It has been a summer of festivals in Bristol. Well, it’s always a summer of festivals in Bristol, but this year it didn’t rain on them. The Harbour Festival, the Balloon Fiesta, the Kite Festival, Brisfest, Redfest, VegFest, Grillstock aka MeatFest, yes it’s a Festfest alright. My daughters have enjoyed dancing on grass and playing in marquee tents; I have enjoyed eating stuff. Amongst other things I have eaten a Styrofoam punnet of gigantic prawns, a Toulouse sausage casserole in a baguette, various jerkified chickens and a so-called ‘pakora’ consisting of curry sauce stuffed inside two slices of deep-fried white bread, sold to me by a bravura Pakistani chef.
(Incidentally, have you noticed that the hog roast seems to have usurped the traditional sausage/burger grill as the default fast food stall? Hogs suffered particularly for the Harbour Festival, which sprawls across the city centre – every other pub was cashing in with a celebratory pig on a spit. (Also, have you further noticed that ‘pulled pork’ seems to be all the rage? The suggestion presumably being that pork is tastier if it is yanked from the bone by hand rather than carved with a knife. I’m not sure I’d ever come across the term until recently but now every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to be pulling his pork with abandon.))
Redfest, held in our local Victorian park, was the smallest fest but still big enough to have two music stages and thirty or so stalls peddling local left-wing consumables and tat. Fortified by sunshine, reggae, ale and white-bread pakora I browsed these stalls in a cheery festival bubble, only for it to be suddenly popped. For nestling between a ‘vintage’ (i.e. jumble) stall and a cider-seller was a stand of mugs, t-shirts, shopping bags all emblazoned with a stark slogan. ‘SMILE. SERVE. SURVIVE’. Later it occurred to me that this was perhaps meant to be a keep-calm-and-carry-on style self-help motto, but at the time I could only see it as incredibly bleak. The mantra of an enslaved populace in some dystopian future, wrought in twenty-foot high letters above the gates to the labour camp. Tattooed on the foreheads of Epsilon infants moments after their squalid births. The pakora turned to breadcrumbs in my mouth.
In the kitchen I opened the food recycling caddy to chuck in a teabag, and half a dozen fruitflies floated out of the rotting vegetable mess. You could call it a lightbulb moment, but that came, literally, a few minutes later when I turned on the bathroom light and had to wait for the long-life bulb to become sufficiently bright that I might have a shave. How strange it is, I thought, that after so many decades of marching towards ever greater convenience and comfort – from the indoor flushable toilet to the dishwasher – we have, in very recent years, made our lives slightly but appreciably worse.
The triumph of eco-thought has driven it. In the last century, very few visions of 2013 would have had us spending half our evenings laboriously sorting our rubbish into six different boxes, or scraping decayed, stinking food matter from a small slops bucket into a bigger slops bucket. Okay it’s not the gulag but still, in the context in our sofa-bound wifi lifestyles, it’s hairshirt stuff. For even if twentieth-century futurists had predicted our zeal for recycling, they’d surely have imagined that the investment in sorting would be made at the post-chucking out end: e.g. robots would whisk away our leftovers and discarded packages via a chute to some underground complex where further robots would divvy it up into plastics and tins and whatnot, perhaps chanting ‘Smile, Serve, Survive’ as they did so.
Could it be then, that we in Britain have actually passed the most indulgent and convenient period to be alive – and that this period was very recent? Consider the late 1990s: you could recycle if you wished, but if you did not wish you could just chuck everything in a big bin which council employees would remove for you once or even twice per week. You could flick a switch and be instantly bathed in glorious 60-watt light. We had all the domestic appliances we have now yet fuel was much cheaper. We had email but no Twitter; mobile phones but no addiction to playing with them in public. Graduates could expect to get a job and still just about afford the deposit on a house. We had cheap flights abroad but nobody to insist we should feel guilty about taking them. Roman Abramovich hadn’t turned English football into a giant money-laundering scam. We could still believe that Gordon Brown knew what he was doing. 9/11 had not happened and ‘Muslims’ were still ‘Indians’ or ‘Pakistanis’. CMJ and Bearders were still alive. Christ, it was a bloody utopia.
And now where are we? Scrubbing out yoghurt pots and wondering whether we can afford to fill the car with diesel. Landscape ruined by useless windfarms, Damn you, fascist greens, damn you all to hell!
