Memeing of Life

Good Grief

So, cautiously, you emerge from a London lockdown – or maybe a Durham one – blinking at the sun, and the first question is: who’s in line for all the cash you’ve saved not going out for two months? A hairdresser for sure, a bartender would be good, maybe a physiotherapist after the long confinement, and who knows? Perhaps a personal trainer? But you can be sure the one person you’re not going to need is a poet. Right? Does anyone ever, actually, need a poet?

Which is why, however little poetry there is in money, there’ll always be even less money in poetry. Like the handbag dog, it was invented as a plaything for the rich and educated, a gewgaw never intended for anything as base as trade. Poetry was, for centuries, mostly a game of wit and peacockery for the over-leisured or those pretending to be; a diversion based on ancient narrative techniques designed to make long stories or songs easier to remember before writing, or even paper, were things.  And, although 18th century social aspirants like Alexander Pope tried to monetise verse, poetry was only really democratised in the early 20th century after the 1870-80 Education Acts spawned a first generation of literate poor. The voice of the working class finally found metrical form but never the elusive brass farthing.

Financially savvy poets set their words to music and became rock stars but, every now and again, there are times in our lives when music just feels cheap or manipulative and no prose is adequate. Times when our emotions are overwhelming and we struggle to find an art form that actually reflects the power of our feelings.

Then, poetry, in the economy of language, the sparseness, the grasp for simple essence, creates holes, spaces for memories and context to slip in, fashioned by its audience as much as its creator. It somehow touches us by giving us less; allowing us to be more within it. Some experiences are so universal and yet so personal that only poetry can get close. Love. Yes. That’s one of them, but loss. Especially loss.

Nothing does death like poetry. Tragedy is its stock-in-trade; a time of war, revolution or pestilence is a payday for poets. At every graveside, at each chapel lectern, suddenly everyone needs a poet. A scrap of paper is unfolded and someone else’s words, tumble out; because no words you find yourself will ever encapsulate the love, the person, the life that’s gone. Poetry, without the music, has a gravitas all of its own, it’s rare enough to sound important and says so much by saying so little. When master of the tear-jerk comedy Richard Curtis, had to face the funeral in his Four Weddings script, he didn’t reach for lyrical Joni Mitchell but pukka poet W.H. Auden. “He was… My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.”

Every poet knows it and every one worth their salt has attempted the abstract encomium, the eulogy to the unknown dead person, the mention-no-names, no specifics, one-size fits all, blankity blank, ‘fill-name-in-here whom now we mourn.’ From Shakespeare’s, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, Nor the furious winter’s rages; Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.” to e e (no relation to Dominic) cummings’s “and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart / i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)”, they’ve all worked the graveyard shift.  It’s not an easy gig either. Can you think of a full rhyme for the word “gone”?

Right now, for an unprecedented number of us (the highest per capita in the world), in the easing of lockdown – courtesy of the Dominic Cumming’s scandal soother – there is no jolly trip to the beach or furious protest. Right now unparalleled numbers of us bury our dead. Right now the demand for poetry, to grasp for a semblance of what grief means, is at its zenith.  Right now, with 60,000 excess deaths above the seasonal norm, we are little more than a nation in mourning.

Some of us will find poems to address our dead: “You left us peaceful memories. Your love is still our guide, And though we cannot see you, You are always at our side.”

Others will talk as the dead: “Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped into the next room…”

Still others will acknowledge the legacy: “Not, how did they die, but how did they live? Not, what did they gain, but what did they give? These are the units to measure the worth Of a person as a person, regardless of birth.”

But sadness tinges all the poems and the saddest thing about almost all funeral poems is that they are a trick; at the sort of celebration you’d never book a magician for. They are pretty gift paper wrapped around a turd, a lie made saccharine, because almost all are only in the second stage of grief (the one that comes after shock): denial. A denial of loss. Auden’s Funeral Blues and Roger McGough’s Let Me Die a Young Man’s Death are rare exceptions.

A funeral poem is like a brief exercise in cold reading, DIY Mediumship; exploiting the grief of the audience, summoning up an afterlife, putting words in the dead’s mouth and using vague but powerful sounding statements, which could apply to anybody, to encourage the listener to supply the context and believe they see the specifics in their lost loved one. It is smoke and mirrors.

Most funeral poems conjure an afterlife in the form of a posthumous sentience, “I am not gone, only sleeping” or as a heavenly continuation or, for the less spiritual, an eternity in the memories – or the hearts – of the living. Even Robert Test’s totally rational poem in praise of organ donation is called Remember Me – I Will Live Forever.

Like a drunk standing up at an AA meeting with a Special Brew in hand, the funeral poem is a simple disavowal of the one fact that is in front of everybody. Death is final, it’s just about the clearest finality we have. Almost none of the hundreds of poems that will come up, when someone is asked to “say something” and Googles “Poem for a funeral”, will actually address the dead elephant in the room: the “loved one” is gone, finished, never coming back.

No ghostly hand will take your hand. No windblown field of wheat will echo the sigh and lost breath. No eyes will appear in the twinkling of the stars. Your sister, mother, father, brother, teacher, lover is never, ever coming back. Everything in your life changed the moment they stopped breathing and it will hurt, really hurt – and for as long as you live, the memory of them will never be just a happy one, because it will always always sting, maybe less over time but it will never go.

With the most devastating citizen death toll this country has seen in a century, one the Prime Minister claims to be “proud” of, there’s not a person in the land who has not either lost someone or felt the need to comfort someone they know who is grieving.

With just 5% of the country sporting antibodies for Covid-19 at this point there are many many more deaths on the horizon. There are no words which will make this feel better, which will stop the pain. You not going to need a poet, you’ll need a hairdresser and, even more, a bartender.

In memory of Sue Ward Brill 1931-2020 poet, writer, actress, mother.

(who would have been disappointed at the lack of jokes)

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Love in a Time of Coronavirus

One of the upsides of social distancing is that it seems to have cured my halitosis and body odour. No one’s mentioned either for weeks.

And since I murdered my entire family after day two of the lockdown, nobody’s making veiled comments at home. Though their body odours are starting to irk a little now.

I am, of course, joking.

I’ve actually wrapped them in cling-film and put them in the chest freezers in the garage, so I’m golden.

So here we are. Finally this is our moment. It’s our generation’s chance to save the world using a skill we’ve been honing all our lives: sitting on the sofa and watching the telly. But, “sit down, point remote at black oblong, eat, repeat” still seems to be flummoxing many, failing at these basic patriotic duties by meeting in the park, jogging and sunbathing.

For those of us, ahead of the curve, who, pre-Covid-19, failed to find an office that would be happy to have us at their water cooler – and so already loafed worked from home – this isolation comes easy. What’s less easy, is now sharing our home office with the rest of the family 24/7.

Celebrated wartime weatherman, Jean Paul Sartre famously said “L’enfer, c’est les autres” – Hell is other people. Then, frustrated that his Gitanes puffing acolytes thought he was being brilliantly metaphoric, he wrote No Exit, a play in which three people who mildly irritate each other are stuck in a waiting room together and, spoiler alert, it turns out that they’re all dead and that room is literally Hell.

Of course, if you’re stuck on your own in this lockdown it’s another kind of lonely hell, peering at your facetime/skype/zoom mates. But you can, at least, turn them off.

Nothing changes relationship behaviour like disease. A pestilence of amateur epidemiologists on social media are claiming that the way different cultures show love might account for the differences in infection rates in different countries. Singapore, with its obedient gum-free citizens, kept the infection rate in check, whereas all the demonstrative affection found in Mediterranean families, in Italy and Spain, the kissing and hugging in greeting, living with extended families etc. might explain their rocketing infections. The slightly-more-awkward-in-company, nuclear family, Brits and northern Europeans tend to favour the stiff handshake and the quick bunk-up, which could account for the slow initial take-off of Covid-19 in this country and Germany. Clearly, our Prime Minister’s penchant for slipping some skin to everyone he meets – not always the same part of skin according to a number of young mothers – put him straight into the at-risk category.

