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Mind out of time: what Ibsen can tell us about today

On the eve of a major season of adaptations at the Barbican, Erica Wagner goes to Norway to discover how the playwright captured the beginning of the modern world.

Social dramatist: Ibsen's portrayal of the conflicted middle-class family is perfectly recognisable to us today. Photo: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

The dining-room table at Venstøp, Henrik Ibsen’s childhood home, could easily seat at least a dozen; there are silver candlesticks, and ornate chandeliers hang from a white-painted ceiling. In the sitting room, oil paintings adorn the walls and a beautiful wooden armoire graces the well-proportioned space. This home – with a separate wing for servants – seems a picture of bourgeois opulence. Yet the standard line is that the Ibsens’ time here was defined by hardship. Their move to Venstøp from the nearby city of Skien, when Henrik was seven, was triggered by the bankruptcy of his father, Knud, and their descent into what Encyclopaedia Britannica calls “querulous penury”, echoing the widely held notion of poverty. Jørgen Haave, who runs Venstøp as a museum, is keen to contradict it.

“For people who have studied Ibsen, and read his biographies, this is the place where they landed when they lost their money,” he tells me, as we sit outside in the sunshine drinking good Norwegian coffee. “But you can see they had servants here when they were ‘poor’, they had parties and such. That is the most important thing for people to take away from a visit here, to break with the idea of extreme poverty.” In fact, the Ibsens had been the “absolute richest people in the region”, which was one of the richest in Norway. Skien, where Ibsen was born, was a thriving place, a centre for shipping and timber. Iron had been mined and smelted here since the 16th century. “It’s normal in biographies to say his family came from Bergen, but on his mother’s side his family came from this region and had been here since the 15th century; one of his ancestors made the first sawmill from the water power here, and that was the foundation of their wealth.” Ibsen’s fame comes from the nature of his social drama: social drama – the complexities of class and status – was what he knew from his earliest youth. The Ibsens had been rich; then they became not poor, but much less wealthy; and yet they were keen to keep up appearances. This conflict between reality and appearance is what still draws audiences to Ibsen’s work: it is a depiction of the beginning of the modern world.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Henrik Ibsen’s work to Norway’s cultural heritage; but then, as an Ibsen-filled autumn reminds us, his status is just as high on the world stage. His oeuvre, which ranges from early poetic and near-mythological verse dramas to the precise, closely observed plays such as A Doll’s House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler into the more metaphysical late work, exemplified by his final play, When We Dead Awaken, seems to be at the foundation of modern sensibility. “Ibsen has been the greatest influence on the present generation; in fact you could say that he formed it to a great extent,” wrote (a very young) James Joyce in 1900.

Despite those humble (or not-quite-so-humble) beginnings, Ibsen the playwright found success early. He left Skien, never to return, at 15, to work as an apothecary’s apprentice; he had written his first play, Catilina, by the age of 21. At 23 he was running the new theatre in Bergen, for which he went on to write and produce one new play every year; in 1866, after he had left Norway for Rome – he would not return permanently to Norway until 1891 – the verse drama Brand was his big breakthrough, selling out three print runs by the end of that year. Edmund Gosse (now best known for his memoir, Father and Son) “discovered” him for English-speaking audiences after a trip to Trondheim in 1871, when he picked up a slim volume of Ibsen’s poems. The 12 volumes of William Archer’s translations began appearing in 1906, the year of Ibsen’s death; by the early 1920s Ibsen had assumed “the dignity of an ancient” – as Dr Johnson said of Shakespeare. And the literary and feminist scholar Toril Moi, who was born in Norway but now teaches at Duke University in North Carolina, says plainly in her wonderful book Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism that he is “the most important playwright writing after Shakespeare”.

Following recent acclaimed West End productions of Hedda Gabler, Ghosts and A Doll’s House, an International Ibsen Season begins later this month at the Barbican in London. From the Schaubühne in Berlin comes An Enemy of the People, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, Ibsen’s 1882 play cast firmly as “a mirror for our times set against a world of environmental and financial crises”. From the Théâtre National de Nice comes a version of Peer Gynt, his early, picaresque dramatic poem, directed by Irina Brook (daughter of Peter Brook) – complete with music by Iggy Pop and poetry from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sam Shepard. Finally, Belvoir Sydney presents a reworking of The Wild Duck (1884).

At the same time Penguin Classics begins the publication of a new series of Ibsen translations: The Master Builder and Other Plays (the other plays being Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken) will be the first volume, to be published on 2 October. This marks the start of a comprehensive revamp of the Penguin Classics translations of the Norwegian master, which have been the standard versions in English since the publisher admitted Ibsen into the canon as early as 1950 – just four years after Penguin Classics was launched with E V Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. But unavoidably those first versions, by Una Ellis-Fermor, have dated: in her introduction to the volume containing Hedda Gabler, she writes that her work “attempts the impossible task of pretending that Ibsen wrote his plays in the English of 1950” – different from the English of 2014, with the best will in the world.

What is remarkable about Ibsen’s work is that it seems both to reflect the specific, Scandinavian bourgeois milieu that formed the author and to have a universal appeal that allows endless reinterpretation. In Oslo, I spend a couple of hours in the company of Tore Rem, professor of British literature at the University of Oslo and the general editor of the Penguin series. Ibsen’s great innovation was the contemporary middle-class tragedy: the families he creates, with their conflicts, silences and secrets, are perfectly recognisable to us today, as Rem notes, though they amazed some of his contemporary critics. Henry James called him “the provincial of provincials”; it was astonishing to the cosmopolitan American that such a vision had emerged from what he described as “the bareness and bleakness of his little northern democracy”.

