Sympathists

How Late it Was, How Late: Coming Home to Late Capitalism

In 20th c. Literature, Classicism, Life as Lived on April 10, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Andrew Inch, United Kingdom

Caledonia you’re calling me, now I’m going home

(Dougie MacLean, Caledonia)

Have I come back?
I am Scots, a tartan tin box
Of shortbread in a delicatessen of cheddars
(Douglas Dunn, Renfrewshire Traveller)

These reflections owe relatively little to classicism. I do hope, however, that they may help me to extract some, perhaps rather barbed, reflections on some of the paths it might have taken in recent years. In doing so I also hope to offer some more considered, though also uncomfortable, thoughts on the themes of intellectualism and leftism touched on in two recent posts by Matthew Thomas.

My reflections start from a single, prosaic fact: earlier this year I returned to Scotland, the country where I was born and raised, after ten years of self-imposed exile.

Homecoming

Serendipitously, I have chosen for the year of my homecoming, the year of Homecoming™. This amounts to a rather cynical advertising campaign on the part of the Scottish government to get tills (or maybe it would be more appropriate to say “registers”) ringing with dollars from the Scottish diaspora. The official pretext for it, however, is that it is 250 years since the birth of Robert Burns. For “our” national poet to be honoured in such a way should, of course, make Scots everywhere proud. “Here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Damn few an’ thur aw’ deid” as they’re (we’re?) supposed to like to say. And who can argue with celebrating the life of the man who a little less than 250 years ago could write the likes of this:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Burns was born into a farming family on the West Coast of Scotland, he lived hard, died young and was politically radical. No doubt there is, then, much to celebrate in his life as in his work. If nothing else the historical accident of an education system that ensured the literacy of the likes of Burns is something to be proud of.

Or then again, maybe it’s just something else to exploit.

For here we can glimpse the lumbering beast of late capitalism staggering forward, wounded perhaps, and still struggling under the weight of its own contradictions. If we’re careful we might just catch sight of its face, and find ourselves eyeballing none other than “auld nick”, as Burns himself described him in Tam O’ Shanter:

There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.

The term “late capitalism” is closely related to the usage of “late” discussed in Matthew Thomas’ post on Said. Certainly its roots extend into the Frankfurt School days of Adorno. It reflects a point of transition in Marxist thought, from a genuine belief that capitalism was in its death throes during the years of the Weimar Republic, to a more despairing questioning of that faith in later years. More recently the term has been central to the work of the American cultural critic Frederic Jameson. Jameson describes the commodification of culture as central to postmodernism, which he understands to be the distinctive, cultural logic of late capitalism.

And so a small nation gears up (once again) to uncork its classical inheritance, replete with the skirl of devilish pipes. Made to a profiteering recipe, mixed with only the finest of invented traditions: blend one-part single malt with equal parts of either tartan/ shortbread/ golf/ majestic stags in glens etc. Dilute with a large dose of twee marketing. Serve to anyone who’ll pay.

This is surely an important part of what has become of classicism today. A terminal point even.

Sexist lager: putting the class in classicism

Almost inevitably the Homecoming has adopted as its theme the song Caledonia originally written by Dougie MacLean – a fairly turgid folk ballad filled with nostalgic longing for a country that never really was. A country that many thousands left in search of something better. For me, however, the song will always be associated with a long running TV commercial for Tennents Lager that aired in the 1990s. Just after they discontinued the longer running series of cans with images of scantily clad women (the tennent’s lager lovelies) printed on them.

Those cans appealed to a Scotland that has now largely passed, a white, male, working class Scotland. Growing up in middle-class comfort I was never part of this world (those cans would never have been very welcome in my mother’s home!). It always fascinated me, however. And so it was a world I explored through books and particularly the writing of Glaswegian authors, like James Kelman to whom the title of this post nods (How late it was, how late being the title of his Booker Prize winning novel in the 1990s). It was the voice that did it for me with Kelman, the very particular narrative technique he developed, shifting seamlessly between the demotic first and the formal third person – the atmosphere that this somehow generates, the immediacy and intimacy.

