Archive for the ‘politics’ Category
On the night of 1 May 1991, four Croatian police officers drove into the village of Borovo Selo, near Vukovar in eastern Slavonia, apparently to exchange the Yugoslav flag for a flag of the Republic of Croatia above a barricade that had been set up earlier that day by a recently-formed Serb militia in the village. Two of the four were wounded and captured when the militia fired on them during the raid. The next day, sixty fellow officers from Vinkovci entered Borovo Selo by bus in order to rescue the two men and drove into a pre-planned ambush at the entrance to the village. In the attack that followed, twelve of the Croatian officers were killed and their bodies mutilated. Horrific photographs of the recovered bodies were shown on Croatian television.
The Borovo Selo massacre amplified Croats’ fears of the rebellion against the Croatian authorities that had been growing in strength since the summer of 1990, when groups of Serbs had set up barricades across roads near Knin in another part of the country, Krajina. Armed incidents had already taken place: that Easter, a firefight in the Plitvice national park between Croatian police and rebels commanded by the Knin police chief, Milan Martic, had left one person dead on each side. The spread of violence into eastern Slavonia and the building of the Borovo Selo barricade Selo had come after the future Croatian defence minister, Gojko Susak, had fired rockets into Borovo Selo in what Laura Silber and Allan Little describe as ‘an unprovoked act of aggression’ against the local Serbs (The Death of Yugoslavia, p. 141).
Fear of where the rebellion and the countermeasures against it might lead had been growing since the Krajina barricades and the Plitvice gun battle. Yet even then, the visceral horror of the images from Borovo Selo seemed to change what it was possible to publicly say in Croatia. Journalists referring to the Serbs as ‘terrorists’ or ‘Chetniks’ – the nickname of the Serb royalist army during the Second World War, which had also massacred non-Serbs – became routine. In the field that I research, the entertainment industry, it was after Borovo Selo that the Croatian broadcaster stopped showing Serb musicians, even those such as the pop singer Zdravko Colic who had been acceptable as late as April 1991. After Borovo Selo, automatic suspicion of Serbs as national enemies could much more easily become ingrained common sense.
The video recorded on a smartphone in Woolwich a few minutes after the killing of Lee Rigby, a drummer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, approaches the horror of the pictures from Borovo Selo. The hands of the man claiming responsibility for the attack are still covered in blood. Both force the viewer to imagine the brutality of the killing; both depict the murder of victims who were killed because they served their state. Both are far beyond what a reader could normally expect to see on the front page of a newspaper in a time of peace.
Although many British newspapers used a still image from the recording on their front pages the day after the murder, The Guardian‘s use of the image was perhaps the most shocking. Filling the front page with the image, as The Guardian often does, the newspaper confronted readers with the photograph and a quotation from the alleged killer’s speech: ‘You people will never be safe.’ When taken up by a national newspaper, even more so by one that considers its editorial identity anti-racist, the words come perilously close to suggesting that a people – however this is going to be defined – is under immediate, planned attack, the same argument that has been put forward by the English Defence League since its formation in 2009.
On the evening of the killing, a remark apparently originating with a Metropolitan Police source that the attackers had been ‘of Muslim appearance’ was repeated by the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson (a comment for which he subsequently apologised). The Home Secretary, Theresa May, referred to the killing as ‘an attack on everybody in the United Kingdom’. The combination of words, images and commentary circulating in the British media in the aftermath of Woolwich, laid over the public ‘common sense’ about terrorist threats in the UK that has been built up throughout the War on Terror and especially since the 7/7 attacks in London, risked turning what was known about the immediate events – the attackers had claimed to have carried out the killing ‘because Muslims are dying every day’ – into a conclusion of collective guilt: Muslims are to blame.
Talking about guilt and aggression in collective terms creates an atmosphere in which the obstacles to someone’s decision to use violence come down. It can suggest that violence in revenge won’t be punished; that it will be condoned; that it will be justified; even, sometimes, that it counts as self-defence. Among the Guardian staff invited by the reader’s editor to comment on whether the front page had been appropriate, one staff member spoke about their fear that the Guardian’s use of the alleged killer’s quote would bring about precisely these results:
As someone with very religious Muslim family members in this country I watch press coverage of events like these closely, and often with a fair amount of fear. My mum, though she is one of the ‘you people’ in Thursday’s headline, lives in fear that she will become one of the ‘you people’ of the EDL’s chants.
In the five days after Woolwich, 71 hate crimes against Muslims were reported to UK police forces, including the attempted firebombing of a mosque in Grimsby (covered, like Hull, by the area of Humberside Police). A hotline operated by Faith Matters and the Tell MAMA Project has received reports of 201 incidents, ‘up from a daily average of four to six’. The EDL mobilised an unclear number of members – possibly 1,000, possibly more – to march through Westminster on Monday, easily outnumbering the anti-fascist counter-protestors who must now regroup before another far-right march from Woolwich to Lewisham on Saturday.
Many things set the killing in Woolwich apart from the massacre in Borovo Selo. In the background to each event are very different histories of discrimination, settlement, and relative power relations within and around the states where they took place. Their short-term backgrounds are very different, too, with a number and severity of incidents in the locality of Borovo Selo before the massacre that had not, thankfully, occurred in Woolwich. The Borovo Selo massacre took place within an ethnopolitical conflict where different authorities were claiming state sovereignty over territory; the far-right appropriation of Woolwich is an expression of anti-immigrant racism.
What connects them is a brutal killing, a horrific image, and what becomes more acceptable to say in public after the killing and the image become known.
In an academic context I would use the idea of the ‘collectivisation’ of threat or even guilt to explain some of the reactions it was possible to hear as news about the killing in Woolwich spread, and the increase in talk about Serb ‘terrorists’ and ‘Chetniks’ after the murders in Borovo Selo. It’s a thought process where members of a collective group, in this case a majority, recognise a threat as directed against the whole majority and coming from the whole of the minority that the killers belonged to rather than the immediate group that carried out the killing – whether the members of the militia who planned the ambush in Borovo Selo or however many people will be found to have arranged the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. And it is dangerous.
I started thinking through these parallels a day or two ago in conversation with bloggers @Puffles2010 and Sam Ambreen, who have both written about how the media’s sensationalisation of the Woolwich killing have increased the fear they feel as non-white people in Britain. Both refer to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian who was shot dead by police in 2005 who assumed, based on the colour of his skin, that he was one of the suspects for the 21/7 bombing:
[Nick] Robinson’s failure exposes a wider prejudice: the idea that you can judge someone’s religion by the colour of their skin. Once you get into that territory, you get into scenarios that cost Jean Charles de Menezes his life following 7/7. (@Puffles2010)
Jean Charles de Menezes was one of them. If we had any hopes of restitution post 9/11 (not from guilt but from between a rock and a hard place) the events of 7/7 dashed any chance of rebuilding the fearful paranoid Britain we found ourselves in. Menezes was not Muslim or South Asian, or an Arab. He just shared a similar tone of skin. What about his appearance made him look Muslim? Whatever it was, he paid with his life. (Sam Ambreen)
Sam also draws on my initial thoughts in part of a follow-up post she wrote after the EDL march on Monday. These writers, the Guardian staffer quoted by the readers’ editor, and many others, all have immediate reason to be afraid of being seen as part of a collective threat, and to vest those fears not just in the far right but also in the police. Ash Sarkar, in an update reblogged by Laurie Penny, wrote of her shock at seeing personal friends express hatred on Facebook when they heard of the attack:
I’ve seen people call for hanging, torture, extra-judicial killings, locking up/deporting all Muslims and attacks on mosques. These aren’t strangers on Twitter, but people I’ve grown up with: gone to school with, babysat for, and (in one case) kissed.
