In an interview following the publication of his fifth novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the great Czech author Milan Kundera was asked what sex means to him as a novelist. Anyone who has dipped into Kundera’s oeuvre will know scenes of coitus play a frequent and important role.

“I have a feeling,” he said, “that a scene of physical love generates an extremely sharp light which suddenly reveals the essence of characters and sums up their life situation… The erotic scene is the focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located.”

Kundera could have easily been talking about Love Hotel, a feature documentary showcased as part of BBC Four’s Storyville series earlier this year and made by award-winning independent filmmakers Native Voice Films. The documentary takes the Japanese institution of the love hotel as its subject, a place where couples hire fantasy-themed rooms by the hour.

Love Hotel is a study of this most revealing of human moments as it is played out in a culture famous for its sharp contrast between public and private life, or as the Japanese say, “honne” and “tatemae.” Honne corresponds to one’s true feelings or desires, while tatemae describes the self one shows to the world.

What makes Love Hotel so remarkable is its deeply intimate access to the honne of its subjects, whether they are pensioners, S&M clients, or a gay couple who must hide their love. “A love hotel really is the backstage of life. It’s a place where one can witness the truth,” Mr Ozawa, the manager of Angelo Love Hotel tells us.

Because we meet and get to know the documentary’s participants through acts of sex, we see the true essence of them in moments where, as Kundera observes, their life situation is “summed up”.

In making the film, the directors gained unprecedented access to the Osaka-based Angelo Love Hotel, one of 37,000 love hotels in Japan. Through this one establishment we see ordinary Japanese who feel their everyday lives lack something which this fantasy land provides.

On one level it is a story about the strains of living in a nation which has experienced economic stagnation since the early 1990s, creating a “lost generation” of temporary workers who can’t even afford to have families, as one cleaning lady at the hotel remarks.

Japanese society is well known for its punishing labour conditions and we gain an insight to this through the Angelo Love Hotel manager, Ozawa. Following new legislation to clamp down on the more adult aspects of love hotels, such as S&M rooms and mirrors on the ceilings, the industry is forced to adapt and lose customers in the process.

As is common in workplaces, and especially so in a rigidly hierarchical culture such as Japan, the pressure is passed down the chain. In an amusing scene – one of many in the documentary – we see Ozawa practice his baseball swing with an automatic pitching machine before informing us he imagines the ball is his boss’s head.

On another level it is the story of people seeking to escape the stress and simple boredom of their lives by hiring luxurious-looking bedrooms, many of which are ‘concept’ rooms decked out to look like a 1970s disco, a boxing ring or the inside of a train carriage.

Forty-one year-old Mr Sakamoto, an unemployed husband in a childless marriage, tells us he and his wife, a 43-year-old nurse, visit Angelo Love Hotel to keep their passion alive. As the couple watch an old porn film being projected onto a wall, Mr Sakamoto remarks: “They look so happy.”

Masa and Rumi, a retired couple aged 64 and 65, visit the Angelo Love Hotel to practice dancing. Naturally they choose the disco room, and before they move onto the dance floor they lie on the bed and admire the brightly coloured neon lights hanging from the ceiling.

Rika, a 26-year-old dominatrix, tells us all her clients share “a common sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction with their daily lives.” Her customer Taku, a 35-year-old postal worker, admits during his first visit with her that his life is “a bit shit”.

In many senses, Love Hotel has a close relationship with Kundera’s 1978 classic, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.The novel’s title could almost be a sub-title for the film. In entering the adult theme park that is the Angelo Love Hotel, the documentary’s participants seek to forget their everyday lives. But at the same time, like Kundera’s characters, they fight against forgetting. They strive almost painfully to recapture times when living had more intensity.

Lying in their bed at home, Mr and Mrs Sakamoto stare at the ceiling. “Don’t you think we’ve lost the passion? The way we felt in our twenties?” Mrs Sakamoto asks her silent husband. “We used to have such great sex,” she says.

Reliving the past plays an important part in Kundera’s novel. In one scene Karel attempts to recapture a lost memory from his childhood while having a threesome with his wife and mistress. The act of remembering vanquishes his lethargy and leaves him feeling like a champion. You see a similar zest in the eyes of the Angelo Love Hotel’s customers.

