‘All the Years of Trying’ is a film about cult singer-songwriter punk poet and originator of folk punk, Patrik Fitzgerald; that has it's YouTube premiere - https://buff.ly/2S4J1M3 on St Patrick's Day 17th March. Fitzgerald kicked against the brash three-chord orthodoxy by performing waif-like and vulnerably alone with an acoustic guitar and a tattered book of poems at the height of the punk revolution, composing the ultimate anthem ‘Safety Pin Stuck in My Heart’. Although never making it to the dizziest heights of pop fame he continues to be a well respected figure, cited as an early influence by author and poet Benjamin Zephaniah and legendary journalist and Nirvana biographer, Everett True. The film is directed by filmmaker Dom Shaw who first met Patrik 41 years ago and filmed him for his seminal punk documentary ‘Rough Cut & Ready Dubbed’ which won the 1981 John Grierson award for best documentary. ‘All The Years of Trying; features some of Fitzgerald’s best known songs and interviews with people influenced and entranced by his music, and is an affectionate tribute to an old friend. ‘I knew Pat long before I met him’ says Shaw ‘because every song was soaked with his own vulnerability and humour that myself and many others could completely identify with.’ #PatrikFitzgerald #PunkPoet #Punk
Speaking via Google Hangouts from Russia on June 5th 2014, during a talk with Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder J.P. Barlow at the Personal Democracy Forum conference in New York City, Edward Snowden was all about the good news for what he likes to call ‘netizens’. That’s what we are now, you and I, ‘netizens’. Just using the greatest step forward in communication since Alexander Graham Bell was first put on hold, makes it so.
The advice and the watchword from Snowden and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are all about a discipline that first saw military use in the era of Julius Caesar - Cryptography. The putative Emperor God favoured a standard substitution cipher to communicate with his generals which was considered quite innovative at the time and really boosted his capacity to outwit the enemy. But we all know what happened to Julius. An audacious rise up the ranks through judicious military strategy and a risible comb-over period before succumbing to hubris and failing to kick against the pricks of his rivals who stabbed him near the Theatre of Pompey (very sensitive area to be punctured) thus qualifying him as the very first post-mortem report. Apparently his death was mostly attributable to blood loss from multiple stab wounds. I like that ‘mostly’. As if his hay fever also played a major part in his demise. JFK’s fate was probably mostly down to his lactose intolerance.
The modern interpretation of cryptography of course is encryption. The way we take back our privacy is apparently by obfuscating everything we do online. The Reset the Net campaigners freely admit all they are doing is promoting consumer encryption tools that make NSA surveillance harder and more expensive. Therefore, contrary to the conference strap line, you are not taking back your privacy; you are simply putting a price on it, forcing spooks to do a cost benefit analysis on breaking your codes.
Reset the Net has a privacy pack that is designed to slow the NSA and GCHQ down to a slow muddy trudge through your privacy rather than a joyful gambol through the open fields of your Facebook statuses and your online purchases from ‘Iamnotaspy.com.’
On your mobile, you are advised to download Chatsecure, Textsecure, Redphone and Cryptocat from…the Google Play store, respected guardians of your privacy with no record at all of compromising your data. Thunderbird and Enigmail will encrypt your email if you download them from Mozilla. It may also be possible to use Universal Encryption Managers from almost a thousand providers.
The Tor Network is recommended and before you download it, be sure to read their latest top security advisory about a ‘relay early’ traffic confirmation attack. Apparently, and who knew this could happen, unknown persons who probably thought the metadata of folks who use the Tor Network might be worthy of more attention than you naïve felons and cyber activists who use Firefox or Chrome, decided to make a special effort to find out what you were so all fired up to protect.
And here is where the real cost benefit analysis takes place on a purely personal level. Let us assume for a moment that the recommended browsers and software are not compromised by special teams of code monkeys set up to focus on them by virtue of their ubiquity amongst users who wish to conceal their data. Let us also assume that the authors of these instruments are not seduced into the ranks of GCHQ and the NSA or Chinese State Security to lead them by the hand through the back door portals of their arcane mysteries. Let us assume your eyelids are not already growing heavy at the thought of all that software downloading and round the back technology you are going to have to master in order to keep track of what the trackers are not keeping track of. Let us assume you give a flying cleft stick (early cryptography) about protecting your state-shaking hacktivism from detection.
Most of you are not doing that sort of thing. You are, in the main, and purely by statistical probability, not a member of Anonymous, not a paedophile, not a criminal laundering your drugs proceeds through a Cayman Island shell company operated by a Limited Liability Partnership through the UK where the Government has made it so very easy to hide your ill-gotten gains. Therefore, all this activity of camouflage and misdirection is all about a principle.
‘They shall not have my data, even if that data is mind-numbingly boring and mundane and nobody cares if I also bought ‘Gone Girl’ after the ‘The Anarchist Cookbook’.’
A noble and principled stand. There may well be some satisfaction in making yourself a target for more attention from those trawling the metadata only for them to discover that you are kinky for ‘Hello Kitty’ underwear and that you buy every Jo Nesbo novel, the second it becomes available. But frankly, it just makes most of us tired at the very thought.
Part of me wants to stand up for the principle, knowing it is already a lost cause. But the other part of me, the part that really wants to get to the shops before I have to go to work again, simply despairs at the low ambition of such measures. It’s a pretty miserable level of attainment to know that all your efforts to anonymise your every action are only slowing up the process. That every vote to restrict the routine surveillance of every ‘netizen’ is always subverted by the gatekeepers of the latest technology, whatever quasi-democratic decision is made in the heavily bugged corridors of power. That, in the end, it is just too much effort to be anonymous and that the quid pro quo of using these bastard child technologies of Mr A G Bell Esq. is the absolute abandonment of privacy and the monetisation of your every online action.
We acquiesce through apathy and I really do understand how equally miserable a response that is. I’d really like to justify it by suggesting we all just give up trying and accept that we should never do anything online at all that we do not wish to be susceptible to snooping. That we should, like certain Russian intelligence oligarchs, revert to cash only transactions, Adler typewriters and dead letter drops in the park, even if all we are concealing is our dirty laundry bags with those ‘Hello Kitty’ drawers right at the bottom where no one can see. But I just can’t be bothered.
It is easy to feel that what appears to be a recent tide of encroachment on the freedom of the press is merely business as usual in the realm of nations subject to the ebb and flow of more or less repressive governments. Even though this is ineluctably accurate, the post-Snowden environment puts the usual tactics in different areas of the world under a particular focus. It is common for these encroachments to occur most frequently when at war. The war does not have to be against another nation. The enemy within, a shifting and malleable distinction, will do just as well. In a world where half the hemisphere is engaged in a war against a noun -Terrorism - even this shallow pretext is almost unnecessary.
To see how much these tactics are very much unchanged despite years of what may be perceived as intellectual progress in the fourth estate, one need look no further than George Orwell’s 1946 essay, ‘The Prevention of Literature; stimulated in part by the recent wartime strictures of reporting and partly by the acquiescence of the British left to a self-censorship or denial of utilitarianism that allowed them to indulge in a fantasy that the Stalinist propaganda emerging from Russia was to be counterbalanced by a publication by the Soviets of the truth when the ‘crisis’ was over. In it, he described an attitude that chimes with some resonance with the response to Snowden and others on a personal level.
‘The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism. The issue truth-versus-untruth is as far as possible kept in the background. Although the point of emphasis may vary, the writer who refuses to sell his opinions is always branded as a mere egoist. He is accused, that is, either of wanting to shut himself up in an ivory tower, or of making an exhibitionist display of his own personality, or of resisting the inevitable current of history in an attempt to cling to unjustified privileges.’
Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker calls Snowden ‘a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison’. The Al-Jazeera journalists imprisoned in Egypt, along with political scientist Amr Hamzawy facing charges over a tweet questioning a court ruling, will undoubtedly find themselves accused of arrogance and narcissism during interrogation and court cross-examination. Just as patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, a claim that the truth is already revealed and that the errant hack is indulging in a selfish fantasy by publishing a different perspective is the last gasp of a regime in a state of flux, struggling to establish absolute control after recent political upheavals.
There are three types of censorship that restrict the freedom of the press. The first is a blatant characteristic of the straightforward out-and-out totalitarian regime as practiced in China (although this is beginning to change) or South Korea - a complete ban on all un-licensed reporting that is filtered through a bureaucracy that can close down a paper or arrest a journalist without any justification beyond the state’s desire.
The second is the self censorship forced on journalists by law, bureaucratic regulation, and politically motivated criminal investigations as in Russia. This is the unkindest cut of all but at least allows journalists to do all they can to find more and more inventive ways of coding the truth into oblique, parody or clearly understood satire that test the very limits of the repressive laws. The same is true of censored literature, although the fact that repression produces great books, (Bulgakov’s Master & Margarita et al) should not be a reason to perpetuate the habit.
Finally there is the most insidious form of censorship. The ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as represented by exemplars such as post-apartheid South Africa’s 2004 Law on Anti-terrorism that permit authorities to restrict reporting on the security forces, prisons, and mental institutions. A recent Protection of Information Bill initially permitted the South African government to classify a wide range of information—including “all matters relating to the advancement of the public good” and “the survival and security of the state”—as in the “national interest” and thus subject to significant restrictions on publication and disclosure. It mandated prison terms of 3 to 25 years for violations and did not allow a “public interest” defence. Even in its revised form, any whistle blowing reporting that would ‘directly or indirectly benefit a foreign state or non-state actor or prejudice national security’ can lead to a prison sentence. Plus ca change.
This form is also represented by the Miranda case where the use of an obscure clause of terrorism legislation leads to a seemingly glacial encroachment on investigative journalism that creeps up on our liberties and engulfs them piece by piece.
Orwell mentions attending a meeting of the PEN club to celebrate the tercentenary of John Milton’s anti-censorship tract Areopagitica. It is now 370 years since that template for the freedom of the press and of writers in general was published at the height of the English Civil War in opposition to the Licensing Order of 1643 and it seems we are still fighting to defend its precepts. As the appeal against the Miranda verdict is prepared, the blind seer’s words ring out over the centuries and echo around the corridors of power. ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.’
