Archive for the ‘Northern Hinterlands’ Category

Everything Belongs to the Past

June 8, 2017

No one wears them; they’re empty. It’s an image of a shape with one entrance and two exits. One may imagine falling continually into the waistband, not knowing from which leg one may emerge. So does history occur: in myriad, often unconsidered, minor decisions.

‘The Trousers of Time’

– Terry Pratchett ‘L Space’ wiki

I remember the June 23 referendum as if it’s actually happening real now in real time. It’s been a long close race, but ultimately not close enough. About four in the am, just as the sunlight is beginning to break into the sky, a decision starts to emerge. Remain establishes a 52% majority and keeps it going well into the stirrings of the working day. Eventually, Dimbleby calls it. The votes are counted, the boxes emptied, the final hand is on the table. Britain has voted to remain in the European Union.

No one has slept, but the real work is only just begun. Cameron and Osborne, faces flushed with victory and relief, are all over the front pages. It has been Dave’s big gamble – and it’s paid off. Subtle but drastic realignments occur all over Westminster as career politicians scramble to adjust their philosophies in line with the triumphant Chipping Norton order. Businessmen all over the country check the result on their phones, shake their heads in relief, and drive to work. Radiographers and IT specialists and hop pickers and schoolteachers and retail workers and others who came from the continent and beyond to build lives here, decide to junk their visa applications, and wonder why they ever even considered leaving a country they love.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the response from the Leave campaign. UKIP disbands a day after the referendum. Even ultra liberal commenters praise Nigel Farage for his grace and good spirit. He tours the studios shaking hands with his opponents. ‘The result was not what I had hoped, but I respect the outcome of the democratic process,’ Farage tells reporters, trademark pint in hand. ‘Whether or not we are in the EU, we will always be British and nothing can change that. Let’s work together to build a great future.’

Farage takes the wind out of a defeated Leave campaign. Paul Nuttall leaves politics and embarks on the first manned mission to Mars – at least, that’s what he says later on his CV. Far away, in an office of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin allows himself a drink of strong spirits while he reflects on a new plan. Boris resigns to spend more time with his mistresses.

See anything wrong with my little counterfactual there?

That’s right – the last paras.

If Remain had won, even if they had won big – I don’t believe that the leave crowd would have walked away and accepted the result. They would moan and complain and demonstrate. They would say the result was ‘rigged’ and the electorate was ‘brainwashed’. There would be court challenges and appeals to the Electoral Commission. We could even, right now, be in the middle of a second referendum campaign. Because for political fanatics, democracy is a one-armed bandit. You yank the lever until the thing pays out.

Ian McEwan confessed recently that ‘I don’t accept this near mystical, emotionally charged decision to leave the EU. I don’t, I can’t, believe it. I reject it.’ But he admits he is in a minority on this: ‘Our church, perhaps to its detriment, is not so broad. It is moody, tearful, complaining, sometimes cogently, even beautifully. In general, until now perhaps, it seems to have stoically accepted the process.’

As we know, Theresa May was once a Remainer but has committed herself to taking us out of the EU off the back of the referendum result. It looks like an honourable stance – whatever she fought for in the campaign, she accepts that ultimately she’s a servant of the people and must carry out the majority wish.

But it seems to me that this honourable stance has faded into what I call ‘let’s do it to say we’ve done it’. This is a form of bad practice in organisations that can also be called ‘box ticking’ or, more simply, ‘cover thine arse’. You know what I mean by this – you follow protocol or directive, and document your actions thoroughly, without necessarily thinking of what’s best for the project or the client. Then, if and when everything falls over, you can throw up your hands and say: ‘Don’t look at me. I did what was asked.’

There are many good arguments for Brexit – I recommend this gentle low-key and wise piece in particular, by the academic Martin Robb. Many smart Brexiters have close affinities with Europe, and they know we will always have a relationship with the continent, no matter the constitutional arrangements of the day. (They are perhaps less wise in their enthusiasm for local representative structures above all else. How’s your local democracy doing these days? Bins collected recently?…) So I never believed that Remain had a monopoly on virtue or intelligence in this debate.

