Saturday, September 08, 2007

Northern Excursion

Up to Leeds this last Thursday for the University Open Day – certainly the place serves my purposes (good English department, Brutalist architecture, males outnumbered by females four-to-one) and there are, allegedly, traces of independent culture still stirring within the city (the annual Chinchillafest DIY festival, the regular Subdub nights at the West Indian Centre, a number of DIY labels, not least the marvellous Jealous Records, a Green Action Food Co-Op in the student union, the pub where Mekons and Gang Of Four drank, if it’s still standing).

Wandering around the campus, though, I kept getting the sense that there was something not quite right. For a start, the people didn’t fit the place: almost every single person I saw was easily identifiable as middle class, and certainly only one or two people could be identified as working class. Thus the quite marvellous interlocking concrete lines and glass expanses were awash in a sea of every current female-student sartorial cliché imaginable: the shemaghs, silk scarves, tiny leather jackets and faux-Sixties floral-print dresses were in full and deathly effect; the stench of hipsterdom, diffused as it has to the previously unwashed masses, filled the place. Of course, whilst I can always appreciate this (on a purely aesthetic level), one has to wonder what the architects, designing for the purposes of working-class enlightenment – not in the sense of fruit-juice-and-book-learning Victorian philanthropy, but the creation of a chunk of the post-capitalist future in the present as a means of advancing the eradication of capital – would think of such a situation. My mental picture of Leeds was, of course, based on thirty-year old information - a smoke-blackened wasteland stuffed with interesting people, perpetually suspended between the punk explosion and the miners' strike.

Walking toward the city centre my suspicions were further confirmed; I suppose it’s my fault, having cultivated a romantic view of Yorkshire and Leeds based on various sources – David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, Rip It Up And Start Again, Factory Records, M.E.S.’s meditations on the Northern occult – it could never live up to it. That combination of Socialism, mysticism and the Northern reputation for righteous ire proved extremely alluring. But the fact is that the place is now quite terrifyingly gentrified – admittedly with more of a delicate hand than, say, London or Brighton – with about five shopping centres squeezed into the central precinct and the entire place apparently populated by Southern hipster-students. This isn’t merely happening, of course, in Leeds but across the North, and the world. This can lead, in some cases, to more interesting things, but rather more often it seems to be producing exceedingly boring cultural product - the very people meant to be in the forefront of advancing culture are retarding it with their ass-backwards approach to the business of creation and maintenance of said culture. "Focking students" - all those horrid NME-Carling-'indie' (note, not 'independent') bands one has stopped listening to the radio to avoid. One wonders how far our neo-liberal masters plan to push this process of blanding-out before the event horizon of some black hole of homogenised boredom is reached.


Blogger Neil said...

Disappointment is terrible and sweet at the same time - it's a morbid and critical experience. Like consuming pop. And development reanimation can often be dispiriting, leaving you feeling outside the process, unrepresented and unaffective. But these buildings and spaces are just temporary.

I recognise your picture of the university. I went to Sussex University age 30 and was mighty surprised that the middle class bias on admissions that seemed to dominate when I was 18 (only a couple of people at my school with non-professional parents got a university place in 1983, as I recall) had if anything got worse.

Over three years, I found myself sitting in seminars with a surprisingly large proportion of people from public schools, not just your common private ones. Not quite what I'd expected from the prospectus, or from the image of higher education I'd been sold since childhood. (An ever-more democratic and demographically fair institution.)

Good luck.

September 9, 2007 at 1:18 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

I neglected to comment on the thing that struck me most about this post...

[...] exceedingly boring cultural product - the very people meant to be in the forefront of advancing culture are retarding it with their ass-backwards approach to the business of creation and maintenance of said culture

I think the business and busyness involved in creating and maintaining cultures, especially the fleeting ones of club culture and music genres, can get in the way. People start celebrating the things they've discovered and which they help create and end up cheering themselves for actually doing something (anything) in these late days. Activism realised as a dualist position, opposed to the inactive 'sheep-like' mass of people, is just plain silly.

