La-la-la-la-la-la Land

trumpunfair

I have been around for over half a century. I have lived through politically uncertain times. I have lived through politically unstable regimes. I have always felt fortunate not to have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, as my parents did as young newlyweds, but I have in childhood and adulthood lived through times of war, pestilence, civil unrest, nuclear brinkmanship, unfavourable election results, betrayal, disappointment, fear, anger, riots, rebellions and a deep, deep sense of the futility of resistance. I’ve voted. I’ve demonstrated. I’ve boycotted. I’ve signed petitions. I’ve marched. I’ve woken up to seismic events that have felt fundamentally outside of my control and experienced powerlessness on an existential scale. With the years, I’ve grown used to lies and scandal and incompetence and greed from the political class, and some days I feel as if the hope has been knocked out of me for good. But I’ve never felt as anxious and depressed about the state of geopolitics as I do today. To stick my fingers in my ears and go “la-la-la-la-la-la” is a constant craving. And that’s not like me at all.

trumpug

I wake up every morning with what feels like a rock in my stomach, fearful to log on or turn on the TV. As it happens, this morning, nothing especially bad had happened overnight. President Trump’s National Security Adviser General (retired) Michael T. Flynn, who was forced to retire again after 24 days in the post, is now the subject of a damage limitation exercise designed to blame the leak that exposed his misdemeanours on staff of the outgoing Obama administration. Trump himself has remained uncharacteristically quiet on the issue, perhaps because it reflects so poorly on his choices, or the choices made on his behalf; while counsellor Kellyanne Conway continues to age at a rate of a year a day due to the existential stress of having to constantly lie her way out of a lie.

It’s not just Trump who causes anxiety, with his baby-like disposition and fundamental failure to join the dots between one CAPS LOCK promise/threat and its direct consequences, preferring instead to make a thumbs-up gesture and yell “FAKE NEWS!” at anything that does not please him; it’s the white supremacists he surrounds himself with: predominantly clueless about what it means to take public office and speak oaths but determined to “destroy the state” (Steve Bannon’s words, not mine) from within. I never did understand the Republican desire to be in government and then shrink the government, but I assumed it was a plan based on shrinking its regulatory authority and public spending while keeping the same number of snouts in the trough, except with less of the boring stuff to actually do. It is this boring stuff, I hope, that will eventually bring Trump down – ironically, from within.

trumpug5

The fact that Trump won the presidency but lost the popular vote, just like his nearest antecedent George W. Bush, clearly niggles at him like a tiny woodpecker permanently poised on his ear and tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tapping away at his planet-sized ego. We have never before witnessed a man so ill-suited to presidential office. Criticising anyone about their appearance, or their dress sense, or the state of their face, would be cruel and shallow ordinarily. But, as with Bannon, he wears his dark soul on the outside. (Spicer, Conway, DeVos, Priebus, these are straw people by comparison.) Mocking Trump’s elaborate racetrack of hair, or his incompetently and incompletely applied spray-tan (with those goggle marks making his eyes seem ever more like two squashed figs), is childish, and boring. But when the man beneath that haircut and behind those figs is such a negative, uncontrollable and dangerous force, knowing that he has one of the worst haircuts in the world offers a tiny glimmer of respite from all the damage he may wreak in his first 100 days. (This honeymoon period ends in April. I can’t even imagine that far into the future.)

trumpug3

He won 304 electoral votes, to Hillary Clinton’s 227, and that is a victory. That he mobilised the country’s disaffected is surely without argument. That he did so by not being “a politician”, and by being perceived, thanks to television and banner headlines, as a “successful businessman” (which was “just what this country needed”, we were told time and again by the braying, baseball-capped faithful) is also an empirical fact. In many ways, mainstream politics lost the 2016 US Election. The Democrats certainly lost it as much as the Republicans won it – not least because Trump wasn’t even popular among his own party and Tweeted his way directly to the heart of certain sections of the electorate. Everything about him that I hated while he yelled his way into pole position as the Republican candidate – altogether now: his misogyny, his xenophobia, his vanity, his crudity, his creepiness, his Addams family, his hand gestures – I hate about him still. But an unpredictability  seems to have replaced a predictability, and that’s terrifying. There seems, at present, nothing he can do to put off those he affected to represent, but who, in real life, he’d run down rather than speak to.

trumpug4trumpug4

I was terrified of George W. Bush, too. I knew him to be a dimwit, and a puppet, and unstatesmanlike, and he didn’t know anything about the wider world, which he had rarely visited. (Trump had certainly travelled further before becoming president, but mainly to inspect real estate that would clearly look classier with his name on.) Bush was the pliant, lazy mouthpiece for committed Neocons with far more interest in ideological politics and the New American Century – he did their bidding and went to play golf – and in many ways that was paradise compared to what we’ve ended up with now. It does not bear imagining what Trump would have done if Saudi terrorists had flown two planes into two large towers in New York in 2001.

trumpug2

Actually, I wake up every morning with two large rocks in my stomach. The other has been there longer, since the result of the Brexit referendum. I admit I thought Remain had that one in the bag, and went to bed on the night of June 23 quietly confident that common sense would prevail. I was wrong. I had underestimated people’s hatred of “politicians” and “immigrants”. It’s been a living nightmare ever since, not because of the divisions it has exposed in our society, which were clearly already there, or the fact that I can only see this country turning into an unregulated tax haven with no standing whatsoever in the world and everything bankrolled by China, which is a bit embarrassing for all of us, but because it should never have taken place in the way that it did. A referendum about something as important as the future of the country should never have been winnable by either side by a margin of 1,269,501 votes. Surely – surely! – it should have hinged on a majority of something like 60% at least?

