Is Tony Blair the right person to lead the anti-Brexit campaign?

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Tony Blair gave an excellent speech last week in which he laid out clearly the reasons why Brexit will be an absolute catastrophe for the British economy and called for people to rise up to stop it happening.

This has led members of several online pro-Remain groups to accept and promote him as leader of the campaign. They have argued that despite his lack popularity on the left, he was a popular Prime Minister who is associated with a happier time in national life and is also able to make a coherent and convincing case that Britain should not jump off the cliff into economic oblivion, as Theresa May is proposing.

Here’s an alternative point of view. It’s not one I share; I think that on this issue Blair is right and that Brexit will be an absolute disaster (although not as much as a catastrophe for the UK as his war was for Iraq). Nevertheless this is the narrative that will dominate the debate should Blair continue to play a prominent role in the anti-Brexit campaign:

In 2003 we, the British people, made our will absolutely clear. We marched in our millions against Blair’s proposal that we participate in an illegal war in Iraq. We made abundantly clear that we saw through the dodgy dossier and the machinations of the government spin doctors. We rose up throughout the country to say very clearly: no. We don’t believe you and we don’t want your war.

In 2016 we, the British people, took part in a referendum over our continued membership of the European Union. The outcome was tight, but clear: the will of the British people is that Britain must leave the EU. 

In both cases an out-of-touch and arrogant political elite with no respect for democracy has sought to deny the will of the British people. The first time they were successful. We plunged the region into an abyss of violence which led directly to the rise of Isis. We sacrificed the lives of thousands of our own soldiers. We saw bombs on the London tube and bullets on the streets of Paris and Brussels. All because our leaders refused to listen to our voice.

Now Tony Blair, whose lies led us to this point, tells us we should rise up. Against whom? Against ourselves. Against our own will, as expressed peacefully at the ballot box. We are told warned of disaster by a man who we know for certain we cannot, must not trust ever again.

This is a sovereign and democratic country. We have to respect the will of the people, and that means we should have nothing but contempt for leaders who flout it and do not lead the country but instead seek continually to mislead it.

As I say, I don’t share this perspective. Should Blair continue to be associated with the pro-EU forces, however, it will be the line pushed by Nigel Farage, who has spoken out several times against Blair’s war, and the central point hammered home by the Tory Party and their newspapers. After all, we have a wilfully amnesiac media which will happily let those members of the current Government who supported the war off the hook. The current impasse with regard to Brexit, in which no one who understands it is seriously in favour – and I would put Theresa May in that category, notwithstanding her inopportune political ambitions – is thus partly a consequence of the war in Iraq. Many who voted to leave will have had that historic insult to democracy foremost in their minds.

The above argument must also be a factor in Jeremy Corbyn’s conservative strategy with regard to Brexit. He knows that Labour is connected in the public mind with a lack of concern for the national mood, and therefore has made no attempt to shift it. His lack of leadership acumen has been made very apparent. He could, last June, have rejected the terms and conduct of the referendum in the first place and attempted to use his principled leadership – recalling explicitly his opposition to the war  – to lead the country in a different direction. It’s also shameful that he’s not open to the kinds of suggestions made by Caroline Lucas (that progressive forces should push for a radically different kind of Brexit that prioritises our values). It would be very ironic if one consequence of Corbyn’s failure to provide leadership with regard to Brexit would be his replacement by someone who represents everything that he (supposedly) opposes. And if we know one thing about Blair and the Blairites, it’s that they will seize any opportunity to regain power over The Labour Party.

Instead of letting Blair forward his own agenda, then, those opposed to Brexit would be much better advised to look to figures like Caroline Lucas and Nicola Sturgeon to lead the way. Tony Blair must not be allowed to play any significant role in the campaign.

Sheffield: A personal history

One of the happiest memories of my life is of my 40th birthday get-together in June 2012, when my friend Craig showed me a video on his phone of our former secondary school being smashed to pieces by bulldozers. This realisation of a dream of our teenage years is one of the best presents I have ever received.

The reputation of the school had already taken an industrial hammering. Lying on a beach in the Algarve in September 1999, I read a lengthy Guardian report by the investigative journalist Nick Davies (later of ‘Churnalism’ fame). He identified my school as an emblematic victim of early-’80s educational reforms which aimed to remove the comprehensive elements of the education system. It was the perfect example of a school which went wrong in this way. The key year when things really started to plummet downhill like an out-of-control pram was 1983, when they removed streaming. It was also the year I and my cohorts arrived. We were, it seemed, the victims of an experiment – or, at least, of an experiment which had been made to fail by the power of class and a Government ideologically opposed to the principles of comprehensive education. That might explain why we were taught music lessons by a German teacher with an open fascination with Hitler, why we learned French in a science lab whose gas taps some kids could never quite get enough of, and why our Religious Education classes mostly consisted of listening to the teacher’s favourite progressive rock albums, particularly the Ayn ‘Medicare’ Rand-influenced Rush album ‘2112’.

Destruction was a theme of my youth. Sheffield was in the process of deindustrialising and so parts of it were disappearing. A few years ago I came across a BBC documentary from September 1973 (fifteen months after I was born) called ‘All in a Day’, which tracked the daily lives of various locals. Parts of it I recognised but there were some things -fashions, ways of life, institutions – which had already vanished by the time I came into consciousness. Then, when I was 12, I saw the city destroyed by a nuclear explosion.

‘Threads’ was the work of Barry Hines (who also wrote ‘Kes’) and it was shown on the BBC in late 1984. It was a extremely vivid depiction of the total annihilation of the only city I knew. A simmering confrontation in the Middle East between the two superpowers was discussed in increasingly urgent tones on background TVs and the radio, while people very similar to those I knew went about their everyday lives. Some schoolfriends were filmed running down the main shopping street screaming when the four-minute warning went off. My own sister was an extra. She appeared for several centiseconds at the end of a scene in which ashen-faced ‘survivors’ looked though a fence in the radioactive fog at armed soldiers guarding the emergency food supplies. She looked just like she was living through a nuclear holocaust. In reality, of course, she was just terrified she wouldn’t get on TV. The scream she let out on seeing herself was louder than a megaton bomb*.

The irony that South Yorkshire had declared itself a ‘nuclear free-zone’ was much commented-upon, as was the oft-trumpeted (but more often parodied) notion of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. I grew up in a politically-charged atmosphere. Trips into town to seek out new books and music would inevitably involve getting caught up in furious discussions with left-wing newspaper sellers. I remember the first wave of strikes provoked by Thatcher as part of Nicholas Ridley’s plan to smash to unions to pieces. My father, after a career in haut cuisine, worked at a steel plant from around 1980. When I was ten, in April 1983, he took me on my first protest, outside Cutler’s Hall where Thatcher herself was speaking. Then there was the Miner’s Strike, about which I remember shamefully little.

My vague sense of imminent doom wasn’t helped by the news in 1988 that human civilisation was forcing the world’s temperatures to rise. Whenever I think of the moment I first learned about global warming, I picture the classroom at King Ecgbert’s, in the posher part of town, where I did an A-level in Government and Political Studies. We had a teacher who read to us from The Guardian. The fact that he treated us like adults and obviously enjoyed his job inspired thoughtful, if inchoate, responses. I can see myself in that classroom aged 17; I’m saying something I must have read in the Guardian about feedback loops.

Around that time I was becoming interested in other kinds of loops. In the Leadmill I heard the bleeps and bongs of ‘Sweet Exorcist‘ for the first time. The music released by Fonn and then Warp records followed an established local tradition, using a palette of industrial sounds. In this excellent BBC documentary local musicians of the time talk about how the sounds of the working city forged their sound:

Sheffield was also musically twinned with Dusseldorf, given the influence of Kraftwerk on the Human League and Heaven 17. The dystopian fictions of J.G. Ballard were also an ingredient. Although they never found (or indeed sought) commercial success, Cabaret Voltaire were part of the same wave, along with the Comsat Angels, whose bassist (much more of a pop star than we’d ever be) lived around the corner from us.

Then there was ABC, with their gold lame suits and lush, orchestrated and articulate critiques of Thatcherism. Their flamboyance stood out given that the general tone of life in Sheffield is ‘unimpressed’. There’s an earthiness, a flatness of voice and attitude which contrasts with the hills. Jarvis Cocker is the canonic example of someone who both celebrates and supercedes this. He left the city to broaden his horizons and seek fame but has nevertheless remained loyal. It was his musical map of Sheffield which taught me about the importance of Sheffield’s five rivers in its industrial development. (They probably tried to teach me that in geography classes, but I just remember being lectured about superpigs in the Ruhr Valley by a teacher with a military moustache who spent most of the lessons with his head buried in the Daily Mail.) I thus consider Jarvis to be more of a Sheffielder than I am. Still now my geography of my hometown is shameful. Someone else who knows the city much better than me is the architecture writer Owen Hatherley, who, although he’s not from there, is an articulate and enthusiastic advocate for the Sheffield of the 50’s and 60’s and the pop music culture it eventually inspired. He called his book on Pulp ‘Common’.

The song his title refers to is not my favourite but it is very well-observed. The insult ‘common’ was a very, well, common way of dismissing someone, of asserting one’s claim to a higher rung on the ladder. School was rough, with bullying commonplace, and you just had to learn to cope without appearing ‘soft’. You could detect the resultant hardiness and stoicism in the music. In 1986 the Human League had a transatlantic hit with a song which was clearly not their own. It had been written by Jam and Lewis for Alexander O’Neill or Janet Jackson, and to my ears the spoken section, which was designed to sound breathy and passionate, sounded distinctly sulky, or, as we say in Sheffield, mardy. Actually, when, on what must have been New Year’s Day 1989, me and a friend went to Phil Oakey’s house on Ecclesall Road, he was cheery and welcoming. He made us a cup of tea and we chatted about Barry White.

When I was growing up, the Human League were the local celebrities, our representatives on the national stage, or at least on Top of the Pops. The same was emphatically not true of Def Leppard, at least not in my part of town. They had taken the sounds of heavy steel production in a less interesting direction, to the mid-Atlantic rather than Central Europe. Then, in the ’90s Sheffield became synonymous with The Full Monty. I’ve watched this film more times than Stewart Lee has seen Scooby Doo. It’s the tale of a group of redundant steelworkers forced by economic circumstances to reinvent themselves as male strippers. One of the most telling moments comes early on, when the wife of one of the main characters pisses in a urinal, thus parodying and asserting a claim over a symbol of male identity. The loss of stable industrial work, with its attendant self-image of the strong male breadwinner, implies a crisis of masculinity. The men have to divest themselves of their ‘male’ identity and try to make the adaption to more ‘feminised’ forms of work, in which bodily image and the ability to adjust to the demands of spectacle are of central concern. The film thus dramatises the fabled shift from heavy industry to the leisure economy and the suspense comes from the question of whether they can make the transition. In fairy tale fashion, they succeed, putting on a strip night and proving they have what it takes to entertain. How they will go on from this one-off performance is unclear, but in neoliberal terms (and this is an emblematically Blairite film), by debasing themselves to the demands of the market they’ve demonstrated they have sufficient will to survive. Although it wasn’t set in Sheffield but nearby, Brassed Off trod very similar ground but was more sombre and angrier in tone. If you add in Billy Elliot there was actually a minor genre of 1990s films in which former industrial zones learnt to strip, play or dance to tunes played by the forces of globalised capitalism.

On another level this is what most cities on the world are trying to do nowadays: to market themselves as cultural destinations. For a brief period Sheffield was home to the ambitious but ill-fated National Centre for Popular Music. The fact that I, for whom pop music was more important than breathing, never got round to visiting it is some indication of how ill-conceived it was.  Sheffield also tried to attract sports fans, with the hugely expensive debacle of the World Student Games (who?) in 1991, which the city is, as far as I know, still paying for.

I witnessed the waning of a certain visionary spirit: the destruction of the slums and investment in public housing of the 1950s-60s. Owen Hatherley records that the housing estates in some parts of Gleadless were designed to take advantage of the steep topography and, in the right light, they resemble sunlit Californian hillsides. Park Hill was an absolutely laudable attempt to create decent living conditions close to the centre of the city for ordinary people. It failed, partly through official neglect, but has been widely recognised as a masterpiece of urban design. There was also abundant evidence of a previous generation of patrician municipal idealism in the late 19th Century art galleries, museums and libraries. Then there was the Crucible, which, in addition to snooker championships, put on productions at affordable prices and gave young people to develop an interest in the theatre. Such initiatives were the fruit of an ethic according to which ordinary people should participate fully in the life of the city. One of the great symbols of this principle was the bus fares. As a child I paid 2p to go anywhere in the city. It was a little bit of Cuban-style socialism, one that life immensely more livable. I was lucky to grow up in such a time and place.

Nowadays a different set of priorities prevail. After a number of years the City Council managed to destroy two grubby-but-popular markets (Castle and Sheaf) which played an essential role in the life of the city. They attracted the Wrong Sort of People, principally the poor and the old. The Council demolished the markets and built a more expensive alternative in a totally different part of the city. Doing so is in keeping with an ideological shift: neo-Blairite politicians and their successors want to attract consumers, or preferably hyperconsumers, and what happens to the social fabric as a result is of lesser concern. Thus Sheffield now has some excellent and very large places to eat for those who have money and who want to pretend they have lots of money: Dubai-style casinos and gargantuan but bland chain steakhouses and Chinese restaurants crowd out the area next to the Town Hall. Also very prominent in the city centre are new blocks of flats, mostly built to accommodate exponentially-multiplying numbers of future generations of foreign university students who, give Theresa May’s antipathy to the UK’s economic survival, will almost certainly never arrive.

One of Sheffield’s least favourite sons, Nick Clegg MP, boasted when he was in government that he would preside over ‘savage cuts’, and the amount of people begging around the city are a testament to just how much he managed to achieve. The desperation caused by the viscous ideologically-inspired attacks on government spending must also have been a factor in the city having voted narrowly for Brexit (by 6,000 votes). Sheffield, dependent on government and EU spending in all its forms, is one city that will suffer enormously as a result. Its attempts to adjust to the new reality of a government agenda driven by psychopathic zeal do direct damage to both the standard of living and the quality of life of the city. As of 2017, the local council has now, in absolute desperation, begun a war against trees, as well as (as far as I can make out) dimming the streetlights. Perhaps they are taking the need to cut down on overheads a little too literally.

My knowledge of Sheffield is dwarfed by the number of things I don’t know, particularly given that I haven’t lived there since I was 18. I’m almost proud to say I don’t know more than a couple of the places mentioned in this recent Guardian article. There’s also the multi-venue music festival Tramlines (for which much credit has to go to a member of the increasingly-less-interesting local superstar band Arctic Monkeys), and the internationally renowned documentary festival.

There are also all sorts of wonderful things in Sheffield that have always been there: the art galleries, the museums, shops like Rhyme and Reason (a treasure trove of books and records I practically lived in when I was young and which, despite the best efforts of the Council, is still hanging on). Hunter’s Bar and the area around Kelham Island still have an abundance of very decent pubs. Sheffield’s parks (and the cafés in the parks) are an absolute joy. The walk from Endcliffe Park through Forge Dam and up Jacob’s Ladder towards the peaks and dales of Derbyshire rivals any holiday jaunt in Tuscany, and the echo of ancient civilisations around Mam Tor and Froggat Edge is just as resonant as symbols of the mysterious beliefs and rituals of lost civilisations at Teotihuacan.

Nevertheless I’m not all that loyal to the city. Neither of my parents is from there and (partly as a result) I don’t sound like a local. There are far more well-informed spokespeople for the city than me. Growing up in Sheffield was pretty much all I knew and it took me until a long time after I’d left to begin to reflect on the geographic and social layout of the city and where I stood in relation to it. Nevertheless it’s the city I’ve spent more time in than anywhere else, and contains numerous people and places who and which will always be among the most precious in my life. I also feel an occasional burst of sentimental pride, mostly from a distance. I can detect traces of deep class solidarity in this video, filmed in a friend’s local pub on the night that Thatcher finally died. I’ll also happily admit to feeling a sense of intense melancholy joy at the end of Synth Britannia at the moment where the LA synth-pomp of ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ kicked in.

