“These suppers take place once a week in the vast refectories of each of the different colleges. The table at which the diners and their guests sit is raised up on a platform and thus presides over the other tables (where the students dine with suspicious haste, fleeing as soon as they have finished, gradually abandoning the elevated guests and thus avoiding the spectacle the latter end up making of themselves) and it is for this reason rather than because of any unusually high standard of cuisine or conversation that they are designated “high tables”. The suppers are formal (in the Oxonian sense) and for members of the congregation the wearing of gowns in obligatory. The suppers do begin very formally, but the sheer length of the meal allows for the appearance and subsequent development of a serious deterioration in the manners, vocabulary, diction, expositional fluency, composure, sobriety, attire, courtesy and general behaviour of the guests, of whom there are usually about twenty.”
From Javier Marías, All Souls.
Thus begins one of the most hilarious and painful accounts of a certain kind of Englishness in all contemporary fiction, written, not surprisingly by a foreigner.
Having just read Ken Clarke’s facile, vacuous and pompous account of the recent riots in English cities, Blanco feels moved to chip in.
Clarke makes three points in his article in Monday’s Guardian. The first is that the full force of the law should come crashing down on the ‘feral underclass’ who were responsible for the disturbances and the looting and who now are facing the ‘cold, hard accountability of the dock’. The second is that just about the right degree of ‘robust punishment’ has been exacted on the said feral underclass by the judiciary; and the third is that such individuals – in his opinion ‘the criminal classes . . . who haven’t been changed by their past punishments’ – continue to receive robust punishment in prisons where they learn the ethics of ‘productive hard work’ and where the ‘scandal of drugs being readily available’ is wiped out by paying prison staff by the ‘results’ they achieve rather than by fulfilling ‘processes and box-ticking’.
So far, by my reckoning, he has made more or less the same point, three times.
Finally ‘we need to continue to put rocket boosters on our plans to fix not just criminal justice but education, welfare and family policy’. Wow. How easily that little triptych – education, welfare and family policy – is trotted out. I am bedazzled.
Clarke talks of ‘addressing the appalling social deficit that the riots have highlighted’ but says nothing of the appalling social inequality that ensure the UK remains the most class-ridden and – ironically – the most apolitical nation in Europe.
Another take on the riots comes from Slavoj Žižek in this week’s London Review of Books. Žižek, like a true idealist, bewails the fact that the rioters had no agenda for change, only acting as slaves to a consumer culture that is forever dangled before their eyes but of which they cannot partake: “You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly” (presumably ‘doing it properly’ would be engaging in what Mr Clarke calls ‘hard graft’ – but alas there are no jobs, or if there are they are total shit and therefore taken by immigrants and would certainly not provide enough remuneration to purchase the goods more easily acquired by lobbing a brick through a shop window and nicking them).
This aspect of things was explored most succinctly in an article in the Argentinian newspaper Clarín, in a report from María Laura Avignolo: “Social inequality divides the poor from the rich, while a ridiculous culture of media celebrity provides a lifestyle model to aspire towards, and ‘reality shows’ a means of salvation and social respectability in a society stratified by a very Victorian vision of class.” Looters, she continues, not only tried on the most fashionable designer clothes for size and fit and chose the best plasma TVs in the store, but destroyed what they could not carry with them “in an attack on the consumer society to which they aspire and cannot belong. The images did not show a social rebellion, but a chilling consumer revenge.”
Such detail is depressing for an idealist such as Žižek, even such an articulate one. One wishes there were something to celebrate about the riots, but sadly there is not. Just a sense of depression, of loss, and of disgust: “And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.”
The most interesting point for me in Žižek’s argument – and at least there were points of interest, unlike the garbage coming from Clarke – was the reference he made to Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher of the 1960s whom I remember reading avidly as a sixteen year old, high on dreams of revolution. Marcuse argued that human drives could be desublimated (the term he used was ‘repressive desublimation’) but still remain subject to capitalist control. “On British streets during the unrest” writes Žižek, “what we saw was not men reduced to ‘beasts’, but the stripped down form of the ‘beast’ produced by capitalist ideology.”
How far we have come since the days of Che.