Saturday, September 06, 1997

Oh What a Circus

Both nuns and mothers worship images
But those the candle lights are not as those
That animate a mother's reveries
But keep a marble or a bronze repose
And yet they too break hearts....

W.B Yeats

Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. This became redundant the moment Elton John got up to sing Goodbye to Norma Jean in Westminster Abbey. In the modern age, it seems that tragedy and farce have become the same thing.

That said, I admit to having had to clear my throat a couple of times during the service. But then I cry at the end of Watership Down, so what do I know? While the rest of Airstrip 1 struggles to come to its collective senses, there are a couple of things which I feel need to be said. Anyone passing this page hoping to hear something funny should come back next week.

1: The Royal Family are, like it or not, powerful symbols.

Symbols are not irrelevant or meaningless, however much we might wish they were. We may disapprove of it; we may deplore it as a focus for neo-Fascism or heritage-nostalgia; we may even want to burn it or stick safety pins through it; but the Union Jack is not simply one more geometrical design. When I look at it, I feel something. When I look at the Stars and Stripes, I feel something different, and less vivid. These feelings have very little to do with my opinions about the Act of Settlement, Scottish devolution, the Fifth Amendment or the electric chair. They have more to do with carrier bags, beefeaters, tourists and ladies knickers -- or, in the case of Old Glory, with Superman, themed pancake restaurants and sit-coms set in high schools. But the fact that some coloured stripes can call up such strong and definite mental pictures proves that they have significance.

The Royal Family are symbolic in very much the same way. Killing one of them therefore has a very powerful emotional and psychological effect on me: just as burning the Union Jack, inverting the Crucifix or tearing down Nelson's Column would do. I can be as liberal and republican and anarchist as I want, but the death of Diana Spencer means something.

One occasionally meets professing atheists--usually, of the communist, rather than the scientific, persuasion--who affect not to understand why the art gallery was so full of images of the Roman death penalty. No-one is very convinced.

2: Constitutional monarchy is quite a good idea.

A presidency (unless it is created in the throes of a blood-soaked revolution) feels bureaucratic, empty, artificial. It has no symbolic, emotional, or psychological resonances: one feels nothing when one looks at it. No one could ever feel any affection towards The European Union (though they may think it is a very good idea) because it would be a nation built on filing cabinets, press releases, and directives on headed note paper. Having a Queen with a real honest-to-goodness palace, golden coach, crown, scepter and ceremonial guards reminds you that your country is a Very Important Thing. It enables you to feel good about it--and indirectly, to feel good about yourself.

The High Church with their incense, silk cassocks, golden chalices, massive cathedrals and awe-inspiring music, have attached a something to their religion which we non-conformists ("turn to page B5 of the yellow service book") have totally chucked out. A good ceremony hits the congregation in the face with the fact that they are in the presence of something unbelievably important. A good state opening of parliament has much the same effect in a secular sphere. 'Look!' it says 'You belong to something very old, and very spectacular, and very special, and very magnificent--and that makes you a very special person, too!' It really is pretty off the point to complain that the Queen is very rich and very expensive. That is the point of her.

I also must admit that I have a grudging affection for all the silly and vulgar traditions which have grown up around the British Royal Family in particular. This has nothing at all to do with the history of the kings of Britain, much less with the Privet Council or the Royal Pejorative. It has more to do with crepe paper and fruit cake on trestle tables; with village fetes; with good natured crowds squeezing into Hyde Park to look at the Royal Wedding fireworks, with slightly tacky souvenirs.

I asked a friend of mine what he remembered of the Silver Jubilee. 'A lot of mugs', he replied.

We have in England an odd, matey affection for our Royals. We call them 'Charles and Di', 'Andy and Fergie', 'The Queen Mum'. If we actually meet them, we call them 'Ma'am' -- what a parlour maid called her employer, or a schoolboy called the headmistress. We knit little booties for their babies, get personal letters on our Golden Wedding Anniversary, and get invited (with thousands of others) to tea and sandwiches in their back garden.

