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Endeavours of Simple Altruism [April 2018]

Every December, in a hall behind a digital-camera shop on Stevenage High Street, some people get together for a Christmas party. Actually, ‘party’ somewhat sells the event short. There’s a three-course dinner. Decorations. Live music and entertainment. Everyone gets a taxi home. And for the attendants, elderly people from care homes in the local area who might not have family to celebrate Christmas Day with, it’s all completely free.

The parties, which run for three consecutive nights and serve guests numbering in the hundreds, cost thousands of pounds to put on – but their social value can’t be quantified. They are valuable for so many reasons, not least because the beneficiaries aren’t limited to the people eating a slap-up meal in the audience. Those organising the show and belting out the classics aren’t working for an events company – they are people from the local community. Some of them are actually older than the attendees, but perhaps just a little more fortunate in health or circumstance.

The organisers are all part of the Postels Club – a society founded by employees of the Royal Mail in Stevenage when the New Town was created in the aftermath of the Second World War. The inception of ‘The Club’ was a natural by-product of a town that was built on the idea of a shared community, a hub for football teams, golf societies and weekly discos.

In the decades since, there’s been an erosion of the founding principles that Stevenage was built on at a nationwide level. Collective action, shared public spaces and the importance of local community have diminished as government has retreated from the lives of citizens and, increasingly, the systems and institutions that support them. The Attlee government that founded Stevenage as a New Town constructed it within the prevailing consensus of the time, believing that the role of the state and its involvement in communities was unimpeachable – they were wrong. That leaves Stevenage in an awkward position. 

There’s no football team at ‘The Club’ anymore and the discos are far less frequent, but a tight-knit, committed core of volunteers and regulars keep some traditions alive – most notably the yearly Christmas dinners. Chief amongst them are The Kaye Entertainers, a group of singers and musicians who raise money year round by performing at local events, with any fee they are given going back into the Christmas kitty.

It’s fair to say their act – a mix of group sing-a-longs, music-hall skits and rehearsed numbers – resonates with their underserved audience. It’s quintessential British club entertainment, which takes the event and its audience just seriously enough to make the occasion feel special. Watching them channel Sinatra or reprise an old Carry On sketch you also get the feeling that the performers might be enjoying it themselves.

The whole event is an endeavour of selfless, simple altruism of the kind catered for by precisely no other company or institution. The Postels Club’s efforts start from the simple premise that these are the kind of things that people do for those less fortunate than themselves, and they build from there. That events like these are arguably less prevalent than in previous decades is not a judgment on subsequent generations – it’s a reflection of a system that seeks to atomise, and that prizes the individual. Community and collectivism is less useful, and even more dangerous, to a system that places profit and corporations above people.

The Kaye Entertainers and their yearly Christmas parties aren’t the only example of people refuting the principles of the prevailing system. Austerity and the retreat of government as a facilitator and promoter of collectivism has led to other efforts notable for their positivity and emphasis on the power of community in Stevenage.

In an ideal world some of these community-driven projects wouldn’t be necessary. The existence of the Stevenage Community Food Bank, for instance. Whilst a heartening example of citizens coming together to look after the most vulnerable, it is a damning indictment of neo-liberal policy given that the town sits in one of the most economically privileged parts of one of the largest economies on earth. And its people are still starving.

What can be lauded about it, though, is the fact that people are fighting. There’s not a blind acceptance that certain members of the community should go hungry. Stevenage Community Food Bank embodies defiance, a refusal to accept market principles as those that should govern people’s lives. In the absence of a government protective of its citizens, there is still the energy and love in the community required to complete the task, even in a climate where, as a society, we are encouraged to worry about the individual and little else.

Whilst the Stevenage Community Food Bank will hopefully not be necessary under a more humane government, an organisation like People for People Stevenage would arguably be welcome at any time. Rather than being a crisis management tool for a broken system, People for People works instead as a community forum that prizes people working together and spreading resources to solve problems.

Operated from a Facebook group with close to 6,000 members, it’s an inclusive space working towards a greater sense of togetherness in the town. It has made efforts to reach out to different, often marginalised, faith leaders in Stevenage, and highlights the commonality of goals or values amongst diverse communities.

The work done by the group is simple, effective and ultimately very moving. It’s not run to a complex set of KPIs or a five-year strategic plan. If a local club needs some new furniture, the members find some. If someone in the community needs to repaint their bedroom but can’t afford it, volunteers step forward. If someone has kitchenware that they don’t need but that might be useful to someone else, they make sure it gets to the right person. It’s strange how abnormal it feels to witness a group of people unashamedly and energetically help other people. That this is the situation we find ourselves in is worrying, but the fact that People for People exists at all is deeply uplifting.

None of the efforts mentioned in this piece are complex, conceptually technical ways of helping others or building community. Their simplicity is part of their virtue, and this simplicity shows that anyone with even the most modest resources of time or expertise can help accomplish similar aims. Seeing them in action provides a true feeling of solidarity and reminds us we are not alone in wanting the world to be better. It reminds us that there is latent power in our communities that just needs to be harnessed with energy and positivity. Working to help The Kaye Entertainers, the Stevenage Food Bank, People for People or others like them can provide the connectedness that is the antidote to so much of the anxiety and fear we experience. There are opportunities that exist or that are waiting to be created in every community in the country. We just have to go and do it.

More information on the community efforts mentioned in this piece can be found at the following places:

The Kaye Entertainers  - http://www.postelsclub.co.uk/contact-us

Stevenage Community Food Bank – www.stevenagecommunityfoodbank.org.uk/

People for People Stevenage - www.facebook.com/peopleforpeoplestevenage/

An End to Silence [April 2017]

In between the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, dressed like an extra from a bar scene in American Psycho and exuding his usual noxious stench of smarminess, desperation and cheap fags, declared that both events could be put down to the fact that: “the little people have had enough”.

Previously Farage had also said that various dispiriting victories in 2016 for extreme right-wing causes had actually been in aid of: “the real people, for the ordinary people, for the decent people”.

What is striking about these statements, other than the fact that they would be more truthful if you substituted every adjective used in relation to the word people for ‘white’, is the palpable desire to discredit everyone in disagreement with the causes that Farage supports.

This isn’t simple political disagreement. Farage is emblematic of a movement attempting to effectively silence dissent or plurality of thought, so buoyed and emboldened are they by recent successes.

His rhetoric seeks to paint those who wanted to remain in the EU, or those who take a progressive view on immigration, as part of a gilded Metropolitan elite who are out of touch with ‘normal’ people. It is a calculated effort to align a narrowly won referendum vote, fuelled by nefarious special interest groups, with some strange notion of ineffable political will on the part of the British working class. This reading of the current British reality is delusional.

It’s thrown into particularly sharp relief when considering somewhere like the London Borough of Southwark, where 72 per cent of people voted to remain in the EU. Southwark is also a borough where 34 per cent of children live in poverty. In the area it is exceptionally difficult for residents who have grown up locally to remain part of the community due to a paucity of social housing, a totally unchecked private rental market and also because of an era of unprecedented house building stagnation in the city, whereby affordable homes increased at a rate of just 7,700 per year during the tenure of Boris Johnson – 40 per cent below the target set out by the London Plan in 2011. If the people of Southwark aren’t also ‘normal’ or ‘decent’ people then what is really at play here?

Fundamentally the notion that Brexit or the election of Donald Trump is a resounding verdict from ‘normal people’ on multicultural societies – and should therefore remain completely unchallenged – is misguided idiocy at best and racially charged, white supremacy-laced code at worst. It’s a toxic idea that must be resisted.

Farage’s rhetoric is just one facet of a political climate increasingly intent on making resistance or rebuttal untenable. The media is another histrionic outrider desperate to end a culture of debate and replace it with what Anthony Barnett has called a “dictatorship of the people”. This has been most evident in the rabid reaction to legal challenges made by private citizens to the plan for Brexit outlined by a shambolic government – a primary example visible when a certain newspaper labelled judges who ruled that parliament are entitled to vote on the plans as “Enemies of the People”.

This was the high water mark of hysteria in a political atmosphere that casually labels anyone in disagreement with right-wing ideals ‘Remoaners’, or derides those that choose to reject the fear peddled by the Leave campaign as ‘snowflakes’ unable to accept defeat, as though one referendum entitles the right to an eternity of unquestioning silence.

The upshot of this intentional and insidious march towards a democracy where dissent is not tolerated and where flimsy margins of victory are used as pretexts for the right to run riot is this: we must not shut up.

The current deafening political noise, where choreographed chaos and conflicting or even fake news makes it hard to gain purchase on reality or clarity, is designed to induce lethargy and silence. That admittedly tempting impulse in the face of a wealth of dispiriting madness should be refuted.

It is now more important than ever for those who believe that refugees fleeing the chemical weapons of their own governments should be welcomed, and not feared, to speak up. Wherever possible xenophobia, white nationalism and fascism should be referred to as such and not allowed to hide underneath the ciphers of ‘straight talking politics’ or the ‘alt-right movement’.

