Thursday, June 22, 2017

R is for Revolting Beasts

There's something afoot in Britain at the moment, and it's not entirely pleasant. Foul beasts are rising to the surface of the murky pond of the national psyche and sending out suckered tentacles to drag the unwary screaming from their beds. This disquieting scene could mark a step change in the narrative of who we think we are, and set an endpoint to the fairy story we have been telling ourselves for the last few decades. The dark mould stain of entropy is beginning to appear on the walls and no amount of fresh paint seems to get rid of it.

I've taken on a job as a bartender. What better way to earn a little cash at the end of the industrial age?  The place is a hotel: a kind of garden haven beside the sea where people come to spend a few days and get a break from their stressful lives. I pour gin, polish wine glasses and listen to what the customers have to say, offering sympathy where appropriate. Many of them are Germans, on holiday with their families, but there are also many Brits and Americans, and many of these love to talk.

There's a sense of something having gone badly wrong. One national tragedy is eclipsed by the next, seemingly in ever more rapid succession. My daughter came home from school and declared that she and her classmates were getting tired of all the one and two-minutes silences. If it isn't people being run down in the street or having their throats slit as they eat dinner, it's tower-block infernos and other man-made tragedies. Being down at the dog end of Cornwall, of course, our local tragedies tend to be small-scale. A man falling off a cliff here, a surfer drowning there, a dog chasing a rabbit into a disused mineshaft — all tragedies in their own way but also, perversely, all part of the natural order of things. But now the great summer invasion is upon us, as the local population is boosted tenfold by those from up country — and they bring their energies and bigger tragedies with them.

Road rage on the melting tarmac of yet another day of record breaking heat. Me on my bicycle, and the woman in her Audi screaming abuse and yelling about road tax. She's like a heavily made-up monkey, trapped in her metal cage on wheels and enraged at ... something. I almost feel sorry for her. And there are lines of traffic to the horizon on country roads that are so windy and narrow as to be more of a natural feature of the landscape rather than a carriageway filled to the brim with delivery trucks, holidaymakers' cars and white vans. On either side of the stream of vehicles the wildflowers sag in the heat and nod their heads in the light breeze. How can you have road rage when you are surrounded by a blaze of wildflowers?

And the car radios burble out a constant stream of politics. Meaningless, valueless, maddening, hypnotic, soul-deadening politics of who said what to whom and how a commission should be set up to investigate something and how so-and-so expressed outrage about a target not being met in some branch of a bureaucracy somewhere. And Brexit. Brexit, Brexit, Brexit — as if they repeat the silly word enough times they'll beat us into submission and we'll declare the whole thing a mistake and take it all back just so long as they stop talking about it. Perhaps this is adding to the road rage.

And, the people take the bait and battle it out on social media and in pubs and on the streets as if they were rehearsing for some kind of civil war where nobody knows who or what they are fighting for. Many have grown battle weary and simply keep their gobs shut, but there are those who still hold out, tapping away into the early hours of the morning engaged in the hand-to-hand of flame wars, and reporting on their battles to their own echo chambers. An insanity seems has gripped the nation and still the Americans in the bar talk about how civil we all appear and how civil our conduct is compared to 'back home'. And it probably is.

But there was nothing too civil about the declared 'day of rage' yesterday, called in the wake of the Grenfell Tower inferno in London, which killed God-knows how many and ignited a firestorm far larger than the one caused merely by cheapskate polystyrene cladding. Scores dead, killed in their own homes, while the multimillionaire company owner who thought it would be a good idea to beautify a 27-storey tower block filled with mostly immigrant poor people by cladding it with firelighters walks free.

The day of rage turned out to be a damp squib. People were too busy dealing with the kind of heat they'd expect to encounter in Greece to be bothered about getting publicly angry. Even the police were pleading with people to calm down, saying that they'd "had enough" due to the heat and could they please protest when it had cooled down a bit? Being British, whatever that even means anymore, people politely obliged. For now.

But all of a sudden the ship of state seems rudderless. There's a lame duck sitting in Number 10, and people scent blood in the water. Socialism is surging in popularity, after a long leave of absence, as the reality of the precariousness of things starts to become apparent. The body politic is foaming at the mouth and having convulsions right now, and there doesn't appear to be a doctor on hand.

How do we even begin to address these not-inconsiderable problems and tragedies? Well, a vacuous pop song has been released by a multimillionaire TV personality in response to the incineration of the families in the tower block. This comes hot on the heels of the pop concert in Manchester to 'honour' the children and teenagers blown to pieces by an Islamic fundamentalist, even before some of them had been buried. This is our national response to mass death now: gyrations and brave faces and emoting on social media. Celebrities run to be seen at the scene of the latest tragedies, and it's probably not too far fetched to assume that the next logical step is to have them singing and pouting live from the scene of the next terror attack — perhaps rushing them out there in the back of ambulances and police cars, along with the doctors and paramedics. It all smells a bit ... desperate.

People just wish all this nastiness would go away. They hope for it to crawl back into the swamp it came from, and are in no mood for examining the reasons as to why any of it might have appeared in the first place. There's no problem so great that it can't be solved by a hashtag and a declaration of 'One Love', whatever that means. Any deeper examination of cause and effect is shot down in fiery rhetoric. Maybe the great paradigm of our times has nothing to do with scientific enquiry or the Enlightenment — maybe it's to do with the refusal to examine the consequences of previous actions, be they governmental, societal or individual. Indeed, consequences, like elephants in living rooms, are not a popular topic of conversation right now. Which is a shame, but so it goes.


In other news, the Midsummer deadline for entries for my fiction writing challenge has now passed. Thank you to everyone who sent me stories, I will be announcing the results next week. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Q is for Quotidian Fluctuations in a Teacup

Here in the UK, things have been a little weird over the past week. People have red rings around their eyes and they get angry at the slightest provocation. You may have heard that there was an election, and that the result was somewhat unexpected and confusing. You may have seen some news about it and experienced a fleeting sense of bewilderment, wondering whether it was relevant in any way to your own life. And then, deciding that it wasn't, you will have instantly forgotten about it. But if you're even a wee bit curious as to what is afoot, here is an explainer of sorts. I will summarise the election twice. The first summary will be incredibly brief. In fact, it will be one sentence. Should your curiosity be piqued, the second summary will be a bit more in depth.

Summary 1

Nobody is in control and the politicians are running around like headless chickens emitting a strange gurgling squawk from their neck holes as they hold up banners saying 'Situation Normal - please carry on shopping'.

Summary 2

Okay, take a deep breath and get ready to shake your head slowly from side to side whilst quietly muttering "And these people once ran a whole empire?" For clarity and understanding I shall proceed in bullet point format.

