Reading, writing and rhetoric

I live the life I always wanted: the writer’s life. Somehow or other, I attained this life without resources, assistance, support, encouragement, inheritance, privilege, patronage, influential friends and nepotistic networks, and despite the best efforts of a motley collection of reactionary shits to stymie, thwart, neuter, silence or destroy me. I wanted to be a writer not only because it’s the ideal work for those seeking a life of the mind, a life of the imagination, a life of freedom and a life of solitude, but also because it’s the only possible way someone like myself could try to change the world. That last aim, I must admit, has not gone too well…

I have written a hell of a lot over the years. Reams and reams and reams. This blog alone, now 10 years old and one of the longest running in Wales, has well over 400 articles adding up to a total word-count exceeding that of the King James Bible – which was written by scores of generously-rewarded people across hundreds of years – yet I am a one-man band without two pennies to rub together. What’s more, I don’t allow advertising on the website (which could have netted me around £4,000 in GoogleAds revenue) since I oppose and loathe marketing, commerce, profiteering, materialism and the oppressive, sinister, exploitative, manipulative, intrusive algorithms of surveillance capitalism. Yep, I’m a person with principles! Ooh, how quaint!

I’m not blowing my own trumpet, he said disingenuously. I’m just proving that it isn’t compulsory to be a shallow, greedy, conformist collaborator, and that there are still a few alternatives to being a whoring apologist for the mass murder, grand larceny, proud ignorance, brute cruelty and staggering insanity of the capitalist system.

Subject to the rather flimsy proviso that I don’t die, I have a lot more writing in me. In fact, I’ve barely started. Currently I’m working on my next book, which all being well should be out by the end of the year, plus I have a multitude of articles and features in various states of development and I’ve also started research on my long-term pet project. Fuck false modesty and simulated humility: if I can complete it, Wales will have the definitive magnum opus it has for so long been denied.

Since I write a lot, I read a lot: the two activities are inseparable. I’ve always got a few books on the go. Right now millions are working from home or self-isolating or in quarantine and all the bread & circus events that keep people distracted and passive and numbed have ceased, while both the public realm and social interaction itself have just evaporated away with alarming suddenness. In this frightening, bizarre and completely unfamiliar reality, the immense rewards of being a lover of reading really come into their own. To survive the days/weeks/months/years ahead (delete according to temperament), the easily-bored and the intellectually-compromised are soon going to lose the will to live or go berserk if they rely on 100 TV channels of American crap to kill the time (it’s known as the ‘Golden Age of Television’, on the grounds that previously there were merely four channels of British crap). I can only urge those who have lost the reading habit, or never developed it in the first place, to bury themselves in a good book. Time will fly – fruitfully. And there’s no time to waste. Even a voracious, habitual reader cannot hope to do more than scratch the surface of literature’s fathomless depths across a lifetime of reading. There are so many millions of books I have not yet read, so much still to discover, to learn, to experience and to enjoy, and such boundless universes of contemplation waiting to be explored. What better way to spend a life? Here are the books currently stacked up on my bedside table, not as recommendations necessarily, but just to give a miniscule suggestion of reading’s infinite possibilities:

FICTION
Hangover Square (1941) by Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962)
Our Kind Of Traitor (2010) by John le Carré
Stories (1998) by TC Boyle
Sweet Desserts (1988) by Lucy Ellmann
The Woodlanders (1887) by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

NON-FICTION
A Rhondda Anthology (1993) by Meic Stephens (1938-2018)
Dr Johnson’s London (2000) by Liza Picard
Great Masters Of Scottish Football (1967) by Hugh Taylor (c1920-c1990)
Travels In An Old Tongue (1997) by Pamela Petro

Unless people find new levels of mental acuity, the coronavirus crisis is going to test the shrivelled, brainwashed, compliant hive mind of the masses to breaking point. Surely now, as the Anthropocene epoch gathers momentum and piles new horror upon new horror, there might at last be a sea-change in human character, a rejection of deluded, dumb narcissism and a desperately needed shift toward lives of realism, intelligence and deadly seriousness? If not now, when? Whatever happens, people are going to have to do something that many, so revealingly, find unbearable: spend time on their own. The bore, quite rightly, always finds himself boring. I’ve never had that problem. To tweak Woody Allen’s old gag, “Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I love”, I don’t knock being alone, he’s great company and agrees with everything I say! Over the years, it has gradually dawned on me that all along I’ve been trying to reduce interaction with others to the bare minimum I can get away with, and with hindsight I see now that I’ve been craving “social distancing” ever since my very first encounter with humanity en masse: at a kiddies’ party in Stallcourt Avenue, Roath, way back in the 1950s. There, amid the jelly and blancmange and balloons, my three-year-old eyes, untarnished by the cultural conditioning to come, saw the awful truth about our species, a truth that all other animals know instinctively: we are horribly scary. Contrary to the accepted prevailing myth, human beings are not naturally ‘social’ creatures. All the evidence actually asserts the opposite, from the profoundly anti-social consequences of ‘social media’ or the way those who have the choice, the wealthy, invariable live as far from the madding crowd as possible, or the little matter of the two million people deliberately killed by other people every year, a rate of lethal violence within a single species 700% higher than the average among other mammals. No we are not social at all: we are territorial, we are self-centred, we are cunning, we are vicious and, as we are all finding out at the moment, we are dangerous. Very dangerous.

It was ever thus. The previous global pandemic was the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, which killed 100 million people, 5% of the world’s then population of 2 billion. It originated in Kansas in the good ol’ US of A and was carried by American troops into Europe when Uncle Sam joined WW1. The vast movements of armies, displaced peoples and refugees then did the rest. You see, it’s like this: humans are actually poisonous. Whenever we go barging in uninvited beyond our native soil we cause death and destruction just by our presence. The British, for instance, killed 90% of Australian Aborigines simply by passing on diseases they had no resistance to: bronchitis, measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox and the common cold. Likewise, the Inca and Aztec civilisations were destroyed as much by the Spanish invaders introducing smallpox, mumps, flu and typhoid as by violence, while the Native American tribes of North America could defeat the guns of the British, French and Spanish, but not the plethora of deadly diseases the colonists brought with them. Nothing, of course, is ever learned. Here we are in the 21st century, chronically overpopulated by 8 billion of us in a global supra-national economy that depends on a mobile labour market and transitory hordes of drooling consumers to stoke the perpetual growth capitalists demand: a recipe perfectly calibrated to enable world-wide pandemics, especially when supplemented by humans’ frenzied and wicked mass destruction of the natural world and the habitats of other species – a catastrophic folly that epidemiologists, biologists, pathologists and ecologists are increasingly identifying as the real underlying cause of this coronavirus.

The only positive attribute of humans, the only thing we’ve got going for us, is our large brain. The biggest muscle in our body bestows the frontal lobe potential for every single one of us to be truly wonderful. That is the muscle we now need to flex, to exercise, to train and to strengthen. Brilliant English playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) nailed it when he wrote “there is no sin but ignorance” (he got murdered for such views). It is that colossal, widespread ignorance, fostered as policy by multimillionaires and corporate interests to disguise and conceal their crimes against the planet and therefore humanity, that must be fought just as much as any virus – and books are one of the few readily available weapons.

There can hardly be a better example of the consequences of mass ignorance than the fact that the UK, at the worst possible time, is being run by the worst possible person. Boris Johnson, inflicted on us by the ignorant British, staggers from error to error with floundering, blundering incompetence, oozing utterly inappropriate Tory Boy arrogance, fat-cat complacency and over-entitled Old Etonian lethargy. This is all that can be expected from the man with an ingrained disregard for everybody but himself, a man who has been the cheerleader for the corporate lobbyists for decades, spreading lies, pouring doubt on science, mocking expertise, dismissing the precautionary principle, denying risk, vilifying intellect and undermining the very idea of responsible governance as ‘nanny state’, ‘socialist’, ‘bureaucratic’ and so on – all the better to create the unregulated free-market hell demanded by his paymasters: the rightwing thinktanks, the junk food manufacturers, the private health companies, the oil industry, the arms industry, the tax avoiders, the media moguls, the privatisers and the whole rotten financial system. The Johnson government’s befuddled dithering, leaving the UK weeks behind all other comparable nation states in mobilising containment, in mass testing, in provision of protective equipment, in taking clear, decisive action, and in paying heed to science rather than wishful thinking, is likely to cause thousands of unnecessary deaths. Ignorance is, indeed, the ultimate crime.

Compared to the Conservative government in London, the mediocre and largely powerless Labour government in devolved Wales looks like a beacon of reassuring common sense, rectitude and decency, and compared to Prime Minister Boris Johnson meekly apologetic First Minister Mark Drakeford looks like an international statesman of real weight and dignity. Here is another undeniable truth this crisis is accidentally revealing: it is urgently necessary for we Welsh to shake off our chains and unshackle ourselves from the venal, vile, bottom-of-the-barrel British State.

I’m not venturing out much, but when I do walk the eerily empty streets of ghost-town Cardiff and pass other people on the pavement I can’t help but notice the suspicious glances and the jealously protected do-not-enter bubbles. Society has collapsed in the blink of an eye. There is now definitely “no such thing as society” and Thatcher’s victory is complete. Let the fight-back begin in earnest.