Guest post by John Medhurst
The central concern of modern politics is the extent to which the destructive, anti-social effects of neoliberal capitalism – most obviously those produced by the financial sector and fossil fuel industry – should be subject to public regulation. The most life-threatening activity within modern America—wide-spread and easily accessible gun ownership—is a relic of rampant free-market individualism. The results are grim.
The superhero genre (comics or film) cannot avoid the issues raised. Most superheroes, after all, are vigilantes. They have no legal sanction to do what they do, yet because the rules of the superhero story function in their favour they are seldom hunted down and arrested. The threats they respond to are always real, the actions they take avert a far worse injustice or disaster (sometimes genocidal), they never accidentally kill someone, and thus their actions are justified in the terms of the world they inhabit.
In the most famous example of police-vigilante collusion, Batman is given tacit authorisation for his activities by Gotham’s senior police official. In recent Batman stories Commissioner Gordon is criticised for this by the media and politicians, even investigated by antagonistic colleagues, but he always prevails, usually after a homicidal psychopath like the Joker is brought to heel by Batman. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films placed its hero’s relationship to the law front and centre.
DC and Marvel rarely do the same. Superman, the Flash and Green Lantern carry on regardless. Grant Morrison’s iconic run on the Justice League simply made the League’s threats so cosmic they either never took place on Earth, or if they did there was self-evidently no other body than the League who could deal with them. Warren Ellis’s The Authority addressed it by frankly admitting that the Authority – An alternate version of the Justice League with added sexual diversity, radical politics and ultra-violence – were imposing their power on “bad guys”, and bad governments, simply because they could. As a limited series outside DC continuity it could do that. Mainstream heroes cannot, or at least not without raising intractable problems that would dominate future storylines.
Marvel has a double standard. On the one hand its “street level” heroes – Spiderman, Daredevil, Luke Cage – are routinely harassed by the media, the most obvious example being the Daily Bugle’s editor J. Jonah Jameson’s obsessive pursuit of Spiderman; and the X-Men are frequently persecuted by anti-mutant forces within government. On the other its premier superhero team, the Avengers, is granted enormous latitude.
Although the Avengers’ team roster continually changes it revolves around the “big three” – Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. Given the iconic nature of these characters, and the manner in which the Avengers operate openly from Avengers Mansion or Stark Tower in New York, a dramatic device is needed to explain their freedom to operate. Thus, since the 1980s, the Avengers have been a semi-official arm of first the American government and then the UN. They have official license to respond to major threats. Their status dwarfs that of local law enforcement or even national armed forces, and ensures support from inter-governmental bodies such as SHIELD.
The only real political difficulty was in Kurt Busiek’s daring 2001 storyline in which the Avengers’ government liaison insists they meet diversity criteria and have more black and minority ethnic heroes in their main 7-person roster. “All the founding Avengers were white,” he points out, “even the Hulk, when he’s not green”. Thor, not of this earth, finds the demand incomprehensible. Captain America frankly admits he is of a different era and not the man to oversee it. Iron Man concedes the group should be more representative of society but prefers “…it happen naturally, rather than by quota”.
Busiek carefully balances the issue by including a demand from anti-mutant bigots that the Avengers actively exclude mutants like the Scarlet Witch. For all the subtlety of the storyline, the main Avengers (Thor aside) are presented as well-meaning liberals, assailed by petty ideologues on both sides.
It is the great merit of the 7-issue Marvel “event” comic Civil War (first published in 2007) that it directly addressed, in a relatively adult and sophisticated manner, the politics of superhero regulation. Significantly, it was written by a non-American writer, Mark Millar, whose Kick-Ass and Wanted also gleefully deconstructed the tropes of the genre.
In Civil War a crisis of confidence in superheroes arises when a second-tier band of heroes, whose adventures are filmed for a reality TV show, attempt to take down some “super-villains” who are out of their league in order to secure higher ratings, leading to a catastrophic explosion in a suburban town which kills hundreds of people, including an entire infants school.
The disaster starts a public debate about the need to “register” superheroes to ensure they are trained and accountable to the public they are supposed to serve, encapsulated in the proposal for a “Superhuman Registration Act” (SRA) under which all who wish to behave as a superhero must first divulge their identity to the government, which will then train and license them.
The proposal splits the superhero community down the middle. At a meeting called by the Fantastic Four to discuss the issue, the Wasp (who is independently wealthy) decries the absurdity of “turning us into civil servants” with “pension plans and vacation time”. Others disagree. Interviewed on Larry King Live, She-Hulk – aka lawyer Jennifer Walters – asks of super-heroes, “Training them up and making them carry badges? Yes, I’d say that sounds like a reasonable response”.
The debate polarises around Iron Man (Tony Stark) and Captain America (Steve Rogers), with Stark regarding the accident as a “wake up call”. “Becoming public employees makes perfect sense if it helps people sleep a little easier” he tells his colleagues. Rogers, the man from the 1940s, sees the demand that superheroes disclose their identities and work only to government dictat as a fundamental attack on civil rights.
Significantly it is Stark, not Rogers, who has the personal effect of unregulated superheroics brought home to him. At a memorial for the dead, the mother of one of the children killed in the explosion slaps his face and blames him for her son’s death. Stark is shaken by the encounter and forced to re-think his assumptions. Rogers never has such an encounter.
Instead, his crucial moment is a stand-off with the new Director of SHIELD, Maria Hill. At first Hill believes that Captain America will help SHIELD enforce the new law, simply because it is the law, but Rogers disabuses her. He insists that superheroes must “…stay above all this stuff, or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are”, to which Hill responds “I thought super-villains were guys in masks who refused to obey the law?”. Rogers then breaks out of the SHIELD Helicarrier and forms a group of underground heroes who refuse to abide by the SRA whilst continuing their activities.
Interestingly, the common position amongst American readers was that Stark was the “villain” and Rogers the “hero”. But the text does not bear this out. Stark’s arguments are logical and reasonable, whereas Rogers’s are emotional and dogmatic. It is clear that Stark is simply trying to control an impossible situation and respond to public concern. Later in the story the argument is skewed because Stark and his main supporters (Reed Richards and Hank Pym, the “intellectuals” of the Marvel universe and therefore, by implication, lacking Rogers’s simple humanity) make some dubious decisions and catastrophic mistakes.
After it becomes clear that the two sides are evenly matched Richards and Stark make a cyborg clone of the absent Thor to take down Rogers’s team, but it malfunctions and accidentally kills the second-stringer hero Goliath. Stark and SHIELD then grant a special license to jailed super-villains such as the homicidal Bullseye and Venom (controlled by nano-implants to ensure they do not go too far) to enforce registration. At this point Stark loses the moral high-ground.
But Millar is careful to balance every decision and compromise. Even the flinty integrity of Captain America is tainted when he allows the mass murderer Frank Castle, the Punisher, to fight for his side. Castle, who is already a wanted fugitive, joins Captain America’s team after Stark starts using super-villains to enforce registration. When two minor villains come to Rogers’s team for help against the government the Punisher casually shoots them both dead, whereupon an appalled Captain America beats him to a pulp. When one of the team wonders why Castle refuses to strike back, another answers “Are you kidding? Cap’s probably the reason he went to Vietnam”.
Millar’s most effective device (impossible to replicate in the film version as the Fantastic Four belong to another studio) is to bring the division in the Marvel fraternity down to the most intimate level – the marriage of Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, Reed and Sue Richards. Sue, appalled at her husband’s complicity in creating the Thor-clone that killed Goliath, and after penning a poignant goodbye note, leaves Reed to his “graphs and social projections” and joins Captain America’s underground network.
