Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Beginning To Live Like An Old Man

Back in October 2007, when I turned 40, I noted that unlike the old saying 'life begins at 40', it seemed that the reverse was the case and you began to feel that your life was clearly running down towards its end:  http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2007/09/life-begins-to-end-at-40.html  Almost three years on, my prophecy seems to have been borne out.  In the last couple of months I have heard that officially 'middle age' runs from the age of 36 to the age of 59; after that you are 'elderly'.  Thus, I have actually been middle aged longer than I had realised back in 2007. It also appears that, on average, from the age of 41 your body generally starts to deteriorate.  This is no surprise really if you think that the average working man just a century ago had a life expectancy of 41 and a woman of 45.  If I had been 43 in 1911, then I would be an old man in my community.

This analysis has reassured me.  For the past year, if not longer, I have felt old.  Now I know that that should not be surprising, because by the measures of when my mother's father (a man I knew in his 70s and 80s) was a boy (he was born in 1900), I am in fact an old man.  There has been no sudden deterioration, but a steady accumulation of ailments (as opposed to diseases or even conditions) and with them a changed outlook on life.  Of course, I have suffered from diabetes for over twenty years and that is accelerating the decay of my body, but there are other aspects which seem to stem simply from ageing.  I think you can tell you are old when doctors say they can do nothing more for whatever mild condition you are suffering from. 

Two years ago my left knee swelled up; it was blamed on me carrying too much shopping (I invested in a shopping trolley as a consequence, adding to my sense of ageing) and all the creams I was offered have had no effect.  It is not painful, it is just still swollen and squidges when I kneel down.  My joints, limbs and other parts of my body now ache even if I happen to run a short distance, something it is hard to avoid when you have a 9-year old boy living in your house;  throwing a ball to him for 20 minutes left my right arm in pain the next day.  Cycling now leaves me nauseous and dizzy; travelling on an aeroplane leaves one ear and the skull around it in pain and me with partial deafness for days afterwards. Driving about 200Km is enough to leave my hands and calves aching for days after. Even one quick session of sex, with my established partner, with me on top, leaves my chest and arms aching as if I have been pressed under heavy stones.

My digestive system has suffered most.  I have become incredibly flatulent and also belch a great deal.  In the past few weeks constipation has come to give me a variant from very loose bowels, often ringed by haemorroids and faeces so large that they jam the toilet (I have to keep plumber's equipment by the toilet; no domestic version will work).  I have no appetite and very little taste, my tongue now being furrier by far than my head.  This has helped me loose weight as I always feel full, which I guess has to be a plus, because apparently from 41 onwards you naturally begin to become heavier.  Eating food is often not a pleasant experience, which is a shame as I used to really enjoy good food.  Now I can get heartburn even before I have eaten a mouthful and it gets worse as the food goes down.  I have been told this may be due to 'acid reflux' which means stomach acid now randomly decides to bubble up towards my throat.  Often after a meal no matter how small, it feels as if someone has jammed a stake with the diameter the size of my palm, between my lungs and then out through my back.  I had to abandon drinking coffee as doing so made swallowing every mouthful of food painful.

I guess a definition of old age is that you are no longer physically capable of doing the things you have always enjoyed, not least without paying the price in subsequent discomfort.  Mentally I am less active too.  My writing of fiction has dropped away severely as has my reading of any books.  Partly this has been due to a sustained period of unemployment, but nothing seems to be able to stimulate my interest again, even having got a job.  I struggle to concentrate to follow an 2-hour episode of 'Foyle's War'.  I must say, however, that my manner has improved, I get far less grumpy with bad drivers, lost documents and my computer going wrong.  That, however, may simply stem from the resignation of getting old: you know there is no point in getting angry as no-one will pay you any attention and you can change nothing.  One consolation is that I have lost important things right throughout my life and this does not seem to have increased now I am getting older, so I can probably cope with this far better than people coming to it anew.  My memory has deteriorated.  I know that I was never good at remembering names, foreign words or martial arts moves, but now I am finding that I am mis-remembering things.  Scenes I thought were in a particular movie turn out to be very different to how I remember them and buildings in very different places.  I am fortunate that my current girlfriend is far more forgiving of these flaws than her predecessor who was angered if I forgot even the tiniest detail she had mentioned once in passing.

Above all, I am very tired.  It goes beyond simply needing more sleep.  Like many people, in the past, I hoped that I would live to a certain age and see certain things or achieve certain things in my life.  However, now, I realise that if death came to me now and I had not read a particular book or had not visited a particular place then I would not feel disgruntled in the way I would have done a few days ago.  I certainly understand now how people see death as a rest.  However, I had a premonition that I will die aged 57, so I will have to hang around for a bit more yet, with more decay and ailments to put up with.

