On being female

‘This is the sense in which he is black – as a function of the way he is treated by white people’ wrote critic Leo Robson about Afro-American author Percival Everett[i]. Yes! I thought when I read this, this is precisely the sense in which I feel I am female – as a function of the way that I am treated by men.

Since childhood, my dominant sense of myself has been as someone who observes, thinks, writes, speaks, behaves as I imagine others do, using the kind of voice I have heard in their speech or seen in their paintings or read in their books. The consciousness of being female has come in the form of a sudden unpleasant shock that I am not listened to or read as I would be if I were male. Growing up was experiencing a succession of such shocks which built up a cumulative impression of a terrible unfairness.

This unfairness was normalised. ‘Nothing’s fair in this world, dear’. And this normalisation was embedded in a set of moral values which, though apparently universal, seemed to bear down particularly heavily on girls. Winning was frowned on, for example. You should let other people beat you at games, especially if they were younger than you or less clever. Neither should you take pride in your achievements. This was ‘showing off’ or, as the Irish nuns at school put it, ‘being a notice box’.  It was good to share, and not to mind if other people ran off with what was yours and appropriated it. Anything that might be labelled ‘greedy’ was shameful. It was also taken for granted that certain spaces, both physical and intellectual (and thereby in consequence occupational) were no-go areas. You entered them at your peril and it was your fault if you encountered harm there. Empathy was encouraged. However unpleasant an experience might be, you should always ‘imagine how the other person must be feeling’.

In short, the dominant imperative was to put up with stuff. And, for a literary child, there were shelves of Victorian novels portraying heroines who had done just that, albeit usually finally rewarded with a prize for their uncomplaining sacrifice, generally in the form of a proposal of marriage from the main male protagonist. There were also 20th century novels, many of them set in New York, which conveyed the same message in reverse, showing how deeply undesirable, disgusting even, sensitive educated men found women who were clever and expressed their desires explicitly.

The experience of having a female body was more ambiguous. It was a relief not to be expected to fight but disturbing that so many people seemed to feel they had the right to touch. Later, menstruation, though anxiously awaited (what if I never start?) was pretty yucky, but the discovery of the clitoris rather nice. What I later learned (initially from John Berger) to think of as the ‘male gaze’ was something that intruded intermittently into a consciousness that was still largely framed by an inner intellectual narrative that was not consciously sexed, though in this I felt something of a misfit. Other girls seemed to have a much surer sense of themselves as female, part of a gang from which I often felt excluded.

Compared with younger generations of women, I was protected from seeing myself through the lens of pornography, discovering sex through touch and experiment. Lucky not to have been exposed to the more extreme crimes that artists commit: the image that cannot be unseen, the metaphor that cannot be unimagined. Nowadays the pornographic gaze is so all-pervasive that it must be impossible to get through puberty without seeing your own body in this way, with your idea of yourself ineradicably shaped by a confusion of objective and subjective perceptions of attraction and disgust, wanting and not wanting to be desired, or to desire like this, to look or not look like this, to compare what you see in the mirror and feel with your fingertips with this. All innocence lost, when the self is always imagined as others see it, with a further layer of distortion added by the possibilities of digital enhancement.

It is not new for adolescents to try to make sense of who they are through self-depiction, of course. Most painters have a box full of discarded self-portraits, just as novelists have unfinished drafts of autobiographical novels and many others without artistic aspirations have diaries. And it is not particularly original to view the intensive self-representation of young people today on Instagram or TikTok, as a way of trying to process this.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Back in the 1960s, part of my response to that terrible unfairness was to grope my way towards the women’s liberation movement, where others of my generation were getting together in groups to try to understand the nature of the phenomenon we called ‘sexism’ and work out what could be done about it, in the process consciously defining ourselves as part of a collective entity called ‘women’ and focusing more on what we had in common than what separated us. I cannot speak with authority about what this concept of ‘woman’ was, precisely or what it was that the presumed ‘we’ aspired to. There was still a lingering sense of being an outsider. I secretly found the concept of ‘sisterhood’ somewhat problematic, associated in the family with engineered rivalries, unexpressed jealousy and being bullied, and at school with nuns, but was very attracted by the promise of a collective identity to which I could belong.

In terms of the larger feminist aspiration, what I wanted was a world in which it really didn’t matter what sort of body I had; for my mind to be taken as seriously as that of a man; to be able to wear what I wanted; to behave as I wished and to go where I wanted without hindrance. And to fall in love with whoever I was attracted to, regardless, too, of what sort of body they had. The closest I could find in the literature to this androgynous vision was in the utopian/dystopian novels of Ursula Le Guin and Marge Piercy. But there were resonant frissons in other readings – Violette Leduc, for example, and James Baldwin – which led me to believe I wasn’t alone in this hope.

There was of course the not insignificant factor of reproduction, but it seemed to me that any related social unfairness could be righted by policies that recognised that the bearing and rearing of children was a public good and put in place the right sort of provision for supporting those who cared for children, financially and in terms of services. Here, the writings of early 20th century feminists like Alexandra Kollontai were relevant inspirations, as were tales brought back from Cuba.

There were at the time emerging discussions, academic and otherwise, about the differences between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ and some sort of consensus among those who called themselves feminists that the former referred to biological differences and the latter to those that were socially and culturally constructed and continually reproduced, adapted and challenged through custom and behaviour, sometimes policed by violence. It was further realised that the processes by which those gender differences were internalised were complex – subterranean and hard to reach even under intensive psychoanalysis. I personally found the distinction quite difficult to grasp in practice. There are many human experiences, surely, that are simultaneous both ‘biological’, in the sense of being things that physically happen to your body, and ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ in the sense of being hedged around with customs, taboos and sanctions. Take childbirth, for example, or death, or even the experience of taking mind-altering drugs. Where do hormones fit into all this?

But generally speaking such considerations did not seem to me to be priorities in the public political realm. These were things you sorted out for yourself, or with friends, lovers, family and therapists. What mattered was to put in place the policies that gave everyone the luxury of lives that allowed space for just such sortings out. What we needed, it seemed to me, were policies that created a framework for equality, guaranteed financial independence to all and provision of the basic services that would enable everyone to live a civilised life

By the 1980s I was living as a single parent, somewhat detached from feminist debates. I realised that the conversation had moved on, not least from scanning the shelves in Sisterwrite, the local feminist bookshop, but presumed that there were still some common understandings. In 1990, I was invited to speak at a conference in Sweden on The Construction of Sex/ Gender: What is a Feminist Perspective? which brought home to me my distance from current concerns. I presented a paper called ‘Equality for Whom? Tensions between the Individual and Collective Aspirations of Women in the Workplace’ I cannot find a copy of this paper but did come across a piece I wrote for Red Pepper[ii] a few years later that expressed something similar, in these words:

One of the great ironies of feminism is that it tends to give rise to precisely those characteristics which it initially sprang up to oppose:  the collapsing of half the human race into a single, undifferentiated category labelled ‘women’.  The impetus for liberation surely springs, in most cases, from a refusal to accept the anonymous role assigned to one as a woman in most societies; from an insistence that I, an autonomous subject, a unique individual, have as much right to my own particular identity, to express my own views, to shape my own destiny, to leave my own distinctive footprint on the world, as any man.   Underlying much feminist writing one can detect a great yearning to speak for oneself, not as a representative of any abstraction of sex, race or class, but simply as a unique and individual voice which will be listened to with respect.  It is essentially the same dream as that expressed in his famous Washington speech by Martin Luther King for his four children, that they will be judged ‘not by the colour of their skin but by the strength of their character’. 

In the search for the expression of this individuality, women have come up, again and again, often at first with a pained shock at the hypocrisy of the ideas of democracy and equality they have been brought up to believe in, against forms of discrimination and stereotyping which are not just damaging economically but wounding to the psyche…  And … in struggling to make sense of this individual injury, they are led to make generalisations:  to see that they are prevented from fulfilling themselves in the way that they want because they are women (or, in some cases, because of their religion, class, ethnicity, colour, disability or some other variable).  From this, it follows that they have a collective interest with others who share the same characteristic, and from this realisation, in turn, follow the forms of organising which are based on this shared identity.  

