Monthly Archives: October 2011

Post-crisis Olympic blues, and the militarisation of the Olympic spirit

A couple of weeks ago I was standing five-deep on the platform at Stockwell tube station, staring up at an empty departure board. A train had broken down somewhere up the line. People were late for work, it was very hot. It was the worst week of tube delays so far this year, with, according to TfL, 33 incidents of severe delays and line closures. Eventually a train arrived, and after cramming on board with hundreds of others, we sped away leaving the platform as busy as it was before. As soon as we were in the tunnel, the stern delivery of the Victoria line announcer filled the carriage, with the warning now familiar to any user of railways in Britain to not leave your bag unattended, or run the risk of it being ‘destroyed by the security services’.

I’ve never liked the Victoria line announcer. She has a sternness in her voice you would never find infecting the chirpy breeze of the Bakerloo line announcer, or the spritely and professional candour of the Northern line. The Victoria line announcer addresses the worms squeezed on her trains with a contemptuous pity. She is busy and modern, as evidenced by her shiny new carriages, compared to the tan and taupe, ’70s hangover trains on the Bakerloo line. When she has to tell you where to alight for a palace or an eye hospital, you are inconveniencing her.

She issued her threats to mind your baggage several times during my short journey to Green Park, laced with a couple of chirpy warnings not to give money to beggars. It might have been the fact that I knew I was going to be late, or just suffering the all too familiar sensation of boiling in a scrum of strangers in a dusty underground tunnel. Or it might have been a combination of the tube-fatigue and the repeated announcements from what, at the end, sounded like a deranged Tory backbencher at the announcer’s helm. In between being warned not to feed the beggars, and with the hot breath of the omnipotent security services on the back of my neck, its sweaty palm clutching my bag, I had a premonition of the future. The near future, that is, and a dystopian one. Yes, the Olympics.

Hourly, Londoners are reminded of this hell on the horizon, looming ever closer like a metropolis-bound meteor in a shit film. The heady days of 2005, when the entire country was in Olympics rapture, seem a long time ago. We were like the party animals on the roof of the skyscraper in Independence Day, with the alien spaceship hovering overhead, holding aloft signs welcoming this strange visitor, gleeful smiles on our faces and dancing madly at the prospect of alien contact. I bet the Bakerloo line lady would have been up there, her carefree moves inspiring even the most demented apocalypse day looter to stop and twist. But, of course, the party skyscraper was the first to get zapped by the spaceship. We’re now six years on from those halcyon days of Labour boom, the pungent smell of big profit and finely pressed suits lining the shining boulevards of the square mile, all the jobs, all the credit, the family home that could function as a never-ending cash machine, always ratcheting up its price with each sweet passing minute. But then, one day in 2008, when an American investment bank called Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, we were all zapped, as if without warning.

A couple of days ago the EU decided (again) to formulate a last-minute plan to contain the eurozone debt crisis, in part continuing the austerity drive in Greece that is in the process of turning the country into a client state of the IMF. Italy has promised to implement its own austerity programme. The Bank of England is now warning that Britain faces a ‘significant chance’ of going back into recession. But there is light on the horizon. In the face of this apocalypse we’ll have the Olympics. We are still being sold the Olympics as, at best, an event to rescue the British economy, and at worst, something that will at least cheer the hearts of those suffering. We will still have the Olympic Spirit. A desperate cry if there ever was one, and one that rests on an interesting interpretation of exactly what this ‘Olympic Spirit’ might entail.

As well as magnificent feats of athletic prowess, the Olympics also has the added bonus of often resembling a military coup. Prior to the Athens Games in 2004, 70,000 police and troops were drafted into the city to clear ‘undesirables’ from the streets, mostly drug addicts, immigrants, and the homeless. It was reported during the preparations for the Beijing Games that around 1.5 million residents were ejected from their homes. 720,000 were displaced during the Seoul Games of 1988, in a fine demonstration of newly re-gained democratic principles (the Sixth Republic of South Korea had been declared only a year earlier after nearly a decade of violent military rule). The Athens crackdown was repeated again in 2010 in Vancouver, where there were widespread reports of police clearing homeless people from poor districts. I’ll expect to hear the Victoria line announcer warning of more ‘undesirables’ in the months to come. For all this, it also looks as if the cost of the London Games is going to quadruple from initial estimates to over £9 billion.

