Only the Lonely

They say no one wants to be on their own at Christmas but, seriously, by 6pm Christmas Day who doesn’t? Yes somewhere someone must be having a perfect Family Christmas but it’s probably not you and, for many, the Family Christmas is just a bitter breeding ground for passive aggression, spite, petty vengeances, bleeding bitten-lip tolerance and a timely reminder why you no longer live with these bastards.
Why we keep going back, like a cat to eat its own vomit, is complicated: the myth of seasonal good cheer is pretty overwhelming, we’ve had a year to forget, the human condition errs on the side of optimism – hope springs eternal otherwise how do you explain Marmite Chocolate bars – or maybe it’s just because we are, at core, social animals.
But the stigma of being “alone at Christmas” persists and it’s the word ‘alone’ that’s causing mischief. It sneakily conflates two ideas that are more mutually exclusive than we imagine: being on your own, and being lonely. A physical state and an emotion. And though one could lead to the other, we’ve got to recognise that being on your own does not necessarily make you lonely and being in company won’t stop you feeling feel immeasurably isolated. In fact, if you’re Sartre, always a joy at dinner parties, “l’enfer, c’est les autres,” hell is other people.
Personally I’m never lonelier than in the company of half-wits – which, up until last years referendum, I had believed was a fairly limited set – so watching I’m a Celebrity… is like peering into the abyss. It’s chilling to watch the wretched misery of those so desperate for love they allow their abject failure to be exploited for telly on the off-chance some viewer might sympathise for a moment, or the cash fee will fill the void.  You can see the terror in the eyes of every contestant. And maybe part of the series’ success, in airing just before Christmas, is that watching the bleak, hopeless, attention neediness of these lonely desolate individuals, and fearing that “there but for the grace…”, it gives us each the strength to go home for Christmas, forgive our families, and give it one more go.
The worst thing about the “no one should be lonely at Christmas” meme is the temporality of it all. The rest of the year? You can sling yer hook; feast your mince pies on the door you clingy bastard.
In ancient civilizations, the worst punishment short of death, was banishment. To be cast out. They recognised that one of the fundamental needs of man is company. Even today the most feared part of prison is isolation. Loneliness is such an aberration to the human condition it lacks an antonym. Most emotions have an opposite: sad/happy, fearful/confident, love/hate but we have such a basic requirement to be social we lack words to celebrate the joy of good company. The closest we might get is ‘a feeling of belonging’ but then that doesn’t come without overtones of ownership and subsuming the individual.
 The novelist Kurt Vonnegut repeatedly returned to the idea that loneliness was the worst thing to afflict mankind. He said “the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” Vonnegut’s influence should not be ignored. His strange concoction of war-damaged cynicism, bittersweet humour, counter-culture, social comment, misanthropy and science fiction was one of the great literary backgrounds to the nerdalescence of our present tech giants. Loneliness defined the eighties geeks, banished by their peers, desperately trying to code friendship into a mesh of wires, cathode rays and silicone. The 1985 Pygmalion movie Weird Science, in which two computer nerds create the perfect woman with a back comb and a boobtube who might love them and make them popular, reflected this well-recognised commonplace.
The idea that loneliness was like a disease, and therefore only lacked a cure, echoed through the development of the internet from the very first ‘Bulletin Board Systems’ to today’s social networks; Vonnegut’s “stable communities”.
Real life started to ape Vonnegut’s narratives with the story of a geek called Steve who was, by all accounts, one of the loneliest men in the world. The sort of chap who always went the extra mile he used to point out that, “the extra mile is such a lonely place.” For years he tried to find a cure for loneliness. He built machines that would play games with him, gave them friendly names, pretty designs and then, in 2006 he found it. The cure. It was the tiniest gizmo; you wouldn’t think it did anything at all. It was a little box you could keep in your pocket wherever you went, and every time you felt a little pang of loneliness, you could take out the box and it instantly connected you with every other lonely person on the planet. You could share your misery, embarrassing moments, secrets, jokes and never, ever, be lonely again. Sadly, Steve died just five years later but the iPhone and its clones lives on. Now you’re never alone with a phone. Any moment you might be bored or could just take a moment to smell the roses, you’ve got the world of the lonely in your hand instead with their status updates and their crazy kittens. Instagram the hell out of those roses. Go girlfriend.
Of course even Steve didn’t think it was a real cure for loneliness, it was just a brilliant distraction from the pain. But what a world it has unleashed. According to John Lanchester in his brilliant history of money, “there are at least seven billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world (four and a half billion people have access to a flush toilet)… more than twice as many people have a mobile phone as have access to a bank account.”
It turns out our tech gods had feet of clay. They only understood the numbers, they took Forster at his word, “only connect,” and went no further. Educated in bits and bytes with the the voices of Vonnegut and Ayn Rand in their heads, none of them had an inkling of real politics or philosophy or history, none of them realised how powerful their machines were or how delicately balanced western democracy and academic leadership was. Now Twitter and Facebook are belatedly trying to shut the barn door. Erase the hate. Too late too late.
If you have the cash to get online every voice is equal. Populism is the only winner. Everything that made society reject Benthamite Utilitarianism two hundred years ago has been ignored. The greatest good for the greatest number right? And the greatest number should know what’s good for them, shouldn’t they? Yup! Brexit, Trump, Daesh, Alt-Right, Breitbart, Extremism… With social media it’s far easier to sway the public than being chained to “traditional media” with their ombudsmen and fear of being sued which actually meant they check their facts. Feed them fake news, feed them desire and stories and the lies that bolster their prejudices – the game has changed.
So lonesome no more. But this always on interconnected world has not raised mankind. It’s connected hatred, spite, passive aggression, petty vengeances and bleeding bitten-lip tolerance. On social media, on your phone, every day is Christmas Day.


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The Good Fight

The last time I was roughed up was when I grazed myself on some sandpaper. The jury’s out on whether I’m a lover but I know I’m not a fighter. In my vocabulary, “punch” is a cocktail, “slap” is shoddy cosmetics, “hit” is an iTunes chart topper, and “knock out” is one of the rounds on X Factor. Violence is not only not an answer it’s a stupid bloody question in the first place. I am what Brietbart would call a snowflake and a soggy one at that. I try to avoid conflict in the same way I avoid charity bucket swingers, straphangers’ armpits and Birmingham. I don’t like it, it makes me nervous and anxious and far from the adrenaline rush of Fight or Flight it simply makes me nauseous.

Until recently I had thought myself pretty human in my disdain for disagreement and hankering for harmony. I considered myself evolved having no need to prove myself through physical prowess or even chuggalugga pint scoring. But I’m starting to realise I’m not evolved at all. My avoidance of conflict makes my genes one of our evolutionary tree’s billions of dead branches which would, through the generations, have become, inexorably ineffectual and unmatable had my kids not also had a mother who is more competitive than an elbow at the Harrods sale.

It’s true that after two world wars some deluded fools started to think maybe we could do things differently but conflict, it seems, is as human as halitosis. It is the perpetual state of man. The last few years have shown that it’s simply something that people are more comfortable with than concord.

I suppose that when there is us and them, we understand our place in the universe. A recent poll for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that people on low incomes are more concerned about immigration than jobs. Maybe because we know who we are through focussing on who we’re not. We can’t just know what we are for, we must know what we are against. Position through opposition. And anything that doesn’t overtly express the paradigm of conflict or competitiveness is odd and suspect.

It’s no wonder then that the EU appears so dubious to Brexiteers. Unless you are in opposition to all of it, within there are no clear sides, no distinct rivalry, no straightforward goal scoring, no lines to be drawn, nobody knows their MEPs or what they stand for and, maybe more importantly, what they stand against. For anybody wondering why the citizens of the developed world are voting for polarised politics, why Catalonians are desperate to express their difference to Spain, why Austria voted for a wing so right their reichsadler will only fly in circles, or why the US would vote for a man as transparently divisive as Trump, don’t. Conflict is us. It’s our dramas, it’s our stories, it’s what makes us us.

Every November we remember the dead, and we remember the conflicts that killed them. And though we murmur “never again,” stone me if I don’t detect an unspoken guilty yearning for yesteryear. Season of yellow fruits and wistfulness. It’s autumn-time and the nostalgia is high. We hanker for the good old days of black and white and knowing where we were. None of this spectrum crap, no shades of grey. The biggest computer game this season is Call of Duty: WWII with all-embracing immersive action bringing the past back to life like never before.

Yes you can be a brave Tommy biffing the evil Hun. It’s all so much easier than trying to cope with today’s reality of indefinites and infinitely variable social mores. A hand on a knee, is it a comforting gesture or sexual assault? Accepting a hug from a friend’s kid, is it affection or paedophilia? A sunny day, is it blue skies or global warming? Where are the boundaries, what’s the truth? We have Google so we know everything, we have Google so we know nothing, we need to remember nothing, we make our own memories and oh it was grand back then!

Except it wasn’t. Still. At least the squalor was closer to universal than it is now.

But in the end what we can be sure of is the fight. Perhaps it is the only thing we understand. It’s how we got here. When there isn’t a fight we find someone’s pint to spill. Our species’ evolutionary imperative is to survive and that’s done in battle. Forget the tanking pound, inflation, poverty and social injustice let’s have a punch up. We want parties of extremes and enemies of different skin colours and odd dress sense. We want sectarianism. We want to know there is us and them. The good guys and the enemy.

And when our radiated mutant descendents look back at the conflicts of the 21st century murmuring “never again” they’ll know that the guiding political polemic of the modern era were not Das Kapital, Mein Kampf or Wealth of Nations, but Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige in which she epitomised dichotomy and neatly defined everything in life as “U” and “Non-U”. Give peace a chance? Go on, I’ll fight you for it.


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It’s not the statues

The trouble with lazy sculptors is they never carve a niche for themselves.

Even the more diligent ones tend to get forgotten, hiding their works in plain sight to be treated, mostly, as just more irritating street furniture to bump into when you’re looking at your phone. London is stuffed full of a statues but we rarely see them. It’s only thanks to a publicity hungry rolling art exhibition that any of us are aware that there is an empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. But how many of us could actually picture or name any of the other three plinth occupiers?

Rhodes daring iconoclasts

I’m an admirer of gargoyles and other horrors that peek out from buildings but I walked past Oriel College in Oxford for three years and never noticed Cecil Rhodes lurking there until it was pointed out by the #RhodesMustFall campaign.

Does this old public art really still glorify the shitty deeds of past war criminals and genocidal millionaires, if their simulacrum are so easily, like daytime telly programmes, mistaken for décor? Or is it time to recognise that as our memes change so should our statues?

David Shrigley’s Really Good

At the moment the fourth plinth features David Shrigley’s Really Good: a relatively tiny hand with a massive thumbs up, the de facto photo-op hand gesture favoured by Trump. With a title that sounds as if it sprang straight from his little rose bud lips, every time I see the sculpture it makes me a little nauseous. I can’t wait for it to be pulled down and as a career iconoclast I feel I should enthusiastically support the pulling down of statues, the literal definition of iconoclasm. And yet… not only are ISIL doing a nice line in iconoclasm in places like Palmyra, I can’t help feeling that these statue topplers are missing a point.

