What make you unique?

“What makes you unique?” is one of those questions asked by potential employers to catch you out. Whatever your response you’re doomed to come off as an idiot. That said, I tried to be interesting.

My knee-jerk reaction to the question, “What make you unique?” is to reply nothing. To misquote Chuck Palahniuk we “are not special… not a beautiful and unique snowflake” we are “the same decaying organic matter as everything else”. But that’s not going to get me the job, is it?

So me being me, I go looking in a dictionary for clarity and inspiration. The word unique is written alongside words like individual, special, idiosyncratic, eccentric, solitary, exclusive, rare, peculiar, novel, and strange.

I could easily make a list of personal characteristics that correlate to these synonyms, but you don’t have the time, and I don’t have the hubris, to start telling you about my idiosyncratic taste in anything.

Uniqueness I realise is dependant very much on context. In a room full of writers, being a writer is not unique. The same can be said of artists or photographers, managers or technicians. But in a room full of specialists, I’m a polyamorous generalist, a creative thinker chasing novelty, and that makes me a bit of an alien.

So to answer your question, what makes me unique? I’m gonna say, I’m an alien!

The Border Reiver by Nick Christofides.

Finished reading what felt to me like a Tory take on class conflict, “The Border Reiver” by Nick Christofides.

There’s a class conflict at the heart of the plot, that reminds me a little of the conflict in Terry Nation’s seventies virus thriller “Survivors”. Nation’s bad guys are all working class union leaders, imposing their collectivist ideas on the middle class survivors of the apocalypse.

Christofides takes a similar tack, as we follow his salt of the earth landowner, battling to protect his family against the ruthless socialists imposing their land reforms, and trying to steel his ancestral home.

I’m not entirely sure how any of this links to the Border Reivers, other than the location of the story. For me the reivers analogy stretches thin under the weight of contemporary political reality. When the riding families were active, raiding across the border lands of Northumberland and Cumbria, they fought and feuded, murdered and robbed, to survive harsh conditions. They were organised and ruthless, the mafia before the mafia was a thing, demanding protection from raiding, taking hostages and extorting ransoms. As likely to take up arms and fight for the King as against him. From the things I’ve read on the subject the reivers were less the lone wolf and more of a pack animal.

All of that aside, it’s a well written thriller that keeps you reading, and I liked it.

A thought on violence.

Violence permeates every aspect of our lives.

Most people don’t want to believe that.

So they hide behind condemnations.

Preferring a delusion to the truth.

Our society trades in violence.

And if you want to change it.

You have to trade favours.

Note: When I started writing this, I didn’t realise where it was going, or the conclusion I’d come to. It’s a surprise but not surprising.

For those who’ve been living in a bunker, afraid Vladimir Putin will escalate the conflict in Ukraine to the rest of Europe, this is the moment actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock across the face.

Moments earlier Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. She was not happy. So Smith walked on stage, in front of the assembled crowd, on live television, and slapped Rock across the face. He bitch slapped him. On television. In front of an international audience. I don’t think anyone has ever seen the like, and rightly or wrongly, it will go down as one of “the greatest moments in television history”.

Social media was awash with condemnations for Smith. One account censured him three times in quick succession. “Imagine if Chris Rock was a woman.” “Violence is not acceptable.” “I always condemn.” Imagine if Rock had been a woman? What if he’d been white? What if Smith was white, or a woman? If anything about that event had been different, the intricacies of race and gender politics would’ve changed the nature of “the slap”. But it wasn’t. It was two “equal status” men going toe to toe. Chris Rock insulted Will Smith’s wife. Smith reacted. Verbal violence got a physical response. 

It’s worth taking a moment to consider how deliberate Smith was. It was a slap not a punch. He didn’t charge at Rock, knock him to the floor, and beat him to a pulp. There’s a  certain chivalry, a nineteenth century formality, to his action. If he’d been wearing gloves, he would’ve thrown one at Rock’s feet, and demanded satisfaction. Perhaps not doing that was Smith’s biggest mistake. He punished Rock before giving him the chance to apologise?

Now consider Rock’s response. Smith slapped him across the face, and he took it. He could’ve taken a swing at Smith. Why didn’t he slap him back? Everyone would’ve understood. Was it a sign of weakness, or some inner moral strength? Could it be, he knew he’d demeaned Pinkett-Smith, so accepted his punishment? Was it his instincts as a comedian? Did he recognise in that instant “the slap” could become a set up for some yet to be written monologue? More likely, a lifetime of social conditioning kicked in, and stopped him returning Smith’s favour?

Parking all of that for a moment. I think “the slap” and the subsequent reaction to it exposes a much deeper truth. The constraints society puts on violence aren’t always enough to keep it in check. It’s always there, bubbling under the surface, ready to boil over. Anyone who denies this fact is fooling themselves. Injecting novocaine into a clenched jaw. Hoping if they can’t feel it. It didn’t happen.

Make no mistake violence happens all of the time. So often in fact, aggression and his corollary, are an ever-present part of life. How often has someone cursed at you on public transport. Barged past you in the street. Reached across you in the supermarket. Almost clipped you with their car. Ridden into you with their bike. A million random acts of violence, stopped from going postal by the rules most of us live by. The irony is, the society that doesn’t want us punching some fucker who offends us, is the same society that doesn’t even pretend to practice what it preaches.

Violence goes far beyond these everyday aggressions, and glides like oil on water through our lives. There’s economic violence. The tyranny of low wages, souring rents, doubling utility bills, unaffordable travel, expensive food. There’s political violence. The litany of lies told, truths withheld, corruption ignored, treachery dismissed. There’s the violence of exploitation. The labours wrung, minerals extracted, waters poisoned, environment destroyed. There’s physical violence. The accumulation of slaps, punches, and kicks; head butts, sucker punches, and right hooks; cracked whips, swung bats, stabbed knives; gun shots, bombs dropped, and ordnance exploded; woman against man; men against women; men against man; woman fighting women. Unrelenting violence happening all the time, and there’s no escape.

Reading that back, what strikes me is a simple truth, there’s profit in violence. To have one you use the other. If you don’t see this, you’ve chosen not to look. And that tells me you’re either an aggressor or protected by privilege. Those comfortable souls, who toss out condemnation like emotional hand grenades, are hiding behind their privilege. They don’t even realise, if you can occupy some high moral high ground, capture a hill and protect it, that’s only because a million acts of violence have been done to protect your stronghold.

Sky.com

Why’s any of that important? Because if you don’t understand how violence is used, you can never change anything. Hell, you probably won’t even survive. The sad reality is, you have to first survive the violence done to you. Only then can you sue for change. And if you want change you have to engage in violence to get it. Try telling me, honestly, I’m wrong? You want a raise at work, you have to fight for it. You want somewhere to live, you have to battle a hundred other desperate families for the privilege. You want your kids to inherit a planet they can live on, you have to got toe to toe with multinationals and governments who don’t care.

Think about Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, or Black Lives Matter. Three groups trying to make social changes. Demonstrations after disruption all designed to raise awareness, and the consciousness of wider society. Each time the vested interests that govern us throw every level of physical, legal, and social violence at them. Fighting that weight of power, thinking violence isn’t the answer, doesn’t understand the question.

My conclusion. The people of the United Kingdom need to recognise the violence that is being done to them. If we are not strong. If we do not burry our reluctance to respond, to fight, those forces of wealth and privilege, tradition and power, will use violence to destroy us all.

If you want change, there must be violence.

This is a truth.

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 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.

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.