Privatisation and eccentricity
Stories. Stories following thousands of other stories. Piece parts whose values we can predict because we have seen them many times before, and can remember how they went. Verbal objects made of thousands of other verbal objects scrunched up. Shared symbols that get us away from the autobiographical; that give us rapid access to complex memories, that restrict what we can say to what has already been said; that can be vandalised to express disagreement with the consensus. Radio, TV, and newspapers covering us all with thousands of stories, like several inches of dust that fall every day, written without originality.
One of the easiest ways of misreading British poetry is to pass over the national myths which pre-scribe some of its symbols. This brings us to a didactic impasse - this material is too large for me to pack it into a few pages of summary. Incidentally, I began thinking about it after I decided that modern poetry avoided familiar ideas -and so had holes punched through it where these ideas were. I wanted to approach poetry from its negative. This didn't work, but I did formulate some ideas about the collective myths. Most of the poets whose work interests me feel that the familiarity of a myth significantly reduces its value as an element in a poem.
It is rather easy to describe the ideology of privatisation, anti-communism, and liberal Empire. These causes enjoyed powerful backing from elite circles, resources were invested in developing a way of representing them for the electorate, and this efficient codifying is easy to put into words. Once occupied by such common messages, certain objects were contaminated, no longer available for use in poems without effortful laundering; the poets either deliver the authorised messages, or else move into an outland, where the official symbols are missing. In the outland, different hierarchies and alliances emerge, fitfully.
The classic statement on privatisation was made by the British Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exhibition (whose flourish of subtitle we will erase). In an atmosphere of international tension, flanked by the Soviet and German pavilions, fantasies of gigantism that reduced architecture to a weightlifting competition, the British contribution was wholly about leisure and sport. The central theme (selected by Frank Pick) was "English words in French": a small group, led by le weekend, which in aggregate represented the high design of outdoor sports and leisurewear developed for the English rich in the early nineteenth century. Most aspects of pleasure were more highly developed in France, which of course did not borrow any words where it was pleased with its own. The ones borrowed from England made visible the pleasures of peace, but also drew attention to English commodities, exported to the well-off in other countries, and produced by "old established" suppliers; foreign currency earners. These retail outlets had, earlier on, made the trappings of aristocratic culture available to the moneyed bourgeoisie; the nobility had, in fact, pioneered the lifestyle of total leisure. This was not part of the message. Pick's approach privatised the struggle of ideologies: the German State was confronted with British families and individuals, the "illustrations" of a consumer society, motivated by trade and commodities. Ritualised competition—via sports, and via competitive shopping—dissipated the energies which could swell into war and conquest. Monumental, strictly useless, display façades, were contrasted with comfortable bourgeois interiors, settings for family life. Implicitly, the State is reduced to another old, traditional, supplier of specialised goods to the families, the real centres of power.
Amateurism, playful conflict, the dégagé, etc.
In 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' (the original 1934 film, which Hitchcock remade in America twenty years later) we find a run-through of themes of privatisation, occupying part of the foreground as ideas which a mass audience recognized and was interested by. The film starts with a pre-credits montage of leaflets advertising Swiss resorts, and is full of leisure imagery throughout: it strikingly resembles the British show at the 1937 Paris Exhibition, although supposedly the film was not propaganda. Briefly, the plot is that a family is on holiday at a Swiss resort when a British agent passes on the information he has obtained to one of them after being fatally shot. Agents of an unspecified power kidnap their daughter, so that the father subsequently refuses to pass the information on to British Intelligence. Back in London, he works out from the obscure message where the agents are; they have brought his daughter to London; their plan is to assassinate a foreign politician and so bring about a crisis, perhaps a war, in central Europe. Improbably enough, he and a friend frustrate the plot; a squad of police surround the spies and shoot them; the daughter is saved from imminent death by her mother, a star markswoman, who shoots off the roof an assassin.
