June 2018: Sitting on the Dock of the Bay: My father, the movies, jazz and the navy
One problem with being an only child is that, once your parents have both died, there are too many unfathomable mysteries, and no siblings with whom to compare notes. I know that my father left school at around 14, and that he then became a projectionist in the small Scottish town in which he was born. I also know that he joined the Navy in 1942, when he was 20. In the seven or so years before his call-up, he must have shown most of the most successful American and British films of the 1930s and early 1940s. His fascination with America (where he spent the last 10 years of his life, in the 1970s) began with the movies. He once told me that when he was growing up he believed William Powell and Myrna Loy to be the epitome of sophistication. He also loved jazz, but although I know he liked above all the small swing bands of the late 1930s and early 1940s, I do not know quite when this interest developed.
I do know that he had a most unlikely war experience. For reasons I do not know, his unit was seconded to the USA Navy for training. So he reported for duty at Southampton Dock, never having left Scotland before, to board one of the giant ocean liners that was to ferry them to North America. He was seasick even before the ship left the jetty – an inauspicious start for an aspiring able seaman. After crossing the Atlantic, they were stationed at a naval base at Asbury Park, New Jersey for basic training. I do not know how long they were there, but at some point they were sent across the whole vast width of USA by train, to Alameda Naval Base, Oakland, California. It is hard to imagine what an extraordinary experience the journey must have been for a young lad, never previously out of Scotland, but already fascinated with movie images of America. I do not know how long he was at Alameda either, but at some point his unit were transferred to an aircraft carrier and sent to the Pacific. He told me he never heard or saw any conflict – the planes would take off and a while later they would return and land. His job was to stow the planes away below deck. His ship put in at some exotic places – Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), South Africa, and Egypt, among others.
So, one day in San Francisco, sitting on the dock of the bay – gazing at the majestic Bay Bridge and in the distance almost invisible, shimmering but blurred, was Oakland. I wondered, wistfully, whether my father and his mates ever got on the bus, crossed the bridge and went in search of jazz bars. He must have done. But he is long dead and I will never know. His close friend from the late 1950s onward, Alan, tells me that that the jazz scene in San Francisco was not that hot (it became considerably more lively after the war) – but there were some jazz and blues bars in Oakland. Like me, though, Alan does not know if he experienced American jazz live at this period. Of course if he did see jazz in America, it is more likely that he did so while stationed in Asbury Park, New Jersey, a short journey from 52nd Street, New York. 52nd Street, between Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue was a huge jazz base between the 1930s and the 1950s, and most of the best know jazz musicians of the day played in the clubs there. I will never know, and sitting gazing across the bay, I wished Oakland, and his life in this period could, just briefly, come into focus for me.
June 2018: One Night in Marin County
Mill Valley, Marin County is a strange place. It is just across the Golden Gate Bridge, no more than one hour by air conditioned bus from downtown San Francisco, but is nonetheless a different world. It feels like a very small place, surrounded by dramatic hills, full of trees and centering on a village green, very clean and neat, and clearly full of affluent people who have the laidback air of people who no longer have a pressing need to earn more money. It feels a little like a home counties English town (Leatherhead? Dorking?) until one is struck by the number of men with greying pony tails who look like they were once rock stars, and women in their sixties who look like they were once part of the rock scene. It was, DP suggested, where white heterosexual rock stars go to die. There is a local joke that when San Franciscans die and go to heaven, they look around for a while and then say, ‘Well, it’s nice, but it’s no San Francisco’! Of course I am being disingenuous in that I know well that a large number of successful and not so successful Bay Area musicians did indeed move to Marin County – not least the Grateful Dead, who first moved to Marin when the communal house in Haight Ashbury became somewhat impractical due to the arrival of huge numbers of aspirant hippies in the late 1960s.
We were there on a mission. I have a research interest in political humour. The comedian Mort Sahl, now 91, moved to Mill Valley around ten years ago and still performs once a week, on Thursdays, for one hour, at the Throckmorton Community Theatre. The live audience is quite small, but the show is streamed live and usually watched by around 1000 people. Mort Sahl has, not surprisingly, some of the stiffness and slowness of a 90 year old, but is still sharp, witty and entertaining. We were also able to go backstage for a short while, which was a magic experience. His lifelong love of jazz was striking – in response to my question, he not only remembered going to Ronnie Scott’s Club during an early 1960s visit to the UK, but could remember exactly who he had seen play there.
Afterwards, we needed a drink and wandered round to the Sweetwater Bar and Music Hall, not much more than 100 yards from the theatre. With my own love of music and fascination with Grateful Dead related info, I should of course, have known about this extraordinary bar. The original bar was tiny, but nonetheless, famous musicians from the area regularly played there – often informally and unannounced. It went out of business for a while and then was revived, in larger premises with a small bar, courtyard and music room. Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, was one of the investors. We felt too tired to go into the music room, and proposed just to have a drink. That night, members of the Electric Flag (1960s Chicago style blues band) had got together to celebrate their 50th anniversary – and the line-up included Harvey Mandel on guitar and Nick Gravenites singing. The gig was relayed to the bar on very high quality speakers, and on a large television with very well produced live pictures. We sat happily with our drinks, in comfort, and watched the whole show. It was the most unexpected of evenings, and had an Alice in Wonderland quality to it – as if we had fallen down a rabbit hole into an enchanted garden. The imagery may be running away with me at this point given the all too obvious referent of the Grace Slick song White Rabbit. I don’t think anyone slipped anything into our drinks, and Owsley is no longer with us, of course. We returned to our downtown hotel in the middle of the homeless (See below) and the next morning the evening already seemed like a dream. I needed to write it up just to fix it in my mind.
Late June 2018: Eating out in San Francisco
Only there for a few days but did have some lovely meals. A seafood lunch at Alioto’s on the very touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, fine seafood, relaxed ambience and view of the bay. A rather heavier lunch in John’s Grill, home of the Maltese Falcon (upstairs in a case) and the Dashiell Hammett Society. What did we have ? Big steaks, baked potatoes and bourbon, natch. Best of all, though, and partly in homage to the recently deceased chef and broadcaster, Anthony Bourdain, a visit to the tremendous Swan Oyster Depot. It sells nothing but crab, lobster, octopus, prawn, shrimp and clam. So you can have a seafood cocktail, seafood salad, clam chowder, or crab back. They don’t even sell fries! Just bread. All washed down with cold wine or beer. Even though we had to queue for one hour (it only seats 18, all at the counter) staring daggers at those already in, it was still worth it. Highly recommend that you visit it.
Bourdain’s death clearly came as a huge shock, both to those who know him, and to those who only read his books, and watched his television programmes. It was a double shock when it emerged that he had killed himself. From the outside, few lives seemed more enviable – travelling the world to make programmes about food. He was a handsome man and at 61, still remarkably slim. He found success as a chef, as a writer and as a broadcaster. His television work was highly engaging. He apparently found being away from home for much of the year difficult, although there may have been ambivalent feelings about this – after all he did not need to work so much. He grew up in a profession, cooking, that is almost the antithesis of a stable home life, and maybe was wedded to the life of the nomad. Watching some of the programmes since his death, it is striking how often mentions of and images of death seem to occur – for example after enjoying absinthe in Paris and staying in the room that Oscar Wilde died in. Yet the death remains puzzling, and should prompt us to reflect on the strange and irrational character of depression – which has the potential to cause us to see only darkness.
June 2018: San Francisco
In San Francisco the homeless cluster in large numbers around Market Street near the UN Plaza. This area has the City Hall, the Civic Center, the (magnificent) San Francisco Public Library, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the Art Institute of California, and the SF Symphony. Many of the homeless are male black and elderly. Some have disability issues – there are people with wheelchairs, zimmer frames and other walking devices. Some have visible medical conditions that require attention that they do not seem to be getting. And all this near Silicon Valley with all of its veneer of caring sharing mission statements. Very angry. I cannot photograph these things, although I believe that it needs to be done. (See Mission Statements and Mission Street, in Writing Section).
June 20-24: International Association for Media and Communication Research Annual Conference, June 20-24, Eugene Oregon
Went to IAMCR Conference in Eugene Oregon. Impressed the waiter in the Wild Duck Café because I was able to identify the large photograph of an athlete as Steve Prefontaine, a great middle and long distance runner (1951-1975), born in Oregon and a student at the University of Oregon. He died in a car crash at age 24. His death is commemorated in the annual Prefontaine Classic, held every year at Haywards Field, Eugene, Oregon. While we were at the conference, a fence surrounded the Field, prior tom the demolition of the old grandstand, a matter of some controversy as it was around 100 years old. In typical American can-do dynamism, the stand was demolished in a day – we set off for our seminars at 8.00am and it was still there, and by 6.00pm it was nothing but rubble.
Eugene is a neat and clean place, with a real environmental conscience – recycling, bicycle lanes everywhere, pedestrian zones. It has plenty of trees, its buildings are mostly low rise, and the surrounding hills are spectacular. The people are friendly, and the city is calm and relaxed. As Joseph Heller might have written, “Yossarian hated it!” Why am I such a horrible metropolitanite, in thrall to dirt, grime, noise, sleaze and conflict, that I cannot warm more to such a lovely spot? I kept thinking of the old joke about Toronto – New York run by the Swiss.
American universities often surprise by their relative lack of bars – we Brits forget the drinking age restrictions in the USA. So we have become used to walking off campus (never very far) to find bars. We spent a happy evening in Max’s Tavern. Matt Groening, the originator of The Simpsons went to the University of Oregon and Max’s Tavern, at which he was a regular, is widely believed to be the model for Moe’s in The Simpsons, although Max’s is rather more convivial.
May 2018: The Remarkable Powers of Music
A week of experiences that has reminded me of the extraordinary and diverse powers of music. Last Sunday at Crystal Palace, the last game of the season, was a festive occasion. Palace began the season with a new Dutch Manager, Frank de Boer, who made the serious mistake of deciding how he would like the team to play before he had seen them play! Clearly puzzled as to what he wanted them to do, they made a memorably poor start, losing the first seven games, in which they did not even manage to score. Wisely, the club dispensed with their manager and hired Roy Hodgson. The form and confidence picked up immediately. Despite an extraordinarily bad run of injuries, the winning habit returned and they ended up mid table. So there was a lot of noise, and a lot of singing. When BBC football commentator John Motson came out to get an award to mark his retirement, the crowd spontaneously sang the Match of the Day theme tune. A slightly difficult tune to sing, as note frequency escalates towards the end, but very evocative peg on which football memories hang.
Two days later, I was at the funeral of an old friend from school, Del Mandel. We learned to play guitar together between age 12-16 – except he learned far faster than I did and spent his whole adult life as a working musician. When I arrived at the crematorium, I noticed the large number of men with greying ponytails, and Hawaiian shirts (the shirts being a Del signature look), and thought – musicians. It occurred to me that with so many musicians present, the wake might well be an interesting event. And so it transpired. Although Derek’s death was deeply sad, and far too premature, there was dancing and live music at the wake, which was somehow uplifting. The Sixties All-Stars, one of many bands Derek played with, launched into Sweet Home Chicago, where my father spent the last 10 years of his life, and my own favourite American city. So a lot of assorted memories welled up.
On Thursday, I was at the British Library to hear members of The Last Poets discussing their career and their politics. The following night, I was there to see them perform live as part of an evening of radical poetry. A highlight was Hearing them performing When the Revolution Comes – powerful, direct, passionate political music. If you don’t know them, check them out.
On Saturday, by absolute contrast, and despite being a republican, I listened to the Royal wedding, while cooking, and have to say the music throughout was beautiful. The radio was the perfect medium, allowing the listener to focus on the music without the distracting images of famous rich and powerful people, fidgeting in their seats.
Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason played Sicilienne by Maria Theresia von Paradis, (an 18th century composer); Apres un Reve, by Faure, and Schubert’s Ave Maria. The Choir of St George’s Chapel sung works by Thomas Tallis and John Rutter.
Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir: Christian gospel group performed Stand By Me by Ben E. King. A trumpet led prelude to events featured pieces by Bach and Vaughan Williams. The orchestra played Elgar, Holst, Parry, and Vaughan Williams, among others. Every item was well chosen and exquisitely performed. For me it made a dramatic and uplifting conclusion to an extraordinary week of diverse experience.
April 2018: Memories of Derek
I heard this month that an old friend from school has died. I first met Derek Mandel in 1961. We learned to play guitar together, although Derek proved to be far more diligent at practising than I did. We both had tape recorders and spent hours experimenting with what they could do. Like so many guitarists in that period, we had copies of Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day. For much of the years between 1965-1975 we were part of a loose group of south London musicians who drank in the same pubs, and played in various combinations, casually. For a short period in 1970-72 we were part of a shared household in Brixton. Derek taught me a Django Reinhardt piece that I still practice, and is to this day my “party piece”, if I want people to think I can actually play a bit. See writing section for Memories of Derek.
April 2018: Sony Photographer of the Year
Absolutely thrilled to read in the paper that Alys Tomlinson, daughter of my old friend and sometime collaborator, Alan, has won the Sony Photographer of the Year Award. A very prestigious award to win. We were fortunate to be able to go to Somerset House to see the exhibition of entries, the day after the awards were announced and even luckier to be able to congratulate Alys in person. Understandably, she was still a little shocked at having won.
April 2018: A Living Wage?:
Surprisingly, the concept of a universal wage is gaining adherents across the political spectrum. Indeed it has an appeal. It deals with the problem posed by job loss due to automation. It promises to remove the “stigma” of welfare, and abolishes the need for costly and discriminatory means assessments. It appears to address the growing divide between the 1% super-rich and the rest. Why, it is almost socialistic. Isn’t it?
I heard a discussion on the Andrew Marr programme in which the contributors, all broadly sympathetic to the concept, discussed the different means by which it might be applied and the various impacts it might have. During this, it struck me that, in the way the concept was being proposed and discussed, it focused on the problems of poverty, social disadvantage and job loss largely in isolation from the issues of wealth accumulation, and tended to avoid the more crucial question of the relation between wealth accumulation, ownership and poverty.
From the perspective of the rich, the supposed growing crisis in job availability due to automation has triggered a growing concern that their wealth cannot be defended, morally, in the context of job insecurity and the gig economy. So the universal wage can function as a shield; alleviating the worst impacts of poverty, whilst leaving the structures that produce wealth accumulation in a few hands largely intact.
It is not that billionaires are simply or necessarily immoral – many proclaim their intentions to give away much of their wealth, in the form of charitable donations or philanthropic trusts. Of course this does not really help the beleaguered public sector, where what is needed is not simply funds, but the ability to choose on behalf of the community where money should be spent.
It is, I am guessing, easy enough to give away 500 million dollars, when you have 3-4 billion. A more radical gesture would be to give away the company – hand it over to the workers, and let future decisions be taken in the interest of the workforce as a whole. Or more radical still, establish co-operatives in which communities might also be involved in decision making. That might be a bit more transformative (although not much more so than the John Lewis Partnership, the Co-Operative movement and the few remaining mutual Building Societies) and in the long term, combined of course with fundamental tax reform, it could even start impacting on the massive gulf between the super-rich and the rest, in ways which neither philanthropy nor the universal wage can hope to do.
April 1st 2018: Off the Wall Notions:
Another interesting but unworkable idea from Pres. Trump – in response to the tendency of occasional unhinged citizens to burst into schools and start shooting students and staff, he has suggested that teachers might be armed. The flaw is all too clear – it will ensure that the teacher is the first one to be shot. Here’s an alternative – lets arm the children. Faced with a whole sea of the little critturs, the potential killer will not know who to gun down first. Any one of them might be the first to fire. This could act as a significant deterrent.
Extract from Modest Proposals, forthcoming.
March 2018: Tampering with the ball down under.
Strangely upsetting to see Australian men cry – perhaps because the dominant masculine code appears to be one of sunny optimism, an egalitarian matey homosociality, a gung-ho can-do-ism, and a sporty heartiness. Doubts, fears, angst, dark nights of the soul, sit uneasily in this context and so when they erupt, it is all the more dramatic. We know a line has been crossed, and yet what is it? In the era of commercially driven imperatives to be successful, what are sporting ethics? In cricket, it is alright to polish one side of the ball, in the hope the ball will swing in the air; but not OK to use artificial means to rough up the other side. Yet aggressive short pitched intimidatory bowling, and abusive sledging, do not attract the sort of moral panic that has now broken out.
In Premier League Football, where every move can be examined from endless angles in slow motion, concern is expressed about players who dive – faking a foul to gain a penalty. I have a degree of sympathy for players who, in the phrase of the day, “go down easily”, using the pretext of a slight touch to fall down. Crystal Palace’s winger Wilfried Zaha was, last season, apparently the most fouled player in English football. And that statistic, of course, only records the fouls that resulted in the award of a free kick, and does not include the numerous kicks, hacks and tugs that could have but did not, get penalised. Talented ball players like Zaha, are accustomed to the use of unfair means to try and stop them. It is hard to be too censorious when, tackled in the penalty area, they go down and let the referee judge. This is very different from the clear “dive” – in which a player flings themselves theatrically to the ground, even though no contact has been made. This is deliberate cheating, and should be punished more harshly. Rather than complain about being booed, such players might usefully watch a few playbacks of their action and consider changing their habits. Otherwise, the rest of us will be crying…
March 2018: still dreaming…
Another worrying dream last night. We were at a party with a surprising number of top brass from the tory party attending. Jacob Rees-Mogg was there in a top hat and white tie. Contrary to his image as a gentleman of courtesy, he was being very snooty and ignoring all oikish remainers. George Osborne was circulating, working the room, and mocking anyone from the left. Theresa May kept coming in with trays of starters, and then, when they were rejected, going out and returning with a completely different set of nibbles. Most disturbing, David Cameron, who seemed far cooler and hip than we dreamt possible, and was demonstrating a surprisingly detailed knowledge of arcane pop music of the 1990s. He still seemed uncertain of which football team he supports, though. Then I woke. What can it all mean?
February 2018: Crisis of hegemony?
Clearly, all over the western world, at least, we are in the midst of a hegemonic crisis. The globalised neo-liberal project no longer has the power to win consensual support. The symptoms are everywhere in the rise of parties and individuals of the left (Podemos, Syriza, Bernie, Corbyn) and more worryingly, of the right (the Front Nationale in France, Alternative for Germany, Victor Orban in Hungary and the Lazarus-like return of Berlesconi). The centre parties sound less and less confident as the centre ground shifts below their feet.
