Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Cleanse us with your healing grin

Briefly (and partially recycledly): in comments on a recent post at Owen's blog, Owen's Dad wrote a sizeable denunciation of Margaret Thatcher, adding as an afterthought
(I should perhaps have added to the preceding catalogue her merciless destruction of the Conservative Party as a credible party of government and as an effective opposition capable of holding an equally wayward and arrogant government to account.)
Thatcher's destruction of the Conservative Party... It would mean we didn't have to give any of the credit to Blair, which appeals. And it makes a certain horrible kind of sense. As a political leader, Thatcher was heavily reliant on personal relationships and personal qualities - her own ability to grasp an argument and make a connection with political acquaintances (both of which Brian remarks on) were central parts of the Thatcher programme, as was her personal ability to impose herself on the Cabinet and Parliament. Seen from inside that personality, obsequious cronies and yes-men are a good thing to have about you: you already know you're right, after all, and people offering alternatives and qualifications will only slow you down. Hence Thatcher's contempt for the Civil Service; hence, also, an attitude to the Conservative Party itself which was equivocal, to say the least. As a machine for exalting Thatcher and delivering power to her, it was very much a good thing. As an organisation with its own history, its own activities and its own ideas - I hardly see that Thatcher would understand a party having that kind of hinterland, let alone respect it. Much of the relationship between Thatcher and her party makes more sense if we assume, simply, that she held the party in contempt, and that she had no more concern for its long-term wellbeing than for the independence of the Civil Service.

This discussion was sparked off in the first place by a post on Stumbling and Mumbling about Thatcher's economic legacy. In it, Chris Dillow suggests that Thatcher was a class warrior disguised as an economic liberal, and that her governments burned into the public mind an association between free-market liberalism and reactionary politics. I think that association was there already - and that the charge goes further. Consider the classic Thatcherite phrase There Is No Alternative. There are those (Chris probably included) who would argue that there was, sooner or later, no alternative to implementing a good chunk of Thatcherite economic liberalism. However, properly considered, this position leaves room for unlimited debate about timing, mechanisms, allocation of costs and benefits, etc. What’s most truly poisonous about Thatcherism is that this broad policy stance was conflated, quite illegitimately, with the eternal There Is No Alternative of the charismatic leader: there is no alternative to me, and hence there is no alternative to my interpretation of economic necessity. Nor was Thatcher above working the trick in reverse, deriving legitimacy for her own authority from the inevitability of economic change (we couldn’t go on like we were before). Both ways round, it's a nasty rhetorical trick - and one which Blair has picked up and made his own.

So the point is not just that, under Thatcher, economic liberalism got associated with class war from above. It also got associated with messianic ‘big bang’ visions of social change and charismatic authoritarian-populist leadership - and the whole shebang got painted in the livery of Historical Inevitability. Blair then took over the core assumptions of the Thatcher style wholesale (albeit without the charm and the brains to entirely bring it off). We're still living in Thatcherland.

Spare a thought, finally, for the Tory Party, which caught the effects first and worst. The awful succession of no-hope Tory leaders - soon, apparently, to reach some kind of nadir with the coronation of Cameron - tells us what kind of state the party's in these days. It's a battered, confused and demoralised organisation, barely able to express anything more than a vague yearning for a new leader, a young leader, a strong leader... A leader who's not one of them; a leader who will smile and smile and treat them bad.

Vote Green! (Can you even name the party leader(s)?)

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Keep the masses from majority

Geoff Hoon made some unusually revealing statements about Labour Party democracy today on The world this weekend.

Essentially, the Hoon line is that there is - and should be - no such thing. Hoon was asked whether dissenters from the leadership could draw legitimacy from the Labour conference, which had passed motions critical of the New Labour clique now running the party. In other words, do Labour MPs have any right to express the democratically-agreed views of the Labour Party, if these differ from the positions of the New Labour leadership? He replied:

[left-wing MP] was elected on the Labour Party manifesto, as was I. He is bound to deliver that manifesto, as am I.

