Satanic MajestiesI came up with a new variation on the ‘drinking game’ concept the other day after hearing an overused entry in the Woke dictionary once again uttered on Radio 4. I call this fresh twist on the format ‘the slavery game’. One doesn’t need to have the station on all day to play this game; indeed, I heard the word ‘slavery’ within a mere fifteen minutes of listening this morning. It so got me in the mood that I almost switched the radio off and stuck ‘Brown Sugar’ on the turntable. As a song, ‘Brown Sugar’ is now half-a-century old, but the fact it takes the topically triggering subject of slavery and plays with it in a salacious manner characteristic of the turn-of-the-70s Stones means it’s fallen under the spotlight of 2021’s moral watchdogs. The moral watchdogs of 1971 were no more amused by its themes either, so it’s not as if the song hasn’t been criticised before. 50 years back, however, they were the middle-aged conservative right and found the young Stones an affront to all they held dear; their contemporary equivalents are firmly on the left, and young where the Stones are old, but their determination to take offence – especially at any art that predates their new world order – is so far-reaching that even the artists themselves cower under their power.

Along with ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, ‘Brown Sugar’ is one of the guaranteed certs in a Stones set-list – or always has been. No more. The decision has been taken to drop the number from Stones shows, and even if the reasons given evade accusations of self-censoring capitulation to the critical consensus, I can’t help but feel the Stones of ’71 would’ve responded to calls for ‘Brown Sugar’ to be banned with a couple of sticky fingers aimed in the direction of Mary Whitehouse. The Stones have far less to lose now than they did 50 years ago, when a cross-Channel flight from the taxman to stave off bankruptcy meant they were in a considerably more vulnerable position; but today’s financially secure incarnations have decided to give an inch in the hope no mile will be taken. Dream on. Expect ‘Stray Cat Blues’ and ‘Under My Thumb’ to be next on the hit-list. Oh, well; anyone who wants ‘Brown Sugar’ can still access it, and I’d rather hear the original 1971 record than see the remnants of the band play it live in 2021, anyway.

Purely by coincidence, I’ve recently been augmenting my ongoing reliance on Classical as an in-house soundtrack by revisiting the Stones back catalogue, specifically the period which is for me their ‘golden era’, covering the five years from 1966 to 1971. Some of their most celebrated singles and albums emanate from this remarkable run, including what remains an unfairly maligned and misunderstood LP – more than any other in the band’s lengthy canon; it also happens to be the one I can’t seem to stop playing. It’s become something of a tradition on here to follow a heavyweight story with a post looking back at a vintage TV series that happens to be my box-set of the moment; but I don’t often apply the same tactics to my listening habits. Why not, though? Today, I’m talking about a 1967 LP by The Rolling Stones called ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’.

Firstly, I love the title; ‘Satanic Majesties’ soon became a clichéd description of the band to summarise that bleak era at the end of the 60s when an apocalyptic aura seemed to surround them, but the title of this album is of course a play upon the ‘Her Britannic Majesty’s’ segment of the old British passport. A sense of humour was actually quite a strong element of the band at this time, something that the subsequent descent into darkness shortly thereafter tends to obscure. Anyway, this was a record that had a very difficult gestation, for 1967 was not an easy year for the band. It opened with a mixed reception to the album ‘Between the Buttons’, swiftly followed by the infamous Redlands drug bust and the very serious prospect of long-term prison sentences for Jagger and Richards; the ramifications of this raid were to dog the band for the rest of the year, but they clearly found solace by retreating to the recording studio and…well…getting stoned. It was the Psychedelic high summer, after all. Mick and Keith were in attendance at Abbey Road when The Beatles recorded ‘A Day in the Life’ and Jagger was also present during the live TV broadcast of ‘All You Need is Love’ as well as dragging Marianne along to a Maharishi summit; Lennon and McCartney returned the compliment by singing backup vocals on the Stones’ superb ‘We Love You’ single, which was released ahead of (though sadly not included on) ‘Satanic Majesties’. The rivalry between the two bands was largely press-generated, for there was a genuine sense of kinship, an ‘Us and Them’ attitude that the pursuit by Scotland Yard solidified.

The undeniable influence of the Fab Four on the Stones during this period isn’t really reflected in ‘We Love You’, which is an exhilarating if scary journey into the dark heart of acid-infused paranoia via Brian Jones’ mastery of the mellotron; the band even filmed a brilliantly sardonic promo video in which Mick and Marianne were portrayed as Oscar Wilde and Bosie. By the time the Stones’ second album of 1967 was finally ready for release at the end of the year the Beatle influence was mostly evident in the front cover of the LP. Whilst The Beatles had been portrayed as Carnabetian bandsmen on the ‘Sgt Pepper’ sleeve, the Stones came across as slightly seedy pied pipers surrounded by all the gaudy trimmings of the dressing-up box. The original front cover idea of a nude Jagger being crucified was deemed a step too far even for them, so they settled for their own novel 3D take on the brand – and even hid the individual Beatles’ faces amidst the lysergic foliage. The criticisms levelled at the album tend to begin with the sleeve, yet the actual contents bear little resemblance to John, Paul, George & Ringo’s cultural landmark.

Accusations of bandwagon-jumping and being too late to the Psychedelic party to make an impact don’t take into account the pressures on the band throughout its drawn-out recording. The album probably would have appeared far earlier had these pressures not got in the way, but in retrospect it’s a miracle they managed to produce anything at all. Endless court appearances, the overhanging threat of prison, the internal trauma of Keith Richards stealing Brian Jones’ girlfriend (Anita Pallenberg), and Jones’ own slide into addiction can’t have helped, yet the end product sounds nothing like ‘Sgt Pepper’ and indeed nothing like any of 1967’s other British Psychedelic milestones by the likes of Pink Floyd or the Jimi Hendrix Experience. ‘Satanic Majesties’ exists in a uniquely exotic and mesmerising sonic bubble that places it in a field all of its own, one that the Stones themselves never ploughed again and few others have emulated. Personally, I think it represents the high watermark of the period in which the band were eager to spread their wings and were brave enough to venture into uncharted territory.

Bar a couple of extended jams that reflect both the spirit of the age and the consumption of the substances that went with it, the album is far stronger than popular opinion would have anyone believe. The space rock excursion of ‘2000 Light Years from Home’ and the adorable melodic riches of ‘She’s A Rainbow’ make it worth investing in, but the likes of ‘Citadel’, ‘2000 Man’ and ‘Lantern’ are wonderfully underrated songs that really work in the context of the blissfully rewarding earworm of a trip that playing the album from start to finish adds up to. There’s even evidence of that aforementioned humour in a hidden track known as ‘Cosmic Christmas’ – a nightmarish slowed-down instrumental of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ – as well as in the music hall-meets-cabaret club finale of ‘On With the Show’. The band themselves routinely dismiss the LP and write it off as a self-indulgent exercise, yet I don’t know many people who don’t love it. It may well be the runt of the litter, but it stands up as the last glittering, risk-taking example of the Stones being prepared to throw caution to the wind and spurn the whole crippling notion of pop music as a rigid, restrictive series of genres and categories in which everyone stays in their lane. Over half-a-century on, I think the record-buying public didn’t know how well off they were.

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Amess MurderI’ve only ever encountered my local MP in his surgery the once; it was around six or seven years ago and I made the appointment whilst working on my book, ‘Looking for Alison’. I needed help accessing London crown court records from the early 1990s and I’d hit so many brick walls with the courts themselves that I turned to my elected representative as a last resort. I should’ve approached him earlier, for his Parliamentary clout opened doors I hadn’t been able to and enabled me to bring the curtain down on an especially difficult chapter in the research. The location of his surgery was a community centre I’d visited several years before due to it hosting a pre-school playgroup that came in handy when I was babysitting my then-girlfriend’s infant daughter. Never having had cause to meet my elected representative before, I’d imagined MPs had special, purpose-built surgeries like GPs up until that point; but temporarily renting somewhere for a fortnightly or monthly meeting with constituents made sense. The fact that the chosen venues tend to be places where members of the public congregate – rather than, say, official constituency party premises – also helps cement a connection between elected and electorate that Honourable Member status often negates.

