Save the world, fight capitalism

Something strange is happening to me. I am becoming an environmentalist. For years environmental issues have been secondary to me behind social, political and economic concerns. Now I’m realizing that they are all the same.

It’s been happening incrementally. I work for an inter-governmental not-for-profit organization. A lot of the work the organization does concerns maximizing crop yields, minimizing the impact of invasive species and generally trying to ensure small farmers, often in some of the poorest regions in the world, have a sustainable business in a world where food security is increasingly impacted by climate change. This is self-evidently an admirable thing. It isn’t enough though.

As an inter-governmental organization we are hampered by being politically neutral. Our projects rely on donor funding – often the people who are funding our work are the very governments whose policies are causing (or at least exacerbating) the problem in the first place.

Climate change is a political issue. Assuaging our conscience by trying to clear up after ourselves is no longer enough. Alongside this we also need to work at a policy level because to combat climate change we need to remake our society – to make it fairer, more equal and not concerned with economic growth at the expense of everything else. Even in the UK, with the extensive flooding in early 2014, we have seen how our stripped back state is unable to deal with the effects of climate change. The private sector, the market gods are not going to save us from drought and floods.

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything explains this far better than I ever could. I don’t think I have ever read a book that I have agreed with more – or that has made me understand the urgency of the situation it describes.

So, the time for action is now. The time for making the argument for change is now. I’ve started volunteering, I’m looking for opportunities to get my hands dirty, to put my time and money where my mouth is. Hopefully I will talk about some of what I get up to in this blog.

The time for radical solutions is now. Save the world, fight capitalism.

 

III by The Black Heart Procession

I’m listening to III by The Black Heart Procession again. I think it is one of the most underrated albums of all time. I only know one other person who likes it, and he writes on this blog. It isn’t even the album that comes up first when you search for it on YouTube.

It is yearning, hopeful, deeply romantic music. I always come back to it when a certain mood sets in. I’m not entirely sure what that mood is, it isn’t sad or nostalgic but there is an element of melancholy I guess. It speaks to things that we have lost. People, feelings, time. Most of all time. It keeps on passing on and we don’t seize hold of it.

If you like Tindersticks you should listen to this. Sometimes I find myself singing track 3, ‘Once Said at the Fires’ without even realizing it. Music that sings to you is magical. It doesn’t happen often. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where this album doesn’t exist.III by Black Heart Procession will make you dream and smile and cry and think. If it doesn’t touch something in you we will probably never be friends.

Final Destination

This is going to be a mistake, I thought to myself as I stood outside Manchester Piccadilly train station waiting for S. It was starting to rain, huge goblets were dropping from the Joy Division sky, as I checked my phone anxiously.  S was late, of course, S was always late. Part of me was always waiting for S, checking my phone, trying to work out how many hours of my life I’d spent waiting for S. Although, to the outside observer it seemed like I had been waiting for S in many different locations across nearly thirty years, in actual fact, as my state-of-mind, anxious, annoyed yet utterly resigned to the fact of S being late, was always the same, I experienced waiting for S not successively but simultaneously. Whilst I was waiting for S outside of Manchester Piccadilly train station I was also waiting for him in a dive hotel lobby in Budapest, at the magazine rack inside Mac’s News and by the monographs on the French Revolution at the University library. Realising this made me relax slightly. I hitched my rucksack up on my back and texted S to tell him I would be inside the concourse by the information screens.

I saw S before he saw me. He looked sweaty and dishevelled, and his eyes were darting nervously from side to side. I stuck my hand in the air until he saw me, and then I turned my back and headed towards the platform. S bustled up alongside me.

“Sorry I’m late, it’s been a fucker of a morning.”
“Aren’t they all?”

We did the walk/jog hybrid beloved of commuters and just made it on to the Cross-country train in time. The doors locked behind us and the train started moving before we found our seats.

Some part of me is always berating S for being late, so I decided that I didn’t need to actually say anything as we put our bags in the overhead storage space and sat down. S started to tell me about his morning, about how there had been some emergency problem with the university server that he had been woken up at 4am in order to fix and he had only just managed to get the system stable again before the train was due and that was why he almost missed it, and he was sick of being on call, that he was going to quit and do nothing for 6 months whilst he figured out what he really wanted out of life. I wasn’t really listening, I had my own problems to worry about.

