PLUS CA CHANGE?

Father TimeWestern involvement in an unpopular foreign conflict; a refugee crisis; Russia flexing its military muscles; politicians exposed as self-aggrandising crooks; thousands of innocents slain in the name of a cause that had nothing to do with them; natural and unnatural disasters; the whole planet threatened by global catastrophe. Is this a brief summary of 2015 or any random year of the last seventy? Well, both. It is true there have been times since 1945 when wonderful events beyond the grim catalogue have served as a welcome distraction – say, when popular culture is experiencing a purple patch; but 2015 couldn’t offer such a distraction, alas. We had to make our own entertainment.

Brutal massacres that turned the streets of Paris red bookended 2015, but between them there was enough shedding of blood to put a medieval quack to shame. It would be all too easy to simply list the wars, airstrikes, terrorist attacks or trigger-happy American and Islamic lunatics that dominated this year’s headlines, but we’ve already had them on a loop courtesy of 24-hour news media, so there seems little point in revisiting man’s inhumanity to man yet again.

The fact is that calendar years aren’t self-contained entities; the previous calendar year bleeds into the start of the next one and the year that follows it inherits all the baggage of its predecessor. Events don’t adhere to a neat chronology imposed by the Romans or the Church of Rome, and that also applies to decades. One could argue a decade such as the 60s didn’t become what we retrospectively recall it being until around 1964/5, and a lot of the counter-cultural elements subsequently associated with it actually took place in the very early 70s. Despite what the Altamont historians would have you believe, the Age of Aquarius didn’t grind to a neat halt in December 1969.

Centuries are just as problematic if one tries to view them as a cohesive whole. Whenever the nineteenth century is mentioned, we think of Victoria and the Victorians; we think of prudishness and strait-laced moral values. Yet the century began with the Regency, with debauched, rakish Georgians and the Napoleonic Wars, closer in spirit to the eighteenth century than the archetypal, fog-shrouded nineteenth century of Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. And if the fifteen-year-old twenty-first century has so far failed to distinguish itself in terms of something to be proud of, history has taught us not to rush to judgement.

It is true there wasn’t much to celebrate in 2015. Isolated acts of kindness or generous giving in the name of charity were there as always, but avarice, narcissism and unredeemable nastiness were as well. All sides of human nature were therefore in evidence. One cannot really add anything to 2015 that wouldn’t have been equally applicable to 2014 or 2013. TV reviews of the last twelve months will compile the stories that hit the headlines and create the illusion that this year was somehow unique and distinctive; but it really wasn’t. Of course, once one passes, say, 40, years tend to blur into each other anyway, and speaking personally, this has been the case ever since the dates of years ceased being prefixed by ‘nineteen’. I can narrow down a memory, event or hit record to the particular month of a particular year from the last thirty of the twentieth century, but this century seems harder to get such a grip on. The tools used to identify the years 1970-99 don’t appear to be working anymore, but the framework that enabled them to work isn’t there now, so I suppose it’s no surprise.

When every public figure, whether nonentity celebrity claiming column inches or politician wheeling out the same old meaningless slogans and sound-bites, inspires either ambivalence or contempt then it’s hard to get excited. My intense dislike of the deeply devious and callous blue meanies the Great British public decided to let off the hook back in May is not appeased by an opposition led by a clueless career backbencher and his online army of tunnel-vision trolls, so that’s the next four and-a-half years sorted in one area. In the musical arena, I hear nothing new in anything new, so have yet to resume the regular purchasing of recently-released albums that was suspended around 2011; as a one-time avid cinemagoer, my trips to the local picture house have become twice-yearly occasions when confronted by merchandise trailers masquerading as movies; and although some home-grown TV series have at least learnt lessons from the best US and Scandi dramas of recent years, ‘The Bridge’ remained one of the few unmissable small-screen highlights. I told you we had to make our own entertainment.

I wouldn’t say 2015 and the demoralising circumstances that will be grouped under its banner is entirely to blame, but I know a lot of friends are trapped in the doldrums at the moment; though I’ve certainly been down in those depths this year, I’ve managed to claw my way out of late and I can see clearly now the rain has gone. If 2015 can in any way take credit for that, the phrase ‘good riddance’ won’t be lingering on my lips today – and that hasn’t happened for a long time.

© The Editor

IT’S WET UP NORTH

Kirkstall RdOne of the earliest dreams I can ever recall having featured me in a rowing boat alongside future ‘Countdown’ host Richard Whiteley as we cruised up Kirkstall Road in Leeds while it lay submerged in water; we bypassed a skull positioned on a pole, as if to indicate we had reached the apocalyptic landscape of JG Ballard’s ‘Drowned World’ forty years before I even read it. At the time – the early 1970s – Whiteley was a household name only in the Yorkshire TV region as presenter of the station’s teatime magazine show, ‘Calendar’, and Yorkshire TV HQ was on Kirkstall Road, a location familiar to me as it was en route to my paternal grandma’s house. There was an ice-rink next to YTV, the neon logo of which was unmissable when evening fell; it also doubled-up as an occasional music venue; Bowie played there on the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour. But I digress.

