Sheffield: A personal history

One of the happiest memories of my life is of my 40th birthday get-together in June 2012, when my friend Craig showed me a video on his phone of our former secondary school being smashed to pieces by bulldozers. This realisation of a dream of our teenage years is one of the best presents I have ever received.

The reputation of the school had already taken an industrial hammering. Lying on a beach in the Algarve in September 1999, I read a lengthy Guardian report by the investigative journalist Nick Davies (later of ‘Churnalism’ fame). He identified my school as an emblematic victim of early-’80s educational reforms which aimed to remove the comprehensive elements of the education system. It was the perfect example of a school which went wrong in this way. The key year when things really started to plummet downhill like an out-of-control pram was 1983, when they removed streaming. It was also the year I and my cohorts arrived. We were, it seemed, the victims of an experiment – or, at least, of an experiment which had been made to fail by the power of class and a Government ideologically opposed to the principles of comprehensive education. That might explain why we were taught music lessons by a German teacher with an open fascination with Hitler, why we learned French in a science lab whose gas taps some kids could never quite get enough of, and why our Religious Education classes mostly consisted of listening to the teacher’s favourite progressive rock albums, particularly the Ayn ‘Medicare’ Rand-influenced Rush album ‘2112’.

Destruction was a theme of my youth. Sheffield was in the process of deindustrialising and so parts of it were disappearing. A few years ago I came across a BBC documentary from September 1973 (fifteen months after I was born) called ‘All in a Day’, which tracked the daily lives of various locals. Parts of it I recognised but there were some things -fashions, ways of life, institutions – which had already vanished by the time I came into consciousness. Then, when I was 12, I saw the city destroyed by a nuclear explosion.

‘Threads’ was the work of Barry Hines (who also wrote ‘Kes’) and it was shown on the BBC in late 1984. It was a extremely vivid depiction of the total annihilation of the only city I knew. A simmering confrontation in the Middle East between the two superpowers was discussed in increasingly urgent tones on background TVs and the radio, while people very similar to those I knew went about their everyday lives. Some schoolfriends were filmed running down the main shopping street screaming when the four-minute warning went off. My own sister was an extra. She appeared for several centiseconds at the end of a scene in which ashen-faced ‘survivors’ looked though a fence in the radioactive fog at armed soldiers guarding the emergency food supplies. She looked just like she was living through a nuclear holocaust. In reality, of course, she was just terrified she wouldn’t get on TV. The scream she let out on seeing herself was louder than a megaton bomb*.

The irony that South Yorkshire had declared itself a ‘nuclear free-zone’ was much commented-upon, as was the oft-trumpeted (but more often parodied) notion of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. I grew up in a politically-charged atmosphere. Trips into town to seek out new books and music would inevitably involve getting caught up in furious discussions with left-wing newspaper sellers. I remember the first wave of strikes provoked by Thatcher as part of Nicholas Ridley’s plan to smash to unions to pieces. My father, after a career in haut cuisine, worked at a steel plant from around 1980. When I was ten, in April 1983, he took me on my first protest, outside Cutler’s Hall where Thatcher herself was speaking. Then there was the Miner’s Strike, about which I remember shamefully little.

My vague sense of imminent doom wasn’t helped by the news in 1988 that human civilisation was forcing the world’s temperatures to rise. Whenever I think of the moment I first learned about global warming, I picture the classroom at King Ecgbert’s, in the posher part of town, where I did an A-level in Government and Political Studies. We had a teacher who read to us from The Guardian. The fact that he treated us like adults and obviously enjoyed his job inspired thoughtful, if inchoate, responses. I can see myself in that classroom aged 17; I’m saying something I must have read in the Guardian about feedback loops.

Around that time I was becoming interested in other kinds of loops. In the Leadmill I heard the bleeps and bongs of ‘Sweet Exorcist‘ for the first time. The music released by Fonn and then Warp records followed an established local tradition, using a palette of industrial sounds. In this excellent BBC documentary local musicians of the time talk about how the sounds of the working city forged their sound:

Sheffield was also musically twinned with Dusseldorf, given the influence of Kraftwerk on the Human League and Heaven 17. The dystopian fictions of J.G. Ballard were also an ingredient. Although they never found (or indeed sought) commercial success, Cabaret Voltaire were part of the same wave, along with the Comsat Angels, whose bassist (much more of a pop star than we’d ever be) lived around the corner from us.

Then there was ABC, with their gold lame suits and lush, orchestrated and articulate critiques of Thatcherism. Their flamboyance stood out given that the general tone of life in Sheffield is ‘unimpressed’. There’s an earthiness, a flatness of voice and attitude which contrasts with the hills. Jarvis Cocker is the canonic example of someone who both celebrates and supercedes this. He left the city to broaden his horizons and seek fame but has nevertheless remained loyal. It was his musical map of Sheffield which taught me about the importance of Sheffield’s five rivers in its industrial development. (They probably tried to teach me that in geography classes, but I just remember being lectured about superpigs in the Ruhr Valley by a teacher with a military moustache who spent most of the lessons with his head buried in the Daily Mail.) I thus consider Jarvis to be more of a Sheffielder than I am. Still now my geography of my hometown is shameful. Someone else who knows the city much better than me is the architecture writer Owen Hatherley, who, although he’s not from there, is an articulate and enthusiastic advocate for the Sheffield of the 50’s and 60’s and the pop music culture it eventually inspired. He called his book on Pulp ‘Common’.

The song his title refers to is not my favourite but it is very well-observed. The insult ‘common’ was a very, well, common way of dismissing someone, of asserting one’s claim to a higher rung on the ladder. School was rough, with bullying commonplace, and you just had to learn to cope without appearing ‘soft’. You could detect the resultant hardiness and stoicism in the music. In 1986 the Human League had a transatlantic hit with a song which was clearly not their own. It had been written by Jam and Lewis for Alexander O’Neill or Janet Jackson, and to my ears the spoken section, which was designed to sound breathy and passionate, sounded distinctly sulky, or, as we say in Sheffield, mardy. Actually, when, on what must have been New Year’s Day 1989, me and a friend went to Phil Oakey’s house on Ecclesall Road, he was cheery and welcoming. He made us a cup of tea and we chatted about Barry White.

When I was growing up, the Human League were the local celebrities, our representatives on the national stage, or at least on Top of the Pops. The same was emphatically not true of Def Leppard, at least not in my part of town. They had taken the sounds of heavy steel production in a less interesting direction, to the mid-Atlantic rather than Central Europe. Then, in the ’90s Sheffield became synonymous with The Full Monty. I’ve watched this film more times than Stewart Lee has seen Scooby Doo. It’s the tale of a group of redundant steelworkers forced by economic circumstances to reinvent themselves as male strippers. One of the most telling moments comes early on, when the wife of one of the main characters pisses in a urinal, thus parodying and asserting a claim over a symbol of male identity. The loss of stable industrial work, with its attendant self-image of the strong male breadwinner, implies a crisis of masculinity. The men have to divest themselves of their ‘male’ identity and try to make the adaption to more ‘feminised’ forms of work, in which bodily image and the ability to adjust to the demands of spectacle are of central concern. The film thus dramatises the fabled shift from heavy industry to the leisure economy and the suspense comes from the question of whether they can make the transition. In fairy tale fashion, they succeed, putting on a strip night and proving they have what it takes to entertain. How they will go on from this one-off performance is unclear, but in neoliberal terms (and this is an emblematically Blairite film), by debasing themselves to the demands of the market they’ve demonstrated they have sufficient will to survive. Although it wasn’t set in Sheffield but nearby, Brassed Off trod very similar ground but was more sombre and angrier in tone. If you add in Billy Elliot there was actually a minor genre of 1990s films in which former industrial zones learnt to strip, play or dance to tunes played by the forces of globalised capitalism.

On another level this is what most cities on the world are trying to do nowadays: to market themselves as cultural destinations. For a brief period Sheffield was home to the ambitious but ill-fated National Centre for Popular Music. The fact that I, for whom pop music was more important than breathing, never got round to visiting it is some indication of how ill-conceived it was.  Sheffield also tried to attract sports fans, with the hugely expensive debacle of the World Student Games (who?) in 1991, which the city is, as far as I know, still paying for.

