Listening is a hard thing to do.

Image credit: Barber Institute of Fine Art

I’ve often wondered why there aren’t more young people in the audience at the Barber Institute’s concert series.  They’re free.  It’s on a university campus.  They’re at lunchtime.  Instead, the audience is 80% retirees, and 90% white, with the other 10% Chinese.

The easy answer is that this audience simply reflects that of classical music more broadly: old, white and wealthy.    But being obtuse, I wanted to dig a bit deeper.

Is it because classical music requires the audience to listen? And is it because listening is much more difficult than hearing?  Could it be that audiences need some help to listen?

The performance I went to today featured the Irish pianist David Quigley.  He divided his 50 minute performance into three pairs of nocturnes.  Before each, he gave a brief introduction to the pieces, along with his own interpretations of what could be going on in the music.  In other words, he gave the aural equivalent of those little white pieces of card next to paintings in galleries.

How often have you observed people in galleries going up to a display, spending 30 seconds reading that little white card to the bottom left, and then five seconds looking at the art before moving on?  Without those cards, all hell would break loose as people struggle to understand context, relevance, but also give answers to the question why did I spend £10 to see this exhibition?

Listening involves focussing exclusively on a particular sound, as opposed to the general and passive use of our ears – analogous to the distinction between looking and seeing.  But at a performance of nocturnes or a symphony, what are we listening for? All I can hear are notes, notes, notes.  After a few seconds, my mind wonders and before long I’m doubting whether I closed the fridge, remembering I need to pick up some pumpkin seeds on the way home and that I forgot to transfer money between accounts online.

It’s interesting that the boom in mindfulness hasn’t coincided with a rise in interest in classical music (or has it?).  After all, listening intently for 50 minutes to a performance sounds pretty much like a mindfulness exercise.  And whilst a pre-occupation with associating classical music with relaxation makes me want to puke, I reckon there’s a rich seam of ticket sales down that road.  Couple that with more interaction between performer and audience to give some pointers to help focus our listening and maybe that 20/80 split may begin to balance out.


Contemporary heritage.

packwood-houseI can’t help but feel that the heritage/traditional/nostalgia porn that we’re currently fed (locally-grown, artisanal, natural, hand-made) contributed in some way to the wave of faux-nationalism in the run up to the 2016 EU Referendum and beyond.

Faux-nationalism because in a global world where global corporations such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple provide so many of our services, financed through their global networks of data and intelligence, the nation state is largely irrelevant.  The mere idea that “nationality” means anything is part of the façade that we remain stuck behind.

On any given weekend day in England, at any given National Trust property, the car park is full (weather-permitting) of cherubic families and obstinate retirees trying desperately to ignore the implications of this global network and hoping it will go away.  Or at least waiting until someone else imagines an alternative reality where seas are not rising, where inequality is not increasing, where recession is not forever around the corner, and where education buys an income and pension secure enough to afford a stress-free life.

Marvel at the convertible sports cars in the car park – the parvenu Toads in their motor cars – rather than on the drive of their own manor house.  Consider too the proliferation of hunting dogs: retrievers, spaniels and pointers pulling their wellied owners on short walks following coloured trail markers around a lake before the ironing, homework and shopping intrude on the charade.  Even our ability to take exercise has become commoditised, organised and subject to class distinctions.

And yet, despite the National Trust’s (and the rest of the heritage industry’s) diligence in its quest for authenticity in materials or design, no-one questions the incongruity of the masses invading the car park of a small manor houses in extra urban England – how else could they raise the income?

The grim reality of life for the rural majority in the early modern period until industrialisation was itinerant, insecure and uncomfortable.  We sympathise with the conditions of the urban poor in early industrial British cities without questioning what on earth these people were leaving behind.  Why else would they tolerate damp and overcrowded housing to work for a pittance in dangerous jobs?  Ah yes, because the lives they left behind in counties may have been even worse.

No-one wants to learn about that.  Whilst there is a slow increase in interest in the lives of the dozens of servants needed to run the estates, the reason people visit these places is to have a “nice time” pretending that Britain is white, agricultural and wealthy, and that they too have comfortable lives not dissimilar to the landed gentry of the 18th and 19th centuries.