As heirs to Victorian decorum and detachment, we may dodge a viral bullet by being acclimatised to social distancing from birth, but we run slap bang into another one with our ingrained belief in British exceptionalism. Birth nation of the Industrial Revolution, winners of the Napoleonic and two World Wars, without any help from any other countries mind, colonial conqueror of the world; we are God’s own creatures. Rules are for other people. No bloody plod is going to stop me having a barbeque in the park with my mates.

The idea that we are not only different, but better than others, fed the Brexit decision against all the data and was clearly still visible in the scandalous strategy of herd immunity first adopted and then quickly dropped by the Government when they realised the projected fatalities.

We are, as a breed, isolationist in temperament and in many ways, the nostalgia about Blitz spirit suggests a secret hankering for a crisis such as this.

But “When things get back to normal I’m going to…” is still a popular thought experiment. What it doesn’t take into account is that things will never get back to normal after this.

Every pandemic has changed the way societies behave and their cultural norms. Empires come and go with them. If you ever wondered what happened to the enlightenment of Antiquity, the Greeks and Romans, and why we descended into the dark ages and centuries of ignorance, it was plague. If you ever wondered what happened to the feudal system, it was plague. So many of the workforce were wiped out, up to 200 million globally, survivors had the power to pick and choose their masters, with the requisite rise in pay. So the black death (which was also Made In China) basically created Europe’s merchant and middle classes.

Even the London we see today is the result of the Great Plague of 1665. Just Like Covid-19 it was so successful because it could be passed by carriers who were a- or pre-symptomatic. “Fathers and Mothers have gone about as if they had been well,” wrote Daniel Defoe in his Journal of a Plague Year, “and have believ’d themselves to be so, till they have insensibly infected, and been the Destruction of their whole Families.”

And, just as we may worry about going to Tesco, Defoe wrote about “the fatal breath”. “The Infection generally came into the Houses of the Citizens, by the Means of their Servants, who, they were obliged to send up and down the Streets for Necessaries, that is to say, for Food, or Physick, to Bake-houses, Brew-houses, Shops, &c. and who going necessarily thro’ the Streets into Shops, Markets, and the like, it was impossible, but that they should one way or other, meet with distempered people, who conveyed the fatal Breath into them, and they brought it Home to the Families, to which they belonged.”

It killed so many Londoners that, when a small fire broke out the following year in a bakery in Pudding Lane, there were too few to respond to douse it before it spread. London was rebuilt, in stone.

The Spanish Flu in 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide, doing much more than WWI to end the patriarchy and open doors in all fields to much-needed women. Workforces were depleted to such an extent only the very wealthy could afford staff while cities, on the other hand, hardest hit in all infectious outbreaks, needed workers and were willing to pay; thus the building of Britain’s sprawling suburbias.

1918

We are never going “back to normal” just a new normal will emerge. What it will be is impossible to tell. Now we have been forced to do it, more of us may end up working from home permanently, our visits to the doctor may be more likely to be video calls, our grocery shopping may change to delivery. Will we ever sit in cafes as we used to?

But deeper than that, if this carries on for a long time our children may learn to fear closeness and intimacy, and that might create a birth-rate dip ten years from now. Or because, unlike previous plagues, this disease victimises our elderly and vulnerable we may start treasuring the ones who survive and see a decline in care homes, or conversely we could be so affected by the loss of the vulnerable we rethink how we test for defects at birth. In the short term, as we get the rate of infection under control, xenophobia will rise even more, fearing those who might bring it back into the country. Can Schengen survive Covid-19? We will all tighten borders, even possibly quarantining visitors. And, when this virus rages through Africa and third world countries, as life proves even cheaper than ever and resentment of the protected health-care rich West rises, so will terrorism.  

We have had just over a hundred years since the Spanish Flu to build the medical science and distance communication technology to do so much better. But, as a coronavirus, just as the common cold is, there may never be a vaccine for Covid-19, and likewise we may never build a permanent immunity to it; just as we can catch colds several times a year.

Our best hope right now is to develop medicines that prevent the onset of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, which is what actually kills Covid-19 sufferers. Then we may learn to live with it as we do with flu.

For now, when a kiss can be deadly, love in the time of coronavirus is from afar; we just find new ways to express and send it. It is through a screen and behind a mask.

Yeah, you look lovely darling but the white side is supposed to be in, blue side out, OK?

Will we ever go back to hugs and kisses with those we love? Nope. We’ll never go back to it. But intimacy is innately human and through all our plagues it has always found a way, so, for certain, we will go forward to it.

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Apocalypse Now

Good news! If you’re reading this, the world hasn’t ended.

Yet.

But it certainly feels like it might at any moment. Australia’s on fire, this country’s flooding, New Zealand’s erupting, The West Indies are quaking, locusts plague East Africa, land slides in Myanmar, Ciara, Dennis and Jorge etc. batter Europe, corona-pestilence spreads around the world, democracies crumble to madmen and demagogues. Surely we haven’t got long to go? The end is nigh or near or now.

It’s all pretty biblical. But maybe that’s the point. In the back of our minds, this is how the world’s supposed to end, not with a bang or a whimper, but presaged with augurs, omens and portent. So even if we might think of ourselves as well beyond scripture, it’s hard to witness the earth shrugging like this without a sense of dread. It didn’t take a bible scholar to note that the four coaches carrying corona virus evacuees from Wuhan, were called “Horseman”: like the prophesised horsemen of the apocalypse.

Conquest, War, Famine, Death and a trip to Alton Towers
The Mayans were wiped out after miscalculating their crops, population needs and the kindness of the Spanish but somehow got their doomsday clock pretty accurate.

Even if few have read it, Revelations (originally in Greek: “αποκάλυψη” Apokalupsis), the last book of the New Testament, is embedded in the western psyche. It predicts a host of natural disasters before God eventually kills everyone and ushers in his new kingdom of righteous bores: “and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;” (Rev 6.12) sort of thing. Mind you, it also goes on about, “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny;” (Rev 6. 6) which are way out at present crop values so you take your pick as far as accuracy goes. Judaism hand-wrings about “the Day of the Lord” in which God causes death, destruction, and a war between Gog and Magog; which is only settled when Gog and his Ma go for family counselling. In Hinduism, Vishnu returns to battle evil on a white horse and who can forget the Mayan clock predicting the end of the world in 2012 that, as things are going, only got the last two digits confused.

If you believe in such things, the omens don’t look good. But to believe there is meaning in the world’s current chaos takes something deeply human: a massive ego.

Even in our world creation stories we stick ourselves slap bang in the middle; created in God’s image, our planet the centre of the solar system, and so forth.

Why isn’t Adam more excited about all this?

Which may be why we find it harder to conceive that the world might just as easily end in a millisecond of senseless whimsy from a disinterested universe. Somehow, we’re so important we’re owed warnings, we’re so significant we’re worthy of messages from a higher power telling us of our coming doom; despite the fact that we’ll be able to do sweet far call about it.

On the one hand our human-centric sense of self-importance knows few bounds and, on the other, we’re aware of how vulnerable we are. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is the most recent movement to swell its numbers by tapping directly into the fear of an apocalypse and the role of man in both creating and preventing it. At the end of February their young prophet, unafraid of a bit of hell and damnation rhetoric, told a crowd in Bristol that, “the world is on fire” while a fug of spliff smoke rose above the student activists. XR follows the CND( Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) “Action or Armageddon” principle in the 70s and, earlier C20th campaigns, driven by a fear of overpopulation and faith in genetics: the Eugenics and Nazi movements. And before that, for millennia, the church had the last word on the “End of Days” and man’s role in it. Repent repent!

