HEADING FOR A SKID, MARK?

No, the irony will never escape me, but I do have to admit I owe Mark Williams-Thomas a great deal. Deprived of ITV’s top investigative reporter rising without a trace in 2012, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the fearless ‘former police detective’ and ‘child protection expert’ in alerting the nation to the scourge of celebrity paedos hiding in plain sight, I have been able to acquire an audience for my ramblings both in this medium and another. In fact, it was the other that enabled MWT to facilitate my first big break; and for that I will always be grateful to my generation’s Roger Cook.

The ‘Exposure’ exposé on Jimmy Savile that aired on October 3 2012 was the career-launching platform MWT had desperately been looking for, following occasional work for ‘Newsnight’ in a similar vein. It also provided me with something of a platform too. At that point, I’d been uploading videos to YouTube for a good couple of years and had slowly built a small cult following for my redubs, remakes and remodels of largely vintage TV. After watching MWT’s sensationalistic hatchet-job on a dead man who was admittedly as loathed as he was loved in his lifetime, my scepticism was superseded by a light-bulb moment. Here was a chance to combine and contrast the old world with the new one. And so Jimmy Savile became Great Uncle Bulgaria.

My first ‘Exposure’ spoof appeared within 48 hours of its source material being screened and went down well with my regular subscribers as well as helping to pick up a few more along the way. It was fairly short and quite crude – in terms of technical quality; the crudeness of the humour was a given – and I would probably have left it at that had not MWT used his newfound fame to kick-start a bandwagon he was determined to be in the driving seat of. Whilst shocking examples of the real thing were taking place at that very moment (albeit under the radar in faraway northern towns), the media’s moral crusader convinced the nation that it had actually all happened in the 1970s and 80s; the rich, the famous and the powerful had been the perpetrators, and their wicked deeds had been securely shielded from the masses by top-level cover-ups, conspiracies and secret societies until MWT had the guts to shine a light on the clandestine network of shame.

The insidious instigation of Operation Yewtree, unleashing the Cromwellian storm-troopers of the police and their allies in the legal profession, spearheaded a Hopkins-esque witch-hunt in which safely unfashionable old celebrities were rounded-up one-by-one, usually thanks to the exhausting efforts of MWT. Yes, it was boom-time for ambulance-chasing law firms, false-memory therapists, and yours truly. By placing The Wombles at the centre of my parallel universe Operation It Could Be Youtree, I was able to expand the roll-call of the guilty (till proven innocent) by substituting each of the aged accused with telly contemporaries of Wimbledon Common’s most infamous residents – Bagpuss, Hartley Hare, Mr Benn, Nogbad the Bad et al – as well as encompassing the motley crew of Icke disciples, fanatical fantasists and self-appointed paedo-hunters MWT had given the green light to.

Recently revisiting ‘Exposure’, I was surprised that my version of Mark Williams-Thomas, reborn (almost inevitably) as Mark JOHN-Thomas, doesn’t actually appear until right at the very end of the third instalment. However, as MWT became more ubiquitous on-screen whenever Yewtree grabbed a headline, this humourless, pompous individual with a hilarious absence of self-awareness quickly asserted himself as the star of my show thereafter. MWT at that time had his own YT channel and such was his delicious vanity that virtually every appearance he had made on TV was there; I had an unlimited supply of footage I could play with. And I did. By the time I’d taken so much piss out of him that his bladder must have been running on empty, MWT mysteriously removed more or less all the videos I’d pillaged. Coincidence? The fact is my series had taken on a life of its own that went way beyond my usual YT audience, even as far as those directly affected by the events I was satirising.

Whilst I’d been playing my strongest hand to parody the hysteria, others had been playing theirs in different online mediums, and I discovered the ‘Exposure’ series was being passed around like illicit contraband. Some of its most enthusiastic fans made contact and new doors were opened to me as a consequence. Episodes gradually acquired a little more sophistication both in presentation and in material as I was being fed information I wouldn’t otherwise have come across. The mainstream media was sticking rigidly to the MWT manual and no prominent journalist had yet dared to stick their head above the parapet for fear of being labelled a paedo apologist. For a good couple of years, my videos and the more forensic blogs of various determined diggers were the only places where an alternative to the consensus could be heard.

It took until celebrities whose currency hadn’t dated along with their dress-sense found themselves caught in the Yewtree net before voices belatedly began to be to be tentatively raised. Gradually, the wider public were made aware of the dubious police tactics and yet we heard little of the non-famous casualties denied access to expensive lawyers, those whose lives had also been devastated by this appalling approach to law and order. Moreover, an #IbelieveHer agenda served to conveniently mute all those women whose men-folk had been whisked away at the crack of dawn by the CPS Stasi – all those wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters and sisters who were suffering in silence because their stories didn’t fit the narrative the MSM had opted for to present events, as ever, in simple black & white terms. Most are suffering still.

I’m lucky. I was able to walk away from the madness when I’d reached the end of the ‘Exposure’ road with a fourteenth and final episode that retold the tale in the style of Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain’ series. I felt I’d extracted every ounce of sap from the Yewtree and there was nothing left to say, for me at least. Firmly established as the resident paedo professor of the daytime TV sofa, Mark Williams-Thomas nevertheless continued to seek out new celebrity scalps even as more questions than ever were being asked about Operation Yewtree and its ramifications, as well as its equally unnecessary successors, Midland and Conifer. And now those questions are bringing the odious role of MWT into the public spotlight at last; prominent papers are actually saying out loud what the rest of us were saying out loud five long years ago, when we were routinely dismissed as beyond-the-pale paedo sympathisers.

Paul Gambaccini’s broadcasting clout guarantees him a sympathetic audience and gives him the freedom to openly describe what he went through as well as being critical of the system that exposed him to it, whereas others who experienced the same ordeal remain marginalised by their obscurity and tarnished in their communities. Yes, without Mark Williams-Thomas, there would be no ‘Winegum Telegram’; but without Mark Williams-Thomas, there would be far fewer damaged families and far fewer ruined individuals. I’d happily consign this blog to the same great online platform in the sky that the ‘Exposure’ series now resides in if that pound-shop Titus Oates finally received a taste of his own rancid medicine.

© The Editor

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KNIVES AND FAWKES

Yeah, I remember (remember) the fifth of November. How could I forget? One fifth of November not so long ago mine eyes did see the light – to paraphrase the final speech of a late lamented orator – and this wholly secular illumination finally toppled a distant and previously unchallenged blink of elation from its long-held pole position in the memory banks. That had occurred on a sunny day in 1974 when I first mastered the tricky task of propelling myself on two wheels without falling over; alas, the applause and cheers that rang in my ears upon pedalling the short distance to liberation from the tricycle now feel as far away as its belated successor does from the bottomless pit that life decided I would be more at home in. All I can hear from here is the discharge of gunpowder in the annual celebration of a plot that failed to succeed and left us with what we have today, four-hundred and odd years later. Is that really worthy of celebration?

With so many appalling institutions to choose from, so many that were established in idealistic circumstances and have betrayed their original intent, afraid I have to hone in on the one that hogs more headlines than any other. Yes, some things in life are sacred and their betrayal cuts deeper than the sharpest scythe; but I wonder if my increasingly incurable cynicism towards our elected representatives and their motives is simply a symptom of my own personal (and undeniably unhealthy) state of mind or merely the inevitable outcome of a fairly traumatic political decade.

