Monday, 14 November 2016


In Michelle Obama’s eloquent speech given in New Hampshire against the rising tide of hatred and misogyny unleashed during the American election campaign she did not refer to Donald J. Trump by name but merely as Hillary Clinton’s opponent.  Now we will have to get used to reading and saying his name more often but politics is never just a matter of a single individual, even under the extreme reactionary swerve of US politics, that has taken everyone, not only Americans, into a dangerously uncertain and perhaps even irreversible situation.  The Paris climate change treaty may be in jeopardy.  Key domestic achievements of the Obama years could be ripped up including wider access to health care.  New appointments to the US Supreme Court will have lasting significance for American society.    

The Democrats had foolishly assumed that Wisconsin was safely in their camp but the primaries had already given signs of deep disenchantment with the dynastic Clinton party machine.  However effectively Hillary Clinton managed to present her own agenda she was nonetheless unable to completely emerge from the shadows of the last Clinton administration (as may also have been the case with Al Gore in 2000).  Both Gore and Clinton were ultimately ahead in the popular vote but cursed by the final outcome of the electoral college system (and also in Gore’s case by the infamous Florida count and its legal aftermath).  It turned out that Barack Obama’s broad-based coalition of progressive voters simply could not be mobilized in sufficient numbers to hold Wisconsin along with other crucial electoral college votes spread across the so-called “rust belt” of the Mid West.  Would a Sanders-Warren ticket have done better?  Maybe, but we shall never know.  Furthermore, with over forty per cent of American adults not participating in the election, let alone a further seven per cent disqualified as former felons or for missing papers, the actual outcome of this debacle was decided by less than a quarter of the adult population, and far fewer if we look at the wafer thin margins in five or six bell weather states.

The rise of right-wing populism now endangers liberal democracy at a global scale.  A toxic brew of pervasive inequalities, manipulated grievances, and historical amnesia threatens to overwhelm attempts to articulate a progressive alternative.  The social democratic tradition in particular finds itself in deep crisis, its sources of mobilization splintered and scattered, and its previous achievements steadily eroded.

Monday, 3 October 2016


Richard Linklater’s remarkable film Boyhood (2015) took twelve years to make.  The film focuses on Mason Evans Jr (played by Ellar Coltrane), who we first meet aged six, along with his sister Samantha (played by the director’s daughter Lorelei), his mother (Patricia Arquette), who is a constant in his life, and his wayward yet loving father (Ethan Hawke).  We follow this ensemble of characters and actors in real time from 2002 to 2014, the film being shot for a few days in each year, and then crafted into a cinematic document.   With the passage of time the emotional nuances of each scene become magnified through an intense kind of cinematic verisimilitude.

The representation of time is one of the most complex dimensions to cinematic art.   The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze even divides the history of cinema into a putative shift from the “movement image” to the “time image” in his idiosyncratic overview of the medium.   Though occasional spaces of real-time have been eloquently evoked in the unhurried films of Michelangelo Antonioni, John Cassavetes, and other directors, the brilliance of Boyhood is to take the question of time in a fundamentally different and exhilarating direction.  At one level Boyhood serves as an elaborate documentary experiment that works as both a sociological snapshot of American society but also a dramatic device of poignant emotional intensity.  In the final scene we encounter Mason, now an eighteen-year old student on a camping excursion with his new friends from university, and we are taken back to the precise spot, by a lake in the mountains, to which he had gone with his father years ago.  The beauty and repetition of this tranquil landscape is startling.  Mason wonders whether the familiar refrain that one must seize the moment should really be turned around since it is really the moment after all that seizes our consciousness.

Friday, 16 September 2016


In this stylish and intelligent new science fiction drama, directed by Alex Garland, a young computer programmer is sent to an isolated research facility, run by an eccentric recluse named Nathan Batemen (played to terrifying effect by Oscar Isaac), to determine whether his new robotic creation possesses artificial intelligence.  The computer programmer Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) encounters an enigmatic female robot called Ava (played by Alicia Vikander), who quickly surpasses the boundaries of the Turing test, revealing what appear to be a range of human feelings including loneliness, vulnerability, and desire.   The emerging emotional connection between Smith and Ava, or rather projected onto Smith by Ava as part of an elaborate experiment, begins to unsettle the power relations within the subterranean labyrinth.

There is a touch of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) here in Garland’s Ex_Machina (2015) where the power of imagination emerges out of an interface between human and machine and consciousness resides in a tangle of wires and flesh.  The film’s spectacular denouement hints at a near future in which Turing’s anticipated avatars stroll among us.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Harlow as viewed from Berlin

