10 Years in London

I’ll tell you the reason you couldn’t get home,
Cause there’s nowhere you’ve been and it’s nowhere you’re going,
Home is only a feeling you get in your mind,
From the people you love and you travel beside

Today marks exactly 10 years since I climbed into a white van with three friends and embarked on the long drive to London. One of my most vivid memories of that morning is of my final moments in the flat I shared with my brother in Bridgeton. Looking into the rooms for what felt like one final time (I would of course return for visits) and closing the doors behind me, it felt like the final episode of an American sitcom. “Sorry, we’re closed.”

It was definitely the end of something. I had no idea what was about to begin.

Today lends itself to reflection and taking stock. I’ve already written about my move in the context of one of its primary soundtracks, Confessions on a Dance Floor. As I describe there, my first year or so in London was tough. From the vantage point of a decade later I can look back with some affection at the loneliness which threatened to devour me yet I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Still, things got better. The terror went away and some great people came into my life to steal me from loneliness. Life happened, as it always must. One of the (many) things I had yet to learn back then was that I wasn’t losing a home in Glasgow but rather gaining one in London. A week ago I visited Glasgow for my 36th birthday and I remarked to my boyfriend that it never felt jarring going back; there is never a moment of ‘ok, I’m in Glasgow now’. It just feels like I’m in another part of my home, as effortless as if I’ve just walked from my living room into my bedroom. I know enough about the world to know that I’m very fortunate to be able to say that.

I am getting older now. 36 obviously isn’t old but it’s not an age you can ever imagine being when you’re 14, 20, even 25. When you’re younger there’s always a sense that you’re at the beginning of something; now I understand that life doesn’t work like that. There isn’t some point where you suddenly feel, “ah, this is it! Life is beginning!” Instead you just realise that life has been happening all along – this is what you have, for better or worse. Who you are right now is who you are, not some prototype version of something better. You better make the most of it.

If I’d never imagined being 36, I may have had some vague notion that when I was older I’d be a rock star or a famous writer or the Prime Minister. While there is nothing wrong with these aspirations, I am instead aware of far more mundane achievements which all seemed unimaginable at some point. I am gay, out to my family, friends, work and living with my boyfriend. In Glasgow I had a ‘family lunch’ which included my partner, his brother and his brother’s boyfriend and it didn’t feel in the slightest bit strange or awkward.

To the teenager who used to lie awake in bed and pray to God to make me ‘normal’, that feels like being a rock star.

There have been times in life when I couldn’t imagine having a circle of friends whom I loved, a job which didn’t fill me with dread every day or any money to do things which I enjoy. Things which seem quite small, really, yet are so, so big. I made what felt like an earth-shattering move to London and ten years later I find myself living a pretty average life, finding happiness in lying beside my boyfriend in bed and reading a book. The little things… there’s nothing bigger, is there?

Life is never movie perfect. Sadness, dissatisfaction, boredom and yearning are all things you will always feel to some degree. I think part of adulthood is accepting that and not trying to fight it; not trying to ward off the compromises which inevitably come but facing them head on. I understand that even living a mundane life is a privilege many don’t have and often that’s because of circumstances which are well beyond individual choices. Perhaps I am being trite but while we should never settle for misery,  we should also never fail to appreciate what we may have while we still might have it.

Life moves on and I have no idea where I’ll be in ten years’ time. I always find myself morbidly fascinated by stories of people who tragically die relatively young: I think that, surely, they weren’t so different from anyone else? They were just ordinary people taking each day and then suddenly they were gone. The vast majority won’t be remembered by anyone other than those around them whom they loved and were loved by, if they had anyone at all. So I return again to the little things and the prosaic joy of a rainy Sunday.

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(This image is from the brilliant Strike Magazine, which I strongly encourage you to buy. I think it’s from Tilley and Del the Piggie)

Today is my boyfriend’s birthday and I’m off work. We’re going to walk up Primrose Hill and then meet some friends in a pub. Tomorrow, fittingly, there is an all-day Madonna party in Soho. I’ll get drunk, dance and come home to slump on the sofa. I couldn’t think of a better way to mark my decade in London.

The Best in Us

Any gay person will recognise, on a visceral level, the dynamic around the ‘little things’ which Panti Bliss describes in this video. We will also recognise what she says later about it becoming so commonplace that you almost become inured to it. You almost forget that it happens and how ugly it is.

