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I Had a Bad Dream the Other Night

19 Jul

I saw enormous Arctic wastes melting into dirty slush, through which disconsolate white bears shuffled, trying to understand this apocalypse. I saw drilling towers, and oil spills floating on the sea. I saw seals, walruses, colonies of birds, all at a loss. I saw the frozen tundras of Siberia and Alaska, melting, billions of tonnes of water flowing into the seas, plumes of methane flaring into the sky.

I saw heat, I saw the air quivering with it, I saw thirst.

I saw Russian trucks and bulldozers building deep-water ports all along the northern coast, ready for what they believed would be the next boom in shipping. I saw soldiers, planes, runways. In preparation for war.

In Iran, I saw the lifting of sanctions, and the basic effect of this: Russia, able to supply nothing more useful than missiles and nuclear power stations. Eagerly selling these wherever it could.

In America, I saw a lot political clowns waving their arms and talking nonsense, unable to distinguish between TV and reality. In the streets I saw countless people being shot, while in Washington DC a lot of pasty-faced fools argued about guns and how they were a fundamental freedom. I saw America’s obsessive spending on arms, its boundless belief in commerce and free trade, again without any real purpose to its love of lucre.

In China, I saw empty minds pushing for growth and development. I saw fumes and pollution hanging over its cities, I saw children born with weak lungs and bad hearts. In the South China Seas I saw barges and ships dredging up the sea bed and making small islands, covering these in barracks and runways. More war.

In South America, I saw enormous inflows of money from China and the BRICS, railways cut through pristine jungles, oil wells sunk in Amazonia and Yasuni even thought the world was already over-supplied with oil and we HAD TO, HAD TO start investing seriously in clean energy. But we had no intention of doing it, because we were small-minded and fixed and had no ideas about the future.

Everywhere, I saw little concern for people. The you and the I. Wherever I looked we were being ignored or locked up or tortured or kept on intellectual and moral bread and water… Wherever I looked I saw a small group of industrialists and multinational stars flying about in private planes, sitting on white beaches, swaggering, convinced that they had attained some kind of blessed state. The important ones. They were mainly playing violins very badly while their cities were burning. Feeding their senses, feeding their ravenous lust to have things, to be things, to define themselves by what they owned.

I saw no leadership, no vision for the human race. I saw little greatness in the human spirit.

I saw no concern for the telling of truth, the liberation of the human mind, I saw no let-up from commerce and the strangulation and pursuit of money.

And then when I woke up I saw my dog lying in the garden under a rosemary bush, finding some shade for itself, stretching out its little body and savouring the fragrance of the foliage overhead. And I thought to myself, I wish people could be as happy and satisfied as my dog, who asks for so little.

As I watch my dog I realise he is also dreaming. His little legs are kicking. He is chasing a rabbit through the grass. He is purposeful, he is not epic in his desires.

Even his dreams are better.



Light Fiction and Fiction so Light that it Blows Away

18 Jul

It has become a sort of mantra of our weary, market-led days, that one must never scratch one’s Marxist intellectual beard and make comments about how publishers “these days” are “only trying to sell books” – because there’s nothing wrong, could not ever be anything wrong with commercial fiction, right?

In fact, anyone who recently published a book with a smaller publisher, possibly a so-called “independent publisher,” would probably be ecstatic to find that his or her independent publisher had been putting a bit of effort into “only trying to sell books.” The dichotomy is problematic, to say the least. On the one hand, any sane author would like to sell as many books as possible. Yet, at the same time, most sane authors try not to go to the length of writing books about book-reading circles, people who fall in love at cookery courses, shy librarians who take up skydiving, or grandmothers who become football coaches. Such books might be described as “feel-good fiction,” which means they can also be dissolved in vitamin water and knocked back as a decent way of maintaining recommended levels of potassium and selenium. Nor will most sane writers descend to writing books about a bipolar Scandinavian detective sent to Haiti to solve a series of bloodcurdling voodoo murders. Obviously I am talking here about genre fiction, or rather, I am talking about those desperate writers who take refuge in genre as a sales ploy. (I could also add that, as a literary translator, I have seen versions of all these books published with great success – and unfortunately I have also had to translate some of them…)

Well, I don’t have a beard, and I am not especially a Marxist either, so I will just say, there really is nothing wrong with writing standard genre fiction, just as there is nothing really wrong with watching crappy television or eating pop tarts for dinner. It’s a choice one makes. But it should also be added, pop tarts are not very good for your body, and crappy television wreaks havoc on the human mind – which is our province, at least I always thought so.

Genre is a very good way of getting books sold, because it’s a definition, and the spoon-fed consumer needs definitions. But publishers are increasingly bad at figuring out how to make their latest book sound different from the hundreds of other books simultaneously being published. After all, their latest book is probably not very different at all, apart from the odd word here and there. In book A, the bipolar detective shoots the Ukrainian villain with a starter gun on page 236; whereas in book B, the bipolar detective shoots the voodoo priest with a bolt gun in a disused morgue on page 251. As a result, there is a new way of thinking in PR departments, a new and easy solution to the problem of originality: they can actually reach the lazy majority by offering people what they want without even trying to differentiate the product in any meaningful way. Basically, they’re selling hamburgers, but they keep insisting that their hamburgers are 100% organic. Their cattle are grass-fed. And they spend money on getting that dubious message out. Except, like all advertising, it’s a carefully structured lie.

So long as writers are aware that genre is only a meaningful way of classifying a book if it isn’t very good, then it’s fine. I mean, I do think writers still like to think they are trying to write something good. All successful genre writers I have met get slightly defensive (after a few vodkas) about what they are writing. Books must be bigger than their pompous jackets, books are actually just good or not. Writers know this.

So, to go back to the opening statement. My belief is that light fiction is fine, light fiction can even be brilliant. Just consider books like “Cold Comfort Farm” (Stella Gibbons) or “Travels with My Aunt” (Graham Greene) or “My Uncle Oswald” (Roald Dahl). They are certainly light, but also brilliant and loaded with good nutritional stuff. Stella Gibbon’s book is a sort of pastiche of “Wuthering Heights”, but to call it a pastiche would be plain wrong. It is actually a fresh re-imagining of a classic story written with a subtle understanding of Bronte’s use of Gothic elements. Greene is spoofing the travel genre, while Dahl is creating a sort of female picaresque. My point is that in none of these three works do we, as readers, really stop to wonder about their genre, nor do we ever stop feeling entertained, and certainly we never, ever conclude that they are so light that they might blow away in a strong puff of wind. Light fiction can be really heavy. Another few examples strike me, and I’ll throw them in: David Lodge’s “Therapy” and Hilary Mantel’s “Fludd” (an early work of hers). These are not exactly comic, but somehow, in spite of all, there is an attitude at work, these are not just lumps of story thrown at the reader with a pitchfork. They have a light, sure tone, which takes skill.

Maybe the only really interesting thing about genre as a sales pitch is that we are talking about it at all. I hope publishing is not doing to writing what the record industry did to music in the 70s and 80s. In the 60s there was an absolute boom in music, with great and enduring performers popping up all over the place inspired by a new awareness of musical roots. The same could be said of film-makers. We had Fonda and Nicholson turning up at the film studios and being taken seriously. The executives did not know what to do, they knew the world was changing but did not know how. They played it safe, opened their wallets, threw a bit of money at the crazies, and were quite delighted with their income from “Easy Rider”. Personally I am not a huge fan of “Easy Rider”, but I do see its importance as a sort of break with the suffocating power of the studios. Other weird 60s artists like the performer David Bowie or the experimental writer Richard Brautigan came out of the woodwork, and executives were surprised and somewhat dismayed because they sold. And they did not understand why they sold. My point is, for a brief period the artists were in charge.

Ultimately, the executives started trying to buy the same hip clothes themselves, they even started smoking pot, and at a certain point they started feeling that they could sit down in their boardrooms, and create their own films and writers and performers. They could re-assume full control of the media, because they had the cheque books and they also owned the outlets. And so they began dabbling, in their lacklustre way, and that is where all the trouble started.

By the year 2015, the industry of book production has grown into a sort of sausage factory. The big publishers are too capitalized, too reliant on new revenue streams. They have the means to pick up one or two or three or four established or emerging stars, which gives them a bit of a quality stamp. But just take a look at their lists, and you’ll know where their income is coming from. They need a lot of it to pay their staff and shareholders. Most independent publishers, on the other hand, are too small, too inefficient, too helpless, too clueless. They will proudly tell you they don’t even have an office, they hold their editorial meetings in a coffee shop, and this is all sounds very cool. But in the end all it means is that their “PR department” is on holiday when your book is published, or your “reading tour” gets cancelled just after you booked your tickets, or “we don’t do book launches”, or you’ll never, ever, get a royalty statement from them (because, they’ll tell you later, they lost your address).

Then, sitting in their rooms around the country, we have the writers. The primary producers. We know what’s going on, we know what we want to write. We have to forget about the business people, we have to forget about social media, we have to forget about genre as a sales ploy. We really do have to think about our own lives, what’s going through our heads. We have to concentrate on the writing.

Action produces reaction.

And something will come of it … something always does.


No, Really, Rome is Burning

20 Jun

One day, should it ever get there, our intergalactic civilization will look back at this period in human history as pivotal. The faces of those leading us will become emblematic, they will be remembered as Neros or Stalins. I have a sense that the main players strutting about on the stage at this moment are taking us over the edge, and there will be no possibility of full recovery. There is something frightening in the way the end-game of our civilisation is playing itself out so mundanely. Like people led to their executions, we walk with our heads bowed. Dutifully we open the newspapers, we read “financial news” as if it holds the key to our future. Clutching our ideas fearfully, we watch the storm closing in, and we tell ourselves that our house is surely strong enough. But do we really have any conception of the forces that could destroy us? We are sitting on a small rock in an outrageously hostile universe, in which we could not even survive for a second.

I wonder how many of us ever stop to say thank you to this soft blue planet that has sheltered us and given us life?

So if we ever have the opportunity to look back at this era, what will we see? Well, for the first time, biosphere changes were starting to affect us. Extinction, loss of habitat, drought, climate extremes. Millions of refugees all over Africa and Asia and the Middle East were spilling over borders, desperate for water, food, jobs… life. Somehow the reason for their migration failed to impress itself on our species. On some level we still believed that people were crossing borders because they wanted “a better life,” the implication of this being that they wanted careers and iPads and air conditioned apartments. Yet it would have been closer to the truth to say that they wanted “life” – simply to stay alive and have that welcome feeling of opening their eyes in the morning.

Here and there, academics and serious-minded people were trying to tell us that war was erupting spontaneously everywhere mainly because of a growing scarcity of resources. But no one listened to them. The “great powers,” i.e. those intellectually impoverished countries that believed in military power, were busy filling their coffers by selling weapons and missiles and nuclear technology to any country willing to pay. The “powers” jostled for the influence they felt they earned by palming off missiles or fighter aircraft or assault rifles on countries where the leaders frantically probed the ground for oil or rare metals or anything else they could sell to pay for the hardware. Whilst also keeping a cut for themselves.

We are animals. To live, we need water and food, we need a social order in which to raise our children without the presence of raging psychopaths intent on killing us, without drought and war and overbearing leaders keen to put our sons in the army and waste our money on weapons and conquest. However hard we try, no human experience will ever be more important or blissful than walking under trees by a clean river with fish in it, maybe some dappled sunlight playing across the path, a few butterflies, clouds passing overhead, the tree-tops full of birds, our children laughing and running, friends waiting at the end of our walk with food and cooking fires. Nothing can ever outdo the emotion of knowing that on this day we will eat well, we will sleep peacefully, we have what we need, and we are surrounded by friends and supporters.

Violent leaders, politically obsessed individuals surrounded by security and police and armies, are essentially parasites on humanity. They claim allegiance to that blissful existence I have described above, but they try to impress on us that in order to achieve it we must first fight for it. We must tackle those who wish to destroy us, and, once we have destroyed or resisted them, we can get on with the good things of life. Usually there is an supremacist element in their projects. Vladimir Putin recently stated that the world would find out if it put Russia to the test that “the Russian soldier will never be defeated.” Apart from being blatantly untrue, the statement is drenched in unpalatable racial glorification and aggression.

So, the argument goes that peace is only possible if decent and hard-working Chinese, Russian, American citizens – excluding of course those who are not members of the tribe – can win against their malevolent enemies, usually in some form or other described as “extremists.” This is nothing less than a corruption of a good human impulse to live among friends and supporters in a community where resources can be more or less shared.

It seems inevitable that the blasted global trio – America, jealously guarding its power and attempting to assert the established values of the 20th century consensus; China, intent on undercutting and establishing itself in the Far East to the exclusion of anyone else; and Russian, economically underdeveloped but vast, armed to the teeth, and desperate for more power – will at some point come into proper conflict.

Humans can never agree on anything, after all. In America, the endless debates on gun control and climate change exemplify the inability of people to think logically or at least to make structured assertions based on precaution and responsibility. Never in my life have I read so much nonsense about climate change as I do on the Internet. There are millions of “experts” on the subject who seem to believe they have figured out one of the most complex issues facing the planet – many of them insist there is no climate change, while some say that rising CO2 levels will simply cause forests to grow and these will soak up the excess carbon. As for gun control, well, how could anyone (say a great many Americans) believe that stricter gun controls would save any lives? Yes, what fool could ever believe that shutting down gun shops and forcing people to hand in their weapons would have any effect on homicide rates?

The apparent inability of America to regulate itself and establish good governance does not augur well when we look at a fast-developing society such as China, fraught with political challenges as we look ahead. Are we all basically incompetent?

The deeper question now is whether we humans can respect our status as animals, while at the same raising our consciousness. Must we remain locked into what has been described in Girardian theory as the “mimetic response” – so that threat must always generate an equal counter-threat? Must we always be territorial, like wolves and lions? Must we kill our rivals, sending our children to fight for us and then weeping copiously at their funerals?

Possibly we have another 100 years, and then it seems increasingly likely that the answers to our perennial and unanswered questions will come and kick us in the teeth. In effect, we will have earned the martyrdom and silence that so many of us secretly crave.

The invention of ownership, territory, and violence has brought us to this point. We can let it all go, but to do so we will have to become bigger, wiser, older humans, the sort of humans who go on to do great things; who will always, always, maintain and cultivate our blue, soft planet as if we were a part of its body. Which is precisely what we are.



The Denial Factory

25 Jan

The denial of facts that can easily be verified produces a strange, light-headed feeling among those who have to listen. Psychologically, when what we see with our own eyes is staunchly denied by others, we struggle with our natural desire to take the word as a measure of something we can believe in. A fog rises in our minds, the world turns grey and meaningless. In other words, while military convoys of weapons cross into the Ukraine from Russia and we listen to stern-faced, adamant Russian politicians assuring us that these are volunteers as opposed to actual Russian servicemen, we find ourselves dispirited and tired. When language fails, when we cannot even trust in the word, we tend to reach for our weapons. Mendacity is a precursor to violence, and most humans have an understanding of that.

Using semantics to deny facts is nothing new: it is true, certainly, that before Russia sends its soldiers into Ukraine they have to sign a temporary waiver of their formal inclusion in the Russian army. But this does not make them volunteers: saying so is “a lie of omission.” In actual fact, a good deal of financial pressure is brought to bear on these young men, many of whom do not want to fight in the Ukraine or come back in boxes for the sake of Kremlin policy. The lie of omission is also a plain lie, because if “volunteers” are strong-armed into volunteering, or if “volunteers” are actively sought out and equipped by the Russian state, then the claim of their independence loses its meaning. Those who die in the Ukraine are buried quietly, and their families are told not to speak of it, on pain of having their compensation payments cut.

All the facts about the Russian campaign in Ukraine are clear, although Western media is still reluctant to call a spade a spade. After all, journalistic standards demand that one must report on what each side is saying.

Russia feels the Ukraine belongs to it. Russia, though itself established not once but twice by 20th century revolutionary events, now suddenly asserts that the Orange Revolution has no political validity, even though it has been cemented by properly held democratic elections. Well, in that case Russia is not valid either. Nor is America, France, or Italy. Putin, who seems terrified of Western values, is financing far-right political parties in the EU. He is doing this to undermine our painfully built-up legal systems and constitutions, to support the emergence of xenophobic and dysfunctional governance in the European heartland. We allow him to do this because we do not have legal frameworks in place to stop him supporting the National Front in France, The Independence Party in the UK, and similar organisations elsewhere.

While the war goes on, the EU and Russia continue to negotiate for peace and Russia issues statements declaring its support for the Minsk agreement: it’s imperative, Lavrov tells us, that the Ukraine stops “indiscriminate shelling” of civilian areas in Donetsk. This may sound good, but at the same time the Russian foreign ministry yesterday prevented a UN Security Council statement condemning last night’s rocket attacks on Mariupol that left at least 30 civilians dead. Truth must have some objectivity, or it fragments into madness and confusion.

Russia blocks UN statement

Well, the Russian denial factory is working very nicely. The Internet is awash with confused young Europeans and Americans attacking America and Europe for “conspiring” to get their hands on Ukraine. This surely overlooks the fact that Ukraine wishes to turn itself into a liberal democracy leaning towards Western values? Certainly the West has its failings, but I simply don’t understand why Europe should be considered so much worse than Russia, China or other powers.
Russia chose to fight the Ukraine rather than doing its utmost to create closer ties with a country it knows so well. Surely even conspiracy theorists can see that a lawless Russian state creating phoney wars in Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic republics, and possibly other countries too before long, is not a good thing?

Officially at least, Russia is still a democracy, and so it ought to be possible for Putin to accept some level of social debate. Not so. As I write, the Nordic Council of Ministers in St Petersburg, who for years have maintained an office in that city to promote cultural interaction in Russia, support NGO’s and establish networks to support the emergence of democracy, have found themselves challenged by the Russian courts to declare themselves as an alien group, a “political organisation” subject to greater controls. What this means, in practice, is a reduction in all sorts of collaborative projects. Putin and his government is gradually clearing out European influence from his country, because he fears the plain language of self-expression. Anyone who fears the cultural influence of Finland or Sweden must be delusional. Sweden is utterly unaggressive, and utterly focused on peaceful coexistence with its neighbours.

Activities limited at the St. Petersburg office of the Council of Nordic Ministers

As Europeans, I think we have to ask ourselves how it could possibly be a good thing to defer to Russia as it continues bullying its neighbours. Why can’t Russia simply concentrate on developing its society in a peaceful way, reducing its nuclear arsenal and taking part in the international debate as a legally responsible country? Putin should try it. He seems keen on Siberian tigers and wildlife, he’s an outdoors man, he likes riding and fishing and hunting. Well, he could do a lot of good in those areas. He could take part in international efforts to protect the Arctic and cut global warming.

The war in Ukraine is nothing but a regressive project dreamed up by a man who seems to have run out of ideas. War and territorial gain are ancient ideas, a language in themselves. No amount of linguistic manipulation can hide its true meaning.

Oil May be Dropping, but Cappuccino is Doing Well

21 Jan

All this energy people put into talking about oil prices! It’s a sorry waste of time, and, even worse, I think they are losing sight of important facts in the whole commodities debate. Let’s begin by crunching some numbers. Okay, I don’t drive a car, but last time I did I think I paid about $1.70 for a litre of lead-free. I mean, that is one cheap commodity. Let’s analyse the stages of the production process…

First the oil companies have to get their hands on a drill about two or three miles long with a chunk of industrial diamond at the tip; possibly they have to transport the long and very heavy drill-cable on a ship, and then keep hundreds of workers in food and wages for months while they poke about, frantically punching through the seabed, looking for a vein. The crude oil has to be pumped up and all the waste water separated and kept in special tanks until it can be pumped back down once the well is empty. It’s not even over there. The crude oil has to be taken to refineries and processed into high-grade fuel, and the finished product must then be transported all over the world in prodigiously expensive pipelines or on enormous oil tankers captained by men with gold epaulettes on their shoulders. In the end, after all that work, a litre of fuel will earn them $1.70 before tax. No wonder Russia and Venezuela are going bust. It’s time they learned some basic lessons of economics.

Western governments keep telling us it’s important not to invest excessive public funds into support schemes for solar power and other renewables, in case this creates an uneven playing field.  And yet, if oil was not so heavily subsidised, it would retail at prohibitive prices. This would be disastrous in regimes such as Russia and Venezuela, where the political elite can only continue enriching itself by throwing hunks of bread (or bottles of vodka) to the vulgar crowd. Russia, the moribund giant, spends in the order of $85 billion per year subsiding oil exploration and other aspects of oil provision. In fact, all countries including the major economies in the EU (Britain, for instance) spend enormous sums backing the oil industry – hardly an impoverished sector, one might think.

So, to go back to the cappuccino economy. In Berlin a litre of cappuccino would retail at about twelve bucks, though it’s more commonly sold in smaller amounts of about 25-30 dl. This seems a high price, considering there is no need to drill for coffee or construct pipelines to bring it to the consumer. Frankly, even mineral water does better than oil. Last time I checked, a half-litre of the natural variety was selling for just short of $2 – more than twice as much as oil. Recently at one of Berlin’s airports I noticed a vendor selling a half-litre of the most basic water brand for $3.75, and so we are now seeing a development where even water is outpacing oil by a factor of 4:1, a quite remarkable performance by this see-through commodity.

The good news for the economy is that the cappuccino sector is holding up in spite of plummeting oil prices, stagflation, and squabbling in Brussels about quantitative easing. Berlin has taken a robust approach to the troubles: nobody works here, instead people just start cafes. If a street is filled with coffee shops, and if everyone in that street owns a coffee shop, an amazing recycling of money is going on. A hundred euro invested at one end will generate literally millions of euros in total sales. Shall I explain? Okay… a guy walks into a cafe and buys ten cappuccinos for $35, whereupon the owner of the said cafe goes next door and buys cappuccinos and ham and cheese toasties for the same sum. Already that original sum of money has grown by a factor of two. The net effect on the GNP of Germany is massive economic growth. Scaled up, this provides alluring insights into the German economic miracle, which is still going strong.

Even better, in order to provide an efficient cappuccino delivery system, you need a decent building filled with appropriate furniture – usually banana boxes tastefully spray painted, an assortment of 1950’s dentists’ chairs, exposed floorboards, possibly a couple of parrots swinging from a trapeze, and a large number of rusty advertising hoardings from the 1920’s. Already you are talking about construction specialists, antiques dealers, Dow Fruit, and reliable parrot breeders. The trickle-down economic benefits are massive. Such retailing outlets have a tendency to attract thousands of tourists, whose mimetic instincts suggest that they wish to be a part of this trendy world of art and melted cheese sandwiches. It doesn’t take long for them to get their wallets out.

The strange thing about the cappuccino trade is that at the production end of it, I mean during the actual coffee bean-growing stage, there is hardly any expense for a modern cappuccino retailer. The beans can be acquired cheaply from South Americans, who are usually willing to sell large sacks at pretty affordable prices. Each sack has the financial power to generate literally billions of dollars of profit. Berlin is really taking off as I write this. There are many industries that seem to go from strength to strength.

Tattoo parlours are another cappuccino sideline, because serious coffee drinkers in Berlin like to roll up their sleeves and show off their latest motifs.

There’s also an almost limitless demand for silly glasses. Artists everywhere need to demonstrate their artistic prowess by impressing others with the outlandish designs of their spectacles. Woody Allen started it, but others have followed suit. Actually, the Marx Brothers sort of preempted Woody. Silly glasses are an essential piece of kit for the modern artist, especially if pursuing a career in film, media, and advertising. Tim Burton has made a point of never leaving the house without a pair of pilot’s goggles fitted with his trademark pink lenses. The strategy has served him well. For this reason, there are thousands of opticians’ shops slotted in among the coffee shops.

It sounds obvious, but artists lazing about in coffee shops need computers and iPads to make inane comments on Twitter and update their blogs. These same consumers are often seen photographing their feet under the table, or lumps of dog excrement, reflections in puddles, and similar, which they like to upload to their Instagram accounts or send to the museums that will shortly exhibit these works of art. The cappuccino economy thereby takes on a technological edge, which, for obvious reasons, gives it an industrial base.

But we are not only talking about technology here. The cappuccino economic framework also creates demand for bulk cargoes such as soya milk, spelt flour, quinoa and other staples. The Berlin economy generates millions of pages of unpublished novels and unmade feature films every month, and this obviously results in a healthy demand for A4 paper and printer cartridges – not to mention printers.

All in all, I’d say it’s time for Moscow and other traditional regimes intent on pursuing arms manufacture, space exploration, nuclear power, religion and other old-school heavy industries, to start recognising the economic benefits of cappuccino drinkers, a broad grouping that includes cross-dressers, ballet dancers, screenwriters, installation artists, dissident, gays, tourists and other creatives. Even pastors have been known to drink cappuccinos here. The resulting marginal benefits for cash-strapped economies should not be sniffed at.

At the same time it should be firmly stated that negative effects posed by such consumers on traditional dictatorships are not serious. Dissidents are mostly artist types who would like to be left alone while drinking their cappuccinos and writing sarcastic blog pieces. In return, they can generate great cash wealth in impoverished oil regimes all over the world.

