Who makes the best cup of tea: George Orwell or Douglas Adams?

The Covered Market in Oxford is simultaneously cheap shoe shop gaudy, and hipsterific. I’m swathed in a gamey fug of meat smells, contained by the low ceiling. Each turn around a corner brings me a fresh sight of hanging flesh; that is, if I’m lucky enough not to to be blinded by a swinging rabbit carcass. If it weren’t for the prices, and the bubbling pockets of tourists, you could be stepping into almost any England of the last 100 years.

Cardews tea merchants opened in 1948 and moved into the market just under 20 years later, and the layout can hardly have changed: tins of tea and jars of coffee beans sit on the dark wood shelves, the shelves sit behind a counter and scales sit on it. I’m here to buy tea, and I have very little idea what I’m doing.

Luckily, on the wall near my head as I queue, there is a tariff that gives prices for different weights of tea. I pick the lowest unembarrassing order and, after embarrassing myself anyway by having to ask for an explanation of the different grades of tea leaf (finer grades make stronger tea, the young assistant told me), tuck two folded and taped white bags into my bag.

Buying a packet of tea, across a counter, in a market feels properly English somehow. Or that may just be the uncomfortable feeling from having to have any encounter where you aren’t totally sure of your exact rank in society. I’m here because I’m doing what George Orwell told me to do. Orwell, in his 1946 essay A Nice Cup of Tea, is very firm on using leaves and is very firm that these leaves must be free to be shaken around the pot (an earthenware pot, firm of course) – and he’s equally clear on the provenance: “Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea”, he says. So that’s what I got, along with a bag containing his second choice – Ceylonese leaves, which in the tea world didn’t change to being Sri Lankan until 1972.

Tea in Britain has been a tale of empire and class, ever since the 17 century when Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, popularised it and the East India Company began to import tea into Britain. Doctor Johnson loved the stuff and was reported to drink up to 16 cups in a session, but his contemporary Jonas Hanway published an essay that called on tea drinking to be “considered as pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation”.

So, while it might surprise us that Orwell thought it necessary to give us his “eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden”, he was following both a grand literary tradition and also a British tradition of thinking it necessary to codify and control such a simple action. In 1941, the Empire Tea Bureau paid for a short film called Tea Making Tips in which one stilted and prim lady of indeterminate age tells another: “There’s no great secret to making good tea, but some people get careless.” It has six golden rules and finishes by throwing to a comedy working class lady, “And what do you say, mum?” That film was aimed at those who needed to keep the wartime effort stoked with hot wet refreshment on an industrial scale; George and I are after something more homely. But do I follow the Orwell method, or should I take a more modern approach and take the advice of Hitchhiker’s Guide genius Douglas Adams, who set out a similar, but crucially different, set of rules in the 1990s?

Where Orwell is traditional and talks about loose leaves and country of origin, Adams is much more rooted in his time – the 1950s, at least when tea bags were first released in the UK by Tetley. “Go to Marks and Spencer and buy a packet of Earl Grey tea”, is his predictably quotidian, upper middle class solution. I got mine from Tesco in the end, as the only M&S near me is attached to a petrol station in Didcot, but most people who say they shop at Marks or Waitrose really sneak to Lidl when you’re not looking.

Suitably armed, I repaired to my kitchen, which was to become my laboratory. And I was to stay there until the end of the experiment: there and in the lounge drinking cup after cup, and also popping to the toilet (yes, it turns out that the 17th cup of tea is a diuretic). As well as the rigours of science and all forms of confirmation bias I was battling one great problem: that the 17th cup of tea never tastes as good as the first.

The first was made to Orwell’s recipe: pot warmed on the hob, six teaspoons of Indian tea directly into the pot, pot taken to kettle and water at boiling point poured in, a shake and you’re ready to pour. It’s strong, chewy, you can feel it coating your teeth as you drink. The earthy leaves that I spooned into the pot leave an infusion that is tangy and fortified without being stewed.

Adam’s Earl Grey (three bags, boiling water as quickly as you can into the pre-warmed pot, stand for two or three minutes and then pour it into a cup) fills the mouth with a taste of lemons. I don’t really like it. In any real sense the experiment can declare a winner.

The pot is a crucial stage in both of these methods: the mixing of the brew in a separate place to the cup (and as there was no other advice here I chose Orwell’s “cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type” for all tests) does seem to make a difference. The Indian tea is nicer, to my thoughts, than the Ceylon; it seems to produce fewer leaves in the mouth (George is against tea strainers). With milk is preferable to without.

Leaves versus bags, and blends can all be a matter of time and taste but we do find one fundamental difference: Douglas says milk in first, George has a very good reason why it should be last. “My own argument is unanswerable […] by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk”.

Both are aware of the societal pressure to put milk in last; Adams notes that “social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatever to do with reason, logic or physics” and, as he would probably have considered himself an iconoclast, it’s no surprise that he wants to go against the old order.

In one of the later series of 50s-set British sitcom Hi-de-Hi!, the well-to-do parents of Squadron Leader Clive Dempster referred to his sometime intended bride Gladys as “milk in first”, meaning that she wasn’t of sufficient breeding to marry into the family. I’d never heard the phrase and didn’t have a clue what it meant, I don’t think at the age of 10 I’d given any thought to tea production and class. I’ve made up for that now.

It seems that the question is the ultimate “U and non-U” signifier, and one that doesn’t need language to define it. Alan SC Ross, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, coined the terms U and non-U in a 1954 article on the differences that social class makes in English language usage – U standing for upper class and non-U representing the aspiring middle classes. As a working class lad I wasn’t at the forefront of this battleground, but living in Oxford one can see these interplays everywhere. Should I become a “milk in last”?

Nancy Mitford (one of the nice Mitfords) took up the usage in an essay, The English Aristocracy, and in a letter to Evelyn Waugh mentions a mutual friend who uses the expression “rather milk in first” to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale. Mitford, it seems, rather meant the whole thing as a joke, but others – including the family of Squadron Leader Clive Dempster – obviously did not.

If I were to find an answer, the Dorchester hotel seemed to be the place to get it. One can book a champagne afternoon tea for two on the balcony for a little over £100, so I did.

We sat on an interior balcony, overlooking the reception where wealthy Russians flow as they check in and out. A little unsure of what to do, we were shown the menu of “specially selected grand and rare teas served in our vintage Minton china set”. I chose an Assam tea after Orwell, while my partner plumped for the blend that Samuel Johnson was a 16-cup fan of. Our waiter was every bit his part in the empire charade: prim, neat, knowledgeable and a foreign national led to kowtow to traditions of Englishness thanks to the still-existing economic hegemony.

At the Dorchester, they put the milk in last. But maybe, like a stopped clock, the U were right on this one. I needed more help, and luckily I found some: back in Oxfordshire. Ross Meredith is a physicist who has studied the science of tea making. He told me: “As the milk makes contact with the hot fluid, isolated pockets of milk would reach a local equilibrium temperature above scalding point — the milk proteins will become denatured — before being cooled to the net temperature in the cup. This leads to a cup with a noticeably heavier taste.”

OK.

“This effect can be avoided by pouring the milk in first, as rather than causing parts of the milk to reach the final temperature of the mix ‘from above’, the milk is warmed to the final temperature from below, as the hot tea is gradually added.”

Brilliant, an answer.

“But whether that affects the taste is up to the individual.”

Damn.

Ross, perhaps sensing my disappointment, alerts me to ISO Standard 3103: Tea — Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests. Last reviewed in 2013, this sets out the internationally recognised method for making a cuppa. He tells me: “It’s intended to standardise the material ‘tea’ for scientific/nutritional research rather than, say, for cafés to be judged, but you can be sure that any café I run conforms to it.”

And it says: “If the test involves milk, then it is added before pouring the infused tea”. It feels wonderful to be right, even if I’m never going to be considered socially correct.

Tea, as the Empire Tea Board would tell you, is ‘the cup that cheers”. Orwell said we should “feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it”. Douglas Adams thought it worth educating Americans that the British were not “generally clueless about hot stimulants”. It’s wonderful.

Fancy a brew? Orwell-style, with the addition of a tea strainer? Of course you do.

