Who is the Prime Minister? Apparently, that’s one of the opening questions doctors use as a test for dementia amongst their patients, though most of the country would probably have struggled to answer it following the last General Election, to be honest. Anyway, I don’t know if my grandmother was asked that particular question during her last illness, but I do recall being told she couldn’t correctly say what year it was when asked. The ongoing debate over care for the elderly is, I’ve no doubt, largely motivated (on the public side, at least) by genuine concern that senior citizens are almost discarded as an expensive embarrassment; but I think it also reflects a consensus of fear over the fate that awaits us.

Larkin’s notorious poem, ‘The Old Fools’ is – as with his other most infamous offering, ‘This Be The Verse’ – often misconstrued; sometimes perceived as revulsion when confronted by the elderly, it couples lines such as ‘Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines’ with ‘Do they suppose it’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools, and you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember who called this morning?’ As with much of Larkin’s output, it is devoid of sentimentality and looks at an uncomfortable aspect of life with brutal honesty. The chilling closing line, when after having posed a series of questions on the topic of ageing, Larkin says ‘Well, we shall find out’, is a more accurate barometer of what the poem is actually saying.

A man not known for celebrating the joy of life, Larkin’s melancholic pessimism was present when he remained a relatively young man, something fairly unusual outside of Goth and Emo subculture; then again, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters was aged just 29 when he wrote the wistfully bleak Larkin-esque line in ‘Time’ on ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ – ‘Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way’. Both Ray Davies and Morrissey have, at different times, contradicted the eternal adolescence that has been a hallmark of the genre they sprang from by shining a light on the neglected perspective of the elderly outsider, something Paul McCartney did even more successfully with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ before addressing ageing in a lighter tone with ‘When I’m 64’. He was in his mid-20s at the time.

At its most extreme, fear of growing old – at least manifested in its physical form – has led to the horrific cosmetic surgery industry and Hollywood’s plastic parade of deluded veterans that battle against the ageing process to extend their acting careers. Conversely, renowned actresses that have resisted the surgeon’s knife – such as Charlotte Rampling or Helen Mirren – tend to be celebrated for the fact their beauty has matured like fine wine and has been allowed to mature free from visible vanity courtesy of the same medical men who butchered the face of Michael Jackson.

Speaking to a friend the other day, she commented on some programme she’d seen on TV about a murder case in the 1990s; the documentary was accompanied by archive footage of the time, and even though the 90s feels extremely recent if you were actually there, she was still struck by how different things looked on said footage. The way in which technology has transformed all our lives in such a short space of time post-1999 has relegated certain sights that had always been commonplace on our streets to the same cultural landfill as gas lamps and public toilets, and I suspect those streets as represented by news archive of the time in this programme perhaps showed what already appears to be a different world.

I only have to cast my mind back twenty years to recall one of the numerous downsides to living in a neighbourhood with a sizeable student population was when the fresh intake of scholars needed to ring home after a week or so in their new homes. A queue of a good four or five people would be a familiar sight outside a telephone box in early September; but this is one of those ‘numerous downsides’ that has now completely vanished from the landscape – along with most of the phone boxes. Of course, to say ‘casting my mind back twenty years’ is in itself an admission of ageing that bears little relevance to the majority of the same university’s current crop, few of whom were a twinkle in the milkman’s eye twenty years ago – when we probably still had a few milkmen left.

In a sense, that’s part of the problem. I have been an official legal adult now for almost 32 years, and I find in my memory that everything I recall from that point onwards still doesn’t seem like that long ago. By contrast, anything from my childhood decade of the 70s feels incredibly distant and may as well be a hundred years ago for all the bearing it has had on my lengthy spell as an adult. At times, 1987, 1997 and 2007 appear almost interchangeable despite the superficial changes in fashion, music, pop culture et al that separate those years; I was an adult during all the years listed, and whilst I’d like to think a little acquired wisdom separates the person I was in 1987, 1997 or 2007, the core composition of the time-stream I inhabit doesn’t seem to have altered. It all feels ‘present tense’.

