Fans at the London Super Comic Convention. Photograph: Getty Images
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If only arms dealers could merge with the friendly ranks of nerdy comics fanatics

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

At Canning Town Station, on the Docklands Light Railway platform, the crowd is building up. It’s not yet so dense that I have that disturbing mental image of a human version of the penny cascade in an amusement arcade: all the little bodies clunking down on to the tracks, the game of life playing out in bloody and mangled change . . . Still, the crowd is sufficiently numerous and I can’t forbear from considering whether there are more anti-pigeon barbs in sight, or people? Moreover, if those people were to be miniaturised, would the barbs be sufficiently rigid and acuminate for me to impale them on these, as if they were sentient canapés?

The train comes and it’s crowded in the carriage – but what sort of people are these? Certainly not the type I expected to be heading to the ExCeL Centre on a cold Sunday in February for the London Super Comic Convention. I know the comic crowd; I see them all the time on my trips to the Forbidden Planet shop in the West End. They have hoodies and piercings, acne or facial hair (if they’re old and male enough), garish T-shirts and leather overcoats/waistcoats/bucklers; they wear glasses and bobble hats and a disproportionate number of them have idiosyncratic body forms. They’re too frumpy to be serious music fans, and too pallid and unconventional to be sports nuts. If they looked a little more studious they’d be science geeks. What they are, indisputably, are nerds.

Yes, black, brown and white nerds; girl and boy and intersex nerds; gay nerds and straight nerds; old and young nerds – and I love them all. One of the most heartening phenomena in today’s Britain is the great diversity of the modern nerd – the nerd is out and proud, and while she may love Buffy the Vampire Slayer merchandise more than is strictly warranted, she is in every way to be cherished as an exemplar of cosmopolitanism and tolerance.

My membership of this happy band is distal – it’s my 11-year-old who most loves comics – but I’m looking forward to the Super Comic Convention as much as the next 51-year-old who has a sneaking urge to reverse the dressing order of his pants and his tights. However, the passengers in the train carriage have the caramelised skin tones of sunbed worshippers and foundation-slappers; their clothes are oppressively colour-coded and they all have that painful air of people who, though not inherently attractive, are fiercely dedicated to making the best of what they’ve got. They give me the heeb. Still, the journey is short and soon enough we’re all tramping along the walkways into the gigantic exhibition centre, where all is revealed: the travellers on the DLR are amateur uglies heading for Professional Beauty 2013.

Still, let them flog unguents for all I care – I’m delighted finally to have made it to the ExCeL, that great entrepôt of consumerist desire that now squats beside the docks where once its objects were unloaded. The closest I’ve got in the past is a road bridge half a mile off, where, together with other arms trade protesters, I was kettled by police protecting the right of Her Majesty’s Government to flog death metal to the Saudi regime at the annual DSEI (Defence and Security Equipment International).

Wandering along the central concourse, I am thrilled by the great profusion of eateries. It’s like a mash-up of the two columns I write for this magazine: a mad crowd – if you will – of real meals. Here and there are little groups of Batmen and Wonder Women who strike poses for happy snappers. After about 200 yards of this we reach the right hall and, picking up our programme and plasticised badge, we start to tour the stalls. The atmosphere is ecumenical: spiky-haired manga fans and mutant-survivalist Judge Dredd acolytes mingle in the queues to meet their favourite artists.

There’s only one problem with the manifestly sane crowd assembled for the London Super Comic Convention: it’s rather on the sparse side. Indeed, the huge and echoic exhibition hall (easily high-ceilinged enough to hold a knock-off Polaris missile) feels distinctly empty. If only, I muse . . . if only the arms fair and the comic convention could somehow be amalgamated into one event. Initially the arms dealers might bridle, but they’d be absorbed into the nerdy mass soon enough, I think, and end up trading brightly coloured pictures of weapons, rather than the hurtfully real thing.

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 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain