Friday, 9 April 2010

Political Animals

So there's a General Election campaign upon us in Britain for the next month. Whoop de doo. Our quinquennial opportunity to allow politicians to pay lip service to us as they beseech our votes. Then we can each return to the status quo and studiously ignore one another. Each Party produces a manifesto of 100 or so pages with all sorts of pledges and policies. You know 95% of those pledges will not be honoured by the winning party. One also asks why the Government, which in this particular case have been in power for 13 years, haven't put these pledges into practice all the while they've been in power already? Why have they only just thought of them now?

You may detect from the slightly cynical tone of the above that I am not overly taken with Party Politics. And yet I would paint myself as an utterly political person, especially in my writing. In some ways, any deed in our daily life is a political one. If it has consequences for other people, if there are alternative options with different possible outcomes, then your choice is likely to be a political one, whether you actively sift through the alternatives or not. Even the everyday language we use is chock full of political assumptions. Love it or hate it, political correctness started out with language as its target. Those who opposed any politically determined meddling with language, overlooked that the language that has come into being is itself far from neutral.

By these definitions, anything to do with power or status in relationships, is political. Of course there is no mandate that demands we each consider every aspect of our daily lives in this light, just as we manage not to have to think about our mortality that inevitably awaits us. But humans who live within communities and societies, act politically whether they are conscious of it or not.

So in the rest of this post, I just want to offer some moments of how I acted politically, whether in a public arena or privately during my life. The forging of me as a political animal. Most of it was done completely ignorant of any political aspect of the action. It's mainly in retrospect now that I can offer them up as thus.

When I was seven and starting proper school, my parents put me down to do violin lessons. I had never even seen a real violin, but instinctively I knew I didn't want to play it. I simply failed to show up to my lessons. I bluffed my progress back home to my parents. When challenged in the playground by a school Prefect dispatched by the music department, I misdirected him to that other boy in the school with my surname (was there one, I didn't actually know). Quite a deft piece of thinking on the feet for a seven year old. I got away with this pretense for some 18 months. When busted, my parents accepted my act of abstension, though my father was aggrieved at having to pay for 5 terms worth of music lessons I never had. So someone else picked up the bill for my resistance.

From aged 7-11, music was taught in chronological order, starting from Plainsong and ending at 1920's jazz. That was it. Stockhausen aside, apparently there was no other music after 1920. I was livid that we couldn't get to our contemporary bands at the time. When we had the end of year exam, I faithfully answered the questions, but took advantage of the delay between each piece of audio that formed the questions, to set out probability tables for the multiple choice test. Now I know I would have come near top of the class in that test, because I was such a non-rebel at school that I adhered faithfully to the work ethic (in contradistinction to the cool kids who eschewed being seen to make any effort at all with their studies, so maybe I was a rebel in comparison to them?). But my music teacher pulled me up and inquired what the number table doodles signified. I replied that they represented probability, (even though I hadn't actually employed it to answer the questions). He went ballistic and set me a punishment essay on "Why Music?" Well that was just the opportunity I needed to get on my soapbox and challenge his manipulation of the curriculum. I spent a long time composing my argument. I handed it in and readied myself to do battle with him. He merely screwed it up and threw it in the bin unread, saying I had discharged my punishment. He maintained the authority and status all throughout our clash. Salutary lesson.

School dinners were very, well school dinner like. They lived down to their reputation. I used to surrender so much of my lunch break to waiting for the supervisory teacher to vacate the hall for their own lunch, at which point I could stuff the offending victuals behind the radiator and present a cleared plate for washing (I know, there were and still are countless children round the world who are starving and would have been so grateful for what I so casually discarded). The whole process eventually struck me as ridiculous so I came up with a political strategy-cum-campaign. I challenged my parents that unless they permitted me to take in home-made meals, I would bring home samples of the pigswill in my handkerchief as proof of its inedibility (of course any additional alchemy with the scuzziness of my hanky would only embellish the proof). Eventually I wore down their resistance, but they countered that I would have to make my own sandwiches to take to school, since they would not be doing it. A compromise that both sides found acceptable. I still make sandwiches to take to work with me to this day.

