Huggin’ Joe

From the early 19th Century to the end of the 20th, the sure-fire way to make Britons feel awkward was to embrace them. Much hilarity was had by Europeans feeling us assume a living rigor mortis the moment they put their arms around us. Like headlamp-hypnotised rabbits we would freeze in the confusion of emotions not knowing the correct form, feeling let down by a lack of protocols for the situation and, of course, a strange feeling inside that it actually feels quite nice.

Embrasse moi!” says the open armed Breton to which the buttoned up emotionally repressed stiff-upper-lipped Briton can only reply, “I think you’ll find its pronounced ‘Embarrass Moi.’

The hug is a prehistoric meme, a socially constructed behaviour passed down through generations, altering as society changes. The physical drawing of someone close to you was always a demonstration of trust. “I will share your germs as if you are one of my family.” And, if someone wanted to stab you in the back, you were giving them every opportunity.

After the Industrial Revolution it became a victim of society’s neediness for social boundaries and to codify public behaviour; apparently to give the aristocracy a condescending laugh and a way to distinguish the nouveaux who, without the studied knowledge of etiquette, would never be allowed into the true upper classes despite their brass. Hugging was something filthy, or worse, foreign, while the polite bow or the slightest touch of the hand was all that was necessary.

Few will forget the strained attempt David Cameron made to demonstrate caring Conservativism politicising the embrace in his Hug-a-Hoodie campaign. But one of the more delightful things that emerged from the 2020 US election (You, dear reader, have the advantage over me: I write this before, but you’re reading it afterwards) was signs that American genius in political storytelling was not actually dead; all thanks to some hugs.

As the campaigns came to a head, almost all of Joe Biden’s publicity videos, and many photos, showed him hugging or embracing someone. And you just know that, woefully short of popular policy ideas and representing the party that may well have to introduce a hated lockdown and raise taxes, some very smart people got together and asked: “can we just think of a gesture, something we can show our candidate doing that Trump could never do without seeming creepy?” As it turned out, the answer was the same gesture that all of us, the entire Covid-wracked world, are longing to do. Hug. To hold someone we love. Win or lose, Biden’s publicity people hit the right note. Biden hugged the stammering kid while Melania pulled away from Trump’s awkward fondling; and no one could witness Trump kissing Ivanka without remembering his boast that if he weren’t related to her he’d be dating her.

Biden even did a photoshoot for Popular Mechanics which featured a black and white image of him kissing his errant son Hunter. The unfortunate Trump supporter who tweeted the image with the caption: “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?” became in an instant internet meme as thousands reposted with witty ripostes. What father wouldn’t want to be able to kiss their child? At any age. It was almost as if the Biden Campaign had planted these images to bait the right. If so. Genius.

For a country with such a short history, America always seems to be wrestling with its past, including its puritan roots. BC, Before Covid, hugging and kissing as a greeting had been on the rise there, and here, with the millennial generation adopting it far more widely than previous generations. “A measure of how rapidly the ritual is spreading” said a 2009 The New York Times article with almost Salem-like suspicion, “is that some students complain of peer pressure to hug to fit in. And schools from Hillsdale, N.J., to Bend, Ore., wary in a litigious era about sexual harassment or improper touching — or citing hallway clogging and late arrivals to class — have banned hugging or imposed a three-second rule.”

We have no idea to what extent Covid, and our strategies to cope with it, will have long term on community mental health, especially for the young people living through this. Will this create a generation of children who struggle with intimacy as adults? We had already given them phone screens to put up between themselves and others before the virus, and then came the Perspex screens.

And what will we lose if hugging is lost for another generation? A 2015 Carnegie Mellon University  study found people who perceived greater social support were less likely to come down with that coronavirus, the common cold and, they said, the effects of hugging explained 32% of that beneficial effect.

