Review: Boris Johnson by Tom Bower

Tom McTague’s recent profile of Boris Johnson, Minister of Chaos portrays Johnson as a master of narrative. It’s a well-written piece, but missed a number of obvious points. When McTague writes about Johnson’s condemnation of the Super League plans, he fails to mention Johnson’s earlier tacit approval of them. Mic Wright’s newsletter is a good overview, criticising the article for “barely concealing the writer’s joy at getting so much access, and mistaking neat connections and semi-polished lines for truths”. It was well-written, but I learned little from it.

Tom Bower’s The Gambler, a biography of Boris Johnson, is not very well written. Despite its many flaws (oh, so many flaws) I learned from the book, in part because of its biases. A friend recently told me that you can understand a lot about the media from hearing it talk about things you know. Discussing computer programming (specifically the Imperial College coronavirus model), Bower wrote:

Imperial’s model … was based on a programming code called either ‘C’ or Fortran that had apparently been used twenty years earlier by NASA for Mariner 1. Critics claimed its outdated language and design flaws produced numerical inaccuracies. One file alone contained 15,000 lines of code.

I mean… Yes? But not really. There are basic errors and inaccuracies in this simple quote. Bower’s biases also sometimes make this book awkward. Bower regurgitates many of the flawed arguments from the lockdown sceptics, which is not inspiring. His constant accusations that Corbyn is a “Marxist and anti-semite” are an over-simplistic view of Corbyn from someone who wrote a biography of him. But then, Bower’s wikipedia entry is very clear that, while his Corbyn book involved an significant retraction, “[he] neither apologised nor paid any money to the complainant or the lawyers”. However, this wikipedia entry cannot deny that republishing the claims cost the Daily Mail a large amount of money. Bower is not one for in-depth fact-checking.

However, Bower is interesting as he attempts to defend every poor decision and gaffe Johnson has made. While I still think Johnson’s Spectator columns were racist, I can at least now see what he might have been trying to satirise with them. Looking at some scenes from another point of view was also eye-opening. For example, the gaffe with Johnson buying water-cannons was retold as a nasty trap laid by Theresa May. This is quite the revelation, given the usual portrayal of May as a dull and unemotional politician. This is certainly the shrewdest, most devious thing I’ve seen her accused of doing.

Bower’s book is also pro-Brexit, and in harping on about this, I saw some stronger-than-usual cases for Brexit, which was illuminating. But the main strength of Bower’s book was in its portrayal of Johnson’s childhood, a time of almost gothic unpleasantness. His father, the reality-TV star Stanley Johnson is revealed to be a vicious domestic abuser, and there were wretched periods in Johnson’s childhood. While these do not excuse his appalling behaviour, I feel more sympathy towards him.

Two portrayals of Johnson, one well-written and one not. But I think I learned more from the poorly-written one.

Boris Johnson: You Can’t Unmask a Clown

Edward Docx’s Guardian piece on Boris Johnson, The Clown King, is as excellent as everyone is saying. He lays out clearly how the trick is done, how Johnson’s persona functions as political theatre. It’s great writing, with some stunning observations and some excellent references. But its main value is as entertainment.

So much political reporting now seems to be about being an insider and knowing what’s really going on. You see it when people knowingly point out dead cat strategies (often while mis-using the term). You see it when people point out the dread hand of Dominic Cummings behind the scenes. You see it in every man talking about how fascinating the latest Adam Curtis documentary is. It’s a way of demonstrating an understanding of what is really going on (unlike those people seduced by Brexit and QAnon).

It’s all very well pointing out there is a dead cat on the table but the most important thing is giving the feline a decent burial and dealing with the sort of people who fling dead animals about indoors.