Talking of democracy. The petition calling for Trump to be blocked from enjoying the ego-fluffing privilege of a State Visit, continues to spiral upwards – as I type, it’s at 1,857,318 – but the Government has now stated that it will grant the State Visit, even though it is duty-bound by its own rules to “debate” the petition next week. The words “foregone” and “conclusion” can be joined together in this case. But it has been a simple pleasure to watch the numbers rattle upwards before our very eyes. And a little bit of fun is not much to ask in this dark age.

I have written on my Telly Addict blog about the healing power of Pointless. It may seem trite to regard a daytime quiz show as an antidote to the apocalyptic uncertainty of modern times in the year 2017, but it’s the daily equivalent of a La La Land, and not just Hollywood escapism, but a way to celebrate geniality and general knowledge and fair play, and – hey why not? – the best of being British. Or the best of living in Britain, whatever your background.

I guess part of me must believe that we’ll get through this, whether it’s four years, eight years, or a number somewhere between one and eight, depending on how close to impeachment or a CIA black op Trump sails. Otherwise, I’d be under my duvet right now, rocking back and forth and singing the la-la-la-la song. I’m not. I’m up, and out, and thinking about work and domestic issues and family and films, and tonight’s Pointless. It’s hard to feel proud to be British in 2017, especially with our own conservatives wooing the babyman and doing things with their hands that they would never ordinarily do. Trump has turned our representatives (and sadly, to him, Farage is one) into glad-handing Richard Hammonds to his Jeremy Clarkson, desperate to gain his approval by laughing at his off-colour, racist jokes.

It’s nice to think that the actors and filmmakers who make speeches at awards ceremonies represent us, but they don’t. They represent what the disaffected have been advised to regard as “the metropolitan elite”, which I gather is anyone who lives in a town and reads past the headline in a newspaper. It’s not good enough to exist in a bubble, or an echo chamber – you have to keep an eye on these craven, self-serving, nuance-resistant, unconstitutional monsters; watch Fox News, read Trump’s childlike Tweets, investigate the backstories of his lieutenants; challenge, gainsay, make a withering placard and prove that satire is not dead: MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN; KEEP YOUR TINY HANDS OFF OUR RIGHTS; WE SHALL OVERCOMB; MIKE PENCE LIKES NICKELBACK; GRAB ME BY MY PUSSY I DARE YOU!

They don’t wear white hoods, but they speak directly to those that do, or would do if it weren’t for “snowflake” political correctness. David Bowie got out before all this shit happened. In his name we must overcome. And that starts with getting out of bed in the morning.

 

My indecision is final

corbynhides3

In 2002, I interviewed Michael Moore, a strident, striding leftist, onstage at the National Film Theatre. He inspired me then, and he inspires me still, and you get the sense that he’s born to be in opposition, which suits him fine. His reputation solidified under George W Bush, and seems to be doing the same under Donald J Trump. One of the questions I put to him was about his apparent certainty. I asked him if he ever had any doubts that he was right. He said that if he discovered he was wrong, he’d change his opinion and he’d be right again. It was said lightheartedly but there is something profound about that willingness to be guided by events.

On January 6 last year, I wrote a blog entry on the morning after Jeremy Corbyn’s “revenge reshuffle” (as the rightwing press gleefully dubbed it). He was not yet a year into the job of leading the Labour Party and I was very publicly right behind him. The media was not; it threw up its hands in horror when Corbyn courted what they called “the hard left,” and threatened to cause a “lurch” in that direction. (You always “lurch” to the left; you never skip, or saunter, or waltz.) Kim Howells, a former union man turned Blair loyalist who stood down at the 2010 general election, helpfully described Corbyn’s reshuffled team as “superannuated Trotskyite opportunists” and “lunatics.” But you didn’t have to read the Standard or the Mail to find anti-Corbyn propaganda. Even the Yvette Cooper-supporting Guardian seemed hell-bent on sending him back to the back benches where he belonged. (Like Michael Moore, he seemed perfectly suited to being in opposition – that was his blessing and his curse.) I wrote this:

This was supposed to be the dawning of a new era for British party politics. The idea of a “left-wing” Labour party seemed like an impossible dream before Corbyn’s democratic ascent. It’s still within Labour’s grasp, but they have to stop fighting each other, unite under their leader or fuck off to the back benches. I am a potential Labour voter. I haven’t been one of those since the Bernie Eccelstone/Formula One back-hander and Blair’s pack of lies in October 1997. I can’t be the only one.

I felt that after the embarrassing farrago of Ed Milliband, the second of two consecutive “unelectable” Labour leaders – a description that was technically true, as both he and Gordon Brown had lost general elections – Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate signified hope for the future of the party, and his new style of doing business felt refreshing and honest. New Labour had tried everything else; maybe this “socialism” thing had swung back into fashion and relevance as the Tories tore up the welfare state and prepared the NHS for sale. What better time to have an old-school lefty in a woolly tie with a Lenin hat in charge? I almost considered re-joining the party (I’d last been a member in 1992, and last voted for them in 1997), such was the passion Corbyn seemed to inspire, especially in younger voters, who are literally the future.

Corbynhustings

I reacted violently against the press war on Corbyn, the cheap shots, the Blairite bias, the obsession with his clothes. The alternative to Jeremy Corbyn seemed to be Owen Smith. I clung with perhaps unrealistic optimism to Corbyn’s mandate among the rank and file, the support he had in the unions, and the calamitous failure of those MPs who refused to work with him to field a candidate anyone took seriously enough to vote for. I wanted the Bennite right to shut up and knuckle down to the job in hand. But it was not to be. I wrote this:

He’s too quiet, too reasonable, too low-key – all qualities that should be refreshing in the bellowing Bullingdon that is Parliament, but do him no favours with so many louder voices around him. But I also despair of the Labour party. All we hear about are internecine struggles and knives in backs, petty bickering, negative briefing, unnamed moderates firing shots across their leader’s bows. I’m not sure what the answer is. Take better media advice? You don’t have to join them, but you must occasionally beat them.

Despite a number of reasons to abandon ship, I stuck with him right the way through the leadership contest in September 2016, which he won with 313,209 votes, increasing his share of the vote from 59.5% to 61.8% compared with the result of original 2015 leadership election. He received around 62,000 more votes than in 2015, in fact. What a loser! If Corbyn was “unelectable”, then Owen Smith and Angela Eagle weren’t even electable enough to find out if they were electable or not. Their combined failure to inspire repaired any doubts I had. It was clear that nobody within Labour was better qualified than Corbyn to lead. His enemies had had enough chances. But Brexit made failures of us all. And it finished Corbyn off, I think.

CorbynMarr

Here is the news. I have changed my mind about Jeremy Corbyn. I stuck with him for way longer than most in the approximate vicinity of the Left. I kept defending him in heated arguments when deep inside I knew he was doomed to fail. In the end, I weighed up the facts and the evidence and I did what I knew Michael Moore would have done. I altered my opinion, which had become wrong, and I became right again.

I aired this revelation on Twitter last night, frustrated with Labour’s failure to even lodge a unified protest against the Brexit bill. At the same time I expressed my fond admiration of the noble 47 (out of 167) Labour MPs who voted against triggering Article 50, defying Jeremy Corbyn’s hypocritical three-line whip. For the record, here are the 47 in full. (This list includes Owen Smith, so I have to adjust my opinion of him, too. Try it – it’s liberating.)

brexitrebellabmps

At the same time reassuring any Labour MP who resigned over the issue (stand up, Tulip Siddiq, Jo Stevens) that they could just come back afterwards was a parody of Corbyn’s woolly-tie style. On the one hand, he’s so reasonable he strays into passive-aggression, and on the other, he’s a dictator who seems to be dictated to by his media handlers. Maybe the media made him this way. Maybe he, too, wishes he was back on the back benches. He’s never seemed comfortable walking out of his own front door and discovering that the media outside seems to be interested in him, and he will not trim that climbing plant that always whacks him in the face, but I think a piece of me died when his aides prevented an ITV reporter from asking him a simple, unthreatening question in November. It’s worth watching again.

I wonder if there is an image of Jeremy Corbyn’s downfall more tragic or poignant than the sight of him hiding behind a glass door, claiming to have been “harassed.” I could no longer defend him after that. It was a dick move by him, and by his aggressive, high-minded minders. I had bigger political fish to fry with Brexit and Trump and a world in flames to worry about an old man’s feelings any more.

corbynhides1

I think it’s OK to change your mind. I didn’t like the first episode of period hospital drama The Knick when I saw it, but I returned to it and gave it another go, then changed my mind about it; and I now consider it to be one of the great TV dramas of all time. Someone Tweeted that it was “big of me” to admit I had changed my mind about Jeremy Corbyn, but it isn’t big, it’s just clever.

Oh, and please don’t ask me, “Who’s going to save us now?” If Labour continues to dig its heels in and refuses to form any kind of coalition with the Greens, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and rise from the ashes, it is doomed to fourth place, or worse. I look forward to having my mind changed on this.

Happy holidays

alan

Today is the shortest day of the year. It was the darkest when you woke up, and it will be the darkest when you go to bed. Dark thoughts propagate in the darkness. I give you Alan the black cat, who was behind Door #18 of the Cats Protection advent calendar. No matter what ailed Alan before he was photographed by the charity – malnutrition, abandonment, cruelty – he’s better now. That’s empirical. Hold that thought.

I entered a shop that sells records at the weekend and purchased a CD, Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the band’s sixteenth. It was always intended to be a stripped-back album about death, but the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, during its recording has clearly influenced some of the more improvised lyrics. When I bought it, the woman working behind the counter told me that the staff had put it on the shop’s PA when it was released in September and their manager begged them to take it off, as it was driving customers out of the shop. I can’t stop playing it.

nickcaveskeletontree-com

I had it on my headphones as I walked across Hungerford Bridge at around 7.30am this morning, on the shortest day, when London was a long way into the process of waking up, the sky fading from black to blue. It comforted me, oddly. This has been another year in which the prospect of spending much time in Central London, or indeed in any major city in Europe, has filled me with dread. The likelihood of being gunned down, or blown up, or deliberately run over, seems to be much higher than it has ever seemed before – and I’ve lived in London for 32 years, I ought to be immune to it by now! But … you go about your business – and most of my trips into Central London are for business – and beat those who seek to harm by not thinking about them. Think instead of Alan, and the profound way his life has been changed by kindness.

WordNewWord

Last night was one of the few guaranteed to bring warmth in my “more selective” social calendar: the annual Word Magazine (2003-2012) reunion, valiantly organised by Nige Tassell, who has much further to travel than most, and is someone I might not have met without Word. Numbers have dwindled since the first such gathering in a pub in Islington, but certain troopers tend to form a quorum: David Hepworth, Fraser Lewry, Andrew Harrison, Mark Hodkinson, John Naughton, Caroline Grimshaw, Steve Yates. It was an oasis of something more meaningful that the ubiquitous modern fallback “banter”: stories told, memories shared, a year of professional and personal updates, craft beer, pizza, winter coats, and all within the sound of the old Word offices. I have to venture that last night’s get-together had an almost imperceptible air of mortality about it – much talk of whether or not certain beloved musicians of the post-punk era had turned 60 yet; the sharing of employment anxieties; actual news of ailments. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, of course.

