Saturday, 27 November 2010


The protests seem to be going well.

There’s still a dimwitted lack of understanding of the nature of these actions - too many television and newspaper reporters seem to be operating under the assumption that those of the protesters who are currently students are only attempting to get their own fees waived. A moment’s consideration would of course reveal that these people will all be working and paying back their loans by the time the Browne proposals are in full effect. The inability to comprehend the idea that people can have motivations other than self-interest reveals far more about the Burleyesque sections of the media than it does about the marchers. The archetype of the spoiled, selfish student living it up on taxpayer money, never particularly fair, is now positively antiquated. Viz - often a reliable social barometer - dropped its 'Student Grant' character years ago, but it's being dug up and spat back at us in 2010. Desperate stuff.

To dismiss the students (as as every organ in the land seemed to do) as wanting ‘something for nothing’ or ‘everything handed to them on a plate’ is to completely, wilfully misunderstand the situation. The immediate demand of the protesters was for a proposed fee increase to be scrapped. In other words, for the maintenance of a situation in which students work jobs in term-time, live in cheaply built (but tastefully coloured!) PFI rabbit hutches, study hard, and three years later, accept a debt measured in the tens of thousands that will hang over them for most of their adult lives. Compassion for these students might be dulled by the thought that they will eventually be earning high salaries - the risible Gove defended the Browne Report with the uncannily bad argument “why should a postman subsidise someone who will go on to become a millionaire?” - but in times like these, how many students (even those in vocational subjects) do we really believe will be prospering after they graduate? It should be obvious that what these students want is something for something - the prospect of some kind of reward for all of the hard work and financial risk they‘ve undertaken. If anything, it’s a display of the kind of ‘prudent household management’ that the Coalition seem so keen on with the delightful homespun analogies they’re happy to trot out in other contexts.

It all reminded me of the more incoherent-of-Tunbridge-Wells letters to the Metro in the wake of the anti-bailout march two years ago - one correspondent implausibly claimed that the young scruffniks were only out to "jump on the free money bandwagon".

The Labour party hasn’t covered itself in glory on this issue, but no matter - oppositional arguments and ‘Punch and Judy politics’ may soon become a thing of the past. One effect of the Browne measures is that it will become all the more difficult for working-class kids to study Politics (along with History, International Relations, PPE and related subjects) - come 2030, we could yet see an all-Bullingdon House of Commons…


Entitlement seems to be the topic of the day. Who has a right to what? Does anyone have a right to anything they don’t work for? We could at this point talk about the arbitrary and essentially non-productive nature of most (paid) jobs, but let’s leave that thread unpulled. If the consensus at present is that nobody has a right to anything much, it hasn’t always been so - there have been plenty of counter-arguments. Thomas Paine wrote about how every man has a right to share in the common wealth (even in these post-crash times, even with a growing population, an equitable distribution of UK property assets would come to £110k per adult). Crass made the point more bluntly - "do they owe us a living? ‘course they fucking do!"

Apparently the outstanding problem with the welfare state is ‘benefit dependency’ - one of those neologisms that may spin your brain into non-Euclidean shapes, suggesting as it does that it would be okay for an independently wealthy person to claim benefits, because they wouldn’t be dependent on the benefits, and could come off any time they wanted. Every article on the subject, even those in the right-wing press, praise the welfare state as a noble idea, but not something that can ever be used by real people - suddenly the Borstal officer from Brass Eye looms in front of us - ‘yes, we have a welfare state, but DON’T ACTUALLY USE IT! WHERE’S YOUR SELF RE-COCKING-SPECT?

Right now anything that doesn’t cover itself financially is in the Coalition’s gunsights. Education shouldn’t be subsidised (in the zeitgeist-capturing language of the Browne Report, “Institutions do not compete for this funding – they get it automatically. Our proposals will shift toward a more dynamic system of funding”) and students should have to pay for themselves. Dolescum shouldn’t be subsidised - they should have to work for their dole, and be bloody grateful they get anything at all (previewed in this miserable case - “nobody owes you a living, not even your employer.”). And while modern Britain's Three Faces of Evil (students, dolies, public sector workers) are the subject of most attention, the principles are being applied to a much wider spread of targets.

New Labour introduced us to the concept of ‘efficiency savings’ - local authority department budgets being trimmed by 3%, year on year, regardless of need or circumstances. In most circumstances there would have been fat to be trimmed, and efficiencies were duly made, but the sheer block-headed crudity of the measure is what stands out. Assuming for the sake of argument that a council had made all possible cuts, and couldn’t trim any further without adversely effecting services, there was no mechanism for appeal or waiver - they simply had to go ahead and find another 3%. This approach has been enthusiastically adopted by the Coalition and applied to the entire budget. One particularly obtuse display came via the Ministry of Justice, who announced a major reduction of funding for Legal Aid, meaning that “[Aid] for civil cases will all but disappear”. The measure was justified as a way of addressing “the great challenge of tackling the ballooning legal aid bill“. Never mind why the Legal Aid bill was so high, or why Legal Aid was introduced in the first place, or whether widespread access to justice is an important social good. The issue of whether particular spending is justified has apparently become specious and academic. Turn big numbers into small numbers, and screw the context.

The economic argument (and the alibi given by the Liberal Democrats to explain their about-face on the fees issue) is that we, as a nation, don’t have the money for things anymore. We certainly can't afford to pay tuition fees, and give grants rather than loans. We managed both of those things for several decades up to 1997, without the economy collapsing around our ears and people pushing wheelbarrows of money through the streets and/or queueing for bread and salt, but never mind.

The vision of the world being presented to us by the powers that be, and cheerfully swallowed by the readers of the Daily Mail et al, is one in which it is simply not possible to provide a decent home, lifestyle, and education for all - there is not enough to go around. This idea is another one that’s only attained currency relatively recently - up until the 1970s, eminent polymaths like Buckminster Fuller were setting out their realistically-costed visions of a better future which everyone in the world could hope to share. But at around the same time that modernist architecture fell out of vogue, so did modernist political planning - now the ethos of the day is Hobbesian self-reliance. It appeals to a certain kind of macho mindset, and enables the powerful to do little while feeling better about themselves, so it endures.

Presented with this story, there are two possible responses for the ruled. First, the mindset of the gangster and the kapo - responding to communal desperation by shoring up their own positions at the expense of others’ - accepting (and reinforcing) the grammar of the official narrative on working class prospects while pleading a partial exception in their own cases. So we have to endure the self-justifying cries of ‘don’t hate the player, hate the game,’ from people who have done well enough out of the game and will continue to do so.

The second is to organise, co-operate, and resist.


What’s perhaps worse is that this programme of cuts isn't just a crude application of every-man-for-himself individualism. It’s even more cynical than that. Certain areas of society that demonstrably don’t pay for themselves (the aristocracy, the City, and that’s without getting into debates about the actual value of management consultancy and the like) are being spared, even rewarded, while those areas of the arts and education that have attempted to adjust to business ontology, and become profit-making enterprises, are being attacked all the same.

We’re going to see a lot more of this selective poverty-pleading over the next four years, always directed at the usual Conservative targets. As long as we’re being told all of the things we can’t afford, it may be productive to talk about the things we apparently can afford - the £50bn being chucked in the direction of one-time economic policy exemplar Ireland, for one. There’s already talk of another, larger, British bailout in the wind, which has an uncomfortable ring of plausibility about it. If not a bailout, then we'll perhaps enjoy some zany scheme to 'stimulate private sector growth' - because if the history of PFI has taught us one thing, it's that our dynamic private sector won't get out of bed without cast-iron guarantees against financial loss. What’s mildly ironic is that, as financial manoeuvres go, this transfer of public wealth is just as dicey and unreliable an investment as a bundle of rotten mortgages, and won't necessarily lead to any increase in liquidity. But that’s for the economists to debate - for the rest of us, it’s going to mean an even larger program of ‘necessary’ cuts that will doubtless also be blamed on the unemployed and the public sector, assuming any of either remain by that time.

