Glow sticks, superclubs . . . and Bruce Forsyth

Mark Watson is wrong about dancing.

 

Mark Watson's most recent New Statesman column describes his angst at how suddenly everyone, everywhere, seems to be dancing -- with Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing on Ice, and the new competitive shows on the BBC and Sky that are seeking out "Britain's best dancer":

At what point did dancing earn the right to be presented as a matter of such importance? And how come I missed the meeting?

Oh, Mark -- you missed the meeting by several thousand years! I do hope you at least sent your apologies. Some minutes were taken by Hieron, the 6th-century BC painter, mostly in the form of ceramic vases.

Watson is half right when he says we're in the midst of "the most widespread and inexplicable dancing mania in at least 400 years" -- but what's wrong with that sentence is the word "inexplicable".

As Barbara Ehrenreich explains in her wonderful book Dancing in the Streets, dancing, music-making, dressing up ("costuming") and taking narcotics with others are hard-wired into the human DNA.

It's an evolutionary necessity for human beings, prefiguring speech as an agency of social interaction. In order to avoid being viciously mauled by that inconsiderate sabre-toothed tiger down the road, our ancestors had to assemble in groups larger than just the family unit, typically groups of ten to 15 people. To do this, they had to learn to get along with people they didn't share DNA with. And so, to help them become social animals, human beings learned to dance.

In strictly Darwinian terms: dancers survived and wallflowers got EATEN BY TIGERS. (Do stop me if the science is getting too technical.)

After we learned to dance together, we learned to speak; and as time passed, we started to construct civilisations. We built roads and sanitation systems, created hierarchies and governments. Eventually, we invented glow sticks, superclubs and Bruce Forsyth.

 

Make it funky

The impulse to dance is ever-present in human history, lying dormant for periods and then flaring up at points when alienation from power elites becomes more acute.

In this context, the dance mania of 2010 makes perfect sense: it is literally a knee-jerk response to the sedentary shackles of our "spectacular" culture of passivity. It's true that all of Mark Watson's examples of dance manias are TV programmes -- but we must hope this leads to more than just people wiggling their toes from the comfort of the sofa.

Certainly UK Funky, the genre-tag for some of the most exciting dance music being made in Britain right now, has become defined by its "skank" culture: this is a grass-roots movement to create and disseminate simple, choreographed manoeuvres that yell out, "For God's sake, do try this at home!" But not just at home: in IKEA, at KFC, in clubs -- at any rate, in public.

A generation of urban youth alienated from public spaces by privatisation, Asbo culture and de facto gated communities in their own backyards are now striking back. And they're doing it feet-first.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories