SPORT FOR NOT-QUITE ALL

2020 MascotsI suppose it’s somewhat characteristic that when the BBC is onto a winner it has a habit of buggering it up. The 2012 Olympics in London saw the coming of age of the ‘Red Button’ system, enabling viewers to receive a more comprehensive coverage of events than they’d ever previously enjoyed. Not being an especially eager follower of most Olympic disciplines, I nevertheless found myself sucked-in by the hype and ended up on the edge of my seat watching – of all things – bloody show-jumping. I hadn’t even been aware of the sport since the childhood days of Harvey Smith and his two fingers, but wall-to-wall TV events like the Olympics often shine a spotlight on pursuits that receive little attention the rest of the time – just think of when curling became a national talking point during the 2002 Winter Olympics as a Scots-dominated side captured women’s gold for Great Britain. My experience in 2012 is one routinely repeated across the country whenever an occasion of this magnitude has television’s red carpet rolled out; a similar thing tends to happen during the World Cup – people who never normally take notice of football suddenly become hooked for a fortnight.

My earliest Olympic memory is of Olga Korbut in 1972; that particular tournament in Munich is the first grandiose televised sporting event I can remember, unable at the time to fathom why Dickie Davies was on the telly every day for what felt like forever (yes, ITV also covered it back then); but it’s interesting that the gruesome developments leading Munich 1972 to book its unenviable place in history are ones of which I have no memory at all – I suspect my parents were exercising a little shrewd censorship where Black September were concerned. Anyway, 40 years later, advances in TV technology took control of coverage out of schedulers’ (and parents’) hands and gave viewers the opportunity to choose what they wanted to watch; the BBC Red Button came into its own at this time and proved to be an ingenious addition to the viewing experience. And, as is customary, the Beeb then capitalised on this novel approach to the spectacle by announcing in 2019 that the text service providing complementary on-screen info on the coverage would cease due to financial cuts.

I guess the same financial cuts were to blame for ruthlessly pruning the World Service, for selling-off the legendary Maida Vale studios, and for transforming BBC4 from the most innovative and interesting BBC television platform of them all to a virtual Beeb equivalent of a repeat channel like UK Gold. Interestingly, however, such cuts (and the rapidly diminishing cash-cow of the licence fee) don’t prevent the Corporation from magically finding an annual salary of £265,000 for former ‘Loose Women’ presenter June Sarpong to act as an ‘equality tsar’, whereby Ms Sarpong works a three-day week and has access to a £100 million budget to promote ‘diversity and inclusivity’ across the BBC (albeit not at management level). Fancy that! Despite not impinging on the Corporation’s fanatical drive for transmitting Woke indoctrination courses under the guise of impartial news and drama productions, these selfsame cuts are also cited as the reason why coverage of Tokyo 2021 has turned out to be far-from comprehensive so far.

Although I myself have yet to be seduced by the postponed Olympiad in the Far East, by all accounts terrestrial viewers are hardly overjoyed by the less-than-comprehensive coverage of live events to date. What the BBC audience wasn’t really warned of in advance was the fact that the IOC flogged most of its European TV rights for the event to US pay-per-view company Discovery. This £920m package means a full Olympic schedule of the kind British viewers were served-up in 2012 and 2016 is now only accessible via Eurosport channels or a streaming service called Discovery+, which will cost the viewer £6.99 a month on top of the TV licence. This deal was sealed in 2016, though it’s understandable that most had forgotten about it five years on (if they even heard about it at the time); not until the overhyped pre-Olympics build-up did viewers then tune in expecting more of the same, only to find a stripped-down service that the BBC is blaming on a threadbare budget that prevented it from outbidding Discovery for the full broadcast rights.

What terrestrial TV has ended up with is a compromise not unlike the one the Beeb has struck with the Premier League; in that case, live coverage of games is the province of subscription channels whilst the highlights package remains reserved for BBC1 and its Saturday night ‘Match of the Day’ institution. But that’s for a full eight-month football season; the Olympics, by contrast, span barely a couple of weeks and only take place every four (or five) years. Without the luxury of farming-out the less sexy sports to the Red Button, there has to be extensive live (and preferably exciting) coverage to warrant the takeover of BBC1 for the duration, especially when sporting events doing so usually provoke the ire of non-sporty types who resent their favourite shows disappearing from the schedules.

Apparently, the IOC’s arrangement with Discovery has a caveat that makes limited live coverage available to free-to-air broadcasters, something that was mainly inserted to prevent what was already a far more vulnerable tournament than usual from suffering a downturn in global TV audiences. However, this means that, unlike the last two Olympics (when the Red Button service enabled viewers to pick and choose which individual sports they fancied and could watch the complete event at their leisure), this time round the BBC is allowed to screen no more than two live events simultaneously – one on BBC1 and the other via the Red Button; the interactive, multi-choice Olympics of 2012 and 2016 are not an option in 2021 unless you’re prepared to pay extra, and this scenario for me defeats the object of the exercise as a televisual spectacle. The whole point of the Olympics on TV is that the causal viewer can stumble upon an unlikely sport – such as show-jumping or curling – and become addicted to the outcome without any premeditated expectations; it’s one of the things that justifies the OTT coverage. Without that, what’s the point? Otherwise, you may as well just broadcast the glamour track & field disciplines live and sod the rest.

Ever since the advent of Sky Sports 30 years ago and the dangling of lucrative carrots before football, cricket and boxing governing bodies, pay-per-view sport on TV has been a fact of life terrestrial broadcasters have had to live and compete with. But even having the so-called ‘crown jewels’ of free-to-air events such as the Grand National, Wimbledon and the FA Cup Final ring-fenced by Parliamentary legislation hasn’t prevented the money-driven agenda of the IOC – the same one that determines who hosts the Olympics – from infiltrating its TV coverage; FIFA is much the same, which is why a wholly unsuitable country with an appalling human rights record such as Qatar will be hosting the next World Cup in the middle of Europe’s domestic football season. This year’s delayed Olympiad is the first time such an agenda has shaped its accessibility to TV viewers, and it leaves the BBC in particular looking more like some second-rate, old-school ITV regional franchise holder like Border Television or TSW than the planet’s premier broadcaster with an international reputation stretching back almost a full century.

‘The BBC is no longer able to offer live-streams of every sport during the Olympics due to the terms of the licensing arrangements laid down by the rights holder, Discovery,’ reads the official Beeb statement following criticism of the Corporation’s coverage so far. The broadcasting wing of the IOC has also declared it will make changes when it comes to those sports that draw a sizeable male audience for perhaps not necessarily the discipline itself, i.e. the likes of beach volleyball and gymnastics. The IOC says it will clamp down on ‘sexualised images’ of female athletes during broadcasts, though whether this includes the meat-and-two veg of ‘female’ weightlifters being visible beneath the lycra remains to be seen. Either way, these Olympics look like being the most pared-down since 1948 – not so much post-Covid as make-do-and-mend.

© The Editor

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RHAPSODY IN BLACK

Amy WinehouseEven without the distracting drink and drugs, it’s hard to imagine a character such as Amy Winehouse being an active artist in 2021; the woman wore her heart on her sleeve and didn’t give a f**k if that fact made some a little queasy – qualities guaranteed to ensure cancellation, ostracism and grovelling public apologies in this illiberal era. She’s precisely the kind of figure contemporary music sorely lacks and badly needs; and, astonishingly, she’d still only be 37 if she hadn’t passed away 10 years ago today. Whenever someone dies young, whether famous name or personal friend, we often find ourselves imagining what their response would have been to events occurring in the years since their passing; and when one looks at the bland, banal and utterly inconsequential generation of musicians to have risen without a trace in the wake of Amy Winehouse’s death, I think Amy would have been an even more contentious cat amongst the timid pigeons now than she was then. After all, this is a time when a member of a highly successful mainstream band (Mumford and Sons) is forced to quit simply because he’d tweeted a thumbs-up to a book exposing Antifa as the nihilistic thugs anyone without Woke blinkers can see they are.

