Monday 15 February 2021

Between the Precautionary Principle and... ‘Oh, Fuck It’


I think we’ve all had our share of grim moments over the last year. We’ve witnessed deaths. We’ve been made redundant and made housebound. We’ve been deprived of the sight of our loved ones, a hug, a Christmas meal. But for all the horror of the official statistics and all the privations of lockdown there was one moment that felt even more tragic, even more haunting, at least for me, over the last year. That was the sight of an entire family shuffling past in the park, all of them wearing facemasks.

Now, it’s a free world; people have a right to do what they want. But there’s something about that sight that saddened me. There’s little proof in the scientific literature that a facemask worn outside will make much difference. In fact there’s rather less evidence than sometimes assumed that even in an enclosed space it’s going to prevent much infection, although of course there’s a possibility it might, and the masks play an important part in our landscape of hygiene theatre to allow ordinary citizens to demonstrate their devotion to lockdown. In other words, they’re both unimportant and deadly important; partially unnecessary and wholly necessary at the same time.

But in a park? In a large grassy area? Urban Britain is a congested, car-fumed kind of place whose endless green lungs – the wonderful civic parks laid down over the last couple of centuries – represent one of our few respites. Breathing relatively fresh air in a park is one of the few opportunities many of us have. That being said, it was a park in Manchester, so maybe they were right to stick to their masks.  

I start with this example not because I think it’s a nice illustration of an important balance between two opposing poles in human behaviour – between the precautionary principle and the principle of throwing caution to the wind.

Now, we all know what being cautious means. And it’s easy to see why it’s so important to our psychological makeup. Evolutionary psychologists have usefully reminded us that we evolved as primates who spent millions of years of our history somewhere in the middle of the food chain. Imagine you’re an ancestral hominid on the African savannah and hear a rustle in the grass. If you assume it’s a vicious sabre-toothed predator and you’re wrong, you just wait waste a little energy running away. But if you assume it’s just the wind, and it’s actually a vicious sabre-toothed predator, you won’t live to have any children. Over time, as natural selection took hold, the foolhardy ones got whittled away. We’re descended from cautious ancestors; perhaps it’s no surprise that we humans have developed a default mental bias towards assuming the worst is about to happen. For much of our history it generally was.

Now, I’d say that caution is far closer to the default setting for most human beings than recklessness. It’s difficult to imagine how we’d otherwise be able to persuade hundreds of millions of people to spend most of their day doing 9-5 jobs, inching forwards in traffic, sweating in offices, toiling in factories or farms or doing any of the countless mundane and patience-heavy activities that constitute modern civilization. How did we ever sell serfdom as a social system, unless people were cautious? Why have there been huge numbers of tyrannies throughout history and relatively few rebellions to top them? Most people do not dream of rebelling. Most people are not rebels. Most people are cautious.

I happen to be in the other camp. While I greatly admire the capacity of most people to grit their teeth and do what’s in their own best interests, I’m the opposite. I do what’s in my own worst interests. I don’t social climb. I kamikaze. I’d rather commit career suicide than do the sensible thing and nod along. And this recklessness – which, by the way, is really more of an instinct than a deliberate strategy – extends into all areas of my life. Most people are reckless and stupid in childhood. Then adolescence or adulthood hits and then they become smart. That never happened to me. I’m old enough to have children and I’m still acting like one. I jump around on railings. I cycle without using handlebars. Most of the default warnings that sound inside people’s heads over a certain age – don’t fucking do this, are you insane? – simply don’t go off in mine. If I was ever marked for assassination, I’m not sure whether the assassin would have a better chance of ending my life than my own stupidity.  

Why am I like this? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that I’m in a minority – one shared in adulthood by a relatively small set of social niches: extreme sports, suicides, drunk people. It goes without saying that if most adults spent half their day balancing on railings or clearing gaps on skateboards the highly organized society we enjoy could not exist. Just look at the language. On the safety side of the spectrum we have a pleasantly  reassuring set of nouns and adjectives: caution, careful, sensible. On the other... Well, often we actually don’t even have words. Take the word caution: it’s difficult to find a word that means its exact opposite. Foolhardiness? Recklessness? Carelessness? These are clumsy aggregate words, unwieldy concoctions of Latinate suffixes. They don’t come naturally. They don’t feel reassuring.