Hearing accounts like these (which deserve to be heard in full, rather than explained in a voice like mine – which, since I’m white and not a Muslim, can’t personally express the same degree of fear) points to a responsibility on the part of those of us who are being told we are collectively under attack not to contribute to collectivising guilt or threat any further if we reject the frame. The louder and safer the voice, the greater the responsibility.
Challenging hatred and the far right in the atmosphere that has become public with shocking speed since Woolwich seems a harder task, but also much more urgent, than it did before the Woolwich murder. Reading accounts of anti-fascist organising in Britain in the past, such as the Battle of Cable Street against the British Union of Fascists in 1936 or the resistance to the National Front in Lewisham in 1977, one wonders whether today’s movements would be able to organise similar numbers of people for action inherently more dangerous than the A-to-B marches that have characterised mainstream political protest in the 2000s and 2010s. At the same time, and just as urgently, we need to find ways to resist – and avoid replicating – the politics of collective guilt and threat that make direct violence more possible.
Who are the military wives?: The Military Wives Choir(s) and the new British patriotic popular music
After my last blog post on British war memory, where I wrote about how contemporary public commemorative culture seemed to be closing down the range of meanings that Remembrance symbols could have, I wasn’t sure that I’d been entirely fair on the Military Wives. In the original post, I used the Military Wives choir’s performances at commemorative events as evidence of an ‘entertainment/military complex’ in British showbusiness. This is certainly something that the Military Wives have been incorporated into, but at the same time, I don’t think it captures all the reasons why the choir formed, and I don’t think my discussion of them entirely followed the approach I prefer to take: start with the people and their stories, then let’s talk public.
For one thing, rather than talking about ‘the choir’, it would be more accurate for me to talk about ‘the choirs’. The choirmaster Gareth Malone, whose project to prepare a choir of amateur singers to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011 was filmed for a series of the BBC documentary The Choir, in fact formed two choirs at Royal Marines Base Chivenor and another base in Plymouth. (Each series follows Malone forming and rehearsing amateur choirs that reflect a particular social group; other series have featured choirs of schoolchildren, care home residents, NHS staff, postal workers and so on.) The recording artists presented to the public as ‘the Military Wives’, who recorded two albums in 2011 and 2012, are actually an assembly of five choirs – the Chivenor and Plymouth groups plus others from Portsmouth, Catterick and Lympstone, each contributing one or more songs to the album.
Beyond commercial showbusiness, moreover, the idea of a military wives choir with an everyday social function has spread well beyond the bases where the project was filmed. The Military Wives Choirs Foundation, set up by the wife of a soldier based at Catterick, has now developed choirs at more than 50 bases as part of the support services that military spouses on and near bases offer each other:
As military wives and partners we are often on the move, which means being far from friends and family, often at times when we need them most. Our network of choirs is growing across the UK and beyond which means our members can now move easily between choirs when they receive a new posting.
With choirs now in varying stages of development at over 50 locations, wherever women with a military connection are, our choirs are there. So when or wherever you move again, a new choir is there to welcome you in. If there isn’t a choir at your new post, get in touch and we can offer you practical help and support to set one up.
An excerpt from Malone’s autobiography suggests that the televised project publicised an idea that wives in other military communities felt would fill a need:
More and more military wives around the country were contacting me via Facebook and Twitter to say: ‘I’d like to join one of these choirs — where can I go?’
The first person I contacted was Nicky Clarke, a wife at the Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire, who had written to me a couple of years before to ask me to form a choir there.
It hadn’t been possible at the time, but it was her letter that had inspired the whole project.
Now, I discovered, Nicky had started a choir herself, which was creating a stir of its own. Not only that, but she was passionate about rolling out military choirs across the country. The time, she said, was ripe — and I agreed.
What we see as ‘the Military Wives’ in showbusiness, then, is only part of a network of everyday music-making which has the potential to provide meaningful comfort, solace and solidarity for the women who belong to it, but which largely goes unseen by the producers and members of the public who record, book, watch or buy the music that the national face of the choir(s) has made. At the same time, though, the choir does have a public representation: the producers of records, television shows and public events choose musicians with specific intentions, for the sake of the audiences they appeal to, the images and histories they have, and the narratives that producers consciously or less consciously want to express. If the concept didn’t resonate with widespread discourses that already exist in public, the choir wouldn’t have had the commercial success that it has had.
After their series of The Choir, the Military Wives were signed by Decca. This is a large classical label whose roster includes several British forces bands, among them the Band of the Coldstream Guards, the Royal Air Force Central Band, the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the RAF Squadronaires, a big band that originated when a number of professional musicians were called up to join the Royal Air Force band in 1939. These long-standing military bands with recording contracts have been joined by newer groups, whose songs are often released as charity singles: in 2009, for instance, the Band and Bugles of The Rifles recorded a version of Love Farewell (a song familiar from the Sharpe dramas about a fictional Napoleonic rifleman) to raise funds for Help for Heroes, after a year in which the regiment had suffered the biggest losses of any regiment in Afghanistan. The Soldiers, formed of two Army musicians and a guardsman who reached the boot camp stage of The X Factor in 2007, similarly released their first single in support of the Army Benevolent Fund. The market that the Military Wives fit into is established.
The first Military Wives single, and perhaps the choir’s showbusiness project as a whole, exists somewhere between the level of personal memory and the level of national cohesion. The singers’ T-shirts in their first video read ‘My Husband Protects Queen & Country… and I Sing for Queen & Country’. Yet the video also includes family photographs; letters between soldiers, wives and children; ‘welcome home’ posters; home videos of troops’ return. Sometimes these include flags or other national symbols; more often, they’re personal and intimate. Incorporating these mementos into a public text, advertised with the encouragement to ‘Buy “Wherever You Are” and support our armed forces’, means that they cannot stay solely personal and intimate; they contribute to a collage that tells a story of who British troops and their wives are and what they do. For the people who have contributed these items, at the time they contributed them, this isn’t a contradiction.
The sound of the new British patriotic popular music is recognisably a genre. Songs are in choral or musical-theatre style; where the arrangement doesn’t involve a military band itself, hints of pipes or snare drums are likely. The thematics of this genre are consistent, too. The songs on the Military Wives’ albums deal with separation and reunion. The lead single of the first album, which became the British Christmas number 1 in 2011, is an original composition; others are cover versions of earlier pop songs (U2’s With Or Without You; Coldplay’s Fix You; Up Where We Belong, used in the final scene of An Officer and a Gentleman where the uniformed naval officer returns to his girlfriend’s workplace and literally sweeps her off her feet) or hymns (Eternal Father, Strong To Save, traditionally sung in prayer for military and civilian sailors). The formula is the same on their second album, Stronger Together, which is likewise a collection of songs by different choirs: choral versions of pop songs such as Richard Marx’s Right Here Waiting (frequently requested on radio by the partners of US soldiers deployed in the First Gulf War), a Christian hymn (the carol In The Bleak Midwinter), plus original singles including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee song Sing (the most ‘public’-scale, rather than personal-scale, song the choir has performed).
These align with the lyrics of other musicians who are marketed as part of this genre, although the music by serving soldiers seems to deal more directly with the thought of death. The Soldiers’ Coming Home (‘Coming home with pride / coming home with heads held high / coming home from lands afar / coming home to your arms’) begins with an acknowledgement of ‘the wounded and the brave / the ones God couldn’t save’). Love Farewell, the song revived by The Rifles in 2009, depicts a soldier’s thoughts at the moment of parting from a lover:
If I should fall in far-off battle
Bugles roar and rifles rattle
Thoughts fly homeward – words unspoken
Valiant hearts are oft-times broken
Will you go or will you tarry
Will you wait or will you marry
Would this moment last for ever
Kiss me now and leave me never
The possible fate of troops serving overseas is present in the thoughts of military wives, in the knowledge of their listeners, and in the existence of the charities for which their music raises money. It is a silence in their music itself.