We should assert loudly that people of all faiths are an integral part of Britain and liberal democracies, especially those in the Muslim community that are consistently denigrated and demonised by an unhinged and vicious media. The fact that various faith communities thrive in Britain should be repeatedly pointed to as one of the features that our society can and should be incredibly proud of.

Struggling communities labelled as ‘scroungers’ should be embraced and shown solidarity. The fact that food banks are required to feed citizens in one of the world’s most prosperous economies is a continuing travesty inflicted for ideological reasons on certain sections of our society by an out-of-touch and ruthless government – any attempt to portray it as natural or necessary should be challenged.

Most of all anyone that claims this country or any other country is ‘theirs’ and thereby demands to define who is welcome or acceptable must be shown to be fundamentally at odds with the values that we still hold ourselves to. Britain does not belong to any one group of people and the notion that it should be returned to some former glory must be shown up as the apocryphal fallacy it is.

The methods that we use to project these ideas into the world are a matter for the individual. Art that we create and consume should reflect them. The way we use our time as volunteers and professionals should spread these values. No one method or person will provide an answer that works everywhere and the challenges to these ideas and values will be varied and bitter. However we choose to redouble our efforts and to loudly advocate for the things that we believe in, even when the pressure builds to be silent, one command should be in common across all of our tactics – don’t go quietly.

Retreat [March 2016]

We are told that growth is the most important economic notion in Western democracy: essential, desirable and, in the age of rabid neoliberalism, even moral. A force of wealth creation that helps bend the arc of human history towards the just.

It is said over and over that societies depend on it, and in this context the function of government has been recast. The government is no longer designed to serve the people but instead to shepherd the economy towards unthinking, unending expansion – as if that outcome were both necessary and virtuous. Any notion that we might strive to moderate economic consumption or temper the short-term extraction of wealth with a view to long-term sustainability is viewed with the braying, disingenuous bafflement usually reserved for a private-school debate chamber.

Last year a major newspaper headlined a summary of Green Party policy committed to falling consumption and sustainable growth with the words: “Britain under the Green Party: Zero growth, no army, and everyone either high or hungry”. Here the notion of no growth is presented as compatible with an anarchic world and held up as a foreboding prospect – especially the idea of being both “high” and “hungry” (two states that according to every stoner comedy of all time definitely aren’t compatible).

The doctrine is untouchable. Growth is King – but how is this idea sustained in the current political climate?

The cognitive dissonance inherent in the political message that growth is happening and essential whilst, simultaneously, we as a populace watch the functions and effectiveness of the state atrophy and retreat into nothingness, is a civic and rhetorical trick hard to fathom, but it is entirely prevalent in modern Britain.

The Conservative government has performed communicative alchemy in enabling these two ideas – that the economy is getting bigger and yet the state has to get smaller – to exist at the same time. The impunity with which this is being reached suggests a bunch of sneering street hustlers engaged in a governmental misdirection, shouting loudly about how well things are going while savagely cutting in the same moment.

Town councils throughout the country cut bus services used disproportionately by low-income families, turn off street-lights that keep men and women safe walking home at night and simply step backwards out of their communities, while shadow local governments perform skeleton functions because ideologically those in Westminster believe that is all they are required to do.

In this climate how can a central government crow about increasing GDP, decreasing unemployment thanks to insecure day-player contracts and a continued march toward growth, as forgotten constituents are left to suffer from a rapidly retreating state?

Running parallel to the deluded claims that the country is experiencing a recovery, 2,300 unwell and disabled people have died after being found “fit to work” by the government. Largely they are vulnerable, battered by bad luck and have faced cruel twists of circumstance. Time and again, however, they are treated with contempt and disdain, portrayed as grasping scroungers, despite being most in need of institutional compassion.

They are ex-servicemen. People disabled since birth. Young people struggling with debilitating mental illness. Elderly people left behind in a rapidly globalising economy. Carers who spent their lives looking after their family. For what it’s worth, and as though it matters in a civilised society, they were Britons. They often exhibited all of the attributes that the political, ruling class superficially proclaim to value: hard-work, patriotism and integrity. They were abandoned when they needed help the most.

How are we to believe that austerity policies are fostering an economic recovery and need to be pursued blindly for the foreseeable future when we are incapable of looking after our most vulnerable citizens? Whilst the retreat of the state is not the literal antithesis of economic growth it is difficult to accept that both can, and are required to, happen in conjunction with one another, especially when the situation seems to be giving rise to increasingly amoral decisions and dire consequences.

We are asked to believe that these two states must co-exist as craven and morally-bankrupt sociopaths brutally gouge the living standards of disabled and vulnerable people nationwide with punitive ideological policies utterly bereft of compassion. We are asked to believe it as 294 elected members of parliament rejected the opportunity to house a meagre 3000 unaccompanied refugees currently sleeping rough around Europe.

We are asked to believe that our capacity to succeed economically is growing at the same time as we are unable to provide for the homeless, as we leave people on poverty wages to rely on food banks and as our government has the gall to raise and then alter plans to cut 4.4 billion pounds from the disability budget.

It is scarcely believable – and numbing in its systematic lack of empathy and feeling – that a government agenda can be so entirely divorced from the realities of the people it claims to represent. It is for us to challenge their received wisdom and orthodoxies and to display what they call pragmatism or solid business sense for what it truly is: cruelty, ruthlessness and a deep disgust for people they perceive to be worth less than themselves. It is the
start of a journey that will hopefully lead to the placement of compassion and decency at the heart of our public discourse.

Regardless of what the government and the corporate elites who benefit from them say, it’s not unreasonable to feel disgust at their policies and the countless lives they have ruined or ended. That idea that fuels the disgust – that human beings do not need to be sacrificed in service to economic growth, that cutting off the vulnerable, the lonely and the disabled is not required to generate wealth – is what they seek to neuter by suggesting it’s
misplaced or juvenile. It isn’t. It is based on the experiential evidence of what is happening around us. It should not be ignored and should be acted on. It is profound and intuitive and will never be fully extinguished. 

What is a Lasagne?: Nostalgia, Pastiche and Working-Class Experience [Feb 2016] 

When Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey premiered in 1957, it was remarkable for its abrupt rejection of the misleading romantic notions about class, race and sexual orientation that were lodged in the British cultural imagination. Written partly in response to Terrence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme, Delaney thought little of Rattigan’s coy, effete treatment of homosexual relationships. A Taste of Honey centres around the strong-willed Jo who, left alone one Christmas by her unreliable mother, gets pregnant by a young Nigerian sailor and is then cared for by her gay friend Geoffrey. Delaney, a ‘kitchen sink’ writer, helped to initiate a tradition of working-class people writing and performing drama that reflected the truth of their experience: her work contributed to creating a climate where it was no longer acceptable for a distant artistic elite to write the disempowered as they saw fit.

It is almost sixty years since A Taste of Honey was first performed; any ground claimed during its era is gradually being ceded. Delaney disrupted the traditional ways in which British working-class life was depicted. Now, in some corners of our culture, we are returning to a regressive status quo as certain examples of populist new writing lazily recycles tired, irrelevant tropes, and becomes the orthodoxy it was engineered to undermine. This deep lethargy, whereby depictions of working-class life are unable or unwilling to reflect modernity, is everywhere. It extends even to the most influential of postmodern British working class chronicles – Coronation Street. As Louise Lyle reflected on the paucity of graduates in Weatherfield: ‘On Coronation Street you’re more likely to suffer a violent death as a result of fire, explosion, a road traffic accident or homicide than to enrol at a university, much less graduate with a degree.’ 

This is far from an accurate reflection of working-class experience, given that in Britain the higher education participation rate has risen to 47% for young people. Perhaps the vastly increased presence of further education within these communities and the complications this entails for young people’s sense of identity would be the ripe issue to be examined. Yet Coronation Street continues to celebrate just one tiny aspect of what it is to be working-class in Britain, defining the community it represents in perpetually narrow terms by myopically focussing on the slivers of that experience which bolster its outdated narrative. 

This can be seen in the hidden intentions of certain cultural outlets that claim to portray, in however melodramatic a fashion, working-class life. Perhaps Coronation Street fulfilled the aims stated by its creator Tony Warren to explore ‘the driving forces behind life in a working-class street in the north of England’. But that was in the sixties. Now a more accurate interpretation of their function is to portray an outdated, stylised version of that reality – a version that celebrates that community’s smallness and the height of the barriers that surround it, rather than a version which foregrounds an incredible potential. This is social exclusion hiding in plain sight. These simulacra dictate a sense of working-class identity composed from half-century-old clichés. Disguising such portrayals in a superficial language of authenticity and diversity masks the process by which outdated, unhelpful and sometimes ludicrous stereotypes are entrenched. 

Some clear examples of this happening can be found amongst a recent spate of sitcoms dramatising the memoirs of Lenny Henry (Danny and The Human Zoo), Danny Baker (Cradle to the Grave)and Emma Kennedy (The Kennedys). All are set in the seventies, and the last of this list is set in my home town, Stevenage. The BBC press release describing the series calls it an ‘aspirational comedy’ where the Kennedys, who have just moved to the ‘concrete maze of identical houses’ that is Stevenage, New Town, are ‘delighted and enthused’ to find themselves ‘on the cusp of being considered middle-class’. 

Tellingly, Emma Kennedy writes of the series: ‘it is a celebration of our past, a positive affirmation of shared experiences and a rollicking recollection of what we believed to be the good old days’. She goes on: ‘I grew up on a council estate when they were places of aspirational wonder. Social housing was simply the greatest start in life a young family could have, and in The Kennedys I hope I have delivered a series that reflects that hope and joy.’ There’s evidence to suggest that this was the sole intention – its six episodes are warm, inoffensive and stoically obey the conventions of half-hour BBC comedies. 

It is important, however, to distinguish between the positive intent and the actual function that the Kennedys and other sitcoms of its ilk perform. Kennedy writes that her aim was to showcase ‘eye boggling wallpaper, dodgy morals and shoes that make us question our very existence’. The Kennedys is more than that; it’s not just an exercise in ‘Remember that?’ banality. Instead, the Kennedys follows in a tradition of pastiche and nostalgia film discussed by the cultural critic Frederic Jameson in Postmodernism and Consumer Society. As Jameson contends, such works ‘do not represent our historical past so much as they represent our ideas or cultural stereotypes about that past’. 

The events in The Kennedys, whilst nominally autobiographical, are exaggerated and rendered in such a way as to evoke not just the period detail of the seventies, but the attitudes towards working-class communities at that time. It reinforces the perceptions that were, and are, palatable for a detached, patrician establishment and impels a self-induced amnesia. The complexities and challenges of working-class reality in modern Britain are neatly erased, leaving only the prospect of the calm continuation of an morally bankrupt hierarchy. 

These attitudes are displayed in a variety of familiar ways. First, we have the bumbling ineptitude of Tony Kennedy, father of narrator Emma, who in the first five minutes of episode one offers comfort to a crying woman by putting up shelves (because: men) and who later in the series makes a local boy take off his sock to use as a garter on his best friend’s wedding day. Then, there is his wife, Brenda, and her endearing small-scale striving. Two episodes focus on her ‘hare-brained schemes’, which see her flustered and nugatory attempts to make a lasagne and organise a local talent competition. Finally, the actions of their ‘mad friend’ Tim (a feckless, drunk charlatan and philanderer) are both bananas and genuinely grotesque in equal measure. 

Beyond these moments the characters are shown to be warm, positive people in many ways. It is not, by any stretch, wholly unflattering towards its subjects. But they are never allowed to have rich interior lives or ambitions beyond the hyper-local. They are the old-money romantic dream of the working-class, needing only the comfort of the familiar and the warm glow of tiny aspirations that serve to narrow their horizons and actively entrench the status quo. It is basically inconceivable that this is an accurate portrayal of the people on whom the series, and the book that inspired the series, is based. If we accept that it isn’t then it’s troubling that this hammed-up depiction of working-class people is so in demand.

Perhaps it is so prevalent for two reasons, with the first being that it is comfortingly nostalgic in a traditional sense. Working-class communities have been systematically degraded over the last three decades with wedges being driven between ‘skivers’ and ‘strivers’, racial divisions fostered by government policy and opportunistic right-wing upstarts, and the social safety net being cut out from under the most vulnerable members of society. Stevenage is not exempt from this. In 2014, the town was home to an incident that seems like the natural endpoint of recent welfare reform, when ex-army member David Clapson died from diabetes complications after his benefits were cut because officials ‘believed he was not taking his search for work seriously enough’. Yet the Kennedys reinforces the comforting, romantic idea of salt-of-theearth communities. Its portrayal of a close-knit square of Stevenage housing feels like a calculated and wilful self-deception successful in hiding the real Stevenage, where disabled veterans ‘die penniless and alone’ after facing welfare sanctions. 

Another, often unspoken, reason that this depiction is currently ubiquitous in mainstream culture is tied to the fact that the cultural gatekeepers are unprepared to countenance the reality of working-class experience today. By giving form to thirty-year-old stereotypes in a continuous slew of pastiche nostalgia sitcoms, we shield ourselves from the nuances, richness and difficulty of the present. Such sitcoms seek to comfort and distract but offer little in the way of nourishment, especially for those living in the communities they claim to represent. A reductive world, where people don’t know what lasagne is, can be packaged, swallowed and sold more readily than a town that encompasses pioneering technology award-winners, socially-aware artists and bleak poverty. If this nostalgic pastiche of working-class life becomes the dominant mode of portraying this community’s experience, we run the cultural risk of getting trapped in a continuous stultifying seventies.