Dictators who fail to learn this important lesson will find that they are a part of the old world. Should they wish to enter the new world, they will quickly find that they are wearing the wrong clothes. They will not only be scorned and unworthy of anyone’s love; they will also be decapitalized and written off like a bad tax debt.

Click here to find out more about my recent novel “The Maggot People”.

The Tyranny of Genre

11 Dec

To anyone who writes fiction, or reads it, or is interested in it as a theoretical subject, the idea of genre is probably of greater interest now than it has ever been. Carl Linneus, the famous natural scientist, earned his laurels by finding a way of categorising the world’s fauna and flora into families and sub-families, by a formal system of division between one species and another. Because of Linneus and those who continued his work, we know that a fulmar is not a seagull, and a chough is not a crow (while of the same genus), though to all intents and purposes they look very similar. We also know that a lemur is not technically speaking a monkey, and that a platypus is most closely related to the spiny ant-eaters of Australia and New Guinea. But one could argue that the thrust of science here was to observe the workings of evolution, and uncover inherent evidence in nature. Science did not invent evolution, science observed evolution.

In the realm of fiction it is much harder to argue that there is any innate genre to be discovered by literary critics. Writers do not adhere to genre, they create it. Or maybe that is also a dubious statement? If we look carefully at mythology, which, one could say, cannot be anything but a universal declaration of the laws of humankind, we may observe that only a limited number of genres are possible. Yet, however one argues, it remains true that while crime or horror or science fiction are characteristic forms of fiction, they are hardly innate. There are crime stories in which no crime takes place, or where the criminal is the hero, or where the crime that has taken place or is about to take place is largely uninteresting and peripheral to the story – that is, there are crime stories where the crime is of lesser interest than the people affected by it. There are horror stories where no monstrous or diabolical beings make their entrance – in fact where fear of such non-existing things is enough to make one take stock of “the reality” of horror, namely that horror is just a fiction of people’s imagination. And there are horror stories written for young teenagers, where the themes are so ridiculously infantilised that one would be better advised to put them in a sub-genre of the comic book. The Linnean point here would be, does literary crime fiction (Wilkie Collins, “The Woman in White”) belong to the same genre as Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”? I would argue that they are related in much the same way as a platypus is a bit like an ant-eater, but not in a scientific sense.

When we start looking at literary fiction we run into our biggest classification headache. As yet there are no effective genre sub-systems for defining literary fiction, at least none that I am aware of. (Although, the more one looks into it, genre seems to be the tiddler of literary specification, the most irrelevant distinction of all.) What Raymond Carver has in common with Doris Lessing, apart from both being practitioners of literary fiction, seems rather irrelevant. Admittedly Lessing writes novels while Carver sticks to short stories, but these are not genres but literary forms. To get niggly about it, one might say that Carver often expresses social satire or at least social bleakness, whereas Lessing documents the everyday human condition, as opposed to the role of the marginalised human – though in “The Fifth Child” she comes close to expressing a dark horror, which is a basic aspect of what one might term “ordinary life.” Of course, Lessing has also written science fiction, but with Lessing’s writing one gains little by classifying it. Her science fiction subverts or inverts or converts the commonplaces of the genre by giving us either more or less than what would seem to be required. Equally one might ask where Clarice Lispector belongs, or Penelope Fitzgerald, or J.M Coetzee. “Good writing” is not as far as I know considered a genre. Highbrow readers are currently getting away with thinking that they are not part of the movements of their time. They are partaking of higher, more rarefied moods. How wrong they are.

The highly regarded Swedish crime writer Åke Edwardson has stated that he is not really a crime writer, and he is not alone among crime writers to make this assertion. It seems quite obvious: good writers may conveniently get lumped into genres, but in the end what they convey is something additional to the standard fare of those pigeon-holes. While Kerstin Ekman’s “Blackwater” is credited with inventing the modern Swedish crime novel, I do feel bound to add that nothing about being Swedish qualifies as a genre definition. I say this because there is a suggestion that Swedish crime writing has added a new sub-family to the genre. In fact it could not possibly even be a sub-sub-form. Admittedly Swedes are supposed to be depressives who have to endure long winters, and in a certain way it could be conceded that a police commissioner (for instance, Wallander) who suffers from melancholy is more interesting than a clean-cut American cop or a gentlemanly Agatha Christie amateur investigator. Hercule Poirot has become rather dated. Sherlock Holmes took opium and suffered from clinical depression, hence his longevity. Let’s just state here quite clearly that there is nothing original about a dysfunctional cop – one need only look at the neo-noir creations of James Ellroy or Raymond Chandler in “The Big Sleep” (1939), to appreciate the ubiquitous presence of the down-at-heel-and-heart outsider as policeman. It is important to understand that these groundbreaking books all diverged from, or added to, existing practice. Those who stick to the rules of genre are the Lumpenproletariat of that genre, the fortune-seekers and mediocrities. Good genre writing must by definition be an attempt to use some of the existing conventions while expanding and enlarging upon them in a way that delights and stimulates.

Aristotle, as in so many other respects, was the first to attempt a classification of writing, defining it as comedy, epic, or tragedy. But to Aristotle the only proper forms of writing were drama and poetry, and he would not have had an appreciation of prose writing as anything but a record of events – if even that. Writing, to Aristotle, was much more about performance than mere text. Poetry and drama in his time were orally conveyed. Drama touched upon the sacred realm, an area not greatly in vogue in the modern era. Last century, writers such as Joyce or D.H. Lawrence still made allusions to a sort of heightened consciousness that seemed almost divine in its scope. And in the preceding century, Wordsworth and other Romantics developed the idea of the spiritual hero.

Other eras have had their fads. The Augustans (in the eighteenth century) were big on satirical poetry (Pope, “The Dunciad”) and satire (Swift, “A Tale of a Tub”). Dryden and others relished the impossibility of writing epic poems (such as Milton’s “Paradise Lost”) and with a snarl invented the anti-hero, although some (including William Blake, who suggested that Satan was the true protagonist of Milton’s epic poem) later tried to revive the true hero in a more updated format. Byron, for instance, did his best with “Childe Harold”, but he could not conceive of a hero that was not encumbered with doubt, melancholy, and a sort of dashing lack of care for his own well-being – and so we were still stuck with the anti-hero.

