Is this what we’ve done to ourselves?

Just pick up a copy of the Sun. Is this Britain? Is this what we’ve done to ourselves? How can the people who work on that paper go home and face their families without any sense of shame? I’d be ashamed to the pit of my guts if I were forced to do it, and some of them are, to be fair, forced to do it, because they don’t want to be unemployed. They need to earn. Some of them do things that they are appalled by. I know that, I’ve met some of them. But my God, what a system.

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The quote above is from Dennis Potter’s final interview, an astonishing, moving affair which stands as a transcendent piece of art in its own right. I was instantly reminded of it when I saw the above excerpt from The Sun’s front page.The interview is 20 years old and much about it belongs to another time (can we even envisage such an interview being broadcast in 2014?) Yet a great deal of what Potter says is remarkably prescient and powerful (and it’s almost impossible not to contrast his dignified authority with the facile attention-seeking of Russell Brand today). Potter, of course, came from a working-class background – the son of a miner, no less – and his voice belongs to a long and rich history of working-class intellectualism. We’re not supposed to remember this history. We’re not supposed to remember that to be working-class and intelligent, working-class and articulate, working-class and autodidactic, is no aberration. We’re not supposed to remember this because if we do, we remember the power and possibility which we possess. This just wouldn’t do. So instead we’re encouraged, made even, to shrink our horizons and shackle our imaginations. We’re told that to be ordinary, to be working-class, is to know our place. To defer to authority, stand proudly before the flag and blunt our minds. To believe that more is not only possible but necessary is to have ideas above our station, to be a snob, to sneer. So here’s your free flag to show that they care. They respect your right to be the kind of ordinary person who channels their ire at working-class immigrants rather than billionaire media oligarchs. Raise a glass to being ordinary!

I offer these excerpts from Potter but impore you to put aside an hour to watch the full interview when you can – you won’t regret it:

…I call my cancer—the main one in the pancreas—Rupert, because Murdoch is the one. There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press, and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life, and it’s an important part of the cynicism and misperception of our own realities that is destroying so much of our political discourse.

Q. You do feel the state of decay has deeply set in, don’t you?

I do. With great regret and pity, and a feeling of shame of self. But it’s rescuable, just. It’s up to people to stand up and shout a bit. Not to turn it into cynicism, which I’m afraid is what is happening. Politics is still crucially important. Our choices are vital, and we’ve got to make them and not just say, ‘Oh they’re all the same.’ They are all the same in certain ways, alas—a political animal is such an animal. But lurking somewhere behind their rhetoric and their spittle are important choices that we should make.

Q. Do you think the overall sense of decay that you’ve talked about stems from political decay, or that political decay stems from other powerful symptoms?

Both. They interlace. The press and politics. The commercialization of everything means you’re putting a commercial value upon everything and you turn yourself from a citizen into a consumer, and politics is a commodity to be sold. Look what’s happening to television in general. Look who owns it. The arguments of respectable, liberal commentators about size, economies of scale, and so on, are all nonsense. A programme costs what a programme costs. It can be made by a tiny company. It’s a question of ownership of the means of communications, ‘the mass media’ in J.B. Priestley’s phrase; of political control. How can we have a mature democracy when newspapers and television are beginning to be so interlaced in ownership? Where are our freedoms to be guaranteed? Who is going to guarantee them? Look at the power that Murdoch has. Look at the effects of all these takeovers.The world of television or radio when we came into it, I’m not saying that world wasn’t paternalistic, and I’m not saying it can be preserved as it was, and I’m not saying there mustn’t be change, but that world was based upon a set of assumptions that are now almost derisible,laughable. Like in politics, certain statements become derisible. We’re destroying ourselves by not making those statements.

…Sometimes I get out of bed and I don’t know whether I’m right-wing or left-wing, to be honest, because I feel the pull of both. I feel the pull of tradition, and I love my land, I love England, and when I’m abroad, I genuinely feel homesick. I’ve always loved my country, but not drums and trumpets and billowing Union jacks and busby soldiers and the monarchy and pomp and circumstance, but something about our people that I come from and therefore respond to. And I expect other people to do it of their own backgrounds and nations and cultures, too. But those things are very difficult to put prices on and to quantify in the terminology of Mrs Thatcher and the current government. They use phrases like ‘community care’ when they mean ‘Close that costly thing and put that madman onto the street.’ And then if it’s in front of their noses they’ll do another makeshift measure and claim that things are getting better, or that the per-head spending has gone up. So what? It may have done, but what is actually happening when a young person in many, many a town in this country sees no prospect of a job?Then they will moralize, that’s the worst thing, and say, ‘Oh, crime is everything to do with the criminal.’ What is a life of not expecting to get work? What is a life of only expecting cynicism in political conversation? What is a life that sees no horizon further than the latest nasty video and cable tv and the Murdochs and The Sun?

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The Joiners’ Arms and Gentrification

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In areas like Shoreditch and its peers around the globe, the cosmetic renewal of a portion of the crumbling urban core coincides with continued – or intensified – infrastructural decline. The reactivation of dormant (or low profit sweatshop-occupied) industrial properties first as artist’s spaces and later as bars, boutiques, apartments etc has made many landlords even richer, but the area’s large tracts of public housing, services and transport facilities remain in a deteriorating condition and/or are sold off to the private sector. Gentrification takes from the poor and gives to the rich. Anything residually ‘public’ will either be reclaimed for the middle class or left to rot. Each wave of colonisers plays out the contradictions of their particular claim to space, taking sides against the next phase of gentrification in which they nevertheless conspire…The creation and rapid extinction of cultural ‘incubators’ – clubs, art spaces, etc. – by more lucrative investments in areas like Shoreditch at the same time intensifies bohemian settler’s efforts to maintain that crucial ‘edginess’ which is the USP of the area’s marketing.

The piece this quote was taken from (“Shoreditch and the creative destruction of the inner city“) was written over a decade ago yet remains the most insightful commentary on what’s happening in the East End of London (and beyond) that I’ve seen. I’ve referred to it in the past, not least when Dazed & Confused insultingly posed the question of whether East London was ‘dead’ because the ‘creatives’ were finding it a bit expensive. The writers at D&C were completely useless on gentrification, presenting it both as a new phenomenon and as something somehow removed from magazines like their own and its endless articles presenting the East End as a hub of cool, edgy creativity. Both were and are a nonsense. No brand better sums up the “bohemian settler’s efforts to maintain that crucial ‘edginess’” than Vice which, like Dazed & Confused, launched in the early 90s and bought Shoreditch’s Old Blue Last pub in the same year Benedict Seymour’s essay was written. It’s become a shorthand signifier for an edginess that is “one part actual intelligent, progressive, boundary-pushing journalism to nine parts nihilistic misogynist awfulness” and it’s not irrelevant here that one of its co-founders is a reactionary dickhead. Vice was and is aimed at a young, self-consciously ‘creative’ reader for whom it offers a titillating taste of transgression. Today Vice has posted an article on the impending closure of The Joiners Arms, a Hackney gay bar which it’s fair to say has been an institution in London’s LGBT scene. Entitled “The Joiners’ Arms is Closing and It’s a Travesty’, the piece is fascinating in its inadvertent revelation that these people still really, really don’t understand what’s happening in London. As with the previous D&S piece, gentrification is presented as some nebulous external force that is encroaching on ‘proper Hackney’ and “pushing out those that can no longer afford to stay”. Yet the article itself documents some of the logic and processes behind gentrification, even though it clearly doesn’t realise it. Seymour’s piece explains how the wave of ‘creative gentrification’ which saw Shoreditch “celebrated as the heart of London’s creative and artistic scene in the ’90s” led to it becoming “the apple of urban policy makers’ eyes in the late ’90s”. As he puts it:

Shoreditch was held up as an example of how the ‘inner core’ of the city, allegedly abandoned after the flight of working class inhabitants to the suburbs in the ’60s and ’70s, could ‘come back to life’ if the area’s ‘residual’ population of deadbeats were supplemented (that is, supplanted) by a lively group of dynamic and entrepreneurial cultural professionals. From the beginning this notion of new ‘life’ served to obfuscate whose life was being discussed – not that of the area’s economically challenged majority, it would seem.

This is a narrative which Vice follows precisely. The Joiners’, we’re told, opened in “proper Hackney territory” which apparently means it was “surrounded by empty shop fronts and council estates”. Notice that ‘council estates’ are clearly implied to be a bad thing here. It goes further – The Joiners’ was “a haven from a traditionally homophobic part of town” and it “flew the rainbow flag proud” despite aforementioned council estates. In the space of a few sentences we’re implicitly but clearly given the notion that Hackney was a declining working-class area and this is linked to homophobia. Was Hackney ‘traditionally’ viewed as homophobic, more so than any other area of London? Even this brief ‘gay history’ of the East End suggests otherwise, with this section concerning a pub literally minutes from The Joiners’:

Another vital meeting place for the East End gay community was the Royal Oak in Columbia Road, Hackney. While researching local history, Columbia Road resident Linda Wilkinson learned about Lil and Maisie, a transvestite couple, who lived in Hackney throughout World War II and performed at the Royal Oak while the bombs were falling. What’s remarkable about Lil and Maisie is that they were accepted by their neighbours. No stories have come to light of a similar working class gay couple anywhere else in London at this time. Lil and Maisie were still performing in drag at the Royal Oak in the 1960s.

No-one could possibly deny the certain existence of homophobia in Hackney when The Joiners’ opened, just as no-one could deny it now, but to suggest that it was a refuge from the homophobic working-class hordes around it is insulting. It is, however, an easy assertion because it appeals to familiar prejudices while claiming for The Joiners’ and its denizens that all-important edginess. Indeed, the article goes to pains to document The Joiners as “battling the encroaching diktat of political correctness” and offering “raucous mischief.” Yet rather than offering a radical disruption of the surrounding area it’s more likely that The Joiners’ opened as part of, and then furthered, the gentrification which was already occurring in Shoreditch. Although we must take note of the complexities and avoid generalising, research suggests a link between gentrification and a significant influx of LGBT people – in the Vice article we’re told of a writer who moved to Hackney in 2009 and “chose my flat partly because it was across the road [from The Joiners’]”. The flats directly opposite The Joiners’ were only build in the late 00s and most certainly weren’t social housing. To again return to the Seymour piece:

While Shoreditch’s magic circle was in the media spotlight the most massive and significant changes in the borough of Hackney, and indeed the city as a whole, were scarcely discussed. The social cleansing of working class communities across large swaths of London’s inner core, vicious cuts, privatisation, and Eastern European levels of poverty coincided with the highest number of housing privatisation ballots in the country. The latter, advanced in the name of ‘regeneration’ served to hasten the theft of the city from its true ‘creative class’, re-engineering former industrial areas as a playground for young middle-class consumers of surplus value. Although it is notoriously difficult to get precise figures, I would guess that as much as 40% of Hackney’s working class population have been pushed out of the area through the combined effect of rising rents, evictions, demolition and transfer of council housing into the hands of housing associations.

This is perhaps one of the central issues with gentrification – we never think that we are part of it until we feel victimised by it. For example, the Johann Hari-led attacks on Muslims in East London a few years ago owed much to the lazy prejudice which the Vice piece appeals to and owed much to gentrification. There’s no doubt that neither the owner of The Joiners’ nor most of the people who went there (including me) harboured any Machiavellian scheme to ‘claim’ the area but the process has been clear and ongoing for anyone who deigned to look. It was gentrification rather than ‘evolution’ which led to The Joiners’ becoming “basically…East London’s hottest new late night gay club”. It must be said that the article is utterly disingenuous in its failure to note that The Joiners’ did its best to capitalise on this – the notorious door charge is glossed over but it and drastically increased drink prices made the venue one of the most expensive in the area within a quite short period of time. This was combined with a door staff who were quite renowned for their aggressiveness – speak to anyone who went there with any regularity and they’ll at least know of a story. I found it amusing, then, that Vice repeats the familiar tropes about The Joiners’ (and the East End) presenting a:

…raucous, welcoming (unlike many Soho haunts, there had rarely been a “you’re not gay, you ain’t coming in” door policy), messy and character-rich up-yours to the stuff going on a few miles down the road in W1

