Archive for February, 2012

If I’m Late, Don’t Wait

February 27, 2012

There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.

– Oscar Wilde

Over at the Spectator books blog, David Blackburn raises an interesting query: should publishers be called to Leveson on privacy issues? He writes in the wake of a confessional book by Rachel Cusk, heavily excerpted in the broadsheets.

Aftermath is Cusk’s account of the end of her 10-year marriage. It is extremely frank, sparing little of her erstwhile husband’s privacy or that of her children, over whom the  warring parents have been fighting. Extracts from the book have been run in the Guardian and the Telegraph, and numerous online commenters were furious that the newspapers had allowed Cusk to air her personal grievances at the expense of her children’s privacy.

Blackburn then quotes from below the line:

Children can read.

Children grow into adults that can read.

Children are not possessions.

Children have a right to relationships with all their family members.

Ideally, these relationships should be allowed to flourish untainted by the bitter self absorption [sic] of other family members.

Aftermath is the latest in a series of confessional autobiographies from people of a certain age and class. The Cusk extracts recall Kathryn Flett and Julie Myerson’s similar books on their troubled family relationships, and are written in that tortuous overwrought style that all women writers must apparently imitate if they are to get anywhere in media-literary London. Julie Myerson was criticised because her book centred on her teenage son, who she threw out of the family home after he became a dope addict. You can justify this. Many baby boomers have found out the hard way that the gentle drug they enjoyed as students has developed into a turbocharged incapacitator grown by Vietnamese slave kids in hydroponic farms.

I never thought I would write anything personal. But then, like Ben Affleck in Chasing Amy, I found something personal to say. I enjoyed writing about my various chaotic episodes of mental instability, and in my arrogance I thought they might inspire and comfort people, just as I was comforted and inspired by the Elizabeth Wurtzel books I always read when I’m down. But a thin line separates a true confession from narcissistic victimhood. It is very easy to write a story in which you are the martyr and hero.

We are supposed to live in a misery-memoir culture. There is a huge market for tales of gradual triumph over horrendous absurdity. There’s a huge market for hate and pain in general. Former convict Erwin James said that Martina Cole’s Broken, a crime novel about a paedo ring, ‘had been banned from one prison I was in to avoid upsetting inmates who had been abused as children, and to deny stimulation to those who were child abusers.’ Does it occur to promoters of this kind of confessional that readers may drink down the horror and skip the redemptive finale?

And maybe there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to write confessions at all. The self indulgence of Cusk and Myerson can’t approach the florid psychodrama of Liz Jones. A chronicler of messy interpersonal relationships and ill-advised reinventions of the self, Jones is regularly ridiculed on the social networks for various failures of humility and self-awareness. In 2009 she received cash from thousands of impoverished Daily Shriek readers through the paper, after getting into six-figure debt on Vera Wang dresses and a £3,000 Falcon stainless steel fridge. Last year she claimed to have stolen sperm from a sleeping boyfriend in order to get pregnant. ‘The ‘theft’ itself was alarmingly easy to carry out. One night, after sex, I took the used condom and, in the privacy of the bathroom, I did what I had to do. Bingo.’ Although this attempt at clandestine conception ultimately failed, ‘my dreams of motherhood persisted, and I resorted to similarly secretive methods to conceive in my next relationship.’ Twitter had a field day with this (‘A guy on the bus is asleep. Should I go for it?’) but I tend to agree with Steven Baxter that Jones needs help and support, not ridicule.

Liz Jones mainly writes about herself. You have a right to go on about yourself endlessly. What you don’t have a right to do is to put other people’s business on the street. Blackburn asks: ‘When does the right to privacy start? Should a child’s privacy be protected by the law independent of its parents?’ Take away the upper middle class language and locale, and the Cusks are just another bitter ex-couple brawling in family court.

Julie Myerson’s rebellious and drug-addled son apparently told her that ‘I’m sick of this story of yours, this idea that it’s about drugs. If you want that to be the story then go away and write one of your fucking novels about it, OK?’ In her review of Myerson’s book, Claudia FitzHerbert said that ‘It is hard not to think that the boy has a point.’ Why not save the roman a clefs and character assassinations for the novels? What else is fiction for?

Image: Guardian

A Heart of Stone: The DWP’s Diary of Disaster

February 25, 2012

Could I say, having banged on about this subject for a while, how delighted I am that the government’s workfare programme is now in complete disarray? It’s been a hell of a week for the DWP, with companies pulling out of its forced labour schemes and Cameron’s personal adviser, welfare reform tycoon and hard working family tsar forced out in a clusterfuck of multiple fraud allegations. Disability campaigner Sue Marsh pretty much sums up my feeling here:

[This is] a department used to getting their own way with absolutely everything – sending cancer patients to the jobcentre, halving support for disabled children and conducting a programme of disability denial… Watching them stamp their feet in a frenzy of entitlement has given me much pleasure.

Minister Chris Grayling has been telling everyone that his great empowering scheme has been undermined by, er, the SWP. Seriously: ‘What’s happened in the last week is we’ve got a lot of companies who are very jumping, they’re coming under pressure from a big internet campaign that is being run by an organisation that is a front for the Socialist Workers Party.’ Grayling went on to claim, with a straight face and in all apparent seriousness, that his emails had been hacked by the SWP. He told BBC Radio 4 that ‘Let me give you an example, my own e-mail address was hacked by this organisation and used to lodge a complaint with Tesco so I don’t accept the scale of the campaign is very large.’ Could I also ask who is running the DWP’s rapid rebuttal operation these days?

If you don’t follow far left politics, and why would you, let me tell you something. The SWP is a tiny sectarian cult. Big corporations are not afraid of it. The idea that its activists could get into ministerial email accounts is laughable. The SWP idea of web-based activism is an abacus and a couple of tin cans on a string. The ‘hard left militant’ line was backed up by a plant at Question Time but not even the government’s courtier media could bring themselves to repeat it. Falling back on standard political prolier-than-thou rhetoric, the Secretary of State said people objecting to the scheme are ‘job snobs’. For the DWP the principle of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work is now a sign of elitist thinking. (And couldn’t the press officers there find even a few token satisfied ‘customers’ to parade in front of the cameras and tell Cait Reilly she was wrong?)

The workfare coverage shows a disconnect between the political class and the public. Big companies backed out of the scheme because their customers were against it. There was a hilarious thread on the Tesco Facebook page, about Shrove Tuesday, with loads of deleted workfare comments and plaintive reminders from the poor beleaguered moderator that the discussion was supposed to be about pancakes. Question Time panellists and newspaper blog pundits were united in trilling pro-government complacency, but they will never have to do a workfare scheme and their children will never have to.

Outside the Westminster village, what is it about workfare that makes people angry? It’s not just the hours of labour and wasted time, just to keep your JSA. It’s the DWP rhetoric that we are doing you a favour. The Secretary of State says that ‘The thinking behind the initiative is the recognition that when considering whether to take a young person on, employers will highly value any relevant work experience.’ Not only do you have to lick my boots, you should say thanks afterwards, and say it with a smile.

The fact is that opposition to workfare need not be leftwing. The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon, in a knockabout political sketch, remarked that ‘it doesn’t seem very Conservative or capitalist to spend taxpayers’ money on free labour for huge corporations.’

Let me say it again. There is no justification for spending your money or mine on expensive work programme schemes run by companies that derive their entire income from public sector contracts, that failed to get results on the previous government’s workfare schemes, and that do nothing that could not be replicated by JC+ advisers. If I want a job at Poundland I can walk into an outlet and get one. I don’t need a publicly funded third party to help me do that and neither do you.

There have always been recruitment consultancies that feed the call centre mills but at least they could get you paid work. Workfare providers add yet another layer of bureaucracy onto the process and take their cut. (And, by the way, we are talking mainly retail and call centre placements here; as Sue Marsh also said, try walking into your local WP provider and asking for a voluntary placement in engineering or law.) We now know that providers use unpaid labour to displace actual jobs. The workfare programme is not just parasitical, it actively harms our economy, costs us money, and chokes off recovery.

