Thursday, 12 January 2017

So what now?


 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I mean, really, what the fuck do we do now?

I called two election results early and correctly in 2016.  By mid-May, despite Sadiq Khan beating the odiously racist campaign of Zac Goldsmith to be London Mayor earlier in the month, it was becoming increasingly apparent to me that Leave was going to triumph in the referendum.  I hoped for a Remain vote, but the surprisingly range of people I encountered either considering or definitely voting for us to abscond from the European Union was suggesting disaster. 

Secondly, although arguably in a midst of post-Brexit depression, I said as early as August that I thought Trump would take the American Presidency.  A trip to the States in September didn’t yield much evidence to support that, but then we went to New York and Seattle, Democrat strongholds.  It may have seemed madness, and different to the EU-referendum, but the populist message he was chanting was the same as that Farage, Johnson and Gove had sallied around the country blithely lying earlier in the year.  Sure, it may be complete bullshit, but the best stories never turn out to be true anyway.

I wish to hell I had been wrong.

There was satisfaction in seeing Goldsmith also take a kicking in a by-election he assumed would be a waltz to victory, another defeat this time brought about by his own vanity and a justice of sorts for the racism and xenophobia he has displayed over the previous twelve months.  However, that small triumph doesn’t anywhere near make up for the fact that we have, as a country, blundered towards the edge of the abyss and drunkenly stumbled into it.  We have found ourselves transposed to a world where a politician with perfectly mainstream views like Jo Cox can be murdered in the streets of the sleepy town at the heart of her community.  Even in the bitterly fought and stark divides of the eighties, that would have seemed a distant possibility.  Something that, maybe, happened in other countries, but never here.

I have written many versions of this article.  Immediately after the referendum.  As Labour tore itself apart and failed to generate any sense of being a credible opposition even at the point where Tory civil war threatened to implode the whole notion of government.  During a summer when UK politics felt like it was being written by a the same people who write adrenaline punctuated TV shows like 24 or Game of Thrones, locked in a sweaty, darkened room,  with just cocaine and whisky for sustenance, each producing ever elaborate narrative swerves: “call that a twist?  I’ll show you a twist.”

Unable to write fast enough, the world ran away from me, but in every single version I failed to answer the question, so what do we do about it?

Part of the difficulty is that it is not just us, not just the UK.  A dangerous nationalist tide is sweeping the world and with it comes, almost inevitably history suggests, violence and tragedy.  I first wrote about the threat Putin poses eight and half years ago and rather than learning from the escapades in Georgia that prompted that piece, the world seems to be scampering to fall over itself in admiration for the man.  Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen looking like the candidate to beat in France, moderate reforms brushed aside in Italy, right wing governments in Hungary and Poland, a near run thing in Austria, trouble in Greece.  These are no longer blips, anomalies; this is a full blown global political swing away from the centre left and social liberalism that dominated for a decade and a half from the mid-nineties and back towards the politics of the great powers of the nineteenth century.

‘Are you trying to cheer me up?‘ my wife asked me shortly after Trump’s victory when we were wondering how long until Armageddon.

‘Not really, no,’ just pontificating, but to extent, maybe, these things go in cycles and we are currently just on the outer edges of the political elastic band’s stretch. It’s a particularly nasty place, sure, but we’ll bounce back.  Won’t we?

Probably.

The problem is what happens while we’re here.  It’s going to be a while.  Trump is good until 2020.  It’s unlikely that May will call an early election unless she ends up with a minority government due to defections and resignations so that gives her the same time frame.  (Even if she did, the opposition are so fragmented at the moment who knows what the outcome would be.)

People across the social, political and creative spheres have been talking about the fight-back and how it starts now.  While I agree that there is a need, an obligation even, to challenge and fight every erosion of liberty, of rights, every step backwards from the progressive, tolerant world we have spent fifty years trying to create, at the moment it can be little more than a valiant covering retreat.  This is going to be the political re-enactment of Dunkirk, to steal a Brexiter’s favourite period of analogy.  We’re out numbered, out gunned, don’t have a fucking clue how we’re not even going to win, but how we simply save what we can of society.  All we know is that we can’t simply roll over and die or run away.  Our defeats must be disguised as victories, somehow.

The reason this is the best we can hope for is that we’re still not getting to the root of the problem.  The successful vote to leave the European Union and the shambles of an attempt to defend staying in shows that the twentieth century’s political battle lines of left and right are, effectively, dissolving.  This rise of nationalism both here, in mainland Europe and across in the USA is a knee jerk reaction against globalisation.  In Russia it is a tool to keep Putin in power, but it only works because of the cynicism of Russians and a, surprising, pining for the more straightforward world under Communism. 

Rich, poor, old and young, people can see their national identity being eroded by immigration.  The fact that this could be an evolution of identity, that what we had can become something better, as it has done throughout history, seems to pass many people by. 

In barely a generation we have seen the fundamental pillars of industry and the economy change, and people are fearful of that.  Many don’t understand the world we’re heading into, many can’t access its benefits.  The fight against being marginalised in the face of global capitalism is not to make yourself a smaller unit, it is to join forces with those in similar situations, to be a part of the whole not an isolated island.

Oh well, too late now. Brexit means Brexit, even if no-one can quite explain what that actually means in itself.

Unfortunately those in the American mid-west, in Philadelphia, in South Wales, in Boston, Lincolnshire who believe they have voted to bring jobs and industry home have been hoodwinked.  In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum I saw a video of a man being interviewed in Hull who said he expected the factories to be reopening and the jobs to be appearing within the year, as though membership of the EU was somehow preventing those things from happening, as though some magic curse upon the land put in place by “bureaucrats” would be lifted.  It’s bollocks, obviously.  Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump for God’s sake, these are not people who believe in work and industry as a cornerstone of the community.  They’re not Joseph Rowntree.  They believe in profit for themselves, in looking down on everyone else from the safety of their gilded parapet.

There’s an argument that we’re actually in the death-throes of capitalism.  That these things continue to move and evolve, that we went from the ancient empires, to feudalism, to industrialisation and then to free market capitalism and from here to who knows what?  Maybe the blessed holy market can’t keep growing indefinitely, maybe we will hit a peak when civil and social unrest overwhelms share-prices and the whole edifice comes tumbling down.  The past seventy years have been a period of relative peace and prosperity, but maybe that’s coming to an end.  The future is, as always unknown, and it probably won’t be quick.  It is only with hindsight that historians are able to say that the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476 and an Ostrogoth declaring himself King of Italy marked the end of the Empire.  No-one at the time realised that, just as for the century before that from the death of Constantine no-one realised they were trapped in a period of terminal decline and fall.  No-one recognised that the adaptation of Christianity as the Empire’s official religion was going to kick-start the transition to feudal states.  Of course they didn’t, just as in three hundred years, or less, people may look at back at 2016 and decide it has significance of the sort we can’t comprehend stuck in the middle of the maelstrom as we are.

Of course all of this depends on the planet not giving out first.  You can read all sorts of forecasts: that the icecaps are warmer than they have ever been, that water scarcity is coming, that changing weather patterns are going to thrash our communities on an annual basis, that there is barely a generation’s worth of arable soil left, all of which will make the monetary system we’re using seem inconsequential.  The politics of now shouldn’t be about isolationism, about selfishness, about nations: it should be about technology, about societal change, about rescuing the world. 

It isn’t though, and that’s the real problem.

I know I still haven’t answered my own question.  So, what now? 

Fight back is the obvious answer.  In 2009 I started writing a novel set round about now, in a post-financial apocalypse society that had slumped towards dystopia.  It was a bleak world, but the fundamental corners of what we understood about ourselves remained.  I worry that they don’t anymore.  That what comes next is much worse than I can imagine, will be inherently more complicated than fiction and so the fight back has to answer those complexities.  It can’t be fiction.  Fiction, it seems to my despair, has been co-opted by the alt-right.  Post-truth means invented, so not only do we need to reclaim reality but the imaginary world too.  It will take time to fully understand how we meet that challenge, so as much as it pains me, we must wait for the battle to be clearer.

In the meantime, the best I can come up with is:  Fuck knows.  I guess we try to be kind, try to do the right thing, shout, protest, argue and hope for the god-damn best, hope that things get bad enough for everyone to recognise the terrible mistakes that have been made and try to turn things around before a real dystopia is declared.    

That’s not much hope, but it is probably all we’ve got.

Good luck.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Lost by music


 

A year later, I still can’t quite believe that David Bowie is dead.

When the news came through back at the beginning of the year I hadn’t even gotten around to listening to Black Star, his final album.  I was still lost in the first few weeks of being a parent, the days and nights were interchangeable, life was about trying to make it through the next few hours.  I saw it on the Guardian, having hauled myself into work.  I felt like going home again.  It was a bolt through my heart.

Mere days before I had been swaying around the living room, the winter sun streaming through the bay windows, my son wrapped tight in my arms, his gurgles of half sleep being smothered by the sound of Absolute Beginners through the stereo.  The ba-ba-baoo chorus felt like a comfort blanket being draped over me; it was going to be all right.  Whatever else happened there would be David Bowie.

And then there wasn’t; and then there was again.

My son, at the time, had an odd looking star shaped man with dangling legs, a mirror in his stomach and various squeaking appendages. It looked like a late sixties comic book inter-dimensional creature, the sort that would get lost in New York and accidentally demolish a couple of blocks before being calmed with acid tabs. 

‘Look,’ my wife says to the boy, ‘it’s your star man.’

‘It’s David Bowie,’ I exclaim and launch into Starman.  Over the next few weeks the spirit of David Bowie, trapped in a suckled child’s toy, waggled about while I tunelessly sang my son his hit singles up until Ashes to Ashes.  It was an odd way to pay tribute to the man who so singularly sound tracked my teenage life.  No, more than that: Bowie’s music showed me what was possible and how it was perfectly acceptable to stretch and cajole an art-form into something that fitted your unique vision, provided you had absolute mastery of in the first place.  It has been something I have been failing to do ever since, but at least he gave me the inspiration needed to try.

I am trying to ensure my son understands this too.  I am trying to live out my failed musical fantasies through him. 

For Christmas, my wife gave me a Stephen Collins print where a baby is being cared for by its Dad.  Dad decides to put some music on, but rather than something age appropriate he thinks the Fall would be more fun.  The baby has to be talked down from a crying fit by the stuffed penguin it is cuddling, left to wistfully dream of a future where modern music will terrify and annoy the older generation.  Every time I read it, I chuckle, not only because Collins’ art if fantastic, but because I recognise myself so clearly in the strip.

‘Listen to this, it’s brilliant, if a little heavy!’

My son whacks his drum over and over and I think he’s a genius, the next John Bonham.  And then he thumps a wooden car against the glass coffee table repeatedly.  He just likes smashing things.

Still, I look forward to the days in the future when we will sit down together and I will say, ‘listen to this, it’s important.’  And he will, no doubt, roll his eyes disparagingly, wondering what all the fuss is about. 

I bought a copy of Songs of Leonard Cohen in my early twenties, on the strength of its reputation, and then, a few years later, acquired a copy of Death of a Ladies Man.  The former I found lyrically interesting, but frequently a little dull; the latter felt a muddy, over-produced mess with occasional glimpses of fizz.  I struggled to understand what all the fuss was about.  I guess, in the end, I was simply too young to appreciate his brilliance and uniqueness.

A friend of mine and I bonded over just the mention of Leonard Cohen’s name.  This was back when I was making a point of not really having friends at work because it was easier to separate my real, often drunken, frequently miserable, always pretentious self and the artifice of normality I presented in the workplace.  She was moved to sit opposite me and it was immediately clear we had lots in common, but it wasn’t prepared to drop my guard until I overheard her talking enthusiastically about the National, and comparing the lead singer’s vocal style to Cohen, before adding: ‘Of course no-one is really like Leonard Cohen, he’s just otherworldly.’

By this time I was immersing myself in Cohen’s back catalogue and was coming to the same decision myself; the reason I’d struggled to really connect to him when younger is because there aren’t really any reference points.  Sure, he’s singing complex lyrics, but then so does Bob Dylan.  Yes, he’s essentially an acoustic troubadour who occasionally borrows a bigger band set-up, but so are countless others.  Underneath that, the lyrical eye, the meticulousness of the song messages, the bleak, over-looked humour, are all so much more than anyone else. 

