Noxious vapours

Good wishes to those troubled bankers, the perils of sniffing damp repelling liquid and how to touch

Oh, those poor, innocent bankers and traders. Especially at Lloyds/TSB –they didn’t in anyway blight 10 years of my life. I’m sending love to them. I think it’s love – something that makes my ears bleed, anyway.

I’ve spent three days distracting myself from their plight by painting my mother’s house (located in what are now the rice paddies of Warwickshire) with a damp-repelling liquid that comes in an extra-large tin to accommodate all the health warnings about noxious vapours and instructions to wear a hazmat suit, goggles and a flannel vest.

Possessing none of the above, I have been – to use a complex medical term - poisoned. I also appear to have finished two new short stories - this leads me to suspect I am trapped in a brain-damage-induced delusion. At least that’s what I deeply and sincerely hope. Otherwise, I’ve assaulted a complete stranger in a shop.

Allow me, for the good of my soul, to explain. There I was in momentarily-sunny Stratford-Upon-Avon, waiting for my mother to finish purchasing a bushel of spring bulbs, or some such, when I turn round, see someone I know and begin the standard manoeuvres associated with Hiyahowareyoudoing. It is only at this point – which is to say, much too late – that I realise I have warmly greeted someone I do not know at all and who does not at all know me – the internal dialogue running roughly as follows…

Hang on , whoa… don’t know him. Shitshitshitshit, just touched the arm of someone I don’t know. That’s assault. I’ve assaulted a stranger.

Oh fuckingshitbolloxnononononono I do know him.

No, you don’t.

We’re not going to get out of this with denial.

We are if I say we are.

That’s-

Shut up.

That’s David Tennant. Right there. Right here, in fact.

I said shut up. Do you think he noticed ?

Is there anything about his performance style that suggests he has one lifeless arm ?

Shitshitshitshit. We’ve just assaulted David Tennant.

We’re sure that’s who it is ?

Oh, gimme a break.

He’s looking at us.

Well, wouldn’t you ? Is he immensely pissed off ?

More like he’s guessing – inaccurately – that we’re not wholly unhinged and is suggesting strongly that we shouldn’t draw a crowd.

I’m rubbish at drawing.

If you can’t say something useful... Look normal, apologetic and reassuring.

You want me to look three things at once ? You are joking. If anybody here can look three things at once it’s not me. I’m nodding, is that reassuring ?

No, that’s our head twitch. But it might help. Can we explain ourselves ?

“Trust me, I’m a novelist.” Yeah, that always works. Especially when we look more like the cover of a colour supplement with a special feature inside on mental health care failures. Anyway, to explain our extremely rude intrusion we’d have to make him stop listening to his personal stereo which is more of an intrusion still.

Hope it’s a nice tune. Bugger. Just mouth something sensible and go away, disappear, attempt never to have been.

VERY GOOD.

Did you just mouth VERY GOOD ? VERY GOOD ? How many awards do you have for word-slinging and all you can come up with is VERY GOOD ? VERY GOOD is what you say to someone who is five and has eaten all his crusts. VERY GOOD is not what you tell a very grown up you have only recently seen take Hamlet, shake it, turn it inside out and use it as a fetching hat. Jeezuz.

If we just run for the Avon… we’re wearing a big coat. It’ll weigh us down. We could be bobbing peacefully against the weir in no time.

As usual, I can only hope to be forgotten as soon as possible and try not to resurrect my last attempt to congratulate an actor I admire: to whit, “Excuse me Mr. Holm, if I could just say how much I’ve enjoyed all your work.” Which isn’t too shit a start and I was in a helpful context and therefore credible. Naturally, Ian Holm then asks what in particular I’ve enjoyed and I suddenly can remember nothing, nothing, nothing except for “From Hell” – an abortion of a movie in which he was, nevertheless, splendid, but even so. Dear God, there are occasions when my levels of self-loathing are shamefully inadequate. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Lord, give me people I’ve made up earlier any day. Amen.

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There's something missing from our counter-terrorism debate

The policy reckoning that occured after the 2005 terrorist attacks did not happen after the one in 2016. 

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” That satirical lyric about Nazi rocket scientists has come to mind more than few times watching various tech giants give testimony in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, one of the underreported sub-plots of life at Westminster.

During their ongoing inquiry into hate crime in the United Kingdom, committee chair Yvette Cooper has found a staggering amount of hate speech being circulated freely on the largest and most profitable social media platform. Seperately, an ongoing investigation by the Times has uncovered how advertising revenue from Google and YouTube makes its way straight into the coffers of extremist groups, ranging from Islamist extremists to white supremacists and anti-Semites.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the inquiry has been the von Braunesque reaction by the movers and shakers at these tech companies. Once the ad revenue is handed out, who cares what it pays for? That’s not my department is the overwhelming message of much of the testimony.

The problem gains an added urgency now that the perpetrator of the Westminster attacks has been named as Khalid Masood, a British-born 52-year-old with a string of petty convictions across two decades from 1982 to 2002. He is of the same generation and profile as Thomas Mair, the white supremacist behind the last act of domestic terrorism on British shores, though Mair’s online radicalisation occurred on far-right websites, while Masood instead mimicked the methods of Isis attacks on the continent.  Despite that, both fitted many of the classic profiles of a “lone wolf” attack, although my colleague Amelia explains well why that term is increasingly outmoded.

One thing that some civil servants have observed is that it is relatively easy to get MPs to understand anti-terror measures based around either a form of electronic communication they use themselves – like text messaging or email, for instance – or a physical place which they might have in their own constituencies. But legislation has been sluggish in getting to grips with radicalisation online and slow at cutting off funding sources.

As I’ve written before, though there  are important differences between these two ideologies, the radicalisation journey is similar and tends to have the same staging posts: petty criminality, a drift from the fringes of respectable Internet sub-cultures to extremist websites, and finally violence.  We don’t yet know how closely Masood’s journey follows that pattern – but what is clear is that the policy rethink about British counter-terror after the July bombings in 2005 has yet to have an equivalent echo online. The success of that approach is shown in that these attacks are largely thwarted in the United Kingdom. But what needs to happen is a realisation that what happens when the rockets come down is very much the department of the world’s communication companies. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.