It is an early stage in this crisis, plenty of room for manoeuvre, but not at all obvious what the new settlement might look like. I have previously suggested that Trump is best understood as a “morbid symptom” of this crisis, rather than a harbinger of a future strategy (see May 2017). The prospect of Brexit is, in a way, far more serious, promising as it does, to fatally weaken the British economy, forcing us down the road of becoming a low tax low wage economy.
It is a time for political boldness on the left – a range of evidence suggests the willingness of British people to support radical policies – witness the apparent popularity of renationalisation of the rail system and other public utilities. Labour could give us a genuinely transformative manifesto – but it has to take a clear and distinctive stand on Europe – to open up some clear water between Labour and the Tories.
December 2017: Ray’s Wonderful Empire
My friend Ray, who has built an empire of bars, cafés and restaurants in Italy is thinking of retiring. I asked him if I might tell his story. See Writing section for Ray’s Wonderful Empire
December 2017: The Borderline
Last night, I saw The Pretty Things perform at Borderline. Borderline is a small, fairly long established club, lurking behind Charing Cross Road. An awkwardly shaped room, painted entirely in black, dimly lit, with a small stage in one corner, a bar at the rear, with some banquette style seating, and a rather startling L shaped corridor leading to the toilets. If the intention was to recreate the feel of some 1960s dives, apart from the bar (which in the 1960s would have been more rudimentary) it succeeds admirably. Not as well, though, as The Pretty Things (see longer piece Double Acts, in the Writing section).
October 2017: Highgate, The Woodman
My daughter and I finally finished the Capital Ring Walk. 80 miles, and, done in 15 stages of between 5-8 miles, it took us 5 years – I just worked out that this equates to an average speed of 0.02 miles per hour. Even now there are slugs, snails and tortoises training for an assault on our majestic land speed record. Still, we did it, and no-one can take that away!
The Capital Ring is definitely my kind of walking. On the one hand, you pass through a familiar urban environment, except that often, you are on canal paths, river banks, crossing parks, gardens and commons – including many little gems, oases of calm just yards from the North Circular, for example. On the other, in the event of rain, wind or just general misery (and no, I cannot see any pleasure in walking in the rain, sorry), you are never that far from a café, a bar, or a restaurant; or at least a bus or tube ride.
Many was the time a walk concluded in a pleasant bar just in time for the lunchtime live football and a pint of beer. I may not be a fully anoraked rambler, but I know what I like.
“unique among all foods and drinks, for none of these have in them anything of which the pleasure is transported from the body to the soul , producing therein,…an abundance of happiness, animation, openness, stimulation, self-contentment, generosity and freedom from cares and sorrows…It is wine that provides excellence to society and conversation…and there is nothing that makes possible relations of intimacy and confidence between friends so tastefully and pleasantly and effectively as does drinking wine together.”
Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, in The Welfare of Bodies and Souls, 10th century; quoted in London Review of Books 8 Sept 2016, by Malise Ruthven.
Of course as many have observed, the time goes quicker as you get older. This year is whizzing especially fast. This is possibly because, having spent 9 weeks in the USA (which I believe is the longest I have been out of the UK in one stretch), we managed to spend longer in Paris than normal. This has given us a degree of distance from the Brexit debate. Returning to the UK with a strengthened conviction that this is an act of national self-harm, borne out of post-imperial melancholia. Those who voted remain have every right to speak out. Every day, following the negotiations, it becomes clearer and clearer, just what a mess our departure from Europe will leave. The national conversation cannot be stopped. However, I cannot but help missing Paris and “the bar” (see the Writing section)
Of course, as soon as I was enjoying the good run of writing detailed below, I began to suffer the back problems associated with too many hours crouched over a laptop. At home I use an orthopaedic chair, and a high level screen, which is better for the back. Still, it is interesting that it has taken a couple of hundred miles of cultural distance and a bad back to prompt me to write something about Test Match Special – I am in Paris, it is August, I have a cold, and suddenly realised I could happily while away a hot afternoon by listening to TMS. Bliss. (Longer piece – Why TMS is special – in writing section).
Writing, as any writer will tell you, has a particular frustration – on some days inspiration flows, the words seem to come as fast as you can type, and everything has clarity. More often, nothing will come, the ideas are cluttered, the words ill-chosen. If you can swim or ride a bike, then you can always do it, no matter how long you neglect the skill. Writing is not like that. Fortunately, I have been on a roll for the last couple of weeks and progress has been made. This may be due to the stimulus of a changed environment, working in the elegant tranquillity of the Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. All too aware that this roll will not last.
July 2017 Chengdu, China
David Lodge’s book Small World starts with a parody of the opening passage of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, in which, from spring, people begin to get the urge to go on pilgrimages. Only, as Lodge, tartly points out “nowadays, they call them conferences”. So it was that I set off for Heathrow, to catch a plane to Amsterdam and there transfer to a flight to Chengdu, China. For four days. Why?
The answer lies in a combination of ego, desire for intellectual interchange, and culinary curiosity. Ego because Professors, typically refusing the career route that runs Department Head>Dean>VC, seek validation through esteem indicators, such as books, journal articles and keynote talks. There is something especially pleasant about going somewhere exotic at someone else’s expense. Desire for intellectual interchange because in order to have output (writing) there must be input (reading, hearing other people talk, and conversation). Culinary curiosity because, of the four main Chinese cuisines (Beijing, Cantonese, Huaiyang, and Sichuan) Sichuan is possibly the most interesting and distinctive and is less common in London.
for more see The Pandas of Chengdu and other Thoughts, in Writing section.
Clearly to understand sport, you have to accept that sport like every other aspect of social life, has a politics. Conversely, enjoying sport, involves the pleasure of holding politics at bay – escapist you might say, but a life spent solely contemplating the grimness of the iniquities of politics is not a whole experience. For those of us who love spectator sport, the best arenas are those that are so enclosed and enveloping one cannot even catch a glimpse of the world outside. Court One at Wimbledon (and indeed Centre Court) deliver this admirably. So a happy day spent watching Marin Čilić, Johanna Konta, and Venus Williams, and we didn’t even contemplate trying to start a chant of “whoa, Jeremy Corbyn”. And as the sadly departed Barry Norman used to say, “and why not?”
Grenfell Tower Fire: The dreadful and terrifying fire and the tragic loss of life have become encapsulated in the stark image of the blackened stump of the Grenfell Tower. Many issues will need to be explored but they all cluster around building regulations, their enforcement, de-regulation, attitudes to public housing, and the 20% reduction in local authority funding. In January 2011, in an ill-chosen metaphor that has become especially chilling, David Cameron called for a “bonfire of regulations”. The Grenfell fire is a stark reminder of just why we have regulations, why they should be both well drafted and rigorously enforced, and why we should all be very suspicious of those who see leaving the European Union as an opportunity to “sweep away red tape”.
Several terrible incidents (Manchester, London Bridge, Finsbury Park) have only demonstrated once again the futility of randomised political violence. Hugely heartening is the typical response – we stand together against acts of terror and hatred and will not let them divide us. This, though now needs to be translated into a much greater effort to combat hate crime and the cultures that make it possible. This means opposing, with tangible and determined measures both those who foster a climate of Islamophobia, and those who forment “Islamist” political violence.
June 2017 Election
During the election campaign it became increasingly obvious that Labour would do well, especially after the Labour manifesto was clear, radical, popular and well-costed; whilst the robotic Mrs May was lurching from one problem to another. Fascinatingly, Jeremy Corbyn, having seemingly followed David Cameron’s tart advice to get a decent suit and shirt, and do up his tie, looked stronger and more confident every day. Still our expectations were centered on keeping the Tory majority down, and so a hung parliament was a huge leap forward. Yet they are still in power and perversely the very strength of Corbyn’s Labour Party means the Tories will do everything to avoid an election. A frustrating and dangerous period of stasis lies ahead.
We have moved on since the 1990s and in the intensely self-reflexive media environment, the audience seem far more alert to spin and sound-bite. The Tories commenced with heavy and constant use of “strong and stable” but were rumbled in the first two weeks, and widespread mocking resulted in “S&S” being significantly de-emphasised. Hopefully, the latest vacuity, “the money-tree”, will suffer a similar fate. Meanwhile candidates who can talk clearly and sincerely, from deeply held beliefs (Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas, Nicola Sturgeon) now play far better on television than those whose every utterance betrays a concern with focus group, sound-bite and keyword. May’s cynical attempt to engineer a quiet and content-free election on the back of an apparent large lead in the polls might just have backfired. But only if all who want change GET OUT AND VOTE !
We are, I think, undoubtedly in the middle of a hegemonic crisis. The neo-liberal globalisers are no longer able to lead and the dominance of their perspective has been shaken. Yet in this moment when the left might be aspiring to mount an effective counter-hegemonic challenge, it is not yet able to do so. On the other hand, the far right, despite its recent high visibility has also been unable to win sufficient support for its nationalistic and xenophobic perspectives. So the old is dying and yet the new cannot yet be born. It seems likely that we will remain in a condition of crisis, an unstable equilibrium, for some time. As Gramsci told us, in such circumstances a whole variety of morbid symptoms will appear. So, is Trump a morbid symptom, and if so, a symptom of what, what is the prognosis, and what might be the cure?
Friday April 14 2017: Ill in New York, fuzzy head, lost voice, a bit feverish. Can’t hear, can’t talk. Susan, Deborah and Ian out somewhere, while I languish, like a Victorian heroine on a chaise longue, in the Park Central Hotel. We all did the Hi-Line earlier. Even the title seems a little piece of New York – up, positive, above, up, up and away.
Even after seven weeks there has been so little time to reflect and so much to reflect upon. Constant movement but also a sense of stasis. Diddley dum diddley dum diddley dee diddley dee the train goes down the tracks. That plaintive wistful yearning keening of the engine warning klaxon, like the tone of Miles Davis trumpet, nostalgic for a place to which it can not return. The runaway train ran down the tracks and she blew. Big locomotive number 99, left the engineer with a worried mind. The open road, the distant horizon. A fresh start in a new town. Always fresh opportunities just over the hill. She drew out all her money from the Southern Trust, and put her little boy upon the Greyhound bus. The empty promises of capitalist enterprise. The first people in secure the land ownership, the mineral rights, the oil. The next wave end up working for them, the wave after that struggle to find work and move on westward, westward. Flotsam, jetsam, the dispossessed, everything loose ends up in LA. The thirst for fame.
As always paradoxes – much beauty, much ugliness. The sprawl of freeway and car-based America – gas station, burger bar, pizza joint, vacant lot, lube shop, beauty parlour, poodle bar, gas station, vacant lot. Yet in the Hudson Valley, achingly beautiful hamlets of wooden houses in the middle of forests. Travelling across the Appalachians – up a river valley that seemed to rise for miles with only trees for company. America the Beautiful. Small, indeed tiny towns, in the middle of nowhere in Texas, with the air of settlements built in the frontier days and never changed. Fixed modes of operating, a long way from external sources of influence.
Trapped lives, mobile lives, trapped minds, mobile minds. The country of Trump and Bannon, but also of Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Theolonius Monk. Terrible things happening on news daily but also lots of pushback. Flux, movement. In a hegemonic crisis, movement, repositioning is suddenly possible.
Restless, restless, always building, up, up and up. A visual metaphor of piles of money accumulating, like the stacks of chips in front of successful poker players. Zoot Sims once commented to fellow saxophonist Ronnie Scott, “they’re walking on the Moon, and I’m still playing ‘Indiana’.” Everything solid melts into air – and yet, despite rust belt, the economy appears not yet fatally damaged by the rise of Asia, far from it.
(longer piece on America to follow soon)
We had an amazing encounter in Austin, on 6th street, which is full of music bars. A very cool Eddie Murphy look-a-like, in a long coat ,was on the corner doing a ventriloquist act. As we passed, his dummy made a remark in broad Yorkshire “Are you all right, flower ? Where you going?” (very convincing accent). So DP asks the dummy “where are you from?” The dummy replies “I’m from Yorkshire, luv, where are you from?” And suddenly DP is in conversation with the dummy. Meanwhile I am watching the ventriloquist, thinking -you are good, I can’t see your lips move, and also, brilliant Yorkshire accent for an American. The dummy is busy telling DP about all the acts he has worked with – Danny La Rue, Ken Dodd etc. Until the name Jim Bowen comes up, and the ventriloquist comes out of character, to say, sadly, that he has heard that Jim Bowen is unwell, and we get talking to him. Of course it turns out he is from Huddersfield. He is called Scarlet Ray Watt (try googling him) and we chatted away happily about comic acts from the 1950s.