We were catching the train down to Bournemouth, our  childhood home, to attend the wedding of our old friend P. It had seemed like a good idea when I accepted the invitation and persuaded S to accept his own invitation. We could travel down together, and spend the weekend by the seaside catching up with old friends. Now that we were beginning our journey though I was starting to wonder if this was such a good idea. In particular two thoughts had struck me:

1. Old friends are old friends, as opposed to current friends, for a reason.
2. There was a reason why S had fled to Manchester and never returned, and there was a reason why I had fled to Manchester and then fled further to Glasgow and never returned.

“I’m going to find the buffet car.”
“Can you get me a coffee?”

Ten minutes later I picked my way through past trailing limbs, outsized suitcases and half-folded pushchairs to our seats.

“What did you want again?”
“A coffee.”
“I got you 2 cans of warm Stella.”
“I don’t want 1 can of warm Stella, let alone 2. Why did you buy me 2 cans?”
“There was a deal if I bought 4 … I don’t think I can drink 4 cans right now so you should do your civic duty and help me out.”
“Jesus” said S as he pressed down the tab on the beer can until it opened with a hiss and the beer frothed and ran over the top of the can down onto the stained off-white seat tray on the 11.16 cross-country service from Manchester to Bournemouth.

Just leaving Stockport, “Have you ever considered wearing a hat?” I said to S, “It might give you gravitas, or at least hide your baldness. When do you think your hair will finally stop clinging on? When do you think your hair will accept the futility of its attempts to cover your massive scalp? It’s a metaphor isn’t it, your vanishing hairline, where there’s hair there’s hope, that’s what you tell yourself isn’t it? Whilst you are not completely bald you still think there is time for you to change your life around and do something meaningful. That downy tuft of gosling like hair on your crown is all there is between you and suicide isn’t there?” S stares at me and takes a long pull on his can of warm Stella Artois.

We’re approaching Stafford when the at seat trolley service comes past. I order another 4 cans of Stella for £10. After a moment S, leans over me and plucks all the remaining gin-in-a-tins from the cart. “If I have to sit next to you for another 4 hours I don’t want to remember it” says S by way of explanation. The woman in charge of the trolley looks at us nervously but takes our crumpled notes anyway. I can see she is wondering whether she should make a call to the transport police to be ready with tasers and handcuffs when the train pulls into Wolverhampton so I try to put her at ease. “Don’t worry, he’s just joking” I say, gesturing at S, “he’s just forgotten to buy our friends a wedding present and he’s hoping that these gins will make an ok present.” I turn to S, “maybe you should get them a Kitkat as well?” “We’ve sold out of kitkats” says the woman handing S his change and pushing the trolley onwards down the carriage.

The train arrives early into Stafford station and sits on the platform for a few minutes. “How did you know I had forgotten to buy them a wedding present” asks S, “do you think anywhere will still be open when we arrive?”

When the train is moving again I can feel the confidence from the first 2 warm Stella’s begin to evaporate so I open another one in the hope that it will revive me. “Your failure is more honest than mine” I say to S, as an unkempt hair from my moustache snags in the ring-pull of the can making me wince. “At least you’ve been upfront about it, you knew you would fall short of everything we dreamt of, so you didn’t even try, you fled to the north to be an IT professional whereas I fled to the north to continue my studies before unleashing my creative talent on the world, and all I have done is unlearn everything I once knew and unleash my unending thirst on an interchangeable series of pubs. I think I knew though, that’s why I had to go further north than you, I knew deep down that I would fail, but I couldn’t admit to anyone else, that’s why I had to go further away than you. Of course, if I had an ounce of self-respect I would just keep on heading north, to Scandinavia, far, far away from the south of England and the stench of my dying dreams.” I said to S, as the mechanised voice announced Wolverhampton as our next station stop.