“How about Thomas Jefferson?” Trump asked a press conference in what he believed would be a reductio ad absurdum “What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK good. Are we going to take down his statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue?” But it’s not so far from inconceivable as his speech post-it makers thought.

Thomas Jefferson, founding father and author of America’s Declaration of Independence, was also a sound Palladian architect. He was so proud of the University he helped design, he had the trees knocked down between his Monticello estate, on a hill several miles away, and the

University of Virginia

university buildings so he could admire his handiwork from his terrace. Indeed, so becoming is the University of Virginia that, along with Monticello, it has been designated UNESCO’s first and only collegiate World Heritage Site. The actual builders, and tree clearers, were, of course, slaves and the city that grew around the university is Charlottesville.

Near the centre of Charlottesville is a park created to house the equestrian statue of Confederate General Lee. For decades this was a perch for pigeons but, after “Black Lives Matter” was daubed on the statue in protest to the statue’s glorification of Confederate values, which included slavery, its removal was approved by the Charlottesville council. Suddenly the statue took on new relevance as a static flashpoint for the focus of the Ku Klux Klan, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, White Supremacists, AntiFa and Unite the Right which, holding protests and counter protests, last month ended in fatalities.

Unlike Lee, Jefferson did own slaves but he didn’t actively fight for the right to enslave so perhaps his statues might stand a little longer. The Lee statue, like many Confederate statuary, was erected in the early 20th century perhaps less to glorify but to give credence to local families caught in the war that tore America in two, that pitted brother against brother. The war was not entirely about slave owning which was always a privileged business. The vast majority of confederate soldiers who actually fought and died would have never owned a slave, they just believed they should have a right to and thus the natural superiority of their own race.

So now the debate is whether we should respect the past for having a different point of view or if, in a changing world, our public art should reflect it. Of course it would be ridiculous to get rid of everything that offends us. Libraries are full of nasty works remembering nasty people. But then you have to seek those out if you are so minded. Statues in public areas do take more of a burden. Even if I really wouldn’t want to live in a world where Hitler was forgotten, would I welcome a statue of him? He already seems to be in a video installation on endless loop on the History Channel and one of the most disturbing things I have experienced in an art gallery was approaching from the back the apparent angelic figure of a boy, in a corner on his knees praying, only to peak around to the front to discover it was Adolf Hitler (by Maurizio Cattelan).

So the question is whether statues simply remember or do they glorify? And if they cannot help but glorify should we even keep our war memorials?

Burghers of Calais (sans pedestal)

The Kiss sculptor Rodin faced this problem with his work The Burghers of Calais. The statue was commissioned to commemorate the ordinary men of Calais who had martyred themselves by volunteering as hostages to Edward III to stop his siege of the city. Rodin was intent on not glorifying these men. He wanted viewers to understand how ordinary they were, not heroes. So Rodin not only cast his group life size he realised that it wasn’t the statue which would elevate these men, it was the pedestal. He demanded that they have no pedestal so people could walk amongst the group of men as equals. The Calaisians wouldn’t dream of this and promptly stuck it on a pedestal and, further, sold a cast to the English which proudly sits outside parliament… on a pedestal.

Maybe Rodin was right. It’s not the statues. Perhaps the statues are, on the whole, just a physical memory of what was important, or financed, in another time. They are memories of distant propaganda, or as we now call it, Fake News. What, we should really be concentrating on, what actually should be falling, is their pedestals.


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“He said what!?”

For those of us who can still recall how politics was done pre-2016, with at least an appearance of diplomacy, consistency, courtesy, grace and manners each outrageous statement Donald Trump makes is greeted with a slack-jawed disbelief.

“He did what!?”

With every newscycle a new low seems to be reached, and the unavoidable question recurs, just what does a man have to do to get impeached around here? When is enough enough?

But then the self-styled ratings king is set on keeping his audience entranced. He seems to think that he’s giving politics the same makeover that TV was given thirty years ago. Bugger regulation and Reithian ‘entertaining, informing and educating’; the system was wrested from the hands of elite ‘tastemakers’ and thinkers and into the hands of populist “reality” and the race to the bottom. The most successful drama series of the time, commissioned by elite producers, just took reality TV and showed us the face of its future nadir: Shameless.

But Trump is only the premier cheerleader for reality politics where, just like real life, you get to change your mind whenever you want to and you get to say whatever you want to say, even if a few “pussies” and Mexicans get offended. Real life, that is, in our western world which a system of elites has spent centuries promoting and defending freedom of speech.

Like so many innovations, the brits did it first. Trump saw Brexit as the template for populist revolution. The Brexiteers can’t give the NHS £350 million a week, so what? May backed Remain, who cares? She swore she wouldn’t call an election and yet… and yet for some reason we do nothing or have no effective mechanism to hold politicians to their words.

Trump turns on a dime. So does May. But you’ll struggle to find the word “Sorry” in Hansard.

What if this is an improvement though? Blind conviction politics of the like of Margaret Thatcher was heartless. ISIL, like all despotic regimes, are deeply convicted to one way of doing things. There is no room for doubt. Jeremy Corbyn hates changing his mind, he is a politician of conviction (possibly not for the freedom fighters of the IRA but a man of conviction none the less) which is admirable even if those unswayable principles distances him from the views of the major electorate.

But conservatives hate doubt and there is a feeling that the Tories are tolerating May for fear of something worse taking her place. In the US, conservatives are starting to find Trump’s vacillation incompatible with their homoerotic vision of bullheaded leadership.

“Half his tweets show utter weakness. They are plaintive, shrill little cries, usually just after dawn,” Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal (Prop: Rupert Murdoch) “He’s not strong and self-controlled, not cool and tough, not low-key and determined; he’s whiny, weepy and self-pitying. He throws himself, sobbing, on the body politic. He’s a drama queen. It was once said, sarcastically, of George H.W. Bush that he reminded everyone of her first husband. Trump must remind people of their first wife.”

Noonan writes from the heart of American conservativism where the deepest insult possible is to be likened to a woman.

So, if we cannot take these politicians at their word, how do these leaders, neither of which were voted in by a majority, have the gall to carry on – and why do we let them?


In 1945, concerned about war breaking out again in the future, the American War Office didn’t blindly send soldiers on to the streets to give out sweets and “win hearts and minds”, as they did in Iraq, they actually thought about what they didn’t know. They sent the anthropologist Ruth Benedict to Japan to study the people and commissioned her hugely influential book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Benedict noted that the reason Americans struggled to understand notions like suicide kamikaze pilots, or ritual suicide aka Hari-kari, was that the West had what she called a “Guilt Culture” whereas Japan had a “Shame Culture”. Western people internalise their moral compass, they value their own judgement and act correctly to avoid feeling guilty. The Japanese moral viewpoint was performative, your society enacted punishment, they shamed you and they watched as you did the right thing. Historians seized on this dichotomy to explain the enlightenment (guilt) emerging from the dark ages of a shame society.

The social media revolution introduced a new shame culture to the West. We tweet to seek approval from our followers. We update our society at every moment with what we are doing and they can like hate or even star rate our behaviour. Perhaps this is why the ramifications of Social Media’s global societal judgement was understood far faster by shame cultures like the movement for global jihad than liberal democracies which simply decried its invasion of privacy.

But as more people defer to their screens and their ‘followers’, there is no doubt we are once more becoming a shame society. And in the kingdom of the shamed, the shameless are kings. Trump and May are apparently without shame. Unapologetic, each represents someone that many, caught in the gaze of social media, might love to be. The obscenely successful in this world we’ve made, are the shameless. The bankers, oligarchs, world leaders, the 0.0001 percent; those who can sleep at night as we cannot shame them and they carry no guilt. Meanwhile RT, Like and subscribe if you think I’m right. I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t have said these things. What do you think? Love me.


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Thirty Four Storeys, A Million Stories

A few weeks ago if you said “Kensington” what came to mind might be leafy garden squares with elegant colonnaded terraced houses, estate agents displaying extra-wide cards to accommodate all the noughts, paper-thin housewives, crocodiles of absurdly uniformed prep school kids, Middle Eastern princelets gunning gold Lamborghinis, or maybe Notting Hill, Hugh Grant, Portobello Market, The Record and Tape Exchange or resident bays packed with automotive real-estate worth more than most streets, houses and cars, anywhere in the country.

In one week all that changed. Now Kensington itself has become an international meme. For decades it’s been a national symbol for all that is excessive in house pricing and the poverty in the borough treated as an anomaly; “Aren’t they lucky living in such a lovely borough near all those sweet smelling rich people?” But now, with the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, the blackened towerblock standing starkly against a bright sea of low-rise des-res, the borough is becoming a byword for a, quite literal, flashpoint in the conflict between rich and poor; the tinderbox of the economic divisions in the West. This borough has become the focus of our extreme political tides; between the purveyors of globalised austerity and advocates for liberal social welfare.

Just six days before the fire, the constituency that had voted over 70% to Remain in the Brexit Referendum kicked out their incumbent Brexit supporting Conservative MP with perhaps one of the narrowest margins imaginable. Just 20 votes. I got a call from a jubilant Labour supporter asking if Kensington had ever been Labour? I had to point out that Kensington as a constituency has only existed for seven years and since the 70s the area has been ceaselessly carved up into different shapes to try to maximise the, generally, left-wing poverty in the north of the borough and the tax wary right-wing south.

Then one warm summer evening, a fire broke out in a tower block in one of the country’s poorest social housing estates which happens to be in one of its richest areas. The fire quickly spread upwards fed by the flammable cladding that had been attached to the block for mostly cosmetic reasons making the drama of the inferno intensely dramatic for those outside and filling the more fireproof parts of the block with deadly fumes.

The apparent symbolism was too evident to miss. The poor dying because the rich who surround them don’t want to look at the ugly face of social housing. A constituency politically divided.

Certainly these issues had some role in the tragedy but in a world where deeper meaning is becoming increasingly fractured by social networking and wall to wall distraction, the need to impose a meaning on the Grenfell Tower tragedy has seemed irresistible.

In the 24-hour news coverage that continued long after, very few actual resident survivors made the news feed. Neighbours, representatives of all sorts, commentators,  politicians, everybody happy to see the ‘big picture’: the failures of government, the Council, building experts. The poet Ben Okri immediately penned a beautiful eulogy which has the chorus:

“If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.

See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.

Residents of the area call it the crematorium.

It has revealed the undercurrents of our age.

The poor who thought voting for the rich would save them.”

Ben Okri Grenfell Tower June 2017

Just saying “The Poor” is an exercise in objectification and everyone in that building was so much more than that. I’m a little surprised how readily the term has been grabbed by so many. It just seems the potency and the clarity of the symbolism was so great few have been able to put the “big picture” down and see the little pictures. Clearly some media outlets preferred to stay away from the personal stories of victims because so many wore hijabs and were everything they see as wrong with the country, others may have been disappointed by some survivors’ lack of articulacy, English not being a first language. There isn’t just one big story here but millions of stories, of immigrants fleeing to this country, heroes risking their lives to effect rescues, those who face constant disbelief and sanction by the dole and, let’s face it, up until the fateful night the residents of Grenfell Tower were, relatively, the lucky ones who had actually found housing, in a country where so many fail to even get that far and are left homeless. But the meme of the poor being burned by the wealthy was just too overwhelming.

This country does have a terrible chasm between haves and have nots and Kensington does represent a particularly extreme delineation. When I briefly lived in New York in the 80s, 96th St on the East Side was known as the DMZ, the Demilitarised Zone, where the luxurious upper east side tower blocks suddenly stopped and the tenements and projects of Spanish Harlem began. The contrast was sharp and obvious. For decades, in Kensington, the DMZ between the wealthy south and the poor north was an exciting cross-over area stretching from Notting Hill Gate to the Westway. Gentrifying young bankers looking for a San Francisco Barrio experience proliferated the area, once the domain of poverty-exploiting slum landlords Peter Rachman and later Nicholas van Hoogstraten. But the money won and slowly the less well off in the borough got bought out, moved away and squeezed north of the Westway or, in the case of Latimer Road, into council estates. Kensington’s DMZ is just a street wide in many areas now.

All this is true. And the tragedy of Grenfell Tower was no doubt affected by these terrible inequalities. But there is a danger in memes, and symbols, and ideologies, that the individuals get lost. Sometimes it seems the irony is too great and we forget the actual cost. There is a problem in staring so hard at the message that you fail to see the messenger, dirty, worn out, hard-pressed, hungry, yearning to breathe free.


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There are only two types of people. Those who divide people into types of people and those who don’t.

Only those who don’t. Don’t exist.

Ever since Genesis got oddly specific in dividing things into categories, heaven, earth, “grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit,” and the frankly catastrophic decision to allow man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” humans have been obsessed with justifying that supremacy through systematic categorisation.

By the time the Victorians rocked up we thought we’d nailed this categorisation game producing the Dewey Decimal System, Rogets Thesaurus, the Oxford English Dictionary, and most of the research academic institutions that are still providing grants and jobs today.

And every time we find and name something, we can divide it up into ever finer grains and names: from atoms and molecules, genomes and bacterium to the Higgs boson “god particle”; as if we might one day peel back the final layer of the universe’s onion and behold its ultimate secret.

The Victorian mathematician Augustus de Morgan quickly spotted the problem in all this, adapting Jonathan Swift’s couplet:

“Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on, While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.”

There is a sort of primal superstition behind all this, an ancient belief that may well have inspired homo sapiens to language: once you can name something you somehow have power over it. I helped name all my kids and I can tell you now, it’s not true.

The notion of magic, the sort practiced by Scottish hags, Faust and Harry Potter, is predicated on this power of verbalising. The idea of a spell is that certain words in a certain order have the power to make manifest or, at the very least, summon some slobbering supernatural creature to make it so. It goes against all our rational thinking to suggest that a simple assembly of words, a string of sounds from your voicebox, could bring about something concrete and real. Yet the possibility of this is so ingrained in our imaginations, kids’ magicians try to disempower it with “sizzling sausages” and “Izzy Whizzy Let’s Get Busy” whilst J.K.Rowling used Codum Latinus invocations, rather than anything that sounded like it might possibly have a chance of summoning the devil.

The magical belief that somehow “saying it makes it so” goes beyond art and conjuring, not just in the power of prayer, and “positive visualisation” but in the cold cash of advertising and politics. The phrase du jour post-Brexit was “a period of uncertainty”. Was it any wonder that the Conservatives campaigned for re-election in a direct response to that? “Strong and stable” was their simple substance-free mantra used so monotonously, it was as if simply saying it enough times would make it true. Like “Make America Great Again” it was a phrase full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Of course words can have power as persuasive tools and information carriers, just not in themselves. Great speeches have convinced people to do extraordinary things. Religions are founded on writings, and just the words “Allah Akbar” have been co-opted to strike terror. Jokes, well told, can bring forth involuntary laughter. But even in this world of technology and rationalism a belief persists that you can cut out the middle man as such, the agent of change, and simply affect change with words themselves.

A few years ago, when Islington Council found the end of a Tax Year looming, with some extra budget to spend for a project to improve the community, they canvassed the locals where it would be best invested. Perhaps a kindergarten, towards drug rehab, or a children’s playground? No. The scheme that won was, basically, an incantation. They invested in street signs telling people that they were in the “Neighbourhood” of Islington as if, once stated, it would somehow make it a real neighbourhood where petty crime, graffiti, fly-tipping and the ASBO magnets would magically disappear. Or, as Yul Brenner in The Ten Commandments kept repeating, “So it is written, so it shall be done.” Honestly – I’ve been writing for over thirty years and I still can’t get anything done.

But the potentially diabolical power of words is reaching its apotheosis – and words like apotheosis will be the first up against the wall when this revolution comes – thanks to a growing movement to disempower our language.

Jacques Derrida

Half a century ago Jacques Derrida, the French-Algerian deconstructionist philosopher, believed we should strip power from words by pointing out their constantly slippery, endlessly different, meanings. He saw this as a revolutionary act. Because language is, historically, developed by the wealthy, literate, educated classes, Derrida argued, clarity in speech promotes and prolongs the rule of the elite. The many should reject clarity and develop their own gobbledygook. At this point it’d be great to give you a pithy Derridean quote to back this claim up. Unfortunately he practiced what he preached and his writings were somewhere between impenetrable and gibberish. And worse than that, in French.

