Friday, 10 July 2020

The Spring Without Humans

So. How was it for you? 

Have you found the words yet? I don't even mean the right words, but good enough ones to wrap your mind around the contour of the experience, to tentatively feel its jagged edges, roughly intuiting its dimensions?

I haven't. Embarrassing, I know.

When you are known in your circle for your love of scribbling, people assume you spend your life perched over experience with your pen in the air, poised to write it all down. 

"Are you writing about it? You must write about it, surely !"  people advised, asked, admonished or cooed, sounding baffled when I confessed that I haven't, I couldn't.  Because what is 'it', in this case? How can you write about it if you can't name it? There are no words yet. 

Okay, here are some words, if you insist . Not the definitive account for all times, not the official Covid Chronicle of this spring without humans, but some scattered impressions of what it has been like for me.

Let's deal with the big ticket item first. Once singing Italians on balconies gave way to clapping Brits on doorsteps constant, large scale, unrelenting death stopped being tragic and grotesque and became strangely normalised, becalmed, discussed in reasonable BBC-like cadences, anaesthetised if you will, ventilated with facts which turned out to be mostly lies, which in turns generated fortifying, morale-rousing indignation. 

It's as if, and I am fully aware of how crazy this will sound, but bear with me, it's as if actual people stopped dying once they were dying in their thousands. They were counted, not named, then weighted not counted, and then they disappeared not just from the drone-patrolled streets and squares, the empty stadiums, shopping malls and theatres, the goat infested high streets and dolphin ridden canals but from the news itself, slipping like sand grains through the fingers of my comprehension, leaving a burnt residue, an aftertaste of sadness.

Only one death became suddenly and disconcertingly real. My father's passing more than a year ago was, in pandemic-shaped retrospect, idyllically peaceful. We held his hand to the last. There was a huge, lovely funeral. People could hug and everything. But I find I can't stop thinking, dreaming and crying about him.

Compared to many, to most, I've had a lovely indoor holiday, unmarred by illness or scarcity or real fear. Yet the lack of agency engendered by the lock-down leaked a soporific poison into my mind and body. 

I slept well, mostly, but dreaded waking up to another empty, sunny day of lavish pink blossoms exploding unobserved by human eyes. It felt to me at times as if my husband and I had already died and were starring in our own version of The Good Place, against a backdrop of pastel coloured nothingness without end. What was the point again? 

I suffered acute bouts of productivity envy : all that bread baking and language learning, all that creativity unleashed - people shooting whole films on their phones, recording symphonies with remote orchestras, launching lip syncing comedy careers... Meanwhile I sat stupefied on my stoop each morning in mismatched pyjamas, sun on my face, a cooling coffee and a browning banana by my side, listening to bird song and sirens, more birdsong and more sirens while no planes flew overhead. 

I got sick of staring at fuzzy people on screens. I felt a ghost in other people's machine on video calls where my greying hair and proliferating chins distracted me from the conversation. Audio calls and texts felt less fraught, less dangerously intimate. I wanted to be in touch, to feel connected but with no homeschooling of non-existent children to contend with and no job to go to I had less and less to say. I could not read more than a page or two of any novel I started - although I listened to a few while walking obsessively in the park - and if i could no longer read or write or take pleasure in my friends who was I really? Where was I? When would I get myself back?

As my world shrunk to my square I got to know my neighbours really well.  I'd always vaguely known them and mostly vaguely liked them but in truth they were a blur in the busyness of my life in the beforetimes

Now, after months of ordering and distributing the shopping of several elderly residents I've come to actually love them with the love you can only feel when you come to know someone by the quality and rhythm of their most personal purchases, the only choices we each had left. 

They ran the full gamut of western styles of consumption, from the bachelor surviving on sliced white bread and canned tuna to the health conscious hemp oil and kefir aficionado, to the flour obsessed couple next door whose asks became more and more war time-like as the weeks passed. Powdered mustard, anyone? Tinned beetroot? 

Disconcertingly, no one over-seventy seemed to ever need toilet paper, of which there was a lively Whatsapp trade in the early stages among the under-forty with children. The most vulnerable seemed, by and large, the least afraid, serenely weeding, digging and planting for Britain in their tiny back gardens with their radios on. 

No longer in a hurry, I was the one dropping by at their doorstep hoping for a chat, jumping at the chance to dispose of their recyclables, collect their medicines and help them organise octogenarian socially distanced birthdays. 