I know MPs are easy targets, but to be fair, they do ask for it. It’s less than ten years since the Expenses’ Scandal, exactly a year since the most recent ‘sex scandal’ (one that cost the jobs of two members of the Cabinet), and allegations of bullying within Westminster are ongoing. And I’m sure I’m not the only outside observer weary with it all. A financial crash, punitive austerity, a coalition government, two incredibly divisive referendums, the Brexit balls-up, and the endless splitting of vitriolic factions that only ever aids a divide-and-rule agenda; my gut reaction can’t help but evoke the spirit of Roy Castle amending his theme song – ‘generalisation, that’s what you need.’ I dunno. Maybe politicians just seem to be bigger bastards the longer one pays attention and the more one is inevitably let down. Even if the blatant efforts of so many to derail a democratic mandate and preserve a thoroughly rotten status quo wasn’t such a classic example of why they languish amongst the lowest subspecies of the human race, it’s not as though it’s the only one.

Principles and morals – not exactly essential qualifications for entering the hallowed environs of Parliament these days, one concludes (if they ever were). Just take a cursory glance through the ‘serious’ section of Private Eye and marvel at the endless litany of obscene amounts paid to Honourable Members as company directors or corporate consultants in addition to their Westminster wages and fiddled expenses; not much belt-tightening on display, and even MPs one would generally like to credit with a bit of integrity have hardly suffered during the Age of Austerity (which, lest we forget, is now officially over). If they’re not receiving back-handers from lobbyists, they’re being flown out on junkets to tax havens or Middle Eastern oases by undemocratic regimes courting their favour and eager for a little influence in the corridors of power. And these regimes know how easy it is because the people they’re dealing with are almost as unscrupulously immoral as they are, albeit considerably vainer and dimmer.

That kindergarten of corruption, the local council, is the breeding ground for many of those who then make the leap to the parliamentary hustings; all of the toxic trappings of Parliament are present on a smaller scale, serving as a virtual training camp for the worst Westminster can offer. Just ask the good people of Northamptonshire. At times, it’s hard not to surmise that anyone seeking promotion to the political premier league from the rotten boroughs is little more than a conceited, self-aggrandising sociopath only out for themselves and prepared to ruthlessly clamber over anyone – friend or foe – to get where they want to be, essentially poison ivy to whom others are convenient trellises. I can’t sleep at night, true; but I’ve no idea how most MPs do. I don’t know how the majority of the mendacious hypocrites have the nerve to stand up and lecture the rest of us on how to live our lives, quite frankly. They are the least qualified members of society to do so, yet they do – constantly.

Those of us immune to the appeal of politics as a profession make friendships and alliances in life that we hope will be of long-lasting significance; we do so with no motive other than the desire to spend time in good company because we enjoy it, not because we see this company as something that can facilitate a move somewhere else, using people as a climbing frame and callously dispensing with them when they’ve ceased to be of any further use. If we behaved that way in daily life we’d rightly be regarded as a bit of a shit. In politics, however – as in business, which is often indistinguishable from it – such behaviour is applauded as a sign of strength, especially when it comes to government.

The unedifying backstabbing that took place in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation a couple of years ago was a case in point. True, it was already difficult to warm to the likes of Boris and Gove, but the way in which they laid down their friends for their lives was indeed a telling lesson in the dark arts of party politics and should have earned both the eternal contempt they deserve. And thanks to their stint as pantomime villains, we ended up with Motherfucker Theresa – the last woman standing as the Tories re-staged the climax to ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Then again, maybe the desperation that ensued when Dave departed reflected a wider crisis; maybe politicians have become worse because they’re terrified they’re bordering on extinction now that the world is run by corporations rather than elected representatives; maybe we’re witnessing their Nero moment.

At the same time, I suppose there’s an argument to be made that Parliament enables the intellectually-challenged to have something to keep them busy; after all, where else could a retarded dumpling of a redundant turd such as Chris Grayling find a role in society? He’s akin to the thick third son of an old-school aristocrat, earmarked for a career in the clergy. If their actions didn’t affect the lives of so many others, we could perhaps leave them to play in their Victorian Gothic nursery like the privileged special needs cases they are, safe in the knowledge they’re only harming themselves. Unfortunately, they’re not. Even the relatively inoffensive ‘silent majority’ of constituency MPs (most of whom we vote for every four or five years) may start out with high hopes and the best of intentions, but should they end up far higher than they imagined – well, as the old saying goes, all power…you know the rest. It’s not for nothing that Guy Fawkes was once referred to as ‘the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.’

Of course, I may well warm a little towards the current crop once they’re out of politics. Portillo I find occasionally engaging as a presenter, and I even admit to quite enjoying Balls and Osborne’s Saint & Greavsie routine last Election night. But, as stated previously, right now I’m not in a position to pass judgement with balance and fairness on those who raise my spiky hackles, so perhaps it’s probably for the best that I withdraw and leave the nation to roll over as Universal Credit rolls out. Maybe we’re all Nero now.

PS I may make the point better in this video, even though the corporate safe-space YT has become will no longer allow me to make a penny from it or any other…

© The Editor

CRYSTAL BALLS

How much unexpected meetings or chance encounters that lead to seismic life changes are indeed down to chance or are merely inevitable moves in a preordained plan depends, I guess, on your view of man as either an autonomous animal in control of his own destiny or as a mere pawn in God’s grand scheme. The Osmonds certainly fell on ‘the plan’ side of the argument, as the title of their 1973 concept album testified – though why ‘Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool’ fitted in to His big idea remains an extremely mystifying example of the Almighty moving in a very mysterious way.

Sticking with all things Merseyside, take 6 July 1957. Skiffle is the first of many teenage fads to come, and a church fête gives The Kids a chance to strum their washboards amidst the Morris dancers and a display by the City of Liverpool Police Dogs. On this occasion, The Kids are a bunch of school pals called The Quarrymen, led by a 16-year-old named John Lennon. The cocky leader of the pack shares a mutual friend with an equally overconfident adolescent called Paul McCartney; said friend introduces the most successful song-writing partnership in musical history to each other for the first time that day. And so the wheels of a cultural revolution are slowly set in motion with neither party remotely aware of it. How could they be?

It’s quite possible McCartney might have decided not to accept his pal’s offer to visit Woolton that summer’s day in 1957; after all, Macca had only just turned 15, still at a young enough age to be susceptible to other offers characteristic of a 1950s British childhood. If he’d gone fishing or train-spotting or had indulged in a jumpers-for-goalposts kick-about, the world would have kept on turning and none of these activities would have altered it, unlike the meeting at that church fête, which did – in many ways, for all of us. One could argue the mutual friend of Lennon & McCartney – Ivan Vaughan – was a pivotal figure in modern history, yet he could just as easily not have been. On such wafer-thin paper is history written.

The tempting ‘What if?’ scenario has generated many speculative and imaginative alternatives to historical events over the years: think of a novel such as Robert Harris’s ‘Fatherland’ taking place in a parallel universe 1960s, twenty years after Nazi Germany won World War II. Counterfactual history approaches the concept with a more academic eye, though many historians see it as an essentially pointless exercise; Nazi Germany didn’t win WWII, but was that always destined to be the final score on the eve of kick-off?

Certain figures whose actions changed the course of world history often appear to have led charmed lives, as though there was indeed a plan in mind for them. As Andrew Roberts highlights in his new biography of Winston Churchill, the Great British icon was born two months premature, suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia as a child and was stabbed as a schoolboy; he regularly diced with death as a soldier, and civilian life was punctuated by three car crashes and two plane crashes, all of which he survived along with numerous strokes and heart attacks. Pure chance or preordained?