The film can be seen as an anti-government story, and so anti-propaganda. This value shifts at various points; but certainly we see the plot as striving to satisfy fans of citizens' rights. Politics are a bad thing because they threaten the little girl's life, even if the power of the state also saves the day, rescuing the father from the hands of the spies. The central drama, i.e. the conflict between duty to one's country and duty to one's family, is resolved by the two protagonists exclusively in favour of the latter. Even wartime propaganda was, we suspect, shaped by the electorate's distrust of the state, a design parameter which always had to be accommodated even though the set intent of the film-makers or writers was specifically to promote the "war effort", which in practice was the state. There is an incident at the start at a ski-jumping competition where the girl runs onto the empty piste just as someone is jumping, forcing him to fall violently to avoid her, which we are told could have been fatal for him. We can guess that the parent: child relationship here parallels the state:citizen relationship, with the underlying message that disobedience can be fatal. The story starts with scenes of winter sports and has a scene about the mother playing with the lost child's toys. This matches with the bantering tone of the dialogue: abstract concerns are far away, and the within-family tone of intimacy and casualness is offered to the audience as something to identify with and to enjoy. Privatisation is also a style of acting. The prominent parts played by the mother and the child are also results of the affective-individualist style within the family. The mother first appears nearly winning a rifle-shooting contest (the assassin wins), and then irritates the husband rather by dancing with someone else. Playful conflict - competitive games, practical jokes, bantering insults - appears throughout, and is contrasted with the deadly seriousness, hierarchical subjugation, and real violence, of the spy gang. This casual joking style is associated with the actor Gerald Du Maurier, who changed the fashion for stage delivery.
It is only fair to say that the qualities of the film may derive mainly from story-writer Charles Bennett.
The amateurism of the two sleuths (the husband and his friend) is a favoured device. Evidently this social pattern of privatisation appealed to the British cinema market, who after all bought tickets for the film; but in the mass media the flow goes the other way as well, as the audience is trained to recognise certain patterns as "British", to identify with them, and to expect them to win. If, a few years later, propaganda films concentrated on eccentricity and tradition, it was because dedication to the war machine had already been "tagged" as un-British and undemocratic. In reality the unassailed rights of the citizen were very few in wartime; the unreduced eccentricity admired by the films perhaps reflected the wishes of most of the audience, was perhaps an act of deception. This small-scale resistance and eccentricity were deified, well after the war, in Ealing comedies like 'Passport to Pimlico' and 'The Titfield Thunderbolt'.
We can compare all this distrust of large-scale organisation to the Apocalyptic movement in poetry, with its concept of the object-machine, which included the state, warfare, the mechanised economy, and so on. This may appear more a wish than a policy, but it was after all one which people in 1939 could easily recognise and which was close to their own ideas; we can say that 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' is about the object-machine—a real Central European one, and a British one which the characters do not want to come into existence.
There was, after all, a sector of opinion in the 1930s which wanted an all-powerful state. Films extolling privatisation, amateurism, the family, eccentricity, etc., can be seen as propaganda against such a system. The meetings between the police and the bereaved parents, in Hitch's film, can be seen as an example of a relationship in stable tension: where any move which would push things too far invokes stronger forces which nudge it back towards safe ground. Rules matter more than the interests of one side. As a type of relationship, with governing limits, shared tacit knowledge, etc., it resembles the relationships between individuals in the film. It suggests to us that relationships of equality within rules are best, and so of course argues against a totalitarian system, without civil rights.
If we like spontaneity and eccentricity in art, this may reflect our political philosophy, rather than being a universal value. Marxists of the 1930s vintage certainly found an unsystematic approach to art very irritating.
If we think of the whole period from 1937 on as one of advancing individualism, we can link the features glorified in the Pavilion of that year as to stylistic features of poetry, thus:
dominance of leisure
confinement of poetry either to the "domestic" mode or to refinements of style; avoidance of large themes
importance of competitive
dominance of comfort
virtuality, playfulness, casualness
stable society with competition through nuances and spending choices
We can equate such favouring of the intimate and amateur in film with the purging of rhetoric from poetry. This stylistic move is not completely free from social and historical bonds. The significant thing about symbolic speeches is not that they don't exist in cinema, but the complexity of the build-up by which the audience is led to accept them. We remember Hollywood films more for big emotional speeches than for chase scenes or wisecracks. During the Second World War, cinema found ways of having characters state war aims and express the ideals which were at stake in a war against fascism.
When we talk of unbridled individualism, we normally think of large corporations and their owners — the winners of the lottery, cheerfully cutting down forests and poisoning everybody else. However, this will not get us very far with culture! No, here we need to think of the more typical product of the possessive individualist ideology — someone who is not materially successful and who has to do what other people want (rather than telling them what to do). There are reasons for thinking that the outcome of this is eccentricity — the production of ideas which other people don't want; accompanied by obstinacy, dislike of authority, equal dislike of joining groups, a certain lack of charm and enthusiasm, great capacity for withstanding rejection, limited capacity for responding to opportunities, a mixture of diffidence and self-esteem, a stubborn and perhaps imaginary belief in authenticity. The value of this unique, original, asset thus becomes the uncertainty on which everything pivots. Literary criticism shrinks down to a fine-grain analysis of the peculiarities of a writer's style, identified with character — and although this grating and sifting is deeply tedious, and simply leaves all other questions unanswered. How does a pile of personal peculiarities add up to a history of literature?
I don't think an overall declaration about British poetry can be meaningful. But we can be positive about the separation between poets — they are spacing themselves out, like trees in a forest. The gaps between them are regular — the evidence of conscious dissimilation. This is the logic of competition. Equally, we could suspect that individualism rejects myths —as shared symbolic structures. But the rules of individualism are shared rules — and generate shared myths.
But, it is time to return to our myths. A stratum of peculiar importance is the wartime propaganda of the 1940s — something which affects the English audience, including me, very deeply, and which is unexcelled — whether because of the subject matter or because the best artists were given their heads for once. Seven years of immersion in this rich honeycomb of linked symbols wiped away, for the insular audience, the memory of what had gone before. The past of national symbolism was rolled up and, so to speak, nationalised. Correlatively, it was a low point for individualism —you can't fight a war as an individual. But it will not be a surprise, in view of what we have been saying, that the collective effort of the war was presented — in collective propaganda — as a defence of the right to be individual.
In one evening, I saw two propaganda films of 1942, 'The First of the Few' and 'Went the Day Well'. I must confess that I find propaganda films much more involving than ones about individuals — I can't seem to stay interested in someone's character for a whole 90 minutes. English people aren't supposed to enjoy propaganda —but I find it easy to get carried away by it. 'Went the Day Well' was made by Ealing Films, who later (1948-55) produced the comedies generally regarded as the best films made in England since the war. It is curious how Ealing Films starts in propaganda. Although their image is as gentle anarchists, their themes quite clearly continue the cult of littleness and eccentricity devised by a few brilliant minds working, in the build-up to the war, on the selling of the war to the population (and incidentally to the Empire, the USA, and to neutral countries). Myths don't come from nowhere — we can actually name these government brains, although their work was secret at the time, and it's not essentially different from the work done by priests, in some stratum of the Bronze Age, in twining together the myths we call classical. 'Went the Day Well' shows a German unit landing by parachute, disguised in English uniforms, speaking English; their task is to occupy an English village, secretly, hold the inhabitants, and set up a radar-jamming unit — to help the full-scale invasion of the island. They are helped by the squire, a Nazi fifth-columnist. The film is surreal, full of cognitive tricks, in the horror genre — and yet like a documentary; it is showing the ideal of village life, with people of limited gifts secure inside a system which protects them. It is one of the greatest of English films (directed by the Brazilian, Alberto Cavalcanti — one of the two great directors of the documentary movement). What happens to the Germans once the villagers discover the plot and break free is horrible — there is just about enough left of them to bury. They were really in the wrong place.
When the intelligentsia were employed en masse to produce propaganda, during the war, there had to be guide-lines — so that they could know what their employers wanted. "Britain the brand name" had to be presented consistently. It was working out the guide-lines, the bases for smooth mass production by thousands of people, which took the genius. A fraction of the intelligentsia rejected, firstly the idea of making war, and secondly the idea of forfeiting individuality to be creative clerks within a large propaganda machine which told writers what their values were. Quite a few of the New Romantics, painters or poets, objected to the war in this way — either as anarchists or as Christians. The objections of the British to German domination are also the objections of the anarchists to the legal restrictions on the individual of the war effort. The radical protest of privatising experience, cultivating eccentricity, resisting authority, etc., is strikingly similar to the government-sponsored depiction of eccentricity, privacy, etc., as the virtues which justified a fight against Germany. (The fight against communism was more difficult to sell at the box office.) True deviance would be either a promotion of the collective (over individual eccentricity) or the promotion of the new, theoretical, technical, and systematic, over against traditional ways. We do find poetry which deviates in both these ways – but only on the peaks of waves of self-confidence. The appeal of sheds and eccentricity is too great.
Eccentricity & gadgets are the attributes of R. J. Mitchell, the First of the Few, who invented the Spitfire, apparently during a day of bird-watching on a cliff in Cornwall (or so the film tells us). When we look at the slight, heroic, and doomed figure of Mitchell, a slight twinge in the kidneys warns us that we are looking at the point in the cosmological map from which the “boffin” poet emerges — solitary, eccentric, given to visions, doomed to be misunderstood for thirty or so years. Most of his career is spent designing seaplanes for races — technology as game. He starts designing warplanes after a trip to Germany where he meets real and joyful Nazis — the most amazing scene in the film, because one of the Germans makes a joke about the English lending them the money for their rearmaments. This is breathtaking because the loans really happened, and the men who made them could be identified (a lot of them were members of the Anglo-German Fellowship Association). Politics in an English film? this never happens. The fighter is a defensive weapon and does not kill enemy civilians— I doubt the film could have been made about someone who designed bombers, just as 'Went the Day Well' couldn't have been made that way without the (imaginary) violation of the homeland by an invader.
We are used to myths which rotate around an object — the agalma of Louis Gernet's exposition in Anthropologie de la Grèce antique. Lynx claws were found in Bronze Age burials by the Baltic —and connected with a glass mountain, climbed by using lynx claws, in a 19th C Polish fairy tale. The connection that beyond the glass mountains (glasvellir), is the land of death is found in Norse sagas. And so the object contains the story — the myth is possessed through the object. In these myths, though, the key seems to be not objects but certain action patterns, readily translated from one medium to another. That is, we can easily recognise the myth avoid conflict, allow people their own space, engage in play conflict in poetry, once we have learnt it in films. The significant level of these Ealing films is patterns of small-group interaction and especially conflict handling. 'Went the Day Well' is about the English way of life because it has the Germans right in the village, dressed in English uniforms, interacting with each other; it is the contrast between their behaviour, and that of the genuine English, which carries the weight of the film. The war aim, for which the country fought, was to retain the English pattern and not be forcibly impressed into the German one, apparently more efficient. The ideal of unimpaired English or British life, thus spelt out on screen to everyone, was massively influential. It did propose a Utopia of a kind. It's always easy to figure out which characters are English, and which ones Nazis — by their whole bearing. It is coded into the patterns of how groups stand, how they talk, how they react to each other. Easy to assimilate, immensely powerful, not wholly detached from reality, it imposes itself on poetry: poets who show British life as something else annoy the audience, poets who show British life as fitting in with it seem vaguely conformist and have difficulty in writing anything gripping. I suppose its mythic nature is revealed in the ability of this code to be recognised as a kernel in so endlessly many different stories. Conflict handling, and the behaviour of authority towards those who obey, are fundamental categories of human existence. They do show up everywhere.
Work on poets like Joseph Macleod or Charles Madge shows a puzzling link of documentary, surrealism, and propaganda. I still find this link mysterious. Yet it's perfectly plain that 'Went the Day Well' is documentary in handling, surrealist in most of its effects, and British war propaganda in its intent. No other description will do. Of course, the 3 founders of Mass Observation (Jennings, Harrison, and Madge) were all poets.
When we think of eccentricity in the sphere of poetry, we must think of style — the belief in a personal style implies a respect for eccentricity. The cells from which a balkanised landscape is made up are made here. However, most British poets are completely unoriginal in style. Does this mean they do not believe in individuality? in fact, no. William Oxley's introduction to Exiles, outsiders, and independents, his anthology of conventional and unoriginal poetry, explains that these poets have resisted the pressure to be original — they write in a traditional way as an expression of their individualist and rebellious nature. The resistance to French post-Symbolist poetics is a Home Guard guerrilla struggle against continental tyranny.
'Are you the one then?' Red demanded, seizing hold of the derelict by the shoulder of his squalid gabardine.
'What one d'you mean?' the dirt-caked face replied; he was scanning the quartet of young men who'd cornered him with rodent's eyes.
'Hey', said Catso, 'don't break his bottles.'
'Right', said Brendan, 'we should dig out the drink before we break his head.'
...The outburst made Karney turn from the gnats and gaze at Pope's emaciated face. Nameless degeneracies had drained it of dignity or vigour, but something remained there, glimmering beneath the dirt. What had the man been, Karney wondered?
'Don't tempt me', Pope said, his voice dropping to a murmur. 'I warn you...'
Karney stared at the plastic trinkets and the soiled ribbons; at the tattered sheets of paper (was the man a poet?) and the wine-bottle corks.
He could see at a glance that there was nothing of value there, though perhaps some of the items — the battered photographs, the all but indecipherable notes — might offer some clue to the man Pope had been before drink and incipient lunacy had driven the memories away.
