An excursion into cultcha

If you’re a classical musician, or musical critic, look away now. I have no qualification whatsoever for writing what follows, and Schubert and Haydn studies will not be moved further by even a millimetre as a result of it. I know enough about music to comprehend approximately what a fugue is, and to recognise a movement in sonata form if it doesn’t stray too far from the exposition-development-recapitulation-(coda) model. I can hear a modulation, but there’s no point in asking me to tell you from a score what key all those sharpened, flattened or naturalised notes mean we’ve modulated to. So you won’t find erudite observations like, “Haydn flirts boldly, yet only fleetingly, with a crushing B flat minor from his sunny starting point of D major, like a cloud passing over a distant sunlit landscape.” I’ve just made that up, but if you’re a music critic don’t try telling me you haven’t written that exact poncey sentence at some time, even though you probably got the keys right.

So with my excuses made, let me unleash on the world my untutored musical thoughts. It struck me whilst I was exercising this morning to the strains of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet (and that I was using a masterpiece of the canon as a backdrop to something as base as exercise surely proves my musical philistinism beyond doubt!) not only that it’s quite hard to maintain a decent aerobic rhythm when a slow movement kicks in, but also that both my favourite string quartets have theme and variation slow movements. The other is Haydn’s “Emperor”, with its famous movement from which the German national anthem derives. I wondered whether it was simply a coincidence that both these quartets contain such movements, or whether it might be a significant component in my choice.

I suspect it has something to do with slow movements in general. From a young age, slow movements seemed to me to be stretches of boredom one had to endure before perking up again with a jolly or bombastic minuet or scherzo, and a hopefully breathless and breathtaking finale. Symphonies with the least dirge-like slow movements – Mendelssohn’s Italian or Beethoven’s 8th come to mind – were thus always those I welcomed most appreciatively. My love of the moto perpetuo of the baroque is another consequence of my preference for music that can be visualised as a rushing, gurgling stream rather than a serene, placid lake. Slow movements such as those of “Death and the Maiden” or the “Emperor” have changes of pace and timbre that keep my attention when a shimmering but unremittingly slow movement would have me drifting off. And to a musical novice such as me, these variation movements have a simple and transparent structure, with clearly delineated chunks that signal that something new is being done to the theme, even if I haven’t a clue about exactly what. And in the case of the Haydn, it’s wonderful to hear that theme moving unaltered amongst the voices, and to marvel at how different the same music can be in the hands of a master.

I’d like to think that my musical taste and appreciation have matured as I’ve got older, but I suspect that deep down it’s still the fast and furious that I love, and that prevents the child in me from telling me that I’m bored.

On human vanity

According to my wife, I’m an inveterate scruff. If I’m not working (when my imaginative wardrobe extends to the radical heights of a sober business suit and generally well-chosen tie) then I’m unlikely to get far past jeans and a T-shirt. This, apparently, not only consigns me to membership of that vast cohort of British men whose ill-fitting clothes serve only to accentuate their misshapen bodies, but also signals a serious lack of self-esteem.

Since I’m so frequently arraigned on these charges, and always found guilty, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to ponder on this “clothes maketh the man” hypothesis. Whilst it’s obvious to me that certain kinds of clothing symbolise status and authority, I should have thought that the status and the authority come first, and the clothes merely reflect or signal it. Maybe someone without status or authority could pretend to have those attributes by wearing the relevant clothes, but I don’t think the pretence would last very long. And I suspect the same applies to the self-esteem argument.

My wife is correct in her analysis in this respect: such self-assurance as I have does largely come from my “professional” life. I’ve been relatively successful and held posts near the top of organisations – no matter that they’ve mostly been tin-pot organisations in which the top is hardly a dizzying distance from the bottom. But put me in the setting of a party, or, God help me, a “networking opportunity”, and I’ll be the one silently observing from the edge of the room, and trying to delude myself that my lack of interaction is the consequence not of my social incompetence, but of the unworthy and boring nature of everyone else. Would a snappier, classier style of dress boost my self-confidence and have me up and circulating with sparkling repartee and irresistible social attraction? Well, I’m not convinced.

