Here’s what the illiberal media doesn’t want you to know about the Finsbury Park attack

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My wife and I used to live just up the road from the Finsbury Park Mosque, but now we live in Rome with our four-month-old daughter. How will we cope with bringing up a child in a time of mounting global turmoil, with terrorist attacks and climate disasters assailing us on almost a daily basis? In much the same way that previous generations have: by telling her stories which introduce and explain the world as comfortingly and as gently as possible, tales which allow her to gradually sense the dangers but also to imagine herself into the world as a protagonist as well as (we hope) a responsible citizen.

Adults tell each other stories in much the same way. The internet has sped up the process of the fabrication of fairy tales. Within minutes of an event like the attack in Finsbury Park, there are already rumours circulating online. Why did the police take so long to arrive? Could it be connected to the Grenfell Fire, or to London Bridge? Did it really happen? Is it all a distraction, a ‘false flag’?

Such gossip reassures people. It tells them who they are and situates shocking events in a familiar context. It reminds people they are powerless, that the world is under control, while also allowing them to pose in their heads as both initiates and heroes, privy to and sharers of occult and dangerous truths.

But while as parents we have our daughter’s best interests at heart, wanting to protect and prepare her for the joys and hazards of existence, purveyors of internet fairy tales do not. They use stories to manipulate, to promote an view of the world which benefits particular interests.

The mainstream media can operate in similar ways, but without as much blatant dishonesty and manipulation. Where that does exist, it tends to be infinitely more complex and sophisticated and not by any means always conscious. Recent exceptions to this, most notably Blair’s dodgy dossier and the lies of the Brexit campaign, have discredited democracy and the media and encouraged people to get their information about the world from even less trustworthy sources, ones that make a virtue of their antipathy towards formal media standards and regulations.

Someone in a Jeremy Corbyn Facebook group this morning was quick to blame the Finsbury Park attack on the “New World Order”. His kneejerk recourse to that phrase suggests he may have come under the spell of that most fraudulent of all tricksters, Alex Jones, who just by coincidence (really, Richard? Is that what you think?!) was the subject of a horribly misguided puff piece on NBC just last night. Jones is prominent nowadays as he has the ear of the President* and also because for the last few years he has been telling the world that the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre didn’t happen, that the children who ‘died’ and their ‘grieving’ parents were all actors. In promoting this story Jones achieves several objectives: drawing attention to himself, posing as someone who’s wise to what ‘The Establishment’ is secretly up to, and (most importantly) letting gun-lovers off the hook. The NRA is, of course, one of the most powerful and dangerous organisations in US history.

You don’t have to dig very far to see how the fledgling roots of these online fairy tales connect to some of the most powerful reactionary interests in the world. Online conspiracy theorising is, after all, a deeply conservative phenonenon, even though its often those on the Left who fall prey to it. Yesterday someone in the same Facebook group someone posted a link to an article which promised to tell you the facts that the ‘liberal media’ want to keep hidden about the Grenfell Fire. The article cut and pasted a post from the far-right website The Daily Caller which blamed environmental regulations for the disaster. The same material has been published days earlier by the right-wing British tabloids the Daily Mail and Express. While we can choose to ignore news outlets which we know to be controlled by political and/or business interests and place our critical trust in more independent, transparent and accountable publications, the internet exposes us to much more insidious attempts to hack our brains and install ideologically toxic misinformation.

No wonder Jones’ ‘friend’ Donald Trump instructs his supporters to ignore everything the ‘liberal media’ writes about him, while boasting that all he knows about the world he learned online. Progressives have to be cleverer and more critical than him when dealing with information about news events. That shouldn’t be too difficult, in theory. Just stick to news and commentary sites designed for adults, learn to question what you read without rejecting facts and arguments out of hand for no good reason, and steer well clear of those purveying internet fairy tales.

ps. If you’re seeking the facts as they stand in relation to the Finsbury Park terrorist attack, here are some sources which can help you:

http://www.guardian.co.uk
http://www.bbc.co.uk
http://www.independent.co.uk

Ps. This, from the University of Sheffield politics blog, is a very compelling argument which we Labour members and supporters ignore at our peril:

The ‘rigged economy’ conspiracy theory

In a previous critique of Corbynism, I examined the ‘personalised’ critique of capitalism which underlies the worldview of Corbyn and many of his supporters. This perspective sees poverty, economic crashes, inequality and even war as being the result of the conscious behaviour of shadowy ‘global elites’, usually in the financial sector.  Such a viewpoint, common amongst right and left, fails to grasp capital as an abstract social relation, dominating both rich and poor alike, and at its most extreme can lead to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of Jewish plots to rule the world through control of the banks.  The prevalence of this kind of foreshortened critique of capitalism (or neoliberalism, as popularly understood) goes some way to explain the spread of conspiracy theories about the ‘Rothschilds’ and ‘Zionists’ through much of the ‘Canary’/‘Skwawkbox’ left, as well as the alt-right – they are not contingent or accidental, but the consequence of pushing an analysis of capitalism as conspiracy to its logical conclusion.

Since his ‘populist turn’ at the start of the year, Corbyn has severely ramped up this kind of talk.  Throughout the election campaign there were endless references to the ‘rigged economy’ set up by elites which had ‘ripped off’ the British people.  Like the isolationist foreign policy, this discourse has an appeal to both the ‘anti-vax’ wing of the Green left and the Trumpian-UKIP right, with the vagueness of the ‘rigged’ concept allowing people to point the finger of accusation at whatever scapegoat fits their particular prejudice.  While it can be effective, there is an inherent risk in this kind of approach to politics, in that it can rapidly spiral out of control and in unexpected directions if not strictly supervised.  There is no guarantee that once let out of the bottle this kind of personalised critique of capitalism will inevitably lead in a progressive direction.  If it is true that Corbyn has managed to patch up a right-left electoral alliance on these grounds  –  along with implied migration controls and an isolationist foreign policy  –  it will require extreme vigilance to ensure it does not veer onto a regressive track.

(http://speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/2017/06/13/reassessing-corbynism-success-contradictions-and-a-difficult-path-ahead/)

A three-month-old baby assesses the propects for the MAY-DUP coalition

So, you’re three months old…

Four and a half months, actually. Nineteen weeks on Monday.

It says…

Yes, I know. My male parent thought it made for a more eye-catching headline. It’s not the first time he’s used me to promote his political opinions. A bit ‘clickbaity’ I suppose, but whatcha gonna do.

I see. Well, as some are saying this election was largely decided by the youth vote, I wondered how you, as someone…relatively youthful, saw what has happened, and particularly the subsequent events.

Well, although I’m as yet barely able to grasp a baby’s rattle, let alone the ins and outs of political horsetrading, I find the whole DUP thing interesting for three main reasons. Firstly, it puts paid to any notion of the Conservatives as anything other than deeply socially reactionary and driven by the will to power. It’s now ten years since David Cameron went around pretending he could talk to huskies. Even at the time, even though I wouldn’t be born for another nine years and eight months, I could see that it was all a charade, but the image did stick, and when he resigned there were people praising him for his social progressiveness on (for example) gay marriage. That sort of notion of the Tory Party is now absolutely dead. For all the talk of ‘modernisers’, it’s an atavistic, pre-modern assemblage. Secondly, something that’s not been discussed much is anti-catholicism. I think it’s paid very little attention to in England – commentary on the DUP has mostly focussed, rightly I think, on their homophobia, climate denial and misogyny – but it’s still a theme in English life. We sort of outsource that part of our history to the fringes and pretend it no longer exists, but I’d be very interested to know how catholic Tories view this agreement. Finally, there’s the lack of strategic thinking. This deal won’t last. The alacrity with which it was announced suggests strongly to me that May just agreed to give the DUP whatever they want, and that will obviously lead to problems in the medium term if not before. I think people did use to think of May as someone who possessed a modicum of political intelligence, but in strategic terms she’s not much more sophisticated than her new best friend, that outright dickhead in the United States. Maybe, as some wag put it on Twitter, she has a thing for orangemen…

Yes, indeed. Er, you seem to have a keen interest in events, did you stay up for the results?

After a fashion. I initially fell asleep at around nine thirty, and then woke up for a scream and a snack about two. Then it was back to sleep for two hours until I woke up again for, as the parental people would doubtlessly put it, “some bloody reason”. So no, I didn’t follow events too closely.

Right. Now, in the context of Brexit…

Can I just say something? Sorry to interrupt, my conversational instincts are still a little unrefined. Burp. Look, I have to say that I find the whole Brexit thing understandable. If not actually laudable. I mean, let me make an analogy. A few weeks ago they took me to stay in a hotel. I’m not sure why we went, to me it’s all just random colours and sounds wherever we go and it was a totally unfamiliar environment so I was bound to play up. Anyway, they tried to get me to sleep in this travel cot which was quite frankly far too close to the ground for comfort, I mean I would have basically been sleeping on the floor like one of those woof woof creatures they always go on about. So I kicked off. Every time they lowered me into the bloody thing I started screaming like a, you know. After they’d tried about fifty times they were going mental and in the end they let me sleep on the bed like a normal person. They barely got any sleep (I had my arms stretched out on the bed so there was basically no space and the male one ended up crashed out in an armchair), but I was fine (although I think I soiled myself at least three times), and the whole mini-break thing ended up being cut short! Now, how does that relate to Brexit? Well, I think I’ll let you, as it were, ‘do the math’.

Right, er…now, in terms of…

Sorry to interrupt again, but that’s rather a nice shirt you’re wearing. Could I possibly have a taste? I haven’t had any ‘milky-wilky’ for…

Well, I’d rather you didn’t. I have a social engagement to attend after this…

Suit yourself, bub.

Thank you. Now, given your depth of understanding of the issues, I wondered if you had any suggestions for our readers in terms of authors who have a particular insight into these issues.

Well, it’s not directly related to these events, but by far the most interesting book I’ve encountered of late is this crackly one made of some sort of cloth. It mostly consists of pictures of something called ‘animals’, apparently. I find it compelling for two reasons: 1) it’s colourful and 2) it’s tasty. I’ve barely got past sucking on the first few pages but I have to say I’m finding it riveting. I fully intend to eat it all one day. And I have to say, when it comes to eating printed material, I carry out my promises. Not like that Ukip arsehole!

Right. Now, just one more…

Excuse me, I’m going to have to cut you short. I’m afraid I appear to have ‘done a Theresa’. Could you possibly alert one of the parental people?

Er…sure! 

Film review: ‘The Other Side of Hope’

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How often do you go to the cinema? Probably about six or seven times a day, right? I mean, I’m guessing, but I calculate that someone like you has, over the last, say, four months, likely seen in the region of a thousand films at the cinema, or movies at the moving picture theater if that’s your preference. Until last Saturday we hadn’t been to the cinema in FIVE MONTHS. This is because in January we became the first people in history to have an actual baby. We soon discovered that childrearing and filmbuffery are deeply and highly incompatible. To be fair, five months isn’t very long when you consider that I once met a guy who hadn’t been to see a film since 1972. The guy in question was originally from Iraq and had seven children. I can’t imagine how disruptive having seven children must be, or how hard it must be to persuade relatives to babysit*. As for the cinema, although he skipped all of Woody Allen and is presumably no expert on Kieslowski’s Red, White and Blue trilogy he must have seen a lot of Scooby Doo cartoons.

As it happens one of the protagonists of the film we went to see is also from Iraq, while the main character is from Syria. They are refugees in Finland, a country I know and love, partly through the films of Aki Kaurismaki, of which this is one. It’s the second in a row about people seeking asylum, after Le Havre (2011). Khaled has arrived in Helsinki by default after the traditionally tortuous route via southern Europe and is trying to track down his sister, from whom he became separated along the way. When his application is refused (the Government has decided that his hometown of Aleppo is a safe place to return him to) he escapes from the detention centre and is taken in by the owner of a comically-failing restaurant.

Kaurismaki’s aesthetic is one of out-of-time-ness. In his films pretty much everything is worn and familiar: the actors, the sets, the clothes and the music are all reassuringly dated. His characters are themselves refugees from a world that no longer quite exists, seeking asylum from disappointment in drink, music and small, awkward acts of solidarity. It’s a world of flawed but decent people: terse but charming, brusque and gauche but capable of tenderness. This film also features intrusions of almost cartoon-like evil in the form of some racist skinheads and also official indifference. It’s the kind of film which would piss off Slavoj Žižek, in that it shows refugees as individual human beings complete with hopes and vulnerabilities just like anyone else.

The cinema we went to (the Madison, on Via Chiabrera) is not far from our flat. Not just the cinema itself but also the street itself feels familiar and homely, with a refreshing absence of international brands and cash-for-gold shops. The gelataria we pop into on the way is a very Kaurismaki place, with its staff, fittings and menu seemingly not changed since the ’70s. There was another closer cinema, within five minutes’ walk from where we live, but in some apparently dodgy deal it’s currently being transformed into ‘international standard’ apartments.

