Blessed are the carbreakers

The Green London AM Jenny Jones has put out an odd little curate’s egg of a report complaining about the Mayor of London’s backing of residential housing projects at the cost of light industrial land (thanks to @leftoutside for the link).

I have to admit, the future of light industry in the big smoke is not something I have thought about before, there being so many other enormous and pressing moral and practical questions to detain your average London conspiracy theorist – the housing shortage, the City, the Russian billionaries, the housing shortage, the very existence of dire poverty in one of the world’s richest cities, the schools, the housing shortage, the growing population, the state of public transport, the state of the Victorian drains (that one will bite us on the arse in a few decades’ time, believe me, and I do mean on the arse) and of course the housing shortage.

So I thought about it. I put aside the shortcomings of the format – only a mother with a tin ear could love whoever wrote “Where will the car breakers, the coffee roasters, the plumbing and building suppliers go?” – and tried to consider the underlying economics. Jenny Jones does after all concede that there is a housing crisis, she simply seems to be asserting that solving it at the cost of light industry and wholesale is not viable. Could this be this true?

It is certainly true that London needs MOTs and plumbing supplies. It is certainly good that London has brewers (good grief, yes) and aerospace manufacturers. Do any of these things really need to be in zone 2? Ironically they went to Peckham and Charlton in the first place because it was cheap then. They’re still in Upton Park and Selhurst because it’s cheap now. And many of these sorts of businesses have been shipping right out to zone 6 (horrors!) and quietly tucking themselves down the Purley Way for years, with effects that most Londoners would consider beneficial – the spread of jobs out from the centre eases congestion on transport, means more people can walk or cycle to work and live further out to reduce their housing costs.

Most cities with any vision are actively trying to do this. When London moves whole government departments or BBC radio stations to other cities with greater jobs shortages and lower housing costs this is hailed as progressive and economically forward-thinking. One of the great advantages of the South East, fans of city studies will be aware, is the huge concentration of skilled workers that make the satellite towns like Croydon, Milton Keynes, Watford, Bedford et al viable for all kinds of businesses that need to be within reach of London, but really do not need to be twenty minutes’ bus ride from the City. With all the other problems that beset us, is it really going to kill us to have to go to zone 6 to work in a car-breaking business?

There is one sense in which I think her argument is getting at something real. There are certain kinds of businesses – and plumbing and building suppliers is one – that do need to be everywhere, for the benefit of the customers rather than the workers. I’ve lived, sans car, in places that are too posh for their local hardware store not to be crushed beneath the merciless advance of Planet Organic, and it’s bloody inconvenient. Most people in those sorts of places have cars and can get to the North Circular to go to B&Q, and I didn’t. Sucks to be me. But really, that problem just underlined how interconnected is the whole shebang and how oddly partial Jones’ take is. The hardware store gave up and Planet Organic moved in because the rent went up, and the rent went up because the owner realised loads of spiffy Planet Organic-type customers lived in their area and could support a business happy to pay astronomical rents, and the loads of spiffy customers were there in the first place collectively driving up the prices because, the housing shortage. Housing is the key to it all, because more housing comes a more diverse customer range, and that means a better mix of businesses. Anything else, however well-meaning, is basically propping up the current system.

But then I am hopelessly sad and pessimistic about London. I don’t like that it is essentially a city of the accountant and the ad exec and their attendant baristas any more than Jones does. I just don’t see that championing the plucky little aerospace worker’s right not to work in Croydon at the expense of reasonable housing costs for the accountant and the barista is going to do anything other than make the lives of absolutely everybody involved even more bloody than they already are.

Unreview! The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett

UoL Goldsmiths has a department with the promisingly Mulder-esque name of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. They run a glittering speakers series whose link I am sharing reluctantly, because they’re free and up the road from my gaff and nobody seems to know about them and I don’t want them clogged up with Other People.

No, it’s fine really, come on down. A couple of weeks ago I went to hear Jamie Bartlett talk about his new book The Dark Net, which I haven’t yet read owing to its lying full fathoms five in a cardboard box in a secure unit somewhere in Beckenham. Bartlett is a great speaker, and has that ability to create controversy by disclaimer that is catnip to non-fiction publishers. We were going to find some of these topics, he told us, uncomfortable. The more he investigated drug dealing, child pornography and far right political activism on the internet, the more moral ambiguities he found, and meeting some of the people involved prompted a sympathetic response that unnerved him. This schtick made me wonder if absolutely everyone embarking on research for a thoughtful bestseller table book subconsciously designs a neat personal growth process for themselves, so that they can finish up by saying, “I went into this expecting to find that x, but in fact I was struck by y.” It shows you’re open to ideas, man. What kind of unreflective moron would you be if you found roughly what you expected to find and were pleased about it? Well, a research scientist, I suppose.

I’ve not bought drugs from the Silk Road, so for all I know Bartlett is right that the operation of a review system and a dazzling array of choice is driving up customer service standards and product quality (what, drug dealers aren’t motivated enough to investigate ways of gaming a website review system and search facility? Really? Even Amazon has astroturfing.) But one thing I have dabbled in is online political activism, and about this I think Bartlett was wrong in a fairly important respect. He is impressed with the passion that far right online political activism generates, and the fact that a Facebook group was used to organise an EDL march thousands strong in Waltham Forest. The Labour Party, he said by way of counter-example, never managed that sort of turnout, and mainstream political activism online had a lot to learn from the far right if it was going to survive.

Now, I am first with the custard pies when it comes to attacking our uninspiring political culture, and yes, membership of all political parties is in decline. But Labour, like other major parties, quietly gets high dozens or low hundreds of people onto the streets every single Saturday, and they certainly use Facebook among other things to achieve that. They’re just not doing anything that attracts Bartlett’s attention. Mild social democrat delivers Labour leaflet is not news. Racist delivers BNP leaflet is an ominous indicator of well-organised hatred in the heart of our political system. Actually, the far right are pretty unremarkable in the tools they use and the way they use them. Elsewhere in politics, Bartlett was spot on about the pedestrian nature of the techniques used by the ISIS Twitter account to create publicity, which have been hailed as technical wizardry in some corners of the press. It’s odd that he doesn’t see how the same applies to other political groups in the spotlight.

But then, if your thing is to turn a given picture through 90 degrees and be satisfied with the first counter-intuitive angle you find – paedophiles are sometimes nice people, political extremists are pretty successful campaigners, online drug dealing is a perfect free market in harmonious operation – you are going to finish up with contradictions. It’s controversialism that, in spite of the serious-minded warnings at the beginning, isn’t going to frighten anyone or get to the bottom of anything. I was entertained and informed – did you know that the biggest selling item on Silk Road before it closed was fake £20 Tesco vouchers? – but there were no true 180 moments when you realise the world is actually the other way up from how you thought it was. For those, presumably you have to take a look at the dark net for yourself.

“The one about the Chinese lapdancer”

My quest to become London’s premier Rubbish Polymath leads me to all sorts of places in the name of edutainment (the pub, in the case below), and I don’t always have wherewithal/spoons to record my Very Important Thorts thereon. Thus there follows a guest post by my co-conspirator, the sole resident and Poet Laureate of the People’s Republic (I have kept all the other jobs), Citizen AJ Dehany.

Recently, at a regular comedy night devoted to offering punters a cheap gig and comedians a chance to try out new material in a sympathetic atmosphere, there was an unsympathetic incident. A funny but not widely known comedian, just as he was about to finish his set, got himself badly heckled, and the whole place exploded.

How, why? The comedian, mixed-race and liberal as all hell, had done some routines involving a strip club, documenting his amused unease in such an environment and some exchanges with a “£5-a-go” Chinese lap dancer. As he was finishing up, he asked, in a manner of speaking, if there was Any Other Business from the floor. Immediately, a man near the front row stood up and set on him. He made a broad accusation of misogyny about the material, and in so many words asked the comedian if he thought it was okay to be misogynistic as long as you were not racist, and whether the comedian’s mixed race status meant he felt he was exempt from such issues. Arguably a racist suggestion in itself, made to a comedian noted for his “frank but ironic take on racism” – ironically the heckler had taken issue with ‘the one about the Chinese lapdancer’.

The comedian hardly knew what to make of this. He was embarrassed as much because he’d been seconds away from leaving the stage and was now in a situation. The comedian made the mistake of inviting the heckler to explain his criticisms, but the heckler was strident without humour and seemed to believe he was in an appropriate forum for a political debate chaired by His Truly. He somewhat aggressively invited the comedian to “Buy me a drink afterwards, and I’ll tell you” and, not unnaturally, the comedian saw the unfunny. In little short order, with feathers flying, he left the stage, and left the heckler too, who still had the floor seemingly expecting to have his points addressed (maybe with footnotes).

Without going into the intricacies of the controversial comedic material, which I’ve in any case quite forgotten, there was a feeling that the heckler had the nub of a decent point and that we should all strictly speaking have been on the heckler’s side, but that he had lost the audience when he’d made it into his own ‘ego thing’. It is interesting that the comedian let the heckler get to him, implying that the comedian was aware that there were potentially problematic sexual and racial elements to the material that he was presenting, and suggesting that his confidence had been knocked by being pulled up on it. It seems rather unfair to knock a comedian who has a certain bravery in choosing to confront racial and sexual matters for not laying out the issues clearly in footnoted essay form. I mean: it’s comedy! But then, if you go there, you can say that Jeremy Clarkson’s observations are “just comedy” too – hey man, lighten up. If anything, I expect that the comedian’s undoing was actually in not having gone far enough to raise a racial/sexual question from an ironic liberal but provocative angle. He perhaps knew there was a conceptual weakness in the material and the heckler managed to spring it open.

My response on either side of this, should I dignify it by calling it a debate, is qualified. I’m uneasy about the heckler’s line of questioning, more so than the disputed elements of the routine itself. Furthermore this unease makes me uneasy. Others seemed to have a different reaction. When the smokers shuffled outside during the interval, eye-rolling at, and then gradually talking to, each other, one audience member took the following position. It wasn’t so much that the material was inappropriate but the context might have been; you have to consider the reaction before speaking out in public – and this applies to both comedian and heckler.

Furthermore, she said, what would be fine and sweetly outrageous to say in a group of familiar friends might not be appropriate for public utterance. Her point was that not everybody would know to take it as tongue-in-cheek comment. This seems a little problematic in itself – who is to say which audiences are “educated” enough to take things the “right” way? Nevertheless, we all do this, un-PC jokes or whatever, something scenting of scandalous but that you’d never say ‘out loud’… Except that some people do say it out loud, and we call these people comedians, and pay to watch them. What is it we are asking of our comedians if we can round on them for only doing their job? Or had the comedian just not considered his material thoroughly enough? And is it even his job to do so?

After the interval, the big name comedian headliner seemed less willing to be edgy than we’d expected, or than the earlier acts had been before the bad business. Worse still, he seemed to at times to be indulging in that kind of distancing-from-my-material-just-in-case facial expression Jimmy Carr does when he says something idiotic that is “hey, just comedy”. The temperature in the room had dropped, and everyone had suddenly become more aware of the implications and underpinnings of comedic material. Shit had got real, and the comedy had got less funny. Funny that.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

On Wednesday, to Housman’s bookshop in King’s Cross, a place I am making a habit of, to hear Jeff Laster talk about the Weathermen, the radical 60s student underground movement in America of which he had been part as a teenager (though there’s underground and underground – “I wasn’t in the proper Underground, I wasn’t considered radical enough.”) The session started, as many good things do, with a song to which I knew all the words, and turned into a propah seminar.

I couldn’t stay for the whole evening owing to personal flim-flammery, which was a great shame as he was a highly engaging speaker, reflecting usefully on the differences between British and American radicalism, then and now. Short version: Europe has a tradition of full-on Communist-stylee radicalism, America doesn’t and didn’t, and the Weathermen were (this is my take on the basis of what he said, not his) in their early days much closer to what I would consider a modern social liberal democratic tradition than to balls-out left-wing radicalism. Laster started the discussion by reflecting on participatory democracy, an idea which the Weathermen avowed in their early days and only jettisoned later on in favour of strict hierarchy as their movement grew, and as external events (the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam) sharpened minds and raised stakes. “I took orders,” Laster drawled, and it was at this point, when he was getting with marked enthusiasm into a description of the kind of free love-related orders he had taken, that I had to leave.

My sole contribution to the unfolding discussion was to answer his first question to the audience (yes, I was that child at school), which was along the lines of “Can any political movement have genuine participatory democracy?” I said that if any movement was successful and started to grow, decision-making processes would become unwieldy. He ran with the idea and talked about the different perspectives that started to emerge in the Weathermen movement, and the arguments they had about what kind of causes they should fight for – should it be the working class as a whole, civil rights, the draft?

