Archive for January, 2011

Oh My Days

January 24, 2011

This short story has just been published by The Lampeter Review (starts on page 72).

Last of Old England

January 16, 2011

Last year James Bethell ran the Nothing British campaign against the BNP. Coming from the centre right, Nothing British challenged the fascists on their economy and defence policy where far left antifascists have traditionally been weak. I have a lot of time for Bethell, so it’s a shame he’s wasted his talents on this report. It is basically a series of focus group findings about the voters that Bethell says Westminister left behind. These are disaffected white working and middle class people that Bethell calls ‘ANTIs’ – politically angry, economically neglected, socially traditional, immigration focused.

What do the ANTIs want? Speaking to groups in Staines and Rotherham, Bethell found that his subjects were ‘uncomfortable with metropolitan cultural liberalism, proud of Britain’s heritage and concerned that our national identity has been diluted’; saw themselves as having ‘been left behind by globalisation’; worried about ‘rising crime’; thought that ‘immigration is destroying the British way of life’, and that ‘immigrants seem to get better treatment from the Government than people born in the UK’. Bethell found that 64% of BNP voters agreed with the statement that ‘I have been unfairly treated by the state because of the effects of mass immigration’ and many people he spoke to ‘claimed to know specific cases where a recent immigrant family had received preferential treatment for housing or medical care, while their family or friends had to wait’. The focus groups also felt that in general ‘the welfare state rewarded people who did not work’. Because of this, the ANTIs are ‘suspicious of the modern political culture, dismissive of current political leaders’ have ‘a sense of betrayal by the political classes’ and therefore don’t vote for mainstream parties. Bethell asks: ‘What can mainstream politicians do to bring these voters back?’ The question should be: do we want to?

Let’s take a step back. The British working class lost all its arguments and struggles in the 1980s. Having seen its unions dismantled, its pay and conditions compromised, its economic base withered and outsourced, the dignity of its labour destroyed, its men of craft and industry ending their careers in call centres, the working class retreated into self-pity and conspiracy. The National Government can drive through its radical monetarist programme with confidence. European governments with similar policies have faced strikes and riots, but in Britain the resistance has been led by middle and upper class students and liberal-creatives, rather than the working class which arguably has a lot more to lose. Yet the working class is unlikely to hold a demo or a riot on the scale we saw in the 1980s, and if they did it would be about Winterval.

And yet politicians still wanted working class votes. Tory candidates have long been associated with nasty political manipulation in the ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour’ line, but there are canny opportunists in the Labour Party – Liam Byrne, Phil Woolas – who have built successful careers by campaigning on working class G-spot issues like immigration. From the ruins of the British working class emerged a disaffected hardcore obsessed with a few key policy issues – migration, crime, welfare – and guided by a narrative of Great Decline that says that Britain is run by a politically correct elite determined to reward the lazy and destroy everything that made our country great. These are the ANTIs Bethell supports.

If the ANTIs were content to preserve their nationalism and social traditionalism in the quiet dignified way that is the mark of British patriotism we wouldn’t have a problem. But they won’t leave you alone. They campaign, they protest, they bombard public sector offices and newspaper comment boards. They claim to be patriots but display no sign of the traditional virtues – making the best of what you have, not complaining about one’s lot, bearing problems with a stiff upper lip – that are supposed to be integral to the British character. Read a thread on any national or regional paper and you will find that the discussion degenerates into the politically correct conspiracy narrative almost regardless of the subject. The papers, knowing their audience, defer to its prejudices and deliver a neverending conga line of mad stories along the lines of ‘Latvian squats in Kensington mansion’ that are seemingly written and printed with the specific aim of making its readers angrier and angrier. As Nick Cohen said: in Britain hate sells better than sex.

Bethell is right to say that the 1990s and 2000s saw ‘unprecedented levels of internal and external immigration’. What he doesn’t say is that the mass social unrest this was supposed to cause has not happened. There have been flare ups in Greater Manchester and Yorkshire but, on the whole, the river has not foamed with blood and people get along better than conservatives think. I’ve lived my adult life mainly in cities that have seen high levels of immigration. In my experience, people may hate immigration in general – but if they know a migrant he’s okay. I’ll always remember the night in a Salford pub when a bunch of us regulars, working class and bourgeoisie, defended a couple of Muslim immigrants who were being racially abused by a solitary drinker in an England shirt. The ANTIs are a minority here.