Hugging releases oxytocin, known as “the bonding hormone” because it promotes attachment in relationships, especially prevalent in mothers and their new-born babies. Higher oxytocin levels are associated with lower cardiovascular and sympathetic nervous system reactivity to stress. It’s also found to diminish inflammation following acute stroke and cardiac arrest. A 2005 study of premenopausal women found that those who got more frequent hugs had higher oxytocin levels and lower blood pressure than peers who didn’t get as many hugs.

And yet, I recently attended a meeting, no hugging, no touching, four of us socially distanced, three of us wearing masks. Within a week we had all diagnosed positive for Covid-Sars-2. The effects of the virus were various and not pretty, but far worse was the guilt. I came down first so I’m sure it was me who brought it to the table. So then, when you start to think that just your presence in a room could hurt or even kill, the argument against intimacy becomes compelling. For the moment then we will just have to live with the dream Huggin’ Joe was selling. One day we will be able to throw our arms around other people, draw them close, feel their chest against ours, their hands on our back, their strength, their breath, their physical essence and just not kill them.

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The one thing you need to get rid of right now to become happier, more successful and more attractive.

Gorgeous celebrities swear by getting rid of this one thing. It’s the one thing holding you back from your true potential and the Kardashians (only mentioned here so I can exploit Search Engine Optimisation and use a glamorous photo of Kim) may have never had this one thing in the first place.

Before

But wait, it doesn’t come that easy. Bearing in mind this article will also be online and Google’s mutant algorithms pay for the amount of time you spend reading over-promised clickbait: you’ll have to digest an entire preamble about how I myself became happier, more successful and so devastatingly attractive I actually had to borrow the picture of this guy just to slow down all the proposals so steamy I don’t have to turn the central heating on until at least mid-September.

Sorry. This paragraph will also not tell you “the one thing”. Rather, it will annoyingly tease you to pique your curiosity and keep the suspense going even though, by now, you’re probably thinking “really?” Am I actually going to learn something that will improve my life or is this just trying to sell me something? And that’s great because that’s scepticism. And scepticism is healthy. Right? Well, maybe.

But, by the fourth paragraph you’re in danger of thinking this article’s premise might have been a tad oversold, this is getting a longwinded, and it’s probably not going to be worth the effort. Oh and there was that other article you were going to look at too. So right now I’m going to have to tell you that that “one thing that you need to get rid of” is exactly the same thing that made you give this article just four paragraphs to come up with the goods before looking elsewhere.

Gotcha. Paragraph five, sucker! You’re still here and I still haven’t told you and, honestly, having written this far, I’ve new respect for all the clickbait Medium-style list writers who have to pad their articles rather than just go for:

The two simple things you can do right now to lose weight.

  1. Eat less
  2. Move more

… and be done with it.

But weight isn’t “the one thing” … I mean it’s another thing you could get rid of; driven home, if you were reading this on most online platforms, by the five ads you would have already had to scroll past targeting people eating at their computer screens, feeling unfulfilled and suffering early mid-life crises. You would have had to endure gods, with way better teeth, sharing beautiful food, or sailing under azure skies or, if you had my particular micro-targeted cookies, somebody who’s life has rather dubiously been changed by a food processor.

Ye Gods

But here’s the reward for your endurance, this is the “the one thing”. Buried in some text so you couldn’t just cheat and skip down here. The “one thing you have to get rid of” to improve your life immeasurably, is doubt. Doubt holds you back like a mate in the pub when you’re pretending you’re actually hard enough to take on a pint spiller.

People unplagued by doubts are demonstratively more successful than the rest of us who fret and think twice. Doubt is the real curse of the human condition. Eve plucking the apple wasn’t, as Milton would have it, “Man’s first disobedience”, but just an act of doubt. Don’t eat from the tree of knowledge? Why not? One tiny bit of disbelief and you’re out of Eden. But then disbelief negates God, religion and anything else for which there’s no solid proof and, it seems, is inherently human even if, like teeth, neck muscles and a dread of Mondays, it’s something we develop rather than are born with.

The one thing that characterises the most successful people is a lack of self-doubt; blithely surging forward whilst the rest of us wonder if what we’re doing is good enough.
We develop doubt to question the world and try to work it out. Unfortunately, after questioning the world we start to question ourselves and that blithe assurance of youth becomes the crippling self-doubt of broken dreams.

No Doubt

Even so, just five years ago I would have sung the praises of doubt from the rooftops, even while doubting my footing, a loose tile or the mess I might make if I slipped. Because by questioning the world we protect ourselves from conmen, spivs, bamboozlers and almost anybody on QVC. I was proud of my scepticism, it seemed the perfect answer to the crazinesses that belief can lead you into. In the face of rising religious fundamentalism, desperately trying to remain relevant in a fracturing world where “God” was no longer the most popular answer to “why?”, the end game of the enlightenment, scepticism, was the intelligent antidote to belief. Habeus Corpus – you believe in God/fairies/fate/karma/the 4.20 to Waterloo actually arriving at 4.20? Then show me the proof, bring me the body, step off the platform. Question everything.

But, in a few years, what was the preserve of those keen on intelligent debate has quickly diversified and become attractive to a broader population; fuelled by the plurality of opinions on the internet and “alternative facts”. But these neosceptics are less prepared to understand the limits of the perspective.

Scepticism has been hijacked by dumb people thinking that it makes them look smart. 10,000 of them turned up at Trafalgar Square at the end of August to protest about facemasks because they doubted the existence of Covid-19. They cheered at speeches by conspiracy theorists and a man who believes the world is run by people who are actually lizards. And if you no longer believe the media, or books, or experts, or government, or plausibility well, really, it’s as good a theory as any.

Scepticism was engendered to enable the scientific approach. Doubt, test, evidence, know. And, if you can’t test and find evidence for everything that you encounter in life, trust the sceptics who came before you and did do the tests.

Michael Jackson

So sources become important. If you don’t believe that NASA put a man on the moon or that every one of the thousands of companies that are employed to put satellites into orbit actually use the same model of a rotating orb planet to make your GPS work or deliver your Sky TV; if they are all covering something up and cannot be trusted then, then yes perhaps the earth is flat.

The growing movement of flat earthers exposes everything that’s wrong with neoscepticism because they have a very real answer. “I can see that the earth is flat.” Which means that it’s up to the person who is disagreeing with what you can see with your own eyes to prove that something different is going on. Which is very difficult.

When scepticism was an intellectual stance it was understood that you stand on the shoulders of giants. Trusting your source is not the same as a blind belief. Yes a Christian trusts the source material in the bible. But a sceptic trusts other sceptics who have actually done the research/science and if necessary they can source their research and, if they absolutely need to, repeat the experiment themselves.

But doubt is easy to cast when your audience is emboldened and think they’re smart because they can question. So when Cummings walked into the rose garden, when the Russians started tweeting about Brexit, or Trump, all they had to do was seed a little doubt knowing that there are enough idiots who believe that they are “free thinkers” on social media to do the rest.

The neosceptic delights in challenging any presented fact and offering alternatives however implausible. The loss of faith in the “Mainstream Media” and accountable news sources has turned scepticism, the child of the enlightenment, which should have brought forth a rational world, into a monster that allows Russia, and those in our own Government, to sow discord, disinformation, confusion, and random thinking. And as long as we all disagree with each other we can’t agree to depose them.

The “one thing you need to get rid of” turns out to be the one thing the whole internet connected world could do without: “doubt”. But if faith isn’t the answer, where the hell do we go now?

A version of this article first appeared in


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Only Disconnect

It was a sad day when Hammersmith Bridge closed. I still can’t get over it. And, right now, no one’s allowed under it either.

There’s always a little hiatus between societal change and its impact on our physical world but the symbolism of the closure of Hammersmith Bridge was so obvious, half a world away, The New York Times declared “London’s Bridges Really Are Falling Down.”