Fact is, though, any pro Brexit argument has to answer two big questions: how is this thing going to work, exactly, and can we trust this government to achieve it?

So far, the May approach looks like ‘do it to say we’ve done it’ on a constitutional scale. The government triggered A50 early and made Brexit the centre of their programme. Tony Blair spoke in almost DeLillo-style prose when he said ‘this Government has bandwidth only for one thing: Brexit. It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep and the stuff of its dreams; or nightmares.’ And yet detail is lacking. We will have SME, and less immigration, but we don’t know exactly how. This government is doing a very radical thing, in a very mediocre way. Think the English Reformation, but project managed by the guys who used to run the godforsaken call centre you temped in after college. The American Revolution led by Mr Bean.

This is where acceptance can be a sleepwalk off the cliff’s edge. People have a habit of falling back on the position that things are going to happen because they have to happen. And indeed this post could well appear like the half-assed fantasies of an ivory tower liberal globalist. Maybe, but I should say that when I got interested in politics I was passionately anti globalisation. When I’d argue with friends about Thatcherism’s legacy, I’d get the rejoinder: Look, it had to happen, the world was changing, any government would have found it necessary to do what Thatcher did.

Again, maybe. But I am still not sure that it had to be done in the thoughtless aggressive way that Thatcher’s government did it – the onslaught upon the cities and valleys and towns, the devastation of entire communities. Like I say, I think Brexit could work for us. But I am not at all sure that Brexit will work if it’s the kind of Brexit that this government is aggressively and thoughtlessly pursuing.

Ian Dunt is the best writer on the Brexit age and provides the detail politicians won’t tell you. Here he reflects on the possible future if we crash out of Europe without a deal:

The early effects can already be seen. A year ago we were outperforming Germany, the US and Japan. Now we have slumped to the bottom of the G7 list of advanced economies. The pound fell in value after Brexit and that has translated, due to increased import prices, into inflation. This is denting consumer demand – the main driver of UK growth. Wages are no longer keeping up with inflation. The Bank of England has warned that living standards will continue to fall […]

Producers in Europe are coming to hard conclusions about the UK’s direction. Many goods must pass over borders in their manufacturing process. If there is a tariff and various bureaucratic requirements when they do so, they would be better off based inside the customs union. Almost half of European businesses have already started looking to replace British suppliers with competitors from inside the EU.

Meanwhile, British businesses are being given no certainty whatsoever. Every time May says that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, they are again being driven closer to having to make snap investment decisions in a state of regulatory uncertainty. None of this is necessary, even under Brexit. If guarantees were offered they would not be in this situation. Instead, May continues to play Russian Roulette with the nation’s future.

It is a truism that there are communities all over the UK that have not yet recovered from what happened in the 1980s. I have to smile when I hear fanzine leftists frame hard Brexit as a rebellion against neoliberal elites. What do they think will happen to working class communities after hard Brexit has finished with them?

For neoliberalism has an evil bigger brother: isolationism. It will rip through the fabric of our society like neoliberalism on rocket pills.

As Dunt also writes, you won’t hear this from the major parties. I want to be positive and in many circumstances I am also happy to be a liberal globalist, so I want to end by saying something positive about that magical half-known thing, civil society. I feel good every time I get into a decent argument or laugh out loud at social media or turn on the news to see a carnival demonstration. Civil society is not everything, it may not even exist outside liberal enclaves, but it is something.

And I remember Christopher Hitchens, who once said: ‘if the fools in the audience strike up one cry, in favour of surrender or defeat, feel free to join in the conversation.’

The Women of Hyde Park

June 6, 2017

Delighted to have this new story published on the outstanding Cold Coffee Stand magazine.

Ghosted

May 2, 2017

My story of this name is now up at the fabulous LossLit magazine. The whole issue – and the critique gallery about novels of loss – is well worth a read.

The Open Mic

April 1, 2017

Delighted to have this story in the new issue of Under the Fable – starts on page 26, but the whole magazine is well worth your time.

An Unfound Door

March 18, 2017

Magic persists even in the most evil situations. This, I think, is the message of Mohsin Hamid’s startling new novel Exit West. Consider Hamid on the smartphone. A humble and ubiquitous gadget these days, Hamid makes us see the device as a new thing again:

Nadia and Saeed were, back then, always in possession of their phones. In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and never would be. For many decades after independence a telephone line in their city had remained a rare thing, the waiting list for a connection long, the teams that installed the copper wires and delivered the heavy handsets greeted and revered and bribed like heroes. But now wands waved in the city’s air, untethered and free, phones in the millions, and a number could be obtained in minutes, for a pittance.

And there’s a later passage, when Nadia and Saeed find themselves in a polished London home:

They lay still, hoping not to be discovered, but it was quiet, so quiet they imagined they must be in the countryside – for they had no experience of acoustically insulating glazing – and everyone in the hotel must be asleep.

In both these extracts Hamid makes us see the known magic we take for granted, and brings visibility to the unobtrusive. Skype and soundproofed walls would have seemed like fiction, at one time – technology from pulp fables about space adventures and genetic mutants and variants of the apocalypse. In the twenty first century the technology is real, and the apocalypse is real, too – it’s just not happening in our country, at least not yet. Civilisations fracture into violence and chaos, and they don’t need an alien invasion or super plague to achieve it: in most cases, religion and politics and barrel bombs will get the job done well enough.

As Saeed and Nadia meet, fall in love, and build a relationship, the city where they live collapses around them. And again Hamid is brilliant on the little signs of end times, that jerk us out of our personal dramas and make us see the world around us for a moment. Checkpoints are thrown up, and curfews imposed. The internet goes down, then the water, and electricity. People stop paying in notes and coins and start bartering in food and cigarettes. Entire neighbourhoods are claimed for this or that sectarian militia, and gallows start appearing in the public parks. Hamid writes: ‘A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with the view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.’

Here Hamid introduces his central conceit. Just as Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad brought actual secret railways into the antebellum south, so Hamid builds magic doors into his failed states. You can walk through and end up in Colchester or San Andreas or Paraguay. Although the revolutionary guards try to block as many of the exit doors as they can (for authoritarians build walls just as much to keep their subjects inside as to keep migrants away) Saeed and Nadia are still able to bribe their way through a portal. The idea of teleporting immigrants is a border force’s nightmare, and just as every world at Whitehead’s station stops is defined, in some way, by racism and slavery – so every journey Hamid’s lovers make is to somewhere shaped by migration control. Governments endeavour to keep the more desirable doors – those leading to the rich nations – under armed guard, and encourage migrants to return home or elsewhere through another ‘poor door’. Mansions of Kensington and Chelsea are squatted en masse by refugees, and the state meets them with drones and riot police.

But the doors keep popping up. Hamid includes several unrelated vignettes of men and women in random countries discovering doors in their homes, in their apartment buildings, in cellars and attics. Exit West is a story about place, but it’s also a story about time. Saeed and Nadia are constantly stargazing at planets from light years away, and in one settlement they have to pay a ‘time tax’ – a tax on new arrivals, which over time becomes a subsidy for natives and more settled migrants. ‘We are all migrants through time,’ Hamid writes.

Exit West is a short, lovely, meandering novel, compassionate but never handwringing, a tribute to multiculturalism without multicultural pieties, a story of mass migration that never forgets about the practicalities. ‘Geography is destiny,’ Hamid says near the beginning of the novel. The rest of his story shows that this need not always be so.

Break the Fourth Wall

March 4, 2017

Every year when winter nights roll in a church near my home organises a carol concert on the local park. Everybody in the area goes. We sing carols. Friendly people hand out mince pies. We live high up and the park slopes onto a view of city and countryside that is beautiful in the way only a Yorkshire night can be. At the end there’s a fireworks display. The church has been doing this for twenty years. It’s free.

Last year the vicar made a brief speech at the concert, in which he drew on the political events of 2016. It wasn’t exactly the Sermon on the Mount. It was just the vicar talking about Trump and Brexit and how scary it all was and how worrying that our country had become so divided. I didn’t follow the whole thread but, judging from the Facebook area chat page, it seemed that the man had gone too far. People complained: how dare the vicar bring politics into a community event, how dare he take it upon himself, and all of this. As an atheist I can’t say I have a dog in the fight, but I did think, isn’t it the priest’s job to sermonise?

This week the author Susan Hill cancelled a signing at a bookshop because, it seems:

I do not expect this bookshop, wherever it is, city or market town, to have posters and a Twitter feed and a Facebook page telling me it is so against what the President of the United States stands for/believes/is/is doing that it is stocking only books devoted to those writers who oppose him too, and what is more, will give them away free. Needless to say, the opposite is also true. You will not find Donald Trump’s autobiography here, or anything by those authors known to support/admire/have voted for him.

[…]

This is a form of censorship and, of all places, a bookshop (like a library) should never ever indulge in that.

[…]

All of this leads to an explanation of why I have cancelled a scheduled appearance to discuss my new novel at a bookshop. They have put their own political and personal views about the USA and its President before their business, their customers and what a bookshop is and must, more than any other sort of shop or business, be about.

Danuta Kean has a good piece about the minor controversy this provoked, and the bookshop has itself responded here.

In turn, this reminded me of the row that erupted when Hamilton cast members interrupted their musical to deliver a brief speech to Vice President Mike Pence, sitting in the audience that night. You can read it here. One of the actors, Javier Muñoz, is openly gay and HIV positive and maybe the cast thought that breaking the fourth wall would provoke a reasonable debate about what the next four years might be like. Not a bit of it though. Trump moaned on Twitter about the cast’s ‘terrible behaviour’ and demanded apologies. Others followed his lead.

There appears to be a consensus, that Trump and Susan Hill and my fellow carol singers have tapped into: that this is a failure of decorum, and that politics should be left to politicians.

I’m not so sure. Of course elected representatives have to be careful what they say, and try to represent all shades of opinion within their community (although this duty seems to have lapsed following the events of 2016). Private citizens should have no such obligation. If you run a bookshop or a theatre or another commercial business, you’re not seeking anyone’s vote. You run the business how you see fit. And as an individual you don’t have a duty to represent anyone but yourself.

Don’t misunderstand me. Diplomacy is a great thing in human relations. Many volatile situations, which might otherwise escalate into violence, can be resolved with listening skills, and carefulness in stance and tone. But when it comes to politics, the idea that everyone should be diplomats is a counsel of despair.

Take FT columnist Janan Ganesh on the Women’s March. I used to have a lot of time for Ganesh. But even he has retreated into centrist chin-stroking. Ganesh complained that marchers prioritised ‘the cultural over the material. Their ultimate objection to EU exit is its tinge of nativism. Their main quarrel with Mr Trump is his attitude to women and minorities’ – as if nativism, racism and misogyny had no real impact: as if these forces don’t wreck lives, and not just those of women and minorities. The march was not going to convince ‘the marginal voter, the person who backed populists in 2016 but with some qualms’ – as if any serious person said it had to. This is quietism as virtue signalling – and it is condescending. Ganesh writes: ‘The marginal voter was doing some hamper management over the weekend. The marginal voter has never been on a march and might be unnerved by zealous multitudes.’ Oh I don’t know. Perhaps some of those marginal voters looked up from their laundry at the TV news.

My point is that politics is increasingly not diplomatic. If you’re not one of the 52% (or a 52 percenter who didn’t vote for what the government says you voted for) then you might as well not exist as long as Westminster is concerned. Populism is a club. Only the right people get to be The People. Others are sick of having nothing to vote for. I didn’t go on the January march but I heard from others who did, and what I heard was a weary exasperation at having to be polite and diplomatic for so long – to opponents that will never reciprocate the same courtesy. P J O’Rourke said that ‘there’s always a tinge of self seeking in making sure things are fair. Don’t you go trying to get one up on me.’

It’s worth mentioning that when the crowd booed him at Hamilton, Mike Pence said ‘I nudged my kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like.’ He’s not wrong.

Young Capability Brown

February 20, 2017

My short story of this name is now published at fabulous new journal 50GS.

The Lost Continent: Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe

February 5, 2017

fracturedeuropeEurope in Winter begins with a journey on a fairly exclusive train. The TransEurope railway – known simply as ‘the Line’ – runs from Paris to the Russian steppe. There are queues, security checks, and you even have to obtain citizenship to get on the train. Only the wealthy and connected can really afford to cross a continent in such style. Kenneth and Amanda Pennington are the gentle rich: polite, professional, stylish and self deprecating. On seeing that Amanda is expecting a baby, the Line staff allow this handsome couple to bypass the queues, and upgrade their accommodation to a stateroom. A couple of days in, the train enters a tunnel through the Urals mountains. Kenneth and Amanda get up, in the middle of the night, and walk along a corridor. After an emotional moment, Amanda triggers a device on her body – a device she has told Line security is a foetal heart monitor. It isn’t though. Kaboom. End of tunnel.

In Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe trilogy, there are many scenes like this – visceral and perfectly paced, with a genuine bombshell at the end. His three books are set in a future continent that has long broken down into random squabbling city-states, republics, micronations, tendencies and tribes. Schengen is a distant memory, but migration control – that white whale for present day politicians – remains rickety as ever. Hutchinson’s protagonist, the drifter chef Rudi, is inducted into the Coureurs, a transnational smuggling organisation set up to move things and people across a shifting panoply of borders, fencing, straits and wall.

This is quite complex enough but midway through the series, Hutchinson introduces a new border still – the dream country of the Community, built by nineteenth-century scientists and occupying a kind of splinter universe. In this final book – and it feels like a finale – Hutchinson moves his cosmic goalposts still wider: bringing in an underground virtual mapping centre that runs seamless simulations of countless possible Europes. It’s a testament to how deftly his books are plotted and written, that the reader never feels bombarded by ideas – there’s no contrived twists, no intrusive passages of unlikely exposition. The feel is fantastic yet incredibly down to earth, an atmosphere of hard work and pragmatism, the enjoyment of food and drink and companionship in a cold world. Hutchinson fills his world with all kinds of little gadgets, concepts and espionage rituals but they feel unobtrusive, like things waiting quietly to be invented. It has you groping for old quotes about the persistence of magic.

Critics rave that this or that book is an ‘underground classic’ – almost none are right. From an indie publisher and with few critical notices, I’m convinced nevertheless that Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe series will be read and enjoyed and puzzled over for generations to come. For these books are not just good espionage or good SF. They are about passion, representations of ourselves, the illusions we call nations and peoples as we muddle through this confusing life of ours. A senior Coureur tells Rudi that ‘Europe is inherently unstable. It’s been in flux for centuries; countries have risen and fallen, borders have ebbed and flowed, governments have come and gone. The Schengen era was just a historical blip, an affectation.’ The Europe series has a feel of a story you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to understand.

Step Nine

September 30, 2016

My story of this name is now available at Storgy.

Also, over at 3:AM, I reviewed Lauren Elkin’s marvellous Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London.

How To Fix Social Mobility Without Really Trying

August 27, 2016

bloodworthA story in the grown-up news caught my eye recently. Longitudinal research has discovered that the graduate class of 2004 – my year, more or less – failed to prosper a decade on, with 25% of ’04 graduates earning around £20,000. The Guardian quotes Alice Barnard, CEO of a vocational education charity:

Immediately after graduation, many graduates are either in jobs that didn’t require a degree or didn’t require the level of education they had got themselves to. They have invested not only time, energy and effort but also quite a lot of money and potentially come out the other side without the jobs they perhaps expected to get.

In other words, for all our education and qualifications we might as well have left school at sixteen, borrowed some money and started flipping houses on the property game. It appears that – O lost, and by the wind, O grieved! – my generation has achieved less than jackshit.

Michael Young invented the concept of ‘meritocracy’ in 1958. He did not mean it as a good thing. ‘I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,’ he wrote in 2001. ‘The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain’. While it was ‘good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit’ the meritocracy turned ‘Because I’m Worth It’ into an ideological cudgel. ‘They can be insufferably smug… The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side. So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.’ And the people who don’t make it – for whatever reason – are near-demonised, because under true meritocracy bad circumstances can only be the result of personal failings. ‘No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that,’ said Young. They have been left with the poverty of expectation, which will kill you just as soon as material poverty.

Politicians today always say they are going to ‘break down privilege’ and ‘help people get on’ in meritocratic terms, and contrarywise political writers across the spectrum revive Young’s criticisms. Charles Moore points out, in a critique of the Prime Minister’s social mobility speech, that life chances are impacted by loads of things that have nothing to do with merit: ‘luck, ability, upbringing, health, inheritance, education, marriage, even looks (as in ‘Her face is her fortune’).’

Moore is right that ‘few would tolerate a Conservative government who tried to punish everybody who is rich for these reasons’ (although one might take issue with his claim that ‘It is encouraging that a man whose family first got rich because his ancestor was the fat huntsman (gros veneur) of William the Conqueror has £9 billion today, 950 years later… It gives hope to us all.’) The point is, meritocracy is far too deterministic. People do not just slot into their allotted ‘station in life’ as a result of inborn talent and personal worth. As the man said, life is short and art is long, and success is very far off.

In any case, the UK is still far too shackled by aristocracy of birth to worry about Young’s dystopia just yet. James Bloodworth is a good, muscular writer who rams home his points with a welter of stats and figures. Only a small percentage of UK citizens are privately educated but they dominate the judiciary, journalism, television, politics,  medicine, drama, showbusiness and the music industry. Cliché as this is, it appears that ‘who you know’ is a big thing on our small island. ‘Put more straightforwardly,’ Bloodworth writes, ‘if you live in London and have friends in high-powered jobs, you are far more likely to get an ‘in’ with someone influential in your desired profession than someone who lives a long way from the capital and who lacks the same contacts.’ The interesting and rewarding stuff relies on networks and unpaid internships which are difficult or impossible to get into. ‘Politicians are thus chasing a mirage,’ Bloodworth writes.

When Bloodworth’s book came out some reviewers complained that he offered no potential solutions. It’s understandable as ‘social mobility’ contains a multitude. When does personal drive end and environmental impacts begin? What does and doesn’t impact a life, and what if anything can the state do to mitigate these impacts?

Nevertheless, let me now try to put the world to rights, and offer some potential very simplified solutions to the complex issue.

  • There is no reason for everything to be concentrated in London. The skew towards our capital is destroying it, aggravating the property market and making the city unliveable. Power should be devolved to the regions where possible and media outlets/publishers/TV stations should open offices there. The Northern Powerhouse is a political thing. Let’s make it a real thing.
  • We need more capitalism. Too many areas have only a few public sector bodies or monopoly private employers to apply to. This keeps wages low and prevents bad practice from being challenged. We could set up some kind of commission to break regional monopolies. We should cap business rates for smaller companies and give grants to any small entrepreneur with a reasonable business plan.
  • Make localism pay. We should reform local democracy so that elected reps are paid the national average and that working age people can get involved in their communities. This would also provide a route into politics for bright people outside political networks.
  • Bright people who want to go to college should be allowed in. Whether you want to become a cardiologist or just spend three years reading books, the experience of university breaks down poverty of expectations and makes people realise that other things in life are possibles. And this can only be a good thing.
  • Vocational stuff needs to really be vocational. I’m all for vocational education but too often the state seems to use it to tie up working class people on meaningless NVQ or BTECs because it can’t think what else to do with them. Vocational education is great but it needs to teach skills. And that had better be clear and marketable skills.
  • Bring on welfare reform. Job Centres and the welfare reform industry has function-bloated right out of control. Rather than helping people find work, they act as enforcement arms for the state. If the current system can’t finance vocational training for jobseekers or get them into decent jobs rather than just off benefits then it should be closed down and replaced with some sort of base income.
  • Let’s be nice. Our economy has been troubled for a while and it will get more so, many people are out of work through no fault of their own. Others find it very difficult to work due to physical and mental health problems. Try to be compassionate. Poverty can happen to anyone. It can happen to you.

And if you really do want to get on in life then the last thing you should do is listen to a politician.