Good enough is not enough for Britain
Returning from a supermarket shop the other day, I was listening to a Radio2 special on the Kinks singer-songwriter Ray Davies. When people come many years from now to try and figure out what the 1960s was really all about, they will turn to Ray’s songs, not those of Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards. I think this because he and he alone recorded (in every sense) what being young at the time was about. Tracks like Dedicated Follower of Fashion, Waterloo Sunset, Well Respected Man, Dead End Street and Sunny Afternoon are not just evocative for those of us who were there: they talk about Mods, Terry and Julie, nine-to-five jobs, and working people on the never-never.
Above all, what I like about Davies’s work are the ‘hooks’: amazing chord progressions and guitar riffs which, while simple, make the difference between a nice track and a classic. During the radio slot, the artist talked about one of the band’s early releases, You Really Got Me. He described how, at the recording session, he kept trying to get a particular percussion three-beat line (between one verse and another) out of the session drummer. The drummer kept saying ‘it’s out of rhythm’, but Davies stuck doggedly to his request. That ‘boing…..da-boing..bap-bap-bap…I believe that you and me…’ makes the recording.
Not only did Ray know what he wanted, he wasn’t going to budge until he got it. He was right, too – it turned a pop song into a classic. I can still see him now, on Top of the Pops, in his frilly shirt with that odd smile, nodding head and lazy arm movement, looking for all the world like a complete nutter. Magical stuff.
Davies is a stickler for getting it right. Most good creative people with whom I’ve worked are. At the time one’s having the row with them, the detail they demand seems like flagrant obsessive compulsive disorder – and probably is. But very often, with hindsight, it turns out to be the telling thing in an ad, a gag, or routine that transmutes something funny or clever into something famous.
Victoria Wood’s stunning docudrama about Morecambe and Wise made the same point: ‘giving in to the suits’ very nearly ruined the double-act’s career before it had even got going. They knew what they were about, and nobody else did. But what made them uniquely successful was the determination to rehearse and insist until everything was spot-on.
Bloody-mindedness when it matters is the difference between good enough and good. It is this gritty determination to be the best, this striving for perfection, which separates the hopelessly disorganised, also-ran cultures and nations from the folks who are truly in charge. ‘Obsession’ has become a dirty word in contemporary linguistics. I’ve been an obsessive about some things all my life, and trust me, when people use the word about you, it’s an insult. But I say unto you: blessed are the anally obsessive, for they shall run the world.
We laugh at the German mania for detail. This probably explains why they’ve won four World Cups, and we can’t even get chosen to stage one. That’s a serious point, by the way: a chum in the soccer business told me after the English 2018 bid’s failure last year, “Honestly, it was amateur night: sloppy, naïve, and devoid of panache.” Fine, of course Sepp Blatter and his mates are crooks; but it’s a shame that this reality hadn’t occurred to the English bid team. Would you buy something from David Beckham?
Britain has become the home of “Whatever”. ‘Fine, if you say so’. ‘Like, I give a shit,roight?’ ‘Wossamarrawivit?’ We are too accepting of sufficiency. We lack pride in the completion of everything from a paragraph of prose to a properly-designed central heating system. There is no quality control via self-discipline, and no ‘go back and do it again’ from those in charge. There is only a surly look and a “Yeh, whatever”.
Partly this is to do with the ridiculous speed at which modern life moves. Even for a blogger, columnist, essayist or journalist, the childish fascination with now produces an attitude of ‘never mind the quality – feel the currency’. Sod getting it right – just get it out. But primarily it is a direct result of uninspiring role models….and the education system that produced them.
If you watch the Coalition in action, it is all progress and no direction, all action and no thought, all brushstroke and no detail. Be this Lansley’s NHS proposals, Osborne’s cuts, May’s police chiefs, stimuli for small business, reform of the banking system or the EU, when one drills down, the sloppy superficiality of policy execution is horrifying.
After the deficit and the National Debt have been brought under control (at the current rate, this will be some time in 2022) the only thing that truly matters is the reform of education. This is the last influential bastion in which reside the troops referred to in my last posting, the ones I’ve christened The Goalists – not to be confused with Gaullists. Educationalists are the epitome par excellence of sufficiency culture: nobody must be told they have failed, all must express their unique little personalities, inclusiveness means we must lower the bar, multiculturalism is the future, let’s not offend anyone, we must have ‘equality’ quotas at Oxbridge and all the rest of the wishfully unthinking, dopey nonsense that has infected our children since the 1970s.
The Defeat of the Daft is crucial to ending Britain’s Whatever culture, and education is riddled with the waterlogged thinking purveyed by these folk. Other things – some harsh austerity, reduced benefits, and tougher welfare policing – will add to the rebirth of personal responsibility; but only a clear-out in education, alongside the restoration of independent thought and high personal standards among pupils, will ever raise Britain above mediocrity over the next thirty years.
In that context, David Cameron and his team do not set an example in the way they go about things. Even the spin – Cameron canvassing in a by-election for a candidate he deserted – was unsubtle. As a whole, the Administration to date represents the triumph of energy over intellect. Where there should be antennae, the Cameroons have only briefings. Thus they bend to every gust of elite or media disapproval, and ignore what the empirical data suggests – or what real voters think and feel.
The Coalition is in power for only one reason that matters: the appeal of the current Party offerings at Westminster is tepid, dilute, and dated. It is, if I may return to the 1960s where we started, the survival of Billy Cotton and Alan Breeze on the radio, when the medium is crying out for The Kinks.