Alan Dent

Alan Dent

Alan Dent is the founder and editor of The Penniless Press and its successor MQB.

Place, personality and politics: the life and loves of D. H. Lawrence
Thursday, 05 August 2021 07:30

Place, personality and politics: the life and loves of D. H. Lawrence

Published in Fiction

Alan Dent writes about D. H. Lawrence

Stand at the front door of 8a Victoria St, Eastwood and turn to your left and you can see the enfolding countryside Arthur Lawrence must have looked towards many times. Bert was under two when the family moved to The Breach House. In Sons and Lovers, it’s located in The Bottoms. Today, it’s a cultural centre. A good, three-storey house with a charming garden front, side and rear, much bigger than the Victoria St terrace. In the book, Lawrence describes it as “scrubby” and what make The Bottoms a “nasty” place are the “ash-pits”. The Lawrences didn’t own the house and had to pay an extra sixpence in rent because it was a corner plot. Lawrence lived here from just before he was two till the age of six when the family moved to Walker St, where they remained for fourteen years. He said the countryside which can be seen from the house was the country of his heart. It was a landscape he walked with his father who passed on to him his expert knowledge of the local fauna and flora.

Lawrence didn’t like Eastwood, but he loved the landscape in which it had been built. Today, it’s a small town like hundreds more, its centre blighted by chain outlets and the risibly named Wetherspoon’s: The Lady Chatterley. It’s easy to imagine how it would have been in Bert’s day: subtract the traffic, the supermarket, the petrol station, the pizza take-aways, the nail bars, the houses built after Lawrence left for good in 1908, and you can see why he felt such an affinity for nature. He was a product of working-class industrialism but he lived in a town which hadn’t obliterated the area’s extraordinary beauty. Eastwood wasn’t Manchester where the children of the working class could grow to adulthood without ever seeing a hillside, a river, a stream, a meadow of wild flowers. Bert had one foot in the industrial twentieth century and the other in the past of the “gin-pits” when Eastwood was a village and natured dominated.

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The early pages of Sons and Lovers mention the fairly sudden transformation of the place when commercial mining began: The gin-pits were elbowed aside by the large mines of the financiers. The choice of language suggests bullying and also a nostalgia for what was lost. Bert didn’t identify with the industrialism of the financiers. He was a child of nature. What drew his imagination and affection was the slow world of the hills, woods, flowers, streams. This is how he was formed and it was crucial to the writer he became.

Industrial mining had begun in the area some sixty years before he was born. It was established but not commandeering. Arthur Lawrence walked across fields to and from Brinsley Colliery. He was born in the mid 1840s and began work aged seven. At the time, in the industrial towns of the North and Midlands, many workers lived close to the factory or mill and walked to work along cobbled streets. It wasn’t necessarily their everyday experience to notice wild flowers and birds on their way. For Bert  there was a marked contrast between the natural world which surrounded his little town and the industrial landscape of the pits. Though he remarked as a young man that he would miss the collieries if they were removed, he experienced them as a scar and the pursuit of profit which drove them left him disdainful for the whole of his life.

Walker St. was Bert’s home for most of his twenty-three years in Eastwood. It isn’t as charming as The Breach House. Sons and Lovers is set in the latter, or at least in The Bottoms. The detail of the family move in 1891 wasn’t significant enough to be included. Bert’s home was a place of strife. Arthur had deceived Lydia. She believed he owned his house and he seems to have suggested his job at the mine was more elevated than hacking at the coal face.  Lydia was a Puritan, a strict non-conformist Congregationalist. The democratic, plain-style of her religion made her contemptuous of double dealing. Arthur clearly talked himself up somewhat. He would have treated it as a joke, but she didn’t see anything funny. It was a humiliation.

Lydia and Arthur met by being related through marriage. His maternal aunt Alice married her maternal uncle John. Lydia Beardsall had lived for a few years in Kent as a girl and spoke with a somewhat southern accent. Her family had been fairly well-off until it was ruined by crisis in the lace industry. She was an intelligent and relatively educated woman with a taste for poetry.     

Perhaps Lydia made the classic mistake of sacrificing herself to Arthur’s needs. Essentially sentimental, at the  first touch of reality, this turns into its opposite. Offended, she became acutely aware of her needs and withdrew. In the novel, her happiness endures a few scant months. Based on a false view of both herself and her husband it was bound to collapse. Sexual relations went on long enough for her to produce five children but the nature of that intimacy we can only surmise. The novel may exaggerate for effect, but if it’s anywhere near the mark, Arthur probably experienced a fair degree of loneliness.

Lydia and Arthur stayed together till her death in 1910, in her late fifties. For much of that time, if the novel is a reasonable guide, Arthur retreated from the family to The Three Tuns and other friendly pubs. Lydia made him a stranger , drew the children to her, especially Bert (George Lawrence said she looked after his young brother “like a sick monkey”). Withholding affection from her husband she transferred it to her children and Bert got the worst of it because he was sickly and more like her than the others.

