Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Las Vegas - Can we stop asking why and focus on the how?

Feather dusters don't kill people. Nor do garden hoses. As a rule. That's not what they are for, anyway, and therefore they're quite clunky and inefficient as means of mass slaughter. Although, sure, a sufficiently driven and nasty human of average intelligence can use just about any tool for the purpose of killing. So yes, in that narrow sense alone, it's people who kill people.
But guns, and particulary semi-automatic weapons, are built with the sole purpose of maiming and killing. This is what they do, efficiently so. So when nearly 60 people are killed and 500 gravely injured by a single pensioner taking aim at them from a hotel window it seems reasonable to conclude that it's in fact the guns who should be the protagonists here, the salient detail, not whatever obsession, ideological delirium or personality disorder affected the human who pulled the trigger. A retired accountant with no army background. A nobody. Another angry old man -  among many other angry men, young men, middle aged ones, old ones, men of every hue and colour and background - with an inflated sense of grievance, or destinity, or of his own importance. Who gives a shit why? How is finding out why going to stop this happenig again? 
In Britain, Italy and in pretty much every other modern democracy we are replete with catankeous old men and angry young men, narcisists and wife beaters. There's no scarcity of nasty, violent, self-obsessed men (ooops, I mean people, of course!). Yet an old man would have a tough time murdering and maiming on that scale, in a matter of minutes, no matter how crazy or ideologically driven. 
So, again, it turns out that it's the availability and prevalence of guns - not immigrants, not Muslims, not even terrorists (who can thankfully be quite clumsy with explosives) that causes people to be killed in their hundreds with this regularity and inevitability. Give bad intentions, 'evil' , temporary insanity, male chauvinist pigs, you name it, a baseball bat and someone will get hurt but for a good old fashioned massacre you..... kinda need automatic weapons.
Today is not the time to have this conversation. The time was 15, 30 years ago before the US become so flooded with the bloody things that only mass confiscation, not restrictions on sales, is likely to make a substantial difference now. 
But still, going forward, you'd think it might be desirable to start mitigating against future senseless carnage as soon and as much as bloody possible, don't you? 
Yet the country that forces the likes of me to declare we are not Nazi war criminals on entry and frowns on 120ml bottles of shampoo can't have that conversation. Its politicians' hands are tied, mainly with dollars, and its media is pitifully muted on the subject, so that its citizens come to believe they do live in the best/most rational of all possible worlds, like the starving North Koreans who think it's the rest of us who are having a tough time. (This reminds me of those ridiculous US commentators spewing nonsense against 'Socialised Medicine'. Ask any European if they mind NOT having to choose between between eating and paying the morgage or getting cancer treatment. Go on, see what they say.). 
In the cacophony of bullshit platitudes about prayers and unity and resilience and the courage of first responders the NRA ayatollahs still won't release their grip on the levers of US democracy. They didn't after first graders were felled at Sandy Hook, they won't do it now. They can afford to fuel several 9/11s every year with no consequence, no censure of any kind, barely a whisper of a timid debate. Policy makers can't even collect the right statistics on gun crime.
The ultimate form of terrorism, it seems to me, is when a mature democracy reduces its own citizens to the status of living target practice for the convenience of its gun industry. It's an awfully big gamble, even by Vegas standards.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Opinions on shape of Nazis differ

This morning I heard Today's presenter John Humphrys ask BBC North American EditorJon Sopel whether there was any "factual truth, though, in the President's assertion that there was violence on the other side too".
Humphrys wasn't asking a political contributor a devil' s advocate question. He was talking to a fellow BBC journalist who, to his shame, engaged with the question.
So, to recap, your licence fee now pays for senior BBC journalists earnestly to discuss whether anti-racist protesters objecting to an armed and intimidating neo-Nazi and KKK invasion of the public space could be described as 'as violent', and therefore morally reprehensible if not morally equivalent to the Nazis themselves.
I'm no longer sure how John Humphrys would have covered the Second World War - Churchill's speeches say*, Bletchley Park*, the Resistance* - particularly under the editorship of Sarah Sands.
Reflexive neo liberal right-wingery, fueled by hatred of redistribution - oops, I meant the left - in any form, is now chasing its own tale, fouling its own patriotic foundation myth: we are better than them (enter any nationality/value here) because we fought the Nazis/at least we are not Nazis.
Fighting the Nazis is officially a dodgy pursuit not just in Trump's America but also in May's (Brexit) Britain.
*Rabble-rouser, Hackers' Central, violent extremists????