I witnessed the waning of a certain visionary spirit: the destruction of the slums and 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 money and who want to pretend they have lots of money: 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, give 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

London to Rome: Why I will always prefer bookshops to the internet

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Here are two sets of coincidences that begin in the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and end, for the time being, in Rome.

In December 2015 I went to an exhibition by Emily Jacir on the life and murder of her fellow Palestinian Wael Zuaiter, an intellectual who took refuge in Rome. There were photos of his bookshelves containing a number of books I’d also read and quotes from his own books from which it’s clear he was an intriguing and exemplary engaged intellectual. At the time of his death he was translating ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ into Italian. His letters also show him to be an unusually perceptive and trenchant critique of imperialism, as well as a firm opponent of political violence. He was tracked down by the Israeli secret services and murdered on his own doorstep.

I’d been thinking about Rome as a safe haven. At the time we were living in Mexico but there were reports that the security situation in the areas where we lived was breaking down, with a new wave of threats against local restaurants and bars and a couple of murders on our doorstep. (I wrote about this here.) Around the same time I was reading a novel by Tomasso Pincio. I’d noticed this writer in bookshops because his nome de plume is a deliberate reference (and also adjacent on the bookshelf) to my favourite American novelist, Thomas Pynchon.

The novel I was reading is called ‘Cinacittà’ and is a murder story set in a future Rome which, due to global warming, has been abandoned by the locals and is now inhabited solely by Chinese people. Its epigraph is a quote from an ‘American writer’ taken from Federico Fellini’s film ‘Roma’, which I hadn’t yet seen. It talks about Rome as “a wonderful place to witness the end of the world”.

In August 2016 I go back to the Whitechapel Gallery and browse the bookshop. This is something I usually prevent myself from doing as, like the LRB and ICA bookshops, the Whitechapel is like a crackhouse for me. I usually come across at least six books which I know I have to read immediately. Sure enough, there’s one I’ve seen before but realise is exactly the book I need to read right now: ‘The Hatred of Poetry’, by Ben Lerner. It’s a book by a poet about how difficult and in some ways how annoying poetry is. I’ve been actively struggling with poetry for the last couple of years. Just up the road, in Limehouse, I did a series of courses which involved discussing poems and then trying to write them ourselves. The first part I loved, the second continually defeated me. When it came to writing, no matter how much expert guidance I received or exercises I did, I didn’t really understand what a poem is.

Lener argues that it’s easy to love poetry, but individual poems themselves are often too much of a challenge. Poems aspire to the condition of poetry, but always fail. I like his tone of voice and wonder what his poems are like. As it happens, the name Ben Lerner rings a bell. I see that he was the author of a 2012 novel called ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’; as I once lived in Madrid, I’d noticed the title but never thought about reading it. Reading reviews of the novel on my phone I realise it’s right up my street. It’s about a pretentious young expat poet living in Spain and pretending not to be American, smoking spliffs and looking down at other foreigners “whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise”. I can relate to that, and the description of his prose as ‘precise’ appeals to me.

I start reading the poetry book as I walk down the street. In the first couple of pages he mentions his favourite poet, one which (as he correctly predicts) I’ve never heard of, which makes me wonder who mine is. One name that immediately springs to mind is Luke Kennard, whose work has the advantage of being hugely entertaining (one of my favourite words when it comes to poems). I should read this guy’s novel, I think. As it happens I’m heading down to the South Bank anyway and I have a Waterstones voucher card that’s been in my wallet for months and which I can’t remember if I’ve ever used. My day now has more of a purpose to it and I speed up my stroll towards Trafalgar Square.

It turns out that the card in my wallet only has £1.01 on it, which means I really should think twice about also buying Lerner’s second novel, but it’s described as “a near-perfect piece of literature” and was chosen as ‘Book of the Year’ by 15 reputable publications.

Now I’ve got three new books, all by the same author. I walk across to The Royal Festival Hall, where I’m meeting a friend at 5. It’s only 4.15, so I decide to kill time in Foyles. The first book I see when I walk in is a volume of poetry by Ben Lerner, a compendium of his three collections. I have no intention whatsoever of buying it, but I pick it up because I’m keen to see what his poetry is like. The inner cover has a quote from Luke Kennard: “I look forward to Ben Lerner’s poetry the way I used to anticipate a new record by my favourite band.” Right next to the quote is the price: £14.99. If I buy it I will have all the published work by my new favourite author, one by whom I haven’t yet read more than a few pages. I snap it shut and make my way to the cash desk.

It occurred to me some time ago that it’s deeply ironic that although I grew up antagonostic to capitalism on the whole, I also spent my youth obsessing over sales charts. If The Jesus and Mary Chain burst into the pop charts at number 11, or if New Order managed to get onto Top of the Pops, it felt like a personal victory, and I would feel downcast for days if The Smiths failed to get into the top ten. There was an article by Simon Frith in the Pet Shop Boys 1989 tour programme arguing that their music celebrates and mourns that moment of melancholy just before you hand over the money for a new record or just before you fall in love, when you know that disappointment is inevitable. That’s the nature of commerce: it involves an emotional investment in something you know won’t satisfy you. Given that the emotional and intellectual payback of novels and films is deeper than so much else we consume, capitalism promotes their addictive qualities. There’s also the aspect of cultural capital, that we place cultural products in our personal shop windows to attract others – or, less cynically, that they allow us to identify (and be identified by) others who have shared often very intimate and personal experiences. In other words, we also use them as a form of bonding with others of our species, which is the very much the point of being alive.

I find it hard to track down the film ‘Roma’ online. In any case, I first need to rewatch ‘La Dolce Vita’, and then ‘8 1/2’, which I can’t remember ever having seen. There’s also Bertolucci’s and Antonioni’s films to catch up on. Some of these things I can find online but in most cases I need to get the DVDs. Luckily there are lots of market stalls selling €3 copies of classic films, the ones previously sold as promotions with newspapers. In Pigneto I chat to the owners and other browsers, who recommend a whole bunch of things I’ve never heard of. I quickly build up a collection of Scuola, Moretti and Pasolini. Then it’s a question of finding the time to watch it all.

The (very) English writer Geoff Dyer lived in Rome and suffered from depression. He writes about it in ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, his chronicle of his failed attempt to write a book about DH Lawrence which is also, finally, a book about DH Lawrence. He describes staring for hours at his TV, wondering if he should turn it on. Rome initially strikes me as a strange place to get depressed, but then I work out he must have been here in winter. Winter in Rome is (increasingly) short but very grey, with a cigarette ash atmosphere coating the city. Dyer then recounts how he escaped from his depression: he took an interest in it. He started thinking and reading about depression, and then had to leave the house to track down books to learn more. His mood lifted as he became part of the city, its bookshops, literary events and galleries.

Another writer I hugely admire (Nick Currie, aka Momus), has written persuasively and with his customary eloquence about how, in a globalised and digitally connected world, you can live the same life pretty much anywhere. He writes about moving from Berlin to Osaka and continuing exactly the same lifestyle. My own is essentially the same whether in London, Mexico City or Rome- pretty much wherever Amazon delivers, in fact. I noticed that my English language students in London were generally happy with their accommodation as long as it featured basic furniture and services, few disturbances and a very fast internet connection. It was by far the absence of the latter that generated the most complaints.

My own youth fed on record shops, bookshops and libraries. I was lucky to grow up in a age and a city in which there was an abundance of all three. Of course, I’m privileged now too. I can buy books if I want and I have time to wander round and enjoy what cities have to offer. I’ve lived in a succession of capital cities, all with a huge range of bookshops. Nevertheless, I miss record shops and haven’t felt the need to go to my local library since I lived in London. Like almost everybody on the planet I am far too dependent on the Internet for my cultural life.

The internet gives you access to everything. It has an infinite number of channels. But without a purpose it can be a medium for depression. After too much time online I sometimes feel like a polar bear in a zoo, pacing back and forth, scrolling and clicking aimlessly to the point where I lose all sense of what I want and who I am. Our physical selves thrive on fresh air, trees, company, exchanges of words, glances and embraces. I need to get out of the house. Luckily in Rome (we finally move here in September 2016) I have no internet on my phone and a whole city to explore. After a couple of weeks I finally track down one of my favourite bookshops. Invito alla Lettura is a dusty clutter of crumbling hardbacks, stacks of old editions of magazines, fascist pamphlets from the 30s, and a pleasant café (in Mexico it would be called a cafebrería) . Or rather, it was. It apparently shut down in April 2016 after nearly 25 years. From the owner of the Almost Corner bookshop in Trastevere I learn that food outlets are pushing out more established business, just like in London.

Humans will always need on-the-spot food and drink, but books, music and films you can get hold of online. There will always be a demand for places where you can go and browse them and maybe meet and fall in love with other people who share the same enthusiasms, but that doesn’t mean the market will necessarily provide such places. Bookshops and record shops were never primarily about buying, much more about communing with others who share a need for new ideas, impressions, experiences. I hope that when my baby daughter comes of age there will still be places where she can go to explore and celebrate whatever books and music she comes to love and, in the company of others, discover more. At least Rome has such an abundance of excellent bookshops, from Altroquando via Fahrenheit 451 to Minimum Fax, that it’s reasonable to hope that it will hold out longer against the forces of the global market as marshalled on the internet. Forse Gore Vidal, as in so many other things, aveva ragione.

San Francisco: Why I hate TED Talks and love Rebecca Solnit

dsc_0530From LA to San Francisco I take the train. This feels like a novelty because I didn’t know the US still had trains. In Mexico (where I’m living at the moment, viz. November 2015) the train network was broken up and sold off in the early 1990s, and I assumed that the whole train network in the States had long ago suffered a similar fate. It’s one of the many things that surprise me on my inaugural visit to the US.dsc_0445San Francisco feels like a greatest hits of some of the nicest places I’ve ever been to. In Chinatown I have an uncanny sensation that I am back in China. I understand that this is kind of the point of Chinatown, but still. The sights, smells and sounds seem to be those of a place that exists in itself, rather than a mere stopping-off point for tourists.dsc_0419The layout of the hills reminds me strongly of Lisbon, with sudden stunning glimpses down into the bay. Strolling up from where I’m staying on the morning of thanksgiving, I find the streets mostly deserted. I sit in a café surrounded by big-brained young people murmuring and tapping away on laptops and drink coffee so strong my head actually falls off. I’m reminded of Hamburg in terms of the quality of life. There are lots of people carriers and I catch glimpses of yachts on the water below. I find the presence of a caterpillar sanctuary comforting and make a mental note to direct any exiled lepidoptera I should meet up this way.dsc_0474On the way to the Golden Gate park, around the corner from Haight Ashbury Primary School, I stop and watch a game of American football. Americans don’t call it American football, in the same way as the Mexicans don’t talk about Mexican food. It’s a college game, someone explains. I manage not to embarrass myself in conversation with the local enthusiasts, and briefly try my hand at sports photography. In the park itself, I pass the National Aids Monument and then come across two friends from ‘home’: Goethe and Schiller. The statue was dedicated by the German community in 1901. Partly because it’s a port town, SF has always been a huge draw for immigrants, and it’s easy to see why.dsc_0530Up at the bridge I enjoy a stunning view across the bay. I’ve missed the famous fog by a couple of months. In any case it’s diminished somewhat over the last couple of years. The climate is, after all, changing.dsc_0370The next day I spend in Oakland and Berkeley. Mention of Oakland often evokes the famous phrase from Gertrude Stein: “there’s no there there”. Actually, the most powerful association it has for me is with hiphop. Back in the 1990s I listened to a lot of g-funk and was particularly enamoured of a local revolutionary rapper called Paris who was best known for bragadaciously fantasising about assassinating the then-President. Hence as I wander round my head is full of lines of street poetry about shooting cops. Up in the hills above the bay I go for a woodland walk with Daniel, the brother of an old friend from Dublin. Although he wasn’t born here, he embodies a soft-spoken wisdom about the world which I quickly come to associate with this part of the country. We talk at length about the drought and what it means. Daniel was an agronomist before retiring, and now spends a lot of his time volunteering on a collective organic farm. Hence he is very well-placed to talk about what climate change is doing down at the roots of nature.dsc_0364I get the bus down to Berkeley. My new friends Jan and Steve kindly take me on a walk around the university, which is probably the most climate-aware place on the planet. Because of the drought the grass on the lawns has been replaced by wood shavings, along with a notice explaining why. In the Sciences building there’s an advert for a Survival 101 course (‘the next 50 years will be radically different from anything we have ever known’), a special board for ‘activist jobs’ and more Bernie Sanders graffiti that you can shake an organic placard at. Afterwards we have beer and pizza in their garden and talk about climate awareness strategies.dsc_0512The person who most embodies the radical Bay Area spirit for me is the local writer and activist Rebecca Solnit. Although I’ve insisted here multiple times that climate denial is connected to racism, she points out more clearly and coherently that it is also very much about patriarchy. She’s best-known for writing the essay and subsequent book ‘Men explain things to me‘, which gave birth to the term ‘mansplaining’. Solnit encapsulates the notion of an engaged intellectual: honest about the difficulties of staying active and hopeful but facing up to reality without flinching. I hope I won’t be doing her a disservice by saying she’s like a cross between Naomi Klein and Erich Fromm. In addition to being hugely prolific, she’s well worth following on Facebook. Last year her (in these times) must-read book ‘Hope in the dark’ was reissued. Shortly before visiting the States I read her history of walking, ‘Wanderlust’, in which she makes a connection between walking and writing that I find truly inspiring. Her work is a constant reminder that if is there is to be a future, it will be a feminist one, as another heroine of mine has also pointed out.dsc_0428Another woman I associate with the Bay Area is Oedipa Maas, the heroine of Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘The Crying of Lot 49’. Looking for an underground postal service which may or may not exist, she follows a series of homeless men through the night as they appear to deposit and collect mail from trash cans. The network may or may not represent another level of reality subjacent to the official America. Oedipa has visions of connections and communities that lie beneath the surface. She sees Californian suburbs laid out like circuit boards and notices arcane symbols used to communicate between those in the know. My father-in-law has a cute theory about how the visions she experiences may be the result of epilepsy. In any case, there’s something extremely prescient about a book published in 1966 anticipating the acid-fuelled flowering of consciousness that was to come.dsc_0484Maybe in the future awareness and empathy will be luxuries, like yachts and, well, houses. In the Bay Area there’s a drought of affordable places to live, which means the cost and scarcity of housing is by far the number one topic of even the most casual conversation. Whereas in London it’s partly the influence of the finance industry making things much more expensive for everyone else, in SF it’s the tech companies. In 2013 local activists started protesting the shuttle buses used by companies like Google to transport their workers to the corporate campuses, like the one described by Dave Eggers in ‘The Circle’. Everyone else is allowed to stay in the city under very stringent conditions. It puts me in mind of an essay I once read by Brazilian sociologists called ‘the return to the medieval city’. In modern cities there are so many exclusions in operation, partly through technology, screening creating invisible walls. The globalised market functions as an particularly efficient repressive tool. Anyone could get removed at any time. Just as undocumented migrants fear the immigration authorities, most people in cities like San Francisco live in terror that their landlords will sell up or raise the rent.dsc_0405Increasing amounts of apartments are given over to Airbnb. The new economy is a battleground. The Bay Area may be one of the places from which field operations are directed, but it is also very vulnerable to their effects. Just a couple of weeks before my visit protestors occupied the company’s headquarters in support of a (subsequently unsuccessful) proposition to limit short-term rentals. The tech industry is a reminder that smart doesn’t mean intelligent. Back in Mexico City I’d noticed that the British Council has a weekly session of TED Talks, open to all its students. These are becoming as ubiquitous in TEFL as they are online. They represent ‘progress’ divorced from politics, entirely mediated by the market, with technology as its stand-in article of faith – after all, it was Friedrich Hayek himself (the father of Neoliberalism) who called the market a kind of technology. The TED ideology is based on a religious faith that the existence of African mobile phone entrepreneurs will somehow save the world. It’s all very slickly packaged and presented, to the extent that The Onion does a very clever parody. (Here‘s a much more serious critique by Evgeny Morozov.) For me, TED talks put me in mind of Mao’s Little Red Book, in that they imply total devotion to the helmsmanship of the Global Market. There are, truth be told, some brilliant TED Talks (inevitable, given that they appear to come off a pretty speedy production line) but the fact that they are sponsored by car companies often gets in the way of any enjoyment or inspiration. At best they are persuasive and informative, and at worst irritatingly smug and extremely complacent; they are almost always deeply neoliberal in outlook.dsc_0551Down at Fisherman’s Wharf there are actually people fishing. I try to figure out if they’re doing it for food or fun. If it’s sustenance they’re after, they’re in competition for survival with some of the biggest seagulls I’ve ever seen. The scene reminds me of Durban, South Africa, where we saw Indians without rods fishing for whitebait in polluted water. It’s easy to romanticise going off-grid, but surviving outside the walls of the global market is hard. Still, many have no alternative but to escape its dominion and seek out or build alternative communities. José Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’ is about a shopping mall that dominates every aspect of life in the area around it. Work, food, security and leisure are all increasingly centred on it. At the end the protagonists pack up and drive off the page to an uncertain but more independent future. In the final pages of Pynchon’s ‘Vineland’, set in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler leaves the politically repressive atmosphere of LA and heads up to Northern California, where new communities of hippies and other dissidents are being established. Contrary to the example set by countless backwoods myths and log-cabin yarns, surviving on one’s own is not an option. Cormac McCarthy’s protagonist in ‘The Road’ wanders a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape with a shopping trolley, and the book ends up with a incongruous epiphany which resembles nothing less than an advert for Coca Cola. The motif of the shopping cart put me in mind of the avatar that so often stands in for us on the internet. In McCarthy’s novel there is no more online and no more consumerism, so the future is dead. It is ‘welcome to the desert of the real’ made (barely) flesh. There is no community, with little fellow feeling between the isolated individuals who drift into contact. They are reduced to little more than isolated pixels in a ruined computer game. By contrast, in another of Saramago’s dystopian fictions, ‘Blindness’, the only seeing character literally strings the group of blind people together and manages to preserve some sense of a community in the midst of the shredded social fabric. The final words of the novel are ‘The city was still there’.dsc_0526There are examples of offline communities which protect those expelled or repulsed by the workings of the Matrix; wherever there aren’t, we have to try and establish them in the face of the confluence of climate breakdown and total corporate control. Climate Camp and Occupy were attempts to set such up places, to establish havens where people could identify and belong. Significantly, Rebecca Solnit spent some of her younger years as part of the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common. And although it’s set further down the Californian coast in LA, Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’ (set in 1970, at the waking from the hippy dream presaged in ‘The Crying of Lot 49’) closes with the following passage, one which I personally find of some comfort when contemplating what lies ahead:

Doc wondered how many people he knew had been caught out tonight in this fog, and how many were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep. Someday there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and from alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.

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Burning denial down by the Tiber

20170207_163216I miss the days before Kindles and iPods, when you could get to know someone better by browsing through their book and music collections. Our Dutch friend Merel, at whose house we spend New Year’s Eve, has a good variety of recent fiction and books on sustainable development and the like. I’m a little taken aback to see on her shelves quite a range of books on dictators and fascism, including two by the disgraced Hitler apologist David Irving. Thankfully it turns out they belong to her landlord.

Irving is a Nazi activist who used to get away with pretending to be a historian. He was the subject of a 2016 film starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall, which depicted his failed attempt in 2000 to sue the historian Deborah Lipstadt for pointing out that he had systematically distorted details about the Holocaust in his books in order to let Hitler off the hook. The judge concluded that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.

As it happens I’d come across a physical copy of one of his books before, about twenty years earlier in my local library in Dublin. I took it out and disposed of it, and then explained to the library what I’d done and why. They understood my point and once I’d agreed to pay the cost of the book they agreed not to replace it. The film about the trial of the book’s author is no classic but it sets out the main details, featuring real footage of Irving giving Nazi salutes to audiences of skinheads in Germany and Austria, where he once spent a year in prison for continuing to spread lies about the death camps. It also makes the link with other kinds of denial – one of the key lines spoken by the main character is ‘Elvis is dead. The icecaps are melting. And the Holocaust did take place’. The fact that Holocaust denial is booming online and that many of those espousing it also deny that the earth’s climate is changing is no coincidence. Hitler launched his campaign to conquer Europe in order to extend Germany’s ‘Lebensraum’, living space. In anderen Worten, he wanted to expand the Third Reich’s vegetable patch. Last week the right-wing British tabloid newspaper The Sun, owned by the climate-denying pro-Trump tycoon Rupert Murdoch, used its front page to blame Spanish people for depriving Britons of food. Inclement weather in Southern Europe has meant that there are fewer vegetables to export to British supermarkets, and The Sun wants its readers to blame foreigners rather than asking why global weather patterns are changing. As I have long argued that climate denial and racism are intimately linked, I can’t help but feel at the same time a little vindicated and also really rather scared for the future.

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Once I’d explained the books’ provenance to Merel, she was more than happy for me to take them away and get rid of them. It was just a case of finding the time (my wife was heavily pregnant until last Monday :-)) and the place (we’ve only lived in Rome since last September). I decided to post a question in a friendly group for local foreigners on Facebook. Things I’ve posted there in the past on related topics have generally got a good reception, although I’d been surprised when, in response to a piece I’d written in which I called  the Italian fascist group Casapound ‘openly racist’, an Italian guy popped up and invited me to join them. My post about the books got a mixed response. Several people were consternated until I pointed out what kind of books they were, but some contributors continued to remonstrate, calling me a Nazi for wanting to burn books. Thankfully a sensible person pointed out that while the Nazis had indeed gone in for a bit of book-burning, it wasn’t by any means the worst thing they had done. A couple of people made witty but pointed reference to the fact that one of Rome’s (very best) bookshops is called ‘Fahrenheit 451’. I replied, arguing that the two items in question didn’t really deserve the hallowed status of ‘book’. I made the same point to a young Italian guy who promptly sent me a PM asking if he could have the books ‘for research’ because he was ‘interested in the topic’:

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…which gives a new dimension to the phrase ‘you’d have to have been there’.

Although Irving has long been a discredited and bankrupt irrelevance in terms of serious history, both the Guardian and The Independent for some reason decided to give him a blast of publicity in the wake of the film. He claims that the election of a US President who openly consorts with Holocaust deniers (and, it should go without saying, climate liars) has revived interest in his ‘work’, with ‘thousands’ of young people contacting him to find out more about his ‘research’. He continues to use YouTube to propagate the lie that he’s a proper historian.

20160914_111306Someone in the Facebook group had suggested a far-off part of town crummy enough that few would be bothered by the sight of someone burning some books, but I didn’t really want to drag a one-week-old-baby across Rome and end up getting us both arrested for arson. Instead I thought of a largely abandoned area round the corner, next to the river, so I could get the whole thing out of the way in half an hour and not neglect my parental responsibilities. As it happens the area isn’t uninhabited; there’s a community of gypsies scattered along a stretch of the Tiber. Elsewhere on Facebook I read about the impending destruction of a similar settlement in Napoli, where my wife was born. The European Roma Rights Centre reports that:

The proposed forced eviction will render more than 340 Romani families homeless, including pregnant women, young children, and persons with disabilities. These Romani families, like most Roma in Naples, are a part of the city, having been resident there for a number of years. Despite this, the municipality of Naples has not provided them with any alternative housing.

I’m sure Irving himself would approve. Anti-gypsy racism seems particularly rife (indeed respectable) in Italy. The Telegraph reported in 2008 that a class of Italian schoolchildren had produced drawings supporting the burning of a local gypsy camp. As a novice arsonist myself I had to hope that the fire I was about to start wouldn’t burn out of control and have a similar impact. Whatever it was I wanted to achieve by burning the books, it certainly wasn’t that.

Thankfully there was a good omen. The place I settled upon also has some fitting graffiti (‘YESTERDAY PARTISANS, TODAY ANTI-FASCISTS’). As it happens, the only elected representative of the aforementioned fascist group Casapound recently dismissed the Italians who took up arms against their own fascist Government and the Nazi regime which stepped in to save it as ‘rapists’.

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It would be nice to see someone like Irving as a detail of history, a footnote: there were some Nazi sympathisers who denied the holocaust, but they were ignored. But that’s not the case. Next month the French may well elect a President whose biological and political father has repeatedly described the systematic murder of millions of people as exactly that: “a detail of history”.

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The reasons that some things are beyond debate is that people often lie about their interests and their ideologies. David Irving knows the Holocaust happens, he just can’t admit publicly that he thinks it was a good thing and should be repeated.

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As people like to say these days, this is why we can’t have nice things. It also explains why I wanted to burn these books.

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Holocaust denial and climate denial have much more in common than has been so far acknowledged. Exxon executives knew several decades ago that the company’s activities were causing the planet to overheat and would make human life impossible, but they kept quiet because admitting it could hurt their profits. They and other such companies then invested billions of dollars in spreading lies about climate science, funding people to speak up for them who are no more proper climate scientists than David Irving is a proper historian. These are the kind of trolls who would take the last six words of the last sentence and remove them from their context. If I could I would burn all attempts to deny that the climate is changing. I would set fire to millions of web pages and happily watch them go up in smoke.

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By denying death, they deny life.

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Afterward the well-known events took place.

Our inventions were perfected. One thing led to another,
orders were given. There were those who murdered
in their own way,
grieved in their own way.
I won’t mention names
out of consideration for the reader,
since at first the details horrify
though finally they’re a bore.
(Dan Pagis)

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and even though there are those
hidden behind platinum titles
who like to pretend
that we don’t exist
that the marshall islands
tuvalu
kiribati
maldives
and typhoon haiyan in the philippines
and floods of pakistan, algeria, and colombia
and all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidalwaves
didn’t exist

still
there are those
who see us

hands reaching out
fists raising up
banners unfurling
megaphones booming
and we are
canoes blocking coal ships
we are
the radiance of solar villages
we are
the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past
we are
petitions blooming from teenage fingertips
we are
families biking, recycling, reusing,
engineers dreaming, designing, building,
artists painting, dancing, writing
we are spreading the word

and there are thousands out on the street
marching with signs
hand in hand
chanting for change NOW

they’re marching for you, baby
they’re marching for us

because we deserve to do more than just
survive
we deserve
to thrive

dear matefele peinam,

you are eyes heavy
with drowsy weight
so just close those eyes, baby
and sleep in peace

because we won’t let you down

you’ll see

(Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner)

If you really want to bring down Trump, snap at his Achilles heel

The science-fiction author Philip K. Dick once wrote that “sometimes the only rational response to reality is to go insane”. Some experiences and threats are just too traumatic to deal with. Hence we use a range of psychological mechanisms to protect our sense of who we are and what we are doing from breaking down. One of the main ones is denial: we simply pretend that that which troubles us doesn’t exist. However, denying what we are scared to face has consequences which may be worse than the thing itself. Repressed fears can return as outbursts of rage against undeserving targets, fetishised stand-ins for whatever it is that we are avoiding.

I believe that the core appeal of the new far-right of Trump, Le Pen, Farage and so on is that it denies on our behalf things that we can’t face, and identifies simple targets against whom our repressed fears can be expressed in the form of rage. The list of things that supporters of such individuals systematically deny includes racism, rape, historical events, news sources, slavery, the holocaust, science,  and accepted facts in relation to all of the above.

How can I state the above with such certainty? In the spirit of honesty and not denying one’s own past, I confess that for several years I was in the very bad habit of arguing with supporters of Ukip on Twitter. In a bid to use the medium as something other than an echo chamber, I sought out people with opinions different from mine and tried to engage them in debate. One thing I learned is that such a  platform is not designed for and can’t really be adapted to support meaningful political discussion. The other conclusion I was forced to accept is that denial is the central platform of parties like Ukip. It was like doing a Master’s degree in Puerility and Obtuseness Studies. Not only did I see their supporters regularly deny all the things I listed above: I was also regularly part of interactions in which the other party would deny what they had just said, refuse to acknowledge a logical fallacy in their argument, ask for evidence of my points and then refuse to engage with the evidence I provided, and turn to personal abuse when all else had failed. Part of the problem with discussing politics on the Internet in general and Twitter in particular is that the other party can just disappear: they’re not responsible for defending the statements they’ve made or the claims of the organisation they’re supporting. This exacerbated the problems I experienced in trying to reason with people whose worldview denies reason itself.

All that I’ve described is united in one specific issue, one that I think enables and then excuses all types of denial. That, of course, is the climate. If you can deny Climate Change, you can deny anything. It helps enormously (and is absolutely no coincidence) that the leaders of new far-right parties are funded directly by the Climate Denial Industry. But the ideology of denial runs deeper than mere economic self-interest. We are all to some extent if not climate deniers at least climate ignorers. As I’ve argued before, we are all complicit in the conspiracy to cover up the facts about the climate. However, as abstract facts become manifest in our daily lives, as changes to our habitat become more apparent and less deniable, the pathology of the serious climate trolls is deepening and spreading to infect all other areas of human knowledge and seriously threatening everything that we take for granted, all the rights and forms of social progress that underpin our freedom and stable way of life.

The links between, on the one hand, those in the political realm who ridicule and censor our attempts to protect our living systems and, on the other, the economic interests that jeopardise our species’ survival are also becoming more explicit and less deniable. 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. That his company (ExxonMobbil) has rightly been called the greatest criminal corporation in history tells us most of what we need to know about what is going on in international politics right now. Trump’s direct financial involvement in the pipelines he himself has authorised fills in the rest of the dots.

The reason that climate change is the Achilles heel of the new far-right is that it is only possible to go on denying these things if you are part of a psychotic cult, one which is led by a psychopath and whose principle purpose, whose golden edict, is denial. If you are not part of such a cult, the available facts speak for themselves, or at least they would if they were more widely acknowledged. The reason that the things I’ve described are not more widely discussed is because they have revolutionary implications for how we live. That’s why companies like ExxonMobbil, Volkswagen, Koch Industries etc have devoted so much money and energy to making sure that ordinary people are confused by basic facts about the climate, believing that there is doubt and ambiguity where there is none. But our own experience of the world has now reached a point where it is only by direct censorship and repression that the truth and its implications can be contained.

If we truly want to address the cause of the rise of monsters like Trump and Le Pen, we all have to become climate campaigners. They are strong because we are silent about what most scares us. If we, collectively, can break that silence then we can expose them at their weakest point. That means we need to learn and share as widely as possible the true story of the climate crisis, one which starts with very basic science and develops into the deadliest and most dastardly conspiracy in human history. It also means that we have to be open with each other about something that truly terrifies us. Although activism is in itself a form of therapy in that it transforms our perspective on our own situation from a passive to a dynamic one, it isn’t enough in relation to this issue. We also need climate therapy groups, in which people can be honest about their fears. To paraphrase Thomas Pynchon, we need to keep sane, but care. And we also need to make sure that whenever anyone is worrying or ranting about the dangers that Trump, Le Pen and their ilk represent, climate change is absolutely central to the concerns being expressed.

The ideology of the emerging Trump/Putin/etc cult is based on psychotic and puerile denial of the causes and consequences of changes in our climate. The most effective way to stem its rise is to break our silence about that terrifying subject and accept our adult responsibility not to let the most evil forces on the planet destroy the lives of all of our children – including, as of three days ago, my own.

Republicans have a duty to help get rid of Trump

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A week ago I wrote that ‘Donald Trump is going to snap very, very soon’, but I may have been wrong. In any case, there’s another possibility.

