Departures/Casting Lines Pt.I

I felt dazed as the coach set off on time
So used to setback and delay
Like there was some wrench in me to stay
Some gravity drawing me back and keeping me at bay
Arrested in a forcefield
Of distended heat and smouldering, out-of-sync time
Seething in the haze of engine exhausts
That groaned amidst the parched bustle of the crowd
Arriving and departing, well-trodden paths cris-crossed
At a juncture of delirious singularity
A collision of haphazard encounters, protracted and cut short and
Scattered in every direction
Spiralling to adventure and oblivion.

The journey was long, and lonely, perhaps
The longest and loneliest I’ve ever known
Upon the far-reaching scar of this highway
Traversing through the jagged terrain of memory
Tangled in desiccated fields and shubbery
That, cleaved by the motorway,
Spanned, ailing and gnarled, past the window
The road-signs rusted, crooked, vacant
Roads narrow and worn and fractured –
Tracks dreary and serpentine, channelling
Snag and obstruction and marks of crashes
A mirage grounded in the knots of conquest
Which roil like magma in the tarmac
Streamrolling and levelling resistance
Streamlining the path of least resistance
Seatbelts constricting like straightjackets;
The concrete barrier divorcing the rush of traffic
Like a cracked warning; haunted by faintness, distraction
Aggression, intoxication, potholes
Gaping, untended, into chasms
Upon which deflated tyres restlessly grind to dead-ends;
A hayfever of thoughts racing over barren landscapes,
Chasing in both directions, riven between, lost
As if this is just a dislocating diversion
And I’m not really going home for good
But then I’m not really sure where home is
Like I shouldn’t be here
But nor could I remain there
Travel-sick, home-sick, for a dream of receding shores
Muffled playlists of a nostalgia that’s just beyond my reach
Maybe all this roaming was a diversion
And it’s finally catching up with me
Maybe all of this fighting has just been fleeing
Running away from tense peace through open battle
Always yearning to be somewhere else
Astray, and geared up to leave
Aimless, and wandering, unravelling and rewinding and repaving
Enchanted, secret trails leading even to darkness
Like the shadow of a rainbow I dared not bask in
With the dell still swarmed around by wilderness
And the light barely dappling through congested thickets
Disorienting and confounding, like the wake of a fever dream.

I hoped I’d return from seas to shallows
Laurelled in grandeur and fireworks, laden
With something other than conviction and grief
Some crystals furnished, perhaps, as way of truce
Moulded in rocky, ordained absence
As a reprieve, and grace, for us both,
Tracing knotted and frayed lifelines.
I’ve waded through blessing and curse:
Resplendent sails unfurled, though wavering amid turbulence,
Bedevilled by thunder and wraith,
Iridescent flags now smuggled beneath the decks
The pulse of remote crews embedded, there, in defiant faith
And hammer blows: sturdy and rickety all at once
Propelled by the undertow, on-course and adrift
In agitated waves at war with the coastline
Bearing down, desperate to recarve it:
And bridging what happened underneath
Is like struggling, crestfallen, for breath
As if I’ve lost them again and again.

I thought I’d never arrive
And I’ve still not alighted

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Sprained Ankle

Before I know it night has closed in again
But then the curtains were closed all day –
Shuttered like a pall over the window
As if desperate to retain any remnant of warmth –
So how would I even know?
I don’t know what I know anymore
Or if I know anything anymore.
Day and night blur into a static I can’t distinguish
And I fell asleep with the light on again:
Sleep, that cursed and infernal and mercurial refuge
That awakens thought to the untethered horrors
Of its abyssal depths
Shambling, fearsome hydras vaulted in seas of shadow
Sprawling in torrents that besiege and seep
Through the hull and overwhelm the bow
And pitch us, trembling, doused with terror
Vessel snared in the frothing maws of its wrath
Until I start awake, gasping for air
Rudderless, the waves still roiling relentlessly beneath
Stranded and nauseated, fragments of wood
Stripped, and sweeping against us like cudgels in the flood.

The light tows and roves, as a lighthouse crumbling
Probing and spectral and searing
The fuse habitually overheating and blowing
And I can’t muster any will to make it to the shops
Because it’s no longer just around the corner
But on the other side of an icy chasm
Embattled in a wretched blizzard
Of stares, burrowing to my bones like hail
Salvos of stones enrobed in snow
And I’m snowed in
Whilst it compounds and proliferates
And seals itself in palisades of ice
Until I couldn’t hope to clear it.

There’s only the ashen light
Of the hospital cubicle that is this room
Macabre and windowless and void
Narrowed to a single point
Like the needles of icicles looming
Above me, congealed
From tears I could no longer weep
Stagnant water and unopened Unite magazines
Strewn like relics among the mould
Of ballots that were never even returned
And washed out messages that eventually washed up
In a cracked bottle somewhere on the crag.

I recoil as I hear the sirens blaring incessantly
Like I’m sure they’re coming for me
Stalled amid gales, wailing in fury and hearse
If only to tell me that someone I love had leapt
Into the river from the rocks
Wrung in platitudes of ‘there is nothing anyone could have done’
So there is just this underwater ritual of necromancy
Through which pandemonium seethes
Suspended in aching stasis
And quaking flux
Each day the same, and a novel cataclysm
Incising unbreachable gulfs
Tearing and clawing at us from within
As we claw at the snow, drained and numb
Ankles sprained from slipping on the ice
Flailing as we fell, as if grit alone could nurse pain.

A moth flits frenziedly in a vortex around the light
Demented and disoriented, writhing
Amidst the miasma
And scalded again and again
Gnawing at my clothes until there is nothing warm left.
I thought about putting on my winter jacket
But then I couldn’t bear it
For that bottle of paracetamol, emptied in one night
Still weighed heavy in its pocket
Encased in the kind of plunging darkness
Entombed at the bottom of oceans.

Another day is lost – consumed, devoured
As the night casts its caliginous eclipse
Its invisible barrier of ice and phantoms and stone
Warping the door to this room.
There is a knock, though I could barely hear it over the tumult
As if it is another echo from the rampart
As if a plea for ceasefire is more daunting
Than any volley; I just didn’t want you caught
In the crossfire.
But thank god you thought to knock
And offer me a glass of water
Because all this time I’ve been choking on salt water
But I know it doesn’t have to be salt water.

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Clarity Pt. II

Clarity has a multitude of connotations and meanings.  For me, the reference to the record by Jimmy Eat World prevails in amongst these, particularly because it so earnestly epitomizes the sentiment itself.  From the vocal harmonies unfurling over soaring violins in the crescendo of the opening track, through the fervent intensity of the guitar riffs poised against the gentle poignancy of the violin in Just Watch the Fireworks, to the myriad of subtle shifts and spiralling electronics and droned vocal melodies drawing the final song to a close, I can still recall vividly – with clarity – the particularities of moments soundtracked by this album.  The memories abide, dancing and flashing across the notes even now – often everyday, trivial, insignificant moments, immortalized and enshrined in the clarity of the music, sensations swelling and synergizing amid ethereal melodies, evanesced and reincarnated and rarefied in infinite reciprocity.  Like in the euphoria of falling in love upon hearing Table for Glasses for the first time; in how the music blazed a trail through the snow while I trudged home from high school and as the blizzard billowed in elegant reprisal against the shadows of that place I felt warmer than I’d ever felt before; in how we’d listen to Just Watch the Fireworks as we departed from my brother’s university accommodation after a fleeting visit and everything seemed to just radiate off into the night, into the ebb and flow of love and loss, the rise and fall of guitars and violins.  Clarity, rediscovered each time, in wonders familiar and novel.  A feeling, amplified and animated by the music, animating the music itself, the music in turn crystallising the feeling, fine-tuning it upon each return, steps of notes retraced like footprints in the snow, rhythms reverberating, rejuvenated.  A clarity of clarities.

