Sunday, 30 July 2017

"Orange is the New Black"? Rubbish. It's Scrubs with shower rape jokes

Growing up one of my favourite films was Trainspotting. Wit, snappy cutting, MTV aesthetic: it was heroin as pop video. ‘Just choose life...’ The blu-tacked face peered down from my bedroom wall. If there was anything I aspired to, back then, it was to become a drug addict.

It was a trend that persisted throughout the iconic films of the 1990s. Oldman in Leon, Keitel in Bad Leuitenant, Thurman in Pulp Fiction: charismatic stars taking drugs in designer colours to cool soundtracks. Awesome! It was only later I began to wonder if it really appropriate to film narcotic addiction like you’d shoot the titles for a Blur video. Legalise them or not, drugs do change lives, especially young ones. Had Trainspotting done for drugs what Tarantino did for guns? In other words, should coke and heroin abuse really be made to look cool?

Which brings me onto Orange is the New Black, which has been airing for a while here. It’s the witty gritty tale of a woman imprisoned for a brief contact with a drug dealing girlfriend a decade ago, and it has some good points: it has a bisexual lead, which is good to see; it’s wittily and snappily written, fluidly filmed; it’s entertaining pizza television.  

So what’s wrong? And how’s it any different from the rest of the focus-grouped and test-screened U.S. sitcoms, which are generally pretty watchable in a time-wasting kind of way?

Here’s what’s wrong. A series about prison life – about damaged lives, violence, trafficking – doesn’t need to be fun. It doesn’t need to be sassy, or smug, or snarky. Sitcom values aren’t appropriate here. How funny is a colonic strip-search for prisoners who are actually forced to undergo them, rather than the attractive actresses pretending to for a few takes before they waft back to their trailer? Do we really need to raise a smile about starvation, racism, sexual abuse? Do we need this stuff enacted by a shiny cast of mostly beautiful people who help to make prison look kind of fun – Scrubs with shower jokes?

And boy, is Orange twee. It’s aggressively twee. It's like being waterboarded with caramel smoothies. Cool, gentle, new-age, indie boyfriend? Check. Cool, gentle, new-age, indie soundtrack? Check. Cool, cute scenes of lying around in bed checking photos and Netflix on Apple tablets? Check, check, check. It's awful. Orange is fodder for the iPad bourgeoisie. 

The thing is, I can take twee. I can: I just need it to be quarantined. I need twee to be kept in its own little Twee-hole, cute and pink and curly – and I need it to stay there. When twee embraces social commentary (black people! human rights! prisoner abuse! #WeReallyDoCare) it feels tonally jarring – like a segment on child suicide in Nuts! magazine. I get that this is the kind of class slumming the show is gently mocking – we’re as complicit as the lead character in finding out what prison’s “really” like – but... Well, no. Sorry. Orange is TV wanting to have its cupcake and eat it, to be both thoughtful social commentary and iPod froth at the same time. I don’t buy it.

I’ve been briefly imprisoned myself (only a few hours, for a mistaken arrest, but boy – those few hours really mark you) and had DNA swabs in my mouth and all the other routine invasions of the body modern policing rests on, and let me tell you there’s nothing funny about it. And I was only in there for about three hours. Orange is the New Black is a smart, smug, sassy, snarky, sarky piece of moving wallpaper, but it won’t be going up on my wall. Which makes me also wonder how many prisoners’ll actually get the chance to watch it. Or if they'd want to.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Book review: All the Places I’ve Ever Lived by David Gaffney

The doctor stares down at my skin.

“You don’t know how it happened?”

I shake my head. “I don’t remember anything.”

“You say you were reading something.”

I try and remember.

“There was this book...”

She sighs. 

“Do you remember the name on the spine?" 


"Was it... David Gaffney?”

I look up.

