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Rush Hour Crush

This exert is from David Holbrook’s essay Magazines – with special reference to the exploitation of pseudo-sexuality, that was part of the Pelican sociology book Discrimination and Popular Culture, 1973.

People travel vast distances to work (and on the journey they read manic journals and magazines, which supply them with sensations). They move from one meaningless sprawl to another, for the inner city environments become increasingly impersonal and ugly. There, they are largely engaged in meaningless tasks, which offer them no sense of personal value. They are offered relief from the meaninglessness of their work and environment by office flirtations, pin-up and pop-singer cults, film and television talk, cosmetic and fashion preoccupations.
As Denise Levertov writes:

In tiled and fireproof corridors
the typists shelter in their sex;
perking beside the half-cock clerks
they set a curl on freckled necks.
The formal bird above the doors

is set in metal whorls of flame.
The train goes aching on its rails.
Its rising cry of steel and wheels
intolerably comes, and fails
on walls immaculate and dumb.

Comptometers and calculators
compute the frequency of fires,
adduce the risk, add up the years.
Drawn by late-afternoon desires
the poles of mind meet lust’s equators…

(Typists in the Phoenix Building)

On such pursuits the modern office or factory worker often spends a disproportionate amount of income, in a desperate search for a sense of identity and meaning. Yet, as we know, people also yearn for much more exacting, or romantic, or challenging opportunities – as youth does especially. At home, the mother, alone in her comfortable, efficient, and hygienic living-box, often suffers from isolation, frustration, and boredom. She has few opportunities to find something meaningful to which to devote her life, beyond herself. As the suburban dweller ranges farther out from the city centre the tedium and strain of commuter travel and the lack of meaning in his work and lesiure – all threaten him with dehumanizaton. So, he bravely tries to find meaning in his family life, or in what social life he can find, amid the deficiency of provision for creative leisure, or service or ‘giving out’. But his life tends all the time to make it more and more difficult to find individuality, humaness and meaning, and this schizoid dehumanization is felt increasngly in all the great populations of suburban sprawls from Tokyo to Greater London.
In such cultural deserts the periodical press can only superficially and temporarily relieve the cultural starvation of the population at large. The first Daily Mail speaks in an editorial of being designed for commuter travel, in 1890. Since then, increasingly, the mass media have educated us to believe that the solution to the problem of life is through the acquisition of personal possessions and sensations, and implicitly, that an acquisitive attitude to all experience is a valid one. That we find the point of life through acquiring things or even experiences is a lie, and it is this deceit implicit in popular commercial entertainment which makes it nihilistic in effect, by contrast with the true arts and live entertainment.

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Anti-Fascist

This piece of writing is from 1977 and is in the first Hackney Writer’s Workshop anthology.

It is written in huge four foot high letters. It can be seen clearly streets away.
It is a white paint daubing on a high brick wall which shouts BAN FASCISM.
It has been there ever since I can remember and that’s almost twenty years. Its paint is now beginning to fade. I remember seeing it when I had no conception of the words meaning, and I remember not asking my parents in case it was something rude.
It is unfortunate that I ever did grow up to know what it meant, that it should be a word stll relevant in the modern world.
Maybe it was scrawled up there by two young Jews with a brush and bucket of paint at the tme of the Mosley street riots. I can almost see them in the dark night slapping on the paint carefully but quickly and all the time keeping a watchful eye on the empty streets.
Having finished their night’s labour I imagine them running off into the dark not daring to look at the slogan until the following morning when along with a hundred others they could tut and gasp at the cheek of the graffiti artist’s work.
“Who could have done such a thing?”, they would say mockingly and sharing a grin. There’s a funny thing about that sign. If you stand very close to the wall, it’s just lines and circles. It tells you nothing. Yet just by standing back a few yards the message is very clear.
Sometimes one must be free of oppression to understand that he has been oppressed.
But what of them now? What of the brave hotheads who felt they could not live that night through without advertising their emotions. Are they still as heated and eager to alight the world or have the drops of time extinguished the flame. Maybe they are tired and apathetic, maybe they are dead. No matter if they are either. For a little while at least they have left a tribute to the people they were and the politics of compulsion.
The work of thos graffiti artists is as deep and honourable as anything hanging in the national gallery. Maybe more so. It doesn’t belong in a museum though but where it is, in the street. Its audience is you and me. It is a plea and a warning.
Pray the fading white paint need never be renewed.

Roger Mills

Tabloids

Discrimination and Popular Culture was one of those fabulous blue covered Pelican socal science paperbacks. It was first published in 1964 and a second edition came out in 1973. It contained several essays by various authors on topics such as Televsion and Radio, Pop Music, and this still pertinent, perhaps even more so today, section comes from Graham Martin’s essay on The Press.

