Thoughts on anti-Semitism

It is a long time since I wrote in this blog. There is a repeating pattern whereby a period of illness (in this case recovering from some surgery just before Christmas) sets me back in my ‘proper’ writing, rendering me too guilty to indulge in non-commissioned work until I have cleared the backlog. But eventually I feel so strongly about something that I have to break the self-imposed taboo. Something similar happened a couple of years ago when I found myself compelled to break the silence during the build-up to the Brexit referendum because of concerns about how it was reported. Today’s impulse also comes from a kind of horror at what is going on around me politically but this time the context is the whisked-up media attention currently being paid to anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, which, it appears to me, wearing my Cassandra hat, may be leading us towards something that is profoundly harmful, political and socially. (even though it might in the long run have some positive impacts by bringing what is hidden or taken for granted to the surface).

Despite (or perhaps because of) the huge media coverage, there seem to be important questions that are not being asked, or answered, adequately. There is of course a lot of discussion about where the attacks are coming from and why now: smoking guns aplenty for conspiracy theorists. The Tories, looking for any ammunition to use against Labour in the run-up to the local elections; the Israeli Government, happy to have pro-Palestinian voices silenced while they shoot unarmed civilians in Gaza; Blairites in the Labour Party who seize on any opportunity to attack Corbyn, regardless of its impact on Labour’s election chances; the mainstream mass media, drifting ever further rightwards with the BBC (fearful of the axe) rivalling the Murdoch press in its pandering to the Tories. This morning, on the Today programme, the fact that Corbyn had attended a meeting of Jewdas (‘a left-wing Jewish group critical of more mainstream Jewish organisations. organisations’, as the BBC put it) was treated as evidence that he was failing to address anti-Semitism in the Party in a piece of doublethink worthy of Orwell. The question that, it seems to me, is not being addressed sufficiently is how and why this particular charge is so difficult for serious socialists to counter. How is it that the energetic, resilient left, which has successfully fought back over the last couple of years against so many anti-Corbyn smears, can be so easily silenced when accused of something which that very socialist left has, over the years, done more than any other political grouping in this country to counter? What notions of good and bad, what intersections of fear and shame, what confusions, what extremes of guilt-by-association, have brought us to this pass?

So here I am again, adding yet another voice to the conversation.

Like last time, when I wrote about Brexit, I have been very hesitant about putting my thoughts online. On both topics there are many people much better-informed than I am. I feel a bit like the fool stomping in, in my muddy wellies, onto a polished parquet floor where even the angelic dancers hesitate before taking a tentative step. Not only is it likely that my generalisations will be quibbled with and my attitudes questioned as old-fashioned, badly informed or politically incorrect, but, in the case of anti-Semitism, there is also the undeniable fact that I am not Jewish, and therefore, perhaps genuinely insensitive to what is going on.

So I will start with a self-interrogatory personal narrative of what Jewishness means to me. I grew up with a strong awareness that anti-Semitism existed and was not easy to fight. My father was a student in Vienna in the 1930s and witnessed extreme forms of it first hand. He was a close friend of Muriel Gardiner (who became Muriel Buttinger after her marriage to Joseph Buttinger, the leader of the Austrian Socialist Party). Taking advantage of her family’s wealth and her US passport, Muriel played an active role in sheltering socialists wanted by the police from the Nazis and helping find ways for Jews to get out of the country safely, a role that was lightly fictionalised in the 1977 film, Julia, where her part was played by Vanessa Redgrave. My father played a small role in this (including helping to acquire British passports that could be used to get people across the border) and Muriel remained a life-long friend of his and, later, an inspiration to me. I have vivid memories of the last time I met her, over dinner in an Italian restaurant in Bloomsbury in the 1970s, in the company of my father and my friend Nick Redgrave, where she talked about her American socialist youth, collecting money for the defence of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1920. It was on this occasion that, when I admired the chunky Venetian baroque pearl necklace she was wearing, with typical impulsive generosity, she immediately took it off and said, ‘Here, have it!’.

Anyway, suffice it to say, this experience cemented for me an association between Jewishness and socialism. Like the rest of their generation (my father was born in 1902, my mother in 1907) my parents were by no means free of racial stereotypes. For them, Jews were clever, sensitive, musical and studious. They were good fathers but unlikely to be interested in sport or the consumption of alcohol. Some of these stereotypes were challenged when applied to the complex personalities of Jewish people I knew personally but many were not. I really did meet a lot of Jewish psychoanalysts, writers, university lecturers, publishers, musicians and artists. And an awful lot of them really were socialists. Most were also part of a shared culture which was secular and humanist and their Jewishness did not seem particularly important.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Jewishness, like other identities, felt to me like part of a historical legacy that would become less and less important with the progressive advance of universal education, and the spread of democracy and egalitarian welfare regimes. Religions, it seemed then, formed part of superstitious heritages designed to bolster hierarchies (including patriarchal ones), reinforce obedience to power, provide hope to people facing intolerable adversity and give them spiritual sustenance in their sorrow. While of course their practices should be tolerated and their rituals celebrated, their roles would increasingly be taken over by other communitarian agencies in the brave socialist future we imagined.

But I was sometimes reminded of the strength of Jewish identity, even among secular Jews. I remember a conversation with Michael Kidron (then my editor at Pluto Press) in which I was describing how international my family had become (my siblings’ spouses were, variously, Polish-German, Japanese, French and Palestinian – which extended in the next generation to Indian, Chinese and US spouses) and his immediate reaction was ‘Yes, but you’re all Goy’. I was also struck, living in Yorkshire in the 1970s, by the bonds that stretched across the Jewish community there, crossing party-political boundaries. When the National Front wanted to march through Leeds City Centre, this was stopped, so I was told, by Irwin Bellow, the Tory leader of the City Council, former owner of a company that made sewing machines (subsequently knighted for his services selling council houses as a minister in the Thatcher government) after a phone call from Lou Baruch, the communist leader of Bradford Trades Council (‘the textile workers’ champ’) – the anti-union capitalist and the trade union leader cheerfully colluding to thwart anti-Semitism.