References:

Orwell (1942, Evening Standard) A Nice Cup of Tea

Adams (1999, H2G2) Tea

Empire Tea Board (1941) Tea Making Tips

ISO 3103: Tea – Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests

Hi de Hi! “Wedding Bells” (1987)

 

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists today

Around about 104 years ago Robert Tressell wrote a book that George Orwell called the “book everyone should read” and then, after publisher disinterest, chucked it on the fire. His daughter saved it from the flames and, after her father had died, persuaded publisher Grant Richards to take a chance on it.

And that is very much the story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: championing by those that believe in a world that seems indifferent to its ideas.

The original manuscript, charred as it may be, is now held in the TUC archives — a relic of the power in a union. It is remarkably close to the book you would read today, but the version that was published 100 years ago this year was an abridged version (down from 250,000 to 100,000 words) with a lot of the left-wing polemic taken out. It was also cut to end on a depressing note: implying that all these socialist idealists could do to change things would be to commit suicide.

The book follows Tressell’s real life closely: he was a member of the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first Marxist organisation, and painter and decorator in Hastings.Worried about being blacklisted because of his views, he picked a pseudonym after a decorator’s table, Hastings became Mugsborough and you feel that Robert Noonan became Frank Owen, a talented, honest but heartbreakingly poor man. Apart from the bosses, almost every man, woman and child in Mugsborough is constantly hungry and terrified about what the next day would bring: a foreman such as Nimrod taking a dislike to you would mean starving in weeks.

My wife, Libby, gave me a copy when we were courting, and I devoured it: howling and highlighting my way through it as it talked again and again of not just historical cruelty but of an unfairness that it is still part of life today. Reading it as the government passed edict after edict dividing the poor into the deserving and the undeserving, much as the charities and corporations do in the book, listening to stories of people forced onto zero hour contracts, not knowing if they had work from one day to the next, horrified seeing of working people forced to on food banks, starving, was like being part of a link through time. It was a good time for her to recommend it. I can’t say it changed me, I was already a Marxist, but it filled me with a spirit to keep fighting.

I also wondered if she wanted me to pick up some tips about wallpapering.

She’d first been given it in her teens by her grandfather. He had been a life-long Tory voter who had, conveniently for this story, also been a painter and decorator in a small town in south of England. He read at the age of 80, and it did change him: he stopped voting Conservative, switched from the Sun to the Mirror, and heroically starting using the Colchester Labour Club — at the other side of town — rather than the Conservative Club which was just across the park from his house.

Libby was a school contemporary of Labour MP Stella Creasy, who claims to have read the book at the age of 9: there must have been something in the Essex water at that time.

In the book Frank Owen spends much of his time not so much trying to convert his workmates to the cause, but trying to get them to take an interest in how the system controlled them. Buying pamphlets and books to lend to them in the hope that it might wake them up. They — the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists — are his targets, and the focus of his anger rather than his sympathy: “They were the enemy! They were the real oppressors! They were the people who were really responsible for the continuation of the present system … No wonder the rich despised them and looked upon them as dirt. They were despicable. They were dirt. They admitted it and gloried in it.”

But he keeps trying all the same.

Kevin Jones first read the book as “an immature 14 year-old” in 1969. He had got a job as an apprentice at a local firm of painters and decorators in Liverpool and his dad, a trade unionist, gave him the book and told him to “watch out for the Nimrods”.

“Like many teenagers, I had no interest in anything remotely political, “Kevin told me. “I did read the book however and I remember quite enjoying it, although mainly I think because of the humour, like the flabby and flatulent Rev Belcher. Any relevance to the ‘real world’ just went completely over my head.

“The painting job did not last long. Many of my friends were working in factories and being paid far more than me. Work was plentiful at that time and the local glass industry was flourishing, so I handed my notice in, gave up the apprenticeship, and went to work making glass bottles.”

A decade later times had changed, and Kevin found himself on the dole. 1981 was a bad year for him: his dad died of cancer at the age of 51, he was going through a divorce and, along with hundreds of others in Thatcher’s first recession, he lost his job.

Then in the local library he spotted a familiar title: “The humour was still there, but I could see for the first time just how real it was. Every character was recognisable, every situation it described could be related to my life.

“The anger welled up inside me as I read of and recognised the injustices, the malpractices, the exploitation, the lying, the cheating, the greed and selfishness displayed by the employers and the upper classes. I understood for the first time the blatant hypocrisy of so many of those who profess to be Christians.

“That anger was intensified ten-fold as I recognised the apathy of those philanthropists who suffered most. It reminded me of my own 14 year-old self. ‘Why would anybody bother their heads about politics?’ ‘It’s not for the likes of us.’

“I realised that much of the anger that I felt was directed at myself. It forced me to re-evaluate my life.”

The Association of the Ragged Trousered

Kevin is now chairman of the Association of the Ragged Trousered, a society dedicated to spreading the word of the book: “Like many, many others I recommended it to anybody who would listen. I lost copies by lending them out only for them not to be returned. I started to collect second hand copies at car boot sales and charity shops so that I could pass them on to friends.”

“I got talking to a colleague in the pub about The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and its history of being passed from hand to hand. We then each pledged that we would try to give away one copy per month to a stranger. Neither of us had any clear idea of exactly what we wanted to do other than to introduce Tressell’s book to as many people as possible.

“We launched the association at the Tolpuddle Festival in July 2012, a non-profit group, membership is free and we are open to all. Our membership remains relatively small at present although geographically, our membership is spread throughout England Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, as well as Spain and Germany. Each helping to spread the word about the book in their own individual way.”

One of the ways they spread the word is to spread the book, copies are bought and left around for people to find — the books tracked by number and containing a message of solidarity from the association. Frank Butterfield from Lancashire picked up a copy from the association in a bar in Spain and by return left his story online:

“I attended a socialist Sunday school in the 40s and 50s where the book was used in classes, in those days there was only the abridged edition available but the impression the book had on me has lasted me all my life and has always been the basis of my political views. I always have a copy on my bookshelf, and have given away half a dozen copies over the years.”

It’s difficult to find an enthusiast who just saw the book on Amazon and bought it, everyone has a story. Actor and activist Ricky Tomlinson is one of those interviewed for a new documentary Still Ragged: 100 Years of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists:

“This book was given to me when I was in solitary confinement, by the prison governor. It’s something that changed my whole way of thinking. It’s the most important book I’ve ever read in my life. Not only did it change my life politically, it also stirred up again in me the beauty of reading.”

Firebrand MP Dennis Skinner tells the makers how “it might be about painters and decorators in a small southern town, but it applies today.” The film also contains a version of the book’s centrepiece of rhetoric: The Great Money Trick.

The Great Money Trick

Tressell uses the workers’ dinner breaks as an opportunity for a lecture, much as he uses the work time to praise honest craftsmanship over the cutting of corners. For this, Frank Owen opens his dinner basket and takes his bread, alongside that borrowed from his workmates, and uses it to represent “the raw materials which exist naturally in and on the earth for the use of mankind”.

Capitalists pay the workers to turn those raw materials into usable goods, and are paid money — but only enough money to buy enough of those goods to survive. The capitalists end up with a surplus, and all the money they started with. “As for the working classes […] having each consumed the pound’s worth of necessaries they had bought with their wages, they were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work — they had nothing.”

Anyone who doesn’t think this happens in the modern day need only to think about Walmart — the biggest retailer in the World — who last year launched a charity food drive for its own staff rather than pay them enough to live on.

George Moore, who at 17 has directed a self-funded film version of the book, described how he felt when he first understood how it worked:

“ I was crying ‘Why does nobody know about this?’. I do think we are stuck in the Great Money Trick – I try not to get too political in conversation , but I have found myself performing the trick with chips in a restaurant on occasion. It brings out the same reaction every time, whether on stage, on screen or in real life – people stop and realise that this isn’t just a theory – it’s applicable to everyone’s life in one way or another, and it definitely still happens today.”

Influence

While I was asking about the book several people, including Moore, commented that the book was “halfway between Orwell and Dickens”, and there are similarities. Tressell has a Dickensesque way with a name: the bosses are Crass, Slyme and Hunter and the local Tory MP is Sir Graball D’Encloseland. However what that might hold up in style it isn’t true in message. Orwell himself said that Dickens was not interested in challenging or changing the status quo, that there is “no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’.” George Orwell said that Dickens was not a ‘revolutionary’ writer: but Robert Tressell is, every page of the book aches for the overthrow of the capitalist order.

Kevin Jones: “As Tressell himself points out, the inequalities and the exploitation will not, and can not change under Capitalism. In his time it looked for a while as if socialism might eventually triumph. Certainly socialism has had it’s successes, most notably the NHS and the welfare state both of which are now under attack. The Labour Party it seems have now abandoned even any pretence of socialism and although there are many, many socialists out there, the lack of one unified left wing party, I fear, means that socialism will probably never attain power through the ballot box. Global capitalism makes any change of the system highly unlikely. Revolution? Well I think that as the rift between the haves and the have nots continues to grow, as it inevitably must in the present system, then eventually there will inevitably be revolt.”

But even these champions of Tressell’s ideas are not too optimistic. Moore is worried by the working class lack of interest: “A key theme of the book echoes the idea that: all selfishness needs in order to win is apathy. If nobody takes an interest in politics, it will be swayed and manipulated by the selfish few.” While Jones can be as disheartened as Frank Owen, “the ‘philanthropists’ in the book are a stark reminder of just how much inequality and deprivation some people are willing to accept.”

I also spoke to Daz Wright, who said it was one of many factors that influenced him to work in the public sector. He picked up the book “because one of housemate’s dad was always going on about it. He was a committed Labour party member who annually stands in completely unwinnable council seats. We’d talked about what you can learn from it and how it was salient today. But no, I don’t think the book has had an effect. I think it is largely read by an exclusive left wing intelligentsia and we are peculiarly incapable of ever effecting change.”

For all that, people will still keep reading, believing and spreading that message. As Kevin Jones told me “There is a saying in Liverpool that ‘for every person Karl Marx introduced to socialism, Robert Tressell introduced ten.’ Most people would certainly agree that the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is far more readable than Das Kapital.”

The book doesn’t end on revolution, it doesn’t end with better conditions for the workers, it doesn’t even end with a comeuppance for the foreman or the bosses — it ends with a fairly simple twist that makes life bearable for Frank Owen and some of the other workers you’ve been building solidarity with. And that’s its great achievement, for all its anger at the unengaged, it makes you believe in solidarity more than anything else.

I’m recommending that if you haven’t read it already, you should now. You can read it online for free, buy it yourself, or wait until someone lends it to you. If you read it you’ll be doing the lending soon. As well as taking great care to do thorough preparation before you get out the brush and the emulsion.

Not everything I know about socialism and capitalism came from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but everything I know about painting and decorating did.

Tom Watson: Money, power and the media

Tom Watson MP is sitting at a desk in Westminster, listening to the first Dexy’s Midnight Runners album. That’s sort of how I picture him a lot of the time: he’ll often start his working day by informing Twitter just what the soundtrack to his parliamentary office is. Squint and you can imagine a vista just somewhere between The Thick of It and teams that meet in caffs — a nexus between the world of Westminster, the real world of West Bromwich and the other real world of the web. The web that Tom has made his home since the days when MPs didn’t get notoriety and ridicule for what they said online but just for being there at all.

I first met Tom in person in a pub in Birmingham and ended the night later crawling home at around 5am. I’d first spoken to him, of course, online. I estimate that he had seven years as an MP before joining Twitter — then a small enough concern to organise drinks for all those that used it in one city in a small pub in a backstreet rather than, say, the O2. Today we conduct this interview via Twitter and no one bats an eyelid.

I know where Tom is as it was the first thing I asked. A journalist friend of mine always starts an interview by telling everyone just where it takes place: a device that can help set a tone for the reader. Are we comfortable here or is this a transactional experience? On Twitter, here, I think we are both comfortable. I wait for the DM that tells me when my light turns green.

Dexy’s first record — a trumpet-strewn impassioned plea for a better, more just, life — is firmly a document of its place and time. The music is dressed in donkey jackets as the band were and the angry cry of Kevin Rowland is that of a smart guy who doesn’t quite know how to change things for the better. Tom Watson is similarly rooted in the Midlands, fiercely intelligent, with the grammar school kid’s chip firmly on his shoulder. He thinks he does know how to change things and when the structures of democracy don’t serve the purpose he’s willing to get mad and hopefully even.

Sometimes the anger, while endearing him to many who watched him calling education secretary — and part time Pob impersonator — a “miserable pipsqueak of a man”, doesn’t go anywhere useful. At the time he blogged, “I began to make my point about the intolerable way that parents and pupils had been treated. His eyes met mine. Was his top lip really quivering? […] It was like looking at Bambi. So I shot him.”

We exchange opening bursts of 140 characters and I know Tom must be reaching the last line of track one, side one: “Shut your fucking mouth ’til you know the truth.” Tom is no doubt mouthing along to the words. Everyone does.

Has Twitter made you a better MP, I ask, or is it a distraction?

“It’s certainly broadened my horizons though sometimes I worry I read fewer books and magazines.”

Not newspapers you’ll note, Tom has a history with them. Metaphorically spat on and shat on by Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, including a court decision against The Sun over claims that he was behind a plot to smear members of the Tory party. (Watson won an apology and a ‘substantial sum in damages.’) It seems reasonable that he might not be the mainstream media’s biggest fan.

We’ve not had the trolling or abuse I’d have expected the interview to incite. I’m glad as I’m rubbish with trolls and hecklers,so I couldn’t help if I’d tried, but Tom claims it doesn’t bother him. And we’ve not yet had the police accusing anyone of threatening Robin Hood airport: thankfully, not living in Yorkshire it doesn’t apply.

“When I first started blogging it was met with almost universal derision,” he told me. “It’s funny but after 13 years [of being in Parliament] I barely notice the snide stuff. It’s just the wild world of the ‘net, the rough bit of the pub.”

Mainstream media versus social media sees financial capital and social capital stacking up against each other. As one of the authors of Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and The Corruption of Britain, Tom has been in the centre of the push and pull for power — and the centre of the phone hacking trial that he says helped end his marriage. “I’ve certainly spent more time scrutinising the media than I anticipated in 2001,” he says.

As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, he questioned Rupert and James Murdoch and former News of the World editor, Rebekah Brooks, in a committee session in July 2011. Re-questioning James Murdoch that November, Watson was again all over the papers for his likening of Murdoch to a mafia boss.

“At its heart,” he continues, ”social media allows you to form groups very quickly, with low barriers to entry.” As an example he cites his recent campaign against the something tactics of his nemesis The Sun. “Over 7000 people signed up to notothesun after it was shared on Facebook and Twitter.” It then became a issue for the press and TV: “a classic example of an online debate seeding political arguments to the mainstream media and, frankly, the pedestrian political parties.”

“The mainstream [media] definitely try to distil social media conversations, sometimes for old agendas. Yet, when you know trust in what’s read in papers like The Sun is down to 15% then there’s no need to worry much.”

If the papers aren’t the influence they were there’s still a mainstream channel that does: “I think online will be an important component of the 2015 election campaign but TV will still be the gorilla. And ultimately, if your policies are wrong, it doesn’t matter what your online voice sounds like.” And he adds in what might be construed as a dig at Ed Miliband, if he hadn’t already given BBC radio a more direct one, “I don’t think the twitter feeds of the party leaders add much to the debate.”

He’s just about to sign off but then lets slip that he’s seriously thinking of “going out there and setting up my own little campaigning news house to see what can be achieved”. Tom Watson again actively channelling the old order by using a delicious mix of political nous, online and offline networks and an anger that drives him on.

“We need much better media. More curious, less editorialised, more engaging.”

The old order? Burn it down.

Cue the trumpets. I’ll see you all in the front row.

Why everything is shit nowadays

Walking through the ticket barrier at Didcot Parkway a few months ago, I was witness to a most middle class kerfuffle. A young polite guy was being stopped from exiting and treated like a fare-dodger, his tweed-clad father was going quickly puce: which no-doubt made it all the more embarrassing for the lad. His crime? Getting off a station early on a ticket that had been bought, paid for and presented gladly. A victimless crime, one that might even have saved the train company a little bit of fuel: but the station staff were having none of it, their hands were tied.

It was something to do with the tickets having been pre-bought from a pot of special fares. It was something to so with how, these days getting off a stop early costs more. I couldn’t understand it, none of the gathering crowd could, but the staff suggested that a read of the Terms and Conditions on the company website would explain all.

That same week I spent hours on a support line to O2 who, because I’d had it looked at in an Apple store, decided that the iPhone I’d bought from them was not their responsibility. Virgin Media then charged us £50 for not being in for a engineers visit we hadn’t booked with them, and my Oyster-style bus pass just stopped working. Luckily this isn’t a week when I’ve arrived home to find a ‘Sorry you were out’ card from Yodel, an item on the doormat that makes my heart sink like no other that the cat hasn’t personally left.

Each and every transaction took longer than it should have, each ended with me feeling fraught and ripped off. And with each I was very aware that the choice presented by the market would only lead me to other suppliers with similar processes and frustrated customers: you only have to look at the stream of Twitter support accounts to see that. In terms of the buses and trains I had no choice at all, except to give up using them. With courier firms it’s not even your choice, but that of your supplier.

We’ve had the crash and the recession, and now supposedly a recovery: those companies that are still making huge profits have done so due to being more efficient. They certainly haven’t, they say, maintained those figures by cutting corners. So why is every little transaction, from getting a parcel delivered to buying a train ticket awkward, confusing, and ultimately a bit shit?

I have a theory that it’s all about responsibility and the cost of transactions. It’s not in the interests of profit to have the customer understand or be in control. Even where it’s not deliberate, the removal of decision making from frontline staff—placing it in the hands of algorithms has lead to a whole new level of Kafka-esque process mazes, with the added bugs and dead ends that only software can provide.

Nick, a call centre veteran, told me, there’s just no freedom to deviate from ‘the script’. “Many times you know how to solve a problem but can’t do anything due to restrictions, it [is] all about making money.”

“everyone is under pressure to complete calls within a certain time…callers had just had their cars either clamped or removed. They were pretty angry. So they were not in the mood to be fobbed off. This led the call centre staff to make up anything to get them off the phone. They’d lie. Sometimes they’d hang up on the excuse that the caller bad become abusive.”

Under pressure from bosses, dealing with increasingly frustrated callers. It’s no fun at either end of these calls. Nick: “It was the most miserable environment I’ve ever seen. People were always going off sick.” Another worker from a different centre told me “the fact you had no real power or responsibility amplifies the most stressful scenarios in the job.”

It’s that lack of an ability to take responsibility that causes problems. For example I moved house, I phoned my bank and changed my address, they didn’t change the address for my credit card; because despite all of the cards having the words NatWest on the front, they are really run by different entities. One size really doesn’t fit all.

One company I see getting awful feedback online is delivery firm Yodel, who claim to handle 135 million parcels every year. Call to complain about a missing delivery and it seems you’ll be told that you need to speak to not the deliverers (who might know something about it) but the people who sent it to you (who definitely don’t have it). A Yodel worker on a web forum explains “your contract is with [the sender] and not yodel. Basically its down to [them] to sort this out and they can then bring it up with Yodel if they wish.” You can’t often speak to anyone about a delivery as the ‘we missed you’ cards don’t have a call centre number on them: they have scribbled mobile numbers, which very often ring out.

This is because the Yodel model is to engage, rather than employ, delivery people: who must supply their own cars and phones. They target this work at those who are “newly retired yet still wanting to contribute to an active role, or [who] would like to earn some extra money whilst the children are at school”—these are people not working regular hours that are contactable through ‘normal’ systems.

The job isn’t easy, and isn’t—according to posters on moneysupermaket.com forums—well paid:

“You HAVE to be in 5 mornings a week Mon-Fri to get the parcels in, which can be from anytime from 7am-2pm. You get paid 65p per parcel delivered (even if you have to go back to try and catch the customer in you only get paid for a signature)”

“You are expected to attempt delivery twice and then return undelivered parcels —you do not get paid if it is not delivered no matter how many times you have tried (and each attempt costs you in petrol). The price of petrol means that this is simply not viable.”

“Every fortnight I was getting paid about £70, minus the petrol expenses that you have to cover yourself. So realistically for two weeks work I was earning £30.”

Worse, it seems that the reliance on computer systems, perhaps the most ‘cost effective’ ones available means that the data in those systems is often wrong. “The Yodel scanner is the pits, and there’s sometimes no way out other than to sign off the job.” Poorly paid, battling the system from their side—it’s not a surprise that the satisfaction with the firm seems to be low.

From automation to outsourcing, to the obfuscation of self employment—money drives the cutting of corners and abdication of responsibility, and it seems digital technology makes that possible.

No wonder that every time we try to do anything it seems that little bit shit.

Ukip — nothing but useful idiots for capitalism’s ugliest forces

It’s easy to laugh at the racists and fruitcakes that make up the UK Independence Party roster of election candidates and councillors. Like clichéd children they do say the funniest things. But like kids they don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions. Ukip exists for no other reason than to pull the country’s political discourse dangerously to the right and that’s so worrying because voters, members and even candidates and MEPs don’t realise.

Ukip members can’t be striving to take power to carry out their manifesto, because there is no coherent Ukip policy on anything to get behind. Poster boy Nigel Farage doesn’t know, care, or agree with the manifesto. He dismissed the plans with a comment about how he’d, “never read that. I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” And that’s seemingly okay in a media environment that berates Labour for not having detailed spending plans years in advance.

Treasurer Stuart Wheeler has given the party £514, 957 since 2001 and he doesn’t know what their policies are either. Interviewed at a lunch for Eddie Mair’s PM he blustered, called for more wine, and had very little idea what was going on.

“We’ll launch it [the manifesto] after the European elections,” Farage says. After the election. And you thought only the Lib Dems could make up policy so much on the fly.

Essentially though, it doesn’t matter what Ukip’s policies are —they have an almost zero chance of getting into any sort of power, which is one thing we might have to thank the failure of the electoral reform referendum to bring in PR for. That means that can say absolutely anything: from ‘repainting all trains in traditional colours’ to ‘sending the buggers back’ if it will keep them in the media’s eye. There’s been more coverage of Farage not standing in a byelection than then has been of the Green Party’s whole European election campaign—making simple ideas like not condemning us all to climate chaos seem more ‘out there’ than a flat 30% tax rate.

When you consider that to change anything at a European level they would have to take power nationally, it doesn’t even matter what their policy on the EU is. Voters who really wanted to leave the EU would have more chance of it with a large Tory majority. The party simply exists to be anti control on the actions of capital of any kind. That is why they vote against each and every law in the European Parliament, when they can be bothered to turn up.

Members of the party are routinely caught out saying odd, unacceptable and contemptible things and then disowned by a leadership that sees them as disposable because they are disposable. There’s no mandate for the party due to a mass membership, there’s no structure or shared ideas. Voters can ignore any part of Ukip with impunity, because they’re never going to be in charge of anything. Every vote is a protest, but they’re not protesting against anything coherent — and they can have no idea what they’re protesting for.

Ukip is not so much a broad church as a circus big top of useful idiots and dangerous animals. They can be whipped by a ringmaster but he’s in no danger because he can easily replace them but doesn’t need them. They are nothing but paper candidates and a means to an end of securing airtime for those that they can trust to spread their message. And the only way to get the circus to leave town is to stop watching.

They are capital’s revenge: using any or all electoral tricks they wish, not to get elected and change anything but simply to pull the acceptable window of political discussion as far to the libertarian free-market right as possible.

In this they are more akin to other millionaire funded organisations like think tanks, right wing newspapers or the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Except they are more dangerous — because other politicians won’t attack them properly.

Attacks on Ukip are wrong in they way they are handled: yes they say stupid things (individually and collectively), yes they are racist (in many cases individually and in the few policies they do have), yes you can pick apart almost all they say. That however is a distraction, the real issue is how money can manipulate where the Overton window of ideas that the debate will accept sits on our spectrum. This is that all the money behind Ukip wants.

All the other parties know that, because they use the same tactics, and to dismiss Ukip is to lift the curtain on that window, revealing the political wizards to be controlled by the forces of the status quo.

How does a party funded by millionaires, lead by an ex-banker who’s been an MEP for 15 years claim to be not of the establishment? Because they don’t have the problem of ever having to be in power and they know no-one will want to reveal just how that establishment works. Clegg pulled the window towards electoral reform and fairness on education by playing the same nonsense outsider role in 2010’s TV debates, and we saw how that played out with a whiff of responsibility.

How does a party grow so quickly and reconcile the views of all its members? Ukip don’t have to because there is no group: just a collection of angry individuals nudged around to provide media ballast. That collection gives them the strength and the cover to say whatever bizarre things they want: because all the party must think the same as they do.

How can they truly say they aren’t a racist party? Because all their ideas exist only to free the movement of capital, to unhinge the means of production from any control by the state. And capitalism isn’t racist: it has many faults but it doesn’t care about the ethnicity of those it exploits.

Ukip exists purely to further the interests the very people they will say they are against — the establisment — and to break their influence we need to really break the political mould, opening up on how it all works. Is anyone brave enough to do that?

Is it worth it?

War is stupid, and people are stupid: and more than that it costs money. The UK’s involvement in the Afghanistan war alone has so far cost £37bn as a conservative estimate (not a Conservative estimate, that would be much lower). Wouldn’t it be better if there were just fewer guns, and bombs and things that can be turned into chemical weapons? Not having to go and fight all the time to stop people fighting might help fix our supposedly broken economy.

But it’s not so simple, a lot of those weapons are supplied by British companies, and that industry is supposedly worth £35bn, makes up 10% of UK manufacturing, and employs over 300,000 people. That’s a lot of guns, bombs, chemicals, jobs and—probably—taxes.

I wonder how the tax revenue, jobs, the all encompassing economic benefits stack up against the costs of all of these ‘interventions’, all the costs of flying the likes of David Cameron, Prince Andrew and other corn-fed suits around the World promoting sales? Add in all the costs of hiding what they are eventually used for from the press—is it worth it?

And then I realised that that was Elvis Costello’s point.

 

Can we work out the real costs, do these arms firms pay tax? It’s not like they have morals in other areas so I would suspect they pay as little as possible. Even the Daily Mail thinks they probably don’t pay their fair share.

Why do the Govt allow the sales – nay support them? How much does this cost, or this? How much of our ‘soft power’ is wasted making sure people are killed with British made goods? Would those factories and workers not be able to make something nice? Maybe James Dyson could have made his hoovers here.

I’m going to be naive just for a moment. How about a new type of unilateral disarmament? Let’s stop making and selling people things that kill people.

 

Google and the ‘corporate singularity’

People are angry, angry that some companies aren’t paying their way. Politicians, chameleonic lifeforms that they are, are appearing to rush into action. Companies need to ‘do what’s right’ they say, to ‘share the burden’. In short: the world would be a better place if corporations were nice. Ed Miliband reminds Google that their motto is “don’t be evil” and talks of cultures, of irresponsibility. Commentators talk as if corporations are moral beings.

But they’re not, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.

If a company is owned by the people that run it, who live in the same area they work, who live with the people they serve, then they can act for good. It’s their good too. But when companies get to a certain size, lose the founders and or their families from the board, lose connection to their community: then we must understand that they have absolutely no connection to anything but money. The company cuts loose, becomes an entity free of ties—floats above the earth in a fiscal air, as if someone has cut the tether of morals holding the balloon to the ground. It runs by an internal logic: each person and their function operating like cells of an organism to further the propagation of the company’s own selfish gene. Decisions, made by people in theory, are subsumed to the cause. And those genes are fed not by reproduction—but by growth.

These corporate organisms are independent of people, they have no morals as they have no minds. They exist to change, to route around blockages, to kill competing corporations: all in order to increase the differential between the money they are worth and that which other corporations are worth. If consumers change behaviour, the corporation will change tack. If consumers protest they will change—if it suits them. And only until enough people have forgotten. If laws change they will exert pressure, if they can they will break the laws. They have no morals and no loyalties.

Once a company becomes untied from people it passes a sort of corporate singularity, where only its hunger and desire for money matter—what’s ‘right’ doesn’t even connect with it. The company has a kind of intelligence and is capable of reacting, and acting, but it’s not feeling, nor thinking about the consequences of its actions on anything but its bottom line. Like the machines in Terminator it’s in a war for its own survival—they may band together for their own advantage, but it’s giant-spiky capitalist dog eat giant-spiky capitalist dog.

Some fish evolve markings that look like eyes making predators think they’re always aware, and corporations will pretend to have morals if that’s what will get them more growth. They’ll say ‘don’t be evil’, they’ll pretend to be little independent businesses such as pub chains and Tesco’s Harris and Hoole coffee shops—but most of all they’ll do whatever will get the biggest return. They are parasites on wellbeing—corporate growth is meaningless to most people, they only feel the pain as wages are cut, prices are hiked, and control is wrested from them. The only thing that can affect corporations past the singularity are laws that are tight and fiercely protected. Wooly regulations will be cut through, tax laws with complications will have their meanings muddied, anything that is open to challenge will be challenged.

Median wages, are falling—even the Office of National Statistics admit that workers have seen pay drop by 3% annually between 2010 and 2012—while economic growth goes up. That’s because the rich are getting richer, so much richer that the growth in their wealth shows up on countrywide statistics. The rich and their corporations float from country to country, cherry picking the lives they want to lead and the amount they wish to pay for it.

It doesn’t matter if one corporation ‘dies’, it doesn’t change the system—other moral-less singularity-passed entities with expand to fill the space. You can bring down one, but the money will get out—the gene will transfer—the singularity has happened. With the system as it is the battle is lost.

But that doesn’t mean the war isn’t still to be won, like Terminator’s Sarah Connor you can battle the machines: try to do enough damage and hold out for long enough for the system to change. Resisting each immoral act by each corporation, while pushing for real change—tight laws, unilateral laws if need be—is the only way.

Beasts of England

Plastic chairs the weapons are the weapons of England’s most feared men. No tracking technology, just utilitarian furniture flung by arms either burnt red or clad in branded sportswear.

The English disease has returned and the seating is being aerially rearranged with malice aforethought across the country. One of this year’s League Cup Quarter Finals saw arrests, 27 injuries and a flare bouncing around between two sets of fans.

But it was no Battle of Rocky Lane.

On an evening in September 2002 150 Aston Villa fans fought around fifty Birmingham City to celebrate the teams’ first meeting in the Premier League. They fought across waste ground and dual carriageways, with fists and knives, with drainpipe and bottles, with each other and with Police.

 “Yet again Blues had to bring it to them despite the game being at St Andrew’s. They were the ones that were tooled up. They had bottles, knives, gas, bricks and sticks and they go on because one of our lot had a piece of car engine. If you watch the video (Set here to some banging grime http://links.dirtybristow.co.uk/rockyl ) you can hear the bottles landing before you see any of them. […] There were thirty of us against 150 and they call it a result as we didn’t turn them over—judge it for yourself.”

The quote from ‘Wally’ is from Caroline Gall’s book Zulus—Black, White and Blue: The Story of The Zulu Warriors Football Firm. The book itself is uncritical, trading tabloid outrage for access to the leaders and organisers of the gang. It’s part of a trend that came before hooliganism’s recent revival—a rewriting of the eighties that longs for a era grounded in working class life so much that it’s willing to overlook assault, battery and Sergio Tacchini.

Almost every large football club will somewhere have a hooligan memoir, they will be placed by the till in the local HMV around Christmas and feature expanding waistlines and expansive tales of great battles and trips away. It’s a major industry: satellite channels less secure in their sexuality will fill hours with this shit, and films keep getting made, The Firm, Green Street, The Football Factory, Green Street 2: Stand Your Ground. You can learn nothing of humanity and something about capitalism from these, all are without merit.  (ID is an worthwhile exception, despite starring Reece Dinsdale, but then its focus is the identity of the title rather than the game or the relationships.)

Part of the reason for the success of such dire tellings is popular culture’s inability to cover representations of brotherhood or comradeship—only that operating like war provides the easy skeleton for such stories. Football itself would work on less dangerous ground if filmmakers or authors could get to grips with the sport. They can’t handle the game itself, that much is certain, but they are seemingly unable to get a handle on the culture around the sport either.