(Big Cuts Posts were all the rage a few weeks ago - I’d single out these three in particular.)

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Man has kids, can't pay for same.

Tony Parsons on scintillating form.

'Go on my son, you get stuck in to the next fat bird you meet at the bus stop. The benefit cheque is in the post.'

I admit I haven't followed the background details of the Keith MacDonald story particularly closely. Are all eight of his conquests noticeably larger than the average woman? Is it a matter of public record that he spends most of his time playing on his XBox? Does he really put lager on his cornflakes every morning? I hope that all of these things are really true, otherwise TP has spent the entire article fighting himself - landing vicious, bruising blows on a product of his imagination.

Yes, you've got the casually contemptuous language - 'fat birds' three times, 'fat ladies,' 'obese women,' and 'porky harem' once each in what is a very short article, not to mention 'rat faced sperm' and 'a bunch of beady-eyed spongers' - and the whole Theresa May breadknife castration thing. The implication there seems to be that we ought to castrate deadbeat dads with rusty kitchen implements, but that those namby-pamby Liberal Democrats wouldn't be man enough to do it. Never mind, though, I'm pretty sure TP's tongue was firmly in his cheek the whole time

And, of course, there's the small point that Keith MacDonald hasn't made a penny from fathering all of these children - in fact, money will be deducted from his 'benefit cheque in the post' - a point well made at Liberal Conspiracy (who called him 'the world's worst benefits scrounger') among other places. Still, eh? Why let facts get in the way of some good old-fashioned resentment?

Putting aaallllll of the above aside, the actual argument of the piece runs thus: the welfare state was a noble idea, but now it's being abused by Keith MacDonald and his ilk, and we can't afford to subsidise them, so we ought to do something (TP remains heroically vague about exactly what).
He calls the welfare state 'the noblest idea in the history of this country', which is nice, but even at that stage you can sense an almighty iceberg-like 'BUT' about to loom out of the fog.

What the piece amounts to is a piece of drab austerity-realism, a fillip for the right ("Oh, the welfare state was such a nice idea, but we can't afford it anymore, let's be realistic"). Naturally, TP takes pains to maintain his credibility as a liberal by putting in a jab at the Tories (not unlike the times Littlejohn breaks off from a stream of xenophobic abuse to say 'the BNP are loonies,' then switches seamlessly back). He says that the MacDonald case can't be put down to some Tory idea of Broken Britain, because KM grew up in a loving family, with a hardworking binman Dad and siblings who all turned out okay. Again, I don't know the details of KM's history. Are his siblings all okay, or are they only 'okay' in that they haven't fathered a load of children? Was his family really loving? Are the kids of binmen generally known for their education, social mobility, and lifestyles?

So go on, Tony, if we can't put it down to his upbringing (and predictably there's no thought of social factors beyond the immediate family), why is KM like this? Well, obviously, because of the welfare state. Having the safety net in place makes people dependent on it - the mothers were 'too certain that the taxpayer will play Big Daddy when Keith goes to play on his Xbox'. We're all growing up weak, unlike the working class in the good old days. 'All the virtues of the old working class - pride, dignity, self reliance, work ethic, knowing enough to never mix your cornflakes with your lager - are inverted by KM and all those pregnant fat birds holding out their hands for more of our money'.

It's a popular idea these days - Ian Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling certainly see 'benefit dependency' (rather than, say, poverty, or limited opportunities) as the greatest scourge of the working classes today. The way to combat benefit dependency is (apparently) to stop paying benefits. This will discourage the next generation from leaning on benefits and make them more self-reliant. The logical conclusion of this argument is that it would be a good thing to stop benefits completely, indefinitely - after the unemployed, the fatherless kids, the various other ne'er-do-wells have all died off (which would naturally happen completely peacefully and without incident, like the characters quietly accepting their fate in 'On The Beach'), Britain would be able to restabilise with a manageable, morally superior population.

A caricature? Well, how else is the disincentive supposed to work? Hand out benefits on a lottery basis, perhaps, so only 50% of applicants get money (Chris Grayling could flip the official coin), and repeat every year so that nobody will be able to take their benefits for granted?
Getting benefits is already a tedious, drawn-out, humiliating process and benefit-based lifestyles are already shite. Granted, we haven't pushed this as far as is humanly possible. Nobody has yet implemented Digby Jones' ace idea of putting the long term unemployed in hostel rooms on starvation rations, for example. But being on the dole isn't fun. We'll know when the cushy benefit lifestyle has become a 'disincentive to succeed' when we see hedge fund managers jacking it all in to go and sign on at their local Jobcentre. I daresay that the lack of leisure options (possible Xbox notwithstanding), the narrow horizons, are among the causes of the whole sorry MacDonald saga.

What's interesting is that TP very nearly stumbles across this idea himself. He affects (then shamefacedly apologises for) an iota of pity for the "lost girls" and mentions that they are "too uneducated, too devoid of hope" - you think, just for a moment, that he might go on to say something relevant or incisive about Britain's underclass - but no, he makes a sharp u-turn and goes back to making fat jokes. Again, he comes within a heartbeat of insight on the issue of benefit cuts - "when those in genuine need see their benefits slashed, we simply can't afford to keep Keith and his army of fatherless brats on the payroll" - he almost realises that the whole reason people in genuine need are facing benefit cuts is because of the moral panic about benefit spongers, and that his own article will doubtless (in the long run) make the situation worse for people in real need. But he can't quite make the connection.

More to the point, is 'benefit dependency' really making us morally weak? I once read a couple of comments from an American concern troll on an article about our welfare state. He wanted to express his sympathy for what his poor gullible cousins in the UK had done to themselves. He went into some length unveiling a theory that all of Europe's strong, self-reliant gene stock had been spent on the battlefields of two world wars, and that the only Europeans left are the descendents of mewling runts, hence the weak-willed welfare state dependency and racial mixing that's taken place ever since. Other forms of this 'bloodline theory' (which always puts me in mind of something from Lord of the Rings - "Arnor is not the kingdom it once was, their blood has been much mixed since their glory days" etc) can be found across the internet. Needless to say, it's not only racist lunacy, but also based on a cringe-inducingly poor understanding of science, so it's surprising to see a variant on the theme rolled out in a progressive newspaper.

If nothing else, the timing of this purported moral shift doesn't fit. The welfare state as we understand it was cooked up in the 1930s and unveiled in the 1940s and 1950s. The great moral decline of Britain, the reduction of us all to deadbeat fathers and pram-pushing teenage mothers at bus stops, didn't become a ubiquitous right-wing talking point until the 1980s. Why assume that one was a product of the other? The very last people who worked in a country without a welfare state are in their eighties now, and people who grew up with this morally corrosive safety net in place are now retiring after long and fruitful careers. Even if we accept the line that there has been a sea change in the character of the working class, we're going to have to search a little harder to find the cause. In terms of chronology, it would coincide not with the establishment of the welfare state, but with the the neoliberal assault on the same (beginning at the end of the seventies...)

Which is, of course, the answer. There has been no moral decline. The spread of the myth of one is a product of the perpetual war on welfare that's been fought by both parties over the last thirty years. Today's underclass are the old working class. The majority of the population haven't suddenly developed defective moralities en masse and lost their once-unassailable work ethic. They're the same people, just living in a very different society. The endlessly-praised hard-working parents and grandparents (case in point here) had the good fortune to grow up in a time when employment was higher, when industry was still the country's largest employer, and even people with little or nothing in the way of education could reasonably expect to find work for life. It was regimented, dull, badly-regulated work with precious little chance of advancement, true, but it was there.

In today's environment, the work ethic has been elevated to a virtue standing above all others. Taken literally - ie, as the powerful desire to contribute labour regardless of need or circumstances - it could equally easily be construed as a waste, or even a pathology. Owen spent some time on the subject here. The work ethic is in vogue because it's a handy (and very difficult to disprove) criticism to throw at the unemployed, at a time when more of them than ever are essentially blameless. Structural unemployment is with us to stay, and as the processes of mechanisation and outsourcing continue, the number of jobs in this country is going to continue to decrease. The blame for this situation is being privatised, dumped on the shoulders of the individual. Out of work? Your fault. You're not trying hard enough. You've applied for twenty jobs this week? Well, why not twenty-one, eh? You're worthless. You're capable of anything, but you're too lazy to do it. You beady-eyed sponger. For my part, I'd say that large-scale unemployment isn't going anywhere, and will probably get worse in the decades to come (it'll affect millions more people, regardless of their individual merit), so we might as well treat the unemployed halfway humanely, and let them live something aproaching normal lives. Perhaps we should even let them breed?

(The objection here is that it would all have to be funded with taxpayer money. The correct response is that if you baulk at contributing a few pennies in the pound to help other people raise their kids, you would probably make an even worse parent than Keith MacDonald).

Finally, I'm not entirely sure that putting lager on cornflakes (mentioned by TP three times) quite amounts to the ultimate symbol of the decline of western society. It seems more like the kind of hi-lar-ious jape students would get up to inbetween running off with shopping trolleys. I've never tried it myself, but it sounds... okay. I think I can recall a character doing it in an episode of 'MASH', so, y'know. Nothing new under the sun. I don't think a questionnaire along the lines of 'would you pour beer on your cereal?' is the best way to sort out the deserving poor from the undeserving.

Monday, 13 September 2010


Zone Styx suggested that it was time for someone to write a series of posts demolishing the old canard that the private sector does things more efficiently. This would normally be a daunting prospect requiring weeks of painstaking work, but if we limit the discussion to the privatised welfare sector, hey, the piece practically writes itself.


Today's news: the Public Accounts Committee have delivered their report on four years of the Pathways to Work programme for people on ESA/IB. It’s, to say the least, damning. You can read the text here, but the sentence most indicative of the whole is:

“Private providers have seriously underperformed against their contracts and their success rates worse than Jobcentre Plus even though private contractors work in easier areas with fewer incapacity claimants and higher demand for labour.”

Yes - even when carefully assigned the lowest hanging fruit, they couldn't get much picking done. The data of the report shows that the two providers involved with the scheme around the country managed to achieve between a third and a half of their target outcomes. As some 70% of their payments are determined by results, the poor dears have been struggling to get by financially. Still, five years on, with the benefit of good ol’ 20.20 hindsight, the powers that be have managed to identify the crux of the problem:

“Providers started from a low knowledge base with little direct experience of working with incapacity benefits claimants.”

Well, fuck, who could have guessed that that might turn out to be an issue? Could it be that maybe, just maybe, carrying out public sector services is a little more difficult than it looked when you were slagging off the public sector for not delivering them cheaply enough? Could it be that getting results in this area requires people with actual skills, and not the bunch of desperate, untrained, badly paid, couldn’t-get-jobs-as-recruitment-consultants chancers that comprise your staff at the moment?

“In 2008-09, £94 million (38% of Pathways expenditure) was spent on employment support that did not deliver additional jobs.”

Yeah, no fucking shit.

This shocking realisation that difficult jobs are difficult is obviously having repercussions up and down the country. CDG and A4e, two of the largest providers, find themselves in a bind - as long as they get paid by results, they won’t make profits, and so won’t be able to hire decent staff. They’ve attempted to square the circle by advertising for highly skilled volunteers. Perhaps you’re wondering why highly skilled people would volunteer for companies like this when they could, eg, earn a wage. Well - there are going to be a whole lot of DWP and local authority employees heading for the dole queue soon, with a whole wealth of knowledge and experience to share, and nobody left in the country (private or public sector) who’s able or willing to pay for it…

One press release (hat tip) begins:
“Ensuring Britain continues to be a civilised and harmonious society means attracting 50,000 expert volunteers to sign up to the fight in supporting the unemployed back into work, according to the charity Careers Development Group’s (CDG) position paper launched today.”

See? This is about the future of the civilised world. Not about a bunch of mean, thieving bastards realising that the pie has almost run out and guarding their remaining slices with murderously paranoid zeal. No sir. Anyone thinking that they could have saved time by writing a press release along the lines of ‘Darling Dave, we really love the Big Society idea, please renew our contracts, luv CDG xxx’ had best keep their dangerous Bolshevik ideas to themselves.

If you’re having trouble following all of this, it’s really quite simple. We can’t afford to pay teachers, carers, mentors, and social workers to do their jobs anymore. Instead, they’re going to do their jobs for free, and pass everything they know onto the next generation while scraping by on the dole. Half of Britain as unpaid tutors for the other half. Once the lucky young ‘uns have drunk deep of the well of knowledge, they’ll be more employable, and employers will suddenly have enough money to hire them after all, and will naturally choose the less experienced people with no work history over the people who have a lifetime's experience doing real work, and have recently been busy volunteering (which always looks good on a CV).

Meanwhile, there aren't going to be any substantial consequences for the providers' failures - for fans of throwing good money after bad, Ian Duncan Smith is all over a European A4e scheme for ‘strengthening families’. He’s ‘examining a German approach where long-term unemployed families have been encouraged to create a "household culture" with trips to the cinema and evening classes.’

In other words, IDS spends time sitting at his desk, chewing on his pencil, wondering ‘Why don’t these workless households ever take trips together? Why don’t they go to the cinema? Why don’t they go to Center Parcs? Or Umbria? Don’t they realise they could have valuable family bonding experiences that way?,’ before clapping his hands together in a businesslike manner and forging ahead with plans to cut benefits.

He's certainly the finest mind in the Department since we all enjoyed the paradigm-altering thought of James Purnell. Is it something particular about DWP that attracts people of this calibre? I can’t think of a word that fits better than gormlessness.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Paradise - if you can earn it.

Further discussion of work, unwork, and lying on CVs.

The official documentation of job hunting - the Jobcentre advice, the ‘pious self-help books’ - says one thing (dedication, hard work, and above all, honesty always pay off in the end) - but the rules of the real job hunting world are the opposite (with the right mixture of entitlement and bullish confidence, you can blag your way into anything.) I’m sure an analogy can be drawn with modern aspiration and social conditions in general - of course you’ll be rewarded if you stick to the rules and keep plugging away - never mind that most of the people with money, fame, and influence have done nothing of the sort (Russell - “those who preach the dignity of hard labour take care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.”). Today’s government ministers, plutocrats, and celebrities are not individuals who have benefited from meritocratic career advancement.

Mark’s correspondent Phil suggests Piers Morgan as the spirit of the age, and I think that’s an excellent observation. Sure, he was born into wealth and parachuted into responsible jobs early, but that’s not the secret of his success. He’s a hustler - pushing boundaries all the time, without worrying about integrity, law, or any higher editorial ambition. He virtually invented the invasive prurience of the modern celebrity gossip page, cheerfully used his position as a finance journalist to increase the value of his own holdings, and pandered to the lowest common denominator as an editor. The ability to have this kind of career requires a certain unassailable confidence, but doesn’t necessarily require any particular skills, bar combativeness and self-promotion. His ubiquity irritates people (there’s always another radio or TV appearance, always another cash-in celeb biography, and when all else fails, another memoir) but this really goes to illustrate how little he has to contribute in any particular field. He’s made a successful and lucrative broadcast and print career out of a few saloon bar opinions and a string of celebrity anecdotes. Morgan hasn’t led a charmed life, even by his own standards - his assorted ventures and vehicles fail surprisingly often - but he never lets it get to him. He’s unshakeable. His life is a triumph of self-selling - if Morgan didn’t have all of those commitments already occupying his time, he would be the perfect jobseeker.