The Republicans who put him into power knew the risks of doing so. Three days after his ‘election’ I argued:

…the Republicans have anointed the worst white man in the world to replace the first black President. The problem they now have is that Trump is utterly incapable of governing. He is a man who will clearly be unable to master the complex tasks inherent to the job. Being President of a large powerful nation involves dealing with huge amounts of detailed information. Although there is some limited evidence that Trump has some ability to understand short written sentences, there is no way that someone of his *extremely* restricted intellectual prowess will be able to read the morass of documents he will have to handle on a daily basis, or even to understand the most basic gist when they are explained to him. There’s also the question of workload. Here is Obama describing an average day in his life as President. It’s demanding stuff, and the mere fact that the word ‘intelligence’ is used three times suggests strongly that the new President will struggle. By contrast, Trump’s typical day almost certainly revolves around a heavy schedule of cheating at golf, inspecting prospective line-ups of mid-teen prostitutes, spending seven solid hours on Twitter in an increasingly frustrating bid for ego-gratification, signing documents for buildings that he does not own, telling his children that they are worthless, and looking out of the window of his plane wondering why his own father hated him so much. Much has been made of his lack of political experience but few have considered the possibility that this is man so lacking in concentration and stamina that he has probably never sat through an entire episode of the West Wing. (Neither have I, but no one has suggested making me President.)

I don’t know the precise nature of Trump’s mental disorders. As I’m not a psychologist, I’ll just say he’s dangerously deranged. I know that his fellow Republican Paul Ryan is an admirer of Ayn ‘Medicare’ Rand, which according to my personal DSM qualifies him for psychopath status. However, I also know that not all conservatives are driven by the will to power and the eradication of the ‘weak’. They have values, believing strongly in the importance of duty, loyalty, faith, family, community, stability, and the Republic. Their notion of freedom differs from mine, and has been usefully defined as freedom from rather than freedom to. It’s a noble tradition, one which there’s some sign Mike Pence retains some respect for, despite his absolute contempt for more than half of the human species.

It is by no means impossible for liberals and those of us on the left to find common ground with conservatives. Please watch this 5-minute video by the climate campaigner George Marshall. It’s crucial to my argument and he explains it many times better than I ever could.

Climate Change is traumatic for people with a conservative outlook. It demonstrates that they were wrong about the free market and the supremacy of private self-interest over the private good. Naomi Klein explains this very clearly in ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate’. Many on the right have responded by going full-on psychotic in their denial of the facts.

Climate science is not the only thing that Trump’s administration is hell-bent on denying. It is also flouting basic constitutional rights and the political traditions of the United States in its pursuit of an openly sadistic agenda. Those who are not psychotic or driven by sadism, and who still respect the United States as an institution (as Trump clearly doesn’t), have to help get rid of him. I don’t know what form that will or should take. It would be good if grassroots Republicans could join the movement to resist the devastating (and probably illegal) changes he is imposing. Those who are in the centre or on the left need to be prepared to dialogue with them, using the techniques and language George outlines above. At the top of the Republican Party disposing of Trump will probably have to involve at least cloaks, if not actual daggers (we don’t want to be dealing with a martyr). I also wrote in November (in a mood of some despair):

“…the Republican Party is now faced with the conundrum of managing a situation which is to all intents and purposes impossible. There may already be whispers in the arras that he could be forcibly removed. In the light of his apparent insistence that Sarah Palin should play a prominent role in world affairs few rational people living or dead would be all that opposed to a good old-fashioned off-stage poisoning or stabbing. Or possibly an air crash? I sincerely hope that 1) there are still some Republican leaders out there who still have some measure of faith in the values they profess and the integrity to implement them and 2) that they have left no options off the table.

As I say, although I think it’s essential to avoid bloodshed as far as humanly possible, it will be very difficult for Republicans leaders to manoeuvre Trump off the stage. The fact that it may be dangerous for them doesn’t bother me unduly at this stage. In my darker moments I marvel at lack of the lack of suicides of leading conservative political figures in relation to Trump’s ascension. These are people who claim to love their country and cherish their democracy. Look at what they’ve done to it.

One commenter on this site described Trump’s present position as ‘thriving’. The situation of many of his first victims could fairly be characterised as ‘sitting at a foreign airport wondering how the hell to get back home to their families’. (Ironically, Trump himself is keen to spend as little time with his family as possible.) I think what we’ve seen in his first week in the White House is not an energetic burst of activity but a manic acting out of a mental disorder (whichever it may be) under the guidance of the nazi activist Steve Bannon, a proud wife-beater and probable alcoholic who will do whatever he can to destroy democracy and unleash chaos. Bannon resembles the trickster psychologists in the last few J.G. Ballard novels in that he seems to have learned to manipulate Trump’s psychopathology to the point where the ‘President’ trusts him and probably thinks he is his ‘friend’.

One comment I particularly valued among the hundreds of extremely wise remarks and reflections left in response to my first piece was the following, from someone called nychermes:

I respectfully disagree with your assessment that he will snap. I don’t think he is snapping anytime. That’s a misreading and I will explain as follows. You’ve reduced his complex assemblage to his insecurities – what YOU aren’t seeing is his very resilient, very strong core strength to always go for what he has his mind set to, however it may threaten his insecure ego. HE will NOT SNAP. He will get through every nuisance he creates even if he appears he’s in trouble – he WILL invert the very nuisance only to recreate more chaos to hide and bury his weakness while maintaining a storm of chaos and going after his objectives. HE will devolve the rest of the country and audiences into a pulp of insanity and emotional incoherence but he will stand. He is WAY more dangerous than your well meaning but one-dimensional – ‘insecure ready to snap manchild’ portrait for him. The ‘manchild’ is not ALL of the story as you have made it out to be in your article.

The title of my article was partly wishful thinking expressed as an extremely firm prediction. I think that’s one reason it was so widely shared and read, and I apologise if it made anyone feel in any way complacent about what lies ahead. Of course, Trump may well not ‘snap’ (not being a psychiatrist, I left that term unhelpfully vague). In the meantime, others need to snap into action. Debates over his mental stability need to take place in the open and journalists must openly challenge Government supporters and spokespeople on the issue. Then there are the politicians. According to Robert Reich, some Republican senators didn’t oppose Trump’s rise before the election because they were scared of being shot dead by his demented supporters. Well right now it seems to me that if the only people to lose their lives as a result of this madman’s brief reign as President were the people who installed him in the first place, it wouldn’t be such an absolute tragedy. The world is not going to suffer for their cowardice.

Donald Trump does not represent Republican values. If you are a Republican, you owe it to your country to help get him out of the White House as soon as possible.

Cancún: ¡Turistas de la Chingada!

dsc_0588The most refreshing experience you can have on Planet Earth is to dive into a cenote. In the blistering heat of the Yucatan Peninsula, particularly amidst the mega-scale tourism and traffic of the Mayan Riviera, to hurl yourself into ice-cold crystalline waters is to be reborn into a much more exhilarating universe. If you happen to belong to one of those denominations which still baptise their congregations by dunking them in water, get your budding new believers on a plane and there’ll be yours in this life and the next.

95% of tourists who visit Mexico go no further than the northwest corner of the Yucatan Peninsula. You can see why, but it shows. On our visit to Cancun we bypass the city entirely, but we do get a sense of the over-development around it, with its mammoth hotels and trumpian golf resorts. We go straight to Playa del Carmen. The bit where we’re staying is surprisingly pleasant: lowrise, backpacky. The following day we get to see the real, authentic Playa del Carmen, which is basically a gringo shopping mall with warehouse-sized discount souvenir outlets piled high with Chinese-made tat. I’m not sure how this works at the level of meaningful present-giving:

-Hey man, thanks for the gift!
– F*ck you. It only cost 20 cents.


I buy some fake Crocs, and then ten minutes later fall over and nearly break my ankle. Pinche fayuca de la chingada! I exclaim, feeling pretty sure I’m getting the swearing right. I hobble back to the sea where we get chatting to some Americans from the Midwest who are affable, chatty, and very big. I get the impression that if I ask them about the election later in the year I might start to hate them, so I don’t.
dsc_0563Just off the beach there’s a huge amount of commerce but on it there are, unusually for Mexico, no vendedores ambulantes. It’s quite a contrast from when we went to Playa Condesa in Acapulco in February, where we were approached by vendors every ten seconds. It was rather like the metro in Mexico City. They were selling beach gear, clothes, cold drinks, full meals, massages, and an hour with a massive bass-heavy speaker (thankfully there were no takers for that one). They were unceasingly polite and not particularly insistent. We know that they were taking a risk. Two weeks after our visit one was shot dead on the same stretch of sand*. The fact that there were heavily-armed (and, bizarrely, jungle-camouflaged) squadrons of soldiers running around the promenade was hard to tally with the whole lying-on-the-beach thing. A useful tip for visiting Acapulco is: Don’t talk to taxi drivers if you want to enjoy your visit, but do ask them questions if you’re at all interesting in getting some sense of how f*cking dangerous the place is if you’re not a tourist.

