Where The Real Lunatics Are

What constitutes true lunacy? Is it those garishly painted specimens baying with ever increasing desperation for your attention on Reality TV? Is it all those people who just try too hard? Look at me man, I’m mad I am.

Is it those people who run for high office while saying things like ‘I could shoot somebody dead in Times Square and still get elected. I so could man.’?

Experience, apparently, has shown us that some of those people weren’t nearly as mad as we thought they were. Many of them now have book deals, modest TV careers or, in at least one notable case, one of the highest offices in the world. Or maybe it’s simply that reality has decided to meet them halfway at least.

It’s my belief that much of what we think of as lunacy is actually a fairly manic and tragic lust for attention, like the former Irish Priest who dresses up as a leprechaun and smashes into runners competing in the Olympic Marathon: he just desperately, passionately wants people to notice him. Is he actually mad, or just starved of what he considers his rightful portion of notice?

For real lunatics, those souls who are quietly and utterly barking, you need to look elsewhere, and I think a good place to start is inside the very correct and buttoned down listenership of BBC Radio 4, the very hallmark of respectable broadcasting in the UK.

Now, aside from the apparently unavoidable checklist of traditional media prejudices, BBC 4 is a fine example of what a radio station should be. It is informative, not too pushy, and occasionally highly entertaining. Much of its programming has actually involved the application of some form of thought.

It generally eschews the tedious disease of the day marathons other stations cynically use to fill up their timeslots. There’s very little of the aimless, time filling wittering you hear from cerebral and charisma bypasses on other stations, whose lavish employers somehow imagine their insights are worth more than those of the average pub bore.

BBC 4’s fan base are a pretty unique bunch. They are almost heroically resistant to change in any form. Presenters often last well into their 90’s (nothing wrong with that, most presenters less than half their age on other stations are considerably less interesting), and the slightest attempt to change the format of the daily schedule has met with outrage.

The station’s schedule is a bit like an aural time capsule. It continues, for example, to have something called a ‘Woman’s Hour,’ when other stations, even in countries like Ireland, have given this up as a bit of an anachronism.

Because BBC 4 still manages to partly reflect the society it lives in in spite of the unchanging schedule, this can lead to some fairly surreal moments, such as an item on knitting circles being followed by a heated discussion on the attitude of feminists towards women who voluntarily make hard core pornography, but hey, it’s all part of the same wacky world.

The nature of the core audience means that response programmes – where they read out letters or emails from listeners – can throw up some pure gold. They once read out a letter which had been sent in response to an audio drama that had gone out on Radio 4.

The fictional drama had been set in the 1970’s, and in a diary entry, one character had mentioned watching an episode of Doctor Who on BBC TV on something like, say, Monday, August 10th 1974.

Not so, screamed the offended listener, there had been no episode of Doctor Who broadcast on August 10th 1974. There had been one broadcast two days later, but this was absolutely not on the date quoted by the programme. Why can’t you people get your facts right etc.

Towards the end of his life, the legendary DJ John Peel presented a show on Radio 4 which was sort of a collection of domestic odds and ends. It wasn’t about anything in particular, beyond the little quirks life could throw up now and again. Listeners were invited to write into John and engage in a sort of discussion about everyday strangeness.

One night, John heard from a man who, many years before, had bought a time punching machine for his toilet, the type of thing people used to clock in and out of factories with. You would have to punch the machine in order to gain entry to the toilet. Upon completing your business, you’d have to exit by punching out, thus ensuring there was a full and accurate record of how long everyone had spent in the toilet, the reels of punched tape stretched back for years and years.

Unfortunately, the listener told John, the time punching machine had recently stopped working, but he and the family still managed to enjoy a nostalgia sodden night poring through its many years of receipts. “Oh look, that must be when Aunt Maisie had that bowel condition years ago. Oh, what fun we had.”

People such as this are the rightful wearers of the laurel of madness. All those people shrieking at you on the telly or street are really nothing more than desperate wannabes.

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Why The Great Drought Of Doubt?

A few years ago, I read an article by the American playwright, John Patrick Shanley, in which he bemoaned the death of true debate in the US. Specifically, said Shanley, people no longer talked to or tried to persuade each other, they instead spent their time shrieking at each other.

Shanley explained that this was part of the thinking behind his most famous play, ‘Doubt.’ In it, a Catholic priest in the States is accused of improper conduct towards a young boy. The battle lines are drawn almost immediately. The ‘did he or didn’t he’ tension is maintained through a series of masterful exchanges between the priest and the school principal, a nun, who has made it her business to be his prosecutor (there is of course a very good film version with Meryl Streep and the tragically missed Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Only at the end, with the conflict resolved to (almost) everyone’s satisfaction, does the school principal break down and confess to her young novice, “I have such doubt Sister.”

This, I think, is Shanley’s point, namely that there’s far too much conviction around the public sphere, and nowhere near enough doubt. Instead of public debate, we have a shrill marketplace of conflicting ideas, and showing the slightest doubt about any of your team’s notions is considered fatal.

When was the last time you heard a spokesman for some political party or NGO on radio or TV respond to a question with something like “well yeah. I’m not so sure about that. You might be right, but then again.”?

We have to negotiate our daily lives in such doubt. It’s an intrinsic part, perhaps the intrinsic part, of being human. In our daily lives, we have to at least pretend to be open to the views of others. If we didn’t, then carrying on any kind of functioning social existence would be impossible.

We’d become those weird little people, trapped in ever shrinking bubbles. We’d end up talking to ourselves an awful lot of the time.

Yet this is precisely what happens in the so called public sphere. Debate is no longer about the sharing of ideas, it’s about the shrill denunciation of each other’s identity. In such a toxic environment, actual ideas have long ago ceased to have any meaning, because ideas no longer have value in and of themselves.

People with ‘skin in the game’ tend to care a lot more than the rest of us about a particular issue. Thus, activists and people who get paid by NGOs tend to be much more likely to feature on media ‘debates’ about that issue. While this is perfectly natural, it also means that ‘debate’ tends to head rather quickly towards the emotional extremes.

An animal rights activist is much more likely than an occasional meat eater to end up shouting at a scientist in a radio studio. The activist is much more likely to get invited on a news show, because the more sharply defined the conflict, the better it is for media. It’s much sexier to see someone losing their s**t on live telly than it is to see someone pluck their chin and go “well, you could have a point, but on the other hand.”

The proliferation and ever mushrooming budgets of NGOs add greatly to the toxicity and basic untruth of public debate. Consider: we’ve known for decades that politicians and Government officials lie to us, or at least greatly distort the truth for reasons of policy. But the more NGOs evolve, the more they become exactly like political parties and bureaucracies.

Most NGOs now have a ‘party line,’ which their spokespersons get paid ever increasing amounts of money to promulgate. The basic purpose of that party line isn’t so much to solve the problem that led to the creation of the NGO in the first place, but rather to ensure that the NGO continues to get loads and loads of money from Governments and ordinary citizens. Somebody has to pay all those salaries, after all.

Just like Governments before them, NGOs will seek to keep certain facts back from the public if such facts might be seen to jeopardise those lines of funding. They will also seek to police debate around their special issue with bogus rules of political correctness.

One area where this influence has been especially toxic is in the debate about Europe’s response to the refugee crisis.

NGOs want more and more money to deal with the crisis. They also believe, for reasons of both conviction and convenience, that more and more refugees should be accepted by European countries. The question of whether the economies and social infrastructures of certain European countries are able to cope with the influx isn’t the NGO’s problem, it’s just there to lobby for more and more refugees and more and more funding for itself.

In the meantime, mainstream politicians are afraid to disagree with the NGO, for fear of being instantly branded as racists, so the political response to the NGO’s demands – not to mention to the original crisis – becomes inherently duplicitous and hypocritical.

Debate thus becomes a kind of shadow war instead of an honest attempt to devise an agreed response to a problem. Media organisations will constantly frame the issue as a debate between NGOs and Governments, only occasionally cutting to some frothing at the mouth peasant who doesn’t want any foreigners near his precious blade of grass, by way of balance, don’cha know, or traditional media’s idea of balance anyway.

In this, as in so many other issues – such as abortion, pornography, the clash between religions and secularism – any middle ground gets almost instantly squeezed out, as does any solution to the problem which doesn’t leave a sizeable number of people seething with resentment.

It’s partly human nature, partly laziness on the part of media organisations. It’s simply too much effort to go looking for someone who’s interested in the issue without being all that passionate, especially when you have all those highly paid employees of NGOs hanging around the studio.

Things aren’t likely to get better anytime soon. The growth of so called ‘identity politics’ is really about separate bunches of people shouting ‘death to everyone else’s ideas.’ In ‘identity politics,’ the mere voicing of an idea can amount to a hate crime, because a growing number of people now feel entitled, not to disagree, but to be personally wounded and insulted by your idea.

This might not be so bad if conflicting identities were allowed equal space on traditional media, but a la Animal Farm, some identities will always be regarded as more worthy of attention than other ones.

The idea of reason fleeing debate is at least as old as Swift. There was, perhaps, never all that much reason in debate to begin with, but the public sphere these days resembles nothing more than tribes of humans shrieking and flinging missiles at each other from across a microphone. Forget all that guff about bringing people together, there seems to be an awful lot more money in conflict.

Even Plants Are Smarter Than Us Now

It seems there’s some new disturbing piece of data every day, and the latest, apparently, is that plants are beautiful, thinking creatures who may even be more intelligent than us.

