Month: March 2014

Landscape and Value

Landscape is a longterm interest of mine, and when I write ‘interest’ I mean in multiple senses of interest. Landscape history is interesting, the way in which perceptions of landscape alter is interesting, and actual landscapes themselves are interesting: both aesthetically and on a functional geographical, environment, and geological level.*

Until about two hundred years ago or so there was, at least in Europe, a very close relationship between the economic value of a given landscape and the extent to which that landscape was valued in aesthetic terms, at least by the literate minority of the population.** Generally speaking a beautiful landscape was a well-settled and well-stocked agricultural district; prosperous, ordered and productive. The classic term for this is ‘pastoral’,*** an aesthetic tendency that reached perverted excesses in the contrived landscapes of the country estates of the aristocracy and landed gentry. In contrast, landscapes of less economic value (predominantly upland ones, but also unproductive lowland landscapes like those of the the Landes in southern France) were regarded in rather hostile terms: words like ‘waste’, ‘desolate’, ‘barren’ and ‘desert’ have a tendency to reoccur with tedious predictability in contemporary accounts.

And then everything changes: a slow revolution in aesthetic perspective spreads – admittedly at different speeds – across Europe (and to its now burgeoning and exploited colonial possessions), as fundamentals of the world seem to shift in the face of the weird Triple Alliance of Modernity formed loosely by the Romantic Movement, the Industrial Revolution and the latest and largest wave of mass urbanisation. One of the many by-products of this was tourism.

It would be wrong to suggest that the resulting change in the ‘valuing’ of landscapes was an inversion, however tempting that might be. The dramatic landscape might now be automatically read as a beautiful one – while the idea that there might be any connection between agricultural productivity and beauty seems frankly laughable – but the pastoral idyll, for instance, is very much not dead. It has changed, of course, from obnoxiously ‘Classical’ to brazenly twee, but I’d argue that that is a very minor shift indeed. Economic – if not agricultural – value has also sort-of accrued to many beautiful landscapes thanks to the money brought by tourism, which adds a mildly ironic twist to matters.

It should also be noted (and deplored) that there is also life in the noxious flipside of the pastoral idyll. Certain seriously bleak landscapes came under pressure from idiotic government policies and the hare brained schemes of even more idiotic private landlords (often working in tandem) across Europe in the twentieth century; always on the grounds that these places were/are ‘wastelands’, ‘desolate’ or (in the case of the great moorlands of the British Isles) ‘wet deserts’, and always with catastrophic environmental consequences for (almost always) negligible economic returns. What happened largely did so because these landscapes were held to lack value. Depressingly enough, and despite their near uniform failure, these deranged policies retain their advocates (but then crass stupidity often does). Lamentably, pathetically and predictably, many of these foolish people like to describe themselves as ‘environmentalists’.

I could write some sort of conclusion, but on balance I would rather just add a photo of a lost landscape:

*Urban landscapes are a source of fascination as well, so it’s possible to add a lot of other words here: architectural, say.

**But what did the illiterate majority think? It would certainly be a mistake – and an extraordinarily obnoxious one at that – to assume that the concept of beauty never crossed their minds.

***Which is a little bit ironic given the sort of landscapes where actual pastoralism tends to predominate.

Panzergirl launches new offensive

Was I the only one to notice that one of the BBC News Channel’s newsreaders seemed slightly too pleased when reading out news of Great Electoral Triumph for the forces of French Fascism yesterday? Let us hope it was for entirely unrelated reasons.


I thought it might be an idea to compare results in towns where the FN won with how they polled in the last legislatives. List of towns taken from Le Monde. First figure is yesterday, second is the legislatives.

Hénin-Beaumont – 50.2%, 48.2%
Béziers – 44.9%, 21.2%
Saint-Gilles – 42.6%, 48.4%
Fréjus – 40.3%, 28.0%
Tarascon – 39.2%, 39.8%
Forbach – 35.7%, 25.3%
Perpignan – 34.2%, 24.4%
Beaucaire – 32.8%, 33.0%
Avignon – 29.6%, 22.1%
Digne-les-Bains – 27.7%, 13.4%

And another branch of the same ghastly tree:

Orange – 59.8%, 44.0%
Bollène – 49.3%, 23.8%

Feel free to root around for silver linings.

The electoral record of Tony Benn

On the first of November 1950 Tony Benn – then known as Anthony Wedgwood Benn – was selected as the Labour candidate for the Bristol South East by-election, a by-election triggered by the resignation (due to ill health) of former Chancellor Sir Stafford Cripps.*  Bristol South East was a working class suburban constituency based around the districts of St Georges and Brislington. It also extended out beyond the boundaries of the city to include the Kingswood area.  The by-election was held on the 30th of November, and Benn polled 19,367 votes (56.7%) and was elected with a majority of 7,349 (21.5%).

At the 1951 General Election, Benn polled 30,811 votes (65%) and was elected with a majority  of 14,256 (30.1%).

At the 1955 General Election, Benn polled 25,257 votes (59.5%) and was elected with a majority of 8,047 (18.9%).

At the 1959 General Election, Benn polled 26,273 votes (56.2%) and was elected with a majority of 5,827 (12.5%)

Following the death of his father on the 17th of November 1960, Benn succeeded to the Peerage as the second Viscount Stansgate. This meant that he was no longer eligible to sit in the Commons and so his seat became vacant. Benn was not particularly happy with this state of affairs and made the frankly badass decision to stand in the ensuing by-election, which was held on the 4th of May 1961. Technically Benn won – polling 23,275 votes (69.5%) and leading by 13,044 (38.9%) – but as he was not eligible to sit in the Commons his Conservative opponent, Malcolm St Clair, was declared the victor. St Clair held the seat until the Conservative government gave in to Benn’s characteristically noisy campaigning and passed the Peerage Act of 1963 which allowed Hereditary Peers to disclaim their Peerages. Which Benn promptly did. Sinclair then did the decent thing and resigned his seat. This led to another by-election, in which Benn (against an assorted range on independents** and no Conservative opposition) polled 20,313 votes (79.7%) and was elected with a majority of 15,479 (60.7%). And with ruritanian absurdities dispensed with…

At the 1964 General Election, Benn polled 29,117 votes (60.2%) and was elected with a majority of 9,835 (20.3%)

At the 1966 General Election, Benn polled 30,851 votes (61.3%) and was elected with a majority of 11,416 (22.7%)

At the 1970 General Election, Benn polled 29,176 votes (55.4%) and was elected with a majority of 5,688 (10.8%)

Over the next few years several important things changed. Benn’s leftwards political journey led to him announcing in October 1973 than instead of Anthony Wedgwood Benn, he would rather be known as plain Tony Benn. The Liberal Party got its act together (to the limited extent that it was capable of doing such a thing, anyway) and basically swore to never again leave most constituencies uncontested: this ended the era of two-candidate elections in Britain for ever.*** And there were boundary changes in Bristol. The constituency of Bristol Central was abolished and the new suburban (outside the city boundaries, but most definitely part of the wider urban area) constituency of Kingswood was created. Benn’s Bristol South East was greatly altered in the process: it lost Kingswood to Kingswood (duh) and was compensated with parts of abolished Bristol Central.

At the February 1974 General Election, Benn polled 26,540 votes (47.0%) and was elected with a majority of 7,912 (14.0%)

At the October 1974 General Election, Benn polled 25,978 votes (49.1%) and was elected with a majority of 9,373 (17.7%)

At the 1979 General Election, Benn polled 24,878 votes (45.4%) and was elected with a majority of 1,890 (3.4%). For the first time in his career, Benn no longer represented a safe seat.

A further set of boundary changes before the 1983 election saw Bristol South East transformed into Bristol East. The notional Labour majority in Bristol East was  larger than the actual majority in Bristol South East had been, but given Benn’s highly controversial public profile at the time it was likely that this would not be so in practice. As part of Bristol South East had been added to the safe seat of Bristol South, Benn initially sought selection there instead, hoping that his popularity with Labour activists would see him through against Michael Cocks, who had held Bristol South since 1970 and who was the Party’s Chief Whip. Unfortunately for Benn, Cocks knew every trick in the book and edged him out.**** Benn refused subsequent offers from left-wing CLPs in safe seats, and stood in Bristol East.

In the 1983 General Election, Benn polled 18,055 votes (36.9%) and was defeated by the Conservative candidate, Jonathan Sayeed, who was elected with a majority of 1,789 (3.6%).***** Apparently, the swing was highest in the parts of the constituency not previously represented by Benn.

The first seat to fall vacant in the 1983-87 parliament was Chesterfield, an industrial constituency in North Derbyshire held since 1964 by Labour right-winger Eric Varley, who had resigned to become chairman of Coalite (a manufacturer of smokeless fuel). Varley had been a cabinet minister in the 1970s and he and Benn had swapped jobs in 1975 (Benn went from Industry to Energy, Varley from Energy to Industry). His majority in 1983 was 7,763 (15.6%). Benn was selected as the Labour candidate.

The by-election was held on the 1st of March 1984 and was something of a circus. Given Benn’s high profile this was basically inevitable. Sixteen candidates stood, only three of which kept their deposits. Benn polled 24,633 votes (46.5%) and was elected with a majority of 6,264 (11.8%). Incredibly for a by-election, turnout was actually higher than at the previous General Election.

At the 1987 General Election, Benn polled 24,532 votes (45.5%) and was elected with a majority of 8,577 (15.9%)

At the 1992 General Election, Benn polled 26,451 votes (47.3%) and was elected with a majority of 6,414 (11.5%)

At the 1997 General Election, Benn polled 26,105 votes (50.8%) and was elected with a majority of 5,775 (11.2%)

Tony Benn retired at the 2001 General Election.

*Who, interestingly enough, had rather similar politics and concerns to Benn.

**One of which was the tiresome ex-Liberal crank Edward Martell.

***And causes irritating problems for those into electoral geekery, because it makes it difficult to properly compare elections before and after 1974. Is a candidate who polled 50.4% in a two-way race (say) actually more popular than someone who polled 48% in a three way race in which the third party polled 15%? And so on.

****He was less successful in 1987 and was deselected in favour of Dawn Primarolo.

*****Member of Parliament for Bristol East 1983-92 (defeated),  for Mid Bedfordshire 1997-2005. Resigned under an ethical cloud at the 2005 General Election.

As it happens I never actually watched the channel, but…

“A programme costs to make what a programme costs to make.”

Dennis Potter

I don’t think I’ve ever watched BBC3 and when – as now seems pretty inevitable – it ceases to be I will certainly not miss it. But the BBC’s decision to two-thirds kill it off (you can read about the details elsewhere and most likely have already done so: this is hardly news by now) speaks volumes about the BBC’s current ‘difficulties’. The principle of thing is important, if nothing else.

One of the most important of which is that the people running the BBC appear to live in a strange world of their own in which the normal rules of logic do not apply. This is obviously a tiny bit of a problem.

If the point of mostly-scrapping BBC3 is to save money, then it makes no sense (no sense whatsoever) to continue to commission programmes for the channel. It also makes no sense to also declare that the money (thirty million quid, no less) ‘saved’ from mostly-scrapping BBC3 can be given to BBC1*. But doesn’t the BBC have to make large cuts, apparently? And isn’t that why BBC3 being sent to the televisual glue factory? How can this be so when it will continue to make programmes (to be shown online)** and when money (thirty million quid, no less) will be given to BBC1? We are back, it appears, to the sort of magical thinking that, in a different context of course, Dennis Potter deplored. This is not encouraging.

Ubiquitous (but often not wrong) media pundit Steve Hewlett has suggested) that the whole thing may well be a ploy by BBC management to convince a not unhostile government to understand that cuts will mean a loss of services. But, as he points out, considering the sheer amount of money wasted in other parts of the BBC (including management!), this ploy (if a ploy it is) could easily backfire hideously. This is not terribly encouraging either.

It is also presumably possible that BBC brass had been looking for an excuse to get rid of a channel that many obviously regarded as an embarrassment, and decided to use the great financial pressure that the BBC is under*** to kill it and kill it dead. Though, again, this would be a pretty stupid way of going about that for obvious reasons.

Anyway, it is clear to anyone with eyes to see that if the BBC must make cuts then small-and-cheap channels are not the right places to hit. In the grand scheme of things, they barely cost the corporation anything. If there must be cuts, then it is pretty obvious where they ought to be made (so obvious that I’m not going to bother typing it out), yet this is not happening.

There is, I think, a very simple reasons for this. Other than the self-interest of self-interested members of the managerial class (but that goes without saying). Because lying behind it (probably, anyway) and many other questionable decisions made by BBC management in recent years (certainly) are two assumptions that are dear to the hearts of those that run the BBC:

1. The idea that cultural output can be neatly divided into ‘mainstream’ and ‘minority interest’.

2. The idea that people watch television channels, and not individual television programmes.

In the digital age, both of these assumptions reflect cultural reality about as well as military theory c.1914 did the reality of war in the machine age.

*Which, as it happens, takes the lions share of the BBC television budget:

BBC1 – £1,051 million, BBC2 – £415 million, BBC3 – £85 million, CBBC – £79 million, BBC News Channel – £53 million, BBC4 – £49 million, CBeebies – £29 million, BBC Parliament – £2 million.

**Worth noting that BBC management is completely clueless as to how people under thirty actually watch television, but in the unlikely event that someone from said bad-suited mass is reading this, here’s a helpful clue: ‘traditional’ and online content are not necessarily ‘rivals’, as such. Different forms of television may even be said to be used by many people in a broadly complementary manner. I understand.

***And yet the corporation can still – it would appear – afford to blow millions on the Doctor Who Anniversary Spectacular,*** on expensive press junkets, on expensive foreign specials for certain progammes on BBC1, on the employment of approximately thirty thousand identikit ‘political correspondents’, and on massive payouts for sacked senior managers.

****I have nothing against Doctor Who, but an egregious waste of money  is an egregious waste of money.

The Adelphi, Oct-Dec. ’45 – part one

My Grandad used to read The Adelphi and seems to have collected back issues as well. He kept them his whole life (the magazine ceased to be in the mid 50s: he died in 1993) and my Mum has kept them since. The Adelphi was a modernist literary magazine with overtly socialist – and frequently pacifist as well – politics, and was the creation of John Middleton Murry, the widower of Katherine Mansfield and a notable figure in his own right. Notable contributors included George Orwell,* D.H. Lawrence, and Dylan Thomas. Its editors included Sir Richard Rees and Max Plowman. It had a mysteriously large readership, apparently.

I mention all of this just to give some kind of vague context.

The October-December edition of 1945 – which I have right in front of me as I type – has piece by Middleton Murry on the front page entitled ‘The Significance of Shylock’. Note that this is 1945: obviously there’s more than literary criticism going on here. The piece ends with a direct reference to the Holocaust (“Now when the Jewish race has just emerged from the most terrible of all the terrible persecutions it has endured…”) and a call for the government to relax the restrictions on Jewish emigration to Mandate Palestine.

There is then an article by the Anglo-Irish academic Arland Ussher about various things (the article is called ‘Four Speculations’), and then a long piece by Herbert Read with the following glorious title:

There Is Now No Other Way: An Appeal To Youth

Which feels to me to be delightfully period.

Anyway, it’s an article about the emerging Cold War (as it was not quite yet then known) and reflects the fears of the then very, very, very new nuclear age, a particularly good example of which is the following well-crafted sentence:

“Someone has said that Great Britain is destined to be the Malta of the next war, but Malta, under a rain of atomic bombs, would have been dispersed as volcanic dust into the waters of the Mediterranean.”

…and also this, near the end:

“…we who have brought the world literally to the dark age of nothingness, can but entrust the future to those whose living concern in might be, realizing that while we tremble and would inevitably fall, their fresh nerves may yet be capable of instinctive balance.”

Broadly speaking Read uses the article to argue in favour of a form of pacifist politics that he described as ‘passive resistance’. That the young – across the world it seems – should refuse to be conscripted, and that they should do so on the basis that modern war endangers the very existence of civilisation. Millions, notes Read, must be moved, not thousands.  You think you see echoes of Gandhi here? Well observed, oh reader: he even acknowledges the point, but stresses that the point shouldn’t be “pressed too far”. As an illustration of the fears of the time, it’s pretty fascinating.

That’s all for now, but there will be more later.

*If it is remembered at all today (and it isn’t really), then it’s mostly for the Orwell association, I guess. In particular, The Adelphi published the first fruits of Orwell’s time as a tramp (an essay called ‘The Spike’), which, as you know I guess, led to Down and Out in Paris and London.