Walking along Viale Marconi after the bridge we passed the spot where I recently got talking to a guy from Benin City in Nigeria who was sweeping the street in return for spare change. This is a phenomenon that seems to have started in Milan and has now spread to Rome. Back home he had been a musician; he showed me on his phone the video he’d put on Youtube. It was very professionally produced and really rather good. I was at first inspired to write a piece about him, then thought again: what right do I have, really, to exploit his life story for my own means? I just so happened that a few days later I was in the British Museum, one of whose greatest treasures is the Benin Bronzes. Maybe if I was a proper writer I’d  feel more comfortable about appropriating someone else’s narrative, displaying it as though it were my own**.

I hope he somehow manages to make his way upwards, whether socially or geographically (he wanted to reach London, where he had friends). I hope he manages to stay free. Kaurismaki’s film is a heartbreaking but salutary reminder that pretty much every town and city in the world contains a hidden population of people living in dread of being picked up and sent back to somewhere which can no longer be called home. When we first started coming to Rome I read a series of novels by Amara Lakhous about the local population of Arabs and North Africans whose lives revolve around the acquisition and renewal of their permesso di sogiorno (residence permit). Networks of volunteers which provide food, shelter and advice are continually turfed out and have their resources confiscated by the local authorities. My city and yours have invisible portals leading straight to war and immense danger. It puts things like not having been to the cinema for a while or not being able to find decent hummus into some perspective.

Our daughter was born here in Rome, on January 30th this year. She’s an immigrant from some other celestial realm and has been given asylum in this one. The locals coo at her, welcoming her into their world. No one tells her that Europe is full, that public services are overstretched and that she should go back home. Like any human, she has a right to be here. She’s just now beginning to recognise other people (and even stating to laugh at herself in the mirror). She shows no sign of being able to discriminate between people who happen to have been born in different places from her. As the song says, such things have to be carefully taught.

*As this episode of ‘Thinking Allowed’ discusses and my own experiences attest, Italian society would fall apart in about ten minutes without i nonni.

**There’s also the aspect of potentially revealing to his friends (and fans?) back home that he’s sweeping the streets rather than pursuing stardom.

Our Daughter vs. Trump: The First Foreign Trip

It just so happens that our baby daughter’s very first trip abroad coincides with that of her partial counterpart Donald Trump. I would venture that so far hers has been more successful on a number of fronts.

Her itinerary is less ambitious than Trump’s. Instead of Riyadh, Jerusalem, Rome and Brussels, we’re playing safe with London and Sheffield, and instead of exasperated world leaders she’s meeting friends and family. The level of excitement in one single household in Sheffield right now is far greater than it is in the whole of Belgium for Trump’s visit. To be fair one does have to pity those who’ve always dreamt of meeting the US President and are then faced with the prospect of humouring someone who thinks he’s won top prize in an amaaazing reality TV show and who would struggle to remember the colour of the White House. Trump knows at some level that he is ‘President’ but has no idea what that means beyond the fact that he gets more ice-cream than anyone else and can bomb or sack anyone who annoys him (or, more realistically, whoever Steve Bannon tells him to). As for our daughter, the fact that she is thankfully even cuter in real life than media reports (well, photos) means that no one has yet expressed any disappointment or anger at her presence.

Journey. Despite months of anxiety about the possibility of her destroying several hours of the lives of total strangers, our trip from Rome Ciampino to London Stansted was trouble-free. Obviously she travelled by Ryanair rather than Air Force One, but the difference doesn’t mean as much to her as it presumably would to Trump. We did however actually almost miss, but that’s because I was so busy showing her and my Portuguese off to some Brazilians we didn’t notice that there were two planes leacing for the same destination 15 minutes apart. The biggest tantrum was also my doing, as I didn’t react in a particularly grown-up fashion to the refusal of the vending machine to dispense me either a Snickers or the €2 I’d just paid for it. Unlike on Trump’s journey to Saudi Arabia, no one spent the entire flight screaming at other passengers about leaks, and luckily there were no physical leaks, which may, conversely, not be true of the US President.

