Opinion

The Death of a Bookshop – Blackwell’s Portsmouth

Sadly, after much imploring, petitioning and dissent among university and townsfolk alike, today sees the closure of Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth.

The shop has been the most extraordinary hub, with writers launching numerous books here, academics and townsfolk alike mingling and sharing ideas, students supported and helped by an extremely dedicated staff and numerous authors coming to give talks about their work. It has been a place of meetings and information exchange, and an increasingly rare thing: an informal face-to-face meeting place where ideas can form and grow in discussion, where friendships and projects have begun. It has seen readings, art, music – and has been one of the major hubs of culture in the town for a fiercely loyal and surprisingly large group.

When I first heard that it was threatened with closure, I started a petition on 38 Degrees imploring the University of Portsmouth and Blackwell UK to think again. It got over a thousand signatures in one weekend. This bookshop was not only loved. It was needed.

As a casualty of the changing nature of information, the closure of Blackwell’s Portsmouth can be regarded in one light as a natural, even inevitable development. But it also shows a lack of understanding and imagination about how to really make it work. Its closure also reflects a wider matter: the disregard of large corporate entities for local communities. Bizarrely, the University has chosen to ignore the value it added to its own reputation and the service it provides its students in its headlong rush to milk money from the site in a more lucrative way. That will be to the University’s lasting shame.

So what really drove the closure of the bookshop?

The reality is that the idea of university died a death in Britain a generation ago. At least, the sort of institution I took my degree at in the early 1990s died a death. Even then, the idea of university was in the process of change, but there was still, in the slightly rarefied atmosphere of the philosophy department at York University where I studied, a sense that a subject had a value beyond its retail price conceived as a commodity. Back then, universities were, in fact, concerned with a wider issue – primarily, western culture, and also, with cultures more generally.

But the idea of the university as the custodian of culture is defunct. And, if you are of the mind that art and culture are byproducts of a successful economy, then you will take the accountant’s view that Blackwell’s University Bookshop’s passing is the natural function of economic Darwinism.

If, however, you place a value on culture beyond that of numbers in a bank account, then the demise of Blackwell’s is a belated weathercock for the way the wind has been blowing for the last thirty years.

Why, then, does this closure matter so much to me? Besides the personal support and purpose I found in the shop, it also strikes me that the closure of a bookshop in a town with high levels of illiteracy is the wrong way to go. Now, only one retail bookshop is left in a city of 200,000 souls, and that is a generalist shop on Commercial Road that piles them high and sells the bestsellers cheap. That is one reason.

But I am also struck by an irony. Thanks to the work of John Pounds, a figure from the 1830s now largely forgotten, the right to a free education in Britain was born in Portsmouth. Pounds believed that education is for everyone, including the poorest – and especially those who could not pay for it. That was a noble cause which eventually spread to the offering of education grants for all who made the grade, so they too could enjoy an elite education no matter what their personal finances. But, the decision to remove degree level grants has enslaved a whole generation with massive debt; the result is that the inevitable logic of economics has led to education being at the vanguard of cultural decline. From a social good, education and culture have been demoted to, simply, goods.

It used to be the case that education and culture were regarded as something more broadly useful to society than being retailed as employability skills, important though they are. It was held that the very nature of what it is to be human could be broadened and made richer through an education that transmitted the values inherent to an enlightened culture, those of understanding others, of creative endeavour, of articulate questioning and challenging of orthodoxy. That used to be the role of the university. There was also a general belief that having people educated in this broader sense spread out as a good to society generally. This belief made the criteria for political and social decisions include aspects of life other than those dictated by basic economics. This view of education was the symptom of a holistic view of society and culture.

Now, however, pure right wing economics are our master.

Some will argue that art and culture are byproducts of civilization – that our ancient forebears in the spare time between hunter-gathering needed something to do with their lives and so created art to while away their hours. Those people imagine that our ancestors, like us, came back from a hard day’s hunting in the savannah, and in the absence of a flatscreen television amused themselves by gawping at the Lascaux cave paintings – square-eyeing away the winter evenings for 20,000 years until their successors could eventually come up with Netflix.

This reductionist view of culture sees art and artistic endeavour as non-essential. It is the epiphenomenon of commerce. Artists and writers and poets and creators exist because they are supported by the real activity of life, which is all hard facts, and especially hard coin.