Whatever ‘it’ is, Amy Winehouse had it. Plenty before her did too, but no one since her has. For me, she’s the only artist to have emerged this century worthy of sharing the stage with all the greats that inspired her. Even her striking image – a factor that no longer seems important in an age of interchangeable bots assembled by stylists – nailed it. When Phil Oakey of The Human League was once asked about his own unique haircut, he said he’d opted for it because he’d noticed the most successful and iconic pop stars all shared one distinctive aesthetic touch – a haircut that instantly identified them as much as their voice. And Amy Winehouse’s towering beehive – a gloriously kitsch caricature midway between a 60s girl group and a John Waters movie – made her visually unmistakable; I can’t think of any pop cultural personality to have appeared in the last decade that can be said of. Her haircut made her as immediately recognisable as the similarly trademarked barnets of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Bowie et al. That Amy Winehouse even bothered to make the effort shows she was the last in a long line of artists to whom such a thing mattered.

Her voice, her look and her attitude place her firmly alongside the characters who came before her and completely detach her from those who came after. No doubt any MSM commemorations of her life and times ten years on will see a lengthy queue of young talking heads desperate to be regarded as inheritors of Amy’s vacant throne, but forget it; Amy Winehouse took that throne with her when she abdicated. In a way, she was already a woman out of time when she owned her time. She’d been the first pop star to make a genuinely significant impact on the collective consciousness for a decade, and when she broke through it felt like the resurrection of music meaning more than just a bloody ringtone. But it’s evident now she was the end of something rather than a new beginning, the dying breath of a different era that this lousy century would quickly extinguish for good the minute she was out of the picture.

Amy Winehouse meant more than mere showbiz; there was an earthy depth there completely absent from her successors but one that had been a vital component of her predecessors. She had a truth to her that moved people, the same truth that enables all great artists to connect to their audience on a level that resides way below the synthetic surface the majority of pop musicians operate on. It’s the truth that Van Morrison once referenced in relation to the Blues. ‘The Blues is truth,’ he said, and Amy Winehouse was in possession of that truth. It’s an increasingly rare gift, for no matter how wide a vocal range or an ability to hit notes few can reach, without that truth – or soul – a musician is just a technician. It’s why Jimi Hendrix is still revered and a dozen technically superior virtuoso axe-men to have followed him aren’t.

Part of Amy Winehouse’s enduring appeal was what touched a nerve in listeners when she fell under the mainstream spotlight, i.e. her talent for translating the chaos of her personal life into a universal language spoken by anyone who has lived, loved and lost; it’s what Joni Mitchell meant when, asked why her landmark LP ‘Blue’ continued to strike a chord with generations not even born when it was released, she replied ‘All I’ve done is reveal human traits…at the point they (listeners) see themselves in it, the communication is complete.’ Amy Winehouse’s songs burned with bruised anguish yet never wallowed in miserable self-pity; yes, she’d been hurt and screamed out that fact, but her defiance and determination to claw her way out and rise above it shone through every line and every note.

Amy Winehouse’s spirited skill in dealing with her demons was typified by her breakthrough hit, ‘Rehab’; the single was a trailer for the album that put her on the map and sealed her legend, ‘Back to Black’. In collaboration with producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, she mined a rich archive of 60s soul and melodramatic girl group pop and found the perfect sonic vehicle for channelling her hurt into pure gold. It was an inspired move and one few could see coming when her debut album had languorously lingered in a chilled, jazzy vibe easy on the ear but not necessarily one that grabbed you by the throat. ‘Back to Black’ sounded like a classic album on first listen, as though it had been around for 40 years; I remember hearing it for the first time and being taken aback by how something produced in 2006 could take a familiar vintage sound and imbue it with a contemporary sensibility that didn’t render the exercise sterile nostalgia. The combination of the musicianship, Amy’s raw, soulful vocals, and emotive lyrics that any grownup could relate to was an instant winner.

‘Back to Black’ was showered in plaudits – Grammys, Brit Awards etc. – and sold in excess of 16 million copies globally, with 3.58 of those alone in the UK. Critics were unanimous in their praise of how Winehouse had harnessed bad personal experiences and transformed them into art. Alas, Amy Winehouse’s tragedy is that the demons she’d exploited in the best creative traditions then took back control and plunged her into an ugly cycle of self-destruction she never recovered from. Like Billie Holiday before her, she had the knack of being attracted to the worst possible candidates for her affections; turbulent relationships may have provided her with explosive material for her songs, but when alcohol and heroin got in the way, her ability to use that material evaporated. There were five years between the release of ‘Back to Black’ and her premature death, five years in which she failed to capitalise on her success by adding to her body of work. There were a few one-off collaborations, a handful of isolated demos intended for eventual polishing, and even the occasional live performance when she managed to keep it together and remind everyone just how special her talent was. But the moment she became a household name, it all started to fall apart.

As with the disintegration of Brian Jones in the late 60s, Amy Winehouse’s final chapter is seen by some as a criminal waste of talent; it portrays her as someone who casually threw away a God-given gift in a tabloid soap opera of self-indulgent addictions, with even her father publicly intervening and building a dubious career on the back of his daughter’s decline, something that added to the unseemly circus. When at her peak, Winehouse was wild and excitingly unpredictable – and let’s face it, that never did Ozzy Osbourne’s career any harm – but she was in control; as she rapidly descended into a shambling, skeletal, near-parody of herself, she succumbed to something she was so much better than. When news broke that she’d been granted membership of the risible ‘27 Club’, few who had witnessed her deterioration were surprised, though many of us felt terribly sad. Ten years later, many of us still do.

© The Editor

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THE TRACKS (AND TRACES) OF MY TIERS

Bisto KidsScent – that was what hit me yesterday. The scent of fruit and the scent of veg; the scent of freshly-baked buns and bread; the scent of girls walking past with their perfume reminding me what women smell like – indoor odours I haven’t inhaled on foreign soil for over a year. My sinuses weren’t even smacked by any unseemly B.O., which has long been a traditional and unfortunate by-product of venturing into a supermarket during a Great British heat-wave. To set foot in an interior outside of my home and not have the ability to smell my surroundings utterly constrained by a bloody mask was intoxicating as I became reacquainted with a sensation I’d been denied for too long; what a relief it was to expose this neglected sense to something other than my own breath. In fact, it’s frightening how quickly and effectively I had forgotten the aroma of freedom of choice; like the sudden restoration of so much we’ve been deprived of since the first lockdown, being reunited with such a simple gift it’s so easy to take for granted is something worthy of celebration – even if the awareness that this particular democratic right will probably be taken back with the same speed it was stolen in the first place remains uppermost amidst the celebration.

For me, being forced to cover my nose and mouth impacted more than any other Covid measure. Social distancing I could deal with, not being especially fond of crowds or being claustrophobically crammed into a confined space with other sardines; the initial queuing outside a shop I could deal with, as Brits have all had to queue somewhere at one time or another and are good at it; not being able to receive visitors or indulge in hugs I could deal with, as most of my friends being scattered across the country already negates playing regular host – and no longer being intimate enough with anybody anymore meant an embrace was but a memory, anyway. Add the difficulties I’ve long had breathing through my nose, and the prospect of having to hinder my breath via a suffocating cloth whenever I stepped into any indoor arena bar my home essentially stopped me going anywhere unless I absolutely had to. Yesterday, for one brief brilliant moment, monochrome Kansas was transformed into Technicolor Oz; that I could even utter such a statement about something so seemingly trivial perhaps shows just how deep the most apparently innocuous privation has cut over the last year.

Whipping off a mask as soon as I step out of a shop has been the usual routine since face coverings were imposed on shoppers, but smell dissipates in the great urban outdoors, where the black hole of traffic fumes swallows up individual odours. It’s different when you set foot in a supermarket, when smell has less escape routes; yes, it’s no great surprise viruses do better indoors when one thinks of all that breath circulating with nowhere to go. But the status of a mask as little more than a psychological comfort blanket is pretty well established now, so there was no way I was going to wear imaginary armour when it was no longer mandatory. I saw perhaps half-a-dozen fellow shoppers prepared to take the plunge, which was a relief. I almost felt a shared sense of kinship there, an unspoken, nodding recognition and admiration of their determination not to submit now they could no longer be fined for resisting. After all, I’d had silly images of walking into Sainsbury’s sans-masque and being chased straight out again by a pitchfork-carrying masked mob calling me a granny-killer.

