Archive for August, 2011

Dale Farm Travellers lose their eviction battle – a recollection

August 31, 2011 7 comments

This time, 2 years ago, I was working in Crays Hill School, which is located in Wickford, Essex.

Some years before I arrived to work there, a large proportion of the locals whose children attended the school removed their children after the arrival of travellers on the disputed bit of land of Dale Farm.

When I worked there, around 100 children were on the register, four of which were non-traveller. Daily attendance saw about 60 kids in class, but this decreased somewhat when parents were travelling the country looking for alternative sites and alternative schools in anticipation of Basildon Council’s wish coming true.

For the year that I worked at the school, there was the expectation that we’d all arrive for work one day to find only 4 children arrive. You could tell when big news had reached the traveller site regarding their tireless campaign to stay, because the children displayed emotions of both extremes; either totally erratic, and prone to bringing up family feuds with other children (of which there were a few), or uncharacteristically sombre, and depressed.

Sometimes the girls, who were normally gleeful, would withdraw themselves into corners instead of reading or writing. The boys, usually decidedly macho and taking after their big brothers, would spend the day seeking hugs from the teachers and learning support assistants.

To say this final bid, which has just been thrown out - meaning Dale Farm residents have lost their last-ditch eviction battle – will disrupt those children’s education, is to miss the point that the last few years of knock backs have affected their education, too.

Brendan O’Neill, this afternoon, dispelled a myth:

Reading some of the coverage of Dale Farm, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were illegally squatting on land, that they had nabbed someone else’s territory and then plonked their homes on it. Not so. They own the land upon which they live. In 2002, the Traveller John Sheridan bought it for £120,000. Their crime is that they subsequently built homes or parked caravans on the land, which is a big no-no because it’s part of the Green Belt. No one is allowed to build on the belt, you see, because it is intended as a barrier between town and country, between built-up mass society with its noisy, grubby inhabitants and the more rarefied, hushed countryside where wealthy people have holiday cottages. By building on the belt, the Dale Farm residents have effectively rebelled against a decades-old system for keeping town away from country.

The Conservatives’ fan base in Basildon is the Nimby vote (Not In My Back Yard); and they have a spent a lot of money, and will continue to spend a lot more, in order to appease this base – but it has come at the price for many traveller families, a representative of which asked, rhetorically, today: “Would you leave your home peacefully“.

Nobody is pretending that the relationship between travellers and locals had been easy in and around Dale Farm, but the prejudices of many did not concern the legitimate versus the illegitimate plots (a rift, some may not know, that existed between the travellers themselves, and among the English and the Irish travellers in Basildon), but highlighted the loathing of the travellers in general (travellers had been in the area for years, but when Irish travellers arrived, and put their children in the local school, it was then parents were pulling their children out en masse).

As more reports come in, just stop and think how many votes this eviction, and the oncoming cheer-leading from the local newspaper and obsessive Jon Austin, will have for the Conservative Party in Basildon.

Categories: General Politics

The real childcare obstacle

August 31, 2011 Leave a comment

The Guardian is usually pretty good at the detail of welfare policy, so it’s a bit disappointing to see this article on childcare, ‘Childcare costs stopping mothers going to work, says study’. 

The article focuses solely on the upfront costs of childcare as an obstacle to employment.  As such, it appears to be based on a single press release from insurance firm Aviva, and the author/editor don’t even seem to have bothered to read the report the press release is advertising. 

In that report, the Chief Executive of the Daycare Trust is quoted:

Parents in the UK contribute more towards childcare costs than any other country in Europe, and costs have risen every year for the last ten years.

At Daycare Trust we are particularly concerned about the recent cuts to the childcare element of working tax credits. Too many parents are already making the tough decision to give up their jobs because the extortionate costs of childcare do not make it worth their while. We fear that these tax credits cuts will mean that many more parents could also be priced out of the job market.

That is, while costs may be an issue (though I actually think this a simplistic argument which is bad for quality childcare in the long run), an expert in the field suggests that the government’s cutting of tax credits (from April 2011) is the bigger problem. (To be scrupulously fair, the press release focuses on data from the last year, before the main impact of the WTC changes, but it still seems odd for the Guardian to have left the new developments out, especially when the report highlights them.)

As a social enterprise childcare provider, I have plenty of evidence that Daycare Trust is correct in its assessment.  Based on my experience I commented on the Guardian piece as follows (slightly tidied here):

The main problem for many/most families is NOT the cost of childcare, but the changes in April 2011 to Working Tax Credit (both overall ‘withdrawal rate’ and reduction in proportion of childcare costs covered by childcare element of WTC from 80% to 70%). See here for a quick summary of changes and the TUC site etc. for examples of impacts.

As a social enterprise childcare provider I’m seeing a big change in families’ plans, as they come to terms with these cuts (many people have just received their tax credit settlement and have made decisions in the last month or so). 

This has led to significant loss of business for us. The tax credit changes are much more important to people’s decisions than our inflation-related fee increases, which we publicised some time ago.

I’m surprised this article misses out this important stuff, to be honest, as it means quite a false picture is presented. I guess it’s because the article is based on a press release only.

The Coalition counterproductive austerity measures, not childcare providers, are to blame for the lack of choice many women now face.  It’s a pity the Guardian has not said that.

Starkey was wrong, and so was the NAACP

August 30, 2011 3 comments

Last week more than 100 historians signed an open letter expressing outrage at the sentiments of David Starkey, when during his appearance on Newsnight he opined: “What has happened is that a substantial section of the chavs… have become black. The whites have become black.”

What Starkey was trying to say is that Enoch Powell had it at least partly right when he talked about the rivers of blood, and the destruction of the indigenous culture, in Britain.

In a way, through the use of patois, what Starkey believes to be black culture has transformed the identities of many white people, and so the UK has undergone some sort of black cultural hegemony.

He’s wrong, of course. For what can be defined as black culture in the form of music, language and fashion is subcultural – the message that Starkey began to read, on Newsnight, describing the words of a looter, using patois, was a single example, exploited by Starkey, to give the impression there was some racial notion at play during the riots and looting in London, Birmingham and elsewhere.

Fortunately, no one let Starkey get away with it. Waves of articles, blog posts, news items and letters filled the air as outrage turned to analysis.

Starkey got it wrong, everyone else got it right: race is not defined by a single set of ideas, therefore it is absurd to say whites have become black, just as it is say the black race is defined by patois.

So it seems only appropriate that an organisation like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) be given the cold shoulder for supposing that a black tea party member is “a paid “mouthpiece” traitor to [his] race” (see also).

Does this not suppose that the kind of dullard conservatism to which the tea party movement in the US embraces is limited only to whites?

It reminds me of Cornel West’s examination of black conservatism. According to him, in his 1994 book Race Matters – there were large swathes of black conservatives, particularly in universities, who were scornful of affirmative action measures, and were suspicious of black liberalism as inadequate and concerned, mostly, with in-fighting.

But to fellow black academics, there was an element of traitorousness to their conservatism – they weren’t wrong because of their ideas, but their ideas were wrong for them, supposedly because of the colour of their skin.

Conservatism was once the preserve of the racist, white, middle-class male (certainly in the West), but time has shown the two to be only tediously linked. Though I’m not a conservative, it doesn’t bother me to note that there are black conservatives and black members of the tea party because I know that my criticisms of conservatism do not rest on it being inherently racially exclusive.

Conservatism is not necessarily stupid, but it can attract stupid people.

Starkey was wrong on Newsnight because he thought race meant something beyond skin. But we must, here, be consistent. Anyone who suggests that blacks are traitors to their race for supporting the tea party are wrong because they, also, believe race means something beyond skin, and that conservatism as a black person is, necessarily, an expression of black skin, white mask.

Whereas, if we read Cornel West properly, we can see that through conservatism, the black subject isn’t necessarily appropriating and imitating the coloniser, but it could have more to do with a crisis in liberal or progressive politics – where we on the Left should draw our attention.

Categories: General Politics Tags: , ,

My memo to Sean Woodward

August 29, 2011 3 comments

Paul said it better than I ever could earlier:

It’s a pity … Sean Woodward doesn’t read Though Cowards Flinch regularly. We’d be a lot further forward if he did.

The reason being is Though Cowards Flinch blog was wise to the fact the Tories were pushing rightwards yonks ago.

Here I’ll point out why we knew that.

In 2009 a study was carried out by Political Quarterly around the time of Cameron’s successful leadership election. It showed that in 2005, of the 198 sitting Tory MPs 91% were Eurosceptics, 81% were economically “dry” and 73% were “conservative” on social, sexual and moral issues. According to Edward Turner (doc), it seems uncertain that the Tory party has shifted its Thatcherism, despite having tried to re-paint the image of the party in light of Thatcherism’s toxicity.

But Cameron did not create compassionate conservatism – big society and broken Britain were two attempts in the mold of the Etonian’s predecessors.

William Hague told the Tory party conference in 1997 that “compassion is not an bolt-on extra to conservatism but is at its very core”. This was when Hague was floating the idea of equalising the age of consent for homosexuals. Only 16 Tory MPs voted for this and Hague was forced to retain section 28 (needless to say there were those recent smears – undoubtedly residual pro-inequality seeping through).

When Hague was forced to take his party back to the Right, Ivan Massow complained of the “tabloidification” of the Conservatives and that regarding certain activists “theirs is the politics of the taxi driver” (pdf).

And so it remains.

Cameron is an image spinner, PR savvy, too. He had a lot of authorship over the 2005 manifesto which focused on immigration and asylum (are you thinking what we’re thinking?) but also led a party that tried to remove its brand of Thatcherism to the public – despite its politics still being prevalent with party activists.

Cameron’s game is to hide what remains – he has recognised that his party’s politics are out of kilter with the public mood, and has tried to pull the wool over our eyes – and I worry that this may have worked on the Labour Party. But no more – we can see the inner Thatcher, and it’s disgusting.


Update: Here’s a thing: Ivan Massow left the Conservative Party at the same time as Shaun Woodward did, both defecting to Labour.

The Sean Woodward memo: better late than never

August 29, 2011 1 comment

A year after Though Cowards Flinch first set out the definitive strategy for attacking Cameron and his “New Conservatism”, it looks like the Labour leadership may finally be inching towards that same strategy. 

Sean Woodward’s secret strategy memo tells the Shadow Cabinet:

[T]he very terrain on which we will fight is changing……..Analysis of Tory party policy, carried out over the summer, convincingly demonstrates the Conservatives are shifting to a distinctly rightwing strategy, in both their chosen focus on issues and their solutions.

This reflects what  we wrote, exactly a year ago, based on just such a “close analysis of the Tory party policy”:

The key attack line to date has been that Cameronism is a return to hard-headed, and economically illiterate, Thatcherism.  While there is certainly mileage in that approach, I think there may be more oppositional mileage in the development of a narrative of the Tories top tier as precisely what they are, totally out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, and increasingly dismissive of the need to be.

 Subsequently, we developed our analysis further, arguing that Cameron’s own political make-up is dominated less by an adherence to Thatcherite thinking than by more traditional upper-class attitudes to government, in which “high” and “low” politics are separated, leading to a leadership style in which trifling matters like welfare, health and education are handed over to the Thatcherite nutters in the party, except on occasions where those nutters’ excesses mean he has to intervene for a while.

So it’s good to see Woodward’s paper edging the party, however slowly, towards this kind of analysis of how best to tackle Cameron; even though the paper (or the sections of it that have been disclosed) still lacks coherence on what actually constitutes Cameron’s rightwing tendencies, there is at least an acknowledgment that Labour would do well to focus on how traditional a Tory he really is, and the extent to which his “compassionate Conservatism” scales are now being shed.

Of course, there will be the inevitable kickback from the unreconstructed Blairites.  Paul ‘The Thinker’ Richards is straight in there, giving the Spectator the fodder they want with his witless twittering:

I spent the 80s yelling ‘rightwing’ at Tories RT @anthonypainter: @chuzzlit @alexsmith1982 he’s refighting the 1992 general election.

Clearly Richards is unable to grasp the nuance that attacking Cameron for his class-based traditional Conservatism might be different from attacking Thatcher for her very non-traditional approach to Conservative government.

In fact, Martin Bright’s (Spectator columnist) own hostile reaction to the Woodward paper is closer to the mark:

Great scoop from The Observer on Labour strategy. Shame about the strategy. Should be attacking Coalition competence not Tory rightwingery.

Bright is right that Coalition competence should be Labour’s main target, but fails to see that Cameron’s own lack of “low politics” competence is actually a direct result of this “[high] Tory rightwingery”.  

