Tourism goes on as normal in Italy despite crippling drought

From the window of our Airbnb studio, we can see the wifi barge stationed down in the bay. There are apparently three such boats which arrive daily at different parts of the island and keep locals and visitors supplied with a continuous flow of pumped-in digital information.

It’s an emergency measure. According to Domenico, our host, there’s been no actual coverage for three months. I think he talked about the astronomical sum of 500,000 tonnes a year being consumed, peaking obviously in the summer, when the population of the island multiplies exponentially.

Tourists use huge amounts of wifi: to post and comment on photos on Facebook, access restaurant reviews on Tripadvisor and listen to listen to appropriately summery music on Spotify. That’s true not just for this island but for Capri, Ischia and countless other holiday destinations, which given how important tourism is to the Italian economy makes this nationwide drought of coverage particularly worrying. Luckily, in our case, Domenico has left a two-litre bottle of wifi in the fridge, and after its used up we resort to using our own supply, which we stock up on in the local shops.

Life seems to go on. Boats arrive, restaurants and cafes are busy, and everything seems more or less normal. But it’s hard to see how this set-up can be sustained. We depend on wifi in every single area of our lives, from transport to air conditioning systems to entertainment. Only the most adventurous of tourists would even dream of spending time in a place which survives on a life-support system. And as for the locals, they must be noticing the year-on-year decline in coverage, and wondering what the future has in store for their stunningly picturesque but informatically parched island. Could seawater somehow be transformed into Cloud-borne ones and zeros of a standard acceptable to international guests? What value does its abundance of natural beauty have if visitors can’t upload photos of it on Instagram? Could the recent dearth in coverage somehow be related to rumoured changes in the earth’s climate? If only they could get online consistently, they might be able to find the answers to these and other pressing questions. In the meantime, ensuring that tourists continue to have access to decent quality Netflix streaming services and more-than-sporadic Whatsapp voice and video calls conveying birthday greetings remains the number one municipal priority.

Waiting for impeachment is cowardice. Someone needs to act.

In how many Hollywood movies does a single individual sacrifice their life to save the world? Whether it’s Bruce Willis or some other aging but rugged hero, in death-embracing acts of individual self-martyrdom the protaganist beats both the ticking clock and the normal limits of human endurance in order to protect humanity from some (always externally-derived) threat. In the process the manifest destiny of the USA is reaffirmed, and all other citizens of the world, shown gathered in sports bars looking up anxiously at garbling and visibly perspiring news presenters, warming themselves around some squalid but spiritually-enriching campfire in the desert, or huddled in their third-world hovels around radios as they come to understand despite their obvious lack of education and pitiful absence of material means that once again thanks to the omnipotence and benevolence of the world’s only superpower the existential threat to our world has been averted.

Can the world wait for the criminally insane occupant of the Oval Office to be ‘impeached’? Should we cross our fingers and hope that somehow, one not too far-off day, through the time-honoured workings of the USA’s venerable democratic institutions as defined in its vaunted Constution, the balance shall be restored? I would say not. We’re beyond that point. Instead, some courageous and principled American citizen needs to act, some valient man or woman brought up saluting the Stars and Stripes and believing fervently in the shining ideals of democracy, justice and freedom, patriotically adept at handling a range of US-made firearms, must step up to the plate and prepare themselves to launch an almighty strike in response to the pitch that fate and history has thrown them, thus redeeming the American Project and saving the world once again, just like in the movies.

Donald Trump’s an alcoholic, isn’t he?

“Let’s see…I’ve still got some of that brandy the Saudis gave me…”

Election Night 2010 left me in a Very Bad Mood. Seeing the disaster that had befallen the country, with the Conservative Party and their eventual suitors the Liberal Democrats effectively wiping Labour off the board, knowing that in government David Cameron would very soon stop pretending he would be the “greenest ever” Prime Minister/friend-to-all-the-woodland-creatures and start gleefully ripping apart all that was most precious about British life, I changed my Facebook status to the (ahem) unambiguously jestful ‘I think I might kill myself’.

I should have included a link to something related to the election. When I turned on my phone the following morning around 7am my phone was buzzing like crazy with messages from concerned friends, family and acquaintances. Not nearly as many as I might have expected, but still.