I have my own term for the opposite of caution. It’s not a single word, exactly: rather it’s a state of mind, a stance. It has elements of Zen in it and a soixante-huitard sense of going with the flow. I call it 'fuck it'.

Just like the precautionary principle, the state of fuck it is explicitly woven into the human story. Without some element of fuck it it’s difficult to see how much human evolution would have happened. How would we ever have traversed a river, started a bush fire to clear the undergrowth or hunted a mastodon if some of us hadn’t had a capacity to swallow their fear? How would we ever have left Africa if some of us hadn’t learnt to hang the consequences? Even relatively mild activities like gathering nuts, berries and plants – the main source of human sustenance for most of our history – are actually riddled with danger. How many deaths did it take to learn which mushrooms were tasty and which were poisonous? Or that a food spot might also be popular with large cats or bring unwelcome interest from wolves? Some believe that the taste for spicy or smelly food among some men (and I can’t help personally thinking of family meals here) may be an evolutionary remnant of the fact that the males of the tribe would be sent ahead as advance-tasters. It would explain my father's thing for smelly cheese.

But in recent years something profound has changed. The precautionary principle is no longer just an instinct. Quietly, perhaps insidiously, it’s become the central policy plank of public life.

Until very recently ‘safety’, at least as we know it today in its measured, bureaucratic, socially-enforced form, barely made it into the top ten drivers of human behaviour. People drank from wells that were contaminated. Children worked in factories that tore their limbs off. In a world where disease and death were common barely a thought was given to hygiene. Imagine trying to implement a national policy of hand-sanitization in a nation without running water. Children were given cocaine, adults drank beer because it was safer than water, and thousands and eventually millions died in wars on foreign soil. Putting it mildly, Health & Safety was not top priority.

Today we don’t drink from contaminated wells or send children to their deaths in factories. Our society isn’t one that’s just aware of safety. Our society is defined by safety. We slap on seatbelts. We remove our shoes in airport queues. Ideas unthinkable just a generation ago – amending contact sports because it turns out that being crushed beneath the weight of a dozen grown men in a rugby scrum can be detrimental to one’s health – are now gaily floated by the establishment.

And of course Covid. If there was a moment when the precautionary principle went from background concern to policy plank, it was the time around March 2020 when nations around the world decided that destroying large parts of their economy was worth it to combat a disease that represented a serious threat to some very old and sick people.

Now, of course, much of this is a good thing. Covid is a serious disease. Whether or not you agree that lockdowns really work or not, the guiding principle behind them is a healthy one. After all, if we can’t sanctify human life as the number one policy goal, what else is the point of it all? Do we create human societies simply to produce a rise in GDP? Do we live, love, work and die just for the sake of a national flag? For all my concerns over the rise of the medical police state over the course of 2020 – and, as anybody who follows me on Facebook will know, I have a lot of concerns – I would also rather live in a world where we put a million young people out of work to protect the NHS rather than one where we send a million young people out to die on a battlefield in order to protect the Union Jack.

The problem is that in elevating the precautionary principle to the only principle is that we’ve also forgotten that there are other ways of relating to the world too. The default mode of public behaviour from 2020 onwards has been devout, ashamed, apologetic: we creep around supermarkets in facemasks, run away from crowds, lock ourselves away in our homes and constrain our socialising to a smartphone screen.

All of this has a place. And there are generally altruistic reasons behind all this. But sometimes I think deploying too much caution actually runs another risk: that of suppressing what it means to be a human being in the first place.

We are tactile, social creatures that evolved among animals beneath open skies in every kind of climate imaginable. We thrive on fresh air and exercise. There is nothing in our evolutionary make-up to render the body of Homo sapiens well-adapted to a life of sitting behind screens or slumped on sofas. It may be a good idea in an epidemiological sense to reduce our contact with loved ones to a Zoom call, but it strips something important from us.

