Yes, We Have No Bananas

There used to be – and you won’t see it any more, for obvious reasons – a certain type of story in the right-wing Press. I suppose different editors had different names for these stories; I don’t know what they were, but they’ll be familiar to anyone who’s been paying any attention to the media for the past thirty years or so. They were stories about the excesses and madnesses of the European Union.

You’ll know the sort of thing. Stories about the EU banning bendy bananas, forcing barmaids to cover up their cleavages, banning the dear old British fry-up. And so on. Stories like this appealed to the die-hard Eurosceptics on the right, because they reinforced their existing prejudices, but they also, I’d suggest, gaslit a generation of voters into believing that the EU was an insane authoritarian regime determined to stamp out any form of regional sovereignty, a parliament of grey unelected bureaucrats meddling in our ancient British traditions.

All these stories were lies.

The best-known, I guess, is the banana one. Back in 1994 papers such as The Sun, The Daily Mirror, the Express and the Mail ran a story to the effect that the European Commission was seeking to ban sales of curved bananas, with shops ordered not to sell fruit that was too small or abnormally bent.

As with all these stories, there was a germ of reality to it. The fruit industry had asked the European Commission to classify bananas according to size and quality, as a way of simplifying the trade – if fruit sellers bought a certain quantity of a certain category of banana, they knew what they were getting in terms of size and quality. There was no ban, no intention of stopping the sale of curved bananas – or, in another similar story, curved cucumbers. The story was a lie.

And then there was the thing about barmaids. In 2005 the EU proposed at employers should carry out a skin cancer risk assessment for employees who worked in the sun all day. You’d think, considering there are thousands of new cases of skin cancer diagnosed in the UK every year, this would be greeted as a sensible move, but no. The Sun ran a story along the lines of prudes in the EU wanting to make British barmaids cover up their cleavages. Again, this was a lie.

There were so many stories like these that the EU eventually set up a website to counter them, but I don’t imagine many of the people who read those stories bothered to check. The EU were slow to react to stuff like this, and I think they misjudged their reaction when they did. The anti-Euromyths website was a worthy thing, but people are always going to respond more readily to a lie accompanied by a photo of a barmaid’s chest than the truth accompanied by a spreadsheet about skin cancer.

I’m sure the journalists an editors involved would say the stories were just a bit of harmless fun, not to be taken seriously, but the point is they were taken seriously. Not so long ago I saw an interview with one Leave voter who said she’d voted that way because of ‘bendy bananas’. We’re not supposed to call Leave supporters stupid, but someone thought they were.

Being as we’re so assiduous these days in calling out media lies, calling for BBC journalists to be fired for the smallest of errors, shouldn’t we be interested in who wrote these lies? Who were these liars?

Oh, look. It’s the Prime Minister.

Yes, the tousle-haired scamp made his name in journalism – after a rocky start when he was fired by The Times for making up quotes (from a member of his own family) – by writing stories like this. He didn’t invent the form, but he made it his own, and others followed. As his stories – and others – entered the public consciousness, they groomed their readership into believing the EU was an oppressive regime determined to destroy everything good about Britain, and when the time came to vote in the Referendum, they were ready to express their views.

Does any of this matter? No, of course it doesn’t. The Referendum’s done, Article 50’s been enacted, we’re in Transition now and we can’t go back. Johnson is Prime Minister with a huge majority, and even if we had an Opposition worthy of the name there’s nothing to stop him doing whatever he wants.

The Government and the Eurosceptic Press are still gaslighting us, for their own purposes, during this period of negotiations with the EU. And all we can do is watch.

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

 

 

 

The Long Goodbye

My mind keeps circling back again and again to a phrase Jeremy Corbyn uses when he’s asked about Labour’s plans for Brexit. Like all the soundbites we get from politicians these days it’s a little prepared speech, and it usually begins with Corbyn saying that in three months Labour will negotiate a new withdrawal deal with the EU which will protect jobs and people’s rights and social justice, and then put that to the people in another referendum ‘with an option to Remain’.

It’s that ‘option to Remain’ that keeps nagging at me, because it feels tacked on, an appendage, and it’s why I don’t trust Labour over Brexit. So let’s play a little game and see if I’m right one day. Here’s what I think is going to happen.

Let’s say the new Labour government goes to Brussels and gets its deal in three months. It took May’s government two and a half years, and Johnson only managed to get a deal so quickly because he Tipp-Exed out the bits of May’s deal the ERG didn’t agree with and the EU nodded it through. But let’s say they do manage it.

A Referendum Bill will have to pass through Parliament. Whether it does or not depends, I guess, on what kind of majority Labour get, because the Tories will oppose it. But let’s say Labour get that through and the country goes out of its mind again.

Boris Johnson and other Tories have mocked Labour’s plan, sneering that they’ll get a deal and then they’ll campaign against their own deal, but I think the Tories have got it arse-backward. Labour are going to campaign for their deal. It’s Remain they’re not going to campaign for.

Oh, it’ll be there, that ‘option’. But it’ll be cast something like this: “Vote for Labour’s Leave deal, a deal which protects jobs and rights and social justice, a shining socialist Brexit that brings ever closer the New Jerusalem. Oh, yeah, or you can vote Remain. If you want. If you don’t care about social justice and you want little babies to die.”

Okay, an exaggeration. I suspect it would be more subtle than that. But lookit, they will already have the people who voted Leave in 2016, to whom they’ll say, well, it’s either this Brexit or you have to wait another five years to vote the Tories back in so they can do it. There will be waverers – and there are still quite a few, surprisingly – who will be comforted to know that it’s the gentlest, fluffiest Brexit it’s possible to have and you didn’t really want Freedom of Movement, did you? They’ll have made a calculation that they can win a Socialist Brexit, and that ‘option’ really is just a sop to make it look fair.

I can see that happening. The more I think about it, the more I see it. Okay, the outcome is by no means certain, even though they’ll push hard at the advantages of the Socialist Brexit and honouring the 2016 Will Of The People. But I’m really not very smart, and if it’s crossed my mind it’s crossed someone else’s.

So Labour get a Leave majority on their second referendum. We live in a time of such cosmic comedy that it wouldn’t surprise me if the numbers are more or less exactly the same as in 2016. They take their Withdrawal Bill back to Parliament with a mandate from The People. If they have to, they cut a deal with the SNP for a second Independence Referendum to be held in 2024 or so, if they’ll support the Withdrawal Bill. Bill goes through. Wave the EU bye-bye.

Trust me, as conspiracy theories go, this is by no means the wildest I’ve seen over the past couple of years. Shit, it’s not even the wildest I’ve seen this week.

Thing is, there’s nothing any of us can do about it. The Tories are a cauldron of incomptent evil led by a dexedrine-fuelled Aryan Honey Monster. A Lib Dem government would be like living in a country ruled by the Three Stooges. There’s no alternative but to vote Labour, which I’ve finally decided to do after a lot of heart-searching. I don’t trust them. On anything. But the alternative is so much worse. One of the great tragedies is that we live in an age of utterly mediocre politicians.

And Brexit? I remember a time when we used to say “Fuck Brexit,’ and mean it. I suspect by this time next year that is going to seem a very, very long time ago.

 

(edit 28.2.20 – of course, the above was predicated on the – at the time quite reasonable, I thought – assumption that Labour might win the election; we’ll never know)

 

Sum Buks

Some of my favourites from the (many, many) books I’ve read this year.

Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory – An utterly charming, quirky and funny story of a family of American psychics and flimflam artists. Beautifully-written and warm-hearted.

Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway – A genuine achievement, this one. Brain-wrenchingly complex, ambitious, and propelled by righteous fury about the current state of the world. I take my hat off to Harkaway; I could never land a book like this in a million years.

The Wounded Kingdom Trilogy, by RJ Barker – I’m not the world’s biggest fan of fantasy, but these are wonderful books. Complex, full of wholly-realised characters, and utterly stuffed with antlers. Essential. Read them.