Granny’s mouth remained covered, which was to be expected; but the vast majority of shoppers I saw were no older than 25 and very few of them were uncovered. Living in a large student area means visiting a supermarket on ‘Freedom Day’ is a good barometer of how the young are actually reacting to the loosening of restrictions. Despite the MSM stereotype of young ‘uns as irresponsible ravers partying like it’s 1989 even when the rest of the country is masked-up and socially distanced, what I witnessed yesterday were fully paid-up consumers of Project Fear not willing to risk it. Considering the latest Covid Passport U-turn by the Government, it’s no surprise. Youth – a demographic least susceptible to the lethal elements of the coronavirus – are now in their sights. After months of denial that such a corruption of a free society will ever be contemplated, Boris announced yesterday that ‘proof of a negative test will no longer be enough’; taking a leaf out of President Macron’s book, the PM said that once all over-18s have had the opportunity to be double jabbed, full vaccination will be required to gain entry into nightclubs and ‘other venues where large crowds gather’. Looks like Freedom Day was so called because it marked the day when freedom was outlawed as a right. Show me your papers indeed.

Compulsory vaccination is something I’m sure many would approve of, and even though the powers-that-be haven’t quite crossed that line, by preventing anyone from approximating a normal social existence without the jab they’re essentially forcing perpetual vaccines on everybody who isn’t a professional hermit. Under this prohibition of life, don’t be surprised if new ‘speakeasies’ begin to appear as what used to be the kind of freedoms the citizens of Eastern Bloc countries viewed with envious eyes go underground in the very nations that used to boast of them as a selling point. If a Covid Passport is produced as a physical object rather than a mere app, will we eventually see them being publicly set alight as happened with draft cards during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations? And will those caught on camera burning them be denounced and demonised as the ‘long-haired’ draft-dodgers were by the American MSM in the mid-60s, before Walter Cronkite’s damning indictment on the conflict in 1968 helped turn the tide of mainstream opinion in the direction of the anti-war movement?

Interestingly, the Liberal Democrats have stuck their necks on the line and come out against Covid Passports. Could this be another small step on the road returning the party to the role of a credible alternative? If the Lib Dems can successfully rein in their Woke elements (in a way the Labour Party seems incapable), perhaps. I personally hope so, because British politics desperately needs an alternative now more than at any other time I can ever remember; and if it has to be a party with a hell of a lot to answer for over the past ten years, so be it; not one of them can cover themselves in glory based on their record in the last decade, anyhow, and we don’t have much in the way of choice at the moment. It’s a shame there are such a small amount of Lib Dem MPs, as it means the likes of the chronically-annoying Layla Moran has a higher profile than she deserves; but name me a mainstream political party that doesn’t have its fair share of embarrassing aunts and uncles. Maybe we just notice the Lib Dems’ madwomen in the attic because there are so few Lib Dems to go round.

There are some who say it’s no big deal to have to wear a mask, just as there are some who feel it’s no big deal to be double jabbed; both things are seen as a transaction in the cost of freedom, a freedom that we have never previously had to pay for; also, the popular opinion lingers that this is a necessary sacrifice to be made at an unprecedented moment in recent history. But wartime restrictions should be scrapped when the war is over. Yes, Covid-19 is still with us, but it always will be; whether through natural immunity or regular vaccination, we shall have to live with it forever. There will never be a time now without coronavirus cases, and placing such heavy emphasis on them when deaths are dwindling is blatant fear-mongering to justify further curtailments of civil liberties. We cannot allow emergency restrictions such as the ones we’ve had to deal with for over a year to become the default government response to any crisis. Whichever side of the divide you reside in, we’re all entitled to be the Bisto Kids if we want to.

© The Editor

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WE’RE ONLY HERE FOR THE FEAR

Scream SupermarketAh, technology. Where would the pandemic have been without it? Across the pond, the sinister clique that routinely reanimates the cadaver of Joe Biden and periodically wheels him out before the cameras of the subservient charlatans masquerading as journalists is hard at work. Sleepy Joe’s team are currently conspiring with their big tech paymasters to ensure anyone banned from one platform for spreading ‘misinformation’ – particularly of the coronavirus variety – will be banned from all of them; what constitutes misinformation, of course, is (in these oh-so polarised times) utterly subjective; one man’s truth is another man’s fake news and all that. But for judgement to be in the hands of the privileged few controlling the flow of media traffic, both social and mainstream – a cyber star-chamber to whom we have no right to reply – is an extremely worrying scenario where those antiquated freedoms involving speech, thought and expression are concerned. In today’s doublethink society, misinformation essentially translates as opinions those on the ‘right side of history’ disagree with – and they are the people with the power to cancel any dissenting voices far more effectively than any fanatical serial censors starting another petition.

Barely a year ago, for example, to air the theory that Covid-19 might actually have emanated from a Chinese lab was enough to guarantee instant dismissal from YouTube, Facebook or Twitter; now it is an acceptable mainstream opinion – though many who spread the word before were banished for daring to express it and remain so. Hell, it’s almost as if this de-platforming thing is just being used as a convenient means of silencing voices our online lords and masters don’t want us to hear. If only certain governments of the past had thought of similarly ‘robust enforcement strategies’ (to quote Biden’s press secretary), eh? The previously-mentioned declaration of the increasingly unhinged Woke dictator posing as the New Zealand PM springs to mind – the one whereby Jacinda Ardern last week essentially told the people of her nation to dismiss any online information not endorsed by her; ignorance is strength, as someone once said.

Over here, those dim enough to have signed the Faustian pact of the Covid NHS app are finding that their every outdoor move being tracked and traced is rather limiting their freedom – fancy that! According to the most recent stats, 530,125 ‘alerts’ have been sent to users so far this month, ordering them to immediately self-isolate for 10 days; they tend to receive them if they’ve been anywhere that all the other Smombies signed-up to the app have congregated at; and the app knows where you’ve been and where you are because you voluntarily handed that info over. Hey, it’s like a mobile HAL! What is being called a ‘pingdemic’ is adding yet another layer of crisis to the hospitality industry in its struggle to recover from lockdown; restaurant, café, and bar staff are being randomly targeted by the ping of the app, forced to drop everything and hide away for a fortnight – in many cases leaving owners of such businesses with little choice but to close their doors once again when they’ve barely reopened them.

The ‘Staycation’ summer holiday boom envisaged as the saviour of under-fire seaside resorts is being severely threatened by the ‘pingdemic’ – Cornwall alone received over 4,000 ping commandments in the first week of July, right at the point when the county was expecting the influx of tourists to begin. And it goes without saying the accuracy of the NHS app cannot be questioned; after all, it’s not as though the Government has a track record of useless tech, is it? But at least naming the app in honour of the beloved national religion was as inspired a move as naming a nihilistic political movement after a valid statement few would dispute. Criticism of the NHS app could be perceived as criticism of the NHS, and that would be perilously close to heresy.

Interestingly, both the PM and Chancellor of the Exchequer have been pinged after coming into contact with Sajid Javid, yet after initially announcing they wouldn’t be self-isolating in the work environment following the Health Secretary’s coronavirus infection, criticism forced them into a U-turn and now they are. Funnily enough, Javid picked up the Chinese lurgy on a meet-and-greet visit to a care home, those Covid breeding grounds apparently ring-fenced for protection by Javid’s illustrious predecessor.

Boris and Sunak’s initial decision to evade the punishment crippling the rest of the workforce echoes the waiving of quarantine rules to accommodate UEFA and FIFA bigwigs flown in from no-go corners of the globe to enjoy the prawn cocktail privileges at Wembley Stadium last weekend. The contrast between their elevated luxury cocoon and the ticketless drunken hordes storming the venue down below is a microcosm of the two-tier Covid society; the fact that the hooligan minority were in such a state by the time the Euros final kicked-off was helped by the virtual all-day sale of alcohol in London, yet who can blame beleaguered pub businesses trying to maximise profits after being pushed to the brink of extinction by first lockdown and then post-lockdown restrictions? On the eve of ‘Freedom Day’, the crowds at Wembley and Wimbledon will be added to by a full house at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix today, no doubt providing the doom-mongers with fresh evidence for their Ides of March prophesy the day before unshackling.