Piers Morgan, in fact, has succeeded where a favourite blogger of mine has never quite made the leap. Dickon Edwards has always maintained that he deserves a modest living just for Being Dickon Edwards, but is hopelessly uncomfortable with promoting himself and putting himself forward for things. Dickon has achievements on his CV too - a fleeting, half-successful pop career, various bits and pieces of excellent writing, a new venture as a club impresario - but his failures have had far more of an effect on him than his successes. Unable (possibly unwilling, but the distinction is blurred - ’incapacity as refusal,’ as Mark says) to attract steady work, he subsists on benefits, and wrestles with feelings of inadequacy while successive generations of friends grow up and acquire the trappings of adult life around him. In a cosmically farcical turn of events, he was recently convicted of benefit fraud and electronically tagged (presumably for doing a little freelance writing on the side, although he doesn’t specify). A diary entry of a few years ago, written backstage at a festival, is revealing - Dickon hears two music biz clipboards trying to remember the name of the band who released a particular single. Slightly aghast at their lack of pop knowledge, he feels compelled to contribute, but receives only puzzled looks. ’Surely,’ he writes later, ’there must be some way for me to make a living by knowing these things?’ Of course, he’s on a hiding to nothing. Knowledge isn’t power. In this day and age, painstakingly acquiring knowledge of something is a shirking of one’s social responsibilities to sell, sell, sell - merely creating is of no use, unless you can persuade people to buy.

Self-doubt, self-analysis (at least for those whose analysis actually bites and isn’t just a vacant exercise in ‘finding yourself’) and a realistic assessment of one’s capabilities are also liabilities. In an age when speculative, hopefully self-fulfilling overstatements are not only ubiquitous but necessary, absolutely fundamental to the global economic system, cold-headed realism (perhaps reason itself?) has no worth. What can you do except apply for every single job, tell the interviewers that you could do it with your eyes closed and just hope that things work out? Anything else practically amounts to self-sabotage. There may be some residual fear of being ‘found out’, but in an age when relatively few jobs have specialised/learned skills attached, when communication and emotional labour rule, being able to ‘sell yourself‘ into the job also proves your ability to do the job. Neither of my parents ever had to write CVs or go through formal selection processes until their plant closed down in 2001- the interviews before then essentially amounted to ‘so, do you know how to run one of these? Great. Canteen’s over there.’ Now even applicants for manufacturing jobs need to know the language. In his upcoming book, Ivor Southwood talks about this essential quality, once limited only to sales or theatrical work, now compulsory across the board, as ‘stagecraft’.

I’ve always loitered on the edge of the realisation that it’s all bullshit and I’m tormenting myself for no reason - as Phil says, the years of wasteful self-doubt - but actually making the step over, treating it as a game, has so far been beyond me. I feel it’s a little too glib just to say ‘don’t take things so seriously, it’s just a performance, learn to play the game’. To play the game is to accept its terms. We exist in a system in which one type of personality, one set of skills, has been inflated to hold influence beyond all reasonable proportion, and tough luck for those who are any different. What with the mildly terrifying A4E ‘Wellness Centres‘ on the horizon (who will be able to refer you to treatment for conditions like depression against your will, on pain of cutting your benefits) - we talk a lot about ‘compulsory positivity‘, because positivity is a near-indispensable quality nowadays, but it could soon become literally compulsory. I have the feeling that CBT-based treatments are going to be a key part of the attack on ‘malingering‘. The slanted working/jobseeking environment we live in has other real personal consequences - earlier this year we had the story of Vicky Harrison, a young jobseeker (with an unfortunately resonant name - what would Emma have made of her?) who gave up and committed suicide after her 200th rejection letter. That something like this can happen at the same time as government and media vilification of ‘benefit scroungers’ is the sickest of jokes. When you genuinely believe that there is a direct correlation between hard work and success - and after untold efforts, you still don’t achieve success - you turn blame on yourself. There are real, pressing reasons for the mythology around unemployment to be overturned, for the truth (that it’s about the aforementioned hustle, local economic circumstances, and sheer blind chance) to be exposed - not in an unspoken ‘everyone knows’ sense, but in the sense of being dragged out in the open light of day, waved in front of the Big Other’s eyes, and dumped in front of anyone who finds it politically useful to propagate the myths over the reality.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Writing Fiction


‘Redevelop the product, redesign the package, you still refuse to reach in your pocket…’

My perennial underemployment is probably one of the first qualities people associate with me, so I’m used to getting well-meaning advice on the matter (usually on about the same level as Hayley Taylor’s ‘always brush your teeth before an interview’, but never mind). Last week, a second-hand acquaintance of mine (who works as a recruitment consultant) suggested a reason why my CV might not be getting me interviews - because it contains gaps, and you can’t have unexplained time on a CV, so I should lie and make up jobs to fill them.

Like most CV writers, I do a little stretching and warping to suit my purposes - small gaps of a month or two can be covered by pulling the dates of the surrounding jobs together, while intermittent work with an employer over a period of time can be quickly and harmlessly made solid. One of my workplaces has closed down and left no forwarding address (I went through agonies trying to track down somebody there to act as a referee), so I can blithely alter my length of service there. But these techniques are of no help for a work history that contains gaps of six months plus - to cover those, I’d have to completely fabricate periods of work with an employer. That’s the kind of heavy production work that I’m really not used to.

I’ve had similar advice before, from a tutor on a government jobseeker training scheme - she even offered to give me a false reference for the two years I was going to have worked as her personal administrative assistant in London. I did send out a few of these fictional CVs, but reverted to the old version as soon as was decently possible - I felt it would have been difficult to explain in interviews why, as someone who’d been earning 18k in a steady job for the last two years, I was applying for minimum wage retail jobs…

Because plausibility is the problem here. If I’ve been in continuous employment from the age of twelve, as my newly manicured CV will suggest, why haven’t I had promotions, got my feet securely onto some kind of career ladder? Whatever series of jobs I put down, I’ll come across as, at best, chronically indecisive and completely lacking in ambition. But if the lies aren’t plausible, neither is the truth. To borrow Ivor Southwood’s lovely phrase, my real-life work history has left me with a ‘botched CV which tails off like the limp narrative of an unrealistic novel’. With such an unconvincing script, there’s no way for me to construct a plausible story about myself.

Interviews are the same - even when I’m telling the truth, I habitually adopt the body language of the liar (covering my face, crossing my arms, averting my eyes). Even when answering the questions about my hobbies and interests (supposedly the easy/relaxing part of the interview) I feel like I’m wasting the interviewer’s time. ‘Let me see - I’ve been living hand-to-mouth, on and off the dole for years and haven’t had real disposable income since 2007 - what do you think my life outside work is like? Right now, my idea of a having a good time is catching the bus into town and getting out a few library books. Can’t do it too often, obviously (those fares soon mount up), but it’s a nice treat…’

My academic qualifications, which I’m sincerely proud of, have become a double-edged sword. Basic McJob-type employers don’t want to know about which Philosophy modules I studied, so I currently have two separate CV templates (I think of them as the white- and blue-collar versions), one with the academic section stripped down to basics. For ‘serious’ jobs, my education isn’t a liability, but my lack of subsequent work in my field (my failure to even enter any serious field) is the problem.

The irony of my difficulty in this area is that, though sheer repetition, I’ve actually become very good at composing CVs - I still write them for friends, and used to write them for clients at one of my voluntary jobs. I’m fluent in the language of employers. (In some parallel universe I’m working for A4E, being invited to ‘Tea with Emma’ and beaming the pride at the thought of the all the good I’m responsible for.) It’s just that the raw materials of my own CV are too far gone to make anything of - beyond the point of polishing or rearrangement. Bombed-out shops don’t need visual merchandisers.


In a job interview, no negativity is allowed to enter the discourse. Boundless enthusiasm must be maintained for even the most uninspiring work. I need to have a positive answer ready for every conceivable question and situation. I have to - somehow - turn unemployment and stagnation into tales of triumph, like Soviet propagandists explaining how agricultural quotas were over-fulfilled by several hundred per cent, for the twentieth successive year. Yet, for a situation where modesty, self-deprecation, and ruefulness are instantly fatal, where nothing but positive communication is permitted, it seems openly sadistic that the interviewers deliberately place you in a situation where nothing but a negative response is possible - the ‘greatest weakness’ question.