When I look at the Queen's official residence, I think of the Family waving from the balcony on Jubilee day in 1977. I think of a tear-stained Mrs Thatcher being driven through the gates in her limo, to hand in her official resignation. I think of that footage of the Beatles fans climbing over the fence while their idols were getting their MBEs. But mostly, I think that it was the place down to which Cer-ristopher Robin went with Alice. I can't imagine that the White House or the Supreme Court is mixed up with nursery rhymes in the minds of most Americans. Do you think the Queen knows all about me?

3: The Royal Family on the whole perform this ceremonial function very well, but this does not mean that they are remarkable people.

The Divine Right of Kings is a late heresy. When one of our kings started to believe in it, we very properly chopped his head off. I think the King is but a man and what have kings that paupers have not got save ceremony; once more unto the breach et-cetera, et-cetera, et-cetera.

Being Queen of England is significant in precisely the same way that being Queen of the May is significant. You take someone ordinary. You put them in a pretty dress and pour flowers over them. You dance around them, and you sing silly songs. You pretend that the ceremony is just as it's always been, even though it was only invented in your granny's time. It makes you feel good about yourself, your family, and your village, because it symbolizes the continuity of English tradition, or the cuteness and innocence of childhood, or the permanence and rebirth of nature, or some other lie. You hope that the little girl chosen will be well-behaved and not spoil the occasion, but her Queen-of-the-Mayness is not dependent on whether she pinched her baby brother's last jelly baby on Friday night.

I believe Diana Spencer to have been a good person. I had a letter from a reader of my webpage condemning Tony Blair for making such a fuss about someone who was nothing but a 'bed-hopping party girl.' I want to encourage people to condemn Tony Blair as often as possible, but I don't want to associate myself with this sort of speaking ill of the dead. Diana Spencer put in more hours work for charity and more visiting of the sick than her job description required her to. She paid more attention to people--held their hands, smiled at them, remembered their names--than the other stuffy Royals. But this is a sort of goodness which is possessed by tens of thousands of nurses, nuns, vicars, salvation army volunteers, doctors, school teachers, social workers and even the odd human being. It is not grounds for canonization. In normal life, it would not be grounds for an O.B.E.

4: Idolatry is a bad thing

There is no real harm in putting up a statue of Jesus outside your church. There is no harm in getting the best artist in the village to carve it out of the finest materials. There is no harm in using it as a focus for religious devotion: the mental pictures of God which most of us pray to are theologically pretty stupid. (I admit to occasionally falling back on a rotund sepia monarch which lodged itself in my brain in nursery school: fat, jovial, like the man in the moon, and I think--it is hard to bring the image into focus--with an Elizabethan ruff. When I try to do better, I end up worshipping Robert Powell.) And there is probably very little harm in the more naive church goers starting to think that Jesus really does live in the churchyard (just between the porch and Gladys Winterbotham's grave). Maybe it's stupid of them to walk to church every evening to pray to the statue; but if they are really praying, who is going to stop them?

The trouble starts when you start to attribute divine powers to the statue itself. The trouble starts when you think of it, not as an image which helps you point your mind at God, but as a magic statue. Before very long, people think that touching it, or leaving flowers for it makes sure that God will bless you or heal you or make you win the lottery. People queue for hours and hours to touch it. They scream and cry for just one glance. Or else they chip fragments and splinters from it, and put them in magic amulets, and sell them at huge prices and believe that as long as they are wearing them they can eat economy burgers without catching CJD. People who profess atheism--people who have never even heard of Jesus (Sunday school stopped years ago; the teachers are too busy polishing the statue) start doing scientific studies into whether the amulet can heal the sick.