But the strongest sense of being part of a community of those born and brought up in Sheffield was in March 2015, when I was part of a group of organisers of a march in London on the theme of Climate Change. Just a few weeks before, on a stormy afternoon,  we’d been walking by a river in Derbyshire following several days’ rainfall, admiring the sheer force of the water. The city of Sheffield came into existence as a result of a particular confluence of climatic forces, and in turn played a key role in the development of the industrial age which has come to jeopardise our future as a species. That’s why it felt particular fitting and moving to see on Youtube a group of local choir members gathered at the station to set off for the demonstration, singing an Italian partisan anthem remade for times which will, if we choose to face up to our responsibilities, require similar levels of sacrifice and courage:

(…and then, of course, there’s also this.)

* In an exclusive interview with this website, my sister had the following to say:

I was a 14 year old child star but the rock n roll lifestyle was too much so I had to get a career in the aviation industry when the offers dried up. (The following day).
There were 3 locations that we had to be at & that were at various stages in the aftermath of a nuclear war…the film is on you tube I think x

London to Rome: Why I will always prefer bookshops to the internet

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Here are two sets of coincidences that begin in the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and end, for the time being, in Rome.

In December 2015 I went to an exhibition by Emily Jacir on the life and murder of her fellow Palestinian Wael Zuaiter, an intellectual who took refuge in Rome. There were photos of his bookshelves containing a number of books I’d also read and quotes from his own books from which it’s clear he was an intriguing and exemplary engaged intellectual. At the time of his death he was translating ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ into Italian. His letters also show him to be an unusually perceptive and trenchant critique of imperialism, as well as a firm opponent of political violence. He was tracked down by the Israeli secret services and murdered on his own doorstep.

I’d been thinking about Rome as a safe haven. At the time we were living in Mexico but there were reports that the security situation in the areas where we lived was breaking down, with a new wave of threats against local restaurants and bars and a couple of murders on our doorstep. (I wrote about this here.) Around the same time I was reading a novel by Tomasso Pincio. I’d noticed this writer in bookshops because his nome de plume is a deliberate reference (and also adjacent on the bookshelf) to my favourite American novelist, Thomas Pynchon.

The novel I was reading is called ‘Cinacittà’ and is a murder story set in a future Rome which, due to global warming, has been abandoned by the locals and is now inhabited solely by Chinese people. Its epigraph is a quote from an ‘American writer’ taken from Federico Fellini’s film ‘Roma’, which I hadn’t yet seen. It talks about Rome as “a wonderful place to witness the end of the world”.

In August 2016 I go back to the Whitechapel Gallery and browse the bookshop. This is something I usually prevent myself from doing as, like the LRB and ICA bookshops, the Whitechapel is like a crackhouse for me. I usually come across at least six books which I know I have to read immediately. Sure enough, there’s one I’ve seen before but realise is exactly the book I need to read right now: ‘The Hatred of Poetry’, by Ben Lerner. It’s a book by a poet about how difficult and in some ways how annoying poetry is. I’ve been actively struggling with poetry for the last couple of years. Just up the road, in Limehouse, I did a series of courses which involved discussing poems and then trying to write them ourselves. The first part I loved, the second continually defeated me. When it came to writing, no matter how much expert guidance I received or exercises I did, I didn’t really understand what a poem is.

Lener argues that it’s easy to love poetry, but individual poems themselves are often too much of a challenge. Poems aspire to the condition of poetry, but always fail. I like his tone of voice and wonder what his poems are like. As it happens, the name Ben Lerner rings a bell. I see that he was the author of a 2012 novel called ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’; as I once lived in Madrid, I’d noticed the title but never thought about reading it. Reading reviews of the novel on my phone I realise it’s right up my street. It’s about a pretentious young expat poet living in Spain and pretending not to be American, smoking spliffs and looking down at other foreigners “whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise”. I can relate to that, and the description of his prose as ‘precise’ appeals to me.

I start reading the poetry book as I walk down the street. In the first couple of pages he mentions his favourite poet, one which (as he correctly predicts) I’ve never heard of, which makes me wonder who mine is. One name that immediately springs to mind is Luke Kennard, whose work has the advantage of being hugely entertaining (one of my favourite words when it comes to poems). I should read this guy’s novel, I think. As it happens I’m heading down to the South Bank anyway and I have a Waterstones voucher card that’s been in my wallet for months and which I can’t remember if I’ve ever used. My day now has more of a purpose to it and I speed up my stroll towards Trafalgar Square.

It turns out that the card in my wallet only has £1.01 on it, which means I really should think twice about also buying Lerner’s second novel, but it’s described as “a near-perfect piece of literature” and was chosen as ‘Book of the Year’ by 15 reputable publications.

Now I’ve got three new books, all by the same author. I walk across to The Royal Festival Hall, where I’m meeting a friend at 5. It’s only 4.15, so I decide to kill time in Foyles. The first book I see when I walk in is a volume of poetry by Ben Lerner, a compendium of his three collections. I have no intention whatsoever of buying it, but I pick it up because I’m keen to see what his poetry is like. The inner cover has a quote from Luke Kennard: “I look forward to Ben Lerner’s poetry the way I used to anticipate a new record by my favourite band.” Right next to the quote is the price: £14.99. If I buy it I will have all the published work by my new favourite author, one by whom I haven’t yet read more than a few pages. I snap it shut and make my way to the cash desk.

It occurred to me some time ago that it’s deeply ironic that although I grew up antagonostic to capitalism on the whole, I also spent my youth obsessing over sales charts. If The Jesus and Mary Chain burst into the pop charts at number 11, or if New Order managed to get onto Top of the Pops, it felt like a personal victory, and I would feel downcast for days if The Smiths failed to get into the top ten. There was an article by Simon Frith in the Pet Shop Boys 1989 tour programme arguing that their music celebrates and mourns that moment of melancholy just before you hand over the money for a new record or just before you fall in love, when you know that disappointment is inevitable. That’s the nature of commerce: it involves an emotional investment in something you know won’t satisfy you. Given that the emotional and intellectual payback of novels and films is deeper than so much else we consume, capitalism promotes their addictive qualities. There’s also the aspect of cultural capital, that we place cultural products in our personal shop windows to attract others – or, less cynically, that they allow us to identify (and be identified by) others who have shared often very intimate and personal experiences. In other words, we also use them as a form of bonding with others of our species, which is the very much the point of being alive.

I find it hard to track down the film ‘Roma’ online. In any case, I first need to rewatch ‘La Dolce Vita’, and then ‘8 1/2’, which I can’t remember ever having seen. There’s also Bertolucci’s and Antonioni’s films to catch up on. Some of these things I can find online but in most cases I need to get the DVDs. Luckily there are lots of market stalls selling €3 copies of classic films, the ones previously sold as promotions with newspapers. In Pigneto I chat to the owners and other browsers, who recommend a whole bunch of things I’ve never heard of. I quickly build up a collection of Scuola, Moretti and Pasolini. Then it’s a question of finding the time to watch it all.

The (very) English writer Geoff Dyer lived in Rome and suffered from depression. He writes about it in ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, his chronicle of his failed attempt to write a book about DH Lawrence which is also, finally, a book about DH Lawrence. He describes staring for hours at his TV, wondering if he should turn it on. Rome initially strikes me as a strange place to get depressed, but then I work out he must have been here in winter. Winter in Rome is (increasingly) short but very grey, with a cigarette ash atmosphere coating the city. Dyer then recounts how he escaped from his depression: he took an interest in it. He started thinking and reading about depression, and then had to leave the house to track down books to learn more. His mood lifted as he became part of the city, its bookshops, literary events and galleries.

