MASKED BALLS

MaskWhen certain fixtures have been part of the cultural landscape for so long that nobody is precisely sure how or why they got there, you know it’s hard to imagine life without them. Although there are several suggestions as to why wigs became part of the courtroom uniform for the legal profession in this country, one interesting theory that may nonetheless be as apocryphal as the rest is that the familiar white wigs we all recognise from dramatisations of trials were first worn as a curious means of marking the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and simply stuck. Of course, periwigs were fashionable accessories for both sexes at the time anyway, but the legal design never fell out of fashion in the theatre of justice. Indeed, for all the understandable accusations of the headgear being an archaic irrelevance 300 years on, wigs are so intrinsic to the British courtroom experience that judges or barristers seem to lose their authority when stripped of them. Wigs were normalised for that one context long before the everyday variety disappeared beneath Madame Guillotine, and they have largely remained with us in that context ever since.

I only bring this up because I was thinking about the ‘Covid facemask’ the other day. Hell, how could I not when venturing into anywhere that isn’t our own home necessitates covering up our bloody mouths and noses? But I just wondered if, like the horsehair wig in court, we are now stuck with it for good when visiting any interior public space. So successful was Pandemic Project Fear in convincing the majority that every risk-averse recommendation must be adhered to, once mask-wearing became mandatory there were plenty who saw it as a vindication of the (over) precautions they’d already been taking long before the rest of us were forced to comply. This means some people in this country haven’t been anywhere without a mask on for more than a year now; if they were convinced such a restrictive item of ‘clothing’ was necessary when even professional scaremongers like SAGE weren’t insisting they must be worn, will a time ever come when they’ll feel safe enough to remove them? Moreover, will a time ever come when they’re actually allowed to remove them?

I’ve seen several online headlines over the past few days that highlight people who don’t want to remove the mask and are quite happy retaining them, even if their compulsory use should ever cease. I think for such sad individuals, masks have become akin to a baby’s dummy; and just as it can often be quite a challenge to wean toddlers off their comforters, persuading mask-wearers that it’s not necessarily a good thing to hide half their faces forever could be just as difficult. I’ve seen lone individuals wearing them whilst walking outdoors through quiet suburban neighbourhoods where social distancing is a given and there isn’t a shop in sight to justify a mask; I’ve even seen drivers in otherwise empty cars with masks on – I mean, what do they think is going to happen? Do they imagine Covid will be tapping at their window, desperate to get in like some sort of virus version of Cathy? Some mask fanatics have essentially become the helicopter parent to their inner child. Fair enough, if this sartorial insanity makes you feel safer, so be it; but I’ve had enough of your paranoid hypochondria being imposed upon me by the state, especially now that restrictions are gradually lifting and the death rates are plummeting.

Ironically, as someone who hasn’t set foot in anyone’s house or used any form of transport for over a year, I feel I have – in my own way – become as conditioned to a certain style of living as much as the aforementioned mask fanatic. For them, the mask represents an additional shield against a virus they’ve probably had a couple of injections to keep at bay by now, yet the illusion of safety they’ve derived from the mouth nappy is something they’re reluctant to relinquish as they re-enter the social sphere. For me, the prospect of a grand reopening of society is something I have to admit I feel slightly apprehensive about. It’s not really anything to do with fear of becoming infected by the Chinese lurgy, more a case of having got used to minimal social contact for a period of time that has been an extended one, even by my own personal standards (which far exceed those of the average punter at the best of times). I’ve said it before, but it’s undeniable that I genuinely liked the ambience of the empty roads, tranquil streets and audible birdsong that characterised Lockdown I in its early days. It was an atmosphere I slotted into without any great difficulty; had it not been for the supermarket queues and scarcity of toilet paper, I probably wouldn’t have minded certain elements of the first lockdown remaining in place.

Naturally, I’m speaking from a purely personal perspective there; I acknowledge I was in a fortunate position compared to many people in this country, for whom normal service being suspended was a disaster with nightmarish consequences they’re still dealing with a year later. Mind you, Boris has declared social distancing will end within three weeks, so presumably that means all the other outstanding restrictions will eventually follow suit over the coming months. Or (as James Burke might have once said) does it? The caveat in the PM’s announcement was a warning of another wave next winter, with the latest in a long line of endless overseas variants waiting in the wings threatening to reduce the current restriction-lifting to a brief burst of sunshine like the one we glimpsed before Lockdown II. Gruesome events in India seem to support the World Health Organisation claims that the pandemic will be with us for the rest of the year, and if the next variant comes from the Subcontinent, don’t be surprised should this year’s winter end up being reminiscent of last year’s.

‘The end of the lockdown is not the end of the pandemic’ was the statement Boris maybe reckons will be his own ‘It is not even the beginning of the end; but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning’ line. We shall see. The Prime Minister also announced there is to be ‘an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis’ into the pandemic and the way it was handled by the combined powers-that-be of the state, though does anybody really expect this will result in the Government finally answering for some of the more disastrous decisions it made? And, of course, as is customary (just think of Grenfell), it will drag on and on like some legal version of ‘The Mousetrap’; it’s not even expected to begin for another year. Perhaps the Government is hoping by the time the inquiry publishes its findings the pandemic will have been all-but forgotten about. If healthy, vaccinated people of all ages are still forced to be clad in masks when that comes around, don’t bank on it; then again, masks are already so halfway to being normalised that perhaps nobody by then will be able to recall a time when they weren’t worn or why they were ever introduced, so who knows?

In a clever move designed to appeal to the nation’s dubious fondness for the marking of private loss in public, Boris also spoke of a ‘Commission on Covid Commemoration’ as a sentimental sweetener to bury some less benign policy moves. Some of the proposals for dealing with demonstrations that were announced in the Queen’s Speech this week could be perceived as either further over-caution when it comes to public gatherings or as an attempt to prevent the anarchy that characterised last summer’s BLM exterior redecoration projects. Then again, they could be regarded as evidence that the powers invested in this Government by Covid-19 have whetted an authoritarian appetite which is seizing the opportunity to extend public order measures that the coronavirus facilitated. We can’t say we didn’t see this coming, though. Surrendering every civil liberty that government suggests is necessary as a short-term sacrifice for the long-term good and then expecting each individual right to be returned is a bit…er…naive. Not getting them back will mean you’ll eventually forget you ever had them in the first place – just like never wondering why you need a mask.

© The Editor

AS YOU WERE

LabourAs they used to say back in the day on ‘Big Brother’ eviction nights, the votes have been counted; and what do the votes tell us about the electoral map of the UK following last week’s local, mayoral and devolved elections? Well, it’s essentially as you were. One can talk about a vaccine roll-out effect, I guess; but it seems the negative publicity metered out to the Tories and SNP in recent months had little impact on the voters – or perhaps they saw the excuse for an alternative and figured it was yet another case of ‘better the Devil you know’. It didn’t affect the London Mayor either; Sadiq Khan’s indisputably useless record on combating crime in the capital and his infatuation with Woke virtue signalling didn’t count against him when he was confronted by numerous vanity projects on the part of actors and other self-publicists with no political experience. Similarly, north of the border it appears the far-from flattering revelations to emerge from the prolonged Alex Salmond farrago – not to mention the SNP’s unnervingly authoritarian approach to governance – didn’t persuade the Scottish electorate to invest in something else. The only real losers on Thursday and Friday would seem to have been the beleaguered Labour Party.

Amazingly, Keir Starmer sweeping into Hartlepool and scoffing fish & chips with a pint – just like all northern working-class folk do in between being darn t’pit and walking t’whippet – didn’t convince the voters in the North-East, and they handed a traditionally safe Labour seat to the Tories for the first time. Fancy that. One could argue that Labour’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election was the only result that really mattered last week, though Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford would probably disagree. Wee Ms Krankie needed another mandate from the Scottish electorate to legitimise her tedious second referendum obsession and hope it would paper over the corrupt cracks in her appalling administration. It’s not as though anyone other than the most blinkered, anti-English redneck is under any illusion now that the party is somehow morally superior to any of its rivals; enough dirt was exposed beneath the manicured Caledonian fingernails by the recent investigation into the Salmond affair to open the eyes of voters, yet Sturgeon’s clan still retained power. With opinion polls suggesting a second independence referendum will probably result in the same kind of split as the last ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ plebiscite, Sturgeon will wait for the right moment to strike, but she’ll keep harping on about it until that moment arrives, for she’s got nothing else to harp on about in the meantime.

Mirroring the pyrrhic victory of Nicola Sturgeon, Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford received the thumbs-up from voters following months in which he’s revelled in his role as the puritanical lockdown overlord for the Valleys. He no doubt imagines the backing of the Welsh electorate vindicates his stance over the past year, just as Sturgeon views her re-election as a resounding endorsement of her equally totalitarian idea of rule. In the afterglow of the final count, however, perhaps both should consider the quality of competition on offer and the fact that ancient prejudices and bigotries towards parties other than the one yer ‘da’ always voted for continue to count for something in the constituent countries of the UK other than England. That Mark Draper’s party beyond Wales was up against a similar piss-poor alternative and still had a disastrous showing maybe paints a more accurate picture of where we are outside of the enclosed tunnel vision that devolution invariably engenders.

Sir Keir hasn’t pissed about, mind; his immediate reaction to the results in England was to instigate a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle – an action akin to a wife of 30-plus years changing her hairstyle in the vain hope her disinterested husband will suddenly find her attractive again. The few that noticed Starmer’s response took note of the fact that Angela Rayner lost her job as party chair as well as carrying the can for the disastrous campaign as national campaigns coordinator; a minor storm in a neglected teacup followed Rayner’s removal, but the former ‘thingle mother’ has actually been promoted, now shadowing Michael Gove; it may sound like the least appealing promotion imaginable, but Rayner can at least be consoled by the fact that nobody outside of Westminster Village really gives a shit. Talk of the Party relocating from its London base in order to reconnect with its lost heartlands is merely another PR stunt as meaningless as the BBC shifting its operations from Shepherd’s Bush to Salford. The Labour Party could set up shop in the Outer Hebrides and it would still venture no further than the boundaries of the metropolitan bubble it took with it should its hands be soiled by contact with uncouth locals whose vote it nevertheless craves.

Something that will be looked upon by few other than the Labour hierarchy as one of last week’s few ‘success stories’ was the election of Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin as West Yorkshire Mayor – arguably one of the more vacuous exercises in self-indulgent bureaucratic pointlessness local government has yet to dream up. Beyond the euphoric electorate of dynamic Northern Powerhouses Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, Brabin’s election to the latest vapid office of no interest to anyone who cares about life that stretches further than the end of their street wouldn’t register at all if her ‘promotion’ didn’t necessitate a further nightmarish by-election prospect for her party. The former constituency of Jo Cox will now be vacated and fought over sometime in the summer, as the police and crime responsibilities that come with Brabin’s shiny new status disqualify her from remaining an MP under electoral commission rules. The Batley and Spen seat is a marginal one, with Brabin’s majority at the last General Election slashed to 3,525, so I should imagine the Tories are looking forward to that particular by-election more than Labour.

The Conservative Party shouldn’t become complacent, however; just because the Tories trounced a terminally weak opposition doesn’t necessarily mean the electorate were giving their full endorsement to Boris’s mob. It’s unarguable that they enjoyed a remarkably impressive showing for a party in office for over a decade – and in the wake of a unique situation in which they haven’t always acquitted themselves admirably; but the supposed success of the vaccine, which the MSM never tires of telling us about, is being credited with building on the gains made in 2019 and suggests no amount of ‘sleaze’ headlines make the slightest bit of difference once the voter enters the polling booth. That said, the triumph of the party definitely owes something to the nature of the pandemic narrative; that the public have to receive the permission of Michael Gove that it’s now okay to embrace again says a great deal as to how the Tories have moulded public opinion through their relentless campaign of fear and intimidation over the past year or so; convincing the electorate that the Tories know best when voting comes around is merely a natural by-product of this tactic, and it has paid off.

These elections weren’t really the ‘giving the powers-that-be a bloody nose’ type that the EU Referendum offered us five years ago; they weren’t even comparable to the shock experienced by the wannabe powers-that-be in 2019. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that the end results changed little with the exception of a bit more ground being gained by the Tories; after all, people have had other distractions from party politics during this last twelve months, and maybe figured this wasn’t the time for a seismic shift. The apple cart has been upset enough of late.

© The Editor

SPIRITS OF ’71

Wyngarde Sketch - CopyIn between flexing like a whore and falling wanking to the floor, time still manages to squeeze a few goalpost-moving chores into the mix as well. Yes, I know I’ve written about it before, but even if it doesn’t go the whole hog and blow my mind, it never fails to at least light a little fuse there whenever I measure distance. If I was to look back, say, fifty years from the date of my birth, I would find myself either on the Western Front or storming the gates of the Winter Palace. Today, the same span returns you to 1971; and because some of my earliest recollections stem from that year, the factor of living memory makes it feel so much closer than half-a-century away. Naturally, my 1971 would have been considerably different from yours if you were approaching adulthood or were already there. My 1971 retrospectively resembles the set of a public information film; that’s how it looks to me now, anyway. My world was shot on 16mm. It was small-scale, compressed into compressed little houses on compressed little streets with compressed outside privies and compressed corner shops. But as I was only knee-high to a midget at the time, it didn’t seem especially claustrophobic.

EnaAll doors were open to a 3-4 year-old on that street; I can still picture the interiors of most houses because I seemed to have a free pass into all of them. I must have been a likeable kid, I guess. Despite my easy familiarity with them, however, every adult was formally addressed as ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ bar an old lady in a permanent headscarf who was known to all the children as ‘Auntie’. There was a middle-aged woman called Mrs Sharp a few doors down and I remember I always addressed her as Mrs Sharples; I can’t recall if she looked like Ena, but she didn’t appear to mind my confusion. Actually, considering it bore more than a passing resemblance to a certain street on the other side of the Pennines, the residents didn’t disappoint. I remember there being an equivalent Minnie Caldwell and Albert Tatlock and Elsie Tanner, but I suppose they came with the furniture back then. Any available neighbour was happy to look after me if the need arose, and it often did. Other than the ones who were drawing their pensions, many of the adults playing central roles in my 1971 were probably half the age I am now, which is a sobering thought.

Charlie GeorgeFor me, 1971 was the last year before school, so it retains a sense of innocence and purity in the memory, coated in infant amber that contrasts with the wider world of 1971 that I learnt of gradually, long after my personal experience of the year had slipped into history. I can’t, for example, recall any major news story of 1971 from the actual time. Even decimalisation, which dramatically changed the country’s century-old currency in February, didn’t register because I was simply too young to have acquainted myself with the old money before it had gone. The Ibrox Stadium disaster; the disastrous introduction of Internment in Ulster; the generational culture war of the ‘Oz’ obscenity trial; the devastating famine in Bangladesh; Idi Amin seizing power in Uganda; the death of Jim Morrison – all events too huge to inhabit my little head, all events that needed me to grow a bit more before I had the space to take them on board. Even Charlie George’s memorable FA Cup Final winner that sealed the Double for Arsenal – and it’s exactly fifty years ago tomorrow when the lanky, long-haired legend lay flat out on the Wembley turf after scoring it – yes, even that passed me by in 1971, though my father was at the game.

BolanAt least my ear was picking up signals from elsewhere. Pop music was connecting me to otherworldly places that only telly, comics, and astronaut-driven moon-buggies were otherwise informing me existed; pop impacted in a way that news stories from the year didn’t. There are a remarkable number of hits from 1971 that take me back there, and it was a richly varied year for music. The first stirrings of Glam Rock were infiltrating the singles chart and illuminating ‘Top of the Pops’, with both T.Rex and Slade scoring their inaugural No.1s; Elton John and Rod Stewart also broke through to a scene where the giants of the decade just-gone were still the standard bearers, though for perhaps the final time. The recent cultural earthquake of the Beatles’ break-up saw a flurry of eagerly-anticipated solo releases, yet a bickering Lennon & McCartney were overshadowed by the feel-good vibes of George Harrison. Both The Who and The Rolling Stones delivered the goods again with landmark releases, whilst acts to whom the 60s was merely a launch-pad, such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Joni Mitchell, went from strength-to-strength by unleashing albums that remain classics in what turned out to be quite a year for LPs that have stood the test of time. And while all this was going on, David Bowie and Alice Cooper were waiting in the wings, preparing to catch 1972 unawares.

