Eurorack modular synthesis

Eurorack is a modular synthesis format that has expanded enormously in the last five years or so. I started playing around with some modules about 18 months ago, initially as a way to get some more analogue filters into my home studio set up. Since then, I’ve become fascinated by Eurorack as a phenomenon comprising not only a set of technical standards and practices, but also a worldwide community of module producers and users, with its own terminology and cultural norms. Below is a recent production that makes extensive use of my own Eurorack set up.

With the straight to video disaster movie of the UK’s pre-Brexit meltdown consuming so much airspace, there is comfort to be had in a system that originated in continental Europe, which is profoundly internationalist, and which enables radically different elements to happily coexist and interact. The rise of Eurorack is also a good example of how technological change can move in surprising directions; a case study of how dead media can come back to life.

In the 1960s, when the first electronic voltage controlled sound synthesizers were developed by companies such as Moog, Buchla and EMS, most of these systems were modular. In a modular system, different audio generating and processing functions are performed by separate modules mounted in a rack. The user manually links these together into the desired order using patch cables. This type of design is extremely flexible, allowing for experimentation with non-standard signal routings and bespoke systems.

Back in the 1960s, the market for these unwieldy, complex, expensive systems was limited however. As synthesizer manufacturers sought commercial viability, they began to produce simpler, more portable and affordable instruments, designed around the needs of musicians. These machines hardwired synthesis elements into a fixed order, dispensing with the need for patch cables, and reducing the level of technical knowledge required to programme them. The Minimoog was the archetype of this shift, as documented in painstaking detail by Pinch and Rocco in their 2004 book Analog Days. A small, portable, all-in-one instrument, the Minimoog prioritised ease of use over the flexibility of Moog’s earlier modular systems. With its stable tuning and built-in keyboard, it fitted into Western musical conventions, and had wide appeal to musicians. Thousands of units were sold, and its basic design became the dominant form of the synthesizer from the 1970s onwards. Most classic machines follow its template: the Arp Odyssey, Sequential Prophet 5 and Pro 1, Roland’s SH series, Jupiters and Junos, and later classic digital synths such as the Yamaha DX7, Roland D50 and Korg M1 all have a keyboard attached to a more-or-less fixed sequence of sound generating and shaping elements. As Pinch and Rocco (1998, p.27) observe:

“The story of the analogue synthesizer is like that of many technologies. One meaning stabilises, and the other meanings slowly vanish or play a smaller role within niche markets.”

Thus by the mid 1980s, modular had been pushed to the margins of music technology. As the first generation of digital FM and PCM-based synths gave way to virtual analogue technologies in the 1990s, the dominance of keyboard-based synthesizers continued. Even with the introduction of Synthesis Technology’s ‘Mother Of The Modulars’ (MOTM) system in the mid 1990s, and the invention of Eurorack around the same time in the form of Doepfer’s A100 range, these systems were initially niche products aimed at a minority of devoted synthesis enthusiasts.

So why, against the grain of the stabilised form of the synthesizer, has Eurorack modular become so popular?

One factor appears to be how the format makes modular synthesis more accessible due to its efficiencies of size and cost. As a 2014 press release from NAMM (the US National Association of Music Manufacturers) puts it:

“Boutique Eurorack modular synthesizers were until recently considered ‘fringe’ but are now gaining traction in the mainstream as a relatively inexpensive way to pack a lot of functionality into a small space.” (NAMM, 2014)

It is worth noting that Eurorack is not the highest quality format available for modular synthesis. Its advantages are more prosaic: modest size, portability, and relatively low cost. Compared to full size modular systems, Eurorack enables even quite small systems to function as complex instruments. The techno producer Surgeon, for example, has recently been performing live sets using a Eurorack rig specifically designed to be small enough to fit into the dimensions of aircraft carry-on luggage.

The compact size of Eurorack seems key to its success. Shown here is an Intellijel uVCA module, which fits two voltage controlled amplifiers with bias and exponential-linear shape controls into a panel that is only 30mm wide. Note the use of mini-jack sockets for patching, and the tiny surface mount components just visible on the circuit board.

In this respect, Eurorack has an uncanny echo of the Minimoog’s emphasis on portability and convenience. Modules are often rated in terms of size: valued for offering a lot of functionality in a small space, or criticised for being too bulky. Erica synths’ Pico range and the company 2hp make a virtue out of slimline dimensions, squeezing maximum synthesis out of minimum space. The small size and low cost of Eurorack has been aided by surface mount circuit production technology and automated production. The video below, of Mutable Instruments modules being assembled at a factory in France, is revealing.

Eurorack has also risen to prominence in the context of networked computation – somewhat ironically for a format in which analogue signals are so crucial. With consumption increasingly shifting online, Eurorack has the perfect form factor. Small modules are easy to send via postal services, as compared to bulky and heavy keyboard synths. Many retailers operate primarily or solely by mail order, reducing the costs of premises and staffing. A thriving second hand market makes use of online forums, trading sites and payment systems. As vintage analogue synthesizers have become increasingly rare, costly and fragile, Eurorack provides a much simpler, cheaper and less troublesome alternative.

So there seems to be a kind of double shift driving Eurorack: on one side, an infrastructure of networked computing, online forums, web stores and computer controlled manufacturing; and on the other, a resurgence of interest in analogue, hands-on and experimental designs for electronic instruments. To quote Pinch and Rocco again:

“The synthesizer’s stabilisation as a keyboard instrument, while an attempt to increase its versatility, and a major step in allowing wide distribution and maintaining its commercial viability, may have begun the process of delimiting its creative freedom.” (ibid.)

Creative freedom is where modular really comes into its own. Its resurgence, in the form of Eurorack, can be understood as a kind of rebellion against the dominant paradigm in music technology. With modular, the stabilised form of the synthesizer is pulled apart and folded  inside out – literally, with patch points pushing signals from the inside to the outside of the box – opening up more space for experimentation. The media theorist Wolfgang Ernst (2012, p.184) suggests that all media technologies have this kind of experimental potential:

“All such mass media as the phonograph, kinematograph, radio, and electronic television were first developed for experimental research. Media are measuring devices, and as such they are scientific, analytical apparatuses…The public-use “synthetic” mass media represent a step from such measuring devices to worlds of mass media, as we often approach them, but we are able to also analytically approach the reverse experience: to go back to the experimentality of such machines.”

The modular renaissance can be understood as precisely this: a return to the experimentality of synthesizers. Indeed, some of the most popular Eurorack modules have high levels of indeterminacy built into their design, such as the Make Noise Maths module, which can generate and process control voltages, mix and slew signals, act as a level comparator, an envelope follower, a complex LFO, perform logic operations, and serve as a makeshift oscillator. With these kinds of designs, a degree of experimentation is required to operate them.

Indeed, the whole format of Eurorack can be seen as a form of experimentation that is proliferating difference. The number of module producers and the range of available modules has grown to dizzying proportions. There are numerous DIY kits and open source designs. Some of the larger and more established music tech companies have released semi-modular gear and equipment that can be patched into Eurorack systems, such as Moog’s Mother 32 and DFAM, and the Arturia Brute series. As a result, anyone building a Eurorack system can integrate elements from radically different electronic music traditions, approaches and design principles: mixing analogue and digital, west coast and east coast synthesis, modules from US, UK and European producers, classic and more experimental designs, factory produced and home made modules, and every conceivable mode of synthesis.

A DIY kit from Thonk for building the Pulses expander for the Music Thing Turing Machine. This was my first experience of surface mount soldering.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of discussing some of these issues with Matt Preston, who runs the Matttech modular online store. He drew my attention to another important dimension of difference, amongst modular users. Eurorack appeals to a range of different groups. Matt mentioned:

  • maths-and-science nerds who are interested in analogue computing and signal processing;
  • collectors;
  • professional musicians and composers whose paid work involves finding new ways to generate and process sound;
  • live performers who want to build portable, configurable and highly interactive self-contained instruments;
  • creative artists who see modular as an open-ended means of experimentation;
  • dance music producers looking for something beyond the standard sample packs and preset sounds.