Although, in fairness, aside from Songs of... it wasn’t until Old Ideas in 2011 that he finally managed to get the production of a record right, striking just the right notes between acoustic and band, perfectly underplayed without being overly simplistic.

Unlike Bowie, Cohen’s complexity means he is unlikely to have been the theme tune to many teenagers’ lives, but that doesn’t mean it fails to inspire passions.  Years ago, my then girlfriend and I had been at a festival in Kent watching Neil Young.  It was only a one day thing, so it was midnight and was were sat in the car waiting for the traffic to begin to move.  As one of the first people to have arrived, we were going to be one of the last out, that was clear.  It was a hot evening, and we sat with the windows down, trying not to fall asleep. 

The car next to us was playing Cohen.  Eventually, Hallelujah came on and the volume was cranked up to the max.  The windows were rolled up, but you could still hear the music, that stretched vocal, cracking the tinny speakers.  A joyous baritone of regret subverted by static.

The couple began to kiss to the rhythm of the song.  Their embrace became increasingly passionate until the seats were reclined and, after a moment’s pause, long enough for a tugged fumble, the car back to gently rock on its wheels.  As the song reached its climax I expected a hand to slap against the steam forming on the window glass.  It didn’t.  Slowly the car came to a rest, but the couple didn’t reappear.

Against the slew of celebrity deaths throughout 2016 these are the two which struck me the hardest.  It wasn’t just the surprise of Bowie’s or the inevitability of Cohen’s, but the beauty in their deaths which caused a tightening of the chest, a welling at the eyes.  Both were able to release last testaments, final pieces of music mere days before they died.  Bowie’s Black Star was one his most challenging and original albums.  Cohen’s You Want it Darker offered the final bites of wisdom from a life well lived, the last words were had.  Both of them had found a creative patch that was almost the strongest they had ever had.  

Not many people have the privilege, to know the end is approaching and to be able to say something final about life.  That usually only happens in bad fiction, as the family gathers around the deathbed, the child leans in to half-hear the gasped final testament, misunderstood and lied about to the grandchildren for ever more.  Real life is almost always crueller, snatching people away unexpectedly or in agony.  Prince didn’t beat real life.  Nor did Victoria Wood, or George Michael, or Steve Dillon, or Ronnie Barker, or Alan Rickman, or Carrie Fisher, or Jimmy Perry, or Robert Vaughan, or Gene Wilder, or Muhammed Ali, or Harper Lee or god knows how many others.  Bowie and Cohen cheated real life and they cheated bad fiction.  They were able to create something that lasts, that can be slowly unpeeled and, when the grief alleviates, can be finally understood.  Well, that is a thing of wonder to be treasured indeed. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Writing about not writing













I find it staggering that my son is a year old.

Since his birth my writing productivity has dried up.  I always knew it would drop off, but even in my most despondent moments about becoming a parent, I didn’t think it would be quite this bad.  Babies sleep a lot, I reasoned.  Things haven’t quite worked out as expected.

There are various reasons for this.  Most obviously there is a lack of time, compounded by a lack of sleep which creates a fuddled mess of an imagination no longer able to hold a thought through to conclusion.  Surprisingly the lack of a routine has created a lack of momentum.  Previously I would normally complete a first draft of a scene or of a whole piece in a matter of days.  Now it takes weeks, or longer, until the end of it is an abstract thing so disconnected from its start as to no longer be coherent or even relevant.  Another human in the house causes a lack of space.  And there is a lack of urge. 

Time is stolen away from me.  There’s no real shock revelation there, but prior to Dadness I hadn’t appreciated that as well as baby supervision the amount of domestic and administrative chores increase exponentially and not just by an extra third.  Furthermore the time to complete those is shoved into the unlikely hours of the day where previously writing would take place.  Washing clothes happens late at night.  Researching imagined medical conditions or some gizmo I had hitherto not realised existed let alone grasped its essentialness occurs while he naps.  The inevitable aching for those four in the morning moments spent feeding or comforting to be given back takes place when the alarm goes off first thing. 

If this is all true for me, it is one hundred times more acute for my wife, especially in the early months where her very movements were limited by the lips clamped to her chest.  As he has got larger and more active, the headspace where it is possible to do one thing and to think about something else disappears.  It takes a surprising amount of mental agility to stack plastic beakers or pretend a cuddly lion is eating his stomach.  Similarly, the commute becomes a manic dash where all thoughts are focussed on returning as quickly as possible or trying to overtake on the way in those minutes lost by playing with him.  Paid working hours need to become infinitely more effective so that, where previously, time had paused to allow some notes to be scribbled, anything that adds even five minutes onto my departure time is vehemently resented.

It is only in recent weeks that the constant throb of tiredness has begun to abate.  It is still there, I still pine for bed, but I have stopped falling asleep in meetings, on trains, on the sofa.  I no longer yawn through entire conversations and my caffeine intake has fallen below levels which would kill many people.  Yet still I crave sleep like, in the past, I have craved whisky, an all encompassing urge for the pillows’ soft depth that would be succumbed to, were there not so much to do. 

Every now successful writer has a story about the time they created in the day to put words on paper.  Like many, a friend of mine advocates the early morning, enjoying that time where your brain is not quite clear and the words can slip through the gaps in perception.  Previously I would happily settle down to write when others were ending their day.  Now, I already get up a six to get to work for seven-thirty.  I could get up even earlier, although the idea of disturbing my wife with an alarm at a time she considers the middle of the night fills me with guilt.  Besides, where once I sprang out of bed no matter the time, now I sometimes find it physically impossible to lift my head when the alarm trings.  Instead, I hit snooze and immediately regret the panic of the minutes to be made up – and then he wakes anyway.  My evenings are now occupied with stuff that needs doing.  And after ten?  I am too tired.  I don’t go to bed, but that is only because a day that races full tilt from six in the morning until ten at night needs an hour to unwind, time to read or to think (but not to write).  Despite the weariness in my gut, if I went straight to bed from sixty miles an hour I know I would lie in the gloom, staring at the ceiling, waiting for who knows what?

For me writing has always been a pressurised activity.  I have to splurge.  It has always been a clattering rush to catch the idea before the moment is lost and it drifts away in memory as though never having been there in the first place.  Inspiration is ethereal and fleeting.  The refinement through editing can take years, but, for me, there needs to be something down to play with. 

My hard drive is littered with short stories and fragments of what may have become something bigger where the momentum was lost, the all precious voice reduced to a faint comedy accent, a stereotype so obvious the whole foundation is sliding sand.  These are pieces where I wasn’t quick enough, where some bit of real life got itself miserably in my way, and the words just evaporated. 

Regular readers will have seen evidence of this over the years.  The best posts on here are those captured in a few hours, tweaked and spruced up over a couple of days and set free.  The ones which struggle the hardest are often those I laboured over the most.  That works fine as a model for blogs and short stories, but, obviously, one cannot write a novel in such a way.  Of the two unpublished novels I like best, one was written in an almost feverish six months where I had no other life.  The draft which emerged at the end of that time was short and unpolished, but it was a good base I spent the following year building upon.  The other was written with more care over the course of a year with interruptions for life events, such as moving in with my now-wife.  The fever was abated, but I kept the voice loud in my head at all times, teaching myself to almost think like the narrator.  The finished draft was less patchy, although I was to spend another three years trying to polish the imperfections out.  These revisions would take place over a concentrated period of time, a few months or so where I would find the voice again and in-between I would work on other stuff.

Since my son’s birth I have not opened the file containing the earliest sketches of the new novel I had been working on.  The voice I had is lost, as alien to me now as a sonar bleep across the stars.  I thought that might happen.  Hopefully I’ll come back to it.  For this first year I had more modest plans around short stories and blog posts, all of which were dutifully started, all are unfinished, and arguably unfinishable.      

Space too is important.  I used to want writing to feel a part of the everyday.  I didn’t want to have to make the effort to begin, just to slip into the role.  Living alone my whole flat became an extended desk; when my now-wife and I first moved in together I carved out a space behind the kitchen door, which was more pleasant than it sounds.  It was isolated and focussed.  In our house, I shared an office space with my wife who often worked from home, allowing me to take over the desk in the evenings.  In the summer, I found my thoughts distracted by the views over Lewisham and to Oxleas Wood in the distance, but at least it was a room I could spread my imagination out in. 

That room is now my son’s bedroom.  The desk that was in there is now in the spare room, the chair bumps into the bed when I lean back in it.  The two rooms are next to each other and so in reality I find myself on the dining room table, amongst the fruit and newspapers, the fragments of ordinary life.  It may be uncomfortable, but is better than worrying that every key stroke will wake him from his slumber (even though, logically, I know it won’t).  Except downstairs, life is more prevalent.  The washing up needs doing, the gas bill needs paying, the washing machine roars in a way that can’t be good for it.  I am distracted by a thousand different bits of normal life that need finishing.

But none of this matters.

The poet Jackie Kay once said that we write to understand what’s missing in our lives.  Maybe.  The second unpublished novel, the one  I wrote in a frenzy, sweating in summer sun, cramped in the box sized flat, fuelled by whisky and coffee was about heartbreak, loneliness, rock n roll, no-one listening to you and never growing up.  I stopped refining it and trying to sell it shortly before my wife and I moved in together.

The third unpublished novel was about murder, envy, unrequited impossible love, buildings and never realising what’s important.  In the years it took me write it I doubled my paid-work salary, got married and became the minor shareholder in a house.

Before my son was born I was starting to work on something about politics, about the death of liberalism, about hope, a single history of a family intertwined with the soul of the country.  The scenes I’d written were mainly about fatherhood.

All a coincidence?  Maybe.  Probably not.

The other evening, when I was getting my son ready for bed, I lifted him up in order to tug his top down and he reached his arms around my neck, burying his head into my shoulder, gurgling happily.  There’s that, and there’s the way he babbles along “Dada, dada,” and greets every return with a smile of joy wider than my heart.  There’s the game we have where he chases me around the downstairs of the house, trying to find me in one of the two places I can hide.  The way he looks at me a moment before diving off the bed, or under the bathwater, that glance that says “I know I can do this because you’ll save me.”  All those and a million other reasons.  That’s why writing no longer matters.

 

 

 

Well, except it does a little bit.

As I type I am sitting in a metal storage container in the car park of an old police station, a space I am subletting to escape the chores.  It’s early Sunday morning, barely nine, and there’s a biting chill to the air that cools the coffee next to the computer faster than I can drink it.  My son has been awake, fed and played with and gone down for his nap already and so I am excused to come here.  One eye remains on the clock in the bottom right corner of the screen, watching the two hours disappear faster than the words can appear.

If I don’t write I feel like I am going mad.  If I don’t write there is nowhere for all the stuff, all the emotions, the ideas, the fear to dissipate to.  If I don’t write I only feel half alive.

No, that’s not fair.  It’s not that melodramatic, but it does feel like something is missing.

Maybe Jackie Kay is right.   Maybe I just need to work out, as my life becomes ever better, what it is I am missing.  At the moment it feels as though the things I have lost are space and time to think, to create and maybe understanding that will be one of the hardest parts of becoming a Dad.

So for the time being I am writing about not writing, and that’s better than nothing.


Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Europe


Statue depicting, possibly, how UK voters feel, Copenhagen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Somehow, as I type this, it has become the 7th of June.  I started thinking about this during my month’s paternity leave over December and January, getting down a few thousand words at odd times of the night, at the kitchen table during the softly lit mornings when it felt mid-afternoon, or evening, or who knows when.  My initial ideas for an arc about the importance of Europe quickly proved too big, too unwieldy for the time I had and so were abandoned.

Then I tried again, sometime when things got a little easier, when we found the new rhythm of life.  That was better thought out, more realistic, but I lost interest.  Fundamentally I didn’t really have an argument and was largely swiping concepts from a Radio 4 documentary I’d heard while driving through Lincolnshire one Tuesday morning, the tempo of my prose as flat as the landscape. 

And so, here I am.  The 7th of June.  A Tuesday evening, the summer downpour leaving the garden feeling fresh and cool after the afternoon’s clamminess, the breeze comes through the French windows of the kitchen.  Part of my brain is contemplating the pre-six o’clock start for paid work tomorrow morning.  The rest of it is worrying about the 23rd of June.  

The referendum on our membership of the European Union is probably the most important decision we have faced in a generation and I seem unable to properly plug myself into what’s happening.  When I wrote far reaching, well researched, coherently argued pieces around the 2010 and 2015 elections I was watching an hour or more of news and devouring the BBC and Guardian websites every day as a minimum.  At the moment, I seem barely able to remember there’s a choice for the nation to make.

Of course, I have my excuse:  My son is almost six months old and while it is significantly easier than it was, there are scarcely any free moments in a day.  And that’s okay.  I would much rather spend half an hour playing with him, seeing his gummy grin as I enter a room, than contemplating the disaster looming.

But this is important, vitally so, and not just for me and the immediate future, but for him and for years to come.  Once we are out there will be no way back in.  In my overly privileged bubble it all seems obvious, but around the country I fear those who want to leave are gaining traction.  The Remain campaign is a shambles so every right thinking person needs to wade in.   I want to help, but how am I supposed to find the time and the head space to write for our futures? 

*

And there we go, it’s now the 15th of June and I got little further than the above.  I may not have been writing, but I did manage to pay closer attention.  Depressingly, the outcome seems worse than I thought.  I think the Leave campaign is going to just sneak a victory.  More interestingly, I think I have, finally, begun to understand why.

Both sides have tried to distil a hugely complex system into simplistic messages leaving factually incorrect sound-bites and we all spend time picking holes in each others’ supposed facts rather than addressing the fundamental motivation.  Which is easy enough to do.  Let’s debunk some of the arguments for Leave:

We all know that the £350m Boris Johnson so maturely carved into metal with a chainsaw and is emblazoned on the side of the Leave campaign’s bus is, at best, misleading.  The reality is that the majority of that money either never leaves the country or is reinvested back here as subsidiaries for industries such as farming or green energy or infrastructure projects such as introducing broadband to Cornwall, developing a number of centres for innovation at universities around the country, subsidising regional graduate employment programmes, rejuvenating the port of Sunderland, and hundreds of other projects. 

This leaves some £160million being invested into Europe each week.  Some of that will be used to support the EU’s infrastructure, but much of it will be used to invest into similar development projects for the poorer member states of the club.  By developing these countries, by stimulating Slovakia’s economy, for example, it improves the wealth, well-being and living standards of the population enabling them to buy more things off us (leaving aside the services we may sell to them in order to deliver on their projects).  The EU is a self-generating marketplace, an internal wealth machine.

Unlike some of the claims being made by Leave the EU does not prevent us from trading with anyone else.  Instead it enables it.  Yes, it prioritises internal European trade, in the same way that significant import tariffs to the USA encourage citizens to Buy American (not that it works very well, as many a Donald Trump support will tell you), but it also facilitates sensible trading deals with the rest of the world.  By acting as a whole we have a greater buying/selling power that supports our ability to trade with India, China, Brazil and America.  Any suggestion that operating alone we will somehow gain preferential treatment and overhaul the fact that Europe is by far our biggest market in a short space of time is hopeful at best and wilfully ignorant at worst.  The majority of the world’s significant trading countries have already indicated they would prefer to work with Britain as part of the EU, not as a separate entity.  Still, we could always sell financial services to North Korea in exchange for a tractor that breaks down after ten minutes.

Perhaps that’s who our natural bedfellows should be, after all one of the claims by Leave is that we need to regain our sovereignty.  We still have it, indeed thanks to the Maastricht treaty we have more ability to opt out of EU legislation than any other member.  Sure, our activities are governed, to an extent, by things like the Human Rights Act (which incidentally was originally written by British lawyers), and our laws cannot directly contradict EU legislation, but then this applies for members of the United Nations as well.  There are international laws which, if you don’t want to have to play by yourself in the corner, countries willingly sign up to, otherwise you’re completely on the outside of international society.  The question, for me, no-one seems to have an answer for is which rules do we want contravene?  What different laws do we want?  Removal of the right for trial by jury?  Get rid of carbon emissions targets?  Allow our food to be pumped full or hormones like all that cheap Argentinean beef everyone seems exited to have flown into the country by the end of the month?

The EU is not undemocratic, dictatorial or wholly populated by self-serving bureaucrats (well, no more than any other civil service, anyway).  The council of the EU comprises the President, elected by the other members of the council who are the heads of state, elected by us, the people.  The parliament of the EU which holds the council to account, negotiates and sets the laws are directly elected through proportional representation in each country.  That’s us.  We vote them in.  The bureaucracy that manages the whole thing, writes papers, produces the legislation is, like any other country in the world, unelected, yes.

Oh, but the immigration is out of control.  We need to gain control of our own borders.  The country is full, infrastructure and resources are over-stretched.  House prices are out of control.  Well, yes and no. 

The reason you can’t get an appointment at your GP or your kids may be struggling to secure school places is nothing to do with immigration, but policies of austerity over the last six years and a longer term failure to invest adequately in health, education and social care systems.  Wherever you live, if the EU immigrant population is removed then your GP practice does not magically become a wait-free experience.  Either you will see no difference at all because there still aren’t enough GPs working long enough or non-core hours to meet with demand or, if your practice is overwhelmingly attended by EU immigrants, then it will probably close because they’re funded by population head count and suddenly it isn’t viable.  Same with your school.  The biggest pressure on the NHS is an increasingly elderly population; on schools it is the congestion of young people into concentrated areas producing birth rate spikes and the system isn’t nimble enough to respond in time.  The same argument applies to any area of infrastructure you’re feeling the pinch on.  Net EU immigration to the UK has a peak annual figure of 180,000, a significant number, sure, but they’re not all living in your street.

So then we’re back to whether that £160 million a week would make all the difference.  Reinvest it in the NHS say Johnson and Gove as though we were voting for them and they had any right whatsoever to be making promises about what a post-EU membership Britain might look like.  Okay, so £160 million a week is in the region of £8 billion a year.  A lot of cash, but the annual budget of the government is £772 billion.  That’s 1%.  Given that the total deficit for NHS Trusts in England alone was £2.3 billion in the last financial year, this would just about haul healthcare out the red temporarily, but is barely a drop in the ocean of what’s required to reconfigure the whole service and create the sort of utopia yearned for.