Somewhere between Wolverhampton and Birmingham New Street. “I’m only disappointed in us because we had promise” I say to S, as families gather themselves together around us, ready for an afternoon of shopping at the Bullring, “is it better to have had potential and fail utterly to live up to it, or to have had no potential at all?” I ask S, as my left arm is bumped into and jostled by pre-teenage children trying to find a seat.” There’s no need to answer that.”

As we leave Birmingham behind and head towards Coventry and Leamington Spa, S is talking about the bands he has recently seen, mostly bands who had their moment, then ruined it for themselves and split up and have now reformed in order to ruin it for everyone who had good memories of their younger selves. We care too much about music, we agree, that’s our weakness, or one of them at any rate we accept, we think that bands mean the words they sing, just like we would mean the words we would sing if only we could, but they don’t, we agree, they never mean them at all, or if they do mean them it is a meaning that can be changed for a cheque. Musicians make good capitalists we agree, we know that it is true, but as soon as we hear a song of revolution set to a noisy guitar riff we forget it instantly and fall in love again, forgetting that music has ever disappointed us. We’re idiots, we agree, but at least we are innocent idiots. Is that better than being a cynical idiot? I wonder, but S is adamant that it is and it makes me feel better to agree with him.

I think I fell asleep because I don’t remember stopping in Banbury but we must have done, I distinctly remember that the train was due to stop in Banbury but we stopped in Leamington Spa and the next stop is now showing as Oxford. I look over at S but he is staring intently at the advancing buffet car. There is a different person in charge of it now, thank God.  S, turns to me, “you keep quiet, I’ll handle this” he hisses. S buys more drinks, sandwiches and crisps with a level of competence I don’t remember seeing from him before. “I don’t think they sell pro-plus otherwise I would have you got you some” S says to me as the train pulls into Oxford. I don’t answer because I am too horrified by what I can see out of the window. “Who are these people?” I ask, “these are our future leaders and look at them, look at them in their salmon pink trousers, with their gormless expressions and their complexions like boiled hams.” “Keep it down” says S, and I can see that our deck shoe wearing overlords are looking in my direction. “For fucks sake, they’re probably logging your face into some central database right now”, hisses S from behind his gin-in-a-tin, “ready to pre-emptively arrest you before you commit the hopelessly deluded act of protest that your life is inevitably heading towards.”  “Will you be beside me”, I ask S, “As I fling my molotov cocktail at parliament?” “He won’t he says. “Will you stand by me at my trial” I say, “will you organise petitions protesting my innocence and stand on oath as a character witness?” He won’t do that either, replies S, he has responsibilities now and doesn’t intend on going to jail for any reason at all, especially not if that reason is me. He’ll be standing in the public galleries, cheering as my sentence is announced, making sure that his feudal masters know that he is a loyal subject, that he can’t be found guilty by association.

The worst thing about seeing old friends is that they see you not as you are but as you could have been, which is why S is always so disappointed in me, and why I am always so disappointed in S. Why on earth are we going to spend an entire weekend with people who will be looking at us and comparing us with what we could have been? “Someone turn this train around”, I say to S, as the train idles in Reading’s futuristic new station (“What on earth has Reading done to deserve a station like this?” asks S, “This looks like it has come out of the manifesto of the futurists. What a dreadful disappointment in must be to leave this station and see Reading as it actually is. A backwards, consumerist vision of hell”),” Nothing good can come of this”, I say to S, as the passengers around us study their watches. S pushes another beer towards me. The best thing about travelling with old friends is that they know how to calm you.

