September 17, 2004

I don't want to change the world

I used to remind myself of Marvin the Paranoid Android, but now I remind myself of Slartibartfast instead. One of my role models, Marvin. Him and Eeyore, whose Little Book Of Gloom always makes me laugh. Him, Eeyore, Victor Meldrew and Private Frazer out of Dad's Army. Them, and cats. But particularly Marvin, if only for refusing to be unnecessarily impressed by sunsets. I had a similar reaction when the eclipse happened in 1999 and I couldn't see what everybody else was making such a fuss about. Really I couldn't.

Anyway, Slartibartfast. I decided to retire from active political involvement recently, or at least retire until such time as I thought I had a good chance of seeing a cause or a campaign actually win. Which, given the nature of leftwing politics, is very rarely likely. I came into leftwing politics just before the miners' strike, and Warrington, and Wapping. Not to mention the election campaigns of 1983 and 1987. There's been a lot of lost causes. I knew most of them were lost before they even started.

I've always had an emotional attachment to lost causes. When I lived in Newcastle I supported Hartlepool rather than Darlington, because Darlington were favourites to win their division and Hartlepool the favourites to go down. When I was a kid, I chose the weakest-looking goldfish in the tank because I knew that if I didn't choose it, nobody else would. But after thirty years I'm tired of standing up for the weakest-looking goldfish. I'm tired of standing up and tired of standing out. I fear losing, and I fear conflict, and I fear the fact that I have a self-destructive appetite for conflict. I do not want to want it any more. I am exhausted. You do get exhausted, eventually.

If it's going to matter, I want to have a chance of winning. I watch London Broncos on this basis, going to see them when they're looking good and giving them a miss if I think Leeds or Bradford are going to cross the try-line ten or eleven times. I go to a lot of non-league football these days, and I'm sure it's because it doesn't matter, so it doesn't matter if you lose.

The other night, in the pub, I got invited to join the Greens, by a chap from Lambeth Green Party who remembered me from the antiwar movement. Not my politics, really - though I'll probably vote for them next time out, I'm far more red than green. But it was nice to be asked. It was nice to get an email tonight inviting me to the European Social Forum next month, but I don't think that I'll go. Not that you can lose, as such, at the European Social Forum, but I don't want the arguments, and the disagreements, and the getting worked up over things. Not again. Not for another twenty years or so.

Of course people often get like that when they get older. Which is all right, so long as you know you're doing it. People often claim that they've "grown up" - dreadful, smug, patronising phrase - when what they mean is that they've developed an aversion to unequal struggles, or that they're asking different questions than the ones they used to ask. Notably, instead of asking "how can we change the world?", they're asking "how can I make my way through life?". (Perhaps the most significant difference is the I instead of we.) And that's all right. I need to ask how I can make my way through life. But it doesn't make you very much use, politically. If all your instincts are to run away you're not going to be much good at fighting against the odds.

So I want to sleep a while, a long while, and have somebody wake me up when things are better, easier. They are, it's true, easier than they used to be, easier than they were ten or fifteen years ago, but not a damned sight easier enough. I can do small things, campaign against local property developers, put up a poster, write a little. But no causes, please. No legwork. No traumatic, life-shattering defeats. I lost twenty years of my life to the miners' strike.

And I could, I suppose, compare this to Isaac Deutscher, retiring to his ivory tower in the Fifties, but I'm not exactly Isaac Deutscher. I'm more of a Slartibartfast.

"... we weren't really expecting to find anybody about in fact. I sort of gathered that you were all dead or something ..."

"Dead?" said the old man. "Good gracious no, we have but slept."

"Slept?" said Arthur incredulously.

"Yes, through the economic recession you see," said the old man, apparently unconcerned about whether Arthur understood a word he was talking about or not.

"Er, economic recession?"

"Well you see, five million years ago the Galactic economy collapsed, and seeing that custom-made planets are something of a luxury commodity you see ..."

He paused and looked at Arthur.

"You know we built planets do you?" he asked solemnly.

"Well yes," said Arthur, "I'd sort of gathered ..."

"Fascinating trade," said the old man, and a wistful look came into his eyes, "doing the coastlines was always my favourite. Used to have endless fun doing the little bits in fjords ... so anyway," he said trying to find his thread again, "the recession came and we decided it would save us a lot of bother if we just slept through it. So we programmed the computers to revive us when it was all over."

The man stifled a very slight yawn and continued.

"The computers were index linked to the Galactic stock market prices you see, so that we'd all be revived when everybody else had rebuilt the economy enough to afford our rather expensive services."

Arthur, a regular Guardian reader, was deeply shocked at this.

"That's a pretty unpleasant way to behave isn't it?"

"Is it?" asked the old man mildly. "I'm sorry, I'm a bit out of touch."

I'm a bit out of touch. And I think I need it that way.


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