The dispiriting slump in form of Crystal Palace seems to go on and on. Threw a jolly convivial party. Completed Residents Association Newsletter, and then suddenly, having rushed up on us remarkably quickly, time to fly to Texas, where DP is a research fellow at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, and I am Visiting Scholar at the Dept of Sociology. I notice it is the first anniversary of this blog – Happy Birthday, Blog.
A bit late reporting on January, sorry. It came, it went. Bought a beautiful 1920s rolltop desk, and rearranged my study to accommodate it. Head down and did some work, prepared for USA trip. Who is this guy Larry and what has he got to be so happy about, anyway?
December 2016: Xmas in India
One challenge that India poses is that all the senses become over stimulated. Sound, sight, smell, touch, taste: sound: honking car horns – the horn is used for every conceivable motoring purpose – passing, turning left, turning right, warning others of your presence, and, it seems just general sociability. Despite the chaos on the roads people rarely seem to get genuinely angry. Noises in malls and cinemas often seem cranked up high. When music is played it is loud. Birds sing, especially noticeable at dawn and dusk. Dogs bark, and there are a lot of street dogs. Even in a peaceful haven such as the one we are in, a car backfiring will set off a chain of dogs disputing its presence with their perturbed and assertive yelps. Quietness in urban India is a rare and precious thing.Sight: one of the first things to strike the visitor is the vividness of colour – iridescent greens, glowing saffrons, deep indigo, luscious scarlets everywhere. Then it is decoration and embellishment – buses and lorries often heavily decorated – Ken Kesey’s legendary International Harvester Bus, Furthuur, would hardly stand out here despite its riot of day-glo paint. Plants look exotic to western eyes, as do the flowers.Dark eagles and tough crows soar overhead. And in any street scene the sheer number of moving elements – cars, buses, lorries, bikes, goats, cows, and people, is hard to register fully. Signage is striking for its styles. The injunction, absolutely ignored by all, to “Preserve Lane Discipline”, seems to catch something of India’s ambiguity: its rule-bound bureaucratic sensibility and its anarchic spirit. (for much longer version of this, see Notes From Beantown, in the Writing section of this site).
Disturbing dream last night. I was trying to conduct a large choir of young people from around the world. Full of enthusiastic smiling faces – from China, Korea, India, Africa, South America, North America and Europe. We were working on The Internationale. However, they kept singing “the Internationale divides the human race”, despite my increasingly frantic pleading, “no,no, it unites the human race”.
If it is hard to write about BREXIT, the election of Donald Trump to the Office of President of the Unites States of America poses even greater problems. Personally, I thought, quite wrongly, it seems, that the huge respect for the Office, and a sense of the reverence the holder should inspire, and the gravitas the holder should provide, might, in the end, persuade people that maybe Donald J. might not be qualified for the post (leaving aside his total absence of experience of electoral office or political posting, and his all too apparent sketchy sense of foreign affairs. This has become, for many of us a year in which bad dreams became lived reality and it is hard to keep hope alive. SO – one hope is that coherent, persuasive and well-informed people can somehow get the ear of the new President and at least persuade him not to withdraw USA from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, which for all its flaws, is the only game in town on this issue, and possibly our last chance for meaningful action.
The profound shock of BREXIT continues to reverberate. It is hard to fully process, and after a few weeks I am even more convinced that this is an error of massive proportions – it is not merely shooting ourselves in the foot, but using a machine gun to do so. I do understand the deadening sense of urban decay that shapes lives in many towns, especially smaller ones, that must seem to have a past but no future. The sad fact is that leaving the EU will not lead to an improvement in the conditions of people in run down old industrial areas. The interesting question, is which political force will be best placed to speak for these aspirations when, as seems inevitable, disillusion with Brexit sets in.
Furniture Auctions: an interesting cultural world. I go to one in Tring every few months. Several hundred items, everything from fine Victorian roll-top desks to a load of assorted lengths of old rope (yes, there is money in old rope, apparently). A mixed crowd – aristocratic looking people, dressing down, shrewd eyed people from the trade, raffish duckers and divers – very like horse racing in this sense. A lot of good quality stuff goes reasonably cheaply – a lot of people don’t want old stuff, and would rather go to IKEA, and yet wardrobes, for example, can be had much cheaper. But who has space for an old fashioned gentleman’s wardrobe, anymore? Actually, I found the space. The auctioneers, all very different in style, are hugely entertaining, and have immense stamina. Sometimes an item attracts no bids and then gets the saddest of sign-off lines from the auctioneer – “No-one wants,” followed by a smart tap of the gavel, and the next item is up.
Sombre autumn colours, nights getting shorter, air cooling down. Grim terrain in global politics these days. When an honest history of the UN is written, the “great” powers will be shown to have shabby records. The UN, which may be flawed, but is “the only one we’ve got”, has been undermined more and more by the contempt with which the “great” powers regard it. The US/UK intervention in Iraq, the recent Russian actions in Syria, the Chinese construction of bases in the Pacific – all have one thing in common: a disdain for the court of world opinion. When we desperately need some leaders of dignity, gravitas and moral responsibility, it is profoundly dispiriting that Donald Trump can even be mentioned as a viable candidate for President, let alone have a goodish chance of winning.
Now the Labour party leadership contest is over, I sincerely hope all members and MPs will now come together and focus on constituting a proper opposition and winning support before the next election (which could be early, but my guess is probably not). I am not holding my breath for an outbreak of unity. As so often in its history, the pragmatic and idealist elements of the British Labour movement seem unable to generate a new equilibrium. Another attempt to appeal to the middle ground with anodyne and vacuous non-policy utterances will get us nowhere, but a more socialist programme, which the party is certainly capable of generating, requires that the party be far more effective in winning support than it has been in the past. Yet the ground is not unfavourable – we are in the middle of a hegemonic crisis in which the political class have failed to be a leading moral and intellectual force in a key endeavour – staying in Europe. The previous settlement is broken, and both major parties have been rocked by these events. There is room for manoeuvre, and we do not know what form a new emergent stability might take. However if the Tories do go for hard Brexit, they should be able to hold onto their right wing. The impact on the wider economy will probably be more long term, and one interesting question is how those who voted Brexit will react as it becomes clearer that restricting immigration is not going to make the very real problems of deprivation and disadvantage go away.