The fact that on the beach in PDC there are no vendors means it’s actually hard to get hold of a beer or a bottle of water. Along the beach there are chain hotels where you can’t get anything to eat or drink unless you’re a guest. Entire stretches of beach are wholly-owned. Everybody we talk to agrees that it’s a safe place to visit. It is, for tourists, mostly. The fact that the locals are absent suggests that it’s not so for everybody. They depend on tourists for their economic survival, but have limited access to them. The situation puts me in mind of promotional photos of the alcoholic folk-punk band The Pogues in the late 1980s, where all bottles, glasses, spliffs, crack pipes, etc would be removed from the scene. (I see that in relation to cigarettes this phenomenon is known as ‘tobacco bowdlerisation’.) Frantz Fanon wrote about the ‘invisibility of the colonial subject’, but he could just as well have been talking about tourism. Most holiday brochures feature no images of the local people, except those in a servile capacity, pouring drinks or dancing their wacky dances. The roots of modern tourism do, after all, lie in colonialism, in taking possession of what we see, which is why John Urry called his classic study of the field ‘The Tourist Gaze’. This partly explain why we spend so much time on holiday taking photos, like the ones I’m showing off here. 

To travel down the coast we hire a small car, a Volkswagen. I can offset this from my personal carbon budget because I’m not the one who’s driving. My wife drives it to another cenote, while I sit in the passenger seat tutting and shaking my head. 

There are hundreds of sinkholes and caves connected to underground rivers all across the region. They allowed the Mayan civilisation to survive for several thousand years, given that the northern part of the peninsula has no rivers or major lakes. Their existence is now threatened by urban expansion and the direct commodification of the cenotes themselves, which means we’ll be to blame should they get poisoned or dry up. For the Mayans they had a sacred and symbolic role, representing the entrance to a mythical underworld (they probably didn’t call it a ‘mythical underworld’). After the Spanish arrived they were also used to hide sacred objects and other items that Catholic priests forbade, like first-generation ipods.dsc_0552We drive on to Akumal. The people selling snorkelling tours and turtle visitations are numerous and quite insistent. As we drive in, pass the tourist kiosk, get out and walk across the car park, walk onto the beach, and sit down, we are badgered (or perhaps, under the circumstances, turtled) by nine or ten touts. There are snakes of pink and orange lifejackets all round the turquoise bay. I start to apply suncream but a friendly person comes along immediately and tells me not to as it damages the coral. There are kindergartens of fish in the shallows of the water, and feeling a bit sun-addled I try to compensate them for our intrusion on their habitat by giving them some money, but there’s a translation problem. The setting reminds my wife of the Comoros Islands, which are nonetheless undeveloped and very poor. We are all here to see an unspoiled environment while trying not to think too hard about the fact that in doing so we are ourselves spoiling it.

The beaches in Tulum are similarly paradisical; in fact, they are even more lovely because they have bits of a ruined city hanging over them. Tulum is also, thanks to people exactly like us, overdeveloped, but on a different scale. Beachside bungalows cover every square inch for about ten miles. They’re called things like Shalom, Ecochic, and Happy Hour. I see the word ‘spa’ so many times I start to feel like I need to lie down, shut my eyes, listen to the waves and forget about the word ‘spa’. As for the prefix ‘eco’, it loses a bit of meaning when followed by the term ‘quad bikes’. There’s also a bungalow resort called My Way, which to me makes it sound a bit like Dignitas, and actually it might be, given that this would not be a bad place at all to die.We avoid the suggestively-named Azulik, which is ‘clothing optional‘.  Once again my brain is bothering me for words to describe the colour of the water, so I trick it by taking this photo:dsc_0583
In the evening we go to a friendly German-run bar and I pick up the local newspaper. In addition to gruesome images and macabre details of those who’ve been shot dead for selling drugs to tourists, there’s an article about Akumal. A group of ecologists has reported that the coral reef is on the brink of collapse. Officially the site is only allowed to receive 250 visitors a day; it’s currently welcoming around 5,000 of us. On the other side of the main street of Tulum there’s a party taking place in the headquarters of a taxi sindicate called Tiburones del Caribe (Caribbean Sharks). The building is festooned in PRI banners and balloons and there is reggaeton blasting out. Like any Mexican town there’s a lot of competition for customers, but the notion that competition automatically leads to better efficiency is once again disproven by the fact that at the end of the night it takes our taxi driver 25 minutes to find our hotel, which is five minutes’ walk away.  Later I read about a number of assaults on tourists, and the smashing-up of cars from opposition companies. Mexico provides a lot of support for the argument that war is a continuation of capitalism by other means.

In Tulum we find it hard to track down anywhere interesting to eat. Being British in Mexico and complaining about the food is perhaps a bit incongruous, but we are, after all, kind of double foreigners here in that we live in Mexico City and the range of restaurants on offer in Tulum doesn’t begin to compare. The first question people ask us about DF (as everyone refers to the capital) is ‘is it dangerous’. Not for us it’s not, we say, smugly. Not in terms of crime, at least, although in environmental terms the city is some ways hanging por un fío. Mexico abounds in confirmation that cities can collapse, whether thanks to invasion or a range of factors. The Mayans in Yucatan were nearly wiped out by a massive prolonged drought. Although it’s not politically correct to say so, their climate changed and so their civilisation collapsed**. That can happen. In Mexico the term ecocidio is increasingly being used to describe events like that in Cancun, when an entire Mangrove forest was destroyed to make way for more tourist developments. Jared Diamond dedicates a substantial portion of  ‘Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed’ to the fate of the Mayans, who hung on for several centuries when the natural resources they had relied for millennia could barely sustain them any longer. The lifespan of their civilisation may have been shorter had they had millions of Volkswagen-driving hypocrites like us to provide for.dsc_0597

*I don’t know if it was the guy walking up and down with the speaker.

**Yes, I’m aware that I’m challenging the notion of ‘politically correct’ is. Here’s an experiment: ask the next human being you see ”How worried are you about climate change?’. They’ll almost certainly change the subject very, very quickly. 

Self-delusion 101: Conversation with a climate denier

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There are several Facebook groups dedicated to the topic of Climate Change/Global Warming. The ones called ‘discussion’ and ‘debate’ are crawling with trolls. Some are better: I thought the one called something like ‘Air, Water, Energy, Resources’ was more serious. This is (what I remember of) a ‘conversation’ (insofar as that venerable term can be applied to online interactions) with someone who turned out to be one of the administrators of said group, who had commented on this article which I had posted a link to. I’m posting it here not out of self-aggrandisement (I’m not exactly proud of spending time online arguing about politics with people who for all I know may be only 13 years old) but because my site (this one) has now become the object of attention from climate trolls and I want to demonstrate one central delusion of their mission to disrupt efforts to save humanity: that their opinions about climate science have any validity or meaning whatsoever. The conversation no longer ‘exists’ because I left the group immediately afterwards, but I’ve tried to be honest in recalling what was said.

Thanks for what you wrote, I think a lot of it is wrong but I respect your right to say it. You’re very sure about scientific things that haven’t been proven. Anyway, do people really deny the holocaust? I don’t think so.

They do, sadly, in fact dedicated climate trolls very often moonlight as holocaust ‘revisionists’. Have a look around. And the science was settled several decades ago, as you must be aware.

That’s not true, you can’t be sure about anything. There are many different opinions. Science is never settled.

Well, it’s not a matter of opinion. Scientists conduct and repeat experiments and the results of those experiments are published and then themselves tested. It’s not guesswork. Anyway its odd that you should have chosen this particular area of science to dispute, because as it happens there’s a massive industry based on denying it, funded by the fossil fuel industry. Is that a coincidence?

I don’t care about fossil fuel companies. I’m interested in the science.

Are you yourself a climate scientist?

I have enough expertise to be a climate scientist.

I have enough expertise to fly a mission to Mars. I’m still waiting for them to call me back. Have you passed a series of exams which test your knowledge of the climate? Have you been rigorously trained in conducting experiments and interpreting their results? Has your expertise been recognised? Do you work in the field of climate science? Where can I find your work so I can see for myself?

I know a lot more than people who do.

But you’re not one. On the scale of climate scientist to internet troll, you’re way on the opposite side from climate scientist. Are you even an adult? Because it seems to me that your understanding of science is puerile.

Please be civil.

Civil? Scientists are essential to civilisation. Pretending to be one undermines the credibility of real scientists and thereby undermines civilisation. Do you pretend to be anyone else? When they say “is there a doctor on the plane?” Has anyone died as a result?

I’ve never pretended to be a doctor.

Well done. That’s really commendable. Look, I’ve just googled your name. This is what came up. You’re not a climate scientist. You may be just a schoolchild. I don’t want to be too hard on you, but get yourself another hobby. This issue is far, far too important to play these kinds of games. And I’ve got a word for you to learn: agnotology. I’ve googled it for you. It means the deliberate spreading of misinformation and uncertainty. That’s what you’re doing. Please, please stop.

This is a Climate Denial coup and we are part of it

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By the time Trump had finished burbling his way through the oath of office, all references to Climate Change had been erased from the White House website.

As I have been saying all along to anyone who would listen, this is what Trumpism is ultimately all about.

It is a coup by the corporate climate denial movement.

I predicted that this would happen:

It now looks highly probable that within our own lifetimes the problem of ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ will, in one limited sense, disappear. It seems likely to me that the Trump administration will follow the lead of Florida Governor Rick Scott, who forbade government agencies from mentioning it, and former UK Environment Minister Owen Paterson, who refused to read any document containing either phrase.

If they hadn’t gained power this way, they would have done it by means of violence.

Trump’s supporters among ordinary working and not-working people know the facts at some level – only a psychotic could truly ignore the spate of floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc — but they are prevented from articulating their fears by the cover-up campaign and by the social taboo it has generated. Their repressed fears express themselves as furious denial and hatred against any easily identifiable target they are presented with.

And then there’s the rest of us. You, for example. When was the last time you had a serious conversation about the changing climate?

If we continue to avoid discussing the causes and the consequences of the changing climate with our friends, families and colleagues, we are part of the “Trump Revolution”.

In the meantime, I want to say once again to anyone who is listening: Climate Denial and Holocaust Denial are, on a moral plane, identical. Dedicated climate liars should be treated with absolute contempt. Climate denial involves dismissing – indeed facilitating – the suffering unto death of billions of human beings, principally those who are considered to be far away and different. Those who perpetuate it, whether out of personal interest or misanthropy, are involved in the planning and execution of the corporate genocide of the entire human species. And what is taking place inside the White House is the “alt-right” equivalent of the Wannsea Conference. This is the Endlösung for the climate.

It is no accident, therefore, that very many of the same individuals who insist on disrupting all and any discussion of global warming also deny the massacre of millions of people by Hitler. The 2016 film about the Nazi activist David Irving, ‘Denial’, was also, implicitly, a film about climate denial.

Hence there is no need to check on what the stances of Marine Le Pen or Frauke Petry are on environmental questions. We know. They are serving the interests of the most evil forces to have ever held sway over the future of our species.

The most painful aspect is that we are all to some extent climate deniers. We have to be, or life would be impossible.

To explain this I want to post something I wrote on the subject in August 2010. I should have found some way to shout it louder at the time, or worked harder on working harder with people who felt the same way:

Why are so many otherwise entirely rational and intelligent people so prepared to give credence to the denialists? Of course it is partly to do with the media hegemony of corporate power, but not entirely. Personally I comfort myself in the secure knowledge that I myself am prepared to ‘believe’ in the reality of what is happening and what we face, that I ‘know’ that it is happening and will continue to happen; but I’ve come to think that I may be mistaken about my own belief.

There are after all very many things we think we believe, but actually we don’t, and to ‘know’ something is not the same as, in the words of Sven Lvindquist, to understand what we know and to draw conclusions. Despite my firmly held and rationally based opinions, my own actions suggest that I am not a strong believer in the reality of climate change. I do not place much importance in recycling, for example, choosing to regard it as something of a superstitious action akin to shouting at the TV to influence the result of a football match (nobody of course would ‘believe’ for a second that doing so would have any impact, but their ‘irrational’ behaviour might make one think otherwise). My position on recycling could probably be characterised as something of a ‘beautiful soul‘ one: given that other people refuse to change, and given the immense complexities involved, I refuse to act, regarding it (entirely logically, if not rationally) as both utterly ineffective and beneath me. Nevertheless it’s one that I have until now felt entirely comfortable with.

It’s very difficult, impossible perhaps, to take a realistic and rational view of climate change. There is no level of fear or anger that is proportionate, and none of our individual actions are remotely sufficient. I have come to realise, however, that gestures are important, contrary to what I’ve always thought and contrary to what Slavoj Zizek so entertainingly argues. My actions suggest that subconsciously, like anyone else, I refuse to accept the reality of climate change. The trauma is too great to integrate into my notion of the world, the future of the world and my place in it, and so I act as if I will never be affected. But changing my habits can force me into believing at a deeper level. In Alcoholic’s Anonymous they apparently call this ‘acting as if’: first you change your behaviour, and then hopefully, gradually, your beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, about your ability to manage your life without a drink in your hand begin to change.

To slip briefly into amateur Lacanese: because the Real of climate change is impossible to apprehend, we have to act within the realm of the symbolic. Symbolic tokens in the form of gestures do have a value; they can be exchanged for genuine belief. Not just recycling but skills shares and community gardens are important, as are all other forms of exchange not based purely on exploitation. Staying out of supermarkets is a good move for all sorts of reasons.

Nowadays, again like anyone else, we consume constantly, indiscriminately, or ironically, consuming our own gestures of consumption. This is the age of McDonalds happy meals consumed in a constant low-level muzak hum of cynicism, apathy and despair, flat screen Tvs gorged down in the midst of a recession. We consume because we are: what else are we, what else are we to do?

There is of course no substitute for collective political action, for maximum anger gathered and launched at those in power who notice our failure to genuinely believe and so pretend to act, understanding that for us, for now, pretending to act is enough. But it can serve to help us accept the anger and fear that climate change generates, to live with it and try to live differently.

I think I believe in the reality of climate change. But the fact that I fail for the moment to begin to live differently shows that I do not, yet. I first have to change the way I live my life.

Welcome back to 2016. We are now governed by a regime of climate trolls. Such creatures are, whether they like it or no, mouthpieces for the fossil fuel industry. In ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ Pynchon writes:

Death converted into more death. Perfecting its reign, just as the buried coal grows denser, and overlaid with more strata – epoch on top of epoch, city on top of ruined city.

I don’t know what will now happen to the squads of trolls that have been mobilised. They can no longer pretend to themselves that there’s anything other than doglike obedience to corporate power motivating their actions. Some will continue to fight online battles, too stupid and/or rabid to realise that they’ve won. Their owners will probably give them another scented rag to chase down. Vigilante gangs may be formed offline in addition to online in order to help police dissent. In the meantime this blog will soon go much quieter, as I will have a bigger priority: our first child (thankfully a daughter). We have to protect and sustain life in the face of forces which represent nothing but death.

18 questions for climate deniers

  1. Do you accept the science of how babies are created?

  2. Do you accept the science of how ice is formed?

  3. Do you accept the science of how the earth goes in circles?

  4. Do you accept the science of where eggs come from?

  5. Do you accept the science of how water is heated?

  6. Do you accept the science of how light bulbs work?

  7. Do you accept the science of how planes stay airborne?

  8. Do you accept the science of how rainclouds form?

  9. Do you accept the science of how rubber ducks float?

  10. Do you accept the science of how sand becomes glass?

  11. Do you accept the science of night and day?

  12. Do you accept the science of the warming planet?

  13. Do you accept the science of how we evolved?

  14. Do you accept the science of how vaccines function?

  15. Do you accept the science of how greenhouses work?

  16. Do you accept the science of how flowers can grow?

  17. Do you accept the science of how birds and bees combine?

  18. Do you accept the science of how your car starts to move?

If your answer to any of those questions is ‘no’, get educated. You might find this site helpful.