The heroic/ anti-heroic theme continued in the nineteenth century historical novels of Sir Water Scott, whose writings achieved an astonishing level of popularity in his day. “Rob Roy” (1817) sold 10,000 copies (and that’s in leather-bound hardback) in two weeks. His poem “Marmion” (1808) sold 2,000 copies in a month, at one and a half guineas per copy. It was followed by another 12 editions by 1825, meaning that Scott on the strength of one poem alone had made enough money to live in a decent house with servants cooking his dinner – not a fate one would anticipate for even the most famous of modern poets. Yet in the case of Scott it is not form that is important, for his novels sold as well as his poems. Scott, in a very modern way, wrote for popular taste and chose a genre – historical romance – that appealed to the masses. Later, Charles Dickens also dipped into the lucrative historical genre (“A Tale of Two Cities”), but most of his great novels were strictly “literary fiction” – stories about people living in a world we recognise as our own. In other words, not a historical, fantastical, horror-tinged, or crime-defined reality populated by policemen and thieves. Dickens wrote familial stories tinged with tragedy (though not on a grand enough scale to qualify as Aristotelian), where happiness, once it appeared, had a pastoral tinge to it (while often intensely urban and usually set in the great metropolis of London). There are no shepherds in Dickens, but his happy characters wear suits, have comfortable homes where children play, and go off to work every morning with a spring in their step, as if off to inspect their teeming flocks.

The nineteenth century also produced a surprising breakout from a genre that bubbled out of the Romantic obsession with dwarves, monsters, ruined castles, spirits, and diseased maidens (Keats, “The Lay of St Agnes” and Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein”). At some point in the 1820’s, Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” (1817) and James Hogg’s “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” (1824), and many other books pursuing a similar line, invented a Gothic horror element. Hogg’s book, published anonymously, was disturbing in its implications, namely that a man could be so filled with nihilism that he would commit terrible crimes in the blithe assurance that he would nonetheless go to Heaven as one of God’s Elect. Hogg seems to have invented the psychopath as anti-hero, a theme resounding in our modern crime fiction, which would long ago have withered without the constant fertilisation of psychopaths. One need only think of Brett Easton Ellis’s “American Psychopath”, which perhaps could never have been written without the cultural influence of Hogg some 150 years earlier.

Genre very much operates in this way. It is an evolving phenomenon and responds to social factors. The emergence of the Swedish crime story, for instance, owes much to the collapse of what has sometimes been referred to as “the Swedish model.” Swedes, once safe in the knowledge that the State was there to guarantee their security, began to write about horror and evil in society once the State receded like some weary grandfather clutching a bottle of booze.

Where do we conclude these ramblings on genre in our time? Only with the simple statement that readers – and this must also include sophisticated, literary readers – should not avoid genre writing. If they do so, they are ignoring the weight of literary tradition. So-called “literary novels” are merely novels that do not belong to any genre that has been defined as yet. Most genre novels (and literary novels) are too awful to be countenanced. And the exception does not prove the rule, because there is no rule.

eBooks or noBooks?

8 Sep

We are all networking these days and The Conversation is no longer in the first instance a Coppola film made in the 1970s – it’s actually an exchange of lucid, super-intellectual commentary on Kim Jong-Il’s cognac collection, Kate Perry’s divorce, the latest news from the Straits of Hormuz and Jonathan Franzen’s views on the eBook.

This morning as I sat down to quickly scan through 851 Twitter updates, it was like listening to a large flock of parrots in the leafage. An astonishing number of people had retweeted an article by Henry Porter in the UK Guardian: “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.”  Oh, and guess what. “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.” And finally: “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.” You know what?  I’m starting to believe that Jonathan Franzen is not wrong. I’m also wondering if anyone actually read Henry Porter’s article, or did they just skim it and think it looked like useful tweeting material?

Guiltily I peered at my Kindle, into which last night I downloaded a copy of Lucius Seneca’s essays and an edition of Monkeybicycle magazine. I must have read at least fifteen pages from each of those two. Which makes me better informed than I was before, better read and more intelligent. Right?

Currently I have about twenty-five books in that small grey slab of battery-driven plastic, many of them unread. Franzen calls this “a lack of permanence” which (he implies) may eventually lead to failure in civil governance and the judicial state, but that’s a bit rich, isn’t it? Forgetting where my favorite bit of Seneca is located is not going to stop the Arab Spring, though it may in time turn me into a lunatic.

There is a tendency among humans to chatter, like monkeys crowding the tree-tops alongside the parrots. That is in fact what I am doing now, and the problem of social networking is that my chatter becomes your chatter, and before long we have all turned into that monstrosity (coined by Auberon Waugh, an English writer and columnist) known as the “chattering classes” – once a scathing reference to middle-class buffoons with the time and money to sit about worrying about nothing. Eventually it led to the invention of psychotherapy—I think I read that somewhere.

As we sit in our tree, arguing about the shape of this leaf or the angle of that branch, it is worth asking ourselves if we’re really getting to the heart of the matter. In debating the merits of eBooks, aren’t we just losing ourselves in detail? Surely the important thing is that the tree is growing straight, its roots reaching deep, no army of loggers on their way with giant chainsaws and monster trucks to chew the forest to pieces?

The eBook is not intrinsically wrong, it is simply a book in digital form. Only its gaseous cousin, the noBook, could ever be a threat to our liberal consensus. The noBook is the real problem of our age, leading to a nasty public addiction to inane twenty-four hour news bulletins, celebrity kiss-and-tell, “reality” shows, or out-of-tune singing and elephantine dancing, all faithfully recorded and transmitted over the airwaves like the ravings of a mental disease. Commercialism is advancing with all the confidence and inevitability of a virus. Every possible activity undertaken by humans – coffee-drinking is a great example – is being built into companies listed on the Stock Exchange. We used go to cafés run by families who kept their profit for themselves. They saved their dough and sent their children to college so they could learn about Arthur Miller and Leonard Bernstein. Now “the parents” work for eight bucks an hour or less, can’t afford children, and have never heard of college.

I have every sympathy for Jonathan Franzen. In an unguarded moment (no doubt to his eternal chagrin) he revealed that he does not like to have an Internet connection while he is writing. Like everyone else, he is addicted to this distracting show, this round-the-clock firework display of human consciousness. The mere fact that we all know about this habit of his speaks volumes for the invasiveness of the online world. We are dealers of tidbits, of samples and excerpts and scraps, tufts, feathers, dried bread and moldy cheese. We chew and chew, in the end it starts to taste like food. But there’s no meat or fresh fruit in this mixture, there are no vitamins, no B7 or calcium or potassium or zinc, our brains start breaking down. We develop tics and sudden silences, information goes missing and dementia becomes a state of mind, not a disease. One day we’ll all feel impotent without our portable auxiliary drives, also known as iPods, where we can store all the background information of our lives, all the hyperlinks and video clips and podcasts, all illustrative of… of… well… illustrative (I would say) of the need to shut up.

Back to Franzen, the fatted calf of his kind, relaxing in his comfortable Cartagena hotel at the Hay Festival: yes, Jonathan, no one can write in a storm of words. You need a bit of silence, a bit of thought. I agree. And you are entitled to your opinion like everyone else, even though the media’s insistence that you are “the Great American novelist” has earned you general opprobrium all over the world. There is no such thing as “the great American novelist,” novelists are not equipped with flags, they are stateless. And few, very few, are great and most of those are dead.

But it is not your fault that we are all chattering.

We have to keep it in perspective, we have to think about the roots, the trunk of the tree, the wind and the stars. Not whether leaves look best in autumn or spring, whether the oak beats the baobab or the sycamore’s a sophomore?

Back to fundamentals. Basics. Roots.

So, now for my conclusion on it all: I am much more worried about the noBook than the eBook. The way society is currently set up, people have time to read gossip, restaurant reviews and the lengthy and utterly inane clarifications of “financial experts.”  Television serves up a gravy of entertainment, and we need bibs to stop ourselves from looking like eight-month olds daubed in lamb purée and carrot mash. Ideas about our future society are presented by the likes of Mitt Romney or the Koch brothers, who pay for air time and in this way want to win elections. In fact they are closely emulating Amazon, the emerging behemoth that wants to own both the writer and the bookshop. Amazon will be broken up in a few years – this is my prediction of the week. Incidentally, it was a similar monopolizing instinct that led to the demise of the Hollywood studio system – directly responsible for some of the best films of the 20th century and not surprisingly coinciding with the golden age of America. Hollywood, now fragmented into virulent competing entities, is helpfully wading into the digital battle, serving up bland, lukewarm fare and wondering why the audience is disappearing. Even dressing up Meryl Streep to look like Margaret Thatcher doesn’t quite hit the spot any more. The audiences stay at home, watching television or surfing the net. Films are boring and cinemas a popcorn-stinking nightmare.

Most of the objections we hear about eBooks are technical. With time, Kindle and eReaders will become more sophisticated. Technology is easy, humans are good at it. What they are not so good at is using their brains in a constructive fashion, or making technology do what they want it to do.

So… eBooks or noBooks? Before I answer that, let me just check my e-mail.

(First published on The Nervous Breakdown, February 12th, 2012. View original post and comments here.)

The Modern Reader, What’s That?

30 Aug

Recently as I was walking down Wörther Strasse, Berlin, I found myself passing St. George’s English-language bookshop, where a few copies of my short story collection have been kenneled for the last few months. As usual, I find them dozing on the shelf next to Arthur Koestler, which is exalted company, to be sure, yet Koestler’s majestic spines always seem to throw a shadow over the modest heirs of my own invention.

Publishing a book these days is like watching a man falling off a building, hurriedly shrieking a last message to his stunned friends on the roof before he’s dashed against the pavement.

The question remains, how do ‘modern’ readers relate to the torrent of new books pouring over the edge of the precipice and dashing themselves against semi-modern classic bastions such as Philip Roth, Carson McCullers or even (why not?) William Burroughs? They are all ‘pre-digital’ and for that reason solidly endowed with profiles cemented in ‘old media’, while, behind them, rise the towering snow-capped peaks of nineteenth and early twentieth century gigantism, rooted in an age when books held an importance far in excess of their financial performance. Emily Dickinson… George Eliot… Charles Dickens… And then, like stars spattered across the vaulted universe, Shakespeare… Homer…. Virgil… maybe even Ovid? None of the celestials ever earned a dollar in royalties (possibly one of the worst cases of copyright rip-off in history) and would not even have known what a royalty payment was (come to think of it, neither do most modern writers). What they wrote they wrote for love, or necessity.

On my way out, I’m stopped in my tracks by the very inviting magazine rack at St. George’s. I locate the Spring 2010 issue of N+1 and minutes later I am nestled in a café, reading about “Webism, the Social Movement”, an analysis of the web and books and whether the twain shall ever meet.

The Editors of N+1 quote Walter Benjamin, as always uncannily predictive, on “modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced”, a weightier, more thoughtful correlative to Andy Warhol’s infamous “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Yet the two men, though in different eras, seem to be on the trail of the same idea. Benjamin Buchloh, Rosenblatt Professor of Art at Harvard, put it in an altogether more scholastic way when he explained Warhol’s remark by allusion to “the systematic invalidation of the hierarchies of representational functions”, which must now be taken as a reference to the Internet and what it has done to information.

Whether we like it or not, books are information of an amazingly long-winded kind, which is one of the reasons why readers have to be fierce and passionate, riding their terrified steeds into a breaking wave of words. The aim and underlying concept of books is that the reader, whether modern or not, should surface on the other side, wiser and somehow… better. Or at least “amused”. Amused readers are better than bored ones, I think. But not always. If you are reading Kierkegaard you’ll not feel so very amused, but with luck you’ll not be bored either, though if you are then at least you’ll be virtuous.

Back to the N+1 article, which has now turned to the struggle of the mighty New York Times to meet the challenge of the online environment, trying to accommodate the fact that advertising will no longer pay for its paper and ink magnum opus. With the help of Facebook and Google, advertising has found itself an enormous and targeted online market, effectively outflanking the old monopoly. The New York Times threw itself at the online environment like a tin of paint flung at a wall. Somehow, it managed to cover every crevice: blogs, comments, entertainment, celebrity gossip. Yet at times all those brains for hire had nostalgic fits when they thought of times past – those leisured assignments in Vienna, in Phnom Penh, those carefree expense account lunches. Gone! Gone! As the Editors of N+1 put it: “At other times, the obsession with new media has led to strange outbursts – as when the writer of a piece on Robert Caro’s monumental 1,200 page biography of Robert Moses suddenly and entirely irrelevantly bemoaned the ‘age when sentence fragments on a blog pass for intellectual argument.’ Even as the institution itself was struggling desperately to adapt, this sort of dig at the internet emerged from the editorial desk on a regular basis, like a cry of pain.”

