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I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted

Category Archives: Politics

The trouble is, you think you have time

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Global Warming

What would you do if you were told you only had fourteen years to live? It’s not cancer. It’s far worse than that. Floods haven’t been on the news recently but they aren’t going away and according to scientist James Lovelock climate change is going to unleash environmental devastation and by 2040 southern Europe will be a desert.

With global populations continuing to rise and third world countries developing a taste for red meat, the average British millenial is in a race to the bottom. And if James Lovelock is correct you should party like its £19.99 because you don’t have long left.

“Enjoy life while you can. Because if you’re lucky it’s going to be 20 years before it hits the fan.”

– James Lovelock, March 2008

James Lovelock is convinced climate change is inevitable and ethical living a scam. Recycling, wind turbines, planting nice trees – it’s a complete waste of time, the damage is already done and paying 10p for a shopping bag at Sainsbury’s won’t make a difference.

Ethical living is akin to a smoker quitting on his deathbed, it might make you feel better, but that’s all it will do. And you thought forking out for those solar panels was a good investment. Well your Dad probably thought so. But if you’re reading this you probably don’t even have a flat, let alone flash panels soaking up rays on a double garage.

If recycling pizza leaflets and beer bottles won’t save the planet, then what exactly can we do? Start paying 35p for the plastic bags we stuff underneath the sink? Grow carrots and potatoes in our back gardens and eat less meat?

Wait, statistically you live in an urbanised sprawl and don’t have a garden or any sustainable land. Your everyday survival is entirely reliant on the mass importation of food into corporate supermarkets.

Burgerthons

As a species we are tribal carnivores genetically programmed to eat everything we can. A risky gambit if you live on a small island that imports 40% of its consumed food. If Lovelock is correct and global catastrophe is only 16 years away then enjoy your burgerthon festivals and 2 for 1 pizzas while you still can. You can’t feed yourself on Twitter.

In that respect Generation Y doesn’t have much to live for and we’re the lucky ones. It’s your kids and unborn progeny, who are really going to suffer. Generation Z is fittingly apt because according to Lovelock “about 80%” of the world’s population will be wiped out by 2100.

The Trouble Is, You Think You Have Time

You see this Buddha meme reposted on social media all the time. It’s probably fake but in the context of a forthcoming global apocalypse it’s worth paying attention to. With a decaying eco-system and billions of new hungry mouths wanting a first world lifestyle, there isn’t much point saving for a mortgage.

As your dream home is either going to be flooded or raided by starving vigilantes looking for something to eat. If Lovelock is correct then you don’t have long left before pale blue dot metamorphoses into a dead planet. If you fancy a career break backpacking around South America, then enjoy the precious time you have left, or hope Lovelock is an alarmist mad scientist with nothing to lose.

If you stay at home and do nothing else, then savour every gourmet burger, chicken fillet and goats cheese salad you eat and pay virtually nothing for the privilege. Generation Z are going to pay that dividend for you.

Cherchez la femme

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“Their only crime was being young, arrogant, and beautiful.”

Patti Smith

Pussy Riot are the most perfect rock band in history. Even the Sex Pistols in their 77′ prime never looked this fucking good. Formed last year in response to Vladmir Putin’s third (and ultimately successful) presidential run, Pussy Riot are creating a pop experience that goes far beyond mere aural sensation.

Back in February 2012, the Russian feminist punk collective performed a ‘punk prayer’ against Putin inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour wearing multi-coloured balaclavas. Rallying against “evil crooks of the Putinist junta”, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, now face seven year jail terms for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is extraordinarily pretty and I want to sleep with her for all the wrong reasons. With Pussy Riot facing up to seven years in jail for singing in a church, having a crush on one of the accused seems completely inappropriate. It feels glib and trivial to fancy someone so unbelievably brave and intelligent.

Fortunately lust and intellectual admiration have never been mutually exclusive and sapiosexuals will appreciate that Pussy Riot have created a parallel universe that goes way beyond sonic thrills.

On being locked up like princesses in a cage, the Pussy Riot collective inevitably stoke up references to the Situationist International 68’. But unlike the liberal havens of Western Europe, modern Russia is a frighteningly oppressive regime and this Stalinist show trial only serves to remind people how many journalists in Russia have gone missing in the last twelve years.

