The Time of the Comedians

This was published in Swedish by the Goteborgs-Posten in November.

 

It is the time of the comedians. Western politics as it is perceived by populations and portrayed by the media of every kind is in such a parlous state, that it is not a metaphor but a reality developing before our eyes. The comedians in this country are arguing amongst themselves, but in full public view, about the state of the nation and what is to be done to resolve and redeem its moribund condition. It has already happened in Italy where the comedian Beppe Grillo launched his Five Star Party several years ago, and in the general election of 2013 it received 25.5% of the vote, coming second to the Democratic Party. Nobody has sent for the clowns, they arrived already on stage when the people understood that clowns disguised as responsible politicians have been running the country all along. Italian politics has often been seen as a joke. Now the joke has taken hold and become a political reality. Why wouldn’t the clowns do as good a job as the present day parliamentarians, bankers, civil servants, shady hedge fund managers and directors of multinational corporations who can be seen to be carving up national economics, justice and welfare according to their own need and greed? Miles and miles of print articles in serious papers throughout the world and online comment have been devoted to the meaning of Beppe Grillo’s rise in Italian national politics. He is a king-maker holding the balance of power, a populist, a rabble rouser, a demagogue, far right, far left, the voice of the people demanding direct democracy in which politicians are responsible only to the electorate. It caused perhaps only a little fright to those who know that they control the world, whatever speeches are made in parliament. But he is taken as a sign. And, over here, a few funny men have sat up and taken notice.

Now England’s clown time has arrived. We have a scrawny, ragged stand-up comedian called Russell Brand. He hits the headlines from time to time with practised pranks in the media that cause outrage or amusement. He specialises in going over the top and then apologising with as little grace as possible. He is more interesting that most fame chasers and youngish (he is 38) comedians, because although he has had a minimal education, he is highly articulate, decidedly over-wordy, and has an ability to cut through the cant of politicians and TV journalists who find it difficult to deal with his directness. He isn’t afraid and doesn’t care about doing things the right way. He freely acknowledges all the things that he thinks he could be accused of: he’s open about having been a drug addict, an alcoholic and suffered bulimia. With all this, he has brought himself to the nation’s attention and has become the grubby, long-haired loud-mouth the tabloids love to hate.

He hit the news most recently by being guest editor for an edition of the New Statesman. In a hideously long (4500 words) and apparently unedited Forward to his edition, he gave an overview of the state of the nation, berating politicians and those who pull their strings, for corruption, greed and self-interest. He said that he has never voted, because to vote is to collude with the fantasy that those in power are spreading while continuing their corrupt, self-serving ways. Democracy is a con, it is a lie that anyone in power cares about what people think. None of the parties are better than any other in this regard. Finally, he called for people to stand with him and refuse to vote as a positive political act in order to show that we were no longer going to allow ourselves to be fooled into quiescence.

This resulted in another stand-up comedian, Robert Webb, writing a response to Russell Brand, not quietly in a private letter or conversation, but in an open letter that appeared on the front page of The Guardian. Webb said that Brand was wrong about non-voting and encouraging others not to vote. It was our democratic birthright to vote and to participate in politics to change it if we didn’t like the way it was going. As a direct result of Brand’s suggestions, Webb joined the Labour Party. The Labour Party didn’t say whether it was delighted by this or not.

Political commentators and academics were very sniffy about the upstart, naive Brand and his childish view of government and politics. Many of us looked on unimpressed as famous people took up column inches and gained publicity for themselves, their only qualification for pontificating seeming to be that people knew their names and paid money to attend their gigs around the country. But the ball kept rolling. Jeremy Paxman, TV political interviewer in chief, had a long discussion with Brand on BBC’s Newsnight, berating Brand for decrying democratic politics before himself getting on to the front pages of the national press to announce that actually, he hadn’t voted in the last election because he thought it was pointless.

Then Brand wrote another 3 or 4 thousand words in The Guardian to respond to all this.

‘I fervently believe that we deserve more from our democratic system than the few derisory tit-bits tossed from the carousel of the mighty, when they hop a few inches left or right. The lazily duplicitous servants of The City expect us to gratefully participate in what amounts to little more than a political hokey cokey where every four years we get to choose what colour tie the liar who leads us wears.’

