Death of a Party

“Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.”

Franz Kafka

I had almost an entire piece written about the Labour Party…. but it depressed me too much so I deleted it. There has been so much analysis of the issues confronting us that I don’t think it helps me writing my own take – which is normally my way of trying to come to terms with a situation.

I write this as a Labour member, a party I joined without huge expectations after the general election, but the reality has been so much worse. I’ve always considered myself to the left of what has been the standard Labour position during my years eligible to vote. In theory I should have been pleased that Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership election last year, but I was very worried.

Corbyn represents a strand of left wing politics that has got into bed with some fairly horrific regimes, as well as (despite what they try and deny) having a strong record of anti-Semitism. He also, as far as I can tell, doesn’t actually seem to be for anything. Some very clever people have written some very convincing arguments about why we should support Corbyn, but most of it boils down to people projecting their own thoughts and theories onto Corbyn. He does not necessarily stand for those ideals himself.

When Corbyn does talk on policy matters, EU membership, Trident, ending tax relief on pharmaceutical companies research, he comes across as unconvincing, and lacking any real understanding of how the world works. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Corbyn has marketed himself as an antidote to “career politicians”, which is impressively as that is exactly what he is. It is just that the causes that he has been interested in and worked towards over the last 32 years have tended to be on the margins of British political life. It is why he is comfortable talking to people who agree with him, but he is utterly hopeless when confronted with those who do not share his own viewpoint. Unfortunately for him, the job of opposition leader is not to bask in the adoration of the devoted, but to win round the couple of million people Labour needs in order to win the next election. Not only does he not seem able to do this, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in trying.

Doubtless Corbyn will win the next election and will lead Labour to a record breaking defeat at the next general election. If I was Theresa May I would call a general election the day after the Labour leadership results are announced. However, even if Owen Smith does somehow beat Corbyn and become Labour leader I don’t see how he can win a general election either. There will doubtless be a huge fall-out with the membership which will have a big impact on finances. He has tacked left in his leadership pitch so far, but doing so will make our rabidly right wing press attack him with a fervour that will their treatment of Ed Miliband seem benign. There will also be the fact that, that the core Corbyn supporters will see him as a traitor and will be unlikely to vote for him, despite the fact that at the moment there seems to be little difference in policy platform between Smith and Corbyn.

In conclusion, I can only see a hideous shit show. The right wing will continue to rise, increased nationalism will lead to another war, and if the USA elect Trump, well, all bets are off. There are lots of people doing good work in the world, trying to make it a better place. I hope that their example will shine through, but it won’t be enough over the next few years. Time to learn how to grow your own food and brew your own beer.

How Diagnosis Murder Saved my Life

In September 2001 I moved to Brighton with two of my friends. I knew nobody else in the city, had no job lined up, no particular savings, and no real idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I was recently graduated, and the only things I could be sure of were that I didn’t want to continue studying and that I had no desire to get a proper job. I had vague ideas about forming a band or writing a book but in truth I lacked the dedication to bring any ideas to fruition. My notebook from that time is filled with first pages of stories that were never finished, and although, with one of my flat mates, I did manage to write some songs, we never played them live, let alone recorded them.

 

Four days before I was due to move to Brighton, I sat on my parent’s sofa and watched the twin towers come crashing down. It was obvious watching that the world was about to get crazier, that this tragedy would be the start of more death, more bombs, another war. I vaguely wondered how this would affect my chances of getting a menial job to pay the bills, but pushed it to the back of my mind.

 

Things started to go wrong pretty much as soon as I moved in. We had taken an unfurnished flat as this was cheaper than a furnished one. However, none of us had much furniture, or any money to buy some. I had rescued a foldaway bed that my parents were about to throw out. After a couple of hours of sleeping on it however, it became clear that I may as well be sleeping on the floor for all the protection it offered.

 

The heating was meter operated. None of us had any money to put in it and so we were freezing all the time. In the evenings we would sit around on small garden chairs we had rescued from a nearby skip, wearing as many clothes as we could physically fit. I soon took to going to bed fully dressed and wearing my coat and beanie hat. As I lay on my useless mattress, swaddled in layers of clothes, I watched my breath move in the air in front of me and desperately hoped that tomorrow would be better.

 

Tomorrow was never better. Our landlord had neglected to plumb the washing machine in, so the first time we tried to wash our clothes we flooded the kitchen. As we cleaned the mess up, a furious knocking at the door startled us. It was the man who lived in the flat below us. The water from our washing machine was dripping down, through his bedroom ceiling. I remember him stood there, tall, wild dark hair, dishevelled, red eyed, calling us wankers. We joked afterwards that we had probably disturbed an axe murderer. It was a way of making light of the situation, but part of me took it seriously. Why wouldn’t we be murdered here?