I don't know what the future holds. No shit, right? But seriously, I have no sense of what I'll do, who I'll be for the rest of my life. This much I know in my bones: this thing we are going through and hopefully emerging from, this thing there are no proper words for yet will not have been a momentary pause, a punctuation mark. It will turn out to be the end of a whole chapter, the start perhaps of a whole new book. 

I can't simply pick up from where I left off and carry on, because I myself was in limbo, in transition, when everything stopped and the past now seems too remote to have ever been real and the future impossible to imagine. 

All I know is that I do want to wake up most mornings these days, and hope to soon find out. 


Wednesday, 18 December 2019

The new Christmas feel-good factor: weaponising grief for profit

  There’s an advert for a new Apple iPad being shown in cinemas at the moment which delivers an unwarranted, and to my mind cruel, blow to the plexus to anyone who’s been recently bereaved. If that includes you I urge you to get off your seat and leave for the duration if you don’t want to spend the first ten minutes of whatever jolly Christmas film you are there to see stifling sobs into your scarf and wiping snot with your bare hands.

  It starts innocently enough - long minutes tracking the journey of a family of four across America (planes, trains, automobiles) to visit Grandpa. The iPad makes a few appearances along the way, being put to the traditional use of quieting the two squabbling little girls at various points by the weary parents. So far, so cliched. But this iPad is magic, you see, this iPad is different.

  We get to Grandpa’s. Something is not right - cue sad music. The house is cold, uninviting. The old man is grumpy and unsmiling. It turns out Grandma has recently died and Mum/Daughter is there to help Grandpa clear her closets and make sure he's eating right. The two little girls squabble on, to the irritation of all.

  Left alone with old family pictures and ancient video cassettes the girls get working on a project. On Christmas morning they unpack the iPad anew for Grandpa and their handiwork, it is revealed, consists of a childish PowerPoint charting the story of the young grandparents, the growing family, Grandma’s demise and so forth ending with a comforting picture of the family still together at Christmas, at least with the aid of a digital collage. See, Grandma is still here, smiling among us, it’s still us. When the old man’s scowl dissolves into tears so will you.

  Adverts have always made us cry to make us buy. But normal psychological manipulation tends to weaponise more positive human emotions, such as joy. Newborns gurgling, lovers getting together, friends reuniting. It’s still cheap, it’s still not great but it feels less exploitative somehow.

  Using imagined grief (a sentiment presumably still only tangential to the lives of your core customer demographic of young, busy, exasperated parents) to sell tablets strikes me as low for two reasons. The first is that you can throw money at just about anything else but not at grief. Retail therapy might help in a romantic breakup (although that's never been my experience), it can distract you from your mid-life crisis. But shiny new ‘stuff’ can’t assuage the howling sadness caused by the loss of a loved one.

  The second objection is more specific to the product in question. The ad pretends to be about love, showing and sharing love with the aid of clever technology. But Grandma, you see, is still dead. Grandpa is still all alone. Once your leave taking your expensive iPad with you he won’t even be left with the image of his family, complete with smiling Grandma, stuck to his fridge, to look at every so often.

  And all because your insufferably spoilt children can’t be fagged to do an actual collage, using paper, scissors and glue like normal humans. Or maybe they would. But where’s the profit for Apple in that? 

  And since you can only bring down capitalism from within (if at all) I look forward to seeing the actor playing Grandad being hired by Ryan Raynolds for a new Aviation Gin ad. The camera pans away from his dejected face to reveal him sitting in an untrendy bar, drinking himself to death surrounded by his elderly friends. "Drink up mate, have another one". And the pay off line. "Forget those fucking children!". That's an advert I'd toast to.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Justify your existence internally

Recently, on a not particularly busy day, while processing the usual 150 to 200 emails that flow into my inbox daily, I was inspired to click on one bearing the subject line: Justify your existence internally. 

  I was in a philosophical mood that day, contemplating as I had been doing the pointlessness of life in general and the senseless wasting of my own particular life within the four walls of that particular office. Could the email be the key of some spiritual revelation, something, anything, that would encourage me to live with myself for another day? It turned out to be, of course, the title of a seminar on internal communications.

  It figures.

  The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place, as G B Shaw is widely believed to have observed one hundred year before Twitter was even invented. But even absent the cacophony of social media George Bernard would only have had to spend a couple of hours inside any office to come to his conclusion.  

  Meetings. Meetings about meetings. Pre-meetings, meetings’ agendas and meetings’ minutes. Hours, days of meetings. Short reports, memos, grids and lists. Meeting notes. Relaying meetings to those who weren’t there, email threads, whispered gossip about what happened and who said what. Box-ticking, form-filling, feedback and postmortems to dissect how all of that went.

