Monday, 16 December 2019

Reconciliation? -one


I was giving a talk at an event in Stourpaine (the Tears in the Fence weekend, indeed) and in the discussion afterwards I said that social mobility had been arrested over the last twenty years. The context was people in the audience expecting things, culturally, to change quickly, and me thinking this wasn’t the only possibility. Five minutes later, I realised that the true figure was a lack of mobility over 40 years, and I knew this. I had totally mis-spoken, and this was because of an unconscious unwillingness to say something so scary and depressing. 1979 was when Thatcher started, the social mobility and shifts of social structure of the radical Seventies came to a halt then. So, almost the whole of my life as an adult took place under arrangements where the core economic problem was not being addressed, or at least progress was not being made.
That leaves the question of whether culture is changing to be more egalitarian; I started with figures from the 1962 Penguin anthology in which 39.5% of the poets were Oxford graduates. I think the scene is still utterly dominated by graduates, but they are numerically a much larger group than in 1962, so you possibly have education still being the key to becoming a poet but the elite (of educated people) has grown much larger. Other questions are harder to answer. You could ask if the (same) legacy of culture is being transmitted, and if this in itself is a conservative drag. But the surface of things has changed completely since 1962.

I buy the Daily Telegraph once a week because my mother likes to do the crossword puzzle. I read parts of it, and although the news sections are insultingly inaccurate the cultural section is instructive, because (clearly) half the educated audience is right-wing, and reads newspapers like the Telegraph. The culture market includes many people fitting this description, and it is of interest to think whether they read modern poetry, whether the scene repels them, whether modern poetry could reach them (and grow a bit).
Perversely, marginalising right-wing readers could be evidence that the progressive faction in poetry is actually having an effect. This a “trophy fact”, almost. But there is a tension between group solidarity and being influential on a wider scene. The only people whose attitudes you change are the ones who didn’t agree with you at the outset. Art which influences political attitudes initially has a wider reach, it makes that crossover. Art which reaches only the committed is conservative in that specialist, analytical sense that it is not changing anything, over a year or forty years. The brand marks, the call signs, which signal that art belongs to an in-group may also serve to deter any other people from consuming it, even if they are intelligent and educated. This is a tangled area, for example it is arguable that the “small press scene” isn’t conservative because the people who have rolled up over the last twenty years are actually completely different from older generations, and the continuity is an error of perception. The idea of a continuous, legacy, collective project may therefore be an illusion; the corollary is of course that the project may not have failed over the last fifty years (and that new projects are being rolled out). A legacy project would suggest stability – structural conservatism. Real projects succeed, sign off, close down.
One view of the Telegraph is that its culture coverage is non-political. A modified version of this would be that it does this by not covering art which is tinged with politics. But, I was looking at their review of the decade on Saturday. The guy writing about visual art says “the virtue-signalling roundheads have vanquished those who still think of themselves as cavaliers.” So, in fact, he is saying that socially committed art has dominated the stage over the last ten years (starting with a world economy in meltdown and continuing to a “zombie economy” and zero hours, remember) and that this is what you will remember if you experience it (and miss if you stay at home, obviously). Because this surveys a ten-year period, and because the Telegraph editors are keenly aware that the roundheads were ancestral to the Left, this is an amazing thing to read in such a newspaper. But, in reality, it’s quite possible to get Telegraph readers to say “I don't want to buy drinks in a pub where the bar staff are on zero-hours contracts” and even “I want a more equal society and I enjoyed an exhibition which talked about inequality and asked for things to be shared out”. They may put the family money into ethical investment vehicles.
I don't want to label cultural oppositions as belonging to specific dates, because that presupposes that they are going to become obsolete, which may be a fallacy. Some situations evaporate, the curtain comes down on them; others don’t. Poetry can retain its liberal principles but reach a right-wing audience by being modern, adult, and credible in describing power and disadvantage.

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