These people aren’t the super-rich.  They’re suburban and dependent on their urban jobs.  They’re educated.  So why do their sympathies lie with the rural aristocracy rather than the urban proletariat?

There is no equivalent aesthetic that celebrates solidarity, mass production, industry and the urban.  There’s an overlap with hipsterism, but artisans were always the splitters that wanted to protect their exclusivity through Guilds.  Despite the ubiquity of beards and tattoos, hipsterism aspires to a faux individuality, to “be who you want to be”.

I went to a training event on “community activism” run by The Labour Party recently.  The focus there was around how the left needs to build consensus through honest and in-depth conversations with people, rather than cursory engagements such as questionnaires or online surveys.  The split of proletariat and capitalist, of working and middle class are so confused now that they’re meaningless: so the debate must become more detailed and fundamental. It must be about policies, ideology and facts, rather than identities (one reason why popular media is insistent Labour is about Corbyn, not tackling inequality or improving services or resolving economic chaos).

Whilst I’m sure there’s a lot of sense in that approach, there’s a long way to go to unpicking what the State currently does and how that relates to these new identities and allegiances based on expectations.  The debt we use to fund our expectations is unsustainable: it’s already caused one massive financial crisis and will cause more before we even realise what’s happened.  Despite people being largely aware of the causes of the 2008 crisis, next to nothing has changed and personal debt is even higher in 2018 than it was in 2007.

We remain frustrated with “housing”, with “the NHS”, with “education” – but stuck in the old paradigm of State provision funded by taxation of labour.  This assumes that we have jobs, provided by capitalists.

This whole model is rapidly becoming undone, and yet as Mark Fisher wrote – it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine an alternative to capitalism.  We work, we get paid, we consume: let’s try and work on alternatives where we don’t work, we don’t get paid but we don’t consume (half as much).

What goes around comes around.

Picture credit: Royal Shakespeare Company

I saw Tamburlaine at the RSC recently.  I’ve always wanted to see it ever since recording a radio adaptation in the 1990s that I never listened to, despite finding the production’s aesthetic alluring.

I’m glad I went.  It’s an interesting play, despite long passages of oratory and repeated sieges, torture, savagery and treachery where it feels Marlowe is simply sticking to chronology rather than building dramatic tension or plot.

Tamburlaine represents pragmatism and Machiavellian efficiency – and barbarity; whereas his succession of conquered kings and emperors in turn demonstrate the hypocrisy and ineffectuality of chivalry, honour, religion, tradition and the arts.  In one scene, one of the advisors to the Persian emperor Mycetes observes Tamburlaine’s troops before battle, explaining how although they’re outnumbered “like brothers of the earth sprung of the teeth of dragons venomous”, they need not fear as their poor disciple will mean the enemy will end up butchering each other.  Mycetes questions whether people can spring forth of dragons’ teeth, but the advisor Meander replies that the poets say it is true:

  MEANDER. Suppose they be in number infinite,
Yet being void of martial discipline,
All running headlong, greedy after spoils,
And more regarding gain than victory,
Like to the cruel brothers of the earth,
Sprung of the teeth of dragons venomous,
Their careless swords shall lance their fellows’ throats,
And make us triumph in their overthrow.

MYCETES. Was there such brethren, sweet Meander, say,
That sprung of teeth of dragons venomous?

MEANDER. So poets say, my lord.

MYCETES. And ’tis a pretty toy to be a poet.
Well, well, Meander, thou art deeply read;
And having thee, I have a jewel sure.

Of course, no such wonderment came true and the Persian army is defeated.  The poets were false and pragmatic brutality won.  ‘Tis a pretty toy to be a poet.

Stretch the falsity of poets and the redundancy of art further and we reach a debate around artificial intelligence and its power to write haiku, poetry, music and paint pictures that we cannot distinguish from that produced by “natural” intelligence.  In the film Her, the artificially intelligent Samantha quickly tires of Joaquin Phoenix as her thirst and potential for learning accelerates.  Human brains are puny.  We admire Shakespeare and Marlowe because of the centuries of cultural baggage behind them, and we are too timid to shake it off – eager to use culture to signify the identities we want to project, based in turn on the expectations we were brought up with.   Looking around at the audience in Stratford, the most common expression on their faces was of boredom.  Why else did these people pay £50 each for their tickets?

In another scene a captured courtier is asked by Tamburlaine if he wants to be a king.  The courtier objects, saying he could not dare be so bold or assuming as to entertain being a king.  Tamburlaine and his crew reply that of course we all want to be kings – who wouldn’t?

We limit our ambitions based on those identities we want to project.  The working-class girl doesn’t feel comfortable in the company of posh people, and so imagines a future without a university education, and where looks and sex afford the alternative to the drudgery she witnesses around her.  Beneath the cobbles, the beach.

Yes, the poets lie.  The music we claim moves us so much is just primitive beats and noise that gets us dancing or brings us cathartic release.  Paintings that artists spent weeks perfecting end up as wrapping paper cast into the bin.  Awe and wonder are the excitement we feel when we recognise something’s potential without understanding why – understanding soon becomes a tool we use every day, which soon ends up commonplace: and repeat.  Tamburlaine dies of an illness as an old man; not slain on the field in retribution for his sins.  Pragmatism and barbarity wins.

But return to the cassette onto which I recorded the radio play in the 1990s.  I never got around to listening to it, nor reading the play – but watching the play performed by actors in an imaginative production involving musicians, costume makers, choreographers, lighting engineers and a whole host of other artists gave me the ideas in this article, made me link them to a film also made by actors and the rest of the crew on the credits at the end.  They all made me think.  Yes poets lie, new music is tomorrow’s muzak and new novels are tomorrow’s pulp: but it’s infinitely better to listen to muzak and read pulp than living by the sword in a bombed-out shell trusting no-one and too scared to breathe.  Long live Tamburlaine.

When we all learn the same thing, we will be worthless.


There are two queues to enter the grand apartments of the Palace of Versailles on either side of the cordon in the above photograph.  The one on the right is for the audioguides.  The one on the left is for those who don’t want the audioguides.

Yes, you’re correct – there isn’t anyone in the queue for those who don’t want the audioguides.

When we all learn the same official fiction, we become worthless.  Innovation is about thinking differently and breaking rules.

10% of book titles made up 90% of book sales in Tesco.  Hardly anyone listens to anything that they haven’t heard before on Spotify, unless it’s on a random playlist they clicked on accidentally.

Yet simultaneously we conduct witch hunts against those who hold back diversity, and we fret about toilets for trans people.

Why bother learning at all, if we simply outsource it to audioguides, the same books, the same experiences and the same websites? Let’s just upload the same content onto an implant at 16 and be done with it – think of all that money governments could save!  Or why stop there: why bother with rank and file humans at all, once machines will have learnt everything we would consume and “learn” in our lifetimes?

More on that next time…

The nightmare of a true meritocracy


I wrote recently about the implications of a networked life where our actions are constantly observed by sensors and cameras in our phones, homes, cars, watches, clothes, fitbits and laptops.  I’ve been expanding this to think about the consequences of the networked and quantified life on jobs and work, and consequently on our consumption and on life itself.  It’s pretty scary, so I’ll go slowly.

For starters, if you have children or are at school, college or university now, think about how homework, exams and coursework are administered and recorded: they’re usually online, or at least increasingly so.  We already have a National Curriculum in the UK, and it’s logical for education policy to suggest a universalised exam system administered online not only for universities, but also for schools and even pre-schools.

The crucial difference between simply a database of exam results and the exams themselves being conducted online is that computers can also record performance as it happens.  In that context, there’s nowhere to hide.  Every keystroke, every delay, every web search to research an answer, every time the calculator is used.

And then it won’t be long before there’s a national database of coursework, compiled through a centralised platform offering software, data storage and submission “for our convenience” with a simple payment system – and a rich mine of data about the performance of our brains where we’re all ranked and filed accordingly.