Nobody is about to get out the violins for a bunch of media operatives, mostly self-employed, in their forties and fifties, bemoaning the paucity of opportunities in a business that once thrived on human interaction and having a desk, but is now run from home, and via email, if at all. (John still works for GQ and confirms that there are no shortage of people gainfully employed in the fashion magazine sector, and Radio Times, too, lines a lot of journalists, editors, designers and sub-editors up with lockable drawers and phone extensions in the cause of producing a content-heavy listings magazine, but a lot of the old certainties are falling away elsewhere.) It’s not just manual work that’s being taken over by machines. The machines have been decimating “old media” for years, and with it, the living human beings who once suckled at its colourful teat.

Version 2

I’ve spent a lot of the last two weeks using social media to promote an online auction for Cats Protection, wherein celebrities (and I use that category with caution, as one of them was me) donated customised “paw print” artwork and bids were bid via eBay. The scheme raised a cumulative £1,215 for injured, abandoned, mistreated and poorly cats and kittens: the Alans. (Black cats are a special case, as they are statistically less likely to be rehomed than more colourful cats because it’s harder to read their faces.) I was proud to play my part. The whole thing framed social media in a celestial light. But Twitter and Facebook are increasingly becoming distorted by hate. If 2016 can be said to be characterised by anything, it’s online bile.

lenadtwit

Lena Dunham, a provocative figure with a large audience for someone on HBO, said something inflammatory on her own podcast Women of the Hour on December 15 and the media seem to have discovered it. A fervent supporter of Planned Parenthood (under threat from Trump’s rabid misogynists working under the banner of family values, the sort that meant something under Eisenhower), Dunham said that she had never had an abortion but “wished she had.” Taken in a spirit of understanding and empathy, you can sort of see what she means. But it’s a bit like me saying I wish I’d worked down a Welsh coalmine so that I could more meaningfully offer my solidarity with miners. It sounds silly. And unnecessary. But what she said was that appearing at pro-choice events had implied to some that she, too, had experience of abortion, when in fact she didn’t. She wanted to make this case plain. But in saying she “wished” she’d had an abortion, they courted trouble. And she’s smart enough to know that it would be reported, and likely out of context.

lenadtwit2

Glancing through social media this morning to track the story, and to track the outrage, most of it from women, much of it from anti-abortionists, I was dismayed, as ever, by the crudity of the dialogue. People made abortion jokes against her. They joked that she should have been aborted. They called her sitcom an abortion. They attacked her “clothing choices” (this came from a woman, naturally). They called her a “limousine liberal,” which seems to be the US equivalent of “champagne socialist”, and yes, I can see why. But what is just today’s passing storm of outrage reflects horribly on the state of discourse in the social media age. While some are raising money or awareness, others are calling people they’ve never met and will never meet insulting names. And then running away. (I used to observe this – that it’s like knocking on somebody’s front door and running away – but they don’t always run away any more, emboldened as they are by electoral affirmation.)

There is a lot to be concerned about in the world as it is today, rent asunder by military misadventure, religious extremism and the relentless grinding of humanity’s bones by capitalism. I can barely bring myself to read the newspapers or watch the news. But let’s go back to those cats and kittens. Thanks to Joey Essex and Danny Mac and Elaine Paige, money has been directly raised this Christmas for Cats Protection, an organisation reliant on volunteers and donations, and one among hundreds of equally deserving causes. It’s been another year whose atrocities are the names of the cities in which they were perpetrated: Aleppo, Berlin, Ankara, Brussels, Lahore, Istanbul, each briefly prefixed with the hashtag #PrayFor (tough luck expressing keystroke empathy if you don’t have a God to pray to). A presenter on the nightly Press Preview on Sky News struggles to establish what she keeps calling “the narrative” after the latest carve-up of human life. The “narrative” doesn’t change much from one execution to the next: pissed-off young man seeks to find meaning in a meaningless world using blunt instrument.

alan

’Tis the season to be jolly, but it’s harder than ever this year to block the “other stuff” out. Which is why I return to Alan the cat. He may have no teeth and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, but someone saw him, read his expression amid all that black fur, and took him in. Gather your loved ones around you, whether two-legged, four-legged, three-legged, one-legged or no-legged, and concentrate on what you can do. Unless you work for counter-terrorism, or are harbouring a disaffected young man on a hair trigger, you can’t stop the next terrorist attack, or indeed the next appointment of a women-hating, climate change-denying, Roe Vs. Wade-repealing nutcase to Trump’s cabinet, or the next Daily Express headline howling in the wind about Brexit. But you can be nice to those around you. And those you pass in the street. After all, if Nick Cave can process the unfathomably tragic loss of a 15-year-old son in an accident and turn that tragedy into beautiful music, as he has done, we must cling to the possibility that good can come of bad.

And there are the animals. Be nice to the animals.

 

Would he lie to you?

Some late news just in. There was no cast iron reason for this country to defy the United Nations and invade Iraq on 20 March 2003, shoulder to shoulder ie. behind the United States, and alongside Australia and Poland. (In that initial phase, the USA sent 130,000 troops, the UK 28,000, Australia 2,000, and Poland 194.)  The Iraq Inquiry, better known as the Chilcot Report, revealed to the world the following things that I and millions of others personally knew in our bones in May 2003, and which were basically confirmed by subsequent events: that Saddam Hussein did not pose an “urgent threat” to British interests, that flaky intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was presented with “too much certainty” while its legal justification was “far from satisfactory”, that peaceful alternatives to war had not been fully explored, and that in invading Iraq the UK and the USA had “undermined the authority” of the UN. In short, the whole shit-show ought not to have happened.