Part of the problem is that the media is so tribal. It’s not in The Guardian’s interests to tell its readers things they don’t want to heart. Last night, drunk on a mug of lockdown whiskey, I was reading Daniel Hannan’s introduction to Was Jesus a Socialist. Hannan complained about how the left sees itself as having a monopoly on compassion. Obviously, as Jesus would have it, I judge people like Hannan by their fruits, but merely painting all Tories as venal and manipulative doesn’t get us very far.

The problem is, I am confused. A while back, Johnson gave an interview where he claimed that his hobby was painting buses on wooden boxes. It’s such an obvious lie, with no corroboration, and such a senseless one. It was reported, ridiculed, dismissed and attacked. But we’re none the wiser for it. I’m convinced that these wooden boxes are the riddle that, when answered, would real the great secrets of the age. I’m trapped in insider views and analysis but the media seems uninterested in explanations. Why the fuck did he say that? Meanwhile, there are senior politicians saying obvious untruths about the Irish border and there are no consequences anywhere.

But at least now, my understanding of Boris Johnson as a clown is more textured and complete.

On Top of Glastonbury Tor (21/06/18)

I am standing at the top of Glastonbury Tor when my phone buzzes: my sister’s email is not working and can I fix it.

I have my laptop with me. My Airbnb, while comfortable, has no locks on the door, so it was better to bring it with me. Since I’ve got my laptop, I can work out what’s wrong with the email from here, using my phone as a portable hotspot. And so, at the top of the holy hill, I go online and check things. Once a test email goes through, I can put the laptop away and get back to being a tourist. It’s late in the day after the solstice and the hilltop is full of people celebrating, playing and meditating.

The Internet has grown to encompass the world. We used to ‘go online’; now online is all around us. Even on the top of Glastonbury Tor I can be as connected as I am at my house.

In his book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, James Bridle quotes mathematician Harry Reid’s description of working with the ENIAC, one of the first computers. This was a machine that took up the whole of a large room, and Reid says: “The ENIAC… was a very personal computer. Now we think of a personal computer as one you carry around with you. The ENIAC was actually one that you kind of lived inside”.

As Bridle goes on to point out, we all live inside a computer now, “a vast machinery of computation that encircles the entirety of the globe and extends into outer space on a network of satellites [while] it has rendered itself almost invisible to us”.

The supply chains, our phones, the planes in the skies, are all part of a massive network. Satellites send signals that tell us where we are anywhere in the world. We can no longer opt out. Everywhere I go, the Internet is there in some form. I don’t usually have my laptop in my bag, but my phone is always there.

The problem with this is that all places start to look the same. They all look a little bit like the UI on my Android phone.

This is an excerpt from a work in progress, A Hiker’s Guide to Brexit. It comes at the start of a chapter about Glastonbury, and how Britpop caused Brexit.

Book Review: Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn

Even as someone who reads a lot of political books, Left Out probably had a little too much detail about internal Labour process for my taste. The book is incredibly thorough, sometimes at the cost of storytelling, but it would have been a weaker book without those details. Besides, any quibble I have are blown away by the impact of the revelations.

Corbyn will be argued about for years. It was remarkable to see a leader who had not intended to lead, or plotted for years to be in charge. This made his presence disarming, and many people were impressed by the lack of spin, which stood in contrast to the Blair years.

This strength was also Corbyn’s biggest weakness. It was refreshing to see a principled politician with nobody to answer to, and who refused to compromise. But Corbyn had also not established the relationships that enabled him to manage a party. There are remarkable similarities between Corbyn and Theresa May in how they led their parties – as well as their disastrous elections.

I was enthusiastic about Corbyn in the run-up to the 2017 election. Some time after, I read All Out War, the first book in Tim Shipman’s Brexit Trilogy. This contained some shocking accounts of Corbyn’s behaviour and poor management in the referendum campaign. Fortunately, in 2019, I was voting in a Labour safe-seat, so could safely vote against both Corbyn and Johnson. If I’d been in a marginal I would have had a very hard choice.