I know, with clarity, that art can change people profoundly because of this album.  That’s the kind of art that I’ve always wanted to create, that we all do.  Inevitably, that means there is an underside of enigma to clarity, a shade it casts.  That is to say, to write can sometimes feel like hinging one’s faith on an ideal that may never be realized, always reaching for some distant fantasy, a grasping at vapours of lightning: there is a certain tragedy to this chasing of chimeras.  This is not a burden unique to art, nor to any one person, despite how we may romanticize – we all grapple with ourselves.  And writing demands we reckon with ourselves intimately, and fiercely, and unremittingly.  It is to not only sojourn in the glade, but to wade through the mire, to scale the precipice, enfold oneself in the swirling fog of everything and nothing, to stake oneself against not only oneself but the world itself.  That exposure is daunting, and encapsulates something broader about the human condition and in particular depression: the sense of fulfilment or faith or bliss as an illusion just waiting to be dashed or corrupted.  The thought of it is unbearable, and so we nihilate ourselves into acquiescence: better to content oneself with the darkness than risk the perils of kindling a flame, risk the caprice of inspiration, risk the depletions of creation.  Clarity, then, smoulders: the good, neglected, rots.  Life lapses into impasse, but for the hazards of the search.  For fear of becoming lost, we lose ourselves.

I have always had plausible deniability with this blog.  People have generally asseverated that they admired my writing, and yet such admiration still provokes incredulity, wracked by a suspicion that it is rooted in pity.  Hence I, too, was waiting for the charade to be shattered, sheltering myself with the recourse that I might be able to deflect the shards of judgement with a pronouncement that this is just a hobby.  Of course, that would be disingenuous, perhaps even craven: writing is essential to who I am.  Innumerable hours have been instilled into the work on this blog, many days and nights of wonderful and wrenching toil, coils of dreams fumbled and lost and rediscovered amid sprawling currents.  Here one can be swamped as the floodgates release, or thwarted as if bleeding water from a stone.  Perhaps that is one reason why I have been simultaneously intensely committed, and entirely non-committal, fearful even of naming the contradiction, a sense of charlatanism plaguing.  But then, secrets have a tendency to manifest themselves, forcefully, sooner or later.  Clarity, mesmerizing, demands to be listened to.  The wind, unbidden, tears at the briars: we yearn, inflamed, buffeted, unextinguished amid the cold.  Passion rouses, fulminating from its sepulchre.  The volcano erupts forth, demanding a channel.

That’s why we write stories, why we do radical politics.  To distill that feeling, that utopian impulse, to stimulate it, to imagine and hope anew.  It is fragile, dangerous, and magnificent.  One can, after all, get lost in fantasy too, begin to drown in its depths, invoke it in itself as a shield against the world.  For all the shelter of cynicism and nihilism, there is also the overlapping shelter of a prefiguration which severs one’s ties with the world.  This abounds in romantic depictions of tortured writers in privation, consoling themselves solely with the wonders they conjure, as if internal worlds can complete us against all odds. Conversely, there is the ivory tower artist, surveying the devastation with grandiose flourishes as if to abstractedly carve the rubble into something beautiful, unwilling to wade into the messiness, to participate in the imperfection.  One can become infatuated, so a part of the work that one becomes entangled in it, or intolerant of and dejected by a world that seems so mundane in comparison, clarity and ambiguity clashing.  The landscape of one’s thoughts can be forbidding as much as enchanting, with stories acutely exposing these extremes.  Thus to make the choice to become a writer is fraught: especially amid rampant insecure freelance work, the constriction of the arts by austerity, possibilities for flourishing ever more immiserated by neo-liberal drudgery.  To will utopias in this context, as if will alone could overcome abjection, to be both outside and within the world, can be immensely straining, if sometimes joyful.  The point, after all, is not simply to describe the world, but to change it.  Yet the fear remains: what if we cannot do either?

These may sound like excuses: perhaps, in some way, they are.  But to embed ‘writer’ more firmly in one’s identity is to stake a lot on the worth of one’s thoughts, to hinge much on others wanting to listen, to risk rejection.  This inevitably rouses doubt, and fear, and can exacerbate some of our deepest insecurities, as if it necessitates a frenzied perfection of the chimeras of our writing – and, by extension, of ourselves – for the validation of others.  Spectres, then, can abound, paranoia gnawing – what if it’ll never be good enough?  To isolate oneself to the chaos of one’s thoughts for prolonged periods as a premise of one’s occupation is perilous enough: to expose to others the deepest reaches of something to which every part of you is so wedded is quite another.  To entreat others, who may be struggling for resources themselves, for not just faith, but for financial support for these efforts – one could recoil at the indecency.  I try to remind myself that this kind of work is important, whatever the dictates and coercions of profit may prescribe, and that I’m trying to cultivate a story greater than myself through my writing – but the embarrassment and doubt inevitably lingers.

One should not confuse remuneration with avarice, and yet I worry whether monetising such creative pursuits can have a corrosive effect.  It treads that tension of defying moralism around how is one compelled to act to survive in the present, and an unease over how compromise can subtly, unnoticed, shift the frontier of one’s ideal moral boundaries.  Money blurs principle, estranges ardour, and a the pronouncement that it is a necessary evil until conditions change seems little consolation sometimes.  The allure of patreon is primarily the absence of a boss, so one’s creation is not beholden to external control and one’s subsistence is thus not contingent on subordination, yet more informal economies can of course emerge.  One can begin to balance the demands of self-expression with the urge to please an audience – and when writing should indeed be a conversation, one should an extent answer this urge, without lowest common denominator dilution.   A compulsion to ‘market’ oneself – to embellish, aggrandize and curate the representation of one’s work rather than dedicate oneself to the work itself – entails an aggressive dissonance, aggravating a sense of artifice.  The pressure to earn a living bears unremittingly, regardless of our distaste – exhortations to abandon the fantasy, to get serious, to accept that the majority of the people don’t get to live out their passions and that’s just the way things have to be, can seem convincing in this context, are to some extent necessarily convincing.  Clarity is just an illusion, a luxury, something you listen to when your shift is over.   Fear, then, triumphs, and we recede.  To take a chance, as others are deprived of chances, can seem repugnant.

And writing itself, therefore – a salve to fear, and steeped in it.  A chance to assert oneself against fear, to follow through on longing, to affirm one’s voice against an alienating, exploitative social order, and terrifying because of that, terrifying because what if it fails.  My transness plays on my mind here: writing as a living tempts me in part because it means I will no longer have to endure relentless harassment in frontline customer service work.  I cannot deny the seduction of withdrawal, but it worries me too: one must find a way to live in the world, and inner worlds, however well decorated, can become prisons of anxiety, that we indulge for lack of real control over our conditions.  This is all to say: even if writing entails finally assuming courage in my convictions, it is not exempt from fear.  Because we cannot exempt ourselves from fear: we must process it, confront it, grapple with it, even as it still abides.  That is, in itself, one of the key reasons why I write.  To expose oneself is to brace oneself against the elements, but to also fully embrace all the splendour of the world, to reckon with this life in all its myriad, tenebrous, incandescent shades and textures.  And as long as I write fearfully, without staking myself, I will never be assured in my capabilities, because I will always restrain myself from full devotion to the craft, settling for lack so as to insulate myself from the pangs of vulnerability, ward off the rigours of responsibility, and negate the uncertainty of disappointed faith.  And I want to try and write clarity, even if it means enduring the sleet, and I want to try and ignite something, even if it only flickers, and I want to try and be brave, even though I’m scared.

The lyric that abides in my mind from Just Watch the Fireworks, floating over tender synths, is ‘here, you could be anything, anything that scares you – I think that scares you’.  I want to make something of this, and there is so much of myself in this, and so much that could or could not be  – perhaps that’s why it scares me.  Yet for that chance at clarity, all the fear in the world is worth persevering through.  The burden is heavy, and has never felt so light.  Perhaps we don’t have to hide anymore.  This adventure may be punctuated with pitfalls, but that is no reason not to embark.  For the melody, even amidst the squall, whispers somewhere of a shore.

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Work Memoirs Pt I: On Grief

I think of you, dwelling on all the things I could have said.  It is strange, to conjure so much of someone of whom you know so little.  I think that is why I write this tentatively, fearful as I am of falseness or distortion.  This is not my story, and one should not venture to level out such an undulating and treacherous terrain.  Yet the fact remains that it is the story of all of us.  We write of death to commit conversations we could not finish, and all those we imagine we might have had.  I wonder whether this invites closure, or simply prolongs endings, or both, or neither. One cannot reason through this, and yet the urge to continue communion remains.  The turmoil remains – a final brushstroke, warped perpetually, the elegy ricocheting faintly and stridently, clamouring for redemption or justice.  I do not want to write of this, but can think of little else.  So I write.  We grasp, and excavate, and cling on.  We cannot bear the casket sealed, nor can we bear it ajar.  I’ve been wanting to write to you for a long time, but maybe I already have, paragraph upon verse to traces of futures that could not be.  There is so much loss here, and yet so few funerals.  Even if there were, most of us can barely get the time off work, after all.