Have we who believed Hans Blix and doubted the earnest words of Tony Blair wasted the last 14 years of our lives waiting to find out what we suspected all along? If so, we should be grateful that we had lives to waste; not everybody sucked into the conflict was so lucky. The families of the victims at Hillsborough (many of whom will have also opposed the war) will know this feeling: a combination of relief and fury after so many years being officially dismissed and discounted. No matter what the Dorian Grey painting of Tony Blair says, during those 14 years the world has unarguably become ever more dangerous and less secure, and thousands upon thousands of lives have been lost in the wars waged in the name of “stabilising” a region we – I hate to use that word, but it’s worth rubbing it in – we destabilised. The invasion may not have happened “in our name”, but I remain a citizen of the country that did it. An increasingly ashamed citizen. Many of today’s monsters were forged in the aftermath of the invasion, which, like a post-Brexit economy, nobody had properly planned for. So, rather than go over the coals one more time, or the Chilcot Report in mind-numbing detail, can we just consider the lies?

Nixoncrookgrab

Historians often cite Watergate as a watershed moment when the public “lost faith” in its elected politicians. Certainly, the grotesque televised image of Richard Nixon declaiming in 1973, “I am not a crook” provided a pivot for this apparent awakening (a moment echoed by Bill Clinton’s similarly perjurious public address in 1998: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”). But not only was Nixon not the first dishonest politician, he was not the first dishonest president. They’re all at it. Because power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and, to quote Everything But The Girl, little Hitlers grow up into big Hitlers. The business of running a country, whether it’s as small as Iceland, or as vast as Russia, involves compromise. I guess it has to, like any relationship. In government or junta, commercial and civic interests must be served at the same time. An electorate, or a non-electorate, must be kept onside, for fear of deselection, or coup.

Sometimes, decisions made in the secret corridors of power have life or death consequences. Most of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t handle that. Indeed, the old truism that the very worst kind of people to be politicians are the people who want to be politicians resounds still. Running a country is an insane fantasy that most of us rehearse over breakfast (“If I was in charge … I’d making voting compulsory/ban mobiles in schools/put registration plates on bicycles/remove charity status from public schools/give automatic custodial sentences to internet trolls etc.”). We are currently going through a leadership election that will put someone else in charge of our country, at least one of whom will have been tied to a Leave campaign based on lies or assertions with no basis in fact. Whether she – and it is likely to be a she – is up to the job is only something we can discover by letting her do it. We came dangerously close to having Boris Johnson imposed upon us as our leader, thanks to the boneless leadership of David Cameron. The former is a man priapic on adulation who thought leading a country was his birthright; the latter seemed to treat the job as a sort of wheeze and couldn’t wait to put it behind him. Both are dangerous. Both went to the same schools. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, someone who was in the Bullingdon Club always gets in, right?

EUDaily_Express_2_6_2016

There is talk of a “disconnect” between people and politics. It’s why the inarticulate bully Donald Trump is presumptive Republican nominee when the commentariat dismissed him as a joke. It’s why the mild-mannered Jeremy Corbyn won a mandate from members of the Labour party in the vacuum after Ed Milliband and has since struggled to keep the Teflon-hearted Blarites within the PLP onside. And it’s why the Leave campaign’s parish magazines the Express and Mail were so effective in the peddling of myths. The balance of power now rests in the limbo between what politicians think they know about what ordinary voters know, and what ordinary voters know they know. It’s why we are one piece of paperwork away from leaving the EU after 43 years of growth and that racism has reared its ugly head again in a way not seen since the 70s – a decade which, by the way, wasn’t as good as the music, films or sitcoms made in it. Whether people are racists or simply voters struggling to replace the old certainties like jobs, security and community that have been taken away by successive administrations in hock to the free market and the City, they clearly don’t feel represented. Nor, by the way, do I. (My politics pretty much align with Corbyn’s, a man seemingly too Labour to be allowed to lead the Labour party.)

EUleaveNHS

“Protest vote” is a catch-all phrase, simultaneously stirring and active, and negative and self-isolating. It can mean something passionate and personal: voting for an independent candidate, let’s say, in a local election, or voting Green, as I have done, even though there appears statistically to be no way the candidate can get in. But voting Leave in a zero-sum referendum to show the politicians that you no longer have faith in them is a protest only in theory; in actual fact, it is a vote for uncertainty. A malignant symptom of the current democratic malaise, it led the 51.9%  to opt to leave the EU because they had genuine, concrete reasons for wanting to “take back control” from Europe, the promise they were made by politicians who could barely agree between themselves whether they were pro-Europe or not. I feel sad that many people, with good reason, believed that to “take back control” meant some kind of meaningful independence. The crushing irony is that in “taking back control” from those fabled Brussels bureaucrats, Leave voters “gave control” to the right wing of the Tory party, a party that despises the jobless and the poor, and is dismantling the very state that might look after them.

We’re so jaded we expect lies to be told in election campaigns. And yet, we swallow the lies. That the Tories care about “hardworking families”? That £350m of “our cash” (Johnson, Gove and the rest were clever to make it sound like bureaucrats were picking our pockets) would be given to the NHS? By a party that seeks to privatise the NHS? More lies. That Saddam Hussein could get a chemical weapon to the UK in 45 minutes?

ChilcotWhateverMEMO

Here’s the irony. Tony Blair, who was unfortunate to be given a surname that contains the letters L, I, A and R, seems to think he has been cleared by Chilcot of actually, literally telling a lie to us, while Alistair Campbell is smug about being cleared of “sexing up” the intelligence dossier, but in buttering up the electorate, and Parliament, for war, they implicitly lied from the moment Blair told Bush he was “with him, whatever” in the 28 July, 2002 memo. Thereafter, war was not an option, it was a foregone conclusion, and any speech or comment that Blair made after that date which did not reveal the deal he’d made is in my eyes rendered a lie.

Here’s the killing joke: I think he’s telling the truth when he says that, given the choice, he would invade Iraq all over again.

Honestly.

 

 

Being human

FireAtSeaSamuele

There’s a clear and present danger we’re becoming inured to newsreel footage and images of migrants from as far afield as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Albania, Kosovo and Nigeria squashed into boats, risking death as human contraband in waterways between North Africa and Italy, and Turkey and Greece. It has felt like a weekly, sometimes daily experience for those of us watching: frightened faces, capsizing vessels, the spinning radar of a coast guard ship, life jackets, hoodies, backpacks, helicopters, children, babies, bacofoil blankets, corpses in the surf. Which is why I think the Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi is making such a splash with his latest film Fire At Sea (which, if you’re not fortunate enough to live near an arthouse cinema, is now available to stream on that constant lifeline for cinephiles, Curzon Home Cinema).

I’m not au fait with Rosi’s previous work, but can’t wait to seek it out, if this is how he rolls. Fire At Sea is one of those documentaries that tells its tale not through narration or captioned talking heads (although some participants are clearly being interviewed by Rosi for the camera), but fixed shots of a landscape, or neatly composed glimpses of everyday life, which cumulatively build a bigger picture – or, you might say, a smaller or more intimate picture. It ostensibly presents a free-standing slice of life on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year hoping for a new life in Europe; a rare caption tells us that, unbelievably, 400,000 have passed through in the last 20 years. This is an island with a population of around 6,000, essentially a way-station, and the Italian coast guard is shown diligently and humanely processing what seems to be a constant flow of migrants. But this is not a film about the migrant crisis.

FireAtSeaboys

Rosi is not here to provide answers. He merely presents the facts as he, or his camera, sees them. If anyone is our guide, it’s 12-year-old Samuele, something of a tyke, the son of a fisherman, an artisan of the homemade catapult (with which he and his pal fire stones at cactuses and, we suspect, local birdlife), a proficient mime when it comes to the firing of imaginary assault weapons, and a kid with an old head on young shoulders. We see him explaining his symptoms to a doctor – the doctor, in fact, as the island appears only to have one – and not only does he use his hands and arms to express himself like an Italian man, he even seems to suffer from the hypochondria of a patient six times his age. (The doctor tells him that it’s stress-related, a very grown-up diagnosis. This is the doctor who later confesses his horror at having to cut off the finger of a dead migrant for reasons of later identification.)  You might say that in Samuele, Rosi has discovered “a star”, but again, it’s not about him, or any one person. That our boy seems to lead a relatively self-contained life among the scrub and low trees of his immediate landscape – as far as this film’s viewpoint suggests, utterly untouched by the boatloads of refugees being numbered, photographed and examined by the coast guard – illustrates the potential joy of a simple life.

Although the sheer number of foreign migrants passing through the lens of this film – many are dead, or on the point of death through dehydration – means that we do not get to know them with anything like the same intimacy with which we commune with Samuele’s father, his grandmother, an unnamed diver, the doctor, and a local DJ who plays the song Fire At Sea as a request for a fisherman’s wife – but that, I guess, is the point. The local people are fully integrated into their environment. The fisherman catches a squid (we see it breathe its last on the deck of a boat); the squid is de-inked and chopped into a stew by Samuele’s grandmother; then eaten as a hearty, life-giving meal by a family of three generations. The circle of life. The grandmother, who keeps reminding Samuele he’s still young, asks only for “a little health” when she kisses the heads of her icons of the Virgin Mary and a saint in her spartan bedroom. The people who “belong” on Lampedusa – as opposed to the migrants who fundamentally don’t, but are welcomed, temporarily, with compassion and without argument – do not ask for much. Samuele is happy with a twig from a tree. His father is happy to be home from sea. His grandfather is happy to be served a mid-morning espresso at the kitchen table, gone in one sip. The migrants have little more than the t-shirt on their backs, or the scarves wrapped around their heads, but they are grateful for a sip of water when they are unloaded onto the rescue ship, some of them also potentially breathing their last, like the squid.

FireAtSeadoc

There are a number of especially profound sequences in Fire At Sea, chanced upon by Rosi in the time he spent on the island: one of Samuele literally having to acclimatise himself to life at sea by facing down his seasickness: a creature of the land attempting to adapt to the ocean, in a perhaps cruel echo of the Africans forced off terra firma onto barely seaworthy boats, not to fish to survive, but to survive. In many ways, his options are limited; following in his father’s footsteps is a prescriptive path, and he’s not a natural seafarer (he’s sick over the side of his dad’s boat and turns the colour of paste). The options on Lampedusa are few, and the modern, interconnected world far away (the modernity of the doctor’s Apple monitor jars). This 12-year-old might understandably wish to leave for the mainland one day. He would, indeed, hop on a boat to achieve that. But he will be a willing migrant, not a refugee. It’s not necessarily a revolutionary visual and thematic link to make – refugees coming in, a native heading out – but it’s typical of Rosi’s sense of visual poetry.

FireAtSeaSamueleland

Another profound image is that of Samuele’s lazy eye. Again, it’s an accident that Rosi captured this milestone in a young boy’s life. But when he is prescribed a flesh-coloured eye patch to help “correct” the eye that’s not functioning properly, it’s actually impossible not to read all sorts of subtext into it. Do we, in the comfortable West, view the migrant situation with half an eye? We see the constant news footage – footage nothing like as aesthetically beautiful and patiently composed as Rosi’s, by the way – but do we actually process it? Or does it go by in a blur? Is anyone fooled by the fleshy illlusion of the rubber patch?