The coexistence of these overlapping ‘tribes’, as Matt put it, is part of what has enabled the scene to thrive.

That said, all of these groups are notably dominated by one identity type: male, white, typically heterosexual, reflecting male dominance in music technology as a whole. An informal online self-complete survey of modular users carried out in 2018 (n = 249) had 90% of respondents identifying as male and 85% as not LGBTQ. The sample was not representative, but these percentages are big enough to make the overall picture fairly clear. At the same time, there are notable contemporary female artists using modular, such as Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Lady Starlight, and important historical figures such as Daphne Oram, Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros and Wendy Carlos. The contribution to electronic music of various black and multi-racial cultures is also hard to overstate: through funk, disco, hip hop, electro, techno, house, dub, dancehall, jungle, drum and bass, dubstep, grime, footwork and so on. Some of these subcultures have also been overtly LGBTQ, such as disco and house, while one of techno’s most well known hotspots, Berghain in Berlin, evolved from a gay fetish club.

This issue of diversity in electronic music is often debated at length, usually with trenchant views expressed on all sides. In Eurorack, the fact that the main forum for modular synth discussion is called Muff Wiggler can either be construed as a light hearted joke or as blatant sexism, depending on your perspective – see for example this article and the comments attached to it , and this article from FACT mag in which some of the artists featured discuss issues of diversity.

My own observation is that the Eurorack community is characterised primarily by non-dominant forms of masculinity. The tech-nerd aspect attracts men whose maleness is more aligned with stereotypes of tinkering DIY boffins than with misogynism and chauvenism. These non-dominant masculinities can still exclude people who don’t fit into them, but in ways that might be subtle; I’ve seen some people referring to modules using female pronouns for example.  Explicit sexism, whilst occasionally apparent, is increasingly being challenged, and is less of a widespread issue than more implicitly masculinist and heteronormative tendencies.

Emile Gillet, who runs Mutable Instruments, one of the most popular Eurorack producers, recently transitioned from male to female. As such, she has an interesting take on gender and sexuality in relation to the modular community:

“I have nightmares about being part of a “women in synthesis” panel, the growth of my company having benefited from the very male privilege that felt increasingly icky to me (and I could write reams about how uncomfortable I have been with some events, attitudes, MW posts, aesthetic decisions from other brands…).” (via Reddit)

The Eurorack community’s response to Emile’s transition appears to have been overwhelmingly positive, however (e.g. the Reddit thread quoted above), showing that the scene is capable of welcoming social difference, despite being majority male. When it comes to the technical and creative side of things, modular is strongly non-conformist, open-ended, exploratory and radically pluralistic, so one would hope that this attitude could be extended into other aspects of life. If there is such a thing as a queer or trans approach to synthesis, Eurorack is surely the place to find it.

Further information

There are a number of online modular synth enthusiast sites:

https://www.muffwiggler.com

https://www.modulargrid.net

https://www.reddit.com/r/modular/

The number of Eurorack module producers is vast. Some of the more well-known ones include:

http://www.doepfer.de/

http://www.makenoisemusic.com/

http://busycircuits.com/

https://mutable-instruments.net/

http://www.synthtech.com/

https://www.studioelectronics.com/products/synths/boomstar-modular/

http://tiptopaudio.com/

https://intellijel.com/

Some UK Eurorack retailers include:

https://matttechmodular.co.uk/

https://www.rubadub.co.uk/

https://postmodular.co.uk/

https://elevatorsound.com/

https://cymrubeats.com/

https://www.signalsounds.com/

https://londonmodular.co.uk/

One of the coolest places I have been for modular is CTRL in New York, a small shop packed with modular gear. The staff there were extremely knowledgeable and helpful:

https://www.ctrl-mod.com/

Worldwide, other notable outlets include:

