Memes have become one of the ways of taking the pulse of the society I live in.
That I now regard this as normal suggests that the slide towards a post-literate society is happening faster than I can keep up with it.
The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On” meme was taken up a few years ago as as symbolic of a folk-history faux-memory of British sang-froid when ¨Britain stood alone¨.
It captured the belief that what made us British was the calm pragmatism with which we will face any crisis.
It made me smile then.
I’m not smiling any more.
Like many other people around me, my peace of mind has been stolen by Brexit.
The stupidity of it. The harm it will do. The cynical sociopathy of the billionaires who funded it. The shameless demagogy of those who promote it. The self-imposed impotence of politicians who cannot or will not figure out how to oppose it. The anger and division and hate it generates each day. My own complete inability to do anything about it except sit like a passenger in a car being driven over a cliff.
I know others feel this because a new meme has emerged:
“Now Panic and Freak Out”.
That one doesn’t make me smile either.
My Brexit anxiety/depression/inescapable sense of doom is made worse by Twitter.
I should stay away from Twitter but I’m no longer able to do that.
At first I thought it might be a way that I could help change things. That I could use it persuade people to stop Brexit. It took me a long time to realise that Twitter’s design makes this impossible. It is a medium that only looks like it’s about dialogue. Dialogue on Twitter is hard. It’s too brief, too antagonistic, too random. It flips from echo chamber to shark pool in an instant. It feeds anxiety and fear. It strengthens the beliefs people came in with. It lives off conflict.
Twitter has become a wailing wall that talks back, sometimes saying “I feel that too”, sometimes saying “You lost. Get over it.” Often simply feeding back other people’s amplified rage.
So today, I won’t be going on Twitter (except to post this of course). Instead, I’ll offer you all a short story.
Back in 2012, when almost no one in the UK cared much about the EU one way or another, when Twitter was still 140 characters and my timeline was filled with books and movies, before FaceBook started to sell our data to people who want to attack us, I wrote “Assessing Francis Connor”.
It’s the story of Francis Connor, a man in his sixities who is about to collide with the mores of a Modern Britain in which grief is seen as anti-social and participation in social media is a sign of mental health. I am Francis Connor, of course. Or I’d like to be if I could control my anger and keep my courage.
At the time, I wondered if I was being too pessimistic in my view of the 2025 England Francis would find himself in. Now, it seems to me, I was just scenting the wind.
Here’s how it starts:
“Assessing Francis Connor”
by Mike Finn
“Is he the one?”
As usual, Dr Roe is pressing too close and wearing too little. Her sleeveless top, running shorts and obvious lack of underwear are not my idea of what a psychiatrist should wear to work and I don’t want to be able to feel the heat of her against my arm. Yet I know that I am the one out of step here. Roe is a woman of her times. Thirty years younger than me, she was born in this century and understands its norms and nuances in a way I am no longer capable of.
Keeping my voice level and my body uncomfortably close to hers, I answer her question.
“Yes, he’s the one.”
She stares at the old man on the screen with unashamed interest, studying him like a lab specimen, which, in a way, he is.
“But he looks so normal. Old of course, but normal.”
The man’s name in Francis Connor. He was born in 1957, which makes him, sixty-eight years old. I think about the changes that he’s seen and what they’ve meant to him.
“He was normal once,” I say, “Perhaps he still sees himself that way.”
“Despite his extraordinary behaviour? “ Roe snorts in disbelief.
She reaches behind her head with both hands to tie off her hair into a pony-tail. As she does so, she displays thick dark underarm hair that would have been completely unacceptable a couple of decades ago.
“How can he not see how deviant he is?” she asks.
“Deviance is in the eye of the beholder, which is why, today, we are going to hold up a mirror and ask him to look into it.”
Roe’s eyes flick almost imperceptibly to the cameras that monitor this work station.
“You make it sound as if his deviance is only real because we can see it.”
There is an edge to her voice that I can’t quite read: stress certainly but I’m not sure if the undertone is alarm or anger.
“Do I?” I make myself smile as I say it.
She leans across me, not making eye-contact, reaching for the tablet on the workstation behind me. I can feel her nipples against my chest. Her hair smells of lemongrass.
“You know that that is very dangerous thought to express,” she says quietly.
It is easy to forget that Roe is dangerous. She knows enough to dumb-down her intelligence and be seen to be a team player but I have never doubted her instinct for self-preservation.
“And yet,” I say at normal volume, “it is you, Dr Roe, not I, who has expressed this dangerous thought.”
Roe rakes me with her eyes and takes a step back, distancing herself from me in a way that carries more meaning in this crowded decade than it would have done when I was her age.
“Perhaps, Dr O’Rourke, you need to take a look in a mirror yourself before you conduct an interview that is predicted to have a Neilson Net Rating in excess of 21.2.”
That, of course, is her main concern. We are about to enter the arena. She’s making it clear that if any blood is shed, it will be mine, not hers.
I bow my head slightly and say, “Thank you for support, Dr Roe. I am, as ever, thrilled by the knowledge that so many of my fellow citizens are kind enough to take an interest in what we do here. Shall we begin?”
If you’d like to read more and meet Francis, you can find the story HERE