When that happens you can be absolutely sure that the puritans will be arriving on the next train. They will tell you that the statue--not God--is now your object of devotion. They will march into the churchyard and smash it down and use the fragments to pave the road. They will go into the church, and smash up all the other paintings and statues you happen to have there, and then burn the vicar's holiday snaps for good measure. And they will leave you with a reformed, republican, Protestant religion: one free from idol worship, but with no beautiful statues, no focus for the holy--and one where the naive, pious villagers find it very hard to say their prayers, because all their symbols have been taken from them.

5: Our adulation of Diana Spencer has become idolatrous.

For a week, we have been told that Diana Spencer was Special and Unique, not because of her ceremonial and symbolic role, but because she was such a special, unique, saintly person. ('Born a lady, became a princess, died a saint.' If Diana was a saint, what are people going to say about Mother Theresa?) So we have heard about her wonderful charity work, incredible kindness to the poor and disadvantaged, and how she did amazing things like cuddle her children and send them off to expensive boarding schools like everybody else. (Ten years ago, the same papers were praising her for hitting her children, but we'll let that pass.)

The reasoning seems to be that since millions and millions of people treat her as if she was special, she must actually have been very special. Her lack of stuffiness is the best candidate for Specialness which we have been able to find. I call this superstition. When little children believe (as quoted on Tuesday's Channel 4 news) that 'She was special because she cared about sick children' then I'm afraid that I turn puritan.

We must smash these icons; purify the alters; and prohibit people from praying to plaster saints. If you aren't old enough to treat monarchy sensibly, then you shouldn't be allowed to have one. Our lives will be poorer without these grand ceremonies and daft traditions, but the superstitious worship of a perfectly ordinary human being is a much greater evil. The 'fitting tribute' to Diana Spencer that the press are so worried about should be the dissolution of her cult.

William can be president for life, if he wants to be; but please let's not cut the throat of any more may-queens.

Wednesday, January 01, 1997

Budget Defecit

Headline, Daily Mail
I was unemployed, on and off, for ten years; I've been employed for barely a year. It already seems like a different world. When you are on the dole, your whole life slows down. Everything is placed on pause. You find yourself staying in bed for 24 hours at a time. Worse, you start to wander—looking at the toy department of Woolworth's, browsing books in the library, but somehow lacking the motivation to actually read anything. Why start a book today, when you can start it just as well tomorrow, or the next day? You start to think that you have really achieved something if you get out of bed and buy a pint of milk. Oprah Winfrey and The Archers become punctuation marks. And the cards in the dole officer say 'must have own transport' and the adverts in the papers are for jobs with titles you don't even know the meaning of, and the only reason you can find for sending off application is to get a rejection letter to use to fend off the ill-mannered clerk when you sign on and claim dole for another fortnight. You want a job, desperately, but after a few weeks of it, you can't see any way out of it.
With stick and carrot, Brown goes to war on the young jobless!
Headline, Daily Mail
Unemployment benefit is £39 a week. In my new job, after tax, rent, poll tax, two lots of water rates (one for drinking and one for shitting); telephone bill; electricity bill; television licence and Internet subscription; I am left with £100 a week in my pocket. It is often hard to manage. I rarely have much left at the end of the month. A pair of trousers in Marks and Spencers costs £35. I am a bachelor.
'With the first Labour Budget in 18 years, Gordon Brown yesterday launched the party's crusade to put an army of youngsters to work.'
Front page, Daily Mail
At the top of the Christmas Steps in Bristol there was a skinhead with a begging bowl and a hand-written sign saying 'poems for sale'. I didn't go and talk to him, perhaps I should have. The recent changes in the rules mean that it is increasingly hard for single people to claim Housing Benefit. When I was on the dole, there were rumours that a Workfare (work for dole) scheme was going to be introduced. I became half afraid that it would be a choice between a government make-work scheme and losing my benefit. I pictured myself blowing my last weeks dole on a second hand lap top, and camping outside the job centre until I was evicted, writing articles and poetry and selling them to people, getting my name in the paper and getting evicted and sent to prison. Had it come to it, I think I might even have had the courage of my convictions. I'd dislike prison less than working outdoors, anyway.
'What is reassuring is that, if they spurn this heavily subsidised bureaucratically clumsy chance to acquire the work habit, it seems that they will lose 60% of their benefits. Who knows? Maybe only a New Labour Government can get that tough with youngsters who are work shy.'
Editorial Daily Mail
We in the dole queue (I had not thought debt had undone so many) did not want 'work'. We wanted 'a job.' 'Work' is an odious necessity, the curse of Adam and the drinking classes. 'A Job' is a place to go in the daytime, a place to interact with a circle of acquaintances while doing something which you are fairly good at. 'A lawyer' they say on the American cop shows 'Isn't what I do; it's who I am'. The unemployed don't know who they are. I once worked in a brewery, pilling cans of Castlemain XXXX on a conveyer belt in steel toe capped boots which didn't quite fit. The other employees talked about niggers and totty. I was the only person there who had never been in gaol. One shut one's eyes, counted a hundred cans, and looked at the clock to see how many minutes had passed. The money was good. It may have been work, but it was the antithesis of a job.
'The carrots being phoney, then, everything will depend on the ferocity with which the stick is applied and the accuracy with which it falls on the welfare donkey's expensive rump. Will the nerve of Gordon Brown and of the Government as a whole, hold steady when the unemployed and the single mothers begin to squeal at their reduced benefits? We will see'
Paul Johnson, Daily Mail.
As a nation we suffer from Post Puritan Work Ethic Disorder. Smoothed clothes look nicer than wrinkled ones. Arithmetic is easier if you can do single figured sums in your head. So you have to resign yourself to hateful tasks like ironing and learning your tables. But there are crazy, dangerous, evil people who think that its the ironing and the learning which are the point. We wear suits and do maths because ironing and rote-learning are character building. Work, particularly when boring and done by poor people, is a good thing. Smartness and correct sums show that you are the sort of person who puts in the hours learning and ironing. They show that you are Elect. Drip dry trousers and adding machines are bad things, wicked things. While Tony Blair is giving laptop computers to every school child in the country, David Blunket is taking away their pocket calculators. The unemployed are the most wicked of all; and paying them money compounds the wickedness. The welfare state says you can have food and clothes and medicine and somewhere to live irrespective of whether you work. It contradicts the puritan work ethic. It flies in the face of the will of Calvin's God. It must be abolished at all costs.
'In Britain today, one in five of working age households has no-one earning a wage. In place of welfare, there should be work.'
Gordon Brown's Budget speech
In place of welfare, there should be work. And in place of doctors, there should be well people; in place of a defence policy, there should be love and kindness, in place of poverty, there should be champagne and caviar. Welfare means 'pay when you are out of work.' If you work to earn it, it is not welfare, but 'wages'.