This module is for those seeking Corporatization of state assets, government agencies or municipal organizations into corporations. We will be using as our models, the BBC and the National Health Service. You, at the back of the class. Capita? Are you chewing gum? Spit it out or share some with the whole class. Pardon? You don’t understand the business model for sharing your gum? Quite right. Gold star.
Now, to understand the methodology of turning public assets into private investment opportunities, we need to understand a basic Machiavellian principle of divide and rule. This would normally apply to a rebellious underclass, but works just as well for the public sector. Firstly, ensure that you repeatedly describe the publicly funded institution as ‘bloated expensive and too centralised’. Think of a slow moving luxury ocean liner with its hull clad in Louis Vuitton and gold leaf, even if the image in most people’s heads is a battered shabby whale with scars all over it. Ensure that there are no comparable private institutions so that no one can compare the running costs or challenge your assertions that the institution is no longer ‘fit for purpose’.
Next, destroy the economy of scale by introducing an internal market. Firstly break up each part of the institution into smaller fund holding units that compete with each other to provide services at external market prices that were previously absorbed by the overhead at cheaper rates achieved through the economies of scale.
A perfect business model to study here is from the nineties - John Birt’s visionary ‘Producers Choice’ initiative in the BBC that divided the BBC’s 23,000 staff into 8,500 buyers and 14,500 sellers. This meant a light bulb replacement in an office used by one programme would be charged against their production budget along with office rental and the costs of requesting a music track from the BBC sound library and discovering that it was now cheaper to ‘outsource’ the need by nipping down to a supermarket and buying it. Thus, the BBC, (the bloated luxury liner clad in gold and Vuitton) which used to operate like an old Hollywood studio with its own carpenters, props and costume stores etc could now sell of all of these wasteful assets and pay the market price for private companies to supply them with what they previously supplied to themselves at a fraction of the cost. Even when the model is discovered to have been flawed and is scrapped, the important work has been done and the economies of scale fatally damaged.
Another instructive example from the nineties is the UK National Health Service which was also subjected to the internal market by turning each health authority into a separate fundholding trust with its own management rather than the centralised layers of administration (remember to say bloated and unwieldy) that were wilfully capitalising on the economies of scale by cleaning hospitals, buying equipment, feeding and caring for patients from the same budget. The staff costs of course, would initially rocket by 800% due to the new layers of management required for each trust, but you can’t make an omelette fit for purpose without over-egging. Then, show your adaptability to market forces by changing the structure at least three times but always retaining the internal market ensuring the institution becomes more and more expensive and can be cherrypicked by private providers for the most lucrative services.
The final part of this module covers the closing stages for which all of this preparation has carefully laid the ground. Declare the public institution a wasteful drain on the nation’s resources and argue for a complete private sector replacement dictated by the market with some cursory inspectorate to ensure that some basic standards that are no longer economic to maintain can be seen to occasionally be observed by high profile incidents that are exposed and censured whilst the majority remain un-reported. Argue that the country can no longer afford the public funded institution and hope that the British people maintain their reputation for apathy and resignation and don’t flood the streets to protest that everything they have come to rely upon is being taken away and sold to the highest bidder.
Next term, how to divert attention from tax avoiding international corporations by scapegoating foreigners and homosexuals for everything that is wrong with the European project, the economy, the welfare system and the lack of decent real ale in golf clubs Farage Major and Cameron Minor, see me after class. Putin? Insolent boy. Put your shirt back on at once.
There is no worse fate for a human being than to be cursed by sainthood. There are those who are not amongst the cadres who knew him throughout his life, who are attempting to thrust this upon Nelson Mandela. To bestow a divinity or other-worldly reverence is to denude someone of all their humanity. It was not for nothing that Caesar and other Roman Generals carried a slave behind them on the triumphal chariot to whisper as the laurel leaves were held above their heads, ‘Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori.’ Look behind you! Remember that you are a man! Remember that you'll die!
To take the inevitable flaws of a living being and to bleach them out of existence until all you are left with is an empty cipher, a blank page on which others may project their own desires and aspirations, is the worst way to celebrate their lives. It has seen many of those giving public eulogies to this undeniably significant political figure internalise and end up speaking about their own lives and achievements; the subject of their perorations reduced to a catalyst for their own political awakening.
Mandela participated in several important decision points in South Africa’s history. The Defiance campaign, the rejection of Ghandi inspired non-violent protest for armed struggle and the unification of black and white citizens into a single vision of the Rainbow nation, defusing the potential post-apartheid flashpoints through the Truth and Reconciliation process.
They were important decisions taken at crucial moments, but they were not taken by he alone and they were not without their unintended consequences. On the whole the story of those decisions and their timing are largely to the credit of those involved. But human frailty and the concept of what is or is not a legitimate military target and what is acceptable will always play its part. The ‘hard targets’ of the ANC’s bombing campaign by the military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe and the appalling abuses at the Quadro punishment camp in Angola inevitably attracted high levels of criticism even within the ANC. There was no such self-flagellation in the regime after the assassinations of Ruth First and the murder of Steve Biko.
