Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Reassuringly shitty: where did the London I knew disappear to?

Something interesting struck me while watching the charming and inventive film London (1994). Essentially it's a weary love letter to a city in decline, blighted by post-industrial entropy and decades of Conservative rule.
But it's also a utopian fantasy - about a city that could exist.
I once remember the writer Geoff Dyer saying he moved to Paris because London in the 1990s didn't have a café culture. How could you be a writer if the best part of the job - sitting around drinking coffee and pretending to work - was forced to take place in a greasy spoon? 
I know what he means. Every writer needs a good café to be pretentious in. Ask J.K. Rowling. And the director of London seems to agreePatrick Kieller’s interweaving of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and the Parisian demi-monde in his love/hate letter to London reflects a wish for precisely that kind of cafe cosmopolis. One where poets and bankers live cheek-by-jowl, where contemporary art hangs in cafes, where buildings shine afresh from beneath their tarnished veneers.
Believe it or not, all that still felt very far away in the early '90s.
Fast forward a quarter century. Now you can buy a flat white on practically every street but have to travel miles to get a mop or a toilet brush. London’s a city where the kebab shops are being lost among the cappucinos, a city of "food deserts" and pop-up galleries where the template shitty London neighbourhood I used to love - a gritty street with mixed shops and stalls and fag-ends and drizzle - is fast disappearing in a fog of funky art and espresso steam.
I moved to London in 2000 and I know it well. But returning I barely recognise the place. Hackney? Brixton? Camberwell? The idea that these would be des-res boroughs would have seemed like satire at the start of the century. I still have to pinch myself to believe it.
Now decline and dilapidation are a rare commodity in the centre, pushed to the Zone 5 edgelands and beyond. In fact decline and dilapidation are rare enough to be fetishized in their own right; an endless succession of scruffwashed warehouse bars and gritty outdoor BBQs have repackaged grit as a designer commodity for the urban middle classes. Now bars lay out floor-pallets and hang art on their walls in areas where the artists disappeared long ago. The poets and painters, needless to say, can no longer afford the rents.
So, then, Kieller and Dyer got their wish. London’s a true cafe cosmopolis, and a much cleaner and less smoky one. But I find myself wishing for the tarnished, dingy city of the film. I used to love that city. Not despite the fact that it felt shitty but because of it. It was a city where houses and rents were still just about affordable, where drifters and losers like me could survive, where grime and grit were part of the fabric of the city rather than just a marketing commodity. 
As elsewhere, the dream of a more liberated culture became a template for turbo-gentrification. Did visionaries like Patrick Kieller precipitate the end? Can you kill utopia by simply wishing too hard for it?

Friday, 11 May 2018

Is the internet good or bad? "Yes"

Is there a Moore’s Law for human progress?

Not according to the writer Andrew Keen and his new book How to Fix the Future. The power of computing doubles every few years, but according to Keen – or the daily news – human ethics don’t seem to show similar progress.

But what does that mean for the rest of society struggling to play “moral catch-up” with the tech giants? Today’s digitally mediated landscape often feels barren and toxic, plagued by fake news, social media turf wars and polarized communities. What’s the answer?

That’s the question that How to Fix the Future attempts to answer. Instead of doom mongering from an armchair, Keen talks to various people throughout this book who have a role to play in offering a future that’s different from the one Trump, Putin and Big Tech have dreamed of.

Keen, who I interviewed for VICE a few years ago, is the enfant terrible of the world of Silicon Valley – someone who became a tech-entrepreneur himself before turning to punditry and regularly turning the guns on the industry that cultivated him. Since his bestselling polemic The Cult of the Amateur in 2007 he’s been a kind of embedded reporter in the tech industry, offering gloomy prophecies about the threats to our privacy, creativity, finances and even our souls from the digital revolution.

How to Fix the Future asks big questions. How can we avoid the “surveillance capitalism” of Facebook? What about jobs, copyright, privacy? How will the flexible workers of the twenty first century form a union?

The book forms a series of interviews interlaced with reflections, and Keen hopes some of them will shed new light on complex topics.

He talks to movie/music producer Jonathan Taplin about ways to combat the “sharecrop”  profiteering of the streaming sites, such as a “creative strike” among artists, or the rise of sites like Patreon, Flattr and Blendle which allow artists to develop (remunerative) relationships with their consumers. All this is part of a wider picture of the rise of “platform co-operativism”, such as Uber drivers unionizing, in one of the first examples of a digital precariat learning from the lessons of the first industrial age.

