Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The wanderer returns

Where have I been? Well, I gave a paper with my co-author at a conference in London on Rediscovering Class Consciousness in Contemporary Literature last week. It was held in the Senate House, University of London, that great Deco bulk on Malet St. While we talked books, an FBI thriller called Undercover was being filmed downstairs, which provided some amusing juxtapositions of scholars and gun-toting stars. I intended to sneak off to see the Terry Pratchett Archive in the library but the other presenters were too good to miss. Ian Haywood was the keynote speaker: one of the greats in the field. He spoke about the Beano chapter of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell's ur-proletarian novel and socialist touchstone. It was hard to imagine there's much more to say about it, but Haywood managed to do so, leading into a fascinating discussion of literary representations of leisure and sex on the beach in 20th century fiction.

I also enjoyed Phil O'Brien's discussion of Anthony Cartwright's Black Country masterpiece, The Afterglow - Cartwright's work is hugely under-rated. It turned out that Phil read it because I'd mentioned it to him at a Radical Studies Network conference a couple of years ago, so I'm quite proud of making a contribution. David Peace's work also heavily featured: a panel and another paper elsewhere on the schedule. I'm a huge Peace fan: I like his ambition and experiments with form, which deliberately disorient the reader to make her experience the cultural, social and political disorientation its subjects undergo. The conference focussed on his Red Riding quartet and GB84: the former cover late-70s Yorkshire and the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, while the latter is loosely about the Miners' Strike. Every time I read them again I think he was some kind of seer. Peace's Yorkshire is a failed state: rotten to the core. The State is a series of self-interested fiefdoms. Policing is utterly corrupt and largely the pursuit of personal gain or serving the sectional interests of the powerful. As the fish rots from the head, the hollowing out of morality, public duty and the organs of the state lead to total social degradation. The public realm becomes a place of strife, decayed and dangerous. Democracy is a remote and irrelevant concept in his novels: power is wielded against the people and the ideal of the public good is forgotten. I get the sense from history texts that this isn't far removed from reality, but the revelations of Jimmy Savile, the inquiries into Orgreave and other events suggest that Peace was spot on, and that the effects (and causes?) are still being felt.

My session also featured Mark Schmitt of Dortmund Technical University talking about work by Irvine Welsh, John King and Niall Griffiths. As Niall is a friend and colleague of mine, I enjoyed emailing him snippets – he was pleased to be the subject of a paper and that Mark understood him, which is more than I can claim: Niall thinks Wreckage is his weakest novel, whereas I think it's his best! Scotland was very much prominent: there was another piece on Irvine Welsh and Corey Gibson gave a fascinating and hilarious tour of the post-Referendum literary scene and the role of authors in the debate. Lisa and I did a comparison of representations of working-class lives in Welsh writing in English and Welsh: we feel that the English texts are pretty despondent, which manifests itself in recurrent images of zombies, haunting and memory, whereas the Welsh-language ones are – with some exceptions – more open to the complexities of class, culture and the everyday. Nobody else there had any Welsh so couldn't discuss some of the texts in depth, but there was a lively discussion afterwards.

After that, I went to a session on working-class lives on stage (about which I knew nothing, other than loving Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem), then the plenary session: the stand-out one was Kathleen Bell and Nicola Valentine's 'Reclaiming Class: a Complex Negotiation'. The day was hugely enjoyable: I bought a lot of books that I clearly should have read years ago, and it was good to be amongst scholars committed to keeping class alive as a topic when the dominant discourse is keen to stifle it. I don't see the neoliberal, techno-economy as a post-class one: further divides are opening up, but old ones are being reinforced. How could we understand the attempt by Google, Apple, Pixar and a host of other Silicon Valley companies to conspire together to keep salaries down other than by referring back to Marx? Those techs might be rich, pampered nerds but they're clearly part of the proletariat, however many gadgets they own.

Following the conference I headed off to Cardiff for a new experience: an international rugby match between Ireland and Canada. I always watch Ireland matches on TV, but rugby's not my favourite sport. However, it was a great occasion. The city was a sea of green, leavened by a few hundred Canadians, and everyone was in festive mood. I don't often get to Cardiff, so it was lovely to reacquaint myself with an unappreciated place. I paid the compulsory homage to Spiller's Records (bought albums by Gwenno Saunders and Meilir) and finally got hold of some laverbread. If you've never had it, get some. It's the best seaweed-based foodstuff there is. The match itself was thrilling – although Canada was bound to come off worst, they had two tries disallowed and played much better than the official gulf between them, and the score, suggested. Afterwards, we returned home the slow route through Abergavenny, Herefordshire and rural Shropshire, all deserted and breathtakingly beautiful. We stopped for dinner at the Stockton Cross Inn, a 16th-century country pub in Herefordshire. This plaque was attached to the back of the toilet door:

Since then, I've been fixated by our graduation ceremonies, which always thrill me because it's great to see my students grown up and going off, but I'll miss a lot of them an awful lot. We gave poet Jo Bell an honorary doctorate: her work is great and her speech was a model of encouragement and inspiration. 'Ask for help', she told them, 'but never for permission'. 

The other big stories of the week of course are Pig Gate and the VW story. You'll no doubt have followed Pig Gate, the claim by Lord Ashcroft that David Cameron had to insert his undercarriage into a dead pig's mouth as part of an Oxford society's initiation ritual. Such things do happen in rich, spoiled circles, though I think I'm safe in congratulating my own students in getting through a degree without once sexual molesting a dead animal to ingratiate themselves with their friends. It's a gruesome thing to do but basically the kind of inane things the children of the establishment indulge in to fool themselves that they're rebels, before they go off and run the country. Quite astoundingly pathetic, really. 