Bright fails to see that a main attack point  during the recent riots, for example, should have been that Cameron failed to return from holiday to oversee the riot response until such a time as he felt he need to play the great statesman.  That achieved, he buggered off on holiday again.  The attack should have been around the fact that Cameron’s competence in government extends only as far as the maintenance of his own image as high Tory statesman, and stops short of a capacity actually to govern the country properly.

Similarly, Woodward appears to miss the point, when he accepts that Cameron is (in the Observer’s words) “regarded as a skilful manipulator of his image”.   The point is that what is that Cameron’s image-making strength is also his biggest potential weakness, if Labour can expose the distance between Cameron as statesman and Cameron as the head of a supposedly modern government.

Nevertheless, it does look like Labour’s leaders may finally be headed in the right direction, and a year late in developing this attack line is better than not at all. 

It’s a pity, though, that Sean Woodward doesn’t read Though Cowards Flinch regularly. We’d be a lot further forward if he did.


Peter Hitchens and the fear of ambiguity in Libya

August 29, 2011 1 comment

Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, Sulloway (2003):

Persons having low levels of motivation to process information would be more likely to support conservative ideologies because these rely on tradition, are aimed at (societal stability), and imply the avoidance caused by change.

Thórisdóttir, Jost (2011)

High need for cognitive closure represents a desire for “an answer to a question on a given topic, any answer … compared to confusion and ambiguity” and it often leads to black and white thinking

Peter Hitchens (yesterday):

Just because existing regimes are bad, it does not follow that their replacements will be any better. The world has known this since the French Revolution of 1789, when bliss and joy turned to mass murder and dictatorship in a matter of months.

Point of note: the kind of conservative thinking which Hitchens exemplifies only aims at societal stability, does not guarantee for it. Indeed what kind of world would we live in if we allowed and accepted tyranny on the basis that what waits in the wings could be worse.

But what really gets my goat is not that Hitchens is being true to Burke in invoking 1789 and the French Revolution (which the latter disliked not because he feared change and ambiguity necessarily, but because he saw that Robespierre was forming a half-baked, overly and needlessly violent revolution), but because he neglects to mention how different the contexts are: The rebels in France existed to cause terror (quotes from Robespierre include: “To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is barbarity”; “slowness of judgments is equal to impunity”; “uncertainty of punishment encourages all the guilty”) whereas the National Transition Council formed to avert terror being done to them, and as a consequence are recognised as the country’s authority by 50 other nations – enjoying the kind of diplomatic relations rebels of many countries can only dream of.

Lord Avebury and the Traveller Community of Dale Farm

August 27, 2011 28 comments

With people like Nick Clegg at the head of the Liberal Democrats, it is often difficult to muster up sympathy for the party – but not enough time is spared for the Lib Dems who have spent their whole working lives opposing the Tories, only to have their party’s top brass emulate the nasty party lock, stock and barrel.

One such Liberal Democrat is Lord (Eric Lubbock) Avebury, whose work alongside the Traveller community in Dale Farm has made him the focus of much news of late.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, when his constituency of 8 years in Bromley voted the Conservatives back in, Lubbock infamously said: “In 1962 the wise, far-seeing people of Orpington elected me as their Member; in 1970 the fools threw me out”. His victory, however, was an important in-road for the Liberal Democrats, and the by-election was dubbed the “first Liberal Democrat revival” (pdf).

Some 45 years later Nick Clegg was outlining his vision for a Liberal Democrat revival. In 2007 he told the Guardian that “The Liberal Democrats must redefine themselves as an anti-establishment and forward-looking party”.

Even his most hardened critics realise that what he probably didn’t see with his forward-looking party was that he’d be Deputy Prime Minister to a government who are now implicated in the imminent eviction of hundreds of people in Wickford, Essex.

Writing about this, Lord Avebury said:

In the next few weeks, some but not all the families living on this site ate going to be kicked out, at a cost of over £10 million, £6.85 million on which is being subsidised by the Home Office and Communities and Local Government. [...] There is nowhere else in the county to which the evicted Travellers could move, so they will be on a roadside facing new harassment, with endless disruption to family life and interruption to the children’s education.

The peer had always known of the Tories’ mistrust of the gypsy and traveller communities. Before the last election, he wrote a letter to the then shadow secretary of state for communities and local government, saying:

The Conservatives evidently failed to seek advice from established experts or members of the Gypsy and Traveller community, contrary to good practice in policy formation generally, and on ethnic minorities in particular.

