The Precariati & the Chatterati

The chattering classes have come up with a list.

People in blightey now fit into new seven social classes, says the Great British Class Survey, the largest study of class in the UK. Going from the 6% elite at the top to the 15% “precariat”, the poor, precarious proletariat, at the bottom, it’s the “fuzzy” middle which the sociologists find exciting. In the blurred bandwidth between the traditional working class and traditional middle class stretch the emergent workers and the new affluent workers. These sections, the researchers say, appear to be the children of the traditional working class, which has been fragmented by de-industrialisation, immigration, mass unemployment, and the rearrangement of urban space.

Presented at a conference of the British Sociological Association on Wednesday, BBC Lab UK collaborated with Prof Mike Savage of the London School of Economics and Prof Fiona Devine at Manchester University to produce the survey. The study invited people to use its ‘class calculator’ on the BBC’s website. Aiming for a more nuanced picture of class in the 21st century, the findings claim to reflect modern occupations and lifestyles. Responses not only about income, house value, and savings, but also cultural and leisure activities and the occupations of friends signify a person’s economic, social and cultural capital scores to generate the survey’s own class system.

There can surely be no irony in that anybody reading this log is most likely a member of the liberal intelligentsia described by the nostaligist reactionary Auberon Waugh as the chattering classes. Often seen by conservatives as akin to prattling, chattering originally referred to idlers in the 1980s; they inhabited fast-gentrifying postcodes of London while furiously loathing Thatcher. In its American avatar, the term got allied to “the nattering nabobs of negativism” by William Safire, who did the language column of The New York Times.  Safire— a speechwriter in the Nixon White House— also saw a continuing need “for a phrase that columnists, pundits, commentators and other harangutangs can use to flagellate themselves and one another.”

Does the burgeoning of the blogosphere and the teeming twittering perches, which democratise– at least in theory– admittance to the whole wired world appulse the chatterati? Is it safe to assume that the chatterers (don’t) care about being pigeon-holed somewhere along the posh scale? One of the questions asked of respondents to the survey is: “Do you socialise at home”? How does, one wonders, face-booking, emailing and texting now so easily availed— so much so that it is no longer aspirational— by the young precariat here, affect class positioning? Should it? Can it be just confined within the bounds of the nation? Is it because they live mainly online that the technical middle class with high economic capital but less cultural engagement— no opera or stately home visits for them— can be rendered by the survey as having relatively few social contacts?

Applying the principles of geo-demography, the Mosaic system, a commercial classification of the UK’s 1.7 million postcode areas (each of which holds about 15 households into 61 categories), susses out what you’ll buy, your inner fears, or for retail chains to tailor stock, or where to send junk mail. Mosaic’s developer Professor Richard Webber points to its multidimensional character. While many of its categories are concerned with job types (such as ‘Corporate Chieftains’), others focus on age, family structure, ethnicity (‘South Asian Industry’). While ‘Alpha Territories’ are cash-rich and time-poor and live in the trendy areas of London, ‘Motorway Magnets’ are in mid-level technical jobs, tend to read the Daily Mail and live near motorway junctions.

ACORN, yet another classification system, divides the population into five distinct groups. ‘Hard Pressed’, for, example, carries the following description: “Represent 22 per cent of the population. Live in overcrowded— typically high-rise or purpose-built— flats and property rented from local council or housing association. Travel to work by bus, Tube or on foot and often need a loan to tide them through. Tight budget encourages catalogue shopping to spread payments over time. Recreation: angling or gambling on horses or at the bingo hall. Preponderance of single-parent families”.

Some hold that people are not bound by class any more, that such stratification is not at all useful, and may just be a dream for sociologists as they strain to find the seven categories. All these maps— statistical, empirical constructs— of the country’s social divisions nevertheless pose challenges— for political parties on ways to localise their national campaigns. Benjamin Disraeli in his 1845 novel Sybil warned that Britain was becoming ‘two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets… the rich and the poor.’ The prediction resonated in Ed Miliband’s 2012 conference speech as he spoke of Labour’s task to create in Britain one nation. Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 published in the same year as the Tory prime minister’s Sybilwas also concerned, albeit differently, with the poor, precarious proletariat.

Global precariats, the new dangerous class, already have a 2011 book on them . Precariati only just entered the vernacular.

