Abstract: Autobiography or confessional? The title is not plagiarised from the literary offering by a certain Mr. Tim Griggs, but that of a short story that has been languishing in my archives for over ten years, an ironic comment on the requirement in modern Western society for a female to be attached and the difficulties in attaining this state of “bliss”.

Monday, 15 October 2007

BritBlog Roundup 139

Filed under: — site admin @ 3:43 pm

Welcome to the 139th edition of the Britblog Roundup brought to you from the country of institutionalised stroppiness held up by the ignorant (or those susceptible to bouts of wishful thinking) as a model of federal harmony between communities separated by language and outlook, where the flags draped over the windowsills function as a silent protest at the prospect of break-up (far fewer than were in evidence when Baudouin, figurehead of unity, was conveyed to his final resting place amid great ceremony). Without further ado, let us sally forth into the fray.

Politics

Judging by the week’s contributions we are moving into an autumn of discontent, perhaps without the rats foraging amongst piles of uncollected, rotting refuse (although in districts where the local authorities have decreed in their budget-paring wisdom to limit the bin men’s visits to a fortnightly highlight the rodents might be spotted lurking wistfully near the wheelie bins) or street after street of candlelit living rooms not related to a sudden outbreak of romantic sentiment, scenes so familiar from the 1970s. Points-scoring predominated.

Chancellor Darling’s announcement concerning the inheritance tax threshold occasioned much weeping and gnashing of teeth or gleeful hand-rubbing depending on affiliation, the political equivalent of releasing a starving moggie to maraud on Trafalgar square in the days before that arch spoilsport Red ken deprived London of one of its icons by banning the scattering of breadcrumbs, innocent pastime of pensioners and tourists alike, laying Labour wide open to accusations from George Osborne that they were merely plagiarising from the Tory agenda. The title of the Lady of Shallot’s short, yet most pertinent, piece Poverty eradicated in Kensington and Chelsea ironically juxtaposed with an image of extreme deprivation eloquently encapsulates the sense of betrayal felt by many loyal Labour footsoldiers. Those postcodes, a byword for entrenched privilege, whose residents shop at Waitrose’s and thunder through the streets in their petrol-guzzling “tractors” decked out with roo bars to send the proles flying back into the gutters where they belong will no doubt start campaigning to increase the threshold further, as the value of their stately piles continues to reach for the skies.

Mr Eugenides of the eponymous blog mischievously conjures up a vivid picture of the redoubtable Ms. Toynbee as Scarlett O’Hara (with the even more incongruous casting decision of Gordon Brown as Rhett Butler) in Polly’s Viking lets her down: “(…) spare a thought for Polly – left behind in the great mansion with her mascara-stained handkerchiefs and her spinster’s memories, slowly beginning to realise that he never loved her anyway; that he was just doing her for the column inches, every thrust cynically calculated rather than lovingly bestowed”.

Mr Eugenides also analyses an article by Anatole Kaletsky, permeated with a new-found Tory buoyancy: “(…) the new Labour coalition, which so recently imagined itself as the ‘natural party of government’ for 21st-century Britain, looks increasingly like a temporary interlude in the long era of Conservative ideological dominance that began with the victory of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and still has decades to run”.

The latter concludes: “That taxes and public spending must rise for ever can no longer be taken for granted. Political parties who want lower tax – and by implication smaller government – no longer seem out of tune with the times. And this ideological shift means the beginning of the end for Labour government”. Mr Eugenides characterises this prediction as “optimistic in the extreme”.

What Mr Eugenides contemplates with relish fills Polly with despair, as evidenced by her This was the week that Labour’s leaders left social democracy for dead: “Star with the character question – politically the most lethal. For his first three months Brown was ‘the change’ the public liked – a welcome, no-glitz, slightly clumsy but honest contrast in a celebrity age. But when Cameron threw ‘phoney’ at him in prime Minister’s Questions, it stuck like napalm. He could duck the bottles thrown over his election funk, but ‘phoney’ will stick because his comprehensive spending review smacked of panicky, comprehensive cowardice”. Indeed, Polly, Brown the turncoat most definitely comes across as insincere with all his sanctimonious vaunting of Britishness (an utterly transparent sop to deflect attention from his Scottishness, a doomed venture if ever there was one, in the hope of dodging the wrath of English nationalists).