 

My early confidence about getting a job quickly started to unravel. I applied for lots of jobs, all of which I was perfectly qualified for and heard nothing back. I got an interview at HMV. This, I was sure, would be the answer to my problems. Not only would I have a small amount of money, I would also get a discount on CDs and maybe make some friends in the city. Part of the reason we had moved to Brighton was because of its reputation as a bohemian, arty city with lots going on. Not knowing anybody meant that if there was a cool party scene we were not able to find it. My interview went well, and I walked back to the flat feeling confident that I would get the job – and that my real life in Brighton was about to begin. Two days letter I got an automated email saying that my application was unsuccessful. A few days after receiving the rejection email I was sat in a pub in the city centre when a small group of people walked in wearing HMV uniforms. I looked at my would be colleagues, would be friends and eavesdropped their conversation. There had been over 200 applicants for the job I had been interviewed for – and only two positions. For a brief while I felt better about my failure to get the job, but then I started to think. If there were that many applicants for the job – how was I ever going to get a job in this city against all this competition? It was still early but I finished up my drink and walked back home, in the opposite flow to dozens of people who were just heading into town to start their night out.

 

Sitting here now, fifteen years later, writing this whilst bored out of my skull as I manage the stand at London Book Fair for the small publisher I work for; it is easy to laugh at these memories. At the time though, there was nothing funny about it.

 

One of my flatmates, Stuart, had a job when we moved into the flat. Somehow he had got himself a job as a guidance counsellor in a sixth form near Croydon. I wasn’t jealous of the job, but I was jealous of the fact that he had some money to buy non-value range goods from Tesco, and also, the fact that his days had a purpose, even if it was not one that he enjoyed.

 

For myself and my other flatmate, Olly, our days were formless, long and depressing. We were time rich but we couldn’t afford to do anything and we didn’t know anybody else in the area who could entertain us. I became so desperate to talk to other people that I started to stop in the street when people asked me if I had considered letting Jesus into my life and talking to them at such length that they became keen to get rid of me. For a while we pretended that all this free time was a bonus – that it would mean that we were able to create our masterpiece. For a very short period we worked hard, writing songs, drafting and re-drafting lyrics, and working on a back story to throw to NME journalists when we got signed. Soon though, we drifted into apathy. In the morning we would walk into Brighton, visit the job centre, and look around the town to see if there were any jobs being advertised in shop windows. This done, we would trudge back to our flat. If the trip into town had been particularly futile and depressing I would buy bottles of white lightning on the way back home. Once back in our freezing, almost empty flat I would drink them, quickly, my complaining getting more bellicose and self-righteous as I worked my way through the bottle, cursing at the posers and fakes that made up the entirety of the population of the city as far as I could see, not that any of them had spoken to me.

 

If our visit to town hadn’t been quite so spirit-sapping, than Olly and I would play lounge cricket with a sponge ball that had been a toy for his parents dog that he had accidentally brought with him and a rolled-up copy of Metal Hammer magazine. These games would sometimes go on for hours, as bizarre rules were invented, and we desperately tried to take our frustrations out by hitting the small, soft ball as hard as we could. Occasionally we would mix it up and play football instead, but it just wasn’t as satisfying as winding up to take a huge swing at the ball, even if we both missed more often than we hit.

 

What really stopped me going under however was discovering Diagnosis Murder, broadcast in the post-Neighbours slot on BBC1. In Diagnosis Murder Dick Van Dyke plays Mark Sloan, a doctor who is a special advisor to the police force. Dick’s real life son, Barry Van Dyke, plays Mark’s son in the programme. Barry’s character (Steve) is a police officer, who fundamentally is unable to solve a crime without his dad (and a couple of other Doctors) doing all the work for him.

 

Watching Diagnosis Murder was the only time I was genuinely happy when I lived in Brighton. I loved it. I loved the theme music; the shot in the opening credits where Dick Van Dyke pretends to play the clarinet; the convoluted crimes; Barry Van Dyke’s total reliance on his father; the way that Dick Van Dyke was able to waltz in at the last moment, contradict all the detectives working the case, present some paper thin evidence and that would be enough to get an arrest made. I’ve heard it said that great art can lift you out of the everyday … well, in my experience, so can shit daytime murder mystery programmes.

 

I became obsessed with Barry Van Dyke. It must be tough being the son of a famous father, difficult not to feel that you are always in their shadow. Not only did Barry Van Dyke have to deal with this in his actual life, he even had to deal with it in a fictional setting. Barry’s character could occasionally get to be the muscle in a situation, but he never, ever got to be the brains. At best, he trailed in his dad’s wake, at other times he tried to challenge his father, putting forward his own theories on who was guilty to a crime. He was inevitably proven to be hopelessly wrong. I used to sit and watch the show and imagine the bullying his character would get from the other police officers – or did they all get to bring a parent in to work to solve a murder as well?

 

No matter how low I got, no matter how deep my shame was from my behaviour the night before (did I really get so drunk that I fell into a man using crutches outside McDonald’s knocking him to the floor?); no matter how futile everything seemed as the rejection letters piled up, no matter how lonely I was, no matter how much I longed for a woman to just talk to me let alone touch me; no matter how close I felt to just walking out into the cold East Sussex sea with my coat weighed down with pebbles from the beach, I always had Diagnosis Murder to look forward to.