The Slow Horses novels, by Mick Herron – If John le Carre was writing his Circus novels in the Star Trek mirror universe, this is what they would look like. Jackson Lamb, sort of an antimatter George Smiley, is one of the great literary creations.

Soho Dead, by Greg Keen – This is a very nice piece of Soho noir, with a genuinely moreish sense of wry humour. Liked this one a lot.

Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer – Huge, technicolour, and batshit crazy and still, in places, almost unbearably touching. A masterpiece.

The Price You Pay, by Aiden Truhen – There is nothing else quite like this book. It’s fast, funny, extravagantly violent, and mad as fuck, and I loved it.

The Willow By Your Side, by Peter Haynes – I think this is one of the most assured debuts I’ve read in quite a while. A dark fantasy of English myth and landscape sparked by a handful of broken lives. As if Ben Wheatley had written Mythago Wood. Splendid book, it really is.

The Real-Town Murders, by Adam Roberts – I’ve thought, for a long time, that Roberts is one of our best and most interesting writers, and this one doesn’t disappoint, a madcap collision of virtual reality, post-scarcity, panoption surveillance and Alfred Hitchcock.

Dogs Of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Can’t praise this one highly enough. Rex is, indeed, a Good Dog.

Moskva and Nightfall Berlin, by Jack Grimwood – Great, great espionage novels set around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union but propelled by the dark weight of history. More of these, please.

Rosewater, by Tade Thompson – This is just a magnificent book. I’m in awe of it.

I’ve probably missed some books out, and I’ll probably add to this as they occur to me, but that’ll do for now.

Tales From The Black Sarcophagus

It’s now a little over two years since a shellshocked Boris Johnson and Michael Gove appeared at that press conference and admitted that, yes, it seemed that the Leave campaign had been successful and that Britain would, in due course, be departing the European Union. From the looks on their faces and their glum and noncommital performance, it looked for all the world as if they had not expected to win and had no idea what to do next.

It was certainly not a referendum that David Cameron, who had finally seen no alternative but to grasp the Tory eurosceptic nettle, had expected to lose. The issue of the European Union had dogged Tory Prime Ministers almost since Ted Heath took us into what was then the Common Market in 1973. A referendum in 1975 confirmed that almost seventy percent of voters wanted to remain in the EU.

In the decades that followed the right-wing press peddled a steady stream of anti-EU stories, including one persistent myth that the EU wanted to ban curved bananas. This drip-drip in the ears of people who already resented what they saw as European meddling in British affairs eventually changed the landscape of opinion enough that, with hindsight, what happened next was inevitable.

Eurosceptic pressure grew within the Tory party, poisoning John Major’s premiership, and it became so acute – bolstered by what at the time seemed the all-conquering UKIP, itself a spinoff of disaffected Tories, at least in the beginning – that in 2013 Cameron proposed a simple vote to either leave or remain in the EU.

It was an act of towering hubris. Cameron saw that the Tories had won the now long-forgotten referendum on voting reform – which, to be honest, you could have missed even as it was taking place, there was so little interest in it – and he saw the Remain result of the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence, and, in the 2015 general election, he put an EU referendum in the Tory Manifesto. He had, in effect, already won two referendums, and he would again. The People would not vote to leave, the issue of the EU would be put to bed in the Party for at least a generation, and he and George Osborn could go back to making the country miserable.

And maybe, in an alternate universe, that did happen. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that one.

I suppose we could look, as Cameron seems to have done, at Indyref as a kind of dry-run for the EU referendum. It was one of the dirtiest, angriest, most divisive campaigns I can remember and it caused divisions which remain to this day. There’s a real sense that, for Scotland, the subject is not yet closed.

And so it came to pass that the EU referendum was one of the dirtiest, angriest and most divisive campaigns the country has ever seen. Both sides lied and cajoled and promised and tried to scare people into voting for them. A slogan painted on the side of a bus by the Leave campaign promised that post-Brexit there would be £350 million a week of spare money which could be spent on the NHS – a promise that Leave politicians rapidly distanced themselves from once they’d won.

In the intervening couple of years, much has come to light about dodgy election funds, data analytics, and the raft of falsehoods built by both campaigns, but the simple truth is that Remain lost because it didn’t try hard enough. That was obvious at the time. Remain were quite unprepared for the sheer vehemence of the Leave campaign. And they didn’t expect to lose. Common sense would prevail, they reasoned. The People would do as they were told, as they always had.

I had a suspicion, in the closing days of the referendum campaign, that Leave might just edge it, but I went to bed on the night of the referendum with exit polls predicting a win for Remain and Nigel Farage seeming to concede defeat. The news the next morning was a bit of a shock.

In the aftermath, Cameron resigned, Theresa May was eventually confirmed as Tory leader and ad hoc Prime Minister, a series of frankly incomprehensible ministerial appointments followed – I suspect Boris Johnson’s tenure as Foreign Secretary will baffle historians for quite some time, as will the appointments of David Davis and Liam Fox, a man whose name is often prefaced by the words ‘disgraced former Defence Secretary’.

We were told, at the outset, that leaving the EU would be a piece of piss, that nations around the world would be queuing up to trade with us, that a new life awaited us in the offworld colonies, a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure. Okay, that last bit is from Blade Runner, but it catches the spirit of what was promised. Britain would be Great again and everything would be joyous.

It’s now eight months until we officially leave the European Union. Since the referendum, Theresa May has called a snap election which she very nearly lost, reducing the healthy majority left behind by Cameron to a point where she had to shackle herself to the DUP in order to get legislation through Parliament, a deal which she almost certainly regretted the moment it was struck. David Davis’s tenure as Brexit Secretary was characterised by a breezy self-confidence and a near-total lack of substance, and every time I see Liam Fox being interviewed on television now he looks utterly lost and out of his depth. Davis eventually quit his job over the government White Paper on leaving the EU; his successor, Dominic Raab, decided to establish his bona fides from the get-go by threatening that if the EU didn’t play ball Britain would withhold the so-called ‘divorce bill’. A few days after he was appointed, he was effectively demoted and Theresa May announced that she would be taking over negotiations personally.

Meanwhile, it seems the government is preparing for the possibility of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit by encouraging the stockpiling of food and medicines and Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the European Research Group – whose anodyne name hides some of the most extreme Tory eurosceptics – conceded recently that it could be fifty years before we know whether Brexit has been good for Britain or not. One does not have to be a writer of post-apocalyptic fiction to find all this slightly alarming.

Leave did not expect to win, and having won, they had no idea what to do next. They’ve been winging it for the past two years, I suspect to the increasing bemusement of the EU. There’s a line in Chris Wood’s ‘Hollow Point’. about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, which goes something like ‘they gave him no instruction that an innocent man would have understood’, and I have a feeling that’s how the EU negotiators have felt for the past couple of years. The clock has been ticking for two years and the British government has only just published the White Paper on what it wants from Brexit – and then promptly shredded it to please the European Research Group. If this is one of the easiest negotiations in history, as it was once characterised, the most difficult one must have been something to see indeed.

The thing is, very little of this changes anything. There are people living in this country who would rather live in a hedge and eat fox turds than remain in the EU. You could tell these people that Brexit would result in a hundred-foot tidal wave of volcanic lava scouring all life from Britain, and they would tell you it’s worth it. As far as they’re concerned, the EU is the bad guy here, bullying us as it has always done, a shady cabal of unelected euro-technocrats feathering their own nests at the expense of hard-working Brits.

Except that’s not quite true. The EU is trying to protect its own interests, as we would in its place. There’s a very real sense of British entitlement in the way we seem to expect the EU to accede to our every demand. If the wheels do come off the whole enterprise – which seems likely at the moment – the utter incompetence of the governent will not be held to blame. It will be the ‘intransigence’ of the EU, which will play into the narrative of the European Research Group.

That’s not to say that the EU are incapable of being utter bastards – their handling of the Greek financial crisis showed that – but in this case there is a legal and political framework in place for a country to leave the European Union, and it’s up to that country to work within that framework. That’s one of the things Leave supporters seem unable to understand: the EU is not going to bend the rules just because we’re British and we want them to, and it is not going to do something which threatens its own structures. The  attitude of the government seems to have been that the EU, faced with the righteous Voice of the British People, would just roll over, no matter what the cost to itself, and there is a continuing subtext of shocked anger to some commentary that these uppity foreigners refuse to do as we ask, damn them.