Repent

When you stop to listen to so called “Climate Change deniers” you find that a fair number are, in fact, “the-responsibility-of-man-in-creating-climate-change deniers”, which may be equally wrong but a little harder to provide conclusive evidence to challenge. And not nearly as pithy. The fact that they are lumped in with the swivel-eyed who struggle to read their own thermometers, and the corporate interest in continuing pollution and deforestation, is, I suspect, because their point is a harder one to bear. Because if, say, we didn’t cause this mess, or all we did was perhaps accelerate it, what hope have we of clearing it up? Would changing human behaviour really change anything in any significant way? Even if we all became net-zero, bovine-free, vegan, cyclists would that really be enough to halt the coming reckoning? Or, are we just inconsequential parasites tickling the surface of the planet?

Douglas Adams, in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, speculated on the effects of a “Total Perspective Vortex” machine in which ‘you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.”’ This would, Adams suggested, immediately destroy the human brain. Our significance, in the big scheme of things, is so minimal we wouldn’t even be able to comprehend a big scheme of things even if there was one.

Shame, guilt, or just heard a really old joke?

But if we’re not important, and our actions have little or no consequence, why should we feel guilty about them? And if we don’t feel shame, if we don’t feel bad about stuff, how can we be inspired to act well? The Judeo-Christian solution was simple: we’re all guilty. We’re all tainted by Adam and Eve’s original sin; “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death into the world, and all our woe” as Milton put it. Buddhism is more direct, its first two truths are that life consists of suffering, pain, and misery and that this suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.

So here’s the paradox. If we are important, then we’re responsible, and guilty, and that makes us unhappy. If we’re inconsequential, there’s no meaning to anything we do, and our pointlessness also makes us unhappy.

Unhappiness, despair, anxiety, stress, fear, morbidness and self-absorption… or as a doctor would diagnose it: depression.

Maybe the old religions were on to something. Roughly 20% of people in the UK are diagnosed with depression, if we double that number for those too depressed to see their doctors and add some more for those who just try to pretend they’re ok – we might start to think Buddha got it right, the natural state of man is pain. The abnormal ones, the people who really have mental health issues, the people we perhaps should be trying to cure, are the deluded few who are happy in life, who fail to see their black dogs or take them for walkies.

Coronavirus has tapped into our universal dread perfectly. Every action the Government fails to make to prevent it fulfils our tendency for despair. At once we are fulfilled because we are right and crushed by the horror of it. At the time of writing, South Korea is testing thousands every day, they have drive-thru testing centres. In the UK, the tiny few that are getting tested currently have to wait 72 hours for results. Think how many people you can infect in 72 hours.

“Thanks for voting Brexit now just die.”

But consider this, the fact that we are doing so little may have less to do with Government incompetency and more to do with the fact that a proudly “out-of-box” thinker like Dominic Cummings is in 10 Downing Street. For a chap who likes to think the unthinkable, a disease that disproportionately kills Boomers and spares the young, annihilates the generation that are blocking up the job market with their damned experience and health and not retiring and sitting on all those properties – it is a disease made in heaven. “Thanks for voting Brexit now just die.”

Apocalypse now? It may not be the end of the world, but it will be for many. There are mad, surreal, prophesies in Revelations, but the world ending because someone in China fancied a bit of bat in their soup? Not even the Nostradamus went there.

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When will the Woke Wake?

Dorothy Parker: “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

The most overused word of the new decade is actually in the past tense; a state Dorothy Parker described as Post-Coital.

“Woke”, no longer describes what happened when you stopped sleeping. A modern chap wouldn’t say he “woke with a stiffening of the loins”, but rather he “woke up with…” well, whatever modern chaps wake up with. But, like “privy” and “hep”, “woke” belongs to a different era, a mayfly word which had a brief life between the decline of “awoke” and the rise of “woke up”.

But now, like flares and vinyl, it’s back, with a new meaning and lease of life. The 2020s may just become the decade of “Woke.” It has become the beloved new adjective used by anybody erring – note the subliminal messaging – to the Right, to mock anyone Left, vegan, PC, environmentally conscious, LGBTQ+ sympathetic, racially sensitive or just making the effort to be aware of iniquities and inequities in our culture.

Awaken… awake… wake up… woke.

“Wholly Obnoxious Know Everything” one Daily Mail commenter believed it was an acronym for. Woke is the mot du jour, happily bandied in newspaper headlines because it’s short and unlike the previous incarnation, “virtue signalling” doesn’t have the word “virtue” in it.

Piers Morgan incants the word like a spell to ward off the “guests” he keeps inviting back. A team of publicity hungry, professionally woke, characters return to his show again and again, apparently just so he can keep shouting “you’re woke,” with the glee of a man who, in late middle age, has just discovered irony. It’s ironic because those who might be described as “woke” were, briefly, happy to self-refer. Erykah Badu’s 2013 soul rap mashup Master Teacher brought the refrain “I stay woke” which was then adopted by hip liberals and Hollywood celebs, to signal how caring and aware they were, whilst also implying that conservatives (small c) were somehow sleep walking.

But, as we found out in 2016, those who kept their laces straight – the traditionalists, the reactionaries, the squares – they weren’t asleep; they were screaming. One of the key beliefs of (what will become known as) the Liberal Era – 1968-2016 R.I.P. – was that language doesn’t merely describe the world, it creates how we perceive the world.

Jacques Derrida

Sexy post-structuralist philosophers like Jacques Derrida argued that discourse shapes reality “both perceptions of reality and the concrete reality that is perceived.” I’m actually paraphrasing because in reality Derrida’s text is impenetrable, long-winded and French; parallel states which are never far from each other. So, to change how people perceived things that conscientious liberals believed caused conflict, (ie. fear of the non-white, the non-straight or the empowered non-male) all that had to be done was change the language. Thus began one of the largest social experiments in history. The role of every enlightened ‘woke’ Liberal was to correct those who said girl when they meant woman, chide those who said Indian rather than Native American, and to be constantly aware of whatever the current term for “Black” was which hadn’t been overwhelmed by pejorative meaning.

As it happens, “Change the language; change the culture,” turned out to be a bunch of, in Derridean terms, coquilles. All that happened was liberals were tarred as pedantic killjoys and a huge number of people felt vilified for noticing cultural and genetic differences in races and genders. Worse, they felt silenced by “political correctness” and emasculated by a “thought police.” Instead of their petty or visceral dislikes, hatred or fears, dissolving away when they could no longer be voiced, it turns out they were just suppressed and boiled away inside.

Avocado Assassin

The lid of the pressure cooker was finally lifted by the internet: the opportunity to say things anonymously and discover that you are not alone. It took 12 years from the founding of Facebook to the great reactionary comeback revolution of Brexit and Trump. For many, and for conservatives and rightwingers and their spokesmen like Morgan, a tyranny of words is being overturned and how better to do it than to feed the self-congratulatory word “woke” right back to the tyrants of PC. The wonderful thing about “woke” is it sums up everything that traditionalists have found oppressive about progressives without being, apparently, racist or sexist. It can be used without inhibition.

So hardly a headline went by last month which didn’t damn Harry and Meghan as the Prince and Princess of Woke. Every aeroplane they take, every fashion statement they make, every tax-penny they rake is somehow worse because they, like Harry’s dad, expound environmental consciousness and eschew traditional values. Unfortunately Britain’s traditional values, as much as its Empire, were indeed built on racial differences and the belief that “a trueborn Englishman” was God’s gift to the world.

Marcus Garvey

But, for those who think “woke” has no racial dimension, just the shift of verb to adjective should signal something. Linguistic misappropriation is often used by minorities to signal difference to the mainstream, a rebellion against the grammatical rules of the orthodoxy, and even the scant access to education offered. “Woke” as a political term actually originates in African-American culture, specifically from the 60s. Civil Rights activist Marcus Garvey had, in the early 20th century, tried to inspire poor black Americans to return to Africa and build a proud, black, First World continent, saying, “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” In the 1971 play, Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham, one character responds to the call: “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.”

It was also the inevitable first syllable of an extensive catalogue of blues songs, which always started with “Woke up this morning…” before describing how depressing being poor and unloved is despite having somewhere to wake up and an awesome talent for the harmonica. So, headline writers, perhaps calling Meghan “woke” is a tiny bit more about her colour than you like to let on.

Now, no self-respecting liberal, would describe themselves as “woke”. Apart from the cultural appropriation, the word is almost solely used as a collective insult by the, newly voiced, illiberal rulers of the West.

I kid you not!

The question is, will the “woke” go back to sleep, to dream of their lost Xanadu? Or can they actually wake up now, smell the Fairtrade coffee, or Gwyneth Paltrow’s This Smells Like My Vagina candle, and start to fight back?

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Distraction

With all the politics we’re now constantly bombarded with, a week is “a long time” for all of us. Even my diary, after Monday and Tuesday, says W T F!

You’ll be pleased to know that no funny bones were broken in the making of that joke.

Also, whilst coming up with it, I learned twelve things that go well with nachos, watched Remain campaigner Femi Oluwole castigate Crowbar and Swineson for not working together to defeat Boorish, and laughed at two hilarious cats trying to fight with a mirror, all on a scroll through my “socials”. I also flicked through my very own Book of Sand, my infinitely updating To-Do list; determining to do everything on it immediately after writing this.

Which, of course, I won’t.

At this rate, writing this article will take many hours, whilst reading it should take you (hang on let me look up what average reading speed is – Wikipedia says 200 to 250 words per minute. Oh, but apparently college students read at 300 wpm – I wonder how many readers are college students? Maybe I should look up the demographics for this newspaper? But, hang on, no one under the age of 30 reads newspapers so waste of time. I really don’t want to waste time, wasting time is wasting life, I wonder who said that? I could look that up – No. Focus. That’s 1000 words divided by 200wpm) about five minutes.

Which, of course, it won’t.

They’re calling to you right now!

Because, after the first minute – coming up soon – your phone / computer / TV / wandering thoughts, will start to call to you. An urge for something different, an impulse for novelty, will demand attention.  An uneasy FOMO will gnaw at you. So even if a notification hasn’t dinged on your phone, you will find that an urge to look over to it – or elsewhere or check the time – is starting to build. Your eyes may keep scanning left to right but these ink marks will begin to unshackle themselves from their meaning as thoughts about other things steal in… OMG look at that kitten!

This isn’t a moan about those favourite targets for the aging Opinionist: our ever-shortening attention spans or the addictive vacuousness of social media and digital content. It’s about the 9th deadly sin (the 8th being the flippant use of Deadly Sins to lend gravitas to innocuous foibles) which is so insidious it even poleaxed their author, Evagrius Ponticus, persuading him to look the other way when he was making his list (three minutes Googling “Seven Deadly Sins” then five trying to work out if I could claim any of the seven holy virtues). It’s probably the most widespread vice of the 21st century, the roadblock in our neurological freeway, the problem Mindfulness desperately tries to answer, what was I talking about again? Oh yes: Distraction.

Hungry Tamagotchi

Distraction isn’t just the product of our phones outsmarting us and, like ersatz Tamagotchis, crying for attention, constantly needing to be fed at the nipples of our charging cables. Distraction is everywhere from the snacks we choose to our water cooler colleagues from the Amazon delivery bell to the box-set cliff hangers.

Modern life has inadvertently reawakened a prehistoric instinct: the constant alert. When sabre-toothed tigers roamed, at the dawn of Homo-sapien, we were as much prey as hunters, we needed our wits about us, something could happen at any moment. They were, no doubt, stressful times. But as we evolved, took more control of our environment, the stress of continual vigilance abated.

Now though, the sheer plethora of ways we can distract ourselves has reignited our prey mind. “What don’t I know?” we ask at every dead moment. “What could I be finding out, or experiencing?” Five minutes to wait at the school gates? What’s trending on Twitter? Nine minutes on the tube between Earls Court and Green Park? Catch up on Game of Thrones. Walking the dog? Listen to a podcast. But then they’re habit forming. Got a tax form to fill in? Who liked my Insta? Bit of crucial work to finish? What’s for dinner? The siren call of distraction doesn’t subside when we’re on a mission. We may feel we control the information coming to us, but its unremitting availability raises our vulnerability to distraction; and commensurate levels of stress.

The greatest stimulus of stress is the illusion of choice. Believing we have choices means we have to make decisions, and if we choose one thing we will necessarily miss out on another. And what if we get the decision wrong? No wonder so many of us are finding the choice of apparently infinite distractions, along with the everyday ones we still have to face, simply overwhelming; and so many succumb to aimlessly flicking between distractions and losing purpose altogether.

A few years before Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, a friend who was a member of an anti-Soviet agitation group in Prague described a dissident she helped escape to the UK. “We went to a supermarket to get her the basics,” she told me, “and, when she saw the rows of different toothpaste, she just started crying.” At the time I took it at face value; as the relief of finally having freedom of choice. But now I’m beginning to suspect that the stress of having to choose everything, even the paste to clean your teeth, may have been what actually triggered the outpouring.

According to The Oresteia, the mortal Tantalos, as punishment for shockingly bad table manners when he was invite to dine with the gods, was sent to the same part of Hades as Sisyphus. His sentence was to eternally stand in cool water under the boughs of a juicy fruit tree. Perpetually hungry, whenever he reached for a fruit, the boughs would move just out of reach and whenever he bowed to drink, the water around him would recede and he was doomed to never be satisfied. Tantalos gave us the word ‘tantalise’ and his predicament defines our distractions. They are there to tempt us but they would undermine their purpose if they actually satiated us. A true distraction is like a Chinese take-away, it feels like it’s filling us up but there’s something ultimately empty about it. It’s just one more level of Candy-Crush. When we choose a distraction above a purpose we’re reaching out to the ephemeral to briefly let us escape the crushing tedium, procedures, labours, industry and struggle, of real life; longing for the promise of immediate fulfilment, even while we know it can never be reached.

The superpower of the 21st century then, the essential term on our employment references, the must-have call out on our CVs, will not be ‘grit’ or ‘determination’ or ‘passion’ but one core characteristic: ‘indistractable’. The fault line of success will not be between the networked and the proletariat, or the intellectuals and the masses, but the focussed and the distractible. The ones who finish what they start, the ones who make promises and fulfil them, the ones who get through drudgery without their minds wandering will be kings. The rest of us will just flick between the cool content they create and wonder when we’ll actually start our own lives.

‘Memeing of Life’ article. Tick.

What’s next on my To-Do list? OMG those kittens are adorable!

Masslighting

“The world’s gone mad,” is an all too familiar cry, and meme, from social media to the 49 Clapham Borisbus. The divisiveness of our politics and public rhetoric and the fact we can never be sure what’s happening with Brexit, our Government, or even the weather, makes everything seem bonkers. But if the rest of the world seems mad, and you’re remotely cognisant, you have ask the question: Is it them? Or is it me? Because any definition of madness must compare with what’s considered “normal”. And if normal society is constantly outraged and at war with itself, it’s the calm and conciliatory who are the fruitcakes.