Over-stuffed as his language might be, I pretty much agree with Brand. He is certainly saying things that I have felt for a long time. A lot of people feel the same way. There is a cynicism and angry apathy among all of us as we watch the games being played. I haven’t voted since Tony Blair stood for re-election, there being no one and no party I believed or whose promises I trusted. The years since, culminating in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition have confirmed to me the simple truths that Brand speaks. The idea that there should be a nation effort not to vote, or to spoil ballot papers en masse strikes me as being a pretty effective message to all the parties that the electorate is no longer prepared to be fooled or to play along and pretend it is acting out some holy freedom when we put our cross by a candidate’s name. The puppets are in revolt. More importantly, it would mean that no party and no coalition could claim, as they all have, no matter how small the percentage vote, that they have a mandate from the people for running the country or putting their policies into law. 

I feel the pull of Brand’s populist anger and call to act quite strongly. He speaks of wanting a fairer society. Of giving higher wages to nurses, teachers and those who clean up our messes, than to those who sit in boardrooms selling oil or arms or surveillance equipment. All he wants, he says, is change for the better and if we collaborate in refusing power to those who think they are entitled to it, we can effect change. 

The rhetoric is appealing as the rhetoric of the new broom demagogue sweeping the corrupt past away has always appealed. I don’t think that Brand is insincere or has, at least a conscious, desire for personal power. But I read his final words and tremble, not just at them, but at my own attraction to the popular words of a cheeky, honest stand-up comedian:

Even the outlet that printed this will tomorrow print a couple of columns saying what a naïve wanker I am, or try to find ways that I’ve fucked up. Well I am naïve and I have fucked up but I tell you something else. I believe in change. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty because my hands are dirty already. I don’t mind giving my life to this because I’m only alive because of the compassion and love of others. Men and women strong enough to defy this system and live according to higher laws. This is a journey we can all go on together, all of us. We can include everyone and fear no one. A system that serves the planet and the people. I’d vote for that.

While the comedian tells us honestly what we know about the world, there are always the others, the ones who do consciously want power and wealth, and they know very well how to manipulate populist feeling in a power vacuum. What is more, one of the worst things about Tony Blair, when he forcibly, with deceit, took us into the Iraq war that was to cause the death of hundreds of thousands of people, was that he was sincere. He claimed his sincerity as the bedrock of his right to act, as if only belief in what you were doing was required to act against a population’s wishes. And then I also worry about the population, that not only knows how corrupt the rich and powerful are, but, according to the polls, want to bring back hanging as a punishment for murder, and believe the country is being overrun by immigrants, and that the majority of those on welfare benefits for the low paid and unemployed are skivers and scroungers. And so I return to anger and apathy, and worry about a popular revolution led by comedians as well as no revolution, and the misery in the world getting ever more miserable.

Happy Last New Year

I wrote this for my first column of 2013 in the Swedish Goteborgs-Posten. I think it makes interesting reading for the end of 2013. I really do wish everyone and all of us a better New Year.

I’m writing this in the first week of the new year. Don’t worry, I don’t have any resolutions – or none that I haven’t always and already had and failed to keep most of my life. I’m not going to start and maintain a diary, or set a daily word target and keep to it, or join a gym and give them my money without using their facilities until I finally admit that I could give the money away to more deserving causes than my conscience*. I know the January 1st date doesn’t matter, and it has been many years since I saw in the New Year (or rather locked myself in the loo while others rejoiced in the joys they believed the New Year would bring) Still, we clearly need to keep track of before and after, and to have a sense of the relative distance between then, now and to come.  January 1st is an arbitrary way to divide up our lives, but what isn’t? In England the tax year starts in April, and it is the last remnant of an old ecclesiastical calendar (itself, I suppose, loosely imposed on top of an agrarian calendar) when Spring and new growth, reasonably enough, was deemed to be the proper beginning of the year. The academic year of schools and universities begins in September and October. If nothing else it means that calendar manufacturers can make more money by producing separate academic diaries for students and teachers. And everyone has a birthday which is their very own personalised new year. However they are calculated, calendars are metaphors for renewal and age and useful conveniences for creatures (very possibly only us on this particular planet) that are burdened with a vivid sense of time.