Sue is presented as more emotionally empathetic, but is Reed actually wrong? In discussion with She-Hulk, who feels that he and Stark “gave us a future”, he cites massive public approval for the SRA and a subsequent decline in crime rates after the new “50-state Initiative” (a different team of registered super-heroes assigned to every U.S state) is rolled out. His points are never answered or refuted.
This is rich source material for a film, and is the basis of the recently released Captain America: Civil War. In the film the main issue is not superhero “registration” in the sense of revealing secret identies, but the need for the Avengers to place themselves under the “Sokovia Accords” agreed by 150 countries – in effect UN oversight, with the Avengers only allowed to do what an inter-governmental panel authorises them to do. As in the comic, Stark (who in the last Avengers movie created the Ultron robot that led to mass destruction in Sokovia) agrees that this is for the best. Rogers does not.
Naturally, in a film intended for a mass audience, the nuances of the comic are simplified. The final confrontation between Stark and Rogers, seemingly averted after they realise the entire situation has been stoked by a hidden villain, erupts because Rogers’s brain-washed friend the Winter Soldier is revealed to have killed Stark’s parents.
But neither Civil War the comic or Captain America: Civil War the film can disguise the vital political issue they raise, which is the extent to which important public functions should be publicly controlled and accountable, not privatised or subject to “light-touch regulation”. The notable achievement of the comic – and the film, to a lesser extent – is to base its drama around a real philosophical and political argument, and to give the protagonists on either side credible, understandable positions, neither of which is entirely “right” or “wrong”.
The final word should rest with Maria Hill, the salaried civil servant possessed of no super-power except her democratic political mandate. When Captain America stands before her in all his glory and tells her “Masked heroes have been a part of this country for as long as anyone can remember”, she brusquely replies “So’s smallpox. Now grow up and stop being an idiot”.
Psychopathy and sociopathy
In my forthcoming book, The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organizes Empathy (forthcoming from Repeater), I make a distinction between psychopathy and sociopathy. The two terms are commonly used in an interchangeable way, as if they are one and the same, but in my view there is an important difference. I argue that sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour whereas psychopathy ought to refer to internal psychology. More precisely, sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour that fails to meet our expectations and psychopathy to a psychology that does not align with how we expect others to feel and think.
Let’s consider sociopathy first and look at how and why persons fall foul of social expectations or do not conform to social code. People may fall foul of social code for any number of reasons. The reasons could be linked to malice, kindness or ignorance. David Brent from The Office, for example, is reflexively impoverished—he just isn’t aware of his faux pas; he cannot see himself from the view of the other. Brent thinks he is a charming and smooth operator when he is quite the opposite—a cringingly awkward sociopath. Alan Partridge is similar; he thinks he’s cool but often fails to behave in the socially expected manner. It’s not that Alan Partridge has bad intentions, he is not spiteful – but he doesn’t always know when to curb his honesty. At a funeral, in the episode ‘Towering Alan’ he asks “Would it be terribly rude to stop listening to you and go and speak to someone else?” Moments later, after a further faux pas, he finds himself speaking to the deceased’s widow. She asks him if “something is the matter?” and Alan Partridge, the all-too-honest sociopath, plainly explains “I want to be talking to him over there”, pointing and grinning. Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm is sociopathic too. David often causes offence, yet he never means to—more often than not he causes offence or finds himself in an awkward social bind because of his overactive altruism.
Of course Brent, Partridge and David are innocent sociopaths: they don’t really do anybody much harm. Brent and Partridge might be a little self-centred and insensitive at times, yet they are not mean. But how do we know? Why do we suppose that someone behaving in an anti-social way or failing to conform to social expectations should be mean or ‘evil’? Is it right to make assumptions for internal psychology based on external behaviour that falls foul of social expectations? A person might bump into you on the street and not apologise. This is unsocial, and the bumper is sociopathic in this instance. But we should not guess their internal drives from this episode. They could be clumsy, ill, poor-sighted. They may not know our language. Of course, they might be out to do us harm or steal from us—but really, we just don’t know. We know their behaviour is, in local terms, sociopathic but we cannot know with certainty what their internal psychological drive is and we shouldn’t begin making paranoid or judgmental assumptions.
Social behaviour has a tenuous relationship to internal psychology. Many times we behave in a manner that doesn’t quite reflect our internal self. Who hasn’t sat through a boring presentation wishing to get up and leave but remained fused in place because it’d be rude to leave? The disjunct between behaviour and psychology is, in many ways, the root of socialization, politeness and manners. Children are honest sociopaths, they ask ‘rude’ questions like ‘why is he fat?’, until they are socialized—until they learn to lie, curb their impulses and behave in the expected ways. ‘Say sorry like you mean it’ we tell them. This is the other side of the disjunct between behaviour and psychology—being perfectly social whilst secretly yearning to be otherwise. Behaviour being at odds with psychology is where psychopathy comes in. Those we suspect of having a psychology at odds with how we feel they ought to feel (given their behaviour) are psychopaths. We could quip that the process of socialization is a case of impulsive sociopaths learning to be controlled and polite psychopaths.
If we suspect someone lacks empathy, or is being nice, behaving just right, for secretly manipulative or controlling purposes we might call them a psychopath. On some level we know that many people are nice and very social for ulterior motives (salesmen, for example). We readily accept the disjunct between behaviour and psychology. Indeed, the notion of a charming and polite psychopath is very much the form of psychopath that is a contemporary fascination. Part of the enduring appeal of Hannibal Lecter is surely the juxtaposition between his socially adroit conduct, his manners and sensitivity on one hand, and our knowledge of his violent and depraved wants, on the other. Patrick Bateman, too, is fascinating because of his normal appearance: his inconspicuousness, his conformity to social codes. If we met him at a cocktail party, he’d be anonymous, unremarkable and forgettable. In cinema the go-to trope of showing the viewer how psychology is at odds with appearance and behaviour is undoubtedly the ‘mirror-scene’. In such a scene we see the gaze of a character checking their own appearance, making sure they look normal, just right. We see such a device in Sexy Beast, Malice, American Psycho, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cruising and Taxi Driver, to name a few.
Psychopathy is not necessarily always good behaviour masking a psychology that is lacking in empathy or good intentions. It may well be that a person with bad intentions behaves true to their wants – in which case we would view them as a sociopath. Nonetheless, this similarity between the honest psychopath and a sociopath does not vitiate the distinction drawn here. The distinction is based on what we are taking to be at odds with what we expect. If we are considering behaviour, we can say to what degree a person is sociopathic, whereas if we are considering psychology we may speculate to what degree we consider them to be psychopathic. In each instance behaviour has no necessary bearing on psychology and, of course, vice versa. There is a socio-axis, behaviour based and observable, and there is a psycho-axis based on our speculations of another’s psychology. Thus, we can draw up some modes of the disjunct or correlation between behaviour and psychology: well-meaning sociopaths, ill-meaning sociopaths, super-social psychopaths and, lastly, anti-social psychopaths (anti-social psychopaths may be quite similar to ill-meaning sociopaths).
Super-social psychopathy is perhaps the category we can best relate to. Don’t we all put on an act that is at odds with how we really feel inside? We have probably told people we are ‘fine, thanks’ when, actually, we might have been far from it. We may have embellished a little too much during an interview and said we are ‘passionate and enthusiastic’ about whatever mundane cognitive work pays a wage. Perhaps we are, at times, like a polite and charming super-social psychopath—yet behaving more like a sociopath might reflect our true selves more accurately.
The mask of conspicuity: psychopaths masquerading as sociopaths
Throughout the writing of The Psychopath Factory, a certain real-life character haunted me—Jimmy Savile. Savile never quite fitted into my scheme of categorization. On one hand, he knew how to behave socially and could manipulate others. But on the other hand, he was not exactly a conformist. Nor was he an extrovert either. He seemed paradoxical, chimerical: at once reclusive and secretive whilst also showing off and craving attention, power and control. One of the insights of Dan Davies’ marvellous In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile is how brazenly open Savile was about his proclivities and impulses. “Jimmy Savile offered a rare glimpse into his mind-set as he dragged his ageing body around the 26.2-mile course. ‘At times I feel like strangling every other competitor in the race,’ he confessed. ‘I mean really, truly murdering them.” This is one of many iterations of his strategy of revealing his deeply anti-social mind-set in a light and open fashion. Another is his notorious declaration of hating children. ‘‘’I hate kids…I’m very good with them because I hate them,’ he continued. ‘They know I’m not some yucky adult. I like to confuse them because they don’t know where they are then. Then they start to fall in love with you. Nobody confuses kids like I do; they try to understand them and reason with them. I think all kids should be eaten at birth.’’’ Savile seemed to state truths so horrid that they would be taken as outlandish jest or banter. He would lie about many things—he was a pathological liar by many accounts—but he would always pepper his lies with the most unthinkable truths. Davies recalls how the last time he met with Savile, at a restaurant, a waiter asked him if everything was OK after Savile had barked ‘c*nt’, causing a commotion. The waiter then asked if there was anything else he needed and Savile said, plainly, “two 16 year old girls from Ukraine”.
Savile was also flash. The garish tracksuits, the statement Rolls Royce, the blonde hair, large cigar (he’d smoke bigger cigars in public), the bling—the diamond studded Rolex, the ‘jangle-jangle’—were all part of a campaign of cultivated conspicuity. “’It’s part of the charismatic package’ he offered”. This is psychopathy masquerading as sociopathy. It is the knowing performance of sociopathy, the camouflage of conspicuity—the distraction tactic of appearing not to conform. It is not sociopathic in the sense of a violent and misbehaving criminal. Nor is it sociopathic in the sense of Brent and Partridge who fail at trying to conform to social code. Savile wasn’t a sociopath but a psychopath who performed a certain form of sociopathy. He maintained an appearance of sociopathy, knowing its potential to obfuscate and cloak his true self: “I don’t have to do anything, I just have to be. I’m like a piece of soap in the bath; you can see it but when you try to get hold of it it’s gone’’.
Of course, we all perform a little, we might brag about not conforming to the speed limit for example. We might not like to think of ourselves as a total conformist, we like to be a little different, special or unique. But there is a performance of sociopathy that many high-profile people maintain to at once distract from and advance themselves. There are many low-level performances of sociopathy.
Boris Johnson, the lovable Teflon rogue, allegedly spends an hour on his hair each morning. His shambolic and rumpled appearance has, it seems, a certain appeal—he plays on the ingratiating potential of self-depreciation: the charm of fluster. (We may have done something similar, we may have put a little bit too much effort into appearing like we don’t care, spent some time composing a text or tweet with just the right amount of nonchalance.) Boris Johnson is not a sociopath, he’s not quite Toad of Toad Hall; he’s not reckless but merely appears to be so, and this has proved advantageous. (It could be argued that Trump is the US equivalent. His ex-butler said of him in a documentary; “He loves mirrors…he morphs into whatever you want him to be”). Unlike many other politicians, ‘Boris’ seems to get no bad publicity. Even his outright failures and gaffs seem to serve only to ingratiate him more. Bungling, buffoon, blundering often prefix Boris – even genuine mistakes that ought to finish the career of mortal politicians are laughed off. Primed by his dishevelled and casual abandon we excuse Boris. ‘That’s Boris!’ We chuckle and tut.
Jeremy Clarkson is another skilful performer of sociopathy. He has built a career on pre-meditated faux pas and calculated offence. Although in many ways he is unlike Savile (contrary to the suggestions of some who, in terms of Clarkson’s ‘Savilesque’ power and influence, made the comparison after David Cameron came to Clarkson’s defence—supposedly echoing Thatcher’s praise of Savile— after his suspension from Top Gear for physically assaulting a producer in an altercation glossed jollily as a ‘fracas’ or ‘scuffle’ in most mainstream media) there is a striking similarity in terms of performing sociopathy. What’s more, there is also a notable similarity in his motivation for performing sociopathy—to prevent his true self being revealed. He has been quite frank about this in a recent interview published in The Times:
“The whole thing is an act, of course,” he says at one point. What? “My job, my TV persona. ‘Jeremy Clarkson.’ It’s a mask. We all wear masks. It’s not the real me.” Is he suggesting that the man who’s made £30 million from “being himself” is a con? “Yup.” Then who is the real you? “I’m not telling you,” he laughs.
His insistence on masks is repeated later on in the interview when he says ‘“We are who we were born and, bar some very early nurturing, that is set for the rest of our lives. Everything else is a mask.”’ This brag of insincerity is an uncomfortably similar sentiment to Savile’s soap metaphor. Clarkson performs sociopathy but at once negates any confusion that it is anything but a performance or a mask of who he really is. The old Top Gear excuse, as Stewart Lee has observed, is the ‘it’s only a joke’ caveat to any offensive remark—at once swerving responsibility whilst seeking to invalidate any offense caused. Clarkson’s ‘slope’ remark is a case in point. “while trying to build a bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand…Clarkson commented, when he saw someone walk across it, ‘“That is a proud moment … but there’s a slope on it.’” So too is his use of the ‘n-word’ when saying the Eeny Meeny Miney Moe rhyme (in other versions he plumped for ‘catch a teacher by his toe’).
However, there is a power and control dynamic at work here—like the bantering demi-bully who, when seeing he has pushed too far, instantly reneges any serious intent. Like a sociopathic child, constantly testing the boundaries of authority, there is a certain power-play. For the Times piece, Clarkson snapped his fingers and the interviewer flew to Barbados. In the next paragraph the interviewer describes how:
he has a hangover. He’s spent much of the day sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool with an oxygen tank, refusing to be coaxed up by a desperate scuba instructor, on the grounds that he wanted to drown out the world. “It was so nice and peaceful down there. Why would I want to come out?”
Clarkson’s lucrative brand of childlike petulance is impressed at other moments too. His status as an enfant terrible man-child is indelicately declared later in the interview with an outright lie. He tells the interviewer he has no pubes and that he only knew he went through puberty when his voice broke, but later confesses that he made this up. There is also a reference to his love of AA Milne, but his comment is so clichéd and vapid that this must be read as another insincere performance of his cheeky, childlike sociopath (“every character you’ll meet in life is a character from Winnie-the-Pooh: May is Wol [how Owl spells his name], Hammond is Piglet, I am Tigger”).
Clarkson’s offensive remarks are not ill-judged but exquisitely well judged flouts. Despite being laughed off or excused as harmless banter, as something not to be taken seriously, they are serious. These are not accidents but pre-meditated acts of insolence. Even when Clarkson falls foul of what is acceptable – even ‘as a joke’ – it is, rather implausibly, chalked up as a coincidence and he casually draws attention to his friendship with the Prime Minister:
While filming a Christmas special in 2014, they had to be evacuated from Argentina after his Porsche’s number plates (H982 FKL) were said to be a deliberately provocative reference to the Falklands conflict. (Clarkson denies this: “It was just an impossibility for us to have chosen that number plate on purpose. I drive thousands of cars a year; I never look at the registration.”)
The situation was so tense for the remaining crew—attempting to reach Chile cross-country—that Clarkson feared they’d be killed. “I rang [David] Cameron, who was out in Afghanistan. ‘Get someone over from the Falklands. You’ve got to help us out here, otherwise you’re going to have 40 dead English people.’ There were 40 stuck in that convoy. It was one of the most unpleasant nights of my life.”
