Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Owen Jones and Labour - Storms in small teacups

I’m writing this in response to a small, Labour feud that’s been going on since Owen Jones wrote his latest column for the Independent. Broadly speaking, Jones argued that a coalition was needed to advance ideas on the left of the political spectrum, thus creating safe political territory in which Labour could pursue a more progressive agenda. So far so sensible, and indeed, part of why it’s unfortunate that the debate became negatively charged was that Jones seemed to be putting forward an argument with Labour’s best interests at its core.

In counter, and not unhelpfully, Labour MP Ian Austin reasoned on Twitter, and Luke Akehurst wrote in Labour List, that Labour had lost the last election to a campaign from the political right, and thus there were no votes to be won on the left (which you could argue justifies the need for what Jones was talking about). Luke Akehurst also invoked the Tory-UKIP phenomenon, in which a party further to the right is actually serving to hinder rather than help the Tory party cause, this too is a relevant point.

Labour have more to lose and gain from the dispute than Owen Jones. Jones is an author/journalist who is already – we presume – doing just about all right for himself in such a capacity; he can make a living from writing about problems without being compelled to right them. Labour are a political party who need to reach out to people, they won’t get far telling people they’re wrong in their misgivings and that they should put their efforts into the party machine.

In some of their arguments there seems a sense of entitlement on the part of Labour, the assumption that they have a right to the support of anyone who would identify themselves as either socialist, left, or progressive. They’re wrong, they don’t. Worse is an undertone that those who do identify as left but don’t identify as Labour are in some way avoiding their duties, that they should be working their socks off for the Labour cause rather than, say, the Greens. There seems a lack of appreciation for the fact that some people don’t want to associate with Labour because of things like PFIs and Iraq (yawn!), and the perception that Labour’s last decade offered little substantive difference to the Tories as far bankers, energy companies, environment and (most importantly) the cost of living was concerned.

The dispute seems unfortunate because a central part of Jones’ idea was that a non-party political, leftist movement was needed precisely to help the Labour party, to create the sort of ideological space (I get the feeling that professional politicians snigger at terms like that) that Labour can capitalise on politically. The example given was the right wing Taxpayers Alliance, who will mobilise for a quite extreme agenda in a way that means the Tory party will never come off looking like the most extreme voice in the spectrum. If Labour believe this sort of thing doesn’t happen, and that it isn’t happening naturally all the time, then again they’re wrong. It would be laughable to suggest UKUncut haven't played a role in providing protective cover to politicians wanting to talk about tax evasion. You could even argue that UKUncut have helped make it - well, perhaps not cool - but at least accessible to talk about tax evasion and austerity in an everyday conversation. If Labour win at the next election (and we have to hope they do) it will be in part because there is already some form of network advancing the agenda that will continue to be their bread-and-butter opposition. The naysaying of ‘old Labour’ and ‘Red Ed’ that greeted Ed Miliband’s election as leader has slipped away since 2010, largely because a more left wing dialogue has become acceptable, and indeed was elected around Europe.   

To suggest there would be something wrong with a more concerted attempt to create such a change seems a little like refusing help, like cutting off noses to spite faces. Not all change can (or even should or need to) come from within Labour. This resistance also fails to accept that Labour, like all political parties, has a bad brand. Labour do well in the polling because the Lib Dems made themselves a farce and because the Tories cannot control the elements that make them look like a farce. Labour can win the next election even though over a third of the electorate will believe there’s no point in voting and act accordingly. Once politicians have written off that third of the population then they have accepted party politics as some kind of niche intellectual sport, rather than a broad institution with an intention to represent. Owen Jones referenced the Obama campaign to expand the electorate, whereas Labour voices assert that they “lost from the right”, that the voting electorate are right of where Labour currently stand, and the political ground cannot be won by going left. Again you have to sympathise with the reasoning, but equally it does smack of a lack of ambition, the notion that politicians should be nothing more than service providers to those still interested in consuming politics. What use is education, experience, proximity to power, and an allowance and salary to safeguard from material hardship, if we still end up with politicians seeking no more than the ratification of what an overworked, underpaid population deduce from a diet of tepid media?

I really don’t want to criticise, because I know there are lots of hard working and dedicated politicians. Ian Austin in particular I like for his work on cycling, an area of politics that excites me precisely because it is (or should be) ideology-neutral, makes a tangible difference in people’s lives, and doesn’t (or shouldn’t) get bogged down in the simplistic, left-right mudslinging that I’ve hopefully not added too much to with the above.

In looking for a reconciliatory tone, perhaps those who define themselves as leftists/progressives might benefit were they to allow Labour to be their natural voice in politics. As a party member and campaigner, Owen Jones would already be living up to this ideal. On the other hand, it can’t only be one way traffic, millions of people are currently not buying into the Labour brand for a reason, and Labour have to give them a reason to do so. There is undeniably an enormous amount of passion and creative talent that does not currently choose to ally itself with Labour; even if they might vote for them, be sure they’re not lending a fraction of the support that they could. If the party were to reflect on themselves, thinking how they might change to engage such a demographic, and what that demographic might bring to them, then that would be progressive, and in the truest sense of the word.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Lance Armstrong again

A part of me wouldn’t mind seeing him crack and fall apart, but it’s not the best part of me. The high of being entertained doesn’t last long anyway, and after it wears off you only need more. I get the impression a handful of journalists are now writing about Armstrong with extra venom because for many years they were made by editors to conceal the truth behind his myth. They are extracting vengeance for the fact they once had to go along with the lie being inflated in the commercial interests of Armstrong, the International Cycling Union, and the sales of their own newspapers. It’s telling that in such a game, the media always have to win out. They stonewall the detractors when helping to blow up the bubble, and then forget all humanity when given the opportunity to pop it. In every stage, actual people are the losers.

Two journalists in particular stand out for the tenacity they showed in bringing about the Armstrong story, for following their consciences rather than their career interests. They are David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, they’ve shown journalism in its best and most principled light, my worry is that now they could be called to assist the media in the less noble act of twisting the knife.

David Walsh could certainly help in this. Armstrong is known to have made particularly poisonous remarks about Walsh’s son, John, who was killed when knocked off his bike at the age of 12. Armstrong is said to have told his team mates that Walsh had some sort of a vendetta against cycling on account of his son’s death. According to Armstrong, this was the reason Walsh stuck at the doping allegations. In part he was right, Walsh always said the memory of his son helped him go after the truth, the meaning of that changes now it’s accepted Armstrong and not Walsh was the liar in it all. Cycling journalist, Daniel Coyle, reported back to Walsh that Armstrong had once fumed it was sick Walsh could ever have had a “favourite son”, all part of the delusion and zero-empathy that comes with the territory for anyone who has allowed drugs to take over their life. To his credit, David Walsh has said that yes he’d accept the apology Armstrong half-offered when speaking to Oprah Winfrey last week.

Paul Kimmage has been no less admirable in his pursuit of Armstrong, but whereas there was a certain sadness to Walsh’s battle, Kimmage came across like more of a scrapper. A professional cyclist from the eighties, his was another career held back by the will to race clean, and in Kimmage there always seemed like there was more bitterness. Writing yesterday in The Guardian, Kimmage reproduced an anecdote from the early nineties, when Lance Armstrong’s mother visited the American Tour de France winner, Greg LeMond, in Minneapolis, asking advice on behalf of her newly world champion son. Kimmage reports her final question as, “how do I make him less of an asshole? He doesn’t care about anyone.”

There is a lot that Lance Armstrong has not yet dealt with, there are a lot more truths that he kept quiet from Winfrey, but does he (or we) really need to know that his own mother was calling him an asshole?  The journalists who have covered Armstrong closest, and who have suffered most from his bullying, could now themselves be transformed from objective reporters into characters in the story, their own understandable grievances exploited to keep the drama flowing. That won’t help the sport of cycling they so obviously love, it won’t help them as people, and last of all – not that many of us still care – it won’t help Lance Armstrong.

Paul Kimmage has said the first 39 seconds of Armstrong’s interview were honest, when he repeated “yes” to all questions about whether he had taken performance enhancing drugs. For the rest of the interview, Kimmage said he was laughing at Armstrong; I can understand why, it was textbook Armstrong, and Armstrong is hilarious. He answered with the same sportsman’s clich├ęs, the facile truisms that suffice at the end of a stage of the Tour but just don’t cut it in an act of public trial, where more was anticipated than just a competitive athlete’s poor grasp of emotion and social psychology. Armstrong professed to have looked up the word ‘cheat’ in the dictionary, realising it didn’t apply to him, because he wasn’t gaining an advantage but only levelling the playing field by doping. Armstrong’s guy-next-door was on show with “I don't know if you pulled those two words out of the air, “jerk” and “humanitarian”, I’d say I was both.” Armstrong the public figure is hilarious, but part of this whole process should be his slipping away into anonymity, so that he can be hilarious with those few who remain affiliated with him, or better still, so that they can help him see what an ass he has been and help him learn how to be less of one. There is a lot of animosity going around that does nothing for the many people Armstrong wronged, most of whom seem humane enough to want vindication and heartfelt apologies, rather than for Armstrong to be torn limb from limb by a rabid, celebrity-crazed mob.

This isn’t to say Lance Armstrong has done all that should have been expected of him. His was a mainstream confession extracted by/given to a mainstream inquisitor. Dozens of figures from the cycling world are incensed by the amount Winfrey allowed him to get away with. He hasn’t shown any great remorse for the way he pathologically tried to smear Greg LeMond, Emma O’Reilly, and Betsy Andreu, raging that they were alcoholics, prostitutes or just plain liars for questioning his story. Nor has he asked forgiveness for the way he threatened these figures with promises that he could ruin their careers and their lives. It seems Armstrong has recently contacted some of these people in person, they say he’s sounded genuinely repentant in a way that he perhaps never could in a public broadcast. One enormous sticking point is that Armstrong didn’t mention the incident at the hospital bed, when Andreu was present as Armstrong told his cancer doctors that he had been involved in doping. This was the episode around which he defamed and intimidated Andreu, and his silence can’t be justified by only Armstrong's will to protect those other friends and doctors who were present at the same bedside but chose to help in his lie. For me, the worst omission of the interview would be Christophe Bassons, the young, French cyclist bullied out of the peloton and his career by Armstrong (among others) because he would neither dope nor stay quiet about doping in the sport. The overriding injustice in it all, which deserves more mention than it will receive, is that the cheating athlete got his millions, the cheated sports corporations will recoup many of those millions although they got their exposure at the time, and those who spent wages or pocket money acquiring the same kit as their hero will be left with only a souvenir of their gullibility. It’s a tough but worthwhile lesson; don’t buy-in to someone else’s triumphs as a substitute for your own.

More than the omissions, however, was the fact Armstrong continued lying during the interview, and this is where the cycling community have rightfully been far from appeased in their anger. Armstrong said that his comeback in 2009 was clean, while blood tests showed a high red blood cell count but a standard number of young cells in the blood, suggesting a transfusion of mature blood cells to help boost performance. He said he donated $100,000 to the UCI because the UCI asked him to as a wealthy man, whereas his former teammates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton have both stated under oath he had failed a drugs test at the 2001 Tour of Switzerland and the payment was to bury the results. Armstrong reasoned that his cancer had turned him into a doper, desperate to win at all costs; one more delusion trying to reconcile repeated wrongdoing with an ever-adjustable version of truth. When for all intents and purposes someone has become a drug addict, it’s worth noting that truth in their head can become a malleable thing, an arrangement of facts that justifies conduct, not necessarily an arrangement of facts that resembles reality as found in the majority consensus. Even Winfrey was able to remind Armstrong that – as per his confession – he had started doping before cancer.

