Express propaganda: don’t believe the type

I know I shouldn’t let things printed in the Daily Express rile me, but yesterday’s article by Leo McKinstry ‘Britain’s economy has boomed under the Conservatives’ seriously takes the biscuit.

It is so full of holes, assumptions and non-reporting that it only really adds up to a transparent Tory propaganda puff-piece. No surprise there then. Worse, it’s actually dangerous because it perpetuates the favoured myth of neoliberal ideologues everywhere: that the current economic model is the only one possible and that it isn’t just a massive Ponzi scheme (which it clearly is to anyone that actually cares to look).

Where do I begin? Well for a start we have a coalition government, so the headline itself is disingenuous! Moving on to the numbers, it takes the recent ONS figures showing an increase in GDP growth but fails to account for the rise in population, which means that GDP per capita is actually stationary and hasn’t risen since the 2007 crisis. Let’s not also forget that the drugs trade and prostitution have also been added into the GDP calculations and so gave it a boost midway through the year.

It’s true that the budget deficit has been halved. Good, yes? Well, only in relative terms. The government is still borrowing in excess of £100billion a year to make up for the shortfall in revenue. Meanwhile, public services are being destroyed by inefficient stealth privatisation and the overall debt is of course still going up (up to nearly £1.5trillion). So again, not the full picture.

The article goes onto laud the current low interest rate as if this is uniformly good for the economy. It is not. While it benefits certain mortgage holders it has a huge negative impact on savings. Even the Daily Mail has touted a figure of £300billion having been knocked off the value of savings.

It also points to the recent rise in wages, which isn’t as straightforward as it looks either. It cites the 2.1% figure given by the ONS, but that figure includes bonuses, so the regular rise (i.e. for most people) is actually only 1.7%, which is actually down on the previous quarter. Let’s also not forget that real wages have been down for some time, so this marginal improvement is just that: marginal. And of course it elides this bump with current inflation, which of course doesn’t include housing costs that are constantly going up (another reason why the marginal increases in wealth aren’t being felt). If it did then ‘inflation’ would be significantly higher.

But The Express just loves to trumpet the wonders of house price inflation, which is good, whereas all other inflation is bad. The “dynamism of the housing market” the article refers to is seen as a universal panacea to all the nation’s ills. And here is where the greatest deception lies, for while the housing bubble continues to line the pockets of some, there are swathes of the population being priced out, forced to pay rising rents, while the government fail to do anything about the supply problem in order to keep the bubble going. This huge transference of wealth (from young to old, from the non-capital to the capital class) is driving the unprecedented levels of inequality we are witnessing.

The oh-so dynamic housing market is based on massive asset speculation and that’s the way they like it, because then the corporate elite and entrenched wealth owners get to make a quick buck on the back of everyone else. The sector is leveraged up to the hilt, which gives the impression of economic activity but is really just vast debt creation by the banks. They take cheap government money, which is pumped into the mortgage market, and the prices just keep on rising. QEd.

Housing speculation accounts for 40% of debt created by banks; the repayments on this debt go back to the banks. The big banks create 97% of all the new money in the economy. It is created as debt. This gives private a banks a virtual monopoly on the allocation of this money, which overwhelmingly goes into the housing and financial sectors and not into business investment. The 2013 figures show that household debt is up to £1,437billion, a trend which tracks the rise in house prices. First sign of a Ponzi: exponentially increasing liabilities. Second sign: incorrectly valued assets. This can only end one way.

This is symptomatic of the wider problems with the way the current financial system is constructed: it is only benefitting the tiny minority at the top, who will have made a mint by the time it all comes crashing down (and are probably hedging against a crash anyway, so they’ll make even more when it does).

Even the former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, famously said: “of all the many ways of organising banking, the worst is the one we have today”. Fiat currency means our money is not backed by anything; fractional reserve banking means that we do not legally own our own deposits; risk and speculation is greatly encouraged; and of course it’s all underwritten by the taxpayer when it goes boom. And what has happened since the last crash? Essentially nothing. In fact debt is even higher. We have buried our heads in the sands of specious housing wealth and pretend that everything is ok.

Finally, let’s not forget that even one of the Bank of England’s rate setters has said that the ONS figures might not be the best guide to the true state of the economy. Commentators jump on these statistics for the purposes of political expediency. This kind of propaganda is the worst form of legerdemain, when what is required is sober analysis leading to long-term reform of the current money system. Without this, we may face some dark days ahead.

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HSBC in the headlines

HSBCThe lovely HSBC are in the news again today as Swiss police raid their Geneva headquarters in relation to the latest scandal to hit the banking behemoth. But they’ve apologised and said they’ll change, so that’s ok then. But if reporting over the last few years is anything to go by, some might take that with a pinch of salt. Here’s just a few fun headlines featuring the world’s local bank:

Swiss prosecutors investigate HSBC for money laundering over claims it helped hide millions for arms dealers and blood diamond traders – Daily Mail, Feb 15

HSBC Whistleblower: Banks Are Financing Terrorism – Newsmax, Jul 14

US regulator sues 15 banks, including HSBC, for rigging Libor benchmark – South China Morning Post, Mar 14

RBS and HSBC among banks fined £2.6bn for forex rigging – The Independent, Nov 14

HSBC sets aside $378m for potential forex-rigging fines – The Guardian, Nov 14

HSBC’s PPI mis-selling bill hits £1.8 billion – moneysavingexpert.com, Nov 13

Is Anybody Listening? HSBC Continues to Launder Money for Terrorist Groups Says Whistleblower – Huffington Post, Aug 13

HSBC to pay $1.9bn in US money laundering penalties – BBC, Dec 12

HSBC became bank to drug cartels, pays big for lapses – Reuters, Dec 12

Outrageous HSBC Settlement Proves the Drug War is a Joke – Rolling Stone, Dec 12

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Web of the week: w/e 13 Feb 2015

Deus Ex Machina

I’ve been a bit tardy of late, settling in to a new job. Somehow, said job involves me spending even more time on the web than I did anyway, so I thought I’d start a weekly post pulling together the best of my discoveries, so here goes.

1. Jacob Appelbaum’s talk at the 30th Chaos Communication Congress in 2013 reveals an array of techniques used by the NSA to spy on pretty much anyone they want to.

2. Deep Lab – details of the excellent US-based arts/research collective exploring themes around the dark web, surveillance, privacy and data aggregation. You can also read my take on it here: Inside the Deep Lab.

3. “Fascism is rising in America”: The Koch brothers and democracy’s dispiriting demise – Thom Hartmann’s article on the pernicious power of the plutocratic class in American political life.

4. Port Huron Project – Mark Tribe’s brilliant series of reenactments of protest speeches from the New Left movements of the Vietnam era.

5. The one-hour life of a 1980s video game auteur – great long read from Colin Campbell on early computer game pioneer Mel Croucher.

6. Jennifer Lyn Morone Inc – this conceptual artist has turned herself into a corporation.

7. Kanyefy your dock – Maddy Varner shows you how to improve your OSX Dock experience by replacing icons with pictures of Kanye West’s head. Check it!

8. Bitter Lake – Adam Curtis’s new documentary available on BBC iPlayer for a year.

9. Scriptonite Daily – Kerry Ann Mendoza’s blog shatters many of the myths perpetuated by the mainstream media and undercuts the shibboleths of the neoliberal status quo.

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Inequality hurts economic growth, finds OECD research

The Price Of Inequality

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has today published a new report that shows rising inequality damages economic growth.

In the UK, growing inequality has knocked 9 percentage points off GDP growth between 1990 and 2010, the research suggests.

One of the main reasons is that poorer members of society are less able to invest in their education. And of course, the period measured was pre-tuition fees, so this situation only looks set to worsen.

No surprise here, but the biggest factor for the impact of inequality on growth is the gap between poorer households and the rest of the population. The findings imply that policy must start to address the problem of lower incomes.

Recent government braggadocio over the fall in unemployment ignores the true nature of many of the jobs secured, which are often on reduced hours contracts and at low rates of remuneration.

The link between inequality and lack of growth will come as no shock to anyone who as read Joseph Stiglitz, who posits just such a connection in his 2012 book The Price Of Inequality. I’d urge people to read it.

As Stiglitz says: “If a country doesn’t give a large proportion of the population the education they need to earn a decent living, if employers don’t pay workers a decent wage, if a society provides so little opportunity that many people become alienated and demotivated, then that society and its economy won’t work well.”

All the figures point to a massive transference of wealth from the bottom to the top. It is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.

A four page summary of the report is available here

The Price Of Inequality at Blackwell’s

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Report from Britain Needs A Pay Rise march and Occupy London

Oct 18 March

This is a different kind of walk for me. I step out onto the Holloway Road, which is something I do every day, but because I’m heading for the ‘Britain Needs A Pay Rise’ march everything appears somehow off-centre, coloured by a new and strange feeling that wells up inside of me: my own implied worthiness.

The man sucking strenuously on his cigarette, the woman walking her coiffured poodle, the hipster couple on micro scooters – all of them like alien creatures, going about their normal business, but resolutely not heading to the march, not set in their minds to protest, not brimming with anger. Can’t they see the world is going to shit?

I thought I’d start this journey with my own private march down my own street; that no one need know what I was doing, that nothing would strike me as out of place, but I could not contain my outrage at life going on as usual.

It takes me maybe half a mile to pull myself together, to realise that ‘life going on’ is precisely the point; is the very reason why this march is taking place; and that what I was experiencing was the simulacrum of worthiness, brought about by this new experience of overcoming my own lassitude and actually consenting to go and bear witness to the justifiable outrage of others.

Reality hits when I see a police helicopter heading towards central London, like some dismal insect pinned against the grey sky. The phrase ‘state surveillance’ flashes through my mind as I head beneath ground to catch the tube to Piccadilly Circus, but I think no more of it once out of sight.

This same helicopter is there buzzing noisily above me when I emerge 15 minutes later into a seething admixture of tourists and trade-unionists. I skirt around the edge of the crowd and a kind policeman lets me through the barrier to join the march proper.

Historians Against Going Backwards

There is more space than I’d expected; the marchers erupt into sporadic song, carry regulation banners, placards and wave flags that occasionally brush against my face, which is a kind of polymorphously perverse way of saying that I feel like I belong.