This year America was due to fall off a fiscal cliff at a symbolically satisfying midnight on 31st December, although no one with any sense would have lost money by betting that it would be more or less sorted out in time. It was more or less sorted out, and the strict deadline served as a way of concentrating minds. There is very little else that occurs regularly, apart from birth and Spring, that has the dramatic grace of the new year to allow us to indulge in our fantasy of new beginnings. The newspapers year after year prove resolute in looking back and forward as if journalists believe that world affairs are affected by the change from number 12 to 13. Millions of people cheer in the chimes of midnight no matter what their troubles at 11.45pm, with the help of alcohol and a truly marvellous capacity for optimism. People wish each other a happy and better new year as if the imaginary cliff of 12am will work its liminal magic on more than US economics.

Things do and don’t alter over time, though not so much by calendar years. 2012 brought us the collapse of hope for the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011 as the world helplessly witnessing the terrible attempts of the Assad regime in Syria to maintain power. In the UK in 2012, the Church of England proved its ancient alliance with the sexism of much of our society by rejecting the idea of women bishops, while all over the world women have marched, organised, and, in India, died, in an attempt to live their lives without fear of rape and discrimination. In England we have had floods, murders, vastly long and expensive inquiries into the behaviour of the press, the police, the government, the banks. Each seemed momentous for a few weeks, and then another momentous event occurred. Time passed, and interest waned or was diverted. We are only human, there is only so much we can keep in our heads and continue genuinely to feel pity, anger, determination about. In the UK we discovered that paedophilia has been a part of our normality for decades, that the care of the elderly and the vulnerable young is not good enough by a very long way. In the wider world many people in many countries sighed their relief, if not joy, that Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in the US election. New laws will be enacted, new leaves turned, new lessons learned, we are assured, with each and every revelation. And then there’s that fade as whatever it is drops to page six or seven of the newspapers and disappears from the TV and radio news, and occasionally you wonder what happened about this or that, in the midst of whatever is happening now. Or it simply repeats itself. It’s one damn thing after another, and one damn year after another doesn’t really make very much difference to our poor easily distracted minds or the incorrible affairs of human beings.

So in this fresh moment of 2013, what remains of that brief optimism in the middle of the night that something will change tomorrow? Soon Obama will be sworn in, and I hope that, without another election to win, he will make the kind of social and economic changes that were promised and which won him the presidency in the first place. Then I will remember that one man really can’t effect radical change in a system designed to prevent just that. It will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, and, if we don’t fall for hopeless nostalgia,  we will remember how it was only his early death that left us with the last sense of promise that might have been fulfilled. Here there will be a new royal baby, and that will be a useful screen for politicians and newspapers who want the nation to forget about the continuing cuts to the welfare system, schools, universities and the NHS -  those real promises of the United Kingdom.

I’m sure that in the next twelve months lots of very good things will happen, some of them to me, some to you. We will take pleasure in things read, seen and done, that will enhance our lives, give us courage and delight, make us grateful to be alive. I think of those good things as being done by individuals, for themselves and for others, appreciated by individuals and passed on to individuals, in spite of, rather than because of, institutions and bureaucracy. After 65 years of living, I can only find the potential goodness in the small, personal, the often inconsequential, the difficult, the less popular and the overlooked. The trust in community that I had when I was young remains little more than a hopeless fantasy, as I’ve observed the way that organised political and belief systems overwhelm and weary people with good ideas and novel ways of putting them into action. I don’t trust group emotion, crowd approval, or mass sentiment: those orchestrated displays of good feeling on the national scale seem to me to be the tools of the establishment. I am moved by those prepared to stand up against greed and power grabbing, especially if they have the wit and originally to make ridiculous what they despise. I doubt very much that 2013 will be very different, or very much less tragic than 2012, no matter what anyone does, but I think it magnificent that there are still people who will keep furiously mocking the tragic and corrupt, and hold up a mirror for anyone who chooses to see. 