Another writer I hugely admire (Nick Currie, aka Momus), has written persuasively and with his customary eloquence about how, in a globalised and digitally connected world, you can live the same life pretty much anywhere. He writes about moving from Berlin to Osaka and continuing exactly the same lifestyle. My own is essentially the same whether in London, Mexico City or Rome- pretty much wherever Amazon delivers, in fact. I noticed that my English language students in London were generally happy with their accommodation as long as it featured basic furniture and services, few disturbances and a very fast internet connection. It was by far the absence of the latter that generated the most complaints.

My own youth fed on record shops, bookshops and libraries. I was lucky to grow up in a age and a city in which there was an abundance of all three. Of course, I’m privileged now too. I can buy books if I want and I have time to wander round and enjoy what cities have to offer. I’ve lived in a succession of capital cities, all with a huge range of bookshops. Nevertheless, I miss record shops and haven’t felt the need to go to my local library since I lived in London. Like almost everybody on the planet I am far too dependent on the Internet for my cultural life.

The internet gives you access to everything. It has an infinite number of channels. But without a purpose it can be a medium for depression. After too much time online I sometimes feel like a polar bear in a zoo, pacing back and forth, scrolling and clicking aimlessly to the point where I lose all sense of what I want and who I am. Our physical selves thrive on fresh air, trees, company, exchanges of words, glances and embraces. I need to get out of the house. Luckily in Rome (we finally move here in September 2016) I have no internet on my phone and a whole city to explore. After a couple of weeks I finally track down one of my favourite bookshops. Invito alla Lettura is a dusty clutter of crumbling hardbacks, stacks of old editions of magazines, fascist pamphlets from the 30s, and a pleasant café (in Mexico it would be called a cafebrería) . Or rather, it was. It apparently shut down in April 2016 after nearly 25 years. From the owner of the Almost Corner bookshop in Trastevere I learn that food outlets are pushing out more established business, just like in London.

Humans will always need on-the-spot food and drink, but books, music and films you can get hold of online. There will always be a demand for places where you can go and browse them and maybe meet and fall in love with other people who share the same enthusiasms, but that doesn’t mean the market will necessarily provide such places. Bookshops and record shops were never primarily about buying, much more about communing with others who share a need for new ideas, impressions, experiences. I hope that when my baby daughter comes of age there will still be places where she can go to explore and celebrate whatever books and music she comes to love and, in the company of others, discover more. At least Rome has such an abundance of excellent bookshops, from Altroquando via Fahrenheit 451 to Minimum Fax, that it’s reasonable to hope that it will hold out longer against the forces of the global market as marshalled on the internet. Forse Gore Vidal, as in so many other things, aveva ragione.

Polyglots/language freaks lesson plan

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This is a lesson about learning languages quickly. The input is mostly in the form of videos, so your students get to develop their listening skills. More importantly, however, it uses five examples of savants – extraordinarily gifted/freakish language learners – in order to encourage your students to think about what they could do to improve their command of English as quickly as possible. Due to the demanding level of the input I wouldn’t attempt it with anything lower than a solid Upper Intermediate group. If you use all the material it should take between 75-90 minutes.

Procedure

  • Begin by telling the students you’re going to talk about learning languages -not just English. You want to start by finding out which languages they have a command of or would like to learn.
  • Stick up a piece of A4 paper on each of the four walls of the classroom. At the top of one write ‘I’m fluent in’; another ‘I can get by in’, the third ‘I know a few words of’ and the fourth ‘I’d love to learn’. Establish that in this context ‘be fluent in’ means ‘have a full command of’. Students walk round and add their names and languages to each sheet, eg. ‘Davide – French’. Monitor to clarify what the terms mean in case of confusion.
  • Have a brief whole class discussion, drawing on what they’ve written: ‘So, Sandra, you can get by in German’, or ‘So, Yuki, you’d like to learn Chinese’, etc.
  • Elicit/introduce the word ‘polyglot’. Decide together on the basis of the discussion who in the class could be considered a polyglot. Explain you’re going to watch two short interviews with polyglots. The first one is Alex, from the UK. Their task is to write down which languages he speaks.
  • Compare lists. If there is anyone who speaks any of the languages mentioned, ask how well Alex spoke it.
  • Then ask them: if a 20-year-old can speak 11 languages, how many could a 16-year-old speak?
  • They can then repeat the previous exercise with the second video. (NB: If you prefer, there is also a listening gapfill exercise here.)
  • Ask the student how the two polyglots learned all those languages – put them in pairs to discuss.
  • Tell them you’re going to watch two more videos which present very different methods for learning languages quickly. The students’ task is to choose which method they prefer.
  • Gather ideas. This will be very subjective- some will prefer the music/radio approach, others the book-based method. That’s fine.
  • Give them 5 minutes in small groups to discuss how the videos relate to their own language-learning experiences. Get one person in each group to report back on their discussion.
  • Tell them you’re going to show them one more video. Write on the board the phrase ‘from scratch’ and ask them what it means. Once the meaning is established, ask them how fluent you could become in a week in a completely unfamiliar language if you really dedicated yourself to it.
  • Tell them to take notes on: the name of the person; the language; the challenge; how successful they think he is at it. (NB: there is also a listening comprehension exercise here.)
  • Gather responses. Give them a chance to watch some or all of the video again if they need to.
  • Put on the board the following questions, and tell the students on their own to write down their responses:

1. Which example do you find most inspiring?
2. What lessons can you learn from the five videos you’ve seen?
3. What three specific things are you going to do in the next week to improve your English as much as possible?

  • Do a 5-minute whole class stand-up mingle in relation to the third question.
  • To close, elicit some of the things they’re going to do. Make sure they’ve chosen specific things, not just ‘read a book’ or ‘listen to music’. What book? What music? Remind them that they have a week to do those things and you will dedicate time in next week’s lesson to discussing how each thing went.

Det är det!

ps. there’s an interesting dimension to this whole polyglot thing, viz. why are most of those who go online to boast about their language skills men? You could open up this question with a higher-level class, using this blog entry (and the subsequent comments) to guide you.

