A ruptured Eiffel Tower. Illustration: Jackson Rees
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Post-traumatic spatial disorder: you see it, looking at old volcanoes. In Paris, I’m not so sure...

Memories of place and disaster telescope, but Will Self finds Paris much as it ever is.

I remember arriving by boat, the steep cliffs glowing in the setting sun. I remember climbing laboriously up the cliff face, and then ranging along the clifftop itself, searching for an abandoned house we could sleep in. We didn’t have to look far; there were scores of them. I remember spreading out my sleeping bag on a whitewashed floor, then awaking at dawn with the scent of thyme and salt in my nostrils. I got up and walked out on to a terrace from where I could see the violet-purple bowl of the volcanic caldera; it was extraordinary to imagine that a mere 3,600 years ago a great mound of earth and rock would have risen out of this airy gulf. Some believed the island had been the model for Atlantis, and that its explosive destruction had sealed it for ever in the mythic.

As the sun rose higher I wandered among the wrecked houses. The Santorini archipelago remained subject to earthquakes, and there had been a devastating eruption only 20 years earlier. Peering into the dark sockets of unglazed windows, I wondered whether it was possible for a place to register the traumas that had been visited upon it – whether, if you like, the genius loci can go loco.

That was in 1977, when as a 16-year-old I island-hopped across the Cyclades, but as I stepped off the Eurostar last Wednesday morning the question returned to me: would it be possible to apprehend the impact specifically of violently aroused human emotion on a physical location, even if those human beings were absent? Certainly St Pancras Station had been quieter than usual and the train emptier of passengers, despite a complement of armed French policiers. A computer-nerdy-looking man who sat on the other side of the aisle, tapping, toggling and eating polythene sandwiches, gently fulminated about the Prime Minister’s announcement that, should he be re-elected, he would introduce a bill to ban computer encryption. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Without encryption, internet banking becomes impossible.”

Beside me a beautifully dressed and groomed man with the anthracite hair and olive skin of the Middle East was reading, in French, a book on the Algerian Sufi Abd el-Kader. Encryption or mysticism? Two numinous sides of the same phenomenal coin, I thought. So I discussed Sufism with my companion and we discovered we’d both been to Konya to attend the festival at which the storied dervishes whirl – and because there’d been a minor earthquake in Central Anatolia while I was there, this returned me to the question of PTSD (post-traumatic spatial disorder).

Surely, when it came to ambience one had to draw a distinction between man-made atrocities and natural disasters? I recalled the silent towers of Pripyat, the Ukrainian city of 50,000 people that was evacuated in a matter of hours after the meltdown of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear reactor, and which I visited a quarter-century later. Entering the warped remains of a two-storey school that had been invaded by ruderals, I came upon a weird shrine: a child’s pedal car, a rag doll at the wheel, on to which had been stuck Lenin’s face, torn from some propagandising poster.

Had the ambience of Pripyat been any different, I wondered, from that of San Francisco, which in the early 1990s still bore the stigmata of its recent crucifixion on the San Andreas Fault: clapboard houses slumped on the steep sides of Nob Hill; freeway overpasses twisted into Möbius strips going nowhere; the downtown chock-full of the homeless, shuffling along behind their shopping trolleys.

Was it the human presence that had made the latter seem so much worse, their dark mood adumbrating the darkened city streets? Certainly, Manhattan a month after the 11 September 2001 attacks was a surpassing gloomy place, what with the tattered flyers showing the faces of the missing still fluttering on the walls of Grand Central Station. I remember coming upon a gathering of Buddhists in Times Square performing the ceremony to mark the end of the bardo, the intermediate state between a victim’s death and their reincarnation, and wondering at how, while they might be about to experience rebirth, the city itself remained in a terrible limbo.

On the evening of the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, I walked with my wife in to the West End to see a performance of Hedda Gabler at the Duke of York’s Theatre on St Martin’s Lane. We walked against the heavy flow of detrained commuters tramping home from the city to the ’burbs: a strange spectacle, as if at one fell blow the entire metropolis had travelled 150 years back in time. The auditorium was less than a third full. In the interval we stood on the balcony of the crush bar and watched a blood-red sun setting over a voided Trafalgar Square; then, with Hedda’s suicidal pistol shot still ringing in our ears, we made our way home, each of us making his own strange connections between the
madness of individuals and the unfolding nightmare of history.

In Paris, all three million copies of the memorial issue of Charlie Hebdo had already been snapped up; outside the Gare du Nord, taxis were jockeying for position; and as I walked towards the river I could hear all about me the deep susurrus of commerce. Massacre or not – it was business as usual.

Next week: Real Meals

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 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide