A brief note about hope

Hope is a one hell of a drug in politics. Luckily it’s hard to get too addicted because like any good drug, it has one hell of a comedown. In fact the comedown is so bad it can put you off forever. After the last general election The Left were clucking bad, wandering the streets, red flags left to drape in the puddles, while The Right grinned with sharp yellow teeth and wiped the saliva from their chins with the yellow ties of the Liberal Democrats.

Now the real addict knows, the best way to avoid a comedown is to stay high, and anyway who wants to miss the two month hope leadership election festival? Hope dealers galore dragging back in the old and hooking the young. The first time’s free (or three quid).

If hope is a drug, The Left has found a reliable dealer in Corbyn. He seems genuine, pure: the good shit. Will he be affecting any change? I don’t know. He did seem to be the only leader with any real eye towards opposing the Tories during their holiday of hate.

Tom Watson is the only MP I’ve shared a pint with. I looked in his eyes and saw a person. He moves like a politician though, and is formidable as an opponent. And Corbyn will need it if he to survive the next six months. If Corbyn is smart he’ll lean into the party hard and appoint his own whips as soon as possible, big fuckers with sharp teeth, because I fear there will be many nights with very long knives to come. Although a 59% mandate buys you a lot of cover.

Myself I only dabble with hope now.

Go on then. Maybe just a line.

Are we… the baddies?

It’s the morning after the night and the five years before. A lot of people around me are asking how this could happen because everywhere they go, online or offline, they meet people who thought the same as them: that it would be nice if things turned our nicer.

I’m in my mid-30s. Unlike most of my contemporaries I didn’t grow up in the UK so really I only know electoral defeat. You see I arrived, literally off the boat, in September 1997. It was still the honeymoon days of New Labour when Britannia was Cool and the establishment was on the ropes after the death of Diana Spencer. That battle, the Labour landslide, the end of two decades of Thatcher(ism) wasn’t mine, but I got to enjoy its benefits.

No, unlike my friends I’ve never had the bliss of a Portillo Moment. Instead I’ve been on a streak of losing teams. Pro electoral reform, yes to an elected mayor for Birmingham, and on the left of the 2010 generals, I was broadly supportive of Scottish devolution (though I couldn’t vote for that of course).

Yesterday I voted for fairness. What I was offered wasn’t ideal but was a step along the way. I voted to not privatise the NHS, to start regulating the rental property market, and to axe the bedroom tax. I voted for some scraps of dignity for people around me, for myself, for my kids.

But I see Dave, not Ed, drive to the palace. And I see the Tory’s 331 seats. I look at it all and I wonder “are we the baddies?”

History is written by the winners. A third of the country thinks we are the baddies. Dave thinks we’re the baddies.

And now I see an in/out referendum on Europe coming. In that fight I’ll be voting to have someone who our government must be accountable to, someone who can force their hand on things like labour conditions and human rights. I see the political voices that represent my side in disarray. I see Farage cowed and humbled in South Thanet without a seat but I see him promising he’ll be back in the Autumn. I see Farage and UKIP rich as ever, ready to fight and ready to move the 1922 Committee towards their corner. And I wonder: how can we be the baddies? When all we wanted was things to turn out a bit nicer. It’s not like have skulls on our caps.

We can’t be the baddies. We’re nice, we’re fun. We are the goodies, surely?

History is written by the winners. Did we lose today? We did. But have they won? No. This is a point of disruption, the start of a story that sends you on a quest. It’s a beginning. The story ends when we beat the baddies.

We’re not the baddies.

Plan C

It takes about a minute from start to finish. The area that softens is only discernible for a radius of around 6 feet but is actually infinitely large — most of its field is beyond your perception. Twenty seconds in you might get a sense of something emerging at the centre of it, gradually taking on substance as the glimmer fades. It’s a woman. Sturdy boots, jeans, a fitted bomber jacket and a beanie hat over short blonde hair, she stands at about five foot five.


– April, 2004 –

It’s just a haze, it’s not at all dramatic, and if you weren’t looking right at it you might miss it altogether. Everything just shifts out of focus.

It takes about a minute from start to finish. The area that softens is only discernible for a radius of around 6 feet but is actually infinitely large — most of its field is beyond your perception. Twenty seconds in you might get a sense of something emerging at the centre of it, gradually taking on substance as the glimmer fades. It’s a woman. Sturdy boots, jeans, a fitted bomber jacket and a beanie hat over short blonde hair, she stands at about five foot five.

The entire event makes no noise at all except for the sound of the woman vomiting as she collapses onto the floor.

– Acquisition –

There is a bottle of McCallan Gold prominently displayed on the side table. She pours herself a large whisky, and turns to drink it all in: the whisky, the room – her target’s study.

The desk is the focal point, standing just proud of the Edwardian bay window, the armchair to one side, the side table and the bookcase to the other. Everything in the study speaks to a certain metropolitan aesthetic. The desk, side table and bookcase are in a coordinating light beech. The metalwork, from the desk lamp down to the facing plates on the electrical switches, are a high-shine chrome while the walls are pale-neutral and hung with interesting prints (a lesser known Warhol, a Kandinsky and Picasso’s La Guernica). The fabrics tone together with striking reds. You could get the look of this room from Ikea but this one has never been knowingly oversold.

She turns off the lights and eases herself into the heavy designer armchair to wait.

– Plan B –

He was awake but groggy for some time. Then he was aware and angry and probably quite scared. Now he’s quiet, possibly tired but probably receptive. He’s ready.

“I’m not going to take your gag off, and I’m not going to untie you either” she says “until I’ve spoken to you. You won’t believe what I’m going to say, you might even try to pretend it was a dream after we’re done. Do whatever you need to do but one day you’ll realise this was real and what I said was true and then you’ll need to act upon it. You will not be hurt today if you sit still and you listen. Will you listen?”

His body seems to relax a little, resigned to the situation, as he meekly nods at the woman.

She walks away from him and crosses the room. “I see you read” refreshing her whisky at the side-table, then moving on to the bookcase “do you read science fiction?” She runs her finger down the spines. The bookcase boasts the work of Toffler, Fukuyama and Kline. Fiction is represented by Parsons, Garland, Copeland. There is a paperback of ‘Vernon God Little’, it’s uncracked spine suggesting it has not yet been read. “Hmmm… Perhaps not. There’s a book you should read, Stephen Fry, Making History. It’s relevant to what we need to discuss today.

“It’s a pretty generic sci-fi plot really: what would you do if you could invent a time-machine? Kill Hitler, of course! An old trope. It’s been done before. It’s a good book though, do read it if you have time.

“What happens in Fry’s book, in most Kill Hitler stories, is that killing Adolf doesn’t stop the Second World War — if anything it makes things worse. The theory goes that the war happens with or without Hitler because of a whole complex network of things that were going on. So there’s a vacuum and it’ll be filled by whoever gets power at the right time.

“Thing is it’s true,” she tosses back the drink and looks at him, her eyes twinkling with mischief. A stony stare is her reward.

“It’s true that if you invent a time machine, go back in time and try to kill Hitler you will just fuck things up,” she strides back across the room to him, thrusts her face into his. “We know because we tried!” Her eyes flick left to right trying to read his expression. “Poker face. Nice. We can use that. That’s probably why they picked you: composure, grace under pressure, and a good actor.”

She’s up again towards the desk. She props herself nonchalantly against it, and takes up the story based on the notes she was given.

“In the end Hitler was put back into the timeline. We stopped him once and things got worse. We were lucky that we managed to put things back. You see they reckon you get three shots. I don’t know why, I don’t know tech stuff. And we just got it back to where we started on the third go. Which is still awful but – well you don’t want to know about what happened the other way.

“The thing is there’s something happening again and we’re trying to stop it. We need you. You’re Plan B, so you better get it right.

“There’s a rising tide, and we need to stop it. Which is pretty tough going. I bet you’re thinking ‘so kill Hitler already!’ Well now, that’s not very liberal of you.

“As it happens we found him, the Hitler of this story. And we tried to kill him. Didn’t work, he walked away from the accident we planned for him – will plan for him – in 2010 and if anything it made him tougher. Don’t look at me like that! 2010 is my past, but your future.

“So what’s Plan B? Well we’ve had a change of policy, you see. The new Director is against killing. It’s an ethical thing but as it happens I think it makes operational sense too. The killing thing just doesn’t work.

“The thing is you think you can see the problem but you can’t. Time and events, they’re just a haze and if you’re not looking at it right you might miss something. It’s like you’re out in the fog. You have a sense of where some things are from your memory and other things might shine out from the mist but basically you can only see a few feet in front of you but the fog, the mist, is infinite. It just rolls on slowly dissipating but never really finding an edge and most of it is beyond your perception.

“You might see a Hitler and think ‘let’s just get rid of him’ but he’s part of the fog and the fog is into everything. Who would we kill to stop all of this? One chancer who seizes an opportunity? Someone else will just step in, and who knows where that’ll lead you.

“The fog is already creeping up on you but you haven’t seen it. There are all sorts of things happening that create a complex environment a few years from now. Politicians are sowing the seeds of public distrust through their financial arrangements. Bankers are dreaming up more and more elaborate financial tricks whilst being held by less and less regulation. The public lurches further to the right as they all sign up to become Little Englanders, keen to buy and then protect their piece of the pie. That’s just the headlines. Meanwhile, through luck rather than design, the group who can profit from all of this are slowly building up their numbers. There will be a series of events that will bring this into focus. Distrust in established politics. Financial turmoil.

“We want you in place when this happens. This is our attempt at a positive intervention, through you. In a few months you will have a chance to stand for Parliament. Stand. A few years later, you will have a chance to stand for the leadership of your party. Stand.

“We think you can win those contests. We then need you to be the lightening rod. What we need, to weather the storm, is for you to provide a credible alternative. People will be scared and angry with the status quo and that makes them do stupid things. Like make protest votes. We need you to be the person those people put their trust in. We want you to speak up for fairness and equality while you do it, and we want you to draw out the poison. It will take a few years but you must stay on course. We need a viable third option otherwise there is a vacuum for the protest vote. We trust this to you.”

She places a piece of paper on the desk.

“On this piece of paper are a few results for sporting events over the next few days that will prove to you that you have been visited by a girl from the future. The thing about sci-fi tropes and clichés is they have some practicalities to them.

“Right. We’re done. I can’t go back, it’s a one way ticket to get here. I’ll be watching you.”

– May 2010 –

A waitress, five foot five, early thirties, mousey blonde hair and a name badge that says “Anne”.

The TV is on silent but the subtitles roll all day over the breaking news on TVs in all corners of the pub so she knows how things are developing. The news has tried out a number of new phrases over the past 24 hours. The latest being “triple lock”. There is a concession speech, raw with emotion. Even through subtitles it hits her hard enough to bring a few tears. Then she sees him joking in a rose garden, and knows she has work to do.

At home, to the wardrobe, she pulls out a bomber jacket and takes an envelope out of the pocket. The envelope is marked “Plan C”.

– Plan C –

He opens the door to the study and turns the light on. There’s a woman behind his desk.

“Hi,” softly, but with clear intent “I knocked the last guy out but something tells me you’ll listen. Will you listen?”

“Ah, sure” he says.

“I need you to run against your brother in this leadership election…”



pic CC sigfridlundberg


I killed Kurt Cobain

On 8 April 1994, I was a twenty-year old dozing through a mild hangover when the news of Kurt Cobain’s death came through on my radio/cassette player. Several weeks later John Smith, the Labour leader, died and I was crushed by grief. It’s odd that this loss hit me more powerfully than the first, seeing as I’d never met John Smith and his death was definitely not my fault.

February 1994 had been snowless but harsh. It was the kind of bitingly cold month that did not lend itself well to sleeping in Parisian doorways. And yet that is what I had done, having found myself penniless in the French capital.

I had hitchhiked from my university town of Liverpool all the way to Paris with my sweetheart in order to celebrate our love on the Champs Elysées on Valentine’s Day. What we would do on the Champs Elysées, we weren’t sure. Where it was, we couldn’t say for certain. And how we would fund this trip, we had not fully fleshed out. But we were in love and Paris was the place to mark it.

We quickly discovered that hotel rooms were a luxury that we couldn’t afford, but we decided we could cope with sleeping rough as long as we could snuggle up on a bench in the underground. At one point during our time as down and outs in Paris, a kindhearted homeless guy actually gave us his a plastic cup full of change. We must have looked like such a hapless pair.

The problem with the Parisian underground stations in 1994 was that they closed just after midnight and then didn’t open again until 5am. And so, to keep warm, we would find an all-night café, buy one cup of coffee between us and nurse it until the time came to catch some zeds in the Metro. As romantic mini breaks go, this one was not the most opulent.

So, that’s why we happened to be in a rather smart café on the Champs Elysées in the earliest hours of 14 February 1994. I had just started to think that we had overstayed our welcome as we eked out our one expensive cup of coffee when someone even scruffier than us walked in. To begin with all I saw was messy blonde hair, a shambolic walk and an old green cardigan, and I thought, ‘This joker will be thrown out before us.’

How wrong I was.

The staff were electrified by the man’s presence and a woman at a table along from us started saying, ‘C’est le chanteur! C’est le chanteur de N-ir-v-a-na! C’est Kurt Cobain!’

My beau was a skinny boy in torn jeans and old trainers. Protecting him from the teeth-shaking Parisian cold was not one, but seven Nirvana T-shirts. The black one with the big yellow face, the one of the baby underwater, the In Utero album cover; three long sleeved and four short. He was a bit of a fan.

So, after psyching ourselves up we went to speak to him.

My first impression was how handsome he was. That hadn’t really come across to me in the NME covers and MTV videos. In person, his were the kind of sweet, symmetrical good looks you’d expect from a traditional pop star; not the figurehead for the alienated and dispossessed.

The second was frank astonishment that he actually wanted to talk to us. More than that, he invited us to sit down, he hadn’t spoken to anyone all day, he didn’t speak French and he wanted to talk to someone, anyone, in English. It was ‘cool’ that we’d hitchhiked, ‘amazing’ that we’d done so from Liverpool. ‘I love that city,’ he said.

He’d just ordered some food, too much; did we want some? ‘It’s a cheese sandwich, do you like cheese?’ (We gratefully accepted it but thought that we would never, ever eat it – until hunger overcame our desire to preserve a relic within mere hours.)

We tried to explain why we’d come to Paris, but at that moment, unwashed, tired and cold, it was difficult to comprehend ourselves. So, it was understandable that he never grasped the fact that we weren’t in Paris to see Nirvana play.

Have you ever met a famous person and found them assuming that you are a bigger fan than you really are? He asked if we were going to his gig; we muttered a white lie about not being able to get tickets and, before we knew it, he was promising to get us on the guest list – it was the least he could do after we’d come so far to see him. By the stage it would have been impolite to point out his error, and anyway, we were about to get a free ticket into an amazing concert we could never afford. I remember him writing down my name. (My name!) So we could get on the list. And like an earnest little boy, he said, ‘I’ll do my best, if I remember.’

Later we queued at Le Zenith, a venue in north Paris. When we reached the box office I had to show the woman my passport, she searched the names whilst I held my breath. Without even looking up, she passed me an MTV branded envelope with the golden ticket: Nirvana with support from the Buzzcocks.

Stickers were slapped on our shirts and we were funnelled to our seats – a first for me never having sat at a concert before – and the rest was a blur. Kurt’s big white baggy shirt, the huge stage, the deep reds and blues of the lights and the silhouettes of our comrades down in the mosh pit – from our seats halfway up the auditorium so enticingly near and yet so far. They played everything we loved: Lithium, Slither, Breed, SchoolPennyroyal Tea

Halfway through the gig, I finally deciphered the words on my sticker: ’after show’. And at the end, sure enough, we were ushered through a barrier into a large room, full of the beautiful people.

I’d like to say that the time I went to a Nirvana after show party was the wildest night of my life, but it felt more like an awkward corporate function than anything else.

Kurt didn’t appear at the party. There were lots of plates of fruit and cake, that, as hungry as we were, we didn’t dare touch. There were men in suits and chic French women, but no Kurt. Krist Novoselic was walking around the room talking into a large mobile phone. But no Kurt. That mobile phone was the first one I had ever seen in the flesh. Why does he need a phone when he’s not at home, I wondered? 1994 was a long time ago.

Dave Grohl appeared, smiling a lot. Everyone else was French or stuck up and we ‘seemed normal’. I remember hoping that we didn’t smell too much and trying to act so natural that he must have been alarmed.

The French publicist came and joined us. She had lost Kurt the previous night, no one had known where he’d been. We knew; he’d been in our café on the Champs Elyseés. Had he seemed okay? ‘Yes, he was fine, we spoke about Liverpool,’ I stuttered in my terrible French. What on earth did I know about how he was?

Eventually we left, but before we did, we wrote Kurt a note thanking him and giving our love to Courtney and his 18-month-old daughter, Frances Bean.

And then, just seven weeks later, he was dead. In his suicide note, Kurt expressed a feeling of not being able to live up to the commitment of the fans he’d met recently on tour. He wrote: ‘The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun… I don’t have the passion anymore, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.’

It took me years to start realising that maybe we should have been clearer about why we were in Paris that night. We hadn’t hitchhiked 512 miles to see his band play. We weren’t asking him for a commitment he couldn’t give. We weren’t besotted fans, just ridiculous, disorganised romantics.

All apologies.


Coda: an abiding memory of when we left Kurt and walked into that bitterly cold Paris night, twenty years ago, is how I said, ‘This could be the coolest thing we ever do.’ Two decades later, two decades older and, tragically, I know I was right.