This Seething Mess of a Year In Review.

  ‘Let’s be honest, 2016 has been shit’ – The beginning of the British Green Party’s New Year message.  No, really.

Let’s start with the obvious, unforeseen horror of David Bowie’s death.  This should have been a warning, really, if you’re inclined towards magical thinking.  The only upside to it was the outpouring of love and grief in Brixton which saw a sudden, unplanned street party and singalong that still honestly brings tears to my eyes when I see it.  But we should have known then that the transgressive, unifying force of love for the other that Bowie embodied was about to take the worst kicking of my lifetime.

bowie-tribute
RIP

 

I’ll try to avoid discussing other celebrity deaths in this piece, that’s not really what it’s about, but I would probably be remiss in not mentioning Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan,, Victoria Wood, Prince, Caroline Aherne, Gene Wilder, Pete Burns, AA Gill (who I disagreed with often and profoundly but still enjoyed), George Michael, Muhammed Ali, Leonard Cohen and a ridiculous list of others.  With every passing month there was another front page obituary which could not help but add to the sensation that the world we recognised was vanishing.

There were some moments of hope in 2016.  Not many, admittedly.  The Panama papers leaked, giving the world an insight into the rampant corruption we all sort-of knew was happening around the world.  The first solar powered aircraft to circumnavigate the world.  The USA and China ratified the Paris global climate agreement.  The first proven vaccine for the Ebola virus was developed.  The good stops here, though, and I’ve got to talk about the darkness.

Brexit came first.  It arguably isn’t as bad as the other big political story of 2016 but it’s still disastrous.  A lot of my friends, some younger than me, some relatively new to politics, felt repulsed and lost.  They felt, I think, that the world they believed they lived in was an illusion.  It’s interesting to me how much they all, bar one or two exceptions, leapt to the remain side of the Brexit debate.

Now I know that a lot of Brexit supporters roll their eyes at this phenomenon.  They write off all the Remain voters as a naïve, liberal, metropolitan elite and, actually, I think this is a mistake on their part.  The truth of it is that Remain voters are by and large involved with the world in a way Leave voters aren’t.  There is a generation of voters who now feel disenfranchised, betrayed and furious with their treatment and they have no love for an isolationist world they neither remember nor care about.  It’s been the habit of commentators to examine the Leave voters meticulously, I’d like to see some more attention paid to the fact that the people who are going to inherit the fallout of Brexit are never going to forgive those who stole the future from them.

Nevertheless; Leave won.  The campaigns they ran were a disgusting, racist, toxic nightmare and even when a neo-Nazi supporter murdered a left-wing Remain supporting MP in the street they shamelessly carried on with the empty rhetoric of nationalism and race baiting.  For forty years the repellent right wing newspapers of Britain had been screaming hysterically about the evils of the EU, nobody dared publically defend it and even Jeremy Corbyn, who ostensibly supported the remain campaign, said he was only ‘about 70% in favour’ of staying.  David Cameron, the other half of the Remain campaign leadership, brought out banker after banker to announce the dangers of leaving and how much it might damage their bonuses.

Does anyone really wonder why Remain lost?  And then the hate crimes began.  An undercurrent of disgusting blood-and-soil nationalism was implicit throughout the Leave campaign, so naturally the racists took the referendum as a victory for their fucknugget philosophy.  Suddenly Mr Farage is even more ever present in our media than he was before, constantly babbling crap about how those who do not support Brexit are treacherous scum, and the right wing press lap it up and repeat it.  We’ve seen judges attacked in print for rendering a judgement, in a democracy, that the press did not like.  We have a government so weak that they barely bother to mention that this is unacceptable.  We have the disgraced, possibly corrupt former defence secretary Liam Fox in a position of what looks like power.  We have Boris Johnson as foreign secretary.  We have Theresa May as a prime minister.  And the more they go on the more convinced I am that they have no idea what the hell they’re doing.

Enough.  I can only talk about Brexit for so long.  I have to talk about Trump now.

Urgh.

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States of America should have come as more of a surprise than it did.  Not only were the polls trending heavily against him, he was a monstrously awful campaigner by the standards of a normal campaign.  I think we forget, in the rest of the world, just how abysmally racist America can be.  It’s a paranoid, insular place with some of the most appalling wealth disparity in the world and a terrifying tendency to glorify in its worst aspects.  Even more than Britain it refuses to look elsewhere for inspiration, when it seeks inspiration it looks only to its own past.  Now, finally, its rapacious worship of the dollar, its cult of celebrity and its bigotry has reached its culmination; a man who has praised internment camps, admitted to sexual assault and expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin.  If you are a left wing person still somehow under the impression that being enamoured of Putin is no bad thing then you need to read about Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Nemtsov and the invasion of Ukraine.