If one believes our destinies are already mapped out for us before we even arrive in the world, one could almost adopt a petulant attitude to our apparently powerless part in directing those destinies. What’s the point in trying if we’re only acting out actions penned in advance anyway, being little more than marionettes whose every move is dictated by some celestial puppet master? If whatever we do makes no difference to the eventual outcome, we could consciously live a life of inactive isolation, surrendering to sloth and deliberately avoiding effort altogether. Then again, by doing so we may well be merely fulfilling a designated role after all. It’s a conundrum if life seems frustratingly impervious to our attempts to improve it, as though we permanently sleep on the wrong side of the bed.

We’ve all retrospectively recognised moments in life when we’ve stood at a crossroads and chosen a specific route from several options available to us. These options could have been deliberated upon at length beforehand or we may have just thrown caution to the wind with an ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ moment. If the consequences of our decision fail to deliver, it’s unavoidable that years later we ponder on what might have happened had we chosen one of the other options. Middle-age is especially prone to such hindsight musings, though only if we don’t find what we’re looking for once we get there. And, of course, there’s always the nagging belief that what we didn’t do would have turned out so much better than what we actually did. If only…

When constructing these parallel universe lives, it pays to pause and recall the saving graces that emerged from even the darkest of times, those times we become convinced life could have done without. In my own experience, feline and canine companions came out of a period in the 1990s I often wish I could erase from memory, yet both cat and dog long outlived its merciful end, enriching my existence for years afterwards; without that painful period, I would have been denied the joy they brought. Therefore, I accept it was necessary – my own personal 40 days and nights in the wilderness. And I’m sure we’ve all had them.

I’ve never visited a fortune-teller nor bought into their mystical shtick, not out of any inflexible opinion that they pedal pure hokum, but mainly because I genuinely have no desire to see into the future – even if it were possible. Should the crystal ball show me something I don’t want to see, I’d be convinced the future is already arranged and it’d be futile me trying to change it. And feeling as though someone else is scripting that future puts one back into the worst kind of childhood mindset, trapped in a world where all-powerful beings, from parents to teachers, are in control of everything that happens to you. Your input is negligible in terms of impact compared to theirs, so why bother?

One problem with accepting the preordained notion of life as a readymade plan is that, unlike the end result of WWII, it doesn’t always go to plan. Sometimes a luminous path ahead that certainly feels preordained as it generates good vibrations is abruptly blocked and we are rerouted against our will, back down a darker avenue as the trite ‘well, it just wasn’t meant to be’ excuse is trotted out. One could either behave like a senior Met officer and lock one’s self in one’s car when confronted by an unexpected and unpleasant turn of events or one could face them head on. But the latter depends on whether or not one has faith in the possibility of a reward for doing so; and faith, like love, trust and hope, is not always the most accessible of subscriptions when life’s size-nine’s have your groin (and your crystal balls) in their sights. But maybe that’s the fate that always awaits we fools who (like Blanche DuBois) still believe in magic…

(https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jack-English-Cat-called-English/dp/1717944809/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533553266&sr=1-1)

© The Editor

CARRY ON UP BRITANNIA

A friend of mine once…hello, by the way. Been a while – well, a month. Sorry, where was I? Ah, yes – a friend of mine once saw Morrissey live at a festival. Said friend was on acid at the time and told me afterwards he imagined he was seeing Elvis in Vegas. Proof that an altered state of mind can manipulate one’s perception no end, I guess. A bit like when I watched Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech the other week on TV; I was pissed at the time – yes, in the early afternoon; hey, ho – what a dismally decadent life I lead; and the speech sounded like an oratorical masterpiece. Okay, so it was alright as conference speeches go, just not ‘I have a dream’. Intoxication may also have enabled me to overlook the toe-curlingly opportunistic and utterly meaningless (to the electorate) spectacle of Palestinian flags in the hall, not to mention the motley collective of cretins that comprises Jezza’s shadow cabinet applauding every box-ticking platitude. A week later, it was the dancing queen herself, Motherfucker Theresa’s turn; and I was sober. It wasn’t the same.

At one time, conference coverage was an aberration in the admirable vacuum of the daytime TV schedule. Long before Britain’s slavish worship of the worst American attributes infected the broadcast medium and television became something that spanned twenty-four mediocre hours, annual party conferences and their unprecedented live transmission shoving the test card aside were events even the most politically apathetic tuned into. It was something to watch! Yes, it was mostly boring, but so were Open University lectures. But we still watched them because there was nothing else on. Now there’s something on all the time and conference coverage has lost its novelty. It’s so slick now that it’s not even as boring as the rest of the shit on all the other channels anymore, which is a shame.

Unfortunately, as happened during the last General Election, the shadow of Brexit obscured everything else at the party conferences. It does feel as if both the worst frothing-at-the-mouth Brexiteers and the more sanctimonious Remoaners have kept the topic on the front page of everyone’s lives at the expense of serious social issues that have long needed urgent attention. The fact that the people actually had their vote two and-a-half years ago appears to have eluded the deluded losers who didn’t get the result they wanted. Personally, I’d still quite like a replay of the 1975 European Cup Final, but I’ve reluctantly accepted the final score now. How anyone can look at the vicious divisions the 2016 Referendum opened up and imagine doing it all over again will in any way ‘heal the nation’ clearly suffers from the same symptoms of denial as that despicable paragon of selectivity, Alastair Campbell.

Those eager to rejoin a club that undoubtedly views uppity Britain with such superior contempt for having the temerity to leave it make this country resemble a battered wife desperate to get back with her abusive husband because her self-esteem is so low she can no longer function without returning to what she has been brainwashed into believing is her proper station in life. Even those who voted Remain on the simple basis of ‘better the devil you know’ must have had their eyes belatedly opened by the behaviour of the Brussels bully boys in recent months. Granted, some of the most enthusiastic (not to say wealthy) Europhobes are motivated by their own peculiarly fanatical obsession, but the equally selfish self-interest of dishonourable members determined to overturn democracy in the name of democracy can only have diminished the standing of Westminster further as well as strengthening the Leave argument. Yes, a second referendum is precisely the tonic this troubled nation clearly needs.

Maybe there is salvation, however, for Our Glorious Leader last week announced we have a rerun of the Festival of Britain to look forward to! The Festival of Brexit? That’ll sort it all out. The unveiling of the Millennium Dome back on New Year’s Day 2000 proposed a similarly over-optimistic aim; almost 20 years later the Dome itself has become just another impersonal music venue named after a corporation – imagine if that pernicious trend applied to people: ‘I baptise this child Vodafone Smith’ – though I suspect a vicar’s daughter would rather associate her glorified village fête with the two more illustrious precedents. These are, of course, the 1951 jamboree and the one it marked the centenary of, the Great Exhibition. Yet, there’s a crucial difference.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was rooted very much in the here and now, celebrating the nation’s contemporary industrial supremacy, whereas the Festival of Britain was imagining an exciting post-war future with its Dan Dare-like edifices such as the Skylon. Whatever ghastly shape this Tory idea of state-sanctioned ‘fun’ will take is doomed to echo the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. The 2012 event was an expertly staged piece of heritage theatre, celebrating past glories in spectacular style; as we have even less to look forward to now than we did then it’s inevitable we’re going to end up with another chocolate box for fat American tourists. After all, unless the centrepiece of the celebration entails Meghan Markle waving a rainbow flag to start a mass moped race of obese, knife-wielding trans-hoodies, choreographed by Banksy and set to the strains of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ (featuring a rap from Stormzy), it’s hardly likely to wallow in the present day.

True, the opportunities for merchandise are mouth-watering. Stab vests and burqas in Union Jack colours; Grenfell Tower paperweights; toy Tasers; bottles of acid with a picture of Little Prince George on the front; inflatable safe spaces; armed police action figures; Stormont doll’s houses with no dolls inside; a clockwork robot-dancing Mrs May; the Oligarch & Saudi edition of Monopoly in which the aim is to buy up every piece of land in central London to build a luxury apartment block upon. Well, according to reports, £120 million will be set aside for this celebration of ‘culture, sports and innovation’ – and here’s me thinking that extra cash was being saved for the NHS. The current schedule is for the intended date of 2022, which has also been earmarked for the next General Election as well as Brenda’s Platinum Jubilee; it seems all three are rooted in shaky optimism from the vantage point of 2018. And who the hell can look that far ahead, anyway? Not me, mate.

(https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jack-English-Cat-called-English/dp/1717944809/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533553266&sr=1-1)

© The Editor

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

I’m still alive, which surely proves I’m not spending all day watching the telly whilst not here. I don’t watch much TV as it is and certainly wouldn’t before 7.00 in the evening, anyway. Recently forced to upgrade by my digital supplier, I did so with little enthusiasm, though I can now ‘Series Link’, which is a bit like programming ye olde VCR to record a particular programme weeks in advance. It’s not something I’ll probably make much use of, however, as I tend to use the TV set as an effective monitor for the DVD player most of the time. And what I do like to watch is usually regarded as being of minority interest, which means it’s always in danger of disappearing from the screen. The word ‘minority’ has different connotations where mainstream broadcasters are concerned, anyway.

The recent announcement that those oh-so wise guardians of the licence fee have decided to slash the budget of BBC Parliament – probably to finance further ‘life-changing journeys’ through some far-flung foreign field for a bunch of has-beens from the 80s – is typical of the Corporation’s priorities when confronted by criticism: keep the crap and dispense with everything that makes it unique (see also the sales of Maida Vale and BBC Caversham, plus the regular pruning of World Service branches). Moreover, the cutting back of the Parliament channel is a blow for archival anoraks who’ve enjoyed numerous nights viewing unearthed real-time coverage of distant General Elections on said channel. Thankfully, most are available on YouTube now, albeit not subject to the censorious new moral regime that is constantly preventing me making a penny from my own videos; anyway, it was online where I received my latest fix when sitting through the 1970 show.

Avuncular anchor Cliff Michelmore had a mouth remarkably similar to that of a frog; I kept expecting an elongated tongue to lash out and whip a fly from the nose of David Butler during the broadcast. Alas, it didn’t happen, but it was an entertaining watch, all the same. A degree of civility and politeness on the part of the presenters when speaking to politicians came as a refreshing shock, particularly from Robin Day, who is still credited with a fearsome proto-Paxman reputation; and when compared to the tiresome bullishness of the ‘Channel 4 News’ or ‘Newsnight’ teams of today – behaving like prosecution barristers from their very first accusation – the less confrontational approach of Robin Day actually achieves better results from MPs not instantly on the defensive. Then again, perhaps the men from the Ministries were held in a slightly higher regard back then.

As ever with these programmes, glimpses of the general public are a priceless window onto a lost world – a bit like a recent DVD outing, the mid-70s Thames TV murder-mystery panel game, ‘Whodunnit?’, hosted by Jon Pertwee with regular panelists in the shape of the swaggeringly-suave Patrick Mower and the gorgeously languorous actress-cum-hotelier Anouska Hempel. At one point, a member of the public is added to the panel every week (courtesy of winning a TV Times competition), and each bears all the endearing awkwardness-on-camera absent from media-savvy millennials. Regarding the public of Election 70, however, there is additional fun to be had through spotting future faces hidden behind the floral shirts, including journalist Simon Jenkins hanging out at a swanky London night-club in a sequence that resembles a Carnaby Street pilot of ‘The Hit Man and Her’ – and Gyles Brandreth whilst still a student at Oxford.

The declarations themselves are quite dramatic on occasion; though not as momentous a wipe-out as 1997, the unexpected ousting of the Wilson Government saw some impressive scalps claimed by the victors, none more so than the colourful figure of George Brown, losing his seat after 25 years. The notorious old soak managed to stay sober during the tension provoked by the recount, and Brown’s losing speech was his final public address as a ‘commoner’, for he enjoyed a familiar elevation to the Lords almost immediately thereafter. Watching the defeat made me wonder what it must feel like to receive rejection on such a scale (Brown lost Belper by more than 2,000 votes), though I suppose it depends on how much you care for your constituents. I would imagine being rejected by just one person you love is a tougher experience than being rejected by 2,000 people you couldn’t give a toss about.

Would I have more confidence in our elected representatives if the likes of Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Castle, Jenkins, Whitelaw, Thorpe, Thatcher or Powell were amongst the candidates today? Looking at perhaps the most abysmal and incompetent Tory Government in living memory (including Major’s) and then glancing across at a Labour Opposition infected with identity politics and boasting a Corbyn alternative in the likes of oily Umunna, I can only come to the conclusion I’d rather be on the 1970 electoral register than the 2018 one. I don’t think I’ve ever had less confidence in any of them to deliver the goods than I have right now. The Brexit charade seems to sum it all up, a farce as demoralising as the ongoing soap opera in Washington. Hard not to be a cynic and simply think f**k the lot of ‘em. Mind you, most days I think f**k the world and everyone in it, so I guess politicians are open goals for contempt.

Twitter can often provide a different perspective on affairs, especially if you follow incompatible participants from across the ideological spectrum. It’s healthy to have your opinions challenged as well as reinforced, though even this can grate after a while. Of course, both sides highlight anything that supports their chosen narrative, so the left bigs up the Boris-is-an Islamophobe storyline whilst the right milks Jezza’s anti-Semitic terrorist sympathies; alongside these headlines are smaller stories that do a similar job, though one can’t help but wonder if they’re being reported solely to promote an agenda as inflexible as its polar opposite. Too much exposure to it all and I come away convinced both sides of the divide are as bad as each other; and I’ve got enough negative energy to deal with as it is.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not feeling especially charitable towards anyone at the moment, and as public figures whose careers are in ‘public life’ can provoke both anger and annoyance at the best of times, I’m hardly in the right frame of mind to pen balanced assessments of their performances and, on occasion, give them the benefit of the doubt. If there’s only bile in the belly, you’re left with Alex Jones; if there’s only petulant conviction you’re right and everyone else is wrong, you’re left with Owen Jones. And if there’s no sign of a heart, you’re left with Katy Hopkins. As Richard Nixon said, ‘Those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then, you destroy yourself.’

I appreciate some of you may miss the days when I would write about anything in the news; I do myself. But despite my best efforts, the prospect of returning to regular posts on here still leaves me impotent. A year ago, I could write daily dispatches without breaking sweat; but a year ago I could kiss the day goodnight secure in the knowledge that everything to have constituted the day would be there for me to kiss goodnight again tomorrow. There was plenty of time to take everything for granted and wallow in the blissful complacency that comes with perceived security. Well, that security has gone now and I’m stranded on this bastard island until my eyes are able to recognise a rescue ship when they see it. I should’ve gone to Specsavers. But as the spirit of dark and lonely water once said to a traumatised generation, I’ll be back-back-back-back-back…

(https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jack-English-Cat-called-English/dp/1717944809/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533553266&sr=1-1)

© The Editor

JACK OF ALL TRADES

A year ago this week, I smoked my last cigarette; a recent clean of the spines displayed on my bookshelf reminded me how my world used to be coated in a stinky and sickly golden smudge that unknowingly proved to be as great a social deterrent as BO. But it’s only when you sometimes come across evidence of how something used to be that you belatedly realise how much it has changed. Example: A couple of years back, I purchased an archive copy each of the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph; both were printed in 1977. Twenty-odd years of colour newspapers utilising digital technology had served to erase the aesthetic memory of how Fleet Street produce once looked, felt and smelt. The bright clean reproduction of images we’ve become accustomed to (if we still bother with a physical edition, of course) when stood next to the murky monochrome equivalent from forty years ago reveals the latter as having a closer resemblance to a poor photocopy.

