Carnival Row – A fairytale for our dark times

Having just watched the entire run of the first series of Carnival Row, I can only say – when’s the next one?

Set in an alternative world more sinister and brutal than Lyra’s in His Dark Materials, this is most definitely a fable for grown-ups.

We discover here a well-realised world in which Victorian-level technology intersects with the wonders and magic of the creatures of Tir Na Nog – a once-fabled realm of real pixies, centaurs and other mythological beasts – whose unspoiled natural homeland two rival empires battle to rule: The Iron Pact and the Burgh.

When the Burgh withdraws from the war, leaving Tir Na Nog in the hands of the even more brutal Iron Pact, refugees come flooding into The Burgh, leading to all kinds of unsettling developments which strain the already tearing fabric of Burgh society.

This, then, is the setting for a very real discussion of the nature of racism in the realm of faery and humans. The half-human half-ram race of “pucks” are essentially slaves in the Burgh, and all Fae, nicknamed Kritches, are despised by human society. But there are glimmers of civilization, and acceptance among a few – and one strand that even echoes Beauty and the Beast in a very much grittier setting.

The story is brilliantly unwound. At times a love story, at others a devastating commentary on populist politicians who seek to create chaos in order to provide themselves with opportunities for advancement, at others still a version of Ripper Street with fairies, and occasionally a commentary on inter-racial (inter-species!?) sex and relationships, the show is beautifully filmed.

Cara Delevingne has a powerful presence, and Orlando Bloom is expertly matched as the grizzled and hardened inspector seeking to track down a murderer who is killing Fae folk. The scripting is usually pitch perfect with very, very occasional lapses into predictable dialogue.

In all, it’s a steampunk dream with a very dark edge, splashed with power hunger, bigotry and the desperate need to find love and meaning in a world that before our eyes lurches further and further to the right. If this isn’t a fairytale for our dark times, I don’t know what is!

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When The Snow Witch Escaped Me

As a writer, I’m going through something of an adjustment at the moment. Something I never really factored into my experience as an author is happening to me.

To explain – some time ago I wrote a novel based in Portsmouth called The Snow Witch. I personally know it’s the best piece of fiction writing I’ve ever done. I wrote it in a particularly ethereal style, but made the characters and the town really gritty and real. Some I made deliberately enigmatic. This combination led to the book coming out in the genre of magical realism.

Magical realism is a fabulous genre. It mixes the allegorical, the real and the mystical into a quite addictive brew that plays with your sense of what is possible.

I knew I had done something right when people who read it approached me and told me how much they enjoyed it. Over and over again. I was selling my books off a market stall once, telling a prospective customer about it, when a previous buyer marched across to me having spotted me, their arm outstretched, stared at me intensely and pronounced: “That’s brilliant!” then marched off.

This is deeply gratifying.

But recently, an artist, Lucille Scott from Little Duck Forge approached me and asked me if she could run an art exhibition based on the book. This was again, deeply flattering. So, we are having an art exhibition in Cascades in autumn 2019 based on the book. 40 artists have signed up for it. It is quite extraordinary.

Then, another artist came to me, asking to make the book the centre of another arts project. This has become Cursed City – which tells another new story of Donitza Kravitch, the book’s eponymous witch – that takes place in Portsmouth, though social media, street art and live events.

Much of the original story takes place in The Model Village, Southsea. Last Thursday I went down there to meet up with local artist James Waterfield and Roy Hanney, who is the creator of this project. James is a great local artist, and he had been working on a secret project as part of Cursed City.

James Waterfield, AKA, Lawn of the Dead
James Waterfield, AKA, Lawn of the Dead

He had created two figurines to place in the Model Village both depicting characters from my book. I looked at them and had a moment of real dumbfoundedness. Basically, I was holding an action figure in my hand that was his conception of Donitza. Someone had made a whole new work of art based on my creation!

I’ve worked with artists before, but nothing – absolutely nothing like this has ever happened to me. It felt surreal. Like, a thing that I thought of had come to life, stepped into reality, independently of me. I didn’t know what to think.

The figurines of Donitza playing her violin and Reynold Lissitch pasting up street art are now safely installed in the village. And I feel like reality is shifting for me. That Donitza has escaped the pages of my book, and begun to take on a life of her own. And I am standing, watching her move and grow, and am bewildered.

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A New Book – Mysteries of Portsmouth, Chapter 1

01. Ancient Mysteries of Portsmouth

The earliest accounts of Portsmouth

Most historians agree the little Hampshire village of Portchester is the father of the city of Portsmouth, and was already an ancient settlement when Portsmouth was a muddy island with a few fishing and hunting communities scattered across it. Portchester’s Roman castle (the best preserved example north of the Alps) dates back to the 3rd Century, and was built as part of the Saxon Shore defences designed to protect Britain from marauding Saxon invaders. But even back then when Portus Adurni was new (as the Romans called Portchester Castle), the settlement at Portchester was already ancient.

Before we jump into the mysteries and legends of Portchester, let’s look at what we know for sure about the village and castle, at the point it emerges from the mists of myth into history.

Portchester – Heart of an Empire

The man in command of Portchester Castle and the rest of the Saxon Shore castles just after they were built in the 3rd Century was also the commander of the Classis Britannica, the Roman Fleet that protected the English Channel from pirates. Carausius had started as a Belgian pilot and fighter, but proved so effective as a leader of men that he rose through the ranks of the fleet. A brilliant sea fighter, he had impressive success in quelling Saxon and Frankish piracy in the English Channel, both in Gaul and Britain and was given control of the fleet.

However, rumours soon began to circulate around Rome that Carausius often would wait for Saxon pirates to make raids before he engaged with them – thus enabling him to help himself to the treasure they had stolen, and keep it for himself.

Whether this was the gossip of jealous rivals or true, the effect was that in 286, Roman Emperor Diocletian sentenced Carausius to death. This proved to be a tactical error, because Carausius was still in Britain at the time. When Carausius heard he was being recalled to Rome to meet his fate, he realised he had nothing to lose, declared Britain a separate empire equal to Rome, and drove off Roman attacks.

Secure in his independence behind his forts, Carausius set about creating a rival state to Rome. He minted his own coins from high quality bullion that he hoped would boost his credibility over his Roman rivals and set about running an independent Britannia.

This early version of Brexit came to an end after his betrayal in 293 by his treasurer, Allectus, and Britain was once again taken back under Roman Imperial control.

Carausius’s story is a pretty exciting early history… but there are many more myths and legends. They include bloodthirsty betrayals, murder, a giant, the Holy Grail… and even King Arthur himself!

The Myth of Ferrex and Perrex

Ancient chronicler and recorder of unreliable histories, Geoffrey of Monmouth, wrote in his History Of The Kings Of Britain in the 1200s that the original British name for Portchester was Caer Peris. He tells the following story as to how it got its name:

Around 491 BCE, two brothers lived in terrible rivalry. They were the sons of King Sisil “The Fox”, who founded the town of Silchester, and was so successful a leader that he was declared supreme chieftain of the area.

Though he had been a great chieftain, he hadn’t been able to control the bitter rivalry between his two sons Ferrex and Perrex, and after he died, they went to war with each other to gain control of their father’s lands. Ferrex, his mother’s favourite, was forced to retreat to Gaul by Perrex after a fierce battle. When Ferrex raised an army and returned to fight his brother, things went wrong for him again. This time, Perrex defeated and slew his brother.

Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us Perrex set about founding the fortified town where the Roman Portchester Castle would later stand, naming it Caer Peris – that is, Perrex’s Castle.

This is not the end of the story, however. Perrex’s mother, Idon, enraged at the fate of her favourite son, stole into Perrex’s room while he was asleep, and with the help of her maidens “cut him all in pieces.”

This is not a recommended model of motherhood.

Gurguntus and Beline

Another mythical beginning to Portchester is told by a later historian, Stow, who attributes the founding of Porchester to Gurguntus, the son of Beline in the year 375 BCE. However, Stow also says the same thing happened in Norwich with the same people in the same year – so it might be that he got a little bit muddled.

Nothing much more is offered about this supposed founding of the fortifications – however, it should be said there are many archaeological remains dating back to the pre-Christian era in the area. So, whether there’s any truth in these early myths or not, there’s no doubt there was early settlement and the building of defensive structures in the Portchester long before the Romans came.

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Pompey (or Cymbeline’s sons, anyway)

The next mention Geoffrey of Monmouth makes of Caer Peris brings is to the First Century, during the period the Romans were still quelling the troublesome and rebellious Britons, after the Roman invasion in the year 43.

This account involves a young British king, Guiderius, the son of one king Cunobelinus, otherwise known as Cymbeline to anyone who knows their Shakespeare.

“After the death of Cymbeline,” writes Geoffrey, “the government of Britain fell to Guiderius, his son. This prince refused to pay tribute to the Romans, for which reason Claudius, Emperor of Rome, marched against him.”

The story goes that Hamo, the commander of the Roman forces made an attack on Caer Peris, and “began to block up the gate with a wall,” probably with the view of starving the inhabitants into surrender.

In the fighting that followed, Hamo killed Guiderius.

However, this was not the end of the matter. Guiderius’s brother, Arviragus, mightily enraged, took command of the Britons. They fought so desperately under him that they drove the Romans back to their galleys.

Once more, this was not the end of the matter. Later, when the Britons had departed, Claudius assaulted the fortification again, and this time he took it for Rome.

The rest, as they say, is history. Literally.

King Arthur and the invasion of Portsmouth

Another ancient story about the defence of Portsmouth takes us fully into the realms of Arthurian Romance.

Many of the early King Arthur stories date back to a time when Britain was being invaded by Saxon tribes, just after the Romans had left Britain’s shores as the Empire came under increasing attack at the centre.

The reality or otherwise of King Arthur is hotly debated. Whether Arthur was an imaginary folk hero spoken about around British camp fires to keep up British morale hundreds of years later, a soldier in the battles that occurred between the Britons and the Saxons, a vestige of a sungod (the twelve battles he fights that push him further West, his death, disappearance in the west and subsequent promised return are an interesting echo of the twelve months of the year, sunset and sunrise) or something else, doesn’t really matter for this book. The stories that have been woven around this most enigmatic of figures who stands on the boundaries of history and mythology are as rich in story detail as he is elusive in fact. But what’s great about Arthur is the amazing amount of stories this figure has inspired.

From soldier, through war leader, to king and finally emperor of a vast land, the legends about Arthur are increasingly embellished by the romance writers of the Middle Ages. In fact, the first description of Arthur as “emperor” is found in connection with Portsmouth. It’s in a poem dedicated to the death of another Celtic hero of Welsh literature – Geraint mab Erbin, that is, Geraint son of Erbin.

Geraint was a popular figure associated with southwestern Britain and South Wales in the late 6th century. He became most famous for an entirely fictional romance written about him in Welsh called Geraint and Enid, which mimics a similar 12th Century poem by French mediaeval poet Chretien de Troyes.

But Geraint had been around in literature long before this romance, and older poems speak about him as a real person. Thus, the very much earlier poem Geraint son of Erbin appears to be a true lament for the death of a British hero, killed in battle.

The location of the confrontation is given as Llongborth – meaning “haven of ships”, which writers and historians have identified with Langport in Somerset – or with Portsmouth harbour. The poem tells of the slaying of Geraint, a Celtic prince, by the Saxons in the 6th Century.

Could the ancient poem really be Portsmouth-related? Is there any other evidence of a battle in the 6th Century in Portsmouth in which a British hero was killed?

Interestingly enough, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles also contain a mention of the invasion of Portsmouth for the year 501 , as follows:

Port and his two sons, Bieda and Mægla, came with two ships to Britain at the place which is called Portsmouth. They soon landed, and slew on this spot a young Briton of very high rank.

Is it possible that the poem Geraint mab Erbin actually tells of the death of that same young prince mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles? And if Geraint a figure of myth was real, is it possible there was an Arthur after all?

It’s circumstantial evidence, but there are plenty who are convinced it’s true!

Ancient Burials and Brutal Deaths on Portsdown Hill

Staying on the theme of slain ancient warriors, it’s worth noting that at the top of Portsdown Hill as you head east toward the cutting where the A3(M) now slices through the chalk cliffs at the Havant end, around 1816, a tantalising discovery was made by labourers. Local historian Lake Allen tells the story in his 1817 History of Portsmouth:

Some labourers being employed in quarrying chalk during the month of September last, accidentally broke into a tumulus situated on the South side of the hill near the telegraph. The form of it appeared to be a parallelogram, extending East and West about 100 feet, in breadth about 20 feet, and in height 6 feet. In this tumulus or Barrow were discovered the remains of twelve bodies, some placed in cists, others laid only on the surface of the chalk, and covered by heaping the surrounding soil on them. The skeleton that was last discovered occupied a grave distinct from the others, but evidently too short for the stature of the person interred; loose flags were placed on it, their ends resting on the chalk. The radius and ulna were laid across the frame; the latter was the only bone entire, and was rather shorter than that of a well proportioned man. The occipital bone bore marks of petrifaction, and at the juncture of the temporal with the parietal bone, on the right side, was found inserted an iron head of a spear.

What became of these relics I do not know. But is it possible that the spearhead found in this body was none other than the one used by Porta to slay Geraint mab Erbin? It’s too much of a coincidence, surely..? And since we can’t examine the orginals, how can we ever know? But a man in a tomb, killed by an iron spear, hurriedly buried under loose flagstones by a vanquished army… is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to at least wish it were true?

Bevis’s Grave

Another archaeological site with mythical connotations lies near the one described by Lake Allen on Portsdown Hill. Again, heading east toward the motorway bridge, in the fields north of the road is the site of an ancient burial mound, Bevis’s Grave.

This was a giant long barrow – around 88m by 25m long with ditches to north and south. These days, it is largely buried, with only a part of it rising about half a metre above the ground. Nevertheless, it is actually about 4,500 to 5,500 years old. Part of an antler, probably the remains of a pick, was excavated from the ditches, along with sherds of late Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery.

In fact, the whole area along the crest of Portsdown Hill is rich in archaeological sites. Nearby is an area of early medieval burials, including two Saxon burials and eighty Christian graves dating from the 8th and 9th centuries. Who knew, as you take your dog for a walk or drive down into Havant that you are surrounded by so many relics of the deep, distant past?

So, back to Bevis. Who was he? And why is this his grave?

Bevis was a mediaeval knight from a Middle English romance called Sir Bevis of Hampton from around 1324. (Those of my generation will understand when I say I don’t believe that anywhere in the text is a mention of a companion or squire called Sir Butthead.)

Here are the bare bones of the romance:

Bevis is the son of Guy, count of Hampton (aka Southampton). Guy’s young wife, a daughter of the King of Scotland is unhappy in marriage and asks a former lover, Devoun, Emperor of Germany, to kill her husband. He happily sends an army to oblige and Guy is murdered in a forest. Fearful that their ten-year-old son Bevis will seek revenge, she decides that he, too, must die.

Saved by a faithful tutor, the young Bevis is later sold to pirates. After many adventures, Bevis ends up at the court of King Hermin, which is situated either in Egypt or Armenia – the writer is a bit vague on the details of where exactly. Bevis is involved in numerous exploits, including the defeat of Ascapart, a legendary giant from English folklore, and falls in love with the king’s daughter, Josiane. The king then sends Bevis on a mission to deliver a sealed letter to King Bradmond of Damascus. Bevis, not realising the letter requests Bradmond to execute him duly delivers it. He is imprisoned, escapes, finally wreaks vengeance on his stepfather and claims his inheritance. However, he is then separated from Josiane, and both are forced into false marriages, until in the end they are reunited at last.

It would make a great movie.

So, there it is. Though the barrow’s original inhabitant is long forgotten, a wonderful story has filled it with fresh life.

And that is the nature of legends, after all.

Hayling Island – home of the Holy Grail?

Whilst we are looking at ancient mysteries and the Celts, let’s have a look at another figure from the Roman era who some legends say came to Britain. That is none other than Jesus Christ.

A particular theory I stumbled over in an unusual pamphlet some time ago comes from the pen of a now-deceased local writer called Victor Pierce Jones. It puts forward the eccentric idea that the Holy Grail was, or is, buried at Hayling Island. In his book Glastonbury Myth or Southern Mystery, the author seeks to prove that “Jesus travelled from the Holy Land as a youth, lived on the south coast and was given a cup when he departed”- a cup which Joseph of Arimathea brought back to Britain after Christ’s death on the cross, “returning it to his first disciples and friends” in no place other than Havant – which is actually the “real site of Avalon”.

Further questions raised by the author include: “Did Merlin live at My Lord’s Pond, on Hayling Island? Did King Arthur find Excalibur at Havant? Was the Holy Grail found by Benedictine monks and a Knight Templar on Hayling – and is it still hidden there?”

Along the way, the author manages to include many of the ancient sites already mentioned in this book and some of its characters. King Arthur gets a look in, as does Bevis, William the Conqueror and countless duplicitous Glastonbury monks. Argued with a passion, it is quite joyous and, I personally think, completely bonkers.

But that’s just me. The construction of the argument is a work of art, and for seekers after mysteries, it’s a slim volume with which you can fill your boots!

An Ancient Ghost, A Countess Beheaded

There are many ghost stories associated with Portsmouth and the surrounding area. Here is one from Warblington to whet your appetite:

Five hundred years ago at Warblington, by the ever-moving waters of Langstone Harbour once stood a magnificent castle, of which only a few vestiges remain, and on whose ruins in the 18th century, a farmhouse was built. In its heyday it was one of the chief guesthouses of the Earls of Salisbury. The ghost that haunts the site is that of the unhappy Margaret, Countess of Salisbury. She once lived here in great state, dividing much of her time between Warblington and Lordington Manor, near Racton, which was commissioned by her husband Richard.

Their children included Cardinal Reginald Pole, who was the last Catholic Archbishop of England during the period of the Reformation, in which Henry came into direct conflict with Rome. Cardinal Pole was unbending in his attitudes to Henry VIII and strongly criticised him for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He also warned against his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Sensing danger from the king’s growing impatience and anger with him, Cardinal Pole went into exile in France, where he finally denounced Henry to the other princes of Europe.

The ruthless tyrant Henry VIII attempted an assassination of Pole, but when this failed avenged himself by having Pole’s family arrested. His mother, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two and a half years on trumped-up political charges. She was finally beheaded at Tower Hill in 1541, the last surviving issue from the direct male bloodline of the Plantagenet kings of England. Only one family member survived, her son Geoffrey Pole, who fled into exile in Europe. The Pole family was thus completely destroyed as a dynasty by their spiteful and merciless king.

Accounts of Margaret’s execution tell of a grisly end.

On the morning of 27 May 1541, in front of a crowd of 150 people, Lady Pole was led to the scaffold where she was expected to say a few pious words and submit to her fate. But the 67-year-old had no intention of going quietly. She refused to kneel or lay her head on the block, and told the executioner he would have to strike her head off where she stood. Guards roughly took her resisting form to the block, where the executioner raised his axe… and – thrown off his stroke by her defiance – swung the blade and struck her in the shoulder.

In agony, Lady Pole jumped up shrieking, gushing blood into her white hair. The executioner chased her, wildly swinging his axe. It took eleven bloody blows before she finally died. Legend in the Tower of London says that on the anniversary of her death, her ghost is seen in the night, her white hair streaming with blood from her many wounds – forever pursued by her phantom executioner.

After the destruction of the Pole family, the estate was forfeited to the Crown, and a few years later, Thomas Cromwell had Warblington Castle demolished. What was left of it then fell into decay and farmhouses were built over part of it.

A local story tells of a different sighting of a spirit at the site. It says that the ghost of the beheaded and tragic Countess Margaret Pole haunts the ruins, as she mourns the passing of her lost life and her magnificent home.

How the mighty may fall!

*

Please note – There are many more ghost stories to come in the pages of this book, but first, let’s discover the Lost Lands around Portsmouth…

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Her: Opening section to a new novel by Matt Wingett

Love.

Am I actually glowing, or is that a trick of the light? Is this really love? Really? I mean, what do I actually know about it? She laughs gleefully. – Except – I’m in it!

Jo Parris stands ecstatic and naked before a mirror, a sensation rising in her core as if someone has reached down and benignly electrified her insides. Gorgeous-beautiful-ache happy-delirium bursting-joy-pain. This is it all right. The real thing.

The early summer air is hot around her. Even at this time of day, when the shadows are cast on the ground by the red light of dawn, she feels so hot her skin might catch fire. Glorious morning light.

"Her" - cover art

“I’m home,” she says in a whisper, stepping to her bedroom’s sash window, through whose mouth cooler morning air kisses her skin.

Sol, the old currant bun, Helios, Starfire, shaking out his bedhead, she thinks, as he bounces a shaft against a car window and lights her up: a young woman exultant in a town where she only ever expected to feel marooned. She revels in the spotlight, picked out by the sungod, radiance washing through her.

Love’s like catching fire. It burns. Weird.

A passing gull dims the dazzle a moment and she recollects the meeting scheduled for later that day. A cloud of dismay dims her mood.

What will Aunt G say?

Her question to herself refers to her secret (because, yes, I have a secret!, she tells herself excitedly). Yet, today, even for Aunt G and her disapproval she feels indulgent – as if she might forgive her former attempts to shape her life and lead it in the old woman’s preferred direction –

I don’t know why, Jo puzzles to herself. – All her weirdness… Over all these years… Fuck that! This time, it’s different. He’s my secret. No answers to prying questions, no breathless revelations about relationships.

Her gut agrees – a compass-needle-north feeling that points to her resolve –

I’ll handle her. She shakes off the thought and soaks up the view from her first floor flat: green of common, leaves of palms, elms neat-queued beside a path first laid for holidaymakers when seaside was a novelty of mass transportation. Distant: a low castle, built in the time of one Henry or other. Beyond, unseen from her position, a blue margin, whose saline presence fills her sinuses.

The sea, the sea. She half-consciously registers it. Magic pool of life. Home of possibilities. Bucking road to all compass points. All life comes through this town she hugs her arms to herself and lowers her giddy head, breathing it all in as if she wants to contain the world, right here, right now. Life is fucking ‘A’.

Movement behind her – snorted breath. Pirouetting with dizzy delight to the source of her reverie, she wonders, – is he waking up!?

Earlier, before slipping excitedly from her bed, she lay for half an hour, transfixed, torn between waking him and just watching. Beautiful man. My secret.

Thus her excited turn about her bedroom – a space once a Victorian family’s living room; now, where once resided the primmery of Imperial life, her hot lover snores abed. She draws him in through her eyes. Still asleep, she registers, hoping his dreams are hooking him to the surface – and if not, they’re of her.

She stretches. Arms sideways, bracing invisible pillars; arches her neck. Yawns.

With him she is all herself. An innocent in the forest who looks up, breathless at the world around her, and loves it for what it is, knowing she is loved in return.

Maybe not actually innocent, she thinks, because he has been the source of seriously good sex from day one, – And it only gets better – she tells herself as she feels the full stretch.

Satisfactorily yawned out, she drops her arms and relaxes her shoulders.

I hated it here, she tells herself in wonder. Till two weeks ago. Hated.

She rests her elbow on her navel and plants chin on palm to think a moment. Considers The Shrine on the chest of drawers – a little resident goddess standing immobile, watching them both.

“It all changed with You,” she whispers to Her, half-playfully reverent. The target of her gratitude is a carved figure in a homemade leaf bower. A doll of exotic origin. The one she calls Her.

Jo feels the same pull she felt the first day she found Her. Steps over to Her. Imagines She is sentient – somehow watching the scene in the room.

Now Jo lifts Her. Near-religious tenderness. Eyes Her wooden face – my breath is tremoring!? – As if magic will happen!? Of course it does not, though a little bit of Jo thinks it could.

She holds Her a while longer, replaces Her on the chest of drawers, then walks back to the bed and looks down on the man she is in love – or at least in lust – with.

Still asleep. Breathing his dreams through his mouth – can I get an idea of what they are? They smell sweet.

She scents his sweat, too, the tang of last night’s sex. Jumbled sensations flash through her mind – and she remembers: exhausted, falling into black sleep together, winding around each others’ dreams, smell of fellow human, warmth of skin. This morning, her brief and by now familiar flash of surprise and joy when waking to find – Yes! he is real.

She takes a breath as all these thoughts wash over her, reaching a conclusion as she stretches her arm to wake him –

Yes. I’m in love!

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Good Night, Knight And Lee, Southsea.

As the retail ritual of closing up, bending down to secure the floor bolt then reaching up for the top bolt on the double doors of Knight and Lee was enacted for the last time at 5pm on July 13th 2019, a crowd of around 50 middle-aged, middle-class shoppers suddenly looked as if their spiritual heartland had been nuked.

The scene was made both more poignant and absurd as it came at the end of a set sung to the collected mourners by Rockchoir.com, which had included classics such as (ironically enough) I’m Still Standing, a mournful version of Only You and the spiritual hope of Hallejujah. It was (as it should have been) like a religious service in commemoration of a departed loved one.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sad to see Knight and Lee go from Palmerston Road. Its stalwart service to the local community is well known. Its position in the corner of Palmerston Road and Clarendon Road, opposite the soon-to-close Debenhams that was once Handley’s Department Store together created a presence – a bit like the great statues in the Lord of the Rings as the Fellowship arrives in Gondor. These two shops did not announce to invading hordes “You shall not pass”, but were sentinels guarding a near-lost civilization called High Street Retail.

Yet the loss of this aspect of civilization at least in part lies at the feet of these very retailers.

Yes, Amazon most definitely enjoys an unfair advantage in cyberspace – not having to pay the same levels of staff, able to operate out of warehouses with considerably lower business rates, not needing to use expensive space to put items on display – and perhaps most importantly for Amazon, being able to avoid paying tax, and thus giving absolutely NOTHING back to local communities.

But Amazon’s advantage to one side, there is also a hard lesson retailers have failed to learn. That lesson is you can’t out-Amazon Amazon. You have to offer something different from what Amazon offers. And let’s face it, what DOES Amazon offer? The answer is stark – it offers cheapness and fast delivery with no fuss.

The High Street was never going to be able to compete on those terms of mass storage, immense ordering power and wafer-thin bottom lines that empower Amazon, and what it failed to do was change.

In a world in which more and more people are shopping online, we are equally seeing a world in which there is less and less face-to-face human interaction, and more and more isolation. Anxiety, societal dysfunction, depression, these are all symptoms of society no longer fitting together and functioning properly. That isolation has led to record levels of suicides. Human beings are social creatures. We may not acknowledge it, but we need people. The reality is, the chat in the Post Office or outside the butcher of the old days was as much a part of the shopping experience as the retail high shoppers used to get in the 1980s laden with designer goods on their ways home from Oxford Street – and probably still do at Westfield, Oxford Street, Gunwharf and other destination shopping complexes. But those are different creatures from the town High Street, that now needs to find its own model.

It’s no surprise that businesses that are thriving on the High Street are classically those businesses that focus on uplifting vibes.

Coffee houses where people meet, barbers, hairdressers and nail bars where people can chat – and charity shops where you can buy stuff you just can’t get anywhere else and which catch your eye and leave you feeling clever for being the one who snapped the bargain – all these have at their hearts the same thing: good feelings.

What retailers like Knight and Lee need to learn is that in a world which is increasingly global we need to offer locally those things the globalist offer can’t give.

That means face-to-face contact in a real location with real people. In fact, the answer to globalism is that old word localism – though I don’t mean it in the David Cameron context of Big Society or any other thing that has the initials B.S.

Portsmouth and Southsea are actually extremely well placed to offer that approach to locals and visitors alike.

We are, after all, fiercely proud of our local identity. I’ve often been told by visitors that Portsmouth has a sense of self in a way many other English towns don’t, whose High Streets have already been cloned into mini faceless shopping streets that are now on their last legs. To counter the bland flavours and products made in China that play the numbers game, making tiny profits per transaction from clone products that sell to billions, we in Portsmouth need to go the other way. To recognize our uniqueness and make that our selling point.

So, good luck to Knight and Lee and its staff. I am sorry to see you go. Let’s take our hats off to the service you provided. But now it’s time to start taking our lives back from the globalists who are shaping our lives. Not through silly nationalist notions, because globalisation isn’t going to go away – that’s just not a possibility unless you have in mind dismantling the internet and disinventing the jet engine – but by going local and making a celebration of who we are and our uniqueness – as a counterbalance to ever-present globalism – to thus give people the choice and the rounded experience they want and need as they go down to the marketplace.

Time to build community pride and offer world class products and experiences you can’t get elsewhere. We already have so many of them in Portsmouth. The Dockyard is an extraordinary world class experience. The Solent Forts are unique. Businesses such as the Portsmouth Distillery are offering something truly special. The Victorious Festival, the way we did D-Day 75 despite all that interference from Washington in the planning – these are the things we should be looking for to show the way. There are so many others – the list is very long of big and small, local businesses offering something special, right on our doorsteps. We do great things here, and they are uniquely ours and this is what we should be focusing on.

Because, unlike on Amazon, people ain’t going to get THAT Pompey vibe anywhere else. Our local identity – that is our greatest asset.

RIP Knight and Lee.

Viva Pompey.

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Saying no – when politeness fails

When someone won’t take no politely, what do you do? Earlier this year I had a conversation with a man on other business who said that he would like to hire me as a writer. That’s fine, I do that sort of thing, write things for people and help them express themselves. I’ve worked ghostwriting books and letters, edited emails, all sorts of things.

But this older man had an obsession, as I realised. He told me that he had been badly treated and, as he put it, wrongly accused of paedophilia, and had been beaten up by a social worker when he was at his lowest. It was a pretty shocking story, if it were true. And it had all happened, he told me, in Northern Ireland in the 1950s.

He wanted it written down for the world to see. At this point I became uneasy. I understand the terrible sense of grievance that can occur in someone when they don’t express themselves – but at the same time, what did he hope to achieve? Did he really think the world was interested in what happened to him when a young man? Did he really think he was going to go around accusing people in written form in order to feed a half-century-old grudge? And more importantly, did I want to be involved in this?

I worked to put him off at the time. I warned him that he would end up in the middle of libel actions if he published a book naming names without evidence. He seemed to accept that.

Then just today he came back to me. He had tried over the last few months to contact me, and I was so busy that he was not a priority. But today, I called him back. The conversation went along these lines:

“I’m sorry I haven’t replied to you earlier, but I have been very busy. But if it is something to do with writing your biography, it’s not something I’m interested in doing, thank you.”

“Well, it’s not to do with my biography. It’s on something different. Could we meet for lunch today?”

“I’m sorry, I’m really busy, that’s just not possible. If it’s a different job, maybe we could meet in the New Year.”

“You see, I’ve read your book. Some of it is very good…” (Ah, how well he knows how to woo an author’s ego.) “And I want someone who can write me a letter.”

“I see,” I said. “Go on.”

“I want to be able to put it into good English so that I can tell some people some home truths.”

“Ah, I’m sorry. But if you want to spread ill will in a world that is already full of it, please, don’t include me in it.”

“It’s nothing litigious. I just need a letter that will tell a few home truths to the people who did me wrong.”

“Look, I understand how unexpressed anger can make you feel a deep sense of grievance, and it can eat you up, but this is not something I’m interested in being part of.”

“No, you see, the head of the Salvation Army thought it was scandalous, the way I was treated…”

And so he pushed on. My real thought was, what did he hope to gain from this? If these people he was involved with are as hard-hearted as he says, a letter will do nothing. Indeed, it would quite easily start a cycle of anger that would just make things worse for him. The thing I’ve come to realise is there is no objective truth in these sorts of matters. Just motives and misunderstandings and self-preservation and exertions of power and ego. There is no higher court of appeal. The world is a bloody mess, and it’s only when events get momentous enough or criminal enough that an attempt at objectivity occurs. And that is usually woefully inadequate.

But how to explain that to this obessive man?

I have a three strike rule, and he had now had his three strikes. So, my tone hardened.

“Look,” I said. “I’ve tried to be polite to you, but that’s clearly not worked. I don’t want to be involved in your grievances and your grudges. Do you understand? I don’t want to get mixed up in your shit!”

There was silence for a moment. Then he said. “Yes.”

“Thank you. Goodbye!”

And there it is. Sometimes being polite just won’t cut it. I don’t know what it is with older people that won’t get the message, but I seem to encounter a lot of them. Remember. If you are asked to work for someone, be aware of whether you want the job. Don’t let them browbeat you. It’s your life after all.

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Portsmouth: Be Inspired

As some of you may know, one of the things I try to do with writers is inspire them to get on and write, to support them when I can and to pass on the gift of encouragement and inspiration when I can. I was reminded earlier this week of times I have done that in the past – and I will always try to do it in the future.

One of the things that I’ve really found psychologically helpful is knowing that, actually, my home town has produced the most extraordinary writers over the years. It’s very easy, especially in a town like Portsmouth that on the surface can appear bleak and provincial to start thinking “No one from this town has really made it in writing”. To think so would be wrong, of course, but the psychological effect of such thinking is to hold you back. That’s why, sometimes you need to be reminded of the counter-examples.

It’s noted that before Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile, it was generally considered an impossibility that anyone would break that record. Afterwards, when the counter-example was given and the psychological boost had been given to runners, records tumbled in quick succession. A new threshold had been set. The paradigm for the possible had been altered.

A little while ago I was selling my books at a market stall, and someone pointed to my latest. With a sneer and a sarcastic grin they said: “To be honest, ‘Portsmouth A Literary And Pictorial Tour’, must be very small. It’s the literary part. Surely any book with ‘Literary’ and ‘Portsmouth’ in the title is going to be super thin.”

Of course, I set this person right, telling her about Conan Doyle, Dickens, H G Wells, Kipling, Jane Austen, Wodehouse, C J Sansom, Jonathan Meades, William Cowper, Olivia Manning, Jean Rhys, Neil Gaiman and numerous other major authors who had either grown up here, or had something to say about the town. It surprised her, I think. And it changed her beliefs.

I say it to you, too, as writers who sometimes may doubt their abilities or their purpose: Portsmouth has already produced four of the greatest writers of the Victorian era, produced some of the greats of the 20th Century and (I am sure) is poised to do more with the 21st. You can be part of that future history, too.

We all deserve to feel good about where we’re from, and we deserve to draw inspiration from success stories to feed us on our own journey. So I thought, in case you didn’t know about it, that I would let you know that’s part of why I wrote my book.

Portsmouth, A Literary and Pictorial Tour celebrates this island city’s rich and diverse literary heritage, but more than that, it asks you to imagine that perhaps one day, you will be in future editions.

In fact, some of you already are in this one, alongside those famous greats, some of whom I’ve named above. So, as Christmas and the New Year come along, I wish for all of you to have the success you deserve in the coming years and months.

Merry Christmas all.

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Are we entering the New Dark Ages?

Today, I compare the fall of Rome and the rise of what used to be called the Dark Ages, and what’s going on in Europe today, to see if there are parallels and if we can understand our modern age a little better by reference to this period of upheaval in our past.

First, I should outline where I see us, now. What the EU provides us, we take for granted, so much is it engrained in our modern world view. The great successes of the West in the last 70 years can be quickly listed. They are co-operation, peace and prosperity, achieved after great loss of life and crippling expense which led to enhanced cooperation through sharing resources and pooling national effort. The flowers of this cooperation are supranational organisations such as NATO, the UN and of course, the EU.

Recent revelations about interference in European and US elections and in the Brexit referendum are beginning to uncover the shadowy network of agitators and corrupt businessmen aided by Russia who see such institutions as their enemy. It is no coincidence that Trump has criticised each, alongside other voices of the far right, such as Farage, Banks, etc, who remain instinctively tribal in their world views.

How have so many in the West forgotten that these organisations, though far from perfect, have helped maintain peace? The answer in part is that the generation who fought in the last war has gone, and their children (many of my generation) conceitedly believe that war and division could not happen again. Ironically, they believe it because there has been peace thanks to the very structures they now criticise – those supranational cooperative bodies, such as the European Union. When you point this out, they don’t believe it.

As a result, over the last decade, we have seen the rise of the far right in the UK, interference in the Brexit vote, the election of Trump, the popularity of Orban in Hungary and agitators such as Geert Wilders and Beppo Grillo rise to prominence. There has even been a rise of the far right in Germany, one of the great defenders of pan-Europeanism. The danger is that such forces will fracture Western civilisation, turning it away from cooperation, and making it intolerant, inward-looking, xenophobic and protective of national interests over supranational ones. This desire for protection will make our country and those we are newly competing against rather than cooperating with, weaker. The winners will be big business and the mafiocracy in Russia.

With the death of those people who directly experienced the last great upheaval in Europe, the Second World War, history has been replaced by mythology. Instead of remembering that Britain relied on America, Russia and numerous European soldiers, agents and resistance fighters to prevail – all working together to ensure mutual survival – the post-War generation has grown up with the idea of British exceptionalism – a belief that somehow Britain doesn’t conform to and shouldn’t be constrained by international standards. In war, this little island wins against impossible odds (a false view, considering that Britain had the world’s largest Empire during this period), and it doesn’t have to follow the norms of peaceful international diplomacy. Much of this goes back to a pre-war view, when the Empire could “resolve” disputes with gunboats.

Whether this historical interpretation of Britain is realistic or not, in the modern world, the UK is not an exception. It is a country among countries of more or less equal standing.

Generation Brexit, however, is locked in the old paradigm of Empire. Many believe there was something benign about the British Empire. At the same time they accuse the EU of being an Empire, which they say is a bad thing in principle. None note any cognitive dissonance in these two views.

So we see the fracturing of the West, and the rise of new, localised power bases, some political, some business-related.

Is there a precedent in history?

Perhaps.

I have lately been drawn to study parallels in the Early Middle Ages after the collapse of Rome. This period used to be called the Dark Ages, and though it is now deeply unfashionable as a term, it is perhaps accurate to use it when we talk about parallels with the modern day.

I should add that I am not by any means defending the principle of Empire here, nor am I directly comparing the EU with the Roman Empire, except on the broadest terms, that there was a pan-European administration in place during its existence.

As the Roman Empire came under stress from marauders from the 3rd Cenury on, its finely honed administrative structures adjusted to the new reality. Central control was lost. Yet the administrators continued on. These administrators comprised a cadre of selected officials who held the Roman Empire together. The Comes Palatinus was one such type of civil servant, who looked for some form of political continuity.

In the course of the various waves of invasion by successive tribes who broke the communication lines to and power of Rome, the Comes devolved from a selected regional administrator answerable to Rome to become a type of self-governing landed gentry appointed by the local king.

Meanwhile, the federates and buccellari who worked on the land were drawn to their local Comes for security in the face of so much upheaval. The estate of the Comes became the localised centre of power. In order to enjoy the protection of the Comes, the workers ceded their rights in the name of security, working essentially as slaves tied to a local magnate. The federates were former soldiers in the Roman Imperial Army who had claimed land in retirement, and also offered military service to the Comes. Thus a new and specific power relationship arose in Europe which will be familiar to us today, since this was the start of the European aristocracy.

The French word for Comes is Comte, meaning Count. These newly-created counts now began to bequeath their estates to their children, and so the hereditary principle saw powerful aristocratic families ruling over a serfdom. All this came from the collapse of  centralised power.

For centuries the counts sat alongside the newly-arrived Gothic, Visigothic, Vandal, Frankish and other kings, who took on the original Comes to continue regional administration after they seized power. Even as late as the 11th Century, there were aristocrats in Europe who claimed descent from Roman Senators of the Sixth Century CE. Thanks to the hereditary principle, their families were ensconced in local centres of power across Europe, styling themselves as Princes, petty kings, Barons and other such titles, alongside their barbarian overlords.

In all of this grabbing of power during upheaval, the common man suffered. Feudalism was born – a strict suppression of the labouring classes and a creation of a rigid, insurmountable hierarchy designed to make the rich richer at the expense of the poor.

So, are there parallels to be drawn with what’s happening in the modern world?

Some, yes. If Europe falls into disarray, expect corporations to create new centres of influence and power. Just as the Comes class claimed areas of Europe that became their personal fiefdoms when central power was weakened, big business will pick off aspects of the State. Businesses are already interfering in democracy, hollowing it out to make it a plaything that they can direct. Expect petty local politicians no longer constrained by international treaties to create local laws to suit the needs of business rather than the people. In the UK, this will see the feeding of the NHS to big business, the privatising of other State assets, the lowering of standards of health and food-related legislation, and the reduction of workers’ rights, in the name of competitiveness.

At the same time, we are seeing the rise of the super-wealthy in politics, some of whom pretend to be on the side of the common man. Take, for example, Jacob Rees-Mogg, not a billionaire, but a multi-millionaire. He has no interest in the plight of the poor and dispossessed, but he does have an interest in being popular. His trademark appearance of a very polite comedy 1930s SS officer hides a truth we all can see. This man chimes with Generation Brexit’s desire to drag us back to a time we have nostalgised into a beautiful dream when “we” ruled the world.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Trump espouses the rights of the common man, because democracy is a numbers game and he calculates that the common man  is the most numerous. He has no interest in the poor, the weak or the dispossessed, but more in those who are aggressively jealous that their little patch of America will somehow be threatened by people less well off – which is largely a spurious fear.

In both cases, and in numerous other populist politicians, their appeal is that they protect the livelihoods and lives of “ordinary people”, a phrase that immediately creates an identifiable group to defend. Thus they gather their modern workers to their sides, who in their fear at the supposed upheaval around them (much of which has been created by the far right) can’t see that their own rights will be eroded and their lives materially impoverished by their leaders’ policies. Their future will be yet more enslavement to capitalist systems, with, for example, the lowering of food standards in the UK to a US level and the predation of US companies on the NHS. Neither of the men named above, Rees-Mogg and Trump (and there are plenty more) are representative of the interests of anyone other than the privileged, the wealthy and big business. Yet, the frightened people flock to them and their message. Each is indeed a new Comes.

Billionaires and their propagandists are also the new invaders and marauders of democracy. The representatives of big business, the super-wealthy, are the new aristocracy that will suborn the current administrative systems to their agenda. Big business has no interest in the common good or in rights, except insofar as they are lucrative. It instead seeks to create new power bases within countries, to hive off services formerly provided by governments and to reduce rights to enhance personal profit. This is why they seek to destroy supranational entities such as the EU, because larger cooperative entities are harder to control.

The great irony is that many critics of the EU talk about the supposed New World Order, when they are in fact enabling billionaires intent on wresting control from legitimate governments.

This is the world we can look forward to if we are not careful. We are in danger of entering a new Dark Age – one of Feudal Capitalism in which workers’ rights are stripped from them and business seeks to maximise profit at the expense of the most vulnerable, while central government is either suborned or powerless. It is in many ways analogous to the decline of structures across Europe in the 4th Century. This weakening and fracturing of the West is exactly what Russia wants, and this is why it has been helping to unleash the heightened passions of nationalism and xenophobia to sweep across Europe like waves of savage tribes, destabilising all in their paths.

That is the direction we are heading in, if Brexit and the rule of the far right are allowed to continue.

Can we do anything to stop it? Perhaps. To speak truth and resist wherever we can. That is a start. To do nothing is to resign ourselves to the New Dark Ages.

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Disruption, Farage, Brexit – and the Winchester Gallop

Brexit has many historical precedents, all of them bloody, writes Matt Wingett.

When royal wannabe Harold Godwinson was blown off course and shipwrecked on the coast of Northern France, that disaster was bad for him, but very good for William the Bastard, who had already set his French Norman heart on the English throne. Because, what with furniture delivery services being in their infancy, and there being no customs union, how else could William get hold of the prized English throne, if not by invasion?

William needed a pretext. Being called the Bastard, he lived up to his name by tricking Harold into swearing loyalty to him. What’s worse, he did it while Harold unwittingly had his hands on a reliquary fully of bits of saints, so he definitely had to deliver. At least that’s how the Bayeux tapestry spins it. Which meant, when some years later Harold pronounced himself King Harold after the death of Edward the Confessor, William the Bastard had a reason to invade.

The point is, William the Bastard was devious, and knew how to use disruption for his advantage. 333 years of oppression by Norman and Plantagenet aristocracy would follow in England.

When the king formerly known as William the Bastard died in 1087, (a focus group having decided “The Conqueror” was a better brand), the tradition of The Winchester Gallop began. William Rufus made a dash from Rouen to the treasury at Winchester, determined to be declared King before anyone else took the gold – and succeeded in becoming William II.

Rufus was meant to be king. Imagine how much more important that gallop was for anyone who might face a counter-claim. Thus successive Bishops at Winchester shot eyes to the ceiling at the death of another monarch and waited for the clatter of cavalry in the courtyard. Because, with possession being nine tenths of the law, whoever held the country’s money held the crown. And who was a mere bishop to gainsay the intention of 20 titled thugs in armour waving swords, after all?

When William Rufus promptly died during a hunting “accident” at which his brother Richard just happened to be present in the New Forest (at a spot known as Rufus Stone, quelle coïncidence!) it was Richard’s turn to gallop northward and grab the gold and the power.

Other gallopers included the Empress Matilda, who had been left control of the country by dead daddy Henry I, but who was beaten to the gold by interloper King Stephen. This contretemps led to The Anarchy, which deadlocked the country in civil war for nearly two decades. Something that in the current state of Brexit play, with divisions all over the the UK, seems quite possible again.

A few hundred years later, London replaced Winchester as the centre of power, and so the Winchester Gallop was no more – but the seizing of opportunities caused by disruption remained.

Just so, when one June Wednesday in 1381, an army of 50,000 peasants parked themselves outside London waiting for the king to take up their cause against cruel landowners. As if the king wasn’t the biggest, cruellest landowner of all. (That’s how Royal propaganda works.)

King Richard II, a lad of 14 years, whose army had refused to fight the massive army of peasants, went out to treat with the peasant leader, proto-socialist Wat Tyler. Wat, not being well-versed in matters of courtly behaviour spoke to the king on equal terms, for which insult, one of Richard’s knights took a slice off him. With Wat unexpectedly dead on the ground and the peasant army just a few hundred yards away, Richard did the opposite to what most sane people would have done, and spurred his horse alone toward the peasant army, shouting to them “You shall have no captain but me.”

It worked. By the time the peasants had realised they’d been had, an army had at last been mustered from London to meet them. The ringleaders were arrested and in the usual way, many of the poorest and most idealistic died horribly in the aftermath.

This fake “man of the people” soon showed his hand. “You wretches, detestable on land and sea; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues: rustics you were, rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher. For as long as you live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity. However, we will spare your lives if you remain faithful and loyal. Choose now which course you want to follow.”

So, what’s the lesson from these moments in history? For certain self-serving individuals, moments of disruption lead to opportunity. Caught up in all the noise, and either fooled by leaders to fight on their behalf, or tricked into believing them, it’s the common man who gets screwed, suffering from the ambition, egos and maniacal thirst for power of the ruthless who are quite happy to tip the country into a tail-spin for their own gain.

The rule is, when disruption occurs, psychos win.

Sound familiar? Because that’s exactly what’s going on with Brexit. The ringleaders of Brexit all personally having plenty of money, know they have nothing to lose, but thanks to the disruption that continues to swirl around Brexit, each has plenty to gain.

The language of disruption and conquest isn’t even hidden by Brexiters. Daniel Hannan, the modernday wild-eyed prophet of Brexit, proclaims Britain should be a “buccaneering” country. If ever there were a motif of redtoothed rapaciousness and theft, it is the buccaneer – a state-sponsored pirate. Mr Hannan would like to fit masts to the island of Britain, sail down to China, pound it from the shoreline and burn down the odd village or two like we did in the Opium Wars, another period of state-enabled jolly-rogering of other nations. Sure, it was post-buccaneer, but back then Britain could make up the rules without reference to anyone else, and did so at every opportunity.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is another disrupter in the same vein. The disruption he seeks is in the financial markets, and the money he will make comes from hedge funds. Disruption = massive market movements, and in the wake of all that turbulence, Moggy just needs to gallop on his field hunter to the nearest internet hotspot to check his burgeoning treasury. There are even some sycophants calling for him to be PM and willing to back it up with violence. Not quite as glitzy as the chainmail look of former thugs, but you get the gist.

This extract from Jacob Rees Mogg’s twitter feed shows how sections of the country are keen to enable his power grab.

For Boris Johnson, the prize was always coronation. The disruption and strife that he exacerbated within the Tories he also still hopes to “solve” by being crowned PM. Think the same of Gove and numerous other Brexiteer Tories, too numerous to name. Our pain is their gain.

“Bad Boy of Brexit” Arron Banks is now sounding increasingly desperate on twitter to distract attention from growing interest in his alleged Russian-funded shenanigans by attacking the latest White Paper to come out of Chequers. Little did he realise that the chutzpah displayed in calling himself the “Bad Boy of Brexit”, might soon be hubristically translated to alleged “Lawbreaker of Leave”.

Then, of course, there’s Nigel Farage, whom I imagine one day in his youth saw the letters “N.F.” sprayed on a wall next to a swastika and took that as an omen. What gains are there for him?

Of all of them, Nigel is the most obvious. After the rigged referendum result was announced, Trump was soon calling for Nige to be made ambassador to the US. Disruption. Trump lobs a twitter-bomb, scares the markets, then while everyone is in disarray, sends in the tanks.

Of course, Trump’s blitzkrieg tactic didn’t stand a chance at the time, but it was a jab, a softening-up blow that cracked the surface and allowed a seed to be planted. Soon, other calls for Farage to be knighted followed – as did his faux outrage at not being so honoured when he knew there was no chance.

