Artillery Row

Risk your neck, save your soul

Against the sterility of safetyism

As the Owl of Minerva takes flight over the era of the pandemic, one or two things come sharply into view that might have been occluded when we were still among the trees of daily events. 

One is that, despite avowedly following the science, our instincts were largely the same as those obeyed by the ancient Greeks in the hope of appeasing the gods, when they too were visited by plague. Namely, we sacrificed our young.  

The young were at no greater risk from this disease than from the Flu. But not only did we lock them up and compromise their physical and mental health; not only did we disrupt and rob them of years that are precious and irreplaceable — unlike those remaining to me, which even at 57 feel increasingly undifferentiated, like broken biscuits at the bottom of the tin. We also salted the earth of their future with broken education. We wrapped their shyly emerging features in sterile synthetic gauze. We interrupted their social development and put them underneath a heaving pile of debt.

Perhaps worst of all, we drilled yet further into their soft, vulnerable skulls the paralysing horror of risk. This, I believe, is the pandemic that still rages across the West and might be our undoing. 

Now, to be clear, I don’t like the young any more than you do. But I am beginning to think some of their more jarring faults are more our doing than theirs. 

A trend has emerged in conversation, among many of my friends, of expressing baffled dismay at the sheer indolence, the aimless drift, the inertia of the little blighters. They have no oomph. They seem defeated, apologetic. And the more they “challenge” ideas about “gender”, the more utterly sexless they seem.

Young men aged, 17-25, historically regarded as tearaways, delinquents and rebels in the Brando/Dean mould, are now more than likely to infuriate their elders by refusing to go out and roar around town on a chopper or drive a jalopy into the old quarry. Instead, their rebellion consists in collapsing like human bean bags, refusing to shape up, move out or show an interest in anything not framed within a glossy black bezel.

Nor, of course, are they having sex. The phenomenon of the “incel” has been widely discussed, just this side of mockery. But it turns out few young women are getting any either. This thread on Twitter gives you the bare facts. They are not — ironically — pretty. 

There are medical correlates. Testosterone is in precipitate decline, with sperm count in lock step beside it. “Toxic Masculinity”, to the extent that it exists, is a by-product of this. Real masculinity has no need to recourse to poison. But no one seems to know quite what is going on. Endocrine disruptors? Cultural Decline? Feminism? Or is it this climate of fear?

I may live to regret this — after all, I have an example of this generation living under my roof — but I would like to see a little more rebellion. A little more recklessness. A little less social media, a little more action.

I understand the deflation

I understand the deflation. They have not so much been dealt a bum hand, these young men, as no hand at all. It’s not all sevens and eights, but with a lone Jack, kindling bitter hope. That’s the sort of thing I recognise from my youth — not good, but not quite bad enough to confidently fold. You might as well have a punt.  

No, they have been dealt a hand largely consisting of cards not historically recognised in Poker at all. The Hierophant. The Hanged Man. Second prize in a Beauty Contest, and The Billiard Room. What are they supposed to do with that?

Rather than the keys to their dad’s car — now an evil exponent of climate change — we have given them the keys to an e-scooter, and a broken down, over-heating world, panting and steaming, bonnet up, on the hard shoulder of history. Not only is it likely to get hot, or wet, or something. They know that even if the rising seas don’t overwhelm them, geopolitical instability likely will. Of course, it might not happen. But the spectre is real.

Power, meanwhile, seems lately to be in the hands of a sequence of buffoons and crumbling dotards who will be lucky to see another summer let alone the consequences of their own incompetent statecraft. Do they really care, these old fools? Mumbling and stumbling around like an elderly relative at a family banquet that everyone gives twice as long, to say half as much?

Into this stew of unfocused anxiety we have dumped the inadequacy of our long prepared response to climate change. Forty years of alarm sirens blasting in our ears about the climate crisis, and we have finally bolted from the station door on our Net Zero branded solar powered roller skates and gone face down in the gravel before we reached the front gate. “Everyone ready? No? Great – let’s Goooooo!!!

Oil was not just convenient. The era of fossil fuels put lead in our generational pencil. It delivered speed, excitement, Nietzschean becoming.  It gave us rock and roll and back-seat sex every bit as much as it did the ever-widening commuter belt and globalised trade. Jumping Jack Flash? It’s a gas, gas, gas. Or it was. 

Withdrawing the energy sources that have powered our vehicles, fuelled our dreams and delivered untold prosperity to our century, is being treated in some quarters as if it was no bigger a deal than making the switch to vegan cheese. Speaking of which — meat? That’s off the table too. And cigarettes. And leather. And probably Old Spice too.

So much for reality. Now, let’s take a look at the markets. Fourteen years ago, the last “once in a century” crash looked like it would bring down the whole edifice of fictional [sic] reserve banking and its bastard children with it. The whole unreal, financialisation z-axis dimension of the universe was going to be powered down overnight, leaving us only with material reality to eat, drink and live in.