It is not a view I share. To me, it has become obvious that looking at the general degradation of culture over the last thirty years being spearheaded by universities such as the one in Portsmouth, we are slowly going backward. We are devolving.

There’s no doubt that hunting and gathering enabled early humans to work in co-operative hunting groups; that it led to a particular type of social cohesion in the form of tribes; that it led to the necessity of building an understanding of the world around them – nor that all these are the foundations of modern life. No doubt, all these social behaviours are products of the activity that provided ancient humans with food and fire and safety – activities that would later be labelled economic.

But the ability to progress did not come from the act of hunting alone. Before the act of hunting in groups, someone had the idea that humans could work together, could find a way to trap an animal, could find food by hunting in packs. Every advance in human life is the result of an act of imagination, every advance comes from the visualisation and the discussion of ideas and possibilities. Yes, it is true that groups of creatures other than humans hunt in unison and do not paint cave walls or discuss Sartre over coffee, but none of those animals has the imagination to shape a flint or attach it to a spear, nor possess all the fine gradations and nuances in thinking and language that humans have, that have led to our rise over millennia. Ideas were born and passed from one generation to the next by culture and the spaces in which culture is transmitted, be they caves, temples – or bookshops.

That is why the sacred spaces of ancient cultures are covered in paintings, spells and words. That is why ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians sculpted creatures that were impossible in the real world, but which stepped straight from the imagination. It was not simple superstition expressed in the statues of ancient gods, it was not that artists and thinkers created fancies while the real business of the world continued on despite them. Statues of ancient Gods and the rituals that surrounded them were central to the running of society, to civilization’s understanding of the world that was disseminated through temple rituals. Culture and the transmission of culture is humanity at its greatest. It has precedence over narrow economics.

And so we come to Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth, and its closure.

There are arguments that the days of the book are long past. That with the coming of digitization and with the ability of students to access material online, there is little need to produce books. Indeed, books are a terrible waste of resources, and the world is a greener place without all that woodpulp being converted. Think of the environment, we are enjoined. Think of the planet.

But this is to miss the point of the rituals that occurred in this bookshop. Book launches, author talks, informal seminars, discussions, sharing, recommendations are more than stock-in-trade. Bookshops are not only purveyors of books, at least the good ones like Blackwell’s in Portsmouth, aren’t. That good will could have been monetised, but the University wanted the site of the bookshop for another project.

A British university didn’t see the value in keeping its only functioning bookshop open. Let that thought sink in a while. Because it really is as simple as that.

Portsmouth’s Blackwell’s was a space where ideas could be disseminated, beyond the economics-driven imperative of university finances. It drew people to it that were not connected to the university, and they met with students and lecturers and ideas were shared. Culture happened – spontaneously. Blackwell’s, Portsmouth, was, in fact, a means of the transmission of culture just as the sacred spaces once were to our forebears. It was in its modest, modern way, a temple to civilization.

Blackwell’s wasn’t only about commerce. It was about humanity in a wider sense. It was about standing up to the cost-benefit analysis view of life and saying “what we do, what we think, is vital because it is human, despite you” in the face of the machinery of bean-counting that pays lip service to such ideas, but sacrifices culture and ideas to its own calculating god, Mammon.

My call, now, is that in its passing, we continue the rites enacted at Blackwell’s Portsmouth, and work to preserve culture. That we do so, despite the decisions of businesses like Blackwell UK, and the value-free institution that is the University of Portsmouth.

Wonder Woman – three themes that made me cry

SPOILER ALERT: This blog discusses plot points and scenes within the movie Wonder Woman.

Okay, so it’s pretty slushy to admit to crying at watching a superhero movie. They never normally get me like that… but Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman did, and I’ve been trying to work out why.

There’s a complex mixture here, but much of it is not to do with the story but the themes it explores.

Theme 1: The awakening to new consciousness of the idealistic individual.

One of the main recurring themes in the movie is what happens when ideals meet reality.

A set piece early in the movie explains the mythical origins of the Amazons to the young Princess Diana of Themyscira. In the myth, mankind is created both good and noble by a benign creator, Zeus – but is corrupted by Ares, the evil god of war.

It is a mythical representation of the human condition echoed by several myth cycles – though not the Greek myths, which have an ambivalent view of the gods and their attitudes toward humanity.

In the Greek myths, the gods are spiteful, jealous, capricious, devious and vengeful.

In fact, the Greek gods are all the things people are because they are the personifications of the different drives of humanity. They are thus archetypes. So, evil doesn’t really fit easily into their pantheon in the way it does in the myth cycle in the movie.

The myth that most closely correlates to the myth told by Hipolyta – the story of a benign creator god whose creations are corrupted by a malevolent lesser god – is something far closer to home: it’s the Judaeo-Christian conception of humanity. Rather than echoing the realities of human psychology, Judaeo-Christianity presents an idealised humanity that adherents are invited to aspire to.

Hence the Amazonian myth depicting man’s fall into crime and war is a version of Adam’s Fall. So far, so exotic and so familiar. But the Amazonian story differs because Zeus is a limited God, and creates the Amazons to bring love to the world, intending through love to tame the evil of corrupted men. (This is a big departure from Christianity, which sees physical love as an evil and Eve not as a saviour, but a transgressor.) That Zeus’s attempt to bring an end to strife through love should fail and that men become the oppressors of the Amazons, who in turn rise up against them, is a novel mythical element, and radical.

The war that ensues among the Gods leaves Zeus, the creator god in mortal peril, threatened by his son, Ares. In his dying act, he grants to Queen Hippolyta her wish for a child – and animates the clay model she has made, thus creating Diana – and grants to the Amazons Themyscira. The Paradise Island is a place where Diana can grow up in safety, away from the malevolent influence of the injured and weakened god Ares, whom unbeknownst to Diana, she has been created to slay.

But what is interesting about this set piece early in the movie is that this story is told in a story-book way, with story-book images. It is not convincing on the screen, because it is a caricature of whatever “really” happened in the Amazonian past. That ambiguity – the story of a child’s myth and the truth behind it – is central to the film.

One of the strands that runs through the story is Diana’s crucial realisation that her world view which is founded on this simplistic conception of the nobility of man and the valour of war is wrong. She realises her moral view which is that all of what she calls evil flows from a single source – Ares – is simplistic, and misunderstands humanity. Like the Christian who grows up to realise that a Devil is not necessary to make men do bad things, she realises mankind is driven by internal desires for power and domination, and also by love and noble acts. Philosophically speaking, it makes the drives called “good” and “evil” immanent within each human being, and does not make humans the toys of supernatural elements.

Though not in the film, once this question is asked, it leads to further questions. Is there evil? Or is there simply the behaviour of individuals seeking to control resources and have dominion one over the other? Does the whole concept of evil itself collapse? It is that equivocal nature of morality as no longer a simple question of good versus evil that Diana struggles with toward the end of the movie. And it really got to me. I admit it!

There is also a beautiful integrity to the story in this regard. Remembering that the Amazons were created to bring enlightenment to man through Love, it is therefore apt that her love of Steve Trevor in the end means that she forms a bridge of understanding of mankind. In the end, she recognises the folly in man, but also sees his nobility.

Her internal story of development, the central part of her Bildungsroman, is her movement from a place of naive belief in a myth to a deeper personal understanding of humanity through her own experiences. Because of that experience, she judges that mankind is worth protecting, even though he is flawed.

This awakening to adult consciousness and the redemptive power of love after grappling with simplistic notions of good and evil are central to the story. It is a pretty universal theme, and a mature one.

Theme 2: A fascinating clash of world views.

Another of the main themes of the story is the clash of world views. Diana comes from an ancient warrior culture, full of myth and low in technology. In it, women are the soul arbiters of their own fate and are used to attaining high office and demonstrating physical prowess. It has magic in it, and Diana herself is a goddess.

The world she enters is the world of men, with all its mundane harshness and cruelty, grime and disdain for women. Several scenes jump out to show the jarring interface between the two worlds, perhaps well symbolised by the arrival of Steve Trevor’s aircraft as it crashes through the surrounding mists and magic of Themiscyra. Suddenly, 20th Century culture and technology arrive in 2nd millennium BC Greek culture.

