Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Return of the Cockney

Although the smart consensus now is that 'the Sixties' in Britain was really 'Swinging London', outside of the art/fashion/music scene it was really a northern decade. Starting with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning then the Beatles, The Making of the English Working Class, Coronation Street, Z Cars, Manchester United, the New Universities (none of them in London), Harold Wilson (Huddersfield) vs George Brown (Lambeth) it was the north that made the running. The stereotype of 'the northern scientist' - ex-grammar school, then onto British Steel - was much more representative than, say, Michael Caine.
In many ways, as The London that Nobody Knows suggests, much of London's popular culture, architecture etc was looking rather archaic by the '60s. Blow Up is a strangely silent and empty film, as a small group of hipsters run round a Victorian playground. And for good reason: London was already in its then alarming decline, in which it would lose a million of its population. Get Carter is a great cinematic revenge on Londoners, in which Caine has to head to where the real money and power is. And never returns.

The real London decade was the 1980s. There's no need on here it rehearse the economics and politics of why that was so. But it’s worth noting that it was the decade when working class Londoners (including the Essex/Kent/Surrey diasporas) finally decided to take themselves seriously and catch up with modernity. No more Steptoe and Son.

Most striking was the big invasion of cockney voices, writing and faces into the media. Obviously Only Fools and Horses, Eastenders, Minder, The Bill, Grange Hill. Cockney was down-on-the-street 'real'. Maybe more importantly cockney accents were finally allowed on factual television, the medium's great test of authority:
Always going to be too pronounced for some those accents, but they properly reflect the desire to force yourself onto the medium without apology and without fluffing your lines. Also note there's no censoriousness or 'anthropology of the workers' in those films, but no cheap exploitation either. Instead it’s relaxed, democratic, in-the-moment. It has a 'this is what my friends do at the weekend: why shouldn't it have 15 mins of airtime?' feel.

The Robert Elms/Spandau Ballet/Paul Weller wing of this minor movement began to take themselves rather too seriously, of course ('From half-spoken shadows emerges a canvas. A kiss of light breaks to reveal a moment when all mirrors are redundant. Listen to the portrait of the dance of perfection: the Spandau Ballet'.) The northern suspicion of 'cockney wankers' grew in this period: either they were too brash or too slick. Definitely too materialistic.
Billy Bragg, Paul Weller or Ken Livingstone might feel rather aggrieved at being labelled this way. They were after all rather more explicitly anti-Thatcher than New Order or Tony Wilson ever were. The Style Council were incredibly earnest, and their clumsiness in crafting a modernist-socialist-soul sound stands in contrast to the cool post-modernism of Factory.

The brief hegemony of cockney was its undoing. The tabloids and commercial TV embraced it and distorted it for their own ends. The path to London Fields and Parklife began here. 'Cockney' was also very male, always with a hint of aggression to it, and apolitical. Red Ken is very rarely called 'a cockney' although he is one. Admitting that 'the most successful working class socialist politician' really was a man of the people would have been too much for The Sun.

The likes of Class War did attempt to give the 'Loadsamoney' style a leftish twist:
It doesn't quite convince, mainly because Ian Bone is actually from Bristol. But the clip nicely brings out some of the contradictions of the 80s cockney. Ross, whilst hinting he agrees with some of the politics, isn't going to drop the American-style slickness he's hard won, even as his brother is denounced as a class traitor.

It was the actors, where voice matters most, who really suffered in the 90s fall out. Kathy Burke has now effectively given up acting, Ray Winstone reduced to betting ads. Nil By Mouth showed what they really could give to British culture. But we've ended up with Nick Love and Notting Hill instead.

"After Helena Bonham Carter, the great-granddaughter of Herbert Asquith, complained that for all her advantages and beauty directors would not hire her because she was not "trendily working class", an exasperated Kathy Burke found the effort of keeping a civil tongue in her head too much to bear. "As a lifelong member of the non-pretty working classes," she told Time Out, "I would like to say to Helena Bonham Carter: shut up you stupid cunt."

Friday, 13 January 2012

(extract  from  work in progress)

Because you’re on TV, dummy.

Arthur Jensen has chosen Howard Beale to preach his neoliberal evangel because he’s on TV and television, Jensen understands, is the key to spreading the message, to creating the necessary generational shift, to opening up new vistas for accumulation.

During the decade TV, undergoes a transformation of its own, it also begins to sprout, spread and promulgate. Deregulation of cable networks begins in earnest in the early Seventies and in 1972 the nation’s first pay-TV network, Home Box Office (HBO) is launched.This is followed by Ted Turners WTBS, broadcasting primarily sports, classic movies, repeats of “golden-oldie” TV shows and of course, wrestling. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network arrives in 1977. This fecund early period of deregulation will give birth not just to the wave of TV Evangelists that became notorious in the Eighties but also lead to the emergence of the W.W.F. as a national and international business force and to C.N.N, trendsetter for 24-hour news channels.