Entourage. Our daughter is travelling with her parents and some carefully selected playthings, as opposed to a ragbag of white supremacists, arms dealers and leading members of secretive Hungarian far-right organisations. The toys themselves seem to get along reasonably well, with no backstabbing and nothing you could call nepotism. Mr Gweenery is not currently under suspicion of setting up a sweetheart hotel-building deal with leading members of the Chinese central comittee. At least, not as far as we know.

Travelling. Our daughter has no understanding of where she is. Cities and planes are totally unfamiliar concepts, mere adult abstractions. It’s just more world stuff, which happily contains a continuing supply of nappies, cuddles and milky-wilky. Intriguingly, she does not seem to connect transport with movement, shifting in time with travelling in space. To his credit, at least Trump seems to have understood that he was in the Middle East at some point. Mind you, his world is just an endless array of blandly opulent hotel interiors with gold fittings, with steak and ketchup permanently on the menu, Fox News always on the TV and just the occasional diaper to hand just in case.

Tiredness. Just like the US President, such a gruelling schedule for someone of her age has caused occasional bouts of mental and physical exhaustion. I’d like to apologise to anyone in or near the Moroccan restaurant in Exmouth Market around 2.40pm yesterday afternoon, and anyone on or in the vicinity of the 16.32 from Farringdon to Sutton on the same day. Luckily she is denied access to social media so she can’t  share her meltdowns with the wider world. I suspect that White House staff would find it much easier to deal with her than with the manchild they’re supposed to be nursing.

Reception. At every stage of her foreign trip she’s largely been greeted with goodwill, even delight. She hasn’t been confronted with any protests, nor would one expect a four-month-year old to be. There are no photos in which someone’s looking at her as though she’s an utterly insufferable creature. I think this Pope might actually be very good with children.

Result of trip. The world is not a significantly less stable place as direct consequence of her visit to the UK. She hasn’t conducted any major arms deals with extremely dangeous countries (that’s the sort of thing that new parents have to watch out for). At the same time, she hasn’t learnt anything about terrorism, the Holocaust or Climate Change, but then neither, to be fair did President Trump on his trip.

Our daughter vs Donald Trump: The First 100 Days

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Our daughter was born ten days after Donald Trump’s inauguration. I sometimes wonder if the viral piece I wrote a few days before her birth, in which I predicted an imminent mental breakdown on the part of the new President, was actually more of an expression of anxiety about my own readiness to perform the demanding role of becoming a parent. Although sadly (?) my prediction about Trump has yet to come true (or maybe it has…), our daughter is doing wonderfully, and we’re coping magnificently with being parents, one day (or rather one night…) at a time. I thought this was an opportune moment to reflect on Trump/our daughter’s comparative progress so far in ten key areas.

1. Inauguration

Her speech was a great deal more coherent than anything Trump has come up with in the last three months. It went ‘whiirrrARRRGGGHHHNNNNGGGGGGGGAAARRGGHHH I’M ALIVE!!!!!’. Recently, gratifyingly, she has incorporated cooing noises into her vocal repertoire. This may be an attempt to reproduce the lilting and melodic voice of Paul McCartney (she’s going through a bit of a Beatles phase). When she was extracted she was, to my surprise, covered in all this white stuff, as opposed to her presidential counterpart, who has a strong lifelong preference for orange gunk. When it comes to knowledge of the rights and responsibilities of the President as defined by the Constitution of the United States of America, she’s miles ahead. Where Trump forced both the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General to write letters calling for the sacking of FBI boss James Comey in a desperate and catastrophically misguided attempt to cripple the investigation into his links with Russia, our daughter would have just looked around the room gurgling randomly and harmlessly to herself. OUR DAUGHTER: 10 DONALD TRUMP: 0.

2. North Korea

Given that she is unable to rationalise and is driven solely by the desire for simple selfish gratification, she would be able to relate to the behaviour of both leaders. I read somewhere once that as babies we often wish that our parents would die, because our fury at not having our needs met immediately is not conditioned by any mental conception of what that would imply for our own survival prospects. In a strikingly similar way, it’s possible that neither Kim Jong Un nor Donald Trump have any idea what the consequences of nuclear confrontation would be. OUR DAUGHTER: 10 DONALD TRUMP: 0.

3. Climate Change

She’s not been born into a normal spring. Any one of her cohort has a better and more responsible attitude to the climate crisis than any so-called adult and certainly much more of a mature understanding of basic climate facts and their consequences than anyone in the current US administration. If you asked her whether or not the US should withdraw from the Paris Agreement she’d probably look at you a bit blankly and then might, if you were lucky, give you a massive lopsided grin, one which would, in contrast to Trump’s mangled death beam, give you hope and faith in the future of the human species. OUR DAUGHTER: 10 DONALD TRUMP: 0.