There are numerous examples of the mismatch between the two, which leads to some glorious comedic moments. Congratulating an ice-cream salesman on the product he sells is a beautiful moment of naivety in Diana. The whole set piece of getting Diana clothes suitable for a 20th Century woman is hilarious. The discussion of whether she and Steve Trevor can “sleep together” on the boat away from Themiscyra is beautifully handled in its understatement and as an elucidation of his warm, morally solid character.

Then this clash of cultures shifts into drama. Diana’s lambasting of generals for hiding in an office rather than fighting alongside their men, her shock at the treatment of soldiers and her realisation that war leaves indelible marks on people’s bodies and minds form part of her development. Next comes the dramatic shift, when she arrives on the battlefield and faces No Man’s Land. “It’s called No Man’s Land because no man can cross it,” Steve Trevor tells her. The understatement here is perfect. And so the moment we’ve been waiting for – of the woman hero in battle begins. That scene is just extraordinary. The figure of a woman on the battlefield is so full of conflicting emotions for me that I tear up thinking about it now. It is perhaps one of the greatest emblems of the mismatch of our culture and hers that it so draws the eye – a woman fighter on the battlefield would have been impossible at the time and we know it, and yet we are beguiled by the thought of it and by the heroism of this wonderful and naive hero.

Theme 3: A woman who enters the world of men for the first time.

One of the things that makes Diana such an appealing character is her fearless curiosity and her mental poise. When she sees Trevor’s airplane crash land in the sea, her instinct is to swim toward it. When she sees a man naked for the first time as Steve Trevor gets out of the pool he is bathing in, she assesses his physiology with unabashed curiosity, never having seen a man before. Then she asks him about his watch, and what it does. The scripting is brilliant: “You let such a little thing control your life?” she asks.  And yes, we all know that clock and cock are being spoken of in the same breath.

Her curiosity about the world of men leads her to experience its indignities with good humour. She tries on the clothing of the 20th Century woman, bringing her own cultural traits to bear. Looking at a silk bodice she says: “This is what passes for armour in your culture?” The way she is assumed to be an intruder in counsels of war because of her sex is handled without preaching, but simply by showing her confusion at why one should be excluded for being female. She does not rant, she does not rail. She simply rises above the question and stays true to her goal, to get to the war.

Later, the incredibly tasteful way that she takes Steve Trevor as her lover, revealing a kind of vulnerability, is also done with exactly the right tasteful approach. And this is no unnecessary romance bolted on to the storyline. The relationship between Trevor and her, their love, is central to her commitment to the world of men and to her defeat of Ares.

These are just a few examples of the themes in this movie. It repays rewatching with treasure after treasure.

There’s no doubt about it, I too have fallen in love with Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman – The movie and why it is great.

I just got back from the early morning showing of Wonder Woman, and I’m crushed.

It wasn’t just the brilliant visuals or the well-paced and intelligently thought-through secret origins story. Nor was it only the extreme attention to period detail or the well-crafted dialogue. Above all, the preposterous, extraordinary magical figure that is Diana, Princess of the Amazons – a figure it would be so easy to get wrong – is unbelievably believable.

I should make a confession. I grew up on DC and Marvel comics even though school friends sneered at the men in tights and teachers mocked their “simplistic moralistic tone”. Those teachers had never encountered the adaptation of the entire Ring Cycle in the pages of The Mighty Thor, in which an ambivalent creator-god embroiled his own son in a tale of incest and betrayal. Nor had they met a Bruce Wayne driven to attempt to murder his alter ego, The Batman, due to a mixture of psychosis and stress, as occurred in The Untold Legend of the Batman. “Simplistic moral tone” indeed. There were no safe places in these tales that had matured out of the old Silver Age comics in which there were indeed many a jolly jape, and Biffs and Thunks a-plenty.

Strangely, the most sneery voice of all was reserved for Wonder Woman. It was a girls’ comic, clearly. It had a woman as the central character and who did Diana Prince think she was, venturing onto the boys’ reserve? She was never going to be as tough or as badass as the big beasts also in her DC stable: Batman and Superman.

I didn’t agree with that assessment. There was something special about Wonder Woman that intrigued me. It wasn’t just that as a kid in my pubescent hypersexuality I responded positively to the line of a woman’s leg even if it was inked in four colours on cheap paper from the USA. The fact is, Wonder Woman was like no other female superhero.

Look at the others: Supergirl, The She-Hulk, the Spiderwoman. These female heroes were simply twists on established male counterparts.

Then there were the likes of Storm, Jean Grey and the Invisible Girl. These were in their different ways emblematic of what powers the male writers were comfortable in giving to women in their own right. Storm was elemental, a child of nature who worked at a distance on the weather – she was a nature archetype. Jean Grey, The Phoenix, was someone who messed with people’s minds and was not about physical power. The Invisible Girl, one of the first generation of female characters from Marvel’s The Fantastic Four didn’t have the brute power or physicality of the boys in the team. Nope, her big thing was she could make herself invisible. If ever there were an emblem of the traditional way that society thought women should be unseen and that their power should remain hidden and indirect, Sue Storm-Richards was it. Literally.

Yet Wonder Woman was completely different from these other female superheroes. Indeed, I am comfortable in calling her a superheroine, because she is so powerful and physical that there is absolutely no possibility that the feminine diminutive undermines her. What I always thought about the boys at school who sneered at her was that they were stuck in an old-fashioned view of what a woman might be. Wonder Woman was in a class of her own.

This is the starting point of the new Gal Gadot movie. From her early upbringing in the mythical Paradise Island of Themiscyra in which she is trained by a fearsome all-woman group of warriors to fight, there is a toughness and brutality in her story. The society of women warriors among whom she lives is visually believable. They have body language that is fast, no-nonsense, direct and harsh. In councils of war, they set their jaws and walk with a swagger one usually associates with men. This is an all-woman society conceived along Spartan lines.

There are many images from Themiscyra that stay with me. One is of an Amazon warrior jumping from a cliff and firing an anchoring arrow with a rope attached to it in order to swing into battle more quickly. The body language is direct and pragmatic and speaks of centuries of training. Another is seeing Diana’s Aunt, Antiope firing three arrows into three soldiers at once. The look of deadly concentration on her face is utterly real. This is no comfortable stars-and-stripes bikini-wearing 1950s image of domestic womanhood that I’m sure influenced the parents of my schoolboy friends and instilled their cultural references when it came to women. These Amazonians would only lift an iron to work out how best to kill you with it.

Gal Gadot herself is pitch-perfect as Diana. She enters the world of men with that simplistic moral tone my teachers thought she had. But her story is one of a Bildungsroman, in which the idealistic young hero who sets out to do good has her ideals broken by the complexity of the world – and yet continues to strive to do what she thinks is right.

At another level, she is funny and charming – and of course, she is beautiful. Long gone are the days when commenting on this woman’s physical attributes in any way undermines her seriousness. The whole DC Universe is indeed serious with flashes of light – and Wonder Woman epitomises that mixture – indeed, embodies it at its best.

What is it that makes Wonder Woman so impressive in this film? It dawned on me that in this version of the DC story, Wonder Woman is pre-eminent, the foremost beast in her stable. She has the brawling capacity, the speed and the fight training demonstrated by the Batman, and the brute strength and godlike presence of Superman. Indeed, she goes one better than Superman. She is a goddess. Literally. Thus Wonder Woman combines the very best of these two heroes into one exquisite, brilliant, intelligent, charming, idealistic, thoughtful, brutal package. When she hurls men across the room with a flick of her hand, it looks real. She looks like she means business. There’s no ironic flick of the eye, no sense that this woman could not do this. And yet, you also don’t doubt that she also really does speak hundreds of languages and have a literal Classical education.

I said at the outset that I was crushed by this movie. I am. There were moments when, upon seeing all the potentials I have always known Wonder Woman possessed coming to life on the big screen, that I was close to tears. This story is cruel, beautiful, tough and harrowing. It is a suitable introduction to the world of Diana Prince, Princess of the Amazons. It is by far the best movie from the DC Universe to date.

The strangeness of creatures: 1

Turkeys circle a dead cat in ritualistic way…

Strange video footage. As more and more footage of animals performing in apparently ritualistic ways and showing a degree of sophistication appears, it becomes more and more likely that the notion animals are not conscious will be jettisoned, like former concepts of miasma, phlogiston and ether.

The footage below is just one of many shots appearing on youtube that makes our current understanding of animals appear less and less complete.

There are some mysteries in the world.