As Dr Crippen of NHS Blog Doctor judiciously surmises in advance of his return to blogging after a slightly longer than planned break: “And now we have Gordon Brown. He is different from his predecessor. It took a while to penetrate Blair’s mawkish, syrupy ‘Of course I’m an honest sort of a bloke’ sycophancy to realise that he was lying most of the time.

With Brown, it is much easier”.

Disillusionment has indeed set in quickly.

I confess to having a soft spot for Polly. Like her or loathe her, she does not sit back and bask resplendent in her privilege. She at least tried – bless her cotton-rich from M&S – to live off the minimum wage in a flat on Clapham Park estate as chronicled in Hard Work, (London, Bloomsbury, 2003), beset by doubt as to whether her previous insulation from deprivation would undermine her best efforts: “It was play-acting, Marie Antoinette as a milk maid in the Petit Trianon. In all my life I have never experienced one moment’s financial insecurity, nor even the remotest fear of it. I was born into rock-solid middle-class security reaching back as many generations as I know about on both sides of my family. Like most people who have had well-paid careers for many years, I find it hard to imagine falling far (…) Middle-class destiny is safe as houses. We exist in our silos, they in theirs” (p12).

Having re-invented itself, Labour could not afford to be seen to pander too much to the “client class” (a euphemism that attempts to eliminate the moralising inherent in “underclass”), as Polly pointed out in the same volume: “It took Labour time, but it too had to grow away from its cloth-cap image as the voice of a mass working class that was rapidly dissolving. When Labour eventually emerged from its chrysalis (…) it was as a fully fledged middle-class butterfly: new Labour for new social times.

New middle-class Labour retained a social conscience, but in promoting policies to redistribute wealth towards the poor it now had no mass constituency to appeal to, nothing but the voters’ better natures. Nervously testing its wet new wings, New Labour hardly dared put faith in that. In the old days there were strong workers and their unions were willing – just – to pull along the poor with them, to some extent. But now there was not even that nominal power behind poverty, only a weak appeal to voters’ sense of fairness. Labour seems to doubt that voters have consciences to be touched and so far they have not had the courage to test them. The admirable aspiration to abolish child poverty has not yet been matched by a willingness to admit what it must cost everyone else: nothing is for free. Labour has not yet dared tell the majority of voters that to achieve it they will have to hold back their own ever-rising growth in living standards to allow those at the back to catch up. It need not mean a real cut, it only needs to skim off and slow future income growth for the well-off. Used to the idea that rapid social progress eventually sweeps all but the most feckless poor upwards, people need to be warned that it has stopped happening. It ground to a halt at the end of the 1970s when all the measures of equality started to move in the wrong direction and the children of the left-behind now no longer have the same ladders of escape. Poverty pay, bad schools and social housing silos trap them below, and without radical government action they will never become the new home-owners of tomorrow” (op. cit., p227). Perhaps if she had recalled these words, they might have mitigated the unpleasantness of the surprise.

Although in the above Polly comes close, neither she nor Kaletsky have fully grasped the fundamental changes in the nature of politics that have taken place over the last couple of decades. Media-driven weathervane-like opportunism afflicts all parties these days, but nobody with serious aspirations to power challenges the contemporary hegemonic discourse as summarised by Ken Roberts in his Class in Modern Britain (Houndmills, Palgrave, 2001) any longer: “Capital is no longer throttled by regulation, burdened by taxation or threatened by trade unions. Representatives of the upper class advise one-and-all on how to become business-friendly. Ownership and control have been depersonalised. Investment appears a neutral force which rewards workers, firms and countries that are efficient and competitive. Business is willing to fund all business-friendly, and at least potentially powerful, political parties. The parties need this sponsorship in order to campaign; so they are all business-friendly. The upper class has no need to explain and justify itself in person to the middle and working classes: there are others who will do the job better. It used to be said that, despite their radical intentions, socialist politicians became servants of capitalism through the logic of operating in a capitalist economic system. This logic is now part of all the major parties’ policies. The middle class is tempted with the prospect of extremely rewarding careers, for the successful. It is no surprise, therefore, that middle-class radicalism is no threat to the capitalist economy. It is truly remarkable how the upper class escapes censure. Site closures that create unemployment, human resource management that creates precarious jobs, huge hikes to already huge directors’ salaries: it seems that everything is tolerable if only it is good for business” (p246).

