If parliament were more modern, might it become less aggressive?

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

I’m writing this in Crete where a late summer has seen brilliant sunshine and temperatures reaching 25°C — but can I enjoy it? The unrelenting diet of gloom coming at me from every direction leads me to question even the dazzling blue Aegean and the cloudless sky. It’s surely a sign of global warming and the possibility that we are, quite possibly, doomed. I worry about Jeremy Corbyn. Will he be in Downing Street by Christmas Day? Will Trump have started world war three? Will Orfordness lighthouse, which has stood valiantly on its little shingle spit since 1792, have finally fallen into the sea? Everywhere I look, the tide is drawing in.

The collapse of Thomas Cook has left Crete — and the rest of Greece — in a fairly terrible state. Because of the way the business is run, Greek hotels, large and small, were not paid for the last 90 days of operations and many have been forced to lay off staff and to close, some permanently. An estimated €315 million is owed to them — along with the tavernas, and the taxi and coach drivers who were also left unpaid. If the Greek government hadn’t decided to waive VAT on payments that were never received, the situation would have been even worse. Next year, as things stand, Greece is likely to lose €900 million in tourism — just think about all those empty, pre-booked rooms. Of course, a catastrophe for some is an opportunity for others. As I write this, it will cost you just £22 to fly from London to Heraklion with easyJet — but you will have to fork out £466 to make your way home. Hotels next year will have to slash prices to find tourists to take those empty beds. Prices for air travel, appropriately, are likely to be sky high.

I may have to fly less anyway. The greatest joy in a writer’s life is the international literary conference, but whatever you think of Greta Thunberg — and personally I think she’s extraordinary — how will any of us be able to get on a plane following her example? I’d offset my carbon footprint by planting forests but my publishers would only cut them all down to make my books so that’s no good.

Surely writers should be leading the discussion on such issues rather than bowing to the inevitable, but I worry that the exact opposite is happening and I am no longer in control of what I can and can’t write. Is it even permissible to describe a character by his or her ethnicity? How long before the reference to their gender is taboo? This may sound hysterical, but when I delivered my last Alex Rider book, my American publishers deleted the occasional use of the word ‘crazy’, as in ‘that’s a crazy idea’. They felt it was pejorative to people with mental health issues. Meekly I obeyed, even though I thought this wasn’t the start of a slippery slope so much as a dive straight into an icy crevice.

Meanwhile foul language of the very worst sort pervades politics, the media and public life with decent-minded MPs from all parties choosing to quit rather than hear any more. The new speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has called for ‘respect and tolerance’, but he’s going to have his work cut out given the current climate. Newspapers now regularly print swearwords with some of the letters asterisked out but that’s completely us*l*ss, condoning the offence rather than concealing it. And why do TV reporters still feel a need to stand outside parliament with so many demonstrators screaming at them — and us? Why not just go somewhere more private and quieter?

As always, the Speaker’s tenure began with scenes of violence as he was dragged, unwillingly, from his chair. All around him, members shouted and roared their approval. These traditions are loved by many, but I wonder if they don’t actually lend themselves to the febrile atmosphere. If parliament were more modern, might it become a touch less aggressive?

In contrast to all this, I recently found myself at Comic Con London, where clips of the new Alex Rider TV series were shown. Thousands of fans had gathered to celebrate computer games, Marvel films and graphic novels in the vast arena of Excel. It was geek heaven. I saw families dressed up as Minions, Spidermen, Jokers, Transformers, Stormtroopers, Watchmen and characters I couldn’t recognise, all of them strolling, chatting, taking photos. There were free arcades, photo booths, talks and screenings. As I wandered through the crowds, it occurred to me that everyone was unfailingly polite, friendly… and happy! Here was a snapshot of how the UK used to be. It’s just sad you have to retreat into total fantasy to find it.

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