Connecting The Dots
Some of you may remember that I used to start off every volume of my short stories with a state-of-the-nation piece linking lots of different news items together. They were intended to provide a snapshot of the times in which the tales were written, the better to understand how these stories arose. For example, this page came from ‘Old Devil Moon’.
In Stockton-On-Tees, a poverty-stricken family succumbed to heroin use, and as her son died, the distraught mother went to bingo to try and win money for his gravestone. Ironically, George Bush chose her neighbourhood for a visit, and hisÂ security operation cost the British government a million pounds.
Pat Robertson, the US Christian evangelist, appeared on national television suggesting it would be a good idea for American hit squads to murder the president of Venezuela for his oil.
In London, a Big Brother house member simulated masturbation with a beer bottle on a channel subsidised for its contribution to quality television, and garnered more column inches in the national press than the US governmentâ€™s final refusal to cut CO2 emissions.
In Japan, internet suicide groups were infiltrated by bogus suicidees planning to kill their fellow members for cash, which had the effect of making teenagers think twice about killing themselves in groups.
In Britain, an eleven-year-old girl was rushed to hospital suffering from a heroin overdose, while on the same day another announced she was pregnant and looking forward to being a pre-teen mum. It was revealed that half a million UK children belonged to street gangs.
In Plymouth, four mothers filmed themselves goading their toddlers into fighting each other. They did it, they said, to make their children hard and stop them from turning into â€˜faggotsâ€™.
In America, where an estimated 37 million citizens live below the poverty line,Â one Christian Right group decided to improve the world by financing trips to locate the remains of Noahâ€™s Ark, while another threatened to kill cinema owners for agreeing to book Brokeback Mountain into theatres.
The suicide business returned to normal in Japan, and the new yearâ€™s death toll tripled.
Endemol, the makers of Big Brother, produced a season casting mentally ill contestants in the hopes that they would humiliate themselves and hurt each other on live television. With racism shown to be endemic on the programme, public opinion finally started mobilising against them, but the producers felt that its export market had been â€˜fantastically improvedâ€™ by the sight of burning effigies in India. It emerged that the show was most popular with schoolchildren.
And so on.
Yesterday, I was surfing through the London Times and started making the connections again. But there has been a sea-change in the way in which pieces are reported. Here are a few of the juxtapositions I picked up.
Most British graduates will not be able to clear their student debts in their lifetimes. Meanwhile, two champagne-swigging daughters of the rich were photographed at a Cotswolds party wearing Â£560 trainers, while David Cameron, the former PM whose chronic indecisiveness led to the disastrous Brexit referendum, opposed pay rises for public sector groups, labelling those who want to end austerity as ‘selfish’. The hidden agenda here is that the Times coverage of the Cotswolds party was designed to enrage readers – but why shouldn’t a rich girl wear expensive shoes?
The New York Times continued to report on deepening Brexit troubles, including the divide between black taxis, whose rigorously trained drivers are mostly white males, and super-polite Uber drivers, the workforce that’s mostly ethnic in origin and most at risk in the coming months. UK press reports across the board that Brexit voters have now swung massively in the opposite direction, with even the man who came up with the fake news NHS bus side promising an extra Â£360 million a week going to the NHS admitting that it was a lie and a mistake. In the book ‘Brexit, No Exit’,Â Denis MacShane, the formerÂ Minister of Europe who has spent more time inÂ EuropeanÂ capitals than in London, argues that ‘Brexit’ as the Man on the Clapham Omnibus understands it cannot happen. In January 2015 MacShane correctly predicted that the nation would vote Leave. I don’t know if he imagined it would be by such a tiny margin.
Trump is meeting Putin, rather like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man meeting Iron Man. So disdained is UK democracy now that a mooted flying visit by Trump to the UK is being kept secret to prevent protests from taking place. Most other news items on Trump are also designed to cause outrage and not worth reading, although a friend in Washington tells me that Trump shuts down policy makers in meetings by shouting ‘Boring!’ at them. It’s a mark of validity Americans accord to ‘fake news’ theories that the Seth Rich murder ‘conspiracy’ theory is now being used to sell face cream.
Over here, the Grenfell fire victims have not been rehoused by the deadline the council promised, while down at the Shard, Renzo Piano’s eyesore (except at sunset, from a great distance) is still largely empty. Five years on, the luxury flats, which were touted as an ‘easy sell’, have failed to shift. Their top prices remained pegged at Â£50 million. One argument from an estate agent (so take it with a pinch of salt) is that nobody wants to spend that much to live south of the river. The article is another piece of schadenfreude designed to make us tut and reassure us about our own preconceptions.
It’s why I’ve stopped writing short stories now, and no longer write such pieces – too much information is pre-digested to feed your inbuilt prejudices. BTW, my final collection of new stories, ‘Frightening’, which appeared as an e-book earlier in the year, has not garnered a single review – proving the publisher’s point that nobody reads new short fiction now.