4. Healthcare

Although in theory this is free in Italy, in reality it’s very expensive. You very often have to buy a ‘ticket’ in order to access services. Sadly our daughter hasn’t been able to change the situation in her first hundred days. She would nevertheless understand healthcare policy to be a very complex area, which puts her ahead of Trump, who thought it was all really, really simple. OUR DAUGHTER: 10 DONALD TRUMP: 0.

5. Immigration

Her father (me) is an immigrant, so presumably (although we haven’t yet discussed this in any detail) she feels instinctive solidarity with people who choose or are forced to cross national borders for prolonged periods during the course of their lives. Oddly enough, although Italy is, like all European countries, experiencing a sickening rise in xenophobic sentiment, no one has yet told her to go back where she came from and stop being such a parasite on essential public services. As for her, she’s never uttered the phrase ‘America First’ or talked openly about a ‘Muslim Ban’. OUR DAUGHTER: 10 DONALD TRUMP: 0.

6. Russia

While it’s unclear whether or not Trump has ever met Putin, I can say with some certainty that our daughter has had no contact with the Russian President/failed election meddler. At six weeks old she started grinning, mostly in response to others’ smiles. It’s unlikely she’d recognise Putin’s pseudo-Machiavellian smirk as a positive facial expression, as anything indicating goodwill. OUR DAUGHTER: 10 DONALD TRUMP: 0.

7. Mexico

She was conceived there and has a Mexican name. She would have difficuly grasping the concept of a wall but, like with healthcare, would at least appreciate the logistical challenges in building one between two particularly wide and mountainous countries. Trump is lagging way behind her on this second point. OUR DAUGHTER: 10 DONALD TRUMP: 0.

8. Suspended reduction of Federal Housing Mortgage Insurance Premium rates

Our daughter has no opinion of this and no influence on it that we know of. It’s certainly not her initiative. To be fair, though, I doubt it’s a priority for Trump either, given that it’s got nine words in it and several of them have more than two syllables. OUR DAUGHTER: 10 DONALD TRUMP: 0.

9. Bottle feeding

Trump apparently doesn’t drink alcohol. As Hasan Minhaj pointed out this week, that carries the bewildering implication that all his 3am tweets are written when he is sober. Perhaps one reason for his myriad psychological complexes and mental disorders is a traumatic failure to adjust to the different kinds of flow and teat involved in getting milky-wilky out of a bottle. Our daughter is responding slightly better each day but still has moments when she wants to stress VERY FORCEFULLY that she is AWARE that this bit of transparent plastic is NOT a part of mummy-wummy and she will NOT be accepting it as a permanent replacement. However, knowing the risks failure could one day represent for future global peace and security, we will have to keep insisting. OUR DAUGHTER: 10 DONALD TRUMP: 0.

10. Nappy habits

I’m at ‘work’ at the moment so I don’t know anything about the present contents of my daughter’s nappy. However, taking a quick look at Trump’s Twitter feed it appears that the President needs his diaper changing. OUR DAUGHTER: 10 DONALD TRUMP: 0.

So, on the basis on their performance in key areas over their first 100 days, OUR DAUGHTER gets 100!!! points, and DONALD TRUMP gets a big fat orange despite having had ten more days than her to make a good impression. When I get home this afternoon I’ll give her an extra celebratory helping of milky-wilky from the bottle…or at least, I’ll try to. In the meantime, who on earth is going to be tasked with changing Trump’s nappy now that Nanny Comey’s gone?!