I attended a College that had no Left grouping among the students, so Right-Wing was it. Mrs Thatcher's favourite cleric resided there, a man who dismissed Christianity's bent towards helping the poor. A major Conservative theorist was there as was an architect Don who led the fight back against modernism. So the College atmosphere was quite oppressive to me (I should have done my research on the place better before applying). I couldn't understand how a supposed place of learning wasn't interested in any kind of intellectual debate and it just felt wrong that there was only one viewpoint represented (although a cursory study of the demographics of the students would have told me they were virtually all public school educated). I'd already clocked one English student who dressed a bit outre and engaged him in conversation and gleaned his Far Left leanings. When I espied a "Vote Labour" poster up in another First Year window, I went to pay him a visit. Turned out he played water polo for England and if you know anything about that sport you'll appreciate we now had our muscle in place. The Left group was a goer and I invited more people to join our ranks. We were so few in the College we opened it up to all liberal ideas, and had about 25 members out of a college population of 210. Oh how we stirred up some shit, revelling in our persecuted minority status to behave really rather provocatively. I remember because of the Miners' Strike, our college had repealed its membership of the Union Of Students who were actively supporting the strike. We called a meeting, ostensibly to debate issues such as the food and other minor irritants. As the meeting dragged on inconsequentially, gradually our opponents drifted away to dinner and so in the resultant rump, we introduced the notion of rejoining the Union in Any Other Business, which we carried by a vote, with all our members showing admirable socialist discipline of their stomachs and staying put. Oh the stink that caused, our property was attacked, messages and cartoons scrawled on the toilet walls (this was after a guerilla raid two of us mounted during the small hours of one night to secretly paint over all the homophobic and sexist graffiti there, which caused endless speculation as to who had actually done it). Even the Dons woke up to the fact that the college was split right down the middle and urged for some sort of reconciliation. Of course exams came around and focused everyone's minds and the tension levels eventually dropped. The problem with the likes of all this excitement, was when I left College, I was still looking around for such aggravation on issues, when of course no one in the real world actually gave a damn as they were all too busy earning a living. It took me two years to get with the programme of reality on that one.

One of our number in the Left Group had an Aunt who lived in the town and was about to lose her job as a hospital cleaner. This was when Mrs Thatcher was hell bent on saving public money by privatising every public service possible and offering contracts out to competitive bidding. If this guy hadn't have happened to have such an auntie, we probably never would have known about the issue. So our little group decided to undertake its first demonstration. Unlike most of the demos in the town, this was not a student-oriented one trying to engage the interest of the the residents. This was the residents reaching out to a rather small it has to be said representation of students. Did we stop the policy of redundancies and privatisation? Of course not. Little did we know it would lead to the filthy, MRSA loving conditions in hospitals today. What we did learn was that if you make a banner out of bedsheets, you really need to cut holes in it to allow the wind to blow through, otherwise it becomes impossible to wield. FAIL.

I was very active in CND (the campaign for nuclear disarmament), though I never actually joined up. Of all the issues, it was the imminent threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction that really politicised me and turned my thoughts away from football and the domestic world of my parents, out towards the larger events of the real world. Our College was near a US Air Force base and at the time security was so lax, periodically students would break through the wire and dance up and down on the wings of the planes to underline just how easy it would be for terrorists to do the same. I was advised of another trip to do this, but at the time I had broken my collarbone playing football. Now the collarbone is a funny thing. It is such a thin bone, it isn't all that painful when you break it. They can't strap you up or immobilise it because of its position on the body. If you had to break a bone in the human body, I'd say go clavicle every time. It's no big deal. But when asked if I wanted to come along for a plane dancing mission, I used the feeble excuse of my arm, even though they tried to persuade me that someone with eyesight worse than Mole's in "Wind And The Willows" had managed to squeeze through the fence. I think I was motivated by not wanting a criminal record. FAIL

