You don't have to be mad to live here....

In praise of London's loonies

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the idle classes used to pay one pence, old money, to visit the Bedlam hospital so they could gawp and laugh at the zany antics of the mentally ill patients who were incarcerated there.

Thankfully we live in more enlightened times and understand that charging people to gape at the eccentricities of the psychologically impaired is morally wrong. It’s much more progressive to shut the hospitals down and force the loonies out on to the street, so we can witness their ridiculous frolics for free.

Not only is that one pence, old money, saved for us all every single day (that’s a latte and a half’s worth per annum), it also gives our lives an extra exciting frisson: we never know when one of these nutty pranksters will push us under a bus or stab us in the face with a knitting needle or shower us in a heady cocktail of their own bodily fluids and then stab us in the face with a knitting needle and push us under a bus. Everyone is a winner.

But once you get over the moral indignation and accept that there’s nothing you can do about it, you do start to realise that those insensitive Victorians had a point: the non compis mentis are pretty damned entertaining.

There’s the ginger haired man who wears shorts, whatever the weather, who wanders up and down the Thames tow-path arguing with himself: firstly saying something calm and reasonable, and then immediately yelling (at himself) “Will you just fucking shut up?!” Quietly, he will try and defend his previous position and then loudly object, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Fucking shut your fucking face, you fuck!”

There’s the aged lady who stands on the traffic island on Trinity Road in Tooting in a flimsy nightie, merrily exposing her ancient private parts to passing motorists. There’s the man in Hammersmith who scurries around with his shoulder to the wall and his eyes constantly staring at the ground, holding a sign saying, “I am under surveillance by the British Secret Service,” which you can only think is something that would be making their job a lot easier, if it were true.

Admittedly, any humour here is grim, any laughter hollow and dry-throated. Our amusement relies on us being able to ignore their individual tragedies, but that’s something, as a nation, that we’ve got pretty good at doing.

The true fascination with madness and the mad is our unspoken awareness that the line between sanity and insanity is as flimsy as a Trinity Road nightie in a hurricane. Which of us haven’t heard ourselves pontificating and wished we could shout expletives at ourselves? Which of us haven’t dreamt of running naked through the streets? Which of us doesn’t secretly believe we are having our every private moment filmed by a reality TV show, which everyone else is watching, but that doesn’t appear on our own television and that’s why people laugh at us in the street?

The mentally ill aren’t consciously challenging our pre-conceptions of the arbitrary notions of what is and isn’t acceptable, but that’s what they do. I wish that we did more to help them (whilst not really being prepared to do anything directly myself), though I’m not sure locking them away from sight is any more of a solution.

In a city where trying to engage in conversation with someone on a train that you’ve never met before is the height of lunacy, whilst having full sexual intercourse with someone you’ve only just met in a night-club is normality, it is tempting to ask, “Who are the madmen?”

In this case it’s the people trying to talk to strangers on a train, when they could just as easily be shagging them in a toilet. What are they thinking? The nutters!

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.