I’m a novelist, journalist and film maker interested in Neuroscience, Conjuring, Hustles, Deception, Illusion, Delusion and the nature of Love.

This is how the TLS summed me up:

Puns, gags, witty observations, surreal flights, there is a laugh of some sort in every line… A quip for Brill is the Cleopatra for which he will give up the world and consider it well lost.

And that’s a fair cop… which is more than you’ll find in The Wire.

Now, with the publication of my second novel How To Forget this is a pretty exciting time. What’s below may not be my life, but it’s a blog of events and tangential thoughts that grind the optics behind my own peculiar views.

Marius Brill

Past Imperfect, Future Tense

“I’ve got to do it.”

“Okay. But you hate the outdoors, your sense of balance could be sponsored by Special Brew, you think the people who do do it are tossers and you’re petrified of water.” I said, encouragingly.

“I know, but I’ve got to take a punt…,” Tom said, “out… just once.”

Cushy Punt

Even though just thinking about it was making him palpitate, and was inducing a sweaty fit of heavy breathing, Tom (name changed to protect the libellous) insisted, on pushing the boat out… with a long pole. We were at uni, it was the summer term of our last year, and the river was filled with a bunch of Pimms fuelled punts (partial homophone intended).

It would be unfair to call Tom bookish; there was no “ish” about his total bookness. In fact he’d been locked in the library several times because he was so engrossed at closing time, and so much a part of the place, the staff missed him. And Tom feared water in the same way a collection of paper and cardboard might.

So what would drive a man, who took a cagoule and rape alarm with him to pop to the shop for milk, to take his life in his hands propelling a flat-bottomed boat?

I’ll tell you what. Metameleiaphobia. The fear of regret. Or, as Tom explained it, “I don’t want to look back at my days here and regret not having had the full experience.” Even if that experience induced unforgettable terror.

Metameleiaphobia. It’s amazing that that word doesn’t already exist because it’s definitely a thing, and a life meme. It doesn’t just drive the mid-life crisis, it misinforms some really appalling decision making people seek pointless other opinions purely so they won’t have to shoulder all the blame should things go wrong. Looking forward to looking back.

It’s not FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), even if that might embrace it, because it’s explicitly fearing a future in which you will look back and admonish yourself.

It’s totally irrational and an intrinsic component of aging. Marianne Faithfull invoked it perfectly in her cautionary Ballad of Lucy Jordan: “At the age of thirty-seven she realised she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.” Watch out, she sang, or you’ll end up like Lucy; who climbs up on her roof and, depending on how you read it, either is carted off to an insane asylum or is led to the after-life where she finally gets to smell le croissant in her Alfa Spider before it’s over-turned and burned by the gilet-jaune.

We will all experience moments in our lives where we have to make life-changing decisions. But for many of us, somewhere in the mental pros and cons, there will be a picture of our own, older, brooding selves, unsatisfied and unable to change the past because of the decision we’re making now.

It’s oddly powerful. In a WWI recruitment poster a child sits on her father’s knee and, basically, tells him he’s a sissy. “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” The father gulps. At first this seems rather niche; appealing to that group of young men who have such an impressive imagination they fear a possibly embarrassing question coming up sometime in the future in a family they may or may not help produce. But it worked. It is a defining image of persuasive advertising and sent thousands of men to face death and shellshock rather than an imaginary red-faced, somewhat insensitive, kid who may never exist, demanding answers to an awkward question.

As a rhetorical conceit it seems bizarre: a call for action not based on the here and now but by how you may feel about it, at some time in the future.

There’s a current twitter meme that exploits the same technique from the other side.

It’s pretty clever. It, at once, draws parallels of historical significance to today’s events, makes it personal, and flatters those who stood/stand up to the establishment even if it meant/means great personal risk.

Just a few weeks ago, Michael Heseltine invoked metameleiaphobia to reassure the million Remainers who marched to oppose Brexit. “We are on the right side of history,” he intoned. “Walk tall. Keep the faith. Go back to your villages, your towns and your cities. Tell them you were here… Fighting for our tomorrow.” Considering history is mostly the deeds of the dead, is being on its “right side” somewhere actually good to be?

Still, going down in history is clearly the impulse for many of our Brexit agitators. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History arguing that, following the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, humanity was reaching “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. This was seized by the burgeoning “New Labour” as a prophetic confirmation of their political ambitions.

Oh how we can laugh now, that things were so settled that someone could even suggest it. It’s almost as if a generation of legacy hungry politicians took it as a challenge to jump start history and all the ideological conflicts that take us right back to square one. The future wasn’t quite what anybody expected. It never is.

“We plan, God laughs,” says the Yiddish proverb. Any imagined future is a chimera. The anxiety of imagining yourself in a future looking back and regretting the now is a fallacy because, if nothing else, you will be unimaginably different; a being that your present self cannot even fathom. Your brain will only become more decayed, a million experiences will drown out the moments you may regret and maybe your future self will just learn to trust and put up with the instincts of your past.

Tom did go to the boathouse in a blazer and straw hat, he brought a girl he fancied, a hamper and a few bottles of ready mixed Pimms. He rented the punt and got within two feet of the water before bottling it, resorting to a boozy picnic in a meadow that ended with a snog and some grassy entanglement. And now? Does he regret not having had that full experience? “You know what,” he tells me, “if I had done it, I think I’d just be looking back now and wondering: why the hell did I put myself through that? I hated every minute.”
A version of this article first appeared in print in

Can’t you take a joke? Jeez.

Cool

When I was still young enough to be unable to tell the difference between pretension and cool, Tom Stoppard came to give a talk at my university. His slightly RP/Czech fusion drawl made me think of his comparative linguistic knowledge so in the Q&A, my hand went up. Eventually he pointed at me. “Is there anything you think the English language lacks?” I asked. The baggy eyes gave me a once over. “A typeface for the ironic,” he answered.

“Cool,” I thought.

Of course this was the early 90s, the internet still sounded like a dolphin clearing its throat and social media was a bunch of Bulletin Board System nerds leaving earnest messages about packet protocols and chess moves. The idea that, through this system, speech would be superseded by instant text as the dominant form of communication in the developed world was unthinkable. And although Stoppard was, no doubt, using “ironic” as a polite way of saying “sarcastic”, lacking a typeface for sarcasm seemed a minor problem, writing was always in a long enough form for context to suggest intent.

Indeed, one of the strengths of spoken English is that any statement can be made to mean exactly the opposite through intonation and facial cues. We also have traditional sarc-signals like any sentence that begins with “Nothing would please me more than to…”

The potential ambiguity of sarcasm is also a classic facesaver. When you’ve just said something stupid, cover it with, “it was just a joke… Of course I don’t want a threesome with your sister.” Or better still make it all their fault: “Can’t you take a joke? Jeez.”

C19th Facepalm Emoji (Rodin)

But, the faceless, incessant, short form of social media has meant we’ve had to find new ways of communicating all the things we used to do with body language. The emoji was born to cover a multitude of these but we still have nothing to denote sarcasm. Following a piece of sarcasm with a facepalm or winky emoji is as tone-deaf as air quotation marks with your fingers to indicate you’re saying the opposite of what you mean; all subtlety is lost.

Possibly the sarcasm emoji hasn’t emerged yet because neither in East Asia nor America, the origins of most emojis, is it a particularly popular or understood form of wit. “Sarcasm”, from the Greek σαρκάζειν (sarkázein) “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer,” is a particularly vicious and decadent form of irony, less suited to those more optimistic cultures. Indeed, for a while, Americans would employ the word “Not” after a sarcastic comment just to make sure it was understood.

The long running sitcom Frasier made hay with American sarcasm naivety for years with almost every episode featuring a Crane brother saying something sarcastic, another character saying something like “Really?” and the comeback being a frustrated, angry or prim, “of course not.” But as Twitter is mostly a call and response platform: statement leads to troll, troll, troll etc. And even if, as Oscar Wilde said, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit” – it’s the highest form of trolling.

Take this brilliant troll of an anti-vaccination crusader from Twitter user ‘Brandon’:

In social media where brevity, banter and wit is point scoring, sarcasm is the lifeblood. For every popular disseminator of wisdom there is a mock account parodying them. But, with no “typeface for the ironic” so many people fail to tell the difference between the sarcasm and the original that there will almost always be a response somewhere in any thread where someone helpfully points out “parody account”. The only exception to this is @realDonaldTrump whose tweets are so consistently nonsense, several accounts like @niceDonaIdTrump simply tweet what a proper responsible diplomatic President should tweet – and it’s very funny.

The dictionary has a strangely unsatisfying definition of irony: “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” Much more clearly to my mind is: irony is a truth found in the least expected place.

So some jokes work ironically: “Apparently 50% of marriages end in divorce. But, the other 50% end in death – so you might get lucky.” Whilst others: “A male blue whale produces 40 tonnes of sperm but only 10% makes it into the female. And you were wondering why the sea tastes salty.” They’re just jokes. Can’t you take a joke?!

The truth coming out unexpectedly was never more spectacularly evident than when, in the face of anti-Semitism accusations, Jeremy Corbyn was shown kindly offering to teach English Jews, or “Zionists” as he called them, the use of English irony. They “clearly have two problems,” he said. “One is they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either … So I think they needed two lessons, which we can perhaps help them with.”

Which in itself was a masterclass in unintentional ironies. The most obvious is that irony is probably one of the most well known aspects of Jewish humour; the mocking of whatever has just been said by repeating it as a question. “And I need lessons?” Secondly, the idea that someone famous for having never knowingly cracked a joke could teach irony, even if it were teachable, has both verbal and poetic irony. And lastly, Corbyn’s vision of English Jews as being somehow still foreign, showed a truth about the way he thinks in a place he least expected it to and, for all that, was completely ironically appropriate.

Luciana Berger MP

The launch of The Independent Group, (named in honour of the newspaper that has done the most to support them?) with antisemitism target Luciana Berger leaving Corbyn’s labour to be its helmswoman, was clearly just a matter of time.

So do we need a typeface for the ironic? I think the signalling of “incoming” sarcasm or irony would somehow defeat the “unexpected” aspect of it. We can’t have a typeface for the ironic because where would be the pleasure of having to stop and think for a moment? Wait. What? Did he just really say that? The little disconnect, the meta-moment before we realise the truth is being amplified by the implied joke of it all.

For years I thought Stoppard was right. But then I thought he was cool too.

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in print in

This is Me(me)

No one wants to look like their passport photo. The tube-station photobooth is actually designed to make you look as terrible as possible so you’ll waste your money at least three or four times before you realise that every photo is going to be heinous; there’s never going to be a shot that wouldn’t be improved by the use of a bullet. The document that represents you clearly demands a photo that displays your inner psychopath.

Of course your documents aren’t your actual identity, but as we head into our Brexit “Freedom Of Removement” you and I will need to be producing them far more often. As we set to isolate and differentiate ourselves from the continent and those who would immigrate here, identifying ourselves will become more integral to our lives. Never having to show “your papers” was once a proof of the superiority of British society. Now it’ll be: “You say you’re British… prove it!” As if the bad teeth, sallow skin, beer belly, aggressive demeanour and die-hard stubbornness to never admit a mistake wasn’t proof enough anymore.

Unaccustomed to having to identify myself, like many I’m struggling to work out who, or even what, I am. It’s no wonder that Britain’s favourite Christmas present this year was a DNA testing kit from the likes of Ancestry.com. We’ve seen the way the world is going and we’ve got questions: Where are we from? Where can we call home? Who are OUR people? Who’s that nutter in my passport photo?

So called “Identity Politics” and the populist backlash that is taking the West by storm, is forcing us all to take sides, imposing a collectivism we would never have imagined even five years ago. In the back of my mind I was always a European, despite being born in the UK, but now I have to stand up and fight for it as fiercely as any Leaver believes they’re standing up for being “British” or “English” or “A Kentish Man” or “Man of Kent” or some poor sod with a semi in Gillingham. I’ve had to nail my colours to a mast I never wanted to, I’ve had to climb into bed with people that no one would do so willingly – Tony Blair, George Osborne, Peter Mandelson and the plumber with the bog-brush hairdo Charlie Mullins – in order to lie back and think of Europe.

Bedfellow?

And however dirty I feel, spare a thought for the poor Leavers. Not just because of how hideous their bedfellows are, but for all the contortions that they must now go through to justify the fallacies of their leaders’ retrospective groupthink. They’re forced to rewrite their past and say that they knew we were being lied to; they knew that there was never going to be £350 million for the NHS; they knew that there would be job losses; they knew that the car industry, the vacuum manufacturers, the banks and the other economic backbones would actually relocate. They knew all that and voted for it anyway because, as Nigel Farage, when faced with the facts of a tanking economy said, that is the “price for freedom”; as if it is better to starve as a sovereign Brit than break croissants with the Europeans. You may go hungry but it will be a democratic, free, British hunger. By far the best sort of hunger there is.

Our sense of identity is one of the world’s most powerful memes. In ancient times a rich mythology grew around the idea that simply telling someone your name meant giving them power over you. Unbaptised children were at risk of fairy kidnap leaving changelings in their place; Rumpelstiltskin was disempowered by his name being discovered; in Jewish tradition, after a series of infant deaths the next born is unnamed, believing that the Angel of Death cannot call a child who has no name; in Puccini’s opera, Princess Turandot must learn the name of her unwanted suitor to execute him, if she doesn’t, she must marry him; even Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, speaks in riddles to Smaug, the dragon, to keep him from learning his name. Now we give our name away at Starbucks for the privilege of buying overpriced coffee and sell it to Google for the price of a Kardashian butt shot.

Your name please?

Odysseus kept his name secret from Polyphemus in order to survive, only when the giant learnt it could he call on his father, the sea god Poseidon, to wreak vengeance upon him. In this age of internet giants, like Odysseus, we try to keep our identities secret, making fake spam-magnet email addresses or sock puppets, but the gods of Google, Amazon and YouTube, they know who we really are, what we really want, and they’ve got the cookies to prove it.

The history of Western civilisation has been a constant cycle between individualism and collectivism. In the Renaissance the individual was celebrated, artists, pioneers, adventurers, explorers. But then the Enlightenment’s discovery of scientific principles looked at unifying ideas, categorisation, one scientist’s results recreated exactly by another; to science humans, like animals, are all alike. This is the time the French and American Revolutions were fought as groups collected, identifying with their causes. Romanticism, a reaction to the Enlightenment, promoted the individual again. The artist and poet’s unique experience was elevated as a foil to the reach of science. As the Industrial Revolution spawned factories and mills, people proved more useful as groups. Organising principles like socialism and capitalism were born. By WWII fascism loomed as the ultimate subordination of individual free will to the faceless collective represented by one individual dictator. Wars are fought as collectives, and the mentality of “a ministry for everything” lasted until the 1960s when the hippy revolution started prioritising individual experience again. The Vietnam War failed to inspire an entire generation to fight together. By the 1970s individualism reached a zenith in punk when any conformity was social death. But now, with the internet, the things that we thought made us individual have allowed us to collect as groups again. So if you are an opinionated middle aged, middle class, white bloke with an interest in sleight of hand, good mystery fiction and liberal politics? There’s a Reddit group just for us stretching round the globe. The cycle of individualism is falling away again and we are being subsumed into collectives once more.

My 80s teenhood was devoted to trying to start my own unique style trends fusing charity shop tat, but now I watch my own children happily conforming to brands, following an urge to meld in with everyone else on SnapChat, Instagram and Twitter. The collective is coming but we must beware. It is in the collectivist periods of history when all the world’s bloodiest conflicts are fought and, as Bertrand Russell said, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in print in

Post Truth

“I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” This is how Charles Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s noir classic Ace In The Hole (1951), pitched for a job at the Albuquerque Sun.

Manufacturing the news has always been a part of the job. Newspapers were founded, like the stock market, in the coffee houses of 17th Century London where false news stories were often published to shift the value of stocks. Pamphleteers, like Daniel Defoe, were adept at blurring fact with fiction. The exploits of Robinson Crusoe were, for years, passed off as true. Fake news pays. In ancient Greece, corn merchants spread rumours of disastrous storms and shipwrecks to raise the price of grain. False rumours were considered so powerful that, in Athens in 413BC, a barber was tortured for spreading unrest after repeating news he had heard from an escaped soldier of a disastrous military defeat in Sicily. Even though the story was true they gave him, as Roger McGough called it, “a short back and insides.”

It wasn’t until 1914 that a journalists’ creed appeared which included “clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.”

Even so, when I started work as a journalist in the 1980s, one of our standard playbook persuasive tactics to get people to talk was: “if you don’t, I’ll just have to make it up.” The line was credible because journalists weren’t and the threat was so effective I never did.

That’s not to say, on slow news days, small stories weren’t ‘embellished’. With their policy of never confirming or denying stories, the royals were always a good target for a little fiction; which is probably why the Daily Mail is currently baiting the Duchess of Sussex to see how far they can go in painting her a bossy Hollywood diva from hell… before she bites. On a slow day at one national newspaper, I once wrote about a football match between two youth clubs in Hyde Park which Prince Charles had passed by. By the time the story got to the copy desk, the Prince of Wales had stopped, shown off some fearsome keepy-uppy and even scored a goal. The Palace said nothing and as Tatum puts it, “It’s a good story today. Tomorrow, they’ll wrap a fish in it.” … but then you’re going to have to start all over again and find something else to “report on.

The temptation to disregard facts is driven by the media’s endless demand for content; a relentless pressure that used to be reserved for journalists. Now, with the monetizing of click-bait, a vast number of vloggers, bloggers and twitter-feed cloggers, experience that same pressure.

Just look at the volume of news in comparison to “comment” in any modern newspaper, (including this one), or news-site or news programme like Radio 4’s Today, and it’s clear that fact, accuracy, and empirical evidence consistently loses out to outrage, opinion, belief, fluff or uninformed celebrity views. And this decline has been going on for decades; while the armchair rage rousing internet content providers are only accelerating it.

Facts, reality and truth have become dangerously plastic. Brexiteers and Trump not only dismiss expert opinion but facts too. When challenged with telling an outright lie, White House spokesperson Kelly Anne Conway coined the phrase “Alternative Facts.” Breitbart News editor Joel Pollak argued this was a harmless and accurate term in a legal setting, “where each side of a dispute will lay out its own version of the facts for the court to decide.” Justifying one “Alternative Fact” with another.

But Pollak unwittingly pointed to an age old fundamental problem in the Anglo-American pathway to truth… our systems are adversarial. Instead of facts or the balance of probability we allow the concept of multiple truths until we decide which is the most compelling. Which means that in most Court disputes one side has to lie. And if that’s true, why aren’t the majority of court verdicts accompanied by perjury charges? Could our tolerance of multiple truths, be leading us to lose our grip on reality?

For centuries, we have believed that we are the children of the Enlightenment and that we use empirical truth as the basis of our values. Capitalism is built on the agreement of value. But the great Capitalist manifestos were all written when money was still commodity backed (like the gold standard). Money represented something unwaveringly material. With the loss of Empire after WWI, Britain could no longer claim new gold reserves ripped from its colonies, and for a small island with finite precious resources, money had to become notional, virtual, a matter of conviction. Today money in exchange for goods or labour, is just an idea, an agreement, numbers in computers, a belief, and so it’s vulnerable to intangibles, human frailties, opinions and feelings such as hope, despair, confidence, and trust.

Value is an act of faith. It is as real, rational, or empirically substantial as gods, demons, fairy tales, vampires and the origin of a denied fart. It is a mass delusion based on the stories we tell. Banksy adds an impossible story about a shredder on standby for a decade in the frame of a work of art and doubles its value. I trust my expensive Duchy organic milk is really produced by cows listening to Mozart and not weeping from their udders because their calves have been placed in the next pen so they can hear and smell them but will never be allowed to feed them. In every shape and form, stories and provenance create value, and fiction is an integral part of stories.

What is so amazing is that it is so hard for us to see that. Non-western cultures have watched in awe at the grandstanding of our culture backed by a fiction as ridiculous, unprovable and unsubstantial as any faith.

In Homo Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that our willingness to believe in fictions has been the secret of success for our species. “We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them.”

Good stories have grains of truth but the balance of truth and fiction in our stories has passed the tipping point. In 2008, when the subprime mortgage story – that overpriced housing can be supported by selling poor people into continuous debt – was exposed as pure fiction, the banking world collapsed. The consequences of that lapse in confidence has sent us spinning ever since. Distrust of “The Man” has informed the Brexit and Trump “base”. “Truth be buggered”, they say, “nothing was ever true.”