My point was that one cannot think about being female without coming up against a complicated tension between the individual and the collective, which also links with other dialectics, such as class and ethnicity, and raises difficult questions about which aspects of the self to submerge and whose needs and feelings should take precedence over whose. And this is linked to another set of contradictions between the demands that relate to the world as it is, in which immediate measures are required to make life safe and tolerable, and those more experimental and utopian demands that might bring into being a new world as we would like it to be.  But in the context of that conference (which included international luminaries like Luce Irigary) this point did not seem relevant at all. The focus was at once more theoretical and more personal. Nobody but me, it seemed, wanted to talk about the formulation of demands of any sort. What was at issue was the construction of identity. I felt ignorant and disconnected from most of the debate and retreated from it, later writing a regretful piece called ‘The Fading of the Collective Dream’[iii]. While recognising this difficult question of identity as important, I chose not to engage with it deeply, seeing political change as the most important thing to be focusing on and putting my energies into trying to understand the social and economic transformations going on in the world, without losing sight of the underlying goal of liberation. In this analysis I often treated gender as a large sociological variable among others, without worrying too much about any fuzzy edges in these broad categories – it was the overall power between larger social groupings that mattered. I also taught courses on ‘researching gender’ in which I encouraged students to reflect on how the gender of the researcher shaped how research questions were framed, and what was (or was not) taken for granted, as well as how interviewees might wish to present themselves and what information they might disclose so it was certainly there in the background. But even though I put the question of identity to one side, I must have been aware at some level that if you sign up to a slogan like ‘the personal is political’ it will at some point come back to bite you.

Meanwhile the world was moving on and it felt as if many of the things feminists had campaigned for were being won. I shared in the rejoicing when friends and relations came out as gay, though a part of me found it depressing that in order to announce their commitment to each other many embraced the institution of marriage that to me had always seemed like part of the problem not the solution to what we were learning to call ‘heteronormativity’.  

Similarly, when a dear colleague I had previously known as male announced that she was becoming a woman my reaction was one of joy that she had found who she wanted to be, but this too was mixed with a twinge of sadness that this choice had had to be made within a binary context, like flicking a switch that had only two options: on or off; male or female. But this was dwarfed by my excitement – very much in the binary spirit – at the prospect of hearing from, so to speak, a spy from the other side who could report on how men really talk about women when they are not present.

Be careful what you wish for, we are advised, and I expect I am re-enacting a very old cliché when it seems that the dreams of my youth are becoming reality in forms that feel so distorted that it is hard to recognise those original visions in the outcomes. The future I hoped for was one in which it really didn’t matter if you were male or female (other than in relation to biological functions like childbearing and breast-feeding). In a world where your physical and financial needs, and those of your children, would be taken care of, you would be able to move freely and seamlessly through society, so I had imagined, with the bodily characteristics of the person you fell in love with as irrelevant as your own, able to adapt your dress and behaviour to changing circumstances without constantly having to check the mirror. You might even be able to liberate yourself from that internalised external judging gaze that was constantly comparing you to the norm.

Instead, we seem to have arrived at a situation where that not-mattering could not be further away. Indeed, identity seems to require pinning down in ever more precise detail. Anxious teenage girls, trapped in their bedrooms during the Covid lock-down with only Instagram and TikTok for company were expected to define themselves in relation to a vast new range of options, in which prefixes like ‘a-’, ‘poly-’, ‘omni-’, ‘hetero-’, ‘bi-’, ‘demi-’ or ‘grey-’ could be combined with ‘sexual’, ‘romantic’, ‘morphic’ or ‘amorous’ in innumerable combinations. In such a process, paradoxically, in seeking to define your identity precisely, perhaps in the hope of finding new like-minded communities to join, the very features that seem to designate your uniqueness may in fact draw attention to the precise opposite of that uniqueness: the way in which these facets, in no matter what combination, actually make you more interchangeable, and more unrooted from the labile, open, potential-filled person you were in early childhood.

It seems as if every ripple on the lake in which I imagined being able to swim so freely and heedlessly has had to be locked into position in a larger matrix in which, paradoxically, each atomised individual has been reduced to a precisely anatomised intersection of attributes: a frozen pixel in a global picture. This provides a metaphor for labour in a digitalised labour market in which, subjectively speaking, workers are unmoored from the community and class-based allegiances of their parents and stripped of cultural specificity.  (This is something I have written about on this blog in the past here and here). No wonder that there has been such a surge in mental illness, which, bafflingly, is so often referred to these days as ‘mental health’, but which might more simply be regarded as misery.

I find myself perplexed by the very term ‘the LGBTQ+ community’ that has become the standard way of referring to anyone who does not conform to the notional standard heterosexual model. It is not a ‘community’ in any of the dictionary senses of the term in that its members do not share any common place of residence or occupation or hold goods in common. Even if we leave aside any lack of mutual knowledge and shared understandings between its component constituencies, there are theoretical and political contradictions in the very formulation of the concept. The ‘Lesbians’, ‘Gays’ and ‘Bisexuals’ who lead the initialism are defined in terms of the objects of their desire, who can be presumed to be other biologically-defined women or men. If we assume that everyone has a stable sexual identity established at birth there is absolutely no contradiction in establishing common interests between lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and heterosexuals (any of whom might be attracted to other lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and heterosexuals) and thereby formulating policies for protecting their rights to safety, non-discrimination and equality. It is also relatively easy to accommodate a range of different forms of self-presentation and attraction within such a schema. But there is no denying that these concepts depend crucially on a stable, sexually binary social context.

Problems arise when you reject that concept of a stable sexual identity established at birth. This raises quite deep philosophical questions not only in relation to the definition of the self but also in the definition of the object of desire (creating the paradoxical notion that you can simultaneously reject the binary notions ‘man’ and ‘woman’ while insisting that you are nevertheless a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ and/or attracted only to ‘men’ or ‘women’ according to a stereotypical definition, thus reinforcing precisely the concept you claim to be rejecting).

In the TQ+ part of the initialism the definitions shift from a focus on the identity of the object of desire to the identity of the self. When placed in the (acquired) category ‘male’ or ‘female’ a trans identity does not pin you down in relation to the sex of the person you are attracted to. But if you take the view that all gendered subjectivities are socially constructed, making it possible to self-define, then a mirror set of problems emerges. How do you then define same-sex attraction? Or indeed heterosexuality?

Is it perhaps the case that any self-definition takes its meaning from a presumed rigidly conservative binary background which individuals can only define themselves against? To go back to the parallel with race, do all identities derive their value just from being other? Can deviance only exist in a broader context of conformity?  If your group identity is based on being excluded from another larger group, how is inclusion then formed? And how do these multiplying negatives react in the self which is both a subject and an object of desire? And how are these complexities exacerbated by the ways in which the external gaze has been internalised, to varying degrees? In this hall of mirrors in which parodies glance off stereotypes ad infinitum, is there even any possibility of finding an authentic self? And let us not forget the vulnerability of that self. Who, back in the 1960s, could have anticipated a situation where misgendering someone is experienced as a deeply wounding insult?

Added to these abstract contradictions are other more historically embedded ones. Take, for example, a woman of my generation, brought up to put up with stuff and be empathetic, and, quite likely, having spent the last half century or so struggling to find her own voice and articulate her own needs, buried underneath a mountain of obligations to be a good daughter, sister and mother, a helpful friend, neighbour and colleague or a dedicated campaigner. Faced with the emotional fragility of a child or grandchild suffering the intolerable pain of the first encounter with the nastiness and unfairness of the world she may be terribly torn between the urge to protect this precious vulnerable person and the impulse to respond as her own mother might have done (‘This is what life is like. Suck it up’) perhaps in the belief that this is the only way to pass on the strength and skills needed to survive. This is not dissimilar from the scenario, so often depicted in male-authored novels and screenplays, in which men who had to suppress their ‘soft’ side to survive in the army or at work or in a gang culture find it difficult to engage with the new forms of self-presentation of self-questioning sons and grandsons.

There is also a personal dimension to the ways in which stereotypes are perceived. Women who have never worn dresses or high-heeled shoes or makeup as a matter of principle feel nevertheless implicated in the category ‘women’ that is evoked by their use, whether this is in pornography, in the apparently transgressive category of drag or other fetishisms. This reaction is not dissimilar to that of black people to white actors in blackface. Again, they may be held back in the expression of this reaction by the simple fear of the aggression that complaining might evoke or by the impulse (if not compulsion) to empathise with or at least feel sorry for the perpetrator who knows no better or just (as their mothers might have told them) the disinclination to make a fuss about it.