In such a fashion as this, Armstrong talked his way through the majority of his two hours on Oprah, a man obviously briefed and scared against the prospect of more lawsuits and prosecution. His need to justify himself and his inability to show contrition reveals a sad, loveless man, one who in his own head probably tortures himself more thoroughly than the entire population of Twitter could ever achieve. The apparent lust for the breakdown that never came seems to be fuelled – certainly outside of cycling – by something much more sinister than a desire for truth.  For me the memory of Marco Pantani hangs over much of the Armstrong case; another of cycling’s fallen stars, Pantani died from a drug overdose in a hotel room in 2004, and don’t doubt that were Armstrong to go the same way we’d have another raft of opinion and comment urging self-reflection on how monstrous our bloodlust had been.

For me the underlying message is that Armstrong’s heroics were always artificial, beginning to end it was only ever a fairytale. The idea that Armstrong’s appearance on Oprah should’ve ended with similarly cathartic perfection would’ve only been one more homage to life by media, life by television. Armstrong confirmed he was undergoing therapy, that he needed to rebuild his life out of dark times. His eyes watered slightly (the headlines eagerly said 'cried') when he talked of having to tell his son not to defend him any longer, that the kids at school who said his dad was a cheat were actually right. Armstrong enjoyed his decade in the limelight, he happily made himself public property because that public adored him. What he now seems intent on doing is keeping his breakdown – or whatever breakdown will or won’t come – to himself. Some of the dissatisfaction with this half-confession seems as much anything to be a dissatisfaction with this privacy. People who believed so ardently want to see Armstrong suffer in return for making them look and feel like fools. Some who stuck their necks out to call the truth a long time ago want a better acknowledgment of just how right they were all along. I understand both positions, but I hope he doesn’t give them that pleasure, I hope they cease desiring it. An artificially won stardom that drives a man to ruin, repentance, and then forgiveness in the courtroom of Oprah Winfrey could only ever have been a victory for the cult of celebrity, and a loss for humans everywhere.

It might seem like an ending, but I’d guess the Lance Armstrong crucifixion is just starting. Editors are aware of how much more there is to be drawn out. Armstrong’s collusion with a corrupt UCI is another layer in the story, Paul Kimmage may be called upon for an Armstrong tried to ruin my life episode, Armstrong lied to Oprah (gasp!) will be another one to look out for. Let’s hope the prosecution won’t sink as low as Armstrong did in the effort to make it personal.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Alex Jones and a radical disservice

A week ago it's almost certain I'd have had to introduce most people to Alex Jones. Since he went off his rocker at Piers Morgan in a rant about guns, he's been trending almost non-stop on UK Twitter, and the chances are a good many more people have now heard of him.

I've known of Alex Jones and his Infowars site for a few years now, never developing much of a liking for the man, largely because of the part of his personality that was remorselessly on show in the CNN interview with Morgan. Max Kaiser, who has a regular slot on Russian network, RT, and is a media friend of Alex Jones, offered Twitter support in talking about the stand-off with Morgan, who he referred to as a "shirt lifting ponce". There are innumerable valid ways to insult Piers Morgan without raising the idea that he's gay or that, if he was, there'd be some sort of problem with it. In Jones' aggression, and Kaiser's remarks about sexuality, the extremist wing of alternative media demonstrated why they are seen as unappealing and ugly by the majority of the watching world. Of course, it wouldn't necessarily do to assume that any or all of these men (Morgan included) were being entirely genuine in his conduct, the ever extreme and incoherent Glenn Beck has already come out in criticism of Alex Jones the lunatic, a reminder that whatever the overlaps, these media personalities are designed to appeal to audiences and generate revenues. In order to do this they have to be controversial, and they have to distinguish themselves from one another.