In the early 2000s, when organisations like Jews For Justice in Palestine were formed in the UK, it came as quite a surprise to me how many friends I had up to then simply thought of as fellow socialists and feminists decided to identify themselves publicly as Jews. It had never even occurred to me in many cases that that’s what they were. I actually found it quite difficult to place myself, as a non-Jew, in relation to such campaigns, which seemed to construct people like me as outsiders. If one was campaigning on the basis that everybody was equal and religious distinctions should not matter, then it seemed on one level contradictory to insist on such distinctions. On another level, of course, it was very understandable. In a world where every non-Jew runs the risk of being (consciously or unconsciously) anti-Semitic, just as all white people run the risk of being (consciously or unconsciously) racist, then Jewish voices that stand against Israeli state policy have a unique chance of being heard out. Nevertheless, it left me, and perhaps others, with a sense of having nowhere to put my solidarity, a silencing of sorts.

This is not the whole story, of course. The atrocity of the Holocaust hung like a pall over my childhood, as I suppose it did for most of my generation. I didn’t even realise how deeply it affected me until I became a mother and found myself haunted by detailed and very concrete imaginings of the experience of deportation and the death-camps. What did you do, I kept wondering, crammed, standing, into a cattle-truck with nothing but the clothes on your back, when your baby needed a nappy change? When it cried? When it wanted to crawl? How did you cope with the leaking breast-milk when that baby had been snatched from you? Such questions, I realised, had formed part of the mental sound-track of my life since childhood, breaking their way into consciousness only at moments of emotional stress or vulnerability and playing who knows what convulsive riffs while they remained unconscious.  I can still remember, with great vividness, an experience at my North Wales primary school in the mid-1950s. Two boys were approaching kids in the playground with knowing ‘I’ve got a secret’ smirks, asking if anyone wanted to see their pictures. One by one, we were shown two well-thumbed black-and-white photographs, cut from a magazine, of the piled-up emaciated bodies that were found at the liberation of Belsen. It is hard to exaggerate the shock of this – not just the obscene reality that was represented in those pictures but also the voyeuristic frisson that these two boys seemed to experience, as if it were pornography, and the air of secrecy, as though these images revealed something so shameful that children were forbidden to view them. I am sure I am not the only person whose nightmares were invaded by these images. Such experiences confirm the idea of the Holocaust as something uniquely awful, incommensurate with other atrocities. Even to mention it in the same breath as other genocidal massacres can feel like somehow trying to diminish its importance. Small wonder that denying it is a criminal offence in many countries.

And then there is Israel. My early view of Israel was partly shaped by second-hand accounts of kibbutzim, which provided gap-year experiences to many more or less idealistic kids in the years after National Service was abolished for young British men. They seemed like a foretaste of socialism – sexual freedom and communal living amongst the orange groves. Israel was, in this view, the happy ending that awaited those who were lucky enough to have survived the horror and brave enough to fight for freedom, a view that was reinforced by the 1960 film Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger, one of the first I ever saw on a wide screen.

Since then, I have become only too aware of how necessary it is to unpick such facile narratives and explore their contradictions, not least through my first-hand contact with the descendents of Arabs for whom the foundation of Israel meant being turfed off their ancestral lands. But such unpicking is extraordinarily difficult to do when the narratives are so highly-charged, both emotionally and morally.

I became acutely aware of this when I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. By coincidence, this, my first (and so far only) visit to Washington, took place only a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. I was on one of the first flights into a city where at least one of the other airports was still closed. There was a strange jumpy hysteria in the atmosphere, with military aircraft zipping overhead and people with their heads down hurrying to get home. Flags fluttered everywhere. Streets were almost empty. My academic hosts had arranged for me to have dinner with their Dean in a fashionable restaurant that served up expensive versions of poor peoples’ foods (things I had only ever read about, like hominy grits). The restaurant was almost deserted and the Dean wanted to spend the minimum possible time there, departing in the middle of the main course after asking the waiter to box up his food so he could take it home with him, ratcheting up the already high level of awkwardness for those of us who had to sit it out until dessert had been consumed.

Rejecting polite offers to entertain me, I decided, in the free day before my seminar, to visit the Holocaust Museum, about which I had heard a great deal. The experience was  immersive. As you entered, you were given a card with the details of a Holocaust victim with whom you were encouraged to identify (I am using the past tense here because things may have changed in the sixteen years that have elapsed since this visit). The first spaces that greeted you gave a historical account of Hitler’s rise to power, with photographs of mass rallies, the swastikaed flags in the photographs uncannily echoing all those stars and stripes waving outside. It was made clear that the Nazis attacked socialists and trade unionists, as well as Jews but the main story was about anti-Semitism. The next section of the museum reinforced this, with a historical account of anti-Semitism in Europe and lots of artefacts showing the rich cultural heritage of European Judaism. Then you were taken, step by harrowing step, through the detail of the Holocaust – the roundings up, the transport, the conditions in the camps, the death chambers. Incidental mention was made of  non-Jewish victims (the gypsies, the gays, the mentally handicapped, the socialists) but overwhelmingly the story was about Jews, and hatred of Jews, and the unspeakable consequences of that hatred. It was all made concrete and vivid, not just through identification with the avatar-victim on one’s personal card but also by the volume of material evidence. Everyone I have ever spoken to who has visited that museum remembers the enormous pile of worn, discarded shoes, heartbreaking in its very banality. Emerging, trembling from the emotional impact of all this, you entered the final part of the permanent exhibition, intended, I suppose, to be uplifting, covering the liberation of the camps and the resistance. The last room celebrated Israel.

I came out into the glare of the Washington sunlight feeling shaken and moved. But also, confusingly, a little bit tricked. It took a lot of thought to unravel this feeling and I ended up concluding that it was the result of the slow elision of oversimplified dualistic oppositions, a slippery my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my friend/if-you-are-not-with-me-you-are-against-me logic that, when extended, led one along a path that was too narrow, too exclusive and not quite where one intended to go. This is a logic that conflates the political and the moral and, by virtue of the power of that morality, creates a stage in which everyone must be a victim, a villain or a hero (not unlike Stephen Karpman’s victim-rescuer-persecutor ‘drama triangle’). It is a world of goodies and baddies with very little scope either for shades of grey or for personal change.  The logic goes something like this: Hitler = evil; Jews = victims; Allied troops = heroes. Since Hitler was bad, Jews must be good, therefore Israel must also be good. Anybody who is against Israel must therefore be bad (like Hitler) – including Arabs. Socialists fit very awkwardly into this logic. According to the Nazi logic, they are as bad as Jews (indeed they are often assumed to be Jews, or manipulated by them) who must be stamped out, which makes them, by anti-Nazi logic, victims and/or heroes. Their historical role as opponents of anti-Semitism and racism in many European countries also renders them good. However if they use the same reasoning that enabled them to identify dispossessed Jews as victims to recognise dispossessed Arabs as victims too, that makes them anti-Israel which renders them bad. They become like those optical illusions of which the eye can only see one version at a time, toggling wildly between good and evil.

There is a sense in which we all want to be heroes of our own biographies, casting others as fellow victims or persecutors, allies or opponents. But in a political landscape so shot-through with moral righteousness and outrage it is extraordinarily difficult to step forward with confident conviction of one’s own heroism, especially if one is not a central protagonist in the story. Indeed, the greater one’s self-awareness and knowledge of history, the more difficult this becomes.

I had a Catholic upbringing which impressed on me the importance of the nightly ‘examination of conscience’ in which you reflected on everything you had done that day and, if any of it was bad, resolved how you would put it right tomorrow: a sort of memory-scan for shame. This kind of self-examination is of course not unique to Catholics. Variants of it can be found in the practices of psychotherapy, for example, or the consciousness-raising that went on in women’s groups in the 1970s.

Many of us, perhaps especially on the white left, are acutely aware of our own inadequacies. When it comes to racism and anti-Semitism, there are few, I suspect, who can put their hands on their hearts and proclaim themselves entirely not guilty. My generation was brought up in a culture that was profoundly racist and homophobic. Did we really never snigger at the camp gay stereotype played by John Inman in ‘Are You Being Served?’ or laugh at the jokes in ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ or ‘Love Thy Neighbour’? And how much of it washed off on us? We have had to admit that, even if we never consciously discriminated against a black person ourselves, we probably owe our relatively advantaged social positions in the British middle class at least in part to the history of slavery and imperialism. Even as we try to uncover our own hidden racism, we become more and more aware of how our society is steeped in it, how it takes myriad forms and changes over time, how difficult it is to disentangle concepts of cultural difference from those of discrimination, how complicated are the interactions between the past and the present in the formation of identities.

As with so many things in life, the more you know, the more you understand how complicated something is, and the more hesitant you may become about laying down the law to others. Yet alongside this growing comprehension of the complexity of human group inter-relationships, also comes an increasing awareness of how much unfairness and suffering and injustice there is out there. The impulse to remain silent is countered by an equally important impulse to do something about it (that’s what makes people join organisations like the Labour Party). But the interplay between these two impulses might create a sort of paralysis, or at least wrong-foot those who try to enter the public debate without having thought out their position carefully.

Justice is not a card game in which one kind of victimhood trumps another, rendering it irrelevant. We need a broader moral frame that recognises the co-existence of different forms of oppression, even the possibility that the same person, or group of people, might be simultaneously both an oppressor and a victim.

But articulating such a programme requires a degree of nuance that is beyond the binary logic of the mass media to cope with. And which of us, we might ask, has the right to propose such a programme? We seem to have arrived at a situation where non-Jewish socialists feel both unentitled to do so and held back by their very awareness of their own imperfections. I am not sure I am right about this but am wondering how much this might be the explanation for the diffidence (or perhaps even cowardice?) which non-Jews on the left feel about speaking out in the current debate. But speak out, I believe, we must. Somehow.

 

 

 

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Being got. Or not.

Earlier this month I gave a talk in Toronto reflecting on how the role of women as public intellectuals changed (or did not) over the last century. The starting point for this discussion was the life of my aunt – Jacky Tyrwhitt (1905-1983) – who, amongst many other achievements, was for a while an important member of what is now called the Toronto School of Communication (the theme of the conference at which I was speaking). She was a major figure in the development of urban planning, building connections from the garden cities movement in the early part of the 20th Century via post-war reconstruction as Keynesian welfare states were being built, Modernist architecture, the development of low-cost housing in South Asia, to the futurism of the 1970s, taking in environmentalism, and garden design en route, not to mention links with major figures in the development of modern art and music, and training several generations of planners. As someone said, perhaps one of the most important people you never heard of.

It was a very interesting and revealing experience for me to research her life (which, as far as I know, has been the subject of only one biography – Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A Transnational Life in Urban Planning and Design by Ellen Shoskes). And humbling to discover how much I did not know about her work, and how much it must have cost her to devote so much time, effort and money to rescuing me (as well as siblings and the sons and daughters of many of her friends) from the various youthful predicaments we found ourselves in while managing her stressful working life. In retrospect, I am ashamed both of how nasty I often was to her – nasty as only a teenager can be who takes a degree of unconditional love for granted – and how unthinkingly I rejected many of her values as part and parcel of a kind of establishment thinking I regarded myself as in rebellion against.

jacky-in-1938-enhanced

Jacky Tyrwhitt in 1938

One of the things I spoke about in Toronto was the public invisibility of much of her work. She seemed largely content to be a power behind the scenes, acknowledged only by a few key figures in the know. Much of her work was what I now call ‘intellectual housework’. She brought people from across the disciplines together in networks, organised conferences, designed courses, wrote textbooks, put together grant proposals, edited and translated other people’s work, negotiated with publishers, founded and edited journals, intervened tactfully to bring peace between warring egos, encouraged young scholars and artists, introducing them to potential employers and patrons, and generally facilitated the flowering of others’ work. Much of her career was precarious, slipping from one short-term post or freelance contract to another, denied tenure and dependent on the goodwill of male sponsors.

