This is an article Neil composed originally as a piece for Ungagged. The podcast it is part of is this one (details and timings are on the website)
This also appears on his blog
Utopias we want to build are always, of course, something much better than what we are part of at present. And part of is the key. Not marching in time with. Not a cog. But an active participant. Alive. Human.
When I was a child, my utopia was Blackpool. We went there for our holidays for quite a few years in a row. I anticipated and spoke about Blackpool months in advance of going, like I did Christmas when I arrived home. Blackpool was a break from school, a break from the streets, a chance to do stuff with my English cousin. I loved the journey to get there, Larne, Stranraer, and a bone shaking drive in our VW beetle through Dumfriesshire and then a couple of nights in the lake district, the beach, the tower, the piers and the pleasure beach. The confusion of it all. The crowds, all out for good times. Families together, not trying to fit in a life around must do and routines.
All innocent, 1970’s pre-Thatcherite fun. A childhood utopia, something away from the mundane, for 10 days every year.
I was full of imagination. I made up worlds, written, drawn and with my mates on riverbanks, in fields, around the housing estates and at the top and bottom of trees, and hills, and wasteland. We were lucky, we lived on the edge of the countryside, within view of the magical world of Narnia – well, the place that inspired CS Lewis Narnia – the Mourne Mountains. And we visited Narnia and its coast – the county down coast – regularly. And I still do. A utopia of natural beauty.
And most of the people of Narnia and its surrounds are wonderful… but to borrow a phrase , wherever you go, hell is other people. Utopia is always ruined by others interacting within it in a way you feel you don’t- and some never seem to appreciate the utopia you see.
And then some upset the utopia, ever so slightly, with their want to exploit what draws people there. And you judge, so you are in that room Sartre created. You are part of the torture.
So, what is utopia? Is it just these personal places we yearn for? These places we can be happy?
As political beings, we are always searching for it. And as social beings, utopias are not solitary things, so I suggest, we can only really find utopia in our lifetimes, as somewhere we like to be with people we trust and want to be with.
Build any physical utopia, and it will be undermined and exploited by people with different reactions and interactions with your creation. A political utopia in my opinion, is not a bright summer day watching the ocean for the rest of our lives.
I started writing this piece with the video of They Don’t Know About Us, by Tracy Ullman in my mind.
Weird when I’m supposed to be talking about utopias. But the video is about the utopia that the character who Tracy plays is aiming for in her working class, 1970’s disco night out, teenaged world. It makes me cry every time I watch the bloody thing! Her utopia isn’t realised, only in her dream. I remember my aunt Jean loved the video – she and others in my family laughed in recognition of Tracy’s reality versus her dream. Working class people did these things – and still do. Because they live in their hope, or disappointment at the reality of our proto-utopia, and Tracy’s character ends up exactly where lots of people they knew, did. And still do. In the reality of walking down that supermarket aisle in your fluffy slippers, not caring about your appearance, your whole being about others, and feeling you are failing because of the system you live in isn’t anyone’s idea of utopia – and certainly does not support you.
Well, this world is utopia for a small percentage of people who control all its resources and political narratives. They don’t understand us. They don’t know about us.
Why that song? Why that video? Well, it sits well with four other songs I love that kind of explain my idea that the golden citadel we all think we are struggling for is a hard struggle against ourselves, and not just “them. “ At least those of us struggling with this capitalist rat race. Three songs enhanced by their videos, one not at all.
Three of the song videos are by the Manic Street Preachers. A band I put up there in my top ten. And a band I have never seen live because of the bloody awful capitalist ticket system we endure every time tickets are released…
The first one to watch, Show me wonder… The utopia of the dance, the young woman putting on her late seventies/ early eighties make up to go to the club and the young guy with his mates all going to the same place (a miners welfare somewhere in Wales), the whole atmosphere of the dance, which I remember really well, as it would have been part of the mix of the types of places I week ended in.
