Moving back to London in the age of Brexit

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Roy Porter points out in the very first sentence of ‘London: A Social History’ that London is  ‘not the eternal city’. Thus it is distinct from Rome, where I and my family have been living for the last 18 months or so. London won’t even be in the EU in a year’s time*, which might make it appear odd that someone (me) who spent the few weeks after the Brexit vote listening to this on repeat is actually quite pleased to be back in the UK capital. To its credit, my home country is not (unlike Italy) on the verge of electing a mummified pedophile oligarch hand in hand with two actual fascists/supporters of racist terrorism to political power, but given the seemingly unstoppable influence of this walking answer to the question what-might-a-British-equivalent-of-Hitler-have-been-like?, the March on London can’t be too far off.

Others have pointed out the incongruous but not quite coincidental fact that many of the main Brexit conspirators (Hannan, Carswell, Banks, etc) have colonial origins. They are, after a fashion, foreigners, resentful outsiders determined to destroy what they’ve never understood (making them, in that sense, not all that different from Isis). They’re presumably sick of being asked by taxi drivers puzzled by their obvious distaste for and ignorance of their own culture, ‘Where are you actually from, guv?’.

Although many Londoners are (rightly) proud that it didn’t vote to excommunicate itself from the EU, it is where the process is being orchestrated from (however haphazardly), and a quick peek beneath the surface of recent British political history reveals the deep hydraulic fractures which caused the fissure: the burning resentment occasioned by the illegal War in Iraq, nearly a decade of ideologically-inspired austerity, and continuous agitation and scapegoating by the xenophobic hard-right of the Tory Party. The ideology espoused by the Brexiters (a deregulatory Year Zero, back to the good old days before the godawful NHS and the horrors of the Welfare State, to the time when we could still sell slaves, opium and cupcakes to whoever we damn well chose) is actually not too far off the policies put into practise over the last eight years; they just want to go so much faster.

One wonders how Daniel Blake would have voted had he still/ever been alive.  The notion that the referendum represented a peasant’s revolt even though it was directed and armed by the lords of the manor is still depressingly, but understandably, prevalent. The ruling class was split, and some of its most visible representatives were pushing the notion that the status quo is essentially fair and just. This is a global problem, because regardless of the causes, the way things are is not the way they should be. For all their undoubtedly sincere commitment to liberal principles, the economic neoliberalism of Macron and Merkel is not going to protect us from evil forces pushing easy (and evermore violent) solutions. Anyone still wondering how Brexit came about is advised to have even the slightest contact with Jobcentre Plus. I called them the other day on the mistaken understanding that they could provide me with an apparently-essential piece of paper with my NI number on it, and received a salutary lesson in the mixture of infuriating condescension (“did you know that you could look at our website?!” repeated ad infinitum) and callous indifference (“If you haven’t received a payment due to you, why don’t you wait for a few more days?”) to which society’s most needy are systematically subjected to.

Many argue that London is immune to and not responsible for all this cruelty and chaos. London isn’t really the UK, it’s tempting to think, or at least hope. It’s a successful, global city – just look at all those who want to own property here! Well, yes, that’s all very nice for those who can afford it. As for those who were born in London and/or have spent decades of their lives here…well, maybe they were never really Londoners, or at least don’t deserved such a hallowed status. To look for a potential silver lining in the mountain of shit to be dumped on us over the coming years, perhaps London will become less attractive to those who have no actual interest in living here, but do possess an apparently unrestrainable desire to make lots of money by depriving those who do of floors, walls and ceilings; maybe all those bankers will piss off and make the city more equitable and affordable. Conversely, it may be that those bankers, thanks to the finance industry’s insistence that the government not do a full Jim Jones, save us from the worst of Brexit.

So, clearly we didn’t move back to London out of any sense of political optimism. No one quite knows quite what effect the impending changes will have, least of all those who are (ahem) ‘planning’ them. Nobody, that is, who’s never watched ‘Children of Men’ or seen the government’s secret economic projections. My former area of employment (English as a Foreign Language) seems to have  already collapsed in anticipation. How whatever-is-going-to-happen will affect higher education is anyone’s guess. Very badly, at a rough estimate, at least for those who are trying against all the odds to do meaningful jobs in an increasingly absurd environment. Meanwhile, the privatisation of the state school system continues apace; my own most immediate work prospects seems to involve being part of that very process.

According to my honoured neighbour Iain Sinclair, one must belong to a place before writing about it. Do I belong in London? After all, it’s not my hometown, nor that of my wife, although she does hold a British passport and has just got a new job which makes our lives here viable. I’ve come to live in London twice before, once for a disappointing post-university stint in the dim light of which I exiled myself in Dublin, Lisbon, Dalian and Madrid for a total of twelve years. I returned in 2006, sort of by default, always feeling a little like an outsider. If I wanted to be poetic, I could make out that the interim period between Mexico City, Bangkok and Rome was a Marco Polo-style learning trajectory, allowing me to reflect on issues of inequality, gentrification, immigration, belonging, centrality and my own place and role in the world.

I’m happy to admit that right now I feel excited to be here, to the point that it feels a little like moving here for the first time. Partly as a result of having lived elsewhere, knowing something of the place, having time to explore, and reading (after several failed attempts) Sinclair’s lengthy, rambling, and often deeply frustrating tome about Hackney, I feel oddly cheerful about being back in the same city as both him and, er, David Davies. Compared to Rome, the buses here run regularly and on time (any hopes that Salvini will do the same for the trains are probably moot); just like in Rome, there are abundant museums and galleries, but they are free to enter. All of these things are, of course, contingent, and very much under threat. Trump’s equivalents in the UK will try to destroy all that cannot be readily converted into shareholder value: frack under our houses, privatise our schools, monetise our future ailments caused by the rolling deregulation of everything that makes life livable.

But for the time being, the cultural and social possibilities within close range of our flat are endless. There are bookshops just metres away from my door which seem designed for my particular sensibilities. Browsing their latest additions I feel that they’ve read my mind – until, that is, I realise that they’ve written it. I’ve been primed, by the Guardian and the LRB, to want to read certain kinds of books, and thus to buy more than I could ever hope to actually get through. I’m not merely the object of marketing pressures, my tastes are the product of factories of desire. In my case, it’s books rather than branded sportswear which make me most likely, if I were to be denied them by cruel and capricious circumstance, to hurl bricks at shop windows. Zygmunt Bauman categorised those involved in the London Riots of 2011 as ‘frustrated consumers’; perhaps my role in London is merely that of a consumer, of culture, of property, of space and time. I’m free, for the time being, to be a tourist in my ‘own’ city.

In terms of being productive, previous generations of Italian emigrants were restricted in their career choices to the purchase of a barrel organ and a dancing monkey (which is actually not too far from what I was reduced to in Rome, entertaining children under the pretence of preparing them for an exam that they didn’t see the point of). In London the available jobs in education are of a not dissimilar nature, but at least I’m more familiar with the territory and the language and therefore more likely to bite back if poked with a stick. A further irony of Brexit is that the UK’s innovations in the forms of privatisation have been copied across the continent – it was after all a UK qualification that I was pushing in Rome. Having spent years studiously avoiding learning too much about the mess of academies, grant-maintained, faith schools, and so on, I’ll soon be in the midst of it all. Many schools are, largely as a result of PFI, struggling to survive, and surely shouldn’t be spending as much as they do on supply teachers, but what the hey, I need a job. What the Tories said about Labour was, in a twisted way, true – the amount they spent on essential infrastructure was irresponsible (although it wasn’t the reason for the bailout of the banks), only insofar as it was based on borrowing from the ‘private sector’ at unsustainable rates – a policy which was started and has been continued by the Tories. Schools, hospitals, and entire councils are now being pushed into bankruptcy as a direct result of the ‘financial innovative’ pyramid schemes run by loan sharks far too powerful to threaten.

And yet, despite all these hazards and hypocrisies, and without wanting to sound like Nigel Farage complaining about people speaking foreign on trains language it is pleasant, after a couple of years being an obvious outsider and struggling with self-consciousness every time I open my mouth, to be immersed in my ‘own’ language again. It’s also enjoyable to hear and be able to identify a range of accents and languages, especially as I move around London, from Turkey, Jamaica, Bangladesh, Nigeria. I benefit from and treasure this diversity. (You can’t get jolloff rice in Rome…) Reflecting on this, and on how the things I most enjoy about cities (diversity, multiculturalism) are those that inspire rage attacks in those with willfully provincial attitudes gives me a sense of…pride? That is, I would argue, a problematic term.

Although I wouldn’t want to live elsewhere in the UK, I do suffer from that metropolitan arrogance and its reverse, a certain chippy northerness. The notion (mooted on social media post-referendum) that London should ‘declare independence’ from the rest of the UK displays a willful ignorance of how the levels of infrastructural investment spent and the political choices made in the capital have systematically worsened the life-chances of the rest of the country. If London is more diverse and culturally richer, it’s partly because it can afford to be. So many want to come and live here even though so many others are being or have been forced to leave. Such thoughts may contribute, sooner or later, to a change in my mood; I am, after all, in a honeymoon period – any more contact with Richard Branson’s megalomania, whether taking a train back up north, sorting out the internet (Murdoch’s megalomania or Branson’s? What a choice!) or having a kidney removed will renew my antipathy to all that this city and country stand for, and that’s even before the shock doctrine/national suicide of Brexit kicks in.

Certainly, few writers would view the current state of London as a reason for cheerfulness. Iain Sinclair’s latest book is called ‘The Last London’, whose pessimistic prognosis that the city’s future has little to do with the more laudable or interesting aspects of its past is not new, even in the recent past – China Mieville published an essay called ‘London’s Overthrow‘ in 2012. Sinclair implies that the truth of Will Self’s observation that most people live on the tube map of London rather than in the city per se has become even more stark in an age where so many experience the city at a distance, floating above it on their devices, with little regard for its intimate histories or deeper geographies. he also suggests that when the pace of turnover of buildings and people reaches a certain critical mass, when so many who have made their lives here – no matter where they were born – are being forced to leave or hanging on under immense pressure, the notion that the city continues to be the same place in any meaningful sense is problematic. To live here and enjoy doing so, to see oneself as a ‘Londoner’ in such a context involves being riven by contradictions, particularly when one’s very presence usurps what was there before. On Google Streetview I can, from the comfort of our brand new building, take a walk down the street below as it was eight years ago when it was a council block awaiting demolition, before, in the same breath, watching a (moving and enraging) film made by a local artist documenting the subsequent destruction of an entire way of life. (I could then, also on my laptop, pontificate online about cities as sites of psychic energy, haunted places, without reflecting too deeply on the implications.)

The area we live in is, truth be told, an emblematic example of gentrification. A few years ago, back when I was living in the considerably less cool environs of Stratford, I joined a walking tour called ‘Keep Hackney Crap’, which was the tongue-in-cheek response of a group of local housing activists of the local mayor, who had publicly accused those critical of his council’s ‘regeneration’ schemes of defeatist thinking. After we’d been led from horror to horror, from entire burnt out rows of houses to million pound developments built on the crushed remains of 1960s developments with nary a concern for the fate of those who used to live there,  we ended up at Broadway Market, sneering at the yuppie scum sipping surreally expensive lattes and absurdly overpriced almond croissants. The thought struck me that were I not to be spending Saturday morning learning about inequality, I’d very much have liked to be sitting in one of those very cafes reading about it in The Guardian. Regardless of how expensive and exclusive they are, the hipster cafes which characterise Hackney nowadays are much nicer than the fried chicken places they replaced. Nevertheless, anyone tempted to conclude that gentrification is therefore natural or harmless try to see how many non-white faces there are around Columbia Road market on a Sunday morning, or how many truly local people, ie from the neighbouring estates, use the reservoir up at Manor House. Social cleansing as practised in London has a very powerful inbuilt element of racism which is not disguised by the promoters of luxury apartment developments remembering to photoshop the odd black face on their advertising billboards for their (and our) neoliberalised dreamworlds.

Of course, other forms of exclusion and violence are less insidious, more direct and thus easier to recognise and condemn. The attacks that took place in 2017 around Borough Market are a reminder that regardless of wherever they operate Isis/Al Qaeda et al habitually target street markets as a means of causing maximum carnage and thus gaining maximum attention. Of course, it’s easier to attack the poor where they live and shop, to get at physical stalls on actual streets where cash is being exchange for material goods, than it is to reach and damage global circuits of exchange. The word ‘market’ is, after all, a poor metaphor for how the global economy operates. Ridley Road, for example, is a market, whereas the way housing is distributed in London is nothing of the kind. The ‘housing market’ in London has little to do with demand for places to live, but is rather a parasitical trade in a certain asset class which, misleadingly, goes by the same name and happens to involve both bricks and mortar. In a functioning city (London, so often trumpeted as a ‘successful’ city, is certainly not so when it comes to housing), a place to live must be recognised if not as a right then at least something with use value. In London, on the other hand, houses and pubs are being replaced by blocks of empty ‘luxury’ flats, desert city architecture which will never be and never have been inhabited, devoid even of ghosts. Thus, as Sinclair argues, the link between generations is being lost, in return for money which ebbs and flows within global networks encompassing terrorism and crime. Surely a lesson from McMafia must be that the notion  of criminal groups including Isis as marginal, outside the global economy, must, by the nature of the way such things operate, be mistaken. It’s integral to how financial hubs such as London operate. Not for nothing did Roberto Saviano name the UK as the most corrupt country in the world, and Brexit is destined (and given the very active involvement of shady tax-dodging financial interests, partly designed) to allow for even more of this particular type of ‘deregulated’ financial activity.

When terrorist attacks have taken place in Western cities, there has been a spate of hashtags called things like #wearelondon. The Museum of London is using that very slogan in his fundraising efforts, and there’s a (quite staggeringly trite) Madness song with the same title. I understand the need of young people in particular to be proud of where they’re from (this Nike advert inspires even me to take a certain pride in lifestyles and scenes I can’t exactly claim any credit for or part in). Nonetheless, when I see such slogans I can’t help feeling a certain cynicism, thinking in particular of those who’ve been priced, burnt or brexited out of the city over the last few years. Should ‘being a Londoner’ be a source of pride nowadays? Or is it rather a badge of unwarranted privilege?

To be proud of something, you have to be part of it in some meaningful way. On previous occasions moving to London, I was desperate to be involved somehow in the nightlife. Thankfully nowadays that’s no longer an issue. Tempting to say it must be better than Rome, but then to be fair we went to Italy to have a baby and only ever left the flat after dark to stock up on emergency nappies. The prospect of returning to London filled my head with fantasies of late nights and favourite drinking haunts. There will be few late nights, but then most of the pubs have shut down in any case. I will only experience a ever-depleting fraction of what this city has to offer, in both a positive and negative sense (I hope I never live through the kinds of migration, housing and work-related horrors described by writers such as Hsiao-Hung Pa, Ben Juddah, and Anna Minton). Nonetheless, our daughter, who sadly so far has shown little interest in exploring the grime haunts of East London, will grow up a Londoner, at least for the foreseeable future. I hope she feels that the city is hers and lucky to  live , but not that it belongs to her alone.

