"Year Zero," A Short Story In Which Left-Leaning Hipsters Get More Than They Bargain For
The first time I saw Pippi Cha was in the One Stop canteen at the Brunei Gallery in London. He was chatting to a couple of polit-science geeks in the junk queue, one arm sliced back in a rowing motion, illustrating some point, to natural laughter from the two girls. It was the kind of sight that serves for life – whenever the name ‘Pippi Cha’ floats into my mind I don’t get the iconographic photographs but that single first impression of the man, frizzy salt-pepper hair and silk scarf and shouting voice and tweed, a sense of trapped motion, of casual demonstrativeness and easy wit.
I was a polit-science geek myself, back then. Boys and men grow into their enthusiasms quickly and naturally. With me it was politics. By the time I was nineteen, I was reading the liberal broadsheets plus the Spectator, Harper’s, Private Eye, Progress and Prospect: I kept up a political blog long after the form had been exhausted; I was a member of various debating clubs and societies; I wrote a political column for the student newspaper; I contributed commentary and witticisms upon the events of the day via social media. Although I would have placed myself on the liberal left or far left, I had no real ideology. I was just one of those freaks, perhaps eight or nine per cent of the population, that love and live and breathe politics the way that some men get hooked on gambling or football or women. Politics for me was bound up with youth, beauty, opportunity, laughter and the crunch of leaves on cold mornings, women with rosy cheeks and pierced lips, the spaces between people on starlit fields. Sure I was aggressive. This was the game. This was the rush. For me it was about tearing everything down. That was the only way to create space for living.
But as big a hotshot I thought of myself, I was nothing compared to Pippi Cha. What was it about this gentleman? He was too old to be a student: he looked around thirty (although I later learned he had to be at least forty five or older than that because, as a teenager, he’d marched against the Falklands war) and there was nothing particularly impressive about his looks, or his speech – later, people compared him to Hitler, but Pippi Cha was no demagogic talent, he spoke in a series of vaguely connected propositions that came out in a tumbling spiel, as if he’d been silenced for years, pow-pow-pow, nailed and building, trying to catch the roar of his thoughts, creating expectation without coherence, it drove the lecturers crazy. (His writing was no better: when we did press releases and, later, just ‘communiques’, I always had to redraft the stuff he gave me, which was written in the style of a subliterate provincial addressing a local newspaper and always at least twice too long.)
So what was it that captivated us? I still can’t answer beyond that sense of constrained energy that Pippi Cha carried in his presence, like the sense of freedom in the jaws of Kafka’s tiger. Once I had seen Pippi Cha in the canteen, I began seeing him everywhere, fighting with cops at renters or workfare demos, holding court in any number of hired back rooms in community centres or churches with the AA Twelve Steps in Franklin Gothic chalkboard and coffee cooling in plastic cups, in squats and safe spaces with quinoa nibbles and home-made crisps and pamphlets in racks that testified to the purity of a thousand lost and unattainable causes, in crowded kitchens and afterparties with Mazzy Star or Luke Vibert playing somewhere and people doing M-cat off meat boards and the CS gas still stinging in the back of your throat and the nerves behind your eyes. They say Pippi Cha dominated the scene. To me he was the scene.
There was little political will to do anything about this state of affairs
Like most people I surrounded myself with others like myself, hung out in the same circles of hipster political junkies, and graduating didn’t change my lifestyle. I still went to the same houseparties and political meets in Lewisham and Brixton and Kennington, except too often there was some damn zero hours job or contact centre shift to get up for the next day, and morning came too early. I think it’s to my generation’s credit that we had no illusions and expected nothing less. The interesting professions had been carved out by the connected rich (I’m not working class by any means, I’m the son of a barrister, but you have to understand that by this point wealth was not enough, you have to have the right family or gone to the right universities, I’m not making excuses, I just want to explain that these minor gradations matter) and it was hard to find work outside the low paid, unskilled, deunionised and insecure service sector jobs that made out the bulk of the late recovery. Rents spiralled so high that tenants were forced out of the capital altogether, or clung on in rotting donut houseshares. There was little political will to do anything about this state of affairs, not least because so many MPs personally profited off the bubble property game. To hang on to a declining democratic mandate politicians passed more and more laws against welfare and immigration, which harmed the economy and added to the general suffering.
Although I remember this time as a period of general disquiet and foreboding, a series of dark nights and clanking pipes and harsh, ragged laughter from weird angles, Pippi Cha was positively buzzing off it. ‘Seen that fucking pothole?’ We were walking down to the Landor via Brixton road.
‘What about it?’ Cass asked. ‘What are you, FixMyStreet?’
‘Size a that fucking thing,’ Pippi said. ‘That’s six foot in diameter, got to be. This on an A road. People are going to go crazy about this. That’s what people care about. Potholes. Bins getting emptied.’ Discreetly I sidestepped, so I wasn’t walking next to him: Pippi Cha tended to spray when he got animated.
‘I go to the council meetings on a weeknight, and that’s what people talk about, what people care about, the little things in life, the basic maintenance. These meetings, they aren’t that well attended but there’s real anger and passion there. That’s where revolutionary socialists go wrong. They get into grand schemes and forget about the little things that people care about.’
‘I thought your ambitions extended further than local councillorship,’ I said.
Cass laughed. ‘For’rard to the Soviet Republic of Lambeth West!’
‘I’m saying we have to take a more practical approach. Revolutionary socialism is too intellectual!’ He had become agitated; it was a mistake we often made with him, taking his rants lightly when he was deadly serious and wanted to be taken seriously. ‘As Lenin said to Gorky: The intellectual forces of the workers and peasants are growing and getting stronger in their fight to overthrow the bourgeoisie and their accomplices, the educated classes, the lackeys of capital, who consider themselves the brains of the nation. In fact they are not its brains but its shit.’
I realise now that the only times Cha spoke coherently were the times he was quoting Lenin.
If you wanted to take over the Labour Party and turn it into a vehicle for your own personal programme you could probably do it
At Landor there was a discussion panel on the state of politics in the UK. My own abiding interest in the game, which always seemed strange to most people, had become a minority fetish. I’ll give you some stats: in 2010 turnout for the general election was 65.1%, by the 2020 election that had gone down to 23.5%, a huge drop. The line from successive lashed-together coalition administrations was that this radical decline in democratic participation reflected a general satisfaction with the government of the day.
The theatre was full, mainly young and middle class people, Cha still had some mysterious connection with the university (he also wrote articles and appeared on the TV channels of hostile foreign powers, presented anti-imperialist talk shows up in the high 600s and spent mysterious hours commenting on news stories in internet cafes: he always had plenty of money) and made spirited contributions from the floor. The panel had a guy from Middlesex who was a lecturer in media and cultural studies. I clocked him as a standard bourgeois hipster type but after a while the man started making a lot of sense. I remember the lecturer saying: ‘If you wanted to take over the Labour Party and turn it into a vehicle for your own personal programme you could probably do it. You’d need maybe five grand and you could just work off the database. Sign up a load of your mates and you’d have total control within a year.’
I glanced across at Cha from this point. As was his habit, he drank from a hip flask that smelled strongly of cheap rose wine. I realised he was listening, and that surprised me. Pippi Cha was always more of a talker than a listener.
The only other memory I have of that night is an accumulative smell of moist, badly-laundered clothes and a general wet coughing sound that echoed in the short intervals of silence between people’s words.
When novelists write about the far left there is always a Young Ones cliché feel to it – tiny student factions with amusing acronyms, housing cleaning rotas organised along anarcho-libertarian principles, men who only eat fruit that has fallen to the ground of its own accord. Like all clichés, there’s a little truth in it: there have always been crazy people in political circles. On the scene at this time I knew:
A fifty-year old ex-Buddhist known as ‘Uncle Mike’ who had spent twenty years working on a PhD digital viva that, as he explained to me, ‘amalgates Marx, Piketty and Deleuze with a kind of ‘Slender Man’ vibe’
A seventeen year old kid called Danny Noon who had run away from home at twelve and was now a hardcore Class War guy living in a Peckham warehouse with a Brazilian escort twice his age
A former male model and education campaigner named Luke Atherton who had racked up 114 arrests, mostly for assaults on other leftwing activists at meeting and socials
A sixty year old former WRP lieutenant who called himself ‘The Interesting Man’, carried rolls of poetry in a shopping bag and had been banned from two thirds of London houseparties for being ‘handsy’
A web designer called John Soames who had got involved with the IFE and was currently doing thirty years for his part in the 2016 Olympic Park bombings
So, as I say, there is truth in the cliché: the political left is a strange shore full of creeping vines, plants that snatch, things that sidle underneath your feet and gibber in the darkness. But it was always the women that fascinated me. Big strident trades-union ladies in combats and leather boots, fourth-wave feminists with clear skin and dyed fluorescent hair and articulate opinions in cut-glass finishing-school voices, seven-foot gothic traveller women – the rush of politics, of female flesh and hair, was all one to me, and I fell in love quickly and easily.