In the same spirit Keen talks to former deputy Danish prime minister Margrethe Vestager about “productive regulation”, which sees the state as an important mediator between government and people in the digital economy. The aim isn’t to stifle the market: it’s actually to increase the chances for innovators to reach an audience in a less monopolized landscape.

This raises an interesting point. We all know the unregulated Wild West of the first tech boom was hardly great news for most of those outside Wall Street. But currently, attempts to oppose regulation of tech (and enforce taxation) meet a knee-jerk reaction: such proponents are branded as dreamy socialists and quickly dismissed.

Keen refutes this. In his opinion, as well as that of many of his interviewees, more regulation and decency in big tech would promote rather than stifle business – just as in the financial world minimum standards help to build the trust.

The overriding theme is a need for citizen agency in the digital economy a new kind of social contract between the private, public sector and the individual. An emerging “ethical tech” movement is currently floating start-ups focused on the creation of jobs for the underprivileged. These include apps to help ex-cons get work after their release, or to remove bias from hiring decisions or offer workers legal advice.

And why not? We hear endlessly about the gig economy threatening jobs, but why don’t we talk more about how the same tech might also empower people?

It’s easy to sneer at these initiatives. Perhaps they are just first steps – first drafts for an unknowable future, building blocks to a better way of doing things. But why should we always assume that life online should always revolve around brutal profit-hunting and corporate behemoths? Why should the future belong to Silicon Valley at all, when so many people around the world – governments, entrepreneurs, artists – are now attempting to redeploy digital tools to meet communitarian, local and non-profit needs?

Optimistic lines of thought tend to plough into a big wall, however – the fact of automation. Are there any solutions? In his final chapters Keen talks to speakers advocating a “universal basic income” – like social security but without the stigma, for an age when more and more jobs will be performed by machines. He also talks of the need for moving beyond the “industrial age school” to a more person-centred education, training creative thinkers for a “freelance society”.

Personally I have to say that sounds like hipster Hell, but I see the rationale. How to Fix the Future might not have firm answers but it does ask important questions. Human progress might not keep pace with the iPhone. But it’s still due the occasional upgrade.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Know your place. Or should you?

Recent piece for Red Pepper magazine (print).

Dale Lately talks to Nathan Connolly, Lee Rourke and Gena-mour Barrett about their new book “Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class”

DL. Nathan, I’d like to start with you. As the editor who put this collection together and contributed an essay yourself, could you tell me a bit about the genesis of Know Your Place.

NC. So in 2016 in the wake of the EU Referendum our publishing company Dead Ink saw a tweet from Nikesh Shukla, the editor behind The Good Immigrant book, a collection of essays which aimed to give voices to the BAME experience in the UK. His tweet basically said that someone should do the same thing, but for class – a “state of the nation book of essays by writers from working class backgrounds”. And something clicked. We just thought: that needs to be published. And you’d think that someone, somewhere would be doing precisely that. But they weren’t.

DL. You’re right, you would assume that the mainstream would already be doing things like this. But I think you’ve been aware for a while how little the mainstream seems to connect with the +working class.

NC. When I started out in publishing I went down for jobs in London with well-known publishers and was basically told: unless you can intern for free in London you basically stand no chance. There’s no way I could do that. Neither could most of the people I know. So I thought fuck it, came back up north, and just started my own publishing company.

DL. You make it sound so simple! And you were doing it without the support networks and social capital that many middle class kids in the same position would enjoy. I guess that’s why you feel this book’s important – to give a voice to people like yourself. That being said, you’ve got an incredibly diverse set of voices here, far from any single stereotype of the working class. Through the prism of “class” these essays actually explore race, LGBT, even the country / city divide – I really liked the essay that reminds us that “working class” is very much a rural thing too, something we tend to forget. Is this diversity an attempt to explore the intersectionality between class and lots of other aspects of marginalization?

NC. What you got recently in the wake of Brexit and Trump was literally thousands of pundits across the media claiming to understand the voices of the “working class”. But the vast majority of these pundits – 43% in British publishing for example – come from comfortable backgrounds and are privately educated. Even in today’s supposedly meritocratic age, so much is written about the working class but little is written by the working class. When I raise this point people say “What about Orwell”? – but Orwell was an ex-public school boy slumming it in Whitechapel. There’s a real crisis of representation going back decades, even centuries, that badly needs to be addressed. So yes, it’s important not only to record the voices of the working class but also how diverse they are.

DL In that spirit, then, I think we should open this debate out. All three of you have contributed essays to this collection. Can I ask what motivated you to write on this subject? And have you experienced any resistance from the publishing industry on the basis of your class background – snobbery, prejudice?

LR. For me I fell into writing as a “bad habit” – there were no social and political reasons behind it. For me to even be here feels like a strange thing. In some ways I don’t even really know how it happened. It’s not like I had some kind of working class drive to better myself. And to be honest it’s a hard slog. What you realise when you actually become a writer or work in publishing is that the whole industry is such a conveyor belt of marketable commodities.

GB. Yeah. With me, writing was something that I actually originally almost tried to avoid doing! I went to a school that frowned upon anything that wasn’t rewarding financially. It groomed us to becoming lawyers and doctors. When I told my careers adviser I was thinking about journalism they were almost shocked.

DL. Perhaps that attitude is reflected in the publishing industry itself? I think it was the writer Sukhdev Sandhu who once described a certain strand of London-based writing as “desiccated bibliophilia” – that is, novels that see perhaps the most multicultural city on earth solely in terms of a very white literary history, largely written by middle class white people for other middle class white people. How true do you think that is?

LR. I’ve been a writer for a while now, and I really don’t meet that many writers like myself. I used to work in publishing and all my editors were very middle class. I just couldn’t escape the feeling that I shouldn’t be there. I don’t know if you’ve experienced the same Gena-mour...?

GB. Partly. I certainly agree about the feeling that “working class” seemed to mean something very specific. Before I got involved in this book I felt it was something that didn’t seem to 
encompass my own experience – because everything I’d been shown about it had been controlled by one singular narrative.

DL. Gena-mour, your essay is about not only class but a particular feature of what used to be associated with being working class – living on a council estate. I really responded to that! Right from when the Kingsmead estate formed a backdrop to A Clockwork Orange to the recent use of a rough estate – I think it was the Heygate – as the Channel 4 ident, we’ve seen this casual demonization of the grit and griminess of the estate. It’s almost a Pavlovian reflex: concrete equals grit equals gangs equals danger. But your essay was a really refreshing riposte to that. 

GB. Yeah. I was keen to mount a defence of council estates. I think in a way it’s partly a product of being young – and the nature of having a space that is way more communal, and everyone does things together, you don’t have your own garden, your own space. There’s this myth that living on an estate is something shameful and I wanted to challenge that.

DL. In a sense you graduated to the British dream of the small suburban house but you seem to have actually disliked it; you could no longer lie in bed and hear your friends playing outside and feel comforted by this sense of wider community. 

GB. Yes. The British dream – that ideal – feels like a very white ideal. When we were moved to another estate, as I talk about in the essay, things were much more isolated. Suddenly we felt racial tension we hadn’t felt before. And how does that feel for someone who’s not only working class, but black working class? – that’s what I wanted to explore here.

DL. So had you actually felt more comfortable back on the estate? Because that challenges a lot of dogma about council estates from both sides of the political spectrum.

GB. I did back then. Do I feel like that now? I’m not sure. But at the time the estate felt like a place that was way safer. It was more of a level playing field. The estate almost felt like a support system, a kind of family. They certainly shielded me from the death of my father. I felt it was a community that helped to raise me.

DL. It almost confirms the work of early sociologists like Willmott and Young and their work north of the Thames – in the face of economic adversity you get these strong kinship and social ties. I think an interesting dimension to this debate is that now, of course, many of these traditional working class communities are disappearing as the old council estates are cleared. Gentrification is a huge factor now.

GB. Absolutely, and it’s something I see a lot. I was born and raised in south London and I still live in the general radius – and it’s interesting to see those communities being broken down. And it literally is communities they’re breaking down. In Kidbrooke I’ve seen the entire destruction of a very big estate I used to know. I’ve no idea where those people have gone. And they’ve been replaced with newbuilds and something that looks like a shiny new community but has a completely different feel. But I wouldn’t want to say it was always a rosy picture. I mention in the essay the turd waiting for us on our doorstep when we were moved to a newer estate later on. It doesn’t make you feel very welcome. And then another time when my mum got a new car and some people shouted down from the balconies sort of accusing her of selling out.