He will be a disaster and he can’t bring back the world the people who voted for him want.  It’s gone.  Yes he’s a dangerous fascist and he should be treated as the pariah he deserves to be but for the next four years he’s going to be POTUS.  Gods help us all.  So much has been said about him that I feel anything I add here might be redundant.

So what’s to be done in 2017?  It’s probably going to be worse than 2016, if only because Trump will actually take office and get to work dismantling the rights people in the USA have fought so hard for.  Nationalism is an empty, vile creed that wins because it is the creed of selfishness, it is Adam Smith’s vile maxim; ‘all for me, and nothing for anybody else.’  There’s more to it than that, obviously, but I have neither the space nor the inclination to go into it here.  It will have to suffice to say that internationalism represents the hope of humanity at this point, that closing the blinds and pretending that the world ends at the borders of your nation-state is not a healthy or good way to govern the world.  We’re going to need to fight for this, but we’re also going to need to examine our own failings.  The rate of homelessness has soared in the last few years, the use of food banks has become commonplace, a contempt for the poor has become the watchword of all of our political classes across the whole spectrum of ideology, and the poor are being seduced by the filth who will not help them but will use them as a stepping stone to power.

In the meantime, and more urgently, we will need to stand up against the casual cruelty of this blinkered, nostalgia-led fascism.  From Farage, to Trump, to Putin, to Le Pen, the hope of the world is under threat.  They are the past, shuddering through a final, convulsive last gasp, we’ll all have to be ready to resist them and repair the damage they do.

In Praise of Nero.

nero
According to almost all images of the man he did not have the most conventionally attractive chin.  Also sometimes a neckbeard.

It was Nero’s 1,979th birthday yesterday and I think it’s probably time to look at him again.  Among the general public he is generally regarded as a lunatic who burned Christians to death and fiddled while his city burned.  Among historians he is generally regarded as a slightly fey fop who was in far over his head and lost his mind when he began to understand the sheer scope of his power.

To my mind both of these views are insufficient.

Picture a man who knows himself to be a God.  He is not big headed or arrogant as such, he is a God.  He is a God, a descendent of Gods and he carries on the work of his ancestor Gods.  And yet, despite this knowledge of his own divinity, he is most fond of some of the most despised people in his dominion.

Nero loved acting, poetry and singing.  According to Seutonius ‘he often appeared in public in a dining-robe, with a handkerchief bound about his neck’ and he never wore the same garment twice.  He loved theatre above all, it was his abiding passion.  He was, let’s face it, a cravat wearing 19th century fop born a couple of millennia too early.

Which is why it is perhaps stunning that, in the early part of his reign, he was reasonably well regarded by the masses of the roman people.  Not the aristocracy, of course, they thought he was a disgrace.  And when he took to the stage to pursue his dream of being an actor the aristocracy regarded it as a dreadful, undignified scandal.  He performed his poetry to the public, he sang and played his lute for them, and though they had no option but to do so there’s no real evidence to suggest their applause weren’t genuine.

Then, before the horrors of his later life when ultimate power would consume him utterly, Rome burned.  Nobody knows the cause, though it was most probably arson and could very possibly have been arson by Christian terrorists.  Later it would be said that he cackled, that the scandalous lover of music watched Rome burn and did nothing but play his fiddle, but contemporary accounts tell a different story.

He opened his private estates to refugees.  He did his best to prevent looting.  He began a huge program of public works to rebuild and to employ the thousands upon thousands who had lost everything in nine days of inferno.

But his vision stretched further than that.

Nero was never a man to think small.  He saw an opportunity to remake the eternal city before him.  Instead of cramped alleys and impenetrable mazes there would be plazas, and statues, and wide avenues.  His would be a Rome of art and high culture, not stern and stoic functionality.  He would rebuild the empire to suit his vision, it would be an empire of staggering beauty and soaring art.  No longer would actors be viewed as the scum of the earth, no longer would poetry be the domain of the young and empty headed, Rome would reshape the world to be elegant, inspiring and majestic.

It didn’t work, of course.  The cost of such an operation would have been incomprehensibly massive.  The world turned, Nero began to resent his failures and from there on his reign is a cascade of increasing horror.  Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, being a good man is incompatible with being a God.

But imagine for a moment that it had worked.  Picture it; the civilisation that lies at the foundation of all of western culture turned primarily to the creation of beauty.  What could have come of that?  What sort of a world would we live in?  It may well have been worse, of course, but think of the possibilities of a world founded and grounded in the philosophy of the aesthete.

Nero failed, but his vision as he stood and gazed at the ashes of the greatest city in the world is one that would have swept me away.  I would have loved him for that romanticism, for that glory.  Perhaps loved him enough to follow him as he marched into hell.

Salve, Imperator.

  With thanks to LJ Trafford for drawing my attention to the Suetonius quote on Twitter and to Tom Holland for the excellent narrative biography of his life in his book ‘Dynasty.’