This latest revelation came to me via an interview on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific,’ where some eminent scientist comes in each morning for a friendly chat about their favourite teacups and what they’re up to these days, like redesigning the human genome for extra tentacles or breeding cats who can play the violin.

A recent guest was someone who has gained special eminence through her lifelong study of plants, and all that time spent around the delightful things has led her to conclude that, basically, they’re smarter than us.

Ok, so like many things these days, this is largely a question of definition, of shifting the mental deckchairs around, but one justification for the idea is that plants can grow themselves into just about any shape, both to adapt to whatever physical constraints are around them and maximise the level of sunlight they get and so on, whereas stupid, pathetic ‘us’, and indeed any other primate, are pretty much stuck with a head, two arms, two legs etc.

Our consciousness, which increasingly begins to look like not that big a deal, is centralised in one command centre, generally our head, whereas plants resemble sleek new corporations by being considerably less centralised.

No, apparently there’s a lot more to them than brainlessly seeking to follow the sun. The functions which this eminent scientist believes constitute intelligence are much more efficiently distributed throughout the various shapes a plant can transform itself into.

It would probably have been indelicate to ask why, if plants are so smart, they can’t avoid being eaten by less intelligent animals, but maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe they actually want to be eaten.

But it’s not the first sign of a complete scientific rethink when it comes to our chlorophyll producing brothers, sisters and, er, whatevers. Not so long ago, a forester in Germany came up with the exotic idea that the trees in the ancient woodland he was looking after had actually evolved their own information sharing network, a sort of arboreal internet, if you will.

Apparently, other trees in the forest could tell when one tree had been attacked by a parasite, because these other trees began producing a substance to repel the parasite. When a tree was sick or in need of nutrition, other trees, through their organic sharing network, started directing extra resources and food towards the tree that was in trouble.

To a cynic like me, I’m afraid it all sounds a bit like the half-baked environmentalism which passed for a guiding ‘scientific philosophy’ in James Cameron’s utterly awful ‘Avatar’ (which comfortably holds the award for most boring ten hours I’ve ever spent in a cinema), but this apparently has at least some of the weight of ‘real science’ behind it.

It calls to mind that scene in poor old Douglas Adams’ ‘Restaurant at the end of the Universe’ where a horrified Arthur Dent is presented with a talking cow that actually wants him to eat it for dinner. The cow expresses great disapproval when Arthur defiantly insists on having a green salad.

“Why shouldn’t I have a green salad?” Arthur demands. “Well sir, I know some tomatoes with very definite views on the subject,” the cow informs him.

I used to think this was one of the least plausible ideas in the entire Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (some achievement in itself) but what if the cow was right? If plants are really that intelligent, then surely they have very definite opinions on whether we should eat them or not? Maybe things like poison ivy and mold are their very early ways of fighting back?

The woman on the Life Scientific made the point that we have anthropomorphised, i.e. projected human feelings and ideas, on to animals to an extent which has led to a great deal of misunderstanding about how nature actually functions. It is ‘red in tooth and claw,’ after all, regardless of how much money Disney has made convincing you otherwise.

But my question is far more mundane: if it turns out that plants are now thinking creatures, full of great ideas and beautiful emotions, then what the hell is left to eat? Soylent Green? Are our ‘big brains,’ to paraphrase an idea from that wise old wizard, Kurt Vonnegut, literally thinking themselves into extinction?

Punch And The Adventures of Lady Gladys

Some years ago, a very kind person bought me a collection of old Punch magazines from the early 20th Century, gathered together in hardback book form. Punch magazine, for those who’ve never heard of it, was a very gently satirical publication which reached its heyday in the headiest days of the British Empire.

The collection which I received dated from just after the zenith of Empire. The sun hadn’t fully set by then, but the fact that John Bull had needed bailing out by the Yanks in World War One had begun to gently undermine the feeling of invulnerability.

Not that you’d necessarily know this from the pages of Punch, however. Its chief attraction, even today, is the way it continued to inhabit a parallel universe of cocktail parties, tennis parties and strangely worldwise debutantes. Its politics, like the BBC and most of the British media today, was fervently Tory.

Some of its famous cartoons from the 19th and 20th Centuries are regularly exhumed to provide illustrations of the appallingly racist attitudes held by the British establishment towards people like the Irish and Scottish, or indeed anyone who wasn’t from London SW1.

That said, history is one of my weaknesses, particularly those kinds of history which concern things that probably never existed. It was fun to lose myself in the innocent seeming fake reality of Punch for a while. Perhaps it was an antidote to other, more violent realities, both real and fake.

