Month: February 2014

Hold onto your (hard) hats

The sight of Grant Shapps (or is it Michael Green?) announcing as part of yet another rebranding exercise the other day that the Tories are now ‘The Workers Party’ led to gales of derisive laughter up and down the land.* For this he should be thanked: these are not good times, and humour makes things easier, doesn’t it?

Obviously the announcement was not supposed to be a joke, so let us consider it seriously (or as seriously as it can be considered) for a moment.

The Conservative Party has had, for a number of years now, the curious idea that it makes electoral sense to attempt to appeal to the sort of voters who make up the base vote of the Labour Party in most of the country.** This has always struck me as an utterly bizarre thing to do: a political party’s base vote is generally loyal for a reason (generally several reasons: Christ, a whole set of them as a rule), and in this case most dislike the Tories because, not being fools, they understand perfectly well who and what the Conservative Party stands for (i.e. not them) and therefore even when voting against type for whatever reason, few plump for the Tories. County Durham, Merseyside and South Yorkshire are not going to turn Tory under any circumstances, no matter the rebranding.***

Do I have a theory or an explanation for this? You will doubtless be pleased to learn that I do.

Have you ever noticed how nervous many (most?) middle class people are around groups of manual workers? I used to be very confused by this (honestly, my Dad isn’t about to attack you: he’s lovely. What’s to be afraid of?) but think I get the issue now, probably. And it links into this.

A lot of upper middle class people, it is my observation, seem to to associate ‘worker’ and ‘working class’ with masculinity. Hyper-masculinity, at that. I’m not really sure why this might be (there are working class women as well, you know), but it does seem to be the case. And, anyway, feel pretty insecure in comparison. Weak. Unmanly. Pathetic. Etc. And that therefore doomed Conservative rebranding ventures aimed at appealing to ‘workers’ are an attempt to assert their masculinity, by seeking approval from the (presumed-to-be) hyper-masculine.**** If this seems a little far fetched, you should note that the Conservative Party is led by a man who uses the word ‘butch’ unironically.

Moreover, the above explains the absurd sight of David Cameron and George Osborne in hard hats and boiler suits whenever the opportunity arises: a sight rendered significantly more absurd by their obvious lack of self-awareness regarding its absurdity…

*Mr Green-Shapps has form on this, of course. During the horsemeat scandal last year he remarked to the audience of the popular BBC political panel/bearpit show Question Time that the reason why people feel queasy about eating horsemeat can be explained by the apparent ‘fact’ that horses are carnivores. This man holds public office.

**Rank idiocy of this sort is, in fairness, not exclusive to the Conservative Party as anyone familiar with the dismally stupid end of the Progress faction in the Labour Party will confirm. No, Labour does not need to win Surrey (or wherever) in order to take power.

***Middle class liberals who hand-ring about how the Tories (or UKIP or the BNP or whatever) are ‘culturally’ ‘in touch’ with all working class people everywhere can go fuck themselves as well.

****While also implementing policies that fuck over working class people completely. Verily, it is true that many politicians do assume that the electorate is as brainless as Mr Green-Shapps. Happily this is not so. Thus the derisive laughter mentioned earlier.

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NOTRE RAI PAYS

The beautiful Canadian province of Quebec is likely to hold elections in the very near future. With this in mind, I present unto the universe a brief, entirely accurate and in all respects absolutely fair, reasonable and unbiased guide to Quebec’s absolutely charming political parties.

Parti Québécois (PQ) – currently led by Pauline Marois, the PQ is a Québécois Nationalist party and also the province’s social democratic party of record. It has never been terribly good at reconciling these things and since the resignation of the party’s founder René Lévesque in 1985, has tended to heavily emphasise the former. It has an overwhelmingly Francophone and largely working class electorate. Péquiste governments have twice launched independence referendums: one that was heavily defeated in 1980, and one that they tried to rig their way to a narrow victory (but failed) in 1995. A perception exists that it is perhaps a bit of a party of pure laine* Québécois for pure laine Québécois, and that it may be perhaps a tiny bit racist. This may be due to the PQ’s penchant for culture war politics (c.f. Bill 101,** though note that language is also traditional a class issue in Quebec: which is one reason why it’s so poisonous a subject), or perhaps outbursts such as those of then Premier Jacques Parizeau who blamed the defeat of the 1995 referendum on “l’argent puis des votes ethniques” (‘money and the ethnic vote’), by which he pretty obviously meant ‘Jews and Darkies’. It might be worth noting that the signature policy of the Marois government is this. Le sigh.

