Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Super summer round-up

Hello everyone. I'm back from my holiday and settling in to my new life in a 14-person call-centre style shared office in which we'll be able to work collaboratively without disturbing anyone, do cutting-edge research, see students and have confidential conversations. At least that's what management says from the comfort of their individual offices, though another section of the same institution has a very different view. A veal-fattening crate (as Douglas Coupland called it) is our reward for last year's 100% NSS satisfaction stats (yes, I know they don't stand up to a moment's scrutiny). Still, I've gained an insight into my colleagues' lives:

I've been in Ireland for a couple of weeks, enjoying the world-famous (in Kerry) Puck Fair and watching a lot of Olympics. I shifted off the sofa for a couple of swims in the Atlantic but not very often. The RTE  coverage of the Games was rather good: nowhere near as nationalistic as the BBC, wildly excited about the few medals and near-misses and hosted by a thoughtful and expert team, including Jerry Kiernan as The Grinch, a role you don't get on the Beeb:

It helped that the head of the Irish Olympic Committee, Pat Hickey, was arrested halfway through in a version of the FIFA hotel-raids with elements of French farce: nakedness and ridiculous lies from his wife. It added both gaiety and a degree of hard journalism to the coverage, and everyone I talked to enjoyed it enormously as this global equivalent of the gombeen man finally got what was coming to him.

You probably don't want to see my holiday snaps, but they're all here. Some of my favourites (click to enlarge):


I'm ready for my close-up…

The cattle fair was cruelly re-branded.

R2D2 in the Fancy Dress competition

A fortune-teller

I took a big pile of books with me to supplement my three-newspapers-a-day habit (Guardian, Irish Times, Irish Examiner): two Edwina Currie novels for research which I didn't get round to reading, and some others which I did. The first one was Sean Latham's Am I A Snob? Modernism and the Novel. I've had it on my shelves for a few years now and regret not reading it the moment I bought it. IT traces the changing definitions of snobbery from its early days (popularised by Thackeray in his Punch column 'Mr Snob', then analyses the tensions between aesthetic difficulty and democracy in the lives of three modernist novelists and their works: Virginia Woolf (particularly To the Lighthouse), James Joyce and Dorothy L. Sayers. Woolf in particular felt torn between fear and disdain for the lower orders and her cerebral socialism, hated being popular but liked the income. Latham traces the change in Sayers' Lord Peter from deliberate posh stereotype to subtle portrait of a damaged, complex character within a low-brow genre, and examines Ulysses in particular as a case-study of what's produced in the fusion of demotic and difficult. All three chapters are revelatory readings of these texts and suggest that the snob is an ideal character for examinations of the characteristics of modernism. I'm not sure Latham entirely grasped the erudition routinely expressed by ordinary Dubliners in conversation then and now, but it's a minor cavil. It's a wonderful book.

After that I read Christina Henry's Alice, an interesting horror-fantasy retelling of Carroll's novel. I don't habitually read horror or fantasy (though I read hundreds of the latter as a teen) but I'm interested in retellings in general, so I thought I'd give it a go. I liked it: it was disturbing but not gratuitous, and highly imaginative. On the down side, the plotting became a bit too intrusive and detracted from interesting character-driven explorations of madness and how women are written off: it was clear from fairly early on that a sequel and perhaps a series was being lined up. It would make an excellent film or even computer game, and I'm glad I read it, but I'm not sure I'll get Red Queen.

I then read Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: I've read a lot of other Faulkner but never this one for some reason. It's the story of the decline of a formerly upper-class slave-owning white family in the American South and their black servants and neighbours, told in the first person by three family members and their principal servant. Astonishing: formally experimental, moving, sickening and compelling. Also brutally frank for 1929. Having read Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing and seen it as a response to Irish modernism, I'm wondering if it's also influenced by this novel.

Finally, I read William Gibson's Spook Country. I've been reading his work for a long time now but I'm getting less and less out of the experience. By this point I could pretty much write my own. All you have to do is name an awful lot of expensive-but-obscure brands then imply that they're worn/driven/fired by mysterious intellectual terrorists/spies/capitalists/illuminati with damned good taste and large budgets. For instance, the Cuban-Chinese Communist-santeria devotee all-purpose criminal facilitator wears an APC jacket, while Hubertus Bigend the Belgian taste-maker/corruption hunter doesn't just drive the plutocrat's vehicle of choice – a Maybach – but a version customised to be even more exclusive: a Brabus-Maybach. Somewhere amongst the thicket of signifiers I found myself wondering if Gibson any longer has anything meaningful to say. Unless his point is that there's no longer anything meaningful to say about the state of the world other than to urge us to dress well while we're promoting or fighting international conspiracies.  I was quite hooked by one thing though: one character spends his downtime reading an unnamed book about medieval European millenarians. It's clearly Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium, which I read recently and found fascinating. Gibson's obvious parallel is that there's a global Elect in the post-Iraq settlement which is impervious to ordinary rules, laws and morality. It's certainly stylish and there's a political anger there, but it doesn't quite work on a literary level.

And now it's back to reading politicians' novels. Come on Edwina, show me what you've got…

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Beam Me Up, I'm Done

(I gather that there's a desperate shortage of online commentary about popular science fiction franchises: here's my contribution to remedy that shortfall).

When I was young, I watched repeats of the original Star Trek series, usually on BBC2 at 6 o'clock. This was just about tolerated by the rest of the family: my grandmother quite liked it and it filled a gap between Australian and European soaps for the rest. I liked it because it was utopian, troubled and thoughtful. Though there was a certain amount of bug-eyed-monster zapping, and Kirk's rampant heterosexuality gradually dawned on me, it was clear even to an undiscriminating viewer like me that here was a series that used encounters with the Other to examine the dominant culture's values as well as to reinforce them.

Vietnam (originally for, eventually against), colonialism, nuclear weapons, racial hatred, the role of the individual in maintaining or ending oppression, the tensions between emotion and logic, principle and pragmatism – all these dilemmas were played out in bright colours amidst a beautiful late-60s version of the future, written by serious SF writers who often felt they were rather slumming it by doing TV work.

