A friend of mine recalls working for County Hall back in the 1980s. The Greater London Council was part of a short-lived but laudable left wing bubble under Margaret Thatcher, embracing worthy causes and a world that looked many miles away once outside the building. The GLC leader, Ken Livingstone, was reviled by the Tory Press and a regular target for any aspiring political blunt head writer with a piece of right wing copy to get their metaphorical teeth into.
Ken himself was unperturbed by the avalanche of hate-clustered invective, and quietly continued addressing his egalitarian agenda through his office. He set up free literacy classes for the cleaning staff and pursued other similar work-based life enhancing initiatives geared to make the GLC world a better place. My friend recalls it being an excellent place to work in, but that leaving at the end of the day always offered him the notion that he was exiting a fair world onto the mean right-wing streets of Thatcher’s London.
Fast forward more than thirty years to a very different world saturated by a litany of information technology fallout that threatens to end, amongst other things, face to face conversation, newspapers and real sex. The speed of fads (‘Fadspeed’) means that our behaviour is routinely checked and modified to the extent that social interaction has become almost impossible to master, or ‘mistress’ if you will. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Jimmy Savile are three celebrities, part of an elite, whose ‘unmasking’ has not only questioned the role of people with privileged access to the public, even demonised it, but also raised a gender agenda as an unexpected and potentially debilitating byproduct.
Even thirty years ago in a world where women might have been considered fair game in the office for vile sexist backchat and inappropriate behaviour, there were men – perhaps the majority – who did not inhabit that world, mentally or physically. Shocking though it is that it has taken as long as it has to move the workplace towards a code of behaviour embraced by the GLC’s County Hall back in the 1980s, the world we now face outside the workplace has become a potentially toxic land where men have become bathwater babies, especially men without any descriptor to help them defend themselves, be it colour, class, sexuality or disability. If you are without a defining descriptor, then you may just have to hang your head and move silently through the crowd, hoping you won’t be noticed. Your sex has been running things for too long. Accept it and feel glad that you are now part of a fairer world, a more moderate, understanding world. Just so long as your wardrobe is completely free of time bomb skeletons. Think back. You must have done something which sits uneasily with your new found fair play mentality.
Anonymity has become the modern fame. Everyone is famous now, has their piece of Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. But like the celebrity elite before them, a shared history has become hostage to the fortune of what is acceptable social behaviour. Apply for a US Visa and you will be asked for your social media profile handle. What it is to be an enigma! To not have surrendered the contents of your life to the internet? Are you reading this now, thinking, ‘You just doesn’t get it; you’re a right wing sexist, racist, misogynistic, blah blah…’ or are you just thinking, ‘I’m soooh glad I’m not on Facebook!’
How can we embrace difference if we don’t recognise it. If we don’t celebrate it? If we have to be anonymous and shapeless. If we have to live in constant fear of offending or of having offended. Perhaps these are just interregnum years that we have to inhabit on our way to a better place. As a young teacher I used to wonder how new worthy educational philosophy would ever get to become part of the curriculum to benefit the children who deserved it. The problem was always that you can’t stop the merry-go-round of the curriculum, of time, to put the ideas into place. They would have to be assimilated in a way that meant some children would never see their benefit. Like Jeremy Corbyn’s declared intent to abolish tuition fees, or the 60s Labour Government who wanted to abandon elitist grammar schools, but couldn’t get any coherent legislation together to do it for over ten years. Perhaps there will always be those who are stranded in the dark corridors of the interregnum. Who missed the worst but were unable to feed on the best. Prisoners of their time. Maybe we are now, for the moment, inhabiting those liminal corridors.
So perhaps this is this the agenda that dare not speak its name. Because it is not an agenda in of itself, merely part of a bigger picture, a joining piece, for the next fairer world. And Ken Livingstone, who had his greatest days as the leader of the GLC, now, thirty years on, looks like the lamb whose sacrifice might help pull Labour out of the quicksand of anti-Semitic vitriol they currently find themselves drowning in.