Although she sought out the company of strong women as mentors, collaborators and friends – a by-no-means-exhaustive list includes Ellen Willmot (garden designer), Eva Taylor (first woman professor of geography in Britain and, for all I know, the world), Innes Hope Pearse (doctor involved in setting up the Peckham health experiment), Ruth Glass, (sociologist), Catherine Bauer (US public housing activist), Margaret Mead (anthropologist), Ruth Benedict (another anthropologist) and Barbara Ward (economist and pioneer environmentalist) – a huge amount of her intellectual effort went into promoting and bringing to popular notice the work of male stars. An early example of this was her monumental Patrick Geddes in India, published in 1947. In this book she self-effacingly knitted together a range of the writings of this pioneer planner from disparate sources to assemble a coherent account of his thinking  and make it accessible to a wide audience. She also took on the role of translating from the German and editing the huge doorstoppers (Space Time and Architecture and Mechanization Takes Command) of another Great Man, Siegfried Giedion,  as well as oiling his relationships with global communities of scholars and architects. Although Giedion acknowledged in private correspondence his many debts to her for helping him clarify his ideas and, indeed, writing large chunks of these Great Works, he neglected in public to acknowledge her as anything more than a translator and editor. Her considerable originality of thought was rarely acknowledged – her thoughts expressed through the lips of others, who all too often took credit for them, and much of her writing nestled invisibly in what we would now call ‘grey literature’ (official reports and policy documents, briefs, grant proposals and the like).

The more I researched her life, the more I saw parallels with my own career and that of other women contemporaries. Even while I thought I was rejecting her example, it seems that I might have have been absorbing it unconsciously as a role model. Or perhaps we are all shaped by larger patterns which have persisted over the last century despite the huge changes that have been made in women’s public positions.Which led me to meditate, not for the first time, on how it is that women’s original ideas come to be publicly recognised (or not).

The day after doing this talk, I gave another lecture in Toronto, this time at York University, on a topic that lies close to the core of my own research interests. On the face of it, this could be taken as perfect proof that things have changed. Leo Panitch gave me a glowing, highly flattering, introduction as a leading Marxist theorist. The audience was attentive and respectful. I felt understood and acknowledged, as I rarely do.  The fact that this happened (thanks, in great measure, to the generous patronage of Panitch and his colleagues on the editorial board of Socialist Register and at York University’s Department of Political Science and its Global Labour Research Centre) gives me permission, so to speak, to discuss the many occasions when such recognition has not been forthcoming. Like people from other groups that are under-represented in the Academy and in public life, neglected women are always vulnerable to the suspicion that they may simply be second-rate and deserve to be ignored. Counter-factual narratives that imagine how different the story might be if one were masculine or white must remain at the level of speculation. And however much we find our stories confirmed by others who share our gender or ethnicity, while our white male friends look blank and ask ‘Are you sure you aren’t just being paranoid?’, a kernel of self-doubt remains.

So I am hoping that I can put to good use my kind reception at York and its vindication of my right to be heard to share with other women (and men) by setting out some of the things I have observed over the years, in the expectation that these observations will be heard as credible testimony, not just sour grapes. All I can offer here are descriptions of some of the ploys  (no doubt largely unconscious) I have seen being adopted in the past in relation to my own contributions, and those of others, to scholarly or public discourse. I cannot give advice on strategies for dealing with these ploys because I have failed to find any, at least any that are ethical,  that work effectively. No doubt some do exist because there are, thank goodness, some women out there who have achieved public recognition for their original ideas. But I don’t know what they are. Maybe somebody with the time to do so could investigate what these might be and share as a general service to womankind. In the meanwhile, this is the best I can do.

Not being got

One of the most common experiences is simply not being understood. A woman puts forward an idea and it is ignored or misclassified under some pre-existing category. If it clearly departs from received wisdom in that category it may be reclassified as a feminist critique of it (safely filed away in the ‘gender’ box, which means it does not need to be absorbed into the canon but may be awarded an occasional footnote reference). In some cases it may be seen as quaint or quirky, a light subjective take on a serious subject, to provide a moment’s amusement before the audience’s attention moves back to the Important Issues. If what is being proposed is an idea about how to proceed, perhaps in resolution of some generally recognised problem, it will most likely be dismissed as impractical or irrelevant – unless or until it is picked up by a male champion, in which case it will be seen as his idea. (The male champion then has it in his gift to offer the woman the chance to do the work of developing and implementing the idea, under his name and authority, as an alternative to simply stealing it. She has the choice of gratefully accepting whatever small acknowledgement is offered or walking away, leaving him in possession of the idea. Here, a lot will depend on the extent to which she feels ethically committed to seeing it implemented as a socially good thing. And also on her financial circumstances. Can she afford to walk away if this will deprive her of a source of income?).

Being got but gobbled

Which leads me on to the next type of experience: being ‘got’ only too well, but not acknowledged as the owner of the idea. There was a small example of this at the end of my lecture at York when a member of the audience came up to me afterwards and said, no doubt intending it as a compliment, ‘everything you just said is exactly what I say to my students’ (to which one can only, while nodding politely and asking what he teaches – it was of course a he – silently answer ‘so where is the article in which you have published these thoughts that are so identical to mine?’). More usually this kind of response is more overtly patronising, or even aggressive.

One variant, particularly prominent on the Troskyist left, used to take the form of a sentence starting ‘While you are correct in what you say about x, you are incorrect when you do not also argue y (y being, typically, a statement of the need for a revolutionary workers’ party). In other words, ‘we already knew what you said because it is part of our party “line” –  or will be from now on if I have anything to do with it’. These days the same sentiment is more likely to be expressed as a simple statement, from the (usually youngish and male) commentator to the effect that he agrees with what you have just said, as a preamble to a lengthy speech in which he states the rest of his party’s opinion. This is often delivered with a lordly air that reminds me irresistibly of the Man from Del Monte in the old TV commercials who would descend on a village and sample the fruit, while the villagers looked on anxiously, to be greeted with rapturous gratitude when it passed the test. ‘The Man from Del Monte said yes!’ they would scream in delight as they launched into a frenzy of colourful local dancing. The hidden message is crystal clear: no woman could possibly have any motive for presenting an idea other than that of seeking masculine approval. Once this approval is granted, the idea becomes part of the general property of the approval-granting young idealogue-arbiters, no more to be acknowledged than if it had fallen from the sky (or indeed a fruit tree). And you are supposed to be really grateful that you have been privileged with this seal of approval. That you may not give much of a damn whether or not some callow youth  agrees with you or not, but are more interested in opening up a general debate in which ‘lines’ are set to one side in the interests of creative and open dialogue seems to be beyond their comprehension.

Among mainstream academics, the forms of appropriation are somewhat different, though no less pernicious. Let me give you one example (I will try to keep the details vague to avoid publicly naming and shaming the gentleman in question). I developed a concept that I had been using for a decade or so for analysing an aspect of the global division of labour. This concept was then taken up by various people in national and international government departments. An academic from an Ivy League university with whom I had been in contact (including finding funds in a tight budget to invite him to a conference I was organising in Europe and putting him in touch with some important figures among those aforementioned bodies) then published an article in which he claimed ownership of this concept. When I pointed out, quite gently in an email, that this was a concept I had developed, and that my role in developing it had indeed even been acknowledged in print by one of those government people, his response was not to make any attempt to reference my work but to say ‘Well I would have come up with the idea  sooner or later anyway’.  In other words, anything that a woman like me could dream up must, de facto, be supremely obvious and not worth acknowledging as an original idea (Whether he would have acknowledged it if I had been a man is one of those counter-factuals that can never be verified).

A subtler version of this strategy involves taking ideas from conference presentations and grey literature, claiming them as their own, and not citing the originator of the idea because this originator has not published it in a high-ranked peer-reviewed journal. But even publishing in the agreed ‘scientific’ way in such journals is no guarantee of being cited. This 2013 study by Daniel Mailiniak, Ryan M.Powers and Barbara F. Walter found that women are systematically cited less than men (after controlling for a large number of other variables) with articles by men cited on average 4.8 more times than articles by women. So, sisters, if you want to be publicly known as the owner of your ideas, beware of people who come up to you at conferences and ask ‘has this been published anywhere?’ or ‘could you give me a copy of that report you mentioned?’. Alternatively you might just be altruistic enough, or committed enough to being a teacher,  to want to share your knowledge with the world and wait for the thanks that might come, you never know, twenty years later from a grateful mid-career researcher you helped to get launched.

Another related strategy is a little more preemptive. It involves talking the people who commissioned you to write the ‘grey’ report into giving them an advance copy, and then publicly announcing your results as theirs while you (in accordance with your contract) are still respecting the embargo. On one occasion a report I had written was to be launched at a big international conference. I was asked by the organisers to suggest someone to chair it and (thinking I was doing a favour to somebody whose profile up to then had been distinctly national) I suggested a man who asked for an advance copy of the report but then, instead of introducing me to the assembled multitude, proceeded to take up some 50% of my allotted time presenting my main conclusions as his own generalisations that were ‘setting the context’ for my presentation, which was thereby reframed as a bit of empirical research slotted into his grand theoretical overview. On another occasion a consultant who saw himself as a rival actually took the charts out of an about-to-be-press-released report  I had written for a government department (of which he had managed to wangle an advance copy) and put them into a powerpoint presentation which he showed to the press the day before the launch date. The publication of another report I wrote for a different government department got held up by over a year but, in the meanwhile, somebody gave a copy to an academic who used its contents as a ‘case study’ in a very well-funded research project. Is this out-and-out theft? or just a kind of opportunistic version of ‘finders, keepers’? And does it happen to men too? Who knows?

Message massaged into medium

Finally I come to the strategy which, I suspect, was the one most used against my Aunt Jacky. She herself warned me against one aspect of it when, in the 1960s, she repeatedly told me ‘It is really useful to learn to touch-type. But when you apply for a job don’t on any account let them know that you can do it. If you do you will always be treated as a secretary’.

secretary

Illustration from a 1960s secretarial training textbook

For readers too young to remember, I should explain that this was a period when any office worker (including myself as a junior commissioning editor in the mid-1970s) was allocated the services of an individual secretary, or access to the services of a pool of typists who took shorthand notes, worked from your long-hand draft or, a bit later, from an audio recording of your words, and typed it up on a manual (later an electric) typewriter, with several carbon copies, each of which had to be corrected separately in the event of a typing mistake. The typed letters or other documents were then returned to the ‘author’  for correction and signature. The only people who were not specialist typists who had typewriters on their desks were writers and journalists, considered an eccentric and specialist breed. Most secretaries did a great deal more than typing. They assembled random utterances into coherent sentences, corrected grammar and spelling and adjusted  the form of address according to rules of etiquette. Secretarial training manuals from the period are  enlightening. They include things like how to address a Member of Parliament or a Bishop, how to dress and how to serve coffee as well as technical tricks like how to centre text (find the middle of the line then count the number of characters in the heading backspacing once for each two characters), when to use a semi-colon, how to lay out an invoice or calculate compound interest and how to communicate with the post office. The ‘skills’ of typing, editing etc. were elided into a bundle of other roles, many of them strongly gendered, and ended up becoming almost invisible as skills, just part of a taken-for granted set of feminine attributes that no more deserved to be publicly credited than the labour of ironing shirts or cleaning the floor.

This kind of elision also takes place between writing and editing and a range of other technical skills. In these days when everybody is supposed to type their own articles there are still things that only some people know how to do well, such as inserting tables of contents, formatting charts, putting headers into the correct style, adapting templates, uploading documents to websites,  and, of course, still those old tasks of putting everything into good English (or whatever other global language is required), correcting the spelling and grammar and, to use the current jargon, ‘pulling out the key messages’. And it still seems to be the case that when women do these things they are seen as nit-picky technical details that are too unimportant for the Great Male Author to bother himself with that do not merit attribution (although when men are required to do so them it is suddenly pointed out that they take up a huge amount of time). I will end with just a few examples from my own experience (I am really not exaggerating or making these up).

‘Well we (two guys) are the real authors. Ursula just did the writing’ (about a co-authored book for which they had contributed – very – raw drafts of two and a half chapters, out of a total of thirteen).

‘Would you mind taking your names off the report so I can submit it as my dissertation’ (addressed to me and another woman who between us had done about 97% of the work on the report and added this guy’s name as co-author for form’s sake).

‘Well I really must insist that I am named as co-editor’ (from a guy who had negotiated some changes with one contributor out of 12 to a journal special issue).

‘Yes I know you did a lot of the work but I really need to claim this as my publication because my university is putting a lot of pressure on me to generate impact’ (self-explanatory. of course this was also a guy).

I could go on, but I won’t.

Ellen Meiksins Wood – her importance to me

I was extraordinarily saddened to hear last night of the death of Ellen Meiksins Wood and it took me a while to work out why. After all, I hardly knew her. We met a couple of times and I can recall in some detail only one conversation with her (in a taxi in New York). And I haven’t read nearly enough of her writing – though enough to recognise her brilliance, acuity and principle.

It is so often in retrospect that one realises someone’s importance – too late to tell them about it. There is a Welsh song about a harpist in the Vale of Llangollen who dies a lonely death ‘without a morsel to eat or a drop of water’ but then, when the news of his death gets out, his mourners  bring enough food and drink to the funeral feast to have kept him alive. Ellen was not lacking in love and appreciation, I am happy to know, but I still wish I’d sent her a fan letter.

Why was she so important to me? First, and most obviously she was a shining, original political economist, combining an over-arching grasp of the theoretical landscape with the intellectual confidence to address the big questions directly, without feeling she had to tiptoe along in the footsteps of everybody else since Marx who had inquired into them, nodding politely or scowling, as appropriate, at each of them before venturing her own conclusions. (Which is not to say she was not well-read or scholarly).  Second, she was a woman. During a period when more and more women were entering academic life, it was still extraordinarily rare in the field of political economy for a woman to be recognised and respected as a towering intellect with a grasp of the whole – and NOT just someone who writes about gender. In fact it is hard to think of anyone since Rosa Luxembourg who achieved this status on the academic left. The third remarkable thing about her that was personally important for me was her milieu.

The two aspects of this that I had first-hand contact with were the School of Political Science at York University in Toronto, where she inspired several generations of students and Monthly Review, which she edited for a while. I am wondering now how much of a coincidence it was that these were the two places where I first gained some recognition as serious political economist.

During a period when most critical theory was drowned in the tsunami of post-modernism that swept through universities more or less in parallel with the tsunami of neoliberalism that swept through the world economy from the 1980s on, they kept alive a tradition of serious, thoughtful, grounded, historical materialist theory that was open and unsectarian, and carried out not for the sake of academic plaudits but as part of a serious political project: to understand the world with the aim of helping change it without trying to preach to working people, dictate their strategies, chide them for their inadequacies or substitute for their leadership. This was achieved by multiple means, including Leo Panitch’s inspirational editorship of Socialist Register, and a stream of clever PhD students, generating a critical mass of Marxist scholarship that was large enough to renew itself – too many names to list here.

I felt welcomed and understood in these mileux as never before. For decades I had thought maybe I’m wrong, maybe nobody’s interested, maybe what I’m saying is just too obvious to be worth noting. And suddenly I felt recognised. Wow! somebody actually got it! Maybe it really is worth persevering with some writing. Maybe I do have something to contribute.

But as I reflect on it now, I wonder to what extent this recognition was only possible because of Ellen. Nobody who knew her work could possibly have put her in the box marked ‘women’s issues’. So, perhaps even without being conscious of it, her colleagues must have just taken it for granted that women can be political economists too. And I was the beneficiary of that.

So thanks, Ellen. May your work be long remembered and celebrated. May others follow where you led. May your insights be understood. And may your politics be vindicated some day in a better world.

 

 

If passengers were the commodities

With yet another international trip imminent, I start to steel myself for the nightmare I know the journey will be. To an abrupt stop-go rhythm you will puff your way along endless corridors, then stand in a zig-zag line for security checks, shifting the weight from hand to hand, or hand to floor. This will be followed by the urgent rush to remove shoes, coat, belt, glasses and watch, unpack one’s laptop and jostle to arrange everything in those grey plastic trays, all the while urged on by impatient security staff who lack only the cattle prods to make the experience pretty much identical to that of a cow in an industrially run farm. Though arguably the farmyard smell (even allowing for the presence of silage) would be more pleasant than that of the olfactory hell that is the duty free shop you are herded through having run the security gauntlet.

The experience is both mind-numbingly boring and stressful, with few peaceful in-between moments for quiet contemplation. If your body is as infirm and unfit as mine, it is subjected to an experience that feels like somebody savagely flicking a switch between two states: Rush, wait, rush, wait, rush wait. Or in my case: pant, gasp, slump; pant, gasp, slump.

Prior to this, of course, you have purchased your own ticket, paid extra for the privilege of checking in your bag, completed the online check in,  entered your passport details, printed out your boarding pass, then, at the airport, having waited in line to do so, printed out your baggage label, weighed your bag and heaved it onto the conveyor belt.

In order to maximise their profits by minimising the paid time of their poor harassed staff, the companies involved in running airlines and airports have managed to externalise as much labour as possible onto the customers who, to add insult to injury, are not only milked of this labour but also of even more cash. Encouraged to turn up early, they are left with little else to do but consume, captives in the shopping malls that airports and stations have increasingly become. Having had their liquids confiscated before the security check, they even have to pay for a drink of water. The labour processes involved in this unpaid work are not freely chosen. They are dictated by the corporate logic of maximising the productivity of the paid workers. The Taylorisation of the workplace is externalised to shape the processes of consumption labour.

It has been a gradual development. When I first started writing about ‘consumption work’, back in the 1970s, people thought that the idea of doing your own check-in at the airport was a dystopian fantasy. But, as I predicted, we have been eased collectively along this road  (even when we haven’t wanted this) by the lure of cheapness. Practices developed by the low-cost airlines have become mainstream in a competitive race to offer the lowest prices. And, as in other industries, providing bargains for the customer has gone hand in hand with ratcheting down wages and working conditions for the paid workforce. Once self-service has become the established norm, the price of paid-for services rockets. It becomes an unaffordable luxury for all but the super-rich. Business travellers used to be reimbursed to travel business class. But no longer. Increasingly the rules of universities and public bodies like the European Commission stipulate that you must travel by the cheapest means possible. So the terms of your travel are dictated by the same rules as those that guide the choices of fit young back-packers, or retired people who travel twice a year to their second homes, with quite different stress thresholds and requirements for promptness. To bemoan this situation is tantamount to a declaration that you are anti-democratic. Cheap travel, you are told, has opened up new vistas of opportunity for deprived people around the world, giving them access to what was once the privilege of the rich. What right have you to expect to be waited on hand and foot? How elitist can you get?

What I like to imagine is travel under an alternative economic system: one in which the passenger is the commodity. As with any other commodity, it would be in capitalism’s interest that it should be hurried on its way as quickly as possible so that it can reach the market before the competitor’s product. It is in this gap between value creation (when the commodity is produced) and value realisation (when it is paid for by the customer) that capitalism takes its greatest risk (the risk that the product will never be sold at a profit). So the impetus to get this commodity (in this case the traveller) to its destination with minimal delay or damage is paramount. Making the customer the commodity would turn the logic of the present system inside out.

Assuming that the technology stays more or less the same (which, I grant you, is doubtful) in a system like this, the customer would be carefully picked up and placed on a conveyor belt with her baggage safely taken care of. She would be moved along this belt while a series of machines scans her passport and ticket. Waiting workers would remove shoes and accessories and unpack briefcases while she is whizzed through the scanner, and their colleagues further down the belt would then restore them. Food and drink would be brought to the belt (think of the time that would be wasted were she to wander off) and in due course her seat would be automatically shunted onto the waiting plane or train, ready to be removed by the same means at the other end. Her time and labour, far from being something to be co-opted and wasted at will, would now become precious. We wouldn’t want the goods to be damaged, would we?

You could think of this as a mad fantasy. But perhaps it is also a parable that warns fledgling political economists against muddling up production and consumption. ‘Prosumption’ remains a fashionable word in some quarters. But to imagine that it can increase autonomy under a capitalist system is a dangerous delusion.

Submission

I finished another research proposal yesterday. Clicking the ‘submit’ button induces the same sense of irrevokability that used to accompany the posting of a bulky manilla envelope through the maw of a post box: anxiety that it might contain some terrible mistake combining acutely with an overwhelming urgency to get it over with. I can remember times in the past when the thought of leaving it till the next morning was so unbearable that I would go out out in a raincoat in the grey pre-dawn just to be shot of that bundled offering, that peculiar combination of boasting and supplication that a proposal embodies, which i have written about elsewhere as ‘begging and bragging‘. This time it was a more collegiate effort than it often is and someone else performed the fateful deed, so the moment of release was a little modified – a somewhat anticlimactic transmission of an email with a pdf attachment, though the moment of hitting ‘send’ still had its poignancy.

Nevertheless, it is an event to be marked and an excuse to give myself some time away from all the other pressing oughts.

And also a moment to reflect on this writing of proposals which has consumed so much of my time over the last four decades. And with this, to reflect on some of the contradictions in intellectual life which the writing of proposals brings to the surface, contradictions that seem to become much more acute with each passing year.

First there is the matter of the sheer volume of writing required. This latest effort was about 45,000 words, shorter than some. In this case not all written by me but nevertheless taking up time – to chase up the authors, edit etc.  Multiply that by – say twice a year (I’ve sometimes done more – my record was 11 in one year – but I’m trying to be conservative here) and multiply that by thirty five (allowing for a few years when i was less productive, or the proposals were smaller) and that’s getting on for 3 million words. I’d rather not think how many books that could be! I suppose about a quarter of them turned into funded projects which provided me – rather unevenly – with a living all those years. I could only have written (or, to be fair to my collaborators, co-written) all those books if i had a private income of some sort (and, of course, strong motivation, which might not have been there if I’d been living the life of Riley at someone else’s expense). So it can’t really all be regarded as wasted effort. But it does sometimes feel like it.

A curious feature of research proposals is that they have no public visibility as anyone’s intellectual property. If the research is commissioned, they ‘belong’ to the client. If, like so many European proposals, they are put together by a team of collaborators from different countries, then they become the collective property of the team, regardless of how much, or little, effort any given member has put into the writing of them. If they proposal fails, large chunks of it are liable to be cut and pasted without acknowledgement into other proposals which may, or may not, involve the original authors of those pieces of text. If the proposal succeeds, then all members feel free to use is as they like. This should not matter in principle but can be annoying in practice. In one large European project I worked on a few years ago we developed some rules designed to help junior researchers gain some recognition for their work. The project involved carrying out a large number of case studies. According to these rules, anyone wanting to draw conclusions from the case studies was obliged to cite the original case study report written by the researcher who had done the interviews when referring to it, rather than any synthesised analysis on which their name might not appear. Fair enough, you might think. But in practice this failed to take account  of the genealogy of the interpretative text. I had written quite a lot of the original research proposal, under some time pressure, and, when doing so, had lifted some text from other work of mine in progress (some of which formed hypotheses that were tested in the fieldwork). Parts of this text then got reused word for word (with no acknowledgement) by the case study authors and reappeared several times in various reports analysing the fieldwork results, so when I finally got round to publishing something based on the text I had drawn on for writing the proposal in the first place, i was condemned for having ripped off the work of these junior researchers and, apologetic and bad at standing my ground as I am, ended up littering my ‘new’ text with references to the work of others which had used my own earlier unacknowledged language, in a sort double expropriation.

A proposal is a sharp reminder that, as intellectual property lawyers constantly remind us, you cannot legally own an idea. A friend once told me an anecdote about a now-retired BBC producer who used to bring to brainstorming meetings a postbag containing letters that had come in from viewers with ideas for programmes. These would be emptied out on the table for the assembled professionals to pick through for inspiration with, of course, no reference to the innocent viewers who had submitted them. Things are not so different in the world of research evaluation. When doing evaluations for the European Commission I was once – disturbingly – advised ‘Never put in a proposal in the first call for a new Framework Programme. Just look out for good ideas you can use in the second call’. And I have certainly had the experience on more than one occasion of witnessing good proposals rejected only to see remarkably similar ones succeed a year or so down the line.

But this raises much more general moral questions of how ideas should be attributed. We are all, of course, immersed in other people’s ideas from childhood. It never occurs to anyone to acknowledge the understandings of the world derived from the explanations given by parents or teachers in answer to those early questions ‘how?’ or ‘why?’. This carries over into adulthood. The penny-dropping moment that occurs when a student suddenly ‘gets’ an idea when it is expounded by a gifted lecturer is experienced as part of his or her education, something to be absorbed from the surrounding culture as easily and naturally as a tune played on the radio or a joke heard in the pub or even a sermon. Few if any would dream of ‘citing’ it. The conscientious lecturer’s role, duty even, is to pass on understanding in such a way that the student internalises it and makes it his, or her, own. But this responsibility runs into headlong collision with the increasingly powerful imperative also placed on that lecturer, to publish and be cited,which implies becoming the visible public owner of a set of ideas that are privately owned and deserving of attribution. These ideas have to be hoarded, as private intellectual property, until the moment of publication, for fear that they will be stolen and published under someone else’s title. Academics must therefore, both share, and not share. They must also both collaborate and compete. And they must aim both for ‘excellence’ and ‘impact’. Of such contradictions are nervous breakdowns made (see this Guardian article for some scary evidence on mental illness in academia).

The process of assembling a research proposal embodies many of these contradictions, albeit often in ways that are unspoken. Take the matter of competition. A European proposal represents a collaboration between scholars in different European countries. Indeed the rationale for funding research rests in no small part on the principle that knowledge and experience will be transferred from one partner to another through the process of collaboration. So far so good, you might think. But no one country should dominate, so in practice you should not have more than one partner from the same country in the same proposal without a very strong rationale. So this puts people from the same country into direct competition with each other. And the more expertise on any given topic there is in any given country – the larger that country’s academic community – and the more pressure there is to secure external research funding in that country, the more intense that competition is. And there are many who could bear testimony to the internecine environment in some disciplines in, for instance, the UK and Germany, resulting from this. But of course there are also strong pressures to collaborate nationally for instrumental if no other reasons. Careers depend on peer review, on favourable evaluations from national funding sources, on friendly people to act as external examiners and sit on appointments committees. Who knows when you might need an ally? This academic terrain is a minefield whose safe negotiation requires a Stendhal or a James Cavell to do justice to its intricacy.

The citation becomes a sort of currency in this game. Although the algorithms for assessing citations are becoming ever more sophisticated, this is still primarly a quantitative matter. The more citations you have, the greater your standing. So in deciding to cite someone you are not just positioning yourself as someone who respects (or disagrees with) that person, you are also adding to their pile of points. Consciously, or perhaps not, academics form themselves into little gangs (often grouped round particular journals or conferences) within which there is a tacit agreement to cite each others’ work, but ignore that of others. Unsurprisingly this has a strongly gendered character, as Daniel Maliniak, Ryan M. Powers and Barbara F. Walter found in their study of the gender citation gap, with women much less likely to be cited than men. I have not studied this systematically but anecdotes suggest that it is evident even in the field of gender studies. Discussions I have had with women who know the field better than I do suggest that when ‘men’s studies’ first emerged as a distinctive field in the 1980s the first writers referred back to feminist authors of the 1970s but as soon as there was a second generation of publications, the authors chose only to cite the men from the first generation (the fathers, so to speak, rather than the grandmothers).

At its nastiest, selective citation can be a way of covering up plagiarism. This trick involves author A reading author B and citing all the people author B cites but not author B’s own work (except perhaps some trivial aspect of it which is rubbished). Author A can then claim ownership of all author B’s ideas without ever acknowledging them. And yes this does seem to be something that happens much more to women than to men. But generally speaking, I think it is done not from malice but in ignorance or from an unconfident need to gain approval by copying the people seen as successful. Up against a deadline, with huge pressure to publish on top of a heavy workload of teaching and marking and administration, the harassed academic skims through the literature that  other people have already cited, taking this to be the ‘state of the art’. The article being written will, of course, have to go through anonymous peer review so uppermost in the author’s mind may be an anxiety that the reviewer – or members of that reviewer’s gang – may actually appear in this bibliography, or expect to do so, so nothing must be left out. You mustn’t, after all, appear ignorant of anything already cited in the field. Often there isn’t even time to read the articles in question and the citation is made on the basis of an abstract – but you omit it at your peril.  The end result is clear. Each time a work is cited, its stature as an important text in the field is enhanced. Thus are some reputations built. But in the same process others are left invisible. Is this, maybe, another example of the way the gender division of labour manifests itself? Are the parts of being an academic that involve teaching and administration and proposal-writing –  the intellectual equivalents of childcare and housework  – regarded as less entitled to reward or recognition than those that are formally theorised and published in academic journals?

Twenty years ago, this citation-seeking culture, a culture in which intellectual activity is increasingly commodified, seemed peculiar to, or at least much stronger in, the English-speaking countries. It is now much more broadly pervasive, perhaps because the global academic world is expected to be English speaking; the values have been smuggled along with the language. So there is now a second question hovering behind every invitation to participate in a new research proposal. In addition to ‘how much money will we get out of it?’ is ‘how many articles will I get out of it?’. Sadly, in addition to increasing the tension between the ‘we’ and the ‘I’ – this pushes ever further into the background that old simple motivation for doing research: to find stuff out.

And this raises yet another tension: between the empirical and the theoretical. With ‘impact’ generally measured by the results of the former, and ‘excellence’ by the latter. But perhaps that should be the subject for another blog.

In the meanwhile, I should end by saying that there is silver lining in all this. When you find yourself working with people you can trust, and do share their knowledge freely and  are serious about carrying out new and original research and care about what use is made of the results then this is something to be treasured and celebrated. As I do today. Thanks, colleagues!

 

Spring

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 ununpacked. 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 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 might of course be of some interest to historians of office work  (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 indefinitely, 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).

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 pressure 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.