For many voters, Corbyn’s behaviour over the Skripal poisonings made him unacceptable, and that was an entirely self-inflicted injury. On top of that came Corbyn’s inability to get on top of the issue of anti-Semitism – as revolted as he was by the accusations, Corbyn never managed a clear response. A mainstream politician who cannot escape accusations of anti-semitism is probably not that great at politics. I know there was mischief-making from the press and other parties, but that was always going to be the case for a left-wing labour leader. You have to deal with the situation you actually have, not the one that would be fair.

Between the 2017 and 2019 elections, Corbyn failed to come up with a clear or satisfactory Brexit position. The book describes how excruciating this process became:

Another aide recalled: ‘Jeremy was sat there, and didn’t speak to offer any clarity whatsoever on what he’d meant. So he was just there, and I remember thinking, “this is mental”. They were interpreting his words in front of him, while he wasn’t saying anything. And he’d just sit there and he’d always have his notebook and just … It was like he didn’t feel the need to clarify or to take control of the situation.’

(Starmer’s position might not be what I want, but it at least moves beyond the remain/leave binary: Brexit happened back in January and Johnson must now deliver the great deal that was promised).

Aside from the internal shambles that Labour became under Corbyn’s leadership, his charming spontaneity caused a great deal of problems: ”some aides had arrived at the extraordinary conclusion that he was sabotaging his own campaign. Corbyn was often late and appeared to purposely overstay at events in order to minimise his day’s commitments.

The most shocking thing in this book was learning that some within the Labour Party did actively sabotage the 2019 election. I’d dismissed any idea of this as conspiracy theory, but it turns out that even the Canary is right occasionally.

As an aside, It was odd to read a book about recent history, and see how it mentioned the pandemic. While the book covers the Labour leadership contest, discussion of the pandemic is limited to a single paragraph, talking about how Covid-19 shut down campaigning. It was odd to see an event that is currently so huge and dramatic being mentioned in passing. It was a strange moment of perspective.

While I was not a fan of Corbyn, I loved many of his policies; I just doubted that was the person who could deliver these things. The book ends on a hopeful note, that the Corbyn revolution may not yet be complete, despite the ejection of Rebecca Long-Bailey:

The 2019 intake of MPs was further to the left than ever…. Keir Starmer won power by embracing Corbynism, rather than repudiating it. The Project’s legacy is a parliamentary left that can no longer be ignored.

What if Daniel Hannan was right?

I think a lot about about this (now-deleted) tweet by Daniel Hannan, aka ‘the man who brought you Brexit‘. It was originally posted in February 2020:

It’s not a tweet that has aged well. It’s a shame though: Hannan’s brisk common-sense tone is comforting. His instincts here were that this would all blow over, and maybe there is an alternate timeline where he was right. In the linked article, Hannan admits he is not “an epidemiologist, an immunologist or a pathologist… I have no medical qualifications whatever“, but is confident enough to say coronavirus “is unlikely to be as lethal as the more common forms of influenza that we take for granted… We are nowhere near a 1919-style global catastrophe“.

It would be great to be living in that universe where Daniel Hannan had been correct, and the coronavirus turned out to be panic not pandemic.

Hannan promotes an image of himself as combining intellectual rigour with common sense. In his work, Hannan often tells you calmly not to worry, it will be OK, because these sort of things usually are. It’s the same tone of voice he uses to attack things like literary theory, dismissing Jacques Derrida in an aside in one of his books, explaining how this sort of academic foolishness can be ignored. There is no intellectual curiousity about why something he thinks is silly is seen as important by so many people. Dan is the sort of thinker who feels his simple answer is always right.

To be fair, Twitter is not Hannan’s best medium. I’ve spent a lot of time considering one example where Hannan unsuccessfully lied about a hike (I’ve written a 10,000 word essay on that one, which I will publish properly one day). There even used to be a column in the New Statesman called What is Daniel Hannan demonstrably wrong about this week? which ran for an embarassingly long time. A surprising number of these mistakes related to trade tariffs, something Hannan should have had a grip of as head of the Initiative for Free Trade (not an Institute) and the intellectual architect of Brexit.

It’s easy to mock Daniel Hannan. But I would love that gentle wisdom about coronavirus to have been correct. It also now looks like we are leaving the EU without a trade deal. Hannan’s calm tone about that is as dismissive of people’s fears as his tweets on coronavirus. If you want to see Hannan’s vision for 2025, he wrote a science fiction story about post-EU Britain, in which Britain is prosperous and happy.

I hope Hannan’s predictions for Brexit are more accurate than those about coronavirus. I wished we lived in a universe where Daniel Hannan was right more often.

Brexit Day

In some ways, I’m glad we’re finally leaving.

The 10 month extension to Article 50 from March 2019 has achieved very little. The country is still massively divided about the referendum and we are no closer to defining what Brexit means. The transition period has been squashed to 11 months. The delays and lack of focus have been incredibly expensive; Bloomberg Economics estimates that the cost to the economy of Brexit so far is £200 billion in lost growth, approaching the total Britain has paid the EU during its membership.

Leaving the EU was unavoidable. Whether the referendum was advisory or not, the government promised that it would act upon the results. In my opinion, any mandate was discharged when the May deal was voted down by elected MPs, reflecting the lack of a realistic Brexit people could agree on. Despite that, parliament has voted to leave without a plan.

Westminster should have come up with something that satisfied both sides. But May’s red lines, Johnson’s empty bombast and Corbyn’s lack of substance have wasted three years.

Brexit coins and triumphalism are not bringing people together. Well, the Leave side should enjoy their victory while they can. With their huge election victory in December, the Tories have taken full charge of Brexit, and have to be held accountable for all the promises that have been made.

Our country has had almost a decade of stagnation. People have suffered under austerity, and even died. We were promised a Brexit that would be economically transformative and we have every right to expect Britain to make up for that £200 billion in lost growth, and then overtake Germany and France. Without that, there is no point having left.

Despite feeling that Brexit was unavoidable, I’ve resisted as I can, mostly through art/magical events such as The October Ritual and Hexit. That network is still there, and still watching. I have been particularly inspired by Cat Vincent, who this week republished part of his curse from last year’s Hexit event, the last time Brexit was deferred.

Government ministers have repeatedly urged the country to come together. And that’s fine. I don’t want Brexit to fail. I want the country to thrive, and for the doubts of remainers to be proved wrong. Brexit is a stupid idea, but it seems unavoiable, so let’s get on with it. The Tories have coasted for ten years on blaming Labour for the country’s problems. Now, with a massive election victory, Johnson has won the responsibility for making Britain a better place.

We were promised sunlit uplands. To quote the Prime Minister:

We can see the sunlit meadows beyond. I believe we would be mad not to take this once in a lifetime chance to walk through that door

We’re stepping through the door now.

This had better be good. And, if it’s not, then someone needs to take responsibility.

As for tonight, I’m off to London to see John Higgs talk about William Blake. Things may look bleak but, as Mr Higgs has often reminded us, Pessimism is for Lightweights.

William Blake, Now!

This year has seen two books from John Higgs. The major one was The Future Starts Here, an optimistic response to the world’s daunting problems. But Autumn has brought a second, smaller book, William Blake Now. This is a sort of pop-single in advance of a larger-book-as-album, due in 2021. Although, like the best singles/EPs, the material here is apparently not appearing in the upcoming release.

Blake is an interesting figure, claimed by both establishment and counter-culture. He’s been gentrified over the years too. In his review of the Blake show at the Tate, writer CJ Stone pointed out that Blake might well have found the current show too expensive to attend.