Proceed now to the next level of the nightmare: these results are used to promote ourselves when applying for jobs on our CVs.  Voluntarily of course at first, on our LinkedIn profiles – before they become de rigeur and then part of a privatised database for employers, much like credit scores operate now.

Proponents will rave about how we will have created the true meritocracy.  No cheating, no help from old boys’ clubs: simply the true, quantified self recorded over one’s school career and beyond.

Research into why people object to planning applications show that communities are far more likely to object if they feel that they have no control over the negative risks of a development.  For example if a nuclear power station goes into meltdown, closing a window isn’t going to do much.  In the same way that people want to reserve a pretence of freedom by being able to drive at 35mph in a 30mph limit, or smoke where they’re not supposed to, then they want to be able to cheat at homework or at least not suffer too much if they feel too lazy occasionally.

Maybe I’m worrying too much.  Maybe we’re already at this point.  Either way, this vision of a true meritocracy doesn’t sound much fun.


The Curators.

We’re all curators now.

More than just a word of the moment, it’s the essential activity of our contemporary lives: we constantly scan, parse and select our consumption based on the aesthetic we want to project the identity we want.

Of course, that identity is much less our choice than we’d like it to be: we’re born and raised into a social class, into a race, a culture, a nationality, in a certain location, speaking a certain language and accent and with a certain vocabulary.  Those are far more important drivers at selecting our identity, but at least we retain a semblance of control over the aesthetic we want by curating.

[Incidentally, this why Tony Blair and Giddens were so wrong to suggest there is a “Third Way” based around choice.  We have no choices.  We only select from the menu of our prejudices.]

Marketers devise mood boards and sculpt brands around these indicators of class/identity: nice; luxury; everyday; feminine; virile; value-for-money.  Consumers finesse these further by etching delicate nuance: kitsch; sexy; exotic; rebellious; gay; intellectual.  But essentially they’re all simply sub-sets that broadcast: “I’m not a faceless worker – I have a personality and interests based on my consumption”.

Nothing is worse in contemporary Britain than being a faceless, average worker.

When shenanigans are called incompetence

The argument goes that Labour should be making great progress at a time when the Tories are divided and responsible for almost a decade of austerity-related disasters, such as Grenfell, Carillion and HMP Winson Green.

But instead, right wing forces seek to undermine Jeremy Corbyn by carrying out an orchestrated campaign to discredit him as an anti-Semite.  If he had another weakness, they’d use that instead.

And consequently he’s the one called incompetent.

I understand that an attribute of leadership is to deal with dissent.  Corbyn’s and socialism’s position in the liberal, pro-capitalist Labour Party is very weak.   He doesn’t have that luxury.  He has to work with what he has.

As a result, surviving two years in such as febrile environment speaks volumes about his good leadership qualities.  Unfortunately, the forces of capital and of the wealthy want to see those qualities differently.


Classical musicians think classical music isn’t elitist!


Classical music is often accused of being elitist.

That’s why the few media outlets (and Prince Harry) that are interested in selling classical music tickets and music are really hot on Sheku Kanneh-Mason.  He’s young and black, in an industry dominated by old, white men – perfect for co-opting ethnic and class diversity.

But it’s not surprising that Sheku Kanneh-Mason disagrees with the elitism jibes.  Classical music is elitist.  In that it requires concentration to listen to, which requires time.  Most pieces are long.  True, individual movements might sometimes only last for a few minutes, convenient for Classic FM – but stripped of their context they rarely make sense.  Most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to sit down and devote fifteen, twenty or thirty minutes to a symphony or concerto.

Even if we could, could we really listen intently, and bring to it the back story of socio-historical context that is so often referenced?  We struggle with ten minutes of mindfulness most days, let alone on a whim when the urge to try a little Beethoven takes our fancy.

However, the final verdict on whether classical music really is elitist or not comes from the political overtones taken by Classic FM and BBC Radio 3.  Classic FM’s David Mellor was a Tory MP, which is a clue.  But a greater indictment is the frequency at which any of the presenters on Radio 3 take the opportunity to “interpret” the music of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian as profoundly anti communist.  There’s no mention of “maybe” or “it is believed”; just straight-faced opinion presented as fact that their music was an attack on communism.