I took a pass for The Next Generation, which felt too weedy for me: part of the 1990s' fashion for a particularly egotistical version of spiritualism and self-help (a ship's counsellor? Really?) though it does have some strong elements. Deep Space Nine was a poor rip-off of Babylon 5, though Sajid Javid's philosophical and physical resemblance to the Ferengi is striking. I loved Voyager, which seemed to be a return to the stripped-down dynamic of the original: a small crew lost and struggling to comprehend and survive encounters with each other as well as with profoundly different peoples.

Then there was Enterprise. Oh dear. A show with such promise: back to the early days of humanity emerging into the community of civilisations, but which in fact became the TV analogue to Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror, gleefully endorsing torture.

As for the feature films: I have a much softer spot for them than many people. The Motion Picture got by on wide-eyed mystical fun. The Wrath of Khan had a top-quality bad guy and a line in Shakespeareanism that several of the movies retained

plus of course the death of Spock and the start of a space-bromance story arc that just about kept Star Trek III: The Search for Spock alive (along with some Jewish-derived ritualism and the pleasure of seeing Shatner et al. trussed up in corsets under their generously-cut uniforms). Number 4, The Voyage Home was well-meaning eco-criticism with some fine moments of comedy. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was rather poor and the sixth one, The Undiscovered Country (that's a Hamlet line kids) was a confused but again well-meaning attempt to examine the messy consequences of the end of the Cold War. The First Next Generation movie Generations, was appropriately about a failing and ageing franchise tried to come to terms with irrelevance through a plot line about an alien race keeping itself young by rather unpleasant methods, then accepting that time marches on. Star Trek VIII: First Contact was what inspired the Enterprise series: an enjoyable tale of myth-busting as the Enterprise's crew go back in time to meet the unlikely and largely unpleasant selfish drunk who got humanity into space back in the day. Good knockabout fun.

And then, having discarded most of the original actors from TOS and TNG, we got the JJ Abrams reboot. The first two were kind of fun: glossy high-octane stuff with more than an added touch of 90210 or Dawson's Creek. In Space. Bearable, but not particularly Star Trek beyond the signifiers.

Beyond this, I've even incorporated Trek into my professional life: stardate 2017 sees the publication of my seminal, earth-shattering paper on Star Trek, Doctor Who and Governmentally. I even bought the Beard of Evil towel to drape over the lectern for the conference presentation version.

Last night, I went to see Star Trek: Beyond. 

Beyond Parody.
Beyond Belief. 

Beyond me, certainly. How bad was it? Warp 10 bad. Phasers-on-stunningly terrible. So execrable that I cannae take any more. Worse than any pun I could come up with. I went with, amongst others, an astrophysicist: we didn't even get on to the film's scientific delusions, so engrossed were we in enumerating its dramatic flaws. Visually, of course, it was amazing. The design of the space station Yorktown was clearly derived from 1960s science fiction illustrations. The rest though, was dreadful. Preening post-teen Californians? Oh yes. Appalling, leaden bromance? Present and correct. Faux-profound exposition of the moral and philosophical underpinnings of the Federation that could have been written by a teary-eyed 4 year-old? You got it. Apparently we should all be nice to each other.
Spock: Fear of death is illogical.
Bones: Fear of death is what keeps us alive.
Captain James T. Kirk: We got no ship, no crew, how're going to get out of this one?
Commander Spock: We will find hope in the impossible.
Captain James T. Kirk: My dad joined Starfleet because he believed in it. I joined on a dare.
Doctor 'Bones' McCoy: You joined to see if you could live up to him.
Doctor 'Bones' McCoy: You spent all this time trying to be your father, and now you're wondering just what it means to be you. 
Krall: Unity is not your strength. It is a weakness.
Captain James T. Kirk: I think you're underestimating humanity.

Every time an actor assumed the expression usually associated with severe constipation, you knew one of these 'deep' statements was coming. By about an hour in to this overlong film I was sighing. Another 15 minutes in I was balling my fists. By two hours I was curled up in a ball, sobbing and begging for the pain to stop. But at least I understood the ennui expressed by James T. Kirk a couple of years into his five-year mission.

An ancient weapon taken apart and disposed of in deep space so that it can't be used again, suddenly reacquired? It's there, apparently borrowed from any old episode of Stargate and indeed the later Hitchhiker's Guide novels. There's some awful, soul-sapping attempts at humour, an ancient motorbike found in the bowels of an ancient ship on an alien planet that still works and is integral to what passes for a plot, and the universe is saved by a Beastie Boys track played on a galactic stereo system. The women are still largely objects of fantasy, and rather dependent despite superficial attempts to make them heroic. The weakness of one woman's emotion is the means by which the bad guys acquire the fearsome weapon too. Feminists: in space, nobody can hear you scream.

The whole thing felt like one of the Transformers movies, or The Fast and the Furious. Some of the characters appeared to be directly derived from their Galaxy Quest parodiesRelentless, shouty, loud, plot holes deeper than the biggest black hole imaginable and a deliberate insult to the intelligence and moral core of the original series (and even the movies). It felt like the dialogue was simply filler between overlong music videos. No reflection, no moral doubt, no nuance. Just some uniformed teenagers getting bored and angsty and fighty.

It felt like someone had dug up the corpse of Star Trek, smeared it with their own faeces, then worn its skin as a suit in some kind of enormously profitable act of necrophilia. Except without the 'philia'. Yes, the old Treks were often cheesy, morally flawed, overly-sentimental and subject to the whims of lazy scriptwriters and hack directors, let alone the vicissitudes of its cultural context. But they were never, ever, cynical. They reached for the stars and sometimes – often – failed to reach escape velocity. Star Trek: Beyond lacks ambition, soul, brain cells and purpose. It's dead, but it doesn't even deserve a decent burial in space.

I have been Star Trek's friend. I can no longer claim that I always shall be. Its assimilation into the mindless collective has been completed. This is what Justin Lin, Paramount and the whole damned crew have done:

In the words of this film's Kirk, 'let's never do that again'.