There is no acknowledgement of the exclusion suffered by Gypsies and Travellers, which as the EHRC and others have demonstrated is primarily caused by a national shortage of sites – made worse by the last Conservative Government’s repeal of the duty to provide sites contained in the Caravan Sites Act 1968.

One month later his party leader signed a deal forming a government with the Conservative party, and since then barely a sigh has left the mouth of Nick Clegg, nor any Liberal Democrat who made Minister back in May 2010, about Dale Farm.

The closest had been from Andrew Stunell, a Communities Minister, who in October 2010 said that legal changes were “set to be made [meaning] that those travellers who play by the rules will get more protection against eviction, putting them on an equal footing to those living on other residential caravan sites or in council houses” (My emphasis).

His absence of late, however, has been noted. Stunell made a statement to Lord Avebury, in response to a question made to him in May this year on the subject of Roma integration, where, in Lord Avebury’s words, his “statement omits mention of”:

1. the Government’s scrapping of Regional Strategies, making it certain that more Gypsies & Travellers have nowhere to live;

2. Their legislation making it easier for local authorities to kick Gypsies and Travellers off sites they occupy in breach of the planning laws because there is nowhere else for them to go, and

3. The subsidisation of Basildon to the tune of millions of £ to facilitate the eviction of GRT families from a site they have occupied peacefully for many years.

The crucial thing here is this last point that Stunell neglected to mention: that is his government’s complicity in evicting the families of Dale Farm.

Basildon Council have a vendetta against these traveller families, and the coalition government is facilitating that. Though they really ought to, the council does not feel they have to provide alternative accommodation, which, as Lord Avebury pointed out some time ago, will bring about “enormous costs for additional health, social security and children’s services for years down the line, and the life chances of the young people affected will be permanently impaired.”

It’s figures like Lord Avebury that remind us there are principled people in the Liberal Democrats being shafted just as hard as the people they represent nationally.

Categories: General Politics

On debt, reformism is the most radical way

Go to any event that’s vaguely socialist, and you will hear it being mourned that there is a widespread disenfranchisement of the working class and its institutions. Figures by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) last year revealed that the number of people affiliated to trade unions dropped by 165,000 in 2009.

The number of people in unions in the late 1970s was around 13 million – leagues away from the 7.1 million employed joined to a union.

You can tell there’s a problem when in a time of financial crisis the tabloid press doesn’t blame union greed – which it did during all other times of financial disaster – but public spending; as though the unions have already won their battle, have become irrelevant because the public sector have incorporated their demands.

Clearly, though, those demands have not been met – what the press are purposefully omitting is the sky-high wages for chiefs, the mounting consulting fees and waste. To be sure this money is not going on wage increases and pensions. While 9,000 public sector employees earn more than the Prime Minister, two-thirds earn less than £21,000-a-year and are facing a three-year pay freeze.

So what has cancelled out the union bargaining chip? Some have noted that credit, and thus debt, has saturated the enthusiasm to demand higher wages, and seemingly counterbalances low wages. If this is so, we, the Left, should be behind Stella Creasy and her campaign to curb high cost credit, because when credit dependency is removed, so returns the need for higher wages, and thus union power.

But, of course, Creasy doesn’t stop there (if she just stopped there, it would empower illegal payday lenders – and that’s another problem. Users of payday loans have quadrupled to 1.2 million over the last four years). She wants to increase the roll-out of credit unions which could be linked to the post office network (under pressure in the digital age), could provide links online (which keeps processing costs down) and therefore keeps loan costs down.

The issue that could be raised here is that this still allows for debt. But without doubt the creditworthiness of individuals needs to be matched by initiatives to promote savings. BIS and the coalition government say they want to better link up credit unions with the post office network (point 53 of this report – pdf) but they scrapped the Savings Gateway and the Child Trust Fund – initiatives which were the best of New Labour (it must be said that the best of Third Way-ism is Reformism, like savings initiatives; but the worst of it is neo-liberal economics).

The IPPR, geniuses that they are, may have found the magic bullet which doesn’t require those particular schemes. Tax credits could be rewarded to those accounts of low income earners who keep money in their savings accounts for longer. The problem, however, is that some families do not have enough at the end of the month to. Therefore there is no reason to think that the roll out of credit unions and tax breaks will disincentivise the enthusiasm to campaign for higher wages.

