Saturday, 18 June 2011

Scoundrels, patriotism, the Union Jack and sliced bread

Things are getting worse. I’ve known this for a long time, but now I’m really starting to worry. There’s no point reading articles or keeping abreast of events in politics, the truth reveals itself in fashions more mundane. It started a year ago. A Lebanese man, working from a premises that doubled as an internet café, had been making me falafel most lunchtimes for about six months. It was good stuff, chopped parsley and raw onion, ripe tomatoes, and at only £2, on Cavendish Square, a minute’s walk from Oxford Circus, lunch in central London didn’t get much better. We always exchanged banter about his business, his face always miserable, dark bags under his eyes, a hooked nose and lips that sneered a smile as he told me the amount of money he paid in rent, and the amount of money he actually made. He was from Beirut, his English fine but far from fluent… the fewer words people command in a language, the more truthful and pointed those words are likely to be. Each time we met, he told me that soon he would return to Lebanon, where life would be better. I remember the afternoon when he summed-up three post-financial crisis (!!!) years of sensational headlines and supposedly sophisticated economic analysis. He turned to me, dark eyes levelled my way, that hooked nose and those thin lips as he drew out his fist, rotated it downwards with a large, plump thumb pointing at the ground, and he said to me.

‘In England… you cannot make any money.’

And a few months later, he was gone. None of that, however, was very much more than boringly predictable in modern Britain. It is only in recent months that I have been made better aware of just how bad things are getting, the rotten seat of the latrine above which we teeter, just waiting to plunge down into twenty-one centuries of shit. It was the advertising that told me, for adverts will explain the state and concerns of the nation better than any politician or journalist ever manages. You might get some outliers that fall wide of the mark, but in the main, marketing spots the direction in which things are headed.

It is with growing alarm, therefore, that I keep seeing advertising and packaging enlisting the services of Union Jack. Weapons manufacturer, BAE Systems, were very much ahead of the game in this respect, and for the best part of three years, they have had Union Jacked black cabs going around central London under the title ‘BAE Systems: A big plus for the UK’ (which, undeniably, reads much better than ‘BAE Systems: A big problem for innocent civilians all over the world’). The fashion has recently gone into overdrive, however, with Pimm’s Union Jacking their bottle, Hovis Union Jacking their bread, Vodafone Union Jacking black cabs all of their very own (rather than actually paying its £6billion tax bill to the country), and Cheryl Cole advertising shampoo beside a Union Jack rug whilst talking about ‘British hair’, obviously different to other hair in ways previously unbeknown. The middle classes have not been neglected by the clamour, and for those too refined for the vulgar euphoria of red-white-blue, the Festival of Britain is being celebrated on London’s South Bank. It is no coincidence that the original festival, sixty years ago in 1951, was intended as a ‘tonic for the nation’, still rebuilding after the Second World War. The Hayward Gallery and Festival Hall area has been duly adorned with photos of British inventors, a giant fox made from straw (they omitted the chasing hounds and aristocrats), recordings of seagulls, and photos of British troops in Helmand, Afghanistan. There is, after all, nothing better than tastefully-shot images printed on aluminium to help soften middle class views of an expensive war, especially one that has decimated a poor country for shoddy reasons increasingly forgotten and forgiven.

Be that as it may, the bottom line in all this British bluster is that, in short, we’re fucked. It brings back memories of riding through the south of Romania, where each town has the blue-yellow-red of the national flag fluttering over it, and apart from that an awful lot of poverty, begging gypsies, derelict factories and rutted roads for the entire five hundred mile stretch below. Don’t mistake me, many of the people there are living happy and fulfilled lives, but it is in spite, rather than because, of anything that the nation has ever done for them. When people start encouraging you to get excited about the piece of rock you live on, that’s when you know you’re in trouble.

So where does this leave us? Well, first of all, we’re all going to have to learn to appreciate the finer, non-material things in life. If the flag doesn’t work for you then I recommend reading, but buy your books quickly, before a publishing model premised on whether a book can be marketed, rather than whether it is any good, makes storytelling and good writing extinct in not so very long at all. As a rule of thumb, I suggest only reading authors who are already dead, which serves me well as a literary filter.

On the matter of learning to live harmoniously with one another, we will need a lot more love and understanding. All those born earlier than 1975 need to understand the burden that has fallen on all those born since, it’s hard work to muster goodwill with prospects limited to no career, no pension, and in the interim a life of paying other people’s buy-to-let mortgages for them. As for those of us born since 1975, we need to extend love and compassion to those born prior, they are to be screwed by the very same alliance of business and government that will slowly destroy us all, the only difference is that they were afforded the luxury of being screwed under their own roofs. We must all extend compassion to those born since the millennium, who will plumb new depths of meaning for the word ‘doomed’, and it is surely only a matter of time before the termination of all new pregnancies is made compulsory.

What is to be done? I suggest that all concerned members of society must, with immediate effect, stop socialising, and especially breeding, with anybody associated with either the financial sector or the three major political parties. By such means might we peacefully exterminate their grubby and self-serving DNA from the gene pool, or at the very least limit their opportunities for reproduction. If this fails then we will all have to put our faith in social mobility, which was proven to be alive and well in the marriage of common Catherine Middleton to royal Prince William. The wedding showed that if you want to move up the social ladder then you absolutely can, but first you better persuade someone with more money and standing to let you into their bedroom and fumble with their genitals. If that doesn’t prove fruitful then I advise making yourself comfortable in the rut that you’re in… for you’re going nowhere.

*With thanks to Flaubert. A more scholarly version of some of the issues here discussed will soon (we hope) be completed for OpenDemocracy, my own book (we hope) by the end of the year.

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