It is, of course, a luxury to escape a situation of political discomfort and economic despondency (even if it means jumping onto another rapidly-shrinking iceberg). Regardless of the outrageous limbo in which EU citizens in the UK find themselves, there’s something slightly tasteless about British people discussing where they can escape to after Brexit, especially when you consider how few Syrian refugees the UK has taken in. Few born here are in any physical danger because of Brexit, and maybe instead of looking to carry on our lives elsewhere unhindered by history there’s something more useful, indeed responsible we can do: After all,  we will not be not the main victims of Brexit, and in any case the world was not by any means a perfect place before June 23 2016. The lesson for me involves learning to engage, not to be a tourist who’s just here to consume. One aspect of Brexit is that many of us (assume that we) will be shielded from its consequences, just as we’ve been sheltered from the direct impact of austerity to the point where we can condemn those who voted for Brexit without taking due account of the myriad ways in which our life-chances have enabled us to make more responsible and rational political choices. Maybe one way of overcoming our  anxieties about our own fates is to join forces with those for whom complacency is another manifestation of privilege.

*Although I suspect that now they realise that Brexit is basically impossible, the sane members of the Government will try to get a transition period of at least 300 years.

The ghost of Ayn Rand is haunting the streets of my hometown, wearing a hi-vis vest and carrying a chainsaw

I grew up in Sheffield in the 70s and 80s. Its cheap bus fares, theatres, museums and art galleries, its network of well-stocked libraries and its abundant green spaces made me into the person I am and gave me an abiding sense of respect for the value of public provision. I went to primary school in an area of the city called Greenhill, where they taught me how trees, by absorbing carbon dioxide and thus ensuring we have enough oxygen, help us to breathe.

I don’t live in Sheffield now, but all my family do, including my nieces, who all go to school in Hillsborough which they walk to and from along tree-lined streets. Those trees have attracted national attention recently because the local council is bowing to the demands of a private company and allowing a huge number of them to be cut down on the flimsiest and most selfish of pretexts. Although the trees represent £11.4 million in purported value*, there’s no way for Ferrovial (the transnational corporation which has, via its subsidiary Amey, bought up large parts of Sheffield City Council) to monetise it, and it costs to maintain them so they might as well chop them all down**.

Although some legal systems insist on granting them the same status as human beings, corporations don’t actually live and breathe. They do think, after a fashion, but they have only one obsessive thought: how to accumulate more wealth. They achieve this in large part by externalising their costs. PFI, the secretive and essentially deeply corrupt system of which Sheffield’s deal with Amey is part, has had a devastating impact on the wages and conditions of public servants. The rationale for the whole scheme is not just that the private sector is more efficient, but also that it grants access to global financial markets. Thus it represents not only a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector, but also the exposure of essential public services to the whims and storms of the global market. Not quite by chance, it’s also accompanied by a lack of democratic transparency. Whether it be in Sheffield in relation to trees, or (my former London borough) Haringey with regard to housing, voters are not allowed to know what exactly has been agreed in their name.

Modern corporations are by definition psychopathic, in that nothing else matters to them but short-term self-interest. The possessors of great wealth have not always been so single-minded in the attempt to turn everything of public utility into private wealth. Centuries ago, feudal landlords created country estates like Chatsworth by turning commonly farmed land into symbols and sites of their power and wealth, thus depriving peasants of access to food and forcing them to move into cities to get jobs in factories as wage labourers. They sculpted the landscapes of their estates to demonstrate their command over nature, but at least they kept most of the trees standing. In the case of Sheffield, some local nabobs donated their land to the city, making it into one of the greenest in Europe. Some notable figures also funded the construction museums and art galleries.

For previous generations of capitalists, acres of trees not only stood as signs of wealth. They could also be pulped and transformed into physical money. The American writer Thomas Pynchon’s ancestral family fortune was made and then lost in paper, described in ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ as ‘the wholesale slaughtering of trees’, ‘producing toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint—a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word’. Before that they were fur traders, ‘still for the living green against the dead white’.

Nowadays capitalism, if it can still be called that, has entered a new phase, not that of the dead white but rather the flat white of the service economy, serving principally the needs of corporations. About twenty years ago I spent a year working in a corporate environment, in the technical support area of a software giant in Dublin. At the time I thought that computers were somehow exciting – I hadn’t yet realised that I was essentially working with hyped-up stationery. One episode stands out as emblematic of such organisations and how they operate. The company in question had a new piece of utility software for a brand-new version of the Apple Mac tantalisingly close to readiness, but the end of quarter was closing in and the programmers weren’t going to make the deadline. That didn’t stop the company from selling thousands of packages of the new version at a software trade fair in France – the problem came when the purchasers arrived home and to their horreur – zut alors! – discovered that the box contained a note explaining that the actual software wasn’t quite ready yet, but do please accept this database accounting programme as a temporary replacement. I have rarely felt so relieved not to speak better French, because my francophone colleagues had to explain to several thousand really, really, really fucking angry customers that they would have to wait just zat leetle bit longer. The enraged Mac enthusiasts weren’t exactly mollified when, a couple of weeks later, the actual disc arrived and turned out to be full of bugs which (I forget the exact technical details) shat all over the insides of their beloved iMacs. In order to save time, the company had curtailed the testing stage. Fortunately, things ended well, as the share price of Symantec (which was the name of the company) rose at the end of the quarter, so everyone was happy, except the people who actually wanted the software. They’re probably still vert de rage two decades later.

Nowadays if you need some software – say, Microsoft Word – you can just download it, but while in the intervening years you could do so for free, Silicon Valley has found new ways to make its products pay. Such programmes are now available for a yearly rent. Tech firms are thus the cutting edge not just of technology but also of new forms of buying and owning and the legal architecture that underpins them. In the book ‘I Hate The Internet’ Jarett Kobek nails one major inspiration for the ideology that inspires such innovation:

Ayn Rand [is] probably the most influential writer of the last fifty years. She wrote books about how social welfare recipients were garbage who deserved to die in the gutter. She was well regarded by very rich people unwilling to accept that their fortunes were a combination of random chance and an innate ability to humiliate others. Ayn Rand’s books told very rich people that they were good, that their pursuit of wealth was moral and just. Many of these people ended up as CEOs or in high levels of American government. Ayn Rand was the billionnaire’s best friend.’

Jonathan Freedland calls this ‘the age of Ayn Rand***’. She is worshipped, and her adolescent take on neoliberalism advanced, by hugely influential figures including Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan, Peter Thiel and Jimmy Wales in the US and Sajid Javid and Daniel Hannan in the UK. The Rand cult is not the only source of such ideas – Thatcher and Reagan were devotees of Friedrich Hayek, whose doctrine, with its antiregulatory zeal, has come to dominate global politics over the last forty years – but it is an emblematic one.

Although the Little Red Book of the technocultural revolution, TED Talks, provides the comforting sense that corporate interests can be persuaded to act in the interests of humanity and the planet, with the innovative shift to a digital, virtual paper-free economy a symbol of this potential for environmental responsiblity, there’s nothing sustainable about an economic system which is wholly subservient to the ideology of self-interest. Such a form of capitalism is much more corrupt and infinitely more destructive than any prior phase. It dictates that everything that does not serve private interests has no value and must be destroyed.

The concept of ‘seven generation stewardship’ urges humanity to weigh all its decisions with an eye to the needs of people in 150 or so years. Instead, here in the UK, we have continual bursts of shock doctrine austerity wrecking the life chances of our children, our children’s children and our children’s children’s children ad infinitum: no libraries, no galleries, no social or economic security, no public transport, no trees. Our Government barely seems to think more than a day or two ahead, or to the next Daily Mail front page. According to this ultra-short-term, grab-what-you-can ideology, trees resemble people, indeed entire populations: they’re too expensive to maintain. Permanent austerity is therefore a response to environmental collapse, one which represents the priorities of elites far more articulately than any number of photos of David Cameron with huskies. It is a war against not only the very notion of public provision, but human existence itself.