Debt is an anti-capitalist issue. Just as we sell our labour for a wage, now we sell our labour to service our debt. The choice for the Left is either to demand the impossible (cancel all debt), or demand the possible and support rewards for saving, reinvigorate the bargaining chip for higher wages and support our public services by properly modernising the post office (digitising it, for example, and linking it to credit unions).

The reformist way here, it would seem, is the most radical.

Categories: General Politics Tags: , ,

Announcing the TCF Oxford Symposium

August 25, 2011 Leave a comment

In a major step forward for the Though Cowards Flinch think-tank, we are pleased to announce our first Oxford Symposium (1), to be held in the Bookbinders Arms, Jericho (2) on Friday 26th August at 8pm. 

Entrance is free (3).

The Symposium is largely aimed as a response to the 2010/11 London-Oxford seminars which led to the publication of the ‘Blue Labour’ Politics of Paradox, and will cover the following themes:

Recapturing Cole: how the Left can respond to the way in which the ‘Blue Labour’ school has used to its own narrow ends the work of early 20th Century thinkers like GDH Cole and RH Tawney;

Professional pride: how the Labour movement can seize back the initiative over the quality of public services from  New Labour managerialism and New Conservative destruction;

The Race Relations Catastrophe: how the Left can build on the work and insights of sociologist John Rex to develop a coherent new approach to working class race relations in the UK

Local power: how the Left needs to go back to basics on ‘localism’, to strip away New Labour and New Conservative rhetoric and build a new localism based on devolution of power, not blame. 

The 1980s, let’s not go there: an analysis of the Labour left’s approach to opposition in the 1980s, with a fresh assessment of the mistakes in ‘New Left’ thinking which led to short term gains but long-term loss within the labour movement.

Findings from the symposium will be considered for publication (4).

In a special innovation, the Symposium will avoid the constraints of the usual conference-style organisation, where people are expected to listen for hours on end to so-called experts droning on about stuff we already know and then taking ‘questions’ from people in the audience which are in fact rambling statements unrelated to the matter at hand while totally ignoring or dismissing the ones which actually matter.

Instead, the Symposium will operate to the following basic rules:

a) A regular TCF author from Lancashire will chair the Symposium.

b) Anyone wanting to say anything on the topics above should come prepared with a statement of not more than two minutes, but preferably about 20 seconds.

c) That statement will be allowed once the Chairman has been bought a pint by the person wishing to make the statement.

d)  The Chairman will drink his pint quite slowly if the contribution is considered good and worthy of further debate, but just knock it back in one if it’s total bollox and/or sounds like it could be from Progress magazine.

e) This mechanism, functioning also as a clever psychology experiment in group incentives, will filter out the rubbish contributions, because if the contributions are rubbish the Chairman will become increasingly drunk, power-crazed and abusive to everyone in sight.  This would not be a pretty sight, and creates a strong incentive for participants to talk sense. 

f) The Chairman reserves the right to stop the Symposium at any stage, either if he gets bored or he doesn’t understand the clever people, and instead just talk about cricket and beer and general shit.  In such an event, he should still be bought pints right through to closing time.  This is in fact extremely likely to happen.


(1) Oxford has been specifically selected for this first event because of all the clever people there.  It is absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the Chairman happens to be in Oxford that day and fancies wheedling some free beer out of naive young socialists. We’re calling it a Symposium because it’s a new word we just learned and it sounds more academic than ‘conference’ or ‘seminar’. It’s from Greek.

(2) Jericho is Oxford’s premier residential area, where the really clever people live, and where the pub is.

(3) We would charge loads but we’ve made absolutely no arrangements with the pub and we think they’d get pissed off if we just stood outside the pub with a bucket.  It’s free to socialists.  Tories can just sod off and play darts or something.

(4) Caveat: Findings will be published if anyone brings a pen, writes it all down, types it up in some kind of sensible form finds a publisher willing to go with it, and does all the necessary marketing and stuff.

Unpalatable ideas and the study of reading (and listening) habits or, an essay on Larkin, Wagner and Heidegger

August 24, 2011 2 comments

Yesterday, the Financial Times published a truly great article on the poetry and life of Philip Larkin, by the writer Martin Amis, who has selected the poems for a forthcoming Larkin anthology.

As a personal friend of the poet’s whilst he was still alive, Amis is as good as any to recall the type of person Larkin was, as well as detail what may have been the inspiration for his poetry.