Parti libéral du Québec (PLQ) – currently led by Phillipe Couillard and also known as the Quebec Liberal Party, the PLQ is a Canadian Nationalist (‘Federalist’) party and Quebec’s natural party of government. It doesn’t really stand for a lot else, which is probably why it is fantastically corrupt.*** It has members and voters all over the political map united largely by their dislike for the PQ. The party’s base vote comes from minorities (most of which – wealthy Anglo’s and working class Allo’s both – trust Quebec’s other parties precisely half the distance they can throw them. About the only exception to this are some immigrants from French speaking countries) and its great stronghold is the city of Montreal. The latter fact may also explain why the PLQ is fantastically corrupt. The PLQ has a very high electoral floor (see above) and also a very high electoral ceiling: under the right circumstances, a PLQ candidate can get elected just about everywhere in the province. The PLQ is also prone to leadership cultism, and PLQ electoral platforms and policies when in government mostly tend to reflect the personal views and priorities of whoever happens to be leading it (e.g. the Charest government was basically a Conservative one, because Charest is a Conservative). It must also be pointed out that the PLQ is fantastically corrupt.

Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) – the pointless personalist vehicle of former PQ minister François Legault. The party mostly stands for vacuous platitudes, though the sum total of such platitudes tend to level out as vaguely centre-right. As is usually the case, come to think of it. The CAQ incorporates the remains of the ADQ (a queasy sub-Poujadist outfit headed by noxious motormouth Mario Dumont that became the official opposition before it was ready for prime time and which then proceeded to collapse hilariously) and its voter profile has some similarities: overwhelmingly Francophone, more affluent than average, and mostly suburban. But most of its support is pretty blatantly NOTA.

Québec solidaire – a ridiculous rabble of hard-left jokers (on the whole messy issue of sovereignty they state that they favour ‘Internationalist Independence’, which I think says everything)  who have achieved an unexpected degree of electoral credibility due to the comically dysfunctional nature of politics in Quebec (see above). They are, of course, very much centered on Montreal. In Montreal they are, of course, very much centred on trendy areas north (but in Montreal terms east) of the city centre.

And yet why do I suspect that Irish voters would be envious of these choices?

*Literally meaning ‘pure wool’ and actually meaning ‘of basically 100% French Canadian ancestry’. In a piece of glorious trolling, Mordecai Richler founded an ‘Impure Wool Society’ in the mid 90s which awarded the Prix Parizeau to ‘ethnic’ writers from Quebec.

**Which  is probably the room that it belongs in.

***As in very-very-probable-indeed-links-with-organised-crime corrupt.

The New Birmingham

Birmingham’s official motto is ‘Forward’. It is basically impossible to understand the city without grasping the implications of that.

Anyway, the following picture is a page* from a piece of council propaganda (public relations… whatever) from the late 1950s (or was it early 1960s? Can’t remember, but do have it written down somewhere) called ‘The New Birmingham’…

brum

As you can see, it’s a plan of post-war redevelopment. The five highlighted districts were the locations of the city’s most notorious 19th century slums. The idea was to transform these hellholes into pleasant and self-contained districts (note the use of the word ‘town’) that would be integrated into the wider city without being overwhelmed by it (and, in so doing, return to their original status as low-status housing districts). It was quite overtly Utopian. The planning jargon for all of this was ‘comprehensive redevelopment’.**

Things did not exactly work out as intended (certainly the Utopian dream was never realised), but it is probably important to point out that the really serious damage to the area happened when the economy of Birmingham basically collapsed in the early 1980s. Though there were certainly mistakes made in the planning of the so-called ‘New Towns’ – for instance the Inner Ring Road was supposed to connect them to the rest of the city, but actually did the opposite for reasons that probably count as slightly to obvious to bother with explaining in any detail.

An interesting post-script of sorts concerns the area marked on the map as Lee Bank (née Bath Row). Now there’s a notorious name, at least to people from the Midlands. The area is currently the site of a massive redevelopment project. The jargon being used to describe the approach is… er… comprehensive redevelopment.

*Well most of a page. Apparently it was tricky to get it to line up properly to photocopy or something. It was a while ago now and I don’t remember exactly, so this is just a presumption.

**An interesting detail: Frank Price, the Chairman of the Public Work Committee at the time (and author of ‘The New Birmingham’), grew up in one of these districts (Summer Lane, now Newtown). He’s still alive and lives in Spain.

Selected Clun dialect words

Clun is an isolated (and really very pretty) part of Shropshire just south west of Bishop’s Castle and just east of Wales. It’s the sort of place where you never have to pass through unless you want to. It’s basically the area highlighted in the map below, though as I’m not a local I can’t guarantee exact accuracy:

clunmap

It is seriously rural: like, 17% of adults employed in agriculture at the last census rural. And much higher in the seriously remote bits. ‘Clun’ refers to both the wider area, to the historic Hundred that covered most of it, to its largest town, and to the Clun Forest; its western – and particularly remote – half. Like many places in Britain called ‘X… Forest’ it doesn’t have that many trees.* The Clun Forest is (don’t sneer) best known as the home of a breed of sheep, pictured here in their native land:

clun

I could also throw in a fairly predictable Housman reference here, but I will resit the urge, whether a quieter place can be found or not. Basically it’s a fascinating area. And has a fascinating dialect. So, introductions over, here we go with a few words:

Bait – a meal between breakfast and lunch. The source notes a specific use for a ‘mid-morning break from farm work’.

Butty – a fellow worker, friend, or one of a pair of two things. This word – and subtle variants of it – is common to basically everywhere in the Marches and is particularly associated with the Forest of Dean.

Cakey – simple minded, apparently.

Coutch – a word with many meanings: it can mean to cuddle, to crouch close to the ground, an animals place of sleep and so on. Basically the same as the Welsh word cwtch.

Figairiment – embroidery or all kinds of decorative nonsense, etc. The source notes an alternative: Figairying.

Hisht! – shut up. Again, a very common word in other very rural parts of Western England. And a great one.

Kimet – daft or in some other respect strange and/or possibly mentally defective.

The Long Company – two definitions, the combination of which is… er…  telling: a) Gypsies and b) ‘Shady characters’.

Mawkin – refers to either a scarecrow or someone dressed stupidly.

Oont – Mole. And ‘Oonty Tumps’ means molehill. Elsewhere in Shropshire I’ve heard ‘ootty’ for the same, which sounds quite a bit like ‘sooty’, so…

Starve – to be seriously, seriously, seriously cold.

That’s enough for now… except why not add a phrase as well:

‘They’re not cousins’ – source states: ‘They are not on good terms’. I won’t comment on the implications of this.

‘A man from off’ – this means ‘a stranger’. In the part of Shropshire I grew up in, this was/is ‘a man from away’.

And the source, by the way, is the following: ‘Clun Dialect Words’, an excellent local publication from 1991.

*’Forest’ historically denoting a hunting reserve, rather than woodland.

Luxury waterfront nightmares?

During the past three decades in which finance capital has ruled triumphant above all other things, many dreams have been sold of lifestyles and products that are utterly unaffordable even to most in the affluent ‘West’. Hell, unaffordable even to many comparatively affluent people in the affluent ‘West’. I’ve no interest in pretending that this has been a particularly new phenomenon, as luxury goods have existed since time immemorial and have often played an important role in consumer booms. Probably the only unique thing these luxury dreams is their reach and ubiquity. And, right now at least, I’m really only interested in one specific dream, rather than the whole edifice.

A particularly powerful dream, because it involves property.

I am thinking of one of the defining physical features of our age: the luxury waterfront development. The exclusive riverside flat. The apartment on the (often socially cleansed, and certainly thoroughly re-branded) old dock. The mansion by the river. Etc.

Gross oversimplification follows.

Rich people these days seem to like to live in close proximity to water. Those who are not particularly rich but would like to be dream of being able to do so. In pursuit of this dream, they have been amply aided by the usual suspects in the private sector and by the power of the state. The London Docklands – officially an attempt to ‘regenerate’ a depressed postindustrial district, a fact that tends to be only half remembered now – are emblematic, but other examples abound. And not just in other large cities: many smaller settlements have also seen a great surge in luxury waterfront development.

Now, historically, rich people have tended not to live particularly close to water. In urban areas at least, rivers were literally full of shit until fears of waterborne diseases and the sheer ghastly smell became too much for the new middle classes of the nineteenth century to bear. And even after that they were filthy: watery spaces of industry and wholesale commerce. And then there was the damp. And the risk of flooding. And these were factors outside the city, so even in pretty little river towns, the tendency was the rich to not actually live right by the river. Or at least not on the floodplain. Similar concerns existed with regards to the sea: again pumped full of raw sewage and industrial waste, again the fear of flooding (and a surge from the sea is something like thirty billion times scarier than the average river flood). So when rich people lived by the sea, the tendency was to do so in safe places; away from industry, and in a safe place from the worst of the winter storms.

These days, with clean rivers, with working ports generally miles from the city centre, etc, things are quite different. Frankly all of the above paragraph sounds like something from a past considerably more distant than thirty years ago or so. The dream of the luxury waterfront property is an extremely powerful one, and such developments have mushroomed across the globe.

But I used the word ‘nightmare’ in the title, and not ‘dream’. And I do this for one very, very simple reason: climate change. Sea levels are rising, while extreme and freak weather events are becoming palpably more frequent. The luxury waterfront development becomes vulnerable to flooding. We have seen a bit of this recently in the Thames Valley. It will become ever more common, I suspect. Despite the efforts that rightly go on flood protection in big cities.