Other consolations for my physical and mental decay is that I am beginning to enjoy things that older people do.  My parents, madly, have become far more active in their old age than when my age.  My father now cycles 35-50 Km per week; my mother has joined a gym which she visits every week to work out in and walks 11 Km; they are both 73.  However, I have found I am enjoying more leisurely pursuits.  At the park with the 9-year old boy from my house, I found rather than playing with him, I got far more pleasure simply sitting on the bench and watching the activity around me.  I did not need any other physical or mental activity to be content.  

I accept that my medical condition has made my body older than my age would typically warrant.  I do worry that given I feel as if I am twenty to thirty years older than I am, how bad will I feel when I am actually 65.  It seems highly unlikely that I will be as active as my parents and in fact, by then, may simply be bedridden and ready for a nursing home.  In some ways, though, in contrast to two or three years ago, my mind seems to have caught up with my body and that is a great relief.  It would be incredibly frustrating if I still had the desire to travel or start up new things only to find my body was constantly complaining.  I am glad I have found the contentment to fit with the age of my body and that now, I can quite happily sit and watch life go by.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Blogging the Blog 12: Most Interest & Mostly Americans

I was looking around the various functions that this Blogger site provides for us bloggers and came across a tab I had not used before: Stats.  I took a look at it and it revealed interesting data about you, yes, the people who read my blog.  It was a little depressing but the information is not going to get me to change what I post here.  However, it is interesting to look at what I have found out.The first thing I looked at was where the 99,000+ hits on my blog had come from.  Over a third were from the USA and 16,000 were from the UK.  I guess that I should not be surprised that half of those visiting the site were from English-speaking countries and these two in particular given that I write a lot about the UK and often feature US movies.  The third highest source was Germany with 6,000 visitors followed reasonably closely behind by Canada and France, almost equal with each other; Australia in sixth place has provided 3,000 visitors, the Netherlands next with 2,000; Italy and interestingly, the Philippines both with 700+ and finally Sweden with just over 500.  I guess this spread may come from the topics I have covered.

The tools with which people reach my blog are varied though 84% have come from a machine using Windows and only 10% from a Macintosh.  Of new devices just over 900 used an iPhone, 713 used an iPad (one of those might have been myself), 223 an iPod and interestingly, 65 used a Playstation 3.  The search engine people who did not come direct used is unsurprising, with 45% coming through Internet Explorer (recently it was reported the average IQ of users of this search tool was only 80; I assume because it includes numerous school children); 29% used Firefox, 13% used Chrome, 9% used Safari (the default search tool on the iPad) and only 2% used Opera and <1% Iceweasel, the search tools that are supposed to be the ones favoured by the most intellectual web searchers.

The main ways in which people have reached my blog through other links is in terms of the maps of imaginary places, especially Narnia, because my inclusion of six maps of that world is referenced on Wikipedia in the footnotes. Other imaginary maps are also high in those pages on my blog which are visited with large continents and then tube maps in second and third place of this sub-set.  Getting featured on the 'Today in Alternate History' website has channelled more traffic to me and interestingly so has mlwodementia.blogspot, one which I was not familiar with but is proving to be the third highest channel through which direct traffic as opposed to searchers, is coming.  It turned out to be a blog which has been running since 2007 with over 50 postings per year and is focused on making and playing with fantasy lead figures.

When I turn to the topics of interest, however, I begin to be rather disheartened.  My most popular topic has been discussing James Bond villains, my first posting on this in April 2009 has attracted over 3,600 visits, the second posting over 11,000 and the third over 16,000.  This pattern in itself is shaped by the search terms that have brought people to my blog, the term 'Sophie Marceau' is by far and away the most popular term followed by 'Le Chiffre' though only warranting a tenth of the interest that Sophie has done.  He is followed by 'Robert Davi' and 'Toby Stevens' interesting pair of actors who have been Bond villains and the fifth most popular term is 'Tamriel'.  Interesting my two postings on steampunk pirates have received 7,500 hits for the first one and 8,500 hits for the second, partly through people looking for 'steampunk pirates' specifically as a search term and partly people coming across it looking for images of Japanese flags.   In terms of the counter-factual postings the top one with over 1,100 visits is 'What if the Bolshevik Revolution Failed?' followed far behind by 'What if Hitler Had Been Assassinated?' and 'What if Lenin Had Lived 10 Years Longer?'.  I would have expected more coming to the Second World War and other better known 'what ifs?' but I guess there are a lot of sites covering those that draw them off before they reach me as a result.  Whilst I know that some people have read my political postings and my fiction they must be so few in number so as not to turn up in the statistical returns.

I suppose we have perceptions of how people view our blog.  It seems apparent that mine mainly attracts Americans looking for pictures of Sophie Marceau, perhaps reading about James Bond villains and on occasion looking for maps of Narnia or something on steampunk pirates.  I guess I am filling a role that might not be filled by others, though I find it weird that people cannot source the hundreds of images of actors who have appeared in the James Bond movies from other places, there are hundreds of websites with this stuff on.  As I said when I launched this blog, it was primarily for my own peace of mind and I would always rather be right than read.  As time has passed I guess I did hope that people would at least read my views, but I need to be clear than unless I am commenting on James Bond or steampunk pirates then they are not, well, even then they are probably only here for the pictures rather than the text.  It is also frustrating that the bulk of visitors come to look at pages from 2008 and 2009.  I could easily have packed up after having posting something like 300 pages.  I guess this information is useful for people looking to attract visitors to their blog.  'The Guardian' has been running a column about how to create and 'monetise' your blog.  Clearly a good starting place is to whack on images of popular actresses and maps of fantasy places.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Is It Time To Revive The Concept Of Class?

Working in London I come into contact with a far wider range of people than was the case when in an office in a medium-size town in southern England.  There are many more opportunities, especially on public transport, for eavesdropping.  One thing that has become very apparent to me returning to London properly (i.e. being here on a sustained basis rather than for one-off visits) for the first time in over a decade is just how many universities there are.  The number of actual institutions may not be much higher than it was in the late 1990s but certainly the number of students is, and, whilst staff:student ratios may have altered, the number of lecturers and administrators must be higher.  Consequently, travelling between home and work or going out for an evening you stand a good chance of having students and even academics around you.  A lot seem to head to central London, I guess they have evening seminars, lectures, meetings and things.  As readers know, having attended university in a very different time for education and the UK as a whole, I am interested to see what is happening to them these days.  Is eavesdropping an invasion of privacy?  Some people talk so loud it would be difficult not to hear what they are saying and academics seem to get into lively debates wherever they might end up.  I suppose I should be grateful that that remains true, not least as an antidote to the 'I don't want to hear that', silo approach in which everyone seals themselves off from each other, from life itself with their ipods.

Anyway, this posting is less about the potential for interaction in academic discussion on public transport and more a debate sparked by some of this eavesdropping as well as talking with acquaintances of my own.  It seems the concept of social class is so out of fashion that anyone who writes an academic article featuring the term is very likely to have it rejected.  The term 'culture' is acceptable apparently, though I guess something like 'working class culture' would not be.  I suppose we should not be surprised.  Margaret Thatcher claimed she was 'working class' because she worked 'jolly hard' (there is interesting analysis online about how much of a Victorian she was in attitude, maybe this is what distinguishes her brand of societal destruction from that of Cameron).  She further denied that there was such a thing as society, saying there were just individuals and families.  John Major trumpeted that the UK had developed the 'classless society', though that seemed to be on the basis that under his administration middle class people started having their houses repossessed like poorer people once had.  John Prescott as deputy prime minister in 1997 claimed 'we are all middle class now', though I think that was more a comment on the styling of the Blairite New Labour than on society.  Parallel to these political developments, it is clear that universities threw out class along with the the leather patched jackets and the 'History Man' beards.  Yet, they cannot really turn their backs on it entirely as there is still the OFFA - Office of Fair Access, which seeks to have those from 'under-represented' sectors of society gain equal access to higher education; part of the deal over the increased fees is tied to supposedly widening this access.

I think a lot of the problem stems from the fact that people think Karl Marx invented class.  Consequently with Thatcher, Major, Blair and their adherents keen to make Socialism, which in some elements is based on Marxism (though it surprises some people to find there are other things like mutualism and even Christian viewpoints in the mix), a thing of the past, felt that they had to purge the UK of the very concept of class.  This shows a lack of historical knowledge or more likely a deliberate misinterpretation of it.  The Greek cities had citizens and some had helots.  The Roman Empire had slaves, freedmen (and -women) and citizens.  Even among the citizens you had to have a certain wealth to be able to be appointed to particular political office.  India had its caste system, China had a very hierarchical structure from the emperor down, (though there were some opportunitie for meritocratic progression), and until the destruction of the Shogunate in the mid-19th century Japanese society rigidly enforced class immobility which interestingly, from a Western perspective set peasants above merchants who languished just above the 'untouchables' despite them being wealthier than the average member of the samurai class.  Medieval society was clearly full of class divisions like the serf, the cottar, the yeoman, the knight, the nobleman and so on.  In addition, many of these society had parallel classes, for example, the structure of the church from the Pope all the way down to a lay brother.

The 19th century portrayals of society as a vast pyramid with each in his or her 'station' probably crystalised the perception of class that we have still lingering in many of our minds despite the efforts of politicians over the past 30 years.  In addition, the social upheaval, especially rural-urban migration and the success of factory owners in raising themselves into the higher levels of society previously held exclusively by large landowners.  In the context of burgeoning capitalism, its exploitation of workers through longer hours, low pay and unhealthy conditions, combined with an apparent new fluidity of people rising and falling through the social classes, ideas around working class, middle class, etc. came common political currency.  Of course, it was never as simple as that.  Even Marx spoke of the lumpen proletariat of unskilled workers as opposed to the proletarian aristocracy of the skilled workforce.  In the UK for over a hundred years there have been numerous sub-strata within classes, the unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled working class; the lower, middle and upper middle class, with the really only the latter being the bourgeoisie of property owners in the way that Marx had seen the middle class.  Whilst of little interest to the mass of the population, the British upper class also sub-divided itself on many different bases, into 'old' and 'new' money, connections to particular schools and regiments, location in the country and proximity to titled nobility and the royal family.

The concept of class was hardened in the late nineteenth and the twentieth century on the basis of class-based parties.  Left-wing parties had opinions ranging from outright violent revolution to bring about change across to gradual modification of the capitalist system rather than its abolition on the lines Marx and his adherents proposed (or in fact, felt was inevitable no matter what people or parties did).  This meant that politics shifted from two parties of similar social backgrounds arguing over economic policy such as free trade vs. protectionism to the dominance of a party seen as upper class - the Conservatives and one seen as working class - Labour.  It panned out similarly in much of democratic Europe, though typically with a wider spread of parties falling under these two designations.  In Canada and the USA, however, the model has remained very much like that of Victorian Britain with Liberals and Conservatives; Democrats and Republicans with even working class parties let alone revolutionary ones making minimal impact politically.  Thus, it can be argued, as many British counter-factual commentators were doing in the 2000s that even in Britain there was no inevitability about class-based politics.

Does this suggest that it is only really an accident of history combined with alarm at a political philosophy which could have easily faded into obscurity along with so many others (One Nation Toryism, Whiggism, Social Darwinism, Guild Socialism, Syndicalism, anyone?) that meant that the concept of class continued to persist in Britain as long as it did?  I guess that, in fact, the opponents of class-based politics actually sustained the view of Britain as a class-based society through their rhetoric.  The Conservative Party are the main culprits in their insistence about moving away from class-based politics, partly because they always knew that workers would outnumber their natural base of support.  In many ways they need not have been as fearful as they were.  For 64 years of the 20th century the country had a Conservative government or a coalition led by the Conservatives and even the New Labour government of the last years of the century owed much more to Conservative values than it did to anything the Labour Party had stood for since its creation.  In addition, the Conservatives have always attracted strong support from the so-called 'working class Tory' voter, someone who labours but supports their views on control of society balanced against reduction of regulation; the role of the police/justice system, military and the monarchy; the culture of British society and Britain's standing in the world, even though at times to others these can seem damaging to the interests of those in such a position in the economy and society.

Whilst on one side the political rhetoric has perhaps sustained conceptions of class, on the other shifts in the economy, society and culture may have reduced the acutality of distinct social class.  When the language was developed there was a lot of commonality between millions of people.  Manufacturing had replaced agriculture as the key economic activity in the UK and, as a result, the experience for the bulk of the population: living in houses surrounded by people who did very similar types of work to themselves, fitting with a common daily, weekly, annual pattern, wearing basically the same clothes and eating much the same food, formed a basis.  Of course, the British like to emphasise their differences and group themselves in tribes.  Distinction between people from different regions and ethnicities, distinction between skill levels and gender were all used to show shades of difference between people at a time when, in fact, the life path for the bulk of them was very similar.  The similarities can be grouped into what can be termed the class culture.  In many ways it was little different for those in the various ranks of the middle class, where the only distinctions really came down to whether you worked in a protected profession or not.  Of course, that economic pattern has gone and so have the similarities that permitted useful grouping of people in certain categories.  Particularly notable is 1974 when service-sector jobs exceeded those of manufacturing jobs for the first time and those who once had operated heavy industrial machinery began the progress to being call centre staff.  Yes, they wear a suit to work, but the control of their working lives and the 'minding' aspect of their work is no different; purely a cosmetic change, trumpeted by too many as representing a shift to a classless society.

Culture is an important element in defining class in Britain, often far more than income.  Skilled working class people would often exceed the income of lower and middle-middle class people and yet because of their dress, language and pastimes would never be seen to be on the same level.  With the erosion of real salaries for over four decades now (except among the top 10% earners) and insecurity of employment and property ownership even for those in what were once secure professions, culture is often all that remains for someone to use to distinguish themselves from someone they feel remains 'beneath' them.  Interestingly, I feel that consequently we have moved a little in the direction of E.P. Thompson's view of class.  This is summed up, if I remember rightly in 'The Making of the English Working Class' (1963).  Now, despite Thompson being an avowed Marxist, he eschewed Marx's view of class as this almost rigid, society-spanning structure, I think, in part due to his aversion to Stalinism.  Thompson's view of class that it is almost in constant fluidity, shifting almost moment to moment as we define ourselves in relation to the others we interact with.  Thus, it is a perception that we generate of ourselves and our family in relation to the perceptions we hold of others.  This is different from people having a kind of label as being working class based on what work they do.