When we have family or friends we don’t see that often who sire offspring, we recall said offspring being babies; then we maybe see them again as toddlers or little kids; and the next occasion in which they’re mentioned, we learn they’re at high school or in higher education. In our heads, they remain frozen as children, but the rapid maturity that takes place elsewhere can remind us how time is passing more than what the mirror on the wall might tell us. Sometimes, it’s easier to measure time by the change in others than the change in our ourselves, which can be as difficult to observe as the movement of hands on a clock-face.

Four months from now I hit one of those ‘landmark birthdays’ that we all, whether we care to admit it or not, dread the arrival of. I guess we each have our own different take on what they do or don’t mean and if they hold any significance at all. For me personally it’s not a question of wanting to cling to a youth I didn’t especially enjoy or revel in, more a question of inevitable summarising of the story so far, the kind of self-assessment I’d rather avoid due to the fact that on paper I appear to have achieved nothing and have become everything I hate. Despite the anticipated bombardment of reminders I’ll receive from well-meaning well-wishers, the only real element worth celebrating is that I’ve actually made it this far. Being English, I expect I shall hang on, though I suspect the desperation won’t be so quiet; I remain determined to rage against that dying light. Thank God for a little bit of Celtic blood.

© The Editor


The original 1975 BBC version of Terry Nation’s ‘Survivors’ dealt with the aftermath of an unnamed virus that swept across the civilised world and severely depleted the human population of the planet. The focus in the programme was, unsurprisingly, on England as we followed several disparate characters coming together to form a pre-Industrial community amidst the ruins. In the memorable opening episode, much is made of mankind’s risky dependency on modern technology, though this dependency is minimal in comparison to the dependency on today’s version; the kind of virus required to bugger everything up for the human race in 2017 doesn’t even need to be an organic one.

There’s a plethora of old sayings that could be evoked when reading of belated responses to the viral pandemic that infected 200,000 computers in 150 countries last week and rendered info inaccessible unless submitting to a ransom demand – despite warnings issued months ago that went unheeded. I’m thinking stuff about locking the stable door after the horse has bolted and so on. But I think the one concerning all the eggs being contained in a solitary basket seems most applicable. When every relevant document and file only exists in the cyber ether, without any other format serving as back-up in the likelihood of an online meltdown, the over-reliance on such a vulnerable storage system as digital technology is symptomatic of a mindset where the easiest option is taken when it’s not necessarily the safest.

This has certainly been a long time coming. What the NHS computers experienced here at the weekend was an A&E waiting to happen ever since the majority of paper documentation used by the sector was transferred to the PC. Most of us will probably remember attending our local GP’s surgeries for decades and seeing the shelves behind the reception desk crammed with cards in which each individual patient’s records were contained. Yes, they obviously took up a great deal of room, but with the exception of a fire breaking out, they were immune to the kind of damage their storage successor has proven susceptible to.

Some may recall news footage of the ‘Ripper department’ of the West Yorkshire Police Force in Leeds during the time Peter Sutcliffe was on the loose; the floor housing the collected material on the potential suspects became so weighed down with the crates stuffed full of paper information that it had to be reinforced to cope with the structural strain. Today, all of that info could, of course, be stored on one memory stick so small that a toddler could swallow it; but who’s to say some mischievous hacker wouldn’t tap into it and essentially be a cyber incarnation of notorious hoaxer ‘Wearside Jack’ in the process?

Few people today – certainly those whose only experience of a phone means a mobile rather than a landline – could recite the telephone numbers of their nearest and dearest because they’ve never had to dial them; add the numbers to the mobile’s memory banks upon purchasing it and they’re all stored away without the need to memorise them; a solitary button is pressed to access the desired number. All very convenient, but what happens if something goes wrong with the phone and the list is lost? Suddenly, the user is made aware he or she has no idea what any of the numbers they call the most actually are. Chances are they never thought to jot these numbers down in an extremely old-fashioned object known as an address book.