8Hair was fashionably long for both sexes in 1971 – and there were only two then. Skirts were shorter than before or since; if you’re a leg man, watching any TV series from the beginning of the 70s means you’re in for a treat. The term ‘Metrosexual’ had yet to be coined, but many of the leading men on television in 1971 that the ladies liked were undeniably well-groomed. Two of the most preposterous albeit enjoyable series from the ITC stable of flamboyant escapism premiered that year, ‘The Persuaders’ and ‘Jason King’. The former saw Roger Moore essentially auditioning for the Bond role, though the character of Lord Brett Sinclair was perhaps a little too effete to fill 007’s squarer shoes. Similarly, the immortal Peter Wyngarde as the hilarious novelist-cum-secret agent who’d first appeared in ‘Department S’ a couple of years before was far too camp to convince as someone you’d trust with a licence to kill; but within the confines of his imaginary international playboy/espionage landscape, he made perfect sense. A world of your own was something I could relate to myself in 1971.

OzWhen the pages of ‘Oz’ were dissected at the Old Bailey that summer, the moral majority recoiled in horror at what the youth were getting up to, but the Christian backlash against ‘The Permissive Society’ was gathering pace via the likes of the Festival of Light; it also had plenty to object to when Stanley Kubrick released ‘A Clockwork Orange’ at the end of the year, despite the fact that the story itself is actually as moral as anything a Bible-basher would recognise from his book of choice. The violence perpetrated by Alex and his Droogs seemed to cause less palpitations to Mary Whitehouse and her God-fearing cohorts than the sexual element in the movie, yet violence was a greater threat to the stability of the streets, what with the emergence of that working-class terrorist, the Skinhead. The new urban bogeyman was making his mark on the football terraces in 1971, with hooliganism becoming the latest social menace. But it wouldn’t be a flash in the 1971 pan; it would outlast both the year and the Skinhead himself.

002For all the moral panic fuelling Fleet Street, however, the wave of self-confidence carried over from the heyday of England’s swinging seems to have still been largely intact in 1971 – a last hurrah for faith in the future. Maybe it only began to finally, belatedly disintegrate with the chill economic wind of the following year, the one that whipped-up Britannia’s skirts to reveal the moth-eaten, make-do-and-mend underwear of a grand old lady whose best days were behind her. Stitching up the holes in her knickers by candlelight in 1972, she must have wondered what went wrong. Her one-time protégé on the other side of the Atlantic by the name of Uncle Sam had his own problems at the time, but doesn’t everybody, whatever the year? It is always the worst of times for one person as much as the best of times for another; it just depends where you’re at. Where I was at in 1971 is on scratchy and grainy subconscious celluloid now, but the impression made by it is as sharp and vivid as ever. Some good stuff came out of that year, and I’m glad I was there, half-a-century ago.

© The Editor

NORTH-EAST OF EDEN

MonkeyOn those rare occasions when the football season is a two-horse race, it’s often a case of who’ll blink first; one of the two teams chasing the title bottles it at the eleventh hour and the other ends up being crowned champions. Is this because the winner is the better side or because the loser blew it on the last lap? The record books simply record who won and who didn’t, though it may be said at the moment of the final whistle that the champions didn’t win the title so much as the runners-up lost it. Should the SNP remain in power north of the border or Sadiq Khan retain his regime south of Watford this week, would it be fair to say neither won but the competition lost? The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson seems capable of every cock-up imaginable without fear of being thrown out of office, for a weak alternative to a weak Government will inevitably result in the continuation of the incumbent party, however much of a mess it has presided over. Similarly, the first real post-pandemic test of the electorate across the country tomorrow will see local, mayoral and devolved administration elections take place that may well end with parties and individuals worthy of being booted out simply staying where they are because the alternative was even worse.

Amidst the regional nature of the so-called (permission granted to cringe) ‘Super Thursday’, there will also be an election affecting the national picture courtesy of a by-election in a Red Wall seat. It’s in Hartlepool. Yes, Hartlepool, where the people infamously strung-up a monkey during the Napoleonic Wars because they were convinced the poor primate was a French spy. As is so often the case with small towns struggling for claims to fame, this bizarre legend has to a degree put Hartlepool on the map and its local football and rugby teams have adopted the monkey as mascot and logo respectively. Even stranger is the fact that a man dressed in simian costume going by the name of H’angus the Monkey stood in the town’s mayoral elections in 2002, with free bananas for Hartlepudlian school-kids key to his manifesto; against all odds, he won – and was re-elected by a landslide three years later. By the time he was in office, H’angus had reverted to his real name of Stuart Drummond, though Hartlepool is now nationally known as somewhere that once executed and then later elected a monkey.

As far as I know, no monkey is standing in 2021, but the town that was home to Brian Clough’s first faltering steps into football management could well provide the match of the day tomorrow. Hartlepool was a classic northern Labour stronghold for decades, supplying the town’s MP in every General Election since 1964, yet like so many Red Wall areas in England the 2016 EU Referendum proved to be a watershed for this unchallenged dominance. The North-East was broken down into 12 voting areas in 2016, and of the 12 only the region’s one big metropolitan city – Newcastle – followed all the other big metropolitan cities in the country by voting Remain; the rest of the North-East more accurately reflected the indigenous mood by voting Leave. Hartlepool did so with a margin of 69.6%, the highest margin in the entire North-East area. We may be five years removed from that resounding finger gesticulating in the direction of the political class of Westminster, but it’s fair to say subsequent events have not turned the electorate back towards the Remain-friendly Labour Party.

A Parliamentary constituency that was once in the hands of Peter Mandelson just about remained Labour-held at the 2019 General Election, though with a dramatically reduced majority from 2017 (3,595) as the Brexit Party grabbed 25% of the vote; and Mike Hill, the man who retained it stood down in March this year, prompting tomorrow’s by-election. Hill resigned his seat in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment and victimisation, something that caused his temporary suspension from the Party in 2019 and something for which he will face an employment tribunal later in the year. It has not been an auspicious exit, yet perhaps reflects the low standing in which Labour is now held in the region. Paul Williams, the Party’s man hoping to succeed Hill, is faced with pre-election polling claiming less than 40% of those who voted for Labour in 2019 will do so again this time round. Neighbouring traditional Labour councils in Durham and Sunderland also appear under threat at a time when the Tories at a national level have hardly endeared themselves to the public; that Labour is struggling to regain ground lost in 2019 even after the bungled handling of the pandemic by the opposition demonstrates just how much the Party has summarily failed to address its dwindling working-class support in areas it could once win with its eyes closed.

Hartlepool is the kind of dyed-in-the-wool Labour seat that might have once fallen to the Lib Dems if it was ever going to fall to anyone – though the one-time ‘protest vote’ party has paid the price for throwing its lot in with metropolitan minority interest Identity Politics even more than Labour, so we now have the once-unthinkable situation where the Tories are the credible alternative to North-East traditions. Keir Starmer may have tried to address the anti-Semitic legacy of the Corbyn/Momentum era of the Party, but the leader’s rush to take the knee for BLM, his perceived dithering over Covid, and his support for endless lockdowns hasn’t exactly won back the working-class vote that has been deserting Labour for decades as the leadership has taken it for granted; one would think the disastrous example of Scotland would have alerted Labour to what was going on in its northern backyard, but whilst Trans-rights and gender pronouns have been preoccupying those gathered round the dinner-party tables of Islington, those who loyally stuck with Labour until roundabout Blair’s second term have been abandoning the Party as swiftly as the Party itself has abandoned them for first-world problems that don’t mean a jot when you’re forced to claim Universal Credit in Hartlepool.