There is also an aspect of Clarkson’s performed sociopathy that is much more like the self-depreciating buffoonery of Boris rather than the Savilesque kaleidoscope of lies and truth. Nonetheless, it is still obfuscatory. He plays up to and exaggerates his awkward appearance. Awkwardness, as I argue, is a low-level form of sociopathy. More than once on Top Gear he remarked, either via sarcasm or plain self-depreciation, about his ungainly physique. Again, some time is given to highlighting his clownish and clumsy physiognomy in the interview:
Clarkson is tall and misshapen with wire-wool hair and tobacco-stained teeth. With the possible exception of Wembley Fraggle, he looks like no one else. He likes to say he was made in God’s factory on a Friday evening, when all they had left was two good feet “and a pair of good buttocks. Look at these rubbish hands, this paunch, this hair.” Someone like Andrea Corr, he adds, was made on a Monday morning.
He claims to be utterly ham-fisted. “My first memory is peeling a hard-boiled egg. I was only about 18 months apparently, and it’s still the most practical thing I’ve ever done.
“As Hammond always says, I look like an orangutan when I’m presented with simple tasks, like opening a bottle of wine.
Clumsiness alone is not sociopathic—someone has to witness the awkward behaviour. Attention must be drawn to it; the performance must be seen. And this is precisely what Clarkson, like Boris, achieves. He makes sure he is seen as awkward, he works hard at being conspicuous.
These performances of sociopathy, the conspicuous flouting of social code that serves to mask the true self are the examples par excellence of virtuosic psychopathic performance. They show such sensitivity to social expectations and such ultra-reflexive self-awareness. They also show the nous and cunning to know that behaving normally isn’t always the best disguise, or advantageous. The performance of sociopathy is the psychopath’s double-bluff. Rather than conform to anonymity like Ripley and Bateman, they flout social expectations and hide in plain sight. Rather than being a super-social psychopath, these impostors masquerade as sociopaths.
Professional controversialist Toby Young has got himself all in a froth about a pink St George Cross at England’s international this week
Oh dear. Toby Young is all in a lather, a victim once more of the ‘PC brigade’.
Writing in the Daily Mail, he describes the scene he seems to have witnessed at Tuesday night’s England international versus the Netherlands. “It was fitting that Tuesday’s England match was awash with pink shirts, pink ribbons and pink flags. After all, football — along with rugby, cricket and every other traditionally male sport — has been forced to undergo what you might call, to borrow a fashionable phrase, gender re-assignment surgery in the past few years. An area of life that used to be associated with men has been colonised by women determined to prove a point about gender equality, regardless of whether they have any genuine interest in the sports in question.”
Oh dear, the thinking-bloke’s Jeremy Clarkson really has his boxer shorts in a twist hasn’t he? I have a confession to make to Toby. I’d spent most of Tuesday afternoon laying out thousands of cards across the England home end in the stadium. It’s a fan-led initiative called ‘Raise the Flag’, and when God Save the Queen strikes up they’re held up to form a huge St George Cross flag, mosaic-style. Except this time, when the anthem came to an end, the red cross was flipped to form a pink one, honouring the victims and survivors of this most deadly of diseases, breast cancer. I’m not sure where Toby was sitting in the stands but where I was there wasn’t one murmur of discontent but, rather, a ‘wow moment’ and widespread approval. Then the game kicked off; what Toby fails entirely to mention was what happened at the 14th minute, the entire crowd – English and Dutch – standing to honour the memory of Johan Cruyff. The cancer that killed Johan attacked his lungs, not his breasts – same disease, different body parts.
Toby sees political correctness almost everywhere, a phantom stalking this most illiberal of lands. Now, in his view, its got a grip on sport, or more particularly, Toby’s very particular version of a masculinity epitomised by football . When I lay out a St George Cross before each and every England game, be it red, pink or any other colour under the rainbow I don’t see a symbol of nationalism or politics, correct or otherwise. Rather I see a flag made up of thousands of individual fans holding up a huge vision of human solidarity. A fans’ flag, it belongs to all of us, not Toby, not me, all of us. I’m not sure if Toby was at Wembley last November, I certainly don’t remember him writing about the huge flag we held up that night. Not St George, but the French Tricolour, solidarity once more, this time with the victims of the terror attack on Paris , including the Stade de France, a few days earlier. Was that ‘political correctness gone mad’ Toby? Or was it simply a symbol of borders not meaning very much when as fans we are all united against the bloody terrorism of ISIS and their off-shoots?
Toby’s main point seems to be that he thinks breast cancer has nothing to do with football. A game increasingly played by women, in which the England women’s team beat Germany a year ago – not in a meaningless friendly but in a World Cup. This seems to have gone unnoticed by Toby. Nor does he seem much bothered that many of us blokes will have mums, grannies, aunties, sisters, nieces, girlfriends, daughters, neighbours, friends and workmates who suffer from this most gendered of diseases (although, its worth noting that 330 men a year are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK too). It’s called caring about others, Toby. Isn’t that something we should all stand, cheer, have some pride in, whatever our team?
Football is never going to change the world. That’s not its place, an England team that can stick it out at the Euros to the quarters or beyond is about as much as most of us can hope for. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a space, on the pitch and in the stands, where ideas aren’t offered and contested. Toby would prefer a world of football unchanged from that golden 1966 summer 50 years ago, where men were men and women knew their place. I prefer instead a football that at least tries to keep up with, if not always change with, the times. An England for all, whatever our colour, gender or sexuality; faith or none; whatever the country we or our parents originally came from. This – the single biggest change in what an England team looks like, is supported by Tuesday night’s team on the pitch: once more – Sturridge, Alli, Rose, Smalling, Clyne and more. Gender diversity on the pitch is is perhaps a bit further off. But male fans standing up to show they care about breast cancer – that’s the kind of England crowd I want to be part of, even if Toby doesn’t, thank you very much.
Repeater: What struck you about Susan Sontag’s diaries?
Siouxzi Connor: I felt like an invader reading these things but at the same time couldn’t pull myself away. I guess, in her personal life, the fact that she went through such a turn-around in her sexuality as well – publicly too.
Obviously, the public side of it was more or less towards the end of her life, not so much when she was at the height of her fame, of her productivity. But I could see this pain coming out in her dairies that I also felt with my own struggles with identity, struggles with sexuality or sexual identity, and knowing whether to make that topic apparent in my writing room.
Repeater: I’m fascinated by what seems to be a really strong strand in your art of this idea of a forest. Am I wrong in noticing that that’s a thing? If I’m not, what’s it all about?
Siouxzi: It really stems from my childhood. It stems from this acquired common obsession that maybe a lot of children have of always trying to visualize this sense of home. They might draw this little square with a triangle and a little pitched roof and show the little path and a picket fence sort of picture of home.
But for me, when I was a child, I was always drawing that with a forest around it, and it extended to when my brother, sister, and I were writing this little book together. I think we called it something like, “Our Place.” And it was just this repetitive obsession that we had, over the years, of our childhood, where we would sit, literally, in a little wooden house that our father had built us in the backyard, amongst all the trees.
We would sit there and my sister would draw and I would write about what this perfect place was that we wanted in our future, and it was always about this house, the forest, this horses we would have, and just these childhood dreams of a utopia in the forest.
I guess that obsession is just like most childhood obsessions when it’s in the background for many years. Then when I started writing my novel, I just couldn’t get it out of my head, and I literally started writing the novel in a wooden house in a forest in Finland and was flooded by this — I don’t know – feeling or this want for a utopia, again, like this house in the forest where everything is perfect.
