Labour can’t win back voters by championing the status quo

Labour does have a problem with reaching people.

The party made a decision under Kinnock, Blair, Brown and even Miliband to move away from being the party of organised labour. A change that also contributed to the decline of organised labour itself. That has left the party at the mercy of the media to reach the working class voters it depends on.

The ‘dispossessed’ that voted Leave aren’t likely to be union members: there are just over seven million now, dropping from 13 million in the late ’70s. The rise of insecure work and the restrictions on union bargaining power have made it more crucial — but paradoxically less attractive — to working class people to join and organise in the workplace.

I have suspicions that the numbers of union members is propped up by — and skewed towards — the middle class. We have only lost a million members since Tony Blair became leader of Labour, but the composition of that number is likely to be more professional and public-service based than it was before.

Under the current leadership there have been moves to reconnect some of the unions with the party, but that’s going to take time.

From the best data we have 63% of Labour voters voted to Remain, only 1% more than voters for the SNP, and way more than the Tories. The number of Labour voters has been falling since 1997 — and it has become much more difficult to reach those drifting outside that base.

They they’re less likely that most to be heavy consumers or users of the sort of media that will offer a clear debate, less likely in fact to see the position of the Labour party on any question. We know that TV is the main medium through which poorer people get their news: and that offered precious little time for Labour to make the case for the right kind of EU.

That message had to compete in a post-truth environment, one with Farage giving plausible deniability to the official Tory campaign about the way it stoked fears about immigration. It may have been right, but it wasn’t heard widely — and it didn’t reach the people that it needed to. Labour can take some share of the blame, but no more than the SNP and certainly no more than the Tories.

It’s difficult to see how sharing a platform with the Remain Tories — who were pushing a free-market, market-based agenda that didn’t cut through to enough voters — would have done anything but destroy the credibility of the Labour opposition much as it did in Scotland. Labour, and particularly Jeremy Corbyn tried to have a reasoned debate on the merits of the EU: almost every other campaigner had their fingers in their ears while they ran around shouting.

Labour do have to reach people that stopped voting for the party over the last nearly twenty years — but why did they stop?

I don’t think the evidence of any subsequent election — and certainly not the EU referendum — is that they lost those by being not strong enough in their defence of the establishment status quo.

The rise of the idiocracy

The leavers are rising in the polls and everyone is starting to get scared that they might actually win. And, of course, it’s Jeremy Corby’s fault.

It’s not unusual for Corbyn to come under attack, he doesn’t sing loud enough, or bow at the proper angle, and he baulks at the idea of mutual mass destruction. And we all know what Cameron thinks about his suit and tie. But what is odd is that this time around he’s effectively being criticised for not coming to the aid of his opponent in his hour of need.

David Cameron is struggling to get his message across. For the first time his privilege is not buying him an easy ride with an unusually un-supplicant press: and he’s looking to those with experience of not having everything their own way.

Cameron did not see this coming, but in many ways he is the architect of his own downfall. The establishment is trying to pin the blame on the Labour leadership but everything about this is a Tory mess. Even leaving aside that the very referendum is Cameron’s own fault – a self-serving promise to prevent haemorrhaging even more votes and party “loonies” to UKIP – the actions of the Tories have created a situation in which rational argument has lost its power and a new idiocracy rides the waves of ill-informed public opinion.

When Ed Miliband said that the media has focused on the “sexy blue-on-blue action” in covering the referendum campaign, he may have made Today programme listeners push away their boiled eggs, but he was right. Labour has been hamstrung in getting the socialist case for remaining in the EU across, not through a lack of passion, but through a lack of coverage.

Labour (and especially Ed) are used to this, but it is the first time that sections of the Conservatives have been on the wrong side of the tactics that they have spent the last 10 years developing.

So successfully have they terrified the BBC into a false version of impartiality they call ‘balance’, that ideas are never challenged, only countered. Lies are given equal weight to the truth.

And the right wing press doesn’t even have to pretend to be impartial. So if a view – or most frustratingly a fact – isn’t palatable to the owners and their editors then it will get the shortest of shrift. This is a problem. Yes, social media and the internet means that we can go beyond newspaper bias to get to more of the truth – but only if we have the time, critical analysis skills and networks to do so. We can hear Jeremy Corbyn’s every word, see every stroke his cat gets, if we subscribe to it on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat: but in the mainstream media his statements are not treated impartially. They are given less credence than those who are prepared to spread lies, to deny facts and give the appearance of idiots when it suits them.

Now the Tory leadership is feeling the Iain Duncan Smith effect: a man who has casually denied links between his workplace capability assessments and the deaths of those they removed benefits from, a man who has defended the fiasco of universal credit, a man who tried to change a law to make his actions over workfare legal after they’d been ruled otherwise by the high court, a man who has made an artform of using false statistics in the face of the evidence and chastisement from the ONS, a man whose greatest lie may have been that he cared. Through all that Smith knew that the right wing press would support him and that a neutered BBC would let his statements pass without comment, given equal credibility as the truth.

And as a result, he has become unanswerable. As Auden said, “A sentence uttered makes a world appear; Where all things happen as it says they do.” He believes that he can say anything; he can. And of course others have seen it work and take advantage too.

