A little over two years ago, I wrote a post in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Emotions ran high on all sides, and I had a personal stake: already locked out of Britain by Theresa May’s hostile environment, I was now to be locked out of Europe too. Even without that, it was a bitter pill to swallow for any supporter of clean food and rivers, of workers’ rights, of peace in Ireland, and for anyone who had seen the obvious and now famous lies for what they were.
Every indication now is that the outcome will be worse than any of the original worst-case scenarios. A conspiracy theorist might even suspect that, for Britain, the debacle that has been the so-called negotiations was never meant to succeed and that the transition to a deregulated tax haven was foreordained.
It was around the time of the Brexit vote that the big cheeses of the US Democrats decided that the presidency was theirs to bestow as a reward for services rendered. It mattered not how repulsive a human being they chose – because come on, who could actually lose to a cartoon fascist like Trump? And as His Orangeness was duly and bigly inaugurated before the Gigantickest Crowd Ever In The Universe (certified alternative fact), did any realisation or humility descend on the vanquished? Ah no, they say, because, you see, we didn’t really lose – Hillary won the popular vote. Did millions of people vote for Deplorable Don because we just left them to get poorer and poorer and poorer and then called them names when they got angry? No, not at all. It was the Russians. The Russians did it all. How? With ads on Facebook. Oh, and Trump is a Russian asset. He’s even met real Russians – what more proof do you need?
Is there no point at all at which these people accept the smallest degree of collective responsibility? It’s easy to ask with regard to America, but how about closer to home? No, it’s because all Leave voters are racist. Yes, every last one. Ah no, wait – it was the Russians! They did this too! Of course – it all fits! The Russians!
Some said at the time that the Remain/Leave divide ran along lines of wealth. Based on what I saw of friends, acquaintance and relatives, it was rather one of education. I know only one educated person (neither wealthy nor poor) who voted Leave, and only two uneducated ones (ditto) who voted Remain. The former I rather suspect of wanting to be ‘down’ with the working classes, and the latter had foreigners in the family. So how was it that the educated half of the country failed so utterly and abysmally to persuade the uneducated half that pushing the economy off a cliff might not be in their best interests? Yes, there was a forty-year campaign of increasingly blatant indoctrination by certain tabloids. But one would have to assume these Brexiteers would not have ritually sacrificed their own children to the spurious gods of sovereignty in a literal Abraham-and-Isaac sense, however many times the papers told them to. So is the supposed authority of the printed word the only reason they trusted the proven liars of the Mail, S*n etc. more than they trusted us?
In hindsight, o fellow Remainers, taking the piss out of them for not being able to punctuate or spell was perhaps not the best way to win trust and influence. Dostoevsky once said that an Englishman would go a thousand miles to civilise a savage in the jungles of Africa but wouldn’t worry his head about the million savages in London. Putting aside the colonial Victorian language and worldview, his point stands. The caps-lock Brexit evangelists who can spell no English words except ‘a’, ‘the’ and their own names are the product of a school system that has been deemed perfectly good enough for the likes of them. Their ignorance, like their poverty, has been approved all the time it has not damaged those more comfortably off, especially while it perpetuates class divides and guarantees the supply of underpaid labour until robots are ready to take over.
Or were they actuated not just by the gutter press but by their own lived experience? Is it the fault of the Russians (any more than of the EU) that one of Europe’s richest countries contains many of its poorest areas? Where lies the collective responsibility for that? The British Medical Journal estimates that Tory austerity policies have now killed more Britons than the Luftwaffe, terrorism and every armed conflict since World War II all combined. The ongoing poverty death count in the world’s #6 economy is the equivalent of a 9/11 every month. For years the ballot box offered little alternative, and then, in 2017 when it finally did, a huge chunk of the electorate voted to keep the party of austerity (having already reelected them in 2015) while another swathe voted for the LibDem enablers of austerity on the promise of a second referendum, now branded the People’s Vote.
(As an aside, these People with a capital P seem happily unconcerned at the precedent of setting aside a democratic vote because it did not produce the ‘correct’ result. Should Remain win 52/48, they will presumably, having spent two years saying that this was not a sufficient majority to justify a major change of national direction, decide that in fact it is. Should irregularities then appear in the finances of the Remain campaign, will the victors demand another rerun? Should Leave win 51/49, will it prove again to be the dastardly Russians?)
When these Europhiles turn out this weekend for their People’s Vote march, one has to wonder: how many of them marched against the ideological culling of the sick and disabled that the UN called ‘a human catastrophe’? How many marched against record homelessness, against 4 million children in poverty? How many marched against endless imperialist war, be it in Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya or Syria? How many of them even marched to save the NHS, probably the most honourable achievement in Britain’s history? How many marched against fracking, against secret courts, against ‘the most extreme surveillance in the history of Western democracy‘? How many marched for Grenfell residents or Skype families or the Windrush generation, against the deportation of completely legal immigrants and even black British citizens? A few, perhaps, but certainly not many.
And that might lead a cynical observer to the unpleasant conclusion that, aside from their pet project of stopping what few outlying pebbles of the avalanche of disaster might just slightly graze them, they basically don’t give a shit. I’m not a betting man but I’d lay a heavy wager that should these people – sorry, People – get their way, the vast majority of them will instantly go back to sleep (or backpacking around the Schengen zone) and blithely consign the poorest third of the population back to the food banks and the zero hour contracts, to more of the same misery and injustice and suffering that brought us here to begin with.
So you can stick your march, and you can stick your People(*terms and conditions apply)’s Vote, because if you truly cared beyond your own self-interest, you would be expending this time and effort on the removal of the so-called government that has wrought all this. Yes, I do realise that Brexit will be somewhere between bad and ruinous. But that’s partly because of the people currently in charge of it. So how about seeing the bigger picture here and trying to help and include people whose need is greater than yours?
The loss of European citizenship will send a bulldozer through certain of my future plans and will adversely affect my children’s social and professional opportunities. But I do not, thank God, have immediate worries about buying dinner tonight or paying the heating bill this winter. In other words, I am not the first priority. And the total self-absorption of many tunnel-vision Remainers, from the careerist politicians down to the disenfranchised hipsters, is barely less ugly than the xenophobia and bigotry that underpinned much of the original Leave campaign. As every parent of multiple children has had cause at some time to say: you two are as bad as each other.
The first World Cup I remember, strictly speaking; but I was five years old and not yet interested in football, so my only memory of it is nagging my dad to let me watch The A-Team on the other channel. (Note to youngsters: a working-class household in 1982 was very much a one-television affair, and you thought you were doing well if it happened to be in colour.)
At least, that’s how I remember it, and quite clearly too, but either Wikipedia is mistaken or I am, because Hannibal, B.A. Baracas & co. apparently didn’t hit the screens till 1983. So on reflection I think it must have been The Fall Guy instead.
Either way, he wasn’t best pleased, but as he got me into that stuff I suppose it was his own fault.
The sun is hot, the goal nets in the Azteca yellow, perms and mullets everywhere, and the shorts never shorter. By the age of nine I have fallen under the spell of the beautiful game. Unfortunately the time difference means most matches take place at night. As with Santa Claus and the tooth fairy in years gone by, kids across the land go to bed hoping that the mysterious nocturnal happenings will end in a positive result. Anybody with a state-of-the-art VHS and a blank cassette can invest half an hour learning to set the timer according to the instruction grimoire, but this arcane rite is a hit-and-miss affair like performing a rain dance or casting a fishing line.
England’s group matches are all beyond bedtime. A 1-0 defeat by Portugal and a goalless draw with Morocco (cue disgust from aforementioned father delivering match reports in the morning) suggested an early return home, but like buses, the goals arrived all together in the final match and Poland were hat-tricked 3-0 by Gary Lineker.
Elsewhere, a USSR team featuring Belanov, Aleinikov and the magnificently moustachioed Rinat Dasayev thrash Hungary 6-0 in the first round but succumb in the second in a 4-3 classic (missed by my sleeping self, alas) to Belgium, the tournament’s surprise package. Mexico bequeath the world Negrete’s bicycle kick (now immortalised by a statue at the stadium) before falling victim to West German penalty efficiency, and in my first experience of a penalty shootout France overcome Brazil. Then, the next day, in the third quarter-final, it happens: England-Argentina, Maradona, the ‘hand of God’. What to say?
“He put that ball in with his hand!”
That was what my dad says anyway, along with the rest of the country, jumping up in his slippers with his half-drunk beer and pointing an accusing finger at the television. (The Tunisian referee and the Bulgarian linesman subsequently blame each other. Maradona has since visited the ref at home in Tunisia and presented his “eternal friend” with an Argentina shirt.) The ‘goal of the century’ follows a few minutes later, and England’s late consolation can’t save them. And there iss the lesson, for football and life: the result is final and without reprieve, however unfair.