All of the traditions and rituals of civilization are created within four walls. In the novel, this idea of utopia has so much to do with ritual, and how, even if there might be only two or three of us in an isolated place, we somehow create this rich culture, this rich set of traditions amongst us.
That proverbial space of the forest just keeps popping up in the novel and this book. To a certain extent it is in the films I’ve made too.
Repeater: I stumbled across this book a few months ago called Dreamtime: Concerning the boundary between Wilderness and Civilization by a German author, Hans Peter Duerr. What drew me to it was a search for some new way to think about freedom.
The book is very much focused on medieval religion, and the illicit rituals that persisted, and the taking of psychoactive drugs and things like that — things that were not socially permitted.
I wonder if for you when you talk about utopia it’s the same thing that I’m thinking of when I say freedom?
Siouxzi: Yes, the wilderness is somehow associated with freedom as well and, you know, just this dream of getting away from the city and having freedom from culture, which is impossible.
But using the wilderness as a space for freedom and this cultural element is coming in from the outside and reminding us of who they are. Reminding us that this freedom that we have built up in the forest is actually an illusion and freedom is somehow impossible.
Repeater: That’s really captured here in the title “Little Houses Big Forest.”
Siouxzi: It also has something to do with the research that the book was based on – a lot of ecology and anthropology was filtered into it. I think the choice of having the big forest, little house, for example, is this idea of a our having a place in nature, and not living with this assumption of our dominance as a species—having this humility to think of ourselves or our culture as something that can be dominated by nature on a psychological level, and what that means psychologically to be dominated by nature.
Repeater: I got it. I think there’s also a sense of enough in that state as well. How do we preserve ourselves in a harsh environment, but not over-preserve ourselves? A little house is big enough.
Siouxzi: Yeah. There’s also this idea, this thread that keeps going throughout the book about being lost and being happy not to hold on too tightly to self-preservation. And this idea of building up this armor of culture around you, but to allow yourself to be “lost”, whether it’s physically in nature or whether it’s in any of the other ways that we can be lost. I think of it as a luxury. Going back to that idea of freedom, it’s the sense of being free in “lostness.”
One really satisfying thing about the book is that it brings together so many threads from my work, in terms of writing, but then also bringing together the visuals that I’ve been working on in the past as well. To have both of these worlds in one place.
Repeater: Actually, I did want to ask you about being a Polaroid photographer. Is that still accurate? Are these Polaroids?
Siouxzi: The images that are in here are not Polaroids. There are two layers, one is from a black and white 16mm film I did a few years ago. The other layers is 35mm color stills that I shot around Berlin last year.
Repeater: What’s the image on the cover, is that a random person from berlin?
Siouxzi: It’s actually me.
Repeater: It’s you!
Siouxzi: Yeah. It’s from a film.
Repeater: It’s well disguised.
Siouxzi: Yeah. Exactly. When I think of it as myself because it was just from this film, when I think of it as this character, even though when I look at it I don’t think of it as me, it’s just this other entity from this film.
Repeater: The figurative personal images are from the film and then the picture of the tree and the forest is the…
Guest post by David Stubbs. His next book, 1996 and the End of History, will be published by Repeater in 2016.
The first time I didn’t meet David Bowie was at a junior school village hall disco at Barwick-in-Elmet, the small village near Leeds, in which I grew up. This would have been in 1973, I guess. The polish of the parquet tiled floor lingers palpably in my distant memory, as do the sea of flapping corduroy flares and stomping pop sounds of the stereo system they’d wheeled into the hall. Chief among them was “The Jean Genie”. Pop meant everything to me then; I kept an exercise book in which I would list in different felt tip pen the Top 20 singles charts rundown each Sunday. If an entry had gone up in the charts, it was listed in green, if it had gone down, red; if it had held its position to me, grey. I felt distinctly the schism in the charts. There was the stony rubbish, the mouldering crooners who still held sway into the charts appealing to an audience some of whose tastes had formed in the Edwardian age. Oh, and there were The Osmonds and David Cassidy but they were for girls and therefore beneath contempt.
And then there was our gang, our gang. The boys. There was Glitter, of course, Slade, The Sweet, Bolan – but even I recognised that Bowie was the Queen Bitch of them all. And I wasn’t the only one. All us boys, all us little hard boys, thought Bowie was the cock. No more so than on the minimal “Jean Genie”, which, though we didn’t know it, harked back to a tradition that stretched to Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”. All we Dennis The Menaces who were anti-Walter, anti-softie, loved David Bowie. He was the juvenile delinquent in extremis.
Apologies. It would be nice to report that he effected an epiphany in our young minds with his unabashed androgyny, his deliberate effeminacy, the way he put his arm over the shoulder of his guitarist on “Starman”. It would be nice to report that this sort of behaviour confounded the macho bully boys in 1970s English primary and secondary schools, but that wasn’t my experience. Somehow, it made him more über-male. After all, we were used to long-haired blokes; we had them on the wrestling every afternoon, blokes like Adrian Street; we had them running rings round defenders on Match Of The Day, blokes like Tony Currie, Charlie George and George Best. We didn’t really know what homosexuals were, with The Naked Civil Servant still round the corner in the mid-70s but we knew what puffs were and David Bowie wasn’t puff’s music. There was too much hard guitar, wham-bam percussion and fast, honky-tonk piano for that. Puff’s music was Donny Osmond. Your Granddad might think Bowie was some sort of nancy boy but he didn’t get it, did he?
Of course, David Bowie was implanting all kinds of ideas about maleness and being that would flower later but for boys my age, he was simply a magnificent pop animal with whom we could somehow identify and root for; he made the out of reach seem slightly less out of reach. He mysteriously and disappointingly ascended out of the glam pop orbit in the mid-70s for reasons we couldn’t quite understand. In his place came the likes of Alvin Stardust and David Essex, the sort of ersatz poppers who, unlike David Bowie, would do shows like Seaside Special. Sightings of Bowie became rarer. His value only increased.
Then came Cracked Actor, the BBC documentary about Bowie broadcast in 1974. I watched it avidly; even though I only had access to a black and white TV, Bowie’s presence seemed to colour up the screen nonetheless. What enchanted me most about this bizarro, glamorous, scary monster, diamond-hard rocking man’s man was that he was very much an Englishman. He spoke in the broad, affable vowels preserved from his South London upbringing; he was milkman-matey, even as he tottered around in stacked heels and multi-coloured, flesh-revealing androgynous garb. This impressed me deeply. You could be this and you could be English.
I later went through a phase of deep Bowie scepticism in which I dismissed this manner of Bowie’s as nothing more than a pretence of unpretentiousness, the empty tones of a poseur who had no originality about him, was merely the sum of his chameleon colours. I got past that, fortunately. Today, it seems clearer than ever that, despite his worldwide peregrinations, gender fluidity and shape shifting, Bowie was at heart doggedly English and that being male and English, this somehow meant a great deal to me, to a degree that is almost shameful.
You sense it at the very beginnings of his career; those flickering colour images on YouTube of him as a young, dapper mod, seeking out the camera’s eye. Or the huge influence exerted on him by Anthony Newley, who combined acting and songwriting and despite his jetsetting success was very much the dapper Englishman, a Bond-like international emissary.
Much is made of Bowie coming from Beckenham, as if it is an ironic absurdity that he should have come from a staid, South London suburb but I’m not sure if Bowie himself felt that way. He wasn’t quite JG Ballard, with his seemingly improbable and perverse attachment to his suburban semi-detached home but he kept on a large place in Beckenham as late as 1971. The extent of his fame, the mania and collective, pent-up existential energies it exploded on the world meant that he had no practical choice but to remove himself, place himself in exile, in New York, Switzerland. However, as interview footage with my ex-colleague reveals, he maintained at all times impeccable English manners and courtesy, well above and beyond the call of PR duty. There are countless anecdotes of encounters with him which reveal that his natural instinct was to be matey, helpful and egalitarian, rather than diva-ish or stand-offish.