By the time we reach Hyde Park, the rally has already started and so I head instinctively for the main stage, a kind of Pavlovian response to hearing human voices fed through a PA, vestigial remnant of my festival-going days. I want to see the faces from which the voices emerge, and have those faces affirm the crowd’s indignation.

Britain Needs A Payrise

A succession of trade union leaders and spokespeople take to the stage and talk about the importance of collective bargaining, of the right to withhold labour, of the spirit of comradeship that is essential to any meaningful mass mobilisation of people. They rail against the policies of a government that they say has sold its people down a particularly treacherous river, where the poor, disabled and young get washed away like pieces of forgotten flotsam. The key message here is that workers of every kind require a living wage – and it’s difficult to argue with that?

But there is blistering, broiling, belligerent anger too, which is best encapsulated by Len McClusky, General Secretary of Unite, who delivers a powerful denunciation of the minority elites and corporate cabals that control the wealth of this country, during which he screams: “Pay your taxes you greedy bastards!”

And later he is followed by Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, who empties his spleen into a diatribe condemning those who profit from the massive transference of wealth from rich to poor, who offer up corporate subsidies of some 85bn a year, who squirrel away the nation’s wealth into offshore tax havens. The claim that there are not enough resources to provide effective public services, decent wages, a solid welfare system, he wails, is simply a lie.

But perhaps the most potent contribution comes from 91-year-old campaigner Harry Smith, who explains how he began his “long march for better wages for British workers in 1926,” when his father, a Barnsley miner, “lifted me on his shoulders and took me to the picket lines of the General Strike.” Harry holds the crowd captivated, a living vision of our history and one that demands we have the imagination to step outside the temporal confines of our own time and picture what came before and what will come after. He condemns Cameron’s coalition government, which he says has “robbed the vulnerable of their benefits to enrich the mighty” and “snatched from the workers of this country the right to a dignified wage.” His speech is a masterclass in dignified indignation.

I find myself dreading the end of this litany of talkers, for I’m aware that when the talking stops, when the focal point of the crowd’s energy is removed, then it’s over to them, to us, to me – and I’m lost as to what to do about any of it. I suppose the biggest steer comes from one of the final speakers, Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS, who advocates more “militant action”, by which he means more direct activities such as the Focus E15 Mothers movement, the occupation of Parliament Square, and ultimately the threat of a General Strike. It’s this last point that really hits home; the air feels alive with the appetite for it. This, one suspects, is perhaps the only thing that will force the government’s hand, but in which direction it is impossible to say.

And so I walk away, back across the park, as the people head back to their coaches, back to their homes around the country, and littered about me are all the discarded placards, stuffed into bins or placed in neat piles under oak trees, and I refuse a man that offers me a copy of Workers Hammer and wonder if I am a bad person for doing so, but I can’t believe that traditional conceptions of communism or socialism are any kind of answer. And I feel somehow bewildered and deflated.

As I come to Hyde Park corner the marchers disperse and merge with the general mass of sightseers and shoppers and I can’t tell who are the ‘comrades’ any more. This feels like stepping back into a vast machine of which we are all part, radicals or no, and it feels so much bigger than any of us, that I wonder if anything can be done to truly change it. Daily it churns, feeding off our complacency and fear, offering up the production-line of trinkets that keep us distracted, while the coffers of the rich tumefy. It is this into which we are now so intimately wired, such that separation becomes increasingly difficult and will demand a fortitude like never before. The more I consider it, the more I think of it in religious terms – we must apostatise ourselves before this gewgaw god and reject the dogma of cupidity his disciples preach.

I decide to head for Parliament Square to join the Occupy London gathering. Ahead of me I can hear the drums of a small group marching down past Buckingham Palace, followed by a phalanx of police vans and day-glo foot soldiers. After a short time I catch up with them and join the procession, glad to be part of the tribe once more. When we come to the Square itself there are more police waiting. They make a half-hearted attempt to stop the marchers getting onto the muddy patch of grass, but to no avail, and soon there is a ring of perhaps 150 people congregating around a portable PA and two vertical bamboo and cheesecloth banners that read PEOPLE and DEMOCRACY. The helicopter is here too.

Heading to Parliament Square

I don’t know who the man speaking is; he is youngish, perhaps mid-thirties, with brown tousled hair and a light beard, and would have looked perfectly at home in 1960s Haight-Ashbury. He knows his stuff and talks percentages, injustices, prerogatives, keeping the audience in rapt attention. He introduces the Labour MP John McDonnell who delivers an excoriating invective against the current Westminster system, which he characterises as nothing less than a kleptocracy, a corruption of representative government that is used to effectively steal from the people, which results in a massive concentration of wealth and power at the top and an evisceration of those at the bottom. He also mentions the bureaucratisation of the unions, which is surely a problem for anyone who attended the march earlier, where there was still a great focus on the Labour Party, and which explains the difference between some of the more concilliatory speeches and those with a harder, more militant edge. McDonnell invokes Serwotka in a call (at least potentially) for a General Strike, to which the crowd responds with glee. Again this seems like it might be on the horizon if the current situation continues, which it almost surely will.

