Where the hearth is: we tend to remember details of homes we've lived in with a striking clarity. Photograph: Getty Images
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Lighted rooms inside your head

Houses aren’t just bricks and mortar; they become part of us.

A crash pad, a haven, a residence, a home . . . The 18 different buildings I’ve lived in to date have been, between them, all of these things to me. Most of my frenetic itinerancy has taken place during my adult years, though by the time I left home for university I’d already notched up six different addresses.

The first house I can barely remember; the second comes back to me in hazy snapshots – a sip of orange juice by the open door of the kitchen, a go on the tyre-swing in the garden (or was it a proper plastic seat?); but the third, where I lived between the ages of three and six, is a different matter. I can still take a mental walk through the rooms of that house in Newtown Road, Southampton. I can view it from the street – the rough, pebble-dash walls, the little bay window, the narrow tarmac drive – or I can walk through its interior, taking note of the layout, pausing at the turn on the stairs: right to my parents’ bedroom, left to my brothers’ and mine. I know where the windows are, the furniture – I can even see the fabric of the armchairs and curtains. And I can do the same with all the homes that came afterwards.

There is nothing exceptional about this. Why is it that we remember our houses with such uncanny clarity? The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard believed that there is a dynamic interplay between the mind and its surroundings. Each is shaped by and responds to the other. At the simplest level, a house may reflect something of our character through the furnishings we choose to adorn it, the colours we paint its walls, the number of locks we put on its doors and so on. But there is more to it than that.

The psychologist Carl Jung spent over 30 years building and extending Bollingen Tower, a second home for him and his wife, Emma, on the banks of Lake Zurich. He believed that the towers and annexes of this castle-like structure represented his psyche. After Emma’s death, he added a second storey, which he said symbolized the expansion of consciousness attained in old age. If our consciousness does expand, our sense of home begins to grow the moment we are born – from the womb, to our parents’ arms, to the cot, and eventually to the building where we spend our earliest years.

Since our association with houses is a lifelong affair, it’s hardly surprising that our fascination with other people’s houses grows as we mature. Bachelard maintained that candlelight in a window was enough to bring a street to life. He saw the house, animated by the mind’s activities, as a kind of theatre. Many artists – painters, poets, film-makers – have shared this vision. Wes Anderson’s recent Moonrise Kingdom opens with the camera tracking across the rooms of a home whose façade has been cut away to reveal what is, in effect, a life-size doll’s house. It is a compelling prelude: in a matter of moments the basic tenor of one family’s life – its habits, quirks and make-up – is laid bare.

What makes Anderson’s device so potent is that the narratives played out behind the screening facade of a house are not intended for public view. But sometimes the players have no say in the matter, as the former poet laureate Ted Hughes (an avowedly private man) knew only too well. His final collection, Birthday Letters, was written secretly over many years, following the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath.
Several of the poems in it recall specific houses and other buildings that served as the backdrop to the couple’s difficult union. In “18 Rugby Street”, Hughes calls to mind the house in which he once waited for his future wife, at the start of a relationship that was to be exposed to the cruellest level of public scrutiny:

So there in Number Eighteen Rugby Street’s
Victorian torpor and squalor I waited for you.
I think of that house as a stage-set –
Four floors exposed to the auditorium.
On all four floors, in, out, the love-struggle
In all its acts and scenes, a snakes and ladders
Of intertangling and of disentangling
Limbs and loves and lives . . .

While the voyeurism here is imagined, a flick through the television guides of recent years reveals the scale of our appetite for looking into other people’s homes: Through the Keyhole; Come Dine with Me; How Clean Is Your House? It’s an obsession that seems to take little account of class or temperament or political persuasion. Even the most serious-minded are susceptible – witness the success of the Guardian’s “Writers’ rooms” series, where readers can scrutinise at leisure the minutiae of an author’s private workspace. There is the mandatory desk, the chair, the teetering piles (or neatly arranged shelves) of books. But what is that bizarre-looking trinket on the mantelpiece? The open hip flask in the corner? We are a species of nosy parkers.

Walk down any street after dark and it’s hard to stop your gaze from being drawn sideways wherever there are undrawn curtains framing a lit interior: few of us can resist these fleeting tableaux of domestic life. Edward Hopper was another artist to exploit this impulse in his work. The New York photographer Gail Albert Halaban recently took pictures of 16 houses in Massachusetts that were first made famous in Hopper’s paintings. Many of the originals – Night Windows, Cape Cod Morning, House at Dusk – offer tantalising glimpses of interior scenes, said to have been suggested by Hopper’s rides through New York on the elevated or “El” train. In Rear Window, Hitchcock poses an uncomfortable question by subtly implicating the viewer in the action: how many of us, finding ourselves in the place of James Stewart’s housebound character, would withstand the temptation to observe the goings on in our neighbours’ apartments?

It has been ever thus. The heroine of Wuthering Heights is unable to resist the lure of lights in her neighbours’ house. One of the book’s most enduring images is of Cathy and Heathcliff as children clinging to the window ledge of the drawing room under cover of night to spy on the wealthy Linton family through half-closed curtains. The book’s two contrasting houses are clearly symbolic of the two different sides of Cathy’s nature – one wild and windswept, the other (Thrushcross Grange) full of decency and order. She is not unusual in this: again it was Bachelard who observed that we all have our cottage moments and our palace moments.

Our infatuation with houses stems, perhaps, from a conviction that in some way they both contain and express an essential part of us; as if our presence might seep into the very fabric of the walls that surround us. Over time, that presence is absorbed deep into the stone and brickwork – and what we are really talking about here is memory. Several of Thomas Hardy’s poems (especially those about his late wife) express this idea. “At Castle Boterel”, for instance, tells us how the presence of the speaker and his nowdead sweetheart is preserved forever in the surrounding rocks: “what they record in colour and cast/Is – that we two passed”.

The thought is not so very odd: houses have long served as monoliths for the dead. English Heritage puts up around ten new blue plaques each year in London and there are similar schemes across the UK, from Aberdeen to Zennor, from the British Film Institute to the Plastics Historical Society. The process by which a proposed residence is deemed worthy of recognition is lengthy and elaborate but in every instance it’s the worthiness of the inhabitant, and not the building itself, that is assessed.

It would seem, then, that houses remember us just as we remember them; that memories become embodied by the places we live in. The poet Christopher Reid’s award-winning collection, A Scattering, is a moving tribute to his late wife, Lucinda. Towards the end of it, in the long poem “Lucinda’s Way”, the speaker recalls a moment one afternoon when husband and wife:

. . . crossed on the stairs.
Unprompted, you announced, “I love
our house” –
an outburst of the plainest happiness
that the high stairwell
enshrines still.

By the same token, to revisit an old house and discover that there’s no outward evidence of our ever having been there can leave us with an unsettling sense of our smallness. In “55 Eltisley” Ted Hughes registers such a shock:

Our first home has forgotten us.
I saw when I drove past it
How slight our lives had been
To have left not a trace.

Our sense of past self is often so closely connected with the house we lived in at the time as to be inseparable from it. Seeing that house inhabited by strangers is disquieting – like bumping into an ex who’s found a completely new way of dressing or doing their hair, on the arm of someone we’ve never seen before.

At the root of our disquiet is the queer but strongly felt notion that if we live inside our houses, they also live inside us – often long after we’ve left them. In his semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the poet Rilke describes a house he had lived in many years before as “quite dissolved and distributed inside me; here one room, there another, and here a bit of corridor. […] Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me: the rooms, the stairs that descended with such ceremonious slowness; others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement, in the darkness of which we advanced like the blood in our veins.”

Philip Larkin combines the notion of the internalized house with that of the house as theatre in his unflinching portrayal of ageing, “The Old Fools”:

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.

Given the symbiotic nature of the relationship, it’s hardly surprising that the boundary between house and human should sometimes blur into non-existence. While Bachelard perceived a lit window as a portal to the action inside a house, for the French poet Rimbaud a lit interior is an eye looking outwards on to the street: the lighted lamp “watches in the secret heart of night” (veille au coeur secret de la nuit). And in the contemporary poet Jen Hadfield’s “Still Life with the Very Devil”, other, more covert body parts are in evidence in a house where the dishes are “stacked like vertebrae./ Under the broiler,/turned sausages ejaculate”.

This way of thinking is by no means confined to poetry and philosophy. The house/body analogy is so woven into our everyday language that we hardly notice its presence – in medical as well as other phrases. We talk of the “roof” of the mouth, the “wall” of the womb, the muscles of the pelvic “floor”; and – more curiously – our eyes are said to be the “windows” of the soul. On the flip side, every chimney has a “breast”, every cave a “mouth”, and walls (as many a gossip has learned to their cost) have “ears”.

I think about this last phrase in relation to the house I live in now. What conversations must it have been witness to? Set in a pretty Somerset village, it’s a far cry from the modern red-brick house of my teenage years, which was perched on a dead-end road with a huge chemical factory at one end and a smaller electroplating factory at the other. My current house is almost 400 years old; it was put up during the only time in English history when there was no monarch on the throne. Here and there, the flagstone floors are worn to a hollow by the many hundreds of feet that have travelled over them. So it is that the house serves as a reminder of my own impermanence – a thought I find every bit as consoling as it is discomfiting: more often than not our houses both precede and outlast us. And if they do retain some sense of our existence – even if only fleetingly – so much the better. Life rushes on, before, behind, around us; for the time being, at least, I’m more than happy to stay put.

Julia Copus’s latest collection is “The World’s Two Smallest Humans” (Faber, £9.99).

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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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