In the event it was civil rights and the draft, and not the working class as a whole. It is difficult to talk about the working class as a homogenous body in 1960s America because of the profound racial divides. But it is also, conveniently, true that civil rights and the draft were naturally close to the hearts of the mostly middle class college kids who formed the heart of the movement. Laster was refreshingly – or appallingly, depending on your viewpoint, and at least one member of the audience did seem fairly appalled – honest about his take on the working class. The relatives he knew who belonged in that category were to his ears racist, retrograde, right-wing in their opinions, and he decided he wanted nothing to do with them. It is the kind of thing you suspect many British Labour politicians over the years have thought but not (unless accidentally captured on a still-recording mike) said.

But what I had in mind when I mentioned the unwieldiness of burgeoning political movements was not so much a multiplication of views as a multiplication of people, and I don’t think they are necessarily the same thing. A classic anthropology article which made a great impression on me when I was studying archaeology is Gregory Johnson’s 1983 meta-study of the operation of consensual decision-making and heirarchy among pastoral nomadic groups. He concluded that “information processing overload” imposes natural constraints on the size of communities that can get by with genuinely consensual day-by-day decision-making, and scaling up beyond a certain size invariably entails some kind of reorganisation into some sort of hierarchy, even if this is broadly what we would call a democratic one. The classic upper limit on a human group operating on pure consensus is, apparently, six. Six people. That’s not very many, is it?

This number can scale, such that six groups of six can come to a decision that usefully furthers the interests of the group as a whole, and so can six tribes each composed of six groups of six people, and so on. But already we are a long way from direct participatory democracy, and into representative democracy, the system with which we all have to live, for better or worse, as “enlightened” modern nation states, and latterly international blocs. And in representative democracy, as we know, things fall down the back of the sofa; certain groups’ voices are not heard, because there is a degree of summarising, of neatening round the edges of the message that each sub-group takes to its superior group in the course of the decision-making process. It needn’t be the case that radically different views are involved. Johnson’s point is simply that not all views can be assimilated in any sort of complex society, even if they are on the whole quite similar, because the human brain simply cannot take it. And even this imperfect system presupposes a perfect Russian doll style set of nesting groups of six, which is a shockingly long way from what we have in the UK parliament. No wonder people feel disenfranchised, I suppose.

On the plus side, it strikes me that, excepting Antarctica, there are six continents in the world, politically speaking. So if that alien war Hollywood is waiting for ever does come along, as a race we are sitting pretty. Just don’t be surprised if the fall-out conducted notionally in your name is Not, in fact, In Your Name.

The economics of anxiety

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing.

Yeah, I get that a lot.

I like the concept of decision fatigue. For one thing it’s a neat little piece of research to have to hand when arguing with people who believe that the country’s social problems are essentially a matter of Other People not getting up early enough, or failing to get three meals out of an organically reared chicken, or persistently watching their big flatscreen telly rather than, I dunno, buying an old cathode tube one off ebay or something, seeing as you can’t actually buy a non flatscreen telly in the shops any more. If willpower is a finite resource, all the small survival decisions that come with being poor and having to worry about money deplete your resources very early in the day. They make your life mentally harder. Apparently there is some scarily literal science behind all this – it is a matter of glucose depletion (pdf).

You will notice that much of the popular chat about this is couched in terms of temptation – resisting the cake makes it harder to resist the fag. Hence smoking, drinking, poor diets etc as a social problem. But people don’t seem to talk so much about the implications for general anxiety and related foibles, across all classes (reference to mental health is buried in the “Implications” section of the study linked to above).

And yet this is one of the key applications for the concept. In the case of both poverty and anxiety disorders, decision fatigue has the potential to make you poor at, not just later decisions, but big decisions. This is a killer. In both situations is the chronic battle against a stream of small problem-solving, decision-making exercises that mean you will rarely have the mental energy for big picture stuff like quitting smoking, or looking for another job.

Being not quite in either camp, I have found that the concept galvanises me to actually sweat the small stuff less, rather than just nodding glumly when people tell me that is what I should do. As far as anxiety goes I only have low-level common-or-garden crazy. For me, knowing that the thinking resource is finite is a useful brake on looking for problems to expend it on. And in the name of my sporadic quest for eliminating residual crazy, it occurs to me that there is one area of enquiry that has developed models to deal with exactly this problem of scarce resources: economics. Has anyone ever applied relevant models from the field to the problem of dealing with one’s own anxiety? Behavioural economics is a lively sub-field interested in human behaviour in given situations, our calculations, our perception of variables and so on. But economists – or maybe just people – being what they are, behavioural economics tends to conceive of people as indivisible wholes interacting with each other. What if there was a branch of behavioural economics devoted to teasing out the most resource-efficient way to interact and negotiate with oneself?