Of course I exaggerate for comic effect. Nonetheless things do look alarmingly difficult for the current crop of 18-25 year olds: in debt, can’t buy a house, can’t save, expensive qualifications worthless, won’t ever be able to retire but can’t get a job not to retire from. Yet I remain an optimist. St Gove will sort out education, HS2 will be cancelled, universal credit will eventually be made to work, a huge investment in housebuilding must finally be made, degree courses will be fewer and more credible. As I say, an optimist: well I have to be, I have two young children.
I’d settle for going back to the mid-noughties; the main thing is to be pre-Twitter. Even if you avoid using Twitter you cannot avoid its egregious effects. Twitter has ruined news in three ways: (1) by making it instantly and aggressively opined about from polarised left/right perspectives; (2) by reducing the lifespan of stories to minutes rather than days and (3) by becoming the news itself. Is there a survey of what percentage of newspaper stories and TV news items are now based on what somebody has unwisely said on Twitter? It’ll be high, anyway.
Or perhaps Twitter is just too keen on telling me that the world is leaving me behind. The other day on a rare occasion of dabbletweeting I foolishly clicked on a hashtag #confessyourunpopularopinion, and saw this trending tweet:
I have absolutely no idea what any of those clothes are. I don’t think I’m wearing any of them, but can I be sure?
Some housekeeping. As you know, last week we bid a sad farewell to the weekly Mr Slang column. Thursdays will never be the same, but we hope to see Jonathon on the blog again and of course he has bequeathed us an extraordinary archive. We give him our heartiest and fondest thanks.
But life goes on and, just as the departure of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid forced Tottenham into a frenzy of recruitment activity, so we have been busy in the blog transfer market. Stephen Pentz you have already met – he’ll be a regular contributor to the Dabbler Verse feature, which now takes up residence every other Sunday, alternating with Mahlerman’s incomparable music posts. We’ve also made several other ‘marquee signings’ to add yet more depth, variety and richness to the Dabbler offering – look out for them in the coming weeks.
Talking of Mister Slang, you will recall from his recent column that Jonathon is currently creating interactive timelines of the first recorded appearances of slang terms in the English language. Some 210,000 people have apparently already enjoyed his Penis and Vagina timelines, and somewhat smaller though still substantial numbers the drunk, booze and pub ones. The latest additions are, unsurprisingly enough, about nookie. Already containing some 2,351 terms, you can view them here:
Do check them out if you want to (a) marvel at an extraordinary academic exercise, while also (b) having a damn good laugh.
Syria: a question to which every answer is wrong. I can’t say I’m happy with the Commons’ defeat of the Prime Minister. I can’t say I fully understand what it meant either, but it seemed to be effectively a statement by MPs that Britain is too impoverished and knackered-out by Afghanistan and Iraq to back up any diplomatic pressure we might once have hoped to exert on the world’s wicked. On the other hand, that statement is probably true. Before the vote The Times’ Danny Finkelstein wrote a curious pro-intervention column arguing that humans suffer from ‘Omission Bias’, which means that we’d rather not act if there’s a risk, even if it would be rational to act because the risk of non-action is greater (he gives an example: ‘Lets say there’s a disease that kills ten in every 10,000 kids, and a vaccine that protects against the disease, but kills five in every 10,000. Would you let the doctor inoculate your kid?’ – apparently most people say ‘No’, even though it would be less risky to inoculate).
Finkelstein applies the analogy to Syria, arguing that the non-interventionists are failing to take into account the terrible consequences of inaction. Well yes, except that the long-term consequences of action or inaction for Syrians and the world are unknown; whereas we know, rationally, that acting in Syria definitely will have an immediate cost for us (in arms and soldiers etc) that inaction won’t.
Finkelstein’s erstwhile Times colleague Simon Jenkins, now at the Guardian, takes the opposing view, but, this being the Syria question, he’s wrong as well. Some months ago I saw Jenkins making the isolationist case on Question Time, along the ‘Britain can’t be a global policeman’ lines. “Sorry, but it’s not my country,” he was saying, of atrocities inflicted upon Syrians by their dictator. “It’s your species,” somebody shouted from the audience. The interjection gave him pause, and rightly so.
Last Tuesday my eldest daughter, C, having just turned four, started school. It was a thick sea-foggy morning when she clambered into the Zafira, adorable and minute in her uniform including a wee little blazer and tie. Mrs Brit drove her off; I had a ten o’clock meeting in Cwmbran, which meant crossing the Severn into that resentful foreign land of gloomy magic, singsong grumblings and glowering dwarfs. That is, Wales. The Second Severn Crossing, a thrilling feat of engineering, normally lifts the spirits, but as I approached the river the fog was thicker still, and even with full beam on I could see nothing more than the dim red taillights of the car in front; beyond that, only the impenetrable cloud, the unknown, and strangers.
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