DL. That’s another really interesting thing to explore, and all the essays in this collection touch upon it. You mention here a kind of reverse snobbery. Nathan, I’d like to ask you about that. Many of the essays you’ve chosen for this collection explore a kind of guilt they feel at “rising” up into middle class professions like writing and publishing. Since the rise of that Blairite dictum that idea that “we’re all middle class now” we’ve sort of tried to sweep class under the carpet – but how far do you think a person is bound by their class origins? Can they “transcend” class in the Blairite fashion?

NC. It’s a difficult question to answer, but I’m wary of this sort of angle. I mean, I went to university. That makes me not working class, right? But we were a single parent household. And we were on and off benefits at times. There was a lot of stuff that people from comfortable homes didn’t have to deal with. And now I work in publishing, is all that meant to count for nothing?

DL It’s easy to see how those arguments can play into the hands of the right. Since it’s so hard to define class, is that why you made one of the criteria of this collection that the contributors had to “self-identify” as working class?

NC. There's no way to categorise it with solid lines and as soon as you try you end up in a bigger mess that you started with. Also, I think there's something a bit insidious about being strict with your definition. It becomes self-selecting and what you end up with is some sort of Socialist Worker image of the working class which nobody actually lives up to. Dave isn't working class because he went to university. Jenn isn't working class because her mum was a manager. Liam isn't working class because he failed to meet his production quota this month. Are we going to say that Shelagh Delaney wasn't working class because she ended up writing for the BBC? Technically you could, but it would be ludicrous. If someone loses their ability to be working class the moment that they press the boundary then you consign the working class to be a monolithic bloc of faceless factory workers who are not allowed their own voice. You're saying only the middle class can represent them.

GB. I think it’s something that Nathan actually picked up in the Literary Fiction podcast – when you progress, do you lose that ticket of authenticity? In the case of my family I think we were trapped between two worlds – progressing into a world where we felt we weren’t good enough, because we weren’t middle class, towards a world where because we’d progressed so far, we almost were encouraged to feel better than the people we started with. I have friends who feel that now I’m living this middle class lifestyle I think I’m better than them. When I began at the grammar school one of my friends – on my first council estate – actually said “You talk white now”. It was beyond resentment. But at that school I was called a chav on my very first day! I think this stuff’s very complex.

LR. This idea of changing voices really strikes a chord with me. Where I’m from most of my family think since me entering writing and publishing, my voice has changed. And it has. But when I’m down here [London] I’m still thought of as the northerner! I’m from a very tough inner city part of working class Manchester. And I’ve just had to lose certain parts of my accent over the years simply because the people I mix with professionally don’t talk like that.

DL. I got that! When I moved to London for university I’d have this bizarre thing where I was perceived as some kind of flat-capped broad northerner, while I’d always been seen as a snob back home. It was almost like there was no place for me anymore. It was a kind of limbo almost.

LR. Yeah. It’s a limbo. Which in a way I kind of like – because it suits me to be detached in a way, a little bit outside society. But it’s very real. A lot of working class writers talk about that limbo. Zadie Smith wrote a wonderful essay about this in a collection called Changing My Mind. When she said that it really struck a chord with me. It’s all about changing your voice – the need to change and adapt.

DL. I was fascinated by the essay in the book which explores how many working class kids undergo some kind of emotional breakdown when they go to university. I certainly remember this myself studying in London alongside oligarchs and aristocrats. The sheer distance between us produced this kind of dizzying social gravity. And this Blairite pretence at a meritocracy – it’s nonsense, and actually quite damaging because it invalidates many peoples’ experience of meeting those barriers.

LR. I think there’s a sort of deep trauma in society from precisely this lack of representation that we’re discussing. If you look at books being published it’s a very white middle class kind of affair, there’s no kind of even spread. This is very much what I felt when I entered publishing. In my experience there’s also an expectation from a working class writer to write a gritty realist drama and bring a certain set of psychological tropes to it. And for me that’s anathema. It doesn’t interest me. I’ve never really been interested in serving up what’s expected of me.
DL. In other words, there’s an extent to which working class life has not just been ignored by the mainstream but actively exploited. My area in east Manchester has been used for this kind of poverty porn and I’ve even encountered TV producers on the end of my street casting for locations! I’d like to ask Gena-mour about this expectation to conform to a stereotype. Did you feel you were being asked to be, in a way, the voice of the council estate?