The women who constitute the Military Wives choir in its showbusiness engagements are public figures, in a way. Compared to most other groups in showbusiness, it’s difficult to find information about the members as individuals: this hasn’t routinely been part of their publicity, although this Christmas a book of their personal accounts as military wives has been published by HarperCollins. Their significance is in standing for military wives as a collective. What is reproduced here is a powerful public narrative, far older than this choir or indeed these women, on which the practices of the military and the state depend: the male soldier who leaves in order to protect, and the wife who waits. The opening of non-combat military roles to women and the lifting of the ban on homosexuality hasn’t fundamentally changed the position that this dyad has at the heart of the military and public imagination.
Much is missing from the public image that representations of the Military Wives choir present. Missing are the same-gender relationships; the male spouses and the female soldiers; the increasing racial diversity of the military (since the wives and soldiers pictured are predominantly white); the non-Christian and atheist expressions of hope and grief; and, of course, the many instances where the actions of a military husband on deployment or his actions towards his own family have not been the actions of – as the chorus of Wherever You Are describes the soldier – ‘my prince of peace’.
Although it’s possible to call the members of the commercial Military Wives Choir public figures, all military wives are of public importance in another sense. States depend on their emotional labour to confirm the particular masculinities with which they need male soldiers to identify, as Cynthia Enloe argued in her research into the militarisation of women’s lives:
If I could show that the state is so dependent on these people called military wives who are never thought of as serious political actors, I could show two things: one, that states were more fragile than was presumed because look, they were dependent upon a whole group of actors that people didn’t give the time of day to; and two, the state is conscious of that dependence and expends scarce resources to try to control those women. (Enloe and Zalewski 1999: 142)
Incorporating this choir into occasions of state, such as the royal jubilee or the Festival of Remembrance, incorporates military wives as a category into the public life of the nation. While not a glorification of war, the choir’s music most certainly functions as a celebration of military service: opinions will vary as to whether it is possible to celebrate one without necessarily glorifying the other. I hope it would be fair to say that military wives are neither purely victims of war nor purely beneficiaries of it.
Thinking about the Military Wives Choir and its place in contemporary British public life means thinking about several levels of experience. There are the personal experiences of being separated and anxious, and of the practical problems faced by the partners of deployed soldiers. There is the social community that military wives form with other women who can share their worries, and which the wider choirs initiative seems to have been able to strengthen. And there is what the civilian public observe and understand of these activities, largely mediated through showbusiness and commemoration: how far do these meanings relate to the things that have created solidarity between the members of the choir, and how far do they relate to the overarchive narrative of wives waiting for their husbands, which serves to explain a particular gender order and its militarisation?
The choirs initiative as a whole, on the fifty or more bases where it now operates, seems to have functions grounded in its members’ everyday lives that aren’t so visible in the public representation of the commercial choir. I hesitate to talk about a ‘disconnect’ between the activity and the representation, since it isn’t clear to me that the choir members would perceive any such thing. But one thing, perhaps, is a group of women in the same situation, facing common problems as a result of a shared experience, developing a skill, participating in music, and using choir rehearsal as a way to strengthen emotional bonds. It’s another thing to reduce a choir’s members and their vocal craft entirely to one social identity, as the public representation of the Military Wives Choir seems to do; what’s distinctive about them as public performers is no more and no less than the fact that they are military wives. Should commemorative culture change or public interest in the lives of military families decline, showbusiness would be unlikely to stay involved with them very long.
So maybe this is where the disconnect lies: between musicians as individuals and workers, and the public representations that are made using their images and voices. To what extent does the military wives’ choirs initiative help to improve the wellbeing of military partners and children in general, and how much potential does it have to alleviate the damage that the conditions of military service cause to families? And how far is its incorporation into commercial showbusiness able contribute to these objectives in a lasting way? These are the criteria I’m drawn to judge it by, and time will tell whether any of it causes change. But my feeling is that music videos and chart positions don’t tell us everything about the choirs as a whole.
I published an updated version of this post (going up to the WW1 centenary) at Balkanist in 2014.
Since 1922, the Royal British Legion (the largest veterans’ organisation in the UK) has been employing disabled veterans to make the Remembrance poppies that it sells as part of its annual charity appeal. I grew up close to the Richmond riverside, where the Poppy Factory sits close to the Royal Star and Garter Home, a hospital for wounded soldiers opened by the British Red Cross in 1916. In a way, the Poppy Appeal was a local charity. I remember poppies as being just one of many charity appeals that my mum would encourage us to give to during street collections: Oxfam, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a charity in Kingston named after Princess Alexandra that I helped to shake tins for outside the Bentalls Centre although I have no recollection now of what it did…
My mother hates war and militarism, but usually or always donated to the Poppy Appeal, and to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund in memory of her dad – my grandfather – who had been an RAF pilot during the Second World War. (I’m using the past tense because, now that I don’t live with her, I couldn’t say whether she still wears a poppy or not.) His war experiences had effects on the family that stayed with her and will stay with her for the whole of her life. I’m not able to say what her reasons were, or what memories might have been going through her mind, when she saw the appeals’ symbols and dropped a coin into the tin. But when I think about poppy-wearing now, whatever approach I want to take has to get past those things I was able to observe about my mother: this symbol had at least some potential to accommodate many experiences, many memories, and many views on war.
Over the weekend, and especially on Sunday morning, most of my Twitter timeline was taken up with different views on wearing and displaying the Remembrance poppy. My thoughts wouldn’t fit easily into 140 characters, so I didn’t have much to say. To many people I follow, the poppy today appears as an uncritical celebration of the UK’s current wars and of a pervasive militarism that has made them possible. Some prefer to wear the white poppy, which was adopted by the Peace Pledge Union in 1933 as an explicit ‘challenge to the continuing drive to war’. The white poppy is much harder to find – in Richmond in the eighties, I’d never seen one – and is explicitly directed against the state-driven meanings that its creators identify in the red poppy:
the question lingers: if the dead are said to have ‘sacrificed’ their lives, then why weren’t the living, who came out of the same danger, being suitably honoured and cared for by the state that sent them into it? The language of Remembrance, in the light of that, looks more like propaganda than passion.
Many people on my timeline talked about friends and relatives who had been harmed by war – some who had chosen to take part and others who had no choice. A number of arguments criticised the idea of the military hero that is part of the public culture of Remembrance: does treating soldiers as heroes by virtue of their service blind us to the crimes that some commit? Do all soldiers, just by choosing to be soldiers, in fact commit a crime? Are there circumstances in which a person choosing not to fight alongside British soldiers, or indeed choosing to fight against them, could also be a hero? Some of the people making these arguments rejected the symbol of the poppy altogether. Some others of them chose to wear it anyway.
But then, when many people display the same symbol, who can tell the varying reasons for displaying it that they may have? Walking down the street, each person may have a different, unique and intimate reason for wearing it; but watching the crowd there is an impression of uniformity, that everyone is expressing belief and commitment to a common cause. The nature of that common cause is in the eye of the observer. You may see nationalism. You may see sadness. You may see imperialism. You may see pacifism. You may see political conformity. The symbol masks the differences, yet perhaps it also leaves space within a crowd for different thoughts about it.
The political anthropologist David Kertzer gives the example of a political rally in Italy in his book Ritual, Politics and Power (1988). A crowd attends, carrying symbols of the political party – in this case, banners and flags. To an observer and even to each other, the common symbols show a crowd that has gathered in support of the party’s values. The performance of togetherness is real, but it tells the observer nothing about each person’s motivation for being there or any person’s interpretation of the party’s programme. In fact, each person in the crowd may have their own understanding of what the rally is and what the party is saying. It’s the symbol that makes the group make sense when it is looked at.
So the poppy, or any similar symbol, is contradictory. On one hand, it has many different meanings, some of which contend with each other. On the other hand, whoever wears a symbol can never fully control how the symbol will be read.
The poppy I remember from the limited sphere of British public life I was aware of in the eighties kept quieter about itself than today’s poppy. Poppy Appeal advertising, in line with the general trend of charity marketing in the West, plays ever more on the emotions of the public: one poster near where I live has the slogan ‘Military families pin their hopes on you’ (which just makes me think: what about the government?) The Royal British Legion’s current slogan, ‘Shoulder to shoulder with those who serve’, evokes for me Tony Blair’s statement about UK/US relations on 9/11 and feels uncomfortably associated with contemporary wars that have had shaky public support – an unfortunate choice for an organisation whose mission has a broader historical span. And then there is the showbusiness. Isn’t there the showbusiness. The Poppy Appeal has had an official charity single for several years, and this year was also launched with a free concert in Trafalgar Square featuring Alesha Dixon and Pixie Lott (whereas the Spice Girls only read a poem when they launched the appeal in 1997). X Factor contestants and judges all wear poppies in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, and in 2008 and 2010 the show released group singles featuring all contestants to raise money for Help for Heroes, a newer charity for wounded soldiers and veterans that was founded in 2007. (Mariah Carey’s Hero and David Bowie’s Heroes, for the record.)
This level of showbusiness involvement in Remembrance feels new in Britain. The end result reminds me of Croatian showbusiness during and after the war of independence in 1991-95, when at certain points practically every professional musician participated in campaigning and commemoration under the auspices of the state broadcaster, HRT. The 1990s showbusiness calendar contained many annual pop festivals (live competitive song contests, often open-air) that producers had inherited from the Yugoslav system and repurposed. The inaugural edition of a new festival, Melodies of the Croatian Adriatic (Melodije Hrvatskog Jadrana) in 1993 was remembered by music critics for several years afterwards as an epitome of HRT’s wartime nationalism: many of the audience tickets had been distributed to Croatian soldiers who attended in uniform, and the presenter read out soldiers’ telegrams before the performance by Drazen Zecic, a singer who was himself in the Croatian Army. (The fact that Zecic won the audience vote was unsurprising.) For several years after the end of the war, the Croatian Army operated its own televised pop festival in which all contestants had to be serving or former military personnel. Hardly a public commemoration, or political rally, in Croatia goes past without a free pop concert in a public square. These examples end up as my reference point when I think about the ‘poppyfication’ of entertainment in the UK – not as a way of presenting this politicisation of entertainment as non-British, but as a reminder to think in a broader way about how politics, television and popular music are connected.
There have always been connections between Britain’s modern popular music industry and the military: musicians can be hired to perform at military bases in the UK and abroad (Katherine Jenkins, the latest musician to be termed ‘Forces’ sweetheart’ in the press, is probably the highest-profile musician to regularly play for troops in Afghanistan), and will earn royalties if their songs are played on the Forces broadcaster, BFBS. What’s new – or rather, what’s revived – is the extent to which war and the military are referenced in the music they make and the promotional texts written about them, particularly when musicians have personal associations with the British military.
When James Blunt released his first album in 2004, his Army service as a junior officer in Kosovo was a curiosity, explaining one of his album tracks but not structuring his career as a whole. In contrast, the careers of newer musicians with military backgrounds are explicitly military-themed: the music of the Military Wives choir, formed by a BBC project in 2011, is rooted entirely in the members’ experiences as the wives of deployed troops.
The choir has been heavily involved in commemorative events such as the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance, and performed at the send-off of a group of Royal Marines taking part in a fundraising march. There’s ample room to read this as an example of the militarisation of everyday life, which feeds on very engrained (and heteronormative) concepts of what it means to be a soldier and a soldier’s spouse. Yet this isn’t the only perspective from which the convergence of entertainment and commemoration has been criticised this year. During the Festival of Remembrance, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Richard Kemp, grumpily expressed the view that light music was not appropriate for a solemn occasion:
Part of the Festival of Remembrance this year was Jonjo Kerr, a member of the Yorkshire Regiment who reached the X Factor finals in 2011 and deployed to Afghanistan with his company earlier this year, but not before recording a duet with the Military Wives, who accompanied his performance at the Royal Albert Hall.
The nucleus of the entertainment/military complex in the UK seems to be X Factor and the complex of producers around it. Gary Barlow, this year’s chief judge in the absence of Simon Cowell, also co-ordinated the official song for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, featuring the ‘Commonwealth Band’ of musical theatre stars and the Military Wives again. Although this set of activities is of obvious use to the state, the military, the monarchy, and the non-state organisations that work in support of them, its origins are with a privately-owned television station, ITV, rather than with the public BBC. There’s more that could probably said about the implications of this network for thinking about the relationship between popular music, politics and the state.
What does this have to do with wearing a poppy?
The thoughts and memories about wearing a poppy that I began this post with have to do with people wearing them. Increasingly, though, it feels as if institutions wear them too. And this is very different territory. After the launch of the Poppy Appeal, a season that itself seems to get longer every year, politicians and broadcast personalities wear poppies on every public appearance, as if they’ll be taken to task for not doing so – and, with the Daily Mail around, they probably will be. The sentiment is summed up in this billboard from the Royal British Legion, which has been towering over a nearby parade of shops for several weeks: a poppyless suit lapel with the slogan ‘Something missing?’
Even if this coerciveness was always inherent in the Poppy Appeal, as one line of pacifist criticism suggests, the explicitness of coercion in this image is new. In me, it induces a level of discomfort that I haven’t felt about this symbol before. I think that I’ve bought a poppy in most recent years, and worn it or not worn it depending on whether it will stay on my coat. At least, I haven’t made the conscious decision not to buy one; until this year, when on thinking about it I decided not to.
This doesn’t mean that I may never buy one again, or that I’d argue that somebody who bought one this year shouldn’t have. It’s more to do with what it means to make a choice. If I buy and wear a poppy every year, there’s a point at which it stops being a choice that I review each year, and becomes more of a personal tradition. I do have items I wear every day without thinking any more about why I wear them, but none of them are symbols of a collective identity or a public appeal. When something has as much meaning attached as a Remembrance poppy, I want to have thought deeply about why I’ve chosen to wear it, and for the choice to wear it to mean anything, I also have to be able to conceive of the choice not to. This year it felt like time for me to choose not to.
Yesterday evening, Kent Police announced that they had arrested a man for posting an image of a burning paper poppy on Facebook. I’d planned this post before I heard about it, but the news (the latest in a growing number of arrests for ‘malicious telecommunications’ using Facebook or Twitter) increases my discomfort at the coerciveness of the contemporary poppy even further. Is the poppy now so sacred and unquestionable that depicting its burning on a social network must be considered a crime? If so, that too must feed into my choices in future years about whether or not to display one, as it will feed into the choices of other people’s. And sacred symbols are not really something I like to display.
The more the meaning of the poppy is fixed (and I recognise some people believe that it has always been fixed in this way), the more it shuts down space to identify with and express other meanings, that at least until now used to be attached to it.
Remembrance Sunday is just one component of British national identity, and of some other national identities where war memory has mingled with Britain’s – in Canada, where the current government has also been accused of politicising Remembrance, or in Australia and New Zealand, where 11 November takes second place to a separate commemoration of veterans on Anzac Day. But the problem of the poppy points to a much wider question about how we use and interpret symbols of any kind: similar debates emerged, for instance, around national symbols such as the Union Flag during the London Olympics and Paralympics. These are symbols that have been created for official purposes, in support of aims with which a member of the public might or might not agree. Yet is it possible for people to use them in ways that express or communicate personal meanings that may be very different – may even contradict those official aims?
It may not always work. But I want to believe that the possibility, at least, exists. Because I also believe that the creators of culture don’t get the final say in what their creations mean to people, and that’s the only way that I can find to reconcile those beliefs.
Still. The more that institutions wear the poppy, the less room there is for individuals to choose to do so.
One of the most memorable moments from the political satire The Thick of It, and one of the easiest to believe, is when the fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship has suffered a catastrophic loss of data on what is perhaps the most sensitive topic in British political debate. The department’s special adviser, Ollie Reeder, claps his hands to his head and moans like a beached whale: ‘We’ve lost the immigration figures!’
For all that a particularly ‘sympathetic’ individual case can temporarily mobilise public interest – the former Commonwealth soldiers facing deportation or the Afghan interpreter whose asylum claim was rejected (and then reopened) by the UK Border Agency – the greatest sins a British government can commit to do with immigration seem to revolve around numbers: allowing too many immigrants to enter, or even worse, not knowing how many immigrants in the country there are.
Before I go on to talk about the flaws in this kind of ‘politics of number’ (a term I’m picking up from Jenny Edkins’s recent book on missing persons), I ought to be open about the fact that I believe UK immigration policy as it has developed is restrictive and damaging. Its impact on the sector I work in worries me. If a British university wants to field a world-class team of researchers and teachers, it has to have freedom to pick them from around the world, and at all career levels from graduate student up; I don’t believe it would have improved my prospects as a British job-seeker in higher education, or my aspirations to become a world-class researcher myself, if I’d been prevented from learning from the best. (The current immigration tiers are supposed to make allowances for immigrants of extraordinary ability, but depend on quotas which are clearly insufficient.) Fee increases, the abolition of the post-study work visa, and fiascos such as London Met’s loss of student visa sponsorship privileges or the recent queues outside the Overseas Visitors Records Office in London all dissuade non-EEA students from considering the UK rather than ‘competitor’ university providers. Non-EEA students are an important source of revenue for UK universities, although I can’t use that to justify my position if I also feel tuition fees are too high. Rather, having taught in a department where its multinational character was a distinctive part of its ethos, I know that everyone in the classroom (British taxpayers and the children of British taxpayers included, if that’s how we have to play it) received a higher quality experience because of the range of people there and the different kinds of knowledge they could bring.
And it’s easy for me to say that. I don’t experience the negative social effects that are attributed to immigration. But I do believe that the people most responsible for those effects aren’t immigrants. We can’t explain housing shortages without explaining why homes and land are allowed to stand empty, why few properly ‘affordable’ homes are built, why the political consensus is that rents should be uncontrolled, or why it isn’t a policy goal for as many people as possible to be able to live near their workplace and travel sustainably. We can’t explain the widespread common-sense perception that immigrants undercut the wages of British workers without asking why the kind of exploitative conditions recorded in this research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are allowed to happen to any worker within territory controlled by the British state.
I find it frustrating that no mainstream political option in England is regularly asking these questions. (Scotland may be another matter.) Yet I also find it frustrating that, even when politicians argue in favour of a more open immigration policy, the arguments they make are so often framed in terms of numbers.
Last month I watched the live stream of a House of Commons debate on immigration, which discussed a motion raised by a Conservative MP, Nicholas Soames, who was calling on the government ‘to take all necessary steps to reduce immigration to a level that will stabilise the UK’s population as close as possible to its present level’. (What are those necessary steps? The SNP’s Pete Wishart challenged Soames straight away to spell them out. They were still left to our imagination.) It took more than an hour, when Labour’s Fiona Mactaggart began describing the lives of her constituents in Slough, for any speaker to talk about immigration through any lens other than the number of immigrants or their impact on the British population:
What I object to most about the motion is its focus on numbers and its failure to focus on the lives of human beings. That is the issue. If we are thinking about migration policy, the first thing we need to do is think about who the migrants are, what they are here for and what the benefits are to them, their families, the communities they come to and the country as a whole.
Frankly, there is a serious consequence of not starting from the question of the lives of human beings, and we saw it in the decision on London Metropolitan University, where there has been a collective punishment of perfectly legitimate students for the failure of the institution at which they registered in all good faith. I am not saying that every student was necessarily legitimate, but we know that those students who are and who fulfil all the requirements have been collectively punished, absolutely contrary to British traditions, for the failure of the institution in which they work. That is a consequence of trying to decide immigration policy not on its human consequences, but on some abstract numerical basis. (Hansard 6 Sep 2012: 441-2)
I’m not a fan of everything Mactaggart does as a politician, particularly not her stance on sex work. But I couldn’t agree with her more here. Immigration policy does fail to focus on the lives of human beings, and has done so for a long time. And it’s far from the only thing that fails to do that.
The chances are, even someone reading this who wants to freeze or reduce immigration has probably been annoyed in some or other way by ‘computer says no’ culture – making decisions according to quantified criteria, with no regard for individual circumstances or possibility for human discretion. (The phrase comes from the sketch show Little Britain. I’m even less comfortable with most of Little Britain‘s representations than I am with Mactaggart’s stance on sex work, but this one is a useful addition to the language; a journalist during the RBS computer failure can ask, for instance, ‘what is their back up plan should the “computer say no”?’) Think about the number of situations that are now determined by computerised credit scoring or risk assessment, with nobody to complain to should the circumstances of your life not fit neatly into the average and the computer say no.
You could argue that fully quantified decision-making is fairer; that wherever there’s discretion there’s always room for discrimination, through conscious or unconscious prejudice. I still believe that’s something we can overcome, with strong personal and institutional commitment.
The political culture we live under today, writes Jenny Edkins in her book Missing, is ‘a politics that misses the person, a politics that objectifies and instrumentalizes’ (p. 2). I reviewed it a few months ago and found it a powerful way to think about what’s left out of contemporary public policy. Policy on the economy and welfare assumes that people are fully interchangeable individuals, without ties to each other or to places. They should move where the jobs are – ‘get on your bike’, in the words attributed to Norman Tebbit, and now actualised in a welfare policy that forces councils in areas with high housing costs to house social tenants in other parts of the country. Under this logic, to take a job that doesn’t fully use your potential to generate value is irrational. To keep an extra room up in your household so that family and friends can visit you is a luxury, for which recipients of housing benefit are to be penalised. These other human needs are unquantifiable, or at least (and I’m a qualitative researcher, so I would say this, wouldn’t I) something of their force is lost when we do quantify them. Edkins believes that the market principle is actually unable to take account of them:
The economic individual […] is exchangeable one for another, and ranked by wealth, purchasing power, or entitlements. The market principle allows us to ignore the needs of someone who has no money and who thus cannot express those needs in terms that the economic system can recognize. (p. 9)
In Edkins’s criticism of the market, there are echoes of Michael Sandel and his ethical questions about what money can’t buy; the passionate defence of the person as something, someone, who should not be reduced to economic value but so often is was also the strongest message I took away from reading David Graeber’s Debt. It’s there, more pithily, in the ethics of Terry Pratchett’s voice of wisdom, the witch Granny Weatherwax, who debates sin with a zealous priest in the novel Carpe Jugulum:
[‘S]in, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.’