The digital network that is the repository for so many of the files that western civilisation deems necessary to keep the wheels of society turning has the potential to be a modern-day clerical equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. The destruction of Ancient Egypt’s most celebrated temple of collected knowledge via fire (whether deliberate or accidental) resulted in the loss of thousands of exclusive scrolls and volumes that were irretrievable on account of Alexandria being their sole home. Its vulnerability to attack was evident, just as IT systems are today. Cyber criminals – hackers and virus-producers alike – are engaged in a permanent battle with the traffic cops of the information superhighway, and the ramifications of these battles can be found in the disruption across doctors’ surgeries and hospitals this week as dependence on the systems they target has left the digitised structure of the sector in sore need of repair.

The Government insists the NHS received fair warning about the threat to its IT soft-wear, passing the buck to the NHS Trusts, yet a contract to upgrade the NHS’s IT system wasn’t renewed two years ago in a wave of Government cuts. Only yesterday, the Department of Health’s National Data Guardian additionally criticised the NHS for a deal it cut with the Google ‘patient app’ DeepMind, which enables the NHS to share 1.6 million patient records with third parties for direct patient care – a deal cut without the consent of patients. In response, Google said ‘The data used to provide the app has been strictly controlled by the Royal Free Hospital and has never been used for commercial purposes or combined with Google services, products or ads’, but after events over the weekend, one cannot help being sceptical.

Apparently, this particular cyber attack emanated from flaws in Windows identified by the US National Security Agency, a discovery it would seem the NSA failed to disclose to Microsoft before it fell into the hands of hackers. However, despite Microsoft making a free ‘fix’ available two months ago, the sloth-like response to upgrading IT security by many institutions meant the systems earmarked as open goals were attacked.

Whoever is ultimately at fault for this incident, the fact remains that it’s something that will never go away; like the painting of the Forth Bridge, upgrading security and antivirus soft-wear is a permanent exercise. If industry and individuals insist on hoarding their most valuable data on a solitary form of preservation, they’d best ensure it’s pretty secure. Pen and paper, anyone?

© The Editor


‘The Simpsons’ has always had an uncanny knack of predicting the near-future, usually doing so by making deliberately ridiculous predictions that few could imagine actually coming to pass. Such is the way of the world today, though, that the sublime has regularly been superseded by the ridiculous; there was famously a President Trump in an episode from 2000, after all. I recall another episode in which Homer is forced to take a job in a supermarket warehouse; finding it too much like hard work after being accustomed to putting his feet up at Mr Burns’ power station, he attempts to walk out, only to be prevented from doing so by the microchip his new employers have implanted in his neck to guarantee subservience to the company.

Lo and behold, it was reported this week that a Swedish company called Epicenter is already there in the non-animated world. Yes, microchip implantation is an option for Epicenter’s lucky employees; these embedded pieces of technology essentially act as a swipe card for the 150 out of 2,000 employees to have opted for the process – opening doors or paying for goods on-site with a wave of the hand. Epicenter pioneered turning its workforce into cyborgs two years ago, with the company’s CEO claiming the biggest benefit of the scheme is ‘convenience’.

A company in Belgium is apparently contemplating the same ‘convenience’ for its employees, for where some countries lead, others invariably follow. The relative reluctance of Epicenter employees to embrace the practice in great numbers speaks volumes; although the technology is no doubt in its infancy, there have been ethical concerns aired regarding the potential security risks. Ben Libberton, a microbiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, claims hackers could access innumerable amounts of private information from implanted microchips, a worrying prospect that could increase as the technology inevitably becomes more sophisticated. Hackers accessing something inside us?