Time was, it would be generally recognised that party conference decisions were binding on the party as a whole, the leadership included; a Labour Prime Minister who wanted to set aside conference decisions would have many critics and few supporters. Conference's role has long been advisory at best - one of the first priorities in the construction of the New Labour machine was the marginalisation of the party's formal democratic structures (party conference and the National Executive). Now, apparently, we're into a new phase. Not only does the leadership have every right to ignore what the party says; the party has no right to speak. Party policy is leadership policy; what the party itself thinks is sublimely irrelevant.

Hoon's view of democratic procedure within the parliamentary Labour Party followed similar lines: for the parliamentary party to assert itself against the leadership would not only be ill-advised, it would be illegitimate. Specifically, Hoon was asked about the possibility of a leadership challenge. He replied:

recently, at a general election, [Blair] received the overwhelming support of the British people

It's hard to ignore the fact that this is a bare-faced lie: even if we assumed that every single Labour voter was moved by a burning desire to give Blair his or her support, that would still only account for 23% of the British people. There's also the inconvenient, but well-documented, fact that many Labour voters gave the party their vote despite Blair. But this is secondary. The real question is whether the Labour Party exists as an organisation, capable of formulating and expressing collective viewpoints as to its policies and leadership. The Hoon line is essentially that it doesn't exist, or that it exists but should be treated as if it doesn't. Not the Labour Party but the New Labour clique has been anointed by the electorate, on terms set out in the party manifesto, and its word should henceforth be law.

I think Hoon's remarks are revealing and significant - and significant in part because they reveal far more than a better-briefed (or more intelligent) member of government would have done. Through long repetition, the critique of New Labour's 'control freak' tendencies has acquired the kind of familiarity that breeds contempt, but Hoon's comments show just how serious a matter this is - and how destructive it can be. The founding of the Labour Party was a major advance in the history of British democratic representation. Many previous leaders had done their best to hobble Labour Party democracy or stifle its voice, but nobody before Blair had set about dismantling the machinery with such nihilistic gusto. What Hoon's remarks signal is that Blair's project of organisational vandalism is more or less complete: the Labour Party has been destroyed.

Not that Blair would put it quite that bluntly, or for that matter as bluntly as Hoon. But then, eight years down the track, it's not glad confident morning in anyone's book; the first generation of New Labour hacks and Old Labour fellow-travellers is a distant memory. These days, you really can't get the staff. It's the time of the apparatchik: the time of maximum contempt for ordinary party members, with minimum justification. And so we have Hoon: the fourth-year plodder who gets appointed as a prefect (for want of alternative candidates) and promptly starts holding forth about the selection criteria: they don't take just anyone, you know. I don't expect they'd want you...

Once, the Labour Party was built, and the building of the party was a major advance in the history of British democratic representation. But now...

Maintenant c'est joué. L'hacienda, tu ne la verras pas. Elle n'existe pas.
Il faut construire l'hacienda.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Some are mathematicians

Or: of Dylan and Dylanophiles. Scorsese's No Direction Home is glorious, although I think the BBC's decision to show it in two halves is debatable; after Part One I was left wondering how, having got as far as 1966, they were going to fit the next 39 years of Dylan's career into Part Two. I was still wondering when Part Two ended. Apparently what happened after 1966 was that Dylan had a motorbike accident and stopped touring; after that some other events may have taken place, but apparently we can't be sure at this stage.

No Direction Home both was and wasn't a revelation. I've been a Dylan fan in a small way for a long time, although 'fan' doesn't seem quite the right word: he's just there, monumentally. I realised during the programme that I'd heard far too little of his early stuff; album purchases are going to be required, but I can't decide whether to start with Bob Dylan and make up the gaps chronologically, or just go straight for Blonde on blonde.