Germany: https://www.schneidersladen.de/en/

France: https://www.modularsquare.com/

Norway: https://www.pyramidsounds.com/

USA: http://www.analoguehaven.com/

USA: https://www.controlvoltage.net/

Australia: https://www.patchcable.com.au/

Japan: http://www.clockfacemodular.com/

For DIY stuff, there are lots of sites. I recently built a Music Thing Turing Machine from a kit from Thonk, and based on that experience I would recommend their kits:

https://www.thonk.co.uk/

https://musicthing.co.uk/index.html

I’m also a big fan of DIY site Kassutronics: https://kassu2000.blogspot.com/

Finally, Oakley deserves a mention here – they don’t do many Eurorack modules, but they are highly regarded. Tony Allgood, who runs the company, is a super helpful synth expert:

http://www.oakleysound.com/index.htm

I’ve had enough of scheming

Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson, king of the gammons, has spoken again, and his phonographically registered verbiage has been pumped around the sewers of social media. Apparently he thinks that Donald Trump could do a great job of negotiating Brexit. Admittedly, it’s hard to be sure, listening to the audio clips on Buzzfeed, whether we are hearing the man himself or a beta test of an algorithm designed to speech-synthesise colonial throwback white male upper-class overprivilege. It hardly makes much difference either way though: the ‘Boris’ character is a seventh generation recording of Winston Churchill’s greatest hits, and Churchill was a British empire tribute band. It’s copies all the way down with this lot.

The comments confirm, once again, this fake posh overlord’s absence of self awareness concerning his chequered history with the truth, and its consequences for his credibility. This is a man who continually makes statements with little correspondence to the reality-based world: erroneously suggesting that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British woman jailed in Iran, had travelled there on business; insisting that he didn’t waste “a single penny” of the £46 million of public revenue spent on the failed garden bridge project; describing Africa as a country. And of course the £350 million for the NHS promise, written on the side of what my friend’s mum referred to as “that Labour bus” – a promise described by the head of the UK Statistics Authority as “a clear misuse of official statistics.”

This is a man whose first name isn’t even Boris. A man whose grasp of the truth of even his own views is so tenuous that before the referendum he wrote two newspaper columns, one advocating remain and the other advocating leave. Picture him with a little cartoon devil of Farage hovering on his right shoulder, pint in hand, urging mischief, while angel Cameron pleads into the left ear.

So when Boris says that max fac is viable, that the Irish border difficulties have been vastly overstated, that concerns about customs disruptions are “millennium bug” hysteria, or that no deal is a million to one chance (you can fact check this for yourself on any betting site, but if you’re pushed for time: he’s lying), does he not realise that, due to his track record, his statements actually lend credibility to the exact opposite positions?

Perhaps his most revealing remark was about how Trump’s approach to Brexit would work by creating “all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos”, and as a result would get things done. The Etonian clown turns out to be a crypto-punk, a scorched-earth Nietzschean for whom true acts of creation involve ripping up the established order. Boris and his hard Brexit chums think a bit of short term disruption – some companies closing down here and there, people losing their jobs, a few extra bombs around the Irish border – is a price worth paying for the medium to long term benefits, for which read: deregulation, lower taxes, higher inequality, and unscrupulous rich people getting even richer.

His comments expose the logic of Tory Brexit. The utter shambles of their efforts, the embarrassingly empty rhetoric, the apparent lack of planning, the petty infighting as the clock ticks down – these things are starting to look less like accidental incompetence and more like a deliberate strategy to engineer a disaster that can be exploited to Tory advantage, in the same way that weeds propagate more effectively in disturbed soil.

It is an approach that calls to mind the fictional Thatcherite chancer from the Pet Shop Boys song Opportunities:

I’ve had enough of scheming
And messing ‘round with jerks
My car is parked outside
I’m afraid it doesn’t work
I’m looking for a partner
Someone who gets things fixed
Ask yourself this question: do you want to be rich?

Oh, there’s a lot of opportunities
If you know when to take them, you know
There’s a lot of opportunities,
If there aren’t you can make them,
Make or break them…

Upcoming events on sound and space

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be presenting at two events that both look excellent.