“There’s been an outbreak,” she explains. “Early-stage Gaffney-exposure. We’re trying to keep an eye on it. Feral themes cloaked in prosaic absurdity, witty period pop-references, slippery plotting: it’s burying beneath peoples’ mental defences and planting itself in their subconscious.” The doctor stands up and walks over to the calendar, then picks up a rectractable biro. “We think it might be spreading.”

I swallow. My skin is burning.

“Doctor,” I say, “am I going to be okay?”

She turns back and looks me up and down. She clicks the biro, twice.

“Of course. Just sit tight. A couple of men from the Ministry will want to talk to you.”

“What men?”

She turns and scribbles something on a pad. “Nothing to worry about.”

My eyes narrow. The calendar on the wall...

“Doctor,” I say. “What year is it?”

“What do you mean?”


She looks me hard between the eyes.

“It’s 1976,” she says. “Now don’t you worry. Lie back and close your eyes and everything will be okay.”

- Dale Lately

All the Places I’ve Ever Lived by David Gaffney is out now on Urbane Books 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Trump a fascist? Well he certainly has a neo-Nazi fanbase...

It’s reckoning time. A few weeks in and even those of us who thought it couldn’t be bad – well, it can. It is. How could it be any worse? Flagrant racism, bumbling autocracy, Twitter diplomacy – and God Knows What to come.

Is Trump a fascist? Perhaps that depends on your definition of fascism. If you count it to mean “bigoted autocrat with a fondness for executive rule” then he is. If you count it to mean mass exterminations and martial law well then, no, not really. Although it’s still early days.

But a fascist fan base – well, that’s much clearer. We all know that Trump was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, something that’s pretty disturbing in itself. But it goes deeper than that. The Alt-Right communities that spurred his success online have certainly got roots in neo-Nazi thought – less “alt” right than “far” right.

They may have ways of hiding it, though. And here’s how.

Take the idea of “human biodiversity” floated by some prominent bloggers. At first it sounds like a term from the left: an inclusive approach to human difference, perhaps? But human biodiversity is really just a new way of dressing up eugenic racism – an unpleasant bit of pseudo-science aimed at dividing and “classifying” humanity into clear, well-defined groups based on skin colour, population difference and racial hierarchy. (Or “racism in a lab coat”, as the Baffler magazine put it).

Because Twitter and the like have hate speech policies in action, many online hatemongerers found a novel way to spread their ideas: using three parentheses on either side of a name to indicate someone of Jewish origin. This social media answer to the “Juden” Nazis used to paint on the doors of Jewish families ultimately proved, like Trump’s words, largely unpoliceable (there is nothing obviously offensive about parentheses, to either human or algorithm – so they’re nearly impossible to remove systematically from the platform).

This “closed captioning for the Jew-blind” as one white supremacist gleefully put it, successfully “outed” a number of online journalists in targeted hate campaigns which sought to mock Jews or expose supposed Jewish collusion in controlling media or politics. It served as a flagging device for other anti-Semites, and led some writers to experience death threats, anti-Semitic cartoons, home phone calls and delightful memes (like the photo of the gates of Auschwitz with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” slogan replaced by “Machen Amerika Great.”)

The offenders have since developed their dark “netiquette” further with a kind of Turing replacement-code where innocuous words – “googles,” “skypes,” or “yahoos” for example – stand in for racial slurs. The result are tweets like “Chain the googles / Gas the yahoos” or “If welfare state is a given it must go towards our own who needs. No Skypes, googles, or yahoos.”

Such obvious race-hate is an ugly thing to encounter anywhere, but it’s far more frightening when the techniques it employs are adopted by those seeking political power. Trump is well-known for his attacks on opponents, but what’s less well observed is the underhand meanings implicit in some of those attacks. He tweeted a meme about “Crooked Hillary” which featured her face and the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!”. This slogan appeared in a little coloured star which at first sight looks like standard desktop publishing style. The star, though, was the Star of David, and a giant pile of atop a giant pile of money: the insinuation is not so very subtle.

