As I’m writing this, it’s three days since I got my second dose of the Moderna vaccine, and I’m just about recovered. I walked home from a friend’s house this morning and I saw a a pigeon scattering loose feathers mid-flight, before they fluttered gently down to the suburban street below; a grasshopper making a brave dash from the pavement to the park I was walking past; and on a lamppost, a sticker of a man being reprimanded by a member of British Transport Police, with the text “Why do you have a child’s ticket?” “Because I’m a child of god.”
Lying in bed with sore joints, alternately sweating up a monsoon and feeling so cold I had bonafide chattering teeth, you miss these things. This month has been better than the last, and the next will be better still. They have to be, right? Just like Samuel Beckett/Ms Doyle said. In this edition of the newsletter: hand-wringing over the individual responsibility suggested by wellness culture and the selling off of the NHS, time travel, and some movie waffle. All before the month’s even finished as well. Aren’t you proud of me? Reply to this email and tell me you’re proud.
For a while now the front page of YouTube, I imagine as part of a public health intervention steered by the NHS, has featured a playlist of recommended videos about COVID-19 and vaccinations. Each were clearly produced with different demographics in mind, often created in collaboration with existing YouTubers, looking to get picked up by the algorithm (when it’s not pushing people towards idiot man child Joe Rogan coming out as anti-vaxx as well as anti-PC, anti-intelligence and anti-talent). The one that caught my eye bespeaks a recurrent point of view I’ve seen from those who have put off getting jabbed: “I’m young and healthy, why do I need the COVID-19 vaccine?”
There’s been a shedload of conspiracy theories proliferated throughout the pandemic, natch, but this attitude towards the virus and the vaccine doesn’t appear rooted in a fear of 5G, Bill Gates, or the international Jewish conspiracy. It’s rooted in a wellness culture that’s been on the rise — aided and abetted by social media platforms like YouTube, and Instagram even more so — for the past decade, one which is rooted in the shift away from a benevolent, interventionist state to turning the focus onto self-reliance of individuals, which largely happened in the eighties. Our timelines are lousy with influencers and mutuals alike keen to stress their narratives of personal growth, which are usually based around a change in diet and uptake of a new exercise regime. Which, sure, good, if you have the time and the resources and the drive. This myth of self-actualisation through the crucible of personal fitness is a troubling one, however, for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it puts the responsibility for an individual’s health on the individual themselves, during a period where the Tory government is systematically dismantling the NHS and the welfare state its creation heralded.
We were singularly unprepared to deal with the pandemic, not just because the global supply chain we rely on for our comfortable lives helped proliferate the disease, but also since (as I’ve probably said on one of these before…) an effective response to it required a society naturally inclined to mutual aid and collaboration, and we’ve been pushed towards individualism for the better part of four free-market-embracing decades. Those who are now, if not outright rejecting, but at least expressing scepticism towards the vaccine because they’re “young and healthy” do so not necessarily from an anti-science, anti-intellectual position, but because they have bought into the lie that they’re singularly responsible for their own wellness, and expecting the government to step in and help — at least when it comes to preventative measures — would represent a failure on their part. Surely any physical, mental or spiritual ailment can be overcome with a few more hours on the Peloton, another yoga session before work, a couple more detox teas and a crash diet?
A screenshotted tweet I saw on Tumblr (and apologies for that sentence): “I’m concerned how western secular empowerment and growth narratives are in fact nurturing narcissism through individualism.” The mindset of not needing to get vaccinated because you do a “good job” looking after your own health also ignores the responsibility one has for the health of others. Not only has the state done a good job of making you responsible for your own wellbeing, but it actively discourages taking others into account with it. There’s no such thing as society, after all; if there was, we’d see the NHS services aiding people to quit smoking or tackle obesity as good things, rather their being consistently characterised as a drain on resources which should be spent on more “deserving” people.