Tuned City in Ancient Messene, Greece, 1st-3rd June 2018

I will be presenting about an audio drift I made for the ruins of Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary. Ancient Messene is a collection of ruins, so hopefully this work will fit with the place.

I will be playing examples of how sound art methods, such as working with binaural recording and portable audio players, can disrupt the conventional heritage approach to history. The heritage industry promotes the idea that history is a fixed, linear chronological narrative, confined to the past, which should be clearly and unambiguously represented to people to help them learn about history, e.g. through the audio guides that give factual information to visitors at heritage tourist attractions.

My presentation will be about how can audio be used in more playful and generative ways to reconfigure places. By using techniques such as binaural recording to create spatial illusions, and overlapping multiple sounds and voices, audio can remind us that history is ongoing, that places are always happening in the here-and-now, that events are multiple and messy, and that there is no single ‘correct’ version of what a place ‘is’.

Audio also physically moves bodies – pushing ears and skin and from there hooking into the nervous system. With my audio drift people reported feeling compelled to slow down at points, or to hurry away from certain areas of the site. One woman was drawn by some watery audio to a stream – and then slipped and fell in (disclaimer: no one was hurt. Thankfully.) So narrating a place through audio is not just about representing facts to people. It can be a visceral experience, in which learning happens in an embodied way. In ruins, there is particular potential for using audio to amplify uncanny and haunted atmospheres.

Symposium on ‘Sound and space: theory and methods in sonic geographical research’ at Cardiff University, 5th-6th June 2018

This event is free to attend, although places are limited. There is more information here:

http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/geographyandplanning/2018/03/26/sound-and-space-theory-and-methods-in-sonic-geographical-research-symposium/

My sonic geography collaborator Jonathan Prior is organising this, together with urban cultural geographer Mark Jayne. Day one will be presentations from invited speakers including me. Day two will be a more hands-on sonic geography methods workshop led by Jonathan.

My presentation will be about working with voice audio as research data rather than only as a precursor to textual transcription. Voice audio can be used to productively disrupt dominant paradigms of voice: by propagating voices as vibration, experimenting with the machinic media ecologies that constitute voice, and rewiring the relations between voice, space and place. I will be presenting some examples of experimental styles of voice audio, again drawing on my Kilmahew audio drift, to illustrate creative ways of editing voices and using contrapuntal polyphony (to borrow the term used by Glen Gould to describe his solitude trilogy of radio documentaries).

You can read more about my audio drift for Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary in this paper here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1474474014542745

The paper is open access so you don’t need a university subscription to read it.

Authors into the future

Skeletor lookalike, patriot and speaking as a mother Andrea Leadsom recently attracted ridicule for accidentally suggesting that Jane Austen was one of our greatest living authors.

Yet it is unfair to single out Leadsom, who has had both children and a glittering career in investment banking, for such a simple slip of the tongue.

Leadsom’s entire political party routinely confuses polar opposite concepts. The Tories have misidentified weakness as strength, instability as stability, uncertainty as certainty. These walking contradictions and doublespeak merchants have in recent years convinced themselves that Theresa May is capable of effective leadership, that Brexit can be a success, and that Liam Fox deserves a senior ministerial position rather than to be hunted down using pitchforks, shackled into stocks in the village square and pelted with rotten turnips before being harnessed to a hayrick and made to tow it to market with a pack of feral dogs biting at his unshod heels.

Even Leadsom’s own surname seems mistaken: lead some what? Some sort of badly-organised church hall jumble sale for a charity that later turns out to be a front for offshore money laundering? Her incompetence so obviously exceeds even that of the current incumbent that the faintest whisper of Leadsom as a possible future party leader sends black clouds of dread billowing across the soul.

Little wonder, then, that Leadsom struggled momentarily to differentiate between being alive and having been dead for 200 years. For zombies, such distinctions are not clear cut.

Far more important than her minor mouth mishap was what Leadsom said next: “I think many of us probably wish she were still living.”