In the wake of the EU referendum there has been a surge of racism and xenophobia across the UK including acts of extreme violence.  A spate of attacks on Polish people in the Essex town of Harlow, for example, located not far from London, culminated in the murder of Arkadiusz Jóźwik, and has attracted international attention.  Unlike the muted media coverage in the UK external observers see this murder and the atmosphere of intimidation as a shameful indictment of the UK’s declining status as a respected European nation.1
Harlow was the future once.   As one of the original new towns established under the New Towns Act of 1946, and designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, Harlow was a state-of-the art planned settlement created in response to acute overcrowding in London.  Its buildings exemplify some of the most important examples of post-war British architecture and its comprehensive park system reflects the richness and complexity of the local topography.
Politically, Harlow is a classic bellwether constituency:  Labour in the 1970s, Conservative in the 1980s, regained by New Labour in the 1990s, lost again to the Conservatives in the 2010 general election.  In the 2015 election this working-class seat seems to have slipped further out of Labour’s reach than ever before: it is more Tory now than even under the high water mark of Thatcherism in the late 1980s.  Without Labour winning Harlow there will probably never be another progressive government in the UK again.
Part of the UK’s problem is that it has never gone through a process of collective self-reflection over its colonial antecedents, whether in Ireland, Kenya, India, or elsewhere.  A fog of self delusion pervades national discourse so that the UK’s complicity in the geo-political turmoil that has generated the contemporary mass movement of migrants and refugees is scarcely acknowledged.  Equally, the enormous contribution of migrants to British society, over many decades, has been drowned out by years of wilful misrepresentation.   The imperial mantra of “free trade” has become part of the labyrinthine tautology of “Brexit means Brexit” where vacuity and mendacity rule supreme. 
The fading of Harlow’s post-war dream is a poignant cipher for the wider ills of British society.  But the European Union is no more responsible for the town’s perceived decline than the rings of Saturn.  Why blame Europeans for the failures of Britain’s ruling class?  I hope very much that Neal Ascherson’s interpretation of the UK’s predicament is correct: we will spend three years trying to get out of the EU and then a further three years trying to get back in.2 
1          Christian Zaschke, “Rührt euch,” Süddeutsche Zeitung (10/11 September 2016)
2          Neal Ascherson, “Where are we now?,” London Review of Books  (14 July 2016

Sunday, 11 September 2016


This afternoon I grabbed my towel and headed for Schlachtensee — a lake in the south west of Berlin, surrounded by the vast Grunewald forest that stretches beyond the city limits.

It’s been just over ten years since I swam in this lake — the last time I was here Germany were hosting the world cup and I had a picnic on the lakeshore.  As I swim out through bands of warmer and cooler water, beyond the dappled shade provided by alder and poplar trees, I am alongside coots and great crested grebes bobbing about on the surface, making occasional dives into the muddy depths.  Large dragonflies skim across the water like turquoise jewels in the sunshine.  In the distance I can the see the bright green reed banks on the other side — my destination as I gradually leave the crowds behind.

In the early twentieth century speculative developers tried to grab the lakeside to build private villas and restrict public access.  Luckily a new city planner called Martin Wagner stopped this from happening in the 1920s as part of his inclusive vision for urban nature.  How many swimmers know that somebody had their future in mind nearly 100 years ago?  This is public space at its best!

City of wasps

One of the nicer features of Berlin during the warmer months is the popular habit of having a Sunday breakfast platter served outside.   The city has many hundreds of excellent cafes with their assorted bread, cheese, and jam awaiting the bleary eyed as they emerge blinking into the sunshine.

It only takes about three or four minutes but then they come.  From the second or third week of August they arrive in ever greater numbers.  It is the wasp season. It is now mid-September, and the glorious blaze of late summer sun, belied only by its angle in the sky, is but a backcloth to a momentous feeding frenzy.  The wasps seem to know that their days are numbered and it is now or never to have a really good final supper.  The Berlin wasps know what they like: a trace of foam from a Milchkaffee serves as an ideal accompaniment to strawberry jam.  A soft-boiled egg is also appreciated: genau six minutes if you don’t mind.

It is above all jam that kick starts their party.  Never mind philosophical studies of human crowd behaviour this is the collective affect of insects in full swing: suddenly there are nine wasps feasting on the small pot of jam that arrived with my breakfast.  There’s just no use in batting them away — this makes them understandably really annoyed — as other tables fail to realize in their desperate efforts to curtail the wasp buffet.  Yet somehow all this jam seems to remind the wasps that their days are numbered — a kind of frenzied sugar rush takes hold.  I am not so sure about the Heideggerian assertion that non-human life simply perishes because it has no conscious understanding of death: these wasps seem to know that they have little time left and are not happy about it. 

I observe with grim satisfaction as a party of four enjoying a champagne breakfast at the table next to me abandon their table amid a series of elaborate Pina Bausch style body movements to continue their revelries indoors.

The finale to my breakfast is a small glass pot of plain yoghurt mixed with stewed morello cherries preserved in alcohol: at this point the wasps finally take over with several sitting on my spoon as it approaches my mouth.  Be gone human!  We are in control now!

