Illustration: Jackson Rees
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At 30,000 feet, there is no privacy. The seat-back screen is a window into the soul of the person in front

 “One rerun – it was one rerun of Friends! You can’t prove I’m thinking about it all the time!”

I never watch movies or TV or play video games on planes. Why? Because those fag-packet-sized screens that they implant in the back of the seats are actually displaying the thoughts of the person sitting in front of you. It isn’t seemly to intrude on another’s thoughts – we’ve all read our Freud and we know that beneath the thin, smooth veneer of socially sanctioned self-awareness (I am an upright, decent, sincere, moral person . . .), there seethes a fetid-fiery pit of the libidinal imagination into which barrels of death instinct are regularly poured. How else can we explain what is plainly in view – a heaving morass of tortured and ecstatic and self-regarding flesh which is hardly ethically minimised by appearing in miniature?

I realise that some of you may find the notion far-fetched: surely even if the technology existed, it would be impossible to implant the necessary sensors in our brains while we were blissfully unaware. But the evidence is compelling. In the past, I often used to while away 155 minutes observing, say, Gladiator, and when I asked the people in front of me whether they’d been thinking about sweaty men hacking each other to death they replied they most certainly had.

But it was only some years after the fag-packet-sized screens began to be installed on planes that I tumbled to exactly what was going on. Heading for the lavatory on a transatlantic flight, I turned back to see that the serried ranks of passengers were absolutely fixated on their fellows’ mental content. Moreover, that mental content was almost invariably the same: in this case, footage of a desert full of burning oil refineries. I stood there, stunned not by the evidence of groupthink (for this was readily explained by the cascade effect of each person’s thoughts being transmitted to the one behind) but by the insouciance they all displayed, munching away on their poached salmon with green beans and dauphinoise potatoes without any shame.

It was then that I cracked a little and began going from seat to seat, challenging their inhabitants: “How does it feel to know you’re being psychically violated even as you rifle another’s brainbox?” And I would have continued, had the woman in the seat behind me not sprung up, crying, “Get back here – I was halfway through an episode of Friends you once saw and were thinking about!” This made me feel, in turn, ambivalent: on the one hand I was pleased not to have been cogitating about the burning oil refineries in common with the herd, but on the other I was depressed to realise that my subconscious seethed with little else but perma-tanned American comedy actors fired up by a high-octane laughter track. I couldn’t deny that I had seen this particular episode of Friends; after all, quite a few others on the plane had, too, and the evidence was directly before us.

So now I never look at anything displayed on those screens – I have no need to know that the inoffensive woman sitting in front of me is sexually fixated on Zeinab Badawi. When I fly accompanied by my wife or one of my children, they labour to convince me that the control unit you can detach from its housing beside the screen enables you to “change channels” and this disproves my belief. Even if I were to accept something so unlikely, it wouldn’t make me feel any better, because if I am in control of what’s appearing on the screen, it could well be that I’m also controlling my hapless travel companions’ thoughts, rapidly spooling them through a frightening series of visions – sweaty men hacking each other to death, burning oil refineries, perma-tanned hilarity addicts – until they collapse into catatonic psychosis.

Since I discovered this alarming instance of technologically mediated mass privacy invasion, I’ve happened on more and more. Apparently millions upon millions of ordinary people spend considerable amounts of time every day exposing intimate aspects of themselves to whoever’s interested – spiritual beliefs, sexual preferences, bank balance. Nothing seems sacred any more. Why, the other day, I ordered a triple-shot skinny macchiato in Costa and the barista, without so much as a by-your-leave, asked me what my name was! Slobbering with indignation, I told this fellow it was a free country and I wouldn’t even be under any legal obligation to supply him with such information if he were an officer of the law. He replied that that was all very well, but it’d make it a hell of a lot easier to ensure he made me the right coffee if I could at least give him a capital letter to felt-tip on the cup.

I gave him an “M” – a teasing come-on to GCHQ and the NSA, should they be watching – but when he handed me my beverage, the barista laughed dryly and remarked, “I don’t know why you make such a big deal about your privacy. Everyone knows your innermost thoughts consist of little else but endless reruns of Friends.” I shouted at him: “One rerun – it was one rerun of Friends! You can’t prove I’m thinking about it all the time!” But he didn’t pay me any heed. He was bantering with the next customer about their thoughts; or, still more sinisterly, telling them what to think.

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 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.