Friday, 14 October 2016

Nobel Bob

Literary prizes are silly. Blood on the tracks is one of the greatest popular music albums of all time. I haven't listened to the rest of my Dylan albums since I was 18. I loved them when I was fighting the battles of the sixties ten years too late. After that they just seemed irrelevant. Saw him at Globen in Stockholm in the 90s during the phase where he changed all the tunes so you couldn't tell which song he was singing. Wouldn't have missed it for the world, but not a great musical event. If we are being honest Paul Simon is a better musician and a better lyricist. Neither Dylan nor Simon should get a Nobel for literature. How much longer can the Swedes ignore Philip Roth?

Couldn't find a decent Dylan version on YouTube, but this cover by Shawn Colvin captures the spirit of the original pretty well. You're gonna make me lonesome when you go.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

On being tone deaf

Today is National Poetry Day. The BBC's contribution is to set new standards in cultural tone deafness by broadcasting on Radio 4 the Prince of Wales reading Seamus Heaney's The Shipping Forecast.

 I wonder what we'll be offered next year? Julian Clary reading If? Tony Blair reading Dulce et decorum est? Theresa May reading Refugee Blues?

Monday, 26 September 2016

Post Fact Politics

John McDonnell, Labour's Shadow Chancellor on the Today programme this morning:

 "...up until the leadership election took place I thought we were doing pretty a number of polls we had levelled with the Tories and in some we had actually gone ahead of them."

It's difficult to think of a better example of pure bone-headed delusion.  John, the facts are the things that don't go away when you close your eyes put you hands over your ears and say "nah-nah-nah not listening."

Here is the Conservative lead in every public domain poll since January 2015. Jeremy Corbyn was first elected party leader on 12th September 2015. Hilary Benn was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet and triggered the revolt of the parliamentary party on 26th June 2016.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

End class warfare: chutzpah on stilts

I'm not going to waste my time on a line by line dissection of everything that is  muddle-headed, deluded or demonstrably false in this. What the author should not be allowed to get away with however is  a paragraph which appears towards the end of the piece:

"One way of making progress would be to give further consideration to how occupational classes are associated with cultural, social and economic processes. Here, it is possible to take advantage of new forms of data to explore congruencies and differences in their perspectives. Nationally representative surveys often do not have developed questions on cultural or social capital. And with sample sizes rarely extending beyond 10,000 people, there are often limits to examining outliers and 'microclasses'."

I know of at least one colleague who as far back as 2014 tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain from the GBCS team a version of their data that contained the four digit occupational SOC codes that would be needed to implement Professor Savage's vision of intellectual reconciliation. The version of the GBCS deposited in the public domain does not contain these codes and therefore cannot help us to bring about the meeting of minds he claims he desires. 

After Social Class in the 21st Century was published I myself contacted one of the authors and asked when the detailed SOC code data would be in the public domain. I pointed out that the GBCS team must have these data since Tables 4.2 & 6.2  are based on them. Towards the end of February 2016 I received the reply:

"...we should have a version to the data archive in the next 6 weeks or so with the SOC 2010 codes (generated by CASCOT from the text-entry field). "

Why it should take six weeks to disseminate something that has already been created (how else could it be used in the book?) is a puzzle  to me, but I extended the benefit of the doubt. What else can one reasonably do? And here we are almost seven months later and is the GBCS data with the detailed occupational SOC codes in the public domain and available from the UK Data Archive? No it is not.

Nature is one of the world's leading science publications even if it is notoriously flaky in what it chooses to publish from the social sciences. If you want to pass yourself off as a scientist though, it is a good idea to at least make an effort to adhere to some of science's most important norms. Like exposing yourself to the risk of being shown to be wrong. That requires allowing others to scrutinize your data.  If you don't do that and there is no obvious good reason why you can't, then you forfeit the right to be taken seriously. Assuming you ever were.