But basically: words and grammar and the like are them things the elite use to show they’re superior and enchant and entrap us with their spells and suchlike.

Well, against all the odds, Deconstructionism has made it to the mainstream. A populist movement led by no less than the Commander-In-Chief of The United States is stripping away the very point of words by rendering them meaningless. He tirelessly tweets authoritative untruths and a covfefe of meaninglessness. After which, his press secretary confirms that he doesn’t mean exactly what he says. His administration constantly assert inconvenient facts are “fake news” and there are always “alternative facts” anyway. You simply can’t rely on words anymore.

Political movements in other countries, wanting to recreate the popularity of such revolutionary linguistic anti-elitism are embracing this paragon of meaningless wordage.  So what if a lie appeared on a Brexit battle bus they were only words and what do they mean anyway? We’re not experts and we’ve had enough of them.

Finally, reason has won. That superstitious belief in the power of words – used by the expensively educated, Politically Correct, liberal elite to terrify us plebs – has had its day. This baby can go out with the bathwater. Whatever that means.


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You’re once, twice, three times…

If I had a pound for every woman who found me unattractive, by now they wouldn’t find me unattractive.

And although that is basically the same joke as Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” my inner feminist still makes the telling a little uncomfortable.

You see, feminism had made such an impact by the time I was growing up in the 70s I was not alone in suffering tangible gender guilt. Men, we were told, (the rotters!) had suppressed women throughout history and I, having been born with a willy, was guilty by association. Like any young idealist I was convinced that I would be a beacon, supporting women in their struggle against male oppression. I modelled myself a New Man, a fad with the longevity of a postcoital erection, which quickly shrivled with the publication of Loaded and the rise of the 80s ‘lad’ as depicted with bandwagon jumping, excruciating, awkwardness in the TV series Men Behaving Badly and still being rehashed by the elderly dissidents of Top Gear.

Of course those “lads” can act as complete twats and they suffer no status loss. But since Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Women there seems to have developed a golden rule that women in books, theatre or films can never be idiots or fools. Men in comedies and tragedies can be downright morons and twits but woebetide you if a woman is depicted as anything less than smart. You laugh with, not at. Personally I can only think of one idiot female in modern comedy, Alice in The Vicar of Dibley, but then she was curate to Dawn French, by far the smartest, most sensible, person in a village full of dolts. It seems that decades of the perennial smart woman/dumb man dichotomy has not been without effect on male self-esteem.

When I went to university, feminism chimed in nicely with academic trends. Post-structuralist theory set out to prioritise culture’s fringes, taking the focus away from the centre, in order to discover the truth about history; not by re-examining what we’ve been told to look at, but by looking at the periphery where unvarnished reality might show itself. There was more to be learned from a Clapham omnibus ticket than the works of Winston Churchill. Feminists argued that women were the denizens of those unseen margins; they had succumbed to pushy testosterone-led, male chest thumping and had been relegated to be the quiet underdogs of history, doomed to getting on with the important jobs of humanity: child bearing, rearing, nurturing, fuel/food gathering and praising sisterhood whilst simultaneously sharpening nails for eye scratching. It was a potent argument and I’d take my hat off to the feminists… but they really don’t like that.

The dictionary (and yes I do realise the irony of referring to a book that trumpets the androcentricity of language by starting with the word “dick”) says feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”

But, now, over fifty years since the flammability of Playtex was tested, the meaning of “Feminism” is being torn apart both from within and without the movement. Indeed, just in case we had forgotten, last year reminders were issued to celebs on T-shirts claiming “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” – mostly worn by blokes on Instagram as a sort of dare. But if Glamour Magazine had to name U2 frontman Bono “Woman of The Year 2017” maybe there really weren’t enough people who actually menstruate ready to stand up and be counted.

So now “Third Wave” feminists are looking to broaden the definition, arguing that feminism should intrinsically embrace the LGBT community, while old-timers fear that forgery devalues the currency. On the other side, a virulent anti-feminist agenda is emerging in the form of “Men’s Rights” groups. “Feminists claim they want equality,” whines the Red Pill Handbook, the user guide to one of the internet’s most popular Men’s Rights forums, “but what they really want is power without responsibility. They desire both male and female privilege consolidated into one … They want the privileges of being women (privilege such as being economically provided for, getting opportunities based on their beauty and protection from physical harm by others) as well as male privilege (authority, respect for having a career, to not be judged so harshly based on appearance etc.)”

And the trouble is, though I find the messengers abhorrent, I can see the attraction in their iconoclasm. I have always just accepted that the reason men appear to have dominated the shaping of our species and civilization has been, in part, through forcing women to succumb and take a back seat. But, men’s rights activists argue, it is women who are not only responsible for their place, it’s actually the best place to be. Women have created their own coy, eye-lash batting, ‘little me’ subservient role to exploit men to do all the hard, hunter-gathering, defending, protecting business whilst they get a free ride, make all the sexual selection choices, and play with the kids. The androcentric world is not the result of male suppression, it’s female strategy.

Furthermore forget equality. “Women are irrational and inconsistent,” claims the handbook, “they have a capacity for logic but it is not their modus operandi, that is to say that they must exert effort to be logical as it is not their factory setting. A logical woman is easily baited into becoming emotional; women are easy to compromise. Their decisions are based on their current emotional state rather than the abstraction of logic. It’s this proclivity to change so quickly which causes them to act inconsistently and in contradiction.” Whereas men, I presume, are Mr Spock and entirely rational all the time.

Don’t for a minute think that these arguments are only appealing to some sad-sacks on the internet. I guarantee you know a bloke who will nod at these ideas. This is sophisticated thought-candy, designed to press the buttons of disenfranchised, dispossessed and disappointed men. And there are a lot of those. Men who’ve found themselves working for women, or rejected in love, and wondering why this is happening when they were brought up to believe they were the dominant gender.

“Women are hypergamous,” says the handbook, “they feel entitled to a superior mate. You have to be richer than her or at least equally rich, more educated than her or at least equally educated. You need to be better looking than her or at least equal looking, you need to be more popular than she is or at least equally popular. You can offset one area (LMS – looks, money, status) with another, but if you’re lower in at least 2 areas just forget it… this is why 20% of guys are fucking 80% of the chicks, women date up, men date down.”

These little insecure male, back of the mind, suspicions are given air on these forums. The idea that women in general are manipulators and should be treated with equally manipulative contempt is attractive to those who feel disarmed in the battle of the sexes. And of course behind sites like Red Pill, Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market is in play. They are justifying and promoting a slew of “dating coaching” courses and advice books all teaching how to act and respond to manipulate women during pick-ups and dates to increase your shag hit rate; teaching how to appear alpha to get laid.

So maybe it’s about time to congratulate Feminism. It’s not facing its greatest challenge in the ivory towers of academia but in everyday discourse and as a way for angry men to get laid. The closer any cause gets to its stated goal, the more fervently it will be tested. Judging by the number of people ready to tear Feminism apart, it must be approaching it’s own ground zero. It’s been a long hard slog but if you’ve got this many enemies, you’re winning.


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Hi Steve

You swiped left on life nearly 5 years ago now. Or, to put it in your perspective, at iOS 4.3.5; which was pretty much the iRon-age to today’s iOS 10.3. I’m sure you’d be proud how the defining feature of your latest system is pushing the boundaries of emotional articulacy:

So, considering the speed of tech-development, we’ve had plenty of time to consider your legacy now and, let’s face it, it’s massive. Your iPhone, has changed the world. I know it wasn’t the first handheld computer or touch-screen smart phone but you made it all work and you made it simple enough for any fool to operate.

You’ve had two hagiographic movies made of your life, countless biographies, and I’m sure somebody would have made a statue of you by now if they hadn’t worried it would already need an upgrade in September and be redundant within a year.

Your empire has grown and inspired rival empires. All colonising new territory: the heads, minds and attention of virtually every young person in the developed world.

Like an East India Company for the 21st century, and all the great colonisers, your corporation has exploited this new territory for profit, mined and extracted anything of value to leave behind empty husks. No street in this city is without the shuffling zombie, bowed heads, of your human data mines, transfixed by their screens. You, Steve, created the habit forming machine par excellence.

And it’s not like you didn’t know what your machines could do to young minds. In the year of Our Job iOS 3.2 you launched the iPad with a lecture on just how incredible it was, it would revolutionise lives. Strange then that you never let your own kids have one. And when you told the New York Times “We limit how much technology our kids use in the home,” you weren’t alone. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, did too, “because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand.”  And Evan Williams, one of the founders of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, stocked his house with hundreds of books for his sons, but refused to give them an iPad. It’s the drug dealer’s mantra: “Don’t get high on your own supply.” Even Bill Gates didn’t allow his kids to use cell phones until they were fourteen.

So Steve, it turns out that instead of technology that would liberate the world, you created one of the most addictive fixations ever. In Irresistible author Adam Alter points out that our definition of addiction is too narrow. “Greg Hochmuth, one of Instagram’s founding engineers, realized he was building an engine for addiction. ‘There’s always another hashtag to click on,’ Hochmuth said. ‘Then it takes on its own life, like an organism, and people can become obsessive.’ Instagram, like so many other social media platforms, is bottomless. Facebook has an endless feed; Netflix automatically moves on to the next episode in a series; Tinder encourages users to keep swiping in search of a better option. Users benefit from these apps and websites, but also struggle to use them in moderation. According to Tristan Harris, a ‘design ethicist,’ the problem isn’t that people lack willpower; it’s that ‘there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.’”

It’s not just that we’re passive recipients of information. It is changing who we are. “If you’re in a public place, look around: How many people are hunching over a phone?” Amy Cuddy, a professor at the Harvard Business School, told the New York Times “Technology is transforming how we hold ourselves, contorting our bodies into … the iHunch. When we’re sad, we slouch.” Cuddy then pointed out the studies that show, posture does not only reflect our emotional state, it’s also a cause.

But hey, Steve, there’s an app for that: Moment has been created to help people manage their telephone screentime and, of course, it spies on them as well. Of its 8,000 users, almost ninety per cent are using their phone far more than they had thought when self-assessing and, on average, every month they (we) are spending almost a hundred hours glued to their (our) phone screens. Not even taking into account how long we may also be looking at TV or computer screens. That’s eleven years of an average lifetime. Just staring at your little lighted rectangle.

That’s quite a legacy Steve. Your tiny little screen has even forced Hollywood, big-screen story teller to the world, to fight back to compete for eyeballs by churning out even more addictive dramatic “Box Sets”. Stories being, as Scheherezade proved to keep herself alive for a 1001 nights, one of man’s earliest and least resistible addictions.

