14 things our beautiful 11-week-old baby daughter has no concept of


My wife and I have recently found ourselves in the position (unique for human beings) of parenting a child. Anyone who was somehow to have (had) such an experience for themselves (as if!) would soon understand that one of its most mystifying and mind-expanding aspects is wondering just what on earth is going on in the head of one’s child during her interactions with us and the world, given her total lack of basic mental concepts. Just in case there are, unbeknownst to us, ‘other’ ‘parents’ out there or anyone wondering just what this unprecedented and unrepeatable experience must be like, I have taken it upon myself to share some thoughts.

1. Self-image
At the moment our daughter is just a mishmash of uncontrollable sensations and urges. She has no sense of herself as a whole integral being and hence no mental picture of how absurd she looks when she’s trying to stuff her fist into her mouth because she hasn’t (despite my very best efforts to help her) worked out what her thumb’s for yet. For all she’s concerned she might look like a flamingo, or a duck-billed platypus, or Alf.

2. Us
We think we ‘know’ her. We believe we have a relationship. We clearly do, but it’s obviously not the one we imagine. To her we are both gods and monsters, except she has no concept of either. She still has no notion of the separation between her body and other objects. It’s all just one infinite floaty wobbly porridge of varying shades, sounds, textures, tastes and temperatures with currents flowing in various directions at varying speeds. Some lumps of whatever-it-is provide cuddles and/or milky-wilky at irregular intervals or can be made to do so if sucked on or shouted at in the right way. The two blobs of porridge that float around her the most seem to be particularly obliging. One of them clearly is somehow connected to the origin of milky-wilky while the other is a good source for cuddles somehow related to particular sleepy-deepy-inducing combinations of rhythms and melodies.

3. Words
We’ve invented a vocabulary for her to use: milky-wilky, sleepy-deepy, tiredy-wiredy… Some of it must be going in; if she can’t yet recognise the gist of the question ‘have you done a big poo?’ it’s not for want of input. No one wants to talk about the intellectual acuity of a newborn child. The conclusions drawn from the available evidence are too depressing. Her mental range is not that not much more than that of an reasonably-educated adult banana. Nonetheless she is fast developing her own language, one that we don’t understand. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be Business German. In the meantime all my attempts to get her to precede every utterance with ‘As a baby…’ have so far been unsuccessful.

4. Inside/outside
We take her for walks and rides to unfamiliar places and she doesn’t have any idea if or when she’ll ever be back to the sights, smells and sounds she most recognises. Some sense of home/not home must be developing at some level and must be connected to warm place/place where they might try and force you to wear a hat. It seems to involve a huge and touching amount of trust given her absolute vulnerability to our caprices and whims.

5. Colours
Her colourscheme at present is apparently monochrome with a bit of red creeping in. All toys and clothes for newborns might as well be in shades of grey. We took her to the beach and tried to get her to marvel in the combination of gold and blue but for all that she’s concerned it might as well be a badly tuned-in game of snooker from the early days of TV.

6. Animals
Pretty much all her clothes have pictures of animals on. She’s constantly surrounded by and adorned in images of owls, pigs, rabbits, giraffes and elephants. Trying to explain this to her is very moot indeed (see 7.).

7. Images
Even if she could recognise a giraffe the notion of visual representations is quite some way off. She’s a useful source of inspiration for philosophical reflections on what the relationship between a 2d painting of some flowers and some actual flowers is. Even if she knew what a cow was, pointing at a tshirt and claiming it went ‘moo’ would only serve to bamboozle the poor little thing. I’m planning to wait until she’s at least 18 months old to read her ‘Il processo semiotico e la classificazione dei segni’ by Umberto Eco, after which I think such things will begin to fall into place.

8. Donald Trump
Lucky her.

9. Water (the drink)
This is a very odd one. She often looks like a thirsty human being, and when she’s in the baby bath she sometimes tips her head with some curiosity towards its contents, but she never actually cries out of thirst. I think.

10. Shame
It’s hard to believe that this is not why she’s crying. So much of what she does is (from our perspective) so obviously embarrassing. If I soiled myself as much as she does…In suppose this is where a certain cultural relativism should be actively encouraged.

11. Irony
As her parents it’s natural for us to impute a knowingness to her expressions and gestures. It’s very hard to remember that when she raises her eyebrow a la Neil Tennant or responds to my attempts to contextualise specific moments in the career of Prefab Sprout by yawning with apparent archness she’s doing so without irony. In much the same way it seems odd that she’s seemingly unaware that our immediate mimicry of her expressions, gestures and noises is a form of maximally affectionate piss-taking.

12. Night/Day
To be fair her understanding of this distinction is now approaching advanced level. Maybe she couldn’t do an MA in the subject but she could probably get through a degree in one of the less demanding universities. She certainly has a good enough IELTS level to get onto a presessional course at Middlesex.

13. Silence and Stillness
Despite what adult yoga enthusiasts like to pretend, there is really no such thing. We are farting, fidgeting creatures from the moment we are born. Her hobby is lying on the bed snorting and burping while waving her arms and legs about like a beached seaturtle on an all-inclusive package holiday. Her range of impromptu grunts, squeaks and yelps mean that we often spend more than half the night lying awake listening to check that she’s actually asleep, because if she isn’t it means we won’t sleep. Irony.

14. Toys.
Her toys are really ours in this role-play. Putting on a silly voice to play at being a representation of an animal she’s never seen and which doesn’t make human noises in any case would be a rich source of confusion if she had a grasp of any of the concepts involved. Thus we become children in the act of raising a child, which to my delight and for the first time in my life I recognise as a living example of the dialectic: as we change her, she changes us. Who would have thought that a slightly-less-than-three-month-old baby could teach you a concept as difficult (and also as simple) as that?!

Seven weeks in Bangkok

Although like most Westerners I’m attracted to the idea of overcoming craving, I spent 90% of my stay in Bangkok suffering from an insatiable yearning for deep sleep and iced refreshments. The fact that Thailand is a Buddhist society is thrust upon you as soon as you leave the airport, in the form of billboards sternly warning you that although it might be calming to place a craven image of Mr Buddha (fat version) in between the plant pots or adorning your upper left buttock, this is very actively discouraged, in fact it’s actually illegal to buy religious symbols as a ‘decoration’. Such ‘respect for Buddha is common sense’, admonishes the poster. It’s the kind of evocation of common sense which would make Pierre Bourdieu cough up his tam yang soup. Symbols of Buddhist faith do nowadays play an important decorative role in Western lives and households. What the relationship is between such images and actual faith and practice is a very moot question.

Maybe the authorities should also put up signs against selfies at buddha shrines. It’s easy (and fun) to sneer at such misplaced displays of self-centredness. It would also be unfair (as I did at one point) to complain that Thailand is less the land of smiles than the land of selfies. As it happens I identify with a lot of Buddhist philosophy and have a lot of respect for those who genuinely try to live according to its precepts, particularly renouncing one’s individual will. Just this morning I came across a quote from the Buddha: “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most”. As it turns out, on tracking down that saying I see it’s fake, as is a lot that Westerners believe about Buddhism. In a classic article which he really should have called ‘Western Buddhism and the Spirit of Neoliberalism’ Slavoj Žižek argued that in contemporary Western ideology Eastern religions play much the same role as Weber (Max, not Lloyd) argued that Protestantism did in the development of capitalism*. They underpin an individualist mentality of detaching oneself from social responsibilities, particularly the moral consequences of one’s actions. You can spend 16 hours ruining lives by pushing innovative forms of debt enslavement in the City and then go home, close your eyes and pretend that reality is a mere illusion. To be fair my position had softened on this, but I do still think that those who persist in the belief that Buddhism is inherently more tolerant and peaceful need to take an honest look at what’s happening in Burma. The attitude of the Chinese authorities to religion has also changed. The former leader Jiang Zemin was keen on allowing Christianity to spread in the belief (also pace Weber) that it promoted industriousness. The current leaders seem to be taking a different tack, urging Party followers to stick to Marxist-Leninist atheism and restrict their contact with religious belief to eating members of the Falun Gong.

Maybe they should ask you at Bangkok Airport if you’ve come to nourish your body or your soul. I wasn’t there on a spiritual sojourn, but to accompany my wife while she did a summer course at the university. It wasn’t my first visit. In January 2005, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, me and my then girlfriend abandoned our plans for a beach holiday and instead spent several weeks on the west coast helping tourists locate their loved ones and rebuilding fishing boats with our teeth while using our hands to bottlefeed orphaned children. The language was no problem, we picked it up in a couple of hours. The highlight was when I received a gold medal from the King, who became a close personal friend and subsequently introduced me to Michael Jackson, with whom I (retrospectively) wrote ‘Earth Song’.

Some of the preceding paragraph is not true. There were probably tourists who sacrified their time and energies in such a way. We (shamefully) took our lead from George Bush after 9/11 and ‘supported the economy’ on the relatively corpse-free west coast. Maybe it was the heat bearing down from the Thai sun or rising up from the bowls of Tam Yung, but my memories of our actual holiday are vague. As we were living in China at the time, the ease of finding transport and accommodation came as a pleasant shock and we were overwhelmed by how friendly and cooperative everyone seemed to be, especially when it came to providing us with smoothies and toasted sandwiches. I quite liked Bangkok, including the backpacker enclave of the Kaoshan Road. The Sukhumvit area was relaxing to walk around and the presence of the occasional street elephant impressed me, although the animals themselves didn’t seem to be massively enjoying themselves, except when they were producing tsunamis of steaming elephant wee.

In London over the years I had lots of Thai students. I’d sometimes gently oblige them to do a neat party trick, which was to recite the full name of their capital city, which is basically a massive list of everything of significance in the place. People’s names are also not what you might think. For years I had no idea how complicated the whole thing was and arrogantly insisted on using their ‘first’ names. It’s actually far more respectful to call Thai people by their chosen nicknames, even though my students were had invariably chosen things like Rabbit or Blue. The most common surname by far was Porn and we had one student who unwittingly glorified in the name Bumsick. Again, it’s easy to make fun, until we recall that the name of the current US President is a synonym for bottom burp, two of his predecessors were called Bush and the present UK Prime Minister shares almost her entire name with a scuzzy porn star.

Even the smiliest Thai person must get frustrated at being asked about the same old prurient clichés, particularly about ladyboys and the social role of women-who-work-as-prostitutes. One night our group of humanitarians and alternative thinkers ended up in a strip bar on the street called Soi Cowboy. We tried to join in with the hilarity but I’d read too much about the background to have a lot of fun. There is a mythology that sex workers are more respected back in their home villages. I hope it’s true and that they’re not coerced. It’s also nice to think I would never have to take my clothes off and waggle my arse in the face of fat German tourists. That whole supply and demand thing is probably a key factor.

My experience of the Thai language was actually kind of refreshing, in that it was a relief not to pretend that I fitted in. Learning any new language is always a great game but I was reminded how difficult it is to start, to get past the stage where you can get a phrase out but not understand a word of the reply. Were I there for more than a few weeks I would tried harder (try saying that in Thai) but as it is I felt grateful when people responded in English. It made a change from feeling resentful, as I often do in countries where I do speak the language and someone addresses me or replies in English. Given the immense linguistic and cultural gap, in Thailand calling yourself an expat makes sense. Although I vastly prefer the word ‘foreigner’ it would be misleading and absurd to put yourself in the same social category as a enslaved Burmese refugee peeling prawns for British supermarkets or a Pakistani Christian asylum seeker terrified of arbitrary deportation. A lot of English language culture is nonetheless very bland, filling out that nebulous category of ‘international’: soulless hotel bars, vapid pizzas, what should really go by the name of “Mexican” “food”. I joked with a random person we met at an expat meetup about how all we have in common is our language – for all we know, we could be talking to an arms dealer! He turned out to be basically an arms dealer, one who lives in Oman and occasionally comes to Bangkok for the (nudge nudge) ‘recreation’.

Maybe (to be generous) he meant the shopping. It’s incongruous that the authorities are so fussy about the statues because they are, like everything else, very much for sale in endless parades of cavernous malls. If you didn’t know Bangkok was the capital of a Buddhist society you might mistake it for a gigantic monument promoting human cravings. Parts of it felt distinctly like Canary Wharf. The absence of parks and the presence of the Sky Train above congested roads makes for a heavy and frenetic atmosphere and what starts as a five minute stroll to seek out yet more international adaptors can quickly drain you of physical and mental strength. The BTS trains themselves provide some relief from the heat as they are kept at a constant temperature of -273.15C.

Two cities that make for useful comparison are Bangkok and Mexico City. Before going to the former we spent a year living in the latter. There are obvious point in common (heat, traffic, spices, political chaos) but in terms of walkability the Mexican capital is (relatively speaking) paradise, with its abundant green spaces and (where we were living) leafy boulevards We were also lucky to spend ten days in Cuba, where the heat was often unbearable. We are making a sterling contribution to global overheating by virtue of our globetrotting. We will have some great travelling stories to regale our daughter with should we be able to stop gasping for air long enough to share them.

There are also some nice, quiet parts of Bangkok: some pleasant side streets and the teak mansion which that silk guy who used to be in the CIA called home. The night markets (particularly JJ Green’s) are a charm and a joy. Some of them are actually less markets, more shopping centres, because if there’s one thing which absolutely everyone loves, it’s more shopping centres.

I tried to take an interest in Thai politics but it’s a murky affair and it’s hard to work out who the least-bad guys are. The whole red and yellow t-shirt thing may be, well, colourful to outsiders but those colours are indications of treacherously deep rifts in society exploited by those with the means to do so. From a very voluble taxi driver I heard the best argument against democracy I’ve ever encountered. He explained cheerfully that given the immense power of Thailand’s version of Berlusconi (Taksin Shinswatra, who, when ousted from a military coup, simply put his sister in charge of his party – the army stepped in to cancel an election she would have won) there is simply no alternative at present to military rule (a fascinating and detailed background can be found here). In the light of Trump’s rise and Rupert Murdoch’s victory in the UK referendum it was hard to argue back.

At the Foreign Correspondent’s Club we saw a poster for an intriguing upcoming event discussing free speech in the light of the upcoming constitutional referendum. It was subsequently banned by the regime, which didn’t want people discussing what they’d be voting on. While we were there things were calm but there was a certain nervousness around the King’s health (he subsequently died in October). This is something that it is immensely hard to talk to Thai people and it would be wrong to joke about, especially given that the university hosting us is known as the ‘pillar of the Kingdom’.

In our brief interactions with people in uniforms we noticed a certain harshness of tone. Traffic policement were uniformly brusque, as if no one told them about the smile thing. Being snarled and barked at by people in khaki became a daily experience. The brutal treatment of those who challenge or offend authority both contrasts and is intertwined with the tweeness of official state promotion. The current Prime Minister is a retired general who gives regular speeches on ‘returning happiness to the people’ (he also write a ballad of the same name) and said of those who oppose his regime “Whoever causes chaos to Thailand or disrupts peace and order, they should not be recognised as Thais, because Thais do not destroy each other…The charm of the Thai people is that they look lovely even when they do nothing, because they have smiles”. This reminds me of General Wiranto, the sadistic Indonesian general with his love for karaoke. The documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ also exposes this deeply sentimental aspect of authoritarianism. Autocrats have a necesarilly limited and often puerile emotional range. An entertaining complement to Peter York’s classic coffee table book on dictators’ houses would be one on their music collections. I suspect that Trump’s CD rack contains a fair few Whitney Houston discs – ‘American Psycho’ Patrick Bateman (a character partly modelled on Trump) was obsessed with the production on her debut album. If he gets to lead the G7 I can imagine him, Putin, and Duterte joining in on a rousing version of ‘The Greatest Love of All’.

The course my wife was on was about Peace Studies. On a field trip down south the group was chaperoned by the army. The episode gave us an insight into how autocracy works: the military politely asked if someone could come along, and the organisers of the trip were in no position to say ‘no’. Those who work in human rights exhibit immense bravery and intelligence in the face of outright repression. The history of Thailand in the 1970s involves a communist insurgency partly inspired by the massive presence of US troops, soundtracked by bands like Caravan and marked by massacres of radical students. It puts me in mind of Costa Rica’s role in relation to the Contra death squads in Nicaragua. Thailand may famously have remained formally independent for centuries but its history is certainly not free of geopolitical compromise.

The imperial struggle to win over young people’s hearts and minds continues in other forms. One weekend towards the end of my stay an ‘Edutech’ festival took place on campus, the central theme of which seemed to be: “let’s get rid of teachers!”. Let the students eat laptops instead. Upcoming TEFL guru Hugh Dellar wrote an excellent diatribe against big business’s ongoing takeover of education here. Apart from the odd exchange I had little contact with the university students themselves. The atmosphere around the residence felt a little twee, or maybe that’s my sulky impression as for the first few weeks I couldn’t seem to find anywhere to buy beer.

The area next to where we were staying is being transformed from a filthy storage place for heavy industrial machinery into spick and span student apartments surrounded by manicured lawns and immaculate, if empty, bijoux shopping malls. I came across a friendly cafe several grubby street away whose owner was recently turfed off the campus to make way for shinier, newer things. There’s big money in international education. Another cafe just next to our building employed two charming Cambodians who spoke less English than anyone else I have ever met (although my command of their language is considerably  worse – at least they knew how to say ‘hello’). An extended stay in the orient is, as Edward Said taught us, an object lesson in trying to essentialise, to see everything as (in this case) quintessentially ‘Thai’. Any society houses hidden tensions and exclusions. Bangkok is a primate city, which means it attracts huge numbers of immigrants, some of whom, especially those from the Esan region in the north-east near Laos, are not always well treated. Most people would also prefer to live near the centre, in the place where we were privileged to be staying, rather than spending inordinate numbers of hours on various cramped and stuffy forms of public transport.

I lived a charmed life for the few weeks I was in Bangkok. Since I was in the midst of a swimmimg mania, my daily schedule involved an hour-long dip rewarded with a smoothie and toasted sandwich followed by a sunblasted stagger to the MBK shopping mall to seek out even cooler drinks, even more breathable garments and ever-spicier rice and noodle dishes, followed by a few desultory hours of dozy work interspersed with shouting at people who might be racists on Twitter. Although I did survive the heat, get paid for the work and achieve a relatively deep and even suntan, my one-man online campaign against Brexit failed to have any meaningful impact. Proof, if any more were needed, of the ultimate ineffectiveness of all human endeavour. Or maybe further evidence that Twitter is not an appropriate forum for combatting incipient fascism, especially when you happen to be thousands of miles away from where the events you’re ‘debating’ are taking place.

*If you’re in the market for a a imponderable conundrum to meditate on, that sentence may well be it.

Of course football is a beautiful game…but maybe…

Football has been all over the front pages this week, and although I’m neither a huge fan nor a massive expert on the sport I do sort-of follow it and have some possibly useful/unpopular feelings on the subject which, partly in the spirit of Louis CK’s classic ‘of course…but maybe…‘ routine and also in my own tradition of writing provocative screeds about what the Guardian has taken to calling ‘soccer’, think worth airing.

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1. Madrid. The sight and sound of Leicester fans rioting in the Plaza Mayor while shouting drunken nonsense about Gibraltar is to be roundly, squarely and triangually condemned. Of course. But maybe…a lot of the tabloids doing the condemning are the very sources of both the misinformation being yelled and the (sorry, Jeremy) momentum for such displays. In any case, given football’s relationship to territory, maleness and alcohol, a certain amount of violence is absolutely inevitable. When a few years ago in London the Evening Standard cleared its front page of foreigner hatred and upper class triumphalism to make way for a diatribe at how appalling was a bit of minor rioting by Millwall fans, I was left feeling a bit nonplussed. There seems to be a major and wilfull misunderstanding in some quarters of the media about the role that football plays in British life. For centuries the country sent generations of working class lads overseas in order to keep Johnny Foreigner in check, no questions asked. For the last few decades they’ve been tearing into each other at home and away instead. I don’t want to come across as all class tourist/reverse snob and I do hope that my feelings on this are not provoked by buried ancestral loyalty to our lads – personally I think it may not be a bad idea to put the whole of the UK mainland under the control of the Spanish in order to avoid any more Tory-inspired catastrophes – but I do think that it’s better that football fans beat each other up than have a go at people who happen to have been born elsewhere.

I say all this as someone who is, partly thanks to an accident of birth and barring possibly my mum, Sheffield’s least likely hooligan, and also a fan who, when I visit Bramall Lane (UTB), is no more likely to be welcomed as a member of the same species than a particularly bookish-looking antelope at a watering hole generally reserved for wildebeest. I don’t have the hair (or lack thereof), the accent and a brief conversation generally confirms that I don’t follow the team closely enough to qualify as a proper Blades supporter.

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2. Sheffield United’s pitch invasion. Nevertheless, sometime in April or May 1982 I stood in the Junior Blades section and watched fans pour onto the pitch to celebrate winning the 4th Division championship, and I was pleased to see such scenes repeated last week as we (UTB) clinched promotion from League 1.  The football authorities hate pitch invasions and go to (sometimes murderous) lengths to prevent them, partly because they damage the grass but mainly because they (stern voice) ‘Bring The Game Into Disrepute’. The same is said of ‘excessive celebrations’, e.g. the moral stain left on the universe by a player doing a happy little I-scored-a-goal dance or lifting up his shirt to reveal a birthday message to his baby daughter. This in a game marked by genuinely shocking and blatant corruption, money- and reputation-laundering, tornaments held in slave states, the open feting of racists and rapists, club sponsorship of everything down to the official player’s shoeaces, the official water that they drink and the official brand of condoms they optimistically distribute on the team bus. Of course there are tasteless and impetuous things that individual players and fans do that serve as a distraction, but maybe it would be easier to identify things that bring the game out of disrepute. Football’s high horse is a pantomime one which goes clippety clop clippety clop across the stage and then gets sexually assaulted by a 22-year-old with a £125,000-a-week salary, a regulation hipster/Isis beard and a Hindi tattoo that (unbeknownst to him) means ‘twat’.

