Thursday, 30 June 2016

On Brexits, Portents

Last Friday, as the pound plummeted and the markets tanked, as our prime minister shuffled out of the house we gifted him to announce that, with a sluice gate of excrement opened above our heads, he felt that his job was now complete -- as Scotland muttered of independence and Labour began to implode, I was in Bruges, getting drunk. Wandering the old town's cobbled streets, its gently arcing canals, a few bottles of Chimay the heavier, I found my gaze pulled upwards towards the fronts of grand hotels, where, tousled by a soft June breeze, fluttered the unmistakable azure-blues and golds of the European Flag.

I looked at the stars upon these flags, each representing a distinct nation, arrayed in a chain of unity and cooperation, strengthened from the outside, joined within, facing the darkness of the unknown together, and I thought about how that morning one of those stars, our own, had voted to leave the circle, to break the chain -- and I grieved.


The coming years will be tough. Taxes will rise. Food prices will rise. Mortgages will rise. Wages, in relation to inflation, will likely fall. In free-market capitalism the only god is profit, and he must be appeased. It will not be the richest who sacrifice. It will be the poor, as always, who will become poorer.

In the power vacuum created by the collapse of the two major political parties, if they continue on track, it is not impossible to envisage a far-right organisation, whether Ukip or someone new, gaining traction. The weapons that we use to combat such evils, weapons of compassion, creativity, cultural exchange, the enriching worth of diversity, have all been dulled by the referendum result.

Yes, in such times grief feels appropriate. But let us be aware, those of us who mourn, of the form we allow our mourning to take, especially as shock turns to anger, as a desire to act sets in, and we begin looking for people to blame. Anger, carefully directed, can be a powerful tool, but its power is dangerous, a charging horse of which it is all too easy to lose the reigns.


I have no qualms, though, being angry at David Cameron. There has been praise for the poise with which he has accepted defeat this past week, for his leaving with, as one friend put it, "his head held high."

Perhaps. Yet he is leaving office for a life of luxury, free to spend the gains from his many financial interests away from the public eye, no longer having to pretend he enjoys riding that bike of his everywhere he goes. I wonder for how long his wife will keep that Nissan Micra he bought her.

Never mind the past week, Cameron's actions these past years have epitomised a Bullingdon Club arrogance for which we are all now paying the price. Cameron was supposed to be the captain of our country's ship, yet to quell dissent among his officers he let the crew below deck vote on the direction we would sail -- a crew who, meaning no offence, did not have a view from the crow's nest, had no access to navigational charts, were not familiar with the geography of the surrounding regions. And when this crew inevitably plotted a course straight into the largest storm on the horizon, our captain jumped overboard, presumably onto a raft made from our rations, to float away to a beach on the Cayman Islands. Holding your head high at such a time seems less like poise to me, and more like sharp insult.

And then there is Nigel Farage. Seeing the man gurning his way through European parliament this week, cackling with whatever the word is for the polar opposite of magnanimity, I felt like I was watching someone who had been spanked in childhood so often, and with such vigour, that he could no longer experience pleasure unless it was attached to a sense of being utterly despised. His cheap attacks on MEPs appeared less like healthy democracy and more like that one boy at school who can only gain attention by smearing shit on his hand and chasing children around the playground with it. That this man may be offered anything more in his future than sympathetic looks and some in-depth group therapy is simply unthinkable.

As for Boris Johnson, I still cannot decide whether this wealthy ex-journalist who purposefully musses his hair before public appearances, who doesn't understand how a capo works, is a blustering buffoon, careening through intra-continental relations as he careens through small Japanese children, or else some kind of malevolent, Playdough-faced Bond villain. The announcement today that he will not be standing for Tory leadership only serves to confound matters.

While we're angry, of course, we should reserve some of that anger for Thatcher. We should always reserve some for Thatcher. To continue the earlier seafaring analogy, it is true that by the 70s, by the Winter of Discontent, our ship was listing heavily, its beams straining, taking on water. But as captain, Thatcher's response was to strengthen the hull by stealing from internal supports, to create affluent officers by destroying morale among the poorest of the crew. She gilded the upper cabins, sold the rights to manufacture sails to wealthy cloth merchants, yet down below entire decks were being left to rot. Pitilessly, myopically, her government shovelled up all the shit that had been plaguing the vessel, and then dumped it into the hold with the poor, telling those it buried that if they couldn't dig their way out it was their own fault for being weak and lazy.

How can we be surprised that communities in Sunderland, in Lincolnshire, in the townships surrounding Sheffield where I live, have voted overwhelmingly in favour of Leave. For generations we have built up the City, made cosy our leafy suburbs, and it has been working-class communities that have paid. For generations these people have been abandoned to fear and despair, and now they have finally been given a voice, and that voice has cried out for change.

Yes, they're wrong to blame immigration and the EU for their problems, they have been manipulated by heartless chancers. But the point is they have problems, serious ones, and we have ignored them for too long. It is not hard to goad beaten animals into attacking other animals, while those holding the clubs become rich off the violence. Perhaps the middle-classes, never having been locked in such cages, could use their energy more effectively than by getting appalled at a whipped beast for the ferocity of its snarl.

Because I've still got a little anger left in me, and it feels only fair to end this charge by turning it towards ourselves.

Seventy years ago our continent, our world, was at war with itself. We ended that war by dropping two bombs, on the city of Hiroshima, the port of Nagasaki, that instantaneously liquefied 120,000 factory workers, labourers, nurses, schoolchildren. Countless more died in the months that followed.

We committed this act of unimaginable evil, we tell ourselves, to prevent the dragging out of further pointless, meaningless evil, to get all the evil over with in one final burning, gasping scream, so that the years that followed might be marked with a lasting peace.

And for some of us they have been. Those melted nurses, all the divisions of soldiers lying crumpled across the Earth's fields, sowed with their blood a freedom that you and I still reap today. We have been gifted prosperity, comfort, calm.

And how have we spent that gift? Playing World of Warcraft. Ordering pizzas to our doors baked with bits of hotdog meat stuffed inside their crusts. Arguing over teaser-trailers for Marvel superhero films. Ours was a world of limitless potential, paid for with untold sacrifice, and we wasted it drinking frappuccinos and complaining that our Snapchat filters made our cheeks look fat.

Yes, we are cultured, sophisticated, knew the many benefits of EU membership. How could we not, with our first-class educations, our family holidays to Cannes, our university halls filled with interesting Europeans, our jobs in the city among the cream of the continental crop? We enjoy the benefits every day. I imagine that for someone whose life contains none of these things, but instead betting shops, job centres, John Smiths, cocaine, the value of wealthy politicians in Brussels must feel rather more remote.

We awoke last Friday in shock, fearful for the first time for our futures. But many in our country have been fearful all their lives. The flag they fly says nothing of unity between distant stars, but tells the simple story of a numbing blank white tedium, and a central red cross marking a single spot, the self, where they must stand strong whatever the odds. You and I may only now be feeling the first portentous raindrops upon our quaint patio doors, but make no mistake: this storm has been brewing for a long time.


On days when I'm feeling down I like to listen to videos by Jon Kabat-Zinn, this nice old man who runs a program of mindfulness meditation for those suffering from chronic pain, mental disorders, terminal illnesses. In the videos, Kabat-Zinn encourages patients to turn not away from the suffering of their bodies but towards it, to look directly at it, with eyes of awareness and curiosity, and in doing so to find a place beyond the suffering, an aspect of the self rooted in the present moment, where whatever is happening may be allowed to happen, to play itself out. Moments of pain, Kabat-Zinn says, deserve to be experienced as fully as any other moments of our lives -- sometimes are the only moments of our lives. And experiencing them, though we would never ask that they continue, may nevertheless teach us much, if we are prepared to listen.

Home, now, from Bruges, I find myself walking instead around the polished floors of my local shopping centre, in Beighton, an ex-mining village to the south of Sheffield. Residents here voted leave, by a vast majority.

In shop windows gaudy signs advertise Amazing Value! Everything £1 on goods worth much less than a pound. 25% is slashed from the price of clothes that still turn a profit because they are made by women in Bangladesh for 23p an hour. Cakes glisten with wet icing sugar that masks their partially hydrogenated oils, their artificial flavourings, their petroleum-based additives. In CeX, teens, those in their 20s, their 30s, their 40s, trade copies of second-hand videogames, on whose covers armed men are poised in stoic silhouette against backdrops of orgiastic destruction. McDonald's is, as ever, booming.

Our country, it seems to me, is a kind of person, a body, a connected organism. And this organism is in pain. On the streets of my hometown I turn my eyes not away from but towards this pain, towards the overweight, those on mobility scooters bedecked in Union Jacks, those carrying bags of fast food, cans of cheap lager -- and meeting my gaze I see not demons or enemies, but people, mothers, grandparents, sons, struggling on through hardship they never asked for, whose reasons they may never understand. There has been a storm coming for many years. For those of us who are concerned, I believe it is time we began thinking about what we can do to help.

1 comment:

  1. Rob, you're right. If compassion can't help us, nothing can.