More speakers follow, including Donnachadh McCarthy, former Deputy Chair of the Liberal Democrats (note the ‘former’) and Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party. McCarthy, who wrote the book The Prostitute State, is as unequivocal as you’d expect; to him Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are little more than “rent boys”, puppet leaders at the perpetual behest of corporate power and the financial elites. He talks not just of the 1%, but of the 0.001% – that just 85 people own as much wealth as half the population of the world. “Trickle down,” he tells the crowd, “is the biggest lie we’ve ever been told.” His demands are just as unequivocal: close offshore tax havens; ban lobbying in government; cleanse education of corporate interests; and limit the concentration of media ownership. Bennett, meanwhile, demands a “People’s Constitutional Convention” in order to draw up a proper democratic constitution for the UK.

Russell Brand addresses the Occupy Camp

I notice that Russell Brand is here, which produces a strange effect, as several people rush over to have their picture taken with him. I wonder if this is to do with his celebrity, or whether it’s because he is fast becoming a kind of figurehead for the movement. I hope it’s the latter. It surely must be the duty of anyone taking part in this kind of activism to question their relationship to fame, its conceptual basis even, which is as an epiphenomenon of the system, and a means of distraction, as much as anything else they seek to condemn.

Brand speaks and is as charming and funny as you’d expect; he gently nods in the direction of the assertion above when he points to the fact that he “wasn’t born a famous person” but is “from a place called Graves in Essex”. But he is as serious and angry as any of the political speakers, and it increasingly feels like he is living out his personal awakening in the public eye, so that some of us might do the same. This makes him a focal point for attacks, but he seems prepared to handle it, and is well equipped to do so, with the bulwarks of notoriety, personal liquidity and a quick wit to help him shoulder the burden.

As the structure granted by the series of speakers falls away there are discussions about next steps, including logistics, how to manage the police, and talk of an assembly to debate solutions. Some people take the microphone and sing songs, others talk about personal experience, but increasingly people just mill about, while lo-fi satellite camera crews orbit the main group interviewing people about the injustices of the corrupted system. These are the confident ones with urgent points to make. The elephant in the room is the British character; the sense that overcoming our innate deference, to take to the hustings and declaim each alone, is the truly difficult thing to do. Or perhaps this is just me; just what I’m feeling. I can’t imagine being able to hold the concentration of a group of people like this, of being able to talk lucidly and with cogency and passion about any of this, despite my awareness of the issues. And I suppose most are like me. Perhaps this is just another struggle that we will have to fight.

I skirt around the edges and go and sit near the police to gather my thoughts. The organisers are asking us to stay but I am already thinking about writing this and whether what I write will in some small way represent a contribution. At the moment this is all I have, this and a willingness to learn more about the intricacies of the debate and of what direct activism might entail. Still, I worry about personal apathy, about procrastination, home comforts, nihilism – all the tendencies that have kept me quiet for so long. Just as I worry about misunderstanding, misreading, misleading agendas, and about propaganda and counter-propaganda, such that putting trust in anyone is hard and finding truth in the clash of narratives even harder.

Real Democracy banner at Occupy London

Eventually, I leave with a somewhat heavy heart and walk up Whitehall, past fortress Downing Street, past the people having their photos taken with jaunty police officers and the Household Cavalry, up into the oblivious throngs of people in Trafalgar Square and onto St Martin’s Place. And among the forest of faces, I see the granite visage of Edith Cavell and think that only her standard of commitment is really enough, and I seriously doubt whether I possess that, and so I tramp on up toward Leicester Square and catch the tube home to watch Match of the Day and start writing this, my meagre attempt to document what many hope will be an important day in this struggle for a fairer future.

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Brand values

Russell Brand

Polly Toynbee’s criticisms of Russell Brand in today’s Guardian feel like pretty lightweight shots at a fairly easy target. The article also fails to conduct much of an analysis of the current political and socio-economic situation in the UK, and portrays Brand as a kind of ineffectual Lord of Misrule, devoid of substance or sophistication.

Whatever you think of Brand, the fact is that he is on a very public personal journey, which I’m sure takes as much fortitude as it does hubris. It doesn’t worry me that there is naivety in some of his arguments; there’s naivety in most arguments (doubtless in my own, and dare I say, even in Toynbee’s) but at least he is prepared to stick his neck out, and whatever his shortcomings, is having some success in bringing people’s attention the fact that our political system is desperately broken.

In an article that amounts to a nifty bit of PR for John Lydon’s new book, Toynbee stands behind the latter’s splenetic venting to take aim at Brand, and claims the disparity between the present circumstances of young and old is down purely to participation at the ballet box. Sorry, but when seen in the light of economic reality, which is that it’s increasingly the accrual of wealth and capital that ensure de facto rights in this country, this position seems a tad facile. The distribution of wealth in the UK is clearly weighted toward the older generation, with pension and property holdings being the two main sources of this division. Much of this wealth was accrued in an era prior to the erosion of meaningful pension provision and when house prices were more affordable. The young face a grim future indeed, but it’s doubtful whether the current set of Westminster nabobs will be anywhere near radical enough to provide a solution.

Contemporary disenfranchisement of the young is being caused by a lack of decently paid jobs, the quasi-privatisation of the university system, and the out-of-control housing bubble. And the cause of all these things is a political system that is now firmly in the pocket of corporate and free market interests, compromised by the rackets of party funding and lobbying, and built to serve the interests of the elite.