My point here is that there are no simple way to dissolve away the contradictions that arise in trying to reconcile the diverse interests that cross the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Frictions are bound to arise, and clearly do.

It is too simplistic to portray current disagreements as simple inter-generational conflicts, although no doubt this plays a part. Just as, we might surmise, Liz Truss’s extreme form of conservative politics might relate to unresolved tensions with her left-leaning parents, or the virulent anti-immigration sentiments of Priti Pratel or Suella Braverman with unfinished business with their immigrant parents, so it seems likely that at least some of the current antagonism to 1970s feminism among the young and woke might be rooted in personal resentments against the ways in which parents or grandparents are perceived to have failed.

Which brings me, in this already overly long blog post, back to the social and political: to the thorny question of rights and obligations.

Under British law, and that of many other countries, there have, since the 1970s, been some general sex or gender-based rights that are respected in practice to varying degrees: equal treatment in the workplace and in the provision of services, not to be sexually abused, not to be raped, to dress in accordance with one’s individual, cultural and religious preferences, and, less clearly defined, to personal safety and to have access to safe single-sex spaces. To these, many might want to add a wish-list of further rights and obligations which are already sometimes embodied in institutional rules, for example to be treated with courtesy and respect, to avoid unsolicited touching, not to expose others to pornographic images and so on.

There are further rights that apply more specifically to LBGTQ+ groups: not to be discriminated against, not to be subjected to hate crime and, less clearly defined, not to be hurtfully caricatured. But it is less clear whether these rights are based on a person’s declared or ascribed subjective identity and, if so whether this is in turn based on a stable or unstable natal identity (as implied in the TQ+ part of the initialism) or on the declared object of desire, and if so whether that is in turn based on a stable or unstable natal identity (as implied in the LGB part).

These rights are of course mirrored in prohibitions of behaviour that violates these rights. But it is in the mutual interactions of these rights and obligations that the trouble starts. Big trouble, as can be seen on a daily basis on social media.  I do not see it as my role to offer solutions to these problems. The chances are that my views will, as in the past, turn out to be minority ones and, in any case, these issues are for younger generations to resolve.

But there is one point I do wish to make, one that sometimes seems forgotten in these debates, and that is the rights that we do not have. It is perhaps one of the central tragedies of human existence that, however much the rich and powerful (not to mention angry incels) may try to wish this into being, nobody has the right to be desired. The pain of sexual rejection is one for which there is no legal palliative. This is hard for anyone to deal with but perhaps especially hard for people brought up in the conditions of 21st century capitalism. They have been told that everyone has the right to happiness and fulfilment and that the market can provide a solution to every problem. All you have to do is find the money to pay for it. If you are miserable, the market can supply you with drugs or therapy. If you aren’t happy with your body, it can fix it with surgery or hormones. If you still don’t like this body of yours, or your job (or your lack of a job) or your home (or your lack of a home) or your sexual partner (or your lack of a sexual partner) then this must be your fault. But of course you know it is not really your fault. So, every reminder of this unhappiness, this thwarting of the fulfilment you grew up believing was your entitlement, makes you angry. And this anger may very well be directed at the people you come across when you hit the buffers that define the boundaries of your sexual identity, the gatekeepers, so to speak, of the patriarchal order. Not just the men who threaten you with violence, deny you work or steal your ideas but also the parents and teachers who seem to be grooming you into acceptance and toning down your expectations.  

I am very hesitant to propose any lessons that can be learned from the 1970s women’s liberation movement. Heaven knows we must have got an awful lot of things wrong, because look at the mess we are left with. But if I might venture one suggestion, it is this. Perhaps one useful starting point, however limited, might be to focus more on what we have in common and less on what divides us.

I sit here writing this in a female body which has changed a lot over the years but only as a result of self-neglect, childbirth and fracture-repairing surgery. I am grateful to be wearing no restrictive underwear or tight shoes, a unisex top and trousers with a stretchy waistband. I am even more grateful that I can write more or less as I please and am invited to speak and to publish on a more or less equal footing with men (albeit in a field where such labour is barely remunerated). But I am enraged that, on an almost daily basis (and sometimes as part of the cyberbureaucratic process that is the gateway to just such forms of expression) I am required to fill in a questionnaire in which I have to tick boxes obliging me to categorise my gender identity, my marital status and, sometimes, even my preferred pronouns, under classification systems that I cannot relate to. Sometimes I feel that I do not identify with any of the gender models out there, each identity too prescriptive or restrictive to feel anything like me, or a version of me that I recognise. And an internal voice keeps insisting ‘This shouldn’t matter’. But then I switch on the news and am reminded of those brave women in Iran defying the mullahs as they expose their hair, and what has happened to abortion rights in the United States, and the fact that male homosexuals in Qatar face a three-year prison sentence and the possibility of the death penalty, and of course it does matter. Back to where I started. Sigh.

By the way, in case you are interested, here are the links to a couple of things I have written on this blog in the past about gender: the gender agenda and being got or not.


[i] Leo Robson (2022) ‘I’m Getting Out of Here’, London Review of Books, 3 November.

[ii] Huws, U. (1997) ‘Bread and Roses:  Reflections on Women’s Politics at the End of the Twentieth Century’, Red Pepper, October 

[iii] Huws U. (1998) ‘The Fading of the Collective Dream’ in Mitter, S. and Rowbotham, S. (eds) Women Encounter Technology, Routledge

Queues

During this seemingly endless period of mourning for the Queen I have several times found myself, on automatic pilot, switching on the tv and going to BBC Breakfast, hoping to catch up on the news headlines over breakfast, only to discover that, to all intents and purposes, there is no longer any news. Instead, there is the sight of the hapless Charlie Stayt, once upon a time a decent journalist, embarassedly plucking people out of a queue of mourners to ask them why they have been shuffling along for twelve hours or so in order to view the coffin of the deceased, before shoving them back, lest they lose their place.

Queues have become the news.

I once attended a conference on ‘the customer experience’, one of those events organised by someone from an Ivy League US business school, with the idea of promoting the kind of catch-phrase that might make a best-seller on the business shelves of airport bookshops.

One of the case studies that was presented was from Disneyland and it concerned ‘queue management’. The presenter explained how carefully and deliberately these are planned. The ‘snake’ model is supposed to foster friendly chatting, as people pass and repass the same limited group of fellow queuers. But they are positioned so that there is always a tantalising vista of the final destination (eg the magic castle) in view, even when queueing for an intermediate attraction. This is the visual motivator for the whole experience – the ultimate focus, without which they might give up. Anything that might remind the punters of the money they have spent to get there (eg the car park) is kept hidden from view. For the same reason they are not charged individually for different rides. A reminder of the cost is seen as breaking the spell. The illusion that they are privileged to be in a separate, fantasy world must be sustained at all costs. Apparently visitors are so easily coralled by these strategies that they don’t even bother to lock the doors to the forbidden ‘staff-only’ areas of the theme parks.

It is clear that the queue performs several functions. The social contact among the queuers instils herd mentality and hence compliant behaviour. To start complaining runs the risk of becoming the unpopular one, who lets the side down and breaks the solidarity that has been built up. The very fact of queuing also reinforces the scarcity value of the thing queued for, which becomes all the more desirable because of the effort that has to go into acquiring it. In the case of commercial attractions, of course, this greatly increases profitability. The longer the customer spends waiting in line, the less time there is available for actually experiencing the attractions themselves, meaning that fewer have to be provided. There is a direct tradeoff between the amount of idle time these customers pay for out of their own pockets and the amount that has to be paid to employees out of the profits.

There is also the question of what the economists call opportunity costs. What productive uses might people be otherwise making of this time if they were not queueing? Here, in the present context, it is difficult not to make a connection between the current blanket coverage of this public mourning and the activities that have been halted because of it – both the news that is not happening and the news that is happening but is not being reported to the British public, which are closely interlinked.

Just before the Queen’s death was announced, it should be recalled, there was unprecedented public outcry over the energy crisis and the way in which the outgoing Johnson government had failed to address this. Indeed the news of her sudden indisposition interrupted the very parliamentary debate in which the incoming prime minister, Liz Truss was about to present her solution to this (the details of which have still not been subjected to proper public scrutiny, despite being already in the process of implementation). We were also in the midst of a wave of strikes the like of which had not been seen since the 1970s, strikes which, moreover, had strong support from the general public. Attitudes were changing on other things too. An opinion poll by Survation in August showed strong public approval of national ownership of utilities and transport (with 69% wanting renationalisation of water, 68% of mail, 67% of rail, 66% of energy and 65% of buses). Inflation was higher, and the value of the pound lower, than either had been for thirty years. In short, an unprecedented wave of public anger and militancy seemed to have been unleashed and a crisis seemed imminent, with the potential for shaking the foundations of the British establishment.

It is tempting to read the current situation as one that reveals a polarisation in the British public between loyal, tradition-respecting and law-abiding Royalists, on the one hand, and apple-cart-upsetting republicans on the other. While the first group grieves and queues, the second sits on its hands, waiting impatiently for a chance to get back to the picket lines or (even better from the point of view of the establishment, loses momentum and slips back into apathy or despair).

In my view, this is mistaken, though of course there are probably kernels of truth in it. On the whole, it seems to me, the mourning for the Queen can in many ways be seen as coming from the same impulse as the resurgence of militancy – a mourning for the history with which her 70-year reign was so closely associated. Nostalgia for the 1950s is not only nostalgia for the tight-lipped hierarchies of the period when posh women wore gloves and hats to open fetes and present prizes. It is also nostalgia for the early years of the post-war welfare state: the free milk and orange juice for children, the new housing estates with proper bathrooms, the school nurses who provided vaccinations and checked for headlice, the ‘dole’ if you were unemployed, the expanding telephone network.

The welfare state, paternalistic in its bureaucratic forms, was very difficult to detach from the monarchy, even in its terminology. The mail service, was the ‘Royal Mail’. Even the tax service, which, in the 1950s was more redistributive from the rich to the poor than at any time before or since, then called the Inland Revenue, is now ‘Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Service’ (having been merged in 2005 with Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise). If, thanks to your state pension, you reached the age of 100 you got a telegram (now replaced by a card) from the Queen. The royal insignia was as much part of the landscape as the red telephone box, the milk float, the London taxi and the double-decker bus.

Whatever certainty and continuity people derived from living in the United Kingdom (interesting that it was never renamed a Queendom, though that is probably how many experienced it) came from some sense of being able to rely on institutions that were to varying degrees attached to the monarchy. As these institutions have crumbled in the forty years that neoliberalism has held sway, the pain of their loss has also been connected with it at some level, perhaps not even conscious, at least until the death of the monarch. It is my guess that a lot of the people in those queues would like to see renationalisation.

The institutions of the welfare state are also, of course, closely associated with queuing, both positively and negatively. We might think of those post-war ration queues, associated with ideas of fairness. Waiting your turn was considered virtuous; queue-jumping greedy and unpatriotic. Much of the public dislike of Thatcherism was rooted in a sense that, in her insistence that ‘there is no such thing as society’, she was encouraging precisely such queue-jumping behaviour, for example by encouraging people who could afford it to ‘go private’ for their medical treatment or their children’s education. There was outrage when it was reported in the 1980s that bus queues need no longer be respected – let the ablest person leap on first. Yet queuing was also presented negatively – associated with scarcity in communist countries, and (in the famous ‘Labour isn’t Working’ election poster) with unemployment. When there are scarce resources to be distributed fairly, it is difficult to think of better way to do it.

There are alternative ways to organise it, however. To me, with my particular injuries, that physical shuffling along is the most punishing form of movement there is. The reason I have to use the wheelchair assistance service at airports is because I cannot manage those lines to get through security, although I sometimes feel a bit of a fraud doing so because I am quite capable of a short burst of perambulation between seats. Happy to wait as long as it takes if there is some possibility of resting the legs, my favourite system is the one where you are issued with a numbered ticket on arrival and there is a row of chairs to sit on until your number is called.

But I digress. The current focus on queueing is also a reminder that’ the word ‘queue’ (apart from being an anagram of ‘queen’ if you turn one of the ‘u’s upside down to make an ‘n’) originates from the word for ‘tail’. We are indeed living through a time of endings – which is also of course a time of beginnings. And of great uncertainty. Most concretely, here in Britain, this is the beginning of a new monarchy and a new premiership, both of which feel foisted upon us without consultation or consent.

More broadly, there seem to be other beginning-endings. Just as the opening of the late Queen’s reign seemed to more or less coincide with that of the Welfare State, might its ending coincide with the terminal death of the institutions of that Welfare State? Just as its opening more or less coincided with the break-up of the British Empire and the cobbling together of the Commonwealth as a makeshift transition into a new global capitalist order, might its ending also coincide with the UK’s decline into a lesser power – one secondary state among many? Or might we even be on the brink of a break-up of that very ‘united’ ‘kingdom’?

Having witnessed the drowning of social democratic Keynesian national economies in a swelling tide of neoliberal globalisation over the last forty years, and having seen the necessity of state intervention to counteract the pandemic and the impact of climate change, could we be at a turning point where nation states are making a resurgent comeback? Or are we, instead, entering a new and even more destructive phase of global capitalism, with neoliberalism reinventing itself and authoritarian regimes on the rampage?

And what about those values of fairness, and duty and decency and industriousness that are now so strongly projected onto the departed Queen and also provide the underpinnings of our social order? My hunch is that they can be recreated through collective organisation but, like any other democratic achievement, their development might require quite a bit of slow, patient footwork. But, unlike a queue, along a route planned from below.

Disutilities

Utilitity services have featured prominently in just about every major news story in the UK over the past few months. We have heard about the way that water companies, while imposing hosepipe bans in drought conditions, have been failing to repair leaks and pumping raw sewage onto beaches in the height of the holiday season. How rail companies have failed to negotiate with their workers – in a pattern that seems to be repeating itself with dock workers and postal workers. How telecommunications companies still leave tracts of the countryside without effective 4G coverage. How airports are failing to manage increased flows of passengers. And, most prominently, how energy companies are hiking up their prices to unsupportable levels while still managing to rake in record profits.

Public indignation is mounting and there appears to be growing support, not just for strikes by utility workers but also for campaigns such as Enough is Enough and Don’t Pay UK. Having written extensively in the past about the impacts of privatisation of utilities, both on workers and on users of services, my own indignation levels in reaction to these stories were at first little higher than they have been for the past forty years, with some incremental increases tempered by a certain amount of I-told-you-soism and sadness. But I have just, somewhat belatedly, been reading a remarkably thorough and well-researched book by Brett Christophers Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays for It? and now my indignation level too is at boiling point.

The sheer scale of the exploitation is mind-boggling. Piling one devastating fact on another, Christophers demonstrates the enormity of the extent to which privatised utlities, many of them natural monopolies, have provided a license to milk huge profits with very little obligation to supply adequate services in return. These profits are way higher than those that prevail in normal competitive capitalist markets (if such things can be said to exist). He gives as an example the operating profit margins of several key utility companies in 2018, when (in transport and logistics) Associated British Ports made 51%, Angel Trains 49% and the Eversholt Rail Group 45%; (in energy) Western Power Distribution made 61% UK Power Networks 52% and the National Grid 23%; (in water and sewerage) Severn Trent made 31%, United Utilities 37%, Thames Water 27%; and (in telecoms) Openreach made 23% and Arqiva 34%. The previous year, most made even more. As he points out, ‘Even the relative underperformers, National Grid and Openreach, have operating profits. .. that would be the envy of most sectors of the economy’.

And that is not all. He shows how these companies avoid paying tax on these profits by ratcheting up large quantities of debt and how, in addition to being handed these formerly public services and their formerly publicly employed workers to mis-manage, many were also given large tracts of land. For example, the privatisations of electricity, coal and rail jointly shifted an estimated million acres (400,000 hectares) of land into private hands. Royal Mail, even after selling sites to the value of £400 million, is still estimated to own freehold property with a market value of ‘upwards of £5 billion’ and National Grid, despite selling off over £100 million of surplus land each year, is still estimated to own sites with a net book value of £2.3 billion. Elsewhere in the book, Christophers shows the importance of land ownership – now by far the biggest form of non-financial wealth – in the UK and the staggering growth of its value generation since the mid-1990s.

This book provides an essential resource for any campaign to re-decommodify utilities. Sadly, it looks as if the Labour Party will not be leading any such campaign. Many of the developments Christophers chronicles were cemented into position, if not initiated, under the New Labour government between 1997 and 2010. Since then, despite some hiccups during the financial crisis, the stranglehold of utilitity companies, along with other rentiers, over the British economy has only tightened. We must look to alternatives before we are choked to death.