Harriet Jordan, Bedlam patient with ‘acute mania’.

Madness is a slippery word in an age that recognises that we’re all on a mental health spectrum but last month in the BMJ Case Reports, a patient was described experiencing acute psychosis triggered by the “UK’s 2016 European Union referendum.” And though the right-wing press immediately branded him a pathetic snowflake, he is far from alone. The New Scientist reported, “The case is an extreme example, but there are signs of the wider mental health impact of the referendum result. Nearly two-thirds of people in the UK think anxiety over Brexit is bad for people’s health, polling has found. One study last year found that, after the referendum, self-reported wellbeing of a sample of people in the UK was lower than in samples from other countries.”

The future for everybody in the country has never felt less sure. We’re less able to rely on pragmatism winning through, than at any time since the war. It’s like we’re all collectively holding our breath and it’s got to that point when we feel our heads might explode.

Is it something in the water? Mob psychosis? Or could it be a mass delusion like the 17th century Dutch tulip mania; when people got so caught up in speculating on the value of tulips, way beyond logic, they crashed their entire economy? In 2015 few of us cared one way or the other about EU sovereignty or the customs union. Within three years it has become a hill many of us seem willing to die on.

If you want to know where this is coming from consider the word: “Disruption.”

Vlad to see you: Vladislav Surkov & Vladimir Putin

It’s a revolutionary technique which first proved itself in television. In the 90s, a slew of low cost “reality” programmes, disrupted the orthodoxy of classical studio shows. The real lives of the sad, mediocre and untalented were absolute ratings magnets. Unscripted uncertainty about what real people might do next kept audiences glued and changed TV completely. This uncertainty disruption was adapted into politics by Putin’s closest advisor Vladislav Surkov as described by Peter Pomerantsev in the London Review of Books. “In contemporary Russia … the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”

Dominic Cummings

Whether Surkov also explicitly backed Trump and Brexit we may never know but the word “Disrupt” is tattooed on the heart of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s closest advisor. We’re all glued to his show now. There was no real need to prorogue Parliament, except to rack up uncertainty. And it’s incredible how many got caught up in this 21st century doubletalk newspeak. To defend democracy we must strip it away. The representatives of the people are the enemies of the people. To fight for Parliamentary Sovereignty you must curtail Parliamentary Sovereignty. This is deliciously disruptive, pure Orwellian theatre. It’s mad. Or maybe we’re all mad. Or… what if we’re just being driven to think we are?

“Gaslighting” has had a resurgence of meaning, a term now used for domestic abuse which is psychological rather than physical. It derives from Gaslight a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, and the 1944 film of the same name. Ingrid Bergman plays a young woman who, with her new husband, moves back into the house where her aunt was murdered. However, he has secrets to protect and begins to play tricks on her to convince her she is going mad. Moving things around the house, claiming that she is taking them without knowing it. Or turning the gas-lighting down and saying she is imagining things.

Their servants gossip. “What’s the matter with the mistress, she don’t look ill to me. Is she?” asks the maid. “I don’t know,” says the cook. “Not as I can see. But the master keeps telling her she is.”

“I’m frightened of the house,” Bergman cries to her husband. “I hear noises and footsteps. I imagine things, that there are people over the house. I’m frightened of myself too.”

Believing the world is crazy is pretty stressful but imagining it’s you who is going mad is terrifying. Trying to hold on to sanity whilst believing someone is actually trying to drive you crazy is next level nuttiness. So this may sound top notch insanity but what if we are all being convinced we’re crazy. What if we’re being masslit?

Even if all Cummings is doing is sitting in an attic in Downing Street playing Minecraft, the idea of the Master of Disruption’s presence is enough to make all our parliamentarians suspicious. Everybody wonders if each move Johnson makes is part of a master plan and question whether their response is “playing into his hands.” The idea is probably more disturbing than the truth but then, as Woody Allen said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

The cabinet, Parliament, we lumpen proletariat, we are all being masslit. And the extent of our craziness is that we’re half aware of this happening, that we’re being played, and we see shadows and we’re frightened.

As the victims of masslighting we struggle to know what is true and what we imagine.

Think about the theory that Johnson is negating bad news coverage by seeding Google search results using similar phrases and key terms. So when he described himself as a “model of restraint”, after the accusations of his funnelling public funds to a former model called Jennifer Arcuri, he was making negative search results for “Boris Johnson model” drop down the Google hit list.

“His speech in front of the police was meant to distract from reports that the police were called to the flat he shared with girlfriend Carrie Symonds following an alleged domestic dispute,” says Wired, “while the kipper incident was meant to downplay connections with UKIP (whose supporters are called kippers). The claim about painting buses, finally, was supposedly intended to reframe search results about the contentious claim that the UK sends £350 million to Europe branded on the side of the Brexit campaign bus.”

Is it true? Are we paranoid? Are billionaires really shorting the pound? In an age of mass information and fake news our filters are woefully inadequate. They have created circuses for us to gawp at and as long as we have to keep guessing, distracted, confused, our leaders and their machines will stay in power. Or am I just mad?

Cash from Chaos

Psst. Wanna make some money? Sweet dough? Moolah? Now’s the time. Don’t tell no one else, yer know, keep it on the downlow ‘cos this is just for us, the elite like. I’ll give yer the name of a horse that’s guaranteed to lose. Bet against her and you’ll make a fortune. She can barely pound the track anymore and she falls more often than a Boing 737. Her name’s Sterling and she’s running, if yer can call it that, in the 11 o’clock Brexit Sweepstakes 31st October. She’s guaranteed to dive like Gareth Bale.

Don’t like betting? Wanna invest? Yer’ve probably missed the boat, or let’s call it the Cross Channel Ferry, to buy them Euros because they’re bloomin’ expensive now but I can hit yer up with some drug suppliers, legit British medical ones, they’re a hot investment right now. Wait until the sick and dying are whining for their meds after the No-Deal Event Horizon, squeeze them, they’re in pain anyway, then when a few have croaked, sell yer stock. Easy money.

And mate, when yer’ve made your dosh, when you’re living it large, you wanna pay tax on it? Nah, course yer don’t. Tax is for losers; yer money literally given to life’s losers. Yer lolly needs to go on holiday if you know what I mean. I got all the offshore accounts you could need. Those johnnies over the channel can launch their “Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive” next year but we’ll be well aaht by then, no regulations, no one knowing where yer money’s going, no questions asked. We’re not gonna be the next Singapore chum, we’re gonna be the next SingaRICH!

When Leave politicians talk about Brexit Opportunities they’re not wrong. As long as you’ve got capital, which most of us don’t, and the empathy of a psychopath, ditto, you, and your opportunities are golden.

It may sound a bit conspiracy nutty to link the chaos in British Politics to elite wealth creation but it is, increasingly, the only way to make sense of the bonkers situation we’re now in. Yes, “first-past the post” democracy is eminently exploitable by autocrats and wannabe demagogues. An unwritten constitution relies on shared beliefs and when they erode we can no longer rely on it to protect us. Party systems set up to elect leaders that our representative MPs have little confidence in is another recipe for disaster along with unchecked media xenophobia. It all adds up. Possibly, it is just the perfect storm that our creaking 17th Century system in a 21st Century mass communication globalised world, was always headed for. But, as Deep Throat told Bernstein and Woodward, “Follow the money.”