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Boris Bits

”When people ask me ‘does he want to be prime minister?’ I always say ‘he is much more ambitious than that’,” his sister Rachel Johnson cheekily confided to the nation on Michael Cockerell’s BBC film last Sunday. The Mayor of London Boris Johnson has always held that his “chances of becoming prime minister are only slightly better than being decapitated by a frisbee, blinded by a champagne cork, locked in a fridge or being reincarnated as an olive”. But, he went further publicly for the first time: “If the ball came loose from the back of the scrum, which it won’t of course, it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.”

Irrespective of what one thinks of Boris’s politics or parlance, the man always provides good copy. A colourful turn of phrase coupled with his blonde Beatle-like mop, BoJo or Bonking Boris is a brand never absent from the media. A journalist turned feel-good politician— not an identikit right-wing one– he writes prolifically, and provocatively. In 2002, he was offering the nation these thoughts through the Daily Telegraph: “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving picaninnies; and one can imagine that Blair, twice victor abroad but enmired at home, is similarly seduced by foreign politeness. They say he is shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in Watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird”.

If last year the Mayor of London dished out how “the Geiger counter of olympo-mania is going to go zoink off the scale”, last month he sat down at a sewing machine in the East End and after a few attempts declared that his finished product looked like a “codpiece”.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has been, among many other things, accused of racism. Interestingly on his father’s side, he is a great-grandson of Ali Kemal Bey, a Turkish journalist and the Interior Minister in the Ottoman government of Damat Ferid Pasha. His second wife Marina Wheeler has a Sikh mother, Dip Singh. Describing himself as a “one-man melting pot” with a blend of Muslims, Jews, and Christians comprising his great-grand parentage, he also speaks out against British exit from the EU while skilfully weaving through the Eurosceptic media.

pouty p

Known for riding his bike to work and favouring more bike lanes in London, he introduced what are now better known as Boris bikes. During the official launch of the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme in 2010, he declared: “In 1904, 20 per cent of journeys were made by bicycle in London. I want to see a figure like that again. If you can’t turn the clock back to 1904, what’s the point of being a Conservative?”

After his close shave with a lorry while inspecting possible routes for cycling superhighways with his  director of transport Kulveer Ranger and transport minister Lord Adonis, Transport for London planned to instal mirrors on all major junctions in the city. This didn’t earn him many points with fellow cyclo-journalist Matt Seaton who grumbled, “while he’s adjusting his mirrors, which may save one or two deaths a year, he is backpedalling furiously on the much more serious, but less visible matter of air pollution.”

On the Sunday morning of the showing of the BBC documentary, he appeared on the Andrew Marr Show and got unexpectedly mauled. He admitted later that he wasn’t at his blistering best; the performance has been described by The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour as a bicycle crash: “spokes all over the road, wheels mangled and a reputation badly dented”. Boris admitted to Eddie Mair that he had “mildly sandpapered” quotes as aTimes journalist. “What does that say about you?” Mair pressed on, “Making up quotes, lying to your party leader [denying his affair], being part of someone being assaulted-– you’re a nasty piece of work.” Johnson crumpled in a pile, “his lights, pannier bag and reputation strewn across the bicycle lane”.

One of his Tory rivals, the current Home Secretary Theresa ‘Teflon’ May is widely rumoured to be another prime ministerial hopeful, but Boris hasn’t let much to stick to him either. Whether he could still be PM after the Teflon-scouring Eddie Mair interview (assuming Ed Milliband and Labour fail to make a go of it) is a question many are asking. In 2008, Boris endorsed Obama’s candidature with the words: “Unlike the current occupant of the White House, he has no difficulty in orally extemporising a series of grammatical English sentences, each containing a main verb”.

One wonders, despite a different media culture, how much grammar and Teflon in Boris’s old Etonian book do Indian PM hopefuls Rahul Gandhi, or Sushma Swaraj, or Narendra Modi need. The last of these worthies could certainly do with a bit of non-stick as he tries to scrub off the grease of the Gujarat riots his bid for the berth.

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Rain Later, Good

With many false intimations of spring, it has been a rough winter in London. The sky is still the colour of chicken bone. Now, I am lapsing into the familiar English habit, however clichéd this seems, of weather-moan. Talk of English weather “invokes its demonic double –the heat and dust of India”, muses a cultural critic originally from Bombay.

Weather-speak, I discovered in my student years, in these isles is little more than a discursive device to fill up the famed English reserve. As true today as in 1758, Dr Johnson records: “when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” It is among the most ingenious of props and facilitators deployed here to overcome inhibitions. Given to caprice and fitfulness, the weather guarantees that there is always something to agree or moan about. The Hungarian humourist George Mikes advises that if you want to observe English etiquette “you must never contradict anybody when discussing the weather”. “Still raining, eh?” is not an invitation for metereological data, but a simple social filler.