  • So, the prime minister, Theresa May — a vicar's daughter who was never elected to lead the country and only promoted to the position after David Cameron resigned following the Brexit vote — called a snap election a little over a month ago.
  • The prevailing logic was that her party, the Conservatives (Tories), would prevail in a landslide, thus cementing her authority and enabling her to follow through on some of her most favoured pledges, such as breaking up with the European Union (which, ironically, she was opposed to in the vote), bringing back grammar schools, taxing people with dementia so that their homes can be stolen, and re-legalising fox hunting for the 1-percenter chums of her investment banker husband.
  • Political analysts boldly stated the Tories would win a landslide because May's only viable opponent, Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the opposition Labour Party), was completely unelectable, despite being very popular with the non-elite.
  • Corbyn, it was said, was 'completely unelectable' because he was a bearded socialist who rode a bicycle to work and spent his down time growing organic vegetables rather than chasing foxes with dogs and selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. In short, he was 'crazy'.
  • Much was made of a statement he made when he said he wouldn't want to start a nuclear war and kill millions of people, which was seen as hopelessly idealistic and weak. What a loser!
  • And the fact that he once spoke with representatives of the IRA (remember them? The Irish Republican Army) to try and get a peace deal. Clearly a friend of terror!
  • A smear campaign was launched by the media, with just about every publication, including so-called progressive outlets, such as The Guardian and the BBC, saying he was not fit for office.
  • Pollsters predicted that the Labour Party would be wiped out — possibly for generations — and we would enjoy a prosperous future governed by the Tories, whose main objective was to privatise everything and share out the spoils among the top 1%.
  • But not everyone loved the Tories. In fact, anyone not under the spell of the media smear campaigns, or under 60, hated them. With bells on.
  • They hated them so much that some of the other progressive parties, such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, even bowed down and told their supporters to vote for Labour.
  • This made some of their supporters angry. They didn't like the idea of tactical voting. "It will end in tears," they opined.
  • But young people were quite keen on the idea of getting rid of the Tories and electing Jeremy Corbyn. He had promised them a long list of things, such as abolishing tuition fees for students,   halting austerity programmes and taxing the rich more to pay for public services. Oh, and he was not going to privatise the National Health Service, which the Tories wanted to do.
  • Fighting between the two sides was bitter and acrimonious. The media stooped low, very low.
  • And it began to work. People started to call Jeremy Corbyn 'the terrorists' friend', Jezbollah and Red Jezza.
  • As all this squabbling was going on a young Islamic fanatic walked into a pop concert in Manchester filled with teenage girls and children and detonated a suicide bomb, killing 22 innocents.
  • Everyone went quiet for a few days until Theresa May popped up again saying she was the only one who could be trusted to keep Britain safe from terrorists.
  • But then people with a memory longer than the average goldfish remembered that in her previous role she had axed 20,000 police officers as part of an austerity drive. The police themselves said that would probably have caught the terrorist if they hadn't been so underfunded and resourced.
  • Some of the right wing newspapers began to turn on Theresa May, although they made it clear that the still hated Jeremy Corbyn even more because he 'supports terrorism' and doesn't like war.
  • Theresa May, who enjoyed war and said she would be more than happy to nuke entire nations, tried to fight back. But there was a problem. All she could say was "I am strong and stable" over and over, like a robot that had been programmed by a 10-year-old using BASIC and was stuck in a recurring logic loop. People began to call her the 'Maybot'.
  • She came across very badly in media appearances and decided not to turn up to a televised debate for party leaders, which looked bad.
  • Then, for some reason known only to her and her team of advisors, she stated that she was going to confiscate everyone's houses when they got old and infirm. This didn't go down very well with a lot of people.
  • The gap between Labour and the Tories began to narrow as the election approached, sending several newspapers in paroxysms of terror. All the stops were pulled out in smearing Corbyn and his party. 
  • But none was more terrified than The Guardian, which had been knifing Jeremy Corbyn in the front for the past two years and suddenly realised he was in with a chance of winning. The editor decided to completely reverse position on Corbyn, ordering all leader writers to do a U-Turn on the man. Up until then the progressive organ had advocated a Blairite ideology of free market capitalism under the guise of 'socialism lite'. The spectacle of journalistic slithering and backsliding and was enough to upset a delicate stomach.
  • And then three Islamic fanatics attacked central London on a Saturday night, butchering people with kitchen knives and slitting a waitress's throat before they were killed in a hail of bullets by police.
  • Everyone went silent, again. It was only a week before the election. A few liberals could be heard bleating about extending the hand of love to Jihadis, but otherwise it was quiet.
  • In fact, things were pretty quiet right up to the day of the poll, other than a constant low level murmuring on social media about tactical voting.
  • Nobody mentioned the almost £2 trillion (and rising fast) national debt, or the precarious state of energy reserves. These were issues that are not considered important enough compared to, say, Jeremy Corbyn's fondness for growing his own vegetables, or the fact that he once rode around behind the Iron Curtain on a motorbike. 
  • On election day, every online British news site declared that the Tories would win by a substantial margin, meaning that Corbyn supporters might as well just stay at home. A suspicious person would almost think that there was a coordinat ... oh, never mind.
  • Polls closed at 10pm and then it was revealed that there was a SHOCK EXIT POLL which showed that Jeremy Corbyn could potentially WIN!
  • How could the opinion pollsters have got it so wrong, gasped the public. I mean, they never get it wrong, do they?
  • Corbyn supporters went wild with excitement for several hours as the results began to come in, most of which showed the Tories being savaged by the electorate, even in supposed 'safe seats'. For the second time in less than a year, it seemed people were lining up to plunge their daggers between the ribs of an out-of-touch government.
  • A Tory bloodbath ensued and by the next morning it looked like the government was DOOMED... 
  • BUT there was a major catch. Something which would take a while to sink in for Corbyn's supporters...
  • The Tories had still WON, albeit by a margin not large enough to mean they could be declared fit to form a government.
  • A HUNG PARLIAMENT was declared.
  • Which does not mean suits dangling on the end of lamp posts (yet) but simply means there was no overall winner and  a caretaker government would have to be put in place until another election could be scheduled (and we're getting pretty sick of elections, I can tell you).
  • But Labour supporters (and many others) STILL saw it as a victory and started drinking beer, even though it was a Friday morning, and they should have been drinking tea instead.
  • And then Theresa May, who should have been dead at this point, TOTALLY KILLED THE PARTY!
  • She went to see the Queen and told her she was forming a new government with the DUP. Queenie said "Okay, Mrs May."
  • "The DU what?" said everyone.
  • The DUP — Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party. They had enough elected Members of Parliament to form a viable majority with the Tories.
  • Everyone frantically Googled the DUP to see who they were and what they stood for. When they found out there was much gnashing of teeth and renting of hair.
  • The DUP, it turns out, are an Irish version of ISIS. As Presbyterian fundamentalists, they define themselves by what they hate, which is Catholics, gays, single mothers, sin, Catholics, modernity and gays. What's more, many of their supporters wear black balaclavas and paint murals on the sides of houses depicting them holding machine guns with words such as "Never Surrender" and lines of scripture.
  • These people were now potentially our government.
  • And Jeremy 'the terrorists' friend' Corbyn was still free to spend plenty of time down at the allotment watering his pumpkins.
  • Progressives fell into a profound pit of despair as something beyond their worst nightmares had come to pass. Their strategic voting hadn't worked, and the smaller parties, such as the Greens, having voluntarily acted as doormats, had lost credibility.
  • But it wasn't all bad news from their perspective, at least now EVERYONE hated Theresa May — including her own party. For she has taken a party that was telling itself to get ready to rule for several decades, if not forever, and brought it to the much reduced point where they had to cosy up to people who wore ski masks in the pub.
  • She'll probably be killed off for good shortly and replaced with Boris 'the buffoon' Johnson.
  • And she didn't even get to re-introduce her favourite blood sport, which must hurt.
  • To further confuse things Scotland voted FOR the Tories, rather than their beloved Scottish Nationalist Party — meaning the Scots wanted to be part of Britain and rejected the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon's desire to break away from England BUT surrender to the EU. Confused yet?
  • Meanwhile, the pound fell on all the uncertainty, and the whole process of Brexit has been thrown into confusion. And the EU just sits there, thrumming its fingers on the desk and saying "Well, are you leaving, or aren't you? Make your mind up."
  • But the DUP don't like the idea of Brexit (which must be sinful, in some way) — despite once stating that Europe was run by the Antichrist — and seeing as they have a very big bargaining chip they might insist on either staying in the EU or watering down the terms of leaving it — most probably in the form of keeping the borders open.
  • Meanwhile 'unelectable' Corbyn is down at his vegetable plot fertilising his brassicas, a wry smile on his weathered face. Not only does he now have a large army of fanatical supporters, but he has some major chunks of the media begging for forgiveness. And if another election were called in the next couple of years —which, let's face it, is looking very likely — he'd stand a good chance of winning.
  • So, to recap, the Tories won but they 'lost', Labour lost but they 'won', the Scottish Tories won for Britain but lost for Scotland, the Northern Irish Presbyterians, who could never have dreamed of winning, have won the whole UK, UKIP has disappeared but might appear with a vengeance if Brexit is threatened, the Green party got thrown on the compost heap and the Liberal Democrats simply annoyed everyone — all clear?
  • And still nobody mentions the debt or the energy entropy time bomb ...