Six of the neighbouring North-East constituencies to Hartlepool fell to the Tories in 2019, and morale amongst the ground-force foot-sloggers entrusted with door-stepping floating voters and trying to persuade them to come home to a party that appears to view them with barely-concealed contempt hasn’t been helped by the realisation that cost-cutting measures will result in around 90 clipboard-carrying party activists being made redundant the day after polling day. Rather than winning voters round with convincing promises of what Labour will do for them if returned to power, the party reeks of desperation unprecedented in one that should be way ahead in the polls after more than a decade of Tory rule in one shape or another. The Batley and Spen Labour MP Tracy Brabin – holder of the constituency once held by Jo Cox – has only just been cleared of allegations accusing her of bribing the electorate with brownies during campaigning for the utterly meaningless post of Mayor of West Yorkshire; regardless of the fact the last thing such a region requires is another layer of bureaucratic local government, the actions of Brabin – whether legal or not – make Labour look cheap, like a budget supermarket laden with BOGOF offers on every aisle.

Keir Starmer is already attempting to pre-empt the expected loss of Hartlepool as well as a sizeable chunk of local government control north of Watford Gap by claiming Labour’s ‘recovery’ will take more time, playing down Party hopes ahead of ‘Super Thursday’; nothing quite like encouragement from the leadership to generate confidence, is there? But at least one could say Starmer is being realistic; if Hartlepool is added to the lengthy list of Labour’s one-time heavy-industry heartlands that now constitute the backbone of Boris Johnson’s 80-strong majority, few will be entirely surprised. Indeed, I suspect those who formulate Labour policy a long way from the land harried by William the Conqueror almost a thousand years ago couldn’t give a monkey’s.

© The Editor

FOUR LEGS GOOD

CircusWhen the wide eyes of a nine-year-old perused the pages of ‘2000 AD’ in 1977, one strip set in the far-flung future of 23 years hence seemed less feasible to me than anything involving robots, ray-guns or spaceships. In it, I recall an irate father was poised to deliver a smack to his misbehaving child when the mother interjected by reminding her husband, ‘We don’t chastise children in the 21st century’. This required more stretching of the imagination than the rest of the stories in the comic put together; I clearly remember thinking how such a scenario was never going to happen in my lifetime. I mean, routine smacks, slaps, clouts and belts from grownups was part and parcel of my childhood experience, and had been part and parcel of all the childhood experiences there’d ever been before mine. That was one of the perks of being over-18 – you could physically put an unruly child in its place, just like parents and teachers did on a daily basis to those of us who were kids back then. The idea that this would one day cease as a legitimate punishment and would indeed be frowned upon, even legislated against, was pure pie-in-the-sky. Judge Dredd didn’t seem remotely fantastical next to that.

Yes, this was the age when it was still okay for adults to dispense a clip round the ear-hole, and it was also the age in which latchkey dogs roamed the streets, impregnating the neighbourhood bitches, leaving messages wherever feet were guaranteed to tread, and terrorising kids who were terrified of them. Owners let Rover loose without a second thought, turfing him out of the house on a morning in the same way they’d turf their children out during the school holidays; they all ran wild and unsupervised in a way that’s utterly unimaginable today. Mind you, some animals I came into contact with during my childhood weren’t given carte blanche to roam; some were put to work and became more like family breadwinners than the human head of the household. Farmers relied on animals to play their part in the running of the family business, but there were also those four-legged creatures whose working lives were entered into purely for our entertainment.

Circus folk, for example, relied on the attraction of animal employees to pull the punters in. Urban children who maybe lived several towns away from the nearest zoo had a rare opportunity to see bona fide beasts up-close when the big top magically appeared overnight on the local common. Elephants, lions, tigers – yer actual wildlife of Africa and India lifted out a context copyrighted by David Attenborough and transferred to the showbiz stage. It should have been one hell of an eye-popping experience, yet even as a child in that radically different and un-squeamish era, the two circuses I saw in person made me feel sorry for the animals. As impressive as their choreographed routines might seem on the surface, performing elephants always had sad eyes that gave the game away; they were like reluctant strippers faced with little option but to take off their clothes in public just to make ends meet; they weren’t doing it through choice.

Perhaps the fact that one circus I saw as a child was a small, rather shabby low-rent affair a long way from the glitzy glamour of the circuses that always seemed to be broadcast as part of the Christmas Day TV schedule also impacted upon my perception of them. The conditions certainly enhanced the drowsy, drugged-up apathy of the lacklustre lions and toothless tigers on display so that even the crack of the whip failed to breathe any sense of urgency into them. All the animals looked worn-out, weary and wasted, going through jaded motions that were an archaic hangover from the Victorian age. I can’t imagine such a set-up being allowed today – and it wouldn’t be, thankfully. Like the boxing kangaroos occasionally wheeled-out to enliven a lacklustre variety show on TV, not everything in the past was superior to now; some things really have changed for the better. When the Wild Animals in Circuses Act of 2019 came into effect at the beginning of last year, circuses in England were belatedly banned from including wild animals in their line-ups, following similar Acts passed in Scotland and Wales a year or two before.

At a time when so much legislation that passes through Parliament seems to constitute little more than the ongoing erosion of civil liberties and all the hard-fought rights of which we were once so proud and are now prepared to give up without much in the way of a fight, how refreshing to see changes to the law that are actually worthwhile and long overdue. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill received its third and final reading last week and is deserving of a round of applause. It increases the maximum sentence for cruelty to animals from a paltry six months to a far more substantial five years. Coming at a moment when a vile crime like dog-theft is on the increase, the Bill couldn’t be more timely; whilst the Wild Animals in Circuses Act is intended to curb the exploitation of exotic beasts, this new Bill casts its net wider and turns its attention to abuse of the domesticated members of the animal kingdom, those we are far more likely to come into contact with than lions, tigers or elephants.

All-too often, it seems, animal rights are monopolised by (and assumed to be the exclusive property of) the ‘activist’, the stager of stunts and the disturber of the peace, the kind that arguably does more harm than good in making people aware of animal exploitation and cruelty – just as legitimate concerns over the future of the planet become negatively associated with the disruptive clowns of Extinction Rebellion, putting people off the issue when it’s so closely linked to the prats that use it as a vehicle for their own antisocial narcissism. However, legislation such as the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill and the Wild Animals in Circuses Act wrestle the subject out of the hands of the activist and remind us that this is an issue that concerns all of us. After all, it’s barely a year since the overnight removal of traffic from the roads and aircraft from the skies suddenly opened the floodgates for animals to claim the vacated spaces with amazing speed; the birdsong soundtrack and the surreal sight of deer grazing on suburban lawns served as a salient wake-up call to the fact that we actually share this place and don’t own it outright.

It’s been a long, slow road to getting here – the Proroguing of Parliament in 2019 and then Covid held things up somewhat; but the Statute Book and Royal Assent were finally in sight when the Bill crossed the finishing line at the eleventh hour just 24 hours prior to the conclusion of the current Parliamentary session last week. The various animal charities that have played their part in pushing this deserve credit, and Lord John Randall paid tribute to their work. ‘I commend all the charities involved for the weight and purpose they brought to this campaign,’ he said, ‘to secure one of the most significant changes to animal welfare legislation since the Animal Welfare Act of 2006.’ The Act referenced in his statement had helped lay the ground for both this new one and the Wild Animals in Circuses Act, and even though it won’t end the maltreatment of animals overnight, it undoubtedly reflects a wider change in attitude towards animals within society during my lifetime.

The founding of the RSPCA in 1824 opened eyes to everyday levels of commonplace cruelty that to us today seem barbaric, and perhaps future generations will look back in astonishment at some of the things we tolerated in the same way we now look back at bull-baiting, cock-fighting and fox-hunting. Ah, thinking about it, maybe there’s still plenty of work needs doing yet.

© The Editor

A DIVERSITY DILEMMA

Noel ClarkeIf you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to apologise for, right? Seems like basic common sense, really. You’re a kid at school; a classmate’s dinner money is nicked; he points the finger at you, even though you didn’t nick it; you deny it – however much his lie is believed by everyone around you, you deny it because you didn’t nick it. Simple. Even if the rest of the school is convinced of your guilt and the suspicion surrounding you sticks for the duration of your education like the proverbial mud, as long as you yourself know you are innocent, you do not need to issue an apology. Take this scenario out of the schoolyard and place it in the real world – or social media, which could be considered the unreal world, and apply the same logic. What you don’t do is indulge in a fudge. You don’t say something like – ‘I vehemently deny any sexual misconduct or criminal wrongdoing,’ and then add – ‘Recent reports, however, have made it clear to me that some of my actions have affected people in ways I did not intend or realise. To those individuals, I am deeply sorry. I will be seeking professional help to educate myself and change for the better.’

So said Noel Clarke – actor, writer, director and producer. For those who still watch ITV, Clarke has been the star of a new drama series by the name of ‘Viewpoint’, one of those that requires instant viewer commitment by being serialised every night from Monday-Friday; well, ‘Viewpoint’ actually aired Monday-Thursday, for in an inspired act of scheduling that perhaps says a great deal about the blurred lines that now exist between innocence and guilt, ITV decided to drop the final episode of the series to the delight of 3.5 million viewers who had invested in it for the first four episodes. Bizarrely, however, the concluding instalment of ‘Viewpoint’ will be available to view on ITV’s equivalent of the iPlayer, ITV Hub, until Sunday. I don’t suppose that comes as much consolation to the majority ITV audience of pensioners who perhaps aren’t online, like my mother – who refers to the internet as ‘that computer thing’.

Why did ITV take this drastic action when they appeared to have a hit on their hands? Well, I guess for the same reason BBC4 took the scissors to so many vintage editions of ‘Top of the Pops’ from the 1970s and 80s when they were repeating them a few years back. The Ministry of Truth tactics of erasing an accused individual from history is now second nature, and the cultural law of the land decrees the said non-person can only henceforth be mentioned in the context of the accusations against them. Otherwise, they simply never existed. Therefore, Noel Clarke is everywhere today bar the one place his stellar career suggests he should be – i.e. acting in a well-received drama on one of the country’s mainstream TV channels; he has been ‘culturally cancelled’, but can be named and shamed as long as the context isn’t a work of art.

I guess it would have been so much easier to digest had Noel Clarke simply been a middle-aged or elderly white man. Then, the behaviour of which he’s been accused would make sense because that’s what middle-aged or elderly white men do, isn’t it – well, that’s what we’ve been led to believe for the past decade. It’s something that is utterly exclusive to that particularly pernicious breed of toxic masculinity male. Noel Clarke couldn’t be guilty of such despicable and reprehensible acts on account of him being a poster-boy for ‘diversity’ in an industry that prides itself on its unimpeachable Woke credentials, where heroes and villains are clearly defined along racial, sexual and ethnic lines. I mean, for God’s sake, it’s only a few weeks since Clarke was showered in glory by BAFTA with a gong for his Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema; this proves he didn’t get his award for just being a black man in the right place at the right time, but there are factors involved that probably didn’t hinder his nomination, knowing the way Arts organisations tend to tick their boxes.

No, in all seriousness, Clarke has come on in leaps and bounds since he first sprang to prominence in the rebooted ‘Doctor Who’ the best part of fifteen years ago, long before the show itself committed Hara-kiri by embracing the extremities of Identity Politics. He rapidly showed he had more strings to his bow than merely being a stooge for David Tenant and Billie Piper by masterminding the critically acclaimed urban cinema trilogy that began with ‘Kidulthood’. Indeed, Clarke has established himself as one of the country’s creative movers and shakers over the past decade and his is the kind of success story that the white middle-class intelligentsia that controls the MSM absolutely adores – which is why the revelations that gate-crashed the Guardian (of all places) will be so hard for some to swallow. BAFTA apparently received advanced warning of the imminent allegations against Clarke before the ceremony in which he was awarded went ahead, but it chose to ignore them and award him regardless. Perhaps it just didn’t want to believe him capable of what he was being accused of.

And what was he being accused of? Well, it seems the double standards of an industry that continues to revel in its holier-than-thou hypocrisy have not been hindered by the Weinstein’s of this world; if the allegations that surfaced in the pages of the Grauniad are even remotely true, the casting couch and the unrestrained arrogance of men to abuse their positions of power behind closed doors whilst preaching ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ to the public gaze remains intact. The allegations paint a sleazy portrait straight out of 1930s Hollywood, with aspiring starlets submitting to ‘nude auditions’ and the like in the belief that refusing to submit to the whims of celluloid kingpins would scupper their chances of stardom.

It’s a sorry story as old as moving pictures, but one that seemingly flourishes even in the post-MeToo landscape. 20 women who have drifted into Noel Clarke’s professional orbit have accused him of ‘sexual harassment, unwanted touching or groping, sexually inappropriate behaviour and comments on set, professional misconduct, taking and sharing sexually explicit pictures and videos without consent, and bullying’. All these incidents are alleged to have taken place between 2004 and 2019 – which is basically the lifespan of Clarke’s career.

Overnight, the industry that lionised Clarke 24 hours previously has unceremoniously abandoned him to his fate in the Court of Public Opinion. BAFTA has suspended him, ITV has dropped his latest hit show on the eve of its denouement, and Sky has also removed him from further participation in its crime drama, ‘Bulletproof’. On the strength of allegations published in a newspaper, Noel Clarke’s career and his professional reputation have been killed without the involvement (so far) of the police, the Law or the judiciary. That’s the way it works today. We’ve seen it endless times over the past ten years, though rarely has it penetrated the ring of steel protecting those who embody qualities so prized (and profitable) in the Woke era.

If Noel Clarke is an innocent man – and, lest we forget, anyone accused is supposed to be innocent until the due process of the Law proves otherwise – then he should have refuted the allegations completely and not inserted an apologetic caveat; that just makes it seem as though he is guilty and is trying to suggest that even though he did do what he’s accused of doing he didn’t realise what he was doing was wrong. And that just makes him look f***ing stupid on one hand and guilty as hell on the other. I would say the jury is out, but Noel Clarke hasn’t even got that far yet – if he ever does.

© The Editor

SISTER ACT

Boris and FosterThere are certain tunes that need to be pensioned-off from their role as tired musical cues in TV documentaries about specific eras of recent history. Enough. ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks when we’re talking ‘Swinging 60s’; ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’ by The Pet Shop Boys when we’re talking the Yuppie 80s; and ‘Sisters Are Doing it For Themselves’ by The Eurythmics when we’re talking the rise of feminism. This is nothing to do with the individual merits of the individual songs – I personally love the Ray Davies songbook and recognise what a landmark in pop culture the first Kinks hit really was; but ‘You Really Got Me’ has been so overused as lazy shorthand to retrospectively define a moment in time by unimaginative TV producers and editors that both it and the endlessly recycled Pathé footage of Carnaby Street boutiques it seems permanently conjoined with have now gone way beyond retirement age.

As for the Feminism Theme Tune, it’s not a song I ever cared much for anyway; had it not been taken up by the same guilty parties for the same reason as the other two pieces of music, it would probably have been justly forgotten. I only really rated The Eurythmics when they were doing their electronic ‘Synth Pop’ stuff in 1983/4; the minute they hit big in the States and started wearing that archetypal mid-80s badge of MTV honour – i.e. black female backing singers in leather skirts – they ceased to be of interest. Hiring Aretha Franklin to duet with Annie Lennox on that particular hit was a further indication of the clout the duo wielded at the time, but I don’t exactly think it’s up there with ‘Respect’ or ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ in the Queen of Soul’s illustrious back catalogue. Anyway, where does Arlene Foster fit into all this, you might well ask – or not, as the case may be.

