On Clem Attlee and patriotic socialism

FOR A BOOK REVIEW, I’ve been plunging into John Bew’s excellent 600-page biography of Clement Attlee, now out in paperback. The book, with its cover depicting a jaunty-looking Attlee in a trilby has induced some shrugged shoulders and puzzled looks in the cafés and pubs of Stroud. For my younger reader, Attlee was prime minister of this country from 1945 to 1951, and his Labour government set up the National Health Service and the modern welfare state, nationalised the railways, the coal and steel industries and the Bank of England, and granted independence to India. Attlee was also deputy prime minister in the wartime coalition government, alongside the rather better-known Winston Churchill.

Attlee’s government is revered on the left and many Labour activists see it as the only really radical Labour administration (I would argue that Harold Wilson and Tony Blair’s governments achieved more than they are given credit for – but that’s an argument for another day). But Attlee himself is less well known. He was an uncharismatic politician, a mediocre speaker and was easily overshadowed by the bigger personalities in his cabinet, most notably Aneurin Bevan, the “founder” of the NHS. Attlee isn’t seen as a great thinker either – his government may have been hugely influential in both shaping the Britain we know today and the British idea of democratic socialism, but no one ever talks about Attleeism.

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Review: A Woman’s Work, by Harriet Harman

harrietALTHOUGH HARRIET HARMAN never held a front-rank cabinet job, she is probably one of the most influential politicians of recent decades. “I knew exactly what I was coming into Parliament to do,” she writes of her arrival at Westminster following the 1982 Peckham by-election. “I was there for women… we wanted equality, in work and in politics. We wanted childcare, maternity rights, for domestic violence to be taken seriously and for women to play and equal part in political decision making.” Harman has stuck to her agenda for 35 years, with a measure of success that puts most male politicians in the shade.

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My thirty years of hurt and joy with Elvis

I STILL REMEMBER the day – it was 15 March 1986, an unusually warm, early spring Saturday – when I walked into an Our Price record shop and saw that cover for the first time: a scruffily bearded man wearing a country and western shirt and a replica of the Imperial State Crown. The sleeve simply said “King of America” but Our Price had helpfully put a sticker on the front: “The New LP from Elvis Costello: PLAY LOUD”. I did – more times than anyone around me will care to remember. But we all grew to love that record. Even my Dad liked it.

I already had a few Costello LPs – including his previous, slightly dodgy outing Goodbye Cruel World (1984) – but this was the moment I became a diehard fan. At some point I acquired a cassette of King of America (no idea why – I never bought tapes) and sometime in the 90s I bought a CD version too. I still have all three copies.

Mere months later, in September I think, another astonishing Costello LP appeared. Blood and Chocolate was recorded, unlike King of America, with his old band, the Attractions. Although they were very different records, I’ve always seen them as a pair. Not a day goes by without me singing at least one of these 26 songs in the shower or humming them as I walk down the street. Even today, songs I’ve heard a thousand times can make my eyes sting. They are the songs I turn to in both my brightest and darkest moments. They are the soundtrack to my life.

I had no idea that music was this powerful. That you could almost live inside the world created by a record. And here were two of them in the same year from the same man. To me they’ve become much more than mere recordings. King of America is a road movie, shifting between cheap Nashville motels, Las Vegas cabarets and the stifling streets of New Orleans. Its cast of characters includes nightclub singers and impresarios, prostitutes, drunken writers, army vets and unhappy GI brides. Blood and Chocolate is an altogether more claustrophobic affair: a howl of rage from the shut-up bedsits and shattered family homes of England. It contains one of Costello’s classic songs, I Want You, a desperate and dark ballad about sexual obsession and the suppressed anger of loneliness. Costello himself says singing the song night after night was a kind of punishment for all “the cruel and irrational things” he’d done – until he just got used to it. The American music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine called it “nasty”. It is, but it’s beautiful too. And so truthful, it hurts.