So there you have it. I imagine it looks like a storm in a teacup from an international perspective — but it sure feels uncomfortable when you live in the teacup.

And the winner is ...

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

P is for Patience

Image: Sarolta Bán

Patience is something I got a lesson in recently when I almost sliced my hand in half with an angle grinder. Minutes before my little accident I'd been sitting at the dining room table with my wife, discussing the jobs that needed doing before summer. Spring was in the air and I felt full of pent-up energy after the winter. I wrote a list of all the various renovation projects that needed doing on our old house, the tasks that needed to be completed in our woodland to ensure a supply of firewood, charcoal, mushrooms and fruit for the coming year, and the last-push that needed to happen to get our polytunnel producing food during the main growing season. Yes, there was a lot that needed doing, but I felt equal to the task and was impatient to get on with all the jobs.

Twenty minutes later I was walking to my local hospital - which, luckily, is only five minutes from home - a blood-soaked pillow case wrapped around my hand and arm. "I'll be alright," I was telling my wife. "It's just a cut — we'll stick a plaster on it and it'll heal." Luckily, she disagreed with my prognosis and prodded me along to the hospital emergency centre.

An operation under general anaesthetic was performed that saw surgeons digging chunks of abrasive disk out of my metacarpi and sewing severed tendons back together. When I came round and saw a plaster cast from my elbow to the fingertips I began to realise that my list of jobs might just have to wait. The hand doctor gave me the bad news. "You won't be able to use the hand at all for a month, and it'll be three months before you can do any manual work with it."

And so that was that. A right-handed person losing the use of their right hand, albeit temporarily, is severely limiting, to put it mildly. There was no chance I could complete any of the jobs I had set down on my list. I couldn't drive, I couldn't cook, I couldn't open bottles or jars, get my clothes on or off, or eat food that wasn't already cut into small pieces. I managed as best as I could with my left hand, but I'm not ambidextrous and it's pretty hard to do things such as type or brush your teeth with the hand you're not used to using. I became like a big baby — almost totally helpless when it came to doing simple tasks.

Now, three months on, it has completely healed. I have an interesting scar that I can show to people at parties, and I can't make a 'thumbs up' with my right hand, but otherwise there is no sign of my injury. I got off pretty lightly, having heard some rather gruesome stories from others (walking around with a power tool injury seems to attract a certain type of man who is keen to show off his own power tool injury scars.)

But apart from teaching me that angle grinders are dangerous (something I had known on a theoretical level but now know on a visceral one) my mishap did teach me about patience. Sitting around for a month with nothing much to do apart from read books and reflect made me realise that in the seven years or so since I first learned about the fate of the industrial world, how delicate is its mode of operation and how dependent we all are upon it, I have been engaged in constant hurried preparation for its demise. I'd downsized from my job, moved the family out of a city and country to somewhere less risky, bought a piece of land, learned a few skills that might be useful for when the current economic model has a seizure, and spent countless hundreds of hours filling my questing mind with books, blogs and media trying to figure out what the hell was going on with the world and what an appropriate mode of living might look like in response to it.

And over those seven years I've seen the majority of collapse pundits repeatedly get their predictions wrong for when 'the big one' is coming. Well, so far, 'the big one' hasn't hit us in our cosy first world bubble, but there are plenty of signs of carnage and chaos if one cares to look. We have various failed state countries, including Libya, Syria, Venezuela and Egypt. Each one of these countries was relatively prosperous and stable a decade ago, and yet now, life for many people living there has become a mad scramble for survival amidst political turmoil, hunger, rioting and civil war. Mainstream news media doesn't often report on what is going on within these countries, so it falls to independent observers to go out and look at what is happening on the ground and spread their info using social media.