Aside from resembling a very expensive military crackdown with fireworks and a little athletics on the side, the Olympics also beds with some rather odd company. Athletics sponsored by, among others, such health-conscious companies as Heineken, and McDonald’s, who have pledged to build a 1,500 seater, ‘world’s largest’ outlet on the Olympic site. In direct proportion to this, another ‘international sponsor’, Dow Chemical Company of Bhopal gas leak fame, has so far pledged nothing to the families and victims of the disaster that killed 3,787 people and has caused at least 8,000 deaths since.

For the population, the salesmanship of Parliament, City Hall, councils, and their underling agencies of this bonanza of sports has been schizophrenic to say the least. After constantly being told of the economic benefits of  the Games, which will be short-term to say the least, we are confronted with weekly prophesies of doom from Transport for London. Waiting times on several tube lines will be over half an hour, and we are told the network will only ‘cope’ if 60% of workers go absent. Those who can’t work from home, which is probably just about everyone, are being advised to ‘go to the pub’ after work to allow station congestion to clear. A public transport Games indeed, although not quite so when one considers the 109 miles of road that will have a lane sectioned off solely for those travelling to the Olympics, with punitive fines for those who stray into them. If you were planning on taking the bus to avoid the chaos, think again.

London will likely become clogged with armed police and guards, as security companies vie with each other for lucrative contracts. And if that wasn’t enough, another happy addition to the Olympic Spirit fraternity is the constant news stories of the possibility of tenants in rented accommodation across the capital being evicted so that landlords can charge sky-high rents (up to £10,000 a month) to Olympic revellers, a practise that has been confirmed illegal by only six borough councils out of thirty-two. And what will become of the Olympics site after the Games? A few weeks ago the Westfield Stratford shopping centre opened with a fanfare approximating it almost messiah status, a shopping juggernaught-Christ to single-handedly resurrect a leprous economy. A combination of consumer goods outlets encouraging us to spend our way out of recession, and a likely recreation of the now infamously derelict Athens site will most likely appear in the ruins of the cavernous journalists centre.

Simon Jenkins, in the Evening Standard, echoing the concerns of Londoners (a poll in the same newspaper revealed 80% of residents would not be buying Olympics tickets), has called the Games ‘elitist, exclusive and stupefying’ and likened them to a ‘festival for the cosmopolitan rich and their armed guards’. Will Self, in an appearance on Newsnight, described the Games as a ‘creation of capital’, a hangover of the boom years in a dead economy. This analysis looks all too pertinent now. While during the boom years the Olympics might have been the feather in capital’s cap, the icing on the cake that had supposedly brought prosperity to the nation, we now know that that prosperity was a lie, a grim combination of imaginary money, ceaseless credit, and the cooked books of outfits like Lehman Brothers. Six years down the line, the prospect of this Olympic extravaganza is more than faintly depressing, resembling a half-finished temple to the Gods long after Rome has succumbed to the barbarian hordes. And where is everyone? Lining up at the soup kitchen, looking back on the drunken orgies on the last days of empire and feeling more than a little embarrassed.


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Kind Hearts and Coronets, the post-war middle class, and the massacre of the nobility

The English aristocracy have always been a crisis-prone sort. When not nearly rendering themselves extinct in the Wars of the Roses or hand-wringing over a bunch of 18th century peasants rioting across their estates (see my previous post), they were busy envisioning their doom at the hands of the inter-war proletariat. In the end, it wasn’t so much a menacingly Bolshevik working class or any Europe-haunting spectres standing nonchalantly beside a dripping guillotine; it was the war itself and the rise of that ceaselessly aggressive social phenomenon, the middle class.

Having just bankrupted itself by participation in the Second World War, the social winds of Britain changed course irrevocably. A beleagured population, emerging from six years of war and the dawning realisation that Britain was no longer as important, or as rich, as it once was was, was not the same docile beast that faced the aristocratic classes in the inter-war and Edwardian period. For the great mass of the population who had to struggle through the war years, the idea of hereditary wealth no longer fit the national mood, and the long march of decline for the English nobility began at the hands of the middle-classes.