In this way, the athleisurewear and selfies of today are the workout videos and “greed is good” of the Thatcher-Reagan era. There is nothing inherently wrong with looking after yourself, but in a mindset where self-improvement — which is to say, self-interest — is made out to be an inherent moral good, the flipside — people who don’t or can’t look after themselves in the same way, or who may benefit from more “selfless” interventions such as vaccinations — can therefore be seen as an inherent moral failing. If you catch COVID, it’s your own fault, and nobody else’s actions can be blamed; same with obesity, depression, smoking, or anything else you care to find during a quick scan through the archives of the Daily Mail.
Never mind that public health services are overstretched and underfunded and in the process of being sold off, that the free market on which the NHS is up for auction demands overindulgence and the subsequent shame-driven atoning for that self-same sin, that the only way to ensure widespread wellness is to consider others. If you’re young and healthy, why would you need the vaccine? Why would you need to think of anyone else at all, ever? What would be the benefit to you or your personal brand?
“What does a character want?” is, according to most screenwriting guides, the most basic element of storytelling. The plot does not just happen to a protagonist (at least in the Western tradition). Their needs and desires are the engine which drives them into a series of unfortunate events and challenges, eventually leading to them achieving their goal, or failing, or attaining some other reward. Despite the fact that the majority of modern blockbusters follow the structure set out by such guides — often to a fault imho — there’s precious little “want”. Your average superhero “wants” to save the world, inasmuch as any of us would rather keep on living rather than embrace oblivion (on a good day). For all their derring-do, your average protagonist is sexless and dull, Ken dolls with impossibly dulled physiques freed from desire.
That’s part of the reason to turn to the crime drama, which is all about people pursuing their wants, needs and desires — again, often to a fault. “Want” as an animating force is at least part of the reason I loved No Sudden Move, the latest from my number one boy Steven Soderbergh. There is not a single Soderbergh film where the stakes are “the fate of the world,” and innumerable Soderbergh films where the base desires of his characters are paramount: the crooks wanting to get rich quick and look pretty doing it in the Ocean’s films, Channing Tatum wanting to get out of being professionally hot in Magic Mike, moronic whistleblower Matt Damon trying to cover his own arse in The Informant! Even his larger-scale works centre on the individuals involved in globe-spanning events: his two-part Che biopic with Benicio del Toro, the hyperlink style of Contagion, the fallible humans at the heart of Erin Brockovich and Traffic (two films which came out the same year and both of which landed him best director Oscar noms!).
No Sudden Move is a crime drama, set in fifties Detroit, and almost entirely about the conflict created by the characters and their conflicting priorities. Don Cheadle is brought onto a job where he has to hold a family hostage while the patriarch is taken to his work to pick up some valuable documents. Cheadle’s character has a bad rep thanks to a previous botched gig he took the fall for. Benicio del Toro is there, too, wanting the money so he can abscond with his lover Julia Fox, wife of Ray Liotta’s made man. Then there’s the aforementioned patriarch (David Harbour), who’s been cheating on his wife (Amy Seimetz) and planning to abscond with his lover (Frankie Shaw). There’s countless more overlapping Venn diagrams of criminals, philanderers and high-ranking members of automobile manufacturers beyond those, leading to almost as many double-crosses, reveals of hidden loyalties, and sudden changes of heart, all owing to these characters wanting to improve their lot in life through whichever means they’ve chosen: love, sex, money, escaping the city so as to no longer have two different mob factions baying for your blood. More often than not material, rather than “spiritual” drives, albeit ones which would certainly help with the spirit, and the absolution offered by which is a lot more relatable than a hero fulfilling a prophecy or forgiving their dad or some such bollocks.
It’s a film for and about adults, is what I’m saying, director/editor/cinematographer Soderbergh and screenwriter Ed Solomon (the guy who wrote Men in Black and co-created Bill and Ted!) taking their aesthetic and narrative cues from cinema of the fifties. There is not a world-ending threat avoided, nor a conspiracy which threatened to disrupt the globe thwarted. There isn’t a whiff of those hokey character arcs protagonists go through in those “independent” dramas bankrolled by the self-same Hollywood studios responsible for their cinematic universes, beginning on the precipice of personal catastrophe before ending the film somewhere close to self-actualisation as the result of their experiences. I saw someone describe No Sudden Move as “like an adaptation of the fifth novel in a series of books about Don Cheadle’s character,” and that’s exactly right. I could watch one of these a year. I’d watch one a week! It’s a film where people are people, not iconic figures — mythic seems wrong, despite how often people like comparing superheroes to the titans of antiquity; after all, Zeus probably got his end away more than the entire stable of Marvel characters combined — and its through their misguided, tricky, self-serving actions that everything unravels. Nary an Infinity Stone in sight!
Also this month: I was late to a wedding. As myself and a schoolfriend waited for our ride in the carpark of a rural Travelodge, huddling beneath the awning of a drive-in Starbucks to shelter from the drizzle, we accidentally came up with a dystopian time travel scenario. The premise is: time travel exists in the future, sure, but it’s (naturally) very expensive, which is why there are very few time travellers in our time, giving themselves away. Similar to the tiered systems of access we have across our current capitalistic cultures, those with greater wealth have greater access to the past. If you’re, say, lower-middle class, you might be able to scrape enough together to gain access to your last birthday, or some other event in the not-so-distant past you’d like to revisit. You can forego a holiday to fix that faux pas that’s been keeping you up at night, or whatever. But it’s only the 1% who are able to do the whole Days of Thunder thing, see the dinosaurs or pre-fall Rome, or Genesis when Peter Gabriel was still frontman.
Baked into this concept, we realised, is a somewhat horrific revelation. Those who may wish to escape the capitalistic hellscape they inhabit, who live on the bottom rungs and may well benefit by travelling back to some undefined hinge point where the current socioeconomic structures could be radically altered to something more fair and equal, will never get a chance to. They can’t afford it. By inventing and immediately gatekeeping time travel technology, the upper crust of society also ensure that their wealth and power shall never be questioned, by ensuring the systems which allow for it can literally never be altered, either in the present or the past. Anyway, that time machine is actually called “inherited wealth” and already exists, so I don’t know why we bothered going on that flight of fancy. The third taxi we ordered finally arrived, and after helping the driver read his own GPS and following a slow spin around a Waitrose carpark, we turned up just in time to miss the vows.
The new Lorde album is, regrettably, naff, but enough that I’ve ran back into the arms of her first two. Elsewhere: bands I saw at Maiden Voyage, canonical acts of my early adulthood reunited, a cut from the soundtrack of Succession of which I watched the entirety in the past two weeks. Baxter Dury’s memoirs sound worth a look. Joy Orbison finally put out an album!
Something I always struggle with when writing is trying to sound authoritative without sounding arrogant. Does that make sense? I do know something about the subject at hand, or else I wouldn’t write about it, unlike most Guardian columnists. At the same time, I don’t wish to pretend I have all, or any of the answers. In his most recent newsletter, uncommonly thoughtful former Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman clarifies that he doesn’t write from the position of someone who has “Sorted His Life Out Completely and is now magnanimously offering to guide others toward a similarly flawless existence”:
“If anything, it’s the opposite. ‘You teach best what you most need to learn,’ as the author Richard Bach famously put it. You’re drawn to the subjects you struggle with because you struggle with them — because the stakes feel high to you, so you’re motivated to try to puzzle out some solutions.”
That’s probably where a lot of this newsletter comes from, besides the attempt to dodge the vagaries of the algorithm so my ego’s screams of “NOTICE ME!” don’t go unheeded. The soapbox-y stuff especially isn’t written in stone, ink, or even pencil. Because that’s not how computers work, idiot. And because I’m just trying to puzzle out some solutions. We’re all trying, aren’t we? You shouldn’t trust those who think they’ve got it all figured out, as Burkeman goes on:
“I always think it must be terrible, for your classic celebrity self-help guru, not to be able to admit this. Don’t you end up living in constant fear that someone might see you in a hotel lobby or a coffee shop, looking miserable or stressed or anxious, thereby fatally undermining your claim to be living the dream™?”
I’m not living the dream, but I like writing this, and I like that you’re all reading it. Take care of yourselves, goodbye forever!