Sunday, 1 February 2009

In Praise of Suburbia.

The film of the moment; or one of them at least, is Revolutionary Road, an adaptation of Richard Yates’s novel about the disintegration of youthful optimism set in 1950’s suburbia.

Hollywood often, too often perhaps, trades in simplistic messages and the message of this film is, it seems that suburban life is a vice that crushed the human spirit between rigid social conformity and rampant consumerism. It is not a particularly original critique, but it is one that has prompted several reviewers, including Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph, to question just why it is that the suburbs receive such a raw deal from the arts.

It is a pertinent question and one I would like to try and answer from a British perspective at least, adding along the way a few comments on the attitudes of what I suppose we should call the establishment to all things suburban.

For decades suburbia in the UK suburbia was the preferred setting for situation comedies written by metropolitan sophisticates who looked down their elegant noses at the small minds, middle brow opinions and social conservatism of its residents. Sometime on the mid nineties a well publicized edict went out from the BBC saying that suburbia was no longer considered to be a suitable setting for its sitcoms. It was, so the thinking went, too staid and middle class for the tastes of the audience the corporation was trying to attract; from now on edginess would be the beginning and end of what was required for small screen comedy.

It is ironic to not that since turning its back on suburbia the BBC has seldom had a hit comedy programme, and the few it has had have been copied from American originals set in, you guessed it, the suburbs.

It is worth speculating just what it is about the suburbs that makes them such a fertile breeding ground for people on the arts, be they musicians, actors and above all that most suburban of all artistic professions, writers. My guess would be that it has everything to do with the very restrictions they claim to have found so irksome, creative types have always needed something to kick against in order to produce their best work.

The very fact that the British pretend to have such a profound dislike of all things suburban is in itself rather odd since as a nation we are suburban to the very core. The values we hold most dear, even if we feel a very British awkwardness about articulating them in public, stoicism, a marked lack of pretension and a quiet but deeply held patriotism and the very backbone of the attitudes of what George Orwell admiringly called the ‘invincible suburbs.’

They are the sort of values politicians find themselves inevitably attempting to evoke regardless of their personal political persuasion at some stage of their career, they are also values that what a growing number of people refer to as the ‘political class’, an awkward and alarming term to hear used in a democracy, fear the most.

It isn’t the rich who take to the streets when a local council threatens to close a school of a public swimming pool, with wealth comes endless choice; it isn’t the poor who protest when ancient liberties are eroded in the name of security, years of being bullied by bureaucrats have robbed then of the will to do anything other than just get by, it is the people in the middle, the suburbanites, the residents of what is sometimes sneeringly referred to as ‘middle England’ who rise to the occasion.

It isn’t that they are particularly ‘political’, as the anthropologist Kate Fox points out in her study of our national character politics in the UK has always had more to do with fair play than competing ideologies, but rather than being drones deadened by the monotony of their daily lives the inhabitants of Britain’s equivalent of Revolutionary Road are the real custodians of the most revolutionary idea of them all; democracy.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Gloom and Good Manners.

This week we learnt two things that although not necessarily important are none the less interesting. Britain, if the New Economics Foundation is to be believed at least, is the thirteenth happiest country in which to live and our famous politeness might, at least during the Edwardian era, have had some deadly consequences.

Good manners suggest that I should address the issue of, well, good manners first. According to David Savage, a behavioural economist at Queensland University of Technology, British people of the 1910’s were more ‘gentlemanly’ than the more ‘individualist’ Americans of the same era.

Speaking to the BBC he said this week ‘The American culture was set up to be more individualist and the British culture was more about gentlemanly behaviour.’

As an example he cited the behaviour of First Class passengers on the Titanic, which famously sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York with the loss of some 1,500 lives, who, having escorted their wives and children to the lifeboats went ‘to the back of the boat to have a cigar, stand around and be chummy, while basically the boat went down.’