For twenty years we have been trying to accommodate the man in the England shirt. Time and again Bethell’s focus groups tell him that they want mainstream parties to be harder on crime, immigration and welfare. And yet the antis already have the government for which they yearn. For twenty years we have elected politician after politician who has promised to crack down on criminals and migrants and benefit fraudsters. And these machine politicians have delivered – they have drafted new offences and mandatory sentencing guidelines, ploughed money into police recruitment, created a welfare system that puts cancer patients on Flexible New Deal courses and an immigration system that measures its success by the number of people it deports. People get the government they want and the government they deserve.

And yet the ANTIs and their machine politicians are not satisfied. They scream for a tougher immigration system when it is already one of the toughest in the world and scream for a debate on immigration that already dominates all other policy debates. Politicians don’t tell the voters this, because they govern on perception and anecdote, not reality. Sssh… it’s okay… it’s okay… We know that the economy is not zero sum, we don’t fall for the lump of labour fallacy, we know that if – in P J O’Rourke’s words – if I order a Domino’s pizza, you don’t have to eat the box. But we can’t tell the ANTIs this because we have got their vote on the premise that migrants are taking their jobs and we want to put a stop to it. We got their vote on the premise that migrants have undercut their wages and we want to stop it. Too late to question the lack of anything but anecdotal evidence for this, or to raise the evidence that migrants actually put wages up. We still believe the romantic lie that a working class person can never be racist or wrong, that a working class outlook cannot be limited or flawed and that poverty brings wisdom. We are locked in a mad dance of unreality. And we are playing with people’s lives.

Note, by the way, that immigrants themselves are not part of the immigration debate. These are people often running from incarceration or torture or execution or civil war, from societies and situations in which the average British working class ANTI, with his freeview box and child tax credit and subsidised housing, would not last ten minutes. To get to the UK they undertake perilous journeys under the less than tender care of people traffickers and criminals. Banned from working until their claim is resolved, they end up as slaves in brothels or dope farms, or survive for months and years on food vouchers and Salvation Army handouts. If UKBA rejects them, they can be held in purpose built prisons, or deported in dawn raids by thugs from Serco and Group 4. To appease the vague sense of unease of our ANTI voters we lock up the children of refugees and send them to places where they can be tortured and murdered. And yet, I repeat, the migrants have no voice in the migration debate. The right hates these people. The left, with honourable exceptions, is indifferent. Migrants are not second class citizens. They are not citizens, end of. They are unpersons.

The brief resurgence of the BNP continued the dance and the mad outreach work and the quest to satisfy a spoilt child that can never be satisfied. When Nick Griffin won his Euro seat, commentators fell over themselves to explain that BNP voters did not vote BNP because they agreed with its racist policies. The working class expression of racism can never be about racism: it is always about the problems of globalisation or the tensions of multiculturalism. The parallels with leftwing apologists for Islamic terror should be obvious.

Bethell asks: what can we do to get the ANTIs back into the mainstream? Again, look on an MEN comment thread and you will find recommendations for: a complete ban on immigration, the abolition of the welfare state, the return of the death penalty, the compulsory castration of paedophiles, the cancellation of all foreign aid. How far do we want to go? How much do you give the child before it stops shrieking?

As I said, I have a lot of time for Bethell, so I will entertain the possibility that he is right. Maybe if we got rid of all the migrants – and all the settled second and third generation migrants, why not? – and transformed our towns and cities into completely homogenous British communities then the ANTIs would be happy and the BNP would go away and leave us alone. Maybe everything would be fine in our silo nation in England’s green and pleasant land, everything for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Or maybe we would look around, and cry for the sad and sorry little world we’ve created for ourselves.

The Two, The Five

January 8, 2011

And so it begins again.

Monday is supposed to be the worst but it’s not necessarily so. Sometimes the hangover outlasts Sunday abstinence and leaves you scattered and floaty for the first working day of the week. But by Tuesday you have sobered up and in the miserable solidarity of the packed bus route the realisation hits you – you are now jacknifed to the middle of the week like a man tied to the headlights of a speeding train. This life wasn’t meant for you. You knew even as your time in the student enclave ticked towards its final hour that you would avoid this somehow – you would get rich with your band or installation, something would come up, an exception would be made in your case. And yet here you are.

