Thursday, October 06, 2011

Untergang heut Morgen

Whenever I hear Miriam Makeba my thoughts naturally turn to Spengler's theory of pseudomorphosis.

Spengler, a ponderous interbellum Teuton, was not keen on jazz or any other form of "negro" music, so it's fair to say he would not have enjoyed Mama Africa's democratic syncopations any more than the on-beat flow of Ices Cube or T.

Ms Makeba is the name I always associate with the anti-Apartheid campaign, the cause closest to the lapels of my fellow students in the 1980s. And Spengler springs to mind whenever I think of students.

Oswald Spengler's insufficiently underrated book "The Decline of the West" falls into the same category as the works of Ayn Rand, namely philosophy for people who don't like philosophy.

Nonetheless, the old boy died in the happy knowledge that he was the only man in 1930s Germany who could get away with belittling Hitler as an "heroic tenor", thanks to the popularity of "Decline" among damp-palmed Prussian professors and their pimply charges.

"Decline" is an attempt at a cyclical analysis of history. Cultures rise, atrophy into civilisation then decline, because people are basically a bunch of clowns and everything new is rubbish. Egyptians, Chinese, Europeans - none of us stand a chance.

Democracy, hip-gyratin' music and priest-baiting are particular signs that the West is finished. Perhaps a military dictator might help. Spengler wasn't sure, and took two volumes a decade apart to say so.

Anxious youths - the sort who think "Steppenwolf" is all about them - loved this sepulchral sludge. Kissinger gave the already miserable Richard Nixon a copy for his bedside table - proof if ever it were needed that Henry was a Democrat mole.

Still, a book that size can't all be wrong, unless it's written by Quakers, and "Decline of the West" has its moments. Pseudomorphosis rather appeals to me - new, vigorous cultural growth cannot break out of the trappings of senile civilisation, and so turns on it with Oedipal fury.

Antonio Gramsci, up the other end of the geographical, political and coherence see-saw, had a similar insight in his "Prison Notebooks", when he wrote that the "old is dying and the new cannot be born". Gramsci saw this as a mere stumble on the trek to progress.

But when you look at student political engagement since the heroic tenor days of 1936, it's hard not to agree with Spengler that the "morbid symptoms" are really here to stay.

In 1936 the cause was Spain. A few Papal oddballs saluted Franco from the safety of their armchairs as the Condor Legion thundered over their tonsured, straw-filled heads. But the Republic was joined on the battlefields of Málaga and Madrid by Oxbridge's finest poets, Wales's hardest miners and England's better Blair.

It's easy to point to Soviet skullduggery behind enemy lines, as I've done before, but Spain was the opening skirmish of the Second World War. Hitler wasn't truly defeated on the Western Front until Franco died, and anyone who fought the squat Galician is all right by me.

British youth has since had its native Beserker genes blunted by the pacifist bromides of higher education and its rage against tyranny sapped by a spurious sense of pseudo-socialist solidarity with the Soviet. This explains how its epic performance in Spain and Normandy was followed by the shameful slouch towards Aldermaston in the 1950s, and the reduction of Vietnam War protests to grandstanding for Ho Chi Mindlessess.

Things improved in the gritty '70s and '80s - perhaps due to unemployment and the declining quality of smack. Chile, in particular, was a noble and often practical campaign against a squalid dictatorship, despite being tainted in Wales by Dafydd Iwan's neverending "Cân Victor Jara".

But those decades were defined by anti-Apartheid. The movement had its fair selection of heads both hot and soft, but even a strong aversion to Desmond Tutu couldn't stir much sympathy for the Vogon Bothas.

In Wales the political is personal, and the personal is critical. My sympathy with the Anti-Apartheid Movement stemmed from having had to listen to my distant cousin "Uncle Robin", who had emigrated to South Africa to join the Bureau of State Security. The last time I'd seen him was May 1979, when he'd popped back to Britain for the general election in order to see "that Communist, David Owen" lose his seat.

