It’s undeniably spring again. The lemon tree that i brought indoors to protect it from the frost that never was (see picture) has burst into bloom, incongruously filling my office with an overpowering Mediterranean perfume. Saint David’s Day has been and gone, as has International Women’s Day. The daffodils are out, the blossoms are falling from the plum tree on the roof terrace and here comes that itch in the fingers to scrabble in earth.

lemonI read the other day that there are actually bacteria in soil that activate the production of serotonin. It seems too neat to be true. The short dark days and lack of vitamins in the winter diet produce depression. Then along comes the urge to grub around in the soil and plant things and bingo, not only have we been programmed to produce food for the rest of the year but we also rid ourselves of the winter blues.

Only in my case this hasn’t actually led to anything more active than ordering some tomato seeds online. I haven’t even moved the lemon tree back outside where it can be pollinated let alone begun to weed or dig or tidy up. The huge weight of things undone makes it seem too much like playing truant, even though it’s Sunday. And writing this blog (which I see I have barely touched in a year) provokes similar feelings of guilt.

Looking back over my life I cannot ever remember a time when there wasn’t a pile of unanswered letters, neglected friends, unpaid bills, unfiled invoices, unwritten articles (or, once upon a time, essays), boxes in the attic still unpacked. I suppose this is how most people’s lives feel. Though I am sure that many are more successful than me in avoiding that feeling of being a donkey with a carrot attached to the browband of its halter, ceaselessly following the unattainable moment when all will be completed, the desk empty, the moment finally arrived when I can write what I really want to write, go where I really want to go. That moment, as Bob Dylan put it ‘when I paint that masterpiece’.

I once, in the 1970s, worked in an office where editors (of whom I was one) worked alongside civil servants. The culture was one which must have vanished long ago. You weren’t allowed a typewriter on your desk, though everything – every phone call you had with a publisher, every meeting – had to be recorded. On your desk were three trays: in, out and pending. If you wanted to send someone a letter, or write a note of what had taken place in a phone conversation you had to write it out in longhand, or (if you were more senior and that way inclined) dictate it into recording device. You then put it into your out tray from which it was collected by a messenger and taken to a typing pool where it was typed up in four or more copies. There was one for the recipient (with an additional copy for anyone else who was copied in to the letter, or had attended the meeting that was being recorded), one for the official files, one to be put in a folder that would be circulated around the department, department for everyone to read, a practice known in some offices as ‘dailies’ but, for some reason, in ours as ‘chronologicals’, and finally one for the ‘bring up’. The bring up was supposed to be a reminder to oneself to chase the issue up in case there had been no response. When the typed document was brought to you for checking and signing, you wrote the bring-up date in the top right corner and it would appear in your inbox on the due date. Usually you couldn’t think what to do with it so you simply crossed out the date and replaced it with another one. Some dog-eared documents might have up to a dozen dates on them. The chronologicals folders (one per day, I think it was, or perhaps one per week) would pile up waiting for a day when you were too hung over or bored to do anything else and would be binge-read before being passed on to the next reader. Writing up one’s file notes was done at least in part with the readers of the chronologicals in mind. The challenge was to find a style that was sufficiently po-faced to sit formally in the files and act as a record in case a decision was challenged or a complaint made, but to make it amusing enough to raise a smile from colleagues in the know.

Why am I recalling all this now? It is of course of some interest to historians of office work – particularly (and some of the more horrible features of software packages like Outlook can probably be traced back to such origins). But what brought it to mind is my memory of one of the civil servants who worked down the corridor from me. I’m not sure what his job was, but he was clearly very efficient at it because he was the only person I ever knew who often had both his in tray AND his pending tray entirely empty. He would sit with his arms folded with a tidily piled outbox, waiting for the messenger to come round and bring him more work. He took his tea breaks and lunch breaks punctiliously, always going to the staffroom for that purpose (not drinking sloppily at his desk as we editors did) but his strong sense of morality did not permit him to pass the time doing anything that wasn’t work-related (like the Guardian crossword, which he happily worked on in the staff room). It would be easy to caricature him as one of those automaton-like bowler-hatted city gents with no inner life (like Dylan’s ‘Mr Jones’ who knows something is happening but doesn’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?) but that would be unfair. Like many of the civil servants I remember from that time he had passionate interests outside work: amateur dramatics, opera, botany, hiking in obscure parts of the world, I can’t now remember which but at least one such thing.

