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.