An Apologetic New Year’s Message

The imposing facade of Webberley's bookshop, one of the casualties of 2016

The imposing façade of Webberley’s bookshop, one of the casualties of 2016


The present author, Mark Conlon, on behalf of the members of our group, wishes readers of this website the best for 2017. As a collective, we continue to meet on a regular basis at Hanley Library, to proselytize for new recruits, and to make what contribution we can to pushing back against social and political injustice. Unfortunately, that continued activity was not reflected in the number of articles published here in 2016: there appeared precisely one, albeit dedicated to what from a British angle was the weightiest issue of the year, the UK’s fractious abjuration of European federalism. 2016 exacted a heavy toll of noteworthy musicians, without online comment from this ardent musicophile, while I wrote nothing concerning the ostensible raison d’etre of the site, discussion of psychosis-related mental illness. I can only hope to rectify the situation in the coming year, with greater resolution than has been apparent since I made a similar pledge twelve months ago.

At one of our recent meetings, Dave Sweetsur remarked on the oneiric character of the past year. The vote to leave the European Union, an unexpected parting of the ways, turned the idea of a socialist Britain from pipe dream to achievable goal; pari passu, a Tory government enacted policies of nightmarish malice. David Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister, the less patrician but hardly less right-wing Theresa May, is focused more on instituting a draconian surveillance state than carrying out the will of the electorate, to which endeavour she devotes merely the recitation of vapid soundbites (“Brexit means Brexit”). Her instrument of legislative intrusion, named with lulling drabness the Investigatory Powers Act, portends the criminalization of all opposition to neoliberal triumphalism. The welfare state, meanwhile, has been degraded to a cruel laboratory of accumulation by dispossession, one in which asinine regulations and arbitrary withdrawals of benefit (“sanctions”) run amok, a scandal that Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake exhumed from the memory hole. From surging inequality to the corporate debasement of education, the UK is a macabre experiment in arresting human progress. Yet, thanks to a plebiscite that in retrospect has taken on a somewhat phantasmagoric air, there remains a glimmer at the end of the tunnel.

Though in the facile sphere of journalese the two are often linked, the forward momentum gained through Brexit has been counteracted by the surreal elevation of Donald Trump, conman extraordinaire, to the position of President of the United States. America could have had, in Bernie Sanders, a social democrat of spotless repute as head of state, but chose instead – or at least, empowered via the peculiarities of an electoral college – a candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Trump is proving worthy of the Klansmen’s adulation, selecting a cabinet of unvarnished racists, fanatical war hawks and anti-labour zealots. To take one representatively egregious example, his pick for chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Larry Kudlow, argued for an invasion of Iraq on the unceremonious grounds that his personal wealth would be swelled by a consequent rise in stock market indices. All pretence of noble intention seems finally to have been cast aside, which from the perspective of puncturing false consciousness has its advantageous aspect. We’re at a William Burroughs-like moment of naked clarity, when people see without blinkers what is on the end of every fork.

For those of us experiencing mental ill health, it’s impossible not to see that NHS services, all reassurances to the contrary notwithstanding, are at a desperate pass. The psychology department at the local Harplands Hospital has been farmed out to the community – that is to say, dismantled – while suicides by unmonitored inpatients are a seemingly ineradicable scourge. The nationwide crisis has been noticed even by the complacent BBC, which conducted an investigation into an anorexic Gloucestershire man, Simon Rickards, abandoned to wither away because of an acute shortage of psychiatric beds, some 15,000 of which have been eradicated since 2001. The laying waste of social care, similarly, has become so pronounced as to obtrude into mainstream awareness. Age UK reported in November 2016 that one in eight persons over 65 struggle to obtain the assistance they need with elementary tasks such as bathing; around 700,000 receive no help at all. A free market ideologue on the other side of the Atlantic, Grover Norquist, once quipped that his aim was to cut the state to the size where it could be drowned in the bathtub. The objective of May’s Tories appears just as radical, while rendering the phrase “the great unwashed” more than Burkean prejudice by preventing as many people as possible from venturing near a bathtub, or indeed washing facilities of any kind.

With “identitarian” fascists ascendant in Europe – Dutch demagogue Geert Wilders, for instance, is polling favourably after an acquittal on charges of hate speech – 2017 threatens to be a turbulent year. A dramatic rerun of the financial Sturm und Drang of 2008 may or may not be on the cards, but what Michael Hudson calls a “slow crash” of dwindling living standards continues unabated, and will provide fertile soil for the further growth of the far right. Hillary Clinton has been denied the opportunity to indulge in sabre-rattling over Russia, not by a sane advocate of peace, but by a man who tweets delightedly about his chance to preside over a nuclear arms race. Above everything, there looms the existential menace of climate change, now magnified by the scientific illiteracy of the incoming Trump administration. The latter plumbs truly deranged depths, with a presidential adviser, Anthony Scaramucci, conflating climate scientists with flat-earth cultists, and Trump himself gibbering on the hare-brained theme of global warming as a Chinese hoax designed to undermine the West. We in the Pathways group frequently laugh at the absurdity of the Trump phenomenon, yet really it’s no matter for levity. It’s said, with some justification in terms of the lamentable grasp of epistemology displayed by a section of the population, that we live in a “post-truth” era. Grim realities, however, won’t vanish simply by virtue of being viewed through an obfuscating lens of postmodern flippancy.

To go from major to minor tragedy, I should mention in conclusion the closure in 2016 of Webberley’s, a distinguished Potteries bookshop. The shop opened in 1913, the distant epoch of Balkan wars and The Rite of Spring, moving in 1924 to its iconic Percy Street premises in Hanley, where it steadfastly endured as independent retailer until suffering an unforeseen demise due to the retirement of its owners. From Ladybird books in the 1970s to Verso titles acquired in its closing sale, Webberley’s played an inestimable part in my education, and it’s saddening to think that it will no longer be there to fulfil a comparable role in the lives of others. In the latest entry on his blog, Dave Sweetsur discusses the choice of ravaged Stoke-on-Trent locations as setting for a recently released zombie movie, and the unflattering light thereby shone on the decline of a proud industrial city. The loss of Webberley’s, alas, has removed from our landscape another signifier of sentient life.