Does Toynbee really believe that either of the main parties will solve the problem of house prices? Neither appears to offer any kind of solution, nor seems willing to do so. The housing crisis is more than just a problem of supply and demand, and is fuelled by the banks ploughing massive amounts of credit into the financial system, inflating prices out of the reach of swaths of the population.

This is effectively a massive Ponzi scheme, whereby the banks create new money by granting loans on which they charge interest. Out of all the new funds created in this way the majority is channelled back into mortgage-lending or into the financial system in the form of speculation. The spiral of money and debt creation is what causes house prices and also rents to rise, which has resulted in a bigger proportion of incomes being taken up in this way. This represents a massive transference of wealth from those at the bottom to those at the top. Much of the profit is held in off-shore accounts and does nothing for the economy. Tax avoidance is rampant. This is driving the massive inequalities we are seeing in society, with the 1% at the top holding much of the wealth and only getting richer. At the same time politicians are persuing an agenda of ‘austerity’, which is making the rest of us poorer, all in the name of that same arch libertarian ideology that has held sway for the last 30 years.

But it’s the voting (or not voting) issue that really sticks in both Lydon and Toynbee’s craw. The thing is, Brand’s beef is not with voting per se, it’s with the lack of options we’re currently presented with voting. I don’t agree with him entirely, because the vote can still function, albeit vestigially, as a tool by which we can make demands of those in power. Whether it can transform the whole system is another thing. For the concept of enfranchisement predicated on the ballot box alone is outmoded; it must also be related to the notion of economic self-determination. Without that, the vote itself is devalued, which I think is Brand’s broader point; it is now a significantly attenuated power (like tweaking dials on a far larger machine set on autopilot). It is the ability to determine our own economic reality that is being steadily eroded, and it’s this that is having an enormously degrading influence on democracy in this country. The vote now exists in a much more widely dysfunctional system, and so to criticise Brand on this alone doesn’t feel very fair. Of course he doesn’t have all the answers, but at least he is asking some of the right questions, and raising public awareness on the back of it. His courage should be applauded not derided.

It’s very easy to be cynical about this new pied piper of insurrection, but the sorry thing is the economic facts seem to bear him out: our monetary system is broken, our markets are broken, inequality is spiralling out of control, and the Government is serving the interests of financial elites rather than the majority of the people. That way revolution lies, whether you call for it or not.

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In the Swim

Hampstead mixed pond

As it happens I am on Hampstead Heath, just to the north west of the mixed swimming pond, and it is July, and it is hot. After much procrastination I somehow found it within me to come here and throw my body in the murky water, and now I sun myself dry on the grass, content in this fleeting triumph of action over inertia.

For so long it seems the latter has won out, and in every department of the possible departments it is possible for a person to have, apathy has held sway. Should I go there, or do that thing, or say that, or protest at this? And the inner response has always been ‘no I won’t’ or ‘not today’ or ‘I would prefer not to’.

Part of the problem, or part of the cause of the problem, comes down to the impossibility of devolving action from narrative. Everything that is done falls into the vortex of the story, and the story is rarely a neutral thing. It will always be told from one side or the other and its telling will often be used to either prove or disprove its proposition. Today’s swim, for instance, is as much evidence of how close I am to drowning as it is of my ability to stay afloat.

It is within the inevitable confusion of this tense stand-off that we find ourselves as protagonists. In this maelstrom of narrative and counter-narrative all decision becomes suspect and all discourse becomes untrustworthy in the eyes of anyone watching. These are the grim cul-de-sacs down which we eagerly march, and this is the reason why I so often find myself rudderless.

Now, imagine a universe in which a person is prepared to relinquish the kind of story that keeps him apart from his brothers, so that hope and joy and kindness might fill a newly created void in which previously only misunderstanding and distrust and hatred held dominion.

It seems crazy I know, but this is what I am thinking about here on the grass and in the sun on Hampstead Heath. I wonder what might then happen to the world. Might we put aside our existing stories and forge new ones in a spirit of co-operation? Might we achieve true reconciliation; communion; amity?

But just moments after entertaining such an outlandish piece of optimism, the jaded cynic that is the other side of my Janus face thrusts his mug back into the picture and tells me to stop all this nonsense. People don’t give up on their stories; there is far too much at stake for that. And I think how right he is and settle down again to stare idly into the sky, and spiral back into the Piscean default, stationary between opposing currents.

And the vast blue space above seems to speak of an overwhelming indifference to the squabbles which stir beneath its empyrean heights, and suddenly I think how fragile and factitious and fluid this thing we call ‘morality’ is, and am reminded of that essay in which Joan Didion asks “what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience?”. And I think, yes, that sounds just about bang on; what would the great arbiter God really care what we thought of Him?

But I suppose, for all I agree, that’s not quite the point, in that it has perhaps more to do with what we think He thinks of us – which is different, of course, depending upon which particular story you follow. ‘God prefers our version of events’ is the thing to claim, and then anything becomes justifiable. And then ‘morality’ bends into whichever shape it is most efficacious for it to do so, and compassion and empathy and fraternity are burned up like so many heathen corpses.

There are those that subscribe to Armageddon; those for whom messianic traditions hold the ultimate truth; those who believe in the existence of a post-mortem paradise. So called ‘rational’ minds might find such stories difficult to relate to in any meaningful sense, but be clear that these are things that shape our present reality as much as Newton’s first law of motion or the setting of interest rates.