I still cheer Argentina to final victory over the machine-like West Germany. Even as late as 1986, the Germans are still the Germans.
Almost every World Cup makes a global star, but not usually a fat 55-year-old. Viiiincerrrrooooooo!
Not the best tournament for goal count, but what colour it has: the trademark hair of Valderrama and Higuita, Cameroon finishing with nine men not only stunning Argentina but kicking them almost literally into the stands, the first football game on 8-bit computers with controllable players in recognisably correct strips, and above all Roger Milla announcing the arrival proper of black Africa.
This time it’s the afternoon fixtures I struggle to catch as English schools don’t break up for the summer till mid-July, but I see most of what matters. After draws with Ireland (Gary Linker scoring an early goal then soiling himself on the pitch) and the Netherlands, a Mark Wright header gives England the group’s only win, 1-0 over Egypt.
With a second round tie against Belgium about to go to penalties, a David Platt volley puts England in the quarter-finals. The Irish join them there but go down fighting against hosts Italy and the never-heard-of-before-the-tournament-and-almost-never-heard-of-again-after-it Toto Schillaci. Cameroon, already conquerors of Argentina, Romania and Colombia, come within eight minutes of knocking out England in the only game my mother has ever sat and watched in entirety (and without once referring to “grown men chasing a ball around”), but two Lineker penalties provide a surprise rescue.
In the first semi-final a dull and defensive Argentina win undeservedly (for the third successive game) on penalties (for the second successive game), breaking every Italian cuore and lending Nessun Dorma a new poignance. Then comes the turn of England and West Germany, and who doesn’t know the rest? Shilton beaten from a free-kick, Lineker’s late equaliser, and then the start of England’s long persecution from the gods of penalties. The Germans are ruthlessly efficient as always, but Stuart Pearce goes down the middle (a new fashion that season) into the keeper’s legs, and Waddle blazes high and wide. We have matched the world’s best team over 120 minutes, but our luck has run out and it’s all over. We’ve never come so close again since.
There’s still the third-place playoff and the final of course, but by then I’m in the middle of a holiday camp in France with no access to a television. I get to the car radio in time for commentary on the trophy presentation. By all accounts I haven’t missed much. Argentina were poor. England would have beaten them.
Meh. No England under Graham Taylor, eliminated in qualifying by the Netherlands and Norway. I miss much of this one too: I’m old enough to set my own bedtime but also an A-level student with exams looming and a first serious girlfriend to force me outdoors.
Ireland beat Italy. Escobar scores an own goal and is shot dead when he gets home. Maradona’s celebration against Greece prepares the world for news of his failed drugs test.
The best moment is unfancied Bulgaria coming from behind to shock the apparently invincible Germans and reach the semis.
The first and only goalless final entertains no one but victorious Brazilians, and when Roberto Baggio misses the last penalty it marks the end of the road for mullets and 80’s perms.
I’m now a university dropout newly arrived in an East End house-share with four lads from Ireland. Ireland haven’t qualified even with the roster expanded to 32, so their team is whoever England are playing. As we sit down to the opening match, one of them tells us he’s bet 2000 pounds at 5-2 on Scotland to draw with Brazil. Assuming he’s broke like us, we think he’s joking until they go down to a late own goal and he shows us the betting slip. We never see him quite the same way again.
Having as yet no gainful employment, I miss England’s first match as I have to trek up Leyton High Road to Walthamstow for an appointment to claim housing benefit. (It doesn’t cover the rent, but without it I won’t eat.) Glenn Hoddle’s men beat Tunisia without me. Next up are Romania led by Gheorge Hagi, who go ahead early in the second half. On 81 minutes an 18-year-old Michael Owen equalises and, as the commentator says, “Only one team are going to win from here.” And only one team do: Romania.
The last group game is won, though, 2-0 against Colombia (Valderrama’s aging mane now yields the hair title to Taribo West’s bright green dread-plaits). Belief is restored, but Argentina await in the knockout. A controversial late penalty meanwhile gives Norway a surprise victory over an already qualified Brazil and eliminates the luckless Scots, who have not seen the finals since.
England-Argentina begins disastrously with David Seaman upending I forget whom and Batistuta scoring from the spot. But enter the fresh-faced hummingbird Michael Owen (not for years yet the drawling irritant who defects to Real Madrid on the cheap and forever tarnishes his Liverpool legacy by joining Manchester United), too fast for man or beast and certainly for Vivas and Ayala. First he wins another penalty to level the scores and then, still only 16 minutes into the game, produces a solo goal of breathtaking speed and skill, the one magical moment in forty years when the impossible actually seems within reach: it’s happening; this team can win the World Cup. The Irishman beside me feels it too and begins swearing, and for a priceless half-hour every England fan is on top of the world. But just before half-time a soft free kick and a well-worked routine makes it 2-2. Still, we have Owen, and they can’t handle him. The second half begins, England still the better team, but then Beckham, hero days before against Colombia, flails a petulant leg at Simeone, who goes down as though it were a meat cleaver. Red card, England down to ten for thirty minutes of normal time plus another thirty of extra. Naturallyit goes to penalties, and naturally England lose.
Argentina fall in the next match to a 90th minute winner from Dennis Bergkamp, but all England bring home is a national pariah who finds comfort in the arms of a Spice Girl. A new name ends up on the trophy as two Zidane headers and a late Petit counter-attack defeat a strangely underwhelming Brazil and send Paris into raptures.
Japan / South Korea 2002
Revenge! For the first and only time in my life, England go to a World Cup and defeat a top team. Beckham as the scorer of the winning penalty has his own personal revenge over Argentina, and I, having bet on 1-0 (I’m now a new father working as an English teacher, and a Chinese student full of his national love of gambling decides to run a book), take my wife to a pizzeria on the winnings. It’s not even England’s first major scalp under our new guru Sven, who already led us to an incredible 5-1 qualifying win in Germany. Yes, we only draw with Sweden and Nigeria in the other group games, and after thrashing Denmark in the second round we face a quarter-final against a stellar Brazil team fronted by the three Rs (Ronaldinho, Rivaldo & Ronaldo) who have barely broken sweat in the competition thus far, but who knows?
It’s a morning game in the UK and I watch the first half over breakfast. Midway through it, the impossible beckons again: Owen seizes on a mistake at the edge of the box and England are ahead. Can it really be? But like four years earlier, we can’t hold out for the half-time whistle and Rivaldo makes it 1-1. The players go off for a drink and Sven’s pep talk, and I run down the road to work. The school have admitted defeat and set up a television in the main hall to avoid a spate of sick calls. As I arrive, Brazil have a free kick but it looks fairly innocuous, 30-35 yards out and just wide of the penalty area. There isn’t even a wall, just the line of bodies on the 18-yard line and David Seaman in the middle of the six-yard box. Ronaldinho steps up with his flowing locks and goofy teeth, and shoots. Seaman flounders like a drunk whose bar stool has been removed, seems to prepare to head it and at last waves a drowning arm. The ball drops inside the far post, he crashes back arse-first into the netting, Brazil celebrate, and all John Motson in the commentary box can do is repeat Ronaldinho’s name. To the vindictive cheers of several Argentine students in front of me – supporting their greatest rivals, no less – England are homeward bound again.
The best entertainment is probably the Portuguese, Italian and Spanish tantrums at being knocked out by South Korea, but that’s about all. Brazil see off Turkey and Germany, still without breaking sweat, and are champions again. It would have been us.
The World Cup is back in Europe and I, now an expat, am back in Blighty for the duration. Sven remains at the helm and the so-called golden generation is at its peak. Paraguay are overcome with an early goal, and Trinidad & Tobago with two late ones, Peter Crouch rising to the occasion: despite spending the first two games being repeatedly penalised and even booked for persistent tallness, he gets away with tugging a defender’s hair as he goes up for the header. A late equaliser is gifted to Sweden in match 3, Michael Owen carried off after only four minutes never to be meaningfully seen again, but England top the group and, despite making rather heavy weather of Ecuador in the second round, advance to a quarter-final with a Scolari-led Portugal side boasting a 100% record plus Luis Figo, Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo, 1-0 conquerors of the Netherlands in a violent four-red-card affair.
There is painful recent history. In the European Championships two years earlier, we faced the same opposition at the same stage, lost a then vital player (Rooney, to injury), and went out on penalties (Beckham famously skying the opener). Surely not again?
With minor variations, yes. It’s 0-0 rather than 2-2 this time, and Rooney gets sent off rather than injured, with major help from a winking Ronaldo, but the end is the same: it goes to penalties (my father, recently out of hospital, goes out to stand in the hall, holding his heart) and England lose. Robbed again and it’s the end for Sven.
Cynical cheats in the eyes of the world, Portugal lose to France and are then thrashed in the third-place match by Germany, appreciation of whose whose football and sportsmanship seems to mark the country’s overdue rehabilitation: the Germans, everyone seems to agree, are all right really. The final goes to penalties too, but the iconic image is Zidane ending his playing career mid-game by headbutting Materazzi. Italy win.
South Africa 2010
After the brief and disastrous Wally With The Brolly, England have a top-level coach again: Fabio Capello, famous for taking no nonsense and just the man to get the best out of our trophyless coddled prima donnas. After blitzing the qualifiers and actually playing quite stylish football, England are well fancied, even by me. Jamie Carragher comes out of international retirement because, as he later admits, he too thinks England might finally win. We even have an easy group: USA, Algeria, Slovenia.
“We won’t win,” says my dad, but he, with neither satellite TV nor the online nous for live streaming, hasn’t watched the qualifying games or friendlies.
We may never know what really happened behind the scenes to create the debacle that unfolded on the pitch. A goalkeeping howler that costs victory against the USA does not explain the direness against Algeria that ends with Rooney swearing into a TV camera because supporters have dared to boo. Then John Terry, stripped of the captaincy for an extramarital affair with a teammate’s wife, tries to reassert his authority in a bizarre press conference criticising the manager’s tactics and team selection. How many times have I heard Russians rant about their overpaid ice-hockey players caring only about their own egos and never about the national team? This is what they mean, and this is what we have come to.
After scraping past Slovenia, England face Germany in the knockout. On current form it will take a miracle to beat them, and the miracle doesn’t come. Yes, Lampard’s wrongly disallowed goal would have made it 2-2 and a different game, but by the end 4-1 is a fair result. The Germans, true to their character and tradition, would rather die than lose. It’s like watching a team of terriers and greyhounds against an opposition of overfed ribboned lapdogs. England? They have other considerations. Even a young Thomas Mueller says afterwards that England ‘came with too many chiefs and not enough Indians’. He’s being diplomatic.
And that – the press conference followed by that dismal humiliation in Bloemfontein (which begins with self-styled ‘big personality’ John Terry watching the ball float over his head for Klose to run in behind and score) – marks the end of my time as an England supporter. It was not – and is not – a complex thought process: if they don’t care, why should I? My imagination can just not stretch to feeling represented by Terry, Rooney, Ashley Cole & co.
And there’s still time for another Englishman to turn in a shocker: Howard Webb, the most over-rated referee in history, allows the Netherlands to wreck the final by playing a combination of gridiron and kung fu. Despite his efforts, Spain finally shake off their tag as perennial bridesmaids and win a victory for football.
The only consolation is that England fell to a potential champion. And in most of our lifetimes, is that not the tradition? The first potential champion encountered in the knockout stage, be it in the second round or semi-final, is the exit door for England. But wait! A man is coming who will change all that.
After due consideration of England’s awfulness, the F.A. masterfully pinpoint the problem: the coach wasn’t English.
After his attempt to turn Liverpool into 1980’s Wimbledon, Roy Hodgson arrives with the backing and recommendation of the thousands of suffering Scousers who sang ‘Hodgson for England’. I watch the finals draw in my Moscow living room with my son: Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica.
I tell him at once, “We’ll lose every game.”
He laughs, thinking I’m a morbid pessimist.
“No we won’t.”
“All right,” I say. “We might just get a 0-0 with Costa Rica.”
In the event, we get a 0-0 with Costa Rica’s reserves. By then it matters little as we are already out after losing to an average Italy side and then to Uruguay.
To backpedal somewhat, the years since the last tournament have changed my views on more than just the team. The media lynching of Luis Suarez, accused of racism by a proven liar who doesn’t even speak the language in question, has been nothing short of disgusting and has freed me forever from any delusions about Britain having a remotely honest or fair press. The whole affair takes on the style of a national purge meeting, and when an FA executive declares in a cringesome apogee of little-Englander arrogance that if the Spanish word for black isn’t offensive in Uruguay (a country innocent of colonialism or slavery and without colour-based prejudice) then it jolly well should be, I am for the first time ashamed to be British. So when the ball drops onto the right foot of the pantomime villain and he smashes into the top corner to make it England 1 Suarez 2, I am quite far from heartbroken. In fact, I laugh and laugh.
Roy Hodgson has defied tradition: for the first time in my World Cup life, England are out in the first round, defeated by two teams of whom neither is capable of winning the trophy. He blazes the trail farther in the Euros two years on when, as Brexiteers smash cafes and shout “Fuck off Europe!”, England are knocked out by Iceland. Again, I am not inconsolable.
A home World Cup! At least, it is if you happen to live an hour from the Luzhniki stadium. And I get tickets for two games there! As I’m going with my son my main concern is avoiding hooligans, so I hope the draw doesn’t give me England or Serbia. I end up seeing Portugal v Morocco (frustrating when sitting among and supporting les Marocains, but good to be part of anyway as it’s cathartic fun booing Ronaldo) and Denmark v France (the worst game I’ve been to in my life, and surely well in the running for worst game anywhere ever).
With Roy Hodgson gone, England are now led by Gareth Southgate, a man best remembered for missing a shootout penalty and managing Middlesbrough to relegation. Our newly anointed captain is Harry Kane, fresh from swearing on his daughter’s life that he scored a goal that several million people have seen him not score, and our tactics are to belt the ball at his big empty noggin and hope for the best. It works against Tunisia, just about, and more comfortably against Panama. Knockout here we come.
The main story, though, is the surprise of western and especially English visitors on discovering that Russia is not in fact the dystopian white North Korea portrayed in the UK press. The BBC, Times, Torygraph, Grauniad et al search desperately for some story of racism, police brutality or pro-Putin hooliganism, but there isn’t any. None whatsoever. By the end, American journalists who probably couldn’t explain offside without googling ‘laws of soccer’ are reduced to trumpeting the fact that all four semi-finalists are in NATO.
And England? Well, you already know. It’s fresh in the memory, the irritating “It’s coming home” followed by the inevitable crash. Ultimately, Southgate’s men did achieve two things: first, they ended the penalty shootout hoodoo; secondly, they broke from Hodgson mode and returned to the tradition, eight years missed, of losing to the first potential champion faced. (That Croatia were real contenders was clear to anyone with eyes after they thrashed Argentina.) Winning the trophy would have given a lift to a lot of people back in Blighty who haven’t had much to cheer for a good while, but it wasn’t to be. On the other hand, the ensuing arrogance might have been insufferable for the next twenty years.
And despite the boredom France and Denmark inflicted on me during my $200 afternoon of sunbathing, this one leaves good memories: the streets full of colour and smiling crowds, the cheers through every window of the neighbourhood when Akinfeev saved Aspas’s penalty, the total abject failure of the US and UK media to politicise the whole event, and the spontaneous camaraderie between locals and visitors that has undone years of warmongering.
It could be the last ‘real’ World Cup for a while. Anyone for winter Qatar…?
Nearly two years ago I wrote this post about a comic novel – a satire on nationalism, warmongering and public gullibility – on which I seemed to have wasted about eighteen months’ work. Not that I doubted the quality of the thing, you understand. The snag was, if you’re a TL:DR type or paranoid about clicking links, an open-and-shut case of plagiarism by the Fates. It’s fine for life to imitate art if you got the art out there in time, but if you didn’t…
I thought that with the basic storyline I’d given myself some breathing room. An ageing and benignly eccentric children’s cartoonist instantly becomes a national hate figure after a broad-daylight killing by a perpetrator dressed as one of his characters, an aristocratic cucumber. The victim turns out to be a North Korean dissident and enemy of sinister dictator Boh Gi Mon, with whom the said cartoonist is, by the reasoning of the media and therefore the public mind, clearly in league.
This was before I’d ever heard of threat-to-national-security Jeremy Corbyn and his fifth columnist army of Trotskyites.
It seems long ago already that Jeremy Corbyn was new to prominence, does it not? Was the world slightly different pre-Brexit and pre-Trump? It wasn’t too different for me to have as my inciting plot incident a false-flag attack on a politically charged figure for the purpose of besmirching a foreign power and drumming up support for the status quo and a possible war. But it apparently was different enough for an expert from inside the publishing business to tell me, twelve months before the Skripals and fifteen before Babchenko, that this was not credible and the ‘reaction to the [killing] is weirdly extreme’. That wasn’t all she objected to. ‘Calling the left-wing enemies Bogeys is a bit too silly for me – there is a children’s TV programme in which the presenters shout that in libraries for a dare.’ Right, cheers. When for the 1587th time she sees anyone dissenting from received opinion being shouted down as a Putinist troll, she may make a connection. Or she may not. Trolls are not the slightest bit silly.
The witch hunt commences, complete with effigy burnings in the towns and patrols by nationalist thugs in green wellies through the countryside, all with the aim of saving Britain from the Bogey peril and from foreign influences in general.
This is from March 18th this year:
Had someone told my grandfathers, when they were heading off to war (I happen to be writing this on the anniversary of D-Day), that in 2018 we’d have Nazis rallying in Hyde Park in a UK where their grandson’s family were not permitted to live (the price of marriage to a foreigner), I wonder if they could have believed they’d be coming home alive and decorated and victorious. I wonder if they’d have bothered. A man who wants to abolish an entire religion is somehow being held up as an icon of and martyr for free speech.
Before I start sounding told-you-so smug, though, there is another angle too, from which the joke is on me:
About two years ago, around the time of the Crimean annexation/referendum (delete according to nationality and/or political sympathies), I found myself, in the course of earning the daily crust, reading pile upon pile of essays from Russian students using again and again the same phrases recycled from Putin speeches and associated state-owned media coverage. No matter what random and apparently apolitical topic had been set as the writing part of an international examination – parent-child relationships, globalised cuisine, types of education, the march of technology, bicycle lanes – there would come sooner or later a reference to ‘our American colleagues’ or just plain ‘enemies’ wishing to ‘weaken our country’.
It wasn’t always from strangers. Against the same background, I also heard the rubber-stamped slogans and sentiments drop from the unwitting lips of acquaintances I had previously considered intelligent and discriminating. Those et tu moments are silently tragic. It’s hard at such times not to imagine the average Jo(achim) Publik of 1930’s Germany and ponder.
Yes, it was Russia that inspired all this. But the above now describes Britain and America every bit as well as Russia. If mass cretinism sounds like an overstatement or conspiracy-theorist paranoia, bear with me and revisit what most of the western public has swallowed regarding the Skripal case. This, I repeat for emphasis, is the official version.
Russia spent many years and vast sums of money secretly developing a chemical agent in contravention of signed agreements. The man over whom they finally decided to blow their cover was not some terrorist leader or enemy head of state, but an old bloke living in Salisbury whom they’d had in one of their own prisons for six years but eventually traded after enough time for all his information to be out of date. The unwritten rule against killing traded spies (as it makes future deals impossible, like shooting a messenger under a white flag) would not matter one jot to a dyed-in-the-wool KGB man like Putin. Neither would the fact that Russia doesn’t gain anything from it except a lot of stink right before the World Cup. No logical motive, you say? He doesn’t need one. He’s mad. A psychopath. Bonkers. Haven’t we told you that enough times?
Only Russia could have developed this chemical agent. That the formula was published in a book years ago is of no significance. That the UK’s chemical weapons facility down the road from Salisbury were able to identify it so quickly does not in any way mean that they must have had a sample to test it against. That the facility in the former USSR that developed such chemical agents was eventually taken over by the US is also irrelevant. Shut up, Putin troll.
There is evidence that Russia is guilty. Scientific evidence does not show this, but there is other (non-scientific) evidence that does. This consists of a discovered copy of ‘The Big Boy’s Book Of KGB Assassination Techniques, As Issued To All Serving Operatives’. Yes, of course a secret service writes all this stuff down in manuals. How else would agents be able to remember how to smear chemicals on a door knob? And no, we’re not going to let you see a photo of it. But of course it exists. Boris said so, so it’s true. Yes, the same Boris who’s been repeatedly fired from jobs for lying, until he got one in government. Nothing to see here, move along. Don’t you have a tinfoil helmet to mend?
The would-be assassin, who must logically have been dressed in a full hazmat suit as protection from the Deadliest Chemical In The Universe, succeeded in arriving in a suburban Salisbury street and smearing a front door handle without attracting attention or even being noticed. Obviously there was no chance of it being washed off by rain because it was much too powerful. (Yes, if you were in the pub with the Skripals that day, just stick your clothes in the laundry and you’ll be fine. That’s different.) And on leaving the house, both Sergei and Yulia Skripal obligingly touched the outside door handle. (You always do that when you and your wife/husband leave home together, right?)
The Deadliest Chemical In The Universe didn’t actually kill anyone. The Skripals are fine. No, they’re not being held prisoner. No one can know where they are, but that’s for their own good. If Sergei isn’t contacting his dying mother, it’s because he doesn’t want to. And Yulia’s cousin being refused a visa to visit her had nothing to do with anything. You’ve been reading too many conspiracy theories. Get off the internet.
All clear? Now shut up and watch Love Island, you unwashed pleb morons, and go back to sleep.
That, I repeat once more, is the official version as presented by the UK Foreign Office. I freely admit that I struggle to compete. But I tried.
‘The Cretin Gene’ is available for pre-order (release date June 23rd – “Independence Day”) from all major ebook retailers.
My wife answered, and thought it was a wrong number or some kind of scam. Either was a natural assumption. If not for elderly relatives, the landline would be long gone as we get con artists of one kind or another calling it most days. They generally claim to be local government agencies charged with reading meters, checking windows or plumbing etc., the idea being that we’ll accept a visit from their appropriately boiler-suited ‘specialist’ and pay him a fee for the performance (double meaning intended) of his ‘service’. One exceptionally determined pest in recent times has even been quite aggressive, shouting and calling back again and again when we hang up on him. (Funnily enough, my answering him alternately in English, French and German didn’t improve his mood. My plans for him, if he continues, include reading him Green Eggs and Ham on a loop – resuming each time from the point reached the last – and putting him ‘on hold’ by abandoning the phone to an intimate embrace in a closed drawer with a device playing Barbie Girl or The Final Countdown.)
But this was different. There was no sales spiel: they just asked for Pcholkin. Sorry, no Pcholkin at this address: standard wrong number routine, not worth another thought. Then they called back the next day and identified themselves as Sovcombank. This was the correct number, they maintained, in their records. It was the one that Pcholkin himself had given. We dismissed them that time, and the next, and the next, in what became an almost daily routine. But unless there were some way of pirating our phone line that required it to be open to them for a certain time, it was hard to see what the scam could be. They didn’t want custom; they didn’t ask for financial or any other information, even our names. They didn’t appear to want anything, in fact – except, of course, Pcholkin. And in that they were grimly single-minded, either unwilling or unable to accept that we didn’t have him. So my young daughter asked Google, or maybe Yandex. Sure enough, a character by the name of Pcholkin had failed to appear in court to answer charges brought by Sovcombank and was now wanted by the authorities.
Who is this Pcholkin, I wondered, who gave my phone number when taking out big loans he had no intention of repaying? Is he laughing into his sleeve when he thinks of me? Could I somehow take appropriate revenge, enrolling him in the Church of Scientology and the My Little Pony Adult Fan Club, subscribing him to every junk newsletter, every Facebook mummy business and every online marketer, every piece of spam on the entire internet, from Nigerian princes to Tupperware? No, in a word. Because how would I find him? The only thing we can say with any confidence about Pcholkin is that his name probably isn’t Pcholkin.
Meanwhile, the calls continued, the duty seemingly rotated between several employees. I began to consider telling them Pcholkin was dead. If asked for details or sources or evidence, I would declare I had personally killed and eaten him. The children were much against this, fearing a visit from the police. Let them come, I said: they can check the names in our passports and, if it pleases them, search under the beds and down in the lavatory cistern for the damned elusive Pcholk-ernel. Maybe then someone will believe he isn’t here. My son took me seriously enough to engage the next Pcholkin-seeker in prolonged and detailed discussion of the case. (His voice has recently broken so she evidently took him seriously enough for a debate.) She explained to him that she could not simply alter a client’s contact details on the word of a stranger over the phone, but the situation could be resolved if I and/or my wife went to their office in person to make an official written declaration that we were not, had never been, and had no knowledge of, Pcholkin – bringing, of course, the requisite evidence.
A Russian idiom refers to absurd bureaucratic document-harvesting as ‘proving you’re not a camel’. The phrase, though, reflects a timeless truism: proving a negative is usually impossible. How often do media and political manipulators exploit exactly this? Let Mr. Corbyn prove he is not a terrorist or a Cold War spy. Let these school shooting survivors prove that they are not being paid by Soros or Putin or King George III to fight against idiotic gun laws. So, in a world where fake passports are comfortably affordable to a man who has defrauded banks, how exactly does one prove that one is not Pcholkin?
And when you get right into it, there’s a philosophical, even a mystical, aspect to this. Ancient Chinese sage Zhuangzi told of how:
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither… conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awoke, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.
More prosaically, a joke from the time of the BSE epidemic in Britain had two cows standing together in a field.
“Bad, innit,” says one, “this Mad Cow thing?”
“Yeah,” says the other. “Just glad I can’t get it.”
“Eh?” says the first. “How’s that then?”
“Well,” says the second, as though stating the obvious, “I’m a giraffe, aren’t I?”
I’ve remembered that joke for a lot of years now as there’s always a missionary atheist somewhere to put me in mind of it, but that’s another matter for another day. The point is: if one were Pcholkin, would one necessarily know it? Am I perchance Pcholkin, dreaming of being Ball?
Alternatively, it could all be a quietly epic practical joke. I remember now those chain letters which, back in the early 1980’s, were a primary school version of a social disease. Would you inflict the accursed things and their obligation on five other unfortunates as instructed, or would you be responsible for breaking the chain and denying countless previous sufferers their place in the Guinness Book of Records? (In my case it was always the latter – mwahahahaha.) Could it be that this now is some cosmic game of tag, where I am indeed ‘Pcholkin’ until I contrive to pass it on to some new unfortunate? If so, you could be on a train or a bus somewhere a few weeks from now and be sitting all unawares opposite a newly crowned Pcholkin: that look in his eyes will be not mere sorrow but existential bewilderment.
It won’t be the easiest thing to achieve. And I’m not going to the criminal lengths of my predecessor. I can use the spam-apocalypse tactics mentioned earlier, but I’ll have to be clever about it. Still, I’m friendly with a few IT lads who will probably lend a hand. The simplest way, I suppose, will be to harvest the emails and IP addresses of potential Pcholkins (or Pcholkiny, if you’re a stickler for linguistic integrity) through social media or a web page. All it needs is some kind of clickbait to lure them in, and by the time they’ve finished reading a thousand words of whimsy about Green Eggs and Ham and Chinese sages and who knows what else, it’ll be too late for them to retreat and they’ll have been entered into the prize draw to be the next Pcholkin.
Thank you for kindly stopping by. I appreciate it more than you know.
My career as a university student of English Literature was, to borrow a phrase, nasty, brutish and short. One of its many lowlights, most of which have slipped from memory, was a week or so of slogging through The Vision of Piers Plowman, a late 14th-century poem of 14000-odd lines attributed to one otherwise obscure William Langland. Though elegant enough in a lesser-Chaucerian way – lesser as it lacks Chaucer’s wit and birdsong and colour – it is, like other long medieval allegories where characters are named as abstract nouns (The Romaunt of the Rose, The Pilgrim’s Progress), a mostly tedious affair.
But there’s a line from it – the one I have used as the title here – that comes much to mind this week. Those living the latter half of that century must have thought the times not just tumultuous but apocalyptic: three epidemics of the Black Death; the great frosts and Biblical storms that destroyed harvests and starved the already miserable serfs; the rising anger across a land whose feudal lords had impoverished its people by lavishing fortunes on needless wars; the Peasant Rebellion (featuring my supposable ancestor John Ball, ‘the mad priest of Kent’) that burnt the Savoy Palace and briefly captured London; Wycliffe not being struck by thunderbolts for attacking the power of the clergy and translating the Gospels into the unholy language of the villeins; and, by way of culmination, the coup that removed and probably murdered an out-of-touch foreign-born (but nonetheless, to the medieval mind, divinely-appointed) king in favour of a native and more populist/nationalist successor – who then spent his entire reign obsessed with foiling assassination plots because the losing side, the side that hadn’t gone for the propaganda harking back to the glory days of military success two generations before, didn’t want to accept that they’d lost and had better just get over it.
Some of this may sound vaguely familiar. Then too, it was a bad time to be poor: on the non-VIP menu, the only pie was the one in the sky. And so to the Vision, where Pacience tells her listener he has no cause to envy what seem to be the lucky ones:
Though men rede of richesse
Right to the worldes ende,
I wiste never renk that riche was,
That when he rekene sholde,
Whan he drogh to his deeth day,
That he ne dredde hym soore,
And that at the rekenyng in arrerage fel
Rather than out of dette.
If your Middle English happens to be a bit rusty, the gist is that she never knew a rich man look forward to meeting his Maker, fearing a bigger bill than he could pay. There, at the rekenyng, the little man’s moment will finally come:
Ther the poore dar plede,
And preve by pure reson,
To have allowance of his lord,
By the lawe he it cleymeth;
Joye, that nevere joye hadde,
Of rightful jugge he asketh…
But every now and again the poore get tired of waiting. Why and to whom should they plead where no rightful jugge can be found? And so you arrive at 1789, 1917, or wherever you please, and, depending on your sympathies, either recoil at the thought of those barbarous times or lapse into romantic daydream. Both courses are dangerously naive.
It has been said that every revolution is impossible till it happens, after which it was always inevitable. World War I came about in part because people thought themselves to have advanced beyond such savagery. In the England of the Black Death, regicide was unimaginable – akin to a kind of national satanism – while just around the corner. The Berlin Wall stood as firm as ever one day before it fell, and that is in living memory. So is 9/11, which, out of the blue, instantly divided history into before and after. Those barbarous times are now.
I have ‘followed’ various anarchist pages on social media. By and large, I like anarchists: they have a healthy scepticism and a sense of humour. I give them my full blessing to seize the means of production and punch all the Nazis they please. But some, especially where they overlap with anti-fascists, have idealised notions of violent insurrection and communism that I’m not in a position to share. Unlike them, I’ve lived – and for a long time now – in a country where it was tried. I’ve seen what it did. There’s no getting away from the fact that it didn’t work. The problem is the people who end up in power. Mao and Pol Pot were medicines far worse than the disease. Even where at least some revolutionaries are true believers, the slightest chance or intrigue afterwards can throw up human detritus like Stalin. However just Wat Tyler’s cause, he was not head-of-state material. Demagogues never are. Look across the Atlantic. And imagine a Britain under, let’s say, Nigel Farage, with a cabinet and new ruling class supplied by UKIP, the EDL, PEGIDA and perhaps the scrapings of a few prisons… Implausible as it sounds, this – patriotism and integrity recognised only in thuggery and ignorance – is very close to what actually happened in Russia (and Germany, come to that, and maybe China too). The Bolsheviks’ murderous ideological stranglehold had much in common, ironically, with the current Islamic State. Luckless millions nevere joye hadde, and no rightful jugge either. (Incidentally, after all the fanfare of the 60th and 70th anniversaries of the World War II victory, I have heard not a peep here about the centenary of 1917…)
So much for that. The relevance? Well, I’ve been telling people for a while that, though I’m no kind of economist, even I can see that we’ve been following a plan basically intent on the restoration of feudalism. They mostly look half amused and half embarrassed on my behalf, as if I’ve announced that the trees are listening or that I’m the step-sister of Napoleon. But we now have five people as wealthy as the poorer half of the world. Last year it was 60-something, six months ago eight. How long till it’s three, two, one? And we have just, in the richest neighbourhood of the city that still gets mapped as the centre of the world, seen a tower block of poor people incinerated because they were not worth the cost of alarms and sprinklers, or even the extra 5000 pounds – out of 10 million supposedly allocated to its renovation – for non-flammable cladding. UK government policies condemned by the UN as violating the human rights of the sick and disabled are estimated to have caused as many as 30,000 preventable deaths, but that occurred well away from television cameras; the horror of Grenfell Tower, though, feels like a 9/11 moment, an iconic image fixed indelibly on the memory. And there’s no blaming it on terrorists or any other bogeymen. It is political, for sure, but in the way that the Hillsborough disaster was political: just as the latter could not have occurred at Wimbledon or Ascot, the Grenfell inferno would have been impossible in housing for the better off. It will go down in the tragic annals of British class struggle along with the Peterloo massacre and all the rest that schools don’t teach. Aristotle said that revolutions are not about trifles, but come from trifles. This is more than a trifle.
I don’t suggest, of course, that the UK is on the brink of armed insurrection. But the now visible combination of righteous anger and instant solidarity across social, ethnic, religious and even most political boundaries is a first in my lifetime. The corporate media’s power as an instrument of control, ever stronger over the last few decades and apparently invincible only last year in the Brexit vote, seems now to have crumbled in a mere few weeks. Their failure to shore up an execrable unelected prime minister devoid alike of humanity or intelligence was already a milestone; the sight of a man walking into a Tesco supermarket in broad daylight, seizing the entire stock of Sun newspapers, tearing them up in the doorway and binning the remains to the cheers and applause of passers-by was one I never quite expected to see. That, though a trifle on the face of it, was an act of revolution. While working as an examiner in spoken language tests, I regularly have to ask teenagers and students about their favourite TV programmes, and more often than not now the answer comes back: “I don’t watch television.” This too, whether or not they mean it as such, is an act of revolution. You can keep out economics from a national curriculum to minimise financial literacy; you can keep out philosophy if the last thing you need is a populace capable of critical thought or of reflection on truth or goodness or power or justice; you can expunge the parts of history that don’t fit your narrative; but ultimately, if people won’t read what you let them read and watch what you let them watch, who’s to assume they’ll think and vote as you require?
