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.

The ‘Respectable’ Queer

One of the things which previously inspired me to write on why I thought ‘gay art’ was at a dead end was seeing a ‘film’ by someone called Antonio Da Silva.  This consisted of 14 minutes of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. The thoughts I articulated in that blog struck me again today when an article about Da Silva’s latest popped up on my Facebook. I must confess I haven’t watched the full 13 minutes but it seems to consist of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. This may have passed me by without further comment but something caused me to pause:

“All my films have been self-funded, your donation will help me to continue producing films that aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit. People who donate will be contacted to watch unreleased footage once it is ready. I am grateful for your contribution.”

This quote from Da Silva appears above a plea for donations and a series of gifs depicting the men in the film masturbating. The ‘appeal’ is pretty obvious (and it’s not the art) but the assertion that his films ‘aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit’ reminded me of a series of adverts I’ve seen for this increasingly popular night in East London which describes itself as “a literary salon featuring unclothed men”. I was also reminded of the ‘Red Hot’ photography series which has been a perennial feature in the press, both queer and beyond, since it debuted. The statement on the Red Hot website that the series has raised thousands for anti-bullying charities then reminded me of the Warwick Rowers and Ben Cohen, both of whom have also monetised ‘classy’ sexual images with an added charity sheen.

There is clearly big money to be made in facilitating respectable wanks. I remain of the opinion that that vast majority of this stuff is terrible (and deeply cynical) yet with the very recent arrival of gay marriage in Scotland and today’s images of gay marriages in Florida, I started thinking about a wider context for this ‘art’ which I hadn’t previously considered. Gay marriage is the culmination of the rise and subsequent dominance of ‘respectability politics’ in the queer community, something I’ve written about many times before – it’s easy, then, to draw clear links between this and the rise of LGBT art as ‘porn-with-meaning’. I don’t use the word ‘porn’ pejoratively here but rather to muse that many of the above examples are risible attempts to intellectualise the very basic and very human urge to be aroused and to get laid, comparable to how respectability politics tries to downplay the ‘deviant’ aspects of queer identity (both sexual and political) and make it more ‘acceptable’ to a wider audience. In this way the decline of radicalism which has characterised queer politics over the past 30 years can be seen to have fed into our mainstream LGBT media, obsessed with facile bullshit and castrated schoolboy giggling over celebrity nudity, and aforementioned queer art. I wrote in my blog on newsworthy microaggressions that they “flatter the self-expression of those who control or have easy access to the media” – something which I think is of key importance here. The desire is not only to appear a certain way to others but to have that reflected back and so feel that way too – the drive to respectability is about self-love as much as anything else. Of course as a basic principle this is fine but when projected through the prism of an LGBT world which overwhelmingly reflects the interests of those of a certain class and certain colour (and certain gender to an extent) it becomes detached from any reflective political power and ends up as a brutal narcissism. As James Baldwin described the ‘gay world’ in the quote which ended that piece: “It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”

We can see this even in some self-conscious attempts to remember and/or reclaim the radicalism of the past. Depictions of the struggle against HIV are enormously whitewashed and even much modern activism fails to reflect or even acknowledge that worldwide incidences of the disease are overwhelmingly and disproportionately found in Sub-Saharan Africa (almost 70% of cases vs less than 7% in Western Europe/North America). Even the film Pride, which movingly depicts the solidarity displayed between LGSM and the striking miners in 1984/5, contains pretty much zero people of colour and while it depicts gay men in fetish gear (for example) it manages to completely desexualise them.

The depiction of class in Pride is also interesting. The miners’ strike is only ostensibly the heart of the film – really it’s a liberal message of tolerance and mutual respect. The collapse of the strike may have destroyed communities for decades to come but the film’s emotional climax is the arrival and support of the miners at Gay Pride in London. The closing captions tell us that the National Union of Miners were then instrumental in making the Labour Party adopt a gay rights platform – the film concludes with the working-class defeated but having helped to bestow respectability upon the queers.

It’s easy, then, to see how the current LGBT media, as brain-dead as it is, could applaud the film and bypass any issues it raises about critical thinking and wider solidarity: in the end it can be a film about the path to respectability and, read that way, it pushes the same buttons as the dominant LGBT politics and art. Indeed, I saw the film praised by quite a few gay viewers whom I’d not long before witnessed viciously slating the RMT for their latest tube strike. Irony is not dead.

In this sense the film offers an unthreatening flirtation with radical politics, just as the examples of ‘art’ I mentioned at the beginning offer an unthreatening flirtation with the aggressive potential lurking in sexual ‘deviance’. We can draw further links from this, with the furores around the threatened closures of Madame JoJos and the Joiners Arms speaking to a contained and commodified radicalism which is about little beyond its own reflection. The rise of club nights which offer ‘crucial edginess’ as mentioned in the Joiners piece also clearly fit into this: they offer caricatures of rebellion which can be left behind at the door as you return to respectability. The latest advert for Sink the Pink is a pretty perfect illustration of this:
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Classist, condescending and sexist, this betrays the reactionary vacuum which lies behind the respectability politics so dominant in the LGBT world. It is from this vacuum that racist and orientalist ideas about the world beyond white Western Europe/North America flow and it is into it that true solidarity vanishes.

While I obviously had issues with Pride I don’t wish to condemn it out of hand: it was far better than I could ever have expected it to be and it had small but important touches which disrupted the dominant narrative as described above. One of these came to fruition at the emotional climax I wrote about. Prior to the mining community arriving in their droves, we are shown a Gay Pride organiser telling the members of LGSM that they can’t join the main parade with their ‘political’ banners because people just want a ‘celebration’. It’s only the force of numbers of the miners and LGSM that forces the organiser, due to sheer practical concerns, to back down. To me, that organiser can represent the current LGBT movement, apolitical and obsessed with respectability, and the film’s most truly radical message of solidarity for a current LGBT audience is not to say that we should seek to ape the politics of 1984 or ‘all get along’ but to remind us that even now we can join with others in a common cause and effect change not only out there but in our own reactionary and ‘respectable’ community.

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.

The Great Beauty

To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is…at last, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away.

This quote, attributed to Virginia Woolf, keeps popping into my head since I watched The Great Beauty a couple of evenings ago. It stands in direct contrast to one of the central scenes in the film, where the protagonist Jep demolishes the hypocrisies of a friend by noting that:

We also know our untruths and for this, unlike you, we end up talking about nonsense, about trivial matters, because we don’t want to revel in our pettiness.

This may sound like an appealing self-awareness, a deflating of self-importance. In the course of the film, however, Jep comes to realise that in attempting to pre-empt and avoid his own untruths, he has ended up avoiding life. The Great Beauty is not something which comes along but rather the experience itself:

This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world. Beyond there is what lies beyond. I don’t deal with what lies beyond. Therefore…let this novel begin.

It has been a recurring trope of the film that Jep once wrote a serious novel and has since written interviews. People ask him several times why he doesn’t write again. He is shown revelling at the centre of extravagant, hedonistic parties, surrounded by people who chase the lustre of ostentatious ‘creativity’. We see an unsuccessful actor who suddenly announces she is now a writer, then mid-thought decides that she might direct a film. Jep’s friend spends much of the film chasing a dream of staging his own play, though it seems to be a dream heavily inspired by his pursuit of aforementioned ‘actor’. In the course of his writing Jep encounters a couple of dreadful artists: a self-indulgent performance artist who speaks about herself in the third-person and who waffles about ‘vibrations’, and a young girl who dramatically hurls pots of paint at a canvas. It is all nothing and Jep is no-one, a cipher at the heart of the sound and fury. As we see in the final lines of the quote above, Jep comes to realise this and endeavours to confront life in all its complex beauty and horror, figuratively signalled by his decision to write a novel again.

In the middle of nothing it’s easy to be anything. Everyone in Jep’s life performs for one another, avoiding sincerity and seeking validation for their self-image. Jep’s own journey is set in motion by the death of an old girlfriend, his first love. Having avoided his own past for so long, he finds that the roots of who he has become offer redemption. This is paralleled by his friend who, realising that his play is dreadful and his audience are politely indulging him, dramatically decides to return to his home village after decades away. “Rome has really disappointed me”, he offers as explanation.

