Without Remedy and Regard

Political slogans, whether good, tasteful or not, have an ability to persist in the memory. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan that was produced in 1939 on posters to motivate British people through the ensuing Second World War, has re-emerged in recent years as twee homeware, marketing slogans, parodied to no end. It’s souvenir level in taste but many say that this represents the British character (those that are into that kind of thing); for some the polite, repressed, reluctant nature that people associate with Britishness is tied up in that mantra – just keep calm and just keep moving forward. It may have been emblematic of its times then, but it’s also emblematic of the times now. Ironic and self-conscious, its popularity and resurgence probably comes on the back of recent years fashions of vintage, re-selling, regenerating.

Now in the wake of the EU referendum, one asks how this is possible, one asks if this is tjat kind of Britain any more. It’s impossible to keep calm because nobody has any idea of what is happening, or going to happen, and as a result, one can not simply keep plodding on in a familiar direction. Keeping calm and carrying on also relies on a feeling of togetherness, no matter the ideology, and when at war that’s happening domestically as well as internationally, you would feel that regardless of political persuasion, togetherness is the only way you can physically and psychologically survive a war.

Of course, Britain has comprehensively shown its divides, quite literally split in half, as 48% and 52% differed in their vote on the E.U. The young and the old are divided as the demographics showed similar vote percentages but in the opposite directions; the two major political parties are split between themselves; the United Kingdom is split as Scotland and Northern Ireland voted for remain, where England and Wales voted leave; and England is split between its liberal and professional metropolises and its towns and boroughs across the rest of the country.

And yet, this does not seem like a particularly divisive vote. Remain and leave are of course opposite terms and in terms of legislation, Britain in and out of the E.U are separate realities, but paradoxically, on the way to the polling station, it felt like that this was a vote between two different kinds of capitalism and inequality. It felt like a vote between a more obvious and fascist kind of capitalism, or the kind of capitalism that we’re familiar with in the form of neoliberalism. Post-referendum there was a wave of both obvious anger and cynicism, but an odder feeling of regret by those that voted leave, or considered voting leave, disbelieving that it had actually happened.

Social media allows us all to be experts (ahem), and whilst there are those that continue to propound their views, we have to honestly say that nobody really knows how the E.U operates both in relation to the UK and itself. You cannot help but feel that this is something that shouldn’t have been given to a vote, as Alistair Campbell suggested. For many of us, the E.U’s forty-eight years of existence means that it’s a mechanism that many people will not have lived without in their adult lives. There are many reasons to dislike its function, left and right. Whilst it claims to have been devised to bring together a continent ravaged by war and fascism, it was developed to accelerate those decimated economies. The introduction of the single currency has been disastrous. And so it replicates an emerging problem of sounding like a typically left, socialist sounding idea, a redistribution of wealth, and open borders, yet run by bureaucrats and bankers as a neoliberal project . This has been ramified when it has imposed austerity on countries like Greece.

Britain then could take back control of free movement, it’s economy and trade laws. Political Economist Will Davies has written about how that slogan is “a piece of political genius. It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic…to be a person without control is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. It potentially reduces one’s independence…it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it.” He also points to how this feeling of regret that some leave voters are now feeling is in part related to a feeling that this wasn’t a vote oriented to any kind of vision of the future. As he notes, Thatcher and Reagan came in to power promising a better future and one can still hear Tony Blair sauntering on to D:ream’s ‘Things can only get better’. But this apparent feeling of guilt and regret are feelings that instead operate in a conjecture between the present and the past, a persistent, almost spectral feeling of a past event creating a persisting, damning feeling of the present. It refuses to be comprehended and locate itself in a linear history, yet has an overwhelming feeling of causality. But guilt can also be irrational and demobilising, creating a reality that never actually happened, unlike when rationally and logically it preaches acceptance and teaches us some kind of lesson to right in the future. This referendum result cannot be amended despite the efforts of an online petition and we’re now living in a reality that doesn’t feel real and that we can’t retract. We can’t say we’ve learnt from it and we’ll never do it again. We can’t accept it. Where it might have promised a reality of leaving it all behind, it has instead done the opposite and created a guilty unreality.

We shouldn’t be, and I don’t think people are, surprised by the public retraction of many of leave’s proposals in the wake. It was only an hour so after the result that Farage said that the £350 billion saved by not being in the E.U wouldn’t necessarily go to the NHS; Daniel Hannan later said that immigration would not be stopped and there would still be E.U. nationals arriving in the country, and there was also the claim that Article 50 would not be invoked quickly and the process would be taken slowly and cautiously. Well, this already under threat as officials of other E.U. countries have stated that they want Britain to initiate its leaving sooner rather than later. And rightly so, the E.U is in a precarious position now, and after all, this isn’t Britain’s domain any more. You wouldn’t want the old tenants of a home you’ve just bought hanging around would you?

