The great (neck breaking) debate

The death penalty debate is one of personal agendas, desperate publicity, and is an inevitable dialo

I am falling into a trap. I know that by talking about the newly ignited debate over restoring the death penalty, no matter how it is discussed, it gives credence to something that I might not think deserves credence.

But here it is: it's unavoidable, given that I've seen it on television, heard about it on the radio and read about it everywhere, from newspapers to Twitter and beyond. So I think you have to talk about it, even if that means giving certain people the publicity they so desperately seem to crave.

Sometimes, you have to fall into one trap, to avoid falling into another trap. The other trap, in this instance, is to imagine that by not talking about the newly ignited debate over restoring the death penalty, that somehow it will go away. And those of us who don't believe the death penalty should be restored should be prepared to debate it. If we don't, we run the risk of being the political elite, looking down on the plebs and dismissing their views as being unimportant from our lofty perches - and that won't do at all.

That's exactly how some people would like to portray the kind of people who don't think it's a good idea to bring back the rope, or lethal injection, or whichever humane or inhumane method of terminating the life of an undesirable person is proposed. An impression can be created in which our political masters and the detached elite are unwilling to talk about issues that matter to ordinary people, creating anger. You may argue that this kind of detachment is not limited to matters of lawful homicide and applies to a great deal of the business of government - but on such an emotive issue as this, it can benefit one side of the argument to portray their opponents as deliberately ignoring the wishes of the 'general will'.

The problem faced in this particular debate right now, I think, is one of momentum. This whole business came about because of newly relaunched epetitions to the Government; those proposing a return of state-sponsored neck-breaking were obviously quicker out of the blocks than those arguing for the status quo. Of course they were: who launches a petition to keep things as they are? If you don't agree with the petition wanting to restore the right of the Government to kill those citizens it deems unworthy, then you just ignore it. The active position defeats the passive one, in this instance.

Which is why I've seen petitions started to retain the death penalty. Again, you could argue that these people are allowing the other side of the argument to win, by acknowledging that there's a debate to be had in the first place, but it's probably a debate worth having, if enough people are going to be shouting about it from one side. If no-one is shouting about it from the other, it could create a false impression that more people are in favour than actually are. I suppose it seems strange for anyone to want to sign a petition to retain the lack of a death penalty, as it is to sign a petition to retain the lack of killing every first-born male child, but doing so might, perhaps, reveal that this debate - if we must have it - is not as cut-and-dried as it's being portrayed in some quarters.

In the meantime, the debate - if we can call it a debate -is carrying merrily on, during the summer recess and the silly season, providing an easy subject matter for radio phone-ins and struggling columnists alike (oh look). It gives the opportunity for those with an agenda to pursue it, and beyond that, to appear on television and radio and in print with increasing regularity - which may not be desperately disappointing for their egos, one suspects.

Is this all just a lot of fuss about nothing? Do people really, really want to bring back the Rope to sort out who deserves to live and who deserves to die, particularly at a time when so much police corruption is being investigated? It will be interesting to see if the debate has legs, or whether it's just a handy distraction from phonehacking, the miserable economic situation and other questions of competence during the summertime. Regardless, it's important to take it seriously, and not dismiss it, I think, whatever your view.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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How did I, obsessed with non-places, not know about the Trafford Centre?

My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. 

Last year I bought a copy of J G Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.

But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.

This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.

But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?

Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.

The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.

While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the contemporary built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.

Next week: Lives of Others

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State