At the same time, a curious trend has been reported this week, one that suggests the European nations with the largest vaccination intake have all experienced a fresh upsurge of Covid cases whilst the 15 lowest vaccinated countries haven’t. In short, those with the highest level of vaccinations also now have the highest level of infections; weird innit. Cyprus has the highest case count per capita in the world, yet prior to the latest wave had already given the majority of its population the jab; Malta has the Western world’s highest rate of vaccinations, yet the infection rate has shot up since the rollout. Israel decided to investigate and its findings were that Israelis whose only immunity came from vaccination were more likely to be infected than those who had been previously infected and had developed a natural immunity to the virus. Perhaps the misleading daily roll-call of cases as opposed to deaths – which are rapidly diminishing – should cease forthwith; all it seems to do is intensify panic and continue to vindicate the advice of advisors shortly to be rendered redundant.

Indeed, a seemingly renegade SAGE associate has thrown a spanner in the narrative works by rubbishing claims of face coverings as effective coronavirus protection. Dr Colin Axon, an expert in the field of ventilation, says masks are little more than comfort blankets that do next-to-nothing to reduce the spread of Covid particles. According to Dr Axon, the official cloth masks contain holes that cannot be seen by the naked eye but are apparently 500,000 times bigger than yer average Covid particle. This unwelcome opinion was published just as supermarkets appear set to recommend their customers continue to shop in masks (even if they can no longer legally demand it of them) and the Government’s own ‘Freedom Day’ guidance agrees – as does London Mayor Sadiq Khan when it comes to the Tube. My own personal feeling is that most people – at least to begin with – will indeed continue to mask-up in Sainsbury’s. I certainly don’t think we’ll be back to where we were last year before masks became mandatory; twelve months of forced face-covering will have left too strong a legacy of fear to persuade every shopper to add their mask to the latest fatberg.

For a man with a track record of changing his mind at the eleventh hour, one hopes Boris sticks to his guns and doesn’t abruptly cancel tomorrow. The Project Fear apocalypse we were promised when we exited the EU has now been rescheduled for 19 July – according to some online sources, anyway. Ah, technology. Where would the pandemic have been without it?

© The Editor

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CARRY ON EMMANUEL

MacronPerhaps it’s a comment on both the limited online attention span and just how momentary sensation has now become. When the striking images of the first global lockdown – all those eerie photos of the world’s most famous capital cities deserted of people – went viral just over a year ago, reaction swiftly shifted from open-jawed shock at how these landmark locations now resembled the set of a Hollywood movie about the apocalypse to jaded shoulder-shrugging, suggesting everyone ceased to find the imagery remotely strange with 24 hours. Yeah, whatever, seen it. Yet what those empty tourist spots inadvertently highlighted was how a persistent headache for certain beleaguered world leaders had been unexpectedly resolved overnight. It’s almost hard to recall now – because life before Covid seems so distant and unreal – but prior to the coronavirus, many of those streets now devoid of a human presence had been teeming with people who hadn’t come to take selfies in the shadow of an iconic monument. Pre-BLM street protest was geographically localised and concerned with issues that concerned the majority; remember all that trouble in Hong Kong? China at least had something to thank its clumsiest scientists for there, for sure. And what about Paris?

By the end of 2019, the coalition of anti-Macron forces that went under the collective moniker of Gilets jaunes protests (courtesy of their adoption of a recognisable blue-collar dress-code) had established themselves as emcees of weekly shindigs in the French capital, evoking memories of 1968 and placing the waning authority of Emmanuel Macron in peril with each increasingly angry battle between yellow-jacket protestors and the gendarmerie. 45 consecutive weeks of this in Paris had reduced the centre of the city to a no-go area for tourists at weekends as the economy took a nosedive with every smashed restaurant and luxury store window in and around the Champs-Élysées. After a year, the protests had also spread to other French cities such as Strasbourg, Montpellier and Rouen, and it was difficult to discern an end in sight until Macron was delivered the lifeline of Covid-19.

In an instant, the democratic right to protest, which always seems so integral to the French character, was abruptly taken away along with every other civil liberty. As those images of the world’s great capital cities had shown, Paris was far-from unique in this sudden clearing of the streets; but for President Macron, a convenient by-product of the emergency measures was the painless removal of an obstinate thorn in his side. When one final attempt to revive the protests took place in defiance of lockdown in March 2020, even some of the movement’s leaders stayed at home and advised their followers to do likewise. The boil, it appeared, had been lanced. The power and authority of Monsieur Macron having been unexpectedly salvaged now gave the President the opportunity to flex his muscles and the past week has seen the outcome of this existential bodybuilding.

On Monday, Macron confirmed to the French people that they were living in a two-tier society and one presumes he knows which tier his detractors belong to. An existing rule applying to nightclubs, whereby proof of a negative Covid test or vaccination is required to gain entry, was to be extended to leisure and cultural centres, shortly to be followed by everything else people might wish to engage in when stepping out of doors. Anyone employed by the French hospitality industry as well as those working for airlines, hospitals, care homes and railways will now be legally required to submit to vaccination or else will find themselves out of a job. Macron hasn’t quite reached the extremes of St Jacinda of New Zealand’s North Korean-style assertion that the only trustworthy guardian of the truth is government, but he’s capitalising on the convenient suppression of dissenting voices by laying down the law while he can.

Maybe what’s so striking about Macron’s authoritarian stance is the fact that our Gallic cousins have been especially sceptical when it comes to the vaccine. Clinging to the quaint belief that control of one’s body should be an autonomous choice, just under half of the French population have so far resisted a medical procedure that is now being thrust upon them as compulsory if they wish to continue being active members of society. In addition, Macron has also indicated mandatory jabs will no longer be free of charge as of the autumn, rubbing (one might say) salt in the wound of liberté, égalité and fraternité. We think we’ve got it bad here when it comes to a worrying lack of Parliamentary debate on issues that affect us all in the current climate; but Macron has excelled in evading such debate altogether by using (abusing?) his status, rushing through the law on Covid passports for access to nightclubs by invoking Presidential decree, and it’s highly likely he’ll do the same when seeking to turn his latest proposals into law. Gives you food for thought whenever the subject of republicanism on these shores rears its head, doesn’t it.

At one time, both the French and the British people could be relied upon to admirably resist the kind of totalitarian measures more familiar to European neighbours such as Germany or Italy; bloody-mindedness seemed to be characteristic traits we shared with our brothers across the Channel. But the disappointingly compliant response to Project Fear on this side of the Continental divide has perhaps persuaded Macron that he can get away with it on home soil; yet he’s clearly figured he can push the boat out even further. What he’s now proposing has taken post-lockdown restrictions into unprecedented territory that one cannot help but suspect are being studied by other European leaders as a possible blueprint for the way forward. Basically telling the French people that no vaccine equates with no life, either of the working or social variety, is a bold statement that feels as though it goes against the grain of everything we associate with the French and their history of rebelling in the face of such decrees from on high.

The long-running Gilets jaunes protests were familiar in their characteristically French response to authority overreaching itself, though it’s hard to see how resistance can now be manifested when confronted by rules and regulations that place the people in a position where choice is no longer an issue if one wants to survive in this brave new world. Is there a whiff of triumphant revenge in this move by Macron? Neutered by the protests that wrecked the capital city for the best part of a year, Monsieur President has reasserted his authority by exceeding any demonstrations of it he was able to call upon before he received the powers to shut society down and redraw the map of discourse. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of vaccines being hired by the state as a kidnapper holding freedom hostage, Macron’s actions seem to remove the option of personal choice figuring somewhere in the picture. If you want to resume living your life, you’ll have to take what the state is offering you…or else.

Maybe to get me in the mood for writing this post, the penning of it has been complemented by a compilation of Serge Gainsbourg’s finest moments playing in the background; as I reach the final paragraph, his reggae-fied interpretation of ‘La Marseillaise’ has just burst out of the speakers. Provoking the ire of right-wing veterans from the Algerian War of Independence upon its release in 1979, Gainsbourg’s controversial version of the French national anthem said something about the nation that hadn’t been addressed before. Not unlike some of this nation’s most famous, contentious (and sadly absent) sons we can no longer turn to for guidance, the French must be wondering what Serge would say if confronted by the current proposals to emanate from the Élysée Palace. Probably problematic…and unprintable, God bless ‘im.