And for all the talk of revolutionary politics and feminism, I find myself deeply conflicted by the case. As while I genuinely admire their intellect and courage, they are utterly, utterly brilliant, I feel ashamed that I have become infatuated by Nadia’s physical beauty.

However, I have to consider that many of the world’s greatest political movements were served by having a striking and iconic figurehead. Pussy Riot are all about symbolism in many respects – the glamour quotient of the Anonymous  hacker movement.

Pussy Riot have achieved their goals of becoming famous and their profile in Britain exploded after this brilliant article by Carole Cadwalladr, which is journalism worth paying for but you can read it here for free.

Pussy Riot are not individuals, they’re an idea. And that’s the thing that has gripped Russia and caught the attention of the rest of the world, too: that the Russian government has gone and arrested an idea and is prosecuting through the courts with a vindictiveness the Russian people haven’t before seen.

The Russian feminists really are a wonderful reminder that if you want to inspire change then you have to capture the imagination of the soul. Listening to their punk demo records, it becomes pretty apparently that you don’t want Pussy Riot to serenade you. They can’t play to save themselves. But glamour on this level is not necessarily a superficial thing. Pussy Riot are an idea and you can’t arrest an idea – not one that has been transmitted across the globe.

In stark contrast to what is going on in Putin’s Russia, political protest has been largely tolerated in Britain during the last sixty years. The Pussy Riot girls would be ironic clothes horses in this wet green island, casually appearing on faux-rebellious street art in Shoreditch High Street. In Russia they have become the only band that matters. Pussy Riot live dangerously so you don’t have to.

The ghosts of vanished ideals

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Reading about youth unemployment in a Central London office, I feel bizarrely left out of the ‘graduate without a future’ debate. Graduating a few years before the Great Crash of 08’ has left me observing youth declinism from the sidelines. With my own career stalling, I desperately want to take part in this debate but since I receive a modest salary, I feel unable to do so.

Graduate angst still resonates of course but I’m 31 years old and entering what Fitzgerald once famously referred to as a ‘portentous, menacing road of a new decade…the promise of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm and thinning hair’.

Stimulating and creative jobs are now sadly thin on the ground too. However, the concept of fulfilment in the workplace is a relatively modern one. The ancient Greek ideal of eudaiomnia, a contented state of happiness, is certainly not something that would have affected older generations.

Choice is a luxury and too much choice has created an existential hunger for well-paid creative jobs that simply don’t exist. Paul Mason brilliantly captured the spectre of declinism in his Guardian article about the “Graduate without a future”. His thesis is simple and inordinately depressing too – the Western economic model is broken and fails to produce enough high-value work for its highly educated workforce.

Graduating with a liberal-arts degree from Glasgow University in 2004, I don’t recall the spectre of declinism hanging over my generation. On the contrary everything appeared remarkably complacent – an era of cheap credit, flights and relatively bright job prospects.

Within one year of graduating from a Scottish university you could retrain as a teacher and receive a full pension, epic holidays and become a middle-class professional. Such a route was actively encouraged by the Scottish Government and it became a cosy meal ticket for thousands of well-educated arts graduates, unqualified to do anything else.

Back then the public sector wasn’t vilified like it is today and on choosing to study History; I embarked upon a luxury degree and one that came with tremendous academic and social privileges. Unaware in my late teens that it would seriously define (or paradoxically harm) my future job prospects, I attended a traditional medieval university whose emphasis lay firmly on academic learning. Studying at a Russell Group university is a wonderful privilege but it was one that left me completely unprepared for the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Creating a factory supply of new teachers on route towards a public-sector nirvana might sound benign and egalitarian in principle. A society that invests in education is surely doing something right. However, I am not convinced that this golden ticket encouraged much creativity or entrepreneurship. Such a policy arguably stunted growth because not enough students were seriously challenged to change anything.

Unprepared for the future, I like many non-teaching arts graduates found myself lost in short-term contracts, temping and nomadic career wanderings that offered in creative or monetary value. Alas now I have a media job with a salary, and one I would have loved after leaving university, but looking elsewhere I find myself competing against millions of brilliant minds who are prepared to work for free.

Nothing much will change until Western economies catch up with the technological and communications revolution that has empowered the young. Like seeds beneath the snow, millions of restless spirits  lay dormant in call centres and fast food restaurants. And while Britain might seem like an uninspiring place, spare a thought for 55,000 who applied for 380 openings for Ikea in Sabadell, Spain. Now that is what you call a crisis of ideas.

A Stateless Nation

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On growing up in the nationalist heartlands of the North East of Scotland and with parents of Anglo-Irish descent, I am a first generation Scot. Always sensitive to any hint of anti-English sentiment, I remember my first impressions of nationalism and I considered it back then to be inherently nasty, bigoted and deeply parochial. Largely this was a result of a feral loathing of the English football team and the hysterical fear of the ‘auld enemy’ winning the World Cup.

Laughable as this might sound to educated observers, especially anyone who knows anything about football, the populist cry was that ‘we would never hear the end of it’ and they are right. It would be absolutely unbearable but our European partners usually come to our aid whenever this is in danger of happening.

Football might seem frivolous to some but the social consequences of this nationalist hysteria led to me preferring the union. As a result and unaware of the grim economic conditions taking place outside of the affluent fields of Aberdeenshire, I felt very comfortable being simultaneously Scottish and British. While I always considered myself Scottish, I owed my existence to parents and as a son of economic migrants; I was a product of oil rather than the Mearns soil.

Although looking back my British identity crisis was an emotional form of solidarity with my parents. It co-existed with my Scottish identity, which back then was a geographical and localised phenomenon.

T.C. Smout, the brilliant social historian, once stated that ‘what is unusual about Scotland is the widespread acceptance that national identity does not have to coincide with state identity’. He succinctly tapped into the political separation of powers of the 1707 Union settlement, where Scottish cultural and religious nationalism was allowed to flourish outside the sphere of the British state.

Shaped by the desire to secure a Hanoverian Protestant succession in the early eighteenth century, British identity has been formed around the crown, empire, industrialisation and the emotional solidarity of two World Wars. In the twenty-first century, the contemporary framework of British identity has shifted radically.

With the British Empire now confined to the dust columns of history, the BBC, NHS, Royal Mail and celebrity television shows such as the X-Factor and Big Brother provide ‘Britons’ with a shared cultural identity.

On being entirely comfortable with being both Scottish and British, I can trace my slow conversion to independence from attending two of Scotland’s oldest universities. On first attending Kings College in Aberdeen, I took great pride in learning that until 1858 Aberdeen had two universities, the same number as the whole of England.

Education always appeared to be a great Scottish virtue and with the devolved Scottish administration paying student’s tuition fees since 1999 it became clear that education in Scotland is a universal right and not something confined to the privileged few.

On transferring to Glasgow University and studying History, I slowly developed the opinion that Scotland had everything in place to be thriving independent nation but somehow shied away from taking full responsibility. A country blessed with huge natural resources, a brilliant university network, untapped green energy, a booming tourist industry and two of the greatest cities in Northern Europe only 40 minutes apart. Scotland has enormous potential to become a progressive and wealthy European state.

If Scotland were to vote for full independence in autumn 2014 then the British state will cease to exist but Britishness will not. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes are still Scandinavian despite living in politically autonomous states. The Scandinavian nations co-operate on matters of shared national interest such as security, immigration, energy and tourism.

There will be no custom officials and razed wire fences in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Gretna Green if Scotland were to go their own way. And by retaining the Queen as the head of state, the SNP have offered an olive branch to unionists uncomfortable with the pace of radical constitutional change.

With his High Excellency Alex Salmond at the helm in Holyrood anything now feels possible. A truly outstanding political operator, the SNP has been blessed with the most gifted political communicator in the British Isles since Tony Blair.

Commanding over an extremely disciplined and ‘on message’ party, Alex Salmond is gradually persuading the Scottish people there is nothing that cannot be achieved by ourselves. On turning full circle I now believe in independence. The wheels of progress have been slow but the destination now feels inevitable.

Down and Out in Occupy London

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Dark, brooding and incongruously ugly, the Occupy London’s Tent City offers an apocalyptic vision of a post-recession Britain. A nightmarish vision of austerity, middle-class slum or a utopian commune, it really depends on your point of view. Marxist cuckoos in the Anglican’s nest, the anti-capitalist protesters have turned the public piazza outside St Paul’s Cathedral into a new found democracy.

Organised by a hash tag and riddled with contradictions, the Occupy protesters are a malleable bunch. Predominately under the age of thirty, if not younger, the hardcore militants protesting at St Paul’s are invariably white educated liberals or students as they are more commonly known.

Campaigning against banker bonuses, corporate greed and the grotesque spectacle of UK business executives giving themselves a 50% increase in their salaries. Something had to be done. Identifying what is wrong with modern capitalism but thus far offering no concrete solutions, Occupy London has a lot in common with social-democratic politicians like Barack Obama and Ed Miliband. Awaiting genuine leadership, a big bang moment has yet to strike a chime with the protesters at St Paul’s.

With up to 150 tents living cheek by jowl on frozen concrete, the protesters come from different social and economic backgrounds but slumming it is a real leveller. Speaking about his experience mingling with tramps, George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, “Once you’re in that world and seemingly of it, it hardly matters what you have been in the past. It is a sort of world-within-world where everyone is equal, a small squalid democracy – perhaps the nearest thing to a democracy that exists in England.”

Although unlike the lowly tramps in Orwell’s essay, the anti-capitalist protesters occupying St Paul’s are bound by idealism not poverty. Coming from good homes and largely well-educated, the Occupy camp will have enjoyed wealth, comfort and opportunities for most of their young lives.

It is the fear of these privileges being taken away from them that propels them to the streets. Those worst affected by capitalism, the grizzly anonymous men loitering in street corners drinking cider, are nowhere to be seen. Instead a bizarre congregation of misfits preside over a spectacle of awareness against a system that continues to feed them.

As the global economic crisis of 2008 has already shown, ordinary people have become helpless components in a computerised market system, which we are seemingly powerless to challenge or change. And nothing will change as a result of this protest camp. To pretend otherwise is to miss the point entirely.

Occupy London is merely a piss stain on the carpet of the establishment. A metaphorical protest that is more likely to be dismantled by dropping temperatures than police bailiffs. However, it offers a fascinating insight into the collective values of middle-class idealism. Those whose essential needs have been satisfied and yet dream of changing the world order for the greater good of society.

With police thermal images showing 90% of tents at St Paul’s are unoccupied in the early hours, the protesters have been accused of hypocrisy and self-indulgence. Returning home to warm bedrooms, eating gourmet sandwiches from a nearby Marks and Spencers and tweeting solidarity on luxury smartphones, there are benefits to capitalism that not even the most militant-protester would want to lose.

This fractious community are representative of an increasingly divided country, angry at injustice and corporate greed, but still more likely to pay homage to Steve Jobs than Karl Marx. Unnerving as it might be to suggest, the otherwise noble idealism of the protesters regularly falls short at the first touch of reality. All the while the genuinely impoverished and historical victims of the market system are nowhere to be seen.

Nobody Expects the Spanish Revolution

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As Madrid is more of a national capital than an international one like London or Paris, the British press have perhaps not given Spain’s “los indignados” the attention they deserve. Over 60, 000 Spanish youths held spontaneous protests in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia in May 2011, rebelling against the socialist government’s austerity measures. A decade of unemployment and emigration beckons for tens of thousands of Spanish graduates.

Youth unemployment among 16 to 29-year-olds is estimated to be around 45 per cent. Upturned in the Puerta de Sol are stolen crates, graffiti slogans and multiple plastic tents full of sticky protesters eating tinned food in brutally hot temperatures. Indignant in their defiance, the “los indignados” are demanding new jobs, public investment and changes to the government’s austerity plans but their wishes have fallen on deaf ears. Spain like so many other debt-ridden European nations has elected a centre-right government into power.

Madrid’s tent city should perhaps serve as a reminder that political dissent has not always been tolerated in Europe. For this red scar of rebellion may be gathering momentum in 2011 but situated in a former hospital is a heart stopping reminder of Spain’s fascist past. Forming an integral part of the holy trinity of Madrid’s historic art museums, the Museo Reina Sofía is renowned throughout the world for hosting Picasso’s Guernica.

Awe inspiring and superbly displayed, this icon of twentieth-century European art is one of the few universal masterpieces that commands a religious silence from all visitors. Displayed on the second floor, the art crowds flock to Guernica all year round and cross-legged school children listen attentively to the horrific origins of the painting. Picasso painted it as a response to the Luftwaffe bombing of Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937.