The website www.ncta.com also has this to say

The 1980s

The 1984 Cable Act established a more favorable regulatory framework for the industry, stimulating investment in cable plant and programming on an unprecedented level.

Deregulation provided by the 1984 Act had a strong positive effect on the rapid growth of cable services. From 1984 through 1992, the industry spent more than $15 billion on the wiring of America, and billions more on program development. This was the largest private construction project since World War II.

Satellite delivery, combined with the federal government’s relaxation of cable’s restrictive regulatory structure, allowed the cable industry to become a major force in providing high quality video entertainment and information to consumers. By the end of the decade, nearly 53 million households subscribed to cable, and cable program networks had increased from 28 in 1980 to 79 by 1989.”

(italics mine)

It is of course during the Eighties that two phrases develop to reflect the numbing, paralysing effect of the increasing vastness of the mediascape, of the impossibility of settling for any one thing, the burden of an overabundance of choice: “channel surfing” and “couch potato”.As Bruce Springsteen put it, there are “57 Channels and nothing on”. Whereas before you might have flicked through four or five stations and then gone and done something else, in Springsteen’s song, “got friendly upstairs”, now the search becomes the activity in itself, (this is something magnified on the Internet, of course, with its low-grade, endless, questing and grazing) and there was an early transfer of the verb “to surf” from TV to Net-based activity that has fallen into disuse. “Surfing” implies a restless, depthless forward momentum, indeed an impelled momentum; the shift from the earlier use “channel hopping” to channel/web “surfing” well captures the degree of volition and the scale and force implied by the burgeoning swell of media. TV then becomes less an event, a family gathering point, a moment running to a schedule, and more of a resource or an arena to be navigated but one which is in a sense cognitively unmappable, an open terrain to wander about in, filled with unrealizable promise. You could always be missing something better elsewhere, angst and dissatisfaction are built into the system, yet it also induces a kind of half-fascinated torpor. Vegging out.

The bulk of much early cable programming was essentially repeats re-branded as Golden Oldies, news, sports, quizzes, chat shows (any cheap content, effectively) or religious programming. But an equally important early adaptor to the new freedoms was Nickelodeon, nee Pinwheel Network, the children’s channel that developed as part of Warner Brothers’ exploratory QUBE cable channel. One needn’t be a bleeding-heart Liberal, or even a parent, to find the repealing, under concerted industry pressure and in accordance with the anti Nanny-state ideology of the times, of the FTC’s ability to regulate marketing to children in 1980 and the further deregulation, beginning in 81 and accelerating through the Eighties that removed any notion of station licensees as "public trustees” and massively boosted the pitching of advertising to children, as a deeply cynical endeavour.

Much of the cultural product of the late Seventies and on into the Eighties develops out of a symbiosis between deregulation and vertical integration, creating both the child as an increasingly younger and more variegated, (see the recent marketing category of “tween”) consumer demographic and driver of the family’s leisure pursuits. It also creates the vast new world of merchandise and game/toy-to-film waves of the Eighties, helping to produce such epochal fare as “Masters of The Universe”.This is where the relationship between television, toy companies and fast food outlets like McDonalds develops.

From the perspective of 2012 and the waves of nostalgic music that hark back to the 80s and portray it as a world of colour and fun, there is a pre-Lapsarian longing for a restoration not just of the loss of childhood but also a point in which media specifically intended to divert and engage with children of virtually every age were in abundance. The often low-fi and misty evocations of the past, the primary colours, simple shapes and themes seem to replay the very early experience of nebulous but scientifically honed and crafted eye and attention grabbing ads and products for very young children. This is also a kind of “cathode pastoralism” in which a later generation looks back in longing at the pre-internet age of analogue TV and shiny, solid objects in the way early denizens of modernity perhaps idealized the rural and artisanal past.