Example of a Love Hotel room.

Example of a Love Hotel room

As with Kundera’s work, Love Hotel is speckled with moments of raw humour.

Mr and Mrs Sakamoto engage in role a playing game where the unemployed husband acts as a stern train conductor and his wife as a passenger who happens to have lost her ticket. Their laughter comes not from the awkward script they act out, but from their acknowledgement of the game. It’s the same kind of laughter you see in the outtakes of movies.

Mr Yamada, a 71-year-old married man, laments his lost libido as he visits the hotel alone. A believer in secrets at any age, he writes a love letter to his beautiful neighbour. “I’m sure that she can’t be interested in an old fart like me, but her smile still makes me think she is,” Yamada says.

His secret love letter is reminiscent of the licentious Utsugi, the elderly main character from one of Junichiro Tanizaki’s last novels, Diary of a Mad Old Man. Like Mr Yamada, Utsugi craves the love a younger woman, in this case his daughter-in-law. Tanizaki, who is one of Japan’s most revered novelists, often used sex and erotic desire to comic effect. As did Japanese film director Juzo Itami, whose classic work Tampopo features a sex scene involving an assortment of food, including whipping cream, raw eggs and a live lobster.

But for some participants in the documentary, Love Hotel is about more than seeking to escape from the pressures of work or the mundaneness of life. It is about escaping oneself.

At the end of his interview, Kundera talks about the dangers of nihilism: “There is a certain imaginary dividing line beyond which things appear senseless and ridiculous. A person asks himself: Isn’t it nonsensical for me to get up in the morning? To go to work? To strive for anything? To belong to a nation just because I was born that way?”

“Man lives in close proximity to this boundary and can easily find himself on the other side. The boundary exists everywhere, in all areas of human life and even in the deepest most biological of all: sexuality,” he says.

“In Japan, everyone is trapped in themselves,” Rika tells the camera at one point. Her job is to help them escape. After her first session with Taku she admonishes him for his reticence: “Let yourself go more. Open mind.” Later we see Taku put on a gimp suit be strung up to the ceiling with rope. “You feel good because I took your freedom,” Rika tells him.

Speaking in the bathroom before a night of coitus, Mr Sakamoto tells us he wants to “go further” this time. He wants to, I imagine, cross a border in his mind.

There is a sense in Love Hotel that several of the participants are close to crossing Kundera’s imaginary boundary, beyond which life becomes senseless and absurd. Perhaps some have done it already. Rika seems to facilitate this, albeit in a safe environment and with an almost maternal affection. It is a wider reflection on the S&M movement, where sex becomes highly fetishized, almost to the point of the ridiculous.

But it is also a reflection of the perils many face in an advanced capitalist society, where the average person’s role is reduced to that of passive consumer or obedient worker. When jobs dry up and you are unemployed, like Mr Sakamoto, it’s difficult to define yourself at all.

With so few opportunities for agency, the act of sex becomes one aspect of a person’s life where they can act authentically. And for some, this means attempting to transgress oneself altogether. They escape their traps, but into what? What lies beyond oneself, except nothing?

In other hands this documentary might have offered us a freak show of bondage obsessed office clerks and role-playing married couples. But Native Lives do the opposite. They go beyond the seeming abnormality of what we see and explore the participants common humanity.

As Rika says to Taku after bringing him down from the ceiling: “Its ok, nobody’s normal.”

Love Hotel was directed by Phil Cox and Hikaru Toda. It was first shown on BBC Four on 16 February, 2015.

The End of the World

Posted: March 6, 2014 in History


“Ch’iaot’ou is a market of about 100 families and gives the impression of being the end of the world, as it is near the limit of settled Chinese penetration in those parts, and beyond is nothing but t’ussu ti, the wild tribal territory of the Sawbwas.”

In April 1941, British diplomat M. C. Gillett passed through the end of the world, or at least the end of Chinese civilisation. Some days earlier, on the 15th April, Gillett left the British consulate in Tengyueh, Yunnan Province to start a 900 mile tour of the rural lands. The whole trip took about three months and the goal was to “obtain first-hand information about the country”, liaise with Chinese officials, meet the “scattered” British expatriates and “show the flag”.

1941 was the third year of the Sino-Japanese War, a conflict which had run into stalemate after initial fighting had forced the Chinese Nationalists to relocate their capital to Chungking. Britain itself was also at war, fighting the Germans and Italians in Europe and North Africa. In the midst of this global conflict, Gillett set off to explore the villages of one of the remotest parts of China. To say he was a world away would be an understatement.

Although a diplomat by profession, his report is filled with anthropological observations of local tribes, such as the Lisu: “[They] are a well-built race of average height… As regards features the men often have an almost european [sic] cast… The women are not attractive.”

Overall, Gillett found the Lisus “a likeable and friendly race” with an “improvident habit of turning as much grain as they can into beer.” This wasn’t always the case, however. “Thirty years ago the traveller met with intervillage feuds, savagery, surliness, sometimes poisoned arrows and, on one occasion, death. Now one hears hymning…”

Although pleased with the transformation the Lisu had undergone, Gillett had mixed feelings about the Christian influence in the area. “I am no particular friend to missionaries: I admire their sincerity but deplore their bigotry…”

It was Christian bigotry which caused the decline of their native song, Gillet laments: “For the Demon Sex raises his ugly head in the Lisu songs, which the worthy Missionaries regard as horribly immoral.” On one evening he was lucky enough to chance upon a Lisu “sing-song”, which featured a man playing guitar while another man and three girls danced in the middle. “The Lisus have quite pleasant voices to our way of thinking, and the singing was quite beautiful, wild and entirely suited to the mountains.”

I wonder if Gillett reflected on the course of the war during this fire lit evening? It must have seemed so distant. While the world’s great civilisations were blowing themselves apart, Gillett sat in remotest Asia listening to the “wild, melodious chorus of those “heathen” Lisus echoing up the valleys.”

This was originally published on Adam Matthew’s Editor’s Choice blog.

Who Killed JFK?

Posted: November 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

jfkblog2Image © Bowling Green State University

At 12.30pm on Friday 22 November 1963, three shots rang out over Dealey Plaza Park in Dallas. Lee Harvey Oswald had fired three 6.5mm Carcano bullets from the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository, two of which struck President John F. Kennedy. Thirty minutes later JFK was dead.

That’s the official story. The Warren Commission set up to investigate President Kennedy’s death concluded that Oswald had acted alone. Despite this, 59% of Americans today believe Oswald had help. In the years between 1966 and 2003, up to 80% believed there was a cover up. “Who killed JFK?” has been the biggest question of the past fifty years.

 jfkblog5lafreepressImage © Bowling Green State University

Drawing on underground publications in Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, I have looked into some of the more interesting conspiracy theories as to who killed Kennedy.

Conspiracy Theory #1: The CIA

A 1978 special edition of the Los Angeles Free Press alleged that the CIA framed Oswald months before the killing. According to the article’s author Mark Lane, a man dubbed the “father of JFK assassination conspiracy theories,” the CIA secretly created false ties between Oswald and the KGB, as well as orchestrating a fake escape plan to Cuba.

 jfkblog1Image © Bowling Green State University

Conspiracy Theory #2: John Connally, Governor of Texas

According to the Los Angeles Free Press, White House aide Jerry Bruno considered two locations for the President’s luncheon speech: the Women’s Building and the Trade Mart. The former came with a socially diverse audience, and was supported by Texas Senator Yarborough. The latter was more exclusive, ensuring only the “Fat Cats” could attend, and was supported by Governor Connally. Despite the Trade Mart posing a higher security risk, Connally got his way. Kennedy was assassinated en route to the Trade Mart luncheon.

 jfkblog3Image © Bowling Green State University

Conspiracy Theory #3: Fidel Castro

A 1975 edition of the Ann Arbor Sun alleges that Fidel Castro was behind the assassination: “Washington Columnist Marianne Means revealed last month that [President] Johnson… doubted Oswald had acted alone. He suggested Oswald may have been acting under orders of Fidel Castro in retaliation for CIA plots to assassinate the Cuban premiere.”

 jfkblog4Image © Bowling Green State University

Conspiracy Theory #4: John F. Kennedy

It’s the most bizarre theory yet. A 1964 edition of the satirical magazine The Realist quotes a man who contended that Kennedy organised the assassination himself. Why? ““Medical reports had indicated that he had less than 90 days to live due to an intensified malign spinal cancer.” “Why not die a martyr?” asks The Realist.

