Christmas Ghosts

As this year grinds to an end, you’re not alone in thinking “thank fuck for that.” It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that 2016 has been one of the crappest in recent history. Now, when the media traditionally do their rundowns of the year, all they can show is the world’s run down. It’s been a car crash year, whether it’s the whitelash rise of Farage and Trump, the deaths of icons from Bowie and Cohen to Wood and Wogan, almost an entire Brazilian football team and, most personally, my friend Adrian (AA) Gill, or just because Inferno, one of the most ludicrous films in history, was released. It seems the unpalatable prospered and the good died.

Now is the time to think of them. The dead have a history of being summoned up as the year draws to its end. The Christmas ghost story is a meme that stretches back much further than Dickens’ Christmas Carol. A quarter of a century before Shakespeare wrote his Winter’s Tale, it was already a tradition for Barnabus in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589) who says, “Now I remember those old women’s words, Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales, And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.” It’s no coincidence that James Joyce’s The Dead is set at a Christmas time gathering.

In my own family it is Uncle Edgar who lives with the dead and loves to tell stories of our ghosts. He’s a fanatic for family trees and history, but then there’s not much to do out in the steppes of Norfolk where he lives, where the earth is steel hard in winter, the air is so cold just breathing in hurts and breathing out creates a fog thicker than Katie Hopkins. From his front window you can see for miles over the frozen levels, each tree a craze of lines in the flat December daylight.

Every other Christmas we schlep up to his house, a pretty converted vicarage with timber beams and a roaring fireplace beneath a mantelpiece hung with paperchains and festooned with Christmas cards mostly addressed to “Dear Valued Customer”. And every year there’s some relative he has discovered in the annals whom he reckons could just be a Royal bastard but more usually, with a bloodline chockful of cads and bounders, was a right royal bastard.

a doll idle idol

Illustration ©Alice Stallard for KCW Today

Edgar lives alone but he always invites his mate Steve to Christmas. Steve’s a single dad with a tiny daughter called Emily who is the proud product of parental overcompensation. ‘Spoilt’, is too slight a term, like slightly off milk; Emily is the full Petri dish of bubonic fungal growth. Last year she was dragging around one of the most expensive dolls known to humanity, an “American Girl” almost as big as her. The sort that have such realistic eyes you will them to blink. But Emily had absolutely no sense of value. The doll was clearly pretty new when I saw it but she had already smashed the right side of its face, the head was cracked and deformed. She didn’t care.

I had come up ahead of the rest of the family to help Edgar with the dinner and avoid having to go with the rest of my family “last minute” gift shopping.

Emily answered the door and sneered at my Tesco shopping bags. “Where are the presents?”

“Nice to see you too.” Inside, I pulled my frost bitten muddy shoes off and traipsed the shopping bags to the kitchen. Emily stayed in the front hall, heaving her doll on to a chair. I put the food away while she gave her American Girl a gruesomely detailed lecture on road safety.

Edgar came in. “I thought I heard someone.” He gave me a hug. “You’re the first then?”

“Came to help with the food.”

“Plenty of time for that.” We went through to his living room where the fire was already roaring.

We drank and chatted as the light faded outside and Edgar told the story of a distant cousin of my great grandfather who had been a very successful medium when Spiritualism was all the rage. Recently he’d found an old newspaper clipping about a spirit visitation she had conjured up but I never got to hear his ghost story because it was then the rest of my family turned up, setting off a maelstrom of voices and activity. It was just before dinner when my youngest asked about Steve, who still hadn’t come down.

“Oh,” Edgar sighed, “he’s, he’s not coming.”

I wondered for a moment if something bad had happened; that was why he was looking after Emily.

“Emily, you know Emily,” Edgar said. We all nodded. “Last week she had an accident. Just outside here. He pointed at the dark window and we all looked up for a moment to see our reflections in the black glass. “Playing with a doll. Run over. By a van. Crushed her skull. Steve’s just not up to anything. She was his life.”

“But…” I started looking around for Emily.

I ran to the front hall. The doll was still there on the chair by the door. The head crushed, the plastic skull cracked, the glass eyes staring.


This article also appears in:


My Life as an Anarchist

Pretty much the only time you see the word “anarchic” it’s coupled with “humour” or “comedy”. Anarchists are the Kardashians of realpolitik. “Aren’t they the ones who drink herbal tea because ‘proper tea’ is theft?”

Anarchism has been considered ridiculous for so long, even the name seems out of another time like Leveller, Fettler or Yuppie. There were a few anarchist bomb throwers a century ago but the idea that a bunch of yobs who don’t believe in organisation could organise a revolution soon became laughable and a byword for daft radical delusionism. It was the occupation you’d announce for a giggle down at the job centre.

And yet, without anyone mentioning its name, anarchy as a real life meme has stealthy evolved into one of the defining political forces of our time. Millions are coming to the anarchist’s conclusion: whichever way you vote, the Government always gets in. And they really don’t like it. They voted for Brxit, they voted for Trump, some are even resorting to recipes from The Anarchist’s Cookbook with the glee of a Heston Blewmenup.

Watching the US Election campaigns it seemed Clinton was not only fighting for a liberal democratic agenda and perhaps her own chance to “not have sexual relations” in the Oval Office, but for the whole process of government we have developed over centuries.

Forty years ago this month the Sex Pistols’ released Anarchy in the UK. Like so many kids trying to survive a childhood regulated by post-war militarised parents, I was swept up in awe at the unleashing, and sheer power, of the anger expressed by the dentally couldn‘t-give-a-fuck Johnny Rotten. In the documentary The Filth and the Fury, Rotten admitted that he only used “Anarchist” because it rhymed with “Antichrist”. But then who needed rhyme anyway with all that visceral anger bottled in vinyl?