Live music, a hooley and a coort (what young people did at the end of the night with someone they had fallen deeply in love with during the dancing). That’s what was a successful night in those days, and I’m sure for many a teenager nowadays it isn’t THAT different. Different destinations and drugs, but largely the same night. The utopia of the weekend after a week’s graft. Increasingly in our world, the weekend is becoming a minorities luxury yet again.
And the working men’s club (not being sexist here – that’s what they were called!) as the centre of the community. It’s a joyous place, a joyous, beautifully executed video with a wonderful story.
The second video, Anthem for a lost cause then starts in the early eighties, with the beginning of the end of what was a sort of utopia for many of us. A world in which we marched together, we struck for a better world. We weekended together. We learned and loved together. There was equality in the UK like there had never been seen in the history of the country, ever. And we see Thatcher’s destruction beginning with the miners’ strike. We hear a woman’s voice say, “no one in this country is going to be starved back to work.” Defiant. Strong. And we watch as the woman in the story from the previous video finds her voice and stands and fights. I won’t spoil the story. That’s not the whole thing. Watch it.
And then we forgot. We had forgotten the pre-war conditions – and the equality we first found in death, destruction, and grief in World War One, that led to our welfare state and National Health Service-free and accessed easily by all.
And we were defeated. And the third Manics video, Rewind the Film, sung by Richards Hawley, shows the same miners welfare social club as it stands now, almost deserted. Tatty. Almost without hope. A place out of time in our increasingly gentrified town centres. A place for those who had dreams to still come together, amongst the decay of what Thatcher and her successors forced on us, though the weaknesses the Tories recognised. Through the cracks in our solidarity. And through their forgetting again that those with less than them are people too. The video shows a community, not without hope. But weak, old.
The forth song is one whose lyrics are remembered in Show Me Wonder, the first Manics video I asked you to watch. “Heaven is a place, were nothing ever happens…”
The Talking Heads song, “Heaven.”
A song that is designed and written to express that being trapped in a utopia can be hell. A song that recalls Sartres words in context. Hell is other people trapped in the same room you are. I really love that Talking Heads song. As a lover of dystopian fiction, books like, This perfect Day by Ira Levin, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, The Machine Stops by EM Forster, and of course, Huxley’s Brave New World, that song sums them all up.
We almost achieved an equality. But then came along punk, coinciding with the dissatisfaction theThatcherite media threw at us. We were young, and told we could be different. We didn’t have to be our boring parents. We yearned from a utopia away from working class sameness.
Rebellion from sameness.
A sameness, a golden age, we all as working class people, hark back to. A golden era we fondly remember, even through the propagandised the Winter of Discontent tries to stamp on. A discontent the working class mostly only felt as the aristocratic empire failed us.
A breakout from the room of the working class certainties. Away from the working mans clubs, away from the doing the same job your forefather did all their lives. And we the working class, loved punk. Punk became post punk and yuppies and dayglo and Blair and Cameron and now May and Boris and Brexit. Back then, our rebellion was sitting with Mohicans on St Pauls Cathedral steps, and squatting and dressing differently in our grandads long coats with lacquered hair with no other way to rebel until Thatcherism kicked in and kicked the working class out of our certainties…
Now my generations new, tory driven rebellion is fucking with their children and grandchildrens future. More bloody tories and brexit. Boris’s carefully constructed messy hair, I’m sure, harks back to the days we took hours to make our hair look different.
The present revisiting of the 1980’s is almost laughable. People pick out records of hope – most of which are made up of bland, meaningless lyrics, don dayglo and legwarmers and tell us “this is the eighties.”
The eighties for me was the busting of a kind of utopia. A place and time when jobs were jobs for life. When taxes meant that we had real affordable homes, decent reasonably priced communications, gas, electricity, travel etc and surpluses that went back into the creation of jobs, and better things. I worked in a factory on the eighties, and every few months, we saw more of our union power eroded, and our pay and conditions chipped away.
My eighties were the discordant post punk era. An era when people wrote, moaned and whined about the dystopian nature of every day being like Sunday, and Huxley was pushed aside and Orwell was waved in our face as Thatcher and her mob along with the left, told us that that is where our social democracy would lead to.