One study, according to the, The Washington Post found “59 percent of parents think their teens are addicted to mobile devices. Meanwhile, 50 percent of teenagers feel the same way.”

So Steve, I thought I’d write to you personally because, well, you got personal first. Though, just by being old I’m fairly immune to your iNchantment, my kids are as vulnerable and susceptible to FOMO as all teens and preteens, and they’re screen hooked. Not just to the smartphone, but any device that will serve up endless diversions and decimate their tolerance of boredom. Bullfrog-like croaking to each other across the social network ponds, repetitive, flashing colour, swiping/tapping games and series of inane drivel , picaresque petty dramas, that plague the denizens of the Gossip or Gilmore Girls and their Dance Moms. Even the BBC iPlayer is jumping into e-diction, giving you seconds to switch off before they push the next episode and another hour of your life is eaten away as easily as lotus leaves, soma or opium.

It is terrible to watch the minds of your own children rot in front of you, close off the outside world and only think within the boxes of their screens.

Over a hundred years after colonialists and slavers like Cecil Rhodes, Isaac Royall and Edward Colston did their own bit for immortality by having statues erected and university buildings bequested, their positions as ‘alright chaps’ are being questioned, their right to posterity challenged. Your colony, your slaves, Steve, are on my train, in my office, and worst of all at my table. Only 6 iOS iterations after your death, if a statue of you is ever put up, I’ll be the first in line calling #SteveJobsMustFall.

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Delete the elite?

Lent is the traditional time to deny yourself your worst habits. I thought I’d give up double entendres; but it’s so hard.
I always thought that the easiest thing to give up would be denial itself. But then, I had no idea how deeply in it I was.
Turns out that most of my life I’ve been pretending to myself that the entire western world was just like my bubble: some bad eggs but mostly full of nice, intelligent, reasonable, liberal-minded people with quasi-socialist values inspired to support egalitarian projects like paying tax, universal healthcare and legal access.
The reality is I’ve been deeper in denial than Cleopatra’s sunken barge. It was merely a fantasy. It’s just that I happened to be fortunate enough to have been born in the peace between the Second and Third World Wars. A time when our scarred societies would do almost anything to avoid future conflict: be nice to old enemies, mutually assure destruction, help the vulnerable, have faith in secular morality, set up internationalist quangos and entangle every nation in globalised co-dependency.
But, between the financial crash and the election of Trump, the veil – or burqa if you prefer less cultural appropriation in the cause of clichés – has gradually slipped from my eyes. Now it’s clear that the sort of good old-fashioned, self-centred, small-minded, nationalist fervour, that did Oswald Mosely so proud, never left us. The likes of Brexit and Trump have reawakened those who have been failed – by that lust for peace and capital – in their prospects and, possibly, in their education. What’s more, their seething anger is aimed squarely at the precepts that have provided us with security for over 70 years. At last they feel legitimised to voice long supressed bitterness and release the gobs of war.
Really. WWIII no longer seems quite as impossible as it once did. Europe divided, nationalism on the rise, bare-back horse riding bare chested muscle-flexing from expansionist Russia, a super militarised China and the chief strategist at the White House, Steve Bannon, convinced that, “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict … If (we do) not … fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity … (it) will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
The only thing more galling than some smug bastard saying “told you so” is a long line of despots, oligarchs, dictators, potentates and caliphs saying it. Transmoral types have been asserting for centuries that you cannot trust the hoi-polloi to make decisions. And we’ve known that too. Democracy in its purest sense would be mob rule, so every western democracy has been a fudge of some sort. A delicate balance between a figurehead, an elite club claiming to be the servants of the public and the public itself, who are only ever allowed to make the narrowest of democratic choices.
But our Western Spring is having its own lent, intent on purging itself of ‘experts’ and shady ‘elites’, albeit by electing blatant ones instead. We’ll have none of those secretive dark deals between oligarchs anymore, just billionaires and hatemongers openly grabbing the spoils and crying fake news whenever they’re called on it. The City wrings its hands over Brexit but how many there were willing, even bankrolling, it? With instability comes fluctuating markets, the perfect rollercoaster for those hedgefunds who would spread bet on shares dipping and rising like a window-cleaner’s sponge in a 70s sex comedy.
Clearly there are people in privileged positions who really shouldn’t be trusted. But ‘Elite’ as our hateword du jour, like all generalisations is only useful as dehumaniser. A blunt instrument in argument and claiming they’re all the same makes no sense.
History tells us we’ll never get rid of elites mainly because, when benign, the serve a vital purpose. Every revolution has simply replaced one with another. Societies need elites, and experts and specialists. In June last year we were all asked a bloody complicated question which I simply didn’t have enough facts to answer, nor did I have the time to truly examine it. But then that’s what I pay MPs to do. Now it seems that even they can’t grasp the specifics behind, or the consequences of it.
We could have done with an educated ‘elite’ that we could trust, to take the time to examine it, study it, to understand and explain, instead of undermine and exploit.
Yes, the system is broken and many ‘elites’ aren’t fit for purpose. Yes, we need to reform or exchange them. But to bundle everyone richer and more powerful than us in our social colonic is to not only throw the baby out with the bath water but the bath, chrome taps, Cranberry Lush, bath bomb and half a litre of TRESemmé as well.
But then common sense is like deodorant, the people who need it most never seem to have it.

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Bad memories could be ERASED from your mind for good

The University of Toronto has succeeded in both activating and erasing fear-based memories in mice. There are, however, ‘huge’ ethical implications for using the same technique in humans (stock image).

Source: Bad memories could be ERASED from your mind for good