2.1.2013

* This was a big, fat lie. I did join a gym and I’ve been paying monthly without going for about 6 months.

Clown Time, Again. And again and again…

This is another article from my column in the Swedish paper, Göteborgs-Posten.

It is the time of the comedians. Western politics as it is perceived by populations and portrayed by the media of every kind is in such a parlous state, that it is not a metaphor but a reality developing before our eyes. The comedians in this country are arguing amongst themselves, but in full public view, about the state of the nation and what is to be done to resolve and redeem its moribund condition. It has already happened in Italy where the comedian Beppe Grillo launched his Five Star Party several years ago, and in the general election of 2013 it received 25.5% of the vote, coming second to the Democratic Party. Nobody has sent for the clowns, they arrived already on stage when the people understood that clowns disguised as responsible politicians have been running the country all along. Italian politics has often been seen as a joke. Now the joke has taken hold and become a political reality. Why wouldn’t the clowns do as good a job as the present day parliamentarians, bankers, civil servants, shady hedge fund managers and directors of multinational corporations who can be seen to be carving up national economics, justice and welfare according to their own need and greed? Miles and miles of print articles in serious papers throughout the world and online comment have been devoted to the meaning of Beppe Grillo’s rise in Italian national politics. He is a king-maker holding the balance of power, a populist, a rabble rouser, a demagogue, far right, far left, the voice of the people demanding direct democracy in which politicians are responsible only to the electorate. It caused perhaps only a little fright to those who know that they control the world, whatever speeches are made in parliament. But he is taken as a sign. And, over here, a few funny men have sat up and taken notice.

Now England’s clown time has arrived. We have a scrawny, ragged stand-up comedian called Russell Brand. He hits the headlines from time to time with practised pranks in the media that cause outrage or amusement. He specialises in going over the top and then apologising with as little grace as possible. He is more interesting that most fame chasers and youngish (he is 38) comedians, because although he has had a minimal education, he is highly articulate, decidedly over-wordy, and has an ability to cut through the cant of politicians and TV journalists who find it difficult to deal with his directness. He isn’t afraid and doesn’t care about doing things the right way. He freely acknowledges all the things that he thinks he could be accused of: he’s open about having been a drug addict, an alcoholic and suffered bulimia. With all this, he has brought himself to the nation’s attention and has become the grubby, long-haired loud-mouth the tabloids love to hate.

He hit the news most recently by being guest editor for an edition of the New Statesman. In a hideously long (4500 words) and apparently unedited Forward to his edition, he gave an overview of the state of the nation, berating politicians and those who pull their strings, for corruption, greed and self-interest. He said that he has never voted, because to vote is to collude with the fantasy that those in power are spreading while continuing their corrupt, self-serving ways. Democracy is a con, it is a lie that anyone in power cares about what people think. None of the parties are better than any other in this regard. Finally, he called for people to stand with him and refuse to vote as a positive political act in order to show that we were no longer going to allow ourselves to be fooled into quiescence.

This resulted in another stand-up comedian, Robert Webb, writing a response to Russell Brand, not quietly in a private letter or conversation, but in an open letter that appeared on the front page of The Guardian. Webb said that Brand was wrong about non-voting and encouraging others not to vote. It was our democratic birthright to vote and to participate in politics to change it if we didn’t like the way it was going. As a direct result of Brand’s suggestions, Webb joined the Labour Party. The Labour Party didn’t say whether it was delighted by this or not.

Political commentators and academics were very sniffy about the upstart, naive Brand and his childish view of government and politics. Many of us looked on unimpressed as famous people took up column inches and gained publicity for themselves, their only qualification for pontificating seeming to be that people knew their names and paid money to attend their gigs around the country. But the ball kept rolling. Jeremy Paxman, TV political interviewer in chief, had a long discussion with Brand on BBC’s Newsnight, berating Brand for decrying democratic politics before himself getting on to the front pages of the national press to announce that actually, he hadn’t voted in the last election because he thought it was pointless.

Then Brand wrote another 3 or 4 thousand words in The Guardian to respond to all this.