Likewise, Beverley Skeggs, in Class, Self, Culture, (London, Routledge, 2004) demonstrates how New Labour has become fluent in what Bourdieu and Waquant have termed the “planetary vulgate”, the new lingua franca of politics: “a form of ‘rhetoric’ invoked by governments in order to justify a voluntary surrender to the financial markets and their conversion to the fiduciary conception of the firm. Far from being the inevitable result of the growth of foreign trade, de-industrialisation, growing inequality and the retrenchment of social policies, the rhetoric is, rather, the result of domestic political decisions that reflect the tipping of the balance of class forces in favour of the owners of capital” (p83).

Skeggs continues: “The take up of aspects of globalisation can be identified easily in new Labour rhetoric. The themes and tropes of national renewal, individual responsibility, maximising competition, and the limitations of government are all there. Such themes constitute elements of an international neo-liberal politics: governments promoting the globalisation of the economy in order to legitimate and win consent for a drastic revision and reduction of the welfare state, by adopting a punitive stance towards those who are the victims of economic change and the retreat from public welfare” (op. cit., p83).

According to Roberts, the working class, Labour’s natural constituency, has become progressively disenfranchised, abandoned by the Party founded to protect its interests (signalled by the adoption of the prefatory adjective marking a caesura with tradition, New): “The working class has lost the trade unions in the sense that most manual workers are no longer members, and they are no longer the section of the workforce that is most likely to be unionised. In the 1990s the working class lost the Labour Party: the leadership made it clear that it did not wish to be associated with any particular class, and that it valued its links with employers as much as its relationship with organised labour. The co-op has become just another retailer. Working men’s clubs and other community, free-time organisations have been largely replaced by television and commercial leisure. The workplace and neighbourhood communities from which the working class acquired solidarity have gone” (op. cit., p109).

Roberts explores the implications of the professionalisation of politics: “There has been a major shift in the relationship between paid politicians and the people. The political parties used to be composed of active members who were broadly representative, in socio-economic terms, of the parties’ voters. In this sense, the parties represented broad sections of society. Elected representatives gained their positions on the basis of their skill in saying, and putting into effect, what other members willed. But politics no longer works in this way; nowadays the young adults who remain active in politics for years and years tend at least to envisage paid careers as elected or unelected politicians. There are fewer stalwarts who do not expect such careers, and the activists who become elected representatives in all the parties tend to be from much the same social backgrounds – university educated, with subsequent career experience either confined to politics, or in management or the professions.

Today’s politicians are more of a distinct career group, but, even so, they are probably better-informed than ever before about the state of public opinion. All the parties pay for regular opinion surveys and run focus groups to ensure that they remain in touch. The leaders want to know, and they are in fact well-informed about what all classes of people are thinking. None want to ignore any substantial sections of the population. Party channels are considered less trustworthy. The party leaders often suspect, usually with good reason, that their party activists’ opinions are unrepresentative of the electorate, and party conferences are always likely to pass embarrassing resolutions unless they are managed carefully. Election campaigns are now fought through the media. Active members are not as crucial as they once were. Parties that are represented in parliament are able to draw some funds from taxpayers. They continue to need, and to seek, contributions from individual members and supporters, but in practice they rely heavily on corporate sponsorship – from trade unions and businesses in the case of Labour, and from business alone in other parties. Needless to say, the manner in which grassroots party members are treated, often bypassed, by their party leaders, can only reduce the rank and file’s incentives to engage in long-term political activity” (pp239-40).

In a nutshell this means that for New Labour, as for all other parties, the supreme imperative is that of clinging on to power, with no pretence of genuine ideological commitment, a position founded on the shifting sands of public opinion, not averse to swiping policy initiatives from elsewhere in a display of blatant cynicism alienating to many. It is morally bankrupt. The inheritance tax fiasco was merely the most visible instance of Labour’s wholesale jettisoning of its original principles to have been seen in a while. The champagne socialists sold out a long, long time ago. All that this emperor’s new clothes episode has revealed is the naked ambition lurking beneath the rhetoric of equality.