I’ve not engaged with Blake much. Obviously, I’ve seen his work referred to in pop culture, some of which Higgs refers to here. His work turns up too in El Sandifer’s books, and the poem London is the basis for the Verve’s premature farewell single, History. But like most people my closest relationship with him is through the hymn Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was sung in the itinerarium service at the end of every term in my school. It’s easy to love a song when you it is so connected with imminent freedom. It’s been suggested that it should be an English national anthem, which makes sense. It’s an uplifting and idealistic song compared to the dirge of God Save the Queen.

Blake is both the establishment figure who wrote Jerusalem and a hero to countercultural figures like Allen Ginsburg and Patti Smith. Higgs points out that Blake wrote several nationalist poems too, and sees his love of opposites as presenting a way forward in divided times: “For Blake, the deep connection to the place around him was the soil in which a larger spiritual love put down roots and grew to encompass the world… A sense of connection to your land… is necessary for… a deep respect for people of all cultures and creeds.” (P23) Higgs suggests this goes beyond being national/international or leave/remain as a “primary duality”.

The thing that remains with me most from this book is a discussion of the real goal of artists. Higgs talks about different needs of the artist’s ego (by which he means the “opinions, ideas, experiences and perspectives that make them who they are”) and the ideas that they work on, and the need for the latter to dissolve into wider culture. “The real goal of an artist is to dissipate into nothing and be forgotten.”

It’s a lovely book, and I can’t wait for the album.

hexit day

It’s Halloween 2019, and we’re about five hours from the time when we were supposed to leave the EU. And we’re still here.

To mark the deadline, I’ve been organising hexit with Cat Vincent, the Indelicates and Sooxanne. Hexit is a group of artists, musicians and magicians coming together in a creative ritual to curse Brexit. This ritual will be broadcast on Internet radio station Radio23, and will culminate shortly after 11pm tonight, the time scheduled for leaving the EU. People are invited to join us, listen to the contributions, and to add their energy to that of the ritual. Among the works involved are songs, poems, sound sigils, mixtapes.

The hexit player and full instructions are at https://radio23.co.uk/hexit.html

Putting this all together has been hard work. (“Let’s do something online rather than doing an event. It will be easier to organise…”). Still, helping to run Pilgrim Radio in April was good training for this: precision discordianism! And it’s been amazing to see all the different pieces come together. I didn’t manage to get my own piece in, but that can wait for another day.

The exact lineup is subject to change (just like the deadline for Brexit, amiright?) but the schedule currently is:

  • Throughout: Deity Galaxies by Dan Sumption.
  • 2031 – EVP by the Indelicates
  • 2033 – Everything English is the Enemy by the Indelicates
  • 2038 – Juniverbrecher by the Indelicates
  • 2041 – Hexit Jingle by Ryder
  • 2042 – THE UNREVERSING – a Magickal Musickal Spell to Dispel the Mean Spirited Conjurings of the Brexitassembled by Pilgrim and printer Graham Evans on behalf of the Kokopelli Foundation and Bridge Construction Enterprises Unlimited
  • 2105 – Hexit by Chris Parkinson
  • 2109 – Amorphous Albion (excerpt) by Ben Graham
  • 2113 – Hexamaton Mix 001
  • 2117 – Ash, Cadbury Castle: A Lament by Michael James Parker
  • 2118 – HEXIT by Texture
  • 2122 – The Weatherman (He got it wrong) by David Devant & his Spirit Wife
  • 2127 – Tractors Turning by Alexander Velky
  • 2137 – Mr Larceny
  • 2141 – Hopelessness Figure by Verity Spott
  • 2148 – A Brexit report by the other 27 countries in the European Union
  • 2154 – Changing the Guard by Adrian Reynolds
  • 2157 – Devil’s Fairground by Foz Foster
  • 2201 – brexitmeansbrexit
  • 2205 – So long, Professor Bloom by Campbell Edinborough
  • 2218 – ‘The Deadends (in search of truth)’ – A documentary by Dr Mikey B Georgeson
  • 2220 – Hexit Jingle
  • 2221 – Maypitt by Kemper Norton
  • 2229 – Nick Hudson with The Academy Of Sun
  • 2238 – Rise Up from Armageddon Gospels
  • 2241 – You Army by Sombras
  • 2243 – Sea Sings to Stone by Craig ‘VI’ Slee
  • 2253 – John Higgs reads Deborah Turnbull’s poem Impact
  • 2253 – A Sigil of Hexit: Composed and expelled by Sue Bradley and Sooxanne
  • 2300 – Cat Vincent and the Indelicates: A Banishing

hexit night

I’m currently involved in hexit, an online distributed magic ritual against Brexit that will be broadcast on radio23.