That “little northern democracy” was, in Ibsen’s lifetime, in the process of liberating itself, finally becoming fully independent in 1905. Before that, Norway had been in a union with Sweden, essentially having been handed over to Sweden by the Danes in the Napoleonic wars; culturally, the Norwegians remained closer to Denmark than to Sweden and shared the same written language. “Ibsen fundamentally wrote in Danish with Norwegianisms,” Rem says – a reminder that, even for Norwegians, Ibsen in the modern day is never not mediated: his language for the stage is always modernised from his own usual Dano-Norwegian.

We in the 21st century flatter ourselves that the notion of standing up to a hypocritical, convention-bound society is terribly modern: but it’s a theme that runs through much of Ibsen’s work, which examines, as Rem notes, “the creation of the bourgeoisie, which is something George Bernard Shaw picks up on. Suddenly there is this international class, and that’s what Ibsen taps in to – and you can then leap into China today, where the individual is becoming more important. And so lots of academics are working on Ibsen.” Not long ago, Rem tells me, he was in Tromsø, at the International Ibsen Conference – where fully one-third of the participants were Chinese. And that’s not just thanks to the actress Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, having played Nora in A Doll’s House: the issues of social mobility raised by Ibsen clearly resonate with 21st-century Chinese men and women.

At the Ibsen Museum in Oslo – the centrepiece of which is the apartment where Ibsen spent the last years of his life with his wife, Suzannah – the director, Erik Henning Edvardsen, talks of productions he has seen from India, from China, from Africa. (Tore Rem notes that in 2006, the centenary year of Ibsen’s death, he knew of at least 250 productions of Ibsen’s plays being staged around the world.) As we walk through the elegant rooms of the apartment, which is just steps from the National Theatre – Ibsen would rise punctually from his desk at 11.30am every day for a coffee at the nearby Grand Café, even if he was in the middle of writing a sentence – Edvardsen speaks, too, of Suzannah’s powerful role in the playwright’s life; their partnership was not always easy, but it was an essential one for Ibsen. She had been raised in a house full of books, with a stepmother who was passionate about the theatre; although she was not educated as her brothers were, Henrik Ibsen married a cultured young woman in 1858. His interest in strong female characters goes back to his earliest writings. The very first dramas he wrote, such as Lady Inger of Östråt (1857), put women at the centre of the action; Edvardsen remarks that there are two sisters trying to get the same man in The Vikings at Helgeland (first performed in 1858) “and you could argue that if you modernise that you have something equal to Hedda Gabler”.

And those links move forward into the future – in a way that can surprise even Ibsen scholars. Edvardsen’s other passion is the work of the Beatles; he tells me he is planning an exhibition next year that sets Ibsen’s work against the work of John Lennon – both of them boundary-breakers, in Edvardsen’s view – and he describes showing both Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon around the museum just a few years ago.

When I tell Toril Moi of this notion she is startled – and delighted. “But then I just heard from the Miami Theatre Centre, who wanted me to come down there because next year they’re doing Hedda Gabler alongside a theatrical production of The Seven Year Itch – they see all these parallels that I never would have thought of.”

Ibsen’s prescience can be startling. On 25 September, Simon McBurney, the founder and artistic director of Complicite, will host a talk with Thomas Ostermeier and members of the Schaubühne company after their performance of An Enemy of the People at the Barbican. The play, seen in its plot and setting, deals with what seems like a very contemporary issue: a man, Dr Stockmann, speaks up when he knows that a town’s water supply, on which its prosperity depends, is contaminated.

McBurney describes watching this production at the Avignon Festival in the south of France not long ago: “At the moment in the play when Dr Stockmann makes his address about the water, and the townspeople react, they brought microphones out in the audience.” The audience reaction had more than just an ecological resonance. “Suddenly someone stood up and said, ‘Who are you, the Germans, who occupied us, to come here and lecture us about social and moral issues?’ It became absolutely electric; and then the audience began to shout at each other. It became a live debate.”

As McBurney says, the issues that Ibsen deals with, of class, of status, of who may speak and who may not, “are timeless, especially as we are now moving back to the conditions of the 19th century, with a very, very small, wealthy and powerful elite, and everyone else sinking down further and further behind them. We have a government that would seem to like to recall the 19th century, and people in it, such as Boris Johnson, who say we should be more for the upper per cent who are really privileged, and who have no shame about saying that.” The idea of translation – across languages, borders, eras – applies not just to the text, but “to the whole conceit of the play”.

Tore Rem reminds me of the remark made by Ibsen’s first major translator into English, William Archer, that: “In respect of language, Ibsen stands at a unique disadvantage. Never before has a poet of worldwide fame appealed to his worldwide audience so exclusively in translations.”

And yet it is this need for translation – the literal translation of language, and the metamorphosis that takes place on the stage – which has always served Ibsen well, and has allowed him to be transformed and reborn over and over again. 

The International Ibsen Season begins at the Barbican, London EC2, on 24 September

“The Master Builder and Other Plays” will be published on 2 October by Penguin Classics (£11.99)

With thanks to the Norwegian embassy in London for travel to Norway

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser