Tape trauma

Front cover of a VHS tape of 1984 cult comedy mystery film 'Repo Man', showing, in the foreground, star Emilio Estevez in front of a car with a group of menacing looking men, one wearing a balaclava and holding a gun

In the late eighties I lived in the East End of London and I used to rent movies from a little video shop on the A11 near Bow Road underground station. The routine – you might remember this – involved picking up a video on the way home from the tube and returning it in the morning. But life changed, I left college and got a job. Things got busy and I just stopped going up to Bow Road. Then one day, of course, I found a tape in the VCR, rented at some point in the distant past, waiting to be returned (pretty sure it wasn’t Repo Man).

Anyway, I was aware of the terrible, ineluctable logic of the videotape late fee. Everyone was in those days, it was a fact of life. No tape rental guy had ever forgiven a late fee, there was no such thing as a discount or time to pay or any kind of compromise. These guys looked like soft-eyed dweebs but we all knew they were backed up by brutes who’d come round and kneecap you for the fee if it went unpaid.

I left the tape there in the kitchen for a few days but it was haunting me. I mean the economics of the matter. I couldn’t sleep. Videotape late fees could only go up and they would never stop. I was watching my life disappear into a videotape-shaped void. You have to know, this wasn’t like dealing with the credit card company or the car loan people. There was no reasoning with a video shop, no restructuring, no resort to arbitration.

VHS tape and case from 1980 UK gangster film The Long Good Friday. The case illustration shows some of the cast, including Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren against explosions and violence

So one morning, accepting the inevitable, I nervously took it up to Bow Road and handed it to the man behind the counter, quivering, trying to smile. He looked it up in his entirely non-computerised records, noted the rental date, raised an eyebrow and calculated my late fee – a daily sum multiplied by months and months. “Four hundred and ninety pounds” he said. At this point I could easily have cried or fainted or something. That would be at least a month’s wages, several months of rent – a ridiculous, comically-large sum of money for a schlub like me at that point, in my cheap suit.

We looked at each other. I instinctively knew what to do and he apparently did too. I said “okay thanks” or something, turned around and walked out. Be aware: this is not what usually happened. What usually happened was you blanched at the number, hesitated and then got your wallet out and paid up while videotape guy just watched. There could be no pleasantries in that moment, no chit-chat. Nothing at all till after the register drawer was closed.

Videotape cassette for 1985 Brat Pack movie The Breakfast Club. The tape label shows the cast in a friendly huddle against a white background.

On this occasion, though, he said nothing; didn’t demand payment, nor shout as I left, nor follow me out into the street, despite the iron law, the terrifying rigidity of the video shop fines regime. He just watched me go. So I treasure that moment. A parable of some kind – the silent agreement, the mutual acceptance of the absurdity of the situation, its irresolvability. I never went back and I never heard from that video shop again. And then, at some point, that whole chapter in the history of media technology closed, VHS tapes became awful, unrecyclable landfill, charity shop poison, undisposable at any cost. History drew a line around that moment in time and froze it forever.

Permanent dread

Fear is back in British politics

The entrance to the world war two 'Report and Control Centre' in Radlett in the UK. A concrete-built structure with a large, arched, gated entrance, at the end of a short path covered with leaves and overgrown. An explanatory sign in the foreground reads: 'Radlett & District Museum
Radlett Control & Reporting Centre
This Wartime Nissen hut was built in 1939 by local builder Wings, as a key point of contact for civil defence. It cost £425 to construct and has two rooms plus a toilet. Today, the structure is in good shape and in the care of Aldenham Parish Council. It has been used for storage, the restoration of a vintage motorbike and the breeding of maggots for fishing. radlettmuseum.com'

This is a guest post from my friends at Radlett Wire, a local politics blog centred on a small town in the outer London suburbs that keeps a close eye on the work of local MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden. This post is about the increasingly grim tone of British politics.

Why does Rishi Sunak want us to prepare for war? Why does Oliver Dowden want us to fill the cupboard under the stairs with tins of beans and bottled water? And what’s any of this got to do with a concrete shed in the middle of Radlett?

If you walk up Gills Hill towards the park you’ll pass a lovely bit of green called Scrubbitts Wood and if you look over the gate at the North East corner you’ll see a concrete structure that looks like an old garage or possibly an air-raid shelter. Everybody used to call it ‘the air-raid shelter’, in fact, but recently a handy sign has gone up by the gate explaining that it’s actually a World War Two ‘Report and Control Centre’.

Round enamelled sign, red with white text, reads: 'Radlett & District Museum
Radlett Control & Reporting Centre
This Wartime Nissen hut was built in 1939 by local builder Wings, as a key point of contact for civil defence. It cost £425 to construct and has two rooms plus a toilet. Today, the structure is in good shape and in the care of Aldenham Parish Council. It has been used for storage, the restoration of a vintage motorbike and the breeding of maggots for fishing. radlettmuseum.com'

It’s a communications node in the wartime civil defence system. There was probably a telephone line, quite possibly female volunteer despatch riders. It’s not easy to understand why you’d put such an important bit of infrastructure in Radlett but there it is, defying the passage of time, right in the middle of the village.

Structures like this were put up all over Britain during the war, and were part of a huge – and hugely-effective – collective effort to protect Britain during what was unarguably the country’s greatest crisis for over a hundred years. Civil defence during the war was a bureacratic-voluntary hybrid, of the kind Britain is famed for. It’s how we roll, how the whole Empire was run.

The cold war

Famous still from 1984 film 'Threads' about the aftermath of a nuclear war in Britain. A man in a traffic warden's uniform has a bloody bandage with crude eye-holes covering almost his whole face. A rifle at his shoulder, dazed expression on his face.

After the war, of course, began another war. And a modernised, atomic-age version of the wartime civil defence structure came into being. One of its functions was to put the fear of God into us about nuclear armageddon. If you grew up in this period you’ll remember the public information films at the cinema and terrifying fictional visions like Threads and When the Wind Blows. Some of us are still haunted by the chilling Protect and Survive booklets you could pick up in doctor’s surgeries and libraries right up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The end of history

President of the USA Ronald Reagan against a blue curtained background making a speech behind two press microphones
Amiable B-movie schlub saves world

But then amiable B-movie schlub Ronald Reagan implausibly won the cold war. Things changed, of course, and there was that odd decade during which everybody felt they could breathe again. The booklets were pulped, they scrapped the sirens and Tony Blair’s New Labour won the biggest electoral landslide in modern British history. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously wrote a book called ‘The End of History and the Last Man‘, published in 1992, in which he proposed that the end of the cold war and the benign economic climate signalled a definitive end to the chaos and conflict of the twentieth century. Liberal democracy had won the battle of the ideologies and would become the unquestioned norm everywhere and forever. Oops. This dreamy mood lasted about ten minutes and was finally finished off by 9/11.

War without end

A large crowd of American soldiers in full uniform with helmets and weapons against a dusty background

And we entered the era of the War on Terror (capital ‘W’, capital ‘T’). The Americans recruited a ‘coalition of the willing’ (you might not remember this but you were definitely in it) and moved onto a war footing, invading Afghanistan and then Iraq. One of those wars became the longest in American history (and both cost the lives of hundreds of British servicemen and women).

The USA is, in fact, legally and politically, still at war. A law passed in 2001, giving the President essentially unconstrained power to make war against enemies, real and perceived, is still in force, discussed periodically in the US Congress ever since but never repealed. Of course, here in Britain we just do as we’re told, so we’re effectively still at war too. The absence of a written constitution makes it much easier for UK governments to tag along with the Americans (as Tony Blair said to George Bush “I will be with you, whatever”).

A century of emergencies

The happy optimists of the last decade of the last century could hardly have anticipated the chaos and drama of the first quarter of this one. A sequence of regional and world financial crises (including the biggest one since the great depression), a hundred-year pandemic, a major European war, a widespread turn towards populism, all overlaid on the building turmoil of the climate crisis. None of this was in the plan.

And the response of the major powers – including here in Britain – has been, in almost every case, to dial up the anxiety, to legislate, to militarise and to take a variety of increasingly authoritarian actions. In an emergency, all bets are off. A government may require us to stay indoors, allow us to protest but without being a nuisance or impose long prison sentences for non-violent action. Ancient rights are suspended and recently-acquired rights are reclassified and unwound. And we can expect more of this as the multi-dimensional crisis intensifies.

But hold on, what’s this got to do with the tins of beans?

Well, Oliver Dowden, in his role as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is in charge of resilience (in addition to a long list of other tasks, including oversight of civil contingencies, the COBRA committee and that portrait of the King…). Resilience in this case doesn’t mean bouncing back when your boss gives you a bollocking. It’s more about preparing for climate change, terrorism and war. Dowden’s brief includes flooding, heatwaves, cybercrime, sabotage by state actors and, for some reason, he’s chosen this moment to amp it all up, to dial up the anxiety and ask us to start hoarding pasta and toilet paper again.