Elsewhere he talked repeatedly of “global special interests”, another dog-whistle term that sounds conveniently vague to the outsider but is all too specific for those in the know (as Will Drabold put it in Mic, “Donald Trump says "global special interests." Anti-Semites in the alt-right hear "Jews."”).  Always keen to attribute his sources, he once even openly retweeted something from WhiteGenocideTM, a user fond of white nationalism and neo-Nazi imagery, in an unintentionally surreal message that manages to mix petty jibing with a nod to the swastika brigade:

@WhiteGenocideTM: @realDonaldTrump Poor Jeb. I could've sworn I saw him outside Trump Tower the other day!  

It got over nine thousand Likes.

The extent, the potential, the possibilities are still unknown to us. But someone who can retweet someone calling themselves White Genocide is either exceedingly stupid or at least sympathetic to fascists. Right now it looks like both could be possible.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

The Christmas Carol doesn’t make me think of the Nativity: it makes me think of Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit doing a tap-dance

We all know what Christmas Day is about. Gazing through suburban drizzle at the Tesco Metro sign behind the slate grey rooftops and wondering how long you can last without self-harming? No: it’s about snow, and family, and a roaring fireside, and tradition. Or more accurately it’s about watching snow and family and a roaring fireside and tradition on a massive Toshiba plasma while you attempt to stifle domestic resentment with an evening of Sky One and burpy alcoholism.

Yes! All up and down the country, the blissful, holy peace of Christmas morning is aflutter with the happy sound of gigantic flat-panels flickering to life and bringing Victorian sideburns and hansom cabs clattering into the living room… It’s Christmas; it’s yet another adaptation of Charles Dickens.
Feeling the festive spirit
I tried reading a book by Charles Dickens a few years back. I advise against it. Dickens wrote over six hundred novels, each of which is twenty thousand pages long, and every single paragraph is couched in impossibly meandering, ornate thickets of narrative foliage. Sometimes it seems to take weeks just to reach the next full stop; the average Dickens sentence is longer than many modern short stories. 
I've never understood the national love-affair with Dickens. The Angelic children and chaste maidens, the saintly paupers, the grasping social climbers – it all just feels so stagey, so hackneyed. Call that a character? I swear I’ve cut out figures from the back of Frosties packets with more psychological depth. wonder if investing all the Dorrits' money in that precarious pyramid scheme is going to turn out well? Who could that mysterious, motherly old crone be who keeps coming to watch like a mother at the gates of the factory that belongs to the “orphaned” Thomas Gradgrind? It’s all about as surprising as a GPS update; so how can something so well-loved feel so howlingly obvious 
Well, there’s a very good reason: TV adaptations. In other words, the reason we feel like we've seen it all before is because… well, because we have seen it all before. If the twentieth century represented a sort of mass move towards literacy, then the twenty first heralds the rise of the post-literate culture, a world that’s moved beyond the book. Media has cycled and recycled the giants of literature into marketable (and profitable) cliché. The result is that we’ve encountered their motifs so frequently that it almost feels underwhelming when you come across them in print.
“What’s Scrooge doing in a book?” was what occurred to me, as I flicked disinterestedly through the Christmas Carol in Waterstones. He actually felt rather out of place there, as if he’d strayed off the screen from an ITV special and accidentally got left behind, presumably wishing he’d stayed in his trailer. Why would anyone read about Fagin when Fagin's currently co-starring with Danny Dyer on the West End? Or bother to churn their way through about nine hundred chapters of the saintly orphaned Nell when they can see the saintly orphaned Nell doing Celebrity Come Dine With Me?
In this sense, the adaptation has become more important than the work it’s based on. It would take a very high minded household to produce a young adult today who came to Dickens afresh; in fact, I’d say it’s almost impossible for someone born in the last few decades to approach the great writers except through adaptations. How many people recall Pride and Prejudice for its sensitive exploration of social propriety and familial bonds, against the ones who just remember Colin Firth jumping into a fishpond? Say ‘Dickens’ to most people and they don’t think of books, they think of fake snow and Bafta-alumni. In my case, A Christmas Carol doesn’t evoke the Nativity: it brings to mind Kermit the Frog tap-dancing to upbeat musical numbers as Bob Cratchit. 
Not that any of this is particularly new of course. Humanity has always spent a significant part of its time rewriting its bygone sages. Shakespeare was ‘reinterpreted’ with rather astonishing results in the nineteenth century by various luminaries including Thomas Bowdler, who cut out all the nasty stuff for a family edition – effectively a pre-television age of editing for the watershed. Poet laureate Nathan Tate went even further and improved King Lear by giving it a much-needed  happy ending, an interpretation which seemed to go down well with Victorian audiences. In our own day the production line of recycled literary classics chugs away so fast that the adaptation is arguably a whole new genre in itself. A recent Wuthering Heights movie played like a cross between a German silent expressionist film and an extended episode of Emmadale; Nicholas Nickleby was combined with social commentary on abuses at elderly care homes. At this rate it can't be long before we see Bleak House presented in three minute story-bites acted out in text-speak by a group of hooded youths standing beneath a flashing T-Mobile sign to a backing track of pounding dubstep. Well, at least it’d give the Rada graduates some new dialogue to learn.
The result is that the Dickens industry acts as a sort of colossal ‘spoiler’ to anything he actually wrote: the staples of classic fiction feel familiar because we’ve already met them elsewhere. A post-literate society doesn't necessarily know more, but it is more knowing. So perhaps that’s why I groaned as I stumbled through yet another Dickens ‘revelation’ that was so obvious to me it might as well have been painted on the side of an articulated lorry and driven through the narrative crushing curiosity shops along the way. ‘You can’t seriously expect me to buy that,’ I gasped to myself: it was just so trite and hackneyed that it felt…
… Well, how shall I put it? For want of a better word, it felt positively Dickensian

Thursday, 1 December 2016

UK seeks extradition of dangerous extremist

Sources close to Whitehall have suggested that the government will be seeking extradition of a man with dangerous extremist views.

Although he has lived in the UK for some time, the extremist bears a foreign surname, claims ancestry among migrant populations, and has worked for decades alongside various other extremists in Europe to destabilise British society.

He cannot be named.

Reports suggest that the extremist’s dangerous rhetoric has caused deep divisions in society and may be responsible for the loss of thousands of jobs, a rise in violent crime and the possible collapse of the entire economy.

“ISIS themselves couldn’t have done a better job of wrecking the nation,” one source close to Westminster said.

"Arsehole," he added.

Rumours suggest the extremist will be strongly encouraged to seek refuge elsewhere, and may be able to find work in America.

“We’re not racists, we just think there’s a place for a sensible discussion about emigration,” said a spokesperson from the Home Office. “Specifically, this man’s emigration.”

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Who’d have thought it? Sneering at people doesn't win them over

Like many people, I spent the morning after Trump’s election on Facebook.

Yes, I know. Lazy. But I had a reason. I want to understand the echo chambers that are shaping our views. How else to connect? How else to commiserate with people I knew about the imminent end of the world? Lots of my friends are writers and comics; by mid-morning I was starting to feel that Armageddon might not be so bad if at least we retained our sense of humour.

But one comment stuck in my mind. It was from a British stand-up, posted sometime in the early hours after the result was declared, and it was this.

One useful statistic to come out of this election is that at least 57 million Americans are assholes.”

I should say that it wasn’t representative of the guy’s output. I haven’t seen his stand-up but I’ve followed his Facebook posts – fast, frequent and hugely popular – for a while. Most of the time they’re extremely witty and inventive. 

But this one?

57 million Americans. You blink at it, in the same way you gasp at something in Family Guy, Onion, Louie, in a “Did they actually say that...?” kind of way. But aside from any issues of offence, what’s really interesting here is the assumptions that post reveals. I think they’re important. In fact I think they might even partly explain why we’re contemplating a Nightmare in the Oval Office.

