A thought on lockdowns

Lockdowns have changed the United Kingdom.

Shifted the way people feel.

Upended how we think.

Changed what’s important.

And I don’t think there’s any going back.

It’s perhaps why Boris Johnson is so desperate to jettison all virus related restrictions, and get us all back on the treadmill of life.

Long ago, at the beginning of 2020, when COVID-19 was still just a headline, and Johnson was making speeches in Greenwich advocating herd immunity, a lockdown was inconceivable. We all thought they were an impossibility.

Then COVID-19 caught fire in the United Kingdom, ripping through the population like John Wick in a Russian nightclub. As the number of infections skyrocketed, and the dead started to pile high, it quickly became clear. If something wasn’t done, the National Health Service would be overwhelmed, and there would be an unprecedented loss of life.

Johnson didn’t want to lock down. He clung to the idea that we should take it on the chin, let the virus rip through the population. This meant he spent at least a month dithering.

Then, on the 23rd of March 2020, when there really was no other move, Johnson pushed the “pause” button, finally giving the order to “stay at home”.

Over night our household income plummeted. How were we going pay our rent? How do we pay our bills? How are we going to survive? On top of the money worries, daily life got very small. We couldn’t do anything. So it became a repetition of shopping for food and our flat. Netflix or the garden? Computer or phone? Twitter or Kindle. The bed or the sofa?

London got quiet. Apart from the constant acoustic intrusions. Doors banging. Children screaming. Raised voices. Drunken arguing. The noises of people having sex. The music, other people’s music, blasting at all hours. A sewing machine rattling somewhere until midnight. An upstairs neighbour doing jumping jacks over our living room.

No money and no way of escape.

As bad as it was for me and mine, many others had it worse. I feel for the people that lived alone? Who do you talk to? What if you don’t have a garden? At what point do the walls start to close in? What about families with children? How do you keep the “brats” entertained week after unrelenting week? What about their education? What about the elderly, the frail, and dependant?

An entire country forced into a confused hibernation.

When details of furlough, and the self-employment income support scheme were finally announce, it eased some of our panic. Our hysteria went from a shriek to a muffled scream. What it didn’t do, was alleviate the pressure of being in close proximity with the same people for-ever. Even the most accommodating souls, which I am not, will eventually run out of road.

Tears turned into floods, as mole hills became mountains.

Personally, I need to do things. Otherwise my thoughts start to spiral and I become unbearable. Food. My teeth. My eyesight. My weight. Sex. No sex. Sleeping. Drinking. Too much alcohol. Not enough water. Too much TikTok. “Watermelon sugar.” Writing. Not being able to write. My spelling. The typos. The English language. “Watermelon sugar.” Artworks. Images to create. Words to post. Things to say. “Watermelon sugar.” Politics. Justice. Injustice. Brexit. Sovereign individuals. Extinction Rebellion. Imminent ecological collapse. Wealth. Poverty. Housing. Mould in the kitchen. Cracks in the sink. “Watermelon sugar.” Money. Our futures. My partner’s business. Redundancy. Furlough. Being unemployed. Being unemployable. Universal Credit. Getting older. Being old. Soap.

For me this internal chatter, the unrelenting voice speeding across my tongue, starts to sound like an auctioneer at an American cattle market. It’s overwhelming. I go a bit mad. Get short tempered. Sullen. Distant. Argumentative. I have trouble concentrating. Focusing. Listening. I fidget. Random memories, decades old, flash into my imagination. That stupid things I said. The hesitations. The wrong turn. The other version of “that” conversation. The moment of “if only” that would’ve meant a different life. All of it there and gone like some perverted subliminal advertisement.

For me, and many others, lockdown made all of this worse.

Why am I confessing all of this personal trivia? To explain what I mean when I say “shifted the way people feel”.

Until the 23rd of March 2020 most of us lived on a treadmill. Constantly moving. With no time to think about anything but what’s pressing. One way of dealing with negative thoughts is to keep busy. Distract yourself out of the pattern of thinking. If you have any experience with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy you’ll know what I mean. For me this modality is remarkably similar to the treadmill of existence. This constant motion carried us through our lives. Eat. Sleep. Work. Repeat. Whether we realised it or not, these routines stop us ever contemplating, never mind realising, what we really feel.