That narrowly averted catastrophe was supposed to be the end of that fever dream, of the world-as-endlessly-leveraged-asset. Instead, somehow the fever dream survived, and reality succumbed. Wall Street thrives, and fortunes continue to be made in its VIP VR headset-world. They are, it seems, immune to actual risk. Meanwhile it is we peasants who labour in the brick-and-stick world who find our larders, premises and livelihoods under threat. It’s no wonder the kids would rather live in the metaverse. 

And now — just to pop the herring on the borscht — we have the prospect of nuclear war. That was always our trump card, wasn’t it? We oldsters? When their whingeing got too much? “Oh, yes, sure you’ve got it tough, you’ll never own a home, climate change is going to wreak havoc, jobs wink in and out of existence like unstable elements, created and immediately filled by AI, and there are more tigers on Netflix than there are in the wild. But at least you don’t have Nuclear Armageddon to worry about, like we did back in the eighties…” Well, well. Look what’s back on the menu. 

To be honest, being flash fried by a nuclear firestorm sounds preferable to me than being gradually immersed from the feet up in a lukewarm, sewage-enriched brine. But now we no longer have to choose! Leave it to Vlad the Impala and Sleepy Joe to cook up an eighties horror theme night. Only this time Moscow controls our central heating thermostat, too. Sure beats having your friends for a sleepover to watch The Evil Dead on VHS!

Is it any wonder the young seem slightly out of kilter with our reliable old cultural norms, too? Is it not possible, too, that so much of the craziness, the shrillness of what Andrew Doyle calls the New Puritanism, and what Tory ministers have started calling “this Woke nonsense”, is a little bit of mental gymnastics meant to accommodate the inevitability of failure, and to create a moral framework in which the contraction of power and hegemony is not weakness and defeat, but a good boy’s willingness to share? Cope, as the kids say.

This is not to deny that there are many historically excluded, or “marginalised” groups who have a chance to eat at the high table now and are fighting with cold, righteous fury to do so. Good for them — I like to think that I and my kids would do the same.

But if one single theme seems to dominate the perspective of the Great White Woke, and the curious hybrid of righteous indignation and sloth that prevails, it is not generosity and empathy. It is capitulation, self-loathing and sterility. These kids can barely contemplate their own existence without being sick. To have further kids, privileged white kids, would be not just dilution, as Larkin put it, but an actual abomination.

Thus trans. Thus taking the knee. Thus the abject, apologetic sexless shrug of every culturally approved white stand up, pop star and TV host. Thus the only acceptable forms of sexual display being those which celebrate sterility. Thus every lunged-at signal of disowning their own flesh and blood — literally. Not just their embarrassing relatives but their actual embodied existence. 

I begin to wonder if this is what the Catholic Church was trying to warn us about all along. We can all too easily be persuaded that we do not deserve to breed. 

Remedies? I don’t know, obviously. But maybe risk is a good place to start. Risk is cheap, and starts right outside your door. 

My two favourite books when I was 18, were The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Europe, by Ken Welsh. 

Of the two, the former had the advantage of being smaller, and did indeed have the words Don’t Panic in reassuringly large letters on the front. And, of course, it was almost certainly the funniest book written since I had learned to read. 

But the other work, whose title Adams lampooned, was exciting too, and a good deal more actionable. Invigorating, inspiring, it was a catalyst for an adventure of one’s own — no Ford Prefect required. I hitch hiked thousands of miles across Europe and had many of the most memorable adventures of my life. 

Worried about climate change? Hitch hike. It’s cheap. It’s low tech. It has the carbon footprint of a sparrow. As a driver, it makes a lot more sense than driving alone — and in a world where we are all constantly having to update our sense of who we live with, who we share the planet with, I have yet to find a better way to do so, one stranger at a time.

Where to? Not across the USA, necessarily, and certainly not shaving your eyebrows on the way — that’s where all this trouble started — but maybe up to the Lakes to scale the dangerous slab of rock known as Broad Stand, where 220 years ago Coleridge clambered down without a rope and into the history books, the first recreational climb on record. Coleridge never forgot the thrill of having simply survived. 

Worried about war? Learn to shoot. In a range, obviously, for now, or in some other authorised environment. But learning to control explosive force has a powerful effect on the psyche. 

Or if you prefer, just talk to that stranger in that bar. 

Not all risk has to be real, to be felt

Not all risk has to be real, to be felt. When I first started stand up comedy, some 26 years ago, it wasn’t the comedy that got me addicted. It wasn’t the writing, or the telling of jokes. It wasn’t even the laughs. It was the risk. It is well documented that people fear public speaking almost as much death. Overcoming a fear like that — however irrational — is a hell of a buzz. 

I suspect this is what is needed more than anything else — the enjoyment, the embrace, of risk. My son, too, I’m proud to say, loves bouldering and playing guitar in front of his friends (in a band, on a stage, amplified and with their consent. Not at parties. He’s not a wanker.) It’s never hard to tell when he’s had a good gig. There’s a certain kind of grin you don’t get from completing “stages” in 4K. 

It’s still true, I’m afraid, that when you get there, there’s no there. But you can still have fun on the way. And it’s got to be better than suicide, Armageddon, or this.

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