The estrangement of MPs from the people can give the appearance of being an unbridgeable chasm. If, say, the MP has a pro-Remain stance and the majority of his or her constituents are Brexiteers, there is an instant schism; moreover, too much time spent in the Westminster bubble and mistaking Twitter for a barometer of public opinion can falsely inflate issues that are minority concerns into major causes – something the Labour Party’s suicidal pandering to Trans activists who only represent a tiny section of the ‘Trans community’ has shown in recent years. I’ve never had a local MP who happens to be a Cabinet Minister, but such figures must seem even more remote should that be the case; yet the tradition of every MP – even those whose most publicised encounters are with VIPs – submitting to less newsworthy encounters with their humble constituents probably serves as the sole means of keeping the more high-flying Parliamentarians a little grounded. This was brilliantly portrayed in ‘In The Loop’, the movie version of ‘The Thick of It’, when Tom Hollander’s Minister for International Development is preoccupied by transatlantic affairs yet has to endure a Northampton constituent (played by Steve Coogan) moaning on and on about a ‘bloody wall’.

Perhaps the unique tradition of the MP’s constituency surgery is maybe the only opportunity we the voters have to approach our representatives and see the men or women behind the hype; it certainly offers us a more human vision than the less genuine performance that comes when they’re electioneering or avoiding answering questions on ‘Newsnight’ or the ‘Today’ programme. I can only speak of my own personal experience in that the solitary surgery meeting I had paid off and the MP in question earned my vote at the following General Election; the fact he ended up losing his seat is beside the point, for I appreciated the chance to communicate my particular problem to him – something it’s surprising how many people out there are unaware they have the right to.

From all accounts, it would seem a backbencher of almost 40 years’ vintage like Sir David Amess was the kind of MP his constituents felt they could approach in such a manner and he would make the effort to help them if they needed it. The essential importance of such a role for an MP cannot be underestimated, especially in times like these, when politicians can so often give the impression of being utterly detached from the everyday concerns of their constituents. MPs shouldn’t be bracketed alongside movie stars or pop stars, surrounded by minders and only glimpsed by the public for a few seconds as they disembark from chauffeur-driven cars and evade the crowds to dash indoors; all that does is reinforce the opinion of them as a cosseted elite a breed apart from the man and woman in the street. Following yesterday’s events, some of David Amess’s fellow MPs have called for an end to the face-to-face surgery; another veteran MP, Sir Bernard Jenkin, has claimed the tradition is increasingly irrelevant now that Zoom conferences have become the norm in so many businesses and the in-person constituency is something he regards as ‘frankly not really necessary’. The reaction of Jenkin could be seen as an understandable knee-jerk response in the wake of a shocking incident, but I think to abandon such a vital form of communication between elected and electorate would be a mistake.

When I attended my one and only surgery, it was before the murder of Jo Cox by a constituent – which, of course, took place in the street and not at her actual surgery; I recall there was just the MP and his PA present, no minder or armed police officer, and I wasn’t searched before entering the room just in case I happened to be carrying a concealed weapon. I was surprised, in a way; I thought I might at least have to pass through the kind of security check one gets when entering a magistrates’ court, i.e. having to empty one’s pockets and so on. There had been serious physical attacks on MPs prior to Jo Cox, most notably Labour MP Stephen Timms, who survived an attempted murder by an Islamic extremist stabbing him with a kitchen knife at his surgery in 2010. A decade before, Lib Dem MP Nigel Jones had been attacked at his surgery by a constituent wielding a Samurai sword; Jones survived the attack, but his assistant was killed. Post-Jo Cox, I suspect security was probably tightened-up at surgeries, but balancing the need for personal safety and the rare opportunity to confront constituents remains a tricky one for MPs.

Sir David Amess held a fortnightly surgery in his Southend constituency and on the fatal day the surgery was taking place in a Methodist church; his assailant was apparently stood in a queue to see the MP inside the church and emerged from the line when his name was called armed with a knife. The unnamed 25-year-old man stabbed Amess several times, and though the MP was rushed to hospital it would appear he died at the scene. The killer is believed to be a British national of Somali heritage and after several hours of speculation, the murder of David Amess has been labelled a ‘terror incident’, suggesting there was some political or ideological motivation on the part of the murderer. This in itself is nothing new; the 2010 attack on Stephen Timms was carried out by a Muslim woman incensed by the fact Timms had voted for the invasion of Iraq, whilst we all recall the far-right/white supremacist leanings of the man who murdered Jo Cox.

Unless we’re simply talking about a mentally disturbed individual whose internal demons will be manifested as a violent act without the need for a ‘cause’, it was perhaps inevitable such an association would rear its ugly head. Naturally, there have been some on social media who have blamed the increasingly incendiary atmosphere in British politics ever since Brexit; and while I personally don’t think some politicians help by disengaging their mouths from their brains when opportunistically scoring points, I don’t really believe one can hold, say, the gormless ‘Tory Scum’ rant of Angela Rayner any more responsible for the death of David Amess than some of Nigel Farage’s more inflammatory comments on the eve of the 2016 Referendum somehow provoked the murder of Jo Cox. Yes, the atmosphere in and around Westminster – and the way in which the public receives edited highlights deliberately edited to feature the most ‘dramatic’ moments – can generate disgust and apathy, but for most that would simply be translated at the ballot box via a protest vote or an abstention; the less balanced mind can take a different route, though the chances of MPs encountering a mind travelling that route at their surgeries is mercifully rare, and this horrific incident shouldn’t curtail what remains one of our democracy’s more levelling traditions.

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Shops 2As Boris takes a break, the crumb of comfort that Carrie might have packed a portable vice for his balls in her luggage doesn’t really compensate for the ongoing fall-out from the past eighteen months. Beyond the bubble the PM and the other residents of Westminster Village inhabit, the ramifications of their actions on the rest of us since the spring of 2020 continue to affect the way in which lives are led. Angry motorists physically manhandling the same middle-class sit-down protestors with too much time on their hands that the police provided tea and biscuits for are not so much manifestations of climate change denial – more an act of desperation on the part of those whose businesses were brought to their knees by the obliteration of the economy during lockdown; clinging on for dear life, the last thing they need is further disruption from activists fighting for the luxury of loft insulation. The schism between those who had a ‘good pandemic’ because their lifestyles weren’t dependent upon everything lockdown took away and those who couldn’t survive without setting foot outdoors is perhaps more glaring now than ever before. Yet, how much of this is being addressed by MPs entrusted to report on the Government handling of the pandemic in its initial stages?

Probably a tad too early and not exactly ‘independent’ (we’ll have to wait one more year for that), the kind of thing the press is fond of labelling ‘a damning report’ appears to have reserved its most severe condemnation for the timing of Lockdown Mk I (far too late) and the NHS Test and Trace disaster (a badly-executed waste of money). The latter criticism seems pretty justified, for the entire operation felt like a microcosm of this particular administration’s reliance on the old boy network. Regardless of its canny theft of the NHS brand name at a time when the institution was approaching the status of a state religion, the Test and Trace scheme was, of course, in the hands of a private company headed by a Tory Peer hardly in possession of a glowing CV. An estimated £37bn was squandered on this project, belatedly set up in haste when infection rates had already soared to a daily 2,000. The urgent need for results and the failure to bring on board those with superior expertise in favour of people who happened to have been at school with Matt Hancock’s brother-in-law amounted to little more than dispatching a locksmith to attend to the stable door when its equine occupants had already bolted.

Local test and trace schemes run by regional public health directors were relative successes compared to the centralised operation overseen by Serco, and the fact the ‘official’ NHS Test and Trace outfit chose not to involve those who had seen action on the frontline during the outbreak of the coronavirus – i.e. from the public sector – and relied upon the less hands-on experience of those from the detached private sector it was more familiar with jeopardised the kind of quick fix the taxpayer inadvertently paid for. As the report concluded, ‘Vast sums of taxpayers’ money were directed to Test and Trace, justified by the benefits of avoiding further lockdowns. But ultimately those lockdowns happened.’ Yet even if one acknowledges the king-size cock-up that was NHS Test and Trace as one of the shabbiest episodes of the whole affair, it still doesn’t match what was undoubtedly the single biggest tragedy of this whole period – the return of infected pensioners from hospital straight back into the nation’s care homes.

The way in which an already-marginalised section of society was treated with such cavalier contempt by the authorities was really brought home once more in a recent, rather harrowing ‘single play’ drama on Channel 4 called ‘Help’, which brilliantly documented the writing-off of some of society’s most vulnerable citizens as collateral damage in the overall pandemic picture. I delayed watching this for a couple of weeks, sensing it’d be heavy going; it naturally was, but I’m glad I watched in the same way I’m glad I watched the equally hard-hitting episode of ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ dealing with the decline and fall of Yosser Hughes. This all-too real fictitious account of the way in which the elderly were abandoned even made me think of Harold bloody Shipman. Watching a documentary on the deranged doctor last year, the ‘how did he get away with it for so long?’ question was easily answered by the fact his victims were essentially invisible and not regarded as particularly important; Shipman targeted old ladies, just as Dennis Nilsen targeted promiscuous gay men, Peter Sutcliffe targeted prostitutes and Fred West targeted unwanted teenage runaways – all inhabitants of the fringes; by contrast, the killing spree of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley was mercifully brief because their victims were instantly missed – young children from happy families. When it comes to ‘soft targets’, however, it seems some remain the same as they had been when nobody was taking note of the high body count in Hyde.

On the subject of lockdown, the consensus in this report follows the MSM one that it came too late. The belief in herd immunity and the reluctance to sacrifice the intended reputation of Johnson’s Government as a libertarian administration could probably explain leaving such a heavyweight extension of state power as lockdown till the eleventh hour, but the response of many in media circles to this critical aspect of the report is telling. After all, they hysterically clamoured for lockdown in the first place, heaping pressure on politicians too easily swayed by media of both mainstream and social persuasion and susceptible to the loudest voices; that the majority of those advocating the complete hibernation of society would be amongst the least badly affected by such a move didn’t eventually prevent a Government eager to please the electorate capitulating to the demands of a cosseted elite. Yet even when lockdown came, the Government still viewed it as a move to minimise the spread of the virus rather than taking a nihilistic, Australia-style ‘Zero Covid’ approach; it evidently seemed the better option was to stagger its effects across the year, thus avoiding a ‘lump-sum’ surge threatening to overwhelm the NHS. The second wave experiences of countries that locked down hard and fast in the first wave were far worse than the UK’s in terms of death tolls.

The criticisms in this report are, overall, fairly valid, though it would appear the main conclusion is that the generally successful vaccine rollout and uptake almost wipes the slate clean. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything less in a 151-page document emanating from a Commons committee, though. Hannah Brady of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice organisation says the report is ‘laughable’, claiming it to be more interested in ‘political arguments about whether you can bring laptops to Cobra meetings than it is in the experiences of those who tragically lost parents, partners or children to Covid-19. This is an attempt to ignore and gaslight bereaved families, who will see it as a slap in the face.’ To be fair, this report is a bit like a comprehensive critique of the Second World War being published in 1946; we’re still not out of it and one cannot help but feel there are still innumerable stories to be told. Even if one personally avoided bereavement, chances are many relationships and friendships have been fractured and damaged by events – in many cases, beyond repair; and it’s hard not to feel resentful towards those who took life-changing decisions that changed the lives of others more than their own.

Naturally, anyone naive enough to expect any rolling heads as a consequence of this report should know better when so few rolled at the time. Even Matt Hancock was only shown the door when caught on camera indulging in a spot of buttock-clutching with his PA; had that disturbing image not made it to the front pages, he’d probably still be Health Secretary today rather than being promoted to the UN’s Special Representative for Financial Innovation & Climate Change. Yes, crime pays.

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Rick JonesThe two encounters may have been 30 years apart, but I count myself lucky to have met two presenters of ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’. Johnny Ball I stumbled upon whilst he was filming something on the street in the late 1980s and Julie Stevens I chatted to at one of the vintage TV events the Kaleidoscope organisation used to stage in a Stourbridge hotel. The pair often presented the BBC’s pre-school mainstay together and regularly formed part of the gang on the show’s slightly more grownup – albeit considerably sillier – sibling. As with the classic ‘Blue Peter’ line-up, the surrogate aunts and uncles who appeared on ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’ still radiate nostalgic hues whenever they’re recalled by anyone whose formative years were spent being babysat by them. Their association with a unique, womb-like security that life rarely returns to once we graduate from the nursery means they will always claim a special shelf in the memory bank. The likes of Brian Cant and Derek Griffiths are in possession of legendary status for those of a certain age, and the exotic folk singer Toni Arthur even managed to stir something in the little boys watching that none of them were prepared for at such a tender age. As an adult, meeting anyone who played their part in weaving these dreams is a real privilege, one of those rare opportunities to simply say ‘thank you’.

Like many of the other presenters whose big break came via ‘Play School’, Johnny Ball spread his wings into other areas of children’s television, most memorably with an inventive programme that managed the difficult achievement of making maths fun, ‘Think of a Number’. Although his days hosting kid’s shows were more or less over when I encountered him in person, Ball was still a familiar face on the box at the time and instantly recognisable. I remember me and the friend I was with being somewhat star-struck when we spotted him, and we dashed off to the nearest WH Smiths to purchase a pen and notebook for that pre-selfie must-have, the autograph. We made it back to the corner where he was filming, relieved he hadn’t gone, and waited for a break in the recording to approach him. Mercifully, no infant illusions were shattered and he proved to be a genuinely pleasant person, more than happy to sign his name and engage in a brief chat.

Weirdly, I’d only recently picked-up a 70s LP called ‘Bang on a Drum’ that featured the ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’ performers singing the sort of songs routinely heard on the shows, as well as a few oddities characteristic of the time. I recall one song sung by presenter (and former member of 60s Merseybeat-type band The Four Pennies) Lionel Morton called ‘Come to the Shops’, which, with a slightly more psychedelic arrangement, could have passed for a whimsical slice of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Mention of this album prompted a few reminiscences by Ball of the LP’s recording. Amongst those involved in the process was Rick Jones, a Canadian whose time on ‘Play School’ predates my memory but who would shortly be immortalised for my generation on another iconic show. Ball confessed the hirsute, hippyish Jones had been off his tits on a few unnamed substances during the making of the album, and somehow that didn’t come as a surprise.

Rick Jones had surpassed his fame as a ‘Play School’ presenter when he progressed to a series in the ‘Watch with Mother’ lunchtime strand as of 1972, ‘Fingerbobs’. Like most of the programmes that were screened in that post-‘Pebble Mill at One’ slot, ‘Fingerbobs’ ran for just one series of 13 episodes, yet repeat screenings for the best part of a decade created the impression in the memory that hundreds were produced. How to describe it? Well, Jones – always dressed as though he had just been hitchhiking to Kathmandu with The Incredible String Band – sat behind a desk like a stoned newsreader and addressed the viewer with the assistance of Fingermouse.

Fingermouse was basically a glove with a paper mouse head stuck on the knuckles; the host made no attempt to hide the fact Fingermouse was essentially just his hand, yet he would dispatch the creature to collect various bits and pieces to bring back and inspire a story. As a child, I admit I did wonder how Jones and his rodent hand went their separate ways, for we were led to believe the presenter remained at his desk whilst we followed a seemingly severed Fingermouse out and about with other glove animals including a tortoise, a dove and even a scampi. But disbelief was successfully suspended and a gloriously eccentric imagination took over.

Also being a gifted musician, Rick Jones infused ‘Fingerbobs’ with a soundtrack that is as much inseparable from the imagery as Ry Cooder’s slide guitar is with ‘Paris, Texas’ or the zither of Anton Karas is with ‘The Third Man’. You can’t think of the programme without hearing the Fingermouse song or the incidental music threaded through almost every scene. The programme was one of the few BBC series of the period not produced in-house but by an independent company called Q3 of London – also responsible for other fondly-remembered series such as ‘Teddy Edward’ and ‘Crystal Tipps and Alistair’; although as heavily associated with the early 70s as both those two – Jones’s sartorial style is very much rooted in time and place – ‘Fingerbobs’ nevertheless ran regularly on the BBC until 1984, claimed by more than one generation of children as its own. It was also aided in its on-screen longevity via the advantage of being shot on film, therefore giving it a good reason for avoiding the widespread wiping of videotaped programmes in the BBC at the time.

Rick Jones appears to have been part of that great creative migration to London that took place in the Swinging decade, though he fittingly emanated from a city in Ontario named after the UK capital. Many of the ‘Play School’ presenters were either actors or musicians, and Jones was one of those who often whipped out his guitar on the show; through the archive editions that survive from his era, it’s possible to hear the warm tones of Jones’s soft, soothing voice receiving a prominent airing during his stint on the series, though he had a wider canvas to work with when it came to ‘Fingerbobs’. Outside of his TV work, Jones made further use of his musical talents as a member of a country rock group called Meal Ticket, who played on London’s celebrated pub rock circuit in the mid-70s. I’d love to picture them sharing a bill with Toni Arthur delivering one of her spooky folk numbers or Derek Griffiths indulging in a funky workout of ‘The Wibbly Wobbly Walk’, but I’ll have to leave that one for the parallel universe.

Rick Jones’s death from cancer at the age of 84 was announced a couple of days ago; it somehow feels right that he passed away in San Francisco, for it’s hard to think of a more spiritual home for an artist of his generation. Yet it was on these shores that his potential as a storyteller was fulfilled, a time when even children’s television was shaking off the shackles of the 1950s and embracing the spirit of the age. Whether John Noakes breaking the class barrier and showing RP the door or fantastically out-there, imaginative shows such as ‘Vision On’, this period remains the gold standard for kid’s TV, gifting younger viewers an abundance of riches that even the relentless rolling by of decades since hasn’t erased the impact of. And Rick Jones, allegedly passing round a spliff as he, Lionel Morton and Johnny Ball were shot in silhouette as the three kings during a ‘Play School’ telling of the Nativity, stands out as one of the pivotal figures of this genuine Golden Age, exuding humour, charm and a knowing cool that only a musician of the era could bring to the table. Legend.

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GaslightWith its recurring habit of remaking foreign films – albeit usually ones produced in a foreign language – Hollywood sometimes attempts to eliminate all traces of the original movie for fear it will steal the remake’s thunder. In 1944 MGM was so determined its version of Patrick Hamilton’s stage play ‘Gaslight’ would be regarded as the motion picture version that it attempted to erase the existing prints of the 1940 British adaptation, even wanting to incinerate the negative. Happily, it didn’t succeed and the first film survives as a wonderfully atmospheric example of old-school British cinema shot entirely on a studio set that cleverly recreates a middle-class Victorian street; it reimagines a London square in the late 19th century with the same aesthetic inventiveness as David Lean reimagined the city’s slums in his take on ‘Oliver Twist’. The film stars Anton Walbrook as a sadistic controlling husband convincing his emotionally fragile wife she’s losing her mind, and is an enjoyable melodrama that nevertheless has some genuinely dark moments. Memorably claustrophobic as the virtually imprisoned wife played by Diana Wyngard becomes riddled with doubts about her sanity, it appears to be the source of a term now routinely used online, gaslighting.

The term gaslighting is recognised in psychiatry as an occasional symptom of interpersonal relationships – particular married ones – when one partner seeks to cover their extramarital tracks by infusing their other half with doubt over the alleged infidelity of the guilty party. Mind games between couples have long been familiar to relationship counsellors, but it took until the 1980s and 90s before gaslighting was acknowledged as a potent tool of psychological abuse, dependent upon an unequal power dynamic in which one partner holds the emotional upper hand and therefore has the strength to exacerbate the vulnerability of the other. The dramatic potential of gaslighting has also seen it become a staple storyline of soap operas, bringing the practice to a larger audience – such as in the abusive marriage of Helen Archer to the domineering Rob Tichener in ‘The Archers’ back in 2016.

In the context of relationships, gaslighting is not always the exclusive province of a blatantly wicked cad like the one played by Anton Walbrook in the aforementioned 1940 movie. It can often be a subconscious tactic used by one half of a partnership without necessarily seeking to reduce their partner to borderline psychosis; but it can inadvertently fuel underlying paranoia and doubts that were already present before the relationship even began. When one’s perception of reality is thrown into instability, the impact upon those with an existing grip on reality that could be described as tenuous – those whose relationship ‘rock’ served as the sole seemingly stable factor in their life – can be disastrous. Trust and faith in the sincerity of what people say and do can be a casualty of this infiltration of endless doubt into every discourse so that nothing is what it initially seems anymore.

If we broaden the scope of the term beyond the therapist’s walls, it can encompass any form of manipulation that persuades the manipulated to doubt their perception of a given situation. A type of gaslighting has long been a psychological weapon of warfare used to trash the certainties of the enemy in the righteousness of their mission, and has also been seized upon by totalitarian regimes as a means of controlling a peacetime population. Moreover, there’s no question gaslighting has been utilised during the pandemic to terrify the global masses into compliance. The flurry of misinformation that has permeated both social and mainstream media over the past couple of years has left many not really knowing who to trust or which path to take – pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination, pro-lockdown or anti-lockdown – so that division is rife and divide and rule is able to follow its familiar route in neutralising the prospect of mass disobedience towards the anti-democratic commandments of democratically-elected governments. One only has to look at the example of Australia to see this at its most extreme.

These lessons in gaslighting’s political effectiveness haven’t been lost on gatecrashers either. BLM have done it too – forcing the colour blind to see colour before everything else in a way their absence of prejudice never did until the relentlessly racist ‘anti-racism’ propaganda seeped deep, aided and abetted by utterly uncritical media reporting and endorsement. The imported idea of British society being some imaginary hybrid of Apartheid-era South Africa and an American Confederate State has no connection to reality for most in this country, but the fallacy is slowly becoming embedded in the public’s psyche, sowing division where it had never been before – and inculcating doubt. ‘Am I racist?’ is a question born of such reprehensible gaslighting. The infiltration of corporations and public bodies by the irredeemably toxic Critical Race Theory via compulsory Unconscious Bias Training, not to mention the transformation of the educational system into glorified CRT indoctrination, is breeding a generation convinced this is fact. When nothing is real, anything is.

The beginning of 2020 through to the end of 2021 has seen a traumatised population primed to be ‘triggered’ by gaslighting tactics on the part of both government and ideological movements such as BLM or Extinction Rebellion, and the policy appears to be working. The people of the Western world are now in an abusive relationship with their respective powers-that-be, coerced victims of the former’s gaslighting so that they now react to every ‘crisis’ with panic, hysteria and fear for their safety; compliance and unquestioning obedience seems the only safe option for many who just want an easy life – and that suits the gaslighters. We’ve gone from lockdowns and attendant coronavirus issues such as masks and vaccines to the imagined injustices exploited by BLM to the ongoing climate change apocalypse to rises in energy bills and taxes as well as the sudden shortage of HGV drivers that has in turn led to petrol shortages and empty supermarket shelves. And each has sparked varying degrees of panic. Job done.

Vaccine passports may have been – for the moment – abandoned as a China-style catch-all means of tracking and tracing the movements of the people 24/7, but evidence of one’s jab or non-jab are nonetheless being used by some businesses and institutions. The prospect of under-staffed professions being further depleted because some employees have the temerity to resist state-sanctioned medical intervention and therefore risk dismissal is a real one; and this is a tactic that hasn’t really been used since the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864. That was legislation designed to protect the armed forces from venereal disease, enabling police to arrest women on the suspicion of being prostitutes (mainly in ports and garrison towns) and giving doctors the right to initiate invasive medical examinations that no suspect had the right to resist; at the end of it, she’d be issued with a card certifying whether or not she was clean or unclean, and this would determine whether or not she’d be accepted back into polite society or would be blacklisted forevermore. Sound familiar?

