Cursing the day she ever got involved in politics, Theresa May signs Article 50

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Theresa May has vowed to represent some sections of the country – maybe including EU nationals, she doesn’t know – as she triggers Article 50 and begins an arduous two-year negotiation to sever ties to Brussels.

It is anticipated that the Channel Tunnel will be closed by mid-August.

On Tuesday afternoon, following a thirteen minute period during which she repeated that she ‘didn’t have a pen’, the Prime Minister signed the letter that starts the formal exit process. It is not known under which name she signed, as she is on record as saying within the last two years that Britain’s leaving the EU would be ‘unthinkable, an utter catastrophe, Christ what a…stupid idea’. Other members of the Government were quick to remove themselves from the range of the assembled cameras at the crucial moment. Tomorrow, the document will be hand-delivered by a senior diplomat to EU chiefs along with a note that simply says ‘help’.

Once it has been accepted, Article 50 has been officially launched. To mark the occasion there will be a celebratory event in Trafalgar Square featuring Boris Johnson, the grandson of Oswald Mosely, Nick Griffin and his beautiful wife Kate Hooey, Mumford & Sons and a number of forlorn stalls specialising in cupcakes containing broken glass and dog feces, vintage National Front leaflets and faded Royal Wedding mugs with the handles missing.

On the eve of that historic handover, Ms May urged the country to come together. She didn’t specify who the country should come together against, but did promise to keep the assembled journalists posted.

“When I sit around the negotiating table in the months ahead, I will represent every person in the whole United Kingdom – young and old, rich and ‘poor’, city, town, country and all the villages, hamlets,…townships…and, er, dwellings in between,” she said, unconvincingly.

“And yes, possibly those EU nationals who have made this country their (at this point the Prime Minster made a wiggly gesture in the air with her fingers) ‘home’. It really depends on what Paul Dacre thinks, to be honest.

“It is my fierce determination to get the right deal for every single person in this country. I don’t just mean single people, that includes married people and people in relationships. It was a figure of speech. Sorry, I’m not really up for this.”

She said her guiding principles would be ensuring the UK was even stronger and fairer than it is today. Several onlookers report that she then said under her breath ‘or what’s left of it’ and giggled nervously.

Ms May also repeated her mantra about creating a “truly global Britain” that “builds relationships with old friends and new allies around the world”. She then went on to repeat this mantra 17 times in an increasingly faltering voice. She concluded by simply whispering ‘I’m sorry’.

After a lengthy pause during which she sat slumped on a chair staring at the ceiling looking deeply unwell, she eventually concluded: “We are one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future. A bright, bright future. You’re going to have to wear…sunglasses. All the time.

“And, now that the decision has been made to leave the EU, it is time to come together. I’m sure…Primal Scream would agree with me on that point.”

The PM’s top team will gather around the Cabinet table at No 10 on Wednesday morning as she informs them about the content of the letter formally invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – the formal notification of Britain’s intention to leave the EU. Rupert Murdoch will be listening in on speaker phone just in case anyone’s tempted to make any last-minute false moves.

Then, at some point after 12.30pm, Ms May will inform MPs that Brexit is being triggered and in Brussels, British ambassador to the EU Sir Tim Barrow will deliver the document to European Council president Donald Tusk. If Sir Tim Barrow is for some reason indisposed the task will be carried out by an intern who will then be granted a new identity in a fellow EU country Wales.

Meanwhile, three current cabinet ministers have warned of the catastrophic consequences of a so-called hard Brexit.

David Davis branded the move a “nightmare”, Sajid Javid said it was equivalent to “shooting ourselves in both feet”, and Chris Grayling wrote the word ‘no’ on the wall of his office in his own blood as he expired from a severe self-inflicted injury to the throat.

(Additional reporting courtesy of The Independent).

Brexit and the Climate

The noted child psychologist and pediatrician Donald Winnicott wrote that the greatest danger to the child’s developing self is that it be faced with demands for precocious adaptation to the environment. The parents must protect the infant at all costs from aspects of reality that are incomprehensible or beyond its grasp, and gradually present the world in manageable doses.

On the 58th day of our daughter’s life, the US President signed an order which cancelled all the previous Government’s regulations regarding Climate Change. On the same day, several members of the British Parliament who had campaigned for the UK to leave the European Union walked out of a select committee meeting because the facts they were being presented with in relation to the consequences of Brexit were ‘too gloomy’.

