Unmasking Dishonest ‘Big Society’ Logic: Alex Niven & Mark Olden Reviewed

Two new volumes published through Zer0 Books, Alex Niven's Folk Opposition and Mark Olden's Murder In Notting Hill, both push for greater understanding of politics at ground level, and provide examples of what can occur if this does not happen, writes Joe Kennedy

A former rock star, once infamous for his excessive behaviour, withdraws to the shires to get elbow-deep in curds and whey and proselytise about the virtues of locally-grown produce in the Tory press. On London’s market-stalls, twentysomething Arts graduates, the type who used to be found on CND marches, sell dainty cupcakes and home-loomed cardigans rather than copies of the Socialist Worker. The NME, for its part, celebrates well-bred hawkers of ersatz authenticity who cart around acoustic guitars and ukuleles as if they were medieval troubadours rather than private school alumni with a superficial interest in Nick Drake and Sandy Denny.

In the broadsheet supplements, the cultural drift towards the homespun and quaint is painted as a politely political riposte to the commercial homogenisation of Britain. Alex Niven’s Folk Opposition exposes this attitude as naïve, presenting the current fad for the pastoral, too often conceived of as a miraculous de-alienation of work, as an excuse for failing to attend to complex ideological issues. Green political causes provide a space in which the middle classes can be self-aggrandisingly ‘ethical’ without having to participate in the classical, class-based leftist struggles. Styling oneself as artisanal – as ‘folky’ – is a strategy for avoiding contact with the working classes, who are in any case letting the side down by being too poor to purchase ‘responsibly’. The time is ripe for a discussion of who, or what, is being referred to when the ‘folk’ are invoked. In Niven’s book, and in Mark Olden’s Murder in Notting Hill, another recent Zer0 publication, penetrative analysis of the possibilities and pitfalls of ‘folk’ and popular politics provokes a few urgent questions.

Folk Opposition probably started life as an exasperated sigh. Niven interprets "avowals of folksiness and green identity" as "part of a top-down inversion of the notion of an indigenous grassroots" in which the concerns and privations of the poorer strata of society are papered over with a Cath Kidston print. His writing riles energetically against the fanciful ConDem grand narrative, which assumes that the (apparently inexorably) worsening economic crisis can be weathered so long as we keep faith in Great British Values like, well, unremunerated volunteerism on heritage railways and eating bacon cut from that pig down the road that your children used to believe was Babe.

Young thinkers like Niven, many of whom find themselves at the sharp end of what passes for academic management in David Cameron’s kitschy arcadia, are faced with the challenge of articulating the consequences of this complacency. Beyond the self-blessing cant of the cheesemakers, stuff is starting to look grim. Youth unemployment has just passed the one million mark, the English Defence League and their atavistic fellow-travellers are capitalising on provincial disenfranchisement, and that’s before one mentions the fact that thousands of frustrated teenagers tried to raze the capital’s suburbs this summer. The point is made boldly: if popular discontent at stark material conditions is prevented from articulating itself thanks to a political class whose attitude is, essentially, to suggest the poor eat fairy cakes, there are less constructive ways in which it might be mobilised.

Folk Opposition opens with a recapitulation of the events of summer 2010, when Geordie bodybuilder Raoul Moat killed his ex-girlfriend’s new partner, shot and blinded a policeman, and went to ground in rural Northumberland. As the manhunt dragged on through early July, it emerged that a disturbingly well-subscribed Facebook group was celebrating him in terms that painted him as a Ned Kelly or Robin Hood (and even, in one startling case of wrong-headedness, a ‘British Mandela’). While many, understandably, condemned this, Niven argues that the phenomenon needed, and needs, to be understood as an outcome of the political abandonment of north-eastern England. In some quarters, the fact that Moat had killed an entirely innocent person and seriously injured two others mattered less than the ‘fact’ that, by refusing to hand himself in and continuing to issue threats to the police, he was sticking it to an increasingly haughty establishment.

If Moat allowed a minority in the underrepresented north a catharsis, Niven argues, then his case needs to be seen as symptomatic of neoliberalism’s sly construction of exclusion zones. He reads the middle-class appropriation of ‘folk’ against individuals and movements he perceives as being genuinely tapped in to communities silenced by two generations of covert economic warfare. It’s at this stage that some might be a bit sceptical: while, as a fellow north-easterner, I’m sympathetic to his claims that The Unthanks possess a legitimacy that Laura Marling or the Mumfords never will, the odds are that some will accuse him of launching a Campaign for Real Folk. He also provides an enthusiastic account of Northumbrian modernist poets Tom Pickard and Basil Bunting, and puts forward the activities of independent Newcastle United supporters groups as a good example of localist resistance to neoliberal arrogance. Occasionally, it seems as if Niven is trying to cram his personal aesthetic and sporting tastes into what looks like a coherent political narrative, but more often than not his claims are convincing.

Olden’s Murder in Notting Hill is a very different kind of book, but it serves on one level as a prehistory of the social problems Niven identifies in Folk Opposition. Telling the story of the murder of Antiguan immigrant Kelso Cochrane in 1959, and the subsequent failure of the police to prosecute anyone for the crime, the book serves as a powerful insight into a London still in the grips of post war austerity and the first intimations of institutionalised racism in the UK.

One of the most striking achievements of Olden’s work is to present an account of a precursor to the ‘folk opposition’ Niven celebrates. When the far-right, in the form of a politically re-enthused Oswald Mosley, attempted to take advantage of racial tensions in Notting Hill in the aftermath of Cochrane’s killing, they were trounced at the ballot boxes by a working-class community determined to resist the fascist manipulation of the poverty that existed in North Kensington in the late 1950s. While the authorities proved themselves either incapable or unwilling when tasked with solving the case, the right-wing narrative against racial integration in Britain was impossible was rejected by a local population generally disgusted by the murder. Meeting with Cochrane’s bereaved brother, still in search of closure over half a century later, Olden reconstructs the events of 1959 and locates who he feels to be the culprit; the finished article is a resourceful investigative undertaking which goes beyond true crime’s sensationalist remit to map the social and political resonances of what took place.

Both Murder in Notting Hill and Folk Opposition militate for a greater understanding of politics at ground level and succinctly provide examples of what might occur if this does not happen. Political responsibility, one concludes after reading the two texts side by side, cannot be compatible with nostalgic escapism, and to pretend that this might be the case is to shirk the necessity of appreciating the material causes of resentment. Big Society’s simulation of organic community runs to a dishonest logic, and its intellectually-bereft core needs to be revealed as part of an effort to show how folk politics can still be meaningful in the twenty-first century.

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