The following was conceived as a kind of homage to the pages of Punch. Perhaps, like Tim Burton’s movie ‘Ed Wood’ – a tribute to the legendary ‘worst movie director of all time’ – it amounts to a kind of affectionate sneer, which if you think about it is actually kind of tricky:

“There could be no surer sign of summer that the inevitable decamp of Lady Gladys Tewkesbury-Chubbybottom and her small retinue to the beaches of Monte for the season. There, the venerable lady would while away the nights at the gaming tables, eyeballing men in monocles and winning elaborate bluffs against ‘tossers’ in white tuxes. More than one top British agent is believed to have lost his life after coming out the wrong end of a lucrative showdown with Lady Gladys.

By day, Lady Gladys would take to her favourite veranda overlooking the beach. There, she would swill down heroic measures of her favourite Gin Martinis while passing disparaging comments upon the girth and hue of the many scantily clad bathers milling about below.

“‘B’Gad,’ she commented one day, having sought to cleanse her palate by skulling down an entire small bottle of pure vodka, “if I have another few, I might start to feel it.”

‘Feel what, Chubby dear?” inquired her friend, The Hon. Virginia Goodthing, besported provocatively, though somewhat accidentally, across the nearest deckchair.

“‘Buggahed if I know,’ replied Lady Gladys, before bellowing for another martini.

‘Have you heard the one about the three Irishmen?’ inquired Lady Gladys, for the fourth or fifth time that day.

Before Ginny Goodthing could venture some sort of reply, her venerable friend shocked onlookers and created instant carnage on the beach by giving vent to a rectal exhalation of some eleven minutes’ duration. Eyewitnesses testimony as to the precise nature of these ululations is scant, because they gave rise to a kill zone of some two thousand yards in diameter.

But those who did hear it assured me, in the windy seconds before they passed away, that it resembled nothing to much as a giant gaseous concerto, with dramatic pauses for breath before each new trumpet blast.

The Moroccan waiter who was bringing Lady Gladys her drink unfortunately dropped dead not far from Ground Zero, but there was happily always another one of both – drink and waiter – standing by.

‘How is all the family, Botty?” asked Ginny Goodthing, having most carefully removed her gas mask after a suitably decent interval. ‘Rupert and Jemima and the estimable Brigadier out there in Keen-yah?’

Lady Gladys responded with a haughty burp. For those who will never even aspire to such status and dignity as Lady Gladys, it should be noted that the ability to burp haughtily is itself a hallmark of true nobility.

‘The young,’ she pronounced, ‘are a tragedy Ginny, a waste of decent stock. Although, mind you, we expect Rupert to be made Foreign Secretary any day now. Keep him out of mischief I suppose, after that unfortunately engagement to the Archbishop of York.’

‘And little Jemmy?’ inquired Ginny, ‘what a delightful child she was. How amusing the way she used to hold the servants down and draw rude caricatures on their faces. Such a spirited child.’

Lady Gladys responded with her most disapproving snort (and she had many different varieties and gradations of snort). ‘That spirited child has gone entirely to the bad, Ginny. Fallen in with that Bloomsbury set, I believe, and now she wants to marry her hamster, or worse, someone who doesn’t even have a title. I blame myself, or rather her father, didn’t get nearly enough of the lash when she was a youngster.’

‘Ah the young are a burden indeed,’ pronounced Ginny sagely, fighting off a brief attack of nausea by vomiting heartily into a shoe. ‘But there must be good tidings of the Brigadier. How are he and all his apes getting on?’

‘Oh famously Ginny, famously. I had a postcard from his keeper the other day. The apes are in fine fettle. They and the Brigadier go out running every day, climbing various trees and throwing poo down upon the unsuspecting. Being, as you know Ginny, a natural leader, the Brigadier has become a figure of respect among the apes. He apparently celebrated a mass wedding among them the other week, and is now deep into planning a raid against a neighbouring tribe of apes who have been getting a bit above themselves lately.’

‘He is an inspiration to us all,’ hiccupped Ginny.’

‘Oh it wasn’t for nothing that Earl Kitchener, bless his mighty moustache, made the Brigadier Governor of Burma. It’s something to think about while we’re surrounded by all this debauchery and degeneracy. Look, those bloody nudists have started moving about again. I better have another martini.’

‘Oh Botty,” ejaculated Ginny, ‘at least give me time to get my mask back on.'”

Next week: Lady Gladys powders her nose.

Does My Bum Look Big In This? Women’s Mags

It is part of the depressing uniformity of our world that, near the front of any supermarket from Dublin to Durban, London to L.A., pretty much the same sight greets your eye.

It’s the so called ‘news stand,’ which once upon a time was populated by newspapers reporting (sort of) real news, but whose lebensraum is now choked by a profusion of titles proclaiming the imminent scandalous death of everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Donald Trump’s gerbil, to intense and deeply worried speculation about the weight gain of some soap actress you’ve miraculously never heard of, until now that is.

It is these supermarket counter ‘women’s magazines’ whose popularity has continued to fascinate me since their emergence twenty or so years ago. They continue to mushroom across the news stands like a plague of, er, mushrooms. In an age when every other kind of print is supposed to be dying, new titles seem to sprout up every week with friendly names like ‘Hi’ and ‘OK’ and ‘Fabulous.’

The names seem to bely most of the subject matter, which mainly consists of almost forensically detailed photos of models / soap stars / ex-girlfriends of rock stars in miniscule bikinis alongside ‘true life’ stories such as ‘I’m giving birth to my own mother’ and ‘I’m having a baby for some serial killer I met on the Internet.’

It is the photos which intrigue me the most. Indeed, long before your jaded eye has managed to absorb the cheery title, it has feasted on anything up to three cover page images of some voluptuous female personage I’ve never heard of, besporting herself in a bikini under a caption which says “phew! Hasn’t Jade put on an awful lot of weight recently?”

There’s a sort of visual code to the photos too, so you don’t have to scratch your head too hard trying to figure what it’s all about. If Jade, in spite of the incredibly revealing attire, is wearing a pair of shades and has her head slightly bowed, then it’s a safe bet the story will read something like “Jade struggles with weight issues after her break up with Tony,’ or “Where now for Jade after she gains at least six pounds?”

She’s doing a kind of walk of body shame, you see. This is apparently one of the innovations of our age: it’s possible to be photographed almost naked and still manifest all the pious shame of a nun.

If, on the other hand, Jade has her head upthrust, confronting the midday sun without goggles, and is also wearing something that looks suspiciously like a smile, then the caption probably reads: ‘Jade is just loving life and her body now she’s all loved up with Brad.’

This isn’t Playboy. It’s not even labelled as pornography. Indeed, so profuse and fecund are these female oriented titles that they’ve virtually pushed all the good old fashioned smut off the magazine stands. Try very hard and you might just manage to come across a copy of ‘Vintage Car Mechanic,’ buried under all the folds of relentlessly scrutinized female flesh.

A new day, a new Grade Z celebrity being subjected to the probings of the flesh police. ‘Hasn’t Candy got a bit of a belly?’ I’ve tried, I’ve peered as closely as social propriety will allow and I can’t find anything I’d define as a ‘belly,’ but then I’m not the Editor of a supermarket woman’s mag.

Which is kind of the point. These magazines are produced by women, supposedly for the enjoyment of other women. But doesn’t this point to the deeply schizoid nature of this kind of journalism, and indeed of women’s publishing generally?

We hear so much these days about ‘fat shaming,’ ‘body shaming’ etc. We are told these are things that ought to be made into hate crimes. We are told that the objectification of women is evil, but is it only evil if it’s being done by a magazine geared at men?

Feminist scholars lecture the world endlessly on the evils of pornography, side-stepping around the question of why so many women these days appear to do it voluntarily. Yet they are, in general, curiously silent about supermarket women’s mags, which are far more ubiquitous, and therefore surely insidious.

Back in the day, unless you belonged to some coven of hard core perverts, you knew that looking at naked women’s bodies in a men’s magazine was wrong, or at least not something you boasted about. You didn’t proudly display the centrefold to your friends in a shopping mall coffee shop, inviting opinions about whether Shauna or Jana had a bit of a belly.

The magazines were not placed in a way to encourage such social feedback. You had to reach up to the very top shelf, for God’s sake. You had to turn the colour purple and stand in a queue while frantically trying to avoid the cashier’s disapproving eye, as she inquired “do you want a paper bag with that, you f***ing pervert?”

But now? More than one woman will tell you that physical scrutiny from other women is a great more intense, more stressful, than physical scrutiny from men. After all, the evolutionary imbalance between the genders is such that once men have gone ‘phwoar. Wouldn’t mind a bit of that’ that’s pretty much it. Nature has not furnished us with anything else to say.

Female scrutiny is infinitely more sophisticated, infinitely more capable of wounding under the guise of concern.

“Ooh Maura, you’ve lost so much weight. You look fabulous darling, really, really well. Although I’m not sure that colour suits you. Isn’t it amazing how much weight you put on after Slasher left you? Wasn’t he such a bastard to go off with that slimmer woman? But you’ve nearly got it all off now, nearly.”

Is it because of this that feminist leaders, so loud and intense in their condemnation of so many other things, fall curiously silent when it comes to supermarket body shaming mags?

We live in an age when many women, particularly younger women, feel vulnerable and isolated, perhaps even suicidal, because of body shaming. The crazy thing is that most of this scrutiny is being perpetrated by women on other women. Yet we hear barely a peep from the feminists. Why is that?

What Is Fake News? This Is Fake News

We hear an awful lot these days about fake news, as if the concept only came into being when people like Donald Trump started using it. We’re told that it’s at least partly a product of the Internet, where websites like this one proliferate without restraint and make all kinds of bizarre claims about stuff people used to accept as fact.

In part, the real vs. fake debate is fuelled by a misconception about what exactly constitutes a ‘fact.’ In part, the people who give out about ‘fake news’ are hankering after a more simple age, when only two or three media organisations ruled the world of news and everyone who mattered accepted that everything they had to say was the truth.

It is no accident that ‘fake news’ is most often and most loudly condemned these days by what remains of traditional media.

In fact, since the dawn of things like Sociology back in the 19th Century, it’s become increasingly obvious that ‘facts’ are not the immutable, fixed Heavenly bodies the ever dwindling number of souls inside editorial rooms would like you to believe in. Even Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of Sociology, found it necessary to refer to ‘social facts,’ essentially phenomena inside a society whose causes might be down to any number of things.

One of Durkheim’s seminal studies involved the analysis of official French Government statistics concerning suicide rates in the 19th Century. He was able to show that the figures themselves were both misleading and incorrect because of certain unconscious assumptions made by those who had compiled them.

Much later, we’ve had works like ‘The Social Construction of Reality,’ which showed, basically, that things only really become ‘facts’ when a sufficient number of people start to accept them as true.

For a long time, most ‘civilized’ white people agreed on the ‘fact’ that non-white people were inferior, less civilized, lazy, sub-normal etc. A quick read of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica from, say, the 1920’s would probably have you gasping for the smelling salts. Most ‘facts’ were really just what are now called ‘shared meanings,’ sets of assumptions about things that most people in a given group took to be true.

One of the assumptions traditional media makes is that it’s better than it used to be at establishing what exactly constitutes a ‘fact.’ Yet, as the catastrophic failure of opinion polls to predict recent election outcomes in America and Britain shows, data is still conditioned by the prejudices of those who collect it.

Currently, traditional media assumes that most people who support things it doesn’t agree with, such as Trump and Brexit, are less educated, poorly informed, more likely to be angry etc. But one man’s ‘fake news’ is another’s shattering revelation. What we are witnessing is a large scale fragmentation of the sources through which people try to decide what is ‘fact’ or not.

Those who bother trying to stay informed about world events are now just as likely to turn to Al-Jazeera or, God forbid, Russia Today – or any of a myriad Internet news sites – as to CNN or the BBC, if only to get some kind of alternative perspective. The fake vs. real war is in part a conflict between global media tribes. It is a war that, by definition, no one can ever win outright.

But it might help us in the ever more complex task of separating ‘fact’ from ‘crap’ if Governments and NGOs abandoned decades of common practice and actually started telling the truth, because this is the flip side of the ‘fake news’ debate, the fact that traditional sources have actually been lying to us for ages.

Most official Government statistics are lies, or to put it more politely, they represent a version of reality that has been laundered, massaged and deep fried into something that makes Government policy seem more sensible.

A case in point are statistics which relate to unemployment, both before and after the economic crash. For decades, Governments such as the one in Ireland have been manipulating unemployment figures to present a grossly distorted picture of reality.

Basically, unemployed people are shunted between various forms of what are now termed job activation schemes. These schemes usually involve the payment of some very tiny wage to carry out some form of Government employment, though they sometimes amount to no more than simply reclassifying the status of the unemployed person.

Once an unemployed person enters one of these schemes, they are no longer counted on the official unemployment register. This practice has reached a new low in Ireland, where since as far back as 2012, Government Ministers have been trumpeting a largely fictitious economic recovery by pointing to ever decreasing unemployment statistics.

Currently the Irish Government, backed up by supposedly objective statisticians, will tell you the unemployment rate stands at 6%. The true figure is estimated at closer to 20%, and that doesn’t include the 500,000 or so people forced to emigrate since the death of the Celtic Tiger.

The practices in Ireland are particularly grotesque, but they’re not all that unusual. Maybe part of the allure of Donald Trump is his ability to say something outrageous, and for it to carry much the same weight as a carefully constructed official lie.

Fake news isn’t going away anytime soon, but the Establishment can’t really complain when the deplorables start using it as well.

When Everyone Can See That Egg On Your Face

I have to confess to feeling just a little bit sorry for Theresa May. I don’t want to make a big deal of it. It’s not like a major surge in empathy or anything. It’s more like the vague unease you used to get at the back of your neck when some terminally uncool kid was being roasted in school.

She looked appropriately gutted at her constituency count in the wee hours of Friday morning, desperately trying to freeze that scared and scary smile in place, unsure of who or what to look at, trying to look jolly hockeysticks as Lord Buckethead acknowledged the adulation of his imaginary supporters. Rough!

It is somehow to her credit that she can’t keep her face from betraying her in public. It suggests there’s a real person in there somewhere. Maybe not a particularly interesting or nice person, but a person nonetheless. Now that person has to get into bed with the Ku Klux Klan. Wasn’t it Madame Cyn who told her girls to lie back and think of England?