Sheffield owes its development to the industrial revolution,  and the industrial revolution owes a lot to Sheffield. Its confluence of rivers and hills created boundless energy. A visit to Shepherd’s Wheel, Forge Dam or the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet convinces you that such forces can be sustainable on a small scale, but once the wheel started turning the momentum was unstoppable. We created forces of which we quickly lost control. The driving force of capital accumulation demands acceleration far beyond anything the planet, our bodies and our mind can contain. Trees fall for the same reason our children can’t keep their eyes off our iPads. It’s a vapid conceit to kid ourselves that this mode of interacting with the world is more sustainable: it is produced and promoted by the same dynamic as that turning the Arctic into an oil field. We can have ipads and smartphones like the one I’m using to write this (made of plastic derived from oil and hand-manufactured by slaves in China); but no trees. We can have the internet, but we must in return wave goodbye to a stable climate. This is the faustian pact of unrestrained capitalist development. Culture, from music to books to art galleries, survives only as a medium for advertising and other forms of corporate promotion. All that is solid melts into air, and we end up paying for oxygen. As Karl Marx wrote, ‘Accumulation: This is Moses and the Prophets!’ – ones worshipped by politicians such as Michael Gove, who called the felling of trees in Sheffield ‘bonkers’ but who will search in vain for ways to stop it. Successive governments, at the service of private interests to whom his ideological devotion is total, have sacrificed democracy to corporate power. Despite Gove’s sentimental pretences, that ‘bank holiday from cynicism’ in the words of Oscar Wilde, he has no more respect for trees than he does for experts. This is a man who tried to abolish the teaching of climate change in schools. For those of his persuasion nothing, not even the planet, can stand in the way of the market. The fact that it is fixed in favour of corporations is by-the-by. Roberto Saviano was right to call the UK the most corrupt country in the world. He, a veteran of exposing the mafia at very great personal risk, knows la materia: globalised, financialised corruption covered up by legal omertà. Unlike those who stand in the way of organised crime in Palermo or Acapulco, the heroic protectors/protestors of Sheffield’s trees are threatened not with death (although the forces they are combatting are not averse to using violence) but with jail and/or destitution.

This is not a conspiracy theory. No single human being or secret committee is in charge of the global market. Abstract forces are increasingly convinced that they can keep growing only if they can dispense with human beings. They believe that they can survive without the physical world. Their barely human servants, from Gove down to the austerity-bound councillors who voted for privatisation, are just doing their bidding. Increasingly computers have become self-aware, making decisions for us without our even knowing it, unerringly following the guidelines programmed into them. Capitalism is thus an out-of-control driverless juggernaut,crashing down the street at full pelt, uprooting and destroying everything in its path, from democracy itself to ancient oaks and elms. There is no utility software which can resolve its malfunctions.

*I understand why desperate campaigners come up with such figures; personally I think that framing the issue in such terms is a mistake. Doing so capitulates to the priorities of the other side.

**I am by no means an expert on the tree issue, these people are.

***Or, to give her her full name, Ayn ‘Medicare‘ Rand

A trip to Venice

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Photo “courtesy of” The Daily Telegraph

It’s always sad, upon leaving Venice, to see your first car for however many days. Despite the city’s constant floods of both (fellow) tourists and the sea itself, and the fact that every nook and cranny has been filmed, photographed and fetishised thousands upon thousands of times, every time I step out of the station and see the thoroughfare being plied not by cars but by boats, it fills me with joy. Venice encapsulates another way of being.

That opening paragraph has itself probably been written many thousands of times. Henry James wrote of Venice that ‘There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject.’ Marco Polo, or at least Italo Calvino’s version of him, described dozens of impossible cities in the attempt to capture something of his hometown*. In his essay ‘Contre Venice’, Regis Debray described it as ‘constructed more by writers than masons, more by painters than architects, more of words than of bricks’. It would be impossible to compete with Jan Morris’ description: ‘Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell.’

Having nothing new to say about the city where I, my wife Chiara and our nine-month-old baby recently spent a weekend, I’ll just write, solo per un cambiamento, about me instead. Or, at least, refer instead to something I wrote about Mexico City, in which I treated it as a piece of immersive theatre, one with an oversupply of extras. Venice presents a similarly intricate and elaborate set, but for this performance the organisers have sold far too many tickets. There is an excess of spectators but not enough actors: the population of actual ‘Venetians’ has now fallen to 56,000, and the set is falling to pieces. The catering is also famously below par considering the prices**, but you can also sleep on the set, although doing so will cost you – like Punchdrunk itself, the elite tickets, with their special privileged access, don’t come cheap. Our train from Rome pulled in next to the latest iteration of the Orient Express, of which I later read that ‘the service is intended not as an ordinary rail service, but as a leisure event with five-star dining included’. Apparently if you pay an extra special premium there’s a chance your murder will be investigated by Mr. Hercule Poirot himself.

It was not my first visit to Venice. In September 2009 I walked around and visited as much of that year’s Art Biennale as I could without my legs giving way and my brain exploding. I’ve since lost my notes, which were mostly sun-addled reflections on art, cities and the art of getting lost in cities. I stayed in Cannaregio in a hostel with a curfew of 10pm, so my hopes of spending my nights doing coke with Ai Wei Wei ended up in the canal***. Some of the time I hung out in Campo Santa Margarita. I’d read about this slightly-out-of the-way square in this book by Sophie Watson, in which she writes:

‘This is a public space which is irregular, haphazard and ordinary. Its ten entrances/exists invite random paths to be taken, its benches, scattered across the square, lure the old and young to pause for a while, its lack of cars entices kids to play and chase the pigeons, its market stalls bring locals to shop, its calm and bustle, light and shade, mark it as a place to gaze, chat and rub along with others with ease.’

As it happens, the (excellent) hotel I booked online this time turned out to be right in the square, which as Chiara remarked has quite a Spanish (or, erm, Catalan) feel to it. Although gentrification has had its effects in the fifteen or so years since Sophie Watson was there, with little in the way of local shops and an abundance of tourist-oriented cafes, compared to the alleys near Rialto and St Mark’s Square there is a sense of character, one which reminded us of Genoa‘s caruggi***. I don’t know how ‘real’ it is****, or how many of the fabled 56,000 live nearby, but there’s a supporting cast of rowdy students keeping things lively on Friday and Saturday night. Staying in a hotel with a baby turned out to be once again problematic, but I think I’d feel a bit guilty staying in an Airbnb while walking round all day denouncing gentrification. Between Tripadvisor, Airbnb, Uber and Google, the internet has had a flattening effect on tourists’ experience of place, with so many of our interactions with a city and its people mediated via a screen. At least Venice is resistent to Uber, and Google Maps is not much use when the blue dot which supposedly represents you and your family keeps leaping around the jumble of tiny alleyways with the boundless energy of a nine-month-old baby overexcited by the rare privilege of cosleeping between two utterly exhausted parents.

Although the white sands and turquoise seas of Azumel on the Cancunian coast are some distance away,  the huge tourists cruise ships and the tens of thousands they spill out every day have a similarly deleterious environmental impact. Many seem to come not just in pursuit of the cultural capital which the Venice brand affords, but also on the hunt for Louis Vuitton handbags, Jimmy Choo sunglasses, and all the other high-grade symbols of post-modern Konsomterror fascism. Such devotion to the acquistion and spending of ostentatious social capital is in keeping with tradition. Writing about Venice at the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Pynchon described it as a site for European elite pleasures, principally spas and gambling. Nowadays being seen takes the form of uploading one’s instantaneous images and gestures of superconsumption to Instagram. For tourists in the age and image of Trump, as in Calvino’s city of Tamara, things seem to be ‘valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things’.