Lawrence claimed he was born hating his father. He overstated. He arrived in a family blighted by negative feeling. No doubt, but for the cruelty of the era’s divorce laws, his parents would have parted. He claimed he feared his father and hated his touch. No doubt he did experience fear: Arthur was a tough miner and the boy was witness to his rages against his mother. Yet Bert’s expertise in botany came from his father. They must have spent a fair amount of time together in the woods and fields. In spite of the derogatory picture of Arthur in Sons and Lovers, Lawrence couldn’t help himself depicting his father’s easy sensuousness. Arthur wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t self-sacrificing like his wife, but her very strength was her weakness. She sacrificed herself too far and heaped blame on Arthur. Bert was required to side with her.  Ironically, however, his adult creed became that he had no truck with “ought” and “should”:  a tilt towards his father.

There seems to be little evidence of Bert Lawrence walking much through the Nottinghamshire countryside with his mother.  His mother was more civic. She liked the church, the WSPU (founded by the Pankhursts in 1903, its motto was “Deeds Not Words”). Position in society,  the right causes, civic life in general inspired his mother more than flowers and birds. Bert, on the other hand, found  “life” (the word occurs hundreds of times in his fiction) was good, healthy. There was no dissembling, no falseness. A flower couldn’t be false. A bird couldn’t deceive. Everything lived out its nature as it was supposed to. Nature was straight. A hawk might tear a pigeon to pieces, but there was no hypocrisy.     

As a writer, however, what’s interesting is how this identification with nature influenced his work. If a bird, a fox, a horse, a fish could live by its nature without complication, why not people? Lawrence was naïve. We are a problem to ourselves because it is our nature to be cultural. We have to create the culture which fulfils our nature and that is the freedom to make mistakes. Lawrence sought in nature an uncomplicated way of being which could resolve the hurtful tangle of his parents’ marriage; but it didn’t exist.    

From the outset, Lawrence was trying to solve the problem of relations between men and women, as it appeared to him. The White Peacock, a poor novel full of glimpses of genius, revolves around a love triangle. Because of his misguided idea that if only we could cast off the constraints of culture, dispense with conscious thought and rely on “blood consciousness” (the concept is nonsense), he believed a simple reliance on instinctive responses would lead to happy outcomes. He was right that most of what goes in our minds is unconscious, but our feelings originate in the brain not the blood. Nor is there an impenetrable barrier between our conscious and unconscious minds (not in the Freudian sense of a sump but merely the straightforward sense that our brains whirr away without conscious impetus).         


The later novels in which he tries to deal with political issues (Kangaroo, The Plumed Serpent) are inadequate. At home in Eastwood, he was an instinctive socialist. When the miners were balloting for strike action in 1912, he helped out and was angry that the women pushed the men to vote against. He perceived the women as conservative, concerned that money should keep coming in, while he was in favour of the men standing up for themselves. Yet no more than three years later he was railing against the Welsh miners for striking and had set his face against democracy. What led him astray (although by 1929 he was writing to his sister that if he were in England he would vote Labour) was his “blood consciousness” fallacy, his belief in impersonal forces: the forces of nature he’d identified with as a boy and which had given him so much solace. He saw collective action, the application of reason and democratic decision-making as a form of betrayal. He confused realms: falling in love is one thing, deciding how society should be run another.

His wayward theories marred his work, they are worth far less than the fiction. Their energy and sense of seriousness are positive, but Lawrence had no capacity for theory. In the theoretical books and his letters there is a swirl of confused ideas and at times simply lunatic assertions. In driving beyond what he was brilliant at and trying to be a messiah, he exposed his weaknesses and made himself sad and ludicrous. He was a superb novelist at his best, a supremely good short story writer, a good dramatist and a decent poet. It didn’t satisfy him because he was trying to do something literature can’t. It doesn’t change the world in short order.  He needed to free himself and he sensed he couldn’t without wider social change. He was partly right: his anguish as a boy and his neurotic relation to his mother were products of a particular culture which did need reforming out of existence.

Lawrence had a poor understanding of politics. He was fifteen when the Labour Party was founded. A clearer view of political reality might have made him realise that a reforming party of the working people was the best chance for at least some of the changes he sought. A reform of the divorce laws for example, and given what we know about his relations with men, the decriminalisation of homosexuality. There was no need for mystical concepts like “blood consciousness”, rather a more down-to-earth insistence on a culture which recognises people’s sexual nature.       

He was fundamentally right: Victorian sexual hypocrisy was crippling, and the manic busyness of capitalism did hide emotional, intimate and sexual impoverishment.  Lawrence was right in recognising that capitalism, in its manic pursuit of material wealth, its inability to sleep or relax, keeps people remote from their emotional, spiritual and sexual needs. A person who pays more attention to their love life than their career is considered freakish. Of course, as sexual prohibitions have receded, what has arisen is emotionally detached sex: amongst the young this goes by the name of “friends with benefits”. “Friend” excludes the passion and self-transcendence of love and the “benefits” are mere sexual favours. Lawrence was alert to this and his rebellion against it was correct. His designation of himself as “the priest of love” was subversive. He wanted to destroy the self-conscious busy-ness of the go-getter, the narcissistic preoccupation with money, status, property. He wanted emotional, spiritual, intimate, sexual, parental fulfilment to be at the core of people’s lives.  