Democracy, the cornerstone of enlightened politics, is proving unfit for a culture willing to believe stories while no longer needing to trust the source. The democracy that May is currently defending from a second referendum is as much a sham as a Russian voting booth or “fun size” Mars bars.

In HyperNormalisation (available on iPlayer), filmmaker Adam Curtis argues that Russia has for years, purposefully created entertaining chaos to keep its populace thrilled and scared and confused and at odds with each other: and so unable to work together in a democratic way as consensus is always frustrated. Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief political technologist, calls it non-linear warfare. He would finance different extremist factions, even anti-Putin groups, and then reveal that he had backed them. Nobody knew what was real or not. In a broken post-perestroika Russia there was only one thing you could be absolutely sure of, Vladimir Putin.

Surkov harnessed the anxiety of falling down the rabbit hole to keep Putin in power for years. Through the internet this policy of undermining reality has been leaking into the West; most obviously with Trump and Brexit, both now provably supported by Russian disinformation tactics.

If the first casualty of war is the truth, we have to realise we’ve been in a non-linear war now for some time. And even if there are no bombs dropping, and even though we cannot be sure who our enemies are or what is really happening, with the Brexit implosion it seems harder and harder to deny we are at war, that we’re losing, and that’s the truth.

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in

I Vant To Be Alone

“Alone now, there is nothing but my breath.

I scream and that turbulent fury that rages from my mouth,

Is silence. In the darkness.”

Marius Brill (Aged 14)

So, whilst wiry, post-pubescent, me was wondering if Faber & Faber was going to recognise my genius; fat, middle-aged, me would happily put the gun I was clearly looking for, to the temple of that spotty youth and end his tortuous self-obsession whilst simultaneously sparing the world his awful poetry. And, you know, juvenile me would have thanked the wrinkly old git with the Glock because, “yeah, I’ll be dead and then they’ll be sorry… and then someone’ll publish my poetry and the world will mourn the loss of my depth and potential.”

But somehow future me shouted loud enough through the temporal ether to convince teen me to bury my cheerless odes in a woollies notebook at the back of a cupboard. And though I was almost certainly anticipating a time when the world would finally recognise my virtuosity and cry out for my youthful insight, I can now only be grateful that it went no further than beneath a shoe box of multi-coloured Kickers.

Rediscovering that blacnk verse is not just acutely embarrassing, it’s a painful reminder of how difficult and angst ridden and confusing and troubling becoming a teenager can be. But if the pain of post-adolescence is like permanently having fillings drilled, being a parent of teenagers is unceasing root canal treatment.

When 14-year-old me stomped up to my bedroom to be alone it wasn’t actually to be alone. Yes I wanted to physically create the separation I felt from the parents who were failing to understand my vast emotional intellect, I wanted them to feel guilty for their shortcomings, but mainly I wanted to be with my pen, a spiral bound notepad, and my entire, imagined, future audience of adoring poetry-reading fans. Which, as it turned out, was exactly the same number as my present, real, adoring poetry-reading fans.

Now my youngest child has entered the teen trials. And she wants to be alone and she stomps up to her bedroom but not, fortunately, to write nauseating poetry (I don’t think) but to be alone with all her peers who have also disappeared, phones in hand, to be “alone” too. You’re never alone with a phone! Except, you’re always alone with your phone. The teenage bedroom has, since its invention, been the human cocoon from which, hopefully, a butterfly will eventually eat her way out of. And as hard as it is to be an adult and end a sentence with a preposition, it is harder still to transition from a constantly hovering “helicopter parent” to a long distance bomber parent who rarely gets flight clearance so tends to store up complaints to carpet bomb a month’s worth of problems in explosive, eye-streaming, outbursts.

Being alone is never actually about being alone, it’s about not being with others. The times change, the technology changes, the aspirations change but the urge, and the history, repeats itself from one generation to the next. Being alone is an act of glorious selfishness, only really possible in the narrow vision of an adolescent mind, because it tries to deny, and by that prove, you have an integral role as part of a larger community. The temptation to indulge in a “splendid isolation,” when you feel misunderstood or treated unfairly, is partly to punish those you are leaving and partly to try to prove independence. Both, of course, core adolescent impulses.

Kids need to grow up and feel independent. What’s wrong with a bit of alone time?

Nothing…. when you’re talking about kids.

But of course, I’m not. The problem comes when an entire nation behaves like a moody, depressed, anxiety-ridden teenager.

The term “splendid isolation” is one John Major has used several times in his attacks on Brexit. It, in fact, refers to the 19th century British government practice of avoiding permanent alliances with other European countries; particularly during Lord Salisbury’s premiership from 1885-1902. Historian Harold Temperley summarised it as, “Non-intervention; no European police system; every nation for itself, and God for us all; balance of power; respect for facts, not for abstract theories; respect for treaty rights, but caution in extending them … England not Europe… Europe’s domain extends to the shores of the Atlantic, England’s begins there.”

Of course we had an Empire to fall back on, so we held all the cards in trade agreements, but by not getting involved, by withdrawing our political strength, we allowed European countries to escalate their posturing and military peacocking. Aspirant empire builders, Russia, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, even Belgium went through a series of treaties, agreements and alignments trying to leverage their own might. By the turn of the century when a Britain vs Germany naval arms race began, politicians started to realise the country was dangerously exposed by its lack of European allies. In 1898, Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who tried twice unsuccessfully to negotiate an alliance with Germany, said, “We have had no allies. I am afraid we have had no friends … We stand alone.”

By abandoning involvement in Europe, Britain had no skin in the game. It was unable to broker peace and the bristling European powers were getting ready to prove their superiority. As any GCSE history student will begin their ubiquitous 20th Century essay, “There were many causes of the First World War…” But first among them was a policy that came to be known as the “Splendid Isolation.”

This month, a hundred years after the guns fell silent, when the death toll could finally be tallied, we will remember the 40 Million soldiers and civilians killed in the war and by the flu, famine and disease that followed in its wake; the war to end all wars. So why are we forgetting what got us there in the first place?

Yes, we’ve all wanted to do a Greta Garbo and get some time out. We’ve all wanted to storm up to our rooms and lock the doors. But, when we leave and prioritise ours needs, we ignore how intrinsic we are to the framework, the stability, the unit that as social animals we are all a part of.

No one, thankfully, will remember my teen poetry, and policy during Britain’s “Splendid Isolation” is historical marginalia in comparison with what followed, but on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we will remember. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember.

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in print in

Ctrl-Z

I’ve done some pretty shitty things in my time. I’ve definitely put the ain’t in Saint and, what’s more, too spineless to admit my own flaws, I constantly lie to myself about it. So in my version of the world, after drunkenly stealing some roadworks diversion signs, and thinking it hilarious to reroute all the traffic on Cheyne Walk the wrong way up Old Church Street, none of the potentially fatal car crashes I may have caused ever happened. Nope. Never happened.

Through the 20th century, as the fledgling science of “psychology” blossomed, we started to realise how flawed the human brain is. Now neuroscience can show our brains physically rewire in response to stimuli; we are biologically capable of rewriting past experiences. Hangover amnesia is probably the most common phenomenon of this neurological self-editing. “Drinks? I’ve had a few. But then again… I’ve rerouted my synapses so I’ll never be reminded.” Done something you’re not proud of? Don’t worry, your brain will fix it because it still needs to function and get some sleep.

If we’re rewriting the events we’re uncomfortable with, what we’re replacing them with are just, well, stories. Concepts such as “the truth” and “the past” have not only become subject to relativism, but the very fact that I can call them “concepts” without your alarm bells ringing “logical fallacy” shows how far down the rabbit hole we’ve already descended.

Dr Blasey Ford did herself no favours explaining how she could remember US Supreme Court Judge nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulting her over 30 years ago. “Just basic memory functions,” she said, “and also just the level of norepinephrine and the epinephrine in the brain that as you know encodes that neurotransmitter that codes memories into the hippocampus.” The entire inquisitorial panel stared at her with open mouths and then dismissed it as clearly a herstory/history.

It seems that, before the Western Liberal orthodoxy began to implode in 2016, no one had noticed how far reality and truth had actually drifted from each other. Now we can only gawp at Trump’s flat denials or the Boris Mogg glorious pre-Euro, British idyll – when there definitely wasn’t abject poverty, child-killing measles, general strikes, and whole generations toiling in servitude – a mad as a cricket bat, village green, fantasy that Brexit can take us “back” to.

“Make America Great Again” relies on a mass delusion that America was ‘great’ at some point. America has done great things: won wars, assured peace, policed the world, and promoted democracy. But, from its founding Native American genocide, through slavery, to the “No Coloreds” white picket fences of the Madison Avenue / Hollywood dream sellers, America has only ever been a “great” place to live in stories and for a privileged few. The version of the past that the AltRight succeeds in selling is a selective nostalgia.

So if the victors write history and our memories are neurological shifting sands, can we say the past actually exists?

I know that’s the sort of question philosophers like to ask whilst skinning up rollies outside the jobcentre. But then, if we didn’t have philosophers to ask stupid questions we’d have to rely on Piers Morgan and no one, not even Mrs Morgan, wants to do that. Of course it’s possible that, like homework eating dogs, working late at the office or some really bad heroin, the past could be one gigantic fabrication we spin ourselves to explain the terrible state we’re in right now. But, beyond the solipsism, even if we can’t agree on what the past is, we all seem to function by agreeing that there is one.

In The Battle of the Books (1704), Jonathan Swift contended that all arguments eventually come down to one difference: past or future, you’re either an Ancient or a Modern. Ancients look to the past and fight to preserve it, maintaining the status quo (read conservatism) whilst the Moderns want to move forward, improve, reform and change (read whig/liberalism). It’s Stasis vs Kinetic, Stability vs Innovation, Status Quo vs Prog Rock.

You would think that, with the growth of our post-Freudian relativism about the past, as it gradually fractured and became less distinct, conservatives would have had less to hold on to and the progressives would have won the day. But 21st century conservatives have found a new opportunity in all this. Can’t be sure of the past? Build a better one! They’ve finally realised it’s all in the stories you tell. There’s a spitfire forever flying in the blue skies above Kent in their makebelieve past, it’s plucky Britain against the world, before all the foreigners arrived. Make your story compelling enough, and you’ll attract 17.4 million moths to your flame, many apparently willing to fly right in, and go down in smoke.

But the real fantasy behind Trump’s pre-civil rights America; the Brexiteers’ blitz spirit Britain; ISIS’s “Caliphate”; Russia’s rerun of Cold War sabre rattling; the Altright’s Climate Change denial and even the Anti-Vaccs hankering for lost childhood diseases, is the notion that there’s a Ctrl-Z for life, an undo button, something that will magically revert us to a happier place, even if it’s a version that never existed in the first place.

Along with nearly every Remain voter, and the 1.1 million Leave voters who say they regret the way they voted, I too want us to go back in time. For us though, it’s not to some Downton Abbey fantasy Britain but, specifically, to 23rd June 2016 so that, infinitely better informed, completely aware of how messy, ridiculous and utterly damaging the alternative is, we vote again.

As any salesman will tell you, if you’ve sold someone a crock and a story, better close quick. You can’t give the suckers time to think. You certainly can’t give them a two year cooling off period when they might realise how the dream just doesn’t stack up with reality: the tearing up of the Good Friday Agreement, the return of the IRA and expensive foreign holidays while nurses and doctors disappear… they might just change their minds. They might just want a peoples’ vote.

We’re constantly rewriting history. Now, more than ever, you need to help rewrite it for the better, give parliament a reality check.

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in

Noted

Holidays are over. Back to the grind, school, work, uni, the girl locked in the basement. With summer, lazy days, late rising and endless sunshine, all still fresh in the memory, the misery of the graft is all the more obvious, the contrast more jarring; the post-vacation life is a depressing bitter pill we all swallow. Unless you’ve got yourself a doctor’s note – in which case enjoy a few more days of the holiday vibe.

For some, the note will become permanent. Not because they’ve been sacked or contracted a terminal illness, just because the back-to-work shock was too much. If you’re going to make a life changing decision, to jack it all in and pursue your dreams, it’s the second week after the holidays in which you’re most likely to do it. You’ve had just enough time to think (and not enough time to think again): bugger the drudgery, what’s the point?

So I’ll tell you about Sammy. At school Sammy had it made. We all envied him.  When we were splashing through freezing slimy puddles, spattering our legs with foul smelling mud, Sammy was warm in the library clutching his “note”, his cherished paper prize that perpetually excused him from the cross country.  In fact, having been diagnosed with mild dyspraxia, Sammy’s note was continually updated by his concerned parents, who excused him from all sports for his entire school career.

Today though, the envy has gone.  You see, Sam has lived his life as if he always had a note excusing him from any of its potential adventures.  Pushing fifty now, his circumference has been multiplied by pie; chronically obese, he suffers from continuous vertigo, countless phobias and, for most of his life, desperately unhappy singleness. Had he been born twenty years before, or to a less privileged class, his dyspraxia would have just been called “clumsiness”, for which there was no known note, and he would have been plunging the puddles with everybody else, or at least behind everybody else.

This could just be the old nurture/nature debate. If you’re a nurturist you’d argue that: had Sammy got in the habit of exercise, and practiced some coordination exercises, at an early enough stage in his life, he might have been spared such a waisted life. Or if you’re a naturist, put some clothes on, it’s getting chilly.

It’s always possible that Sam was genetically “programmed” to end up as he did. But I have a terrible feeling that it wasn’t his genes or his dyspraxia that did for him, it was his “note”.

I honestly think we all have, or long for, our own notes. The desire to have some way, some thing, that excuses us for behaving the way we actually do – rather than the way we know we should – seems an almost quintessential human urge.  So many advances in the human sciences get redeployed as steps towards that Holy Grail: The Universal Excuse Note.

From Humanism to Phrenology, social theories and the genome project, we have quickly hijacked each philosophical, sociological or scientific breakthrough to furnish more excuses for our own uncivilised conduct.

My own “note” lurks somewhere in the back of my head, waiting for the moment I’m caught being me, and not being the someone I know I really ought to be:

“To whom it may concern.

Please excuse Marius’ thoughtless borderline racism today; he suffers from the chronic social pressures of his white middleclass background.  Please will you also excuse him from any punishment for cheating on his wife – I’m sure you understand that he is merely a hostage to his selfish genes vying for survival. Lastly, if you catch him picking his nose, please will you excuse him as he is, after all, only a slightly evolved chimpanzee.”

Under Construction

Brain at work.

In the last few years, with advances in electroencephalograph (EEG) scanning, the brain and its workings have become the latest fodder for our universal “note”.  The Scientific American publishes a monthly magazine devoted to the brain, the Science and Self-Help sections of bookshops are bursting with brain books and you can tell when a subject has become truly ubiquitous – there’s a “Rough Guide” to it.

As our understanding of the workings of the “normal” mind, and the chemicals that are released in the face of various stimuli, improve, lawyers – and parents – are armed with an ever more sophisticated arsenal of mitigating and evidential factors.  Today, a murderer influenced by the brain-chemical surges of pre-menstrual tension, despite it being an apparently “natural” part of body function, is not a murderer.  Or, as I may once have explained to the parents of two of my son’s school mates, “He’s not actually an aggressive bully who enjoys sticking smaller boys heads down toilets, he’s suffering from melatonin underproduction and struggling to manage his teenage testosterone spikes.” And I could tell from their contrite gawping that they truly understood that he was just as much a victim as their own precious offspring.

But, if we cannot control the chemicals and processes of our minds and bodies that effect our behaviour, are we actually responsible for anything we do?

At what point might we be forced to recognise that “my” brain, “my” rushes of adrenalin or floods of pheromones, is “me”?  If, when healthy, we can’t or won’t, take responsibility for our own brains – and by association our own minds – then aren’t we in danger of losing our identities, our individuality, ourselves?

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be “why are we looking for excuses?”, but “why do we feel so guilty in the first place?”  Before humanism, we saw evil, or vanity, or stupidity, we did awful or idiotic things, but we had the ultimate “note”, “The devil made me do it.”

Now, although we’re still reaching for excuses, albeit more “scientific” ones – so that we can act like the venal selfish animals that we actually are with some impunity –  the very fact that so many of us are looking for a “note” means we also recognise when we fail to be what we aspire to be: better. We know we need to evolve and evolution requires constant failure to recognise the virtue of success.

Unfortunately, the danger of the “note” will always be if we start to believe it and allow ourselves to stop striving; as Sam did.

Sammy’s parents, concerned for their child, gave in and encouraged Sammy to do the same.  Dyspraxia is, after all, a neurological disorder.  Had they looked deeper at neurological findings, they would have discovered that brains, especially young ones, have a phenomenal ability to “rewire” themselves through familiarity and conditioning.  It’s called “learning” or, if you prefer, “the process of creating new synaptic pathways in the brain”.

It seems counterintuitive to take the punishment, to run the race, to pound through the stinking puddles rather than find an excuse, but tearing up your own “note” might just be the best thing you’ll ever do.

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in

On/Off

Battleship, Earl, Slate, Ash, Dolphin, Overcast, Elephant, Silvery, Smoker’s Lung, it’s easy to forget there used to be innumerable shades of grey. When the Apple Macintosh was launched in 1984 its screen boasted 256 shades of grey. By the time E. L. James’s soft-porn bonkbuster was published, there were only 50 (even if she found a few more for the sequels). Now shades of grey, along with stretched metaphors for subtlety, are so last century.

One of the main causes for the death of our cognitive greyscale was a little invention, also in 1984, of psychiatrist Karen Kempner and dentist Ed Zuckerberg: Little Marky, the Dr Frankenstein of Facebook.

In the early 90s, when Ed bought an Atari 800 to teach his son some BASIC programming, he thought he was ahead of the curve, little realising that the very idea of a curve, with all the continuous subtle gradations of angles it implies, would be an anathema to his kid who found more empathy with the machine. Things are much simpler in computer languages, ultimately, everything is either on or off. Things either are or they are not. It is the Danish distillation: “to be or not to be” – why bother with anything else?

And the political climate that Mark, and our other techno i-dols, grew up in was dominated by Dubya Bush’s rhetoric and the neo-con world view. There was good and there was evil, right and wrong, black and white.

So when the blessed geeks inherited the Earth, maybe it was inevitable that their genius for binary, designing a new world out of ones and zeroes, would end up seeping through everything they made becoming the dominant factor in the way we receive information, process ideas and even think.

My kids claim their constant screens make them more connected than any previous generation, they’re more in-tune with their peers, and the world, than I ever was; limited to a land-line and a tiny circle of geographically local kids. And yet, for all that, all they seem capable of communicating is endless self-contained, unarguable, micro statements and gurning snapchat, emoji aping, poses. The idea that they are both connected and simultaneously disconnected, that the medium both enables and limits and changes and shifts the very multilogue they believe they are having in a million different subtle ways, seems impossible. Either they are connected or they’re not. On/Off.

There is no “conversation” on social media. The intricacies of different rhetorical devices utilised to argue or persuade or flirt or cajole or urge or elicit are lost and the only audible voices are the ones in caps, with the simplest messages. LEAVE, REMAIN, TRUMP IN, TRUMP OUT, LIVE, DIE, WHATEVER.

So do not wonder why our elected representatives seem to have no way of understanding, or feel empowered to work through, a negotiated settlement. For them you either have a deal or no deal. You’re in power or you’re out of power, you’re anti-Semitic or you’re not anti-Semitic. The black and white referendum question allowed no room for subtlety or “third ways” which is presumably why it was originally billed as an advisory straw poll; a fact ignored because it is incomprehensible in the on/off digital binararium we now live in. Even if the switch is 52% off and 48% on, then we’re off. Obvs.

Is it any wonder that we feel we’re living in an age of extremes when extremes are all that are talked about?

And there’s money in extremism. Last month, Channel 4’s Dispatches sent an undercover reporter to work for Facebook and find out how Zuckerberg’s minions decide what is good for the platform to share.

Mark_Zuckerberg – CEO of FaceBookstein

Working as a Content Moderator, the reporter discovered videos of child abuse allowed to stay and being shared thousands of times. Good for Facebook were: eating live animals, beatings from school bullies, disturbing images of self-harm and eating disorders. Racist content and hate speech was flagged to stay; far-right pages supporting Britain First and Tommy Robinson got special protection thanks to their large and rabid followings. Censorship was simply “bad for business”, the reporter’s boss pointed out. What kept people on the site was shocking content and extreme politics, more clicks mean more exposure to advertising and more money for Facebook.

Extremism is in the DNA of social media. When you see something moderately likeable you might read it and forget it, but something repulsive or incredible you’ve got to react, like, share and drive advertising as you do.

Every day we find ourselves needled and prodded to react by our social networks courting controversy. Our knees involuntarily jerk as we decry or promote, like, share, frown and retweet the messages that appear to agree or disagree with the bare surface of our own polarising opinions. We are being lead into extremism by a digital version of a happy slapper, someone who spills their own drink in order to get into fight with you, someone who will inanely insist on the opposite to any orthodoxy as long as it offends and baits clicks. Forget research, forget reasoned argument, forget ethics. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Buzzfeed etc. is mass personal sensationalism, it’s Piers Morgan, it’s blood sports – it’s the Colosseum in ancient Rome – it’s bread and circuses – who would be surprised if it was the decline and fall?

Before global warming, Britain offered a vast array of drab greys, from the soot covered buildings to the smogs and endless overcast rainy skies. We understood our greys. When looking out of a window, rather than at a screen, was still a thing, we understood how to look for the tiniest chink of light in the unvarying gloom. Our dreary environment taught us to interpret all our greys, and gave us the skills to spot the tiniest disparities of brightness that might be trying to shine through; and maybe even appreciate the barely perceptible subtleties of life’s often infinitesimal variations to find some colour within. Socialising, conversation, with all the body language and facial expressions that accompanied it, was multi-layered, complex, alchemical, and nuanced. It took effort and maturity to decipher; everything our spectrumed geeklords found disturbing growing up. Why try to work out the human when you have a machine? And slowly their software and interfaces have eroded all our subtleties, now “we’re all on the spectrum.” It turns out that, far easier than programming machines to interpret humans was making machines to programme humans. Perhaps it’s time to Make Britain Grey Again.

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in

Feedback – Everyone’s a Critic

This short documentary was made based on the original article below and was selected for the Earl’s Court Film Festival 2018

Everyone’s A Critic

No. Literally. Everyone is a critic. Not just personally judgemental, but you, me, we’re all verified published critics, our words heeded by countless others, our opinions disseminated around the world.

“Feedback” used to describe the ear piercing noise made when a microphone got too close to a speaker. Now we’re all squawking, screaming, feedback. Anything we buy, any hotel or tea shoppe we visit, every experience we have, from a hospital appointment to the dog kennel, we’re expected to rate and review. Our digital opinion matters. Soon, you can forget getting a eulogy at your funeral: I’m expecting three and half stars, six likes and a bunch of negative feedback reviews – five of them rated as “helpful”.

Between the penis enlargements and the diet pills, a third of my spam is feedback requests. And the requirement for feedback has mechanised me, I’ve become a human response bot. I’ve applied artificiality to my intelligence and learned to be like a computer – I have a document with a list of stock feedback phrases that I copy and paste to fulfil my social network contract.

“Brilliant eBayer, great communication, thanks.”

“On time, well packaged, delivered safely, many thanks.”

“Stiff for hours, best blue pills I’ve come across [winky face].”

But the question is: why are they asking me? Why don’t they ask someone who actually knows what they’re talking about? Or maybe even someone who gives a f***?

B.B., Before Bezos, “Critic” was an actual, real life, job description. Budding wannabe reviewers worked their way up through journalism, they became trusted as knowledgeable experts in their fields and then they would find inventive and entertaining ways to praise, admonish, suggest improvements and inform readers about what was good or bad in the world. It wasn’t easy: universal ideas of “taste” had to be found, agreed and applied. Mozart’s music was good, William McGonagall’s poetry was bad and nobody bothered to have an opinion about All Trade Adhesive Cloth Duct Tape.

Now, A.B., the duct tape gets four and half stars and 193 people have, apparently, reviewed it on Amazon; it’s received more user insight than my last novel – but then it’s stickier and, I have to accept, a lot more effective at preventing kidnapees from screaming.

Professional critics are hard to find nowadays, mainly because most of them are stuck at home, chained to their laptops, zero-hour minimum-wage contractor drones hired to big up products on online market places. For today’s critic, “Verified Purchaser” is the only expert credential needed because “The people of this country have had enough of experts.”

The most terrifying thing about Gove’s blinkered pro-brexit-despite-all-the-evidence pronouncement is its insight, its awful truth, we really have had enough of experts. I mean obviously we still want them flying our aeroplanes and diagnosing our tumours but bugger their opinions, that’s not democracy.

The reason a national newspaper could get away with calling our judiciary “The enemies of the people” (Daily Mail 4 Nov 2016) is because, since the advent of online consumerism, we have accepted that the only valid judgement is by the people. Not twelve peers good and true, but hundreds, thousands, even millions, and the only criteria for their judgement to be counted is being in a wealth and age bracket that puts them online. We have become conditioned to populist ideology through the relentless drive of giant online retailers desperate to sell stuff. Even satire, the biting funny bone of personal criticism, has been overwhelmed by the internet meme. Produced, shared and adapted by hundreds of thousands of anonymous photo-shop users, they’ve collectively elevated the idea of the repeated joke ad infinitum et absurdum.

Now we numbly accept that judgement must be crowdsourced, despite the well-worn fallacy: “faeces is good because a billion flies can’t be wrong.” But we should probably be asking, is it really “the wisdom of crowds”? Or is it a “mob mentality”?

Look at what really happens when we face this democratisation of opinion; now that we’re forced to try and understand value and worth from the massed judgements of equally ignorant amateurs.

Booking a holiday? Want to know if you’ll love the place you’re going? Go on Trip Advisor of course. This is why your heart sinks when you think about it. Because you know that now you’re going to have to painstakingly trawl through hundreds of reviews paying attention to what’s being said but, at the same time, trying to assess the character of each reviewer from their digital signature. With a Sherlockian eye to human psychology you must review each reviewer: who is holding a grudge, who brought the rose-tinted specs, who is petty minded, who is OCD about bathroom sanitation, who got a freebie, who was “a bit menstrual”, who was paid, who got laid and who just wanted to get their review read, their opinion, and experience verified, who’s hungry for the approval of other users?

Forming judgements by aggregating judgements is exhausting, time consuming and usually self defeating. Eventually you just shrug and book anyway based on the price, location and photos.

No one, however well read, or experienced, or educated in the nuances of a thing being reviewed, has a voice any louder than anyone else’s. In fact the loudest voices are the ones that game the system, who know how the machine works, who sock puppet and put the work in rating their own opinions to feature higher on the site. So now we need to search through the 193 Duct Tape reviews to see if we can find someone, anyone, who thinks a bit like us, who might fit the voice of our own echo chamber or, failing that, someone who might have had a duct that actually needed taping.

One day we may look back and realise that “Critic” was the first non-manual job to be entirely wiped out by computers. Not by artificial intelligence, but by the hive mind. And yet, even though we may have had to start thinking like machines to get our judgements heard, programmed by the system to be opinionbots, the critic, however inexpert or unpaid, may also be the last human voice to succumb to the singularity.

