Vivienne Westwood has written an introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of Alice in Wonderland. Photo: Getty
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Anarchy in Wonderland: Vivienne Westwood's anti-capitalist take on Alice's Adventures

Vivienne Westwood's 150th anniversary edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland calls for an end to capitalism, and captures the book in an age of political mistrust.

“Kids! Never become complacent. The world we think we know reflects the way we are conditioned to see it. Maybe it’s not like that at all”. This is the penultimate paragraph of Vivienne Westwood’s introduction to the Vintage Classics 150th edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Aside from her Alice-inspired Autumn/Winter 2011/2012 runway collection, her credentials differ from those who have written an introduction to the work in the past. Previously the book has been introduced by Michael Irwin, a professor of English literature at the University of Kent, and Hugh Haughton, a professor of English literature at York University, who tells me that he thinks Alice in Wonderland is, "the greatest text of dream realism ever written".

With this in mind, Westwood feels like an unlikely candidate for the position.

Tracey Emin said, of the Alice-inspired runway, “we weren’t weighed down by the weight of fashion. It was just real fun”. But Westwood’s approach to the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has taken on a form that feels more mature. It places a moral responsibility on its readers to defy the establishment and, like Alice, notice the inconsistencies in accepted reason.

The cover design alone is striking. It is inspired by the dress of a harlequin. A harlequin, according to the novel’s press release, “is characterised by his comedic, often trickster, mischievous qualities – and so the deconstructed print is the perfect fit for Carroll’s tale of Wonderland". This “perfect fit” quality of the cover contrasts with the strangeness of the other major features of Westwood’s anniversary edition.

 

Westwood's cover design. Photo: Vivienne Westwood LTD.

Westwood's harlequin-inspired cover design. Photo: Vivienne Westwood LTD.

In the book, the King of Hearts tells us: “Begin at the beginning . . . and go on till you come to the end, then stop.”

To understand Westwood’s ideas, however, it is best to begin at the end, at the point when her introduction comes to a close. Immediately following her introduction is a "Climate Map", which shows the area of land that will become uninhabitable if the earth’s temperature rises by 5 degrees Celsius. And after that comes a strange treatise-cum-mock glossary called "End Capitalism" about the evils of the capitalist system, defining Monopolies as entities that have the job of "wrecking the planet and exploiting its people", and Governments as bodies that "serve the central banks and the monopolies". The piece underlines, “how capitalism runs the world and why it must come to an end”. She hopes these additions will underpin the “timeless” elements of the book and “fix it in the present moment”.

Westwood has a well-documented history in activism, notably her recent campaigning against climate change. Yet these documents feel strangely placed in the introduction to a book like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So what is Westwood’s thinking here?

“When Lewis Carroll dropped Alice into Wonderland,” she writes in her introduction, “she became his agent in a conspiracy to undermine adult notions of logic”.

Westwood thinks of Wonderland as a place of conflict: here, Alice’s logic is in tension with that of the characters within Wonderland.

The choice of language is evocative. “Agent” and “conspiracy” seem incongruous words to use in the context of Alice in Wonderland. What they do, however, is link Alice to Westwood’s broader, typically anarchic, interpretation of the book. Wonderland as symbolic of our present day society, and Alice becomes a rebel who sees through this madness.

It seems fitting, then, that Westwood’s view of Wonderland’s “adult logic” is that it is entirely illogical.

She demonstrates this by saying the Queen offering Alice a biscuit when she says she's thirsty (am so hot and thirsty!’ said Alice, ‘I know what you’d like!’ the Queen said good-naturedly . . . ‘Have a biscuit?’”) is an example of how the “adult logic” of Wonderland isn’t driven by common sense. A biscuit won’t solve Alice’s heat and thirst, but the Queen does not conceive that there is anything strange about her offer.

Towards the end of the book, Alice cries, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards”. This is her way of establishing her own sanity in the ludicrous world of Wonderland, if just for her own sense of security. She had previously been spurred on by the pace of the action, but in a moment of sober reality sees things for what they really are.

"End Capitalism", in its full and angry boldness, shows Westwood seeing things for what they really are. The text is structured like a series of Alice-esque outbursts. Wonderland believes in the agency and power of the cards; Alice says, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards”. We believe the government works to help our society; Westwood tells us “governments do not care about people”. We believe we are living in a democracy; Westwood says “there is no chance of immediate democracy in England”.

One of the final sobering sentences reads: “Time is running out”. Whether this refers to capitalism, which is “at the end, it can’t continue”, or to the time that falls away as we move further from fixing climate change, remains ambiguous. Yet both instances retain a sense of extreme urgency.

By beginning the penultimate paragraph with the declaration that this is “the world we think we know”, rather than the world we know, Westwood implies that the control Carroll holds over his characters is the same as the control the establishment holds over us. We, like the characters of Wonderland, have been “conditioned” to see things in a way that is absurd.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland may technically be a children's book, but Westwood fixes it with a universal theme. She drives us away from complacency: “The games [Carrol] plays with Alice empower her to think”. Even if the comparison between Wonderland and the establishment feels too radical, or too crass, for some, Westwood’s anarchy also “empowers” us to think.

Over time Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has taken on a number of different interpretations. Author of Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture, Professor Will Brooker, describes how “In the 1930s it was psychoanalysis, in the 1960s it was psychedelia, and in the 1990s paedophilia”.

This 150th anniversary edition captures an age of political mistrust, where the idea of being “conditioned” to see the world in a certain way does not feel entirely inconceivable.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times