My daughter the footballer

After an almost impossible first night in a hotel with our three-month-old daughter I reassure my wife ‘we’ll get through this. We’re a team’. This analogy only goes so far, however, as one of the team members has no idea she’s part of a squad of players sharing a common objective. For one thing, she doesn’t respond to hand signals and whistles from the touchline and doesn’t even seem able to identify or even see the other players. She also, rather like certain actual footballers, responds to any potential slight, no matter how minor, as though she’s being tortured, and is in the unfortunate habit of screaming to the point of losing her voice when decisions don’t go her way. Also, unlike most professional sports people with a couple of unfortunate exceptions, she appears to exercise no control whatsoever over her bowel functions and will quite happily play on as though she did not have excrement visibly trickling down her legs. Then there’s the fact that at the end of the match she simply refuses to leave the pitch, insisting on staying in the centre circle proudly surveying the increasingly frustrated crowd despite how appallingly she’s perfomed. When she is finally persuaded to go to the changing room she embarrasses herself even more with her appetite for endless amounts of seemingly intoxicating liquid. She also has her equivalents of Jimmy ‘Five Bellies’ Gardner, although in her case the badboy mates who egg her on to even greater heights of excitability and subsequent disgrace go by the names of Mr Gweenewy and Comfy Wabbit. If you add in the fact that, as we’ve now discovered, her behaviour in hotels would shame even a Sheffield United striker, it’s pretty clear that although she may in some ways always be a valuable member of the squad, it’s certainly not her team-playing abilities that make her so. The whole thing makes me feel the deepest sympathy for David Moyes. At least given that she lives in Rome and has a British passport, we might be able to get a few quid for her out of Lazio. She could yet turn out to be the female equivalent of Ravel Morrison.

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?!

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.)

I’ve thought of a great way of dealing with the “alt-right”. It’s called “shush-pat”.

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Jacques Lacan said of the student revolutionaries of 1968 they were looking for a new father. By contrast, the so-called alt-right appear to be seeking someone to breastfeed them. In this excellent lengthy article about hanging around with fanboys of that pro-pedophile sociopathic freak Milo, Laurie Penny writes:

I enjoy most respectful conversation, and these boys are scrupulously polite to me. They were polite to me a month earlier when I slept on their tour bus — right until a door closed between me and them, and they immediately started talking loudly, to each other, about the crass and anatomically implausible things they wanted to do to me. Intellectually, they must have known that I could hear them, but these kids grew up on the Internet, the world’s locker room, where if you can’t see a woman, she doesn’t really exist. The one grown man on the bus started yelling at them to go the hell to sleep — “there’s a girl back there!”—and they yelled back that they’d let me sleep if I let them “suck my titties.” It’s no surprise to hear that they’re still yearning for the teat, but these babies had best be careful where they go slobbering for the milk of human kindness. I’m just about dried up.

Now it turns out she was spot on: milk is indeed a Thing among alt-righters. Nazis have been using it as an emblem, because it’s ‘pure’ and, er, Asian people don’t drink much of it. They have apparently been pouring it over each other in celebration of its and their ‘whiteness’. This taste for moomoojuice seems to have inspired this remarkable work of art. Where Hitler called for Lebensraum, his latest disciples are after milky-wilky.

It eloquently demonstrates the infantile nature of the whole project. They want someone to mother them. Perhaps Le Pen fits the bill, or maybe Trump himself, given the famously female cadences and rhythms of his speech. It also explains why they have a thing about cartoons. Their undeveloped brains and nascent eyesight are unable to deal with anything more cognitively demanding, hence their emotional attachment to a white supremacist equivalent of Peppa Pig and Teletubbies (one which happens to be green, but still). There’s also something distinctly ‘Lord of the Flies’ about their inhouse media outlet, Breitbart. And as Laurie Penny points out they, like punks, have no actual understanding of what Nazism is, they’re just trying to annoy adults by any means necessary.

As it happens I am currently undergoing a crash course in dealing with infant hysteria. I am developing my skills in calming down my six-week-old daughter and sending her to sleep. Her screaming has been honed by evolution to be as distressing as can be, as she alone has no means of dealing with hunger, tiredness or discomfort. Her screeching, like that of the überbrats of the new far-right, has no actual meaning beyond that.

Luckily there’s a solution (beside feeding her, naturally): shush-pat. This technique, invented by the currently ubiquitous childcare guru Tracy Hogg, consists of tapping her firmly on the back while saying ‘shush’. It’s simple and it works. With (sometimes immense) repetition it soothes and comforts her. Eventually her eyes close and her breathing slows. She’s totally relaxed which means we can be too (actually we lie awake for hours worrying that she might explode into fury at any moment, but you get the point).