At that point my only understanding of anarchy was as a state my mother claimed our family lived in whenever someone forgot to do the washing up. But I was old enough to look it up and young enough to be entranced by its hedonistic potential. I was fired up and inspired to go straight out and get a tattoo of that ragged capital “A” breaking out of the circle trying to confine it, a scarlet letter on acid. I was going to stick it to authority, and I honestly would have if I hadn’t had a load of homework and a draconian bedtime. “No rules rules” I smugly scrawled on my English exercise book feeling as safe in this paradox as Schrodinger’s cat was from being shot by Zeno’s arrow on Theseus’ ship.

Forty years on and, as per Rotten’s only comprehensible lyric, our “future dream” really “is a shopping scheme”. Western politics finds itself besieged by something which looks an awful lot like anarchism. The waves of popular movements surfed by the likes of Farage and Trump are not left or right. They are essentially protests against government, of whatever colour, for consistently enabling greed and imposing austerity.

The reason Trump reserved the right to question the US election results is not just because he is a poor loser, even though he might be, but because his core followers are those who suspect the very machinery of government. They call it Libertarianism, but it’s just Anarchy with a small “a”. As dearly as any anarchists, the followers of UKIP, Trump and the US Tea Party want an end to interfering government. Just don’t ask what replaces it, that’s as clear as mud, soup and the Brexit strategy.

When the ideologies of left and right were more extreme and at war with each other, democratic government felt the only safe option. Anarchy seemed so far from rational possibility that the 1970 farce “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” by Dario Fo, the Nobel Laureate who died last month, used the anarchist’s ambitions as a symbol of futility to which any reaction by the police was, by necessity, an over-reaction. But as our political see-sawing gradually lost momentum and steered to a centre ground, as the storm abated, the capitalist sharks gathered to exploit the calm waters. Now in the wake of their feeding frenzy the libertarian revolution has begun and it will not go away with a Brexit or the US Election result. As Michael Moore tells Britain in his latest film Trumpland, “you used the ballot as an anger management tool. And now you’re fucked.”

“The Anarchy,” for fans of the repetitiveness of history theory, was England’s first civil war in the 12th century. The turmoil revolved around an event celebrating its 875th anniversary this month: the attempt to crown England’s first woman ruler, Matilda, daughter of Henry I. In an all too familiar act of both misogyny and Francophobia, the London mob halted the coronation and she never officially became queen. The years before and after were some of the bloodiest the country had seen; but then few women have found their way to power in perfect peace.

Unlike other political ideologies Anarchy, even in its most imperfect form, finds itself wrapped up in paradox. It posits that without government interference people can live richer more fulfilled lives, but then the deregulation of the markets, which unleashed the mammon feast that brought the world to its knees in 2008, was as libertarian as the right to bear arms and shit in the woods.

As I reserve a little wall space to be up against when the revolution comes, I’m already missing the days when “anarchic” was simply a word used to describe the antics of Tom and Jerry or Dick and Dom In Da Bungalow.


First appeared in


It’s a Mad Mad Mad World

All my adult life I’ve smiled wryly as the parking attendant, unable to work out the limits of a yellow signed zone, claims he can’t void the ticket he hasn’t yet issued; I’ve spoken with an exaggerated calm as the fourth tele-engineer in a row asks if I’ve tried turning it “on and off again” – even as my internal pedant screams “it’s off then on” –; I’ve nodded and grinned as other parents wax about their kids’ Grade Six bassoon knowing mine struggled to be the understudy for the triangle part in the school orchestra.

But recently I have found myself less willing to take the deep breaths, less capable of blocking out the irritating, less inclined to hold back and not scream and swear and threaten and release the dogs of roar. I feel like an electric whore, ever ready to blow a fuse.

I thought it might just be middle-age frustration, years of suppressed exasperation finally bubbling up. As Dylan Thomas advised, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day / Rage, rage…“

But this year I discovered I’m far from alone. Trump, Brexit, Euro-Nationalism, Black Lives Matter, imploding political parties, race hatred, global terrorism: the whole world is angry and ready to show it. Fury is all the rage.

But why are we so mad? Who has lit our f***ing ire?


Illustration by Alice Stallard

The fact that we’re all becoming polarised and incensed has not escaped the mainstream gaze. Brain Dead, a recent tongue-in-cheek CBS drama, blames our rising tide of anger on alien ants which, having arrived on earth in the 2013 Russian meteorite crash, are now crawling into people’s ears eating the reasonable parts of their brains. Obviously rising poverty levels and a growing global awareness of injustices was just a little too far-fetched.

Psychologists list the most common causes for anger as grief, rudeness, tiredness, hunger, injustice, being teased or bullied, humiliation, embarrassment, deadlines, disappointment, sloppy service, failure and infidelity. Which not only sounds like most of my family dinners, it’s also an emotional tick list for the inciting incidents of almost every film ever made.

Basically, anger is a toxic cocktail of pain and fear. And whether we own up to it or not, pretty much all of us are carrying it around, keeping it down, like model citizens… until some dick indicates left and turns right, and even though it’s Boris Johnson, we’re ready to jump out the car, right in the middle of the road, and thump him.

Pain and fear shortens tempers and weakens patience. So simple everyday incompetence, avoidable mistakes compounded by repetition, instead of the farce it actually is, becomes a massive challenge to our world and a reminder of our own blind impotence to stop it.

It’s not the pain or the fear that’s new. They’re as old as original sin, albeit nowhere near as fun. Some say that anger is our natural state. But our willingness to show our fear and pain, to act it out and react, that’s new. I mean it could be healthy. “Let it all out,” say the therapists. Which is great. Until everyone’s doing it.