After admitting they stole the headline from a small girl’s placard protesting the closure of the bridge, they argued that crumbling Hammersmith, London and Vauxhall Bridges, as well as creaky Tower Bridge getting stuck open a couple of months ago, were apt metaphors “for all the ways the country has changed after a decade of economic austerity, years of political wars over Brexit, and months of lockdown to combat the pandemic”. Since then Wandsworth Bridge has also joined the queue of single lane, worker free, conefests.

But the metaphor goes much deeper. “Building bridges” is, of course, the idiom for peace and understanding; making connections, compromising and appreciating other opinions. But, there is no place for bridge building in an age of outrage and division, of shouty confrontation and discord. The quiet art of tolerance seems as archaic as needlepoint, whittling and dialling phone numbers… with a dial.

My generation saw the loneliness of the world and ached. We created the technology to connect us all together, imagining a borderless world where empathy and understanding would reach out across the globe. We thought that assumptions of the inferiority of others were just irrational xenophobia – once we could reach out and talk to each other as individuals, instead of just being represented by the politicians we elected, class and national differences would dissolve and we would discover that there was “far more that unites us than divides us.” This was the line the optimistic, moderate, Labour MP Jo Cox used in her maiden speech. One year and 11 days later a nationalist Brexit supporter divided her with a knife and a bullet.

Thirty years of the internet and it turns out that other people actually are hell, and our neighbours really are the humongous tossers we always suspected they were. But now we have to see it all the time in posts and tweets and cringe worthy TikTok routines. I can no longer bear witnessing the hourly pontifications of idiots and selfish neo-fascist halfwits, but HM Government and the Trump Administration insist on dominating the TV news. Then on social media they are joined by a chorus of determined Katie Hopkins-lite outragemongers who bristle with indignation at the wearing of masks or the audacity of immigrants trying to paddle across the busiest shipping lane in the world.

Equally, there are any number of right-thinking individuals who cannot bear the liberal, “bed-wetting”, wooly opinions of people like me. We have built bridges to the rest of the world only to discover that we are far more comfortable with our assumptions of superiority than having to accept others as equals. Who would have thought?

So, in what has become an over connected world, we troublesome humans are trying everything we can to disconnect again. Many have secretly welcomed the Covid lockdowns as a time out from having to manage all the idiots in our lives emboldened by having found a community who agree with them, albeit online. Our anger at everyone who cannot think like us is driven by géphyraclasm, the instinct, the need, to demolish bridges.

A bridge too far?

The reason why Hammersmith Bridge will languish for years, or even fall into the tideway, is because it has become a living embodiment of our grave new world of conflict and disconnect. A left-wing council (Hammersmith) unable to afford to fix it and a Transport Authority (TFL) haemorrhaging money in a go-to-work-from-home new order, are unable to convince an adversarial right-wing government to help stump up the cash. And of course they have bigger fish to fry, or are hoping too if their Brexit fishing-rights quota-bartering succeeds, rather than placating a few nice Barnes residents heading north to get to the shops, doctor and work, and a few thousand school kids heading south to get to their schools on foot. Even if that does prevent traffic gridlock, reduce pollution and promote social harmony. Bad will, misunderstandings and a lack of willingness to connect mean London’s second most beautiful bridge is likely to be demolished or simply collapse.

Joseph Bazalgette, Man of iron

Even the bridge’s construction bears metaphors for these ungiving times. Instead of bendy steel, that gives a little as things need to shift, Victorian sewer and tunnel maestro Joseph Bazalgette, engineer of the most magnificent sideburn to handlebar moustache constructions, built Hammersmith Bridge using stiff, unyielding cast iron. Which means that the bridge has not so much expanded and contracted over the years but cracked. And, as Hammersmith Councillor Stephan Cowan pointed out, it means “we would not be given any notice, it wouldn’t bend first then fall, it would just snap.” Another metaphor for the modern mind on social media.

Bazalgette’s bridge replaced an earlier one that, according to Wikipedia “was no longer strong enough to support the weight of heavy traffic”. Back then, a temporary bridge was built while the present one was constructed. So it is not beyond our abilities; only our will.