Lawrence believed in marriage and wanted to find fulfilment within it. That was his quest. It was more urgent and difficult than being a writer. He wrote with great speed and fluency. He was lucky in his early publication. He made many useful contacts. He was frustrated and angry when Sons and Lovers was turned down by Heinemann and he couldn’t find a publisher for The Rainbow or Women in Love, but that was nothing compared to the murderous rages of his marriage.

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He married the wrong woman. When he met Frieda she seduced him within minutes. This was the first time Lawrence had known a woman who treated her need for sex like her need for food. He mistook her lack of sexual inhibition for affection. He was searching for exclusive love, but she took a lover in no time after hooking up with him. His infatuation didn’t last long and the details of his control and physical abuse are distressing. Frieda is usually characterised as a “liberated” woman, a “sexual adventuress” but her behaviour looks like hypersexuality. As in his relationship with his mother, his affection was abused. It turned into its opposite and he deserves the criticism he has received from feminists like Kate Millett. There was nothing liberating, nothing of “the priest of love” in beating Frieda black and blue.

People close to him, including Frieda, wondered in the last years if he was going mad. He seems to have been afflicted by “consumptive rage”, but his behaviour can’t be explained  by his diseased lungs. His ideas were unhinged: the majority of people should never learn to read and write; there must be no democracy. In 1922 he signed a petition against the Bursum Bill, a proposal to hand over Indian land and water rights without compensation. It seems while in Australia he was approached by those planning a right-wing coup and refused his support, guaranteeing he would say nothing (he wrote Kangaroo). Thus, he sided with democrats against the Bursum Bill and refused to throw in his lot with fascists, yet at the same time railed against democracy.

He seems to have inspired the belief  he was not just a great imaginative writer, but a great man. Even such a sobersides as Bertrand Russell appear to have fallen for the myth. Something about the era must have engendered the conditions: the immaturity of democracy; the lack of education among most people; the chaos of capitalism and the widespread dissatisfaction with modern life. Yet Lawrence wasn’t a great man. He was a genius of fiction, but bar that, his life was a terrible mess and he had no sensible prescriptions for society’s ills. His assertion that the masses mustn’t be literate betrayed a failure even to understand the basic needs of capitalism: its drive for profit entailed increased productivity and its entrenched competition meant no society could afford to get left behind. A literate and numerate employee is much more productive. A worker who can operate a lathe and read a micrometer enhances profits. Lawrence’s ideas were simply out of touch. 

The confusions which destroyed Lawrence’s chances of happiness were of his time. He saw himself as utterly independent, but his mind was a product of his age. What is rare about him is his ability to write, the rest is banal. He thought he was the slayer of banality, a thoroughgoing subversive; he thought Frieda a revolutionary spirit, but like Emma Bovary she chose a very conventional way of defying convention. Lawrence’s nonconformism filled him with a sense of responsibility. Catholics get off lightly: the priest is their conscience, he grants weekly absolution; but nonconformists are taught their conscience is the measure of all things.

Just before he died on 10th September 1924, a day before his famous son’s 39th birthday, Arthur Lawrence, aged seventy-seven, received ten pounds from him. He married the wrong woman, she the wrong man. It’s a common mistake. Today people can compensate for it more easily. Despite the negative portrait of his father in Sons and Lovers, later Lawrence modified his view and saw his mother as too righteous. They both had shortcomings but the culture was to blame. The task of changing it was too big for Lawrence but depicting it in fiction was his achievement. From the beginning, however, there was a demon in his work: the nonconformist conscience pushing for solutions. When he lurched into theory, he lost the hold on reality his imagination provided.

Stand at the door of 8a Victoria St and look left. You can understand where Bert Lawrence came from. His love of nature was a love of life. That his own life descended into bitter strife and violence some of which found its way into his work, shouldn’t blind us to the fact that he began with a genuine love of the fact of being alive, in Eastwood, where the loveliness of the Nottinghamshire countryside surrounded him. He deserved a childhood without distress, as all children do. Arthur and Lydia didn’t intend to inflict pain, but they were victims of a harsh culture. Amongst the confusion and some nastiness in Lawrence’s fiction, there is a love of life trying to assert itself. The tragedy of his short spell on earth tells us just how hard that assertion can be.        

Capitalists with guitars: the Beatles, celebrity culture and social inequality
Sunday, 20 September 2020 09:46

Capitalists with guitars: the Beatles, celebrity culture and social inequality

Published in Music

Alan Dent argues that the Beatles' success shows how pop culture entrenches inequality in capitalist societies

It’s widely accepted that the Beatles are one of the most successful international pop bands, if not the most successful. It ought to be possible, by studying the phenomenon they were, to grasp the nature and meaning of their success. It might be argued this was essentially musical: they could play music, of a kind, to a degree and as Ringo Starr succinctly commented: “People liked the Beatles.” Perhaps Starr could have refined his comments a little – mostly young people liked them, and in particular young girls.

Prior to their commercial success from 1962, the market for pop was well established. It was aimed specifically at teenage girls. Cliff Richard, for example, was known to be more popular among girls than boys by some measure. Footage of the Beatles’ performances is enough to confirm that their fans were substantially female. That’s not to dismiss their significant male following, but the screaming, hysterical (or perhaps pseudo-hysterical) girls clearly made up the majority of their fans. Their complaints that they couldn’t hear themselves play weren’t generated by screeching boys.

It’s a commonplace that pop music is listened through, rather than to. Group identification plays, so the argument goes, a greater role than musical appreciation. That’s not to say fans didn’t like the Beatles’ songs. The melodies were catchy and the lyrics had an easy charm to the teenage ear. Yet it’s obvious the girls who worked themselves into a frenzy weren’t listening for chord changes or subtle harmonies. The group’s early songs were designed to appeal to this market. Though Lennon might later sing Give Peace A Chance, he wouldn’t have become a world-famous multi-millionaire if he’d begun with that kind of material in Hamburg and the Cavern. In its earliest manifestation, at least, the Beatles was a money-making venture, properly speaking, a business.

The backing of big business          

Their success, it seems reasonable to argue, wasn’t driven by the musical appreciation of their fans. They were more of a sociological than a musical phenomenon. They were four working-class youngsters from Liverpool who liked playing rock music, but they weren’t innocent of vaulting ambition, for all their irreverence and charm. The evidence suggests they set out to become rich. In order to do so they needed the backing of big business. Had they decided to play jazz, talent permitting, as McCartney’s father did, they wouldn’t have secured a contract with EMI or the services of George Martin.

Their ambition didn’t come from nowhere. They were complying with the norms of their culture (even if Lennon, to some extent, rebelled against them later). The norms of capitalism teach the doctrine of personal enrichment. Their huge fortunes didn’t accrue accidentally. They were turned into a product by the capitalists who saw the potential for sales. Epstein dressed them in what became almost uniforms. The putatively rebellious Lennon said he would wear a balloon if he was paid for it. The scruffy jeans and the on-stage smoking and swearing had to be set aside to conquer the market.

This has nothing to do with music. Rather, the music was a conduit, a way into the heads of million of teenagers with a bit of disposable income. Clever capitalists recognised that the combination of apparently sweet love songs (while Lennon was crooning I Wanna Hold Your Hand or I Feel Fine he was engaging in partner-bashing and Starr described himself as “a drunk, a wife-beater and an absentee father”) Liverpudlian charm and the teenage need for belonging could be a remarkable profit-generator. Effectively, the executives at EMI turned the musicians into capitalists with guitars and a drum kit.

This is straightforward on one level, but its implications are more subtle. If capitalism is to be challenged, its inequality has to be seen as unfair: a system in which a small number of people make a large amount of money from a large number of people. The naturalisation of the wealth of the few has to be exposed. The common people have long been amenable to arguments about the undeserving rich: we work hard and can barely manage from week to week while they reap the profits of our effort.

In the early days of capitalism, when the capitalist was a known figure rather than a faceless cohort of shareholders, it was easier to make a connection between the reduced circumstances of the many and the lavish lives of the few. Capitalism’s problem has been to justify its radical inequality. Its principal means has been the myth of the independent entrepreneur, the “self-made man”, the “captain of industry” without whom none of us could engage in productive work.

Marx demystifies this in the first volume of Capital: “A capitalist is not a capitalist because he’s a commander in industry; he’s a commander in industry because he’s a capitalist; command in industry is an attribute of capital, just as, in feudal times, command in war and a seat on the judge’s bench were attributes of landed property.” This gets things in their right order. Capital may buy talent, but it’s capital which provides the means to control. Talent without capital has no power to command.

Capitalism’s doctrinal system needs a justification for inequality most people will accept more or less unthinkingly. Celebrity culture provides it. The Beatles are emblematic. Not only super-rich, they also became inordinately famous. Their fame was positive. Not all fame, of course is: Hitler and Stalin are very famous but not widely loved. Shakespeare is one of the world’s most famous figures, and is viewed principally positively. Trump is one of today’s most famous men, yet many disdain him. The trick is to combine huge wealth, inordinate fame and almost universal popularity. What flows from this is that the celebrities are defined as the people’s choice. They take on a democratic hue. No one was forced to buy a Beatles record. Peer pressure did its work, but the system could rightly claim teenagers flocked to the record shops of their own free will.

Not only that, but the musicians were objects of adulation. Coming from the common people in a working-class city, they were perfect material for transformation. Harrison’s father was a municipal bus driver. McCartney grew up in a council house, and Starr came from Dingle, one of the most deprived parts of Liverpool. He also suffered what has been called Dickensian misfortune: peritonitis after a childhood appendectomy, later tuberculosis, and a long spell in hospital which seriously disrupted his education.

Lennon was raised in more middle-class surroundings. In spite of his self-description as a “working-class hero” the Woolton where he lived is very well-heeled. Houses on Menlove Avenue sell for well over £300,000 and there is one for sale currently (summer 2020) at £735,000. That may sound relatively modest in London and south-east terms, but it is very posh for Liverpool. You can buy a terrace in Starr’s Dingle for £70,000 and the average is around £100,000. Lennon wasn’t materially but emotionally deprived.

All the same, the Beatles exuded ordinariness. Though Lennon had been to art college (from which he either dropped out, or was expelled, or possibly a combination, the evidence isn’t conclusive) none had been to university or studied A Levels. They appeared to be like the majority of youngsters at the time, leaving school at fifteen or sixteen – though preparation began in 1964 with Wilson’s first victory, and many secondary schools encouraged their more academic pupils to stay on to take O Levels or CSEs, the leaving age wasn’t raised to sixteen till September 1972.

Most youngsters at the time had to limit their horizons: finding whatever work you could and hoping you could stay in a job was the norm. Boys would try for apprenticeships which would provide a trade, or go into office jobs, or the merchant navy; girls might go into nursing, hairdressing, secretarial or shop work. Lennon, the oldest, was born on 9th October 1940 and Harrison, the youngest, on 25th February 1943. They could have left school between 1955 and 1959. At that time, eighty per cent of young people were in secondary modern schools. The grammar schools prepared the fortunate 20% of the population for university and the professions. The rest had to take what they could find.

Big profits from people just like us

Yet the Beatles were not at all like the majority of their contemporaries. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison passed the 11-plus. Starr failed, perhaps due to his absence through illness. So three of them were in the top 20%. What provoked their leaving school early wasn’t lack of ambition, but surfeit. They didn’t leave, like most kids, because they had no option, and to survive as they could in the employment market, but because they were drawn to popular music and saw it as a way to money and fame. Their ordinariness was partly authentic, they weren’t toffs – but it was also substantially manufactured, part of the product the Beatles quickly became when capitalists saw the chance of big profits.

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The ordinariness of the group permitted an easy identification. Fans could see them as “just like us”. For the boys, the minority, this meant vicarious participation in an ostensibly easy-going, fun-loving, uncomplicated culture; for the girls, the musicians might have been their boyfriends – without, of course, the potentially tiresome and restraining effects of real partners. 

For most people, employment means years of hard work on modest wages which permit a mortgage or rent to be paid: the kind of life Harrison’s father knew as a bus driver. There are no chances of overnight fortune short of winning the pools (in those days) or the lottery. Life is not glamorous or exciting: it’s routine. Capitalism, as we always hear from the “business” lobby, needs stability. The Beatles represented the opposite: sudden success, fame and wealth, glamour, interest, every day different.

Or so it seemed. That was the image the fans must respond to, for by so doing they were engaging in the fantasy on which the enterprise floated. George Harrison is reputed to have remarked about his days as a Beatle: “No one should be forced to live like that.” The image wasn’t supposed to entail the musicians being forced to do anything, nor that their life was unpleasant. Harrison was letting the mask slip: they were a product and were no more in control than a decapitated chicken on a production line.

The identification made by the fans played a crucial psychic and doctrinal role: these are your celebrities, you admire them. In the case of the young girls, you love them – throwing knickers at pop stars and offering themselves as “groupies” was common among young girls. You have chosen them of your own free will; they are rich; thus you not only accept the existence of the rich, you fawn before them; you adulate them; you want to have sex with them; you chase them down the street; you get into a frenzy over them; you set them on a different plane to that of all other people.

Young girls and boys rarely screamed at, got into a frenzy over or copied the style of factory owners, directors, shareholders, bosses. But by doing so in relation to pop stars, they were subtly inveigled into accepting that huge disparities of wealth are not only to be tolerated but enthused over. If the category “the rich” contains only aristocrats, toffs, conventional capitalists, there is an inevitable gap between them and the common folk. Celebrities bridge that gap and by so doing valorise inordinate wealth. Further, the category “the rich”, conceived politically, can exclude some of the wealthiest people on the planet.

The socialist poet Adrian Mitchell was a lifelong enemy of “the rich” but an adulatory fan of The Beatles. Somehow, they escaped opprobrium, despite being far richer than many of the capitalists that Mitchell disdained. This is not to be invidious about Mitchell. His attitude was representative. Capitalist culture has appropriated the common people’s desire for relief from the boredom of its routines, created celebrities for them to identify with, made those celebrities fabulously wealthy and sited them in an apparently glamorous world, in order to defeat well-placed resentment over the grossly unequal distribution of what is produced by collective effort.

Even convinced, self-conscious, socialists, it seems, accept a culture in which pop stars, actors, footballers, celebrity writers and people who are famous for being famous should earn more in a week than most people earn per year. This is an astonishing success of the doctrinal system, for the obvious reason that socialism is grounded in equality and wealth buys power. Not only is socialism spavined by huge wealth, democracy is, whether that wealth is in the hands of a drummer or a CEO.

That this phenomenon took off in the arena of music is interesting. Everybody, almost, likes a nice tune. Some people, it seems, have a poor response to melodies, but they are a small minority. Melody has the power to charm. Aaron Copeland in his little book What To Listen For In Music suggests melody is the only aspect of music that can’t be taught. Being able to write good melodies is, apparently, a matter of pure talent. Melody is a kind of magic. In serious music it plays an important but not a dominating role. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is much more than its famous melody. In pop music, there is little but melody. The architecture of a pop song is minimal. The idea is to get the “ear worm” installed. Millions then want access, on the Dansette in the early days, on an iphone today, and will hand over their bit of money which makes not just the performers but the executives handsome fortunes. Simple melodies are the royal road to huge wealth.