I was pondering on this on the tram the other day after the latest of my wife’s show-trials of my sartorial inadequacies (another inevitable guilty verdict, of course.) I was preparing a new defence along the lines that the issue was not my lack of self-esteem, but my wife’s excessive vanity. And her shallow superficiality in insisting that the surface presentation was more significant than the profound stirrings beneath. “I put it to you, madam, …witter…book…cover… witter…judge…don’t.”  Perry Mason was going to have to sharpen up his act once I had my witness on the stand.

Unfortunately this reverie was brought to an abrupt halt by the sudden realisation that I was myself indulging in the most outrageous book-cover-judgement scenario at that very moment. One of my fellow passengers was a middle-aged man of gargantuan proportions, whose clothing was so busy being heroic it had no time whatsoever to start thinking about being self-esteem enhancing. But what was so pathetic about this gentleman was that despite both rapidly balding and going grey, yet some straw-clutching idea had persuaded him to comb the few straggling hairs over his shining pate in an homage to Robert Robinson, and then to go the further step of dying these woebegone strands a fetching ginger. This seemed to me like offering the Chancellor a couple of quid to help out with the national debt. It wasn’t really getting to grips with the magnitude of the problem. “Sir, you’re a fat, sweating loser, and having grey hair and a distinguished balding head are actually your best assets. Don’t throw them away.”

I’m not proud of myself. Indeed I’m ashamed at my callous, judgemental and unsympathetic thoughts. But I do wonder about the motivation for those random attempts at self-improvement. Could it be vanity? Desperation? I don’t know, but that didn’t stop me from speculating. So although I’m still not convinced by my wife that clothes and appearance can as easily be cause as effect, I was given a sharp reminder that those same clothes and appearance remain one of our most powerful prejudices.

A great gulf fixed?

When I embarked on this series of posts on race and culture I mentioned that one of my motivations was that my own son is mixed race. There’s been a lot of writing about the consequences for mixed race children of their racial and cultural background. In the case of white British/black afro-Caribbean children, it’s commonplace to note that their skin colour (although one issue is the vast range within this specific mixed race group from almost “white” skin tone, hair type, and facial features to distinctly “black” skin tone, hair type, and facial features) frequently “obliges” them to identify as “black” as a consequence of the racism that they endure in Britain. They are then often faced with greater or lesser hostility from the black community that they are identifying with, since mixed race is sometimes seen to be a product of racial disloyalty on the part of their black parent. I don’t think it’s very useful for me as a white man to speculate on this and the other interpretations of mixed race experience that are in circulation: perhaps one day my son will reflect on his own experience in this area, and that would be a blog worth reading.

On the other hand, I have seen fewer reflections on the experience of being a parent to a mixed race child, and on that at least I can claim to have an authentic perspective to offer. Well, actually it’s a bit more complex than that: I can’t see things through the eyes of a black father of a mixed race child, nor of course those of a mother of any race. There is no doubt that these different permutations produce fundamentally different experiences, and I for one would be fascinated to hear from people who’ve been through one of the others.

However, back to what I do know. As I write this, my son’s handsome, moody image looks out at me from a photograph I took of him when he was 16. People often say they can see my likeness in him, but I find it very difficult to do so. (Which is lucky for him, I suspect!) But even the most confident of those observers of the father in the son would probably not say that “he looks just like you!” My son is I think fairly well towards the “black” end of the white-black spectrum of mixed race possibility, and no-one would look at him and think, “White boy.” It is simply not possible for him to look like me in the way that sometimes children really do look like younger versions of their fathers. I don’t make this point to illustrate a problem, but rather to illustrate a difference. Whether or not it’s ever a wise thing to do, I cannot think of my son as “li’l me.” There is indeed some sort of a gulf fixed between us.

I’m not attempting to enter into my son’s head, nor to claim any understanding of his journey, but it I think it’s an observable fact that his primary identification is as a young black man. He’s always kept both black and white friends, but as he’s got older his real friendships have always been with black boys. His tastes in music are undilutedly black. Listening to his rap music, and watching him move his head in that rhythmic and distinctively black way as the rapper waxes eloquent about niggers and bitches, is to observe a world in which I have no part whatsoever. Many black parents would also baulk at the imagery and language of rap artists, especially in their frequently blood-curdling attitudes to gays and women, but that’s not the distance that I’m describing. Those black parents might find their son’s musical enthusiasms distasteful, but not alienating. My son, if he so wishes, can refer to himself as a nigger as many black people do in their everyday speech. It’s hardly a linguistic place to which I can accompany him. Here at least, the gulf is both fixed and great.

As is often the case, it’s not the big things that always resonate the loudest; trivial though it might be, my son and I can’t go to the same barber. But there are some big things that do. I can’t get stopped and searched, or pulled over when driving, just because the copper thinks I’m black and probably thus also a criminal. Not that I want to be at the arse-end of the police’s institutional racism (and no, it hasn’t been dealt with or swept away) but it also means that I can’t empathise when it happens to my son. I can’t walk with him. And I know he feels it.

So the dynamics of mixed race life are not neutral or evenly distributed between the opposite poles of the “dual heritage”. To be mixed race may not necessarily mean being black, but it sure as hell means you’re not white. It’s as if the black and the white bits are not on the same plane, so that the fluids of identity cannot flow with equal ease to any place on the continuum. Rather, there’s a relentless gradient that flows inexorably towards the black pole. When my son mixes with his mother’s family, he’s still clearly also in  his own family. But when he mixes with mine, notwithstanding that they love him and cherish him, he’s a visitor from somewhere else.

My head tells me that this is all a part of racism, it’s a consequence of history and of injustice. It is not my fault. It is not my son’s fault. But my heart tells me that it’s aching nonetheless. I so much want that gulf to be removed, rather than to have to reach out across it. I want to be close to my son. But I cannot be. And it hurts.

More Th>n total crap!

Whilst minding my own business the other day, I received a most indelicate letter from the More Th>n usually annoying insurance company. Indelicate because emblazoned upon the outside of this crass marketing material was the public information that I was entitled, due to my over-50 status, to receive a startlingly modest renewal quotation. This was because of my vast experience as a driver. And “we know that you’re less likely to make a claim”. So although my chances of grooming any unwary teenagers by pretending to be 13 had been summarily destroyed by this public age-outing, at least I might have the compensation of cheap car insurance. And this was no idle fantasy on my part because, I learned from their encouraging letter, most people in my almost-senile age bracket had to shell out a mere £181 for their premium.

I visited their website. I entered all my personal details. I shared the fact that I’d had a full licence for more th>n thirty years. I owned up to the one accident I’d had in the last five years, which was settled in my favour. I boasted of my more th>n five years’ no claims record. I assured them that I’d not been collecting points on my licence. I denied that I’d had any turbo-charging adaptations since Mr Citroen built my car for me. I explained in detail that my car would be nestling behind electronic gates during the night, and that it would thus be protected from all the evils and temptations of the dark hours. I mentioned that it had an immobiliser and ear-splitting alarm fitted, not by a fly-by-night Manchester wide-boy, but by the manufacturer himself. In fact, all in all, I think I had built up a pretty copper-bottomed case that I was an almost perfect example of their data-warehousing’s intended demographic. I was old, safe, honest, boring, and eager to be wooed by their “pay as little as £181” premium.

I was so perfect a fit that the website, after it had told me with disarming honesty that it would be running a credit reference check against me, apologetically informed me that so far from offering me a paltry sub-£200 quote it was unable to offer me a quote at all. I was incensed. Was I not old enough? Was my membership of the club for the boring and safe not adequate? What faint echo of a dissolute life-style had they picked up on? I was determined to find out.

So I phoned their free-phone help line. I was connected to a charming but spectacularly useless young lady who spent ten of our eventual thirty minutes together establishing my address. Once that hurdle had been safely jumped, she continued to ask me all the questions her web-based alter ego had already asked me. I refer you to my earlier replies. I thought I’d have been able to refer her to my earlier replies as well since she assured me she had my non-quotation up on her screen but no, she wanted to hear me repeat them just for her. After we had pirouetted our pas-de-deux she was at length able to reveal my special old, boring, safe person’s quote. It was £1087. I’m ashamed to admit that I told her and her employers to fuck right off. For those remotely interested, my current insurer’s renewal quote is £507. Oh yes, More Th>n is the perfectly eponymous insurance company after all.

The River Thames at Goring

Time for another photographic interlude. This shot was taken last May just as the sun was setting. I was in the middle of a 3-day narrow-boat trip up the Thames, and the weather up to that point had been rather grey and perhaps a touch depressing. Quite suddenly, as often seems to happen, with the evening came rays of golden sunshine that totally transformed the feel of the day, and created a sense of peace and calm.

I was pleased with this shot; it seemed to me to have something of the feel of a Dutch landscape painting.

Technical info: Nikon D300; 18-70mm zoom at 18mm; f8; 1/125th; ISO200; hand-held

River Thames at Goring

Multiculturalism is doomed

Although the title may seem a controversial statement to make, a moment’s thought will reveal that it’s inevitable when seen against the “long arc of history”. I’m not aware of many ghettos of Normans defiantly speaking old French, distilling moonshine Calvados, and furtively manufacturing Brie. The dividing line between Romans and Ancient British also seems to have healed up quite nicely, and although we might treasure the fantasy statue of Boadicea, we don’t generally get into trouble for not showing due sensitivity to our Roman communities when we do. So it’s hardly radical to point out that the “natural” course of events is for cultural difference to become indiscernible over time. It requires action and energy to prevent this process from playing out in its inevitable way, rather like the energy required to prevent entropy increasing in a physical system. So is it better to put that energy (and money, which is really simply the energy of public policy) in by encouraging minority communities to maintain their differences, or would it actually be better to let “nature” takes its course, or even actively to try and speed it up?

In Britain and France we have an interesting contrast between these two approaches. In this country we are, formally at least, committed to the sustenance of multiculturalism and to the celebration of difference. There are of course other currents, especially in response to islamist extremism, which are running in a different direction but by and large this is the approach we’ve decided to adopt as a nation, and which we actively impose through money, the law, and official moral disapprobation of alternative perspectives. France, on the other hand, has gone down a different route. Whilst we’ve held up diversity as a virtue, they’ve held up “Frenchness” as a virtue. Most of the debate about that in this country has I think rather simplistically and moralistically merely declared that this is evidence of French racism. (It’s been fun however to watch our own right-wing tabloid hacks having to decide between enthusiasm for French defiance of the dreaded political correctness, and lazily reaching for a few weary frog-related French stereotypes.) The horrors of the post 1789 period in France when so much blood was spilled has made them determined to safeguard the revolutionary advances, of which a very significant one was the establishment of a secular state and the diminution of the power of the church. The determination of French policy to keep religion out of state education is one of the currents (only one – more later) which led to the outlawing of religious apparel and iconography in French schools.

Into this febrile atmosphere marches the issue of race. Race and culture aren’t remotely the same thing, but they often intersect more or less tidily. Where members of a cultural group are generally also members of a specific racial group, and in a society where racism (in the second of the two senses established here) is entrenched, then there is plenty of room for trouble. Cultural minorities might choose to maintain a sense of identity, but they may also be forced into it by economic or geographical ghettoisation (an ugly term for an ugly process). Cultural identity then becomes as much a defence as a choice. To return to the French example, it is at least debatable how much of the fervour to ban religious dress (which was not specifically targeted at islamic dress, but was for all that mostly concerned with that particular issue) was a laudable defence of hard-won rights, and how much a pretext for islamophobia and racism.