But Hammersmith Bridge bears a further burden of symbolism. It is London’s only bridge which, crossing from south to north, steps down in prosperity rather than up. Barnes on the south side is a wealthy leafy enclave, much of it owned by two of Britain’s most expensive Day Schools, where there are large villas once popular with BBC executives able to cross the bridge and motor up to White City’s Television Centre in minutes. Hammersmith, on the other hand, is the proud home of a Primark and some of London’s most deprived estates. Where once a bridge stood to bring the two together, now a two hour bus ride is the best that can be done and a mooted ferry service won’t be ready until spring 2021.

A symbol of disconnectedness in a plague time, when connecting with other people is deadly, and when Britain is trying to disconnect from Europe and Scotland from England and an over connected world discovers it is actually more about divisiveness, and we long to disconnect from our screens, Hammersmith Bridge’s current state has one last twist of metaphoric karma. It even reflects the UK’s Brexit attempt to dismantle the Good Friday Agreement. If the bridge does fall, or is taken apart, it will only be finishing the work of both the IRA and the Real IRA which tried, and failed, to blow it up no less than three times. They recognised the publicity value of such a beautiful icon falling into the waves, cutting off the many Irish pubs and homes in Hammersmith from the sound of willow on leather on the green at Barnes.

Few structures carry such a heavy weight of symbolism, as well as traffic trying to avoid Putney to get to the Kingston bypass. But as we disconnect, and our bridges fall, take heart. Perhaps we are like the walker who comes to a river and finds there’s no bridge and it’s too dangerous to swim. She sees a man on the opposite bank and shouts to him. “How do I get to the other side?” The man raises his hand to his mouth to shout back, “You’re on the other side.”

A version of this article first appeared in

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It’s Time to Talk about Stupid

Last week a friend showed me a phone message from his daughter. He asked me, “What does ‘idk’ mean?”

“I don’t know,” I said. He looked at me with despair, “Oh my God, no one does.”

True story. And I assure you it absolutely wasn’t me who was the actual idiot in that story. And I’m definitely not deflecting my own stupidity on to some mystery ‘friend’ because I can’t stand the embarrassment. I mean I’m not stupid. Stupid is always other people or, if in myself, a momentary lapse.

If you think it might be stupid to read an entire article about stupid, think again. Because the way you think about stupid actually underpins your entire worldview.

“Always one” might be an underestimate.

Stupid’s a really simple judgement to make. Almost anyone who annoys you is, clearly, stupid. Most of the people who voted the other way to you, especially if your side lost, they’re verifiably stupid. But there’s nobody self-identifying as stupid, or standing up for stupid people, or campaigning for the rights of the stupid, there’s no country of Stupidia, or belief in the tenets of stupidity or (sorry eugenicists) even verifiable stupid genes. So do stupid people even exist? If they don’t, how come there’s always someone in front of me trying to push the door labelled “PULL”, or parking their car directly over a bay indicator line in the Tesco car park, or ignoring all the signs of a pandemic for weeks resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands? If no one is stupid how come you encounter stupid every day; or every other minute if you happen to use social media?

My First Theory of Stupid, as a liberal minded young man, was that there were no stupid people, just people who, having been denied a decent education, lacked the tools for critical thinking. In this act of arrogance, I managed to be both patronising and, of course, stupid as it meant all those privately educated Upper Class Twit of the Year, Hooray Henrys, couldn’t be idiots; which of course they were.

But then, I believed that anyone could be a Wittgenstein if only they had the right teachers, a loose grasp of grammar and suicidal tendencies. I’d baulk at the use of the S-word bandied around by smart-arse students to describe the majority of people who hadn’t made it to their ivory towers. Yet they had endless proof of stupid: the banality of anything ‘popular’ or ‘commercial’, Noel’s House Party, Beadle’s AboutThe Sun’s vast circulation based on vocabulary for six-year-olds.

Blobgenstein or Mr Witty?