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Exit from Brexit

I must confess that I still feel extremely angry about the outcome of the absurd and unnecessary EU “referendum” yet I am beginning to think that the UK might remain in the EU after all.  I put the chances of this possibility at about 30 % for the following reasons:

i)         The political, economic, cultural, and also scientific damage to the UK has already begun, and is becoming more widely recognized even among those who voted to leave.  Will there be more money for the NHS or other public services?  Rather unlikely with slower economic growth and even a recession in the offing.

ii)        Within the governing Conservative Party that caused this mess there is a majority of MPs who wish to remain in the EU.  Do they really want to press the article 50 self destruct button for the UK?

iii)       The legal challenge to the use of royal prerogative to trigger article 50 exposes the absurdity of potentially far reaching constitutional change undertaken by accident without parliamentary scrutiny or approval.  If the UK really is a parliamentary democracy (and this formed the basis of widespread unease with the extent of EU legislative powers) then it would be strange if the UK parliament were now effectively excluded from this process.

iv)       After triggering article 50 there would be many years of wasted effort and resources put into the process of leaving the EU to create a weaker and more isolated (and isolationist) UK.  These are years that could be spent on more productive and useful aims such as investing in the technologies of the future rather than splurging on consultancy and legal fees (there are always some beneficiaries from a bad decision).

v)        The UK’s new Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed three leading advocates for the Leave campaign to senior positions overseeing the Brexit negotiations (the so-called three Brexiteers comprising Liam Fox, David Davis, and Boris Johnson).  Is this a question of political balance for senior ministerial appointments or a Machiavellian plot to ensure that the negotiations fail?  As a Remain advocate it is unlikely that May really does want to damage the future of the UK and her own political legacy to boot.   There are already signs that the idiocy of the Brexiteers is bearing fruit: Davis claims that trade opportunities for the UK are ten times greater outside the EU but as contributors to The Financial Times have pointed out, this must surely involve trade negotiations with another planet.  It is time to push back against the advance of post-factual politics.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Landscape as political transect

Tower Hamlets (32.5 % Leave  67.5 % Remain)

It is the afternoon of Saturday 25th June and my train draws out of London’s Liverpool Street Station amid a thunderstorm, heading east for Ipswich and Norwich.  It is a grubby poorly upholstered train with many empty first class carriages whilst the rest of us are crammed into the other half of the train.

As the train leaves the station I can see a familiar mix of Victorian terraces interspersed with post-war social housing. 

Newham  (47.2 % Leave  52.8 % Remain)

The Olympic Park, Westfield shopping centre, and high-rise student accommodation.
Cranes, tents, and half-finished buildings in the rain.
Cemetery, pylons, overpass.
Car parks, transport depots, inter-war retail units.

Barking and Dagenham (62.4 % Leave  37.6 % Remain)

Petrol stations, big box Wickes store.
The train slows slightly but does not stop at Chadwell Heath station.
Semi-suburbia and standardized poor quality new build housing.

Havering (69.7 % Leave  30.3 % Remain)

Sports playing fields and multiplex cinema.
We pass through Romford and Gidea Park stations.
Pylons, undulating suburbia, copses.
We are now leaving the administrative boundary of London and entering Essex.

Brentwood (59.2 % Leave  40.8 % Remain)

Sewage works
We pass over the M25 orbital
Splash of green graffiti
Pipe sections by the railway tracks
Heaps of gravel, greenhouses.
Fields fringed with white flowering umbellifers.
Bird on a wire.
Isolated homestead near the tracks.
Muddy brook and country lane.
The white of willow leaves flashing in the sunshine against a dark grey thundery sky.

Chelmsford (52.8 % Leave  47.2 % Remain)

We draw into Chelmsford station, the tracks lined with buddleia, elder, and sycamore.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Political vandals

Last Sunday I followed the lead of Unison's Dave Prentis and reported Nigel Farage to the police for inciting racial hatred: his now notorious poster depicting refugees seeking a safe haven from war and violence marks a debasement of our political culture that cannot go unchallenged.  Given the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, and rising levels of racism and xenophobia in the UK not seen since the 1970s, the task of defending society from the politics of hate is a responsibility for every citizen.

When the UK Prime Minister David Cameron foolishly called for a referendum on UK membership of the European Union he set in train a process that has yet to be fully played out regardless of the final outcome on 23 June.   At one level we have the spectacle of a Conservative leadership campaign in which political recklessness has been re-fashioned as an absurd bid for English independence that further divides the different nations, regions, and communities of the UK.  And standing behind the right-wing populist Boris Johnson is his new aide-de-camp Michael Gove, a curious ideological zealot, still smarting from being sacked by Cameron as Secretary of State for Education.  The simmering internal disputes over Europe within the Conservative Party have been re-energized by a cocktail of bitterness and political ambition.  

Among the glaring features of this referendum, illustrated yet again by the final debate at Wembley last night, is a pervasive hostility towards “experts” and rational argument.  Millions of voters are convinced that the decline of manufacturing industry, falling living standards, and underinvestment in public services is the fault of the European Union and not successive UK governments.  The longstanding lack of investment in education, skills, innovation, infrastructure, and all the other ingredients of economic success has scarcely been addressed.

If there was ever an illustration of why a referendum is a crude and dangerous political tool this Thursday’s polarized and unnecessary choice shows why.  The EU is not perfect but to leave would be an act of political vandalism based on a misreading of history and a retreat from reality.