This is not a story.
This is not a novel or a film; it is not a play or even a short story. You have been reading a narrative arc, of sorts, but it does not reach any conclusion here.
“Short stories are a very end-centric form,” said the American writer Lorrie Moore when I watched her being interviewed at the Guardian’s sparkling new offices.
She’s right, of course. They are.
They are because a short story is, essentially, the exploration of a moment and the contextualisation of events immediately preceding that moment. Five thousand words, or so, cached into a dramatic finale of a life unseen. The reader is rarely gifted an insight into the world beyond that point. Novels can be a collection of moments culminating in a larger one, but still the temptation, for the writer, is to wrap things up neatly rather than to let it hang; to fictionalise. For the author feels almost obliged to tidy away their toys, whilst the components of a short story are left scattered around the living room waiting for an unsuspecting visitor to stand on and twist their ankle. Completion rather than a moment paused for eternity.
This might be a moment, but it is not a fiction.
Nor is it the truth.
It just is.
Life is a sequence of moments both big and small; our individual experiences of the world are defined by the actions we take and their consequences. It is the immediate, the intimate and the grander scale. It is the words hissed in the heat of the moment that can’t be taken back and the ash spewing from the volcano several thousand miles away that bleaches everyone’s horizon all woven together in a single tapestry.
Each of us carves our personal history; trailblazing our existences in a sparkling shower of gold dust; each with different highlights burned into our memories. When we glance back, everything blurring into a montage for the movie of our lives, we emphasise different things from those who shared them. We remember events in a different way – be it the way she smiled across a crowded room which you took to be adoration and she intended to be scarcely disguised disdain; or the way the stars glinted in the cool evening air above the sea but the person you were with was already thinking about being home in bed.
The history that lingers may be written by the winners, but first it has to be written by individuals.
When I close my eyes at night there are bursting starlights under the lids.
A friend of mine tells the story that when she was a small girl she and her sister used to take pretend scissors and cut imaginary holes in the fabric of space before thrusting their arms through the holes and exploring, by feel, the world on the other side; always careful not to cut too large a hole, lest they slipped through.
I think I know what’s on the other side.
And I don’t think mystical scissors are what are required to access it. I think all it needs is a little touch. A gentle push with your fingertips and the air bubbles up, releasing the past laced with the fiction of interpretation.
‘Whilst I’m enjoying these discourses on the history of Britain,’ my friend chuckled, ‘what are you actually trying to say?’
Maybe that history is everywhere. That it isn’t in the past as such, it isn’t a physical place that we can’t visit because the aerospace is closed, that it isn’t something that can be packaged up and ignored or triumphed as we see fit, but that it’s omnipresent. Our own history and that of the country and our friends and families and even the people who we feel it is “our patriotic duty to kick in the nuts” are defined by the same things.
In order to truly understand where we are going and what we are doing we need appreciate the paths we’ve already travelled and we need to understand that those routes are covered by the confusion of imagination. With every retelling the tales become embellished. The words slip further away from the originals they were tracing over and then a new history comes into being; one defined by a fictional gloss.
Nothing changes. Everything changes. Everything has a starting point.
I don’t believe in Broken Britain. I don’t believe in the Nanny State. I don’t believe that there are swarms of illegal immigrants living in luxury on benefits. I don’t believe that political correctness has ever gone mad.
This is not to say that I don’t realise that sometimes people take well meaning legislation too far, that there aren’t people living Britain who didn’t bother passing through passport control, that the government’s advice on lifestyle choices doesn’t occasionally border on the relentless or that there aren’t large sections of society living below the poverty line. I’m not stupid. I’m just questioning the language that’s used to suggest that it’s something new; something different.
It’s about recognising the context, understanding the facts. It’s about not seeing everything from your own point of view. It’s about decoding the interpretation.
‘You know her, right,’ the girl at my side giggled.
‘Mm-hm,’ I replied not really paying attention.
‘Well, right, you know, she don’t even have a tv. Can you believe that, babes? I think that’s proper sad, I do. Feel really sorry for her.’
‘Have you considered that she might not want a tv, not that she can’t afford to buy one.’
She looked at me like I was mad. ‘Why would she not want a tv? Anyway, babes, you and me should go for a drink again sometime.’
‘Mmm,’ I tried to appear as disinterested as humanly possible.
‘The things is,’ the young guy with the carefully manufactured facial hair, ‘when you’re in a relationship you need to have time to yourself, yeah?’
‘Mm-hmm,’ I sipped at my pint.
‘You need to have your own interests too, not spend your whole lives in each other’s pockets.’
‘Why are we having this conversation?’
‘I’m just trying to give you some advice, the benefit of my experience. I’ve got a lot of tips I can pass on. After all, I’ve been
with my girlfriend for nearly two years now.’
‘Uh-huh, two years.’
We stood chest deep in the Atlantic, as my feet turned translucent with cold, and waited for the waves. Even when they weren’t rising, even when there was little more than the gentle lull of the current, the merest rise of water would induce excitement.