There have been two referenda recently in Veneto (the region around Venice), and the first was actually useful. In June, locals voted to ban huge cruise ships from docking in the lagoon (although oddly enough, despite the fact that it’s an issue that inspires great anger, we only saw two small no navi flags hanging from windows). The other was over regional autonomy. Paul Mason, displaying the typical excitability of the British Left in the Guardian, optimistically talked it up of it as another laudable example of the desire for popular self-determination. In fact, the cause was promoted by the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League), which has led a long-running campaign of chauvinism against parisitic southerners. On the Sunday, elections took place in Sicily, and Berlusconi’s party took power with the aid of the same far-right party. The ubiquitous term ‘centrodestra‘ (centre-right) often appears to be a euphemism, given how ready its acolytes are to side with the ultradestra, aka the fascists. On the same day, local elections on the coast near Rome, in the area where we often go to the beach in the summer, gave the balance of power to the openly fascist Casapound. The area around Venice is famously traditionally conservative, but fortunately by no means everyone from Veneto is a right-wing stronzetto. We also came across a poster for a show THAT! VERY! NIGHT! by one of my favourite comedians, Natalino Balasso, whose work is so uproariously entertaining and and genuinely daring that it is well worth learning Italian (and the odd word of veneto) for. Unfortunately, before I could get my hopes up too high, Chiara reminded me that trying to find an impromptu babysitter in a city populated almost exclusively by tourists would not be an easy prospect.

Given that this is an odd-numbered year, there’s currently another level on which to experience Venice: the Art Biennale. Like so much else about the Venice experience, it proved too hard to take in much of it, especially with a pushchair in tow. We managed to take a look at the Iraqi pavilion, in which I came across a typically brave piece by one of my favourite artists, the Mexico City-based Francis Alÿs, who presented a video in which he paints and erases on a handheld board images of fluttering flags on Iraqi tanks just a few feet away. Nadime Hattom was showing images from her own family history, captioned photographs capturing landmark moments in the lives of relatives, with the people themselves erased. It was a deeply haunting experience, one later echoed in the pavilion of the Syrian Arab Republic, an eerie space whose ostensive theme is the ruins of Palmyra. Blood red is the predominate colour on collages produced by Syrian and Italian artists. It might make for some awkward reflections, but luckily the baby decided to stage some sort of screaming protest against war and/or in favour of milky-wilky, and we were forced to gratefully abandon the building. She did subsequently show some interest in the joint exhibition at the Prada Foundation by Thomas Demand and two other German artists. Its apocalyptic title (‘The boat is leaking. The captain lied’) comes from the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s morbid classic ‘Everybody Knows’, and its scope and intensity defy my powers of description. I’ve always found something intriguing and unsettling about Demand’s photographs of cardboard recreations of photographs of bland bureaucratic environments, and here, in the midst of rooms and rooms of material addressing in one way or another global collapse, he presents an enormous photograph of some sort of vast control room which he has also recreated in cardboard and blank paper. The room, on even cursory inception, proves to be a simulation, a mere illusion. No one is in control*****.

On the theme of simulation, it turns out that Dubai (like LA, London, etc) is to get its very own Venice. That might ease some of the pressure on the original; or, like roadsigns advertising soon-to-open car parks, it may only increase the tourist traffic. Venice is a simulacrum, an aging Disneyland pastiche of itself, but it’s one that it would be impossible to truly create elsewhere.

* I wrote about my own hometown here.
** Although just for the record, thanks to judicious timing we ate very well in Tripadvisor’s top-recommended restaurant over in Giudecca.
*** This was before the Soros dollars started to roll in.
*** Reminds me and my wife, that is. I’m not sure about the baby.
**** I love the use of the capital letters and the quotation marks here.
***** The exhibition also features a 
new poem by my old new favourite poet Ben Lerner, but luckily the baby had a total meltdown before I could digest any of its typically brain-aching connotations.

Six years in Marylebone 

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The renowned architectural critic Ian Nairn recorded in his 1961 essay about Marylebone that at the heart of the district, one he called ‘terribly civilised’, stood the Listener magazine. The fact that the area is now prominently home to Monocle seems to exemplify a shift. Although I’ve never lived in that part of London, I was a sort of blow-in, in that I worked from late 2009 to early 2015 in a language school on Manchester Street, one which bravely hung onto to a very marketable location for some years but has recently been forced out by rents in the region of £100,000 a year.

It’s customary to think of Marylebone as well-heeled and genteel. It certainly has a character, albeit not one that I particularly identify with. In any case that character may be getting killed off, written out of the script. Chiltern Street is the centre of the gentility, with its reliably expensive wedding dress outlets, woodwind shops and hunting gear outlets, seemingly straight out of Jeeves and Wooster. It’s deeply Old Tory: patrician, leisurely, all tweed and creased leather. By contrast, the advent of Monocle with its neoliberal hipsters seems like a Viz parody of the ‘globalist’ worldview. (A typical cover of the magazine proclaims that ‘style has returned’ to wherever has been most crippled by austerity. It’s easily parodiable.) There’s also a bit of a walking joke striding around, in the form of Jeremy Clarkson, who seems to have a liking for an absurd gentrified pub called Gunmaker’s, one which is so salubrious it’s like an upper class person’s idea of a British local, bedecked in pristine union jacks and selling high-faluting sausage rolls and £8 scotch eggs from the Ginger Pig across the square .

International money is buying into that image – or possibly buying it up. The anodyne ‘luxury’ new flats may be a sign that local Tory sympathisers are being priced out by people who don’t exist and therefore don’t vote. Significantly, the owner of our school was a personal friend of Jeremy Hunt, someone heavily invested in education-as-online-transaction, and David Cameron was seen trying to endear himself to the neoliberal gentry in the Chiltern Firehouse (maybe he was also a regular customer at the Ginger Pig…). The greasy spoon cafe Blandford’s went suddenly upmarket, in competition with the Nordic Bakery and various other healthier outlets catering to European eating habits. Then there are the chains which, rather as Karl Marx – whose daughter stood as a local election candidate – predicted, increasingly dominate: Pizza Express, Sandro, six or seven branches of Eat crowding each other out. In my time there restaurants and shops came and went in the space of a few months, due to the hurricane-like pressures of retail rents.

It would be a tragedy if Daunt Books (on Marylebone High Street) fell prey to such forces. It’s one of London’s best bookshops, with its friendly and erudite staff. Although its selection of literature and poetry is almost beyond equal, it’s not the kind of place that has a section on critical theory or hosts talks by Ian Sinclair. It’s a long way from Hackney, more Alan de Button than Jeanette Winterson. The atmosphere is like Stanford’s, with its slightly late-19th century travel section. The fact that it is just up the road from the typically overstocked Oxfam and round the corner from the reliably excellent library is some indication of the local quality of life.

An emblematic loss which my time in Marylebone bore witness to was the demise of the Tudor Rose. It combined the worst pub menu outside Scholar’s Pub in Rome with the kind of clientele who even Jeffrey Bernard might have turned his nose up at, including a landlord whose own alcohol consumption may have been the only thing keeping the place in business (not much of a business plan, it turned out, especially if you are also fond of the old gee-gees). It’s been replaced by the kind of place which is probably lovely if you can afford it. Although my colleagues insisted that Marylebone counts as central London, it always felt to me more like the west, peopled mostly by sloanes who rarely went east of Tottenham Court Road. The closure of a place like the Tudor Rose definitely moved it a few more inches in the direction of the setting sun.

There was a sense of an uneasy coalition between old and new money. This LRB article details how the values of Theresa May are not the same as those of the neoliberal ‘globalists’. What the impact of Brexit will be on London no one can say. Britain will be more ‘open for business’ than ever before, which is another way of saying that everything of value will be for sale to all comers. As it happens, most of the time I spent working there I was living in Haringey, whose council is currently doing all it can to get rid of its human population and replace it with notional numbers on distant computer screens, or at least happy smiling computer-generated white people on vandal-proof billboards. Cycling back and forth between Haringey and Marylebone probably balanced out my life expectancy: in 2011-2013 there was a two-year difference between the two. Although that may have been levelled off by the fact that as I hit Euston Road, I passed through the area with the highest level of air pollution in the country. At least, thanks to Brexit, London’s contravention of EU clean air regulations won’t be a problem for very much longer. Anyone who thinks that bodes well for the local quality of life may well find that they’re whistling, or rather coughing, in the wind.