TV is the medium through which children are targeted and created as consumers in the Eighties, through which individual salvation and a sense of community is offered, through which marginal and absurd figures, whether it’s Hulk Hogan or Robert Tilton, become stars. The Eighties elevates the child and therefore the childlike: cartoonish, exaggerated simplicity, bright colours, the hyper-real. At the same time it makes the Christian Right, increasingly allied to the new waves of business gurus and self-made Snake Oil salesman, visible and vocal. Throws up swathes of old-programming and drowns in Fifties nostalgia and the alchemical glow of old dross transmuted suddenly into Gold.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Iron Age

The Icon Lady
Meanings of all kinds flow through the figures of women, and they often do not include who she herself is.
- Marina Warner Monuments and Maidens  
"Thatcher’s visual staying power in political and pop culture is as great as her impact on oppositional music. The face of Thatcher most often called to mind is that of what Angela Carter termed her ‘balefully iconic’ post-1983 premiership: encased in true-blue power suits, wielding a handbag, her hair lacquered into immobile submission, her earlier style solidified into a heavily stylized femininity bordering on drag. Paul Flynn, in a fairly tortured discussion of Thatcher’s status as a gay icon, put it down to her ‘ability to carry a strong, identifiable, signature look… an intrinsic and steely power to self-transform’, and a ‘camp, easily cartooned presence’. The startling evocative power of this look, its ability to summon up its host of contemporary social, cultural and political associations, is why I jump when Streep’s replication of it intrudes into my vision. It’s like being repeatedly sideswiped by the 1980s, which is something the last UK election had already made me thoroughly sick of.
The iconic capacity of Thatcher’s image has been compared in articles and actual mash-ups with that of Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevara. The artist Alison Jackson observes that all three ‘had what it takes to become a modern icon: big hair, high foreheads and a face that would allow you to project your own fears and desires on to it.’ Conversely, subsequent political leaders – including both Blair and Cameron – have had their own faces conflated with Thatcher’s, usually as part of left-wing critiques meant to signify the closeness of their policies to hers. Thatcher’s image is here used as an instantly recognisable political signifier, communicating a set of ideological ideas in a single package, as well as a self-contained political warning sign. 
Although the kind of passive objectification associated with Monroe might seem at odds with the idea of Thatcher as a great historical actor with narrative agency in her own right, the images of both women are used in a cultural tradition in which the female figure in particular becomes a canvas for the expression of abstract ideas (think justice, liberty, victory). The abstract embodiment of multiple meanings, and the strategic performance of traditional ideas of femininity, constitute sources of power which Thatcher and her political and media allies exploited to the hilt in their harnessing of support for the policies she promoted."

(More here)

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Thatcher’s footsoldiers

On his toes from the late 70s, the Casual was well named not just on account of his attire. Here were men forcibly unshackled from the certainties of work, factory, union and class who shifted loyalties to things you could count on, like clothing labels. In the new age of precarity, the casual could well be a casual worker but such mobility was important. They were brothers in arms with their firm but the casual’s biggest love was for himself. In the Thatcherite decade the aspirational individual was king and the casual was of his time, far more representative of the shifts to an atomised post-political subculture than even the smartest among them could have divined.

“I maintain that there are few finer moments in life than when you step into an alien city en masse, all dressed up ruthless, and watch those people stare”
The Ins and Outs of High Street Fashion, Kevin Sampson and Dave Rimmer, The Face, 1983

These cruisers arriviste wasn’t casual in outlook. From Aberdeen to Portsmouth via Wales, the northern cities, midlands and London, these guys were known for an obsessive approach to fashion and a lust for football related violence. Little things like Heysel were not going to get in the way of male hordes ripping up towns and, er, some of them looking pretty sharp with it. Other shit like music, respect for other ethnic groups and the football on the pitch itself (wearing your team’s replica shirt was a no-no) seemed down the list below clothes and street brawls. Why the fuck not live in the buzz of the me-time present when the communal future was being destroyed? For the casual, everything was subordinate to the buzz. The end of Revolt into Style (can’t think of a look less daring and more conformist), the neutering of agitated working classes, the ascent of consumerism, just as ‘The Lady’ (euurggh) would have wanted.

More influenced than they would admit by the Perry Boy, skinhead and mod, these ‘match dudes’ ushered in the era of sports and leisure wear, though none of that Bukta and Dunlop shit from the 70s; only the finest European stuff. For some, casual was nothing more than staying fashionable; for others, like the QPR fans who laughed at the Luton bumpkins attempting to have a go with their unfashionable threads, it was a Way of Life. This was not simply about buying the right labels, but how they were worn – collars up on a coat that needn’t be on, jeans placed just so over the trainer. Most of the hoolie ‘hit and tell’ books invariably offer a chapter on their firm’s look, Harrington, Stone Island, Burberry et al.

Though rave made acid casuals out of some its communal bliss did not suit all the extraordinary boys, who nevertheless came back stronger than ever with Lad Rock and managed to adapt in a skinny-jeaned post-Strokes world. Liam Gallagher, having gone from austerity casual in Oasis’ early days to overtrendy, monied casual with his Pretty Green label, is King Caj for many even if it’s a label he may resist itself. Mid to late 1990s was where roughly I intersected with this post-tribe. Hours were spent in pubs and bars up and down England checking the clothes out of other men, offering mutual compliments if we passed each other in the lav. My piece de resistance that lasted for about 5 years was a light beige plastic-finish Duffer of St George coat, cheap in a sale. Loved that coat, but it died when dyed in the wash and that was that. I was only playing at this shit anyway, not being on-trend or uptight enough, too into music and like many others questioning the grip of football in the Sky age. And certainly not a fighter.