People like stories too. Hence the spread of this celebrity culture to the literary world. J.K.Rowling elaborated a universe children could identify with. Wizardry, like the putative glamour of the pop world, offers escape from the dullness of life in the classroom. It isn’t accidental that the essential setting of the books is a school. Like the Beatles, she had a struggle to get going. Brian Epstein was told guitar bands were passé. But once the commercial possibilities hoved into view, the marketing became fierce. Just as fans didn’t listen to The Beatles’ music so much as through it, so fans don’t respond to Rowling’s writing, rather they read through it. She’s a mediocre writer, almost incapable of producing a surprising sentence.

A shilling for a single would have been enough

How can you argue against her wealth? No one was forced to buy her books. She’s rich because people wanted what she produced and were willing to pay for it. There you have the perfect defence of capitalism and its rank inequality. The arguments, in fact, are easy: the price of Beatles records, once they were selling millions, could have been reduced to virtually nothing and they could still have made handsome livings. The more you produce of anything, the lower its unit cost. The price was set at a level to ensure fabulous fortunes. Kids in the mid-’60s queued to hand over seven and six for a single which, sold for a shilling, would still have turned a good profit. Capitalism is searching for big, easy markets. When it finds them, it sets prices at a level the market will bear, but which will provide maximum returns. Ten shillings for a Beatles single might have pushed down sales just far enough to diminish profits.

Pop-star and celebrity culture has elaborated a bulwark against arguments for equality. It works very well – George Best deserved to be rich because he was supremely talented and people paid voluntarily for the pleasure of watching him. Watching him was, of course, a pleasure for sports fans and they were willing to pay: but in reality they have no choice. The ticket prices are beyond their control. As punters, they pay or miss out. Of course, ticket prices for Premiership football games could be a tenth of what they are, and the players could still live well. What looks inevitable, what is passed off as natural, is a contrived system whose purpose is the creation of a super-rich elite, because that serves the needs of capitalism.

A cadre of rich celebrities the common folk identify with is the way capitalism sells people their disappointment, in the form of dreams. In addition, there is the simple confounding of wealthy celebs and wealthy capitalists. It’s to be noted that capitalists now behave like celebs. This conflation robs the people of their anger at injustice and strips them of the arguments for equality. V-neck capitalism, that of Richard Branson dressed down on the TV as if he’s the bloke next door, picks up on pop culture and reverses the effect. Pop culture says that these are your loved and admired celebs and they are fabulously wealthy – therefore you must accept a culture of gross inequality or you can’t have them.

By implication, you accept the astronomical wealth of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and so on. Corporate culture says look at us, we’re just like the celebs you love and admire, we dress like them, talk like them, live glamorous lives like them. The mill or mine owner wasn’t a figure the poor weaver or miner could easily identify with – but the modern capitalist is assimilated to the status of a rock star or Hollywood actor.

Challenging the system

There has always been, of course, the odd and disappointing phenomenon of Gramsci’s class hegemony. The working poor of Victorian Britain tried to make their homes look like those of the middle classes – but the transformation brought about by pop culture is of a different kind and on a different scale. It’s a sociological phenomenon with important psychic implications. But the very working people of Victorian Britain who tried to emulate those further up the social scale also built an opposition movement. By creating trade unions, funded by small contributions from millions of workers, the common people discovered a capacity for self-realisation in defiance of the ruling culture. While John Bright was extolling free trade, working men and women were defying the system’s definition of them as mere labour costs. They were asserting not only their determination to get the best price for their labour but their humanity – and in doing so, they challenged the system’s rule by money. As they didn’t have much, they had to find some other value. They relished solidarity and in contradistinction to capitalism’s doctrinal system, elaborated the basis of a socialist movement whose aim was the re-socialisation of what was socially generated but privately appropriated.

After the Second World War, capitalism had to respond to more money being in the pockets of the many. It did so by accelerating the consumerism Daniel Defoe had recognised as entrenched in the system. Consumerism, though, isn’t enough. It contains a risk to the system: why shouldn’t the money in the (often offshore) bank accounts of the rich be in the pockets of the majority, then they can spend it on furniture, cars, clothes, beer, hairdos, holidays and keep the economic wheels turning? Clever but unscrupulous people recognised a psychic identification with the system was necessary to keep it safe. Provided by patriotism, adulation of the Royal Family and a simmering xenophobia, the old identification was under threat from a generation which, liberated to some degree from the want of the 1930s, looked like it might break down barriers.

The period in which the Beatles rose to fame and wealth was one of questioning. Behind the flummery of the 1960s, there was a genuine attempt to challenge and to refuse glib answers. Imagine they hadn’t been appropriated by capitalism, that they’d remained a rock band playing pubs and clubs, with a good following and able to make a living – wearing jeans, leather jackets, smoking and swearing on stage, and coming from a Labour city. A free-floating culture of popular bands unhitched from the commercial market had the potential for subversion; and had they been turned down by the system, their disaffection might have given elan to the Labourism they absorbed from their culture.