I suppose I was looking ahead to how the last, say, ten years of politics in this country might be looked back on in a decade or two from now – and what tunes the TV producers of tomorrow might choose to frame their documentaries; I had a scary premonition that ‘Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves’ may be exhumed once again to soundtrack a period in which talk of glass ceilings for female politicians would rightly seem nonsensical. I remember at one point in the 2010s, it belatedly dawned on me just what a change had occurred. Women were leading almost all of the political parties that were impacting on people’s lives. Regardless of one’s personal opinion of either the politicians in question or their respective parties, it seems churlish not to recognise the electorate was witness to a quiet revolution. Tellingly, the party which was the keenest to promote the theory that women in politics were thwarted in their progress at every turn by toxic masculine MPs was the only one not led by a woman; indeed, Labour remains the only major political party in the UK not to have been led by a woman. I wonder why? Maybe because, outside of the Identity Politics bubble that has become Labour’s comfort zone, people don’t place such great emphasis on their sex or use it as an excuse to obscure their true failings. They just get on with it.

The Conservative Party leader (and Prime Minister) 2016-19, Theresa May; the SNP leader (and First Minister of Scotland) from 2015 onwards, Nicola Sturgeon; the Plaid Cymru leader 2012-18, Leanne Wood; the DUP leader 2015-21 and First Minister of Northern Ireland 2016-21, Arlene Foster; Sinn Féin leader from 2018 onwards, Mary Lou McDonald. The Green Party has been led or co-led by a woman since 2008, most prominently by Caroline Lucas; the Liberal Democrats had a few months with Jo Swinson in charge until she famously lost her seat at the 2019 General Election; and even UKIP had a woman – Diane James – leading it for 18 days in 2016. At the 2017 General Election, all four corners of the UK were led by women. What’s that crunching beneath the heels on the floor of the debating chamber? Must be the glass that fell from the ceiling when it was smashed, I suppose.

Sturgeon aside, the woman who had the most longevity – and courted the most controversy – as leader of a UK political party has finally fallen on her sword after six eventful years, Arlene Foster. Faced with little option but to step down following a vote of no confidence in her leadership by her peers, the now-ex DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland has hardly left Ulster a better place than she found it when succeeding Peter Robinson in 2015. Co-ruling the Northern Ireland Executive with Martin McGuinness until the Sinn Féin man’s resignation in January 2017, Foster demonstrated all the worst bullish hallmarks of Unionist intransigence at this key moment in Northern Ireland’s recent history. The scandal of the Renewable Heat Incentive project – one Foster had been cheerleader for during her stint as the Province’s Minister for Enterprise and Investment – eventually cost the taxpayer the best part of £490 million and was mired in corruption; McGuinness pressed Foster to step down but she refused and played the sexist card by accusing her detractors of misogyny. McGuinness’s resignation and the scandal plunged Stormont into a state of suspended animation it didn’t eventually stir from until last year.

With her joint stewardship of the Executive scarred by the three-year deadlock, Foster received a glimpse of power beyond Stormont in the aftermath of the 2017 General Election, when Theresa May’s decimated majority forced the desperate PM to broker an ‘agreement’ between the Conservatives and the DUP, a glorified Lib-Lab Pact for the Brexit era. This mirage of importance on the mainland gave Unionists their greatest sense of punching above their weight since Ian Paisley had withdrawn support for Ted Heath’s Tories in the wake of the Sunningdale Agreement on power-sharing, an action which played its part in Heath’s loss of power in February 1974. However, the DUP were to learn getting into bed with the Tories wasn’t so much the beginning of a beautiful affair as a shoddy one-night stand; as soon as the Conservatives won a landslide in 2019, they dropped the DUP like the proverbial causal conquest.

At the time of the 2017 agreement, the company the Tories were now keeping certainly provoked many questions, not least the DUP opinion on certain social issues – chiefly abortion and same-sex marriage, both of which have been traditional no-go areas for Unionists. Seemingly out of step with progressive thinking in Ulster, let alone the rest of the UK, the DUP suffered a serious setback at the 2019 General Election, finding itself for the first time since partition as the minority Northern Ireland party at Westminster. Yes, Sinn Féin MPs famously don’t take their seats there, but Nationalists now outnumbered Loyalists on the list of Northern Ireland politicians elected to Parliament. With Sinn Féin electoral successes to follow in the Republic, the prospect of a united Ireland suddenly seemed closer than it had at any time since 1921.

And then there were the realities of Brexit implementation on the Province, the threat it posed to the Good Friday Agreement, and finally the resumption of serious civil disorder on streets where not much of an excuse is ever really needed for a tear-up. Foster decided to jump before she was pushed, though the move by 80% of MPs and MLAs within her own party to oust her being apparently prompted over fears of Foster becoming ‘too moderate’ perhaps tells you all you need to know about the future direction – and survival – of Unionism in Northern Ireland. That said, Arlene Foster’s tenure in power has been just as bogged by scandal, corruption, controversy and failure unrelated to her sex as those faced by her female contemporaries in other corners of the country – which surely proves the sisterhood did indeed achieve political equality in the end.

© The Editor

HAVE I GOT OLD NEWS FOR YOU

CummingsI guess at one time it must have been relatively easy to avoid the news. All you had to do was not switch the telly on at 9 or 10 in the evening and not buy a newspaper. Even if one adheres to a similar principle now – as I do – being online makes it much harder; after all, the news is always just a click away. Opening my inbox is a bit like living on a cul-de-sac with only one way in or out, and I have to walk past Yahoo News every time; even if it has an inexplicable obsession with Amanda Holden and no longer allows comments (which were the one thing that made a story there worth reading), it serves a purpose of sorts. Sure, it helps to have some kind of awareness of what’s going on out there, and Yahoo News headlines can sometimes pique my curiosity; this here blog would simply be a nostalgia/pop cultural fest all the time otherwise. But I do have an inbuilt system that keeps the news at a distance unless required – a well-honed instinct that also suggests which story can be written about; this comes in handy when there’s such an overwhelming amount of information available.

You know that feeling when a rumbling in the tummy heralds an imminent fart? The genesis of a Winegum post is a bit like that. Yes, there are occasions when posts are planned in advance – marking a particular anniversary, for example; but most just materialise out of nowhere, sparked by a story that catches the eye. I always know when an article is on its way due to this early warning system. Phrases, analogies, sentences and paragraphs begin to formulate in the head, and once they’re jotted down I glue them together by adding further content, confident the separate segments will gel and constitute a satisfactory whole. The average gestation period is around a couple of hours, and when I feel no more can be added I press the ‘publish’ button. If there’s any delay once the piece has been written, it usually comes from not being able to find the right picture to illustrate it or failing to come up with a suitably snappy title featuring a classic tabloid pun.

Whichever story I write about tends to pick me rather than the other way round; and this method means certain topics on the online radar which one might assume will provoke a comment on my part sometimes fail to appear. A lot can depend on my mood at the time of writing and whether or not I’m feeling fatigued with an ongoing narrative, something that can make it difficult to motivate my mojo. Race-baiting mob rule in the US dictating the outcome of a jury trial on the promise that the wrong verdict will bring about anarchy – as threatened by astonishingly irresponsible Democrats who accused Donald Trump of a similar crime not so long ago, and pre-empted by the prejudicial dodderer masquerading as the President – is an important issue, of course; but I’m so weary of the whole business that penning a post about YouTube (see last time) seems so much easier when there are a thousand-and-one other things to attend to. Handing over the creative section of a full day to researching and composing a response to the preordained outcome of the George Floyd trial is not an appetising prospect, to be honest; and let’s face it – everyone else has covered it to death, anyway.

