Christopher Owens has mixed feelings about a recent published work about culture wars.
With a title and subtitle referencing Abbie Hoffmann and Dale Carnegie respectively, Nathalie Olah's first book certainly grabs your attention, suggesting counterculture at its most individualistic.
Having written for The Guardian, i-D and The Quietus, she is well placed to write about the deep divide in modern culture between the ultra sophisticated (usually into retro chic) and the so called 'chavs' (into the latest clothing), which carries on into the mainstream.
Beginning with the rise of New Labour, and the infamous quote about "education, education, education", Olah deftly runs through the 1990's (the so called 'end of history') and demonstrates how Tony Blair managed to carry on policies favoured by Margaret Thatcher a decade beforehand, while repackaging it with a tint of red.
This leads into the period commonly referred to as 'Cool Britannia', with the Spice Girls and Robbie Williams dominating stadiums, before leading to the 'lost decade of the 2000's and the homogenization of popular culture designed to be 'aspirational.
Here, Olah is on solid ground as she deconstructs how everything from home improvement programmes, through to the BRIT school's influence on music and the side-lining of important works from the likes of Thomas Sowell have led to a shallow, one dimensional mould of popular culture. Her righteous fury and ability to sew links together where one would normally not consider there to be any is a sight to behold and makes the reader think deeply about the connotations of what is being considered.
However, the book is not perfect. Let's start with the small matters.
This segment did annoy me:
... Blair had done enough to present himself as the arbiter of a more inclusive society. This would build on his work in Northern Ireland, which was undoubtedly a milestone in one of the longest standing and bloodiest struggles in British colonial history, even if it was rarely understood as such by the British people. Repeated terrorist attacks have given successive governments an easy route out of explaining Britain's colonial legacy, and a way of delegitimizing the Republican cause as little more than the violent outburst of a few radicalised individuals. On the world stage, the Good Friday Peace Agreement, signed in April 1998, would be viewed as the final step towards curtailing the powers of Empire. On the ground, however, it would be judged as one man's successful attempt to defeat terrorism. The Omagh Bomb a few months later might have complicated the overarching narrative, but it did so only in Blair and New Labour's favour, becoming a symbol of what many believed would have continued had he not intervened.
Aside from the fact that it demonstrates that Olah knows next to nothing about loyalism (a key component in the conflict), such thinking was all too common among groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party, often downplaying IRA atrocities like Enniskillen, Warrington and Frizzell's and who failed to recognise how (via Ulsterisation) the British had been able to shift the violence into something that was easily presented as something much more random and sectarian (in other words, the old 'piggies in the middle' line). By doing that, the British were able to allow the Republican Movement to alienate potential supporters, make current supporters appear to sponsor indiscriminate mass murder, while subtly encouraging the use of the ballot box strategy.
And the Good Friday Agreement certainly did not curtail the powers of Britain, it curbed and boxed the Provisional IRA into abandoning long held principles and (in the case of Joe O'Connor's murder) acting in the interests of the British state.
While these have little bearing on the arguments that Olah is making, it does demonstrate a myopic outlook that can cloud her judgement on certain issues, which become more apparent as the book goes on.
Here's another example, which quotes Chantelle Fiddy, a music journalist about trying to get grime artists featured in magazines in the early 2000's:
There's a core issue with many editors...They simply can't see past their own socio-economic background and case reference points. Pitching Wiley features to Mixmag in 2003, they say 'no one has heard of him'. Which was true, if you asked the attendees at Cream and Ministry of Sound, but if you walked through Mile End with him, he was a street demigod.
I'm going to state the obvious here: I would strongly suspect that those Cream and Ministry of Sound attendees were the ones who were buying Mixmag in their droves. And considering the rise of the internet saw a rapid decline in print media, it makes perfect sense for magazine editors to stick to what sells. That's why Kerrang is still being printed. And, once again, the myopic viewpoint being touted as forward thinking.
As well as this, she manages to accuse Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) of being the "...main profiteer of a genre built by black working-class voices..." but also hails him as:
... a valid voice of the working classes during this time...Skinner was one of the first voices in pop culture that stood up and asked what was left for those who couldn't seize on the limited opportunities afforded by Blair's education reforms and programmes of social mobility.
Finally, she lambasts Bret Easton Ellis for "...railing against PC culture, millennials, black women and social media", despite the fact that:
- his comments are far more nuanced and insightful than she is letting on to the reader (and, as she interviewed him for the Times Literary Supplement, she is all too aware of this).
- she conveniently ignores that Ellis has often spoken about how sympathetic he is towards millennials due to their economic situation and how they've lived through September 11th and the Iraq War
- she also ignores his arguments about how gay men are reduced to little more than victims and best friends in popular culture.
Not quite the angry old man yelling at the clouds as she implies.
Overall, Steal as much as you can is an readable tome with a promising theme, but is let down by dishonest, selective interpretations of events.
Nathalie Olah, 2019, Steal as much as you can: How to win the culture wars in an age of austerity, Repeater Books. ISBN-13: 978-1912248568
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.