The unscrupulous paper says: ‘this is a true picture of the world – ignore other versions as false, irrelevant, or boring.’ Nothing is easier than to couple this message, daily dramatized in the whole typographical and verbal structure of the paper, with hearty declarations about freedom of comment. Unrelated to a world of events in which both reader and opinion have a significant role, this freedom is meaningless. In this context, opinions are never ‘relevant’, ‘convincng’, ‘well or badly supported’, but ‘fearless’, ‘provocative’, ‘challenging’, which, havng nothing to do with action, they can well afford to be.
The real key to the political influence of such papers lies neither in the opinions they propagate, nor in the attitudes which, in their preoccupation with ‘human interest’, they endorse or actively feed. It lies in the implication that without their colourful intervention there is no meaningful relationship between the events which they dramatize and the readers for whom the show goes on. In this respect, their ‘style’ has a hidden content. It speaks for readers whom it takes to be politically disenfranchised, for whom the news of polical events is not about a world in which they feel they can meaningfully act. This is the more subtle form of political manipulation since it imposes on the reader an assumption of which he remains unaware. It also makes it easer to speak on his behalf. It is, in sum, the modern way of ‘forming and supplying the opinions of the people’.
Between the illigitimate politics of the ‘populars’ and the newspaper whose primary function is to ‘entertain’, there are certain differences. If the political manipulator entertains, this is always less for its own sake than as a tacit bribe to the reader for allowng himself now and agan to be violently jerked in a definite political direction. But when ‘entertainment’ (i.e. profit) is the goal, political material is both reduced in quantity, and subordinate in place. Typographical devices often submerge what there is into other material; or seperate it off altogether from the major interests of sport, gossip, and crime. In the tabloid presentation, ‘entertainment’ assimilates everythng into a fictional melodrama. Symbolized in the paper’s ‘personality’, the reader becomes the hero of an endless tale, subjecting the world of ‘them’ (i.e. everything whch the rhetoric cannot reduce) to magcal defeats and rejections. What the defenders of the tabloid manner seem incapable of understanding is that theirs is not ‘just a way of puttng it’ – a real victory for the newspaper’s political role under unrewardng circumstances. Whatever the nobly-educative intentions of the speaker, if this is his idiom then the effective content of his message shrinks and coarsens accordingly. Few issues, at any level, can survive this. Is it not better in this situation to abandon the pretence at anything resembling the political role, and admit to the guiding assumption that the audience in question fnds the world of serious politics meaningless because it has no direct continuous participation? In effect, of course, precisely this admission gets made when apologists answer crtics by denying the relevance of extensive political reporting to the audience. On the other hand, with issues that engage the direct interest of the owner the ‘tabloid’ handling becomes indistinguishable from that of the political manipulator.

Aggro

This passage is from Roger Mills 1978 Centerprise book A Comprehensive Education. It covers 1965 to 1975 and his time at Effingham Road School, which he left in 1971. He was part of Hackney Writers’ Workshop and Basement Writers in Stepney.

Aggro

Almost overnight it seemed teenagers everywhere were going bald. Kids who for the past three years had been chastized for their long flowing locks were turning up to school with their hair so closely cropped that you could see their skulls. They were chatized for this as well.
They had a completely new style of clothes too. Heavy brown boots, sometimes steel toed, sta-press trousers and Jeans with turn ups. Their shirts were button-collared Ben Shermans with braces, regulation red, and maybe a Cromby jacket. It was an ugly fashion, the perfect camouflage for the brick streets they lived in. It was a style so frighteningly close to army uniform that it made you wonder if the people were right who said all kids really wanted was a spell in the army.
The skinheads were attacking on all fronts.

Breaktime. Friday. Under the stairs.
The dirt stained coffee machine rumbled, belched and threw out a splash of coffee. had the cup been released from it’s hatch it would have been Keyhole Kate’s. ‘Blow this,’ said Kate under his breath but undaunted tried again and was rewarded wth a cup of black coffee, half full.
A mob of skinheads had been watching the performance and clapped politely. ‘Thank Gawd for that,’ said their leader. ‘I bin getting awful thirsty over ‘ere.’ All the boys leaned away and walked sowly up to Kate.
‘Be a good kid and give us yer drink will yer?’ he said. ‘I’m gasping.’
‘Why shoud I?’ said Kate. ‘I paid for it, didn’t I?’
”Cause I wan’ it, that’s why you should give it to me. The other reason being that if you don’t I shall punch your ‘ead in.’
Another boy in the group moved impatiently about on his feet. ‘Come on Dave, don’t let’s stay ‘ere, you dunno who’ll come down the stairs.’
‘Shut up Rick,’ said the leader. ‘I’ll give you some bovver an’ all if you don’t.’ He did not look away from Kate’s face, just kept ‘screwing’ him.
Keyhole Kate, braver than he had a right to be, raised the cup to his lips and took a sip. Th skinhead’s face erupted, teeth bared, cheeks bloated like a toad and forehead coming down like a landslide. A fist was held up to Kate’s face and almost immediately turned into a solid index finger. Very slowly he pointed the plump finger at his own head. It was a moon shaped object wth a fat piggy face behind it. His rusty hair was barely visible, like lonely tufts of grass on a muddy football pitch
‘You see this?’ he said grabbing Kate’s shirt with the other hand, ‘you see this, it means something y’know. It means somehting.’
There was a real anger in the skinhead. Real violence. It was all so logical, the Long Arm Law. This boy was a skinhead, skinheads are tough and therefore Kate must surrender hs cup. Kate, shaking now, handed it over and the skinhead drunk it down in one before he let go of Kate.
”Ere come on. Leave ‘im alone Dave. He is in a year above us after all. Let’s go for a smoke behind the bikesheds.’ The boys half pulled, half followed the affronted skinhead to the bikesheds.
Kate wiped the sweat from his forehead and adjusted his shirt front. Surely the most patient of them all, he decided on just one more try at getting a cup of coffee. A coin appeared in his hand and he fed it into the machine. The machine gulped, laughed, mumbled and once again threw the cupless coffee into its full swill dish.