GB. To be honest with you, it didn’t feel like something I had to get off my chest and proclaim. It’s just the way you’ve lived. I haven’t gone around with a label on my head saying ‘I grew up here’. But it’s exactly like you were saying Lee – even when you do meet people who’ve come from that kind of background, they’ve at least been moulded to suit the expectation of what someone would look like – coming from a very privileged educational background, which I myself have had, coming from a grammar school and a Russell group uni. So there’s a problem there – that even when the mainstream feels like it’s giving a voice to someone from an ethnic minority or working class background, how much actual access are you giving them?

DL. That’s interesting though. Because you’re almost painting yourself as someone who’s already differentiated yourself from the people you grew up with, or at least been divided from them in a different social and professional loop. Does that make representation a problem?

GB. In what sense?

DL. I mean, do you feel that that means you can only really represent a certain section of the working class – the ones who managed to successfully jump through those hoops, educationally speaking?

GB. Oh definitely. I can’t pretend that I’ve been through what many of the people on my estate have been through. That’s not to belittle my own struggles, but I can’t act as if I’ve experienced as much educational adversity as someone who went to state school and then tried to become published. There’s a big cultural side to all this too. Because I went to good schools I learned how to modify my voice, use different language in different situations and so on – and that’s not something you really learn at state school. There’s still a lot of people outside who didn’t have those opportunities knocking on the door and not being listened to.

DL. Because they don’t have those social cues.

GB. Because they don’t have those social cues, yeah.

DL. It almost goes back to Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital, doesn’t it? It always struck me that schools and universities are really factories for manufacturing middle class people. The more you conform to middle class norms the better you’ll do. Nathan, one of your contributors, Abondance Matanda, describes how because black working class families didn’t traditionally feel part of the mainstream art world, they ended up curating their own lives; they turned their homes into living galleries. It’s like a quiet voice of defiance: “we want to be remembered.” 
GB. People want to be heard. If you look at things like this independent anthology, at the Good Immigrant, the rise of these independently funded projects – these things didn’t happen by accident. There’s obviously a need for it. Unless these big publishers pay attention, it’s going to happen anyway.           

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Dale goes to a fascist rally

I found out about the rally from Facebook.

On the 2nd September we will hold a demo at 1pm in Keighley and afterwards we will head to Bradford and demo there aswell,’ said the post. 

I write about cities and communities for lefty publications like The Guardian, but it occurred to me that I'd never seen any of this with my own eyes. I'd written about fascism - but I'd never seen fascism. Not only were the EDL going to be there but also their enemies, the ‘Antifa’ (Anti-Fascists), as well as something called the ‘MDL’ (Muslim Defence League). It sounded like a bit of a punch-up.

Was I going to be okay? What should I wear? It was an odd question but one that was eminently worth considering if I didn’t want to get my head kicked in. How do you dress for a fascist rally? Should I wear a suit? Or go for smart casual? ‘You must wear a hi vis and a bona fide press badge,’ a friend stressed. Another suggested blue jeans.

I looked through my wardrobe. I didn’t have any blue jeans. All my jeans were black and frayed and originally from Top Shop. They looked like the kind of jeans a fascist would hate. Why were jeans from Top Shop less acceptable to fascists than blue ones? I was increasingly feeling a bit of my depth.

I decided to put the question of what I should wear out to Facebook. 

‘Flat cap and tweed jacket,’ said someone. 

‘Princess Diana fancy dress,’ added another. I got the feeling my friends weren’t taking this entirely seriously. In any case on Saturday morning it seemed like the rally might be cancelled anyway. Different websites suggested different things, and the Facebook pages for the different factions of the EDL were poorly updated. Most of them only had a few followers. Fascists are less well organized than they used to be, I thought to myself. When I got to Manchester Victoria station I thought about getting a big Starbucks, but decided against it. Somehow walking in to a potentially violent racist rally with a grande latte didn’t seem quite right. Instead I hadn’t phoned my mum for a while, so I gave her a ring on the train.

‘Why didn’t you let me know you were going to an EDL protest,’ my mum said. ‘I’d be quite interested in going.’

‘How do you mean, you’d be interested in going?’ I asked, suddenly worrying that my mum was turning into a fascist. My mum votes for Jeremy Corbyn and lives in Hebden Bridge, and has never shown any inclinations in this direction.

‘I’m not turning into a fascist,’ she said. ‘I meant cheer on the other side.’

I tried to imagine me and my mum going to the EDL protest. We generally meet for cups of tea, me and my mum. We’d even been past Keighley in the car recently, so it wouldn’t have been different to one of our usual days out, except that we’d have been watching violent white supremacists throwing things at riot police. Would we also have got a cup of tea and had a chat? It would have felt a bit weird.

‘To be honest, I didn’t really envisage taking my mum to a fascist rally,’ I said.

‘Fair enough,’ she said.

As we approached Bradford Interchange – the station I always used to pass through to visit my gran – I began to feel nervous. Was I really going to be okay? ‘There will be literally 6 people surrounded by 400 'anti fascist' twunts and 200 cops,’ someone had commented on Facebook. ‘You are more likely to be seriously injured by standing on Lego.’ I hoped they were right.

By the time I walked down into the city the police were massing in Bradford’s central square. I eyed them with curiosity. They looked up eagerly when I eyed them in the hope that maybe I was a fascist. Then they realised I wasn’t and looked away again. It was still 40 minutes before the rally was supposed to start. I couldn’t see any of the EDL, or the MDL, or the Antifa. All I could see was loads of families splashing around in the big paddling pool. 

‘Maybe they’re just a bit late starting,’ I thought to myself.

I decided to go off and get a McDonald’s. I’ve known Bradford ever since I was a kid. I used to come here with my family to play on the Magic Carpet ride in the Photography Museum. The city had always seemed like quite an okay place on the whole – grand Victorian buildings, neo-Gothic shopping arcades, things built in the rich days of the wool trade – but it had certainly has an uneven history. The city experienced race riots back in 2001; it was one of the cities where copies of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses were burnt, and it combines one of the most mixed populations in Britain outside of Tower Hamlets with high unemployment and a struggling economy. Infant mortality is double the national average.

When I got back the police were still standing there, waiting. I still couldn’t see any rioters.

‘Maybe the fascists are in Wetherspoons,’ I thought to myself.

I went in. There were a couple of wedding parties around, but I couldn’t see any EDL. It occurred to me that in any case I didn’t really know what a contemporary fascist would look like. Surely they wouldn’t all be skinheads, like the type that I used to brush up against when I lived in Poland? A guy was sitting near me on his own with shaven hair and a serious look, gazing out of the window at the ranks of police. ‘Maybe he’s a fascist,’ I thought to myself. I watched him for a bit, but he didn't do anything. If he was a fascist he wasn't a very active one.

Outside I waited around the paddling pool for another hour or so, but nothing happened. Kids splashed; adults chatted. I talked to a newly-arrived Indian guy for a while. Eventually I went over to talk to the police. 

‘You missed it,’ the policeman told me.

‘I missed it?’

‘It happened in Keighley,’ he explained casually. ‘I don’t think they were ever planning to demonstrate here. I think they were just coming here for a drink.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

I wandered glumly away. I was glad that the fascist rally hadn’t taken place here, but also a bit pissed off that I’d come all this way to watch people sitting around a paddling pool. Maybe I was wrong, but I was starting to think that fascism – actual, obvious fascism – might be a bit less widespread than articles by Owen Jones tended to suggest. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a worrying trend. Mein Kampf has just been reissued to sell-out runs. In places like France and Holland and Eastern Europe neo-fascist attitudes are anything but hidden. The far right have serious clout in the polls.

But in Britain, here, right now? For all the talk of the resurgence of fascism it sometimes seems awfully hard to catch a real one. I know that far right rallies have been taking place across Britain. But does that really represent more than a lunatic fringe? When Britain First - a 'party' with more Facebook likes than the Conservatives - can barely muster 100 people? When UKIP seems to have collapsed? Of course a nasty undercurrent of racism exists in modern society, the kind that's seen a spate of Islamophobic hatecrime in the last couple of years - but I'm not sure it's ready to break out into fisticuffs. 

Here's the thing. I've studied and written about this subject for a while now, and I actually think Britain’s better at getting on with itself than many give it credit for. Fascist rallies are the exception to daily life. So are violent religious extremists. An EDL rally or a bomb in Manchester don’t represent the way most people think and feel, because most people don’t want Christian-flavoured fascism or violent Wahhabis dictating their world. Most people just want a quiet life. To get along with those around us. All we need, in the end, is a big enough paddling pool.

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.