The ghosts of vanished ideals

Reading about youth unemployment in a Central London office, I feel bizarrely left out of the ‘graduate without a future’ debate. Graduating a few years before the Great Crash of 08’ has left me observing youth declinism from the sidelines. With my own career stalling, I desperately want to take part in this debate but since I receive a modest salary, I feel unable to do so.

Graduate angst still resonates of course but I’m 31 years old and entering what Fitzgerald once famously referred to as a ‘portentous, menacing road of a new decade…the promise of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm and thinning hair’.

Stimulating and creative jobs are now sadly thin on the ground too. However, the concept of fulfilment in the workplace is a relatively modern one. The ancient Greek ideal of eudaiomnia, a contented state of happiness, is certainly not something that would have affected older generations.

Choice is a luxury and too much choice has created an existential hunger for well-paid creative jobs that simply don’t exist. Paul Mason brilliantly captured the spectre of declinism in his Guardian article about the “Graduate without a future”. His thesis is simple and inordinately depressing too – the Western economic model is broken and fails to produce enough high-value work for its highly educated workforce.

Graduating with a liberal-arts degree from Glasgow University in 2004, I don’t recall the spectre of declinism hanging over my generation. On the contrary everything appeared remarkably complacent – an era of cheap credit, flights and relatively bright job prospects.

Within one year of graduating from a Scottish university you could retrain as a teacher and receive a full pension, epic holidays and become a middle-class professional. Such a route was actively encouraged by the Scottish Government and it became a cosy meal ticket for thousands of well-educated arts graduates, unqualified to do anything else.

Back then the public sector wasn’t vilified like it is today and on choosing to study History; I embarked upon a luxury degree and one that came with tremendous academic and social privileges. Unaware in my late teens that it would seriously define (or paradoxically harm) my future job prospects, I attended a traditional medieval university whose emphasis lay firmly on academic learning. Studying at a Russell Group university is a wonderful privilege but it was one that left me completely unprepared for the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Creating a factory supply of new teachers on route towards a public-sector nirvana might sound benign and egalitarian in principle. A society that invests in education is surely doing something right. However, I am not convinced that this golden ticket encouraged much creativity or entrepreneurship. Such a policy arguably stunted growth because not enough students were seriously challenged to change anything.

Unprepared for the future, I like many non-teaching arts graduates found myself lost in short-term contracts, temping and nomadic career wanderings that offered in creative or monetary value. Alas now I have a media job with a salary, and one I would have loved after leaving university, but looking elsewhere I find myself competing against millions of brilliant minds who are prepared to work for free.

Nothing much will change until Western economies catch up with the technological and communications revolution that has empowered the young. Like seeds beneath the snow, millions of restless spirits  lay dormant in call centres and fast food restaurants. And while Britain might seem like an uninspiring place, spare a thought for 55,000 who applied for 380 openings for Ikea in Sabadell, Spain. Now that is what you call a crisis of ideas.

Door to the River

After graduating from Glasgow University in July 2004, I had several ambitions in life and like many arts graduates none of them involved having a career. Well at least I had absolutely no intention of retraining as a history teacher, which at the time appeared to be the only option available to me.

Instead I embraced a hazy world of denial and escapism and this involved travelling around Europe on borrowed money and giving up a £65 a week bedsit on the Great Western Road. Such an undertaking came partly as a lust for knowledge and a desire to explore new cultures and languages. Scotland for all its charms is geographically isolated, monolingual and bordered only by England.

However, I must acknowledge that one of the most compelling reasons behind my desire to travel was the chance to ditch my joke finance job at the Abbey National. So before I abandoned Glasgow for the olive fields of Andalucia, I had one ambition left in life and that involved writing my own fanzine.

Such was my love of Kelvinside and its bohemian leafy character, I came up with a pun title derived from a mediocre John Fante novel and set about producing an irreverent guide to post-graduate life in the West End of Glasgow. An inky offbeat publication capturing small town blues, film reviews, Chinese takeaways and unwise polemics against high street chuggers. Ask The Kelvin seemed like a good idea at the time.

Unknown to me in the mid-Noughties, I had set about producing a dead tree publication long before the wonders of tagging, Tumblr and all the social interactive elements that assist writers today. Unable to share my thoughts on a global scale, there was no danger of Ask The Kelvin ever going viral. Living in a make-believe world I knew at the time I couldn’t make any money out of a fanzine but for some strange reason I felt compelled to make one anyway.