Conflating the middle-class with Tory supporters in an undifferentiated mass, however, would be a mistake. The interests of the working and middle classes occasionally coincide (and let’s not forget, many of today’s middle-class clambered up from the humbler ranks without relinquishing their left-wing leanings). Although the working-class might end up with a bitter aftertaste in their mouths from forging such an alliance. As Roberts puts it: “The working class has traditionally favoured state guarantees to meet everyone’s basic needs, meaning, in practice, income maintenance during retirement, unemployment and sickness, plus assistance with onerous life events – basically births, child-care and death. Adequate housing has been another part of this agenda. Then, the working class has favoured other services, especially health and education, being removed from the market and managed in response to need and/or merit. None of this clashes with middle-class aspirations. The middle class will endorse the entire agenda, but their motives are more likely to be altruistic than self-interested. They are unlikely to envisage that they themselves will ever depend wholly on the state retirement pension, for example. And members of the middle class are likely to take it for granted that those who want to do so will be able to top-up or opt-out of the ‘basic’ state provisions, thereby defeating the original working-class objective of having educational and health care resources used according to need or merit, nothing else, and state social security guaranteeing a standard of living close to other citizens” (op. cit., pp165-6).

It is left to Ellee Seymour of ProActive PR to provide us with a salutary reminder of what true poverty means in Pensioner eats cardboard to survive.

Meanwhile dark and restless mutterings bode ill for the future of Sir Menzies Campbell. Suzanne of Suz Blog shudders at the Electoral Calculus projections of how her Party might expect to fare in Shock horror LibDem total wipe out. She links back to a previous post on the subject in which she highlights another consequence of the professionalisation of politics dealt with earlier with refreshing candour: “The hypocrisy of many LibDem activists is that whilst they secretly talk behind closed doors, in public they close ranks pretending the opposite. Likewise in the blogosphere, there are hardly any Libdems who have even got the bottle to stand up and be counted – to say it as it is. They’re living in Cuckoo land. Everybody is so anxious to climb the greasy pole, they’re afraid to say boo to a goose in case they get an official kick up the backside”.

Likewise, Bernard of Clowns to the Left of Me laments Ming’s lacklustre leadership: “I respect Ming immensely. I voted for him last year because in a political world dominated by spin and sophistry I thought that he would stand out as a straight shooter. Unfortunately at times it seems like he is shooting straight at his foot”.

Nich Starling of Norfolk Blogger agrees that Ming has become more of a liability than an asset in Idle chatter from an occasional dissident: “(…) we ought to seriously consider the way we vet our candidates and re-evaluate the way the party recruits because we must, absolutely must, ensure we have MP’s who can command respect, are politically savvy, but most importantly, are able to inspire the general public, and it is this area that Ming sadly fails in”.

Rupert from Rupert’s Read urges us to renounce consumerism’s gaudy attractions in Generation Less: “less stuff. Less waste. Less junk. Less impatience. Less marketing. Less competitiveness. Less working hours. Less travelling. Less carbon emissions. Less fear. Less mental illness. And yes: less speed, and less choice. The speed of life and the amount of choice we are faced with are making us ill and distressed. Just as they make the planet burn”.

Molly at Gaian Economics expresses her hope that the steep rise in the prices of the staples on which we depend might jolt us out of our apathy without lapsing into a holier-than-thou “I told you so” invective in Going with the Grain: “I’d like to feel smug about this and say that relying on my local community-supported agricultural farm, which is a short walk away, has insulated me against the vagaries of the global capitalist food distribution system. The problem is that while the theory of that is fine – closed loops, self-provisioning, minimal food miles and so on – virtue is no insurance against climate change. First we had drought, then we had floods and all year we have had a plague of slugs. The potato blight has been something biblical”.

The reference to “virtue” in this context is interesting. For the bulk of the population who live in inner cities or sprawling estates the option to purchase locally grown produce simply does not exist. Their choice is restricted to dusty tins of peas on corner shop shelves, the only provisioning source within tramping distance if they lack the disposable income to travel to the gleaming supermarkets so thoughtfully relegated to the city outskirts by urban planners whose visions were clouded by the triumph of the car and the decline of public transport. Virtue, in other words, is the preserve of those who can afford it, a primarily middle-class luxury. I am not arguing that taking the trouble to minimise one’s carbon footprint is anything other than commendable, merely questioning the sense of superiority derived from being able to exercise such discretion.

Anna-Lisa of Green Girls Global gives an update on a laudable initiative to preserve our marine environment in Can we have the bill please?: “The UK’s seas are extraordinarily rich in wildlife, home to more than 44,000 animal and plant species – around 50% of the UK’s biodiversity. However shockingly less than 0.001% of our seas are protected” (emphasis in original).