I immediately bought a guitar and tried to write songs. I didn’t get far with that, but I still play, the same guitar, almost as badly as I did in 1986. More importantly, it was these two Costello LPs that made we want to write. I got my calling. I knew I wanted to use words to spark feelings, to paint pictures, to tell stories. Within months, I’d given up my job as an accounts clerk and gone to university, with the intention of becoming a writer. I’ve ended up doing a lot of different things (they call it a “portfolio career” now; I think the old term was “no career”) but I’ve always kept writing.

As a lyricist, Costello has that Joycean knack of making a word or phrase seem to express two or three different things at the same time. His songs can swoop from menace and vitriol to the utmost tenderness in the same verse, with melodies that can both soothe and hurt. It’s odd that anger – such a powerful, ubiquitous emotion – was mostly absent from popular music until the mid-70s, and no one does anger in music better than Costello: cutting and witty, often self-deprecating, but also brimming with the guilt and remorse that anger brings on. And anger can be tender too. If you don’t think so, listen to Alison, or Bullets for the New-Born King.

Take this couplet from the song I’ll Wear it Proudly on King of America:

Well, you seem to be shivering, dear, and the room is awfully warm/
In the white and scarlet billows that subside beyond the storm…

I have no idea what that means to Elvis, but there’s so much packed in there, it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s tenderness but also a hint of menace. There’s that beautiful (implied) association between the clouds outside and the pillows on the bed, and the reference to the passing storm which metaphorically suggests this is the aftermath of a row. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’ve carried the image of that stifling hotel room – and the loneliness inside it – around in my head for more than half my life.

So, to Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, which is probably quite different from any other musician’s memoir you’ve read. First off, it’s actually written by the musician himself. In prose, Costello has a chatty, digressive style which is a million miles away from the gin-spiked vitriol of his early recordings. His 36 chapters follow a meandering course through his life (and those of his parents and grandparents – sometimes you wonder if he’s been lined up for the next series of Who do you think you are?), often veering off in the manner of Montaigne’s essays to talk about whatever takes his fancy before (sometimes) coming back to the point. It’s a bit like being holed up in a pub with Costello for a couple of days or sharing a long train journey with him. But unlike a long pub chat, it all begins to make sense towards the end.

whether he’s writing about marital break up, war, unemployment or the loss of a loved one, ELVIS sees straight through to the emotional core of the situation.

This is also a book about music, rather than rock star excess and battles with drink and drugs (though Costello owns up to a lot of drinking and a fair few “pills”): it’s a book set in recording studios and concert halls rather than mansions and luxury hotels. The extent of Costello’s musical knowledge and influence will knock your socks off; even I had no idea how many pies he’s had his fingers in. To some reviewers this cast of collaborators, friends and other artists seemed like namedropping, but almost all of them are people Costello has made music with. What was he supposed to do? Refer to Bob Dylan as “this bloke from Minnesota I met in New York”?

If this isn’t exactly The Confessions of Declan McManus, it wouldn’t be Elvis Costello if there wasn’t plenty of remorse on show. He is particularly contrite about the philandering that led to the break up of his first marriage, to Mary Burgoyne, and the hurt caused to many “reckless and sometimes damaged” women. He makes no excuses for all that, or for the racially offensive comments about Ray Charles he is alleged to have made during the Attractions first US tour in 1978. Given Costello’s otherwise-impeccable track record in opposing racism, you have to be very harsh or very ignorant to think that he ever harboured racist beliefs, and if his numerous apologies were good enough for Ray, they’re good enough for me.

No apology is necessary for the nastiness in some of Costello’s lyrics, especially his early stuff. If Elvis’s song-writing has been about anything, it’s confronting the emotions that people really feel, not just the ones that are laudable or even understandable. Some people are spiteful and young men do rage against women. We all feel bitter and angry from time to time. Holding Costello personally to everything expressed in his lyrics over 40 years is as stupid as attributing to Charles Dickens the violence and misogyny of Bill Sikes or accusing Martin Amis of psycopathy for putting the thoughts of John Self down on paper.

Costello’s father – the big band singer Ross McManus – looms large over the whole story. Without Ross, there would’ve been no Elvis Costello – and not just in the biological sense. Their relationship is the golden thread running through both the book and Elvis’s career itself. All his musical magpie-ism finally makes sense in the context of a shared musical heritage in the McManus family which goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. There are no boundaries in popular music: it certainly didn’t begin in 1976 with punk or in 1954 with rock and roll.

Costello’s current series of “Detour” gigs (apparently – I’m going to see the Paris show next month) feature a selection of Costello classics, music hall and big band songs going back to the 1920s and an miscellany of more recent country and rock and roll covers which change each night. In between, Elvis tells stories and shows video clips from his life and career. Much like those shows, this book is not just Costello’s own biography, but a sort of biography of popular music itself.

Passages about Ross’s slow decline and death from Alzheimer’s drift in and out of the story, especially towards the end. They are deeply moving for anyone who has lost a parent, and they also show why Costello is such a great songwriter: whether he’s writing about marital break up, war, unemployment or the loss of a loved one, he sees straight through to the emotional core of the situation.

If you’re already a Costello fan, you will lap this up and wish there were more than 674 pages (and an index!). If you’re not, this is an extended pub conversation with a real musician who knows everybody and has done everything. If you also buy the accompanying soundtrack LP, you might just see what I’m getting at.

The Mitterrand palimpsest

FRANÇOIS MITTERRAND WAS around for so long (he first held office in 1944-5) and got up to so many things, almost every year is some sort of Mitterrand anniversary. My regular reader will know that I’m something of an obsessive about the former French president and don’t need much excuse to write about him. This year I will have plenty – 2016 marks not only 20 years since Mitterrand’s death, but also the centenary of his birth, in the market town of Jarnac, deep in the Cognac country of south-west France, on 26 October 1916.

I already have a stack of Mitterrand-related reading on my desk, including a new book on the president’s last days by the editor of L’Express, Christophe Barbier, and Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s dauntingly huge 1996 biography, François Mitterrand: une vie, which I’ve promised myself to finally get round to reading this year. But I was drawn first to Georges-Marc Benamou’s Le Dernier Mitterrand, the book on which Robert Guédiguian’s celebrated 2005 film on the president’s last days in office, The Last Mitterrand, was based. I’ve watched this film so many times that Michel Bouquet’s superb portrayal of the president has largely displaced my memories of the real Mitterrand.

Benamou was the Globe journalist given “unprecedented access” to Mitterrand during his last year as president, and the rather sad eight-month coda to his life after he left office (actually, quite a few people claim to have had such access – Barbier among them – I guess Mitterrand didn’t like being alone much). There’s a scene in Benamou’s book which doesn’t feature in the film – surprisingly, because it seems to capture the essence of the Mitterrand mystique. It’s certainly made a big impression on me. I can’t get it out of my head. I can picture the scene from the film even though I know it isn’t there.

Mitterrand starts speaking enigmatically – even madly – about an “unknown war” with America, a “a permanent war, a war without death, apparently” but which is also “a war to the death”. Mitterrand seems to imply that although the war is “permanent”, it is a war that France – and Europe – have already lost. It doesn’t make much sense but, as the president continues talking, Benamou senses that he is no longer talking just as himself, but as all his predecessors.

Benamou claims to sense De Gaulle’s tone, and then those of other French leaders stretching back into the middle ages. The image he cites is a striking one: a photo-montage by the artist Krystof Pruszkowski, a sort of visual palimpsest in which portraits of all the Fifth Republic presidents up to that point — De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard and Mitterrand — are superimposed on one another. This was the ghostly figure, Benamou says, who was speaking to him in that darkened room at the Elysée in October 1994.

I managed to dig up a copy of the picture (I don’t have the rights to post it here) and spent some time staring at it. Benamou is right: you can recognise features from all four men, but the only people you really see are De Gaulle and Mitterrand.

