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“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
Jealous of my big-brained poetry quoting yet?
Don’t be. While the musings of 10th century polymath Omar Khayyam may be wise, I came across them by way of the Adam and Joe 6 Music podcast, each episode of which I must have listened to at least three times. There are 43. The surface, if not a lie, is a thin layer of well-concealed half-truths. Still, there are worse places to source wisdom.
Adam Buxton's father (Bad Dad, may he rest in peace) was talking of regret which, along with jealousy, is often cast in the same light – an unflattering emotion that should be avoided at all costs (it's important to note that he was advising against becoming consumed by regret, not the mere feeling of it).
Sadly, in today's 360° world of statement-marketing there is little room for the nuanced philosophy of Messrs Khayyam/B Dad. Social media is awash with statements – be healthy, think positive, verb adjective, verb adjective.
If only it were that simple. I recently stumbled upon a person's profile that demanded "positive vibes only". A fair enough request, but one rooted, all too evidently, in a sea of e-horseshit.
Negative feelings (or vibes, if you will) can be unhealthy at base level and debilitating in the extreme. They're also among the most natural of human emotions. Jealousy, for example, is likely rooted in evolution. In the context of sexual partners (I for one am jealous of those who have several/one) it's thought to have evolved for practical reasons, helping us push away unsuitable (philandering and/or dangerous) mates in favour of stable relationships.
This may well be true – Adam and Joe never touched on it – but it’s fair to say we, as a species, have taken 'negative' emotions and given them a makeover which makes the Chris Evans-cum-Matt Le Blanc stab at Top Gear look accomplished.
To put regret to one side a moment, jealousy is somewhat unique. Anthropologist Helen Fisher (of Oprah fame) notes that jealousy can arise at any time, in relationships both good and bad, strong or weak. A loyal partner's eyes linger (at least perceptibly so) at a member of the opposite sex a little too long. An ex you cast aside suddenly finds someone new, stirring feelings of jealousy (and perhaps regret). No matter the state of play, jealousy is never far away, yet we are encouraged to dismiss it as inhuman –the green-eyed monster, as Willy Shakes would have it. Given its nature, therefore, it would make sense to avoid jealousy at all costs, right?
Jealousy is not bad in and of itself. It is how it's handled which causes problems. As with regret, jealousy can overwhelm a person's thoughts and actions. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera's Terez becomes so obsessed with befriending her husband's lover Sabina that she almost forgets his infidelity, going slightly mad in the process. Unchecked jealousy is all-consuming. I know this all too well, though sadly in my case it involved much less sex than a Kundera novel.
During one particularly hazy bout of depression, I came to regret having ever moved to the Czech Republic –a country I had lived in for three and a half years. I had reached a dead end in my line of work and was scared I would not be able to afford to live on my salary (probably true) in the long term. I became jealous of my friends back in England, with their (as I perceived it) stable, secure, happy lives, characterised by carefully demarcated futures and endless possibility. It was illusory and inaccurate. It was mad bollocks.
I'd started to regret moving to a city I loved, a place where I'd made friends I remain close to today, a place, most importantly, where I had fallen in love; several times, but only once that really mattered.
These days I sometimes regret leaving. Why? Because regret and sadness are not always a choice, contrary to what advertising would have us believe.
Coke's 2015 "Choose Happiness" campaign had us all buzzing with positive energy, but it's as see-through as cling film and flimsy as, well, a bit more cling film. Or my metaphors, which you'll be glad to know I'll stop with now.
The human ability to overcome adversity is as admirable as it is documented. But it is not without limits, no matter how many hashtags you put in front of it. We live in a country where house prices and rental costs have reached astronomic heights the like of which Tim Peakes could never have aspired to (I lied, that's human too).
Inequality continues to grow, worker's rights have become oxymoronic. It is natural for people to feel jealous when their standard of living stoops lower than Zac Goldsmith in a mayoral election or they see benefits cut to a degree where it is electricity or food – not happiness – that is the choice.