For a long while I wanted that voice to be my own, to own this work and to be of its world. The way it documented the mundane everyday of lives lived in the transition from the industrial to the post-industrial was also politically instructive. A world where even the harsh and mind-numbing routines of working class labour had become precarious and sporadic, where time was eeked out “on the broo” – living from dole cheque to dole cheque as in A Chancer. It was also a world that I could, of course, never own, never even really understand, and certainly never inhabit. It would never have me for one of its own, any more than any of its kind could escape its gravitational pull (as for Patrick Doyle, the working class boy made existentially despairing teacher in A Disaffection).

This is, I suppose, the problem of the middle-class socialist, as perhaps most famously lived and chronicled by Orwell.

It’s also a problem that forces us to confront the politics of class-icism. Kelman’s insistence on rooting his work in the working class communities he understood and knew is central to its power to speak to much broader themes. However, it is also a political practice that questions and challenges the canonical, the idea that only certain sorts of people, and certain sorts of voices can be heard in our cultures. It therefore draws attention to the exclusions and illusions that attend the construction of the public sphere.

It’s all in the hands: getting to grips with the late capitalist city

So now I find myself living in Glasgow for the first time, curious for reflections of the literary town I once explored – for the hard edges and hard cases that made this No Mean City. I wonder what has become of the disaffected chancers of Kelman’s Glasgow?

Part of the answer comes to me, literally. As I sit at my window, in my middle class tenement, tapping away at esoteric academic concerns. A van pulls up and unloads a dozen young men with mops and buckets. Judging from the accents as they call to each other they are local boys, bussed in by the council as part of a stair cleaning team.

Cleaning the stairs. The phrase conjures images of portly old women on their knees, scrubbing and swapping gossip. But these days this is the work of young men. And in these health and safety conscious times these young men pull on disposable latex gloves as they gingerly pick at litter.

I watch them and they in turn watch me back as we both begin to go about our work. I am minded of a poem by Douglas Dunn, studied first a long time ago and finally returned to now with renewed appreciation:

This time they see me at my window, among books,
A specimen under glass, being protected

Their looks are inscrutable. But old feelings of awkwardness, of class distinction are awakened.

Later in the week I visit the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh and find myself facing a portrait by the artist John Bellany of his father, a fisherman.

I find my eyes drawn to the bottom of the painting, where the elderly man’s hands rest on another of the artist’s paintings. It’s the detail of the weathered, worked-with hands. I think back to the latex gloves protecting the stair cleaners’ hands. I imagine the hands of their fathers- ship builders, steel workers – calloused, rough hands. I look at my own, – bookish fingers, pale, smooth palms, and think of my own grandfather’s leathery handshake.

Culture works on our bodies as much as it imprints itself on our habits of mind. It is to the exploration of a place-rooted sense of culture that I, for now, uncomfortably turn myself, confronting my own lack of belonging, surveying the terrain of the late capitalist city; seeking value in a situated practice that questions the universalizing claims of classicism.

Image Credit: http://www.public-domain-image.com/people-public-domain-images-pictures/people-cleaning-stairs.jpg.html

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  1. Great stuff; plan to incorporate parts and respond in my own majesterial,”My Mitts, Oh They is Rough from bein’ Macho.”

  2. Fair question. I’ve been getting paid, probably a similar amount to the stair cleaner’s, by a university to finish off my PhD. That’s now coming to an end and I might be investigating the power tie myself before long, or pulling on a pair of latex gloves.

    Class is a vexed question. It’s definitely more than just income though. A simple experimental example would involve me hanging around the deprived housing estate up the road for an afternoon. My accent, clothes, gait, diet, and probably a whole load of other factors would all be liable to land me a swift kick-in. Either that, or the fact that I think it might, give an idea of what I mean.

  3. Wow. I love this post; it really digs under the surface of my rather perfunctory musings on the connection or lack thereof of intellectualism, classicism, and leftism. I have a lot to say about Mr. Inch’s relocation, but the most obvious question first:

    –“As I sit at my window, in my middle class tenement, tapping away at esoteric academic concerns. A van pulls up and unloads a dozen young men with mops and buckets. Judging from the accents as they call to each other they are local boys, bussed in by the council as part of a stair cleaning team”–

    I understand how the local boys are getting paid–but how is Mr. Inch getting paid. Or is he? And if not, how is it that someone maintains the status of “middle class” or “upper middle class” while earning very little actual money for several years? And if it’s not income, cash on hand per se that defines class, that what exactly does?

    By the way, I’ve still not worked out the precise definition of a “power tie.”

    MST

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