Soho has long been the bete noire of East End LGBT venues, the great bogey man which they seek to define themselves against. Yet the complaints offered – that it’s too exclusive, too expensive, too homogenous – are ones which are repeated simply because they’re trite rather than because they are true. As the East End has continued its gentrification the venues and nights which have sprung up, such as East Bloc and Sink The Pink, have been as expensive and homogenous as any West End venue you could mention (if not more so). East Bloc on Saturday costs £7-10 while the next Sink The Pink costs £22. G-A-Y, in contrast, is typically free or up to £5 if you can’t be bothered picking up one of the many flyers. Yet the LGBT scene in the East End clings evermore to that ‘crucial edginess’ – despite its price Sink The Pink presents itself as a response to “recession with a Conservative government at the helm”. More disturbingly, these evenings delight in an aesthetic which is frequently racist and/or misogynistic – witness the gruesome yellowface at the top of this post – a trend which itself owes much to the colonial logic of gentrification. The Joiners’ Arms, then, finds itself victim of a rapacious gentrification which it once benefited from and which the East End LGBT scene has been/is complicit in. Yet we continues to ignore it beyond the most superficial level: Vice tritely complains of “an area that has been flat white-d and artisan burger-ed within an inch of its life” with zero comprehension of the processes and history behind it. The Benedict Seymour piece is an essential place to start in beginning to understand the ‘creative destruction’ at work here. When Pauline Pearce complained about the damage gentrification was doing to Hackney, pushing out the poor, driving up prices and eroding the area’s diversity, it was met with a furious response. Yet the closure of The Joiners’ is just the latest example of how this logic has no boundaries and, if left unchecked, the vast majority will suffer as the poorest in society are right now.

So This Thing Happened.

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So that was that. 18 months after the date of the referendum on Scottish independence was announced, the vote happened and the answer was ‘No’. The result was closer than most would have expected back then; wider than most probably expected in the final month. The emotion and rhetoric ramped up in the final run-up to the vote, culminating in a massive Yes rally in George Square. No-one could possibly argue that this rally wasn’t well-intentioned and good-natured (especially when compared to what came later, which I’ll come back to) but it inadvertently highlighted a big part of the problem with the general pro-independence movement. Its considerable denial that nationalism was playing any part in their movement meant that they couldn’t understand what was happening outside the bubble; its conviction that all progressive thought and moral righteousness was with them was alienating to anyone who hadn’t drank the Kool-Aid. The movement cemented into a self-defeating narrative of the enlightened (who were able to pierce through the bias and scaremongering of the mass media, ‘Westminster’ and ‘establishment’) versus the scared and huddled masses who were blinded by all of the lies. Critical thought was replaced by grasping onto anything and anyone who supported a pro-independence stance and dismissing everything which didn’t as part of some wicked conspiracy. This absolute, passionate certainty made itself known very vocally and, I think, was largely to blame for the incredibly different experiences of the campaign reported by Yes and No voters.

The thing is, I don’t think most engaged people would deny that the media isn’t ‘objective’ and has an inbuilt bias towards the status quo. Greater minds than mine have already tackled this. The answer to this, I think, is to cultivate a critical approach which enables you to consider everything you read/see and why/how it is being presented. This allows you to understand and form arguments which don’t rest on any single source and, crucially, make the argument to others in your own way. It’s not to repeatedly assert that the media is biased while continually posting columns and articles from this media which support your point of view – that’s completely nonsensical. It’s definitely not to vocally make the argument that most people are being fooled while you can see ‘the truth’, leading only to the misguided notion that the people you should be convincing are idiots.

While it was undeniably the case that many of us got carried away in the heat of the campaign’s final days, it’s to be hoped that the aftermath will let everyone step back and take stock. It’s already clear, however, that at least a sizable minority of the independence campaign remains firmly in the grim of an almost pathological certainty that their cause is the only ‘good’ and ‘true’ one. In the space of a few days we’ve gone from rhetoric centred on the ‘sovereign will’ of the Scottish people and the ‘democratic carnival’ of the referendum campaign to a wounded, embattled pride that the vote was stolen by ‘fear’ and Yes voters are the forces of light. Jim Sillars has thrown his toys out of the pram quite spectacularly, throwing around allegations of fraud and insisting that pro-independence forces dispense with a referendum strategy completely. Many, led by the vile Wings Over Scotland, have been directing deeply unpleasant rage at Scotland’s over-65 year olds, who voted overwhelmingly against independence compared to 16-17 year olds who voted for it. Even on its own psychotic terms (any consideration that your vote at 65+ is going to be influenced by radically different factors than if you are a teenager is entirely absent) this makes no sense – a majority of 18-24 year olds voted against independence while the disparities in support from those aged 35-54 are hardly significant. Astonishingly, much of this has been fanned by the First Minister himself today.

(23rd September edit – @urbaneprofessor has pointed me towards this Yougov poll of the referendum voting, which is far more statistically significant than the Ashcroft one. It pretty much blows a hole in most of the above lines– No won all age groups other than 25-39 and the ‘rich people were No, poor people were Yes’ claim clearly isn’t nearly as neat. Also, if you look at a majority of people born outside Scotland voting No, with those born elsewhere in the UK doing so decisively, you quickly see how sinister the rhetoric about No voters could get.)

So far, then, there has been no significant attempt to take stock by pro-independence forces. In fact, there have been concerted attempts to make sure this doesn’t happen, with lots of talk of ‘keeping the momentum’ and ‘building the movement’. There can be no question of doubt creeping in. This statement by National Collective is fairly typical: they lost because of “the full might of the British state, corporate and media power, that was designed to demonise, smear and alienate”. There are the usual mentions of ‘hope’ and ‘fear’, complaints about ‘scaremongering’ and statements that the Yes campaign wanted “to make people think”. There is not an inkling of self-criticism. They write of pensioners being ‘lied to’ about the affordability of their pensions as if the alternative view is self-evidently correct – but it’s not. They would have had to make the case beyond ‘it’ll be fine’ and ‘it’s scaremongering’, which was the response to far too many of the concerns raised. This isn’t to argue that an independent Scotland couldn’t afford pensions but that the claims of scaremongering and ‘fear’ largely replaced actual argument. ‘Fear’ is clearly in the eye of the beholder anyway – once the SNP decided on its ‘vote Yes or the NHS is doomed’ line, the entire Yes campaign swung behind it without criticism. Anyone who’s looked at National Collective’s Twitter over the past few weeks would have seen plenty of ‘scaremongering’ that a post-No Scotland would be a dystopian hellhole. Their complaint is not so much that people were scared but that people weren’t scared into the right result. It’s risible and embarrassing.

It’s important to reiterate at this point that this does definitely seem to be a minority response. This blog from Peter Matthews, who voted Yes, is a masterclass in a reasoned, thoughtful response and I’ve had some great discussions with people who were vociferously Yes. Yet the reason the minority response made me want to write something is in the indications that it wants to make itself a dominant force in Scottish politics. That indication is in the movement christened ‘We Are The 45%‘. On the morning of the referendum I wrote that I feared a Yes vote would send Scotland down a cul de sac of self-delusion and this is exactly the kind of thing I meant. It underlines how divisive this has been, and how accurate the predictions of the debate eliding class solidarity were, that we have thousands of people engaging in hyperbole essentially resting on the idea that they are the ‘goodies’ and the people who voted No are the ‘baddies’. Someone who voted Yes because they hoped that an independent Scotland would tackle a ‘something for nothing culture’ (Tory language if ever there was) took me to task for criticising this movement, highlighting how utterly bizarre things have become. The denied nationalism remains denied but is more overt than ever, with the movement’s central conviction being that independence is the only path to social justice and many pleas to ‘make Scotland yellow’ by voting for the SNP en masse in 2015, albeit with a smaller benefit for the Green Party also. Indeed, the ‘it’s not about the SNP’ arguments have swiftly fallen apart with a movement utterly unable and/or unwilling to critique them in any way, despite them never once (for example) coming out against the TTIP or explaining how they would avoid austerity (especially as a new member of the EU). We Are The 45% is more of this ‘things will get better because independence’ magical thinking. Apparently there are suggestions that it may change its name to be more ‘inclusive’ but I don’t see how a movement premised on ‘independence will lead to social justice, No voters were scared and tricked’ can ever reach beyond its bubble. It’s the Yes campaign making the same errors and being too wrapped up in sentiment to question it. There are already movements for social justice across the UK which we could all pour our energies into.

The awful events in George Square on Friday night were a gift for this bruised pride in being the ‘good minority’. I wrote about the likelihood of sectarian violence kicking off in Glasgow on Twitter last May, after spending a couple of hours walking around its East End and seeing countless union jacks and ‘no surrender’ slogans. I lived in Bridgeton, an area mired in sectarianism, for about five years and I was unsurprised to see allegations that the George Square trouble had its roots there. This problem has existed for my entire lifetime and these people were always going to make themselves heard, whether the result was Yes or No. Yet some, whether because of a desire to lash out or a lack of understanding of sectarianism, have attempted to portray these people as ‘what No voters wanted’ (actually written on Facebook) and an example of the British nationalism which independence would have magically made disappear. I can understand the temptation to make these arguments (and certainly when faced with polls like the Buzzfeed one above) but they’re entirely cynical and profoundly depressing if they offer a glimpse of the future. People can unite to tackle the horribly complex problem of sectarianism, as they can unite to tackle the horribly complex problems of poverty, misogyny, racism and more, or they can retreat into a conviction that it’s all the fault of those other people and that only getting independence will sort them. This will go absolutely nowhere. On the part of No supporters stepping back, we need to be wary of responding to Scottish nationalist sentiment by turning a blind eye to or inadvertently supporting British nationalism, whether that be the extreme kind we saw or the more insidious kind which boasts of ‘British values’ and the like. The goal must be social justice and solidarity, not the ‘United Kingdom’.

Clearly it’s still very early days and the chips are still falling. We have the greatest chance in our lifetimes so far of a massive devolving of power across the UK and we have to ensure it happens. I can understand and can’t complain about people fixating on the ‘timetable’ promised by Gordon Brown but, for my part, I’d actually rather the change was more considered. A constitutional convention looking at the entire state seems like the best option and the one most likely to deliver lasting, useful change. I think a cobbled-together ‘devo max’ delivered in the next 7 months or so will only lead to further issues. What’s now clear is that the majority of people in the UK want to continue pooling resources, sovereignty and effort and we need to make that work. More importantly, we need to tackle the regressive attitudes which most people in every region of the UK have about welfare, immigration, employment and the like and actually build a movement to try and make things better. It’s important that we realise that there are no politicians and no parties who will just ‘make things better’ – I just finished reading this book which is a sobering account of the range of forces which stood against radical left-wing change. The British state was such a force but I agree with Phil Burton-Cartledge here that this state is now weakened and is best tackled by unity; the might of the capitalist system, on the other hand, is even greater now. The author argues that any response must be as united and as international as possible to have any hope of success. God knows this will be difficult but I firmly believe it’s something we can only do together – a hefty part of the left in Scotland setting off on an endless quest for independence will only damage us. I hope we can progress from recrimination and bitterness to forge alliances anew – or even for the very first time.

The Collapse of the Left into Nationalism

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My previous blog was about the contortions which the Scottish left have been making to avoid facing the fact that the pro-independence movement has been utterly dominated by nationalism. It’s a position, I’ve noticed, which tends to frequently be associated with ‘Green Yes’, as if saying you support the Green Party (who got less than 5% of the vote at the last Scottish Parliament election) removes the wider context. A context in which, since I last wrote, the First Minister has drawn allusions between independence and apartheid, drawn distinctions between the ‘Team Scotland’ of Yes and the ‘Team Westminster’ of No and applauded a protest against the public broadcaster utterly dominated by flag-waving. You will search long and hard for condemnation of any of this from the Scottish Greens, who appear to have utterly abandoned any criticism of the SNP, or indeed from most of the left who support independence. For all the criticism of Labour sharing platforms with the Tories (something the SNP have no business complaining about, as Annabel Goldie pointed out) they at least haven’t completely given up the business of being an opposition. Yet much of the left shouts ‘it’s not about the SNP!’ while offering absolutely no alternative beyond ‘there are some far-left parties too’, choosing to ignore the Hollywood treatment being afforded to the nationalist politicians and the very ugly scenes we’re seeing on Scotland’s streets. Let’s be in no doubt here: if this was UKIP or another brand of English nationalism, no-one on the left would have any difficulty in drawing links between such events and the language and tone of the nationalist politicians, who would be swiftly and widely condemned.

I have finally started to see some good pieces on this from left-wing writers in recent days. Carol Craig in the Scottish Review is one of the best things I’ve read in this whole sorry affair, pulling no punches with the No campaign while ruthlessly parsing the pro-independence rhetoric and leaving readers in no doubt that it has been nationalistic. John Wight, who has written a few referendum pieces offering a class-based critique, laments:

Thus the complete collapse of a large section of the left in Scotland with its embrace of a nationalist project as a shortcut to what they believe will be a socialist dawn has been tragic to behold.

while writer CJ Sansom observes that:

Some, certainly, will be thinking of voting yes on Thursday, not from nationalism, but in the hope of social change. Yet they will not get it, because, like it or not, they are voting for a nationalist outcome.

This piece in Jacobin, meanwhile, similarly notes the “potentially ugly, nationalist taint” while stating that:

The likening of Scottish independence to anti-imperial movements is a devastating repression of Scotland’s own deep complicity in the British imperial project.

This quote leapt out at me because, while the left in Scotland has largely gone down the rabbit hole, much of the left in the rest of the UK has revealed itself to be utterly clueless (and rather opportunistic) in its analysis of the debate. It has rarely risen above the level of ‘this has been presented as the progressive view, I am progressive, hence this is my view’. Billy Bragg, advocate of a ‘progressive English nationalism’, suddenly comes over all coy and denies that independence is about nationalism (he also, incidentally, repeats the common trope that independence will save Scotland from the TTIP, despite no major party in Scotland opposing it and the SNP explicitly welcoming it). You’ll notice his line about Scotland ‘regaining its sovereignty’. This has been a central theme in the analyses of the rUK left. Anthony Barnett’s astonishingly patronising open letter to ‘Scottish voters’ (which, it becomes clear, actually means Yes voters) begins by suggesting independence could be a model for world peace and only gets worse. He draws analogies with Tibet, Chechyna, Palestine and in the comments actually compares independence to a slave achieving freedom. Dan Hind has written several times about Scotland achieving its ‘freedom’. George Monbiot and Suzanne Moore have wheeled out successive columns berating ‘London’ for its ignorant treatment of Scotland, dealing in nationalist myth-making, while being completely blind to the irony of these being their first columns devoted to Scotland in living memory.

The idea that Scotland is aiming for ‘freedom’ is also common on social media. Yesterday I had to point out to an activist that Scotland was not colonised and was not comparable to Palestine. Last week a long-term mutual follower on Twitter blocked me after I questioned her assertion that an independent Scotland would be an ‘ex-colony’ of England. You’ll notice, as I noted in my last blog, that the arguments about Scotland achieving its ‘sovereignty’ and ‘taking control of its destiny’ almost never extend to its membership of the European Union and other transnational bodies, still less to questions of economic democracy (the interventions by various banks and companies last week caused wide outrage but rather than leading people to the conclusion that perhaps transnational capital might be the enemy here, we instead ended up with more nationalist drivel about the Tories coordinating the campaign and the SNP somehow being an exit from it).  No, the arguments are always aimed at ‘England’ and ‘Westminster’. The dominant narrative seems to be one of Scotland as the plucky, oppressed underdog. All this analysis offers is a glimpse of the patronising ignorance of those who advance it – ignorance both of Scotland’s history and its central role in Empire, and of Scotland as a nation.

With regards to the latter point, I think this 2002 essay by Andrew O’Hagan is absolutely essential reading in helping those without a deep understanding of the Scottish psyche to gain some semblance of context to all this. It’s almost certain that it would be met with accusations of ‘doing down the people of Scotland’, an argument all nationalists love to deploy, yet its description of the darker aspects of our collective identity has resonated with most Scottish people I’ve discussed it with:

A half-hearted nation will want to hold fast to its grievances, and in that sense Scotland has done well. The nation’s brickwork is cemented with resentments, from ruined monastery to erupting towerblock: blame, fear, bigotry and delusion, their fragments powder the common air – and always the fault is seen to lie elsewhere, with other nations, other lives…Yet the problem is not the Parliament, it’s the people, and the people’s drowsy addiction to imagined injury – their belief in a paralysing historical distress – which makes the country assert itself not as a modern nation open to progress on all fronts, but as a delinquent, spoiled, bawling child, tight in its tartan babygro, addled with punitive needs and false memory syndrome.

If this seems rather prescient with regards to the current debate, the next statement could have been written yesterday:

Free-falling anxiety about Scottishness has a tendency, among Scots, not only to turn into hatred of others, but into hating bad news about the country itself, and seeing critics as traitors.

It’s not easy reading, certainly, but I think it’s a deeply insightful one and it largely captures the mentality which Scottish nationalism plays to. This is what makes it particularly tragic that so many of the left have pursued it, convinced that things would be better if not for ‘Westminster’ and, as the Guardian put it, pursuing the ‘unattractive’ habit of “attacking the messenger and ignoring the message”. Indeed, if there was any doubt that a demogogic, cynical populism is significant here you need only look at the endless outpouring of criticism and ridicule aimed at any No supporter deemed to be part of the ‘establishment’ (a terms used spectacularly nebulously here) and their contrasting with the SNP who, lest we forget, have been the government of Scotland for years now and are led by as establishment a politician you could possibly find. Nationalists, however, have a knack for painting themselves as figures of rebellion, even when they offer little more than a change of paint.

Scotland goes to the polls in three days now and the result is too close to call. I am certain, however, that the swift narrowing of the polls owes more than most would like to admit to the nationalist sentiment which is currently being inflamed. Perhaps in response to this, the latest line from pro-independence lefties has been that anyone who opposes it must necessarily be a British nationalist. I’ve read this repeatedly in the past few days, and have had it thrown at me more than a few times. Of course it will be the case that some, perhaps many who support the UK are nationalists. The fact remains, however, that it’s the Scottish nationalists who have shifted the ground beneath our feet. I have attended anti-fascist marches, protested against the 2012 Olympics, protested against the Jubilee, protested against the Royal Wedding, was a vocal critic of the hoopla over the royal baby, have long written about and campaigned against our immigration laws and have never laboured under any illusion as to the negative force of British nationalism. I do not become a British nationalist because I oppose a false notion of ‘independence’ premised on the absurd idea that Scotland is not free and instead support the notion of common solidarity in the belief that the real oppressions which matter are those which transcend borders: class, race, gender, sexuality and so forth. As I wrote previously, this solidarity is codified into the UK at present, even if we have to fight long and hard to achieve it and then fight longer and harder to effect change. It’s no secret that the left is in a dire state at the moment: unfortunately aforementioned collapse of much of the left into nationalism is only going to ensure this remains the case for a long time to come.

Valhalla vs Apocalypse: Enduring #IndyRef Myths

nationalism_myth

I wrote a couple of months ago on the myths which pervade the #indyref campaign and I don’t think much has changed on that front. It’s funny – a common theme from commentors on the debate is how mature and civilised it is, yet each ‘side’ delights in pointing out the myriad of ways in which the other is talking bollocks without ever removing the logs from their own eyes. Tonight’s debate between Salmond and Darling will almost certainly see more of this and it’s been fairly fascinating seeing the myths which sustain particular identities laid bare. Both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps have attempted to lay claim to ideas that they are beacons of fairness, tolerance and justice in the world. Writing from a left-wing perspective, it seems fairly accepted amongst peers that it’s at best ridiculous, at worst grotesque for anyone to argue this on behalf of the UK, which is beset by a bleak assortment of social problems and has some of the worst poverty and inequality in the developed world. So if I don’t write much about the myths advanced by Better Together and their ilk it’s because I take it as given that those of a ‘progressive’ ilk don’t buy into them in the first place.

The myths around Scotland, however, not only seem to be burrowed deep into the national subconscious but have found themselves flourishing wildly during this debate. The great unknown offered by independence sees every problem, from the arms trade through to uninspired Scottish architecture, reframed as a ‘Westminster’ or ‘England’ issue which the plucky Scots can solve by voting ‘Yes’. Sure, most people have enough sense not to say it as bluntly as this but the overwhelming narrative is the very familiar one of Scotland being both more progressive, and more oppressed, than its neighbour to the South. The troubling subtexts in this message can’t help but seep through the cracks, whether it be in the suggestion that opponents to independence are suffering from a “deep-seated cultural self-hatred” or in the utterly idiotic notion that voting ‘no’ is giving “Westminster permanent permission to do whatever it likes forever. No questions asked.” The choice is between an independent Scotland full of hope and optimism and general niceness or a UK which is dystopian and apocalyptic. All progressive thought, opinion and action in the rest of the UK is erased.

I was surprised to see this exact framing in the latest issue of London Review of Books, a journal which consistently presents some of the best writing in the UK (and beyond) The piece, called What Sort of Scotland? and written by Neal Ascherson, is behind a paywall but I’ve copied some relevant sections with my commentary:

It does Yes campaigners some credit that they haven’t launched their own ‘Project Fear’ concentrating on what happens if independence is rejected on 18 September. They don’t talk about it, affect not to think about it. But the landscape beyond that day is growing darker.

It does credit to Yes campaigners (which Ascherson clearly is, despite making an odd distinction by claiming to only be a Yes ‘voter’) that they don’t scaremonger…except when they do. It’s ironic that for all the (correct) complaints of Better Together’s ‘negativity’, much of the Yes campaign’s energy comes from its opposition to the current state of a Tory-led UK and its apocalyptic predictions of a ‘darker landscape’. How Lord of the Rings. As I’ve written previously, the UK-wide opposition to this is never going to be found in a campaign against Scottish independence – why would it be? It’s found in the recent strikes, in fights against changes to welfare, in campaigns for a living wage, in mass demos for Gaza. This progressive body of opinion exists across the UK but many independence campaigners pretend that it doesn’t while complaining that ‘unionists’ offer no vision of a better society. It’s disingenuous in the exteme.

The Unionist parties say that they will agree on further devolution of powers to Scotland. But these don’t seem likely to go much beyond a little more discretion on some taxes. There’s talk of calling a national convention on the constitutional future, but this would apparently be led by the Scotland Office – a London ministry – with Scotland’s elected government and Parliament reduced to mere participants among a crowd of British bodies.

This complaint has been voiced with increasing frequency: the UK government might promise more devolution but it doesn’t really mean it! And even if it did, it’s worthy only of derision because it would be led by…the UK government. ‘A London ministry’. The outrage that a parliament made up of the nations of the UK would ‘apparently’ lead on constitutional change, rather than the parliament which only represents Scotland! It’s all chip-on-shoulder nonsense relying on ‘Scotland vs London’ sentiment.

It’s possible that Scotland might decline too, sharply and even irreversibly, in that first No decade. It’s not just that pro-Europe Scotland might well be dragged out of the EU by a Europhobic southern majority.

I’ve long found it ironic that pro-independence voices are almost uniformally uncritical of the EU, a body which by any measure has greater problems regarding legitimacy and democracy than Westminster. Criticism of the EU is, however, largely associated with right-wing opinion and so isn’t helpful to the idea of Scotland as a progressive beacon. Leaving that to one side, the suggestion that Scotland could be forced out of the EU by a ‘southern majority’ is another one which you hear fairly regularly and is commonly accepted. Yet it belies a far more complex reality where a majority in Scotland have consistently adopted a critical approach to the EU. A recent Yougov poll on the EU, meanwhile, found majority support for remaining in the EU across the entire UK. Most interestingly, it found that if people believed UK membership had been renegotiated more favourably, opinion on EU membership was almost uniform with 54-61% opting to stay in.

Or that English hysteria about immigration could block young European incomers to Scotland – a need first recognised when the then first minister Jack McConnell sent recruiters to the bus-parks of Poland in 2004.

A consistent majority in Scotland want less immigration while a very small minority want more. As we saw in my previous blog, 49% in Scotland thought that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thought the same about more black and/or Asian people living there. None of this is good, of course, but it demonstrates how smugly complacent it is to believe that immigration ‘hysteria’ (and by extension racism) is an English problem.

It is, above all, the damage London governments might well now inflict on Scottish social policies. After eight years in power, the polls still give the SNP a startling lead: it is currently at 43 per cent. This is mainly because it has carried on the social policies of the Lib-Lab coalitions which preceded it in Edinburgh. These parties barricaded the welfare state – higher education, free social care and the Scottish National Health Service above all – against the tide of privatisation and marketising ‘competition’ which is washing away the British postwar social settlement south of the border. But that barricade would probably crumble in a post-No Britain.

Again, an argument you hear frequently – that even the devolved NHS will crumble if Scotland votes against independence. Putting aside the question of how that would actually happen in practice, this would have us believe that people ‘south of the border’ want to wash away the ‘British postwar social settlement’. There are wide and loud campaigns against the changes to the NHS which have led Labour to pledge a reversal of the Health and Social Care Bill. Then there is the fact that over half (52% in 2013) of people in Scotland complain that unemployment benefits are ‘too high’, which doesn’t exactly suggest it as a welfare state valhalla.