From the Hutton report onwards, the BBC has shied away from confrontation in news: and the Tories have enjoyed every moment of it. They spent six or seven years being unchallenged on their lies about the causes of the financial crash, and they grew in confidence to the point where they felt able to say “I don’t accept that view” and dismiss any factual argument put to them.

We are living in an age that is post-democracy. Power is concentrated in an elite, says political scientist Colin Crouch, who make “electoral debate a tightly controlled spectacle… considering a small range of issues.” The majority of the electorate, he says, play “a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to signals given to them.” In a single issue vote, with a narrow debate, this makes the infantalisaton of our media actively dangerous to democracy: and we’re seeing this turned up to 11 by a band of chancers that display no more signs of intelligence than Nigel Tuffnell, let alone Nigel Farage.

The lie of the £350M sent to Brussels – proven not to be true, widely debunked, yet still emblazoned across the Leave campaign bus – is the ultimate example of this. It sits in the background on breakfast TV, the moderators on the ITV debates don’t challenge Boris Johnson when he repeats it again and again

David Cameron and his ilk have a specific problem too: the Tories have consistently stoked fear of immigration, because otherwise they’d have to admit that austerity and privatisation is the cause of stress on housing, jobs and services – not migrants. They can’t defend the lies of the leave campaign and are trapped by their own past rhetoric. Consummate politician though Cameron is, he doesn’t quite have the confidence to U-turn on that. There’s no doubt, however, that the idiots would flip and tell that truth if it suited them. They are not just post-democracy, but post-truth.

There are stories that Leave literature has been telling black and asian communities that there will be more and easier immigration after leaving Europe, in direct contrast to the anti-immigration narrative that we hear elsewhere from the same campaign. Likewise the EU is labelled undemocratic by those who don’t turn up to vote despite having been elected to its parliment, and those who would happily turn any state control over to the private sector.

We have a referendum debate conducted in a post-democracy, post-truth, landscape: one where facts aren’t valued and liars aren’t called out. We have already had a Trexit and left a place where rational argument holds any sway.

Continue reading “The rise of the idiocracy”

The Labour doorstep? A load of cults

From each according to his ability, is half of Marx’s founding ideas.

From the ‘sensible establishment’ supporters of Labour’s pre-Corbyn core, there is something different: forget abilities, what we require from each is a particular form of commitment to and participation in activity that we see as ‘correct’. The virtue signalling of the ‘Labour doorstep’, and the dismissal of those that don’t feel that this is the best use of their efforts in pursuit of a (supposedly) shared goal.

The idea that knocking on doors providing up to date voter data (oh, and having ‘conversations’, although in what form we’re never really told) is the only route of activism available to the foot-soldiers.

Having an opinion is frowned-upon until a certain amount of dues-paying doorstepping has been completed.

A Red Wedge-style series of fund- and awareness-raising gigs with high profile names is dismissed as meaningless in electoral terms. Unless they also knock on doors.

Labour far outshone the Conservatives in doorstep conversations in May last year. But, if knocking on doors alone won elections, it wouldn’t be the Labour Party in power: it would be the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In coalition with meter readers and Betterware franchisees.

Social media may be an echo chamber, but volume still matters. It’s where people are — but crucially most see no substantive delineation between platforms, between local and national issues, nor between ‘real life’ and the real people they communicate with online*. And that’s why Tom Watson’s digital project, and what it comes out with is so important: we do need to be able to understand how the psychology of people plays out as a whole. That includes conversations around unity in the media, and on the web. And it included targeted digital interactions.

I’ve a lot of time for Jess Phillips, the ‘outspoken’ MP for Yardley, or at least it seems I feel I have to spend a lot of time thinking about what she’s said now. She’s recently been talking about how people on the internet are stopping her being ‘herself’. She says that people are willfully misinterpreting her — and that’s contributing to the rise of the robot MP, too afraid to say anything put the scripted party line.

I wonder if she sees the parallels in how she jumps to give her opinion at things, often speaking before the full story is known, and how other people behave towards her? It is true that we often find most distasteful in others the behaviour that we recognise and dislike in ourselves.

The irony is that, yes, she was misinterpreted by the media — ‘I’ll stab him in the front’ — when talking about how Jeremy Corbyn was misinterpreted by the media and giving that as a reason to potentially work against him. Is she not worried that PLP member’s attacks on Corbyn risk him turning into a frightened ‘robot’ too? Isn’t that what we had for a leader in the previous two elections? How did that work out?

People I know, who know Jess Phillips say she’s the same in real life as she is online. That has certain merits, but it’s not quite true: everything we do online is mediated either by oneself or others. We have to understand the prisms through which we’re seen.

If you’re an MP, you’re not normal — you’ve had a particular set of ambitions, opportunities and experiences. If you’re more than passingly interested in politics, you’re not normal either. Look again at your Facebook feed: although it’s skewed towards your personal likes, is it more political or personal? Watching Googlebox, liking ‘indie music’, or tweeting about ‘bake off’ doesn’t give you some direct line to ‘people’. Only thousands of real conversations — and arguments — offline and online, and through the unfortunately mediated press,  can do that. People like Jess are really valuable to that goal, so she needs to be onboard: but intra-movement discussion needs to be constructive as well as honest. We need to beware we don’t conflate a common touch with an actual principle.

