why must we fail?

thoughts on culture, memory and identity after another calamitous implosion at Nottingham Forest

Ray

Prior to the final match of this season, Nottingham Forest – my team – stood poised on the cusp of the Championship play-offs.  Having occupied the top six for much of the campaign, and all of its closing stretch, they needed a single point to ensure qualification; only defeat, coupled with a Swansea City victory and a five-goal swing in the latter’s favour, would condemn Forest to the ignominy of surrendering, at the death, a further chance to push for promotion.

As I expected, they blew it.  Level at 1-1 and, it seemed, comfortable up until the 73rd minute, Forest then contrived to crumble in a hare-brained final twenty minutes to lose 4-1; Swansea beat Reading by the same scoreline.  The Reds finished outside the play-offs.  What a bunch of flunkers.

Yes, I had expected Forest to fail.  My analysis was not simply based on recent form, though that didn’t bode well: the team had no win in five leading into the game and were evidently fatigued, with key players carrying injuries.  Neither was my pessimism primarily informed by a more fulsome evaluation of Forest’s season – though I did see it as salient that they had conceded in stoppage time on some five occasions this term, squandering nine points in the process.  It was, moreover, that these last-gasp capitulations seemed to manifest a malaise which, I believe, is deeply rooted and runs some way back through the club’s more recent history – one which must be tackled if they are to finally achieve promotion.

For, in reviewing the last couple of decades, what do we find?  Whenever their primary goal is near, and their path to it seems clear, Forest typically can’t cope.  Those all too familiar with the history may now wish to scroll down a little; for others, here are some key details.  In the play-off semi-final of 2003, after a drawn first leg, Forest took a 2-0 lead in the return at Sheffield United; then they folded, losing 4-3, the tie effectively decided by an own goal.  Fast forward to 2007 and, despite being two up after the away leg of the play-off semi against Yeovil Town, Forest were eliminated after being humbled 5-2 on their own turf, their display encapsulated by Wes Morgan gifting a goal to the opposition by dint of a tragicomically unnecessary and haphazard back pass. 

In 2010, Forest’s semi-final tie with Blackpool was level by half-time in the second leg at home: they went on to lose the game 4-3 – “we had too many players freeze on the night”, said then manager Billy Davies.  The first leg of the following season’s play-off semi against Swansea ended 0-0, despite Forest playing host to an opposition reduced to ten men after only two minutes – “the tension emanating from the Forest supporters in … was understandable”, read the Guardian match report; in a return partly memorable for Davies’ ineffectually idiosyncratic team selection, Forest were defeated 3-1.  

More recently, too, I recall a League Cup Fourth Round tie at Burton Albion in 2018: whilst not seemingly a huge game, it did present Forest with an opportunity to reach a cup quarter-final for the first time in 25 years.  As soon as manager Aitor Karanka acknowledged this, speaking of Forest’s “chance to do something nice”, I knew they’d lose.  Burton won 3-2.

In each case, it was arguably not simply that Forest did their unfettered best but were outplayed; every one of those defeats can be correctly categorised as, at best, a failure to securely clasp hold of available advantage, and at worst an implosion, the hapless fumbling of a golden opportunity. 

What seems apparent, then, is a prevailing trend: recurrently, at key moments, players’ frightened eyes, flailing limbs and frazzled decision-making speak of a fundamental deficit of belief – one which persists despite the turning of many years and the changes these have brought in the club’s management, playing and coaching staff, and ownership. 

How might this be explained?  Like a gegenpressed defender desperately seeking a passing option, I scoured any literature I could find that seemed relevant – firstly, to the matter of organisational culture.  This, I learned, can be defined as comprised in significant part by intangibles such as shared understandings and beliefs, which may run deep; and as being rooted in history and tradition, and not necessarily rational in foundation or operation.

It seems important to understand, then, how such shared beliefs are formed.  According to text and conversation theory, organisations are essentially defined by their communication.  Similarly, within the sociological disciplines of social constructionism and symbolic interactionism – stick with me on this! – our notions of reality are largely informed by our interactions with others.  Hence, the communication that occurs within a group does much to shape its common sense of events; this, in turn, significantly influences the way group members act.  Additionally, research in the field of communicative memory – which likewise focusses on the role of everyday communication in forming a group’s shared understanding of the past – shows how such collective memory can develop not only through the content of conversation, but also through body language, dynamics between participants, and any emotions in play within or around interactions.  

These insights perhaps offer ways of envisaging how collective beliefs and identities might be formed, reinforced, and sustained through time, be they openly or tacitly held: most communication is non-verbal, after all.  (The potential for a group’s dispositions to become persistent also seems apparent in studies which demonstrate that social groups of any size – up to and including entire societies – can suffer the effects of significant adversities over generations; this can occur to the extent that members can be impacted despite not having been born at the time the event occurred).

All this leads me to wonder: within and around Forest, what is being expressed in the fine details of communication – tones, postures, shifts in atmosphere – in the days leading up to a decisive game, or through the closing weeks of a promising season?  From the outside, little can be known beyond the blandly positive game the club typically talks in public.  However, it did seem to me over this season’s closing weeks that head coach Sabri Lamouchi might be channelling some fear; he sounded increasingly strained, as if ever more aware of the impossibility of escaping a looming catastrophe.  In their penultimate league fixture, from which they again needed a single point to secure a play-off place, Forest visited Barnsley – a team in the relegation zone, albeit playing well.  Lamouchi adopted what seemed an unduly defensive tactical approach; his team, having invited sustained pressure, shipped another stoppage time goal to lose 1-0.  Negative strategies arguably represent their own form of communication, and cultivate similarly toned articulations of body language.

To be fair to Lamouchi – and I certainly wish to be – a notable measure of unease seems inherent to the role he occupies.  Forest’s frequent, sometimes unexpected or seemingly unwarranted, replacing of managers over the last decade cannot have helped to foster any ambience of assurance or stability: whether this in itself may be a factor in the team’s trials is open to question.  Changing the personnel overseeing a club’s on-field exploits could serve to shift its culture, of course, though such disruptions are not guaranteed to produce positive results.  However, another human element with an influence on performances has a membership which, while not constant, morphs more slowly over time: as Danny Baker sometimes emphasised to supporters calling in to his 1990s radio phone-ins, “you are the club”.  

I’ve no wish to be critical of Forest’s support – I am among their number, and we suffer enough; it is true, too, that our away cohort is recognised as one of the most voluminous and vocal in its division.  That said, when at the City Ground I have tended to find fans relatively impatient, quick to express dissatisfaction with their side (perhaps my own recent pessimism also made me, however distantly, a vector for bad vibes).  It can sometimes feel as if our expectations – indeed, perhaps sometimes our demands – constitute a weight which the team finds difficult to carry.  Whilst supporter pressure would not seem a major cause of Forest’s troubles (no spectators were present to witness their most recent failure), one feels this may sometimes be a factor.  

There is, as much of the football world knows, a basis for raised expectations.  Between the late 1970s and early 1990s Forest were, in relative and sometimes absolute terms, incredibly successful; under the command of Brian Clough, first with his (still much undervalued) assistant Peter Taylor and later without, Forest came from nowhere to establish themselves as an elite side.  Perhaps naturally, this is now the high bar against which any Forest team tend to be judged; against which, one might speculate, those at the club may measure themselves, even if only subconsciously.  If this latter speculation is indeed accurate, I suspect there may be a problematic gap between the club’s aspiration to restore itself to former glories, and its internal belief in the possibility of this being achieved; in such a gap, doubt and anxiety can fester. 

Organisational culture, one recalls, is partly informed by tradition.  Through the prism of this definition, one might see Clough’s period of success at Forest as largely representing an interruption of an unglamorous club’s historically established and longstanding image of itself as generally middling at best, just muddling along; a shock from which their identity has perhaps more recently been recovering through reversion to mediocrity.  The intense pushes and pulls of our identities may sometimes bring challenge to the accepted notion that we necessarily always want to succeed in our undertakings.  For instance, as anthropologist David Graeber has noted when speaking of some of those ostensibly pressing for social change from the political left, “a lot of people don’t want to win”.  I have indeed encountered people who seemed to inextricably identify with the role of the oppressed embroiled in strife; one could sometimes perceive in them a fear that, should they ever leave that position, their very selves would cease to be. 

Happily for Forest, for many years Clough played the part of wizardly winner with natural ease: there is a sense in which, above all else, he singularly imposed his successful identity upon the club through the sheer force of his personality and ability.  It helped that he could operate without much restraint: his insistence on having extensive control of the club during his tenure seems significant in respect of his apparent power to compel it to psychically reconfigure.  

Clough was, then, arguably bigger than the club, and it may be that he remains so; if that is the case, since he is no longer present to carry it with him, his magnitude may constitute a conundrum as much as it confers esteem.  Those who espouse the theories of Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology, might see Ol’ Big ‘Ead as representing, for Forest and its followers, an archetypal Wise Old Man – one to whom they still unconsciously look in vain, and in whose absence they remain bereft of a critical scintilla of confidence.  Now that Clough’s brilliant sun has dipped beyond the horizon, perhaps what largely remains is shadow, in the gloom of which the club still struggles to find its way.

Jung wrote that “a man who is possessed by his shadow is always … falling into his own traps … living below his own level”; and, elsewhere, “the less [the shadow] is embodied in … conscious life, the denser it is”.  What is required, he asserted, was “to retain awareness of the shadow, but not identification with it”.  Thus, whatever disappointment may still be in play at Forest – be it the dissipation of Clough’s reign and consequent relegation from the top flight in 1993, or simply the cumulative hurt of repeated play-off losses – the first step towards healing would seem to be to openly acknowledge the wound.  Shared recognition, solidarity, and cooperation are thought to be key to recovery from collective adversity; focussing on individuals tends to have limited effect, with consequences continuing to recur where their social basis remains unaddressed.  Likewise, if the subtexts of an organisation’s culture remain in unawareness, any unhelpful prophetic ideas may be left free to ‘self-fulfill’.  And if theories relating to the overshadowing effect of Clough’s charisma are well founded, then Forest perhaps also now need some big personalities around to help them establish a fresh era of confidence and success. 

In the wake of the disastrous Swansea result, there has been talk as to the viability of Lamouchi’s continued tenure at the club.  I would be sad to see the genial Frenchman depart.  He has done well, in his first season in England, to propel the team into a position whereby it could fail as it did; besides which, Forest remain desperate for stability.  Moreover, as I see it, Forest can splash cash and shuffle staff as much as they might in endeavouring to enhance their footballing prowess: but when the stakes are high and the prize is nigh, it will make little difference – because, in such moments, their problem isn’t fundamentally one of football.  It is collectively psychological and cultural; and, until that problem is solved, promotion may remain beyond them.

texture like sun, setting: on the passing of The Stranglers’ Dave Greenfield

Ray

Early May brought the sombre news of the death of Dave Greenfield, keyboardist with The Stranglers, from Covid19.  

Greenfield was a master of his art; indeed, I don’t think it’s stretching definitions to consider that he was exercising some genius.  Year on year, disc after disc, he made everything he played fit perfectly, in terms of melody, texture and tone, with the surrounding sounds and spaces; I can’t think of anything I’ve heard by the band on which I can imagine that his contribution should, or could, have been different.  

A look back over The Stranglers’ earlier canon – the ten LPs up to the departure of original guitarist/co-vocalist Hugh Cornwell in 1990, with which I am most familiar – confirms the rich variety and remarkable versatility of Greenfield’s playing.  He balanced this expansive range with a meticulous economy; whilst evidently flush with sonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas which flowed well beyond the strictures of the generic, Greenfield never unduly flooded anything – what he added never amounted to too much, nor too little.

I’ve been taking another listen.  Greenfield’s deft energy abounds in the dizzying arpeggiated swirls which significantly characterise the band’s earliest discs of leering, veering punk, classics that still shine and stomp like well-kept boots.  However, his scope is conspicuous here, too: consider, for instance, 1978’s Peasant In The Big Shitty, founded on a slanted, nasty-bastard synth riff over which Greenfield himself sings with an exaggerated ghoulishness hovering uneasily between cartoon and menace, the scene further illustrated by keyboard splashes seemingly depicting the piss-puddles of the gutter.

As The Stranglers’ sound expanded thereon through their darker, deeper, fascinating and sometimes forbidding late 70s/early 80s albums, Greenfield’s reach became yet more apparent.  It was during this period that the original incarnation of the band was arguably at its most inventive; indeed, Greenfield’s development surely must have spurred by being amongst bandmates who were also curious, intellectually and existentially as well as musically.  His contributions on 1978’s Black And White include, notably, the libidinal pinball of Nice ‘n’ Sleazy, and the violent dose of electric shock treatment he administers to Enough Time; then there’s the spread-winged soaring, diving and thermal-riding of his playing on the title track of the following The Raven, which also features the sublime Baroque Bordello, on which Greenfield’s classical stylings effectively conjure the sweet unease of yearning Amongst the myriad soundscapes he creates on The Gospel According To The Meninblack are the comedy swampery and single-finger tech-pop gesticulation of Just Like Nothing On Earth, and the subterranean bubbling of the loopy Manna Machine. 

There are some stellar examples of his craft on 1981’s La Folie, not least Golden Brown; throughout, he’s beautifully in tune with the story of the song.  Consider, for example, the cheeky nudge ‘n’ wink of his bip-bippery on Pin Up; and the evocative characterisation of shallow conventional serenity in the melody, perfectly offset against Cornwell’s laconic vocal, with which he adorns Non Stop.  The band’s later releases feature further examples of his finery: the Aural Sculpture LP arguably finds him on particularly colourful form.  

One can, of course, find one’s own favourites.  But what I have found worth exploring of late, just as much as Greenfield’s musical legacy, is how I found myself feeling about his passing: it has saddened me to an extent that has left me surprised.  I never knew, nor even met, him, yet I register his loss at a level which goes beyond my appreciation of his work.  Why should this be?

I can see several reasons.  Some, of course, will pertain to my own experiences of loss – perhaps particularly, to a sense of possibilities which I associate with my youth beginning to recede.  However, I think the well of sadness is more broadly sourced.

Firstly, there’s also something that has to do with the passing of someone who worked in harmony with machines to distinctive effect, who used the technology to write his humanity large as a painter would their palette – a rich, gloopy blob here, a lean brushstroke there, pointillism, washes – in times when we’re told that ‘progress’ is represented by machines taking control, doing more and more for us; to us.

Further, now that we are in a time wherein much political and cultural discourse seems governed by spectacle and presentation, I think it matters to me that Greenfield made great work without dependence upon hype or affectation; the sense of loss is made stronger by our having lost a man, rather than the heavy dose of artifice and emptiness that tends to constitute ‘personality’ (a phenomenon of which we must surely weary if we are to save ourselves as a species).  There is no cult, false God, or thin myth being stoked or invoked as Dave plays: as I listen, I rather imagine someone in the flow of work loved for its own sake – figuring out how to get that sound, getting to know every nook and cranny of his instruments, tending the keys and switches; going home to take care of the everyday, letting the work speak for itself.  

Also resonant in my reaction to Greenfield’s demise is my regard for his apparent willingness always to let the fruits of his creativity rest in their appropriate place within the collective effort, so as to create room for, and shine light upon, others’ contributions.  If you’ve ever been involved in any kind of shared enterprise, you may well have learned that ideas and talents are not always co-operatively offered; however, you might also have been lucky enough to experience the irreplaceable joy of those times wherein the whole magically becomes greater than the sum of everyone’s individual offerings …  One never knows when those moments are coming and, having experienced them, we never know when – or whether – they are coming again.

It is true, too, that The Stranglers have long been a ‘family’ band, very forthcoming in communication with their fanbase through regular publications, conventions, and correspondence.  I interviewed bassist and co-vocalist JJ Burnel as a callow youth many years ago, and he personified a genuine readiness to engage on a level; despite my arriving flustered and sweating almost an hour late, he put me at my ease, and was plentifully generous with his time and resources – and all for a whippersnapper interviewer from a home-printed fanzine with a humble circulation.  The music industry is notorious for having more than its fair share of self-aggrandising shysters: it is thus to be appreciated when a band makes themselves so open to being connected with – and consequently, when one of their number passes, the sense of loss seems heavier.

Indeed, the passing of a Stranglers founder member might be symbolic for me of a current cultural quelling of a certain attitude. Whether one likes them or not, it is hard to deny that The Stranglers are a band who have stayed true to who they have been at any time; they have always refused to do the done thing, run with the herd, parrot the word or keep people sweet.  They’ve been willing to see another view, and to change: this must be one of the most human things we can do, and seems increasingly valuable.