Our proto-Huxleyan state began to crack when some were told they were better than others, and looking around them they began to wonder why their taxes were paying for things for their neighbours, they didn’t yet or never would need.
They moved from the council estate after buying their council home and selling it for a big profit, and went on to vote tory in their misguided individualist, mortgaged, Pimms soaked, Lady Di hairstyle, big shoulder pad, Dynasty anger.
How to dismantle a welfare state. Convince the middle class they are being ripped off by helping those in need.
And we the young helped Thatcher dismantle what had taken 200 hundred years to create… a state in which working class and poor people experienced an equality never before or since seen on these islands. We huffed and puffed about bringing the state down.
And Thatcher loved us for it.
We created our Thatcherite indie music labels, most perversely anti-Thatcherite in the art they produced, but financially living in her handbag. But perhaps the music some of them left gives us cause for a pause to think over the philosophies the singing pseuds poured over to write their lyrics. And the working class fightback lyrics of others. And the increased beats per minute in the real indie scene in secret fields and hangars, not the AEIOU’s and D I S C O’s of the selling of plastic to people seeking their utopia in new designer lagers and nightclubs.
We railed against her, in our comedy – some of those who made their money on anti-thatch humour are now the supporters of the Eddie Izzard Blairite bunch who will chip away at the left that the labour party and British politics need so badly.
I could speak, ashamed, for hours about how the utopia, the golden citadel that the pre-1945 generations fought for was destroyed by my generation. I could speak for hours on how many who listen to this will deny they were part of it, but we were very much part of it whether we knew it or not.
But that’s for another time.
But lets say, Utopia was betrayed by the 1980’s before it was allowed to take shape properly. Not to say that in lots of respects, the proto-utopia social democratic UK was not hugely flawed-and beginning to fail just as equality was being reached. It was. In many ways – including the fact it was still reliant on the labours of the empire… the poverty of most of the rest of the world, a desperate world others were baring arms to try to destroy in Cuba, Angola, Bolivia and many other places.
And our destruction was reliant on the discovery of Scottish oil, now a commodity that like coal, will become much too expensive to take out of the ground.
So. What is utopia?
Well, as a reader of science fiction, dystopian nightmares and utopian dreams I have a few favourites, including those I listed before. I love Edward Bellamy’s 19th century book, Looking Backward. A book that spawned more socialist societies across the world than Marx ever did. A novel so hopeful that socialism was going to be a middle class utopia, it seems quaint nowadays. But a novel that predicted much that has happened, like the supermarket, the debit card, radio, and much more. If middle class lefties nowadays wrote a novel set in a utopian left-wing world a hundred years hence, I know it would be full of the horrors Bellamy described in his present day Boston, because the levels of poverty and homelessness, as always when Tories are in control, is shameful. The book would, like Bellamy‘s, be full of their middle-class presumptions of what utopia would be like and THEIR wants.
So, back to Tracy and Blackpool. Ullmans video has her dreaming of her utopia at the end of the video, a utopia that is based in her characters working class world, inside a small car with Paul McCartney. A dream far from her character’s reality.
I revisited Blackpool in recent years, and it is far from the 1970’s utopia of my childhood where we could be set free by our parents amongst the flashing lights and sounds of screams of laughter.
The reality of our new world, summed up by these videos and by way of these novelists don’t perhaps offer much hope.
Maybe. But they all have one thing in common. They all seek something better for more than the person in the video or book (with the exception of Tracy’s character, who is trapped, but still dreaming for her own Paul).
And my dream? My dream is that I live to see a time when we have a society not far from the imperfect, perfect society envisaged by Iain M Banks. A Culture exploring ourselves and the stars, in which we have individual care, and long productive interesting lives. And the ability to become Tamara Bunke, Tanya the spy, inserting ourselves into worlds yet to change, with the exciting danger that that brings.
Utopias should be exciting.
And Utopians should never forget.
Our utopia shouldn’t let us forget that we are all equal and we should all be looking out for each other, or they’ll still be building statues to Thatcher while people freeze to death on our streets and children starve.