3. On the white stone of the beautiful bridge crossing the Tiber* round the corner from our house, some stronzetto has left prominent graffiti protesting against the reorganisation of territorial subdivisions in a football stadium**. This is not as arcane as it sounds. Over the last couple of years a large proportion of Roma fans have been on strike because the stand where they, er, stand has had some new barriers installed, separating them from each other. As a result they refuse to go and cheer on their team (they still ‘support’ it, but that’s a difficult concept to make sense of, even when the fans in question aren’t petulant arseholes). As a result, there’s no atmosphere at the matches and therefore no point going to see Roma. The couple of games I’ve witnessed have been desultory affairs, and given that the club with whom Roma share their Mussolini-obelisk-surrounded stadium (Lazio) are the chosen team of local fascists I’m very disinclined to lend them my support in any form. Of course not all changes that clubs make to their stadiums are to the liking of fans, but maybe if you refuse to go to the stadium as a result you weren’t really that much of a supporter in the first place.

4. Arsenal. Now, football deserves to be taken seriously. Supporting a team involves (and for some resolves) issues like identity, belonging and purpose, rather like a religious faith. Arsenal fans are angry because they haven’t won anything for years (except for the FA Cup, twice, which for the gooners means about as much as a fifth-round EFL Cup victory against QPR would to the Blades). Of course it’s fun to win things and get promoted (UTB), but maybe football has always been less about winning and more about the camaraderie that comes from not having lost. Really, there’s not that much to do when your team wins something big except drink, cuddle your fellow supporters, eat a massive burger and then go home and watch the highlights til you conk out. I can nevertheless understand the frustration with Wenger, as when asked why they haven’t won anything important for so long he tends to talks about how much money the stadium is worth nowadays, how many people work there compared to when he started and how pretty the grass looked before the football match, the one in which they were beaten 3-1 at home by Stoke, kicked off. Maybe they should just make him janitor and get someone else in.

5. Dortmund. I’ve been to Dortmund and it felt like Leeds: northern, working class, post-industrial. I can see how football is very important in such a place***. Of course the terrorist attack on the team is abhorrent. But maybe…In relation to the reporting of suicides there are certain conventions that newspapers adhere to in order to avoid contributing to copycat cases. It seems to me that in the salacious publicity that’s been given to the writer of the letter (presumably also the author of the crime) there’s an excitability which may encourage others to see football as a useful target. What responsibility does football have for this? As with so much else about the game, the way the media overhypes football involves an abdication of basic journalistic responsibility. Of course it’s a good thing (and a cheering story) that fans in France and Germany united in response to the attack. But maybe…there’s a distinct possibility that such reports play into the hands of the far-right, who are never far away from the sport and always keen to bring fans under their sway. The fact that the UK’s fascist movement takes so much of its form and focus from football is a cause for concern (fuck the EDL) and in a European context the media’s coverage of fans uniting against ‘Islamic’ terrorism rather than (for example) drawing attention to the many gestures of solidarity with fellow fans and players fleeing entire societies terrorised and brutalised by Isis doesn’t necessarily bode well. To return to those Leicester fans in Madrid, misinformed and motivated by Murdoch’s increasingly openly racist Sun**** into making absolute pricks out of themselves, there are malignant elements closer and closer to political power who will make the most of sporting loyalties and emotions as an organising tool for prejudice and violence. Of course football is a beautiful game, but maybe media coverage should be careful about encouraging young men to place territorial loyalties closely linked to violence at the heart of their identities at this particular point in history. UTB.

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*Which, contrary to what you might hear, is not flowing with blood.

**Italians are great at frescoes but shit at graffiti.

***Obviously much more important than it is in Leeds these days (UTB).

****Why is Kelvin Mackenzie still alive?

H.P. Lovecraft: Misanthropy and the Anthropocene

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The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’

What would say H.P. Lovecraft say about climate change? His fanatical racism suggests that he would have found a great deal of common ground with Nigel Farage, Steve Bannon and countless others who have made a profession out of denying reality and scapegoating specific groups of human beings for its inconvenient incursions*. But Lovecraft would nonetheless have recognised (and, given his misanthropy, probably welcomed) the climatic transformation that is upon us, and (as the above quote suggests) would have understood our (lack of) reponse to it.

As it happens, he described the Age of the Anthropocene in (joyously unpleasant) detail:

Yet not at first were the great cities of the equator left to the spider and the scorpion. In the early years there were many who stayed on, devising curious shields and armours against the heat and the deadly dryness. These fearless souls, screening certain buildings against the encroaching sun, made miniature worlds of refuge wherein no protective armour was needed. They contrived marvellously ingenious things, so that for a while men persisted in the rusting towers, hoping thereby to cling to old lands till the searing should be over. For many would not believe what the astronomers said, and looked for a coming of the mild olden world again. But one day the men of Dath, from the new city of Niyara, made signals to Yuanario, their immemorially ancient capital, and gained no answer from the few who remained therein. And when explorers reached that millennial city of bridge-linked towers they found only silence. There was not even the horror of corruption, for the scavenger lizards had been swift.

Only then did the people fully realize that these cities were lost to them; know that they must forever abandon them to nature. The other colonists in the hot lands fled from their brave posts, and total silence reigned within the high basalt walls of a thousand empty towns. Of the dense throngs and multitudinous activities of the past, nothing finally remained. There now loomed against the rainless deserts only the blistered towers of vacant houses, factories, and structures of every sort, reflecting the sun’s dazzling radiance and parching in the more and more intolerable heat.

Typically in his stories, something terrible irrupts into our universe. Sometimes it is known by the name Cthulhu, described in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ as “A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind”. It’s a non-human force, a possibly divine entity but one which is definitely not benign. Lovecraft drew on previous mythologies in creating his own. In inventing Cthulhu he was influenced by Tennyson’s poem ‘The Kracken‘**.

The first Lovecraftian stories I read were not actually by him, but by various writers about Lisbon. Their stories showed Lisbon as an emblematically Lovecraftian city, with its thousand-year history hiding all sorts of monsters. Some stories drew on the earthquake of 1788, with all that it drowned the city with and all that it buried. Lovecraft’s writing itself is extremely vivid and compelling. It lends itself particularly well to treatment by graphic novelists and is popular with creative misfits like Mark E. Smith of The Fall. The notoriously misanthropic French writer Michel Houllebecq wrote an excellent book on Lovecraft, a writer whose legacy is everpresent both in his work, while the current leading exponent and champion of Weird Fiction is China Miéville (who shares Houellebeqc’s assessment that racism is the driving force in Lovecraft’s fiction, the inspiration for his “poetic trance”).

Another fan was the critical theorist Mark Fisher (aka k-punk). In his final book (‘The Weird and the Eerie’) he writes of the ‘weird intrusion of the outside’ in Lovecraft’s fiction, the ‘traumatising ruptures in the fabric of experience itself’ occasioned by the appearance of phenomena ‘beyond our ordinary experience and conception of space and time itself’.

This echoed with something else I read recently: a book by the novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh called ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’ (you can read an extract from it here). In it he argues convincingly that the modern novel is underpinned by a philosophy of gradualism. The novels of great authors such as Austen, Chatterjee and Flaubert are set in reduced and largely self-contained social worlds in which it is taken for granted that everyday life is largely predictable and ordered. The standard plot involves a disturbance from inside or outside in response to which the world of the novel reconfigures and resettles itself.

While in the time before the modern novel, popular texts such as ‘The Arabian Nights’ and ‘The Decameron‘ “proceeded by leaping blithely from one exceptional event to another”, when we enter the worlds depicted in realist fiction we are conditioned to regard sudden cataclysmic events as contrived and implausible. This is partly because the real subject of such novels is not so much the events themselves but rather the details and stylings of the bourgeois worlds that the characters inhabit. Thus miraculous and exceptional events which overturn that world do not get a look in.

We can also see something like this in the form of soap operas. In their later years domestic dramas such as ‘Brookside’ and ‘Emmerdale’ were regularly ridiculed for using such attention-grabbing contrivances as plane crashes, fires and terrorist attacks. Such intrusions breaks the rules of realist narrative, which say that this is a stable, self-centred and largely predictable world.

How would a soap opera set in the Phillipines deal with a hurricane like Haiyan? Such increasingly commmon catastrophes undermine the dependable world of the telenovela. An interesting example of a partly anthropocenic soap opera is ‘Jane the Virgin’, which regularly features extreme weather events in order to provide far-fetched plot twists, and which works because it’s a post-modern (as in tongue-in cheek and preposterous) pastiche of the format itself.

Soap operas and the modern novel dramatise everyday life in societies which are presented as essentially stable. They are not able to portray a world which is more vulnerable to sudden cataclysm and in which events cannot be explained without making explicit our dependence on other times and places. One thing that makes Lovecraft’s fiction so frightening and unusual is its depiction of non-human forces, intrusions which challenge our agency and control as a species, and consciousnesses with which we cannot communicate or negotiate.

Of course, with what is usually referred to as genre fiction – principally fantasy and science fiction – magical and miraculous elements occur. Long before Climate Change became public knowledge JG Ballard was speculating about what an overheating planet would be like in works like ‘Drowned World’ and ‘The Drought’. The main proponent of the mini-genre apparently known as ‘cli-fi’ is of course Margaret Atwood, who has used the conventions of Science Fiction to depict a climate-induced dystopia in ‘Oryx and Crake’, ‘The Year of the Flood’ and (although I haven’t read it yet) ‘MaddAdam’.

Then there is the genre of adventure fiction with its interest in time travel, including century-old classics by Jules Vernes and HG Wells. Such works particularly inspired children’s fiction which was often set in a unchanging world whose social forms were so static no one even grows old. Thomas Pynchon parodied this form in ‘Against the Day’, which does qualify as a climate change novel given that it features Lovecraftian passages such as this:

“We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate, with little choice but to set forth upon that dark fourth-dimensional Atlantic known as Time.”

Anthopocenic fiction will need to be considerably more radical than what still passes for fantasy. While it purports a world entirely other, ‘Lord of the Rings’ depicts a comforting world based on a conservative mythology. It may be that ‘Game of Thrones’ (which I’ve never seen) falls into the same category, in the sense that for all its shocking elements it conveys a fundamentally reactionary view of the universe, like an even more atavistic Downton Abbey. It may also be the case that the new form of soap opera which that programme belongs to – longform Netflix/Amazon dramas which develop over several dozen (or in some cases several hundred) hours – is able to accommodate new kinds and levels of human experience. Although I haven’t talked here about cinema (one film that bears repeated attention in this context is ‘Children of Men’), it seems clear to me that the worlds presented in dystopian Hollywood blockbusters such as ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Mad Max’ are not actually predictions but prescriptions of a future world which is short on resources but high on aggression and conflict. In the modern age it is partly through bigscreen fictions that we learn how to be human.

Will we (in the words of Lovecraft) “go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age”? The latter is what such films are selling. It’s no accident that the tropes they draw upon (dispensible peasants, bows and arrows, mortar and pestle) are largely medieval. Our cities already resemble those of the Middle Ages, with all their exclusions inscribed into both the visible and invisible frameworks.  Lovecraft’s misanthropy is as addictive and hugely entertaining as his racism is vile; let’s hope (no matter how horrifyingly compelling the phantasmagoric soap opera that is anthropocenic politics is) that atavistic tyrants such as Trump and Putin do not turn out to be the manifestations of Cthulhu in (barely) human form that they appear to be.

*This gave the title to one of China Miéville’s novels.

**Although relativising Lovecraft’s virulent racism appears to be a sub-hobby for a few of his fans, this is not an article about that subject. Please leave your comments requesting that his racism not be discussed at the end of this (excellent) piece instead.

Are Republicans and the ‘alt-right’ now our allies against Trump?

Rand Paul, the alt-right and probably some guy in Idaho who’s covered his mom’s basement in swastikas and ‘Make America Great Again’ posters have suddenly decided that Donald Trump shouldn’t be President. The fact that for the last year they have continued to support him in the face of dire warnings that he was absolutely unsuitable in every possible way didn’t fase them in the slightest. They have gone along with all the most deranged and hateful things he has done in office without blinking. In fact, they’ve cheered him on over the Muslim ban, the cancellation of Obama’s climate measures, his attempt to destroy the healthcare system, and his appointment of lifelong nazis, outright morons and billionaire swamp-creatures to some of the most powerful positions on earth. They’ve sneered at every one of his detractors and victims, and aggressively dismissed any suggestion that he’s personally corrupt.

Now, as it happens, he has done exactly what we – people who think and feel – knew and said he would, ie risk a global war in an act of puerile petulance. As soon as the media quite rightly pointed out his hypocrisy over Syria – criticising Obama for not having done what he himself was explicitly and repeatedly opposed to – he, in his teeny tiny fizzing-on-and-off brain, has decided to dispatch missiles over which we knew and said again and again and again that he should not have control.

Far-right Republican politicians and the teenage trolls of the hipster KKK are grievously offended on behalf of their idol: Putin. He, rather than this demented orange playboy prick, is their anointed Hitler. Now they’re showing up in progressive forums online asking for admittance to the resistance. They want to replace Trump with someone even worse as soon as possible.

Should they be welcomed as part of the burgeoning movement against the kind of worldview of which Trump is the culmination? Are anti-Trump supporters going to accept white supremacists as part of their networks? Will such groups therefore be asking their non-white members to leave to make way for a bunch of actual full-on no-holds-barred fascists?

Hell, no. Trump was never any more than their puppet. Now his strings have snapped they want our help to build a new one. Fuck that. They are our enemy.

Instant Psychopath Test: is this “fake news”?

It’s a relief to see that the world as a whole can still respond with horror and revulsion at the sight of something as unambiguously horrifying and revolting as the chemical attack on civilians in Syria. A Kremlin spokesperson nonetheless dismissed it as “fake news”, implying it had been staged to discredit the regime. Pro-Putin propaganda outlet Infowars blamed the supposed attack on George Soros and other Jews.

According to University of Kent psychologists Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton in the British Journal of Social Psychology, “At least among some samples and for some conspiracy theories, the perception that ‘they did it’ is fueled by the perception that ‘I would do it,’”. In the case of Vladmir Putin, he already has done something similar.

Here are some facts about what Putin was responsible for in 1999. They are facts because they cannot be disputed by any reasonable means. The Russian Government has failed to put together any other plausible explanation. 

(If you are among that growing number of people who are inclined to automatically dismiss such features of reality as the violence and corruption of the powerful or the findings of science with regard to the climate, you are probably in need of some form of therapy. Luckily it’s never been easier to seek out such help. Google ‘mental health services’ in your area. You may be directed to a practitioner who is willing to negotiate a lower rate. Tell him or her that your short-term objective is to read some facts about Vladimir Putin without allowing your judgement to be clouded by denial. That will give you a reasonable and not too ambitious goal to work towards.)