Not immune to influencing and being influenced by other 90s styles, its love of sportswear and general loose fit principles fed into the wider urban and hip-hop cultures, and, united by Fred Perry, etc, Oasisman stood side to side with the middle class dressage of Blur and co before, huh-huh, it all went off. Drink and drugs wise, He could neck all kinds of shit but nothing much would knock the peacock off the perch. Like the scrotes on their phone sorting out the rumble retaining cool poise was all important, however ludicrous it looked.

The casual comes in from some [rather nervy] pisstaking from hipper types who accuse him of being little better than the smart-casual joke of Alan Partridge, but they miss the point. The casual, the type who’ll happily play golf with the boss (the sport provided early sartorial inspiration, as did tennis) was never much more than an avatar for the modern life we were being expected to assume, weekenderism, political apathy, live sports on the TV, other bullshit stimuli. And when the casual gets old, it’s just a short trip to suburbia where talk about the English Defence League is often accepted. You can even wear the same clothes, which couldn’t be said for any other pop-cultural tribe worthy of the name.

We’ve mentioned him throughout as the movement was emblematic of a social retrenchment after egalitarian advances. There is no female equivalent of the casual, ‘the birds’ were still expected to dress up, especially later on in that oversexualised, increasingly pornographic style that was infecting the 90s. Of course, many a casual geez would have been aware of the writings of Loaded and FHM, and it was their subjects who provided the archetype for their other halfs and helped validate the lifestyle: men who should know better but allow themselves to act like [and call themselves] boys.

There are other icons, Danny Dyer through the hoolie/80s films, but the whole point of casual was its accessibility, perpetuated by the retro cottage industry around it, so there’s not too much poncy hero worship, just clues for clothes purchases. Nearly 30 years on casual is still a default look for awakening male youth, but nothing quite says socio-political opt-out and, very often, racist outlook than the blank assemblage of anorak, [polo]shirt, jeans and trainers of the true caj. Thus its full decline could only be welcomed as it would imply a reengagement and a decrease in reliance of the spectacle/moment of a swathe of working and lower-middle male youth. My hopes aren’t high.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Archaeology and/or Apocatastasis

In the closing years of this century we are being given the opportunity, under the aegis of pax atomica, to examine in some detail our naive notions of good and evil, of peace and violence, and of life and death. Sentimental notions of peace and love simply will not do. Man is, and forever will be, a microscopic zoo containing snakes and eagles, lions and lambs, fish and frogs. It may be alright for lambs to eat grass, but for a lion - a proper one - grass will not do. Human consciousness is now being presented with new symbols and new meanings. We have not come to terms with the inner animal; therefore, its countenance has become quite fearful, like a charging tiger. This time around we are not confronted with a "babe wrapped in swaddling clothes", which is easy enough to accept, but with a "rough beast, its hour come 'round at last", that slouched to Alamogordo to be born.
Dennis Stillings Meditations on the Atom and Time: An Attempt to Define the Imagery of War and Death in the Late 20th Century. Collected in Apocalypse Culture

Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the post-literacy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself. In this situation parody finds itself without a vocation; it has lived, and that strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs: it is to parody what that other interesting and historically original modern thing, the practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the "stable ironies" of the eighteenth century....This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call "historicism," namely, the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion, and in general what Henri Lefebvre has called the increasing primacy of the "neo." This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction - with a whole historically original consumers' appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudoevents and "spectacles" (the term of the situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato's conception of the "simulacrum," the identical copy for which no original has ever existed.
Frederic Jameson Postmodernism: Or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 

America in the movies is both mighty and weak, never safe for long. On the one hand, smug triumphs, banal rhetoric and globalising hubris conclude most of these films. But the fears which begin the films are of American weakness in the face of global hostility. America is rarely represented with interests to secure in the third world; this is much less explicit celebration of the benefits of imperialism than, for example, British imperial culture of the late 19th century. The only transnational economies seem to be drugs and guns; America brings rock and roll... and death. Often America is represented only by the 'democratic' military group or super-heroes. Like the ambivalence about the state, the simultaneous reduction of American presence and celebration of its global reach addresses a contradiction in ideology: it tries to square isolationism with the demands of super-power imperialism. It dramatises the extremism of contemporary international inequality, but also shows some hesitation or confusion about its appropriately benign or democratic costume.
Scott  Forsyth Hollywood's War On The World: The New World Order as Movie