Fire At Sea is a film about seeing. Samuele uses his trusty slingshot with the patch fixed to the inside of his new glasses and he misses the target. He must adapt to survive (if we take his weapon as an ancient tool of survival, rather than a toy), but his adaptation is intimate, personal. The adaptation of the North Africans fleeing their country is more profound, and more deadly. Their boy is no toy. They are fleeing the weapons of others.

FireAtSeaposter

I loved this film. Some critics have questioned the balance of its gaze. While Samuele and his family are viewed in close up, we never hear from the migrants, who are presented en masse. But that, I feel, is the point, and a fair point. We see them, exhausted, confused, thirsty and yet relieved, being photographed by the Italian coast guard (all wearing masks and gloves for fear of infection, which makes them anonymous), and each migrant is assigned a number, which is held next to their head in the photo for identification. They are a number and yet they are “free” in the sense that they have left a war zone or persecution behind. If this “dehumanises” them, then it is not Rosi who does this, it’s the world. Also, he takes care to include a frankly joyous scene in which African migrants in the concrete yard of a detention centre, awaiting the next stage of transit to what they hope is a better life, play football against a team of Syrians – with, poignantly, two empty water bottles as goalposts. They cheer and shout, united by the international detente of sport. They are free, but they are also locked up. Contradictions fall from the sky.

The image that moved me the most was towards the end, when Samuele goes out hunting by the light of the moon (hunting not for food, but for sport). He seems to lure a tiny young bird by imitating its tweets. But by torchlight, as he gently approaches the bird, he either changes his mind, or he was never hunting it in the first place, and he gently strokes the bird on the head. Humanity is on the doorstep. Just look for it.

Your country needs EU

EUDaily_Mail_30_5_2016EUDaily_Mail_28_5_2016EUDaily_Express_30_5_2016EUDaily_Mail_3_6_2016EUDaily_Express_28_5_2016EUDaily_Express_2_6_2016

Nigel Farage, a man who is not even an MP, and whose party only has one MP in the House of Commons, is the most influential politician in Britain. Farage need only sit in a snug bar somewhere on the Kent coast, telling stories of his days as a commodities broker to other members of his golf club over a succession of pints, between now and the EU referendum vote on June 23 and his supreme power will be unabated. He did this.

Welcome to Europe: The Final Countdown. Our dearly beleaguered Prime Minister, David Cameron, sort of accidentally made a manifesto pledge before the general election to hold an EU referendum in this parliament, solely to stop those on the right of the Tory vote from emigrating to UKIP, whose leader continues to be the kind of bloke you’d like to have a pint with, something no Tory can claim to imitate. If ever a man can congratulate himself on undue national and international influence from a position of relative electoral obscurity, it’s Nigel Farage, without even being electable in South Thanet in 2015, where the oast houses have spikes mounted on them to repel parachuting foreign invaders. Farage has forced the Conservatives to hold a referendum that their leader, their chancellor, and 25 members of their 30-member cabinet did not want to hold. Well done, Nigel. Mine’s an imported European lager.

EUCamSky2

And yet opinion across the country – crucially among the tiny percentage of the electorate who will bother to drag their arses out of bed on June 23 to place their democratic cross in one of two boxes and change the future of the country forever – still seems evenly split. In which case, there is a very real chance that this country will vote to leave the European Union after 43 years of membership, in a couple of weeks’ time because of one powerful, elected politician’s fear of another one, whose only mandate is to be a member of the European Parliament he wants not to be a member of with every fibre of his being . The whole thing is a giant pisstake. And the joke’s on us.

EUleavelineup

We have the sitting government, “officially” neutral but no such thing, with its electoral mandate, desperately trying to get the voters of Great Britain and Gibraltar to vote “remain”. (I am a big fan of lettuce, and I wish to vote “Romaine”.) But some rather noisy and famous members of the Tory bloc – including one of the noisiest men in Britain, Boris Johnson; the ghoulish IDS; the one who can’t stop laughing, Michael Gove; the man with a cardboard box full of his belongings ready on his desk, John Whittingdale; grey Chris Grayling; entitled Zac Goldsmith (who has gone mysteriously quiet since throwing the London Mayoral election away by pretending to like Bollywood films when he hasn’t seen one); Liam Fox; Priti Patel; and assorted former Chancellors now in the Lords – are currently, and persuasively, filling their compliant parish magazines ie. the Eurosceptic news media (specifically: the Times, the Telegraph, the Sun, but most pantingly the Mail, the Express) with stories of “CRISIS”, “HARM”, “INVASION” and “EU KILLERS AND RAPISTS”, which work on a very primal level, and have little to do with the “leave” campaign’s refrain, “We want to make our own laws, and not have them made for us by a coterie of cheese-eaters in Brussels.” They have largely to do with fear. Fear of foreigners, specifically Turks and Albanians currently. Fear of invasion. Fear of our “way of life” being threatened by boatloads of Bulgarian pickpockets.

EUflag

A sensible debate needs to occur on immigration, and our role in the current global displacement crisis. But there’s no time to do this properly between now and June 23, which is under three weeks away. And while Cameron fairly sensibly but never passionately states the case, as he did over and over again on Sky’s EU Debate last night to an audience who wouldn’t stop shouting out before the roving mic arrived, that leaving the single market would damage the UK economy (something most economists pretty much agree on in principle), it’s not getting through to those in zero-hours jobs or less-than-zero-hours no-jobs, or indeed those in actual jobs that don’t cover the cost of living (“the working poor” is a phrase that should strike fear into the hearts of all of us). Or people who live on the south coast. One photo of a row of tents battered by the coastal winds on a clifftop in Calais, each one containing at least one Albanian with an eye on the coffee shops of Dymchurch, beats a hundred statements from the Treasury or letters in the Telegraph signed by a slimy coterie of CEOs.

EUvoteremainsigns

Personally, I’d stay in, if only for the employment rights enshrined into European law that the Johnson regime would rip up within days of entering Parliament. I have nothing personal to gain from the EU, but it feels better to be in it than not in it. This country is small-minded and insular enough already, without literally becoming an island. (It was during the dangerous George W Bush years that I really started to believe in Europe as a necessary political counterweight to US neocon insanity – which hasn’t exactly gone away, has it?) I have no love of the financial services industry, or of “big business”, and I certainly have no love of David Cameron and his chums, and as such it feels weird to agree with them on anything, but that’s how I feel in my bones. I despise the Tories. But I actually fear Boris and the “leavers”. And if there’s one thing that seems to be driving this debate, it’s fear.

The king is dead

CincinnatiGorilla

Here are the facts. While his parents weren’t looking, a small boy accidentally fell into the moat of a gorilla enclosure at a zoo. The gorilla showed great interest in the boy, who was conscious. He made as if to protect and guard the boy. Keepers and a member of an ambulance crew entered the enclosure and removed the boy. The gorilla kept its distance. No animals were harmed in the making of this new story.

It happened in 1986, at Jersey Zoo on the Channel Island of the same name, these days rebranded Durrell Wildlife Park after its famous founder, conservationist Gerald Durrell (whose early life was recently dramatised on ITV in The Durrells). I happened to be in Jersey that summer, working on a bursary art project and capturing the holiday island in drawings, photographs and collages. I wasn’t at the zoo on that day – although had been in the course of my research – but it was big news, nationally and internationally. To me it all felt very local, and I painted a picture of the 25-year-old male gorilla Jambo protecting the five-year-old male human, Levan Merritt, which I wish I had access to. With YouTube, social media, citizen journalism and mobile phones still years into the next century, it’s amazing that this potentially dangerous event was captured at all, but it was, thanks to an American with a camcorder from the future. (An American news report has been loaded to YouTube here. It’s quite distressing to watch, as the spectators are powerless to help and the poor boy is clearly in pain and distress from the fall, but Jambo behaves impeccably. A simian babysitter.

GorillaJambo

I don’t  know if it’s just health-and-safety culture, or American fear of litigation or bad publicity in the iPhone age, but things played out very differently at Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday when the exact same thing happened. This time, it was a four-year-old, who also slipped into the moat while his parents weren’t looking and was immediately attended to by Harambe, a 17-year-old silverback gorilla. It’s interesting to compare the Cincinnati phone footage to the Jersey film. In both cases, the ape reacts the same way, with curiosity and an apparent protectiveness. In Cincinnati, onlookers squeal and overreact, as if they’re on America’s Got Talent. In Jersey, in the mid-80s, they remain stoic and calm, and it’s only when the boy starts to cry that his mother becomes hysterical in her helplessness – ironically, the boy’s cries send the gorillas away, leaving the paramedic and keepers to step in. In Cincinnati, of course, the endangered silverback was shot dead.

GorillaDaily_Mirror_30_5_2016

I was captivated by animals as a boy. As such, I was captivated by zoos, where I could see those animals face to face. I was taken to Whipsnade, Woburn Abbey and London Zoo. I loved seeing big cats, elephants and other large African and Indian mammals, especially rhinos and hippos. Their size sent shivers down the spine. I respected the animals, and was in awe of them, and my tiny brain was not sophisticated enough to spot the irony of my awe: I was seeing these beautiful creatures hundreds of miles away from where they lived. They had been caught, kidnapped, incarcerated, imprisoned, enslaved. David Attenborough recently bookended some unearthed colour footage from three 1950s episodes of Zoo Quest, in which he travelled the wild tracking tasty-looking exotica to take back to London Zoo; he described what he was doing as “kidnapping” and felt some shame. I feel the same way about my willing participation as a visitor to zoos.

I understand that zoos now operate fully under the banner of “conservation” and have put their exploitative Victorian pasts behind them, working with charities and other selfless organisations to improve their image. Zoos no longer seem to want to be called zoos; they’re “parks” and “gardens” and “experiences” that “conserve” endangered species. But in doing so, however noble a cause that may seem, they must also put them on display for public pleasure and as gift-shop bait. They breed wild animals in captivity because it keeps the numbers up in a less hospitable natural world. But you’ll never convince me that animals bred away from their natural habitat is a good thing. I was thrilled to see a hippo, close up, in a stinky looking pond at Whipsnade Zoo as a schoolboy. But a hippo shouldn’t have been in Dunstable.

GorillaCincinnati_Zoo

I suspect that everyone who works in a zoo loves animals. You’d have to. I cast no aspersions on the people who work with animals, or even the administrators of zoos. And I make a moral exception for sanctuaries for rescued, orphaned or injured creatures that are sited in the home country of the animals themselves. I just think we ought to move on from zoos as animal theatre. No more dolphin displays, please. No more feeding time. Cincinnati Zoo’s YouTube channel is currently hyping a future attraction, which is a massive enclosure for two hippos. Hippos shouldn’t be in Ohio either. I saw a massive polar bear in the tiny zoo in New York’s Central Park. I could barely believe what I was seeing. “Wrong” doesn’t describe it. Leave them be.

The silverback is an endangered species. As are the eastern gorilla, the mountain gorilla and the western gorilla, threatened by human destruction of their natural habitat, and human commerce around bushmeat. (The Ebola virus also kills gorillas in central Africa.) They face extinction from many quarters. Some might argue that giving them a safe home in a zoo is better than leaving them to the poachers. I say go the source. We’re endangering them. Let’s stop doing that.

Because shooting a blameless gorilla dead in a zoo designed to conserve it may be the saddest irony I have ever heard.