Whether a spark of anything non-worldly ever flickers in the head of a Trump or a Rupert Murdoch or a Theresa May is not for us to know, but you would have to imagine that a place where the most a poor man will dare is to plead – and probably think long and hard before that – must be something like their idea of heaven. But plede here is not a synonym of beg: it is a court metaphor, with justice claimed as a right by pure reson and by the lawe. And this lawe is of a kind that no government can repeal.
John F. Kennedy said that those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. Options presently exist for the first way, on both sides of the Atlantic, but Corbyn and Sanders are 68 and 75 with no obvious successors. A people’s movement seems to be making ground in Spain, and there was that French socialist but his name slips my mind and he seems to have disappeared… Anyway, at the time of writing, we have a British prime minister who, by her own admission, can not interact with the British public but must be protected from them by walls of security and hurried under guard into waiting black vehicles like a captured terrorist or a notorious child murderer. It’s no wonder that she wants to make the country ‘a world leader in internet regulation’.
Anyone thinking the current order can continue indefinitely has no grasp of history. Change or upheaval will come one way or another; the hope is to make it positive and peaceful. And for that, the clock may already be ticking.
Type ‘civilisation’ into the search bar of Google and three of the five suggested searches relate to the long-running computer game. The other two are ‘civilisation meaning’ and ‘civilisation definition’. Somebody somewhere has clearly been thinking and wondering, as well they might. Hit the enter key and, putting aside the game and a TV mini-series and a book by a professor of Fine Art, you have the offerings of Wikipedia and two online dictionaries.
Even with accompanying photos of the pyramids and Aristotle, I’m not sure that makes much of a sales pitch. A complex society (i.e., basically, division of labour into specialisations) I’ve nothing against, and to writing systems I’d be the last to object. But I can’t summon much enthusiasm for urban development if what I see from my window is anything to go by, or for an entrenched class system – or ‘social stratification’, to give it the impersonal and geological-sounding term which suggests a process of nature rather than of man. ‘Domination over the natural environment’ has been in the news quite a lot recently:
Here’s a dominated natural environment:
And that would make this the cultural elite:
The two online dictionaries make the whole thing sound a bit more promising:
An advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached.
An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of record-keeping, including writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.
High level of culture, intellectual development – that must be what our advanced governments defend on our behalf with our reluctant but salutary bombs, eliminating alleged threats to ‘our way of life’ without ever specifying what our way of life actually is.
This is all easy enough to say, of course, and to answer. After all, “that’s how the world works”, “it’s always been the same everywhere” et cetera ad nauseam. But before you decide there’s nothing to see here and it’s time to move along, let us for a moment consider some barbarians. Maybe it was not always the same everywhere. The obvious choice would the indigenous Americans (ancestors of those recently attacked by militarised police for trying to defend drinking water from oil), who had no class system and regarded rapacity as a sickness: ‘wetiko’, a sort of spiritual cannibalism unperceived by the sufferer who saw nothing wrong or irrational about enriching himself in ways that made the existence of others impossible or unbearable. The first Europeans to bring them civilisation and ‘our way of life’ had a hell of a time trying to make them comprehend that land was a possession to be dominated and owned, that men were subject by birth to an elaborate grading system, and that women were of no possible function in society beyond the reproductive and ornamental. And the myth of the ‘wild’ and ‘savage’ ‘jungle’ has endured to this day because the ‘civilised’ coloniser mind could not perceive or conceive a sustainably managed ecosystem in any land not flattened and fenced – or, you might say, not dominated. But those peoples have a long-established reputation as some kind of proto-hippies, so that also would be too easy. And it’s not of them that I think whenever I see or hear any of the human offal recently brought to power by ballot-enabled coups on each side of the Atlantic.
So take instead the barbarian of barbarians, a name synonymous with blood and terror and savagery, because every time I see a Michael Gove telling the mob that we’ve “had enough of experts”, or a Theresa May introducing immigration policies that deport and lock out teachers and nurses while letting in princelings and bankers, or Agent Orange trying to abolish healthcare for the poor or to discredit science, I think of Genghis Khan. (The pronunciation, by the way, has been lost in the English spelling: it should be “Chingiz” with a hard ‘ch’.)
When a city fell to his Mongols and the keys were, literally or metaphorically, handed over with the plunder set to begin, he delegated to others all that concerned material riches. The money would be channelled into the sponsorship of trade, and the sumptuous clothes and jewellery would be sent back to the steppe for the amusement and adornment of young girls milking yaks. He took a personal interest in one thing only: experts. Who were the place’s architects, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, teachers, doctors, master builders and so on? Ensuring they were added to the payroll and incorporated into the empire demanded his personal attention. Any self-respecting Mongol could ride and shoot, but civil expertise was also needed and was rewarded when found. The previous rulers, if they had no skill to recommend them, would be detailed as manual labour alongside those who had been menially serving them till the day or the hour before. He was clearly not a Tory. Teachers and doctors, indeed, were exempt from taxation, on the basis that even an idiot would understand you can never have too many of them.
This, be it remembered, was from a man who could not read or write so much as his own name, whose childhood peer group had consisted of horses, who had endured brute slavery and the abduction and rape of his wife, who had killed his half-brother to prevent him marrying his mother, and who only once in his life is recorded as having entered a walled and roofed building. Yet if civilisation really is, to take definition #5 from thefreedictionary.com, ‘intellectual, cultural and moral refinement’, he had a better understanding of it than those currently leading the western world. He was almost certainly the first ruler to promote universal literacy, to demonstrate almost total racial and religious tolerance, and to reject nepotism for a genuine meritocracy. And having as a boy been effectively abandoned to starvation, he knew hunger in its reality: a leader of nomadic cavalry was hardly in a position to set up a welfare state, but for a Mongol to eat in front of another and fail to offer him any was made punishable by death. A touch extreme, perhaps. But in modern Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, where about 1 in 65 people is estimated to be a millionaire, more than half a million others, employed and unemployed alike, are now dependent on charity-run food banks. Would it not seem to any reasonable person that something of fundamental importance has been lost here? After all we are taught from infancy to believe about civilisation (definition #5 above), is it really a position of extremism to suggest that we are now operating at a lower level of it than people eight centuries ago who could not write or spell the word? Its etymological meaning, as a classicist will tell you, is the tendency of people to build and live in cities, and perhaps in the end that is all it means.
The computer game is apparently going strong in its sixth incarnation. About twenty years ago, in days of youth and limitless time, I poured days and nights into the second. I mainly remember the importance of railways for being able to move soldiers around, and the manner of my final victory: having successfully divided up the world with my allies the Chinese (led by Mao Zedong), I then, when the moment was ripe, betrayed them and sent my 16-bit nuclear missiles like sweet silver raindrops to cascade upon their cities. In retrospect, I’d say it should have been called Wetiko II. Sitting Bull and the Sioux were always wiped out in the early stages, and I don’t recall an option to play as Genghis Khan.
It’s fair to say I picked a bad time to dabble in satire.
About two years ago, around the time of the Crimean annexation/referendum (delete according to nationality and/or political sympathies), I found myself, in the course of earning the daily crust, reading pile upon pile of essays from Russian students using again and again the same phrases recycled from Putin speeches and associated state-owned media coverage. No matter what random and apparently apolitical topic had been set as the writing part of an international examination – parent-child relationships, globalised cuisine, types of education, the march of technology, bicycle lanes – there would come sooner or later a reference to ‘our American colleagues’ or just plain ‘enemies’ wishing to ‘weaken our country’.
It wasn’t always from strangers. I heard the same rubber-stamped slogans and sentiments drop from the unwitting lips of acquaintances I had previously thought intelligent and discriminating. Those et tu moments are silently tragic. It’s hard at such times not to imagine the average Jo(achim) Publik of 1930’s Germany and ponder. If people felt the same way about second-hand opinions as they feel about second-hand clothes, the world would be a different place. But they don’t, and it isn’t.
I had recently finished (and published)a triptych of short stories based on The Golden Bough, the humour of one of which set off the unremitting darkness of the other two. That exception had been written with almost no forethought or planning and had come easily, with laughter rather than grind. How nice it would be, I thought, if I could write something longer, a novella for instance, in the same way.