*

Meeting you was one of those sets of interactions that prompts an interrogation of all one’s underlying assumptions and priorities in life, that casts aspersions on the dominant imperatives through which we all abide and live.  ‘You never know what’s around the corner’ – it was something you recited again and again, searching, perhaps, for the right words, settling on something that at least encapsulates the quotidian dread of all of this, and how death sharpens that frail, strained reality, how it shrouds and enfeebles, quakes and razes.  Perhaps the routine provided solace, a bulwark against the vicious caprice of time.  Perhaps that’s why you would come in every day without fail, why I feared every shift that one day you might not show up and the terrible gravity of what something so trivial could mean.  For the living, death is a ritual of agonizing over unreachable possibility.  It is strange, how something so alien to me as a trip to the supermarket might ground people so much, how a conversation across a till could traverse such a desperate breach.  It is, I think, one of the only consolations that urged me to return.  And yet, it still felt wrong to ask you for money for the transaction after you spoke to me of your dead brother, sullying a moment of shared humanity with this cold, austere, unfeeling exchange.  This is a ritual, and I wonder at the possibility, what vitality or connection might otherwise flourish were we not deadened like this.  One can hear ghosts writhe and wail in these check-out beeps.

*

We paused for a minute to remember the victims of the Manchester terror attack a few weeks ago.  How could a minute be sufficient for such devastating perpetuities of grief?  A lapse mid-transaction, gazes downcast, a restless stillness, operations resumed with a cursory announcement over the tannoy.  This is compassion as PR exercise, spectacle, pantomime: a debt, owed in stony silence, pain as a private burden, a tribute to mutilation processed and packaged into a synthetic, grimacing smile, transferred and terminated.  So much carnage, contained to so taut a moment, the interruption to the flow of profits so tersely circumscribed, such a hollow gesture to lives suspended in maelstroms of shrapnel and screams and anguish.  There is such an abyssal, smouldering aching in these routines, horror seething at the veil we all wade through, the floodgates groaning, anything but ruptured glimpses unbearable.  We lose so much of one another every day, so siphoned are we by this drudging social order that grief is rendered an inconvenience, an unaffordable weakness in a sprawling war of all against all.  This is a ritual of bloodletting: the check-out beeps rattle with stifled cries.  I wonder how we even begin to recover everything that has been taken from us.

*

I remember the first time we met.  You clasped my hands tenderly, enquiring as to whether I’d just started, familiar as you were with every minute change in the store, vagaries rent through insecure work and ‘lean’ production and ‘maintaining a competitive edge’.  They were gashed slightly due to the lack of safe equipment available for replenishment duties: these are scars that throb and clot beneath the surface.  Yet I almost felt welcome, more at ease, more human, because of that gesture.   There was a levity and ebullience resounding in your voice as you jokingly and sweetly responded with ‘I’d be better if you put the kettle on!’ when I asked how you were.  I think that reminded me of home, and how such minor, kind, everyday gestures can bind worlds together.  I never got the chance to make you that tea – my boss beckoned, disgruntled, lambasting me with the reminder that customer loyalty does not mean earnest affinity, that there are innumerable crates waiting, objects and orders and profits to be serviced, that your allegiance is to the brand, to its targets, to its rituals, not to others.

*

I would often see you in store, and we would chat, warmly and honestly.  You’d remind me of how little a loaf of bread used to cost, whilst others fumble for change for such rudimentary essentials, their pockets slashed, despondently treading water, languishing in a ceaseless flux of worry around how to scrape by from month to month.  Like those darkened brows and wearied features, your humour and cheer began to seem eclipsed, riven.  You confided in me that your brother had recently died, and that you were the last remaining member of your family.  Your voice almost quivered, and there was a phantom horror haunting your eyes, and I could have wept, then, for the grievous weight, the grave fog, that had set itself upon your spirit.  Starkly, there, in your quieted voice, which sought out frivolity no longer, sapped of its vigour, I heard that looming and demented howl, shrilly reverberating in the vast, bitter darkness: this life is so lonely.  I remembered acutely that phone call, those nights in the hospital, those nights of terror teetering over the void – and felt the mechanical shuffle of goods collapse in on itself utterly.  I offered all the empathy and consolation I could, but still it felt cheap, measured, ritualistic, like that ‘take care’, however sincere, echoed in limbo forever.  I hope, perhaps, that it still meant something to you, however meager.  How achingly I wished that I could have asked whether you needed me to put the kettle on.

*

‘I’m getting there’, you responded, with a faint smile, as I asked again how you were.   I wonder how much is obscured in the ritual, and whether we can ever reach ‘there’ amidst such desolation, where ‘there’ even is, but I am relieved to see you once more.  You returned, without fail, every day, determined to get wherever ‘there’ was, however distant it seemed, determined to engage with the world despite its pain, determined to live, despite this harrowing loss.  And you began to joke about putting the kettle on again: the reclamation of such a quotidian comfort, absurdly and wondrously acting as a soothing buffer against death.  I was sad, when I told you that I would be leaving soon, not wanting to be another ghost to you – but you wished me luck in my endeavours, and there was a fervent affection in my ‘take care’, and it was a warm goodbye.  There are so many goodbyes we do not get, that we should not have to commit.  I think, if only for a moment, we both felt less lonely, and I hoped there was someone you could still share tea with, and I would be sure to keep the kettle on.  I think of all the infinities of solidarity and succour in these gestures, how such peaceful simplicities can settle the darkness, how we rarely notice the seams of a frayed reality until we have to resew it, how catastrophe and light can collide so, how we must nurse new realities, thread by thread, from the cracks, how it is possible, somehow, still, to live.  I think of you.

Your Hand In Mine

I often wonder why we remember as we do, and how we can sift through memory with stories.

It was evening, and the sky was so beautifully clear, the warmth from the day still lingering as if in some grace for those who couldn’t enjoy it during the 9-5 grind. It was a tender warmth, that of halcyon summer evenings, of hearths and campfires, of nostalgia for long-lost family holidays in the very places not too far from those you know as home. I joked that it was like a Spanish evening, but really I just hoped it felt something like home for you, and that one day maybe we could see it together, a kind of sentimentality for serendipitous intersections, for sojourns and shelter, for adventure and comfort.  This moment with you felt like home to me, like all the shadows had temporarily melted away.  I know how you hate the rain, and your excitement for summer radiated through the night, weaving with the harmonies of birdsong upon the breeze, binding the sunset in place as it cast soft streaks of orange and pink and red across the sky, germinating everything around us.  It’s such a blessing, to see you happy, to share this with you.

We’d just prepared some food and were on our way to the park – the same park I sought sanctuary in when I was struggling to cope in the first year of university, the park I’ve wandered through with friends on many a resplendent day, the park enshrining our first summer together.  I always adored the soothing melody of the fountain as it trickled into the lake, and how the water glittered in the sunlight.  The flowers were in bloom, a vibrant tapestry nurtured as if to complement and revive the fading daylight, the delicate fragrance of lavender mingling intoxicatingly with the aroma of herbs.  It was blissful, idyllic, tranquil, as if a haven untarnished by all the calamities and ravages of the world.

Yet – as we were on our way there, a familiar din struck out.  Oppression doesn’t care much for havens; it gives no quarter.  I shouted back, this time – I often don’t, as the consequences of such defiance can be severe – but either way you feel utterly vanquished, lost, diminished.  You immediately no longer belong, as if beleaguered by a hail of hostile, shifting gazes that bore into you with their shame and scorn.  This street, this park, this place is no longer yours.  It’s theirs, envenomed and depredated and scourged.  That’s why I asked that we avoid that street when we wandered back home – it was no longer ours.  Just like that train, just like that grass near where you used to work in the coffee shop – each altercation petrified, seared, the rot setting in, the plants etiolated and putrefied.  The world again seemed dangerous and desolate, shadows ever-looming, the terror of what might lurk in the undergrowth all-consuming.  It entices you with the intoxicating asphyxiation of bitterness: what other defence is there, but to bunker down against its viciousness, steel ourselves against the torrents, hurl grenades over the verge.  I could hear the echoes of war wracking his shout.  I wasn’t so much angry, as scared and sad that this was how I would have to remember another night that should have been ours.  It should have been such a beautiful night.

And yet – I was coaxed back to the present as you squeezed my hand.  A firm, yet gentle squeeze, almost a defiant caress.  Love cannot itself salvage the ruin, expunge the demons, redeem torment.  It cannot contrive a happy ending.  It is tangled up in all these throes.  And yet, there was so much faith in that gesture, and it felt more significant than all the cruelty of the world.  I was there, again, with you, in that moment, our hands held together despite the rifts around us, anchoring us against the strife.  And a warmth gradually seeped back into the night, and I could see beyond the bunker, and there were flowers somewhere in the distance.  And you were there, and the light was still holding on, and there was good still reaching out.

It is quite beautiful, I thought, that quiet miracles such as these yet blossom, in spite of the decay.

Film/TV reflections

Reproduced below are a collection of some spontaneous thoughts, originally posted to my Facebook profile, on various artistic works I’ve enjoyed recently.  I not only think there is political importance to this kind of analysis, that culture can be both a reflection of political shifts in society and a medium through which to imagine political possibility; there is also the simple fact that these works inspired in me a unique intensity of feeling and urge to write, the results of which – however fragmented and undisciplined – it thus seemed amiss to not document in some form.  The division of the political and personal has much to answer for; this blog is, in many ways, a modest attempt to contribute towards the dissolution of that division.

Logan

I couldn’t sleep last night and watched Logan, a film I’d been meaning to see for a while. It was incredibly macabre, gruesome and gritty – emotionally, psychologically and physically – to the extent of being difficult to watch at points. The sense of visceral aching accompanying each instance of bloodshed, the sheer wretchedness of it all, was executed with agonizing maturity and humanity.

There was a sense that this movie was wrestling with itself throughout – reflecting on the dark underside of the burden of superhuman power and of the romanticized myth of superhero tales themselves (figuratively and literally). This introspection was woven into its political undertones – the bleak desolation of a political landscape fractured by a rising nihilism and far-right violence, overshadowed by neo-liberalism’s ‘end of history’, an age of immigrant children hunted down in woods by mercenaries, of science beholden to warmongering, of the social and physical destruction of the marginalized. These undertones framed broader reflections on the human condition – grappling with anguish, depression, self-harm, illness, grief, trauma, and suicidal ideation, the role of love, of hope, of the power of childhood beyond the usual tropes of redemptive innocence.

This is not a superhero film – and yet it is one, the one that has been seething at the boundaries of the naivety of myth, lingering in the shadows: the bleak reality of what happens when hope and heroes have seemingly disappeared. It is striking that its introspection and self-criticality reminds us why superheroes were important to us in the first place, imploring us to find the hero in all of us again, especially now. The shifting and blending of genres within the film’s landscape is at once subtle and jarring; the points where it lapses into the familiarity of family roadtrip drama are wistful reflections on the story it wish it could tell, the stories that are just out of reach. Ultimately, it both rejects and fulfils the very framework of the superhero genre, at once honours and transcends it – reminding us amidst calamitous circumstances what it means to struggle, to mourn, to hope and to love.

Moonlight

Moonlight is an absolute masterpiece. It feels impossible to do it justice with any comment or description – but everything from the score and how it weaves through, shifts and frames the narrative, the imagery (the ocean, food, etc) and how that reverberates through the three sections, the way it has so much lingering space and yet so much confining tension, the way so much goes unspoken as in queer desire itself, the meditations on black masculinity, the tone of aching throughout, the moments of compassion anchored with agonizing delicacy in realities of violence, the piecing together of lives and selves lost or that could never quite be, the subtlety and candour and artistry and viscerality of it, the secrets it keeps, the scars it reveals. Just magnificent.

Call me By Your Name

I saw this exquisite film the other day with my partner and thought the scene between Elio and his father at the end was quite simply one of the most tender and beautiful dialogues I’ve ever seen in a movie. I think it is right to call it ‘wish fulfilment’ for many queer people: I also felt a surprising and serene warmth as I watched it, the urge to reach out, embrace more tightly, love more bravely; that, indeed, for a moment, the memories of pain often entangling queer love unravelled and rewove themselves into something more; that asserting the possibility of a love otherwise so wracked and besieged and complicated by society’s prejudices is perhaps one of the most beautiful expressions of the power and significance of love in and of itself.  Both surreal and raw, with such humanity, this film explores the dream of queer love beyond the bounds of prejudice.  It feels itself like a love letter, so gently crafted, so longingly wrought; and what a rare gesture, what a remarkable idea, what a complex and elegantly quotidian grace, that is.

Hunger Games

I’ve been watching through The Hunger Games again, and whilst it strikes me that lots of the political themes are sometimes vague, underdeveloped and somewhat unfulfilled in their admirably lofty ambitions, they are also an incredibly powerful reflection, first and foremost, I think, on the society of the spectacle. A major blockbuster meditating on the role of popular culture in the voyeuristic glorification and mystification of conflict might seem counter-intuitively ironic, but perhaps that’s exactly the source from which it derives its power. A moralistic fatalism deeming popular culture a purely conspiratorial diversion, and a wholesale ceding of its territory and denial of its radical potential, would seem at odds with the fact that from, everywhere to Ferguson to Thailand to Hong Kong, symbolism from the Hunger Games films was literally deployed in street protests against state authoritarianism and violence. Perhaps an ‘in and against’ method of relating to popular culture would be more useful – recognizing the powerful role fantasy and culture occupy in inspiring hope and affect, restoring a sense of futurity and possibility, and galvanizing and connecting revolutionary action in the contemporary political moment; whilst bracing against the dangers of lapsing into spectatorship, insulation, retreat or separation through the realm of the fantastical that capital, in its decay, is all-too-desperate to entertain.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I’ve been thinking about why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is such a cult TV classic, and it really hit home particularly in the fifth season (which is some of the best TV I’ve ever seen, highly recommended) – it’s in how richly it’s laden with metaphor, the lofty and difficult themes (responsibility, love, sacrifice, redemption, desire, humanity, etc) it deals with through these intersecting mediums of fantasy and coming-of-age, how candid and vulnerable it is with emotional subject matter, its complex and powerful character development and just how deeply you feel connected to the characters and their world.

It appeals both to that sensibility of innocent hope that fantasy, at its best, inspires (which young person wouldn’t want to a escape to a world saved again and again by a rag-tag, autonomous community of extraordinary and quotidian heroes, especially when that community features queer witches) – but also from that platform deals with the pangs of coming to terms with a world that can feel truly monstrous and nightmarish. Not just because of – not even primarily because of – the vampires and the demons, but because of the tearing everyday experiences of fear, pain, heartache, loss. For all its fantasy, it is deeply sensitive to and never undermines just how hard everyday life can be. It’s deeply human (look no further than ‘The Body’ in season 5 for an expertly crafted, achingly affecting example of this) and really comes into its own when it rallies behind that theme.

It’s no surprise, I think, that the 5th season resonated with me so much whilst its subject matter attends to that cusp between college and adult years, that point in life where the world can sometimes seem at its most ruthless and daunting. The best art, I think, is that which is quite separate from this world, and never apart from it. ‘The hardest thing in this world is to live in it’, after all, and I’m sure this TV series has made the world that little bit easier to live in for those queer kids that had never before seen a flourishing, multifaceted relationship of people like them on screen, for those bullied kids who felt like no one was fighting in their corner, for those kids, like Dawn, wracked with the angst that they are invisible or disposable or have no place in the world, for anyone wondering how to bear the absurdity and grittiness and devastation of all of this, for all of us hopelessly and hopefully grasping at how to live. I’m sure it’s still making it easier. I know it is.

Strike

It’s morning again
Roused briskly with little rest.
The world swirled past me in transit,
Falling apart and coming together,
The beginnings of an outbreak of snow
Glancing across the windows.

I dwelt on dreams
On the knots and kernels of history
Preserved and borne upon the bracing breeze:
These echoes of memories lulled
By the embrace of union ballads
And conjured with the raw material of banners
That emblazoned those panoptic windows
Overlooking the softly stirring lake
And ensconced us like blankets
On hard floors that were not our own
And have never been more ours –
When the sky, still overcast,
Was tinged pink with the dawn
And the blanched fields were doused with icy dew
And the shedding trees laced with frost,
Rustling with the whisper of the wind,
As we crouched with bated breath in those woods
Just before the world blossomed anew
Under a sky of explosions.

We arrive early to the interchange
And it is enveloped in a snowstorm.
We gather in its surge
Struggling to see beyond armslength
Huddled, weary bodies charged
With nervous anticipation
In the biting cold.

The melodies of union songs ring out on the picket lines
Movements of symphonies at once novel and age-old
Familiar like a history, untold,
Though threaded into the fabric of everything around us
Entwining us together
And summoning some dormant courage

Our banners billow and shelter us from the wind,
Brandished, to swathe us
In their refulgent glow
And the chants swell louder
And branch further
Coursing through the crowd
Impulsively finding harmony
Segueing into one another seamlessly
Inflaming the drifting snow
And reverberating on the wind
Like an incantation

Electricity crackles through our numb fingers
In some fusion of beauty and pain
And as we march the static is unleashed, liberated, effused
Into euphoric and incendiary refrains
And dances of flame
That thaw our chilled hands
And strike through the snow
In the incandescent refusal
Of a multitude of lightning bolts
Streaking and winding and flaring
Like some celestial tapestry
Banners hoisted like lightning rods
Blazing amidst the blizzard
Frenzied currents conducted
By this orchestra of protest
Cascading like an avalanche
Overcoming the grinding rhythms of construction
Halting traffic
Sweeping past every barrier
Into the corridors of power
Its circuitry blasted
Ourselves – renewed
In this elemental resistance
This rising in love
This infinity of song.

We march, and roam, slowly, gently, furiously
Rippling amidst these wandering flurries
Wreathed in the mantle of worlds still unfurling
Finally in control, and utterly surrendered
To this graceful and strident belonging:
The boundless clearing of this boundary.

The veil of snow upon these walls becomes a canvas
Its screen a mural
Daubed with rebellion
Enchanted by constellations
That we forge in the blurs of the horizon
A lesson in joy bursting and blooming at fever pitch
Through the offices of every classroom.

I could almost see the future striking through
To welcome us home
And it dawns on us
What it might mean
To believe.

The Gender Recognition Act, Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists and Trans Politics (Part II)

(The first part of this series can be found here.)

I experienced considerable difficulty in starting part 2 of this series.  It’s not that there weren’t sufficient provocations.  Indeed, the deplorable attempt by TERFs within the Labour Party to fundraise tens of thousands of pounds to exclude trans women from All-Women Shortlists, in their most recently vicious manoeuvre, would be surprising if it weren’t so consistent with their political history of exclusion and division.  The malice feels at once acute and debilitating: perhaps the barriers I felt in composing this were raised instead by too many provocations, too much anger, too much hurt and doubt and despondency.  One can become disoriented, spent, emptied-out.  It’s not as if trans people don’t have enough enemies, after all.  That we have to fight so hard against our supposed comrades, as much as wider society, is a bitter truth to process.

I think I didn’t want to have to confront it – the scale of the betrayal, the insidiousness of it, the numbing and brutal predictability of it, how it cascades in shards of personal memories of abuse and harassment from women and men alike, from those who urged it on, participated in it, cheered it, and I laughed along in shame; how shame can sear, how deeply it is etched in my overcompensations and insecurities, how these wounds will not close, how I am the wound, how it festers, how far this poison has seeped, how it clings, how it consumes, how I consume that which is not mine, how I have corrupted, how I embody corruption, how I am a dissimulation writhing on the jagged edges of the relics I have stolen from the gatekept sanctuary of womanhood, how faithless and treacherous and grotesque I am.  In part, it’s the pain – in another instance, it’s the vitriol I’ve internalized, that to commit this to paper is to sin, to capitulate to narcissism, to uphold some deleterious distortion and ruse.

These are dark, rotten roads, phantoms of brigands silhouetted by the stained glass windows of churches, storms billowing around us, maps disfigured, marshes gripping upon enervated limbs, some of those we locked arms with against the ranks of evangelical pro-lifers perhaps now residing with them.  I recall that day we fought together in the rain.  I remember bleeding as the cops pushed us back, how we waited all night in yet another harrowing police station for a comrade’s release.  The hailstones sting.  The shards of glass are serrated and sharp.  The thickets feel impenetrable, lunging out to embroil and bedevil us from the most intimate of recesses, from corners we hoped might be safe, might finally be ours.  Our guard is always raised, respite seemingly impossible.  I suppose, as always, part of my reason for writing this piece is to attempt to wade through the thorns, to finally settle the din, even if the echo (‘what if they are right?’) continues; to seek out some peace or closure, piercing through that which otherwise seems impassable and irrevocably tangled.

The reflections above are not composed as such simply because of a penchant for the fantastical in grappling with malaise and turmoil.  Indeed, these are the frames in which we are rendered – our identities abstracted to reactionary phantasms to be exhibited, debated, interrogated, abhorred, exorcised.  In the words of Janice Raymond, one of the seminal theorists of TERF ideology, transness is to be ‘morally mandated out of existence’.  The pernicious tropes casting trans women as interlopers, rapists and predators in disguise are not simply conjured by a callous press and Government, but by some of the very people ostensibly committed to contesting gendered oppression.  This demonization, mercilessly invoked and reverberated across the political spectrum, is absolutely fundamental to the normalization and sanctioning of widespread violence against us.

Indeed, so-called ‘radical feminists’ not only ideologically collaborate with the right in conspiring against trans rights, but indeed have even actively united with elements of the Christian right – who they might otherwise be facing off against on pro-life demonstrations – to campaign against legal protections for trans people.  The extent and insidiousness of anti-trans politics is herein exposed: TERFs will willingly align with some of the most extreme perpetrators of women’s oppression, those attempting to inhibit access to abortions and thus reinforce state and religious control over women’s bodies, as long as it serves an anti-trans cause.  Now, in the Labour Party, feminists are fundraising to utilize the courts – which they might in other contexts legitimately critique as bourgeois gatekeepers of the status quo that routinely fail victims of gendered violence – to actively exclude trans women from political representation.  Not only should we recognize the gravity of what is at stake here – access to political and public life for trans people – we should also recognize the vindictive political hypocrisy and disingenuousness present.

The rampant transphobia levelled upon us by the dominant conservative structures of society is thus supplemented by internal threats to our rights from the orthodox feminist left.  Our sense of isolation, alienation and distress is amplified manifold by the sheer multiplicity of the attacks waged against us from all spheres.  The insidiousness of TERF ideology is thus not simply rooted in its sense of betrayal, wherein vicious anti-trans politics can be legitimized under the guise of a progressive defence of women’s rights, but also the iniquitous political context it inflames and draws its energy from.  We can understand TERF ideology as a significant and foundational contributor to a cultural framework of prejudice against trans people.  As feminist academics, they occupy a very specific cultural position, and not only veil vulgar prejudice in a veneer of intellectual expertise, but indeed have directly innovated many of the cultural currents and traditions that inform prevailing anti-trans discrimination.  Though this terrain is thankfully shifting, much of the history of feminist thought itself has too been moulded by their work – and many of these academics have significant cultural platforms in institutions like the Guardian to proliferate their bigotry (something, perhaps, to consider when imputations of no-platforming are invoked).  Many of the Christian right rely and draw upon the very theory that their traditional feminist enemies developed to advance their own cause.  Far from being marginal in their influence, a charge through which the left oft falls into complacency around trans rights, the TERF’s capacity to fundraise tens of thousands of pounds on the left to further their own ends and their historical ideological and political role in current conflicts must be addressed with due seriousness.

The historical tactical repertoire of TERFs, alongside their ideological foundations, should also be interrogated.  Doxing, outing of trans women publicly to employers, political and physical intimidation, physical gatekeeping over political spaces, public humiliation of trans peoples’ bodies, disruption of trans organizing, bullying and abuse, slander and misinformation etc, are all methods deployed by TERFs to pursue their bigoted aims.  Far from the common understanding that TERFs are removed from violence and just seek out abstract ‘debate’ (a charge we need always be wary of in the antagonisms it glosses over and the sheer virulence of views it has come to extenuate) – they have operated and continue to operate through violence.  They have furthered not only dire emotional persecution against trans people – which, in the egregious statistics around mental health and suicide for trans people, should be understood as having very material effects – but have actively sought to materially harm some of the most vulnerable women in society in the ostensible name of women’s rights.  TERFs have been absolutely integral to forming and stoking the dominant narrative that women and trans rights are necessarily in conflict, an artificial division which has done immense damage to the very working class unity and gendered emancipation that TERFs claim to so rigorously pursue.  We underestimate their influence at our peril – the charge that those who have been forcibly denied access to femininity all our lives are undermining other women is immensely damaging.

Trans people are indeed blamed for patriarchy by TERFs, which obfuscates its actual structural mechanics.  We must not adopt a solely morally oppositional stance to TERF politics – though that is important – but reckon with the fact that TERFs are also bolstering some of the very same conservative and religious forces that seek to dispossess all women of rights, that their historical tactics are rooted in methods of intimidation not dissimilar to the far-right, and that the deficiency of their analysis mystifies and undermines the cause of overcoming gendered oppression in its entirety.  The idea that TERFs defend women’s rights – whilst gatekeeping and wresting away the very spaces and communities that vulnerable and poor trans women have been dispossessed of access to all their lives, thereby perpetuating immense structural harms against them – is ultimately, even on its own terms, a fabrication, for their politics actively derail the left’s activities in reactionary directions.

It perhaps would be useful here to delineate some of the specifics of the arguments of TERFs, so as to more precisely deconstruct their flaws. Much of their ideology is inherited from the currents of thought generated in the second-wave of feminism, wherein women are conceptually constituted as a ‘sex class’ subordinated to men through control over their reproductive capabilities.  There is much to learn from this analysis, particularly in its incorporation of class politics into otherwise liberal strands of feminism, positing gender and class not as disconnected, abstract categories but mutually constituted systems of domination, wherein one’s gender is fundamentally implicated in our relationship with the state and divisions of labour.  However, this conception of society often comes into tension with the understandings of third-wave feminism due to its lapses into biological essentialism – the idea that gender is rooted in, and determined by, necessarily binary, static biological characteristics as manifested in one’s anatomy and chromosomes (etc).  Thus whilst the second-wave of feminism demanded an abolition of gender roles, it also agitated for this within a theoretical framework that promoted the notion of innate, dimorphic biological differences between men and women as the basis of oppression.

This is at the root of much transmisogyny – the pernicious idea that trans women are ‘biologically male’, and so necessarily oppressive, thus only ‘acting’ as women on a whim, so as to infiltrate, disrupt and prey upon women’s spaces under false pretexts.  Trans women, TERFs posit, appropriate the female form and defile women’s spaces as ‘men in disguise’, contorting the sanctified category of womanhood into mere performance.  Gendered oppression, in their estimation, is rooted solely in biology, with women’s reproductive function the fundamental site of social and economic control – and so those who did not grow up with a womb cannot truly understand the lived experience, vulnerabilities and pangs of womanhood; that trans women have been ‘socialized’ as men and are thus haunted by the spectre of male privilege.  In effect, they believe trans women are not ‘real’ women, but only masquerading as such – the charge we hear on repeat in the static of relentless media bigotry.

Quite apart from their overt bigotry, and the more practical arguments to combat these claims – one might point to the erasure of intersex people and even infertile women in this analysis, that trans women are transitioning earlier and earlier in their lives, that it disregards the horrific lived experiences and oppression of non-binary people – there is also a number of glaring theoretical flaws here.  Primary among these, I think, is the naturalization of a reality of gendered oppression: physical and biological differences are upheld as an intrinsic fact from which oppression necessarily flows.  We should be wary of this gesture because it is how oppressors themselves have justified the enactment of oppression throughout history: that is to say, domination is rendered acceptable by recourse to the argument that a specific arrangement of power is bounded by realities that are ‘natural’ and thus immutable (the abuse of lesbian and gay people under the logic of ‘nature’ being a relevant and harrowing parallel here).  Indeed, TERFs often level very worrying arguments on these very grounds – for example, prohibiting women from their spaces because they do not ‘look’ or ‘speak’ like ‘women’, defining women by their anatomy when this is exactly what they might otherwise critique in the patriarchal objectification of women’s bodies, or exalting reproductive properties such that roles of motherhood or nurturance that feminists have traditionally questioned as sites of subservience instead become naturalized.  For those who denigrate trans people for upholding stereotypical ideals of gender, this seems oddly like a form of politics designed to preserve the very gendered norms they purport to want to dismantle.

‘Gender is a social construct’ is a common retort to TERF arguments – however, this can omit detail, and is something in the abstract, at least, that TERFs might also subscribe to.  It speaks to the notion that the ideas of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not biologically but in fact artificially produced through a set of cultural norms and a compulsion to undertake specific behaviours and roles: thus being an inverse of the argument made by some seminal radical feminist theorists.  The rhetoric of gender not only as a construct but as a performance has been popularized by third-wave feminism, and there is much to be said of this argument, especially as it contests the notion that trans women ‘perform’ femininity and instead posits that gender is always performative.  This is, indeed, where I think we can usefully reconcile the ideas of second- and third-wave feminism: the cultural cues of gender that are imposed on us, as rituals we must adopt and perform at risk of social punishment or economic dispossession, are formed so as to functionalise specific roles within a gendered division of labour.  Rather than being a biological fact in which men unilaterally command power over women, gender is constituted by our social and material conditions – by our relationship to society, to the state and its institutions, and to a means of production wherein reproductive labour is appropriated through its feminization.  Economic exploitation and social oppression are intrinsically interrelated and mutually reinforcing, and must be overcome together.

This, I think, is where we can dispel the argument common amongst TERFs that gender identity is individualist, neo-liberal or a post-modernist distraction – instead it is the politics of gender identity that, deployed correctly, can help enable us to upend the artificial social divisions through which exploitation is upheld and social identity itself formed.  Far from the accusation TERFs often level that the politics of gender identity seeks to preserve gendered norms, it instead is an attempt to reckon with a world in which gender is deeply etched, to resist, disturb and experiment with the rigid classifications that underpin our social reality.  Indeed, TERF’s insistence on excluding trans women from their spaces and politics to gatekeep a sacrosanct womanhood speaks to the very instinct they warn against: the ossification of artificial social categories through the homogenization of a uniform experience of ‘womanhood’, mobilized again and again to dispossess the most marginalized women from political organizing, to divide us along lines of race, sexuality, class etc.

Indeed, to relate politics to the personal, to our everyday lived circumstances, is not to repudiate collectivism, but instead to acknowledge the cultural realities that inform the mechanisms of exploitation we endure, and to emphasise the importance of cultural affirmation to the sustenance and horizons of emancipatory activity.  It is not to propose individual adjustment or a fetishization of personal feeling (though that impulse does of course exist on the left, and is a much wider phenomenon that should not be blamed on trans people) but rather to reckon with a fundamental question of the kinds of social lives we wish to lead, the kinds of ideals and ends we strive towards.  TERF ridicule of trans people as coddled and delusional should be understood in the context of a fatalism where we are completely determined by fixed social realities and not agents within them.

Indeed, there is much potential, and perhaps common ground, to be found in examining gender identity in the context of our relationship to reproduction: to recognize how transness is implicated in our material conditions and thus how gender more broadly is implicated in class relations.  The traditional class analysis of reproductive labour, whilst significant, is particularly heteronormative, relying conceptually upon the nuclear family and the invisibilisation, privatisation and appropriation of domestic labour to replenish labour power therein.  Transness (and indeed queerness) is often defined by a fraught relationship to this reproductive unit, such that even the indirect fruits of wage labour are not enjoyed as we become estranged from oppressive families.  Our transness renders our relationship to labour precarious, often contingent on self-mutilation, as we toil in poor conditions in feminized service sector work, become criminalized in sex work, or are forced to languish in destitution and unemployment.  We are derided and punished at the Job Centre, compelled to perform ruses to even access the most basic subsistence to reproduce ourselves, with sanctions commonplace.  We are harassed on the street and at work and in the home, subject to gendered abuse and sexual violence in disproportionate numbers, social violence an ever looming shadow across our lives.  We are denied healthcare, forced to submit to degrading and cumbersome bureaucratic processes to realize our bodily autonomy.  Prisons and police discipline and abuse us as if we are abominations.

This, then, should not sound unfamiliar – state control over our bodies, street, workplace and domestic abuse and intimidation, material devaluation of labour – all these structural forces impact the lives of trans people and cis women in a similar fashion.  Though no trans person would ever deny that women’s oppression is, in significant part, historically rooted in attempts to control biological reproduction, to maintain this is the sole source of gendered oppression is to myopically restrict liberatory praxis.  It not only disregards the myriad experiences of vulnerable women and trans people but also poses a limited understanding of the exploitative relations undergirding the totality of reproductive processes in society.  There is more space for unity than we might imagine, and though TERFs might brand trans people as their enemies, turning against us only does harm to their cause, to the whole cause of confronting the multifaceted oppression of class society.  The idea that our rights are in competitive tension with one another, that trans rights must necessarily be at the expense of women’s rights, simply plays into the reactionary narratives that pit us against one another, fracture common cause, preserve social hierarchies and the zero-sum, bitter deceit that similarly marginalized groups are to blame for our conditions, misunderstand the interdependence of our struggles, and draw our gaze away from our common enemies of the state and the ruling class.

There is, as always, reason for hope.  The attempts to exclude trans women from All-Women Shortlists have been officially – if not politically – overturned, with many Labour MPs and the NEC declaring that trans women can stand for women’s places regardless of GRC status.  Without an active integration of trans politics into a revolutionary analysis, we not only neglect the pursuit of justice for trans people so habitually persecuted by society, but fail to grasp the complete dynamics of gendered oppression that affect and are propped up by us all.  With a deficient analysis of how exploitation and oppression operate in class society, we will not be able to strategize, organize and act effectively to confront its complex mechanics.  Indeed, this is a question of fundamentally respecting and defending the humanity of a marginalized people who suffer intense violence in society.  Bigotry has no place in our feminism – and though the path toward emancipation is always an arduous one, the landscape is indeed shifting, and the ranks of those forging through the foliage swelling.  Sometimes I struggle to see past the briars to the glade beyond, but I never waver in knowing that it will be beautiful, that there are worlds here – within us, amongst us – aching to be realized, dreams blossoming despite the tempests they invite.

Police Cuts and The Left

Recently, a video interview with a former Met police officer, where he condemns Theresa May’s government as having ‘blood on their hands’ for underfunding police forces in the wake of a series of fatal knife crimes on New Year’s Eve, has been circulating and shared vigorously by those on the left to expose the ruptures wrought by austerity.

This requires careful handling – the distressing subject matter reminds us that the administration of politics is quite simply a direct matter of life and death, especially for vulnerable and marginalized people. The bereavement and emotional turmoil experienced by the loved ones and families of the victims of these horrific attacks should be actively empathised with – and certainly not abstracted from politics as the right often prescribe – especially regarding a need for a sense of security and protection (we should remember that most of the public do conceptualize the police as a public service, and navigate accordingly). Theresa May does indeed have ‘blood on her hands’ – but this raises more fundamental questions of whether the police actually prevent, curtail or indeed exacerbate violence in society.

It strikes me the left more broadly, particularly within the Labour Party, needs to deliberate much more rigorously on this issue: especially when narratives from former police officers and the Police Federation like this circulate in the wake of public tragedy (terrorism being similar in its dimensions here) and the left often knee-jerk lapses into ‘we need more cops on the streets’.  This is an understandable response to an extreme sense of threat or vulnerability – but the frames of reference of ‘law and order’ are not politically neutral, and the incitement and weaponization of fear over social chaos has been both a historical technique through which brutal state control and repression has been justified and has also assumed a specific role within contemporary politics around migration, terrorism, international instability etc to legitimize draconian, racist practices of securitization and militarization and rally the (far-)right.  The insidiousness gone unspoken here is that parts of this interview are not dissimilar in content, tone and rhetoric to interviews in 2011 condemning the ‘criminality’ of rioters in the wake of Mark Duggan’s murder by police.

There are obviously varied positions on the role of the police on the left – (now much less common) anarchist strains that argue for total abolition, social democratic tendencies that deem the police a public service like any other, and a newer tendency to try and straddle the line between the two and react to some of the more juvenile or ‘ultra-left’ tendencies in the abolitionist strain whilst not acceding to entirely positive social democratic framings of police functions (the latter increasingly frustrates me almost as much as the first, often through its straw-manning of the abolitionist drive and its disillusionment with this drive lapsing frequently into the very recuperations anarchists warn against – a tiresome cycle). Thus broader fault lines and questions in the left around not just the police but the state itself are exposed in an attempt to figure a coherent position on this, overshadowed largely by an impulse to mark out a clear territory of defence wherein no cuts are ever acceptable (an impulse I think useful, anchoring and important to Labour’s electoral success, but itself inheriting an instinct towards purely reactive politics that have constrained the left’s horizons and imaginations over the past few decades).  Simply repudiating cuts, we know, is not a sufficient strategy for a sustainable left – the failings of the powerful anti-cuts movement sparked in the wake of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition is but one testament to this.  Similarly, an assertion of the redistributive potentialities of the state, both as an alternative to a contemporary left politics of marginality and withdrawal and as a riposte to its brutal evisceration under neo-liberalism, should not divert our attention from its injustices and internal logics of power (especially as marshalled against the very social movements to which Labour must be oriented).

It perhaps does not do us much good – as some of the abolitionist tendencies sometimes lapse into – to describe the police as totally and absolutely bad (a nihilism that I think sabotages conversations around the subject before they start). I do, of course, think the police are indeed structurally bad (the nuances are, I think, important here), that their historical social mission is not protection of the public but the violent defence of private property, control of marginalized and dissenting populations, and repressive maintenance of an oppressive status quo – this is acutely apparent to anyone who has ever been on the other end of a police baton, whether in the context of a protest or because of residing in the ‘wrong’ (read: black, poor) neighbourhood. In the interview the former police officer is himself quite explicit about the police’s function – ‘the control of public space’. Indeed, while it might be wrong-headed to say that all of Labour’s membership, drawn largely from the more social-movement-like tradition (the divisions are of course becoming more blurred, if they were ever entirely clear in the first place), hate the police, it would also be misguided to deny that, not only for the purposes of justice but also for the loyalties of those who Labour should be grounded in and needs to appeal to – participants in the student protests and riots (some of whom languished under truly draconian prison sentences in their wake), those involved in militant struggle for class and social power, those who fought at Orgreave, those fighting for justice for the Hillsborough 96, family justice campaigns fighting for accountability over deaths in custody, poor BME communities spied upon, harassed, brutalized by cops – many do feel very legitimate discontent and mistrust towards the police.  It goes without saying that questions of electoral ‘pragmatism’ are always wracked by messy political contentions, as much as the collapsing centrist tendency might still like to assert otherwise.

Instead, critiques of the police are warded off and diffused, I think in the vein of quite a Blairite tendency that suggests this will be unpopular with the electorate (and perhaps an idea that cuts to police might invite an increased brutality, privatisation and militarization of forces, etc, which there is truth to). Not only did Labour’s recent electoral success discount this impulse for the myth that it is (the left only has meaning, robustness and actual fibre when it inspires, imagines, and transforms, rather than ceding ground and triangulating to cynically score points; we must pose a different, more just, more emancipatory, more unified vision of the world, provoking people to question and explore and relate to one another differently, without it we are nothing) – but where the left is willing to cede ground is I think telling (borders, police, prisons) because we’ve always been reluctant to upset the status quo over racism and issues which disproportionately affect BME communities, and we need to urgently challenge and overcome that tendency. It’s a very real, very significant hangover and problem still.  The Labour Party should be understood as a historically imperialist institution and the left’s enduring capitulations around racism and weakness over questions of state violence interrogated.

This is not even to deny entirely that the police engage in some socially useful functions. But there seems to be an even fairly cautious liberal critique of the police that is not being engaged with – that there are serious endemic problems, abuses and corruption within policing, even such that Police Commissioners themselves and High Court judgements have branded police forces institutionally racist. That is to say – even in acknowledging that the police do indeed curb some violent crime (though egregiously poor crime resolution rates and prejudices in policing patterns are important here) – one can question, for example, the criminalization of sex work and the violent threat to marginalized women and trans people this poses, the criminalization of homelessness, the criminalization of mental health and the abuses therein, the war on drugs and how this has fractured a generation of poor black communities, the specialist units set up to infiltrate and intimately monitor dissent (FITs, National Domestic Extremism units, etc) and how this undercover policing has, for example, deeply traumatized women activists who cops engaged in intimate relationships with under false pretexts to glean information from (one can only imagine the devastation – it was described as like being ‘raped by the state’ by one woman), the civil-liberties-infringing and Islamophobic operations of counter-terrorism units, the brutal excesses of riot police, the utter obscenity of accountability structures like the IPCC, deaths in custody for which no cop has ever been held to account, abuse (from humiliations of trans people, to racist aggression, all the way to sexual assault) in police custody – etc.

