Monday, 15 March 2021

Did I Just Become a Neo-Nazi Fascist? Sorry


I didn’t, by the way.

Apologies for the title, but it was the only way I could really convey how much the slur stung. I mean, I’m far from perfect. But fascist? 

I should make it clear that I always like to receive feedback, of course, so thanks to anyone who’s made that particular comparison over the years on Facebook. Am I offended? No – more sort of mystified really, and perhaps a touch amused. Anybody who actually knows me is probably aware that a scruffy, guitar-playing, tightrope walking, Labour-voting, degenerate libertine like myself would probably choose not to live under a fascist dictatorship. This isn’t just because I disagree with them. It’s also because I’d be shot.

Yet according to a few comments over the years, Dale ‘goes to rallies of the far-right’ and ‘wants to re-introduce a fascist state’; he ‘supports skinheads’ and ‘spreads the ideas of white supremacists.’

This is news to me, and not just because the views of the far right extreme are abhorrent. It might come as a surprise to some but white people fear white supremacists too. Especially skinny waifish men like me. The only intimate dealings I’ve ever had with skinheads was fearing getting beaten up by them for the crime of being British when I lived in Poland. This has not predisposed me towards ethno-nationalists.

Whatever. I know that everyone calls everyone a Nazi on social media, and that it’s probably not all that important. But I’m a sensitive, delicate flower, and it actually kind of upset me. Why? Frankly it just seemed a little unfair. The word fascist seems an odd kind of slur to hurl at someone who’s published in umpteen leftwing newspapers and magazines, who canvassed for Jeremy Corbyn – yes, I did – and who’s chosen to spend their adult life in the some of the most multi-cultural areas of some of the world’s most multi-cultural cities. Would a ‘fascist’ choose to live in London’s Greek-Cypriot Green Lanes? Or contribute to the pro-feminist, pro-#BLM Huffington Post? Would a white supremacist take a room in the Madrid barrio of Lavapies precisely because they loved its rich mix of Arab shops and North African street markets? I don’t personally know any fascists so I can’t really find out. Perhaps I should contact those Polish skinheads and ask them.

But here’s my guess. I don’t think the ‘fascist’ slur was really anything to do with my actual views. I have a feeling I know why I was called a fascist. I think it’s because... well, how can I put it? I fail to take things very seriously.

Perhaps some context might help at this point.

Let’s rewind half a century. Britain is a drizzly, prim kind of place, racism is rife, police patrol public toilets for cottagers, plays are pre-approved by the Lord Chancellor and sex is banned except in exceptional circumstances. Anything deemed too racy, too raunchy, too radical is squashed at birth by Mary Whitehouse and an army of Sunday Times letter-writers. The conservative right don’t just think they’re on the right. They think they’re in the right.

Enter the rebellion. From New Wave cinema’s attacks on the bourgeoisie to the hippies leading the anti-Vietnam marches, from Python in the 1970s to Alt-Comedy gunning down Thatcher in the ‘80s, a cultural tsunami began to crash against the waves of the United Kingdom flattening every conservative social more beneath it. It was messy. It was loud and it was lewd. It might not have been party-political, but it was certainly political: Civil Rights, CND, student protests, Ban the Bomb, burn the bra, Greenpeace, Greenham Common...

These struggles might not have been identified with a single political party – few political parties would have wanted to be identified them – but they were all swept up in the general fervour of what’s sometimes called the New Left. This form of leftwing sentiment was a cultural rebellion as an economic one. In fact it was closer to a moral rebellion. It was a protest against propriety. Sex, swearing, shock, lewdness and decorative atheism were all part of it. It felt infantile at times and sometimes pointless. In fact that was kind of the idea. The point was sometimes to be pointless. If there was a salient theme here, it was to desecrate the sacred and reproach the irreproachable. In other words, it was to be irreverent.

Irreverence. It sounds like such a generic staple of any comic stance. And indeed it is. As a kid I grew up on much of that ‘80s and ‘90s satire, watching the likes of Jo Brand or Ben Elton tear the Thatcherite government to shreds for its attacks on welfare and low taxation (before they got rich and famous and mysteriously learnt to see the value of low taxation themselves). Watch a show like The Young Ones or the original Spitting Image and the range of targets is breathtaking. Everyone comes under fire. Government. Citizens. Landlords. Hippies. Police. Protestors. Capitalists. Anti-capitalists. There’s something incredibly inclusive about this, at least by today’s standards; nobody was too high and mighty to be above criticism.