Enter stage far-right the epidemic of cretinism, for that is really how it seemed – an epidemic spread through TV and media, highly infectious, severely damaging to brain function, apparently incurable by any visible means. Surely there was mileage in this, a kind of B-movie zombie-type affair, a Dr. Strangelove for the information age. Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog has always been a personal favourite, so I naturally thought of trying my hand at something of similar dimensions and in a similar spirit.
What could go wrong?
Quite a lot, as it turned out. In three words, I underestimated reality. Or perhaps I overestimated my ability to outrun it, which comes to the same thing.
I thought that with the basic storyline I’d given myself some breathing room. An aging and benignly eccentric children’s cartoonist instantly becomes a national hate figure after a broad-daylight killing by a perpetrator dressed as one of his characters, an aristocratic cucumber. The victim turns out to be a North Korean dissident and enemy of sinister dictator Boh Gi Mon, with whom the said cartoonist is, by the reasoning of the media and therefore the public mind, clearly in league.
This was before I’d ever heard of threat-to-national-security Jeremy Corbyn and his fifth columnist army of Trotskyites.
The witch hunt of the main plotline commences, complete with effigy burnings in the towns and patrols by nationalist thugs in green wellies through the countryside, all with the aim of saving Britain from the Bogey peril and from foreign influences in general.
Then this happened, and suddenly it wasn’t quite so funny.
The story goes on to describe the workings of the cretin epidemic itself, a controlled social experiment whereby the public undergoes unconscious gene mutation by contaminated fast food to create receptivity to mass media mind control. At the bidding of tabloid headlines, the masses are reduced to a state of incoherent jingoistic paranoia and accept all manner of exploitation and warmongering, and cheer on their oppressors for saving them from a non-existent threat.
Then Murdoch & co. said ‘Let there be Brexit’, and that joke went stale too.
There at least remained along the way some incidental comedic value. The zombified victims roam the streets staring fixedly into mobile phones, sending messages to people walking beside them and seeing the world only through their camera apps. As one resistance member tells another, “Don’t look up at the sky or they’ll know you’re not one of them.”
Then came Pokemon Go.
So there you have it: a year and more invested in a novel that I thought was farce but turned out to be realism, whose originality value has depreciated faster than the stocks of the South Sea Company. Just say no to satire. I’ve learned the hard way.
Is there such a thing as meta-satire? Maybe someone could write a novel about it.
In the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge hangs a painting by Victorian artist Ford Madox Brown entitled ‘The Last of England’. A man and wife, crowded aboard a ship on a cold grey sea and battered by driving rain, pointedly refuse to look back at the White Cliffs of Dover disappearing behind them. It is understood that the journey is one-way, and conventional wisdom assumes they are heading for the Brave New World or the other colonies, as had so many. They are middle-class, more or less: though this is no luxury liner, their clothes are too good to belong to anyone driven out by poverty, so this farewell is a choice rather than a necessity. But there is an interesting detail to which I never seen a reference and which, probably, I only noticed because I happen to know first-hand those cliffs and that water. If the emigrants are bound for the Atlantic, the cliffs are on the wrong side. For them to be on the correct one, we must be at the back at the boat and the couple must be looking over the stern. But then ‘The Last of England’ makes no sense because they would still have to sail past the whole of the south coast and eventually leave it behind at Lizard Point and Escalls Cliff in Cornwall, which look nothing like that. But wherever the man and woman are going, one thing is certain: they are looking towards Europe.
But last week, 160 years later, their country voted to do the opposite, to turn away from our neighbours, from our history, from our very DNA, from the source of every civilising influence on our islands. Most of the ‘victorious’ 52% had little or no idea what they were voting on: many of the disregarded and ever-growing poor, wanting to lash out at something or someone, swallowed the obvious lie that a Leave vote was somehow an anti-establishment protest, and have now doomed themselves and their children to more and worse of what they thought they were protesting against; many believed the other part of the lie, and can say with Caliban that The clouds methought would open and show riches; many acted through blatant xenophobia and/or the illusion that they could restore the ‘good old days’ of the 1950’s; some treated it as a bit of a laugh that would not affect the result. I hold no bitterness against those who thought they acted for the best: they were and are, to me at least, more sinned against than sinning. I admit to a certain disappointment with all the youngsters – incredibly, a majority of the 18-24 age group – who did not bother to go and vote when their own future hung in the balance, with the financially secure baby boomers who callously sacrificed their children and grandchildren to a slogan and a plastic flag, and also with the few educated people and ethnic minorities who voted Leave when they really should have known better. And I admit to something stronger than disappointment with the bigots and the political careerists, and with the so-called statesmen whose venality and greed drove the poor to such a pitch of madness and despair. But none of this changes anything. The deed is done, and 60 million people are to throw away citizenship and employment rights in 27 countries while further impoverishing much of their own.
Nabokov wrote of the plight of White Soviet emigres in 1920’s Europe and of the surreal bureaucratic and social nightmare of being a ‘stateless person’. There are between five and six million Brits living abroad, two million of them in the EU, and they probably woke up last Friday morning to the sense of being something similar. I did.
Whether exile comes about through compulsion or choice or something between the two, it is not so easy not to look back at those white cliffs. I know. To adapt a currently popular meme, one does not simply become not English, any more than one simply becomes not European. Being once by good fortune at Leeds Castle in Kent on a quiet day, staring out over the lake at the trees and hills beyond, I had an understanding more total than words can convey of just why so many men had found England worth dying for. “I never imagined there were so many shades of green,” my wife’s university professor once told her, “until I went to England.” I grew up on the North Downs; the countryside is not spectacular in the way of the Grand Canyon or the Niagara Falls or Mount Fuji, but in gentle terms of colour blends and contour and other such things a painter might value, I do not know its equal in the world. Then there is the taste of the air on spring and autumn evenings when the breeze blows in from the sea. So when Kipling in his Christmas in India poem exclaims
‘O the toil that knows no breaking! O the Heimweh, ceaseless, aching!’
I know exactly that feeling because I have lived through it. But time moves on. Ten years ago the line could put a lump in my throat; now, as I record it here, I find myself noting and saluting Kipling’s technical device of avoiding ‘homesickness’, a sonic and rhythmic abomination near impossible to fit into metre, by replacing it with the German Heimweh.
Why, then, after all I have written above, am I so unmoved and dispassionate? Because another part of me says with equal sincerity: fuck England.
‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ More than England, in my case. JFK might say ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’, but his country made him president. Mine has exiled me.
To be absolutely precise about this, it has given me a choice between it and my family. Courtesy of an idiotic and self-defeating immigration policy introduced as a sop thrown to nationalism and bigotry (with the ancillary benefit of excluding probable left-wing voters), non-EU nationals are admitted only with documentary evidence of earning 35,000 pounds per year, about 40% above the national average. Anyone not making that, or even anyone self-employed, is out of luck. Being married to and having children with a British citizen makes no difference. The Brit can come or stay, but his or her family must be forfeited as collateral damage.
Those responsible for this would have you believe it a tough necessity: the entire world, you see, is beating a path to the UK. The isles are sinking under the weight of economic migrants (now apparently a term of abuse, it occurring to no one that a Geordie or Yorkshireman moving down south for work is also an economic migrant). Anyone conniving at the evils of multiculturalism is a traitor, as a cousin of mine was called for not voting Leave. For self-preservation the country must act. ‘Make Britain great again.’ ‘Take Back Control.’ On this the gutter press and the barely-disguised Nazis marching through English high streets speak with one voice. Again and again the mantra is repeated: “My grandfather fought for this country – this is our country.” Well, as it happens, knuckle draggers, my grandfathers fought for it too. My great-grandfather survived Ypres. (I mean of course in physical terms; in mental terms there were no survivors of Ypres.) And in this country of yours for which my relatives fought and suffered, I am by law not permitted to live. As of last week, it has not even been enough that you shut me out of Britain: you have now shut me out of Europe too.
But, considering what is important to me, just how much would I want to return to the Best Country In The WorldTM, dream destination of every last human soul on the entire planet but most especially the brown ones?
Well, for one, my wife is quite important, and she, as I have said, is deemed an undesirable migrant. That she holds a degree in primary school teaching is of no interest or relevance to a country with a drastic shortage of primary school teachers. And the mere fact of her foreignness is clearly a problem anyway for a large part of supposedly cosmopolitan modern Britain.