Of course, he didn’t make England his subject, a la The Kinks or Blur. And, although he politely took a lifetime achievement award from Tony Blair at the height of Britpop in 1996, in which his contribution to British pop was eulogised, the strand of British music that was taking his fancy at that point was the progressive, futurist reconfigurations of drum’n’bass, not the retro homage of Menswear. And yet that attachment to England pops up all over the place, in small but telling places, whether it’s a photo of him on a train chuckling over a copy of the British-as-it-gets Viz magazine, or a picture of him taken in Greenwich Village, NYC on his 50th birthday by Kevin Cummins, in which he’s clutching a Union Jack tea mug and a fag.
Even when he was going through his Young American phase, despite the transatlantic vocal patterns he adopted, you always felt he maintained a consciousness that he was playing a (temporary) role, rather than lapse inadvertently into the faux-Americanisms of some of his peers. When he decided, as he unabashedly put it, to be the soulman, he made no bones about the fact that it was a premeditated pose, thereby avoiding some of the more embarrassing wannabeblack tendencies of 80s and 90s pop stars. And when he went to Berlin, he went very much as an Englishman, a neo-Isherwood, rather than someone determined to become an honorary Teuton. There was always that distance, that thespian consciousness. Finally, the very last photos of him see him just days before he died looking absolutely dapper in a perfectly tailored suit, a poignant echo of those early, Super-8 images of him as a mod about town.
Is this important? Surely the “essence” of Bowie is his existential departure from any sense of the “essence”. That you do not have merely to “be”, that you can become. However, I think of the words of my friend Phil Ramsden, who wrote that Bowie helped “to forge a new definition of what it meant to be a British man: something that wasn’t a City Gent or a chirpy Cockney or even a louche, lock-up-your-daughters kind of Jagger figure. Something that was a touch mysterious and non-self-explanatory.” That is important. The sliver of freedom Bowie on TOTP in the early 70s was one of freedom from a Britain still caught in the staid, repressive pall of a postwar Britain in which glimmers of a future beyond were relatively few and far between. Bowie wasn’t a departure from the dreary hegemony of English maleness so much as an expansion. Those of us who were male and English in his time are, in this respect, particularly privileged.
There was a point about four or five years ago, a point I’m not bothered about confirming archivally but which nonetheless definitely occurred, at which football clubs almost uniformly, if you’ll allow the pun, changed the way that they marketed their new kits. Not so long ago, you’d have found a posed shot of a star player rehearsing some fabulous piece of technique or even, where the club had a meagre branding budget, a simple team photograph which could create other revenue streams from calendars and similar items. What superseded these more traditional forms of marketing was a style of image which offers the contemporary student of semiotics much to consider. Now, the background will be an electrolysed Blade Runner gloom, perhaps with little serifs of smoke indicating some recent conflagration or catastrophe. Against this will stand three to five players, one of whom will be a goalkeeper, another a winger or attacking midfielder, and yet another a looming centre half with a backwoodsman’s beard and sleeve tattoos. Their arms are crossed and resolute; they are indomitable. The language used to sell the kits will be pared down to abstraction: ‘[Club Name] 2015 Home Kit: We Are One.’ The general tone is a seriousness so ascetic it detonates into camp, unable to withstand the internal stresses on its structure of plausibility.
Nevertheless, for some it must have the appeal of gravitas or it would simply not work as an incentive to purchase. How, then, can it be explained? First, perhaps, with recourse to a certain type of pop-cultural hetero-masculinity which (re-) emerged in the early twenty-first century, initially – if I had to pick a particular moment – with the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, but more lately underwritten and refocused with HBO’s preternaturally successful Game of Thrones. In these programmes’ fantasy second worlds
, manhood, if done properly and honourably, is a matter of disenchanted seriousness, a saddened and reluctant understanding of the inherently conflictual nature of existence. Any levity here can only manifest itself as grim irony – one does not simply walk into Mordor, remember – and all time between battles must be occupied with sorrowful renditions of stories of the travails of Good. The bearded, tattooed centre-half on the kit advert, then, is supposed to connote the fantasy version of ordeal, the effect of which is not limited to football’s contemporary image-system. Think, for example, of how car advertising has departed from its nineties staple of secure glamour to its present mood of quasi-military exertion, its stubbled protagonists surging through sodden Scandinavian or Scottish gloom in order not, as the case would once have been, to seduce, but to be reunited with family.
The last item in this chain of images is, of course, the military recruitment film, which has become, after a fashion, more honest and explicit about the danger and brutality of conflict in the period that I’m describing. In Britain, the army are no longer particularly reticent about depicting ‘live’ skirmishes in their propaganda, in part because they suspect that computer games are not far from offering a comparable intensity of experience anyway, but also because of a gathering idea which automatically associates soldiering with virtuousness. Ideally, the film prompting its audience to enlist in the Marines or for the Territorial Army shows a gunfight in Helmand, or on a generically be-jungled ‘African’ coastline populated by similarly generic ‘rebels’, before portraying the hero returning to the family that his actions have (somehow) safeguarded.
What I’m trying to get at here is how advertising aimed at men has undergone an elemental shift in how it desires, and in how it seeks to channel desire. The old, but not really that old, male utopia was one of ease, of frictionless libido cruising through a collage of Eurocentric sophistication, waking in Venice amidst the accoutrements of one erotic encounter and falling asleep in Monte Carlo amidst another’s. This no longer holds: it is perceived, understandably, as inauthentic and insufficiently austere for our times. Instead, the dream-work is of extended periods of sexual and romantic isolation in the still largely homosocial realms of military conflict or extreme exploration, interspersed with brief unifications with family. This is the logic to which football advertising in Britain increasingly appeals.
Clearly, nobody seriously thinks that the players of, say, Scunthorpe United visiting, say, Leyton Orient for an awayday is remotely comparable to a six-month tour of Helmand. Nevertheless, enough sticks from this metaphorical equivalence to make us think that footballers fulfil some kind of existential duty, something which exceeds the rubric of paid work, when they play for a team. It has long been the case that disloyalty has been the most atrocious crime a footballer can commit, but the economic insecurity of the historical moment seems to have amplified the notion that we have particular responsibilities to increasingly local social units. There is something especially interesting here in the way that football clubs now seem to be regarded as ends in themselves on this front, as entities more demanding and deserving of loyalty than the broad communities which they inhabit. One concrete example of the contrasting fortunes of club and community is Liverpool fans’ continuing failure to resist the acts of social cleansing taking place on behalf of the club in the vicinity of Anfield: evidence that This Football Club is regarded as a point of social allegiance in almost direct tension with its area. The player, in this case, is asked to behave as an avatar of that unit’s struggle in an increasingly atomised, conflictual world, and asked to buy wholesale into the ‘values’ of the ‘project’ even when those values and that project are things that have been conjured ad hoc by recently installed owners and managers whose heads have been turned by the jargon of ‘smart thinking’ books and TED talks.
‘Sport is a battle’, then, is the metaphor we are now required to live by as football fans. It came to light in a peculiarly candid way during the predictable period of recrimination following England’s equally predictable early exit from the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Even before the players had set off for home Harry Redknapp, the geezerish and journalist-friendly cockney who had been passed over for the England manager’s job in 2012 because of a pending court case, turned up in the press claiming that a number of English internationals were in the habit of begging their club managers to withdraw them from the national squad for friendly games. The allegation was stark: that some English players regard playing for their country not as an honour, but as an annoyance. England coach Roy Hodgson and his outgoing captain Steven Gerrard cannily took the sting out of Redknapp’s comments by asking him to name names, but the matter did not drop entirely. Former England striker and current light-entertainment go-to Ian Wright wrote in his column in the Sun newspaper that any player found to have shirked international ‘duty’ without good reason should be required to phone the parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to drop out.
This was imagined on Twitter in plenty of bleakly funny versions of how the transcript of such a call might read. Palpably, the suggestion was a piece of attention-seeking on the part of Wright, who has never, it seems, got over his early-career rejections or his marginalisation in the 1990s England team by more rounded strikers such as Alan Shearer. However, it spoke to something in England’s present-day ideological make-up, namely a resurgent patriotism of symbols which regards Englishness, whatever that might mean, as somehow under threat. The role the football player takes in this set of beliefs is intriguing. Wright was playing to the idea that the default setting for footballers is a patriotic one, that they feel a sense of pride in national symbols which extends beyond their utilitarian, team-bonding value. By linking this version of patriotic obligation to that of the soldier’s, he insisted tacitly on the relative unanimity of nationalistic sentiment amongst the working-class communities that both footballers and the rank-and-file military are drawn from.
We went down to Brighton last month for the Long Progress Bar – a two day version of the monthly event, and a ‘festival of radical imagination’ featuring talks, workshops and performances from artists, activist, musicians, writers, academics & more.
There was A LOT to take in across the two days, so we’ve compiled a brief list of further reading on some of the work/topics covered:
Having not had a chance to read the book yet, it was good to have the chance to hear Paul Mason talking about Postcapitalism. He posted his notes from the talk here. There was an extract and video on the Guardian back in July, and the book is out now (paperback not until June 2016) .
Holly Herndon & Jam City were in conversation about music and politics – a combination that’s extended to sharing a bill at the Illuminations festival this week. We love Platform, Herndon’s 2015 and have been rinsing the new Jam City EP for the last month. Read some background on the radical ideas and huge range of collaborators that went into Platform here. For more on Jam City check out this good recent Dazed interview and Laura Oldfield Ford’s response to the Dream A Garden album on kpunk from earlier this year.
Mat Dryhurst presented his Saga project, which aims to give content creators control over how their work is shared/presented online. Saga has now been released, read more here.
The universal basic income movement is gaining ground, and economist Guy Standing made a strong case for it. Read an article by him making the same argument here – he’s also great on changing understandings of work, and his latest book, Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (Bloomsbury, 2011) is well worth a look. For more on UBI check out the work of American sociologist Erik Olin Wright, especially his book Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010)
For all the Pet Shop Boys’ talk of having made “Electric, but more so”, Super is a very different beast from its predecessor. Perhaps it’s because the duo enjoy playing with expectations, but there is a striking disconnect here between the bright, brash artwork and the sad world lit up by the strobe lights.
The dark side of Super is not the brooding BDSM hinted at by Electric’s wildest moments, but rather the resigned grief of Elysium and Nightlife. Nowhere on Electric will you find lyrics anything like “I live every day like a sad beast of prey” or “no one understands us here/imagine how free we will be if we disappear”; nowhere else in pop music, probably, will you find the line ‘I sound quite demented’, but then this is a band that once shoehorned the words ‘Carphone Warehouse’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ into the same verse.
If we’ve met Super’s characters before, it was longer ago than Electric – they appeared in ‘To Step Aside’, ‘Dreaming of the Queen’, even ‘Opportunities’. And the flawed superheroes who lend this album its bold title are hardly the Avengers.
There’s the ageing autocrat pondering abdication on ‘The Dictator Decides’; the Shoreditch boys hoping their time at the top will last forever (‘Twenty-something’, ‘Groovy’); the star DJ, a celebrity only for as long as he can fill the dancefloor; the ‘Pop Kids’ whose romance and spark is dulled by the tedious march of time.
It must be said, though, that we visit some utterly barmy discos along the way. Oddest of all is ‘Happiness’ with its Junior Senior breakdown – so giddy, it’s easy to miss the bleak message that opens the album: ‘it’s a long way to happiness’.
And while Neil Tennant sneaks bits of himself into all his protagonists, only on closing track ‘Into Thin Air’ does it feel like he’s telling his own story: for four minutes, just like the dictator, he really does want to pack it all in. ‘Too much ugly talking; too many bad politicians’, he sings, perhaps describing the rabble to whom he has dedicated the rest of Super. If we didn’t know a third Stuart Price collaboration was already in the making, it would be tempting – and frightening – to see this as Tennant’s answer to ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, the song in which Bowie laid bare his own premature flight schedule.
‘Into Thin Air’ is Super’s bewitching highlight. It has echoes of Relentless, the wistful dance album that came with Very; a flash, too, of the Nightlife dancers’ slackening subjectivity. This is what Robert Miles’s ‘dream house’ should have been in 1996: a lullaby for the ecstatic. After the sugar rush of ‘Say It to Me’ and ‘Burn’, ‘Into Thin Air’ slips calmly, unseen, out of the club. The day is so very young and instead of heading home our hero walks towards the sunrise, his head full of sound and his feet no longer touching the road, while his friends feign concern at their inability to find him in the darkness.
This is an edited extract from JD Taylor‘s forthcoming book, Island Story: Journeying Through Unfamiliar Britain
By the local estate parade, where I’d been warned of ‘dodgy people’ who might despoil a traveller of their possessions, Gary’s out with his young son. ‘Yer fucken mad, you are’, he says, laughing at my alibi for asking. He flicks his head up proudly. ‘It’s marvellous. Some bits are good round ere, some bits are bad, like everywhere’. His mum and sister live round the corner. It’s a community, he presses. Like Jan, surrounded by her sisters in the nearby streets, in spite of Middlesbrough’s decline it’s still kept together families and communities, and this is what people love about it, something impossible in most growing English towns.
But how does one live? Within the 19th century, Middlesbrough exploded from a dozy hamlet to an ‘infant Hercules’ town of a hundred thousand, producing ships, metals and chemicals. Its Teesside docks and port were live-wired into global trade. But all this was another history lesson, and the last of those industries, ICI’s chemical works at Wilton and Billingham, had been wiped out in the 90s, with a rump of smaller firms operating in its place. Middlesbrough’s population has been plummeting, but there was no serious discussion about a responsible shrinking or ungrowing. Instead there were more retail parks, malls and call-centres promised, and receding memories of a future that had failed to arrive.
The sentiment wasn’t merely melancholic. Riding through Billingham among its belching chimneys and swerving juggernauts, air funked with astringent fumes, the Brunner Mond chemical-works later taken over by ICI had inspired Aldous Huxley to imagine his Brave New World. Likewise, the neon-lit towers and flares I’d passed last night at Wilton had inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Both dystopic visions of the future, tagged to the Tees. A ‘space age coated in pigeon shit’ is how Owen Hatherley describes its town centre today, a 60s New Town built by ICI, now marked by its dereliction, a description given with a hint of deserving affection.
Bewley and Seaton Carew follow, disorientatingly bland suburbs, all cul-de-sacs, palisade gates and paved driveways, Sky dishes and CCTV pointed out to the world. Places one could fake one’s death and live untroubled in… as John Darwin almost proved. This was the future that had taken its place, one which, despite its ugliness, had succeeded in offering what more people wanted most, instead of needed. I press on into Hartlepool. Beside the deserted marina and ‘historic quay’, site of ye goodly ol’ HMS Trincomalee, is a binge of retail parks, fast-food drive-thrus, bingo halls and budget hotel chains. The effect is truly bizarre, compounded by its New York-style yellow taxis and the sheer emptiness of the place, as if a millenarian religious cult had massed in the town, built these totems and trophies to the consumer gods, then quietly disbanded after the Credit Crunch apocalypse failed to arrive.
An older couple drift by in the distance. Yvonne and Eddie struggle to explain the town’s present condition. A massive steelworks and harbour have closed, leaving behind a ‘lot of poor’ and unemployment. The retail-glut reflected the magical thinking of the Blair era, that wealth could be simply be magicked into creation, ex nihilo, just as if one could ‘create’ energy into being, rather than harness or redistribute it from elsewhere. One needed credit for these places, now that the jobs were gone, but even that was harder to come by. Eddie points to the empty but modern-looking marina opposite, now owned by the council. There are no plans to use it. ‘I’d turn it into a big sports centre, with football, tennis, badminton’. ‘Kids today sit at home in their rooms on the computer’, Yvonne adds, describing their grandchildren. ‘It’s just the age’.
County Durham. The relatively flat scene is akin to the Cleveland towns, gelded by the closure of the mines. The takeaway and off-licence constitute communal life. After Blackhall, I pull over in Horden for clues. A woman old enough to have been a miner’s wife during the Strike struggles to articulate its story. ‘They’re all gone, shut in 85’. What happened to the people here? She shrugs. ‘Nothing’. Another man of similar age repeats the same. ‘They went out six miles to sea. They reckoned it cost too much money’. He hurries off.
At (another) Easington, the village’s school and council offices are boarded up, their windows smashed through. The pubs are closed, even the neat red-brick miners’ terraces barricaded in places. One might expect this in Detroit or Chernobyl, but on our doorstep? The damage done is plain to see. An old boy pushes a broken lawn-mower down a back-terrace, and we chat. When Thatcher died, he recalls, people came from miles around to party. Some hadn’t returned for at least a decade. When the collieries closed, some miners were sent on computer courses, for certificates ‘not worth’t paper printed on’.
The terrain begins to steepen, then at Sherburn it collapses down again. Durham appears almost from nowhere, secluded from sight in a deep valley. The town is remarkably affluent in contrast to its neighbours, populated by aspirational student bars and luxury homeware shops, its cobbled lanes threading over a gushing river and up a hillock towards its vast, austerely-adorned Norman cathedral and castle. Young Americans babble loudly, and someone busks with a violin.
I pedal on to Langley Moor, an ex-mining village on its outskirts. Clarissa, a friend of my partner’s, lives out here. As we drink beer and wine in her back garden, surrounded by light industrial warehouses and a sports centre, she reflects.
‘There used to be a slag heap there, a colliery down there, even a little railway bringing the coal’. The pits and two-up two-down terraces have almost all been pulled down and eradicated, unlike Easington. ‘I do think it is as bad now as the 80s’ she adds. I wonder how, still struggling to mentally connect up these scenes, past and present. ‘Lots of unemployment’, her late-teen daughter says, her and her mate joining us. Lads join the army. The suicide rate is particularly high.
Perhaps it’s in the collapsing infrastructure, the true, hidden extent of poverty and unemployment. But as they talk, this sense of 80s-scale defeat is in something else. It’s at the level of desire and feeling. Since York, the towns have all been deserted. There are no pricks to kick against, just the stony silence and shame that comes with robbing Peter to pay Paul, of heavy drinking and anti-depressants to salve the pain. The local miners’ gala is now a formalised piss-up, as sheer hedonism blunts the boredom with special occasions for off-the-leash Saturnalia. We hear the radio news from the other room, distant headlines of London and a political elite rattling on about economic growth and employment, but it made no sense out here.[…]
I’d been told that Ashington had been the biggest pit village in the world, a century ago, employing ten thousand miners in five collieries. Then Thatcher waged war on the organised miners, and the productive mines were closed. The town’s other product, aluminium, had also recently ceased, leaving Ashington cut adrift. A young man’s tip in a newsagent directs me to the Woodhorn Colliery, the last of the mines still standing, open as a museum to this lost way of life.
‘Close the door on past dreariness’. ‘The will to work is the way to prosperity’. ‘Nationalisation 1947. The New Era: Welfare Education Mechanisation’. Queen blue and claret banners hang inside, produced by local branches of the NUM, like Ellington, Seghill and Sleekburn A, all nearby. They are defined by their headline fonts, their sentimental and often heraldry-like use of borders and scrolls, and their emotive depictions of grey and miserable slum terraces, like those of Middlesbrough and Gateshead, a past they wished to put behind.
Their progressive, mechanised future is that which failed to arrive, but there is a specifically working class English modernism to these banners which I hadn’t anticipated. Rather than seeking to defend an unproductive and dangerous form of work, they sought to improve it. The banners were produced in the late 40s, at a time when much still felt possible. Rather than appearing as things back in time, they seem like the artefacts of ghosts of the future. What would demands for welfare, mechanisation, education or nationalisation look like today?
The scenes of the ‘Pitmen Painters’ collected here present a way of life gone, perhaps mercifully too. There are blinkered pit ponies, wandering underground; a Friday fish supper; a Labour man addressing a packed-out pub of menfolk; a woman alone, the drudgery of domestic work before the era of cheap appliances; the death of a wife by tuberculosis. One image captures in cartoon-format the life of a 14 year old miner, who wakes up at two each morning to put in a long shift on an unproductive seam, often where new miners would start until an older relative could negotiate something better. Returning home, he’s too tired to bathe, eat, or see his friends. He falls asleep as soon as he gets in, only to be woken by his mam to go back to the pit. ‘Slept it through’ is the title.
But the paintings are intriguing also in how they were produced. The group began meeting through a branch of the WEA in 1927 in an old hut, and by 1934 they worked with Robert Lyon to develop their paintings, which were then exhibited to the world. Harry Wilson was one miner involved. ‘Here I found an outlet for other things than earning my living’, he said. ‘There is a feeling of being my own boss for a change and with it comes a sense of freedom’.
Their hut was pulled down in 1983, and the last mine in the area shut in 2005, Howard tells me, one of the museum’s volunteers, as I quiz him on the legacy beyond the exhibits. ‘Coal not dole’, the striking miners demanded. Today even the latter’s hard to come by. Paul had spoken of the local foodbanks struggling to meet demand, as numbers of people too poor to even eat were soaring, victims of four-to-thirteen week benefit sanctions, some caused by DWP cruelty, others mere incompetence. That basic right to freedom, to live and to live well, are not expensive or unrealistic demands. Far more is spent on housing benefit to private landlords than on building new social housing; far more is lost in loose tax regulations and tax-breaks for the rich over benefit fraud.
People in London or the South might think that I’m being too negative, ‘playing politics’ over the veracity of the narrative. Come up to Easington and Ashington, if you dare, and spend some time here, seeing, listening, talking with locals. Take a look at just how needlessly ravaged these places are, and think about the past and present political events that are causing this. Consider whether it is morally right that a person should freeze or go without food, or be punished for the crime of being poor and having a spare bedroom, or that they should be coerced into working without a wage, in a country presently the fifth richest in the world. If that is fine with you, continue voting Conservative. You may wish to close the book here.
For those of you who feel, like me, wearied and stunned by it all, then a position of sceptical impartiality or knowing inaction’s no good either, for these things will continue, whether we choose to look elsewhere or not. Trading our grumbles won’t interrupt the processes that protect bankers and billionaires whilst consigning the vast majority of young and old to insecure, low-paid and drudgerous jobs. ‘Close the door on past dreariness’ said the Ellington miners back in 1950. What does a brighter future look like, and how will it work for us all?