Bravo, Dave.  Thanks for all the great sounds …  with my mind they run. 

the sky, the sea and the dead: Norfolk, music and the late 80s

Ray (with John)

What we find transcendent in music requires no explanation, just as the heavens do not need us to explore them.  There are moments, however, wherein the mysteries unravel themselves for us, as on those nights when the galaxy lays itself across the sky, presenting as both map and territory unto our eyes.  

We had been remarking upon The Fall’s most primally attuned and supralingually uncanny of latter-day albums – Your Future Our Clutter, The Real New Fall LP (Country On The Click), and the aptly titled Levitate – pointing, as astronomers agog at the action painting of Andromeda, to their sense of being elemental yet steeped in spirit, of hailing from both within and afar.  Talk turned to the gigs we’d attended in our more formative years, in the late 80s in Norwich.  John ventured that, similarly, there had been something more going on in those sounds, those times; something in the very notes and chords, perhaps, the beats and voices.  What was it?

We took ourselves back to those nights, and they opened themselves up for us.  It became clear that this impression was not explained simply by the fact that, back then, we had been young, cluttered with conviction and confusion, on the cusp of doing our own thing, out over the water on a fraying ropeswing.  No, it was also that music seemed culturally to matter more then, to have a more evident underbelly, naked and unashamed; it had, indeed, the guts to recognise, at least tacitly, the presence of all manner of conflict, and to insist thereon that life didn’t have to be as it was, in those days before the collapse into consensus into which so much music became increasingly co-opted, subsumed.  This sense of openness to possibility – hence, to unease – was amplified in the relative intensity, intimacy and murkiness of vinyl, the foremost format of the time before music became so routinely, and brusquely, glossed up through digital processing.

The fact that recordings then came physically constituted in sizeable slabs, rather than immediately available down a series of cables, also markedly influenced our relationship with music: it necessitated our dedicating forethought and effort to the process of getting hold of it.  Get a sweat on cycling into town to pick up the music press – when’s the album coming out?  are they touring?; the muck of ink on one’s fingers.  Ring the shop: have they got it in yet?  Forego the haircut, save the money for bus fare – or cadge a lift, take the trip from the village to the city, a full day spoken for: all this activity serving as physiological and psychic detritus to be dragged in by the stylus, so composing the surface noise behind the sounds.  And of course, gigs in those days were not full of people present largely in absentia, lost in the scrolling of devices: one went all in.  One had, then, to maintain a deeper and more enduring connection with music so as to access it; perhaps it was partly this need for committed observation of the contingencies of music’s time and place which encouraged our enmeshment in and abandon unto it, exacerbated the magic.

Indeed, it wasn’t just when, but where it occurred, that mattered.  I’m sure that similar vibrations were chiming everywhere and anywhere throughout the land around then; I hope they were.  I can only point to the particularities of the experiences I, and those around me then, shared.  This was Norfolk, an entity of itself, out of the way and aspiring to nothing else: small settlements spaciously set in open land, distances rolling away between them; by night, clear skies were arrayed with stars, resplendent in the relative absence of light pollution.  It mattered, too, that we experienced music with the sea close by; that we had those songs in our minds whilst lingering on quaysides, or watching light flit between the pines.  A ripe environment for curiosity, for wonder; it made a world of difference, inexpressible in verbal language, to the ways in which we related to sound.  

And the gigs took place in Norwich, a city in the midst of this expanse of space, with its own distinct, discernible but indescribable character.  I have scarcely been back there since, but then it always struck me, atmospherically, as if a vestige of some other, contentedly adrift, continent – the paradoxical air of gentle unease, of accommodation with the sinister; narrow passages offering glimmers of mystery, river breathing unto the sea.  I don’t know whether any of the bands who came by to play felt any such sense of it being different – this notion may be fanciful: but one could sometimes perceive that perhaps they, too, had imbibed the space, communed with something on the journey through the sticks, and consequently felt released to cut loose in ways that may have been less accessible to them in places more clogged with industry, stifled by competing conurbation.  I recall Callahan, fronting the Wolfhounds – perhaps the best live band I saw in that period – murmuring between songs, with half a smile, “Norwich, a fine city”, the slogan featured on the signs one passes when entering its territory.  It seemed, at that moment, merely a throwaway remark: however, hearing them then swoop and screech with the savage majesty of other-worldly dangerbirds whirling and plunging, his comment seemed as if it might have had more to it …  and for me, they never soared quite as high elsewhere.

An oft-visited venue was the Arts Centre, now rather done-up but back then an imposingly bleak converted church, accessed via the portal of a slender alley.  In the hall where the bands played, we stood upon the flattened gravestones: so there we were, among and the dead, awakening them with the dance of our lives, going out of our bodyminds to Blown Away.

The future unfurling; distances and contestation; the sky, the sea; the dead.  Part of me is still back there, in that time, shoving my dole quids into the slot of the village phone box under a midnight full moon, on the line to California, trying to ascertain the truth of a whisper that Neil Young would be coming over.  I recollect, too, driving in the small hours through abandoned East Anglian undulations, fields flush with snow; pulling over to step out and wonder at the sheer size and starkness of the sky, the brilliance and subtle pulsing of constellations, as tunes continued to ebb gently from the stereo.

I realise I may be accused of being a look-back bore.  That’s OK: all of this is nonetheless still true for me.  Much magic persists, yes.  But a lot is being lost.  

There was, certainly, something more going on.  John forgot that he’d left Rob’s sacredly-held copy of Pet Sounds on the roof of his van; we all clambered in and drove the half hour or so along the dry road to Wells, where Rob lived.  When we arrived, the LP was somehow still there: in a seemingly impossible feat, the slightest corner of its sleeve had caught in the shallow rim running around the roof, and The Beach Boys had clung on, waving tremulously to the sunny skies, all the way to the coast.  Those days keep hold.

a substitute for justice: charity and the NHS

Adam Nedman

Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently unveiled his plan to recognise the contributions of social care workers currently risking their health and lives on the front line of coronavirus response.  It’s a badge with ‘Care’ written upon it: as his Shadow, Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth, tweeted, “Really?  A badge?”.  (I say “unveiled”, but it wasn’t even a fresh idea, but a barely-memorable year-old initiative). 

This bathetic gesture arguably says something salient about where the Conservative Party, and perhaps swathes of wider political consciousness, are at.  For what is a badge?  Definitions incorporate the words emblem, sign, indicator, image – all synonyms for ‘symbol’ – as well as token.  

We shouldn’t be surprised that a Conservative government has only a token symbol to offer those working in social care.  The ‘token’ element is perfectly in keeping with their preferred paternalistic, pat-on-the-head, approach to those beyond their class – a badge, after all, is what one gives to a pupil who has achieved a merit at school, or to an emotionally disturbed child when they have behaved according to edict.  And the symbolic and gestural is what the current administration has been particularly effective in reducing political questions to – ‘getting Brexit done’, oven-readiness, truck-through-the-wall.  It is a form of sleight-of-hand aimed, often successfully, at distracting us: in one hand they are holding up for our attention the idea of immunity certificates (another empty gesture at this stage, as the duration of any immunity one derives from a bout of Covid19 is not established) – whilst in the other, they fumble with something unseen in their pocket.

Arguably, the Tories are feeding such reductive symbolism and tokenism both into and from the wider culture.  Much of what passes for collective political consciousness appears quite weakly based in substance: one only has to think back to the Brexit debate for an issue wherein key protagonists, the EU, were symbolic for both remain and leave camps in ways often shakily supported by actuality.  For some remainers, the EU represented liberality, openness and solidarity, with little consideration given to complications such as the savage response to the Greek debt crisis, the ‘Fortress Europe’ measures, or demands for democratically-elected governments to rewrite budgets.  And for some leavers, the EU symbolised a class they felt overlorded yet abandoned by, even though much of any investment into some leave areas had come from the EU itself (though who was and was not involved in deciding how funds were spent is a salient question); for others, leaving fulfilled a fiction-driven wish to re-establish what the nation is, and who belongs in it.  In each case, key facts were forgotten or ignored.