PS: It was nice that Sulu is shown to be in a same-sex marriage. That bit was fine. The other 119 minutes though…

Friday, 22 July 2016

Every Loser Wins, Or How I Became An Academic

When did I first realise that I was destined for a career in academia? Obviously as teacher of sorts I should add some qualifiers: 'career' is a hollow joke and I'm not entirely convinced I'm really an academic, so perhaps the question is 'when did I realise that I was unsuited to what people habitually refer to as normality?.

A few clues appeared early on. I recall being invited to a meeting with the head teacher and my parents on the subject of reading. Aged 8, I'd exhausted the school's entire stock. I'm not sure I understood it all, but I'd read it. I gather that a donation was secured and more boring books about children learning practical and moral lessons were procured. A similar thing happened at the local library a few years later. I moved on to the adults' books and – perhaps slightly weirdly – decided I may as well tackle them alphabetically. The advantage of this was that I became very widely read, though not very discerning. Additionally, some extremely heated discussions ensued when my parents – hugely intellectual but entirely uninterested in fiction – took offence at some content. They objected to science fiction in its entirety, as well as anything with bad language in. Imagine their displeasure when they found me tucking into an SF novel whose protagonist was called Porno! (If anyone can tell me what that title was, I'd be very grateful). Having 4 sisters and a brother, I also worked my way through the complete works of Enid Blyton and similar authors, and now have an unparalleled though perhaps slightly misleading understanding of a) boarding schools and b) horses.

I don't have any regrets about finding science fiction early. After reading some pulp stuff about rockets, I got to B in the adult section and found Douglas Adams and JG Ballard, which made me realise that science fiction wasn't really about technical details and dematerialisation, but about the possibilities and horrors of what we're already doing to each other: utopians and dystopians using future frameworks to hold up a mirror to capitalism, imperialism and all sorts of other -isms. And being entirely indiscriminate, I read all the sub-genres and strands going. I also read Catherine Cookson and Jilly Cooper and Miss Read and all sorts of other things you wouldn't expect a schooled to be reading, which is why I'm not a total snob.

I know that beyond your socially-constructed definitions of quality (and I do think there are differences in quality between say Gawain and Goldfinger), there are socially-constructed contexts and uses for all sorts of text that are all worth taking seriously (one of my friends told me all about Stalag Fiction: Hebrew-language Nazi concentration camp erotica, so nothing about human behaviour gives me the vapours any more.

Playtime at school was rather binary: I was either reading a book or being beaten up, usually for reading a book, which apparently was an outward sign of being 'bent' (teenagers then weren't known for their liberal qualities) or a coping strategy for being bad at sport. After a while the thugs got bored and it was accepted that as long as I kicked the ball back when it came near me, my presence would be tolerated. It also led to another distinct occasion on which I realised that I wasn't Normal. Not having a VCR at home (the devil's work) I headed off to a mate's house to spend an entire day watching Vietnam movies. After taking four hours to watch Full Metal Jacket because they kept rewinding it to view heads being blown off in spectacular fashion, I noticed that I wasn't watching it for the same reasons. My friends liked a) gory deaths and b) spotting continuity errors. I didn't care for the explosions but was thrilled by the idea of an anti-war war movie, even one which didn't care about the Vietnamese in the slightest (as Caroline Magennis says, this is why academics can't have nice things – they can't help picking holes in them). I remember sitting there wondering why it felt like my friends and I were watching two different movies: even now I run sessions on reader-response with students in which we talk about where their interpretations come from and why extreme boredom is a perfectly acceptable response to a text as long as you're prepared to analyse its origins.

After a while (a very, very long while: 3 high schools and a university entrance via the Clearing system later), the advantages of doing nothing but read became apparent academically. OK, I lacked any social skills whatsoever and couldn't keep up with a bronchitic slug and was constantly disappointed by the real world's lack of style, manners and car chases, but I had acquired some critical faculties independent of the philistinism of the educational system and national curriculum. I'd read all of Jane Austen because she was near the start of the alphabet, not because I'd been told her work was Classic and Important. Rather than being turned off by veiled comments delivered over tea, I found a sarcastic, worried and witty voice which had plenty to say to me despite me being very far removed from stately homes and muddy petticoats.

Getting to university after this kind of self-education meant that I was in the right frame of mind to work independently, to resist regurgitating the opinions of others, and to dive heading into any text I was asked to read, then read even more off-piste. It didn't feel like work: Clarissa led to Pamela led to Shamela; Shakespeare led to Gammer Gurton's Needle, The Chester Noah Play and all the other Mystery Plays, but also to Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Harlem Renaissance, and Anne Lister; the Brontes led to Radcliffe and Beckford and Edgeworth, Kate Roberts and Rose Macaulay… It also helped that Bangor University's English department, while being fairly conservative in many ways, was packed with interesting tutors who encouraged people to head off into the unknown, and to take chances: I acquired an education in philosophy, performed (terribly) on stage, got some rudimentary Welsh and ended up doing an MA and PhD. The result is that I still spot odd things and patterns in texts and how people relate to them, but now I get paid to point them out to other people rather than beaten up. Take that, former classmates!

Which is all a long-winded way of saying: if any of this sounds like you, you have a bright future as an academic ahead of you. Well, a future anyway. Wait 'til I tell you about the admin. You'll love that bit.

PS: recent reading recommendations: I've just read Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The former seems like a slightly dotty period piece, with one of the most famous first lines ever:
“Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that animal on her return from high Mass.”
It's on oddity which mixes Brits-abroad comedy, a tinge of Cold War fear, an obsessive interest in the minutiae of relations between Anglo-Catholics, ordinary Anglicans, Catholics and Muslims, which suddenly and belatedly takes a very dark turn. Funny and very moving. Jackson's novel isn't funny at all. I picked it up on a whim and was hooked immediately. It manages to combine light, conversational style with the darkest of psychologies: the 'secret' can be guessed within the opening pages but it's a horrifying, Gothic novel like distilled Faulkner.