‘Wave! Wave! It’s going to be a monster!’
And we rode it home as best we could because we’d gone there to surf and surf we would irregardless of the weather.
Let’s try some facts. A single asylum seeker gets £19 in food vouchers a week and £10 in cash. Anyone tried living on less than £30 a week in London recently? A single bus ticket is £2 a go.
590,000 people arrived to live in the UK in 2008, but at the same time 430,000 left. A lot, but not as many as some would have you believe and they’re not all coming to live in a road near you. If all Eastern Europeans were deported numerous industry, such as agriculture and care homes, would collapse – or that the very least suffer major recruitment issues. After sterling weakened against the Euro most of the Poles went home to where they could earn more money and be closer to their families. Economic migrants come and go where the work is the best paid and we get to do it too.
The oft-repeated message to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables and to exercise regularly can become irritating, but when people still claim to do so is “impossible” or they refuse to eat any foodstuff coloured green. Health warnings are there for our benefit. Smoking kills and the number of people smoking has dropped significantly over the past two decades. Alcohol, no matter how much I enjoy it, is bad for me. It’s important that I realise what I’m doing to myself. Ignorance is not bliss, because it does not change the result. If the government removed all advice and health warnings and regulation - removed the so-called Nanny State – then the ultimate end points include the removal of speed limits in urban areas and unregulated firearm ownership.
Apparently, we don’t manufacture anything anymore. Some might say that we are a nation built on shops and telephone banked offices, yet we’re still ranked as the seventh largest manufacturing nation in the world. In the past week I’ve seen plenty of examples of industry, be it Port Talbot belching fire and smoke across the Welsh coastline from the oil refinery, or every second car in Brigend bearing a Rockwool Insulation parking permit, or the Tarmac quarry crunching stone in the shadows of the Heathrow flyover, or the cranes tinkling in the sunset above London Bridge. The country’s alive if you open your eyes.
Britain is not broken. There is a colossal wealth gap which has widened under Labour, but this does not mean the country is crocked. We’ve always had those who are poor; we’ve always had people who are unfairly disadvantaged; there have always been people who had revelled in an offensive, abusive lifestyle, who are violent and cruel. This does not make our society broken. To call it such, suggests that it is beyond repair, that we need to cast them aside and buy a new populace.
Look around the world at how much worse it is in Zimbabwe, in Thailand, in Kyrgyzstan, in Somalia, even, to a lesser extent, in Greece. To begin to define a country as broken you need to be looking for things like violent insurrection, corrupt absolutionist government, hyper-inflation and/or bankruptcy, a complete breakdown of national law whereby the local militia with the heaviest ordinance calls the shots. On my travels around the country I see none of this.
Yes, it is a tragedy when teenage boys torture, sexually abuse and murder one of their peers or the guardians of a child systematically starve and beat a baby to death, but is not indicative of a complete and utter collapse of society. To suggest it is, is to give up, to raise the drawbridge and exist with an isolationist bubble of denial.
It has been suggested that I’ve been trying to force reasons to vote Labour down people’s throats. That has never been the intention. Labour have done a lot of things that I believe would not have been delivered under, for example, a Conservative government. Sure Start, the minimum wage, the fostering of a better cultural attitudes towards gay men and women, heavy investment in the arts, decisive action in the face of economic collapse, better maternity and paternity rights, tax credits, the rebuilding of the NHS to a far-from-perfect, yet still exemplary healthcare service - don’t believe living standards are better in 2010 than they were in 1997? You know, what go and look the facts up yourself. Go to the national office of statistics website, ask questions research, look for answers, compare and contrast, that’s the point.
It is not for me to suggest who anyone should vote for.
You vote for who you want, that’s your right, but try to fully understand what you are voting for and why. Take UKIP, for example, if you solely listen to their campaign then removing ourselves from the European Union would appear to magically reform the country overnight. It won’t. And whilst there are disadvantages to compliance with European law, there are plenty of advantages too – ease of trade, ease of movement around the continent, human rights etc. Understand what you are voting for and consider both sides of the argument before making a decision. Check the validity of the messages all the Parties send you. And if you must vote for BNP, you racist shit you, then realise that you are being judgemental about someone’s character on the basis of their skin colour alone and do not be surprised if people make similar, derogatory judgements about you in return.
There has been much talk of tactical voting to keep the Tories out in recent days. It’s a valiant option, but I do feel that if you genuinely believe in the policies espoused by a minority party then you should vote for them even if they are extremely unlikely to win the seat contested. Why? Because with your vote, they are one more vote likely to win and that’s the point. That’s how it’s supposed to work. You want change, you want the old guard out, then fine – let it build systematically. Stop being so twenty-first century for a moment and realise that it will take more than a single moment.
For that’s what Thursday is. A moment. A dramatic moment at the end of somebody’s story, but I’m not writing it. Nor is the BBC or Murdoch or the Guardian or any of the other media houses. Not even the politicians are writing the script. You are.
But then this isn’t a story and on Friday morning, whatever happens, the moment will have passed and the world continues and we are still here.