With further cuts to both benefits and income tax planned (at unprogressive rates), income inequality is likely to rise as it has almost invariably since 2008, while the years 2007-15 has left workers with the biggest fall in wages of any OECD country.
People are jealous, and rightly so. Quick fixes, be they a soft drink or a positive statement of intent, don't account for gruesome facts and figures.
Laura Penny's excellent piece, Life Hacks of the Poor and Aimless, details the rise (and risk) of Late Capitalism: a state of affairs which she says “looks better through an Instagram filter.”
Her piece decries both the hypocritical promotion of 'happiness' from right-wing governments (which concurrently undermined everything that helps foster it) and a disillusioned left that, in the face of much doom and gloom, became attuned to waiting for "the revolution or for some girl to pick up the pieces, whichever comes first."
And she's right. It is far easier to plug in and tune out then tune in and snuff out, to spend minutes choosing between #Clarendon and #Gingham than to read, write or voice concern at the glaring inadequacies of the day.
Those who see that something is wrong are not negative, they are in touch, or at least they have the capacity to be so. It takes more than a like and a click and a share.
Sadly, they have been patronised into submission by disingenuous governments and companies willing to appropriate every emotion under the sun. An elderly man's loneliness? Fuck it, send him some tat from John Lewis. Remember when the Tommies and Jerries stopped fighting for a while, how did that happen? Because #biscuits, champ.
Negativity and positivity together are the hallmarks of a healthy individual. Loving one's self is a grand idea, just not when it prevents a person from challenging their own beliefs, questioning their actions, reflecting on the things they have experienced.
I feel jealous everyday because I am human. I feel regret because I perceive how my actions have negatively affected others and myself. That's human too. I feel jealous that someone can be paid to appropriate human emotion to sell kitchenware or confectionary. Maybe that's veering into the bitter but fuck it, I don't even shop at John Lewis.
Jealousy and regret, with direction, are good.
Be jealous if you're a junior doctor working weekends for the sake of ideology, or a low-paid employee unsure if your fourteen-hour days next week will cover the rent.
Be jealous if you can't walk around with the perpetual halo of positivity hanging over you because maybe, just maybe, you're aware of all the shock and horror that does exist in the world.
Be jealous if you're lonely, because company is nothing if not sublime. Be jealous of the older generation for their security and the younger generation for their youth, iPads and working sexual organs.
Regret and jealousy aren't just words, they're emotions, as natural as honey. A little less sweet, perhaps, but just fine, so long as you don't make them your bread and butter.
The Czech president may act the court jester, but he's long been pulling the strings
Burčák doesn’t usually sit easy in the stomach. In fact, oftentimes it refuses to stay there at all. Czechs drink the yellowy young wine in September (it’s made from the first crushed grapes of the year). It's bitter, just about potable and strangely refreshing. There are festivals. People meet in squares to drink, listen to music and make plans for tomorrow which tonight will ensure never come to fruition. Thing’s get messy, but it’s a lot of fun. Thankfully, burčák season only lasts a couple of weeks. Autumn settles in, the hangover ends.
Sadly, this is where similarities with the Czech president cease to exist.
In September 2012, I walked out of my flat one night to the sound of a crowd in a nearby square. At first I figured it was just the last of the summer burčák. But then I recognised a gravelly, distinctive voice. That was presidential candidate Karel Schwarzenberg.
An eccentric aristocrat, he’d somehow tapped into the hearts and minds of Prague’s (mostly young) liberal class. He had a strong social media campaign, his supporters wore photoshopped badges of him with pink punk hair. Amidst all the fun and games, however, Schwarzenberg talked a good campaign, appealing to people's hopes rather than their fears.
Still, this was a man with a bow tie and a Peter Sellers moustache. He was a former exile with a strange accent. He was rich as hell, and conservative to boot. How could he appeal to Prague’s idealistic young?
Well, the alternative was Miloš Zeman.
