Opinion

Sherlock In The Records Office? – Get Real!

Sherlock Artwork

The recent attempt to place the Richard Lancelyn Green Bequest in the demolition-threatened Public Records Office, Portsmouth is a sad indictment of the lack of vision and desperation of protesters – and the incoherent cultural strategy of Portsmouth City Council. I’m glad to say that little piece of fantasy town planning has at least been rejected.

Don’t get me wrong. I am sympathetic to attempts to stop development of the Records Office Site.

Indeed, I can imagine the outrage of the good citizens of Old Portsmouth and its environs when they were told they were going to get a block of flats built on the obviously knackered Records Office in the Portsmouth Museum’s grounds.

And rightly so. After all, with the arrival of the revolting, steroid-bulked and vomit-inducingly ugly sport complex across the road in Ravelin Park, we see yet more of the few pieces of open space and open sky in this part of the city lost forever. Soon, I am sure, Ravelin Park will be reduced to a few square metres of lawn edged with University cafes, bars and dorms infilling the open space wherever possible and closing out yet more Pompey sky with the UoP’s specialism: badly-scaled and oppressive architecture.

On that level, the thought of yet more flats going up on the old Clarence Barracks grounds is, indeed, horrible. Let’s face it, over the wall at the back of the Museum stands an estate of faceless suburban infill. Dull little houses and non-descript blocks of flats. The residents in that little slice of suburbia grafted onto one of the most historic parts of Portsmouth are right to make a fuss. “We don’t need more homes like ours! After all, when we’re indoors, we don’t have to look at the ones already here!”

And so, in desperation, they cast around for a reason to save one of the few Victorian heritage buildings left in the area. I can imagine the concerned denizens of Old Portsmouth seeking a saviour, and hoping that none other than the great sleuth himself, Sherlock Holmes might don his deerstalker and save the day. And so the idea was born:

“The council has been promising us a museum dedicated to Sherlock Holmes for nearly two decades now, let’s put it in the Records Office and kill two birds with one stone!”

It probably appeared like a sure-fire winner to put pressure on the council, especially with the addition of celebrity endorsement…

…Or maybe not. Stephen Fry has been known to get behind such attempts in the past with mixed results. He brought his influence to bear ineffectively at Hindhead – failing to save Undershaw, Conan Doyle’s old gaff, from developers who converted the site into a special needs school.

But let’s be clear, putting Conan Doyle in the Records Office was just… well… silly. Though I do have strong support for preventing yet more urban infill in the grounds of the former Clarence Barracks, you need to find a way to both stop that happening – AND keep your hands off Sherlock at the same time.

Yes, a Conan Doyle / Sherlock Holmes Museum in Portsmouth is a great idea. No, putting it in that Records Office was not. The building is knackered and will cost a fortune to underpin. But more importantly, stuffing what should be a world-class exhibition in a building so badly suited for the purpose would betray the people of Portsmouth and the Conan Doyle legacy. It would be like stuffing the Crown Jewels into Milton Village Community Association hall. – Sure, it’s a good building. But not for that.

I mean how mean and low have our sights here in Portsmouth fallen?

This brings us to the question of what Portsmouth should expect from a Conan Doyle Museum. Definitely not a few cramped rooms in the Records Office to show off the 40,000 documents and 18,000 further artefacts, that’s for sure! Where’s the sense of scale in Portmuthians? Where’s the understanding of the bloody goldmine we’re sitting on?

Sherlock Holmes remains one of the most enduring icons of the 19th and 20th Centuries. His fame now is as big as it has ever been. Conan Doyle’s characters have spawned countless films, plays, games… the list goes on. A look at PCC’s Arthur Conan Doyle Collection will show you just what the massive appeal is. Similarly, a visit to Northumberland Avenue off Trafalgar Square will show you some of the potential. Stand outside the Sherlock Holmes pub – a site that is totally manufactured and has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes – and in normal times you will see busloads of tourists swing by, take a few snaps, then go inside to buy a pint and a meal. It’s a completely invented site with no links to Holmes and Doyle and it might as well be printing its own money.

The main failing in Portsmouth’s view of the potential a Conan Doyle Museum presents is embodied by the idea that the Records Office will be good enough for a world-class exhibition. It won’t. The Sherlock Holmes Museum, when it comes, needs to be a conference centre, a place where theatrical performances and arts groups can be supported, and it needs to be in an area where the massive crowds of fans, scholars, sightseers, conference-goers and more besides can relax and enjoy their visit.

Sadly, one of the great potential venues for such a site appears to have been lost. Southsea Debenhams is set to be converted to yet more residential property, although there has recently been some talk about using part of that space by using one floor. But, really, is one floor enough for a world class draw? Think about how good it could be were it a really large scale venue providing far more than an exhibition. Stepping out from the Museum, tourists would be surrounded by shops and cafes. It was in many ways perfect… but neither the money nor the will to do it has yet been found.

So, my own view, is – yes, by all means save the Records Office. Woohoo! We don’t want to lose more Victoriana in Portsmouth.

But don’t insult Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes with such a stupid idea as putting them in that tiny, unworkable space.

Portsmouth deserves better.

How Brexit Made Me A Bigot

Bugger Brexit

My partner Jackie pointed out to me yesterday that I’m a bigot. That is, that I judge people from a few simple criteria and will avoid their company because of it. I realised that she’s right, and I’ve changed. I would never have done this before Brexit.

For me, Brexit was a terrible revelation. Up to the referendum vote, I had a “live and let live” attitude. Other people might have different values to me, but we all rubbed along following our own goals and agendas, living lives we were pretty much happy with alongside like-minded friends, and despite those we disagreed with.

I was respectful and kind to those I thought could have made better choices in life. I had no idea how they might change, and no idea how to make that happen even if I wanted them to change. After all, how could I reason with them when many of their decisions were shaped by their world experience and the weight of the media. One man can’t go up against that. I supposed these people I considered poorly educated and ignorant didn’t really affect me. So, fine. Live and let live. I was optimistic that people generally were reasonable and kind, and we had enough of a shared view of the world to say we were from the same country and we could all just get by, living our own lives and pursuing our own dreams.

And then came the vote for Brexit.

Suddenly the things I really cherished and valued were being taken away from me.

The truth is, I love otherness. I love the “exotic”, the strange and unusual. I love the foreign, because it tells me about a whole new form of life, a lived experience I have never had. I have so many happy memories of new things and new cultures.

Like, for example, travelling through Germany and trying out my rudimentary German by haggling in the Schwarzwald, and making bad jokes in German in a sauna in Bremen (much to the other users’ disapproval). I’ve argued the bill in a cafe in Alsace and I’ve joined in German folk dances in a mediaeval castle taking direction through sign and speech. I’ve stood and looked out at the countryside from a model of the world’s largest toilet and I’ve seen the world’s craziest cuckoo clock, and also heard the deep lowing of the world’s most gigantic wooden cuckoo. Basically, in Germany I’ve enjoyed the country’s freedom and general eccentric weirdness.

In France, I’ve walked on glaciers and discussed history and politics with young people. I’ve been to a massive Buddhist monastery in Burgundy and laughed with waiters and customers in the French language in Brittany. I’ve discussed art with a French artist and walked through the Tuilleries with a friend whom I later discovered to be a high class prostitute, having a crisis because she had discovered she was carrying a client’s baby. I’ve discussed politics in a French market and I’ve been to Alsacean cultural events where sentences started in French and ended in German.

In Spain, I’ve sailed through fog from port to port and seen the rock of Gibraltar appear far too close to our yacht out of thick fog, I’ve explored the Sierra Nevada, speaking broken Spanish and staying at pensions high in the mountains and looked out across desert landscapes and plasticultura. I’ve cried at the beauty of a flamenco dancer in a Spanish bar, and met strangers who became friends while wandering alone the streets of Barcelona.

In Luxembourg I’ve been to an extraordinary festival of young classical musicians and heard Luembourgish on the radio. In Switzerland I’ve been giddy at the sight of the massive perspective of the Alps and had heart arrhythmia on a mountain overlooking the Matterhorn (suffering from a very slight touch of mountain sickness). At one point in my life, I learned how to read Arabic script (badly), and Greek (now forgotten) and Russian Cyrillic (scratching the surface) – just enough to remind me how different every part of the world is, and how that is a joy to experience. Europe, especially, has been like a massive wellspring of learning and joy for me. I would say Europe is my identity, although of course I was born in Portsmouth.

I’ve asked taxi-drivers to teach me Czech while driving from the airport, then ordered beers and bought tickets with the faltering Czech I learned that day. I’ve talked with bakers in their shop in Prague to discuss the merits of different sweet cakes. I’ve loved it all, tbh.

Europe is an adventure.

My outward-looking curiosity and joy at “the other” – at what is not me, and outside my normal experience has driven me forward. It is who I am.

And now, although it is true that with the right paperwork I will be able to travel through my beloved Europe again, it will be with the knowledge that I can not just up sticks and stay wherever I want on a whim as I could have done in the past. I can’t just walk into a bar and get a job without the prospect of horrendous paperwork and visas, and with no guarantee that I will be allowed to stay. That hurts who I am. It limits my freedom in a way I never imagined anyone would wish to do.

These days, I don’t regard England as one country. It is two. One country has Brexiteers running it. Though there are some who may generally believe in the outward-looking “global Britain” those in power sold to them, most of the Brexiteers I have encountered have a different motive. Fear. Fear of the other. Fear of change. Fear of “foreigners coming over here” and in some indefinable way, making life worse, when really they just mean different, and richer and more interesting.

On the other side is the England of the Europhiles – most of the ones I’ve met being interested by the world outside English dominance and English language, fascinated by the world and at home in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Riga or Athens.

And so, I am no longer the naive, optimistic traveller I once was. After the deep psychological shock of realising that ignorant people can change my life and limit my choices, I carry a genuine sense of grief inside me all the time. A deep sense of injustice and stinging pain at having the freedoms I once enjoyed taken away from me for reasons I have tried and tried to understand, but that make no sense to me. Why don’t they make sense? Because the priorities of those people are directly opposed to mine, and because of this starting point, their reasoning is something I find utterly wrong and hence unintelligible. I simply cannot understand my fellow English who are Brexiteers. I experience with them a more profound lack of comprehension than I have encountered meeting countless Europeans around Europe.

I suppose Jackie is right. I have become what I always disliked. Nowadays I make my judgement about Brexiteers before I meet them. How strange and sad it is to think how badly Brexit has changed both me and Britain. Whereas before I was open and accepting of my fellow Englishman, now I am suspicious. I have become, I suppose, one of the very bigots I despised in this now hopelessly divided nation.

On hearing Beethoven’s 9th on Brexit Day

Brexit image

Sitting in my car today, on the 1st day of 2021, when Britain has departed from the rest of the European Union, I switched on the radio to hear the steady build-up of the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – the “Chorale”, and I was suddenly thrown back on myself and the awful struggle that has been part of my life over the last 4 years as I hoped with a passion that Britain would not be so foolish as to REALLY leave the EU.

Hearing the tune that is used at the EU anthem on the day the connection was cut hit me like a hammer blow – the pain I felt, the sadness and the longing that mingled together.

Behind all my rage about Brexit is a simple truth: deep grief about the loss of that part of my identity bigger and better than pure Britishness. It is a psychological diminishment I may never recover from. The EU added richness to my Britishness, it did not limit it.

I mean this in the same way that I am English and Celtic. The Celtic part of my identity embedded me in a rich non-Anglo-Saxon tradition. My European Union citizenship did exactly the same.

It’s interesting to me, and saddening, that while many Brexiteers vaunted identity and a pure British identity as the desired object of their politics, it is exactly the opposite of that purity – the richness of mixing it up – that gave my life a sense of joy.

What I find fascinating is the feeling comes form the tangible. I had often mocked Brexiters for becoming so passionate about the colour of their travel document, but now that I see the legal support and underpinning, the treaties and the international understandings a passport represents removed from me, I can at least understand something of their passion, even if the thing in itself that I miss is the direct opposite of what they wanted.

Let’s be clear, the future that I imagined and loved was a European one, just as they imagine a British one.

I don’t know how that rift will be mended within a UK that essentially is two nations now: one that looks to its homeland in Europe, with all the enlightened attitudes and politics that entails, and its opposite – an aggressive nationalism. Do I feel I have more in common with friends in France, Germany or the Netherlands than I do with my next door neighbour? Yes, absolutely. I was quite happy to accept them on terms of equality under the stars of the EU flag, rather than regard them as strangers under two flags. We were, somehow, sharing an endeavour of building a unique civilization that was broad, big and most of all optimistic.

I have no idea how to stop this pain. The thing Brexit has taught me, is after this sense of loss and pain, I am now a European more than I ever was when I was in the EU. The parting and pain makes the identity more meaningful. This will never go away. So, we are two nations in the UK. I will never love my country in the way I once did, because that country has told me I cannot be who I am at my heart.

I distrust narrow nationalism with a passion that comes from hating the nationalism of The Third Reich or of The British Empire. Neither were about equality, and this is what I find so troubling about the direction Britain is now headed in.

But that is enough. For now, I’ve had my say.

For New Year 2021 Give Me A New Type of Story

As we enter 2021 together, I do so personally with a deep sense of foreboding.

Degradation of the planet and use of resources, mineral, vegetable and animal is accelerating, sea levels are rising and more and more people are being displaced. In response, nations who could help to solve these problems have instead of reaching out retreated into nationalism and racism to preserve what they fear others will steal from them.

Those baser instincts are being repeated across the world, now. As countries seek to hold on to the resources they have, be they fish, or land, or oil or whatever, co-operation is undermined and the game of King of the Hill continues apace among people and nations alike.

It has to stop. The dangers facing the world, be they the pandemic, climate change, deforestation, slavery, plastics poisoning, carbon emissions, pollution, overproduction are all based on an economic and political model that simply cannot hold any more. And that reality, once again, that pressure for change, has people afraid of others.

Leaders like Trump and Johnson – and there will be more like them – plug into the cognitive dissonance of those who refuse to accept the real causes of their situation and turn to conspiracy narratives and simplistic solutions for comfort.

So, do I stand at the start of 2021 with the normal sense of hope I feel at New Year? No. I can’t pretend I do. Even that energy has been sucked out of me by – not by the pandemic alone – not by one thing or another – but by a sense of tiredness that people seek to solve difficult problems with simple answers, with narratives that cast others as “evil” and themselves as “good” – and that the storytelling instinct applied in this way makes no sense and is destroying the world.

We need new ways to tell stories.

Ways that will pull together people from across the world in shared endeavour, events that will cause people to lower the drawbridge and help people connect.

In 2019 I was involved in just such a project – the transmedia storytelling event that was Cursed City: Dark Tide, which grew out of my novel The Snow Witch, and which generated a brand new narrative created by numerous writers, based on the characters from the original story.

Fumbling our ways through learning how to make narrative in entirely new ways, with stories fractured across numerous media, from street art to facebook to art exhibitions to a Tarot-reading night to musical performance was deeply liberating. After three weeks, it culminated in this magical night of music, that I give you a snippet from here:

After three weeks of storytelling and teasing our audience, we came to the final magical gig…

No longer was I just a writer working alone in my room to wind out a story, but was part of a massive group of artists and writers who made storytelling something I never knew it could be – far more interesting and diverse than I ever imagined.

It was our first attempt at storytelling in this way, and so of course we made mistakes. But it was also a joyous event and it showed us ways to draw people together in ways we had never fully anticipated.

This, then, is what I wish for 2021. For new ways to deliver stories, to weave stories in a more complex manner than before and to engage a general public in solving problems and learning more about themselves and others. It is a small thing, really, but it is the expression of a different type of consciousness from the one that has reigned for the last decade, and especially the last year.

 Jo Oliver's Snow Globe of The Snow Witch.jpg
Jo Oliver’s Snow Globe of The Snow Witch

2021, then, you may be a monster ahead, but we will go round you and through you, and you will become our friend. We need to train you, and contain you and show you, in the end, that love is stronger than hate, that curiosity and interest will burn through fear and that difference between people is constructed from lies and fear.

2021, let’s remake you in our image with art, hope and kindness. Let’s bedeck your pelt with stars and feed you with love and tickle you with joy so that you become tamed, and trained and you learn that we are all on this planet together and have to find a way to live and love side by side with the hate and anger gone.

Quite a task ahead, then.

A Round-Up of Netflix’s Christmas Movies, 2020

Every year, Jackie and I watch cheesy Christmas movies on Netflix. Many of them are medium ranking attempts at feelgood movies, some of which succeed and others of which fail. Some are actually great movies. And others are just the pits, with actors delivering lines from a wooden script, and looking like they would rather be anywhere else, or, are actually clueless as to how to make a scene come to life.

So, some of our faves:

Klaus. This is is absolutely brilliant. A great piece of animation, funny, wry, unexpected and stylish. A brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed alternative origin story for Santa Claus, its central message is exactly right for Christmas Enjoy.

Christmas with the Coopers. A surprisingly good cast, with John Goodman and Amanda Seyfried, Alan Arkin, Diane Keaton and Olivia Wilde is a classic “dysfunctional family gets together at Christmas” comedy. Slightly hit-and-miss, it has a good heart and some real wit to it, bolstered by strong performances.

The Christmas Chronicles and The Christmas Chronicles 2 is lifted by a fun performance by sexy Santa Kurt Russell, alongside Goldie Hawn playing an equally sexy older matriarch. While the first is a screwball comedy in parts, the second goes for full fantasy adventure, and both are endearing thanks largely to the heart displayed by Russell. Fun.

Holidate has a surprisingly tight and witty script which lifts it above the ersatz, while not quite escaping the well-worn made-for-tv holiday romance genre. It scores with its comedy moments more often than not, and that’s largely due to the performance of Emma Roberts, who is really likeable as the goofy girl who just can’t get a relationship to work.

Home for Christmas is a series rather than a movie, Norwegian with subtitles. There is genuine plot tension in this series (now running to two Christmas seasons) and one can’t help feeling a lot of empathy for the hapless but kindhearted nurse Johanne who is at the centre of a tangled web of relationship.

The Grinch is the latest CGI version of the The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. As often happens with modern remakes, for some reason it is a little melancholy, focussing on the psychology of why the Grinch became so grinchy – but the high production values and funny script really help it out.
I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, but these stuck with me.

Now, for the middle rankers:

Not on Netflix, but Disneyplus is Christopher Robin. Not directly a Christmas movie, but certainly a holiday season type of a show. Unfortunately, this one struggles with a layer of melancholy that slows it down and brings down the holiday mood. Personally, I find Ewan MacGregor to be wooden in every role I’ve seen him play, and this is no exception, but the real issue is the rather downbeat Pooh bear, who is too introspective and sad to be likeable. It feels as if the scriptwriters were embarrassed that they had written a show with talking toys in, so took a long time making the drives “real” by doing a load of digging in childhood trauma. Tbh, it’s a show with talking toys in it. They should have got over themselves with that realisation.

Jingle Jangle. This is a near miss for me. Visually it’s stunning, using a kind of Steampunk aesthetic to present an alternative Victorian England fantasy in which the main roles are all taken by black actors, which is refreshing and not often seen in “traditional” Christmas movies.

The show is lavish, beautiful and with some great dance routines and singing. There is the right balance of adventure and some sterling performances from Madalen Mills and Lisa Davina Phillip – the latter being a revelation. She is funny, her comic timing superb and her singing and movement generally just fantastic. She really lets go in her character as Ms Johnston the postwoman, and the result is joyous indeed. I hope to see her again. Less impressive was the mumbling inwardness of Forest Whitaker, and the ineptitude of Kieron L Dyer as Edison. For this reason, this otherwise great show comes down to the middle tier.

The Christmas Prince series is now on its third outing. It’s cheap film, cheesy and utterly nonsensical. Yet the whole idea of a stuffy royal in an imaginary Germanic-looking European country called Belgravia where everyone speaks the Queen’s English falling for an unsophisticated US journalist has enough comedy moments (both intentional and unintentional) to make the series worth watching.

The Princess Switch series is a similarly fantastical slice of cheese in which the doppelganger of a European royal (both played by Vanessa Hudgens) surfaces from the USA, with all the comedy of manners and etiquette that entails. The utter tastelessness of what the director thinks an American audience will think is classy adds an extra layer of unintended comedy, and one can just relish the cheapness of it, alongside its good heart.

Christmas stinkers:

The Knight before Christmas looks like it should have it all. Comedy and magic as a mediaeval English knight magically appears in modern New York. But Josh Whitehouse (also seen in Poldark) stumbles through the script and his clear sense of embarrassment at playing such an awful role is clear in the lack of life he brings to each scene. This one also stars Vanessa Hudgens, and while she is endearing, the whole offer of the Princess Switch series is a better vehicle for her.

Christmasland. I don’t know where to begin with this dreary, suffocating tale which actually does have it all: irredeemable writing, unforgivable acting and terrible, soulless direction. The ideas and concepts in this story of a woman falling in love again with the Christmas village she has inherited from her grandmother are half formed, the acting dreary and the lack of plot tension frustrating. If you like staring wallpaper for 90 minutes, this is the film for you.

Christmas Break-In – actually I’m in no position to review this, since I managed the first 4 minutes and then couldn’t carry on. But, that’s sort of a review, right?

I’m sure there are others we’ve watched that I’ve missed… but… enjoy!

Race – this stupid, outdated idea needs to be retired

Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash

I guess I’m lucky.

I grew up in a household which didn’t put race on the agenda in the way I’ve now realised many others did when I was growing up in the 70s.

Yes, my dad repeated “jokes” he’d learned as a wartime kid, and, yes, I repeated others that bobbed my way like crap down the cultural sewer pipe, little stinking pellets of unthinking stupidity and careless cruelty.

I hang my head and see it now as the squawking of a parrot mimicking sounds from its environment. We were deeply ignorant and didn’t have the knowledge, perspective or conceptual tools to look deeper into what those supposed jokes said about English culture’s view of non-white people. My youth was stupid, un-self-aware, but not deliberately cruel.

There was plenty of encouragement to get nasty. The obnoxious stereotypes of On The Buses, even the clumsy comedy of Love Thy Neighbour which portrayed a racist white neighbour living next to an intelligent, kind black couple, casual jokes in the playground and simplistic mud hut representations of other cultures and all the other indications that Britain had not learned to deal with race issues was part of my childhood’s psychic background. I took race for granted, I suppose.

Growing up on a housing estate in Hampshire in the 70s, I rarely saw black people. Dad had been a naval officer and in a naive way asked anyone of colour where they were from. I thought this was normal, and continued doing so into the 1990s, until I at last thought about the implication that it was telling them that this was not their home. I cringe at the thought of it.

And yet, on another level, we had a girl at school, Yolande, with dark skin and beautiful long, straight black hair. I really liked her because she was basically a nice person – kind, calm, friendly, considerate. Her parents were from somewhere foreign – somewhere exotic – but I never asked her where she was from, because her house backed on to the school playground. So that’s where she was from. She was just another friend at school and I didn’t really think of her as different, or one of the black people that the jokes were told about.

I first encountered active, aggressive racism when I heard another girl schoolfriend shout Sambo at her. I was about 8 years old and I found the incident baffling. We had a book called Sambo at school, but it was about this smart African kid who outmanoeuvred a tiger by turning it into butter. It was a fantasy with a positive hero, and it just didn’t map onto the real world, or on to Yolande. None of it made any sense to me, yet my friend was angry and shouted that word and many others at her, telling her to go back home. Which was odd, because she was in her back garden at the time.

I was disturbed by this first real encounter with actual race hatred. I’m sure I had absorbed racist views from society, in the same way I did sexist ones, but I didn’t know yet that I was a naïve racist who just went along with many of the norms in the culture at the time.

I had no idea what the cultural attitudes I grew up with meant to others because I only thought about myself and my attitudes. Thinking about the lived experience of the people around me who were different from me came much later. It started with the study of English Literature, where I learned to think through other people’s experiences, and that learning is still going on now as I cringe at some of the things I’ve said in the past, usually not maliciously or deliberately, but out of yet more white, male ignorance.

Every day as I grow older, race seems to come up as a discussion point, and I admit that same sense of bafflement I had as a child continues. Because the more I think about the word race, the more I realise I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.

Just recently I received another perspective on this word race from an unexpected source.

I have been been reading The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russell Wallace as part of research I’ve been doing.

Wallace was the man who came up with the Theory of Evolution at the same time as Darwin. Wallace even minted the phrase survival of the fittest. He was an extraordinary man, spending 8 years in what is now called Indonesia, living on numerous islands among the natives, collecting tens of thousands of specimens for the Royal Society, making observations of the natives while he shot, captured, catalogued skinned and pinned birds, butterflies, weevils, animals – basically anything non-human that lived.

His interest lay in the diversity of species across Indonesia. His theory was that the animal productions of the massive 1700-island archipelago were divided into two distinct and separate groups depending on which of two continental plates the islands were found on. Hence, in the eastern side of the archipelago tree-climbing kangaroos and birds of paradise related to Australian species are found. In the west, we see tigers and babirusa pigs related to species from the Indian subcontinent.

Sometimes the islands might be 15 miles apart, yet their evolutionary spheres are completely separate.

The creatures he wrote about have adapted to their surroundings and specialised into particular species. They thus have particular qualities. The tree kangaroo in New Guinea climbs trees to escape predators, and has adapted to do so more recently, which is why they aren’t very good at it. A species of oriole bird on The Moluccas mimics the colouring of the honeysucker bird, since the latter has strong claws and beak to deter predators, or an insect may look exactly like a leaf to camouflage itself.

And so Wallace categorises each animal, looking at its strengths and weaknesses, seeking to discover why they have evolved to a particular form. Sometimes he refers to the family of parrots as the “parrot tribe”, an odd use of the word which hints at the process of division and categorisation going on in Wallace’s mind in other areas, too.

Toward the end of the book, things take a new turn.

Just as has already done with the birds, insects and animals, he now starts to classify the races of people living in Indonesia and their (what he considers to be) inherent qualities. As he does so, the colonial European attitude is laid bare.

I should be clear. Wallace is not an out-and-out racist or unquestioning imperialist. His book is fascinating in part because he uses his studies of the nature of beetles or the modifications of butterflies and the treatment of the native tribes to reflect on the way society does or doesn’t work, advocating for regulation of the free market – at times even taking a near-socialist stance.

At other times he speaks of the Dutch imperial system in glowing terms as a kind of benign paternalistic institution good for all members of society, in contrast to the British free market philosophy which he argues inevitably leads to lower wages and poverty. It is a very particular view that misses the exploitation and brutality in the Dutch system. He seems to mistake native resignation to oppression for satisfaction.

Wallace talks about savages and primitive societies all the way through his book. Just as he does with the other animal productions of the archipelago, he discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different natives. The highest form are the Malays, he contends, while the lowest form are the Papuan savages.

One line in the book, viewed in the light of what happened in Europe with Hitler’s equally unscientific racial theories made my blood run cold:

We most of us believe that we, the higher races have progressed and are progressing. If so, there must be some state of perfection, some ultimate goal, which we may never reach, but to which all true progress must bring nearer.

Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, Vol II, 1869

Here, Russell Wallace kicks over his scientific background and falls straight back into superstition. Variation thus far has only been presented as an adaptation to environment. Now, however, there is a goal, an endpoint toward which evolution is aimed. This implies intention and direction, which is very different from the unconscious mechanisms of adaptation he has been writing about before.

Suddenly, we are no longer looking at people as well or ill-adapted to their environments. He has added metaphysics to the discussion.

Thus, the Malay people have a superior moral sense, which Wallace argues is part of their race. Evolution then, is not only a physical adaptation to the environment. The same process of evolution leads to moral improvement, and the state of a nation’s morals is another indication of the stage of evolution of the race formed from it.

Wallace elucidates further: some of the groups of savages he has encountered are immoral and lazy as a racial trait, while another race of savage is energetic, and though ill-disciplined shows great promise in having a moral sense.

This racial theory of morality has deep problems. Not least the lack of any scientific evidence for it.

His idea of a racial teleology is an adaptation of an old idea. Throughout the millennia, prophets have promised us perfection. In the bible, we are offered a New Jerusalem, a perfected world and society in which, in Christian terms, the virtuous dead are resurrected and literally build a perfected heaven on Earth once those who don’t fit in are removed from that perfect society.

Here that same old idea surfaces, now recouched by Wallace in terms of human evolution – an evolution that includes morality.

How can that be? In reality, moral traits that in one situation are considered anti-social or dangerous are in other situations exactly what society demands.

Recently a man was attending a conference in Fishmongers’ Hall, London, when he realised that a terrorist in a suicide vest was killing people outside. Seeking a weapon, he snatched the horn of a narwhal from the wall and tackled the killer.

The man, Steven Gallant, said he simply acted on impulse without thinking. He was proclaimed a hero. His story, however, is more complex than that. Gallant was on day release to attend a prisoner rehabilitation course. He had been imprisoned for his part in the premeditated murder of a violent offender who had himself been acquitted of the attempted murder of a prostitute. The man that Gallant helped beat to death had been so severely mutilated that the ambulance crew were unable to find his mouth.

Where is this evolutionary morality Wallace claims exists? The very same traits of willingness to use sudden extreme violence without considering the consequences were present in both cases. One is interpreted as immoral, the other as moral. In fact, in the former case Gallant might argue that he was acting under moral compunction to set right the scales of justice. In the latter, he acted on impulse. His own view of matters might well be the reverse of how others judge it.

If one wants an example that answers European stereotypes of the savage rather than with the higher race Russell Wallace suggests is a European trait, we need to look a little closer to home than the Malay Archipelago.

Wallace goes on to elucidate his view, and we realise that he believes the perfectly moral citizen will be in accord with a perfectly moral society:

What is this ideally perfect social state towards which mankind ever has been, and still is tending? Our best thinkers maintain, that it is a state of individual freedom and self-government, rendered possible by the equal development and just balance of the intellectual, moral, and physical parts of our nature,—a state in which we shall each be so perfectly fitted for a social existence, by knowing what is right, and at the same time feeling an irresistible impulse to do what we know to be right, that all laws and all punishments shall be unnecessary. In such a state every man would have a sufficiently well-balanced intellectual organization, to understand the moral law in all its details, and would require no other motive but the free impulses of his own nature to obey that law.