Like benefits, there is no system of positive discrimination that allows EU immigrants to jump ahead of you in the queue for council housing.  There just isn’t enough available and hasn’t been since Right to Buy was introduced in the eighties and councils prevented from using the revenue to build more homes.  The government we elected in 2015 has pledged to extend this policy, forcing housing associations to sell their properties.  This shoves people into the private rental sector which, in London and many other metropolitan areas, is out of control.  Again, this is nothing to do with the EU, but the fact that we have a completely deregulated market with landlords able to charge what they want and a soaring demand due to there not being any council housing and young people being unable to afford their own homes.  This doesn’t happen in the rest of Europe.  It is a uniquely British problem.

Astronomical house prices, especially in London and the South East, are not the fault of immigration.  They can’t be both unemployed, living on benefits, coming over here to take the menial jobs the local population wishes they were above, and also be able to afford paying over the odds for property.  Again, this is a lack of regulation, a national mindset whereby we see our properties as our pension or inheritance cash for our children and grandchildren (too many elderly people rattling around large family homes), and foreign money laundering into premium London properties which then sit empty.  Again, not the EU’s fault:  Saudi Princes, Russian oligarchs and Chinese shell companies are not part of the club.

Illegal immigration and non-EU immigration are entirely different issues.  Those applying for visas get assessed in the system we would have even if we left the EU.  Those arriving illegally are fleeing a terrible life elsewhere and are coming to Europe for its stability and economic prosperity.  Okay, yes we can blame the EU for those last two.  But the problem is not confined to Britain.  We’re not even the biggest recipient of refugees.  Sweden takes more immigrants than any other EU state.  We don’t change any of this is we leave the EU.  We can change it by ending the civil war in Syria, by ending a police that routinely uses torture in Eritrea, by making sure homosexuals don’t have to fear for their lives in Uganda, and anywhere else that people are treated unfairly and life is horrible.  You end the refugee crisis by making the world a better place not by washing your hands of it.

But this is a great country, or it was. On our own, we were so much better.  Let’s be that way again.  When we joined the EEC in the 1970s the country was on its knees.  Industry already in terminal decline, Thatcher just put it out of its misery.  There’d been a three day working week because we couldn’t keep the lights on.  That posing led to the breaking up of the unions and the sale of the utilities companies.  The reason the French state provider is now one of our biggest providers of electricity and gas is because we voluntarily sold it to them.  Interest rates running at 22% (put that in your mortgage calculator and see whether you can afford it).  Sterling devalued.  A bail-out from the IMF that’s no different from the economic aid being given to Greece.  We deserved it, why don’t the Greeks? 

If not the point we joined the EEC, then further back?  Maybe, if we’re really honest the only thing we’ve ever been great at is our military forces occupying countries significantly behind us in terms of technological developments, raping their land for raw materials, shipping it back to the UK’s early industrial manufacturing sites (which were hardly the pinnacle of workers’ rights) and then forcibly selling back to the colonies at inflated prices.  Oddly enough I don’t think the rest of the world is going to let us do that again.

(And even if they did, it only ever benefited a small, extremely rich elite, not the masses).

Unfortunately Leave’s arguments may be utterly flawed, but Remain is no less sensationalist.  A complete financial apocalypse is not going to happen on the 24th of June, although we almost certainly will slide towards a deep rooted and extremely harmful recession which could cost the livelihoods of a whole generation of twenty-somethings.  World War Three is not around the corner, but it will play into the hands of an increasingly aggressive Russia and I wouldn’t fancy taking on the world’s third largest standing army (not counting the millions of trained reservists) with an aircraft carrier that has no compatible planes and a military force the current government has a habit of serving redundancy notices on while they’re in combat zones.

By giving just the negatives it fails to paint a picture as to the benefits of staying in Europe and nor does it address the fundamental reason as to why so many people are desperate to leave.  Yes, some people are xenophobic.  Yes, Boris Johnson only wants to because for some reason he sees it as a road to being Prime Minister and appears content to fiddle Nero-like while a fucked up country burns around him.  Yes, some businesses seem to think there are economic benefits to it, but presumably their margins will be found in screwing profit from the workforce; the boss of JCB is not Joseph Rowntree. 

But why do ordinary people want to leave?

I think for many it is fear of and a sense of being lost in the twenty-first century.

A lot of the economic arguments are about how corporations are run from abroad, for the benefit of shareholders not the local community that generate the profits.  They’re about an absence of job security.  It’s about an anonymous high street, about a shopping centre full of big brands somehow equating to rejuvenation even if you don’t have any money to spend.  It’s about call centres in far flung corners of the world, businesses moving their workforce to cheaper locations.  How we don’t make anything anymore, how work is an abstract concept rather than a satisfying labour.  It’s a lack of social mobility.  It’s about people seething at the fundamental unfairness of being stuck somewhere with no hope and even less prospects.  And it’s about being scared that things are going to be even worse for the next generation.

It’s about thinking that things used to better, when we were young, when we were carefree, because, you know, they always are when all you have to worry about is how much pocket money you’re getting, whether that girl who sits at the back of the bus fancies you, where the next pint comes from, whether you want chips on the way home or a kebab.  That isn’t the world changing, it’s just the shock of growing up and realising life as an adult is hard.

But none-the-less, I get all that.  I understand why people in areas that have been trodden on by successive generations of politicians, who have always been promised something better are really, really pissed off that better has yet to materialise.  At times it feels like the last politicians to make a substantive change to people’s lives for the better was the Atlee Labour government, doesn’t it, and that was a long time ago.  I’m sorry, though, none of that is the fault of the EU. That’s a globalised economy and in the USA, in Australia, in Japan, it’s no different.  It’s an adherence to a neo-liberal form of capitalism, as advocated by Johnson, Gove and Farage, that works for markets which need to make exponentially increasing profits at the expense of human satisfaction.

Leaving the EU won’t change that.

The sort of trade agreements being talked about optimistically by Leave are more of the same.  The rhetoric is about releasing the shackles on the market, letting capitalism drive down prices (maybe) with no consideration for personal safety, job security or the environment.

Lord knows the EU isn’t free from big business.  It bends too easily to pressure from lobbyists (but also often fights off the worst of them) and entering into discussions about TTIP was one of the worst ideas since trying to capture the Suez canal or introducing university fees.  But the EU does offer subsidiaries for businesses, it will support key infrastructure, it does help the market to help the people and that’s a far cry from what’s being proposed.