A virtual unknown outside the Czech Republic, Zeman was – and ever more so is – infamous in his home nation. As leader of the left-leaning CSSD, he served as Prime Minister between 1998 and 2002. Though scandal followed him wherever he went (suggested links to organised crime, cash-for-influence allegations) it never quite stuck. Still, when his party abandoned him, it seemed as if his career was over.
By January 2013, however, he was back. Initially an outsider, his slow-burning presidential campaign had gathered momentum outside the capital (sound familiar?) and he and Schwarzenberg were neck and neck in the the Czech Republic's first public poll for president. Though a largely ceremonial role, the president is the country's most visible figure of import. He is (to date, all four have been a he) the face of the country.
In Prague, people didn't get Zeman's appeal. How could this brash, chain-smoking, free-swearing, Becherovka swilling man be so near the presidency?
Well, he was, and then on 26th January 2013, Zeman was elected. People were shocked; some horrified, others delighted. How did it happen, many asked? No one in Prague could name someone they knew who'd voted for them. And no one looked outside.
Like London, the Czech capital is the country's cultural and cosmopolitan centre. It means the theatres are there. It also means the jobs are there.
For all their claims that people in the countryside were small-minded, Praguers themselves had spent too many years looking inwards at their own relatively prosperous city (I was just as guilty of this myself). Much like Brexit, people in the city failed to understand the gripes of those elsewhere. In fairness, they knew there were problems in the country, they just didn't have easy answers to them. And when there are no easy answers, those that arise don't need much substance. Hot air rises, and Zeman was full of it.
When people are desperate they listen to desperate things. Zeman was more than happy to be that voice. He decried elites (despite having been part of the elite for many years). He drank and smoked in public, adding to his everyman appeal, but more importantly, he played on people's fears and frustrations. And it worked a treat. He won 54 per cent of the vote.
He may have acted it, but Zeman is no fool. He makes our crop look amateur. Take Boris Johnson’s flare for histrionics, and multiply it by ten. Farage’s eye for the provocative? Widen it. A lot.
People voted for Zeman because they were pissed. They'd seen wages fall and prices rise. They were disillusioned. Modern-day Czech Republic had offered so much and – as they saw it – delivered so little. So they voted with two fingers.
As president, he quickly became the joke Czechs feared they'd get if they elected Vladimir Franz, an early candidate covered head to toe in tattoos, and also an accomplished law professor and composer. Zeman arrived at state functions allegedly drunk; he made outlandish claims. Smoking's fine, so long as you "wait until the age of 27" is among his most reverberated statements.
He played the Trump card years before Donald realised its full potential, but as embarrassing as it was, his spurious claims and public gaffes served mostly to keep journalists in work than it did to cause any real harm. And then he found a new target: Islam.
The Czech Republic has around 3000 muslims, in a population of around 10 million. Yet for the last couple of years, Zeman has amped up the anti-Islamic rhetoric. As recently as January of this year, he described the religion as "incompatible with Western life".
Hate crimes against muslims have risen. There have been public protests against allowing muslims into the country.
You'd be forgiven for thinking this has always been Zeman's bugbear. But step back a couple of years, and anti-Islamic rhetoric was relatively rare in the Czech Republic. Blesk, the country's main red rag, stirred emotions with inflammatory pieces, but by and large, this wasn't the conversation. It is now.
Zeman has latched onto something he knows will keep him visible. What he fears is not Islam, it's insignificance. And he knows that's what his voters fear as well, feeling small, feeling defeated. When you feel as if you have nothing, you'll listen to almost anything, even if it's hate.
Zeman's fully aware how to keep himself popular (as of last year he still had a 55 per cent approval rating) and keep himself seen. Sadly, something shifted over the last couple of years. Scientifically dubious comments, clinking shot glasses in public, these things don't cut it any more.
Whatever happened – and it'll be many years before we figure out what the hell's happened – Zeman knows his crowd and he knows how to press the right buttons.
The Rubicon has been crossed, and people's fears are ripe for harvesting. They're pissed, and they're confused. It's a dangerous brew.
As for the hangover? Who knows when that'll end.