San Francisco: Why I hate TED Talks and love Rebecca Solnit

dsc_0530From LA to San Francisco I take the train. This feels like a novelty because I didn’t know the US still had trains. In Mexico (where I’m living at the moment, viz. November 2015) the train network was broken up and sold off in the early 1990s, and I assumed that the whole train network in the States had long ago suffered a similar fate. It’s one of the many things that surprise me on my inaugural visit to the US.dsc_0445San Francisco feels like a greatest hits of some of the nicest places I’ve ever been to. In Chinatown I have an uncanny sensation that I am back in China. I understand that this is kind of the point of Chinatown, but still. The sights, smells and sounds seem to be those of a place that exists in itself, rather than a mere stopping-off point for tourists.dsc_0419The layout of the hills reminds me strongly of Lisbon, with sudden stunning glimpses down into the bay. Strolling up from where I’m staying on the morning of thanksgiving, I find the streets mostly deserted. I sit in a café surrounded by big-brained young people murmuring and tapping away on laptops and drink coffee so strong my head actually falls off. I’m reminded of Hamburg in terms of the quality of life. There are lots of people carriers and I catch glimpses of yachts on the water below. I find the presence of a caterpillar sanctuary comforting and make a mental note to direct any exiled lepidoptera I should meet up this way.dsc_0474On the way to the Golden Gate park, around the corner from Haight Ashbury Primary School, I stop and watch a game of American football. Americans don’t call it American football, in the same way as the Mexicans don’t talk about Mexican food. It’s a college game, someone explains. I manage not to embarrass myself in conversation with the local enthusiasts, and briefly try my hand at sports photography. In the park itself, I pass the National Aids Monument and then come across two friends from ‘home’: Goethe and Schiller. The statue was dedicated by the German community in 1901. Partly because it’s a port town, SF has always been a huge draw for immigrants, and it’s easy to see why.dsc_0530Up at the bridge I enjoy a stunning view across the bay. I’ve missed the famous fog by a couple of months. In any case it’s diminished somewhat over the last couple of years. The climate is, after all, changing.dsc_0370The next day I spend in Oakland and Berkeley. Mention of Oakland often evokes the famous phrase from Gertrude Stein: “there’s no there there”. Actually, the most powerful association it has for me is with hiphop. Back in the 1990s I listened to a lot of g-funk and was particularly enamoured of a local revolutionary rapper called Paris who was best known for bragadaciously fantasising about assassinating the then-President. Hence as I wander round my head is full of lines of street poetry about shooting cops. Up in the hills above the bay I go for a woodland walk with Daniel, the brother of an old friend from Dublin. Although he wasn’t born here, he embodies a soft-spoken wisdom about the world which I quickly come to associate with this part of the country. We talk at length about the drought and what it means. Daniel was an agronomist before retiring, and now spends a lot of his time volunteering on a collective organic farm. Hence he is very well-placed to talk about what climate change is doing down at the roots of nature.dsc_0364I get the bus down to Berkeley. My new friends Jan and Steve kindly take me on a walk around the university, which is probably the most climate-aware place on the planet. Because of the drought the grass on the lawns has been replaced by wood shavings, along with a notice explaining why. In the Sciences building there’s an advert for a Survival 101 course (‘the next 50 years will be radically different from anything we have ever known’), a special board for ‘activist jobs’ and more Bernie Sanders graffiti that you can shake an organic placard at. Afterwards we have beer and pizza in their garden and talk about climate awareness strategies.dsc_0512The person who most embodies the radical Bay Area spirit for me is the local writer and activist Rebecca Solnit. Although I’ve insisted here multiple times that climate denial is connected to racism, she points out more clearly and coherently that it is also very much about patriarchy. She’s best-known for writing the essay and subsequent book ‘Men explain things to me‘, which gave birth to the term ‘mansplaining’. Solnit encapsulates the notion of an engaged intellectual: honest about the difficulties of staying active and hopeful but facing up to reality without flinching. I hope I won’t be doing her a disservice by saying she’s like a cross between Naomi Klein and Erich Fromm. In addition to being hugely prolific, she’s well worth following on Facebook. Last year her (in these times) must-read book ‘Hope in the dark’ was reissued. Shortly before visiting the States I read her history of walking, ‘Wanderlust’, in which she makes a connection between walking and writing that I find truly inspiring. Her work is a constant reminder that if is there is to be a future, it will be a feminist one, as another heroine of mine has also pointed out.dsc_0428Another woman I associate with the Bay Area is Oedipa Maas, the heroine of Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘The Crying of Lot 49’. Looking for an underground postal service which may or may not exist, she follows a series of homeless men through the night as they appear to deposit and collect mail from trash cans. The network may or may not represent another level of reality subjacent to the official America. Oedipa has visions of connections and communities that lie beneath the surface. She sees Californian suburbs laid out like circuit boards and notices arcane symbols used to communicate between those in the know. My father-in-law has a cute theory about how the visions she experiences may be the result of epilepsy. In any case, there’s something extremely prescient about a book published in 1966 anticipating the acid-fuelled flowering of consciousness that was to come.dsc_0484Maybe in the future awareness and empathy will be luxuries, like yachts and, well, houses. In the Bay Area there’s a drought of affordable places to live, which means the cost and scarcity of housing is by far the number one topic of even the most casual conversation. Whereas in London it’s partly the influence of the finance industry making things much more expensive for everyone else, in SF it’s the tech companies. In 2013 local activists started protesting the shuttle buses used by companies like Google to transport their workers to the corporate campuses, like the one described by Dave Eggers in ‘The Circle’. Everyone else is allowed to stay in the city under very stringent conditions. It puts me in mind of an essay I once read by Brazilian sociologists called ‘the return to the medieval city’. In modern cities there are so many exclusions in operation, partly through technology, screening creating invisible walls. The globalised market functions as an particularly efficient repressive tool. Anyone could get removed at any time. Just as undocumented migrants fear the immigration authorities, most people in cities like San Francisco live in terror that their landlords will sell up or raise the rent.dsc_0405Increasing amounts of apartments are given over to Airbnb. The new economy is a battleground. The Bay Area may be one of the places from which field operations are directed, but it is also very vulnerable to their effects. Just a couple of weeks before my visit protestors occupied the company’s headquarters in support of a (subsequently unsuccessful) proposition to limit short-term rentals. The tech industry is a reminder that smart doesn’t mean intelligent. Back in Mexico City I’d noticed that the British Council has a weekly session of TED Talks, open to all its students. These are becoming as ubiquitous in TEFL as they are online. They represent ‘progress’ divorced from politics, entirely mediated by the market, with technology as its stand-in article of faith – after all, it was Friedrich Hayek himself (the father of Neoliberalism) who called the market a kind of technology. The TED ideology is based on a religious faith that the existence of African mobile phone entrepreneurs will somehow save the world. It’s all very slickly packaged and presented, to the extent that The Onion does a very clever parody. (Here‘s a much more serious critique by Evgeny Morozov.) For me, TED talks put me in mind of Mao’s Little Red Book, in that they imply total devotion to the helmsmanship of the Global Market. There are, truth be told, some brilliant TED Talks (inevitable, given that they appear to come off a pretty speedy production line) but the fact that they are sponsored by car companies often gets in the way of any enjoyment or inspiration. At best they are persuasive and informative, and at worst irritatingly smug and extremely complacent; they are almost always deeply neoliberal in outlook.dsc_0551Down at Fisherman’s Wharf there are actually people fishing. I try to figure out if they’re doing it for food or fun. If it’s sustenance they’re after, they’re in competition for survival with some of the biggest seagulls I’ve ever seen. The scene reminds me of Durban, South Africa, where we saw Indians without rods fishing for whitebait in polluted water. It’s easy to romanticise going off-grid, but surviving outside the walls of the global market is hard. Still, many have no alternative but to escape its dominion and seek out or build alternative communities. José Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’ is about a shopping mall that dominates every aspect of life in the area around it. Work, food, security and leisure are all increasingly centred on it. At the end the protagonists pack up and drive off the page to an uncertain but more independent future. In the final pages of Pynchon’s ‘Vineland’, set in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler leaves the politically repressive atmosphere of LA and heads up to Northern California, where new communities of hippies and other dissidents are being established. Contrary to the example set by countless backwoods myths and log-cabin yarns, surviving on one’s own is not an option. Cormac McCarthy’s protagonist in ‘The Road’ wanders a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape with a shopping trolley, and the book ends up with a incongruous epiphany which resembles nothing less than an advert for Coca Cola. The motif of the shopping cart put me in mind of the avatar that so often stands in for us on the internet. In McCarthy’s novel there is no more online and no more consumerism, so the future is dead. It is ‘welcome to the desert of the real’ made (barely) flesh. There is no community, with little fellow feeling between the isolated individuals who drift into contact. They are reduced to little more than isolated pixels in a ruined computer game. By contrast, in another of Saramago’s dystopian fictions, ‘Blindness’, the only seeing character literally strings the group of blind people together and manages to preserve some sense of a community in the midst of the shredded social fabric. The final words of the novel are ‘The city was still there’.dsc_0526There are examples of offline communities which protect those expelled or repulsed by the workings of the Matrix; wherever there aren’t, we have to try and establish them in the face of the confluence of climate breakdown and total corporate control. Climate Camp and Occupy were attempts to set such up places, to establish havens where people could identify and belong. Significantly, Rebecca Solnit spent some of her younger years as part of the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common. And although it’s set further down the Californian coast in LA, Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’ (set in 1970, at the waking from the hippy dream presaged in ‘The Crying of Lot 49’) closes with the following passage, one which I personally find of some comfort when contemplating what lies ahead:

Doc wondered how many people he knew had been caught out tonight in this fog, and how many were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep. Someday there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and from alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.

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Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 4

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I’ve called this short series about living in and learning about Portugal ‘Postcolonial Melancholy’, a phrase I borrowed from a book by Paul Gilroy. But that book isn’t actually about Portugal, it’s about the UK. Melancholy is partly in the eye of the beholder.