Rain Later, Good is an instantly recognisable national phrase despite its contradictory, almost meaningless, metereological promise. With a seascape on its cover, the book with that arcane title was published in 1998 and has run into 3 reprints. The phrase refers to the daily Shipping Forecast issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Office. Cadenced recitation of names of sea-areas is followed by wind information, then weather, then visibility. The qualifying words (wind, weather, visibility) are left out such that you get: FitzRoy, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea. Westerly or southwesterly 6 to gale 8, but 4 or 5 at first in Irish Sea, increasing severe gale 9 for a time. Very rough or high, but rough or very rough in Irish Sea. Rain or showers. Good, occasionally poor.

The Shipping Forecast is in particular something of a national institution. It is not only a lifeline for freezing fishermen struggling on the nation’s storm-stirred seas. It is also an assuaging addiction for listeners tuning in to BBC Radio 2 or 4 at 12.48 am or 5.20 am, 12.01pm, 5.54 pm. It is of no relevance to these millions, and most of them know little of what the names or numbers mean. The bewitching quality of the forecast partly arises from the captivating theme tune ‘Sailing By’ by Ronald Binge; the poet Sean Street calls it ‘the cold poetry of information’. Have a listen here.

Equally enticing are the poetic place names that can ear-worm into your brain. It does not matter that we don’t precisely know where these places are. German Bight –cuddling in the curve of the Northern European coast, between Germany, Denmark and Holland. Rockall –the extinct volcano jutting out of the North Atlantic. Malin –north of the Irish mainland. Dogger, Viking, Forties, and Fisher are all named after sandbanks in the North Sea where shipping must avoid getting caught in them. The names together form a ponderous maze of erratica in the seascape.
shipping forecast

In a book And Now the Shipping Forecast–A Tide Of History Around Our Shores, the weatherman Peter Peter Jefferson pays homage to the history of this BBC forecast in existence since 1924. Jefferson manned this announcement in his tuneful voice for almost 40 years. On remarrying his wife six years ago, the vicar felt obliged to compose his own Wedding Forecast for Jefferson: “Knuckles WIGHT, palms sweaty, hands joining to form new partnership, moderate, becoming good, FORTIES –you wish . . .” to gales of gaeity from the gathered guests. The abbreviated metereological language can be sharply seducing: the aim, says the forecaster, is clarity, economy, but distinction: “Words can be saved by grouping sea areas together, so long as no vital information is lost. So you can say, ‘Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth: moderate with fog patches becoming good, except in Humber and Thames”. If a wind is ‘veering’, it’s altering path in a clockwise course (for instance, moving from north-westerly to north). If it’s ‘backing’, it’s doing just the opposite.

To those of us who have not the foggiest this can seem aerial applesauce even as it leaves the islanders here strangely reassured. Seen as a marker of Englishness and/or Britishness, it is taken seriously enough to breed parodies. The Chicken Forecast and the Fishing Forecast are brilliant examples and like the original they are better listened to than read. A listener reports: “On a particularly gloomy Sunday morning, don’t know why but this makes me proud to be British”.

And, it’s still raining.

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PMQs: “Taxi for Cameron”?

“It’s taxi for Cameron!” declared Ed Milliband the Labour leader in parliament yesterday. The PM was reporting on the recovering health of the manufacturing sector pointing out that car exports were higher than ever. “Never mind car production, it’s taxi for Cameron!“ Zingers and pre-cooked one-liners are the stuff of Prime Minister’s Questions (or PMQs) in Westminster.

Anachronistic, silly, plain irrelevant, or the vital blood (although injected by glib PR machines) of parliamentary debate and democracy in action? Questioning of the prime minister by MPs  in the Commons is a central part of British political culture; the sessions are theatrical and viewing tickets to the Strangers’ Gallery always in high demand.  Until the 1880s questions to the PM were on equal footing with questions to other Ministers of the Crown. In 1881, time-limits and procedures for questions were introduced. In 1977 James Callaghan approved recommendations from the procedures committee that the PM should respond to most questions himself. Since 1997, it is each week on Wednesday afternoon that the prime minister must come to the House (when sitting) to take questions.

This Wednesday Mr Milliband dealt Cameron a rather potent punch over Government’s minimum alcohol pricing U-turn: “Can the Prime Minister tell us if there is anything that he could organise in a brewery?” His gag writer John O’Farrell clearly had a winner here and Labour loyals roared with laughter while the Tory benches were down in the mouth. The brewery joke showed how a quip can have much more visible impact than a mere artillery of words.

Out of form, Cameron fell back on the hackneyed  line, that Milliband had nothing to say about the deficit, that Labour would borrow more money, that Ed Balls was still shadow chancellor, that his  party was a pawn to union “dinosaurs”. None of this succeeded in rallying the flagging Tory MPs.

Cameron’s timing was way off. He appeared not as relaxed at the Despatch Box as Milliband who now uses it like a prop. Towards the end of the session, when asked if he’d benefit from the millionaire’s tax cut, he leaned on this crutch– an imaginary letter from one Ed, who lives in Camden (“I am a millionaire I’m worried about my £2m house being hit by mansion tax. What should a champagne socialist like me do?”) alluding to Ed Milliband’s partner’s house in the borough of Camden. The gag finally roused the Tory benches even though for Cameron, for obvious reasons, it was unbecoming of his class politics.

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Last week saw Cameron fending off jibes about balls and bull.  News this year has been widely contaminated with horse meat, and the MP Nigel Dodds elicited laughs for his jape about the contamination of the Tory beef brand by a Lib-Dem horse. Cameron sniggered back that better coalition labelling may be the answer. Although later he added that the horsemeat hamburger scandal was no laughing matter in response to Anas Sarwar, the labour MP from Glasgow, who asked: “Does he share my concern that, if tested, many of his answers may contain 100% bull?”

While witticisms are enjoyed and pondered over by the country as an index of mood and where the fortunes of the parties and the leaders are going, it is also argued that turning the cameras on in Parliament in 1989  has been far from healthful  for political culture. It transforms politicians into performers, the palaver runs on more than it should, and PMQs degenerate into an occasion for feeble jests and random railing: thirty minutes of elected representatives ululating while party leaders, a firm eye on prime-time telly, shoot off their sound bites.

For Tony Blair, notorious for his spin doctors, PMQs represent “the emotional, intellectual and political repository of all that is irrational”. The current Speaker, John Bercow, has called for “more scrutiny, more civility, less noise and less abuse masquerading as inquiry”. In 2010 he hammered PMQs and spouted unctuously “If it is scrutiny at all, then it is scrutiny by screech.” A Telegraph reader recently registered his embarrassment at the level to which he thinks the Mother of Parliament stands reduced: “I wish the TV cameras could be removed, because people from Hawaii to North Korea [cutting across India] must be watching these goings-on, nodding sagely to themselves and understanding why the UK is going down the tube as they watch.”

The Chamber was engineered to be adversarial and the opportunity to redesign it in 1943 after it was bombed  was ditched. Churchill held that the old setup was responsible for Britain’s two-party system, which was the bedrock of parliamentary democracy: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us”. Architectural Review in 1931 described the Indian Lok Sabha Chambers designed by Sir Herbert Baker in these words: “It resembles a Spanish bull-ring, lying like a mill-wheel dropped accidentally on its side.”  One wonders what impact the architecture has had, especially when watching scenes involving fisticuffs and fracas in the Lok Sabha.

Despite the baying, the bawling, and shouting in the six-round skirmish, the PMQs slot nevertheless helps set the media agenda and offers viewers and spectators alike a lively glimpse of  the national cockpit that is Westminster’s Parliament.

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Pennies and Paisas

paisasI saw no paisas during my last visits to India. I missed the square round-edged aluminium-magnesium 5 paise coin as I did the 10 paise, not to speak of the cupro-nickel eight-scalloped 10 naye paise dating from well before my time. The Reserve Bank of India in 2011 demonetized the 25 paise coin (or chawanni in old money) and anything below it. The only coin I did hold in my hands (not without nostalgia, already missing it) was the round 8 annas or 50 paise in ferratic stainless steel. Maybe simply because the atthanni  was worth something to me even 10 years ago. 5 and 10 rupee coins have of course now taken over other economically empty coinage now consigned to history; flinging a 50 paise today fetches only for a curse from a beggar and prasad from a tender-hearted priest.