This posturing has a purpose – to create a narrative of grievance that at some point Nige will want to use while orchestrating the latest outcry. That may come soon. The EU has already said it won’t divide the Four Pillars of freedom in the EU. Yet this is what May’s White Paper wants. Very soon, May could be facing all-out revolt again*, or a collapse in her shaky government.

And in all that disruption? Watch out. The Winchester Gallop is alive and well, and Mogg, Banks, Gove, Johnson, Farage et al are saddling up.


*Since writing this piece, David Davis has resigned. Watch this space.

Ah. There goes Boris, like a great sulking parody of a colonial Viceroy, but with hair instead of feathers.


Further update, August 2019. Well, Boris Johnson is now PM, him having made the Winchester Gallop before all other successors, and the jester king is now threatening to wreck the economy for his own aggrandisement. Once again, he will not loose out. But the peasants he so royally promises to destroy adore him. Funny old world, eh?

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Turmoil in the Marketplace for Ideas

There is a story that on arriving at the scene just a few minutes after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Lord Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India was met by an increasingly angry mob. One voice suddenly rose over the crowd, saying: “A Muslim shot him…” The story goes that Mountbatten, seeing the danger of a massacre by enraged Hindus shouted loudly: “You fool, it was a Hindu!”

Whether this story about Mountbatten is true or not, and whether or not a Hindu or Muslim had been responsible, the wisdom in such a reply – to quell rage and prevent scapegoating of the minority Muslim population is obvious. In fact, the murderer actually was a Hindu. But even if you put this to one side, the instinct was still sound.

As a writer, for some time I have been imagining how best one might cause a civil war in an imagined country. Suppose there were an invader seeking to destabilise the regime, but wanting to do so discreetly. What would he do? The land I imagine is low tech, pre-industrial and ruled by an increasingly distrusted Prince who has perhaps made one or two poor decisions, but who is in fact a kindly and beneficent ruler. How might agents foment revolution, I asked myself?

In a thought experiment, I imagined a marketplace, where people convene from all parts of the country to trade, meet and enjoy a two week fair. The fair-goers would include members of the ruling classes, tradesmen and merchants with connections to trade routes and fleets. It would include guildsmen, jealous of their work and their skills, guarding against impostors. There might be harlots and mountebanks and cheapjacks and performers all mingling with the general population who have come there to buy, meet others, share news, gossip and talk.

It was there that I realised that the revolution would start. In the marketplace for ideas.

It might happen thus: at one end of the market, a gossip spreads news about a well-established merchant. He uses those ships to trade in people, and whenever his ships land at ports, children always go missing. Is this a coincidence? The gossip only asks the question, but it is a question that others with no knowledge of the gossip’s agenda repeat.

In another part of the market, a rumour starts that local guildsmen were heard hatching a plan to kill another merchant because he brings in goods from the shores of Cathay that are putting local tradesmen out of work. Elsewhere a rumour goes up about the Prince, that he is using the taxes from the fair to raise an army, and will be conscripting soon. Others say that this is not true, but that he is in fact using the money to line his own pockets, or that the Prince is in the pay of foreign powers.

More rumours abound. An army was seen in the East, and those of the Eastern faith are accused as spies for that army. After all, wasn’t it invaders from the East who killed a child in the woods last year, even though no-one can quite remember the name of that child? Butchers are accused of selling infected meat and bakers of adulterating their bread with alum.

Soon, the harmony of the marketplace is disturbed by the rumours. Butchers and bakers look defensively at their rivals, tradesmen pit themselves against tradesmen, all look suspiciously at foreigners and more so at the Prince on whose watch this is all happening.

Over the next few days, factions form. Those who have been accused complain and grumble. Others of the secret invader’s agents, pretending to be on the side of the aggrieved, amplify their complaints, turning them from a mild grievance into an angry counter-accusation. The newly aggrieved on the other side respond, and soon the agents have very little to do as the factions take their grievances to each other.

For those spreading the rumours, the truth of one claim or another is irrelevant. The purpose is to spread discontent wherever possible. For those in the marketplace of ideas who have no idea of the agenda, they naturally take sides according to their preferences and predilections, their biases and loyalties, and soon, hardened factions have formed within the marketplace, where formally there was only interest in trade.

Neighbours look at neighbours on the stalls distrustingly, and guard their goods against theft. Accidental overturnings of carts, genuine accidents or planned, are immediately met with outrage and anger as proof of the ill intentions of one or other faction. The mood of the marketplace has changed so that reasonable discourse and the sorting out of problems is no longer possible. Everybody is aggrieved. Everybody is simmering and angry. The rumours become truths in the minds of those who now seek to interpret the actions of their neighbours from within the grossly distorted paradigms they have internalised.

Now the rumour goes out that groups from the East are carrying concealed weapons. They are challenged on the streets by butchers, with meat cleavers.. Though they are not carrying weapons, they soon begin to. The butchers are joined by the blacksmiths and the knife sharpeners. But these two factions already distrust each other, and arguments start between them, at the agents’ instigation.

Soon, everyone feels unsafe, and no-one trusts anything anyone says, except their own small factions. Civil society is breaking down. The Prince posts guards to ensure safety on the streets, and soon more whisperings are complaining that the Prince is both taxing and oppressing them. The guards themselves become the subject for distrust – and one night after a drunken brawl a guard is killed.

Rumours blame the people of the East, the butchers, the merchants, the traders, the guildsmen in turn. Each accuses the other and none will listen. Soon the factions are so widely separated and angry that more guards are called in as more and more discord breaks out.

And then, one man with a louder mouth who seems somehow to have the ear of the armed factions steps in. He ousts the Prince and installs himself in his place. He is a strong man He is one the crowd trust to “get things done”. Those who armed themselves are grateful for his intervention as he brings in increasingly Draconian rules to deal with foreigners and traders, and anyone who steps beyond his increasingly eccentric and tight restrictions.

Others complain that he is taking away freedoms, others that he is favouring certain groups over others, others that he is a bully.

All of these things may be true, or none may be true. The point is that while the people are thus preoccupied with their rage and accusation at each other, they do not even notice the coup that has taken place, nor fully appreciate how their lives have changed. The few who do notice and make a stand are shouted down and buried with rumours by agents. And in order to discredit those seeking to reinstate rational discourse, new rumour-spreaders join the rational side, so that there is very little rational discourse, only more and more rage, and more and more accusation.

Against those who do still persist in trying to speak their milder or more perceptive truths, it is not difficult now to raise an outraged mob. Some are intimidated into silence. Some disappear.

Meanwhile, the loudmouth who got to power continues to strengthen his hold, spreading further lies and adding to the general sense of distrust with proclamations and with increasingly sweeping powers. Those who want order at any cost rally round him, calling those who oppose his approach traitors, not seeing that what he is doing is quite the opposite of what they wanted, which was to bring them peace and liberty. And what his agenda is, nobody knows, though some suspect that the foreign power that some voices warned about in regard to the old Prince, have in fact installed this one in his place.

That is how one uses the freedom of the market to bring about its opposite. It is also, of course, an allegory of how free speech can, ironically, be democracy’s worst enemy.

 

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