When one thinks of how conditioned the people have become to receiving orders – remember that bizarre period when orders were effectively issued on a daily basis at SAGE press conferences – it’s no wonder those who remain resistant to them and are stubbornly continuing to think for themselves have been demonised. A pliable population successfully persuaded that they’re no more capable of rational independent judgement than a child is bound to react violently to the obstinacy of those who won’t play ball. The fact a ‘show me your papers’ rule has now been passed (albeit by the narrowest of margins) in the People’s Republic of Wales – opposed by every major party bar freedom-loving Labour – could either be an outrageous aberration or a victory for gaslighting that even those of us who fail to see the sensual appeal of sheep should be concerned about.

© The Editor

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If the Labour Party hMoggas excelled in the shooting-yourself-in-the-foot discipline of late, we shouldn’t forget the Tories are just as expert at this particular event. Whereas Labour’s vote-winning idea of reclaiming the Red Wall is to embroil itself in a Lewis Carroll-like nonsensical strain of Identity Politics (guaranteed to woo Brenda of Bristol back to the fold), the Conservative Party cannot help itself from alienating the members of the electorate it borrowed in 2019 by reverting to type, pedalling an outdated Home Counties view of the vulnerable as a drain on the nation’s resources. They don’t need to do it anymore, for they’re no longer dependent on the patronage of the Murdoch Empire to secure them a majority; yet the default position remains falling back on archaic assumptions that the prejudices of the traditional Tory shires must be catered to at all costs. Following in the clumsy footsteps of Iain Duncan Smith, another beneficiary of inherited wealth by the name of Jacob Rees-Mogg has enhanced his reputation as ‘Minister for the 18th century’ at the party’s annual conference with a casual dismissal of the needs of those who always stood to lose the most from the aftermath of the past year and-a-half.

At a point when National Insurance increases, rising energy prices and inflation are poised to dig deep into the piggy banks of the people least able to afford them, Reese-Mogg has been especially indelicate by issuing the far-from helpful advice that benefits are not ‘an insurance scheme’ during a conference debate on the cuts to Universal Credit; and when such statements emanate from a man not exactly familiar with the harsh realities of juggling household bills every month, they serve to reinforce the antiquated stereotype of both the uncaring Tory and the underclass dole-scrounger – despite the fact that upwards of 40% claiming benefits are actually in work. The impending end of the weekly £20 ‘Covid boost’ on Universal Credit has been criticised by some within the Conservative party, with an estimated 80,000 people on the cusp of poverty as a consequence, many of whom have been unable to earn a full wage for the past eighteen months due to lockdowns and Covid restrictions.

When it’s speculated that over £1,000 could vanish from the household income of the most affected, the Tories don’t do themselves any favours as saviours of ‘hard-working families’ when some of their Honourable Members engage their mouths without considering what comes out of them might sound like to the less privileged. The latest Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey claims the loss of the £20 uplift will be made up via a mere two hours additional work – a theory she obviously won’t be called upon to test out in person; meanwhile, the ongoing death toll of rejected disabled claimants declared ‘fit for work’ continues to cast a toxic shadow over a system that those with the power to change seem unwilling to change, perpetuating the perceived lack of empathy Ministers tend to exhibit towards those most in need of help. At the same time, the resumption of landlords being able to evict tenants who have fallen into rent arrears courtesy of lockdowns finds one-third of renters unable to keep up payments laying the blame squarely at the door of the pandemic policy.

Those who happened to be between jobs at the time of Lockdown Mk I weren’t eligible for the furlough scheme if they had voluntarily left their previous position rather than being laid off by lockdown, heaping further pressure on individuals and families sucked into a cycle of debt that wasn’t their own doing. Robert Jenrick, the former Housing Secretary, had said in May that no one should lose their home as a result of the pandemic, yet as soon as the ban on bailiff evictions ended that same month, people began losing their homes. 555 private and social landlord hearings in the county courts of England and Wales were observed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism during the summer, with 270 of them ending in an outright possession order and 88 of those orders citing the financial impact of Covid as the main factor in falling behind payments. There was such a backlog of hearings that most lasted barely ten minutes, which is hardly adequate time to contest a case or to decide someone’s immediate future. Despite the fact that the MPs on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee last year could see the direction the wind would take come the end of lockdown and recommended the law being changed so that judges would have discretion when it came to a fair and fitting verdict on each individual case, the Government ignored their advice.

A married couple recently profiled on the BBC News website had just become first-time parents on the eve of the first lockdown and went from a monthly income of £2,000 when both were in full-time work to surviving on £150 maternity pay during the interminable wait for a Universal Credit payment for the suddenly unemployed male breadwinner. Their rent stood at £450 a month and the inevitable happened during lockdown, with them eventually reaching £4,000 in rent arrears; served with a Section Eight order – giving a landlord grounds for repossession if the rent arrears number two months or more – the pair are now preparing for eviction. They are not alone. The swift turnover of hearings at the nation’s county courts – where possession orders can be stamped and certified in less than five minutes – makes for sober reading when it comes to the fate of those suddenly plunged into society’s relegation zone, few of whom fit the irrelevant old image of the ‘lifestyle choice’ scrounger of George Osborne’s imagination.

Another case covered in the BBC report concerned a woman whose usual job as an agency-employed executive PA was curtailed by lockdown; residing at a one-bedroom property in Hammersmith with a monthly rent of £1,600 meant her slide into rent arrears of £24,000 didn’t take long, though the case going against her at the local county court also left her having to pay £604 in interest as well as her landlord’s legal costs of £3,000. This individual has since found another job, but her credit rating is now as bad as the aforementioned married couple, who no longer have any savings to pay a deposit for a new home. The average rent arrears in the cases observed at the county courts by the Bureau of Investigate Journalism in July and August was around £6,500, though some far exceeded this amount. Naturally, the situation is also a headache for landlords themselves, with some tenants exploiting the crisis and playing the Covid card even when the pandemic has no bearing on their arrears, leaving courts often unable to distinguish between the ones who can’t pay and the ones who won’t.

As with every element of the inevitable fallout from closing down the economy for months on end since the spring of 2020, the already-delicate housing crisis was destined to ricochet through countless lives once payback time arrived; but such scenarios can be cruel levellers. I recall a TV report on Spain’s economic crisis in the wake of the financial crash of 2007/08, wherein many holding traditionally well-paid, middle-class jobs such as teaching were just as likely to be found sleeping on the streets or squatting in derelict properties as the more conventional casualties of capitalism one would sadly expect to be in dire straits. When people play by the rules, toe the line, pay their taxes, work hard and provide the backbone of the orderly society they venerate, some form of reward is anticipated, and that doesn’t necessarily have to translate as extreme wealth but simply not having to worry about their home being repossessed or never having to claim benefits. The Government on whose watch such people plummeted down the social ladder needs to remember the shock to the system these valuable members of the electorate have suffered will linger for a long time, and the way it publicly articulates its opinions on their predicament ought to be handled with care.

© The Editor

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IMG_20211001_0001As someone who can now perhaps be regarded as the founding mother of modern cancel culture, Mary Whitehouse cast her net far and wide in the 1970s after springing to prominence as the high priestess of provincial opposition to the Swinging 60s. If what was known as The Establishment did its utmost to stem the tide of permissiveness and moral decay by using its in-bred influence to target pop aristocracy with drug busts that promised prison sentences, Whitehouse represented the middle-class, conservative voice of sanity for the W.I. backbone of traditional Great British values centred around deference, the Church of England and the Queen. Once established as a household name with clout, Whitehouse tackled pornography, X certificate cinema, the theatre, gay rights et al; anything she perceived as a threat to her worldview fell under her outraged gaze and she embarked on a fresh campaign to ban it. Either allied with fellow moral crusaders like Lord Longford and Malcolm Muggeridge under the Festival of Light banner or working as head of her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, Mary Whitehouse’s ravenous appetite for stamping out liberal decadence eventually meant her disapproval became a badge of honour for those she pursued. One of the UK’s leading ‘girlie magazines’ was even amusingly named after her.

However, Mary Whitehouse’s first love was always the BBC. It’s interesting that the Whitehouse torch has today been picked up by the other side, so that the demographic she would have viewed as the enemy 50 years ago is now the one upholding her traditions; yet at the height of her powers, the Beeb – and particularly its television output – was at the vanguard of Britain’s Cultural Revolution. Yes, she was especially infuriated by the ‘Wednesday Play’ brand of gritty, groundbreaking drama, but she also found what she regarded as the increasing coarseness of sitcoms objectionable. ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ was a favourite target, though a memorable episode responded to her criticisms by making Alf Garnett a self-confessed supporter of the Whitehouse mission. By the early 70s, she even had a go at programmes produced for a family audience that could count the majority of the country’s children amongst their viewers. ‘Doctor Who’ attracted her attention during this period, though Whitehouse was not alone in feeling the show was taking the fear factor too far.

‘Terror of the Autons’ was a 1971 adventure for the Timelord in his Earth-exiled incarnation of Jon Pertwee. This story dealt with the invasion plans of an alien intelligence and centred on its ability to control plastic; it was able to breathe life into shop window mannequins as well as manufacturing ‘Autons’, humanoid figures it could animate to pose as the real thing. The scene that landed the series in hot water concerned two policemen the Doctor and his sidekick Jo had accepted a lift from; when the Doc became suspicious, he reached out to one of the coppers and ripped the rubber mask from his face to reveal the blank, featureless countenance of an Auton! The memorable scene that followed on a classic quarry location involved the fake policemen taking pot-shots at our heroes, emphasising nobody could be trusted in this scary new landscape, not even the humble Bobby on the beat. Mary Whitehouse was suitably outraged that the bedrock of her orderly society was being presented as a potential threat to the nation’s children, but the police authorities were equally furious that their attempts at convincing kids a policeman was the one grownup stranger they could trust were being undone.

Marianne Faithfull once reflected that the drugs bust she and the Stones were subjected to in 1967 trashed her naive faith in the police as the ultimate paragons of fair play, the line she’d been fed since childhood; but within a decade the dubious activities of coppers higher up the food chain had become headline news with exposures of across-the-board corruption at Scotland Yard. That a TV show such as ‘Doctor Who’ should even tap into this, albeit accidentally, is interesting, yet the slow erosion of trust in the police force that was once a given has never really gone away. If anything, it has continued apace with a succession of highly-publicised scandals, each one serving to erode that trust even further. The past decade has lifted the lid on the kind of corruption that often makes the bent bastards operating at the Yard in the 70s seem rather quaint by comparison, and the Met has remained the standard bearer, whether via its incestuous relationship with News International or its appalling collusion with the likes of the repugnant Carl Beech and its practice of fitting up innocent men as paedos. Credible and true indeed.

Even if we put the laughably desperate ‘Woke’ leanings of the force to one side for a moment and ignore the LGBTXYZ Cars, the way in which the police freely interpreted lockdown restrictions last year stretched the lingering vestiges of trust on the part of the public to breaking point; this as much as anything else successfully persuaded the masses that if the boys in blue are policing by anybody’s consent, it is not that of the masses but the powers-that-be. Sticking to the nation’s premier force and its illustrious track record, we can see that under the disastrous stewardship of Cressida Dick the Met has plumbed new depths of unaccountability. Calls for the Met’s head to quit are something many have been demanding for a long time – and for reasons other than the activities of Wayne Couzens taking place on her watch; yet the publicising of one especially rotten apple is more than enough for that demand to be renewed.

The murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer was shocking enough, but the revelation that he abused his position of trust, enticing his victim by flashing his warrant card and staging a mock arrest on the grounds of breaking Covid restrictions in order to carry out his sickening crime, has tarnished the force’s reputation even further. Had Wayne Couzens been an ordinary member of the public his crime would be reprehensible enough, but that he should have been a member of a profession that still bases its reputation upon trust somehow adds a grotesque layer onto his vile actions. One could argue his rare punishment of a whole life sentence was reached because of this, for it’s doubtful a young woman walking down a quiet street alone would have voluntarily consented to depart with a complete stranger had he not played upon the inherited belief in the probity of the police. Of course, the politicisation of this particular murder in a way that has heaped shame upon all of those who have indulged in such shameless exploitation hasn’t helped, yet some of the shit that has hit the fan in the wake of it beggars belief.

Cressida Dick now apparently recommends any woman stopped by a lone plain-clothes policeman should hail a passing bus (should one happen to be passing) on the off-chance he should be a rapist in disguise. If this is the case, how the hell can anyone in a vulnerable position be expected to trust a stranger whose warrant card is no longer a guarantee of safe passage? The stories that have emerged since the sentencing of Wayne Couzens suggest he was a career predator with questionable behaviour that triggered few warning signs as he was transferred around Home Counties forces with no vetting system in place. According to some sources, he had even been nicknamed ‘The Rapist’, which is unnervingly reminiscent of how Peter Sutcliffe had been nicknamed ‘The Ripper’ by co-workers at the haulage firm he was employed by long before he was finally outed as the real deal. But, again, the fact Couzens was a serving police officer utterly undermines any remaining trust in the institution even further. And if the police cannot be trusted, who can be? Maybe, in her own roundabout way, Mary Whitehouse was asking the same question half-a-century ago. Sadly ironic innit.

© The Editor

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Mole 3Although I’ve never seen it since and have no idea what it was, I remember one childhood Saturday morning catching an archaic comedy movie from the 1940s or 50s – my memory dates it by the fact all the men in it were wearing hats – and a guy was being examined by a doctor for a neck injury. The GP told him to keep looking upwards and the ailment would gradually heal, so he exited the surgery and strolled out onto the street with his head aimed at the sky. As he made his way along, his unusual stance caught the eye of everyone he passed so that they all followed suit, gazing up in the belief the guy had obviously seen something fascinating. I guess it’s an old joke, but it was an old film and the concept still makes me laugh now. I wondered why that scene should infiltrate my head after being absent for several decades, but maybe it’s because such a vaudevillian gag now feels like it was actually making a shrewd point about the way in which a misinterpreted gesture can provoke a chain reaction to ripple through a crowd of people with remarkable ease and breathtaking pace. Perhaps it’s just a classic characteristic of herd mentality, and one ripe for exploitation.

A more scientific explanation came on a 1970s David Dimbleby-hosted programme examining the hysteria at Osmonds concerts. A psychologist spoke of how it would only take one member of the audience when Donny and his brothers hit the stage to set off virtually everyone else at the venue. He’d observed how one girl screaming triggered the girl sat next to her and she in turn triggered the next one and the sound rapidly travelled down the whole row, each girl taking on the pattern of the girls around her so the entire arena could erupt into a cauldron of ear-splitting frenzy within seconds. I suppose a similar thing happens at football matches, though the man who starts the chant does so in the deliberate hope that he will quickly be accompanied by a chorus; the fact he usually is accompanied by a chorus suggests again that herd mentality – whether consciously or unconsciously – instinctively replicates the behaviour of the lone individual so that he or she is soon cocooned by safety in numbers; and at many times over the years, numbers have equated with safety at football matches, where the lone individual would be vulnerable and exposed – especially if he’s playing away.

Just as one member of a crowd can purposely incite the rest of that crowd to accompany him in a singsong if he knows the crowd is primed to respond favourably, the herd mentality can be cynically manipulated by outsiders with an equal minimum of effort. Politicians and their affiliated media outlets have always used this tactic to smear their opponents and nudge the electorate towards ticking the right box in the voting booth; but the past eighteen months have seen the practice used to clinical effect, with the masses becoming more pliable pieces than ever in someone else’s chess game. The way in which the pandemic restrictions were successfully enforced by convincing great swathes of the public that they were barely two-dozen loo rolls away from death was such a resounding triumph for the powers-that-be that it taught them an invaluable lesson. They realised the public were far easier to push in the desired direction than they’d ever dared imagine before.

The media cottoned onto this a long time ago, of course. The press did so far earlier than, say, television (certainly in this country, anyway), for public broadcasting originating in the Reithian ethos clung to the antiquated notion of political impartiality in a way the newspapers and their blatantly partisan approach – which was utterly dependent on the leanings of the paper’s proprietor – never had any moral need to adhere to. Moreover, the populist end of Fleet Street and its unquenchable thirst for sensationalism and scandal stretching all the way back to Victorian penny dreadfuls had accelerated in the Murdoch era, taking the print medium down a dark, grubby alley that television news had yet to visit. Not being a viewer of either Sky or CNN, I personally began to notice news broadcasts on terrestrial TV adopting a more tabloid approach not so much with Brexit, which is usually cited as the moment when journalism as we used to know it doubled down into unashamed propaganda for one side or the other, but when the financial crash of 2007/08 occurred. This was the point at which I really became aware TV news had ceased reporting facts and had instead opted to manufacture drama. Sure, there had been agendas in place before, but a trend appeared to be developing that required a constant flow of drama, possibly because of satellite competition or possibly because there were now rolling news channels with 24 hours to fill.

I recall a news report on either BBC or ITV in late 2007 covering queues outside a branch of Northern Rock when word had got around that the bank was living on borrowed time; as those with accounts quietly waited their turn to withdraw their savings in an orderly fashion, a TV reporter buzzed round them desperately attempting to whip up an atmosphere of panic to support the hysterical tone of his piece for the evening news. It seemed as though he’d come looking for a replay of the scene in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ when George Bailey’s bank collapses; so, when confronted by a line of Brits keeping calm and carrying on, the reporter resorted to a presentation style owing more to ‘The Day Today’ than the kind of straightforward no-bullshit journalism British TV news was once renowned for. To their credit, the members of the crowd that day didn’t panic; but the manner of the response to Covid Project Fear last year proved how effective a constant stream of panic propaganda pumped into the public’s collective psyche via the multiple media tools of the 2020s can now provoke panic without breaking sweat.

It might not be convenient for the current storyline, but one doesn’t have to even ‘go back to the 70s’ to recall the last time we had lengthy queues and panic buying at petrol stations; it was barely 20 years ago, midway through the New Labour era, when Gordon Brown as the Iron Chancellor was portrayed on the front of a national newspaper as a caricature of an 18th century highwayman. But today’s trend of constantly evoking the Winter of Discontent or the Three-Day Week works better because that period has lived on as a potent lesson of what happens when governments lose the plot, even for those who were a long way from being a twinkle in the milkman’s eye at the time. And one can see the appeal. After all, the panic buying that emptied supermarket shelves last year is still fresh, and the current spate of empty shelves at your local Sainsbury’s can be linked to the pandemic, to the pingdemic, to the loss of lorry drivers from a poorly-paid profession with few (if any) provisions for its workers, to the ‘sudden’ depletion of energy supplies, and – of course – Brexit. Join the dots and we have the potential for a good old-fashioned Great British Doomsday Narrative. And the Great British public are responding accordingly.

Unemployment was far higher in the 70s and inflation was astronomical in a way that today simply cannot compare with – a staggering 40% in June 1975; and whereas trade unions then had the clout to routinely bring the economy to its knees, lockdown has managed the same feat in record time now. What eventually replaced heavy industry in the big provincial cities that had been built on the back of it was the hospitality industry, yet when the continental cafés, bistros, bars and leisure venues that revitalised such cities from the 1990s onwards were closed overnight in 2020, regional dependence on such businesses meant that the damage done was of a kind we’ll probably be dealing with the ramifications of for years. That’s the real crisis. Never mind – send the cameras to the petrol stations and engage in nonsensical arguments about biology for light relief. Apparently, rats suddenly deprived of the scraps of office workers when the workforce relocated to the home have now followed the money and are loitering in our U-bends. Maybe our perennial rodent shadows reckon we’re all doomed as well.

© The Editor

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StarmerIf ‘Make America Great Again’ was the political slogan of the 2010s that not only served but exceeded its purpose, the ones that stick in the head from this side of the pond during the same decade tend to be remembered because they ended up as sticks with which to beat those who spouted them. Sure, ‘MAGA’ was swiftly turned into a term of abuse when in the hands of the anti-Trump opposition, but for the devoted it was a virtual mantra; by contrast, no crowd on the campaign trail greeted Theresa May in 2017 by passionately chanting ‘Strong and stable! Strong and stable!’ In the disastrous Tory aftermath of that year’s General Election, if the uninspiring phrase that had been endlessly repeated up until polling day was uttered again it was done so with a sneer, a snigger and a shake of the head. During the Coalition, George Osborne declaring that we were all in it together was patently untrue, so it was a phrase universally mocked beyond the safe space of the conference hall; and Old Mother Cable’s embryonic Biden-ism of gloriously hilarious incoherence, ‘exotic spresms’, was both punch-line and punch-bag within seconds of tumbling out of the befuddled dodderer’s mouth.

A different phrase from the Con-Dem era has been exhumed this week, though as with Jeremy Corbyn recycling Blair’s old slogan, ‘For the many, not the few’, Keir Starmer has half-inched it in the belief his target audience will be ignorant as to the source of the plagiarism. I only know of it myself due to the pure serendipity of encountering it when revisiting my old ‘25 Hour News’ YT series. Uploading another five-minute spoof of news headlines from 2014 to my Patreon channel, up popped a clip of David Cameron from that year’s Conservative Party Conference in which every sentence I put in his mouth contained the word ‘hard-working’; he spoke mainly of ‘hard-working people from hard-working families’, constantly repeating it so that it was rendered as mind-numbingly meaningless as the actual usage of the phrase by Cameron in the real world. And, lo and behold, merely days after renewing my acquaintance with a soulless sibling of Nick Clegg’s ‘Alarm-clock Britain’, there it was cosying-up to a grateful Sir Keir, so desperate for any ear-catching buzzword on the eve of his first in-person conference as party leader that he had rehashed a Cameron cast-off.

An evident absence of inspiration when it comes to slogans or catch-phrases is something of a minor concern for the Labour leader, however. After the conference season was reduced to a glorified Zoom chat in lockdown-riddled 2020, Starmer now finally has his opportunity to address his party face-to-face and give them the kind of performance his abundance of charisma has been threatening ever since his election as leader. And it is the subject of elections that has presented the anxious Auton with a pre-conference flop that doesn’t exactly generate confidence in his authority. Keen to prevent a future repeat of the leadership coup that put his predecessor in charge, Starmer seeks to change party rules on internal elections and return to the electoral college system that Labour used to elect its leader for a quarter of a century until Ed Miliband introduced the ‘one member, one vote’ method. By putting power back in the hands of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Starmer clearly hopes to neutralise the threat of the Left; but his meeting with union leaders to garner support for the proposals has been described as a ‘car crash’.

Keir Starmer appears to have badly misjudged the mood within the unions whose support he depends upon when it comes to the NEC. Arrogantly expecting to receive the green light from them to take his rule change proposals to the NEC for approval (and then onto conference), the Labour leader has instead had to return to the drawing board at the eleventh hour. Unsurprisingly, the proposals were criticised and condemned as an ‘attack on democracy’ by the Labour Left – who, after all, stand to lose out the most should they be accepted; but the fact that union leaders publicly panned them as well effectively killed the idea and ensured the so-called Blairite Right will continue having to contend with the Momentum wing. Had Starmer been able to have these proposals approved by the NEC, they would’ve been brought to conference and served as a means of making the Labour leader come across as a man capable of flushing the unelectable elements out of his party. To be fair, though, that would have been an impression restricted to the faithful; there are far more elements to the Labour Party that make it unelectable than merely Momentum or even the far-from inspiring Starmer himself.

Starmer’s deputy, Angela ‘Thingle Mother’ Rayner, has once again exhibited her immaturity and ultimate disqualification from holding high office by pre-empting the party’s conference with a juvenile rant worthy of a Jezza groupie. Ever since Team Corbyn seized control, Labour seems to have encouraged an adolescent mindset amongst its newer recruits that just looks retarded to outsiders, like the grownups have permanently left the room and the alternative to ‘Tory Scum’ is a foot-stamping brat whose default mode of attack is to hurl childish insults that are toe-curlingly embarrassing to anyone over the age of 14. Every time this kind of behaviour is broadcast to the nation, the amount of potential Labour voters lost must be sizeable, yet someone like Angela Rayner can’t help herself; even Keir Starmer winced over the latest example of his deputy’s infantile attitude. Rayner, like Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips, has also long-since soured any credibility beyond the diehards by excessively playing to the minority gallery.

Rayner may as well have the fatuous hashtag of #BeKind attached to her every statement, which is the hypocritical hallmark of what Julie Burchill refers to as the ‘snow-fakes’, those irredeemably unpleasant online Labour activists forever condemning the other side for being guilty of every ‘ism’ and phobia available whilst dishonestly portraying themselves as sensitive paragons of virtuous inclusivity. Their vicious assault on Labour MP Rosie Duffield – a former darling of the victim mindset who then had the outrageous audacity to declare only women have cervixes – has resulted in the Member for Canterbury declining to attend her own party’s conference because of the ongoing abuse; and the silence from the likes of Angela Rayner, who once showered Duffield in praise for her feminist sentiments and Remoaner rhetoric, is deafening.

The Labour Party’s nihilistic embrace of Identity Politics comes at the expense of any wider understanding that such issues only matter to a minority chattering class that carries no clout in old ‘Red Wall’ seats; the Tories were able to steam in and clean up because there was no other alternative to a party that spends most of its time obsessing over first-world trivialities and demonising its former supporters as ill-educated and unenlightened racist bigots. The inadvertently iconic image of Starmer and Rayner rushing to take the knee when last year’s BLM protests had barely even got going just made the pair of them look like trendy parents desperate for their kids to see them as ‘cool’ when the kids themselves were cringing.

That photograph seemed to sum up so much of what the Labour Party and its leadership keeps getting wrong, and it’s hard to see how it can get it right at the moment. When the Labour leader claims it was wrong for Rosie Duffield to state the biological fact that only women have cervixes – ‘It’s something that shouldn’t be said. It’s not right’ – it’s no wonder the nation shakes its head and rolls its eyes in unison. This is the alternative? The party can’t even be regarded as a fragile coalition of competing interests in the way it was under, say, the stewardship of Harold Wilson, when its rival wings could at least sacrifice their individual visions for the greater good of governing the country. Right now, the country needs a strong Opposition more than at any other time in living memory – and it simply hasn’t got one.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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GasOne of the benefits of my gradual withdrawal from watching ‘live’ television is the removal of that irritant known as the ad break; on the rare occasions now when something airs on commercial TV that I actually want to watch, I instinctively record it so that any pleasure which might be derived from the viewing experience is not routinely gatecrashed by ads. The ability to skip through ads was a genuinely liberating element of the VCR when it became part of the household furniture in the 1980s, but the advent of ‘catch-up’ has detached me further from the in-yer-face aggression of the ad man pushing his unwanted products on me. Quite a change from back in the days without choice, when we all saw the same ads at the same time and consequently all ended up humming the same jingles and reciting the same catchphrases. ‘Naughty but nice’; ‘The sweet you can eat between meals without ruining your appetite’; ‘Hands that do dishes can feel soft as your face…with mild green Fairy Liquid’ and so on. Rather quaintly, there are occasions today when I’m asked if I’ve seen ‘that ad’, and I have to explain I don’t watch them anymore.

This self-imposed exile from exposure to the ad break means I’ve no idea if energy suppliers advertise their wares on TV in the way they used to. Just as the unlikely likes of the Milk Marketing Board once claimed advertising space between programmes, I recall British Gas hiring Noel Edmonds to promote the brand in the late 70s with a characteristically annoying jingle. Why a publicity campaign was deemed necessary in the days before deregulation, when ‘the gas board’ was an umbrella term that encompassed twelve regional boards as a nationalised British Gas Corporation free from competition, isn’t entirely clear; but all of that was destined to be sacrificed at the free-market altar of privatisation come the Thatcher era, anyway. The plethora of competing energy suppliers may have offered a superficial variety of choice to the consumer since the tedious ‘Tell Sid’ auction of 1986, but anyone who has chopped and changed over the past 35 years is well aware that any initial reduction in price when switching from one supplier to another is short-lived, as there is always a gradual gravitation towards the same extortionate cost, whoever the supplier.

Energy suppliers seem to have been a political hot potato ever since plans to reform the system formed part of Ed Miliband’s manifesto in the run-up to the 2015 General Election campaign; it’s probably the sole policy idea from that era of the Labour Party that struck a chord with the electorate, for it was generally felt customers had been getting a raw deal from suppliers for far too long. Speaking personally, I know I’ve had more problems with gas and electricity bills over the last 20 years than any other; the likes of rent, water, telephone/internet, and even the much-derided TV licence (the cheapest of the lot by far) have all remained at a relatively manageable rate, in line with inflation and the cost of living. By contrast, gas and electricity have fluctuated wildly and rarely fall into the ‘manageable’ category; I tend to be informed of a ridiculous hike in prices via a letter (usually overestimating what I should be paying), which then necessitates a lengthy phone call in which I have to try and negotiate a price I can just about afford. And now it appears that same old troublesome utility is all set to spark one more crisis amidst the mounting of many.

This week, threats to gas supplies have been added to the Doomsday narrative that began with Brexit and has continued with Covid Project Fear. Just in case the prospect of the upcoming winter months doesn’t appear bleak enough with predictions of rising coronavirus cases, further lockdowns, and the reintroduction of restrictions, now the talk is of festive food shortages, possible blackouts reminiscent of the Three Day-Week, and astronomical increases in the cost of energy. Last year, Christmas came within a whisker of being cancelled ala Oliver Cromwell due to the Covid factor; this year, the media’s misery soothsayers are relishing one in which it’s okay to have more than six people in the house, but only so everyone can communally shiver and starve by candlelight. And, of course, by the time we’re on the eve of it it’ll be officially the Worst Winter Since 1963 as well – like every winter; and the NHS will be days away from complete collapse – like every winter. Other than that, though, sounds like it’s gonna be fun.

Seven of the smaller energy suppliers have gone bust in the past year – five of them in just the last few weeks – and the global gas market surge, provoked by a cold northern hemisphere winter that drained gas storage supplies, has sent the market price of gas soaring by over 50%; this is especially concerning in the UK, where the price of electricity has also risen due to gas plants generating just under half of the country’s electricity. The fact this is happening during September’s ‘Indian Summer’, even before the descent of the autumnal chill and the annual ignition of the fireplace, is worrying, for we’re hardly at peak usage time right now. The spectre of fuel poverty haunting households that we may well be confined to come the winter is not helped by scare stories about empty supermarket shelves; the ramifications of the energy crisis merges with food supplies via talk of a threatened shortage of carbon dioxide, which is a vital ingredient in the food and drinks industry. CO₂ can be found in beer and fizzy drinks, but it’s also used to stun animals prior to slaughter in abattoirs, as well as being a pivotal component of the protective packaging that keeps food fresh, meaning a shortage of it affects more than merely pig-farmers or dedicated diehard carnivores.

With so much time and effort devoted to imposing renewable sources of energy upon the public (without much in the way of consultation), the need to be seen doing anything to theoretically combat climate change has served to dismiss dependable and unfashionably traditional sources at a moment when they might actually come in handy. Plentiful supplies of natural gas have been left untapped by the fierce opposition to fracking, and nuclear being a dirty word has caused constant delays in the building of new plants to supersede the old ones; yet with the low-carbon PR campaign hindered by the unreliability of ‘green’ alternatives like solar and wind power, the remaining coal-powered stations in this country are now being bribed to stay open in order to cope with the impending new crisis, putting the usual crisis we are routinely bombarded with to one side. It seems the sudden U-turn mantra is jam today, regardless of the jam we’re constantly told we require for tomorrow.

The price rises are scheduled to kick-in next month, nicely timed to coincide with the end of the £20-a-week ‘uplift’ Universal Credit payment introduced during lockdown and the severest Covid restrictions; it was never going to last forever, though most probably didn’t imagine it would draw to a close the same week as a 12% increase in energy bills. It was inevitable that all the financial incentives required to pacify opposition to lockdown were destined to come to a shuddering halt eventually, though the timing of an energy crisis is unfortunate, to say the least. I guess the problem with news of this nature is differentiating between any genuine threat there may be and the scaremongering hyperbole we’ve become accustomed to over the past couple of years; the danger of governments and ruling elites crying wolf too often is that no one will believe them when the big bad wolf really is at the door.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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