When we lived in the pre-internet geographical world, thrust together with others purely by accidents of birth and postcode, we couldn’t escape our neighbours. We’re a communal species, we gather and share to survive. We learned to tolerate the outrageous views of the people who happened to be around us. We learned to bite our tongues and live and let live. We all learned to moderate. And though it clearly wasn’t democracy – intellectuals, ever in the minority, had a disproportionate share of the discourse through educated eloquence, more leisure time afforded by higher incomes and a sense of their own superiority – in the 50s it blossomed into a relatively peaceful liberal tolerance.

But now we’re living in a new and uncharted world. In our always connected networked universes, where different timezones have less and less meaning, who has the time for tolerance? Day or night, there’s always some part of the world on and broadcasting its most dramatic and compelling events. Most of them terrible terrible things. And if you don’t scream now it will be lost in the next atrocity and it makes you feel like your voice is so tiny unless you retweet or repost and traumatise someone else, as if the problem shared could ever be halved. It can’t. It won’t.

More of us are more aware of injustice than at any other time in history. Every day I see black people being shot in the US by the police, I see bizarre tortures in Syria, I hear the pleas of Native Australians and the breaking of bones. The Windows 10 Welcome Screen, that I never asked for btw, feeds me a different photo every day showing how incredible the natural world is but the babies crying in South Sudan, or the frightened schoolgirls undone by Boko Haram, are nowhere to be seen. How long can any of us patiently stand by?

Social media doesn’t connect us by geography, or the facts of our lives, but by the most vulnerable and unreliable parts of our identities, our beliefs and opinions. And no opinions are more powerful, capricious and ripe for persuasion than political ones.

So now I’m emboldened by an online community of millions who share my own stupid and skewed vision, I feel the strength in our numbers. As Michael Gove said, we’ve “had enough of experts.” And I don’t have to tolerate the frankly barking views of my neighbour (even if he’s got a million people around the world agreeing with him), in fact my online community simply supplies me with more and more ammunition, ceaselessly, that proves my neighbour’s wrong and eventually I’ll bloody well show him.

The erosion of geographical cohesion, not only in social and political terms, but also in globalised economics – such as Trade Agreements with clauses that override the sovereignty of nations so the wishes of corporations can overrule the political will of a country’s people – is, no doubt, next to Global Warming, one of the biggest problems the 21st Century faces. Right now countries and terrorists and the voters of America are all fighting, in one way or another, for the right balance between the freedoms of globalisation and the support of localised communities. As the stakes and the enemy get bigger and bigger, so does our individual sense of impotence – and there’s only one way we know how to deal with that: get angry.

Growing up after WWII, I was fine tolerating incompetent officials because, even if the parking attendants may be unsympathetic, stupid, jumped up, jobsworths, at least they didn’t wear jackboots.

But time has passed, I am witness to the mad injustices of the world and as an empathetic human they are mine too. Now, like an easily distracted window cleaner, it doesn’t take much to make me lose my rag.

The question, in the end is not why are we so angry? It’s why wouldn’t we be?


First appeared in


End of Daze

I’ve got ninety-nine problems and the fact that I’m so obsessive I actually count them is definitely one of them. Another, more pressing one, is this permanent sense of an ending that I cannot shake, it sticks like kindling. Political correctness may not be over until the fat lady sings, but the familiar left-right equilibrium of post-Marxist political ideologies, the cornerstone of government for so long, and the lives we’ve built around it, seems to be in its death throes.

Far more than the hand wringing after the financial crash or the fatalism of the millennial bug, a sense of “end of days” is pervading. If I had a pound for every time a politician used the phrase, “a time of uncertainty” since the Brexit vote I’d be a millionaire or, if you like, the proud owner of the equivalent of 3 euros. It is all uncertainty because we voted against something, not for anything else. No one painted our future, we just scribbled a great big “Could do better” over our past.


Illustration by Alice Stallard

In the void, the abstract of Brexit and the messianic rise of Trump are being hailed as precursors of a new world order. The ever victimised sub-prime proletariat will finally rise up and put the world to rights. With appalling table manners, they’ll eat the “elite”, even if there really aren’t enough to go around, before being subjugated under the jackboot of Trumputin. The one percent definitely need to get tooled up for the coming armageddon.

But luckily it is not the end of the liberal ideology and all its jolly nice tolerant, equality, vicar-round-for-tea, social consciousness. What apparently is really over, according to a number of intellectuals and Guardian writers (not that they are entirely mutually exclusive), is Neoliberalism.

Really. Neither had I.

Luckily a chap who definitely keeps smarties in his pants, Guardian writer George Monbiot, explained why.

“Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in … the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, … the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

“So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.”

But this all seems a little convenient. Have the good honest working class of this country really stood up to end something which nobody has heard of? Or has an evil doppleganger of liberalism just been created so we don’t have to question the efficacy of the real thing? Not that Neoliberalism is brand new, but certainly obscure and now seems somewhat after the fact.

Neoliberalism was, apparently, the philosophy guiding Thatcher and Reagan and every western leader since, even if few of them would have heard of it. I mean liberalism is about liberty and against regulation so deregulating the financial markets was definitely kind of liberal… but that all turned tits up so let’s call it Neoliberalism and we can cheer seeing the back of it.

I’m a liberal with a small ‘L’ (I try not to advertise my other small bits). I love the ideas that liberalism champions. It’s something I’d fight for. But I am starting to fear it’s too weak, too ethereal, too nice to survive against the omnipotence of angry gods and the raging impotence of global poverty.

To scapegoat “Neoliberalism” is to tilt at windmills and fight with shadows. It is a chimera to help avoid the truth: that we have been living in a self-satisfied fog of our own “enlightenment”, languishing in a stupor of privilege that can afford rights and humanity, a dizzying mist which has blinded many of us to the rising tide of dissatisfaction and the thrilling potency of hatred. What we’re really ending, is this daze.


First published in


So don’t tell me to move on.

They will talk of June 2016 as the month the country got kicked out of Europe twice. Once by Iceland, and once by the people who shop there.

They will, because the gloves have been taken off and the fear of offering offence to others, the idea of politely watching your tongue or taking a moment to empathise with the feelings of others, has been well and truly Faraged.

Just as one side of the Brexit argument believed the referendum meant that they could at last talk about immigration without being accused of racism, so the other side felt the result meant they could talk about the disenfranchised and least privileged as xenophobic fuckwits without being accused of snobbery. Political yes/no, in/out, polarities only drive us to extremes; moderates are forced to make bed fellows with the abhorrent and extreme. We know that this country is no more home to seventeen million racist idiots as it is to an oxymoronic sixteen million elitists. And yet… all of us were required to make deals with our devils. Our elected decision makers washed their hands of their responsibilities and divided the country almost exactly in two as quickly and as farcically as Laputa.

In Gulliver’s Travels (1726), following a freak breakfasting accident, the tiny minded Lilliputians split into two factions on whether it is better to crack a boiled egg on the pointy end or the round end. The dominant Little-endians then fell into perpetual war with the Big-endians and with their neighbouring country Blefuscu where Big-ending was de rigueur. And even within the Little-endian political elite there were high-heelers favoured by the emperor, and low-heelers who fought for people’s rights. In a vain, third way, attempt to smooth things out, the emperor’s son walked with a limp: sporting one low and one high heel. It was satire but if it all sounds strangely prescient it is because we have utterly failed to learn from history.

So don’t tell me: “Accept it and move on.” One of a number of unhelpful phrases to become the memes of this summer; the anxious cry of our very own marginally dominant Little-endians. Should we? Indeed could we?

Whether we trigger Article 50, whether we leave the EU or not, the severity of the divide that has been unmasked in this country will not heal in a few days with a thin “just buck up” message. In the end it’s not that “project fear” has somehow infected the panicking minds of the Big-endians, as Boris Johnson suggests. It is probably not the money markets or the coming scarcity of good cheap cleaners. It’s the certain death of the cultural expectations of half the country and the realisation of how fragile our parliamentary democracy actually is, and how easily it fell vulnerable to extremism, that has brought on what can only be described as grief.

Classically, grief’s five stages are, denial, anger, bargaining and depression before, apparently, acceptance. Certainly those first four have been more than evident but, on a national level, no one knows how long it might take to get to stage five. If jokes are what we do to try and nullify the despair of grief, even seventy years after WWII we haven’t reached the acceptance stage. We’re still finding it funny to imagine Angela Merkel visiting Greece and, when the passport official asks, “Occupation?” she replies, “No, just visiting.”

So please don’t tell me to “Stop banging on about the referendum,” as if I had a choice. Brexit has triggered something psychologists call ‘frequency illusion’. A phenomenon that occurs when your mind has focussed on something and then you consciously start noticing its occurrence more often. For example, when you’re thinking of buying a particular model of car, you suddenly start noticing that there are far more on the road than you thought before. The bitterness of our divided country has created a mass inextricable ‘frequency illusion’, it has become a prism that almost every view following it is inevitably seen through. Days after the referendum the Archbishop of Canterbury was interviewed about the vigil in remembrance of the Somme. “What do you think was the main cause of such bloodshed?” asked the interviewer. “Massive political misjudgement,” he replied, barely able to disguise the sub-text.

So don’t tell me, “There were lies on both sides.” Yes there were, but Gove, Johnson and Farage’s were just far fatter. An objective observer might conclude that our government’s greatest failure, highlighted by Brexit, is depriving generations of a solid education that might encourage empathy and equip us to spot lies and consider consequences as clearly as the private school educated, despised, liberal elite that many Little-endians were protesting about with their votes, and which accounted for much of London’s Big-endian position.

So don’t tell me: “What’s done is done.” Of course, with a narrow majority, the last thing you want is another go. “Move on” is the politically motivated advice of the victors and it will do nothing but infuriate those who are grieving.

So don’t tell me, “If it was the other way round you would say we were undermining democracy if we campaigned for another referendum.” And yet, another referendum, just to make sure now we’re more aware of the outcome, would, of course, be no less democratic than the first, and perhaps more so.

So give up the platitudes, and the urgings to move on. Let the Big-endians grieve and hope. It is a pyrrhic victory. We allowed our politicians to ignore their fundamental duties in this representative democracy, the mother of parliaments, and we all will pay for it. What are they if they are not, after all, employed by us to research, comprehend, and take time to consider as well as debate the merits of plans for our good. And yet they gave up and left the country to split down the middle. But in the turmoil that follows, that political elite which so many were voting against, will not fold or disappear but, like Dr Who, simply take on a shiny new face.

So don’t tell me, “it’s just a period of uncertainty,” because there is one thing that is certain. This country, our institution of representative government, the whole idea of a United Kingdom, will never be the same again.


First published in



It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The saddest aspect of my mid-life crisis is not a sportscar or a baseball cap, it’s not hashtagging freshly invented compound words, or even indulging self-pitying grief for lost opportunities, it’s simpler and just as fruitless in its immutability, it’s genashame. (That’s #genashame kids! – swipe right to be patronised.)

I am deeply, mortifyingly, ashamed of my generation.

I’ve reached my fifties and, with few exceptions, my contemporaries are sitting in the world’s driving seats. The ministers and CEOs, lawmakers and leaders, movers and sheikers (#sheikers!), the elite, the grandees, the top dogs and fat cats, they’re the kids from my playground; or, more accurately, the one down the M4 south of Slough. And I can only apologise for what utter arseholes we’ve turned out to be.

As all kids must, I knew my parents’ generation had got everything wrong. But instead of anger, I was so insufferably arrogant as to pity them. They had, after all, lived through WWII and the blinkered ‘Establishment’ Britain of the 1950s. Could I really blame them then for, for instance, their apparently inherent racism? After all they hadn’t had the opportunity to grow up in a post Windrush, second generation immigrant, diverse society. Anybody who went to an urban state school in the 70’s would have a rainbow spectrum of mates and I knew that, by the time my generation was running the country, fear of the dark and foreign would be as ancient history as a profit-led privatized railway … (pause for dramatic irony to sink in).

In my teens I watched the tribal thinking of the Baby Boomer older kids – the hippies, teds, punks, rockers, skinheads and mods – fade out. They called it the death of individuality and the rise of the grey, but many of us saw it differently: the birth of inclusivity. Our, frankly embarrassing, cross-over youth movement New Romanticism, embraced countless styles whilst ham-fistedly promoting gender neutrality with frilly shirts, and badly applied mascara. (I really can’t find any other excuse for it). We had our own French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, championing the margins and “différence”. I was so proud of my generation, I just knew that, when we finally got into power the world would be put right. Extremism, factionalism, sectarianism, sexism, gaybashing, queer baiting, they would all belong to the past as decisively as women in headscarves … (we’re still doing the dramatic irony thing).

When I started work, Thatcher deregulated the financial markets, her “Big Bang” – a term which can’t have made Denis feel very good about himself – introduced “the barrowboy into the city”. It all seemed to be preparing the world for my generation’s inevitable all-inclusive style leadership when we took over. The laying down of class divisions, opening the highest paid jobs to those who hadn’t had the benefit of an exhaustive private education, looked like meritocracy. Opportunities for all in banking would weed out the complacent, the corrupt and the greedy. When anybody, everybody, could be a stockbroker, investor or banker, the exclusive ranks of the financial world would die out. The almost feudal idea of a tiny elite controlling almost all the money and power would be as dead and unfathomable as ripped jeans, chain smoking, anti-Semitism, nukes, bigotry, xenophobia, gender pay differences …

My generation, which invented Google and designed the iPhone, leveraged the internet in good faith; we thought it’d empower the less privileged and encourage global understanding. As it turns out, all it did was put up a screen – in every sense of the word – between all of us. In the 90s, it seemed misanthropic to predict that such a tool of mass communication would, in fact, encourage and enable elitism, factionalism, disagreement and dissatisfaction, but on a global scale.

Every now and again a millennial pops up on YouTube expressing their own #genashame. She’ll apologise for her peers: ignoring the world with their heads in their phones, trolling, slut-shaming, fraping, and a hundred other online and surly behavioural misdemeanours. And I long to reassure her. It’s not your fault. Just as my parents‘ generation, with all good intentions, deprived working class children of elite grammar educations and starved the present Establishment of diverse thinkers, the phone and it’s brain-sucking enchantment is down to my shitty selfish generation who put the hypnotic little box in your hands, to shut you up while we got on with our own lives.

We were dubbed Generation X. X was for “the unknown”, but I’m starting to realise that an X also resembles a tightly clenched arsehole. Somehow, we got side-lined and the few people from my generation who could be bothered to grab all the top jobs were, on the whole, the most greedy, narrow-minded, blinkered, arseholes my generation had to offer.

The rest of us, it seems, did not care enough to really make a difference. We ignored our duty to take care of the economy, environment, rights or even hard-won social tolerance. We simply gave in to fear-mongering and terrorism of the most basic sort.

I am utterly genashamed. We were too busy playing Space Invaders to give a fuck. Whilst we were indulging our own interests we forgot our social ones. We allowed our nimbys, our angry misfits and disgruntled reactionaries, the ones with small minds and axes to grind, who could be bothered, to take control. We were so distracted by all the little gewgaws we invented we forgot to take care of things.



First published in


“Unethical amnesia”: subconscious deliberately suppresses memories of dishonesty

“Unethical amnesia”: subconscious deliberately suppresses memories of dishonesty Memories of past dishonesty is distressing, so the brain shuts them down

CREDIT: TELEGRAPH Henry Bodkin 16 MAY 2016 • 8:20PM

People are prone to repeat dishonest acts because the human subconscious deliberately suppresses memories of unethical behavior, scientists have found.

Fiddling expenses, cheating the taxman and even extramarital affairs are all less likely to be remembered than virtuous acts because of the phenomenon of “unethical amnesia”, according to researchers at Harvard and Northwestern Universities.

Maryam Kouchaki and Francesca GinoPublished in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the new study explains how the brain actively adopts strategies to avoid remembering instances of bad behavior in order to avoid psychological distress.

These include “re-coding” previous actions by subconsciously dehumanising the victims of dishonesty.

Additionally, many of the participants in the study were found to be operating a “double-distancing” mechanism, whereby they judged other people’s transgressions more harshly than their own, allowing them to view themselves in a more virtuous light.

Subjects were randomly tasked with writing about either an unethical or an ethical past experience.Their answers were then assessed against characteristics of memory such as clarity of detail and how well the subject remembered their feelings at the time of the act.

The results showed that individuals’ recall of their own past unethical acts were less vivid than memories of their ethical acts.

Participants were also asked to take part in a coin-tossing game where they were able to lie in order to win more money.

Their subsequent recall of the game was far less accurate than that of the dinner they enjoyed together later that day.

This unethical amnesia means people are more likely to act dishonestly repeatedly over time, wrote lead authors Maryam Kouchaki and Francesca Gino.