As with most of the anti-apartheid warriors, it was their families who bore the brunt of the sacrifices made to the cause. Children without parents, or worse, parents who had no time to be parents, slaves to a struggle that outranked the needs of their loved ones. Mandela paid that price along with the others and it is reflected across the world amongst the fractured, traumatised and damaged families of those who stayed and were imprisoned and those forced into exile, forced to prioritise the struggle for freedom over the joys of hearth and home.
The ANC were well aware of the usefulness of Mandela as a symbol and helped to foster a personality cult that would prove absolutely vital in quelling the tensions of the post-apartheid era. This is not to deny his own implacable resistance to many of the offers put to him by successive Nationalist governments and his later shepherding of those first few steps to freedom. He refused offers of release in return for concessions and silence and when he was ill with tuberculosis and the Government feared the consequences of his death, he could have accepted the tainted offers and walked out of Pollsmoor Prison knowing that he had accepted serious compromises that would throw the country and the ANC into chaos. That courage and commitment is worth celebrating, but the legacy of an administration that still wrestles with corruption and the failure to raise the majority from township to genuine equality of opportunity, is a reflection of the chasm between political aspiration and achievement in Mandela, the leadership at large and indeed in all political struggles.
Ironically, it was that racist bugbear Enoch Powell, writing about Joseph Chamberlain, who observed ‘"All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs." But these human failures to completely bridge the gap between dream and reality in countries radically altered in recent years like Northern Ireland, Russia and South Africa are noble failures. They went further than they thought they could and fell short because their aspirations were higher than those around them. But the bridges are still under construction and the other side is always in sight of the next generation, if they care to see it and continue to build towards it.
The peculiar calculus of US Intelligence was laid bare to the world when NSA Director General Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. At one point General Alexander, resentful at this unnecessary intrusion into his agency’s activities fell back on what Samuel Johnson called ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’. Patriotism. Talking ‘from the heart’, he appealed to the emotions of the committee:
‘These are patriots who come to work every day saying “How can we defend this country and protect our civil liberties and privacy?” Nothing that has been released, has shown that we are trying to do something illegal or un-professional.’
The sums are starting to emerge in this appeal, but no one denies the NSA’s innate professionalism. They are at the cutting edge of data collection and surveillance monitoring, due in part to the only part of the ‘special relationship’ that truly exists; the secure link between the UK’s GCHQ and the NSA exposed by Snowden but an open secret to anyone who studies the math. The arithmetic according to Alexander goes like this:
The NSA is stuffed full of patriots = No wrong can be done by the NSA.
Never mind the damage done by the botched intelligence operations of yore. That wasn’t the NSA. The CIA state sponsored assassinations, the failed coups or more spectacularly the successful ones that toppled democratically elected leaders and consistently undermined the credibility of a nation that pretends to defend democracy. Never mind the Iran-Contra affair, the Sandanistas and well, since we’re only talking about ancient history here, the failure to acknowledge the coup in Egypt for what it was, the illegal rendition parties across the globe, the odd illegal war and the continuing machinations that say anything goes as long as it suits the current agenda of priorities, drawn up every couple of years like an a la carte menu that the restaurant keeps to itself and seldom deigns to share with those who pay the bill. My enemy’s enemy is my friend is an equation that gets a little shaky if you drill down to the shifting sands of intelligence agendas that see Saddam and Bin Laden failing to stay on the right side of the table.
But all of that was in the bad old days, even if it was only last week that Angela Merkel noticed a few more clicks on her phone and couldn’t get reception anywhere near her right ear. The NSA could not possibly be involved in anything that violated the constitution or acted against the liberties of its citizens because they are patriots. But their allies could. Those effete Europeans with their weird cheeses, suggestive pasta shapes and warm beer could do it and if the NSA just happened to run across the fact that they were doing it and maybe even asked them to, they could legitimately see the data and utilise it. The ultimate intelligence cut-out; a whole continent.
Of course there is a perpetual undercurrent of ‘so what’ about the revelation that allies spy on allies as well as enemies. They have been doing so for as long as there have been intelligence agencies and probably before. The Germans are being a little prim saying ‘you do not spy on your friends’ but noticing that the French are suddenly very silent on the matter and not chiming in with their pious sentiment. Also, like every other country, they seem to have no qualms about spying on their own. The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) - Germany’s foreign intelligence service made a fool of itself in 2005 when it placed many of the country’s journalists under surveillance trying to find the source of leaks from…the BND. Intelligence is an Ouroboros serpent that feeds itself with itself.
