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

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Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders no longer sounds so outlandish

Both men have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack.

Unlike many of us, Bernie Sanders never doubted Jeremy Corbyn. The week before the general election, the independent US senator from Vermont was addressing a crowd of progressive voters in Brighton during a whirlwind tour of the UK. An audience member asked him what advice he might have for the leader of the Labour Party. “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” Sanders replied. “I think he’s doing quite well.”

The week after the election, a delighted Sanders invoked Corbyn’s election performance in a New York Times op-ed. “The British elections should be a lesson for the Democratic Party,” he wrote, urging the Democrats to stop holding on to an “overly cautious, centrist ideology” and explaining how “momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

Sanders and his growing movement in the United States offered more than mere rhetorical support for Corbyn.

With the help of former members of the senator’s presidential campaign team, Momentum – the grass-roots organisation set up to support and defend Corbyn in 2015 – ran 33 training sessions across the UK, preparing thousands of Labour activists.

Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees says that the Sanders people made a “significant contribution” to the Labour campaign with their emphasis “on having empathetic conversations that focused on the issues the voter cared about, and actually trying to persuade voters on the doorstep rather than just collecting data”.

“In the final stage, I recruited a bunch of former Bernie volunteers from around [the United States] to . . . help get out a last [get out the vote] texting assignment,” recalls Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organising director for Sanders and spent the 2017 election campaign working with Momentum in the UK. “It was an amazing thing to see them volunteering . . . while we were all asleep the night before election day.”

Is it really surprising that Sanders supporters, thousands of miles away, would want to volunteer for Corbyn? Both men are mavericks; both have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack; both, in the words of Emma Rees, “have inspired tens of thousands of people to participate in the political process and to realise their collective power” and they want “to transform society in the interests of ordinary people”. Perhaps above all else, both men have proved that left populism can win millions of votes.

According to the latest polls, if another election were held in the UK tomorrow, Corbyn would be the winner. Sanders, however, has a much higher mountain to climb in the US and faces at least three obstacles that the “British Bernie” does not.

First, Sanders leads a growing grass-roots movement but does not have the support of a party machine and infrastructure.

Corbyn may have been a backbench rebel who voted against his party whip more than 500 times before becoming party leader, but he is a lifelong Labour member.

Sanders, on the other hand, is the longest-serving independent politician in US congressional history. He declared himself a Democrat in 2015 only in order to seek the party’s presidential nomination and promptly declared himself an independent again after he was defeated by Hillary Clinton last summer.

Such behaviour has allowed establishment Democrats to portray him (wrongly) as an opportunist, an interloper who is using the Democratic Party as a vehicle for his own benefit in a country where third-party candidacies cannot succeed.

Second, Sanders has to confront an even more hostile and sceptical media than Corbyn must. Under US law, Fox News is under no obligation to be “fair and balanced” towards Sanders – nor is CNN, for that matter.

Thanks to the UK rules on broadcaster impartiality, however, Corbyn was “able to speak directly to the voters who still get their news from TV instead of the internet”, Sandberg notes. “In contrast, Bernie was completely and totally shut out by broadcast media in the US, which considered his campaign totally irrelevant.”

Third, Sanders failed to connect with minority groups, and especially with African Americans, whereas black and Asian British voters flocked to Corbyn – a veteran campaigner for the anti-racism movement.

Two out of every three ethnic-minority voters voted Labour on 8 June. “Bernie would’ve won [the Democratic nomination] if he’d had a message that resonated with 50 per cent – just 50 per cent – of black voters, because Hillary got upwards of 90 per cent in many states,” the activist and journalist Naomi Klein, who is a supporter of both Sanders and Corbyn, told me in a recent interview for my al-Jazeera English show, UpFront, which will air later this month.

Nevertheless, she is confident that Sanders can learn lessons from his own campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, and “build a winning coalition” next time which ties together the narratives of financial, racial and gender inequality.

Just as it was a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyn, it would be wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders.

Despite media bias, and even though he doesn’t have a party machine behind him, Sanders today is still the most popular politician in the United States. And so this may be only the beginning of a new, transatlantic partnership between the two self-declared socialists. Those of us on the left who grew up watching Reagan and Thatcher, then Clinton and Blair, then Bush and Blair, may wish to pinch ourselves to check we’re not dreaming.

“I think by 2021,” Sandberg says, “we may see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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