I will be reading two stories from Bad Romance - my collection of short stories which will be published by Unbound on Valentine's Day 2018. Please come down for a sneak preview!
Ever since a Twitter troll was elected 45th President of the United States, the Twitterati has agonised over who to blame. But since it was Twitter that gave American voters unfettered access to Donald Trump’s brain, they really ought to be blaming Twitter itself. It’s not possible to say anything balanced or nuanced in 140 characters — that’s a format for jokes, insults and outrage. If you want to seize the world’s attention today, you must troll or be trolled on Twitter.
And since this is the one skill at which Trump is utterly unrivalled, he’s now busy trolling both America and himself. When a man with barely any followers once tweeted him in the middle of the night to say: ‘I firmly believe that @realDonaldTrump is the most superior troll on the whole of Twitter’, Trump retweeted it to his millions of followers: ‘A great compliment!’
In 2017, our ability to write books, act in films or even govern appears to be measured in Twitter followers, not talent. So there will be no stopping Trump or his disciples here in the UK, Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan. Were it not for Twitter, Hopkins would be a failed Apprentice candidate, not a highly paid commentator for Mail Online. Morgan would be a disgraced former newspaper editor, not a television host engaging in Twitter spats with J.K. Rowling. Unless Twitter ends, there will be no end to them.
At its worst, trolling is utterly repugnant, a sickening spectacle, and no one gets anything out of it. This was the case last year when Leslie Jones, star of an all-female remake of Ghostbusters, was hounded off Twitter after the alt-right tweeted racist abuse at her. It was also the case in 2013, when a PR consultant named Justine Sacco was hounded off Twitter by anti-racists after she tweeted: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ But whereas the forces of good Twitter, quite rightly, felt bad for and fell in love with Leslie Jones, almost no one sympathised with Sacco; they thought she’d revealed herself to be a racist — and therefore a vicious troll.
No one ever points out that the difference between a troll and a troll victim is as complex as that between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Nor that being trolled can have unbelievably positive results for your career. The pop star James Blunt, for instance, has reinvigorated his fanbase as a result of retweeting all the abuse he gets on Twitter. He has been hailed (in a Buzzfeed article viewed almost a million times) as ‘the trolliest troll of all Twitter trolls’ and millennials love him for it.
Blunt must relish getting trolled — and so do many journalists, though they’d never admit it. I once sat in a restaurant with someone who’d written a perfectly innocuous article for Grazia magazine and became positively giddy when her bleeping BlackBerry showed she was being trolled as ‘a feminazi’ by hordes of maladjusted losers on Twitter.
As Jamie Bartlett explains, ‘Being trolled by strangers on the net gives you the chance to show how hard things are for you, how right you were, and how noble and magnanimous you are in sharing your suffering with the world.’ In his book The Dark Net, he notes, ‘It is very rarely mentioned that the victims of trolls are far more often privileged, wealthy, happy, and successful than their perceived oppressors, who are often frustrated, jealous, and lonely.’
Heartsick, mashed up, exhausted and alone, I was in no fit state for a romantic break to one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I sat in the departure lounge, business class, on my own, writing to him, expecting the plane to fall out of the sky, (he says: ‘name it and it won’t go down.’) Spilt tea over the floor, (not believing in this charm,) and waitresses dressed up as Emirates hostesses, with pretty box hats and veils, cordon off the spillage as if it’s an accident scene. On the plane, I switched to proper drinks, and drank so much I forgot to sleep (having too nice a time with the neverending champagne, forgetting we were in the air) only to land and stagger off to find another plane I’d call Zinedine Zidane. We touched down, as the sun rose, in the gleaming, empty airport of Mattala. (His advice proved sound – I pass it on.) And I watched the carousel go round and round, with no suitcase of mine, found myself unequal to describing exactly what it looked like for a beautiful lady in a sari (plastic, patterned, pink – the ugliest thing in Dubai) and then felt distinctly sick in the back seat of a car, racing down a six lane motorway the Chinese built for invisible cars, to the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. Hambantota.