‘It’s a lot more complicated than that—’
‘No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.’
‘Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—’
‘But they starts with thinking about people as things…’
I think this is why I’m frustrated by the official response that Labour, as this country’s opposition, has made to the heavily increased means tests for family visas – precisely the type of rules that are based entirely on economic calculations, unable to accommodate the many reasons why a person might fail to meet the criteria, and tailored by design to exclude the bottom half of British earners from bringing spouses or dependents to settle in the UK. (This may mean that, in cases such as a UK/US civil partnership, the couple are also unable to settle in the other partner’s country.) The shadow immigration minister, Chris Bryant, would prefer ‘to insist that anyone sponsoring a partner into this country deposits a financial bond, which would be used to protect the taxpayer and meet any unforeseen costs that might be incurred, and which would be redeemable after a fixed period’. There’s still an idea here that the welcomeness of immigration is to be understood primarily in terms of whether or not a person will cost the state more money than they pay back. It’s still a financial calculation, which has to depend on the idea that a person’s worth is somehow linked to how much money they can make. That’s a slippery slope, which has voting rights based on property qualifications at or near the bottom.
This isn’t opposition, at least not as I see it. Both sides are actually saying the same thing. The means test and the bond are both justified with the language of ‘fairness’; I want to suggest that the logic behind both those solutions has consequences that are profoundly unfair.
Behind all this there are beliefs about what kinds of knowledge are useful and what it’s appropriate to do with them. My own views on statistics are probably clear by now. It wouldn’t be possible to manage a modern state without them: you’ve got to work out how many houses need building somehow. But it’s personal histories and understanding or observing what people do that will tell you things like how they find the money to pay their housing costs, what trade-offs they make when they can’t afford everything that they might want in a home, what they use the rooms of their homes for, what amenities they need near their homes, how they want to decorate them and cook in them and heat and cool them, how they need their homes adapted to what their bodies are able or unable to do. Understanding those things will mean the houses that get built are better. Or at least I think so.
And when it comes to our values, the ethics we want to express as part of a political community, and the principles we want the people who politically represent us to be guided by, I don’t think we can determine those purely on the basis of statistics. Or at least I think so, too.
Because otherwise, it starts and finishes with seeing people as things.
The prevailing depictions of British national identity during the Olympics have been making me think a lot – as I’ve already started to explore here – about sources for the bottom-up, multi-viewpointed, multicultural narrative of identity that was famously staged in the opening ceremony. (If not in the closing ceremony – a much more standardised display of contemporary British pageantry, part of the same genre as all those pop spectacles celebrating the monarchy.)
Life history is a massive subject in its own right, but what interests me here is this emerging mode of imagining the nation as made up of millions of personal life stories with different start points, end points and trajectories, rather than having its character defined by rulers or statesmen or fitting within one homogenous ‘island story’.
Historical writing has most impact when it enters the public consciousness. Sometimes the historians themselves are the communicators, but it often takes artists, novelists and film-makers to carry out the translation. (Obviously this raises methodological questions about how we understand and represent the past, many of which are taken up in this essay by Robert Rosenstone; later this year I’ll be teaching on a module at Hull called Representing the Past in Film which invites first-year students to consider these.) That’s the case in many societies, of course, not just in Britain: with Serbia, for instance, Jasna Dragovic-Soso has shown how the arguments of Serbian revisionist historians in the 1980s, exposing silences and falsehoods in the official Titoist narrative of Yugoslavia’s Second World War, became widespread talking points at the moment when they were carried into cultural production by painters and popular novelists.
The scriptwriter for the Olympic opening ceremony, Danny Boyle’s regular collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce, has revealed that the representation of destruction and shock at the coming of the Industrial Revolution was inspired by Humphrey Jennings’s anthology Pandaemonium: the Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers (1985):
We shared the things we loved about Britain – the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution, the NHS, pop music, children’s literature, genius engineers. I bought Danny a copy of Humphrey Jennings’s astonishing book Pandemonium for Christmas and soon everyone seemed to have it. The show’s opening section ended up named “Pandemonium”.
Jennings, a British documentarist who co-founded Mass Observation, compiled Pandaemonium as a collection of contemporary accounts of social change, as Luke McKernan explains:
Pandaemonium comprises texts from poets, diarists, scientists, industrialists, politicians, novelists and social commentators who wittingly or unwittingly document the great changes wrought in British society by the industrial revolution. It begins with Milton’s description (written c.1660) of the building of Pandaemonium, and anyone who saw Boyle and Boyce’s vision of Glastonbury Tor, from which burst forth fire as the tree at its top was uprooted, ushering in the industrial revolution will recognise its inspiration in Milton’s opening words.
(McKernan has the advantage of having been able to get hold of the book. It’s out of print, and since the opening ceremony second-hand copies have been being offered for £70-£200. The most recent edition seems to have been a Macmillan paperback in 1995; surely ripe for a re-issue for the autumn/Christmas market, especially if there’s no Peter Ackroyd or Norman Davies blockbuster this year.)
Another book which would surprise me if it hadn’t also been in the cauldron somewhere is David Kynaston’s multi-volume work in progress, Tales of a New Jerusalem(evoking Blake’s image/fantasy of rebuilding Britain which became the opening ceremony’s keyword), which will cover British history from 1945 to the year that Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, 1979. The first two volumes, using extracts of memoirs, unpublished diaries and (it’s that survey again) Mass Observation data, have already been published, covering 1945-51 and 1951-57. Kynaston’s mission statement echoes much that has been said about representing British history in the last two weeks:
It is this story that Tales of a New Jerusalem is intended to tell: a story of ordinary citizens as well as ministers and mandarins, of consumers as well as producers, of the provinces as well as London, of the everyday as well as the seismic, of the mute and inarticulate as well as the all too fluent opinion-formers, of the Singing Postman as well as John Lennon. It is a history that does not pursue the chimera of being ‘definitive’; it does try to offer an intimate, multilayered, multivoiced, unsentimental portrait of a society that evolved in such a way during these 34 years as to make it possible for the certainties of ‘1945’ to become the counter-certainties of ‘1979’. (Austerity Britain (2007), pp. ix-x)
Multivocality and an openness to popular culture have been the dominant mode of British public history throughout my life as a student and researcher – note the BBC People’s War project, which resulted in an online archive of 47,000 testimonies, or the Imperial War Museum’s decision to start putting personal experience front and centre in its depictions of war (James Taylor, the IWM’s head of research and information, has a fascinating chapter on this in the forthcoming Languages and the Military anthology, edited by the leaders of the project I used to work for). The political and ethical commitments that brought about this shift would fill up many blog posts in themselves.
If Kynaston helped to revive the Blakean narrative of Jerusalem (language which I still feel uncomfortable about taking up into present-day political speech, given the ongoing contentions in the material Jerusalem and Britain’s part in that city’s history), his work also ended up becoming a foundation stone for one of the most characteristic words in today’s political speech – ‘austerity’. At the time of the first bank bailouts, Austerity Britain had just come out in paperback in the UK and had been longlisted for the 2008 Orwell Prize for books; ‘austerity’ was part of a wider intellectual consciousness, and more available as a source of political/historical meaning than it otherwise would have been.
‘Austerity’, until 2008, stood primarily for the shortages and rationing that the British public continued to experience for several years after the end of the Second World War. In 2008, this invocation of the past was hauled into the present as a label for the savage reductions in government spending that the public was told it would have to accept as the price of stabilising the banks. The power of the myth of British solidarity and sacrifice during and after the Second World War ensures that using ‘austerity’ as a name for present-day policies evokes connotations of this earlier period.