Not wanting to keep the change, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have pitched their pennies. US pennies and Russian kopeks may follow suit. In Canada a cent coin is in fact called a penny and cost the government 11 million Canadian dollars – 1.6 cents to produce every 1 cent. To make things easier, businesses often round off every penny to 5 cents. The Canadian finance minister Jim Flaherty announced the death of his nation’s penny in these terms: “The penny is a currency without any currency. And they take up too much space on our dressers at home. We often store them in jars, throw them away in water fountains or refuse them as change”.

The growing question here in the UK then is: are pennies a waste of time and money? Will it go the way of the farthing in 1961 and that of the half penny in 1984? Punters, including coin dealers, today don’t even count their pennies. They go straight to the charity box, ubiquitous in a nation which made the Fabian Bernard Shaw grunt: “Charity is no substitute for social justice”.

Expensive to make, helpful only in producing a bulge in the wallet, a hole in the pocket, or a clog the vacuum cleaner? According to a survey for the Prudential insurance group, a good one-third of the youth here unequivocally admit to chucking away their small change. Having lost several hundred per cent of its exchange value in the last twenty years, getting rid of coins altogether the Federation of Small Businesses (representing 200,000 companies) believes is progress. Particularly for smaller firms dealing with large numbers of coins, it would render unnecessary visiting the local bank, especially at a time when many of them are closing anyway.

ImageNumismatists hold  that abandoning the copper would be a great pity. The copper is, after all, one of the iconic coins of Britain introduced in silver into England by King Offa in 780 CE. It is also the only coin that was issued until the 14th century although in its current decimal form it only goes back to 41 years. Forming the base unit of British currency, Its metallic feel is largely due to copper-plated steel as the original bronze (with  copper, zinc and tin amalgam)  got  replaced in 1992. The British Museum estimates that with last year’s supplies by the Royal Mint, there are 11.2 billion pennies in circulation. Valuewise, they may not generate a high velocity of revolution, but critics point out that while inflation is  high, abolishing the penny would hardly hinder shopkeepers and service providers from rounding off upwards, adding further to inflationary pressure.

Children categorically are prone to the lure of foreign coins and notes; perhaps  because they are not yet part of the cashless society. They expect me to conjure up such currency from my carry-on every time I arrive in India. The humble yellow pound with a younger Queen embossed on one side is then quickly translated as eighty times dearer than our own rupee. They are aporetic when I report that that denomination cannot even get me a dodgy cup of tea here.

That is when the penny drops.

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Uneasy Lies the Mantel

Imagine Arundhati Roy having a go at Rahul Gandhi’s would-be wife (regardless of whether there is one close at hand). While the analogy may be not quite so handy, the fallout from a hypothetical Roygate in India would not have been far from the real Mantelgate here in Blighty. Two weeks ago, Hilary Mantel (twice-winner of the Booker prize) gave a lecture on royal bodies at the British Museum, sponsored by the London Review of Books.Days later on Fleet Street (a London area traditionally standing in for the British national press), something scandalous hit the fan –revolving around comments on Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.

Mantel made the manifestly obvious kicker that Kate’s entire whatfor and whyfor now is to be admired, to be treasured and to breed. Kate is, Mantel argues,quite unlike Anne Boleyn (Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as the second wife to Henry VIII) who was “a power player, a clever and determined woman.”Nevertheless “in the end she was valued for her body parts, not her intellect or her soul; it was her womb that was central to her story… a royal lady is a royal vagina.” The future queen consort Kate is espoused by the royal press machine as un-Dianalike devoted solely to duties marital and national. It is another matter that less than one-seventh of Mantel’s brilliant talk focused on the photogenic duchess. “Aren’t they nice to look at?” Mantel confided about the monarchy. “Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage…. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.”

Speaking in all possible shades of grey, she observes how the current royal Madonna-figure is dished out by the UK media, appearing “to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished”. This got translated by the tabloid Daily Mail in terms of an unsisterly, bitch-on-bitch [ouch!] fight:aboxing match setting Muhammad Ali at the height of his powers against Victoria Beckham at her most undernourished”. The paper then added charitably that Mantel is “infertile” and “dreams of being thin”; implying jealousy alone can have spurred the tirade from an obese [ouch, again] cow.

JKate plasticuxtapose this with Mantel’s first feelings: “I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. Thesedays she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions.” The respectable liberal broadsheet Independent helpfully provided another list of attributes, so that ‘the author and the princess‘ could be compared; Mantel’s weight featuring again.