I see that the top trending topics on social media right now are ‘Messi’, ‘Ken Barlow’ and something called ‘Skeletor and He Man’.

We’re going to have a hell of a job in a number of years trying to convince her that not all adults are completely fucking stupid.

‘Brexit’ considered existentially, ontologically, epistemologically and phenomenologically

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What, the fuck, is ‘Brexit’? I’m as confused and scared as everyone else about what is about to befall us, so I’ve decided to use the analytical tools of Philosophy to try to find out. This will also help me to revise some stuff I supposedly learnt 25 years ago, back when the notion of Britian choosing to leave the European Union was about as likely as a white supremacist being elected US President or someone who’s completely shit simultaneously having 15 songs in the Top 20. Ho hum.

First of all, existential. This is the easy one. If you google ‘Brexit existential’ you get 346,000 results, mostly casting doubt on the ongoing existence of both the EU and the UK. Just today Guy Verhofstadt was talking about an ‘existential crisis’ in the EU. After ‘Brexit’ has gone through, Britain won’t exist in its current form. You write some total lies on a big red bus, drive it round the country for a couple of days, and before you can say ‘we won without a single bullet being fired‘ you’ve destroyed your supposedly beloved United Kingdom for good. Simple as.

Now, ontological. ‘Ontological’ relates to the entire field or category of Being. It predetermines the existence of all else. The word ‘fulcrum’ springs to mind for some reason. Thus Mark Fisher wrote of neoliberalism imposing a ‘business ontology’, in which the only things recognised as possessing existence (political ideas, cultural phenomena, institutions, people) are those considered to have exchange value. Its ubiquity makes it difficult to perceive, as in that joke about one fish asking another ‘what’s water?’. This may explain why, in his brand-new list of ten pledges, Jeremy Corbyn makes no mention of ‘Brexit’. He’s already taken its existence for granted. Britain’s EU departure will dominate all that now takes place in British life, to the point where it will very soon be impossible to tell which problems are the fault of ‘Brexit’, which are due to permanent austerity and which can be attributed to immigration. Of course, according to the Government and The Sun and The Daily Mail, all existing problems will be due to immigrants (and Muslims). As the sociologist Nathan Combs says in his essay ‘Politics and Ontology after Brexit and Trump‘, oh sorry the link doesn’t work.

Epistemological-ness is do with Knowledge. Apart from Theresa May, no one knows what ‘Brexit’ is. And Theresa May doesn’t know either. It’s of epistemological significance that she doesn’t even believe in what she’s doing. ‘Brexit’ is thus an epistemological unknown, a known unknown unknown containing a number of other unknowns, a fetid fog of unknowing- and unknownness in which the only foghorn is the sound of Nigel ‘fucking’ Farage blaming you-know-whom. Perhaps, however, even at this very late stage, all is not lost: the Kennedy Institute has argued that ‘there is another, broadly epistemological, reason for a second referendum’, but unfortunately that link doesn’t work either.

Phenomenological. Hmm. ‘Brexit’, of course, can’t happen. It is and has always been impossible. So how will this impossible thing be realised? Current reports indicate that it’s being directed by a group of Tory MPs on Whatsapp. How will it be experienced? How will it manifest itself in our daily lives? The academic Steve Fuller reckons that “collateral damage will appear in the form of the riots in working class neighbourhoods which will take place once the non-elites who voted to leave the European Union realize that they were delivered on a plate from one set of elites to another”, but he’s a epistemologicalist so doesn’t belong in this paragraph.

Finally, just for the hell of it, because it’s a word everyone’s been bandying around in academica for the last few years, there’s the affective aspect. This explains why people voted the way they did. It also tells us how this came to happen. Millions of people felt unhappy with their lives and clever strategists played on their hate strings. As Dr Tim Haughton of the University of Birmingham explained, “The reason why the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union can be expressed in three words: ‘Take Back Control’. The Leave side used the alluring slogan repeatedly and relentlessly whereas the Remain side never coined a simple and affective slogan”.

So, that’s it then. A complete, if brief, existential, ontological, epistemological, phenomenological and affective guide to Brexit, with a bit of the old affect thrown in just for good measure. I hope it’s enlightened somebody. If you feel that this whole thing was misconceived, poorly executed and has been a total waste of your fucking time, I know exactly how you feel. I voted Remain.