Lord Nuffield in fiction

If you thought that the founder of my college, William Morris (Viscount Nuffield), would be unlikely to turn up in a work of fiction, you would be wrong. I came across this passage in Nevil Shute's 1932 thriller Lonely Road:

I don't know what time it was when we drew up before the motor garage in Longwall Street, but I remember chucking a sovereign to Jardine to catch as we stood upon the pavement waiting for the young manager to come and open up. In that place there was a light in the offices upstairs to all hours of the night. I think he used to design cars up there by night after the work of the garage was over for the day; I remember going up there one night when I was late and drinking coffee with him and listening as he told me of the cars he had in mind to build. Cars for everybody; the cars of a dream. He was very lean and restless; he brushed his hair straight back from his forehead and he worked all night.

The context is a rather stream of consciousness opening chapter such as you would not expect from a writer who is usually regarded as a bit of a middle-brow hack.

Shute was an engineering student at Oxford immediately after WW1 and it is entirely possible that he might have made Morris' acquaintance then. It is well known that they had professional contact later when Shute was working in the aviation industry.

His reputation as a writer faded in the 1960s when he began to be perceived as stuffy and old-fashioned. Certainly there are an awful lot of stiff upper-lipped heroes and English roses at the centre of his plots. His politics - which as he got older moved sharply to the right - probably didn't appeal much to literary folk. 

Nevertheless some of his novels give you very interesting insights into the mood of the times he was writing about. For instance, What Happened to the Corbetts, written in 1938 is extraordinarily insightful about the effects of mass aerial bombing on the morale of the civilian population. Whereas in Coming Up for Air Orwell deals in rather windy generalities, Shute actually gets down to detail even if, as it turned out, he was wrong about some things.

Shute led an extremely interesting life. His father was head of the postal service in Ireland during the Easter Rebellion and actually had his office in the GPO building taken over by the rebels. In the first days of the fighting Shute and his mother, sitting in a Dublin hotel suite, actually controlled the only telephone line between Dublin and London! 

It's remarkable what a 3rd class engineering degree from Balliol can do for you.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Incidental pleasures of academia

Earlier this month I found myself on one of the LSE's roof gardens looking at a hole in the ground. LSE is truly an empire on which the concrete never sets. The East Building, Clare Market, The Anchorage and half of the St Clement's Building have all been demolished.

I doubt anyone will mourn their loss. They were cramped and ugly. I  remember as an undergraduate attending a class on Sociological Theory in the East Building in a room that was so narrow that everyone sitting around the table had to stand up and pull their stomach and chair in so that a newcomer could be admitted. Latecomers were not popular.

I was  a bit shocked though to discover that the part of the Old Building that at one time housed Sociology's Departmental Offices has been turned into a staircase. O tempora  o mores!

Still intact though is the nearby Graham Wallas Room, one of the most dysfunctional and difficult to find rooms in the whole of the School. Its obscurity was not aided by a tendency to refer to it, even in official publications, as the Graham Wallace Room. I always had a feeling that there were few faculty, even in the Department of Government, who knew who Wallas was.

All of which is a preamble to the confession that I've just finished reading his Human Nature in Politics.  There are two copies in my college's library and I picked one off the shelf at random. Someone has written in pencil on the inside of the cover that it is the third edition, which was published in 1920. But this is obviously incorrect, for on the facing page as well as the stamp that tells me that the book was donated to the library by G. D. H. Cole is the inscription: M. I. Postgate, Butler Prize, 1914. Margaret Postgate, was, of course, Mrs G. D. H. Cole and the (Agnata) Butler Prize was awarded at Girton for Classics. I imagine the other copy was Cole's own  and now they sit in connubial bliss on their library shelf. I imagine it will be a long time until they are parted again.

Which is a shame, because Wallas has very perceptive things to say about the psychology of politics. His big point is that a lot of political thinking is irrational which must have been a bit dispiriting for someone who started as a Fabian:

The empirical art of politics consists largely in the creation of opinion by the deliberate exploitation of subconscious non-rational inference.

By the time he wrote that he had already left the Fabians over the dog-whistle issue of the day - tariff reform. You can't imagine he would be very surprised by the tactics of the Brexit campaign. He was still Fabian enough though to believe that the facts and the accurate representation of the facts actually matter:

If official figures did not exist in England, or if they did not possess or deserve authority, it is difficult to estimate the degree of political harm which could be done in a few years by interested and dishonest agitation on some question too technical for the personal judgment of the ordinary voter.