David Cameron took time off during his tireless trip in India to criticise Mantel’s comments as “completely misguided and completely wrong”. As usually happens, he too, quite obviously hadn’t read the entire transcript of her talk beforeinsisting that the perfect princess Kate, and not the author Mantel, is the model to which we should all strive. Would a similar pairing, or squaring off, between Roy and some future Mrs Gandhi provoke a similar judgement from 7 Race Course Road? In which eventuality, one is tempted to assume, Roy’s meagre weight, unlike Mantel’s, might work to her advantage.

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Orwell’s Greater India

Orwell is in the air in the UK. 2013 marks the 110th anniversary of his birth. The BBC, the Orwell Estate, the Orwell Prize, and the author’s publisher Penguin are all primed to celebrate his writing this year and “explore the profound influence he has had on the media and discourse of the modern world”. I collected a copy from the mass giveaway of one of his most potent essays, ‘Politics and the English Language’. Raged as he had against political euphemism and ‘sloppy language’ (as necessarily reflective of sloppy thinking), Orwell is being commandeered as a paradigm for jargon-free and integrity-fuelled values from politicians, journalists and bankers alike. “Every single consultant on David Cameron’s PR team will have cut their teeth on Orwell at some point in their political education; they will only craft their spin all the more judiciously”.

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Acerbic Award

The second Hatchet Job of the Year Award has gone to Camilla Long’s acerbic Sunday Times review of Rachel Cusk’s memoir Aftermath. The award is “a crusade against dullness, deference and lazy thinking”; in its manifesto it rewards reviewers who overturn received opinion with style, while celebrating that most “underpaid and undervalued form of journalism: the book review.” I think these lines from Long’s review may just have done the trick: “… we have acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah, a needy, neurotic mandolin solo of reflections on child sacrifice and asides about drains.”

Long’s prize comes with a golden hatchet and a year’s supply of potted shrimp. Shrimp of course refers not only to a marine  crustacean, but also to a puny person; the catch is from the award’s sponsor, a fishmonger. Long shot ahead of the blitz on two of Britain’s big-gun  novelists, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. Zoe Heller writing for the  New York Review of Books attacks Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton for “magisterial amour propre” and concludes: “The world is as large and as wide as it ever was; it’s just Rushdie who got small.”

There is no miscalculating that the UK book market exceeded £3 billion in 2010; no wonder there are far too many books inside books. Last year’s winner Adam Mars-Jones’ literary demolition of Michael Cunningham’s novel By Nightfall criticised the practice of near-constant allusion: “Nothing makes a novel seem more vulnerable, more naked, than an armour-plating of literary references. If you’re constantly referring to landmarks, it doesn’t make you look as if you’re striding confidently forward – it makes you look lost.”

16thc-German-woodcut-Chastity-belt

‘On the Uselessness of Chastity Belts’
No lock is of avail against the cunning of women;
there can be no fidelity where love is not present:
for that reason will I buy with your money the key I lack.

 

LOCKED INTIMACIES

Several hatchet jobs on the Italian writer and director Federico Moccia’s cult Italian teen novel I Want You haven’t deterred its popularity. Damning in their criticism of a bald-headed and plump figure fixated on teen angst with his jejune and klutzy prose, Moccia is nevertheless widely seen as authoring the padlocking trend. LoveLocks®, for instance, is a UK site that sells, well, lovelocks – cashing in on the fad that has grown worldwide recently.

Opposing origins are attributed to this practice. There is the Chinese custom where lovers padlock a chain or gate and cast the key into vapoury valleys. Neoteric Hungarian lovers hurl keys into water after placing a lock in a meaningful spot, but most well-known perhaps are the Roman fountains where keys and coins are flung. Locks left on the Ponte Milvio bridge over the Tiber were removed last year by local authorities fearful of their added weight. And now, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, padlocks engraved with lovers’ names have surfaced across bridges–as well as in unromantic and lorn places–in London. Perhaps this is a modern, more convenient and public equivalent of that ancient anti-temptation and anti-rape device, the chastity belt? Valentine tills somewhere will no doubt also be promoting the protection offered by Rape-Axe: the spiked anti-rape “condom” developed by Dr Sonnet Ehlers.

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Light In/visible

Light%20Show%20Hayward%202

In one of the entries in his magisterial journal of the world, Mirrors, Eduardo Galeano pays eloquent homage to the architecture of the 9th century fortress, the Alhambra: “Back in the year 1600 something, sculptor Luis de la Peña wanted to sculpt light… he spent his entire life trying and failing. It never occurred to him to look up. There, on the crest of a hill of red earth, other artists had sculpted light, and water too.”