A couple of years after leaving Lisbon in 2004, I went on to do a Master’s in Portuguese Studies at King’s College, London and developed my understanding of the histories and cultures of Portugal, Brazil and Lusophone Africa. I also took the opportunity to learn more about cities in general. I didn’t know that much about Lisbon when I was there. I never really thought about its layout and the different stages in its history. I didn’t reflect on the different layers of the palimpsest. It was just Lisboa, the city I’d chosen to make home, and I saw it like a child would, without contemplating the distinctions between its elements. Looking back I reflected on the tensions between various kinds of old and various kinds of new: I thought about the ways in which new infrastructure, such as Oriente, Armazéns do Chiado and the Amoreiras shopping centre related to other areas like Alfama and Bairro Alto. I thought back to the recent and more established immigrants I’d made friends with, the new and old political parties, the values of the young and those of the old. Some things were in the process of dying away, some coming into existence. Very few things were fixed in stone.

I’ve reflected here on the role of the loss of empire in Portuguese culture. The UK fifty years earlier went through an even more extensive and thus more traumatic process, and it struck me as remarkable that, despite being raised and educated there, I’d rarely consciously reflected on its import.

I’d often remarked on the fact that when EFL teachers got together, one of the safest and most obvious topics of conversation while the ritual of getting slaughtered was being performed was television comedy. It was, along with music and The Guardian newspaper, after ten or so years of self-imposed exile from the UK, one of the things that kept me attached me to my culture. I’d tried to make my own country and myself foreign to one another. Having left straight after university I felt I didn’t know much about the country in which I’d been born and brought up, and in a sense I didn’t, but maybe at another level I didn’t know much about anything else.

Having abandoned my attempt to Be Portuguese, I went to live for a while in China and then in Spain, before returning to London in January 2006. It was a good thing that I left Lisbon when I did. Drinking-as-a-way-of-life is just not funny after a point. I left behind friends who either got married and developed roots or went mad and/or took drugs and died. I was lucky enough to get into a terrible relationship which led me brief unhappiness thousands of miles away. In several ways it saved my life. In early 2010 I went to Coimbra to discuss doing a PhD there, and then spent a long weekend in Lisbon. I decided I didn’t want to go back. I recognised the mood, or at least the mood the place inspired in me. Having since been to Macau, Maputo and Havana I’ve sensed a similar atmosphere, a certain inertness, a sense of life adrift.

There’s an adage used in recovery circles that says ‘if you spot it, you’ve got it’. Although I learnt a lot about Portugal, it’s likely that a lot of what I perceived about its melancholy response to its diminished role in the world were projections of my own cultural background. After all, it barely needs stating that there’s a strain in British culture that looks back with nostalgia to the days of empire and war. Paul Gilroy points to the persistence of the football chant ‘Two world wars and two world cups’* to argue that “sport has the same value as war in the national circuitry”. In Summer 2006 the football world cup took place in Germany, and there was a debate about the role of the St George flag, about what and who it represented. Some (like Billy Bragg) argued that it was a symbol of a renewed and more inclusive national culture, one based on what (by extension) Paul Gilroy two years earlier had called ‘conviviality’, rather than on the reactionary racist values represented by the Union Jack, which in the UK has always been associated with the far-right. Bragg even went as far as publishing a book called ‘The Progressive Patriot’, in which he put together a personal panoply of heroes to argue there is a non-imperial popular identity to draw upon. He also released an album celebrating the mixture that is English identity today, with its mix of elements of folk culture (some of which originate overseas) with immigrant elements, some of which came to us with empire. Gilroy argues that The Streets represent something similar, which he calls ordinary demotic multiculturalism, vernacular dissidence.

The optimism embodied in such attempts is obviously laudable. It is an attempt to celebrate and promote (Gilroy again) “the building of a multicultural nationality that is no longer phobic about the prospect of exposure to either strangers or otherness”. The racist murder of the black teenager Steven Lawrence and the eventual inquiry’s revelation of the subsequent police cover-up had exposed a level of institutional and unconscious racism which came as a genuine shock to a population which had thought itself past all that. It was an important factor in making us reconsider our society and our responsibilities to one another. The mood was also partly due to our having a nominally progressive Government. In 2001 the then-Foreign Secretary announced that Chicken Tikka Masala  was the country’s favourite dish, saying that it was “a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences”. It was partly an aspiration but also reflected a certain inevitability given the reality of our lives. It was an image of ourselves we were happy with, one which was global and mobile rather than insular and fixed. People’s lives revolved around a rhythm of regular flights to foreign cities, choosing between a gamut of different cuisines,  mixing with a wide range of people who just happened to have been born elsewhere. All of this was joyously represented in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, with its radical take on British history centering on Windrush, the Suffragettes, the NHS, Ken Loach, The Tempest, and William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

How did we go so quickly from all that to Brexit? It may be that the expansive yet inclusive national culture celebrated by Boyle was too urban, too superficial, too dependent on consumerism, on investing in an image of ourselves. Perhaps the shame of renewed imperial adventuring meant that it could only go so deep. Maybe further down there was a swell of hollow pride that our lads were off savaging the natives again, encapsulated in The Sun’s obnoxious but (in some parts of society) ubiquitous ‘Help for Heroes’ campaign. In any case there were other forces pushing back.  It was easy to laugh when the pitifully Blimpish Ukip MEP Geoffrey Bloom railed against foreign aid going to ‘Bongo Bongo land’, but harder to do so when various members of the public were filmed abusing perceived outsiders on public transport. Such outbursts often had a bitter, recriminatory tone: ‘My Britain’s fuck all now’, bewailed the woman on the Croydon tram. The targets of this kind of abuse were often more recent immigrants bearing the brunt of buried resentment. As Gilroy wrote, “incomers may be unwanted and feared because they are the unwitting bearers of the imperial and colonial past”.

It’s easy to overlook the role that mainstream TV still plays in British life in framing social attitudes, in creating a picture of the society that it’s hard to shut out. The national mood was soured by hateful propaganda scapegoating the unemployed and spreading the virus of negative empathy. The active celebration of bullying by programmes such as ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ and ‘The Apprentice’, with psychopathic character traits openly lauded, and other shows on which everything from hosting a dinner party to making a cake is a competition for attention, can only have further frayed the national fabric. Meanwhile, ‘Downton Abbey’ promoted the most reactionary imaginable vision of the purported benefits of strict social hierarchy. Plus, in the background, sadistic cuts in the name of austerity did their dirty work of making everyone that bit more scared and unhappy.

Those who austerity hasn’t touched, who have so far remained immune to the pressures it creates, are often oblivious to this resentful mood. The speed with which commentators swept the causes of the 2011 riots under the carpet was breathtaking. Within a few months, the whole issue had become more or less taboo, and by the election of 2015 it was simply never mentioned. After the Brexit vote I briefly became part of Facebook groups made up of people outraged at what had happened. Some seemed to believe that it was the only bad thing that had ever happened, and that if the decision could be reversed everything would go back to being perfect. There was a tenor to a lot of the comments to the effect that the underclass that has always been small-minded and racist. An extremely cogent and trenchant speech by the Guardian journalist John Harris came as a salutary corrective to this. Late last year, watching Ken Loach’s heartbreaking and bloodboiling excoriation of the effects of benefits cuts, I wondered: which way would Daniel Blake have voted? I would have been hard-pressed to argue that anyone dealing with the hard edge of government cruelty should vote for the status quo.   

So here we are on the other side of the looking glass, staring ‘hard Brexit’ in the face. We don’t know exactly what lies ahead, but we know with all certainty that it will be very miserable indeed. For (and partly because of) all its bravado, inertia is the future of the UK. The very worst elements of British society, the scum of ages, are in charge, and they have nothing to offer except a puerile and obnoxious nostalgia. Last summer during the Brazil Olympics, a Tory MP tweeted a map showing how many medals the ‘British Empire’ had won. The response to every issue, from vegetable shortages to floods, is framed in xenophobic terms. Theresa May, for all the vapid progressive sentiment of her maiden speech as leader, soon fell into line with the likes of Le Pen, with her sneering at rootless elites. The hint of antisemitism, never far from the surface in patrician British elite discourse, was not accidental.

