Show Hide image

I live on the threshold between two worlds and I share my bed with an ape

I cannot afford anything that costs more than £5.13, for those are the funds left in my bank account. I run the risk, if I take the Tube to the British Library, of not being able to take it back.

I am sitting with my wife on the bed, watching University Challenge. A small family of chimpanzees sits on the bed with us, grooming each other. There are also a couple of gorillas, one of whom has taken a liking to me, and she holds my hand gently. I am worried, though: I have heard that the great apes can be violent, and the phrase that keeps popping up in my head is “ripped his face off”, from a long-ago news report, and that was just a chimp. Lord knows what a gorilla could do.

“How long are we looking after this lot again?” I ask.

“Until around midsummer,” she says.

“Midsummer!” I yell, and suddenly it’s the radio alarm clock, and John Humphrys on the Today programme.

My dreams have been getting weirder lately. I will spare you the worst. I wonder if it’s where I’ve been living. I am under strict instructions not to open any windows – apparently the cat is an escape artist. The lack of fresh air is doing things to my subconscious.

A more interesting explanation is the area I’m in. Olympia is in an interesting part of London. If you wanted to make someone a present of Hammersmith, Shepherd’s Bush, Kensington and Earl’s Court, Olympia would be where you put your finger on the knot to tie up the parcel. Yet it is weirdly difficult to get to: you have to use the Overground train, and although there is also a Tube station, it only works at weekends. Don’t tell me that isn’t an inversion of the natural order. In the morning, I can stand in the kitchen in my underpants and watch gouts of commuters leaving the Overground every 15 minutes. As often as not it’s been raining, and I watch with pity.

The area is liminal, on the threshold between worlds. Turn left out of my door and you are in a part of the world where JK Rowling has her London pied-à-terre, and where Jimmy Page and Robbie Williams have furious rows about the latter’s proposed basement extension (I am so with Jimmy Page on this one). But turn right out of my door and before about 60 yards are up you can be staring, as I was, at some of the grimiest and most depressing housing that this country has to offer. In west London, the bricks are yellow – the capital’s traditional London yellow stock, made from the local clay – as if the road to Oz has been torn up and used to make houses. The exteriors may be Victorian but you can tell from the state of the net curtains what it’s like inside, and the mental picture is not a pretty one. Then again, who am I to judge? Right now, anyone with an interior they can stay in or return to for the foreseeable future is in a better position than I am.

Carry on up Holland Road, and you get to Shepherd’s Bush station, and from there it is but a 15-minute walk to the family home, where the wife and I raised our chimps – I mean our children. She is after a divorce, understandably enough, and keeps calling me to check that I have done my taxes. “I’m doing them, I’m doing them,” I say. (It is my financial condition that is giving her demand for official separation some urgency. I completely understand this.)

As I write, it is the last day for filling in tax returns before fines start to build up, and I am being beset by anxieties. I have not filled in a tax return in my life; I have always got someone else to do it for me. Now I cannot afford to pay anyone else to do it: I am unmanned. In fact, I cannot afford anything that costs more than £5.13, for those are the funds remaining to me in the bank account. I run the risk, if I take the Tube to the British Library, of not being able to take it back, and it is a long walk. Meanwhile, I am waiting for some Albanians to give me the advance for a book they want me to write about a part of Albania. Rereading that sentence makes me realise it may be unwise of me to base any future financial decisions on this advance.

So I suppose that wraps it all up nicely. What with the air, the psychogeography, and the sense of looming disaster, no wonder I’m dreaming of primates, sitting around me on the bed, waiting to tear me apart. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.