Roger Mills

East End Theatre

Cultural snobbery is nothing new as this extract from Thomas W. Erle’s 1862 Letters From a Theatrical Scene Painter amply makes clear.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber

(at the Royal Britannia Theatre, Hoxton)

An evening at the Britannia during the run of The String of Pearls; or, The Barber Fiend of Fleet Street, was to sup full of horror. In the vulgar tongue of Hoxton and elsewhere, a full supper is called a “tightener”. The expression is coarse, no doubt, yet suggestive. Abominably so. Going to see The Barber Fiend was a tightener of horrors, like a visit to the small room at Madame Tussaud’s.
The proceedings on the stage, of a midnight assassin who finds his victim asleep, are inscrutable. he looks at him-starts-recolis-then turns to the audience, and in a whisper fraught with tremendous significance pits them in possessionof a circumstance which they have already had abundant opportunity of observing for themselves, namely, that “he sleeps!” he then proceeds to execute a series of brisk, but elaborate, manoeuvres about the stage, comprising a body of tactics sufficient to carry a small army through an ordinary campaign. I have never enjoyed the advantage of witnessing the perpetration of a murder off the stage, but it would seem to be unlikely that when such transcations take place ion real life they are attended by the complicated evolutions above described. They correspond in point of eccentricity to the funny things which some people do on receiving a letter whose contents they are dying to know. They contemplate it externally in every possible oint of view, and the aspect which it presents when held topsy turvy would appear to be a source to them of the most animated interest. It is subjected to a protracted course of manipulation, and in the process is done everything in the world to but read.
The consummation of a tragical situation at the R B is usually intensified by the tune of “I loves a drop of good beer”, played pensively. Objections might of course be made by tiresome rigorists to the adoption of so genial and festive an air as an accompaniment to proceedings partaking in no degree of a convivial spirit. But those who resort to a theatre in a mean and nasty spirit of petty captiousness are in no proper frame of mind for appreciating the pathetic and touching effects which the management has had an eye to. For my own part, I can concientiously affirm, in the beautiful kind of language used by speakers at public dinners, that on all these occasions “my emotions are of such a character as to be unlike anything which they do not resemble”.
It is desirable that the practice adopted by the Hoxton mothers of taking their babies to the theatre should be discontinued. The small miserables are brought out at the end of the evening with their feathers all rumpled, and their poor eyes all glazed and fishy like those of old debauchees. Their general effect, too, conveys the impression of their having been sat upon, and otherwise exposed to gross personal contumely.
In the Bigelow papers, some slaveholder or other talks of wishing to purchase “a low priced baby” to bring up. Some of these embryo members of the R B public could only, if offered for sale, be got off at a wretchedly low figure, as damaged articles. Besides, too, their own personal sufferings, they are very undesirable neighbours to sit by. For, in the first place, they are apt to be-well-I will forbear to press the details with unpleasant explicitness, and will therefore only say, in general terms-damp.
Very different from the condition of the poor babies is that of the youths in the gallery, who are gifted with a flow of exuberant animal spirits which find a safety-valve in shrill whistlings. . . .
Since the temperature up in their sixpenny heaven is so high (there was a fat little boy up there who I thought would have been melted and had to be taken home in a gallipot), they find it “cool and convanient” to sit without their coats. They envince, too, a noble independence of bearing and sentiment towards the swells in the body of the house (who are in this case the counter-skippers of Kingsland and Dalston) by turning their backs to the chandelier, and sitting along the gallery rail like a row of sparrows on a telegraph wire. In all this position they confront their friends in the back settlements, and exchange with them a light fussillade of badinage, principally couched in idiomatic expressions of remarkable vigour and terseness, which is sustained with much animation during the time that the curtain is down between the pieces.