For the interviewers, it’s doubtless a chance to see whether the candidate can think on his or her feet, and cope with the unexpected (even though it‘s such an obvious and ubiquitous question). For the despairing jobseeker, it just adds to the bewilderment and frustration of the process. In an interview last week, I did as the self-help books suggest, and answered the question with a carefully rehearsed improvement story: ‘well, I used to have a problem with x, but over the course of my recent work, I’ve made great strides in that area’. My interviewer nodded slowly and repeated the question - ‘but what would you say is your greatest current weakness?’ The process of symbolic self-denigration cannot be escaped! I corpsed.

In this and in other ways the whole routine is experienced as a headache-inducing perceptual dissonance. On the one hand, the bar for every job seems to be set impossibly high - to have lived a flawless career, blessedly free of interruptions or difficulties, with no weak spots or gaps for interviewers to seize upon. But then we look across the desk and see the mediocre individuals opposite us, and think of our friends and relatives who have managed to establish themselves on the ladder without possessing this seraphic perfection. For my entire life I’ve been asking myself: Why can everyone else do it and not me?

I think that what I lack, as compared to the employed people in my life, is hustle. If I had that unreflecting ability to cheerfully, believingly, pass off shit as shinola, in such a convincing way that the buyer wouldn’t bother inspecting the product before reaching for his pocket, I wouldn’t be in this situation. The latest advice - to lie, lie, and lie again, contradicting the pious self-help book advice that one should never so much as embellish the truth on a CV - is just another variation on this theme.

I can’t quite make up my mind whether this missing quality is a ruling-class privilege (for which see the discussions collected here a few years back), or more of a stereotypical working class thing - hustle, graft, with its suggestions of not-entirely-legitimate activity. Perhaps it’s something possessed by people at both ends, but lost by those inbetween? Rather like the ridiculous etiquette books of early Victorian times - real aristocrats didn’t worry about that type of thing, they just did what the hell they pleased (knowing that they were immovably established and that being seen using the wrong kind of spoon wasn‘t going to affect them at all). Only the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie cooked up these arcane rules and customs to try and monopolise the road up and discreetly kick the bulk of the population off the ladder.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Fairy Jobmother deconstructed.

‘Fairy Jobmother’ may be a reality show, but we can nonetheless categorise it as fiction. These aren’t real people - they’re grotesque stereotypes who are broadcast solely to reassure the public that their prejudices are correct. The show is a useful pantomime that reinforces received wisdom. The official line on the unemployed is that they are entirely to blame for their own plight as a result of being lazy, feckless, stupid, or badly brought up (by people who were lazy, feckless, stupid…) This is what we see in the programme. We don’t see Hayley Taylor being sent to live with families who are killing themselves jobseeking, beating their heads against the same brick wall day after day with no hope in sight - because it wouldn’t be a good story. Each episode has a safe and familiar routine - Guru lives with family, Guru diagnoses family, Guru inspires family to solve problems, group hug-and-cry session (along the lines of Adam Curtis’ writing about emotion-driven television).

The key this week was apparently the long-dead family patriarch, praised as a man with a great work ethic (in other words, he grew up in a time when work was more easily available), whose stern Fatherly influence the family was clearly missing. The shabby surroundings, the family’s lack of drive and poor physical condition were all too easy to diagnose with a little amateur psychology on Taylor’s part. She encouraged the family to ‘move on’ from their loss and take responsibility for themselves.

Taylor helps the mother get over her grief at the loss of her husband by first expressing sympathy (an overfamiliar arm around the shoulder and group cry at the cemetery) then by making her face some ‘harsh truths‘ - harsh medicine, of course, being the favoured kind in neo-Thatcherite times. The two children lack self-esteem, so the son is sent to learn boxing in a gym, while the daughter gets a makeover in preparation for an interview with an electrics store. She gets the job. More group crying, only this time with happiness. Simple. Perhaps we can all be ‘solved’ in this way, by people who possess no relevant qualifications on the matter - but then qualifications aren’t important, are they? It’s just a matter of common sense.

In fact the programme’s title is misleading - finding work is only a minor feature of this family drama. Taylor organises the climactic job interview herself (the daughter never actually applies for the job) and we never see any of the family doing any other jobhunting. Taylor obviously believes that there are deeper problems to fix before she can think about sending the family to work. While this is a refreshing change to the attitude held by successive governments (blindly prescribing work itself as a cure for all personal or psychic ills), it's more sinister than it seems. Bear in mind that Taylor’s former employers, A4E, are keen to extend their influence into all areas of their clients’ lives - not just work and training, but financial advice, legal advice (to the point of driving a CAB out of business in Hull) and now even medicine. Their latest scheme (described in a recent entry at is ‘offering their expertise in reducing long term sickness related absence from work’ - in other words, using their own medical personnel to declare employees fit to return to work as soon as possible and taking the decisions out of the hands of GPs. Perhaps I’m an alarmist, but I can’t help thinking of the early twentieth century and the era of the Company Store, when the firm you worked for owned and controlled every aspect of your life, and there was next to no idea of a private existence beyond the reach of your employers.

The Fairy Jobmother, for all its disposability, feels like a step in the same direction. If factors in our lives are making it more difficult for us to find work (that is, make employers less likely to be impressed by us), we can expect to be hassled and bullied into changing our lives to remove the obstacles. We cannot, of course, expect any material help along these lines - it’s just a matter of threats and motivation. If you have the temerity to be out of work, your personal life is not a private matter. The DWP and shady organisations like a4e have every right to examine your circumstances, deem them unsuitable, and, on pain of starvation and homelessness, mould you into a better person - that is, one more amenable to employers*. And this process will be cheered from the sidelines by those who rail at the ‘nanny state’ and become puce with rage at the thought of local authorities telling them what to put in their wheelie bins.

This no small matter. What‘s at stake here is the principle that a human life has value beyond the use that can be extracted from it in the meat grinder of Capital - and it’s an argument that the other side is winning.

On another note, it’s revealing that Taylor’s partially-successful methods required the production company to shell out on bereavement counselling sessions, gym membership, new clothes and an expensive makeover before even one of the family could enter work. The average jobseeker could not afford any of these things. The family could barely afford to keep food in the house (many commenters have drawn attention to the mother ‘wasting’ her money on cigarettes, as if those weren’t famous for being addictive and very difficult to give up. But the idea that benefit claimants would have loads of money if they didn’t waste it all on beer and fags is just another keystone of the mythography of the undeserving scrounger). The obvious point to conclude from this is that the family were too poor to find work. Without some source of disposable cash, they were incapable (even if they were willing) of improving themselves to the standard required.

Looking at this another way - the family’s position improved when they were made artificially less poor (or at least made to appear that way). The estate-dwelling ‘underclass’ are unemployable - intrinsically unattractive to employers - and the only way for them to escape their situation is to remodel themselves as respectable middle-class (or, at the minimum, respectable upper-working class) citizens. Even if they are struggling to buy food and pay the rent, they must present a professional appearance, learn the language of the professional workplace (the interview talk of ‘flexible team players’ and ‘highly motivated self-starters’). The moment when Taylor revealed the post-makeover daughter (made-up, coiffured, and dressed exactly like a miniature Hayley, scarf and all - now that‘s one for the amateur psychologists out there) pulled aside the veil. What the working class unemployed are being asked to do is to become middle class. Being a member of the Morlock underclass is a failing in itself, making you fully deserving of the starvation and homelessness that will follow if you can‘t adapt.

This is the crass, condescending, point-missing message of all the ‘problem-solving guru’ shows - “Why can’t the bovine masses solve their problems in the way that’s so obvious to us? Why can’t they be more like us? We’re psychologically well-adjusted, well-dressed, fit from morning gym sessions - what‘s holding them back?”

The show’s very title gives us an idea of what kind of strictly limited conclusions will be drawn at the end. Taylor’s steps did improve the family’s situation, but it was made clear that these ‘fairy godmother wishes’ were miraculous and unexpected, a break from the normal order of things. The idea that they be distributed on a wider basis, or even structuralized as part of the benefits system, is never on the table. The majority of the working class unemployed are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps - become mini-Hayleys and fully valid humans without any outside help. So what exactly was the moral of the show? That finding work is easier when you have a well-known, well-connected recruitment specialist in your corner? Shocking. And even then - if Taylor fails to find work for the family next week, we can expect blame to be diverted to them. There is no systemic analysis. Blame falls solely upon the individuals (and, yes, their families.)

Again, it’s in keeping with the official narrative of unemployment in this country: work is available to those who want it, the unemployed have themselves to blame, and the only problem they face is not wanting it enough. As the events of the last few years have shown, this is unchallengeable by any amount of empirical evidence. Trawling the comments and discussion threads of the internet, you can see that there’s been only a slight adaptation of the common wisdom as the number of unemployed has reached its highest level in decades - ‘granted, there are a few genuine unemployed, people being made redundant from skilled and professional jobs, and those people deserve our support, but for the most part they’re still lazy scroungers and a drain on the economy.’ One commenter on a thread about Fairy Jobmother rather plaintively suggested:

Maybe there should a government agency that detects those who don't/won't work and their benefits should be stopped. Those who are carers of children, eldery or disabled NEED greater financial support to enable them to work. Those are the people I have empathy for, not the scroungers.

And that’s the question, isn’t it? How do we tell the deserving poor from the undeserving? Make no mistake, we’re in the realm of simple ontological categories. We are Good People - the state should be punished, stripped of its powers for even having the temerity to bother us. They are Bad People - the state should intervene to make them Good (more charitable types may avow that this is for their own health). The Good Jobseekers need to be helped. The Bad Scroungers should be hassled and starved into submission.

Given that the entire bureaucracy of the DWP can’t reliably make this distinction (every long-term jobseeker has tales of undeserved, apparently random benefit stoppages, usually contrasted with some other lazier jobseeker who went unchallenged for years), it’s not exactly clear how a new ‘government agency’ will do it - will it employ half the population to follow the other half 24/7 to make sure that they’re really putting the effort in for their benefits? Is there any way of making progress on this front that doesn’t involve the complete abolition of individual privacy (for the unemployed only, naturally)? And is there any way to conduct this debate without clinging stubbornly to the resentful fantasy of millions of life-of-Riley spongers living it up at ‘our’ expense?

These sneering-at-proles programmes aren’t just harmless, cheap-to-produce trash - they’re actively setting back the political dialogue in this country. Thanks for contributing, Channel 4.

*Anyone getting advice on a CV can expect to be told which extracurricular hobbies and activities will look good, and which ones are best left off - in other words, employers already get to pass judgement on the way we choose to spend our time outside work...

Sunday, 18 July 2010

They're Watching WatchingA4E


'I'm genuinely amazed. I didn't realize unemployment was the result of people not being able to sell themselves to an employer effectively. For years I have laboured under the misapprehension that unemployment was the result of technological advances in machine production rendering the need for the application of large masses of human labour power increasingly redundant, when all we really needed to do was polish up our CVs, slap on a smile and think positive. Genius! This woman needs to go global with this. I know, let's send her to China.'

Look at the recent comments: the site is being invaded by PositivityBots - 'At least she's trying to do SOMETHING, what are you doing to help the unemployed?'...

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

England's Number One

50% off-topic, so, on second thoughts, not suitable for Minus.

A scene from Armando Ianucci’s satirical comedy The Thick Of It keeps drifting into my mind. Hapless minister Hugh Abbott is being accused of hypocrisy for owning a second home in London while championing a bill to free up homes in the capital for key workers. Spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, needing to disassociate the party from the press outcry, leans on him to resign and walk away with some dignity. Abbott is at a loss to comprehend why this is happening to him – ‘It’s a flat! I haven’t raped someone!’ - and rails ‘Ministers should be cloned aged 45, with no genitals, no past, no flats…’

Was someone in the party listening? The Labour leadership contest is being contested between four test-tube babies – interchangeable, forty-ish, bland-looking men with no track records. Well – strictly speaking they do have track records, and were involved in many of the unpopular activities of the last Government, but they aren’t keen for punters to make this association. One of the most depressing sights at the recent candidate hustings was a squirming Ed Balls insisting that he had tried very hard to reverse Ministry policy with regard to the detention of child asylum seekers, but had ‘lost the argument’. Nobody believes that this happened, not even Balls himself, but it is revealing that he apparently sees pleading impotence as his strongest play at this point in time. The others are equally keen to distance themselves from the administration that they were raised in. Blogger Madam Miaow drily described them as ‘four amnesiacs in suits’.

Miliband senior seems to have been heir apparent for so long solely because he appears young, fresh-faced, and isn’t too closely associated with the New Labour project. Tony Parsons wrote in a Mirror editorial in 2008 ‘I like David Milliband. He seems very smart and he looks very clean’, which is the kind of incisive commentary you’d expect from someone’s grandmother, but may have stumbled across the truth all the same. Trying to assess David Miliband’s political character is impossible - his public statements are strings of carefully modified Olestra, without enough substance, texture, to even disagree with. Even if he did say anything of substance, he has the schizophrenic’s ability to distance himself from his own past words. His entire persona is frictionless - nothing (scandal, praise, criticism, accomplishments) clings to him. About all you can say about him is that… well… he looks clean. Clean as in hygienic, and clean as in untainted.

So here we are - left with the four most senior figures in the Labour Party who can plausibly disassociate themselves from the Party’s past actions (even if nobody but the Big Other believes them). Between them they have shown no steady political principles bar the ability to align themselves with power, and their most impressive skill is the basic self-preservation to avoid getting too publicly involved in either a coup or a scandal. They are the four improbable candidates left standing after all of the impossible ones have been ruled out.

…which, in turn, put me in mind of Joe Hart.

Hart has played eighty-six top-level matches in his club career, plus a total of 133 minutes in an England jersey, none of which was competitive play. How has he moved up through the ranks so quickly, so effortlessly, to become England’s number-one-in-waiting?

English goalkeepers once had a reputation for being rock solid, the kind of big implacable men who‘d occupy the heavy jersey from one decade to the next without changing their expression, much less their hairstyle. Nowadays it’s a job with the life expectancy of a green recruit in a special-missions squad from a war comic - the kind of unit where the sheer level of attrition means you become a Sergeant overnight and a Captain by the end of the week, if only you can avoid getting picked off by the enemy.

Robert Green misjudged the spin of a fast-moving ball and is now unlikely to be picked for England again. Scott Carson did more or less the same thing, and was never picked again. Paul Robinson misjudged Gary Neville’s backpass - surprisingly he was picked again, a few times, but was dumped at the end of the unsuccessful campaign. David Seaman misjudged the loft on Ronaldinho’s chip and, after over eight years as England’s first choice, knew that it was time to step down. (Misjudgement- that telling phrase, so often used by scandal-hit politicians…)

At a time when English goalkeeping talent is apparently at a premium, it is strange that we seem so keen to abandon young goalkeepers after one brief audition. Adopted-and-discarded players like Paul Robinson and Chris Kirkland (who was only picked once - it feels like he was around the squad for years) are in excellent form for their clubs, but know that it’s virtually impossible for them to earn a recall to the England squad. The same will doubtless be true of Robert Green, another not-quite to add to our growing list. To think of these players as washed up is bizarre - our outgoing ‘keeper, David James, wasn’t capped until he was 27, and didn’t become number one for another five years after that.

We weren’t always so harsh. Alan Rough’s few televised errors gave him (and any Scottish candidate for decades to come) the label of dodgy keeper, but he still got to enjoy a long and generally successful career. Peter Shilton let in a soft goal against Poland in 1973, and bore some of the blame for England’s failure to qualify for Germany, but wasn’t immediately dropped in favour of Ray Clemence. Shilton played for England for another seventeen years, outlasting three managers along the way. Where is the patience now?

Is the difference that today we live our lives in the television studio, where mistakes are almost certain to be caught on the Sky cameras, and the BBC show us endless repeats of the slip from all angles while Alan Hansen groans ‘he’s got to do better there’ ? Is it that these players really, genuinely lose confidence in the England jersey and, if we were to recall Paul Robinson, he’d spend the whole game trapped in a horrifying flashback, seeing a slow-motion vision of Gary Neville bearing down while the goals rained in behind him? I think it’s related to the lazily selective memory that had pundits dismissing Forlan’s talent and accomplishments based on one poor season he’d endured ten years ago - a reductive kind of stupidity that has us remember a person by the single most resounding association, whether or not that happens to be a good representation of a whole career. Brown? Bigotgate. Useless. Green? USA. Useless.

We praise our fresh-faced, spotless young goalkeepers until they’re foolish enough to make a mistake, at which point we dump them and go looking for someone even younger still. Hart is about to become our number one because he is the last candidate untainted by a public failure.

Perhaps all of this is unfair on Hart - but I can’t help wondering whether, by the time 2014 comes around, we’ll have a goalkeeper plucked from the U16 squad, because he’ll the most experienced keeper who hasn’t (yet) made a major televised howler. It’s not really so much more implausible than Ed Miliband being in charge of the country.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Unhomage to Catalonia

Not on Minus because we're all sick of it.

During Minus' own Spanish Civil War (no exaggeration, that, but rather an imaginative simile), Zone Styx retweeted someone's post along the lines of 'Spain are like a 9 year old PhD student that people can't stop demanding even more from.'

The lopsided fetishisation of technique above all else does, in fact, bring to mind some autistic-pattern preteen maths prodigy...

The determined persistence with the containment-passing game is supposed to be read as idealistic - perhaps that was true two years ago when they played it in the face of tired critical opinion that the Barcelona model could not be transferred to the international stage. The 2010 version, though, looks more like miserable pragmatism.

It may be that this Spanish team is past its peak and not capable of the things it used to do. Not entirely convinced, as most of them are still under thirty, but maybe this relentless pass/receive game requires especially young legs.

On the whole, though, I think it looks more like a conscious decision. Spain decided that they were going to do what was necessary to bury the past and win a World Cup, even if it didn't please all the neutrals. If they had to eliminate (almost) all risk from their style and smoothly massage the possibilities out of each game, they were okay with that.

Mark came up with the analogy of Spain being the equivalent of prog rock, desperately needing to be toppled by some footballpunk or postpunk. What could this be? Of course punk was far more than cartoon 'attitude' and aggression, so Holland's semi-effective physical harassment strategy doesn't fit the description - they'd surely be the equivalent of seventies pub rock...

But perhaps we can look at this the other way round. If punk represented an opening up of possibility (the rejection of the tyranny of technique), that quickly closed and became locked into reductive parody. Postpunk took us past this by being genuinely open to possibilities - it's hardly a sonic genre at all, more an ideological one. So with football - Spain represented a principled break with conventional wisdom (that wiry lads of 5'7" will never make it at the top level) - but it's a break that solidified and became the new orthodoxy.

(And just as watching some lumpen idea-less two-chord nightmare of a band made you reflect that, perhaps, being able to play your instrument wasn't so bad after all, so watching Spain makes you unexpectedly nostalgic for some lower division kick and rush...)

Postpunk bands used a variety of musical principles, but avoided becoming trapped in their codes and definitions (while also avoiding becoming mere magpie pick-and-choose pastiche). This was because most of those involved followed some 'higher', non-musical purpose in forming a band - what did the means matter?

What would a non-football (or, rather, supra-football) football team look like? Would that be a rejection of the importance of results (emphasis on style alone - Wenger deciding to abandon defence entirely and field eleven slight right-wingers), or would that be the embrace of results - pure pragmatism at the expense of any one particular style? Or is this just where we start to bump up against the useful limits of analogy?

There is in fact a magazine - aimed at the GQ market - called Football Punk. I'd call it a 'glossy' except they seem to have gone for an artfully matte effect (and a b/w photo of Peter Crouch's face on the cover). I'm tempted to buy a copy for grist-mill purposes.


You can't leave us hanging like that! What happened next?

Sunday, 11 July 2010

'Phoenix dark... dirk. Phoenix Darkdirk. Used to be Dirk Steel.'

I know that it can be hard to think of convincing-sounding character names (endless airport fiction books with ex-SAS heroes named Jack Stone, Jake Steel, etc), but whoever thought up the so-called 'England U-17 team' wasn't even trying.

Okay, I accept that Conor Wickham's existence has been independently verified. But the rest of them?

Will Keane - frontman of dangerous new, definitely not remotely posh, indie band.
Jack Butland - plain-speaking DI in ITV detective series.
Josh McEachran - frontman of new, definitely not manufactured, chart pop band. Possesses 'artistic credentials' (stubble and self-written songs)
Benik Afobe - Melchester Rovers' new Burkinan international full-back.
Conor Coady - new Eastenders teenage heart-throb.
Bruno Pilatos - of some unspecified swarthy nationality, played against Melchester in a European Cup tie, gave away penalty (converted by Roy Race)
Luke Garbutt - actor who plays Conor Coady
Nathaniel Chalobah - tough, goateed young priest, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, last survivor in zombie movie.
Andre Wisdom - Australian club DJ, specialises in breakbeats, remix of a Roni Size track got 'heavy rotation, locally'

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Comic book stuff.

Not on Minus because, Christ, any more pieces like this and David Stubbs will take out a restraining order against us.

One thing I love about Send Them Victorious (which makes it more than just 'collection of internet stuff printed in a spine') is the little historical prologue Stubbs has added before each report. It's useful in that it can remind you about things like the Estonia football and France rugby games taking place on the same day, so there's no problem getting the 'late England substitute Jonny Wilkinson' joke.

Stubbs' prologues aren't just useful, but also contribute to the comedy in themselves. Once you're a few reports in, you start seeing the same short bone-dry sentences every time - 'Frank Lampard has an uncharacteristically quiet game,' 'England make uncharacteristic defensive errors,' 'Wayne Rooney suffers an uncharacteristic loss of temper' - it's enough to get you to the chortling-on-public-transport stage before you even get into the report itself.

There was a terrible repetition and predictability about that team, wasn't there? They were like some kind of cartoon ensemble, like the Bash Street Kids - every member of the gang had his own peccadilloe which he'd commit without fail every time he appeared. Owen getting injured, Rooney losing control, Crouch climbing over smaller people, Lampard, Ferdinand not paying a great deal of attention, Gerrard wasting possession and never hitting the target with his preposterous shots (the stats books assure me that he scored many goals for England, but I'm assuming that must be some kind of totalitarian historical revision). Then we get to the supporting players - a succession of error-prone goalkeepers, a rotating cast of wingers making pointless runs into cul-de-sacs and contributing nothing to the team...

I've argued elsewhere that a key component of footballing 'inevitability' is the sense that every game will unfold the same way, and the context of the game and the identity of the opposition make no difference whatsoever. Well - by that measure, that this generation of players should fail was truly inevitable. For almost ten years, a succession of opponents came and went, and England distinguished themselves in the same manner every time. We convinced ourselves that maybe when Sven was gone, maybe when Steve was gone, everything would be okay - but it could never have happened so neatly, could it? It was about as likely as Walter the Softy responding to Dennis' latest prank by smashing his teeth in with a half-brick.

