Divide by zero

I was doing a thing earlier in the week, writing about our need as humans and especially as writers to see patterns in events. To make sense out of chaos and to form a narrative is just natural.

We all do this. But at one extreme, I’ve a friend who needs me to construct a story about everything. If I give her a book, she will honestly need me to tell her that I heard about it on the radio, that I went to the shop, that I asked a shop assistant for it and then brought it back. If I don’t tell her that, she tells me each step, prompting me to agree.

At the other extreme, I’ve someone who if they need me to get something for them, will give me a script of what to ask for and where to stand when I do.

Hang on. I thought that was just two people who were a bit fixated but it’s me, isn’t it? The second one thinks I haven’t got a brain cell in my head and the first suspects that I go around stealing books.

Well.

Moving on, apart from these two, you’ve seen those TV documentaries about some year or other and you’ve been startled about things such as the fact that Star Wars and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall came out at the same time. I want to give you some example of how surprised I was at how a famous political event happening at the same time as The Muppets but I’m not political.

What I am and what I suspect you are too, is unconsciously used to seeing events sorted out into threads. It’s like history begins as a piece of A4 paper but studying history is like reading that after it’s been shredded. We see long straight lines, we don’t see the whole picture.

Maybe the whole picture is just too big, I don’t know. Certainly it takes time to understand what’s been going on: I can’t wait for the history books to cover today. Though that’s chiefly because by the time those are written, our current events will be safely behind us.

Only, just looking at this as a writer, just looking at this idea of organising events into a comprehensible timeline of cause to effect, I’m seeing something. I’m seeing a structure that a writer would have to invent if it didn’t exist. I’m seeing enough that I wonder whether we are not only prone to looking for sequences and timelines, but that we also naturally, actively create real-life drama in the same cycles and patterns that we do in art.

For there’s this business now that Brexit has metaphorically divided the nation and there’s at least a strong chance that it will cause the literal division and end of the UK. This is just fact now: Scotland may vote to leave, Ireland could even reunite – and, come on, whatever you think of the politics about it, that is surely a third-act surprise twist.

The UK is being divided and the result is that it feels some of us are being focused more on infighting. I do mean territories but I also mean individuals as lines are being drawn and crossed, political opinions are becoming concrete and angry instead of comparatively abstract. Nobody debates, we all entrench.

It’s just that we’ve seen this before.

It’s no stretch to say that divide and rule was British policy across the world and across history. It is both how the Empire was created and how schisms remained across the world after that fell.

I am thinking that what goes around comes around. I am thinking that if you show a gun in the first act, it will be fired at you in the third.

That does imply that we’re in the third and final act of the UK but, remember, we also love sequels.

So anyway…

I couldn’t talk to you last week. That would be the first Friday in over four years that I haven’t wibbled on about something and delighted in how we were getting to natter. I couldn’t talk to you because I couldn’t get any words out. I stood in my little office, shaking. I don’t mean that the way one usually does, an exaggeration that I was shaken by the EU Referendum vote, I mean it literally. Physically.

Standing there shaking, convulsing. I had to hold my hands against my head to stop it, to steady it.

We’re a week on now and I should be over it. I certainly see that there’s no point saying all this to you when you’ve heard and thought it before. But if I had written to you last week, it would’ve been the shortest Self Distract I’ve ever done. It would’ve been one word. I’d have said “Fucked”.

That was before the eye-popping racism of the last few days. I didn’t see that coming. I saw all sorts of things that are now coming true, but I didn’t see that. Britain has a lot in its history that you can’t be proud of, I didn’t expect to be feeling that today.

Look, I was going to say we’re a week on, we’ve got to put this behind us. I was going to talk to you about a writing issue or something. Anything. Change the subject. Instead, I have just written and deleted a thousand words about how this affects me and my work as a writer. (Let me tell you one: I got some business support from an EU-funded programme and through it met some people I deeply admire. The project is done but nothing like it will ever, can ever happen again.)

I was going to write about how it’s said you can’t blame people for voting this way but, yeah, you can. I was in a discussion where a pro-leave person was asked who’ll run the UK next, Boris Johnson or Michael Gove. This person said well, that’s up to us now, isn’t it? Nope. You can’t buy total factual inaccuracy and complete political naïveté, but apparently you can find it very easily.

No, stop me. This isn’t doing either of us any good. If you looked out of your window and thought everything seems much the same as it did, go out the door instead. If you think we’ll look back on this in five years and wonder what the fuss was about, you’re confusing things being fine with having no damn choice about it.

I hope we will become inured to this result but we are permanently injured.

England will leave Europe

I don’t know the details, I don’t really follow all of this, but history shows us that without question, England will be beaten by Paraguay or France or some such team. It will be a sporting tragedy that will make people across the entire continent cry out “Was England in Euro 2016? Really?”

