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Will Self: Halfway across Westminster Bridge, I witness two men duelling – with selfie sticks

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

Earth hath not anything to show more fair;/Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/A sight so touching in its majesty:/A crowd of highly self-conscious beings behaving like a flock of sheep . . .”

Yes, yes! The year 2015 begins – as have previous years for readers of this column – with your fearless reporter standing on Westminster Bridge and contemplating the reckless conformity of our fellows. Recall: it was here, in the very omphalos of our noble nation, that I noted the lemming-like glee with which tourists chuck away their euros “playing” the shell game. It was also from this vantage that I contemplated the gaining of “peak photo”, that numinous – but, for all that, profoundly real – summit at which the amount of photographic imagery we produce exceeds our capacity to experience it meaningfully.

They’re still there, the peak photographers, striding up and down the bridge, striking attitudes by the parapet, with the mother of parliaments looming over their shoulders. They’re still holding up iPhones and iPads and all sorts of other digital-camera-enabled devices; and they’re still utterly secure in their delusion that this – and this alone – is the finest image ever captured of a man/woman/child with Big Ben in the background.

But what is this? Something new is to hand in the febrile world of instantaneous simulation. These Iberian proctologists and Swabian veterinary surgeons are armed with fresh kit, to wit: what look like those aluminium grabbers meant for chair- or bed-bound folk which never work quite as well as they should. And what are these Montenegrin web designers and Luxembourgeois dieticians doing with their grabbers? Why, they’re using them to take photographs of themselves, of course, because these are what we must, perforce, call “selfie sticks”.

I’m often asked if I find it odd being called Self – and although this has happened pretty much my entire life I’m still flummoxed. Where to begin? Is it really necessary to explain to anyone capable of cerebration that, having always had this appellation, I’d find it far more peculiar to be called Smith? (Apropos of which, people who recognise me in the street and feel they have to say hello frequently address me as “Will Smith”. Given the obvious disparities in looks and income between me and the actor, I can only assume that human beings must have a misfiring brain centre dedicated to notoriety.)

When the “selfie” appeared in the cultural firmament, it was a matter of weeks before Private Eye published a cartoon showing me holding an outstretched cameraphone while gurning into its lens. The caption read: “Will Selfie.” Fair play – although, in common with most of my age group (the exceptions being “world leaders” such as Obama, B; Cameron, D; and Thorning-Schmidt, H), I’d already done all the self-depiction I’d wanted to long before. Digital cameras with timers have been available for well over a decade and though the first time you pose for yourself may have a certain frisson the novelty soon palls. So, how to explain this latest ratcheting up of – to paraphrase the title of Schopenhauer’s most celebrated philosophic work – the world’s will to misrepresentation?

One way of looking at the selfie stick is that it’s simply a handy little gadget for those friends and families who all want to be in the shot – and why not? Another perspective is, in my case, to take it personally: why else would teeming hordes of Tran­sylvanian dental technicians go equipped with selfie sticks, if not to beat up on poor old Selfie?

From when I stepped on to the bridge by St Thomas’s Hospital until I debouched at Westminster Pier, I must have been smitten at least five times by Cantonese software engineers cack-handedly wielding the bloody things. As I gained the middle of the bridge, I came upon an actual duel being conducted between two tourists armed with selfie sticks; a ring of Viennese patisserie chefs were gathered, chanting: “Töten! Töten! Töten!” From them I learned the fracas had begun when one of the software engineers’ selfie sticks accidentally appeared in the other’s carefully framed shot. As I observed the two men deftly feinting and parrying, it occurred to me that although the selfie stick is, functionally speaking, a prop with which to hold up the great imagistic canopy of the web, it nonetheless has a physical actuality that belies its virtual role.

I have a dream – no, really, I do. I have a dream that all the selfie sticks that were given as Christmas presents this year will be recognised by their recipients as dual-use technology. I have a dream that instead of sticking their cameras on the end of these aluminium poles and wandering around crowded public spaces accidentally poking other people with them, they will adjourn to an open space; dividing into two groups, or “teams”, the quondam photographers will then bowl their smartphones at one another and bat them away with their selfie sticks. I dream of a brave new future in which computers of all sorts will be repurposed as sporting equipment . . . Yes, yes, I know it’s not cricket, or even iHockey, but you don’t need to be Will Smith in order to appreciate that arranging to have yourself constantly filmed represents the very zenith of narcissism. 

Next week: On Location

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 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.