  No decision is ever reached during a meeting, you understand. The first you hear about a decision is two months after it was taken by someone in authority without consulting anyone and you only find out when you get locked out by the new security system or the website colour scheme turns acid green.

  By then, it is absolutely inappropriate to bring it up in a meeting. That’s not what meetings are for. They are not about the past and they are emphatically not about making things work better going forward. Or foreseeing and mitigating real problems. Or averting possible crises.

  Meetings are about meetings.

  At the end of my working life I’ll be lucky if 20 pc of my time will have been devoted to accomplishing the actual tasks I’ve been nominally paid to do. By the time it’s all over (praise be to god) I will have spent almost 80 pc of my time as a scribe, a compiler of grids and assembler of notes as well as ‘meat in the room’ for endless meetings that won’t result in any change, unless it’s for the worse, due to the total breakdown of communication that is the after effect and the leitmotif of the business of meetings.

  I’m not even angry about this, no longer scandalised or disappointed. I’m simply exhausted. Talked out, minuted out, post-noted and over-listed. Meetings, town halls, memos and complex email threads with an ever-changing cast of 12 people in CC is how the office pond life – that layer of mid-to -top level management whose job titles are completely impenetrable and whose salary level is a daily slap in the face to the rest of the workforce - justifies its existence internally.

  The rest of us, with real tasks, skills, goals and deadlines are just audience, cyber witnesses, clerical courtiers, while our own, one, precious life ebbs slowly away.

  Good luck robots. Do your worst.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

The Upside Down is where shame has gone to die

Stranger things are happening, people. 

Thirty years from the fall of the Berlin wall, it turns out it's possible to gaslight a nation, spread disinformation and anxiety, foment division and hatred and get people to vote for, indeed clamour for, policies which go against their own best interest without a single shot fired or protester tortured.

A willingness and facility to lie, a dormant media (more interested in politics as horse race with occasional televised gladiatorial combats than in thoroughly researching topics and preparing for interviews) and the sheer quantity of information available are all it takes to dull people's critical faculties. Throw in a visible enemy (why not immigrants, that always work!) et voila' your got yourself some tasty, freeze-dried culture war where brains should be.

Twitter, sure, FB, digital tricks and dodgy Russian money - all have contributed to transform our public landscape in a murky Upside Down where white is black and everything ends up grey, fluffy, unsubstantial, un-pin-down-able.  Some of these things are technological and new, some, like corruption, have been with us forever.

But shame is what seals the deal and our fate in this particular political junction; or rather, the absence of it. The death of shame is the water you add to the instant coffee of ideological obsession. My bastard is better than your bastard. My liar is more honourable than your liar. My Islamophobe is classier than your anti-Semite.

In the last couple of days alone we have witnessed the spectacle of the Conservative Party Press Office Twitter account disguising itself as some neutral fact-checking outfit for the duration of the leaders' ITV debate to  propagandise for Johnson, then coolly reverting to its usual title: job done! A bizarre post-propaganda move that proved too much for Twitter itself (and they do have strong stomachs that lot) but is still currently being defended by the Conservative front bench on the ground that 'Labour lies need exposing' and the truly Kafkaesque 'no-one gives a toss about social media'. 

I have myself just got involved (against my best human and comms judgement) in an exhausting twitter exchange with somebody claiming that it's Remainers' scaremongering that's driving much needed EU health professionals away, even while simultaneously claiming that there's way more EU doctors now than in 2016 but there's still shortages because of all the EU immigrants seeking treatment. 

Do people hear themselves? The lack of shame makes us deaf to reason itself.
Where is the line? Is there even a line anymore, as our American friends may well have asked when a self-styled pussy-grabber was elected President thanks to evangelicals' and conservative women's votes?

It takes the hapless Prince Andrew, a man so genuinely clueless, so terminally privileged, so comically un-relatable that few can be bothered to rise to his defence, to show us the faint outline of where the line now is. So here we go: when in doubt, don't accept the lavish hospitality of a convicted paedophile: it looks really bad! And if you have done (we are all human) for goodness' sake don't talk about it and hope the whole unseemly row will blow over soon. 

Of course secret, as yet undiscovered, paedophiles are still fine - we don't want to get too puritanical now. As for paedophilia itself, the jury is out of course. I mean, it depends, doesn't it, on who's doing what to whose children, in exchange for what type of incentive and whether a newspaper is about to find out. A blanket policy of revulsion and unconditional censure is, frankly, tantamount to communism.

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 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 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.