That we should pin our hopes and fears to symbols is understandable: there is much to be done in merely getting by, much to be known in comprehending any issue, and often little time and energy to spare.  Myriad stimuli, some deliberately designed to be addictive, clamour constantly for our attention; the media speed any rush to reductionism – statements seeking to convey nuance are afforded little credibility (witness the deriding of Jeremy Corbyn’s “seven out of ten” assessment of the EU).    

However, there is currently a real danger of the Covid19 crisis, and the accompanying ‘mood music’ being composed around it, dragging much of public consciousness further into the muddy shallows of the primarily symbolic, to deleterious effect.  Most glaringly yet silently of all, it is the NHS itself – the centrepiece of current exhibitions of appreciation for key workers – which is arguably in the process of being reduced to imagery which blurs key aspects of its reality beyond recognition.  This is not to say that the thanks being conveyed by the public to those working in essential roles is not merited: it absolutely is, and its expression is long overdue.  However, the use of the NHS and its logo as shorthand for the kindness and dedication we seek to celebrate risks our failing to focus upon vital truths and questions regarding its status and direction as a body.

Consider, for instance, the fact that, as a consequence of the 2010 Health and Social Care Act, the government no longer has a legal duty to provide a National Health Service in England.  The plethora of private, profit-seeking providers being awarded contracts to deliver services in an increasingly fragmented healthcare environment can be perceived as increasingly rendering the NHS as little more than a brand name and logo.  Professor Allyson Pollock, prominent chronicler of the dismemberment of the NHS over recent decades, has written that, given the evident policy aims and direction, without the reinstatement of the government’s duty to provide it, “there will be no NHS” – rather, “a gradual shift to private insurance and charges to patients”.  This, to the shame of both the media and opposition parties, has been kept all too quiet.

Now more than ever, we should feel anger about this, and channel this effectively to ensure that this duty is restored, and protected in perpetuity.  Since the value of the NHS is now seemingly agreed upon by all – even the Prime Minister, who has previously argued for it to be replaced by a private insurance system – we should collectively demand that the government now promptly restore their legal duty to provide it.  (Indeed, maybe the leader of the opposition could use his platform to promote and amplify this demand … ?). 

However, whilst focussed ire is required, is there a danger here of there being too great a contrast between its cultivation and expression, and our warm sensations of appreciation for carers; might this lead to us being collectively wrong-footed?  Do these outpourings, shared with so many others through collective ritual, tend to feel immersive, absorb us?  As we are so often cognitively and affectively persuaded away from nuance, and towards polarised simplification, how much scope do we have to feel both happy gratitude, and determined indignation, simultaneously?  Could the glow of gladness also lull us toward the rosy notion that we are all in this together, our tear-softened sight dilute our focus on, for instance, the impact of 17,000 hospital beds being cut by the Conservatives over the last ten years?  One fears that such affective immersion and lulling, experienced on a societal scale, risks the door being left open to a further loss of hard-fought entitlements.  

This would be right up the Conservative Party’s ugly, gated street.  A friend has worked in the charity sector, raising funds to purchase for families in poverty essential goods which would previously have been available via recourse to the Social Fund (abolished by the coalition government in 2013) – home appliances, essential furnishings, clothing.  In the course of this work, they have come into contact with a series of more or less prominent Tory figures.  My friend tells me they are pretty much unanimous in expressing one fundamental attitude: if you want to do anything to help these people, that’s all well and good, and up to you; it’s nothing to do with us.  It is important to apprehend this attitude when analysing the government’s responses to this crisis: they will, at best, always struggle to provide for the people’s needs through statutory action because, essentially, they don’t want to – doing so runs counter to their core beliefs. 

Thus the Conservative Party are, in some respects, primed to profit from this crisis.  Yes, they are coming under justified fire for the tardiness, slipshodness, and slipperiness of their response.  However, they have participated significantly in shaping a situation whereby the public has almost no choice but to literally buy, in a more or less energised spirit of celebration, into the notion of essential services being resourced by charitable giving.  In this respect, one might discern that perhaps there’s an extent to which the shortages of PPE and ventilators hasn’t been a mistake: the necessary desperation that the public feel to ensure the NHS and its staff have the equipment they need has driven a mass mobilisation of voluntarism – which is just what the Conservatives have wanted all along (welcome back to the Big Society, everybody).  As Barthes put it in The Iconography of Abbe Pierre: “I get worried about a society which consumes with such avidity the display of charity that it forgets to ask itself questions about its consequences, its uses and its limits.  And then I start to wonder whether the fine and touching iconography of the Abbe Pierre is not the alibi which a sizeable part of the nation uses, once more, to substitute with impunity the signs of charity for the reality of justice”.  The Conservatives would indeed love the provision of care to be subject to the whims of charity and the philanthropy of the wealthy: it reflects and shores up what they see as a natural hierarchy – we lowly folk plead and strive; they adjudicate and award us badges.  

The obvious problem with such an approach is not simply that having to resort to charity entails the inevitable exposure of one’s lack to those who don’t lack, and the possibility of being subjected to some form of judgement which, however sensitively delivered, can undermine recipients’ sense of self-worth.  It’s also that what charity provides for cannot thereby be offered as a guaranteed right, outcomes depending instead on how much the prosperous have put into the pot, and how those they appoint to administer its distribution decide, outwith democratic parameters, to execute this task.  Clearly, then, the NHS is the last realm within which we should want charitable activity to be proliferating.

However, this is just what appears to be occurring.  NHS Charities Together, the umbrella organisation for NHS charities, has launched a campaign, One Million Claps, donations to which will be used to provide “a range of supplies and support for NHS staff, volunteers and patients – including food, travel, accommodation, mobile devices to keep in touch with family and friends, and mental health support and counselling”.  This is laudable – those raising money to fund essential equipment are not to be knocked – but not desirable: many such goods are inarguably essential and their upkeep, to decent standards, should be guaranteed by a state running one of the six largest economies worldwide, even in a crisis (a viral pandemic has been top of the government’s list of potential threats for many years).  A sharp distinction between the laudability and desirability of such giving needs to be kept clearly in view. 

A key question, then, concerns what happens once this crisis abates; developments from this point may well have a significant impact on the longer-term direction the NHS, and other essential services, are taken in.  What will we allow the government to do with them?  Or, to put it another way: how much of our own applause will turn out to have been largely symbolic, even tokenistic?  Just as food banks have become the new normal in welfare provision, will it become yet more acceptable for care to increasingly depend on charitable funds?  This would constitute a further, regressive, victory of the symbolic over the actual, as the need to resort to charity was something the NHS sought to replace through the establishment of a system of free universal healthcare, funded by taxation.  If we’re not watchful and demanding in the way we proceed through and emerge from this crisis, the Conservatives will be guaranteed what they have long desired – a ‘National Health Service’ which is in fact nothing more than a brand name masking the operation of gaggles of private, profiteering, actors, and hard-pressed charitable endeavours.  They’ve already dragged it some way down this road.

How might we prevent this from happening?  Here are some initial thoughts, which others may add to.  Firstly, public regard for essential services has to be politically mobilised: as soon as is safe to do so, parties and organisations keen to protect public services need to be out amongst the community, connecting people’s willingness to applaud to facts and arguments around key workers’ pay and conditions, the fragmentation and cutting of services, and the ethics and practical effects of privatisation.  Secondly, the popular regard for public service that has been enlivened through this crisis needs to be extended and deepened: ways need to be found to ensure that, whenever anyone passes an NHS facility, enters a public library, or visits a municipal park, there is recognition of the benefits of communitarian provision (and the pitfalls of commercial alternatives), and awareness of the broader political implications of this, both within and beyond the ballot box.  (An additional potential advantage of this may be the development of greater acknowledgement of shared interest between workers in different areas of public service).  One might, for instance, open out the question: is it conceivable that, in some imagined future pandemic, outbreaks of mass applause would be directed towards services that only offered help when they stood to make a profit from doing so? 

We must go beyond symbols: acting substantively, we need to leave lasting bruises on power with our blows.  As we applaud, donate, paint rainbows or plan, we should hold high in heart and head the notion of what the NHS should once again be.  Demand more than mere gesture; demand that your right to be treated as a fundamentally equal citizen will always be upheld, that you should never suffer the precarity of having to plead; demand repeal, now, of the 2010 Health and Social Care Act.   

the design of neglect: what preventable deaths of benefit claimants tell us about the powerful

Pippa Ward

Critical scrutiny was once again focussed upon the Department for Work and Pensions recently, as details concerning the death of Errol Graham – yet another DWP claimant to have died not long after having his benefits withdrawn – were brought to public attention by the Disability News Service website [1].

