politics

Grayson Perry on masculinity

I knew very little about Grayson Perry (other than that I wasn’t keen on his art) before I happened to catch part of his Reith lectures, ‘Playing to the Gallery’ in 2013. I sought out the rest on catch-up, read something he’d written in the paper when he made a TV programme about men and maleness, and added his 2016 book The Descent of Man to my To Read list as soon as I heard he’d written it. Having finally got it out of the library in January, I read it quickly and with great interest, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the thorny topic of gender in the modern age as well as anyone interested more broadly in contemporary politics and society. I don’t have to agree with him on everything to applaud the kind of book he’s written and the approach he’s taken, though I think I do agree with his assertion that “I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook.”

I’d like to think gender was irrelevant in modern Britain and I’ve refused to join women-only groups in everything from the Institute of Physics to the local branch of the Labour Party, so I’m not a habitual reader of gender-focused texts. I don’t, for that reason, know if The Descent of Man is a good example of its kind, but for the general reader like me it seemed a thought-provoking introduction to the topic. The tone of the book was none too serious, which helped. His comments on the parents of Islington made me laugh for instance, how they undoubtedly claim to bring up their sons as tender and gentle, away from gender stereotype, “I’m sure they do, and the young men in question are probably delightful,… and I’m pretty sure their mothers still do most of the childcare and housework or employ other women to do it.”

I thought Perry’s identification of Default Man was interesting, the white middle-class heterosexual male who is (as a broad group) at the head of all things, from banks and universities to media outlets and politics. Everyone else is measured against them – neutral means what Default Man uses, does, wears, like the uniform of the sober suit with a tie (colourful clothes are suspect), and anything else is automatically Other. Once you look at society with Default Man in mind, lots of things start to make more sense. As well as Default Man we have the Department of Masculinity, a member of which provides the voice in your head telling you not to be a “sissy”. Which, he argues, leads to confusion and aggression and worrying about what other people think. Or in other words Toxic Masculinity and its detrimental effects on mental health.

We need more public intellectuals if you ask me, we’re losing the art of debate and the ability (maybe even the desire) to question things. They might not cover a topic from all angles and they will bring bias with them, consciously or otherwise. They haven’t always found solutions, even if they think they have, but they’ve thought about it, asked some good questions, and made us think about it too. So hurrah for a potter with no qualification other than that of being a man himself, daring to provoke us into thinking and talking about what it means to be a man in modern Britain.

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Class and the BBC

Monitoring the class background of BBC employees strikes me as an over simplistic and probably counter-productive way of aiming at greater diversity in journalism, though I do agree that the BBC’s viewpoint does seem overly narrow (London-centric and middle class) at times.

In his Alternative MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh television festival, Jeremy Corbyn has apparently suggested that the BBC should analyse the social class of its workforce. None of the reports I’ve read about the event this week say whether he set out how this should be done, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Apart from the research that suggests there are now seven identifiable class groupings in Britain rather than the familiar upper-middle-working, how easy is it to spot where the boundaries lie and at what point does someone move from one to the other?

At university I met a couple of people who’d been to state school (at which they’d learnt Latin) and came from, as far as I could tell, solid middle-class (certainly wealthy) backgrounds. Would they tick a diversity box because of their school? At my fee-paying school I knew people on assisted places (like me) and scholarships. One girl, whose strong accent our English teacher used to complain about, was from a single-parent, unquestionably working-class, household that had no previous brushes with higher education. Would she be overlooked in the diversity game, seen as privileged like the chap who pointed out in The Guardian that though he was seen as a ‘public school Oxbridge type’ when he worked at the BBC, he’d achieved success from a poor background via grammar school? Are we intending to punish people for their achievements?

I find the obsession with widening access to Oxbridge annoying and wrong-headed, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t do your utmost to get more working class teenagers in there, and then say anyone who’s been to Oxbridge isn’t who you’re aiming your diversity scheme at. In my opinion, it’s not so much where you studied as what your attitude is and whether you notice that not everyone in Britain’s having the same experience. My dad argues that once you go to university you’re no longer working class, and while I agree with him that you might have moved away from your origins to a degree, you haven’t necessarily moved towards anywhere in particular. Spending time with family and keeping in touch with old friends should keep you in tune with your roots even if you don’t fully fit there any more, giving you an awareness of issues that someone who’s fully distanced themselves (or was never there in the first place) won’t have.

I don’t like quota systems, whether they’re for female candidates in Labour’s internal elections or working class employees at a publishing house or the BBC. Unfortunately they’re easy to measure and they’re visible. Those in charge can be seen to be tackling some perceived deficiency, without anyone necessarily digging any deeper into how much good the policy is doing. I would be among the first to say that background matters, and that the BBC (and The Guardian, and probably other national news outlets that I don’t engage with) suffers from a lack of diversity, but unless they’re going to devise a questionnaire asking whether your childhood treats included tinned fruit and Blackpool Illuminations, and what your siblings and in-laws do for a living, instead of just asking which school you went to, I don’t think class-monitoring is the way forward.