It will be obvious to many by now that while Rome is an integral part of the film I saw many parallels with London within it. Only last week I found myself telling an old acquaintance whom I’d bumped into in Glasgow that it was so easy to get lost in London and not even realise it. So easy to surround yourself with people who unthinkingly reflect your self-image back at you and demand that you do the same, allowing you to believe that you are what you want to be. I think this is part of why going back home for Christmas is so difficult for many here – it threatens to puncture the illusion, confronts us with a very real history of ourselves in contrast to the ‘self-made’ people we have become.  We must look at ourselves with some attempt at honesty and humility, not so that we can revel in triviality to avoid the discomforts of sincerity but rather so we can look life squarely in the face and begin to understand what lies beyond its appealing, deceptive surfaces. Only then can we grow, only then can we truly immerse ourselves in what life has to offer.

Heck, it even brings to mind the final words of the 11th Doctor:

We all change. When you think about, it we’re all different people all through our lives and that’s OK. That’s good. Gotta keep it moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.

Before Midnight, London and a Reason to Believe

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Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are films about many things: love; identity; being; self-discovery. One of the fundamental aspects of their emotional appeal, however, rests on the theme of possibility.  In the first film the characters are 23 years old and much of their impulsive behaviour can be attributed to the vagrancies of youth; certainly the initial dialogue is the most self-conscious of the series, suggesting two people trying on identities for an evening (and of course trying to impress a potential romantic partner).  The will they/won’t they finale works in a relatively straightforward way but the dangling question of whether they will meet again is particularly evocative because (with hindsight) you are aware of how much can change in a year. When you’re young it’s especially the case that you can change radically in a year. Indeed, the film illustrates how much can change in one night – you feel that Jessie and Celine are better people when they are together, fuelling and feeding off each other. They positively fizzle with possibility, both as individuals and as a couple.

Before Sunset reunites the two 9 years on. They are now in their early 30s – changed, grown, even accomplished (Jessie is a successful novelist). Nonetheless, the same spark is quickly present and its flame illuminates what is lacking in their lives (and in themselves).  Their time together is even more constrained on this occasion as Jessie has to catch a plane. Possibilities seem limited by circumstance. The end of the film, however, is far less ambiguous than that of the first. It’s clear that Jessie has made a decision – the kind of decision which you can still afford to make when you are 32. In one afternoon two dissatisfied lives have been, in a sense, revived.

Before Midnight again leaps 9 years forward and without wishing to give much away, it’s fascinating and powerful in how it deals with ageing and the limiting of possibilities which that seems to bring. Life brings responsibilities and reason – it also brings cowardice and weariness. How do you deal with dissatisfaction when you are beginning to feel like your time has passed, that it’s too late to do anything dramatic to address it? In this film possibility is not the romantic notion of previous – rather it’s almost taunting and oppressive. It speaks of chances squandered, paths not taken. How we make our peace with that and, more importantly, how we modify our notions of possibility and the fulfilment it brings, are key questions which the film looks at. It’s a wonderful, beautiful experience – perhaps the best in the trilogy. The dialogue remains improbably eloquent yet somehow perfectly captures the anxieties, difficulties and rewards of ageing and ageing together.

I left the cinema feeling revitalised. Alert to possibility. Inspired by the rich complexities of relationships (not just romantic ones) and the didactic power of conversation. At one point in the film Jessie and Celine speak about how the important thing in life is to ‘stay hungry’ – to keep questioning, keep trying to grow, keep aspiring to be and do better. The genius of it is that it doesn’t shy away from how this notion can become a stick with which we beat ourselves up; we can become so fixated on particular interpretations of ‘growth’ and ‘possibility’ that we can end up trapped by them. Life is infinitely complex and sometimes that’s enough.

It helped that I exited into a gorgeous London evening.  Heavy in the air was the kind of languorous haze that focuses the mind on your immediate surroundings. Beauty shifts to the quotidian and it’s almost impossible not to relax into the night, let your soul drink its fill and feel that maybe this is it. This is life and it’s not half-bad. It’s a feeling which I often have when I wander around London. Given the importance of wandering around European cities to the Before… films, there’s a thesis to be had in exploring their relationship to the dérive. The physical manifestation of the poetry and politics of possibility and throwing off of the shackles of time, the derive nurtures the soul and profoundly lends itself to the themes of the films.

With quite splendid timing a sense of the cacophonous possibilities of London was re-awakened in me by Julian Temple’s magnificent documentary London – The Modern Babylon only this past weekend. A riotous musical and visual collage, the film presents London almost as a living organism – one which sheds its skin, fractures and bends yet maintains its quickening pulse throughout history.  It’s certainly no hagiography and we’re left in no doubt as to London’s violent dissonance. It’s a place of conflict, of confusion, of endless noise which never quite comes together. Yet it’s impossible not to feel humbled at the place, not to feel that its ancient, tattered mosaic is at once unrecognisable from one generation to the next yet eternal in its awe-inspiring wonder. If you are lucky enough to tap into London’s veins you may find an original Source, something from the dawn of time which speaks to the very nature of who and what we are. Wander its streets and you may be forever changed.

On one of the recent Bank Holiday Sundays I found myself stood outside a John Smith’s pub in Soho, enjoying a typical night with a couple of friends. One of them asked a young guy in a hoodie for a light and we ended up chatting to him. It turned out he was from France, studying in Ireland and was only in London for one evening as he waited for his bus to leave from Victoria at 4am. We ended up spending the evening with him, taking him around various Soho bars before I finally saw him onto a bus to Victoria at 3am. There was something about that experience which underlines, magnifies, captures everything I’ve spoken about here. There was something about only knowing someone’s first name, knowing you will almost certainly never see them again and knowing that this was one story amongst thousands playing out in London that evening. I went home that evening very drunk and very content. I’d allowed myself to forget that London – that life – can throw these wonderful curve balls if you only allow yourself to catch them. In possibility we find nourishment and transformation. In possibility we find a reason to believe.

As I wrote in my preceding blog, the start of the Olympics has seen the proliferation of dreadfully insipid puff pieces from writers who seemingly have a very shaky grasp on their own mind. The Observer today leads with yet another one which is unable to separate the event from the athletes and so sees the author dismissing his previous concerns as ‘curmudgeonly’ and ‘cynical’. What I find most hilarious about it is that this transformation is due to the Opening Ceremony, an event which pretty much had the sole purpose of being inspirational about Britain and had a massive budget with which to be so. It was never going to fail. Myself, I enjoyed it well enough but what I found curious was that it largely relied on pre-existing associations for its power. When I thought about it afterwards I realised that I had been far less impressed by what was actually happening on screen than by the machine-gun roll call of British achievements, whether that be our brilliant pop history, JK Rowling or the Industrial Revolution. This thought was bolstered by a friend who informed me that his Greek parents would have been hugely confused by much of it.

The part of the ceremony which did truly move me was the simplest – the procession of the athletes. The utter joy and excitement evident on the faces of the athletes was completely infectious and this more than anything resonated as a celebration of humanity, as the Morning Star put it. Yet as my heart was stirred by this I also felt great sadness at what could have been; at the trampling of this spirit beneath the jackboots of profit and elitism.

I get the sense from most of aforementioned puff pieces that they could have been written at any point over the past year by people who haven’t set foot in London, such is their banal predictability in trotting out the same PR lines. The Observer piece quite oddly suggests that the heavily-choreographed and controlled £27 million opening ceremony showed that London ‘was at ease with itself and its many contradictions’. Coming barely a year after the city tore itself apart, a city which is one of the most unequal in the developed world, that is quite the claim.

It was with huge relief, then, that I found myself at the Counter-Olympics demo in Tower Hamlets yesterday. Relief because I was surrounded by hundreds of people who cared deeply about their city and their country; people who went out of their way to wish the Olympic athletes well but did not let this stifle their critical faculties. Posters everywhere demanded ‘Sport for the 99%, not Profit for the 1%’ – these people were far from the ‘curmudgeonly’ moaners opposed to the entire thing, sports and all, that the media keeps portraying. No, these people had a very positive belief in humanity. They cared about social justice; they cared about public ownership of land; they cared about housing and living costs; they cared about militarisation and the wars which make the UK a target; they cared about poverty, exploitation and abusive labour practices; they cared about austerity and the use of mega-events to push its agenda. Again, I felt moved by the spirit on display – people who had given up their Saturday afternoons to make a stand and attempt to highlight some of the issues around the Olympics which the media is now furiously distancing itself from. The atmosphere was incredible – friendly and fun, with people beeping their car horns in support as they passed. There was an interesting observation to be made for those who keep wheeling out the attendance at the Torch Relay as proof of the UK’s unswerving love for the Games, as hundreds of people came out from their houses, pubs, cars etc to watch the march go past – not necessarily in support, but merely because something big was happening.