In my student days I'd been on quite a few demos. Same faces, same schtick at each one. Back in London I'd been on the odd one here and there. One I did attend was a march to protest new legislation designed to penalise homosexuals and ensuring no gay rights initiatives could receive local government funding. By some improbable chain of acquaintance, I found myself marching under the "AARGH" banner - great name, great bunch of people. The acronym stood for "Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia" and consisted of graphic novel artists and writers and I seem to remember Alan Moore contributed to the comic book they produced on the issue. Anyway, however pertinent the demo and rally and bands playing to the protestors was, I had a fantastic social time among the "AARGH" lot. This was politics as sociability rather than merely just social action. Political demonstration could actually be a lifestyle choice. Of course the poll tax marches that erupted into rioting changed all that as from then all all marches had chains of police lining the route, filming us with those newfangled hand-held video-cameras. Every subsequent demo was more about whether the police could be provoked into a fight and very little to do with the issue at hand. From the authorities' point of view, they used is as a means of gathering information on the malcontents, the enemy within as their paranoia began to build on that of the miners' strike. I stopped going on marches and demonstrations. They change nothing. Goodness knows how many people marched in protest up and down the length of Britain against the second Iraq war, yet it made not a jot of difference. Instead, I wrote a whole section of my book on home-grown suicide bombers, about the lack of outlets for legitimate and peaceful opposition within our democracy. Now I'll readily admit that writing a novel is far more of a back-room step than active militancy. It could even be called cowardly, sniping there from the sidelines while people get their heads battered by Police truncheons. And such arguments are probably correct. But I'll still try and push my arguments into the public consciousness through the form of a novel, since my presence on a demonstration registers absolutely zero effect.

Every last day of term, a swanky champagne black tie breakfast was hosted in the best suite of rooms in the College. In my final year, that room was next to the suite shared by me and my room-mate. Which means we had the second nicest set of rooms in the whole place. We had snaffled these after being at the bottom of the ballot in our second year and consigned to the smallest and dingiest set of rooms and determined to do something to avoid a similar fate in Year 3. He got elected as College Union Treasurer (he was studying economics) and I got elected as College Union Sports Administrator. Entryism! Eat your heart out Derek Hatton. Even now I can't recall what my duties were. But it did the trick and elevated us up to second place on the ballot. We were however fed up with the champagne breakfast and debauchery that always emanated from next door. So I resolved to hold a beer and sandwiches breakfast to rival it. Come dressed as a revolutionary or a prole. We bought 50 bottles of brown ale and made marmite and chocolate spread sandwiches. Drinking started at 8am and we cranked up my boombox to play lots of punk very loud to them next door. Well the inevitable happened and they started drifting away from their party and coming over to ours. The two groups mixed quite cordially, if a bit incongruously given the divergence of attire. (The photos are great). Our party was deemed the superior of the two (and the cheaper since there was no £50 ticket admission). But I couldn't help feeling we'd been blunted. I actually hurried off for my last supervision of term to be asked by the tutor who I'd come as. I explained the event and he announced himself approving of our symbolic staging. Oh well, if you can't beat the powers that be, you may as well let them join you.

At my University, you fell out of bed and there would be a drama society, a budding theatre director, would-be thespos and a free theatre ready to stage your fall. There were 17 Colleges and about 23 theatre groups. In my second year, I was so disillusioned with my academic discipline of history - not because of its political teaching ironically, but because I felt the disinterested Dons were only concerned with their own researches and had nothing to offer our hungry minds that was a new insight into our subject - I was seriously considering dropping out altogether. Instead I plunged my disaffected energies into writing plays, as my College had just opened its own new theatre space. My first play was about football hooligans, my second was about the Brixton Riots. On the basis of this deep grounding in the art form, I wrote 2 new plays in about 6 weeks for taking up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (nothing like a bit of ambition, I'd been a playwright for all of about 4 months). Anyway, just so happened the day of the Live Aid concerts, I was writing the programme notes for our plays. As the anodyne music and self-righteousness oozed from the stage, my text became more and more um critical of all aspects of our consumptive culture and the pleasure industries in particular. I opined that there was a certain irony to having the most bloated and well rewarded cultural icons, that of rock and rollers, leading us by example. Assuredly there would be a green room of massive excess backstage. If not a secret cocaine tent just to underscore the notion of imbalance of resources. I went on to dissect the Hillsborough football disaster when 98 people lost their lives just in trying to follow their football team. It was a very radical diatribe. I took it up to Scotland's first city with me, but on reading it my cast forbade me from giving the programme out. Even though one of our plays was about the ongoing miners' strike and the mass unemployment that had changed the nature of our society. I bowed to their wishes, since they probably would have pushed it to the ultimate threat of withdrawing their own actorly labour. They were probably right on the issue. But this is the febrile state Dire Straits can drive me into. I had it even worse for the Nelson Mandela concert, since I was actually there at Wembley. Feeling vindicated that I had surrendered my ticket admission fee to the cause, and then suffering the agonisising torture of having to sit through detestable pap music after pap music act and then leaping to my feet to applaud some rousing speech from a worthy on the stage. Benefit concerts? Don't get me started....