Long Road From Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

I went to see Stuart Maconie talk about this book at last year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, an event which was entertaining and informative, and far too short. I finally got the book out of the library in January and it’s one of those that halfway through, I wished I’d bought it instead.

In October 1936 a couple of hundred unemployed men from Jarrow on the south bank of the Tyne marched to London to hand in a petition to parliament. The background is complex, but after the closure of a shipyard (added to other national problems) there was seventy percent unemployment in the town, and the men were asking for a proposed steelworks to be situated near them to provide new jobs. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, and they weren’t the only men to march at that time, to highlight unemployment. For some reason, however, possibly to do with embedded journalists, a coincidence of date with the first BBC TV broadcasts, and being accompanied for part of the way by fiery local MP Ellen Wilkinson, the Jarrow Crusade (as it’s usually known) has lingered in the collective memory.

Or it has in some parts of it, at least. Stuart Maconie is something crucial in the Ramblers’ Association, as well as being an author and popular BBC presenter, so looking for a challenging walk in the autumn of 2016 he realised recreating the Jarrow marchers’ route would be perfect, and would allow him to ask people along the way what they knew about the crusade and what it meant to them, eighty years later. Not much, was the most common answer, though he did run across pockets of memory and enthusiasm.

You either like Stuart Maconie’s style or you don’t, and I do – it’s largely chatty and friendly (jovial, even) but there’s a vein of politics running through it (he describes himself as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain”) and he does get angry at the state of the country both now and in the time of Jarrow. I got angry too, reading it. There is a chapter for each day of the march, but in among the curry house recommendations and pop culture trivia sparked by towns and villages he passes through, there is enthusiastic historical and geographical information about the route. He also brings in snippets of history or broader context where necessary, and takes the odd bus or taxi detour if there’s somewhere of relevance nearby.

The book is as much about people as places, and he chats to lots of locals in pubs and on Twitter as he’s on the way, and gets their take on the area (and Britain) now as well as their thoughts on the original march. There are also interesting encounters in local museums, with the Dean of Ripon cathedral, and two MPs (Tracy Brabin and Kelvin Hopkins). As all this took place only a few months after the EU referendum, it’s got Brexit running through it. Maconie voted remain, but he shows a good understanding of why so many of his northern neighbours didn’t, and a frustration with the metropolitan elite who still don’t get it.

I don’t agree with all of his analysis (and I certainly don’t agree with all his musical views), but I think this is an interesting, well-meaning book. A worthy successor to JB Priestley’s English Journey in fact, which he mentions a couple of times himself. If you know quite a bit about English working class history, you might not learn any new facts (other than the possible name of the dog accompanying the Jarrow Crusaders, though that seems to be disputed) but by explicitly using the contrast of then and now it makes you think about contemporary events and circumstances in a different light. Aside from that it’s an entertaining travelogue through some less than obvious holiday destinations like Luton, Bedford, Barnsley and Darlington.

Brexit and the collapse of planning

The quagmire of negotiations, the dangerous farce that is the Irish border question, every day we’re told of new and apparently unexpected complications of Brexit. Each time, a chorus of people ask what Leave voters were thinking – didn’t they work through all the knock-on effects in their imaginations, like mental chess? Didn’t they think ahead and realise how complicated it would be, what a bad idea, how practically impossible? This chorus doesn’t appear to be asking what David Cameron was playing at, or why there were no detailed plans in place for what would happen in the event of a vote to leave the EU. They don’t ask how on earth our political systems managed to let the referendum happen when there was no plan for one of the two outcomes, or how come Cameron was allowed to abdicate responsibility as soon as he’d landed the country in the soup.

There are several scenarios I can think of, to cover David Cameron’s disregard for consequences:

  1. Knows that we can’t/won’t leave the EU, but poses the question anyway. No planning required; even if Leave wins, we won’t be leaving. But Remain will win anyway, so no need to worry about what to do if public opinion shows a leaning towards Leave.
  2. Intends to leave the EU if the vote goes that way, but doggedly believes it won’t as he has never met anyone except a few cranks in his own party that would vote Leave. Arrogantly (and incorrectly) assumes no planning required, simply because the messy and complicated reality of leaving the EU won’t arise.
  3. Doesn’t seriously consider the question of whether we’d leave the EU or not. The vote will go the right way, and life will continue as before. No planning desired, as it’s a waste of time.

