Thursday, October 04, 2018

A Cultural Catastrophe

History moves like an iceberg cracks, first slowly and hardly noticeably, and then with an almighty jolt, as the fissure becomes a calamitous crack. Brexit feels ever more like that iceberg. It is not a catastrophe built in days, weeks or months, though the running commentary since the vote will no doubt be subject of quite a few history books, but in years. There was a quote on Facebook from Margaret Thatcher, then under Ted Heath's leadership, from 1975, in favour of being at the heart of Europe. That's a time that anyone under forty will have no memory of - yet the iceberg was there.

Increasingly it becomes clearer that the destruction of the European project is a longstanding aim of both a certain crazed variety of elected Conservative politician, but also of a shadowing monied class - international in focus, but parochial in concerns. The "why" of the anti-Europe obsession remains an oblique one grounded in fear, history, and self-interest. Both the right and a certain strand of the anti-European left are prone to conspiracy theories - yet there doesn't need to be a theory, when there is obvious collusion. What those forces are, are partly economic, but increasingly I'm seeing them as cultural. The "culture wars" is currently playing out a potentially catastrophic round in America with the election of a right winger to the supreme court, putting at risk Roe v. Wade, and with it women's autonomy over their body; such madness sometimes seems far away, but in the fringes of the Conservative party conference, a mix of toxic ideas and policies - where the state should have no intervention in our fiscal freedoms, but at the same time should be able to curtail any of our cultural ones - is the tune playing in the background whenever Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks. I'm reminded of that episode of Dr. Who, where John Simms, playing The Master, has a constant refrain in his ear. Such a tinnitus that it cannot be got rid of.

Yet under the British system, the worst kind of government is the weak and the propped up one. John Major, so often given a free pass now he's an elder statesman, oversaw the privatisation of the railways, a disaster that continues to blight millions of peoples lives every day. Moreover, the long, limp years before Tony Blair's "New Labour" put the Conservatives (and the country) out of their misery was a period where a minority government failed to achieve anything. Yet in those years the iceberg continued to crack, modern life was held back, as those in office, but not in power did what they could. And here's the thing - when a government can hardly manage a majority about which restaurant they'll eat at that evening, the idle hands will find other work to do. This is the more benign explanation of Theresa May's announcement that it is not only skilled workers that this country wants, but only those earning £50,000 a year or more. At 51, I've not ever even come close to this figure in my career, yet it is not those, like myself, in everyday jobs, that this is aimed at - but a wider array of creative professions, particularly outside of hothouse London.

It seems that alongside the sidelining of the arts in schools under that arch villain Michael Gove, so that a rebalancing towards science and maths can only happen in fossilised Britain through burning up the opportunities that the creative arts gives, the unspoken assumption between so much of what is currently going on politically is also cultural. A far right, conveniently religious when it suits them, but rarely finding inspiration in a Jesus who loved the poor, begins to want a serf class, understanding full well that you control a population not just through holding back their financial aspirations, but also their cultural ones.

I grew up in the heart of Brexit Britain. The West Midlands is often a bellwether for politics in this country, its large number of small manufacturers, still revered status as "workshop of the world", and current place as an onshore logistics hub for London and the North, means that in good economic times it is bouyant, and in bad times it falls back on itself. Given that it is globalisation that powers the warehouses, big box stores, and business parks of that part of the world, you would think that a cosmopolitanism might have come with the access to cheap goods. But that's to underestimate how cultural all this is. Last time I was in Walsall for any length of time, the idea that it was a Brexit town was not at all fanciful - it wasn't just the poverty - cheap shops selling cheap goods and power quality food abounded - but the cultural poverty. The wonderful New Art Gallery sits alone at one end of the town, stubbornly unable to regenerate the area around it. There are no independent shops or artisan pop ups in Walsall. The one record shop that opened briefly in the Victorian arcade closed as quickly as it opened. A town with a diverse and long standing Asian community doesn't seem to have the vibrant colours and smells of the fresh food market place at least not in the city centre. More recently, that other bellwether of economic life, the Marks & Spencer's, where my mum used to work on the tills for a bit of Christmas money each year, closed down adding another empty unit to a high street that has in recent years lost Woolworths and BHS. I mention Walsall partly because John Harris in the Guardian has recently gone there, wanting to find out what makes Brexit Britain tick.