When we lock down a population and close off the parks we’re doing more than simply depriving people of fresh air. We deprive them of everything that it means to be human: the right to exercise, to use our bodies, to see others, to touch, to breathe freely. These things cannot simply be quietly substituted by smartphone screens and better resolution. Our bodies evolved for walking, running, crouching, clambering; the more we lock those bodies down, the more we rebel against our own biology. We might live longer than our predecessors or the last few tribes untouched by modernity, but we do so with agonizing back pain, muscle joints and fatigue. Sugar murders more of us than gunpowder. We have more to fear from a sofa than we do from an infectious disease.  Look on the list of top ten causes of death globally: it’s not Covid that’s killing us in the greatest numbers. It’s obesity, diabetes and heart disease. We may fear a novel virus as the scourge of humankind, but we do far worse to ourselves. 

What I found astonishing about the response to the pandemic is how little any of this makes it into the national discussion. Until March 2020 politicians and public health experts treated us to ceaseless mantras about the importance of fresh air, exercise and healthy eating. Yet they suddenly went silent. For parts of last spring and summer public parks were – criminally and sadistically – even cordoned off from the public who pay for them. What kind of toll will expanding waistlines take on the nation’s health now we’ve made heroes of everybody for sitting on their sofas? Getting big is statistically far more dangerous than getting Covid, at least for most of us – so why don’t we have any concern for the deaths that will eventually cause? The NHS beds it will occupy?

Instead lockdown was imposed with zero thought to the health problems that would cause. How much more nausea will be caused by wearing face masks for long periods? Does anybody know? What are the effects of long-term cold on the human body for those of us who were confined throughout winter to homes we couldn’t afford to heat properly? There are few statistics; few care to ask these questions.

I do. If we care about public health, then why wouldn’t we care about the consequences of the largest public health intervention in human history? My point isn’t that preventative measures are necessarily a bad thing. My point is that they should have been considered within a holistic framework – a lens that looks at human wellbeing in all of its rich, nuanced complexity, rather than through a single, all-defining, coronavirus-shaped lens.

We humans are more than just vectors of contagion. We are workers, mothers, lovers; we are fascinating and contradictory messes of emotions and opinion. We need stimulation and socializing. We need fresh air. To make a decision about public health based on a single binary – does this person have it – is to reduce human beings to points on a graph. It makes us no more than data in a model.

I’ve talked a lot about Covid in this article, but I actually think this issue goes far beyond the events of 2020. Not everything can be reduced to a simple ‘safe/unsafe’ binary. Not everything can have its risk factor removed – and nor should it. Heading a football is now generally thought to increase our risk of brain injury, so perhaps it’s a good idea to try not to do that. But where do we stop? Where is the pre-event risk assessment, say, of tossing a Frisbee? Casual grass sports and park games occasionally result in injuries, yet most of us even now would think it draconian to ban them. Almost all of human activity, from riding a bike to getting in the bath, lies somewhere between safe and reckless. Yet all of these activities bring immeasurable benefits. Especially the bath.

In the spectrum of caution to carelessness I swing towards the fuck it side of things. But that doesn’t mean I’m aware of the consequences – as the scars of two metal pins will attest, as well as a pair of knees which still hurt from their bruising in February. I’ve injured myself on bikes. I still ride them. My dad injured himself jogging. He still jogs. That’s because both of these things are so important to us; they’re not just an essential part of our daily routine, but an essential part of who we are. Take them away and you take a part of us away too. I’d say that was important for wellbeing.

I’m dubious about the gradual mission creep we’re seeing towards removing risk from public life. It reminds me of the way some governments in the last century tried to wipe out inequality. Look at how that went. If we really cared about safety above all other things we’d ban both cycling and jogging, along with gyms, athletics, marathons, mixed martial arts, parkour, slacklining, getting out of bed, and pretty much every other kind of movement except for that required to operate a TV remote. In fact, why not ban going outside at all? Statistics show that more accidents happen from leaving the house than staying in it. If we really value the sanctity of human life above all else, then why not recreate society as a Matrix hive of human colostomy bags hooked up to a drip-feed of junk food and Netflix? That already describes life in suburban Milton Keynes, but let’s not make it an objective.