Source: “Unethical amnesia”: subconscious deliberately suppresses memories of dishonesty

To hell in a handcart

The consolations of pessimism

This story has two morals. One of them is: don’t make life-changing decisions when you’re shitfaced. But that’s kind of obvious so let’s dispense with that one here. Don’t. Just don’t.

The second is more subtle.

So it starts about six months ago and twenty yards from posh Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, on the front deck of a houseboat. It’s six thirty on a chilly autumn morning. A low sun glints off the gold pagoda in the park, the tide is low and the boats are beached, sprawled on the mud like fag butts beneath a teenager’s bedroom window. It smells like seaweed and sewage.

Chris, an old mate from school, is in borrowed pyjamas. He’s pale, unkempt and shaking; partly from the cold, mostly from the come down. He steadies himself on the stern rail, fumbling with a little plastic bag of weed. He balances the bag on the rail to crumble a pinch of pot over the tobacco strands and Rizla skin. Suddenly, a gust of wind takes the corner of the paper on his palm. He slaps it down but knocks the bag which tumbles to the mud below.

It’s not his boat, he’s ‘sitting’ it for a wealthy friend. Chris is between homes. He has been most of his life. He’s spent a month on board and knows that his friend will run out of patience with him before Christmas. Then he’ll find another sofa.

Chris is scrawny. He doesn’t think twice before slipping through the rail and dropping to the wet ground. Remarkable how the deadbeat who’d rather be shitfaced is the model of bodily control when vital interests are at stake. It squelches and sprays his trousers but the bag is upright, the contents are safe. Now he can’t get back on board. He edges around the boat towards the jetty but trips, plummeting face first into the mud. Dirty and reeking he pushes himself up. His hand leans on something hard and metallic. It’s an old pre-decimal penny. Neither numismatist nor nostalgist, he’s about to fling it at the river, see if he can beat his personal record of five skips with a flat stone. But then he remembers that he’s lost a counterweight from his little antique balancing scales. The scales are one of the few possessions that float along with him in the jetsam of his life; one of his essentials. Chris wipes the penny clean and sticks it in his pocket before clambering up and back on board.

I know all this because he tells me in detail when we meet that evening at Rileys in World’s End – possibly the last un-gastroed pub in Chelsea. Chris had done some research. He shows me the penny. He’s cleaned it up a bit but it’s still a dark greenish brown and smells of fish. One side is clearly George V sporting a hipster cropped beard and bushy moustache. Chris turns the penny over.

“Look at the date,” he points enthusiastically. Beneath Britannia’s feet is the year 1933.

“Right.” I say, unsure why he’s so animated. I have a jar full of similar left-over pennies at home.

“1933. It’s special. They only made a handful of these. One of these is worth like £100,000.”

“Sweet,” I breathe with new admiration. I’m jealous, but also pleased for him. Luck has not been a frequent visitor in Chris’ life, she forgot to call when his embryo was picking out physical features and then pretty much ignored him the rest of his life through a disastrous marriage, the ensuing custody battle, alcoholism, several life-threatening diseases and eternal penury. Finally she was making good. And he’d even beckoned her over with that miniscule act of will – major as it might have been for Chris – of following up an idle curiosity with some research.

“It’s gotta be a fake.” Chris says dropping it on the table.

In some ways Chris’ scars have earned him the right to expect the worst. A decade ago I used to dread nights out with him, but now the darkened aspect of his conversation is pretty much like every conversation everyone has nowadays. From credit crunch angst to global Jihad despair, the politics of fear, the sunless outlook of more misery to come is downright de rigueur. News programmes can’t even be bothered to find skateboarding ducks anymore. Pessimism is the new black. As Chris puts it. “You can’t watch all this ISIS crap, beheadings, gay people being thrown off buildings, burnt alive in cages, without thinking that civilisation is paper thin. We’re all just animals under a thin veil of pretending that we give a shit. Look what we’re doing to the environment, and bankers, and refugees…”

Chris’ list has become a commonplace dinner party trope. A classic inversion of an Ian Dury hit.

“Isis trained jihadi, the English accent baddy, your paedophile daddy and Trump. Hamas filling Calais, any dark alley, BNP rally, Jez Hunt. Doctors earning money, cancer in your tummy, she’s only boiling bunny, c**t. Reasons to be Fearful Part 3…”

The trouble with pessimism is it only gets worse. Even the half empty glasses are smaller than they used to be.

Chris is a pub philosopher of the first degree, but his doom and gloom is not just saloon bar rhetoric. The same problem is racking our academics. How does our terrified putative liberal democracy face a superstitious culture, armed to the teeth, writhing at the injustice of poverty and the global imbalance of wealth? Our own history tells us that the free-fall in the vacuum of absolute monarchies is bloody, pitiless and engaged upon with the same zeal as the C18th French revolutionaries or those C17th English Civil War fanatics.

Witnessing the atrocities meted out in the Civil War, Thomas Hobbes could only draw the conclusion that the true nature of man’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He reckoned that the only reason we’re not all murdering each other all the time is that we’ve handed the leviathan state power over us to keep us from making each others’ lives short and nasty. Were it not for  our ability to be dominated, we’d be no better than beasts.

Today, the Oxford philosopher John Gray continues the same misanthropic vision insisting that there is no steady progression of human advances towards a more civilised world or a more decent one over a long period of time. It can all be whipped away with terrifying speed. As all pessimists do, he calls it realism.

But pessimism is easy. It means you can have the lowest of expectations and still draw a feeling of fulfilment, more still, of control, from the very act of something going tits up. It’s self-protection for the ego. For Gray there is no correlation between apparent advances in science and technology and the reasonableness of man. The growth of human power over the world is ethically ambiguous.

Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimistic explanation for our progress is that we’re stuck in a vicious cycle of want which, as soon as we get it, fails to satisfy and inspires us to want more. He and Nietzsche both believed that life without pain was meaningless. Even Dread Pirate Roberts in the Princess Bride reckoned, “Life is pain, anybody who tells you different is trying to sell you something.”

Yet from Socrates and Leviathan to Superman (and doubly so for the Princess Bride) the very fact that these thinkers bothered to express this pesimism implies a certain desire to educate and improve the lot of man. Even if, as in Nietzsche’s case, it was to call for more pain to endure – that takes a certain optimism. Obama called hope audacious, and hope was the tiny thing left in Pandora’s box of evils. I’d like to think optimism is bravery rather than stupidity but either way it does the job.

Gray believes this ‘realist’ approach encourages us to live in the moment, to appreciate the now, as, presumably, we could all die horribly and senselessly tomorrow. He walks in the footsteps of Isaiah Berlin, himself an escapee from the horrors of the Holocaust. “The goal of life,” Berlin wrote, “is life itself… to sacrifice the present to some vague and unpredictable future is a form of delusion which leads to the destruction of all that alone is valuable in men and societies – to the gratuitous sacrifice of the flesh and blood of live human beings upon the altar of abstractions. The purpose of the singer is the song, and the purpose of life is to live.”

So the current trend for Mindfulness is just a product of our societal pessimism. Be in the now because tomorrow is way too awful to think about.

And yet Berlin, Gray and Hobbes are reacting in a state of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The horror that damaged these philosophers, the abuse we are all suffering by bearing witness to these atrocities, has limited their, and our, horizons.

An optimist though, might take the longer view. Today, in this country, when I leave the house I don’t have to worry if it will be there when I get back or that my wife and children may be raped and killed in my absence or on my journey I might be held up or shot or blown to smithereens. Our relatively safe, multi-cultural, tolerant, liberal society, where life is valued, is not here by accident. It grew out of lessons learnt including the blood spilt in the Civil War that made Hobbes’ philosophy so dark. France’s own secular culture emerged through the machinations of Sadism and the Guillotine. All births are painful and bloody. Helping Assad fight back against the revolutionaries now is like trying to stuff the baby back in. And that doesn’t work.

I grew up in the long shadow cast by WWII, there were other, limited, wars, but never a real hunger to go at it again. My kids may grow up terrified of rucksacks on the tube, but their kids may just get sick of it and peace has every chance of breaking out again. But then maybe there’ll be another culture in need of a revolution. So, bloody as it is, maybe we are progressing. There is nowhere I’d rather live than in a country that has had at least a couple of hundred years to settle in to this early summer of a  post-revolutionary vibe. But optimism takes effort and courage especially when there is much more psychological security in pessimism: at the very least, you’ll be right when everything goes wrong. It’s all about control again.

To find consolation in pessimism is the easy solution. The prediction of disaster leaves you in control with a positive outcome whichever way it goes. Pessimism seems to be the default setting for the control-needy, and maybe why the control freaks par excellence, our politicians, reach for the disaster scenario (‘project fear’) far more readily than the positive outcome. Which, of course has its historical apriori – as Machiavelli famously put it, it “is much safer to be feared than loved… men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared.”

Could optimism then just be a matter of willfulness? It certainly takes strength. In the film Clockwise, written by Michael Frayn, the John Cleese character, who has suffered an endless string of disasters – as every good farce character must – sits down in the middle of the road, exhausted and says “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

But I’m just not sure ‘will’ completely covers it. Both pessimism and optimism are visions of a future. ‘Will’ in itself, even the “faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action” type of will is based on intention and an unrealised future. And to be willful suggests that it is ‘in the face of the facts’.

While incarcerated by Mussolini, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will” (Letter from Prison-19 December 1929) but then, sitting impotent in prison, watching a disaster of global proportions unfold, you might well see optimism as a force of will. But I see it differently. Disastermongering adherents of Murphy’s Law like Chris are everywhere. When meeting them, I feel bound to champion the rosy outlook. Partly through willful bloodymindedness but also on empirical evidence. I find myself consciously noting all the shitty things people predict. Possibly for a smug told-you-so denoument later. But I find that somehow the human will to progress and improve our lot just keeps shining through the random disasters of life. Almost all of the hells Chris has predicted over the years simply haven’t panned out that way or, at least, not as devastating as he painted them. Admittedly, in some circumstances, my own ‘will’ towards a positive outcome (inspired by petty oneupmanship to prove him wrong) has averted the odd disaster and, of course, at times he has been right. But, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” We do have an amazing capacity to remember the bad. And there’s probably an evolutionary advantage, once stung, to treating bee hives carefully rather than blindly pursuing the honey. Pessimists exploit that tic, they use memorable history to justify their outlook and somewhere, the bright side gets lost.

My evening with Chris ends after a crazy amount of alcohol. “Tomorrow Chris get the coin valued.” I say, “You never know it might be pukka?”

“Yeah?” Chris slurs, “And what if it is? I’ll tell you what. First thing my wife will be back in contact, demanding her share, then I’ll have to explain to the kids why I wasn’t around and pretend that she’s not a complete bitch, and then I’d have to pay tax and then everybody I owe shit to, which is, like, everybody, will come after me till I’ve got bugger all left or if I do I’ll have to get a place and a fucking mortgage and be in debt to the Man.” By now Chris is shouting, “And you know what I’d do if I still had dosh left over. I’d snort it or drink it or inject it until it’s all gone or I’m dead. It’s a fucking death sentence this.” And before I can rebut or offer any assurance he stumbles out. It’s windy outside and there’s a cold drizzle that bites.

I’m fairly sure I know what happened to the penny. Chris is still sofa surfing and claims he can’t remember. He still shakes in the morning. But I get no consolation, even on Chris’ behalf, from the thought that when that dark penny left his hand, he finally did it: it skipped at least six times before it sank beneath the water.

An abridged version of this article also appears on







How to banish bad memories: Brains can be trained to let go of unwanted thoughts by thinking of them in a new context

For some, a certain song or smell makes them feel postively nostalgic while for someone else it reminds them of a love lost.But a new study has shown people can intentionally forget past experiences by changing how they think about the context of those memories.

The findings could help in the development of new educational tools, or even help to diminish harmful memories, especially in people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Theorists have known since the Ancient Greek era the importance of context in retrieving our memories, such as being reminded by a particular person, sight or smell.

But the team from Dartmouth and Princeton wanted to find out about whether memories could be intentionally forgotten.

To do this, they scanned the brains of participants using MRI technology to track the thoughts related to memories’ contexts, while putting a new twist on the traditional psychological research technique of having subjects memorise and recall a list of unrelated words.

In the new study, researchers showed participants images of outdoor scenes, such as forests, mountains and beaches, as they studied two lists of random words.

More at

Losing the Will

Not even cyanide spoils a drink with a friend faster than discovering he’s in love. That’s when you buy yourself a triple; you know you’re in for an evening of ridiculous superlatives, and specious speculation. And you’ll listen to all of it aware that when, or if, you ever meet this paragon they will never be as perfect, sexy or brilliant as the hype. No one could be. The idea of the loved one, in their absence, is always more exciting than any reality. It’s the fisherman’s “one that got away” or Donald Trump’s genius; we fill the vacuum of absence with everything from the improbable to the impossible, the stuffing of legend. By the time you’re getting your second drink, trying to draw out the order for as long as possible by feigning an interest in third division football with the bar staff, you’re not sure how much more fantasising you can take as it’s all just air and you’re finding it really hard to give a s**t.
That’s how I feel when people start talking about Shakespeare. And, what with this month being the 400th anniversary of his death, it might just be, as T.S. Eliot would have it, the cruellest.
Don’t get me wrong I love a bit of Shakespeare me: I came of age enrapt with Withnail asking the London Zoo wolves, “What a piece of work is a man?”;

I can see why Shakespeare’s responsible for a tenth of the most quoted lines in English ever; the words are sublime, the poetry mesmeric, the drama… well, not exactly captivating but epic, definitely epic; I spent a year of my degree studying his works; I’ve indulged the pretensions of Day-Lewis, Branagh, Gibson, Tennant, Cumberbatch and even Frances de la Tour trying to play that morbidly articulate Danish teenager, decades their junior; I even committed some of his more sonorous soliloquies to heart believing a little bit of “shall I compare thee” might lend me an air of culture and fill awkward silences on dates – a misapprehension which, I later discovered, almost entirely accounted for my remaining a complete stranger to the taste of postprandial coffee, the 20th century “Netflix and Chill”.
But that’s not why the mention of Shakespeare makes me feel “I would give all my fame for a pot of ale.”
In leaving his works without an in-depth CV of his life, not even a kiss and tell exposé, Shakespeare created a perfect vacuum. An absence of details which our information hungry, celebrity life curious, age abhors.

alice stallard shakespeare

Illustration by Alice Stallard

Ever since the 19th Century the idea of Shakespeare, the mystery of the man himself, has gradually eclipsed his works. Now, outside the academic world, no Shakespeare conversation is complete without a discourse on identity. Not the identity crises evident in his almost Mengele-like obsession with twins, nor his “To be or not to be”, not even his gender challenging drag acts, but just, “Was that William Shakespeare William Shakespeare or what?”
This severing of the man from his work started with the Victorians, with their passion for propriety and hierarchies. It just wouldn’t send the right message to the lower orders to allow a grammar school oik to have moulded the language of empire, let alone invented 3000 of its words. So into the void of Will’s life new, elite, posh candidates suddenly looked more attractive. He could only know this if he went to University, he could only know that if he had travelled, was a sailor, a tree surgeon, a spy or royal privy sanitiser. Names were aplenty while William Shakespeare of Warwickshire became simply “The Stratford Man”.

You’d have thought, by now, with our enlightened view of bare table legs, we’d have moved on from Victorian snobbery. But the “Authorship Question” has continued to escalate, even becoming a Hollywood film. In 2011 Anonymous cast Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford as the true writer.
So Shakespeare turns out to be, pretty much, the only secular figure to transcend into a meme, an idea that has evolved as it has passed through generations. And I can see the attraction. It’s a lot more exciting to imagine and speculate about an absence rather than go mine those old texts for yet further depth and meaning. But I can’t help feeling it’s like enjoying a steak whilst arguing about the name of the cow.
RolandBarthesBut it’s almost 50 years since goggle-eyed Gallic literary critic Roland Barthes declared “La mort de l’auteur” dampening enthusiasm for the Hello school of biographical criticism and championing the appreciation of art for its own sake; rather than as some misshapen reflection of the writer.
So don’t talk to me about Shakespeare without buying me a stiff drink first. Any story of his life is going to be little more than “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” When we have secular words so transcendent they still feel fitting at our significant life events, births, weddings and funerals (if not embarrassing dates), when the subtle shades of our enlightened world are threatened by the brutal certainties of ISIS style medieval thinking that will flatten a Palmyra, knowing that at some time, someone, was bothered and able to express the tenets of the modern world as poignantly as: “The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘T is mightiest in the mightiest;” I just can’t find it in me to care who he, or she, was. And I don’t care when he was born or when he died or who he was sending his poetry to. Who was Shakespeare? In a few words he didn’t coin, I really couldn’t giveth two shiteths.

First published in