In September 1999, on the eve if elections to choose Boris Yeltsin’s successor, a series of explosions took place in four apartment buildings in Russia. They killed hundreds of civilians and were swiftly attributed to Chechen terrorists. However, local police in a town called Ryazan arrested secret service (FSB) agents planting a bomb in a fifth building. The head of the FSB claimed it was a ‘training exercise’, but was unable to explain why the explosives being used were real. There was a quick cover-up, and amidst a febrile atmosphere Putin was elected three days later and soon started a new war in Chechnya. A number of those who continued to investigate the bombings (including Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko) were subsequently murdered. Putin’s Government has gone on to assasinate dissidents at home and abroad and to murder journalists and anyone else who tries to share information about real events.

It’s also become very expert at disseminating false news stories. One key figure in Putin’s regime is Vladislav Surkov, the former Deputy Prime Minister, who in that role “directed Russia like a huge reality TV show”:

He would meet once a week with the heads of the television channels in his Kremlin office, instructing them on whom to attack and whom to defend, who is allowed on TV and who is banned, how the president is to be presented, and the very language and categories the country thinks and feels in. (from The Atlantic.)

Such insidious propaganda is not just for a domestic audience. During the US elections targetted individuals with false news stories via Facebook, as The Washington Post documented

Again, these are facts. If you’re interested in this area then you need to take them on board. Otherwise they will sink your case.

One tool apparently used to spread disinformation is Facebook groups. Rachel Maddow reported on one ‘pro-Bernie Sanders’ group that is based in Albania, while the Daily Beast details how Putin’s operations targetted those who think of themselves as ‘progressive’. This may explain why so many posts in such (ostensibly anti-Trump) groups dismiss out of hand any suggestion of Russian involvement in the US elections.

The bombings in Saint Petersburg followed two major anti-government protests. The images of death and destruction will have the effect of allowing the Government to clamp down on such dissent. Two days later came the chemical attack in Syria. Even such a malignant, deluded narcissist as Trump felt compelled to condemn it. His way of doing so (implying immediate military action in order to satisfy his insecurity complex wrt his predecessor) is incredibly dangerous. I’ve argued here several times that Trump’s Presidency is and remains an impossibility. In such a prominent role, consistently disrespecting the truth gets you into trouble. Up until he became President, Trump led a mostly consequence-free existence, and it seems he has only got this far by following the dictats of Steve Bannon, an actual psychopath whose explicit short-term goal is to provoke a world war. The fact that in response to this sudden geopolitical crisis they have sidelined Bannon suggests that know they will also have to get rid of Trump. Somehow.

As for Putin, he’s a monumental liar. Does saying that somehow mean that I think that Hillary Clinton is morally impeccable or that I believe the recent history of the US with regard to foreign interventions to be free of reproach? No, it doesn’t mean any of that. Bizarre as it may seem to some who think of themselves as ‘progressive’, opposing Putin and opposing Trump are highly compatible. Putin, like Assad, is a brutal tyrant who murders ordinary people to achieve his political objectives. He’s no friend of anyone who regards themselves as even remotely progressive. And anyone who professes to ‘believe’ the Kremlin’s claim that the chemical attack is ‘fake news’ is probably either in the pay of the Russian Government or in dire need of psychiatric treatment, or both.

In which I renounce blogging

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So far today 3,300,798 blog posts have been written and shared. This is the 3,300,799th, or probably, by the time I’ve finished probably the 3,333,333rd. (You can check for yourself here).

Someone has to read all this stuff and (shamefully) it’s not me. I don’t read many other blogs, or at least not regularly. This one is not part of a community of such sites, with fellow bloggers commenting on each others’ latest thoughts and discoveries. Such things can happen (when I was in China it was the case) but it hasn’t this time round. Thus I feel like I have a direct, individual relationship with the Internet rather than being part of a congregation or community of faith. It’s a Protestant relationship, in that there’s no mediating hierarchy and it encourages hard work towards an unclear reward.

Come to think of it, the Internet shares certain properties with a Christian God:

  • Its existence manifests itself almost exclusively thorough rituals (such as status updates, blogging and posting photos)
  • It offers the faithful the very occasional miracle (see below)
  • It’s omniscient
  • It’s ubiquitous
  • It’s omnipresent.
  • Its mood is alternately punishing and consoling

As you can see, theology is not my forte. On this blog I’ve written mostly about what could broadly be considered political questions and my relation to them. Around twenty years ago, for a period of about four years while I was living in Dublin, I was active in (and occasionally wrote for the publications of) a left-wing political organisation. My individual identity was subordinated to the needs of the party. As a foot soldier my time and energy were given over to hard work and disclipine on the basis of a shared faith in a common project. This necessitated being involved in relationships which were never entirely political and never wholly personal. Arguments ensued whose resolution often obliged me to swallow my pride and accept that I was wrong, that my perspective was too limited to see essential details or to grasp the bigger picture. As for writing, I mostly wrote reviews of films or books, evaluating them in terms of how well they contributed to the revolutionary struggle and stalinistically rebuking the cultural worker who had produced them if they had failed to do so.

Inevitably, I find this activity (blogging) much more satisfying. It allows me to fully express my personality and my identity with hardly any risk of admonishment. It engenders no personal dischord and involves as much or as little ‘discipline’ as I like. I am completely unaccountable, whether in terms of choosing what to wrote about or in terms of how true or how good what results is. There is no measure of success or failure. Whether I scribble some mild satire about Theresa May while my students are doing a test and only 25 people read it, or bash out some anti-Trump diatribe on the way to work that (after my having done the rounds of anti-Trump groups on Facebook) gets a couple of thousand views, what I post here is (for the most part) gloriously/frustratingly inconsequential. At the same time, I’ve got some lovely responses from some extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful people who’ve come across the site and whom if I’d never put finger to keyboard I would never have encountered, I’ve discovered some others who make astonishingly inventive use of the medium, and no one’s spat on me outside the GPO for being a ‘Trot’.

Politically, however, it’s hard to make a case for the usefulness of blogging. (Plus it remains a uniquely unpleasant-sounding word.) Even the most popular thing I’ve written here (by far) was essentially urging passivity and complacency. That explains why it took off as it did. The dream of any blogger came true for me – this was the miracle I referred to earlier. My post went viral, with 750,000 views in about four days. The feedback almost universally positive; very few took issue, which was extremely gratifying if also a little perturbing. Hard to keep up with, because a week later, we had a baby, which put things into some perspective.

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The internet is a good fit for Herbert Marcuse’s concept of repressive desublimation, in that it allows people to let off fetid bursts of steam while constituting no threat to power structures. On last week’s ‘Under the Skin‘ podcast the filmmaker Adam Curtis argued convincingly that the development of late ’60s hippy counterculture led to an explosion of individualism which consumer capitalism was all too ready to facilitate. Nowadays, the Internet encourages us to believe that our individual feelings, rituals and gestures mean something, that they register on some elusive scale of value. While I may believe that I’m expressing my individuality, my unique perspective on the world, it just so happens that there are probably 30,000 people out there saying exactly the same things. The internet is a perfect manifestation of the power of the spectacle, one adapted to the pretensions and projections of every individual who accesses it and one in which we frantically produce and consume images of ourselves as productive and influential beings; the spider’s web of communicative capitalism eats up all individual protest, all the rants and outbursts and cogently-argued denunciations and feeds upon them. In providing me with a virtual patch of land in which to cultivate my narcissism, it allows me the illusion that I am engaging politically. Who benefits most is wordpress.com, which profits from my (briefly vomits) ‘content’ and that of millions of individuals who are all convinced that what they are doing is unique and important.