Granted, a tiny bit of uncertainty creeps in at the end of the book - the assured qualifying performances under Capello eventually give Stubbs so little material that he's forced to adopt the guise of a Croatian (with his manservant 'Sepic') - but England's performance this summer was the final vindication. Send Them Victorious, folks. The perfect tribute (and postscript) to this strange period of England's footballing history.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Relevant and Irrelevant Histories

An interesting thought as we approach the end of this World Cup: although Uruguay have won World Cups in the past, and Spain and the Netherlands have not, Uruguay winning this year would be a 'newer' thing - more of an Event.

Spain finally lifting the trophy is a narrative that already carries a sense of inevitability - it's a triumph that has already been written, and held back from general release for two years. Now that Brazil have no longer already won the tournament, there's a case for saying that Spain have already won it. The same narrative can be quickly adapted and refitted for the Dutch - 'the long wait is finally over'. There is no comparably comfortable frame in which to fit a Uruguayan victory.

Granted, Uruguay's glories were a long time ago. But when has that ever been relevant to the expectations placed on football teams? Brazilian players are still being feted for what their team did forty years ago; England are judged (and judge themselves) every four years by the standards of 1966; African teams are still labelled as naive and impetuous based on the performance of Zaire in 1970. German teams and Spanish teams are just about still viewed in the context of their past representatives as villainous mecha-men and talented bottlers respectively, although these two seem to be finally losing their grip this summer. In the group stages, the BBC wheeled out an excruciating montage showing clips of past German triumphs interspersed with footage of pistons and machinery - but even they have since realised that this German team represents something different. These three-time World Cup winners would be fresher faces on the podium than the Spanish or Dutch.

Putting aside the two unfolding exceptions above - and progress on these fronts will be immediately undone if either team reverts back to historical type for even one game - these images seem impervious to the passage of time, and are held to remain true no matter how much contradictory evidence amasses. The fact that Uruguay have underachieved since 1950 doesn't explain the strange discrepancy about them; they are the only World Cup winners whose achievements have been definitively consigned to the history books, and deemed not relevant to modern analysis. You can never write off the Germans because of their past wins - but I don't believe I've ever heard a pundit say 'Well, I'll tell you what... I think Uruguay might be dark horses to win back their title this year. End the sixty years of hurt.'

In this country, the cutoff point is 1966. To us, tournaments before that are quaint, sepia-tinted, and faintly comical. Firstly because the World Cup only became a serious matter after we validated the tournament by going out and winning it. Secondly, the images teams made for themselves in the sixties and seventies have endured because those were the formative years of the people who have run, broadcasted, and commented on football in this country, certainly since the late eighties. Their ideas have bled into the minds of the population through sheer unchallenged repetition (and, lately, nostalgic replaying of said repetition - twice removed from new thought). Uruguay themselves are represented by a construction of this period - as temperamental foulers and cynics - and this seems to have replaced their earlier status as heroic two-time champions, leaving no trace of the older idea behind.

The relevant half-life of historical events must vary between countries. Uruguayan players surely don't go to tournaments still feeling burdened by the achievements of their predecessors, but Brazilian football fans still believe in a Uruguay hoodoo that dates back to 1950. Speaking to a Bosnian friend recently, I tried to draw out his opinion of the Stojkovic-inspired Yugoslavia team of 1990, but he was far more keen on regaling me with his admiration for the overachieving all-Serbian team at the first World Cup in 1930...

...who, it turns out, have been the subject of a recent film.

I don't think a hypothetical English team sent up the river in 1930 would be the subject of such strong, enduring identification.

Sunday, 4 July 2010


Various unused pictures of Uruguay-related stuff.

Scored against Brazil in a WC final while keeping his facial hair immaculately groomed.

No, not a tiresome 'they started it!/'we were provoked into attacking the flotilla' - I just wanted a picture that illustrated how 'justice' on a football pitch is rarely anything to write home about. Couldn't find a pic of the feller diving to win the free kick in the first place.

Coolest colours in the tournament, bar none. This and black shorts (Heil Spode!) against ghastly, Melchesterian red and yellow stripes? No contest. The right team won.

The internet's ten thousandth Suarez post.

This isn't really analytical enough to go on Minus, but here are my thoughts on the Suarez handball incident.

I assume Suarez will be given a discretionary ban for his cynical gamesmanship. Apparently his turning to celebrate while heading to the tunnel was also egregious and beyond the pale - well Christ, I think if I'd just committed a mass nun murder I'd stop and cheer and run around a bit if my country had just got to a World Cup semi-final...

I wouldn't normally have time for the 'noble hero falling on own sword' thing - but when you bear in mind that the free-kick that put the ball in the Uruguay box in the first place was wrongly awarded (the Ghanaian player clearly tripped over his own feet, as the not-exactly-impartial commentators acknowledged), then Suarez does start to look more like a heroic vigilante - responding to a miscarriage of justice by taking the law into his own hands, regardless of the cost to himself.

Apparently this 'last-second goal-line handball plus penalty miss' situation was discussed by FIFA after it came up in an American youth tournament over twenty years ago. They didn't change the rules then, and haven't seen fit to in the decades since. I know FIFA are a stopped clock, but on this occasion they're telling the right time.

Yes, the situation ended unfairly for Ghana. But I don't think it's worth changing the rules for these situations since they hardly ever come up. How many last-second goal-line handballs (with penalty misses) can you name, offhand? The existing punishment (red card and penalty) is fine for almost all situations. If the incident happened any earlier in the game, then Ghana would still have had time to benefit from the man advantage against a tiring, patched-up Uruguayan defence, and both sides would still have had time to launch further attacks - the whole outcome of the game wouldn't have rested on the one foul.

So yes, it's possible to benefit from a last-minute goal-line handball, as the victim team don't have time to capitalise on the situation if they miss the penalty. But it's a fairly basic principle of football that a foul should carry the same punishment whether it occurs in the first minute or the ninetieth. Even if you do decide to enact harsher measures against 'late' handballs, where do you draw the line? Injury time only? 85 minutes? 80? The whole second half? When exactly is it 'too late' for a red card to have any effect on the game?

I've heard the argument that a handball on the line should always be a red card and automatic goal (awarded as if the handling player hadn't been there and the ball had continued). I'm opposed on principle to 'autogoals'/'penalty points' (or whatever) in football - it's a starting principle of football that you have put the ball over the line. Sure, if the defender stops the ball crossing the line by foul means, then he'll be punished. But you can't start tampering with the basic idea that to score a goal, you have to put the ball in the net. It's a real slippery slope situation that I think can only serve undermine the game. And when, exactly, can you judge that the ball was definitely going in? Not all of these incidents are as easy to read as last night's.

On a similar tack, while Suarez (and his team-mate on the line) were pretty clear in their intentions last night, the intent of most handballs is difficult to judge. The rules are complicated (commentators are perpetually confused on this - as if they can't spare the time to read up on the new provisions and interpretations every season) and mistakes do happen. A wrongly awarded autogoal (or undefended penalty) for an accidental handball would be stupidly harsh. The award of a penalty gives both teams a fighting chance.

All in all, I think people are confusing what they think Suarez deserved last night, with what kind of rule they would seriously want to see applied to all future games.

It's rather like another recent tournament controversy - the prone Christian Panucci playing Holland's winning goal onside in Euro 2008. While in the context of the particular incident, the application of the rule can be seen as harsh and even unfair, the consequences of changing the rule would be worse still - defenders in extremis would simply be able to go to ground or step out of play to render an attacker offside. On the day it was unfair - but sticking with the existing rule was the right decision.

There was no grand act of larceny last night - both teams had their good spells, neither really dominated, and either of the two would have been a worthy semi-finalist. Uruguay, on top of their periodical fine play in the game, showed incredible balls to put those penalties away in a near-completely hostile stadium. Ghana - let's face it, not exactly the unsullied innocents of this tournament - have fallen to a piece of foul play, but have so far appeared to take it quite stoically.

Which is more than you can say for the one-eyed commentariat in this country. It's tempting to say that when you cast one side as villains and party-spoilers, you shouldn't complain when they decide to play the role...