Author Archives: Melissa Benn

How to lift a heart: the joy in protest and seeking political change

How do you define or promote something as elusive as happiness? Most of us might tick the box marked “cheerful” on Wednesday morning but could well consider ourselves crashingly miserable come Sunday afternoon. And suppose we can empirically establish contentment over a longish period, how do we unpick the underlying reasons for it? A happy relationship or a triple-lock pension? A course of mindfulness or a handful of supportive friends?

Lynne Segal gives us her take on the matter straight off. The world is a place of “unbearable pain and sadness”, the experience of melancholy is an important part of an authentic emotional life. As for the official emphasis on happiness, it is insultingly limited, dishonest and functional. “We need to resist the happiness imperative beamed down at us from every other billboard. . .” In Segal’s view, “radical happiness” involves us in an enterprise very different in scope and far more meaningful: the seeking of political change, and with it the experience of solidarity and collective joy.

Scathing of the ways that the happiness industry has played into official narratives, Segal is particularly critical of influential figures such as Richard Layard, Tony Blair’s so-called happiness tsar, who chose to “ignore the effects of structural inequality on the emotional distress it measures” preferring instead to consider emotions in the context of Gross Domestic Product, then compounding his intellectual and political sins by promoting the widespread use of the quick-fix remedy Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Instead of Layard, she says, we should all have been listening to British epidemiologist Michael Marmot who “convincingly researched the quite devastating effects of poverty and inequality on social misery generally, and individually psychic health in particular.”

It is a feature of all Segal’s work that when she decides to tackle a subject – be it the history of women’s experience of heterosexuality, the rise of essentialist feminisms or, most recently, the politics of ageing – she examines it from every conceivable angle. She always makes me think of someone picking up a stone on the beach and turning it, with infinite exhaustive care, this way and that. Here, then, she gives us trenchant chapters, complete with plenty of historical and theoretical readings. She takes on the decline of carnivals, festivals and other expressions of communal joy (the spontaneous gathering of those “without institutional power” is always threatening to the powerful) as well as our changing understanding of depression, noting the sinister link between a rise in diagnoses for serious depression and bipolar disorder, and the discovery and marketing of drugs for treating them.…

From the archive: A Class Act

He’s a good storyteller, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, and he tells a particularly good story about the Lost Missionary: a few years ago, a confused old man kept ringing the Institute of Race Relations, of which Sivanandan is the director, but nobody knew what he wanted. The caller muttered something about wanting to help people, to give aid to those in need, yet he was so obviously in need himself. Eventually out of pity, one of the staff invited him in.

The moment he walked into the room, Sivanandan strode towards him and warmly embraced him. “Of course, I recognised him immediately,” he says now. “He was a famous missionary who had done important anthropological work in India.” The story tells as much about the embracer as the embraced. There is the fact that Sivanandan immediately recognised a bowed-down old man for the noble human being he was. Then there is the instant recall of the content and significance of the missionary’s work, both practical and intellectual. Finally, there is Siva’s kindness – that simple embrace.

But the moral of this tale goes deeper. For it tells us something about a fraternity – not quite secret but never fully understood by those who judge success by material wealth or professional achievement – which devotes itself to the cause of others. There is nothing religious in Sivanandan’s value system, for his is a militant vocabulary of class and racial struggle, a political language inevitably more radical than the Christian’s. But that day the Lost Missionary came to the institute, both men recognised and appreciated a kindred spirit.

Here, all resemblances end. For if time has been cruel to, or at the very least neglectful of, many who dedicate themselves to the interests of others, it has been kind to Sivanandan, or Siva, as he is known to friends and enemies alike. He may not be as well known as many other post-war black intellectuals and activists, but later life has brought him recognition from a wider audience, praise from beyond the circle of the politically committed. Activist, speaker, essayist and latterly novelist, he is now considered one of the most powerful radical voices writing on race, politics, culture and class in Britain over the last 30 years.

Many of his essays are considered classics, from his loving, empirical account of post-war black politics, “From Resistance to Rebellion”, published in the early Thatcher era, to his more recent analyses of the labyrinthine workings of the new globalism.…

There’s still a lot of work to do – but let’s hear it for the NES

There could well be at least a couple of years before another general election, certainly if the beleaguered and divided government has anything to do with it. And while Labour has committed itself to continue to campaign over the summer, there is an equally important job to do in the months and years ahead, which is to build on some of the bolder ideas to emerge during the election.

The crisis in school funding was at the heart of last June’s campaign but, as we see from concessions made by the government in the weeks since, and the re-appointment of the sensible and emollient Justine Greening as education secretary, the Tories now recognise that they urgently need to do something about the pay and conditions of public sector workers. Besides, it is highly unlikely that the next election, whenever it comes, will be fought on the same issues in the same way. Context is all.

All the more reason, then, to develop one of the most potentially significant proposals to be floated by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, that of a National Education Service (NES): the joining-up of disparate elements of education from nurseries through schools to universities and adult education, free at the point of use. Corbyn himself has trumpeted the idea since his election in 2015 but not much solid detail emerged during those two years; nor did it over the course of the election campaign itself, with commentators concentrating on the headline issues (the Labour plan to abolish tuition fees) or giving the entire Labour offer short shrift on the grounds that it was not radical enough.

Whether this last claim is fair (and I would argue both that it is and it isn’t) there is room for a much broader, bolder vision. During the Adonis-Gove years official ideas about ‘education, education,education’ have dangerously narrowed, with government increasingly focussed on the secondary years where it has trumpeted a diluted version of the grammar school/public school curriculum to be implemented by dangerously under-resourced state schools, harried professionals and, indeed, non-professionals. In higher education, the values of business have come to dominate and distort the business of learning to the benefit neither of students nor academics. More broadly, I also wonder whether progressives have become so desensitised by years of Gove and co. that they now self-censor even their own best hopes and dismiss out of hand this idea of a cradle-to-grave education system, animated by a richer, deeper purpose, to be run in a different way?…

Brought up by a blackshirt

Just a couple of years ago, Fascist in the Family might have been greeted as no more than an interesting addition to the ever-­expanding genre of family memoir: a child’s unflinching account of a wrong-headed, right-wing father set against the panoramic backdrop of the divided domestic politics and international conflagrations of the first half of the 20th century.

Francis Beckett couldn’t have known it – these 396 densely packed pages must have been years in the making – but this publication comes at a political moment that subtly changes our reading of the particular history he describes. Today, in our world dominated by the hard men (and women) of the new right, the book reads more as a chill warning. British fascism of the pre-war period grew out of similar soil to Brexit, Bannon and Banks, including the cruel slashing of state benefits, a paralysing crisis in the labour movement, the false lure of nationalism, the rise of the extreme right on the Continent and the vile scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities.

John Beckett entered the Commons in 1924 as the youngest MP on the Labour benches. Within a few years, he had “become the most extreme, most newsworthy left-wing Labour rebel of his day”, known for his provocative speeches and outrageous tactics. He was a talented speaker, offering “fireworks and crudity” to working-class audiences across the country, an ingenious and indefatigable organiser and an energetic and successful womaniser. His impatience with the Labour and trades union establishment, combined with an irrational and uncontrollable anti-Semitism and reflexive nationalism, led him to Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF), where he became the head of propaganda.

At first worshipping the charismatic Mosley, a man with whom he shared the ability to stir up a crowd, Beckett soon came to distrust the high-handed, aristocratic BUF leader as a vindictive narcissist. He broke away to form the anti-Semitic National Socialist League with figures such as William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and A K Chesterton (a distant cousin of the better-known G K), and later the British People’s Party (BPP).

In the words of his only son, Beckett’s political career ended in “the squalid wastelands of neo-Nazi politics”, earning him four years’ internment during the Second World War and a bleak form of social exile in the postwar period. Francis, an impressively dispassionate biographer, is also well placed to unearth the twisted roots of his father’s anti-Semitism: he reports that John’s adored mother, Eva, was almost certainly Jewish, a fact he kept hidden all his life.…

Contentious claims in Tory manifesto promise

There was something almost sci-fi about the Conservative manifesto launch. A sea of cabinet ministers, packed into what looked like a cross between a cattle shed and a car park, dressed in various shades of blue, listening to the navy-clad prime minister intone on her favourite themes of this election. Strong and stable with everything, basically.

There was very little about education, from the podium at least, bar some references to a “Great Meritocracy” and the wholly uncontentious promise of a ‘good school place for every child’ (what politician could promise anything else?) More frustratingly, the manifesto itself yields not much more detail on the possible shape of our school system over the next five years.

On the two issues that have come to dominate education over the past year – funding and the threatened return of selection – we were offered intriguing concessions and a stubborn lack of clarity respectively. Funding first: clearly the government has been worried by the rising chorus of public concern concerning cuts to school budgets and the potentially devastating implications of the Fair Funding formula, particularly in areas like London where relatively generous levels of funding have achieved such good results over the past decade.

The Conservatives get round this by pledging to axe free school meals for primary school children (offering them Brexit – sorry, I mean breakfast – instead) and redistributing the rest to make up funding shortfalls.

On the face of it, it’s quite a canny move, suggesting both responsiveness to public concern and, perhaps, a recognition of disquiet on even the centre-left about the original Lib Dem policy of free school meals for some primary school children, and Labour’s plans to expand it by putting VAT on private school fees.

Even so, the funding pledge is not generous as it looks, given that the cut in free school meals accounts for only £650 million, and £3 billion is money already allocated for growth in pupil numbers.

On selection, we get remarkably little bar the return to some contentious guff about ordinary working families. “We will lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools, subject to conditions, such as allowing pupils to join at other ages as well as 11.”

That simple statement alone is, of course, important. If May wins on this manifesto, any possible rebellion by Tory MPs, and peers of all political stripes uneasy at the plans for more grammars, will be robbed of legitimacy.…

How to make the world a better place

The announcement of the general election coincides with the 50th anniversary of the May Day Manifesto. Here left thinkers and writers have their say on what a 2017 version of the famous manifesto might look like.

Terry Eagleton:

‘As a 24-year-old Cambridge academic, I was lucky enough to be involved in the writing of the May Day Manifesto of 1967. It was a genuinely collaborative project among a range of leftwing intellectuals of the day, a bunch of whom descended on Raymond Williams’s cottage outside Cambridge to cobble together a powerful indictment of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. EP Thompson scribbled away in one corner of the living room, Stuart Hall discussed neocolonialism in another, while Ralph Miliband phoned in from the LSE. The general air was one of tweeds and pipe smoke. There were no women, a fact that even the most dedicated militant of the day would not have found in the least strange.

It would be hard to muster such an impressive bunch of socialist minds today. The intellectual left is thinner on the ground than it was. We have lost almost all the leading figures of that historical moment – though lost them to death rather than to apathy or apostasy. The political climate of the time offered more opportunities for the left as well. One year after the manifesto was published, student revolt swept across Europe, while the United States was plunged into the twin crises of civil rights and the Vietnam war. Today across the Atlantic, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

The manifesto never had any strong roots in the working-class movement. Yet it intervened eloquently on its behalf, calling for a Labour government that would work for real socialism. It has taken half a century for that demand to be realised, however partially and precariously. Only a decade or so on from the manifesto, the labour movement was on the back foot, savagely assaulted by Thatcherism and by an ugly new form of corporate capitalism. These were onslaughts from which it has never really recovered. A May Day Manifesto for today, then, would need to put the rights of working people at its centre. It would also need to insist that the UK is never in a position to take any action that might result in the incineration of millions of innocent people.’

Ken Loach

We will reverse the privatisation of our public services and major industries.…

Women and power: what now?

In a recent lecture the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard cogently argued that public ­attitudes to women in power have altered frighteningly little over the centuries. Even though there has been a shift as a minority of women have climbed to positions of greater public and corporate influence over the past few decades, the hostile treatment meted out to figures as diverse as Hillary Clinton and Caroline Criado-Perez would be familiar to the creators of Medea, Clytemnestra and Antigone. But this dep­ressing lack of change now needs to be set against the astonishing rise of new forms of female protest, with millions of women galvanised globally to rise up against the new misogyny and the old injustices.

The obvious challenge is how to channel this explosion of popular feminist energy in order to defeat the burgeoning forces of populism decisively. The worry is that feminist protest will be self-limiting, drawing its life force from women’s deep, almost instinctive familiarity with outsiderness: the same “exteriority” to power (stemming from both outer hostility and inner reluctance) that Beard sees running throughout history. It could be, she suggested, that women today are already exercising a novel, network-based, collaborative form of power, one that relies less on individual notoriety and risk.

Such themes lie at the heart of these four books, all very different from each other, published to coincide with International Women’s Day – proof at least of the presumed commercial buoyancy of the new feminism. Each tackles the question of power: how and why women lack it, how they might take it, how to personalise it and even, in one case, how to refuse it. What fresh insights and resources of hope do they offer? Quite a lot, I think, and often within a tough, but refreshingly realist frame.

Everywoman announces itself, like its author, the Labour MP Jess Phillips, in a blast of “no-nonsense” noisiness on the cover. There’s loud black and red lettering, and a picture of Phillips in an arms-crossed, lips-pursed pose of bemused self-defence. The book, we are assured, is all about trusting her to tell us the “truth”. This, after all, is the woman bold enough to tell Diane Abbott to “f**k off” and Jeremy Corbyn that if he failed to keep his promises she would stab him in the front, not the back: a warning somewhat mitigated by attacks on Corbyn now being something of a national sport.…

From the archive: ‘You’re wicked, you’re insane.’

Sitting in his warmly furnished living room in Regent’s Park, in central London, Nicholas Mosley evokes an air of elegant bohemianism. A celebrated Booker-nominated novelist, winner of the 1990 Whitbread prize for his richly experimental Hopeful Monsters, he is also a skilled memoirist and has worked as a scriptwriter for the film directors Joseph Losey and John Frankenheimer. Now 86, he has just published a new novel and another memoir.

Educated at Eton and Oxford University, sustained by a private income, a baronetcy inherited in middle age, Nicholas has an air of quiet authority and detachment typical of the well-cushioned upper class but an effervescence all of his own. Almost as soon as I sit down, he says, “It’s very fashionable now to say one has had a terrible life. But I have had a rather good one.”

This lightness of spirit is all the more remarkable when you consider his background. For Nicholas, the eldest son of Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists and half brother of formula one boss Max Mosley, is not just a member of one of Britain’s most renowned and controversial public families, he is that most dangerous of creatures – a writer in, and about, the family.

The Mosleys have been back in the headlines of late. Images of Oswald, strutting down London streets in his black shirt, have resurfaced following the election of two BNP MEPs in June. Max Mosley shot to unwelcome prominence last year after being caught engaging in S&M sex games, and subsequently taking on the News of World over intrusion into his privacy. Last week, he agreed not to stand for re-election as president of motor racing’s governing body. This all followed the tragic death of his eldest son, Alexander, 39, in May from an accidental drug overdose.

Of all Oswald Mosley’s children, Nicholas most clearly rejected his father’s rightwing politics while at the same time acknowledging mixed feelings about those close to him. Yet, in the end, Oswald Mosley chose Nicholas to be his official biographer. The resulting two volumes, Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale, both published in the 80s, offer a candid account of Mosley’s private and public life, which went down well with reviewers.

But the wider Mosley family, including Max, were incandescent. After initially praising the book, privately, Oswald’s second wife, and Nicholas’s stepmother, Diana, told the press it was “the degraded work of a very little man … It’s all very well having an oedipal complex at 19, a second-rate son hating a brilliant father, but it’s rather odd at 60.…

Why don’t more schools focus on public speaking? Discuss

It’s Monday morning and the start of a year 7 English class at Highbury Grove school, a large comprehensive in north London. The students have been played the soundtrack to a film and hands are creeping up as they are questioned about the role background music plays in setting the mood.

Answers are tentative, but as the pace picks up, their vocabulary strengthens with discussion of “foreshadowing” and “transition” and “perspective”. Encouraged by their young hipsterish teacher, Lewis Green, who tells them that “just because I challenge you it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, it just means I want you to explain more”, their answers become longer and more eloquent. By the end of the class, well over half the pupils have their hands up, bursting to speak.

An ordinary, lively English lesson? Not quite. Hardly a word has been put to paper. The emphasis of this lesson, in a school in which 70% of students are in receipt of pupil premium, is on speaking skills. The approach is based on the work of consultant Martin Robinson, author of two books that attempt to bring classical principles to modern comprehensive education, surprise hits in recent years.

Robinson, who advises Highbury Grove, says: “It is important that young people develop educated opinions, that is, opinions that emerge after exploring and weighing up different sides of an argument.” Robinson believes an educated 18-year-old “should be able to respond to gentle interrogation and not worry when they get to the point of not knowing, relish it even because they can explore and find out more”.

This week sees the launch of a campaign, the Oracy Network, to raise the profile of public speaking in the national curriculum, backed by the English Speaking Union (ESU) and involving, among others, Peter Hyman, founder of School 21 in east London and an enthusiast for the cause. Too many schools still don’t seem to know about the benefits of encouraging pupils to be confident speakers, or haven’t integrated oracy into other parts of the curriculum. A new studypublished today by LKMCO thinktank, reports that provision is patchy. “Few schools evaluate the quality of pupils’ verbal contributions in lessons, or communicate with parents about the quality of these contributions.”