Thompson's perspective seems to fit well in modern Britain in which the nature of work has changed so much and has become fragmented.  The commonalities have disappeared, hence the great importance in so many jobs on the title of the job and who can be described as an 'operative', an 'assistant', an 'officer', a 'team leader', a 'manager', 'middle management', an 'executive', 'senior management' and so on.  After all, if I can be a senior manager in a company of five people but am probably earning less and have to use fewer skills and have less reponsibility or control than a team leader in a mult-national.  We generally have no idea what other people earn, and anyway, with the vast difference in pay rates, house prices, loans you can get, debts we have to pay back, income is no indication actually of the level or standing of the job you do. 

As a consequence, we fall back on the cosmetic, the 'cultural' aspects and categorise people by the size of their house; but also the clothes they wear; how they have their hair done or what make-up they wear; what television programmes they watch, if they even still watch television; whether they go to the theatre or a gallery; what food they eat, what they call their children and what clubs the children are members of, which schools they go to; where they go on holiday (not simply due to the cost but the perceived 'quality' of the location, it may be more expensive to fly to Florida than stay in a house in the Dordogne region, but the latter has a far higher class cachet).  When driving there is a constant judgement of 'class' by the type and age of the car driven and on this basis much driving behaviour in the UK is based, notably which cars you flash to have them move over on the motorway; which you feel you can intimidate into letting you into the flow of traffic even when you have no right of way.  Class is alive and well in the UK but it is no longer really an economic category, it is more a cultural category which has its roots in how much money you have but beyond that, what things you choose to buy to manifest your wealth and their own perceived 'value'.

Value is certainly itself up for contest.  There was always pride in working class culture, but there is now a more active assertion that a certain brash culture is somehow better or at least more correct.  I think Britain is unique in seeming to value in popular culture an approach that is not based on acquiring education.  The often vocal assertion that the 'school of hard knocks/university of life' is better than attending a real university is very common.  The disparaging of geeks, boffins and nerds is prevalent; people are ridiculed too often for their learning in a way they would not be even in the USA.  The privileged actually are now promoting this attitude as they feel that universities have been filled by too many of people who, in their view, are not the 'right kind' and that this has reached a level at which it is impacting on those who 'should' be at university.  Yet, no-one has managed to make alternatives, despite the periodic statements that vocational courses are as valid, gain any value.  This is because status in UK business still derives not from your skills or aptitudes but from your background and family.  Those with power rarely have technical or strictly vocational skills, they generally have skills about simply asserting authority or bullying, such as sales.  Those with technical skills are rarely a full time part of the body which runs a company, they are simply called in to answer specific questions and then dismissed.  Consequently, from the highest mult-national in the UK down to the man who runs a carpet-cleaning company, the view that education is of no benefit rules supreme and the emphasis on simply asserting yourself, generally through being loud and aggressive is raised even higher in its place.

So, when I say that the concept of class should be revived am I simply saying that we should detail categories based on what people possess and make it clearer that you can move from C1 to B if you buy a 4x4?  Of course, that is not what I am saying.  Instead, I think class should return in a great measure to what it was once about: opportunity.  Opportunity comes from where you stand at the present and then what restrictions prevent you from moving from that position to something 'better' whether you personally define that in terms of what you can learn or do or simply what you can own.  The most privileged have ample opportunities, they can go wherever they want, they can do what they want, they can pick out their lives very easily.  The least privileged have no opportunities, they have minimal choice over where they live, where they can go and what jobs are open to them.  When living in Poplar and Mile End I was struck by how few people living there strayed outside a 3 Km radius of their house, about the same radius that a medieval serf would have had as their horizons.  Occasionally they would go to the mill or into the woods; occasionally my neighbours in the East End would go down to the slightly larger supermarket or to the park, but generally this was all within walking or short bus ride of their house.

Opportunity does often stem from wealth, but there is not always a direct correlation.  Rich celebrities often find this when they try to get into or get their children into a specific school or club.  This comes back to the use of the cosmetic to separate us from others and to know who are the 'right' kind of people.  From the other side simply being offered a place at university even with all the bursaries, does not mean a young person or even a mature person will be able to take it up, because of the lack of opportunities that they have in terms of living expenses, the extras needed for study, factors like care for their parents or children.  Let alone cultural aspects put up in their way because of how they dress or speak or even their attitude to the world.  The lines are hardening as all the fuss about people having to have unpaid internships first to get an unpaid job.  For every breach of the barriers put up to personal progress by the less privileged, the privileged, especially in the current climate, set up new ones. To complain about the way of the world and demand opportunities was once seen as radical and expected of students; these days it is seen as rude and ungrateful, thus, undeserving.  These days you have to do a lot of forelock tugging even if given an opportunity, so suppressing the range of attitudes and cultures that are deemed 'acceptable' in our society.