A trip to Genoa

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I’ve thought of Genoa as a Portuguese city ever since, in Dublin in summer 2000, I drunkenly butted into a late-night bus conversation in what I thought was some unusual variety of that language, only to find that the two people were speaking zenese, or genovese, which just happens to share some of the cadences and vocabulary of continental Portuguese.  The latter may not be entirely as a coincidence – history doesn’t record which languages were spoken on Columbus’s expeditions, but as he was born in or near Genoa, prepared his voyages in Lisbon and set off from Spain it must have been a mishmash. The cities thus share a history of maritime expansion, and now live in the shadow of those former glories. Genoa feels to me not so much a city I’ve never visited before as a city I’ve never got round to living in, because back in another Golden Age of Overseas Discovery, that of TEFL, when the mere accident of having been born into an English-speaking environment meant that you could, at the drop of a derisory month-long course, emigrate and earn a decent living pretending to teach English, it was spectacular images of Portugal’s second city, Porto, which drew me there. If the Guardian travel section had instead featured Genoa, I could just have easily ended up in north-east Italy. I might even have ended up marrying an Italian woman*.

Arriving in a new city involves, Marco Polo-style, recalibrating one’s impressions of all the other cities one has visited or might visit. Thus, in keeping with my assumptions, Genoa does indeed strike me as a version of Portugal’s two main cities, which are both port cities with hilltop palaces descending rapidly to medina-style alleyways. In Genoa those alleyways are called caruggi. They’re immediately reminiscent of the steep, twisting warrens of Lisbon’s Alfama or Porto’s Ribeira – and, funnily enough, they also resemble other parts of Italy, for example, the Barrio Spagnolo in Napoli, but without all the vespas which render that area so unpleasant to walk around. The fact that we arrive just before what looks like an incoming squall puts me in mind of when, in 2009, I got to Trieste, another city I’d long longed to visit. I found it to be windblown, sombre, and not all that welcoming, albeit in a way that was sort of interesting in terms of reflecting on its complex history and just what it was that James Joyce found so compelling about the place. In Genoa, after we leave the station, despite Google’s claiming that our accommodation is only 1.3 miles away, the taxi takes us on an apparently unavoidable detour through winding tunnels, and takes me back to that macabre Mexican masterpiece of Guanajuato. There is a connection, in that some of the silver adorning the palaces and cathedrals is sure to have been siphoned from the veins of the new world, as is also the case from Sevilla to Syracuse. Strolling around Genoa, it does feel a bit like a greatest hits of the best bits of large southern European cities. While some areas recall Sant Pere and Barrio Gótico, with their tiny shops that are also bars and tiny bars which are also shops, others are a little like Rome but without all the bloody tourists, with their segways, their Trump hats and their incessant f*cking pointing.

I’ve always been fond of the Spanish word accidentado (uneven, bumpy)*, which describes the layout of Genoa pretty well. Its endless hilly detours make it enjoyable to get lost in. Losing my bearings happens to be my preferred mode of getting to know a city; however, it turns out that things are different when you’re in charge of a pram. Sudden stunning vistas, cutaways though ginormous 18th century buildings right down to the sea are all very breathtaking, but the prospect of another flight of stairs is less enticing. With the skies still threatening to Do A Houston, I’m excited to see a poster advertising a showing of ‘Eraserhead’ serendipitously starting in just four minutes time; however, it proves impossible to find an impromptu babysitter among the passers-by. Later, when we find a nice, quiet place to eat, our daughter starts to behave like the proverbial drunken sailor on shore leave. She soon manages to cover herself in so much pesto genovese she’s almost indistinguishable from Kermit, but with the personality traits of a young Miss Piggy. When, about 20 minutes into this mortifyingly messy and noisy farce, another couple-with-baby arrive, the proprietor quietly sends them back out into the pouring rain, claiming that he’s all booked up for the next month and a half. Then he disappears, possibly to shoot himself in the head.

The following day we explore the Museum of Maritime History, which is so huge and detailed it’s like standing and reading a six-volume series of books, each with 800 pages for each year of the city’s existence. After two hours we’ve managed to cover two of the five floors and are too exhausted to tackle the part about immigration, which is the bit that drew us there in the first place. The captions employ a curious Verfremdungseffekt, in that they present PhD levels of historical analysis written in often purple prose presented in the kind of lighting more appropriate for sending a baby to sleep, which thankfully, eventually, it does. By the time we head off in search of gelati and fasciatoi we’re left in no doubt whatsoever that a) being a galley slave was really not very much fun at all and b) Christopher Columbus definitely did come from Genoa and not, as some have claimed, just outside Swansea.

One more recent person of global significance that doesn’t exactly cover the city in gloria is the renowned comedian/trickster/drunk-driver Beppe Grillo, leader of the at-best-incoherent at-worst-openly-racist 5 Star Movement. His blog has been called Europe’s number one source of fake news stories, navigating us to a brave new world where nothing is true except for what’s published on certain implicitly trusted highly ideological websites. His influence helps explain why newspapers are full of stories about parents withdrawing their children from school so that they don’t get forcibly injected with chemtrails. Grillo emerged in the same decade as a more laudable local character: Fabrizio de Andre, whose classic album ‘Crêuza de mä‘ (roughly, ‘Crossing the sea’) gives the name to a beachside bar we visit in the picturesque beachside suburb of Boccadasse***. The album, with its genovese-dialect North African-influenced songs about lives lost at sea, resonates; as we walk around Genoa, we see graffiti in support of those who have more recently been forced by circumstances to seek a better life elsewhere.

Such solidarity recalls another famous episode in Genoa’s history: July 2001, when the city played host to massive anti-globalisation demonstrations focussed on the G8 summit. That spirit very much lives on in and around the carruggi. There is some remarkable anti-gentrification graffiti. One such slogan calls for the immediate expulsion of the ‘creative middle class’. There are posters for a Right to the City conference, slogans condemning the immigration authorities and opposing deportations, and graffiti referring to the recent alleged rape by carabinieri police of a young tourist. Genoa sees some cruise ships but not as many Barcelona, where tourists themselves have been the focus of furious protests. The area (called, I think, Madalena) looks a lot like a busier version of Alfama, particularly because this week I’ve been following Momus’s escapades in Lisbon, a city which some are calling ‘the new Berlin’. It reminds me that in the fifteen years since I left that area has also changed, with the arrival of new waves of tourists and gentrifiers and the settling-in of new immigrant communities****.

It’s only a few steps away from the emblematic museum-like streets with their 18th-century palaces and ‘lifestyle stores’ that we happen upon some of the more vibrant side-streets. There seems to be more variety of immigrant groups than I’ve found in similar cities, for example Bilbao. Visa services are on offer to quite a range of language speakers: Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Bengali and Welsh (possibly not Welsh); Latin American sex services are available to tutti quanti. There are some African tailors’ shops which seem to come straight from the streets of Kinshasa. We come across one lively bar where there seems to be a very energetic argument going on between Columbians and Venezuelans. It’s our last night, and I never could resist the lithesome rhythms of bachata, so we quickly load up on cheap rum, sell the baby to some passing zingari, and start to make the most of what’s left of our short holiday. Tl, dr: I’ve been to Genoa, it’s good, you should go there too, adesso scappo a cambiare la bimba.

