Self-Isolation

February 29, 2020

“Self-isolation” is the latest term to enter popular vocabulary. People who have been infected with the coronavirus have been urged to remove themselves from society. People who have recently been to regions which have been afflicted by the virus have also been urged to do it. Go home. Shut the door. Have minimal contact with people. Ensure that you’re not putting the health of the public at risk.

I have neither been infected, nor been to an affected region. Nevertheless, “self-isolation” is a term to which I can relate. My self-isolation began in late 2018. I had just finished being a witness in a prominent court case. I had taken the stand five times; I had travelled to the Old Bailey on three separate occasions. It is the task of every defence attorney worth their salt to pull witnesses inside out; this made a task which I found depressing to do in the first place, even more onerous despite having the comfort of holding fast to the truth. By the time it was all over, I was bruised and saddened; I must, however, give credit to the volunteers who help witnesses outside the courtroom. They were very supportive.

My face and name were in the newspapers and on television. I recall going into a corner store to get some supplies and hearing a couple whispering to each other behind me in the queue, “Is that the fellow…?” “Yes, dear, I think he is…”. I paid and left as quickly as I could.

After my last court appearance on December 17, 2018, I sat on the platform at City Thameslink station, waiting for the first train to whisk me home. Being alone was blissful. It was the early afternoon. I sat there, with my phone in hand, a chill wind blowing down the darkened tunnel. In a rare departure from my usual classical repertoire, I put on the Beatles song, “Two of Us”. I hoped the jaunty tune would cheer me up, but the reason why it particularly appealed was the line “I’m going home”. I also thought of a statement from Eliot’s “The Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

Time to turn back and ascend the stair

I would go home and ascend the stair. The curtains would be drawn, that would be all. I would wait for the noise to dissipate and for people to forget. After all, Christmas was coming up and surely more important things would preoccupy anyone who was acquainted with the story. I waited for the day when I could go to the corner store and no one would know my face nor remember my name.

It took longer than I hoped. My preference during that period was to stay at home and out of sight. I kept my Twitter account locked for sustained periods. The media approaches continued into the New Year; I thought about telling my story but eventually decided against it. I didn’t want to be bothered any more than I had been already; also, while there was an appeals process underway, I thought it would be unwise to say anything. Furthermore, I believe the publicity harmed the job hunt I was undertaking at the time.

Eventually, Spring came. The looks and whispers died away. I still have preferred to be home; through 2019, I spent a lot of time and effort into putting together a comfortable study where I can continue to self-isolate. I put a large portion of my classical music collection in there: the Mozart, Bach, Wagner, and Beethoven box sets have prominent places on the shelves. I acquired more bookshelves from Ikea and filled them. I spotted a deal on a television last July; I acquired it. My comfortable sofa is draped with blankets in case I need a nap on the weekends.

I got another job. More often than not, I work from home: I do so in my study. My cats quickly realised this was where they could find me; my cat Thomas has a spot on the sofa which he has claimed for himself. It’s not uncommon for all my cats, Thomas, Sarah Jane, and Solomon to be in here all at once. My Dachshund Boris also is a frequent visitor.

I found the study window could be brightened up by stringing coloured pennants across it. I ordered some from a craft company in Lithuania via Etsy prior to the Brexit deadline. Books continue to cram every corner. Small busts of composers acquired from eBay sit on the shelves. My banjo sits on a stand in the corner. When I look up from my laptop, I see tomes which range from Isabel Allende’s latest novel to a biography of the Austrian statesman Metternich. As I type this, a vinyl record spins on the player, liberating Billie Holiday’s voice to touch the air. The door is shut. I am self-isolated, at least until my cat Thomas comes to the door, pawing at it until I let him in. He is always welcome.

Although I’m an introvert, I was not always this way. I ran for city council in 2016, 2017, and 2018 as a Labour candidate. I remember the 2017 campaign as a particularly inspiring time. I went out every evening and knocked on doors and spoke to people in the ward. I wanted to speak to everyone. One evening, there was a public hustings in a village hall. I wore a dark pinstripe suit and a bright red tie. I felt like I could talk to anyone, and advocate for the cause of my constituents. I recall doing it, I recall every nuance of strength and emotion that I felt. I effectively countered the 8 or more Conservative councillors who decided to question me from the audience. I remember feeling “switched on”; the possibilities seemed as limitless as the summer sunshine that blessed the weeks of that campaign. I didn’t win, but it was a shining moment.

Not too long ago, I drove past that village hall. It was night; the windows were dark, the doors were locked. It some ways it seems the door is still shut. I am self-isolated. Time to turn back and ascend the stair. Put on another Billie Holliday record. Drink some mineral water, wrap a blanket around the shoulders. You’re ready for the coronavirus, I tell myself. You can stay here for weeks at a time if need be. Dear Thomas will come to the door and we will listen to music and he will watch me as I type away on this keyboard, his green-yellow eyes following the movement of my fingers. I will look up at a later hour and see the fading sunlight, and eventually, night will arrive. It will be time to turn back and ascend the stair, Thomas following me as I go to bed.

However, things change. After all, the open horizons of 2017 became the narrow confine of 2018 and beyond. I have little doubt there will be a time when I will get up from the routine of work, study, with trips to the gym or the store in-between. The healing that self-isolation offers will be complete. The door will open.

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Review: Superman: Red Son starring Jason Isaacs and Vanessa Marshall

February 26, 2020

I must admit that I’m not a “comic book” sort of person. I never collected them. I watched some superhero cartoons on Saturday mornings when I was a boy. I don’t recall specific plots, but I do remember that the Green Lantern’s powers were useless against items coloured yellow. Also, there was a “Bizarro” version of Superman who couldn’t use pronouns correctly and had a face that looked like it was chiselled out of chalk. Apart from a few films I’ve seen over the years, the whole comic book and superhero universe has passed me by.

However, I am very interested in the history of Russia and particularly that of the Soviet period. When I was looking through Apple TV, I noticed on one of the new release icons that Superman was sporting a new logo on his chest: a hammer and sickle. This immediately sparked my interest. I clicked through and found the film was asking a fascinating question: what if Baby Superman had crash landed in the Soviet Union rather than the heartland of the United States? Raised by Soviet parents and educated in Soviet traditions, he would have had the same powers but would he have had the same values? Would he have been just as virtuous and heroic? Would Soviet socialism been more decent, more fair, and less brutal with an incorruptible hero guarding the land?

“Superman: Red Son” poses these questions and makes an attempt to resolve them. It also asks questions of Americans and others in the West: are we any better than the defunct USSR, or our flaws merely different in kind rather than degree?

We are introduced to the Soviet Superman as a child. He is referred to as “Misha”; he is a decent boy. Though tormented by bullies, he refuses to use his superior strength and powers to fight back. Only his best friend Svetlana knows the full extent of his abilites, and it is she who tells him that he must use his talents in the service of the state.

I’m used to seeing images of Stalin in drawings and prints; in my study I have a poster that shows Stalin as the “great leader of the Soviet people”. He resembles a superhero, standing large and and looking imposing set against the Kremlin and a red banner bearing Lenin’s visage behind him. I wonder how the physically diminutive Stalin (the adopted name of Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili – “Stalin”, interestingly, literally means “Man of Steel”), who spoke with a strong Georgian accent, would have felt with a 6 foot 4 inch Superman (coupled with the voice of Jason Isaacs) in his presence. He was notoriously paranoid and had any potential rival eliminated.

In this universe, however, Stalin refers to Superman as his son; I find this somewhat plausible as Stalin was dissapponted by his son Yakov (who died in a German concentration camp in World War 2) and his other son Vassily (who was a disssolute alcoholic). Superman, for his part, begins as an obedient Stakhanovite (shock worker); he helps put together and switch on a hydroelectric dam and refuses to give the credit to anyone other than the Soviet people. He is truly selfless and committed to the welfare of the people, as a good Soviet worker should be. Whoever put this film together does have awareness of the period’s imagery and propaganda, and it shows. I also noticed how Russian-sounding musical motifs made themselves heard on the soundtrack.

Superman takes control of the USSR when he discovers the gap between rhetoric and reality. He intends to eliminate this void. I was reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of Stalin in “The First Circle”; in that characterisation, Stalin regards it as his mission to force his people down the path of progress. With the help of Brainiac, a sentient supercomputer, everything in the USSR is computed and measured to the tiniest degree, and Soviet Superman has every statistic about his people to hand, from industrial production, to the rate of reproduction, to suicide rates. He is not above putting chemicals in the water supply to stimulate or control behaviours detrimental to society. The Gulag (forced labour camp) is gone; lobotomies, however, are common.

Other characters from the Superman comic book universe appear. Wonder Woman (voiced by Vanessa Marshall) returns as an ambassador to the Soviet Union from her people, the Amazons. The film is unapologetically progressive in matters of gender and sexuality: in this universe, she is an openly LGBT character. Soviet Superman does not find this at all shocking. Additionally, Lex Luthor is an American industrialist, scientist, and politician instead of a master criminal. Lois Lane is Luthor’s devoted wife. This dramatic shift of characters in place and role is somehow natural and right.

Perhaps the most interesting change is in Batman’s character; in “Red Son”, he is an anarchist leader who doesn’t care who he kills so long as he brings down the “perfect system” that Soviet Superman has created. The writers may or may not be aware of this, but this Batman and his followers bear strong similarities to real groups like the Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) who killed Tsar Alexander II in 1881 by throwing bombs at his carriage. The “Batmen” were perfectly positioned as their successors.

I have two criticisms of the film. First is its length. 1 hour and 24 minutes doesn’t allow for enough exposition in my view. I would have liked to see how Soviet Superman resolved the central paradox of the USSR: how could he balance control with the freedom necessary to be creative? Without creativity, no society can progress. I also would have liked to know more about the Soviet conquest of the globe with the exception of the United States; I was tickled by the scene in which the West was building the Berlin Wall and Soviet Superman told the Americans to “tear down this wall”, a well-executed inversion of Reagan’s words to Gorbachev. So: what happened to Europe afterwards?

The problem of length, however, is minor and it comes from someone who is viewing it through the lens of counterfactual history rather than that of the genre of fantasy. I am conscious of the fact that my tastes are niche.

My other, more serious point about this film has to do with its ending. It’s not my intention to give away too much; suffice it to say that not even Soviet Superman can overcome the United States. This suggests a rather clipped resolution to the question if it’s the systems that make people virtuous or if it’s the other way around. The film at first had not shied away from talking about the problems of inequality and racism in America; Lex Luthor is shown to have a dark, egotistical side and a fundamental disregard for life. Nevertheless, the system appears, eventually, to make him better than Soviet Superman. Really? Would it not have been possible for Soviet Superman to show the intelligence and sensitivity to plot a new course for his country? It is like the film was asking deep questions and then finished with an “Only kidding”.

Having said all this, I enjoyed the film tremendously. Indeed, I have changed the wallpaper on my laptop to show a propaganda poster featuring Soviet Superman fighting for truth, justice, and the Socialist way. This film will likely be among my favourites for years to come, not just because for what it is, but also because unlike those Saturday cartoons of yesteryear, it made me think.

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The Real Electorate

February 25, 2020

I remember when I first realised that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign was in deep trouble. I was visiting my former home town, New York, and it was just after the first debate. Like many in my circle, I thought Hillary had wiped the floor with Trump. She knew her facts, she seemed poised and coherent. Trump rambled, was boorish, and spoke a great deal of pure nonsense. Twitter confirmed my view; Trump was an emotionally incontinent buffoon who just had his head handed back to him.

The morning after the debate, I decided to go get a haircut. The barber I use in New York is an old-fashioned one, with linoleum tiles and fixtures that haven’t changed since the late 1950’s. When I first started going there, it was staffed by Italian immigrants, now it’s run by Ukrainian Jews. The new proprietors were keen on maintaining continuity: black plastic combs rested inside glass tubes full of blue disinfectant. The traditional red, white, and blue barber pole was still illuminated on the outside of the shop, turning in a neverending spin. Even the cash register still has the familiar ding of yesteryear’s bell.

While I had my hair cut, there was an old fellow waiting in the queue behind me. I estimate he was in his early 60’s. He had white hair and a moustache, wore a red plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. I guessed from his demeanour he was a blue collar guy, perhaps working in one of the light industrial plants in the area. As he waited and the barber worked on me, highlights of the debate were flashing up on a flat screen television stuck to the wall.

The old fellow audibly sighed after the piece ended. “Well,” he said, “neither of them are angels, but I’ve got to go with the Donald.”

If my barber hadn’t had a sharp pair of scissors in his hands, I would have been tempted to leap out of my chair. I engaged him in conversation. We talked a bit about Brexit; I then said, “People voted for it because they weren’t happy.” I added that sometimes when people aren’t happy they choose something unknown, which Brexit at the time was.

He replied, “I’m not happy.”

