Bowler hats, tilted back, looking not quite right; making the men wearing them seem Stan Laurel-gauche. Headgear not often worn: only hired for the day; or dislodged from the attic and dusted off, the hats their fathers wore. Marching to ‘The Sash’, on Saturday 29th September 2012, thirty thousand Loyalists commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, when the province’s Protestants announced their intention to remain in perpetual Union with Britain. A century on, renewing their vows? The ceremony was more of a ‘heritage event’, complete with bouncy castle in the grounds of Stormont. Most Orangemen dressed as their fathers did, emphasising continuity with the role their fathers played. Then as now, to the sound of fife and drum. But Britain’s integrity is no longer threatened by militant Republicanism, which means that Unionism today is more of a costume drama. Accordingly, if today’s stout-defender-wannabes are going to act their traditional role, they really ought to pay attention to their wardrobe. ‘No Surrender’ is only watchable with bowlers worn at the correct angle. On the day, some Loyalists had clearly realised the importance of historical detail. With Indian Army-style puttees wrapped round their calves, and even the twirl of a false moustache, they recalled their forebears by performing an affectionate parody of them. Camping it up even more, the parade was led by a Unionist peer in a horse-drawn carriage: name of Lord Laird; in other words, ‘Lord Lord’. Even Downton Abbey’s scriptwriters would have rejected this as too fanciful.
Luxury cars dancing on a fountain of candy floss. But the sticky stuff spuming under them is really the surge from Superstorm Sandy, racing up the streets and underground chambers of Manhattan; closing down more markets than Al Qaeda. The lights are out on Broadway. In the world’s most powerful country, eight million people are currently without power. Even in daylight, the city is close to colourless. Only grey and brown, as if Gotham is being reclaimed by Autumn. But since this is America we’re speaking of, let’s change that last line to read: New York City now colored (sic) by the Fall.
Strands of pale dirt-track against a background of lurid green, but the camera is focussed on a fugitive (baggy ‘urban’ clothing, bareheaded, is that a pigtail waggling at the back of his head?) climbing out of a red SUV (stolen Dodge Caliber; awkwardly parked off-road). Follows him as he hesitates, then breaks into a zig-zag run. A few strides and he stumbles into the sand; rolls himself up again, runs forward a few more paces then veers off the track, knee-deep into the grass. Looking for cover? No escape from the camera-eye. Staring down from the studio (Fox News, Studio 5), commentator Shephard Smith employs a deliberately casual tone (semi-demi-tone short of a full draaawl), inviting us to note the perpetrator’s erratic behaviour: he could be using as well as losing. But maybe this is him taking back the initiative. Going against the run of play, he stops, turns around, now back-to-camera. Uses his right hand to reach for something secreted on his left side. Brings it out, raises it in his right hand, points it at his temple. Hardly a pause……Is this a performance for the camera, or an act of simple desperation? Even if he knew himself, we never will. Hardly a pause before he falls, face forward. By the time his body hits the ground his pants have come down a couple of inches. Shephard Smith has further to drop. The studio camera catches him, bug-eyed, shouting for the police-chase live-feed to ‘get off it, get off’ this unexpected death.
Striding across the stage, the men who aren’t there. ‘Faceless bureaucrats’, Westerners are wont to say, but these ‘suits’ are minus even more. China’s new Poliburo has no existence yet – no face, no body, neither legs nor feet, because, though overdue, the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hasn’t been convened; not while the stink of scandal lingers over Beijing like a London smog. Malodorous developments include: suspended death sentence meted out to murderous wife (Gu Kailai) of former Politburo-crat Bo Xilai (sentence commuted to life imprisonment for killing British business associate, Neil Heywood). Playboy son (Ling Gu) of close presidential adviser (Ling Jihua), presumed dead at the wheel; naked girls trapped and paralysed in the wreckage of his £250k Ferrari Spider. For Ling Jnr, a shadowy existence suspended between life and death: his death still not officially acknowledged, though he’s not been seen alive since the day of car crash, back in March; and his father has already been edged out of his top job. Not even the patronage of retiring president Hu Jintao could stop Ling Snr becoming a non-person. Hu’s likely successor, current vice-president Xi Jinping, recently affirmed his bodily existence by appearing at Beijing’s Agricultural University after two weeks hidden from public view, possibly as a result of a back injury. Xi boasts big hair. Like Elvis, he thinks, though with his small features the effect is more like Roy Orbison, laureate of the lonely. After a spate of suicides at Foxconn telecoms parts plants across China, earlier this year the Taiwanese corporation appointed counsellors to deal with acute loneliness among young migrant workers living in company owned, factory-dormitory towns – cockroach-infested dormitories, factories forensically clean as an autopsy table, or a Beijing courtroom. On Monday night (25/9/12), two thousand workers swapped their habitual loneliness for a collective, teenage rampage through Foxconn’s Taiyuan assembly plant, situated in China’s northern coalfields. Ten hours of life-affirming riot, eventually quelled by militarised police: the CCP’s Terrorcotta Army. Fleeing the police assault, Taiyuan’s rioters may even have found themselves – and each other. It’s the Politburo which is feeling lonely and insecure; right now, it still doesn’t exist.