Screenshot from UK government Prepare web site, black text against orange background reads: 'Get prepared for emergencies'

Hardly anyone noticed this but in the morning on the day of Rishi Sunak’s surprise election announcement (do you remember it? It was raining) Oliver Dowden announced something else – he announced an inexplicable new web site and a campaign to persuade us all to prepare for disaster. The web site is called ‘Get Prepared for Emergencies’ and it’s a slightly uncanny throw-back to those cold war public information booklets. There are many exclamation marks and a guide to preparing for the worst. You’ll learn how many bottles of water you should buy (three litres per person, per day, FYI), how to prepare your house for a flood and what to keep in the boot in case you need to leave home in a hurry. There’s a checklist to download.

Geopolitical dread

And this all came about a fortnight after the Prime Minister’s oddly dystopian speech warning us about, well, everything. He spoke, at his lectern, of the threat from “…gender activists hijacking children’s sex education…”, “Iranian proxies firing on British ships in the Red Sea…”, “countries like Russia weaponising immigration for their own ends…”, “criminal gangs finding new routes across European borders.” Read the speech, it’s all there: artificial intelligence, trans ideology, small boats, cancel culture, Putin’s ambitions and… nuclear anihilation.” Sunak’s painting a picture here and it’s not a happy one. It doesn’t actually mention alien invasion but we suspect it’s on a checklist somewhere.

Alien invasion movie still - spaceships hover over planet's surface, dark and frightening background

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Conservatives have decided their last chance against the inevitability of defeat in July is to weaponise dread, to trigger the entire voting-age population, to reduce us to a kind of quivering electoral jelly, waiting for the catastrophe and hoping against hope that Rishi can rescue us. The logic is that this dread will cause us to cling to the Tories when it comes to placing an X in the box, that we cannot imagine a better way out of this miserable, grinding, 14-year nightmare than to vote for the people who made it.

Still from John Carpenter's film They Live. A businessaman in a pin-stripe suit and waistcoat standing at a microphone is revealed to be one of the invading aliens repressing and killing humanity. Behind him a sign reads 'OBEY'

There’s a kind of contemporary horror movie-vibe to all this. These hollow men in suits, standing at lecterns, informing us in bloodless terms that our freedoms are to be suspended and that our larders and cellars must be filled in case of catastrophe. It’s grim.

Signing the pledge

Meanwhile, Labour, of course, in closely shadowing the Conservative policy offer, must carefully match the beligerance and dread Rishi’s bringing. Yesterday Keir Starmer made it clear that he’s not just going to retain Britain’s nuclear deterrent but double down (in fact the party’s calling it a ‘nuclear triple-lock’, which is catchy). Starmer’s promise is not new. In fact it’s consistent with the stance of all UK governments since 1962. In that year Harold Macmillan and JFK signed the Nassau Agreement, permanently cementing Britain’s dependence on the US military-industrial machine. To vary this relationship would be costly and almost certainly diplomatically impossible. Every Prime Minister since then has acknowledged the geopolitical realities of the North Atlantic compact and signed on.

HMS Vigilant, the third of the Royal Navy's Vanguard Class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Dramtically backlit against a cloudy sky

Under this and most of the subsequent agreements the British nuclear deterrent is essentially a North European branch operation of the vast American one. You don’t need to be a peacenik to feel uncomfortable with this relationship, with the fact that important parts of the UK nuclear weapons system literally belong to the United States government, that Britain’s 58 warheads are considered part of a larger US-controlled pool of weapons, that targeting, maintenance and other aspects of deployment are decided by American generals and that although it might be technically possible for a British submarine captain to launch a Trident missile independently, it would be unthinkable in practical terms and could actually be stopped by a US government with a mind to do so. According to one academic, the UK’s nuclear arsenal doesn’t meet ‘the 1940 requirement‘, meaning it could not be used in a situation when the country stood alone as it did at the beginning of the second world war.

No UK government has ever had the courage to challenge this and the economics of operating an advanced nuclear weapons system – with cold-war levels of preparedness – independently of the USA is so scary that this is very unlikely to change. It’s almost certain that even if a unilateralist government were to come to power (as it nearly did in 2017, remember) it would quickly acknowledge the realities and renew the deal. This unequal relationship is a deeply entrenched aspect of the Atlantic hierarchy. It’s essentially impossible to imagine altering it, let alone abandoning it.

Fear wins again

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Captain Dowden is ready for action

Oliver Dowden’s stock of tinned food, Sunak’s dead-eyed scare tactics and the UK’s unvarying committment to the nuclear status quo are all aspects of the same, rigid security orthodoxy and the same increasingly hysterical emergency politics that governs our lives in the developed economies. Fear is a political currency – and when politicians deliberately and cynically mobilise our anxieties it’s a sign of their fragility. It’s undemocratic and regressive and we’re probably stuck with it.