Mr Graham, a 57-year-old grandfather with a history of poor health reaching back over a decade, had his Employment and Support Allowance stopped after he did not attend a Work Capability Assessment, and then did not respond to the DWP’s follow-up communications or two safeguarding visits.  His Housing Benefit was also stopped.  His body was discovered some months later when Council officials who had come to evict him for non-payment of rent forced open his door.  He had starved to death.

Reports of the inquest [2] revealed some significant details regarding the way in which the DWP operates.  We learn that there was “no formal requirement for DWP staff to seek more information about Graham’s health or how he was functioning … and [they] had not done so” before undertaking the “standard procedure” of stopping his benefits without having seen him: thus lack of due regard to claimants’ capacities to sustain themselves is embedded in procedure.

Likewise, reports refer to Steven Smith, who also died after having benefits stopped “despite multiple debilitating illnesses and weighing just six stone”; the inquest “found officials had missed ‘crucial safeguarding opportunities’ although policy had been followed”.  This case, then, again demonstrates that DWP policy allows ‘safeguarding’ to be carried out in ways which can be, well, fatally unsafe.  Holes in the safety net have not, then, developed by accident; they are inbuilt by design.

This should give cause for pause.  We, together, fund the welfare service – and, more invaluably, contribute to the maintenance of society through our influence as partners, children, parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, workmates, team mates, moment by moment, in – thankfully – ways in which no one can never cumulatively quantify, and thus can never be in a position to evaluate.  So, when need arises, what do we get in return?  Possibly nothing at all?  Is it really the case that, when we don’t show for critical appointments and haven’t paid rent for ages, agencies to which we are required to affiliate don’t even have to resolve the mystery, ensure we’re not sinking?  What of the right to life?

Come on DWP, step it up: at least make like you value your work, find reward in supporting people – that’s how we’re supposed to behave these days, isn’t it?  (“Hi, I’m Clive, and I’m passionate about work capability …”).  To make it easy, we could start with just a bit of service; respect, even?  That should surely be within the purview of our powers-that-be: recent decades have seen an increasing prevalence of what author David Smail [3] described as business culture, with efforts made to depict us as ‘customers’ in as many realms as possible.  (When taking a train, for example, we are no longer ‘passengers’).  I find this puerile: but, since it is hard to avoid, let’s deploy such nomenclature for our purposes – we may as well reap any consolations we can find whilst we’re being widely instrumentalised.  Why shouldn’t benefit claimants be responded to as ‘customers’ too?  A memorable sketch from the Modern Toss ‘Work’ series [4] depicts the jobseeker phoning his Job Centre adviser from a reclining position on his sofa, bullishly demanding to know what their “agent” was doing for them: taken to a joyous nth degree, this is more akin to what the DWP-claimant dynamic should be like.  

That said, given that it is largely when we are in more vulnerable circumstances that the state is closest to us, we need to move beyond standing simply in the role of customer in our dealings with the state.  In the arena of child protection, we’ve had, in response to the preventable death of 8-year-old Victoria Climbie, the policy initiative of Every Child Matters; perhaps it’s now time for Every Adult Matters.  One envisages a framework of activity, and underpinning attitude, threading through society and its institutions, formulated and resourced to a degree sufficient to ensure that everything possible is done to promote the welfare of citizens, particularly those who experience significant difficulty.  Perhaps such an initiative might encourage reactions to the preventable deaths of vulnerable adults in becoming just as outraged as they are when children die as a result of neglect: after all, to state the blindlingly obvious, it’s not as if we no longer need protection once we reach adulthood.  (Is there any justifiable reason why the preventable death of a child is scrutinised by an independent public inquiry, whilst that of an adult rendered vulnerable through health difficulties does not?  Is this age discrimination?).  I do realise as I write this that the notion of the government actively valuing the unwell and marginalised sounds unrealistic, even silly.  However, this sense of value, and its absence, is at the essence of these recurrent tragedies – Mr Graham and Mr Smith are two of a string of people to have died after having benefits withdrawn [5]; and it’s this which we must demand is held in focus if the aim is to avoid similar tragedies occurring.

If is a key word here, and it’s a big if.  It seems from the DWP’s actions in these cases that the question of whether or not avoidance of such tragedies is a primary aim is a necessary starting point in investigating them; this question looms out from behind Labour MP Debbie Abrams’ reference, when raising the issue of Mr Graham’s death, to “departmental procedures which are meant to protect vulnerable people”.  But if protecting people was a prominent aim of the DWP, then you’d expect this to be hard-wired through their policy and procedure; as outlined above, it clearly isn’t.  One would, further, expect their response to such appalling events to be frank, fair, and out in the open; however, they have seemed discouragingly evasive.  

The DWP’s public statement following the inquest declared that “this is a tragic, complex case and our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family.”  I perceive the use of the word ‘complex’ here as defensive – a cipher for “this was a difficult situation to understand, one which anyone could easily have misread”.   However, I demur on their description of the case as “complex”: on the basis of the basic facts, it appears relatively simple.  This is a man who had a long history of poor health, in regards to which he had relatively recently been re-assessed as unfit for work, and even more recently been hospitalised.  He had “cut himself off from family and friends” and hasn’t responded to attempts at contact.  Is such a person more likely, on balance, to be well, or unwell?  

It thus may appear that extension of sympathy is being deployed by these authorities as a vehicle for the parading of excuses, the shirking of responsibility.  Bear in mind, too, that the panel the DWP are convening to investigate the many deaths that have occurred after people have had benefits stopped is to be comprised purely of DWP civil servants (this after the department had originally said it was to incorporate at least a degree of independence [6]).  

However it operates, here are some questions which that panel might address.  Firstly, what qualifies DWP staff undertaking safeguarding visits to make sufficient assessments of the effects of, for example, Errol Graham’s social anxiety – which, like other ‘mental health’ issues [7], can be difficult to locate and adequately comprehend within a comparatively short interaction?  (I suspect that anyone without a stack of salient experience as a health professional would be woefully under-qualified for this).  And how would these officials be able to guarantee a fair reading of Mr Graham’s well-being on any one visit (or in this case, pair of visits), given that – again, like other ‘mental health’ problems – his condition may well have been subject to fluctuation?

Further, should it be the DWP that undertakes such visits at all?  Anyone answering the door to state officials who possess the power to discipline them is probably not in a position to communicate freely; those experienced in dealing with the DWP are very aware of the fear that any interaction with them may induce.  Here’s an idea: such visits should instead be undertaken by an independent, not-for-profit and neutrally-motivated body; perhaps some sort of Ombudsman, strongly empowered to inspect and rule upon the DWP and their interventions.

And why was Mr Graham’s Housing Benefit also stopped, leading to the plan for him to be evicted?  Contrary to popular belief, the withdrawal of DWP benefits should not cause HB to be terminated; eligibility is determined by one’s financial capacity or otherwise to pay rent, not necessarily by being in receipt of other benefits [8].  (A legal adviser informed me that many hard-pressed Councils know this is the case, but choose to play on the public being ill-informed about the matter so as to save themselves money).

No matter what details of cases the panel address, however, procedural tweaks in themselves will not bring the change that is required: it is the entire ethos of the DWP, and its regime, that need to be swept away.  The panel might, for instance, consider why it is that, whilst utility companies are forbidden to cut indebted householders off from their fuel supply, it is nonetheless deemed reasonable for claimants to effectively be denied the means by which to procure sufficient food.  They might also muse as to what purposes are served by the fact that decisions affecting claimants are largely taken by people who are some distance away, and who never meet them; and similarly, that when on Universal Credit, it is virtually impossible to engage with the DWP regarding one’s claim face-to-face.  One hesitates to suppose that the panel will take a radical approach; however, perhaps we can do something to help them towards this.

This might begin with our being unabashed and direct not just about our anger at such events, but also the fundamental lack of heart we find, perversely, at their heart.  An aspect of discussion of such cases which I find particularly infuriating is the persistence of many in honouring the conceit that they must be the result of some aberration, of unfortunate system failures.  Rather, what needs to be widely and vociferously said and heard is that the system is designed to be punitive, and is so to an extent that casualties are inevitable.  Or, to put it another way: the government really don’t seem to care if ‘ordinary’ people die as a result of their policies.  

They know, for example, what could well happen to those denied cancer treatment as a result of being made subject to the Hostile Environment immigration policy [9].  They know what consequences could result from their flagrantly slovenly responses to fire safety concerns in the aftermath of the deadly Grenfell inferno [10].   And, to return to the realm of welfare, they know that their policies can have fatal effects, because coroners have told them so [11].  If the government felt anything more than indifference about their less celebrated citizens being fatally harmed, they wouldn’t have ignored those coroners.  

We might reasonably conclude that, as comedian Francesca Martinez memorably said at a 2015 demonstration in support of refugees, whilst “people keep talking about the system being broken”, in fact “it isn’t broken at all – it’s working perfectly well, doing exactly what it’s designed to do”.

Indeed, we should not be at all surprised when those inhabiting more precarious circumstances are left to die.  As author and academic Danny Dorling noted not so long ago in discussing the huge increase in street homelessness since the Conservatives returned to government in 2010 [12], such outcomes are in keeping with what the party of government essentially believe: that whether we ‘succeed’ or not in life is, in the final analysis, a result of our own efforts, rather than opportunities that do or don’t result from what we inherit through birth and upbringing, or other forms of fortune.  They believe, at root, in the creed that we get what we deserve.  This, one senses, is their idea of ‘social justice’; one might discern an impression of their revering this justice as righteous, even beautiful, in their holding as fast as possible to the commandment that the state must not intervene to subvert it.  As Dorling put it: “they want a society in which if you don’t do well, the penalty is that you end up on the streets – it’s an incentive to try hard …  It’s a big, big mistake to think that the government actually cares that much about people who are poor”.  Our reactions need to clearly and consistently connect the deleterious outcomes of policy to the administration’s core philosophy.

One might further speculate that there is perhaps a segment among the right who are quietly regretful, indignant even, regarding the demise of capital punishment in the UK; and, while the climate is not quite ripe to permit a campaign for the return of the rope, they take steps to ensure that their gods continue to receive sacrifices.  Perhaps these sacrifices could have the claimed, but mythical, deterrent effect [13], and thus duly incentivise the rest of us to try harder.  Perhaps power, for some, lacks allure if it doesn’t incorporate the holding of the supreme power, that over life and death.  Or perhaps these speculations are wildly fanciful; I don’t know.

And perhaps they hope that, as with street homelessness, deaths of welfare claimants will become normalised.  Maybe this strategem has worked: maybe we have come to accept such events as inevitable.  Yes, these are “complex” cases; what can one do?  And so perhaps many of us each carry a tiny portion of responsibility in what is happening.  People are dying unnecessarily whilst in circumstances wherein they should be being helped: where is the angry mass response?  Whither the volume?  Hundreds of thousands can be mobilised to march, for instance, about the future of a trading bloc, but austerity policies being implicated in an estimated 120,000 premature deaths isn’t enough to rouse us so audibly and visibly.  Thatcher’s infamous line that there is no such thing as society, whilst often derided, actually has an aspect of truth to it: society arguably doesn’t exist of itself – we have to continually make it through our active recognition of each other; the sociopaths who rule us will sure as hell destroy any framework that supports it unless we keep demanding otherwise.  However, we should care that they don’t care, if only for selfish reasons: when our homes flood [14], when the ambulance or fire engine arrives too late for us, it will be all too evident that the inhumanity of the powerful isn’t only a problem for welfare claimants enduring a crisis.  It could be you.

Further important questions percolate from these recognitions and speculations.  Does power necessarily lead people to be so callous towards others?  Are the people who devise and hold to such damaging policies, and who impose them upon the staff and clients of the DWP, fit for their own work; or are they sick – and if so, in what sense?  Do they suffer from some compulsion, some addiction?  I recognise that we are all capable of clinging to dogma, of pursuing ways of doing and being even when these evidently cause harm: but – unto another’s death?  That takes a twisted kind of spine.  How could such sickness be healed? 

This notion of the state’s cold disregard towards the lives and deaths of many of its citizens needs to be brought fully into public consciousness, openly and vocally asserted at every salient turn.  We should be pointing to this as a central factor in relation to government action and inaction on welfare, and so much else; there is some liberatory energy available to us through acknowledging this.  In a previous existence, I had cause to seek legal assistance on behalf of someone needing to secure practical support so as to attend the funeral of a close family member.  The authority that were responsible for providing said support weren’t being at all co-operative, hence the call for legal help.  I recall my feelings of relief when the legal adviser responded to my description of the case not with the typical bureaucratic ummings, aaahings, and jargonised meanderings, but with an accurate summation of the responsible authority’s position: “they don’t care”. 

This sounds obvious, even bland, and perhaps this is why we don’t spell it out often or loudly enough: however, things don’t have to be sophisticated to need saying.  Although those at the Mental Health Resistance Network and Disabled People Against Cuts have been telling it like it is [15], there is generally still too much servile verbiage at large about “mistakes made” and “opportunities missed” when administrative indifference leads to significant harm and loss of life.  Stating that the DWP is “failing in its safeguarding responsibilities” isn’t enough: we miss the point when this is the language with which we consider these events.  If the approach of the state towards those less cushioned from circumstance is ever to improve, we need to be loud and clear in collective awareness of the position we are starting from.  So hang the banners, get the t-shirts printed, tell friends and relatives – let us at long last proclaim what can surely be perceived: those who rule us aren’t really bothered if we die at their hands.  

1  https://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/the-death-of-errol-graham-man-starved-to-death-after-dwp-wrongly-stopped-his-benefits/

2  http://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jan/28/disabled-man-starved-to-death-after-dwp-stopped-his-benefits

3  https://www.karnacbooks.com/product/the-origins-of-unhappiness-a-new-understanding-of-personal-distress/36949/

4  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fv_PkhpgGPQ&list=PLMO4ERHdpehC0BKFAZqs4dg4u07pBTyig&index=5&t=0s

5  https://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/dwp-the-case-for-the-prosecution/

6  https://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/dwp-lied-about-independence-of-new-deaths-panel/

7  I use inverted commas around the term mental health to convey my sense of scepticism regarding the term, on account of its potential to reinforce the problematic notions of disembodiment and the mind/body split; but this is a subject to explored more fully on another occasion.

8  https://england.shelter.org.uk/legal/benefits/housing_benefit/what_is_housing_benefit

9  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/windrush-scandal-nhs-cancer-treatment-high-court-legal-challenge-ruling-home-office-a8675781.html

10  https://www.tuc.org.uk/blogs/two-years-after-grenfell-fight-justice-continues

11  https://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/errol-graham-anger-over-ministers-heartless-response/

12  https://novaramedia.com/2017/10/21/housing-crisis-and-inequality/

13  https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/study-88-of-criminologists-do-not-believe-the-death-penalty-is-an-effective-deterrent

14  https://novaramedia.com/2020/02/15/the-governments-inadequate-response-to-flooding-is-further-proof-it-just-doesnt-get-climate-change/

15  https://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/the-death-of-errol-graham-activists-left-enraged-and-sickened-by-latest-dwp-death/

Simon Morris

Ray

In late December the news arrived that Simon Morris, erstwhile singer and leader of The Ceramic Hobs among many other things, had died.

Writing about someone in the aftermath of their passing seems a silly thing to do.  Words fail us: they just don’t have the gravity, they float away.  Best just kiss: keep it simple, stupefied.  However, once our words have settled from their flailing, they can help to point towards things that matter.

Many people knew Simon much better than I, and for longer, but – his having left his fascinating imprint upon my window – here is my take.

When I needed somewhere to store a stack of stuff after I had pulled the rug from beneath my own domestic circumstances, Simon was the first to step up and offer his spare room and garage.  At that time, though we had a musical association, it wasn’t as if we knew each other particularly well.  He thus accommodated my clutter with never a chunter, for as long as this was needed (it turned out to be several years).  This was emblematic of his generosity with his space and time: the arrangement of visits to him would tend to be accompanied by his promise to take us on a maraud somewhere scenic – and it was on those jaunts that his delicate attunement to nature, and sense of curiosity, even a quiet awe at everything he noticed, really came to the fore.  These were the times when Simon’s being-himself came across to me most fully and clearly: he seemed to be there as man and boy all at once, fully in the moment, enthralled yet serene, very much in touch.  Messages he sent from, or following, holidays to wilder places likewise sang with the music of the creatures he’d seen, the climate and the way he’d felt it; he spoke with great enchantment about that area of woodland visible across the fields from his front window, where he and friends would go after nightfall to make music together.  His sense of joy at recounting an unplanned walk which took him away, alone and anonymous, from a foreign city and into woodland is particularly memorable.  His essential tenderness likewise came across in his tales of late-night waltzes with his loved ones to particular songs that we shared a high regard for.