‘Abbey Gardens, Hattersley’, is the widely reported address where two Greater Manchester policewomen, Nicola Hughes (pretty and ‘bubbly’) and Fiona Bone (her photo has a cheeky look like Pauline Quirke’s), were killed on Tuesday 18th September. It’s got previous: Moors murderer Ian Brady lived on the estate in the 1960s, not longer after it was built. But the postal address of the crime scene is ‘Mottram’, where there are ‘stunning views’ of the Peak District and the stone-built old police station is currently on sale for £300,000. In Abbey Gardens, on the edge of the Hattersley estate, proletarian Manchester protrudes into the outlying middle classes. Bet they don’t like it up ‘em. Meanwhile, spurning Mrs Bouquet and all her works, Manchester is half-proud to have been known as ‘Gunchester’ in the 1990s; ‘Gun-’ being half-a-decade on from off-yer-face ‘Madchester’ (Happy Mondays, Hacienda, smiley meets scally), with firearms. There’s even a gym on the south side of the city (in Wythenshawe, the biggest housing estate in Britain) which issued a promotional video purporting to be CCTV of a gangland shooting: silent movie, Chav-style; the underclassy club people are dying to get into (but no one was armed in making this film). Watching it on YouTube, you could almost mistake these premises for the Cotton Tree pub (built 1905) in dreary Droylsden (another part of the Greater Manchester sprawl) where in May one-eyed, Irish-born Dale Cregan is thought to have killed amateur boxer Mark Short in a punishment shooting gone wrong, before going on to murder Mark’s father, David Short, three months later, followed a month after that by the two policewomen. Perhaps the murdered officers thought the call-out was to leafy Mottram instead of ‘Gun-Mad-Manchester’, where the sensibility is Shaun Ryder meets Baudrillard’s Postmodern but pockets of gang war are really taking place.
Flipped like a toy and over it goes. Car up-ended by a bunch of Chinese boys – no longer mere ‘boy’, are they, guys? – scouting Beijing for Japanese products they can vandalise. Gleefully, thoughtlessly smashing windows. Not stopping to cross-reference: ‘I love the sound of breaking glass’; just lovin’ it. In another part of the city, thousands of girls are coming out to Cos-Play: it’s an international convention of youngsters (mainly young women) dressed up in costume and play-acting parts from animeand manga, taking place in Beijing this year. The girls slide into a pose. Hold it; then strike another. Holding still is what they came for. Having to move between freeze frames is their dead time, like silence on the radio. Inspired by Japanese comic books and films, posing and vogueing like New York’s finest trannie, Cos-Playing China Girl is as self-conscious as any female impersonator. Meanwhile, Beijing’s boys are firing their ire on a Canon photo shop.
Sandals were slowing down his escape so now he races barefoot through the white streets of Tunis, wreathed in teargas. In Cairo they’ve got good at throwing the canisters back at police – especially the man dressed as a Mid-Westerner in checked shirt and bluejeans. Beats baseball. Spuming water, fired from a police cannon, rains down into the centre of Sanaa’s main street, but the Yemeni crowd has already parted to the sides. In Tripoli, Lebanon (even the BBC tripped up here), the Colonel’s beard is badly singed; beneath this icon, his KFC outlet burnt to a crisp. Whole cream milk shaken into the burning eyes of a rioter who’s been tear-gassed. Head turned half-way round to check how fast the police line is moving, lithe lady in a gas mask, running. Youths standing on burnt out cars, gesturing to police, posing for cameras like victorious athletes. From Benghazi to Chennai, and further east to Kuala Lumpur, the streets are action-packed with anti-Americans. Meanwhile, in the rural provinces of India, protestors have taken to the water, neck-deep. There they stand for days on end, heads sticking out against government policy of raising water levels behind India’s dams (60 years since Nehru dubbed dams ‘the temples of modern India’), displacing many villagers. Without shoes, their feet turn to bad meat, pockmarked with parasites. Police cited health grounds when recently removing a group of protestors from the water around Hada, Madhya Pradesh. In that other twilight, before dawn, the only bright spots were the fluorescent lifejackets of police officers wading through grey water, bringing protestors to shore: slowly, slowly; one by one.
Clipped box hedges and manicured bonsai trees. Strolling through the grounds in football tops and Ts. No hurry. The sound of crickets, then it’s someone’s phone chirping. One guy with a serious camera, others make do with their mobiles, holding them out towards the cauldron of flame. Are we in the Olympic Park? No, it’s a car, flaming too fiercely to be doused out in the adjacent swimming pool; and behind the burning vehicle (under a car porch in true suburban style), the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is going up in smoke. Right now, American ambassador Chris Stevens (Californian veteran of the Peace Corps, fluent in Arabic, friend of ‘the Arab Spring’) is succumbing to smoke inhalation. But Stevens has not been targeted by terrorists. Hardly anyone knows he’s arrived from the capital, Tripoli, especially not those – not rioters, not quite as innocent as bystanders – who only want to have been there when a little bit of America was burning. By the morning after, the compound will look like a real crime scene: blackened buildings, ransacked interior, the pool half-full of debris. The night before, though, if you agree to mistake small arms fire for firecrackers, it could have been a party getting out of hand.
The late summer had been due to turn autumnal, but London was allowed one more day (Monday 10th September 2012) solely to bask in the success of the Games. A Victory Parade (Mansion House to the Mall), crowds along the route, thick as cream (‘many thousands’ – nobody even tried to count ‘em), and 800 gleeful Olympians and Paralympians floating above their shouts and cheers. The whole affair as bumptious and good-natured as Boris Johnson addressing the athletes: ‘you produced such paroxysms of tears and joy on the sofas of Britain that you probably not only inspired a generation, but helped to create one as well’. The entire city as bright and playful as BoJo’s hair. Yet already something wistful in the air. This was the last moment of spontaneous unity; the only proper repeat of the unrepeatable. All the rest is propaganda. Sponsored re-runs will turn the winning Games into a series of also-rans, if we let them; unless we resist the eye-candy of endlessly repeated highlights. Better to let this moment go, and perhaps one day we will be surprised to come across it again, unexpectedly evoked in a new moment, each of them enriched by association. What’s yet to come will be all the more splendid, if in the meantime we have not over-used the colour of memory.
Mock Tudor Surrey, home of The Good Life (mid-career, moderate achiever jacks in his job and joins his gorgeous wife in turning their ample garden into a smallholding complete with piggery), now accessory to a drive-by shooting hundreds of miles away. Instead of the al-Hilli family (they sound jolly, don’t they?) returning home from their Alpine holiday (last outing before the girls are at school), police and the media have set up camp around their house in Claygate. Instead of painting the doors of the second garage (it needs doing), in face masks and protective suits (protecting potential evidence, of course), officers are stripping down the house in search of clues. The road outside has a peculiar liveliness. Not only police following procedures or a sudden flurry of photographers (maybe she’s a relative: snap, snap, snap). Mainly it’s those sensible-looking, not-really neighbours (they must have been sensible; they made it to the stockbroker belt) prompted to pay their respects to people they never knew and bodies that aren’t there. Out of their ordinariness they come, carrying flowers and asking the policeman at the garden gate to put theirs’ near the house (already too many: ‘I’m sorry, madam, they will have to stay outside’). Drawn here – though of course they wouldn’t have wished it on anyone – to touch the hem of the extraordinary. Now heading home in the late summer sunshine, just as their forefathers would have moved back from the altar rail.