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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Nazis in the Neighbourhood

Following the leak of yet another BNP "membership" list I thought it would be fun to try and find out something about the social demography of our homegrown Nazis. What follows should be hedged around with a sackful of caveats. Most importantly the 2009 "membership" list may not be a membership list at all, though there seems to be less doubt about the authenticity of the 2007 figures. There is also rather little individual level information in the leaked lists that can help us draw a portrait of the average wannabe brownshirt. There is however a precise postcode for almost every name with an address in the UK. This means that we can assign them to one of the 18 ACORN groups http://www.caci.co.uk/ACORN/pclookup.asp beloved of all those firms that stuff our letter boxes full of junk mail (sorry, I meant to write - enrich our consumption experience by making us aware of additional life-style options). Being fastidious I should point out that the ACORN labels apply to the households in the geographical areas defined by the postcodes rather than the individuals themselves. But this is a blog not an academic paper so I'll cut myself a little linguistic slack. What strikes me about these numbers is that leaving aside their unhinged political opinions, socio-demographically your typical British Nazi isn't particularly distinctive when compared to the whole of the British population. They are a bit less likely to be wealthy executives, prosperous professionals or educated urbanites - rich, suave and sophisticated don't seem to be terms that are commonly used by the press to describe Nick Griffin. They are also a bit less likely to be living in asian communities which given their policy preferences is scarcely revelatory. Blue-collar roots and settled suburbanity are a little more common than average as is the burden of singledom (given their views is it surprising nobody loves them?). Overall though, BNP members look remarkably similar to you and me and that makes me think twice about the bloke living down my road with the rather retro taste in short upper-lip facial hair.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Lennonist cultural hybridity

I'm told that 'hybridity' and 'liminality' are important concepts in a certain type of cultural sociology. One likes to keep an open mind so here is an example that appeals to me - The Beatles in Yiddish http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vAMgbGEDTY. And why not?

Thursday, 1 October 2009

How do we choose what children should read?

This is another post stimulated by my reading habits. I recently walked past a second-hand bookshop and saw on display this late 1950s paperback edition of Wolf Mankowitz's A Kid for Two Farthings. Well of course I had to buy it. It wasn't the rather fetching rendition on the cover of Diana Dors and Sid James drawn from a scene in the screen version that attracted me though. It was pure nostalgia. This is one of the three books that I can remember my class being set to read for English lessons during the first two years of my secondary schooling. It's a relatively slight, middlebrow sort of thing, but charming enough in its own way. The adult me enjoyed it which is more than can be said of the child that it was forced upon. Before "rereading" it I couldn't remember a thing about the story, apart from its title, because my recollection is that I hated it first time around and read barely more than a few pages. Truth be told I couldn't relate to it and my teacher certainly didn't make any effort to help me, or anyone else, understand it. I didn't appreciate the somewhat magical whimsy and the allegorical elements, such as they are, went right over my head. Eleven year olds in the West Midlands during the 1970s were not noted for their sensitive appreciation of the Jewish East End of London during the 1930s and in retrospect it seems an astonishing thing to ask us to read. Perhaps we were expected to learn something by osmosis from the writing itself which is deceptively simple but stylish.
Equally unsuccesful in firing my childish imagination was the second book inflicted on us - Richard Hughes' A High Wind In Jamaica. Hughes is now one of my favourite authors and A High Wind In Jamaica is a masterpiece but it falls squarely into the category of books about children that are best appreciated by adults. I can see that my teacher thought that her 11 year olds ought to like it but the seriousness of the plot and the sophistication of the language were a mile over my head. It just looked to me like a fusty, forty year old, adventure story about a bunch of middle-class children who are captured by pirates. But reading it as an adult you see that it is more Lord of the Flies avant la lettre than Swallows and Amazons and that it isn't the pirates that are the barbarians.
I'm left with a number of thoughts. Were we really only asked to read three books between the ages of 11 and 13? (The other was Ian Seraillier's The Silver Sword which really is a children's adventure story - needless to say I consumed it with alacrity from cover to cover). How and why were these particular books deemed suitable for us? How do you balance relating literature to the everyday lives of the kids that are reading it and persuading them to be curious about events and experiences that are beyond their personnel experience?
While still at school, but somewhat older, we were given Barry Hines' A Kestrel for a Nave as a set text for O Level. I remember that even then I felt we were being patronized. Being mostly working class kids we were meant to relate to the life of the main protagonist, a lonely, hopeless, misfit in a Yorkshire mining village who has but one thing of value in his life - his hawk. The book has a poignancy but it isn't great literatue - "it's a poor novel but a good film script" I remember my, now savvy, English teacher saying - and we certainly didn't relate to it. Sixteen year olds in an affluent Midlands factory town did not consider they had the slightest kinship with scruffy impoverished oiks from Yorkshire. None of us had seen a pit, nor a hawk for that matter and we, we thought, were definitely not headed for dead-end jobs. Just another example of how, when making choices for children, adults can get it wrong.
All this is just a preamble to my final thought. The sociology of literary taste is, as far as I know, pretty unfashionable now. But it occurs to me that for many kids their experience of literature, such as it is, begins and ends with what they are forced to read at school. It would be fascinating to see how that has changed over time. It would also be pretty easy to do. Syllabi for public examinations going back at least to the 1950s are still sitting around in libraries. With a bit of effort a more or less complete list of the novels, plays and poetry inflicted on British school children could be compiled. That would be interesting in itself. Even more interesting would be to get "experts" to rate the "flavours" of the works a bit in the manner that malt whiskies or fine wines are rated. One could then think in terms of projecting each work onto a low dimensional map of literary taste. I wonder what its dimensions might be?