Ratchets / Too Loud a Solitude

A couple of things do change at this time. I make a friend at work. That friend is autistic. Though his interests don't much overlap with mine, I have always been an experience completist and so I start going with him to watch the hockey at Sparta and the now defunct Praha Lev who played for a while for the KHL. I start working hard on trying to eat well, find a new butcher which bankrupts me but gives me a long-delayed enthusiasm for cooking that had been hit by the surprisingly enduringly bad food in Prague those long years after the country had entered the European Union. So I am dosed up to the eyeballs, my expenses for food and medical bills are high enough to eat into my new higher salary, and I am getting up early in the mornings to write as far as I am able.

Snowden, and Ratchets, as I would call it then, The Pwned Mind, as it would later become conceptually if nothing else, actually did nothing else but to throw me back to reflect upon one or two old projects. Call Them Soldiers, a novel that had gone to ground many years before had, it seems, existed in the form of a sleeper cell or two deep down in my mind. The novel came together when my town had first became such a hostile place to be, so full of mistakes and misunderstandings, that I had turned into a recluse, hiding away in my parents place to try to write. Fully paranoid at the time,1 the project had began as a spin off of a present-day story underworld dope dealer who worked in construction making a number of houses with unsuspected annexes optimised for the growing of marijuana. It swelled then to encompass my researches into and observations of what social media was doing to my more socially competent acquaintances as it took off at the time. “It's about decommunilisation,” said a straight-talking friend of mine, a former Hell's Angel (if there really is such a thing) in a pub that was about community as much as was any I have ever known, and, I think I can by now state baldly that time has only proven him at least partially right (it is about much more than that too). The novel took place in a claustrophobic Manchester in an England with a formalised social contract, renewed on The Day of the Covenant every leap year. There, thought is ably manipulated using the formal social network, The Eudaemon, where there are things it is seen wise to say, and things that it is thought unwise to say, and people will be moved up or moved down in a meritocracy (in its original, dystopian sense) which works with all of the brutal efficiency that Reddit ranks a speech act, to rank people. One of the ways people have of fighting back is one that was extemporised just as thing s were really getting locked down. Some families who were expecting twins at this time where encouraged to have them, and to manipulate things in such a way that one twin was registered with the state and others were not. That the unregistered twin in the family we are to follow in the novel lives like a latterday Anne Frank owes much not merely to the unenviable history of many a central european city in the short twentieth century but also to my suspicion at the time that all opposition to the government was being put into marijuana and subcultures, which could be marketed to and appropriated by the capitalist class, as opposed to counter cultures, which could not. The original arc of the novel left little room for optimism. My aim was to explore what could happen if methods of the manipulation of popular opinion were to become more sophisticated than they had in the last decades of Czechoslovakian communism, to examine how it would look if the state continued to move away from the brutal repressions of old and the Orwell doctrine to something that resembled more the carrot and stick style of both Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. By 1989 the communists in Czechoslovakia had learned what could be achieved if people could be bought off with entertainment and consumer goods, with a handful of freedoms such as could be found at the weekend cottages conveniently freed up by Edvard Beneš's brutal expulsion of Germans from the Sudetenlands after the Second World War. Late capitalism, it seemed to me, had become so aggressively competitive, that any nation state which did not resort to a ruthless pursuit of what they believed to be their national interest would soon find themselves falling down a hierarchy so that they would soon be losing their competitiveness and, with it, their freedom. Government had become such a technocratic enterprise and so many of the most important roles of government had been given up or delegated to “the market”, that, if the people's expectations of government was not to be determined by the politicians, things could very quickly get out of hand. Adam Curtis's documentaries from the early to mid oughties seem as good a place as any to start to examine what any of this was to mean, though a comparison of Margaret Thatcher's favourite television programme, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, with a series occupying a similar role in the Blair age, The Thick of it, might eqully give the feel of some of it. John Gray seems to have nailed some aspects of it as well as any writer I have come across to date. In Ratchets I reflected upon all of the themes of the novel, which, alongside decommunilisation, surveillance, and manipulation, took on Gramscian myth. I was convinced fascism was coming, or, that it was already here.

My time at the new school was in many ways socially disastrous, though since it is possible I could choose almost any other period in my life to say the same thing, that might simply be how I have come to think about it because of how I view Britain, and how I would like to view the Czech Republic. I was, however, driven. Perhaps this is how I am when I am hiding away from something, building dwellings for myself to shut out all of the hostile forces outside so that I might step in and shut the door on the world. At any rate, Ratchets would itself go bankrupt when I returned to see the doctor in London sometime around October, 2013. By this time I was planning to publish the piece on the internet under a creative commons license. I simply felt it was what I had to write. I suppose that, despite all my problems at school, I had a flat to myself, a room of one's own, for the first time that felt stable, and the terrible pressure for quick fixes of impossible positions was off for a while and so I had been writing for the sake of writing, but the doctor reacted to this with what I thought of as dismissiveness (here was a harebrained scheme if ever there was one), and that stuck with me as much such criticism does. I remember how I used to get up early every day to write. I burned myself out with that, but whether it was the doctor or the ambition of the project, it slowly drifted into obsessive but unstructured research and, since I could not hope to write about technology without understanding it, a number of Coursera courses on things like interactive Python (a programming language), and Securing Digital Democracy (spoiler: good luck with that!).

It would be when winter was just starting to set in that I would come across the next project, a competition ran by the Czech Centre in London to translate a story of Bohumil Hrabal. About to turn thirty five, well beyond the age I might have expected, as a kid, to be solvent and stable (though in fact, I think I suspected, like a surprisingly high proportion of young people surveyed at that time, that I might one day be selling the Big Issue), I sent off an enquiry and found that I just qualified for entry.

An obsession controls your life but there are times when it does not feel like a constraint but a reassuring structure, and there are times when the right obsession (Python was a good one, cooking great, Linux not at all bad, Czech language and literature may give me a pain in the ass on a regular basis but it keeps on giving all the same, and running was good for me at times) would open up the world. Even people who are not, like me, predisposed to being possessed by one or another interest or activity, often make decisions that will constrain them, force them to limit their interests, and as regularly as I have had cause to regret, even to hate my temperament over the years, I am convinced that those few months which I obsessed over Bohumil Hrabal at a time I was not yet ready to translate him, for sure, but when I was ripe for soaking him up, straining to reach for what he was trying to say, gave me as solid a grounding as I ever have had in my life.

In those months I would travel to work every day reading one of a number of books on or by Bohumil Hrabal. I would sit in the staff room possessed by a large, fascinating, even beautiful biographical work on him by Tomáš Mazal. Things had got complicated, in the few days everybody was away for the Christmas holidays, after I had spent days watching the video feeds from the 30th Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg where my friend lived, I had started a relationship with a woman at school, somebody whose intimacy issues went as deep as the ex I had once thought about while watching The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. By now on a new medication, Strattera, which lead to the unfortunate side effect of erectile dysfunction which compounded those memories of the times I had been insufficiently present to perform, it didn't go well. Meanwhile, my only friend, the aspergic teacher, had been sacked. I felt as marginal as I ever have done.

1 Since this is an old text from a notebook, I have not edited it, but the term is imprecise and highly misleading, though it does indicate a tendency I had to pathologise myself. I was suffering from social anxiety, certainly, though this was far from being irrational in the social context I was in. I was avowedly not paranoid but in the vaguest colloquial sense of the word.