Litter leafletting and other campaign oddities.

There are moments when wearing a badge matters. Sometimes you don’t want someone to prejudge you; and a badge puts you in a pigeon hole before you start. Unlabelled, anyone you are talking to is listening first to your thoughts and ideas without a preset filter set to dismiss. But sometimes a declaration of allegiance makes a difference. There was such a moment in 1977 outside Woolworths in Coney Street in York – which was the main pitch for the left to sell newspapers at the time (much to the annoyance of the Woolies management). For some weeks there had been small grumbling, gatherings of National Front supporters that had been getting increasingly threatening but the week after the Anti Nazi League’s bright yellow and red arrow badges went on sale there was a sudden flooding of them from one end of the street to the other. It seemed as though nearly everyone was wearing one; recognising each other as a new collective strength in an impromptu carnival of defiance and exuberation. It was like spring after winter, the sun breaking through an overcast sky.

So it is now. I have taken to wearing my Vote Labour sticker when I am not canvassing. This leads to people grinning at me on the tube and the bus, leaning across in the supermarket and saying “Good. Yes. I agree,” people in the choir in Kilburn pulling out Labour leaflets to talk about, a barmaid in the pub opposite the Kiln asking enthusiastically how the canvas is going, a lengthy friendly explorative discussion in an equally lengthy queue at Aldi, with other people listening in – and no hostility at all. In an election in which part of the campaign the right is waging is to make Labour seem a pariah, wearing the badge in public and just going about your everyday business is a statement in itself – and gives heart to others.

The Tories and Lib Dems locally seem to be unsure where one constituency starts and another ends. Harrow West Tory leaflets have been posted through doors in Brent North. Brent North Lib Dem leaflets have turned up in Brent Central. The importance of local knowledge? Another feature of their leafleting effort is that they are so stretched for supporters on the ground that they don’t go up steps to flats to actually put the leaflets through the letterboxes; leaving them in a pile at the bottom of the steps instead. They then get blown all over the place by the wind and pile up with the general street mulch of squashed plastic bottles and crushed Kronenburg cans that so enhances the aesthetic quality of our lives round here. There were something like thirty dull orange Lib Dem ones scattered on the pavement in front of the shops like fallen autumn leaves and people were walking all over them without a second glance. Given that litter has become a growing problem scumming up our streets locally this is not a good look for them.


A Hard Rain and Other Stories

Yesterday’s rain did not feel safe. Huddled under a bus stop shelter with a crowd of people, those on the outside getting drenched in torrents of water sloshing off umbrellas driving in on us with the wind. The river of water in the gutter easily a yard wide, rushing fast – anyone trying to cross it sinking footsoakingly ankle deep – and on the verge of breaking banks out of the road and across the pavement. These sorts of storms are new. The first time I can recall one is within the last ten years, getting soaked through on the two minute walk to the bus stop, watching the  volume of water rushing down the street like a waterfall and reflecting that our safe suburban streets were capable of being dangerous. We are at 1.1C above pre-industrial levels hoping to keep to now more than 1.5C if we are lucky – and actually heading for 3-4C without fast and drastic action. A sign of the times is that I was able to discuss this with a fellow huddler. Of course, what we are facing here is mild compared to the cyclones that have hit Mozambique – but the rain in our faces should help us wake up.

In the back alley behind our row of flats I have recently discovered a number of unattractive discarded things. The human turd – which sounds like a singularly unattractive superhero with powers I’ll leave to your imagination*- which is the latest of these – stood out  because it had been carefully done on top of a discarded table top – instead of on the ground where it might more easily rot in – and garnished with a piece of toilet paper: so it looked like a piece of performance art – a statement its creator was keen to make and for others to see. I resisted the temptation to photograph it and submit it to the Turner Prize.

*I worked once with with a rather scatalogical child who made up a superhero called “Pooperman”.

Another piece of accidental sculpture in the form of a once elegant Jaguar sports car, parked up and left to decay in the front drive of a quiet, winding hillside road overlooking Wembley. All four fat tyres deflated, long body streaking with livid green algae: like a metaphor for a lost youth that the owner can’t bring himself to give up.