The old hot metal printing technique also gave newspapers a distinctive odour as well as leaving its imprint on your fingers if you held a paper in your hands for more than five minutes. Newspapers were relatively cheap in relation to other goods, but had they retailed for pennies exceeding single figures, it probably would have been taking the piss when they were hardly works of art. They were simple, unpretentious and instantly disposable objects, hence their day-after demotion to the chip shop, so it’s no wonder they were something everybody could afford. Mind you, dailies and Sundays sold so much back then that the proprietors didn’t need to charge more than 10p to make a handsome profit.

As a child, there was a strict dividing line between what parents read and what children read. Comics were for us, newspapers were for them – oh, and dad also had a few…erm…‘magazines’ stashed in a secret place that we weren’t supposed to know about. This arrangement suited my tastes, for the content of newspapers was extremely dull to my prepubescent eye bar one page – no, not the third one, but a page somewhere near the back-end of the publication, just before the sports section. This page was the nearest a newspaper would get to a comic, even if the parade of three (or four) panel strips exhibited humour not quite as basic as that in the Dandy or the Beano.

The paper of choice in our household was the Daily Mirror. Its strips included space and time-travelling strongman Garth (who always somehow seemed to visit planets whose female natives had yet to discover bras), old-school northern pisshead layabout Andy Capp (who had a fag permanently glued to his lower lip), The Perishers (which appeared to be a British take on Peanuts), and Bill Tidy’s surreal The Fosdyke Saga. All the national dailies were defined in the child’s mind by which comic strips they featured. The Daily Express could boast Rupert Bear; the Mail had Fred Basset; the Sun had Hagar the Horrible, and so on. Even the local paper had its notable cartoon characters: As well as hosting US strip Marmaduke (a Great Dane I often confused with Scooby Doo), the Yorkshire Evening Post had the bizarre home-grown character known as Alfie Apple (Yes, a walking/talking apple).

Unlike my parents, I didn’t grow up to become a loyal subscriber to any particular paper and I gradually lost touch with the strips; whenever I’ve caught a glimpse of them in recent years the inevitable addition of garish colour has, to me, removed part of their appeal. The loss of their black & white-ness is something that appears to diminish their charm, in the same way that it would be impossible to imagine any of those early 60s ‘Kitchen Sink’ movies in Technicolor. There also seems to be fewer of them, with one of the key tools in securing the next generation of readers now marginalised, mirroring the suicidal dismissal of journalists who were experts in their chosen fields, something which suggested the editors of the papers had already given up and stopped believing there was any sort of future for the medium.

As has been pointed out on several occasions here recently, the allure of the recent past and the rose-tinted hues of unavoidable nostalgia can stretch into many unexpected areas. For some reason the old newspaper strip has fired my imagination of late, and in my increasingly desperate quest to seek constant distractions from the sinkhole I fell into eight months ago, one distraction I seized upon was to pay homage to the genre by making up my own strip. So I have done. Aesthetically, it belongs to a lost world, so wouldn’t be at home in the current excuse for a format that no longer really exists. Instead, I went straight to what used to be a commercial offshoot for the already-proven success – the collected strips in book form. As the book only contains 28 separate and self-contained three-panel strips (albeit every single strip in existence to date), I’m regarding this as ‘the pilot episode’. It may never be granted a networked series, but it’s out there for me to at least try.

I’m English and I was the companion to a cat for eighteen years. These are two things I know about. Therefore, I created a cat with a suitably traditional English name – Jack – and gave him a range of familiar English characteristics to add to his own archetypal feline qualities. I gave him a best mate, a girlfriend and a nemesis. I also gave him an ‘owner’ we never see, just as adults were always absent from the world of Charlie Brown. Unlike Felix or Top Cat, he walks on all fours, but he talks like us. Be a pretty dull strip if he didn’t.

He’s not particularly original; after all, it’s not as if cats have never been turned into cartoon characters before. And I’m not an especially gifted draughtsman either; the drawings are crude and sketchy, but I could say that maybe adds to their charm. Anyway, the humour is wry, dry and droll – and contemporary, I guess, though I avoid any direct references to the news; that would only instantly date them. With the book blurb declaring ‘As seen in the Winegum Telegram’, it felt only right to include a sample…

The transference of the images from sketch-pad to printed page ironically gives them the look of having being sourced from an old newspaper, an act of serendipity that adds to the homage, I guess. Anyway, the book’s available on Amazon for a piddling £2.99 (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jack-English-Cat-called-English/dp/1717944809/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533553266&sr=1-1) and might provide you with a few minutes of entertainment when you need a break from your Smartphone screen. I make less than a quid from a purchase, by the way, so I shan’t be living it up like Northamptonshire County Council when they sank a fortune into a swanky new HQ before realising it left them with nothing to fund public services. No, Jack the English Cat is not about a fast buck; I just wanted to make people smile, and this is the best I can offer right now. Life is not good and I’m not expecting my creation to be my salvation, but every little helps, as Morrison’s used to say.

© The Editor

THE CLOWN DUELS

Yeah, I’m back again for another isolated observation in my occasional series of ‘Stars on 45’-style topical medleys. But while I might poke and prod a few minor irritants today, they essentially remain of a trivial nature to me; none of them irritate me enough to bring forth the froth to my mouth – unlike the subjects that fire the warring extremes on Twitter. One might almost imagine they have nothing else going on in their lives. Anyway, it felt right to endure one more unwelcome anniversary by stepping out of the shade for a few minutes; after all, if I leave this neglected baby of mine in the sun too long the poor whelp risks suffocation by spam – mostly in ‘Russian’ by the look of its distinctly Slavic appearance. By Jove, I’m being spied on!

God knows why I could possibly be of any interest to whatever name the KGB goes under these days, but it’s moderately exciting to think I am. Maybe Vlad’s online agitators think everyone here is pretending to be a ‘Communist’ now and they’re curious. I’m as guilty as the next spoon when it comes to hankering after something before your own time simply because your own time is uninspiring and your perception of the time before your own has been shaped by something you read or a movie you saw. But it’s a risky business. When one has no first-hand experience of something intriguing, it acquires a romantic allure and can be embraced without any awareness of its less attractive realities.

The latest fashion for proclaiming one’s self a Communist is one that is only being followed by those with no personal memory of life behind the Iron Curtain. As far as irrelevant ideologies go, Communism is currently the fatuous political equivalent of a Ramones T-shirt, generally worn by people of an upbringing untroubled by hardship whose way of coping with guilt over their good fortune is to lecture those without it how they should live their lives. Each generation of Trotsky groupies cherry-picking Marx’s greatest hits and compiling its own mix-tape knows what’s best for the rest of us; and it’s ironic that the current crop’s default insult is to call their opponents Nazis when they themselves espouse a belief system responsible for more death and misery in the last century than even Adolf’s mob managed.

Great in theory, terrible in practice, Communism’s good intentions have been open to abuse from day one simply because the system makes it easier for the worst side of human nature to assert itself than even the far-from faultless Capitalism can boast. International sporting events being beamed into my childhood living room gave the names of now-defunct countries such as East Germany, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia an undeniably nostalgic ring – as did the pronunciation of them by British TV commentators sounding as though they had socks stuffed in their mouths. But that’s as far as the nostalgia goes. Communism is not some forgotten musical genre from the 70s long overdue for critical reappraisal in ‘Mojo’ or ‘Uncut’. Just ask the good people of North Korea.