Then there are my children, both in more or less the middle of school. What does good old Blighty hold for them, now that its main attraction of a free and liberal society is under such attack? Having spent 16 years teaching, I am not stringing mere words together when I say that Britain no longer has an education system: it has merely a school system, which is not at all the same thing. I have quite recently seen several proud parents sharing online their children’s first attempts at writing – comically misspelt names of animals and fruit, if I remember rightly. This would be fine and endearing if they were three or four years old, but the poor kids were eight or nine. I was reading The Lord of the Rings at that age. I was also (at the local village primary school) writing paragraphed, structured stories of maybe 1000 words – and I was not the only one in my class doing so. A national discussion has recently been held with all appearance of seriousness as to whether 11 or 12-year-olds should be able to multiply single-digit numbers. Edwardian children of that age coped with the equivalent of what is now A-Level maths. Several years ago the milestone was reached where more than 50% of 16-year-olds failed to get 5 GCSE’s at grade C or above, already a disgracefully low target. Put bluntly, most of them now leave school semi-literate. I once read, I have no idea where, a comment by an American that ‘My school taught you to stand in a line and answer your name. It basically prepared you for prison.’ Ours prepare you to work in Poundland for Jobseeker’s Allowance. (This state of affairs is generally convenient for the status quo, but the pigeon has come home to roost with tragic irony in the matter of the referendum, when even the government, barring a few shameless chancers, needed a majority of the electorate to exercise the critical thought it had been conditioned not to possess.) And any youngsters bright enough to succeed despite the oversized classes and demoralised teachers then have to decide whether going to university is worth a debt that might saddle them for half their working lives. They had until recently the option of going abroad to the EU for a higher education at an affordable cost, but that is probably now gone.
And what of my own prospects there? I hold a master’s-level teaching qualification that British law does not recognise as a master’s degree because of an illogical technicality, so I would be demoting myself down to the poverty line by going as a supposedly low-skilled and forever mortgage-enslaved worker to a country where the government’s idea of affordable housing is anything under half a million pounds.
But man does not live by bread alone. This, after all, is a country that led the Enlightenment, that stands always as a bastion of individual liberty, that wrote the Convention on Human Rights (which it now wants to escape), the land of Shakespeare, of Chaucer, of hope and glory, of fish and chips. This is a land of – and here I regret having no way in text to convey the accent of Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses – culture. N’est-ce pas?
The plain truth is that England has never cared a straw for art or artists of any kind. Shakespeare himself never bothered to correct his own proofs or to put out author-approved ‘official’ versions of any of his plays against the ‘pirate’ ones doing the rounds: being a dramatist, even the greatest alive, was apparently less important to him than getting his coat of arms and his house by the river and his life as a country gentleman. And it comes all the way forwards to our own time, when our major galleries hold prizes to fete new marvels of banality and pointlessness that would not get hung in a pub toilet in Italy or France – our Royal Academy having successfully rejected and our cognoscenti successfully ignored none other than Claude Monet working under their noses for eight months in London – while our most eloquent living graphic artist paints illegally on walls, his pictures whitewashed by local councils when morons complain. The day Banksy dies, mind you, he will instantly be ‘discovered’ as a cultural asset and will barely make it into the ground before a blue plaque is stuck on his house.
I happened recently to stroll through the tiny Tikhvin cemetery in St. Petersburg, which holds the remains of, among others, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. The musicians have their corner, as do the writers, the painters and so on. And the reflection was inescapable that England has no equivalent. There is the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, of course, but that owes its origin to the mere chance of Chaucer having been Clerk of Works there. (Had contacts not secured him a court position, he would have died unknown.) Highgate Cemetery’s famous names are a few among 170,000. Near Canterbury in Kent where I for some time lived, Joseph Conrad, probably the first great novelist in the English language, lies beneath a modest stone bearing a misspelling of his name, interred there by ‘a few old friends, acquaintances and pressmen’. One, editor and critic Edward Garnett, wrote of it:
To those who attended Conrad’s funeral in Canterbury during the Cricket Festival of 1924, and drove through the crowded streets festooned with flags, there was something symbolical in England’s hospitality and in the crowd’s ignorance of even the existence of this great writer.
A few months later from just across the Channel, he was followed into eternity by Anatole France, an admirable enough author but not by some distance his equal. And, as predicted by Conrad’s friend and biographer Georges Jean-Aubry, all Paris turned out for the funeral.
The novel in English was only established as a serious art form by Henry James, Conrad and Ford Madox Ford – that is, by an American, a Pole and a half-German. Ford’s grandfather, painter Ford Madox Brown (see ‘The Last of England’ above), had formed with Swinburne and the Rossettis a circle that became the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and them a certain Charles Dickens had wanted imprisoned for immorality in their work. Ford the grandson, having served in the trenches of the Somme shortly after publishing probably the most technically perfect novel the English language had or has seen, was, by virtue of his profession, eventually demobilised in the eighteenth and final rank of priority along with ‘gypsies, vagrants and persons not engaging in productive labour’. It stands to reason, naturally, that the pen is not mightier than the shovel or the plough when a country and a world need rebuilding. But with all the blood and cruelty and horror that has bedevilled Russia, for instance, at no time in that nation’s entire history would it have valued and classed literary writers – even while repressing them – alongside ‘gypsies, vagrants and persons not engaging in productive labour’. Neither, most likely, would any country of mainland Europe.
It is not only the arts. The standard in England and Wales of public debate, and of most of what passes for journalism even at the national level, would embarrass the sort of third-world mud-hut village with which we mostly interact by bombing. (As of last year, you may remember, he who does not support wars to enrich the arms trade is officially a ‘terrorist sympathiser’.) Anyone thinking this an exaggeration is invited to glance at the websites of The Sun, The Daily Mail or The Daily Express, or indeed to watch five minutes of any Prime Minister’s Questions. Recent research showed that reading one of our tabloid newspapers was worse for the verbal ability and intelligence than reading nothing at all. And it is these newspapers that decided this referendum.
So ‘we’ the people have chosen to row ourselves out into the Atlantic, towards America – which is to say, in all probability, towards Donald J. Trump. A week or two ago, I saw beneath a clip of a fairly typical Trumpian oration a comment in limited but serviceable English: ‘As French I feel sorry for Americans. His speaking has no structures. He is like a old boring drunk guy.’ And I felt a pulse of recognition for this Gallic brother or cousin of mine who had echoed, in English roughly comparable to my French, my own thoughts whenever I see Monsieur Trump: remove the suits and money and stick him on the corner of any street, and passers-by, especially those with children, would cross the road to avoid him. In a different way, among the polished Etonian Tories, braying donkey Nigel Farage would be equally naked without his fascist following, so I have no doubt – speaking as one who has had just enough contact with the ruling classes to observe something of how they think and operate – that they will bin him at the first opportunity. But it will be too late. We are already at the point where foreigners and even non-white native Brits are being told in public that they should now pack their bags and go home. The evil genie that has been uncorked will not be going back into the bottle.
This, for better or worse, is what foreigners will always call my country. But this for me it is The Last of it, and whether I ultimately turn to face Europe or the Commonwealth, I shall not look back at the white cliffs. If my compatriots wish to live as insular little Englanders hating and fearing, they will do so without me. Certainly they will not object. And I think that perhaps I shall change my one-line biography on my social media accounts to ‘Traitor, terrorist sympathiser, economic migrant and stateless person’ (‘refugee’ being disrespectful to the real ones), not for purposes of alliteration but because a few more traitors in the 1930’s in Germany and Italy and Japan – and yes, Russia – might have saved 80 million lives.
The bureaucrats of Brussels did not do enough against poverty and exploitation, but they did demonstrably more than those of Westminster; besides which, expecting the average politician to care about the poorest in society is rather like expecting water to flow uphill. So in a disastrous failure to see the wood for the trees, those who rejected the EU for its many shortcomings forgot that it existed precisely so that they would have nothing better to worry and squabble about than who makes which regulations concerning the boundaries of fishing rights or who needs which type of visa to go where. What would our grandfathers and great-grandfathers not have given for such a set of ‘problems’?
Europe, to those of us who wished to remain, was not about who makes which rules about what. It was about colour and cousinship, it was about peace and opportunity, it was about broader horizons of the mind and the heart, it was about our young growing up to see themselves as one big family and not as warring tribes, and as such it spoke to all that is finer in human nature. Glance now at hate-riven England and you already have to ask: was it all a dream? Were we, like Caliban, deceived by the sounds and sweet airs of a thousand twangling instruments? For if it was a dream, then all that now remains to us is to add our voice to his:
@KeithJGamble Been a while since I taught in schools, but I'd instantly throw out anyone - kid or adult - who pulled a Nazi salute in a classroom of mine. And if the school supported them not me, it would be my last day working there. Your girl's teachers should be taking a lesson from her.