Aside from this, there is a sad story that will be buried in Jones' idiocy, and that is the fact that he often has a very valid point. Few would argue with the injustice by which western taxpayers are now paying the wages and bonuses of bankers who might justifiably have been locked up for fraud. Money laundering on behalf of Mexican drugs cartels, the fixing of Libor, credit ratings agencies sharing their ratings criteria with banks, the strong connection between the US Treasury and former Goldman Sachs employees; these are the pet projects of Jones et al, no sane person would argue against condemning such abuses of power, and you could read about the same issues in the pages of most mainstream newspapers. On other issues Jones is even quite forward thinking; agribusiness and corporate control of food, disaster capitalism and the corporations that benefit from post hurricane and flooding cleanups (Naomi Klein makes similar points), the unsavoury Islamist-monarchist-tribalist melange of Libyan rebels would have been discussed by Jones while mainstream media was still in an orgy of freedom fighters vs. tyranny. Whether it be the official secrets act that will guard postmortem results from the murder/suicide of Iraq WMD scientist, David Kelly, for another seven decades, the now-accepted truth that American involvement in Vietnam was justified by a staged incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, or Israeli plans to drum up international support by bombing the populations of their allies in the Lavon affair, there is also a lot of historical evidence for the fact that - as Jones would suggest - we are often too trusting of our governments. By presenting himself as a raging idiot, Jones discredits both the need for radical change in society, but also the validity of much of what he raises on his own website. For a man who speaks of The Media as a tool of the Global Elite and their plan to demonise dissent and establish a New World Order, Jones certainly made no great effort not to walk into the sort of trap he makes a living talking about.

His views on gun ownership in particular are insightful. Certainly on this side of the Atlantic, either through ignorance or misconstruction of the argument, much has been made of the idea that Americans have a constitutional attachment to guns as part of a hunting culture. That Americans are culturally attached to guns and hunting is beyond doubt, however, the constitutional element of gun ownership is more specifically so that Americans can protect themselves against a tyrannical government. As Jones told Morgan, "the Second Amendment isn't about duck hunting", and it's precisely the idea of armed insurrection that secures a place for automatic weapons and military hardware in the hearts of millions of Americans. Curbing gun ownership can't be addressed without discussing this fact, and by only talking about gun ownership as a tool of hunting, gun control advocates will very easily be accused of helping to disarm the nation in readiness for subjugation by the federal government.

More useful is to look at the emotions behind this particular brand of politics. For one, Jones clearly envisages himself at the forefront of a movement for a better society, although that said it's unlikely anyone would ever regard their personal goals as being a worse society. Slavoj Zizek's "Save us from the Saviours" seems pertinent. Beyond all question is that his media promotes and encourages a willingness to fight for our freedom, the problem is that the fight seems to be just as crucial to the vision as the freedom, debates about freedom-to and freedom-from do not even begin to exist, and so the movement ends up co-opting the innocent and impressionable minds of many people of the not unreasonable opinion that, well, the world could be a bit better. Whether Alex Jones cares more about the population at large, or simply his significance within that population, is up for debate. As with much media of a similar genre, the self-perception of his audience could be typified as a downtrodden but informed cadre, bravely resisting the hordes of ignorant "lemmings" and "sheeple" (I do, I confess, quite like "sheeple" as a portmanteau of sheep and people). Whatever case there is to be made for the invaluable role of ignorance inside a modern political economy, such a scathing and loveless judgment of the masses leaves one questioning whether (or even why?) these antagonists would ever want to improve the lot of a population they seem to resent so intensely. The need for firearms - an almost convincing substitute for power within a disempowered politics - is much more symbol than tool; Waco 1993, when homemade bazookas still proved no match for federal use of tanks, is evidence that no amount of horded firepower can resist a federal onslaught. You soon find yourself of the opinion that Jones and his followers value the notion of heroism, and even martyrdom, more than they value the notion of progressive change. Positive campaigning and harnessing consensus seem to be low on their list of priorities, and it's telling that Jones' website is already murmuring that he is being primed for assassination following his brave outburst.