This fellow didn’t seem to be a “MAGA” type; he wasn’t enthusiastic about Trump. He was very well aware that Trump was vulgar and his behaviour was disgusting. Trump was not someone he would invite to dinner or meet his family. This fellow didn’t strike me as racist or having any particular axe to grind. His reason for voting for Trump was straightforward, “I’m not happy”. Hillary offered no change whatsoever; although her facts should have triumphed over Trump’s pomposity, it was precisely this that doomed her. She was the most visible symbol of the establishment. “We’re not happy,” the electorate said. That made all the difference in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan where having Beyonce’s or Barbara Streisand’s endorsement means little when the factory is shut and whole communities are going under due to opioid addiction. They also didn’t like being called “deplorables”; although Hillary didn’t mean it specifically for this part of the electorate, it was read that way. If you were thinking of voting for Trump, it seemed, you were deplorable in the eyes of this elite person. I still don’t believe Hillary understands how much this off the cuff remark hurt her.

I have often thought about this conversation when I look at American politics. Indeed, I believe this fellow is a good sample of the type of person who is voting for “populist” parties in almost any democracy. They aren’t necessarily convinced by the populists, but they are certain that change is necessary. These people don’t care much for ideology, either on the far right or the hard left. They merely want their lives to get better. They want to have more money in their pay packets. They want their roads not to be full of potholes. They want their schools to teach their kids the things they need to know to be successful. They want there to be a good paying job waiting for those kids once they graduate. They want their communities to be safe. This may all seem very small beer when looking at the grand scheme of history, and a revolution is rarely made on the back of such bread and butter concerns, but it is precisely these basic needs that have gone by the wayside. The regular working person has been told for decades that globalisation is good for them; it led to cheaper prices in some of the shops, but it also meant that a lot of stable factory work disappeared. Without work, their communities fell apart; this was coupled by the increasingly crass behaviour by companies like Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Purdue exploited people by pushing opioids as an answer for pain; other forms of exploitation such as easy credit still are foisted on the public.

That public also saw they are governed by an elite which didn’t look like them: they came from top schools like Harvard and Yale, they are lawyers and solictors with expense accounts, Mercedes Benzes and are completely detached from the harsh realities that most face. Meanwhile, the costs of improving the regular person’s lot, such as via university education, skyrocketed. This was far from the promise that had been given to their parents and grandparents, that life would continue to get better, that their children would have more opportunity than they would. Is it no wonder they are aggrieved? Is it no wonder that if someone offers change, that they will grab hold of it, even if they don’t know what the outcome may be?

The question the 2020 election will pose is this, has enough change occurred to return Trump to office for another 4 years? The fellow in the barber shop may have a 401k retirement plan, which is linked to the performance of the stock market. The stock market has gone up substantially over the past 4 years. Unemployment statistics, at least, indicate that joblessness is low. Is that enough? Or is it sufficient change to not merit a dramatic shift to the left?

I don’t know the answer to this question. But I suggest that every Democratic candidate needs to consider this individual I met on that bright morning in the barber shop. The Democratic nominee will never get the vote of the MAGA, red cap wearing crowd; that wasn’t going to happen anyway. The vote of the individual who wasn’t happy and voted for Trump in 2016 is still in play. The election may very well turn on the answer to this question: “How will you convince this real electorate that the very basic necessities that they want for themselves and their families are things that you can deliver?”

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In Praise of Thomas the Cake Cat

February 15, 2020

When I write or work from home, I’m generally not alone. My cat Thomas is usually sitting on the sofa beside me, curled up as close as he possibly can be. Often, he’s dozing.

Thomas is a remarkable character. He has lived with me for nearly 8 years. I found him, or rather, he found me when I was living in Bradford. Not long after I’d moved to the city, I was out in my back garden hanging up laundry on the line. A red folding chair stood on the deck. It was there I first caught sight of him. He is a big white cat with a few black markings. He looked rather regal sitting there, his paw draped over the edge in a leonine fashion. His eyes narrowed when he first saw me; in retrospect, I believe he liked me at first sight. He certainly was not afraid.

Thomas was a stray. Enquiries made around the neighbourhood indicated that he had been living by his wits and on handouts from humans for about 4 years. He became a regular at my back door, asking for food: he was always indulged.

March 2012 in Bradford was unusually warm: I recall driving through the Bradford Moor neighbourhood and seeing families play in the sunshine. In Bradford Moor Park, a father dressed in a kurta pushed his young son on a swing. The boy’s feet went higher and higher with each undulation, till he probably could see the clear blue skies through his bare toes. It seemed Spring had been given a miss and we had jumped into early Summer. The trees were in leaf and swayed in the strong, warm breeze. Thomas showed up in the mornings, walking along the top of the fence that enclosed my small garden. He ate his breakfast, then went out into the day, perhaps looking for a place in the sunshine to sleep after his repast.

April grabbed Yorkshire by the shoulder and brought Bradford back to its senses. A blizzard hit. I recall seeing heavy, thick snow pelting down and the trees bending in the cold wind. I had two other cats at the time, Sarah Jane and Amelia: I quickly went to the glass door leading onto the garden and let them in. Then Thomas appeared. He cried out. I let him in.

Not far from the door stood a cat basket which neither of my two cats had used. Thomas bounded directly into it and sat there as if it had always been his. It was clear from that moment that he was here to stay.

There is a photo which was taken not long afterwards, after Thomas had the inevitable tests for diseases such as Feline AIDS and Leukaemia (negative, thankfully) and had been neutered. By that time, Spring had been restored and I was able to wear a t-shirt again. In the picture, I am seated at a chair and using my laptop. Thomas had leapt up onto the chair arm and was looking at me. The next photo in the sequence shows Thomas peering at the screen with me. The impression given is that we are looking at the internet together. There have been photos over the years which show episodes in which he is peering at books I am reading and watching television with me.

As the years have passed, the bond between he and I has only grown stronger. Every evening, when I go to bed, he follows me up the stairs. I climb into bed. He leaps up beside me and curls up right next to my chest and stomach. I stroke his head and tell him what a remarkable boy he is. Sometimes I even sing to him, to the tune of “Little Donkey”:

Little Thomas, little Thomas
On the dusty road
Got to keep on, carrying on
With your heavy load
Little Thomas, Little Thomas
Such a lovely boy
Little Thomas, Little Thomas
He’s our pride and joy!

This tune came to me not long after he arrived: he had wandered far throughout Bradford, his paws were covered in callouses. As a result, he is named after the most well-travelled of Christ’s apostles.

If I’m not gripped by insomnia, we fall asleep; if I am trapped by wakefulness, we go down to my study. He sleeps beside me on the couch. But, after the nights that insomnia has loosened its grip, he will awaken me either with an intense stare from his big, dark eyes, or by digging his paws into my duvet covered back. We go downstairs. I put on the coffee and the radio. I fill his food bowl. He has his breakfast, I have mine. His love of food makes him a gourmet among cats; not long after he arrived, I discovered that he loves cake. A photo of him devouring a cake has become widely circulated on the internet. What the photo doesn’t tell you is that he also tried to eat the cake I bought to replace it. But it’s not just cake, he is so food oriented, I’ve also come up with another little ditty in his honour:

Food, oh food
I don’t mean to be presumptuous or rude
But when you’re a cat
Food’s where is its at
Life isn’t life without food!

Food, oh food
It’s not a question of fad or of mood
Savoury or sweet
It makes life complete
Life isn’t life without food!

In addition to inspiration, Thomas provides proof that animals do have emotions and they feel ours. There is another photo of me, taken while I was asleep in a chair. Thomas had leapt up onto my lap. He stared at me adoringly. When I am unhappy, somehow he knows, and sometimes he will reach out a reassuring paw to touch me. “It’ll be OK,” is perhaps what he is trying to tell me. As a result, when things go wrong, when the days are full more of hurt than laughter, he is there to remind me that life is not all like that. He is indispensible.

I set these words down knowing that Thomas’s presence on this earth is likely to be much shorter than mine. He is getting old. His hard early years have manifested themselves recently in aching joints; he is not as fast as he used to be, though often I can still see the kitten in him and when the sun is warm, he still plays like one. Nevertheless, I sometimes have to give him an anti-inflammatory drug to ease his stiff paws. I have quietly worried when I have had to help him get up onto surfaces that previously he could mount in a single leap. Sometimes he aches so much that after I aid him, I have to wipe away a sympathetic tear.

Furthermore, his early years exposed to the elements mean that he develops a black growth on his nose which falls off after a certain point: it’s a form of cat melanoma, which fortunately doesn’t threaten his overall health, though I closely monitor it. If he looks tired, I reassure him, pet him, tell him quietly, “You stay here with me” and tell him he looks “trim, and fit, and lovely”. He purrs in response. As I type these words, he again has put a paw on my leg. Is he encouraging me? Is he comforting me? I pet him again and repeat, “You stay here with me”. I think he will, as long as he can.

I have a reoccurring dream. I have died, and what lays ahead is a portal of light. And out of that portal steps Thomas to lead me to the next world. Sometimes our dreams tell us what awaits us, sometimes they speak to us of our hopes. All I can be certain of is that this street cat from Bradford has given me so much. I believe he feels similarly about me; I hope that everyone who has let a cat or dog or any other animal into their lives gets as much heartfelt joy.

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Deliver or be Damned

February 11, 2020

British responses to the Irish election prove that there is nothing quite like the blindness that makes you unable to see what is right in front of you. Ireland is a major trading partner, the only country which shares a land border with Great Britain, and many Britons have recently had cause to remember they have Irish roots. Yet, the country is strangely invisible to British eyes. Voters in the 2016 referendum seemed to forget Northern Ireland; British commentators after Sinn Fein’s success in this election are wallowing in misunderstanding. The execrable Darren Grimes, whose only credentials are being employed by a secretive far right wing think tank and being forced to pay a £20,000 by the Electoral Commission for breaking the rules during the 2016 referendum, suggested that rent controls were to blame for high rental costs in Ireland. This, he suggested, led to Sinn Fein’s success. It is no wonder that the Irish separated themselves from the British: they have been subject to being patronised, ignored, and oppressed by people who could not be bothered to understand them, or indeed, Google what is going on.

The Irish election contains valuable lessons for any democratic society. Be in no doubt, Ireland is a better functioning democracy than many. In Britain, our electoral system creates a tyranny of the minority: most people didn’t vote Conservative, but thanks to the First Past the Post system, we have a Conservative government which will be immovable for the foreseeable future. Ireland relies on the Single Transferrable Vote. This makes the process of counting somewhat agonising: the vote took place on Saturday the 8th, and didn’t conclude until the evening of Monday the 10th. Nevertheless, the result may better reflect what the Irish think: the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael parties saw their support bleed away, the public put their faith in Sinn Fein and newer left-leaning formations like the Greens and Social Democrats. They mainly went for the newly packaged Sinn Fein, which racked up the most first preference votes by far. Their leader, Mary Lou McDonald, could very well be the next Taoiseach.

Why? The current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, had done a masterful job on foreign policy: he had managed to wring concessions out of Boris Johnson and unite the entire European Union behind Ireland’s position. Unemployment, by all accounts, is relatively low. Ireland is, for the most part, on the other side of the financial crisis, and economic growth levels are reasonable. However, the lesson of Ireland is one that every government should take to heart: listen or be left behind. Deliver, or be damned.

It probably came as a surprise to British observers that the exit polls indicated that Brexit was a major concern for only 1% of Irish voters. Britain has been caught up in its own psychodramas for so long that it has failed to realise that these are uninteresting to nearly everyone else. The Irish were focused on were housing and health. Housing was the main issue; Ireland has some of the most expensive housing in Europe. This phenomena is by no means isolated to getting a roof over one’s head: I recall when I visited Ireland and was looking at the prices of products in Boots. It was then I became acquainted with the meaning of the phrase which I had heard while I was drinking my coffee: “Rip-off Ireland”. Combating this was a theme of campaigns on the left, including the Solidarity / People Before Profit alliance. Yes, the economy is growing; however, most people aren’t apparently feeling particularly good about it. The Fine Gael government has been in power for 9 years and been slow to respond; they were propped up after the indecisive 2016 election by Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail’s policy mix wasn’t substantially different to Fine Gael’s; they only exist as two separate parties because of their positions on the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Fine Gael was for it, Fianna Fail, against). To use an expression I first heard in Ireland, they were seen by modern voters as “two cheeks of the same arse”.

The government’s lack of listening was highlighted by Simon Coveney’s response after Fine Gael’s poor showing; most British readers will remember Mr. Coveney’s repeated and masterful appearances in the British media regarding Brexit. Upon facing his own voters, he apparently lost his touch: he expressed frustration at the voters’ lack of “patience”. Blaming the voters is never a good look for any politician. It smacks of Bertold Brecht’s famous poem, the Solution, which jokingly suggests the government should dissolve the people and elect another.