All this posturing, like the chant of ‘two world wars and one world cup’, covers a deeper sadness, staves off the melancholy which, as Freud says, results from an inability to mourn. The alternative would involve the painful process of coming to terms with the loss of something we should never have had in the first place, but also wouldn’t exist without.

I did a Master’s in Portuguese history but not one in my own. Learning about Portugal and Brazil was, I now realise, a way of learning about my own history, culture and identity. At a national level that history is blood-soaked and shameful. Reading John Newsinger’s ‘The blood never dried’ made me aware of how little I know about the barbaric recent history of my own country. I’ve also slowly become aware that my professional field (teaching English abroad) contains powerful echoes of colonial administration. We laugh and drink away our colonial guilt and find subtle ways to sneer at other country’s histories and cultures, seeking to escape from the irreversible fact that “the carnival of Britain’s imperial potency is now over forever”. We use satire as a form of deference, a means of disavowing our responsibilities to take our past and our selves more seriously**. While the British love to joke about the Germans’ excuse for the Third Reich (‘I was only following orders’), the ubiquitous get-out clause for us with regard to our own misdemeanours is ‘I was only having a laugh’. Or we drink away our guilt, finding it puzzling that few other cultures share our addiction to oblivion. A book simply called ‘Why do the British drink so much’ would be an international best-seller. Part of the answer is that we are seeking that “manic elation” which combines with “misery, self-loathing and ambivalence” to produce this sense of postcolonial melancholy. For me, writing about my relationship with Portugal has been a means of reflecting on where I stand in relation to my own country’s past and present. In the words of Paul Gilroy:

melancholic reactions are prompted by “the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence” and suggest that the racial and national fantasies that imperial and colonial power required were…predominantly narcissistic. From this perspective, before the British people can adjust to the horrors of their own modern history and start to build a new national identity from the debris of their broken narcissism, they will have to learn to appreciate the brutalities of colonial rule enacted in their name and to their benefit, to understand the damage it did to their political culture at home and abroad, and to consider the extent to which their country’s complex investments in the ethnic absolutism that sustained it.

In my obsession with identity I know I tend to fixate on national identity. Ultimately nobody is ‘just’ British or Portuguese. Being an immigrant is never as simple as ‘fitting in’, as simply becoming like ‘any’ local. Where does one insert oneself? What sort of local does one become? Where in the new society can one find a niche, or escape from the one that has been pre-allocated? One of the joys of being a foreigner is that you can play with identity, experiment with your and others’ perceptions of who you are. There is inevitably  more space for individual flamboyance. In the words of Fernando Pessoa, we are an empty stage on which various characters play out their roles. Not having a script, struggling to follow and participate in basic routines of social interaction, is at once troubling and liberating. Some markers of identity are subjective, others objective, assigned by others. Moving to another country involves not just geographic adjustment, but also a social relocation. Defining oneself as an ‘expat’ is one way of dealing with this, by seeking to limit one’s commitment to finding a place in the new environment. Doing so often locates you within a social stratum which aspires to be from elsewhere and disavows its own background. One common theme I’ve recognised across the countries I’ve lived in (and am increasingly aware exists in my own) is: blaming the ‘common people’ for whatever you find embarrassing or painful about your own country. Across all countries there is a lazy and parasitical elite which bemoans its misfortune at being from that country and bullies ‘o povo’ (Portuguese for the ordinary people) for their supposed indolence, blaming the poor for the backwardness of the country. This attitude I’ve encountered among Portuguese betinhos, Spanish pijos, Mexican fresas and mireyes, Italian fighetti, Brazilian mauricinhos and patricinhas. In Mexico they talk about ‘gringos nacidos en México’ – people who just happen to have been born in Mexico, but who like to think of themselves as being from elsewhere. It would be wrong to put this snobbishness down to a national characteristic, because I hate it when people do that to me.

While in London I kept up with Portugal a bit through my Portuguese flatmate and occasional contact with friends still there, but gradually, inevitably drifted away. I was vaguely aware of new artists, writers, and trends, and also of more established ones I failed to engage with while I was there: Boss AC, Gonçalo M. Tavares and Joana Vasconcelos, for example. I didn’t follow up my interest in hiphop, fado and the myriad new hybrid forms of music, new identities based on shaking off the past, acknowledging its history without glorifying it, integrating other colonial and postcolonial experiences, and thereby producing “a new image of the country that can accommodate its colonial dimensions”. Despite its ongoing battering by austerity and its corrupt political elite, Portugal has very great advantages over the UK. The radical left is far more dynamic and cohesive than its UK equivalent: articulate, responsive, and smart. Portugal also has (unless things have changed very recently) no far-right nationalist movement to speak of. I suspect (but don’t know) that the national mood is, although depressed, a lot less resentful than the atmosphere in the UK and in Italy (where I live now).

I have an enormous affection for Portugal and its people. I feel grateful for what it taught me. So much of what applies to Portugal and the Portuguese also applies to me and to my own culture. It taught me a huge amount about myself, the world and the relation between the two. It helped me understand Brazil and Mexico. Certain dynamics are common to all societies and it’s thanks to Portugal and the Portuguese that I was able to learn about them. Getting older involves realising that one is part of history and may fall victim to it. Since 1999, when I first set foot in the country, we’ve seen the rise and fall of the euro, the spreading of globalisation and of challenges to its dominance, the increasing rule of the internet, Brexit, the shift into a whole new anthropogenic age…I know now what it feels like to be part of a generation. I wish I’d stayed in contact more with the people who shared that part of my life, and feel a certain sorrow that I didn’t. That’s saudade, I think.  

* Gilroy’s previous book was the classic about Black British identity, ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’.

** On this theme Jonathan Coe’s review of a biography of Boris Johnson is an absolute must-read.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

EFL shoes lesson

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The only two people I’ve ever met who have never worn shoes were 1. a stark-raving mad bloke I once met on a beach in Northeast Brazil and 2. my ten-day-old daughter. Everybody else wears shoes and has lots and lots of stories to tell about them. This is a speaking lesson in which students talk about their personal footwear histories: favourite pairs, fashion disasters, biggest wastes of money, etc. A good way to introduce the lesson is to show them the above painting and ask them who painted it (A: Vincent Van Gogh). Then elicit some ideas as to what kind of person the shoes belonged to, what sort of life they lived, etc. Once you’ve done that, tell them about the pair you’re wearing (think in advance of some entertaining detail to share, e.g ‘I bought these Birkenstocks because my wife objected to me buying another pair of Crocs’) and then ask them to tell their partner about the pair they’re wearing. Then they can move onto the worksheet.

Students sometimes find it a bit of an odd topic at first but when they get going they find they have lots to say, because actually it’s just a way to get them to talk about their memories, tastes, aspirations, etc in a fresh way from an unusual angle. Every five or so minutes they can change partners. Make sure they’re not just going down the list of topics from the top – they can choose whatever they want to talk about in any order. Also encourage them to ask follow-up questions and respond to what they hear, using the expressions on the worksheet. The short interview format lends itself very well to their filming the conversations on their phones, so that they have a recording of their English which they can then use for all sorts of purposes – they could write up the interviews for a ‘magazine article’ or edit them together to make an amusing short film of the whole class to stick on YouTube. Or, if you fancy politically enlivening/depressing your students, you could open up the thorny political question of who made their shoes, which country they live in, what kind of shoes they wear, etc, and then get them to research and write about that for homework. One thing that’s not a good idea is to write up the proverb ‘you shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes’, and then get them to swap shoes and walk around the school. I’ve tried to do that twice and it was not popular in the slightest. Anything that’s not that will work wonders, I promise. If it doesn’t, get in touch with me and I’ll send you a pair of genuine Made-in-Mexico fayuca Crocs.