I'm going back to random reading over the summer: I've a shelf or two of old orange Penguins. I've put them in order of publication and I've started at the beginning. Next up is Rex Warner's The Aerodrome

Thursday, 14 July 2016

It's not fair

Today is my birthday and the cosmos has bought me The Apocalypse, at least politically. I've been chairing panels at the British Comparative Literature Association's annual conference. It goes like this:

Beep: Happy Birthday
Beep: Another Lizard Creature has been put in charge
(20 minutes of erudite high-minded discussion of literary matters by clever people)
I say something dumb
Beep: Beelzebub is now Minister for Baby-Eating
I clumsily introduce the next genius to talk about things I haven't read.
(Another 20 minutes of intellectual exploration).
I hope fervently that someone else has better questions than the ones I've written down in case of embarrassing silence
Beep: New Environment Minister says 'I'm against it. The deforestation starts tomorrow'.

And so on, ad infinitum. 

Yesterday I watched the Cabinet Appointments and wondered if Theresa May is trolling us. It's the auto-satirising government. For instance, not long ago she posed in this t-shirt (sorry to start by discussing a female PM's clothing but this time it is relevant.

This occasioned the Telegraph to ask:

Well, maybe. But one of her first appointments was David Davis, who ran his election campaign based on a Page Three-style pun. So I doubt it. 

As to the rest: let's just remember that the Foreign Secretary once referred in a speech to 'picanninnies' with 'watermelon smiles' and claimed that black people had lower IQs than whites, campaigned against immigration while omitting to mention his American birth and citizenship, was fired from one newspaper for faking quotes and was recorded helping a friend organise a beating over a business dispute.

Oh yes, he also published a comic novel about suicide bombers. It's called Seventy Two Virgins and it is quite, quite racist. All the Arabic characters have hooked noses, which gives you a rough idea of Boris's literary abilities.

 He also thinks that the ban on fox-hunting puts the Labour party at the moral level of Nazi Germany and Saddam hussein's Iraq.

What a day to be alive.

Monday, 4 July 2016

From Despair Thus High Uplifted: John Milton Live Blogs the Tory Election

Lines Upon The Current Election Within Ye Conservative Party, penned somewhat in advance by Mr. John Milton, Regicide and former Latin Secretary to the Commonwealth.

Prologue: having Fallen, ye Demons of the Conservative Interest do Cast About for an Leader to renew the Warre 'Gainst Heav'n.

But first whom shall we send
In search of this new world, whom shall we find
Sufficient? who shall tempt with wandring feet
The dark unbottom'd infinite Abyss
And through the palpable obscure find out
His uncouth way, or spread his aerie flight
Upborn with indefatigable wings
Over the vast abrupt, ere he arrive
The happy Ile; what strength, what art can then
Suffice, or what evasion bear him safe
Through the strict Senteries and Stations thick
Of Angels watching round? Here he had need
All circumspection, and we now no less
Choice in our suffrage; for on whom we send,
The weight of all and our last hope relies.

all sat mute,
Pondering the danger with deep thoughts; and each
In others count'nance read his own dismay
Astonisht: none among the choice and prime
Of those Heav'n-warring Champions could be found
So hardie as to proffer or accept
Alone the dreadful voyage…

Part Ye First: Mr Boris Johnson, giving his Celebrated Rendition of Satan:

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshon the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showrs on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit rais'd
To that bad eminence; and from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain Warr with Heav'n, and by success untaught
His proud imaginations thus displaid.
who here
Will envy whom the highest place exposes
Formost to stand against the Thunderers aim
Your bulwark, and condemns to greatest share
Of endless pain? where there is then no good
For which to strive, no strife can grow up there
From Faction; for none sure will claim in Hell
Precedence, none, whose portion is so small
Of present pain, that with ambitious mind
Will covet more. With this advantage then
To union, and firm Faith, and firm accord,
More then can be in Heav'n, we now return
To claim our just inheritance of old

Part Ye Second: Moloch, played by Dr Liam Fox, Apothecary and Meddler:

My sentence is for open Warr: Of Wiles,
More unexpert, I boast not:

let us rather choose [ 60 ]
Arm'd with Hell flames and fury all at once
O're Heav'ns high Towrs to force resistless way,
Turning our Tortures into horrid Arms
Against the Torturer; when to meet the noise
Of his Almighty Engin he shall hear [ 65 ]
Infernal Thunder, and for Lightning see
Black fire and horror shot with equal rage
Among his Angels; and his Throne it self
Mixt with Tartarean Sulphur, and strange fire

Part Ye Third: Mammon, guis'd as Ms Andrea Leadsom, counselling continued resistance to Europe Heaven:

what place can be for us
Within Heav'ns bound, unless Heav'ns Lord supream
We overpower? Suppose he should relent
And publish Grace to all, on promise made
Of new Subjection; with what eyes could we
Stand in his presence humble, and receive
Strict Laws imposed
Our greatness will appeer
Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,
Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse
We can create, and in what place so e're
Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain
Through labour and insurance.
All things invite
To peaceful Counsels, and the settl'd State
Of order, how in safety best we may
Compose our present evils, with regard
Of what we are and were, dismissing quite
All thoughts of warr: ye have what I advise.

Part Ye Fourth: Mrs Theresa May in full Costume as the Prime Minister of Hell, Beelzebub counselling Unity and Sneaky Revenge:

Thrones and Imperial Powers, off-spring of heav'n [ 310 ]
Ethereal Vertues; or these Titles now
Must we renounce, and changing stile be call'd
Princes of Hell? for so the popular vote
Inclines, here to continue, and build up here
A growing Empire; doubtless; while we dream, [ 315 ]
And know not that the King of Heav'n hath doom'd
This place our dungeon, not our safe retreat
Beyond his Potent arm, to live exempt
From Heav'ns high jurisdiction, in new League
Banded against his Throne, but to remaine [ 320 ]
In strictest bondage, though thus far remov'd,
Under th' inevitable curb, reserv'd
His captive multitude
Warr hath determin'd us, and foild with loss [ 330 ]
Irreparable; tearms of peace yet none
Voutsaf't or sought; for what peace will be giv'n
To us enslav'd, but custody severe,
And stripes, and arbitrary punishment
Inflicted? and what peace can we return,
But to our power hostility and hate,
Untam'd reluctance, and revenge though slow,
Yet ever plotting how the Conqueror least
May reap his conquest, and may least rejoyce
In doing what we most in suffering feel?
Nor will occasion want, nor shall we need
With dangerous expedition to invade
Heav'n, whose high walls fear no assault or Siege,
Or ambush from the Deep.

Part Ye Fifth: Belial, here Performed by Mr Michael Gove, Esq. 

On th' other side up rose
Belial, in act more graceful and humane;
A fairer person lost not Heav'n; he seemd
For dignity compos'd and high exploit:
But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue
Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low;
To vice industrious, but to Nobler deeds
Timorous and slothful: yet he pleas'd the ear,
And with perswasive accent thus began.
our final hope
Is flat despair; we must exasperate
Th' Almighty Victor to spend all his rage,
And that must end us, that must be our cure,
To be no more; sad cure; for who would loose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being

and thus is born ye Reluctant Candidacy of Mr. Michael Gove now as Satan:

Satan, whom now transcendent glory rais'd
Above his fellows, with Monarchal pride
Conscious of highest worth, unmov'd thus spake

But I should ill become this Throne, O Peers,
And this Imperial Sov'ranty, adorn'd
With splendor, arm'd with power, if aught propos'd
And judg'd of public moment, in the shape
Of difficulty or danger could deterr
Mee from attempting. Wherefore do I assume
These Royalties, and not refuse to Reign,
Thus saying rose
The Monarch, and prevented all reply,
Prudent, least from his resolution rais'd
Others among the chief might offer now
(Certain to be refus'd) what erst they fear'd;
And so refus'd might in opinion stand
His Rivals, winning cheap the high repute
Which he through hazard huge must earn

Part Ye Last: Response by Ye Tory Party Faithfull:

He scarce had finisht, when such murmur filld
Th' Assembly, as when hollow Rocks retain
The sound of blustering wind
no less desire [ 295 ]
To found this nether Empire, which might rise
By pollicy, and long process of time,
In emulation opposite to Heav'n.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Bullshit and the End Times.

Back in the late 18th and 19th centuries, there was a minor craze for contemplating The End, through the medium of vast, thought-provoking canvases of familiar landscapes. Europe's ruling élites were familiar with the ruins of Rome, aware of the parallels between that empire and the various ones they were constructing, and a small proportion of these chaps wondered if sic transit gloria applied to them too. 

One of these was Sir John Soane, who not only commissioned the enormous, Classical, Bank of England complex, but also commissioned Joseph Gandy to paint his new gaff utterly destroyed in some unspecified future.

Joseph Gandy, A Vision of Sir John Soane’s Design for the Rotunda of the Bank of England as a Ruin (1789)

Not that this taste for thrilling contemplation of destruction has gone: there's a rather distasteful aestheticisation of industrial decay known as 'ruin porn' in photographic circles, from Chernobyl to guided tours of Detroit. Then there's Ballard's Tales of the Near Future. 

Why am I thinking about this stuff now? Well, it's been a weird week. On Monday and Tuesday I went to Swansea to examine a PhD and ransack the bookshops of what Dylan Thomas called an 'ugly, lovely town'. Barely a new infrastructural development lacked an EU plaque, yet like all of Wales outside Y Fro Cymraeg voted to leave. I returned to lengthy emails and texts from colleagues and friends from all points on the political spectrum expressing feelings of devastation. One of my friends – a banker – has joined the Conservative Party to vote for the most ludicrous leadership candidate possibly to ensure that they become unelectable. Though looking back on this week, I'm not sure the Tories need the help. 

The Labour Party is ripping itself apart as the right and left wings, the MPs and the members, the pragmatists and the idealists, the capitalists and the socialists engage in a blood bath. Personally I'm stuck in the middle. I happen to agree with pretty much everything Corbyn believes, but I think it's true to say that he hasn't managed to engage in the day-to-day political trench warfare required in this appalling polity. His opponents, however, are awful: most of them are right-wingers whose own constituents defied them to vote Out, a lot of them have blood on their hands from Iraq, and they're precisely the kind of polished, remote, managerialists the public now hates utterly. 

Yesterday I went to London for a British Academy lecture on Writing Political Leaders, which turned out to be a chat with Michael Dobbs of House of Cards fame. I read the newspaper on the train. Stirling had plummeted. Investment had crashed. Farage had insulted his fellow MEPs to applause from Marine Le Pen, a halal butcher's shop was burned down in Walsall, a Polish cultural centre had been vandalised, and several people had been racially abused in the street. The Governor of the Bank of England had announced that billions would have to be magicked up to save the British economy following the vote. The Leavers were explaining that they never really promised to spend £350m a week extra on the NHS:

Actually, I agree: people are quite naturally reading the bus slogan as a continuous sentence rather than as separate sentences. Remember The Simpsons

Bart sees an advert for Itchy & Scratchy cells:
Commercial: Each one is absolutely, one hundred percent guaranteed to increase in value.
Voiceover: Not a guarantee.

As I entrained, Boris Johnson's rag doll Michael Gove announced he was standing for the leadership of the Conservative Party. As I detrained, I heard that Boris Johnson wasn't standing, the night after Mrs Gove the Daily Mail columnist accidentally sent a weird strategy email to a member of the public, which advised her husband on negotiating with Johnson. To her, the approval of Rupert Murdoch and the Mail's editor was of paramount importance: the actual citizens weren't mentioned. So we have a Tory lineup (this morning, anyway) of Sajid Javid, a Ferengi who believes only in the Rules of Acquisition and whose favourite book is Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and whose favourite film is the adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Liam Fox who is essentially Major Corkoran from Le Carré's The Night Manager, Big Brother's keener protege Theresa May, Stephen Crabb the (he says former) homophobic bigot who is backed by his associates Malfoy and Goyle, Andrea Leadsom who is a wholly-owned subsidiary of various hedge funds and who likes to send her money away on holiday to some very discreet islands in the sun, and Michael Gove who looks like Pob, sold schools to his rapacious weirdo friends in business and assorted sects, and insisted to a Parliamentary committee that all schools could and should be 'above average':

Q98 Chair: One is: if "good" requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?
Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.