* Piuttosto che una terrona :-P.
**Apparently, unsurprisingly, the word also exists in Italian.
*** I was first introduced to the music of both Fabrizio de André and (much to my wife’s chagrin) Franco Battiato by a visiting friend of a friend around ten years ago. I’m currently passing on the favour to our seven-month-old daughter, who seems to respond positively to the particular melange of melodies, instruments and rhythms of ‘Crêuza de mar’. Or it could just be that she secretly understands
zenese. The fact that most Italians had to turn to the translations of the lyrics (included with the original album) in order to figure out what the songs were about suggests to me that genovese is, like a number of regional cosiddetti variations on Italian, not actually a dialect, but rather a language.
**** Dublin has also changed a great deal since I left.

Six days in Splott

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Image borrowed from @AndyReganCDF*

“Isn’t that Ninjah?”

My companion laughs. Everyone in Cardiff knows Ninjah, and when I mention him the response is always the same. As soon as I’d said that I’d be spending a couple of months here a friend of who knows the city told me I must look out for him. I listened to his somewhat madcap first album, watched a couple of videos in which he entertained people on of the city’s main thoroughfares by banging percussively on some bins, and started following his escapades on Facebook. And it is him, cycling towards us, half an hour after I arrived. I tell my friend about it and he’s surprised it took me so long to bump onto him.

The area I’m staying in is called Splott. When I got off the coach and told the taxi driver where we were going, his unenthusiastic response told me it held something of interest, and as we were driving along one of is narrow streets or tiny terraced houses I saw a mural proclaiming pride in the area. It’s clearly economically and socially deprived, but not lacking in curiosity or character. Or indeed controversy, starting with its bathetic name. There’s an apocryphal tale that it derives from ‘God’s plot’. In a more contemporary attempt to talk up where he lives, the landlord of my Airbnb place prefers to refer to it as /spləʊ/. In addition to the name, it’s got quite an involved history. Apparently a lot of Irish moved there in the late 19th century, taking refuge from the famine. Clashes with the local Presbyterian population ensued. As a legacy of that period, Splott still has quite a collection of churches. They were joined by a number of factories, including a steelworks and brewery and, at one point, a university for disadvantaged youth. Both the steelworks and the brewery shut down in the late 1970s.

Shirley Bassey grew up in Splott and started to make her name there, singing in the local pubs, of which there used to be dozens. Now there are two or three. There is very little passing trade to bolster the dwindling disposable income of the locals. When I set foot into one of them, one of the drinkers mentions Deliverance. The place in question is a amiable, run-down, drinking barn, with a handful of local men getting properly drunk to the jukeboxes and and looking forward to the karaoke on Friday. The patrons are welcoming and happy to talk, sharing tales of long days in insecure jobs.

The effect of two-thirds of a decade of ‘savage cuts’ (thanks Nick) are very visible. Local churches have regular and well-attended food banks. A couple of years ago the cash-strapped council shut down a popular swimming pool, provoking furious protests. Along with the pride, there’s defiance, as seen in the drive-by gestures of the mobility scooter owners in this locally-filmed video (directed, as it happens, by Ninah). It shows off the Magic Roundabout, which marks one end of Splott. The area is hard to walk to and around. When, on my third day, a church collapsed, the ensuing detours made it even more isolated. Still, while the tragedy ruined my sole attempt to get to work by bus, it did make it even easier to talk to people. On my way home from an exploration of the remaining local pubs (which mostly involved conversations about all the pubs which have closed), people asked me for directions, which was quite entertaining.

Splott is probably not dissimilar to a lot of smaller towns in Wales or the north of England. There may even be areas of Sheffield (my hometown) which are comparable. On June 23rd last year, Cardiff voted to remain in the EU, but I can see why Wales as a whole rebelled. Whatever Vince Cable and (oh yes!) Nick Clegg have to say on the matter, you can’t separate the Brexit vote from the increasingly dire conditions in which so many are forced to live. Splott is clearly struggling but by no means the worst. While for some life seems to revolve around the acquisition and consumption of cans of beer, the takeaways are mostly old-school Chinese rather than fried chicken, and although there are some betting shops (which may well help explain the disappearance of the pubs) there isn’t a Ladbrokes and Paddy Power and another Ladbrokes on every corner. That may well change. After all, once the safety net is torn down, people will grab at anything in the attempt to survive.

There’s quite a contrast with the city centre, which seems to have been refurbished to suit the assumed requirements of slumming premier league footballers. On a Sunday afternoon it proved impossible to find somewhere to eat that was neither a sports bar or part of a chain, those gargantuan blinged-up all-you-can-eateries which only justify the extortionate prices if you eat enough for a week. Cardiff Bay is nice to look at and from, but it’s a shame that it has the exact same seven or eight franchised restaurants, thought to attract the right kind of consumers. It’s a pity when other parts of the city have so much character.

The local market, once I track it down, proved to be one of those places which take place in a car park and specialise in cans of vehicle spraypaint and hefty bacon sandwiches. Easy to disparage, perhaps, but it’s what people most need on a Saturday morning, and you can set out your own stall for only £7 a day. It’s a shame the council clearly does nothing to promote it or to maintain the premises. The wrong kind of enterprise, the wrong kind of consumer. It seems I stood out in my overcolourful shirt (passing comment from stallholder: “I didn’t know we were in fucking Bermuda!“), because when I asked someone about other markets around town, after a couple of references to local landmarks which met with blank looks, he uttered the (for me) delightful phrase “You’re not British, are you?”. Regular readers of this blog will understand my joy on being asked this.  As it happens, I wouldn’t actually mind being Welsh, although of course I’m not really anything more than a tourist. If you want to know more about Splott, this is an excellent place to look.

https://youtu.be/bFfq9TlbkV4

The West will rise again

When I first visited London I was only 13 or so, and at that impressionable age I half hoped that I’d find Neil Tennant sashaying across the concourse of St Pancras Station with a recalitrant Chris Lowe six paces behind. That video defined my image of London throughout my teenage years, and without my ever reflecting on it, the lyrics to the song firmly established the east-west class divide as the central feature of my mental map of London.

When I moved there properly (at the start of 2006, after a short-lived stint in 1993) I gravitated towards the east. It was cheaper, and in any case the west seemed sort of sloaney. It never occured to me to live there and I tended to look askance at those who did. The west was the land of chinos and jazz funk. Every country has its pijos, fighetti, betinhos or yuppies, and this was their kingdom. The West seemed, in a word, naff.

The more I lived in London the more I sensed that there was much more to the area than my lazy dismissal had acknowledged. Visiting there for any reason always felt like a trip to a slightly exotic foreign country. There was more to West London to yuppies and carnival, and that event itself revealed a working class city in amongst the refurbished portico mansions and lambroghini showrooms. I reflected on the other elements: Nick Roeg’s Powys Square, the emergence of The Clash, and the influence of reggae soundsystems, the riots of 1958 and 1976, the complex interplay of different Afro-Caribbean communities, thw downbeat parades of Bayswater and Queensway which I knew from Martin Amis’ ‘Success’, the extent of the west with all its jealously-guarded class distinctions and postcode markers, from Portobello to Knightsbridge and North Kensington to South Acton.

Last year (2016) I spent a couple of weeks in an affluent part of Shepherd’s Bush and wandering around Goldhawk Road towards Hammersmith and was constantly reminded that gentrification is never total. Even with the eye-wateringly unaffordable housing, there remains a palimpest of communities: Syrian, Lebanese, Irish, Somali, Ethiopian and Sikh.

Another less noticed feature of West London is the huge working class estates. With possibily even more intensity than other parts of London, they’ve been the site of immense battles in the last few years as new phases of social cleansing set in. As we’ve had cause to hear several times over the last few days, the area around Notting Hill and Kensington is among the most highly-prized territory on earth. The tower blocks which house hundreds of thousands of ordinary Londoners have become outposts of affordable life in a world predicated on aspiration or annihilation, get rich or die trying.