The role of the internet in relation to our political consciousness also validates the pessimism of the Frankfurt School, and the subsequent reflections of critical theory as to what Saul Bellow called ‘the late failure of radical hopes’. Our migration to a life lived online is partly responsible for and partly symptomatic of the fact that in the face of the absolute need for immediate and massive political transformation present generations are (in the modern era) unprecedentedly conservative. Adam Curtis hones in on the ubiquity of risk aversion in contemporary finance, and the ways in which this colours our everyday expectations and aspirations. Something I’ve noticed among some of those opposed to Brexit is a sense that everything was perfect before June 23rd and that the vote is a brutal intrusion, an ugly flaw in an otherwise unproblematic reality. For those who benefit from a certain measure of economic stability, any social or political change is something to be feared rather than encouraged. Seven years of talking to (mostly young) exam candidates from around the world, hearing and reading their thoughts about political and social issues, has for me repeatedly confirmed Mark Fisher’s diagnosis of ‘capitalist realism’, the notion that no matter how bad things get there is simply no other horizon to look towards. Curtis gives the example of Yemen – the resignation which which we greet the news that our Governments are funding – indeed, profiting from – what appears to be genocide. Speaking out against such horrors might put our own status at risk. The taboo that governs mentioning climate change on social media is reminiscient of those scenes in which the line-up of troops on parade quivers with fear, terrified that if they stand up against the bullying commandent they will be next to be humiliated. In this case its our peers who we fear might see us overly earnest or excessively serious in a medium designed for irony and levity – or, in the case of Twitter, irony and abuse.

The famous statement that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world that a slight alteration to capitalism implies that we would be unable to respond to anyone who demands to know what our alternative is. Instead we respond to gruesome disasters with Facebook prayers. Some sneer at Twitter hashtags like #prayforparis without reflecting on what a status update or a shared meme is but an invocation of, an appeal to, a higher power. Like Kierkegaard said of prayer itself, it is more useful to the person doing the updating than anything else. And what do memes resemble if not religious icons? The priests of this religion are those wannabe-demagogues who have a sufficient command over the arcane means of diffusing their messages or who already have access to a sufficiently elevated pulpit. Comedians do politics and politicians seek first and foremost to entertain, mostly by evoking outrage and giving it a clear and convincing focus. TED Talks mask the fact that for all that we live in a time of stupendous technological wizardry our age is also one of social stasis marked by economic ruination and a profound and widespread lack of moral and political agency.

Jodie Dean wrote in ‘Communicative Capitalism’ about the illusion that what we share must register in some significant but vague way, and the fantasy that posting online constitutes a meaningful political intervention. Lacan’s Big Other, that invisible and ineffable authority before which we genuflect, is somewhere online, reading everything we write. The Matrix is an increasingly efficient metaphor. FOMO is largely driven by fear of no longer existing. Disconnection means death.

There’s something deeply religious about all this frenetic online blathering, this blind compliance with the rituals of the world’s biggest ever cult. But while most Gods are benign, this one definitely is not. I want no more part in propagating these illusions, principally my own. It’s time to end this vanity project and to get involved in something useful.

I try to interest my two-month-old daughter in the music of The Fall

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In what must have been September 1985 (when I was 13) I started seeing the above image on posters around my hometown of Sheffield. I wasn’t clear if it was advertising music or politics. Subsequently I started reading the music press, in which Mark E. Smith’s ensemble were ever-present. For around seven years, from 1987 (when they had their first Top 40 single) to 1993 (when they had a Top Ten album), you could legitimitely call him a pop star.

I tried hard with The Fall. At one point I ‘owned’ (what a quaint concept!) all of the albums from ‘Extricate’ to ‘Middle Class Revolt’, but I couldn’t call myself a fan. His manner on and off record was wilfully obtuse, his public statements drunk and ornery, his lyrics oblique and the music mostly discordant. There was the occasional glimpse of a more lilting and reflective side to their work which appealed to me, but overall the cut-up-William Burroughs/indied-up-Captain Beefheart mixup left me, if not cold, then certainly not warm enough to qualify as a Proper Fall Fan.

At the same time, I’ve always had a sneaking regard for real fans of the group. It seemed like a genuine sub-culture. The congregation at Fall gigs (I must have seen them three or four times) shows a stubborn attachment to something difficult-to-like that I find endearing and admirable. It seemed like a really cool club to belong to and I kind of wished I’d shown more curiosity back in 1985, when I was a disaffected schoolchild looking for an identity. Maybe if I’d gone for ‘Bend Sinister’ instead of ‘Please’ or ‘The Frenz Experiment’ instead of ‘Bobby Brown: The Remixes’ I would have gone on to become cool.

It’s a cliché whose truth I’ve recently had occasion to observe that all parents want their (now our) children to experience what we never could. In relation to The Fall I left it too late. I’d like to give my own daughter the chance to rectify that mistake on my behalf.

So far, although she’s been responding with animation to the music that I’ve exposed her to, it’s mostly been pretty accesible stuff like Prefab Sprout and Belle & Sebastian. Nursery rhyme pop, if you like. Twee stuff. (Or, given that we’re in 2017, snowflake music.) Now she’s two months old I think it’s time for her to start branching out. (Plus I think that lots of their songs are genuinely great, whether or not that’s deliberately the case I’m never quite sure.)

For my purposes I’ve chosen a series of tracks which I personally love (or at least don’t mind) and have chosen a time when her mum is out to avoid any unnecessary arguments about inappropriate childrearing techniques. I have provided a Spotify playlist should you wish to repeat the experiment with your infant – in the case of emergencies, go to track 12.