Social class has always cut across gender and ethnicity.  This is why David Starkey is simply not just bigoted, but entirely wrong in his assessment of the recent rioting.  What we saw was unrest from a class of people who have had the last fragments of opportunity snatched from them by government policies added to which are many people from what may still be called the 'middle class' seeing such restrictions increasingly imposed on them after over a decade of them and their parents feeling that the UK was being engineered to best benefit them.  The coalition government, headed by those clearly from the upper class, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg are closing the door even on people who would naturally be Conservative supporters but are on a social par with Margaret Thatcher, let alone John Major.  As Marx warned, the greatest danger to stability comes not from those at the bottom of the capitalist system, but from those feeling that changing circumstance are thrusting them down into that pool.  In addition, when so much of our status in UK society is simply defined by the model of television or mobile phone we own is it of any surprise that people go and loot these things?  The riots were a protest about closing off opportunity in so many ways whether ending the EMA or simply saying to people that they will never have even the chance to afford the consumer goods our emphasise so much.  This is why Cameron has so strongly emphasised the 'criminality' to detract from the actual political motivations, even if these are distorted by the consumerist viewpoint on life that has been so imbued into our society.

To address the tensions in Britain on the basis of the old economic perceptions of class would fail.  As it is, despite his rhetoric, Cameron has no desire to 'fix broken Britain' he simply wants to secure the position of the elite and ensure that the little ethnic shop they buy their spices from is not boarded up.  Class needs to be defined by what it really was a century or so ago, about opportunity.  This means that we move away from the superficially divisive aspects like whether we watch 'The X Factor' or the Danish version of 'The Killing', there is no need for cultural uniformity in the way George Orwell might have demanded.  We need to get back down to the perception of people on the basis of whether in this capitalist society they have any chance of altering their situation or whether to a greater or lesser degree they will die pretty much the way they were when they became an adult and when their parents became an adult and so on.  This means that even in families you will find different classes.  As I went to university in the 1980s, I have been in a higher opportunity class than the 9-year old who lives in my house who, it appears will have no chance at getting a degree even if we superficially live in a 'middle class' house.  I had the opportunity to travel abroad with my family, he never does this.  I had the opportunity to go on school trips and join any club I wanted.  Now, for this he is worse off than me, but far better off than many of his contemporaries; both of us are worse off than my parents.  Of course, opportunity does not mean the same as receiving.  Both my parents could have gone to university, my brother too, but for various reasons none decided.  In addition, my parents retired with a much higher opportunity standing than when they became adults, the difference between the 1950s and the 1990s; if they had been twenty years younger that progression would have been reversed, i.e. from the 1970s to the 2010s.

The goal of governments should be, if they truly believe in equality and justice, to pursue policies that enable people to progress from say opportunity category 40 to opportunity category 30 or 25 or 20, in the course of their life.  This forms a useful basis on which to judge people's progress broadly.  Of course, individuals will pick something different to what they are offered.  However, if we can see that a child born in opportunity category 40 is now only likely to make it to 38 whereas two years ago he had a shot at 32, then we know something is wrong.  When we know that people who are in opportunity category 40, 50, 60 see only a chance now to end up in category 75, 80 or 90+ (I define someone as 99 who is living on the streets), as is happening Cameron's 'hammered Britain', then we should have no surprise if we witness rioting and looting, perhaps to raise them a couple of points, but mainly to rail against the realisation that in the 40-60 years of their lives ahead of them, it is never going to get any better than this and most likely, far worse.

In the myth of Pandora's Box it is said that when she released all the evils from the box, Pandora closed it to keep 'Hope' trapped inside.  It might seem odd that hope was stored among all the evils.  This is because the popular renditions of the story have made an error, in the original it is 'Foreboding' that she traps.  Foreboding is an evil, because with it you feel that there is absolutely no point in continuing if everything will just end up badly.  Now, throught their policies especially towards young people, the coalition government has unleashed the evil of foreboding, by making it so explicitly clear that for millions of us only circumstances worse than what we are experiencing now lie ahead of us.  It is an evil to snuff out any prospect of improvement and as a consequence it has received a virulent reaction as seen in the rioting.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Britain's Cultural Perception of Cold War Spying

You will probably not be surprised when I say this posting has been prompted by me seeing the recently released movie of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' based on the novel of the same title (1974) by British author John Le Carre.  I am slightly too young to remember the BBC television series of the novel which was broadcast in 1979 (when I was 12 and very into spying) though as a strangely avid viewer of feedback programmes about television, notably 'Points of View' I remember the complaints about the complexity of the story and the call for subtitles not to translate foreign dialogue but to inform the viewers about what was happening in the plot.  I also remember well the spoofs of the series especially in sketches by the 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' series (1979-82).  The success of the series revived interest in non-glamorous spy stories in the way which had not been seen since the trilogy of Harry Palmer movies, based on novels by Len Deighton and featuring Michael Caine, released 1965-7.