WORKSHEET TO PRINT OUT/PUT ON BOARD:

Today you’re going to talk about shoes. Ask your partner about:

  • How many pairs of shoes they have
  • How many pairs of shoes they actually need
  • The most expensive pair they’ve ever owned
  • The cheapest pair they’ve ever owned157378
  • A pair they wore even though they hurt like hell
  • The coolest pair they’ve ever owned
  • The oldest pair they still have
  • The newest pair they bought
  • A pair of summer shoes
  • A pair of boots
  • A pair they miss
  • A pair they regret buying
  • A pair they’d love to own
  • A pair they really should throw away, but can’t for some reason
  • A pair they’ve hardly worn
  • A brand of shoe they hate (eg. Crocs)

* by the way if you really want some shoe-related idioms to ‘sell’ the lesson to the students, here are some I can think of the top of my, er, shoe: put yourself in someone’s shoes; big shoes to fill; when you greet a stranger look at his shoes; if the shoe fits, wear it; the shoe’s on the other foot; step into someone’s shoes; bossy boots; get the boot; tough as an old boot, the boot’s on the other foot, put the boot in, let sleeping Crocs lie, etc.

This is why Trump calling Syrian refugees ‘dangerous’ is stupid and wrong

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You wake up and check Twitter, and see that the word #earthquake is trending, along with the name of some Japanese-sounding town you’ve vaguely heard of. You check the news on Google and see that it’s a big one – 8.2 on the Richter Scale (does it go that high?!), and it turns out that the epicentre was only a few kilometres away from the town. Hundreds of buildings have collapsed, including many that were supposed to be earthquake-proof. Tens of thousands of people have been trapped and hundreds of thousands made instantly homeless, and according to Reuter’s there’s a storm on the way. You wonder why storms so often follow earthquakes, and try to remember if your brother-in-law’s family have gone to China or Japan on vacation. Maybe you should call him to check they’re ok. But it’s 7.30am. What time is it in China? Japan? You keep reading and watching. The Government has swung into action, sending helicopters to assess the extent of the damage and digging and sonar equipment to rescue any trapped survivors. Neighbouring countries have offered to send help. On each link you click on the death toll gets higher. How dismal. Maybe you should donate. Money or blood. Red Cross. Money can be sent quickly. But blood? How do they…

You look on Twitter for a link to the Red Cross. To the left of the screen you can see that the earthquake is no longer the top trending item. It’s #Trump, and then #sendthemback. Your heart sinks. At a time like this? What’s he… you take a deep breath and click on the hashtag. There’s the story, from CNN. The President has tweeted about the Japanese earthquake. You’re surprised he’s managed to spell it correctly. He’s announced that the US will immediately be closing its borders to Japanese citizens, and will be ‘assembling’ those already in the US with a view to immediate deportation. He calls them ‘infected’, and says that Japan is ‘the world’s most dangerous country’. You rest your head on the keyboard and pray to whatever God might exist for the strength to get through another day.

We want President TRUMP, not “President Bannon”!

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Did you vote for this man to be President?!

Did you vote for Donald Trump to be President of the United States of America? So did hundreds of millions of your fellow citizens. They were inspired by his rallies, his crushing victories in the so-called debates and his simple but powerful message: Let’s make America great again. As a result, last November, through the medium of the electoral college and in the face of vast opposition from the liberal media and the political establishment in Washington, he won. He won the right to serve in the greatest office on the planet as leader of the free world and most powerful man on earth.

Who, then, is “President Bannon“?

That’s the name that’s been trending on Twitter all week. It’s also the man whose face you’ll see on the cover of this week’s Time magazine, accompanied by the headline ‘The Great Manipulator’.

That’s not what you voted for in December.

It’s not who you chose to be President.

Now, Donald made a smart choice in picking Bannon as his Chief Strategist. The man has a number of attributes which should appeal to any Trump voter. He’s fanatically racist, boasts an impressive history of violence against women, and has the face of a 75-year-old pedophile alcoholic priest. Such a man is ideally placed to be the second in command in Donald Trump’s administration.

But not the first. Not no. 1. After all, whoever he might be, Steve Bannon did not win the election. He wasn’t the man you chose to bring jobs back to America, frack under your houses and build a wall to stop Muslims pouring into the country from China. But if other countries hear the rumors that it is he, not Donald, who is leading the country, who is taking key decisions that it is the job of the President himself and alone to take, then they will not respect the man you voted for, and the libtards who were so shaken up by his historic victory* will continue to make out that Trump is little more than a witless, barely literate and probably incontinent orange-skinned frontman for far more powerful and shadowy forces.

Something is wrong, and something has to change.

It’s up to you to make that change. It’s up to you to insist as loud as you can that no one but Donald Trump, the man you chose to be President, should be sitting in the Oval Office ruling the country and the world, waiting for the phone to ring so Vladimir Putin can tell him what to do next. Bannon may the ideal person for running far-right fake news operations or managing the disposal of porcine waste on a major agricultural facility, but HE IS NOT THE PRESIDENT. So repost this article wherever you can. Get on Twitter and tell the world: Bannon must go. We want Donald Trump in charge of everything. At all times. No manipulation. No delegation. No advice on bewilderingly complex issues which would tax the expertise of even experienced politicians, let alone an overgrown fratboy sociopath who’s never read the Constitution, doesn’t understand the role of the Supreme Court and would struggle to locate the Washington Monument on a map.

If that means that Donald Trump should go without sleep for four to eight years, so be it. That’s what you voted for. Accept no substitute. Bannon must go. Trump must govern. Alone.

The hashtag to use is #TrumpNotBannon.

Let’s make this happen.

 

*Although not in terms of numbers of the popular vote, obviously.

No one expected the American Inquisition

There is a strong sense of a counter-revolution to what is being orchestrated from the White House.

What Van Jones, on the night of the election called a ‘whitelash‘ – a carnival of repressed racism in response to having had a black President – is actually much broader than that.

I wrote on the day of the inauguration that this was a climate denial coup. But actually they’re giving free reign to all the sadistic and self-serving whims of the most reactionary elements of the ruling elites, regardless of how chaotic the results may be. The last few weeks have seen the lighting of bonfires under regulations and laws guaranteeing public access to healthcare and education, protecting the environment from rapacious slash-and-burn corporations and the real economy from those who would gamble it away in an afternoon, safeguarding the rights of women, refugees, and so much more. Their project will involve, as Richard Seymour details, austerity of a savagery never before imagined. The political scientist Robert Nichols writes: “this is what the Trump administration represents: a coup d’état by the ultra elite billionaire oligarchs, who have effectively eliminated the political-managerial class that used to sit between us and them”.

One obvious analogy to all this is fascism. Hitler’s rise was partly the result of the failure of the socialist revolution of 1918-19. But in our search for historical precedents we can also go further back. The Portuguese historian António Saraiva argued that the Medieval Inquisition was an attempt to hold down a class on the rise: the new merchants who were challenging the power of the church and the aristocracy. That counter-revolution involved the imposition of violence and terror over several centuries.

What is the nature of the heresy that Trump and Bannon have been tasked with repressing? The targets chosen in these first few weeks tell us very clearly: it’s our right to a stable climate. It’s women’s rights to control their own lives. It’s all the civil rights that were won by those whose ancestors built America’s wealth with their slave labour. It’s middle-class aspirations to a dignified life. It is, it should be clear by now, all forms of what can reasonably be called social progress and it’s the very notion that those who weren’t born into the elite class deserve to have rights of any kind.

Orchestrating this is the Grand Inquisitor himself, Steve Bannon, the Torquemada of our times. The fact that he was previously employed overseeing a network of far-right websites presenting ideology as news is of huge significance. For while over hundreds of years the various Inquisitions around Europe imposed their control through torture and public burnings, their contemporary counterparts make use of a far more advanced tool of social control and repression. It was thanks to the internet that they were able to gain power (as Jonathan Albright explains) and it is through trolling and shaming that they will rule. The priests of this movement don’t wear cassocks and carry incense; they sport chinos and brandish iphone 7s, and they express themselves not through papal bulls but through photos with photoshopped slogans ridiculing all accepted beliefs except the one that says that the Holy Church of the Rich, Nasty and Profoundly Stupid is sempiternus.