John Chris Jones

I have just heard the sad news that John Chris Jones passed away this morning in the North London Hospice. He was an important part of my life for many years. I first met him through my father, Richard Huws, and Chris Crickmay, a student of my father’s who became a close collaborator of Chris Jones (as we then knew him) when they worked together at the Open University when it was first set up. I got to know him well after my father’s death when the two Chrises helped me sort through his papers and put together an obituary article published in 1982 in the Architectural Association Quarterly.

As his life and mine both went through changes he increasingly became a source of practical and emotional support, always ready with an I Ching reading to help with a difficult decision or the loan of his bright yellow VW camper van which we ended up sharing until the late 1990s. We had overlapping interests in technology, philosophy, art, history, creative processes and all things Welsh (I realise I cited him in my last blog post only a couple of days ago) but mainly I valued him as an insightful friend and always original thinker about whatever topic chance threw up.

As a tribute to him I am reposting here a review of his work I wrote for the Anarchist Studies journal, in 1996.

PLANNING AND FREEDOM

John Chris Jones, Designing Designing, Phaidon Press, (Architecture Design and Technology Press), London, 1991, paperback, xlv + 336 pp, £12.95

John Chris Jones, Design Methods, 2nd Edition, Van Nostrand Reinhold (International Thomson Publishing), New York, 1992, paperback,  lxiv + 407 pp, ISBN 0-442-01182-2,  £33.00

C. Thomas Mitchell, Redefining Designing:  From Form to Experience, Van Nostrand Reinhold, (International Thomson Publishing), New York, 1993, paperback, 162 pp, ISBN 0-442-00987-9, £28.50

When he was a student at Cambridge just after the Second World War,  John Chris Jones discovered that a letter was as likely to reach its destination if chucked out of the window as if it were posted in the conventional way.  The blithe optimism which inspired such an experiment still characterises his approach to life.  After a decade and a half in which mistrust of one’s fellow humans has gained overwhelming ideological dominance it is as welcome as a daffodil in a British January.

Jones’s basic message is that freed from the imprisoning rigidities of abstract rules and systems, and the bureaucracies they generate,  people can be trusted to find creative and mutually helpful solutions to the problems they encounter as inevitably as water can be trusted to find a sensible route down a Welsh mountain.

Though akin to some ideas current in anarchist thought,  Jones’s approach has quite different intellectual origins.  During the 1950s he was employed by Metropolitan Vickers, then one of the largest electrical engineering companies in Britain, as an industrial designer.  His tolerant boss, spotting talent, gave him considerable freedom to rove between departments, evaluating new designs – for anything from an early mainframe computer to a turbo generator – to  identify potential problems.  In this role he developed a number of insights into the design process and the nature of technological change which began to be published as articles in the design press.

For the development of his personal philosophy, perhaps the most important of these insights was the discovery that there comes a point in any design process where the range of alternatives is so great that no single mind can possibly encompass them.   At such moments most designers become conservative or arbitrary.  They may make decisions based on copying the outward form of what others have done before them in similar circumstances (‘this object is a desk-lamp/traffic control system/housing estate so I’ll make it look like other desk-lamps/traffic control systems/housing estates I’ve seen’).  They may take refuge in their personal sense of artistry (‘this sketch I’ve done on the back of an envelope looks good’).  Or they may allow economics to make the decision (the cheapest materials, for instance, or the option which involves least retooling).  Jones’s originality lies in his perception that it is precisely this abrogation of responsibility which leads to design problems.   However great the designer, he or she is blinkered by innumerable preconceptions and prejudices.  A decision based only on a single person’s  common sense will be fatally limited.  Much better to recognise that there is no rational basis for an individual decision and consciously open oneself up to the full range of possibilities.

The most  radical innovation in terms of its immediate impact was the dethroning of the designer from his role as the individual creator and the placing of users and their needs at the centre of the design process.  In order to make it possible for the process to be democratised in this way it was necessary for it to be shared and a common means of communication to be developed.  Jones pioneered the use of brainstorming and other techniques to enable new forms of dialogue to be developed between designers and users.  He also set up one of the first ergonomics laboratories in the country as a way of collecting concrete evidence of the impact of designs on their users.

In 1961 Jones became an academic which gave him the chance to develop these ideas further.  They eventually took form in Design Methods, the classic work of its genre which has now been reissued by Van Nostrand Reinhold with a welcome new introduction by the author.  Design Methods takes the rational analysis of the design process to its logical limits.  Indeed, chunks of it can be found, transcribed word for word, though unacknowledged, in the National Curriculum guidelines on the craft, design and technology curriculum.   However contained in this work, though missing from its many imitators, is also a radical critique of this very rationality.

The central problem which Jones confronts is how, starting from a positivist scientific view of the world, designers can free themselves from the straitjacket of their own unconscious prejudices and open themselves up to a fuller range of creative possibilities.   The answer he comes up with is one which also occurred to some artists – notably his friend John Cage –  in the 1960s:  the use of chance.  Such techniques can, of course, be traced back to Surrealism and, even earlier to  the I Ching and other ancient divining systems.  Designing Designing, like much of Jones’s writing and performance art of the 1980s,  uses a variety of random processes to produce a series of sensitive observations about design which make up an extraordinarily coherent whole despite the disparate origins of the component essays.   As a writer, Jones practices what he preaches, refusing to speak in the omniscient voice of the expert and encouraging the reader to share with him in the process of constructing new meanings from his encyclopaedic range of source materials.  This sounds like post-modernism and, indeed, some would argue that it is.  However even the most philosophical of Jones’s essays contain no allusions to structuralist or post-structuralist texts and all are innocent of either  pastiche or jargon.  The flavour of the writing is tentative: conversational with an ineradicable Welshness of rhythm.

Since Jones’s characteristic resignation from his post as inaugural professor of design at the Open University in 1975, inexplicable to those who cannot understand the impulse to live by one’s beliefs, his work has been sadly neglected.   Perhaps Thomas Mitchell’s Redefining Designing  signifies the beginnings of a recognition beyond the narrow circle of designers, performance artists and poets who currently admire his work.

Mitchell’s main focus is architecture.  His central argument is that whether they are Modernists, Post-modernists, Deconstructionists or Late (or Second) Modernists, twentieth century architects share a basic contempt for the users of their buildings.  As well as exposing the egotism of architects, he also criticises social scientists for their failure to carry out research on environment behaviour in ways which make it possible for their findings to be incorporated constructively into the design process.  Drawing both on published work and on a series of taped interviews with him, Mitchell presents  Jones’s approach to design methods as a way forward from this impasse.  Placing him, surprisingly, in the tradition of William Morris, Mitchell makes it clear that Jones’s work has a direct political relevance.  Quoting Jones’s insistence that the Design Methods approach should be applied to the design of systems as well as artefacts, he argues that, applied at this level, the approach becomes a way of empowering ordinary people and making it possible to create a comfortable functioning environment for living, responsive to their needs.  It becomes, in other words,  a way to implement what the GLC called popular planning.   The goal of design is transformed:  the aesthetic becomes the social as, instead of trying to make beautiful objects, we try instead to find a way for people to live good lives.

© Ursula Huws, 1994

Planting, replanting, pruning and weeding: Mysteries of the creative process

It has been a long time since it rained here in central London. Not a drop in July and, very little, if anything in June. Watering the garden has has become a morning ritual. Eight watering cans for the front garden and six for the back – about 35 gallons in all. Though strenuous, with my shattered left arm and right shoulder, it is a pleasant one: a daily check on the progress of each plant while the air is still fresh, reminding me of other gardens I have inspected over the years.

It is still very much a work in progress. The plants I brought with me from the last house over a year ago are mostly still in their pots. This is partly to keep them separate from the many weeds I inherited (including stinging nettles) but mainly because I have yet to decide on the right final home for many of them. So as I progress around with my watering can I am not just checking on what has flowered, or ripened, or died, or needs pruning but also on what is happy where. So I am still experimenting. For example a couple of days ago I swapped a little orange tree from the west-facing back garden with a fern from the east-facing front one.