To fix all of this, to make it better, you don’t need a new European Union you need a new consensual global system.  Crazy as it seems I think we stand a better chance of doing that, no matter how almost impossible, as a part of something bigger than going it alone. 

And failing that how about we just concentrate of saving the environment?  Not much point having a world if it’s uninhabitable.  So, if Britain wants to be great again it needs a new USP not a new set of trading agreements.  We need to take leadership and develop true innovations in green technology, ordinary technology, financial services which suggest a different way of doing things is possible, a society which focuses on the benefits of all not just a few in the right place with the right friends.  And once we’ve done that for ourselves, let’s lead the way in Europe and from there, who knows where we could end up.

Today, for thousands around the country, life is shit.  It’s miserable, skint and we pine for something abstractly better.  We long for a past that never quite was, but you can never go back.  You just have to go forward, like cultural identities we continually evolve and a notion of Britishness is not the same today as it was when we were kids, and that’s okay.  That’s just life.  It’s hard, I know it is, and it’s scary and it’s easier to yell and vent all that pent up frustration against something which doesn’t really understand why you’re so upset.  I know all that, and it doesn’t necessarily make leaving the wrong thing to do, I just think most people are doing it for the wrong reasons. 

Leave is, essentially, offering more of the same and a sliver of hope that it will, somehow, be better than it currently is.  What we should be doing is hoping for better, having the system in place to deliver better and in the meantime having the security of the status quo.  Change is incremental not a lighting flash and to change we must Remain.

 

 

 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Boris' Legacy/London's Decline.





















George Orwell keeps coming on holiday with me.

Last September amongst the faded vine wrapped quiet of a Tuscan farmhouse, I found a copy of Bernard Crick’s biography of Orwell, something I’d wanted to read for some time.  With my wife entering the heavy phase of pregnancy, it was a lazy break with much time spent on the veranda, coffee or beer to hand, the sun crawling through the sky, the book open on my lap and my thoughts dipping between Lancashire, Catalonia, Burma, Paris and London. 

Eight months later as the rain lashes against the cottage in the middle of Scottish nowhere and with the views of the Loch below, from whence the water runs to the sea and the Isle of Skye until the ocean beyond, I find myself thinking about Orwell again.  After the Second World War, Orwell retreated from London life to the remote island of Jura, supposedly because the air would be good for this ever-worsening tuberculosis, but also, I suspect, because he needed to the free of the city to write his masterpiece, 1984.  A novel with a world of beautifully realised, so distinctly different from ours yet where the evolution of it was evident, had to be constructed in isolation, away from distraction and poor influence.

It was surely no burden.   Surprisingly, for a writer of his generation, Orwell never seems to have particularly liked London, and it shows through his novels like Coming Up for Air, where the nostalgia for disappearing small town rural life is rife.  He was never Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene or any dozen others, separated to an extent by class (certainly by money) from many of his contemporaries, London’s charms were likely to be indistinguishable from, say, Wigan’s.

At one point, around the first half of the century’s first decade, I could see myself being like Orwell: resentful of London, but feeling saddled with having to live there.   It took me a long time to come to love the city, for many of the reasons everyone else who comes and tries it for a while leaves:  it takes ages to get anywhere, it can be busy to the point of suffocation, every little thing conspires to drain your wages away, the people are unfriendly, it isn’t interested in you.  It is easy to find yourself trapped between spheres, unable to know where you fit in.  Most of the bright young graduates moving to London to not join a bank find themselves on generous yet not ridiculous salaries, unable to fit with the monied ruling class who swank about town in taxis, drink cocktails in the most fabulous bars and somehow live just off Kensington High Street, or in Bloomsbury like it is still the 1920s.  Nor do they have much in common with those they are likely to live alongside, the people who are just normal in the city: those who work in shops, on the tubes, in normal offices in places like Tooting and Bromley, Acton and Romford.  Sure, there’s the artistic underworld, but even if you can get a ticket in, you are likely to find yourself sneered at for having to work rather than dedicate yourself to your creative muse.

It took me many years to get beyond all that, and to find myself comfortable in the city, at ease with myself, with friends living nearby, looking forward to the occasional hour long tube journey as an opportunity to read, and I began to fall in love with its wonderful reality rather than the facade most casual visitors see. 

And yet, in the past couple of years my relationship with the city has become strained.  We no longer get on quite as well as we used to.  There are times when we just won’t speak to each other, and neither of us can really remember what sparked to the spat.

And, to a large extent, it is all Boris Johnson’s fault.


Implausibly, he won.

Johnson is a “nasty piece of work”, as the BBC JournalistEddie Mair described him, who it seems will do anything to gain a moment in thelimelight.  He appears devoid of principles as his flip-flopping around whether to be pro or anti-Europe and whether he would contest a Parliamentary seat in the 2015 election show.  Both decisions are much more about his aspirations to be prime minister than any concrete ideology or wish for public service.  Privately he has been, allegedly, describing himself as bored by being London Mayor, once one of the top political jobs in the country and something he has manage to whittle down to an irrelevance while he focuses on the day job of promoting Brand Boris.  Somehow, despite his management through absenteeism, the most diverse city in the country voted in a blonde, blue-eyed Eton boy, twice, and he is now mentioned seriously in any discussion about potential leaders once David Cameron steps down sometime before 2020. 

Perhaps the most staggering thing about Johnson is his unashamed cheek.  During eight years in the mayor’s office he has latched himself onto numerous projects, often triumphantly proclaiming their success, none of which were started by him.  The bike hire scheme, so associated with him it is commonly referred to as Boris Bikes?  Instigated by Ken Livingston.  When the East London line extension opened in 2010, Boris rode the first train into Dalston Junction, proudly waving a Union Jack.  The work had commenced years previously with the final phase resulting in the closure of the existing line in 2007.  Anything Olympic related, from wafting another flag atop of red double -decker bus in Bejing onwards?  London secured the right to host the games in 2005 and the vast majority of work was already underway well before Johnson hitched himself to it.