In his excellent book, Deer Hunting with Jesus, Virginian Joe Bageant dissects the mentality of the early American settlers, brining a wild and foreign land to heel, a Darwinian utopia based upon survival of the fittest. Jones' threat - that the American Revolution of 1776 will be revisited if firearms are taken away - is evidence of how many Americans still live inside this history, and for every Twitter liberal whose cyber bubble condemns Jones the lunatic, people must be aware that a different bubble will be praising Jones the hero for saying it as it is in the cradle of leftist media. I know many gun owning Americans who dislike the NRA and who would never become members, these are the sort of people who will talk about the NRA's business case for gun proliferation, and indeed Jones' normal tenacity for capitalist vested interest seems to be suspended where the NRA is concerned. Millions of pragmatic American gun owners will argue for gun control far more effectively than any number of outraged and ideologically driven liberals, and we should beware the polarisation that frequently sinks sensible politics. As media entities, both Jones and Morgan have a vested interest in the former and not the latter. It would seem harsh to assume that Jones himself does not care at all about the causes he espouses, if his capacity for self-reflection is a match for his self-promotion, he'll soon realise the disservice he's performed.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

And it rained.

So I'm working on some short stories these days, a sort of playful politics I suppose... we'll see what comes of them, here's one about all this rain we keep having, and what it means for food prices.

It rained. It rained and rained and after it had finished raining then so it would start to rain again. Nobody could remember a summer so wet, people felt short-changed, stitched up by nature, and when autumn and winter proved no drier, so they started to lament that the weather… like everything else… had once been better. The rain fell. It fell onto the concrete they had lain over the earth, gushing into rivers, streams and seas, spilling into those fields not yet concreted, so that the puddles filled and then grew and then spread into bogs. The earth was washed away, pulling rocks and stones and pebbles down country roads that turned to torrents, the tarmac crumbling as debris rolled over it and water forced its way into the small fissures that first opened and then gaped. The earth was washed away, stripped from around the trees so that tendril like masses of roots were first pulled into view and then upended altogether when the storms blew and the trees could no longer hold the ground. Riverbanks collapsed, cliffs collapsed, escarpments of land collapsed. In the affluent regions west of London, the rich blew tearful noses into handkerchiefs as they saw their boat houses swallowed by the river Thames, as they stood helpless in the doorway and watched the carpet turn from a velveteen red to a muddy brown. In the south west of the country the banks of aggregate that held the railway tracks started sinking into fields so that trains were at first delayed and then cancelled. In a village called Ottery, the house at the foot of the hill was demolished. The possibility of flooding meant the house had always been a fraction of the price of every other on the street, but as years passed and the floods grew worse, it became obvious that nobody would live there ever again.

In the countryside the rain seemed to fall heavier even than in the towns, although perhaps it was that there the rain could not simply rush away into gutters and drains. Vicars responded to murmurs from the pews, this was not – they assured their congregations – either a second flood or necessarily even punishment for the wickedness of mankind. Farmers stood in their doorways and shook their heads, trying to recall a time when the world had been so miserably wet. Cows were shut inside sheds and barns, the farmers fearful that the hooves of their herds would soon turn the ground to quagmires. Unable to leave their cows outside eating grass, the farmers were forced to buy straw and silage and feed for their herds, so that those farmers who did not go bankrupt altogether were forced to double the price of their milk and meat. As rivals went out of business, some of the richer farmers smiled long and cynical smiles at the plight of the small farms, for they had always used their own land to grow feed of their own. As it went on raining, and raining, eventually it had rained until the tracks leading out to the fields were washed away, so that the tractors could neither reach the fields nor harvest the crops without getting stuck in mud or causing banks of earth to fold beneath their weight. The wheat drowned, the harvest failed. The fruit trees were stunted, the harvest failed. The potatoes were struck with blight, the harvest failed. The vegetables didn’t get enough sunlight. The harvest failed. All over the world the harvest failed

As rain kept on falling down so food prices kept on rising up, floating higher on the rivers that crept slowly up their flood defences. The cost of a loaf of bread doubled and then tripled, soon it had risen so high nobody could remember by how many times the original price had been eclipsed. The price of meat stayed low, for a while at least, as farmers all over the world rushed to slaughter their dairy cows before feed costs overtook their entire income. Six months later, once that glut of slaughtered meat was over, the price of a steak was a thousand times what it had once been. After that slaughter of most of the dairy cows, a pint of milk went up tenfold, and butter and cheese went from basic items to foods of luxury. The cost of pasta went up, the cost of beans went up, the cost of rice went up, and people who had been used to full stomachs became slowly accustomed to smaller meals made up of foods they liked less. The word crisis is so terribly overused… and yet… with no word of exaggeration, here was a crisis.