Friday, 28 July 2017

Reasons why Britain will likely be utterly screwed in these EU negotiations - No 658

The Department for Exiting the European Union, DExEU, with its Spanish Inquisition- like acronym, seems run like a cross between a masonic lodge and a (minor) Cosa Nostra family that barely survived the latest drug war and is on the run from all the other families.
A year after its creation they've only just managed to appoint a Special Adviser to the Secretary of State (David "I don't carry notes" Davis) who is also his Chief of staff, meaning David "Notebooks are for losers. It's all 'up here', so it is!!" Davis has been without either all this time. The chap in question is a Tory Brexiteer who lost his seat at the last election- we'll glide over the symbolism there.
But here's the thing: no one - or at least none of my contacts in various think-tanks, public affairs companies and Parliament - seems to know how you get in touch with people there.
Needing to invite some top mandarins from DExEU to an event I resorted to calling their press office (it was the only number provided on the website) and was told they 'they think' the email addresses follow the pattern name.surname@dexeu.gov.uk but they could not confirm. I found another number for the Department on Dods' Vacher's Guide and proceeded to be connected to the very same press officer who told me they "don't have a receptionist" and to basically stop wasting her time.
In desperation I called a number appearing on the bottom of an email (address @cabinetoffice.gov.uk) of a top DExEU civil servant who once took part in one of our events and the phone was answered by a Polish lady who announced I was speaking to the Cabinet Office. I tried to ascertain with her whether I should invite her boss with the @dexeu email address or a @cabinetoffice email address and she told me, somewhat flustered, to 'try both'. I was then passed on to a more senior colleague who said he thought the other top civil servants I was trying to reach were 'probably' at both addresses but he didn't know for sure because 'they hadn't been in touch for some time'.
Why would, after all, the office of the DExEU Director of Analysis ever wish to speak to the office of the DExEU Director of Market Access and Budget or the DExEU Director of Cross-Government Policy Coordination?
Why would you make sure there was a receptionist on duty at all times and a streamlined, coherent suite of email addresses, making it easy for MPs, stakeholders or god forbid, European apparatchiks or even expert riffraff to reach the Department by phone or email during the gigantic negotiations which are its sole reason to exist?
Once the nice Polish lady is deported they won't even have enough competent, hard working EU migrants to man the ship.
Move on, nothing to see here. Literally.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Scenes from (the end of) a Marriage

As a Brexit bill is presented to the Mother of Parliaments I'll attempt to illustrate Britain's EU divorce psychodrama for the benefit of my continental friends.

The build-up

You're fat and ugly and I never loved you. 

You got me under false pretenses. How was I to know that by walking to that church, having invited our families and friends, by reciting those words and exchanging those rings I would be MARRIED to you? I thought we were getting a curry, or something. 

I want out. And when I go, I'll stay gone. I've had enough of your shrill, demanding ways.

Ahead of divorce proceedings

No point dragging this out: let's come to an amicable understanding and sod the lawyers.

Of course, I'm not prepared to pay any financial settlement. I owe you nothing. NOTHING you hear? The fact that I was in mess financially before we married and my net worth has massively improved since has NOTHING to do with our partnership.

The kids

What  about our many kids, you say? I'm of course prepared to recognise and take credit for the achievements of the inventor, the award winning artist, the techie wizard and the budding entrepreneur. I might be willing to contribute towards their research grant/seed money/ university fees. But the glue-sniffing obsessive-compulsive masturbator who's been stealing from our petty cash is your problem. He can't possibly be mine. 

Divorce proceedings

The way I see it, there are are two ways of going about it: 

1) We can come to an amicable understanding in next to no time - say the length of a rumba on Strictly? This really should be a breeze because, when all is said and done, it's in your interest to give me exactly what I want as you need me much more than I need you. Or...

2) .....I'll come round in the dead of night with a Kalashnikov, kick your door in and shoot myself in the foot right in front of you. You won't like that, will you? Think of all the blood and the gore... And I'll refuse to go to hospital and I'll just limp on my bloodied stump for the rest of my life just to SHOW YOU!

Seeing other people

Look, before we met I had 'dated' most of the rest of the world, whether they liked it or not. I'll be a very hot commodity indeed when I'm back on the market. Just saying.

Your loss is my future girlfriends' gain. Yes, girlfriends, PLURAL. Take that, you frigid cow!

The recap

So, really, there's nothing to this. It's a lark. A doddle. A bit of a joke, even. Things will both exactly the same and much better than before. Or Armageddon. Depending. No way of saying. Can't be sure. But it will be your fault either way. 

