Nigel Farage stares despondently at a submerged quad bike. Photo: Getty
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J G Ballard’s Shepperton is under water – so turn on your mind, relax and float upstream

Will Self on the floods.

On the cover of the Daily Mail the other day, there was an aerial photograph of the Thameside town of Shepperton, its achingly dull semis and prosaic garage forecourts submerged in the muddy brown effluvium. The editor of the New Statesman emailed me: “Your pal Jim wouldn’t have been surprised.” This reference to the late J G Ballard, for many years Shepperton’s most notorious resident, got me thinking about the strange conceptual flotsam that the current deluges are dumping on the floodplain of our collective psyche.

Ballard’s fiction brought into sharp relief many of the jagged realities submerged beneath our comforting sense of homeliness. His world was at once relentlessly anthropic – a sodium-lit landscape of motorway fly­overs and concretised modernism – and subject to largely inexplicable environmental disasters. In his novels and stories, he drowned the world, parched it, crystallised it and blew it to pieces with a wind from nowhere. Neither the riverside residents of Wraysbury nor the seafront ones of Aberystwyth would find his oeuvre remotely escapist at the moment.

Ballard said of these odd juxtapositions between the banal and the extreme that they, in part, reflected the impact of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, which he had witnessed as a child. Growing up in the comfortable European concession, the son of a wealthy manufacturer, Ballard learned from the war that, “Reality as we mostly perceive it is a social construct”; the skull always lies beneath the skin, whether it’s the human capacity for evil or the weather’s for wanton destruction. You would have to have a very stony heart not to sympathise with the victims of the current flooding: encouraged by successive governments and by uncritical neoliberalism to place their faith and their savings in bricks and mortar, they now have to face the truth that a property bubble won’t keep them afloat.

Ballard found in the landscape around Shepperton strange echoes of the Shanghai of his childhood. In place of the flooded paddy fields, there were the vast reservoirs that rear up out of Staines Moor to the west of Heathrow Airport. If you walk from Shepperton to Heathrow – which I have done, partly in homage to Ballard – you pick your way between the grassy flanks of these leviathans, oddly conscious that like a unitary tribe of Israel you are in a man-made defile created in an artificial sea held in suspension above your head. Then, when your flight takes off, you see these acres of drinking-water-in-waiting glistening beneath you, with the Thames worming alongside, a natural flourish signed beneath the marks of man.

Our geography, for all that we valorise “areas of outstanding natural beauty”, is overwhelmingly a human construct: we understand places in terms of the economic imperatives associated with them. We drive to work, or to buy stuff, or to paid-for leisure activities – even our relationships are mediated by mileage costs and time constraints. And Britain, being the first industrialised nation and a smallish land mass to boot, bears the impress of the human foot more heavily than almost anywhere else. Even in the middle of Rannoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands, you are surrounded by a wilderness that is the product of Iron Age clearance.

The British unconscious registers this, while our daily go-round is tightly circumscribed by concrete and clay brick; so is it any wonder that when Bide-a-Wee gets resolutely pissed on, its inhabitants look to Cameron, that anagrammatic Cnut, to stem the tide? The practice of psychogeography owes its origins to the French surrealists and after them was crystallised by the situationists; both these quasi-Marxist groupuscules looked to the dérive – or aimless drift – through the city as a means of freeing the individual from the physical constraints imposed on her by the nexus of late capitalism. I should imagine the last thing the washed-out householders of Surrey, Berkshire, Somerset, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire et al want to do is drift anywhere but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from going against the prevailing current. To undertake psychogeography is to experience place in a transcendent and unbounded way – to feel the reality of things peeling from the social construction of location, location, location.

In the months to come, I will be writing columns that recount my psychogeographic practice – which I took up in my forties when I began to find this anthropic home of ours almost suffocating in its claustrophobia. Put another way, I could no longer bear to look at the three plaster ducks flying on the wall – I wanted to experience animated ones, paddling in a real brook. But this is not about nature worship – it is about resiling from the dominant consumerist culture that makes a place just a fungible commodity to be traded in the global market: you’ve done Prague, why not have a bit of Bratislava?

No doubt in a few weeks Shepperton will be high and dry once more but perhaps its residents’ biblical experience will lead them to seek out the sort of gnosis the one-time inhabitant of 36 Old Charlton Road excelled in producing. The art of living to the full consists not in securing a place for your home in this ever-inconstant and turbulent world, but in being at home in it even when the apocalyptic horsemen are stabled next door.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

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

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.