There is always a trade-off between risk and adventure. We know that from the age we first begin to walk. But rather than pretending we can eliminate risk, perhaps we should try to be a little more mature about how we respond to it. People have a right to decide how much risk they want in their lives. In fact, I’d actually make this right a human right, legally enshrined and protected by the constitutions we used to enjoy until governments worldwide overrode them in the name of protecting the public. Determining one’s own relationship with danger isn’t some optional extra to be granted by governments when they feel like it. It’s a fundamental part of being human. Saving lives is a good idea. But, I can’t help feeling as I watch the masked families, the lonely pensioners, the millions of mums who won’t be getting a visit for Mother’s Day – we also need to make sure that life is worth saving in the first place.

Monday 11 May 2020

The End of the World - a Local Perspective

A "Coronadventure" in Three Parts

Day One

For the final part of my ‘Covid Trilogy’ I decided to concentrate on home – and attempt to document the city I actually live in.

A bus thick with evening heat took me to the airport, where today’s arrivals included flights from Doha, the Isle of Man and a delayed afternoon flight from Islamabad. One of the interesting dimensions of the pandemic was that normally interesting places were now boring, and normally boring places were now interesting; train stations, for example, had become ghostly militarized zones full of distant shuffling employees, long silences, and teetering unread piles of the Metro. Ironically they were actually more pleasant than before the pandemic.

The Departures hall was whisper-silent: an empty shell scraped by slivers of sunlight, long evening shadows and a distant air-conditioner hum that reminded me of the exploratory gurgles of a recently-purchased fridge. Beggars bedded down on the carpet amongst the upbeat marketing promotions. If this city were to descend into some kind of Mad Max Armageddon, the warring tribes would end up massacring one another against a backdrop of posters from regional funding bodies about diversity and inclusion.

In the Departures hall a single attendant stood behind a single desk; half of the room had been plunged into darkness to save on electricity bills. Arrivals had been cleared of any stragglers, so those waiting to pick up their families had been confined to the grand, sun-baked ziggurat of the Terminal 1 Short-stay Car Park.

Day Two

As I set off on the second day of my journey around my virus-stricken city I received a text from my local GP practice asking if everything was okay.  

A shopping trolley that someone had helpfully left in the beauty spot beside my local reservoir seemed to rear up as I approached, as if it were begging for scraps, its hind legs gleaming in the afternoon sun. The cycle path was full of hundreds of people self-isolating; there were so many that my journey became a torturous gauntlet woven between wheezing families and their increasingly indignant dogs. 

The recycling containers seemed especially colourful and gleaming outside my father’s house in Chorlton, as if they were looking forward to swallowing the pile of leftwing magazines my father was putting in the bin.

I dropped in on my friend Adam, who told me he was planning to get into self-sufficiency gardening in order to shore himself up against the potential collapse of civilisation. He was looking well – in good spirits as he popped open a couple of beers – and declared that he had that very morning taken delivery of a thousand litres of compost.

Deckchairs were arranged in the garden at a suitable distance from my friends, and we chatted amiably while the next-door neighbour lifted weights to a series of metal bands. As we talked a head emerged from a window above us, and I recognised a man called Dan who I knew from local parties. 

We chatted for a couple of minutes, and Dan revealed that he had spent a brief time in the local park that morning to get a bit of fresh air. 

Day Three

On the third day of my adventure, I decided to negotiate the city’s shopping mall, a place where in less afflicted times I spend much of my daily life in the bookshop café. The mall was ghostly in its silence; beautiful sun bathed the complex in dappled light, so that one felt like one was moving in a kind of meditative trance, even if technically one was actually only moving towards the Prêt-à-Manger.

I stopped and purchased a carton of Medium Fries from an establishment called ‘Dixy’s’, and took them into the adjacent park to consume on one of the benches. The park was drenched in evening sun and the fries were even tastier with liberal sprinklings of salt; how remarkable, I thought to myself, that a scene of such Sylvan beauty could sit fifty yards away from a Wetherspoon’s!

As I made my way around the park I couldn’t help feeling that this place had never looked more peaceful, with its scampering children and playful families. Perhaps this outbreak might lead us on a new path, I reflected, one where we became less reliant on intensive global supply systems and and began to accommodate ourselves to our delicate planet; I began to feel a cautious hope for humankind and our long journey ahead, before cycling back home past a building site where work was resuming on expanding our neighbourhood Tesco Extra. 

Sunday 10 May 2020

The Sludge of Nostalgia

Being unable to move in space, I decided instead to move in time – and so decided, for the second part of my Coronavirus adventure, to make a sojourn to the town where I grew up.

The platforms at Victoria Station all seemed to have had their benches cordoned off, on the assumption that the nation's health would be improved by depriving passengers of the ability to sit down. Prerecorded messages boomed around the empty concourse in search of a listener. As my train rolled in, an urgent missive warned me of the disastrous health consequences of vaping.

When I alighted at my home town I was immediately reminded of why I’d left it. At first I was rather overcome by the empty streets, the shuttered shops and hooded gangs – until I remembered that this had nothing to do with Coronavirus but was largely down to it being in the North of England.

I set off to explore, with that odd feeling of retracing footsteps I’d made in other decades, in other centuries. Almost every street elicited memories of a childish or teenage me. In the glare of an afternoon sun a nightclub promised tantalising thrills of downtown glamour, while opposite it stood a wall that had once boasted a sweet shop where my mental progression into adulthood – and the realisation that happiness did not solely depend on injections of sugar – had been prompted by the purchase of a small papery bag of bonbons.

The Hippodrome Theatre: a place of dreams! This gleaming citadel of high culture had been the locus of my artistic aspirations ever since the age of nine, when I was cast as a munchkin in a production of The Wizard of Oz. It now stood opposite a large Lidl, which boasted a new kind of dream of multiple discount bargains. Today’s delights included a 60 pence reduction on a bag of conference pears as well as 2-for-1 deals on home barbecues.

The tearooms my mother used to take me to as a child were largely still there, albeit having undergone a rebranding as espresso bars, a sign of incipient gentrification which seemed optimistic given the rest of the town. One sign in particular caught my eye. I had no idea who Libby might be – I pictured an energetic 25-year old with reddish curly hair and two cats – but I wished her and her pies all the very best.

I was surprised to find my old house now resembled a rural paradise; it was difficult to tell whether a road sign nearby was out of date because there was a global pandemic, or simply because nobody really cared. A fridge sat abandoned on the pavement, as if it had somehow wandered out one night and forgotten the way back.

Although nostalgia is often portrayed as a stroll through a rose-tinted garden, it occurred to me that this only works if you actually have enjoyable memories in the first place. For me, nostalgia was more like a walk through a sludgy railway embankment near a council estate; diving down into it did not recover pearls and treasure, but rather the mental equivalent of old shopping trolleys and discarded cans of White Lightning. There was nothing particularly noble or heart-warming about any of the memories this journey conjured up, and largely I wished I could have had some different ones. Such reflections caused me to miss a good photo of the town’s most famous statue, so that one of the most influential campaigners to improve the plight of the industrial working poor was now chiefly remembered here for his feet.

Crossing the park, I couldn’t help feeling the fence around my old school carried a sense of menacing incarceration, until I remembered that my school had actually felt like that even when it was open. I was saddened that the nearby pie shop of my childhood had been replaced by an all-purpose grocery store boasting posters for drum lessons and massage therapy.

As I approached the outdoor market an impatient hooded young man on a BMX shot around the corner, and disappeared into the settling dusk. If I’d waited another hour the market would have been immersed in artificial floodlight and created a wonderful, striking photo, one that would have been rich in drama and meaning, and left my readers impressed with the tragic beauty of post-industrial decline. But somehow I didn’t feel this town deserved it so I took a picture of the bus stop and caught the train home.

Friday 24 April 2020

Plague Sunday

Coronavirus and the Capital

To celebrate my birthday – and having grown older than I was frankly comfortable with – I decided to break quarantine and take a train down to the capital to walk among old memories. I was one of perhaps nine or ten passengers on a train with seven carriages. Although I enjoyed the quietness of the quiet coach (which was so quiet that I was seized with the desire to play films and music as loudly as I could) I couldn’t help wondering at the logic of Avanti rail spending huge amounts of money and energy to transport a mere handful of us several hundred miles southwards. When I rose to purchase a coffee at the cafe, the man serving me looked astonished to see another living human.