Similar conspiracy theories abound. The history of these theories charts the lingering shock waves of an event which so shattered the optimism of post-war America that it still haunts the nation today. Perhaps what is most unbelievable about JFK’s death is not the conspiracy theories, but the event itself. As Norman Mailer poignantly wrote in Oswald’s Tale:

It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.

You can read more underground press publications in Adam Matthew’s Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975. This was originally published on Adam Matthew’s Editor’s Choice blog.

The Myth of California

Posted: September 23, 2013 in History

AP_53090_BX02_00001_Riverside CaliforniaImage © Newberry Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

California! What other state occupies such a mythical space in our imagination? Despite earthquakes that rumble and tech bubbles that burst, California still draws the restless and wild, just as it’s always done.

In 1848, J Ely Sherwood wrote “California”, a memoir of his trip out west available on Adam Matthew’s resource, American West. Sherwood describes how he first learned of California from a French trader named Roubideaux:

“His description of California was of the superlative degree favorable, so much so that I resolved if possible to see that wonderful land.”

Roubideaux described California as paradise, a land “of perennial spring and boundless fertility… [with] countless thousands of wild horses and cattle.” Asked whether they had fever out there, “he said there was but one man in California that had ever had a chill there, and it was a matter of so much, wonderment to the people of Monterey that they went eighteen miles into the country to see him shake.”

Graff_1347Image © Newberry Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

California’s always been like this. It started life as fantasy, a mythical island of Amazons invented by 16th century Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. The myth lived on for centuries, perpetuated by wandering storytellers like Roubideaux.

Captain David DeWolf also had the California bug. I discovered his “Diary of an Overland Trail” while indexing for American Indian Histories and Cultures. DeWolf left home in April 1849 to join thousands of others in the California Gold Rush. When he reached Sacramento it was full of cholera. Gold was hard to come by and diggers dropped like flies from disease. After several months, homesickness kicked in:

“If a man wants to learn the value of a Wife let him have one & leave her & come to California… Mother’s prediction is about true about me being sorry many times for leaving for California but I was like many others foolish enough to come to California & know I must make the best of it.”

Ayer_MS_237_00001Image © Newberry Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

DeWolf did make the best of it. He returned to Illinois via Panama and bought a farm with his gold. Many fools have since followed in his footsteps, defying parents and abandoning partners for intoxicating dreams of the Golden State. Most wake up with a sore head; few find riches. Yet the dream of California lives on, regardless of how hard the economy crashes or the San Andreas Fault shakes.

This was originally published on Adam Matthew’s Editor’s Choice blog.

The Belle of the Reservation

Posted: August 22, 2013 in Uncategorized


Originally published on Adam Matthew’s Editor’s Choice blog.

Gi-aum-e Hon-o-me-tah looks cosy wrapped up in her Kiowa blanket. Her cheeks are redder than her lips thanks to traditional face paint, and her eyes stare calmly into yours. Elbridge A. Burbank had a talent for capturing eyes; in his portraits of elderly chiefs he conveys solemnness and defiance, but with Gi-aum-e the impression is altogether different. Young and beautiful, her eyes look to the future, not the past.

Gi-aum-e was the niece of Haw-gone (Silver Horn), a famed Kiowa artist, and the daughter of a Kiowa chief. In his memoir (Among the Indians, 1944) Burbank describes her as an intelligent girl with good English who was considered “the belle of the reservation.” She was sixteen when Burbank painted her in the 1890s, and although she appears calm in her portrait she didn’t speak a word during the first week of posing out of pure bashfulness. “When she finally did become acquainted, she became quite talkative,” Burbank wrote.

When the officers at Fort Sill held a dance Burbank invited Gi-aum-e and her friend Ton-had-dle. During the dance he caught them laughing together in a corner of the room: “They explained naively that they were laughing because they thought it so funny for one girl to dance with so many different men. They also felt that this was very improper.”

Burbank tells another amusing story (Famous War Chiefs I Have Known and Painted, 1910) about when his lay figure – an artist’s mannequin – arrived from Chicago. The Kiowa men would “take it from the pedestal and dance around the room with it,” while the two girls would dress it in Kiowa clothes, “paint the face and place it on a chair before a window and then go outside and look up and laugh at it.”

Burbank became good friends with Gi-aum-e and he corresponded with her for several years after leaving the reservation. Their correspondence ended abruptly however, when she failed to reply to one his letters. When he next returned to Fort Sill he was shocked to learn that she had died suddenly. His memoir offers no cause of death.

Reflecting on the finished portrait, which features in our upcoming resource American Indian Histories and Cultures, Burbank wrote: “I never painted a more beautiful picture in my life.” Viewed from a distance of well over a hundred years, Gi-aum-e is still the belle of the reservation.

Image © The Newberry Library, Chicago. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

(c) WikiCommons

(Originally published June 26, 2013)

One of America’s most famous battles concluded 137 years ago today. The battle saw an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, while almost half the entire 7th Cavalry Regiment was wiped out, including George Armstrong Custer. In the media fallout Custer was declared a hero, while the Sioux were described (by the New York Times, at least) as “cruel, cowardly robbers”.

What I find more interesting than the battle itself is the way America’s cultural memory of the Indian Wars has changed over the past 137 years. A good illustration of this is the media’s reaction to an earlier, less remembered conflict known as the Battle of Washita River.

Eight days before his 29th birthday in 1868, Custer led the 7th Cavalry Regiment into a surprise attack against the Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle’s winter encampment. Between 13 and 150 Cheyenne men, women and children were killed (historical estimates range wildly), causing some people to call it “Washita Massacre”.

Newspapers of the day mourned the 21 American fatalities in the battle, which included Alexander Hamilton’s grandson, Louis McLane Hamilton. In his obituary, The New York Herald praised the “honourable” Hamilton who sacrificed his life for the “grand march of westward empire” which was “fiercely obstructed by mysteriously doomed aboriginal savages.”

This derogatory characterisation of Indians continued well into the 20th century. One of the earliest films about The Battle of Little Big Horn was Custer’s Last Fight (1912), a silent picture which opens on a close up of an Indian man called “Rain-in-the-face” killing two white men and then boasting about it. A year later, D. W. Griffith’s Battle at Elderbush Gulch depicts a battle which is started when a group of hungry Indians steal two dogs from white settlers with the intention of eating them.

Then the 1960s happened. The counterculture movement encouraged open distrust of America’s traditional storylines. Hollywood responded by creating revisionist Westerns such as Little Big Man (1970), which starred Dustin Hoffman. Little Big Man depicted George Custer as a madman with a burning hatred of Indians. The Battle of Washita River also features in the film and is portrayed as a massacre similar to contemporary accounts of the Vietnam War.

The past 137 years has seen an enormous change in attitudes towards Americans Indians and the story of the American West. Perhaps the most telling example of this is the inclusion of Sitting Bull – Custer’s opponent at Little Big Horn – in Barack Obama’s list of thirteen “groundbreaking Americans”. It is hard to imagine any other period in American history where Sitting Bull, and not Custer, would be held in such high esteem by the President of the United States.

This was originally published on the blog of Adam Matthew.


“Chao Kung” (aka Trebitsch-Lincoln) in Shanghai, 1943. Image courtesy of

“I.T. Trebitsch-Lincoln came to see me this morning; he was dressed as a Buddhist monk, and now calls himself Chao Kung. He told me he had been a Buddhist for about 6 years, and was the first foreigner to become a monk, which gave him great influence in Buddhist circles.” British Consulate-General Shanghai, 1931.

So begins a document I discovered in Foreign Office Files for China about one of the most colourful, adventurous and deceitful men of the 20th century. By the time of his death in 1943, Trebitsch-Lincoln had worked as a British Member of Parliament, a Protestant Missionary, an Anglican Priest, a spy, a revolutionary, a right-wing propagandist for Nazi Germany and Japan, and a Buddhist Abbot in China. Not bad for a Jewish boy from a small town in Hungary.

Trebitsch-Lincoln was born in 1879 to an Orthodox Jewish family. He showed an interest in acting early on, enrolling in the Royal Hungarian Academy of Dramatic Art as soon as he left school. His theatrical training came in handy when he absconded to England and managed to befriend the Archbishop of Canterbury, talk leading British industrialist Seebohm Rowntree into giving him a job, and stand for MP in Darlington despite being a Hungarian citizen. After being deported from the UK for trying to spy for Germany during WWI (and then selling his story to the press), he infiltrated the extreme right-wing of Weimar Germany. He even met Adolf Hitler during the Kapp Putsch – a failed coup attempt which forced him to flee to Austria and finally China.

By the time Trebitsch-Lincoln visited the British Consulate-General in Shanghai in 1931 he was famous around the world. When he applied for permission to visit the UK he sparked a flurry of correspondence between Shanghai and Whitehall. One file contains a detailed chronology of his global travels. Between 1923 and 1930 he circumnavigated the earth, travelling under six different names and three different nationalities.

While he undoubtedly succumbed to the myth of his own mystery, he also became weary of his constant deceiving. “I could easily have forged a passport but all this lying is against the principles of Buddhism,” he wrote to the Foreign Office. Do we believe him? The Foreign Office didn’t. I imagine even Trebitsch-Lincoln had doubts. When you live a dozen lives it must difficult to know your own name, let alone your principles.

This was originally posted on the blog of Adam Matthew:

Maggie and the Memory Hole

Posted: April 14, 2013 in Politics

How Margaret Thatcher’s memory is getting the laundering of the century.


Since her death last week, Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and legacy has undergone the kind of intensive laundering by the establishment which you would expect to see in the former USSR. The media has blessed her with biased tributes and the government is sanctifying her with a hugely expensive funeral. It is as if all the controversy of her career has been dropped down George Orwell’s memory hole – the pneumatic tube in the Ministry of Truth which erases history and replaces it with the party line.

Most of the media has adopted an uncritical response to the cross-party admiration of Thatcher and, even more controversially, to the elaborate plans for her funeral. Remembrance shows have focused on her personality, praising her for being a “conviction politician”, for her impressive work ethic, and her sharp humour. They have also highlighted her political victories over her divisive policies – her trumped up war for the Falklands and her ‘successful’ economic reforms, for example. Most media commentators have failed to challenge her supporters as they cast increasingly hyperbolic praise on the dead leader’s accomplishments.

Dissenters of the media’s gush have been criticised harshly. Whether on the established media or on social media, people who have used her death as an opportunity to protest her legacy have been accused of being insensitive and rude. Public figures across the political spectrum continue to appeal to people’s sense of decorum as they characterise protesters as naysayers. There has been a fervent movement among Thatcherites to wipe out any opposition to her canonisation. Unfortunately they appear to be successful. The BBC’s act of semi-censorship regarding the playing of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” today proves how wary the established media is to incite the wrath of Thatcher’s supporters.

Those who admire Thatcher for her conviction are often the ones who lack conviction themselves and so seek to experience it vicariously. They are the idol worshipers who value strength above justice, whose admiration of power stems from their own powerlessness. With one breath they accuse the youth of being nihilistic and apathetic, and with another they brush aside their protests of Thatcher’s beatification as disrespectful, or worse, immoral. The most ludicrous argument I’ve heard against young people’s protests is that because they weren’t alive during Thatcher’s premiership they can’t have any idea what she actually did and so they should shut their mouths. It boggles my mind how a rational human being can say such a thing. So we shouldn’t comment on the past because we weren’t alive to experience it? Wouldn’t that make the study of history entirely redundant?

Thatcher’s death and the storm it has created show how the future is often fought on the battlegrounds of the past. Debates in Parliament currently take place on a playing field which Thatcher helped create, regarding taxation levels, economic policies etc. Her death has provided dissenting voices with an opportunity to challenge that playing field, to attack the common sense ideas of politics today. It is, in my opinion, an important thing to do. What happens to this country depends on which narrative can claim dominance. At the moment, Thatcher’s neo-liberal story still firmly grips the political class. That is why it’s imperative to contest her canonisation and to debate her achievements.

The row over reaction to Thatcher’s death is also a battle for the truth. We are witnessing desperate attempts to stamp out alternative stories to Margaret Thatcher’s life, stories which cast her in a bad light. Her support for Augusto Pinochet, her determined destruction of working class communities and her enormous transfer of wealth from the public to the elite – all of these facts are being dropped down the memory hole. It is a calculated and passionate charge against the truth and the grain of sand which they hope will tip the nation into collective amnesia is the ever popular imperial pomp. Thatcher’s ceremonial funeral, with its full military procession and royal consent, has been drafted specifically to conjure nostalgia for the days of Empire. Like the Diamond Jubilee, its aim is to foster a sense of British Exceptionalism rooted in an egotistical belief of superiority.

It’s no surprise the funeral plans were drafted during the premiership of the equally narcissistic Tony Blair. He hopes to receive the same kind of ascent to saintliness which Thatcher is undergoing when he dies, and he probably will. All the disgust for the war in Iraq will be eroded through hours and hours of shallow television tributes and a military send off to match Winston Churchill’s. Protesters will be labelled disrespectful while Blair’s historical blemishes are airbrushed out overnight. Division will be called unity, destruction will be called progress and, just as today, will we be edging that little bit closer to Orwell’s 1984.

The Spirit Level

Posted: February 25, 2013 in Society

Self-flagellation: the act of methodically beating or whipping one’s body as practised by some religious orders.

There are two occasions when I consider beating myself like Silas from The Da Vinci Code to be appropriate: when I have embarrassed myself in respected company and when I have carelessly left a valuable possession on public transport. The two occasions appear unrelated, except to suggest that I am a tad bumbling. According to my current read however, they are strongly related. It’s all down to living in an unequal country, say Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

I am a latecomer to The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, which was first published in 2009. Throughout the work the authors draw on a dazzling number of sources to demonstrate how the more unequal a society is in terms of wealth, the more social ills that society has.

More unequal societies have higher rates of obesity, homicide, teenage pregnancy, mental illness, and illiteracy. They also have higher rates of incarceration and, unsurprisingly, lower rates of social mobility and lower life expectancy. Just to clarify, the authors argue it is inequality (the difference between how much the top 20% earn and the bottom 20% earn) which causes all of these problems, not poverty (average income of a society). There is, according to the data presented, only a weak relationship between health/social problems and poverty.

The UK is a good example of an unequal society. The top 20% of earners in the UK are roughly seven times richer than the bottom 20% of earners. The top 10% earn 12 times as much as the bottom 10%. Income inequality in the UK is actually growing faster than any other rich country, according to an OECD report in 2011.

That’s all very interesting, but how does it establish a relationship between feeling embarrassed in public and feeling regret when you leave your camera on a bus? And what on earth does it have to do with the act of whipping oneself? Well, this is the interesting part. It turns out that I am not the only person to handle mortification with mortification of the flesh.

If you live in an unequal society you are more likely to suffer from evaluation anxiety, also known as status anxiety. It’s the hyper-awareness of your place in society and the feeling that other people are constantly sizing you up.

“Instead of accepting each other as equals on the basis of our common humanity as we might in more equal settings, getting the measure of each other becomes more important as status differences widen. We come to see social position as a more important feature of a person’s identity.”

If you’ve ever felt out of place at a party it’s probably because you grew up in a society which trains you to be highly sensitive to your place in the order of things. Unless you are in the higher echelons you are likely to rank yourself lower in the social spectrum, resulting in feelings of shame – the same kind of shame which religious devotees might experience before picking up the whip. Some people combat this feeling with an inflated sense of importance. Adolescents are more sensitive than others to status, which explains why many go through bouts of depression and self-harm.

Unequal societies also have lower levels of trust. The British trust other people less than the Swedes, for example. As such, British people are more suspicious of others’ motives and generally more afraid of crime. The feeling of regret when you leave a valuable possession on a bus is, I imagine, more intense in the UK than it is in Sweden. In a country where everybody mistrusts each other, your initial reaction to leaving a camera/wallet/mobile behind is not “I’ll get it back in a few days,” but rather, “It’s gone for good!”