The autumn of ’24 I was coming out of a relationship with a trans woman named Kelp Carmine. We had met at a launch for an anthology called Twelve Degrees of Intersectionality and clicked right off, and since then had been living in a VW motorhome on the edge of the cardboard city on Abbey Wood. Kelp was very beautiful and was also bisexual and had a lot of friends, so it was fun for a while, but her libertarianism was countered with a strong sense of identity ethics and she threw me out after an argument about ‘race play’ – a subject on which I didn’t even have an opinion, yet alone an interest. I had managed to grab my wallet and phone, but had no shirt or shoes, and wandered in my Levi’s to Cass’s place on Lewisham Road.
Cass lived in an RTB shack rented out at a ludicrous price by a buy-to-let magnate: he hadn’t paid the rent for a year and was taking bets on how long the courts would take to evict him. He opened the door and said: ‘Wow! Trouble at home, son?’
‘Yeah, man, Kelp threw me out. I think it’s for good this time.’
‘Downer, man. Come in.’ Cass was in with his wife and a couple of friends. He gave me a can of Somerset cider. Joints and mirrors circulated the room.
‘Thank god you’re home.’ I sank into the free armchair.
‘No problem. You almost missed us, actually. We’re heading across the water. Party at Gina Clapp’s place in Hackney Marshes. Fancy it?’
This was good news. I had seen Gina Clapp a couple of times at various things. She was a shaven-headed Rhodean journo beauty. Cass gave me a leather jacket and a System of a Down shirt and some boots and we headed.
The trek to the tube station was depressing. We walked past traffic jams and Crimean refugees in shop doorways and empty brownfield sites, ringed off with steel fencing and plastered with plaintive handwritten boards (SAVE LEWISHAM COMMUNITY SCHOOL – PLEASE REGISTER YOUR OBJECTIONS TO IAN.COLESBURY@LEWISHAM.GOV.UK BY 16TH JUNE – URGENT!!!) The tubes were running, but the Oyster machine was fucked and a ponderous grey-haired functionary charged us full fare. ‘Eight pounds!’ I shouted. ‘It’s ridiculous – I shan’t pay.’ Eventually we managed to sort it out, and made it to Gina Clapp’s house in the Marshes. We strolled up a drive through a tasteful, layered garden, covered in nightfall and woodland, seemed bigger than it probably was. ‘Hey, check that,’ Cass said. ‘They’ve got a garden gnome wearing a Burberry cap.’
I looked but could not see. ‘It can’t possibly be Burberry.’
‘Maybe it’s a hipster gnome.’
‘Like: ‘Hey, I’m trying to catch this fish, it’s quite rare, you probably haven’t heard of it?’’
We laughed together. The house was in sight and you could see the shuttered light of it and hear the froth of conversation. He was a good man, Cass: I was sorry to see him go.
He laughed. ‘I suppose I am. I’m trying to crack the metropolitan elite.’
The place was full of rich Russian Federation kids. I couldn’t see the hostess anywhere. Cass and I gravitated towards the kitchen. As ever, Pippi Cha was in there, in a conversation with a man I recognised from TV.
‘You’ve built a strong media profile from a small party base,’ Pippi was saying. ‘And that’s a fantastic achievement. What you need, and we can provide, is a core of inner-city footsoldiers – hi, Cass, Patrick, how’s it going? You know Cobb Nolan?’
‘Not personally,’ I said. ‘A little out of your manor, aren’t you?’
He laughed. ‘I suppose I am. I’m trying to crack the metropolitan elite.’
‘And how’s that going?’
‘Not bad. Your friend Mr Cha has offered some interesting ideas for coalition.’
I looked at Pippi Cha at this point. He just winked at me.
Nolan complimented Cass on his beard. ‘Yeah,’ Cass said. ‘I thought we reached ‘peak beard’ in the 2010s.’
I pulled Pippi Cha aside. ‘That true, what he said?’
‘Oh yeah. Look, it’s ideal. Cobb Nolan’s got huge donor and media backing and big support from the white working class in the provinces. His party are probably going to be the second coalition party by next summer and he needs city cadre for that. If we jump on that train we get entry into Parliament.’
‘But you’re talking about forming a partnership with the right.’
‘There are many things on which Nolan and ourselves agree. Nolan supports a strong state, rent controls, social housebuilding, just like we do. Okay he’s anti immigration but the left has to face up to the fact that immigrants force down wages and fuck the white working class.’