Lest we beat ourselves up too much about our imperfections in the dazzling light of emerald pristineness, Justin Hinchcliffe at Hunter and Shooter takes obvious delight in exposing Muddled Green thinking and hypocrisy on the London Assembly, quoting Tony Arbour, a Conservative member of that august body: “‘Green Party Assembly Member, Darren Johnson seriously suggested at yesterday’s Environment Committee that London tax payers cough up something between £1,650 and £2,505 to fly members of the Assembly Environment Committee to Dublin on a fact-finding mission about the Republic’s tax on carrier bags’”.

Hmmm…The only discordant note I would strike here is to speculate on Mr H’s short-term memory deficiency – not about the Tories being past masters in the hypocrisy stakes– but about Cameron, weaving his way through the capital’s traffic on his bike pursued by a retinue of security guards in a car, not to mention the assembled journalists…

Moving to the opposite end of the political spectrum, Louise Feminista at stroppyblog ponders in satirical mode the possibility of co-opting ingrained capitalist habits for a Trotskyist recruitment drive in Commie price comparison: “(…) left-wing ideas need some serious marketisation. Hey, this is some radical blue sky thinking. You shop around for deals from car insurance to phones so why not for the trot group. They could have ‘deal of the week’…’Comrades we are slashing our dues from 20% down to 15%’”.

Sanbikinoraion at Politics Engineering encourages us to fill in the Government’s online questionnaire, part of its drugs consultation exercise (as the deadline is the 18th of this month, it is worthwhile taking the trouble to click on the link now): “Firstly, I’m coming at this from a moral point of view – I strongly believe that people should be able to do what they like in private (and maybe in public), so long as it’s not harming anyone else. UK law mostly respects this principle these days – you can screw any number of people of any combination of genders in your own home. Super. You can write pretty much what you like on blogs like this one, say what you like to your friends, and so on. We live in a pretty free and tolerant society, all told, certainly in comparison to the rest of the world, and certainly when it comes to doing things in private. The one major exception seems to be ingestion of narcotics”.

Bill Jones at Skipper examines the phenomenon of “conference bounce” in Do conference Timings Advantage Tories?

From the other side of the Pond Scottish journalist Alex Massie at tackles the issue of the forthcoming Congress vote on recognising genocide in The Debateable Land tackles the issue of the forthcoming Congress vote on recognising genocide in Who remembers the Armenians?: “And yes, for sure, passing the resolution is symbolic rather than substantive – or rather it would be if it didn’t also suggest, quite powerfully, to Turkey that it’s past time it acknowledged the darker aspects of its history. Certainly EU membership should not even be a matter for discussion until this happens”.

Craig Murray, former ambassador to Uzbekistan, deplores the bias of the mainstream media when reporting on the shady past of Alisher Usmanov, 18th richest man in Russia and owner of a 23% stake in Arsenal in Mark Franchetti Fills His Stomach and Switches Off His Brain (and I recommend to any reader wishing to read up on this in greater depth a perusal of Tim Ireland’s companion piece in Bloggerheads): “What makes Franchetti’s piece so disgusting is that he knows full well what the political situation in Uzbekistan is, and he knows full well that the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan has no independence and that a pardon form it for an oligarch has no meaning. It is simply that Franchetti chooses not to share this information with his readers, because the Times has decided to puff Usmanov. Mark Franchetti is no fool; he is rather a disgusting and unprincipled man and a disgrace to his profession. Amazing what some people will do if given the services of a chauffeur and a butler for an afternoon”.

Indeed, a perusal of the article in question does corroborate the impression of a hack prostrating himself before the altar of global capital (to return to the earlier idiom), even when it has emerged from the ruins of that once proud bastion of State Socialism, gushing about the opulence of his surroundings “a lavish building in central Moscow fitted with Italian marble and heavy chandeliers. From there I was driven 30 miles along Rublovka, a road that cuts through a forest of firs to a ‘billionaire’s row’ where Usmanov has a 30-acre estate beside the Moscow river. A 16-ft-high metal fence encircles the property”.

And in this description, breathless with admiration: “(…) his mansion, a two-storey stone and marble building with seven bedrooms, several large halls decorated with mosaics, a lift, an indoor swimming pool and a small cinema where the tycoon watches Arsenal’s matches”.