What must it be to have such an orderly life, to trade daily boredom for security and defer gratification not indefintely, as disorderly bohemians do, but in measured doses: to the weekend, the summer holiday, the early, well-pensioned retirement? I doubt whether there will be a generation any time soon that will know the answer to such a question. That model of work seems well and truly gone. (and if you want to know why I think this is so, here’s a recent article: http://analytica.metapress.com/content/632j131722874242/fulltext.pdf


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Wishing you a fruitful 2014 and happy holidays


This picture was taken on my roof terrace last summer: ripening tomatoes, lemons and jalapeno peppers. If only my typing fingers had been as productive . . . Hoping that 2014 will be fruitful for you in every way.

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Flying into Belgrade on a clear early April day a couple of days ago, I was treated to an amazing spectacle, glimpses of which are shown here, of the heavily farmed agricultural landscape of this part of the Danube valley.

fields outside Belgrade seen from the air

Fields outside Belgrade seen from the air

Unfolding like a bedspread it disclosed a multilayered history of order imposed on disorder, only to be subjected to continuing organisation,  disorganisation and reorganisation in a process that produces subtly changing patterns of great beauty.

it is hard not to use the hackneyed mataphor of patchwork looking at the way these strips of intensively-cultivated land are arranged

It is hard not to use the hackneyed metaphor of patchwork looking at the way these strips of intensively-cultivated land are arranged

Reminding me of the much-loved painting by Judith Rugg that hangs in my sitting room which she told me was also inspired by the view of fields from the air in the American mid-West.

a phtootograph of Judith Rugg's painting, complete with reflections. as no doubt her original view from a plane  which inspired it must have included reflections in the window.

A phtootograph of Judith Rugg’s painting, complete with reflections. as no doubt her original view which inspired it must have included disregarded reflections in the plane window.

The patterns that have been imposed on the land over the millenia make it absolutely impossible to imagine what it might have looked like before human beings singled out  particular plants and animals for special attention and classified them, disciplined them, penned them for their own purposes and disputed the ownership of these pens with their neighbours (although ghosts of earlier land use patterns and watercourses can be seen from the air underlying the bare ploughed soil).

under the bare earth of the modern fields you can see the ghosts of ancient paths or watercourses

Under the bare earth of the modern fields you can see the ghosts of ancient paths or watercourses

Fresh as I am from revising an article about how to theorise the global division of labour, this brings to my mind the way in class societies that people are classified, corralled and disciplined for the purposes of ordering production.

I wonder what history dictated the abrupt change in angle in the alignment of the fields on either side of this road

I wonder what history dictated the abrupt change in angle in the alignment of the fields on either side of this road

How quickly this landscape would change if the maintenance stopped. But this would not bring a return to the old botanical division of labour. Rather, new (perhaps non-native) species would expand aggressively, choking out others, creating a new ecosystem.

Which makes me think of the weed – the farmer’s enemy, trespassing on the areas marked out for formal planting, reproducing itself in ingenious and unsanctioned ways, perhaps brought from afar by birds or boots, an  unnoticed stowaway in the global traffic of commodities.

In human society the weed could be seen as a metaphor for the opportunist, the spiv, the perhaps- criminal entrepreneur who threatens the social order by disrupting its rules of fairness and introducing new inequalities.

But also the lone  dissenter, the voice that wants to emerge from the suffocation of the mass ranks to be heard as an individual.

The socialist in me fears the former; the artist-intellectual in me yearns to be the latter. Do we want a farm-or-be-farmed society in which people are tended in orderly fields? Or a hunt-or-be-hunted wilderness in which they can roam freely at their own risk? From the tension between the two, perhaps, some new solutions can emerge.

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1963 – the great unbuttoning

As 2013 begins, I am reminded that it marks the 50th anniversary of 1963, the year when, in most people’s reckoning, the 1960s really started.

Last night, I had dinner with Liz Heron*, whom I first met when she invited me to contribute to a remarkable award-winning book she edited in the early 1980s called Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the 1950s. We were talking about the ways that their parents’ experiences in World War Two had marked so many of our friends, brought up in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France, or as refugees elsewhere, as well as our contemporaries in Britain. And it struck us that many people of our generation, perhaps even the majority, were brought up in households where the dominating atmosphere, so taken-for-granted that it was like the weather, was one of deep and chronic – and largely unspoken – depression.

Perhaps these days it would be referred to as survivors’ guilt or post-traumatic stress syndrome. Among people who had seen active service, it sometimes took the form of anxiety, like that of an uncle of mine, who was captured after the fall of Tobruk and subsequently escaped to Switzerland from the prisoner of war camp where he was held in Italy, who had constantly to check the back door was really locked, that there was enough air pressures in the tyres of his car and that you had arrived home safely after a visit. Only forty years later, when he was dying, did he voice his nightmare memories of the last days in the desert before his capture. Though sometimes the urge to get back to some sort of normalcy took the form of refusing to mention the war, sometimes, conversely, it involved repeating the same anecdotes over and over again, perhaps in the unconscious hope that this would empty them of painful associations. Among people who hadn’t directly fought, who knows what kinds of guilt swirled about? Whatever the precise form this behaviour took, it coloured the air their children breathed, profoundly shaping their sense of what is normal.

These patterns must have contributed not a little to shaping that 1950s culture, portrayed (it seems now, caricatured) in so many British war films of the period in which what mattered most was to avoid self-indulgence. Men were supposed to keep calm and carry on, keep a stiff upper lip, protect the women and children in their lives from direct knowledge of violence, death or passionate extra-marital sex. Comradeship and solidarity were expressed through handshakes, clipped understatement (‘rotten luck, old chap’) or an occasional hand on the shoulder signifing much more, we are supposed to think, than could be conveyed by the shallow verbiage of effete intellectuals. Linked with these values were strong prohibitions against ‘showing off’, ‘being greedy’ or ‘not pulling your weight’.  These values were of course continuously being undermined not only by working class resentment of the patronising snobberies of the officer class usually represented in such narratives but also by an intense introspection, expressed in the fashion for Freudian analysis and in many novels of the period (as well as ‘psychological’ films, noir or otherwise, with plots that centred on simplistically portrayed forms of mental illness). Nevertheless, these stiff-upper-lip, take-it-on-the-chin, keep-your-troubles-to-yourself values had a hegemonic hold in schools, the BBC and other institutions that taught us what was normal.

Most children growing up in this period did not, of course, see it that way. The older generation were ‘repressed’, ‘square’ or (a bit later) just ‘a drag’. They could not talk about their feelings, were hypocritical about sex and tried to box children into artificial cages of childhood innocence and adults into crippling gender roles. But these adults were just brilliant at inducing shame. Whether one’s  transgression involved betrayal of class values, contempt for what older people found precious, consumerist wastefulness or simple carnality, guilt seemed to bounce down the generations. Only the most impermeable armour of brashness could deflect it.

I am of course over-generalising disgracefully. I can only speak for those people I know, 0r think I know, and I am sure that many counter-examples will be thrust at me. But I cannot but think of the atmosphere of the period as one of extreme emotional tautness. Even as shades of grey gave way to colour and people learned to enact a kind of larger-than-life technicolour normalcy with increasing conviction, there was always a feeling that some dark, held-down rage might burst through the thin stretched surface skin. It was not accidental, perhaps, that the first post-war generation of British writers were known as Angry Young Men. Or that teenage girls were taught to step warily around male lust – seen as an uncontrollable force the poor boys had terrible trouble reining in. You had only yourself to blame if you engaged in the dangerous sport of prick-teasing. (Though of course, in a classic double bind, it was also unthinkable to define yourself in any other way than in relation to masculine desire).

Another powerful disincentive to expressing any aspiration to equality with boys was the constant reminder that it was men who had done the fighting in the war. And boys continued to be conscripted until 1960. Interestingly 1963 was also the year the last conscripted soldiers were released; the first that boys could let their hair grow long and enter adulthood unshaped by parade-ground drill.

Such was the sense of suffocation that it is hardly surprising that the post-war baby boom generation needed to burst out. 1963 was the moment they did so. And it seems to me now not so much the beginning of something new as a great unbuttoning of the heavy greatcoat of the 1950s, exposing the body within (and its internal tangle of contradictions) to fresh light.

At this distance I am not sure if this is something to celebrate. A lot of adjectives can be used about our generation, not all of them complimentary: foolhardy, selfish, naive, narcissistic, destructive, to name a few. We are often thought to have changed the world irrevocably (though, thinking about it, what generation doesn’t do this?). If I have a complaint it is that we didn’t change it nearly enough.

*whose blog you can find here.