But what if you aren’t ‘on the doorstep’? I find this criticism both disingenuous and exclusive. In reality it’s one of the stock criticisms that can now be laid at the new kind of activist: they’re not doing what we always have done.

Emails from our local party leaders often feel like they’re prickly at an influx of activists: they often “remind new members” of some protocol, despite there being no way for those enthusiastic neophytes to know.

This behaviour, and the exaltation of those ‘on the Labour doorstep’ feels like a set of shibboleths to assert control of the movement. It also feels like an all-purpose criticism to use when change feels uncomfortable. Change may be uncomfortable, but it has to happen.

*This new book Social Media in an English Village is well worth a read on real-life social media use, free to download from UCL Press.

This originally appeared on Labour Uncut.

A brief note about hope

Hope is a one hell of a drug in politics. Luckily it’s hard to get too addicted because like any good drug, it has one hell of a comedown. In fact the comedown is so bad it can put you off forever. After the last general election The Left were clucking bad, wandering the streets, red flags left to drape in the puddles, while The Right grinned with sharp yellow teeth and wiped the saliva from their chins with the yellow ties of the Liberal Democrats.

Now the real addict knows, the best way to avoid a comedown is to stay high, and anyway who wants to miss the two month hope leadership election festival? Hope dealers galore dragging back in the old and hooking the young. The first time’s free (or three quid).

If hope is a drug, The Left has found a reliable dealer in Corbyn. He seems genuine, pure: the good shit. Will he be affecting any change? I don’t know. He did seem to be the only leader with any real eye towards opposing the Tories during their holiday of hate.

Tom Watson is the only MP I’ve shared a pint with. I looked in his eyes and saw a person. He moves like a politician though, and is formidable as an opponent. And Corbyn will need it if he to survive the next six months. If Corbyn is smart he’ll lean into the party hard and appoint his own whips as soon as possible, big fuckers with sharp teeth, because I fear there will be many nights with very long knives to come. Although a 59% mandate buys you a lot of cover.

Myself I only dabble with hope now.

Go on then. Maybe just a line.

Jeremy Corbyn: One direction

We live in a small town in Oxfordshire — Cameron country — where Labour are a distant third in all elections, and the Conservative social club is a signposted landmark and a social hub. My wife Libby is never one to shy away from a political discussion, despite being the daughter of a sometime Liberal Democrat councillor. At least once she has stopped to engage those having a fag outside ‘the Con club’ as it’s known and asked them their opinions on matters of the day.

Most of the time it happens with more respect and decorum than PMQs, even though, leaving aside the Chancellor, participants in these impromptu street exchanges are likely to be more intoxicated.

But do you know what? These proud Tories haven’t got a clue what is going on: they have no inkling that there has even been a Health and Social Care Act, let alone what  its impacts are. But these are the people, working class in the true economic sense and ‘aspirational’ — if that means that they are happy to work hard, desire have nice things and want look after their families and friends — that we have been told that the Labour Party needs to win over in 2020.

Truth is, it probably is possible for a Labour party to bring these people along: but it’s not going to happen by nodding assent to the direction of Tory policies and then just arguing with the nuance. We have essentially been agreeing that we all have to stand in a lake of excrement, but we’re saying we should have socks on as well as our sandals. We can offer a different, hopeful, fair, path: and that means an alternative to austerity. Out of the Labour leadership contenders I only see Jeremy Corbyn articulating anything like that. The halls across the country, bursting like a boyband concert, are testament to just how many people see the same thing: and that feels fantastic.

I’ll admit to not having been too aware of him before this campaign, but I’ve been more and more impressed by his stature, attitude and messages. He’s being painted as further left than Lenin, but there’s nothing in his policies that sounds outlandish.

Let’s get ‘electable’ out of the way: the ravaging the press gave Ed Miliband is the new standard that every Labour leader can expect from here on in. Pandering to it is not going to work: changing the debate is the only way. Consistency of thought and message, and — yes — being “a signpost rather than a weather vane”. I can’t say that any of the other candidates have improved my opinion of their abilities in this spotlight.

Corbyn is leading the internal party polls, they say, but there are a lot of shy Tories.

No, that’s unfair: every Labour member I’ve ever met is committed to social justice. It used to be that the destination was the same, but members had different ideas about how to go there: now it seems that the ambition and the drive to move beyond small changes are missing from the usual suspects.

The upper tiers seem to be surprised by the support for more socialist ideas in the membership, and that’s part of the problem. At the very least it shows a lack of their supposed electoral nous: who’d have thought that there were a load of left wingers in the Labour party? There may have been four million conversations on the doorstep, but how many internal conversations about policy?

It’s a shame that the leadership seems to hold the steering wheel, the map and the gas money, but at the moment it does and that’s why getting someone going in the right direction is so important. It’s why we need signposts. Deputy leader candidates (especially Tom Watson and the very impressive Stella Creasy) have spent a lot of time talking about the need for Labour to be a movement — and that’s true, I hope whoever wins that contest they can both work towards it. But that means a leader that also wants that.

Movements have to have leaders, it’s what drives momentum, passion and commitment. Far better they are the reluctant type driven by principle rather than personal ambition, for they are most likely to do what is right — and listen to their movement — rather than only opinion polls.

