Saturday, 1 December 2012

Shitty jobs – that’s how we’ll make Britain great again

‘We’re looking for outgoing, proactive people here,’ the woman in charge of recruitment said joylessly, in a tone of voice that suggested she’d missed her medication that morning. ‘Would you say you fit that description?’
I watched the drizzle hammer at the window beside a sign that said ‘Performance Targets’.
‘Er, yeah,’ I mumbled. ‘Outgoing and proactive... Yeah, that’s a pretty good description of me. Sometimes, anyway.’
I really didn’t want to be here.
This isn’t just because I don’t like wet, miserable business parks. It’s because I don’t believe in this. In any of it.
 ‘We need to get Britain working by creating jobs,’ ran the Conservative manifesto in 2010. ‘Millions are living the misery of unemployment.’ Left or right, the consensus is that the panacea to our limping, staggering economy is jobs. Jobs provide income, income provides growth, growth provides jobs. Jobs are a Good Thing. Everyone thinks so. Jobs jobs jobs jobs jobs...
            Well I don’t. I think a lot of jobs are pretty awful, quite frankly. And unnecessary. Sit in rush hour traffic and you could self-harm your way through an entire Heart FM breakfast show before you saw one fulfilled looking face; alright, maybe you wouldn’t expect to, but are these jobs really all that useful for society? Builders and dinner ladies and teachers are useful. But management consultants? PR wonks? Ambulance chasers? How is it of benefit to society to have a load of people sitting in a business park cold-calling people at home who haven’t asked, aren’t interested, and would be better off without it? All those call centre slaves peddling junk loans or no-win-no-fee claims – how does that make a better, more trusting society?
I’m not trying to undermine just how horrible unemployment is. But does that really mean we get to justify any kind of job whatsoever on the basis that it provides ‘growth’? As far as I can see, drug dealing adds to GDP and employs people (and also contributes to at least one kind of ‘growth’, to judge by the number of students visiting garden centres to buy industrial numbers of window boxes) – does that mean we should encourage that too? How about jobs that involved mis-selling PPI, or ruining businesses, or bankrupting the state from the offices of a City skyscraper? Are they a good thing too? How about the jobs created by clearing up the financial wreckage of the biggest recession in half a century, created by people whose jobs were supposed to be good for growth? Is that good for growth?
I’m confused.
‘Look at the noble savage whom the missionaries of trade and the traders of religion have not yet corrupted with Christianity, syphilis and the dogma of work,’ says the nineteenth century revolutionary Paul Lefargue, in a book rather attractively entitled The Right to be Lazy, ‘and then look at our miserable slaves of machines.Well, I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but I did happen to see some ‘miserable slaves of machines’ with my own eyes recently when by some bizarre chance an agency picked up my dishevelled joke of a C.V. and got me an interview for a call centre position in a business park three and a half thousand miles outside of Manchester.