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THE FINAL WHISTLE

BorisThe Bank Holiday Monday that never was – not unlike the airport that never was or the garden bridge that never was; it’s not as if Boris Johnson doesn’t have a history when it comes to grandiose promises he fails to deliver on. I suspect his numerous wives and mistresses could testify to that. Mind you, in this particular case his promise proved to be wishful thinking, probably made when he slipped an England football shirt over his normal clothes – as you do. This was a promise dependent upon England winning Euro 2020 and, as everyone no doubt knows by now, we didn’t. I suppose it could be seen as an addition to the ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative that has run through the government response to the pandemic ever since the PM’s historic television address to the nation. Incidentally, that particular broadcast famously gatecrashed the long-held list of most-watched TV broadcasts ever in the UK when it was seen by almost 28 million viewers in March last year, and it’s now been joined in the top ten by the Euros final, coming straight in at No.4 with only the 1969 ‘Royal Family’ documentary, Diana’s funeral and (of course) the 1966 World Cup Final ahead of it. Seems the boys of ’66 will forever be the unsurpassable yardstick.

As every politician does when seeking to be seen as being at one with ‘the people’, Boris enthusiastically embraced the excitement stirred by Gareth Southgate’s team going one step further than any England side in 55 years. And who can blame him? It was the briefest of breathers as society came up for air before resuming the drowning-by-division that has characterised the past five years. And, as crassly opportunistic as Boris’s attempts to exploit a rare ‘feel-good factor’ have been, he was beaten to the finishing post in the toe-curling stakes yet again by the hilariously hapless Keir Starmer. The leader of the Opposition posed for several photos where he was pictured ‘enjoying the match’ with a pint strategically placed in front of him; the pint had been initially absent, then mysteriously appeared, and then when Starmer’s aides belatedly realised it was full, one of them no doubt took a sip (probably provoking the same appalled expression a child wears when given its first taste of bitter) and placed it back on the table to prove what a real man Sir Keir is. Mate, you’re a middle-class London lawyer who’d much rather be at Glyndebourne than Wembley; pretending otherwise just makes you look an even more disingenuous prat than you already are.

The fragile sense of togetherness marked by a great sporting occasion that captures the public’s imagination is never destined to last, and the swift resumption of where we were following the defeat of England by Italy on Sunday was swift even by the low standards we’ve come to expect. General Southgate’s baffling tactical decision to send the youngsters over the top at the climax of the penalty shootout was especially strange considering his own youthful exposure to the pressure of the spot-kick; but the way in which the failure of the trio in question to convert the vital penalties then saw the deflation of some manifested as depressingly predictable racist abuse aimed at the players has been exceptionally unpleasant. Of course, it has also curtailed the suspension of hostilities towards football’s fan-base from the chattering classes; quietly genteel empty stadiums, knee-taking and rainbow flags created the perfect environment for the middle-class dilettante to pose as a lover of the beautiful game, but then the barbarians that were greeted with similar horror when they descended on the Oval for the very first FA Cup Final in 1872 were let in again and look what happened!

Those that are fond of bracketing all genuine working-class football fans as frothing-at-the-mouth racist bigots and Brexiteers had the perfect excuse to rant as a tiny handful of brain-dead trolls took out their frustration on England’s black players. There has always been a small section of football followers who think this way, though let’s not pretend football has the copyright on them. Grafting the ideological cancer of Identity Politics onto the sport, with its incessant emphasis on race as the single most important characteristic of any individual, is something that stokes instant division by highlighting a factor that most decent people don’t even think about. In the build-up to the final on Sunday, social media was awash with statements pointing out how many members of the England team had ‘immigrant’ backgrounds, as though this not only somehow vindicated the divisive immigration policies of the past 20 years but was also responsible for the players being able to kick a ball in the first place; as long as the latter skill is good enough to warrant selection for the team, that’s all that matters. Attempting to portray a football team as ambassadors for free movement within the EU is hardly something that will inspire unity; the Left once again turning on the daughter of immigrants who has actually achieved her own success story by becoming Home Secretary just seems to show the hypocritical cant at the heart of this mindset is as toxic as any online racist halfwit throwing a virtual banana in the direction of Marcus Rashford.

So, ‘unity’ via an impressive run in a football tournament is over, so where does that leave us? Well, whilst there may have been a brief moment of genuine unity amongst the population when the first lockdown took place – back in those innocent, halcyon days when we trusted our elected leaders to do the right thing in a situation few of us then understood – that unity has subsequently dissolved and dissipated as warring factions and rival camps have asserted their opposing stances on the Covid issue. Pro-vaccine/anti-vaccine, pro-mask/anti-mask, pro-lifting of restrictions/anti-lifting of restrictions – the new frontline causes stepping into the space temporarily vacated by the Leave/Remain debacle. The Covid unity – if indeed it can be called that – fractured fairly early, probably at the point when lockdown was breached by BLM marches that seemingly had cart-blanche to break all restrictions without any of the over-officious response from the police that ordinary law-abiding folk were being exposed to on a daily basis.

The hypocritical activities of Dominic Cummings, Neil Ferguson and Matt Hancock lifted the lid on the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach to restrictions by the powers-that-be as much as the supine reaction by the forces of law and order to rule-breakers sharing the same ideology as them. As the restrictions that came with the initial lockdown have been extended way beyond the projected timeframe we were originally promised and the goalposts keep being moved in a manner many wished had been the case on Sunday night, people’s frustrations with the situation are perfectly understandable. Earlier on Sunday, I watched the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. After winning before an audience of non-socially distanced and largely unmasked multitudes in the stands on Centre Court, Novak Djokovic was then interviewed by Sue Barker, who appeared to be standing half-a-mile away. I couldn’t help but think of the Python sketch when a TV presenter interviews someone on the street with a hand-held microphone, pointing the mic at the interviewee when asking a question and then pointing it at himself when receiving the reply. Am I the only person whose increasing exasperation with the ludicrous rules and regulations still governing interaction with others makes me feel as though I’m now living in a permanent Python sketch?

Despite desperate pressure from the SAGE soothsayers and their media cohorts, the PM is to be commended for standing his ground and insisting all restrictions will end as of next Monday. Even if caveats keep being inserted into the promise – whether pub passports intended to coerce the young into submitting to the vaccine or the threat of continued mask-wearing – this is still the one promise Boris cannot shirk from delivering. If he doesn’t deliver, the fear is we’ll be living this way forever – and, let’s be honest, some have been so successfully conditioned they’d be quite happy with that. When divisions over the vaccine and mask-wearing run so deep that they are creating schisms between families and friends reminiscent of the Miners’ Strike, you know it’s time to curtail this social experiment. If only it were that simple to do so just by ending restrictions. They may think it’s all over, but sadly, it isn’t.

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DESERT STORMS

TalibanThe manner in which occupying superpowers exit foreign soil usually depends upon the circumstances surrounding their presence in the first place. European withdrawal from overseas territories in the post-war era was often prompted by the economically challenging strain of running Empires in the wake of global conflict; fighting for the mother country in WWII gave colonial subjects an extra bargaining chip in the clamour for self-determination, and most imperial overlords were too exhausted, broken and bankrupt to resist for much longer. Moreover, independence movements were rarely conducted in a non-violent fashion, and warring factions that placed the colonial masters in the unenviable role of permanent peacekeepers could lead to an ignominious flight from the colony in question. Palestine and India were not exactly dignified departures on the part of the British, and the less said about what happened in the Congo when the Belgians bolted the better. The painfully protracted battle for Algerian independence almost provoked civil war in France, with rebel French-Algerian generals pointing their warheads in the direction of Paris at the height of the crisis.

However, these distant examples were all the legacies of 19th century expansion by the European powers, staking a claim on land that was either taken by force, ceded from one power to another, or gradually occupied after the establishment of maritime trading posts. By the middle of the next century, attitudes were beginning to change and the first two or three decades following the end of the Second World War saw the previous century’s global conquerors in gradual retreat back to first-base. Military interventionism as we have come to know it is a different issue compared to Empire-building, but it can provoke the same indignation and aggression in the native population that characterised the final fractious years of colonialism. Of course, military intervention is never embarked upon without both an official motive and an ulterior one, even if the latter is something Western powers generally deny. But what’s really remarkable about many of the military interventions of the past 50-60 years is how they repeat the same mistakes that were often made in the very same countries before.

Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR, was testament to Hitler’s misplaced belief that his war machine was capable of doing what Napoleonic France failed to achieve in 1812; indeed, one might argue Bonaparte’s Russian invasion was a success in comparison, for the Emperor and his army at least occupied Moscow, even if what they found when they got there was an empty shell of a city abandoned by the Tsar. Whilst the infamous French retreat from Moscow was already legendary by the time Nazi Germany suffered its own devastating defeat on cold Russian soil, the fact Adolph dismissed the lessons of history because he believed he was on the right side of it set a precedent that seems to have become the blueprint for military interventions ever since. The American adventure in Vietnam followed the French one, and the American expedition to Afghanistan followed the Soviet one. Neither previous example served as a warning or deterrent. It’s almost as though past disasters are never taken into account, as though the new army preparing to launch itself onto an old battlefield always believes it has the copyright on victory denied its predecessor.

When the USSR invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet Union was already living on borrowed time as a superpower, but the fact the Russians swiftly became embroiled in a conflict that spanned all-but 10 months of the next decade probably contributed in no small measure to the USSR’s collapse shortly thereafter. Stats for the number of casualties and losses on both sides in the war are (as is often the case) inconsistent, though it’s estimated over 14,000 Soviet troops lost their lives as well as 18,000 Afghan forces fighting alongside the Soviets; in total, around 80,000 Afghans are alleged to have been killed during the Soviet occupation, with the ‘lucky’ survivors reduced to refugees totalling 5 million. Bearing in mind just how prescient an example Afghanistan has become as a cautionary tale to superpowers contemplating intervening in another nation’s affairs, perhaps it’s no real surprise that Afghanistan is a country with something of a history when it comes to this.

The British had a go a couple of times when ensconced next-door in India – 1838 and 1878 – and neither could be classed as successful from a British perspective. A Russian presence in Afghanistan predates 1979 – indeed, the two British interventions in the 19th century were provoked by it; and the Russians returned in 1929 and 1930, when the Raj was still on the doorstep. The war that began in 1979 was the longest-running Russian intervention in Afghanistan, yet even the fact its disastrous legacy was well-documented didn’t prevent American troops touching down on Afghan soil just 12 years after the Soviet withdrawal.

Following 9/11 and confirmation that Osama Bin Laden and his gang were based in Afghanistan few were surprised when the US launched an inevitable invasion of the nation in October 2001, a military intervention backed by several NATO allies. There wasn’t much in the way of an alternative option when such a grotesque crime had been committed. That said, the Bush administration probably didn’t envisage it would take another decade (and another President) before 9/11 would be ‘avenged’ in the good ol’ fashioned American way by taking out Bin Laden; but by then America had become bogged down in another Middle Eastern conflict to which there seemed to be no end. Instigating one war in the region may be regarded as a misfortune; to instigate two looked like carelessness – and whichever way one studies events in Iraq, success is not a word that immediately springs to mind. When it came to Afghanistan, however, the first few months of the US presence saw a grateful population liberated from a gruesome regime that the world had barely paid attention to up to that point.

Post-Soviet, Afghanistan had fallen under the brutal rule of the hardcore fundamentalist Taliban, who first made an international name for themselves with their philistine approach to the antiquities of the Middle East, committing the cultural crime of destroying the ancient gigantic statues known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan early in 2001. As knowledge of their other activities became more widespread following the US invasion, the grim extent of their ‘Year Zero’ approach emerged; few who can recall seeing the joy on the faces of ordinary Afghans, dancing in the streets and gleefully shaving off their compulsory beards as Taliban strongholds swiftly collapsed, could dispute that – at least in the beginning – this military intervention had the look and feel of a necessary humanitarian mission. With the support of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, coalition forces swept the Taliban from power by the end of 2001 and there then followed attempts to establish a democratic political system.

Presidential elections took place in 2004, with Hamid Karzai elected President for the first of two five-year terms; but the Taliban hadn’t gone away. They were especially strong in Helmand province, where British troops were dispatched in 2006 – officially part of the reconstruction project, though quickly drawn into combat. Although the NATO involvement in Afghanistan officially ended in 2014, the Taliban continued to wreak periodic havoc on the people, routinely staging the most unwelcome comebacks since Jedward; they are currently on the rise again – right at the very point when the remaining Western forces are winding up operations. President Biden last week announced the American military presence in Afghanistan will finally end next month, almost 20 years after US forces arrived. The body count in that time period is difficult to determine with accuracy, but some estimates reckon as many as 170,000 civilians alone have been killed. The one question it’s hard to avoid posing is was it worth it? Then again, has any intervention in Afghanistan ever made the country, the region or even the world as a whole a better, safer place? Anyone who has lived through the past couple of decades can only answer no.

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PLAYING FIELDS OF GOLD

MurrayFor years, sport in the summer months was an annual (or bi-annual) exercise in national humiliation for either England or the UK as a whole. How many Ashes defeats? How many Wimbledon whimpers? And how many deflating exits from either the World Cup or the European Championships? Most of us were raised in the shadows of legends and were taught that once upon a time we used to be the best at sports we invented, before the colonies and other countries we exported those sports to at the end of the Imperial era gradually overtook us and turned the teacher/pupil relationship upside down. A decline on the playing fields we’d laid out in the first place appeared to mirror a decline in our overall global standing, as though one was inexorably related to the other, and the past was somewhere we’d always been world champions. For endless decades, the last Brit to have won the men’s singles crown in SW19 had been before the Second World War; the name Fred Perry was once an ubiquitous yardstick TV viewers grew tired of being referenced year-after-year, yet it seemed he’d always be mentioned to remind us of our collective ineptitude at a game we become obsessed with for a solitary fortnight whenever June bleeds into July.

The England cricket team had the tables turned on it by the Aussies quite early, losing its first Test match to the uppity Antipodeans as far back as 1882; this prompted the infamous mock obituary that proclaimed ‘the death of English cricket’ following the defeat at the Oval, and gave birth to the Ashes series. The England football team managed to sustain the illusion a little longer, until overconfidence was punctured by two severe lessons in the early 1950s – a 1-0 loss to the amateurs of the USA at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, and the 6-3 thrashing by Hungary at Wembley in 1953 (which was England’s first defeat on home soil by Continental opposition since 1066). The latter result coming in the wake of the morale-boosting conquest of Everest served as a telling reminder that our spell on top of the world wasn’t destined to last long.

Of course, the England football team recovered and eventually did the business in 1966; but thereafter it was a slow slide back into international ignominy – the 3-2 loss to the West Germans in the 1970 World Cup after being 2-0 up; being outclassed by an even better German side 3-1 at Wembley in the 1972 European Championships; and then the ultimate humiliation, failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup with a 1-1 draw against Poland in 1973, a result that cost Sir Alf his job. To make matters worse, that World Cup was to be held in West Germany, and even worse (from an English perspective) the Scots had qualified. Yet, the whole country having to drape itself in tartan then became the new narrative of national failure. Despite having an abundance of talent at its disposal in terms of players who had lifted every club trophy north and south of the border (as well as in Europe), the Scotland teams we had little choice but to support in 1974 and 1978 heaped further humiliation on the nation, failing to get past the group stage on both occasions and producing some memorably embarrassing score-lines in the process.

My childhood exposure to summer sport on a national level was one characterised by bewilderment and questions. I wondered why England never qualified for the World Cup, why only British women occasionally won Wimbledon (though even that ended with Virginia Wade in 1977), and why the Aussies always won the Ashes. It was probably a good life lesson, actually, to realise that you can’t always get what you want – even if it would’ve been nice to have got it every once in a while. Any tiny sign that we might have sired a world-beater was grabbed with gusto. Although the tally of Great British gold medals at the first few Olympic Games I saw was pretty pitiful (never exceeding more than 5 from Munich in 1972 and plunging to a nadir of just the one at Atlanta in 1996), it probably helped propel the elite athletes who did get their hands on gold to levels of fame they’d otherwise have evaded – even if it also contributed towards the risible comedy cult of Eddie ‘The Eagle’, who was celebrated for being crap and accelerated the tedious ‘Plucky Brit’ narrative.