When the awful Glasgow lorry crash happened one of the big responses to it was a wave of sentiment and self-love over Glasgow and its people. ‘People Make Glasgow’ goes the slogan and it’s something which has more and more become part of the city’s view of its own character, especially over the past year when its status as ‘Yes City’ led many to be convinced that its people simply ‘care more’ about the weakest in society. This made me very uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable not in some detached rational sense but in a visceral way. When I thought about why this was, I found myself returning to when I lived in Glasgow and could not go a single day without at least one person shouting homophobic abuse at me. Literally every single morning as I walked to work, the local school children would shout ‘poof’ and ‘bender’ at me. Literally every time I went out wearing colourful headphones or dressed ‘alternatively’ (I used to do a fine Jarvis Cocker impression) people would shout ‘poof’ and ‘bender’ at me. And I did become inured to it. I realised I had become inured to it when I moved to London and, on my first morning there, found myself passing a group of teenagers just hanging around on the street. Instinctively I shrunk within myself, staring at the pavement and focusing just on getting past them. Then what I dreaded happened: one of the kids said ‘Hey mate!’ to get my attention. I knew what came next – the mocking, the slurs and the laughing – so I kept walking in silence. Then he shouted again, more loudly. Ok, I thought, I might as well just get this over with. I looked up at him. He said ‘I love your outfit!’ and that was that. I stood there for a second, stunned. I mumbled ‘thanks’ and then hurried off.

I swear every word of that is true and I will never forget it because it made me realise just how numb I had become to it. I of course know that what I experienced in Glasgow was perpetrated by a minority of people and happens all over the UK (and beyond) – including in London. I of course know that the racist abuse which followed my Korean friend around the streets, including one horribly memorable day when a couple of kids ran alongside us in the park shouting racial slurs and I felt disgustingly impotent, is an example of the racism which is deeply embedded in our society. These issues are not Glasgow’s alone. Yet when I see people in Glasgow congratulating themselves on how special, tolerant and kind they are I can’t help but return to those daily slights which still make me shrink into myself in certain situations and be disgusted at the conceitedness. Because when we view ourselves in the most idealised light possible we not only lose the capacity to recognise, understand and change the worst in ourselves, we also lose the ability to listen to criticism which contradicts us. This is true of Glasgow, which has no particularly monopoly on human kindness and has a panoply of problems. This is true of London, which fancies itself as a cut above ‘the provinces’. And it’s true of Paris and wider ‘Western democracy’, which right now is indulging in delusional and dangerous masturbatory fantasies of our own superior ‘civilisation’ and ‘values’ (go here for the best response to this I’ve seen).

The worse in humanity which we experience and, crucially, which we perpetrate is nothing but endless cruelties if we do not always strive for an honest, brutal self-awareness. The playwright John Steppling here describes fascism as “deposits of cruelty sedimented in the psyche”. This resonated with me because it perfectly captures why the tendency to always think the best of ourselves/our cities/our cultures is so dangerous – it leaves the cruelty festering, unexamined and untouched. That’s why responses to the Paris atrocity which seek to understand, to lend context, are not ‘apologism’ – they are absolutely essential if we truly aspire to be better than we are. My Twitter bio is a quote from Hannah Arendt, an intellectual who experienced her own accusations of ‘apologism’ when she attempted to understand Eichmann and the Nazis. I will end here with it as I think it sums up that, whether it’s applied to homophobia, wider social justice or great questions of ‘civilisation’, the only way we can ‘progress’ is by seeking to recognise and understand ourselves at our worst, however uncomfortable that may be. We must not allow ourselves to be inured:

And to think always means to think critically. And to think critically is always to be hostile. Every thought actually undermines whatever there is of rigid rules, general convictions, et cetera. Everything which happens in thinking is subject to a critical examination of whatever there is. That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise. . . . nonthinking is even more dangerous. I don’t deny that thinking is dangerous, but I would say not thinking is even more dangerous.

2014 – The Year of Nationalism

My first blog post in 2014 was about the Scottish independence referendum and nationalism – topics which came to dominate my writing over the year and which I’ll no doubt continue to write on. On the morning of the vote itself, I posted this:

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Though the vote was ‘No’, I think much of Scotland has indeed gone down a ‘cul de sac of self-delusion’. If anything, the unreflective certainty that independence a) will make things better and b) is absolutely the only way to make anything better has grown stronger in those who identify as ‘The 45’ and even many who do not. Opposition to and criticism of the SNP government has all but collapsed with the ‘enemy’ being firmly entrenched as Westminster, No voters, London, No-supporting parties. This isn’t about social justice – it’s a peculiar blend of nationalism, victimhood and narcissism. Wha’s like us? The conviction seems to be that absolutely no-one is and it manifests itself in everything from a queasy instrumentalisation of food banks/poverty to the recent claims that Glasgow was ‘special’ in how it responds to tragedy. You can see both in this terrible poem posted by a Scottish comedian after the bin lorry tragedy:

C360_2012-09-14-23-14-03In being directed to imagined enemies this is a good representation of the culture of ‘grievo-max’ which more critical commentators have identified in the Scottish national character. O’Hagan writes that anxiety about Scottishness tends to manifest itself in “hating bad news about the country itself, and seeing critics as traitors”. The poem above neatly shows that ‘traitors’ doesn’t quite capture the complexity of it – critics are viewed as ‘above themselves’, outsiders thinking they are ‘better’. I think most people who grew up there (certainly in central Scotland) would recognise this tendency. Issues like racism and poverty are reframed as plagues visited upon a good-hearted people by others who lack their unique character.

Of course, it bears repeating that I write about this because it’s been massively inflamed by the referendum and not because it’s unique to Scotland: we certainly don’t have to look far to see the awful manifestations of English and/or British nationalism which, as countless commentators have pointed out, certainly looks and feels a lot uglier than Scottish nationalism. Yet the former is widely recognised as nationalism – certainly by those who identify as being on the left – while the latter was and still is repeatedly denied. I noticed yesterday that a vocal Yes supporter, who argued throughout the year that their nationalism wasn’t nationalist, posted a status complaining that ‘nationalism’ was the most overused word of the year. If the intent wasn’t clear, they explained in the comments that ‘nationalism’ was incorrectly applied to any and all arguments for independence. Yet from our discussions I know that the definition of nationalism they cling to is an extremely narrow one, almost entirely expressed in support for the SNP. It seemed (and clearly still seems) impossible to this person, and to many others, that the very way ‘independence’, ‘self-determination’, ‘social justice’ and all the other ‘not-nationalist’ arguments were framed could be (and was in my opinion) nationalist in and of themselves.

‘I’m not nationalist’ became something of a mantra for left-wing supporters of independence, even as the many meanings of the term remained unexamined. ‘Nationalism’ became something few understood but no-one wanted to be – a dynamic which is equally applicable to racism. My second blog post was about racism in the UK after the Mark Duggan inquest verdict and as we end the year it is wretchedly obvious that we’ve made absolutely no progress on that front. Few non-poc take the time to think about what racism is yet most of us are absolutely certain it doesn’t apply to us. It remains an ugly stain at the heart of the UK  and one which only seems to be getting worse. Diane Abbott states here that she has “never known a more toxic atmosphere of issues around immigration & ‘the other'”. The rise of UKIP has been disturbing but the speed and ease with which the ‘main parties’ have (again) adopted their rhetoric is truly terrifying. As I stated, the English/British nationalism embodied by UKIP (albeit of a sort which won UKIP an MEP in Scotland) is different from Scottish nationalism but it shares the conviction that it is not actually ‘nationalism’. It certainly doesn’t view itself as racist and everyone from The Sun to The Guardian has played a part in pushing the ‘UKIP aren’t racist, they’re reflecting the reasonable concerns of ordinary people’ line (one which, as we see in the above blog and here, has also made insidious use of the relatively recent shorthand that ‘gay rights = progressive’).

It seems likely that the 2015 election could be defined not by Labour and the Tories but by the SNP and UKIP. Not only in their success but in their setting of the agenda and tone (witness Jim Murphy’s awkward attempts to play up his Scottishness at every available opportunity). Nationalism hasn’t been the most overused word of 2014, it’s been perhaps the most neglected and misunderstood: it has become absolutely central to our politics and our national character. Anticipating objections, this isn’t to say that nationalism hasn’t always been present – of course it has – but it hasn’t been so overt and so dominant certainly in my living memory. It seems like a bleak time to be a socialist and an internationalist – someone who doesn’t think that the people of Glasgow are particularly different in their ‘specialness’ from the people of London, or Cardiff, or Lisbon, or Budapest etc. People don’t make ‘Glasgow’ – we make and define each other and in that process we make the world. And what a world it can be when we remember the things which unite us and the international battles which must take place for things to get better. 2015 is going to be a difficult year and we’ll have to step up to play our parts. Solidarity, always.

wallace berman fuck nationalism

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.