Certain stories are worth telling ourselves, others might be cast aside for newer and bolder ones, but no story has the right to primacy just as no one individual conscience does. Now I know this may sound like some naive brand of secular Utopianism to many of you. But that’s precisely the point. It’s simply a different possible version of the story, or another story altogether that I’m contemplating here. History is, after all, peppered with defectors, dissidents and apostates of every kind who have managed this. How much grander the boundless universe is than any of our grand narratives.

Sometimes it is difficult to conceive the stories that define us, so opaque have they been rendered by the chaos, injustice and bloodletting with which we infuse them. We might call this process politics, which, despite stated intentions, in many ways represents the failure to establish and tackle root cause, to find a way towards the golden mean. I think this explains my indecision, my inaction, my all-too-mute response to the balagan that is everywhere about me.

What should I do in the face of such confusion? What should I do under the hot sun that is greater than all of this and could frazzle humanity like so many ants under the magnifying glass of a cruel boy? I must, I think, find a rage that exists in spite of these relentless intellectual exercises in macrocosmic reflection and in spite of the impossibility of ipso facto virtue down here on Earth. A rage that will temper the intonations of that jaded cynic, throw me back into the swim and guide me through the eddying waters in which I find myself; a rage that never resolves itself in violence or coercion (and rallies against them) but that might just lend me the occasional power of speech, such that critical sounds might escape from my mouth and not just silent bubbles of air.

And I imagine more than just one voice and what that might mean, and consider the strange leap of faith into the dark and empty void that would be required to wake up in the morning free of those ancient mind-forged manacles, like millions of new Spinozas suddenly unleashed on the world, armed at last with a different story.

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Failure on the Fairfield Horseshoe

photo-5

The narrow road called Nook Lane that leads from Ambleside to the Lower Sweden Bridge and the start of the walk known as the Fairfield Horseshoe is an incongruently unprepossessing one given what follows.

It was from here that I set out on a mercurial day in late May 2014 to tackle this well-known route, famed for the beautiful aspect it affords of the town, the surrounding fells and Windermere beyond. Not a particularly experienced hill walker, I reasoned that the only way to become so was to try something a little tougher than my previous expeditions on the far more placid South Downs. It was only after I crossed the bridge and gained the first incline that the full scale of the challenge became clear to me.

Still, the sky was clear and the summits above – of Hart Crag, Great Rigg and Fairfield itself – looked strangely inviting to my novitiate eyes, and so I continued my ascent with the enthusiasm of one who treats his actions as if part of a significant scene being observed by others looking back over the great spectacle of his life. That is, I breathed the clean air fully into my lungs, strode with purpose and carried on my face a somewhat self-satisfied smile, all the while conscious of my illusory audience.

In all, I’d say this state of affairs lasted no more than 20 minutes. Within that time, the smile had subsided and the strain in my legs had begun to bite. Worse, I was also conscious of a distinct pain in my chest, as if my pounding heart was trying to communicate something desperately important to me. It was soon joined by my brain, which with conspiratorial malice, showed me vivid images of my silent corpse prostrate on the verdant lea, played me the conversation of the young couple who’d discovered my blackened body, and even drafted up a small notice in the local newspaper: HIKER FOUND DEAD ON HORSESHOE.

As one generally prone to a rather morbid disposition in daily life, part of the reason for my journey to the Lakes was to assuage such thinking, and so I wasn’t unaware of the irony that attended this surge of discomfort. The intention of coming here was to embrace life, not dwell upon death (but leopards and spots and all that). It occurred to me that as a place to die it wasn’t such a bad option, steeped in a certain Coleridgian kudos, it might just as easily happen in a far less romantic location than this one. Unfortunately, such reflection did little to temper the very real fear I suddenly felt, which in turn caused waves of anxiety to ripple across my body, so that I found myself unable to take another step.

In something of a panic, I turned and looked down over Ambleside and thought about heading back to rest up at the prim bed and breakfast in which I was staying. But this too seemed impossible, and so there I remained, stationary on the hillside, trying in vain to calm my irksome internal organs, that I might eventually arrive at some sort of decision about what to do.

It was then that I realised that my predicament bore at least a passing relation to the question Hamlet famously poses; or to that which Camus tackles in his great discourse on suicide and Sisyphus – which, to put crudely, is simply whether to go on or not? One of my literary heroes, F Scott Fitzgerald, takes a not disimilar line to Camus in his famous essay The Crack-Up, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was now the same age as Scotty when he wrote this much-vaunted piece.

His initial observation regarding the first-class mind – its ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time in order to ‘be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise’ – comes under some scrutiny later in the essay, but we sense the acerbic barbs he proffers are dipped as much in irony as they are in scorn. If at the end of Camus we discover Sisyphus to be happy, we equally find in The Crack-Up that Scott the dog is somewhat pissed off. Each is its own response to the absurd proposition called ‘life’ and each allows, most importantly, for a ‘going on’. The stakes for my Cumbrian version of this may not at first seem so high, but I knew in my troublesome heart and brain that they were.