Kate Tempest, Sleaford Mods, Modern Toss, Brexit and the 2011 riots

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It used to take me about 45 minutes to listen to an album; nowadays it takes me at least a week. I find it hard to summon the patience and attention necessary to engage with new music. This would have been unimaginable when I was 15 and obsessed with music. Then the thought of some sort of supermarket sweep in a record shop would have been beyond my wildest dreams. But since the initial smash-and-grab of filesharing in the early part of the last decade it’s become clear to me that music so easily obtained is also easily discarded, and much harder to develop that deep connection with it that came from having invested the proceeds of my paper round. Nowadays even when someone sends me or shares something it often feels like a chore to have to listen to it, and I know the same is true when I share songs with others.

Of course, I could, as most do, walking around listening to music. Creating your own soundtrack to overlay reality often feels like a cinematic experience, one which remakes the world with you at its centre, dramatising time and space with you cast as the hero, or at least the protagonist. As Will Self explores in this Guardian piece, it does so at the cost of setting you apart from your immediate physical and social environment, providing:

…a soundtrack that our walker can choreograph all the traffic to, human and vehicular, her deft, darting eyes seamlessly stitching order out of the chaos so that everything around her skips to her divinely ordained beat.

Also, until very recently I had an ongoing ear problem which made listening to headphones an irritatingly imbalanced experience. Add to this the presence of a new baby who needs to sleep but isn’t always aware of the fact, and my music intake has been severely reduced.

In all this media saturation, with pretty much all recorded music and film available at a twitch of the thumb,  it’s inevitable to have blind spots. I’ve always enjoyed those moments when I realise there’s something or someone – a writer, group or director – whose work I’ve been aware of but never focussed on. It often takes concerted effort on behalf of someone else to make me really listen to something. When a friend told me last summer she was excited about going to see Kate Tempest in concert, it failed to register. I vaguely thought she was some sort of folk singer in the same breed as Mumford & Sons. It was only when another friend emailed last week insisting that I watch a BBC performance of her album ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ that I forced myself to actively pay attention, and even then it took me a week of interruptions to get through the whole thing.

Over the ten linked tracks Tempest unfolds the story of seven young neighbours on a London street, perfect strangers to one another, each lying awake before dawn worrying about their lives as, unbeknownst to them, a huge storm approaches. She articulates fears that reflect mine and doesn’t shy away from themes that (should) make people uncomfortable: climate change, immigration and racism. She does so in a way which is not hopeful but is certainly compassionate to the plight of her characters. Her tone is impassioned but also thoughtful, and her eye is acutely attentive to those details of our private and shared landscapes which are often overlooked or hidden away. She chooses an appropriate scale for the gravity of her themes, moving swiftly but deftly between the cosmological and the mundane, from images of the wounded planet to the everyday drudgery of worrying about the demands of the working day.

I’ve seen comparisons to the Streets concept album ‘A Grand Don’t Come for Free’, in terms of the scale of the project and the urban themes. There are more recent reference points but I’m only loosely aware of. In a typically vituperative tweet the Sleaford Mods dismiss her as derivative of artists like Jamie T and Lady Sov. I think it’s a shame they don’t engage more with her work as they have a lot in common. I’ve long enjoyed their work but have only heard odd songs. Luckily the release of their new album has coincided with both my discovery of Kate Tempest and the (disgusting) resolution of my hearing difficulty to make a useful comparison possible.

Both artists seek explicitly to accurately represent working class concerns in 2017. Visually the Mods are a punk Pet Shop Boys mixed with the insouciance of the Gallagher brothers. Musically they appear rudimentary in their dependence on beats, basslines and samples, but they make very inventive and compelling use of that limited palette. The ostensive sparseness of their sound puts me in mind of post-punk – a lot of their tracks recapture the sound of 1980, while others make more direct reference to hiphop. As with Tempest, Wu Tang Clan are a direct inspiration.