We are somewhere between Basingstoke and Winchester and settled into a comfortable silence when S lets out a groan.” For a minute there I was starting to enjoy myself”, mumbled S as he held his gin in a tin between his bottom lip and chin, “I was starting to relax, to forget about work, ignore your nonsense, notice the fields outside the window. I felt like I had finally learnt how to just enjoy the journey, and then I remembered why I was making this fucking journey in the first place.” I was tempted to ask S why we were making this journey in the first place as I knew that would enrage him but my almost empty beer can was sliding off the pull-down tray and I was too busy making sure it didn’t fall into the aisle so I kept quiet.” I fucking hate weddings”, said S,” they bring out the worst in everyone, including me. I can’t stand the clothes we have to wear, the hypocrisy of standing in a church when you know that neither the bride nor groom have been in a church since the school carol service, I can’t stand listening to the vows, the speeches, the children running around everywhere, the dreadful swing band that will inevitably be playing, the dancing and most of all I can’t stand the drinking. Every wedding I’ve ever been to has ended in disaster,” said S as he rummaged in his bag for a packet of quavers,” and it has always been because someone hands me a glass of cheap fizz in the morning and that’s it, all I can think about is drinking. White wine, red wine, gin, champagne, guinness, brandy and then more gin. That’s all I’ll remember about this weekend” says S, as he stuffs 3 quavers in his mouth.

I bring my phone out of my pocket and start trying to get on to the internet.” What are you doing?” asks S, with a mouthful of quavers. “Looking up flights, we’ll be at Southampton Airport soon. We’ll be saved, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this earlier.” A flash of excitement passes over S’s face, his blue eyes suddenly seem brighter. “You can fly to Berlin from Southampton.” “That’s ideal”, I say to S, as the Southampton Airport website loads on my phone, “We’ll be safe in Berlin, we can eat pastries and drink coffee and really think about what we are doing with our lives, and once we’ve had our Berlin epiphany we’ll drink strong wheat beer and head out to dance to techno music until dawn.”

The train leaves Southampton Airport Parkway and we are still on it. “We’ll never be saved”, I say, “and we don’t deserve to be. It’s important to remember that we’re doomed, fighting it just makes the end more painful.” S looks doubtful and drains the rest of his gin. “It’ll be good to see P again though”, says S, “it’s good that he is happy with whatsername.” “Whatsername? How can you not even know the name of the bride?” I say, wiping the dregs of my final beer from my chin with the back of my sleeve. “Well what is her name then?” “I can’t remember, it must be on the invitation.” “Jesus,” laughs S, “how can neither of us know the name of the bride? What’s wrong with us? The only reason we’ve been invited to this wedding is that P wants to rub it in our faces.” “Rub what in our faces?” “The fact that he’s won, we thought we were so much better than him, that he was too scared to leave, and now it is clear for everyone to see that it didn’t matter if we left or stayed, we would have ended up in exactly the same state, and that it wouldn’t have mattered if he had left or stayed, he would have ended up in exactly the same state as well, a state happier and more successful than we could dream of.”

“We feel defeated now, but also more at peace”, I say to S as the train gathers pace. I put my arm around his shoulders, I always feel sentimental towards S when I’ve been drinking and I want to do something to cheer him up.” I was saving this for later, but then I realised that now is later”. I stand up, putting my hand on the headset of the seat in front to steady myself, and bring my tatty and fraying black rucksack down from the overhead locker. I reach into the bag and bring out a bottle of 18 year Flor de Cana rum and place it down amongst the debris of empty cans of Stella Artois and gin-in-a-tin, I crunch the empty sandwich packs against the back of the chair in front to make sure there is room for the bottle to sit evenly on the too small tray. We could do with some ice and some cups but that would mean having to get up and find the buffet trolley again and I’m not sure that either one of us in a fit state to make it there and back again. I take the top off the bottle and take a swig before passing it to S.

“What should we drink to?” I ask, “this is good stuff, it deserves a toast.” At that moment the guard’s voice comes over the tannoy, “Now approaching Bournemouth, this is our final stop, all change please, all change.” “To change?” says S, taking a long swig from the bottle and passing it back to me. I put the lid back on the rum and start to make sure I have all my belongings before I reach my final destination.

Music is Magic

Music is magic, it is an unexplainable force. Music is mankind’s greatest invention, a swirling swarm that resonates deep within us. It is no cheap trick or clever slight of hand, it is pure sorcery with a powerful pulse that can never be stopped. It may not feed us, carry us from home to workplace or cure fevers and pox but just listen! Please just listen!

Music is for everyone and can be accessed by all, whether hummed on a mountain top, played on a homemade instrument in a jungle village or pumped out across a muddy first world field at 200 decibels! Music has the power to immobilize armies and make the most cynical ponder. It conspires to make workaholics stop, small children to be calmed and sullen teenagers to smile.

Music can be worn as a cloak to help you hide from the troubles outside. It can be used to show love, anger, disappointment, pleasure, injustice and rage. It can mark a grand entrance or soften a sad departure. Music hovers, wraps it arms around us and sews magic in the depths of subconscious thinking.

Music has been proven to cure dementia, connecting neural pathways long since diverted, crumpled thoughts now straightened. We need music as much as we need food! Music is one of the few things that can unite us, bring different sides together. It softens edges and bristles emotions. It is a back drop to history, a wind of change when the Berlin wall came down; it marks our memories, helps to recall lighter days and allows reflection when the skies are dark. Music can symbolize truth or dishonour. It weaves and ducks, rises and dips, alone or in a crowd of thousands.

Music is ours, controlled by no-one, we can compose it and pass it on. A two note melody whistled while staring at the rain or a 100 piece orchestra striding forth in the world’s most expensive concert hall. Both are the same, both have the same effect. A seasoned violinist with a lifetimes training or a toddler tapping out a rhythm on a table top. Music is for rich and poor and I adore (it).

It’s nearly Easter…

…and I’m already fed up with the sheer number of “things” being marketed to me. It’s an endless rolling advertising frenzy now throughout the year, with barely a letup. Coming hot on the heels of Christmas and New Year, it’s not long before the adverts for Valentine’s Day appear (not forgetting it’s preceded by Burns Night for the Scots), quickly followed by Shrove Tuesday, St Patrick’s Day and then Mothering Sunday.

It would be nice if there was at least a brief period where we were not being bombarded with advertising for the next big event we really must by cards, gifts and food for – and if you don’t, you are (of course) a Really Bad Person.

Happy Birthday

I’ve started to fear the tick-tocking of the clock, I can hear the sound of the shovel hitting the grass, and I can sense the rat-a-tat-tat of the soil on wood. I can feel my ankles ache; my knees give way when I’m not expecting it and my shoulders are sore just from waking up. The list of things I’ve given up is getting longer than the things I can still enjoy, just thinking about drinking brings the bile rising from my stomach to the back of my throat and I feel dizzy and light-headed just smelling coffee in the evening. It’s my birthday today, I lie back and listen to the rat-a-tat-tat of the soil hitting the wood.

They have ruined everything they’ve managed to get their hands on. They’ve managed to get their hands on everything, ruined everything – seized it, ruined it, and carried on in this way until they have achieved complete victory, so that it is one long triumphal march of seizing and ruining…

Kraznahorkai

Sober

I’m giving up drinking again. I’ve made it to the 27th January without a drink since NYE. I am ashamed to say that this is the longest I have gone without an alcoholic drink since I was 16. So what is different this year? The first difference, and quite a key one I think, is that I am not giving up on the back of any horrific drunken misdemeanour as has always been the case in the past. Abstinence due to mortification only lasts about a week in my extensive experience. It turns out I am extremely forgiving towards my own behaviour, especially if there is a cold beer or 8 to drown any lingering shame. Last year though, I haven’t done anything that I particularly have to apologise for, that I feel can only be resolved by a promise not to drink so much again.

Following on from this first point, is the fact my desire to give up drinking has been brewing for a while. I feel like I have ‘done’ being drunk. There is no stage of drunkenness that I have not reached and frankly I am getting sick of it. Until the last year I can honestly say that my enjoyment of drinking always outweighed the hangovers or the trouble that sometimes followed a big session. Now though, I don’t think I can say the same. Of course I have still had some great nights drinking in the last year, but more often they have been average nights where I have ended up drinking too much in an attempt to make them great, when really I would have had a better time if I had either stopped drinking completely and had a coffee or just gone to bed.

Lastly, my body is starting to rebel against 18 years of getting hammered at least a couple of times a week. After years of mocking other people for complaining about their hangovers I finally get it. I can no longer go out drinking without writing off the following day completely, and if I am totally honest, it is often 3 or 4 days until I feel better after drinking. Like I said, I feel I have had plenty of experience drinking, it is time to get some new experiences, and time to spend time on other things I enjoy, like writing.