Or at least it felt like it as I rode there in the rain. The road began as a friendly, curvy little thing, like a partner making pleasant chit-chat on a date – and then suddenly without any warning tipped me unceremoniously into a ditch and announced that it was now a motorway, Thank you very much. I had to drag my bike through the mud another half mile just to get off it; finally, spattered and fume-choked, I escaped onto a slip-road, doubled back, doubled up, squinted at a bus stop, nearly went as far as the airport, thought about leaving Manchester via the airport, before I finally chanced on a building that looked like an oversized Kodak camera and staggered up towards the entrance lobby.
I have to admit it wasn’t exactly a great start. I was already appallingly late, and by now looked as if I’d slept in the field of one of the local farms, possibly cuddling up with a family of pigs to get me through the night. A woman standing at reception watched me in horror as I neared the entrance. For a minute I thought she was about to press the alarm button and have me manhandled to the floor by security, but perhaps they were used to people coming in to beg for change, because with a wary look she buzzed me inside.
‘Did the agency tell you the wrong time?’ my future employer said hesitantly, glancing at my dogshit trousers, my rain-spattered face.
‘Er... Yeah,’ I muttered, turning red. ‘Probably. The fucking road turned into this motorway...’
I tailed off. 
‘Yeah, they told me the wrong time,’ I muttered.
There was a silence.
‘I... guess you’d better come upstairs.’
I was led past a hive of call centre drones, all gabbling and babbling into headsets in long, regimented rows. It reminded me a bit of that scene where Neo wakes up in The Matrix, except the embryonic humans in the film weren’t attempting to get someone to sue their local swimming pool. Also, the ones in the film at least had the chance of suddenly waking up somewhere in a better reality. A beefy bloke on the end stared at me in amazement, as if I were the first outsider he’d seen for months. I suspected they might have kept him chained to his seat.
My interviewer walked quickly, like she was worried I might be about to pocket some of the electrical wiring, and promptly seated me in a little interview room where she cross-examined me with a checklist.
‘Are you working at the moment, Dale?’  
I cleared my throat.
‘Er, I’m sort of freelancing,’ I said, in what I hoped was an outgoing, proactive kind of voice. ‘Trying to get a writing career together.’
She glanced at me with the same kind of warmth you might regard a tricky carpet stain.
‘Writing career?’
‘Yeah.’ I felt myself wilting a little. ‘Er, I’m sort of putting a few feelers out there right now.’ 
A long silence.
She looked at me with a sort of vague sympathy for someone out of work. I looked at her with a sort of vague sympathy for someone working here.
‘Right,’ she said.  
The rest of the interview took about as long as it takes the average person to blow their nose. As I stumbled back out of there (rather unceremoniously shown the exit, I noticed, without much in the way of further contact mentioned), I gazed around at the drizzle, the voided landscape, the acres of asphalt, the gigantic motorway, and wished – just for a moment – that I could believe in all this: that I could readily spring out of bed each morning and burn a cloud of hydrocarbons along a massive motorway in order to sit in a cramped booth for nine hours ringing up people I didn’t know, making the world an even shittier place than it already is, and be glad I had a job. But I couldn’t. I just wanted to go home. They might call it growth, but quite frankly I think it's just an enormous waste of time.  

Monday, 19 November 2012

Urban Outfitters? It's like a hard-drugs version of Accessorize

 Here are just some of the essentials the style-conscious hipster can pick up in Urban Outfitters:

·       a mug that accuses you of being a ‘coffee slut’
·       some hip flasks with the injunction to ‘fuck my liver’  
·       a book that says ‘This is not a book’ on the cover  
·       a pair of retro ‘Vans Classics’ sneakers placed on a stone plinth like they were fucking Mesopotamian carvings on display at the British Museum
·       human hair from one of the less famous Nazi concentration camps, woven into a novelty pillow celebrating the 1981 Nintendo 'Donkey Kong' classic (this isn't actually true) 
·      a bathtowel decorated with pictures of worryingly young naked girls, which isn’t illegal, because it’s being ironic
·      another three floors of worthless posturing shit displayed with astonishingly high prices you’d have to be a dribbling moneyed scumcake to even contemplate buying

Security guards with radios, trainers on museum-plinths, Guantanamo indie blasted out so loud it makes your ears cry - the minute you walk in you know that this isn’t so much a shop as a prison camp for the terminally cool. Certainly it's hard to see the difference between most of the stuff in here and your average car boot sale, except that it costs twenty four times as much as you feel it should and somehow lowers your legitimacy as a human being if you purchase it. 
I couldn’t imagine wanting to ‘outfit’ my apartment here – not unless I was a millionaire cokehead reupholstering a Hoxton wankpad in the middle of a nuclear apocalypse – but I did at least learn one important axiom of twenty first century retail: that you can put any old rubbish in a deep brick recess under cold strip light and declare it a must-have. You’ve got to hand it to Urban Outfitters. They could make turds look cutting edge.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Let’s stop kidding ourselves: the only truly sustainable lifestyle option is to stop living

‘Transport was a green priority and, fortunately, Fishers Farm Park were prepared to supply us with a Shire horse and antique hay wagon,’ one green-minded bride reports happily in a Guardian piece about ‘sustainable weddings’. ‘After the wedding I crushed the empty champagne bottles and put them in our kiln to make cheese plates.’
... Shire horse? Kiln?
           I’m not resource hungry by western standards. I bike around, live in shared flats, eat mainly biscuits. I haven’t got as much a carbon footprint as a carbon tiptoe. So when I encounter the kind of smug landed gentry who spend their weekends rustling up vegan recipes on their five grand fitted kitchen, and then boast about it in a selfless, heroic way that suggests they're personally responsible for reversing climate change because they only buy free range – well, you know. I'm all for green, but green chic... 

Thinking green: BP''s contributions to sustainable energy
It’s easy to be sustainable, of course, when you have access to a large home and garden, and one or two cars, and money and time, and when you live in leafy hamlets that necessitate burning the annual carbon quota of Andorra just to drive to – the kind of ‘village’ filled with cottage industries who massage the guilt of middle class professionals by selling them artisan food and home-made crafts and allow them to indulge in the fantasy that they're a benign visitor from a Thomas Hardy novel. It’s hard to see how you could master anaerobic composting from a one bedroom tower block flat in Luton.
Still, it’s easy to see why ‘green guilt’ is a flourishing industry when you look at the examples we’re given

Cameron and right-hand hit man George Osborn are ‘passionate’ about sustainable policy, which is why they've passionately refrained from putting any in place. Sure, some might carp on about what the Coalition has so far done to reduce carbon emissions (nothing, basically) or promote a move from nuclear to renewable energy (nothing, basically) or improve infrastructure for cyclists (nothing, basically) or support the green economy (nothing, basically) or sustain grants for people to insulate their homes (nothing, basically) or not try to sell off large tracts of Britain’s forests (nothing, basically) or curb unnecessary car use or shorthaul flights (nothing, basically) or try to live up the promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’ – nothing, basically.
But it doesn't matter. Because they know the secret, and the secret is this: it’s not about being green, it’s about seeming green.
Just look at the corporate sector. Thought multinationals were just rapacious leviathans bleeding the earth dry? Wrong – they have to respond to democratic pressure too. The major dirty industries have now all realised the error of their ways and done what they should have done long ago – invest staggering sums of money in expensive PR to make themselves look more sustainable. Who would have thought that Shell and BP and Exxon would turn out to be green! Well, they are. Not in the sense of ‘good for the environment’, perhaps – but ‘green’ in the sense of ‘our website and adverts sort of look green’.
          ‘Look,’ they could say. ‘Our adverts sort of look green.’
          ‘But that doesn’t mean you’re green,’ one might reply to them. ‘You’re still extracting oil from brutal regimes at staggering environmental cost to be  converted into polluting hydrocarbons.’
The age of responsible oil 
          ‘We are,’ they would reply. ‘Go and look at the website. It’s really green.’
          ‘Beyond Petroleum,’ breathes the renamed BP – an odd name, perhaps, for a company whose business is, however you look at it, petroleum. ‘Petroleum’ is what they should have called themselves, perhaps – as in ‘British Petroleum’. Still, go and look at the website. It’s really green.
          It’s an example we can all learn from. Let’s face it, in environmental terms we’re all pretty much screwed – only this summer an entire United Kingdom’s worth of ice disappeared from the polar caps. Anyone who believes that installing a high efficiency lightbulb is going to save us from Eco-Geddon is indulging in a dreamy, planet-sized slab of self-denial, but at least we can make ourselves feel better about ourselves while we commit species suicide. The real challenge we have ahead of us is to learn to enjoy our plasma TVs and central heating in while telling ourselves we’re blameless because our house is built with 0.7% energy saving materials. 
Think I'm being ironic? Then ask yourself how willing you are to give up hot showers, and Wi-Fi, and shorthaul flights, and your phone, and a fridge, and all the other million things that you're certainly not going to give up. The idea that we can continue to enjoy these things without staggering environmental cost and concomitant human suffering is a bit like the citizens of Atlantis throwing down a few sandbags to line their patios even as the waves begin to lap at their shore. As far as I can see the only sustainable lifestyle option is to stop living.
But at least we can bring the mood up a bit. Buy an organic turkey this Christmas. Buy some soap made with marginally less harmful products or a 'bag for life'. Treat yourself to a little greenwash. Watch Al Gore's film again, where the earth's environmental crisis is reduced to a slideshow on an Apple laptop, a laptop made, presumably, with sweatshop labour using precious semi-conductor metals mined in an African warzone. Watch that beautiful David Attenborough thing about the ocean again - transmitted to energy-burning plasma screens all across the country to remind us just how destructive all our energy burning and plasma screens are. Greenwash is such beautiful therapy. The planet's ****ed, but at least we can enjoy the closing ceremony. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Just remember: you’re all in this together

Britain: a place where people born into wealth
and privilege can rise into even more wealth and privilege
Learning disabilities, terminal illness and cancer? Sounds like you need to be getting ready for work, you little slacker.
Isn’t it annoying when you hear about workshy shirkers loafing around on sickness benefit when they could be filling call-centres and Primark store-rooms? Take twenty seven year old Ruth Anim, who apparently “can’t work” just because she needs a “one-to-one carer” and has such severe learning disabilities she can’t even cross a road. Since when did a terminal illness stop anyone manning the phones at Claims Direct? Are we going to let so-called ‘cancer sufferers’ lie around enjoying their chemo when they could be made to do low-paid shifts for big companies?
Another lazy good-for-nothing avoiding work
It annoys the government at any rate, who are busily turfing mountains of the idle sick onto jobseeker’s allowance with a secret weapon known as its ‘Work Capability Assessment’ (actually a New Labour baby, for the record). Because this is a party which believes in helping yourself. More of these claimants need to follow the example of Stephen Hill, who was successfully forced by the government back into work – so successfully, in fact, that he keeled over from a heart attack 39 days later. Now that’s the kind of determination everyone’s looking for! Just look at the Cabinet itself, which is full of inspiring examples of riches-to-riches. Did they just sit there lying around waiting for somebody else to make it happen? No: they pulled their finger out, gritted their teeth, and inherited substantial sums of money. And if they can do it, so can’t you.
Let’s face it, austerity has to be borne equally, which is why the hugely wealthy  families and friends of the Cabinet are committed to not bearing much of it. In fact the rich have fascinatingly novel approaches to taxation – which revolve around a complex Economics concept known as ‘not paying any’. Not that any of this ‘tax avoidance’ could be called ‘tax avoidance’ or anything dirty like that. It’s just a different way of working. Thinking outside the box, if you like. Currently the wealthy are thinking so far outside the box on the issue of tax that they’ve actually flown the box to an offshore haven, probably via private jet.
Cameron's pad: just like you and me, really
Top Shop owner Philip Green, for example, was so excitingly progressive in his approach to tax on his dividend of £1.2 billion (the biggest pay check in British corporate history) that he channelled it, excitingly and progressively, straight to his wife in Barbados, without paying a single penny – a £285m loss to the taxpayer. David Cameron was so impressed  he made him a senior consultant to the government.  
Of course you could say that it’s sickening to watch a Tory cabinet born into enormous privilege attack sick people for not having the energy to work in a call centre sweatshop twelve hours a day. You could say that all this is a cynical and predatory attack on the most defenceless in society from those who wield huge amounts of power, thinly disguised beneath a veneer of hard work and entrepreneurialism. Because ‘austerity’ is a magic word that’s full of magical surprises, and one of the most surprising of all is that it means something completely different when it comes to ordinary people – who instead face an exciting new era of falling wages and benefits cuts, while the government does everything it possibly can to protect its cabal of landed gentry, Royals, bankers, media moguls and fox hunting visitors from the nineteenth century from the tiniest bit of financial pain.
All of which raises a new possibility for trying something radical. You listening? Okay. Developed by economists and tested a little bit in places like Scandinavia, this drastic and untested measure is known by economists as ‘taxing the rich’, and could, if done gently, do some amazing things. Michael Meacher, Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton, has pointed out that the wealthiest 1,000 persons (just 0.003% of the adult population) in Britain possess ‘enough for themselves alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit and still leave them with £30 billion to spare.’ Luckily our own beloved Tory government is unlikely to listen to such crackpot ideas! So let’s get back to hounding those terminally ill, learning difficulties, heart-problem loafers into underpaid jobs, in the hope that it might raise a few pence here and there. That’s thinking out of the box – carry on like that and there’s a good chance some of these people might end up in one.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Dale gets arrested

‘We’ve got to process you along with the other criminals,’ the officer explained as she led me into the police station, suppressing a yawn. ‘Then we’ll see what happens.’
          Other criminals? I bristled at the inference. "Processed?"
          Life is an astonishing journey of discovery, I’ve always said, and one of the most astonishing discoveries of all is that the police can take your fingerprints, biometric and DNA data and sling you in a cell, simply because – as in my case – you obviously look a bit like a criminal. Who needs ‘evidence’ in these times of institutional efficiency? All you have to do is sit in Starbucks until one of the staff mistakes you for the bloke who stole her iPhone – they’ll be delighted to throw you in a cell for the evening until they get round to watching the CCTV tapes. Protect and serve...
          The interior of a central London police station is a lot less exciting than I’d imagined it to be. I’d grown up on films where every police headquarters was a heaving pit of thieves and hookers and pushers. Holborn Central felt less a buzzing hub of crime-fighting activity and more like the place you go to sign for a parcel: a few uniforms standing around, a bored sergeant, silent figures melting into plastic chairs. For a moment I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was being arrested or coming in to make an inquiry about my tax status.
          ‘Sarge,’ my office said, as he led me toward the desk where a silver-haired bloke of about fifty stood behind a computer. The sarge glanced at me.
          ‘Charge?’ he asked bureaucratically, in a voice smeared in the east end.
           He looked me up and down. Then he clicked a button on his mouse and glanced at me with an astonishingly profound boredom.
          ‘Can you step forward to the desk, please.'
All the questions you’d expect: name, age, and so on. ‘Are you on any drugs?’ he asked me at the end of the interview. Don’t I wish... How did I feel? Scared, apprehensive... What if they did something to me? What defence did I have in here? They removed my handcuffs and I was led by a burly bloke to another area for the photo shoot and finger scans, which took place in a bare looking little booth with a lens and a computer screen: Snappy Snaps run by a creaking dictatorship. We did a few headshots of me, as I amused myself by providing imaginary replacement dialog in my head (‘Perfect, darling – now just one more to bring out my eyes’) and then he took hold of my hand and placed it down on a pressure pad.
          It wasn’t working properly.
          He swore under his breath as it buzzed an Error message, like we’d got the question wrong in a gameshow.
‘Do you want a solicitor?’
I blinked. I was back at the desk with the sarge, who was processing me with deep indifference, like a prompter reading lines of dialogue from a play.
          ‘But I haven’t done anything,’ I pointed out.
          ‘That’s not what I asked you. You just have to decide whether you want legal aid.’
          Legal aid?
          He sighed. ‘Don’t worry about the bloody films,’ he added, wearily. ‘It isn’t an admission of guilt.’
          More questions followed. It was like we were polite strangers trapped in some awful, surreal role-play, where they were compelled by convention to exchange a few pleasantries, chat to me for a while, then lock me in a windowless room and ruin my future visa applications. And then slip a glove on and force their fingers down my throat.
The smile on the sergeant’s face suddenly vanished.
          ‘At this stage,’ he said, ‘I’m obliged to inform you that we have the legal right to take your DNA.’
One of the cops was slipping on a pair of disposable rubber gloves,
They wanted me on disc. They had my face and my fingers. They wanted my soul.  
          ‘... Really?’ I said. I felt a bit sick.
‘Uh huh.’
          The guy picked a cotton swab from a pack, and slipped it out of its cellophane.
          ‘Step forward, please.’
          ‘Open wide,’ he said, as if he was going to make aeroplane noises while he flew a spoon into my mouth.
Half wanting to throw up, and half wanting to cry, I opened up and the other cop inserted the cotton swab into my mouth. He scraped the swab around my tonsils for a few moments, took it out, and slipped off the gloves. I gazed into space. I felt, in some way, like I’d been assaulted. 
          It took them another three hours to get around to watching the CCTV tape.
          ‘I can’t believe they would do that,’ my student said later, when they got around to watching the CCTV and decided, in a relaxed kind of way, that they should probably let me go free immediately. ‘In my country that could just not happen.’
          ‘Really?’ I asked, with raised eyebrows.
          ‘In Colombia, the police cannot just lock you up just because you look like a criminal. We have rights.’
          After they'd watched the tape and realised that the iPhone thief in it looked nothing like me, to their credit, the police - without a hint of an apology - let me go. But not before I'd spent several hours in a cell with nothing but my own gloomy thoughts for company. Not without keeping my DNA on record. My student may have been right: perhaps it's not fair to lock people up on an idle suspicion, to enact invasive procedures on their bodies. But while I was having a cotton wool swab shoved into my mouth, I wasn’t thinking about rights or wrongs. I was thinking about the taste of it: bland, sceptic, laced by the plastic of his glove. Whatever liberals like me might say, it’s hard not to be at least a little bit impressed by authority when it’s got its fingers down your throat. 

Monday, 10 September 2012

After Armageddon only the spam will live on

Linked up and plugged in: the wonders of the networked society

Forget nuclear war, just let the inboxes battle it out
There’s a thought experiment philosophers have posed called the Free Speech Booth. The hypothesis is this: to quell international concerns that it’s suppressing the right to free expression, a fascist dictatorship establishes small, sound-proof cubicles where citizens can rant as much seditious material as they like – provided that nobody ever hears them. Screaming in a vacuum, if you like. 
            I don’t know the consequences of this particular thought experiment, but I do know that ‘screaming in a vacuum’ sounds remarkably similar to my experience of setting up this “blog” a few years ago to promote myself as a writer. My “blog” – a stunningly successful experiment in national secrecy – was located several thousand miles up a winding gorge in the outer reaches of the internet and had all the virtual footfall of a moon crater in low season. You could have quite happily kept a few nuclear weapons codes there if you’d liked. In fact I was surprised MI5 never asked me.
‘You have to leave it for a while,’ a friend recommended. ‘You’ve got to sort of work at building up traffic.’
I did. I held my breath and counted to fifty. Then I sneaked back to see if anybody had looked at it.
You know that bit in The Blair Witch Project where the helpless kids finally stagger upon a hellish concrete bunker, hidden in a hillside a million miles from anywhere? Well, my blog page felt a bit like that: virtual door hanging off by its hinges; broken windows creaking in the wind; the occasional hyena calling out across the darkening plain.
Number of new visitors: zero.
It doesn’t take a genius to point out that the web is prone to oversaturation, that the problem with a medium where anyone can broadcast their thoughts to the entire planet is that you get, effectively, an entire planet attempting to broadcast their thoughts to the entire planet. It doesn’t take a genius to point out that this effectively is a form of censorship. Once upon a time dissident thought was buried beneath political repression. Now it’s buried away beneath three thousand other search results. It’s not the Gulag Archipelago, it’s the Google Archipelago. As a political mouthpiece, my blog carried roughly the same weight of free expression as would be achieved if I’d stood on an upside-down bucket beside a motorway junction and performed expressive dance to truck drivers as they roared past.
And yet people still ask.
‘Have you got a blog?’ 
            ‘Sort of,’ I reply.
            ‘You need to have a blog, Dale,’ they’ll tell me, cheerfully, as if to suggest that Dostoyevsky might have made a half decent writer if only he’d had a blog.
The weird thing is that I actually do have one now, relaunching myself onto the ‘scene’ with, a cheery road trip around Britain with all the feel-good factor of a smack in the face and a nine hour wait at Watford services. And, yes, I've bragged about my blog. Or rather blogged about my blog. But at least I have the decency to loathe myself for it. Ultimately I'm just another creative-on-the-make striding around with a virtual megaphone broadcasting my output, lost in a relentless spew of glib self-promotion. But this is what the web does to us. Here, for example, is the latest email from a former friend of mine who despite requests to stop, repeatedly spams me about his astonishingly rubbish “comedy” projects:

Hi there    Dale!!!
            What are you doing tonight? Staying in? NO!!! Tonight I'm part of a superb improv team the Googly Gumdrops A “riotously dangerous improv comedy” when two mighty teams of warriors take to the stage to prove!!!!!!!!! Come along and let yourself in for a crazy night of Ticket £7 fun and hilarious chaos as £6 concessions ?region=gb_london&query=detail&...

I contemplated the email in fascination, trying to work out just how much lower I’d have to sink to want to pay six pounds to watch someone almost as unfunny as I am performing to silence and embarrassed coughs in front of a nearly empty audience. Kidney dialysis? Evening in intensive care with a stomach pump for company?
Still, maybe it's just a new way of life. Middle class creative wannabes don’t scam one another, they spam one another. Every time my friend organises another rubbish comedy night his automated server spams my automated server – which has been set to deliver his endless messages straight to my bin. Conversely, whenever I send out rubbish bits of writing such as this one, my automated server spams his automated server, which, I assume, has been set to deliver my message straight to his bin. It occurs to me that this is a bold new vision of communication in the future: no actual conversation, just spam chasing spam. Let the recycle bins sort it all out.  
So, to get back to the beginning, I know all about the Free Speech Booth. In fact these days I pretty much am the Free Speech Booth: a human sized quarantine zone. If political philosophers really want to establish a sound-proof bubble for people to scream out their thoughts while utterly ignored by everybody else, they don’t need to cast around for an underground Samizdat – they just need to start a blog on Wordpress. And then email a link to it to all their friends. There’s so much Free Speech around nobody’ll ever even notice they’re there. 