In a democracy, a government that neither listens nor delivers should be punished. Ireland is a functioning democracy. Fine Gael was knocked into third place. Fianna Fail only holds the most number of deputies in the Dáil because the Ceann Comhairle (the equivalent of the Speaker) is of that party. Otherwise, it would be tied with Sinn Fein. Forming a government will be a tricky business, but at least this is reflective of what people think and their priorities. It is now down to the politicians to listen and find a way to deliver, otherwise they will be punished again at the polls. Far from being an episode in which democracy has broken down or succumbed to the forces of populism, this is an example in which it has done what it should. Compare and contrast to Britain: the public was swayed by cheap slogans, and bound to an outdated electoral system, a government that didn’t listen and had not delivered on matters which were actually important – such as housing and health – was returned to power with a large majority.

I suspect much of the British commentariat will continue to be blind to what just hapened in Ireland; this is a pity. There is so much to learn from the Irish example, not least of which is how a proper voting system should work, and how a government that doesn’t deliver on the real priorities of the people should be treated. The Irish showed good political health in other ways: for example, immigration was very low on their list of concerns. Racism apparently has little truck in the Republic. Nothing is perfect: I was horrified by what happened to the party of the famous Irish trade unionist, “Big Jim” Larkin, Labour. They have been reduced to a ghost of their former selves with only 6 seats. Nevertheless, Ireland is in better shape than Britain is, more secure in its democracy and identity than the United Kingdom. Perhaps rather than ignoring them, we ought to pay close attention and learn.

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Defeating Trump

February 7, 2020

At first glance, the Democrats are in a terrible state. The Iowa Caucus was a failure of both technology and organisation: the Republicans can and will use this example to suggest the Democrats couldn’t run a bath, let alone the country. Trump escaped punishment thanks to a compliant Senate, which decided that it was better to acquit him of things of which he was clearly guilty than to face into his Twitter tirades. Recently, his approval rating hit a high of 49%.

However, it’s February. There are 9 months between now and Election Day, a vast ocean of time in which Trump’s hopes can be holed below the waterline. In my opinion, this is going to require an acknowledgement of his main weakness: as much as some would like it to be otherwise, he cannot be felled on policy because he will say anything, even left wing things, in order to curry favour. Attentive observers may have noted that he vowed to preserve Social Security in 2016: of course, he was lying. But, because most people don’t lie without a single pang of conscience, some took what he said at face value. We can assume that if a position is popular, he will peddle new falsehoods with a similar shamelessness. Thus it will be difficult to eject him on the basis of his plans for America.

There are significant headwinds any Democrat must face. We can dispute the causes of why the stock market is hitting new records: however, it is indisputably higher than when Trump took office. The giant corporate tax cuts that the Republicans enacted were used to buy back shares, driving valuations higher. This is the fiscal equivalent of drinking a can of Red Bull: a period of frenetic energy, to be followed by a subsequent crash and hangover. The short term effect, however, is to raise the value of 401K retirement plans. One of my aunts, who despises Trump with a passion, has noticed that her retirement income has increased: she is reluctant to credit Trump with any of it. However, others will not be so hesitant.

So: how do the Democrats defeat Trump? This question has global significance: Trump was at the crest of the populist wave that crashed over Western democracy in 2016. We have been drowning ever since. Far right populists have succeeded in yanking Britain out of the European Union (Trump called himself “Mr. Brexit”), and thrust it into an uncertain future. The far right AfD party recently collaborated with centre right parties in the German state of Thuringia and deposed the competent socialist premier. Orban still rules in Hungary, Putin is planning on staying in office until he draws his last breath. Modi is pushing India in a more intolerant direction and has crushed dissent in Kashmir. If Trump can be defeated and far right populism can be stopped in one of the largest and most powerful democracies, the phenomenon could very well begin to deflate.

My suggestion is simple: let Trump talk, and make him talk. When Trump speaks, he seems to repel more than he attracts: yes, he has rabid fans who hang on his every word. However, this is not a majority of the country: it wasn’t a majority in 2016. He cannot withstand the tiniest pinprick of criticism: it was not enough to say that his phone call to Ukraine’s president was “inoffensive” or any errors were “unintentional”, rather, Trump said it was “perfect” and continues to say so. When he talks, his narcissism, lack of self awareness, and crudity rise to the fore. The suburban voters who helped flip the House of Representatives to the Democrats in 2018 will no doubt be reminded of why they voted the way they did.

The Democrats could extend this further: this should be an election whose main topic is character. Whatever one may say about any of the Democratic presidential contenders, each one of them represents an improvement in morality and temperament to Trump. Bernie Sanders is not a hypocrite and has a visible sense of humour. Elizabeth Warren has genuine empathy. Pete Buttigieg served his country. Joe Biden, for all his faults, truly loves his family: it is well known that he would commute daily between Washington and Wilmington, Delaware so that he could be present in their lives. If the election turns on the pivot of personal qualities and who is the most Presidential, then Trump will be headed for defeat. This means not responding in kind to Trump’s childish taunts: others have tried and only managed to make themselves look the worse for it. Rather, this approach entails seeming more like the President than the President.

Democrats generally are not comfortable contesting elections on the basis of character: Bill Clinton’s antics may have dulled this appetite. It is much more comforting to talk about free tuition and universal health care; these policies do have their place. However, with the recent example provided by Representative Adam Schiff in his fine precis of the case gainst Trump, they should embrace a character-based contest: not only do truth and right matter, but so does personal fortitude. If there is no restraint within, then indisciplined and harmful bombast is the result. We have been lucky so far that the disasters that have ensued have not turned into total catastrophe. How long are we going to continue to be so fortunate? Do we really want to push our luck?

The Democrats can also make the case that the low character of the inhabitant of the Oval Office can diminish the office. I am originally from New York. Trump Tower is now a feature on 5th Avenue: I recall visiting and feeling like having seen it once, I didn’t need to return. There was a restaurant, a few shops, a lot of brass: it was gaudy. It was tacky. It seemed out of place on 5th Avenue. That’s because it is: previously, the space was occupied by the Bonwit Teller building, an Art Deco masterpiece. Trump destroyed it, despite people pleading with him not to do so. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art asked for some of the wonderful friezes on the building, Trump refused and destroyed them anyway. It would have only cost him $9,000 to save them, however, even this was too much for his liking. A piece of New York history was demolished by, ironically enough, inexpensive immigrant labour (he apparently paid his workers only $4 an hour and insisted they work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week) and replaced by a brass and glass monument to his monstrous ego. It remains an eyesore. Do Americans, who by and large feel a sentimental tug on the heart strings when called to their heritage of loving liberty, want to turn the Oval Office into something so base? The case needs to be made: this is a time for personal integrity. Trump has all the resilence of a spoiled infant sitting in a soiled diaper; this era of global challenges requires a fully realised adult who will behave with dignity.