On top of that, the neoliberal Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may soon force all public health services in the UK – Scottish as well as English – to invite competition from American private firms. This ravenous alien was only able to squirm into the UK spaceship because in 2012 Cameron’s coalition had already legalised an internal private health market in England.

This is the most bizarre complaint, to put it generously. The TTIP is being negotiated by the EU (which, lest we forget, the writer was fearful of leaving) and the United States. It’s about far more than ‘public health services’ and the idea that it’s somehow the doing of David Cameron is risible beyond belief. While there are several campaigns against TTIP I can’t find any indication that an SNP (or indeed any other party) government in an independent Scotland would oppose it.

The piece advances a heap of unexamined half-truths and distortions about the evils that will be visited upon poor, defenceless Scotland in the event of it remaining in the UK. It’s embarrassing stuff yet sadly typical of the level of debate. To underline how far these myths endure without question I want to look at one other issue: that of Trident. The British Social Attitude survey looked at this and found that “public opinion on the subject of nuclear weapons is nothing like as different on the two sides of the border” as we’re led to believe. The most interesting finding, however, was that in Scotland “slightly more people agree (41 per cent) than disagree (37 per cent) with the proposition that:

If Scotland becomes independent, Britain’s nuclear weapons submarines should continue to be based here”

In England and Wales, however, 63% thought the weapons should leave Scotland if it became independent! This doesn’t fit the common narratives around this issue at all.

It seems odd to me to have a debate around ‘the kind of country Scotland would like to be’, based on noble ideas about furthering democracy and improving people’s lives, which relies so much on myths and a refusal to engage with existing opinion. Indeed, when I’ve raised e.g. the matter of public opinion in Scotland being firmly against more immigration or more unemployment benefits, the response I invariably get is ‘well of course it is, they are brainwashed by the UK media’. Quite how the media in an independent Scotland will be different so as to help these poor brainwashed, self-hating masses, I’m not quite sure. Presumably this media will also report on the secret oil field which the dasterdly Cameron is keeping from the poor oppressed people of Scotland.

It’s all pretty gruesome, desperate stuff. Just to repeat, there’s plenty of that from Better Together and it’s covered in detail elsewhere. I don’t endorse it. Yet if I’ve always been against Scottish independence, my one abiding hope were it to happen has been that it would lead to a more mature Scotland where we don’t feel the need to revel in a sense of victimhood, inventing paranoid conspiracies and blaming the wicked English for our woes (as many in England blame the EU – as I say, we all have our enduring myths). I remain strongly of the opinion that the Scottish form of social democracy lives and dies in the perceived gap between it and England. If and when that gap goes, I would hope that attitudes would change. I’m sad to say that this seems further away than ever.

What I Learned Reading “7 Things I Learned During My Year Without Alcohol”

Certain kinds of puritanism are widely mocked these days. You’re unlikely to be taken seriously if you believe that not owning a TV lends you a moral superiority over the sheeple who watch Game of Thrones, for example, while Gary Turk’s cloying video decrying social media went viral precisely because of people finding it insufferably smug. Such judgments on how people spend their time are deeply unfashionable and invite almost instant opprobrium. It’s been fascinating, then, to see this piece being widely and approvingly shared. Written by a woman who has spent the past year sober, it presents alcohol as a damaging force and has an overwhelming air of self-congratulation about it. Many of the people sharing it seem to be ruefully agreeing that alcohol has held them back in life while the comments are full of praise for the writer’s bravery and determination.

Is it ‘brave’ not to drink? Certainly we live in an alcohol-oriented culture so it feels instinctively right to say that it takes character to be tee-total. Then again, if we accept that then we could also say that it takes character to avoid the internet, something far fewer people would be eager to celebrate. It surely isn’t a weakness to drink alcohol – most people who do so have no particular issues with it. Why, then, is it such an easy proxy for a sense of personal failure?

When you closely read Kelly Fitzgerald’s piece it’s clear that she had a problem with alcohol. She writes that she was ‘tired of disappointing and embarrassing my friends and loved ones” and unable to “drink in moderation”. She writes of the ‘stupid, embarrassing things’ she did while drinking. She writes of ‘trying and failing for years to regulate’ her drinking and of ‘bad things’ happening when she drank. Rather than being the words of a social drinker who gave up and felt better as a result, these are the words of an addict who is still coming to terms with her addiction. It’s quite incredible that the words ‘alcoholic’ or ‘addiction’ aren’t used once in the piece – yet if they were it would clearly resonate with fewer people.

If you read Kelly’s words as being those of an addict this becomes a very different piece.

My emotions are crazy, sometimes I think this is what it must feel like to be pregnant. I cry at the drop of a hat, I’m offended easily and sometimes I am so happy I feel like I’m going to burst. I actually care what people think about me.

Perhaps I’m completely crazy but to me this emotional imbalance doesn’t sound like a great thing. Yet mood swings which as described sound almost bipolar are described as ‘heightened senses’. Uh huh. Alarm bells are already ringing over unresolved issues here. They becoming deafening with the second ‘lesson’, that Kelly is ‘just beginning to understand’ who she ‘really’ is. She presents some authentic, ‘real’ her that was hidden by ‘constant alcohol blackouts’. Seriously – this is way beyond drinking a bit too much and regretting a hangover. This is an addict with deep emotional problems whose drug of ‘choice’ was alcohol. I think we can safely say that most people who drink alcohol do not need to have some dramatic revelation to understand that they are ‘real’ people.

It goes on – her life is now ‘manageable’, she is ‘worthy of love’, she has removed ‘toxic people’. How you can reach the end without realising that this is a piece about addiction rather than alcohol is beyond me. There are even a couple of mentions of ‘drugs’ but this is never elaborated on.

