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.

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Modern pilgrims

I studied medieval history at sixth form college.  After starting the course, a book called The Medieval World appeared on my father’s bookshelf.  This was odd, I remember thinking at the time, because my father preferred more recent history.  It stayed there on the bookshelf, unread.

Only now, 24 years later, I realise that my father bought it for me – but never told me.  So now I’m reading it.

It features chapters about different sections of medieval society – monks, merchants, mothers, soliders.  I imagine there’ll be a chapter about pilgrims.

Pilgrims went on journeys to see relics, on the offchance that they’ll be on the receiving end of a miracle.  Despite arduous journeys full of lice, dyssentry, banditry and interrupted sleep on meagre rations with no employment, pilgrimages were a triumph of irrationality: none of that mattered.  What matters was that they had a shot, because there were no other chances.

Think about that: what matters was that they had a shot, because there were no other chances.

Apply the same logic to people who buy lottery tickets, or gamble, or pile up enormous debts on credit cards and consolidated loans.   In post-crisis UK, what matters is that we have a shot because there are no other chances.

The inauthenticity of authenticity.

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The authenticity of failure; or, the inauthenticity of delicatessens in Birmingham.

Is it surprising that what magazine editors and PR people like to call authenticity looks similar across the globe? From Williamsburg in New York to Fitzroy in Melbourne to Peckham in London there are an awful lot of people being authentically artisanal, local, independent and counter-cultural.  There are even more people who can no longer afford to live in those places.  So how can it be? Maybe authenticity is merely a set of tropes to increase prices and exclude the urban poor, hiding behind masks stolen from the urban working class.  Maybe, just maybe, “authentic” doesn’t mean what people use it to mean.

These days we insist on authenticity.  Politicians are told to be more like ordinary people: Donald Trump made his apparent outsider status a key part of his election campaign.  We want to keep it real.  Locally-sourced, “natural”, “traditional” food, drink, clothes and even cosmetics (because 18th century peasants genuinely cared about what they stank of); musicians, event organisers, hoteliers and bookshops all try hard to market themselves as the real deal: “independent” has become a magnet of discerning cash.  The anachrony of all of this authenticity stares awkwardly beneath every advert, flyer and website.

Meanwhile, society simultaneously seeks out ever-diminishing returns on the cheapest rates for housing, transport, fuel bills, insurance, banking – all those invisible purchasing decisions we can keep hidden from view.  These savings free up the cash to buy more authenticity, those purchases that display something of who we are: so we can pay £32 for a 750ml glass of imported beer (At the Draft House in W1, in case you don’t believe me) from a menu written in authentic calligraphy.

Authenticity costs because authenticity is a perverse form of capitalism.  It’s the cost of inefficiency.  Whilst hand-reared cows may be far more sensitive on the environment, may be far more humane, create more pleasant work environments and whatever other myriad benefits it may bring, if we care that much about those things to pay three, four or five times as much as an “inauthentic” equivalent, then why on earth do we carry on in the other 99% of our lives to destroy the environment through our homes and cars, support inhumane practices with the rest of our purchasing, fail to join trade unions and vote for governments that would try far more systematically to regulate for pleasant work environments etc?

The answer is in the same way that no-one actually reads poetry or blogs, no-one actually cares about what authenticity is meant to be authentic to.  “Authentic” is simply a badge that whacks up prices for us to wear on our sleeves in order to display our assumed identities: or more specifically, our purchasing power, and therefore our wealth and status. It has nothing to do with being true to our sense of belonging, identity, personal history or roots. Our real selves are shit-scared, traumatised, insecure and miserable: but to admit that is to be weak, and to be weak makes us prey.  So we create alternative assertive, positive selves through our social media profiles, with our tattoos, with our slogans on T-Shirts, with brands, with our commodities, commodities, commodities, to mask the stench of our real selves.  £32 craft beer is the equivalent of powdered wigs from the 18th century.

To me, authentic should mean indigenous culture.  Working class culture.  Proletarian culture.  As in the contemporary cultural expression of the majority, of the average – not as in authentic jellied eels or authentic folk music from the fields in the 1920s or bread baked in authentic ovens from the 1800s.  Authenticity is not nostalgia, it’s what the kids are up to now.