Budgets were stretched as waistlines shrunk, and yet the food shortages were destined to affect some more than others. There had always been a number of people for whom eating took a greater amount of the money available to them, for whom trips to the shops had always been acts of careful prudence and sensible spending, a weekly ritual inserted into life to make them painfully aware that they had no money. For want of any better words, and cutting to the point, let’s just call these people for that they were. The Poor. The cost of food became first angering and finally heartbreaking, embarrassedly the politicians avoided mentioning how many people had come to rely on charities for their meals, and most of those with a little more money became gradually more skilled in ignoring a problem that was not their own.

The poor didn’t think to complain that this hardship was unfair, it’s an untold truth that poor people expect life to be hard, and they generally blame themselves rather than anybody else when things get harder. They kept the hunger to themselves and tried taking practical steps to improve the situation. First of all, most obviously, they started to eat less. Next… in order to save money for food… they turned off the heating in their houses. Then… in order to have more money for food… they worked harder. And yet the problem of their hunger was particularly cruel, for the poor people found that when their houses were cold they had to eat more. And the poor people found that the harder they worked the more they had to eat. Slowly the poor grew thin. As the rain kept on falling they grew thinner and thinner, and slowly it seemed that the most crowded parts of towns and cities were becoming less crowded. Those who could still afford to eat remarked that the high cost of food was a good thing, that many of the poor had grown fat. “A little bit of hardship will be good for them” was the sort of thing people would remark, and at dinner parties people made conversation about the improved health of the nation since greediness had ceased to be an option. Of course there were many who felt these opinions to be in bad taste, and lots of well intentioned people loved nothing more than going out at night to give food to long queues of the starving poor. Streetlamps shone in the curve of ladles, steam rose from bubbling pans and haggard faces slid one by one into the night, each one more empty than the last, like train carriages shunted along to a knackers yard. Many heated conversations were had around dinner tables as friends and acquaintances argued, working up great appetites in deciding whether the poor deserved their fate or were victims of a great injustice.

In time there emerged reports that hunger had led to cannibalism, that in the poorest parts of the country the poor had taken to rounding up the dead and dying, butchering them for meat and feeding the flesh to the living. Many refused to believe that such a thing could ever be true, but as the reports and evidence grew, and as piles of bones were found beneath newly dug earth in parks and fields, it became accepted as fact, and even the most well meaning of people shuddered to think that the poor could have become so bestial.

Years went by and people forgot that they had once lived in an age of different weather, an age where a week of consecutive rain might have seemed unusual or unpleasant. People seldom left the house without an umbrella, and with this and other small changes, so they adjusted and forgot what once had been. The price of food became stable at its once unaffordable rate, and the problem of the poor and how to feed them slipped from memory. Society was quieter it seemed, more peaceful and less violent… everyone remarked on how the everyday person had become better educated than they once had been, it seemed that uncouth behaviour, bad manners and shouting in public had all become things of the past. Drunkenness and fighting on a weekend night had become far less commonplace, and it was hard to argue that society did not seem to be altogether quite harmonious. Everybody knew what had happened. At the time the newspapers had reported on the graves, on the empty houses, the bones, the final crawling corpses, more dead than alive, who had been put out of their misery when they arrived at the hospitals. Everybody knew what had happened, but they refrained from talking about as much. Sometimes… sometimes… if you paid close attention, and were talking to someone a little flippant, you would catch a glimmer in the eye or a quirk to the mouth, a small and guilty smile that said everything. People were happier this way, life was better.

Receive latest posts by email