Indeed, following these critiques through to their logical conclusions, one might imagine there’s a pattern of control and violence here that alludes to structural problems of police forces themselves – and I don’t simply mean technical problems, that can be rectified through reorientation of police operations, more diverse representation, or rooting out the ‘bad apples’ (the whole orchard is rotten to its roots) but that are fundamental to the police as an institution and integral to its repressive role in society.  Their core, overriding function is to uphold and enforce inequality.  As such the phantasm of ‘criminality’, and the law itself, reflect and reinforce prevailing power relations: the destitute are imprisoned for sleeping rough whilst the profligacy of property developers and landlords, forcibly abetted by the police, results in the routine displacement of working class people from their homes.

This attendance to the structural purpose of policing is why the claim of the Government engaging in ‘institutional racism’ at the end of the interview stings a little – not because it isn’t true, of course the state is racist to its core – but because the hypocrisy is stark. The implicit assertion that, if only the police had more funding, more would be done to protect black and vulnerable communities, is just a patently absurd claim (especially because these communities are already violently over-policed – the interviewee’s call for more funding for stop-and-searches is particularly pernicious). It strategically and conveniently deflects attention from the history of institutional neglect, brutality and violence inflicted upon BME communities by the police (Bijan Ebrahimi’s tragic murder, and the accompanying official imputations of institutional racism in Avon and Somerset police and Bristol City Council, being a harrowing reminder of this) – disavowing the fact that the police themselves are at the very heart of the state’s racism and always have been.

Indeed, whilst interviews like this from (historically very reactionary and with significant influence in the Labour party) Police Federation officers portray an understandably tragic image of a society rent by internal social crises (austerity and neo-liberalism have indeed devastated communities), these narratives are actually fundamental to the police justifying (and abusing) their powers throughout history – the ‘thin blue line’ between order and chaos guarded assiduously by a noble police, to restrain the destructive passions of the naturally dissolute masses who only because of centralized control and fear of punishment do not tear themselves and society apart.  This narrative was absolutely fundamental to the abhorrent repression of the 2011 riots, displacing all acknowledgement of legitimate political discontent and levelling all political contention into a vilification of rioters as maleficent ‘thugs’ and enemies of society (just as the miners were branded as ‘enemies within’, Occupy as vandals and troublemakers, the examples could multiply endlessly) – uprisings as ‘disorder’, to be stabilized by the mystifying ‘order’ of repressive, racist state violence and organized police deception.

We should thus be wary of how these narratives are framed and deployed – recognizing the difficult truth that crime is in large part an expression of social problems and economic dispossession which proliferate under capitalism and other systems of oppression.  This is especially true in a climate of austerity – cuts to youth centres, schools, social work, community institutions are all significant here, and it’s little wonder shoplifting, for example, has risen with a programme of cruel benefit sanctions, wage repression and soaring rents, entrenching poverty and homelessness. Responding to social problems with a more well-funded apparatus of violence and control designed to maintain those very systems is ultimately counter-productive, providing us a psychological concession of ostensible ‘security’ in phalanxes of cops as a trade-off for a deeply violent set of social relations upheld by the police. ‘Security’ should not look like this – it is a fearful, conservative vision which only acts as a substitute for tackling social problems at their root, opting instead for inflammation of these very problems by violently punishing those already victim to systemic violence.  Care must be taken here, such that pronouncements of the political and social damage resulting from neo-liberalism are not redirected into reactionary, ‘shock’ narratives purely demanding ‘control’, displacing blame from the economic to the cultural, to be redressed through the application of statist force.

We need a vision of hope, compassion, solidarity, community, not this – we must recognize what is at stake here, for this is about so much more than just the police. It is about challenging the logic of control, discipline and repression that is so virulently (and sometimes invisibly) fundamental to our current political settlement.  ‘Law and order’ is the natural terrain of the right, in the tradition of manipulating fear around crisis to force through authoritarian policies which reinforce a strong-arming state and reassert stringent authority as the answer to exploitation and discontentment.  It dangerously masks the police as emissaries of morality itself, such that their brutality is rendered normal and necessary, with our collective imaginary of justice thus subordinated to vicious, chimerical, vengeful institutions of obedience and authority.   We cannot be made safe through raised walls, more armed officers on our streets, more violent control of public space.  Fear cannot be our primary rallying cry; it is no redress to conditions of social and economic trauma.  Theresa May does indeed have blood on her hands – and so do police forces everywhere. The names need not be repeated – or perhaps, more than ever, they need to be.

Loneliness

Loneliness is not simply about a lack of company
But rather a lack of community.

Loneliness is an overcrowded party
Rhythms mechanically pulsing
Shrouded in a fever of loveless dances
An ecstasy wrought like a bewitching mirror to sadness
As we hide in recesses of the scintillating lights
Grappling with the shadows
Imagining we are better off there
And that no one sees us anyway –
The darkness hurts
But not as much as the torrid glare
Of these taunting, artificial, evanescent lights

I would often go to gigs alone
And have never felt so at home
Strangers connected together
In a chain of electricity
A harmony of aching
A clarity of unified desperation
If only for a moment –
Loneliness is the idea that happiness is just a moment –
I’m always reminded of The Cockpit
And that loneliness is music venues closed down
Lacerated
Redeveloped
Muted.

Loneliness is an empty house
But it is also a home –
The foundations rupture and wither and contract
The hinges of doors screech and jar and rust
Locks contorted and bent out of shape
Shards of keys jammed
Furniture splayed and overturned
Glass frosted over, shattered
Pictures fallen, discoloured, tattered
Keepsakes raided
Memories decayed, blighted
Mould creeping up the washed out walls
Heating cut off
Hearth smouldering
Wiring protruding and malfunctioning
Rodents infesting
Bailiffs prowling
Wails echoing from the gaunt walls
Sobs of sleet leaking through the cracks
Immured and isolated in the cold
Frozen in
Frozen out

Loneliness is perishing, homeless
In the freezing cold of a gutter
Silhouetted by the glacial glow
Cast by the still humming metropolis
Where opulent warmth and shelter tower
Dazzling and sinister, hallowed and hollow;
Gatekept like fortresses
Where only those who pay the toll may enter

Loneliness is a workplace of acquaintances
A taut web of transactions ensnaring us to one another
Biting labyrinths refigured as refuges
Contrived exuberance grated
Against unsheathed claws
As the howls of vampires
Tyrannize us.

Loneliness is an understaffed hospital
The ache of overburdened nurses
Trying to conciliate the frayed patience
Of distraught patients who have waited all night
In agony with loved ones, to no avail,
Dreading they would not see the dawn

It is an overcrowded prison
And a monstrous detention centre
Raised from the necropolis of dilapidated industrial estates
Loneliness is the idea that the poor and vulnerable and marginalized
Should be banished into cages
Disposed of
Regimented, abused, denied healthcare
Freedom disposed of
It is the the festering architecture of a society
Designed around repression, hostility, cruelty
Gilded in electrified fences and barbed wire and fortified walls
Fabricated, fatal boundaries patrolled by officials and bureaucracy
Where documents demarcate humanity.

Loneliness is the callous job centre
The expanding lecture theatre
The fragmented block of apartments,
Lavish and derelict;
It is the numbed crush of the rush-hour train
Where gazes are fixed to floor or screen
And heads turned away
Volume turned up
As someone is harassed

It is the chilling dissonance of a society
Without space for choirs or orchestras
Just a clamour of shouts faltering, smothered, in the void
Vied against one another

Loneliness is neglect, exclusion, enclosure
Precarity and binaries and borders
A rhythm without a melody
Sombre and frantic and fractured
Sputtering and quivering and heaving
Like the drone of a cracked record
Or the static of Christmas songs on a worn-out radio
Whirring under tinsel leached of its glimmer
Everything atrophying and fading away

It’s how we used to think the snow was pretty
But now we just fear the ice
Closing in on our home
Loneliness seething beneath the glossed surface
Like a shifting, petrified disquiet
Haunting these structures
As the ground disintegrates
Roots of wilted plants glaciated
And severed from the earth
Transient
Drifting