My view is that in looking for radicalism and progressive ideas in clubs, music and that end of culture (a stylistic milieu that begins and ends with the image of radicalism, as George Melly noted) people wander down too narrow a path. Any space where off-kilter or non-specific conversation or acts are discouraged or not tolerated should be disrupted.

The "stench of hipsterdom", as you suggest, drifts down from the vanguardist cultural elites, who know instinctively from elevated positions (whether borne of deep, cultural local knowledge, social and therefore cultural entitlement, comparative youth or solipsistic cleverness) that they're meant to be at the forefront. Hipsterdom is created and perpetuated by professionalism and specialism.

If you want to get rid of the stink, aerate their social space.

September 9, 2007 at 2:28 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

So why exactly are "middle class" students inferior to "working class" ones? The labels have always seemed incorrect to me, for implying that middle class people don't do any work. What if a student is supported by middle class parents, but also works a part time job that is minimum-wage and "working class"? Does that make them better, or worse?

I haven't given much thought to categorizing people at my university by appearance as a means of deciding if they are interested in the same ideas and music as me. Maybe it's a British thing.

September 10, 2007 at 8:19 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Um, I should probably make a comment or two here... Thank you for the input, Neil. You're certainly right that people who look for radicalism and clubs are looking down "too narrow a path", at least these days. Pop music - which is, after all, what they play in clubs - is too weighed down by its past to produce anything even remotely avant these days. Non-pop, which is what I usually listen to at gigs, flourishing as it does in the DIY music world, bristles with fine ideas and community spirit, even if the scene does get a little claustrophobic, and there can be a sense of underambition. I don't mind that. But that kind of radicalism _only_ exists outside mainstream culture now, whereas in the years after punk _real_ radicalism was possible even in clubs and pop (don't forget that The Pop Group were on the front of the NME and Gang Of Four only just missed out on being on Top Of The Pops.)At that point it was also possible for people who were not _socially_ entitled to be in the cultural forefront, i.e. not the children of middle-class bohos, to be so. Of course to say that most post-punks were working-class would be wrong, but many were who would not otherwise have been able to be in bands and create essentially avant-garde music. Thus it depresses me when people today, of the same age, in as good, if not better social positions, persist in shooting to be only as good as some band from the past. Hence 'retro' music. Perhaps what is necessary, as you say, is the disruption of the spaces where political and cultural conservatism reign, rather than solely trying to create alternative spaces in which radicalism can flourish. And, indeed, maybe I should participate, instead of sitting on my arse and bitching.

September 11, 2007 at 4:27 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Oh, and I don't consider middle-class students 'inferior' to working-class ones. The middle-class, as far as I'm concerned, has just as much of a right to university education as any other. And vice versa. Indeed, Labour governments in the past set up systems of subsidy that helped enable working-class kids to go to uni without too much hardship, which persist, in somewhat mutilated form, today. The problem is not just financial, though: despite attempts to turn them into democratic institutions, universities are still dominated by middle-class mentalities which reinforce the psychic damage that the class system causes. (There was a whole massive discussion online about this. Check,,,,, as well as the archives of Code Poetics.) As for the appearance thing, I'm just a shallow cunt, really; it could well be that they're very nice people - many middle-class people I know are.

September 11, 2007 at 4:48 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

I'm with you on the social and psychical damage done by educationally reinforeced social division.

There was a massively important culture stream starting many years back that said Britain/England made Black people insane. This blog entry gives something of the flavour of that debate, which is ongoing:

The psychical damage of social division on a wider scale - beyond those dealing with identity politics, whether racialogical or otherwise - produces much the same effect in other marginalised elements of the multiculture. I'm very interested in K-Punk's response to class.

And the social divisions in education, working life, etc. are not absent from club cultures, where 'high-end' cultural users/creators distinguish themselves from low-brow consumer 'townies' or 'chavs'.

Starting out as working class, I was always suspicious of high-cultural manoeuvres in the late-1970s and early 1980s when I was first seeing bands and buying records. I was more into proletarian outbursts than art-history-tagged post-punk. Anyway, I've always preferred melodies.

Sorry for dragging this post out...

September 11, 2007 at 7:27 AM  

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