Q99 Chair: So it is possible, is it?
Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.
Q100 Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?
Michael Gove: I cannot remember.
The Remainers thought everything would be fine because chaps will do the decent thing. The Leavers never thought they'd win so didn't bother thinking about what might happen if they did. The financial sector is in meltdown (but will recover just fine even if it means stepping over heaps of our skulls). Labour is engaged in a protracted and cynical war and the government of the country is staggering from crisis to crisis like someone stuck in a wasp's nest who has forgotten where the entrance is. One of my friends pointed me to Harry Frankfurt's short book On Bullshit, in which he explains that there's a difference between liars, who at least know what truth is and orient themselves around it, and bullshitters, who speak according to the pressing demands of the moment without having even the regard for truth required to be a successful liar. As an analysis of our post-truth politics, it really works.

However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity which resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline.  
It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit. 
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires…It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art.
The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor co conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction… He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. 
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a personís obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled – whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. 

No wonder I'm thinking apocalyptic thoughts.

So yes, I went off to London for this Writing Politicians Event. Before that my cool and clever young cousin took me to a glamorous restaurant: we were the only customers who lacked a limo and chauffeur outside, and couldn't discuss our yachts. You could tell it was a great restaurant because despite being a decent cook myself I had absolutely no idea how the various dishes were made. Then we headed off to take in a matinee to cheer ourselves up. It was called The Truth, a French farce in which an incompetent adulterer discovers that his wife, lover and her husband (the protagonist's best friend, who is sleeping with his wife) are slightly more competent adulterers than him. Sparkling, well-constructed and feather light, it promised to be a grand distraction. Only it gradually dawned on me that it was a comical allegory of the British Ruling Classes. There's Boris, betraying his friend Dave. Here's Michael, betraying Boris… et cetera ad infinitum.

Then off I went to the British Academy, the only branch of academia outside Oxbridge that had hundreds of millions of pounds to spare, judging by its accommodation round the corner from Buckingham Palace. It was billed as 'Writing Political Leaders' and featured Dobbs talking to an Oxford Professor of Chinese History. I went because I'm researching politicians' writing at the moment and I had Dobbs on my panel at the Cheltenham Festival. I was hoping to meet other people researching the same thing, and also a tiny bit annoyed that I hadn't been asked to be part of the panel.

Turns out that it wasn't an analytical or academic event at all: it was a mutual love-in for old and young Tories, and my God the larval Tories were terrifying: 18-22 year-olds dressed as their great-grandfathers keen to learn how they too could be Francis Urquhart or Frank Underwood. Certainly a future Tory leader was in the crowd – probably one or two of them have joined the race this morning. It was also rather creepy that not a single female said a word throughout the 90 minutes. Margaret Thatcher was reverentially discussed (Dobbs candidly and admiringly said that she dispensed with his services ruthlessly a week before the 1987 election and Edwina Currie's books got a passing mention), but this was an event for, by and about the patriarchy. Still, on such a dramatic day it was interesting to be surrounded by Tories: they had nothing interesting to say on the subject (Dobbs: 'I don't know whether Boris and Michael are acting out of principle or for personal reason, it's usually the latter') but their very demeanour was instructive. Dobbs wheeled out the same anecdotes he had at Cheltenham and there were no interesting questions. Not exactly up to the level I expected from the British Academy but I suppose they're interested in maintaining links to power. And at least I learned that the field is still free for my amazing revelations…

Who knows what fresh horrors this afternoon will bring?

Friday, 24 June 2016

No, me neither

Unlike the very distinguished professor who said to me 'it's never crossed my mind that there could be a Leave vote. Do you really think there might be?', at least I have the freezing cold comfort of being right this time. I learned my lesson during the last election, the result of which confirmed that neither I nor anyone I know is of or understands the bulk of the British electorate. I have students of most political shades and we do occasionally speak of these things but on the whole they're firm supporters of the Weather Party: politics is like the weather in that it's uncontrollable and happens to them whether they like it or not. So I don't get much of an insight into the general public that way.

I'm also enmeshed in a web of political fantasies: I hang out with Communists, Irish and Welsh nationalists of the nice variety, trades union activists, historians and philosophers. The Britain I carry around in my head has two sides. There's the nuclear-armed Imperialist murderer/American lickspittle with all its freight of fears and prejudices, fuelled by the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Express, resenting human rights, foreigners, benefit scroungers and sniffing out paedos on every corner. Then there's the Britain of Paine, Wollstonecraft, William Morris and Walter Crane, Tolpuddle, William Price, Rowan Williams, Robert Owen and the Co-operators, the Lancashire mill-workers who starved rather than handle slave-produced American cotton, Edith Sitwell, Ivor Cutler, the International Brigadiers, the Commonwealth (despite the Irish unpleasantness), the Levellers, the Chartists, Suffragists, Peter Tatchell, George Formby, John Peel, satire, Cable Street, The Miners' Next Step, Kinder Scout, cricket, the Clarion Clubs, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Cymraeg, Speakers' Corner the Left Book Club, the Guardian, the Kindertransport, Clement Atlee and the NHS, CND, The Field Mice, hunt saboteurs and the Ramblers' Association, trades unions and queuing politely and apologising to people who've walked into you. Basically the side of Britain that doesn't see Abroad as somewhere to be invaded, feared or patronised.

Today it's hard to see that second Britain, the eccentric, open-hearted, generous, funny, radical and welcoming group of nations. I always assumed that its spirit lived on, that the people of the South Wales valleys for instance would remember the hundreds of thousands who marched for their jobs and volunteered to die in Spain for democracy, or the Welsh who struck and wrote and lobbied and committed acts of civil disobedience for their language, their homes and for peace. I was wrong. I cannot see the Tolpuddle Martyrs in Dorset's vote to leave the EU, nor does the spirit of the Pankhursts live on in a country which has decisively decided that it doesn't want any human rights, thank you very much.