There is still time to frame the election. It appears that Speaker Pelosi understands what needs to be done: her subtle provocations of Trump, such as tearing up his speech, appear to have pushed his limited tolerance to the brink. Mitt Romney’s brave stand against Trump caused him to explode in a fit of apoplexy. Whoever wins this contested primary needs to provide the positive contrast. Then perhaps we can all rest more easy, knowing that the horrors unleashed by 2016 may soon abate.

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Wrestling with Insomnia

February 5, 2020

Over the past several weeks, I have experienced bouts of insomnia. There’s not been an obvious physical cause. I have tried warm drinks, I have tried listening to relaxing music, I have attempted sitting on a comfortable sofa with a purring cat beside me. For whatever reason, stress, an active mind, concerns about the future, I have had difficulty shutting down and falling into the arms of Morpheus. When sleep has finally arrived, it has been the deep, dark type notable solely for the absence of dreams. Then, usually, I am awoken at 3 AM by my dog needing to be let out.

I wish I could say these lost hours were productive. I have not had any earth shattering ideas at these times. Midnight comes, then 1 o’clock, 2 am, 3. The house is quiet: there is no ticking grandfather clock in the hall that chimes on the hour. By two at the latest, most of the cats have found where they are going to spend the night: as it’s February, this is usually beside or under a radiator. My faithful cat Thomas usually sits next to me on a sofa in my study, which is where I spend most of these restless hours. 3:30, 4, 4:30: sometimes there is a gust of wind brushing up against my window, but otherwise the world is quiet, lonely, more at peace than I am. Then I hear my dog huffing and puffing, bounding down the stairs needing to be let out. I encourage him, I follow him. I open the door and the cold night air strikes me across the face as he goes into the dew covered garden. I shut the door, then sit at a dining table underneath the light of a single bulb, as I wait for his insistent bark, demanding he be let back in. When I open the door, he shoots past me and back up the stairs to bed.

As this indicates, there is nothing romantic about insomnia. These lost hours are isolated: even Thomas will yield himself up to sleep after 1 AM, his white paws curled up around his face. I switch on the television. I find a film or television programme to stream. I hope it will bore my brain into switching off. I lean my head back onto soft cushions, trying to tempt myself into slumber. It rarely works.

There is little that is pleasant about the sunrise, when it finally arrives. These days, the skies are usually grey, so there’s not often the multicoloured palette of the dawn, which gives one hope. Surely, if the beginning of a day can be that beautiful, then the prospects for the hours ahead are elevated. However, lately there’s been generally no such luck, the sky merely turns a deep blue. It lightens, and then its true greys are revealed.

5:30, 6. I wander into the kitchen and put on the coffee. The grinder goes and the water begins to boil and percolate. “Alexa,” I say to the Echo Dot on a ledge, “World Service.” The BBC World Service tells what’s going on around the world: an assasination in Lesotho, the spread of disease in China. It has often been my night companion: I am comforted by the thought that there are technicians somewhere, in some remote building in London or perhaps further afield, awake like I am, struggling with remaining awake so that the news runs through the night. They are making it possible for me to hear a programme in which the Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah talks about her novel, “The Book of Memory” with a studio audience. Alternatively, if I’m listening to Radio 3, I am sure that someone is there, watching indicators that suggest that the broadcasts of classical music are continuing. Where are they? Salford? London? Is there someone in a study like mine, working from home and watching over everything from a laptop? What happens if they fall asleep? I’d deem them lucky if they were able to do so.

I can hear the occasional lorry in the early morning travelling on the nearby dual carriageway; the wheels of commerce may turn more slowly through the night, but they do continue. I am certain that there are doctors and nurses at the hospital up the road, tending to the sick and the broken. The ill lay in beds, their monitors humming steadily, with nurses in light blue uniforms keeping watch. I know in town there’s a 24 hour fast food restaurant. When it gets to be 3 AM and no one wants chicken nuggets, what do they do? Consume coffee and donuts? Take bets on when the first order for pancakes will come?

I comfort myself with knowing that much of the world is still awake: when it’s 4 AM here, it’s 8 PM in Los Angeles. No doubt cars are still driving down the freeway; on a Friday night, the bars and restaurants are still open. Young couples raise glasses to each other, music plays. In Australia, it’s long past dawn. No doubt someone is taking their beige labrador for a walk along the shore: salty, turquoise hued waves crash in, the owner looks at the distant horizon. But where I am, it is time to sleep, but I cannot.

I hope that this period passes quickly: apart from listening to vinyl records and watching documentaries which have fully briefed me on the ins and outs of Watergate, the Ottoman Empire, and the 2008 Financial Crash, there isn’t much good to be had. How much better it would be to sleep properly, dream well, and to wake up when I should; I imagine what it must be like to face the dawn invigorated, rather than relying on caffeine and a sense of responsibility.

Once this period ends, however, I will no doubt recall this time when I saw the night through: largely, it’s pointlessness, but also the brief moments of value, like when a bright moon shone through the window, and I felt like I had the sight of it to myself.

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A Time for Courage

April 7, 2019

One of the most alarming statements British politicians have made in recent days can be summarised as follows: if we don’t do Brexit and quickly, massive unrest will be the result.  To put it another way, this argument states that if we don’t give in to the demands of extremists, they will create havoc.  There is some evidence to support this point of view: recently, “pro-Brexit” sabotage devices were left on train tracks in Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire.

I recall the 2005 film “V for Vendetta”; when I first saw it, I found its premise somewhat far-fetched.   The idea that Britain, which had so long resisted the siren calls of extremists, would suddenly elect an upstart fascist party (called “Norsefire”) and surrender its liberties seemed pretty ridiculous.  On the other hand, as the eponymous character V reminded the public, they were confronted with a “myriad of problems”, including war and disease. 

An old saying reminds us that the difference between fiction and history is that fiction has to be believable.  Britain has ceded a great deal of power to the far right of the Conservative Party not because of any cataclysm but because of one gigantic policy mistake, namely, to run the 2016 referendum without any safeguards (e.g., a 60% threshold or a second confirmatory referendum).  Not everyone who voted Leave is a racist or extremist, however, extremists believe that Leave’s victory indicates that the country agrees with them.  Hence, they tend to mask their demands behind phrases such as “Will of the people”.

No one who has any serious expertise in economics, diplomacy or politics believes leaving the European Union will be good for Britain.  Already investment is freezing, and billions of pounds have been shifted abroad. The fragile fabric of the United Kingdom may be torn asunder: advocates of Brexit forget that Scotland, Northern Ireland, London and Gibraltar all voted solidly to remain. Britain is an international laughing stock: the New York Times ran an article suggesting Britain has lost its collective mind and there is little disagreement.  Our parliamentary debates are punctuated by cartoon characters such as Mark Francois who invoked Christ to blaspheme a measure intended to inject some sanity into the Brexit process.   The Conservatives continue to run scared of extremists, saying that we must do as they command, lest they bring more havoc.