Euston Station was festooned with signs telling me to go home again. Pushing on, I emerged into a whisper-quiet capital on a glorious Spring Day – clean blue skies and a pan-scouring wind – and cycled east. London’s silence was by no means universal. At Broadway Market, in newly-gentrified Hackney, thousands of affluent and stylish people had gathered to self-isolate among the falafel shops and porcelain boutiques. So many people were self-isolating here in fact that it was hard to move. A little further east, along the road to Cambridge Heath, a patient queue had gathered outside a shop selling deluxe paint.

I cycled north to re-explore the haunts of my early twenties, now under quarantine conditions. Far from a dewy-eyed trip down a path of golden memories, my return generally reminded me how awful it had all been. I was slightly saddened, for some reason, to find that the old greasy spoon in the Underground station I’d occasionally frequented – a greasy spoon that really had earned its name – had now become an upmarket cafe. They had evidently been advertising for staff before the lockdown, and it was interesting to speculate how ‘creativity’ really helped someone serve hot beverages in a cafe environment, but I wished them well for the rocky road ahead. 

With the continent quarantined, and very few trains, staff or announcements, St. Pancras International was mainly reduced to being the country’s most expensive and majestic public toilet. Interestingly, even by this standard it had partially failed, as many of the urinals had apparently been cancelled by the government. Such injunctions raised fascinating questions: how exactly could a single urinal be ‘closed’? I resisted the temptation to experiment.    

I reached the market at Borough amidst lengthening shadows. Here a rather passive-aggressive poster campaign graced the walls of stalls that had lapsed into late-evening silence. What was London if it was shorn of human interaction? If daily life was to be reduced to sombre economic transactions, was it still a ‘city’ at all?

Pushing into the depths of the market canopy, I was oddly reminded of the interior of an old pier long abandoned to the elements. Evening sun danced on rust. I couldn't escape the impression I was uncovering a lost civilization that had teetered and finally fallen – a once mighty world that resided on a river first colonized by the Romans 2,000 years ago.

Further west along the southern shores of the Thames the sky erupted into flame as a dying sun devoured the river. I was reminded of a poem by Wordsworth, but found it difficult to recall it in any detail, because an extremely insistent car alarm had gone off somewhere around Blackfriars.

Fighting darkness now, I took a pathetically trite photo at Westminster Bridge – so recently the locus of terror attacks, environmental protests, and now the locus of nothing at all – and pushed on into a West End so dark and still that I fancied nothing like it had been seen since the blackouts of World War II. A single gaggle of rough sleepers guarded the mouth of Leicester Square underground station. Antique bookshops frowned over police vans as they purred up and down a deserted Charing Cross Road.

Nearing Covent Garden I could make out the scrape of a single security guard’s shoe as it echoed across the flagstones. I found a secret delight in the silence. Part of me wanted to stand in the middle of the street and practice Yoga, or close my eyes and meditate. A romantic couple wandered hand in hand around the piazza and gazed at the plants displayed down the colonnade, their leaves set free by the wind, in a marketplace that glowed with illicit light.

I wove northward, finding strange little alleys colonized by wealthy boutique stores, where displays of pointillist mirrors and glass were accompanied by the burble of recorded music seeping out from in-store alarm systems. A mother and a daughter were – for some reason – traipsing through the alleys. Their footsteps felt deafening. After they’d passed, I stopped for a moment to enjoy the peace. I realised I’d never actually listened to the city before. The night hummed with new nocturnal symphonies: car alarms, siren flutter.

I slunk back furtively for my evening train, feeling, in some way, like a fugitive. Less than a handful of people were heading back north with me. The sky outside was now pitch black and the wind had become savage. Nobody checked my ticket.

19th April 2020

Tuesday 25 December 2018

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

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Tragic massacre of the people? Yeah, but look at the beards

