Black Mirror: Trailer Trash

Looking forward to the new batch of Charlie Brooker Black Mirror dramas, starting on Channel 4 on Monday 11th Feb. For the unitiated, Brooker’s darkly comedic vision delivers pacy drama, acidly accurate social commentary and dyspeptic belly laughs in equal measure. Bring it on.

But regardless of the show, this trailer itself is worth a look (and has won acclaim in Campaign and elsewhere). It’s a brilliant transition in a minute or so from glossy, hip contemporary surface to disturbing underbelly in a few wonderfully shot images, to a cool voiceover that sounds increasingly weirdly detached as the images darken. Perfect. I love it when veneers get slashed away – underneath is always where the action is.

Empathy, Outrospection (and Qual): an RSA Animate

Here’s an RSA Animate talk (see for more) from last year on the importance of empathy. As Krznaric sees it, more widespread practice at empathy – particularly cognitive empathy, where you fully step into another person’s shoes and see things as they see them – could revolutionise how we think about our lives and change the decisions we take. He cites the abolition of slavery as an advance that happened as a result of people first being curious about, then exploring the perspective of the slave. Over decades, the power of this insight came to erode the many barriers to doing anything about it.

Qualitative research is not about to abolish suffering in the world, but it is basically a bespoke empathy service. It helps those commissioning research get into the shoes of the people they need to understand, whether it is citizens, shoppers, audiences or whatever. The best qual research brings to life people that had previously just been numbers on a page.

However, qualitative researchers cannot “deliver” empathy by simply “showing people” to our clients. The key is about getting inside their heads, so that the qual researcher can see things as they do and explain their perspectives to others. Observing people is one thing we do to help us get that perspective – but it is not an end in itself. Beware the client who feels she has ‘got’ her audience by watching the discussion groups or even poring over ethnography footage. It is the deeper explanation of what is going on that really matters – the sifting and sense-making, the joining of the dots, remembering that a lot of the most important dots are not immediately visible. That takes deep analysis followed by clear exposition from an empathic qual researcher.

Coincidentally, Krznaric cites George Orwell‘s Down And Out In Paris And London as an “empathy adventure” – see my post from earlier this week on that topic: Tips From An Even Better Writer Than Joey Barton. Little known to the outside world, we qualitative researchers go on mini empathy adventures every week. I can recommend it.

Tips from an even better writer than Joey Barton

If you're thinking of a summer job washing dishes in the City of Lights, this'll put you off
If you’re thinking of a summer job as a plongeur in the City of Lights, this’ll put you off

Start The Week on Radio 4 this morning is about political writing, using George Orwell‘s essay Politics and the English Language as a launchpad: Orwell came up with six practical rules to help people avoid bad writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Orwell’s sixth rule means that the writer should break the previous rules when necessary for a proper sentence (Source: Wikipedia). I’d read these as a teenager but as readers of this blog will be aware, exiled them to the Siberia of my mind some time ago. Or is that too flowery?

Of course former QPR star Joey Barton is the true inheritor of Orwell's mantle
Of course former QPR star Joey Barton is the true inheritor of Orwell’s mantle.

I actually studied George Orwell for a university entrance exam. An Orwell aficionado teacher at school, Mr. Rankin, coached me with a few one-on-one tutorials, for which I had to write an essay. Mr. Rankin took Orwell’s rules for writing seriously – and I sensed, after reading my first essay, saw me as an offence to the art of wordsmithery (which isn’t even a word). “Ugly, trite phrases” is one comment he scrawled on my first essay. I was hoping he was referring to Orwell. He wasn’t. But there was a power in that construction “ugly, trite phrases”, that has made it lodge in my mind for the last 25 years. Worthy of Orwell himself.

A place where demographics are politics

Derry's walls
Derry’s walls. No, not Derry out of EMF. Whatever happened to him I wonder? (Photo credit: horslips5)

Expect plenty about N. Ireland identity issues in 2013, as Derry/Londonderry is the new UK City of Culture this year. William Crawley from my neck of the woods has made an interesting programme for Radio 4 on the rise of a specifically Northern Irish identity (vs solely British or solely Irish) in the 2011 census. Northern Ireland: Who Are We Now? Radio 4, William Crawley. The census and recent Life and Times surveys have thrown up this interesting group, mainly among younger people, who have bound themselves into Northern Ireland as a place and who come equally from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. (The census also suggests that while the traditional ‘blocks’ are shrinking, they still dominate the landscape – so be wary of wishing them away.) But this new non-aligned block may now be seen to hold the balance of power.