Back in October 2016, I teamed up with Cat Vincent and the Indelicates to organise the October Ritual. Rather than hold a simple launch party for the new Indelicates album Juniverbrecher, we held an exorcism ritual, a banishing for the entity “responsible in large part for the re-emergence of nationalism, petty-mindedness, misery and fruitless discord; for the black mass marketed as ‘Brexit’

It was a great night, with an exciting range of performers. It’s probably the best event I’ve been involved in. A further ritual was held in March this year, at what should have been the point where the UK left the european union. It was very emotional to see Cat Vincent on stage with the Indelicates, declaring that the deadline had passed and we were still in the EU.

The next deadline was auspiciously set for October 31st, Halloween, and we’re  gathering collaborators for the third ritual. This time, we wanted to go something even bigger. We decided not to book a venue in Sussex, thereby restricting the people who could participate. Instead, we are curating an online, distributed ritual via Radio23.

The first submissions are coming in, and I’m getting excited about what we’re putting on. Doing this online has allowed us to include people who it would be very difficult to get down to Brighton. Whatever happens as the deadline passes, hexit will bring together a range of voices in resistance.

More news to follow: full details will be kept up to date on the hexit page, and via twitter (@orbific, @theindelicates, @catvincent).

Theresa May’s return to Wales

The news broke on Thursday 29th March (the date exactly a year before Brexit): Theresa May was planning an Easter break in Wales. This was notable because of what happened last time the PM went hiking in Wales. Given time to think and relax in the glorious scenery, May was inspired to hold a snap general election.

A year later, she returned to Wales. Who knows what brave and bizarre plan will emerge from this trip? The newspapers have responded to this with headlines implying a time of national crisis. I liked the Sun’s lead:

Apparently when May joked that she was not planning to hold another election, Iain Duncan-Smith responded: “The PM assured us she won’t do the same as she did last year, but I will wait until she gets back just to make sure”. And, to be fair, Theresa May has a record of committing to something and making a sudden U-turn.

I’m fascinated by Theresa May’s previous trip to Wales and recently booked a visit to Dolgellau to follow in her footsteps. Partly it’s a good excuse for a holiday – I’ve been meaning to visit Powis Castle and Portmerion for years, and fancy some hiking. But it’s also part of a longer project.

Back in October, I joined with the Indelicates in organising the October Ritual. Rather than a straightforward album launch, we organised out a magic ritual to banish the demons of Brexit. It was quite an event – Cat Vincent’s incantation during the final song was spine-tingling. It was easy to believe in magic at that moment.

I gave a talk at the event on hiking and Brexit, subjects that have overlapped in small ways for me. I’ve hiked through the fruit fields of Kent, which rely on foreign labour; I’ve had racist B&B owners tell me the appalling lies that led them to vote leave; I’ve walked the fringes of the estates owned by the figures bank-rolling Brexit. The more I’ve read, the more things that have connected with the subject – Tolkien, folk horror, the British Empire and Glastonbury. These have implied other hikes, some of which are already arranged. And, tied into it all is the concept of magic and Brexit.

A 600,000 majority has been transformed into a mandate for the hardest of Brexits, and there seems to be no coherent opposition. Under these conditions, writing and hiking seem as constructive as anything else I could be doing. So, I am off to Wales to do some hiking, and to visit an interesting part of the country. But I will be writing a story too.