They’d sell you the air in Manchester. God knows why you’d want to buy it, but that’s Manchester: gritty, mercantile. These days of course the thing Manchester really wants to sell you is history. The city that once produced a quarter of the world’s calicos now produces a third of the planet’s industrial heritage museums. Professionals dream of installing a Power Shower in the exact corner of a converted mill where Victorian children once had their limbs ripped off. History retails at 50 quid per square inch. Slums are now luxury condos. Around the cholera-rich rivers of the 19th century, you can now bear witness the oppression of the people by buying a £4.20 cappuccino and an Emily Pankhurst fridge magnet.
So watching Mike Leigh’s Peterloo – a new film about the vicious 1819 massacre of a peaceful protest of mill workers by the local yeomanry – can frankly be a bit of a strange experience. It didn’t help that I saw it in HOME, the megabucks glass cube (sorry, “arts centre”) nestled in a shiny corporate landscape of chain bars – hipster central, in other words. (One of the streets is actually called Tony Wilson Place). 
Unfortunately for the film, cobbled backyards, vintage costumes and cart tracks are also the kind of landscape I’ve learnt to subconsciously associate with various species of 21st century twat: Northern Quarter bartenders, street food entrepreneurs, background DJs. Considering that this is a film about the plight of the working poor the effect is a little unintentional. In some of the outdoor scenes I half expected to glimpse a Dirty Burger stall in the background, or for someone to lay a laptop on one of the rough plank benches and ask the haggard Maxine Peake for a Flat White. This isn’t helped by the fact that almost all the men have magnificent “Peak Beard” facial hair; you’re supposed to believe they’re grimy mill workers but you can’t escape the feeling they should be serving you a £12 Margarita. Part of me expected to see someone wandering in and out of the slain bodies at the film’s climax looking for somewhere to plug in their phone.
Still, what about the film? Well, it’s a mixed bag: interesting in places but uneven, and much, much too long. There’s a whole universe of characters who never get developed. Some pop up for a single scene and then disappear. Others even seem to cancel other characters out: there’s much made of a spy doing a sort of covert-ops sting on the protesters, for example, with dark shadowy meetings in dark shadowy tunnels – but it’s largely pointless because the local constable (Big! Fat! Dark cloak!) is hanging around outside like a bad smell anyway, clearly listening, in what must make him the shittiest spy in history. In fact during almost every bloody meeting in the film this constable seems to be hanging around at the edges, like a slightly creepy dumped boyfriend who hasn’t got the message yet. In one scene where Maxine Peake cuddles up with her husband I was surprised not to see him sharing the pillow.
Normally I’m usually someone who hates historical films because they reduce that nebulous thing called history into a series of clichéd and inaccurate set pieces. Or worse, shoehorn some crap modern “empowerment” sub-plot in. Were this not Mike Lee I might have gone in, for example, dismally expecting a late stage reversal as some plucky teenage mill worker heroine suddenly dons a bandana and singlehandedly wipes out the 15th King’s hussars to a soundtrack by Beyonce (available on iTunes).
“Bollocks,” I always think to myself. “This was a product of historical, social and economic forces and was actually much more complex and nuanced.”
Well, Peterloo’s got nuance and complexity. It’s got so much nuance and complexity that frankly you sometimes wonder what the fuck is going on. Be warned: if you’re not already an expert on obscure religio-political movements and the fluctuation of Regency-era grain tariffs (believe it or not, some people aren’t) this might stretch you. Yes, it’s true that history until recently has mostly been made by self-important men in crowded rooms making farty speeches. But that doesn’t make those speeches any less farty (nor the men any less self-important). At one point Maxine Peake’s family discuss the Corn Laws in a bit of background exposition so creakingly functional I half expected to see footnotes flashing up and a pop-up request to donate to Wikipedia.
What about the good things though? Well the historical period is fascinating. We get a mesmerizing range of co-existing social landscapes here that convey just how conflicted that age really was: an age that could see the squalor of 19th century industry interrupted by full-costume Royal hussars, that could support the ancestral offices of the Guardian and a burgeoning modern press at the same time as a Prince Regent with a private love-nest resembling Ancien Regime Versailles. Performances are excellent – including someone I know, Neil Bell, playing a bumptious northerner called Samuel Bamford who’s smitten with a self-regarding orator called Henry Hunt. (Actually this had extra comedic value for me at the thought of my friend licking the arse of some silver-tongued southern pansy, and not, for example, sticking a glass in his posh fucking face, though I have to admit this is probably a bit of a niche reaction).
Ultimately it’s a slightly clunky telling of an important tale, but that doesn’t mean the message isn’t still important. As I walked out I looked around at the glittering hipster metropolis of modern Manchester, with its cliff walls of luxury apartments for the rich and footballer bling masking the poverty-stricken council estates and fucked, high-unemployment, satellite towns beyond; maybe things haven’t changed so much after all.