With any luck someone will now tell me this exists.

I’m the urban spaceman, baby

There should be a collective noun for a mismatched set of opinions that are almost unfailingly congenial to one particular type of person, which are unmistakeably redolent of That Sort of Person but are nonetheless stubbornly contradictory.

A “politics” perhaps. Hm. Anyway, one such set lurks in urban space. How we use it now, how we want to use it in the future, a problem particularly acute in That London, but I don’t think anyone can really ignore it. It’s a human problem. As of 2008, for the first time in history, as many of us live in cities as live outside them. So the ongoing dialogue about urban space is one of the key challenges for any far-sighted government. Ha, yes, those.

My attention was drawn to this today. I’ve never been to the Half Moon in Herne Hill (and maybe that’s part of the problem), whenever I’ve had occasion to murder a few liver cells up that way it has been at the Prince Regent, but I am nonetheless vicariously distressed to learn that it has been closed since July last year and proposals have been advanced by the owner, Dulwich Estate, to turn most of the building into flats with a pub remaining underneath. That post records a statement from Dulwich Estate, before any planning permission had actually been sought:

However, following pre-application planning advice received from Southwark’s planning department it was suggested that the Estate should look at alternative uses for the upper floors other than for residential accommodation.

Fans of planning permission and urban distopia (I know you’re out there) might care to compare and contrast the case of The Greyhound, Sydenham, which did get planning permission from Lewisham council for a similarly peculiar combination of flats around and above it, which subsequently fell apart in spectacular fashion as the developers’ real intentions were revealed. They were fined by the council for deliberate demolition of the pub (this was just after the People’s Republic arrived in the area – lawks), and in the glare of publicity had new plans to rebuild it approved… and now the shell is just sitting there. It looks sad as anything. I’ll take a picture next time I’m past, but essentially it won’t be much different to this:

greyhound

There’s a campaign, of course.

And I find myself rather spoilt for piss-boiling options, because while it unquestionably boils my piss that developers do what the fuck they like and get fined the housing market equivalent of pocket change by lackwit councils that should probably never have approved this shambles in the first place, it also boils my piss that there aren’t enough places for people to live.

We can’t have it both ways. Living in urban society with limited space is a constant business of negotiation between the nice-to-haves and the must-haves, and housing is a must-have. Pubs are a nice-to-have. Now, nice-to-haves always shade into must-haves at some point – a park for every street in London is clearly just a bonkers nice-to-have; no parks at all would be an unsustainable disaster. But in a housing crisis there has to be some sort of argument for maintaining alternative space uses other than “we like it and it’s always been there”. There’s a name for that kind of argument and it begins with a small-c.

(There’s a name for the mechanism that would sort this whole business of property values and amenities out overnight, by the way, and that begins with LVT. It would be a pretty bloody night, mind.)

And these are exactly the kinds of opinions you will find simultaneously held by people, well, frankly very similar to me. We support our local arts festivals and scribble on our local forum and shop in the local butcher (cheaper than the supermarket as eny hipster kno) and wring our hands over the housing crisis and want all the pubs to remain open forever and ever.

We’re nice, I suppose. I just sometimes wish we had more of A Plan. It would almost certainly be a better plan than whoever’s actually making the plans would make.

Yes/No demographics and the conservatism of the young

Ashcroft’s breakdown of Yes/No voting is interesting if you like baseless tossed-off morning-after speculation (which you do, you dawg).

ashcroft

Incidentally, Martin Kettle suggested at some bleary godless hour this morning that women had “saved the union”:

In the polls, men were decisively in favour of yes. The yes campaign was in some sense a guy thing. Men wanted to make a break with the Scotland they inhabit. Women didn’t.

I don’t know whether he was looking at a different poll, maybe one written in purple and orange on the inside of his eyelids, but I don’t think the figures above reflect that, so I suspect the usual gender narratives are at work here. Those women and their fearful conservatism eh? Tcoh.

Much has been made of the staggering 16/17 year old vote and the mirror opposite 65+ vote (I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like the latter broken down further by the way. Now that we no longer, all being well, routinely drop dead three years after retirement age as soon as all our paperwork is in order it seems silly to group 65 year olds with 80 year olds.)

More interesting, if you are a person who likes to whiffle on about cohorts and conservatism and the young and all that jazz, are the wild downward swing in the Yes vote among 18-24 year olds and the (lesser but still probably outwith the margin of error) upswing in Yes in the 25-34 year old group, before the march towards No resumes. I’ve read suggestions that the first of these patterns is about economic security – maybe the 18-24s, being on the sharp end of most economic indicators going, are inclined to hedge their bets. So by the same token maybe their older siblings, being a little more established, are more at ease with economic risk. But this doesn’t altogether satisfy me, partly because I have just never bought this idea that people construe their bank balances in terms of macro-economics in the way that they will often vaguely imply they do, and partly because it isn’t really established that a No vote was a vote for Steady Now economics anyway. In fact, the Yes campaign did their very best to paint it as a hair-tearingly disastrous risk for the future of the economically vulnerable.

Perhaps there is something more abstract going on here though, a conservatism of life stages rather than of economics in the raw. You could say that a characteristic of the average 18-24 year old life is uncertainty and the unknown. It’s not so much that they live on beans (which actually one does perfectly cheerfully at that age) as that they are looking at their blank page futures post-graduation, or have just been plunged into the maelstrom of work and don’t really understand how it’s all going to pan out. The Steady Now is not so much economic as social. They are trying out adulthood for size (certainly I was) and that default “nae bothered” is a bit of a pose that conceals a very real fear about what the world is going to end up doing to you. The 25-34 year olds, formally speaking, are just as economically fucked on the whole – they are also on the business end of the ageing population, the pensionable age change and the housing crisis. And they have had it harder in some ways – when I was 25 ten years ago there was already a housing crisis – it’s just that no-one gave a fairy-shaped shit. At least everyone knows and acknowledges that 18-24 year olds now are fucked.

But what the 25-34 year old group contains are people who have nonetheless pieced together a life (ha!) if only out of eggboxes and bits of string. They are probably at the stage of making some hefty life choices, insofar as those choices are economically available to them. The referendum may not be the scariest thing they have had to make a decision about this year. They have perhaps weathered a few personal, financial and professional crises of their own, and realised that the world doesn’t end. They just may be more at ease than the very young with the idea of the coins being thrown in the air, just to see whether they fall out any better.

Patrick Keiller at Housman’s Bookshop (1)

I love the smell of hobby horses in the evening so naturally I went to hear Patrick Keiller, architect-turned-filmmaker and psychogeographer extraordinaire give a talk at Housman’s bookshop a couple of weeks ago. Not that Keiller is a tubthumper at all, in fact in person he is even more considered and gradualist than his films, whose political and economic messages hit you only cumulatively. But left-wing gatherings of any kind redound with wooden neighs and this was no exception, or maybe mumble years of political blogging has just left me impatient with any kind of conversation that isn’t practically all allusive and ultimately deeply civilised. I’m not sure when this happened, maybe I got older, maybe I stopped doing party political blogging, or maybe I just made friends with most of the people who ought to be my enemies, but most of my internet conversations with other politicos these days go something like this:

I’m sort of.”

“Yeah but.”

“Ok.”

“But on the other hand.”

“Oh totally.”

“But I still.”

“Of course.”

“Wanna get a snowcone?”

“Sure.

So it’s always a shock to get out into this Real World I keep hearing so much about and find Others whose idea of a political conversation is asking questions that go on for seven minutes and make compulsory reference to the miners. And I say this with the greatest of affection. We’ve all been there. But I digress: the upshot was that there really wasn’t enough time to explore all the themes we could have done – psychogeography got short shrift which as an armchair archaeologist with a secret longing for woo I found disappointing. What follows are just some randomly spewed out thoughts – there was a lot to the evening and I might return to it.