It was a work of genius to turn them into a product, simultaneously out of reach yet to be intimately identified with. Naturally, they were more than willing, as fame and wealth were their aim, as the culture teaches. Yet they discovered the nasty nature of what they were part of, as Harrison’s remark quoted above, Starr’s descent into alcoholism (“I lost years” he said) and Lennon’s heroin addiction suggest.

Celebrity culture now permeates. It is an enormous success. Working people once educated themselves (as Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes reveals); their homes had little libraries of classic texts. Today they have enormous TV screens on their walls (to watch celebs) and books from the 3 for 2 table in Waterstones, mostly commercial trash which makes rich, celebrity writers. Legitimate anger at injustice and the determination to act against it are diluted in this solution of mindless absorption. Above all, the circle is complete: these are your celebs, they are filthy rich, therefore you accept a society of debilitating inequality in which power can be bought and democracy is mocked.

By and large, the Left hasn’t found a way to talk about this. It’s outside classical Marxist theory. Celebs aren’t a “ruling class”. They aren’t even capitalists, strictly speaking. Yet McCartney, according to the media, is worth some £500 million. The Left has to make the connection between that and the poverty that blights lives in Liverpool or we will never shift opinion in favour of a radical transformation of our economic and social arrangements.

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For: Introduction and Review
Friday, 03 August 2018 18:47

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For: Introduction and Review

Published in Poetry

 Alan Dent introduces and reviews the recent collection of poems about work by Martin Hayes.

From Chaucer to the present day, hardly any poetry in English is about work. Most of it has been written by men from the higher reaches of society. Chaucer’s father married Agnes Copton who inherited twenty-four shops, as well as other property. Chaucer himself worked for the Countess of Ulster, and one of his relatives was a moneyer.

Dunbar worked for King James, who paid him a pension estimated at about eighty pounds Scottish, a handsome amount. Edmund Spenser was educated at Merchant Taylor’s, London and Pembroke, Cambridge. He served Baron Grey, owned land in the Munster Plantation and by his thirties he also owned an estate at Kilcolman.

John Donne’s father died when he was four. A few months later, his mother married the wealthy Dr John Syminges. Donne was privately educated, studied at Hart Hall, Oxford, and later at Cambridge.

Keats’s father was a hostler, but he rose to manage the inn where he worked. At nineteen, Keats received two bequests: one from his grandfather worth £800 and £8,000 from his mother’s legacy. A total of some £550,000, at today’s values.

There are exceptions, but by definition they are rare. Most of our poetry has been written by people who have not needed to work, have inherited wealth or have been paid very well. The harsh fact of employment as the means of a roof and food, and poverty or destitution being only one or two wage packets away, has been very distant from most of our poets.

By contrast, Martin Hayes writes principally about employment. Even these days it is almost a taboo topic. The legacy of the Romantics permeates contemporary poetry. The requirement to display a superior, exquisite sensibility bubbles away in the background of most poets’ work. This generates what Miroslav Holub identified as a widespread failing – too much subjectivity, too much toothache.

Employment is a demeaning subject because employment is demeaning. As Hayes puts it:

we help these corporations exist

as our 83 year old mothers have to fill out 28 page forms

to see if they qualify for meals on wheels…

If part of your motivation in writing, conscious or otherwise, is to prove your superiority of response, why write from the point of view of an employee? An employee is by definition inferior. An employee is subject to an employer’s contract. An employee must comply. An employee is a supplicant. An employee must please the employer, or face being demoted, thwarted or sacked. An employee must define himself or herself by promotion, remuneration, position in the hierarchy. An employee’s identity is in the hands of an employer.

Like his American friend Fred Voss, Martin Hayes works for a living. He writes from the employee’s perspective:

a man I work with

cries every time it gets too busy...       

He works in the London courier industry, which is one of those modern, cut-throat operations ripe for zero-hours contracts and the intrusions of the so-called “gig economy”. The phrase is a terrible misnomer – it ought to be called the “you-get-shafted economy”.

Hayes is a husband, a father, a son, a nephew, a cousin, a friend, but none of these categories can be permitted to define our identities. Our economic system requires people to define themselves as ‘hands’, as employees. A good husband, wife, father, brother, son, daughter or friend is a failure if they don’t have a job, status and pay. It is against this tyranny – and it is nothing less – that Hayes’s poetry protests.

His style is demotic. Arguably the greatest exponent of demotic style employed for high-minded ends in English is Joe Orton, who once remarked that he came from the gutter and wasn’t going to forget it. Literature isn’t supposed to come from the gutter. The first working-class writer in English was Lawrence, and it is little wonder that he was snobbishly dismissed as a heretic.

Hayes, like Lawrence and Orton, is speaking for those whose lives are supposed to be not worth speaking about. Lawrence once observed that as much happens to working people as anyone else. He knew it from experience, but our culture denies it. Life happens to the rich and powerful, politicians, celebrities, magnates, pop stars with private jets, footballers with glamorous wives, and dubious businessmen with private islands. The rest become an indistinguishable mass whose experience is worthless. Only by identifying with money and power do their lives gain any significance.