Lockdown forced us all to stop and take stock.

In this paused state, the voices that normally keep us on the treadmill, that keep us striving, faded into the background. Think about the stories we’re routinely fed to keep us moving. Television shows about buying, building, converting, or decorating a house, seed the urge to own property. Travelogues make us want to explore. Scripted reality normalises our desire for wealth and privilege. News broadcasts make us feel attacked. Dating shows frame beauty as the only metre of connection. Dramas offer catharsis, a way to excise our frustrations.

For me, there’s an inevitability to the voices that urge us on. They push a version of life that’s intrinsically toxic. To bastardise a word or two from the fictional Tyler Durden, “if television is our model for life, we’re starting to realise, television doesn’t like us”.

That’s probably why there’s a tsunami of mental health problems headed our way. It reflects the moments of realisation, forced on us by lockdown, that there’s something “rotten in the state of Denmark”. That the world doesn’t care about us. That we’ve all been so busy trying to survive, we’ve forgotten how to thrive.

It’s also why, since March 2020, there’s been a vociferous cohort demanding an end to lockdown. They don’t work! We’ve needlessly trashed our economy. The numbers of dead are over reported. We have to learn to live with COVID. It’s only the flu. It doesn’t exist. It’s all just one huge conspiracy.

So many voices united by a yearning to have a “normal” life.

My question is, why? Why are they so keen to get back on that treadmill? Is it fear? Are they afraid their status, privilege, wealth, will disappear? How much pain must you feel when you realise, none of that “stuff” really matters?! That the nurses and supermarket staff, bus drivers and delivery people, are all more important, than the “armies of consultants, bankers, tax advisors, managers, and others who earn their money in strategic trans-sector peer-to-peer meetings to brainstorm the value-add on co-creation in the network society“?

The fact is, the longer we remain paused. The more time people have to examine their lives, and understand there’s something wrong. That they’re not happy, and want off the fucking treadmill.

I think that’s one of many reasons why Boris Johnson is hell bent on ending restrictions on the 19th of July 2021.

He wants everyone back on that treadmill? He needs us all running to survive. Distracted. With no time. Unable to think. So we don’t just say “we want something more”.

Personally I hope people realise what’s important.

Take the action needed.

And change.

A thought on heresy

I’ve noticed a pattern.

A way of thinking.

A way of believing.

That has scorched the earth we share.

And made it almost impossible to discuss anything.

There are many iterations of this pattern, but they all share one thing. A willingness to retreat into absolutes. Lines drawn. Hilltops claimed. It’s the dynamic of binaries. Us and them. Insiders and outsiders. Believers and heretics.

Heresy is written in dictionaries alongside words like dissension and dissidence, blasphemy and idolatry, scepticism and atheism, but it has two main definitions.

The most widely understood relates to religion. Heresy is “a belief or an opinion that is against the principles of a particular religion; the fact of holding such beliefs”.

A broader definition describes what I call the secular understanding. Heresy is “a belief or an opinion that disagrees strongly with what most people believe”.

More recently heresy has taken on what I call the cult definition. It combines aspects of both the religious and secular interpretations but has a more sinister, authoritarian, tendency. In this version, it’s heresy “to disagree with, or question, any prescribed doctrine or articles of faith”.

The cult variant has its roots in, and more than a passing resemblance to, propaganda. It’s biased, often misleading, and “used to promote a political cause or point of view”.

It works by describing a set of values or principles, moral facts or correct thinking. These “articles of faith” are accepted and absorbed as ineffable truths. The faithful define who they are as people by committing, or more accurately submitting, wholeheartedly to these articles.

This creates a really simplistic binary. You either accept the orthodoxies, follow the path to acceptance and support, or you’re the enemy, a belligerent that can just “fuck-off-and-die”. Put another way, you’re either with us or against us. Think what we think or you will be destroyed.

