Kenneth Williams the puritan

The curious rise of later capitalism, the lucrative side of devastation plus the success of a 1960s

It is not the failure of capitalism we should be worrying about. It is the success.

Remember this when you encounter talk of “peak oil“ or concern about reserves and prices. For we have been here before.

I spent most of the 1970s convinced the world was about to run out of the stuff and looking forward to a world of horses and steam locomotives. If you are old enough to remember the television of the period, picture it as halfway between Survivors and The Adventures of Black Beauty.

Alas, the oil did not run out and now I fear it never will. Because you should never underestimate the rapaciousness of the capitalist system or its ability to market last year’s waste as next year’s resource.

Take the workings that honeycomb the hill beneath this house. If you were a miner in the latter half of the nineteenth century, they were the place to be. Nowhere in Europe yielded more lead per acre.

But despite what prospectuses for new ventures claimed, the deposits were concentrated in a small area. By 1900 the veins were pretty much worked out and mining ceased in 1911.

That was not the end of the story. After World War I the mines were reworked for baryte - a mineral used by manufacturers of paints and paper that the original owners had not bothered with. This lasted until the 1950s and even after that people were sifting the spoil heaps for spar to sell to the building trade as pebbledash.

Today the old mines are exploited in a more subtle way. Some time in the 1990s those extraordinary heaps - gleaming white, with no vegetation having found a foothold in a century - were bulldozed. A lurid pink soil was imported to cover the remains, which were then grassed over.

Meanwhile the ruined surface buildings were tidied up, labelled and entered the heritage industry. There is money to be made from desolation as well as from lead.

When I was in the habit of reading academic works, theorists talked of “late capitalism” - as though the Revolution were bound to come soon. If I were to open such books today, I expect I should find we are living under “even later capitalism”.

We shall be there for a while yet.

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The fallout from the London Mayoral election continues as a package arrives from Somerset House. It contains final proof that the Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick is a relation - second cousin once removed, to be precise - of the Round the Horne star Hugh Paddick.

In the 1960s this radio comedy attracted huge audiences. Hugh Paddick played Julian to Kenneth Williams’s Sandy, and between them they introduced the straight world to the gay slang Polari. Their enterprises included Bona Law (“We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time”).

But a connection between the show and Liberalism should not be a surprise. Kenneth Horne’s father Silvester was MP for Ipswich between 1910 and 1914. A contemporary said of him:

"He understands better than any speaker of his years … how to quicken slow blood, kindle light in dull eyes, and bring the flood-tide of enthusiasm sweeping into all creeks and inlets of the spirit."

I can’t remember the last time a politician filled my creeks and inlets, but surely the risqué Kenneth Horne had little in common with his clergyman father?

It turns out Kenneth had a puritan streak too. “I am all for censorship,” he once said. “If ever I see a double entendre I whip it out.”

Jonathan Calder has been a district councillor and contributed to speeches by Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. These days he prefers to poke gentle fun from the sidelines. He blogs at Liberal England