Friday 18 January 2013

Our problem is not "a bit of snow" but something more malign

As Britain once again grinds to a halt in the face of the weather, it is time to reflect that our problem is not, as many will say, that we can’t cope with a bit of snow. It is something far more malign. The government must be rubbing its hands in glee as the media will yet again act as willing accomplice in spreading and reinforcing the insidious mindset that sets worker against shirker.

The words come out of the newscasters’ mouths at times like these, advising safety, advising caution, repeating the warnings against “non-essential journeys” (whatever the hell that never-explained term means). Yet at the same time there will be stories of the plucky few, those who made it to work against the odds, the plucky backbone that personifies the blitz spirit. And in a completely befuddling illustration of false consciousness, there will be utter incredulity at the mere suggestion that this is a double standard.

This lionisation of the reckless, the thoughtless, and those with their life’s priorities askew is a very British thing. This is a culture where advertising regularly extols the virtue of products that don’t let something so mild as the flu get in the way of the day job. Where those who don’t want to inflict their norovirality on office mates are condemned as part of over the top health and safety gone mad. We are a country where you will regularly hear people talking about “human rights” as a negative.

And as those who for whatever reason live within walking distance of work continue to scoff at those who don’t or can’t, we will see stories of hardy nurses and doctors who braved the elements for the nation’s good. And we will be praising their pluck where any sane society would be seeing this as a starting point for demanding an end to second home ownership and the creation of affordable housing near places of work for anyone who needs it.

So before we come out with the usual platitudes, let’s take some time out to think. Why are we so quick to praise those who put their safety and the well-being of their families at risk? Why do we think it is fair and good to punish those who decide that sense and health and being there to care for those they love is a good life priority? Why is health and safety such a bad thing? Why are human rights terrible? Why do we insist on praising recklessness, on believing that work-life balance is only in place when the former utterly subsumes the latter? As we enter a new year, let’s use this time of weather-enforced reflection to put an end to a society who sees someone who works 100 hour weeks to build businesses as role models, let’s create a country where words like entrepreneurialism, capitalism, career dedication and “pluck” are seen as dirty signs of a society that has inverted the basic principles of humanity, where our first concern is the safety and wellbeing of the vulnerable, where we seek to build relationships not businesses, where those public services so essential that they must run come hell and high water are supported not by preying upon the consciences of individuals but by the collective will to create a housing infrastructure to enable it. Let us start the slow trudge out of a chill far more damaging than that brought by snow and ice and build a society where the fulfilled lives of all, starting with the most vulnerable and put-upon, is the priority that trumps all others.

Tuesday 1 January 2013

Dreaming of Narwhals

Today is National Flash Fiction Day. I will be hosting a flash slam in Oxford to celebrate. I have also been judging flash fiction – for a super League of Extraordinary Authors competition – you can see my shortlist here and comment on your favourites.
And to celebrate in style, I’ve written my first flash of the year:
You are dreaming of narwhals again.
Last time it happened you woke at 2.56 am and scribbled “John of Patmos, your eschatology lacks narwhals” on a post-it and when you found it in the morning you were so pleased by the line, even though you didn’t have a clue what it meant, that you wrote a poem around it for a slam that night and everyone laughed at you but not in that “you’ve just said something really superficial but I’m going to wet myself because you said cock. Or Rebekah Brooks. Or Rebekah Brooks’ cock” way that people do at slams.
A part of you is trying to remind the you that’s immersed in the dream that the narwhals have not been channelled from the spirit world just to become part of your new masterpiece but of course the dreaming you tells that you to shut the fuck up and it does so so loudly you wake, confused, and scrawl on the bedside table in capitals with a coffee spoon
You fall back to sleep and find yourself in a dark room. A chandelier comes on and winks gaudily at you and you realise you are at the edge of the swimming pool from THAT scene in the Joan Collins film The Bitch. The pool is filled with the writhing bodies of copulating narwhals crying out as they orgasm
“If we’re a metaphor then so are you. You are a metaphor for the climate change that’s destroying our way of life. Just look at us. Look at the fin de siècle decadence you’ve brought upon us. Look at our horns! We’re Cetacean Dirk Digglers and the 80s are coming!!”
At an existential level you cannot accept the horror of these once innocent creatures descending into orgiastic drug abuse, shoulder pads and Reaganomics and all in a Paul Thomas Anderson film that’s not Magnolia so you place your hands on your ears. You are still screaming
When you wake, miles from anywhere, and you run home screaming, stopping only to steal a bible from a Christian bookshop because the talk of the fin de siècle has made you want to read the Book of Revelation.
That evening, calmer, you mutter through a performance of Rhinoceros “Fuck you, Ionesco, if my narwhals had been metaphors mine would have been a far better play than yours because mine would have had paddling pools.”
On the way home, two politicians you recognise from the news drag you into an alley. As their boots lay into you, you wait for them to turn into horned creatures of some kind, but they don’t. As you are taking your last breath the pain stops and you see the most wonderful sight. Dipping your toe in the water, you look back one last time, laugh in the politicians’ faces and cry
“John of Patmos, your eschatology lacks narwhals”