It is both absurd and simultaneously seductive to a European. In Wallace’s view, evolution will take us to societal perfection, and Europeans are nearer to it than savages. Europeans have a heightened moral sense, they are superior, better, higher – while the rest of humanity is either being driven by evolution to become like Europeans, or is savage.

We have in Russell Wallace an early view that, taken on one interpretation, could lead to a theory of eugenics and fascism, and on another to an idealised Utopian socialist state. Both require a single standard which everyone must meet – not necessarily so with socialism, but that is how it has been interpreted by the great monocultures of the 20th Century that called themselves socialist or communist.

And then, just when we think he is irredeemable for his strange blindness to the failings of the higher race of Europeans that at the time were oppressing huge tracts of the globe, the paragraph below follows on from that above:

Now it is very remarkable, that among people in a very low stage of civilization, we find some approach to such a perfect social state. I have lived with communities of savages in South America and in the East, who have no laws or law courts but the public opinion of the village freely expressed. Each man scrupulously respects the rights of his fellow, and any infraction of those rights rarely or never takes place. In such a community, all are nearly equal. There are none of those wide distinctions, of education and ignorance, wealth and poverty, master and servant, which are the product of our civilization; there is none of that wide-spread division of labour, which, while it increases wealth, produces also conflicting interests; there is not that severe competition and struggle for existence, or for wealth, which the dense population of civilized countries inevitably creates. All incitements to great crimes are thus wanting, and petty ones are repressed, partly by the influence of public opinion, but chiefly by that natural sense of justice and of his neighbour’s right, which seems to be, in some degree, inherent in every race of man.

Is it it possible that once more we are seeing what appears to be an adapted religious idea shaping Russell Wallace’s world view? The description of an idealised humanity in its most atavistic form has an echo in Christianity after all. If primitive humanity has an innate goodness about it, then it is similar to the innocence Adam had before The Fall.

If this is colouring his thinking, it is yet more illogic and superstition. It is romanticising noble savages as much as his racial theories malign them.

Well, you may ask, what has all this to do with race?

The point is a simple one, in the end. The imprecision of thinking, and the use of taxonomic analogies from the study of nature was overlaid by men like Russell Wallace onto a consideration of the different cultural, intellectual, psychological, moral and biological variations to be found in humans and used to hierachise those variations in terms that were hugely tainted by prejudices and a sense of superiority. The term race itself, then, is tainted by ideas of racism from its earliest uses. Race is a term when it is applied to humans that very roughly equates to species, or sub-species – and from very early on it has been a way for Europeans to distinguish themselves as somehow superior. All of this is inherent to the Russell Wallace’s use of the word. And Alfred Russell Wallace was by no means a far right bigot when compared to other Victorian gentlemen.

The word race, springs from a muddled set of European values designed to evaluate, belittle and censure those who are not like us. This process of judgement is absolutely central to the term, and I don’t know how you can talk about race without those unconscious judgments being present.

That, I believe, is why we need a new word when we talk about the biological diversity that is humanity. The word we use now is crass, outdated, and just not up to the job.

Birds of Prey is at the front line of the culture war, and it’s a crying shame.

The culture war is here again, just as it always is when a female-centred movie appears on the scene.

From some predictable quarters, criticism of the movie has been damning, with a kind of self-satisfied “told you so” coming out of the more insecure, scared and genuinely obnoxious parts of the anti-woman breeding pits of the internet, where some of its least sanitary keyboardistas moulder in their own (unsurprising) celibacy.

Some hostile reviews have basically ballached that movies that don’t include men in their rightful places as kings of a universe in which scantily-clad females prepare themselves for mating in a lardaceous teenager’s fantasy harem are somehow a Marxist attack on Western culture. A quick check of their posting times shows a whole raft of this type of negative review came out before or just as the film was released. No gender agenda here, then.

I do have to wonder what goes on in the minds of fellow males so bereft of self-knowledge and with such fragile egos that they can’t accept a movie in which women are the main drivers of the action.

A search down the twitter feed of many critics, and of their blogs, reveals that (surprise, surprise) many of these same voices attacked previous female-centred movies with exactly the same arguments. It is instructive to see how many now critiquing Birds of Prey by saying it doesn’t have the integrity of Captain Marvel (whom some now hold up as a kind of ideal female-led movie), were in fact dissing the very same Captain Marvel at exactly this period in its release and had predicted failure because the lead was a woman. It’s almost like you’d think they wanted female-led movies to fail or something? Shurrrrly not?!?!

(For those who can’t read this:
“She doesn’t change, grow, or develop… She’s still the same destructive, immature, selfish arsehole she was at the beginning…” – – yep, sounds like a feminist all right.
The replies are equally as insightful.)

Some more philosophical critics attempt to draw a deeper moral lesson with the slogan “get woke, go broke” from any movies that don’t chime with their limited world view. (Remember, that’s a world view in which women submit to their every whim while looking like porn pros with spray-on clothes about to do a spring break shoot.)

No Kyle, the bat is to beat people with, not beat off to.

The moral such critics want to extrapolate is that “woke” movies won’t make money because that is not what the public want. Similar critics also described Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel as “woke” but then had to change their minds after their success. Which means, obviously, only a weak box office is an indicator of “wokeness”, not the other way round. Such inverted logic is like saying “trees being uprooted causes hurricanes.” Viewed like that, it’s quite amazing how accurate prediction of past events can be.

It’s true BoP has underperformed* – but it’s got nothing to do with the “wokeness” or otherwise of the movie. It is to do with not getting the marketing, messaging and even title of the movie right, rather than people the world over suddenly hating powerful women-led films that don’t revolve around men, as incels would have us believe. Manboys are just wonderfully sensitive to having their world view questioned, it seems, and basically get very bitchy and whiny when presented with something that does exactly that.

Anyway, with the incels dismissed, we then have supposedly pro-BoP lunacy.

BoP-heads are so enamoured of the movie, so the narrative goes, they are attacking its next rival, Sonic the Hedgehog with complaints of blasphemy and swearing (as if the R-rated BoP doesn’t salt itself with “fuck” all the way through) and advising families to ditch the digital woodpig for the blonde psycho with a mallet (as if that’s going to happen).

And this is where the twitterverse gets weirder. Because Sonic the Hedgehog is not actually out on full theatrical release in the US until 14th February, which means there’s been a whole week of people tweeting how they stormed out of it to watch Birds of Prey… and you figure that one out.

It’s enough to make you paranoid. Are we in the midst of social media psy-ops in which the spreading of contradictory information is designed to destabilise an entire generation of feminists and comic book nerds? Is some nefarious criminal hoping that the lack of narrative will thus become its own narrative of chaos that will bring down the West? Mwahahahaha!

It’s like a comic book.

A closer look at some of these hardcore BoP-stan profiles reveals a definite lack of right-on politics, or that they are such extreme SJWs they must be parody accounts pretending to be “woke” in order to troll… Maybe… And if not, they should be. I mean they are right out there on the fringes of the known universe, with their incel counterparts.

And so, what’s actually going on? Chaos reigns is one answer – which would suit Harley Quinn down to the ground. As to who is posting what, really? Who knows… Because by this point there is no grown-up debate to be had about what went wrong. The twitterverse is having a fit. Birds of Prey has become the kickaround for anyone in the culture war with an axe to grind, and this point right here is where it all descends into madness about who the fuck is tweeting about what and why…

Enough!

My advice to anyone seeing all this twitter crap is, unsee it, now.

Because it’s a crying shame. The movie is not anti-men, or about to collapse the world order in some cataclysmic femocalypse as some would have you believe. (I’m not sure a movie can do that anyway. It’s just a movie.) Nope. Birds of Prey is massive fun from explosive beginning to nutcracking end.

So, if you’re looking for a fun night out and you aren’t in that disproportionately vociferous minority of guys terrified of the women who don’t prostrate themselves before their throbbing maleness, give Birds of Prey a whirl. And if you’re a woman undecided – well, really – what’s to lose? The set design is brilliant, the cinematography pops with vibrant colours and the comedy really works.

That, for me, was the big surprise. It’s a comedy – a violent, raucous comedy about people standing up for themselves after being abused and bullied. That’s a universal message, and just because it happens to be women doing it this time round doesn’t mean it’s the end of the universe, or that us guys’ dicks will fall off when we step into the cinema or there won’t be movies with men as main characters ever again. Honestly, the fragile nature of psychologically-stunted boys who demand the world must be a kind of fantasy porn game in which they are treated with the same respect as the engorged member of Conan the Barbarian, is sad to behold.

Birds of Prey is a violent, joyous funny, movie with shades of the old 1960s camp Batman movie about it. What’s not to like?

Get out there and enjoy it.

*********

*Since writing this piece, I have reviewed the figures for Birds of Prey. As they stand at the end of the second weekend, it looks like word is spreading about what a good film it is.

US take now stands at $61.673m+, while the international take is currently $83.6m, making a global Box Office of $145m+.

These figures mean the whole “flop” narrative is going to have to be challenged. It’s an R-rated movie with a groundbreaking ensemble and none of the “big” characters such as Joker and Wonder Woman, or huge CGI budgets that led to wins for Aquaman and Black Panther.

This is a respectable take as we start Week 2. So, even the assertion that it has failed is wrong. I bought into that, like most others did.

The power of social media, eh?

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.

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?

Snow encounters

Sometimes when the cold grips the town it grips my heart, too, and I feel the need to get out in the snow and walk.

Just so in winter’s late flowering yesterday, when I headed out in a flurry of flakes and trod over the iced streets down to the sea, where the water was green against the white downs of the distant Isle of Wight and the grey sky above.

Cold. Ice cold. On South Parade Pier, a guy was shovelling a path through half-melted snow that had refrozen into a sheet of ice, while the sea rolled and scattered beneath him. At the pier’s far end, I took it all in, the sea, the sky, the ice in the clouds, the unforgiving breath of winter – and felt immune to it all in my sheepskin jacket. Warm. Toastie. Against all that out there.

Then I went through that little enclosed space, the Rose Garden. Thorned twigs were coming to life in this early spring, their jagged edges dark against the snow. I felt the need to sit somewhere, quiet, and allow the depression that’s got me at the moment to just sit with me. Depression, she’s an unwanted visitor, but I find that I can’t just rail at her. Every time I do, she settles in more comfortably. When depression begins to warm her cold hands on my heart, then I find it better not to complain too much, but to drop the pace of my life and accept her latest visit. Don’t overdo it, don’t give yourself too much to do, but don’t do nothing. Sit with her. Bear her.

So I made my way to the shelter that sits on the seaward side of the Rose Gardens, elevated and looking down from what used to be a gun emplacement in Lumps Fort, a long time ago. Thus, I mounted the ramp with a mind to sit and enjoy the snowbound geometry of the rosebeds.

At the top of the ramp there is an alcove in a wall, where once perhaps soldiers stored artillery rounds. A pile of cloth was stuffed in there I noted. Then, getting closer, I saw a rucksack, and realised it was a sleeping bag next to it.

The sleeping bag was not moving. Perhaps it had been dumped? But no, I could see a shape of a body. Suddenly afraid, I straightened and stood stock still, alert for any movement. There was none. I stepped closer and listened and could hear no breathing either and the fear grew stronger. Depression does this. It makes one less willing to face life, leaving one’s emotions all raw and ready to be stung and poked without any filters.

After a while, I walked away, not sure what to do. I took a breath. The image of the sleeping bag would not leave me and I went back. Perhaps I could get a hot drink. Chocolate or something. With a growing sense of dread, I continued to watch. No movement at all. Nothing to indicate a life in that snowbound scene. And so I walked over and said:

“Are you okay? Just checking in with you. Let me know.”

I watched and waited. And then, the sleeping bag moved and rolled over, away from me, and I could see it had its back to me, and whoever it was wanted to sleep more. I thought: Alive and was relieved.