The real story behind this is the fragmentation of the Conservative Party. Ashcroft is quite clear that his motive in raising this claim is revenge: he gave the Tories £8m and was only offered a junior position in government. Both sides agree on one thing: ministerial jobs in this supposed democracy are for sale in return for party donations. What's in dispute is merely a matter of scale. Ashcroft called  the post he was offered 'declinable', whereas Cameron obviously thought it was OK. Ashcroft may have a point: Lord Nash acquired a seat in the house of Lords and a job in the education ministry, where he oversaw the privatisation of schools while simultaneously opening a load of 'free' schools of his own, having forked over less money than Ashcroft: as blatant a case of corruption as I can imagine. Ashcroft was, of course, domiciled in Belize for tax purposes for most of his political career.

Neither Cameron or Ashcroft (or Nash, or any of the others) seem to believe that democracy requires that government jobs should go to people who a) pay all their taxes according to both the spirit and the letter of the law, nor b) that jobs in a government should be subject to the approval of the electorate via the ballot box. Instead they become rewards for donations to the party, just as the Americans give Ambassadorships to big party donors rather than to professional diplomats. 

The other interesting aspect of the story is the role of the Mail. There have always been two wings of the Conservative Party: the hardline neoliberal economic conservatives and the social conservatives, essentially the City and the Country wings. One lot wants to privatise everything and doesn't care what you do with your genitals, while the other wants to go hunting and doesn't like the nouveau riche. There is of course some (uncomfortable) overlap: the PM wants to go hunting while selling our schools to the highest bidder, but there's a basic tension between conserving things and exposing them to the whims of the Market. 

The Mail is the voice of the middle-class Country wing of the Conservatives: its readers are largely urban but they are deeply suspicious of slick billionaires and money-men, hence that paper's hounding of the bankers over recent years, which may have surprised some people. The Mail doesn't like foreigners, gays, liberals, socialists, feminists, the Scots, Welsh-speakers, Eurpoeans and anyone else who thinks Britain could do with changing. It likes 1952. It distrusts Big Money for the same reasons I do: it sees them as a global elite of asset-strippers. It also suspects that David Cameron is a Tino: a Tory in Name Only. It hates his supposed social liberalism and thinks – bafflingly for me – that he's going to see Real Conservatism down the river. So it's got into bed with Lord Ashcroft, who is the very personification of City Conservatism: a man with billions acquired from dubiously labyrinthine business deals, multiple passports and a buffet approach to tax residence. There's also a deeper irony: while the Mail masquerades as the staunch defender of Country Conservatism and Englishness, it's owned by a man who claims to be French for tax purposes, via a series of shell companies located in some very distant islands. Much like Ashcroft, in fact. 

So what we have is a civil war in British conservatism, in which personal vendettas between Cameron and Ashcroft, and the Mail and Cameron, mask deeper and often contradictory struggles for the definition of conservatism. The pig-boffing is probably untrue and if true, probably unproveable, and has given millions (including me) a day of joy, but it's a distraction from the real arguments. 

The other big story is the one that almost nobody has noticed, which is a shame as it's far more important and instructive than the one about the Prime Minsterial Appendage and where it might or might not have been. The American authorities, acting on a tip-off from a European pressure group, has caught Volkswagen cheating on its cars' emissions. It fitted software that detected when emissions tests were being conducted, and altered the exhaust gases to conform to the legal limits. When the cars were out on the roads, they emitted forty times more NO2 than the law allowed. I'll type that again: forty times above the legal limit

In fact a lot of this deserves spelling out in italics and probably bold. One of the biggest corporations in the world took the deliberate decision to a) make cars that are FORTY times more poisonous than an already lax law allowed, then b) decided to find a way to hide this fact and c) invented a mechanism to do so. Then they did it. They produced 11 MILLION of these vehicles, worldwide.

This isn't a rogue engineer fiddling with a couple of test vehicles. VW is a global corporation worth hundreds of billions of euro. To install a device on a range of cars required work by engineers, software developers, chemists, accountants, lawyers and directors. Multiple committees will have held meetings to agree that they would deliberately break the law and add massively to global warming, pollution, and to damage the health of millions of people. It's not an accident, it's a conspiracy. Car manufacturers have always fiddled their performance and emissions results: it's well known that the figures in unreadable text on adverts are produced in lab conditions with heavily modified vehicles rather than in ordinary driving conditions, but this is way beyond that kind of game-playing, and it's likely other manufacturers will have done the same. 

My point, I think, is that you can't trust corporations. They are liars and cheats. They spend a lot of money persuading us that they care and that they are progressive contributors to a better future. Car manufacturers always promote efficiency, safety and green credentials. They make and sell a few hybrid or electric vehicles and make sure they get press coverage. Here's what Volkswagen claims, for instance:

It produces a Sustainability Report and claims it will become the 'world leader in environmental protection'. 

This is lies from start to finish. Greenwash. Tony Benn once said that 'the way migrants are treated is instructive, because it shows you how governments would treat the rest of us if they could get away with it'. Volkswagen treats us this way because it thought it could get away with it. Like every other capitalist institution, its purpose is the immediate acquisition of profit. It has no conscience, green or otherwise. Producing a few thousand electric cars is part of a PR operation, not a commitment to mitigate the destructive effects of the internal combustion engine. When faced with the opportunity to make billions, it deliberately opted to poison us all and break the laws of the most powerful state on earth. 

Volkswagen is not an outlier, or an outlaw, or an aberration. It is a mainstream, ordinary company, and it behaves the way all companies do if they think they can get away with it. Will anyone go to prison? Probably not, though the American authorities are tougher on this kind of thing than you might think. 

And people wonder why I'm a socialist…

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