The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: Uncategorized

Proposal For The Second English Civil War

Angus Kirk Fight

Photo from Angus Kirk. Licenced under CC by 2.0.

What a tremendous pickle this country has got itself into. Eighteen months on from that referendum the UK remains hopelessly divided, between young and old, north and south, university graduates and people who hate them. Our lamentable political class are circling each other like ducks with bread up their bumholes and as for our press – well, those guys are currently exploring the previously unheralded territory between fascism and music hall. Our country is going to the dogs who we will be shortly forced to eat.

In this context, please allow me – a balding 35-year old from Nottingham and frequently-rejected supplicant to the metropolitan elite – to propose my own solution. In my view, there’s nothing about our current collective national imbroglio that a good old-fashioned English Civil War wouldn’t fix.

It seems so obvious when you think about it. After all, in such matters, England has always been ahead of the continent. We got to our own previous Civil War as early as the 1640s, a full three hundred years before our Spanish neighbours. Typical Spanish idleness! Plus we already have all the conditions in place for our society-destroying reboot. We have two bitterly opposed camps, one of which advocates parliamentary sovereignty regardless of its human cost, and another of disorganized loyalists to a recently-toppled regime. Just like the Royalists of old, with their sympathies to continental ‘Popery’, the Remain masses are seen as open to foreign ideas to a suspicious degree, all in good contrast with the stout, bitter-drinking Roundheads of Brexit. And just like Cromwell’s lot, the Brexit bunch seem to have no qualms about threatening the actual really-existing Parliament when it disobeys them.

Clearly the New English Civil War will be a little different from the first. For example this time around, executing our monarch is unlikely to resolve many issues and may even complicate them. Also, unlike last time, Scotland and London are firmly in the hands of loyalists to the ancien regime, stocked as they are by an unholy alliance of freelance creatives, German IT consultants, and Polish people who can fix things. Just like back then though the Parliamentarians base their success on extraordinary victories in places no-one has ever heard of: What, for example, is Spalding? To communicate this blend of historical similarity and difference, I suggest supporters of the EU retain the previous term Cavaliers, while Brexit puritans are from now known as Blockheads. After all we are currently being told Brexit will allow us to diverge and harmonize at the same time.

How the war will go is anyone’s guess. On one hand, the New Cavaliers have youth on the side; on the other they, with their hipster beards, need to caffeinate constantly and inability to commit to long-term relationships, look far from battle ready. In contrast the Blockheads are clearly an older army – but one brief clip from Question Time tells you they’re one more than ready to kill. Indeed are actively looking for an excuse to do so. As battle is joined, can we see really the cosseted denizens of Richmond Park or Cambridge putting up much resistance to pitchfork-wielding northern pensioners? On the other hands – if the New Cavaliers destroy Grimsby, how will we be able to tell?

In keeping with modern sensibilities I suggest the war be pacific in nature. Instead of guns, each side will be armed with symbolic weaponry. On the pro-EU side, soldiers will carry yards of ‘Brussels Red Tape’, used to baffle and tether their foes (until the need for a response creates the even more nightmarish British Red Tape, able to induce migraines from over two years away). For their part, the Leave hordes will drench enemies of the people from water guns mounted on white vans filled with lashings and lashings of weak English lager supplied by General JD Wetherspoon. Fighting will be intense, but bloodless; the clash of croissant on powerful non-EU regulated vacuum cleaner, the battlefield ringing with the ‘God Save the Queen’ against the pinging of the Duolingo app. War is no reason to neglect your language learning! Once a soldier is fallen, either a Cavalier from exhaustion at making the same two repeated arguments over a period of many years without any response or, in the case of the Blockheads, chlorinated-chicken poisoning, they are to be daubed with a symbol of their hated foe. This will either be a tiny Euro sign or a pound sterling symbol, with the total of such currency symbols then counted at the end of the battle to determine the overall winner. However before said counting, 18% of pound sterling’s value will be deleted, and this will be subject to further depreciation over the course of the war. To counter this, Leave commanders will deny that it is even happening.

Having a good old-fashioned internecine conflict is simply the honourable British thing to do. To this end I plan to raise the New Cavalier standard on March 30 at London’s Old Street roundabout, after which we will have a rare vinyl auction followed by a live DJ set from Gina Miller. The same day, a similar Blockhead ceremony will take place at Barnsley Town Hall, after which there’ll be ham sandwiches and a public execution. As I look out of the rows of boyish man-buns and Chinese-character tats I’ll be better able to assess the chances of those who wear the Blue and Gold. And if we Cavaliers are to lose again we can always console ourselves that the last time parliamentary sovereignty became a moral absolute in English politics its advocates only held onto power eleven years before everyone got thoroughly sick of them and their joyless bullshit. Victory or no, we Cavaliers can march on regardless to 2027 when a delegation to Brussels will be dispatched to solicit our re-entry to the bloc, and the most tremendous piss-up held for the UK’s ecstatic EU Restoration. The bonfires of blue passports will burn all night.

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Two politicians talk about God

This poem was written in 2012.