I’m not doubting that it wasn’t.  What I do suspect is how plummy Radio 3 presenters use the interpretations of musicologists as opportunities to have a dig at forces that would like wealth to be distributed more fairly, for people from diverse backgrounds, such as secondary schools in Nottingham, to become leading performers, and for funding for arts to be spent on art forms that are the most popular rather than the most esoteric.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

“I am the law” – Judge Dredd

i_am_the_law_judge_dredd_by_wjgrapes-d5ex7vfImagine a world where no-one did anything wrong.

Sounds perfect doesn’t it? Where no-one ran red lights, where no-one parked in the disabled bays when they’re not supposed to, where no-one smoked in a no-smoking area, where no-one cycled on the pavement, where no-one failed to clean up after their dog, where no-one drove at 40mph in a 30mph limit.

Where no-one filed a fraudulent expense claim.  Where no-one rounded up their mileage claim to make it a round number.  Where no-one took an envelope from the stationery cupboard at work for their personal use.  Where no-one checked the Argos website in their worktime.

Where no-one put a recyclable item in the general rubbish bin.  Where no-one took illegal drugs.  Where someone could use your online search history from ten years ago to demonstrate that you have sympathy with something which is now outlawed.

Now you’ve thought about it a bit more, it doesn’t sound quite so perfect, actually, does it?

Technology already exists that we allow to spy on us.  We gladly sign up to car insurance which gives us discounts for safe driving, evidenced by access to connected sensors in our cars.   We vainly hope that the data is only used for that purpose – or rather, we never even thought about it.  We willingly wear sensors on our wrists to track our heart beats and never even consider how the data it gathers could be used against us.

Because we gladly swallow the racist lie that only countries with brown people have corrupt governments and corporations.

Because marketing people only ever sell benefits.  We have a phrase for this: “oh it’s in the small print”.

No-one ever reads the small print, where the risks and side effects are listed in the interests of “consumer protection”.

The ability to use our discretion, or “common sense” is fundamental to our perception of freedom.  We want to use our discretion as to whether it’s safe to drive at 31mph in a 30mph limit.  Whether picking up a relative from a train station merits parking in an empty disabled bay.  Whether smoking in an empty beer garden marked “no smoking” is fine.  We have different thresholds for our ability to tolerate this kind of misdemeanour, but ultimately, we hope that we have the freedom as adults to discuss and agree between ourselves without the interference of the state or any other third party.

Too late.  We sold that right a long, long time ago and now the beast of sensors and artificial intelligence will extend its inexorable grip on our freedom without us even being aware of it: because the complexity involved has broken launch velocity.  We simply don’t recognise the difference between super complex and very complex, much like a crow doesn’t recognise the difference between eight eggs and seven – but it can tell the difference between five and four.

In the meantime, our opportunities to let off steam, to let our hair down and vent our petty frustrations are increasingly restricted.  Previous regimes – even oppressive, fundamentalist regimes such as in ancient or medieval Europe – recognised the necessity of “carnival” and of “bread and roses”.  Our ability to exercise discretion is becoming so reduced that we protect and exploit the few opportunities we do have: such as running red lights.  Parking in disabled parking bays.  Smoking where we’re not meant to.  Driving badly.  Swearing in public.  Wearing tattoos.   The increasing coarseness of everyday discourse and behaviour is, I think, a direct reaction to society’s inability to tolerate discretion, independence and difference, which has resulted in an increasingly limited range of options: despite our apparent interest in diversity.

In other words, if you’re not willing to follow the party line of paid education, non-unionised labour without basic privileges such as pensions and workplace security and then using those as limited security against a lot of debt to consume a lot of unnecessary and useless goods and services that make a tiny elite very, very rich – then you are surplus to requirements, and treated accordingly.

The choice to commit misdemeanours or transgress social conventions, is the difference between living in a “free world” based on human arbitration (the police, lawyers, juries, judges, probation), and Megacity One where no-one ever dares do anything wrong for fear of either immediate repercussions through direct fines (or the loss of discounts), or more serious extra-judicial punishment at the end of the Lawgiver.


“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?