So what did the vote signify? I can admit to considering leave, believing that it may initiate the kind of political change that would inspire a left regeneration, but couldn’t do so knowing that it would be playing into the hands of the likes of Boris Johnson and Farage. There was no brigadier of the left advocating it, laying out a logical plan. Even though I would be considered one of the younger, University leaving, city-dwellers I despise that liberal, sanctimonious rhetoric. Davies says then that this a vote of self-sabotage. Indeed it almost seems a mocking of democracy, a rejection of a future; a meaningless vote and the apotheosis of what democracy promises to its citizens – an option to potentially be part of the construction of a country’s future governance.

In typical white, working-class heartlands, there were strong results for leave, and this is one of the saddest aspects of the referendum. Nobody can be blamed for voting leave, nobody can be blamed for voting for anything. There are irrational racists who will have voted both leave and remain, but this swing from a voice of the left, to become a vote for the right has been developing for a longer period of time than this referendum. It was concretely evident in the last general election when there were swings from Labour to UKIP in places like the North East. Who knows the definitive moment that people began to realise that they had been abandoned for a liberal project of globalisation, but they are not be blamed for voting the way they did.

We know the lies of politicians, and just because people may have less University degrees than you, it doesn’t mean that they don’t know that politicians lie, or are more susceptible to believing ideological rhetoric. That is the core problem of the liberal left; it still believes enlightenment can be achieved by removing the veil of ideology. So here is the feeling that the result, as Davies said, was one of self-harm, one of nihilism and hatred to all those from different backgrounds and positions (and of course, there are the typical votes from those on the right we would expect to vote leave).

I have been critical of Jeremy Corbyn; a half-arsed remain campaign (which appears now as a conceited leave campaign), half-arsed Prime Minister’s questions, and a half-arsed history teacher look. Corbyn’s resignation would be counter-intuitive. But despite the bids of no motion, public denunciations (he should be used to this by now), and the droves of resignations Corbyn’s speech on the following Saturday however sounded like the rhetoric a left so desired, and more importantly it avoided any kind of sanctimonious liberal assaults, and showed a genuine understanding of those that old heartlands that voted leave (and the Guardian, in typical liberal fashion seems to be reporting with glee both the chaos of the Conservatives and of a Corbyn led Labour). It has been the the only credible and measured talk that has left anybody’s lips, and yet they continue to revolt against him. The fact of the matter is that the majority of Labour members support him. The E.U referendum was based on lies and propaganda but the problem with Corbyn is that he appears to be surrounded by a delirium of unbreakable support, as if his position is fragile, there is no room for criticism and consequently progress. Despite preaching a brand of more honest politics then, and he may well be, Corbyn is a person impossible to infer. There’s been a year of ‘capitalism in its current form’ rhetoric and only now has their been anything which sounds progressive.

I sit here thinking about the pointlessness of words and rhetoric (after admittedly writing 2000 of them, the title of which comes from Macbeth). Many words that escape a politician’s mouth are empty and conceited. ‘Make Britain great again, take back control’. As with all political slogans, they are constructed for politicians and the voter to project their political and personal desires on to. One things for sure, the era of keeping calm and carrying on appears to be over. Nobody is taking control of anything at the moment, and maybe that slogan that was so genius, has been confounded, or unconsciously confounded by voters who don’t actually believe taking control is possible. Western liberal democracy has never looked in such a precarious position, and Fukuyama’s notion that we’re living in a post-ideological world has been replaced by a feeling that we’re living on the verge of a precipice, and that there is a different kind of history and many different potential futures possible. It’s a pregnant feeling after a mistaken union of opposites, like a regretful one-night stand, and nobody knows what the resulting form will look like, but it must be dealt with. It feels like an ironic action that has actually had a forceful and real recrimination. But through it, ironically, irony has been defeated, because it operates on a plane of knowing a reality, where now, nobody knows what is going to happen or happening. A second referendum is unlikely despite the efforts of an online petition (and a referendum isn’t binding. Scotland could veto it but i doubt they will). Both parties are now challenged by deep fissures, and although Labour may appear to be in turmoil, there is a chaos beginning to surround the ‘winning’ leave voters as they now must comprehend and reckon with their success, and the remaining Conservatives who were in remain. Maybe a snap-election would be the best thing to hope for with a left coalition going against whatever formed on the right,but continuing that feeling of disbelief, even the leave campaigners appear to be struggling to comprehend this new state that Britain finds itself in.

Even the wise old maxims seem redundant now. First as tragedy then as farce? It is the Conservatives that are enduring their tragedy, a martyred leader and a more stark than expected division, whereas Labour continue to play out the farce. Every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution? They’re not clichés but wisdom has gone out of the window. But what can a cliché teach us? Cliché’s withhold some kind of truth and there is an old sporting one along the lines of ‘History in the making’. It actually seems at odds with a western, capitalist rhetoric, because it was Marx who after all said, that ‘History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this.’ History is made and produced.

What is history, both personal and collective? Are we at the expense or the driving of its forces? On an individual level, in the anxious person’s mind when there is an overwhelming feeling of inescapable dread and fear, and past events continue to re-live themselves, it is impossible to keep calm. But it’s not impossible to carry on and a lot of the fear comes from the fact that it feels like an individual battle. And so, when a past event refuses to fit into our personal story, refusing to be repressed, alienating us from the self we believe that we know, eventually, not necessarily a lesson, but a meaningful history can be made of it. Only then will the future appear for the making.

Review: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

The literary cinema of Peirene rumbles on with The Dead Lake, part of it’s new 2014 series ‘Coming of Age: Towards Identity’. The first in the series, The Dead Lake  begins in a way that rings bells with the a growing trend in modern cinema; the based on a true story epitaph. Postmodern cinematic trends aside, the movies rely on these epitaphs in ways that the novel does not because we are expecting to be suspended in fictional reality with a novel. The movie increasingly needs to add credibility to it’s tired Hollywood vehicle. However two non-fictions here are the brief paragraph at the beginning that details the history of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site; 468 nuclear explosions were carried out there, and that Kyrgyzstan born Hamid Ismailov is exiled from Uzbekistan. As you continue to read, another pertinent truth of sorts emerges.

They add another arc to this self-conscious, fable-esque novella (exquisitely translated by Andrew Bromfeld) that is as much a story as it is a mediation on the art ofnarrative and story-telling. An immediate referential opening sets this in motion with the opening line; ‘The story began in the most prosaic fashion possible.’ Once upon a time there was a story, another story in the world of stories. Our principle, first-person narrator is on a train journey. Into his fourth day on the train a ‘ten or twelve year old boy’ appears in the carriage playing Brahms on his violin. Speaking to him it transpires that the boy is a twenty-seven year old man who sets out to tell his story.

Yerzhan was born in a barren outlet on the East Kazakhstan Railway line that consists of two families; Yerzhan’s and his childhood love Aisulu’s family. Nobody seems to know how Yerzhan was conceived – nobody knows his father, no-one perhaps ‘except God’, which summons Granny Sholpan to invent stories about his arrival. but he was found in ‘The Zone’, which is also where Uncle Shaken works carrying out nuclear tests. Intermittent booms, which are test bombs (on most occassions) persist through the story, like all the other noises that awaken Yerzhan, like the ear for the violin he has that awakens the narrator to him. He associates a gadfly ‘that became the droning word: Zone…And the word began buzzing around in the child’s imagination’. The fly gets stuck in Yerzan’s dreams, and with it so does his fear of the Zone. The transfer of language to noise to crystallized experience.

One day Yerzhan is finally taken to the zone that torments his childhood, “and the gullies and ravines brought them to the zone that had tormented Yerzhan’s boyish curiosity like a gadfly for all these years”. This is Uncle Shaken’s workplace and the nuclear testing site is being used in case of an imminent war with America, where the point is constantly battered home by patriotic Shaken. This is the moment Yerzhan arrives in the zone “Has Aisulu seen this?” he asked Uncle Shaken fearfully. The man shook his head. ‘If we don’t simply catch up with the americans and then overtake them,’ he added in his usual manner, ‘the whole world will look like this’. The prophetic visions of war resemble the earth’s terminus, but Shaken, is unshaken in his duty to serve the government by working at the site.

One blast, distinctly more powerful than the others interrupts school lessons that Yerzhan and Aisulu are in. As a result, their class is taken on a school trip to where Shaken works and they are explained about Nuclear testing site. Finally toward the evening they are shown, what the novella lends it’s title to, the dead lake; a crater as a result of a bomb filled with unhealthy, unnatural water. In a daring moment of bravado by Yerzhan, which it is difficult to surmise why he does it, he takes off his shirt and walks into the lake. It isn’t just dead in appearance, but it is dead in the sense that it kills any kind of growth in Yerzhan (there is a vicious irony when Yerzhan is taken to a doctor and told that the growth zones in his body are dead) and why the narrator knows Yerzhan as the dwarfed talented violin player.

This pivotal moment is also where Ismailov’s writing is showcased. It is in these moments that the complex political nature of the test site is laid out for the school children in it’s basic terms, and the ‘chain reaction’ of the events that would set in motion a world war, and where they are expected to abide by it.The children are shown a video about nuclear war, but how Yerzhan cannot understand the greater meaning of the demonstration , ”They were shown a film about the peaceful use of nuclear power. Some of the children had never watched a film before and the rustling of the sound and the quick scene changes frightened them and they cried”. Brilliant writing of the highest quality: The blend of irony with an overwhelming, belated sadness.

The implications of Yerzhan’s stumped growth as he watches other children and Aisulu grow up quite literally as Yerzhan does not, retaining the consciousness of an older person but not fulfilling it in height. It’s a question that not only Yerzhan deals with, but is enveloped in the greater one that the likes of Uncle Shaken are trying to answer and justify in their pursuit of America. It is one that has particular resonance at the moment, and one that Ismailov has commented on, with the Winter Olympics in Russia. If the financial crash has taught us anything it has taught us nothing. Instead it has strengthened leaders egotism on the world stage. They are more willing to show that cost does not effect their treasuries, and at the same time more than willing to gloss over the clear fact, denies those who really need the money. The Winter Olympics has cost Russia £30 billion. How much of this will go to the workers, migrants and Russians building these in hideous labour conditions for a paltry sum? Not as much as is likely to go to the corporate companies, and sponsors on all levels of the corruption spectrum. Let us not forget the scandal over LGBT persons rights in Russia in the sense that they don’t have any. Talks of boycotting by other nations are quickly quelled as they go on the pursuit to, once again, strengthen their countries credentials by the pursuit gold medals. They’re all playing the same games on a sporting but also political level. Great Britain for one has an embarrassing presence at Winter games, yet still feel the need to go and compete for the three medals it is aiming for, when a boycott may just show it’s regard, for once, it’s recognition of human value over the egotistical assumption of sporting and national glory. Could we not go 4 year’s without 3 gold medals? We’re all caught up in these games of ideology whether we like it or not as citizens. As is most often in these cases, and as Ismailov openly admits, it is not the elites who pay the price, it is those at the bottom, like in the case of Yerzhan. He is the chain reaction as he admits at one point.  Interchange any world leader saying ‘One day we will take over America’ for Uncle Shaken. And this is not just something that happens to those behind the old iron curtain. This is something all our countries are responsible for, but sport is a great source of monetary capital, a great big advertising vehicle. This is not just something refined to the old iron curtain as the west would have us believe.Britain shoddily treated it’s security staff expecting voluntary work, then giving the best seats to corporate sponsors who failed to show up on most occasions, and Britain has an unrelenting belief in itself as a powerful nation. And look at the continuing scandal of IDS: Iain Duncan-Smith.

Towards the end, Ismailov finds time to ask metafictional questions in a more blatant manner, as the first person narrators intrusion becomes problematic. There are stories within stories in here, but they all seem to emanate when characters get bored, like the narrator on the long train journey. And to return to that opening, ‘the story began in the most prosaic fashion possible’; is that not just the modern day debunking of ‘Once upon a time’? It’s the stories that we tell ourselves of our own existence but also the stories that nations tell themselves, and we’re all expected to go with it and be patriotic citizens. The overwhelming point Ismailov seems to be getting across then is to deconstruct these stories, the ‘beautiful lies’ as Althusser might call it, and uncover real truth’s behind narratives. This is why writers like Ismailov are exiled from nations, because the governments cannot bear these truths being exposed.  Ismailov’s writing draws parallels with that other famous exile, Salman Rushdie.

In this fable of sorts, the moral if we are to assume one is clear: the cost of human life is so often less regarded than the cost of pursuing and building our nations. But if Ismailov is demonstrating to us the strength of storytelling, he has done it an almost implausible manner; maybe a lot of it is down to the timing of this review, but the overriding moral of it is timeless.

All this in the novella. But this is not a championing, or surpassing of one form over the other, it is rather just the brilliant and powerful art of fiction In whatever length or form and it’s ability to illuminate truth’s like no other medium can. These really are beautiful lies.

If you’re wanting justification for novels, stories and writers in the modern day technological, capitalist world, here is one of them.

The Dead Lake (122pp) by Hamid Ismailov, translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield is published by Peirene Press (£12.00 rrp) and is released on the 27th February 2014.  Hamid Ismailov is also the BBC’s Writer in Residence and works for the World Service.

Thank you to Peirene Press for providing a review copy.