The movement can be big enough, the momentum can be big enough, the membership can be big enough to win in 2020. But we’ve got to offer people a direction, and Jeremy Corbyn is the only one going anywhere.

Protest

I’ve seen a lot of maps over past few days, and I’ve seen enough cartoon characters. Like massively bile-inducing stereograms, the squinting at patches of colour — those heatmaps of hate — produsce nothing but despair.

I’ve taken to focusing now just on how those patches of yellow have changed over the last few decades. The red and the blue (discounting Scotland) are fairly constant, pulsing but constant. The Liberal yellow appears slowly and spreads a little from 87—2010, but essentially remains in the same places.

Now it’s gone.

So, I wonder if the age of the ‘third party’ protest vote is over, for at least a generation. Because it took time for the Liberal Party (in its various forms) to hit a 50 MP balance and they did well — but essentially they were an alternative. One that based its alternative on being ‘a little from column A, a little from column B’. And when they decided that ‘power’ was worth having they couldn’t stay an alternative. And so the support went: splintered in different directions, but it did go.  And the bits that were previously blue went blue and the bits that were red, went red. We’re back to how it was.

So, that’s it for the Liberal Democrats, while they might have an activist base they don’t have a core vote: because as far as the public see it they don’t stand for anything, they just stand apart. Or did.

Now, some people might say Ukip fill that protest vote: but I don’t think it’s the same people that are protesting. That’s another battle. The Greens could fill that protest vote, but it will take a long time to build up anything more than a few percent. And the Greens are not seen as a safe ‘split the difference’ vote — so they are not the same people either.

I don’t know if Labour can get the floating centrist voters that this time felt that they may as well vote Tory, but I know they will lose an equal number to the left if they try to do it by moving to the right. They’ve got to do something different.

Tom might help.  I know that a ‘grassroots surge’ won’t work with the party mechanism they way they are. A large number of activists work hard, but they can do little to affect the way that the party behaves at the top. We may need people that understand the power of the crowd, and the possibilities of connection. Podemos in Spain seem to have a new way of organising that helps people feel part of a movement, collaborative and distributed. That feels like a better thing than just chasing votes and being angry.

Are we… the baddies?

It’s the morning after the night and the five years before. A lot of people around me are asking how this could happen because everywhere they go, online or offline, they meet people who thought the same as them: that it would be nice if things turned our nicer.

I’m in my mid-30s. Unlike most of my contemporaries I didn’t grow up in the UK so really I only know electoral defeat. You see I arrived, literally off the boat, in September 1997. It was still the honeymoon days of New Labour when Britannia was Cool and the establishment was on the ropes after the death of Diana Spencer. That battle, the Labour landslide, the end of two decades of Thatcher(ism) wasn’t mine, but I got to enjoy its benefits.

No, unlike my friends I’ve never had the bliss of a Portillo Moment. Instead I’ve been on a streak of losing teams. Pro electoral reform, yes to an elected mayor for Birmingham, and on the left of the 2010 generals, I was broadly supportive of Scottish devolution (though I couldn’t vote for that of course).

Yesterday I voted for fairness. What I was offered wasn’t ideal but was a step along the way. I voted to not privatise the NHS, to start regulating the rental property market, and to axe the bedroom tax. I voted for some scraps of dignity for people around me, for myself, for my kids.

But I see Dave, not Ed, drive to the palace. And I see the Tory’s 331 seats. I look at it all and I wonder “are we the baddies?”

History is written by the winners. A third of the country thinks we are the baddies. Dave thinks we’re the baddies.

And now I see an in/out referendum on Europe coming. In that fight I’ll be voting to have someone who our government must be accountable to, someone who can force their hand on things like labour conditions and human rights. I see the political voices that represent my side in disarray. I see Farage cowed and humbled in South Thanet without a seat but I see him promising he’ll be back in the Autumn. I see Farage and UKIP rich as ever, ready to fight and ready to move the 1922 Committee towards their corner. And I wonder: how can we be the baddies? When all we wanted was things to turn out a bit nicer. It’s not like have skulls on our caps.

We can’t be the baddies. We’re nice, we’re fun. We are the goodies, surely?

History is written by the winners. Did we lose today? We did. But have they won? No. This is a point of disruption, the start of a story that sends you on a quest. It’s a beginning. The story ends when we beat the baddies.

We’re not the baddies.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, or no: are The Beatles any kop?

Can you separate the music of The Beatles from their place in popular culture? Jon Bounds listens to all of their records — one after another — in an attempt to find out.

I’m fairly sure you don’t need to own any Beatles records. In an average week we must all walk through at least one, and although there would be some statistical bunching it probably wouldn’t take 10 years before you’d heard everything but the rarities.

But that would be part of the problem; music like nothing else crystallises place and the past. Your reaction to The Beatles’ music is not just coloured by but woven in with the people, things and places you remember like psychogeographic tartan. One you can pull over your knees and comfort yourself within on a long journey. There’s no real way you can listen to them and just think about the sound.

A couple of years ago I listened to every Elvis record, in order, in an attempt to confuse myself and to be able to disassociate the cultural baggage from the sounds it made. It worked, and I ended up loving Elvis all the more. So I set up my stereo, my room and my mind, and sat down to listen to every song released by The Beatles, in release order (only UK released singles and LPs, no live versions, demos, or other archive). It worked out at about 190 tracks, and just over nine hours.