So why is giving up drinking hard? Well for starters, my body is pretty used to regularly receiving vast amounts of alcohol. I’ve had some withdrawal pangs just from a purely physical point of view. Secondly, alcohol has played a central part in my social life the entire time I have been an adult. Whenever I meet up with friends we go to the pub. Doing otherwise will take some adjustment. Quite simply I am not used to saying no, and there are people in my social circle who will take me saying no as both a personal affront and a challenge.

Finally, there is the reason I even need to write this, the ludicrous importance drinking has played in my conception of myself and my relationship with others. I have allowed drinking to be far too important in my own self-image and the way that I have presented myself to others. Drinking was a gateway to social acceptance for me. Growing up I never fitted in with anyone or any group. Ostracised because my parents are Christian Scientists (enough of a badge of weirdness to make anyone think twice about associating with you), too geeky to be a jock, too into sport to be a geek, I was a braces wearing, social outcast.

Playing adult cricket as a teenager changed everything for me. Being around older people I watched how to fit into group situations, and one way of doing so, the way that someone with no self-esteem would be inevitably drawn to, was to play the drunken fool. A few years ago, one of my friends said something insightful about me. I was complaining about people only seeing me as some kind of drunk novelty act. “well,” my friend said, “you do present yourself that way.” It was true then and it is still true now. My default position is to portray myself as a drunken idiot. My idea of small-talk is to tell some idiotic self-deprecating drunken escapade.

So that is why I need to stop drinking, not just for my health, but so I can stop defining myself entirely through alcohol.

For evil to succeed all it takes is for good people to work for charities

“The world of do-gooders is steeped in hypocrisy, and anyone who proclaims the contrary, or even asserts it, is either a subtle exploiter of humanity or an unpardonable idiot. Ninety per cent of the time we are up against subtle exploiters, ten per cent of the time against unpardonable idiots.”Thomas Bernhard

If you walk through any English town centre you can’t help but be confronted by an ever increasing number of charities competing for your money. From charity shops to  young people in branded jackets with clipboards exhorting you to sign up to a direct debit to help Oxfam, or Amnesty International, or Greenpeace, or the RSCPA or the Red Cross and so on and so on, the High Street seems to now primarily exist in order to fund the charitable sector. How is this a bad thing? Because charities and human rights organisations have become the acceptable face of capitalism, foster the belief that there is such a thing as responsible capitalism, encourage the death  of thought and take up the time and energy of people who should be looking to change the world rather than making small differences – and ultimately propping up a failed and corrupt system.

The truth is that capitalism and charity should be fundamentally opposed. Charity works to improve people’s lives, to give some of the most unfortunate people in the world a chance to build a self-sufficient, rewarding life. Capitalism looks to make rich people richer – and to hell with everyone else. Charity under capitalism instead just serves as an easy, and indeed false, way for corporations to demonstrate social responsibility, helps to boost the fading careers of celebrities who, revitalised in the eyes of the public, now have just the image needed to represent corporations and encourage us all to consume more useless junk, and perhaps most importantly charity, especially major campaigns like Red Nose Day and Children in Need help us all to salve our consciences and stop thinking about any uncomfortable issues. The reality is that charities and the issues that cause them are locked together in an eternal embrace.  Look at the recent news about Comic Relief. They can defend themselves for investing in BAE with no apparent sense of irony. You don’t even have to imagine that ludicrous example, it is real!

Whilst we live under capitalism we will always need charities to try and counteract the inequalities caused by the very nature of capitalism. It seems a sorry way to think that the best system for living we as a species can come up with creates an entire industry to try (and inevitably fail) to negate its excesses. If, instead of working for charities, or mindlessly donating money to charities we worked to establish a society that isn’t based around profit and exclusion, that isn’t doomed to wreck the planet chasing the myth of unlimited growth, if we succeeded in creating a more equal, more caring, less profit obsessed society – wouldn’t that be our truly charitable act?