To anyone who knows the British character this will be something less than a revelation, rather it will be received as an example of out national obsession with queuing being taken to its furthest limit.

No other nation free or enslaved; rich or poor demonstrates an enthusiasm for standing in line to match that shown by the British, queuing is a habit that crosses divides of class and generation, and so long as British people retain the ability to stand in line without having to be marshalled by someone with a loud hailer and a riot stick all rumours of our national decline will continue to be exaggerated.

If queuing is one British national obsession then being grumpy is certainly another and, according to the National Accounts of Wellbeing survey conducted by the New Economics Foundation which measures factors such as self esteem, vitality and sense of purpose in twenty two countries it is not doing us any favours.

The survey puts Britain in thirteenth place on its league table of national wellbeing, too far away from the happy Swiss and Norwegians; too close for comfort to the gloomy Bulgarians and Hungarians.

The report accompanying the survey cites rising levels of personal debt and the long hours worked by many Britons as having dissuaded individuals and families from ‘pursuing activities that would best promote personal and social wellbeing,’ prompting Nic Marks of the NEF to comment that ‘governments have lost sight of the fact that their fundamental purpose is to improve the lives of their citizens’ and have instead become ‘obsessed with maximising economic growth to the exclusion of all other concerns.’

In its, or rather our, defence the government hit back this week by claiming that in a survey it conducted 94% of young people, a group that featured prominently in the NEF survey, felt happy with their lives and included in society.

The NEF has a point, Britons have become more individualistic over the past quarter century of so and yet they seem to be painting a rather more gloomy than necessary picture of life in the UK at the start of the twenty first century, not, perhaps such a surprise, since there is and always has been a limited market for good news.

Taking a broader view individualism is a more or less good thing, particularly at a time of economic crisis when it is the people who are willing to stand out from the common heard who will lead the recovery, be they politicians, business people of just ordinary men and women who refuse to say die when the chips are down.

As for the rest of the NEF’s concerns, namely that ours has become a harsher and more selfish society that it was a generation or so ago, well, so long as we can queue for a bus, or a lifeboat, in something like good order, we might just about muddle through.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Britain’s hopes for Barrack Obama.

Next Tuesday the eyes of the world turn to Washington and the inauguration of the forty fourth President of the United States, Barrack Obama.

Not for half a century, if ever, has the advent of a new administration been anticipated with such hope by the whole world, or been shadowed by such fears of what may happen were glowing promise to translate itself into dull disillusion.

Viewed from this side of the Atlantic the story of Obama’s march to the White House, from the chilly New Hampshire primaries to the victory rally in Chicago last November is both improbable and inspiring.

Improbable, that is, to someone raised in a political tradition that seems colourless by comparison. British elections tend to be low key affairs, marked by a few weeks of lacklustre campaigning and a brief speech on the doorstep of Downing Street delivered by the new incumbent.

There is no grand inauguration ceremony with its balls and display of military might, not, perhaps a bad thing since the British feel uncomfortable with the idea of show business encroaching on the staid world of Westminster. Unfortunately our political life lacks the sense of its major players having worked to earn their place in the spotlight in the way the participants in the US primaries did.

Instead we have a political elite that progresses from school, usually a public school by the way, to university and then a job as a researcher to an MP before standing as a candidate and, hopefully getting elected. Attending the Labour conference a couple of years ago I found myself in a room full of young prospective parliamentary candidates and while I couldn’t help but admire their intellect and articulacy I was alarmed by their lack of knowledge about life as lived by the ‘hard working families’ they will spend much of their political career talking about.

In a week when we were informed that social mobility in the UK has virtually stalled the background from which the people who aspire to make our laws rose is more important than ever. There have been grand promises, delivered in a white paper on social inclusion, that the government will ‘force’ top universities and the profession to take more entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds, the intentions are undoubtedly noble, but the methodology feels a little too like social engineering and class warfare for comfort.