On embracing the self-funded model, I produced fifty copies at the local stationary store and distributed them at Fopp, Offshore and a ragtag collection of Byres Road charity shops. Back then Facebook didn’t even exist and the audience I secretly lusted and craved for during my sleepless nights in Otago Street never quite materialised. Indeed looking back it does seem really twee and provincial, especially when I compare it to some of the sexy projects on Kickstarter.

Based in New York and providing a self-funded platform to raise funds on a global scale, Kickstarter allows random individuals to become patrons of their favourite projects. Almost like a counter-culture version of the BBC Dragons’ Den, Kickstarter involves a video pitch alongside a synopsis explaining the reasons why you should support them. Not with a lazy like you can get away with elsewhere but with hard cash.

Kickstarter is an amazing place to support new talent and my personal favourite is theNewerYork, an experimental lit mag based in Brooklyn that celebrates radical poetry, love letters and seriously weird pieces of art. Like stumbling into your favourite record shop as a 17 year old and discovering heroin tainted rock zines for the first time, if you tire of the NewerYork, you are tired of life.

Surreally decorated with unfamous quotes and the occasionally haunting story, their magazine blows my wee Glasgow fanzine out of the water. Beautifully humbled by their efforts, I must confess that on reading their e-version, some 3500 miles away in an English metropolis, I never stood a chance back in leafy Kelvinside. Alas I am now older than the 23 year old locked inside a Glasgow bedsit but still similarly way inclined.

Unlike the NewerYork I don’t think I would get $8,119 in funding for the second edition of Ask The Kelvin, even allowing for the social media tools available to young writers and artists today. However, I do take some inspiration from one of their many slogans: everything has been done before, so do it better. 

New Kids on the Block

Rarely is anyone judged for who they really are. As anyone who has ever attended a party or social gathering will already know, new friends and acquaintances will invariably want to know ‘what you do’ for a living. It’s unsurprising really. Perhaps it is just human nature for us to compartmentalise our personalities and responsibilities in this way.

Graduates lose their progressive status within a year of leaving university. Thereafter some of the greatest young minds on this planet will be defined by their occupation – waitress, drug dealer and freelance blogger; or as they are more commonly known in the Eurozone – unemployed.

Our preoccupation with status has been further amplified by the sheer number of people who have a handle or profile promoting their job and lifestyle. Such a culture inevitably leads to people branding their identities and heightening status anxiety to extraordinary levels.

Alas in the words of the late Virginia Woolf ‘the eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages’. The lowly shelf-stacker at Tesco, who has read the works of Joyce, Mishima and Ezra Pound, is certainly not going to feel any better by spending too much time on LinkedIn.

Although there is a light blogging alternative to the online brand phenomenon, where nobody knows your name or what you do. Tumblr is an offbeat social media service with a pop-culture twist. Irreverent by nature and heavily meme based, the Tumblr generation post endless streams of fashion, photography and literacy quotes in splendid anonymity.

With no comments or trolls, there is something highly refreshing about Tumblr’s eccentricity and complete disregard for how we all have to make a living. Nobody cares what you do, it’s all about what you feel and know to be true.

Predominately US-based and with over 120 million users every month, Tumblr has given rise to some of the most entertaining and offbeat blogs around today. From the sexual intellectualism of Book Porn, soppy boredom of Dogs on Trains and the late great Kim Jong-Il looking at things, Tumblr is a wonderful place to waste time. A digital scrapbook for the creative moths of this world, there is something refreshing how people can express themselves so vividly online in such a weird and odd fashion.

However, success comes at a price and while the light blogging service remains the domain of hyper-intelligent college kids. Old media organisations such as The Guardian and New Yorker now want a piece of the digital action. With traditional newspapers spreading their ‘content’ online, there is a danger Tumblr will succumb to the wishes of large media groups wanting to promote their corporate image. Indeed it has probably happened already such is the power of big business.

But while people remain weird and strange there will always be a place for the marginalised and ignored on Tumblr. It remains somewhere pure and anonymous and relatively untainted by the status obsession culture found on other networks.

And while the pressure to be someone will never cease and every fresh handshake and sideways air kiss will inevitably be followed by an enquiry into your occupation. There is now a small place where outside thoughts no longer have to be our cages, and where labyrinth minds can express themselves freely on laptops in unkempt bedrooms and solitary library chambers.

A Stateless Nation

On growing up in the nationalist heartlands of the North East of Scotland and with parents of Anglo-Irish descent, I am a first generation Scot. Always sensitive to any hint of anti-English sentiment, I remember my first impressions of nationalism and I considered it back then to be inherently nasty, bigoted and deeply parochial. Largely this was a result of a feral loathing of the English football team and the hysterical fear of the ‘auld enemy’ winning the World Cup.