'It is time for welfare state to put opportunity again in people's hands. So we will create a new ladder of opportunity.'
Opportunity for what? To have a job, an identity? To do the thing that you always wanted to do, to find out who you are? To do mindless, soulless, gut-eating work at John Smiths brewery? To leave your children with a child minder while you go to a factory and spend all day making useless plastic goods which no-one needs, and to think that you are a good parent because you can use the wage-packet to buy your children useless plastic goods which no-one needs?
'Starting from next year, every young person age 18-25 who is unemployed for more than six months will be offered the first step on the employment ladder.'
If I offer you my last Rolo, I am implying that I have a Rolo to give you. You have a perfect right to say 'no thank you'. If I am holding you down and forcing it down your throat through a funnel and tube; or if I live in a society which gives me the right to apply a stick to your expensive rump if you do not eat it; or if all non-Rolo eaters are to be thrown out of their homes, then we do not call it 'offering' any more.
'Tomorrow the Secretary for Education and Employment will detail the four options. All involved training leading to qualification: a job with an employer...'
Is Mr. Brown going to offer the young unemployed jobs? Is that his pledge? A job for every one of the 250,000 young people who do not have one? A real job with a real wages packet? If that is his pledge, then my quarrel with him ends here.
Yet nowhere in his budget is there one word about where he is going to magic these 250,000 jobs from. It could be that the Daily Mail is right, and that these 250,000 vacancies already exist. The 250,000 young unemployed are simply work shy. They need only be persuaded, motivated, encouraged, forced (or, as we say in New English 'offered') to take them, and the unemployment problem goes away. If this is not the case—if the 250,000 vacancies do not exist, then Mr Brown has made a null statment. The 250,000 have the 'opportunity' to get a job, if they can find one, at this moment. They have also the 'opportunity' to take tea at the Ritz, granted that they are prepared to blow their cheque in one go and own the appropriate suit and shoes.
' with a voluntary organisation...'
This option also exists already. Any unemployed person may (subject to filling in a lot of tedious forms) do voluntary work while he is unemployed.
' with the environmental task force...'
The Environmental Task Force translates as 'doing manual labour for no pay.' Young people are sent to do useful work like 'park clearing or home insulation' and are paid wages equivilent to benefit £39 a week
'for those without basic qualifications, full-time education....'
If there are people of 18-25 without 'basic qualifications' (whatever that may turn out to mean) the option of full time education seems like a good idea. But again, this situation exists at present: if you've got no qualifications, there are all sorts of full and part time courses that you can go on.
'There will be no fifth option—to stay at home on full benefit. So when they sign on to benefit, they will be signing up for work. Benefits will be cut if young people refuse to take up these opportunities.'
Benefit will be cut.
At this moment, if you are unemployed the state will pay you benefit, which, according to my UB40 was 'the amount of money the government says you need to live on.' You are expected to look for a job, and you may take on voluntary work or go a course.
Brown's 'New Deal' amounts to nothing more than turning these two 'mays' into 'musts', and adding an additional 'must', that of manual labour.
'If you do not get a job, and if you already have basic skills (e.g, if you are an unemployed graduate) then you must go and do voluntary work. If you do not, then we will send you to do manual labour. Coercion, punishment, force, Paul Johnson's stick, will be used to force you to do this: your benefit will be cut by 60%—to £15.40 a week.'
It may be—I am not going to argue the case—that the puritan ethic is right and that work (cleaning parks and insulating lofts) is Good and unemployment (the unemployed) are Wicked. It may be that idle hands get up to mischief; that much 20th century crime and depression is the result of people being under-occupied; or even that hard work is God's way of showing that you are pre-destined for salvation. I do not wish for the moment to argue whether this, the traditional Conservative outlook is right or wrong. The point is that it is what lies behind the first Labour budget in 18 years. At any rate, the Dailies Mail and Telegraph think so, and praise Labour for being, in this respect, more right wing than the Conservatives.
When a wicked king imposes a rule, he tells you that he is granting you a new right; when he prohibits something, he tells you that you are gaining a new freedom.
The Daily Mail make no secret of their enthusiasm for coercion. They talk of 'putting the young unemployed back to work' of what the unemployed will 'have to' do, and of carrots and sticks and being thrashed by Paul Johnson. They are quite clear that the unemployed themselves are the problem, and that Workfare is something which is going to be done to them and serve them jolly well right.
Gordon Brown talks about options and choices and ladders and welfare. He talks about the right to work, says that unemployment is a social problem and implies that Workfare is something that he is going to do for the unemployed. Yet at bottom, he is saying precisely the same thing as the Daily Mail, and knows that he is.
The Daily Mail is honest, brutal, straightforward, cruel, fascistic. Reading it makes me want to go and punch them in the face. Gordon Brown is mealy mouthed, hypocritical, honey tongued. Listening to him makes me want to run to the bathroom and vomit.
And there are in this country people who think that we elected a Labour government.