The Shangri La hotel chain has built its reputation on knowing exactly how to look after their customers, and I am booked for the full VIP experience… So the welcome team squints at me for half a second before curing all my ills. They sit me down and hand me some juice. Then they promise to track down my things and have them with me by morning. Escort me to the gift shop and let me pick out a sexy swimsuit and summer dress – for free. Then they show me to a pristine suite with ocean view – where it is cold enough to sleep – to get on with my hangover. And when I wake up, half-new, I find that one member of staff has volunteered to act as my dashing Sengalese boyfriend for the duration. Ashan Ranansinghe (an auspicious name, for future planes) meets me for a slap up meal at the first of three excellent restaurants, and compliments me for heaping all the Sri Lankan curry on my plate. God it tastes good. He tells me my hair looks fine when it is blatantly standing on end in its all time worst tantrum. He asks me about books and says he reads Dostoevsky; suggests excursions we might enjoy for the next five days. Shows me all three swimming pools and leaves me to have a think about it.
And I decide, yes, as a woman apparently sane, I’d like to get up before sunrise, and have him drive me to see leopards (maybe leopards, or maybe not leopards, leopards are hard to predict) but certainly elephants and buffalo and deer. And yes I would like to walk to the temple at sunset and listen to the Buddhist prayers on the breeze. And yes I’d like to scale a rock and have my photo taken with the ocean. And yes I’d like to pose in a tuk tuk and go for a ride. But in the meantime, I sit on a sun lounger under an umbrella and burn my shoulders swimming. Later on, I beat the specialist French golf instructor in a rigged game of pitch and putt, who sped me around in a golf buggy to show off a course of exquisitely sculpted, very green grass where 10,000 coconut trees were felled and elephants no longer roam.
There is a war going on between Hambantota and its wildlife. When I got home, bucked up and started acting like a journalist rather than a girl who sat on a sun lounger and stared at her thighs every afternoon, I began to think south Sri Lanka odd. The empty airport – which cost $209 million – services one flight a day, with a footfall of 10 to 20 passengers. The empty motorway spreads out to a deep sea port and an international cricket stadium – also empty. All three, it turns out, are named after Sri Lanka’s former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who wanted to transform the place he was from into Sri Lanka’s second most prestigious city. The airport alone, the Sri Lankan press reports, is ‘a largely redundant vanity project’. Its terminals have been used for storing rice and its runways for parking unused jets. Last year, a plane engine was destroyed because a peacock flew into it, and the government deployed 350 troops armed with firecrackers to clear 150 deer and 50 wild buffalo which had been trapped after an electric fence was set up to prevent other wild animals running riot. Deprived of their jungle, elephants now trample over human settlements. But what is bad for locals is, undeniably, great for tourists. And if you’re searching for peace and quiet – go. Go now.
I should have left the hotel, walked down the winding drive, and found that out first hand. But I didn’t because living a life of luxury paralyses the imagination and the will. I needed Shangri La to chaperone me and they did a first class job. The best day was when Ashan and I got up before dawn to visit the nature reserve at Yala and see a wild elephant taking a bath. It was damned hot, in Yala (without the dry wind that blows so fast in Hambantota the resort feels cool when it ought to be sticky as hell) and the cavalcade of jeeps stopped to let tourists walk out on the sands. I sat in the meagre shade, eating special sandwiches, under a rusty sculpture which was put up to commemorate the height of the waves that swept Chinese tourists away in the tsunami that hit a decade ago. Ashan pointed to new huts that are being built, as the tourists venture back, and then to a rock which used to be full of monkeys. The monkeys walked in land before disaster hit and never returned. On the drive back I had my only sight of the real Sri Lanka – where streets are so bright and colourful, full of daredevils riding mopeds without helmets or shoes, where pots and pots of buffalo curd are sold outside homes. When we get back to the hotel, Ashan has booked me a spa treatment, in case the jeep shook me up. The masseuse wraps me up in a silk sheet and treats me like something precious.
Later, Ashan treats me to a five course meal designed for men flourishing engagement rings. It took him a long time to pop the question – ‘would you like to try some buffalo curd?’ and naturally, I said yes. (It tasted disgusting). For months afterwards, he dutifully Whats App’d me until he got tired – as all men do, in the end. And I hope that he has moved onto a real girl, who he’s not paid to proxy-date, in steamy Colombo.
On the last night, I went out by myself, preparing to be alone again. I walked along the beach, where the waves crash madly. (To be unloved is not so bad when one’s naked toes are so passionately pursued by the Indian ocean.)
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