With such sawtooth political sense it's frankly a miracle that Apartheid lasted as long as it did. I was glad to see the sunburnt back of it. Uncle Robin was last heard of in a Christmas card from "Zimbabwe-Rhodesia" before decamping to Bournemouth with a lady from Lourenço Marques.

As May turned to December and Mandela made way for whoever, I would sometimes bump into the anti-Apartheid scarf-wearers of my college days and ask them how they thought the new South Africa was getting on. This sobering but far from sober experience helped to formulate the No Good Boyo Iron Rules of Student Politics, applicable to all causes:

1. The Dana Condundrum: All Kinds of Everything was happening in Africa, but getting rid of Apartheid was the only one that mattered, and somehow made the others go away, even though it didn't.

2. The Ilf & Petrov Thesis : Once Apartheid was defeated, everything in South Africa was ok. Based on the novel "The Twelve Chairs", by the aforementioned Soviet writers, in which we find the slogan "No one can save the drowning but the drowning themselves" ("Дело помощи утопающим — дело рук самих утопающих").

3. The Fintan Stack Amendment: Evidence against points 1. and 2. suggesting that Africa still had problems, and that South Africa was letting the side down over Mugabe and AIDS, were met by a blank look that said "I had my fun, and that's all that mattered".

Very patient readers will recall that my unfinished doctoral thesis concerned university unrest in Tsarist Russia, and one of the reasons I gave up - apart from finding out that some rotter had already written it - was the realisation that politics at the student stage suffers from precocious senility.

The charity-shop shufflers get involved, get laid, get jobs and get lost. They then leave quotidian politics to the dullard dynasties of Kinnocks and Milibands and single-string campaigning to the tone-deaf sectarians of the far left.

Meanwhile, their place in the student trenches is taken by more Home-Counties Hillaries on a three-year stretch. It's like a First World War opera by Philip Glass - slight tweaks to the same theme, with some modulation but no development. And then you graduate.

University College Swansea, where I studied slate maintenance and cockle husbandry (joint honours), was one of the least political campuses in Britain. Seventy year of drunk Labour MPs and the conviction that Mrs Thatcher wasn't really prime minister because she's a "bird" had dulled the already rusty hoe of student activism.

The Student Union was largely concerned with scrabbling around for a quorum, every mention of which prompted a bellow of "scrotum!" from the Rugby Club props who seemed to think the debating chamber was their changing room. It was so apolitical that we had an SDP Union President for about five years - the SDP being the political party for people who don't like politics.

The rare debates amounted to the curlew cry of the Athletic Union pleading to opt out of the college bilingual policy. This obliged them to submit every poster - "Headbutting Club members please assemble in the bins at Harper's Disco at 2300 sharp, please" - to someone like me, who translated it into Middle Cornish and threw the original English away.

There were also attempts to expel the Federation of Conservative Students. These porky date-rapists produced my favourite ever poster during the 1983 General Election: a picture of a British Army tank with the word "Benn" underneath it. Made me think.

The Union printed a newspaper called "Swansea Student", which sandwiched oddly prescient notices like "This Union deplores the US bombing of Libya" between music reviews copied from the NME and letters complaining about the Rugby Club's altruistic "bathe a lesbian" campaign.

The most active political group were the Socialist Workers - a shrill of Kentish girls in cardies led by a future accountant who looked like Béla Bartók. She focused on berating a politics lecturer for failing to see the sexism inherent in Tom Paine's "Rights of Man".

The only campaign that had any coherence or momentum was anti-Apartheid, although this largely amounted to shouting "Amandla!" at confused West Indians, picketing showings of "Zulu" and frowning at the Rugby Club's "Springboks" fashion range.

I have recounted one occasion when polishing a Silver Age college quip cost me dear in the coinage of love, and my sole contribution to anti-Apartheid at Swansea also dropped into the crusty sock of woe.

Everyone read the "Swansea Student", but I alone glanced at "College News", the university administration's tedious and ill-set bulletin. It was even printed on bilious orange paper - the eternal colour of the loser, from 70s porn actors to the Continuity Liberal Party (Meadowcroft Faction).

"College News" announced one day that our first principal, Professor Fulton, had died, and that in his honour College House would be renamed Fulton House. Sure enough, the following day the sign went up on the main administration building.

The Student Union, which clung to the back of College/Fulton House like an amorous beetle, had voted to rename its drinking hole "The Mandela Bar" only the day before. This seemed appropriate enough, as it resembled the rumpus room of a condemned Congolese jailhouse with worse beer and less female company, but these were the 1980s and irony was only allowed on Radio 4.

(It was later renamed after a series of children's TV characters and most recently Rob Brydon, before being sold to a Saudi engineering student as a garage for his gold-plated vacuum bed.)

I was sipping a cloudy half of SA in "The Mandela Bar" that lunchtime with a group of Union activists, mainly because I was taken with the Women's Society secretary. This followed my lifelong pattern of being attracted to women who instinctively disapprove of me.

Kay, despite the stripey tights, undyed cheesecloth drapes and general air of umbrage of her calling, liked having me around as I represented the native Welsh in her selection box of oppression. I was just happy for her braided hair to hover over my coal-streaked shoulder as she head-tilted to me about our Great Vowel Famine.

Conversation turned to the question of College House. "Who is this Fulton, anyway?" asked Kay, with customary distrust at any college decision.

Now, I could have told the truth and impressed the Union Executive with my ace reporting skills. Maybe Kay would have thought I was tapping into some mystical Celtic ley line of matriarchal knowledge about the soil and committee meeting rooms of my ancestors. I might even have drawn wry comparisons between the then principal's bookkeeper triteness and Professor Fulton's scholarly humility.

Instead I glanced thoughtfully across at the poster of Mandela and mused "Fulton? Isn't he the governor of Robben Island Prison?"

It took a day or two and some urgent clarification before the pickets dispersed and the Cuban delegation found its way back to the docks, but Kay had firmly struck me off the list of Insulted and Injured.

Student politics still follows the Boyo rules of instant irrelevance, in so far as the gowned masses can be roused from their rent-book torpor at all. Spengler and Gramsci would have picked up the gamey reek of decadence and nihilism in their chosen causes - The war in Iraq was "Not in My Meme", and the "We Are All Hezbollahas" are indifferent to the bigots Medieval and modern who litter their rallies like trousers in a Whitehall farce.

But then single-issue campaigns are the stripped-down chassis of politics, and inevitably attract the superficial. The Anti-Apartheid Movement, despite its occasional false starts, was a powerful motor of human progress. And it certainly had the best tunes.

When its official history is written I may try my luck again, assuming that Kay & Co are now busy shipping kohl to Gaza, and submit my chapter on "The Fulton House Siege" and its part in my downfall.


Francis Sedgemore said...

"philosophy for people who don't like philosophy"

Don't you mean philosophy for philosophers who don't like people?

Peter Feuilherade said...

Your reminiscences of the minefield that was student union politicking in the 80s (70s in my case, at the School of Obscure & Antiquated Studies - SOAS, London) prompted me to set aside the pint of Dabley Gold I was supping at The All Nations, Madeley, and recall my Maoist SOAS colleague Keith B. (full surname redacted, as I have no wish to scupper his UK monopoly on brokering bargain return flights to Pyongyang). Keith secured his place in SOAS Union history c. 1979 by digging up some dirt on his only rival for the vacant post of Catering Rep on the Staff-Student Committee and revealing at the hustings that said rival - a proto-yuppie visiting U.S. "assistant professor" - had been advising The Agency a few years previously on the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Keith's rhetorical question to the assembled SOAS hordes: "Would you buy a sandwich from this man?" - was enough to assure his victory in the Catering committee vote. The defeated American contender left SOAS shortly afterwards to work at Langley (he has more recently been linked with the Israeli-Lebanese 'hummus war').

jams o donnell said...

I salute you sir. Anyone who brings, Ilf, Petrov AND Father Fintan Stack together in one post is a man to be honoured!

Most student protest followed the Crilley/McGuire principle: "Down with this sort of thing... careful now"

No Good Boyo said...

Splenger and Rand are easy reading, Francis. "Philosophy for philosophers who don't like people" has to be more abstruse. Heidegger is a good one.

Well, Peter, your mate Keith sounds like he's found his true home, several thousand feet above the DMZ. What sort of stuff was on offer in SOAS canteen in his time - iron rice?

You're too kind Jams. Fr Stack is my favourite cleric, and that includes Savonarola and Qaradawi among other psychos. I await his debut on Thought for the Day, though he may tarry.

Francis Sedgemore said...

Indeed, Herr Boyo. I've always thought of Ayn Rand as light reading for intellectuals looking for something to help them relax after a hard day's intellectualising. Much like you, me and our beloved Viz.

No Good Boyo said...

Nice one, Francis. Just as Lenin was a Dadaist who's latest jape got out of hand, Rand was taking the piss and these po-faced gits never got the joke. Oh, those Russians...

Jon said...

Afternoon Boyo.

How I loved student politics. In my days at Bristol we had one Lembit Opik minding the shop, a non-stop roller coaster of tedium that was.

It was as a result of the preveiling silliness of the times that I got my face on the front page of the "Sun".

The Conservative students mob (what were they called? I know they got thrown out of the broader party by one N Tebbit) invited Enoch Powell down to talk about flower arranging and I happened to be in the union when they tried to smuggle him in past 5000 baying SWP members.

I'd only gone in to get a haircut and some paper and I ended up being banged up. Once my complete innocence was clarified (I presented my half shorn head as evidence) I was released, only to be swept up by the SWP and bought drinks all evening for being a class hero.

I even got a shag out of it.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I've done and said some embarrassing things in my time but at least I can say that I never got involved in student politics - engineering student, never had the f**king time did I - not even for a shag. (Actually I was with your friends the clerics - and, yes, I did get one there.) Apartheid was indeed the one thing that we could (almost) all agree on, and I can still remember how wonderful it was when Mandela emerged from prison and instead of being the broken man I'd feared he'd be, was, well, Nelson Mandela.

No Good Boyo said...

Wotcher, Jon.

Just as applying for a management post ought to be an instant disqualification for the job, so should student politics preclude the mules from grown-up stuff. It always used to, but now it's a feeder straight into the Commons. How we jeered at Thatcher's estate agents and the Labour pit ponies. If only we'd known.

Someone ought to write a book about the fun that was to be had with the SWP. I never shagged any of them - the pretty girls were all in the RCP, which bypassed Swansea as we didn't have a Laura Ashley branch.

But a black bloke I knew from Brixton (yes, I am street) spent months teasing them. They so wanted a black member, so to speak, that they put up with any old bollocks he spun them. They'd nod anxiously as he explained how Rosicrucianism fitted in with Trotsky's view of whatever.

How we laughed. Little did we know that this was the SWP dress rehearsal for embracing Islamists.

Gadjo, when are you going to restart your blog? I check almost every day, and still enjoy reading your old posts. Get on with it, man. Do it for Jesus, but not in his style.

It's just occurred to me that there are no conspiracy theories about Nelson Mandela. Is that because he is too great, or because the Internet wasn't around? Having said that. Jerry Sadowitz always claimed Madiba stayed in jail to avoid paying him back a fiver.

Francis Sedgemore said...

"Do it for Jesus, but not in his style."

I second that emotion. Come on Gadj, man, you have a duty.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Brethren, this is like bibliomancy, but instead of opening the Bible and finding that I shalt not wear clothes woven of two kinds of material I open a blog and find The Holy Spirit - albeit in a rather edgy Welsh accent, which was a surprise - telling me to spout bollocks again. Thank you. Just to annoy everybody, however, I would have to do it in the style of Jesus - kind of like the One Song to the Tune of Another game from Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue - currently I'm thinking of presenting the collected wisdom of The Wurzels in the style of The Sermon of the Mount. Arcadian. St. Paul's letters may worry you more. By the way, the Chief Moderator of the United Reformed Church and I still exchange Christmas cards, and the lacerations have almost healed now. Shalom.

Gorilla Bananas said...

What upset me most about the US bombing of Libya was that Gaddafi's infant daughter was killed. Now it appears that the devious bint survived to become much-feared medical dominatrix in a Tripoli hospital. I've given Gaddafi my support in the past, but he's not getting another word until he apologises for that hoax.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

Bravo Boyo! What an enjoyable post to liven up a cold wet Brussels Saturday morning, with an opening line to rival that of Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers, and I only had to resort to the OED three times. I also indulged in some genteel fistwaving during my days of academia, although the sum of my involvement came down to being dead impressed by Tariq Ali's talk to the students union, doing half a march through London shouting "Cut the cuts!" before my mate and I diverted to the pub, and a chaste affair with a Jamaican WRP activist I met outside the dole office during that short window of opportunity in 1975 when summer vac counted as being "unemployed". The President of the SU in my last year was one John Denham, later Minister of Universities in the Blair administration - he didn't move very far really when you think about it. I went off the anti-apartheid lot when they cold shouldered Johnny Clegg for his Zulu connections and he was sent back to France with his knobkerrie between his legs.

No Good Boyo said...

Blah blah Gadj, just do it. The energy you expend on your slippery, Magyar-style excuses could have fuelled a dozen witty posts or the entire Cluj power supply by now.

The trouble with the Middle East, GB, is that people never know who's dead and who's alive. This applies as much to deities as it does to Gaddafis. What we need, as the Rev Hazel Motes said, is that "the lame don't walk, the dumb don't talk, and the dead stay that way".

It's true, Daphne, that AA didn't like to have their ideas complicated by such considerations as the Zulus. Why can't everyone just be black, ferchrissakes!? I'd never heard of Johnny Clegg, but thanks for the tip.

Gadjo Dilo said...


Laban said...

"A few Papal oddballs saluted Franco from the safety of their armchairs as the Condor Legion thundered over their tonsured, straw-filled heads."

Are you speaking of the Irish Brigade, Catholics who volunteered 'for God and Spain' then found that Franco neither needed nor wanted them? Their only contribution at the front was farcial. But you can't blame them for being cross. Orwell on Barcelona :

"Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen."

And 7,000-odd priests and nuns were being murdered.

It's all tebbily complex. While the IRA were ambushing Franco's Irish volunteers, Ulster Catholics and Irish Americans were supporting Franco and Joe Kennedy was preventing the sending of arms to the Republic.

As a youth I read Orwell and Hemingway on Spain. But there was a lot more to it than that. As Churchill put it, "naturally I was not in favour of the Republic. How could I be, when if I had been Spanish they would have murdered me and all my family and friends?"

I do take your general point re the decline in the desire of Brit youth for a righteous scrap. Those Brits who did sign up for Bosnia tended to be New Brits rather than old.

No Good Boyo said...

It was our own Saunders Lewis I had in mind, Laban. At least the eejit Greenshirts had the balls to go to Spain, instead of sneering in Machynlleth.

In a moment to please Jung, that passage from Homage to Catalonia is what made me a conservative at the age of 14. Our English teacher quoted it with approval. I heard only horror and the tread of the Beast.

Nonetheless there were people of integrity on the Republican side, especially in the Catalan and Basque governments. Franco could be judged by the company he kept, although I rather admire his telling Hitler where he could stuff his Axis.

Laban said...

I like my cyclical analysis of history to come from someone with a decent name - a name like Glubb Pasha.

No Good Boyo said...

I enjoyed your postings from Glubb Pasha at the time. Bracing.

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