Still, hearing some of his stuff from 1965-6 for more or less the ahem first time koff had the advantage of giving me some idea just how strange a departure it must have seemed at the time. One point which Scorsese's film underlined was that going electric wasn't the only break Dylan made. In one of the many post-concert vox pops - some of which, to judge from the accents, must have been at the Free Trade Hall gig, although Manchester was never credited on the titles - a disgruntled fan curtly dismissed the second-half electric set before excoriating Dylan's solo set at some length: his singing was out of tune, his rhythm was off and he kept playing that bloody harmonica... And, you felt, he kept playing those weird new songs. One telling moment during the electric set saw Bob pouring oil on troubled waters by announcing that the next number was a protest song. The effect was immediate: the booing died away; there was an anticipatory hush and some scattered cheering. Then the band started up. Playing "Leopardskin Pillbox Hat". You've got to love him for that.

Which isn't to say that 'protest songs' were a wrong turning for Dylan - any more than the repertoire of traditional songs that got him started, and led naturally into the 'protest' phase. On the contrary, Scorsese's film suggested that breaking with the 'protest' repertoire was the single most important, and most creative, thing that Dylan ever did - but that the energy released by that break came only partly from Dylan's discomfort with being seen as a 'protest singer'; partly, it grew from his success in that role.

Clearly, I'm not the first person to notice that several of the songs on The times they are a-changin' can be called political. Still, I think it's worth stressing that they should be called political - particularly in the current climate of Arnoldian, high-culture Dylanophilia, which fits Dylan's own claim to a kind of apolitical humanism only too well. (I'll come back to last week's Dylan tribute concert further on, but really - what was Barb Jungr doing? I'd come close to losing the will to listen during Odetta's languid take on "Mr Tambourine Man" - not a particularly frisky song in the best of readings - but dear Lord, Jungr's "Like A Rolling Stone"... How does it feel? It feels like I'm watching a rich kid's drama school audition, actually.)

Retrospectively, anyway, Dylan likes to present himself as doing no more than stand up for universal values - for justice against injustice, freedom against tyranny - and perhaps some of his 'protest songs' can bear that reading; "Blowin' in the Wind", with that weirdly complacent dying fall closing each verse, for one. (Although, as Mavis Staples pointed out in Scorsese's film, the first two lines meant something quite specific to Black Americans at the time.) But "The Times They Are A-Changin'"?
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.
Rhyming "heed the call" with "Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall" - in other words, Heed the call and get out of the way - is not the work of a disengaged prophet of peace and freedom. And that's not to mention "Masters of war" or "The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll", let alone "Only a pawn in their game" - a deeply political response to the murder of Medgar Evers, one of the most scandalous events of those years. Dylan didn't give a voice to a generation; he gave a voice to a movement, and the movement gave him the world he needed to write about. According to Joan Baez, Dylan wrote "When the ship comes in" in reaction to being refused a hotel room (very Pirate Jenny); but I think that very exorbitance - so familiar from his later work - only came to him in the first place through his engagement with something much bigger.

After that, and because of that, there was more he could do; the 1966 tour was when it started. The songs the Free Trade Hall audience wanted to hear were what enabled Dylan to write the songs he played there - and kept the audience from hearing them. It was extraordinary seeing those images of thousands of fans queuing to see Dylan, only to turn on him when he started playing. It would be silly to invoke the Golden Bough or Orpheus's sparagmos, but still - there's something singular, and singularly intense, about the anger of the betrayed fan. In after-show footage Dylan looked both shaken and perplexed - All the booing! Why are they booing, man? Most likely, from that point on, they'd go their way and he'd go his.

They weren't just booing, mind you. At the Free Trade Hall, the legendary shout of "Judas!" was followed, from somewhere else in the auditorium, by "You pillock!" (This may have been aimed at the first heckler rather than Dylan, it's hard to be sure.) On the Scorsese film, we heard one heckler call out "Go home, Bobby" (nasty little diminutive there); later, as Dylan settled himself at the piano and adjusted his vocal mike, somebody called out "Try switching it off." (And yes, these were people who'd paid for tickets, queued up, etc - they'd probably queued up for tickets, come to that.) It may be a Manchester thing. In my experience, Manchester audiences have a good line in heckling; for some people it's an integral part of the evening's entertainment. I wasn't into Dylan at the time of the 1966 tour and didn't live in Manchester; otherwise I might have been at the Free Trade Hall that night, if only I'd been more than five years old. But I did see Robyn Hitchcock, years later, take the stage to be greeted immediately by a double-act of hecklers:

Heckler 1: "Here he is, the man himself."
Heckler 2: "He's got a beer-gut!"
H1: "He's a footballer."
H2: "And a very good one!"