Once you know that if you use the right political math you can gather anything on anybody, well, get out your calculator, there’s data to eat and we’re hungry. It’s an addiction described by Graham Greene, Kim Philby and John Le Carre through memoir and fiction. The covert world is exciting on occasion and as catnip to a field agent or intelligence analyst. Never more so than when an order comes in to monitor a world leader or one of your own country’s politicians. On one side of the ‘special relationship’ a frisson ripples round the UK Security Service or the Secret Intelligence Service as the legal officer gives the OK and the surveillance can begin. On the other, a little shiver shakes the foundations of the NSA presaged by an email or briefing note that begins ‘Under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, and Section 215 of the USA-PATRIOT Act of 2001…’ Because then, anything goes.
The former enables collection and reading of the content of communications generated by non-U.S. persons, the second enables the collection of metadata, but not the specific content, of U.S. citizens electronic or digital communications. That they sub-contract to those sneaky Europeans.
Skewed math was also prevalent during a particular painful exchange between House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and University Law School Professor Stephen Vladek when Rogers rewrote the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution on a peek-a-boo basis. He suggested during the hearing at the US National Security Agency (NSA) that it’s impossible to have your privacy violated if you don’t know that your privacy is being violated.
The recalculated amendment according to Rogers would read:
‘No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws…unless they don’t notice.’
This is the equivalent of a child covering their eyes during a game of hide and seek on the basis that if they can’t see Papa, Papa won’t be able to see them. As with so many things emerging from these exchanges on both sides of the Atlantic, it is not the product of a credible intellect.
The typical defence to all this activity is that of General Alexander to the Black Hat security conference in July of this year. Terrorists live amongst us. This is undeniable. London and New York have had painful confirmation of that. But balance and oversight are the keys and it simply isn’t good enough to allow the likes of GCHQ and the NSA to pursue agendas that are subject to interpretations that go beyond protecting the country and move into mass surveillance for its own sake. There has to be a debate that does not end with governments of every hue deciding to leave the matter in the hands of the spies. The Spycatcher affair of the eighties showed what such abandonment of responsibility led to, with a cabal within MI5 pursuing an overtly political agenda against its own government. There is nothing in the subsequent expansion of digital capability that suggests there is sufficient oversight to prevent this happening again. Worse, a government can pass to the intelligence community, agendas it would rather not expose to voters and therefore have a vested interest in maintaining the appearance of monitoring via committee and legal officers on every office floor whilst paying only lip service to matters, the specifics of which, they would rather not know.
The ultimate calculus of the international intelligence community comes up with the conclusion: ‘If we don’t watch everybody, we might miss something that may threaten our country, our political or our commercial interests or our agency’s existence.’ Two and two do not make five. It is Orwellian arithmetic and it doesn’t add up.
‘All The Years of Trying’ is an ode to the Stratford Bard of London’s East End produced and directed by London based film makers Dom Shaw and Daniel Carboni of music documentary specialists Anonymous Films. Patrik Fitzgerald. Known as the Punk Poet and composer of the ultimate anthem 'Safety Pin Stuck in My Heart'; Fitzgerald kicked against the brash three-chord orthodoxy by performing waif-like and vulnerably alone with an acoustic guitar and a tattered book of poems at the height of the punk revolution.
Although never making it to the dizziest heights of pop fame he continues to be a well respected figure, cited as an early influence by author and poet Benjamin Zephaniah, and legendary journalist and Nirvana biographer, Everett True. The new millennium has seen a resurgence of interest in this determined, brave performer who battled on with his music through much travail and now seems set for new appreciation by a whole new generation charmed by his stripped down honesty and integrity.
The film is directed by film maker Dom Shaw who first met Patrik 32 years ago and filmed him for his seminal punk documentary ‘Rough Cut & Ready Dubbed’ which won the John Grierson award for best documentary. Featuring some of his best known songs and interviews with people influenced and entranced by his music, the film is an affectionate tribute to an old friend. ‘I knew Pat long before I met him’ says Shaw ‘because every song was soaked with his own vulnerability and humour that myself and many others could completely identify with.’
‘Everything I've ever read about myself has said how shy and self effacing I am, so I really shouldn't blow my own trumpet about this film. Having said that, I have watched and kind of enjoyed it, I think. I've probably written some good tunes and there are some of them in this film. Being stuck into celluloid is a bit like having your soul stolen, however. But there you are... Enjoy the film. ‘ Patrik
‘It seems as if all those old bands from the punk era and later are getting their renaissance’ says producer Daniel Carboni, ‘and to be truthful, some of them aren’t worth the attention. But Pat never seems to have got the attention he deserved except from a well respected network of influential artists. We hope this film will help to change all that.’
In the week that a strident UK comic Russell Brand declared the need for a political revolution that eschewed the conventional democratic means of voting, one thing at least has emerged from the twitterati slapping him on the back and sparking a barely submerged debate about modern democracy. It exposed an undercurrent that has been present for some time, particularly but not exclusively among the young, that party politics and polling booths are not presently an effective means of change. In a way this is simply the cycle of political consciousness swinging around again, except far from being excluded from voting by a lack of emancipation, more and more people on this side of the pond at least, are disengaging from a cross in a box, but not from politics. Looking at history one can align certain periods when Chartists and non-conformists successfully altered the agendas of the ruling elites until they were grudgingly admitted into the organs of Government to participate. George Orwell was a great believer in a socialist democracy, but was even more passionate about political campaigning, although he retained a cynicism about the effectiveness of the Left against the rise of totalitarianism. What would he make of the current political middle-ground where no party seems able to engage the voters with their bland and less than radical manifestos?
In ‘Eric is Awake’, Eric Blair, the man who has re-awakened in the modern world believing he is the reincarnation of George Orwell, is on the tramp across the country pursued by the authorities for identity fraud. Stopping to take advantage of free tea and cake at a village hall in the English countryside, he discovers a local election meeting and gives the politicians and the villagers his view of the redundancy of voting.
EXTRACT: Emily and Simon watched the shaky and slightly murky camerawork in the dimly lit hall as the Mayor of Shipston-on-Stour, a dumpy middle-aged woman who looked the image of Margaret Rutherford, fielded questions from the audience including one earnest young man spouting planted entreaties for more access to the hi-speed Interverse for poorer Olders in the area. The Mayor cut off the response from the middle-aged sitting MP to say that there was time for only one more question.
At first, Emily could not discern Eric’s face amongst the serried ranks of spectators, their plastic cups rising and falling in rows. Then he stood up right at the back and she was shocked to see him wearing a pair of army camouflage trousers beneath a thick hooded top of the kind she knew he loathed.
He cleared his throat in that familiar fashion and started with his usual diffidence and apologetic posture, hands cupped around his plastic beaker like a supplicating penitent, his resemblance, as she remembered, eerily unmistakable with the unruly shock of dark hair, lined jowls, piercing blue eyes and thin ridiculous moustache. His voice was fluting and higher pitched than anyone might expect from such a face. He started quietly and the audio failed to pick up his first words. She heard an old woman in the audience mutter ‘Nutter’ to her neighbour and, nearer to camera, a man who looked like a farmer nudged his ruddy faced son and said loudly and boisterously ‘That’s that loony from the paper thinks he’s Orwell.’ His boy, chewing fruit cake, responded with a puzzled look on his wind-burnt face ‘Isn’t that a song? Like the boy down the chip shop thinks he’s Elvis?’
Eric seemed to falter and the Mayor leaned forward to her microphone and said primly ‘Please can contributors state their name before they ask their question. Thank you.’ A nubile blonde volunteer shoved a portable microphone into his hand and Emily saw Eric blanch slightly before reluctantly accepting it, his other hand still clasping his tea. After a moment’s pause she sensed him taking a deep breath as people craned their necks to see the country’s newest celebrity madman.
‘My name is Eric and I am barely a citizen. I don’t even know if I am allowed to vote. Several times in this meeting, you have talked about voter apathy. A couple of the audience members have said that they feel it a waste of time to vote. You have all responded with predictable piety that people died for that right. This is true, of course. They did so because it was the most credible route to emancipation, to be heard. It was important. It mattered, because there were polar opposites on the ballot paper, but not anymore. Politicians don’t seem to realize it, but everyone else has known for some time that voting is futile, moribund, and redundant. It may be resurrected someday when the contours of our politics have been levelled and rearranged. But for now, it’s dead. That is due to your apathy, not the voters’.
‘As far as I can tell, no one voted for the seemingly perpetual wars in China, Iran or Afghanistan. No one voted to bail out the financiers and enrich the dividend takers, leaving the rest of society to face cuts in services and lower wages, all the time being told that they had been living for too long in a fool’s paradise, that they were to be punished for their profligacy even though they did not engineer the reckless barely regulated lottery of the gaming houses in the City.
‘No one voted for means testing in the National Health Service, traducing the main principle of the single greatest post-war achievement of the British parliamentary system. No one voted for low-grade proletarian exam factories in place of schools. No one voted to make protest of any kind mostly illegal, all the time being told that it is to prevent terrorists hijacking legitimate dissent. No one voted for the database state, a network of information slowly joining up across Europe and the world to spy on entire nations of the apathetic voters you so disdain. No one voted to arm our law enforcement officers and to forget that they are supposed to police with our consent, not their contempt. No one voted for celebrity culture instead of a genuine news agenda. No one voted for the basic necessary things of scale that the state controlled like transport, health, power, education, the mail, the rubbish collections, the army and the municipal services to be auctioned off to a thousand private companies and entrepreneurs only to watch them deliver disastrous results at a far higher cost which only serves to drive down an already unsustainable rampant capitalist economy.
‘Those people who died for the right to vote, they also died for the right to choose. That includes the right not to vote. The future isn’t an X in a box. None of you truly offers a genuine choice. Not until a significant proportion of the population come together to demand one and you respond enthusiastically to meet their desires by including political aims that are not filtered through your perception that the middle ground agendas are always safe and will not frighten the horses. It is a well-worn cynical cliché but nonetheless true that most citizens believe there should be a box on the ballot paper that simply reads – ‘None of the above’. Your lack of political courage is to blame for that.
‘I can tell from your rhetoric that not one of you entered politics to change the world. You came to make careers, not vocations and to better yourselves, not the country. I do not condemn. It is a natural atavistic streak in human nature, hard to resist. The wrong sort of people are always in power because they would not be in power if they were not the wrong sort of people.