The comedian in question (I’m not going to name him) is a fairly typical British comic, part of the left-leaning comic boom that exploded since the 2000s with a mission to deconstruct misogyny and xenophobia, refute the men’s movement, challenge the ideas of UKIP or the American Alt Right. Fine. I’ll admit that’s partly why I find him funny, since I share those views. But a post like this – though it might have been made on no sleep in the heat of the moment, when much anger is habitually spilled – suggests a slightly darker side to this progressive mindset.

Here’s what it reveals.

First, it assumes it’s okay to talk about America in the way that someone like Donald Trump talks about Islam. Would my comedian use the same language to talk about India or Brazil? I think not – and for good reason. It reflects a generation of the British left that grew up being taught to mock America after the invasion of Iraq, who speak in an aggressive, secular, anti-US Imperialism tone, with an assumption that anybody is fair game if they don’t agree with you.  

But the second point is much more interesting.

57 million Americans are assholes because they don’t agree with this comic. Really? All of them? That’s nearly the population of Great Britain. And why exactly? Because they dared to differ from him in their views on race or gender or climate change and show it in the ballot box.

Is this the level to which civil discourse has descended?  

I know I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s too important to let alone. There’s a huge problem on the left with sneering at people who aren’t deemed “virtuous” enough in Millennial liberal terms – those we like to call racists, misogynists, homophobes, and so on. It reflects a simplistic binary mindset – a world of good and evil, them and us, fools and sages, with ourselves cast (of course) on the side of Luke Skywalker.

Now, I don’t like Trump. I think xenophobia was a huge part of his attraction. But this kind of sneering doesn’t just cause offence. It helps to cause alienation and anger. And that anger makes people vote for right wing populist causes. Like Brexit. Like Trump.

Every time the electorate fails to vote liberal we get much head-scratching at the fact that the working classes who used to vote left now vote right. I think there are many, complex reasons for that. But couldn’t a part of it be because they’re sick of being branded as bigots?

Much of Facebook has become a sneering machine aimed at people who fail to display enough liberal virtue; many of these people, like Brexit or Trump voters, are working class. The result is a sort of mass stealth snobbery. I’ve seen people referred to as scum, trash, dickheads; I’ve heard them referred to in ways that would be declared hate speech if it came from the right.

And here’s the ironic thing: while witty, erudite, left-leaning pundits like my friend are flawless in defending the rights of minorities (and a good thing too), they also overlook a huge, glaring, economic minority, one that sits within their own midst – the millions of displaced people in the ex-industrial areas, the north of England, the Welsh valleys, the US rust belt. The laid-off. The jobless. The despised. The places that voted for Brexit and Trump.

I live in one such area. I brush up every day to people whose opinions differ radically from my own on things like migration, sexual orientation, feminism. I don’t count close friends among them. But neither do I want to brand them as assholes for the crime of not agreeing with me. Rather I’d like to try and talk to them. Understand them. Perhaps, you know, maybe even put my point of view across. 

Take yourself away from the safety net of social media, and you realise it’s possible to try and understand people whose opinions you don’t share without resulting to abuse. The sociologist Arlie Hochschild recently moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, a town of 75,000 all but ruined by the petrochemical industry in an attempt to understand the roots of Trumpism. How did Hochschild do this? By talking to people. Yes, people who liked the Tea Party. Or Sarah Palin. Imagine!

I don’t want this essay to be misconstrued. I feel deeply uncomfortable around sexism, xenophobia and I feel quite sick at the thought of the four years to come. But I also believe that the left needs to start listening to these “left behind” people rather than screaming at them, patronizing them, or calling them assholes – or God knows what the next blow to the liberal dream will be. All the indicators suggest that this swing to the right is going to get substantially worse before it gets better; we may well be facing eight years of Trump, or at least another populist Republican. (The Right’s on the rise in continental Europe too; sound familiar?).

So let’s try and understand rather than condemn. We should be building bridges not burning them. To put it another way, if Trump called 57 million people assholes, would we let him get away with that?