It’s a seductive way of thinking. It offers security. Certainty. Your allies are easily identified. Your enemies clearly defined. What it doesn’t do, is allow for questions.

Anyone with a sceptical disposition, a natural curiosity, or even a question to ask, is treated as an unenlightened outsider. This makes enemies of even the most sympathetic minds. Condemning, dismissing, vilifying, shunning, threatening, or attacking, anyone who has divergent experience, a differing point of view, or a genuine concern.

Another thing I’ve noticed. This way of engaging with society doesn’t adhere to the traditions of the political compass, dissolving the distinctions between left and right. These positions still exist but only as insults. When the right-wing faithful condemn a heretic they’re “woke liberals”. When the left condemn what’s heretical, they’re “fascists”.

My conclusion, the binaries of faith and heresy have created a divide. You either believe or you don’t. Those that don’t are disappeared, erased from the conversation, vaporised like so many of George Orwell’s characters in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

Disappearing people doesn’t make the questions go away. The concerns don’t just evaporate. The condemnations only entrench positions. From the heretic’s point of view, it’s the intellectual equivalent of the faithful jamming fingers in their ears, and chanting la, la, la, la, la, at the top of their lungs.

I wonder if the faithful realise their dogmatism is heresy to me? I don’t know. I’m not sure they care. They’re safe in the absolutes of their understanding. For me that’s a problem. It shuts down discussion, stifles debate, and hobbles intellectual development. Not just for the faithful but for us all.

What the faithful should realise, what we all need to understand, is that we’re all someone’s heretic.

A thought on Cummings

I think Dominic Cummings is a smartarse.

He’s been all over the news recently, trashing the government he was once part of, and tearing pounds of flesh from the Prime Minister he helped get elected. It could be argued that his testimony was revelatory, in a “we knew that already” kind of way. It confirms many of the things, anyone who’d been paying attention for the last year, already suspected. One thing is for certain, his evidence to the health and science select committee, was a damning account of Boris Johnson’s negligent response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Cummings in front of the science and technology committee.”
(Parliamentlive.TV)

Side note. I hope Cummings’ critique of Johnson raises more than a few red flags for those faithful to our dolt of a Prime Minister. Hopefully it will make them look at their foppish leader with fresh, critical, eyes. Unfortunately, as blind allegiances is all there is these days, that’s about as likely as Johnson remaining faithful to his new wife. Johnson’s supporters, it seems, have hitched themselves to his chariot, and are happy to drag their naked king wherever he wants to go. Thus spake the binaries of a political landscape Cummings helped create. Us and them. Be one of us, and tow that line, or be a “bed-wetting” heretic.

None of that’s why I think “Cummings is a smartarse”.

“I think we are absolutely fucked.”

If you listen to him talk. The tone of his voice. Those long sentences. Information heavy. Corralling. It feels as if he has the answer before the question has been asked. I don’t think Cummings is an idiot. Far from it. But I do think he’s a know-it-all. And in this instance, one with a narrative to sell. He’s cast himself here as a hero, battling a world of incompetence. The one with the answers. If only people listened.

Some take this “know-it-allness’ for genius. Personally I don’t see it that way. To me he’s just another smug smartarse. The way a first year undergraduate is a smartarse. The way Clark, in the bar scene from Good Will Hunting (1997), is a smartarse.

Good Will Hunting was written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and directed by Gus Van Sant. At its core Good Will Hunting is a coming of age story. Will, played by Damon, must come to terms with the traumas of his childhood, accept his genius, and earn the love of a good woman. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It won Best Original Screenplay for Damon and Affleck at the 70th Academy Awards.

The scene in question, the one with the smartarse Clark, starts on page eighteen of the screenplay, and finishes with one line of dialogue on page twenty-two. It’s part of the films set-up, and is the “meet-cute” between Will and his love interest, his good woman, Skyler.

“My Boy’s Wicked Smart”

Cummings and Clark both have the same paternalistic swagger. They’re self-assured. Certain they have all the answers. Possessed by the kind of conviction you only ever see in people with faith, or a privileged education. They’re the kind of people that go through life seemingly unencumbered by doubts. They’ve read all the right books, and retained all of the correct information. What neither of them have done is really examined that information they’ve read, reorganised those theories, and found something unique to their own understanding of the world. It’s all there in the way Will taunts Clark. “Do you have any thoughts of your own on the subject or were you gonna plagerize the whole book for me?”

It’s not hard to reason why.

These characters, one fictitious, the other real, both had privileged upbringings. They remain untarnished by the harshness of life. They’ve never known the kind of desperation you feel when deciding to pay your rent or feed yourself. Neither have they felt the cold that comes from not having money enough to feed the gas meter. The harshness of things hasn’t knocked the corners off their arrogance.

They know everything and nothing.

One thing’s for sure, Cummings has never butted heads with the likes of a Will Hunting. No-one has ever ripped Cummings open the way Will eviscerates Clark. I very much doubt if Cummings has ever been in that type of confrontation. Perhaps the closest, was the time Karl Turner cornered him “in the lobby of Portcullis House to protest at the aggressive language being used by the Prime Minister during Brexit debates in the House of Commons”.

“Get Brexit done.”

Turner is angry, and all Cummings has in response is a smartarsed “get Brexit done”. Throughout their exchange Cummings looks lost, the way Clark is lost, and “searching for a graceful exit, any exit”. Both characters fall back on what they know, and continue with their smartarseery. I get the feeling Turner wanted to thump Cummings, the way Will calls out Clark, “I guess we can step outside and deal with it that way”. Turner and Cummings didn’t come to anything, but we can all guess how Cummings would respond. Probably the same way as Clark, when he “decides not to take Will up on his offer”.

This encounter exposes Dominic Cummings for what he is, a sniper, a griper, a bitcher, and backbiter. He is not a fighter.

And that’s why I think he’s a smartarse.

Trailer: Netflix: Army of the Dead

I’m a big fan of Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead (1978). Snyder’s version is less of a social commentary than Romero’s but James Gunn’s screenplay has a punchy irony that adds to the gory thrills. I really hope the insanity in the trailer for Army delivers. It has the feel the third act from Snyder’s Dawn. That feeling of facing insurmountable odds. There is one thing from the trailer that bothers me. I don’t know about “smart” zombies. Just the idea of a strategising zombie seems to contradict the nature of being undead. I hope Snyder doesn’t give the zombies too much agency. Zombies are mindless agents of instinct, flesh eating monster, not wild animals. Truth is it really doesn’t matter what they are, I’m still going to watch the movie regardless.

Edge of Extinction

I’ve always had an obsession with films set post apocalypse. They’re stories that process our anxieties, and we have a lot to be worried about these days. Edge of Extinction fits into our concerns about the decline of morality. What would you do to survive if the rules of civilisation were swept away? Years after the nuclear devastation of World War Three, people survive by scavenging on the remains of the old world, and preying on other survivors. When traumatised loner Luke Hobson, The Boy, crosses paths with Georgie Smibert, The Girl, he is dragged from his isolated existence, forced to confront dangerous enemies, and find his morality in a broken world. It’s a kill or be killed existence, where threats of raping and pillaging and murdering are ever present, and if some black clad psychopaths get hold of you, getting eaten. The premise is compelling, cannibalism is the ultimate taboo, and writer director Andrew Gilbert asks some interesting questions. The problem is he only partly answers them, in a screenplay that’s probably fifty pages too long. (Spoiler alert) He could’ve excised the rape and torture subplot, it’s misogynistic and gratuitous, concentrated on the horrors of cannibalism, without losing anything from the story. Take a look at the brilliantly terse The Day (2011). Written by Luke Passmore, and directed by Douglas Aarniokoski, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where a small group battles to survive an attack from a group of cannibals. It deals with the same issues but has a more concise execution, and is better for it. Trimming back the plot for Edge of Extinction might’ve also helped reign in some performances that are allowed to run away with themselves. It’s an early effort from a writer director that obviously has talent. I just wish he’d been brutal enough to lop off a couple of the plots limbs? Overall I’d say it’s not all good, but neither is it all bad.

A thought on dragons

Brexit has pissed napalm on the economy of the United Kingdom. The only creatures that will thrive on what’s left are dragons.

Reign of Fire (2002) is a high concept science fiction film staring Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic Britain ravaged by fire spitting dragons. What does that have to do with Brexit? Apart from the obvious metaphors about fire and destruction, the dragons in Reign of Fire are unique. They’re not the dragons from Game of Thrones (2011–2019). Giant reptiles wreaking havoc on the enemies of Daenerys Targaryen. They’re not the slothful Smaug from The Hobbit (2013). Greedily guarding his cavernous lair of treasure. The dragons in Reign of Fire eat ash. They burn everything so they can feed. These dragons emerge from their ancient slumber, burning indiscriminately and feeding ravenously on the world. And they’re no different to the dragons feeding on the British economy.

On March 12 Reuters reported the Office for National Statistics announcement that “British goods exports to the EU… slumped by 40.7% in January compared to December”.

Another March 12 headline on the Politics Home website led with a claim “Fish Exports To The EU Collapsed By 83% In January According To “Grim” Post-Brexit Figures”.

This, and similar figures across the economy, are what Umair Haque, in his article How Britain is Destroying Itself, calls a sudden stop. “It’d be better to call it a “heart attack,” because it means an economy seizes up and suddenly stops functioning.”

If the British economy were an eighteen wheel tanker of petrol driving along the M1, Brexit is the driver having a heart attack doing sixty miles per hour. He clutches his chest, passes out, and ploughs full speed into a vat of concentrated orange juice. Fire sticks to everything and burns intensely.

When the fires are out the speculators, hedgefunds, pirates, and sovereign individual start feeding like dragons on the ash of the British economy.

One day we might get lucky and meet a heroic fighter willing to sacrifice everything to defeat these monsters. A young Turk that can vanquish the vicious dinosaurs of British imperialism. A brawler with the gumption it takes to slaughter the dragons feeding on our destruction.

A thought on little England

The landscape of a post-Brexit United Kingdom is looking increasingly fractured. If we’re not carful Boris Johnson will turn the United Kingdom into little England.

Scotland is pushing hard for another independence referendum. If it goes ahead, it’s likely Scotland will leave the United Kingdom to pursue a future within the European Union.

If Scotland goes, Wales is sure to want the same kind of autonomy.

Then we have the Byzantine complexities of a post-Brexit Northern Ireland to consider. Who knows how that will all play out? At the moment Loyalists are angry about the backstop sea border. The backstop is a problem because it makes Northern Ireland different to the rest of the United Kingdom. To a community that has built its identity around loyalty to the crown, that difference is heresy. It opens up the possibility that Northern Ireland is separate from the rest of the United Kingdom. That difference is a lever Republicans could use to unite Ireland.

Peace in the region, for the last thirty years, has relied on the Good Friday Agreement. Post-Brexit that agreement is unworkable. To be clear, the agreement only works if there is free movement between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The kind of free movement only possible by being part of the European Union. A land border is unacceptable to Republicans. The sea border is unacceptable to Loyalists. The Good Friday Agreement allowed both Republicans and Loyalists to function while maintaining their separate identities. Without it old conflicts reappear.

The way out of this is more complicated than anyone in Johnson’s government has the intellectual or political power for. One possibility is that Johnson abandons Loyalists and Northern Ireland altogether. Unsupported by the English, Northern Ireland will inevitably unite with Ireland. This move will allow Johnson to make the probable Loyalist uprising a problem for Irish and not English governments. Another possibility has Northern Ireland follow Scotland’s example, pursue independence, joining the European Union as a sovereign nation. It’s possible a newly independent Northern Ireland could negotiate a version of the Good Friday Agreement to forge peace. I don’t think this will happen. Loyalist are as wedded to the crown, as Republicans are to a united Ireland. Speculation aside one thing is for certain, this issue is not going away.

Into the historic divisions that are tearing at the United Kingdom, England is now facing its own set of fractures.

The Northern Independence Party is a new political entity demanding independence for the North of England. Campaigning under the banner “We’re not English, we are Northumbrian” they want to reinstate ancient borders that stretch north from the Humber river, up to Scotland. Who knows if they’ll make gains politically, but the idea is there. The north south divide has been given a border, and that feeling, the one that thinks the south has left the north to rot, has been given a voice.

If this sentiment gets traction, and an independent North becomes a possibility, it won’t be long before Cornish nationalism is seeking to escape from English rule.

Then where will England be, let alone the United Kingdom? One thing is for certain, Johnson and the Conservatives will use these cries for independence as a crisis. One that lets them calve up England as if they were the ancient Kings of Wessex or Mercia. England will be transformed into a series of charter cities. Regions that will claim to be hubs of enterprise and entrepreneurship. When in fact they will be islands of tax avoidance, shell companies, and post office boxes that hide wealth. For the ninety-nine point nine per cent this will mean a bad, much poorer, little England.

A thought on pyramids

I read today that workers around the world have lost a collective $3.7 trillion during the pandemic. During this same period the billionaires of the world have increased their wealth by a staggering $3.9 trillion.

Dan Price, CEO of of the online credit card processing company Gravity Payments, called it “the biggest one-year wealth transfer in history”. In the very simplest terms this is like every worker in the world emptying their pockets into the laps of their bosses. How is any of this even possible?

I think it’s because we’re living in one massive pyramid scheme. Traditional pyramid schemes make money by recruiting members with a promise of payments for enrolling other members into the scheme. What the transfer of $3.9 trillion so eloquently illustrates, and events around the world demonstrate, is that this system is completely unsustainable business model.

Money cannot continue to be extracted in this way. At some point this vast pyramid will collapse. You cannot move such vast sums of money away from the majority, where it’s the difference between life and death, into the hands of the very few, and it not have consequences.

At some point, those paying tribute will have nothing to give. Those desperate souls, with nothing to lose, will realise the cause of their suffering, and seek to balance the scale.

A thought on flags

Pride in flags doesn’t feed hungry kids, or pay the bills, or fund the NHS.

Image: Vivienne Westwood

The Today new guidance was issued by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport department about flags. No urgency about housing, or jobs, or COVID deaths, or corruption, or any of the thousand other things that are important at the moment. Today the Tories are insisting the Union flag be flown on all government buildings, every day. “Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden described the flag as “a proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us”.” For me flags represent death. All flags are soaked in the blood of all those lives cut short defending the country it represents. Now they’re being used by the Tories as a substitute for real policies that bind communities. Pride in flags doesn’t feed hungry kids, or pay the bills, or fund the NHS. The irony is, the ministers ordering compulsory flag waving, wouldn’t actually defend that flag. They wouldn’t die for it. They’re cowards. And if you won’t die for it, your proclamations are just jingoistic rhetoric.

A thought on voting

Vote as if you have a gun pointed at someone’s head.

I was recently made aware of the reasons some people voted Tory in the 2019 general election. They voted tactically to send a message to Labour; they weren’t happy with the “radicle” agenda of Jeremy Corbyn. I’ve never voted tactically and I never will. I vote my conscience. Voting tactically in 2019 has backfired in the most vicious way possible. We now have 126 thousand deaths from COVID. A no deal “deal” exiting the European Union that’s tanking the economy, and abandoning the Good Friday Agreement; it’s trashed thirty years of peace in Northern Ireland. We have a government intent on making protesting illegal, while at the same time handing lucrative PPE contracts to friends and donors to the Conservative Party. At best they’re hypocritical, at worst corrupt. My approach to voting is simple. Vote as if you have a gun pointed at someone’s head. Are you willing to pull that policy trigger? Tory policies kill. Ten years of austerity have proven that. The only message anyone sends by voting Tory is you agree with Tory policies. And voting Tory tells me “I’m happy to kill”.