Similarly, the return of Sleaze to the Conservative Party in Government should serve as the cue for a forensic dissection, yet there’s an inevitable shoulder-shrugging reaction that online discourse used to sum up with a solitary word, ‘Meh’. Come on – the Tories bogged-down in scandal; I mean, what’s new about that? Every bloody time the Tories are running the country there’s some sort of sleazy scandal; if it’s not connected with sex, it’s connected with money. And hearing SNP and Labour MPs attack Boris Johnson’s failure to address the issue when neither opposition party can feasibly lay claim to the moral high-ground – Alex Salmond or Peter Mandelson, take your pick – is hilarious hypocrisy beyond parody. Any idiot knows by now that the incumbent occupant of No.10 is one of the most untrustworthy individuals ever to occupy the office, but the electorate knew that before it gave him a handsome mandate when the alternative was Comrade Corbyn. Therefore, is it any wonder that the only people who appear to be getting their knickers in a twist over recent developments are the MSM and, in particular, Fleet Street? The fact is that both have been so nauseatingly supine in their attitude towards the powers-that-be during the pandemic (and uncritically supportive of Project Fear) that nobody takes their opinions remotely seriously anymore.

The ghost of a former PM haunting Boris was, again, no shock revelation; David Cameron’s crooked lobbying – who saw that coming, eh? Matt Hancock having shares in companies benefitting from Covid, companies run by someone he was at school with or is related to – yeah, big deal. The Prime Minister allegedly promising tax breaks to Brexit exile Sir James Dyson – so what? Does anyone really expect anything better from this shower? And then we have rumours that Boris intended the refurbishment of the Downing Street to be paid for by Tory donors – and who did these rumours come from? Yes, the former Public Enemy No.1 (in the eyes of the media), Dominic Cummings. The ex-puppet master of No.10 has resurfaced to wreak revenge upon his one-time marionette by claiming the PM attempted to prevent an official inquiry into leaks concerning Lockdown Mk II once he was made aware such an inquiry may well implicate a close friend of Carrie Symonds. That there is little love lost between Boris’s other half and Cummings obviously had no bearing on any of this, naturally.

The Cummings missive appeared on the former Svengali’s blog – though as he apparently has a habit of doctoring his posts on there when they later contradict changing opinions, it may not remain in its current form for long. The buddy of Ms Symonds is SPAD Henry Newman; Cummings claims it was Newman and not him who was responsible for the leak last October that precipitated the second lockdown, an error of judgement that would presumably lead to Boris having to fire Carrie’s chum; far easier to pin the blame on Cummings, with him now safely out of the way. Preventing an inquiry into the leak would also keep a lid on the truth. ‘It is sad to see the PM and his office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves,’ writes Cummings; perhaps Cummings’ damning indictment of Boris and those around him would carry more weight had the competence and integrity the country deserves not been so noticeably absent when Cummings was pulling the strings.

Boris himself has publicly responded to Cummings’ outburst by saying, ‘I don’t think people give a monkey’s about this issue’, and in many respects I think the PM is right; it does have a very ‘Westminster Bubble’ feel about it. The majority of the public just want to get back to a semblance of normality, even if that may prove difficult for some with the reported presence of ‘Covid Anxiety Syndrome’ symptoms that are a direct consequence of a full year of being bombarded with a steady stream of panic propaganda. A timely open letter signed by 22 (non-SAGE) scientists and academics has appeared in the Telegraph, criticising the Government management of the pandemic and demanding an end to social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing and all restrictions by the end of June. The letter suggests the widespread take-up of the vaccine, along with falling death rates, should accelerate the end of lockdown measures as well as negating the introduction of ‘Covid passports’. All very laudable, but feasible? We shall see – and no doubt I’ll end up writing about it…or not.

© The Editor

THE OPEN ALL HOURS UNIVERSITY

YTAs BBC1 litters its post-‘10 O’Clock News’ weekday schedule with cheap, tacky BBC3 drivel and wonders why niche, minority interests are attracting niche, minority audiences, the abject failure of the senior visual broadcast medium to entertain the nation during lockdown is evident in spades; and blowing the seizure of the day has perhaps fatally weakened its already-diminishing clout. BBC1 during the hours I would be most likely to switch-on now reminds me of that old 90s Channel 4 show, ‘Eurotrash’, a programme that was a kitsch giggle during its day, but not one I imagined would serve as a blueprint for the national broadcaster 20-odd years down the line. At least ‘Eurotrash’ never pretended to be anything other than a frivolous celebration of the absurdly camp, though; it didn’t come with a fatuous political ‘message’, AKA a lecture in BBC Diversity to demonstrate just how on trend the Guardianistas running the Corporation really are. And they can’t understand why millions of licence fee-payers are turning away quicker than you can say ‘Normal service is being suspended because the Duke of Edinburgh has conked-out’.

Where are they going? Well, a sizeable chunk of the audience has found on YouTube what it once used to find on television – innovative, original, educational, informative and entertaining output. Not everything on YT is worth watching, of course; but there’s a hell of a lot more worth watching on there than can currently be found on terrestrial television. I must spend at least 85% of my viewing time on YT as opposed to TV and there are ‘favourite programmes’, as it were – channels to which I subscribe and look forward to their new videos appearing every few days. Some are remarkably professional, whilst others are endearing in their amateurishness, where an absence of media-training slickness comes as a welcome breather because it allows the heart, soul and personality of the presenter to shine through (not to mention the fact they actually possess such attributes), just like TV used to do back when it could attract the likes of John Noakes or Fred Dibnah.

Some YT channels have viewing figures that jaded TV execs still living off the back of ratings achieved in the 80s and 90s can only dream about today, which is further proof of how people are rejecting television and finding their entertainment elsewhere. I’ve seen with my own YT channel just how this works. Having quit YT a couple of years ago in the wake of all my videos being demonetised and constantly blocked and banned, I’ve recently returned with two new instalments of my most popular ongoing series simply due to the unprecedented and overwhelming demand for more in the last few months, a clamour I eventually realised I’d be foolish to ignore when so many have told me my old output has brightened-up dreary lockdown days. With the innovative ‘premiere’ system now a feature that didn’t exist during my uploading heyday, I’ve been able to set a fixed time at which a new video will appear and a window relaying live comments as it plays enables me to gauge an instant, real-time reaction from viewers. The latest video premiered at 6.00 last Sunday evening; within less than 24 hours, it had accumulated over 24,000 views. Four days later, it’s now on 48K.

But fear not – this isn’t merely a solo trumpet recital, for I spend far more time watching other people’s videos than making my own. There’s Joolz and his eccentric excursions into fascinating corners of the capital; Jago Hazzard and his arch, knowingly-nerdish tales from the Tube; John Heaton and his laidback dissections of Classic Rock back catalogues; light relief canine capers with Reuben the Bulldog and Oliver the Beagle; and (of course) the ‘controversial’ chat on ‘Triggernometry’. And those are just some of the ones I subscribe to and view each new video from. There are dozens of others I regularly come across and routinely dip in and out of, just as there used to be TV shows I’d watch intermittently without tuning in religiously every week. I can’t remember the last time television provided me with this abundance of viewing. At the moment it seems like every few weeks I stumble upon yet another YT channel that engages me and makes me search through the channel’s individual archive.

A few months back, I got into a genre of video that seemed the ideal tonic for anyone itching to venture farther afield than their own neighbourhood at a time when doing so was verboten. These ones are little travelogues without an on-screen presence; instead, the host has a camera attached somewhere on their person – hard to say where; possibly hidden in a hat, for no pedestrian they pass reacts in the way they would to a visible camera – and they walk on a set route for between half-an-hour to an hour. We see what they see; in fact, the picture is so seamlessly steady, it feels like we’re a drone gliding through the streets of London – and the ones I watch tend to be in the capital. Last summer there was a wonderful one strolling around Hampstead Heath (albeit not the route George Michael used to take); this was during the day at the height of a mini-heat-wave; another from the same time glided around Soho in the evening as the heavens opened. Hearing only the sound of the public, traffic, and the rain made the experience one of near-virtual reality – and reminded me of an updated interlude; this was ‘Slow TV’ that moved.

One character I discovered recently goes by the name of John Rogers. He has the quiet charm – and appearance – of Richard Thompson; but rather than treating us to an obscure English folk tune, he embarks upon intriguing walks in various uncelebrated areas around the outskirts of London. I watched one yesterday in which he visited the medieval village of Harmondsworth, which sits on the Western periphery of the capital. Harmondsworth comes across as something of a forgotten oasis surrounded by the environmentally-toxic M25 and M4, not to mention Heathrow itself on the doorstep. A sizeable chunk – over 700 homes – of Harmondsworth stands in the way of plans to build Heathrow’s third runway and opposition there is understandable. It’s ironic at a time when ‘Green’ is the favourite colour to spew forth from the scripted lips of politicians that such a carve-up of characteristically picturesque semi-rural England could be countenanced, and for a notoriously polluting industry that many have been happy to see put on ice due to you-know-what.

The building of Heathrow Airport back in the late 40s necessitated the obliteration of at least one centuries-old hamlet, and if the third runway eventually goes ahead, the entire village of Longford will also fall beneath the wrecking-ball. The area already had a history that the airport wiped from the map, including one of the myths of Middlesex, concerning ‘the last wolf in England’, which legend had it was killed in a wooded labyrinth on Hounslow Heath called Perry Oaks – a location that now lays buried beneath Terminal Five at Heathrow. I learnt all this just from watching the video, but the one-man band nature of these outings, whereby a solitary unskilled presenter with a naturally intimate, chummy style draws the viewer in and tells a fascinating story, is what makes them such a sedate and seductive format. BBC4 is still capable of producing similar programmes, but it’s been noticeable of late how much of that vital channel’s budget has been siphoned off to fund the trashy produce of BBC3, leaving many an evening schedule on BBC4 a veritable ‘greatest hits’ of its laudable music documentaries.

Then again, who needs TV? The old catchphrase of an annoyingly memorable theme tune once declared ‘Why don’t you just switch off your television set and go and do something less boring instead?’ – and it seems plenty of us are doing just that. Television only has itself to blame.

© The Editor

THE PEOPLE’S SHAME

FansBack in the 1990s, Professor Rogan Taylor – a Liverpudlian cultural commentator whose appearance as a talking head was once compulsory on documentaries about football – made a simple but telling point on the origins of the national sport. Around the time football was becoming fashionable again in the wake of Gazza’s tears and the birth of the glamorous Premier League, he reminded everyone that football clubs are not named after people, but places. So familiar are the names of clubs dotted around these islands via years of subliminal exposure to the football results, we can easily forget how such institutions were founded to represent their community, not some prominent individual within it. It’s West Bromwich Albion, not West Maurice Albion; West Ham United, not West Stan United; Peterborough United, not Peter United. The Industrial Revolution created the modern metropolis, but if industry turned little provincial hamlets into big, bolshie cities that quickly demanded parliamentary representation, the codification and formation of association football in the late 19th century gave those towns and cities something that would eventually outlast the industries that initially defined them.

The vital branding that a football club brought to so many corners of the country previously only known for what they manufactured was something that still lingers beyond the lush emerald carpets of the Premier League. This is why when a club such as Bury FC goes to the wall, as happened a couple of seasons ago, the town it belongs to suffers the kind of existential trauma that reflects how deeply engrained in its very DNA the club is. Take away Bury’s football club – no matter how under-achieving it might be – and what else does a small, one-time mill-town long ago swallowed up by Greater Manchester have going for it in terms of identity and sense of belonging? This is the very ‘grass-roots’ that football pundits and commentators are prone to uttering with the same token tone applied to buzzwords such as ‘global warming’ or ‘diversity’ when they emerge from the mouths of politicians.

As a term, grass-roots is often casually bandied about by wealthy clubs raking it in at the pinnacle of the precarious pyramid – as though the pennies that trickle down to the bottom are contractual charitable contributions for which the recipients should be grateful; but so cosseted are the global brand mega-clubs from everything outside of their own jet-setting bubble, they can no more relate to the realities of the clubs propping-up the rest at the foot of the old Fourth Division than the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation would recognise the goat he purchased for some distant African village as a means of signalling his virtue. Most of the men in whose ownership such clubs sit would struggle to recognise their own supporters, never mind those who congregate at Carlisle United on a dank November evening.

Once upon a time, the majority of clubs used to be in the hands of small-pond big fish who were the characteristic self-made men born of the Industrial Revolution; you might remember the guys I’m talking about. These civic dignitaries were fond of reminding their detractors how they once ran around without shoes on their feet, but now ran the local council, rode around town in a chauffeur-driven Rolls and were probably Master of their branch of the Freemasons; they were the regional money-men depicted in ‘kitchen sink’ novels of the 50s like ‘Room at the Top’. They may have been intolerably pompous, avaricious egotists full of their own self-importance, but they were inexorably bound to the locations they sprang from; being chairman of the town’s football club was the ultimate feather in their capitalist caps. It said they, and their town, amounted to something.

Foreign ownership of a football club changes that dynamic completely, and at its most seemingly superficial it can be seen both in the way an outsider makes his purchase and instantly decides to change the colours a club has always played in or rename the ground after a corporate sponsor – acts that instantly rouse the fury of the lifelong supporters who intrinsically understand how each separate, historical component of a club is crucial to what it really adds up to. These incidents have routinely been written off as little more than isolated storms in parochial teacups. What does it matter what colour strip the players are wearing? What does it matter if the home stadium is now named after a Japanese phone manufacturer? Well, down in the football basement, it matters quite a lot – and scratch beneath the surface of the glamour clubs who court the fair-weather fan with no geographical attachment to his chosen team and you’ll find a hardcore of supporters for whom it also matters.

When I think of some foreign owners of football clubs, I can’t help but recall those lines from ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd – ‘New car, caviar, four-star daydream/think I’ll buy me a football team’. To them, a football club is indistinguishable from a diamond ring or a Picasso original; they come to it with no knowledge of (or affinity with) the club’s back-story or the town it belongs to, so we shouldn’t be surprised when these bloodsuckers put their heads together and devise a fresh way to maximise their investment. In a sporting weekend that saw the cautious return of spectators to several high-profile events after a year of fixtures being played behind closed doors, the so-called ‘Big Six’ football clubs decided to announce something that detaches them even further from the actual fan-base that they’ve managed without during this strange knee-taking, crowd-free spell. A new European ‘super league’ comprising Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur from England, along with Italian giants AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, as well as Spanish titans Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid, has been mooted as a way forward for these greedy, overblown corporations whose craving for the cake they can already claim sizeable chunks of is apparently insatiable.

Lest we forget, the global brands whose arrogant entitlement as founding members of a grotesque European elite implies they’re the cream of the crop aren’t all setting their respective leagues alight at the moment. As things stand, the two Manchester clubs may hold the leading spots in England, but as for the other contenders, Chelsea are fifth, Liverpool are sixth, Spurs are seventh (on the day they’ve sacked their manager) and Arsenal are ninth. On merit this season, Leicester, West Ham and Everton rank higher than some of those included in this breakaway proposal, so what are their rewards? Condemnation has been universal across Europe, with notable German clubs such as Bayern Munich rejecting the proposal, whereas the game’s birthplace has seen an impassioned evisceration of the idea, with divisive ex-player and current pundit Gary Neville earning overnight admiration for his diatribe against the entire concept. Even someone whose playing career was spent in the privileged cocoon of Old Trafford recognises the disastrous consequences of the game’s leading lights abandoning the ‘lesser teams’ to indulge in a soulless competition based solely on the prospect of financial gain, with the kind of annual giant-killing thrill thrown up by the FA Cup or the possibility of a shock championship snatch like Leicester managed five years ago being rendered redundant.

If a once-great club like Bolton Wanderers can be confronted by points deduction, relegation and possible expulsion from the league after simply struggling to make ends meet, I doubt few would dispute Gary Neville’s suggestion that the clubs seeking to line their fatted pockets further by throwing their lot in with this hideous idea deserve the same treatment. Let’s see how long they all last with their players barred from international football and their glorified Harlem Globetrotters brand of the beautiful game boring the pants off TV subscribers the world over. They might finally realise they didn’t come into existence in 1992, but have always been ultimately dependent on the faithful whose faces they have farted in with such cavalier contempt.

© The Editor