I have a particular fondness for the Regency era, but as no one alive today experienced it, reading written accounts in the absence of living testimony is the closest I or any other interested party can get to it. Therefore, safe in the knowledge I’ll never be put in such a position, I can comfortably declare life would be so much easier if gentlemen could still duel. Yes, it was an antiquated and illegal method of settling arguments over ‘honour’ even in the century that finally saw it disappear from civilian circles (i.e. the nineteenth); but it lingered for several decades as a controversial means of redressing a slight on one’s character or simply ending a long-running dispute. For all the talk of Cabinet ructions today, the incumbent Government Ministers don’t come close to their predecessors.

In 1809, Lord Castlereagh (Secretary of State for War and the Colonies) challenged long-time critic and Foreign Secretary George Canning to a duel on Putney Heath, a clandestine clash that resulted in amateur shot Canning being wounded in the thigh. Twenty years later during his stint at PM, the Duke of Wellington challenged the Earl of Winchilsea to a duel on Battersea Fields, sparked by the latter’s opposition to Catholic Emancipation. The Duke missed whilst the Earl refrained from firing; honour was upheld. Hard to imagine today’s Tory Brexiteers and Remoaners sorting out their differences in the same manner, but one cannot help but picture it as an alternative solution to political differences that conventional means seem incapable of resolving. Who knows what form Brexit might take were those involved in its implementation able to lock swords or aim pistols at the crack of dawn? Personally, there are some in this world I’d love to challenge to a duel tomorrow; and even knowing I could be mortally wounded wouldn’t dissuade me, as I can think of far worse ways to go. Alas, as ever, I am a man out of time.

Ironic in a way that an item of clothing one always associates with Regency duellists – the waistcoat – has experienced an unexpected resurgence of popularity this summer courtesy of Gareth Southgate. Unusually dapper for an England manager, Southgate worked wonders with the limited means at his disposal during a World Cup in which team spirit triumphed over the Prima donna superstar; his refusal to sanction a homecoming victory parade for a team that didn’t win anything is also a refreshing change that goes against the tiresome ‘plucky Brit’ strain of celebrating failure in the absence of success. Eddie the bloody Eagle can probably be blamed for that. Mind you, maybe we could play the Croatia game again – y’know, make it a ‘People’s Replay’ now that we have a better understanding of how the aim is to prevent the opposition from scoring. Best of three, eh? I’m sure Gary Lineker would tweet his approval.

Something non-toxic coming out of Russia was a welcome contradiction to the ongoing narrative, though headline-writers quickly focused on another defining characteristic of the summer. While that exceptional heat-wave was viewed by some as the harbinger of the climate apocalypse, to others it was just another of those sweaty intermissions we have every few years. More people seemed concerned the nation was poised to run out of beer during the World Cup than by the fact that every summer from now on threatens to evoke the kind of comparisons with 1976 that are destined to rival Fleet Street’s inevitable references to 1963 come each winter. Of course, if long hot summers are to be normalised, it sadly reduces the comical sight of red-skinned natives wincing with every step in their air-conditioned Crocs, as I should imagine most are now aware enough of what the sun can do to pale flesh to take precautions beforehand. Anyway, it’s already started raining again.

I don’t think the expression ‘burning the post-midnight oil’ actually exists, but I hereby invent it because it seems more applicable to the twilight zone I inhabit. Hell, a heat-wave is never conducive to a good night’s sleep, for one thing; but I was still active at 3.00 or 4.00am six months ago, back when my frozen frame was dependent on a fan heater as well as an invaluable electric blanket (when I felt I ought to finally drag myself towards the mattress whose warmth is strictly artificially-induced). Therefore, I can’t blame this joyless interlude devoid of all beauty on the summer. At the moment, brief bursts of creative energy just aren’t enough to let the sunshine in. Look at the example below and be fooled into believing it’s the work of a man as sharp as the blade that duellists once pierced a waistcoat with. It’s not. But it’s quite funny if you like that sort of thing. Anyway, I’ll shut up and keep trying until I’ve awakened from my dream of life.

 

© The Editor

SEVEN AND THE RAGGED TIGER

Seven is a highly potent number. It concluded the head-count for both dwarves and Samurai; it provided us with the seas, the deadly sins, the colours of the rainbow, the wonders of the ancient world and the ages of man. It gave us the right quota of brides for the right quota of brothers, the amount of years for a marital itch, the veils needed for Salome’s erotic dance routine, the title of a disturbing 90s horror movie, Enid Blyton’s secret alternative to her famous quintet, the necessary inches for the classic pop single, the correct collection of rogues for an intergalactic outlaw called Blake, and – of course – the assembled days of the week. It seems to have followed me around. I was born in a year ending in seven, lived at a No.7 for the best part of two decades, and my current home is a residence whose separate flat and house numbers add up to…you guessed it. And now I have seven months on the clock to measure my faltering progress through the brave new world I was dumped in as 2017 drew to a grim full stop.

Careful – I’m perilously close to a pattern so familiar on Twitter, that of relentlessly focusing on the one topic over and over again with mouth-frothing fanaticism. I never used to do that, but I never previously wrote for this blog whilst trying to recover from…er…well, a breakdown. No touchy-feely alternative word for it. I certainly don’t want any of my jottings to be viewed as ‘therapeutic’ as a consequence, however. Even if trying to get back into the habit is undeniably a form of therapy for me, I should imagine coming to such posts as a reader when burdened with that awareness could make approaching them akin to a ‘duty’, precluding either enjoyment or stimulation and reducing the whole exercise to the reading equivalent of a professional goalkeeper allowing a special needs child to score a penalty for charity. I’m sure a holiday in Salisbury would seem more appealing right now.

OK, let’s try to widen the picture a little by saying Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. Bored already, alas. Mind you, it was two years ago when we all made our way to the polling station and cast our vote, so should the subject still be the main headline day-after-never-ending-day? Tiresome doom ‘n’ gloom predictions abound on both sides if it does/doesn’t turn out how either want it; and I’m afraid I’ve reached the point where I’m beginning to not care anymore. Most days, I feel as though this country is incurably f***ed anyway, but that’s probably because on many of those days I feel as though I’m incurably f***ed. Sorry, it’s not you; it’s me.

I ain’t no Jacob Rees-Mogg, extolling the economic virtues of Britain breaking with the EU whilst relocating my Russia-friendly business interests to Brussels-friendly Eire; and I ain’t no Lord Adonis, wistfully waving goodbye to the Continent from the window-seat of a private plane flying over the Alps with a teary-eye that foresees endless referenda until the desirable result is achieved. At the same time, much like that gruesome twosome, mine is not an objective perspective right now – though I at least have the decency to leave the subject alone as a result.

I suppose I could indulge in the contemporary trend of anniversary-marking to fill otherwise empty column inches; it’s not like I haven’t before, after all. This year we’ve got 10 since the financial crash, 30 since Acid House, 50 since the Paris Spring, 70 since the birth of the NHS, and a century since women in the UK won the vote (well, as long as they were over 30). The latter two have received the most attention, with the NHS anniversary in particular plumbing a nauseating nadir of sentimental media waffle that has run parallel with – and appears contradicted by – the shocking revelations from Gosport and Chester. Mysteriously, very little coverage has been given to the impenetrable layers of self-interested and self-satisfied management swallowing up the bags of cash that governments routinely throw towards the NHS in the hope some of it will filter down to frontline nurses and patients. But I guess that doesn’t fit the celebratory narrative.

Anyway, I’m not really paying attention. My much-missed feline companion passed away two years ago this month, yet just the other night the light caught one of her long-discarded nails embedded in the carpet – unseen since 2016. This tiny, seemingly insignificant fragment of a friend lost to me forever felt like an invaluable, precious gemstone when I excavated it; but any trinket touched by the lost keeps them close when we can no longer draw them to our breast. Some bin or burn such mementos because they cannot bear to be reminded; others find these articles imbued with a comforting resonance that serves as evidence they really were in our lives and we didn’t imagine them. As someone once said, was it just a dream? Seemed so real to me.

But, what the hell! School’s (almost) out for summer, so let’s switch our attention to the World Cup and Wimbledon. Better that than allow our eyes to linger on ladies’ legs and other exposed body parts lest we incur the wrath of those who permit female drooling over topless Aidan Turner whilst simultaneously condemning male longing to varnish the delicious porcelain flesh of Demelza with one’s tongue. Long may her Cornish bosom heave, for drama is one of the Beeb’s few remaining assets; by contrast, claims by the BBC’s box-ticking ‘comedy controller’ that the Pythons wouldn’t happen today because they were ‘too white’ gives an indication why the corporation’s current comedic output is so dire. The sun must have gone to his diversity-mangled head.

I remember 1976, but it was different then; I did things in hot weather I can’t do today. Besides, fun wasn’t as ‘organised’ forty-two years ago as it is now; adult involvement in childhood summer pursuits was mercifully minimal. I feel fortunate to have had the freedom to climb trees, kick balls past woollen goalposts, and arrange toy soldiers for a pitched battle to the strains of ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’. I steered clear of the Boy Scouts and the Cubs because I didn’t want grown-ups imposing their twee, sanitised idea of fun upon me. Pity the poor monitored kids of 2018’s heat-wave, who have never been left to their own devices and consequently can’t entertain themselves.

No, the best thing about this time of year – if you burn the midnight oil, of course – is reluctantly retiring to bed around 3.00am and catching one last look at the world outside your window. The landscape still consists of silhouettes, but the sky isn’t black; it’s a luscious shade of blue that enables you to already discern the next day on the horizon, as though it were a great wave rolling towards you in slow motion, one that only matures into its finished form when it washes over you several hours later, stirring you from slumber in the process. That’s a nice image to leave you with, at least. You don’t need a weather-man to know which way the wind blows; but may you always have a tiger in your tank.

 

© The Editor

THE WAY WE LIVE NOW…AND THEN

We may hate it, but advertising slogans can often linger. ‘Say it with Flowers’ said Interflora; and, as it happens, whenever I think of Interflora, I think of Interpol. Perhaps the association stems from an obvious gag on something like ‘The Two Ronnies’; many of their gags were obvious, but the obviousness of them was overridden by the comic charm of the performers. Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes, flowers – delivered to the doors of the consummated as well as the unrequited, sometimes motivated by guilt, sometimes by the need to remind someone you love them. They make an ideal house-warming gift, for example, when it comes to a new residence, being as they are the most potent symbols of rebirth and regeneration when love is in the air.

No, I’m NOT going to write about that shameless exhibitionist’s manual known as ‘Love Island’; besides, Nigel Kneale beat me to it by half-a-century with his unnervingly accurate satire on lowest-common-denominator twenty-first century television, 1968’s ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’. This remarkable example of cultural soothsaying is one of the most uncanny crystal balls in TV history. If you haven’t seen it, do; once you get over the occasionally theatrical acting and groovy 60s aesthetic impression of the future, the way in which it predicts the worst our goggle-box can offer today will evoke associations with everything from ‘Castaway’ and ‘Big Brother’ to the aforementioned STD-through-the-keyhole voyeur-fest on ITV2 and even the grotesque Smartphone suicide-watch trend. The dialogue – short, snappy and uncomfortably familiar in its irritating abbreviations – mirrors Orwell’s belief in how language will eventually be narrowed and compressed into simple sound-bites. The ominous first words on-screen are ‘Sooner than you think…’

The play’s oft-stated division between the privileged and the rest (‘High Drives’ and ‘Low Drives’) inevitably evokes the Us and Them gap that the Brexit vote exposed; but to me it also anticipates the downgrading of one particular demographic in this country – one that is firmly rock bottom on the social scale fifty years later. A recent ‘initiative’ by a leading publisher that sought the input of unpublished authors made it clear who they were looking for. London-based, Oxbridge-educated chattering-class warriors burdened by the unbearable baggage of box-ticking have their preferred minorities to pat on the head and patronise, as novelist Lionel Shriver has bravely pointed out (much to her predictable Twitter crucifixion); and if you happen to emanate from a white working-class background free of further education, forget it. You are very much Low Drive – or ‘Gammon’, if you prefer; it’s the insult it’s OK to eat between meals without ruining your appetite.

For some, it matters not how many Sikhs are photographed with their arms round him, as Tommy Robinson’s EDL past will always brand him a white supremacist; but both sides of the barricades have their own version of the truth and never the twain shall meet. Like similar headline-grabbing stunts by Peter Tatchell, the amateur agent-provocateur tactics of Robinson could be said to be looking for trouble and inviting arrest along with accompanying publicity. But maybe the climate requires such actions in order to receive any acknowledgment within media circles whose contempt for ‘the Gammon’ is evident to anyone bereft of blinkers. Somebody once proclaimed the face of Tommy Robinson will one day feature on a far-flung future bank-note. Another agitator called Thomas – the late Mr Paine – was similarly derided and demonised in his day, yet is viewed rather differently two-hundred years later, so who knows what criteria the Bank of England will employ when it comes to its cover stars of the twenty-second century? A shame Nigel Kneale isn’t around anymore. He probably would.

Another fortune-teller called Karl Marx apparently said ‘The more you have, the less you are’ – a good point if applied to those who measure their worth by the number of material goods they possess; but how is that statement interpreted by the collectivism that contemporary Marx disciples espouse, especially in the Labour Party? I’ve always been averse to collectives, instinctively recoiling from their ‘block vote’ rhetoric; I‘m too much of an individual, never a team player. If I’d been gifted with sporting prowess, I’d have been at home on the tennis court rather than the football pitch. The problem with collectivism is the compulsory sacrifice of the individual voice to the consensus, and that’s just not me, Jeremy.

Jonathan Meades in his recent excellent BBC4 treatise on the uses and abuses of the English language spent a section dissecting the collectivist clichés that arise when eleven men play eleven more; but he primarily focused on the jargon employed by the Law, politics and business to mask true intentions in a tsunami of verbal diarrhoea that is deliberately intended to leave the Gammon crying ‘My brain hurts!’, therefore throwing him back into the primordial embrace of ‘Love Island’. The sad fact is that this works because we allow it to, just as we allow one knee-jerk response to a pair of tits on a lifeboat-man’s mug to damage the public standing of the RNLI, or we allow consensual sex to be reclassified as rape. Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it – whatever that means.

At one time, it could mean Noel Coward or Anthony Burgess; Margaret Rutherford or Terry Thomas; Tony Hancock or John Arlott; John Osborne or Quentin Crisp; Peter Sellers or Peter Cook; John Betjeman or John Lennon; Ian Nairn or Oliver Postgate. The Great British manufacturing industry wasn’t merely about economics; it was also about individual voices – all lost now to revisionist market forces. We don’t make ‘em like that anymore because we’ve been absorbed into the global village chain-store, flogged at half-price by a new breed of national shopkeepers.