Friday, 31 August 2012

The Olympics from Half a Mile Away

The joys of the Olympic experience, Newham style

Go Home and Switch on BBC1
I’m no longer a resident of Newham, but I role-played at being one on Sunday night when I was lucky enough to watch the Olympics Closing ceremony from the ‘executive’ vantage point of a crap bit of road near the Bow flyover where a few people were squinting into the distance at the fireworks going off over the stadium. Why did I watch it from there? Well, strangely enough, because there wasn’t really anywhere else to watch it. Sure, there was a park nearby where if you turned up early you could watch it on a screen. Sure, there were several more places around the city where you could watch it on a screen. But if you were right there in Newham without a ticket and not famous at the close of the Olympics, the one thing they didn’t want you to do was watch the closing of the Olympics. Not even on a screen.
            ‘You will not be able to see the end of the Olympics on this screen,’ the steward in the redcoat boomed out to crowds, beneath the shadow of the giant M&S logo on the shopping mall. ‘Anyone wanting to watch the end of the Olympics has to go elsewhere.’
            Evidently the screen had better things to show the residents of Stratford the ceremonies taking place in the gigantic spaceship of a stadium just beyond the Yo! Sushi. Right now the screen was serving the viewing needs of the local community by depicting a spinning Powerade bottle.
‘Hydrating the Athletes!’ it boasted. 
Despite the fact that pretty much all you could do at the gates to the Olympic Park at Stratford was turn up in order to be told to go home again, a surprisingly large number of people had turned up in order to be told to go home again. Primary-coloured crowds swished around beneath the weird fifty foot steel tree sculptures, crashing against the human barriers. Servicemen in yellow coats chatted and cadged fags. An Islamic march, chaperoned by police, was protesting the evils of modern society. Beside them a Christian group, banging on drums, was protesting the evils of modern society. Everybody else seemed to be too busy getting on with enjoying the evils of modern society to listen.
‘Gillette!’ it beamed on the side of a nearby towerblock. ‘Nothing beats a great start.’
A millenarian feel was in the air: people were massing, shouting, protesting, chanting, advertising. I spotted a bunch of guys walking around with the words Is Life Just a Game? emblazoned on their yellow T-Shirts. I went over there expecting a Playstation promotion. It turned out to a Muslim community group from Tower Hamlets attempting to convert me to the Qu’ran.
‘Check out the website,’ he said.
‘Yeah, I’ll... Thanks.’
‘There’s a lot more information on the website.’
More and more people were massing at the gate. ‘Please go home,’ one of the stewards - a young Asian guy, east London to judge from his accent - boomed through his loudspeaker. ‘If you want to watch the closing ceremony, go home and switch on BBC1.’
He intoned the words wearily as if he thought his soul might actually collapse if he had to repeat it one more time. I felt a pang of sympathy for the wage-slave, as well as his colleagues forming a wobbly human wall behind him. They were actually a surprisingly slack bunch themselves: big bouncer-like Poles in security jackets, gum-chewing young women, crew-cuts in shades examining mobiles. Behind them a platoon of bored cops behind them standing around arms folded, checking texts, yawning into fists.
The guys attempting to convert people to the Qu’ran were now taking cameraphone snaps of each other.
‘What does God mean to you?’ someone kept saying. ‘What does he mean to you?’
‘Good people of Stratford,’ another steward was saying through the megaphone, trying to keep the boredom out of their voice, ‘it will be in your interests to disperse. You can watch the ceremony live on your TV.’ The loudspeakers of the religious converts were beginning to sound a lot like the loudspeakers of the security staff.
A couple of white uniformed soldiers were now posing for a picture with the Muslim community group. One of the guys held up a copy of the Qu’ran to make sure it made it into the photo.
I wandered into Stratford itself, the formerly run-down corner of Newham which, since the games came, had magically transformed itself into a run-down corner of Newham with a big stadium beside it. I’d heard a lot about the regeneration legacy – most of which seemed to involve building a huge motorway bordered by Tetris cubes with incredibly expensive flats inside them – and evidently it was paying off: even at 10pm the local Poundland was doing a roaring trade, and the Burger King, McDonald’s and kebab shops were packed to bursting. I tried to get into a park to watch the ceremony on the big TV screen, but was told it was already full of people trying to watch the ceremony on the big TV screen. Wandering down the street I gazed up at the glazed cliff wall of one of the new Tetris apartment blocks, the flats still furnitureless, empty. Giant TO LET signs glue pasted on to the side.
‘Thank you for visiting Newham London,’ a sign beamed. ‘A place where people choose to live, work and stay.’         
In the distance, floodlit orange and purple smoke drifted out through the laserlights. I took that to mean the ceremony had probably finished.
As I cut back towards the gates people were flooding out, the crowds swirled, and the stewards with the megaphones were looking relieved they no longer had to tell anyone to go home and watch it on BBC1. I had to admit there was something jubilant about the scene: drunks staggering around, stewards exchanging phone numbers, religious crazies proclaiming the end of society. I watched the LOCOG redcoats laughing and joking together. They looked more like a staff get-together at Carphone Warehouse than a security force. Say what you like about Group Four, it was sort of nice to know the people employed to keep you out of the biggest public project in recent British history were as unimportant as you.
As I headed towards the station I passed the Christian group banging on drums, still protesting the evils of modern society beneath the glow of the giant M&S logo. A couple of them had evidently got a bit tired and were sharing a fag. I noticed one of them take a swig of Diet Pepsi before picking up her Christ is Redeemed sign and joining in with the singing...
... Then I entered the seething tube terminus where a big mural showed happy, sporty people of all colours peacefully co-existing beside an advertisement for Lloyds TSB.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Call yourself a hypocrite? Rubbish. Real hypocrisy takes work and commitment

                   Perhaps you occasionally contradict yourself. Maybe you tell others not to do something and then find yourself doing the very same thing. Call yourself a hypocrite? Sorry, but you’re not even off the starting line. 
          I've worked long and hard at my hypocrisy. I’ll sit in Starbucks skimming through lefty opinion pieces about the evils of multinationals. I’ll wax lyrical about the ‘common person’ and grit my teeth when I have to share a bus with a load of them. I’ll go to trendy cafes and imagine machine-gunning the poseurs I see tapping out imaginary novels onto laptops, then get out my own laptop and turn it into a scene for my imaginary novel. I’ll get indignant about the ‘voice of the working class’ being ignored in modern society, and then get equally uncomfortable when the voice of the working class votes for the EDL.
Being a hypocrite isn't just about contradicting yourself. There's a richly creative art involved, a sort of theatricality to it. Why not undermine another person while you're doing it? It's easy, and I do it all the time. I’ll stumble on a new word (like ‘crepuscularity’, for example) and then immediately make sure I make anyone who doesn’t know it feel as stupid as I can.
‘It’s got a high level of crepuscularity, doesn’t it,’ I’ll say, casually slipping it in to conversation and then watching their eyes carefully for confusion.
‘Oh…’ I’ll say, with a flash of astonished sympathy, ‘…You don’t know what crepuscularity means?’
At this stage I’ll give them a patronising look that’s calculated to suggest, in the nicest possible way, that anyone who doesn't know what crepuscularity means should probably think about going to live in a cave or having a part of their brain removed. It takes a lot of effort to become as big an arsehole as me.
People think hypocrisy is easy. It isn’t. You have to work at it. You’ve got to trust to the weakness of your own convictions, no flip flopping. It takes real mental strength to cling to a position you know to be utter fiction: it requires dexterity and ingenuity to argue your way out of pure bullshit, to eternally justify yourself, to assume you’re the one in the right.
Of course, my background has helped. I'm sort of middle class, I guess, and being middle class and British comes as a sort of training in contradiction. Historically speaking this is fairly new: go back to Empire and things were more straightforward. As far as I can glean from the literature of the period, all you had to do to be middle class a century ago was experience sexual confusion in an Eton plunge pool and then go and colonise India. There may possibly have been a bit more to it than that, and quite frankly I’m not sure I'm cut out for either activity, but that seems to be the gist. Being middle class really boiled down to reclining on a deckchair and massacring locals with a blunderbuss while someone dabbed your forehead with a lavender wipe.
Oh, the simplicity.
But things have changed. Liberal attitudes make the contemporary middle class liberal a walking paradox. You’re against people like you having all the money and advantages, and then you scan the upmarket jobs pages to acquire more money and advantages. You’re supposed to despise the gentrification of working class communities, and then find yourself craving for an upmarket deli the moment you move to one. You’re a class-dialectic in process. Give yourself a slap on the back for it.
The world teaches us to be ashamed of our contradictions, of the gaps in our outlook. I disagree. I think we should be proud of our contradictions. If modern society is a sort of fiction, then trying to be true to it turns you into a fiction too. Hypocrisy isn’t a moral cop out, it’s a legitimate response to the paradoxes of the modern world - a world that says you ought to want something and simultaneously makes you guilty for wanting it, a world that promises social democracy and then asks you to salivate over semi-detached lifestyles at sky-high prices. Take it from me. The real charlatans are the people who pretend to have a coherent personality. Be a hypocrite, and be a good one: it’s the only way to really be true to yourself.