In my view, we’ve too easily confused categories, and set up moral boundaries, when greater clarity and discernment would have served us better. There is no doubt that acting deliberately to slow down the inevitable process of assimilation creates problems even if it also provides some protections. It is not clear to me, for example, that it serves anyone’s interests for there to be enclaves of people who cannot speak the language of the country in which they live. And, please note, that applies just as strongly to the embarrassing groups of non-French-speaking ex-patriot British people (I will not use the detestable term “Brits”!) who litter the French countryside as it does to Sylheti immigrants to London’s East End. It is not inherently racist to question the doctrine of maintaining multiculturalism as a social and moral good. After all, it’s only a modern attempt at succeeding where Canute failed. I firmly believe that it is better for a society to act on undermining the forces that collude to deepen and maintain cultural difference for the simple reason that these are frequently the forces of racism. Cultural ghettos are necessary defences against injustice. They are not positive displays of an enriching diversity. The advice to immigrants “when in Rome, to do as the Romans do” is perfectly fair with one massive and critical qualification: it must be possible for them to do so. And it isn’t when unexamined racism in job markets and the rest conspire to keep them excluded.

Fools rush in…

If crime and punishment is my frying-pan, then I’m about to jump straight into the fire! Race and culture are areas fraught with danger and controversy, and wiser heads than mine might decide, having peeped over the parapet, that they’re better off staying well beneath its protective bulk. Unfortunately wisdom has never been my strong point, and a crazy, complacent confidence has once more won the day.

Moving swiftly on through my metaphors, you may be wondering why I should be dipping my toe in this hot water at all. I have a number of reasons. First, my son is, in chronological order of euphemism, half-caste, mixed race, a person of colour, and of dual heritage. This succession of descriptors alone is indicative of the emotive currents flowing through the concepts of race and of culture. Second, my wife is South American and black. Both the geographic and the racial tags are needed if you want to locate her in this minefield. Third, our intention is to retire to our house in rural France in due course (a course that is not as due as I’d like), and France, race, culture and the niqab go together like, well, like a burning fiery furnace. And fourth, on top of all that, my current job includes responsibility for “equality and diversity” so I have a professional interest as well. So I might be about to be foolhardy, but I do have a few excuses.

This is not an area that one blog post could possibly begin to explore adequately, and so this will be a series of articles over the next few weeks, interspersed with some more frivolous stuff, I very much hope. Indeed, in this first post I’m intending to do no more than define some of the terms for the future discussion and, if you’re willing to join me in this dangerous pond, debate. Even getting definitions straight is quite hard in this context, so please feel free to take issue with what follows. However, my intention is not to arrive at a consensus about what these terms signify, but simply an understanding of what I mean when I use them.

  • Genotype: The sum total of an individual’s genetic inheritance, encoded largely with their DNA, and which is fixed from the moment of conception barring genetic damage or random mutation.
  • Phenotype: The particular expression of the genotype in a given individual, and which is environmentally influenced. Identical genotypes could have different phenotypes, and a given individual’s phenotype could vary over time.
  • Race: An imprecise term borrowed from taxonomy which is popularly used to distinguish between different human phenotypes, mostly on the basis of skin colour.
  • Racial group: A collection of individuals adjudged to belong to the same “race”.
  • Culture: The nexus of social norms, behaviours, shared understandings, identifications, history, etc. that distinguish particular groups of people from one another, and which provides them with a sense of identity.
  • Identity: The association that an individual decides to make between themselves and a cultural group, and sometimes vice-versa.
  • Ethnicity: A combination of racial group, culture and identity that is considered to have a history and originally at least, a geographical location.
  • Racism: (1) A philosophical position that claims certain human attributes are inextricably and immutably linked to racial group. (2) A political and economic set of social relationships in which power and social goods are unequally distributed between racial groups.
  • Prejudice: Judgements made by individuals or groups in which assumptions are made in advance, and to the detriment of others.

There will doubtless be other terms I may need to define carefully as they arise, but I think these are the currency of the articles that will follow, and in which I don’t want to have to be constantly restating what I mean by them. Other terms are important, such as religion, but I think their meanings are clearer and less contentious.

I hope that this has both set the groundwork, and with luck also whetted the appetite! Please subscribe to the blog (use the button in the side bar on the right) if you want to be alerted to new articles in this series.