 

Cameron and Clegg at Downing street,

Last meeting before Christmas done.

Nick puts on his coat to leave

And Cameron stops him with ‘Nick.’

‘Hmm?’ ‘Just one thing, chum, a question –

Do you believe in God?’

A pause, and Clegg answers hesitantly,

‘Actually I don’t. Since my youth I’ve been an atheist

I’ve never had much use

For bells and smells and promises

Which life itself can’t keep. I read

The works of Samuel Beckett, who would’ve

Prayed to God but -’

‘He doesn’t exist,’ says Cameron.

Then Clegg: ‘Surprised you know the quote.

I don’t believe in God, but

In the interests of full disclosure I should state

My sons are being raised Catholic.’

Nick goes further into his coat, then farther

To the door; at which point he turns, seeing

David stood in the room’s middle

Blowing his cheeks out,

Face puffy and red-eyed

From tiredness and overwork.

‘And you?’ after a moment Nick asks.

‘Oh it comes and goes.

I like to read the Bible…

I’m a cultural Christian…

But I wouldn’t say I believe.

Increasingly I find in meetings

My mind hovers above the fray,

In our interminable monetary discussions

I end up somewhere else.

The scene I see is seashores

And families playing there;

Ice cream on children’s faces,

Wasps in the orange juice.

I believe, I think I realize,

In a very British God –

A kind of aquatic protector

Who keeps this island safe.

I operate in a basic wavering

Position of vague belief;

You could say I’m a coalition

Of certainty and doubt.’

Nick nods and turns back to the door,

Then holds just another tick.

‘We should talk about these things more often,

It might help us win the day.’

Cameron gives a half-smile then says, at last

‘Give my love to your family

And enjoy the Christmas break.’

Cameron Clegg

Image Credit: The Cabinet Office.

An absurd election

The best analogy I could make for this British election is that it is like a patient who has received a diagnosis. They have a terminal disease, but it is not yet visible, so they begin to make up a vast series of plans which they will in all probability never be able to realize, or indeed afford; at other times they are defiant and resolved to beat the illness. In reality their later death – evident for now in only the odd palpable niggle – is inevitable, but the patient, and those who love it, cannot bring themselves to spoil this period, perhaps its last one before reality bites, by mentioning the fact.

So the central absurdity of calling an election because of Brexit but never discussing Brexit, or if doing so, employing only the most vapid terms, such as our Prime Minister’s claim that if we only believe in Brexit enough everything will be alright. Presumably we have to click our heels together three times while doing so. Post-Brexit Britain may indeed be like Oz, only this time Scarecrows lose even more brains and the Yellow Brick Road is made of horseshit. Such fantastical stories are now, to the extent that it can be said to have anything so rigid, the backbone of British politics. The parties and their supporters seemed locked in curious reveries of historical revival, either 19th-century nationalism, or the protective huddle of the post-war settlement; presumably these latter are people for whom the 1950s were a glamorous time. It seems to me sometimes that there is no period of British history sufficently dreary to not at some point give birth to a nostalgia industry.

Nonetheless there are still some of us living on this island who care deeply about Brexit. There are people for whom a Britain outside the EU presents a fundamental challenge to their identity. Of course, Brexit fans, ever reliable in their delivery of their three or four arguments, will say that Europe and the EU are two different things. This is true. But to my particular tribe, the EU is first of all a tool to allow us to easily live our lives as Europeans; to travel, study, and work, across Europe’s countries, to deepen our understanding of the continent.

When I say my tribe, which one do I mean? My tribe is perhaps defined as being that of the people who are not particularly keen on the idea of tribes. Who cross between cultures, who exchange, who are proud citizens of the world. We are, by dint of the complexity of such identities, small in number, but we do nonetheless have the right to represent ourselves and be represented. We have a shared knowledge of Europe which binds us and breeds our closeness, and to us, this British election and its language seems more foreign than living abroad. We have more in common with Emmanuel Macron than Theresa May. We find the language of being ‘pro-Europe’ very strange, because Europe is just the place we live in, with all its drawbacks and positives. How can you be ‘pro’ or ‘con’ a geographical region?

I admit freely that my tribe’s cosmopolitan identity is an elitist one. I myself was only able to move to Germany as a young man thanks to subsidies from my parents for language courses and rent. Clearly, not enough people in this country enjoyed similar opportunities, or they would never have voted to squander ones so precious. If the EU is an attempt to create transnational solidarity between European citizens, it has not, for most people in the UK, worked. But still – our elitist identity is still an identity, and an identity is how you make sense of the world. And what I am asking myself at this election is, as no one else is going to, What is the future of this, my tribe, in the UK?

In the recent Dutch election there was a party called ‘Denk’, formed to represent immigrants and their rights by immigrants themselves. If ‘Denk’ were running in the UK it would have my vote in a flash, not just because any party which translates as ‘Think’ would be a welcome addition to the British political scene. At a basic level, I want my country to start being kinder to immigrants, to stop demonizing them, to become more welcoming again. Even more than being in or out of the EU, I realize, I want to live in a country which welcomes foreigners, and certainly not one that seems to believe it has nothing to learn from them. I want to live somewhere open to the world.