In a stable, liberal, “End of History” economy, it’s only the billionaires who get to consistently drip feed their fortunes. Profits on shorting currencies or buying or selling stocks are measured in hundredths of a penny as prices rise and fall in microscopic differentials. So you need many many pennies to make any appreciable difference. Profit is slow. For crotch scratching, testosterone pumped, city dealer types, these tiny advantages were so frustrating, Spread Betting surged in the 2000s. This wasn’t buying or selling actual stocks but betting on those tiny changes in direction that stocks may take. Opportunities for major profits and huge risks were thin on the ground before the 2008 crash and even thinner after that as regulations threatened the financial services. They needed a saviour and in 2016 it came.

Nathan Rothschild

Social media has dubbed it ‘disaster capitalism’. Creating chaos in order to profit on market reactions to it. The more divisive a political climate the more profit there is to make. The disaster capitalism industry has form. War profiteering has a long and undistinguished history. The shield makers of the Trojan wars didn’t go hungry. Famously Nathan Rothschild got early news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. He immediately sold his British stocks triggering the market to follow suit as all other traders believed he must have inside knowledge of the result and the French must have won. It drove the prices of the entire market down, and just hours before news of the victory came through, Rothschild bought the depressed stock which soared with the news making him a million pounds which, in 1815, was quite the haul, and just as surely drove Antisemitism up a notch or two. “The time to buy,” he apparently said, “is when blood is running in the streets.”

Lenin believed that it was only in conditions of catastrophic upheaval that humanity progresses fastest. Which is not so different from free-market disaster capitalists who seem to believe that economic advances are best won through the destruction of societies.

In Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, she argues that the societal collapses that have accompanied so many free-market economic policies aren’t the result of stupidity or mismanagement but are integral to the “free-market project”, which needs disasters and chaos to advance. Although Klein hints that these disasters may be manufactured by corporations using shady influence in government, she also concedes that “disaster” may just be part of the normal functioning of capitalism. “An economic system that requires constant growth,” she writes, “while bucking almost all serious attempts at environmental regulation, generates a steady stream of disasters all on its own, whether military, ecological or financial. The appetite for easy, short-term profits offered by purely speculative investment has turned the stock, currency and real estate markets into crisis-creation machines, as the Asian financial crisis, the Mexican peso crisis and the dotcom collapse all demonstrate.”

So is Brexit just a messy accident that has been in the offing for some time or a cynical ploy to enrich the ballsy British risk takers and re-invigorate the market?

The Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, currently being sued by Brexit backing investor Aaron Banks over claims that he had a “covert relationship” with and had been offered money by the Russian Government, has followed the money. She has, time and again, exposed the links between the Leave Campaign’s (and Trump’s) investment in Cambridge Analytica, dodgy data gathering and targeted social media ad campaigns. “Fake News” cry Leave supporters. We have our own minds, ads don’t make a difference. If that were true you’d think the advertising industry would be worth something less than the $1.2 trillion it is today.

Directly addressing “the Gods of Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey” in a TED Talk they sponsored, Cadwalladr berated them for enabling this chaos. “I didn’t think it was possible to have free and fair elections ever again,” she wrote. “That liberal democracy was broken. And they had broken it.”

If you still think that our political chaos is just an accidental opportunity it is worth having a look at the play book on disaster capitalism written in 1987. Blood in the Streets, Investment Profits in a World gone Mad delineated how to invest as the world descends into division and violence. “A roadmap to understanding the relationships between politics, the mechanics of markets, and the way people respond to crisis.”

“The coming years will be a bad time to be ill advised,” warned the writers presciently, “A time fraught with snares for anyone who is unprepared. We could be on the verge of financial upheaval when blood will, indeed, ‘run in the streets.’ Many people will suffer staggering losses. Others, who take the right investment steps, at the right time, will earn handsome profits.”

Though they argued that knowledge of political machinations and opportunism was the way to profit on misery, they didn’t go as far as suggesting influencing policy to start the “blood” running. What makes one pause to think though is that Blood On The Streets was co-written by one William Rees-Mogg.

Before going into Government, his son Jacob started the investment firm Somerset Capital Management. According to the Daily Mirror, their “publicly-available accounts show its operating profit rose from £14.7m in the year to March 2015, to £18.3m in 2016, £27.8m in 2017 and £34.1m in 2018.”

Now yer can draw your own conclusions chum but the boy’s doing well. Chip off the old block yer might say. And yer got opportunities coming my old matey. Now’s the time to get your dosh out and splash the cash. Take a punt. The stakes were never higher and the old nag’s gonna fall before the final furlong. Get in there.

Virtue Signalling

In my twenties I lived on a boat. For 18 hours a day it floated on the river at Hammersmith, a stone’s throw from the bridge. The rest of the time, when the tide was out, it rested on the shore, on mud and some old car tyres I’d drilled holes into and sunk beneath; so the boat remained level when beached.

Rutland at Night

On summer evenings, with the other flotsam from the moorings, we would gather at The Rutland pub to drink flat beer, enjoy the night air and slap midges. It was just after last orders when I noticed a small shadow silently drop from the bridge into the black water. Had I been looking a fraction in any other direction I would have missed it and that evening would have passed in the same way they always did. It was too far to hear a splash, but a few seconds later a dark mass surfaced; just an absence where the light coruscated across the waves.

The tide was near the turn; still coming in but slowing before heading back out to sea again. As the river sweeps around the bend the currents radiate, driving detritus towards the Hammersmith side and our moorings. In a few minutes, the shape would be near our boats.

Hammersmith Dusk

Three of us sprinted down to the jetty but the form was too far out. Soon it would pass and be gone. But now we could see it more clearly. A body, floating face down. Without thinking I dropped my trousers and lowered myself into the ink-cold river.

At times, even that far up, the river’s currents can be deadly. Maybe in the back of my mind I’d clocked that, as long as high tide hadn’t actually hit, chances of an undertow were slim. But if I did, it was unconscious. As it was I would only have a few seconds before we would both be swept on, carried back out midstream and up to Chiswick Eyot. It was ten strokes at the most before I could grab his shirt in my fist. I was fairly sure he was dead. I didn’t try to flip him over, just dragged him back to the pier and, together, we managed to haul his sodden dead weight up on the jetty.

We heaved him on to his side and whacked his back a few times. He spewed out a torrent of water which ran through the wooden slats to rejoin the river. He started breathing, shallow alcoholic puffs. Unconscious but definitely alive. We draped a blanket and someone rang for an ambulance. Twenty minutes after being pulled from the river, I was sitting next to him like he was my catch of the day. He opened his eyes and a fist lashed out at me catching me solidly in the arm. “Bastard,” he spat. “I want to be dead.” And he wailed.

There’s gratitude! So I rolled him off the pier and watched him sink. No. Just kidding. By the time the ambulance arrived he was in full rant and they had to sedate and restrain him on his stretcher before trying to navigate him up the jetty.

I suppose I was hoping to feel good but I felt wretched. An impulsive act was just a thoughtless one. Not only had I failed to consider my own safety before launching into the river and had probably contracted Weil’s disease (I didn’t), but I also failed to appreciate how virtually impossible it is to fall off a bridge by accident. I was lead to the water but nothing made me think. What sort of terrible point did this man get to in his life to climb over a handrail and cast himself into oblivion? He could have spent weeks building up the courage to end his life and, when he pushed himself off, he committed himself to something so terrifying it is almost impossible to imagine. And there was me, without a thought in the world, buggering it all up.

Sometimes I comfort myself thinking, if he had really wanted to kill himself, why pick a spot on a warm night near an area full of people enjoying the riverside? Might there not have been some forlorn hope for this outcome?

But how did my simple attempt to do something virtuous end up so complicated? Could it be that my unconscious desire to show off, and demonstrate how good I was, overrode any consideration for my drowning man? Was I, in fact, just “virtue signalling”?