Unable to defend the existence of Mr Blobby, my Second Theory of Stupid was to imagine a continuously fluctuating chain of rational people having stupid moments. Stupid was an ever-changing floating population with no fixed abode, like tourists or drivers for whom, when not touring or driving, there are constantly others to take their place. There’s always a meaningful cohort of stupid, just not always the same people.

And if we all take turns being stupid it’s a great equaliser, we all can be stupid. Except on TV or in the movies, where stupid is massively over represented by men. From Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson to David Brent and Ozzie Osborne stupid bloke role-models are aplenty while the last of the dizzy blondes was spotted sometime back in the 70s when phrases like Dolly-Birds were poptastic. I suppose it’s a small price to pay for being front of the queue in the patriarchy – because all us men certainly have the constitution to roll with constant ridicule and definitely aren’t almost twice as likely to commit suicide as women.

Role Model

I clung to my stupid theory for decades and even justified the Darwin Awards which claimed to celebrate “Evolution in Action” by recognising those who died stupid deaths, improving “our gene pool by removing themselves from it.” So Garry Hoy a Toronto lawyer who thought he should demonstrate the strength of his 24th floor boardroom’s “unbreakable” windows by throwing himself against one, just chose the wrong time to have a stupid moment. And the Texan teenager who decided to play Russian roulette with a semi-automatic, unwittingly changing 6 to 1 odds to 1 to 1, was probably drunk or something.

You are what you see.

Why was I so desperate to deny the existence of stupid people? For the same reason any good liberal denies there are evil people; only ordinary people driven to do bad things through desperation, mental illness or bad experiences. Just saying that someone’s stupid, or evil, is to ignore the whole person. You’re not asking who they are, but what they are. And if there are people who really are just stupid then we’re not all created equal. In which case, could some people really be superior to others? And if there really is a hierarchy of humanity on a scale of stupid/smart, what about other scales based on race or gender or whether you see a blue dress or a gold one? Would it be possible then to assign a value to different people’s lives? And if you could, then eventually, slavery and the holocaust become just societal opinions that were justifiably valid at the time. Like the buffoonery of Boris Johnson, stupid presents itself as a benign and affable joke, but it’s the touch paper which, once lit, blows the whole liberal perspective sky high.

James O’Brien, the LBC talkshow host and author of How to be Right, a handbook for arguing modern liberal politics, ties himself in knots trying not to call anyone stupid. For years he has listened to endless callers who voted for Brexit talking about sunny uplands whilst simultaneously admitting that their own lives will, and have, become poorer and harder under the new regime. But spare your opprobrium, says O’Brien, for the “spivs, charlatans and con-men” who sold honest hardworking people the Brexit dream. “Compassion for the conned, contempt for the conmen.”

I clung on, dear reader but in the last few years my own belief has been swept away by a tsunami of stupid: Love Island, AntiVax, Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Made in Chelsea, the return of Flat–Earthers, President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Faith in Corbyn, the 5G Coronaspreader Conspiracy, Herd Immunity, Barnard Castle Cummings not Goings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, every evening Hancock’s Daft Hour, Covidiots, Face Mask Rebels and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. According to a YouGov poll at the beginning of this month, “One in six Britons would refuse a coronavirus vaccine.”

How could these things be true if there are no permanently stupid people?

Stupid has popped my liberal cherry. It has driven me from other people’s lives more effectively than social distancing. Now I feel like an extremist who counts bodies not lives. Now, if I’m willing to admit that there are, simply, stupid people, there are also people I can define by their greed, or their xenophobia just to dismiss them. People for whom my life is too short to be bothered to look for, or appreciate, their saving graces or all their dimensions, or real characters, or their life stories that might show how they justifiably grew from being wide eyed children, with a sense of right and wrong, in to rabble-rousing would-be tyrants or insidious money hoarders. My desire to understand, appreciate, love even, has been eroded by the never-ending deluge of dumb. There are people now who I’ll simply dismiss as venal, or manipulative. And then there are all those people who buy their snake oil, who recite their empty mantras, who believe their “fake news” and the “alternative facts” and their conspiracies.

Ask yourself.

Who are they? Or is it what are they?

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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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