The Puppet Man

I haven’t been sleeping well. Sometimes I wake at 3 or 4, queasy and overheated. I open the window and shut my eyes, and focus on the sound of the wind and the indistinct wind-like whoosh of the all-night buses. Sometimes it works and I get back to sleep. Sometimes, though, an image will hover in front of my mind, and I can’t think of anything else. Last time it was a metal gate, and a pair of bruised and bloodied hands that tore at the padlocked chain that held it shut. After that I just lay awake, trying to focus on breathing. And soon enough, as I feared it would, a face began to form in front of my eyes, in the staticky air. It was Nigel Farage.

Of all the politicians I can think of, Nigel Farage is the most like a puppet. And I mean a literal puppet. First of all, his mouth is a yawning void. The way he flaps it open and shut, aggressively baring darkness. It’s the shape of a mouth where words can’t form, and all that emits is sound. The wrinkles around it bunch like fabric, papery and matt like iguana skin. His eyes are blank and watchful. He looks like a boy who’s just devoured a toffee apple and found that he’s still hungry. He licks his lips and looks around, unselfconsciously clutching his mother’s hand. Nothing in his head but appetite, and the never-questioned certainty that his mother will buy whatever snack he raises a finger sticky with toffee and points at.

Everything about the man is hollow. Life events have formed a sort of exoskeleton, rather than adding depth or human substance. They’re assembled from fragments found in the wet green grass of the English dreamtime. Childhood in rural Kent, country walks and village pubs, bellowing over a pint glass or a two-hour lunch in the City. If Spitting Image was still on TV, Nigel Farage could wander on-set and live for years among the puppets without ever raising suspicion. When all the humans went home and turned out the lights, he’d sit alongside the empty grotesques, licking his lips and blinking in the dark. “Anyone for a pint?” he’d say, and he wouldn’t be disturbed by the answering silence.

So who or what is really speaking whenever he flaps his mouth?

Advice for disappointed Labour supporters

Here are my sober and constructive suggestions for left-leaning friends dismayed by the general election:

1. Join a union – Sounds a bit old-fashioned, I know. But the more of us who are unionised, the harder it is for employers to blithely impose changes in the terms of our employment. On average, strongly unionised workplaces have better maternity and carer provision, higher pay, and more annual leave. With the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership looming ever closer (and looming just as large if we do leave the EU), we can look forward to a future in which there’s a greater mandate than ever to sacrifice human interests on the rank and blood-stained altar of free trade. Desperate to appease the jealous gods of TTIP, our leaders will rip out our hearts and wave them at an indifferent sky, and our lifeless bodies will tumble down the million steps of the ziggurat to rot in a heap at its base. Either we unionise to protect ourselves and each other, or we all rot together at the base of the capitalist ziggurat.

2. Join a political party – Many of us were keen to remove the talking wart that is PM David Cameron, and we hoped that Labour could act as the acid to burn him off. Since this didn’t happen, we’re free to move on from lesser-evil compromises and see the Labour party for what it really is. It’s a party that capitulated to the pro-austerity, anti-immigration narrative peddled by the Tories, and failed to offer a credible alternative in keeping with the principles it used to represent. So maybe take a moment to peruse the website of Left Unity: If they represent your views – rather than a heavily compromised and Torified version of those views – why not join?

3. Join a band of intrepid travellers on a global quest to unmask David Cameron and discover how to destroy him. Climb the wind-blasted slopes of the Himalayas to reach a cave that the locals refuse to approach. Stooping through its jagged mouth and into its deep dark shadows, consult with an ageless man who has watched the unscrolling of human history from his perch, and who tells you to heed the darkness within yourself. Frustrated, return to the UK, and consult with an elderly dealer in rare and precious scrolls. Listen as she tells you of a comet that fell to earth in 1666 AD, and which was rumoured to land in Buckingham Palace, barely noticed for all the smoke and flames of the Great Fire of London. Watch as with shaking hands she fetches a scroll from the vault and opens it up. It depicts a comet falling to earth, and a bottomless pit opened up in the basement of Buckingham Palace. Frown as a sound upstairs disturbs her, and she suddenly looks afraid. They’ve come for the scroll, she says, and she thrusts it into your hands. Go, she says, and finish this, for all of us. Sneak out the back door as she puts on her favourite Ella Fitzgerald LP and pours a glass of her finest sherry, giving her loyal tabby a fond farewell. She takes a sip and shuts her eyes as the floorboards behind her creak, the government spooks raise their knives, and she whispers again: For all of us… Under cover of darkness, and hidden in a crate of Moet champagne, smuggle yourself into Buckingham Palace. Tiptoe down the winding staircase leading to the basement, and unhook the key from the belt of the snoring guard. There, find the pit. It is bottomless, and sulphurous fumes rise up from its unknown depths. Cast your eye over the primitive and hideous paintings daubed on the walls of the room, depicting a lizard-like beast that slithers out of the pit and onto a throne of human bones, where it curls up and sleeps for hundreds of years, and generations of palace servants slather its quivering flanks with the blood of the poor. In one of the more disturbing paintings, the blood appears to coagulate and form an approximation of human skin. Shaking in horror, flee the palace. You know what to do. David Cameron is addressing the press outside Britain’s first McHospital, standing with a pair of giant scissors and preparing to decapitate a line of NHS doctors who have been hooded and forced to their knees by a leering Jeremy Hunt. Rush the stage and tackle David Cameron to the ground, clawing at his face. Puncture his already swollen-to-bursting human skin and stagger away as it finally rips to shreds and the Beast is revealed. Gasp as it emits an unearthly howl, rears up on its hind legs and vomits a stream of radioactive bile onto the ground. Watch as it slithers into the swirling vortex opened up by the bile, to continue on its malevolent voyage through space, searching for another world to destroy. Close your eyes as you’re lifted up on the shoulders of the cheering crowd, and breathe a sigh of relief. Feel the sun on your skin as the storm clouds disperse.

4. Contact your local MP, who ultimately does have to listen to their constituents, and share your concerns. It just might make a difference.

Don’t be a mug. Vote Labour

Echoing through the woodworm-infested corridors of Westminster, bouncing off the oil paintings of long-dead, grey-haired heads of state, there’s been a lot of gossip about which political party I’m endorsing. I’ve held my tongue for long enough.

The coalition government (and I mean Lib Dem as well as Conservative) has been a national disaster – socially, culturally, and economically. They surfed into power on the back of a wave of youngsters (me included) who were casting our votes for the very first time, a herd of starry-eyed fools who hadn’t realised that politicians can base their whole campaign on a policy promise and then just glibly abandon it. Watching my vote enable their monstrosities, I felt like J Robert Oppenheimer squinting into the desert heat as the sky turned black with ash. Tuition fees rose like a mushroom cloud, the benefits system was stripped of its flesh and left to bleach its bones, and as the sweat turned cold on my brow I said in the hoarsest whisper: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

If you’re reluctant to vote Labour because of Blairite privatisation and the War on Terror, please remember that Ed Miliband is not Tony Blair. Tony’s sipping a cocktail by a swimming pool while Cherie gives him a foot rub, and he doesn’t give a shit. If you’re trying to punish his administration by voting Lid Dem or Conservative, who are you really punishing? Or rewarding? I will tell you.

The Conservatives have pursued a programme of economic austerity on blinkered and bluntly ideological grounds. The financial crash of 2008 was hard to understand, and through a dogged campaign of totally brazen propaganda they managed to convince us that our economic woes were due to a bloated public sector. David Cameron has taken to rolling up his sleeves (because forearms are honest) and starting every sentence with the word “frankly” (because frankness is honest), but that doesn’t mean he’s really being honest. The crash was caused by members of a financial sector trading in such abstract and mystical bundles of fictive capital that they soon forgot about its link to actual money, and how it impacted the lowly Muggles still toiling away in meatspace. The crash was not caused by civil servants buying too many photocopiers, or unemployed people relying on benefits and “draining” the NHS. The Tories hate the public sector, and they’ve taken advantage of our collective confusion to excuse a sustained and vicious assault on its institutions. I accept that something isn’t automatically bad just because it’s motivated by ideology. But don’t piss on my back and tell me you’re doing it to clear the deficit created by a financially irresponsible Labour government. At the end of the day I’m still covered in piss, and I want to know what effect it’ll have on my health.