Apparently Mr Usmanov is unhappy about the bad press dished out to him in the UK. Perhaps he should consider buying up The Times as he did Kommersant, not that the British broadsheet was in any way guilty of the type of insubordination he objects to (if Franchetti’s offering is typical of the paper’s output on the subject).

To conclude this section, we return to Dan Hardie’s campaign on behalf of the Iraqi employees, which has lost none of its momentum (Mr Fact’s response to the Government’s “top-drawer twattery” at In Actual Fact contains useful links to the original calls for action and Tim Worstall’s The Fucking Wankers! mercilessly exposes the ministerial statement’s fatal flaws: “The government is in fact giving the people who have and are risking their lives to work for us nothing, no rights they do not already have under international law”).

Our rulers need to be prodded into accountability and in this respect Mr Hardie has demonstrated all the admirable tenacity of the proverbial terrier, never for a moment releasing his grip. Mr Miliband’s recent proposal bears the hallmarks of someone attempting to worm his way out of taking responsibility: “(…) the Government committed itself to doing nothing to shelter people at risk from death squads for having worked for British soldiers or diplomats, unless they can prove that they have worked for the British for a continuous period of twelve months.

There are a lot of local employees who fled their jobs before 12 months precisely because they had been targeted, or who did a 6-month tour for one British battalion and were then told to go and work for the Americans, or who did 12 months or more with interruptions, or who the Army didn’t give proper documentation to. Mark Brockway (former Sergeant-Major, TA Royal Engineers) said so, several times, at the meeting on October 9th; so did Andrew Alderson (major, Yeomanry); so do the employees, and serving soldiers, who are in touch with them, or with me, by email”.

If you wish to join in by writing to your MP, you will find a model letter here.

Culture

Let us retreat for a moment into the tranquillity of Kings Sutton, seeking repose for our conflict-battered souls by peering up at a church spire under the expert guidance of Philip Wilkinson of English Buildings.

Or reminisce about lost railway stations such as Broad Street with Jonathan Calder at Liberal England.

Or perhaps tarry a while in the silence of an “unjustly little-known London institution” of which Natalie gives us a fascinating tour at My London, Your London.

Or even immerse ourselves in poetry (albeit of dubious merit) courtesy of Dr Roy at Early Modern Whale in Set my fancy on a fire!: “Suddenly the cardboard petrarchisms shift aside, and we half glimpse no less a man than Ralegh addressing Elizabeth I. The conventional lover’s deference in the poem is the court favourite to the woman whose favour lifted him from being an obscure gentleman-swordsman, hardened in vicious campaigning in Ireland, to what he became (‘the best-hated man in England’, and other attendant benefits).

So the amusement of it all is, can we possibly imagine a more fantastically boring poem being transacted between two more fantastically interesting people?”

Alternatively, we could search for diversion with Michael Allen of Grumpy Old Bookman in a multilingual performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Alas however, no matter how far we stray, politics will always impinge…Chris Paul of Labour of Love comments on the new national Armed Forces Memorial, which lists the names of 16,000 service personnel who have died since World War II: “It is worth noting that at the current rate of attrition this memorial at Alrewas in Staffordshire could last for 150 years, though it has been half filled in about 60. But at recent rates in Fallujah, Baghdad or Afghanistan local people could go through one of these once a year or more”.

Mr Paul includes a photograph of the poignant Shot at Dawn Memorial, which finally rehabilitates the momory of those who were executed by their own side for “desertion” (Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Paths of Glory dealt with this theme sensitively from the safe distance of the French army), made an example of as a warning to others whose stomach for fighting might have wavered in the midst of the carnage. It reminded me of Pat Barker’s Regeneration (London, Penguin, 1991), with its account of the tragically pragmatic “patch ‘em up and ship ‘em back to the front” activities of Rivers at Craiglockart: “In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of tenderness for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing. They’d been trained to identify emotional repression, as the essence of manliness. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men. And yet he himself was a product of the same system, even perhaps a rather extreme product. Certainly the rigorous repression of emotion and desire had been the constant theme of his adult life. In advising his young patients to abandon the attempt at repression and to let themselves feel the pity and terror their war experience inevitably evoked, he was excavating the ground he stood on.

The change he demanded of them – and by implication of himself – was not trivial. fear, tenderness – these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man. Not that Rivers’s treatment involved any encouragement of weakness or effeminacy. His patients might be encouraged to acknowledge their fears, their horror of the war – but they were still expected to do their duty and return to France” (p48).

As Bob Rushaway’s essay, Name upon Name: The Great War and Remembrance (in Roy Porter (ed.), Myths of the English, Cambridge, Polity, 1993, pp136-167) makes clear: “The language of remembrance was based on the notion of sacrifice rather than the patriotic virtues of duty and service” (p148).

The rituals in which the dead were commemorated were carefully designed to smooth over tensions and promote unity. Modern memorials both partake of and perpetuate this tradition: “Throughout the inter-war period British society witnessed an annual event in which social and political unity was reaffirmed. Other views and criticisms of the Great War were regarded as doing dishonour to the dead. The chronology of remembrance was a powerful thread of continuity which linked individual and collective memory. The emergence of a language of remembrance had the effect of enhancing and enshrining the experience of the war, thereby removing it from the sphere of normal social and political debate and elevating it to a level of spiritual significance from where its memory for peacetime British society was of a special, supranational and sacred quality. In this language of remembrance, the notion of sacrifice transcended those of duty and patriotism as a justification for British losses in the war, and the residual sense of comradeship, which might have been problematic for the established social order, was isolated to the private world of ex-soldiers and the bereaved. In Britain, soldiers might go on strike in 1919 to achieve more rapid demobilisation, and the unemployed might demonstrate for work, but they rarely became revolutionaries” (pp 160-1).

Feminism

Samara Ginsberg of The F-Word is pleasantly surprised by Lisa Armstrong’s interview with Lily Allen in The Times, taking the opportunity to deplore run of the mill press coverage of young female stars, obsessed with appearance, forever poised between mindless, uncritical adoration and vituperation: “Be too thin, and you will be continually derided for being a poor role model, as if young girls have nobody to look up to but vacuous pop princesses whose every coke-snorting escapade is lovingly splashed across the latest issue of Heat, as if you are directly responsible for the existence of anorexia.

Be a healthy size 8-12 (no fatter than that, because of course that would be, like, gross!) and you will be lauded as a great role model for young girls and your ‘gorgeous curves’ will be lovingly praised in patronising drivel that implies that until the reader saw your ‘Rubenesque’ figure in a bikini they were locked in a cycle of hating their figures so much that their only solace was an entire box of Krispy Kremes consumed alone in front of America’s next Top Model”.

Natalie at Philobiblon celebrates the news that the Royal College of Obstetricians and gynaecologists has joined the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nurses in classifying the requirement for two doctors to approve an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy as “anachronistic”. As Natalie argues: “(…) it is also a great opportunity to get an abortion law for the 21st century. (And one that fits public opinion – large numbers of people believe that we already have abortion on demand, and are shocked to learn just how restrictive it is”.

Since abortion rates go down when contraception is easily available, Natalie asks: “So why are all of the anti-abortion people not standing on street corners handing out condoms? And funding contraceptive clinics all over the third world?”

I realise that this is rhetorical, but fundamentalist Christians surrender to the complete fatalism of “God’s will” in matters of pregnancy. It is every bit as much of an affront to the divine to endeavour to thwart the thrashing-tailed sperm’s frantic efforts to penetrate an egg as it is to empty the womb even if the clump of cells it nurtures are no more sentient than a gobbet of menstrual blood. For them there is no such thing as marital rape: a wife must always submit to her husband’s appetites. These are, moreover, immutable laws, God Himself having ordained them.

Susan Bordo’s Are Mothers persons? (in Unbearable Weight, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995, pp71-97) sets out exactly what is at stake in the abortion debate. Our culture has never been particularly sympathetic to women’s sense of themselves as participating in full humanity: “(…) sometimes entirely mechanistic conceptions of the body dominate, conceptions from which all concern from the inner self have vanished. In practice, our legal tradition divides the human world as Descartes divided all of reality: into conscious subjects and mere bodies (res extensa). And in the social expression of that duality, some groups have clearly been accorded subject-status and its protections, while others have regularly been denied those protections, becoming for all medical and legal purposes pure res extensa, bodies stripped of their animating, dignifying and humanising ‘subject-ivity’” (p73).