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Starting the new year with a bit of decay

I used the image in the last post as my greetings card this Christmas (changing the title to ‘knock, knock’ because people found the existing one rather obscure). I took the picture in Budapest several years ago when the sight caught my eye on my way back to the hotel from a conference. When I looked at it again I was surprised by the feeling of optimism it inspired in me – despite the decreptitude of the wall. Perhaps this is something to do with the bright colours? or the jaunty angle of the mysterious square hitching device which reminds me of a knocker? Anyway quite a few people responded positively to it as an image and this has inspired me to revisit a project I never got round to developing – a website called Entropica I originally set up around 15 years ago with the intention of using it for writing and images associated with my fascination with entropy. So today I spent a happy afternoon (tinged with guilt because I should have been doing other things) uploading images to it. You can visit it here. I am not sure about the black background – it was the simplest template I could find that easily accommodated a lot of visual material. Comments welcome!

entropy – the dialectical relationship between human artifice and nature
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you’ll never know unless you try


With all best wishes for happy holidays and nice surprises in 2013

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Happy Christmas, Corporations! with love from George Osborne

The public debate about yesterday’s Chancellor’s Autumn Statement has been largely framed, by the Labour party as well as by the mass media, in terms of a redistribution between the poor and the rich, with the latter presented in their capacities as individual millionaire property owners. Strangely absent from these narratives are the main beneficiaries of this government’s economic policy: the corporations.

This is not, of course, to say that poor people won’t  pay the highest price – of course they will -  nor that the rich won’t  benefit from this conservative budget. But the main means by which they will benefit will be not as individuals who just happen to be wealthy but in their capacities as owners, directors or shareholders of companies .

And these companies have just been handed a triple christmas present of huge proportions by George Osborne.

Gift number one is the obvious one: ‘I have already cut the main rate of corporation tax from 28% to 24%, and it is set to fall further to 22%’ says Osborne.

Gift number two is a bit harder to spot. The real value of the minimum wage in the UK has been steadily falling (see, for instance, this report). This means that workers in low-wage jobs are increasingly reliant on claiming tax credits (see my blog about this here) which in turn means that their employers are receiving an ever-increasing subsidy from the taxpayer. According to HM Revenue and Customs (see the report here) ‘the numbers of families without children receiving Working Tax Credits-only has risen over time, almost doubling from 235,000 in April 2004 to around 455,000 in April 2009 and now at just over 580,000 in April 2012′ and ‘the numbers of families benefiting from the childcare element has consistently risen over time, from 318,000 in April 2004 to around 493,000 in April 2011′. As this summary table shows, tax credits already account for 27% of all  benefit spending – by far the largest single component. By comparison Job-seekers Allowance accounts for only 4%. So much for the idea that benefit recipients are ‘scroungers’. It is plain from these figures that the vast majority are hard-working people in low-paid work. And the subsidy that allows them to continue to do so is a very nice present indeed to their employers.

Gift number three is potentially perhaps the largest of all. This involves handing over a huge proportion of public assests, including welfare services that our parents and grandparents won at great sacrifice in the 20th Century, to private corporations as a new field for profit-making. (see my article on this here). By outsourcing these services, rather than simply selling them off, governments continue to carry the risk but hand over the potential profits to the private sector. And of course here the rhetoric of austerity is a mightly convenient means to encourage further outsourcing, since this can be presented as a way of saving taxpayers’ money. Public spending currently makes up around 46% of GDP so this is an extraordinarily rich seam to mine. So rich that when we put together a special issue of Work Organisation Labour and Globalisation  on the subject we called it ‘The New Gold Rush’.

So it really will be a very happy Christmas for these corporations and their shareholders.


The first demand should be that large corporations pay a larger share of tax.The recent outcry over tax avoidance by well-known multinationals shows that this will have overwhelming public support. This would not just involve a reversal of the latest cut in corporation tax (perhaps with some exemptions for small businesses) but would also involve a major campaign against tax avoidance. And it should go beyond tightening up UK regulations to close loopholes and include launching an international campaign to close down tax havens.

The second demand should be an increase in the minimum wage to at least the living wage recommended by the Living Wage Foundation, currently estimated at £8.55 per hour in London and £7.45 in the rest of the country. This would, at a stroke, reduce the largest component of benefit expenditure as well as raising extra money for the government in income tax.

The third demand should be to keep our public services public and allow public servants to work directly for the benefit of public service users, not for corporate profit.

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