Take centre-half turned old-lady-resembling Sunderland manager Steve Bruce’s Striker! which is an obvious attempt to create a Dick Francis-style franchise of murder-mystery novels around a sport. The novella is stuffed full of uncomfortable attempts to get across the mature camaraderie—that which binds all sorts of groups together in real life, full of nuanced relationships. It fails, but only in the same way that it fails with other aspects of the writer’s (proofreader’s, editor’s, cover artist’s, blurb writer’s) art—quality rather than effort or ambition.

Professionals can only feel the bonds of mercenary colleagues, fans form an ideological grouping and the casual gangs—however misguided—have the comradely togetherness of a militia defending their home. Zulu top man Cud can confirm; reflect how the phrasing could easily have come from one of football’s more traditionally British managers:

“There was a togetherness within the firm, like a family and every Saturday we were going to war. Others go to Iraq or wherever to fight for a cause they believe in, and defending our area was what we believed in.”

Special mentions, he says, are due to (amongst others) “the B.U.G. (Billesley Urban Guerillas) […] Rockarse, Lance, Smelly, Frog, Mong, Bear, Jed and the Jellies, Cranmore Boot Boys, Jammy, Ozzy, Slim, JJ, Kibs, Ize, Clive Warstock”.

To believe as strongly as to fight has a romance, when that means altruism even more so. If the cause was yours and the war was tomorrow, would you fight? Would you leave home and risk your life, travel to defend the people of another country just because of your belief? The Spanish Civil War offers me a chance to test that hypothetically for me. I would like to think I would have gone, but I can’t be sure.

Seeing the Spanish Civil as a trial run for World War Two is to play up political reasoning over economic. Britain’s politicians, and those of France, pursued policies of non-intervention in 1936 and appeasement up till 1939—the governments fought fascism but not until it was too big to ignore. Without the wealth of weapons or aid offered to the fascists by the Hitler and Mussolini lead states the Spanish republic relied on the sacrifice of individuals, and there were around 30,000 strong enough to do so by bearing arms.

These men formed the International Brigades, they came from across the World—from Germany and Italy exiled socialists and communists fought not just for a brotherhood, but for hope of a country to settle in. Esmond Romilly, a British member of the Thälmann Battalion, wrote of his comrades (Quoted in Preston, P. A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War):

“For them, indeed, there could be no surrender, no return; they were fighting for their cause and they were fighting as well for a home to live in. I remember what I heard from them of the exile’s life, scraping an existence in Antwerp or Toulouse, pursued by immigration laws[…]by the Nazi Secret Police. And they staked everything on this war.”

But the British, in essence, fought for their beliefs. Bob Cooney, a folk singer who became part of the renowned scene around Birmingham’s Jug of Punch Club, became Political Commissar with the British Battalion, returning with songs and a conviction that led him to join up to fight again at the start of the Second World War.

Jason Gurney left England to fight for “the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear. Either you were opposed to the growth of fascism went out to fight against it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth.”

He was wounded so that he couldn’t work again.

Loach’s Land and Freedom—despite suffering severe Finlandization alongside Homage to Catalonia—succeeds in capturing the certainly of a cause and the complexity of relationships between comrades-in-arms. It borrows heavily from Orwell’s account of the conflict, but immerses the viewer in motivation and that motivation includes the power that comes from a union.

In Bloody Casuals: Diary of a Football Hooligan (I could swear I first read this in an edition titled “Diary of an Aberdeen Soccer Casual”, but no evidence of that exists) Jay Allen gives a plausible version of just that feeling: “Whenever your mob gets off a train, out of a bar or out of the ground it always looks so much bigger.[…]walking in a mob of 200 or more is a fantastic feeling—it’s probably the security and the feeling of power. ”

Lack of power both societally and over the game that unites them has to be seen as a catalyst. The rise of the English hooligan in the eighties came as political power was drawn away from the electorate and placed firmly in the hands of the rich and the corporations. It was also the dawn of the distance in the game itself, while players hadn’t started earning the millions they do now the money machine had started and the clubs that were once part of the communities were packing consumers onto crumbling and dangerous terraces.

Control had left, and by the time of the Football Spectators Act (1989) the very liberty to attend games was under threat—membership requirement and travel restrictions joined fences and contempt as tools for the powerful to use on the powerless. It became more difficult to connect with the game, except through the increasingly regulated media. Football itself was a political football.

Jorge Luis Borges was no fan of football it’s popular-opiate role, and as an Argentinian under the junta that used the World Cup in 1978 to distract from all sorts of human right abuse one can see his point. One of his Bustos Domecq short stories reveals everything to be a sham:

“There’s no score, no teams, no matches, […] The bogus excitement of the sportscaster—hasn’t it ever made you suspect that everything is humbug? The last time a soccer match was played in Buenos Aires was on June 24 1937. From that exact moment soccer […] belongs to the genre of the drama, performed by a single man in a booth or by actors in jerseys in front of TV cameras.”

That casuals took what power they could over their lives, applied organisation to the business of ‘a ruck’, created uniforms shouldn’t be a surprise. A small army needs manoeuvres to gauge itself, and as Mussolini used Spain as a testing ground the casuals used European tournaments. No face could be lost, the enemy wasn’t organised as well.

It may seem further removed than authors, sculptors, and singers taking up arms but Aberdeen were somewhat of a force in Scottish and European football in the eighties. Under Alex Ferguson the team won the Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Real Madrid in the final in Gothenburg. The ‘Aberdeen Trendies’ traveled across the continent stealing Fila tracksuits, and drinking themselves unconscious. The trouble they wanted wasn’t really there, however, as they couldn’t in the end find anyone to fight with.

“A Mark McGhee cross and a John Hewitt header made it 2-1. Everyone exploded—we all leap the fifteen feet down to the standing terrace below. […] When the final whistle went, some of us tried to scale the fence, but it was a really high barbed wire fence. Hundreds of police in white jackets and big clubs put us off a bit as well.”

 

No such problems in at home, the fights were much easier to come by. “God knows why we loved to fight Motherwell so much […]  Just after 2.15pm someone ran in and told everyone that 70 of the SS [Motherwell Saturday Service] had just got off the 11.05, someone shouted the signal “come on Aberdeen!”.

That violence is sometimes premeditated and orchestrated between firms in the UK is a given, but abroad with the national team such control isn’t so possible. England fans have been involved in trouble during every major finals the team have got to since 1990, but it’s small numbers that will go prepared to fight, and larger numbers that are to stupid not to. It’s even the case that the reputation of the English—those beasts, the disease, the physical representation of imperialism—provides an excuse for attacking travelling fans.

In 1998 I had my first experience of being caught up in trouble abroad, and the overriding feeling was of powerlessness. Less secure, or braver, men may have fought back but it didn’t occur. I’d gone to watch England play Romania. A thirteen hour drive to Toulouse from Birmingham we barely slowed down until we got there and enjoyed a thoroughly drunken evening, and a throughly drunken morning in the centre of a town with some beautiful trompe l’oeil and a very poor Chinese buffet.

We’d had a great time: seeing no trouble, getting a mate into the game without a ticket (but with a wooden sheep) after his was pick-pocketed, and attempting French. Talking more loudly in English wasn’t working as if there was a second language it seemed to be Spanish.

But leaving the stadium, the feeling of the town had changed, the steeply-banked streets were dark, the noises no longer the voices of brotherhood but of harsh recrimination. It was getting cold, we were in the Englishman’s most vulnerable attire, lose shorts, the replica shirt and flip-flops. The sound of thick shattering glass shook you each time you started to relax, like a noise you hear while sleeping and pray has stopped. We made our way back in a concentrated silence not commenting on the we felt, making it obvious that we weren’t looking at the groups of men who gathered in corners and pockets.

There had been no real warning, the pre-game euphoria and 90th minute devastation—coupled for us with what was the end of our tip—could have marked a blackening of mood, but the whole city now seemed dusty, dangerous and shadowy.