I wonder if Homer would have composed an orally transmitted poem if he’d had access to an iPad? It seems unlikely. Would people have invented poetry at all, if rhyme and meter weren’t ideal mnemonic devices? Presumably, back in Homer’s day, one only had to sit by a smoking campfire for a few moments sipping one’s mulled wine and gnawing a haunch of lamb, before some grizzled prophet started intoning the lay of wily old Odysseus? Today, is there anyone in the whole world who could recite “The Odyssey” from beginning to end?

N+1 puts it more succinctly: “Book-length literature is the product of certain historical conditions, of a certain relationship to written language.” This seems hard to deny. Swedish Nobel Prize-winning writer Harry Martinson, when asked by Artur Lundkvist (a Swedish poet) why his early attempts at writing were all poetry, explained that poetry was shorter than novels and at the time he could not afford paper.

So what’s next for the book? Have eBooks transcended the problem of transference, will we keep reading tomes? Or will we slowly but inexorably shift our attention to short stories, novellas, flash fiction, snippets to be quickly digested or admired? “Assimilate book-ism to webism and the book looks like nothing so much as an unreadably long, out of date, and non-interactive blog post.”

The N+1 article was written almost two years ago, and it may be that technological development has already somersaulted beyond the authors’ cautious expectations? Has the effective digitalization of the book finally been achieved? Is there a Modern Reader out there, willing to get out her knife and fork and gorge on some words?

On my way home I pass by St. George’s again; slightly guiltily, I sneak inside, savor the smell of dust and creaky floorboards and come away with contraband: a frayed copy of Manuel de Landa’s “A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.” It appeals to me, the way someone else’s sweat and dirt has marked the pages. If we could digitize the smell of worm-eaten books, I reckon the battle would be won. Could someone out there please come up with an App? Books are worth reading. They beat the pants off film or any other medium. The human brain is the best audio-visual device in the world, and always will be.

(First published on The Nervous Breakdown, November 15th, 2011. View original post and comments here.)


The Failed State?

24 Sep

I am reading a book by Jared Diamond called “The World Until Yesterday”. If you haven’t read it, do. It is not particularly sexy and does not even tell you what you want to hear. But it does make a lot of interesting arguments about nation states and how they operate, also non-state societies which used to be the norm apart from a couple of places well suited to growing lots of food – usually in the form of grain – where states were established thousands of years ago. I love the sense of perspective one gets, when considering human society not only now, but over thousands of years. Not a lot has changed really, we just make much more lethal weapons now, and we have machines to do many of our tasks and maximise our food production so we can keep standing armies and fight all the year round instead of staying at home, working in the fields, taking care of our grandmothers…

I saw a photo today, on Facebook of all places. It really touched me. I have travelled in many places in my life, and the one rule I have found to be absolutely universal is that people everywhere, whatever their nationality or religion or language, are basically the same. Take a look at it.

24 September, occupation, Jerusalem.

Who knows why this guy is being handcuffed. Maybe he was protesting, or just expressing himself? I am not so interested in Israel-bashing, or any other bashing. I will just say that nation states on the whole tend to be large, blunt, insensitive and somehow idiotic entities devoting themselves to simplifying the role of the individual. Frankly, when I look at England or America or even Germany, I don’t find the nation states there are doing an excellent job of understanding what is really happening. The nation state is always at odds with people, democracy is always a justification for the failures of the nation state. The argument, we are all familiar with it, is that democracy is the best form of failed system. Maybe so, but it is important to be conscious of failings and to put them in words.

To go back to the photograph, I would like to say that there is no such person as a Palestinian. There are only people who live in Palestine. Nationality has been used for too long as a way of categorising individuals. Nationality is largely a 19th century invention. In the case of Palestinians, it is even younger. Until very recently, the whole of the Arabian peninsula and most of the Horn of Africa were defined by their tribes and clans, which came a little closer to defining the outward signs of the individual. But in the end, people are just small bands of individuals trying to take care of their own families, friends and allies. To believe even for a moment that the state can fill that role is like saying that God will sort out your car insurance or help you get a better job. God is not concerned with these things. We know that – we know that all too well.

So let’s not take David Cameron too seriously, or Vlad Putin. They are just players. They are pushing an old model, and we need to move on.







Popularity, the Techno Viking and Other Monsters

4 Apr

What follows here is a late-night message to writers, philosophers, painters, sculptors, industrial designers, actors, tuba players, drummers, guitarists, dancers, and other practitioners of strange and rarefied arts:

This tall, slightly frazzled Nordic type you see here cavorting down a Berlin street was filmed in 2000 by video artist Matthias Fritsch at an event eloquently known as the Fuckparade.

By mid-2010, YouTube had recorded some 20 million hits.

In other words, if we consider this video to be a work of art – and many do – then it is more successful than “A Hundred Years of Solitude” – which only sold in the region of 11 million copies. Of course, this only holds true if one believes that popularity is a yardstick of worth. Is popularity a good measure? W.B. Yeats, who, it must be said, was no niggard in the popularity stakes, wrote in the poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”:

“Bred to a harder thing
Than triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Where on mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known,
That is most difficult.”

Yes, it is difficult to be quiet. It is difficult to hold one’s tongue. To shut up, let’s say. An ex-girlfriend of mine once said, with some exasperation: “If you knew what you were talking about I wouldn’t have to say anything. Then I’d love to shut up…” Somehow no one ever knows what they are talking about. No one ever likes to shut up.

I like the Techno Viking. I like his upbeat, determined prancing. People stand on the sidelines, watching. This man is not going to stop dancing, not ever. He’s tough but he’s no fighter. He inspires me to keep doing what I am doing without the slightest concern about what people may think. I will dance through your high streets and through your cities. Unstoppable and utterly unwilling ever to shut up.

What a nightmare.

You know, it is very difficult to get twenty million people to do anything, even to breathe according to plan. Heart attacks and emphysema will knock out a good number of them. Some will be run over by trams.

A few years ago I tried to organise a demonstration against rainforest destruction. Virtuous, some might say. A dullard with a cause, others might snipe. I spent weeks persuading people and eventually I managed to get about twenty people to turn up. We stood there forlornly chanting and waving a few desultory flags. A complete failure.

But success came to me on the way home. I passed a techno procession, a car with speakers at the front. Loud music. There must have been five thousand people marching and dancing behind that car. They seemed to be campaigning about something, but there were no banners. Only sweaty people reaffirming their right to jump up and down and make certain sophisticated moves, honed to perfection over hundreds of hours of gyration and observation in chill-out rooms.

It made me wonder: what would it take to get this many people dancing for a better reason?

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