‘And all the racism stuff?’
Cha was scratching an itch at his groin; he often did this, in public, quite unconsciously. ‘Identity politics. There’ll be plenty of time to sort out women’s rights and intersectionality and all that when we consolidate the revolution. Look, why do you think this party is even happening? Does Gina Clapp open these doors for just anyone? We’ve been planning this meet for months.’
I wondered if he was fucking Gina. ‘So what’s the next stage?’
‘Electioneering. Cha’s offering twelve places on candidate slots for the national slate. You’ll be paid a grand a week. Come on, Patrick. You’re gonna be the MP for Bromley and Chislehurst!’
Getting involved with this bunch of maniacs was a disastrous idea
The English Workers’ Party were a right wing political group that had been winning council seats and by-elections all over the place. They did well outside the cities, on council estates, also among the huge reserve army ex-cops, soldiers and civil servants that had been laid off in the 2010s. They generated a great deal of media coverage because their leader, Cobb Nolan, was the only politician who would ‘tell it like it is’, and ‘say the unsayable,’ and ‘speak for the people’ – and what the people apparently wanted was a total halt on immigration, withdrawal from the EU, the reinstatement of capital punishment and a return to the Gold Standard. Cobb always seemed like a nice guy, he was just a genial ex-City type who reminded me of the men my father drank with, but his policies attracted legions of open racists, frauds and religious freaks, who could be relied upon to say stupid and offensive things in front of cameras. Cobb openly admitted that his party was a nut magnet with no coherent policies, but this didn’t diminish his support: quite the reverse.
Cobb’s party were hate figures in the liberal-left circles I moved in and, to me, getting involved with this bunch of maniacs was a disastrous idea. But on reflection, I realised I had no choice. I’d been thrown out of Kelp’s VW, I hadn’t worked since the summer, my credit cards were maxed and my family was sick of bailing me out. Even the gentle Cass wouldn’t let me sleep on his sofa forever. I had to go into politics: I needed the money.
The EWP certainly got value for their grand a week. There followed months of door knocking and telephone canvassing and boring meetings. Most of us found this whole thing a colossal grind, an endless parade of doorstep misery, but Cha was well into it. ‘This is what politics is, Patrick,’ he told me. ‘Talk. Discussion. Debate. After the revolution there will be endless debate.’
I’ll stop for now. The power’s running down.
I am sick of listening to middle class liberals and their wanking, shit-stained terms of reference
Okay, we’re back up, but I’m not sure how long this generator’s going to last, I need to get this down, I feel a need to tell this story right to the end, although Christ knows if anyone will read it, or draw any kind of lesson from the tale. The important thing was, Pippi Cha was always quoting Lenin, I thought this was in the way of a secular faith, repeating the catcheisms – It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed – but I came to realise that he studied the old tyrant in the same way that stockbrokers and Mafia guys read The Art of War. I remember him saying, ‘For all that Vladimir Ilyich is reviled today, castigated as a totalitarian, there is one thing the revisionist liberals can’t take away from him – Lenin planned a revolution, and it actually worked.’
We were in the Duke in Brixton, and Gina Clapp said: ‘But what about democracy?’
‘Fuck democracy,’ Cha said. ‘It’s a nineteenth-century bourgeois western construction. It has no relevance in dealing with the challenges we face. I am sick of listening to middle class liberals and their wanking, shit-stained terms of reference. After all, as the song says: This place’ll be a paradise tomorrow, if every department had a supervisor with a sub-machine gun.’
God, how beautiful Pippi Cha looked when he laughed!
May 2025. I can’t, I can’t get this down, think
May 2025. With Cobb’s profile and Cha’s activists, we had won fifty seats in the Commons on a relatively large nineteen per cent vote share. We weren’t the primary coalition partner, but that ceased to matter when, shortly after Parliament was sworn in, at a given signal, we produced semiautomatic weapons and shot, actually gunned down, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, I just remember, how hot the weapon was in my hands, so much that I thought my skin would blister, and the bone-shaker vibrato of the recall, these impressions endured far longer than the sight of the dead men, men whose faces I knew from newspapers and television and the internet, but I realised then these were just middle-aged men, they were just human beings, who were bleeding and dying as anyone would if they’d been pumped full of Russian steel, because this was the thing, Cha knew Federation guys and he had appeared on Russian state television but he hadn’t just been on their TV stations, oh no, he had met FSB officials and state diplomats from the new liberated countries of the Caucasus, we had Whitehall guards carrying AK-47s and where that money came from, for our campaign, it wasn’t from Cobb Nolan’s hedge fund, not all, a lot of it was Russian oil wealth, and I looked over at Gina and she also carried a gun and the expression on her face was this pure horror, the horror of empathy, and we understood that we had made a terrible mistake, but it was too late now, we had crossed the line, no going back, and in any case there was little time for reflection. There followed thirty days of street battles. British Army reservists fought with Federation troops. Most of us stayed in the palace buildings, we were all still shellshocked, I remember walking out of the House with my gun still in my hand and the guy at the door, not one of ours, he saw me, and he said, ‘Please don’t shoot me. I got three kids,’ and I said that’s cool, and lit a cigarette, and asked him if he wanted a cigarette. Even the palaces weren’t completely safe because the Americans sent in predator drones and the Tower Bridge was torched. I remember Pippi Cha at this time, dancing on the roof of Buckingham Palace, watching the river of fire, and shrieking: ‘This beats the shit out of the Millennium!’ and one time, when Eland House collapsed, running around underground streets, through secret bunkers we had discovered under the city, built by politicians for politicians in the event of nuclear warfare, rummaging through the non-perishables and shouting: ‘Fuck, Patrick, look at this! They got Findus Crispy Pancakes!’ We had a war room in the Home Office, used for COBRA meetings, with banks of screens, on which Cha brought up rolling news, Twitter and liveblogs, and he would stay in there sometimes for days, planning and ranting and buzzing off the chaos. It made the 2011 riots look like a scuffle outside a youth club.
The smart people got out before we closed the borders
Eventually the bombs stopped falling. The Americans couldn’t send ground troops, after all they couldn’t afford to fuck with Russia and China too far, and the situation settled into a tense détente. Reluctantly the great powers accepted us as an ‘interim government’. We had done it, the plan had worked, we were in charge, and all it had cost was half a million lives plus the levelling of at least two major cities. Still, there was a good vibe. The summer kicked in and there were weeks of unbroken blue skies, long mad nights, spontaneous eruptions of the young and creative from the ruins of cities, little projects and gardens, come together through electronica and good times, people helping each other out and trying to build things up, I used to wander through the shattered streets with a bottle of Shiraz and a wide-brimmed white hat, you could smoke in bars, it was like the summer of love ’67 and ’89 rolled into one. Pippi Cha spent that whole time making new laws. Laws on the media. ‘Murdoch’s out, Rothermere’s out, Desmond’s out. Fuck ‘em.’ This was the only time I ever saw him in a bad mood. What made him angry I think was the fact that people were acting outside of his control. I did my best to warn the people of what was coming. I went around the little housebuilding projects and sustainability groups and told them that the elections, which had been ‘temporarily suspended’ would never again occur, that the ‘civil compounds’ where we held American pilots and French submariners were being expanded and developed, that Cha saw these generous and pro-active people as ‘deviationists’ who would soon be ground into dust and poured into the memory hole. The smart people got out before we closed the borders. But few others listened. Summer was coming to an end.
Now there is trouble in our little paradise. You wouldn’t know it from the news – what news there is – but my contact in Whitehall tells me that we can’t get any more oil money because of some uprising in Georgia, and that’s why no one’s had electricity or water for six months. Twice a day a man in a uniform stands on the Old Kent road with a sack of rice. From my flat, I watch people appear with their bowls. I’ve not joined the rice queue for a while because you don’t know who might be watching. It’s the middle of winter and there are no streetlights.
Right, the generator’s blinking and making that fucking noise. Time to finish this up. After I’ve finished this story I’m going to load my dial-up connection and post it somewhere. The internet is a wailing wall of propaganda, screams for the missing, tales of death. I’ll shut the computer down. Then I’ll finish my glass of wine (you can still get wine, I still know some people) and check the loads in my gun a few times, and listen to something by Bebel Gilberto, or Blue States – a happy tune to go out to.
‘Give me just one generation of youth,’ said Vladimir Lenin, ‘and I'll transform the whole world.’ Well, was it worth it? How’s that working out for you? And there will be historians who will put all this down to youthful excess – that urge to remake the world, so entwined with that instinct for love and sex and change, the rush to begin everything again, to think only of new beginnings. When you’re nineteen, every year is year zero. But I like to think, in my secret heart, that there’s nothing shameful in what we thought and felt, and that we were led down the path to the abyss by old men and old songs.
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