Brexit solved by China Miéville and Harold Steptoe

Due to an error setting up my Amazon account in which I accidentally gave my birth year as 2069 instead of the century before, I now occasionally get deliveries from the near future through Prime+ which starts as a premium subscription service in 2027, becomes a religion in the middle of the century and apparently is destroyed in a war with a race of giant, sentient, mutated spermatozoa originally recovered from a filing cabinet in the ruins of the Oval Office. So it goes.

Anyway, I thought that the following chapter in a 2032 book from children’s series ‘Horrible Histories’ might prove illuminating.

After the last-gasp Brexit delay, when Jacob Rees-Mogg failed to hit the Speaker of the House of Commons with a poisoned crossbow bolt, thereby postponing the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, followed by the Brexit Riots of 2019, The Brexit Amendment Riots of 2020 and the Amended Brexit Riots of 2021, it became clear that the British Government were essentially a bunch of clowns. This realisation led them to take inspiration from classic British comedy and attempt to solve the problem of a hard Irish border with an idea from the 1972 Steptoe and Son episode “Divided we Stand.

The UK was divided up, initially with masking tape, into areas where a majority had voted to remain in the European Union, like London, Bristol, the Cotswolds and the whole of Scotland, and areas where a majority had voted to leave, like pretty much everywhere else. This meant that instead of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, there was a soft, sticky border pretty much everywhere else. This caused some problems with things like goods inspection and tariffs but mostly with people getting their hair stuck to the tape when they popped out for a loaf.

Eventually, it was decided that the tape was inconvenient and that Remainers would have to learn to “unsee” the “Leave” parts of the UK as the passed through, and vice versa, in the manner of China Miéville’s celebrated novel “The City and The City”, which someone in the Cabinet had seen half of the TV adaptation of and therefore considered himself an expert.

There was some resistance to this plan from senior Conservatives, who argued that this was not the work of speculative fiction that they were modelling the future of Britain upon; preferring the Orwell/Huxley model sketched hastily on a cocktail napkin found in Rees-Mogg’s top hat after a night out. However the plan was put into effect in the worryingly prophetically-titled “China Rule Directive” of 2022.

Naturally, it took a long time for legislation to catch up with this rapidly changing state of affairs and both the self styled “Kingdom of Brexitannia” and the “Republic of Europium” rapidly descended into squabbling city states reminiscent of Middle-ages Italy.

Bizarrely, at this point, the collective rage and frustration of the country’s intelligentsia grew so potent that it manifested itself as a giant celestial Mark Steel, (a prominent left-wing comedian of the time), which leaned down through the permanent cloud cover (caused by the Trump Environment Act of 2020) and shouted: “OI! That’s enough! This is completely fucking stupid. It didn’t even work for Steptoe and Son, did it? Did you not even watch the episode to the end before you made up your minds? You don’t profit from dividing everything up and being stupid and greedy and afraid. You grow stronger by sharing and learning from each other. It’s the whole reason that the human race was successful in the first place, learning to share and cooperate. Sort yourselves out!”

So unexpected was this event that almost every single person was prompted to sit down and take a long hard look at themselves. A short but incredibly busy period of political reform was enough to reunite the country and resolve all European issues and a period of peace and prosperity came about that lasted for almost three months until a trade deal signed by Jeremy Hunt resulted in the United Kingdom being sold wholesale to the Apple Corporation, asset-stripped and leased as a battlefield training ground to Putin’s Imperial Army.”

So, I say let’s get ahead of the game and stock up on masking tape.

Happy political debating everyone.

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Brexit – finally, your questions answered.

Dave Brown Boris Bannon Gove Jacob Rees Mogg Nigel Farage

As if the collapse of modern politics into hysteria and hyperbole hadn’t caused enough damage, it can now be blamed for the resurrection of a blog thought long-dormant. Yes, like a drop of blood hitting a small pile of powdered Christopher Lee, Brexit has revived an outdated monster to lurch off in search of new victims.

The question on everyone’s lips is, of course, “Brexit. What the fuck?”

The only full, truthful and unambiguous answer to the question is far from simple and rather like asking for a nuanced, broad brush picture while a bomb is going off, is rather less important than questions like: “What shall we do now?” and “Should I keep running or stop to pick up my kidney?”

There’s no shortage of people writing articles telling you what to think and don’t worry – I’m not about to do that. Over twenty five years of working in education has taught me that getting people to think at all is hard enough. So I’m just going to suggest a couple of perspectives that might help if you’re wondering what to believe in all of this.

The total stinking mess of lies, opinion, misinformation, propaganda and mudslinging that has formed any attempt to publicly debate the issue is now so deep and odious that any attempt to sort through it is going to be futile. You can find an expert willing to issue obfuscatory tirades to support any point of view, so how do you make your mind up without being able to build yourself a sold foundation of facts?

Fortunately, I don’t think that you need to become an expert on economic forecasts, European law or the internecine struggles of our political factions. We can rely on philosophy. A tool so simple that it can be taught successfully to five year olds.

Whatever you think of the European Union (and I’ll confess, I think that it’s corrupt, ineffective in many areas and too closely linked with private banking concerns), do you think that co-operation and sharing, in principle, is better than individualism and protectionism? If you accept that no system is perfect, which aspiration gives the better long-term output?

If that’s too much of an abstract or wide-ranging question, then let’s go with an old adage that holds up pretty well in most circumstances. “You can always tell a person by the company they keep.”

Of the political figures most prominent on either side of the debate, which do you think has the best interests of you and the general population closest to their heart?

So far, I’ve tried to remain vaguely neutral but it’s here that I find that impossible. I can’t look at Farage, Fox, Johnson and Rees-Mogg and believe for one second that they view me as anything other than a serf. I don’t see anything in Caroline Lucas and Nick Clegg other than naiveté and a genuine wish to try and do well for people.

Then I look at things like the timing of the new EU tax laws and the refusal of some prominent Brexiteers to even consider delaying the decision by a few months and, although correlation doesn’t imply causation, you have to admit, there’s more than a bare whiff of rat. Even more when you look at a few of the other self-serving motivations to champion our exit from the EU. So yeah, it’s an article in support of our membership of the EU. Not because I’m blind to the imperfections of the EU. And not because of some economic bullshit that no one can tell is true or not. It’s for the reasons that one should form a belief. Ideological reasons. And if you want to ponder the etymology of the word ‘ideology’, all the better.

Well, that was worth waiting for, wasn’t it? I’ll try to get back to tactless nob gags or better yet, a two-year interval between entries.

Why a little physics might make you happier.

Welcome, gentle reader, to this quiet, considered corner of the Internet. Think of it as a genteel bookshop nestled in a quiet clearing in a forest full of screaming, shit-flinging monkeys. If that helps.

My musings today are triggered by an unfortunate and inaccurate stab at the tuning buttons on my car radio, subjecting me to a few minutes of a caller to Jeremy Vine’s radio show (a phone-in show, for non-UK readers. Naturally, I swiftly found the ‘aux’ button and soothed myself with some music (although, by comparison to a modern radio phone-in show, the sound of teeth being drilled would be auditory balm…) but not before a train of thought had been shunted into ponderous motion.

It strikes me that perhaps one of the obstructions to reasoned, rational and meaningful debate in modern society over issues like who should be leaving which union of nations, paying for walls, healthcare or nuclear missiles and the like is a general inability for people to cope with cognitive conflict. In other words, to be able to maintain two points of view that show significant differences – for example: I think that we’d all be safer with fewer guns – you’d like more guns, let the vein-popping shouting match commence. In fact, both of us agree that we’d like to see fewer people shot, we’re just not very good at standing down and taking a rational look at each other’s arguments.

Here, someone making a good fist of teaching you the basics of physics might help. You might think that it’s all dull formulae and blocks of mass m being shifted short distances d against a force F. If that’s the case then I apologise on behalf of your physics teacher.

One of the skills (sadly, not one often enough taught) that’s vital to understanding physics is modelling. No, not learning to walk in high heels or getting high on Airfix glue whilst assembling plastic Spitfires (only one of which was a feature of  my youth) but understanding that there is not a final, ‘right’ literal answer to questions such as “What is stuff actually made of?”, just a series of models that explain, illustrate or enable prediction of some aspects of the way that the universe behaves.

Take your understanding (or lack) of the atomic world. You were introduced to the idea that everything is made of tiny bits called ‘atoms’ and probably (because they’re pictured this way in textbooks) visualised them as tiny balls. You may well, at some level, persist with this model without really realising it.

Later, if you were taught about the periodic table, you were encouraged to believe that your tiny balls (I’m so sorry, I grew up with the Carry On movies and went to an all-boys grammar school) were in fact, made of even tinier balls, some in the middle which you called protons and neutrons (you score half-credit of you got croutons and futons) and some electrons whizzing around the outside.

If you went further, this picture got complicated by s, p and d orbitals and if you got further than that then I’m probably preaching to the converted.

What a good physics teacher will get you to realise is that none of these models are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘how stuff actually is’ but simply tools to help us to predict what will happen in some interaction. (I realise that I’ve used an example that’s more, in terms of your school experience, about chemistry but it’s the most concise on to describe…)

The ability to hold multiple, sometimes conflicting models in one’s head, critically evaluate and use them appropriately is a core skill in developing a deep, transferable understanding of physics.

In addition, good physics instruction will encourage students to comprehend and contextualise very large and very small numbers (often through the use of techniques like Fermi problems) and to link together learning from other areas of science, so that we learn to understand everything else with the same tools. It encourages scepticism, rationality and the belief that anything can be understood. Contrary to some popular views, physics is not a dogmatic subject, far from it – the history of the subject is one of models being tried, broken and rewritten in the light of better evidence.

Many of the problems that society is  currently addressing through screaming, denial, accusation, muck-raking, name-calling and outright, frothing hysteria, revolve around complex issues that might be fruitfully explored by a nuanced exploration of the available evidence, whilst simultaneously allowing possibly conflicting explanations to coexist – allowing that both may be useful tools without representing a whole picture or an unassailable truth.

It works perfectly well in the world of physics. Particle physicists are well able to debate the various permutations of the Standard Model, String Theories and Quantum Gravitation without resorting to anything more impolite than impenetrable mathematics.

Personally, I’d trust Stephen Hawking and Neil Degrasse Tyson to run the world a lot more than Trump and Putin.

Of course, I learned some physics…

Sometimes you really want to punch a Nazi

It’s been a long time since I put figurative pen to virtual paper. Sometime between Brexit and the overtures of Trumpaggedon the fire in my belly became bile in the back of my throat and I’ve had to sit very still for fear of what might emerge from me.

So let’s keep this fairly short and to the point. I’ve seen the social media reaction of my American friends, all of them compassionate, intelligent, liberal… wonderful people. I’ve seen the news and the reactions of our politicians.

And like a lot of people, I really want to punch a Nazi. In the willing association with times as dark as any in modern history there is something so abhorrent that it overrides my instinct to want to understand, to build bridges. I just want to punch a Nazi.

Fortunately, I live in Bristol, where Nazis are in short supply. Bristol, the pro-European, tolerant and laid back corner of England, where if I see a swastika it will be on a piece of vibrantly indignant street art.

So no punching. And if the pen is mightier than the sword, then perhaps the keyboard is mightier than my puny, middle-class fists? For all that anyone cares about my opinion then yes, I condemn the white supremacists, the anti-semites, the hatred mongers. I condemn the politicians who refuse to speak out and the media outlets that perpetuate prejudice, fear and hatred.

In the absence of Nazis to punch, I’ll raise my hands to fight in a different trench. We have a little revolutionary army here in Bristol. Helpfulpeeps was started by two Bristolians. A couple of weeks ago, through that community, I helped out for half a day working with a local charity; building furniture and getting a house ready for a family of displaced Syrians. Racists can march and spew hatred all they like. All it will drive me to do is to help people even more. I’m giving them all two fingers and they don’t even get to find out about it. That’s the wonderful thing about a community like that. Yes, there are people filling the world with hatred – but we can find other places to fill it with love, decency, kindness.

It may lack the Hollywood glamour of a fist to a bigoted jaw but I’m pretty sure that if I keep doing it, I’ll feel better eventually.

Take comfort in the knowledge that every day will present you with chances to make the world a better place. There might not be something to punch but there’s always a way to join in the fight.

Unlimited love.

RIP Rob Cook.

The world lost someone this week. His passing won’t be national news, perhaps a mention in the local papers, but it will be keenly felt by people like me, I’d imagine hundreds if not thousands of us, all over the world.
Rob Cook led a Christian youth group in Aldridge in the West Midlands. When I met him he was gradually taking a more prominent leadership role, one which he embraced and grew into in the years that I spent with them.
I was a teenager full of questions; like any young man, trying to sort out what it was to be a man. Rob remains to this day one of the yardsticks against which I measure myself as a man. He was a man of conviction, strength and wisdom – although I’m sure that he would have laughed to hear me call him wise, humble as he was. Smiling, patient, caring – he was like a father to so many of us. He passionately wanted us to follow him in his faith but never forced it on us and never gave up caring about those who didn’t. He saw the good in every one of us. It’s easy for those leading religious groups to lose sight of what it is like to be on the other side of the fence. Easy to be judgemental and puritanical. He was never anything but understanding and tolerant. His advice was always considered and realistic.
In a time when my relationship with my own family was strained and difficult, I relied on Rob, his wife Annette and the rest of that group; they supported me unconditionally. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.
Through that group and under Rob’s watchful eye I had countless opportunities to grow as a person, to be involved with charitable projects, creative endeavours and incredible adventures. I may not have managed to acquire his faith but I believe that he has a hand in my continuing desire to try to make the world a better place.
There’s a lump in my throat as I write this but also a smile on my face. I can see him now, beaming from a chair in a marquee in a field on the Gower. I can hear that distinctive laugh echo through the night.
Goodnight and God bless, Rob. You made the world a better place and each one of us for whom you cared so much carry a little piece of you with us into every corner of the world.

A misanthrope’s guide to saving the world.

Should you be taking spiritual advice from a misanthrope? What the hell are people like me trying to save the world for anyway? Don’t we think that people basically suck and secretly hope that someone pushes the button, the world goes boom and we can evaporate with “I told you so” lingering on our smug, whiskey-tainted[1] lips?

Think of us like rescue dogs… we might growl and bare our fangs, occasionally frighten your kids and we’re never going to be in a cute family photo but if you can win our trust, you’re doing something right. And if a misanthrope thinks there’s something worth saving, there probably is. It’s not like we’re prone to flights of romantic fantasy.

Anyway, if Mark Zuckerberg can write an essay about how he’s going to save the world with Facebook then, fuck it, everyone should be prepared to throw their hat in the ring. At least you know I’m not trying to sell you anything.

Really, the question isn’t “How can I save the world?” as, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re probably already doing your bit. Let’s face it; this is a pretty selective readership.

The more pertinent question is, “How can I encourage other people to save the world?” That question seems especially pertinent if, like me, you live in a bubble of like-minded folk who are all equally concerned about the way that the world seems to be going.

All I’ve come up with so far is that, at the fragile, iridescent edges of your bubble, there are those who can reach outside, reach into others’ bubbles. And so on. The better you do with your monkey sphere, the better your monkeys will fare on the outside.

So, monkeys within a critical radius, what can we do?

Try harder. Try to walk in the shoes of the people that we so easily offer contemptuous dismissal. Take it from an intellectually arrogant, judgemental dickhead: we’re never going to win over the people who are voting for the politics of fear with hectoring, high-horses and high-minded rhetoric. The liberal elite didn’t listen to the electorate in the UK’s EU referendum or in the US elections. You can’t win a debate without genuinely listening to your opponent’s argument – especially if they already think you’re a dick. Trust me on this – almost everyone thinks I’m a dick.

Check your… well, everything. Privilege, facts, friends, ethics… In short, think before you open your fat mouth. Or, more pertinently, post or share. Everything that we put out there that can be justifiably ridiculed weakens our stance. Stay credible or stay quiet.

Believe. A wise friend posted this wonderful article a while ago. It took me a while to really get my head around it. She’s right. We have lost something in our lack of belief. We don’t need gods or creeds or lists of rules. We need to have put enough effort into our own thinking that we can truly believe in ourselves, instead of parroting something that we’ve heard because we can’t be bothered to put the work in. We need to be prepared to admit ignorance, to ask questions, to do the hard yards and know our own minds. Take a few minutes and listen to a vox pop on the radio some time, or look at the comments section on a debate about immigration. Almost every time you see an argument that makes you think “bigotry”, you’ll see ill-matched phrases lifted from half-remembered arguments. Don’t be that guy. Know what you’re talking about.

Do something. Seriously… some time ago I posted “Spare half an hour to write to your MP or spare me your opinion.” I stand by that. If you’re not a member of a political party – or else forming your own or an active member of a protest group – then you’re just an Internet dilettante. You don’t have to go hair shirt – I could do a lot more – but there’s no true belief without action. If you can’t even be bothered to sign a few petitions, to write to your political representative, then why should anyone care if you’re not tickled pink with the status quo? Truly, if you’re not part of the solution…

Be nice. Yeah, I know. I’m hardly one to talk. Ask anyone who’s known me for a long time though and, I hope, they’ll tell you I’ve come a long way. But every day you have multiple chances to make the world a better, kinder place. If you don’t, why should anyone else.

Maybe I’m not the misanthrope that I used to be. Maybe misanthropy has made me the man I am today. I’d like to think that we can still save the world. If we can’t, then you’re welcome round my place when it all finally goes tits-up. Bring a guitar and a bottle of Jamesons.

Unlimited love.

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[1] Maybe that’s just me…

Only 352 shopping days until Christmas…

So those of you expecting an anti-commercialist, sanctimonious moan about not buying things might be surprised when I exhort you to spend these 352 days thinking about gifts for people.

Yep, you read me correctly.

Of course, naturally, I don’t mean start buying animatronic singing Christmas elves and wrapping them in glittery paper. But I’m serious about the gifts.

This particular train of thought comes to you courtesy of the ever cheerful Giorgio Monbiroder, who you may remember from ‘Together in Electric Dreams’, in a column in which he details the impact of our rampant consumerism on the planet. It’s cheerless but deeply necessary reading. Read it now and come back, I’ll wait.

George suggests that we eschew giving commercial gifts entirely and make cakes, write poems, tell jokes and give hugs for Christmas instead and, whilst I understand the sentiment, there’s also a part of me that thinks that’s perhaps not going to work for everyone. I for one am not a great baker of cakes, if I write someone a poem it’s probably going to be so depressing that they’ll hang themselves on Boxing Day, my jokes are mostly (as regular readers will attest) stupid, offensive or both and I’m currently wearing a beard that makes me look like a paroled killer so going in for the festive hug is just going to give people the Christmas willies 1.

So maybe not. And I don’t want to be that git that buys the family a card saying that they’ve bought a goat for a village in Niger or a cobra for a nursery in Burkina Faso. And not just because goats are difficult to wrap.

There are plenty of Ned-Flanders style suggestions about giving people vouchers for hugs, favours, foot rubs or whatever, too, but I’m going to call bullshit on that. Doing a good deed should be special for Christmas? A favour is something you do to help – any time of year. You help someone put up a picture or wash the car or whatever because you can. Because it’s how we get along. You don’t need a voucher to give someone a hug- why? Because you’re not a dick.

There’s nothing wrong with giving gifts at any time of the year. There are lots of things that you can buy from real shops that don’t cost the Earth (yeah, I’m talking financial and ecological cost there…) There are plenty of things that people will get through during a year that you can buy them a slightly nicer version of. Whiskey, in my case.

Good wine, coffee, preserves, sauces, crackers… come on, people. Books don’t cost the Earth and there’s no finer gift than a well chosen book. Music that you’ve chosen really carefully; you could even support an emerging, independent artist (Do consider buying your relatives something by one of my musical friends…). Make jam, sloe gin, fudge, a notebook.

There are loads of things that you can buy to support local producers, ethical trade. If you want to go big ticket for someone, there’s even an ethical smartphone.

You’ve got 352 shopping days until Christmas. If you can’t resist that urge to fill someone’s stocking in 2017 then you’ve got 352 days to search online, in charity shops, ethical producers. To learn to make really good chutney. To take a woodworking course so that you can make someone a custom office bookshelf.

You’ve got 352 days to keep giving small, thoughtful gifts to the people that you love. To keep doing nice things for friends and strangers alike.

Because not being quite as miserable as George Monbiot doesn’t have to mean you’re a dick.

1. Christmas willies make a great gift but only for consenting adults