In it, however, Amis cuts to the chase, pointing out that:

Larkin died in 1985. And when the Letters [Anthony Thwaite's collection of letters, 1992] and the Life [Andrew Motion's biography, entitled in full A Writer's Life, 1993] appeared, almost a decade later, I wrote a long piece in his defence. I should say that I too was struck by Larkin’s reflexive, stock-response “racism”, and by his peculiarly tightfisted “misogyny”. But I bore in mind the simple truth that writers’ private lives don’t matter; only the work matters. (My emphasis)

This initially made me regret the way in which I studied Larkin as a college student, then made me think about the difference between a writer’s life, and work, in general.

Firstly, while pulling apart my copy of The Whitsun Weddings, I took the care to try and decipher each and every word employed, the part they played, the images they brought up and the sound they made – but took little time in analysing the words as part of a whole. I tore those words up until the stanzas ceased to be part of a wider entity.

Then it was the way in which my class used the myth of Larkin – stories of the unkind, racist, sexist sour puss – to justify our theses and lazy hermeneutics.

The problem with such textual analysis is not that we were wrong, but that we could never tell if we were right. If we read, for example, “A Study of Reading Habits” do we consider the images they relay to us, or do we simply imagine a pieced together image of the bitter Larkin, as characterised by our feminist lecturers?


Later, with inch-thick specs,

Evil was just my lark:

Me and my cloak and fangs

Had ripping times in the dark.

The women I clubbed with sex!

I broke them up like meringues.

I think Amis might be right; we should try and disengage with what the private lives of writers are like, lest it interferes with correctly judging a piece of work – were such a thing possible, anyway.

And then this reminded me of another issue; the canonisation of writers linked to the very worst in unpalatable ideas: Nazism.

When it is a great piece of music or philosophy, scholars and commentators of all stripes would prefer you to appreciate the substance, not the individual behind it. When an Israeli orchestra wanted to play a festival in Bayreuth, Southern Germany, dedicated to the music of Wagner, many were insulted and protested. But enough came out saying we must distinguish the person – a known anti-Semite, enjoyed by, among others, Hitler – from the art; and the art should be enjoyed by all regardless.

Indeed Roberto Paternostro, the conductor of the orchestra, was reported as saying: “Wagner’s ideology and anti-Semitism was terrible, but on the other hand he was a great composer”.

Others have pointed out that there was no explicit anti-Semitism in Wagner’s music, so its being listened to ought to be guilt free. Similarly, many in the world of philosophy, according to the Jewish online magazine Tablet, “recognize the difficulty of considering Martin Heidegger’s oeuvre without acknowledging the genocidal machine of which he was a part, but don’t believe that his Nazi sympathies underlie or undermine all of his works.”

The key word here is “underlie”; because no explicit reference to racism is made in Heidegger’s work, so it is not worth us white washing a great thinker (without Heidegger there would be no Arendt, no Foucault, no Rorty, and no Sartre for sure) and leaving that particular gap in the world of knowledge.

But, drawing this back to Larkin – what of writers where unpalatable sentiment is clearly expressed in the work, and which seem to fit with the writer’s own sentiments (here I purposefully conflate sexism and misogyny with anti-Semitism; a trilogy of rancorous motives)? Is it only above board that we read Heidegger and listen to Wagner today because in it there is no trace of their own personal prejudices? If there were, would we have to forgo them through principle?

Let us take another example, this time from popular culture. Michael Richards is most famous for playing Kramer in the popular American sitcom Seinfeld – indeed this is where he produced his best work. In 2006, while doing a stand-up comedy gig, he racially abused two black men who were near the front row of his audience by saying “”fifty years ago you would be hanging from a tree with a pitch-fork up your ass”. Very little is heard of the actor now, and though he denies being racist, and in spite of his great previous work, he has destroyed his career. In this instance, the separation from his acting and his terrible judgement cannot be made.

There is no simple answer for why we choose to keep (in the world of artistic respectability) some over others; possibly it has to do with the form of art produced, perhaps also it’s the amount of time elapsed since that art first emerged in the world. Whatever, keeping at arms length an artist’s personal life is a good principle to keep hold of, because they themselves are rarely the objects of our desire; but we should question as to why it is we forgive for our viewing/reading/listening pleasure.


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