How would this work with the alt-right? It’s hard to say. I personally have no inclination whatsoever to cuddle Steve Bannon, and although Trump himself appears desperately in need of a breastfeed I’m not about to lift him out of his cot and hand him to my wife. In any case the most outspoken Trump supporters (of whom the angry young men of the alt-right are a self-styled postmodern Hitler Youth) only exist online, where they trade in a currency of memes, mostly originating on 4chan (“the internet’s hate speech hit factory”). Most can only communicate in bright, colourful images with slogans written in big letters. Shush-pat could be an effective antidote to their unsolicited and unwarranted venom and denial, whether they happen at that particular moment to be be sticking up for rape or torture or murder or pedophilia. These are, after all, not rational adults. They are no more open to reasoned arguments and the sober presentation of factual evidence than a hungry newborn baby is. They are, in fact, not post-factual but pre-conceptual. They are screaming for attention and consolation and they need to be told, patiently but firmly, to shut up. I offer the above hastily-assembled collage as a contribution to the cause.

Why I absolutely love Prefab Sprout

Any music-loving parent hopes that their kids will inherit their musical taste, so I’m delighted to report that my daughter has developed a appreciation for Prefab Sprout which echoes my own. Inevitably a few of the jazz-influenced chord changes on ‘Swoon’ (1984) threw her a bit on a first listen, some of the more obtuse lyrics on ‘Jordan: The Comeback’ (1990) are a bit over her head and she found the sentiments of ‘The Sound of Crying’ (1992) a bit saccharine, but then to be fair she is only five weeks old.

She’s already more of a fan than some of the people on the Prefab Sprout online forum. Last week an associate of  the Sprouts’ frontman Paddy McAloon uploaded a video to Youtube in which, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar,  Paddy sings a moving lament which celebrates the most inclusive and welcoming aspects of US society at a time when its worst instincts are to the fore. Some fans in the ‘Sproutnet Community‘ were quick to dismiss its platitudinous appeals to the spirit of ‘liberal humanism’ (urgh! humans!!!). It seems strange that someone could spend 25 years following the Prefabs, putting up with Paddy writing albums called things like ‘Let’s Change the World With Music’ (2009) in the forlorn hope that he’ll some day release one called ‘Isn’t it about time we sent some gunships to deal with those so-called refugees for once and for all’, but this is, after all, the internet and no one nowadays wants to be accused of being a ‘snowflake’.

My daughter also responded in an unusual way to a song clearly designed to bring a tear to the eye: she stopped crying. For four minutes she listened in what I take to be wonder but may have just been a temporary absence of gastric discomfort. She has also reacted very well to being gently swayed round the living room to some of the more lilting moments on ‘Steve McQueen’, and even managed to get through a good 12 minutes of ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’ without bawling her eyes out for even more milky-wilky.

As for myself, I’ve been a fan of Prefab Sprout since 1988, when I was 17, at a time in my life when I was trying to come to terms with my inner snowflake. I bought all four albums in one day, probably in response to a review by some absolute genius in Melody Maker. Their unabashed erudition mixed with shameless appeals to the heartstrings twanged a very resonant minor chord in my sensitive teenage soul. That, in fact, is the theme of one of the songs on ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ (1988) (‘Enchanted’). It was apparently inspired by the feeling that nothing again strikes you with the same force as it does when you were 17.

Although Paddy himself is not as fresh-faced as he appeared in their commercial heyday, there remains something entirely free of cynicism in the view of the world expressed in his songs. It is heartfelt, earnest and enormously sweet without any aftertaste of bitterness. From ‘Swoon’  to ‘Crimson/Red’ (2013) by way of the unembarrassable AOR of ‘The Gunman and Other Stories’ (2001), there is a wide-eyedness to his work which is, for people like me who recognise him as a full-on no-holds-barred actual songwriting genius, relentlessly endearing and comforting. He is a magnificent lyricist and can do things with a succession of key changes that very few bar Steven Sondheim and George Gershwin have done before him.

There are so many great Prefab Sprout songs that I’m not going to list them. If you do appreciate or don’t know their music you will enjoy the playlist that follows this piece. Sadly Spotify doesn’t feature one of Paddy’s very greatest moments, so I urge you to click here and take twenty one minutes out of your wonderful/impossible life to listen to it. It comes from an extraordinary album (‘I Trawl the Megahertz’, 2003) which was famously killed stonedead by the Guardian’s heartless decision not to review it*, but which in a far better world would have become the new national anthem of the human race. The rest is a personal selection of some of the most moving and inspiring songs ever, ever written. I hope you enjoy it as much as my daughter does. Well, seems to.

* Serious Sprout fans are still holding out for a Chilcott-style inquiry into this sorry episode.