Postergirl for the Virtue Signalling accusers

The phrase has become a go-to mantra for right leaning commentators to deflate actions associated with liberal and left wing ideologies. It’s used copiously on social media to say that, far from being virtuous, veganism, feminism, anti-racism, and any number of socially responsible creeds, are just empty gestures only made to demonstrate how moral the individual vegan, feminist or anti-racist would like other people to believe they are. Virtue signallers are not virtuous but self-serving, glory hungry, hypocrites. The trouble is, for the phrase to mean anything, it also suggests that actually eating less meat, supporting equal rights or stopping discrimination is indeed virtuous.

Which then begs the question, if they know these acts are virtuous why aren’t these critics trying to do them too? I suspect that this goes back to the “altruism dilemma” a game which, with a certain amount of dope, keeps any number of student parties going in to the small hours. Player One asks “Is there such a thing as a completely selfless act?” Player Two suggests something nice. Player One then explains why it’s actually self-serving. Player two tries something else, and so on, until Player Two becomes totally disillusioned.

Good deeds have the kick back of making you feel good. Help an old chap across the road and you’re seeking the appreciation, the moral reward and perhaps even paying forward in to a world that you desire when you are old and infirm. Etc. Because self-interest can be argued for every act, some – and they tend to be right leaning – maintain that man is necessarily self-serving and, as soon as we realise this, we can stop farting around trying to be kind and get on with our real mission in life, getting rich enjoying ourselves and not giving a monkey’s fart about anybody else. Man is born of original sin… get over it.

Crushed idealist?

“Virtue signalling” says so much more about the phrase’s user than its target. It signals a crushed idealist, someone defeated in their attempts to be virtuous and so trying to recover dignity by pointing out its impossibility and criticising others for “pretending” to try. It signals someone bitterly woke enough to understand that man is alone in life, and will live and die feeling dirty. 

The Romans had 24 major virtues including Comitas – “humour”, Virtus – “manliness” and even Laetitia – “Joy, Gladness.” Christians quickly whittled that down to seven pious counterpoints to the deadly sins: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. By the time the Oxford English Dictionary defined Virtue its impossibility was inherent: “Behaviour showing high moral standards.” (my italics).

Cardinal Virtues

If virtue is just about “showing” rather than being, if it’s impossible, are we idiots to keep trying? Look at it this way. Evolution is a species’ genetic struggle to constantly improve. But our genes would be redundant if we reached the goal of ideal creature. Like working in the British car industry the evolve towards redundancy. Impossible goals define a direction not a destination. As Browning put it in Andrea del Sarto, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” If Virtue is an unachievable target, do you just give up trying to hit it? Do you just criticise anybody still naïve enough to keep trying? Does that compensate for your own sense of failure? Lasting happiness is equally fanciful but no one seems to argue against trying to go for it.

So. Did I only jump into the water because I wanted to show off? Sucker people into believing I was virtuous? Some impossible higher moral being? Am I still signalling right now with this story? Maybe. I only know that at the time I reacted thoughtlessly, an impulse, an instinct. Perhaps it was the result of parents, school, books and films conditioning what is morally correct. Perhaps it was an injection of adrenaline kicking in my fight or flight impulse.

As it turned out, in life, opportunities to signal an aspiration to be virtuous, a belief in altruism, don’t come along that often. When they do. Jump in.

Work – and why you have to hate it.

Capitalism isn’t working…

… it’s getting other people to do it for you.

As global economic inequality grows, there’s a feeling Capitalism is facing an end of days. But what might replace it is less a battle of ideas than a desert of anxiety. Viable alternatives are thinner on the ground than the supermodels tent at Glastonbury.

The 18th Century “Socialism” solution has not had a great run and, you’ve got to wonder whether post-Capitalism is even possible? Could Capitalism be organic? Is it inevitable for any species that develops language and is intent on conserving energy?

Imagine you’re early man, you shake a tree and an apple falls. But shaking trees takes energy and soon becomes tedious. However, if you just guard your tree instead, you can allow others to access the tree – to shake it for you – if they agree to share the bounty. But then, guarding the tree can also be tedious and dangerous so why not get more fellow hominidae to guard the tree for you and also share in the fallout? All you’ve done is tell a story of ownership and now you’re gorging on apple pie whilst everyone else is doing all the guarding and shaking; your superior apple-rich genetic Capitalist legacy is set.

In a classic economic model, Capitalism relies on balancing a seesaw. On one side is labour: work, the value awarded to time and effort. On the other side is the “means of production”: property, materials, capital, cash, money, moolah, the way to acquire life’s essentials and eventually a naval fluff hoover. If the value of work goes up, capital depletes, if the value of work becomes less, profits rise.

The idea is that, through life, you try to tiptoe across the seesaw. As you acquire capital, through work, you do less work to acquire capital. Capitalist success, therefore, is measured by profit or, just how far you can get from ever having to do a day’s work.

Auschwitz

It’s a paradox of the human condition: man works in order to afford not to work. Just as, in the sickest place to impart irony, it was wrought in iron on the gates of Nazi concentration camps: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work will set you free.

It’s a lie we still tell ourselves. The odds of getting across the seesaw are not much better than the lottery but the opportunity to do so underlines the western “American dream”. The truth is closer to Merle Travis’s swing classic Sixteen Tons.

Some people say a man is made out of mud.

A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood;

Muscle and blood and skin and bones,

A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong.

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt.

Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,

I owe my soul to the company store.

Briefly, in the 1990’s, Tony Blair’s New Labour believed there could be a third way to approach work and promoted the ideas of a psychologist whose very name is hard work, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He thought all we had to do was find work so absorbing we’d enter a “flow state”, aka being “in the zone”; that feeling when you’re so absorbed in a process you don’t notice how much time has passed. Finally work could be happiness. Unfortunately, it turns out that slaughtering cattle, working in retail, wiping incontinent patients, indeed the vast majority of jobs actually require mental presence.

Wafting body odour

In reality, for Capitalism to thrive work needs to be miserable. We must hate work enough to do enough of it in order to stop having to work so hard. If you’re enjoying your work then you’re doing Capitalism wrong. Work necessarily needs to be hateful, tedious, stressful and generally soul destroying. It’s almost as if people with BO have been purposefully dispatched to make your tube commute awful, your manager is trained to be an odious twat and people above you are hired especially for being idiots. If not to escape it, how else might you be inspired to graft?

But what if we just earned sufficiently to eat, feed, house and school our families adequately, do the things we enjoy doing and live lives in which we deplete the planet as little as possible before we leave it?  This an anathema to the Capitalist goal where profit is success and profit beyond any possible need is holy. Achieving a Life/Work balance limits productivity and production is the measure of all things.

Western economies measure success in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which has almost nothing to do with how much fun it is to live there. Brexiters cannot believe the EU will not do a better deal with “the world’s 5th largest economy”, but maybe there are more important things they’re trying to protect.

UK – 5th largest economy… but what the Brexiters don’t say is we’re quite a way behind Germany and only just bigger than France.

Last month Britain’s furthest ex-colony made a bold bid for post-Capitalism. With their latest budget New Zealand decided to stop looking to GDP as their progress indicator, but “well-being” instead. They prioritised mental health provision and other markers of population happiness.

Google office

It’s like New Zealand is trying a national Google, “workers’ fun first”, approach. Meanwhile Google itself is taking a different approach to bring on post-Capitalism: mass unemployment. When they’re not sliding between floors and catching naps in sleep pods or playing office pool, the hipster G-males (G-men make up almost 70% of Google’s staff) are coding the Artificial Intelligence Revolution (AIR). If Capitalists profit more by driving the cost of production down, like the Industrial Revolution before it, AIR aims to tip the labour/capital seesaw irretrievably towards the capital owners: replacing skilled manual and white-collar decision-making work. At some point the only work for humans will be, like the Amazon warehouse runners, obeying and servicing the machines.