I’m making no predictions, but fashions change. Perhaps the luxury waterfront development will remain a compelling dream to the wealthy, but it now seems at least possible that it might be seen rather more as a curious historical mistake.

I place a great deal of emphasis on the word ‘perhaps’, there.

Geography and Freedom

“The history of Europe has everywhere been marked by the stubborn growth of private ‘liberties’, franchises or privileges limited to certain groups, big or small. Often, these liberties conflicted with each other or were mutually exclusive. Clearly, these liberties could exist only when Western Europe as such had taken shape and become relatively stable. Undefended, or strife-torn, it could afford no such luxury. Liberty and stability were inseparable.”

Fernand Braudel, in A History of Civilizations. Which he wrote for school children.

Zummerzet?

Media coverage of the floods in the Somerset Levels has been bizarre, even for media coverage of floods (which is always bizarre: ritualistic, actually). Much can be said about this. Much should be said about this. But I’m more interested in an intriguing – and potentially rather telling – detail: the almost total lack of proper Zummerzet accents from the locals interviewed by broadcast news. When these – curiously openly emotional about a weather event for supposed country people I keep thinking* – people speak, they speak without pronounced ‘R’s’, ‘S’s’ do not turn to ‘Z’s’, and the grammar and flow of their speech is distinctly non-West Country.

I draw no conclusions from this, I merely observe.

*Writing here as a confirmed country person, an absolute and undeniable hick, the sort that can’t help but be so even when living in an urban environment.

Engels on strikes

“It will be asked, ‘Why, then, do the workers strike in such cases, when the uselessness of such measures is so evident?’ Simply because they must protest against every reduction, even if dictated by necessity; because they feel bound to proclaim that they, as human beings, shall not be made to bow to social circumstances, but social conditions ought to yield to them as human beings…”

From The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Which was by Friedrich Engels, obviously.

It is actually only a small part of a much larger section on Trade Unions (very much in their infancy in 1844), but as an observation it is (aha) striking and not lacking in continued relevance. Of course some of the other things Engels wrote about strikes in that same section (i.e. that they represent in all cases a conscious attempt to eliminate competition) were perhaps less than astute, but all the same…

The Bridge as Expressionist Crime Drama – part two

I promised ‘further consideration’ and so ‘further consideration’ is about to be very much forthcoming. There will be pictures, but you’ll have to wade through a fair bit of text to get to them.

Expressionism is infamously difficult to define as an artistic or cultural movement (there were in reality several quite distinct Expressionist movements in the early Twentieth Century, all of which had relations and links with other modernist artistic movements with different priorities and ideologies) , but when it comes to using the word as a descriptive cultural term, matters are much clearer.

Expressionism, in essence, means the prioritisation of emotion, of feeling and of inner lives, inner worlds and inner turmoils, over ‘objective’ reality and of ‘objective’ realities.* It can thus be seen – and often is,  as a rejection of realism in favour of the subjective, but that’s not quite how I would tend to look at it. Rather, it represents a realisation that all art is subjective; that realism for the sake of realism** is the biggest and most self-defeating cultural lie going. Living as we do in an era in which postmodernism dominates the cultural landscape, it is also important (I suspect) to add that the emotions and feelings depicted and represented must also be sincere ones.

Is all of the above true of The Bridge? I believe so, and I believe that it is one reason*** why it is such absolutely compelling viewing. And, naturally, the really fun thing about using terms like ‘Expressionism’ in a generic and descriptive way, is that it doesn’t entirely matter if it is what those who made the programme actually intended (of this I have no idea).

Anyway, I promised pictures. The purpose of the pictures is to show why I started thinking along these lines in the first place…

br6

br7

Scenes of massive urban and industrial – actually usually firmly post-industrial – massiveness, in which said massive urban postindustrial massiveness appears to have a strange will – or at least firmly sentient character – of its own, and in which humans are very small and almost even incidental are extremely frequent in The Bridge. These are not mere location shots: they are important as scenes in their own right, and play an important role in establishing the emotional tone of the programme. And in some respects they are strikingly similar to shots of massive urban and industrial massiveness in that great Expressionist film Metropolis:

met1

met2

The influence seems clear enough, and it was this that got me thinking in more general terms about The Bridge and its relationship to Expressionism. I like to think logically and insightfully, but that may just be self-delusion. And on that note, I think I shall finish.

*’Feeling the feeling’, as Philip Marlow put it in The Singing Detective.

**There’s a reason why ‘Abstract Expressionism’ is/was a specific sub-genre of Expressionist Art: Expressionism does not necessarily denote a total abandonment of realism (even in painting), just that other considerations are placed above it.

***And there are plenty of others. Kim Bodnia and Sofia Helin are both unbelievably talented actors, for example.