Wait, that’s not what you thought I meant, was it? Yes, of course, you’re right: this is all about the forthcoming vote on whether the UK will leave the Eurovision Song Contest.

You have to wonder, now that Australia is in Europe, but you can’t presume, you can’t be sure. The UK is genuinely important to Eurovision because of the money it contributes to the show. If we didn’t do that, we could keep that money for ourselves and could put it toward the NHS.

Of course then the BBC would have fund the missing Saturday night television, it would have to put more money into all the pre-Contest coverage that currently hides away on digital-only BBC podcasts.

I started to say this to you as a joke: I was nodding off during BBC News’s coverage of some football thing and my mind wandered from the Euros to the Euro to Eurovision and on to chocolate. That last was unrelated.

Only, Eurovision and the money the BBC contributes to it is pretty analogous to everything the UK does with Europe. Stand by to be shocked here as you’ve never subscribed to something or opened a bank account or had a loyalty card, but the BBC puts money into Eurovision and it gets programmes out of it.

The first thing about the whole Brexit argument that ticked me off was, well, it was the word Brexit. But the second was the claim that the UK pays eleventy-billion pounds into Europe. I remember watching the politician saying this and assuming TV news had cut away before he said “and we get back this other amount”.

We can blame TV news a lot for this. For instance, they will show Michael Gove saying that Brussels passes laws that cripple our sovereign state and which we had zero input to. They’ll cut away before he presumably adds that he’s kidding. There’s the small matter that the UK is party to these laws and not just the whipping-boy recipient, there is the fact that Gove knows this and is involved. There is the small fact that if this were true, if Britain were powerless against the might of Brussels laws, then that’s why we’ve got the minimum wage. The bastards.

That would go if we left Europe. There’s not much you can be certain about, but there’s one. Minimum wage dies. On a completely unrelated note, and I don’t even know why I bring it up now, there are UK businesses that very much want to leave the EU. Can’t imagine why.

The leave campaign people would have you believe that we graciously give the European Union your hard-earned money and all we get back are laws that override our own. Britain joined the EU in 1973: if this were really what happens, our government chose to pay over money and take the law lumps and our government also chose to continue doing it for 43 years. On that basis alone, I’d rather we really were run by Europe or anyone but our own government.

As it is, you know that of course the UK gets a benefit from doing this. It is impossible that it wouldn’t. Yet the leave campaign hopes you don’t know that, it hopes that you are so thick that you just go yeah, yeah, we need that money for our own NHS. They’re crossing their fingers that you then assume that they would give the NHS this money.

The leave campaign is doing an awful lot of assuming and unfortunately the side saying we should stay in, is not. The stay campaign is making one assumption: that nobody could be so stupid as to think Britain is forever bailing out Europe from the goodness of its heart.

I think this is why the leave campaign has its word Brexit and the stay campaign has no word at all. It’s got a campaign name but I don’t remember what it is.

I do know that there is a Leave poster near my house which says something to the effect of how you should vote to leave the EU because that’s “the safe choice”.

The leave campaign appeals to politicians who are enjoying the ride and would quite like to be Prime Minister please. It appeals to old people who for some reason believe Britain was a superpower in their living memory and can be again. It appeals to people who think Britain still has any industry. That safe choice poster is trying to mop up the people who are lazy about this. Oh, just vote to leave, that’s safer.

Everything the leave campaign says, without exception, is scaremongering or out and out lies. You shouldn’t vote based on how you resent being lied to all the time, but it’s tempting. I also just think the sheer totality of the bollocks is a reason to be suspicious, at least.

But then, what do I know? I work in the Arts. If the UK leaves the EU my industry would be reliant on the British government and that’s the safe choice.

Lies, damned lies and percentages

I’m not saying that people make up percentages, I’m saying if that they were telling the truth they’d give us the figures. I’m going to make up some examples here in part because my point is about the lying rather than these specific lies but also because it seems appropriate. For I’m seeing this particular lying technique used a lot at the moment over whether Britain should stay in Europe or not and if you’ve seen an actual fact for either side, well done.

I’m seeing it most of all in discussions about immigration which is apparently a dreadful problem. Oh, is it bollocks a problem. BBC Breakfast interviewed a woman this week who said, like so many others, that immigration is a very bad thing and it must to be stopped. Only, she’s an ex-pat British woman living in Spain. She’s an immigrant. You can’t buy stupidity like that but you can pander to it.

Consequently you’ve seen people banging their fists on tables about how immigration has – I don’t know, let’s make up some high figures here – doubled. Maybe more. Maybe there are 60% more immigrants.

Since when? Usually people say “since when” in the same tone and with the same meaning as something like “you and whose army?” but I mean it literally. Immigration has doubled since when? Wednesday? The 17th Century?

The 60% or whatever other percentage in whatever argument you like is not a figure, it is a red-alert klaxon saying the speaker wants you to believe something you wouldn’t if you knew the truth. Say it is 60%, say immigration is up 60% and let’s even throw in that it’s up that much since this time last year. We’re throwing in an actual baseline comparison, we’re throwing in a genuine since-when.

Only, say 10 immigrants came to the UK last year and a whole 16 came this time. That’s a 60% increase right there. Gasp. Doubtlessly or at least presumably the actual figure is more than 16 people but I don’t know what it is and people telling you percentages don’t want you to know.

It offends me that politicians think immigration is a vote-winning issue and it offends me even more that they’re right. For god’s sake, though, my family is from Ireland: I’m only first-generation British born. I shouldn’t be allowed.

Comedy impressions

A friend was trying to remember what the Benny Hill music was called. “Yakety Sax,” I told him, with my head in my hands. Sorry: it’s in your head now, isn’t it? Whether you dislike it or hate it, that music is in your head and you’re thinking how painful it is that Benny Hill comedies were always about him chasing women in speeded-up videos. I know you think that because everyone thinks it, except perhaps for Anglophiles in America who for some reason see Benny Hill as archetypal British humour.

The thing is, he was. I don’t mean for those Yakety Sax videos and I am not trying to be revisionist and claim there was a lot more to Benny HIll – but there was a bit. I used to write a television history column in Radio Times magazine which meant spending a gorgeous lot of time in archives and finding unexpected things. Such as Benny Hill before the speeded-up videos.

Those were always written archives like Radio Times’s own issues but at some point, once I knew Hill had done more, I remember finding footage of him somewhere. And it was funny. Just a very short sketch where a reporter and an IRA informant are in a TV studio: the informant is supposed to be in darkness to protect his identity but instead the reporter is.

That’s all. Must’ve lasted only moments and the overt comedy was in the IRA guy’s reactions, his realisation. I remember it being a nice piece of acting, actually, a comedic double take that was laced with a bit of fear. Very nicely, that acting was from the guest actor playing the informant: Benny Hill himself kept a straight face. That’s pretty good: the star and possibly also the writer of the sketch giving the laugh to the guest.

I remember, too, that the comedy was really Benny Hill mocking television conventions, maybe even taking a poke at the media’s coverage of serious events. It wasn’t The Day Today but it was clever enough stuff and I believe Benny Hill did a lot of this. I can’t be sure because so little of his work is easily available but then that’s for a reason.

At some point in his career, Benny Hill found this Yakety Sax format and that was that. It’s our fault, really: we must’ve responded so much and liked it so much that he kept doing it.

We should all do things that get into everyone’s heads, we should all create work that lasts, though it would be nice if it were work that people liked remembering. I think Benny HIll effectively erased his comedy career by these speeded-up videos.

I wonder if he knew.

I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression will survive of us. I don’t expect to be remembered after the end of this sentence but equally, I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression we give people now.

I keep thinking about how Benny Hill is never repeated in Britain, I keep thinking about how I’m mostly fine with that, yet I also keep hearing how popular he is outside the UK. True, I hear that less and less – he died in 1992 so over 25 years since his last work – but I hear it.

I’m not claiming some statistically valid example here but it seems to me that the people who mention Benny Hill are all outside the UK and they are all either fond of him or at least not wincing.

I keep thinking of this outside opinion and particularly of how things are seen from other countries. How in one place or in one group of people you can be so caught up in opinions or issues that the rest of the world sees completely differently.

Yes, I keep thinking of this because of the idea of Britain leaving the European Union. My niece, working in Luxembourg, tells me that people keep asking her why David Cameron is campaigning to leave the EU. He isn’t, he’s publicly on the side of staying in, but that’s how he’s seen overseas.

Then people who are in favour of leaving the EU act like anyone else gives a damn. I bet most Americans are completely unaware it’s going on at all – why would they? – and I understand that across Europe the attitude is like, whatever, stay or go, Gallic shrug, get on with it.

You’re thinking I’ve taken a left turn since Benny Hill and you’re sure that I’ve done it to argue that the UK should stay in the EU. Actually, I do very much believe that and I am very much angered by the Brexit arguments and not just because I loathe that new word.

But my point really is a writing one: you can’t control what other countries think of your work, you can’t control what other people think of you – and you shouldn’t try.

I think it’s a shame that Benny Hill erased his reputation here and maybe he didn’t have to do that Yakety Sax thing so very often but he did it and he made an impact. We should all have people trying to remember the name of our theme tune a quarter of a century after our death.