Laughable as this might sound to educated observers, especially anyone who knows anything about football, the populist cry was that ‘we would never hear the end of it’ and they are right. It would be absolutely unbearable but our European partners usually come to our aid whenever this is in danger of happening.

Football might seem frivolous to some but the social consequences of this nationalist hysteria led to me preferring the union. As a result and unaware of the grim economic conditions taking place outside of the affluent fields of Aberdeenshire, I felt very comfortable being simultaneously Scottish and British. While I always considered myself Scottish, I owed my existence to parents and as a son of economic migrants; I was a product of oil rather than the Mearns soil.

Although looking back my British identity crisis was an emotional form of solidarity with my parents. It co-existed with my Scottish identity, which back then was a geographical and localised phenomenon.

T.C. Smout, the brilliant social historian, once stated that ‘what is unusual about Scotland is the widespread acceptance that national identity does not have to coincide with state identity’. He succinctly tapped into the political separation of powers of the 1707 Union settlement, where Scottish cultural and religious nationalism was allowed to flourish outside the sphere of the British state.

Shaped by the desire to secure a Hanoverian Protestant succession in the early eighteenth century, British identity has been formed around the crown, empire, industrialisation and the emotional solidarity of two World Wars. In the twenty-first century, the contemporary framework of British identity has shifted radically.

With the British Empire now confined to the dust columns of history, the BBC, NHS, Royal Mail and celebrity television shows such as the X-Factor and Big Brother provide ‘Britons’ with a shared cultural identity.

On being entirely comfortable with being both Scottish and British, I can trace my slow conversion to independence from attending two of Scotland’s oldest universities. On first attending Kings College in Aberdeen, I took great pride in learning that until 1858 Aberdeen had two universities, the same number as the whole of England.

Education always appeared to be a great Scottish virtue and with the devolved Scottish administration paying student’s tuition fees since 1999 it became clear that education in Scotland is a universal right and not something confined to the privileged few.

On transferring to Glasgow University and studying History, I slowly developed the opinion that Scotland had everything in place to be thriving independent nation but somehow shied away from taking full responsibility. A country blessed with huge natural resources, a brilliant university network, untapped green energy, a booming tourist industry and two of the greatest cities in Northern Europe only 40 minutes apart. Scotland has enormous potential to become a progressive and wealthy European state.

If Scotland were to vote for full independence in autumn 2014 then the British state will cease to exist but Britishness will not. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes are still Scandinavian despite living in politically autonomous states. The Scandinavian nations co-operate on matters of shared national interest such as security, immigration, energy and tourism.

There will be no custom officials and razed wire fences in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Gretna Green if Scotland were to go their own way. And by retaining the Queen as the head of state, the SNP have offered an olive branch to unionists uncomfortable with the pace of radical constitutional change.

With his High Excellency Alex Salmond at the helm in Holyrood anything now feels possible. A truly outstanding political operator, the SNP has been blessed with the most gifted political communicator in the British Isles since Tony Blair.

Commanding over an extremely disciplined and ‘on message’ party, Alex Salmond is gradually persuading the Scottish people there is nothing that cannot be achieved by ourselves. On turning full circle I now believe in independence. The wheels of progress have been slow but the destination now feels inevitable.

The Last of the Monoglots

As an island nation geographically isolated from continental Europe, speaking foreign languages has never been Britain’s forte. With the majority of English speaking residents having no practical need to speak anything else, most UK citizens have never bothered to learn a foreign language. Apart from going on holiday a few weeks a year, where the hotel staff, waiters and tourist information guides inevitably all speak English anyway.

What incentive do you have to learn a new language that you will probably never use? Speaking foreign languages in Britain is essentially a bourgeois luxury – a cultural reference point for the urban middle classes, a demographic who want to order a bottle of Bourgogne Pinot Noir with their friends on holiday.

With the majority of the population immune to foreign languages, the number of students taking A-levels in England and Wales has fallen to a new low. Likewise Scotland is not faring any better with more than half of all foreign language assistants in state schools axed due to budget cuts.

In a provincial region such as Aberdeenshire, which is geographically isolated even in the context of Scotland, the majority of students don’t leave the North East after graduating. Bordering only England what practical incentive does an English speaking child in Scotland have to learn German or French? A truck driver from Luxembourg or Switzerland will be expected to speak at least three or four languages in order to communicate with their clients.