From an archaeologist’s perspective London the film is essentially a phenomenological record of one man’s experience. Phenomenology has a high-falutin existence as a philosophical concept but has been purloined by archaeologists to mean, essentially, the exploration of how people used and experienced space. Attention is paid to things like access routes, lines of sight, the interplay of light, dark and sound, and the experience of space by different demographics, for example, men, women and children. London is a sort of non-linear journey round town in the company of the narrator Robinson (pretty much a proxy for Keiller, as he owned) who explores the personal and political implications of footage that ranges over ordinary high streets, abandoned industry and buildings at the various seats of economic and political power. At the outset the chair introducing Keiller reflected on how there were different ways of living in and experiencing cities, mentioning the psychogeographical/mystical approach and personal memories. Interestingly I think these elide. Psychogeography can be a deeply personal thing and this is essentially what Robinson’s narrative is about. When I walk around the City, on the face of it an unpromising and largely architecturally modern creation deserted every weekend, I can feel the medieval facades just behind the sheer glass walls, and I am grateful every time that London wasn’t rebuilt after the fire in the manner of Paris. You might say this was a bit woolike and psychogeographical; it is also personal, because I studied medieval buildings and it is my particular understanding of the built environment that prompts this response – I am making a whole raft of personal associations that you won’t. And yes, I am odd, but probably no odder than you are in how you experience the space around you.

Of course, individual memories and associations are not generally something the archaeologist is able to uncover. One of the most insightful questions reflected on the fact that there were very few individuals in Keiller’s films. This is probably surprising from an arts perspective but from the archaeological perspective perfectly natural – we don’t tend to identify individuals in the archaeological record, only classes of people. It left me wondering whether archaeologists might usefully produce similar fictionalised narratives of experiencing space.

I also wondered (and I really should have asked) how the film (which is twenty years old) would differ if it was made now. Obviously twenty more years of history exists to inform the narration, both in the political and economic life of the city and in Keiller’s own life. Would this amount to a completely different sort of phenomenological experience, if an archaeologist compared it to the 1994 film? Logically it must, because we presumably all agree that the experience of living in the first Sumerian cities must have been vastly different to the experience of living in a Roman, medieval or modern city. A city – whether we’re talking about a given individual city or some sort of Platonic ideal – does not stay still. There must be some kind of incremental change in experience as the architectural, political and technological layers accrete, and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be very evident over twenty years. That might give prehistoric archaeologists used to dealing in “blocks” of centuries at a time pause for thought.

Unreviewed! Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind

There are two kinds of popular history book: the cameo and the synthesis. Historians find it easy to fit cameos into their working lives. They produce exquisite little portraits of a family in Wars of the Roses England, or uncover the poignant mental history of an aristocrat at the end of the long nineteenth century. They focus on a crime or an incident or a vignette and use it to draw little lessons and inferences about the world in which it took place.

Syntheses are different. They only incidentally involve the writer’s own original research; they are commentary which should inform the lay reader while also making the expert see a familiar area in a new light. But what they should have at least is a solid angle. The Mediterranean’s history can be told as a giant narrative of interlocking narratives, for example. Or, the history of the world can only be told through money (reprise).

I’m not sure Yuval Harari’s Sapiens has a compelling angle, judging by the extract or whatever it was I read in the Guardian from last weekend. He starts by suggesting that there have been:

almost no scientific studies of the long-term history of happiness.

This might come across as less goady if he then made the slightest attempt to set out a suitable research strategy for this, but he doesn’t, or at least not in the Guardian piece. And scientific studies, really? What he means here is “rigorous”, which is all anybody in a qualitative discipline can aspire to; it’s exactly this kind of sloppy thinking that makes STEM people think HASS people are basically being funded to make shit up. The works to which he obliquely refers on measuring happiness in modern populations normally talk about markers like mental health and reported life satisfaction. It’s certainly an intriguing idea that we might be able to find some corresponding measurements from previous eras and stack them up against each other but that sounds like a lifetime’s work for several people complete with conferences, a dedicated journal, acolyte students, three schisms, seventeen famous blazing rows and eight trillion pints of beer.

And that’s not what’s going to happen, because what Harari is planning to do instead is gallop through the great revolutions in the history of modern humans and offer his take on whether or not they were Good Things. That really seems to be all there is to it, and that’s not an angle. Depending on your specialism, you will find some of his takes intuitively correct, some mildly revelatory and some shonky and over-simplified. The trouble is, once you’ve seen shonky over-simplification in one place, you suspect that it might be lurking in other passages whose background you don’t know so well. For me, the tell was the agricultural revolution. Harari – along with every palaeo-geek and primal dieter on the internet – thinks this is a Bad Thing. The subject is foregrounded in the Guardian piece and caught the attention of the subsequent reviewer:

It’s a neat thought that “we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”

Well, so it is, but it’s not Harari’s. Ian Hodder, Jacques Cauvin, Peter Wilson and pretty much every Neolithic specialist who has come after them have played with the idea that domestication is always a two-way process, and that changes in the head or in social arrangements may have led change in the environment and not the other way round. Above all, the field is implicitly familiar with the fact that agriculture brought tremendous problems to the burgeoning human populations it produced. This is not new. If it were, Harari wouldn’t be able to quote Jared Diamond, for god’s sake, suggesting agriculture was the greatest mistake in human history, which he duly does. Synthesizers quoting other synthesizers. Aieee.

Lack of novelty may not a problem in historical synthesis, but lack of close examination is. That cutesy “agriculture was a mistake, we belong on the savannah” line is a commonplace internet chatroom trope of (usually) white American middle-aged men. It quickly falls to bits when unpicked – what savannah, in what time? Exactly when were we eating “the perfect diet”, how many human groups in a world of massive bio-diversity were really eating it, and above all, how many of the disadvantages of this Eden are you willing to take on board alongside your nuts and berries? Incidentally, there’s also an entire field of philosophy called population studies dedicated to teasing out the implications of the position Harari seems to take as read in all this, that fewer, happier people are better than more, miserable people. Derek Parfitt calls it “a repugnant conclusion” that this is not in fact the case – from the point of view of the potential individual it is better to exist, however miserably, than not. Did no-one mention this to Harari, really?

Maybe I just know the most about the part of history Harari is weakest on, and maybe this is why most people don’t write synthesis history, because everybody’s a well-informed critic about something, the bastards. I’ll read the full thing because I’m a sucker for this stuff, but it don’t look promising so far.

Why do people cry on Who Do You Think You Are?

Genealogy is, when I think about it, the thing I have been doing longer than I’ve been doing pretty much anything else – over twenty years. This fact is surprising to me when I remember it, because I don’t really think about genealogy that much. For a start, it’s a bit of a finished project – there are parish chests I could plunder and mysteries I could worry at, but the easy unfurling of names bit is mostly as done as it’ll ever be. It all floats around in the background, both the doing of it and the data collected, and when I walk down a street on which “somebody” lived or my finger passes over a significant place name on a map I pleasantly “remember” a particular story or set of dates in the same way that I sometimes become gratefully aware of breathing, and then I forget again. With the exception of a couple of years, everywhere I have chosen to live in London has a family connection of some kind, as if this might serve as some kind of grounding in a life of frequent moves I suppose.

I have been catching odd moments of the current Who Do You Think You Are series, which is mostly useless for getting at the actual experience of doing genealogy (nobody wears white cotton gloves and brings you pre-identified bound volumes containing everything you could possibly need to know unless you are Stephen Fry) but excellent at invoking the mythology around it. The pattern is that the fresh and curious disciple arrives at their kitchen table or their desk to join the gently steeple-fingered experts, expresses curiosity, relates some family legends, a few jokes are made. Then the hunt begins, the experts unfold terrible knowledge like calm old Jedis and the disciple is led down a path of admixed discovery and self-discovery that ends, ideally for TV’s purposes, in them bursting into tears.

I’m not being caustic here. It’s a pattern that reflects in a highly dramatised form what happens when you do it yourself. You may not actually weep in record offices – though I have seen people do that – but the ticklish magic of researching family history is that it is an unpicking, of temperaments and circumstances and decisions that might explain why you are what, and where, you are. It helps you to think about family, about the long durée, about life and love and how all decisions have mixed consequences. I gravitate towards well written family histories because I can sense the writer doing that unpicking, not because I am interested in the data itself.

And yet there’s a sort of fiction at the heart of all this, because none of these events in which you are desperately seeking foreshadowings of your own temperamental make-up actually happened to you. You are not culpable in any of it. The decisions you have taken yourself – surely the more relevant data in the project of understanding yourself – are not the things under scrutiny, so you can blub in an uncomplicated way for someone else’s mistakes or misfortunes. The fantasy at work in WDYTYA is more or less that you arrive at the research as a completed and serene person who has resolved everything in their own life, and needs to look further afield for insight and catharsis.

What I suppose we are seeing is somebody displace their own knotted problems onto someone else. Someone dead who never – in modern parlance – agreed to have a public profile, unlike their soggy descendent, which if you think about it is rather spooky. And even if most people who do genealogy don’t get to cry on TV, they still experience the frisson of turning over new data, and they draw it into an account of their background that suits them. Maybe genealogy is a bit of a predatory business.

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