This is the paradox of the free world. Capitalist mythology centres around democracy and freedom, but to earn the money to enjoy these freedoms you have to relinquish your rights and liberties every morning when you clock in. Perhaps you’ve humanised a little corner of this world. Photographs of children, pictures by children, photographs of a husband or girlfriend, perhaps even a football pennant – any more than this would breach desk policy and still you’ve reclaimed a little of the office world. But it’s all dead time here even when you’re having fun. It is all time that you are not playing football, raising your kids, travelling the world, improving your mind, writing a story, making love. On the shore of infinite possibility we rack up hours upon hundreds of hours of dead time.

You could do the commute in your sleep. Your biorhythms adjust. You stop thinking in terms of academic years and think in terms of fiscal years measured in bank holidays and reality shows. You think about particular tasks when you get up and when you crash out. Still you can’t get past the afternoon slump and the rush of complex carbohydrates from canteen or Greggs food that fill your body with sleep. There are things that have been skewed wrong from the beginning. The travel costs, the discrepancies between public transport times and shift times, the system that loads in judders and blinks, the moron at your hub, the irritations and conflicts and desires that make up the life of an office – little romance, but plenty of flirtation and candid sensuality. The magnification of small things in the desert. The small victories against money and time. You could look for something else. But where are those hours to come from? There are moments where you have an impulse to leave. I will tell him to fuck his job, I will finish this call, I will walk out of here and keep walking.

Yet in almost all cases the exit is the best and easiest part. See, your line management won’t mind so much if you walk out and never come back. The team leader or recruitment consultant will even tell you so if you raise problems with flexibility or conditions or management failings. You want to walk? Fine. There are plenty who will replace you. There are better men and women than you living on seventy quid in JSA and getting up before dawn and hitting the streets with CV printouts. There are men with decades of craft and experience in British industry wasting their talents on workfare courses. See, unemployment is part of the plan. The easy way to get rid of the deficit is to cut domestic costs. Which means cutting labour costs. Which means there needs to be a great pool of desperate men and women who spend their days roaming from one dying public outlet to the next asking people for things – money, documents, attention, validation. So yeah and by all means, walk out the door. And see where you end up.

This is not always the way you feel. One of the mad perversities of working life is that it’s possible to take a joy and pride in just about anything – ticking off the cake times, breaking down a car battery, taking a long phone order for some Hampshire woman’s murder mystery weekend. No matter how degrading and repetitive and insignificant, no matter how little a positive difference the work makes to someone’s life, there is sometimes a jolt, a glow, a spark (in-joke laughter from a colleague, a call quality prize) that brings you to the end of the day and you leave for the bus or the train with the sweat of the righteous contributing man on the back of your neck. At such moments you know that you are one of the saved and that you will be looked after and still standing even when the volcano god of the deficit erupts and sweeps the cities away in fire.

Plus there’s the sheer buzz of getting through these hours. Battling to the summit of the week, then cresting it. Then coast towards the weekend, and DVDs and sleep and evening wine and pints of beer and bar meals and nights out, and feeling like you’re coasting towards freedom – the two nights of intoxication before the five straight and dry days.

Other times you understand that this is how it’s going to be forever. You stand on the balcony, smoke a cigarette and watch the rain caught in firelights, and know that by the time they let you out you will no longer want to go.

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet

– T S Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’

Classic Books: Indignation

January 3, 2011

There’s a Stephen King story set in a university during the Vietnam War. His student protagonist has avoided the draft thanks to his college acceptance and he knows that higher education is a thin membrane that keeps him from the army and that academic failure could mean disfigurement, paralysis, mental collapse and physical death. Despite this, college life absorbs him and he neglects his studies in favour of casual sex and a card game called ‘Hearts’ to which he and his fellow scholars have become hopelessly addicted. The plot is little more than card games, backseat shagging and arguments with a crusty old dean, but it has a tension to it – we know that the next hand may be his last.

‘Beyond your domitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear,’ the college president bellows at misbehaving students in Philip Roth’s Indignation. ‘Do you have any idea that you belong to a time at all?’ Coleridge could have told him that the young lack perspective. Our everyday knockbacks and disappointments feel like the worst suffering in the world. From ‘The Nightingale’:

But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced

With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,

Or slow distemper, or neglected love,

(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,

And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale

Of his own sorrow)

The converse of this lack of perspective means that when our youth is full of fun we forget the world outside. We are the party guests in Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’: ‘happy and dauntless and sagacious’ despite the plague teeming outside, and enjoying ‘a gay and magnificent revel’. A phenomenal couplet: ‘There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.”

Contemporary culture is obsessed with youth, and there have been many comic TV and novel treatments of the development of boys into men. In the twenty-first century West, growing up is all but riskless and there is something creepy and invidious about the Inbetweeners-style chronicling of the rites of maturity: efforts to appear cool, experiments with parents’ drink and bad drugs, those first adolescent fumblings (and why is it always ‘fumbling’?)  This is why it’s essential to read authors in their sixties and seventies. They remember the days when young men had more to worry about than being caught masturbating. They remember the days where you could hear the roar of the Red Death no matter how much wine you drank and how loud the musicians played. And they know that the plague could be back one day.

At eighteen Marcus Messner is already one of Roth’s intense and relentless working class males. This son of a Newark butcher has got himself into a prestigious Ohio college on the strength of superb grades and family sacrifice. ‘You are here so you don’t have to be a Messner like your grandfather and your father and work in a butcher shop for the rest of your life,’ his mother tells him. And Messner is no hedonist or angst merchant. ‘I’m interested in the things that matter,’ he says. Memories of having to eviscerate chickens in his father’s shop harden into a credo and work ethic: ‘even that was wonderful in its way, because it was something you did, and did well, that you didn’t care to do.’ He studies hard, abstains from drink, and works in the campus bar all weekend. The book is set in 1951 and Messner has an acute awareness of his potential fate should he fail college – he could be drafted and sent to the Korean war: ‘a lowly infantry private with an M-1 rifle and a fixed bayonet in a freezing Korean foxhole awaiting the bugles’ blare.’

And yet there is a rebellious streak in Messner – a certain flint, steel, sand, intensity, indignation that sets him against his time and finally destroys him. Like Olaf in the e e cummings poem of Roth’s epigraph, there is some shit he will not eat. This is well before the sexual revolution and there is a certain Holden Caulfield-style contempt in Messner’s voice when he talks about the WASP Ohio college where – as a nominal Jew – he is tacitly regarded as a second class citizen. In clear, declarative sentences (for Roth tells this story in Hemingwayesque brevity and clarity rather than in his usual manner of piling clause upon florid clause) Messner nails the puritanism of the age. ‘Pinned as a junior, engaged as a senior, and married upon graduation – these were the innocent ends pursued by most of the Winesburg virgins during my own virginal tenure there.’ He even has conflicts with a crusty old dean.

It’s this spark that draws him to Olivia Hutton, another rebel who has been transferred from a more liberal college after being hospitalised for alcoholism and suicide attempts. She’s a bright and voracious woman who gives Messner a blowjob on their first date – almost unprecedented given the time and locale. Messner underestimates her – he can’t quite get past the Victorian idea that women don’t really enjoy sex: ‘As far as I knew, girls didn’t get fired up by desire like that; they got fired up by limits, by prohibitions, by outright taboos’. This despite Olivia’s frankness: ‘I said I did that because I liked you… I know you can’t figure it out.’ And later: ‘You should be studying philosophy at the Sorbonne and living in a garrette in Montparnasse. We both should. Farewell, beauticious man!’ This is maybe why there is so much sex in Roth: he remembers a time before the sexual revolution and its freedoms that we take for granted.

Without giving too much away, Indignation is perhaps the most moving of Roth’s novels, an exploration of the fragility of life and how, by accidents of time and place, even the best of us can be blown away.

Update: This year I am preparing myself to reenter the harsh and frightening world of literary fiction that is not written by Philip Roth. For some more Roth stuff, here’s an interview I read before writing this, a piece on Exit Ghost and a review of Nemesis at 3:AM, where you can also see 3:AM‘s year in review and the 2010 awards longlist.