The Great Northern Morlock Hunt
by Peter Mitchell
Repeater Books 300pp ISBN 9781912248179 £8.99
Years ago, I found my great-grandfather’s account book from when he was a teenager. He was born to a family of 11 in the South Northumberland coalfield, in the last years of the 19th century, and started working in the mine at either 12 or 14, depending whose account you believe. On his days off he would take the train to Newcastle to buy second-hand books and pamphlets. We still have his Byron and Shelley, his Ruskin, his Goethe and Burns, and a scuffed series called Crowned Masterpieces of Eloquence (he seems to have been insecure, later, about making speeches). What happened after is standard happy endings for his time and milieu: the Unitarian chapel, the Miners’ Lodge, Ruskin College, the Plebs’ League, Parliament, the MFGB/NUM, the TUC, the Coal Board and a suburban retirement spent growing improbably gigantic roses. But what I found in the account book, where he noted every single penny earned, saved or spent, was some validation of the family stories about his implacable decency and equally implacable ambition, his immense control, the seriousness with which he approached intellectual life and the reverence with which he afforded art a place in his emancipatory politics. Family lore, which in this case seems credible, is that he courted my great-grandmother by taking her down to Plessey Woods, in the valley of the River Blyth, and reading to her from the Romantic poets.
I bring this up for two reasons. First, because it recurred to me when, in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn addressed Glastonbury with the standard lines from Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy. The lines in question – ‘Rise like lions after slumber / in unvanquishable number’ – are deeply embedded in the labour tradition; my great-grandfather, I imagine, would have heard them enough to get sick of them. They’re on Michael Foot’s grave. But the reaction was instant and predictable, as much for its weaponised philistinism as for its disingenuousness. The gesture was widely mocked, not by the right but by the centre and the self-defined centre-left. As had occurred a year before, when Corbyn had been incautious enough to tell Mumsnet that he’d take Ulysses to a desert island, the centrist commentariat who spoke up to deride him couldn’t settle on a consistent line as to why quoting Shelley was inherently laughable. Was it because, as with Ulysses, Corbyn couldn’t possibly be in possession of the mental faculties and personal qualities necessary to understand Shelley? Or was it because his use of canonical literature proved how out-of-touch he was with the people he needed to win back: you know, those people, the core Labour voters, the knuckle-dragging Legitimate Concerns morlocks that haunt the timeless Rochdale doorstep of Richard Angell’s fevered and definitely-not-racist dreams. Those people, as we the virtuous and well-educated all know, absolutely hate poetry.
The second reason I bring it up is that I’m reluctant to bring it up at all. It pays to be wary of any argument that starts by invoking a great-grandfather going down a mine and educating himself. It tends to be the preamble to something tendentious, ill-earned, patronising or reactionary: it’s Four Yorkshiremen stuff. Origins, suffering, class and class struggle, the past, the (ugh) provincial: all these are poisoned ground, toxified by resentment and one-downsmanship and prohibitions on who gets to speak, whose speech matters and why it’s never yours.
This is the grim cultural terrain studied in Joe Kennedy’s Authentocrats. By way of a personal history rooted in Darlington and North Yorkshire and a training as a literary academic with a forensic eye for popular culture, he ranges through such topics as World War Two nostalgia, TV and film, Owen Smith’s hapless attempt to position himself as Old Labour by pretending he didn’t understand what a cappuccino is, and the hollowing-out of working class culture and presence in British life. He’s an astute reader of texts, particularly in identifying the fundamental dishonesty of authenticity’s deployment in popular entertainment and high-bourgeois lifestyle art alike. Appeals to ‘grainy, hard-bollocked reality’ – Games of Thrones’ effortful nihilism, say, or the strenuous appeals to trauma made in Daniel Craig-era James Bond movies and Christopher Nolan’s batman films – are shown up here as confidence tricks, whose heavily-advertised attention to suffering ends up as voyeurism and whose attachment to static conceptions of an ‘always-already-fallen’ world opens the door to shades of reaction ranging from a melancholic conservatism to something far worse. Meanwhile, the 'Brexit novel' of grimy abjection and or autochthonous revolt, and the various iterations of the ‘new nature writing’, with its landscape fetishism and third-hand hauntological posturing, come in for a sharp and not entirely unkind taking-apart.
Kennedy is also clear about authentocracy’s most important political function, which is to pass the buck of ethno-nationalism, homophobia, misogyny and other reactionary pathologies from the liberal centre to the working class. In the imaginations of people like Nick Cohen or David Goodhart (the Blairite cheerleader turned nativist booby who crops up frequently here), working class people are always fundamentally abject, a sink for all the nativist animosity and disgust that the centrist cannot confess to owning themselves. Whether any of the avatars of salty racist working-class masculinism – White Van Man, the bloke on the Rochdale doorstep or the reliably racist codger that John Harris never fails to find wandering any provincial shopping precinct – actually exist, as a meaningful political or electoral bloc, isn’t the point; nor is the question of whether, assuming such an avatar existed, and was primarily attracted to the grossest possible expressions of nativist reaction, he could be won back to Labour with a ‘controls on immigration’ mug. The point was that he serves a purpose, which is to discredit the unmasculine and middle-class pretensions of the ‘cultural’ left and to assert, through a usefully remote and disclaimable mouthpiece, the ineluctable structure of reality – reality being, by a marvellous but by now familiar coincidence, surprisingly racist.
One of the strengths of Authentocrats is its engagement with authentocracy’s geographical imaginaries. One of the most impoverishing aspects of the Brexit-era codification of How Britain Works is the production of the North, or of areas euphemistically referred to – with the immense condescension that euphemism entails – as ‘deindustrialised’. Anyone familiar with the colonial imaginary will recognise its main features. The natives are simple, pre-literate, but good-hearted; they’re uncouth and unacquainted with metropolitan politesse, but gifted with earthy wisdom and a strong sense of taboo. They’re intensely patriarchal, living in conservative village communities whose primary source of strength is their homogeneity. They’re tractable, model citizens if treated right, but their sense of pride can lead them into error: school them in the right kind of racism and they’ll behave well, but call them racists and they’ll become the kind of racists you don’t like. Curiously, while they’re portrayed as traumatised, and certainly subject to history, their essence is ahistorical, originating in a happy before-time of communal pride, solidarity, heavy industrial employment and cultural homogeneity.
How to combat this kind of nonsense? ‘Places,’ Kennedy insists, ‘are not metaphors’. He illustrates this by writing with palpable affection about Darlington, where he was born, and its social and cultural specificity. He writes about ‘[t]all, narrow, red-bricked houses, some covered in creepers not always planted deliberately, flaking paint on the front railings and panes of the basement windows, the sound of musical instruments being practised in bare rooms’; about the town’s hippie holdovers and guitars shops, its specific industrial histories, and its ‘absolutely unique accent, which blurs nasal Teessider, Pitmatic glottals and the corvid croak of the northern part of North Yorkshire.’ The mere work of evocation – the naming of suburbs and neighbouring villages, the description of particular streets and cafés – furnishes a powerful riposte to the flattening effects of the authentocrat imaginary. He goes on to write about Mass Observation’s ethnography of British everyday life around the Second World War, and the way it ‘[allowed] insight into the collective subconscious, [giving] a picture of the great dream-works of desire, presumption and anxiety which glue together nation, region and class.’ This is the kind of work – granular rather than grainy, sharp-eyed rather than hard-bollocked – that might stand against the homogenised ‘somewheres’ of the Goodhartian imagination and the reactionary work they’re made to do.
It might also be the strongest way of countering the secondary, but entirely non-coincidental work that does in silencing the people for whom it’s supposed to speak. In producing a Goodhartian ‘somewhere’, it effaces real places and the people in them: there are only certain ways a working class (or, frankly, regional) person can be permitted to speak, and only a certain range of utterances available to them. The concept of the ‘white working class’ poses as a carefully specific delineation of a group but works, with repetition, to exclude the possibility of a working class that is anything but white, and to produce ‘working class’ and ‘non-white’ as natural antagonists. That a liberal establishment could have succeeded in supplanting real working class or regional utterance with this kind of ventriloquy is testament to how successfully those voices have been excluded from the sites which discourse is produced, and the extent to which even the partial and provisional mobilities of the post-war era have been reversed.
Speaking from those positions has its dangers, though. Occupying the subject position in a culture often means having at best a precarious grip on the means of representation. Kennedy is astute on how the possibilities of representing an Englishness or Britishness grounded in the specifics of place have been colonised and limited by emergent genres of twee cream-tea fetishism, theatres of abjection or cod-psychogeographic bourgeois nature-writing. It’s not as if we weren’t already overburdened with calcified and drastically limiting ways of representing ourselves: another reason I’m reluctant to bring up my great-grandfather is that his story is pure cliché. The ways in which sincere efforts on the part of the regional or the culturally marginalised to represent themselves can be railroaded into kitsch by the processes of cultural production is a subject for other books, but Kennedy’s writing on the ‘Brexit novel’ is a good start for the present moment.
There’s a lot else in Authentocrats. For a relatively slim book, its range of cultural reference and the completeness with which it anatomises its subject is surprising. It’s also a consciously reactive book, speaking out of a particular moment: written in 2017 and published only in June, there are already bits of it that feel like fragments of forgotten arguments. The effect of Twitter on all this is instructive. Authentocrats would be inconceivable without Twitter. Its language is Twitter’s, and many of the exchanges it recounts took place there, to the extent that sometimes it reads as a chronicle of cultural politics as played out in the online sphere. This is weirdly thrilling, and you can imagine historians reading Authentocrats as one of the first books about politics and culture that’s truly literate about Twitter’s complex agency in these things. That textural feel is also evident on the textual level: if Kennedy’s salty one-line dismissals of various cultural artefacts or political positions have the devastating economy and casual craftedness of a skilful tweet, it might often be because that’s exactly how they started out. Occasionally you can sense ways in which Twitter’s magnifying capability, the way it can make relatively limited exchanges look like grand battlefield views, can obscure as much as it reveals. Those future historians will probably have an easier time than us in disentangling which Twitter beefs were paradigmatic expressions of the times and which were just people being dicks. But the energy and bitchiness of Twitter, its anarchic expansiveness and turbulent forms of wit drive Kennedy’s analysis and keep it unusually entertaining.
It’s good that this is the case, because Authentocrats is in some ways a gruelling read. Not because it’s long, or difficult, or badly done – it’s well written, laced with brutally laconic one-liners, and strikingly well put together for a book written in a hurry to capture a shifting cultural moment. Authentocrats is difficult to read because it’s a rightly hateful dissection of a hateful cultural formation.
This is fair enough, but it has consequences. One imagines that committing to thinking all this stuff through at length would sour you to pretty much any cultural artefact that comes your way, and every so often you can feel Kennedy straining to remind himself of the distinction between a malign cultural formation and the artworks drawn into its web. Midway through Kennedy’s coruscating denunciations I occasionally found myself having mutinous thoughts. An early chapter on Question Time’s famous ‘wall of gammon,’ for instance, finds it ‘curious’ that, in Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch, the archetype of absurd one-downsmanship was supplied by ‘an enduring and much-loved totem of liberal Britain’. Is it OK to like Python or not? Later, there’s a more-or-less brilliant study of the ‘cargo-cult surrealism’ of late nineties comedy, and a convincing account of how the comedy of all-embracing disgust (Charlie Brooker, Chris Morris) reduces, at its moral core, to an attenuated humanism that has little politically useful to offer.