By the way, I can still bang you whenever I want, right? It doesn't even count as sex if I don't fancy you (which I don't). It's basically exercise.

Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, 5 June 2016

In this post-facts world I've become post-nice

Is this jokey post which is doing the rounds on social media harsh and uncouth? Probably.

 Now look at this bona fide piece of campaign literature by the Leave side -no joke this - sent to households in areas where the campaign estimates potential supporters might be.

After re-posting the first image on FB I had a polite but unsettling exchange of views with a distant acquaintance who holds very different views from mine but has never interacted with any of the serious articles I've posted on the referendum or conversations I've generated about it. The joke though, was too much. The joke, she protested, was "unbelievable smearing by pro-Remain smug elites." (She left out 'metropolitan', I assume in her eagerness to make her indignation known.) 

I then uploaded the second picture and pointed out that the Leave side "certainly seems to be appealing to people's lowest instincts AND assume they are stupid" (Free access for Turkey in 2017? No more Queen or Royal Family? Wah?). I argued that they are defining the terms of this conversation - avoiding all serious discussion about the economy or Britain's place in the wider world and making up ever more shrill scare stories and ludicrous post-facts aimed at racists with low IQ. I didn't think it was necessary to add: "I don't believe that those who want out are all racists with low IQ. But sure as hell is funny, hence the jokey post, that the Leave side treats them as such."

She replied along the lines of "you are lumping everyone in with one campaign or the other", whilst many outside the Westminster bubble, in the fabled 'real world' have switched off from both campaigns, feeling that "it's a dirty political battle with ugly messages and tactics on both sides, and so (they) rise above it by seeking out their own facts." She concluded castigating me for reposting the joke: "With so many issues at stake it's staggering that you should believe that people voting leave are all just stupid puppets."

Hmmm. "A dirty political battle with ugly messages on both sides". More a case of : if you are challenged to mud-wrestle with a pig, you both end covered in mud. 
But. But. But...
A) mud-wresting a pig doesn't turn you into pig, and 
B) the pig really enjoys it. 

A grotesquely distorted figure about the cost of EU membership is still painted in metre-long letters on the side of Boris' #blunderbus. EU immigrants (of which I've had to reluctantly acknowledge I am one, after a peaceful and productive lifetime camouflaging on these shores as an EU citizen) are collateral damage, sneered at, baited and smeared by huge sections of the national media. Turncoat would-be leaders make up their mind and formulate policy on the hoof and lie to voters with a straight face on TV, using the NHS, (an organisation beloved by the nation, but one they are savagely indifferent to as a matter of record), as the institutional equivalent of a human shield.

Yet my reasonable and intelligent FB acquaintance cannot abide a silly joke, taking the low opinion the Leave side betrays of the undecided it targets at face value. 

Look, I know this whole thing is won or lost on turnout and I don't believe that I have the power to rouse the masses either way. I reposted a silly joke. It didn't even have Hitler in it. At all. Like, in any form.  

Am I "stooping to the level of those you find unsavoury yourself"? Possibly. (Hardly).  But, see, I'm disenfranchised in a poll which will decide my future, lumped with 'cheaters and scroungers' by screeching headlines every morning before I've even had a cup of tea.  So, yes, in this post-facts world I've become post-nice.  I'm mad as hell and I'm laughing bitterly at the silly jokes about the racist imbeciles the Leave campaign think are their secret weapon. 

Unless they are proved wrong, there will be plenty of time for tears later.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Greenwich Mean Time

When I moved to Greenwich at the start of 2000, having bought my first ever home, I was incredibly happy - for about five minutes.

I immediately set to work to write a warm, light, optimistic novel about a bunch of thirthy-somethings looking for love, meaning and fulfilment and finding it.

It was to be a counterpoise to my first novel, a desperately dark comedy of manners, about a bunch of twenty-somethings led astray by a malevolent close friend who ends up destroying their lives. 

Two years later the first draft of Point Hill was a less than jolly affair: war, ghosts, train crashes, broken families and dark secrets. It really wasn't my fault: the three protagonists came to life and seized control of the plot, stubbornly refusing to drive it towards the desired happy ending.

Many rewrites later I hit upon the realisation that although the three started off miserable, the point of this novel was not to guide them towards some universally recognisable state of happiness but to let each of them come to terms with who they were and let them go where they were headed, finding their own version of what a good or even a tolerable life might be. 