Like Die Antwoord (another group which I like but rarely actually listen to), they initially seemed to be a novelty act with a limited number of tricks but whose serious intent has become more apparent. Nevertheless there is a strong component of comedy to what they do. There are echoes not only of avin-a-larf late punk bands like Sham 69 but also of K*nt and the Gang and even (when we get to the chants of ‘you fat bastard) the Macc Lads. Jason Williamson shares some of Tempest’s poetic acuity, with many of their songs picking up on aspects of contemporary British life which it is genuinely surprising and refreshing to hear articulated in song – references to chain pubs, welfare cuts, closed-down shops, stoned trips to the corner shop and military fitness abound. Until recently, the tone has been consistent. It’s one of sneering undercut by anger and sadness. Their default mode is to rant and condemn. On the recent album a more plaintive and oblique mood has crept in, but it remains a very blokish vision, harsh and unforgiving. For all their progressive credentials, it sounds to me very much like the rage and hurt which John Harris identified in this must-see talk as key to the Brexit vote*.

Then there’s the humour, in all its joyous abusiveness. When I first heard ‘Jobseeker’ I thought it sounded like Modern Toss on record. Others have made the same connection. Several characters created by the Brighton cartoonists are present in Sleaford Mods tracks. They are the musical version of the disaffected-to-the-point-of-obnoxiousness figures represented in the Work, Customer Service, Drive By Abuser, Mr Tourette and Alan cartoons. Both Sleaford Mods and Modern Toss present a Britain in which a precondition of almost any job is that you have to regard and treat other humans as resources, and thirty years of neoliberal managerial doctrine in every area of our lives has encouraged us to view each other primarily as means to an end. What results is (in everyday life) deeply unpleasant and (on paper or record) hilarious insouciance, a principled refusal to treat other people and the social roles they embody with due respect.

This is partly due, then, to the alienating effect of bureaucratising language, as identified by Mark Fisher in ‘Capitalist Realism’. It is an expression of what he calls ‘reflexive impotence’, especially prevalent among those who have been educated in a system which emphasises very narrowly-defined notions of success, promoting individual ‘entrepreneurship’ at every turn and dismissing the notion that society has any responsibilities towards its members. It is also related to the spirit that Momus identified in his classic rant about a visit back to the UK, a place where ubiquitous marketing promotes addiction and competition as central metaphors for understanding and responding to reality and treating others:

We stop at a filling station on the Shoreditch High Street to buy some food. A homeless man is sitting at the entrance. ‘Spare some change, please? Spare some change?’ A black man gets out of a BMW and comes over to reform him. ‘Look at yourself, mate, you’ve got to stop using the stuff. Go to a gym, man, do a workout, get out of this state you’re in, it’s a fucking shame on you, man!’ He’s a winner, the junkie’s a loser. Go to a gym, start a business, buy a BMW, join the winners. It’s dog eat dog.

This imperative to think about life as a competition is also present in the lives of Tempest’s characters, but in her case she cares for them and is considerate of their vulnerabilities, unpleasant as the individuals may appear on the surface. This is partly a question of empathy. For all the acuteness of their observations Sleaford Mods don’t have that. Instead they rail against individual manifestations of all they despise. Their songs are mostly directed against particular targets – with scabrous wit and undercut by despair, but without the generous insights integral to Tempest’s work.

Both artists address and articulate the bleakness of a society which promotes consumerism as a means of aspiration, the alienation inherent in a worldview and way of life which regard branded sneakers and two-for-one offers on cans of Strongbow as worth living and dying for. For me, a constant implicit presence in the recent work of both is the riots of 2011, which I believe have a curious and underexplored relationship to the Brexit vote. Zygmunt Bauman attributed them to the phenomenon of ‘frustrated consumers’: mainly young people who had grown up inculcated in the belief that one’s worth and identity is realised through the acquisition of prestigious material goods, but denied the means of acquiring any means of doing so legitimately and blamed for their failure, one which society – in the form of the education system and the media – absolves itself of all responsibility**. John Harris’ talk makes clear how that pattern operated on a larger scale, and with more widespread and long-lasting effects, in relation to Brexit.

Although contrary to what the Guardian review of ‘English Tapas’ says, it is not the first ‘post-Brexit’ album (that honour goes to Momus), the work of both Kate Tempest and that of Sleafords Mods provides a very good guide to what JG Ballard called the ‘unacknowledged present’ of the UK today, to those subjacent pressures, manifest in all of our lives to a hideously unequal degree, that are prone to break through in unexpected and unpleasant ways. While the Sleaford Mods’ vision is conditioned mostly by bitterness and despair, Kate Tempest’s is tempered by compassion and a spirit of goodwill towards our vulnerabilities.

 

* This post marks the 312th time I have linked to that talk.

** Ditto for the Bauman article.

If not Tony Blair, then who can lead the movement against Brexit?

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Yesterday I wrote a piece arguing that Tony Blair is not a good figurehead for the movement (if such a thing can be said to exist) to reverse the Brexit decision. My article was very widely read and received a huge amounts of comments on Facebook. Very few of them addressed my central charge: that Blair is, for many in the UK, synonymous with the insult to democracy that was the War in Iraq. Instead I received a certain amount of Ukip-style abuse calling me a ‘troll’ for even mentioning the subject. Inevitably, given that this is, after all, the internet, several such responses were from people who had simply not read my post, in which I said very clearly (twice) that the perspective I was presenting was not entirely my own. I was ventriloquising. We have to be prepared for the arguments that the other side will use to counter our case. That does not mean I am on the other side. The third paragraph even contained the sentence “I think that on this issue Blair is right and that Brexit will be an absolute disaster”. A cursory glance at the rest of this website makes it abundantly clear where my sympathies lie.

If someone is pointing out something  to you and you can’t see it, you need to change your perspective. I wasted years of my life on Twitter arguing against Ukip supporters and other racists, people who systematically deny facts and automatically reject reasoned argument. We have to be better than them.

The War in Iraq is a fact. Our country devastated another because our messianic Prime Minister had promised the US President that his country would get involved in a major war regardless of the consequences. We are responsible for that. We can’t deny that it happened. It has consequences. They may not be consequences for us now. But we are still responsible. It would be the height of British imperial arrogance and racism to pretend that the lives of Iraqi civilians are less important than our own.

It’s essential that we bear in mind two things. We are not the only victims of Brexit. There are people worse off than ourselves who stand to suffer more as a result of this whole farce. We have to make common cause with them.

If you haven’t yet seen this speech by the Guardian journalist John Harris, made in the aftermath of the referendum, please do so. It is a devastatingly cogent and trenchant analysis of the circumstances that produced the vote, one based on his having spent a lot of time talking to people in places which voted Leave. It is the antidote to that sickeningly self-pitying attitude that says that everything in the world would be perfect were it not for Brexit.

Then there’s the effect Brexit will have on immigrants. We need to build solidarity with them. Doing so is a more effective means of combatting our despair than praying for a saviour to make the bad thing go away. Action is transformative. Through helping others we help ourselves. The leaders of this movement will quite possibly not have been born in this country, as it is they who will suffer most from the mistake made by our friends, families and colleagues.

Then there are those who came here or want to come here out of desperation and because they believed in the UK as a place of decency and sanctuary. We warned Blair in 2003 that his war would have wider consequences. One if them is that war creates refugees. We need to speak up for them and persuade those who voted for a cause led by a racist – not all of whom are by any means racist – that we have a moral and legal duty to house our share of refugees. It’s shameful that Corbyn has not linked the two issues.

The other thing to remember is that Brexit is not the only problem in an otherwise perfect world. The greatest ever problem humanity has ever faced is happening in our lifetimes. If you want a reason for the global far-right shift, the climate is a very good place to start. Getting rid of all references to Climate Change on the White House website was the first thing Trump did as President, even before the inauguration ceremony was over. He appointed the boss of the world’s most powerful climate-lying organisation – a man who is also a close business associate of Vladimir Putin – as his Secretary of State. It is no accident whatsoever that all the leading Brexiters are also climate deniers. We are now seeing the function of this very clearly: try to find a tabloid news story about food shortages which does not blame foreigners. The right-wing wants us to scapegoat immigrants for the changing weather patterns. We must do the opposite of that, which is to defend migrants and talk openly and very loudly about the climate. We know – although it’s very, very hard to accept – that many of our children will one day be climate refugees. We have to treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

Green Leader Caroline Lucas says much the same things as I’ve argued here, but what she says often falls on deaf ears because it involves effort and sacrifice on our part. It is much easier to hope for a Messiah, but if we want to make a meaningful change to the world we have to do the more difficult thing of building a movement around these issues. It is of course tragic that we don’t have the support of the most radical ever Labour leader. Corbyn is caught in a bind at present but that doesn’t mean we can’t build bridges in the future. The movement we need to build needs to demonstrate that we have the numbers and the will to turn the tide.

I’ve come across some absurd notions in the last couple of days. One is that the fact that people are talking about Blair means he is having a positive impact. He’s not. The media is talking about him because they know he’s an easy target. Then there’s the idea that he has no self-interest because he’s very rich. Here’s some bad news: they said the same thing about Trump. It’s also been suggested that Alan ‘The Apprentice’ Sugar or Richard ‘Virgin Healthcare’ Branson should play a prominent role. Such suggestions fail to acknowledge that Brexit partly took place because another leading business mogul (Rupert Murdoch, aka the Robert Mugabe of British politics) wanted to promote his business interests. All these men have their own agendas and we cannot allow the progressive forces in this country to be coopted into the megalomaniac projects of any one individual. As it happens, Blair’s motivation is not pecuniary, but ideological. It takes less than a second’s honest reflection to recognise that he wants to regain control of the Labour Party. That is his obsession and everything else is secondary. Other suggestions have included Nick Clegg and John Major. I cannot for the life of me think of any more absurd proposals, even for comic purposes.

Then who is to lead us? The answer is that we need to lead ourselves. The model for this movement – which, if it stays on Facebook, is not a movement – is not New Labour, but Occupy. We can’t go on treating Brexit as an isolated issue, one unconnected to all the other horrible things that are going on in the world. There is a very clear reason that Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and all the other scum of our age support Brexit, scapegoat refugees and furiously deny Climate Change. They have a coherent ideology which links together all those issues and mobilises people’s frustration with their lives. If we want to stop Brexit we have to learn from them. We have to take on other, related, issues. The march on March 25th must make both Climate Change and the defence of migrants central themes. We also have to lead our movement ourselves. No celebrity politician can do that for us. Difficult as it may be, we have to take inspiration in the words of Gramsci: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Or, as a character in Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Bleeding Edge’ puts it:

“Maybe it’s unbeatable, maybe there are ways to fight back. What it may require is a dedicated cadre of warriors willing to sacrifice time, income, personal safety, a brother/sisterhood consecrated to an uncertain struggle that may extend over generations and, despite all, end in total defeat.”

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 an opinion 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. As a consequence, the Middle East was plunged into an abyss of violence which led directly to the refugee crisis and 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 Britain leaving the EU would be much better advised to look to figures like Caroline Lucas and Nicola Sturgeon to lead the way. Tony Blair must not play any significant role in the campaign. Those of us who both oppose Brexit and marched against the Iraq War cannot allow the Tories and Ukip to get away with using one grievous and obnoxious insult to democracy as a reason for supporting another.

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, that which inspired the destruction of the slums and the 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 some money and want to pretend they have lots: 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, given 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

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 to 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

The ideological psychopaths behind Trump, Putin and Brexit

I’ve seen several headlines comparing Steve Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist, to the Mad Monk Rasputin, given the coincidence of their seemingly hypnotic influence over the country’s most powerful man and their apparent commitment to arcane forms of Evil. Rasputin also has a counterpart in contemporary Russian politics, in the form of Vladislav Surkov, ‘Putin’s grey cardinal’, a figure who, according to the Atlantic, “has directed Russian society like one great reality show”, often using bizarre means of discrediting anyone who stands up to the Government. A meeting between Bannon and Surkov would put Malcolm Tucker and Jamie from ‘The Thick of It’ in the shade.

Although Tony Blair’s Press Secretary Alistair Campbell was the model for Tucker, his bullying and lying could hardly be called psychopathic, and he seems to have been driven by loyalty and career progression rather than destructive zeal even as his dishonesty and cynicism destroyed the Middle East. The same could not be said for someone who, although he is no longer on the scene, has also had a decisive influence on world events: Dominic Cummings, former adviser to the failed Geek Emperor Michael Gove and, as head of the pro-Brexit camp in the Referendum, originator of the slogan ‘Take Back Control’. He has been described by David Cameron as a ‘career psychopath’ and by Rachel Johnson, sister of Boris, in similar terms. I urge you to read in full Pat Kane’s assessment, in which he calls Cummings an “intellectually committed chaos-merchant” and reports on his mission to subject all aspects of human behaviour (health, education, all public services) to the capricious and/or sadistic whims of the market. This may not suit everyone, but Cummings believes most of us to be a waste of education, as cognitive ability is primarily related to genes. This throwback to early 20th Century ideologies is currently off -stage, back to writing deranged screeds on his personal website, but the ideas he promotes are clearly of influence on a Government which has no better idea than rip-it-up-and-start-again.

Figures like Bannon, Surkov and Cummings may have different visions of a perfect society, but they share a commitment to elite rule and an idea of how to aggressively pursue it: by creating chaos, using what Rebecca Solnit (in one of the best assessments I’ve yet encountered of why Trump won) describes as ‘gaslighting’ to destabilise accepted values and undermine trust in established institutions. I found out about Surkov through Adam Curtis (a very skilled propagandist in this own right), who says that Surkov has “turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater…(creating) a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control”*. This interest in disruption is something all ideological psychopaths share. An appropriate analogy might be that shaking a baby vigorously enough a) might somehow make it grow up quicker and b) will stop things getting boring. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that historical precedents to such projects lie in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge. Figures like Bannon, Surkov and Cummings also have literary antecedents. Kane defines Cummings as “a mercurial figure who could easily stalk the pages of the Booker Prize longlist”. After all, part of the thrill and success of the Booker-winning ‘Wolf Hall’ lay in Thomas Cromwell’s machiavellian machinations. Much of what I’ve read about the three ideological psychopaths in question reminds me of a quote from H.G. Wells’ Doctor Moreau:“Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say; this time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own.”

They also put me in mind of a series of characters in the later J.G.Ballard novels: deranged scientists and psychologists relieving suburban boredom and stress and shaking up bourgeois lives with doses of ultraviolence. The messianic tennis coach Bobby Crawford in Cocaine Nights (1996) oversees a crime wave in an expat coastal resort while arguing that ‘great men’ should live outside the law and crime can be encouraged as ‘a means to an end.’ Wilder Penrose in Supercannes (2000) is a psychiatrist who promotes psychopathy as a means of relieving stress. Millennium People (2003) features a charismatic and possibly insane pediatrician called Richard Gould, who stirs up his followers to bomb Heathrow, the NFT and the Tate Modern in a “search for meaning”, while in Kingdom Come (2006) Dr Maxted counsels of the need for “elective insanity” and foments suburban revolt based on sporting and consumer loyalties, arguing that: the future is going to be a struggle between vast systems of competing psychopathologies, all of them willed and deliberate, part of a desperate attempt to escape from a rational world and the boredom of consumerism”.

There’s also been a lot of talk over the last few months about tricksters: Pied Pipers who lead the masses astray. Ideological psychopaths seem to make use of charismatic leaders, or at least to put themselves at their service. They are often not the figureheads themselves but the powers behind the throne. The Italian populist leader Beppe Grillo keeps himself out of direct political involvement and tries to get someone else to do the dirty work (he’s not very good at choosing). Then there’s the question of which ideology they adhere to. Bannon recently claimed to have once been a Leninist but has very clear fascist and possibly Nazi sympathies. Surkov’s inspiration apparently comes from contemporary art, and both he and Bannon have been associated with the fascist Russian ‘philosopher’ Alexander Dugin, who believes Russia should provoke an all-out world war. As for Cummings, despite his intellectual posturings, he may be stupid enough to be a fan of that ultimate Godhead of failed teenage bullies with megalomaniac pretensions, Ayn ‘Medicare’ Rand. He is an extreme Neoliberal and a reminder that the origins of Neoliberal thought lay partly in nazi belief in the purity and goodness of elite power.

Another common comparison for Bannon has been Goebbels. The Nazi propaganda leader was notoriously interested in and inspired by mystical beliefs and occult rituals. The Trump phenomenon has partly been explained in terms of a hypnotic effect, not least by (stranger and stranger…) Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. The (mock?) science of Neurolinguistic Programing may partly explain why, according to several reports, people went into Trump’s rallies curious and came out fuming. Conspiracy theorists find consolation in the belief that all world events, from Brexit to Trump to the war in Syria, are controlled by the CIA; it’s comforting to think that someone’s there behind the scenes watching and learning and will step in when things get out of hand. However, part of the immense value of Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ lies in its exposure and exploration of the chaos and vanity of attempts to control and learn from war, with its groups of scientists competing to use humans like lab rats.

One thing people like Surkov do is to learn from recent developments in marketing and apply them directly to politics. What’s happening politically in the UK, the US and elsewhere is by no means detached from what’s going on in the economy. We are subject to massive and increasing manipulation in the form of disruptive technologies, such as Airbnb and Uber, many of whose creators believe that disrupting settled industries and tearing up patterns of social behaviour is an end which justifies all means.

That ultimate agent of chaos Donald Trump certainly has a way with a crowd, but he’s also stupid and helpless when it comes to understanding world events. He watches the TV news and accepts the simplest and most misleading of explanations. He appears to have no-one to trust and doesn’t seem to have any idea what he’s doing beyond acting out his most sadistic impulses. It may be that he thinks Steve Bannon is his only friend. Bannon certainly appears to know how to manipulate his charge. The plot of this contemporary dystopian parable is starting to resemble Frankenstein, but in this version the Doctor doesn’t care about the consequences of what he’s created, and instead is urging the monster out of the castle to attack the village and take over the world.

Rasputin, of course, ended up being shot dead and thrown into a river, partly undone by his own drunken boasting. As for his contemporary counterparts, they may look and feel like protagonists making their own rules but in reality they are obeying deeper and darker forces which may well destroy them. All of them appear to be deeply narcissistic and probably enjoy being talked and written about, even though it’s public knowledge that Bannon is a wife-beating drunk, Surkov a failed novelist and pictures of Cummings show him posing like a pitiful pastiche of the Bullingdon crew. Maybe he was the one who cleaned up after their parties. Ultimately the three ideological psychopaths I’ve talked about here are not masters, but servants of (to quote Pynchon in ‘V’) a much more ominous logic.

* Curtis explores this in more depth in ‘Hypernormalisation’ (2016)

Corbyn has put Labour on the same side of history as Farage, Le Pen and Trump

screen-shot-2016-06-24-at-08-08-18-440x286I’ve always had a huge amount of affection for Jeremy Corbyn. I’ve heard him speak eloquently and forcefully on countless occasions in support of excellent but underpublicised causes. I supported him in the first Labour leader ballot and I urged everyone I knew to do the same. Like most people who care about such things I was furious that the other candidates hadn’t even had the integrity to oppose the Government’s Welfare Bill. When he says that Theresa May is on the wrong side of history in inviting Trump for a state visit, I’m in full agreement with him (although that particular phrase has been overused beyond repair).

However, I didn’t vote for him last November in the second ballot because there were signs that he and his team didn’t have the leadership and communication skills to face the challenge. They seemed unaware of how to research, design, test and transmit compelling slogans and images in order to influence political debate. (Here is an excellent example of what they could have done.) What’s more, there was abundant evidence from former shadow cabinet members who were by no stretch of the imagination Blairites of a lack of basic coordination, so that policies which did emerge were often contradicted or cancelled out by unplanned and haphazard leadership statements.

However, the main reason I didn’t vote for Corbyn against Smith wasn’t his incompetence or the weakness of the opposing candidate. It was his betrayal over Brexit. Although by no means everyone who voted for the UK to leave the EU was a supporter of the far-right, the EU referendum was a nationalist trap which the then PM Cameron, motivated by a mixture of short-term desperation and monumental complacency, fell right into. 

Corbyn’s efforts during the referendum campaign were lacklustre, even after one of his own MPs was shot dead by an activist of a terrorist group closely connected to Ukip. His immediate call for implementation of Article 50 was an indication of his lack of political judgment and a betrayal of those who elected him leader. That he should, in this week’s parliamentary vote, exploit the most important issue in recent British history in the attempt to establish himself as a firm leader shows that he and his team have no understanding of what’s at stake and seem to have taken seriously Tory press propaganda that the UK has a future outside the EU. All expert advice before and after the referendum makes it absolutely clear that it doesn’t.

By obliging Labour MPs to vote in favour of whatever Tory plans for Brexit turn out to be, we can only hope that Corbyn has placed himself on the losing side of history. Where he could and should have mobilised Labour’s extensive campaigning machinery and put his very strong core of dedicated supporters to work arguing that the whole Brexit project is a reactionary folly and that the referendum was a farce, he’s divested himself of moral authority and his leadership has ultimately come to serve the socially regressive, racist and climate-lying agenda of the international far-right. The future of parliamentary opposition now lies in a progressive coalition led by people like Caroline Lucas, Mhairi Black, Nicola Sturgeon and, why not (since Nick Clegg’s career is hopefully still dead and buried) Tim Farron. Anti-Brexit Labour MPs, i.e. those who had the integrity to vote against the Government and against their party leadership this week clearly have a role to play. They represented the majority of Labour voters. But as of now the leadership of the Labour Party is, for all Corbyn’s personal decency, at best irrelevant and at worst an obstruction in the way of building something better.