On offer is the contrary. The immigration crackdown the Tories propose is predictably draconian but nowhere more so than in its proposal to raise income thresholds for marriage spousal visas for non-EU citizens from their current, ridiculous level of 18.6 thousand a year, a sum that is to be earned solely by the party who is a British national. The idea that only by earning more than a particular amount am I allowed to marry the person I want is both absurd and cruel. The undermining of the right to marriage alone deserves to lose the Tories the election; conversely, Labour, which proposes to abolish the thresholds, deserves to win on that basis. Such harsh immigration laws are a calculated insult to my tribe: ‘How dare you fuck foreign!’, they say. They make many of my us, I am sure, desperate to take our business elsewhere; our taxes, our children, and our expertise.

Meanwhile, the absurd election continues. Some promise vast sums of public money the coming economic contraction will render impossible; others boast of a crackdown on the workers that the new country will desperately need to even just stay afloat. Hard facts are scant, and as for serious thinking; well, let’s just say that there’s never been a better time in England to be an utter bonehead. Hard, seeing this, not to feel profoundly alienated, and to feel little love for a country threatening to become both the only country in Europe my tribe would never want to live in, and the only place we will be allowed to. If we do indeed leave our country, as the online Brexit army frequently request of us, it’s hard not to see British life in our absence becoming even more insular and adrift, more snug in its monolingualism, hostility and ignorance. Many of us feel this to be precisely the reason we should stay. But that means accepting that the country we want to live in, Britain in the EU, is not going to exist anymore.

Europe goes on. Recently I was in Brussels when I saw a shop selling EU memorabilia. I went inside and bought a small EU bracelet, and a flag. I was thinking that as I ordered the flag, using the French which I taught myself and practiced by working across the continent this gesture was, for a middle-class bloke from Nottingham, an act of resistance of sorts. Of course, what it in fact was identity politics, albeit the identity politics of an elite. It was an elite that a great many people and not quite enough of them had been offered the chance to enter. In Britain our elite identity, in its complexity, has been rejected. But once you had joined this elite, there was no going back. It was who you were.

Union_Jack_and_the_european_flag

Photo by Dave Kellman on a Creative Commons License 2.0.

‘The Comedian’

Can Huang, a documentary filmmaker in London, made this lovely short film about me. I think it ably captures the melancholy of the London open mic circuit! Thanks to G&B Comedy and Memoirs of the Geezer for locations.

Gaspard

Recently I was in Europe waiting for a bus, in one of the lengthy journeys which have punctuated my thirties. I was in Lille, the bus was very late, and I noticed that waiting with me – in the tiny waiting area, no more than a dias above an elevator – was a French family. They were a grandmother, a granddad and two kids, a boy and a girl. As other buses came and went, it gradually became clear that we were all waiting for the same bus to London.

Eventually, the bus did arrive, and even late we had to change onto another bus at Calais. Once the disarray of relocation had settled, I found myself sat next to the boy from that family, who, I deduced by his grandmother’s frequent address, was called Gaspard. First of all Gaspard was sat near the window, but after we went through customs twice, I ended up there. I asked the returning young man, ‘Vous voulez à la fenêtre?’ and Gaspard said it was no problem, which disposed me to him no end.

We made it through that tunnel. Occasionally, the grandmother would ask Gaspard if he was alright, and he would say he was; an hour passed, and when I looked over next Gaspard was sleeping. I looked down on him, this well-dressed and exhausted figure, and wrote him a poem.

 

Gaspard, tu dors.

Le monde est grand

Et tu sais bien que

Tu auras beaucoup à faire.

Gaspard, tu dors.

Tu as bien raison.

 

Doing this amused me. And with the poem being so simple, I decided to have another go at it in German.

 

Kaspar, du schläfst.

Die Welt ist ja groß und

Du weiß schon, dass

Du viel tun wirst.

Kaspar, du schläfst.

Du hast wohl recht.

 

And, as I was still amusing myself, I tried it in English.

 

Cuthbert, you sleep.

The world’s so big and

You’re well aware

You’ll have a lot to do.

Cuthbert, you sleep.

That’s probably right.

 

That was enough for now. But perhaps others might want to try translating the poem into their languages? It’s called ‘Gaspard’.

Approaching London 0n 26.02.2017.

Entering London 0n 26.02.2017.

 

Later we approached London in a storm. The night was vast and no ideas counted; I saw pubs dashed by rain and blistered neon. I thought, I want nothing more than to be here, seeing this, and in some way this child’s presence is part of my feeling. For his part, of course, it is unlikely he will ever read this tribute or indeed even know of its or remember my existence. Still he was cool guy. When we finally arrived I wished him ‘un beau temps a Londres.’ ‘À vous aussi’, he replied, to you too.

*

In a delightful addendum to the story, my friend Elo Zobel has now provided an Estonian version. Tänan väga, Elo.

Kaspar, sa magad

Maailm on suur

Ja sa tead et sa pead

Palju

Kaspar, sa magad

Ja nii ongi hea.