Linguistic exchanges are certainly not something a Scottish driver has to worry about when he or she travels through Cumbria to England. With the English language establishing itself as the global lingua franca due to the British Empire and the economic dominance of the United States, British citizens don’t really have much incentive to learn any language other than their own.

If France had won the Seven Years’ War and North America became a French colony then the English language might have been seriously challenged. Such is the historical power of this Anglo-American hegemony then unless British students are learning new languages purely for intellectual reasons the rewards are pretty slim. Understanding all the grammatical peculiarities, complexities and declensions is a tall order, like learning a code, and then you have to be confident enough to express yourself fluently.

The UK education secretary, Michael Gove, has proposed that every child aged five or over should be learning a foreign language at school. Speaking in the Guardian newspaper, Gove says “understanding a modern foreign language helps you understand English better” and “there is no one who is fluent in a foreign language who isn’t a masterful user of their own language”.

It’s hard to dispute this and teaching languages at nursery level, where children can learn easily is probably the best way ahead. What language should these children learn to speak though? English still remains the superpower of languages despite Mandarin’s numerical advantage. Will young children ever have the chance to converse in French, German or Spanish?

Languages were never meant to be the ornamental indulgences of the upper-middle classes. Speaking in a foreign tongue requires constant practice and attention. As native speakers of the global language, British citizens are almost given a carte blanche to be lazy. Unless you can practice a new language on a regular basis then these early linguistic abilities are incredibly fragile. Britain is arguably a victim of her geographical isolation and imperial past when it comes to learning new languages.

In the Tamil Nadu state of Southern India, most citizens can speak Tamil, Telugu, Malayam and Kanada by the age of twelve. With the majority of South Indians having to learn the state language of Hindi and English to communicate with the outside world, Britain’s monolingualism looks increasingly parochial.

If the UK education secretary’s proposals are implemented on a national scale then perhaps in 30 or 40 years time, the current generation of monoglots will be an endangered species. Somehow you don’t need to speak three languages to realise not even the most successful of human empires will last forever.

Arrested Development

WestEndWalk

After the Guardian revealed Lord Wei of Shoreditch is unable to fulfil his Big Society duties because working for free is incompatible with ‘having a life’. Lord Wei not only exposed the sham of a government expecting people to work for nothing in an era of massive spending cuts. Moreover it shone a torch on the murky world of corporate exploitation in the modern workplace. Earlier this week Richard Bilton’s excellent BBC documentary showed how class continues to restrict access to professions and well-paid careers to all but an exclusive pool of well-connected individuals.

Anyone looking for work in the publishing, fashion or media industry will already be familiar with internships. The vast majority of media jobs in Britain are based in London and anyone lucky enough to receive an offer can be expected to work for 3 months unpaid and still have no guarantee of employment. With 1 in 10 graduates now out of work, I can recall my struggle to make a break through after graduating from the University of Glasgow in 2004.

After the privilege of studying at a world-class 15th Century institution, the harsh reality of finding stimulating employment became all too apparent when I temped for the financial services industry. While I wanted to use my creative writing skills for a living, I sorely lacked confidence and with no connections, I found myself trapped in a vicious circle of dead end temping jobs to pay the rent. Glasgow is the call-centre capital of Europe and after graduating, I would turn up every day for £6.04 an hour wearing a Britney Spears headset on behalf of the Scottish Co-Operative Group.

With my dignity in tatters, I quickly realised that in order to improve myself, I had to go down the Scottish voluntary route. By doing so I religiously scoured the internet and worked for free on behalf of tourist boards, local restaurant guides and a global university website. Eventually I quit my administrative day job to focus entirely on voluntary writing positions I had initially agreed to fulfil in my spare time.

On not wanting to let my future references down, I eventually gave them my full working week for nearly 5 months and used credit cards to pay the rent. Clearly unsustainable I fortunately managed to get a salaried media job in London as a result of my volunteering and agreed to move down south.

While I have clearly benefited from volunteering and believe it is often a necessary passage for young people to get ahead. Anyone doing a voluntary internship in London will have astronomical overheads compared to what I had to pay in Glasgow where the cost of living is far cheaper.

If young graduates want a media job in London then they will be expected to serve not one but several unpaid internships before getting a salaried position. Expecting people to work for nothing inevitably favours upper-middle class children from the South East, who have financial support or live within commuting distance of their parent’s home. This new aristocracy of coming from a home owning family is increasingly divisive and helps to form an unfair and disproportionate workplace in some of the most desirable sectors.

Once you’re inside the door then depending on your employer it is increasingly down to the dark arts of networking and internal friendships to progress. While it would be desirable to think you can progress through ability and hard work alone, I often find social intelligence and the ability to ‘work a room’ is all too prominent in making that elusive connection to get ahead. From a personal perspective I have always found the charm offensive very difficult because I don’t have a silver tongue to seduce random strangers at launch parties, meetings or screening invites. We are all made differently and the path ahead is not always going to be a fair or equal one.

When Labour leader Ed Miliband spoke of the British promise being under threat by cuts to public spending. He tapped into a deeper trend of how the current generation cannot expect to exceed the wealth and standard of living of their parents. There is nothing clever about making the best jobs only for the rich and by narrowing the best opportunities to rich home owning families it only serves to create an increasingly divided and unequal society.

Clearly there are social, moral and long-term economic benefits from having a well educated workforce and to frighten off potential students from poorer or lower-middle class backgrounds is foolhardy in the extreme. It makes me extremely angry that higher education is perceived solely as a means for people to make money.

Surely in the current economic climate our future values have to change. We should be looking to create a fairer, balanced and more equal society instead of this myopic chase of prosperity. Even by writing inside a rented box in the sky for nothing, I am still enormously proud of my university education and feel it should be open and accessible to anyone. Something even Lord Wei would agree about as he reduces his voluntary hours in order to pay the bills.

Nationalism is a Created Product

After attending the Pioneering Painters exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, I began to question why I never learned about the Glasgow Boys at school. Radical, bold and fervently European in their outlook, the Glasgow Boys represent a new progressive Scotland. However, the art collective remained off my cultural radar until I attended Glasgow University and stumbled upon their works at the nearby Kelvingrove Museum. On re-examining their most radical and exciting works at the Royal Academy of Arts, I drew an immediate contrast with Burns Night.

Reflecting back on my primary school days in Aberdeenshire, I vividly remember my P6 teacher’s poetry recital classes with ‘A Man’s a Man for all That’ being the proverbial jewel in the crown. With my Anglo-Irish vowels, I always dreaded Burns week and felt extremely self-conscious that I couldn’t recite verses in guttural Doric like my Aberdonian peers.

While I eventually grew to admire some of Burns vernacular gifts, I have remained curiously ambivalent about Burns Night. It always felt somewhat contrived to me. Almost like a post-modern image of Scottishness that bears no relevance to day-to-day life.

Burns Night is arguably the biggest literary event in the world with an estimated nine million people participating last year. A typical Burns night has poetry recitals, bagpipes and three courses of traditional Scottish fair, which usually involves cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps and tatties and a complimentary dram.

With the greatest respect this dour cuisine is certainly not the most alluring of European dishes. If there is a Scottish restaurant in Rome or Barcelona then I certainly haven’t seen one. All the while the Haggis represents a comic sentimental image of Scotland and I find it deeply regrettable that a foul peasant condom is our national dish, when the nation’s glens, forests and lochs are home to some of the finest game and fish in Northern Europe.

Whereas other countries define themselves around wars, revolutions and kings, Scotland remains a stateless nation and embraces cultural nationalism to exert her identity. Burns Night remains consistent with the twee sentimental image of Scotland constructed by Sir Walter Scott in the nineteenth century.

After nearly two hundred years of progress, Scotland is still renowned for its kilts, whisky and majestic Highland landscapes. Anyone walking past a triumphant Visit Scotland billboard will be in no doubt of the country’s national identity. What is fascinating is that the Glasgow Boys emerged towards the end of the 1870s and radically vowed to challenge the sentimental Victorian obsession with the Highlands.

By challenging this twee conservative vision of Scotland, I found inspiration from the Glasgow Boys exhibition that there is an alternative to Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. The Glasgow Boys were bold, radical and experimental painters, whose stunning collection of works represent a genuinely progressive movement. A collection of artists that dared to look towards the Mediterranean and Japan for inspiration instead of turning inwards towards the Highlands.

What I find surprising is that the Glasgow Boys remain a quirky afterthought in Scottish culture. If I hadn’t stumbled upon their paintings in the Kelvingrove Museum, then I could easily have remained ignorant of their existence.

A truly confident country should look outwards for inspiration and I see no reason why the Glasgow Boys shouldn’t be universally affiliated with Scotland like Dali, Gaudi and Picasso are with Spain. It is regrettable that this radical confederation of painters have been unable to impose a greater cultural influence in their own country.

Robert Burns remains Scotland’s most iconic and influential poet but anyone tucking into their Haggis tonight should be under no illusions that nationalism is anything other than a created product.