Wednesday, 1 May 2013

"Night Mail" ; documentary ; privatisation ; Thatcher

"Night Mail" was a public information film made in 1936 by the GPO film unit (General Post Office) and directed by scotsman John Grierson. Eighty years ago.

You can see it on YouTube.

Wikipedia says that Grierson coined the term "documentary" in a film review of 1926.

This sort of film was still being made and shown when I was at school in the late 1970s and 1980s, as introductory to kinds of work and career that could be entered on leaving school or university.

I'm writing and even coming to mind is the TV advert (for what?) that appeared in early Thatcher years depicting a man climbing into his range rover, declaring to his wife that he and his partner are going into business. It wasn't a Range Rover advert though, was it? It was around the time that the first of the big privatisations were happening, BT or British Gas.

The presentation of the world of work that these films conveyed was deeply influenced by the documentary public information film. I imagine participants (employers, workers) more-or-less self-directing in front of the camera with these very films of the 1930s in mind. Oxbridge accents, saturated in an atmosphere of progress, all for the greater good. Or was it my feeling found in them? British steel had not become Corus. I don;t remember feeling the pressure of brands coming through the films. They were more like descriptions of what went on in this or that industry.

Something in me wanted to see industry and people at work all participating in a whole. And I believed that there was such a whole. I believed the responsibility born by the industry process manager was not merely for the industry process but for the idea of a community. More than this, the industry process manager seemed to me then to be a kind of guardian. I'm aware of how close this comes to the heroic image of a worker in socialist states (tghis was before the wall came down in 1989).

That these feelings and ideas were very strong in me was perhaps not unusual. What could have caused Mrs Thatcher to feel the need to declare that "There is no such thing as society" if not the use of the idea of "society" in argument against moves towards privatisation.

I was struck by statements made by Shirley Williams (on "This Week", BBC TV, 11th April 2013, soon after Mrs Thatcher's death) that Mrs Thatcher regarded many or most politicians (mostly men of course) as simply playing a game, being in a club, which is precisely how many people would describe the world of work. Mrs Thatcher was, according to Williams, committed to a programme of radical political and social change because she felt that the situation facing the UK was so "grave". No-one on that politics punditry programme seemed to want to disagree that the situation was indeed grave, neither Williams nor W Self, A Campbell, nor M Portillo.
Everybody on that panel knew that the changes Thatcher brought about destroyed her own political tradition: there is no Tory-ism without some notion of an "order" of people in the world.

There was a contradiction between Thatcher's nationalism (the "greatness" of Great Britain, Falklands factor, etc.) and her declaration of the non-existence of society. This contradiction, and all the tensions surrounding it, were manifesting in my life in the early 2000s. The writing of cultural historian Patrick Wright was a great help to me then, in particular his "On Living In An Old Country" (first published in 1985, when I was fifteen years old).

The introduction to that book (in which Wright offers his theoretical underpinnings to the essays of contained in the book) was the first piece of writing through which I could connect existential life with social or political life. In it he describes his debt to a Hungarian philsopher called Agnes Heller, who was a pupil of Georg Lukacs. (These names were completely new to me when I read this text, as were virtually all the other political-philosophical references made). Since then I have read Lukacs' "History & Class Consciousness" (1923), perhaps the most difficult philosophical text I have ever attempted. (The question in my mind at that time, 2007-8, was why I was not a Marxist. I concluded I am not a Marxist).

The point is that a contradiction was present in Thatcher's, and the Conservative Party's, programme of the 1970s and 1980s and early 1990s. It surfaced in my life and mind, and I am sure in thousands and milions of others'.

I will come back to this.

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