Northern Ireland’s Life and Times Survey, 2010 – how NI people see the region’s future. NI’s long term future is still overwhelmingly seen by its inhabitants as being in the UK. It seems the rise of SF voting within the Catholic community is about asserting community rights, not a growth in support for secession from the UK. Jeremy Hardy, take note ...

The good, stabilising news is that this non-aligned Northern Irish cohort seems to want to move on based on the constitutional status quo, founded on the Good Friday Agreement settlement of 1998. They accept Northern Ireland as a political reality and are comfortable with it. Peaceful life in Northern Ireland depends on Irish unity being both theoretically possible (to keep Irish Nationalists happy) and highly improbable (to reassure British Unionists Armageddon is not at hand) – which I suppose I would say as a N. Ireland Brit myself, but it’s true anyway. The rise of the new Northern Irish – and the 2011 census’s comfortably low figure for those feeling only the non-British version of Irish identity (26 per cent) – seems to keep that state of affairs for the foreseeable future. So this particular UK border (our only land border, remember) may now depend as much on the passivity of the apolitical of both communities as on the strength of political British unionism. Worth noting too though that it is the “non-aligned” nature of this kind of Northern Irish person that is new, not the Northern Irish identity itself. The latter has existed for decades, but is more usually held in tandem with one of the two over-arching national identities (British for most, Irish for some) as a strong regional component.

The new figures now set the background within which the coming ethnic politics of Northern Ireland will be played out. The Troubles of 1969-1998 and most other things about the place can’t really be understood without reference to local geo-demographics. This context is frequently left out of the news reports purporting to explain events to people outside the province. I have little surprise so many people are baffled by what they hear and conclude that the place is inhabited by irrational dunderheads. There are some, but the situation is usually not quite so nonsensical as it seems.

Belfast: an ethnically divided city. Mainly Protestant/British areas are in red and pink, mainly Catholic/Irish areas are in green. Mixed areas are in yellow. Much of the red Protestant/British block on the right (East Belfast) is technically outside ‘Belfast City Council‘ area, leaving the Belfast City Council chamber finely balanced between the communities, despite Greater Belfast being predominantly Protestant/Unionist/British.  (Photo credit: flippinyank)

An aside … The recent fuss over flags at Belfast City Hall is largely because the council decision broke the unspoken understanding that big, sensitive decisions like this are only made these days with the consent of both blocks. I’m personally a supporter of the (cross-community) Alliance party but I think they made a big mistake on this one in voting for such a controversial change without cross-community consensus. The other unmentioned factor in much of the reporting is the dual significance of Belfast City Hall as a building. If it were just the building for the council of the city, that would be one thing; but it’s more complicated than that: (1) the ‘Belfast’ city council area does not cover the whole city or anywhere near it, due to the creation in former decades of other councils which cover parts of the city, particularly Castlereagh, in which much of East Belfast falls. There are many Belfast people outside the rather odd boundaries of the Belfast city council area – and they regard the City Hall as the centre of their city; (2) then there are  people from the outlying suburbs of Belfast – the wider ‘Belfast metropolitan area’ – who are also part of the Belfast world and also regard the City Hall as the iconic centre of their city, even if they also have some detachment too. Both of these uncounted populations have strong Protestant / British / unionist majorities.

To many Protestants, who don’t pay attention to the minutiae of council boundaries, it has come as a profound shock that this could happen to the union flag in what they still see (not actually inaccurately) as a city most of whose inhabitants feel proudly British. It’s also a city that withstood multiple bombings by Nazi Germany in 40s and Irish Republicanism in the 70s, 80s and 90s, in no small part to keep the union flag flying over it. The council decision has to be understood in this light.

The limiting of the flag flying is not in itself a bad idea but unfortunately, like welfare reform in Westminster, it is pushed by people whose motives make you question the whole policy (here, the virulently [and formerly violently] anti-British Sinn Fein – honest brokers they ain’t – unless we’re talking broken legs in back alleys). Aside – and rant – over. 