These turkeys trying to give this cat its 10th life pic.twitter.com/VBM7t4MZYr

That Article 50 Letter In Full

That Article 50 Letter In Full.

Dear Europe, I thought I’d write a quick line
to say it was good fun, thanks for the stay,
the visit was lovely, but we’re off, today
so please – no more garlic, snails and fine wine.
About the war. When I said “thanks” are nice
– and you said “the EU is the thank you” –
how come? Strangers telling us what to do
is wrong… though, yes, the Empire was quite nice.
Brexit means Brexit, a red white and blue
one, let’s salute the flag, coz now we’re free
to climb into bed with Uncle Sam. See:
foreigners can’t shaft us! – Britannia rules!
So goodbye, toodle pip, we’ve seen the light,
who needs Puccini when we’ve got Marmite?

Lyonesse – A Sonnet

Lyonesse

I was wrong about the blind right, thinking
them haters and racists. No, some believe
all will be well – we’ll have perpetual spring
– a world full of golden light. How naïve!
Though in some ways a relief, it is sad
to see these creatures crow about their mess
cheerily marching forward waving flags
to the sunny uplands of Lyonesse.
I wonder when they see our destiny’s
much more mundane, will they say “I was wrong” –
or “foreigners wrecked our identity” –
that wartime complaint that goes on and on?
And me, what to do? Should I pack my trunk?
– Get out of this country before it’s sunk?

The Power of Stupid

“The Power of Stupid”

Have you seen the latest? Shocking! she says,
lifting a copy of the Daily Mail,
that collection of British fairytales
from the fifties, when darkies knew their place.
Did you see that old sod Junckers, saying
there’ll be a cost to Brexit. Excuse me!
Cheeky bastard! Over my dead body!
We’ll walk right out, we’re not bloody paying!
Oooh, Trump, I like his conviction! Classy!
just look at how he held Theresa’s hand –
that proves it – really, he’s a gentleman
– if she thinks he’s all right, then he must be.
Thus politics shrinks to banality
when dupes idolize personality.

Power to Persuade: the techniques used by Paul McKenna for Brexit.

paul“Whoever is orchestrating the Leave campaign, I have to admit, they’re brilliant,” I said to a friend a few days before the referendum vote. “They understand exactly the rules of persuasion.”

On the side I favoured, the Remain camp was floundering in very much the way the same crew had floundered in the final days of the Scottish Independence referendum before that final intervention – The Vow. They had fallen into the same mistakes: relying on warnings, and apparently plucking apocalyptic figures out of the air.

The Leave camp was also making unfounded promises, lying and misrepresenting the facts. But there was something qualitatively different between the two campaigns, and that was in the structure of the information they imparted.

“The Leave campaign,” I said to my friend, “is in a different league.”

Years before, I had studied persuasion while attending trainings with hypnotist Paul McKenna and his mentor, Dr Richard Bandler, in a widely misunderstood field called NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

NLP is a fascinating subject. It studies the structures of human thinking, in order to guide the flow of behavioural responses. It does this through linguistic and non-linguistic communication which may be delivered at an unconscious or semi-conscious level. It therefore bypasses reason.

It has its critics, which divide roughly into two camps. There are those who say it is manipulative and unethical, and the others who say it doesn’t work and is snake oil. As Dr Bandler often points out in interview, both cannot be true. NLP is not unethical in itself, but like any tool, it can be used unethically.

Central to the training we received was the observation that decisions, thoughts and behaviour are dependent on emotional state. Hence, if you are angry with someone, it is very difficult to remember that you love them. If you are in love with someone, it is easier to forgive them; if you like someone, you are more likely to be relaxed with them and trust them, and so on. Reasoning is continually influenced by emotions; not to recognise that is to lay yourself open to all sorts of errors of judgement through other people’s influence.

Understanding how emotion works enables you to get different outcomes from your interactions. For example, after an argument, it is probably a mistake to immediately seek forgiveness. The rage is still too high in the person from whom you are seeking forgiveness. First you must change their state, or wait for their state to change. Then you can get a better result from your appeal.

Understanding the structure of emotions and how they are inter-related is central to one of the key uses of NLP: persuasion. That is why in the hands of a skilled practitioner, NLP is an extremely effective tool when it comes to sales.

This should not come as a surprise. Dr Richard Bandler, the inventor of the term NLP spent years studying and modelling the ways that persuasive salespeople operate. He didn’t invent good sales techniques – he codified them. Through his observations, he came to understand that a salesperson first of all builds a rapport with his audience so they in some way identify with the saleperson. This makes the customer less critical and more trusting of what the salesperson says.

That’s step 1: the gaining of trust through rapport.

Next comes the creation of a “propulsion system” – meaning a way to get someone to take an action, or to change their thinking.

In Richard’s terms, propulsion systems operate quite simply. Firstly you generate a picture or idea of the current situation that’s so awful the subject wants to move away from it. Having built up an emotion of revulsion or disgust, you then simply create its antithesis, a scenario or situation that the subject wants to move towards. Moving towards this happier scenario or idea relieves the revulsion previously built up. It therefore feels like it’s the answer to the problem presented.

This technique can be used for all sorts of things, not just sales. For example, Richard observed that those who kicked an addiction often reported that life had to get so bad for them that they were desperate to change. There it is again: moving away from – moving towards.

Recreating this pattern of thinking deliberately for his clients, Richard laid out the negatives of current behaviour and the extraordinary positives of a new behaviour. Crucially, this was not done as an intellectual exercise. It required the firing up of the emotions to make the change, because psychologists have long known that the will is the least effective part of the psyche to employ if you want to make a change.

In many cases, it works. Bandler found that addicts then committed themselves to new behaviours willingly and with their whole being, rather than making an intellectual decision which they easily broke when they were overwhelmed by an emotion.

Exactly this model was used by the Leave camp. First rapport building, then creating, or describing or presenting a bad situation that was apparently unsolvable was followed by what appeared to be the only solution that would alleviate the bad feeling: leaving the EU. It was, in NLP terms, technically brilliant.

I looked on, thinking that surely our side, the Remain side, must have their own advisers. Cameron, having been involved in political strategy for years, must also have someone who understood the structure of persuasion in the way the Leavers did.

Quite the opposite appeared to be the case.

The Remain camp appeared to have no concept of rapport building. They wheeled out economists and experts who essentially spoke down to the public, alienating those who were of a different class or background.

Then there was Eddie Izzard. If anyone could have been better chosen to alienate conservative-minded voters concerned at the way society had changed over the last few decades, a man in a dress with a pink beret could not have been better chosen. For Leave voters, he represented exactly the sort of moral decay that a friend’s Aunt Beryl summed up in her reasons for leaving: “I just want Britain to be like it was.”

The timbre of the Remain discussion was also very limited, and boiled down to basically half a persuasion strategy.

They repeatedly told people how bad things would be in the future outside of the EU – a good moving away from strategy. But they didn’t tie it together directly with a positive message. Like, for example, the fact that the economy was doing very well and we were about to overtake Germany and become the largest economy in the bloc in the next few years. Those different sides were mentioned, but were not tied together in a persuasive whole. The simple message of wanting to move away from one dark future towards another brighter one was not explicitly presented. Instead, only the down side was emphasised.

The problem with repeating the same strategy over and over again is that it begins to wear thin. Nor is it good enough to say, “to avoid that awful future, you must accept a continuation of this dull present.” It just doesn’t work that way, especially when the other side is offering jam tomorrow, if only you will be brave enough to make that change.

And there is the next part of the NLP persuasion strategy. Reframing objections. The Leavers cleverly reframed the notion of recklessness to bravery. Hence, Leavers weren’t foolhardy, they were intrepid. Once again, a negative was replaced with a positive. In contrast, Remainers were craven cowards afraid to “Take Back Control”. This slogan was thus attached to a positive self image, and became a simple way to encapsulate that feelgood factor in one simple slogan.

In NLP training, you are taught that the unconscious vibrates to such messages and feels better about itself again. This emotional orientation feeds on itself. Unconsciously, you have accepted that this course of action is right. It feels right, after all. Your unconscious can’t help itself. It wants to move towards a happier self image (at least in most cases) and a future associated with good feelings.

The power of the reframe was not understood by the Remain camp. The best David Cameron could do was to present his message in negative terms, saying, “I don’t believe we are quitters.” Really? Well, if you don’t believe that’s what we are, what do you think we actually are? People don’t like being called names. They like to have their egos massaged. Once again, only half the persuasion strategy was employed. No wonder the Leavers started to make real changes in people’s attitudes – not through reason, but through feeling.

Another strategy in persuasion techniques is that of inoculation. This is a technique which pre-empts objections to an argument, and seeks to neutralise it beforehand. This is exactly what happened whenever the Remain camp delivered their warnings for the future. For an NLP-savvy debater, this is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Tie a negative connotation to this warning behaviour and you invalidate it, especially if you have followers already keen to hear your argument, and already beginning to be sold on it.

Hence the repeated use of the terms “Project Fear” (borrowed from the Scottish referendum) and “scaremongering”. Soon, everything the Remainers said was scaremongering. The word was repeated by the Leavers over and over again, until it became anchored in the minds of its audience. It was brilliant. They played on emotions superbly. And even when they themselves stated stupid observations, like the one that said 80 million Turks would be able to move to the UK, the Leavers managed to drown out the counterargument from the Remainers that this too was scaremongering. They’d got there first with that one.

Much has been made of Michael Gove’s dismissive comment that we’ve all heard enough from experts. This, too, was brilliant inoculation and rapport building at the same time. It made Gove look as if he, too, were someone with no respect for education and was a common man. If you think about it, it is quite an extraordinary claim from a man who had been trying for years (by his own definition) to bring value back to education as Education Secretary. It was an extraordinarily dishonest line to take. Yet it worked. It spoke to the masses. “If he says we can ignore experts, well, we bloody well can!”

This is why this debate was so extraordinarily light on facts. The Leave campaign’s manifesto ran to a mere 1293 words, which is less than this article. Leave didn’t need facts. They needed anger and hope harnessed together to make the changes they needed.
So, it was brilliant NLP. I watched the campaign through the gaps in my fingers over my eyes. It was a slowmo car crash. I could see mistake on mistake being made by Remain, and no-one seemed to understand what was going wrong.

After the stomach churning result was delivered, it began to make sense. After the dust settled it became clear that at least one seriously heavy duty NLPer was on the Leave side. Paul McKenna, the Guardian reveals, is a friend of Arron Banks, who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign. How far he was involved in the campaign is uncertain, though Paul will have at least cast his eye over the campaign material and advised on giving it tweaks.

Some people will complain that the Leave campaign was dishonest by doing this. There is no doubt at all that they were dishonest in many of their claims, but I suspect it wasn’t their specific claims where Paul’s real power came through.

What Leave wanted, and what they achieved, was an emotionally charged debate within which they could covertly make changes in attitudes in some of those who were undecided. As a supreme technician, this is Paul McKenna’s genius. He is just very, very good at what he does.

Whether it was ethical for the Leave camp to employ such tactics over a matter so vital to the future of the country, as opposed to selling someone a pair of shoes, is another matter. I know what I think about it, but this is not a discussion on that aspect of Paul’s brilliance.

The reality of the situation is, however, that the Remain side were out of date. They were using reason against emotion, the equivalent of using old field Howitzers against a side armed with cruise missiles.

And that is why we lost. We were outclassed at every move. Whoever made the decision not to take advice from people who understood the language and structure of persuasion was, in the end, the cause of our downfall.

I suspect that was Cameron, judging by his poor grasp of strategy.

A final thought: one of the major elements taught by Paul and by Richard in their NLP trainings is that such powerful techniques must be applied ethically. There is a practical reason for this advice. An ethical strategy prevents buyer’s remorse. A buyer who genuinely has their needs met doesn’t look up a few months later and think: hey, I was duped!

Whether this applies to this decision over the coming months, remains to be seen. I’m sure there will be much reinforcement of the message going on right now. That, too, is an NLP technique.

So what is the lesson? In the past, ancient kings consulted stargazers and mystics before battle and had spells cast for them. The modern politician must learn to do the same, otherwise he will enter the field at a massive disadvantage. Because people reason on the back of feelings, it’s vital to get their emotions right first, so they are receptive to your message. Once the mood is right, then it is also vital that you understand exactly how you are going to structure and deliver your message. It’s not just a question of getting up and treating it like an amateur schoolboy at an Eton debating society.

The Arcane Arts, then, are back in fashion.