In sports not associated with the summer months we seemed to do better. We were always good at Formula One, for example, with the likes of Jackie Stewart and James Hunt crowned world champions during my formative years; and in boxing we appeared to have several champs in different weights, even if the one everybody wanted – the heavyweight – remained impervious to our efforts, despite the likes of Joe Bugner, Richard Dunn and Frank Bruno all having a shot. We were no better come the time of year when strawberries & cream were the delicacy of choice. After Roger Taylor reached three Wimbledon semis between 1967 and 1973, there then followed an interminably lengthy period in which futile hopes rested with the likes of John Lloyd or Jeremy Bates, both of whom the viewer knew would wilt when confronted by a genuine world-beater – and they always did. And then Tim Henman appeared out of nowhere.

Despite looking and sounding like a member of the Shadow Cabinet from the years when the Tories were cast out into Opposition, and despite attracting the kind of unhinged granny fan-base that camps outside London hospitals for days when a royal birth is imminent, on court Henman exceeded every expectation bar one. Four Wimbledon semis between 1998 and 2002 was undoubtedly impressive considering what had preceded him, yet he just couldn’t cross that line into the final. What Britain needed at Wimbledon was the kind of figure that had given English cricket a kick up the arse in the 80s, Ian Botham. The immortal Ashes turnaround of 1981 made ‘Beefy’ a old-fashioned ‘Boys Own’ national hero, with Botham not only socking it to the Aussies but the stuffy old MCC fossils as well; his off-the-field antics also played their part in his legend, and it was a long time before English cricket again came close to the heights it had scaled with its best all-rounder leading the charge. It was hard to imagine an Englishman bringing that to the refined arena of Wimbledon, so perhaps it took a Scot to do it.

A contrast with gentleman Henman’s Home Counties niceness, Andy Murray’s rages at himself when a shot went astray was a joy to behold as a Brit. Here was a player with fire in his belly and a will to win none of us had ever seen before. His progress up the world rankings was rapid, reaching his first Grand Slam final in 2008 (the US Open) and the first of three consecutive Wimbledon semis the following year. In 2012, he went one better and became the first post-war male Brit to reach the singles final, though couldn’t make it past the immovable object of Roger Federer; however, that same year he did achieve a unique double of the US Open and Olympic gold. A year later, the British hoodoo was smashed when Murray won Wimbledon, beating the mighty Novak Djokovic in straight sets; a second Wimbledon win followed in 2016, with Murray’s glorious battles becoming intrinsic to the Great British Summer for a good few years in the 2010s.

The 2012 Olympics in London was a pretty qualified success for this country on many levels, not least the amount of medals won (including 29 gold) that placed us third on the final board; investment in British athletics from the Olympic low of 1996 onwards had paid off. The England cricket team’s memorably dramatic 2019 World Cup win (reminiscent of that edge-of-the-seat Ashes triumph in 2005), when placed alongside the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and Murray’s achievements, could put forward the argument that the 2010s were British summer sport’s golden age. The one area in which we continued to struggle on the global stage was football. Anyone who witnessed the atrocious capitulation to the minnows of Iceland at the 2016 Euros cannot fail to be impressed at the transformation overseen by Gareth Southgate’s management since then. A World Cup semi in 2018 and now one step closer to completing something my generation (the first with no memory of 1966) has had to live without longer than any other. And all we have to do is beat Italy…

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MEASURE FOR MEASURE

RestaurantI guess the extent of wartime rationing was belatedly brought home to me when I read ‘War and Peace’ a few years back. Naturally, this doorstopper of an epic requires a lot of pages – 1,334 the number my own copy can boast. But the edition in question was published in 1943 – indeed it has one of those lovely handwritten dedications inside it (‘To Ronald, from Auntie Nina, 25.XII.45’), the kind that always prompt me to ponder on the identities of these mystery people and what became of them. However, what really makes this volume unique amongst the many old books I’ve picked-up over the years is that the thickness of each page is so flimsy you can almost see through the paper. I’d been aware of paper rationing on top of everything else rationed during the Second World War, but I’d never encountered the realities of it before. Newspapers, comics and magazines were hit more or less as soon as hostilities broke out, reduced to 60% of their pre-war strength, and when the rationing of paper was tightened even further as of 1942, George Orwell looked at the way in which paper supplies were distributed from the perspective of the author.

‘A particularly interesting detail,’ he wrote, ‘is that out of the 100,000 tonnes allotted to the Stationary Office, the War Office gets no less than 25,000 tonnes, or more than the whole of the book trade put together…At the same time paper for books is so short that even the most hackneyed “classic” is liable to be out of print, many schools are short of text books, new writers get no chance to start and even established writers have to expect a gap of a year or two years between finishing a book and seeing it published.’ Whenever wartime rationing is discussed today, the limitations on food and the impact that particular privation had on the nation tends to fall under the spotlight; but, of course, clothing was rationed, as was fuel (primarily coal), as was petrol, as was soap and dozens of other items it’s fair to say we take for granted. When it comes to petrol, many private vehicles gathered dust in garages for the best part of five years, and there are several public information films from the late 1940s offering advice to drivers sweeping the cobwebs away from their old bangers and wondering why they’re no longer roadworthy.

Some rationing ended before VE Day, but peacetime didn’t curtail the entire practice overnight. Various economic factors that were a natural legacy of conflict kept many of the restrictions in place and when disaster unrelated to war struck, such as the wet summer of 1946 ruining wheat crops, restrictions were reintroduced – in this specific case, bread rationing; the notoriously harsh winter of 1947 also saw the rationing of potatoes. The amount of petrol rationed was up and down throughout the remainder of the 1940s and didn’t finally end until 1950. The fact it temporarily returned during the 1956 Suez Crisis seemed to highlight how rationing was now engrained as a default response. Rationing was a major issue the Conservative Opposition fought upon during the General Election campaigns of 1950 and ’51; the Labour Government argued rationing should continue indefinitely, as though this was now the natural order of things, but the electorate sided with Churchill’s Tories in the latter contest and the promises to finally end rationing were kept – albeit as a slow ‘roll out’. Restrictions on sugar and confectionary were lifted in 1953 and everything else was de-rationed as of 4 July 1954, fifteen years after Chamberlain’s radio address.

The reluctance of Attlee’s Government to bring all rationing to an end was mostly a case of the administration trying its damndest to cling onto power, fearful of what the economic ramifications might be at a time when pre-war reliance on goods flowing into the country from the colonies (as well as home production) still hadn’t been fully restored; but it could also probably be said that rationing had become second nature as a policy, despite the population wearying of it. Governments realised it could work and that people would simply grin and bear it without rioting outside Downing Street. When the next comparable crisis reared its ugly head a generation later – the 1972 Miners’ Strike, followed by the Three-Day Week of 1974 – rationing was prepared for to the point of printing petrol coupons, but none were issued thanks to the life-saving presence of North Sea Oil. Still, the public were advised to reduce consumption in the home, and rationing did occur via electricity supplies; power-cuts became a regular feature of industrial turbulence during the period, continuing to randomly wreak household havoc until the middle of the decade. As someone whose earliest memories emanate from this time, power-cuts were normalised from day one for me and I assumed these were (and always had been) a commonplace fact of life; yes, you will be in the middle of watching ‘Blue Peter’ and the TV will abruptly switch-off without warning and you won’t think it unusual. Memory tells me when power-cuts finally ended, the drought of 1976 started the next day and then it was water’s turn to be rationed as the country appeared to stagger from one crisis to the next.

Okay, so it doesn’t take a genius to work out where I’m going with this. What the lesson of rationing taught governments was that they could inflict hardship on the populace and persuade them it was being done for the greater good; in the case of WWII, there was an element of truth in the need for sacrifice, though it must have grated a little whenever a Brit found themselves on an American army-base and had a glimpse of the plentiful supplies in the quartermaster’s stores. In each case in which rationing was employed – the Second World War, Suez, the industrial unrest of the 1970s – an initial crisis had provoked the emergency measures and people generally accepted the thinking behind the dramatic move, believing it would only be a temporary imposition that would be lifted as soon as the crisis had passed. A not-dissimilar approach had been used during the Napoleonic Wars, when the need to fund a seemingly never-ending conflict resulted in a continuous series of new taxes, not all of which vanished in the wake of Waterloo.

