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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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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