On the way to the shops I walk past a neighbour. He’s the sort of bloke who wears his tin poppy all year round and once complimented me on picking up litter along our street… without joining in.  Making moue and pulling his hand across in a waist high throat cutting gesture he says “politics.” An enormous freight – and threat – in a single word and gesture. A dangerous sign.

Throw them all in the river? The psycho – geography of statues.

This post was originally written last September after the huge global strike for climate; and was inspired partly by noting which statues the protesting children felt comfortable standing under and which they did not. Thoughts on the present moment at the end.

On the way down to last Friday’s climate strike and I found myself, not for the first time, staring up at the statue of Sir Douglas Haig in the middle of Whitehall.

Haig is sitting on a horse. He was a General and a cavalryman, so you might expect that. But there is something very odd about the horse. Haig looks as though he wants it to move on. He is leaning forward slightly, with a stubborn and bemused look on his face.

But his horse is an effigy of a horse. It has not been sculpted to show any sign of life, to look like a real horse frozen in a moment. It looks like a sculpture of a model of a horse, a statue of a statue. This peculiarly static quality might have been a subconscious expression of Haig’s inability to push his way through the trench systems at the Somme or Passchendaele; or possibly an ironic comment on his continuing belief in cavalry as a viable fighting arm right to the end of his life in 1928. He is riding a dead horse…as well as flogging one.

This is a bit like Diagalev’s comment to Ravel that his composition La Valse was not a ballet but a picture of a ballet. Composed as a tribute to Johan Strauss II and the classic waltzes of fin du seicle Vienna – the frivolous effervescence of a society in a condition that was “fatal, but not serious”- could not be anything else after the Empire that generated it was crushed into fragments by the First World War. The Habsburg Empire was dead. So was the Waltz.

So was the cavalry. The statue shows Haig as unaware – and he seems puzzled that he can’t make his horse move.

This is in contrast to the Blues and Royals trooper by Horse Guards Parade, who is sitting utterly rigidly, with the psychotic stare of the terminally bored – and the pornstache of thin men trying to be butch -with not a flicker of movement, but radiating hostility: while his horse takes a lively and friendly interest in the streams of striking school students pouring down towards Parliament Square.

Haig’s is the last equestrian statue on Whitehall. The last of the line. The final mounted military aristocrat after a thousand years of them. Behind him is the Duke of Cambridge. A plump late Victorian gentleman in full fig, commander of the British army for forty years, leaning casually back with complete self assurance; while his horse is showing signs that it is beginning to find his weight a bit too much to bear.

Haig is looking South towards the Cenotaph, memorialising all those men that he did for with his plans of attack. His head is bare, perhaps in penance: but his jaw is set and he looks stubborn enough to do it all again in exactly the same way because he does not have the imagination to think of anything else.

Looking back up at him are the craggier Generals of World War Two. Field Marshal Alexander is wearing jodphurs as a last echo of aristocratic horsemanship, his swagger stick behind his back, while Marshal Slim stands solidly with his huge slouch hat, grim jaw and mighty boots. Monty, on the other hand, looks straight across the road at Downing Street with a set and grim expression on his face – as though he doesn’t trust civilians to run the show.

In Parliament Square small children dance in the sun on the plinths of statues.

They seem to have chosen wisely – ones they feel safe on.

None are standing under Benjamin Disraeli, or Lord Palmerston, or General Smuts.

Some are standing among flowers, as though they have grown there.

Some are jumping up and down under the open hands of Nelson Mandela, giving them a protective benediction.

Other are doing the same under the spreading banner of Millicent Fawcett – “Courage calls to courage everywhere”- as Millicent stares sternly above their heads.

Ghandi has been left in peace, but someone has stuck an XR sticker on the hem of his shawl. He does not seem to be offended.

A few years ago I was showing a visiting South African Head teacher around London and, looking at the statues in Trafalgar Square, he murmured “Hmmm. Nation of warriors.”

I was quite shocked by that. Until that moment I hadn’t seen the message of these statutes. Had just taken them for granted. They had always just been there from when I was feeding pigeons as a toddler, part of the backdrop, somehow eternal, taken for granted, natural.

The messages that are most dangerous are the ones that are taken for granted, subliminally absorbed so they become just “what is”, common sense, normal.

What we choose to memorialise and honour in bronze and stone in our streets is a conscious choice. It defines our public space and who we think we are. They are like bronze bolts holding an oppressive reality together in our minds and making it seem inevitable.

The worship of the “heritage” that they represent is an endorsement of it. It does not mean an honest appraisal of Empire, but an attempt to cling on to its afterglow. Challenging their continued presence looming over us on their plinths is as freeing as clearing the air and roads of constant traffic has been soothing. It means the future need not be limited to the crimes of the past.

In acting together to take them down we are pledging ourselves to a future of possibilities beyond the limitations of the past, not an endless continuation of it “going forward.”

June 2020

Small story from September 20th

In Parliament Square small children dance in the sun on the plinths of statues.

They seem to have chosen wisely – ones they feel safe on.

None are standing under Benjamin Disraeli, or Lord Palmerston, or General Smuts.

Some are standing among flowers, as though they have grown there.

Some are jumping up and down under the open hands of Nelson Mandela, giving them a protective benediction.

Other are doing the same under the spreading banner of Millicent Fawcett – “Courage calls to courage everywhere”- as Millicent stares sternly above their heads.

Ghandi has been left in peace, but someone has stuck an XR sticker on the hem of his shawl. He does not seem to be offended.

Of bogies, dopplegangers, Brexit punditry in the chemists and Muharram in Kingsbury.

Pootling down the hill, the pizza moped delivery driver is steering with one hand and assiduously picking his nose with the other.

At the bottom of the hill, the neighbour who looks like a very plump version of Kaiser Franz Josef of Austria- Hungary – all shiny bald head fringed with gigantic mutton chop whiskers blending into a walrus mustache – says good morning as he sits half out of his Mercedes trying to psyche himself up to walk to his front door.

Every time I go to the chemists – now I am a pensioner I qualify for a loyalty card – the head pharmacist – a man who sees his job as to get to know everyone, not just transact with them – always sees me looking up at the news, silently blurbing on from the TV above the counter, and asks me “what’s going on?” Brexit of course. He is very nervous about his supply of medicines, as my daughter’s employer at the bakery is concerned about his supply of flour – which comes via the EU because British flour isn’t of high enough quality. I go off about Johnson being boxed in by Parliament, his majority and Party in tatters but – with Parliament about to be prorogued – still in office and going for no deal with far less scrutiny. Other customers look on a bit bemused. If the worst predictions of Operation Yellowhammer come to pass, they will be angry.

On the way down to the shops on Saturday and there’s an unusual stall being set up with an air of bustling importance outside the Saaqi Mall – a collection of tiny cubicle emporiums carved out of a bankrupt shoe shop, selling sugar cane ground into juice through a mangle, the world’s smallest jewelers, a place that teaches Maths and English (one person at a time presumably, given the space) and has a side line in Visas, a tiny travel agents and a few sad vacant spaces. The three men on it are giving out cups of tea from an ornate looking samovar and distributing snacks.

Next door, outside the shop where you can wire money back to relatives who need it more, another guy is sitting peacefully in front of a huge black banner thick as a carpet emblazoned with enormous Arabic letters in bright scarlet; designed to look as though they are dripping blood.  This is quite alarming, so I go over and ask him what it is. He removes his camouflaged ear muffs –  the army surplus of a very considerate militia – smiles broadly and says “Hussein. Imam Hussein.” So, its Muharram.

Muharram is when the Shia become visible. Cars fly white flags with Arabic writing in red. The Sim Sim bakery and other shops shut and sellotape posters to their shutters.


Arguing with MI6. Cyber warfare

This is partly based on the MI6 official history and partly the experience of walking past it’s HQ in Vauxhall.

The Secret Intelligence Service HQ, built by the river where the Prince Regent’s beloved Vauxhall pleasure gardens used to be, is known to those in the trade as “Ceausescu Towers”; a grim and forbidding sort of place.

Until 1994, SIS HQ was a naff looking tower block, built on top of a petrol station near Lambeth North tube station. It was meant to be completely secret and, of course, everyone who needed to knew where it was. Mentioning it in the press would lead to a charge under the Official Secrets Act, but every cabby knew where to go to get to the place that was not supposed to exist. There was something oddly reassuring about this; like the opening sequence of “Carry on Spying” (1964) in which a secret base is effortlessly penetrated by a whistling milkman casually walking through doors marked “top secret”. Replacing this monument to muddle with a large, publicly proclaimed, specially built Byzantine ziggurat on a prominent river bank site is to replace a joke with a threatening form of disavowal. The “secret” service is right there in front of you; so watch the wall my darling…

It is a peculiarly ugly building: like a cathedral to a religion with no soul, a mock art- deco power station sucking the life out of its surroundings: half 1930’s cinema, half mausoleum; a monument to the grandiose hollowness of the 1980s in yellow stone.

It exudes sterility. It can’t be missed; but there is a disinclination to look. No people can be seen inside. No one seems to come in or out. Its windows, made with three layers of toughened glass, are opaque. Its rear end, on Albert Embankment, is an edifice that Albert Speer would have appreciated, with no character, barricaded off from the roads around by a high wall topped with green spikes and restless cameras following anyone who passes by. The urge to cross the road or walk more briskly to get away from its force field is overwhelming.

There is – so far – no tradition in this country of people disappearing into the Intelligence service’s HQ and not coming out again – as in the old Czech joke, “The Minister of the Interior collects jokes made against him, and he also collects the people who make them” – because, as with manufacturing industry, the UK tends to outsource and offshore its dirtiest work; though brutal methods of interrogation, torture and extrajudicial killings had made it as close to home as the North of Ireland in the 1970s. However, it looks as though it was built in anticipation of a time in which the state would feel sufficiently under threat to bring these methods home to roost. So, the effect on the surrounding streets is a deadening one. People hurry by with eyes averted.

Large parts of the building are underground and there is rumoured to be a tunnel connecting it to Whitehall. It is now slightly closer to the new US embassy than it is to the Palace of Westminster, possibly in more ways than one.

The function of SIS from when it was initially set up in 1909 was to be able to carry out operations in the interests of the state which the government of the day could deny any knowledge of; carried out by an organisation which it was illegal to admit actually existed. The way this was done relied rather heavily on having “the right kind of chap” who could be trusted to do the right kind of thing, without explicit instruction from anyone whose political career might be put in jeopardy if found out. These would usually be current or former military personnel; though there was a continuous and fierce turf war with the military intelligence departments of the armed forces. Agents were also often moneyed individuals doing espionage on an amateur basis to provide themselves with an adventurous existence, while providing service for the society that had made them moneyed individuals and kept them in the manner to which they were accustomed. Patriotism and class interest merging here in an organic unity that Oakshott* would have been proud of. This kept recruitment within a very restricted class of people and came with a set of values and beliefs rooted in defence of Empire internationally – and not exactly neutral when it came to domestic politics either. Enemies without – movements for colonial freedom – were linked to “enemies within” – anyone who supported the movements for colonial freedom or favoured significant redistribution of wealth away from moneyed individuals who could afford to be amateur spies. Labour was inherently suspect – let alone anything to its left. The Cold War co-operation with and subordination to the United States that followed World War 2, and then the collapse of independent British imperial pretensions at Suez in 1956, copper bottomed this.

And so to today. The report in the Daily Telegraph on August 1st that the UK armed forces would now be carrying out cyber warfare on a permanent basis begs a number of questions both about how far the Intelligence Services have been doing this as a matter of course hitherto and – as this kind of warfare is partly about the manipulation of narrative on social media – the extent to which the world view they are defending is a politically partisan one.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader means that the largest opposition party – and therefore prospective government – is in the process of breaking with a prior consensus about international alliances and the inviolability of private sector economic dominance that the SIS exists to defend. The instant response to Corbyn’s election from an anonymous serving general that the army would “mutiny” in the event of him becoming Prime Minster, and even more disturbing reports recently of the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan using the face of the Leader of the Opposition for target practice in a firing range are reminiscent of the febrile and shaky political crisis in the 1970s.

In the 1970s, the last time the constitutional and economic order in the UK was being shaken by a strategic reorientation; during the edgy readjustment between the collapse of Empire and trying to settle into the EEC, we had, among other things…

  • elements of SIS – who may have been “rogue” or may simply have been operating with a nod and a wink on a long leash -were actively working against the elected Labour government of Harold Wilson (see Peter Wright Spycatcher for an inside account by one of the agents doing it)
  • at the same time former army officers like David Stirling  – a founding member of the SAS – were trying to set up a shadow alternative government in case of an “undemocratic event”. Stirling “created an organisation called Great Britain 75 and recruited members from the aristocratic clubs in Mayfair; mainly ex-military men (often former SAS members). The plan was simple. Should civil unrest result in the breakdown of normal Government operations, they would take over its running.” See Wikipedia. He also “created a secret organisation designed to undermine trade unionism from within. He recruited like-minded individuals from within the trade union movement, with the express intention that they should cause as much trouble during conferences as permissible. Funding for this “operation” came primarily from his friend Sir James Goldsmith.” Wikipedia. Small world.

It is worth considering the extent to which such forces would go in conditions in which there was no hegemonic consensus on the future of the country. The 1975 EEC referendum had a sufficiently decisive result to give the country an apparent way forward for the forseeable future and took us back to a more routine time of

  • surveillance and infiltration of unions and the left in which pious evocations of British democracy were combined with blacklisting activists on behalf of employers,
  • undercover policemen infiltrating completely harmless environmental organisations as agents provocateurs and going so far as to form relationships on false pretences with women in the movement, father children with them, then disappear on them when the job demanded it,
  • lying about overseas threats to justify military interventions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (in the name of human rights) as with the Iraqi dodgy dossier in 2003.

So far, so routine. But today we are back in a time like the early seventies and the political debate is becoming delirious.

Reports in December 2018 that a government funded agency – the Integrity Initiative – run by exactly the nexus of good old boys who have always run SIS – had funded online attacks on Labour in general and Corbyn in particular (1) reveal that the line between the security of citizens and politically partisan intervention is being more blurred than usual. It is important not to be cynical about this – they would do that wouldn’t they – because they are not supposed to and should be held to account for it.

The revelation that someone somewhere had set up at least ten fake twitter profiles of supposed Corbyn supporters which were spewing out antisemitic bile until unmasked (2) begs the question of who would be likely to do that and what their interest is in creating this impression and association. Reports on troll farms indicate that one agent can operate up to ten separate identities at any one time. Some of these people might be politically motivated freelancers, others will be employees of think tanks, some will work for intelligence agencies (at home or abroad).

These are likely to be the tip of the iceburg. Reports in Al Jazeera on the mechanisation of trolling adds another dimension to how this works (3).

Analysis by outfits like Cambridge Analytica, to enable personally targeted posts during campaigns , make the whole field wide open to surreal manipulation. The most effective post for the leave campaign during the EU referendum was apparently one about animal rights and the cruelties of bull fighting – which might be fair comment if so many of the people behind it weren’t so keen on fox hunting.

The bottom line therefore, is never to assume in an online discussion that the “people” who are posting are actually people. When a thought out post is countered by a short negation from someone you don’t know, especially when it has no other content, and is immediately backed up by several likes and one word affirmations – you are probably being trolled by a bot. Whether coming from a human or a bot, if the comment is designed to generate more heat than light, the key thing is to try to cool it down, get to the facts and don’t get riled up. Part of the aim of all this is to drive us all a bit mad and make discourse more and more vituperative and unity based on truth impossible to achieve.




  • Michael not Isobel.