But if we enact Brexit out of fear rather than logic, what happens afterwards?  The tell-tale sign of an extremist is their inability to be satisfied by meeting their demands.  The reason for this is straightforward: an extremist tilts towards windmills.  When utopia is not achieved, the simplest thing to do is to try and find another target, another obstacle in the way of perfection being achieved.  Today, it’s the European Union.  If we execute Brexit and things don’t get better, tomorrow’s target could be the immigrants who are already here.  They have already be singled out for abuse. After them, who knows who may be next?

There are disturbing precedents.  Comparisons to Hitler are frequently overblown.  I am not suggesting we are about to fall into the grip of fascism; however, it is worth noting how the Nazis got into power.  The Nazis did not win the German parliamentary election in November 1932, the last before they took power in January 1933: on the contrary, there was a 4 percent drop in their vote share.  The Communists achieved the biggest gains, based on a 2.54% swing.  In the aftermath, more traditional conservatives led by Franz von Papen decided to give in to Hitler and make him Chancellor, mainly in order to prevent the Communists from gaining power.  They also believed that they could not access mass support without working with the Nazis.

This was a grave error: the centre of politics shifted to a new extreme.  In the short run, German democracy and civil rights were uprooted; eventually, millions were murdered.  The Nazis did not build utopia: rather, they gave humanity a new and terrible knowledge of what horrors it was capable of committing.

I repeat: Britain is not in this space.  History rarely repeats in the same way; it is the patterns of history that are worth noting. Extremists put forward a proposition, more conventional politicians lose the will to stand and fight.   In the pursuit of a quiet life, the politicians think if they give in, at some point the extremists will get bored and disappear.  But political anger is not always sated by achieving one reform or another.  When the demand cannot be met, such as getting society to throw its gears into reverse to back into a golden age that never was, the anger will remain.  We already see signs of this in the illogical proposition that “No deal is no problem” and its advocates not being deterred by facts.   No matter what happens, there will be a hard core that will stay enraged.   Sometimes, it is the role of democratic politicians on all sides to say “no”, and to call out the demagogues for precisely what they are: peddlers of illusion and disappointment.  In an era still haunted by the murder of Jo Cox and death threats being spewed on the internet every day, courage seems to be shorter supply than usual, though there are exceptions such as Jess Phillips. However, if we don’t want to go down the well-worn path to a dreadful conclusion, we need to find many more avatars of courage.

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Brexit Blues

March 28, 2019

On the basis of indicative votes, we now know what Parliament wants, or rather, what it doesn’t want to do with Brexit, which is anything.  There is a distinct absence, a lack, a void.  It’s great for nihilists but no one else.  We are no nearer a resolution to Britain’s current crisis than we were previously. 

All this would be more acceptable if it didn’t have an impact on people outside of the Westminster bubble.  However, farmers think in 18-month cycles: can anyone tell them with certainty to where their goods will be sold and shipped in 2020? Can industrialists plan out production?  Can anyone starting out a business today know if they can hire specialists from Spain or Denmark in 6 months’ time, let alone a year? 

Uncertainty is the bane of investment: all investment is a calculated risk.  The risks teeter into unacceptable without knowledge of the marketplace or business environment.  Those who cheerfully advocate for a no-deal Brexit seem to lose this fact amidst their enthusiasm for burning bridges with our nearest trading partners. 

I have personal experience of what uncertainty is doing to the economy: I am presently unemployed and have been so for nearly 6 months.  Brexit is not the sole author of this misfortune, and indeed, I’m lucky compared to many.   Nevertheless, Brexit has added a layer of difficulty to my job search and employment history.

I joined a Dutch firm in 2016, just prior to the referendum.  At the time, this company was very well established in London: in some respects, it still is.  However, after the referendum, there began a slow shift, which was clearly an attempt to de-risk the situation.  My boss was based in London: in a restructure, her role was moved to Amsterdam and she was let go.  Similar moves occurred throughout the business.  As I looked around me in my office, I was keenly aware of colleagues who had come to London from all over the European Union; their roles were quietly and slowly shifted or eliminated.  The centre of gravity tilted away from London, taking employment and employees away with it.

Eventually, I changed jobs.  Fortunately, my new role was with a company whose main focus was the UK.  However, there were risks there too: materials necessary for the company’s production were stockpiled in anticipation of trade possibly being cut off.  Furthermore, my role was made redundant after 6 months: the company moved the team I had assembled from working on a riskier area, which I represented, to a more established one.   The word “Brexit” was not mentioned: it didn’t need to be.  When uncertainty becomes part of the landscape, it shifts a business’s calculations, whether consciously or unconsciously.   Fear of the unknown pushes decisions more towards hunkering down, rather than expansion or trying new things.  I was granted a reasonable settlement: I am nearly at the end of it.

The job hunt, to say the least, has been daunting. I have a PhD in Creative Writing; I am towards the end of my studies for a second PhD in Engineering.  I have worked in IT for 23 years, leading teams which have developed e-commerce solutions.  I have worked in project management for over 20 years.  I am a skilled communicator and writer.  I have German and Dutch language skills, management experience, plenty of good references.   I am an expert in online communities. For the past 6 months, I have sat down nearly every day, gotten on my proverbial bike, and looked for work.  I have had some interviews: nothing has worked out.  I have noticed that the number of opportunities has been shrinking.  I see this on a day to day basis: as risk heaps up, so does the unwillingness to invest in new ventures and people.  More and more, it seems like firms are just replacing vital personnel that they lose through natural attrition.  I don’t recall a job hunt where as many positions I’ve applied for have simply been withdrawn because they decided not to proceed with hiring at all.

I must add a vital caveat: I was a witness in a high-profile court case, and thus anyone Googling me may find that reference daunting, even though I did nothing wrong.  While that might explain some of the rapidity in rejections I’ve received, it doesn’t explain the overall apparent contraction in the number of roles.   I should add that Brexit is not the only reason, but it is an important factor which is making the entire business environment much sourer.

