Archive for September, 2012

Golf Club

September 30, 2012

When I was younger, I worked on the bar in a Cheshire golf club. Up to then, the only bar work I’d done had been in nightclubs. This gig was different. There were beer taps, the clientele was older and it was a lot more difficult to get hold of drugs. Generally I worked the Saturday dayshift, which everyone did hungover, bar staff, stewards and golfers alike, and I also did evening functions: weddings, funerals, presentation events, and all this. I was doing postgraduate studies at the time, and working four days in an office on top of my hours at the golf club, scrabbling around for tuition fees. On slow nights I’d read review copies and do uni work.

What impressed me about that time was the persistence of class. As I made my way in the world it seemed like old barriers and allegiances were breaking down. Now we know that the death of deference was a lie, an illusion. The UK is a fantastic seething cauldron of variation and difference. The Cabinet is a golf club from hell.

But at the time it was like the golf club had created this enclave of hierarchy and conceit, where rigid differentiation still mattered. For example. Every year the club elected a president and a captain, who one had to address as ‘Mr Captain,’ or ‘Mr President’. Written instructions to waiting staff went: ‘Female dignitaries should be served first, then male dignitaries, then women, then men.’ The steward was bombarded with trivial complaints about various matters of comportment among the bar staff. Someone complained that the peanut board was too vulgar. I was told at a function: ‘There are members, and there are members.’ I asked for the secret handshake and was met with the blankest of stares.

It took me a while to realise that these titles were not just ceremonial. The Captain and President had control of the finances and were officially in charge of the business. I got the impression that the club’s finances weren’t that great. The steward explained it to me one time: ‘It’s like having an organisation where the managing director changes every year. It’s like Bill Gates saying, hey, it’s been a year, I’ll step down now, someone else can have a go. So we have a small business run by, like, a retired schoolteacher.’

The dignitaries looked down on the stewards, who actually had to run the club.  The stewards were a working class couple in their thirties, who had responsibility for the kitchens, bars and function room. They were paid a derisory annual wage plus accommodation in a small cottage to the side, like a butler and housekeeper. I’ll call them ‘Dave’ and ‘Claire’. The dignitaries didn’t like Dave and Claire because they were from North Manchester and also, I think, because they had lived together for fourteen years without getting married.

I didn’t have much in common with Dave and Claire but they were two of the most genuine and humane people I’ve ever met. They worked sixteen, seventeen, eighteen hour days to keep that show on the road. They had tried for a baby for years, and when Claire finally became pregnant she worked more or less until the due date. I remember we were setting up for some function and I saw Claire, well into the third trimester, struggling to carry a large wooden table into the function room while middle-aged golfers stood around idle. That pretty much destroyed any illusions I had about the dignity of labour.

‘You will meet a lot of arseholes in this job,’ Dave told me. And the stereotype about golfers is fairly accurate, they do tend to be reactionary bores. I remember the President coined a collective term: ‘a bore of golfers.’ But they were not just reactionary bores. Many of the guys who played there were decent people and generous with money. One Friday night I got attacked in the local, by some idiot who had a connection to the club. I got in on the Saturday morning and was taken aback by the outrage golfers expressed on my behalf. They leaned on the idiot, who had to come up to the club and apologise to me, for fear of ostracisation. It’s a strange, pleasant thing when you suddenly realise how much you are valued.

A note on tips. Until I worked in bars I never understood tipping etiquette. Now that I do, I tip all bar staff and on every purchase. I’d recommend doing this because you’ll never have to wait for a drink in places where the staff know you. Frankly, if you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to drink in a pub. And these are uncertain times. Next weekend, the face behind the bar might be you.

I am probably the last man in the world you want working in a sports club. Guys would approach me: ‘What’s the latest on the City game?’ ‘Er, I don’t know.’ ‘What about rugby, what’s happening with the Six Nations?’ ‘Sorry, mate, I’ve no idea.’ I never really got the knack for sports, and although I understand and respect the role that football has in people’s lives, I never felt that passion and energy. Golf still strikes me as the stupidest game devised by man. Take a colossal amount of land, rope it off and charge people £600 a year to whack a ball around it, with varying degrees of skill and accuracy. What’s the point? To this day, I have never played a round of golf. If it were up to me, I’d ban the sport outright, and bulldoze the courses for cheap apartment blocks, all-night Asian supermarkets, and vegan hipster bars.

And yet, in a way, these were good times. I’d get there early and set up and sit on the balcony in the morning sun, reading Unacknowledged Legislation against a backdrop of rolling green: as I’ve said, it was that summer I discovered Hitchens, and realised that argument could too be an art. I worked Dave and Claire’s wedding, two of us on the bar against hundreds of guests – I remember we got completely swamped and some guy vaulted the bar and started serving alongside us. People would get wrecked in the local on Friday, stagger up to the course at seven on a Saturday morning. Hangovers would cool and sizzle under the striplights and in the smoke coming off the carvery. And then back to the local when the sun went down. It was a life that had rhythm and pleasure to it, seduced you with the easy banality of it. And it strikes me that for the machine of capitalism and class to continue, for exploitation to happen, you need this illusion, this sense of pride, the feeling of a job well done even if it’s a bullshit job with no prospects. You need to walk out of the building with a roll of notes and coins as darkness falls over the Cheshire hillsides.

(Image: TripAdvisor)

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Loads Of Angry Muslims

September 23, 2012

The debate about the Innocence of Muslims film has been fairly predictable so far. There’s Deborah Orr in the Guardian complaining about Western ‘arrogance’ and quoting the Quran, Seamus Milne trying to marshall the Arab street into his discredited anti-imperialist matrix, and a letter in the Guardian which declares ‘Surely those who made and then distributed this disgusting – not laughable – film, bear as much responsibility for the violence as those who are reacting against it.’

The idea is that all that Enlightenment stuff about free speech is all very well, but you can’t challenge worldwide religious ideas and you can’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Because when my feelings are hurt I cheer myself up by setting fire to a building.

But there are a couple of things that are new.

The first is the fairly obvious political gamesmanship behind the whole thing. It’s more and more apparent that dictators and clerics in the theocratic world generate this kind of hysteria because it distracts Arab street’s attention from the horrendous poverty, discrimination and misery in their own countries, most of which is the fault of the dictators and clerics. Avaaz has a good, pointed article on the Salafi activists who distributed the film and organised the embassy burnings. Rebels in Syria are infuriated that the controversy over a stupid thirteen-minute YouTube clip has eclipsed Assad’s war against his people – death toll 26,000, 250,000 refugees, and counting. Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid told the Daily Beast that: ‘To Assad, the rallies spurred by the Islam-bashing film were heaven-sent: they have given credence to his claims that the Arab Spring is at heart an Islamist spring and that al Qaeda and its affiliates will be empowered as a result.’

Chomsky was wrong. What’s behind this is not the manufacture of consent, it’s about the manufacture of outrage, and it’s striking that so many on the Western Marxist left seem to miss the blatant ruling class politics going on here. There is hope though. Avaaz estimates that the numbers on the streets are tiny in comparison to the street demonstrations during the Arab Spring. The Arab street wants what the rest of us wants. There have even been demonstrations in Libyan cities where people have come out with placards apologising for the violence and condemning terrorism.

I’d also highlight this article by Richard Dawkins. He’s a more measured and nuanced thinker than the militant atheist of Guardian caricature, and he concedes that the critics of free speech have a point: ‘While anybody has a perfect right to say what they like about any dead prophet, in this case you kind of wish they wouldn’t.’ But he goes on to talk about the classic Monty Python film Life of Brian, which showed that ridicule and derision can, paradoxically, have a civilising effect.

Life of Brian reminds us of the contrast between Christian and Muslim reactions to offence. Christians were furious about that sublimely brilliant film, and they blathered and pontificated pathetically (in notorious cases never having seen it), but they stopped short of murder and arson. It would be completely impossible for the Monty Python team to get funding to make a comparable film about Mohammed. An additional consequence of Muslim intransigence and violence, then, is that high quality, sharply satirical movies about Mohammed cannot be made.

That is it. Because of the huge social taboo against critiques of Islam, thoughtful and reasonable criticisms don’t happen. People who respect civility just don’t go there. (I follow an ex-Muslim on Twitter who ended a series of quality points on Mohammed idol worship with the line ‘And I am only saying this because Twitter has allowed me to do so anonymously.’) Only the provocateurs, the attention seekers and outright racists feel that they are up to the challenge.

I don’t believe in offence for its own sake. Civility and etiquette are worth having. Intellect shades so seamlessly into emotion and some ideas are so much a part of people’s identities that to challenge them will cause emotional pain. But it’s the restrictions and taboos around what you can and cannot say about Islam, that in their perverse way facilitate the causing of offence.

The Arab Street, yesterday. Image: Gawker

Coalition Hooked On RomneyNomics

September 22, 2012

Casting my roving satirical eye over the week’s events, I’ve been catching up with the secret filming of the Mitt Romney speech. In politics you should assume everything is on the record. Romney forgot that Rule One when he wrote off half of America in front of Boca Raton Republican donors – and, it turns out, minimum-wage waiters and barmen with smartphones. You’ve probably seen it by now, but this is his campaign strategy:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what… These are people who pay no income tax.

It’s widely regarded that Romney threw away the election with that remark. It’s certainly the only thing that anyone will remember about the Republican 2012 campaign, apart from the bizarre convention speech where Clint Eastwood lost an argument to an empty chair.

The striking thing about this is that Romney is simply summarising what most politicians do. Everyone in politics says they will govern for the whole country but, come on, as they say on Red Dwarf, let’s flag down a cab and head for Reality Row. Politicians write off whole groups and areas because of rationalisations like ‘Oh, they don’t vote for us’ or ‘Oh, they don’t vote.’ General elections in this country are won and lost on a few key suburban battlegrounds.

In Britain some people are more important than others, and some votes are more important than others.

If we could make a hierarchy or ziggurat of voters in terms of political importance in 2010s Coalitionland, it would probably go something like this.

At the top are the Hard Working Families – Essex Man, Mondeo Man, middle rate taxpayers, school governors, office managers, family men, people who work hard, pay into the system, look after their children, take modest holidays in parts of Spain and lead lives of quiet patriotism. This is the political ideal of the great British public, lobbied in every conference speech, every interview, every manifesto by parties across the political spectrum.

Next up are the stockbrokers, traders, execs and hedgies (something like 50% of Tory donations come from the city) property developers, retail billionaires, newspaper barons, workfare tycoons. Obviously, these are powerful people who can make life easier for politicians, so they are aggressively courted. Conference season is basically a corporate networking weekend, it has nothing to do with policy. Everyone notices the comedians who are awarded in the honours list, no one notices the private equity bosses and arms dealers who also get gongs.

And let’s not forget the trade union bosses, civil servants, quangocrats and local government execs. The public sector management class is as bloated, dysfunctional and sclerotic as the City. It enjoys similar influence and rewards.

Following them are religious leaders of all monotheisms. They can deliver numbers, and their favours are competed for fiercely.

Then there are journalists, lobbyists, policy units, professional campaigners fighting for everything to anti fracking to tobacco control.

Then we have the small property owning classes: small businessmen, second home owners, landlords, middle class pensioners.

Frontline officers are a difficult one. Police, soldiers, nurses are rhapsodised by politicians, Heroes, Our Brave Boys, etc, but are treated like shit in policy terms. The murder of two police officers in Hyde is not going to stop the coalition’s assault on police pay and conditions. And Andrew Mitchell’s recent outburst demonstrates an Old Tory attitude to the police that sees them as mere thief-takers, servants in body armour.

Next one down is the small army of low paid, insecure private and public sector workers – barmen, waiters, call centre operatives, shop floor workers, admin assistants, childless couples, hipsters and artists, temping and living for the weekend, living out hard precarious lives. They represent more and more of the urban working/middle class, but they are unrecognised in politics and absent from the national conversation. And they tend to be under thirty.

Right at the bottom are benefit claimants, immigrants, prisoners, disabled people, carers and refugees. If you fall into this category it’s bad news, because the government can basically do anything it likes to you.

This isn’t exactly a forensic and comprehensive map of the nation but I think it gives us an insight into coalition thinking. They can hammer unemployed people with sanctions and coercive welfare reforms because the unemployed don’t vote. They can hammer people under thirty with tuition fees and workfare schemes because people under thirty don’t vote. They can slash sickness benefit, drive people into poverty and suicide because longterm sick people don’t vote.