Here I found myself squirming. To a 15-year-old me, Shooting Stars’ marriage of aggressively stupid, often quite queer humour with unapologetic regionalism felt liberating, however threadbare its overstrained wackiness looks now. Likewise for Chris Morris, whose best work seems in many ways still too strange and angry and fundamentally odd to be reduced to parity with something as reliably cowardly as Charlie Brooker’s quietistic grump. Convinced as you are by Kennedy’s arguments – and you will be – you may also find yourself wanting to reach through the page and shake him out of his mard: dammit, man, don’t you know you’re allowed to like things?
I’m being dramatic, of course. I’m sure Joe Kennedy likes things. But there’s a larger point here about babies and bathwater, and where the work of identifying a culture’s pathologies has to become the stickier, more compromising, more patient work of reclaiming it from them. Precisely how to undertake such reclamations is something Authentocrats steers clear of, because making prescriptions isn’t its purpose. In some ways, authentocracy’s more obvious and cynical manifestations are already beginning to lose some of their power. The continued emergence of unambiguous nativism, which has only accelerated in the year since Authentocrats was completed, is perhaps beginning to render authentocracy’s various strategies of hedging and ventriloquy obsolete. Two years ago, a figure like Richard Angell was dutifully reporting what he heard from the doorstep and tearfully imploring the left to listen to their natural constituency; now he happily appears on panels with Melanie Phillips and Brendan O’Neill. The sensible adults who beat their breasts over Corbyn’s unelectability in 2016 are, in 2018, debating whether ethnic diversity poses a threat to the West at Spiked front events. Ethnonationalist creeps like Goodhart are increasingly recognised for what they are, and increasingly less coy about it. Kennedy’s work, in this book and elsewhere, is partly responsible for this, of course. With any luck Authentocracts, with all its piss and vinegar, will help to abolish the thing it diagnoses, and its usefulness as an immediate political intervention will be short.
If there’s something in Kennedy’s unerringly accurate denunciations that troubles me, it’s something I recognise in myself, as a product of a similar place and time and milieu. It’s the sense we grew up with, as Thatcher’s children and Blair’s teens – and ratified, perhaps, by our being straight white men brought up in a north-eastern culture of destructively sceptical masculinity – that the only serious intellectual exercise is critique, and the only way to be right about anything is to be able to articulate the ways in which it’s irretrievably bad. This left us with powerful tools of denunciation, and an aptitude for jeremiads, but often too little practice in articulating ways out of our various messes.
More tragically, it left us knowing on an intellectual level, as an article of faith, that culture could be liberating, but estranged in important ways from any clue how that might happen, to us, personally, and how to shrug off our programmatic suspicion long enough to let it do so. It seems strange that a culture that drew much of its moral authority from Quakerism should have made it so difficult for us to sit quietly and wait for something transformative to enter us. Much of the blame for this falls on authentocracy itself, and on the wider formations of class distinction and contempt of which it’s a late expression. Its radical pessimism about the possibility of transcendence or connection corrodes the armature of faith that links culture to liberation, and obscures the road – once a fairly well-signposted one – between reading Byron in Plessey Woods and chairing the TUC.
Authentocrats escapes this trap: in its sections on the North especially, in the way it can quietly look at a thing and then describe it with love and attention, it begins to undertake one of the tasks which might yet get us out from under the dead hand of authentocracy. ‘Places are not metaphors’ might make a good slogan for a deeply necessary regional turn in British culture: a way of speaking, writing, and making representations from the periphery that makes it unavailable to conscription by the metropole’s colonial imaginaries – if only by describing, without bullshit or cliché, what it’s actually like. It’s only by decades of cultural dispossession, most of it entirely intentional, that non-metropolitan and non-bourgeois Britain was reduced to a mute shadow-puppet theatre for the private racial psychodramas of creeps like David Goodhart, the witchy deep-Albion playground of the hauntographers, or the cloth-capped Regional Pride Theatre of the well-intentioned but simple. Reversing this despoliation will take the kinds of structural changes – redistribution of various forms of capital, expanded mobilities, investment in cultural, social and physical infrastructure – that have only recently become politically thinkable again. We should hope that they remain so.