Aug 2016: In Paris and suffering from flu. Didn’t go out much for two weeks but did a lot of reading. It was a little like a beach holiday, but on a sofa. Hard to consume the Olympics effectively – the most exciting events (let’s face it athletics is really the boss sport) were on in the middle of the night. Highlights on French Television (quite reasonably) focused on events in which the French did well – fencing and handball in particular – and did not dwell unduly on this in which the UK did well. My collaborator John Horne kept me posted with despatches from Rio. As ever in Paris, there was a period of quite punishing heat (36 degrees C) but the library (the beautiful old Salle Ovale in the Rue Vivienne) was comfortable and coolish. We visited friends in Lot et Garonne for a weekend, and wandered around the delightful Sunday market in Villereal. And, joy of joys, it is now easier to listen to Test Match Special, via the BBC website – a service specially for overseas listeners. The coverage of cricket in L’Equipe is, it has to be said, minimal. In fact, non-existent.
July 27-31: Leicester. Here for IAMCR conference. I used to come here in 1980s and 1990s for sport sociology events but have not been for some time. Good to be in a human scale city after Tokyo and London. Went to explore the covered market – ordinary covered markets are such a wonderful thing – the only big one in London, Borough, good though it is, is dominated by foodie culture and over priced. So I am very jealous of cities like Newcastle and Leicester that have centre of town markets with ordinary stuff at ordinary prices, and good old school butchers and fishmongers. I came across Lineker’s stall – presumably Gary Lineker’s family. And why in all these years has no-one drawn my attention to the urban gem that is the New Walk ? an 18th century pedestrianised road that leads from the cathedral to Victoria Park, by the University campus. Highly recommended.
July On emptying rooms. There are minimal folk who have beautiful decor, where all is neatness and space, where never a cough can be allowed to sully the environment, where one is almost afraid to sit. Our flat is not like that. It has taken a week to empty furniture and contents from a bedroom awaiting decoration. The carpet is a totally different colour where it has been under furniture. 15 years of dust lurked behind wardrobes. Bundles of clothes pushed to backs of shelves saw daylight for ther first time in a decade. And now every room in the house is full of bags of stuff. And we are, temporarily, living like students, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of the front room. We do not take well to such chaos. But the end product will, hopefully be worth it.
(Note in the entry below, predictive text originally changed Brexit into Brecht ! If only…)
Brexit and into July: Hard to write about this at all, the impact is so great, the turmoil so complete, the disaster so ominous and the tragedy so dispiriting. Like many who wanted, despite many reservations about the EU, to stay in Europe, I have been bouncing around the stages of grief, especially anger, denial, depression and bargaining. Acceptance has yet to arrive. I feel strongly that this is a very bad decision.
June 2016 in Japan: Never been before, and always wanted to go. So many impressions in such a short time, and still assimilating and processing. Highlights included the joys of eating in street kitchens in Fukuoka; seeing Kabuki Theatre; the profound, disturbing and yet strangely uplifting experience of visiting Hiroshima; the deep peace of the large Buddhist temple in the heart of Kyoto. And then encountering the combination of Metropolis and Blade Runner that is modern Tokyo. Very intense, buzzy and, I thought, somewhat scary. This is what the world will look like if corporate capitalism is able to rebuild it without constraint.
The closing days of May 2016: Eleven days of extraordinary variety at end of May. Terrific party at the Athenauem, thrown by a long-standing and very generous friend. The following day, gathered around television with my grown-up children, and watched Crystal Palace fail, sadly, to beat Manchester United. A week later, enjoyed Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera at the NT on Saturday, and on Monday, off to Wembley with a gang of AFC Wimbledon fans to see them win promotion to League One. AFC, a club formed by their fans, after Wimbledon was moved, by its owners, to Milton Keynes, have fought their way up through the divisions, until they are now well established in the Football League – a great achievement. The next day to Oxford for the funeral of a remarkable woman, the mother of one of my best friends. Only met her a couple of times, but last year visited her for tea and at age 94, she lit up the room with her warmth and animated engagement with all that life offered. Finally, by way of further contrast, saw the remarkable Archie Shepp at Ronnie Scott’s. This is all very untypical, honestly – I mostly stay in and read or watch television. I am practically a hermit.
May 16th 2016 Extraordinary end to extraordinary season
Manager who weathered a ‘Wenger must Go’ campaign, whose team finished second, is very half hearted about the achievement
Manager whose team finishes third has to apologise for the team’s performance on the last day (Pochettino and Spurs)
Manager wins League Cup and qualifies for Champions League and yet has to leave (Pellegrini at Man City)
Manager who has (so far) won nothing this season and has probably failed to qualify for Europe may well be staying (Van Gaal at Manu)
Manager of away side cheered to rafters by home fans (Ranieri at Chelsea)
Manager of relegated team is cheered to the rafters with fans begging him to stay (Benitez at Newcastle)
Player who did not even play makes speech and is cheered to rafters (Terry at Chelsea)
Let’s not even mention the Old Trafford fiasco
Did Lewis Carroll write this script ?
Palace for the Cup !
April 19th 2016 At a Guardian Live event to hear Slavoj Zizek. Amused to hear his account of commiserating with ex Greek finance Minister Varoufakis over his treatment by Brussels. Zizek reported that he asked Varoufakis, “what were you expecting – some king of rational Habermasian public sphere, perhaps?”
April 16 2016: Very large demonstration in London against Government policies on housing, education and health. The media said it was 150,000 but I would guess more. It took over an hour to advance about 200 metres in Gower Street.