Under what had come to seem like ‘normal’ circumstances, in which your Boris Johnsons and David Camerons were still in the ascendant, the fire could aid the process of hypergentrification, the fate of the victims might be seen as an unfortunate charred blot on a landscape undergoing permanent enhancement. But there’s something about the national mood which will not let that happen. News channels are full of working class people who had been written out of the story of London as a successful global city. As it happens those working class people come from all corners of the globe and have made London their home even as London seems to repel their efforts, their energy and cultural inventiveness welcome only insofar as they serve as enticing images to attract yet more global capital yearning for exponential returns. Those people are West London in its purest form and their resurgence will renew it as a living and breathing place with its own proud history rather than a bland pre-retirement resort for the global elite.

This guy embodies the spirit of the true West London. It’s no accident that behind his righteous invective, honed over years at Speaker’s Corner (a place I’d always dismissed as tourist fodder/a breeding ground for mad mullahs), that he’s also a social historian. He’s spot on on the subject of gentrification and social cleansing, and in this clip is ferocious and trenchant on the role of the media in normalising such deadly inequality and dismissing out of hand the notion that there could ever be an alternative.

Two months ago Iain Sinclair, who has know more Londons than most, declared that this is the final one. I was inclined to agree. The area where he lives and where our flat is is being hollowed out of all historical and cultural content, turned into a computer simulation of the suburbs of Dubai or Shanghai. In what I’d come to think of as an encroachment of the values of West London on the working class East, the role of the yuppies is played by weekend hipsters, just as keen to amass cultural capital by snapping up everything sticking out of the ground, until every rugged feature of the terrain has been smoothed over for international investors. Few places on earth are as bland as the new East London, with its ‘international standard’ apartments and Porsche showrooms. Meanwhile, back west, the furious ashes of the Grenfell Tower contain life; local identity is reasserting itself in an area which I, unfairly, was inclined to dismiss as socially and culturally moribund. If there is hope for London as a living city, it lies in the west.

Ljubljana: Enjoy your symptom!

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The Austrian-sounding man striding across the main square (actually a circle) of the Slovenian capital is bellowing into his Handy “BIN IN LAIBACH!”. I feel entertained that he’s used the German name of the city. I happen to know this because a) I’m sort-of German myself and b) it’s a name of a well-known Slovenian mock-totalitarian rock group/art collective which has produced a series of hilarious records and videos from the late ’80s onwards and also started their own nation state. Although I’m no defender of German totalitarian imperialism I do think it’s worth acknowledging that the name ‘Laibach’ is much easier to spell and pronounce than ‘Ljubljana’. #nursagen.

As I don’t have much money as of September 2009 I’m staying in a hostel. Whenever I stay in such places I start to feel like one of my English language students. The lingua franca of such places is International English, the lexicon of which doesn’t feature lower-frequency vocabulary such as ‘snoring’. The Turkish guy who’s spent all night making more noise than a large-scale military coup doesn’t understand the word but was at least polite enough to ask me how I’d slept (I hadn’t). Hold on, he says, when he wakes up and I try to teach him the English equivalent of horlama. I’ll put my glasses. Eight years later I’m still waiting for him to tell me where he’s going to put them. In the event I’m almost tempted to tell him to stuff them down his fucking throat in case it stops him from snoring, but luckily he tells me he go back to Turkey the same day, which come as a relief.

It’s hard to learn languages, especially from scratch. I blearily reflect upon this as I sit in the just-waking-up market square with an enormous coffee and a giant slab of breakfast burek. It’s difficult to start collecting vocab and building up a working grammar when you can barely remember how to say please, let alone water, tree, food or sunhat. Not that I’m trying: I’ve just arrived from London on the first step of a mini-grand tour of Northern Italy and environs. I could do with a sunhat, because every day (and very night, although my memory may have been warped by lack of sleep) it’s blisteringly warm and blindingly sunny.

I am not here to track down Slavoj Žižek. I’m not what is already becoming known in September 2009 as a fanboy. I try to avoid mentioning the subject altogether so as not to appear overeager and thus uncool. This is a bit silly, as no one knows me here. I might as well put on an ‘Enjoy your symptom!’ t-shirt, teach myself the Slovenian for “DO YOU KNOW WHERE ŽIŽEK LIVES? DO YOU KNOW WHERE ŽIŽEK LIVES?!” and run round the circle in circles until someone takes pity on me and tells me where this is.

As I look at the big metal map of the city in the main circle (Žižek’s house is thankfully unmarked), I get talking to a lovely couple, local kindergarten teachers who want to use their softly-spoken English. They’ve never heard of Slavoj Žižek. Later the same evening they take me on a brief walking tour, including a particularly significant spot where some people were shot, or raised a banner, or maybe it was where they themselves first had sex, or something. It was, as I’ve mentioned, several years ago now.

Ambling around on my own in the early evening amidst the refreshingly chilled old stone of the however-you-say-parte-vieja-in-Slovenian, I come across a (hooray!) critical theory bookshop. The guy who’s working there speaks better English than I do and is doing a PhD in the post-Deleuzian semiology of hair product advertising (I’m making that up. This was almost eight years ago.) He grew up near the border with Croatia, and the stories he tells me of petty rivalry and racism remind me of smalltown Britain, just with a few more military uniforms and some occasional ethnic cleansing. The (fascinating) conversation reminds me of a similar encounter eight or so years earlier in San Sebastian with a young guy who worked in the castle I clambered up to one sweaty donostian afternoon. On the back page of my Spanish-Portuguese dictionary (get me!!!) there’s a scribbled diagram of the relationships between the Spanish and Basque states, the different Basque political parties, and some assorted words in Basque. I don’t take notes on my Slovenian conversation. The bookshop guy is, like all Slovenians I mention him to, fond but critical of Žižek, and doesn’t know where his house is.

In my memory of events I give my new friend a hug and then skip down the cobbled streets. Thinking about it now it strikes me that this may have been one of the couple of times in my life when I was on antidepressants. There are some stalls on a bridge selling what I recall as half-litre plastic glasses of white wine for a single euro. I float around for a bit guzzling my massive drink and listening to the murmury language in which I imagine, possibly incorrectly, that everyone is discussing which ideologies are the most sublime and which absolutes the most fragile. Drifting round a corner I see that there’s a naked young naked woman in the middle of the street having her portrait painted naked by an eager not naked crowd. It’s a wonderful scene. To see all…the people…there’s just a really…nice…civic atmos…totally naked woman.

A hundred metres away there’s a stage with what appears to be a military brass band playing ‘Jump’ by Van Halen. I could repeat that sentence but I’ll leave it up to you, if you do want to read it again there it is. Now, several years later, it strikes me as strange that it didn’t occur to me to move there, grow a beard, start to learn the language and maybe even take up painting. I had no particular commitments in London, having just finished my Master’s, and I was living in one of the three crummiest parts of the city. I wonder what my Lacanian psychotherapist would have said. Probably just nodded and blinked. Who knows, maybe all those nods, blinks and occasional snores were a subtle form of direction to Slovenia, Venice, Mexico and beyond. Probably a good thing, on the whole, that he didn’t tell me where in Ljubljana Slavoj Žižek lives.

* Many thanks to Ben Rozman for Slovakian language translation guidance and consultation services.

Seven weeks in Bangkok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two cities that make for useful comparison are Bangkok and Mexico City. Before going to the former we spent a year living in the latter. There are obvious point in common (heat, traffic, spices, political chaos) but in terms of walkability the Mexican capital is (relatively speaking) paradise, with its abundant green spaces and (where we were living) leafy boulevards. Between Mexico and Thailand we also spent ten days in Cuba (ain’t life grand!), where the heat was often unbearable. We are making a sterling contribution to global overheating by virtue of our globetrotting and will have some great travelling stories to regale our daughter with should we be able to stop gasping for air long enough to share them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 sparse bleeps and haunting echoes 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