Of course it’s great that someone with an addiction has been able to regain control of their life but the speed with which this piece went viral raises interesting questions about why it’s resonated with so many. Do they think they have problems with alcohol, even to an extent where they don’t feel like ‘real’ people? It can hardly be a bad thing to examine our own behaviour and think about our relationship with things like alcohol (or indeed the internet or whatever other bogeyman is thrown our way). Yet I don’t believe that most of the people sharing it believe themselves to be addicts (or are addicts). They are rather, like many of us, people who probably drink a bit too much and feel the need to self-flagellate about it to the extent of convincing themselves that they would be different people if it wasn’t for alcohol. This difference almost always seems to involve being more ‘successful’ and ‘sorted’, because that’s what we’re encouraged to focus on isn’t it? The Big Picture. The Bottom Line. The little everyday things – the time we spend with our friends and family, our undramatic jobs, our quotidian engagement with the world – we’re told this stuff is unimportant and that we must achieve in a very particular way. If we haven’t done this, the problem lies within ourselves – we spend too long on the internet, we watch too much TV, we drink too much! Internalise, internalise.

It’s impossible not to comment on the class aspect of this. The public narrative of ‘problem drinking’ and ‘destructive alcohol’ almost entirely focuses on the rampaging working-class hordes who descend on pubs and clubs of a weekend. The debates over issues like licensing hours and minimum alcohol pricing are never conducted with ‘targets’ like the permanently-sozzled posh couple from Gogglebox in mind. No-one ever ponders the drinking habits of George Osborne or Rebecca Brooks. They are ‘successful’ and so have the right to do what they want. The working-class, on the other hand, will have their behaviour morally policed while being told it’s their own fault that it happens. It’s not that we live in a system which ensures and requires that a minority hold most of the wealth while the wages and working-conditions of the masses are depressed as far as possible; no, the problem is that the proles drink too much and ruin it for themselves.

This is the kind of nasty puritanism which Kelly’s piece is feeding into and why it’s so easy to present it as a morality tale about alcohol rather than a pragmatic description of addiction. If you think you drink too much and want to drink less – drink less. If you want to drink less but feel you are unable to – speak to someone (while accepting that it’s difficult to get to this stage of even asking for help). If, however, you’re one of millions who enjoy drinking alcohol don’t buy into this idea that you would be (or even should be) a high-flying millionaire if you would only put down the beer. It’s a pernicious lie and there’s no inherent moral superiority in not drinking alcohol. Thinking there is buys into the pathologising of ‘failure’, the same absurd reduction of our society to the level of the individual which lies behind so many damaging attitudes towards welfare, employment and, as @thisisapollo pointed out on Twitter, mental health. We are never the products of individual effort and we do not stand alone.

Marriage and Music

So here we are – gay/equal marriage is finally legal in England and Wales. I’ve written a lot over the past couple of years about my issues with the debate. Nonetheless, while I think it’s important to keep critiquing the issue (not only in terms of marriage’s wider role in society but also with regards to very practical concerns like the spousal veto) it would be churlish and hard-hearted to ignore the happiness which this is bringing to a lot of people. Indeed, today I’m attending a marriage between two men, one of whom being someone I’ve known for nigh-on ten years now. He was a livejournal ‘friend’ in America and someone I never thought I’d meet in real life, until circumstances led to us both moving to London at different points. We’ve known each other ‘in real life’ for the past seven years or so and I’ve seen first-hand how his relationship has brought him peace of mind and contentment. I also know that, with him being American and his partner British, marriage bring tangible legal benefits to their lives. They’re good guys and they deserve to be happy. Congratulations Matt and Tom.

Music is such an integral part of my life that I almost process events like this via that medium. So this week I’ve been thinking about songs concerning marriage and weddings. The one which instantly sprang  to mind was The Hidden Cameras’ Ban Marriage (above), an encapsulation of some queer critiques of marriage as an institution presented by a narrator who is about to marry his boyfriend. You quickly know what you’re getting with this song, its opening lines being:

I was late getting to church on the morning of my ceremony. Stayed up too late the night before from fingering foreign dirty holes in the dark.

Quite. It was written in response to the debate around legalizing same-sex marriage in Ontario, over a decade ago. There’s always one isn’t there?

Then there’s this:

In which Elton John struggles to remain silent at a wedding because he used to bang the bride and wants to do so again. As implausible as that particular scenario may sound, it’s impossible for the titular ‘bride’ not to be loaded with subtext given what we know now. And the basic mechanics of the story seem perfect for some gay wedding melodrama.

Which leads nicely onto the arch camp of Kate Bush’s The Wedding List:

Based on 60s film La Mariee Etait En Noir (The Bride Wore Black), the song sees Kate as the wronged bride of a groom murdered on their wedding day. Now she seeks revenge against the men she holds responsible (“You’ve made a wake of our honeymoon and I’m coming for you!”) The list here, then, is obviously not of desired gifts but rather of men the bride intends to kill. The parallels with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill are obvious, even if he claims to have never heard of The Bride Wore Black prior to making his film. The performance above is essential viewing and looks like the most fun you could ever have at a wedding. Though this seems close behind:

In which America’s sweetheart reveals herself to be a bit of a cow. Seriously, it’s bad enough that she shows up to her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and disrupts it but does she have to be so brutal about it? “Her snotty little family all dressed in pastel”; “she is…wearing a gown shaped like a pastry”. This wedding may not be murderous but Taylor is just as motivated by revenge. That this is delivered by the supposedly squeaky-clean Taylor and packaged as a stereotypical ‘dream’ wedding makes the high camp all the more potent and pleasurable.

As opposed to the nightmarish camp of:

For all its deceptive simplicity, this must surely rank as one of the most disturbing pop videos ever made? Bowie not only looks deathly but absolutely demented, more likely to bury an axe in your skull than kiss you. The relationship documented in the song sounds suitably unhealthy – the blank disconnect of “sometimes you get so lonely, sometimes you get nowhere” doesn’t sound like a good foundation for a marriage. It’s said that the song is Bowie’s last attempt to save his marriage with Angie – he must be glad he failed. Years later he would document his euphoria at marrying Iman Abdulmajid by putting two versions of The Wedding Song on his Black Tie White Noise album.

It goes without saying that a gay wedding made me think of:

This video probably caused gay marriage.

But I’m told I’m a contrary sort so I’ll end with a video from another difficult old queer:

There’s something quite magnificent (and clearly deliberate) in Moz singing about his eternal bachelorhood while a succession of young men hug and kiss him. Love is a many-splendored thing indeed and sometimes it’s difficult to put a label on it. And why should we care if we can’t? Whatever completes us, in whatever form it may take, can’t be bad if it does no harm to others. So yeah. Best wishes to Matt and Tom, and to everyone else finding or trying to find their own bits of happiness in the world.