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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
’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.