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 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 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 wold 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 riff-raff 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.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Life drawing for the terrified

Life drawing for the terrified was the name of one of the classes I found listed in a booklet of creative courses and assorted activities for adults.

I had picked it up hoping to find a safe and anodyne valve for me to give vent to certain urges, a methadone prescription to my heroin addiction if you like. Perhaps you could try painting, I said to myself. Yoga certainly didn’t do it. Pilates was boring, pottery-making too messy.

The title of the class made me smile. It was the hyperbole, of course:  what’s so terrifying about drawing, for heaven’s sake? But then my friend, answer me this:  what is so terrifying about writing, the secret, shameful addiction I was trying to overcome but that was still giving me the shakes?

I never joined the class. Fuck life drawing, I mean, let’s be serious. But today I want to try and answer that question, before courage fails me one more time. 

So here we go. Stop vacuuming now. You’ve already rinsed all the dishes. Sock pairing? Really? Sit down and write.

It’s time. What are you afraid of? The worst is guaranteed to happen, the hour and the day written on some cosmic stone. You will die and after a few short years no one will be alive who will remember you. No glory and no shame. Nothingness.

But there’s a here, still, and a now, still, in which your thoughts can be turned into written words, recorded, fixed for a fleeting moment, one hundred years or however long the digital storage system currently in use will last.

No papyrus for you, no faded actual words, on ancient actual paper. So, you see, there is no need for those words to be worthy of immortality. Besides, many a laundry list has unaccountably survived, emerged into our modern hands through the dark tunnels of history even as the entire contents of the library of Alexandria were lost. The stele from which the Rosetta stone came off was after all some boring administrative decree. Hardly Aristotle.

Turn off the news. Stop humming that same stupid tune in a loop (which, by the way drives your dear husband crazy). Close that fridge door. Now. If the answer is ‘Why, more cheese!’ the question is not worth asking. Sit down and write.

Do it for yourself, as you did when you were eight years old and you embarked on the first of a number of super-secret, personal diaries. Two and a half decades of it in fact. The point was not whether you had enough that was new or original or dramatic to say - the point was to record what was going through your head, what you were feeling, that being the only consciousness you were ever going to inhabit, the only self you would ever be.

When and how did it happen? Why did I start living my live unexamined? What shyness, what ghastly self-consciousness or self-loathing stopped me wanting to pay attention to that internal voice, to record its wanderings, its enchantments and its discontents?

I wrote, furiously, through my teens, twenties and early thirties, through many adventures, a deep depression and constant loneliness. In fact I wrote three book-length things that I sometimes absentmindedly call books. 

I only got round to upload one on Amazon last year, a huge act of defiance towards my current cowed, voiceless middle-aged self. I wrote and wrote and then. And then I stopped. I don’t know why.

All I remember was the notebooks were getting smaller, their covers more elaborate but the entries fewer and farther between. Then nothing. 

I stopped annotating books, storing away clever phrases from articles, cutting out pictures and filing half crumpled scraps of paper filled with doodles and urgent, single underlined words which were the secret passwords to a short story, a chapter, a diary entry, a poem which I may or may not write. 

I stopped recording dreams (an activity that, in truth, I only ever engaged in for one year and became too bewildering and anxiety-inducing to continue). I stopped noting down conversations overheard or ideas of effective ‘scenes’ between characters I already knew or had not yet invented.

Look, I’m a still a journalist, sort of. I write the occasional column. I blog, as one does, well, as everybody does, just more infrequently. I obsessively update my ‘status’ on a variety of social media platforms with all sorts of witty and profound little asides. A recent job had me penning op-eds in other people’s names. 

I do all these things, constantly, all the time, and sometimes, absentmindedly, I describe them as ‘writing’. But I don’t write anymore. I don’t know why.

The answer I seek might be a few paragraphs up. It has to do with the internal monologue, the voice (not Voices, you understand, nothing like that), and the difference between hearing it, which I can’t help, not while I’m alive and sentient, and choosing to pay attention to it, which is what the process of writing essentially is, a conscious choice.

I have often heard it said about some of my favourite writers (often by means of their own pen) that they have no choice but write. Writing is who they are, not a means to an end, but their way to exist in the world. All the great diarists share this marvellous curse, this great, consoling affliction - Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantell and many countless others I love. 

Whether they simply pour it into actual diaries (there always are diaries, they are the shadow, the footprint, the fingerprint of the writer) or into reportage, novels, plays, what's constant is the writing. Not the publishing, not the being known for or paid for it, not even the accomplishing of final products that can be given a name, a definition - my latest poem, my new short story. 