To be honest, we were never really in the EU in the fullest sense. We negotiated a whole basket of opt-outs and rebates while cherry-picking the bits which suited us. We sit outside Schengen, we were never a member of the currency union. Of all the member states of the EU, we probably retained the most sovereignty while taking as much benefit as we could, and it was still not enough for some. The Ideal Brexit would be just the same, a situation where we were no longer part of any of the EU’s structures but we could still suck to our hearts’ content on the Eurotit, and I’m sorry to disappoint Leave supporters but it just doesn’t work like that and no amount of shouting and stamping your feet and screaming until you’re sick is going to change it.

There is, of course, the nuclear option, the no-deal Brexit. We don’t get what we want and we just throw our toys out of the pram and go our own way. How bad could that be? Well, it could be this bad. You’ll recall that none of this was on the side of a bus. Not that it would have made a lot of difference; the people who voted Leave because of immigration, because of resentment of EU legislation, because they wanted their curved bananas back, would still have voted the same way.

Any time someone tries to point out something like this, they’re shouted down. It’s ‘Project Fear’, it’s the ‘metropolitan elite’, ‘talking down the country’. As if throwing the wholehearted support of every living creature on Britain behind May, Davis, Fox and Johnson would have made them any less incompetent. Just having the temerity to say that Brexit might not be the best thing ever to happen to Britain is enough to get you called a traitor, and worse. Commentators characterise any opposition as ‘anti-democratic’. If you think Brexit is a mistake, you oppose Democracy itself. The whole thing is a bitter, black, shouty farce.

And that’s the lasting effect of Brexit. It hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already made us a meaner, angrier country. And it might get even worse.

So here we are, eight months to go. The EU has effectively killed Theresa May’s Chequers proposal, which was apparently the best thing the government could come up with after two years of infighting, and we’re in freefall again. Nobody knows what to do or what will happen and organisations on both sides of the Channel are making preparations for the worst-case scenario – not because they want it but because in the end it might be the only outcome. Meanwhile, May appears to be trying to perform an end-run on the EU by whistlestopping around Europe trying to drum up support from individual heads of state. Quite what she has to offer in return is unclear; she appears to be entirely out of bargaining chips, both abroad and at home.

Still, blue passports, eh.

Best Books of 2016

Eh, well, everyone seems to be doing lists this year, so I might as well. This is just a reflection of my own personal tastes, and I’ve probably left some books out, so you shouldn’t pay too much attention to it.

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. Easily one of the best titles ever. I loved this book. It made me smile.

Dodgers – Bill Beverly. A very, very, very fine thriller, made all the more extraordinary by being Beverly’s debut novel. Essential reading. Seriously, read this book.

Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky. The very worthy winner of the Clarke Award this year. Proper ‘core sf’, beautifully conceived and written, and packed with sentient spiders.

Fever City – Tim Baker. Another thriller, and another breathtaking debut novel, this time set round the events of the assassination of JFK. Comes very close to out-Ellroying Ellroy.

The Thing Itself – Adam Roberts. Mindbending and wondrous and very funny. A fabulous, fabulous book. Should have Won Things.

Freedom’s Child – Jax Miller. Miller is going to be a star. You wait and see.

Dominion – Peter McLean. The follow-up to Drake sees the return of Don Drake, ‘Hell’s Hitman’. Easily as gritty, sweary – and that’s very sweary – and as much fun as its predecessor.

Way Down Dark – James Smythe. Very different from The Machine, which I still think is a very considerable work, but easily as good. I’m hoping my life will settle down soon and I can get round to reading the rest of the Australia Trilogy.

Shut Up

I suppose it’s not particularly insightful to note that this has been a grim old year, and depending on the outcome of the US Presidential election it may get even grimmer, but the thing I’ll be taking away from 2016 is that this is the year we were told to shut up.

Specifically, the formulation goes: ‘The People have spoken, now shut up.’ I’ve heard it most often from the Leave camp with relation to the EU Referendum; anyone who expresses disappointment or apprehension about the result is branded a ‘Remoaner’ and told that the People voted to leave the EU and any dissent is sour grapes. I’ve also started seeing it with relation to the election of Jeremy Corbyn – those who express doubts about Labour’s future electability are told, ‘The People have spoken; shut up.’

There’s a long and noble tradition of dissent in this country, and it feels odd to see it being countered with the simple words ‘We won, now shut up.’ Eurosceptics didn’t shut up after the People spoke in the 1975 Referendum and voted to remain in the EEC, and if the Left had taken that advice a great deal of social justice, down the years, would have gone unchallenged.

But perhaps we should just shut up now. The People spoke last year and returned David Cameron’s government with a majority, and perhaps we should shut up about that. When the American People speak and send Donald Trump to the White House in a couple of months, perhaps we should shut up about that.

Perhaps we should all just shut the fuck up.

Europe in Winter

Quite a lot has happened since I finished writing Europe at Midnight. When I handed the book in to the publishers, an EU referendum was still a vague promise, a coalition was still running the country, and Great British Bake Off was still on the BBC. I remember I got my first look at a proof of Midnight at last year’s Clarke Awards do, the day before the general election, the day before we all took what turned out to be the first step into the abyss.

What a difference a year makes. David Cameron is about to become a (very well-off) private citizen, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are no more, the Labour Party is now apparently being directed by Mack Sennett, and we are being led by St Theresa, Our Lady of Brexit.

Meanwhile, Midnight has been well-received, thankfully. I was really worried about how it would go down. I read it again just before publication and it seemed kind of lightweight to me, not as dense or as textured as Autumn and I was sure I’d made a mistake. I’d written it as well as I could, but I thought it sat awkwardly beside its predecessor.

And so here we go again. Europe in Autumn, the book I was basically picking away at now and again as a hobby, is about to spawn a third book. Europe in Winter comes out in about a month and a half, and I have the Doubt again. Is it any good? Well, yes, bits of it are very good, I’m particularly proud of the first chapter; there are a couple of very good gags in there. Does it work, as a book? Just about. Does it sit well alongside Autumn and Midnight? I hope so; I’ve come to realise I genuinely can’t tell.

It’s more of a direct sequel to Autumn than Midnight, but the engine of the plot arises from stuff that happens in Midnight. Rudi is the central character again – one of the things that have surprised me is how popular he seems to be; he’s basically me, or at least we share a worldview, so it’s been odd to discover how much people like him – and Rupert makes a return, along with a cast of new characters.

It’s also been a bit strange to see how much people are looking forward to the book. I’m not used to that and it’s a little bit scary; I sense a weight of expectation and I hope people aren’t disappointed. I worked my tits off on this one, and it wasn’t easy – I only got a sense of what it was about when I was in the last third of writing it – but once it’s in the reader’s hands I can’t do anything else. After having total control over the book for so long, there’s a terrifying feeling of helplessness.

I know I told people to shoot me if I even looked as if I was going to write another Europe book, but there will be one more, Europe at Dawn. Again, because I realised there’s stuff I haven’t tackled in the earlier books. The refugee crisis and its effects on Europe’s southern borders, what I’m starting to see as a growing split between the wealthy countries of the North and the poorer ones of the South, a two-tier Europe. Canals. I can’t believe I overlooked canals in the other books. I plan to throw the fucking kitchen sink at this one. But this will be the last; there’s a limit to how many world-shaking conspiracies a series of novels will stand. Also, I like the idea of a Quartet.

So, here we go again, in a new world, waiting for a new Europe book. It has an absolutely fantastic cover; Clint Langley has done me proud with all the books, and this is no exception. I think it’s a fun book; I don’t think it stands alone the way Midnight does, but it pushes Rudi’s story along and in the process really pisses him off. I’m starting to feel sorry about messing the poor sod about so much; all he really wants to do is cook.

Anyway. Onward. Hope you like the book.