‘But forgivable or not, it is you, the power seekers, who lulled us into a dreamless sleep and stole our souls while we slumbered. Maybe the tipping point has finally been reached. Maybe now is the time, I don’t know. I could be wrong. But I feel it and I think you do too. That is why you are panicking in this election, ramping up the fear and calling for more bread and circuses. Maybe they will swallow the ruse again. They have before. But looking at the news that does still filter through, it is clear that some, at least, mostly the young, are not as dulled by television, vacuous celebrity and total immersion games as you might have hoped.
‘I think much of the more restless population, increasingly separated from the conventional political process, un-cowed by the slow subliminal removal of their civil liberties are stirring in their chambers, having slept too long.
‘There are poems from the past that might, half-remembered as if from a dream, express the taint in the air. “For we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet. Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.”
‘Loudly and clearly from every rooftop one feels more and more that we should all be shouting the truth of Juvenal. Asking who will watch the watchers? Who has taken our lives and sold them to the highest bidder? Is it possible, as I fervently hope, that some are rising, stretching and asking bleary-eyed, ‘Is it time to call a halt and reverse the tide? Is it now? Is it today?’
Emily watched Eric hesitate and the audience filled the silence with a mixture of jeers and applause. She saw him hand back the microphone and walk crab-like along the row of plastic chairs, the smaller figure of Pedro following quickly behind. Someone threw a cup at the stage. Another followed and as the clip came to an end, the camera panned to the podium where the four politicians and the Mayor sat glumly whispering to each other, a few laughing wryly as the white plastic shrapnel began to fall around them, some bouncing off their heads. END OF EXTRACT
'Eric is Awake' is available in paperback or on all e-readers or on your IPad. Please read and review.
I was the guest of a very welcoming writers group in Brighton the other week run by Bridget Whelan to talk about Eric is Awake and publishing in general. It was really interesting staying on after the talk to hear the writers pitching their assignments which were for stories with the theme of Spring. Concentrated writing tasks of this kind are what writers groups are all about and it certainly seemed to have stimulated some intriguing and amusing ideas. I have never been in any kind of collegiate community of writers except for a brief period chairing the TV & Film committee of the Writers Guild of Great Britain. Television writing in the UK is seldom as collegiate an exercise as it is in the US, but I have really enjoyed the few occasions when I have worked on shows that allow a bunch of writers to sit in a room together and bounce a script around. It is why US TV currently leads the field in innovative and compelling drama. They can afford to throw writers in a room and leave them alone. Most of the time, however, you are on your own. Writing my first novel therefore was just more of the same. The application of the arse to the seat of the chair until you come to the end of the book or the end of you.
The novel has as the central premise a man waking up in the body of a homeless man in the 21st Century in a broadly contemporary version of our own world, claiming to be Eric Arthur Blair who wrote under the pseudonym of George Orwell and died in London in 1950.
One question that came up in the talk has occurred before in another context when a TV producer asked ‘Why doesn’t Eric wake up in the world of his own novel 1984?’ It’s a fair question as this is probably what you would expect when you read the premise of the book. The answer is that I was totally uninterested in that scenario because it would almost write itself. Eric would wake up as Winston Smith working in the Ministry of Truth and suffer interrogation by O’Brien in a world that would probably look as close to Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ as you can get. You know how that novel would develop and so do I. I’m sure there is a novel writing machine somewhere that could do it. But not this fleshy tube of chemicals.
Instead the book forces Eric to confront all the issues we deal with concerning surveillance, a disengaged democracy and a Big Data world where, far from being forced to give up personal privacy, the populace actively volunteers it in order to engage with social media and commerce. That makes his journey a little more unpredictable and also occasionally funny. The abiding characteristic of Orwell’s ‘1984’ is that it is resolutely gloomy; a fact that he acknowledged and attributed to his declining health at the time he wrote it. Me, I don't have a terminal diagnosis and tend to enjoy a lot of very satisfying biscuits whilst writing so consequently, I am not a literary icon and a more frivolous writer. In my book, Eric struggles to survive in a world that seems familiar to us at first but soon appears to have moved slightly further on in our present drift towards a total surveillance society.
It is, of course, the height of audacity to attempt to speak in the voice of one of the world’s most celebrated literary icons. Everyone feels that they own him and they have their own idea of what his voice sounds like, what he might think and how he might express himself. I have a Houdini-like escape clause for this perfectly understandable sentiment. The man who wakes up in an alley in my book believes himself to be Orwell. But it is possible, of course, that he is deluded or ill. As he says to a Judge in the book whilst appearing in court over his detainment under the Mental Health Act:
‘I really don’t know if what I now believe is what I have always believed. As I have no memory of this existence and this place, I cannot truly determine whether I am deluded or dreaming. If the former, it appears a curiously convoluted fantasy rooted in an arcane knowledge of an all too well documented life. If the latter, then nothing you recommend about what people choose to call my ‘care’ will make any difference at all. We occupy two opposing perceptions of existence, my Lord. To you, I am an ex-army petty offender with a medical record and a history as Harold Lewis Allways. To me, I am who I have always been; or, at least, who I now perceive myself to have always been. More prosaically, I can’t convince you that my perception is any more valid than yours. On the other hand, you cannot convince me that I am anything other than Eric Arthur Blair. We are, as far as I am concerned, in a stalemate position, existentially.’
You’ll have to read the book yourself to make up your own mind about whether Eric really is awake.
It seems as if top cops in the UK are repeatedly calling for the legalisation of drugs to reduce crime. The latest to do so is Durham police chief Mike Barton who advocates Class A opiates for addicts being made available through the National Health System. So far, no government has deemed it a vote-winning measure and have done little more than juggle the various substances between legal categories for judicial purposes. But it feels as if the tipping point might be only a few years away with a petition calling on the government to follow the advice of the Home Affairs Committee and introduce that fabulous device for kicking an issue into the long grass, a Royal Commission on drug law reform. But leaving aside the timidity of politicians, there are some indications that some legalisation may be instituted in the next decade. If it is, a number of the options proffered by pressure groups and advocates among the police have come with expansive claims about the effect on the criminal enterprises that control the import, export and sale of drugs in the UK that need to be tested against the available evidence.
Firstly there are the stated aims of legalisation. Top cops of course like to highlight the reduction in organised crime. Drugs legalisation advocates of various hues tend to soft-pedal this angle over a general belief that the state should play no significant role in what citizens choose to inject, sniff, smoke or otherwise ingest to get their rocks off. The headlines tell us drugs only lead to addiction and death and that legalisation would simply lead to increased use and a generation who would thus treat substance abuse in the same way they do alcohol. Too late. This has been a feature of my parents generation, of mine and that of my children. In fact, drugs were much easier to obtain than alcohol when I was 16 and considerably cheaper.
The Home Office expresses the perpetual view of all Governments cowed by the task of allowing the commercial or medicinal exploitation of drugs: "Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous. They destroy lives and blight communities. The UK's approach on drugs remains clear, we must help individuals who are dependent by treatment, while ensuring law enforcement protects society by stopping the supply and tackling the organised crime that is associated with the drugs trade." Well, good luck with that pious mixture of hubris and delusion. One notorious member of a family of gangsters grown fat on exploitation of a lucrative Colombian drugs cartel that reportedly owned its own submarine, was fined a million pounds and reportedly asked the Judge with a wry smile if he preferred cash or a cheque. The fight against organised crime has been a pathetic drop in the ocean in a war in which the culprits are more likely to eliminate each other from the growing empires of organised crime in the endless power plays between the controlling syndicates than to succumb to a knock on the door from an under-funded constabulary.
In 2009, the lobby group Transform Drug Policy Foundation’s report 'After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation' financed partly by, amongst others, the J. Paul Getty Jr. Charitable Trust was careful to highlight the difference between drug use and drug addiction or dependency using the usual arguments every teenager caught with a quarter of dope in their laundry by their parents utilises when backed into a corner. Alcohol, caffeine, anti-depressants, tobacco make us all drug users to a greater or lesser degree and all are legal.
It’s always been a convincing argument, particularly when walking home late on a Saturday night or Sunday morning in any major town centre. There is a striking feature about wandering around London in the early hours that is as regular a sight as rubbish trucks growling down the streets at dawn. The city bus stops are full of young women alternately crying or throwing up. Their male counterparts always seem to be missing, perhaps not as resilient or more incapable having a greater capacity if not tolerance for gallons of the electric soup.
But what police advocates of legalisation through the NHS seem to forget is that most drug use is recreational. Far from being wrinkled husks gasping for another hit and queuing for the chemist to collect their methadone prescriptions, most are casual, occasional and social users who regard their substance of choice as just another choice amongst the panoply of prerequisites for a good night out.
Given this subtlety, it’s easy to see how organised crime would adapt to changing legislation by cornering the market in new designer highs that can’t be found amongst the prescribed versions that would be available through the health system or even over the counter at your local chemist. The model that seems to suggest a way to completely circumvent them or at least put a serious dent in their business is the free market or supermarket model that suggests commercially available through licensed premises, off-licence models aligned to those for alcohol or caffeine energy drinks. This has the disadvantage of doing little more than handing control of the market from an underground cartel of loosely associated and competing criminal exploitation specialists to suppliers with an advertising budget. But given the worship of free markets over state intervention, this may well be where it all ends up. Tobacco advertising bans will dissolve under the weight of such a prospect, which would suggest the cigarette lobbyists should be hyping this as the panacea to a wealth of schizophrenic state proscriptions.
But what would a commercial drugs company with advertising dollars to spend and a research and development department dedicated to producing market-friendly innovations and designer highs to all price bands and demographics look like? Whilst the current atmosphere persists, it is possible that we may all soon be about to find out.
Dom Shaw is the author of 'Eric is Awake' and also a fleshy tube of chemicals working as a writer, scriptwriter and filmmaker in the UK. Was a boy, now a man. He lives.