On the finance and economics front we have basically seen the death of economic growth, in any meaningful sense. Sure, there are lots of figures and factoids flying around about 'full employment' and 'economic recovery' and the like, but scratch the surface and you'll find a dispiriting reality of millions of unemployed but uncounted people, people working minimum wage jobs on zero hours contracts and GDP figures that are almost entirely comprised of central bank generated debt. The debt bubble has ballooned to epic proportions, but again, the media doesn't seem interested. Debt allows countries, institutions and people to look good in the short term, while at the same time sacrificing the longer term.

On the energy front there is a sustained and continued fall in the density of the supplies available to us as a species. We consume something like five times as much oil as we discover, and whatever new stuff we do discover tends to be so challenging to extract and process that we have to expend huge amounts of our remaining energy just to do so: translated, this means that we might as well not bother. It's as if we have been at a rambunctious frat party and the parental liquor cupboard has been smashed open and drained. All that remains are a few empty bottles lying on their sides and some really horrible sticky orange-flavoured aperetifs. The party looks like it's about to fizzle out when someone discovers several crates of booze in the basement. Party on! But wait, it's just shandy, but who cares, it looks like beer and it comes in bottles that look like beer bottles. And all the time new guests keep arriving and demanding booze...

To make up for the inconvenient truth that we are running out of the highly-concentrated fuels our industrial civilisation needs to run, we have a loud cacophony of techno-optimists who insist that business as usual can continue if we just build enough wind turbines, or solar panels or propagate algae in the sea that we can turn into diesel. All of these schemes look great on a computer screen and it is easy to get uninformed people to believe that they are indeed feasible, but none of them ever consider the mechanisms — financial, political, economic — that would be needed to scale them up to a level where they would make much of a difference to offset the diminishing conventional fuels. We seem to be lost in a dreamlike state of demented unreality, like blindfolded people wandering around in a maze shouting hail Mary through gritted teeth. The sad truth is that the smartest people among us are those who capitalise on this madness, amassing huge personal fortunes by promising the moon (or Mars), just so long as the government subsidies continue rolling in.

Aside from all this we have ten different shades of crazy running through our societies. Some mischievous demon somewhere decided to lob a bomb into our carefully ordered political consensus of what constitutes left and right, good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate. This has given the chattering classes, who thought they had it all sorted out, a bad case of the vapours, and turned many of them into little more than drooling basket cases who become psychotic when presented with images and words that go against their programming. Thus we have people who identify as 'liberal'  throwing their allegiance behind billionaire financiers and politicians promising endless war, and those who identify as 'conservative' being generally in favour of conserving nothing except for their own privileges at the expense of everyone else.

On top of the above factors, we've also got a few new wars, environmental problems that are getting steadily worse, the drumbeat of Islamic terrorism that is getting closer to home, and there are now half a billion more people in the world than when I first started writing this blog, some of whom are refugees heading this way.

So, when you look at the past seven years, a lot has changed. Even if it doesn't feel like it on a day-by-day basis, the world is going through a profound readjustment. Sure, at some point, something will probably snap. Maybe it'll be a financial crisis that pops the debt bubble and ends up bankrupting entire countries as bonds get slaughtered. Maybe it'll be a war confected by the deep state and the western military industrial complex — that uber parasite on mankind — and we'll all be lying flat on our backs not knowing what hit us. This time next week/month/year we could all be dead or starving, or eating each other's brains for breakfast.

But here's my simple take on things: to give in to such depressing thoughts is to deny ourselves the ability to lives our lives in the best way that we can. Surrender to the fact that there's nothing you can do to 'fix' things, other than making yourself and your loved ones as secure as you can, and try to make the best of the hand you've been dealt. Create stuff, love people and life, try and make things a bit better for others and keep laughing at the absurdity of it all. The universe doesn't owe you a safe passage — there is no other way.