Having lived for a short time in one of the most equal developed societies in the world (Japan) and grown up in one of the most unequal developed societies (UK), I believe The Spirit Level’s conclusions are correct. The Japanese are famously modest in social interaction, rarely exhibiting a puffed-up sense of importance or asking questions which might embarrass someone. A common question when you meet somebody for the first time in the USA or Britain is, “What do you do for a living?” If you’ve ever been unemployed, you’ll know what an insidious question this is. The Japanese almost never ask this. In my experience of Japanese social interaction, people do not “size each other up” like we do.

They also trust each other more, and with good reason. When I left my wallet on a local train going from Okayama to Osaka I thought I would never see it again. Millions of passengers ride local trains each day, so the chances of it being handed in seemed slim. “What a dolt I am,” I sighed. Despite my doubts I reported the lost wallet at Osaka Station and borrowed money from a friend to carry on my journey to Tokyo. Two weeks later I received a package in the post containing my wallet. Everything was there – my credit card, my ID, even my cash. Not a single yen had been stolen.

My initial self-rebuke turned out to be unfounded. There was no need for mental self-flagellation because in a country where crime is relatively low and more people trust each other, valuable items are not stolen from buses. Or not as frequently, anyway.

The Spirit Level is an important book because it explains what many of us have felt, but didn’t have the statistics to prove: that a more equal society benefits all of us, in body, mind and soul.

What is the road to Skid Row paved with? I’ve ruminated on this question since I decided to steal the title of Orwell’s book and change it for my own story. In asking this question several others sprang up:

What brings a person to the point of homelessness? What brings a nation to the point of accepting it? What forces send a man or woman onto the streets? Are they purely economic, social, and cultural? Or are they simply the arbitrary forces of suffering? The forces which drove Lear mad and impelled Buddha to sit under a tree?

A better question might be: what is the road to Skid Row? I see it as a personal and a societal journey; it’s a road individuals take from poverty to destitution, but it’s also a road we all take. The road to Skid Row is the economic, social and cultural force which sends vulnerable people onto the streets. From a socio-economic point of view, it is lack of affordable housing and healthcare, crippling debts, low wages and lack of (meaningful) employment. From a cultural point of view, it is intimately tied to race and economic background. From a personal point of view, it is frustration, mental illness and despair.

I will attempt to answer my original question with another question: Is the road to Skid Row paved with the fallout of the American Dream? If the American Dream is a dream of improvements for all, then yes. A place like Skid Row is incompatible with the idea of upward mobility. You can’t jerk off to success like Horatio Alger did when you sleep on the streets.

The American Dream is dead, that much is beyond doubt. The dream of social mobility – the idea that you can start poor and improve your lot – died sometime in the early 1970s when planners began what Noam Chomsky calls the “financialization of the economy” , leading to greater and greater inequality. In the absence of the American Dream we have the road to Skid Row.

Roads are man-made things. They aren’t valleys or cliffs; they are not created gradually over millions of years. The road to Skid Row is no different. People who walk down it do so for various reasons, but the road itself is built and maintained by the powers that run this country. It’s like any other highway, except it only goes in one direction and the tolls literally bankrupt you. Once you exit there’s no getting back on, and the off-ramps always catch you off-guard.

The road to Skid Row is real: it carries people from poverty to destitution. But it is also an idea, the idea that the road is just the way it is. The road to Skid Row is an extreme example of roads we all walk down, roads which are built for us by political and economic power, illuminated by money and status, and paved with fears and hopes.

All roads are channels dug in our minds which trickle our thoughts and emotions in calculated directions. They are channels which were mapped out for us, but the map was hidden so we think the channels were made my nature, like a stream forming a river, when they were actually blasted out with dynamite.

I am one of the lucky ones: I only visited Skid Row, I didn’t end up there. As such I have certain responsibility. For me, that responsibility starts in the mind. If I understand how the road to Skid Row was built in the first place, I’ll have a better idea of how to destroy it.