“Do you want anything?”

But the bag just rolled itself up more, trying to get away from my voice.

I stood there a while and felt useless, and turned away, making my way round the snowbound edges of Canoe Lake. I felt pathetic for my ineffectuality.

On the far side of the lake was a man in a thin summer coat over a cheap jumper. I saw him talk to another morning walker, who looked embarrassed and walked on. When I got closer, I saw he had a half-drunk bottle of wine on the bench next to him.

As I went by, I was struck by his watchful calm.

He spoke to me:

“There’s a big snowball there, if you want to throw it,” and he pointed at a ball of dirty grey snow about 75 centimetres wide, the remnants of a snowman that some kids had built and others had kicked in with gleeful indifference.

“Shall I throw it at you?” I said.

He laughed, and we fell into conversation.

“I’m freezing,” he said.

I looked at him more closely. He didn’t look like a tramp. His clothes had a washed-out grey to them, and his trousers were dirty, but his skin was freshly washed and his hair clean. There was a look about him that said he was well fed, but his lips were grey and starting to go blue.

“Well, what are you doing, sitting out here?”

“I’m in a residential home,” he said with desperate passion. “But I can’t stand it. It’s an awful place, I don’t want to be there with those goons. They’re all in their 80s and I shouldn’t be there. I’m only 64.” He added the last with a pathetic plea in his voice.

“Can’t you move out?”

“My brother put me in there. My own brother – put me in a home and I can’t get out. And he’s got all my money. He’s got loads of money – a great big place in Hayling Island and just gave his kids £200,000 each to buy a house, and he puts me in a home I don’t want to be in.”

I looked at him for a moment. It was a strange story that didn’t quite make sense and I felt that I shouldn’t get tangled up with him. But then… he looked so desperate.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Donald.”

“Matt,” I said, and offered him my hand. He shook it and his was like a block of ice. I was shocked at how cold he was. He, actually, really was freezing, as he’d said. “You know, wine isn’t going to warm you up.”

“No. But I like the taste of it, you see. And I need to do something. And it’s only £4.30 from the Co-op, which is a cheap wine. It’s rubbish. But it’s a bargain. Do you go to any pubs?”

I told him I did and so we passed the time. At one point he said.

“How long can you go without food?”

“What?”

“Days? Weeks? The landlord who runs the home, he fasts for a month,” he said, seemingly baffled. “His name is Abdullah.”

“Ah, well, you see, they can eat at night, just not in the daytime.”

“What’s the point?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. He says he’s 12 stone, but he’s half the size of me. With a shiny head.” He looked at me. “I say he’s like a little black ant.”

The words he was speaking told me little and much at the same time. Snippets of a life, like a jumbled book of postcards.

“You can’t stay out here,” I said. “It’s too cold.”

“I’m not going back there,” he replied, adamantly.

“Couldn’t you go and sit in the library? At least it’s warm.”

“Where’s that?”

But then he dismissed the idea out of hand.

He was getting colder by the minute. I could see it.

“Look, do you want to get a cup of tea? I’ll get you one,” I said, and pointed over to the Canoe Lake cafe.

“That’s very kind.”

I reached in my pocket and realised I didn’t have any cash on me.

“Wait. I’ll be back.”

When I got back from the cash point, he stood up and walked with me on unsteady feet.

He sat down to drink his tea and was shaking so much from the cold he could hardly hold the cup. I need to warm him up, I thought, and so I carried on chatting with him. Depression, I suppose. It helps me to help other people. Distracts me from myself.

As we talked, we began to loop around the same subjects. He reintroduced himself to me, and asked my name again, then told me he was in a home and couldn’t stand it. He would mention other housemates, and then, after a brief digression, go back to them again. “We argue,” he said. “I can’t stand them.”

At another table were some Down’s Syndrome people, talking loudly – out on a walk to see the snow. One of them was squawking and grunting, and Donald became agitated.

“Who are these people?” he asked me, clenching his jaw. “Who are they?”

He had his back to the group and seemed so angry that he couldn’t look round at them.

“They’ve got Down’s Syndrome,” I said. “They can’t help it.”

He looked at me and forced a smile. “Nor can I,” he said.

As he talked more and I began to see the pattern of his conversation, I realised that he was probably in a home because he had early onset Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t hold thoughts for long, and drew on older memories. Everything recent was blurry. At one point he told me that he’d had his wallet stolen, then that he was due an inheritance, then that his brother was keeping the money from him, looping and looping around.

I went to the counter and asked the women if they’d seen him before. One of them had.

“He’s in a home,” she said. “A really awful place. I’ve heard it from someone else, too. The other guy, his window is smashed and hasn’t even been fixed. He was in here, crying.”

I sat with Donald a while longer, and then, when I saw that he’d warmed up, left him with a pot of tea and headed out.

I realised he needed better care than he was getting. That he needed medical attention and his case dealt with properly – and if that were done, he could go to a place where he would at least be a little more happy. One thing was clear. The way things were now had led him to hypothermia in the snow.

A few days earlier, I had been in Waitrose, and overheard an old woman complaining about the homeless begging outside.

“It’s just so awful having them here. Why can’t they move them on? Or get rid of them?”

“I know,” said the shop assistant. “They come in here, and it’s really offputting.”

“And they’re conmen,” she said. “They’ve got places to go, they just can’t be bothered to work. They sit out there all day, and they could be working. Why aren’t they working? How do I know they’re homeless? They’re not homeless. They’re just begging because they’re lazy.”

She said it with authority. She had obviously read it somewhere.

It was then I realised the lack of imagination of so many of us, who can’t see the other stories of people’s lives that don’t fit our world view, and how easily people can fall through the cracks in society’s imagination. And at that moment of a lack of imagination, we fall back on defensive positions that feed on the worst of us. Her incomprehension that in modern Britain, people could be homeless made me wonder how far removed her world view is from mine.

Yet, how easy it is to be vulnerable. How easily Donald had nearly made himself seriously ill by just slipping outside for a few hours to sit on his own. How easy it is, in our precarious world to slip. How, by making tiny mistakes, we can end up freezing on a park bench in the snow, or sleeping in an alcove, with no-one around to care.