For I was sure, that somewhere along the line I too had cracked. And it’s the crack that puts the true strain on the dichotomous mind and on one’s ability to hold in balance ‘the sense of futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle’. The fissure is filled with futility, while the necessity is left buried somewhere deep beneath the earth; and it is this that makes the ‘going on’ become the more difficult thing to do. But like Fitzgerald, I too could not pinpoint the exact historical juncture at which the crack had occurred, and this mystery placed its own strain upon the flourishing fracture.

My last visit to this part of the world was with Verity, who had, in her typical fashion, eschewed suitable footwear in favour of an old pair of Harold Larwood-style cricket boots. The two of us had stomped around Great Langdale and consumed our weight in beer at the Hikers’ Bar at Old Dungeon Ghyll, like some breakaway party from the Taskerson phalanx, sent on to reconnoitre for liquid sustenance. And we had made love among the hills and watched the burning stars swing by overhead and listened to the land’s great groan in the night and known the sheer inexplicability of joy.

Or there were the times spent with my grandparents, who adored the Lakes with a fervour that revealed an unspoken passion between them and the landscape, which I think trumped their public belief in the Catholic God, and made them secret Spinozans without being aware of it. Our great pleasure was to walk out by the water amid the dim hum of dusk and pick up a fish supper, of which we were all firm devotees. My grandfather would test whether the flesh flaked as it should and then proclaim his satisfaction or lack thereof, and my grandmother and I would either nod or shake our heads as appropriate before offering an opinion on the quality of the mushy peas, on which he, in turn, would pronounce judgement. And then it would be back to the hotel for their regular evening game of Bridge with Mr and Mrs Beckett from Leinster, where I would sit in absolute silence and study the inscrutable faces of the old Irish couple’s North and South and my kin’s East and West, as the game developed and the world outside dissolved in the darkening night.

Then there was my very first visit, with my father, sometime in the late Eighties – a spontaneous drive into the then entirely unrecognisable hills, a haphazard pitching of our tent in a fallow field, a clamber up a slate-stacked beck in the failing light, then down again in the dark, with Dad drinking drams of whisky from his faithful hip-flask, and an uneasy night spent cold under clear skies.

All these moments came back to my mind as I stood there, determining whether to press on to the next peak or return to Ambleside, so soon defeated. I tried to discern whether the crack had appeared at any of these times, or between them, but I just could not tell. And I tried to determine whether the crack was self-inflicted or whether it had been caused by some external force. But this too, it felt impossible to establish.

Eventually, after some time, the physical sensations described above abated and I resolved to keep going, further and further up onto the ridge. But if the original intention had been to clear a mental space, this soon became impossible as my mind raced with thoughts of mortality, of lost love, of lost family, of the loss of surety and the half-remembered resonances of the prior life that was mine, in which meaning might be applied to everything and material reality was awash with plangent reverberations.

For now, as I gazed down into the pit of the glacial valley, it was like a great distance had opened up between me and the world. It was as if something had happened, some indefinable rupture, and that this was part of, or related to, or perhaps the very cause of, the crack I felt within me. What Wordsworth plainly applies to the species, I began to consider in the spirit of nosce te ipsum – had I given my heart away, my brain? Might I ever see old Proteus rise again?

Somehow, without my realising it, I had come to look upon the world with indifferent eyes. The tear-drenched injustice felt at my grandfather’s death, had, by the time my grandmother joined him, cooled into emotional inertia. But pinning it down any more than that was impossible; and besides that was only the start of it. I was now conscious that I was more than cracked – I had become the crack – such that it felt like my very physical presence was little more than a gap in the universe, incapable of garnering an emotional response to anything within its orbit, channelling its stream of negativity in on itself, feeding itself, growing, and in perfect likeness replacing the once vibrant thing that unknowingly fathered it.

And so it was this strange creature – or anti-creature – to whom Verity had declared her love and had suffered so much for; this strange creature who had stood to deliver the eulogy at its father’s funeral; this strange creature who now slouched toward Ambleside. Its face still threw out words and responded appropriately and did all that was necessary to present a near-perfect impression of a human being to the people who played the part of family and friends, but up on the Horseshoe there was nothing and no one to acknowledge it and suddenly the world became like a great mirror and it saw itself and knew the terrible truth of what it was.

From the north-east I could see a great cloud bank forming, but whereas such a thing was ordinarily seen from below, I was instead on the same level as this monstrous coagulation, which I knew would be upon me within the hour. My sense of unease increased, but still I walked on, past High Pike and followed a collapsed stone wall up to Dove Crag as the light grew dim and threads of mist raced across the path ahead of me. I walked on because I wasn’t sure what else to do and could feel the spectre of failure at my back. I walked on into the vacuous quiet.

Where Verity was concerned I had failed in the ways that a man usually fails a woman and then some. I had singularly failed to express love in a manner that would have meaning for her. I had treated her as a thing without its own ontology and, as a consequence, a thing at my constant beck and call. Like some stellar body that has fallen into the gravitational pull of a Black Hole, she was sucked into the gap where I once existed, her luminescence snuffed out by the dull weight of my teratoid ego. I threw everything I had left at her in the hope that something would stick, but all I did was to overwhelm her with the stark emptiness of what passed for my soul.

For the cracked man cannot love anything but the dim memory of himself, which stalks the mind’s bare escarpments like some phantom and says of woman, says of affection, says of intimacy that they are impossible and must be abnegated at all costs.