The early recordings do hit you with freshness, it’s not just that they are so direct, they are not played — with the exception of Love Me Do — as much as some of the later records. Please Please Me, in just a second over two minutes, is the template for our idea of 60s pop. The decade had so much more to offer, but it’s that moment that you know things are changing — under the harmonies you can almost hear Philip Larkin undoing his flies.

Seven tracks in and there is a moment of pure joy — in Boys, which was a new one on me — when a shout of “Go, George, go!” preludes a dancing guitar part that prepares you for the first “yeah yeahs”. It primes you to take this band to your heart and nothing can stop you.

By Eight Days a Week there’s nothing for it but to be up dancing round the kitchen. Like Vimto, they’ve got you.

The rest of the second album, Beatles For Sale, is less of a bang, it’s weighed down with rock and roll covers and seems more old fashioned than what’s gone before. In Everybody’s Trying to be my Baby I hear Gene Vincent’sRace With the Devil, but it turns out to be a version of a song by Carl Perkins. The Beatles were planted in rock and roll, but they soon had to grow up and out — or we wouldn’t be taking about them now.

It’s hard to think that they are anything but John Lennon’s backing band at this point — he sings, or takes lead vocals anyway, you get the feeling that it’s his choice of song and his choice of style. They are hamstrung by format in a way that other bands — who make their big leaps forward before they’re really worked out what they’re doing — aren’t. The Beatles are slowly adding their personalities into the songs.

What they do have is a supreme confidence and clarity. Essex poet Martin Newell, a contemporary of John Cooper Clarke, of whom you’d have also heard if your partner was from the Wivenhoe end of the county, has a poem called Chaanng that starts “We are haunted by the sixties/The opening chord of Hard Day’s Night/Hangs frozen in the cold night air”. The songs do come in like a drenching of cold water that clears the head, and now they are letting me listen to them afresh. Newell talks of how people who weren’t there now have to “fall in love at second sight” and that’s still the problem; the music is fine but the band aren’t mine.

Ticket to Ride and Drive my Car back on to each other for me, a lyrical clash between the girl they are letting go — who has a bus pass — and the one they want, who has her driving licence sorted.

Paperback Writer is a lyrical handbrake turn for popular music, it’s a song that lets everything go through as subtext. The written half of a pop song would never be the same — they are really flying now. And as we hitRevolver something happens; I have a bit of a headache and it does seem that I’m getting new perspectives on long familiar tracks.

I’m Only Sleeping is what we’re told LSD must be like. It forms a cultural shorthand for our short-handed culture.

Jeff Lynne’s ears prick up at the strings at around this point, and ELO are formed. Thank God.

On Sgt Pepper my fresh ears let me see that it’s Lucy In the Sky, not Being For the Benefit of Mr Kyte, that is the novelty record. Mr Kyte is timeless, but Lucy now sounds like Peter Lawford looks in 1968’s Salt and Pepper: made up for, but out of place in swinging London.

We now get some classic singles. It’s clear that whatever the content this band are great, but listening to “the white album” without the weight of history doesn’t help it any. It, to my ears 120 songs in, is shit. It’s the sound of men with no direction, picking up everything they can and letting us all hear it. It’s the only time in the day of The Beatles that I’m close to giving up. It’s not John or Paul who stop me, it’s George; While my Guitar Gently Weeps soothes.

Abbey Road is the white album’s experimentation working right; after a double album where lyrics, ideas, tunes and usable production never all collide, they do here again and again.

I was tweeting as I was listening, and there were three types of response (four if you count the 20 or so people who just unfollowed). Pedantry (do you have the mono or stereo versions and other questions), telling me that they liked particular songs most, or placing the records within the context of their lives. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, derided by popular opinion, was a school choir favourite song for people of roughly my generation. Someone told me how they used to sing every song in order to themselves while waiting for night buses. I assume they picked up each time where they left off, or they wouldn’t ever have got to Let it Be*.

But the thing is it’s almost impossible, more than any other band to look at them without context. The Long and Winding Road is the B842, and knowing that changes everything. Content and context just won’t prise apart.

But I don’t want to separate them really; too many memories would be tarnished. In My Life made little impression on me before it was played at a friend’s funeral, but each and every time I hear it I’m transported to being unable to stand, weeping uncontrollably as others filed out of a modernist church.

I think of The Beatles in a similar way to how I think about cricket or Doctor Who; I’m fascinated by their place in — especially English — culture, love how entwined into our very fabric they are, but most of the time I don’t want to watch, play or listen. They are English culture, or at least a prism through which we can examine it.

There are alternative histories, conspiracies (Paul being dead is just the start), serious articles that pull the group’s first solo materials together as if they were a “lost” album. No other artist or group of artists have taken and withstood such examination, and none are likely ever to come close.

There’s a theory about how ghosts might inhabit our world that talks about waves of feeling we create that are recorded by buildings and other structures. By existing, our emotions embed themselves into the physical world, music and emotion are intertwined and the music of The Beatles has stuck fast in our bricks and mortar.

There’ll never be another Beatles, but I’m pretty sure we could recreate them from their echoes, their traces in our world. By and large that would be a good thing to do.

Which is why when I listen to Free as a Bird — constructed by Paul, George and Ringo, from a Lennon offcut in the 90s — I smile, I like it, it feels like home, I feel fine. It was worth doing.

*Most tracks were from the 2009 remasters, but generally who knows or really cares?

Rubber Soul was and remains my favourite Beatles LP.

You can’t parka there: a middle-aged mod and the scooter driving test

To ride a scooter one must first journey through the world of its mortal enemy – the motorbike. The tests are the same but the attitudes are not. Jon Bounds put himself through it all so you don’t have to.

Falling off a motorbike doing 30mph hurts. A bit. Especially if you’re wearing an army surplus parka rather than the armoured leathers you see around you. What hurts more is having to shrug it off and fence the banter of the hairy-arsed bikers who are supposed to be teaching you to drive.

“I bet you’re glad you wore your brown trousers,” one had said when I’d skidded to a halt a few minutes earlier. It took me a while to get what he was on about, I hadn’t really noticed I’d done anything so stupid I should have been scared.

At around a quarter to eight on a Thursday morning I’m huddled around an instant coffee, no milk, in a portacabin behind a disused greyhound track. I’ve been sent here almost in disgrace for performing an emergency stop too well – so well that the bike stopped more quickly than I did, leaving me skidding across the asphalt, hole in jacket, hole in arm. But I’m alright, I say. I have my driving test in an hour.

Two years ago, when I – in a particularly low-horsepower bit of a mid-life crisis – bought a scooter I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’d always wanted one and had bought an original Vespa to “do up” about 10 years previously. I never managed to get it started and it followed me through two house moves as nothing more than an ornament in the shed before I sold it. The traffic situation around Oxford was the perfect excuse to try again; I bought a decent looking bike from eBay. Then I tried to find out how to ride it.

The rules of the road have got a lot more complicated since the Quadrophenia boys rode down to Brighton; then, you could just ride. Now you need to get a CBT (compulsory basic training) certificate before you can put L-plates on. And you get those in a car park or wasteground, because you need to be somewhere you can ride without hitting other traffic. And in my case you get that by riding an actual motorbike with gears and a clutch for the first time, because you’re not allowed to ride your own easier, automatic gearboxed, scooter on the road to get there.

I never quite got the hang of the gears, which you change with your foot, nor the clutch, which is done with the left hand and that’s why when confronted with a real reason – a group of cyclists pulling out without looking – to pull up sharpish, I come a cropper. I pull both hand brakes in tight; one isn’t a brake, it’s the clutch. The front wheel stops, the back wheel keeps going. I hit the deck. It seems to be impossible to fail the CBT, though, as once back on the road I get my piece of paper entitling me to ride for two years.

Two years later, having pootled around town trying my best to look as much like Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday as you can when leaning into the wind on the A34, I realised I needed to take my driving test for real.

The problem is that the whole world of the motorbike is geared for those that like black, speed, leather, grease, and – well – motorbikes. You won’t find a scooter test, or scooter instructors, so you have to deal with the traditional enemy: the rocker. I had a fair idea that I could ride to a decent standard, but no idea what the actual test process was. So after some research I booked on a crash course and the three tests I needed: a theory test, and what they call Module One and Module Two. Mod one is on yet another car park, around cones and including that emergency stop. Mod two is much more like the car driving test I took when I was 17.

I pass the theory test at the second attempt, in a modern office block in the centre of Oxford. Being too old to have had to take a separate theory test before, I have no idea what I’m doing. First time out I get 50 out of 50 in the highway code, but somehow fail the computer game hazard perception section. I didn’t see this bit being difficult at all.

Next time I press long and hard at almost everything on screen and pass, despite being told that I’ve “clicked inappropriately” on some of the questions. Whoever made them can’t live round here; old ladies on their pushbikes are one of the most hazardous hazards I’ve perceived.

The instruction days are long, and cold, and in a car park. By some sort of cultural osmosis they are rather macho, people young enough to become experienced motorbike riders, young enough to want to teach people for a living, are very into what they ride. They like motorbikes, they like the tang of petrol and the open road, they like all-in-one clothing. And they are all seemingly called Rob.

My helmet is a cause of much sneering hilarity: because it is old-fashioned, a semi-sphere, and has separate goggles. Because it looks stylish, rather than the luminous alien of a wannabe tobogganist.

“I wouldn’t wear one,” says one instructor, probably Rob. “Why did you choose that type?”

“Because it fits under my seat,” I say. And it does, which is a bonus. What I don’t say is, “because I’m a mod”. And what the dull wits don’t notice is that there is something actually hilarious about my “lid” (all things have a macho slang here). In between me buying it when I first had a scooter and me actually having a scooter to ride, the white with a central black stripe style became synonymous with another wearer – the Crazy Frog.

I do learn a lot though, there’s a great deal of stuff about riding a bike that you don’t pick up on your own. I really hadn’t ever considered the difference between the two brakes and when to use them, nor did I really know where to check the oil. However, I can’t get the emergency stop right.

In the module one test, you need to get up to 30mph and then stop when the examiner raises his hand. Getting my scooter to go that fast in the space available is tricky, there’s just about enough of a run-up if I go flat out – which makes the stopping harder. I can stop quickly but not safely enough, say the Robs and I don’t get to complete all the practice before the end of the day.

As my test is booked for later that week I arrange a couple of hours’ private tuition beforehand. A different, more gentle, Rob has advice: “Pretend your bollocks are under the back brake handle.”

And then I get it really wrong.

When you come off a motorbike there isn’t much time to think about what you’re going to do. You are going along and then you are lying on the floor, a few feet away from your spluttering steed.

But I get up, dust myself down and manage to pass the test. I’m surprised, but it’s cost me about £300 to get this far so I think I’ve paid my dues. The module two practice day goes without too much incident. It really consists of you and another learner driving round while in radio contact with an instructor; we are in convoy and the biggest problem is not losing the other two. Oh, and trying to get my scooter up to the speeds we are trying to demonstrate on the A roads. Oh, that and putting up with the commentary – the radios are one-way and we can’t talk back: “keep your eyes on the road, I saw you looking at that bird. They should be banned, too distracting.”

When it comes to the module two test a few days later, I think I’ve got it sorted. I’ve got the rhythm of looking in the mirrors, sitting in a safe position in traffic and of the various looks and glances you have to move your head to demonstrate that you’re doing. It’s not enough to look behind you, for this you have to be seen to have looked, although I’m not sure it’s ever covered about what you do if you see what you’re looking for. Luckily, it never really comes up.

The test goes smoothly, around the back streets of Cowley – an area I know well – and we arrive back outside the back door of Oxford United’s ground, which the test centre uses as an office, with me thinking that I might have done it. But I’d not left enough space joining a dual carriageway, enough space between me and an Audi doing 90, in the real world he would just have had to slow down – and I would have got to smile – but in the world of the driving test it’s a “serious fault”, an automatic fail.

And that’s the two years up. Not enough time to take another test. I return home with my fishtail between my legs. But I’ve come far enough to keep going.

The following Sunday I take my CBT again and breeze through it. The hardest bit is affecting a face that says “I know the answer to your question, Rob, but I’m not saying so as to give the other guys a go.”

Then I have to get another test slot; I’m on my own with this and the DVLA website. I spend ages looking at the help pages trying to work out what I should book – the forms are built for motorbikes. Eventually I select what I think is the correct test.

I’m taking no chances and call up the local garage, another place that’s a maze of macho and me nodding sagely at terms I don’t understand. The brakes have been sticking a bit and there’s a rattle from somewhere. And the other day a mudguard fell off – a result of the incident before my first test.

I’m on my way home from work, the night before the test, on the bus when Rob from the garage calls. What he thought was just a new cable needed turns out to be much worse – a sticking disk that meant the back brake was going on too hard. It’s a reason I found stopping quickly too easy. It’s also a reason it won’t be ready for my test. Gutted I go online and cancel, I’ve lost the fee but it’s polite not to leave the examiner hanging around.

Then the garage calls back, they’ve worked late, into overtime, and fixed it. Which would be fantastic if I’d not already called the test off. Another £100 quid, plus £75 for another test. I have to make the next one count, this is seriously mounting up and I don’t think I can go through another day of training.

The test centre is about 20 minutes away from home according to Google Maps, but as I close the front door at quarter to eleven for an 11:16 start I realise that those timings don’t factor in a vehicle with a top speed of about 60mph, downhill. And as I fire up the engine, only two goes this time, there’s petrol to be got as well. This is going to be tight.

I start off in a hurry, only to clunk to a stop after a foot having forgotten to take the security chain off the front wheel. Dismount, carefully pull the chain through the wheel, start again. I make it, just, nerves all over the place.

It goes quickly, I miss a signal when doing a hill start. I can’t see the speedo down a national speed limit road as the sun’s in my eyes. I wobble when starting off at one point for no good reason. It’s up in the air.

“I can tell you you’ve failed, if you’d rather,” says Rob, when I express surprise and thanks. He’s probably unaware that he did the same joke last time. He’s a nice man, and really seems to like his job, carefully pointing out my mistakes — none were enough to stop me passing, but I should watch them.

Out of respect for his love of safe motorcycling I wait until I’m round the corner to take both hands off the handlebars and punch the air.

By the book: we are what we read, not what we say we do

There are bookshelves in all but one room of our house, and the one in which there aren’t any is the one in which I perhaps most often sit and read. In our bedroom there are shelves from floor to ceiling that sometimes oppress me as I try to sleep — “you don’t know everything, yet”, they taunt. “you haven’t read all of us.”

Nearer to me are the books I’m currently reading; there are five on my bedside table. Some started already, concert tickets and receipts poking from the top marking my place. Some are placed there as a reminder of their place in the queue, more in hope than expectation as there’s at least one that’s sat there for over a year.

Some never make it, like Paul Kingsnorth’s Booker prize-longlisted The Wake. I backed it on trendy crowdfunding site Unbound as I loved the ideas and the depth of world it wanted to create. I loved the unusual binding and the care that had been taken on the language. And I tried to read it, I really did, but never got more than a few pages in, chewing on the phonetic Anglo Saxon like so much beef gristle in a stodgy pudding. It staked its place permanently next to the bed, looking away with disdain as I skipped merrily through Viv Albertine’s memoir and danced a gnostic tango through the early 90s football and rave culture clutching Julian Cope’s insane One Three One.

I’ll confess, as I was again cheating on it with an ebook , I knew it was over. I would never read The Wake — and I sold it: a rare act of pragmatism in a life that’s seen me acquire more and more books I will simply never read.

This year I’ve bought books on the English Civil War (I had a vague idea for a novel set at the time), a collection of the letters between the Mitford Sisters (I’ve read a lot of collections of letters this year: PG Wodehouse, Orwell), biographies of Orwell, Truman Capote, HG Wells, all piled up on the shelves. There are tumbling pamphlets of poetry, gazed on then forgotten. My literary eyes are bigger than my literate belly.

I’ve read a book about Frank Sidebottom, a trashy biography of Fleetwood Mac, novels by my friends that have made me simultaneously proud and jealous, two books about the history of rhetoric (why?, oh why?, oh why?), more than one book about the Spanish Civil War, GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, which somehow clawed itself out of the the unread pile due to continued recommendation. And I spent months on the monolithic Ragged Trousered Philanthropistsas you may have read.

Jonathan Meades’s An Encyclopaedia of Myself is astoundingly clever and insightful, but by the time I’d finished it I’d turned away many times. A Penguin edition of Nabakov’s Bend Sinister that I started just because it was small enough to take on holiday, another book about the Spanish Civil War and, most tellingly, the second of Danny Baker’s autobiographies (which made me leak with laughter).

The listing of the books I’ve bought but not read this year has helped me realise something about myself; I’m not as well read as I would like to think I am. For every classic or improving work I might get through, there are many discarded. Meades is everything I might want to be, but Baker is closer to the mark.

I’ve just put back onto the bedside table Umberella by Will Self. Will Self I love, his sheer exactitude of language, his invention, his coining of “slapped buttock” to perfectly describe David Cameron’s face, but his last novels have stalled on me. I got Umbrella on release, a signed copy, and started it straight away; months later and I’d given up, relegated it to the shelving. Having done almost the same with his previous, The Book of Dave, it took a degree of self awareness I don’t usually possess not to buyShark, at least not in hardback. That it is a sequel to the unfulfilled Umbrella, now back in rotation as I embarrass myself for giving up too easily — for not being clever enough — might have been the push I needed.

But I can’t be alone in my behaviour. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century spent three weeks on top of the NY Times bestseller lists in the summer, and I would bet that my copy isn’t the only one simply acting as gloating shelf ballast. But looking at previous books and previous years, I knew I was never going to pick Capital up. Not just because it is heavy, but because it is heavy-going — and perhaps more than that because its ideas can be distilled to summary articles and pass notes. I don’t need to understand the graphs to get the picture.

If my shelves were on public display — like the style guides and copy of grammarian’s bible Strunk and White I have on my desk at work, while rarely opening then — I could see why one might buy books that looked good even if one knew that they would gather nothing but dust. But mine aren’t. I’m also not that precious about books as objects — I eventually give them away to charity shops, I (shock) turn pages down, I even buy ebooks.

eBooks that, inevitably, I don’t read all of.

eBook readers, so we’re told, allow a privacy — a self truth — we can read what we like and no one will know. This was given as a reason for the initial success of 50 Shades of Grey, before it and its visual lexicon filled every supermarket book department in the world. The main difference between the charts of the top 10 physical books and their Kindle equivalent this year is Veronica Roth’sDivergent trilogy dominating the ebook top 10. Is young adult fiction secretly popular with people who would be too embarrassed to say, or is this difference more about young adults being more open to reading on screen? If only Amazon would let us know what percentage of the way through these books people made it. My electronic copy of The Wake sits resolutely in the low numbers for “progress”.

As I have no rational explanation for why I keep buying books I’m never going to read, I conclude that I must be self-deluding — at least at the point of purchase. For years I convinced myself I was a decent footballer, so this is not without precedent.

I spent some time talking to psychologist Maliheh Taheri, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, who was reluctant to call this a self-delusion and was happier to list the other reasons why people might buy books and not read them: collecting, decoration, or just comfort in knowing that they were there. None of them apply to me, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

Our conversation sort of petered out as I pressed for a diagnosis; it turns out that self-deception (rather than delusion) isn’t accepted as even existing by all thinkers. The paradox, some say, being that it isn’t logically possible to hold two conflicting views. But I must, sometimes; I bought (mistakenly two copies of, but that’s another story) The Establishment by Owen Jones — and remembered thinking to myself that I’d never get round to reading it as I pressed “checkout”. It’s hard to think of any reason why any sane person would do that.

Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, however, suggests that self-deception might have benefits; if we are able to believe our own distortions, we will not present signs of deception (eye movement, voice tone and so on) and will therefore appear to be telling the truth. He says it’s ”hiding the truth from yourself to hide it more deeply from others”.

The delusion is necessary for us to be able to lie more easily, to lessen the cognitive dissonance we feel when presenting the view of ourselves we want to to others.

So in this case I could be buying a 1,000 page treatise on economics because I want to convince other people that I’m the sort of person who can and does read 1,000 page treatises on economics — and it really doesn’t matter whether I have or not.

Not least because we can be fairly sure they haven’t either.

I’m deluded, but it doesn’t matter it seems. No, I don’t fully understand it either — although I have just ordered a book.