This process of assembly and adjustment reminds me very much of putting a book together: deciding what to keep, what to put where and what still needs to be done. The mental narratives follow similar patterns and the to-do lists that are generated by them merge, along with others, to create the kind of stream of consciousness writers like Virginia Woolf taught us to be attentive to in relation to our own thoughts. ‘If I put the agapanthus where they catch the morning sun might they actually flower?’ echoes ‘If I start that chapter with the dramatic quotation and leave the theoretical framing until later will readers get the point?’ while ‘Must remember to check the best time of year to prune the bay tree’ swims past ‘Must remember to check what David Harvey has to say about infrastructure rent’ along with other injunctions like ‘Don’t forget to buy more olive oil’.

I recall a conversation with Cynthia Cockburn some forty years ago about how to deal with a pre-existing article when trying to develop its ideas further in a book. The argument is already there; you’ve already said it as well as you know how; yet it needs to be expanded, and updated, and you want to make sure that the reader who has not come across it before gets it, while also not wanting the reader who has read it to think of you as a lazy recycler. It’s the part of the book that you thought would be the easiest to write that ends up being by far the most difficult. It sits there like a great lump of concrete impeding the flow of the rest. Even if it hasn’t been published yet, any pre-existing text constitutes the same sort of blockage. You have to make a choice between arranging the chunks you have available into as coherent a narrative as possible or abandoning them and surfing the new wave of fresh thought as it comes. But the impulse not to discard what is still serviceable and waste past effort is strong – even when the effort of repurposing it is greater than that of starting again from scratch.

Just so with gardens. I realise in retrospect that I have often applied to gardening a rather old-fashioned aesthetic (based in a, perhaps snobbish, disdain for the municipal flowerbeds and hanging baskets of the latter part of the 20th century) in which one of the things to be avoided is the ‘clashing’ of colours (which dictated an aversion for, for example, petunias, especially in the company of red salvias or pelargoniums). In my last house I had a small north-facing back garden on the ground floor, most of which got so little light that the only way to create the kind of green view one’s eyes thirst for in London was to fill it with ferns and glossy-leaved evergreens (a fatsia; clematis armandii) alongside things that would climb up to the light on the next floor up (a jasmine; a grape vine; a trumpet vine). For pops of colour, this was where I put things that were russety-red or orange (nasturtiums, which self-seeded and gave me seeds to pickle as ‘poor man’s capers’; day lillies; a calycanthus) and sometimes in the summer – feeling a bit daring and retro because of the associations with the vulgarity of 1960s hanging baskets and window boxes – I would slip in some bright begonias, which I would then invariably fail to remove before the frosts came so they rarely survived the winter.

The old downstairs garden

Upstairs there was a roof terrace, which, though also north facing, got quite a bit of light. Here, in addition to growing fruit and vegetables, I went for a colour scheme of pinks and purples, adding, as July became August, the blue of agapanthus.

The old upstairs garden

In February this year, when it was finally time to find new homes for the pots that had been moved, I had some decisions to make about what to put where. I inherited a mature pear tree and a rose bush in the west-facing back garden which more or less dictated that the tree fern should go in the east-facing front. This suggested putting the other ferns there too, so they could echo each other. My next door neighbour has a wonderful collection of pinky colours in her adjoining garden (roses, a camellia, a hydrangea and some agapanthus) so it seemed to make sense to go for similar colours.

I put one pot with a fern in it next to the gate, and planted alongside the fern some purple aubretia which I hoped would slop down over the edge of the pot, as it did over stone walls in the Anglesey of my childhood. But then, a few weeks later, I made a discovery that triggered a dilemma that in retrospect seems quite unreasonably intense. I mixed the palettes. Lurking in the depths of that pot was a stowaway – a little begonia that had somehow survived both the previous winter and the move. I was aghast. I could not bring myself to dig up and kill this brave survivor. But the thought of its bright orange clashing with the equally bright purple of the aubretia was dreadful. I could of course have moved one or both of them (just as one might rearrange two blocks of text in a manuscript) but somehow this didn’t seem like an option. Mixing obstinancy with extravagance I decided that the only possible way to resolve the problem would be to make the ‘clash’ seem deliberate, by adding a range of in-between colours that would mediate between them. So off I went to a garden centre (an expedition that used up the best part of a day) and came back with a nemesia that was a less startling shade of purple and a fuschia that combined yet another purple with a hot pink.

Desperately seeking solutions

I imagined that this might give me the sort of ‘intended’ looking melange of oranges, reds and purples I sometimes use in my knitting.

Some cushions I knitted as part of my physiotherapy when my arm was recovering from surgery (with a clivia)
Begonia triumphant

So much for that plan! Neither the aubretia nor the nemesia has thrived, making the purple part of the picture redundant. Meanwhile the begonia has come spectacularly into its own, blazing forth in a way that attracts compliments from passers by. It has found its happy place and in the process reminded me that nature, left to its own devices, generally frames bright colours with green in a way that renders the concept of colour clash sublimely irrelevant.

If only my new book was coming along as well as this! It is presenting me with many similar dilemmas. And I am still puzzling over several questions. Is it laziness to be deplored or a happy accident to be celebrated to come across something recyclable and think ‘that’ll do’ as a starting point? Can we really trust chance to do as good a job as reasoned analysis, as John Chris Jones argues in Designing designing ? To what extent should traditional ‘rules’ (whether of correct grammar or composition or aesthetic conventions) be allowed to dictate creative practice? How can a good balance be found between developing a clear and rational argument on the one hand, and allowing new thought to develop freely on the other? Or, put another way, between planting, replanting, pruning and weeding and just sitting back and leaving things to chance. Of course it is impossible to renounce our own agency in all this, however strong the urge to imagine we are letting nature take its course. As Marx wrote, in a somewhat different context:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.

It is in that dialectical relationship between the pre-imagining and the realisation that these dilemmas arise.

Exposing the front line in the class war

A couple of days ago I was invited to speak at a symposium entitled Employment Regulation Post-Pandemic: New Perspectives?: Most of the other speakers were very learned lawyers and I learned a huge amount about several topics that were completely new to me (‘vicarious liability’, for example). Even topics I thought I knew a bit about became fascinatingly strange when viewed through legal spectacles. A lesson, if ever there was one, in the value of bringing thoughtful people from different disciplines together.

In my capacity as editor of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation, I spend quite a bit of time grappling with interdisciplinarity. This doesn’t just pose philosophical problems but also practical ones, such as which reviewer to choose for an article that crosses the boundaries. Recently there has been a spate of submissions of articles relating to employment regulation in Ukraine. I am not quite sure why. Perhaps some kind of displacement activity for the authors in what must be almost intolerable circumstances? Perhaps a preparation for Ukraine’s accession to the EU when they will have to bring their employment legislation into harmony with the rest of Europe? Who knows. But if I were to send any of these to a reviewer with a background in labour sociology, their response would be to say ‘But this is just a literature review? Where’s the original empirical research? What does this add to the total of existing knowledge in the field?’. Disciplines don’t just take different theoretical starting points or employ different vocabularies and conceptual frameworks, they also have different sets of tacit rules about how scholarship should be conducted.

But this is not a reason to retreat into separate bunkers. On the contrary, it gives us a compelling motive to try to open up new dialogues, listen with respect and offer whatever results we have from our own research in ways that are intelligible to broader audiences so they might spark new insights. And there were new insights aplenty to be gleaned from the contributions at this particular symposium, perhaps in part because of the historical moment we are living through, in which the Covid pandemic has brought to renewed attention many features of our social and political landscape that were previously so taken for granted as to be almost invisible – at least in the scholarship with which I am most familiar.

Precisely because the logic of their argumentation was so different from mine, the presentations from these lawyers illuminated these developments in unexpected ways, in the process bringing to light the changing contours of the relationship between labour and capital and the ways these have been shaped by, while also shaping, institutions in the third decade of the 2st century.

I was reminded of a metaphor I have used before, which has led me to think of employment regulation as an historical indicator of the most recent compromise reached in the antagonistic relationship between labour and capital as mediated by the state. It represents, in other words, a persistent marker of where the front line was located in this ongoing battle the last time there was a serious conflict, like the trenches and barbed wire left at the cessation of war which show how far each side had advanced. The fighting may have subsided but the marks left on the landscape are enduring.

Over time, people may forget why these barriers are there, but they nevertheless determine what routes they take and how they plan them. Sometimes well-trodden shortcuts may develop to circumvent some of the restrictions they impose. In other cases, solid barriers are created that block off certain options entirely, or make attempts to cross them very hazardous. They may be experienced by some as a nuisance, or by others as a way of making life more predictable – offering a safe, well-known pathway that means you can follow convention and not have to keep making things up as you go along.

We can think, for example, of the regulations introduced in the 1970s in the wake of the increase in trade union militancy and the wave of agitation by civil rights groups and women’s groups in the 1960s (in the UK, for example, The Health and Safety at Work Act, the Employment Protection Act, the Race Relations Act, the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act). They undoubtedly created fences which protected workers on their side, while prohibiting employers from engaging in certain kinds of discriminatory behaviours on the other. But over the years some parts of these fences were neglected, while others were under constant pressure, requiring continual vigilance to ensure their maintenance. There were many grumblings about the barbed wire: ‘political correctness gone mad’, ‘an intolerable burden on business’, ‘bureaucracy that stifles creativity and innovation’ and (sarcastically, accompanied by an expressive eye roll) ‘Elf ‘n safety, innit’, sometimes elided with ‘Computer says “no”‘.

The protections they offered were increasingly taken for granted by those who benefited from them, but, over ensuing decades, were reduced in scope, as employers found ways to bypass them (temporary contracts, zero hours contracts, ‘independent contractor’ status, umbrella companies). Direct class conflict was ebbing; individual self-promotion replacing collective action. A new landscape was emerging (shaped by globalisation, digitalisation and neoliberalism) that was poorly mapped and variable. Young or recently arrived workers might be lucky enough to stumble into an area that was reasonably well protected (public sector employment, for example), but they might equally fall into an unmarked trench, or trip on some rusting barbed wire. And attribute this to bad luck or personal inadequacy, or the vindictiveness of an individual manager rather than recognising it as structural.

But there seems to be a new stirring in the air. As I wrote here, the Covid crisis has exposed the neoliberal commonsensical idea that everything can be left to the market as the nonsense that it is, and there is a new understanding not only that the intervention of the state is necessary but also that there are political choices to be made about what kind of intervention that might be. There is also clear evidence that militancy is once again on the rise. We have witnessed this in industrial action from some traditionally well organised workers (for example the train workers who have struck recently in the UK) but also in new forms of organising among some of the most vulnerable and exploited workers in unorganised sectors – many of whom bore the brunt of the pandemic. Examples of this include organising drives in global companies like Amazon, Starbucks and Macdonalds, as well as the actions taken in the gig economy, for example by Uber drivers.

Suddenly those regulatory fortifications are being tested again. Which fences are still fit for purpose? How can they be reinforced? Where should new trenches be dug? Which troops should be assembled where?

The forces are unequal and the challenges immense, but, along with workers’ organisations and political, economic and social analysts, thoughtful lawyers will have an important part to play in determining what the new terrain might look like.

Auf Wiedersehen class consciousness

Yesterday, in one of my increasingly rare bouts of television channel-hopping, I chanced upon a rerun of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, the enormously popular ITV series from the early 1980s about construction workers forced into companionship by the need to work away from home. Thanks in part to brilliant performances from some of the actors it launched into public consciousness, including Timothy Spall and Kevin Whately, it managed to feature rounded working class characters from the North-east, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol and London while, on the whole, avoiding regional stereotypes. It also managed to be very funny, while also providing sharp social commentary on the Thatcher years.

Implicit in the whole premise of the series was the deindustrialisation of British regions that uprooted these workers from their families and sent them on their nomadic search for work. But it also touched on other serious contemporary issues like the decline in the enforcement of building standards, get-rich quick schemes providing outsourced services to the public sector (in series 2, an old people’s home that is a potential death trap) and tax avoidance. Above all, it shone an acute light on social class in Britain – including the collusion between the old, entitled, aristocracy and new loadsamoney middle classes. Conversations among the building workers portray them as funny, well-informed and with unexpected talents, but in encounters with others (pub landlords, farmers, public authorities, employers, the police) they are shown to be treated as ignorant boors. I suspect that it was this respect for intelligence expressed in regional accents combined with a sharp observation of social contempt that made the series so enormously popular. It was just about the nearest thing you could find on television to an honest portrayal of working class life, though of course did not – and could not – display its full diversity.

What shocked and surprised me was that each of the three episodes I watched on the Drama channel was prefaced by a warning that ‘this programme contains outdated language and attitudes’. On my channel-hopping journey to find these programmes, I had chanced upon many other films and television series from the past. These included a large number of British World War II films, lightweight domestic comedies, detective series, other comedy series and ancient panel shows from the 1980s in which participants were patronised grotesquely by the host. Between them, these exhibited a huge range of sexist and racist stereotypes. They also – especially the war films – presented the middle classes, with their clipped accents and strong sense of morality, as heroic, while working class characters, when not out-and-out caricatures, were one-dimensional and intellectually limited. Yet not one of these programmes – offensive though many were to me, and I am sure to many others – was preceded by such a warning.

Could it be that what was actually being warned against in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was the sort of accurate social observation of the class system that is likely to awaken class consciousness among its viewers?

When it is shown through a normalised middle-class lens, the denigration of working class people, women and gays and the negative stereotyping of nationalities and ethnicities is so taken for granted as not to be worthy of comment. However a sociological understanding of these phenomena – as well as satire – is now demonised as offensive.

Back in the 1970s, feminists who mentioned ‘men’ and ‘women’ in general terms as social categories were often labelled ‘sexist’, just as using the term ‘Black’ was considered ‘racist’ by those for whom gender- or colour-blindness constituted a lack of prejudice. The polite middle-class way to proceed was simply not to mention social differences, following dinner party etiquette. Any critical or observational commentary is somehow assigned the character of what is being criticised in a kind of projection not dissimilar to the way in which bullies quickly claim to be victims when somebody tries to call them out.

How depressing to find such a brilliant portrayal of class in Britain marginalised in this way, and wokeness used as a tool to perpetuate the dominance of a vision of society in which class is rendered invisible.

Deseedification

A couple of days ago I discovered that, according to The Times and The Sunday Times, my new home is in one of the ‘nicest places to live in London’. By coincidence, I had been talking that morning to one of my neighbours, who has lived here for fifteen years but grew up a couple of blocks to the north, who told me how thirty years ago this was regarded as one of the most dangerous estates in London, with notorious gangs, areas where the police were reportedly reluctant to go and where Bangladeshi families like hers lived in constant fear of attack. Kings Cross was famously a red light district, hitting the headlines in 1991 when Sir Allan Green, the Director of Public Prosecutions, was caught by the police kerb-crawling in the desolate streets alongside the railway yards, littered with discarded syringes and condoms.

A quarter of a century earlier, I was living a few blocks south in a flat with a single tap, an outside loo and a supply of electricity delivered via cloth-covered twisted cables, dangerously enclosed inside the copper pipes that had once brought gas (for the lights) to the wood-panelled rooms. Some of the neighbouring Georgian streets (mostly owned by the Rugby School Estate whose role as a slum landlord did not seem to affect its charitable status) were being encouraged into a state of disrepair that warranted demolition and it was in Somers Town, where I now live, that most of the occupants were rehoused – though by the late 1960s a few ended up in the Brunswick Centre, now regarded as something of a classic of brutalist architecture.

The whole area serves as something of a history of social housing. Charles Dickens lived here as a child at two addresses between what are now Euston and St Pancras stations. The workhouse supposed to be a model for the one in Oliver Twist is just south of the Euston Road, but there was another enormous one at St Pancras. Its infirmary, built in 1848, is now a mental hospital. There are tenement blocks from the late 19th century and examples of public housing from every decade of the 20th and 21st, ranging from the art deco Ossulston street flats, modelled on the Karl-Marx-Hof in Vienna, built as Utopian social housing between 1927 and 1937 by the London County Council, to more utilitarian blocks, in the period styles of the 1950s and 1960s. The estate where I live was constructed in the 1970s in what seems in retrospect to have been a golden age of public housing. It was designed anonymously by Camden Council’s in-house architecture department (unlike some of their more eye-catching estates, dating from the 1960s, which are described well in this article) at a time when some valuable lessons had already been learned about social housing (don’t put families with children in high-rise blocks; give people gardens; keep the scale human) but before the Thatcher Government had started the assault on public housing in Britain from which we have never recovered.

It is now a haven of calm, with mature plane trees filled with birdsong. The only other sounds you hear are the bells of St Pancras Old Church from the north and sometimes, dimly, from the east a station announcement or the hoot of a train. All my visitors comment on how peaceful it feels – easily the quietest place I have ever lived in London. It is hard to believe that it so near to three of the busiest rail stations in Europe. Passers by are discreet – pupils on their way to Maria Fidelis school stop to pet the cats on the gateposts, delivery guys with their trolleys of packages greet you with a nod, friendly council workers tend the plants and clear the rubbish and – in what seems to be a new phenomenon – portly middle-aged men glide silently past on electric scooters. Now it is Ramadan and, as dusk approaches, people cross the estate with great dishes of delicious-smelling food to share with friends and family for the nightly iftar feasts.

The area is undoubtedly on its way up. At night from my bedroom window I can see the twinkling red lights on the cranes putting the finishing touches to the new Google building, and flats costing millions of pounds each are going up along the canal and on every vacant plot of land. Yet it somehow feels wrong to speak of this as ‘gentrification’, a term I have never felt very comfortable with.

In places I have lived in the past – most recently Dalston and earlier in Highbury, Canonbury and (before the term was even coined) the Angel, Islington, it was possible – just – to understand it as relevant. These were areas where what had been working class housing, usually rented, often in multi-occupied buildings, was being acquired by middle-class people who could not afford to buy in the neighbourhoods that previous generations had already made fashionable (such as Notting Hill Gate and Camden Town). Often following a path opened up by artists and students, and often expressing a commitment to local communities (and voting Labour) they did up the houses, petitioned local councils to beautify the neighbourhoods by planting trees and closing roads to through traffic, campaigned for the improvement of local parks and schools and made the areas desirable enough for another, more affluent, wave of middle-class buyers (quite possibly Tory voters by now) to move in, many of the original residents having been driven out and dispersed further away from central London. Those buyers (the sort of people The Times must be targetting with its ‘best places to live’ articles) are the ‘gentry’ in question and the process by which they come to dominate an area is often explained in simple market terms.

As a buyer myself, I suppose I should plead guilty as charged. However the dynamics of change in this area feel more complex than that. Partly, perhaps, because the change has taken place within a much larger context of ‘development’, with the active involvement of government at several different levels as well as huge private companies and transport providers.

In the nearly nine months that elapsed between leaving my old home and moving into the new one I was able to view some of the contradictions first-hand, from below, so to speak. I moved out of my old house in June, not realising how long it would take for Camden Council to give me permission to install a lift. Based on the builders’ most pessimistic estimates, I had booked myself into an Airbnb in nearby Chalton Street until September. In a lovely location in a nice street with restaurants, pubs and even a little street market, it was on the ground floor (converted from a shop) of an early 19th century building with a landlord who also owned several neighbouring properties.

It had not been used since the first Covid-19 lockdown and had been inadequately cleaned, with many of its contents having been raided to supply other properties. There was, for example, only one spoon and no mugs or glasses, but many saucepans; an ironing board but no iron.The landlord’s nephew explained that they were moving out of short term Airbnb rentals into longer lettings, and the fellow tenants I met were all either sex workers or Chinese students (who squabbled fiercely during the rather short intervals when their working schedules overlapped) though one flat on the second floor was briefly let out to some young Italian women via Airbnb. This turned out to be something of a disaster because during their stay (while they were out) their toilet overflowed, leading to a deluge of water that brought down the ceiling on the first floor and broke suddenly through the one below to flood my bedroom (luckily avoiding the computer) and knocking out most of the electrical circuits. Having already experienced other plumbing problems, power outages and wifi failures, I was already familiar with the team of Bangaldeshi builders who came round to fix things, often using the sorts of techniques you might find in the developing world – ingenious, low cost and aesthetically surprising. But the incessant need for such work to be done was depressing. This all felt very much like the ‘old’ Kings Cross.

Most of the neighbouring public housing tenants I met were of Somali or Bangladeshi origin and I stumbled across a wonderful local charity (the Life After Hummus Benefit Society) whose shocking usage statistics made it clear that there is considerable poverty in the area, including among households whose main breadwinners are platform workers, whose incomes plummeted during the pandemic but were not eligible to claim benefits. Despite the presence of many well-heeled patrons of the local pubs and restaurants and the constant pedestrian traffic of travellers towing wheelie bags, commuters (often wearing their corporate lanyards) on their way to work and academics heading for the British Library, there is still a very strong sense that the underlying social terrain has changed rather little since Dickens lived here.

As my tenancy ended, with no indication of when my ‘licence for alterations’ would be issued by the Council, I did make a half-hearted attempt to extend it but found myself actually rather relieved when this was refused and glad to be out. It was only on the last night that I was able to admit to myself that the disturbing scrabbling noises I had been hearing behind the walls were almost certainly coming from rats. For the next five months, having reduced my possessions to what would fit into two suitcases, I lived in a succession of cheap hotels in the area, and saw even more aspects of the Kings Cross underbelly.

The first three hotels I stayed in were parts of large budget chains, with rates that changed nightly, set by unfathomable algorithms. To varying degrees, they had used the Covid regulations as an excuse to axe all the usual services (such as cleaning the rooms, changing the towels and emptying the rubbish) and none had anywhere to store food, so it was necessary to venture out at least twice a day to forage, either in the many branches of national retail chains in the stations or local convenience stores, with their contrasting clienteles. In the process I got on speaking terms with many of the local rough sleepers, who covered a very wide range of ages, ethnicities and social backgrounds. Again, it was hard not to draw comparisons with Dickens.

Finally I found an independent hotel that not only had small fridges in the rooms but also employed a very hard-working chambermaid to service them. Her workload was increased considerably by the fact that many of the rooms were booked by the hour and she only had two very part-time assistants. Her husband had gone back to Romania when the pandemic began, taking with him the children, who she missed terribly, to be looked after by their grandparents. The other overnight guests were a broad mix – Australian backpackers stranded in London because the lockdown regulations did not allow them to return home, football supporters with large group bookings, and bemused elderly couples who had been led to it by google. When I left, I discovered why the attitude to the covid regulations was so different from that in the chain hotels. It appeared that a client had died there in the early days of the pandemic and an inspector had come round and told them that they could only stay open if every room was sanitised daily. I did not enquire whether the deceased had been an hourly-paying customer.

Walking the streets the scale of the local transformation is clear. Spanking new concourses filled with upmarket shops make the interiors of the stations more like airports, thronged with expensively dressed travellers. New offices are being built and old ones refurbished. Yet there is a stubborn residue of the old, seedy Kings Cross, with its population of derelicts and people making a precarious living from catering to the less savoury needs of the transient. Corralled into smaller and smaller spaces and harrassed by the authorities, they congregate in shadowy doorways like weeds in the cracks of shiny new paving, exposing the underside of the ‘development’ process as a savage kind of social clearance. The term that comes to my mind for this process, which perhaps forms a prelude to ‘gentrification’, is ‘deseedification’. This is not new either of course. Dickens (in, if memory serves, Our Mutual Friend ) describes the rows of slum housing in Camden Town being torn down to make way for the railway line (much as is happening right now on the far side of Euston Station to make way for the HS2) and of course none other than the young Thomas Hardy, in his first job as a junior architect, was involved in moving the gravestones from St Pancras churchyard to clear the ground for the building of the station. Disruption is something of a constant in these parts.

Where will this latest wave lead? It is too early to tell but, in the meanwhile, I am really enjoying my new surroundings.

Lived Contradictions of the Digital Era

(anxiously) ‘I daren’t go out to the shops in case I miss the Amazon delivery’

(angrily) ‘Why haven’t you replied to the email and text message and WhatsApp message I sent you asking you to confirm what time I can phone you?’

(fearfully) ‘I can’t pay you because my credit card has been blocked and the customer service agents won’t speak to me because I couldn’t remember my memorable word’.

(in an aggrieved tone) ‘I am afraid that will not be possible. We do not have a budget to reimburse contributors. I am surprised you do not welcome the chance to promote your work in our prestigious publication… Yes of course we charge for subscriptions. How else do you think we would survive?’.

(robotically) ‘Your call is valuable to us. Please hold. You are currently number [pause, change of voice] twenty seven [pause, reversion to original voice] in the queue’.

(smugly) ‘We can only speak to the registered account holder. It’s to protect your security’.

(self-righteously) ‘We ask all customers to dispose of plastic waste responsibly. It’s to protect the planet’

to be continued