‘I fervently believe that we deserve more from our democratic system than the few derisory tit-bits tossed from the carousel of the mighty, when they hop a few inches left or right. The lazily duplicitous servants of The City expect us to gratefully participate in what amounts to little more than a political hokey cokey where every four years we get to choose what colour tie the liar who leads us wears.’

Over-stuffed as his language might be, the truth is that I pretty much agree with Brand. He is certainly saying things that I have felt for a long time. A lot of people feel the same way. There is a cynicism and angry apathy among all of us as we watch the games being played. I haven’t voted since Tony Blair stood for re-election, there being no one and no party I believed or whose promises I trusted. The years since, culminating in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition have confirmed to me the simple truths that Brand speaks. The idea that there should be a nation effort not to vote, or to spoil ballot papers en masse strikes me as being a pretty effective message to all the parties that the electorate is no longer prepared to be fooled or to play along and pretend it is acting out some holy freedom when we put our cross by a candidate’s name. The puppets are in revolt. More importantly, it would mean that no party and no coalition could claim, as they all have, no matter how small the percentage vote, that they have a mandate from the people for running the country or putting their policies into law.

I feel the pull of Brand’s populist anger and call to act quite strongly. He speaks of wanting a fairer society. Of giving higher wages to nurses, teachers and those who clean up our messes, than to those who sit in boardrooms selling oil or arms or surveillance equipment. All he wants, he says, is change for the better and if we collaborate in refusing power to those who think they are entitled to it, we can effect change.

The rhetoric is appealing as the rhetoric of the new broom demagogue sweeping the corrupt past away has always appealed. I don’t think that Brand is insincere or has, at least a conscious, desire for personal power. But I read his final words and tremble, not just at them, but at my own attraction to the popular words of a cheeky, honest stand-up comedian:

Even the outlet that printed this will tomorrow print a couple of columns saying what a naïve wanker I am, or try to find ways that I’ve fucked up. Well I am naïve and I have fucked up but I tell you something else. I believe in change. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty because my hands are dirty already. I don’t mind giving my life to this because I’m only alive because of the compassion and love of others. Men and women strong enough to defy this system and live according to higher laws. This is a journey we can all go on together, all of us. We can include everyone and fear no one. A system that serves the planet and the people. I’d vote for that.

While the comedian tells us honestly what we know about the world, there are always the others, the ones who do consciously want power and wealth, and they know very well how to manipulate populist feeling in a power vacuum. What is more, one of the worst things about Tony Blair, when he forcibly, with deceit, took us into the Iraq war that was to cause the death of hundreds of thousands of people, was that he was sincere. He claimed his sincerity as the bedrock of his right to act, as if only belief in what you were doing was required to act against a population’s wishes. And then I also worry about the population, that not only knows how corrupt the rich and powerful are, but, according to the polls, want to bring back hanging as a punishment for murder, and believe the country is being overrun by immigrants, and that the majority of those on welfare benefits for the low paid and unemployed are skivers and scroungers. And so I return to anger and apathy, and worry about a popular revolution led by comedians as well as no revolution, and the misery in the world getting ever more miserable.

Dirty Dying

 Another piece written for my column in the Swedish Goteborgs-Posten.

 

On the subject of death I’m inclined to turn to my two favourite writers. Vladimir Nabokov begins Speak Memory, an autobiography of sorts, with the kind of banality any reader of his knows better than to get cosy with: ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’ Given how much respect he had for common sense we shouldn’t be anything but wary. Before the end of the paragraph the old ‘chronophobiac’ (though he claimed it to be ‘a young chronophobiac of his acquaintance’) is trembling at the memory of a home movie of his mother waving from a window just weeks before he was born (‘some mysterious farewell’), and most frightening, ‘the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin’. Then: ‘I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature’. Quite right, and common sense go hang, I say. 

Beckett, too, was outraged by the prenatal abyss, and not crazy about the postnatal one. ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’ The first abyss warns of what is to come (‘Birth was the death of him’). If we’ve not been here once, we could not be here again. And the fable has it that nobody escapes the other abyss. Worse, though, since the invention of photography, or even of writing, it is clear that the world, waving gaily at those who are there already, got on perfectly well without one – and One is the only word that counts in the nasty business of abysses. Even the joyful prospective parents are only anticipating someone, not VN, not you, not me.

I’ve heard of people who are able to take that first oblivion as some sort of comfort. Been there, done that. It wasn’t so – anything. But the first abyss is before and the second one after and it’s the taking leave of that bit of us in the middle that’s the problem. You can see why there are people who choose to believe in reincarnation; it makes so many befores and afters that, although it may be a very tiring prospect, it isn’t at least so singular.

I’ve never understood about boredom. I realise that with time and repetition all pleasures can run out.  Yelling in our cots and watching them come to hover over us anxiously; sex; TV; reading; long walks on frosty afternoons if that is the sort of thing you like; drugs, even; everything palls, eventually. But how can anyone be bored when there’s always death to think about? Every day. Every hour. Don’t you? All the rest is just evading or glossing the real subject of our lives. Beckett, again, the maestro of death: Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store.

However, having read recently Allan Kellehear’s The Study of Dying a book of essays on the sociology of dying, it became clear to me that dead and gone is very different from the dying and the going. And if abysses are anything like as consciousness-proof as they’re cracked up to be, it’s the dying and the going we should most worry about. Dying, unlike death, is not universal. Sudden death may involve no period of dying at all to speak of. Just there you are and then you aren’t. A random accident. A massive heart attack or stroke – out of the blue, as they say. No dying – at any rate, no perceived dying, and what you don’t know… There’s something to be said for skipping the run up to death. Although the shock for those left behind is worse; speaking selfishly, from what I read about the biomedical processes of dying, I wonder if sudden death might not be preferable to the ‘long illness’ that obituarists write of, or even that sometimes very long illness that people call old age. 

When I was young I thought differently. Partly, I had no personal face to face experience with death. It was always hearsay, and I hadn’t then read up on the many and diverse ways in which the body can pack up. A lingering death struck me as the way to go. Until the age of eight or so, I succumbed to a picture of being surrounded by weeping loved ones, sorry as hell now for whatever I thought they had to be sorry about. The movies….and death was so very like the Yorkshire moors, a vaselined lens and a smouldering glance.

Later, I fancied the idea of a slow, knowing build-up to death, of having time to watch it come, time to think about it and take a position on it. I couldn’t understand people (men, usually, when I asked) who were hoping for a quick violent death they would know nothing about. Peter Pan and I were at one on our position that death was an awfully big adventure. Also, I’ve never been keen on surprises. What I never imagined until quite late in life was that pain, disintegration, degradation and awfully big difficulty might skew my fascinating journey to extinction. Reading about why I should give up the comparatively easy, and pleasant evasions of Peter Pan, and the abysses of Nabokov and Beckett, to fix on the physical and mental deterioration looming not so far ahead in the smog, I’m not sure. The more visceral accompaniments to a lingering end have begun to grip me, quite taking over from the intellectual thrill and shiver of a lifetime of thinking about my own extinction. Actually, I’ve discovered myself to be in a pure funk about how my going is going to go. 

The very old idea of a good death, allows us tell a less frightening story of the period before the end. What Francis Bacon called ‘a fair and easy passage’. You make your peace with your life, your people and if necessary with your god, divide up the inheritance, say something notable, then you are ready to withdraw. Even in 1605, Bacon knew that this good death depended rather on circumstances:

I esteem it the office of a physician not only to restore health, but to mitigate pain and dolors; and not only when such mitigation may conduce to recovery, but when it may serve to make a fair and easy passage.

But even now, with presumably much better mitigaters of pain and dolors, a fair and easy passage can’t be assured. ‘Dirty dying’ is how one researcher describes ‘the combination of leaking, painful and difficult bodies that no longer respond to personal control by their owners.’ Actually, leaking and difficult was just as much a problem with young bodies, it’s the pain that’s added with age – plus, of course, the leaking and difficulty doesn’t lead to nearly as much fun. There are too many ways to die, but just the one to get born. 

1 Beckett, From An Abandoned Work