If all of this sounds like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian ‘Black Mirror’ series, it’s no wonder; ‘Black Mirror’ specialises in taking contemporary technology one step into the future and capitalising on current fears on how it has already become something so many are dependent on and implicitly place their trust in.

The revealing of personal details that are now a prerequisite for the majority of online transactions is unavoidable if outlets such as Facebook, Amazon and eBay are to be entered into, resulting in the collation of information that forms a cyber profile advertisers and manufacturers can then target. The whole ‘If you like that, you might like this’ or ‘suggested post’ syndrome is a direct side-effect of the info we surrender when we log on and sign in.

In many respects, so many are now so attached to their Smartphones that the object has more or less become an extension of their physical being as it is, provoking withdrawal symptoms akin to those of a toddler deprived of its dummy should their mobile be misplaced. But if a company can inject microchips into its employees on the grounds of ‘convenience’, how long before one of the leading tech corporations proposes developing the principle re the mobile phone? The way avid subscribers to such technology are willing to submit to its demands without a second thought suggests that this possibility would not necessarily be widely opposed.

While the approach of the Epicenter company is embryonic in terms of what could eventually happen and how it could be misused, more advanced experiments have been carried out on surgical grounds, and there are a small number of volunteers who have had electronic implants seemingly on the grounds of vanity and an apparent desire to be viewed as ‘interesting’. In a way, this is not dissimilar to those addicted to cosmetic surgery when they don’t really need it. The British artist Neil Harbisson is the first person to be officially recognised as a ‘cyborg’, having had an antenna embedded in his head, enabling him to receive what he calls ‘an extra sense’ since the interior soft-wear merged with his brain, giving him the ability to perceive colours outside of the usual human spectrum.

The British scientist Kevin Warwick and his wife chose to be cybernetic guinea pigs, with the former having 100 electrodes added to his nervous system in order that he could connect it to the internet. If all of this sounds scary to many, these individuals have at least volunteered, as have those employees of Epicenter; and were these implants to provide the bionic strength we were all led to believe they would via ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’, I suspect we’d all be queuing up to have them fitted; that was pre-cyberspace days, however. Today, Steve Austin would be an exemplary tool of the surveillance state rather than a superman. As so often happens, such technological developments don’t always fall into the hands of those whose means are benign.

© The Editor


telephone-boxCharlie Brooker’s anthology series ‘Black Mirror’ could easily have been called ‘Play for Tomorrow’, dealing as it does with an unspecified near-future in which personal technology has taken another leap forward; and each leap taken is uncomfortably believable in the most sinister fashion. An earlier episode, such as the one where a cartoon character enters the political arena, was judged by some to be a precursor to Russell Brand’s spell as an internet activist; and as for one in which the Prime Minister is forced into having sex with a pig – say no more.

Having recently transferred from Channel 4 to Netflix, ‘Black Mirror’ is now something that can constitute binge-viewing, with the whole series available to download in one go, rather than the more traditional practice of having to wait a week between episodes, as dictated by the broadcaster. I saw the opening episode of the new series a couple of nights ago and knew Brooker was playing with our fears for the future once again. In this one, the ratings system familiar to anybody who routinely monitors their views on YouTube, their re-tweets on Twitter or their number of friends on Facebook, had become the means by which an individual’s value is judged in all walks of life. Purchasing an aeroplane ticket, a hire car or even a house was utterly dependent on how high one’s online ratings were. Failure to adhere to the system could result in pariah status and second-class citizenship.

Naturally, this system revolved around the ubiquitous mobile phone, with the object possessing even more power than people credit it with in the present day. The fatuous and facile, style-over-substance mindset so prevalent in numerous online outlets may have already made the lives of millions a vapid popularity contest, but here it was the difference between being an accepted member of society and an utter outcast. The authorities’ punishment for a minor indiscretion was no longer a fine, but a deduction of online points that henceforth barred the unfortunate miscreant from participating in the communal summer camp society had evolved into.