Hayes is intent on revealing the significance of the lives of employees, but it isn’t a pretty picture:

the controllers come in on Monday mornings

full of stories about imaginary women…

Like the employees, his poems tell stories too. Usually they are stories of the stupidity of management, impossible working conditions, unattainable deadlines or targets, exhaustion, boredom, frustration, waiting for the salary that will barely get you through the next month, depletion, breakdown, the empty boasting and fighting upwards of humiliated workers like Ronnie, who wears a t-shirt bearing the slogan:


Madman On Duty

The photographs that accompany the poems complement them perfectly, unflinchingly conveying and criticising the realities of working life. Nearly all of the poetry books produced by the Culture Matters imprint show the publisher’s fidelity to William Blake, the inspiration for their website, in the way they combine text with meaningful images. Here, the grainy photographs, often murky, gritty and gloomy like the world of the poems, vividly express the alienation, poverty and broken-down environment in which those ‘hands’ work, creating riches for others.

When he moves from the workplace to the domestic sphere, the prospect hardly improves. Browbeaten and diminished at work, men and women have little energy, confidence or relaxation to make their intimate relations rich. This is the world of Christopher Lasch’s Haven In A Heartless World, the ironic title of his study of the way the ethos of the kill-or-be-killed workplace has invaded the private sphere, destroying the family and personal relations as an asylum from the dismal alienation of employment.

Kill-or-be-killed may seem exaggerated. People don’t murder one another physically for money or advancement at work, usually – but they do murder one another emotionally and psychologically. Workplaces are snake-pits of back-biting, betrayal, sycophancy, rank-pulling, boredom tolerated in the hope of preferment, where the competition is so vicious because the stakes are so low: 

it’s funny really

how 37 years can seem like a couple of chicken bones in a dog’s mouth

when placed alongside this technology...

says the man being dumped after nearly four decades because he can’t keep up with the machines.

Disillusioned, in the best sense, this is poetry which has no need to be flowery. It is direct and simple because it is uncovering the simple truth behind our culture’s manic, ceaseless, sickly, sentimental excuse-making – the human relation on which our society is based, that between employer and employee, is morally indefensible.

Out of this depressing miasma, Hayes extracts black humour. Many of his poems have a humorous edge. When employees share their experiences, they often find gallows humour, which is why employers, more and more, seek to isolate employees from one another – a distinct advantage, for them, of the you-get-shafted economy. In the humour, lies hope. That is the insight at the heart of these poems.

They rarely say it directly, but they imply, time and again, that work should belong to those who do it. Hayes applies the principle of Occam’s razor – the fewer assumptions the better – and the employer’s approach is full of false assumptions. Hayes is determined to expose every one, and show that those who do the work should control the work and benefit from it.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say the whole of our mainstream culture, the press, television, film, music, radio, schools, the church, every bit of it, conspires to conceal this simple truth. Listen to the politicians, the commentators, the interviewers – isn’t it the case that the problems they endlessly discuss emerge from the same source, the unequal relation of employer to employee?

Employment is one of the main drivers of inequality, because unequal ownership rights are built into employment relations in a capitalist economy. It is the Great Money Trick, which Robert Tressell explained in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and which Karl Marx theorised as the theory of surplus value.

Along with rents from property, and interest on loans, extracting value from work done by employees is one of the means by which the few become richer than anyone should, while the majority get by and those at the bottom are doomed:

where bookies and pawnshops sit side by side

and we aren’t supposed to get the irony

The means by which people are distracted from thinking about this and doing something about it are legion. Buy the latest gadget, or the new release; see the

latest blockbuster, keep up with the newest fashion; download the app that will cut your toe-nails, but never stop and ask yourself why so many people hate their jobs.

It isn’t work that is hateful, but employment. People like to be active. Work should be our hope. Work should be controlled by those who do it, work that is co-operative and rational, work which enchants rather than depresses. That is the vision that Hayes has glimpsed. People are bamboozled into thinking negative ideas must be shunned, but without criticism there is no ground for moral improvement. Hayes stares hard at the negative of employment and brings into the light a better possibility: 

the best bits were the Friday afternoons

when the storms that poured down onto our screens all day

suddenly became a trickle..

We evolved to move horizontally, which is why our thigh muscles are so strong. We were made for walking and running long distances in search of food, better shelter, and a more propitious environment. Yet our rulers have elaborated a culture where we are pressed to move vertically. The metaphor is “the greasy pole”. Perhaps a complementary one would be the escalator to nowhere.

Employment is the means to rise. We scramble for a place on the escalator, elbow and kick one another out of the way (in the most polite, Home Counties manner, of course) but if you get to the top all you find is the abyss on the other side.

Adam Smith expressed this well. He called the pursuit of private wealth a “delusion”. Unfortunately, it is the delusion on which our society is based. To be deluded is to be insane or virtually insane. What Hayes writes about is the insanity of a society where employers pursue a delusion by using employees as mere conduits to their lunatic enrichment, as mere ‘hands’ to be employed and make money for the employer.

He is the only British poet who writes consistently and seriously about the workplace. Almost all the others ignore it. When current employment relations are consigned to the dustbin of history, and are viewed as we now view slavery, or the feudal relations between lord and vassal, will people wonder why so little was written about it? Perhaps, but maybe they’ll twig that when an entire culture is in denial, ambitious writers are willing to poke out their own eyes.

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For is available here.