I know that I am fortunate.  I have prospects; my education and experience should see me through eventually.  My family will help me to the extent they can.  However, not everyone is as lucky as I am: what happens to them?  Brexit has not made their lives any better; the dithering in Parliament is toxic, slipping a slow poison into the economy’s bloodstream.  It doesn’t need to manifest in anything as dramatic as a full-blown crash.  Rather, it alters the course of investment; money and production are shifted abroad.  People are forced to accept lower wages and / or more uncertainty.  Businesses rein in their investment strategies.  Then lo and behold, we find that we have less than what thought we did, we find that the economy is less than what we planned it to be.  There is no £350 million per week for the NHS, and companies wonder why they should come here when they get clearer access to the European Union’s market by investing in business-friendly Ireland or the Netherlands.  Young talent from all over the Continent will then go to Amsterdam and Dublin.  London fades.  Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool also diminish.  When that occurs, where will those wealthy individuals who led the headlong charge out of the European Union be?  What comfort will be empty slogans such as “Take back control”?  Will anyone say to the likes of John Redwood, who complained that Remainers had something against freedom, “freedom to do what”?  How many lives will be impacted before the final reckoning comes?  What will the cost be, and who will pay?  I suspect it won’t be the Jacob Rees Moggs of this world, but rather it will be the warehouse operator in Leeds, the engineer on the factory floor in Swindon, and yes, the IT professional in Cambridgeshire.  We are all going to pay or are paying for someone else’s fever dream; the best we can hope for is that we all wake up before we fork out any more than we already have.

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Revisiting “Four Weddings and Funeral”

March 25, 2019

I remember the first time I saw “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.  I was visiting the Cheshire town of Wilmslow, and it was being shown in an old movie theatre in the centre of town.  I speculated that the theatre hadn’t changed much since the 1920’s: the seats were worn, and the floors were sticky from spilled soft drinks and sugary popcorn kernels.

I had heard a great deal about “Four Weddings”, but not being a romantic comedy sort of person at the age of 21, I wasn’t the first in the queue to go see it.  However, the newspapers and television were all proclaiming its brilliance to the point my curiosity was sparked.

I found the film absolutely charming.  In 1994, when the film was released, I was still relatively new to living in the UK. I had some experience in matters of the heart, but these were largely tinged with regret and disappointment. I had just graduated from university and was both optimistic and uncertain about what course life would take.

Four Weddings presented a hopeful thesis, that somehow knowledge of one’s true love would arrive like a thunderbolt.  Once that person had been found, life would never be the same.  The path of life which had hitherto been relatively lonely would be traversed, hand in hand, with the other.  Looking back, I realise some of its elements were more subversive than they appeared at first glance: John Hannah’s and Simon Callow’s characters were in a loving same-sex relationship described as a “marriage”.  This did not disturb the heterosexual characters, rather, their love was seen as having equal weight and worth.  I don’t recall this being particularly controversial at the time.

Four Weddings also shows a time when “normal” people could live in London: Hugh Grant’s character doesn’t appear to be well off.  He can’t afford a reliable car and lives with his sister Scarlett.  Scarlett drives an old Mini.  Yet, they seem to be living in or near the centre of the city.  London seemed like a place where one could experience life, rather than the overstuffed pressure cooker it is now.

Overall, it was a happier time, certainly a gentler time, perhaps a less divided epoch, a period when we were more receptive to romantic thoughts and feelings.  Somehow, it didn’t seem silly; love was possible, if not certain.  We could be lifted out of conventionality by its grace.  All we needed to do was to be open to the possibility, wait, and it would come.

Time moved on, but the movie remained embedded in my brain: its theme song, a cover of “Love is All Around” by “Wet Wet Wet” would ignite memories of the film whenever it played on the radio.   I have loved, been in love, and been made eloquent and struck dumb by it.  It would be lovely to say that the thesis of Four Weddings was true in its entirety; however, fiction often dissolves in the acid of time and real life. 

Nevertheless, there was something wonderful about the recent 14-minute short film entitled, “One Red Nose Day and a Wedding” which was made for charity.  The director of the original film, Richard Curtis, gathered a surprising number of the original cast, including Andie McDowell (Carrie), Hugh Grant (Charles), and Kristin Scott Thomas (Fiona).  At first I didn’t recognise James Fleet (Tom) behind a thick beard.   Ms. McDowell is now aged 60; Hugh Grant is 58.  Nevertheless, they wear their years lightly.  Carrie and Charles are portrayed as having a daughter, played by Lily James.  She is marrying another young woman played by Alicia Vikander; Ms. Vikander’s character is Fiona’s daughter.  I smiled when this plot came to light: it showed the premise of the original film had kept up with the times, that love was what mattered, regardless of what form it took.  They had retreated somewhat from the original “thunderbolt” thesis: instead, the characters described knowing each other, and connecting in love when they held hands.  The word “thunderbolt” wasn’t used.  The ceremony was presided over by the awkward Father Gerald (Rowan Atkinson) who perhaps represented the previous era, as he had comedic-levels of difficulty getting his brain and words around two women marrying each other. The wedding was followed by a hesitant if sentimental speech by Charles, interrupted by his brother David (played by David Bower) providing cues in sign language.  The scene dissolved into the characters dancing, a whirl of white flowers and linen curtains. 

This visit to the past and present seemed all too brief, the characters left the stage too soon.  It would have been interesting to find out how love endured given all that time and fate had thrown at them.  Did Charles and Carrie have to go find a house in a quiet suburb somewhere, as London became too expensive?  Fiona was portrayed as dating Prince Charles at the end of the film: what happened?  Was Ms. Vikander’s character a result of that relationship?  Who in the world did Anna Chancellor’s character (‘Duckface’) marry, and why did he look like a latter-day version of Dr. Strangelove?   These, sadly, have to fall into the realms of speculation.  It was a sketch for charity, after all, and not intended to expand much upon the plotlines laid out in 1994.  I doubt a full sequel will ever be made, nor do I think we’ll pass this way again.  Perhaps it’s just as well: this is a harder, less sentimental age.   Weddings are more manufactured than ever; with rare exceptions, love appears to have been drowned in popular culture by the altogether less committal just “fancying each other”. 

I’ve arrived at the age of 46.  I have seen enough of life and love to know that it’s never quite as simple as one hopes.  The path I’ve followed is jagged, pockmarked with potholes and blocked at times by high mountains; it sometimes feels like I’ve made terrible mistakes just as often as good decisions.  But perhaps the obstacles presented by real life mean we desperately need the gentility that Four Weddings still represents: the capacity for one’s heart to be touched, for belief to be reaffirmed.  I still feel that desire swell whenever I hear “Wet Wet Wet” proclaim that “love is all around”, and see the first flowers bloom in the spring, hinting that it is wedding season.  Perhaps one day we will return to a kinder time when we have more space and capacity for sentiment.  I hope so.

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Me And My Blog

Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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