Two years before Galeano, in the sleeve notes to the 2007 flamenco/jazz album Patchwork, Gabriel Omnès likens the music of ensemble Jerez Texas to the architectural design of an Andalucian patio, “bursting with light, blending the heat of the sun with the coolness of the water, the finely sculpted stones and the luxuriance of the vegetation.”

Light itself is the medium of art at the Light Show in London’s Hayward Gallery. Owing to photography (literally ‘writing with light’) the British artist, Anthony McCall, describes his form of light manipulation as film. ‘You and I, Horizontal’ (2005), presented again at the show, fashions solid cones of white light from air by means of filmic projection. Cinema is reduced to its bare minimum; there is no screen, no image. Only a projection of light–a vast hollow cone– passing through time across a dark space. I enter it and instantly feel I’m walking through walls. The light is hazy and I rip sci-fi-like, as it were, through a gossamer material. Interacting spectators around me appear only to vanish again. From the outside the sculpture stumpingly appears solid.

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The Karachi-born British artist Ceal Floyer ’s ‘Throw’ also plays with the conventions of light changing and transplacing how it inhabits our everyday. A theatre stage light on a tripod innocuously projects a comic-strip splat on the floor: a white puddle of paint, a splash of milk if you want, giving the installation a half-serious but radioactive feel.

The highlight for some is Danish-Icelandic Olafur Eliasson’s sensational ‘Model for a Timeless Garden’ (2011). Sculpting space in darkness, it is a night garden of flashing fountains and sparkling spumes. It takes us back to black-and-white cinema, but this time in true 3-D. The question that inevitably springs to mind and body is: is the pristine white water virtual? Its viscerality, real or staged, inviting the hand to witness. I could see a guard eyeing me as I gingerly extended a time-stopping finger forward. The immersive installation took me back to an Elliasson solo in Berlin two years ago where a room completely befogged in red and pink mist generated an instant vertigo and I was quickly lost. I recovered my bearings only when someone else suddenly appeared before me in collision mode.

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Known as a pioneer in using advertising and billboards in New York and many other American cities, Jenny Holzer’s ‘MONUMENT’ (2008) stands as a shimmering LED column that gathers texts from declassified US documents. As the scrolls spew out the feed, as in the New York Stock Exchange, one reads details of operations, abuses and interrogations in the ‘war on terror’.

In the Chilean artist Iván Navarro’s ‘Reality Show’ (2010), I enter a Tardis-like phone booth where I am instantly disorientated, stoned, trapped in an elevator shaft. The illuminated space above, around and below (most disconcertingly in the last case) appears to go on endlessly, for ever and ever. I lose my reflection even as those around me proliferate ghostlike a thousand times. Navarro grew up during Pinochet’s totalitarian regime with its dreadful disappearances; it is hard not to see a moral and political point in his deployment of optics here.

Other parts of the globe where artificial light is a luxury may find solidarity amongst those suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). James Turrell’s ‘Wedgework V’ (1975) provides some calming comfort in his glowing rectangles of light. I emerge into this after entering the blackness of a long passage (feeling its wall as instructed by the usher). Relucent and rose-tinted, the undefined space, chopped into geometric wedges at different depths, in front of me swims, fluctuates, and strangely soothes.

Cerith Wyn Evans’s S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E, (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill underlying motive’s overspill…”) generates heat as well as light. The double take in the title is a quote from James Merrill’s apocalyptic epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover. As the array of tiny bulbs on Evans’s three columns come to life, a welcome wave of heat fills the space.

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Some of the exhibits may be dismissed as gimmicky and wasteful. But the show is marked by brisk attendance in a manner that I have never seen before. Interactive in the best possible way, it also encourages you to see how people react to each other, how moods change among strangers. How playful art can be. I even ended up exchanging–as our retinas collected light– notes with the stern guard.

 

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Crisp Gherkins and Pappadoms

They have brought crisp gherkins and chromatic sausages. They are grateful to live in a country that can afford vowels, despite some British anxiety that their vowels are being taken away. I with my fellow sub-continentals living here must now take note that the second language is no longer Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali or Gujarati. Polish has become England’s second language after a decade of eastern European immigration. Data released by the Office for National Statistics reveals that the 546,000 Polish speakers have left behind other non-English languages, including 273,000 Punjabi speakers and 269,000 Urdu speakers.

