So I’ve just finished the left’s smash hit book of the summer, Mark Steel’s new tome What’s Going On? Regulars can rest assured that a wider selection of summer reading will be reviewed, but Mark is as good a place to start as any.
If you know Mark’s material, there is a fair amount here that will not be surprising. That is, we get lots of comedic ruminations about the state of the world. The antiwar movement is covered here, along with Mark’s thoughts on the changing composition of the working class, the British education system, the homogenisation of town centres, the entertainment industry and celebrity culture, and much more besides, all delivered in the patented Mark Steel style. Which, it’s true, can sometimes be a little annoying in that what works in performance doesn’t always translate to the written page. Mark can be a little shouty, and he’s still very much addicted to the “it’s as if…” or “I was expecting him to say…” clause. But, at his best, reading Mark is like listening to a mate tell you brilliant rambling stories, and often he is at his best here.
What lends this book a little piquancy is that Mark is forced to deal with being middle-aged. This must be doubly painful for someone who likes to be down with the kids – I know little of this “hip hop” of which Mark speaks, but I can well imagine that a fortysomething man might feel a little out of place in the mosh pit. Parenthood also looms large here, notably the socialist parent’s dilemma of how to get your kids to be sceptical of all authority except yours. There’s the issue of how advancing age makes you more sensible. And there’s also an underlying theme of mortality. Mark finally meets his idol Joe Strummer, then a few weeks later Joe dies. Mark strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bob Monkhouse, started surreally by Bob approaching Mark in the Television Centre car park and saying how much he loved Reasons to be Cheerful, which he’d got as a 75th birthday present from Jeremy Beadle. But by this point Bob has terminal cancer, and soon he dies. The seemingly indestructible Paul Foot dies. Hovering over this, unspoken, is the premature death of Mark’s close friend Linda Smith. Unspoken, I assume, because Mark must have been terribly upset. I know I was upset, and I’d never even met her.
The background to all this is Mark’s two divorces, first a painful split from his long-term partner, then the end of his thirty-year association with the Socialist Workers Party. To begin with the former, this is a shame. I always thought Mark was a good bloke, and Bindy was nice, and human. These are qualities you value on the left, instead of taking them for granted, which might tell you something about the actually existing left. After all, the reason Linda Smith inspired so much affection was that she wasn’t just extremely funny and on the right side, she was a real person.
But to get back to Mark’s situation, he does get genuinely poignant here. He’s self-critical and, I think, emotionally honest, which is all we can expect of him. After all, it isn’t really anybody’s fault. Mark could mention his partner’s bursts of bad temper, or the trials of living with a comic, whose first instinct is to look for the punchline rather than the soothing word. But, really, what we’ve got here is the common phenomenon whereby two people fall out of love, and do it gradually, almost without noticing, before realising one day that they just don’t like each other very much. And even then you find that sentiment, or hope springing eternal, or concern for the kids, or sheer bloodymindedness, keeps you together much longer than is wise.
Then there is the settee phase. I have been there, and can absolutely vouch for Mark’s accuracy. Because the settee is bloody uncomfortable, and there is no way you can fit your body into it painlessly, you end up lying half-awake through the small hours, gazing in fascination-cum-bemusement at all those channels. The question of how shopping channel hosts can be so enthusiastic at selling shit; the jaw-dropping GOD Channel; weird esoterica on the Open University – this is the nightly fare of the settee-bound. Although I didn’t become addicted to Icelandic buggy racing as Mark did, preferring to watch repeats of Herman’s Head. And tied in to this is the horniness of the settee-bound, as you become more obsessed with sex the less you’re getting any. And, then there’s the fact that the 40-year-old libido is much less predictable than its 20-year-old oppo. In any case, it’s one thing to get aroused watching some soft-porn show, or a Nigella Lawson cookery show (a fine distinction I’ll grant you), where the whole point is to achieve arousal in the viewer. But you know you’re in a bad state when you’re watching Newsnight and you suddenly realise that a 20-minute discussion of the American economy has completely passed you by because your brain has been running scenarios of all the ways you’d like to bone Kirsty Wark.
And after all this, with your aching back and your head full of the 700 Club and Icelandic buggy racing, after all the times you’ve tried to get off the settee, it’s actually a bloody relief when it’s all over.
Then there’s Mark’s parting of the ways with the SWP, an organisation he joined at 18 and was remarkably loyal to for a very long time. On this I’ll give Mark two cheers and a rap over the knuckles, as will become clear. The background to this is the decline of the left’s traditional environment. The trade unions are not quite a hollow shell, but they aren’t far off. You’re more likely to find a supporter of the Iraq war in the Labour Party than in the population at large. There is a culture of protest among youth, but these youth are really cut off from older traditions and are apt to ask you, “Socialism, what’s that then?” in the manner of a teenager showing mild curiosity in his dad’s James Last albums. And, not surprisingly, the far left hasn’t a clue how to respond to all this. The left’s responses have veered between ignoring what the kids are doing, outright hostility and intervening in such a cack-handed way as to put the kids off the left for life. That’s why you meet so many kids on demos in Dublin who are vehemently “anti-Leninist” – it’s not that they’ve considered Lenin’s politics and decided to reject them, it’s based on their concrete experience of groups claiming to be Leninist. It doesn’t help, either, that much of the left is deeply incestuous, with cliquish habits and elaborate systems of etiquette that might almost be designed to put young people off.
So Mark becomes impressed by the disconnect between the shoots of resistance he sees, and the organisation he belongs to. You have here an organisation in obvious decline, but which goes on making grandiose proclamations about the fantastic opportunities ahead. There are two possible responses to this – denial or questioning. Unfortunately for Mark, while the SWP is a great place to get questions on abstruse doctrinal issues answered, it isn’t a very welcoming place if you want to ask open-ended questions, and especially not if the question you really want to ask is, “Have we just gone mad, or were we always like this?”