As a universal symbol against the fight against fascism, Guernica is a brutal reminder that under General Franco Spain was a military dictatorship until the late 1970s. On forming a one party state, the Falange, political censorship was vigorously enforced under Franco. Trade unions were banned. Catalan, Basque and Galician languages were severely censured and political opponents were mercilessly executed. The majority of Britons will be unable to comprehend the level of repression suffered in Spain during this period. Most people in the UK understandably take the liberal fruits of universal suffrage and freedom of speech for granted.

Britain is one of the oldest and most stable democracies in the modern world, and has enjoyed peaceful growth from 1945 until the present day. Guernica is a potent reminder that Britain has enjoyed its most comfortable, safe and prosperous period in its living history. The global recession of 2008 has triggered violent rioting in Greece and led to tens of thousands of protesters kicking spokes in the hub of Madrid’s wheel.

Britain’s anti-cut march in London attracted over 200, 000 people but it feels strangely weak and deeply uninspiring compared to the demonstrations in Madrid. The protest was quickly forgotten after a day’s headlines. And it will be most likely remembered for the self-aggrandising violence of a hundred upper-middle class anarchists. Spain feels different.

Although history will judge how effective the Spanish revolution will be in what is going to be a very difficult decade for Europe. A generational time bomb is slowly ticking because of this economic crisis. Unemployment and living costs continue to rise across the continent. But if history is to offer any guide, and hard as this is to admit, sometimes you have to travel across your own borders to realise how lucky Britain really is.

Up in the Air

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On writing from a rented box in the sky, I find myself staring out towards a concrete forest of tower blocks, cranes and scaffolding. With the average price of a room in London costing up to £150 a week, I like many others have found myself lured by the promise of cheaper rents in the east. Having spent my first six months in the capital living in genteel Chiswick, I felt bound by the invisible hand when I moved to East London. Unless you have a professional job or enjoy the luxury of being subsidised by your family, the cost of housing in the capital is increasingly unaffordable. Where the majority of people now have to enter the Gumtree lottery and throw a huge portion of their income on mediocre accommodation.

After tiring of coming up for air in West London, I decided to abandon suburbia and make a radical lifestyle change in late 2007. On moving to Whitechapel in search of affordable housing, I can recall my first evening exploring the Victorian side streets and becoming acquainted with inner city life.

Whitechapel is physically unattractive and only really comes into life in black light, where it becomes a true urban menace with sirens, graffiti and encroaching cranes. There are skinhead cockney geezers sitting on broken bar stools and outside you will discover complete freaks walking past you like an abandoned crisp packet. When I refer to ‘freaks’ I don’t mean alternative middle-class people in ‘controversial’ attire.These freaks are complete fucking weirdos, who grunt aggressive noises and there was one in particular that made me want to court an instant metallic death just to avoid making eye-contact.

Whitechapel is an extremely vibrant place and ugliness is always like to have a seductive tonic. After making eyes with the Katie Holmes barmaid the other night I almost dropped my glass in shock. It only lasted a few seconds but it just goes to show how rewarding life can be when you unearth a flower in the dustbin.

Undeniably raw, angry and glittering underneath the Gerkin, I found myself estranged in this new world order. Like those before me, I came in search of affordable accommodation and while initially I felt out of place in Whitechapel. Economic chains do ultimately bind us all and like the Bengali men selling fruit and vegetables in plastic tents, I came across another demographic earning a living on the floor.

Whitechapel regularly hosts walking tours for middle class tourists wanting to discover more about Jack the Ripper’s murder spree in the late 19th century. Although why a misogynistic killer has now become a form of street entertainment for middle-class tourists is a fascinating one. At the end of this century will Rothbury become a tourist attraction for huddled groups wanting to discover more about a sadistic Huck Finn with a sawn off shotgun?

As the Gerkin continues to shine in face of violent cuts in public spending, I find the housing situation in London virtually unbearable. With modern advancements in technology, I feel very frustrated that employees must continue to live within commuting distance of the workplace. If people could work at home on the internet like so much of our social and daily lives. Then no longer would people have to pay ridiculously high rents for rooms in squalid locations.

While you may still find yourself paying £150 a week for a double room it would no longer have to be confined to Central London. Rents in places such as Whitechapel would be able to drop down and greater diversity would be spread across the regions. If only this practice were in place now I could be writing high up in sky overlooking the Mediterranean. Something only mercenary landlords and tube station muggers could take issue with.

Pictures by kind permission of Louis Berk from his book “Walk to Work: from the City to Whitechapel”.

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