I’ve always thought it’s dangerous to equate contributory worth with moral worth. It leads to arguments like this, from Ian Cowie of the Telegraph, who just comes out and says it and declares that we should take the vote from the unemployed.

But there is a political problem that the coalition is maybe only just getting to realise. In hard times, old categories and alliances break down. People are beginning to realise that the state’s not necessarily reward you just because you’ve worked all your life. In fact, it won’t even guarantee you’ll be able to feed your children. What that’s going to lead to in terms of political allegiances, who can say. The riots in 2011 may just be a glimpse of things to come.

The coalition goes on about its Great Reforms, but it will be remembered for food banks.

(Video via Mother Jones)

Sleepwalking Into Prohibition: Notes on The Sex Myth

September 17, 2012

I loved the Belle de Jour books and have just got round to reading The Sex Myth, Brooke Magnanti‘s non fiction critique of contemporary attitudes on sexuality. As you’ll see I disagree with many of her conclusions, but the book is fascinating and beautifully written and, on many big questions, she gets it right. We haven’t totally outgrown Victorian puritanism and morbid assumptions – one example, particularly annoying for me, is the convention that men are only interested in getting laid, while women only submit to the whole beastly business because it allows them to start a family. There is the elitist view, also shared by the Victorians, that the masses can’t ‘handle’ erotica and need to be protected from it, just as they need to be protected from alcohol and tobacco.

Finally Magnanti discusses The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s novel of puritan totalitarianism. In her novel Atwood explores the convergence between religious fundamentalist and rad-fem politics and, as Magnanti explains, ‘People in the middle, who had no particular investment or opinion either way, got caught in the resulting military dictatorship.’ It’s a powerful study about the unforeseen consequences of political activism, the unconscious enabling of authority and power, the way that people, with the best possible intentions, can sleepwalk into totalitarianism. Be careful what you wish for, Atwood says. It’s something many people have either forgotten or never learned, but Dr Magnanti’s book is also in its way a testament to Atwood’s warning.

Update: Michael Ezra has picked me up on a point.

Also, in articles, here’s my recent piece on the new Raymond Chandler bio.

By Any Means Necessary: Welcome to the Border State

September 9, 2012

The decision to revoke London Met’s ability to teach international students is a curious one. Closing down bogus colleges and visa mills is one thing. Deporting three thousand students is quite another. What was the rationale for this? A UKBA spokesman told the Guardian about ‘serious and systemic failings’ that meant that ‘Allowing London Metropolitan University to continue to sponsor and teach international students was not an option.’ Universities minister David Willetts said that ‘It is important that genuine students who are affected through no fault of their own are offered prompt advice and help.’ Defending the UKBA, conservative writer Ed West points out: ‘Student migration is now the largest route for non-European migrants to take, and has been so since 2008’.

It appears that this is purely a numbers game. And I like Willetts’s emphasis on ‘genuine’ students. Again, people paying a visa mill is one thing. But are we now defining a ‘bogus’ student as someone who applies to a UK university with the intention of living in the UK, making use of his degree and contributing to society? I thought we all had to go into education with that kind of vocational motive in mind?

When I first moved to South Manchester the bars were full of American, European and Asian accents heard on the streets and ringing in the twilight of the early evening balcony at Trof Fallowfield. The city would be an emptier place without them. As West points out, London Met is a bad university, 118th out of 120th in the tables. But there’s nothing I can see that would stop the UKBA applying these restrictions to every university in the UK. Universities already have to recruit UKBA compliance officers. A lecturer told me recently that she regularly receives ‘warning emails to keep my registers up to date cause of UKBA.’ This has clearly been mainstreamed and HE professionals are now expected to help track down those the UKBA say are ‘illegal’.

And it was clear from the Commons debate on this that London Met is basically a pilot. Potential high flier Tory Amber Rudd got up and said: ‘Reducing immigration levels is important to my constituents, who welcomed the admission by the Leader of the Opposition earlier in the year that there had been uncontrolled immigration under the previous Government. May I urge the Minister, therefore, to reform all routes of entry into the UK, including the student visa route, in order to build on the reductions he has already achieved?’

We have a border agency that hectors universities that they should be doing the UKBA’s job for them, and is trying to turn Britain’s universities into a compliance arm of the UKBA. With the coalition’s obsessive numbers game it is inevitable that bright people from other countries will conclude that it’s not worth the hassle of trying to study here. I mean, it’s not like Britain’s the only country that has good universities. For all the rhetoric about preserving British culture, the UKBA pursues numbers and process at the expense of Britain’s cultural reputation. Private Eye’s Lunchtime O’Boulez column compiles numerous stories of travelling classical musicians hassled and messed around by border police, to the extent that the game just ain’t worth the candle. So we can deport a few lazy engineering students but not any of the almost 400 suspected war criminals currently living in this country. Doesn’t it help you sleep soundly in your bed that your borders are guarded by people with such investigative rigour and common sense?

We’re always being told that we ‘can’t talk about immigration.’ On Thursday there was another parliamentary debate. Guess which policy area. It was triggered by a Migration Watch e-petition that urged the government to ‘take all necessary steps to reduce immigration to a level that will stabilise the UK’s population as close as possible to its present level and, certainly, significantly below 70 million.’ This was picked up by Tory Nicholas Soames and tedious Merseyside Blue Labourite, Frank Field. The Commons passed this motion.

The anti-migration obsessives will froth and moan, but they can be strangely coy in places. They will highlight real or imagined problems, but maintain a reluctance to answer the basic question: ‘What would you do about it?’ The SNP’s Pete Wishart was one of the few dissenting voices in the chamber that day. He asked a very good question:

This nasty little motion mentions ‘all necessary steps’. Does he realise how authoritarian that sounds? The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex mentioned four steps, but what other ‘necessary steps’ would the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) propose?

I would add a few questions for Field, Soames, Migration Watch, the Daily Mail, Telegraph Blogs and all the others who invest so much emotion and energy in opposing immigration.

– When you say ‘all necessary steps’, what exactly do you mean by that? Could you explain what these steps are and how this would work in practice?

– Who would the ‘necessary steps’ apply to? Do you want to cut the numbers of refugees, economic migrants, students or family migrants? What is the selection criteria here?

– You go on about your love for the free market, yet you advocate protectionist policies that would prevent other people competing with your sons and daughters for jobs and university places. Could you explain the contradiction.

– Following on from that, if you close the doors to migrants, will you be able to find the young workers that we need to sustain an ageing population with subsidised pensions and social care? Do you think that autarky is a sustainable economic policy in a globalised world?

– You say that there are not just economic, but also cultural problems with immigration. For example, you quote an IPPR report that claims ‘It is no exaggeration to say that immigration under new Labour has changed the face of the country.’ How would you address this in practice? Would you want to deport people with ILR, who have been naturalised, second and third generation immigrants, people who came over on the Windrush? Would there be a kind of social engineering experiment to recreate Britain in the late 1950s? Just how far with this do you want to go?

– You are concerned about population growth and certainly we have problems with overcrowded housing and schools. It’s not clear that these are the fault of immigrants alone but never mind that. But have you considered that the population scares of the 1970s turned out to be completely unfounded and that the consequences of having a declining population are a little more difficult to deal with?

– You moan that you have been called a racist for talking about immigration, and you suffer from the ‘fear of saying something that would be called politically incorrect and thus being labelled as racist or anti-immigrant by the media.’ It’s okay, we are all friends here, no one’s accusing you of anything and we’ll take it for granted that you are not racist. But isn’t it true that the restrictions you propose will disproportionately affect people with different colour skin? Do you accept that some criticism of immigration is demonstrably racist and that all racist parties in this country are committed to stamping out immigration?

– Is there a lower level of immigration that you would be happy with?

This Whole Article, I Just Can’t Even

September 2, 2012

I have to ask: does the Guardian never get sick of itself? Since the mid 2000s it has published countless attacks on atheist and secular thinking, repeating the same old arguments to the point of inanity. I used to argue against these on my blog but gave up a few years ago, recognising it as an exercise in futility. However, I wanted to highlight this latest piece by Francis Spufford, because as well as being repetitive and unoriginal, it is just so poorly written. It is a paceless and incoherent dirge of clunky run-on sentences, in a tone of prancing sarcasm and hysterical self-pity. Are you ready? We’re going in:

My daughter has just turned six. Some time over the next year or so, she will discover that her parents are weird. We’re weird because we go to church.

This means as she gets older there’ll be voices telling her what it means, getting louder and louder until by the time she’s a teenager they’ll be shouting right in her ear. It means that we believe in a load of bronze-age absurdities. That we fetishise pain and suffering. That we advocate wishy-washy niceness. That we’re too stupid to understand the irrationality of our creeds. That we build absurdly complex intellectual structures on the marshmallow foundations of a fantasy. That we’re savagely judgmental. That we’d free murderers to kill again. That we’re infantile and can’t do without an illusory daddy in the sky. That we destroy the spontaneity and hopefulness of children by implanting a sick mythology in young minds. That we teach people to hate their own natural selves. That we want people to be afraid. That we want people to be ashamed. That we have an imaginary friend, that we believe in a sky pixie; that we prostrate ourseves before a god who has the reality-status of Santa Claus. That we prefer scripture to novels, preaching to storytelling, certainty to doubt, faith to reason, censorship to debate, silence to eloquence, death to life.

For most people who aren’t New Atheists, or old atheists, and have no passion invested in the subject, either negative or positive, believers aren’t weird because we’re wicked. We’re weird because we’re inexplicable; because, when there’s no necessity for it that anyone sensible can see, we’ve committed ourselves to a set of awkward and absurd attitudes that obtrude, that stick out against the background of modern life, and not in some important or respectworthy or principled way, either. Believers are people who try to insert Jee-zus into conversations at parties; who put themselves down, with writhings of unease, for perfectly normal human behaviour; who are constantly trying to create a solemn hush that invites a fart, a hiccup, a bit of subversion. Believers are people who, on the rare occasions when you have to listen to them, like at a funeral or a wedding, seize the opportunity to pour the liquidised content of a primary-school nativity play into your earhole, apparently not noticing that childhood is over. And as well as being childish, and abject, and solemn, and awkward, we voluntarily associate ourselves with an old-fashioned, mildewed orthodoxy, an Authority with all its authority gone. Nothing is so sad – sad from the style point of view – as the mainstream taste of the day before yesterday.

What goes on inside believers is mysterious. So far as it can be guessed at it appears to be a kind of anxious pretending, a kind of continual, nervous resistance to reality. We don’t seem to get it that the magic in Harry Potter, the rings and swords and elves in fantasy novels, the power-ups in video games, the ghouls and ghosts of Halloween, are all, like, just for fun. We try to take them seriously; or rather, we take our own particular subsection of them seriously. We commit the bizarre category error of claiming that our goblins, ghouls, Flying Spaghetti Monsters are really there, off the page and away from the CGI rendering programs. Star Trek fans and vampire wanabes have nothing on us. We actually get down and worship. We get down on our actual knees, bowing and scraping in front of the empty space where we insist our Spaghetti Monster can be found. No wonder that we work so hard to fend off common sense. Our fingers must be in our ears all the time – la la la, I can’t hear you – just to keep out the sound of the real world.

This is a melodramatic caricature. Worse, it’s dated. The only example Spufford gives of atheist oppression is the London atheist bus campaign, way back in 2008. It was a light-hearted crowdsourced campaign – and set up in response to existing fundamentalist propaganda on bus adverts, although Spufford doesn’t mention that. It was never going to change the world, but in this harmless little campaign Spufford sees something much more sinister.

Take the well-known slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that’s an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, but in this particular case they’re pretty much stating the ordinary wisdom of everyday disbelief. The atheist bus says: ‘There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ All right: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with recognisable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t ‘probably’. New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God. In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because, really, how would they know? It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me. No, the word that offends against realism here is ‘enjoy’. I’m sorry – enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. To say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colours should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare. This really is a bizarre category error.

But not necessarily an innocent one. Not necessarily a piece of fluffy pretending that does no harm. The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren’t being ‘worried’ by us believers and our hellfire preaching. Take away the malignant threat of God-talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure, under cloudless skies. What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks? Well, in the first place, that it buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing. Given that human life isn’t and can’t be made up of enjoyment, it is in effect accepting a picture of human life in which those pieces of living where easy enjoyment is more likely become the only pieces that are visible. If you based your knowledge of the human species exclusively on adverts, you’d think that the normal condition of humanity was to be a good-looking single person between 20 and 35, with excellent muscle-definition and/or an excellent figure, and a large disposable income. And you’d think the same thing if you got your information exclusively from the atheist bus, with the minor difference, in this case, that the man from the Gold Blend couple has a tiny wrinkle of concern on his handsome forehead, caused by the troublesome thought of God’s possible existence: a wrinkle about to be removed by one magic application of Reason™.

There’s a bizarre category error here, certainly. Transport for London accepts advertising from more or less anyone. It has run adverts from the Alpha Course and other fundamentalist loons. One advert, from an outfit called ‘Jesus Said’, carried a link to a website warning nonbelievers that ‘You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell.’ There are limits. To his credit, Boris Johnson pulled an advert from Anglican bigots promoting the quack homophobic idea that homosexuality is a ‘disease’ that can be cured through ‘reparative therapy’. Promotions for the Islamic hate fest al-Quds day were also pulled. But adverts for Iranian propaganda arm Press TV are apparently okay.

My point is that, in a pluralist society, surely atheists should be able to use these facilities, if religious nuts can, and that it’s better to promote a positive message of carefree enjoyment, than incitements to hatred and fear. Spufford’s tired anti-consumerist objection is just silly here, but in the next para, it becomes problematic.

But suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are povertystricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or social services have just taken away your child. The bus tells you that there’s probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, and now the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood. What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. What the bus says is: there’s no help coming. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s any help coming, in one large and important sense of the term. I don’t believe anything is going to happen that will materially alter the position these people find themselves in. But let’s be clear about the emotional logic of the bus’s message. It amounts to a denial of hope or consolation on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ 1,500 years ago, and it’s still cruel.

This para is almost flattened by the weight of its assumptions. Not only does Spufford read so much into the atheist bus campaign that simply isn’t there. He denies the ability of working class Londoners to evaluate it critically. As Spufford must know, London’s poor face a great deal of challenges, including overcrowded and substandard accommodation and a failed job market caused by the disastrous austerity strategy. London bus advertising that might, or might not, make them feel unhappy has to come fair low down on the list. But Spufford doesn’t have to talk to poor people, or listen to them. This is the religious caricature of the dispossessed: simple folk, shuffling in sackcloths between cleaning jobs, carrying a prayer book and twirling rosary beads on the 5am tube. No atheists in foxholes, and none in council tower blocks.

It’s the overall defensive nature of the article that gets to me. Believers are oppressed all over the world. In the twenty first century they are oppressed mainly by other believers, and not so long ago by totalitarian atheist regimes. Let’s not have any delusions about the moral perfection of atheism. Atheists can kill. But who exactly is harassing Francis Spufford for his beliefs, or asking him to apologise for them? He criticises atheists who ‘contrive to feel oppressed by the Church of England, which is not easy to do.’ But if it’s pathetic to worry about the established Church (which has land, and legislative influence, and a media platform, and frequently takes stupid and bigoted positions – if it’s not too militantly atheist of me to say so) what does it say about Francis Spufford who believes himself persecuted by a group of mid-2000s writers and scientists, one of whom is now dead?

From the anti-capitalist angle he takes, I’d guess Spufford would place himself on the political left. But there is an increasing convergence between his kind of pro-faith left arguments, and those on the conservative right. This week Michael Nazir-Ali, bishop of Rochester, told European judges that the ‘human rights agenda’ has become an ‘inhuman ideology’ that promotes an ‘increasingly aggressive secularism’. Nazir-Ali’s going to be the next Archbishop, and he’s going to lead a growing anti-liberal religious critique mobilised against secularism, multiculturalism, sexual freedom, the rule of law and personal autonomy. I’m not at all surprised to see the CiF left jump on that bandwagon. But do the defenders of the faith ever consider that it’s this shrieking defensiveness and melodrama that makes religion such an unappealing prospect to younger generations?