Since Mark is good enough to ask “Or is it me?”, I can set his mind at rest by informing him that some of the harebrained organisational wheezes he complains about have roots in a time prior to his membership. For instance, there was the time in the 1970s when Cliff became convinced that the group’s slow growth was a function of other people’s lack of enthusiasm, or as he put it that “the organisers have got to start pulling their socks”. Cliff then set an enormously damaging precedent by appointing himself membership secretary, getting the district organisers to submit recruitment tallies, and regaling the monthly NC with a league table showing the red-hot recruiters at the top and the deadbeats at the bottom. Needless to say, the organisers quickly became wise to Cliff’s game, so that by Month 3 the only thing measured in the league table was who was the most brazen liar. (Usually this was Roger Rosewell, a particular favourite of Cliff’s at the time.) As if to prove this wasn’t an isolated lapse, Cliff followed this up with the Leading Areas plan, according to which an area that was doing well (say, Manchester) would be identified extra resources. Of course, the organisation’s limited resources meant that this penalised areas that were already struggling. Cliff gave us to understand that, such would be the shining example set by the Leading Areas, that struggling areas would be inspired to redouble their efforts and would therefore benefit from a kind of trickle-down process. And that worked as well as might be expected. Cliff had lots of good ideas, but he was also prone to daft brainstorms, and the trick lay in knowing just how seriously to take him at any given time.
Since Mark was one of Cliff’s golden boys, it may be too much to expect him to bring this stuff up. But, that aside, Mark is very good at skewering the pretensions of the post-Cliff regime, and particularly of Kim Jong Rees, whom he seems unable to mention by name. Which is fair enough, as since Cliff’s death the leadership cabal have staggered from one disaster to another. One example Mark deals with is the SWP’s claim to have 10,000 members, which was clearly an enormous exaggeration and one that only became more enormous as time went by. But considerations of face meant the CC couldn’t admit a declining membership, which they would need to on the basis of the old definition that a member was someone who paid subs, attended meetings and sold the paper. Instead, we got the immortal line that “We have to redefine the definition of membership.” Which meant, of course, membership lists packed full of names of people who weren’t members. At this point Mark writes:
It was as if the aim was to maintain a steady amount of enthusiasm, but because there was around one-fifth of the number there used to be, everyone had to be five times as enthusiastic to keep things even. Some people, unable to bridge the gap between the rhetoric and the reality, would drift away. And then the enthusiasm demanded of the remainder would become even greater. I had a vision that at the end of this process there’d be one person left, standing at the top of a mountain yelling, ‘IT’S MAGNIFICENT!!!’
Quite so, and Mark is good on how an organisation that used to pride itself on its realism and modesty, Cliff’s occasional brainstorms aside, became mired in denial and self-deception – or, to quote Duncan Hallas’s immortal description of the WRP, “bluff, bluster and bullshit.”
Mark reaches the end of the road with the SWP around the time of the Respect split. And on this he’s quite strong, because Mark is far from being an uncritical groupie of George Galloway. In fact, Mark’s position is similar to my own, that, while George has unique and probably indispensable strengths, he can also very often be a pain in the hole, and sometimes he’s an outright menace. But when George made his very measured criticisms of Rees – criticisms that would seem pretty commonplace to anyone who’s ever dealt with Rees – the reaction of the SWP leadership was simply crazy. To listen to these guys, grovelling in front of Saddam Hussein and making cat noises on Big Brother were things any of us might do in a moment of weakness, but criticising John Rees was the absolute frozen limit. At one meeting, Mark recounts, a speaker compared Galloway’s criticism of Rees with the 1973 coup in Chile. This completely bonkers analogy was supported by most of the people in the room, including one J Rees. And at this point Mark started to wonder whether he had any place in this crazy organisation.
Right, so far I am with Mark. But, and I have to make this point as a small criticism, Mark may be a good bloke but he’s also a little bit of an asshole. What I mean by that is, the history of the SWP, and other left organisations, is full of people in privileged positions who have known all about the organisational skulduggery that goes on, and haven’t said a word until they have been targeted themselves. I think there is a particular responsibility on people like Mark Steel or Paul Foot or Eamonn McCann, who function as a human face of their organisation and make people feel good about being in it, and who could function as a sort of conscience of the organisation. But normally they don’t. Paul Foot, who I miss a lot, was a lovely man, a brilliant journalist and one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard. But it must be said that, when confronted with the SWP leadership and with Cliff in particular, Paul could be the most awful creep. Eamonn has gone along with all sorts of hair-raising stuff, as long as he’s been allowed to plough his own furrow in Derry. And so on.
Now, Mark has to his credit that he did in fact discover a backbone. But there’s a whole lot of people who came before him and got it in the neck good. For example, on the issue of the inflated membership lists, I know that Mark knew about this years ago, because a mutual acquaintance of ours blew the whistle on the membership figures, and could have done with a little moral support. I suppose what I’m getting at is, it can be a little aggravating for Mark to be recounting stories of leftist craziness and tailing it with “I felt like saying…” No, but you didn’t, Mark. No doubt you had your reasons, but a little acknowledgement of this point wouldn’t go amiss.
This may seem like a bit of a negative note to end on, but it’s just a small point that needs to be made. Overwhelmingly, I really enjoyed What’s Going On?, finding it to be probably the best thing Mark has written. It’s funny, of course, poignant in parts, angry in others and genuinely insightful. I’ve thought for some years that Philip Roth’s bitter divorce was the best thing that could have happened to him as a writer. Perhaps we can say the same of Mark.