The march ended in Wennington Green with speeches from such inspirational organisations as War on Want and Defend the Right to Protest. I was thrilled that John McDonnell, one of the minority of principled Labour MPs remaining, appeared to speak of his solidarity for the cause.

The speaker who has most remained with me, however, was perhaps the most ineloquent – a woman from Critical Mass who had been arrested the evening before for peaceful protest. Clearly she was a last minute addition and was a little startled to be speaking before the crowds, yet she spoke matter-of-factly about the circumstances of her arrest – how she had been targeted for passing a bottle of water to a fellow cyclist who had already been arrested, how the police officer who arrested her claimed to recognise her as ‘one of that Occupy lot’. She then spoke of a visit to Critical Mass, some weeks earlier, of an Olympic cyclist (whose name unfortunately escapes me at the moment) who spoke to the organisation and led the members in a chant of ‘I am not afraid of offending my oppressor’. She led the gathered crowd in this same chant and I shouted it with passionate glee – not only as a message to the gathered authorities, the police who had flooded the streets in a clear demonstration of strength, the army guarding the Bow Quarter missiles – but as a message to those who wish to dismiss concern for London and the country as ‘cynical’ and ‘curmudgeonly’.

It was a beautiful day. As we left the Green and walked through a sunny Victoria Park, the ‘people’s park’ which now finds a large part of itself ticketed for entry, I felt almost euphoric. The human spirit is an incredible, resilient force, capable of great things even in the face of hardship and injustice. This is the real message of the Olympics and it’s a message which the Counter-Olympics demo shouted out loud.

Another Games is Possible

A couple of days ago the liberal sorts on Twitter worked themselves into a lather over this Guardian column about a mother’s reasoning for sending her child to private school. Given the credentials of many leading the charge, the author would have provoked less ire had her reasoning been that she wanted to give her child the greatest possible chance of a writing gig for a British broadsheet, but that’s besides the point. What really seemed to rile people was the way the author presented left-wing principles as some convenient, ill-thought out folly which quickly crumble when faced with ‘reality’. This is a slur as old as the hills – a variation on ‘a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged’ – but the addition of the wellbeing of children and the implication that anyone really looking out for their offspring would go private was predictably toxic. The response was swift and it was brutal.

This piece on the Olympics, however, has provoked no angry response. Yet it is another variation on the same theme. The author half-heartedly tosses off his reasons for hating the games:

The outrageous corporate sponsorship deals, the exclusivist ticketing model, the broken promises of community engagement, the lack of investment in youth sporting provision, the ground to air missiles on tower blocks, Seb Coe’s smug half-smile

before noting that he’s ‘caught the Olympic bug’ due to watching a ‘brilliant documentary’ about an Olympic athlete. His previous complaints are recast as ‘grumbling’, suggesting they were trivial reasons for a negativity which has been washed away by the inspiring tale of athletic achievement. Again, left-wing principles are portrayed as a silly distraction. The most extraordinary sentence in the column is:

For the first time, I thought about the Games in a vein outside of politics. This was about the Olympic dream in all its battered and worn reality.

Well, indeed. ‘Politics’ being concerned with power, principles and relationships, looking at anything ‘in a vein outside’ of this would tend to remove any tendency towards critical thought. I’m sure Guantanamo Bay seems quite nice when thought about ‘in a vein outside of politics’. After all, the US government tells us that it’s about keeping everyone safe – it’s not about politics, it’s about basic safety!

Aside from the author’s shaky hold on his own principles and mind, the big problem with this piece is that it conflates the current Olympics with the ‘Olympic dream’. You can read about the ‘Olympic principles’ here – suffice to say that the current corporate mega-event is far, far removed from any sense of ‘equality’ or ‘respect’. Private concerns override all else, with even the laws of the country being subservient to corporate interests. We have indeed come a long way from the 1896 Olympics, when the first regulation agreed by the IOC enshrined amateurism into the event.

This extraordinary puff piece makes the same error of being unable to separate the organisation of the Olympics from the athletic achievement displayed in them. I have heard no-one being critical of the latter, yet everyone who seems remotely inspired by this achievement seems unable to separate the two and becomes defensive about the entire event. Of course, this idea that critics are attacking athletic achievement perfectly serves those elites who wish to portray dissenting voices as spiteful moaners.

Yet another Olympics is possible. I’m about halfway through this book which is very good at examining how the Olympics strayed so far from its original principles. I did not realise that corporate sponsorship only entered the Games in 1984 when it was held in Reagan’s America – the neoliberalisation of the Games perfectly illustrating the lie that they are ‘apolitical’. The book also examines the truth behind the propaganda usually wheeled out in support of the Olympics – economic regeneration, employment, a sporting legacy, increased tourism, community engagement – each is examined and each is found to be at best wanting, at worst utterly false. Studies looking at previous Olympic Games and previous sporting mega-events have found that, without exception, they lead to the displacement of the poor (and other ‘undesirables’) from the host cities and increased living costs for those who remain. They even found that jobs were displaced from the Olympic areas once the Games left town. We are already seeing these effects in London, to go along with the militirization of our streets, the weakening of our civil liberties (including, astonishingly, efforts to prevent anti-Olympics speeches at a Counter-Olympics protest in Tower Hamlets), the privatisation of public space (at public expense) and a complete betrayal of the promised ‘legacies’ for the host boroughs.

In short, it’s difficult to conceive of how anyone who identifies as ‘left-wing’, certainly anyone who identifies as ‘socialist’, could not oppose these Games. Yet you find these very people loudly cheerleading the event and repeating the lies fed to them by the Government and the IOC without question. Why? Because, as noted above, they cannot separate their excitement for the sporting events from the ‘Olympics themselves. Their principles become embarrassing distractions from ‘getting behind’ their team. I’ve seen an increasing tendency for people to combat criticism of the event by referring to the ‘enthusiasm’ of those turning out to see the torch procession, a great irony given the event’s origins as a propaganda tool for the Nazis. It’s also not without irony that the global torch procession was scrapped after the countless protests against the Chinese last time around. It is propaganda, pure and simple, and ‘politics’ or indeed any kind of critical thought is not welcome. This is carried through into our national media which, sure, prints a scattering of op-ed columns criticising the Games and articles criticising transport arrangements, but on the whole unquestioningly pushes the narrative of a ‘country united’. Of course many are going are going to ‘give in’ and catch the ‘Olympic bug’ when faced with such a barrage; when told repeatedly that their criticisms are ‘grumblings’ and they are witnessing a ‘once in a lifetime event’. Anyone using this ‘enthusiasm’ as a defence for the Games needs to learn about ‘manufactured consent’. The very transformation of London into a ‘state of exception’ itself creates a sense of an extraordinary event, building excitement on the basis of retracting democratic and civil liberties.

As an aside, I walked through Stoke Newington last Saturday while the torch procession passed through the area and the turn-out was truly pitiful. I wasn’t surprised that the evening news didn’t show images of smatterings of people drinking cider outside a chicken shop. I attended a barbeque at a house on the torch procession route and, of the 30 or so people gathered, approximately 5 went out to see it.

What surprised me was how eloquent and informed people were in their anti-Olympic sentiment. In being surprised I suppose I had allowed myself to be partially seduced by the idea that people were just ‘grumbling’ but this convinced me that it’s not the case.

By all means I expect many with anti-Olympic feeling to be inspired by the sporting achievements. I certainly expect them to be inspired by the Opening Ceremony – it is, after all, the entire point of that event. Yet we mustn’t lose sight of the alienating, harmful effects of the current Olympic model and allow ourselves to become cheerleaders for the transfer of wealth and power to private bodies and individuals. Another Games is possible. Believing this is not ‘grumbling’, it is holding onto important principles and beliefs and those ready to swiftly abandon these in order to cheer on athletes are the ones who should be defending themselves.