(from The Books of Blood, by Clive Barker, story 'The Inhuman Condition') .
So, this snatch of bloodsoaked gutter-level Gothic tells us that there is a popular myth of the poet — and it's the image of the small press poet, a kind of derelict aristocracy, which has registered. Of course, it's the youths who perish horribly, not Pope. Pope is revealed as a master of knots which bind monsters — a symbol for the world-binding tangles of avant-garde poetry. Look at these extracts from another Gothic romance, Iain Sinclair's Radon Daughters, describing a reading by three poets:
'There he was, up in his hind legs, wobbling in the breeze of fans, the manifest Germy Hinton. Sileen's hurt embraced the shambling golfbag figure. Hinton. The name clanged like the Lutine bell: a charity-line of disgraced surgeons, time cranks, cardboard-sole mystics. Germy — the last of them, an atavistic stooge. ... He cried out for a transfusion of life-enhancing colours, oyster pink, primary risks in crimson. His minder winced as he wrested the verse Diaghilev out from under a sweltering blanket of topcoat.'
'Has it begun? is this a poem? or is it the preamble, the excuses? He's quite tall, Sileen thought, for a poet. Drooping, sub-eloquent, weak-necked: a Stalinist noddy. A dead-voiced, language-abusing crooner. A gesticulator. A stopper. A starter. A self-eraser. A manic autodidact. A Charles Fortean assembler of inconsequential facts. A piddler of parentheses. An alka-seltzer ham. A white bebop. A parboiled rasta spat out from the ghetto into some tame rural retreat.'
'They can hear the second poet on the monitor: worse than the first. Repeating himself before he begins. A pethidine singsong, a cerebral insult. Too long in the weather, the old salt cements skulls split in forgotten wars (...) His faculties have gone up in green smoke. A wheezer, a fugitive seeking his justification in apocryphal texts, he calls for potato skins.'
Eccentricity is here taken for granted, is almost a royal warrant; the poet has barely moved out of the Gothic since the era of Vathek and Childe Harold; moving to the rare music of folly and heresy, starving on the roots and herbs that grow in the liminal wilderness. Obsession concretises as a folly, a parallel world.
My study of propaganda as a source for poetry began with events around 1930, which I found fitted easily into configurations which I could grasp and manipulate. The fact that I found this harder to do for a later period—the one for which I had a great deal of knowledge of poetry—may not be mere chance, but may reveal a shift in the quality of social experience, tangled up with the increased importance of leisure; the rise in disposable income; the new significance of consumer choice and of variety; the new social mobility; an increase in education and so in "conscious choice" at various levels of existence; and the collapse of binding codes of ethics, and of the authority of parents, clergymen, etc., who spoke for those codes. Although individuals are still animated by ideals and norms, the norms in question have volatilised, becoming impossibly numerous and shifting. Of course, it would be unreasonable to find anything else in the centre of Fifties culture than the Cold War; I am inclined to define the whole era from 1914 to 1965 as one of national peril and cultural mobilisation.
As we saw, the British propaganda line against 1930s totalitarianism was that an "open" society allowed individual freedom by defending civil rights, and achieved prosperity through this; eccentricity, individualism, and a primary concern with leisure, were ideological raw materials structurally necessary to the assembly of any pro-British propaganda. Virtuality, and a preoccupation with personal style, transfer those values into poetics. Poetry which pursues those values, consequently, can be interpreted as supporting the British Image, as devised by the chief government ideologists of the 1930s, even when the poets writing it announce their own status as radical and unofficial figures of independence.
The terrifying thing about modern poetry is that there is no centre. Praise poetry actually tells you what the objects of status competition are. Societies where it flourishes are so easy to grasp; you just look at where the power is, trace the sponsored culture. Consumer society is like a segmentary society: you don't look at the monumental erections of State and Church, you have to look for the underlying patterns of poetry in the layout of the dwelling, in the ordering of domestic space, the messages worked into the objects of interior decoration.
We all know the old myths —but there has been a detachment. Poets now have to engage in original mythic thought. The problem of the poets, in our period, may be just this: to find a central space in which to write poems that interest someone outside their friends and family.
It is the quality of myths to engender thousands of copies, and to be hard to analyse — I am not suggesting that these myths comprehend the whole myth-system of the country. In fact, I am sure that is not so. (Also, that there is a world of myths special to Wales and Scotland.)
This was part of 'Fulfilling the Silent Rules' but was cut to get the book down to size. So written about 2003.