Benamou felt that all France’s past leaders were incarnated in this frail body, this “national corpse” (Mitterrand was dying from prostate cancer, which it was later revealed he’d been suffering from since at least 1981). And that Mitterrand is the last in the line, the last real leader of France, perhaps the last real political leader in Europe. Mitterrand says something similar elsewhere in the book (and in the film): “I’m the last of the line, the last of the great presidents. After me there will just be managers, technocrats, bankers.” This extinguishing of politics is perhaps what Mitterrand means by the war Europe has lost.

Mitterrand’s point was overblown – you can’t say that Chirac was just a manager or that Sarkozy was a techno-anything, although Hollande – ironically, a Mitterrand protégé – fits the mould perfectly. But Mitterrand does now look like the last of the big, ambitious political leaders in Europe. By 1995, he was the last significant politician of the wartime generation still in office. If the past is recoverable at all, it’s through the people who lived in it. When they are gone, the way back becomes fogged. We are working with ghosts – and ghosts are unreliable and personal to each and every one of us.

The past is the ultimate mystery, the ultimate fantasy world. (How can it be here, in so many forms all around us, and yet not be? How weird is that?) The easiest way to access this fantasy world is through the people we knew and loved. Our memories of them become entwined with the ghosts of public figures and our knowledge of the times in which they lived. I tend to conflate memories of my Dad with stories of people like Mitterrand and Denis Healey, because they lived through the same period and went through many of the same experiences. They are all characters in my own fantasy story of the 20th century – a time which is gone, but which refuses to settle down and feels like it will never be still.

For years, I have carried around a story in my head: my Dad, shortly after going into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with the Royal Artillery in 1945, encounters a bossy French official called François, who has arrived in haste from Paris. The story takes different forms (in one they argue about access to a toilet, in another they get drunk on Courvoisier), but I’ve always believed it was spun around a core of truth: that Dad and Mitterrand were at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, possibly on the same day (Mitterrand was the French official responsible for repatriating French prisoners from the concentration camps).

I can’t remember now whether the story comes from something my Dad told me (it isn’t there in the extensive notes I took shortly before he died in 2009), a dream, something I read about Mitterrand, or whether I just made the whole thing up. That’s how the past works on us – endless versions, real and imagined, and most a mixture of the two, superimposed on one another: a rich soup of memories, facts and fantasies, spiked with that sense of unbearable loss.

But reading Benamou’s book, I’ve now know that Mitterrand never went to Bergen-Belsen at all, although he was present at the liberation of Dachau by the Americans in the same month. Even though I’ve seen the film countless times, I’d missed the fact that the camp Mitterrand describes was Dachau, not Belsen. I’d believed it because I wanted to; it fitted with my storybook version of the past.

In the same way, my version of French history, and of Mitterrand’s presidency, will be different to yours – much of mine comes from that film and what I’ve projected onto it. Just as I was disappointed to find out that the history of Imperial Rome didn’t unfold the way I saw it as a child in I Claudius (no, Augustus wasn’t at all like Brian Blessed), no doubt all this Mitterrand reading will dispel more of my illusions. But it will only replace them with others: a fresh set of fantasies to weave into my personal version of what we call “the truth”.

In my head, two men still emerge hand-in-hand from the mist on that April morning on the North German Plain. I know one of them well enough. I may never get to know the other. So I can make of him whatever I will.

Photo: Jacques Paillette/Creative Commons 3.0

British culture: the mainstream is not the whole story

Sandbrook draws some political conclusions as wonky as one of Doctor Who’s early sets. If Britain’s cultural success vindicates Thatcherite individualism, why did most of the figures he celebrates emerge in precisely the kind of “collectivist” society that Thatcher despised?

My review of Dominic Sandbrook’s The Great British Dream Factory has been published in the Winter 2016 issue of Public Service Magazine.

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Labour’s future: more Tony Crosland and less Tony Blair

Labour needs to win back poor voters who think it won’t do enough, and prosperous voters who fear it will do too much and wreck things. The next leader’s biggest battle will be to convince voters that Labour hasn’t just run out of road.