Given the eventual outcome (narrow victory to Leave), any one of those positions would have left him in shock on results morning. In the first, he’d have to face a hostile public and tell them that despite the vote, we’d be staying put. Who knows what uproar there’d be, it’s not as if we never have riots in this country. In the third scenario he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place: stay put despite the vote (see scenario 1) or leave the EU, which he hasn’t planned for and didn’t think (judging by his personal campaigning) was a good idea.

Scenario 2, which is the one Theresa May’s government has behaved as though we were in, seems to me the scariest and most chaotic. That would be like me asking my friends and family if I should go on a sponsored walk or blindfold myself and throw knives at OneMonkey from across the room, to raise money for charity. If by some fluke they selected the latter, they’d be shocked if I said I was going to do it (because I’d promised) but I’ve never thrown a knife before and didn’t know whether I could get OneMonkey any protective gear in time. If I was perplexed at why they’d choose that option when they must be able to spot some pitfalls, I think they’d be justified in turning round and telling me they didn’t think I was stupid enough to suggest it if I didn’t know what I was doing.

You may believe all voters should avail themselves of all the facts and check out all claims made by politicians before voting, but you must know in practice it doesn’t happen that way in any UK election. Protest votes, party loyalty, the least worst option – I’ve voted based on each of those myself. Then there’s image and spin, some last-minute interview or soundbite that catches a voter’s imagination and sways them one way or another. There’s gut feeling, some idea you haven’t seen conclusive evidence for or against but that you hold onto nevertheless. There’s the complicated battle when a voter has too much information, weighing up the bits they do and don’t agree with or stand for, to see which aspect seems the most important; I don’t even agree with all of Labour’s policies and I’m a member of the party.

During the referendum campaign it wasn’t easy to get hold of facts anyway. Both sides, from all parties, seemed to be falling back on the usual meaningless soundbites and overinflated claims. The £350m written on the bus was clearly tripe and although I’m not saying 100% of the electorate spotted that, I don’t know anyone who believed it (Leave voters included). Remainers seemed to base all their arguments on how rosy it was already and why we’d be fools to give that up, which doesn’t work if the people you’re addressing don’t believe it’s rosy now. Very few people engaged in proper debate (a general problem in modern life) and I don’t remember any politicians giving serious thought to what the country would look like afterwards, whether the vote went their way or not. If they did, they didn’t share it with us.

Planning for an eventuality seems to have become synonymous with expecting it to happen, with all the resulting public hysteria. I would rather live under a government that had plans for what to do in the event of nuclear war, famine, an energy crisis, even if with hindsight it’s seen as (thankfully) a waste of time and money. I would argue it’s rarely a waste anyway because it gets you looking at resources and reliance, gaps in infrastructure etc that you wouldn’t otherwise focus on. But when it’s a situation of your own creation I don’t just think it’d be nice to have a plan, I think it’s damned irresponsible not to.

Maybe if someone had sat down with a pencil and a used envelope and had a ten-minute brainstorm about, say, possibilities for the Irish border should a referendum come out in favour of Leave, we’d have been spared the whole sorry episode.

Working Class Writer? Class, Education, Politics and the Arts

You can’t say the post title didn’t warn you what’s been on my mind lately. Some of it’s pre-election frustration and my disbelief at, among others, the bring back grammar schools brigade, because of course none of their children would ever be relegated to the non-selective school, in the same way presumably that their children will never need to use a library (or the NHS) so it’s ok to wreck them for everyone else. However, the topic of working class writers has been bubbling under again, partly via Dead Ink crowdfunding a book of essays on the working class called Know Your Place and some Twitter discussions that arose from that.

Name some working class writers, came the challenge. The names of various successful novelists were bandied about, but did they count? They were in varying degrees superficially middle class (wealthy, university educated). Did they think of themselves as working class any more? Would society let them get away with it if they did?

Non-British readers will no doubt be puzzled at this point but despite attempts to declare the UK a classless society (aka we’re all middle class now) class still matters here, it still has a major effect on your salary (even given similar levels of education), your educational opportunities in the first place, and even health prospects. So yes, it’s more complicated than it used to be (the BBC identified about seven social classes a couple of years ago) but it’s still there casting a shadow over most people’s lives.

Which brings us back to the working class writers thing. If someone grows up in a working class family, goes from their comprehensive school to university and graduates with a decent degree, does that automatically make them middle class? Well, Nathan Connolly who runs Dead Ink would argue no, as in this piece he wrote last week. That would be to deny the background and the upbringing that shaped them before they arrived at university. On the other hand it’s hard to argue with any conviction that you’re working class when on the face of it you’ve got a salaried graduate job and can afford an avocado whenever you fancy one, however much your attitudes, politics, outlook may align with siblings or cousins that didn’t head down the higher education path. There will undoubtedly be accusations of false claiming of credentials, like the outbreak of Mockney a few years ago. Kit de Waal, celebrated author and outspoken champion of working class writers suggests embracing the dual identity with no excuses and no shame, but you need to be pretty confident to do that (another trait that graduates from working class backgrounds are said to lack).