The problem with politicians tapping into this mythology is that it can close off debate. By calling to mind this earlier national endeavour, the political use of ‘austerity’ today suggests: it’s natural to do this, there is no alternative, the short-term pain will lead to something better just as the austerity after WW2 is supposed to have done. The full comparison isn’t and can’t be so simple, especially since what characterised those years after 1945 politically was an expansion of the state rather than the rollback involved in ‘austerity’ today.
‘Austerity’ as used in the UK also chimes with contemporary leaders’ wider efforts to legitimise themselves and their policies with reference to national cohesion during and after the Second World War. The slogan ‘We’re all in this together’ was the title of the Conservative manifesto in 2010 and has regularly appeared in David Cameron’s speeches, including his strategy for cutting the deficit in 2010 and his response to the riots in 2011. Used in connection with the concept of private voluntarism and a ‘Big Society’ as Cameron’s preferred alternative to centralised public services, it mobilises the same myth of cross-class national cohesion, although the sociologist Paul Ransome has argued that it silences the role of the state.
One could argue further that the emergence of the welfare state in Britain after 1945 […] is simply a recognition that, despite the very high levels of local initiative and ‘pulling together’ which characterized war-time and post-war British society, intervention had to be, and could only be, managed at the level of society not community. This is why a new kind of state, the welfare state, emerged at that particular historical juncture. (Ransome 2011: 3.6)
Tracing the uses of ‘austerity’ is certainly not to say that Kynaston is responsible for austerity discourse or the ways in which it has been used politically. nor for Boyce’s and Boyle’s focus on the myth of a rebuilt imaginary Jerusalem. Rather, thinking about Austerity Britain and the New Jerusalem series helps to show how historical arguments, and ways of writing history, get across to wider audiences – and the broad range of action that they can inspire.
(Update: I’m pleased to say that Icon Books reissued Pandaemonium in paperback ready for Christmas 2012. Good thinking!)
I was amused to discover while putting together a ‘history of Yugoslavia’ syllabus that the cover of Sharon Zukin’s Beyond Marx and Tito: Theory and Practice in Yugoslav Socialism (1975) – an interesting book on Yugoslav society under the ideology of ‘self-management’, which is all the more interesting now for having been written before the country collapsed – looks for all the world like part of the David Kynaston series.
I really can’t wait for someone to do a David Kynaston job on Yugoslavia…
Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony left me in the same position I began to explore in yesterday’s blog post: what kind of subjectivity as a spectator can I have now that thinking critically has become an integral part of how I enjoy a spectacle?
As rare an event as the Olympic Games opening in the country where you live is imagined at every step – by the director, participants, media, commentators, and the host-country audience – as a national focal point. That sets down an extra biographical layer of meaning: where were you when you saw the opening ceremony? A future oral history project or Mass Observation study could easily ask that question.
In the seven years since London was awarded the Olympics, my own expectations about where I would be on the night of 27 July 2012 have changed many times and radically, in ways I couldn’t even have conceived of in July 2005, when I hadn’t received funding for the PhD that ended up changing my life course. Consciousness of how I might be feeling in any other of those places pervades my experience as a spectator. What extra emotions would an imagined symbol like the shipping forecast, or something much more material like the sight of Richmond Bridge, evoke in me if I was still living near my family, or if I was working outside the United Kingdom now?
Before I write about what I found successful in the ceremony, I want to acknowledge the things I found most problematic (and to acknowledge also that there will be much more to say than this, which my own privilege and positionality will certainly get in the way of me seeing):
What to do about the Empire. The first sequence depicts the destruction of the British countryside during the Industrial Revolution; yet the even greater devastation wrought on others’ lands to produce the wealth with which the awe-filled men in stove-pipe hats were able to commission the smokestacks and municipal achievements is silenced. I don’t know how you would represent this, though acknowledging imperialism as a historical wrong while pretending that it causes no harm in the present (a criticism made of the Sydney Olympics) would be no better.
Celebrating disruptive protest while contemporary protesters were being detained a few miles away. The historical pageant included the women’s suffrage movement (led out by a descendant of Emmeline Pankhurst) and apparently – although I’m not sure the cameras picked this up – the Jarrow march against poverty and unemployment. At the same time, up to 100 participants in a Critical Mass cycle ride through London were being kettled and detained by police for breaching instructions not to cross north of the Thames. This isn’t Danny Boyle’s fault, but takes the ceremony closer to the kind of bread-and-circuses simulacrum some people feared the whole thing would be (‘we are representing, simplifying and celebrating things that we are actually taking away’).
The peacemakers handing the Olympic flag to the military. As illusory as the myth of the Olympic truce is, if we’re going to play on this, shouldn’t it have been the other way round?
Black-faced demons. No. Not even if they were meant to be Dementors. There are other ways to do that.
But there were also choices I appreciated, and that deserve some further thought.
The downplaying of war memory. The myth of the nation coming together under German bombing in the Second World War became a significant part of public culture during Britain’s contemporary wars, gathered pace after 7/7 and accelerated to its current velocity under Brown and Cameron. It’s meaningful to Britons who experienced and suffered in the War, but its contemporary use is very often an attempt to graft moral responses to the Second World War on to contemporary conflicts that are much more contentious. Incorporating a massive representation of the Blitz in the historical sequence would have been very tempting, and in keeping with the dominant public narrative in Britain. War memory does appear, but in more subtle ways: the poppies in the cornfield; Britain’s industrial heritage interrupted by the bowed heads of Remembrance; the Chelsea Pensioners. (And unfortunately, during James Bond’s helicopter flight over the Thames bridges, a snippet of the Dambusters March. Really? There?)
Remembering the victims of terrorism without evoking threat, or what must therefore be done to protect us from it. The ‘memorial wall’ that appeared at the end of the pageant appears primarily, to a British audience, as a commemoration of the Londoners who died on 7/7 (there’s been a suggestion that it could also be read as a commemoration of the victims of Munich, whom LOCOG has not yet memorialised officially); the staging consisted of an interpretive dance piece by Akram Khan and a performance by Emeli Sandé of Abide With Me (a hymn traditionally sung at the FA Cup Final). Again, at the security Olympics, there are many worse ways this could have been done.
Celebrating the NHS. This sequence in a children’s hospital – incorporating J K Rowling as the storyteller, and Mary Poppins flying in to defeat the villains of children’s literature – could have come across as precisely the kind of simulacrum that Boyle needed to avoid (and that I was afraid it would turn out to be). Yet it contained the potential to be, and much of the sub-audience to whom I’m connected through social media have read it as, something much more subversive: blogger Steve Walker, for instance, even read it as the centrepiece of a ‘coded message’ to the coalition government. In the age of internet memes, this section produces some powerful resources, such as this image put out by UK Uncut before the ceremony had even finished:
Rowling’s own views on tax and the welfare state, set out in this interview from 2010, play nicely into what is being evoked here:
I never, ever, expected to find myself in a position where I could understand, from personal experience, the choices and temptations open to a man as rich as Lord Ashcroft. The fact remains that the first time I ever met my recently retired accountant, he put it to me point-blank: would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.
I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.
A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall.
The participation of Tim Berners-Lee. Not because he’s from the same country as me, or because he’s associated with a university I worked for for four years; but because he invented this thing, and then chose not to profit commercially from it. Or, as his (genuine) Tweet during the opening ceremony read: ‘This is for everyone.’
