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The Class Ceiling
30 January-5 February 2015 issue 


Stuart Maconie argues that a popular culture dominated by the privileged few is doomed to blandness, and cultural figures including

Johnny Marr, A A Gill and Glenda Jackson ask if our society has become too posh.

Plus

Robert Webb argues that we shouldn’t judge people because they went to private school - we should judge what they do with that luck.

Mehdi Hasan and Mark Leonard respond to Syriza’s victory in the Greek elections.

Sophie McBain interviews the former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg.

Rowan Williams explores how T S Eliot’s “bruising” home life led to his filmic early poems.

The Politics Column: George Eaton argues that the divided left could cost Labour the election.

 

Who let the toffs out?

Stuart Maconie argues that the “golden age” of working-class performers and artists is long gone, giving way to a surge of privilege:

The great cultural tide that surged through Harold Wilson's 1960s and beyond, the sea change that swept the McCartneys, Finneys, Bakewells, Courtenays, Baileys, Bennetts et al to positions of influence and eminence, if not actual power, has ebbed and turned. The children of the middle and upper classes are beginning to reassert a much older order. In the arts generally - music, theatre, literature for sure - it is clear that cuts to benefits, the disappearance of the art school (where many a luminous layabout found room to bloom) and the harsh cost of further and higher education are pricing the working class out of careers in the arts and making it increasingly a playground for the comfortably off. The grants are gone and the relatively benign benefits system that sustained the pre-fame Jarvis Cocker and Morrissey is being dismantled daily.

Exploring how even the likes of Oasis, New Order and Happy Mondays seem to have been replaced by Mumford & Sons, Pixie Lott and Mark Ronson, Maconie wonders what impact this will have on pop:

Does it matter? Surely Noel Gallagher is no better than Nick Drake just because he went to a Burnage comp rather than Marlborough? Of course not. But pop culture should reflect the lives of its people in all their vibrancy, challenge and hurly-burly, not the rarified interests and experiences of a few. Most modern indie bands’ lyrics seem to be either turgid chunks of half-digested philosophy or indulgent disquisitions on the singer’s fragile emotional microclimate. It is telling that the last alternative bands to emerge with lyrics that observed the world around them wittily and pungently were Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys, both from working-class backgrounds in Yorkshire.

He concludes that a homogeneous and comfortable art scene can only be a dull one:

One can go further. The best art, and the best pop music certainly, has always been made by smart, impassioned outsiders such as Cocker or Morrissey, or by the cussed and ornery: the likes of Lennon or John Lydon. Conflict, be it generational, geographical or economic, is the turbine that drives art forward, the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl. At the risk of sounding like a classist gimp, grittiness is surely not the prevailing ambience at Bedales and Harrow. The silencing of other, rougher voices brings with it a creeping blandness.

 

 

Battle of the tax bands

Artists and politicians respond to the question: "From pop to politics, has social mobility stalled?"

Johnny Marr writes that although there do seem to be fewer working-class people in the arts, it is an “oversimplification” to view things only in those terms, because life has changed so dramatically:

Starting out in music now is very different because the world is different. For example: the cost of getting a band around the country is higher. How do young musicians starting out afford to pay for it? Petrol, insurance, parking fees . . . Even for a band with an average type of record deal, flying over to Germany or Belgium to do a little gig is economically not possible now, in a lot of cases. You can't throw your cymbals and bass guitar cases in the hold of a plane any more without blowing what little fee you might be getting on inflated airline costs, and that's why income from the festival season is so important for a band's economics these days.

[. . .]

I think music has lost its political edge because people are less interested, simple as that. It seems the establishment has succeeded in distracting everyone from their activities and agendas, to the point where it's too much for a lot of the public to want to bother with it. And who would blame them?

A A Gill argues that privilege allows average artists to remain successful:

The talent for making art is not meritocratic, fair, just or predictable; genius never lands on the people who deserve it, but to have it is to be immediately, indelibly and permanently privileged. It is the ancient and universal irony of culture that art is made by radical people who want change and to topple the old order - but art is always bought and paid for by people who want continuity and heritage, and are the old order.

Being middle-class or independently wealthy never made anyone a better artist or performer. It does, though, allow some artists and performers to go on being mediocre for longer.

Viv Albertine, the guitarist in the pioneer punk band the Slits, writes that art made by the ruling class will change nothing:

The arts are dominated by the middle classes and yes, it does matter. No art is going to change anything when it’s made by the ruling class: it won’t move the world forward. Contemporary music has become mere entertainment, no matter how many tattoos, torn jeans and leather jackets you dress it up in.

Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods, Glenda Jackson and Alan Milburn also offer their take on privilege and social mobility.

 

Another Voice: Robert Webb

In a guest column, Robert Webb writes: “I don’t mind if our politicians went to posh schools. I do mind if they don’t listen to anyone who didn’t.”

Let me begin by paying you a compliment. I don’t care where you went to school. There - have I made your day? No? All right, I’ll go further: I also don’t care what your dad did for a living, or how your mum voted. Nor do I mind whether you ate your tea in front of the telly, dinner at the kitchen table or supper in the dining room. Maybe you didn’t have a telly. Or you called it a TV. Or you had one but it was hidden in a cabinet. And maybe you seldom ate an evening meal at home because you were in care, or at boarding school; and you can’t tell me what your dad did for a living because you never met him; and you don’t know how your mum votes because she never votes, because she’s the Queen.

I call it a compliment because, if you disagree with me about something, I’ll wonder what might be wrong with what I said, rather than what might be wrong with you.

Webb argues that although we shouldn’t judge others by whether they were lucky enough to be brought up rich . . .

. . . we are free to judge people by what they do with that luck, and indeed by whether they show any sign of noticing it. I don’t mind that George Osborne went to St Paul’s School. I mind very much if he shows no sign of reading about, meeting and listening to a lot, and I mean, A LOT of people who didn’t. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not an expert on what it’s like to work on a zero-hours contract then he isn’t fit for the job.

Webb says “it’s a matter of intellectual diversity”, and concludes:

We need to give back to young people all the advantages I enjoyed. Until a government can restore arts funding, public libraries, the Education Maintenance Allowance, housing benefit for young people and maintenance grants for the poorest university students, we will never hear from those talented people with their own, vibrant stories to tell. The ones who are not yet, as I have become, afraid.

 

Mehdi Hasan: Don't let the ridiculous smears fool you - Syriza is no party of the radical "far left"

For his Lines of Dissent column, Mehdi Hasan writes that the media are wrong to portray the winner of this month’s Greek election as being of the “far left”:

Syriza, we are told, by everyone from the Mail to the BBC and the Guardian, is a bunch of radicals, revolutionaries and extremists. It’s not centre left; it’s far left. In this bizarre inversion of reality, those who helped to inflict mass unemployment, widespread poverty and public-health emergencies - involving a succession of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria epidemics - on a once-developed western country are deemed to be the moderates and the centrists.

He writes that the misconception betrays how our political debate has become skewed to the right:

After all, what is “extreme” about providing free electricity and food stamps to 300,000 Greek families now living below the poverty line, as Syriza has pledged to do? What is “revolutionary” about wanting to negotiate a restructuring of ballooning, essentially unpayable debts? [. . .] Is it “radical” to describe - as Tsipras has done - five years of relentless, growth-choking austerity, in which the suicide rate rose by 43 per cent, as a period of “humiliation and suffering”? Or to refer to Troika-enforced spending cuts - as Syriza’s Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, did - as a form of “fiscal waterboarding”?

Hasan concludes that “the Greeks have not suddenly embraced Marxism”, but that Syriza offers hope for a struggling people.

 

Syriza's victory heralds a new wave of populism

For Observations, Mark Leonard predicts that the success of Syriza has consequences reaching far beyond Greece:

The clash is now real: battle lines are drawn between Syriza and the eurozone. The party has set out a trifecta of goals: a €2bn welfare programme, an attack on “antisocial oligarchs” and a write-down of at least half of Greece’s public debt. At the same time, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, leader of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, is already warning about the dangers of not sticking to prior agreements.

The conflict between Syriza's populist politics and the austerity demanded by the eurozone is already very real, and Leonard notes that the tension is becoming increasingly complex:

Last year's European elections pitted insurgent parties (Ukip, Syriza, the Front National) against the technocratic elite who have driven the EU for the past few decades. But if the mainstream parties fail to find a way of reinventing themselves, politics in Europe may soon move beyond a battle between populism and technocracy.

Alexis Tsipras may be the bearer of a new settlement that confronts populism with populism, leaving the established centrist parties on the scrapheap of history.

 

Sophie McBain interviews Moazzam Begg

Moazzam Begg was imprisoned as a terror suspect at Guantanamo Bay
and in Britain, yet never tried. He lives quietly in Birmingham - but why are the security services so interested in him? He tells Sophie McBain:

“I have been held and questioned by the world’s most powerful security services. And that includes, back in Guantanamo and Bagram [in Afghanistan], the FBI, the CIA, MI5, later the British police and the intelligence services. I don’t think you can get a bigger group of people with more power in the world who have scrutinised me. So I don’t think the question mark’s over me. I think the question mark’s over them.”

McBain asks Begg about his youth in Birmingham, his “radicalisation”, and whether his experience of imprisonment without trial has turned him against the British government:

Have his experiences made him hate the British government? “When a person feels they are being wronged, then of course there are lapses into hatred. I’ve always had my way to deal with that, and that’s to get justice.” Begg is believed to have received up to £1m in compensation following his detention in Guantanamo and is now suing the government again over his latest detention. He says because he cannot seek justice through the normal courts, he wants to do so through “the court of public opinion”.

 

The hurt locker: the early life of T S Eliot

Rowan Williams reads an exemplary biography which shows how T S Eliot’s bruising home life led to a poetic breakthrough:

Eliot’s first marriage, says Robert Crawford in the introduction to this very good biography [Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land, Jonathan Cape], “helped hurt him into further poetry”. The phrase neatly weaves together the three great canonical English-language poets of the first half of the 20th century, echoing Auden’s poem on the death of Yeats (“Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry”). And it directs our minds to the most intractable question about Eliot: how did he become not only a poet, but the kind of poet he turned out to be, early and late?

Williams writes that Crawford’s biography deals “compassionately and unsensationally” with Eliot’s upbringing, studies at Harvard, and unhappy first marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, resulting in a “major achievement”:

. . . this is very much what a literary biography should be. It is likely to be a while before the next volume, if it is to be on the same scale, but it will be worth the wait if it does what this first book does: to offer a credible and three-dimensional portrait of this most elusive figure.

 

The Politics Column: George Eaton

The NS political editor, George Eaton, writes that the rise of smaller parties holds “cause for both fear and hope” for Ed Miliband and Labour:

The fear is that in a new era of six-party politics, the Tories could yet survive as the largest, even with a vote share below the 36 per cent they recorded in 2010. The resultant hope is that it requires only a modest recovery to win. It is easier, the logic runs, to squeeze recent insurgents than a government that voters have resolved to re-elect.

Eaton argues that Labour has divided in response to "this novel threat":

The instinct of some is to deride the Greens as a crackpot outfit that would pursue negative growth, legalise membership of terrorist organisations and turn military bases into nature reserves. But others warn of the dangers of lapsing into the kind of attack politics that repels the idealistic young. They contend that instead the party should focus on burnishing its own appeal. The dirty work can be left to others. There is satisfaction within Labour ranks at the mauling that the Green leader, Natalie Bennett, received from Andrew Neil during a recent interview on the BBC’s Sunday Politics . “She’d be eaten alive in a TV debate,” one source surmised.

Plus

Helen Lewis visits the cemetery island of San Michele in Venice.

Michael Brooks on how young blood could help the aged.

Yiannis Baboulias writes from Athens about future economic directions following the Greek elections.

Will Self: I may be late to the party but I am tough on ramekin - and on the causes of ramekin.

Mark Damazer on the evolution of English society since 1714.