This prejudice has seeped into judgements banning women from drinking alcohol whilst pregnant, for example: “(…) ontologically speaking, the pregnant woman has been seen by our legal system as the mirror-image of the abstract subject whose bodily integrity the law is so determined to protect. For the latter, subjectivity is the essence of personhood, not to be sacrificed even in the interests of the preservation of the life of another individual. Personal valuation, choice, and consciousness itself (…) are the given values, against which any claims to state interest or public good must be rigorously argued and are rarely granted. The essence of the pregnant woman, by contrast, is her biological, purely mechanical role in preserving the life of another. In her case, this is the given value, against which her claims to subjectivity must be rigorously evaluated, and they will usually be found wanting insofar as they conflict with her life-support function. In the face of such a conflict, her valuations, choices, consciousness are expendable” (op. cit., p79).

Advances in medical technology could easily be wielded as a pretext to curtail abortion rights in a climate where we witness: “(…) the increasing subjectification of foetal being. For, strikingly, as the personhood of the pregnant woman has been drained from her and her function as foetal incubator activated, the subjectivity of the foetus has been elevated” (op. cit., p85). In short, the rights of the foetus would be allowed to take precedence over those of the woman, surely perverse given that the adult woman is already a fully-fledged member of human society unlike the foetus, which only possesses the potential to become one.

We need to tease out the wider implications of changes to the law: “What gets obscured when abortion rights are considered in abstraction from issues involving forced medical treatment, legal and social interference in the management of pregnancy, and so forth, is the fact that it is not only women’s reproductive rights that are currently being challenged but women’s status as subjects, within a system in which – for better or worse – the protection of ‘the subject’ remains a central value (…) So long as the debate over reproductive control is conceptualised solely in the dominant terms of the abortion debate – that is, a conflict between the foetus’s right to life and the woman’s right to choose – we are fooled into thinking that it is only the foetus whose ethical and legal status is at issue. The pregnant woman (whose ethical and legal status as a person is not constructed as a question in the abortion debate, and which most people wrongly assume is fully protected legally) is seen as fighting, not for her personhood, but ‘only’ for the right to control her reproductive destiny.

The nature of pregnancy is such, however, that to deprive the woman of control over her reproductive life – whether by means of involuntary or coerced sterilisation, court-ordered Caesarean, or forbidden abortion – is necessarily also to mount an assault on her personal integrity and autonomy (the essence of personhood in our culture) and to treat her merely as pregnant res extensa, material incubator of foetal subjectivity” (op. cit., pp93-4).

At the same time, Bordo warns: “Attempts to devalue foetal life, on the other hand, have fed powerfully into the right-wing imagination of a possible world in which women would be callously and casually scraping foetuses out of their bodies like leftovers off a plate. This image – so cruelly unrepresentative of most women’s experiences – must be challenged, must be shown to be a projection of ‘evil mother’ archetypes, reflective of deep cultural anxieties about women’s autonomy rather than the realities of its exercise” (op. cit., p95).

Miscellaneous

After such sustained seriousness, I am assuming that we could do with some light relief. Pandemian’s account of sitting the driving theory test at the ripe old age of nearly thirty is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face – I can certainly empathise with it, having assiduously shunned the acquisition of the skill for more than the first three decades of my life. She writes: “You take the test in a little booth with headphones on, completely cut off from everybody else. It is not inconceivable that as soon as someone presses any button that isn’t marked d), a trapdoor opens underneath them and they slide directly into an underground furnace, never to be heard of again. I’d certainly approve”.

Doctor Vee in It’s true – I’ve moved to the right voices exasperation at the results of a test ostensibly informing you which side of your brain you use most. Normally I have about as much truck with this sort of nonsense as I do with organised religion (which is to say none whatsoever), as they are inevitably seized upon to be the ultimate proof of gender difference, for which read “innate female inferiority”, the supposedly “feminine” traits consistently accorded lesser value than the “male”, but as I am a magnanimous host and Dr Vee treats the subject matter with healthy scepticism, I have decided to include it after all.

Jamie K at Blood and Treasure catalogues a lesser-known passion of Che Guevara’s: Rugby Union in el furibundo.

Finally for this week, Sir Philip Johnston-Higham of nourishing obscurity weaves a bittersweet tale of tantalising possibility in [glances] when you least expect it.

Next week’s Roundup will be hosted by Matt at The Wardman Wire. Please submit your nominations to britblog [at] gmail dot com. Remember, we depend entirely on you when it comes to what is included!

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