Boris: Prime Minister of a Vanishing Land

Boris Johnson is prime minister of Great Britain and what shocks me most is my lack of shock. I have no troubled desire to pinch myself.

There has been a big cloud of trepidation trailing Johnson’s bizarre rise to power in recent weeks. On the one hand, many have been anxious that Johnson is walking into the most complex problems of national and international relations since the Second World War. On the other hand, many have been anxious that Johnson is the most complex problem for national and international relations since the Second World War.

The fact is that — as with Trump across the Atlantic — Boris is just one more 21st century political paradox, both symptom and product of his time; a 21st century politician incapable of addressing any 21st century problems… Because he is one…

The ins and outs of Johnson’s well-documented incompetence have been incessantly autopsied in recent days. Most interesting to me was James Butler’s article for The New York Times in which he declared that Johnson’s “premiership could bring about the end of Britain itself.”

This seems less like a doomsday prediction and more like a commiserating nod to the inevitable — and it is a statement that has since been echoed frequently across the mainstream media in this country — I noticed half a dozen BBC correspondents echoing this line without even a grimace the other day — but it would be wrong to give Johnson all the credit.

After a ship has already hit an iceberg, it would be silly to declare a change in captain as responsible for any worsening of fortune.

Johnson, in this somewhat tired analogy, feels like little more than a bit of light relief. Many of the Conservative Party members who voted Johnson into the top job seem to agree that we’re sinking but, rather than do anything about it, like readying the lifeboats, they’ve instead resigned themselves to their fate and seem to think that at least the new captain has a slightly more entertaining bedside manner than his predecessors and critics.

It’s Trump without any expectation that he’ll make the country great again… Which is sort of refreshing?

Butler, in The New York Times, writes in detail about the national situation that Johnson is now tasked with “fixing”:

The state of the United Kingdom, a constitutional compact founded in 1922 and stretching back, in one form or another, for centuries, is severely strained. Though Brexit is primarily driven by English passions, two of the four territories in the Union — Northern Ireland and Scotland — voted to remain. Both present immediate problems for Mr. Johnson — and for the future of Britain.

In Scotland, rancor at the sense that the country’s vote counted for little and subsequent repeated bouts of parliamentary chaos have led to renewed calls for a second independence ballot. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, insists Scotland will hold one if Brexit takes place. One of the most adroit politicians in Britain, Ms. Sturgeon knows that despite widespread misgivings about Brexit, the majority needed for independence does not currently exist. But recent polling suggests a Johnson government might tilt the scales in her favor. An independent Scotland may be conjured out of the chicanery of Mr. Johnson’s rule.

In Northern Ireland, Mr. Johnson is beholden to the Democratic Unionist Party, a hard-line Northern Irish Protestant party on which he will depend for a majority in Parliament. That severely curtails his room for maneuver as he attempts, one way or the other, to take Britain out of the European Union. The D.U.P. will not countenance separation from the rest of the United Kingdom — hence why the so-called backstop, effectively an insurance plan to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and its southern neighbor, fatally scuttled Theresa May’s thrice-rejected deal. It is hard to see how Mr. Johnson can extricate himself from this problem, whose protraction may have a decisive effect on the country’s internal politics. Calls for a United Ireland, encouraged by demographic change and the waning of unionist sentiment, appear to be gathering more support.

The threat of the break-up of Britain has been a spectre many have sought to ignore since at least the 1970s… Indeed, since the EU itself became a seemingly intractable part of our international lives. Following Butler’s diagnosis, the patchwork predictions more or less write themselves. Johnson was an utterly hopeless bull-in-a-china-shop Foreign Secretary who left many a diplomatic headache in his wake. Undoubtedly his tenure in the UK’s highest office will likewise end with a few more fractures in the porcelain constitutions of many a modern nation-state.

With all of this doom-and-gloom floating around, it makes a post about Johnson’s “election” — if you can call it that — seem a bit superfluous. There’s little more to be said that hasn’t already been written down in countless op-eds around the world. And no one would be surprised to hear that Xenogothic is quite excited about the prospect of the UK’s consolidated power finally being broken down and better distributed. Heck, it feels like patchwork Britain is about to go mainstream!

Beyond all that though, what made Tuesday 23rd July most interesting was that it coincided with a listening party for the official release of Mark Fisher and Justin Barton’s On Vanishing Land, held at the Castle Cinema in Homerton, north London.

Having got the start time wrong and arriving far too early, I had the opportunity for a quick catch-up with Steve Goodman before the event began. He was quick to highlight the sad irony of it all — an already very familiar feeling at this point whenever there’s an event that Mark should be at but isn’t; should be writing about but can’t.

The Castle Cinema, Homerton

Specifically, Steve noted how a man Mark considered “his nemesis” was now the prime minister — a man who frequently appeared in Mark’s tirades against the present state of things; who Mark once said embodied a “form of faux bonhomie and cynical dismissal [that] is an extremely dangerous problem by which class power naturalises itself”; who Mark said epitomises the death of British satire, demonstrating how being the butt of the joke could become “a weapon used by the establishment to protect itself.” It was yet another event during which we could only wonder what kind of electrifyingly irate K-Punk post we might have been treated to.

But On Vanishing Land was the perfect consolation prize, in many ways, not only as an eerie memorial to Mark’s strange relationship with this weird isle but also for its resonance with a disturbingly precarious vision of the United Kingdom that Johnson’s premiership was now exacerbating.

In particular, the audio-essay’s frequent echoes of M.R. James’ ghost story Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad! became almost humorous to me. A story about an eccentric old establishment don unearthing a dog-whistle on a ruinous Suffolk beach and being haunted by the eerie entity it summons?

How I wish Boris Johnson could be haunted by his dog-whistles…

Apt graffiti at Dalston Kingsway station on our way to Homerton

M.R. James’ conservatism was well-explored by Mark, particularly in The Weird and the Eerie. As much as he enjoyed his stories, he was always keen to note how afraid of the outside James was — contrary to another Fisher favourite, Joan Lindsey’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Mark would write James’ various “warnings to the curious” declare the outside to be a perilous place where the deep past is waiting for any opportunity to enact its revenge on the present.

Justin’s ethereal tones, which dominate On Vanishing Land, nonetheless betray a Jamesian anxiety. Looking out on the “nerve ganglion of capitalism” that unfurls into sea from the port at Felixstowe, the wandering pair sense that something out there that seems to have “gotten away with something.”

However, we should remember that “terrors are not all there is to the outside,” as Mark would also write in The Weird and the Eerie.

What has gotten away with something is, undoubtedly, capitalism itself — but that suggests that what haunts is related to what capitalism has failed to fully overcome. This was important, no doubt, to Mark because the terror felt by James, read today, is immediately engulfed by class conflict.

Similar in tone to Lovecraft’s racism, the horrors that emanate from James’ outsides feel feudal and nomadic — destratified curses unleashed by coastal erosion lie in wait, hoping to attach themselves parasitically to the well-to-do of modern society.

As such, so many of James’ stories reveal Cambridge toffs — like James himself — so rooted in the nation’s intellectual and political establishment — to be little more than fragile men of the bourgeoisie. It is a surprise that they ever make it outside their dorms without keeling over in fright.

By contrast, the English coastline becomes the relative wilderness that embodies lost worlds and incursions from the outside. The fishing industries of England’s coastal settlements become synonymous with bold travellers of the unknown, hard for James’ academic brain to fully compute.

(This is an accurate sentiment for many on the UK’s harsh east coast. Growing up in Hull, I was always fascinated by the perverse pride taken in a brutal industry that claimed countless lives. Like the miners elsewhere in Yorkshire, the tension of a community grounded in treacherous and terrifying labour creates a very special kind of subjectivity. This is something beautifully explored by Justin Barton in his 2015 book Hidden Valleys.)

This is not to say that James’ anxiety is singular and unexpected. In fact, it is an open acknowledgement of a shared Jamesian terror that gives On Vanishing Land such an air of a distinctly working class bravery before the shrouded face of unknown pasts and futures — each, notably, as ruinous as each other in the Suffolk mind.

Caught in between the two, a subtext emerges that perforates the eerie soundscape of On Vanishing Land which declares that we should not wait for our ghost ships to come in but rather row out and meet them.

This is likewise a sentiment worth holding onto this week as Boris Johnson drags a weight of uncertainty onto the nation-state’s future. It is a sentiment perhaps best expressed in Justin’s conclusion to his 2015 book, Hidden Valleys:

To travel into the unknown is a sober-joyful process of gaining energy by overcoming self-importance, and by eradicating all forms of self-indulgence — and it is a development of the ability to have effective, creative comradeship-alliances with other human beings. It is a process of perceiving — and dreaming — a way toward wider spaces of existence.

Beyond the ongoing disaster of ordinary reality is the second sphere of action.

On Vanishing Land arrived in the post yesterday and it’s a beautiful thing. Justin’s short essay in the gatefold is great. Go get it.

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