Two other fans joined our group of four, showing no shame in fear they asked if they could walk with us; safety in numbers. They reminded us of the reports of skirmishes between England supporters and local Algerian men, something we hadn’t seen as we’d stayed the night before in a village some miles away.  There were missiles thrown, the only protection was to hold souvenir programmes over our heads—we hurried without breaking stride. We weren’t going to react, but then we weren’t looking for trouble.

Leaving them at their car found our way back to the bar we’d be happily shouting “bis” for Vindaloo in a few hours earlier, forgive us that; it was new, it was very much an absurdist reaction to the fake takes on national passion that big culture had offered before. The shutters were down almost to the ground, but there was activity inside. To prevent trouble, we were told, bars had been instructed not to open after the match; however the landlord’s quest for custom overrules these ideas worldwide.We banged, not urgently but insistently, the metal rattled and undulated and after establishing identity we were let in. We settled in to have a calming beer, meet the other guys and wait out any trouble but the barman was most insistent that we didn’t leave alone. Whether the locals were more or less attuned to the threat, I don’t know—but he made it clear we were to stay as long as we liked and then he’d arrange for us to be driven to the car park we’d used.

When we left it was to find the easy truce between English clubs had broken, there was apparently at least one bunch of Birmingham City fans on the hunt for Villa on whom to take out their frustration. Lennon and McCartney’s masterpiece Shit on the Villa forced itself off tiled walls and floors. We left.

Recriminations for just this sort of behaviour were long rumoured to have been the reasoning behind the unexpected levels of fighting around a game against Wolves in 1999. The firms of much smaller teams who command less fans, and so less hooligans, but often see the wider England team as something more important had arranged to teach the Zulus a lesson. This was the ruck at which a “homemade rocket launcher” apparently made an appearance, although what that would do, look like, or how it would be constructed are questions the whispers don’t answer.

Groups, factions; internal strife is seemingly inevitable. The fall of the Spanish Republic may be blamed on the non-intervention of European Governments, but it was characterised by the splintering of the Left—anarchists were sidelined, striped of responsibility in battle and eventually blamed for all manner of ills. George Orwell watched as honest men were imprisoned and persecuted for fighting for the cause under the banner of one group rather than another but for a glorious moment  her “had been in a community where hope was more normal that apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.”

The more strongly you believe the greater chance of you believing something different to the next man. The stronger the motivation the worse the fight.

And if you have no real motivation the fight may be all you have.

¡No pasarán! Keep Right On.

First published in Dirty Bristow Issue Two.

Red and Dead

The past scares the fucking shit out of me. Not in the way that a dimly remembered faux pas leads you down the path to self harm; that happens too, but I’m no longer scared, just resigned. The past that makes me uneasy about going to our outside toilet, about looking into a darkened pane of glass, is long before I was born.

Any era most reliably pictured with a woodcut print puts the wind up me in ways I can’t describe. It’s not just the deformed people and perspective. It’s not the evil rictus grins, or the oddly curved limbs. It’s not the veiny skies and fields – they score the vista, making you view the middle ages through a bashed wire fence, but I can dig that. I’ve played a lot of five-a-side, and life during the crusades was very much like the Aston Powerleague on a Wednesday night.

What makes me dive for the comfort of Dave is the terror of time stretching back, year-on-year, each year more gruesome than the last. Peeling back every layer of social reform, of comfort, of law, until we’re eating babies and burning at the stake while Princes flay festering skin from our nether portions.

Empathy is not imagining the feelings of others, it’s worrying what you would feel if subjected to the same transgressions. There is a different type of thought used to consider the plight of the human race, empathy and horror are bedfellows with numbers and hopeful theories.

Robin Hood is the only hope of woodcut-man for compassion, so was he the birth of the welfare state — of the protection of the masses? Even as the medievalist church mis-sold empathy with fear of damnation, he strode around the Midlands propping up failed evolutionary strategy with bags of gold coin and false hope. But Robin Hood wasn’t a socialist, he was simply less of a cunt than the next Earl along. Not that he was an Earl, probably, or even gave to “the poor” (that’s pretty much everyone without a title isn’t it?). Look back at the original ballads, and the best you can hope is that he’d decided it was only worth robbing the really rich people.

My favourite ‘wither Robin Hood’ theory is that the ballads are some great fashion marketing ploy, based on the absurdly high attention paid to costume and cloth within the text – so much that it approaches the work of Bret Easton Ellis. We’re not talking designer label, but do contemporary ballads bother with such mise-en-scène? The suspicion is that the yeomanry or the guilds (prone to the wearing of hoods themselves, it was cold out, they had money for cloth) had something to do with the spread of the stories.

Robin was at best some champagne (mead?) socialist type; he wore Lincoln Graine, which was normally a scarlet red (not green, cloth-fact-fans) while his men wore the cheaper green and bowed at his feet. He’s not that bothered about the tax system, and let’s face it he’s doing nothing but playing to the peasant gallery until he gets his way. Shades of every modern politician — and this was the good guy — there’s nothing more than devotion, just to the best ruler out of a bad lot. You knew where you were with the Thatcher of Nottingham, at least he admitted he was a bastard. Does Robin take Nottingham and then plan a First International, sending Little John off to probe revolution in Derby? Nah.

For real revolt, for reform, you need Wat Tyler. Tyler led the Peasants Revolt and wanted to overthrow the feudal system — and had a good knock — although there is no record of the system that they’d thought up to go in its place. History paints the Peasants Revolt as a fourteenth century G8 protest — anarchy, Mile End and sacking the Savoy. That the protests were whipped up in direct response to the original Poll Tax is a lovely eighties metaphor, but not exactly helpful when you’re trying to work out if this was original collective altruism or just something to do in-between rotating the crops. It seems to have had very little impact on the history of the class struggle in England, if you can’t do better than a few releases on Rugger Bugger Records then you may as well be the Levellers.

Great moralist, and master of the Greek pun, Sir Thomas More is pretty much the first person to have a crack at a collective vision of society. It’s a pity that it’s a satire, and the joyless view of monastic communism is no advert for a socialism that you want to fight kings for. Particularly fat kings who are good at tennis (even if they are somewhat of a one-hit wonder). Fat tennis kings that will pick a fight with the Pope — in the days of proper hard popes, not just the ex-Hitler scouts we get these days — rather than hide the woman in the wardrobe as Brian Rix has taught us.

Was More joking? It’s hard to tell. Generations of translators have added prefaces about whether it’s pun (Utopia is either No Place or Good Place) or politic. Unless it’s some double bluff, I’d probably call a clumsy Bremner. The last translation I read even has the narrator called Nonsenseo. More loses his head, for all his humanistic leanings, which must be preferable to another round of Greensleeves on the harpsichord and sackbut.

But worse, Utopia — socialism — is set in stone from the 1500s as a rather dull place. It gives root to the ideas that creativity can’t function in an equal society, that to create one we must be drugged and the savages only can save us. From Huxley’s Brave New World, to feeding Barney from New Order Prozac — we can’t be happy and creative and fair and equal all at the same time.

Many of the misreadings of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene focus on the misapprehension that he promotes the idea that the human (the “survival machine”) isn’t capable of altruism. He certainly spends much of the book debunking any notion of group selection — which sees individuals subjugate themselves for the good of the group. Where would such an evolutionary strategy end, he says “For the good of the species? The mammals? The vertebrates?” Dawkins doesn’t mean that we can’t act altruistically, although he does a damned fine job of showing the working on why pure utopian communism wouldn’t be, what he calls, an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS). I’m simplifying towards no meaning whatsoever, but Dawkins runs us through example after example of how, basically, if everyone’s good all the time, then it’s advantageous to be a cheat. It’s the genes that are selfish, not the machines — and in the second edition there’s a long chapter about how the “generally nice” will prevail — but there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the ideal welfare state. Would Marx and Engels have bothered if they’d have thought about ethnology over economics?

No doubt darling Dickie Dawkins would label the basic premise of Das Capital a meme, pointing to its evolutionary replication — and he’d be right. But it’s a stupendously unstable idea as far as political theories go — and fully in keeping with the exploitative selfishness of the “cheats” or capitalists as we’ve learnt to call them.

There are photos of Marx, with a touch of the Just For Men on the tache—or was it a post-bovril portrait? So although there’s no succour for the proletariat, I can imagine him with a meaty drink. He was a rather chunky fella, so a sudden loss of income wouldn’t have been the end—I can imagine a safe world having seen the reality. Not so for the Paris Commune. Although we’ve moved on from woodcuts, and it’s easy to imagine a team of hot-shot documentary watercolorists setting up easel around the barricades, I can’t place the struggle. I can only fictionalise, and my imagination scares me. That I know that we lost doesn’t help.

Sidney Lumet’s 1965 film The Hill captures this feeling better than anything I’ve ever read or seen. You can lose—there are situations in which you have no control. Set in a North African military prison, it shows inmates helpless against a Staff Sergeant intent on breaking them, over and over again, over a constructed mound of earth. Eventually one dies of heat exhaustion, a chance to expose Ian Hendy’s vile guard, but one they’re unable to take. Roy Kinnear’s fright and Sean Connery’s temper see to it that it’s impossible to do anything but the basest fight-back. And the system wins. Forever. We’re left with sheer heat, claustrophobia and sweat (which works much better in black and white). The frustration drips like the sweat from Kinnear’s brow. The system surely must be changed, but it isn’t.

It’d never be made today, the good guys lose — something it shares with Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One senses that Orwell was always angrier with Aspidistra’s advertisers than ’84’s oppressors, or is it that anger is one of the showier emotions – and incompatible with the totalitarian oppression – and impotence against that? He reserves special distain for the propagandists, or does he hold them and their newspeak in the highest regard? It’s more dangerous than bombs or threats.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four at exactly the right time, the same age at which I watched every episode of The Prisoner. Both affected me in similar ways, and there’s no doubt that they shaped how I react to other realities. The past is nothing if not another reality, and the less control I would have if placed there the less I’m able to comfortably deal with it. For each, the lack of control is total. Well, unless you watch one of the later Prisoners where Patrick McGoohan had stretched himself too thin and his messianic off-screen control had started to affect the story.

A year or so ago, I went on holiday to Pisa by mistake. Pisa’s nice. It doesn’t have much more than the tower though. It’s a day-trip to take when in nearby Florence rather than a destination. Something else it does have is the fading Piazza dei Cavalieri, now a sort of nominal centre for the university, but historically the administrative centre of the town. Guidebooks focus attention on the main building, with busts in nooks and just the right amount of restoration, but I read about the building across the way; home to starvation and cannibalism. At the order of an Archbishop, Count Ugolino de’ Gherardeschi and his offspring were sealed in and left to stave. The Count lasted a little longer than expected, as he ate everyone else, although he doesn’t seem to mention this bit to Dante in the Inferno3. These, I’m forced to remember, are the good guys the Holy Justice, and I couldn’t settle in the square.

I’m not thinking of how the Count feels as he gnaws on a close relative, nor even how the relative felt (or tasted), but the sheer impotence of the trapped. They have no control of the situation, and no hope of a benevolent, well, anything.

And that’s what scares me more than anything.

First published in Dirty Bristow Issue One, with the standfirst “Was Robin Hood the first Communist?” and wonderful illustrations.

Planning committee

Have you ever been consulted? How did it feel?

I’ll wager it felt a lot less like being asked to help direct a process and a lot more like a cowboy exhorting you to leap onto a runaway steam train, unhook the carriages, and save the women and children. The brakes aren’t working, the lever on the points has snapped, there’s a tunnel coming up and you’re on the roof.

Now imagine that train isn’t uncontrolled, there are drivers and they’re intent on stoking the boiler. And that train has over a million passengers.

That’s how I felt about a huge consultation exercise announced by Birmingham City Council in late 2008: The Big City Plan, the council told us, was to be about “the next twenty years” of the City Centre and by extension have a huge impact on the rest of the city. “Get this right or face years of problems” it seemed to say. So I wanted to help, I wanted to spread the word, to make sure that as many people as possible would contribute. I wanted to have a real conversation with people who understood the issues and chip in where I could be helpful. I’d been running a fairly well known blog about the city (Birmingham: It’s Not Shit) for eight years or so, I knew there was a knowledgable audience out there that would engage if they found it easy enough.

And then I saw the consultation documents. A glossy leaflet what seemed to say as little as it could, and a monolithic downloadable ‘Work in Progress’ PDF that talked of “sustainable delivery vehicles”. I liked the idea of a city buzzing with shop-bikes, rickshaws and sack trucks instead of lorries, but I wasn’t quite sure what was being proposed. I needed help before even starting to read it.

Birmingham had a very well connected online scene by that point: it still does, but it was fairly unusual as far as towns and cities went that that point. Bloggers, web people, early adopters, had started to meet offline and form the real-world connections that helped things to happen. The social glue of the nonsense talked online, the quick, friendly and fun interactions had really created bonds. We’d played hashtag games on Twitter before anyone had thought of hashtags secure in the knowledge that our networks understood what we were doing, we’d drunk coffee and beer together, we’d even performed an online pantomime. So at the next Social Media Cafe, a coffee morning for webbies organised by Joanna Geary, a few of us sat around a table and asked “is there anything we can do?”

A consensus emerged that there were two issues with the consultation that we could help with. One was that the online space didn’t have open comments on it (they were accepted but not published, so there was no space for conversation)—a forum or a blog with comments on it would be easy, we’d just need to make sure the huge amount of words and questions were divided up properly. There were plenty of people who could set up and host a site, I volunteered and had a basic place up and running pretty much by the end of the meeting. I used WordPress, a blog platform that says it has a “famous five-minute install”. In reality it can take less than that, bigcitytalk.org.uk was live for use very quickly.

The other just looked much more difficult, it was going to be impossible to have conversations if people couldn’t understand the questions.

It wasn’t just the jargon ‘regen-speak’ as one of us called it, there were references to further ‘spacial plans’ and bodies that just wouldn’t mean anything to the uninitiated. Essentially, we agreed. The whole thing needed ‘translating’ before any conversations could begin. Did we have the skills, time and motivation to do that?

Consultations officially last eight weeks, and by the time we saw how this Big Plan was shaping up one had already gone. To add to that the council had scheduled this one over Christmas. We might have more free time, but getting people to forgo enough of that might not have been easy. The problem is a lot of larger scale volunteer effort is that you need to believe that others are as committed as you—if I spent two weeks translating but not enough other people do to finish we don’t succeed. You can’t build half a boat.

But those, supposedly weak, online ties were enough to trust that the volunteers would see the job through. Those inconsequential interactions to have consequences. They build relationships. It wasn’t inconsequential to my mind that the majority of the volunteers had appeared in the Twitpanto we’d held the previous year. Nick Booth, Nicky Getgood, Julia Gilbert and Michael Grimes made up the team.
Over the first week or so of the new year the small team of five translators spent a good few hours every evening translating, but it wasn’t just a case of using Plain English. There was great discussion over the web about what certain passages actually meant. We used our contacts inside the council and with other experiences to try to get past the words to the actual meanings, to be able to link to supporting sites and explain how some of the ideas linked up. It had us tearing at our hair, Michael and Nicky spent at least a day fretting about the meaning of one paragraph, the collected wisdom prevailing that it didn’t really mean anything. We had to be very careful not to be seen to be influencing content, and to make sure that any comments we did get would be counted as official.

There were comments aplenty, we counted nearly 300 by the close of the consultation period. They were constructive, conversational and intelligent. And while a few hundred might not sound a lot the whole consultation got around 1,500, it was backed with billboards, bus adverts and all sorts of publicity.

But if the wisdom of the crowd was to help direct that train those comments had to be fed into the official process. That proved more difficult than it needed to, the council staff weren’t ready to deal with the volume or the idea that people would spend so much time and effort doing what our team had done.

We could have been confrontational at this point, but while there might be the temptation to shout being nice always seems to have the better effect with large organisations. We were relentlessly positive and helpful, we offered every format imaginable and eventually submitted the comments by post and email making sure that they couldn’t be ignored.
Did we stop the train? I’m not sure, but a small group of constructive activists couldn’t have done more to make sure that a supposedly huge consultation reached as many people as possible. If Birmingham gets to the right place in twenty years then it owes some to it’s engaged online community.

 

This was originally written for The Community Lovers Guide To Birmingham.