Discussions with Simon could cover any ground; he was among the most open minded of people one could ever hope to know, his perception and appreciation expansive.   I’ll always remember with affection, too, his ready sense of irreverence, his keeness to lark and laugh: a serious sense of fun.  Simon was a most creative dramatist of human absurdity, of the lunacy underpinning mundanity, adept at subverting darkness with his own beams of light and heat.  I see him chuckling through his vape as we discussed shared experiences of certain intimate medical procedures; and bandying around favourite jazz and rap lyrics, spontaneously spoof-reading his way through the drama of disintegtration that is “The Message” over a rudimentary drumbeat.  There was the afternoon we tittered ourselves as silly as a pair of tipsy tweens listening to an Oi LP; an evening wedged up at the front with him and another friend, a bunch of sweaty moshing ageing fanboys romping and jumping, pointing and shouting, at one of the last performances I saw The Fall do.  And his basking in a golden afternoon in Hoylake, delightfully infusing his roaring and screeching with the bliss and tranquility of the day, channeling the sun.

I’ll remember Simon with great fondness, and a sense of thanks that he invited me in for a time; there’s an accompanying strain of sadness regarding the sense he sometimes exuded of being distant and inaccessible – and, pluming from this, a plaintive sense of helpless bewilderment about …  it all.  Inevitably, the sunshine has its shadow. 

The last time I saw Simon was early in 2019: he seemed happy and hopeful, was apparently well settled into writing his unsettling work and spoke of it with evident pride, and talked about some opportunities that were about to open out to him.  “Our paths will cross again” was just about the last thing he said to me: my life lacks some significant dashes of colour as a consequence of a fact that this now can’t happen. 

do nothing: an invitation to the church of stop chopping

Adam Nedman

The word “love” has long been graffitied on the brick of a nearby clock tower; it had, until sometime recently, been there for at least the few years that I’ve lived hereabouts.  Today, on a local mosey, I saw that this four letter word had been censored, cleaned away.  

It was only later in the same walk that I realised that this seemed to be the sole graffito to have been cleaned away locally of late: many tags, signatures, and other street obliquities remain scrawled on the suburb’s various surfaces.  I am, generally speaking, welcoming of it: I’d much rather graffiti than advertising.  (‘Love’, the only missive to be effaced – imagine!).

On another recent jaunt in the area, I came across a somewhat distressed woman, de-littering a freshly-shredded hedgerow by the river in an agitated manner.  My remarking on my sadness at seeing what had evidently happened to this patch of ground – trees cut down, bushes ripped out and dumped, the bramble angularly slashed – brought forth from her a torrent of pained outpourings regarding the desecration.  “Neanderthals!”, she cried, explaining that, having tried in vain over several years to persuade the Council to come and free this patch from litter, she was alarmed to see their workmen turn up and instead begin liberally lopping, chopping and tearing, inflicting upon the area a treatment as savage as it was pointless.  (Neanderthal man and woman, it must be said, might well have treated the land with greater respect – but one appreciates, I think, what the woman was expressing through her use of the term).  It’s worth pointing out that this is not a piece of land which is near to any residences, and has no other reason for being manicured as some showpiece; neither is it being prepared for any building work.  It’s purely the occurrence of natural habitats along a riverside, adjacent to a sizeable area of rough grassland.

Similar examples can be found of public authorities, and their hired hench-forces, taking it upon themselves to do precisely what isn’t necessary.  The detritus of our neoliberalised existences accumulates in gutters, gardens and hedges; polluters are left to idly belch as they see fit; the city street is everybody’s flytip.  Meanwhile, Councils up and down the land waste their time, and our money, in busybodying themselves with nature.  They send their troops to engage in the futile and carcinogenic glyphosating of  ‘weeds’; trees are pruned and hedges hacked, and at the wrong times, when they are growing or when birds want to nest.  Grasslands are often mown to within millimetres of their life: even if this does not kill the grass outright, it is left much more vulnerable to drought; its roots are stunted and struggle to bind the soil, which is at greater risk of being washed away by rainfall; and the danger of flooding is increased.  Further, the biodiversity upon which we depend is instantly lost.  (Conversely, when such areas are left and life allowed to take its course, the natural assets we are increasingly aware of badly needing – soil, trees, insects – spontaneously flourish …  These incidences seem small matters – but writ large and expanded across nations and continents, they have significant impact; and in any case, I care about every chaffinch that bids me visitation).   

There is perhaps more going on here than simply the need for folk to be given things to do by which they can earn money (etc etc, world without end, Amen), or a ritualised fixation with an idea of tidiness as a measure of local character.  The philosopher E.M. Cioran wrote much about humans’ perceived need to impose themselves through any form of doing upon each other, the world, and time; he described this as a form of inherent vanity, a seemingly inevitable offshoot of our notions of ourselves as selves.  “Contaminated by the superstition of action, we believe that our ideas must come to something” [his italics], writes Cioran in the pointedly-entitled essay ‘Thinking Against Oneself’ in the collection ‘The Temptation To Exist’, in describing what he referred to elsewhere in the same tome as “the idolatory of becoming”.  (I have sometimes mused on the notion that the simple, even puerile need to have something to do may be a major factor in many acts of murder).  In this sense, Cioran paints a colonialist instinct as intrinsic to us: the question is to what extent, through awareness and restraint, we can offset this.

We live in a society with a strong bias towards doing, and being seen to do, one abetted by the ubiquity of functional accessories: “What if our reveries were not productive? …  What if we lay back on a lily pad, with nothing to do?  Would someone call the police?”, enquires Richard Seymour in concluding his book The Twittering Machine.   And in the neoliberal era, wherein we are primed to compete and to be wring as much from the earth as possible, it may be that desecration and domination is a yet more likely expression of this ‘need’ to seek recognition (from self and others) via activity.  (Note that there are generally higher rates of violent crime in more unequal societies, in which the spirit of competition is enhanced). 

The overall effect, if not the underlying aim, of such neo-Neanderthal nature-cowing as described herein is the extension of the project of humanising the world as much as possible.  Only latterly have the ecological needs, and perhaps natural rights, of other forms of life begun to be spoken of in the same breath as the grand plans humanity has for earth and space.  It remains the case that our distorted sense of self-significance, and our perception of our own force of life as being individually possessed, rather than part of a universal energy, provokes our craving to make our mark (concrete is required for us to leave a lasting imprint) – to take some ownership of, or some virginity from, the world; be the user, not the used.  One might think that by now we’d be getting the message that our human dominion over nature only serves to threaten our own survival; however, this perhaps fails to account for the deeper drives that are in play, acknowledgement of which may be key to our safe collective passage into a habitable future.

The spontaneity of love, and love of spontaneity, will each be required in this quest: thus, plans are afoot to re-inscribe that four letter word upon the brick of the clock tower, and to undertake geurilla planting of trees and wildflowers along a nearby riverside path.  Further to which, in that patch of land, there may really be nothing for we humans to do.  

wilderness, weather and the function of tape hiss: Fergus McCreadie Trio at the Pianodrome, Edinburgh August 2019

Jasmine Ames

This year’s Edinburgh Fringe saw Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie’s Trio perform at the Pianodrome, a hexagonal amphitheatre fabricated entirely from old pianos.  It made for a space of somewhat spellbound homeliness: soles creaked across lushly veneered wood panels, the glow of standard lamps lending a brooding lustre to the grain, and rows of ivory and ebony teeth grinned from all sides.

It’s as if the arena in which the Trio performed, in being assembled from old instruments, itself embodied the close relationship between music and landscape (and the way that one can become the other); this connection was further acknowledged by the Trio in that their set was comprised of pieces inspired by aspects of Scotland’s natural environment. 