The homosexuality legislation I mentioned above, had been introduced as a MP's private Bill , ie done as an individual initiative, not through the auspices of the Party. I wrote to the shithead MP who'd raised it and he wrote back to me saying if I had any concerns I ought to address them to my own MP and not bother him as he had his own constituents to attend to. This is despite the fact he had introduced a law that affected people outside his constituency, couldn't quite follow the logic of that. But in the end none of us need have worried, since despite Parliament being full of ex-lawyers, they can't actually draft any legislation to save their lives and like so many Acts that pass into law, his had so many holes in it that it became unworkable to try and actually penalise homosexuals and it just drifted into disuse until a new Labour government repealed the bill. I had another encounter with unworkable law when my father was up in court for profiting on insider trading knowledge by buying shares in a company he knew was about to be bought out, as the information had come ti him from a client who wanted to sue one of the parties in the deal as they had squeezed this guy out of the action. So I attended the public gallery of Knightsbridge Court (my Dad resplendent in his bow tie, among the drug dealers of the All Saints Road who were the normal defendants at this courthouse. I had previously done jury duty and pronounced myself content with the buttressing of an individual's rights, so impressed was I with the whole jury process and the seriousness with which one's peers adhere to their civic duty. My father's trial offered a whole differing set of responses. In one of the trials I sat on as a juror, it was a drug case and the language bandied about were 'eighths' and 'quarters' and the street value of such amounts. Here were stockbrokers and lawyers talking telephone numbers. It didn't matter if it was a witness for the prosecution or the defence, all seemed to come from another world entirely. You could see the jury's eyes roll at the way these people casually talked of deals of hundreds of thousands of pounds. I would have convicted every person there testifying. My father was found guilty (rightly or wrongly I still can't say for sure to this day, so wooly was the wording of the legislation he was being tried under). The Judge agreed for he said he ought to have a custodial sentence, but since the offence had taken place in the early days of the legislation, when no one really quite knew how it was supposed to work, he would just fine him. Of course the fine was a fraction of the amount the legal bills my father was charged and thereby lay the real punishment. It's a cliche, but the justice system is only as good as the amount you can afford to spend on your defence.

So does this all strike you as the CV of a politico and agitator? Someone hell bent on changing the world? No, me neither. In early middle age, I am now content to conduct and wage such battles on an intellectual level, through a more considered treatment as a novelist. I do still hold it to be a very important act to cast one's vote, seeing the history of resistance and protest that won that right to vote from the exclusive possession of a landed aristocracy. In 1994 there were 3 elections within a period of about five weeks. They fell just before my wedding and a deadline on a collaborative piece of work I was doing in the theatre. Unfortunately we no longer lived where we were registered to vote. Twice I dragged myself back across London in order to honour the hard won right to put my cross in a box, but by the time of the European Elections, just three days before my wedding, I conceded defeat and failed to make that third and final ballot. It remains the only time I have never cast my vote. But now, all I do is enter the polling booth and write "None Of The Above" thereby spoiling my ballot paper, but at least registering my disillusion with what is on offer within our political system. The ultimate in symbolic and probably also futile acts.


TF said...

Marc - firstly, my apologies. I made it most of the way, but not to the end of the piece and not because I wasn't enjoying myself. It is witty and poignant and sad - all at once.

Apart from having fun along the way, a few things brought extra attention to themselves.

"But humans who live within communities and societies, act politically whether they are conscious of it or not" was one. Most of the people I call family and friends do not know this. They don't want to know this. Why not? Has it always been the way? A partial answer can be drawn from something you wrote after that: "The problem with the likes of all this excitement, was when I left College, I was still looking around for such aggravation on issues, when of course no one in the real world actually gave a damn as they were all too busy earning a living. It took me two years to get with the programme of reality on that one."

That life for others is less important than an individual's ability to pay the bills mystifies me. It is what fills my writing, and it does so because this is life for so many people in the Western world - myself included. We are in the 'Information Age', collective knowledge has never been so rich, yet some information is so readily ignored. How did we arrive at this?

I am interested in the narrative of war in the Middle East, Afghanistan especially. Intrigued and intoxicated by it, as though it was a modern Arabain Nights. Of course, part of the attraction is that it is real and Afghanistan is a place on earth, not in history. Another part of the attraction is that it so much bigger and convoluted than any of our single lives can be. Why hide from that?

Dan Holloway said...

What struck me most about this was how extraordinary it is that these days we need to tell people what CND stands for - the world really HAS changed since our studenthood.