Imagine that today. Sure, the state-sanctioned satire industry likes to tell itself that it’s radical and edgy because it mocks Boris Johnson’s haircut or criticises him for not being as authoritarian as China. But it’s hamstrung by an increasingly puritan left and an ever-contracting circle of legitimate targets. Tories? Sure. Trump? Absolutely. Rich men? Fine. But just imagine what would happen if a mainstream comedy outlet today turned their sights on some of the icons of contemporary liberal piety. Imagine if they satirized Greta Thunberg. Imagine if they criticized Meghan Markle, or #BLM, or dared to raise questions about Islam or immigration. Picture the BBC, Independent or Guardian promoting a rapper who thought Brexit was a good thing, or disagreed with the largest curtailment of civil liberties in human history and the wilful destruction of a million jobs to fight a virus that wasn’t terminal for 99% of the population. I can’t imagine any of this.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. After all, you only have to watch a few ’70s sitcoms to see what a racist and sexist place Britain was back then, and even just a generation ago mainstream jokes contain stuff that feels pretty unpalatable today. Most of us feel instinctively that jokes probably should, on the whole, be directed at white rich men; after all, they held most of the power for most of human history. Why attack women or ethnic minorities?

There’s a lot of sense behind this. The problem however is that if you create too many No-Go areas for criticism, then you effectively disenfranchise the citizenry from a fundamental human right – to criticise other citizens. If this becomes entrenched, it starts to feel stifling. One of the reasons why awful people like Donald Trump managed to insinuate themselves into power was because they stood precisely against such No-Go areas. Donald Trump succeeded because he stood for free speech; he championed anybody’s right to say anything except when it criticised conservatives, Republicans, white men, rich white men, any of his friends, or Donald Trump. If my irony isn’t clear here, I don’t think Donald Trump is the answer.  

I’d argue that too many things have walled themselves off from criticism over the last few years. I actually had a lot of affection for Greta Thunberg, but I couldn’t help thinking there was still something rather funny about her – let alone the sight of a teenager without so much as an A-Level in Atmospheric Chemistry lecturing the United Nations on climate change. I think Megan Markle was probably spot-on about the Royal Family being racist (is anybody actually surprised?) but that doesn’t mean she and Harry should be insulated from all critique in their luxury palace in Los Angeles. I mean, Harry went from wearing swastikas at parties to lecturing the world about anti-racism. Come on. That’s at least a little bit funny.

Instead we’re encouraged to shy away from criticism. The offshoot royals and their rich mates are off-limits; only nasty people would go there. While I understand where this reluctance comes from – there was something a bit grubby about the tabloid press’s antipathy to Megan for example – it has the danger of polarizing the population rather than protecting the vulnerable. Are some of the richest and most powerful celebrities on earth really beyond critique? Increasingly we’re obliged to revere an ever-expanding circle of sainted millionaires even while millions go hungry or jobless; there’s only so many breathtakingly privileged, privately-educated people lecturing the world about social justice I can take.

I think the reason people call me a fascist is because it’s precisely this kind of thing that someone like me likes to take the piss out of. ‘Taking the piss’ is a very British thing, by the way: technically it translates as ‘satirize’ or ‘mock’, but it really means something much more nuanced and more down-to-earth than that. Friends take the piss. Family take the piss. There’s something strangely inclusive about it, too; one of the ways to initiate someone into a friendship group is to expose them to a little light sarcasm. I like this about Britain. In fact it’s one of the things I like most. One of the reasons I don’t want to live in Tehran or Beijing is because I think the ability to laugh at oneself, to be laughed at, to not take things too bloody seriously, is a really important aspect of society working. It also just makes for more likeable people. Someone who doesn’t put themselves beyond criticism is someone who doesn’t put themselves on a pedestal. Humour is a great path to humility.

For this reason, I’ve always thought it a kind of moral duty to criticize anybody and everybody. Nobody should be immune. I’m not a comic – as many people who’ve witnessed the silence I can create at dinner-parties will attest – but I am irreverent. I joke. I rib. There’s just something so deliciously self-important about modern liberals that makes me want to tear down a few of their pedestals. That doesn’t mean punching down. It doesn’t mean reinforcing old hierarchies or protecting rich white men. But it does mean treating powerful people as legitimate targets for satire even when they don’t happen to be rich white men. I cheered when Barack Obama became president, but that doesn’t mean he was above satire. If Greta Thunberg or Meghan Markle want global publicity they have to also accept the criticism that come with that.

The sad thing about all of this is that I end up criticising the left more than the right, even though I actually vote left. Partly this is because the right are often just so ridiculous that they pretty much satirize themselves: I mean, Trump jokes? Talk about ducks in a barrel. People who founded a comedy career for attempting to make Donald Trump look ridiculous were always going to be outdone by Donald Trump’s attempts to make Donald Trump look ridiculous. Worse, the right also seem to thrive by being satirized. Drawing attention to Boris Johnson’s haircut is not undermining the authority of Boris Johnson. It’s what helped him get elected.

But it’s also because the left have largely taken up the mantle of moral righteousness that used to be the preserve of the right. If you wrap yourself in an unassailable force field of virtue that protects you from all criticism, what do you expect? If you come across as overwhelmingly pious, don’t you think someone might try to puncture that piety?

It genuinely bewilders me that mocking the piety of today’s liberals is now seen as a gateway to fascism. What was the ‘60s counterculture doing if not attacking the values of the comfortable establishment? Was François Truffaut a fascist too? He was an acclaimed filmmaker, true, while I’m a lonely man with a laptop who should probably get out a bit more – but so what? Even if I lack every shred of rhetorical skill, why does that make me fascist? It just makes me a bad writer. It certainly shouldn’t affect my right to write.

Being a provocateur is bound to provoke reactions. But I think that the fury of the reactions it provokes is fascinating. Part of the reason I think it does is that over the last half century left and right have, silently and invisibly, swapped places. Economically speaking they’re pretty much in the same positions they were fifty years ago: both claim to believe in social progress, only the left backs welfare and the right backs enterprise as the main driver.

But culturally and morally they’ve switched. Just think about any of the last half dozen moral scandals you can remember from the news over, say, the last month. When a gallery exhibition is banned, when a Facebook page is taken down, when a politician is sacked, chances are that it’s a part of the left – a student union, a Twitter campaign, an anti-racism group – that’s doing the banning here.  

Now of course this is a complex picture. The old conservative right still exists. The likes of Mary Whitehouse haven’t gone away, it’s just that they don’t really matter in the cultural conversation any more. Their letters go unread. Their complaints fail to go viral. How on earth could a cultural conservative of the old kind, after all, really survive in an age of Puppetry of the Penis? Or a Turner-prize winning art piece about tampons? How could a spokesperson of the old religious right hope to make their voice heard in a world where New Atheist God-bashers get their own TV shows and abuse the devout on Twitter to showers of applauding retweets?

The new Mary Whitehouses wield a power that their letter-writing grandmothers could never have imagined. They can bring governments into disgrace. They can demand the resignations of their employers. For sinning against the values of tolerance, offenders can be sacked, spat-at, destroyed, attacked, punched – and all while liberals who pride themselves on a ‘kinder, gentler’ politics cheer from the sidelines. Breathtaking levels of cruelty are permitted if it comes under the guise of kindness.

I think we’ve forgotten about the importance of irreverence. The term taken literally means the failure to revere, the refusal to take seriously what one is expected to. Without question, it lies at the heart of all satire. But it goes much deeper than that. It lies at the heart of all good journalism, all good writing, good art, good criticism – at the heart, ultimately, of public life itself: for what is citizenship if not the right to raise an eyebrow at the powers that be? Who are we if we can’t take the piss out of one another?

If we’re allowed to cast a ballot now and again for the party we want to see in charge, we should also be allowed the space to puncture the self-importance of the powerful and their ideas – in other words, to have our carnivals, have our jokes, have our memes. These are safety valves. The right to laugh, in other words, is seriously important. Comedy is no laughing matter.