Really, the effect isn’t good. It’s now been fairly well-established that ‘austerity’ has done more harm than good to our economy. This isn’t some splenetic left-wing delusion – this is the consensus of groups as diverse as the IMF, Oxfam, and a slew of Nobel prize-winning economists (Krugman, Stiglitz). These articles lay it out pretty clearly:…/britain-for-the-love-of-go…/…/…/apr/29/the-austerity-delusion…/n…/simon-wren-lewis/the-austerity-con

They could’ve invested in the population to promote education and employment, and consumer spending, but this would’ve involved spending public money on the public, which the Tories consider reprehensible. Austerity is a con, and the cuts were based on a lie. More than anything else, it makes me think of the invasion of Iraq in the wake of 9/11. The two things were totally unrelated, but such was the level of general confusion that one was linked to the other in public discourse.

As well as leaving us in a worse economic state than was really necessary, the Tories have promoted a cultural impoverishment. Back in the day, at the end of a harvest, after they’d done their scything and ceremonial maypole dancing or whatever the fuck it was, agricultural labourers would leave a little wheat in the harvested fields. They did this out of consideration for those who weren’t able to pick up a sickle and work alongside them. The more unfortunate were then permitted to ‘scrounge’ some wheat to live on. This is the spirit of community and fellow-feeling that all the great religions teach, and which we enshrined at the end of WWII, leading to the creation of the NHS and some of the public institutions we treasure most.

The Tories, conversely, have steadily promoted a Thatcherite vision of society – i.e. there’s no such thing. Their ‘Big Society’ spiel was such a failed joke that they brushed it under the carpet after about a week. No one’s just a citizen any more – we’re “hard working taxpayers”. If we can’t get a job, we can’t pay tax. And if we can’t pay tax we’re worthless. In the arts and even education, we’re judged on our ability to turn a profit. But to borrow the words of Jesus Christ, “Man cannot live on bread alone”. When you wake up in the pale dawn and blink at a mouldy ceiling, looking for a reason to get out of bed, you won’t be able to find it in GDP. Happiness is linked to the society we live in, and we’re fucking miserable. The more we erode our sense of public spirit, the worse it gets, and the UK suicide rate is steadily climbing.

What about the Lib Dems? They’re the friendly, appeasing face of austerity. They don’t just say they’re powerless to resist the Tory agenda, they justify it, wincing empathetically all the while. They helped the Tories realise that Thatcher’s economic vision is consistent with progressive social initiatives, like legalising gay marriage. These are excellent initiatives, but they don’t grow out of a political vision unique to Clegg or Cameron. They’re the sugary icing on top of a rotten cake. It’s a beautiful combination for Tories, leaving them free to hack away at public spending while keeping the public on-side with friendly policies.

The Lib Dems will offer to join the Conservatives again if they get the chance, and the Conservatives will be happy to accept. So a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for more of the same. The same coalition, the same austerity, privatisation of our institutions, widening of the gap between rich and poor. David Cameron rolling up his sleeves and saying “frankly” while the free market guts our cities and our institutions and we sleepwalk out of the EU, Nick Clegg patting us on the back and saying “sorry, mate”.

I know Ed Miliband doesn’t look or speak like a born and bred statesman, and his policies don’t depart from the neoliberal addiction to austerity as much as many of us would like. But his vision for Labour does more to address the inequality and impoverishment blighting our society than the Lib Dems, and vastly more than a Lib Dem/Conservative coalition. The Greens are lovely, so why not vote for them if the Lib Dems and Conservatives are already chronically weak in your constituency. If either of them are in a position to rival Labour, though, and you don’t want more of the same, I beg you to just pinch your nose and vote Labour. Give Ed a chance, he’s better than the others. Fuck the coalition.