Authenticity is honesty.   We now – at least in this endless hangover from the 2008 financial crisis – still have access to unsustainable personal debt to mask poverty, decay and catastrophic insecurity.  Car loans, mortgages, credit cards, store cards, student loans, personal loans, inter-generational loans (“the bank of mum & dad”) are all sky high because we can no longer afford the lifestyle we want and the world would experience catastrophic recession if we stopped buying stuff we don’t need.  Debt is dishonesty.  It masks capitalism’s increasing failure to provide education, healthcare, peace, security and clean air and water.

 

Nostalgia is cultural colonialism

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Piccadilly Arcade, New St, Birmingham.  Just a facade.

I lazily assumed nostalgia was a yearning for the past, evoked during commemorations, re-enactments, restorations, conservation or just remembering.  But it’s more sinister than that.  In its worst form, it’s cultural colonialism – the privileging of a cultural moment that was racist, sexist or just different to now.  It says “modern life is rubbish”.  Whilst modern life may well be rubbish, it’s rubbish not because it’s modern.  It’s the only life we have.  This is important – the vote to leave the EU, the election of Donald Trump, the potential election of Marine Le Pen seem to me to be expressions of the zeitgeist: modern life is rubbish, and what we need is to do things like we did in the 1950s when women were women, men were men, there was no homosexuality or immigration.  Crucially it was also a time when jobs were jobs, and technology was driving economic growth and incomes.

 

Space has an opportunity cost.  A building in one spot means something else can’t go in the same spot.  Attention works the same way: despite our pretence that multi-tasking is efficient, our attention given to Downton Abbey can’t be given to something or someone else at the same time.  This is what I mean by the privileging of a cultural moment.

Let’s take Listed Buildings.  A building (or more often, actually just a facade) is listed.  This prevents the redevelopment of the Listed aspects without the consent of the local planning authority.  It attempts to fix a point in time in perpetuity.  But what about what existed before the building?  What about the possibility to build something even better in the future?

Landowners know too well the economic impossibility this puts them in.  The world, meanwhile, has moved on.  There are now regulations for any redevelopment to comply with.  Thankfully, buildings are safer, more accessible, more energy-efficient.  But often those are entirely incompatible with the listed building.  So they pay someone to torch the building in the night.

The local community is outraged and demands justice.  And yet it was the same community that demanded and benefitted from the same regulations that drove the owner to their desperate act in the first place.  Which is more important to them?  Money talks – we are all complicit.

Today I saw a performance of a piece of music called The Way of a Monarch by Ivor McGregor.  The concert notes by the composer that describe the piece is inspired by “the extraordinary story of this unusual monarch” (Charles II).  It then mentions “Cromwell’s puritan interregnum” that had shut down many of the performing arts.  Another privileging of a moment: what had driven thousands of men to revolt against Charles’s father in the first place?  Setting aside the ambivalence the British have to their revolution, this seemingly neutral position is deeply reactionary.  Cromwell may well have been a despot, but so was Charles I, James I, James II and the whole lot of them.  In an exercise in change management, Cromwell had it pretty tough and failed – that doesn’t mean that the solution is to simply celebrate the status quo and all of its own injustices.

Humans crave narrative, plot and characters.  The heritage industry has a raw deal trying to interpret social history in stately homes that were built by particular families in particular circumstances and the wealth of extant unique artefacts connected to them.  In contrast the lives of the servants were mundane, everday and typical.  I hear very few people who proudly boast of descendants who were domestic servants or labourers.  There are many reasons why this is (most probably because our descendants weren’t defined by a single “career” – which is a more modern and bourgeois invention.  Pre-industrial work was piecemeal, itinerant and casual), but it demonstrates our inability to accept plurality and complexity.

Let’s try and overcome this inability by recognising that Downton Abbey, Meet the Midwife, any other costume drama, every conserved or restored facade, every blue plaque and every fashion revival displaces something else – and that this displacement is a political one.  It says that one is more important that all the others that could exist in its place either in the past, present or future.

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Something happened here, once.