His actual achievements are generally rooted in failure and corruption.  His restored routemasters introduced to replace the perfectly serviceable bendy-buses have a tendency to overheat in summer and cost significantly more than the original forecasts.  The hyped-up super cycleways are not only less extensive than promised, but poorly maintained, insufficiently segregated from traffic, frequently confusingly signed and with a tendency to disappear at major road junctions creating safety issues where ill-prepared riders find themselves thrust between an articulated lorry and a plumber running late.  Often they are little more than a smear of blue paint on the tarmac.  Johnson likes to portray himself as a cycling champion, whizzing down from his Islington home to City Hall, pausing to scream abuse at taxi drivers, but really it is all just part of a media image designed to highlight supposed quirks which make him a “laff”.

The new river crossing, the Emirates Air Line cable car which links the North Greenwich Peninsula with Canning Town, two points already conveniently linked by the Jubilee Line, is a £60million tourist attraction no-one visits and locals avoid – much like the planned Green Bridge could become.  That scheme seems to be proposed as both privately owned and publically funded, with security guards intended to keep people moving amongst the flora and fauna.  It whiffs of scandal before a single foundation has been bored. 

What he can be said to have achieved is to fundamentally change the horizon of London.  Walking through one of the South East’s many parks atop hills the view into town is different.  Before 2008 one could easily spot the clustered towers in docklands and the scattered few in the centre of town, the Gherkin, tower 42, the old post office tower, centre point.  Now, not only is the financial city packed with staggeringly high towers, but so is Wandsworth, Battersea, Lewisham and most other town centres.  The air above our heads is getting packed with glass and steel, much of it not actually needed, empty office spaces and flats somehow acuminating value, all of it actively changing the look and feel of the City, some of it determined toattack the people who built it, like some sci-fi version of a seventies’ disastermovie where concentrated sun congeals into a laser like focus on the streetsbelow.

But probably Johnson’s most serious failing is his lack of moral perspective.  This is after all someone who had a rival beaten up for money, although that was before he was mayor, and beat up a Japanese school boy.  He seems to never miss an opportunity for some cringeworthy gaff that endears him to people who think politeness is over-rated while really acting a cover for his own narcissism and inexplicable belief that he is somehow deserving of the highest offices.  Probably it is how, under his watch, London has started to lose its soul.

So, the housing crisis isn’t directly Johnson’s fault, but it has happened on his watch and the curious by-product of the traditionally more affluent areas of London becoming ghost towns, places where the global elite park millions of pounds worth of bricks alongside their Maserati, is the surging gentrification and transformation of everywhere else.  Gentrification is, of course, just change and places like Brockley are just returning to their affluent beginnings: grand four storey houses are scrubbed up and returned from flats to single occupancy, but with it comes CCTV cameras and high front hedges or locked gates to keep the rest of the neighbourhood out.  Previously the last affordable bastion of affordable zone two London which few could find on the map, now we see a craft beer bar opening followed by yet another deli or coffee bar and me meeting people in Cardiff talking about it as somewhere their cousin who works in advertising aspiring to move to.  In the wake of every new business something else has to close, maybe the fancy dress shop, or the paint merchants, and with their disappearance goes the livelihoods of the people who worked there.  The new businesses aren’t for them, they’re for the new people.

My wife mocks me, pointing out I am claiming affection for a society I was never truly a part of.  I might have chatted with grave diggers and sparkies and alcoholics and gardeners while pumping bar, but I was doing a masters degree at the time.  But she misses the point: yes, I do like the better choice of drinking venues, the nicer and more plentiful restaurants, and not glancing over my corner when crossing open spaces after dusk, and at the same time I worry about where all the people who were here before went.  For everyone I know locally who I like, there’s someone else, a pop star or an investment banker, with whom I struggle to relate.  These are the people who move somewhere and then start demanding change to fit their idyll, it inch towards the places they have been economically kicked out of. 

If you liked it enough to move here, stop trying to turn it into something else – if only because it rarely works.  It seems that for every non-chic site - be it a garage, a carwash, the sorting office, the technical college, the office furniture retailer with sporadic opening hours – there will be calls for it to be closed and replaced by a gym, a Waitrose, another restaurant, a high-end butcher.  The garage I always used was forced out by increases to land rents and then the property put up for sale.  What have we got in its place?  Some one and two bedroom flats and a Sainsbury’s Local to complement the one a few hundred metres away over the railway tracks. 

I think Johnson is emblematic of how London has shifted over the last eight years.  It feels a bit more of a selfish city.  It feels like it is interested in only helping and being for those of a certain sort.  It feels like it is only slumming it in zone two, in the Mayoral office, until something grander, more prime ministerial comes along, and it will stop at nothing to get there.

So it is with relief that Johnson is gone, at least from local politics.  But there’s a risk that we’re about to replace one blonde buffoon with another.  Okay, maybe Zac Goldsmith doesn’t wear the same facade of being a drunken simpleton, but he brings with him the same sense of entitlement, the same self-serving policies, the same aloof disparity for ordinary people as Johnson.  The son of a billionaire whose only job outside of politics was as editor for a magazine owned by his uncle, Goldsmith is running a vile campaign, following Lynton Crosby’s usual strategy of flinging the equivalent of a dead cat on the dinner table every day.  It gets people talking about the dead cat, even if it turns out to be a fake, but then you move on to the next moggy’s corpse before anyone has time to ask what you were doing with a dead cat in your jacket pocket in the first place.  It might win elections by keeping youropponent on the defensive and persuading the public of their, real or imagined,faults, but by using Sadiq Khan’s religion as a divisive issue and throwing outunsubstantiated accusations of association with extremism it is nasty, petty,and lacks for moral fortitude that real debate instils in worthy winnersWe can do better.  We can be better, surely?

The clouds dissipate as my son goes to sleep and my wife heats up soup.  The sun is warm through the windows.  The mountains become clear again as though emerging from a fog of disillusionment.  Maybe we should run away to the countryside.  Maybe we should abandon the city to its own, self-induced mess.  But Orwell didn’t see 1984 as a judgement, but rather a warning.  Perhaps we should see Johnson’s reign of the capital in the same way.  If you want a fool in charge, you get eight years of stagnation and nothing.  Instead you can have something else, something better.  Maybe the clouds will lift and the light of hope and inclusiveness will return to London.  Maybe, and for the time being I’m not giving up on my home.