I don't think Robyn Hitchcock is easily fazed, but they did it. He quelled them later, though. The two of them had started outbidding each other in guesses as to the precise length of the grotesquely elongated legs of the hallucinated Scottie dogs encircling the protagonist's deathbed in that night's introduction to "The Yip song". (As one might.) Robyn broke off to interrupt them ("Eight feet!" "Ten feet!"), saying with some dignity, "No - you can say that, but it doesn't make it true. Because this is how it was." They shut up after that.

Robyn, coincidentally, was one of the three best acts at the tribute concert last week, although for some unknown reason they limited him (uniquely) to one song; he did what I took, rather embarrassingly, for one of his own. (Still. Hands up who's got Time out of mind...) The other two were Martin Carthy (his "Hattie Carroll" was dreadful, but he did a wonderful "Scarborough Fair") and K T Tunstall, who played the first two tracks of Blood on the Tracks - yes, starting with "Tangled up in blue". (She made a pretty good fist of it, I have to say, as well as disrupting an increasingly precious evening with some welcome amplification - 39 years on, had we learnt nothing?)

I confess I was outraged when KT announced "Tangled up in blue": I couldn't imagine anyone but Dylan singing it (it's so personal, so autobiographical...) Listening to the song and re-reading the lyrics afterwards, I realised that I'd been thinking of it as a straightforward narrative with a couple of flashbacks - and that it's anything but. It's actually quite hard to say what happens in "Tangled up in blue", and it's impossible to say in what order it happens. Even the one reasonably clear section (narrator goes to topless bar, gets picked up by waitress) is impossible to place: has he found "her" again or is this their first meeting? The dialogue suggests both, at one point in two successive lines -

"I thought you'd never say hallo," she said,
"You look like the silent type"

- which makes it impossible to settle on either. Straight after that, we're into

I lived with them on Montague Street

Them? She was married when we first met, which would fit - but We drove that car as far as we could... sounds like a different episode from She had to sell everything she owned... - and neither of them sounds like Her folks, they said our life together/Sure was going to be tough. (Is he even talking about the same woman?) It's an extraordinary piece of writing: not so much like a story, more like knocking a box of slides on the floor and describing them as you pick them up - but with none of the tricksy coolness that image suggests.

What sticks in my mind from "Tangled up in blue", apart from a couple of wonderful lines in the first verse, is the way it ends. We've had

music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air

and the narrator has... just kept on:

The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on

Then there's this strange writing-off of an entire scene, casual, almost playful in its phrasing, but at the same time stern and unmistakably final:

All the people we used to know, they're an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters' wives
Don't know how it all got started, I don't know what they're doing with their lives

What they're doing with their lives... Living them, you feel like replying - and it got started when the movement circus left town (or got beaten, or got co-opted - either way, it wasn't there any more). Living, is what they're doing with their lives - it's mundane and it's limited, but what else are you going to do?

Me, I'm still on the road, heading for another joint

Yes, on one level it's tired old rock troubadour imagery; yes, it would be interesting to compare it with the amount of time Dylan spent touring that year, let alone the time he spent on the road in any meaningful sense. But on another level, damn it, he's right. Social movements change lives, both in the experience of the movement and more permanently: new forms of sociality, new forms of communication, new ways of conceiving and portraying the world can survive a movement's ebb. Anyone who lived through the Civil Rights movement and then returned to their studies (or their husband's carpentry), unchanged by what had happened, had missed out on something. And they'd missed out in a way that Dylan (for all his self-seeking arrogance, for all his ambition) didn't miss out. One of the many achievements of that movement was turning Bob Dylan into a poet.