The conversation with the DUP might be interesting in a car crash, Grade Z reality TV kind of way. “Theresa Mary, thar yur actual names? I dunno. They sound a bit Papist ta me. Ye’ll have ta get them changed.”

May’s predecessor, David Cameron, said he’d never even countenance seeking support from the DUP because of their reprehensible views on gay marriage. But the truth is that the DUP have always been the dirty little secret of British colonialism, the problem child they never liked to acknowledge.

And Supermarket Dave just loved to lay it on with a trowel, didn’t he? Imagine if the parliamentary arithmetic in Westminster had been even slightly different when Dave wanted to form his two governments. Does anyone outside a Tory psychiatric ward seriously believe he’d have baulked at kissing the DUP butt for an instant? This is one of the problems with mainstream politicians. They lie when they don’t even have to.

Among the many barbs being thrown at May by Supermarket Dave’s supercilious little former lackey, George Osbourne, is that she ain’t no Thatcher. This is blissfully oblivious of the fact that, anywhere outside Toryland, this is actually a compliment. Theresa still has some of the makings of a human being, George doesn’t.

I hate to say I told you do, but this blog was one of the few to predict several weeks ago that Jeremy Corbyn might do pretty well in the British election. I said that the more he had a chance to talk to people about the kind of society he wanted, the more the Tory plan might come unstuck; so it proved.

Diehard Blairites like Peter Hain and Hilary Benn have been quick to try and damn Mr Corbyn with faint praise, and to point out that Labour didn’t actually win the election. True enough, but when you recall that those same Blairites were smugly predicting a Labour annihilation just weeks ago, then perhaps the penny might drop at last that Labour is no longer their all purpose career vehicle, it belongs to somebody else now.

Jeremy Corbyn has rewritten a lot of mainstream political rules in the last few weeks. One of them is that – shock and horror – it’s actually ok to believe in what you say. It makes you more comfortable in your own skin. And people can’t fail to notice the difference between you and the person who isn’t.

Corbyn was the first political leader in a generation to offer the people of Britain a genuinely different way of doing things, and as such he has been the target of extra special vitriol from the Establishment. Remember Supermarket Dave’s disgusting attack on him just after the Brexit vote? Will Dave come out to eat his words? Pigs might fly.

What the establishment – from George Osborne’s desk at the London Evening Standard to the poobahs of Brussels and Berlin and the insiders of Washington – will continue to do its very best to ignore is the fact that this week’s Labour revival, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and a host of other things are really just all manifestations of the same phenomenon.

People are sick and tired and angry. They have lost patience with the ceaseless demands to work ever harder for less and less. They grow more intolerant of the flagrant inequality being shoved in their faces every day. They are beyond tired of the likes of George and Dave, creaming off their rewards for no great ability and lecturing the public on what a privilege it is to watch them doing so.

Is the worm about to turn at last? Interesting times.

 

Life’s a Box of Chocolates And Every One’s For Me

There’s barely a soul on the planet who hasn’t heard of the movie ‘Forrest Gump,’ the famously saccharine tale of a slow witted American Everyman who somehow manages to turn up at all the great events over 30 years of American history.

The movie’s title has become a byword for nice, essentially stupid people whose stupidity, while irritating, does no real harm. It garnered a second Oscar on the trot for Tom Hanks. Its sweetness won plaudits from all over the globe, even if, as a friend of mine perceptively pointed out, for a feelgood movie, it was curiously heartless.

One of the true measures of FG’s success is the way it gave phrases to the culture. “Life is like a box of chocolates” is probably the movie’s one single lasting contribution, for better or worse, to humanity.

But am I the only person who thinks the producers missed out on a chance for true immortality? It might have led to some temporary inconvenience at the box office. It would probably have cost Tom that Oscar, but had they gone down this alternative route, people would still be enjoying and quoting Forrest Gump with true gusto.

There would be Forrest Gump parties, Forrest Gump talent shows, Forrest Gump lookalike events, Forrest Gump themed partner swapping weekends. There wouldn’t be a self-respecting hipster on the planet who hadn’t spent at least one of his phases talking and dressing exactly like Forrest.

The trick is this: what if they had made Forrest Gump a bastard? What if, instead of all that cloying, vaguely Aspergers niceness, Forrest had been a full on psycho: the evil Forrest Gump?

The movie’s iconic phrase would now go something like “mah momma used to say that life was like a box of chocolates, and they’re all for me. No one else is gettin’ any. If yew try and take one ahm gonna lop off yewr arm with this here meat cleaver.”

The hero’s plangent pleadings to the unrequited love of his life would take on an extra edge. Instead of feeling sorry for Forrest when Jenny insists on hanging out with hippies and playing guitar in the nip, we could savour such dialogue as:

Forrest: Wah don’t yew lurv me Jenny?

Jenny: Well, uh, it’s not that I don’t. I just need time to …

Forrest: Caurse if yew don’t lurv me ahm gonna have to kill yew and chop yew into all lil bits and bury bits of yew all over momma’s back garden. Maybe ah’ll even sell other bits of yew to businessmen in Chayna. Ah won’t do no time or nothin’ on account of me bein’ simple like.

Jenny: Oh well, if you put it like that.

He could have responded to Gary Sinise’s taunts about his slow wittedness by mercilessly mocking Gary’s wartime disability. His Vietnam war experience could have been rendered all the more fascinating by the revelation that some of his war buddies ‘warn’t vurry nace to me. So ah shot ’em and fed ’em to some o them thar carnivorous pigs.’

A truly badass Forrest would have been a hero for our age. His possibilities would have been endless. He could have been a serial killer, or President, or both. He could have been the subject of a Marvel movie franchise.

An opportunity has been tragically lost, although there will be some who will say that reality has, as always, moved in to fill the void left by art.

Why Do We Practice People Skills?

When you think about it, the mantra of career mobility is pretty strange, isn’t it? Plug into any career websites, any of those myriad gurus offering to remake your life for a mere snip at 500 quid or so, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: it isn’t enough to be good at what you do, you’ve got to be really, really good at people too.

In other words, you have to spend the forty years or so of your slippery progress up the career ladder being unbelievably nice to everyone you meet. There’s no other way of really ensuring success, they say. You have to hone and practice those precious people skills every single day. It must get pretty damn exhausting.

And how do you get the balance right? Let’s say you start in a particular company at the age of 21 or so. Every morning for the next 40 years, you have to start the day by grinning happily at Steve the doorman, asking him how it’s going, listening to all his stories about those pigeons he keeps on the rooftop and how he’s confident that Katy Perry will drop those stalking charges against him any day now.

You will have to repeat the procedure with everyone else you meet in the course of the day, from Marnie the kleptomaniac receptionist to Louis the Deputy Manager with chronic halitosis. You will have to respond with ineffable grace to each new bollicking from Bill your bullying Deputy Manager, as well as smiling through the ball mangling agony of Phil the Accountant’s endless anecdotes about the time he went shopping and photographed a giraffe.

And what if you get it wrong? What if the denizens of your workplace are rather more cynical than the writers of self-help magazines? What if they respond to all your efforts at infinite friendliness with a collective leer: “fearful little crawler he is. Don’t believe a word of it. I’ll tell you, that guy’s not going anywhere”?

When will the penny finally drop? When you’re sixty three and still the copy boy and your wife has run off with Steve?

Social media, of course, has made the whole thing much more complex. Social media is essentially there to make everything much more complex. There’s a very interesting (and horrifying) episode of the Netflix sci fi show, ‘Black Mirror,’ where everyone’s career progress is being measured every single minute by their precise numerical popularity rating on a particular social network.

You can tell when someone’s in real trouble. They go around making tea for everyone and giving out unsolicited doughnuts as presents. And everyone goes: “he’s trying too hard. He must be desperate.” And his rating plummets inevitably towards unemployment.

But here’s the thing, the big paradox at the heart of all our career thinking: why are we practising all these painstaking people skills? What is the ultimate goal of being so cringingly nice to all those people you can’t f***ing stand? Because all that indiscriminately sprayed love is unnatural. Even St. Francis wasn’t that fond of people.

You practice people skills in the hope of reaching that blessed day when you won’t need them any more. You’re being relentlessly squeaky nice in search of that holy grail of never needing the bastards ever again. You’re ascending that greasy, slimy pole of niceness in order to become so rich and powerful that you can finally tell everyone you know to go and f*** off for themselves once and for all.

You’re trying so hard to be so good with people in the knowledge that, the further up you go, the less accountable you are. Maybe you secretly sustain yourself with fantasies about writing to everyone from Marnie to Bill to Steve some day and letting them know exactly what utter wastes of blood and bone you thought they were all along.

The further up you go, the less you have to bother with the more mucky, boring, unhinged flotsam of the human stream. If you’ve scaled the top of some business that still requires people, then you can always delegate. Let that attractive young intern get prematurely aged listening to people who want to copyright their brainwaves.

You can send out interns to deal with all the pigeon fanciers and turd sculptors. The way capitalism is developing, you can probably get an intern to wipe your bottom if you decide you really don’t fancy it all that much anymore.

All this exhausting, fearful niceness is aimed at the day when you crash into the Sunday Times rich list at No. 58, thus instantly acquiring the ability to tell anyone you’ve ever known to f*** off forever, before p***ing off to your new volcano underneath Mustique.

It’s fascinating, really. Does anything sum up the human condition quite so much as the relentless practice of a skill in search of the day when you’ll never have to use that skill again?

It’s like spending forty years as a vegan in order to spend your last days devouring meat like a Tyrannosaur with a serious attack of the munchies. Makes you think, or maybe it doesn’t.