  • ‘Totally Wired’. This is one of the group’s early singles, very much a post-punk product with jagged edges. I was a bit late for post-punk, being born in 1972, but I did grow up listening to the John Peel Show, so the abrasiveness of the music is something I appreciate. To say that my daughter would struggle to tell the difference between Devo, Magazine and Wire is no exaggeration, because she was born in January 2017. The phrase ‘it’s like punk never happened’ was rarely better employed. Hence she struggles to get past this first hurdle. Although she neither starts screaming or falls asleep, she does start moving her head in a slightly disturbingly frenetic manner, one which suggests the grating guitar is getting on her incipient nerves. We have to abandon the attempt after one minute and eleven seconds in case her head falls off and we end up on the front of Woman’s Weekly looking sorrowful and accompanied by the headline ‘TOTALLY WIRED: I lost my baby at two months because I was writing a tongue-in-cheek online thing about The Fall’.
  • ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ is (according to those who know about these things) one of the Fall’s very greatest 45 minutes*. ‘The Classical’ is tuneful and the baby perks up (she’s in a jolly mood due to a recent infusion of milky-wilky). Unfortunately as soon as the second track (‘And the day’**) starts she goes puce and makes it clear why Fisher Price never use The Fall to soundtrack their products. There’s too much going on and from a newborn perspective it’s an audio nightmare. I quickly change to ‘Billy’ by Prefab Sprout, which she’s heard around 300 times, and once I’ve taken advantage of a pause for breath to angle her miniscule ear towards the speaker she stops bawling immediately. Mark E. Smith 0, Paddy McAloon 1.
  • ‘Victoria’. This feels like a bit like cheating because it’s a straightforward version of a Kinks song which The Fall covered in 1987, and which gave them a top 30 hit. It’s a cheerful if jingoistic romp and goes down extremely well with the baby, who takes very kindly to being bobbed around the living room in a lively BUT NOT IN ANY WAY DANGEROUS manner.
  • ‘Edinburgh Man’. Always a personal favourite, I’m hoping that this single-handedly turn her into a lifelong fan. She looks quite wistful, like she’s reminiscing about long-ago visits to the festival in Auld Reekie. Whatever she is thinking, it’s probably not that, but I add this to the mental list of songs to play when we need her to calm down a bit. Thanks, Mark.
  • ‘Bill is Dead’. I wonder what Mark E. Smith was like as a baby. Mine falls asleep immediately both times I play this and misses the epically tender bit at the end. One day if she ever hears the Happy Mondays she might notice that this sounds a bit like them slowed down.
  • ‘The Mixer’. This is an extremely accessible and fun conventional pop song. They’re aren’t any Fall songs which sound like The London Boys, but this one has got handclaps on it. My high hopes are dashed, however, because my wife reminds me that it’s bath time and after that she (the baby) falls fast asleep for seven hours. I’m feeling pretty knackered myself so I’m not about to wake her up so I can play her ‘The Mixer’ by The Fall.
  • ‘Free Range’. Released in 1992, this seems to be about the European Union in the year when borders opened up. I feel pretty sure that given his relentlessly chippy persona Mark E. Smith would turn out to be in favour of Brexit, but as it happens he seems to have been uncharisterically silent on the topic, although he did keep his end up by saying some quite twatty things about refugees last year.  Sadly I don’t remember anything the baby did when this was on, but she did seem to quite like ‘Birmingham School of Business School’ from the same album, maybe because for the first time she was able to relate to the lyrics, as the opening lines go ‘wa wa waa wa wa waa wa wa wa wa wa’. Maybe it was one of the very first songs that Mark E. Smith wrote.
  • ‘Reformation’. One of the few Fall songs from the last twenty years that I know and like. A curious thing about The Fall is that although the singer doesn’t seem to do much apart from write lyrics, drink alcohol and periodically sack the other members of the band, they do maintain a distinctive but varied sound. This one is almost metallish in its ferocity, so I play it quite quietly in order to avoid any disputes of the aforementioned variety. If you didn’t know that newborn babies could be nonplussed, you do now.
  • ‘Facebook Troll’***. In doing ‘research’ for this piece the title of this one caught my eye. It’s actually two songs because it’s medleyed with one called ‘No Xmas for John Quay’. I can’t make head or tail of the lyrics and the music is shit. Maybe when she’s a bit older my daughter will be able to explain to me what it means. For the time being she stares at one of the speakers for a bit in a way that suggests her nappy needs changing.

The result, then: Inconclusive. To close, just in case my daughter should ever come to read this, I’d like to paraphrase the ending of ‘London Fields’ by Martin Amis (someone who’s been looking almost as decrepid as Mark E. Smith himself): So if you ever heard something, when you weren’t even two months old, like catchy-but-dissonant post-punk music, a bit like the Stooges but fronted by a verbally incontinent and cantankerous Mancunian drunkenly shouting half-remembered chunks of HP Lovecraft short stories mixed with items from his shopping list, it was The Fall. It was The Fall“.

* ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ is actually 60 minutes long.

** Spotify happened to be on shuffle.

*** Spotify gets the title wrong, it’s actually called ‘Fibre Book Troll’.

Thank you to members of the excellent Fall online forum at http://z1.invisionfree.com/thefall/index.php?showforum=7 for occasional fact- and spellchecking.

(Incidentally, the Bobby Brown album I referred to wasn’t actually called ‘Bobby Brown: The Remixes’ but ‘Dance!…Ya know it!’.

That last correction did not come from the Fall online forum.)

Brexit lesson plan – Key issues and consequences

Immagine

As I’m a British person living abroad, I’ve found that my students are very keen to know what I think of Brexit and are generally relieved to hear that (like most people in my situation) I think it was a catastrophic decision. However, I think it’s very important not to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone who voted for it did so out of xenophobia or because they’re all thick, as the Guardian reporter John Harris patiently explains here. Many were frustrated with society, left out of globalisation and duped by nationalist politicians and self-interested newspaper moguls into thinking the EU was somehow to blame. So now you know what I think. Just for a change.

This lesson doesn’t focus on the causes of the vote, but rather uses a Guardian article from yesterday (March 29th) to help your students (and you) understand some complex issues involved in the negotiations which will now take place. This can be followed by a speaking activity in which they express their own opinions about the broader consequences. The lesson was designed for B2+ Politics students but could be used with any Upp Int+/Adv class interested in the issue.

Procedure

  1. Show them this article and draw their attention to the subject (Brexit) and the date (March 29th). Ask them what happened on March 29th (Theresa May write a suicide note) (you don’t have to call it a suicide note).
  2. Draw their attention to the subheadline. Make sure they understand what civil servants are. Demonstrate what ‘untangle’ means and establish that in this case ‘distill’ means to reduce a list of 700 areas down to eight.
  3. Scroll down pointing out the categories (Timing, The ‘divorce’ bill, Citizenship, Borders, Trade, European Court of Justice, Transition, Ratification). Elicit a brief definition/translation for each.
  4. Show them the questions below and get them to copy them off the board. This will enable them to identify any which cause confusion. Point out that the answers can be found in the text and that they should only use their dictionaries as a last resort.
  5. Either handout printed copies of the article or get them to find it on their phones/tablets/pcs/etc.
  6. Students in pairs find the answers. Monitor to offer occasional hints to any pairs who are struggling.
  7. After 20 minutes or so, swap partners to check their answers.
  8. Go through the answers on the board (make sure you know the answers first).
  9. Tell them they’re going to be interviewed about the consequences of Brexit, and that there will be two questions: 1) What are the short-term consequences a) for the UK b) for Europe? 2) What are the long-term consequences a) for the UK b) for Europe?
  10. Give students three minutes to prepare, looking up vocab they will need and asking you for help if necessary. Make sure they are taking notes and not preparing a speech.
  11. Students interview a partner for 3-4 minutes and then swap roles and repeat.
  12. They change partners and repeat the exercise but this time film/record each other on their phones.
  13. HOMEWORK: Students write a transcript of the interview they gave, making corrections where necessary, and then email it to you for comments.

Questions for reading exercise

Timing

1) When will Brexit happen?
2) What’s the main disagreement between the UK Govt and the EU on this point?

Divorce Bill

1) How much does the EU think the UK should pay?
2) How much does the UK Govt think it should pay?

Citizenship

1) Why are a lot of people in Europe angry about this?
2) What does pretty much everyone agree on?

Borders

1) What do both the UK and the Irish Govts want to protect?
2) What do some people hope?

Trade

1) What do most Europeans believe is most important?
2) What is a “bespoke customs union”?

European Court of Justice

1) What doesn’t the UK Govt want to do after it leaves the EU?
2) What possible solution is the UK Govt considering?

Transition

1) What “painful concession” could May face?
2) What have business and the City insisted is important?

Ratification

1) What are the names of the chief negotiators on each side?
2) Why would the UK Govt have problems obtaining a “generous trade deal”?

Tady Prosim!