The flame ritual. Olympic flames are traditionally lit by a celebrated Olympian from the host country; rumours before this year’s ceremony suggested Roger Bannister, Steve Redgrave, Bradley Wiggins, or even the Queen. The London flame was lit by seven teenage athletes, each nominated by an Olympian from the past; the cauldron, invisible throughout the ceremony, turned out to be made up of the copper vessels that had accompanied each of the 205 national teams into the arena; strength in diversity, none greater than another.
Probably by coincidence, given the timescales involved, this ended up resembling the aesthetic of the film version of The Hunger Games: a multi-racial group of teenagers, dressed in black tracksuits, standing in a circle, around something that looks very like a cornucopia, lots of flame around, and the tallest athlete happening to look incredibly like Alexander Ludwig/Cato. But there’s a deeper sense in which this felt like a Hunger Games moment, since what resonates most with me about the books is how the author prevents her protagonist becoming the classic superhero who brings complete public and private resolution; in turning away from the figure of the single heroic Olympian, there’s something of that here.
The complete absence of Wenlock and Mandeville. I intensely dislike the Olympic mascots. Their origin story slips easily into them representing ‘the last two drops of British steel’. Their design, deliberately mimicking CCTV cameras, is even more unfortunate when the main public critique of the London Olympics has been around the intensification of surveillance and security, with concerns over when or if all the extraordinary measures in Stratford will be rescinded. One unfortunate Mandeville, brought to life size during a public art project, had its glaring eyebrows turned into the brim of an imperial military pith helmet.
If there’s another one of these shows next century, celebrating a from-below pushback against neoliberalism, something that looks very like Wenlock is what Mary Poppins will be fighting against.
Danny Boyle’s programme notes have been circulating on Twitter since Riz Ahmed photographed them from his copy of the programme. Boyle asks in the final paragraph, playing on the themes of William Blake’s Jerusalem that inspired his staging of the ceremony:
But we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring notion that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.
Is this enough to ignite a political fightback against neoliberal policies and the dismantling of the state? One of the Hull Labour MPs, Karl Turner, certainly implied this last night when he retweeted a photo of the programme notes and another user’s comment: ‘Can we build Jerusalem?’
(I won’t be surprised if riffs on this appear all through British political communication in the next few years – both from those who are more or less in sympathy with it and from those who are not. Today, however, I’m not sure ‘building Jerusalem’ is the right language to use. It echoes the ‘shining city on the hill’ syndrome that gives legitimacy to US exceptionalism; more to the point, imagining a Jerusalem in Britain seems to appropriate the material, political Jerusalem 2,000 miles away.)
What was dramatised last night was a series of achievements: public, industrial, cultural, literary, musical, political. I agree with many of them and want to feel inspired by them; but I don’t want to be inspired by them on a basis that excludes others because of some essential aspect of themselves. All these are achievements, but considering the global context in which they were achieved, can we ever think of them as solely British?
In my last post on the Eurovision Song Contest I explored the idea that our appreciation of songs is supposed to be aesthetic rather than political, which leads western European viewers to perceive ‘neighbourly’ voting patterns as a violation of the norm.
The structure of Eurovision is unusual and potentially compelling because it transfers two principles – competition through amassing scores and competition between countries – from a domain where objectively quantifying performance makes some sense (sport) to a domain where quantification is much more difficult (music).
Many sporting performances are quantifiable: they can be measured. Either Jessica Ennis’s jump was 1.95 m high, or it wasn’t. Not all sports are quite so measurable: performances in diving, gymnastics, ice dance and so on have to be interpreted by judges and translated into numbers using a complicated mark scheme, to be able to evaluate who’s won. This is already harder to reconcile with the idea of one clear, objective result. In fact, research on the most aesthetic sports suggests that judges’ and spectators’ subjective beliefs about criteria that don’t appear on the mark sheet, such as gender or nationality, do affect how successful they evaluate a performance to be.
Song contests, on the other hand, are all aesthetic; there isn’t any mark scheme. The more subjective our judgement has to be, the more room there is for our wider knowledge to flesh out what we perceive in the performance we’ve just seen. Could we ever interpret Eurovision songs without politics being present at some level, especially when every song is deliberately put up to be the representative of a country and a nation? To do so, we’d have to consciously bracket off the common-sense knowledge that helps us make snap judgements about the world. Pulling apart the aesthetic and political, then, may be a false separation.
But what about the deliberate politicisation of music, which occurs when musicians, broadcasters and/or contest organisers consciously use a song to communicate a political message? Eurovision rules (PDF) state that ‘no lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the ESC’. (They also state that ‘no swearing or other unacceptable language shall be allowed in the lyrics or in the performances of the songs’, which didn’t prevent the most recent Austrian entrants being named ‘Trackshittaz’.)
Often, this is used as evidence that Eurovision’s organisers intend it to be apolitical (though Karen Fricker, interviewed in this CNN report on the politics of Eurovision, would not agree). Yet Eurovision itself came into being as one outcome of a wide-ranging political project to reshape (western) Europe in the 1950s by forging and institutionalising a common European culture to strengthen the emerging free-trade organisations that became the contemporary EU. The European Broadcasting Union, a confederation of public-service broadcasters, was founded in 1950. It launched its best-known activity, the Eurovision Song Contest, in 1956.
The concept of Eurovision was politicised from the outset. Since well before Eurovision’s enlargement, numerous individual entries have reflected the politics of their countries and/or their times, as collated in a 2011 documentary, The Secret History of Eurovision (where I feature briefly as a talking head in sections on former Yugoslavia). Portugal’s entry in 1975 celebrated the 1974 revolution. Greece’s entry in 1976 protested the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Almost every song in 1990 made some reference to peace, liberty, or falling walls; three years later, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina both lamented the effects of war in their first entries as independent states, while sanctions banned what would become Serbia-Montenegro from participating.
As the scale of Eurovision has expanded, we can also see a growing politicisation of hosting. Contemporary Eurovisions approach the scale of a ‘mega-event’, a term coined by Maurice Roche (PDF) for international spectacles that are broadcast well beyond the host country’s borders and attract visitors from many countries. The classic mega-events are sporting occasions such as the Olympics or the World Cup, and much research has been done on how host countries and cities use them to communicate desirable messages about themselves. Visit us! Invest in us! And buy a mascot!
One of the criticisms being made against Baku’s hosting of Eurovision – similar to the reaction against the Beijing Olympics or the Qatar World Cup – is that Azerbaijan has used it to showcase the Aliyev regime while masking violations of human rights. The principle of political communication through hosting a Eurovision mega-event, however, isn’t new – as Paul Jordan (or ‘Dr Eurovision’, now of BBC3 semi-final interval fame) has shown in his research on ‘nation-branding’ in Estonia and Ukraine.
Kiev’s hosting of Eurovision 2005 and its rehearsal fortnight – like Baku and all Eurovisions in between, an event that dominated the central public space of its host city as well as leading up to a television show – also very explicitly showed off a regime, in this case the renewed Ukraine that Viktor Yushchenko had promised to deliver after the Orange Revolution of 2004. The EBU intervened to prevent Ukraine’s entry directly referencing Yushchenko, but the staging of the event still referenced recent political events in many ways (PDF). At least in the eyes of organisations such as Amnesty or the BBC, this was far less problematic than Baku; and Ukraine was supposed to be moving away from clientelism towards democracy and transparency, after all.
Yet these extravaganzas might be a thing on the past. At a press conference in Baku on Wednesday, the executive supervisor of Eurovision, Jon Ola Sand, stated that it was ‘possible that future contests might be on a smaller scale and there may be possible changes to rehearsal schedules to economise on time and financial costs’. In retrospect, there’s a case for viewing the kind of exuberant nation-branding performances I wrote about in 2008 as evidence of a particular moment in Europe’s economic history, which may now have come to an end.