I would never have done it had I been sober. Watching the results in the pub with fellow campaigners for our local far-left candidate had been a despondent affair. I guess I must have thrown caution to the wind and probably had six or seven pints to numb the disappointment and then a whisky or two (I hate whisky) to make the short walk home slightly more fun.

I’ve cut back in the last few years on what a friend calls ‘combat drinking’. Up to a certain age getting inappropriately drunk just for the hell of it ceased to be a permanently hilarious jape and started to look and feel like the sort of lifestyle trajectory that leads to sitting in church halls reminiscing about the nights you spent searching through bins just in case they contained a not-entirely-empty can of Strongbow.

Then, of course, there’s the danger inherent in being addled online. My previous blog died a slow, painful death after I got into the bad habit of sharing my late-night weed-fuelled mental meanderings with the world (or, at least, my website’s dwindling fanbase). I suspect that it may well be the eventual fate of pretty much all blogs to end up as a receptacle for posts whose contents are so unidentifiable that even people with 18 years of solid alcoholism behind them would think twice before imbibing them*.

Thankfully I never did any permanent damage, either to my liver (apparently) or to my reputation. I’m not remotely famous, so embarrassing myself online (as I may be doing right now) has never worried me unduly. I’d imagine that if I somehow found myself in a position of global responsibility it would be helpful to take the edge off with an occasional drink, and there is always the possibility that in these panoptical times that could lead to serious trouble.

Remarkable, then, that the most powerful person in the world has never even tasted alcohol and is apparently able to deal with the stresses of the job with nary a drop of inebriating liquid to help him come down from the inevitable highs and lows of adrenaline that the job entails. Curious, as Hasan Minhaj recently pointed out, that Trump’s barely coherent and often catastrophically unwise 3am tweets are written in a state of total lifelong sobriety.

How on earth is the President of the United States able to combine his laudable dedication to a teetotal lifestyle with the pressures inherent in a) his status of leader of the free world in a time of geopolitical chaos and b) his condition as a pathological liar?

Errrrrrr…

Cheers!

* I’m aware this is quite a confusing sentence, maybe I should have a drink and think about how to rephrase it.

NB: There’s also of course the possibility that Trump is a bit like Obelix, as in ‘Asterix &…’. Obelix fell into the pot of superstrength-granting magic potion as a child, and thus unlike his little moustachioed buddy never requires a top-up before going into battle. He does, however, need constant reminding of this fact, and given that Trump has no memory for anything but slights and grudges, it’s unlikely he’d be capable of remembering that he’s not actually supposed to drink. He may also just be a dry drunk. I don’t really care, I just hope that he gets to hear the malicious rumours that he’s an alcoholic and the resultant rage, shame and anguish cause him to suffer a massive heart attack and die. At this point we have to try everything – it’s him or the planet. Speaking of which, do you really think that someone prepared to lie about something as significant as Climate Change should be believed when he says he doesn’t drink?!

(Incidentally, no offense to actual alcoholics is intended in or by this article. Many of my closest friends are borderline alcoholics. For some reason.)

H.P. Lovecraft: Misanthropy and the Anthropocene

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

H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brexit and the Climate

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

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

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

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

Who can mark themselves safe from the changing climate?

It would be beyond absurd to vaingloriously demand that the alacrity and visceral passion with which people repond to random violent attacks on cities they live in or regularly visit were extended to every single news report involving human suffering. I myself, although I don’t live in London at present, pass through Westminster regularly and I also have dozens of friends and former colleagues who could easily have been amongst those murdered. But.

The near-total indifference on social media to stories like this never ceases to be maddening and dispiriting. Social media has, as so many have eloquently explored of late, a collective mechanism for hiding from that which makes us most uncomfortable and constructing an alternative, simpler reality.

I understand why people mark themselves safe, and am glad to see friends and acquaintances do so. But who can mark themselves safe from the climate? Maybe by avoiding sharing, liking and commenting upon such stories we believe at some level that we are making ourselves immune. What we haven’t seen can’t affect us. It’s not part of our world. And how could we not be immune, given that we don’t regard ourselves as responsible?

As for the number 1 Twitter hashtag (#prayforlondon), if only we could ‘pray’ for the stability of our climate, or at least for the courage to try to preserve that stability. To quote Soren Kierkegaard, “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays”. If only we would bring ourselves to at least reflect on the facts presented to us by (in this case) reponsible journalists and eminently trustworthy scientists, we might start to understand the connection between the prevalence of infinitely more deadly (if not so telegenic and instantaneous) climate disasters and our own (abdicated and disavowed) responsibility to make lifestyle choices and political commitments which ensured that humanity as a whole could be marked safe.

Terrorism is the evocation of fear for political purposes. My terror is that we are as a species incapable of responding to knowledge of our impending self-annihilation. The political and social consequences of such awareness appear to be too serious and too massive for us to accept. In the words of Philip Larkin, this is a special way of being afraid.

Thus: what is indifference to climate change (mine, yours, all of ours) but another form of terrorism? One which becomes no less frightening or threatening by virtue of our incessant muting and unfollowing of our knowledge of it? The fear just expresses itself in other ways. That, to me, is the main reason we are nowadays so given over to anger at others. It is an expression of frustration at our collective impotence, and as such it is the perfect fuel for fascism.

What’s the alternative? Start by reading this, and then post it all over your social media outlets.

What’s behind the rise of the global far-right? Climate denial.

immagineI’ve argued repeatedly here that if you want to understand the rise of the global far-right movement you have to put climate denial at the centre of the picture. The chief protagonist in the conspiracy in the decades-long campaign to forestall action on global warming in order to protect corporate profits is Exxon Mobil. They knew in 1978 that the activities of companies like theirs would raise global temperatures by 2-3%, so they funded and coordinated campaigns designed to spread doubt, employing tactics and experts from the tobacco industry to do so and setting up“institutes” devoted to outright climate denial.

(This is not guesswork or conspiracy theorising. It’s verified and verifiable fact. If you have any doubts whatsoever about what I’m saying please do your own research, obviously steering clear of climate denial sites funded by Exxon Mobil, which as it happens is a very large proportion of them. Use reputable news sources instead – here is a useful map of them.)

So what’s the connection with the global far-right? I’ve argued that repressed fears about the future have been finding expression as rage directed at targets identified by far-right politicians, all of whom have – not by coincidence – climate denial as a central part of their programmes. However, there are also links at institutional and individual levels. Last month I wrote:

Anyone curious about Trump’s connections to Russia and what interests lie behind them does not need to go trawling through Wikileaks documents or hope that some hitherto unseen videotape comes to light. The fact that Putin has regularly been seen in the company of the man who Trump appointed his Secretary of State is troubling in itself.

….but it turns out I didn’t know the half of it. Democracy Now drew my attention to a recent article by the author and climate scientist Joe Romm, in which he wrote:

While Trump may not be able to destroy global climate action and the landmark 2015 Paris climate deal all by himself — as he pledged to do during the campaign — he probably could do that with help from Russia and the trillion-dollar oil industry.

So much is explained by Trump’s Secretary of State choice. Media reports now say it will be Rex Tillerson, CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, which had made a $500 billion oil deal with Putin that got blocked by sanctions.

Stalling the biggest oil deal ever did not just “put Exxon at risk,” as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow explained last week this deal was so big it was “expected to change the historical trajectory of Russia.”

(Again, if you have any doubts, please read the links. The original report is from the Wall Street Journal. Is ithe WSJ a left-wing fake news outlet pushing a left-wing agenda? No, it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is, as it happens, a climate denier. The article obviously slipped under his radar.)

I wrote in November 2015 that “it is simply impossible to imagine anything companies like Exxon and Shell would not do in order to protect their future incomes.” On the evening of Trump’s inauguration I argued that the Trump administration represents a coup by the climate denial industry and its backers in Big Oil. I was right.

In 2014 Naomi Klein wrote in ‘This Changes Everthing’ that we can no longer afford the illusion that small, gradual changes will be enough to save our stable climate. The antics of companies like Exxon Mobil have ensured that the only hope we now have is in mass social movements which seek to seize the power of those corporations and their political servants. Counter-revolutions happen not just in response to successful insurrections, but also to failed ones, to the threat of a political challenge. This reactionary wave, which has so far brought us Brexit and Trump and is quite possibly about to install a Holocaust denier as President of France, is a response to our failure to build those social movements. The immortally wise words of Sven Lindqvist (written in relation to genocide) encapsulate perfectly where we stand in terms of our responsibilies to our climate:

You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.

The conclusion I draw is: we have to make Climate Change an absolutely central theme in the struggle to defeat the global far-right movement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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