Now here is a sentiment with which no right thinking person could disagree. If only Austen could have been kept alive!

What better to reassure us, at this time of turmoil, than a living connection to Britain’s golden literary past, whose twilight glow still glimmers in our rose-tinted rear-view mirrors.

What a comfort it would be to come face to face with the esteemed author, and find her still registering vital signs at the age of 242 years. People would queue around the block for an opportunity to see the decaying flaps of her ancient skin, to stare into her blind rotted eye sockets, to hear the rasping of her artificially ventilated breath. They would watch entranced as her skeletal hand creaks outwards, pen trembling, wasted muscles replaced by electric motors, to autograph a barely legible ‘JA’ in the front page of a crisp new paperback of Pride and Prejudice.

At such a ripe vintage, no-one would expect Austen to be capable of producing new fiction, as that would probably prove disappointing, like when Harper Lee finally followed up To Kill A Mockingbird, or when Morrissey did that book that everyone hated apart from Terry Eagleton. What we want from our centuries-old literary giants is not fresh copy but repeated affirmation of their greatest hits – a more modest goal, and surely achievable within our lifetimes by cutting edge medicine.

I therefore hope that Leadsom, who has said that men should not be employed in childcare because they are potential paedophiles, will now act decisively to support research into maintaining the life of noted writers far beyond the usual span of human days.

It may prove too late for Austen, whose buried dust is probably past the point of reanimation. But what about sustaining our current literary talents indefinitely?

Imagine our descendants 200 years hence: the hardened survivors of desertification and sea level rise, scraping by on the last remaining pockets of habitable land. If only they were able to ask a still-living JK Rowling why Harry and Hermione never got together, it might lift their weary spirits enough to carry on in the face of ecocatastrophe.

Two centuries of hindsight would make for fascinating, if heated, discussions about the planetary apocalypse with environmentalist writers such as James Lovelock, his disheveled, barely-recognisable husk of a body pumped full of stem cells and tubes.

At the weekends, exhausted from days spent scouring for fragments of viable food or huddled in tunnels to escape a nuclear winter, our dwindling species might find welcome distraction in a meet-the-author with E.L. James’s nervous system preserved in a chamber of crackling plasma.

These undead authors will be hooked up to computers, enabling them to speak like Stephen Hawking, their vocal chords having long since disintegrated. The only exception will be Stephen Hawking, who will have reprogrammed his software to emulate the voice of Jane Austen.

Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author, but with Leadsom we can dare to dream of a world in which authors don’t die, they just lose the capacity to exist independently of medical hardware. As a mother, Leadsom may be unable lend her time to furthering this worthy cause, but as a Tory MP and former investment banker who managed tens of thousands of multi-billion pound accounts, she would surely be well placed to help raise the required funds.

Empty Brexit and dead schools: the ghostly politics of Theresa May

Grey face, empty words, opacity and absence. Theresa May is a bad Thatcher tribute act. She does the voice better than the original, but everything else is just miming to the backing track.

During the EU referendum campaign she was nicknamed “submarine May”, but submarines dive because they have something important to hide. Our newly unelected Prime Minister seems to be hiding precisely because, so far, she has nothing to give us: no answers to the big Brexit questions, no coherent programme for government, just slogans on repeat and expensive brown trousers.

At a time when the UK faces massive political upheaval, she stands in front of an RAF chopper saying she wants a “red, white and blue Brexit”. An appeal not to principles of economics, democracy or sovereignty, but to the hollow nationalism of flag colours. Vacuity has become virtue.

Now we have the ‘shared society’. Only the Conservative Party could think it original to propose that society is something collective. Next up: edible food, wearable clothes, learning schools and a health service based on medical care.

With so little content on display, what can we say about Prime Minister May? One thing seems clear: she is riding the latest wave of what Simon Reynolds has called retromania, the addiction of culture to its own past. Brexit has become a rallying cry for those who view our country through a rose-tinted rearview mirror. The Leave campaign’s operative word wasn’t ‘take’ or ‘control’ but ‘back’. We want our country back. Way back. In a world stuck on fast forward, people are reaching for the comforts of the rewind.

