telling, agriculture and industrialisation, as described by Yuval Noah Harari in the equally brilliant Sapiens.  But it has pernicious effects – it corrupts the motives of those other fundamental parts of the human condition: namely love, birth and death.

Soft power is everywhere.  It funds much of the art (through government subsidy) that apparent “progressives” and bourgeoisie love to enjoy (and to display their enjoyment loudly on social media) in their attempt to escape the gravitational pull of the proletariat.  In turn, our need to belong to tribes and movements fuels that the velocity.  Maybe being truly progressive means we admit our snobbery, and put down our wallets when professing our love of culture.

Music is over-rated

When I was in my early teens it seemed like only me and two similarly awkward friends liked The Cure.  Forever dismissed as “goths” and derided simply for the size of their hair and apparent miserablism of Robert Smith’s lyrics, we knew that they were far more than just a band.  In the early 90s, roundabout the time I saw a packed stadium concert for their Wish album, I realised their influence was becoming more and more apparent: not only musically and lyrically, but how expressing emotions like love, anger and fear in metres usually associated with hyperbole and cliché could be carried off reverentially and imaginatively.  Now the unique sound and imagery of Robert Smith’s (and Simon Gallup’s) oeuvre are widely recognised – NME, Brit Awards and the rest of them have given out their gongs of belated “lifetime achievement” approval.  What does this journey from freakshow to main attraction mean?

I used to think I alone experienced the rapture of the opening drones of Plainsong, or could hear the music between the layers of instrumentation in Lament; Simon Gallup’s pulsing basslines seemed to be singularly tailored to reverberate in my gut – and the relentless monotony of Boris Williams’s drums on Disintegration (and that’s a live recording – the man is a human drum machine!) seemed to make only my spine tingle.  I spoke to more and more people over the years: I discovered that other people could hear those ghost notes, interpreted Smith’s whispers and croaks the same way, and who had more than one tear in their eyes at the end of Faith.  Now, some 30 years later I realise that this ability of music to really move us – and to which we relate our most fundamental experiences – is universal.  It’s not me that has superhuman sensitivities, nor The Cure’s music that’s anything particularly unique.  We all seek emotional earthquakes: Christian suburbanites, graduates, teenage dirtbags and pin stripe suits together.

Which sets the scene for my thoughts about Sebastian Faulk’s book Another Life.  It’s one of five loosely connected chapters, about a folk musician in North America from the late 60s to late 90s.  Her talent is supposedly singular, her audience grows from tiny folk gigs to sell-out crowds after her discovery by the narrator and his co-producer.  The narrator’s engagement with her music is tied up of course in his attraction to her (and of course, she’s beautiful), and vice versa.  “We love you”, cry the audience at her farewell gig (much like the lovestruck cries of “ROBERRRRRRT” from the young women on every single live recording of The Cure).  But talent, and this entwining of soul and song, are not singular and rare, and neither should they be – we trick ourselves into thinking we alone are sufficiently sensitive to hear those hidden notes (spoiler: they don’t actually exist).  Music is universal; the solidarity we feel when singing our lungs out on football terraces is very real and powerful stuff.

Why this rarefication of what should be a universalising force for human solidarity?  Money changes everything, of course.  Unit sales, mainly: tickets, downloads, merch, followers and clicks.  But more than that: our drive for narrative with heroes rather than faceless armies (cf. Kahneman and Taleb, if you don’t believe me).  Smith and Gallup are certainly two of my heroes – but I’m sure even their egos acknowledge the effort of countless engineers, producers, marketers and roadies in their success.  Music going mainstream isn’t redeeming more souls: it’s making more money.

The power of ideas to take hold of collective consciousness rests in no small part upon their novelty, and the networks of their proponents, as well as their utility.  In art, what part does ability play?  Music conservatoires produce dozens of supremely gifted musicians each year, but which of them has the X Factor? There seems little correlation with ability.  Difference from what went before, and the creation of a narrative that can shift units seem to have a far more significant role.  Is there that much difference between the romanticism of, say, Lord Byron’s poetry, and The Figurehead?

I’m not saying talent doesn’t exist.  There’s a definite arc in The Cure’s output from 1978, dropping off sharply after 1991 when Smith and Gallup hit their mid 30s – the same can be said of athletes and mathematicians.  Creativity is exhausting, and those rare talents usually have stories that explain their early hunger: once success sates them, the creativity seems to dry up along with it.  Once we’ve been through the trauma of love and loss, who wants to go through all that again without taking out some form of insurance?  I’m not trying to explain why some artists make it to the bigtime.  I’m simply saying that music is over-rated.  We are not alone in our solitary prayers to the heroes of popular culture – how else are they popular?  Rather we should stop the hero reverence and give each other more credit in our ability to relate to each other, and to simple cultural pleasures – which is all music (and art, and drama, and stories) is.  The difference is that the need to sell tickets and books has reduced the universalities of culture to individual transactions.  Sing out loud, and sing together instead.