I know it shouldn’t, but whenever I watch an episode of ‘Black Mirror’ that deals with this kind of thing it merely confirms my lingering suspicions over the mobile phone. I have a confession to make. I don’t own one. I never have and I never want to.

I must stress this isn’t a Luddite protest. Being online has had huge benefits for me that I could never have dreamed of just a decade ago. It has enabled me to garner an appreciative audience for DIY videos which aren’t to everyone’s taste but are enjoyed by many; it has given me a platform for my writing via blogs such as this and my other, ‘Looking for Alison’, that I never previously had when all my efforts were read by a very small circle of friends as well as publishers that rejected them; it has facilitated cherished friendships with people I’ve never met in the flesh due to their geographical distance; and it has made communications easier in ways that the old expense of the telephone conversation or the waiting game of the posted letter couldn’t compete with. It has widened my world considerably, and I have managed all of this without ownership of the tool we are led to believe life isn’t worth living without.

Not being on friendly terms with any Yuppies in the 80s, the first people I knew who had mobiles were drug users and drug dealers in the 90s. Paranoia over the tapping of landline phones (or just phones as they were known then) made the mobile the perceived safe option when it came to arranging exchanges. They were also handy as a means of speeding up an exchange when ‘waiting for the man’ and the man was late in getting to the rendezvous. The neighbourhood I lived in back then had a high student quota, yet this was still an era in which the beginning of a new university term would see queues outside public call boxes as the latest crop of fresh arrivals needed to ring home and assure their parents all was well. When was the last time you saw a queue outside a public call box? Few students I knew then could afford a car, let alone a mobile phone. How times change.

We now, of course, have a generation that has reached adulthood (in theory, anyway) that has never known life without their electronic equivalent of a baby’s dummy and cannot imagine such a surreal scenario as being out and about alone and rendered unreachable on the other end of the line. What – going for a walk or shopping and nobody can actually get hold of you until you get back home? Not only that, just think of all the things you’ll miss on social media in your absence! You won’t be able to chronicle your exciting journey with a selfie recording the great event either, never mind inviting the world to marvel at your pasty or to announce which coffee shop you’re having your cuppa at. What kind of caveman are you?

I recall a salesman from my internet provider trying to flog me a package with which a free mobile phone came. He had clearly been trained to believe that such an offer could not be resisted by any customer, so when I informed him I didn’t want it he went into a hysterical meltdown, responding to every rejection on my part by extolling the virtues of the object with an increasingly manic sales-pitch; I suspect he probably had to take a few days’ sick-leave to recover from the shock of a polite refusal. I suppose it was that experience that made me realise how odd I was in not worshipping at the enslaved altar of the zeitgeist, but I liked the feeling.

I don’t need a mobile phone any more than I need a carrier pigeon or smoke signals; I just need a landline telephone so I can be reached when I’m at home and I can’t when I’m out. I like the liberation from being voluntarily tagged and monitored when not at home. I can’t do anything about the surveillance state in terms of CCTV cameras, but I do have a choice when it comes to the mobile. I can just say no. And I do.

© The Editor


halUpon arriving at an open-air public car park last week, the attendant informed me that purchasing a ticket to stick on the dashboard was old hat; the system as it now stood required no such exchange. Once returning to one’s vehicle, a machine on site required the typing-in of one’s registration number and said machine would then calculate how much money was needed based on the length of time one was parked. The information provided to the machine enabled it to know precisely how long each visitor had used the facilities, which seemed uncomfortably reminiscent of HAL from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Mind you, what doesn’t these days? The increasing reality of one’s every move being at the whim of a sentient being that is generated by computerised technology in public spaces has happened with such stealth that few even stop and think about it.