When faced with the grimly determined, Protestant work ethic-fuelled assault of the professional classes, typified by the pre-war, suburban, Orwell character of George Bowling, they stood no chance. George Bowling appears in Orwell’s underrated 1939 book Coming Up For Air, the melancholy story of a middle-class man whose life is defined by mediocrity. He inhabits one of thousands of suburban homes, he thinks little of his family and his job, but merely carries on with his life regardless, escaping for relief into the ecstatic, high jinks memories of his Edwardian youth.  George Bowling, or more dynamic versions of him, were precisely the kind of people who, in the post-war atmosphere of shared sacrifice were storming the (faux-Tudor) ramparts of the stately homes of nobility, their entitled and hereditary wealth now an aberration in the national narrative of hard work and sacrifice.

And while George Bowling himself, given over to fatalism as his character is, lacks the capacity to improve his own life any more than he already has, this new middle class, and their ghettos of strip suburban development, had always in reserve a thousand more George Bowlings to take his place. This is the same middle-class that, two months after VE Day, dispensed with the conservative Churchill government and flocked en masse to Labour, awarding them a landslide victory on the promise of full employment and the welfare state. A general levelling took place, not in favour of any idea of working class emancipation, but on the vaguely general principles of ‘the people’, the middle classes and workers, as opposed to the nobility. The times of the idle gentry quietly surveying their lands, or knocking croquet balls on the lawns of Mandalay were over, and their Late Victorian and Edwardian heyday must have seemed a distant memory.

It is this insurgent middle-class that manifests itself in the character of Louis Mazzini in the Ealing Studios classic, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Although set in the Edwardian era, the film was made in 1949, the highpoint of post-war Labour government, and so displays a contradictory setting of being set during the last hurrahs of the English nobility, while displaying fully the politics and sensibilities of the post-war, post-aristocratic era. The politics of 1949 are being played out in 1910.

The film begins with the protagonist’s mother exiled from her inimitably aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes. Having married beneath her station, she finds herself living in a cramped house in Clapham with her young son, her husband having since died. Demeaned and humiliated by her family, she teaches Louis the injustice of their situation, constantly drumming into him the fact that, no matter where he lives or what job he is doing, and despite his mother’s exile, remains a distant heir to the Dukedom of Chalfont.

Despite his heirdom, Louis’ situation is resoundingly middle-class. Having finished school, he further demeans his true station by taking a job as a draper’s assistant, eventually working his way to one promotion after another, thus proving that enduring piece of middle-class folklore that nobody chooses poverty. He becomes the archetypal professional man, all the while becoming more embittered over the injustice of his situation.

After being publicly humiliated in the shop by a distant relative of his and being sacked for his angry response, Louis resolves to murder all the members of the D’Ascoyne family that stand between him and the dukedom, or his birthright, as he puts it.

After doing away with the young playboy who cost him his job, suitably by drowning him and his mistress at the fashionable weekend resort of Maidenhead, he moves on to the others.

He ingratiates himself with his next victim, and proceeds to blow him up while he is developing photographs in his garden shed. Through the course of the film, he goes on to poison a priest, shoot down a hot air balloon, blow someone else up, lure an elderly man into a bear trap and shoot him in the face, rejoice at the news of a relative dying of a stroke and celebrate a pair of infant twins dying of diphtheria. And still, at every point, the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with Louis and cheers him along his rampage through the aristocracy.

The aristocrats he kills off are painted in an entirely unflattering light. The best of them are shown to be nice-but-dim types, while the worst are dinosaurs; callous, lazy, rude,  uncaring, dishonest, mean-spirited and completely lacking in feelings or tact. Louis, on the other hand, is hardworking, witty, urbane, displays honour and dignity, and expresses himself in ways that only a modern man would. For instance, when invited to go hunting with the clownish elderly gentleman, Ethelred D’Ascoyne, he refuses to take part in any shooting, claiming that it would contravene his principles. We are clearly supposed to be rooting for the protagonist, even as he takes part in what is, to all purposes, an incredibly brutal, comedic killing spree that resembles something like a comedy of manners version of Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes.

Needless to say, Louis avoids any inconvenient investigations into his spree and becomes the 10th Duke of Chalfont, bagging the charming wife of one of his victims along the way. Displaying his modern (read, post-war, 1949) levelling sensibilities, he tells the servants at the D’Ascoyne family home that his first priority will be to ensure them a good life. He is then promptly arrested for a murder he did not commit, and finds his hard-won dukedom, and his life, hanging in the balance.