Another neglected gem from the pen of the man who gave us ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’ was an obscure anthology series produced by ATV called ‘Beasts’; it’s creepy in that unique way only 70s TV can be, set in a Britain when the moribund and the macabre meet. One story concerned a poltergeist in a supermarket, though not the kind of supermarkets we have now; it was a store owned by one of those small regional chains that no longer exist, like Hillard’s or Vivo. Viewing this time capsule recently, I experienced a strange sensation of warmth as childhood brand names flew off the shelf at the height of the petulant spirit’s rage. Rows of Ricicles probably wouldn’t be within the poltergeist’s sights today, no doubt censored by finger-wagging government guidelines on sugar intake – let alone a version featuring Florence and Dougal on the front of the box.

And so, restlessness forced me outdoors a month ago; I went for a meandering walk – and if you’ve made it to this paragraph you’ll know by now I’m good at meandering. Unfortunately, simple exercise (physical or mental) no longer seems a valid enough reason to stroll alone. When I ended up on a local park, my aversion to collectives worked against me; I felt increasingly self-conscious re my sore thumb solo status, surrounded as I was by women and dogs. I had neither with me, though I came home to the ghosts of both. And cats. But I end where I began, thinking of flowers as potent symbols of rebirth and regeneration. Maybe I should get some. Life may now be a silver medal, but at least I can make it smell nice for a few days.

© The Editor

THROUGH THE PAST, DARKLY

Grinning and bearing my way through precisely six months of paralysis following the abrupt stopping of the clocks last December has had a funny effect on my perception of time. Frozen as both participant and observer, one way of suppressing a sense of uselessness at my sudden inability to respond to contemporary events in the customary manner has been to retreat into a digitally restored version of the past. After all, when circumstances rob you of the present and deprive you of a future in the process (or at least the future you thought you were getting), the one certainty you can turn to is the past, a place where the ground beneath your feet is reassuringly solid.

This is a painless post in terms of writing (and, one hopes, reading); it’s simply me taking a stress-free diversion into my viewing habits of the last half-year, one that may strike the odd chord merely as an entertaining interlude. And, as it’s not unusual for this blog to mine a bit of nostalgia from archive telly, I speak today of ‘Special Branch’, a series produced by ITV back in the days when it added up to a good deal more as a broadcaster than the vacuous vacuum it currently inhabits. It’s a series that has also provided me with a convenient distraction from recent events via the DVD box-set.

Originally a dramatic, franchise-justifying product of the fledgling Thames Television, ‘Special Branch’ first appeared at the fag-end of the monochrome era in late 1969. Starring the chunky-faced Derren Nesbitt as DCI Jordan, the series dramatised the middle man between CID and the Secret Service at the height of post-Philby Cold War paranoia. Nesbitt’s Jordan was a flash young buck whose startlingly dapper dress sense always made him look as if he’d just stepped off a gentleman’s fashion shoot for ‘Town’ magazine; a bit of a flamboyant oddity in stale environs populated by both stuffy Whitehall suits and crusty Met veterans, Jordan nevertheless got results as well as gorgeous ‘dollies’ resplendent in the big hair/false eyelashes/micro-dress ensembles popularised by the likes of Bobbie Gentry at the time.

Constantly thwarted by MI5 mandarin Moxon (played with slimy languor by Morris Perry), DCI Jordan eventually threw his career away when the seductive charms of recurring double-agent Christine Morris (the Bobbie Gentry blueprint par excellence) proved a little too seductive. But then, Jordan was very much a man of his time – a time when men weren’t marginalised by a media intent on portraying the male of the species (and his ‘toxic masculinity’) as the embodiment of all evil whilst simultaneously wondering why so many examples of this useless, redundant relic end up jumping off rooftops.

Like most British drama of the era, ‘Special Branch’ in its original format was divided between studio sets shot on videotape and location inserts shot on film. Occasionally, embryonic OB (Outside Broadcast) cameras were used for exteriors, but the blatantly artificial lighting and shaky visuals suggested the time was not yet right for its use as a regular system for anything beyond on-the-spot news reports. The more familiar contrast between studio VT and location film was industry standard then and only seems jarring decades after the event, as does an acting style informed more by theatre than cinema. However, it clearly irked some working in TV and eventually led to the aesthetic rebirth of the show following a two-year hiatus in 1973.

Euston Films was established by Thames as a means of shooting serious, grown-up dramas entirely on film, both indoors and outdoors, and must have been a gritty innovation in the early 70s, particularly when compared to the slicker fantasy-adventure filmed series from the ITC stable. The revived ‘Special Branch’ was its first outing and it wasn’t just the look of the series that had changed. The cast received a complete overhaul as well. Out had gone Detective Chief Inspector Jordan and his superior (played by Fulton Mackay long before he became a familiar face courtesy of a certain prisoner name of Norman Stanley Fletcher); in came the craggy countenance of DCI Alan Craven, played by George Sewell. Prior to his recruitment to the side of the good guys, Sewell had mostly been a character actor playing villains; he had a memorable role in 1971’s seminal Brit gangster flick, ‘Get Carter’. After ‘Special Branch’, he reverted to type; but in the part of Craven, Sewell excelled as a hard-boiled copper that the viewer could entirely believe in.

Considering the controversial role the actual Special Branch played in Northern Ireland in the 70s, the TV version of the department largely avoids such contentious areas and also distinguishes itself from its earlier incarnation by mostly steering clear of staple stories surrounding suspected spies and Marxist student revolutionaries. Often, the storylines seem suited to a series focusing on routine police work, though there are numerous ‘firsts’ present, not least the fact that the lead character has a girlfriend who happens to be black. Nobody would bat an eyelid at an interracial relationship today, but this was pretty groundbreaking stuff in 1973; in retrospect, the mixed-race love interest between Craven and a nurse called Pam is a refreshing development for mainstream drama and one that wasn’t built upon for several years. Moreover, there’s also the mental breakdown of a regular cast member, something which is handled with both surprising sensitivity and a welcome absence of ‘issue’-led sentimentality so commonplace in present-day soaps.

The key ingredient in the reboot of ‘Special Branch’ is the introduction of the old cop/young cop dynamic when Patrick Mower appears as DCI Haggerty; initially a ‘guest artist’ (as the opening credits imply), Mower’s arrogant and swaggering character is then bedded in as a permanent presence, providing the show with some testosterone bite and laying the foundations for the Regan & Carter double act of the series that ultimately succeeded it. Paul Eddington is also added in a pre-‘Good Life’ role as an MI5 bigwig whose urbane pomposity serves to frustrate the more hands-on approach of his subordinates on the street. The cast list is fleshed out by members of the wonderful rep company of character actors that peppers British TV drama of the 70s, some of whom eventually found leading roles of their own.

After two successful ‘seasons’ (as is now the norm to say), ‘Special Branch’ was dropped in favour of ‘The Sweeney’, a series produced by the same team, and one which took many elements from its predecessor but crucially cranked up the macho violence in the process. Thanks to consistent reruns from the early 80s onwards, the adventures of the Flying Squad have rarely been absent from our screens and have become established as the retrospective template for British police dramas, inspiring tributes as diverse as ‘Life on Mars’ and the memorable ‘Comic Strip’ homage, ‘Detectives on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. But none of that would have happened had not ‘Special Branch’ paved the way.

I don’t know why, but an antiquated series produced in a different country has served a need almost half-a-century on for someone struggling to cope with the wasteland bequeathed to him, and has also opened a portal into a past far more alluring than anything the present can boast. An entirely irretrievable image of England, of course; but we all find our own personal panaceas when confronted by the unbearable. This has been mine – well, one of them. And when it comes to dealing with the troublesome twenty-first century, those of us who experienced at least thirty years of its predecessor can always count on its cultural artefacts to provide necessary shelter from the storm.

© The Editor