Alan Turing proposed that a human might judge Artificial Intelligence successful when he or she fails to tell the difference between a computer’s response and a human one. The flaw though, was not in his understanding of computers, but of humans. The human urge to judge and be critical and superior, would never allow us to admit a failure in our judgement, we love the sound of our own voices too much. So it’ll be our voices, our vicious little opinions and petty judgements, which will be the very last thing the robots wrest from our dead larynxes.

IMHO

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in

Let me demonstrate

At times it’s a struggle to keep up with modern Middle Class DOs: smile at minorities; encourage your daughter to date one, not just for the inclusivity points but she’ll “get it out of her system”; moderate your voice even when speaking to people who voted Brexit; confidently bypass the Quinoa and Kale sections in Waitrose because you’re ahead of the curve and on to Cassava; counter bigotry by bravely using the awkward silence or the slight nod and a “I hear what you’re saying,”– convince yourself this has nothing to do with saving a claim on your BUPA insurance from getting into a fight but because you’re passionate about free speech; oh and remember to follow a handful of right and left wing nutters with deplorable views on Twitter to keep your ‘bubble’ in check.

Virtue has its benefits; which has long been the argument against the possibility of true altruism – but does that mean you shouldn’t try?

To practitioners of the art of MiddleClassdom, it’s all just riffing on good old-fashioned Anglican-style pragmatic tolerance. But the Right call it “virtue signalling,” (as if virtue becomes a vice when it’s shown) the Left call it “bourgeois” (which in itself, using the French, seems tres bourgeois), while both see it as self-satisfied dissembling that perpetuates neoliberal elitism and economic inequality. In other words, they hate it.

One thing being Middle Class will have, up until now, excluded you from, is demoes, political rallies or protest marches. Why? Because being Middle Class also places you, give or take a little wriggle left or right, bang in a centrist political milieu which is ever the resting ground between the swings. Political isms come and go but in the end there’s always pragmatism waiting patiently to bury them. So who goes on demoes to support the orthodoxy? Aren’t they just a catharsis for the marginalised?

Demonstrations are a complex meme. They are at once, for the protestor, an acknowledgement that democracy isn’t working, and at the very same time, for the onlooker, a confirmation that it is; free speech being as central to democracy as the freedom to ignore it. A march on Downing Street always seemed to me, like golf to Mark Twain, “a good walk spoiled.”

But amassing in protest is, according to current bestselling Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, one of humanities finest achievements. “One on one, even ten on ten,” he writes, “we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Significant differences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we reach 1,000–2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding. If you tried to bunch together thousands of chimpanzees into Tiananmen Square … the result would be pandemonium. By contrast, Sapiens regularly gather by the thousands in such places.”

A few protest rallies through history have become the tinderboxes for revolutions, but most of the time the officials in power barely twitch their curtains to gaze out at the rabble shouting slogans at the walls. The protest can be ignored because it’s not the ballot box. That’s where the sensible Middle Class lodge their displeasure before turning on the Archers on Radio 4.

Corbyn’s Momentum movement takes pride in its ability to assemble a horde whenever their leader is challenged. Right-wing activists are no less capable. Within hours of the Islam-antagonistic, English Defence League founder, Tommy Robinson being arrested a couple of weeks ago, a vast crowd of right wing protestors had mobilised and blocked Whitehall. They knew the ropes, they knew what would get noticed, they knew how to push the media’s buttons. Of course that didn’t stop Robinson getting a 13 month sentence, handed down by one of the Daily Mail’s “Enemies of the People,” AKA a judge. Even so, by then his supporters, as marginal as they might appear, had marshalled the internet to create an international pressure group with Change.org, hosting a petition to free Robinson, scoring half a million votes within days. Protest today is a 21st Century fusion of high tech crowd sourcing and good old-fashioned boots – hob-nailed or steel toe-capped – on the ground.

Pity then the poor moderate centrists who have no experience, or history, of protest; they’ve never had a reason to raise a mob, to march or storm the gates. But with Brextremists both in power and in opposition, centrists are realising that they need to learn. Fast. They have already been marginalised to such an extent the cool young left feel justified coining the shame name: “Centrist Dad”. Which means if you still believe in a middle ground, reasonable compromise or liberal values you’re basically old, in line for a hip replacement (and they know about hip) and way behind the times. You probably remember D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better and the Blair ‘third way’ with nostalgia; basically YOU, you moderate, you Middle Class, middle of the road, middle muddler, with your university degree and holidays abroad, you are the minority now… you just haven’t realised it yet.

And they’re not entirely wrong. The middle class meme is a late comer to human evolution, only really gathering strength in the 14th century, born out of the Black Death. With the sudden shortage of workers, peasant plague survivors began to take control of the economy, the feudal barons and kings could only watch as a merchant class emerged and prospered. Capitalism nurtured an ever-expanding band of people who neither worked the land nor entirely owned it. By 2011 71% of the country defined themselves as Middle Class. But in the last seven years, Austerity has taken its toll. Yesterday’s aspiring are, today, perspiring again, dragged back into working, or benefits, class survival. The “squeezed middle” has got ever tinier as the belt has inexorably tightened.

June 23rd 2018 saw a March for a ‘People’s Vote’, 100,000 people or more requesting a referendum on the final Brexit deal. Even the demand was pathetically reasonable: not a demand to stay in the EU, no full capitulation of a failing Brexit-frozen government, just a jolly practical, inclusive, ‘People’s Vote’ on whether the Brexit terms are actually a good idea or not. Veteran protestors from left to right, from Animal Rights activists to Poll Tax rioters, could only sit back and laugh into their balaclavas as these finally fired up, finally spurred, finally angry, moderate liberal (small L) centrist nouveau protestors, with only the sketchiest idea of how it’s done, marched on Parliament. How does one find one’s way from the prosciutto counter at Waitrose to the frontline of a mass protest? Do the Molotov cocktails require Maraschino Cherries? Is one’s Smythson A2 card rigid enough for a placard?

And yet they came out on that Saturday afternoon, feeling a bit Pankhurst or Ghandi, railing against both a Government and an Opposition that nearly all of them voted for, one way or the other, in the last election. And, although these new naïfs to the world of protest represented 48% of the country; and by most recent polls in this failing Brexit environment, a lot more, as far as protesting went, these rally virgins who could only presume ‘kettling’ refers to whose turn it is to make the tea, were given a soft ride. Police kept a pro-brexit rally of a few hundred stoked people half a mile away. One elderly vicar I met on the march, a veteren of Anti-vietnam and poll-tax marches was saddened by the lack of conflict. “It’s important,” he said, “it’s how you get noticed. It shows how passionate we are.”

We’ve come a long way for people to have to protest for some common sense, some moderation, some centrist middle of the road rationality. But finally we’re starting to make our voice heard – at a moderate volume of course.

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in

shortlink: https://wp.me/p1NVro-T6