So Theresa May has decided to re, re, wind, so the crowd won’t say ‘reject her’. Her style mixes the 1950s and the 1980s, like a wedding DJ trying to please everyone. With Corbyn in opposition beatmatching the 60s and 70s, all we need is Tony Blair’s 1990s Britpop revival and parliament will be like one of those clubs with music from different decades on different floors.

When warm nostalgia gets into politics, it curdles into something lumpier and less appetizing. We have seen this before in the UK. Thatcher used a romantic, backwards looking vision of wartime Britain as a cultural cover for economic policies that eroded the shared society we once had. Her idea of Britishness was inspired by Churchill, who in turn harked back to the British Empire and its sense of moral and cultural superiority. (Adam Curtis’s 1995 film The Attic deals with these themes, and is therefore essential Brexit viewing).

So Theresa May is a covers band of a covers band of a covers band.

Look at how she has dug up the rotting corpse of grammar schools as a flagshit policy. I say shit, because evidence on selective schooling is clear: it increases inequality, and decreases overall levels of attainment, which is the exact opposite of May’s stated aim of making “a country that works for everyone”. Even some of her own MPs oppose the policy.

Why would a politician want to invoke the ghost of such a dead dysfunctional system? Answer: not to improve schools but to  appeal to the aspirations of voters, particularly amongst the working and lower middle classes, in a way that requires little money or action. The PM has sent a message: “We want your children to have the opportunity to do well, like they did in the past” – even though grammar schools probably won’t be built near you, and even if they are your child probably won’t get a place.

So it doesn’t really matter whether the schools ever get built or not. The policy has already done its work, stirring up hopeful little voices inside parents’ heads that whisper, “my child is special, my child is clever, maybe my child could get in.” Theresa May is leveraging parental ambition to build political support, dangling before us a tantalising illusion of meritocracy that obscures the blunt reality of inequality.

Because again the evidence is clear: poor children are less likely to get into grammar schools, even if they are high achievers. There are exceptions of course, but exceptions are irrelevant when you are organising education for an entire population. Poorer children do tend to have slightly higher levels of achievement if they get in, but very few of them ever get in, because those with more resources will always find ways to boost their chances of selection, such as private prep schools or tutors to coach for the 11-plus. Grammar schools disproportionately benefit the affluent, for whom they provide a free alternative to private school. So the policy appeals to that demographic too.

We must not allow our instincts to be played in this way. Instead, let’s be pro-active and read May’s politics as a crystal ball for Brexit. She keeps saying she won’t show her negotiating hand, that we must trust her to get the UK a unique and favourable deal. Yet her leadership to date shows little to suggest she is capable of pulling something really clever out of the bag. As well as the grammar school proposals, her government has watered down the obesity strategy, passed a snoopers’ charter that violates privacy, kicked the Heathrow 3rd runway vote into the future, and dithered over Hinkley Point. Based on this track record, expecting Theresa May to come up with a brilliant solution for Brexit would be like expecting Michael Buble to drop a deadly grime banger on his next album.

Our new PM has not shown herself to be someone who produces ingenious, bold, innovative solutions to difficult problems. At best, she produces policies that appeal to English conservative voters’ love of authority, hierarchy, and Britain’s mythic past, whilst minimising any impact on the vested interests that support her party.

I therefore guess her Brexit priorities will be:

  • To appear tough on immigration, whilst allowing it to continue in thinly-disguised forms where it serves particular interests and sectors, such as food production and banking.
  • To maintain trading links with the EU, but without remaining part of the single market. This might involve special arrangements for sectors and companies seen as valuable e.g. large companies (like the deal with Nissan), the City of London.
  • To use Brexit as an opportunity to weaken laws on human rights and labour rights. As a friend of mine put it, May is instinctively illiberal – like many of her party and its supporters. She will be looking for ways to advance that agenda wherever possible.

Ghostly politics, but with very real effects. This is the terrain on which she must be fought.