Archive for February, 2011


February 27, 2011

This is a prose poem I have been working on

It took a while before I could see your face. What shall we do this weekend? Something sweet and gentle. And it doesn’t happen on first meeting. A process of discovery. All the lives you’ve lived. The thing of not being able to summarise you in a snap judgement, or reiterate your time on earth in a story. The compassion. The transcendence. The courage to dream and play. I love you, and not just because you saved my life. In the comms channel, walking the cycle paths, the rattle of hobo freightliners overhead. The strange cold positive impression your palm left in mine. Everything is true. I’m in adoreland with you.

Into the Tornado

February 27, 2011

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to hide this from the world, so I might as well write about it on here. For a couple of months now I’ve been dealing with serious mood swings – great cresting highs followed by periods of absolute darkness. It’s getting to the point where I can predict the cycle but do nothing about it. It’s like being sucked into a tornado. The cyclone lifts you higher and higher and then lets you go. And you find your farm has been levelled and your livestock are galloping into the sunset. Everything’s good for me, that’s the strange thing about this, it has nothing to do with your actual situation. I can manage my life: I just can’t manage my emotions. And the lows are so bad I am freaking people out by crying the whole time. I miss my therapist. I need to get back into some kind of talking therapy and to that end will chase my GP for an assessment. It’s calendar spring soon. Time of changes.

Adventures in Freedomland

February 23, 2011

I have just read Treasure Islands, Nicholas Shaxson’s investigation of offshore finance, and it is brilliant, essential reading if you want to understand the situation we’re in. Forget the lies of the National Government and its nodding dogs in the media. This book should be read by every politician, every activist, every member of the public. There is a long review at 3:AM.

Against Communities, Against Families

February 13, 2011

I wonder if you’ve ever read Ewan Morrison‘s novel Swung (spoiler coming) about a dissatisfied couple who look for self-realisation and good times by joining the orgy scene. After a series of chaotic and sordid encounters with total strangers they realise that swinging doesn’t do it for them and that all the things they were searching for they could find in their own relationship. The story ends with the couple expecting a baby.

This book came to mind over the weekend when there was some debate on Facebook about National Marriage Week. This is an idea from the Centre for Social Justice, the National Government’s wonkery arm, and the reasoning is that marriage promotes social stability so we should support it with tax breaks. On the face of it, this is mad. You wouldn’t think conservatives would legislate on matters of the heart. Government doesn’t get much bigger than this.

Yet it’s not as silly as it sounds, certainly compared to most CSJ ideas. I’m sure IDS is right to say that ‘we do a disservice to society if we ignore the evidence which shows that stable families tend to be associated with better outcomes for children. And there are few more powerful tools for promoting stability than the institution of marriage.’ And as a romantic I love the idea of having a big party essentially to say: ‘I love this woman, forever.’ IDS concentrates on welfare and anti-social behaviour rather than passion and romance but it’s a start, maybe. Personally I would like to see Dave and Gideon set an example by getting a civil partnership, for the duration of National Marriage Week, in a public ceremony.

And yet getting married and raising children costs money, and there is no way the DWP is going to free up enough welfare cash to allow people the time they need to build solid and lasting relationships with their partners and children. Most people I know are not on the property ladder and cannot afford to have a child on the salaries they’re on. Responding to a critique by Suzanne Moore, Morrison picked up on this: ‘You might be interested to know that separation, divorce and singledom are growth markets. Capitalism is done with the family.’ The National Government is schizophrenic on this as on so many other things. Its minister promotes the family as an ideal, but its doctrinaire freemarket policies and attacks on the welfare state make it almost impossible to start and support a family.
The liberal-creative convention goes – from Adam Curtis to Douglas Coupland – that the revolutions of ’68 led to an aggressive individualist capitalism which in turn has destroyed community and connection. Generations are condemned to float in a white haze of isolated consumerism. Feminists and leftwingers used to fight for sexual freedom. Now they have reacted to the Atomised thesis by emphasising stability, family and community over independence and the pursuit of pleasure. Morrison sums it up: ‘The left wing critique of marriage is obsolete, out-dated. It should be on the agenda of every progressive thinker to uphold and strengthen all connections between people.’ Today’s feminists aren’t interested in female liberty and are as likely as the Daily Shriek to tell young women that the best possible thing they can do is find a man and produce children.

I’ve discussed this thesis a million times, and it’s wrong. The big problem is overcrowding, not isolation. The housing crisis has left countless families crammed into tiny ALMO properties and professionals living in HMOs well into middle age. I think of doors opening and closing, people running up and down stairs, long indistinct joyless conversations. People aren’t isolated from each other: they are squeezed and pummelled together in a miserable solidarity. Communitarians never seem to understand that people want silence and solitude and space.

The journalist and writer Lillys Miles raised the point that there is a dark side to the couple and the family that communitarians ignore. You can be alone and not lonely – and lonely and not alone. The IDS speech is a lament on family breakdown, but is family breakdown always a bad thing? Lillys points out that divorce has risen because divorce is easier and more socially acceptable. Before the right to divorce, women could end up wasting years and decades of their lives under the cosh of bullying and abusive husbands. The rise in divorce is the sign of a healthy and free society, not a nation in decline.

For centuries there has been a sentimental conspiracy of silence about the suffering and exploitation within the family unit. It’s worth going back to a speech by Labour peer Professor Anthony Giddens:

We should have no truck with those who say that our aim in family policy should be a return to the traditional family, by which I mean the family up until the threshold of the 1950s. That traditional family might have had virtues — indeed it did — but it also had a serious set of downsides. It was based on the dominance of men over women. Women were the chattels of men in English law until well into the 20th century, the last residue of which, so far as I know, is the law about the impossibility of rape in marriage. I believe that it was repealed as late as the 1960s. The traditional family also did not admit the rights of children. Historians and social scientists have uncovered just how big the dark side of the experience of childhood in the traditional family was, again right into the 20th and to some extent the 21st century. Levels of sexual and physical abuse of children were much higher than anyone conceived possible until intensive research on this topic revealed them a few years ago. Finally, the traditional family set a double standard in which married women were supposed to be pure and other women were regarded as fallen. In the mean time, men could get on with their philandering. So we certainly should not hold up the traditional family as a model for the past. At the minimum, we should be cautious about the idea that the family is breaking down and as a consequence the wider structures of our society are threatened.

We think of the family as an escape from the chaos and despair of the single life: and sometimes we find out the hard way that it’s not.

The idea that you cannot be happy and fulfilled while single is just fantasy. I think that people portray swingers as decrepit and ridiculous mainly because they don’t like to feel they’re missing out on something. My final thought is that love doesn’t last forever. All that lasts is the need to be loved and the desire to love.

Update: Steve Hilton just messaged me re my idea that David Cameron and George Osborne should get married for the duration of National Marriage Week. Very keen but concerns about how it would play with the backbenchers. Apparently if Gideon not up for it, Nick Clegg definitely is.

Hurrah for the Daily Shriek!

February 12, 2011

So mainly I’ve been writing fiction. The interests narrow as you get older (and I was always a narrow-minded and obessive fellow anyway) and there is a new urgency to it, hurtling towards thirty and feeling this need to get everything down. Fiction fills most spare time in what is a busy schedule – work, new friendships, DVD boxsets, plus I still need to get at least five hours of drinking a day: it’s tough, the life of the mind.

Since joining Twitter I have built up a network of loyal followers, including a Boston wedding planner (who presumably knows something I don’t) the captain of the Lansdown Cricket Ladies XI (which must never be confused with their hated rivals Bath Cricket Ladies XI) and a rapper named Tylee Crawford who declares that he dislikes ‘bored bitches’ and ‘broke niggas’. I love the immediacy of it: eyewitness reports of Egypt demonstrators being fired on by Mubarak’s army ripple into my liberal-creative timeline.

It seems like every Monday there is a Daily Shriek piece that causes hours of outrage and ridicule and response. It began with the infamous Jan Moir article on Stephen Gateley, in which she insinuated that, contrary to postmortem findings, the gay singer must have been fisted to death. Since then there’s been the astonishing and insensitive Liz Jones thinkpiece on Joanna Yeates’s murder, Melanie Phillips’s struggle against gay maths and a column by Richard Littlejohn in which he had some fun at the expense of a disabled protestor dragged out of his wheelchair by police.

Talented leftwing bloggers like Steven Baxter have made their names by taking on the lies and hate of the Daily Shriek and its companion, the Daily Squawk. I do wonder, though, how serious the controversialists are. There aren’t many jobs in journalism and graduates go where the work is. The Daily Mail is no doubt staffed by the kind of cokey metropolitan shag-happy hipster that its readership believe has brought the country to its knees. What the hell. Tomorrow’s fish and chips. And say what you like about Melanie Phillips, there is a powerful intellect underneath the absurdity. Surely she can’t really believe what she writes? Perhaps the life of the newspaper columnist is a quest for attention and nothing more.

Phillips, Moir, Littlejohn and generations of panel-show comedians have realised Michel Houellebecq’s truth: that to succeed as a celebrity or polemicist in a liberal democracy it is not enough to have talent. You don’t take on the government or the bankers – there’s no percentage in that. You must hurt the weak, the lost, the broken, the old, the poor, the sick, the lonely: you must laugh at disabled children. What thrills the masses of this silo nation isn’t sex but the breaking of the taboos that liberal democracies create to protect people who can’t fight for themselves. If you are to succeed in comedy or media, you have to tap into instincts of cruelty and the will to power that all good civilisations rightly repress.

So maybe the Daily Shriek Monday morning meeting goes like this. ‘Right, we really need to piss off the liberals on Twitter today. Mel, Jan? Ideas?’ ‘Tell you what Paul, I’ll do an editorial advising sexually confused teenagers to commit suicide.’ ‘Fantastic!’  The journalist David Hepworth summed it up: Disgusted on Tunbridge Wells turns into Appalled of Stoke Newington, firing off aerated responses to pieces with titles like ‘Time to decriminalise marital rape,’ ‘Dorries for PM,’ and ‘Abu Ghraib: What’s the Problem?’ Paul Sims echoed this: ‘I wonder how we’ll all feel, Twitter, when they eventually pull back the curtain and reveal that the Daily Mail was actually just for us?’ The Very Public Sociologist has theorised that the Shriek articles are deliberately tuned to hit liberal Twitter nerves, increasing click rate and web advertising revenues.

Still, if you read the comments under any Shriek piece (or indeed on any regional or local newspaper website) you’ll see that there are many people who genuinely believe what they read, even if the writers don’t believe it. Sincere or not, the Daily Shriek worldview is fast becoming conventional public wisdom. And it is getting nastier. This week we have seen a national newspaper come out in support of a fascist party for the first time since the 1930s. There could come a day when a Daily Mail reader decides that he needs to save his country from the politically correct conspiracy by blowing up a pub or a tube train. What’s certain is that our public discourse and our public life is going to get even more miserabilist and spiteful and censorious, with a self-pity so malignant and curdled that it borders on conscious evil.

The Social Model

February 9, 2011

This new flash fiction is now available at Wufniks.

Can’t Get There From Here

February 6, 2011

I find that I’m far too busy to write on here these days. But today I have a couple of free hours and some scattered thoughts so here goes.

I’ve been thinking about Julian Morrow’s speech in The Secret History, when the plot is kicked off by the lecturer’s monologue about ‘the burden of the self, and why people want to lose the self in the first place’:

Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so?… Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls – which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing?… It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think?

As Don Draper says in Mad Men: ‘You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts.’ The individual self is a constant reminder of the fact of our own impermanence and that one day we will not be. Human behaviour can be seen as an attempt to ‘lose this maddening self, lose it entirely’ in some greater whole. It is the religious impulse. To have the self extinguish in the fire of a loving God. It is the political impulse. The self subsumed into a great chanting mass. O’Brien, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, believes that he has escaped death by total immersion in the Party’s totalitarian dream. ‘The weakness of the cell,’ he explains to Winston Smith, ‘is the vigour of the organism. Do you die when you cut your fingernails?’

You can go on like this. The nationalist impulse. The corporate vision. Wars and sports. (‘One can lose oneself in the joy of battle, in fighting for a glorious cause,’ Julian says, and adds a rueful caveat: ‘but there are not a great many glorious causes for which to fight these days.’) The urge to love, the desire to be loved, to disappear in the arms of the Other. Humanity is a quest for the higher authority and the Great Belong. And you never find it. Compounding the pointlessness is the fact that we don’t know even who we are half the time. Again from Don Draper: ‘I hate to break it to you but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.’

I’ll try and segue now to Cameron’s speech over the weekend. It’s worth reading the whole thing. There is a lot of good in the speech  but Cameron’s argument is flawed. What’s missing is the recognition that Islam itself is cruel and totalitarian in nature. Until this fact it is acknowledged no progress will be made. This sounds like a bad thing to say, but it’s not. Religions, after all, are just ideas. And some ideas are better than others.

The other big weakness is that Cameron frames his argument as an attack on multiculturalism, when the problem is not multiculturalism but fascists of the EDL and Islamist variety who believe in a pure and changeless monoculture and insist that the rest of us must live their sinister dream. Islamic fundamentalists hate multiculturalism: abominate the decadent, godless, cosmopolitan, occidental city. This, too, they share with neo-Nazis and other white fascists. The rage of the EDL Spode crew against Islamic fundamentalism is the rage of Caliban looking at his face in the rockpool.

Cameron’s speech will trigger the predictable argument. The silo nation right and a great deal of the public will jump up and down and say that all would be well if we got rid of the migrants. The left will fall over itself to defend the right of Islamic fundamentalists to put British Asian women through genital mutilation, forced marriage, and a lifetime of subservience and repression.

What will be overlooked is Cameron’s grief for ‘the weakening of our collective identity’. That is the silo nation lament – the song they’ve been singing for half a century or so. They say there is no such thing as society and yet piss and moan for the death of a collective soul. Again, we’re back to the burden of the self. We want to lose ourselves in the flag but we don’t know what the flag means. We want to lose ourselves in a pure and changeless silo England when we can’t remember the last time such a place existed, or even if it ever existed in the first place – or if anyone would really want to live there. The impermanence of our common culture reminds us of the impermanence of our physical lives.

No one ever asks: do we actually need a collective identity? It is hard enough, after all, to define any one human being (with all the desires and elegies and complications that make up a single identity) let alone an island of sixty million flawed and careless souls. We should celebrate the fact that we live in a society that is in a constant flux. The image of the urban hipster is so often ridiculed – particularly by urban hipsters themselves – yet the freedom to be postmodern and metrosexual and self-obsessed is something we should cherish, not mock. I mean, what would you? Get up at four in the morning to feed chickens? Christ no.

Standing up for the occidental city and the cosmopolitan England would be the first steps towards a human patriotism. To regain an identity you have to recognise that we have no identity. Like Don Draper, we’re living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one. Like Whitman, we contradict ourselves: we contain multitudes.