This latest version of Le Carre's novel has received very good reviews and so I went to the cinema for the first time in ages.  Even on a Wednesday night there was a good turnout, though I did notice that some people found the lack of dramatic action tedious and either left or started sending messages on their mobile phones.  This demand for violent action on a regular basis, whilst admittedly enjoyable does seem to push out movies which may be on cognate topics but adopt a more cerebral approach.  I think of the criticisms of 'Glorious 39' (2009) a thriller set in Britain in 1939 featuring a heroine who is utterly out of her depth and struggles to uncover the conspiracy.  Rather than seeing that as an interesting approach, complaints came that it was leaden and frustrating.  This is interesting as in the past thriller readers have enjoyed out-thinking the detective or spy, nowadays we are far more passive consumers and insist the hero/ine works harder, faster and more effectively than we are willing to do ourselves. 

In this way 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' is both old fashioned and yet possibly part of a small clutch of more thoughtful thrillers to sit alongside and complement more action-focused movies, notably the Bourne trilogy (2002-7; a fourth movie is promised).   The complexity of Le Carre's story and the dramatisations is exaggerated. If you can follow an television version of an Agatha Christie story then you will have not trouble with this movie.  In many ways, like quite a few of Le Carre's stories, it is as much a 'whodunnit', a detective story which happens to be set among the world of spies, as it is a spy story per se.  There are five suspects including the 'detective' himself, George Smiley (played wonderfully by Gary Oldman; he does not even speak for the first twenty minutes and yet imposes the character on to us) and in classic detective story style he gathers information and sets a trap to tease out the true guilty one from among the suspects.  Oldman resembles Alec Guinness in his portrayal of Smiley without trying to replicate it.  It is interesting the focus on the feature of a rather dull, late middle aged man, though interesting one quite happy to swim in rivers and wield a pistol.  The fact that at times we are looking right into the face of Smiley with his rather bland, aged features seems symptomatic of the style of the movie.

Whilst the movie has an excellent ensemble cast, the real 'star' is the evocation of London, Paris, Budapest and Istanbul in 1973.  This is a movie where you slip into a different time and you certainly feel that the past is another country.  The attention to detail down to clothing, hairstyles, cars, street furniture, office equipment, food, crockery, leaflets and advertisements, even the lighting is wonderful and really encompassing.  The behaviour is spot on and it is fascinating to see a 1972 works Christmas party so lovingly reproduced.  I think I only spotted two errors.  Too many of the male characters wear wedding rings, something which was uncommon for men, certainly those who were not Catholic, in 1973.  It is a fashion which has only caught on in the UK in the past twenty years.  In addition, there seems to be an error with the Trebor mints that Smiley eats near the end.  They are clearly extra-strong mints but wrapped in a Trebor mint wrapper making it far larger in diameter than Trebor mints of the time which were far smaller, shinier discs of mint.

This movie could certainly not have been relocated to the USA even if it was still set in 1973.  I imagine, having seen the acclaimed Danish crime drama 'Forbrydelsen' (2007) that it could have been set in northern Europe, anywhere from France through Germany and Scandinavia, into the former Eastern bloc countries.  However, I wondered why I could not envisage a US version and I realised that it stemmed from the different genuine history that Britain experienced during the Cold War.  It is not an issue of style, Britain certainly being painfully bleak in the 1970s despite the occasional garish colours; in sharp contrast to the excess of US culture at the time, it is more about what the British experienced in terms of spying. 

For the Americans, their greatest spying scandal was the sharing of atomic secrets in the 1950s by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; David Greenglass - Ethel's brother, Harry Gold, Morton Sobell and Klaus Fuchs.  Their arrest, the execution of the Rosenbergs and imprisonment of other conspirators, certainly fuelled the US hysteria about the Communist threat in the 1950s and the era of McCarthyism which affected so many people on a scale massively out of step with Soviet spying operations.  However, the bulk of these spies were seen anyway was 'outsiders'.  The Rosenbergs and Gold were Jewish and unashamedly Communist; Fuchs has been born a German and held British citizenship.  These were the type of spies that the Americans had always expected, associated with the dictatorships of Germany and Russia (even if they had fled them) and not Christian.   For the Americans counter-espionage is about identifying someone who 'does not fit' not only in the views they espouse but in other characteristics.  This approach persists to today which explains why the Americans are far happier seeking to tackle Islamist terrorism associated with people with a Middle Eastern or South-Central Asian connection than terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, who, to many 'mainstream' Americans resembles them too much for them really to believe that his actions were evil.

For the British the situation is utterly the reverse.  The key spy scandal in the UK was associated with the so-called 'Cambridge Spies' due to the university they studied at.  These were Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess who fled to the USSR in 1951; 'Kim' Philby who  followed them in 1963; Anthony Blunt, revealed as part of the circle in 1979 (though this had been uncovered as early as 1963 but kept secret) and John Cairncross, who was confirmed as a member of this set of Soviet agents in 1990.  What was distinctive about these spies is that they were everything that the US atomic spies were not.  Both sets were intelligent, but the Cambridge spies were certainly not outsiders, they were very much insiders.  Whilst Cairncross came from a lower-middle class background, he still attended Cambridge University at a time when only a tiny elite did and he rose rapidly to high levels withint the civil service.  Burgess was the son of a naval officer, Maclean was the son of a knighter MP, Philby was son of a civil servant in the British colonial service and Blunt was highest status of all, related to the present queen's mother.  Thus, for the British rather than seeing danger coming from outside the danger even before the Cold War started was more from within.  The fears of Nazi sympathisers among the British elites in the 1930s mutated into evidence of Communist sympathisers among the British elites in the 1950s-90s.  Of course, unlike in the USA where the good upstanding, usually white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant was set to hunt down the Soviet agents, in Britain it has been others of the same class and background as the traitors who is set to find them out.

I suppose in some ways, British spy novels have always reflected the British class system in which the bulk of the population is really seen as the 'outsider' to the elite whose attitudes drive how Britain progresses.  Deighton's Harry Palmer (not named in the novels) is a working class character who emphasises his outside nature and yet penetrates the deceptions of those who see him as his superiors.  He is hampered by the machinations of those above him not only because of their official status but because of social capital they can put into use against him.  In Le Carre's stories, with the traitors and their hunters on the same social level, it comes down to wits and cunning in order to catch them or escape from the hunt.  For those of us not among the elites, it is also nice to see those abusing Britain caught and brought down a peg supposedly in the broader interests of the country.  Of course, the elite protects their own and even once the Cambridge spies were known they were allowed to escape or their dirty secrets kept secret with official collusion.  I believe the exasperation of this is why in the movie the traitor is assassinated to give the audience some sense of retribution when the traitor is on the verge of being traded, as so often happened with Cold War spies.

Commentary on 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' has noted that these days it would seem peculiar for anyone to betray their country on the grounds that they believed it was pursuing the wrong ideology.  It is interesting that in the movie, the traitor's explanation for their treachery is that the West has become so 'ugly', such a sentiment is believable when you see London in 1973, though as one reviewer noted, Moscow, even these days, is no better.  The explanation is much the same as that given by the traitor in 'The Whistle Blower' (1986 - based on the novel by John Hale).  One wonders why they are given such world-weary explanations rather than the one which the Cambridge spies did.  They all believed that Communism was the correct ideology, particularly at the time when it seemed like the only system that was not willing to compromise with Nazism (bar of course 1939-41) in the way that Britain seemed more than eager to do.  They also believed, despite their elite positions, that Communism was the correct ideology for the world as a whole and anything which advanced the standing of the USSR as the leading proponent of Communism was to be for the global good.

Whilst even Communist states such as China seem to have lost such faith in the ideology, it does not mean that world-perspective ideologies could not be the basis of a motivation to betray one's country.  Ideology such as anti-capitalism or environmentalism have no 'host' nation to which the traitor could turn, so the approach would be something simply like Wikileaks.  However, since the rise of fundamentalism in Iran in 1979 and the spread of such views to a number of countries, one could certainly envisage someone turning over British secrets to another states on the grounds of an Islamist perspective.  Interestingly, Kim Philby's father was a convert to Islam.  In time, other world view ideologies and countries associated with them may rise to provide the kind of context that permitted the kind of developments seen with spies in the Cold War.

Whilst a Cold War conspiracy movie might seem to be based on a dated concept, it does not mean it cannot be engaging, just as a story set at the court of King Henry VIII cannot engage us, even though the tensions between Catholics and Protestants at the time might seem inscrutable nowadays.  What is interesting for me, is that British history impinges on the fiction and means that a story carries a 'baggage' brought by the audience that allows us to engage with the 'game' of the story on this basis, whereas if we had had a history like the USA or many other countries, we would not see it as feasible.  Anyway, I will add my voice to the recommendations of the movie.  However, do not expect a British version of 'The Bourne Ultimatum', see something instead, that is a puzzle presented incredibly well in terms of portrayals both by the actors and the settings they appear in.