Governments tend to allay any disgruntled resistance whenever imposing such measures by adopting the ‘we’re all in it together’ sales technique, playing the victim and urging the nation to unite against a common enemy – whether that be Nazi Germany, Nasser, the miners’ unions, or even a coronavirus. One would imagine the vast majority of people in this country would greet the announcement that the new ‘Freedom Day’ of 19 July is definitely on (give or take a few small-print caveats) with a modicum of euphoria considering the past year-and-a half we’ve endured. Yet the voices of disquiet at this news are not necessarily emanating from the SAGE camp and all those grandstanding doom-mongers who will suddenly be deprived of the prime-time spotlight they’ve clearly grown rather fond of; it seems the pro-vaccine/anti-vaccine, pro-mask/anti-mask divides are now picking up where the Leave/Remain divisions left off – in cyberspace, at least.

In the real world, the legacy of Project Fear is already visible with the comical sight of customers attempting to eat a restaurant meal with masks on, or those who follow the latest infection rates as though watching the football results, or those who believe we should remain under house-arrest until Covid has gone the way of smallpox, which effectively means forever – interesting that the Labour Government of 1950 viewed rationing in the same way. Well, rationing did end eventually, though almost a decade after Peace in Europe was declared. And unlike in the early 50s, Her Majesty’s Opposition in 2021 is not demanding an end to emergency measures but pleading for their continuation, as Keir Starmer bleated yesterday. Even if they end on 19 July, don’t be surprised if their reintroduction is the default response to the next crisis; a precedent has been set.

© The Editor

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BATLEY VARIETY CLUBBED

GallowayProbably wrong to call it a standard-bearer, but the yardstick by which all subsequent by-elections have been judged on the grounds of unpleasantness is undoubtedly the unedifying little rumpus that took place in South London way back in February 1983. A Labour seat held by the same sitting member since 1946 (whatever name the constituency went under), Bermondsey came to be regarded as a microcosm of the death of the post-war consensus in British politics when it was suddenly up for grabs via the resignation of Bob Mellish, whose disillusionment with the way his Party was going in the wake of the SDP defection and Labour’s capitulation to the hard-left embodied the familiar recurring crisis in Labour ranks when out of office. Labour nominated a leading light in what Fleet Street used to call ‘the Loony Left’ as its candidate, the openly gay Peter Tatchell, a man who had risen to local prominence as a militant member of the left-wing faction that had taken control of the constituency party; his main opponent in the contest was the Liberal Simon Hughes, a barrister parachuted in when the Liberals smelt blood in a seat that was hardly going to fall into Conservative hands.

The Bermondsey by-election may have marked the public debut of Screaming Lord Sutch and the Monster Raving Loony Party as a regular fixture of 80s political events, but it also highlighted prejudices indicative of the time that seem unimaginable in today’s climate. An undeniable strain of blatant homophobia permeated the promotional material of Tatchell’s opponents, including that of Simon Hughes. Leaflets bearing Tatchell’s home address and telephone number, along with graffiti and numerous reported derogatory remarks made by other candidates on the doorstep, all contributed to an unprecedented smear campaign. Whilst Tatchell’s association with Militant Tendency (the hardcore group of activists serving to make Labour unelectable in the eyes of the electorate) certainly worked against him, it’s impossible to avoid his previous connections to the Gay Liberation Front as not exactly endearing him to many of Bermondsey’s socially-conservative constituents. We may now live in a society in which the rainbow flag is more conspicuous than the Union Jack, but even in a period as relatively recent as the early 80s being gay was still largely regarded as subversive and suspect; and this was even before AIDS ramped up the tabloid paranoia.

In the end, Bermondsey experienced a staggering swing of 44.2% to the Liberals (who had yet to become Democrats) – a result that still stands as the largest swing in a British by-election…ever. Moreover, Simon Hughes also bucked the usual trend by remaining an MP for a seat won in a contentious by-election for the best part of three decades. Many years later, he and Tatchell were reunited on ‘Newsnight’ and, to his credit, Hughes personally apologised to his one-time Labour opponent for some of the dirty tricks used during that notorious campaign; and to his own credit Tatchell accepted the apology without a trace of rancour or bitterness. Both had come a long way since 1983. One would like to think society as a whole has also advanced in the intervening decades, though the Batley & Spen by-election of 2021 has perhaps shown we may well have gone backwards. Being gay is rightly no longer an impediment to being elected an MP, but other prejudices and fresh strains of bigotry have simply superseded the old ones.

With its large Muslim community, there has been considerable pandering by all interested parties to a demographic the Labour Party has long assumed with a degree of complacent arrogance will always lean to the left. Turning a shameful blind eye to the plight of the local teacher still in hiding from hardline Islamist bigots, everyone competing for the constituency instead sought to court the Muslim vote without once challenging the prevalent prejudices within it; what Labour MP Navendu Mishra called ‘dog-whistle racism’ was in full flow during the campaign as routine and deliberately divisive anti-Hindu and anti-Semitic sentiments reflected the Identity Politics agenda all political parties with a stake in the constituency decided to go with. Labour didn’t bank on one of its former sons exploiting dissatisfaction with the current leadership by storming into town and capitalising on the ugly climate with hackneyed pro-Palestine sloganeering, but George Galloway has a track record of this. His performance as Workers Party candidate resulted in him slashing the Labour vote, but also probably did as much damage to the Tories, who undoubtedly fancied their chances with national Labour support in freefall.

The far-right were also present on the hustings by all accounts; stories of Labour workers being pelted with eggs and physically assaulted were abundant throughout a campaign that has seemed as nasty as any since Bermondsey in 1983. Labour’s insistence on sticking to the Identitarian approach – patronising ethnic ‘victims’ and demonising ethnic groups to have transcended such limiting labels through no-nonsense hard work – appeared to pay off in the end, though it’s difficult to see how one can celebrate such a narrow victory when one’s main opponents enjoyed a record swing (for a governing party) of 2.9 and the winning party experienced its lowest-ever majority and lowest-ever percentage of the vote. Labour’s victor was Kim Leadbeater, a political novice whose connection to a tragedy that put the constituency on the map five years ago (she’s Jo Cox’s sister) must have figured as a selling point; but it still didn’t produce anything other than a stay of execution for both Keir Starmer and the Labour Party itself.

A majority of 323 was the slimmest of margins for Labour in Batley & Spen last night; Leadbeater’s tally of 13,296 votes gave her a hair’s breadth lead over the Tories at 12,973; Galloway was third with 8,264. Leadbeater could lay claim to 35% of the vote, which is the smallest share of the vote any victorious candidate in the constituency could boast since its creation in the somewhat, ah, ‘memorable’ year of 1983 – down from the 42.7 % Tracy Brabin won it by in 2019. In terms of votes cast, the new Mayor of West Yorkshire & Neverland managed 22,594 at the last General Election, and it’s due to Brabin’s appetite for superficial power that this by-election had to be fought in the first place – and at the worst possible time for Labour. Yes, Galloway’s intervention undeniably enabled Labour to scrape through by the skin of its teeth, but if the Tories hadn’t sat back in the hope the bolshie maverick’s efforts would do all the work for them in the wake of negative publicity courtesy of Matt Hancock, perhaps this ‘Red Wall’ seat would now be added to the long list in blue hands. But the truth is none of them would have been worthy winners, all having played their part in what has been yet one more nadir in recent British political history.

If Batley & Spen had fallen to the Conservative Party – or even the Workers Party – the accusations that could legitimately be levelled at Labour during the by-election campaign would be equally valid. Just as the Bermondsey by-election of 1983 exploited contemporary paranoia over gay issues and militancy on the far-left fringes of the Labour party, this by-election in oh-so sophisticated 2021 has seen similarly bigoted and divisive tactics applied. All played the Identitarian card in one way or another; all deserve condemnation for sinking to lowest common denominator politics. Rather than seeking to genuinely unite – too much like hard work? – all sought to capitalise on divisions already present by widening them just that little bit further. The only unifying element of this ghastly exercise in democracy was the communal pot all the participants pissed in.

© The Editor

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