My review of Peter Hain’s Back to the Future of Socialism was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Public Service Magazine.

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Bloomsday: Bloom contemplates his father’s suicide

Mr Bloom, about to speak, closed his lips again. Martin Cunningham’s large eyes. Looking away now. Sympathetic human man he is. Intelligent. Like Shakespeare’s face. Always a good word to say. They have no mercy on that here or infanticide. Refuse christian burial. They used to drive a stake of wood through his heart in the grave. As if it wasn’t broken already. Yet sometimes they repent too late. Found in the riverbed clutching rushes.

— James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), p120.

A lifetime of self-deception

My review of Tim Milne’s memoir of notorious MI6 double-agent Kim Philby is published in the Spring issue of Public Service Magazine.

Even at school in the 1920s, Kim Philby stood apart. According to this memoir by his schoolfriend and MI6 colleague Tim Milne, the future spy was a “fearless” loner, so secretive that he was never seen going to the lavatory. At cricket, Philby liked to field at deep cover, a remote position ideal for observing the game he loved…

Click here to read the cutting.

Because they’re worth it

Don’t be put off by the bowler hat on the cover of Owen Jones’s The Establishment. Top civil servants are barely mentioned. There’s little about aristocrats, only passing references to Oxbridge, and nothing at all about fagging.

For Jones, author of the bestselling Chavs, it’s not the old school tie but ideas that bind the “new Establishment” together: free markets, a minimal state, hyper-individualism and a sense of limitless entitlement. This amounts to a “common mentality which holds that those at the top deserve their power”. If the Establishment had a motto, says Jones, it would be L’Oréal’s slogan: “Because I’m worth it.”

The right-wing blogger “Guido Fawkes” (AKA Paul Staines) calls this what it is: plutocracy. In a slightly creepy, moustache-twirling contribution, he tells Jones that undermining politicians is about undermining democracy itself. “It suits my ideological game plan,” he says. “Democracy always leads to… those who don’t have [taking] from those who do have.”

Fawkes, says Jones, is one of the Establishment “outriders” – people who pose as dissidents while working to shift mainstream thinking towards Establishment ideology. Jones traces their origins back to Mont Pèlerin in Switzerland in 1947, where a group of right-wing thinkers and economists (my distinction is deliberate) met to plot the ideological fightback against post-war social democracy.

Jones’s assault on this ideology is clear, well-argued and passionate, but it’s not clear why he needs to shoehorn it into an awkward, institutional concept like “the Establishment” – especially as trying to pin down who’s in and who’s out causes him so much trouble.

The book abounds with people from Establishment institutions – economists, senior police officers, journalists, even some Tory MPs and bankers – who are critical of this dominant ideology. Often the evidence Jones uses to expose how it has corrupted British public life comes from the same institutions supposedly in its merciless grip. And he can’t decide whether the “libertarian” ideas espoused by many working-class Tories and UKIP supporters constitutes Establishment thinking or not.

For example, Jones says that allegations of left-wing bias are “a way of controlling the BBC”. But that would be unnecessary if the corporation was the “consistent platform for Establishment perspectives” that he describes. In fact, there is plenty on the BBC – comedy, drama and current affairs – which challenges free-market ideology, as well as plenty that doesn’t. Jones’s claims about a uniform BBC political ideology are simply wrong.

Jones is excellent how corporate interests have manipulated the state for their own ends, sucking up lucrative government contracts while simultaneously avoiding tax. His account, for example, of how A4e milked taxpayers for hundreds of millions of pounds, hugely enriching its founder Emma Harrison in the process (staff even nicknamed the firm “All for Emma”), while providing an abysmal service to jobseekers, is devastating even if not exactly news.

Ferocious attacks from Amazon users and some right-wing hacks ludicrously cite Jones’s left-wing politics – and Oxford education – as reasons not to read a left-wing book. But few put up much defence against the facts as he lays them out. More balanced critics point out that what Jones describes is not an establishment but a consensus. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a rotten one. Or that it cannot be changed.