“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”Herman Melville, quote from Moby-Dick
It’s a grim, grey, greasy Friday afternoon in mid-November in the South Lancashire hinterlands. I’m just back from Screwfix in Chorley with a new mixer tap, waiting for the plumber to call me back. I’m at the PC, as usual, hoping to turn the white expanse of Document1 into something worth a read. On my second monitor, I’ve got several tabs open: BBC News, Twitter, Facebook, Google Maps, NASA’s Hubble images. A smorgasbord of information, a feast of facts.
Beyond the monitor, through the window, is the street. If I look up from the virtual world, I see the real one, or at least a bit of it.
Winter has arrived
Winter has been quick off the mark this year; no sooner had the clocks slid back than the sun went on strike. The rust-coloured mulchy remains of golden October’s prodigious leaf fall make an uneven, slithering, treacherous carpet for wary, weary pedestrians picking their cautious way through the pre-streetlamp gloom.
Released from nursery and primary school, small, bundled children skid and stumble, testing parental ligaments and carers’ tendons. Frank from number 64, Parka’d up, scarved and hatted, gloved and booted, lumbers slowly up the hill towards the Spinners, squinting into the chilly drizzle. Everyone looks glum.
I stare so long at the blank Word document that the lamps come on. If I don’t shift myself, the daffodils will be out before I’ve completed my first independent clause. Still, I excuse myself. It’s hard to summon up the blood these days. I mean, have you seen the state of things? It’s no wonder so many people are down with the Weltschmerz, in bed with the Lebensmüde, off sick with The Fear.
Whichever way you look – turn from your windows to Windows – there are bad tidings to discomfort and annoy. Still, we trundle on, haplessly, like Beckett. We can’t go on, so we do go on, mildly dazzled by the slim hope of failing better.
Let’s face it: the day got off to a miserable start. Did you see the front pages? They mostly led on Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement: ‘Carnage’, ‘From bad to worse’, ‘Tories soak the strivers’, ‘You’ve never had it so bad’, ‘Hunt paves way for years of pain’, ‘Years of tax pain ahead’.
You needed to scroll to the bottom of the page to find a crumb of non-austerity humour with The Daily Star’s ‘Orange Man Vows To Conquer Red Planet’. Not much, I know, but at least Trump’s plan to colonise Mars is pretty much guaranteed never to happen.
If only we could say that about the millionaire-led Tory government’s decision to make us all pay for Brexit and that Truss/Kwarteng moment we all found so bleakly hilarious at the time. You imagine Tory grandees, keen Thatcherites, moralising over brandy at their clubs: “Well, if it doesn’t kill them, it’ll make them leaner, fitter, stronger. They’ll all have six-packs and enviable muscle definition. They ought to be thanking us.”
If you drill a little deeper – and I foolishly did – you come across cheery quotes like this one from Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS): “The truth is we just got a lot poorer. We are in for a long, hard, unpleasant journey; a journey that has been made more arduous than it might have been by a series of economic own goals.”
You then read on to find stories of people taking on second, third and fourth jobs to try and cope with savage inflation, soaring energy costs, mortgage payment increases, rising taxes. Further reports point out that you’d better be quick if you want another job yourself; businesses are folding as energy bills rise and consumer-activity drops.
Your local pub can’t afford to keep the heating on for only five customers nursing pints of lager and sharing a packet of crisps, so far from taking on bar staff they’ll be shutting for most of each day. People are cutting back on meals in cafes and restaurants, cinema visits, weekend breaks, holidays and the gym memberships which are no longer needed because we’ll all be leaner, fitter, stronger, or at least the first one.
New Victorian Age
I have another look out of the window.
It’s full evening now. A few commuters and a couple of drunks come up the hill from the station. A couple of men with snooker cue cases are heading down towards the Conservative Club. A stick-thin teenaged girl shudders past talking animatedly. To herself or to someone else on her phone? It’s hard to tell. An illuminated, fluorescent cyclist grinds slowly up the road’s moderate gradient. In the toxic orange glare of the street-lamps, a lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
No, not really, of course it doesn’t, but it might as well do. Everything’s gone so 19th century as of late. We appear to be entering a New Victorian Age but one with less of a focus on progress and reform and much more emphasis on the fickle, trickle-down, closed-handed ‘philanthropy’ of laissez-faire free-market economics. It’s what the neo-libs want, obviously.
Look at Jacob Rees-Mogg and Desmond Swayne – they even cosplay Victorian robber-barons and slumlords. You can feel a shift in the rhetoric, the terminology. As ‘strivers’ become ‘strugglers’ they’ll morph – probably during PMQs – into the ‘deserving poor’, which of course implies a whole load of ‘undeserving poor’, and then the eugenics programme can really get underway. Ironically, this will partly be a consequence of ‘economic own goals’ by, let’s face it, the undeserving rich. But no one – and certainly not Samuel Beckett – said life was fair.
No, I’m afraid that as the cold iron hand of winter clutches ever more firmly at our vitals, and for millions of people daylight becomes as dim a memory as hope, Sunak, Hunt, Zahawi, Coffey, Keegan and co will be preaching the good old virtues of forbearance, frugality and fortitude while – like so many Bumbles, Pumblechooks or Pecksniffs – they slurp up the buttery bacon rolls, pad their expenses and keep a weather eye on their off-shore investment portfolios.
I click on NASA’s Hubble Images tab and gaze, rapt, at one of my favourites: the ‘Pillars of Creation’. These astonishingly beautiful masses of cosmic gas and dust are light-years tall, aeons wide, epochs deep. The new James Webb images show them shredding a bit. They were demonstrably phallic with Hubble; with Webb, they’re like a sack of ghostly, energetic rodents making a bid for freedom. I read that they may have disappeared six thousand years ago but, obviously, that ancient light hasn’t reached us yet.
They say we live in a 24/7 world of instantaneous news culture, but info from more distant parts of our own galaxy takes millennia to arrive. For some reason, this induces in me a state of calm that I haven’t known for weeks.
I take another quick look out of the window, half expecting to see Jo, the crossing-sweeper, but it’s Frank lurching back from the Spinners.
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