I embraced the train crash they were headed towards instead of stopping it, deus-ex-machina-like, at the last minute. I embraced it so much it became a literal plot twist. Of course I didn't know it then, as I was only young and needed to believe life would eventually pan out as it was meant to, that this is kind of what life is like. Messy, sometimes dark (way darker for my protagonists but hey, it's called fiction people!) and full of guilt, longing, rage and all sorts of other emotions without resolution, full of failings without redemption, full of sudden, undeserved, unexplainable connections and joys.

My novel is now available on Amazon, and its original setting feels somewhat historical now. This is a world before 9/11 , the war on terror and smart phones. A world where it was just about possible for a teacher (or indeed a freelance journalist) to buy a house in Greenwich, something that feels so ludicrous now that I had to resist the temptation to change that element of the plot. 

The past, in other words, is another country. But so is our individual past, come to think of it. I look of photos of me from that time, re-read diary entries and I do remember what it felt like to be so young and so frightened and so strong, brimming with creativity and anger. I remember but I can never go back. The present where I live now is my version of what a good life can be for me. I've had to let go of all other possible lives.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Four reasons why the UK referendum is a lost opportunity for real debate on Europe

The forthcoming referendum on UK membership of the EU is looming large - not so much over the public’s consciousness, not yet, but over the life of most commercial and not profit organisations alike. The former need to strategize and prepare for a possible Brexit. Many of the latter are in the same position – their causes and fields of action (from global warming to human trafficking) are directly impacted by Britain’s membership of the EU. But even those who theoretically have no connection to the membership question are having to take advice about how the Lobbying Act will affect their power to continue to campaign for their own causes during the referendum period.
That said, I would argue that the referendum is turning out to be a lost opportunity to have a serious discussion about reforms that would be helpful to the whole of Europe. I think there are four main reasons for this.
The renegotiation panto
Having commissioned a long and expensive sector by sector public audit of the balance of power between the UK and the EU, last year the government quietly buried the result of the review and no public discussion of its conclusions has been held since. The reason? Who can tell. Perhaps the £5 million it cost were considered small change even at a time of supposed austerity. But it’s worth noting that it contained not a single recommendation for powers to be ‘returned’ to the UK, in any of the 32 sectors which submitted evidence. So much for the intolerable interference of the Brussels federal super-state.
Still, having called for a new deal from Europe to put to the British people, Number 10 had to belatedly produce a list of ‘demands’, some of which seem to have been plucked out of thin air to address non-existent problems (such as benefit tourism) with unworkable solutions.
But the UK Prime Minister remains the best advocate for Britain staying in, so the theatre surrounding his renegotiation feat - a drama performed for the exclusive sake of the one third of voters who are still undecided - has pre-empted real debate on concrete measures that could reform Europe for the better. Pro-Europeans, even if political opponents, will have to pretend that what he ‘gets’ out of Brussels will constitute a radical change for the better in our relationship with the EU.
The black and white effect
The referendum currently dominates the news, its repercussions are all-encompassing, but the debate, so far, has not been, far from it. In fact the coming vote seems to be having the opposite effect, polarising the public discourse in an unhelpful black and white way. One side claims Europe is a terrible idea and thoroughly unreformable. The other side concentrates mainly on the dangers of leaving the EU, rather than what sort of Europe might be worth having.
Self-censorship vs aggressive victimhood
The dynamics of the referendum debate itself are actively muzzling many pro-Europeans, who feel that any criticism they might express about how Europe works or any vision for a better Europe will be seized by the other side, defending in the process a status quo few people actively love.
The outers have no such qualms: their rhetoric of loud, aggressive victimhood (taking our country back, getting rid of the Brussels yoke etc) belies a complete lack of vision for what life outside would look like. So far the media circus has focused on the minutiae of the renegotiation – no one is (yet) systematically asking hard hitting, probing questions about the kind of country Britain would be outside the EU and what relationship it will have with a presumably still unreformed EU in the throes of its worse existential crisis.
The official campaign
Finally Stronger In, the cross-party organisation that hopes to become the official campaign for In, seems strangely paralysed – poised between paranoia and inaction. The tone of its communication is negative, focusing on threats and dangers. It has alienated many natural supporters by ignoring any other pro-European groups and communities, hosting no information about them or about what the EU is or does. Its spokespeople are very much denizens of the Westminster bubble.
Theirs is a thankless, gargantuan task and I have no doubt they are doing the best they can. They might even succeed. But it all feels far from inspiring - in fact it feels a bit dismal.
Never, it seems to me, has Europe been mentioned more and explained and discussed less. It does not bode well for a process which is about to hand the British people one of the most important geopolitical decisions of the next few years.
This is an extract from a longer piece published on E!Sharp.