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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 relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.