The End.

Centaurs chewing popcorn

When we stepped outside to smoke we could see and hear the helicopter overhead, its searchlight lancing down at unseen things beyond the rooftops between us. When the club kicked us out, a group of about 5 riot police pushed purposefully through the crowd, and an ageing hippy made a show of leaping out of their way and wandering between us opining disingenuously that they could have said “please” or “excuse me”. It seemed a lonely way of being involved. I wandered up the street to where it fed onto the main road.

A loose line of riot police stood with their shields up about 100 metres to my right, vans idling behind them like tanks. The stretch of road before them was completely covered in broken glass. I could see several overturned and empty bottle banks in the near distance. Youths clustered in doorways. Grinning, excited students stood alongside revolutionary crusties similarly excited but more serious, with a sense of their own importance in this new wave of dissidence. Late-teens rudeboys clustered around girls, scuffing their feet nonchalantly, studiously un-shook by the carnage.

I lost my friends when I walked up to the police line and they didn’t follow. The police line was mirrored by a line of scruffy-cool guys in backpacks and the odd flat-cap taking dystopian photos on their digital Minoltas. It felt as though the police were obliging with suitably stern poses, though I suppose anything seems like a pose when there’s a camera pointing at it. There is something very theatrical and grandiose about riot police, the stuff of last stands, the 300 at Thermopylae, man down, hold the line. I suppose it’s only appropriate, but it feels forced. Maybe it’s because I know they’ve seen the same films I have. The problem is that they think they’re in 300, while everyone on the other side thinks they’re in V for Vendetta. Maybe the real problem is the old complaint that nothing seems real or authentic if you saw it first on TV or in a film. Everyone seems like a self-conscious actor. In a way it’s an unfair response. These police really were being pelted with bottles and rocks, and protestors really were being cracked on the head with batons till their shirt collars turned red with blood. But there was still a sense of elaborate, committed performance. We were each a Daniel Day Lewis pursuing our creative vision of anarchy on the streets of Bristol.

Most establishments had pulled down their metal shutters, but there was a burger shop open across the road. I was hungry, and I stepped carefully between the broken bottles as I crossed over to it. One of the British-Asian guys working there was wearing a preppy pink striped shirt and neat wire-rimmed glasses. He stood with his hands on his hips looking perplexed.

“The monarchy is a good thing,” he was saying to one of the customers.

The guy he was addressing was in his early twenties, mixed race, with an amateurish beard.

“No man,” this guy responded. “I think what a fucking waste of money. Our taxes are paying for their whole lives, and we’re being told we can’t afford all this stuff, but they can afford a wedding that costs millions.”

“They generate millions in tourism,” said the guy in a pink shirt. “A sense of community. It’s good.”

The other guy shook his head and ate a few of his chips sadly. I liked how uninterested they seemed, in their different ways, in the dramatic scenes unfolding outside.

This is a quote from Theodor Roszak’s ‘The Making of a Counter Culture’, written in 1970:

‘An image comes at once to mind: the invasion of centaurs that is recorded on the pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Drunken and incensed, the centaurs burst in upon the civilised festivities that are in progress. But a stern Apollo, the guardian of the orthodox culture, steps forward to admonish the gate-crashers and drive them back. The image is a potent one, for it recalls what must always be a fearful experience in the life of any civilisation: the experience of radical cultural disjuncture, the clash of irreconcilable conceptions of life.’

It feels like maybe we we’re all guests at the same party, now, but the rules are different. You’ve got an Orthodox tent and a Counterculture tent and maybe a few others, and maybe some people need special tickets to access some of these. But you can wonder between them, and have a dance and say your piece in each, and when you all go home the tents are taken down and the waste is piled and buried, and the land remains unchanged, with a fallow season to let the grass re-grow, and next year we’ll all be back to dance again.