Where are all the working class writers then (as Kit de Waal asked last summer, in fact)? Are they looking at the quinoa in their cupboard and simply not feeling comfortable with calling themselves working class any more? Some will no doubt have intentionally left the working class behind via education, though the long tradition of self-education in the working class shows that the two don’t have to go together. Some may well be plugging away under the radar, not shouting about their class background and not writing anything that highlights it. The rest, however, are probably struggling to get a foot in the door because of lack of contacts, cultural capital, or money.

In Nathan Connolly’s piece from last week that I linked to earlier, he mentions setting up Dead Ink because he couldn’t afford the unpaid internships in London that were apparently essential. So many fields in the arts seem to rely on unpaid internships (and in London too) it’s no wonder the arts are dominated by people with money behind them (there’s an interesting paper called Are the creative industries meritocratic?, which you can access here). I was told in passing last week that I was at a serious disadvantage trying to get involved in the arts without a car – getting to performance venues (and home at the end of an evening, when any public transport is likely to have thinned out or stopped), school visits, distributing leaflets/brochures or attending meetings with publishers/agents/promoters. It may well be true, but that’s another obstacle if you don’t have money behind you. I know a couple of people who have a driving licence but no car, but without even trying I can think of 10 more in my immediate family/closest friends who’ve never learnt to drive in the first place (with maybe 8 or 9 who drive and have or share a car).

In conclusion then, working class writers might be out there but are probably struggling. When the only people who get a voice are the wealthy, we’re in a bad way so we need to fight for libraries, fight for a level playing field in education, and build a flourishing cultural hub outside of London (Northern Powerhouse, anyone?). By the way, the Labour manifesto mentions banning unpaid internships. I’ll just leave that thought with you.

Never mind Article 50, won’t someone think of the environment?

Acres of coverage today for the ‘news’ that the UK is leaving the EU. We knew that already, it will take ages to sort everything out. Ultimately not much will change. Meanwhile outside the arena of UK navel-gazing there are some changes being made that deserve a bit more coverage. Trump tinkering with energy and environment policy matters to all of us because whatever trading bloc we do or don’t belong to, climate change is something we need to be doing something about. We don’t get to opt out of European temperature rises because we’re no longer in the EU, and Trump doesn’t get to build a wall round America to keep extreme weather or rising sea levels out.

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Read my review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140. Then read the book itself. Then think about what you can do to make a difference.

Week 12: In which I am both witty and political

This was the week leading up to the first Newsjack deadline of the season, and by season I mean time of year not series. Newsjack is a BBC radio comedy sketch show with a completely open submission policy, meaning absolutely anyone can send in a sketch or one-liner as long as it relates to the week’s news somehow. Traditionally I dip a toe in the comedy water by sending one-liners to the first couple of episodes, before I work myself up to a sketch later on. None of them have been successful so far but I entertain myself (and occasionally OneMonkey) while I’m writing them, so it’s not all wasted effort. This week has been tricky as reality has largely moved beyond satire, which hasn’t left much to write about. I’m persevering, however.

I did try to ignore the whole Presidential circus but I didn’t quite manage, thanks to Twitter and Radio 4. I unfollowed a few people on Twitter because I couldn’t stand any more hourly updates on Trump. I’m British, I don’t tend to follow American politics, in the same way I don’t follow French or German politics. I keep half an eye out to get fair warning of anything that might have global ramifications, but honestly I’ve never even bothered to watch all the rigmarole of a new PM arriving at Downing Street, I’m certainly not going to watch a foreign leader getting sworn in.

In my attempt to avoid too many news bulletins this week I may also have missed the point of the women’s march. I was genuinely moved and amazed to see so many people take to the streets, but I’m not entirely clear on what they were there for, or rather they didn’t all seem to be there for the same thing. From the people I follow on Twitter and a few things I caught in the Guardian and on the BBC I picked up the following reasons:

  • because no genuine feminist would stay away;
  • to point out they didn’t vote for Trump;
  • to reclaim public space as safe for women;
  • to protest gun crime;
  • to protest racism;
  • to promote gay rights;
  • to state that their son has been brought up in a civilised way;
  • to point out they are a man who’s been brought up in a civilised way;
  • because all their friends are;
  • because it’s Saturday (OK that one might be a King Missile reference to lighten the mood).

Maybe I missed the ones protesting at the women who’ve been killed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria etc at least in part due to the (apparently sainted and beyond criticism now) Obama administration, and the ones protesting at Britain and America’s close alliance with that staunch defender of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia. Maybe I was too busy noticing all the loud, comfortable, Western women in pink hats who were shouting a host of different messages. But hey, if we could get that many people behind an actual campaign, say to alter a policy or stop a war, I think they could change the world.