Growing up near Walsall, it was a microcosm of small towns everywhere - a place, when young to spend a Saturday afternoon - a couple of good record shops, books and magazines from the WH Smiths, and it closed down at five o'clock, where the main cultural activity was buying the "pink" sports paper as it came out, and checking the results in the window of the Rumbelow's. Most of my classmates left school at sixteen whilst 1 in 10 of us went to sixth form, then university. Birmingham was where we mostly got our culture fix whether shopping or music. Walsall and Cannock had small colleges - what used to be called technical colleges - but weren't university towns. It means that young people leave - less of an issue when few went to university, but more so when nearly half the population does. The ones "left behind" never thought of themselves of being "left behind" but as the ones who stayed: family ties are strong, community ties are strong. Working class culture often manifests itself in odd ways.  The soap operas - Birmingham set Crossroads as much as the northern Coronation Street - and music - heavy metal and Elvis depending on your age and generation, were no different than elsewhere. There's a heavily filtered version of mainstream culture that you forget has a pervasiveness until you go back there. The charity shops are filled with "South Pacific", "The King and I", Bert Kaempfert, James Last and the like same as anywhere. People like their spicy food - the balti was a Birmingham invention after all - and they like their cars and their dogs. I sometimes think that the Brexit worm could grow in these places, because of two things - those of us who left and had little reason to come back, and landlocked in the middle of the country, our culture had become stymied, held back, earthy and earthbound, culture, like everything there, needs to be a solid one based upon real things. There is little room for mystery. Heavy metal, the area's one true cultural innovation of the last fifty years, is a manifestation of that normalcy, even though it comes with a countercultural belligerency.

The sweep of cultural influence can only go so far before becoming more a whisper than a roar. If you think, as I did growing up, of Europe as a newly available vista, mysterious, nearby, but accessible only by some effort - passport, plane, new language - that sense of promise can be invigorating: but it never leant itself to anything more than the package holiday or wanting to get away. For those who stayed or went back, culture remains white bread rather than pannini.

The 52 per cent includes some like the diabolical Farage who themselves have European partners and children, and yet still voted to "leave." What "leave" meant is still open to debate. Going through Walsall and Brownhills shortly after the vote I remember thinking I wasn't surprised that they'd voted for Brexit. Whatever dividend Europe gives, culturally and financially, gets laundered through London, then the big cities, so that little is left by the time it arrives at these doors. When you are concerned about your job, your family etc. culture can no doubt seem an add-on. Those of us who craved an escape from Saturday night light entertainment and the like, can now find anything they want on the internet - yet the rabbit holes we go down are likely to be the ones that are familiar to us - whereas the back pages of Melody Maker and the NME, the late night listens to John Peel, the revolving carousel of Picadors in the WH Smiths, these were lifeboats from the Titanic of my life, crashing into that iceberg. I see it now in the slowest of motions. The familiar names from school on my Facebook page are often static ones - others have gone, disappeared; some have died - a few, like myself, moved away, some across the world; the things shared are everyday memes, a lazy cultural currency that pays for less each time.

Yet in a country that still has a growing population, where many different nationalities live and work and speak English, where religion is only a minor pursuit, and where cultural identity (for the English at least) is more about what it is not, than a shared "what is", where our cultural bonding is more likely to be over an American or Danish boxset than the BBC, where those archetypes of literature - the priest, the soldier, the politician, the doctor, the professor - seem less achievable or desirable jobs than cosplaying Pokemon characters, you can begin to see that small shifts in how we are taught, spoken to, manipulated are important ones. When the Nazis first identified "decadent art" they didn't hide it or burn it or persecute the artists as they later would, but actually put it on show in Berlin, and encouraged all to go and see it and mock the pretensions. It doesn't take much though to take away the cultural oxygen from those who might need it most - those who are deprived of it. The middle classes can continue, as they did in apartheid South Africa, to access "dangerous" texts under the banner of art; what is worrying about Britain today is that one of our national characteristics, creativity, is being stifled, deliberately, as part of the cracking of the iceberg. From learning foreign languages, to the books we read at school and for pleasure, to what we are encouraged to study in school and university, a certain illiteracy amongst the ruling classes, combined with the reactionary "little Englander" paucity of ideas behind Brexit, are heading us to a cultural catastrophe, adrift, bereft of meaning, unable to articulate what it is we have lost.