Perhaps a better example to offer to disadvantaged people is that of the American dream that many people claim Barrack Obama finally brought to fulfilment at the ballot box, an example in which hard work generates high rewards and the only positive discrimination on offer is the sort that discriminates between the gold of talent and the base metal of ordinary capacities.

Equally inspiring to a European observer was the enthusiasm the American people, from the activists hammering the phones during the primaries to the lines of citizens waiting in the pouring rain of baking heat to cast their vote on Election Day. To my shame I cannot recall a single occasion when I had to queue up to cast my vote in either a general or local election, in fact most elections in the UK seem to pass by without being noticed by the majority of the adult population.

I have always believed that the greatest gift of democracy is the freedom of citizens not to take an interest in politics, and for that reason I have always opposed making voting compulsory, but something must be done to educate people that casting their vote is the responsibility that earns them the rights they too often take for granted.

Standing in a bookshop the other day I overheard a conversation between two young women one of whom was holding a copy of The Audacity of Hope and saying to her friend ‘Isn’t he just the coolest President?’ I cannot imagine a book by Gordon Brown or David Cameron provoking a similar response; in fact I cannot imagine the majority of Britons wanting to read about either man’s vision for our country’s future, Obama’s book, by the way, is high in the best seller’s lists in the UK.

Could the success of a self proclaimed ‘skinny kid with a weird name’ be the catalyst for a new attitude towards engaging with the electorate amongst British politicians? We can only hope that it will.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

A Dangerous Kind of Embarrassment.

This week I bring you bad news, not quite an obituary, not yet anyway, but a clear intimation that the days of two British institutions are numbered. The institutions in question are ‘Morris’ dancing and manufacturing, surprisingly their failing fortunes are linked by a single factor, embarrassment.

‘Morris’ dancers with their bells, sticks and straw hats decorated with garlands are, along with tea taken on a clipped lawn and cricket on the village green a quintessential part of the English summer, well they are so far as it is imagined by the heritage industry.

There are currently some 14,000 ‘Morris’ dancers in the UK, although the number of people taking part is declining and the age of the people taking part is rising with each passing year. If things continue as they are experts claim ‘Morris’ dancing will be ‘extinct’ within twenty years, the reason for this decline is, they claim, that young people find folk dancing embarrassing and so don’t want to include it in their portfolio of leisure activities.

Charlie Cochran, who rejoices in the title of ‘Bagman’ for the ‘Morris’ Ring, the body that promotes ‘Morris’ dancing in the UK is so concerned that he told the BBC this week ‘Once we’ve lost this part of our culture, it will be almost impossible to revive it.’

Try as I might I cannot find it within me to share Mr Cochran’s alarm over the demise of ‘Morris’ dancing, it has always seemed to me to be a little too tidy and quaint to be truly authentic, traditional I don’t doubt but tradition of a sort that has had its face washed and been taught enough good manners to have become divorced from its rough hewn roots.

There is also the small point that Mr Cochran and all the other people gathered to wring their hands over the demise of yet another link to Merrie England have forgotten what it means to be young. To be young, in this age or any other, is to be in the grip of the tyranny of being cool, meaning the need to be exactly like everyone else in your peer group whilst pretending to be determinedly individualistic.

It is a pose and one that people seldom cling to much past their mid thirties, one day soon the current generation of trendy young things will, like all the others that went before, will discover that the things they thought were dangerously un-cool when they were twenty seem like a good way to pass a summer’s evening. That might even prove to be true of ‘Morris’ dancing outside a pub with a thatched roof and some strong cider on tap.

I am much less sanguine about the decline in manufacturing, figures released this week revealed that production rates have fallen to the lowest level since 1981. A fact demonstrated this week by the fate of Staffordshire based pottery firm Wedgwood, which celebrated its two hundred and fiftieth year in business by going into administration, the possibility of an injection of venture capital cash from the other side of the Atlantic has thrown the company a lifeline, but much of its production is likely to be transferred to Indonesia.