What do we have to look forward to? In my immediate surroundings, the loss of European colleagues and students, of access to that sophisticated network of thinkers, ideas and resources, let alone funding. Environmental protection will go, as will employment protection: it's all just 'red tape' after all. Our food will be further adulterated, the air will go foul, the poor and the black will find no refuge and our former colleagues in the EU will have no sympathy at all for this self-inflicted wound.

There's a tiny bit of me that thinks Britain had it coming: never having adjusted to being a second-rate power after losing its imperial possessions, it never tried acting in the collective interest, never tried to play a constructive role, couldn't act as anything other than a wrecking ball in the EU. What surprises me is that the other countries didn't have a referendum on throwing out the UK. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for Britain to learn a little humility, and with the loss of Scotland, perhaps the tiger will be tamed, having lost its embarrassing job as America's sergeant-major. However, these unworthy thoughts won't help the people of Britain, particularly those Out voters who will be the first to suffer when EU development grants and subsidies are withdrawn from the Valleys and the Northern English ex-industrial heartlands.

How did we get here? It's tempting to suggest that the Brexiteers are prejudiced Know-Nothings, but I'm a utopian socialist: I believe that the majority of the people have the capacity for greatness given the right conditions. I don't blame Nigel Farage and his little band of red-faced blazered petit-bourgeois golf-course revanchists. They're a symptom rather than a cause. The cause is the complete abandonment of political vision and trust by the British left. The right has always had two faces: backwards-looking social conservatism of the kind espoused by grassroots UKIPpers, and hardline free market neoliberalism. They've always been completely honest about what they want from the electorate. The conservatives want a society in which everyone knows their place and weirdos (women, foreigners, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, trades unionists) basically anyone who wouldn't be welcome to dinner with David Archer) do what they're told. The neoliberals don't care what colour, sex or gender you are as long you also don't interfere with the distribution of money from the poor to the rich through the financialisation of the economy.

So that's the Right: completely honest. Then there's the left. It had a good 1940s: the war demonstrated that collective effort could bring about good things: defeat of the Nazis, the NHS, widespread nationalisation of industries that had failed in the private sector. It occasionally spasmed back to life: Wilson's Open University, for instance. But on the whole, the Left utterly failed to develop any vision of the post-industrial society that the Right was busy making real. The Right occasionally made gestures in the direction of social conservatism, but it was essentially happy to trade mass employment and high wages for increased shareholder value. That's how we got a Chancellor who said that high unemployment was a 'small price to pay' for low inflation, a Labour Prime Minister proud that Britain had the worst worker protection in Europe, and a legislature made up of landlords and tax-evaders passing laws to make the UK a tax haven.

What did the Left do? Did it (like William Morris) imagine a bright future based on socialist values and kindness to all? It did not. The hard left deluded itself into thinking a revolution was just around the corner, the soft left imagined conspiracies around every corner and the Third Way Blairites and Clintonites gave up entirely and aimed to do nothing more noble than soften the edges while having no critique at all of neoliberalism and the new imperialism. Convinced that the working classes were all paranoid racists, they acted on those assumptions, until we got to the point of Labour – once the protector of the poor and huddled masses – selling mugs promoting crackdowns on immigrants.

How were the people so fooled? The neoliberals were quite happy to misdirect blame from capitalism to immigrants/Europe/whoever while they got on with seizing our water, phones, railways, health service and anything else not nailed down. The Old Right genuinely believed it, and the press – from the screeching Mail to the apparently balanced BBC – either promoted these discourses or allowed them to go unchallenged. Just look at the way welfare benefits and refugees were replaced by benefits cheats and illegal immigrants, scroungers, benefits tourists and the rest.

What I and my friends on the left entirely failed to do was set out both the scale of the economic problem and optimistic, realistic solutions. Labour got used to treating the working class as an embarrassing, lumpen bunch that would do what it was told, but that it avoided meeting as much as possible (not true, of course, of many dedicated individuals) rather than as a source of strength, ideas and inspiration. Such assumptions have a habit of coming true. Into the void came the peddlers of poison: the Tories who should know better and the UKIPpers and assorted fascists who probably don't. They promoted easy solutions and obvious causes and Britain fell for them. It's a commonplace in religious studies that the decline in organised religion doesn't lead directly to atheism: it leads to the mushrooming of 'alternative' spirituality, from Prosperity Churches to crystal healing. I think it's the same in politics: if you deprive people of agency, if you treat them with contempt, they will abandon you and they will listen to those peddling simple, relatable lies.

Before I voted, I asked myself some simple questions. Would my students be more free out of the EU? Could the same be said of my friends who work in call centres and Amazon warehouses? Would my friends under the care of the NHS get faster, better treatment? The answer to all these things was 'no'. Britain hasn't voted from freedom, it has voted for corporate sovereignty, governed by a group of people who see their job as delivering the people to the corporations.

There's a lovely country out there, full of wonderful people. I and my friends simply forgot that it needed water and sun and weeding to keep it alive. While we neglected the garden, the slugs and weeds quietly got on with their job.

Be nice to someone today. It's all we have left.*

*Well, I also have an Irish passport. It might come in handy.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Man hath no love greater than this: that he lay down his country for his frenemies

What can one possibly say about the murder of Jo Cox, an unassuming, hardworking Labour MP while she went about her job of listening and talking to her constituents, whether Labour voters or not? Her murderer is said to have had mental health problems and to have subscribed to fascist and racist publications and groups. The weight you give to both aspects of his life largely depends on a complex mix of preconceptions and biases. The hard-right newspapers such as the Sun and the Mail are keen to portray him as a 'mad loner' and downplay his politics; commentators on the left want to see it as an act of political terror.

My honest answer is that I don't and can't know the precise causes. Being a wet liberal I've always assumed that anyone who deliberately kills other than in self-defence, from a general to a drunk, is mentally ill in some way, but I'm also fully aware that of the enormous number of us who suffer from a range of mental illnesses only the tiniest fraction harm themselves, let alone others. I'm also very uncomfortable with the idea that because someone has an unspecified mental illness, we should deny them the agency of political views and the responsibility for their actions. If Thomas Mair was a racist bigot, we can't simply assume these are the products of his illness, however tempting and comforting that may be. It lets him off, but it also lets off those clamorous voices in the media which have grown ever more shrill and sinister: Donald Trump, the Daily Mail and the Express, Britain First and everyone who 'likes' their moronic Facebook posts, Nigel Farage and his friends, not forgetting those who cynically stoke up the fires of hatred out of opportunism rather than belief.