The report says 57% of teachers say they have not received training in oracy in the past three years, and 53% would not know where to look for more information if they needed it.…

Sex, cycling and socialism: the revolutionary women that history forgot

Sheila Rowbotham’s latest book plunges us straight into the ferment of the 1880s in Bristol, one of the many cities in Britain set alight in the late-Victorian era by a mixture of radical liberalism, socialism and the rapid growth of trade unionism. Part political chronicle, part emotional narrative, it opens with the story of the blossoming friendship of two fiercely determined women, Miriam Daniell and Helena Born, both from bourgeois backgrounds and drawn towards “unconventional ideas and dangerous causes”. By the late 1880s, not only are both women imbibing the works of Ruskin, Ibsen, Whitman and Blake, they are also deeply involved, under the aegis of the Bristol Socialist Society, with strikes at Fry’s chocolate factory as well as attempts to unionise cotton workers and isolated homeworkers.

But, in keeping with the temper of the times – and the preoccupations that will shape the left and feminism for the ensuing century – these women’s rebellion goes far deeper than political activism. After Daniell leaves her respectable husband for the young Robert Nicol, an enigmatic medical student from Edinburgh, the couple and Born bravely establish a ménage à trois in a poor district of Bristol.

Here they experiment with colour and uncarpeted floors, “while from the most commonplace materials they improve many articles of furniture and decoration, combining both beauty and utility”. By 1890 – with their lives in turmoil because of their unconventional lifestyle and politics, and drawn to “the wider sphere of usefulness” that they glimpse in America – the trio migrate to the United States.

Minutely researching and retelling the political and personal struggles of her characters – six in all – Rowbotham gives us a unique flavour of the era and insight into the bravery, boldness, imagination and occasional wackiness of a period in left-wing British and American history. She eschews the stories of far better-known figures of the era (such as the Pankhursts or Keir Hardie), and even the dominant narratives of suffrage and labour, to bring alive lesser-known causes and ideas, from anarchism to radical individualism. In their attempts to shape a new way of living, these rebels prefigured everything from free love to modern feminism to eco-politics; and, in those Bristol living arrangements, possibly a dash of Habitat-style consumerism as well.

Once in the United States, the narrative becomes somewhat diluted by the vastness of that nation, with the chief figures in the story scattered from California to Boston.…

Latest writing

THE CRISIS OF THE MERITOCRACY

The crisis of the meritocracy: Britain’s transition to mass education since the Second World War

PETER MANDLER, 2020

Oxford: Oxford University Press

361pp, hardback, £25, ISBN 9780198840145

Cambridge historian Peter Mandler has a fundamentally optimistic story to tell about the growth of universal education in Britain over the last seventy years and one can sense his stubborn resistance to any more sceptical interpretation on almost every page of this dense and impressive history. Since the close of the ‘people’s war’ in 1945, Mandler argues, we have witnessed the rise of mass education, initially at secondary level, and more recently in higher education where participation rates currently nudge New Labour’s much vaunted promise of 50 per cent. Contrary to established narratives that have put this development down to economic growth or significant pieces of legislation, Mandler identifies the expansion of educational opportunity as the result of a constantly shifting interplay of demand and supply that has reinforced ‘the deepening compact between the individual citizen and the state which came with formal democracy and the idea of equal citizenship’. Education continues to be seen by the public as one of the ‘decencies’ of life’; hence the inexorable rise in demand for what Mandler often refers to as ‘more and better’.

In short, the people (sort of) did it themselves.

On the face of it, this is an attractive proposition, yet one that is oddly tricky to grapple with, given the mass of contradictory or partial information available to us concerning what the ‘people’ have wanted at any given historical moment or, indeed, who exactly the people are. Mandler deliberately employs ‘a promiscuous array of methods and sources’, sifting through realms of evidence from official publications, interviews, academic studies, pollsters’ findings and demographic surveys in an attempt to clarify the complex relationship between government policy, public demand and social change. This promiscuity encourages him to prosecute his subsidiary critique of the alleged tendency of academic disciplines to work in unhelpful silos. Economists and social scientists, he charges, have paid scant attention to educational expansion while educationists and political historians tend to ‘chop up long-term trends into short political segments’ with many on the left falling into a ‘declinist narrative’ in which the failures of a ‘divided’ Labour party feature heavily as a reason for a lack of genuine progress (an analysis Mandler anyway rejects). But we shall return to the problem of we whingeing progressives in a moment.…

Latest news & events

A Cold War Tragedy

Melissa will be in conversation with Anne Sebba about her new book, ‘Ethel Rosenberg – A Cold War Tragedy.’

Weds 15th September 2021, 5-6pm, in the Robert Graves Tent at the Wimbledon Book Festival.

More information here.

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