CCTV cameras often seem to be in place simply to make the job of the police detective easier than it would have been when genuine detection and intelligence were prerequisites for the post; and they’ve been absorbed into the urban landscape with seamless nonchalance. Those who froth at the mouth and hoist their placards over trivial issues that have no direct impact on their own lives are quite content to do so under the all-seeing eye of the State, apparently incapable of looking upwards and seeing the real outrage. How many cases have been closed on the shaky strength of a fuzzy image captured on CCTV? Similarly, the insidious presence of Speed Cameras, punitive robotic Jobsworths collecting fines to fund the lavish expenses of local councillors, is another odious innovation implemented under false pretences. And nobody seems especially concerned.

The recent announcement of ‘Smart Generation’ household appliances such as kettles that will anticipate the householder’s coffee or tea needs and act accordingly has been greeted as a great leap forward by a populace incapable of looking beyond the corporate PR. The astonishing gullibility of people whose faith in technology blinds them to ulterior motives is remarkable, especially when one considers the thriving online conspiracy theory industry, which proposes the most implausible fantasies imaginable, yet has a willing audience of twilight-hours disciples.

It almost feels as though each conspiracy theory has to be on the grandest of scales to be believed. Devotees will unquestionably accept that the Moon Landings were faked or that Kennedy was assassinated by aliens or that 70s Tories raped and murdered children on an industrial scale, but will willingly hand over their personal details to any chic gadget without thinking it remotely sinister.

The news that some Santander accounts have been infiltrated by hackers, hot on the heels of revelations involving Tesco last week, again highlights the acute vulnerability of systems that virtually every institution has embraced without a second thought. During the US Presidential Election, Donald Trump’s pre-victory insistence that the contest was rigged in favour of his opponent appeared to be based on the method of voting, which in many cases was done using touch-screen technology. The traditional pencil-on-paper system in the polling booth, whereupon full ballot boxes are then escorted to the counting centres under the strictest official supervision, was virtually foolproof. Whenever this has been altered, whether via postal voting or the ‘chad’ farce that caused so much trouble in 2000, problems and accusations of tampering arise. The thought that future voting could be solely an online exercise opens the floodgates for all manner of abuse.

It is amazing how converting so many transactions to exclusively online exchanges has been undertaken free from doubt over the last decade. It’s as if nobody has ever heard of the existence of hackers at all. Official correspondence or financial dealings that were once done on the phone or in person are now more or less all the province of the computer, the laptop and the Smartphone. Even the most insignificant exchange today requires the amount of personal information that would once have been reserved for Checkpoint Charlie, though passwords are not the impregnable fortresses we are led to believe. So many people construct them with personal details such as dates of birth, mother’s maiden name or the name of first pets, yet this has already been openly provided to the likes of Facebook, which is accessible without much in the way of effort. Hackers have the technology that can feed all this info into a blender that will then calculate the numerous permutations of a password before eventually coming up with the correct one. They don’t even break sweat.

The unthinking transference of intimate facts to a database that is hardly the Fort Knox of Cyberspace is entered into with headshaking naivety in many cases. I have a friend whose Facebook wall is crammed with gifts for the unscrupulous. Every time she goes on holiday, she announces the fact beforehand and then floods her wall with images of said vacation while her home stands empty and available for any techno-savvy burglar. Even if she has a house-sitter during her absence, she will also announce this fact, thus alerting the burglar to the news that the house-sitter’s home is empty.

It beggars belief that intelligent individuals can be so stupid when it comes to their online identities, yet it’s so commonplace today that China’s State suppression of Google seems almost quaint, an archaic throwback to Soviet-style surveillance of its citizens that is unnecessary when the citizens themselves are quite happy to surrender their secrets to Google as it is.

It doesn’t matter which system is the user’s preferred choice – Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay, YouTube, Instagram or any of the endless new kids on the techno block – one only has to show a moderate interest in anything and the bombardment begins. If you like that, you might like this etc. We know you better than you know yourself. We know what your preferences are in music, films, TV, books, clothes, food. We are your friends. You will like what we suggest. You will do as you’re told. You will buy that gun and you will assassinate President Trump.

© The Editor