Only a few days ago we mourned the murder of fifty people for their sexuality in the United States, often accompanied here in Europe with a subtext of 'it couldn't happen here'. It probably couldn't, at least not on that scale thanks to the gun laws, but Jo Cox's murder should remind us that those instincts aren't exclusive to the USA. The managerial, technocratic politics of the End-of-History, which simply suppressed deep social fissures by proclaiming the triumph of the market has caused an atavistic resurgence of mostly hard-right, neofascist politics amongst those excluded from the magic political circle. I want a political system that's responsive, hard-fought, passionate and ready to have big arguments over the things that matter: it's not a gentlemen's game or the equivalent of management consulting, and when it seems like them, the people get angry. But nor do I want a politics that's played out on the street, a politics of shouting-down and beating-up or, as yesterday, of murdering our opponents.

What seems to have been lost is the notion of good faith: the idea that your opponents, however deluded, want the best for their chosen polity, whether that's a country or some other imagined community. Is anyone to blame for this? The easy answer of course is to say that we all are: that the corrosive cynicism of particular newspapers, commentators, culture and our own lazy assumptions have conspired to make politicians seem irreversibly cynical, lazy and corrupt. All of these things are true: Jo Cox, my own MP Rob Marris or any number of MPs from every party go to work every day dealing with things ranging from the horrors of the benefit system and what it does to their constituents, to painstaking, boring, line-by-line analysis of new legislation, to voting whether or not to bomb one country or hug another. It's hard, tedious and often lonely work.

However, politicians themselves must shoulder much of the blame. Those on the left and the right have worked hard to restrict politics as a practice to Westminster; they've abandoned much of their responsibilities to the market and ended up looking either like cheerleaders for the zero-hour, financialised economy and neoliberal, Clash of Civilisations hegemony, or as helpless onlookers of it. They've narrowed the boundaries of what can be reasonably discussed, from nuclear weapons to taxation to immigration (respectively my instincts are for abolition, raising and appreciating) and the type of people who are allowed to engage (it still very much helps if you're English, southern, white, male, privately-educated, went to Oxbridge, though women and homosexuals are gaining grudging acceptance). Nor does it help when credit is grabbed with both hands while blame is apportioned to others, currently the poor and the foreign.

The most breathtakingly cynical act of modern British politics recently was this European referendum. No major change in the UK's membership is proposed. A United States of Europe has not been declared, more's the pity. No earth-shaking constitutional changes are mooted. Rather the Prime Minister decided that the entire future of his country was a small price to pay for a temporary ceasefire within his own party and to fend off the advances of UKIP to his right. What's the old saying? 'There is no greater love, than that a man lay down his country for his frenemies'. The UK has for too long used the European Community/Union as a bogey-man or a scratching post: I'm frankly surprised that the rest of the EU isn't having a simultaneous referendum on throwing out the UK. As the debate has become less and less anchored in reality, xenophobic and atavistic tendencies have emerged. Whatever the contribution mental illness made to Thomas Mair's actions, the ruling classes bear an awful lot of responsibility for turning political engagement from a mass activity to a spectator sport, in which the teams are impossible to distinguish. It was inevitable that cynics would direct the unfocussed anger of the excluded into frightening channels, and that some tiny number of the dispossessed would emerge to do terrible things.

I will also say this: all politicians are guilty to some extent for behaving as though we shouldn't worry our little heads about politics. However, despite the public pressure not to 'politicise' the murder of a politician by a man shouting a political slogan, I believe that in particular, the Conservative Party's turn to neoliberalism has directly led to yesterday's murder. It turned away from 'One Nation' paternalistic conservatism and became the local branch of untrammelled, unregulated capitalism and financialisation. Anything the state does is now suspect. We have been trained to want the sale of our public services and to abandon our commitments to shelter the needy and those driven from their homes by war and terror. Our mental health services have been driven into the ground and those who – possibly including Thomas Mair – might benefit from therapy and care are left to fend for themselves, or offered mindfulness classes. Having encouraged us to see immigrants and refugees (or more accurately, poor, black immigrants and refugees) as freeloaders, bloodsuckers or diseases, often for electoral advantage, the Conservative Party cannot then disclaim responsibility for those even more extreme voices which simply follow their logic. The 'ratchet effect' of the 1980s claimed that a concerted effort to move political discourse to the right would force Labour to follow, and they were right: but the more space the Tories opened to the right, the more they had to occupy it themselves, however high-pitched the dog-whistle may be at times. If you want to see what a small-state, 'there is no such thing as society' polity looks like, you no longer have to move to Somalia. You can see it in microcosm when a man can become as ill and extreme as Thomas Mair without anyone noticing.

Who is more guilty than the politicians? We are. As a net-syndicalist I would say that as soon as we allowed politics to become a specialised activity practised by rich weirdos in hermetically-sealed spaces, we engineered our own disenfranchisement. They became the captives of their party whips, their donors and their increasingly unrepresentative parties. Look at the Conservatives now: a party essentially without a membership, and one which would far rather take millions from oligarchs to pay for Facebook campaigns than a party which actually wants to hear from millions of potential voters and members. Labour too has these tendencies: professional politicians in all parties think that the voters are basically selfish bigots to be appeased rather than the source of radical and progressive ideas who have a right to determine the nation's path. Donors are much more impressive, with their sharp suits, PPE degrees and private jets. But around the edges the extremist parties are peeling off the disillusioned with simple answers and easy solutions…

Politicians can't save us, but we can save the politicians. Nigel Farage and his friends aren't the cause: they're the symptom and the product of our age. If we encourage the best in our representatives and enforce a new mode of participatory political action – however uncouth and uncomfortable it may be at times – perhaps, just perhaps, we can reduce the chances of another Thomas Mair meeting another Jo Cox.