Writing is, in essence, always flow and fragment. From time to time we hack from it a more solid, denser object and call it Rosetta, or War and Peace. But don’t be fooled, the writing is an endless tune, thoughts in a loop, with no final chapter or clever resolution.

Now, the affliction I described, the having to write which makes people into writers, whether anyone notices or not, means having to pay attention to the internal voice.

My internal voice, my stream of consciousness has a mean streak in it, you see? What I finally seem to have learnt in time is to tune it out, for long stretches at a time and in fact for long as I possibly can. 

The voice, make no mistake, takes no notice of my clever wheeze, and continues to lash me mercilessly whenever it can. But I sure trained myself out of sitting in quiet rooms actively trying to listen to it.

With time and maturity and a greater awareness of the world around me, the voice has also changed - for the worse - and I have duly strengthened my self-preserving mechanism to tune it firmly out. 

The voice is not just filled with contempt at my failings. It is no longer just a grief-stricken, panicked commentary on the immensity of my disappointments, the mediocrity of my aspirations, the circularity of my setbacks, the basic the fallacy of all my choices. Mixed in with that, and with the wonder, the love and the excitement it is still faithfully chronicling, the voice increasingly drones on about the horror of the world we live in.  

Now, as I do live in this world, as I’m still here, now and not shut away in a cave, I am aware of the beheadings and the mass rapes, the hammers taken to priceless artefacts in desert cities. I know about climate change and people trafficking and the slave labour hidden in any object I see or buy. 

I often find myself talking about the slow motion collapse of the European dream, the annihilation of Syria, the pauperization of Greece. 

I shake my head at the misery of each new devastating earthquake and, as people around me start dying of awful diseases, I dutifully make donations and sign up to charities which attest to the horror of this world in all its grim glory.

I am more than aware of it, believe me, and the voice droning on and on about it, almost as the expense of anything else, doesn’t help. 

So I’m discovering that, on top of my general policy of avoidance, I’d do anything to keep that sense of revulsion and powerlessness at bay.
I'd do anything not to have to think about it any longer than for a few seconds at the time.

At first I was not good enough for the world. Now I still suck and the world is black chaos without sense or meaning, without an arc of progress or any hope of justice to soften the blow.  I must fear, at some level, that life once examined may drive me finally mad. Life drawing for the terrified, indeed.

So I hum out loud, eat another slice of cheese, drink more wine, rinse those glasses, pair those socks. I don’t want to think about it, listen to those thoughts long enough to write, to write anything.

I wish there could be a way to get it back, that nice, innocent compulsion to listen and to record, to write for the sake of writing. I wish it were so, as I’m beginning to suspect that I too define myself that way and that therefore I have lived less as my truer self in the past ten years.

I have found lasting love and better jobs in those years, I have felt much safer, better looked after, more prosperous and secure. But less like me. 

My truer self has faded to the point where only the stitches of the pattern show, the neuroses, the obsessions and the anxieties - or if you prefer my laugher, my predilections, or certain turns of phrase of mine- while all colour and shape seems gone. No amount of painting, hill walking or pottery seems likely to bring it back.

I’m 46. Everything aches. Everything, I mean it. I’m growing physically larger and larger, making cool, disdainful detachment a harder pose to pull, as I waddle, sweating and clumsy, my mother frowning back at me from every mirrored surface. 

It’s also somewhat harder to hide, aside from the virtual hiding of the not-really-writing. 

What am I waiting for? Really, what is the point of wasting any more time pretending?

Maybe the answer is to start seeing this life, this one life I have, what’s left of it, as less of a personal business and more of an objectively interesting experience, like when I was eight I suppose, and the wonder/self-consciousness ratio was at a healthier setting.

Maybe what allows those writers to take note of the voice, to feel the fear and write it down anyway, is a choice to see life not as a trial, not as a short yet endless ego-balancing , a face-saving, face-losing see-saw, the careful, exhausting recalibration of desires and dreams in the face of one’s cruel mediocrity and of the gentle passing of time. 

Maybe they manage life through a viewfinder, maybe the pen keeps the smoke and the smell at bay. Life as reportage, as unflinching, unblinking, unblushing copy, the detached, bemused account of a passionately feeling observer. Horror included, warts and all. The writing it down, the putting it ‘to paper’ as it were, an exorcism too, perhaps.

And I realise now (or perhaps I remember?) that re-writing and re-reading is what used to quieten the voice awhile. Listening back to myself as expressed ‘on paper’ silenced it, for a while, giving me a brief, but perfectly dependable and repeatable experience of completion, of what I still, absentmindedly, call happiness.