But because, for centuries, Capitalist work has been necessarily awful, AI Revolutionaries believe they’re on the side of the angels; ridding the world of boring and repetitive work whilst driving down the cost of production which, in a fairer world, would make products and the cost of life cheaper.

They dream of a post-Capitalist world in which both work and the cost of life is minimal whilst leisure, and the opportunities it affords, are maximised.

The dream isn’t new. In The Soul of a Man Under Socialism, (1891) Oscar Wilde reflected on the radical new ideas being put forward by Marx, Engels and Kropotkin. In an ideal Post-Capitalist world, “With the abolition of private property,” he wrote, “then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols of things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

Wilde radical

Wilde saw we are trapped by our stuff and the shedding of it was prophetic. In our growing digital world, ownership is becoming virtual. The GDP shopping basket can no longer rely solely on physical things being produced. The apps we buy, the games we play, the boxless box-sets we watch, the music we listen to, the maps we explore, the photos we take, the spreadsheets we fill, the e-books we read, even the money we exchange are all ethereal electronic signals. Experience tells us that, if you drive the means of production into fewer and fewer hands, they’re rarely willing to share the wealth without a fight. Wilde knew the answer, channelling his inner Milton and justifying it as only he could. “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue.  It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

Shpilkes

You know you’re in a real Jewish restaurant when the waiter comes to the table and asks, “Is anything alright?”

The tendency to kvetch (complain) about everything is a standard character flaw for Jewish jokes to riff on. But, what exactly is a “Jewish joke”?

For me, there’s at least three very different kinds: the jokes Jews tell each other, the jokes Jews tell non-Jews in an effort to be disarming, and jokes non-Jews tell to gauge if a listener shares their prejudices. The victims of all the gags are Jewish stereotypes so they’re often difficult to tell apart and yet there’s a world of difference.

There’s a joke Woody Allen tells in Stand Up Comic: 1964–1968, “I’m very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold me this watch.”

But try telling that same joke in the third person and it takes on an ominous antisemitic tone. The image of the money-pinching Jew, who can’t take it with him and yet can’t stop his avarice, plays right into antisemitic notions. So just being able to tell certain jokes inoffensively becomes a badge of brotherhood.

Even if, as Freud pointed out, “sometimes a cigar is just a penis,” a Jewish joke is almost never, just a joke.

There’s an old one about a couple of Hassidim walking down a dark alley when they see two thugs coming the other way. One whispers to the other, “Quick run. There’s two of them and we’re all alone.”

Cultural self-deprecation is used as a sort of charm to ward off hatred. Disarming bullies by victimizing yourself before they do is an age-old survival tactic and infuses much Jewish humour. It’s like trying to reduce the level of threat you represent so the hatred might pass you by. Punching yourself in the face before anyone else does.

The minefield of subtleties and cultural anxiety that gets lost in the catch-all term “Jewish Joke” applies equally well to the term “Jewish”.

Jews as puppet masters

If “Jewish” just meant a set of beliefs, a joke about a Jew would be no more racist than a joke about the Pope. But the trouble is the term also signifies a race, an ethnicity and, for some, a conspiracy of wealth and power, or a political ideology about Palestine, or even drinkers of the blood of Christian babies.

The Labour party, a movement that prides itself on its inclusivity, has seen member after member being called out for antisemitism and is still struggling to understand why. How could an anti-racist party keep on being accused of racism? The Right, a more traditional home for antisemitism, is having a field day as left-leaning England’s lazy confounding of Israeli-Palestine atrocities and an entire race conspiring to back it, bubbles out with humiliating regularity. Corbyn himself tries to differentiate between “Jewish people” (presumably the nice guys in funny hats) and “Zionists” (Palestinian murdering scum) but then doesn’t understand why nobody is fooled. He doesn’t seem to understand how transparent his Semitic semantics are.

He seems unable to comprehend how acutely attuned Jews are at listening for the slightest whiff of antisemitism. It stems from a collective anxiety that informs so many things from the jokes told to the neighbourhoods picked to the side of the street walked.

Why? Because that’s how it starts; the Jew as other, as different, as non-white, it’s that first subtle step towards open hostilities. Allow that to go unchecked and the next steps seem inevitable. Few Jews live totally free of the fear that it could all kick off again at any moment.

Gringotts Bank. Courtesy of Warner Brothers

 

1930s Museum of Horrors

“Is this picture offensive?” asked the Jewish Chronicle featuring a publicity shot for the new Gringotts attraction at Warner Studios’ The Making Of Harry Potter experience.

It “positively shrieked with antisemitic tropes; the long-nosed goblin, his natty suit, clawed fingers caressing a pile of gold coins. When I positioned a Gringotts shot alongside a series of cartoons from Nazi Germany’s Der Stürmer, it did not seem out of place.” wrote Marianne Levy.

She’s right. The picture is also somewhat reminiscent of the mural Freedom for Humanity in the East End which Corbyn couldn’t understand the need to remove. It depicted hook-nosed fat Jewish bankers playing monopoly on the backs of starving black people. Sitting beneath an illuminati eyed pyramid the symbol of global economic conspiracy.

Freedom for Humanity – not obvious to Jeremy Corbyn who, in mitigation said: “I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic.”

Is this just being touchy? Is it being oversensitive?

Personally I was relieved to see someone else had noticed. I gave up reading Harry Potter to my kids after the first book because: Roald Dahl had done the grotesque Dursleys so much better in Augustus Gloop or James’s (Giant Peach) aunts Spiker and Sponge; Jill Murphy had been more original in her Worst Witch boarding school of witchcraft; and at least Enid Blyton, when she adopted the traditional fairy-tale ersatz Jews, the goblins, as the hook-nosed money chasers of Noddy’s Toy Town, was writing in an era that was so awash with racist stereotypes she can’t be entirely blamed for her lack of “wokeness”.

Before

 

After

 

Gobbo

Even so it surprised me that 21st century reboots of Noddy excised Golly from his garage as if he was bringing the Toy Town house values down, but were happy to keep perpetuating the criminal antics of Gobbo and Sly. I tell myself that it was Rowling’s derivative storytelling, lazy stereotypes and humour bypass that made me put her book aside but part of me knows that it was her short, sinister, big nosed, money hoarding Griphook the goblin that was just too much for me.

Is Rowling an antisemite? Is Corbyn? Probably not, almost certainly not consciously. And yet by repeating the tropes and letting them slip through, they are just feeding the long established unconscious biases rather than challenge them.

Sensitivity to antisemitism is a life-skill nurtured from birth so it will probably never be something that non-Jewish politicians can truly empathise with. Even the most assimilated of Jews get their moments of paranoia, that history could repeat itself. You don’t, I guess, go through a couple of millennia of wandering and persecution without evolving a sixth sense for trouble. The Yiddish word for it is shpilkes (needles), “a state of impatience, agitation, anxiety, or any combination thereof.” The character of the neurotic, paranoid, Jew is well-trodden in comedy, and so is the feeling that as long as there are Jews there will always be antisemitism… like the old joke:

Moishe and Solly are passing a Catholic church and see a sign that reads “Convert to Catholicism, £50 Cash.” Moishe turns to his friend Solly and says, “Hey, I’m going to try it.” He enters the church and returns a few minutes later.

“So, did you convert? What was it like?” Solly asks.

“It was nothing,” says Moishe. “I walked in, a priest sprinkled holy water on me, and said ‘you’re a Catholic.’”

“Wow,” says Solly, “and did you get the £50?”

Moishe looks at Solly, “is that all you people think about?”