Wallas wrote that in 1908 and it took another 100 years before the UK Statistics Authority was established. It is abundantly clear that UK politicians of all shades still detest being brought to book when they fiddle the numbers. They may prefer to live in a fact free world, but it isn't good for the rest of us if we let them.

My favourite part of the book though is just a little incidental anecdote. Wallas is talking about political representation and pouring  cold water on the ideas of the Proportional Representation Society. He relates a mock ballot experiment run by the PRS in 1906 in which voters are to choose  five out of twelve candidates for an imaginary constituency.: my case the ballot papers were distributed at the end of a dinner party. No discussion of the various candidates took place with the single exception that, finding my memory of Mr Arthur Henderson rather vague, I whispered a question about him to my next neighbour."

The relationship between left-leaning intellectuals and the Labour Party has always been contaminated by a hint of ambivalence. Oh well, if things carry on as they are we won't have an electorally viable left in the UK, so at least that problem will be solved.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The mothballs of memory

"You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory." So Steinbeck tells us towards the end of Travels with Charley when  he relates the feelings of a late middle-aged man revisiting the haunts of his youth. It's a commonplace observation but no less striking for that. I certainly felt something akin to it when I noticed the other day that the nonconformist church my family attended while I was growing up is to be auctioned off

The origins of the congregation go back to 1813 but the church building itself only to 1926. For the last 20 years the building has apparently been shared with a, presumably more vigorous, evangelical church and a local playgroup. When I knew it, in the 1970s, Sunday morning service would easily attract 80 or 90 congregants, even more on a good day, and at Christmas it was packed to the gunwales. The congregation has now merged with another a few miles away and, I read, the joint congregation of the new church is 30. That's institutional secularization for you: Bryan Wilson 1, David Martin 0.

We were not a particularly religious family, or at least religion didn't play much of a role in our everyday lives, but church on Sunday morning was a fixed part of the weekly family ritual. I suppose that theologically a watered down Calvinism was what we were supposed to believe in, but I would have been hard pressed at any time to list any elements of church doctrine beyond a vague identification with the brotherhood of man, a do as you would be done by approach to behaviour and a very uncalvinistic belief in the desirability of good works. In a way the church was as much defined by what it did not go in for rather than what it did. 'Enthusiasm' was definitely out as was any form of ritual beyond the bare minimum that was necessary to get through the monthly communion service. Sermons were definitely in and if delivered by the right person looked forward to. What was also in were a large number of essentially social activities.

When I think back on it a very large part of my adolescent week was spent either on the church premises or doing things connected with it. Youth club on Wednesday, Boy's Brigade on Friday, collecting newspapers for recycling on Saturday morning, playing football on Saturday afternoons and then church on  Sunday morning where, even if the service was dull, there would be girls! And it didn't stop there. Every Summer my father and I climbed up on the roof and cleaned the gutters and I've lost count of the number of times we  repaired and painted various bits of the premises.

Nonconformist churches only exist if the community organizes and finds leadership capacity in itself. In class terms our congregation was upper-working and lower middle-class which pretty much reflected the social demography of the area. Clerks, primary school teachers,  shop-keepers, people with a small business run from a shed in the back-garden, these were the mainstay and among them there were more than enough capable people to create and sustain a living, breathing community focused on the church building.

I now realise that what I got from it all was a poor man's version of the extra-curricular experiences that the privately educated got at their expensive public schools: soccer, cricket, badminton, table tennis, hiking, camping, playing music, marching around in a uniform, community service, learning to get on with people and, of course, chapel on Sunday. All organized at one easy to get to place. The costs in terms of having to believe or even do anything in particular were so minimal that the slide into agnosticism and  atheism was easy. As Bryan Wilson pointed out, nonconformity itself is one of the staging posts of secularization.

And now the physical focus of all these memories is about to disappear. We've all moved on and can't go back. Again Steinbeck catches the mood: "What I am mourning is perhaps not worth saving, but I regret its loss nevertheless."