The Poles are most visible in the building industry, contributing much towards fixing the famed British plumbing. Thanks to them I now have a bathroom with cauterised leaks. But, East European immigrants are also quite confused by the presence of South Asians in Blighty, and sometimes openly express their annoyance: “What are the  black Indians doing here?” asks the Polish tailor who works at a dry cleaners round the corner from my last Chalk Farm home. I could only mumble, “Doing well…they are doing well”, thinking of my Sindhi dentist, Punjabi GP, Parsee professor, Gujarati wine merchant and Bengali grocer.

The London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance has suggested that children of immigrants from eastern Europe are somehow better educated and have a better work ethic than native children. They willy-nilly end up raising the standards of other students. Linguistic diversity in London in particular is an oft-touted cliche. Note: one in five people claim English as not their first language; all but three boroughs have more than 100 main languages spoken by residents. I need but take a  ride on the Tube to listen to a delightful Delphic babble of variously tinted tongues. There are also now 4.2 million people aged over three years old in the U.K. with a main language other than English; around 900,000 (21%) of these cannot speak English well or very well.

What this translates for some like Andrew Green, Chairman of Migration Watch UK, which campaigns for restricted immigration is: “Many Londoners hardly recognise their own city. The task of integration is enormous and so the priority now must be to get the numbers down to a manageable level.” Of Goan origin and one of the most influential Asians, Keith Vaz is the Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Associated with the Hinduja passport affair as well as with leading a demonstration calling for a ban on the infamous Rushdie novel, Vaz  has this to say about outstanding asylum and immigration cases: “[the] backlog is spiralling out of control”; there are as many awaiting resolution as there are people living in Iceland.

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Reports last week suggest a negative advertising campaign targeting Romanians and Bulgarians in particular, reminiscent of Leicester City Council ads during the Ugandan Crisis when Asians, most holding British passports,  were fleeing to Britain. This is to make clear that the streets of the UK are not, in the words of one minister, “paved with gold”. Paved, that is, under all the vomit. Tim Dowling of The Guardian takes the piss and says that once you begin listing the reasons not to come to this country, it is not easy to avoid seeing the slogans: “Since the Drought, It Hasn’t Stopped Raining”. Or, “The English Rivieria, Land of Cruel Irony”. Or, “If We Knew You Were Coming, We’d Have Built Some Housing, Maintained Our Infrastructure and Restarted Our Economy”. Some of my friends are now looking at the queue to get in, but also at the one competing to get out.

THAT STIFF UPPER

The stiff upper lip (or unwavering British determination in the face of odds), that ingrained stoical impulse, that knee-jerk reaction (or lack thereof), just got some bad press last week. This cultural equivalent of the law of gravity, it has been blamed as the cause for the UK having the highest incidence of cancer compared to the rest of Europe, not counting joint- place holder Denmark. Neither rude receptionists nor long waits for medical treatment in the health service, nor fear of getting the bad news of a terminal condition are cited as reasons by the authors of the recent research published in the British Journal of Cancer. According to Dr Lindsay Forbes of King’s College, who knows a thing or two about such things, the explanation lies in the typically Brit fear of fuss. Reluctance to waste the doctor’s time, or embarrassment, or the traditional British “’stiff upper lip’ could be preventing people from seeing their doctor.” British stoicism, a trait which purportedly ran the Empire was drummed, I recall, into the heads of anyone at the receiving end of a colonial education.

A garrulous Indian nation with its more responsive upper lip cannot surely have such problems. India’s health issues have of course more to do with the lack of a proper national health care programme and undiagnosed illnesses. In another study, Italy which shares both this volubility and the looser upper lip as well (going by types), performs even worse. The World Cancer Research Fund places Italy at 18th, four places above Britain’s 22nd in the overall cancer rates. Interestingly, among the high-income countries of Europe, the cognately animated and less reserved southern cultures of Spain and France fare better. 25 to 33 fewer people every 100,000 develop the disease there when compared with UK’s total of 266.9. Toxic pollutants in the wide plain east of Naples has an incidence that is 30 % higher, which is probably responsible for skewing Italy’s national rate.

To go beyond such statistics and medical speculations about cultural difference, Robin Hesketh has written a book to help with cancer awareness. Betrayed by Nature fuses history, medicine, and science to show accessibly how cells and molecules work normally. And, what goes really wrong when cancer is caused. (See his blog: http://cancerforall.wordpress.com). One thoroughly enjoyed reading the informatively affectionate work. I might have read it aloud to myself, had I known a bit more about the need to loosen one’s upper lip.

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