The Hour: series 2, episode 5

“Cut you to your core, you’ll find news running through your spine.”

WARNING: This blog is for people watching "The Hour" on Wednesday nights on BBC2. Don't read ahead if you haven't watched it yet - contains spoilers!

Catch up on last week's instalment here

There’s something so delicious about the way The Hour keeps its viewers privy to a substantial slab of its plot all the way along. Of course, the revelations are skilfully spaced out through the episodes, but writer Abi Morgan mostly allows us a glimpse of what’s to come, meaning that you are on the edge of your seat for more details while also revelling in that oh-so-satisfying “I knew it all along” feeling. It’s a very difficult balance to achieve - you neither want that hackneyed horror film trope of keeping your audience so frustratedly in the dark they can literally only see to the edge of the light thrown by the protagonist’s torch, but nor do you want them to switch over, bored because the ending is so obvious from the beginning. This, the penultimate episode of the series, demonstrated just how perfectly The Hour has got this balance right.

Mr Cilenti. Photograph: BBC

For instance, we’ve known for a while that Soho nightclub impresario Mr Cilenti was a bad lot, and that eventually he was going to do something to force the staff of The Hour to pursue him openly. And so he did - but this being The Hour and all that, we got a double whammy of seedy escapades. Not only did he most likely order the murder of one of his dancers because she had been speaking to journalists, he also hosted and participated in a meeting enabling pro-nuclear politicians to profiteer outrageously from the nuclear arms race. All the while, Bel and Freddie struggle and squabble over their guilt about their source’s death and their naked excitement at the potentially huge political scoop - the personal and the political forever chasing each other around the script, indelibly intertwined.

Episodes that don’t actually build up to the airing of the eponymous news programme itself have tended to feel a little slower and less intense, but this one neatly sidestepped that problem by climaxing with the raid on Cilenti’s club, El Paradis. Commander Stern (remember him?) seems to have belatedly decided to face up to his own wrongdoing and start behaving like an honourable man again, sending his coppers into raid the club, arresting Cilenti for the murder of his dancer and many of the other girls for soliciting. The whole sequence - policeman and patrons running everywhere, tables overturning, lamps smashing to the floor, Stern himself shattering a mirror with a truncheon only to find incriminating photos spilling out from behind it - was set to a brilliant and frenetic jazz soundtrack. For me, it was the best bit of the series so far (narrowly beating the opening shot of this very episode, where a horizontal, tousled Ben Whishaw woke up in his brilliantly-lit bedroom).

We’ve also known for a while that Hour presenter Hector was ripe for poaching by the programme’s ITV competitor, Uncovered. In this episode, he finally receives a concrete offer from them, and appears inclined to accept - but not, as we might previously have assumed, because of the money or the status, but because of his wife. Marnie is making quite a hit with her cookery show - the line “rumour has it she gets more fanmail than Noddy” was one of my favourites from this episode - and the station has high hopes of them becoming a popular presenting duo. Having already disappointed her by his adultery and drinking, Hector now seems to have decided he must defer to her professionally to make amends (particularly as he seems to think it’s his fault they haven’t been able to conceive a child). Later, we get confirmation from Marnie that his neglect of their relationship inspired her career zeal: “Success is the best revenge. Don’t waste yourself on anything else” she tells her husband’s erstwhile lover, Kiki. After the way he's behaved, it's hard not to feel like she's entirely justified in that feeling.

Journalists, on the trail of wide-ranging corruption, blend in by drinking martinis. Photograph: BBC

It took Bel a while in this episode to rediscover her inner campaigning journalist - to begin with, she was consumed with guilt about their source’s death and felt they should stop pursuing Cilenti because of it. But, as he always has, Freddie was able to bring her out of her cautious producer shell and remind her of her vocation. He does it in a characteristically blunt way: “She’s dead. I’m sorry. It’s not right. It’s very far from right. But we’re journalists. It’s what we do.” By the end, she’s even ditched her ITV bloke to join Freddie to dig around for evidence at the club. Although that may also have had something to do with the fact that Freddie almost-but-not-quite declared his undying love for her as they stood arguing about the merits of the investigation in the fog outside the BBC studios. My one source of frustration with an otherwise exemplary episode emerged here - Freddie’s wife Camille has conveniently disappeared and he now declares things to be “over” with her. After her brief, and often trouserless, tenure on the show, it would seem that she was always just a clumsy plot device to needle Bel - nothing more.

The best line of all, though, was reserved for Peter Capaldi’s Randall, who declared: “No man is sane who doesn’t know how to be insane on the proper occasions. Madness is a prerequisite for a good journalist.” Previously so quietly self-contained, we got a glimpse of the steely, slightly unhinged newshound that Lix fell in love with during the Spanish Civil War, here. He did some excellent journalism, chasing government apparatchik McCain down and expertly playing him for the location of the corrupt politicians’ meeting - managing somehow to disdain the very idea of blackmail while sort of doing some at the same time. Then, after a disappointing trip to the French embassy to try and discover more about their long-lost daughter, he crumbles, holding his head in his hands as he drinks with Lix. She sits next to him, reaches for his hand and puts it on her knee before leaning her head into his in unbelievable intimacy. “That’s a start,” he says, hoarsely.

Unfortunately, devastatingly, it’s also approaching an end, there being only one more episode of this series. The scheduling gods at the BBC have had mercy on us though - we only have to wait until this evening, rather than another week, for the denouement.

I'll be blogging final episode of "The Hour" tomorrow - check back then for the last instalment, or bookmark this page

Hannah Tointon as Soho dancer Kiki DeLaine. Photograph: BBC

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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