 

Since those months in Brighton I’ve had several periods in my life when I have felt helpless and useless, when my life has collapsed in ruins around me and I have been close to falling to pieces. I’ve never truly succumbed to those feelings though because I remember that once I sat in a deckchair in a lounge, wearing an overcoat, hat and gloves with my breath pushing out in the air before me, knowing that my rent cheque was going to bounce, waiting for Diagnosis Murder to start and feeling nothing but happiness. If I was capable of enjoying Diagnosis Murder it meant that I was capable of finding something else that I enjoyed just as much, and maybe today would be that day, or if not today, then it would probably be tomorrow and I wouldn’t want to miss that would I?

A long walk

Late-capitalist, western society is not built for walking. We are filtered through non-essential spaces direct to where we can be productive – our desks or the shopping mall. If we want to walk we should do it in designated zones, heritage sites, national trust properties – accessible through the gift shop and tea rooms – you’ve got to keep contributing to the God of mammon after all. Walking in non-designated zones is treated with suspicion, and anyone relying on the privatized mess of our once public transport structure for any reason that other to get to an office in London is considered mentally ill.

Why is walking treated with suspicion? After all, there are regular exhortations for us all to lead less sedentary lives, so one would expect that choosing a 30 minute walk over a 5 minute car journey would be the norm rather than the exception. Is it just the lack of efficiency that means choosing to walk is frowned upon?

I suspect that this is part of it. We are under pressure to account for every minute of our lives – deliberately choosing to take longer to do something, and therefore limit the amount of time you have for other activities is suspicious to a society that worships industriousness. If you ran rather than drove, it wouldn’t be quite so frowned upon as running is considered an activity … walking is just something you do … a non-activity.

Walking as a non-activity is exactly what I like about it. When I am walking it means I am not checking my phone, not browsing the internet, not caught up in the 24 hour cycle of connectivity. Even if I start off the walk thinking about issues at work, it is very unusual for these worries to occupy my mind for the entire duration that I’m walking. I suspect this is part of the reason why so many writers and philosophers have been great walkers, as your feet walk so your mind picks itself up and roams free. Whatever problem you are stuck on, whatever nightmare is plaguing you, slips off somewhere as you walk, and suddenly you realise that what you’ve been worrying about is not the whole world.

Whilst you are walking you are in a state of non-time and non-place. Somewhere between where you’ve been and where you are going. Here lies walking’s potential as a radical activity. Whilst you are in this non-place there is the possibility that you might decide to change your destination. Many of my walks these days are circular during my lunch break from work. At some point on the walk the thought “what if I just don’t go back?” always pops into my head.

Walking always carries with it the thrill of departure, a sense of leaving behind, and part of this is generated by the uncertainty of where you will end up. If you get in the car and drive to the shops, you are herded by the road and your own muscle memory to your destination. There isn’t the time to change your mind. If you decide to walk however, you not only have time to change your mind, you often have a myriad of potential distractions to explore. Slacking off, discovering something new through just following an impulse or idle curiosity, these are some of the best things about being alive – but we are not supposed to admit it. There are countless different paths we can take in this world, we shouldn’t always take the quickest one.

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.

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.

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.

Disorder

I remember the first time I met Ian Curtis.  January sea mist wrapping its fingers across the city.   4:45pm, legs hanging over the arm rest of a pattern-less comfy chair.  Pale, swollen light swimming through net curtains and splashing hesitantly on the crisp white wall behind me.  A faint yellowness, a hue of vitality before the evening cold.

I click to play.  Three seconds of silence, dust settles on the blistered table top.  A click of drums, a bass line barrelling at me, hypnotic, dancing, filling the space between the beats.  A voice reeling, reaching, seeping through the layers of seaside gloom.

‘I’ve been looking for a guide to come and take me by the hand.’

A knife cut across the mildewed windowsills and inactive storage heaters.  A whisper in the noise, a beacon of times ahead.

‘I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling.’

End, play, end, play.  A new dawn fades.

 

Photosynthesis: Peter Pan Syndrome

I have always feared getting older, obsessively.  It worries me; it renders my sleepless as the early hours tick by, as I drive to work, as I run past semi- detached suburbia in the fading evening light.  It bothers me as I gasp for breath cycling up steady inclines, inclement weather lashing, clouds spitting.   As I moisturize my skin, repeat repetitions of sit-ups and leg-crunches, and as I slump in the still darkness of an out of town cinema complex listening to the good people of Wiltshire crunch handfuls of popcorn.

Where should I be with my life at the age I am?   I am a first time buyer, about to purchase, about to commit, about to squander my savings.   I have been snared into the trap, held under, head down, arms fixed.  Water bills, electricity bills, council tax, car tax, income tax, TV tax, phone tax, food tax, petrol tax.  What’s left for me?

Should I buy this pile of bricks so I am on the ladder? No longer a free tenant to spend my money as I wish on frivolous late night purchases from the entertainment aisle of Asda.   Is this what I need?  So I can finally grow up and join the master race who make children, sell houses and take yearly holidays abroad.  One foot in the camp, but hey, wait, I want to be young forever, tearing up music festivals, smashing up ski resorts, carving up the surf on a moonlight Atlantic coastline.

But a warning!  Be careful Peter Pan or you may lose it all.