Louis aspires to become a member of the aristocracy, but once he is there he behaves nothing like them; he is enlightened, and cares for his servants. He perfectly embodies the post-war, ceaseless aspiration of the professional middle-classes, importantly, through hard work and not entitlement, to occupy the position of power previously held by the dying nobility. Many merely yearned for power and wealth, but for every George Bowling, there was always a hundred of his neighbours willing to take his place. But instead of occupying the now unaffordable landed estates of this beaten nobility, now resentfully left open to the public as museums of another age, they moved up the professional ladder, bought homes, and built conservatories. Kind Hearts and Coronets, like the bankrupted post-war nation, is the literal massacre of the nobility.

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The Making of the English Working Class, and Lord Byron hugs a Luddite

I’ve recently been re-reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. For this book, ‘magesterial’, ‘dazzling’, ‘sheds lights on an overlooked period of our history’ and all the other dull clichés are for once apt. If these terms didn’t make me cringe so much I would employ all of them to describe what was Thompson’s ‘magnum opus’.

If anything, ‘often overlooked’ would be a startling understatement in this instance. The book covers the years 1780 to 1832, and examines the political agitation of those victims of history; the artisans and craftsmen who would soon find themselves made obsolete by the factory system, consumed by the black cloud of the industrial revolution, thrown to the urban slums and joining the mass of the newly emerging industrial proletariat. In the preface, Thompson describes his wish to:

‘rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity’

These years truly were the ‘making’ of the new working class; the decline of a predominantly rural economy of artisan trade to one of mass industrialisation, urbanisation, slums and wage labour. The gates of Merrie England had been broken down by Adam Smith and the enemies of this outdated mercantilism of craftsmen, and the masses were being led towards the sooty heights of Cottonopolis and the workhouse.

There is little overlooked about the Industrial Revolution itself, it was covered heavily when I was at school, and seems to feature to a significant(ish) degree in the collective memory of the nation. We think of child labour, we see the slums, the words of Dickens, Brunel’s bridges, the counterbalance of the Romantics, Turner’s ominously blurred steam trains drifting through as yet unspoiled pastures.

Thompson’s focus, the ‘overlooked history’, is purely on those on the front line of these great changes, their political consciousness, aspirations and responses to what he calls, ‘these times of acute social disturbance’. He describes the activities of the followers of Jacobinism in England, reformers and revolutionaries who saw hope for salvation in the radicalism of the French Revolution, many of whom later prayed for a French invasion of Britain that would topple their own ancien regime. He describes the struggle for the vote, the growth of trade unionism among artisans, highly secretive and illegal, a mysterious picture conjured of masked craftsmen meeting nightly in wooded clearings, taking part in oaths and initiation rituals, drilling with pikes for the coming “‘levelution.”

The London Corresponding Society, the radical weavers of Spitalfields, Nottinghamshire, and Lancashire, the revolutionary journalists of Republican, Cap of Liberty, and Medusa are all brought back to the life. Radicals and demagogues, certainly popular men or devils, depending on who you spoke to, in their own time, are all but forgotten now. From speakers and campaigners like William Cobbett and Henry Hunt, to doomed conspirators like Arthur Thistlewood, leader of the Cato Street Conspiracy, and Jeremiah Brandreth, the unemployed stocking maker and ‘Nottingham Captain’, who led an ill-fated attempt to occupy the city in 1817. Compared with later popular history that was preserved at length by the socialist movement, the world Thompson describes is a labyrinth of riots, uprisings, conspiracy, insurrection, hanging and treason.

The Making of the English Working Class is a wealth of forgotten history, and the history of English radicalism is almost certainly forgotten, not being one that sits well with the still adored myth of the passive, stiff upper lipped, ‘free-born Englishman’. Two incidents described and analysed at length in the book exemplify this national amnesia, and both have current relevance.

The first is the obvious example of the Luddites, the radical handloom weavers of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire. Threatened by the introduction of the automated looms of factory production that would render their trade somewhat obsolete, they rioted, smashed factory looms, and torched mills from 1811-1813. Many were executed, and hundreds were transported to the colonies. In our current understanding of the word ‘Luddite’, the radical political factor has been completely removed. Thompson is at pains to differentiate between our meaning of Luddite; a derogatory term for someone who is anti-technology, and this leading to a false idea of the weavers’ motivations; and what a Luddite was, an artisan making a futile attempt to protect his livelihood. Luddism also contributed to the agrarian riots of 1830, discarded in the popular imagination, known as the Swing Riots, which occurred in the southern counties and were one of the largest popular uprisings in the history of England.

The true meaning of Luddism is all the more surprising considering the appearance of a national celebrity in its midst. In 1812, after several years swanning and inseminating his way across the continent, Lord Byron took his seat in the House of Lords and made three speeches in defense of the rioters, and against the introduction of the Malicious Damage Act of 1812, that made frame-breaking a capital offense. Byron was one of the few parliamentary defenders of the Luddites, if not the only, and the law was passed. He never entered the House again, but instead devoted his pen to the cause of Radicalism for years to come, penning his Song For The Luddites, The Landlords’ Interest, and Wellington: The Best of the Cut-Throats. This was an episode where politics and literature truly crossed paths; as this monster of Romanticism, that enemy of the Industrial Revolution and mechanisation, found common cause with the riotous victim of the age, the unemployed weaver.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron both namechecked the 1832 Reform Act when they took power last year, pledging their tinkering with civil liberties law would resemble such a momentous event. Thompson does a wonderful job of exposing the fallacy of the idea of a historical ‘British democracy’ in describing the often violent and widespread campaign for male suffrage that led to the election of radical MPs and the passage of the Reform Act. Far from being a benevolent gift from the Commons to the people, the Reform Act was prefigured by decades of relentless agitation by reformers, the bloody highlight of which was the Peterloo Massacre, a massive meeting of radicals in Manchester that ended at the hands of charging cavalry. For all the habits of the modern politician to describe our democracy as ‘historical’, ‘great’ or ‘longstanding’, it takes only a cursory glance at Thompson’s work to remember that full suffrage was not granted to women and most men until 1918. In the true manner of reform granted by the state after popular agitation, the final legislated product promised little, the Reform Act still leaving the vast majority of men (six out of seven, it is believed), without the vote.

While lucidly describing these forgotten episodes of our history, Thompson also reveals the fallacy of many modern myths about the docile nature of England and its people. The book ends at the point of 1832, a watershed where artisan radicalism gave way to mass factory trade unionism and the beginnings of the socialist movement. In describing this transition of radical politics from one phase to another, Thompson mirrors the world of radicalism he found himself in as a leading light of the New Left, that crossroads between the Communist Party and its subservience to the Soviet Union, and anti-Soviet socialism.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when the people of Budapest rose against their Communist rulers, proved the breaking point for many socialist intellectuals. Like the Dreyfus case, which proved a litmus test for a person’s politics for decades afterwards, the subsequent Soviet suppression of the uprising, and a person’s reaction to it, would reveal whether or not they were of a pro-Soviet persuasion. Thousands around the world abandoned their respective Communist parties in the face of the bloodbath in Budapest.

Many left the Communist Party of Great Britain, and EP Thompson was one of the first out the door, unlike our other ‘great’ socialist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who has experienced a recent renaissance of sorts, who issued some fairly unflattering articles in support of the Soviet authorities, albeit, ‘with a heavy heart’. Thompson remained a socialist and criticised the Labour governments of the post-war period from a left-wing perspective, and was a major figure in CND, becoming partly famous for speaking passionately about nuclear weapons to Glastonbury crowds in the 1980s. His speeches in favour of nuclear disarmament, and against all too easily embarked upon wars must have resembled Byron’s impassioned speeches supporting the Luddites in the House of Lords. Through the jeers and shouting, he condemned the lawmakers who sat beside him;

‘When a proposal is made to emancipate or relieve, you deliberate for years, you temporize and tamper with the minds of men; but a death-bill must be passed off-hand, without a thought of the consequences’

It was the last time Byron would sit in Parliament, and like those frame-breakers and radicals who could find no redress through the laws of the land, Byron would contain his political activity to his poetry, mirroring Thompson’s overall argument, that the most radical reform can never be bestowed by parliaments.


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