I joke about everything. I don’t believe in sacred cows so I’ll attack left, right, liberals, fascists, me, her, them – everything. I’m a practitioner of equal opportunities offence. I once had a submission rejected by a left-leaning website for being too right-wing and a submission rejected by a right-leaning website or being too leftwing on the same day. In case I sound like a misguided loser with too much time on his hands (I have no idea how you might think this) let me say: the point of all this isn’t ‘satire’. I don’t believe I’m the next Jonathan Swift or Armando Iannucci. I think I’m a misguided loser with too much time on his hands. Too much talk of ‘satire’ is a dangerous road to go down; it implies that irreverence needs to be justified in artistic worth. It doesn’t. Irreverence doesn’t need any justification at all. It’s the mark of a healthy society that it can laugh about itself. The pious change their spots over the ages – from priests and nobles in the Middle Ages to government scientists or celebrity Royals in our own – but they need to be mocked. That’s what a functioning democracy is all about. Iran, North Korea or the Gulf States are not known for their sense of humour. 

That’s why the fascist slur rankles so much. It suggests that I have no respect for democracy or civil society. In fact I’d argue the very opposite. What on earth is the connection between being a bit irreverent on Facebook and donning the swastika? The Nazis were not famous for their playful capacity for irony. Light satire did not surge at the time of Stalin’s purges or Mao’s mass-exterminations. These things are not a gateway to fascism; they’re a bulwark against it.

Until recently being a bit centrist and a bit sardonic was not perceived as problematic. Saloon wits were seen as apolitical, blow-in-the-wind; they weren’t necessarily required to have a position. Their agents didn’t call them if they didn’t put the right picture in their Twitter bio. Now anybody who dares to challenge the establishment consensus, with its limited list of permitted targets, will learn to regret it. Mock Boris Johnson’s hair, but don’t mock Boris Johnson’s lockdown. Mock Trump’s aggressive nationalism, but don’t dwell on the horrific persecution of ethnic minorities in China, Myanmar or the other hundreds of places it’s happening around the world (sometimes, rather inconveniently, at the hands of other ethnic minorities). As for mocking faith... Remember what happened to those cartoonists.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter all that much if someone calls someone like me a fascist on Facebook. It might hurt my feelings, but I’m not going to starve to death. I do, however, think that the deeper culture of piety that leads to these slurs has consequences. If the left presents itself as a moral project rather than a political one – if the main feature of being on the left is simply that you’re basically a nice person and you watch what you say all the time – then we can look forward to a lifetime of Tory governments. The Tories can move leftwards on social welfare and state spending. Where does that leave the opposition? With more policing of free speech, right thinking? More calls for harder lockdowns? Should we vote for Labour so that it’s easier for us to get made redundant or banned from Facebook?

By far my keenest critic has been a man called Peter, a charming and thoughtful man fond of hurling abuse at people in the name of tolerance, and who genuinely seems to believe that the fact I find Owen Jones a bit sanctimonious means I want to build gas chambers for Jews (point of fact: I’m a smidgeon Jewish myself, and which party was investigated for anti-Semitism recently?).

Few people call others fascists for the crime of disagreeing with them as often as Peter. Now, I could get angry. But let’s consider the point of this article: haven’t I been arguing for tolerance, for levity, for a sense of humour? Am I in danger of condemning Peter for the condemning me? 

Although I don’t know him personally, my instinct is that Peter’s not such a bad sort really. I can’t help picturing him as the sort of guy who still sleeps with a pile of his childhood teddies, perhaps, only pausing occasionally to pick up his phone and tweet to someone that they’re a #FuckingNazi#CuntWhoNEEDSTO!DIE before settling happily back to sleep.

In fact – and I should make it clear for legal reasons I’m just speculating here – there’s something so insistent about Peter’s accusations that I can only take them as a back-handed compliment. Or perhaps more. It wouldn’t be the first time unconventional men have been sexually attracted to me, and expressed that attraction in bizarrely-passive aggressive (or even just aggressive) ways. If that is the case, Peter, then I’m touched – but sadly I have to decline. You’re just not my type.

Ultimately Peter is just one person – but he represents many more: people who think that screaming at someone for not agreeing with you is a fun way to start the day, people who believe that the best way to create a more tolerant, caring society is to accuse anyone who disagrees with you of being Adolf Hitler. Ironically, the thing all of this really reminds me of is the atmosphere of 1930s Germany. So if Peter’s right, and I am a fascist, then he is too. Eh Peter: let’s kiss and make up. Or don’t Nazis do that?

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. I can’t help feeling that when it comes to my dad it would explain the mango chutney.

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