Indeed, McCreadie and his band soon transported us outside, beyond our interior, urban setting.  The whirling, flailing-then-settling air of their sound, and the physicality of McCreadie’s playing, each conjured thoughts of wilder environs.  McCreadie himself appeared to be engaged in an elementally turbulent relationship with his instrument, at times so tender as one almost too reverent to address the keys, whilst at others stabbing at it in sustained, shuddering spasms.  Perhaps he is, in part, under the spell of the increasingly extreme manifestations of weather we have been experiencing.

The lines upon which McCreadie’s Trio expand are earthy, rather than ornate, a simplicity which speaks of open, unpopulated and uncultivated expanses.  However, the dynamics of their playing supply the finer, shifting details of the scene.  The pulses and grooves into which they lock are never left to set, but are built up then stripped down and away, then reappear in morphed form; drums clatter, whisper and stumble, always just loose enough to complement the windsweptness of the sound; the bass is a bough bending and dipping in a gale, in the face of which McCreadie grimaces and flails.

And yet when, back at home, I listen to the trio’s debut LP Turas I find that, though it features the same tunes, it does not convey the same sense of living landscape.  On CD, the spaces the trio leave seem comprised only of the antimatter of digital zeroes; no cross-breeze corrupts them, and in this emptiness the players’ expressions are left sounding somewhat abashed.  Reflect upon other listening experiences, what strikes me is that pretty much any music which utilises space as an instrument in itself seems, when digitally rendered, partly nullified as a consequence of its blank representation of those ‘silences’ amidst and around sound.  The dimensions of pauses are constrained and flattened, made like exhibits behind glass, with only the straight outlines of hollow shapes left behind; those lingering indistinctions which would inhabit the space, and which provide music with much of its mystery, are eradicated.  It’s a bit like the censorship of questions, or having one’s subconscious switched off.  This is, for me, why a fair chunk of hip-hop, jazz or reggae on CD sounds much inferior when compared with the vinyl versions.

Perhaps the isolative acoustic treatment of many recording studios creates dead zones; or maybe it is largely the digital process which causes these quelling effects – when the CD was first launched, one selling point claimed for it was its lack of ‘surface noise’.  However, the world which is home for humanity and its music evidently has a surface; we can’t stand without the land (and as aforementioned, Turas is compositionally inspired by it …  “life has surface noise”, as John Peel said once, “it’s alright by me”).  The capacity to ‘feel the dirt’ of a recording in our listening can be a way for us to feel our feet on the ground; thus, the warmth of analogue equipment may be required to provide some recordings with, at least, that sense of movement lent by the audible sound of electricity.  What we often mistakenly refer to as ‘silence’ is, of course, in fact full of particles of sonic soot and grot: as John Cage acknowledged in composing 4’33”, the absences within music need to be empowered for a perfomance to be real – a key aspect of any landscape is space, after all.  If we can’t have McCreadie and co recorded out on a moorland somewhere, then let’s at least sense the heat from those tubes.

I’m unsure as to what process was used for recording Turas; I can only register its effect upon me.  There’s a second LP on the way, apparently, and one hopes that captures more of their glint, gust and shudder.  In the meantime, they are worth witnessing wherever they can be found out here in the wild world: their music is landscape, rather than postcard – and, just as a tree needs muck for its roots and a breeze to twitch its limbs, this landscape is best apprehended when one is surrounded by and contained within it, feeling its forces ripple and shiver the skin, fully inhabiting its space.

a sardonic anthem to cliquery: on The Great Unwashed’s ‘Born in the Wrong Time’

Ray

The Great Unwashed’s ‘Born in the Wrong Time’ made a strong impression on me from the first time I heard it …  I found myself craving its rustic, unassuming push-and-jolt (it seems to me a kind of uncanny waltz-in-4/4); I loop-listened, ushering it under my skin, to the point whereby I was bound to ask myself why I was doing so.  Only when scrutinising it beat by beat whilst talking it over with a friend did the reasons become clear.

It’s the lyric, I think: it sketches the attitude of the in-crowd to an outsider whom they consider hapless and helpless, and perfectly depicts it in the la-la-la of a breezy 140 seconds.  As the song progresses, this effetely jaunty singalong takes on a more acidic irony as we increasingly sense the true flavour of the narrator’s disposition towards the ‘different’ – as the song says, those whose “form of socialising is a bit too strong” …  Yes, s/he is alright but they, y’know, express themselves too keenly, evidently care about things, maybe a bit too much (for them?  for us?)  … perhaps they bring up things that we find difficult to answer or explain, aspects of ourselves or our worlds which we would rather ignore …  you know the type … . 

…  But no – it’s not just the lyric: it’s also the way in which the music illuminates its message that, sadly, the unfortunate subject of the piece is simply beyond help.  When zoned in upon, the mono-tonous peal of the arpeggiated guitar manifests the narrator’s shrug, carries the resonance of their impassive, dazed straight-ahead gaze; likewise, the plod of the drums, broken only by the flashing jab of snare at “but he’s … already taken”, models their failure to break stride, the walking-on-by.  There is, too, a non-committal, baleful tone to the narrator’s expression; their sympathy for the outcast seems infused by apathy, their energies primarily purposed with asserting that their marginalisation is no one’s fault – it’s arbitrarily inherent, a stroke of ill luck.  Y’know, s/he’s, like, “just one of those people born in the wrong time”.  That’s all.  Aaah.  Nothing we can do.  Indeed, their suffering is diagnosed as self-inflicted, nothing to do with others’ willingness or otherwise to reach out, and beyond their ken (thus futile to enquire into) – “he seems to like hurting himself”.  (It’s an apposite comment for our age, wherein ‘mental health’ issues are largely fetishised in the mainstream as biochemical accidents afflicting individuals.  Distress is still much less considered to be a more or less inevitable effect upon central nervous systems of psychically unwell societies – those broadly characterised by an individualism tending towards sociopathy; unhealthy imbalances of power within the family and beyond; the active fomenting of precarity, and undermining of community; similarly deliberate and sustained attacks on one’s ability to focus attention; and accelerating catastrophic decay of the natural world).

The folksy ho-hum of both the narrative message and its musical accompaniment  cannot effectively conceal an underlying cruelty, however: the sneer behind the narrator’s wan grin is progressively revealed in the insistent repetition of the in-group’s cold final solution to the problem of the troublesome wrong-timer.  The group don’t deign to speak to him: rather, they are “pushing his bags out the door” – indeed, it can be inferred that the unfortunate one isn’t actually present whilst their belongings are being symbolically exiled.  There’s perhaps a veiled threat of violence, too, in the narrator’s assertion that “I’d give him something … “.  

Lest we were in any doubt, the final syllable of the song, on its final beat – the slamming door of “pushing his bags, OUT” is snapped like a dictator’s command.  It is indeed the final word on the matter; there will be no further discussion, nothing to be considered or understood, no way back.  Get your stuff and fuck off: we just want to have our good time.  And you – YOU – are not in our time.  The protagonist is exiled not just from a certain space, but also from the moment in which they exist; effectively, the narrator’s intent is to annul their existence.

I know someone who lived in a large shared house, wherein the often brutal interpersonal culture made full participation too stressful for them.  Still, whilst keeping a lower profile, they created no problem for anybody and continued to be co-operative and considerate towards others.  After some months, they received a letter – signed not by any individual, but merely “The Household” – which explained that ‘they’ didn’t feel my acquaintance was a suitable housemate; therefore, when would they be moving out?  When my acquaintance (who understandably, having settled and made connections in the area, was loath to move) complained about this to the Housing Association, one of the clique of roost-ruling residents came forward to expound this reasoning: “I just want to hang out with my friends and have fun”.  Well, I don’t think the fleeting presences of an outsider was stopping you from doing so – was it?  Was banishment required?  Must a zone be purged, perceived as ‘pure’?

I think back to the sometimes brutal in-/out-group culture of playground days, and wonder whether those in-crowders I knew at school engaged in excluding others simply as a way of seeking to safely navigate their experience of being a kid – or whether some continued to cling to the ‘in’, and prohibit the ‘other’, as adults.  I recall all the occasions upon which I myself have spoken or acted to exclude, either because I didn’t (feel I) had the time for what the other was carrying – or because to do so seemed to elevate me, scored me a point.  And I think of all the folks, facts and factors that society “pushes out the door” in order that we can evade difficulties of feeling, decision and action.  

With a bitter drink, let us all toast our inner fascist.