But Northern Ireland also feels like a markedly different place in 2013 from the place I grew up in – and one big reason is the demographic shift. I grew up in a Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s which was broadly two-thirds Protestant/British to one third Catholic/Irish. What has happened since is a subtle shift of numbers but which has had a radical effect on the relative balance between the communities. For two decades now it has been nearer parity than domination by one side. The change in politics with the Good Friday Agreement reflected that shift, effectively recognising the fairly even ethnic balance and requiring big decisions to be made on a cross-community basis.

Ideally, Northern Ireland would have been governed that way ab initio, but that degree of experimental inclusiveness was probably too much to expect when the region first got its local parliament in the 1920s, when ‘majority rule’ a la Westminster seemed in theory like a reasonable way of proceeding. The problem was, the political parties in Northern Ireland being tied to ethnic blocks, it left Catholics in a permanent minority, which could only have been changed by one or both communities abandoning the traditional ethnic block voting patterns. Despite the brief hopes raised by the rise of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, this was never likely to happen due to the cultural attachments and mutual distrust of the two communities. The Good Friday settlement has the virtue of recognising that the ethnic blocks are the main feature of Northern Irish political life and making sure that big decisions needs the consent of both blocks. Both sides now have a veto. It can be frustrating but there is no other way.

Distribution of majority Protestant (orange) and majority Catholic areas in Northern Ireland, 2001.

But the relative demographic strengths of the two communities really are at the heart of everything in NI, even if many of us in our more earnestly high-minded moments prefer to close our eyes to the brute reality of it. For example, though we will never know, it’s highly likely that the (Catholic) IRA wound down its terror campaign when it did, in the mid 1990s, partly because its leadership anticipated that demographic change would bring a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland within 10-20 years. There was a big leap in the Catholic percentage of the NI population between 1981 and 1991, from the mid 30s to 41.5 per cent. It all looked inevitable and Protestant doom-mongers joined some of the more optimistic Irish nationalists to proclaim so. The date of 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising – then distant enough to give time for change to happen and near enough to feel within reach – was the year circled in Irish Republican diaries as the one by which they expected ‘their people’ to be in a majority. But 2001 brought a nasty shock for them. While growing, the Catholic percentage was not growing at the rate predicted – it had only grown to 43.8 per cent. But by the time the census data came through, the Republican Movement had long been locked into the Good Friday Agreement. 9/11 had also happened and changed the attitudes of rich backers in the US towards terrorism. There was no prospect of a return to violence in that climate. A miscalculation by them perhaps but a very happy outcome for everyone else.

It seems the Irish Catholic percentage has actually flat-lined over about 20 years now at about 42-43 per cent. The recent figures suggest actual decline in numbers. Because, while the total Catholic figure is now 45 per cent, it’s estimated around 2 per cent of this is from non-Irish recent arrivals from Eastern Europe, leaving the ‘Irish Catholic’ figure at around 43 per cent, lower than in 2001 and not much more than 1991. It remains to be seen how many of this overseas-born Catholic section of the population will stay longer term; and of these, whether more will adopt the “united Ireland” aspiration shared by most Ulster-born Catholics or favour more things staying with the current settlement (cross-community power-sharing inside the UK).

Irish Republicans still point to school roll numbers as showing the future: Catholic majorities now across all ages of school and indeed university students. This does suggest a Catholic majority one day. But that will take a long time to play out in the population overall and the extent it does depends too on emigration rates. Nothing is assured.

The percentage of Protestants has reduced from over 60 per cent when I was a lad in the 1970s and 1980s to now 48 per cent. And that is a shock to the Protestant system – even mine (and I don’t even live there any more). But if we’re going to remain as two cultures with different identities, I suspect settling into parity can only be good for stability. As long as we remember to make all big, contentious decisions on a cross-community basis.

Related articles

Scrimping on incentives and other false economies

TED 2010- Michael Sandel
TED 2010- Michael Sandel (Photo credit: redmaxwell)

Reading Michael Sandel‘s What Money Can’t Buy – subtitled The Moral Limits of Markets –  has made me reflect on researchers‘ attitudes to the ‘incentives‘, as we call them in the UK, that we pay to research participants. At the risk of now being bombarded by offers of participation in my projects from the entire sentient population, I’m one who believes in paying more rather than less to participants. Sandel’s book shows the folly of looking too much to the monetary incentive as a motivator – as it can backfire. But it also suggests that when you are in the world where monetary reward is expected, paying well gets better outputs. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys, as the old saying goes.

DVD of 1st series
“17 minutes late: signalling problem at Tel Aviv.”  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sandel is interested in how monetising certain activities can actually change our attitudes towards them. One fascinating example he cites is of the Israeli day care centre that wanted to stop parents turning up late to collect their kids. It introduced a system of fines for late pick-ups, expecting parents would get their acts together in the face of losing money over it, not to mention the embarrassment of being fined. But guess what, it had the opposite effect: late pick-ups actually increased. Parents started to see the fine as a price they could pay to collect their kids late and so it became just another transaction. The fine suggested to errant parents that the day care centre was covering its costs in this matter and that the staff expected to have to stay open late for tardy parents – and so those parents felt less guilty and carried on or even increased their lateness. (On another behavioural economics point, the day care centre was also indicating to late parents that turning up late, while undesirable, must be fairly common – thus unwittingly giving parents a ‘social norming‘ reason to persist in this behaviour.)

Why incentives don't work in education—or the ...
Incentives don’t always work (Photo credit: opensourceway)

But it was another of Sandel’s examples of the change wrought by introducing a monetary element into a relationship that made me think of qualitative research incentives. A 2000 study by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini showed that poor incentives lead to less commitment to a task than good incentives, as you might expect (but also that, where the task is one people could be persuaded to do out of the goodness of their hearts, giving no monetary incentive works best of all.) Gneezy and Rustichini took three groups of Israeli secondary school pupils who were to collect charity donations door to door and put them in competition to see which group collected the most. Group 1 was given a motivational speech but no monetary incentive; group 2 was told it would receive a 1% bonus of whatever it raised (from a different pot); and Group 3 was offered 10%. Group 1 did best by some margin, then Group 3, then Group 2.

In the commercial and even public sector research worlds, we rarely have tasks we can ask people to do for free and expect them to be motivated to do it, with the exception of a limited amount of research among supporters of political causes or voluntary groups. But the example also showed that if you’re paying people, paying them a bit more does indeed get more out of them than paying badly. Those paid a little were much less motivated than people paid nothing at all.

As Richard Gush of Sundance said in the latest In Brief (the AQR’s regular publication), where he had the experience of being a discussion group participant during a training course, we do ask a lot of our participants these days: humouring our sometimes bizarrely angled questioning and giving up a good four hours of their day. Don’t get me wrong, most agencies pay appropriate incentives most of the time, but I do sometimes come across projects where incentives have been stripped down to the minimum necessary to get people into the room. It puts the whole project – involving a much bigger investment – at unnecessary risk. It also creates hidden costs – the extra effort recruiters have to put in but can’t charge for, the extra time and thought the researcher has to put into managing the recruitment as a result, but also can’t charge for (because inevitably, the budget on these projects is tight).

Without money
I tried saying this to a supplier but she threatened to sue (Photo credit: Toban B.)

Of course it would be silly and irresponsible to pay out more than is necessary. But when calculating what is necessary, the question to ask is not, “What’s the minimum that will get eight people to show up on time?”, but “What’s the minimum to get them to show up on time and feel relaxed and positive about their involvement?” (and therefore generate richer qual data). Of course the money we pay is only part of creating that mood – the recruiter’s and moderator’s ability to make people feel part of something interesting and valuable is crucial – but scrimping on the incentives jeopardises the quality of the inputs and therefore outputs of a qualitative research project.

D. Cam’s Big Society idea is built, in a way, upon the same insight Sandel has made. It is about people doing activities more productively (and of course more cheaply) when they do them on a voluntary basis than when they are paid to do them. There is a lot of sense in trying to encourage and grow those useful activities which people do for each other voluntarily. The problem is though in relying on these to get services delivered which should really be done by properly paid and trained professionals. This is why there has been so much cynicism about the Big Society: it risks leaving some public services to the vicissitudes and inevitable patchiness of spontaneous public spirited activity. Volunteers are often very motivated, but relying on volunteers – as one major charity client I have worked with has attested – places big limits on what you can do organisationally. Because their labour is voluntary, it inhibits managers from asking them to do new or difficult things. It’s great to make use of the grass roots energy; but directing it towards efficient ends becomes a big challenge.

Sandel’s main thrust is against marketising areas of public life where social and ethical concerns should prevail – like organ donation, migration policy, controlling carbon emissions – because ‘market norms’ then crowd out social and ethical ones and encourage people in behaviours that are ultimately highly damaging. His point about incentives is really that introducing money into a relationship where it is not needed can be counter-productive. But where you are in an area where payment is needed to make the activity happen as you want it, then pay properly. The living wage campaign is gathering momentum just now in the UK – “Observer 20th Jan, 2013: Living Wage Zones”. There is some interesting counter-austerity thinking going on now that suggests tackling low pay in this way could have big benefits for both reviving the economy and reducing the benefits bill (because government effectively ends up paying out in benefits to working people because their employers have slipped into paying lower and lower salaries in real terms). Labour and the Lib Dems are both very interested and it will be interesting to see if the Conservatives adopt it too. A lot of bigger businesses are already signed up including, tellingly, most of the big accountancy firms like KPMG and Deloitte (one assumes they’ve done the numbers) and the ‘Magic Circle’ law firms, including my former employer Slaughter and May: Living Wage: List of Accredited Employers. And if the living wage argument convinces them, there really is hope for it (no bitter irony intended …)

Culture on Radio 4; Kulturkampf in Ulster

Melvyn Bragg on the Value of Culture

PM and Melvyn Bragg at Open University reception
Melvyn Bragg interviewing the wrong person (Photo credit: Downing Street)

Happy New Year! Caught some of this Melvyn Bragg series yesterday (link above for those in the UK) and today while dragging myself up from hibernatory winter sleep, exploring the history of debates over the last century and a half about ‘culture‘ – what the word means and what value culture has. Five part series. I’ve only heard snatches of today’s (1st January, 2013) but it includes a discussion of the anthropological perspective on culture.

2nd January one is on “the two cultures” – the science vs arts/humanities divide – with discussion of C.P. Snow, F.R. Leavis and so on. Interesting factoid: in 1959 when Snow talked of science as the poor relation of the two, there were twice as many science undergraduates as arts and humanities ones in the UK; and the government was investing massively in military and civil science projects. Though I suspect his basic point was right and remains true today – these two intellectual traditions to do not communicate easily and there is mutual suspicion. Sir Paul Nurse provides the modern scientist’s perspective: he was intimidated as a working class boy by the prevailing dominance within education system of an arts culture that seemed to belong to a distant elite.

Back to the 1st Jan episode, one anthropologist criticises the popular habit of seeking to understand individuals through the prism of the ‘culture’ they come from. He feels we underestimate individuals’ abilities to think freely and escape the values they have grown up with. As he sees it, ‘culture’ has become another way, after the discrediting of racial categorisation in the 20th Century, for us to lump groups of people together into blocks in a simplistic way. It encourages a convenient but dehumanising habit of pigeonholing.

Sign in County Down with Irish and Ulster Scot...
Sign in County Down with Irish and Ulster Scots text (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I see his point but from a Northern Irish perspective, I’ve come to understand what happens when you don’t bear in mind the different cultural backgrounds of the people you’re listening to. You can only really understand political arguments by delving a little into the cultural norms underpinning those arguments – which in N. Ireland differ markedly between the two communities (broadly, the Protestant/British community and the Catholic/Irish one). Politics academic Arthur Aughey has written of an Irish nationalist Kulturkampf (cultural struggle) against what some of them would see as the thinner cultural heritage of Ulster Protestants; and it cuts both ways. It may be unfortunate, but in Northern Ireland, knowing who is making an argument greatly informs understanding of what they are really getting at. Each side is wise to the other’s agenda and indeed the cultural values that lead the other side to a different conclusion than its own.

An Ulster fry, served in Belfast, Northern Ire...
An Ulster fry: one of the things that brings the two communities together (in the Royal Victoria Hospital for heart by-pass surgery) (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Whether consciously or not, arguments about relative rights, justice and fairness coming from the two communities cannot be understood without thinking about their different cultural norms around authority, violence, sacrifice and individual responsibility, as well as the differences in ethnic and national identities between the two peoples. There is no getting around this – for example, if a hardliner on one side comes up with a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign to win over people on the other side, it is reasonable to wonder whether he/she has really changed or is just putting the same old demands in more flowery language.

Sadly, the cynics have usually been right. The danger in this though is that it then becomes hard for those like Alliance who want to leave ‘identity politics’ behind and get on with real politics. They have to satisfy people first as to where they stand on the Kulturkampf before they can get a hearing on anything else.

A Reading List For The Man Who Has Everything But Has A Grating Feeling He Doesn’t

So, at the risk of being embarrassing by trumpeting it myself, it’s my birthday today. No, thank you, really, the pleasure is all mine, you shouldn’t have, etc etc. I’m 43, a father of two school-age kids and run my own business, but my Mum seems to think I’m still 10: she sent me a very sweet card featuring a cartoon footballer child lifting a piece of minor silverware atop a podium.

This is the way forward, surely (Photo credit: Andy Polaine)

Of my presents, I’m hoping four publications I’ve received will give my brain a good Shake ‘n’ Vac (and put the freshness back):


  • Michael SandelWhat Money Can’t Buy. Subtitled, The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel is Professor of Government at Harvard and you may have heard or seen him on the BBC this year bringing a cool, moral philosophical approach to the issues facing  society, business and politics.
    Sandels Beer
    Well I put the wrong things in the wrong bin again … (Photo credit: Ari Helminen)

    His thrust is that we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society (he writes about the US where this is more advanced than in Britain, but it’s a point about Western economies generally).

    He simply asks us to pause and think through which areas of life we can usefully use markets in and which it could be damaging to do so.

  • Michael Michalko – Thinkertoys. Ignore the blurb aimed at morons, promising to ‘help you think like a genius’, the book is a resource full of techniques and ideas for challenging your thinking, getting other people thinking and fired up.
    Twentieth Century Limited
    Modern life isn’t rubbish (Photo credit: Marxchivist)

    Thanks to the ICG email forum for alerting me to this one.
    I’m planning to draw on it to spice up creative groups and workshops. Not literally draw all over the book, I mean take the ideas from it. Though, hey, there’s an idea …

  • Tony Judt with Timothy SnyderThinking the Twentieth Century. This promises to ‘unite the conflicted intellectual history of an epoch into a soaring narrative.’ I’m a keen reader of history, despite or perhaps because of being married to a historian.
    English: Timothy Snyder, historian
    Judt’s collaborator, Timothy Snyder, historian. “Cheer up, mate, it may never ‘appen” (slaps thigh in chirpy Cockerney manner) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    The late Tony Judt’s book has had amazing reviews and its appeal to me is that, like Sandel’s book, it promises not to shy away from examining the fundamentals of how human societies work: questions of what is a good life and what kind of things can help as many of us as possible us live life in a ‘mindful’, happy and satisfying way. With a bit (or rather a lot) of evidence, detailed argument and intellectual oomph.

  • A subscription to The Wire magazine. My pop music references are getting a bit Daddish, to be honest.
    One of the founders of Turkish pop music, Erol...

    My obsession with Half Man Half Biscuit over the past couple of years has sucked the life out of the rest of my music collection. And my old skool hiphop has been put into Special Measures, after I became obsessed with two tracks to the exclusion of all else for about a decade: Wu Tang: 7th Chamber (15 years old now) and NWA’s Parental Discretion Iz Advised (celebrating its silver jubilee next year). A few months ago I sacked my old self as A&R, after a string of semi-whelming experiments with new music. I appointed in my place a fresh broom by the name of Simon Riley to rise above the deluge of landfill indie that has blighted the musical landscape and find the next Stereolab, Bowie, The Fall, Arctic Monkeys, Can or PJ Harvey. The Wire can be my mid-life crisis magazine, for a man who will never afford a red Ferrari.

But the most useful present award goes to the Thinsulate woolly hat. I’m a balding man and it’s Baltic out there. (It’s a sign of my middle age that I now cling to the descriptor ‘balding’ as a trophy, as pretty soon I’m going to have to give up the ‘-ing’.)


Kahneman in conversation with Evan Davies and Prof Paul Dolan

Kahneman discusses Thinking Fast And Slow at LSE with Evan Davies and Paul Dolan

For those interested in psychology and behavioural economics, here is a quick link via Prof Paul Dolan’s site to an hour’s discussion between Evan Davies, Dolan and Kahneman about Thinking Fast and Slow, which took place a while back when the book came out in paperback. I’ll save comment for when I’ve finished reading it!

Kahneman is the Nobel laureate who did more than anyone (apart from his late collaborator Amos Tversky) to spark the contemporary interest in the human, non-rational aspects of decision-making, blowing away the myth that we are somehow ‘rational actors’ when it comes to making choices – a myth upon which a lot of traditional economics (and, more germanely to me, consumer business practice and government communications) has been based.

How We Took Control Over Our Stiff Upper Lips

Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain

I never tire of watching Peter Cook‘s WW2 officer announcing to valiant subordinate Jonathan Miller in Beyond The Fringe:

Perkins, I want you to lay down your life. We need a futile gesture at this stage …

Peter Cook – bona fide comic genius

Miller as Perkins accepts his fate with equanimity. The sketch featured again in the last part of Ian Hislop’s recent BBC series on the emotional culture of Britain over the past couple of centuries, Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip (iPlayer link above for those in the UK). Beyond The Fringe was part of an early 60s sea change: the skewering of some of the silliness and stuffiness of the ruling class and the WW2 generation by their grown-up children.

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...
As Morrissey once put it, “I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a mark of how conservative things had been until then (1962) that even Alan Bennett’s clergyman saying “stuff this for a lark” was considered devlishly risqué and elicited gales of laughter from a thrilled audience. But tame though it now seems, the genie of irreverence was out, along with rock ‘n’roll, fashion and youth culture – 1962 saw the emergence of Beatlemania too – and it started to change the assumptions of many Britons about when and how to show our emotions in public. Hislop’s tour of what happened to the old “stiff upper lip” in all this was an interesting excursion and well measured on the whole. But of course I have my penny’orth to add.

  1. He underplayed the class-specific nature of the “stiff upper lip” culture – that it was associated with the cultures of the middle and upper classes, in an era of deference when their values dominated public life and discourse, much more so than in our (supposedly) more democratic, less hierarchical times. It’s arguable whether “stiff upper lip” ever meant a lot in working class culture. That said, it does seem that the classes shared a belief that suppressing emotions and maintaining a public face (whether calm, hard, cheerful or whatever) was what you did. So the bulk of the population may well have emoted publicly with ease in the first part of the 20th Century; but Hislop is right to suggest there was a common bond of belief in Stoic forbearance that they all signed up to.
  2. What I think Hislop’s programme also glided past was that the “Death of Deference” that started gathering strength in the 60s (but took 20-30 years to mature) coincided with a falling away of religious faith for many. Of course the two may well be linked. But coming together, the effect was to deeply undermine not only the stiff upper lip but a whole raft of assumptions about how life was to be lived. People started to feel life was for living now, not in the next life. And this was a profound shift.It meant people increasingly wanted to have things now, not wait to have them later – and the credit sector boomed to meet this need and fuel it further. We are living now in the “have it now” culture that resulted. I would argue that we are now, since the economic crash of 2008-9, going through another shift, as we realise some aspects of this have got out of hand. There is a shift away from materialism, or rather there is the development of an anti-materialism that co-exists with a highly sophisticated consumer culture (the latter is not about to go away). The Olympics also showed how much British people want to reconnect with traditional virtues of determination, endeavour,  grit – and yes, being good at things again.
    Strange phrase for an atheist to use, as surely He would have to be alive first? But you get the point

    So there is a kind of stripping down process going on, where we are rejecting some of the chaff that accummulated (shaving fat off bankers, shopping at cheaper stores we would never have considered 5 years ago, paying back our credit cards, showing restraint in our spending). But we’re not dismantling our complex consumer society, it’s more of a subtle adjusting and refocussing. And like the Death of Deference, it will probably take 20-30 years to play out.

  3. It takes stiff upper lip to be a British indie star. Here the Arctic Monkeys return triumphant from victory at the Siege of Mafeking (wasn’t that W Churchill – wrong pic? – Ed)

    As Hislop describes, the traditional stiff upper lip has retreated. But I think the stiff upper lip culture really split into factions: a reduced rump of it stayed as was, mainly among conservative types in the upper middle class; but there was also a chunk of it that got hip. It followed the 60s cultural rebels underground and morphed into the icy exclusivity of British art-rock “cool”. It’s still more or less unique to this country to revere a music elite who display above all their emotional distance. There is a sense in which Bowie, the Jesus and Mary Chain or Arctic Monkeys echo in their armour of cool the unflappable sailors of the WW2 story of sacrifice at sea, In Which We Serve. Both hold back of their emotional centres from public view, in favour of a steely attitude and a loathing of emotional gushing, even while communicating deeply emotional material. British bands do it best because it’s deep in our cultural DNA to be like this.

    Not the way to impress miserablist UK indie kids

    As a contrast, look at U2: a band never quite accepted by British indie culture even at its peak, despite its often admired musical achievements, because Bono just emoted too much and too obviously. They were too open, too nice to be cool; not enough was hidden. It wasn’t their being Irish by the way – My Bloody Valentine were exemplars of cool.  (But, as an aside, perhaps Irish culture does struggle on this front generally – is there just too much bonhomie and joie de vivre to be got over?) There’s a selectivity, unfriendliness, elitism and secretiveness to British cool that throws many outsiders. It is pretty unappealing on the whole at a human level, but it does seem to help the music – which is hugely important to me, so long may it last. I don’t want to be their friend, I just want the music.

    4. Hislop points out how the stiff upper lip today re-emerges at times of national crisis, citing 7/7 and the 2011 riots. Well 7/7 is right anyway – but I’m not too sure the reaction to the 2011 riots was so calm. I think a lot of people bolted their doors and hid under the kitchen table, like Neil The Hippy in that episode of The Young Ones with the nuclear bomb. But Hislop has a point, “Keep Calm and Carry On” does resonate in our culture, if only because we can’t be bothered changing much. It helps that we’re happy as a nation to muddle through and make do with “good enough”. As Billy Bragg sang, I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, and the same applies to the rest of the UK. We really just want to trudge on, letting things bounce off our thick skins like a rhino trotting through some light vegetation.

    A scene in the subduing of the terrorists. It was this kind of plodding normality that did for them (though the police and army did help quite a lot too).

    In my home province of Northern Ireland, I grew up in the 30 year crisis of the Troubles and many of us believe this attitude was really our big secret weapon against the IRA during that time. Yes there was much violent reaction too, but what really typified the response was that most of us just adjusted, got on with life and worked around the inconvenience of these people trying to bring the Province to its knees. It didn’t make the headlines but it was the worst nightmare for those with a Killing Rage: being ignored. It was probably the greatest (though largely unrecognised) triumph for stiff upper lip since WW2. [Parenting tip: try this too with tantrum-ing under 5s, it works a treat. They get louder and wilder for a bit, but then stop of their own accord.]

    But I think the stiff upper lip survives today in quite a different way: I think it has been professionalised. It’s become a lifestyle choice. It’s fostered by some of our professional cultures, so that it thrives in these pockets today – but in a more limited sphere than in its all-emcompassing past. The Army is the prime example, but look also at law, medicine, the other professions and some elite sport. “Stiff upper lip” isn’t the right phrase any more, but it’s the same thing in effect: it’s about being tough, resilient, getting on with things and not showing your weakness or self doubt to others; putting on your “game face”.

This guy’s printed out four of his “game faces” to show us. The thing, he looks like a tw*t in every one of them.
          But what’s different now is that it co-exists with the very different cultural norms that now prevail around our home lives. As Hislop notes, therapy and psychology started to show in the 60s and 70s that being too buttoned-up all the time was actually bad for your mental health, and bad for society. I sense Hislop doesn’t agree, but he misses something here. The two can co-exist – and this is what is happening now for many of us. We increasingly realise we are multi-faceted and that we can turn up and turn down the volume on different parts of ourselves to meet the needs of the circumstances.
          Take attitudes to fathering these days. There is less, for example, of the coming home from work and collapsing into an armchair to harumph over the letters page of the newspaper or going straight to the pub with workmates. Modern British fathers tend to go into dad mode, husband mode and several others once they walk in the door; previous generations of fathers’ practice of staying aloof and uninvolved at home is increasingly rare and unwelcome.
        What we’ve come to is a realisation that the stiff upper lip is a tool in our repertoire – to be used when we need it, but not a code to apply to every corner of your life.
      I think Ian Hislop prefers the stiff upper lip, but he perhaps doesn’t realise he can have his stiff upper lip cake and eat it. You just don’t have to adopt it as an approach for all circumstances. Everything in moderation. Now there’s nothing more British than that.
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