And when it came to the old man – well, we were like a two-piece dinner set dropped from the top of Blackpool Tower. By the end, ours was a relationship of cold observance; a still and frigid space in which the one waited the other out, and where I had the advantage (if that’s what it was) of youth on my side and a marginally healthier liver. I wrote his eulogy to prove to myself that I could still feel, but it only reinforced the dismal truth that I could not. My failure as a son was complete and the only solace I might find was in the fact that I wasn’t entirely to blame.

As I climbed higher the cloud finally rolled in over the ridge and I found myself enveloped in its thick pall. The noisy skylarks that had accompanied me further down the hill were gone. There was only rock underfoot now and after a few more minutes I found myself on the bouldered plateau of Hart Crag. I stumbled on but soon realised that I was hopelessly lost and had no idea of the correct route to take, so I did what every Englishman would do in the circumstances and sat down, drew the flask from my bag and poured a cup of tea.

In the strange and empty stillness at the top of the mountain I finally understood the crux of the thing: that I had indeed failed at all the important things in life; that I had in fact failed at the very business of life. Somewhere in the distant past my youthful arrogance had been knocked out of me, the ‘desire for personal dominance’ had deserted me, as it had Fitzgerald. The possibility of becoming a new Zarathustra was no more. I’d relinquished the will to impose myself on the world and shape it in the way I wanted; I was now the thing acted upon instead of the thing acting upon. I would close my eyes and timidly await the end.

And so this was how I had lived, like a dusky mouse in a Tube station, scuttling about beneath the belly of a far larger beast than I, the thing we call ‘existence’ with all its quotidian madness and the abstractions we apply to its rough skin, which somehow keep us in check but also in the troublesome business of hope. On occasion I would poke my head out, perhaps even try and latch on to a speeding carriage, which would take me so far – in a job, a relationship, a creative endeavour – before my grasp weakened and I fell back down into the gloom. For at each of these things I failed; I failed to denude myself of life’s absurdity; and I failed to resolve the great fear that I kept within my heart, the nameless dread that followed me about, from high to low, valley to summit, that strange pathology of the brain which speaks with the voice of Death.

This was the way of it. And so by the time I met Verity, by the time my grandmother died, by the time of my father’s decline I was already lost to them all… and to myself. I failed each of them in turn, drained of my prior capacity for feeling the sweet sting of life. In retrospect I might look to see if I can find a kernel of liberation in all of this, but there is none of it. It is more like an imprisonment in the lacuna of one’s own making. The sentence is indeterminate. The self devolves into the anti-self and watches impassively as the Earth grinds on around the Sun, like a clock to which no one pays any attention – no appointments to be kept, no anniversaries to celebrate, nothing to be done.

I looked about me but it was impossible to see anything. I was alone and perhaps as far away from the human world as I had ever been; nothing but cloud and rock and a now pressing decision, which at this height had shed its hypothetical mien and begged resolution. Carrying on up toward Fairfield seemed reckless and yet that was what I had come here for, not to turn back and affirm all the failures of which I’ve spoken. What did it matter if my earlier fears came to pass, and the local newspaper got its story? The young couple would go on to build their life together and I would become a poignant dinner-party anecdote for them to tell. In the villages, people might murmur something about me in pubs, until they stopped doing so, which wouldn’t take long. More importantly, the crack would have closed, the gap would have disappeared… at least I hoped so.

And then in an instant of non-thought, I made my decision; the only one I could have realistically made in the circumstances. I got to my feet, broke out the Kendal Mint Cake and started back the way I had come, like Sisyphus heading off to reclaim his boulder.

After an hour or so I emerged from the cloud, and soon the skylarks returned to accompany my descent. What danger there was had passed and my heart still kept about its business. I would add the Fairfield Horseshoe to my list of failures and return, crack and all, to the flatlands of civility.

And on the way down, as I glanced around at what now seemed like a great valley of ashes beneath me, I caught sight of a future world in which all that remained of what was once called my life was a sonorous echo, these few words of self-pity and self-immolation.

June 2014

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Interview with Dominic Mitchell

Here’s my recent interview with writer Dominic Mitchell, the creator of the acclaimed BBC Three zombie drama In The Flesh. I first spoke to Dom not long after the show had been commissioned a few years ago after I went up to the set just outside Manchester to meet the cast and crew, so it was heartening to speak to him again on the eve of the second series being broadcast, its recommission an affirmation of all the hard work he had put in to creating the ITF universe.

As anyone that has picked up on the Halperin & Weston reference in the show will be aware, Dom really knows his stuff and has a passion for and approach to storytelling that verges on the obsessive. The quality of the drama (and the BAFTA) is a testament to this.

Ben and Dom

Here he talks about expanding the mythology of the show and how the village of Roarton stands as a microcosm for the rest of the country, a canvas that, in the midst of the requisite gore, allows for an exploration of issues of gender, race and sexual politics in a wonderfully nuanced way, resulting in an honest domestic melodrama that owes as much to Ken Loach as it does to George Romero or Lucio Fulci.

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Interview with John Banville and Andrew Davies

I spoke to Booker Prize-winning author John Banville and screenwriter Andrew Davies about their new BBC One drama Quirke, based on the novels written under Bannville’s noir fiction psuedonym Benjamin Black and adapted for television by Davies and Conor McPherson.

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