April 11th 2016: Enough of travel for a while and it will be good to get back to the library. The awful Housing Bill mounts an assault on the very concept of public housing, and will inevitably throw more families into the private renting sector. Surely time to impose some form of rent control and proper security of tenure? Landlords have been getting fat on unearned income for far too long. Read through the White Paper on Education. In around 40 years of research I have read many such documents but rarely one so poorly drafted and so devoid of evidence or clarity of argument. In contemporary politics in the UK, there appears to be a growing disconnect between the forms of language in which policy is discussed and the real dynamics underlying Government strategy. I think Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine is an instructive read in this regard.
April 4th 2016: Spotted a Preston Sturges film we had never heard of and so went to see it, discovering of course that there was a good reason it was a lesser known Sturges film. Delightful convivial evening with old friends, which involved meeting new friends too. Good to know that in mid 60s it is still possible to make new friends!! Went to the Henri Rousseau exhibition. Often, seeing an exhibition produces an enhanced respect for the work of the artist. Sadly, this one tended to have the opposite effect – he is not as good as I had thought. Odd.
April 2nd 2016: Through Eurotunnel and drive towards Paris along the alarmingly straight highways. Weren’t English motorways planned with regular gentle curves to help maintain driver concentration? Still, less than six hours travelling time, which certainly wasn’t possible in A Tale of Two Cities. Smollett’s writing on travelling in France has a waspishness that suggests his temper was not improved by travel and its discomforts. So, must not grumble.
March 31st 2016: Wow!! Good news day for us both. I have been offered an Emeritus Professorship by the University of Bedfordshire (where I was a Professor of Media Cultures from 1999-2015). Deborah has been awarded a Research Fellowship by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. I am brushing the dust from my Stetson.
March 28th 2016: To friends near Cirencester, and the next day, morning coffee and explore Cirencester. Pleasant, sedate. Then, like an idiot I drive 30 miles in the wrong direction, without realising, so we see something of Stroud, circle Gloucester, and, even less necessary, straight through Cheltenham, before the bows are pointing back towards Oxford. No, I don’t have a sat-nav. Don’t get me started! One great find – in a supermarket charity book section – is Elizabeth David’s magisterial book on bread – one of her less perennially reprinted books, and yet what a terrific work of scholarship. Plus she writes so well.
March 23rd 2016: In rural Bucks – so close to London and yet so remote too. As a Londoner since 1958, I feel relatively at home, these days in cities around the world –despite their obvious differences, they are also rather similar. Arrive in a new place and after a nervous few hours of liminality, I can settle down. A few basic questions have to be resolved: where can I buy a bottle of water? how does the local transport work, and how do I get a ticket? Where is the market, where are the restaurants, the cinemas, the museums and the bars?
But the countryside is not like this – different rules and rhythms; different sounds and smells. It is so quiet that it is noisy – you hear every dog bark, cow moo, distant cars approaching, rain on rooftops, wind in trees. Without the 24/7 background rumble of urban life, I can find it difficult to get to sleep. However, the slow pace of change, the continuities, the calmness and the stability are joyous. And the daffodills are out. You don’t notice these things in Gower Street.
March 22nd 2016: Aching muscles today after 2 days emptying front room for decorating. Some people question why we have so many books – the answer is possibly to be found in Walter Benjamin’s essay Unpacking my Library, or maybe in Phil Cohen’s Reading Room Only: Memoirs of a Radical Bibliophile. On the other hand Oppose Book Worship by Mao Zedung strikes a more cautionary note.
March 20th 2016: Leeds – Two lovely days in Leeds – arrived, went straight to West Yorkshire Playhouse and saw Great Expectations, then quick walk through markets, checked in to hotel, and then to Damned United in the evening. Indian meal. Next day to Saltaire to see Hockney’s amazing IPad paintings.
March 16th 2016: Brighton – always on the verge of seducing the visitor, with its overlapping worlds and subcultures – students, goths, gays, antique dealers, retired folk, EFL students, professors. The narrow lanes suddenly give way to the broad sweep of the Steine and the extraordinary Pavilion. All this and a salty wind, a whiff of seafood, and the high keening sound of seagulls. For Londoners, arriving at the station into this strange amalgam of the respectable and the louche, Brighton forever has the hint of forbidden fruit – a brief time away from the reality principle. Outsiders view, of course, – living there must be a whole different experience.
March 9th 2016: In Newcastle, which does not, in my view, shout loudly enough about its attractions – not just the five bridges (seven bridges now??), the Angel of the North or the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, but also the lovely covered market, the elegant 1830s streets (more listed buildings than any other city bar London and Bath!) and above all the terrific Lit and Phil (Literary and Philosophical Society) Library. To see a beautiful library that is clearly loved by its users and staff alike, when so many are being closed due to Government cuts to local authority budgets, is really moving. And, cover your eyes at this point librarians, you can have a cup of coffee and a biscuit while reading your book ! Bliss !! Oh, yes and there is a rather fine football stadium. Shame about the team….
March 8th 2016: Once again, did not win New Statesman competition, alas. The brief was to devise a message posted on a Trip Advisor type site, that manages to miss the main point of the resort reviewed. My entry:
Venice: Imaginative idea to turn many streets into canals, and the effect is pretty, but sadly, they didn’t know where to stop. Far too much water, making getting about difficult. Hotels are drearily old, with few mod cons. The shopping is mediocre, and they really have to do something about their public transport. You can wait all day and not even see a bus !
The Grand Canyon: Interesting flat semi-desert plain, with intriguing vegetation and wild-life. Climate pleasantly hot and dry. Small village shops sell Indian crafts. Unfortunately the experience is ruined by the ugly giant cutting that has been constructed, for no obvious reason, between the north and south districts.
Lourdes: Very few decent bars, and not a single nightclub worthy of the name. Everything seems to shut down at 10.00pm. The gay scene is non-existent, and the general atmosphere of excess piety is dispiriting.
March 3 2016: True Story: After watching Arsenal beaten 2-1 by Swansea at the Emirates Stadium last night, I had a strange dream in which I was wandering aimlessly through a hospital. Within the dream, the following dialogue took place:
Sister (to nurse): and what about his mental state ?
Nurse: well, we know he was at the Emirates last night.
Me: I’ll do the jokes…
Feb 23 2016: Welcome to this page, established to let people keep up to date with my activities, works, and plans. Feedback welcome. If you want to invite to me to speak at a conference, seminar or other event, just email me (see Contact link above). Topics I am currently researching include political comedy, images of science, and news and vortextuality.