As with ‘Morris’ dancing manufacturing in the UK can cite embarrassment as one of the causes of its decline, the British have always tended to have an ambivalent attitude to people who made their money in ‘trade’. When this attitude was largely confined to the landed gentry riding to hounds and drinking port in exclusive London clubs it was little more than a piece of harmless eccentricity, now the same attitude has been taken up by the products of the new universities it has become a serious threat to the nation’s prosperity.

The blunt truth, and this, I fear, is going to be a year of blunt truths, is that the grimy business of making, rather than simply hoping to design, things that people want to buy is the foundation on which the wealth of a nation is built. Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the still world famous pottery firm understood that fact implicitly, as did all the other ironmasters who made Britain the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.

That is why two hundred years after his death the name of the company he founded lives on, if not for much longer in the county of his birth, I doubt the battalions of young graduates marching out of university with degrees in Media Studies and dreams of getting rich without getting their hands dirty will leave quite so deep a mark on posterity.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Shivering into a new world.

Well we made it, safely into the New Year I mean. This time round Britain had to wait a little longer for the champagne corks to pop as an extra second was added to the old year in response to a set of calculations too abstruse to concern us here.

The method by which this was done though should appeal to anyone with a fondness for British ingenuity and eccentricity, the simply added a few more old style pennies to the pendulum of Big Ben. High tech; who needs it?

For those hardy souls waiting in Trafalgar Square or the centre of any other major city to see in 2009 it must have been a bitterly cold evening and, for the even hardier souls filmed by news programmes with little else to cover celebrating New Year’s Day by swimming in the frigid waters of the Serpentine or the sea off Brighton. I salute their bravery in the face of the worst the weather can throw at them whilst also questioning their sanity.

This looks like being a boom time for such lunatics as we enter the coldest January since records began, a news story that managed to drive both the economic crisis and the latest war in the Middle East off the front pages last week, giving, for anyone seeking it, further evidence of the famous British obsession with the weather. After all in few other countries could a television weather forecaster have a higher public profile than a member of the cabinet.

Being obsessed with the weather doesn’t, of course, mean that the British are prepared for it, which would involve abandoning our cherished pose of cheerful amateurism in favour of forward planning. Over the next couple of weeks the newspapers, mourning perhaps the absence of their favourite targets for scorn, politicians of all stripes, will be filled with lurid articles and incredulous editorials aimed at council managers from Land’s End to John O’ Groats who have been so unwise as to get caught out by the fact that it often turns cold during the winter.

This is, of course, going to be a cold new year for altogether more serious reasons, as demonstrated by two stark statistics picked up by every newspaper in the land, experts predict that by the end of the year some 600,000 more people will have lost their jobs and that one in ten shops on the high street will be standing empty.

This sets up a particularly queasy contrast with an image that has dominated the television news reports since Christmas, that of bargain hunters storming the January sales, most of which began in December this year, like an army of gatecrashers storming the last big party before the bad times start to roll.

The Chinese, I am told, have a favourite curse, it runs as follows, may you live in interesting times, for interesting read uncertain and alarming; ours then are certainly interesting times.

Lest we become too gloomy about the year before it has even begun we should, perhaps, draw a little comfort from the performance of Britain’s Olympians which lit up last autumn. They came through with the goods again as a discontented winter puts its head down and makes a dash for a disillusioned spring making the New Year’s Honours list into a triumphant pageant instead of the usual celebration of dutiful mediocrity.

One of their number the gold medal winning cyclist Chris, now Sir Chris, Hoy gave to posterity a quote that expressed both his modesty and a proper disdain for the hubris that is in part behind the troubles currently besetting the world.

He said: ‘when Chris Hoy starts to talk about Chris Hoy in the third person, then Chris Hoy will have disappeared up his own backside.’

Arise with honour Sir Chris Hoy, the newest and perhaps the shrewdest of all the knights in the service of this wintry kingdom.