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The common factor linking Blair and Blur is that they made thoroughly sure to get their sell-out in first, to make perfectly clear that the dream was over, that there would be no more experiments, no more utopias, only a constricted, and as the still-unfolding financial crisis makes clear, utterly misnamed ‘realism’. The generation that came of age in the mid-late 1990s were perhaps the most apolitical of the 20th century. leaving a mess which those born in that decade are struggling to clear up, through the student movement against the Tory-Whig Coalition government – whose Prime Minister, a fan of the Smiths and the Jam, displays impeccably Britpop tastes. Pulp were alone at the time in holding onto the possibility of utopias and alternatives, in being able to use the world ‘socialism’ without smirking – although they didn’t create an alternative so much as carry the idea through a most unsympathetic period.

I have a memory of an Irish Times music journo summing up the Blur versus Oasis pop rivalry with, and I am obviously paraphrasing here, ‘while both sides fought over chart positions it was Jarvis on his push-bike who swooped in to steal the crown’. I was a fan of Pulp‘s music (I am horrified to discover having followed that link that I just missed their Sydney gig), both due to the catchy songs as well as my own contrary desire to stand apart from the mainstream taste-setters. Of course Pulp were not exactly underground, although following Jarvis led me to the amazing Oedipus Schmoedipus album by Barry Adamson, so I am grateful for that.

Owen Hatherley makes it quite clear early in this work that Uncommon is not intended as a prosaic discography – or even a biography of the magnetic Jarvis – intead it is an account of the band Pulp represents, the contrary associations it projected against the background of New Labour and Britpop at its height, an uncomfortable reminder for this narrow politically-minded  subset of public school demagogues and PR denizens that Britain’s class culture was far less bucolic than their press releases would have the public believe. Damon Albarn’s mockney facade is here twinned with Blair’s ‘yeah yeah yeah‘ deceptive superficiality.

The 90’s were awash in a pre-packaged faux nostalgia for previous periods – the mono-cultural setting of Britain’s past cited in order to eclipse its multicultural present; the fashions and empty rebellion of the sixties stripped of any political comment. Even Northern rockers Oasis were at it, Noel Gallagher’s lyrics summarising the druged up euphoria of rave culture, but weighed down with post-Beatles musical ballast. Pulp, Hatherley argues, instead situated their music and lyrics in the band’s experiences coming up in the politically marginalised urban environment of Sheffield, with the promises of reform and social improvements made during their childhood repeatedly betrayed.

The evolving abilities of Jarvis Cocker as a lyricist is also examined. The song ‘My Legendary Girlfriend‘ released in1990 is liberally quoted from, demonstrating the singer’s talent not just at evoking a time and a place, but in telling a story. As the band progressed Pulp’s lyrics became decididly risqué, with Jarvis casting himself as a suburban lothario, an insatiable in his pursuit married women instead of the teenage girls that populate the chart ballads. Black humour becomes more prominent in the music, with an evident desire to expose the listener to a rage of emotions beyond simple titillation and yes, even expose the political hypocrisy of the era. One find of Hatherley’s in particular is the little-known, bombastic b-side Cocaine Socialism, a blistering indictment of New Labour.

Of course singles like Common People and Disco 2000 (which I recall Jarvis blithely revealing in an interview he wrote to secure royalties for the Millennium) from the best-selling album Different Class launched the band into a difficult period of fame, confounding their attempts to use it to their own ends. The decline of the band is treated as a further opportunity to describe the frustrations of the neo-liberal 90’s and early 2000’s, as much as result of internatl pressures as it was their failure to be pidgeon-holed by the music industry.

Hatherley has produced a perfect tribute to Pulp and the time that produced them as a band, invoking the sincerity of their ambitions as musicians and story-tellers. This account of their career is an excellent excoriation of Britpop and New Labour hagiographies.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

Take us out Mr Cocker

Uncommon by Owen Hatherley Zer0 Books

 

This suffocating indebtedness (along with the fear of terrorism) is the closets the UK population comes to having a collective identity. We hold our breath while a few oligarchs suck in the oxygen, even though we’re supposedly “all in it together” (“it’s up to all of us”).

Today’s author is described on the Zer0 Books website as having previously worked as a “cappuccino frother, data enterer, trainee teacher, cashier, mail sorter, jobseeker, factory drone, warehouse operative, writer, street sweeper, audio tester and care worker“. In my time jaunting around the world between different temp jobs I have ticked off at one time or another almost every single one of the same ‘career paths’, with the exception of trainee teacher and care worker. I think my parents between them held down five jobs in total. I have already had double that number of positions over the past fifteen years or so.

Of course in the 90’s this was described as the bright future of my generation, employees having won the opportunity to change their careers multiple times, upskill, diversify and so on. The idea of long service pensions, health care contributions and emergency leave already seems like a mirage.

Southwood’s discussion as regards the relationship between employees and ‘their’, jobs advances through a series of stages, opening with a critical assessment of worker rights in society – where the notion of a trade, or a job with any sense of ownership has been deconstructed in favour of continual movement between jobs, or the imminent loss of work, a state defined here as ‘precarity‘ – before engaging the reader with the personal perspective of the author as regards living on a meagre wage, having to pay off large amounts of debt and the dissolution of unemployment assistance from the state. As such Non-Stop Inertia is no theoretical academic treatise that remains at a remove from the material. Southwood presents himself as a case-study of how this modern form of personal insecurity is all-pervasive and psychologically detrimental.

At one point Southwood bemusedly comments that writing this book may affect his future job prospects, but then of course there is little likelihood that the jargon-spouting temp agency recruiters he has to meet with will have read it.

The current digital age has produced what is wittily described here as ‘cultural stagflation‘ – continuous stimulation, with no genuine possibility of action. Twenty-first century popular media is designed to titillate and excite, but not engage or challenge. Similarly the workplace is a site of constant activity, but little chance of any sense of achievement. Instead workers are encouraged to compete for positions that will soon be outsourced – “Predictable income, savings, the fixed category of “occupation”: all belong to another historical world.” In an insidious inversion of existentialist psychology employees are told that they must choose their futures, even as their options become increasingly limited – the individual has become a function of profit.

Southwood’s experience as a temp overlap with his having to apply for jobseeker’s allowance. He describes how the Tory government of the early 1990’s redefined the job exchange as a despiriting, compulsory process of constant assessment, one which in turn become increasingly precarious. The era of New Labour continued to carry the ball, increasingly limiting the concept of British social welfare. In the media crime and sundry social malaises are blamed on families who remain on the dole – with the attendant counter-point that working families can barely make ends meet rarely addressed.

Another strand of discussion is how trade unionism and worker’s rights generally are being undercut. The concept of the ‘Virtual Assistant‘, is introduced, in effect an out-of-office P.A. who must compete for assignments from his/her ‘clients’, but has little to no rights. If the V.A. is unable to work, whether it be due to maternity leave, or illness, a competitor simply takes their place. Once again, to be able to work from home is sold as the greatest form of freedom, whereas Southwood observes it as being completely unsupported and unguaranteed employment. The Virtual Assistant is the epitome of temping culture, which threatens to erode the capacity of trade unions to represent their members. After all, if employees can be replaced by short-term workers, the unions have not only lost members, they are unable establish representation.

Rounding off this incisive and intelligently paced critique, Southwood addresses various methods of resisting the debilitating effects of job insecurity. This jack of all trades can now add ‘author’, to his C.V.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

 

Rumpole is determined to win the appeal of that ghastly terrorist who is now safely in Belmarsh Prison. This is absolutely the right place for Dr Mahmood Khan, if you want my opinion, or that of most sensible people, but when I tell Rumpole this he starts talking about Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. And he hardly listens when I tell him that there were no suicide bombers and no al Qaeda when King John signed up to the charter on the island of Runnymede.

John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey has become an enduring fictional creation. Leo McKern’s performance as the character on television immortalised him and the phrase ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ is possibly more famous than the Rumpole himself. I remember watching the show when I was a kid and being fascinated not by the witty badinage, or plot twists, but by the wigs! Oh those wigs, I always wanted one.

Rumpole’s own wig has lost its lustre and has developed an unsightly yellowish tincture, to match his raggedy robes. He’s a man out of time it seems, coasting on successes that no one remembers, refusing to use a computer in court (pen and paper are faster he maintains) and reduced to relying on the dreadful Timson family for cases, as getting caught committing petty crimes is something of a tradition for them.

Things take a turn for the decidedly worse, however, when Rumpole agrees to defend a doctor from Pakistan who has been accused of crimes under the new anti-terrorism laws drawn up by the New Labour government. Under the terms of the legislation the defendant and their counsel are forbidden from learning what the particulars of the arrest are, such as what the crime in question was, when it occurred, what evidence has been presented. The days of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, have come and gone it seems, with pressure mounting on Rumpole to drop the case from above and below. A New Labour stooge attempts bribery and the Timsons withdraw their business. Rumpole himself begins to doubt his client’s innocence. Dr Khan’s seems almost too good to be true, waxing lyrical about cricket and the Queen, all the while wearing a patient, bemused expression on his face while sitting in Belmarsh prison. Is it all an act? What’s more She Who Must Be Obeyed, Hilda, receives an unusual proposition from Rumpole’s enemy Justice Leonard Bullingham, whom he nicknames Mad Bull, all of which she details exhaustively in her own memoirs! Could Rumpole’s lady wife be looking to sweep the carpet from under him?

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror is a quick read, with amusing asides from our hero to the reader. As far as I know She Who Must Be Obeyed was previously an invisible presence in the books, at least that was my impression from the television show as a kid. Mortimer introduces extracts from her own memoirs as a counterpoint to Rumpole’s struggles with the Dr Khan case. Much of the humour derives from witty quips traded between the long suffering couple and the courting of Hilda by Mr Justice Mad Bull makes for a diverting secondary plot.

However, at its heart this book is an angry broadside against the policies of New Labour, its shirking of the letter of the law and dismantling of civil liberties. Rumpole finds himself stuck in a situation Kafkaesque in its absurdity, attempting to defend a man stripped of any right to a fair trial. Any appeal on our hero’s part to the rights of a citizen of Britain is dismissed as unfashionable and behind the times. Rumpole himself is treated as a relic of a by-gone age.

That Mortimer ties this all together in a gripping, yet also witty package is a testament to his skills as a writer. This is my first taste of the Rumpole series and I’ll be happy to investigate further.

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