I don’t want to be too gloomy. The welfare reform industry has been a good racket for a long time. Emma Harrison built a sixteen-bedroom Derbyshire mansion off these contracts. It is fantastic that these people are finally coming under serious public scrutiny, and from the most unlikely quarters. Perhaps more will come out. Perhaps the whole charabanc will be derailed. In the meantime, and as the man said, you would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the DWP’s troubles. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving little cabal.

Update: Just after publishing this post, I read an excellent piece by Red on the workfare programme. I can talk policy all day, but Red absolutely nails what this policy actually means in human terms. Recommended.

(Image via Daily Mail)

Why the UK’s Religious Establishment Will Lose

February 14, 2012

Another day, and more pissing and whining from religious leaders that faith is being driven out of public life by ‘militant secularists’ – seriously, that’s the Telegraph‘s front page today. Inside, Baroness Warsi gripes that ‘religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere.’ There is nothing like taking to the airwaves or the national newspapers to complain that you are being ‘marginalised’.

This is a periodic flare of self-pity from the UK’s religious establishment. Last year, the Chief Rabbi moaned that basic equality legislation constituted an attack on religious freedom. Lord Sachs complained that:

I share a real concern that the attempt to impose the current prevailing template of equality and discrimination on religious organisations is an erosion of religious liberty… We are beginning to move back to where we came in in the 17th century – a whole lot of people on the Mayflower leaving to find religious freedom elsewhere.

Are you thinking: if only! If only they would just sail away to some other place and leave the rest of us to get on with our lives!

Warsi and the Anglican cleric George Carey have taken their cue from a recent row over council prayers. A judge has ruled that prayers at Bideford Town Council are unlawful under statutory local government legislation. You can imagine the reaction. Warsi pledged that she would use her upcoming visit to the Vatican to demonstrate that the UK is still a Christian nation whatever Devon’s secular Gestapo says. She writes:

For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.

Well, Iranian and Pakistani Christians might envy our ‘militant secularism’. I think, though, that there are problems with the approach used by the UK’s secular pressure groups. Of course we need a formal separation of church and state. But even Americans have to put up with public prayers and the meaningless, mainstreamed signifiers that religion has left with us. To fight Thought for the Day makes us look petty and stupid when there is real religious censorship and intimidation out there.

Richard Dawkins was on the radio today arguing that many people who self-identify as Christians don’t truly count as such in the traditional sense: ‘Many of them don’t go to church, they don’t read the bible – an astonishing number couldn’t identify the first book of the New Testament… they just tick the Christian box.’ Giles Fraser protested that people should be able to self identify how they like, and he’s right. The point is that increasingly even Christians don’t have faith as central to their lives, and their faith is so diffuse and content-free that it is never going to satisfy the government and hardline bishops who want a glorious Christian nation.

The political class is way behind the public on this. The UK is an inversion of the vulgar Marxist idea of faith. The rulers and elite intellectuals embrace spiritual propaganda and superstition while the common people have long discovered the joys of thinking for themselves. The religious establishment will lose because our alternative is simply better: more creative, fulfilling and interesting, the secular space offers far more for atheists and, in almost all cases, far more for religious believers as well.

New Fiction

February 6, 2012

Short story ‘Altitude’ published in the Valentine’s issue (pdf) of Torn; plus, another story ‘Like Swimming’ (with great artwork by Neil Coombs) has just been published in Paraxis.

I Am Furious Yellow

February 5, 2012

I’ve always been angry. Why? I don’t know. I got into a lot of fights as a kid, and was a difficult child to bring up. As an adult, I’m still angry, but I haven’t been in a fight since high school. Once you lose control you lose, full stop. Sure, I shout a lot, and get into long drunken arguments, and have taken a couple of good blows to the face for my insolence. But that’s as far as it goes. Violence is a terrible and dangerous thing, that should only be used to defend yourself and others and as an absolute last resort. People do not understand the dangers. You can die from a blow to the temple; and if you’re the one that flung the punch, that’s almost as bad – you’re in jail!

Sam Harris writes, in his essay on violence, that ‘When a conflict turns physical, there is always a risk that someone will be severely injured or killed. Imagine spending a year or more in prison because you couldn’t resist punching some bully who dearly deserved it, but who then hit his head on a fire hydrant and died from a brain injury.’ So yeah, I’ve taken Harris’s advice, and avoided conflict; when conflict’s found me I’ve managed to resolve it through words alone.

Like all other citizens of Airstrip One, Orwell’s doomed antihero Winston Smith has to take a regular part in the regime’s Two Minutes Hate events, where they stand in groups and scream murder and bloodlust at official enemies displayed on a screen. The following passage shows Orwell’s visceral talent as a writer:

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp. Thus, at one moment, Winston’s hatred was not turned against Goldstein at all, but, on the contrary, against Big Brother, the Party, and the Thought Police… It was even possible, at moments, to switch one’s hatred this way or that by a voluntary act.

Of course, part of Winston’s problem was sexual frustration: after he begins a love affair with fellow dissident Julia, his rages begin to fade and the Two Minutes Hate becomes a harder thing to get into. Julia is more perceptive than Winston and understands the role that curdled desire plays in their society. She tells Winston that ‘If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year Plans and the Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?’

Contemporary fiction recognises the power and risks of rage. Crime drama often features police protagonists – James McNulty or Sarah Lund – who come to a bad end because they cannot keep a handle on their fury. The immortal Sam Vimes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books fights a running battle with the darkness inside himself. ‘He knew he had hidden depths. There was nothing in them that he’d like to see float to the surface. They contained things that should be left to lie.’

My own aggression is fairly general; my life is fairly free and relaxed and doesn’t have the problems and demands faced by many people I come across. I get angry, sure, when I read the papers and listen to the radio, because this seems at many moments to be a shitty, fucked-up country where nothing works and the good people go to the wall. Sometimes, the aggression I feel seems clean and fine and good, and I think of Carl Hiaasen’s words: ‘Nothing shameful about anger, boy. Sometimes it’s the only sane and logical and moral reaction.’ Other times it’s like I’m being poisoned from the inside out.

Possibly my problem is the same as Winston’s, but I don’t know. However much you get in life, there are always going to be problems, and I suspect that I would be angry even if I was a happily married multimillionaire. Anger and contentment are more compatible than people think.

Is it just me? Apparently not. I don’t like the way that anyone who kicks off in public is immediately assumed to be suffering mental distress – like the racist tram woman, or that piece of shit who was stalking Julie Anna. Mental health people generally are not violent, but Mind lists anger as a mental illness. A Mental Health Foundation survey found that 28% of adults worry about how angry they sometimes feel, and 32% know someone who has problems with their anger.

So what can you do? Running and exercise is a help and a buzz. I’m more sceptical about formal anger management classes. I instinctively feel that sitting in some church basement on plastic chairs on a midweek evening would make me more angry, not less. The contemplative idea that you can simply think all your negative characteristics out of existence is a delusion. It’s up to all of us to find the ways to handle our own internal darkness.

As the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote (perhaps anticipating Stephen Crane): ‘Today is the time of my youth/I drink wine because it is my solace/Do not blame me, because although bitter it is pleasant/’It is bitter because it is my life.’

Practical Happiness and the Guardian

February 4, 2012

I think I can safely talk about Alain de Botton’s new book without having actually read it. I don’t say this dismissively. If de Botton’s people are reading this and want to send me the book I will read it and consider it fairly. But I think that, from reading the interviews, I can summarise his case.

Religion for Atheists argues that people who don’t actually believe in God can nevertheless use the consolations and insights of faith to orientate themselves in what is an uncertain post-religious world. In this alienated hyper-capitalised urban West, it’s nice to think of – well, community, Sunday morning rituals, choral singing, discussion groups, old maids and warm beer, jumpers for goalposts, and all that. De Botton sums it up: ‘Even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits?’

There are flaws in de Botton’s argument. Happy people are not big faith heads. They may have some spiritual inclinations but religion is not central to their lives. You never hear a story that begins: ‘When I found God, I was in a really happy place.’ Religious practitioners work in hospitals, prisons, hospices. Generally they will be talking to people who are going through a difficult time. My thinking is that faith is not a way back to life but a substitute for things that people really do need – love, health, companionship – religion will fill the void, but only with a different kind of void. It could be that the son of multimillionaire Rothschild boss Gilbert de Botton has a little more to learn about what makes most people suffer.

Communitarian thought is pretty much a dead end. And there are many aspects of religion (racism, sexual repression, incitement to conquest and murder, etc, etc, the list is endless) that don’t make people happy and that we can easily do without. De Botton told the Guardian that ‘I don’t think I would have written this book if I’d grown up in Saudi Arabia as a woman. It’s a European book in the sense that we’re living in a society where religion is on the back foot.’

And hasn’t this been done? Jim Denham notes that prominent atheists have already spoken in praise of religious works – read Hitchens, for instance, on the King James Bible – and so de Botton’s whole exercise is kind of redundant anyway. The seam has been tapped dry.

Yet I don’t feel too harsh towards the misguided philosopher. I would be a little afraid if de Botton was ever in a position of great authority. As it is he’s just a nice, well-meaning, odd man. Some of his ideas are touching. For example, de Botton thinks that people should be obliged to talk about their emotions with random strangers in restaurants. The world needs more ideas like this, surely. Therefore I was struck by the negative reception to de Botton’s book in the great pro-faith paper of record.

First up is a disdainful piece by Anglican parish priest Richard Coles, who complains about de Botton’s assertion that ‘no religions are true in any God-given sense.’ Coles says that: ‘That he should reach his conclusion so confidently and so early on would, you’d think, spare him the effort of engaging seriously with religion and spare us the effort of reading the rest of the book.’ Well, the title should have prepared you for this, Reverend. Coles also dislikes de Botton’s idea of building secular temples: ‘Christianity does not offer consolation, it offers salvation. That is why people built cathedrals’. Got that, Alain?

The Coles review is an Evensong blessing compared to the verdict of moribund totalitarian-left academic Terry Eagleton. Eagleton was a career Marxist who turned to militant faith as an alternative anti-Western movement after the collapse of the communist slave empires. He compares de Botton to the eighteenth-century philosopher John Toland, who ‘clung to a ‘rational’ religion himself, but thought the rabble should stick with their superstitions.’ ‘What the book does,’ Eagleton rages, ‘is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure’ – an outburst of real hypocrisy from a man who is happy for Muslims to kill and die for idiotic beliefs purely because this will worry Foreign Office mandarins.

The professor also deploys his somewhat overrated technique of comic analogy: ‘De Botton claims that one can be an atheist while still finding religion ‘sporadically useful, interesting and consoling’, which makes it sound rather like knocking up a bookcase when you are feeling a bit low.’ Yeah, that’s probably what he means: and? Eagleton also can’t resist a kick at the old enemy: ‘The late Christopher Hitchens, who some people think is now discovering that his broadside God Is Not Great was slightly off the mark, would have scorned any such project.’ Take away the weasel equivocation ‘some people think’ and this is a Louisiana televangelist who rejoices at the imagination of his opponents burning in hellfire. It’s a nasty line of medieval triumphalism and people who believe Eagleton’s take on religion to be liberal and sophisticated should reflect on that sentence.

What would I write about if it wasn’t for the remarkable John Gray? The philosopher’s take on de Botton contains his usual blizzard of unsupported assertions. ‘The evangelical atheists of the past few years may not be notable for sceptical doubt, but religious practitioners are often quite uncertain in their beliefs.’ Yep. I hear there was a great deal of anxious debate and soul-searching among Taliban commanders before they dynamited the Bamiyan statues.

As ever with Gray’s criticism, the book under review doesn’t feature except as a hook to hang his pre-prepared thesis, already expounded in numerous books, lectures, articles and interviews. Gray writes that ‘Today, faith is more often channelled through science’ and adds that ‘People who believe that the human mind can be uploaded into virtual space and so be immune to death are recycling the fantasies of 19th-century spiritualists, who also argued that their beliefs were based on science.’ There may be researchers out there trying to splice their cerebral cortex into the new Facebook timeline, but Gray doesn’t name them or link to any studies. His view of science has barely moved on from the nineteenth-century caricature of pale men on distant crags, with brains in jars and weird-looking candles.

Craziest of all is the Gray idea that ‘religion is an enduring human need that cannot be denied.’ Really, John? True, man has always lived with religion, but that doesn’t mean we can’t live without it. People used to think slavery was essential. We grew out of that, though. And people do, demonstrably, live full and meaningful lives without religion. Despite war and recession, the secular age has the greatest freedom and highest living standards in the whole of human history. The only reason we can’t say that people are happier than they have ever been through humanity’s lifespan is the absence of any way to quantify human happiness. We are on the curve and cusp of a new world, and it’s scary, sure, because freedom is scary. But it is better than anything that came before.

All this is a long way of demonstrating that poor old Alain de Botton’s hand of friendship has been well and truly slapped down. The pro-faith crowd have been moaning for years that atheists are too aggressive and negative. But see what happens when one of us tries to be nice and reach out a little. It tells you something about the wisdom of trying to come to an accommodation with people who are deeply into God, or support religion for ideological reasons.

People Get the Government They Deserve: The Welfare Reform Bill

February 2, 2012

I’m not going to go into the policy detail of it now, this has been covered on this and many other blogs. Suffice to say last night’s result was good news for the government, landlords, DWP jobsworths and the public/private welfare reform industry; bad news if you happen to be sick or out of work.

Bloggers, activists, people with disabilities and members of the public joined forces in a spontaneous outbreak of opposition to the Welfare Reform Bill. They lobbied Parliament, blocked London traffic, hammered the government on every last detail: who would have thought, ministers must have said to themselves, watching thousands of demonstrators in Westminster, that the cripples could put up such a fight? In an act of creativity and persistence, the activists got hold of the responses to the DWP’s consultation through a freedom of information request, then published their own report showing that the DWP had suppressed and misrepresented responses to the consultation it had been obliged to run before legislating.

Still, we’re told that the public are with the government on this and I’m sure that’s true. But it’s not because this is long overdue reform. Similar experiments have been going on since at least 1994. And let’s not pretend it’s about fraud – as if mankind has ever designed a system that doesn’t have some possibility of abuse.

This is a democracy, and there are a lot of people out there with a chip on their shoulder about welfare benefits. It’s easy to draw distinctions between the deserving and undeserving, between good benefits and bad benefits, and to place oneself on the appropriate side. Easier still to blame a life of frustration on others, and moan and wail to the government and the papers, than to do the hard and necessary work of change. (And if you think that this legislation will stop the wailing and moaning, you do not understand the human capacity for self pity and cruelty without risk.)

Blogger Seaneen Molloy puts it simply:

People up and down the country will be rubbing their hands in glee due to the entirely unwarranted belief they themselves will never be ill, disabled or unemployed, and, should they be, they’re one of the, ‘worthy’.

That’s it. You may believe you will never be out of work or fall ill. Or if – heaven forbid – the worst should happen, then the state will take your virtue into account. They will see you are one of the hard working families, one of the decent people, and an exception will be made in your case. Dream on. They won’t and it won’t.

It strikes me that we have spent so many years trying to figure out how to solve the problem of poverty and yet the answer is so simple. Just do not be poor. The corrupt cop in Irvine Welsh’s Filth reflects that ‘the important thing is to be on the winning side.’ That is it. The thing is to be on the helicopter leaving Saigon and not to be trapped on the burning embassy roof down below. And that’s why we hate rich liberals. If you’re in the helicopter on your way to safety, the last thing you want is a fellow passenger fretting and wringing their hands about all the people left in the imploding city and war-strafed jungle.

So yeah, I’m looking at the government, the media and the welfare reform industry. But I’m also looking around at you. You happy now?