The only reason I mention this infant voyage into the realm of the subconscious imagination is that Monday saw it finally realised in reality, bar the skull, rowing boat and Richard Whiteley (who passed away ten years ago). Kirkstall Road really was underwater; although I didn’t see it in person, I did on the TV news, and it was rather unnerving to witness something happening that I had inadvertently visualised four decades earlier.

One becomes accustomed to freak floods devastating rural areas. We’ve all seen the images over the years – OAPs being ferried in dinghies by firemen/policemen/soldiers; residents escorting film crews around their homes, wading through the dirty water and holding back the tears; sandbags piled-up outside houses whose gardens are cluttered with damaged furniture; sheep stranded on islands etc. – but unless we reside in the areas affected, it always seems as detached from the experience of British urban living as a similar disaster in Bangladesh. When the levee breaks in a big city, however, the surreal awfulness of the scenario is enough to inspire a thousand amateur auteurs to click ‘record’ on their mobile phones, relieved they can capture a genuinely startling sight for once.

The current torrent of floods have travelled down from Cumbria, through Lancashire and into Yorkshire, following consistent rainfall over several days. Such conditions are not entirely unusual this time of year, though they tend to follow the melting of heavy snow. As we haven’t had any heavy snow in the winter of 2015, the forcefulness of these floods seems to have caught everyone by surprise, both authorities and people. That the water has also flowed from the countryside into the town is another development that has belatedly alerted the population to the weakness of Britain’s flood defences.

Cumbria has been especially vulnerable to flooding in recent years, with 2015 added to 2005 and 2009 as a good reason for relocating from the county; in previous years, Devon and Cornwall have been particularly prone to Neptune’s wrath as well, with 2004 and 2013/14 joining 1952 as notable low points. In Yorkshire, the southern part of the county has traditionally suffered more, most so in 2007 and way back in 1864, when the Great Sheffield Flood claimed 270 lives, making it the worst flood in the nation’s history, even if human error rather than Mother Nature was to blame, caused as it was by the breaking of the Dale Dike Reservoir while it was being filled for the first time.

The opening of the Thames Barrier in 1982 was a long-overdue response to the vulnerability of the capital and its surrounding counties to the threat; the 20th century had seen 14 London deaths in the Great Thames Flood of 1928 as well as the North Sea Flood of 1953, which led to 58 deaths in Essex’s Canvey Island. However, the latter disaster caused damage all the way up to Scotland, with a total estimated death toll of 307. Although the floods of 1953 impacted mostly on the East Coast of the country, only Humberside responded on the same scale as London, erecting the tidal barrier at the mouth of the River Hull in 1980.

The inadequacy of Britain’s other defences when faced with the kind of weather conditions that are to be expected in an island nation has been highlighted over the past decade, whereas coastal erosion is a centuries-long problem that led to the disappearance, amongst others, of Ravenspurn in the East Riding – immortalised in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’ – and the reduction of Dunwich in Suffolk from a major port to a minor village.

On one hand, the prospect of rising sea levels courtesy of Global Warming is cited as the potential cause of future floods in the British Isles and the probable cause of current flooding; on the other, it is possible this scepter’d isle is undergoing one its perennial assaults from the stormy elements of the silver sea in which this precious stone is set.

Whichever factor is responsible for the apparent upsurge of flooding lately, neither serves as any form of comfort for those afflicted by it nor does it offer a solution. If the north of England is to be prevented from becoming a modern day Atlantis, it’s time to properly attend to the problem once and for all – or do Tory Ministers only really get their fingers out when the Home Counties are affected?


LEMMY (1945-2015)

If ever a grizzled old rocker embodied the spirit of a musical genre that refuses to relinquish the mantleLemmy of rebellion even when it has reached the age where it now qualifies for a bus-pass, Lemmy was the man. Former Hendrix roadie, resident of the London hippy underground, bassist for legendary stoners Hawkwind (for whom he sang lead vocal on their sole big hit) and founder, front-man and only permanent member of Heavy Metal power trio Motorhead, the man born Ian Fraser Kilmister 70 years ago checked out yesterday, decades later than his once-prodigious chemical and alcohol intake initially indicated.

Like Keith Richards and Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy seemed destined to outlive us all, and a world without him is hard to envisage. That crusty countenance with its distinctive warts and handlebar moustache looked like it was carved from the same stone as Mount Rushmore and possessed the same permanence. But mortality has finally, if belatedly, caught up with a man whose considerable commercial success in the early 80s and regular ‘Top of the Pops’ appearances made him as familiar a face on the UK music scene as those figures such as Adam Ant and Boy George, who continue to monopolise memories of the decade.

Motorhead were unashamedly rock ‘n’ roll, yet never wallowed in the flaccid clichés of 70s Hard Rock; they had an amphetamine-fuelled edge to them that had more in common with Punk and helped establish what was known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal as a potent chart force. Without them, the likes of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard could have been written off as irrelevant throwbacks to an outdated era, yet Motorhead gave the genre the kick up the arse it needed and also helped revive it across the Atlantic, culminating in the colossal success of Guns ‘n’ Roses in the late 80s.

Lemmy was one of those increasingly rare musical characters, a genuine one-off. Intelligent, witty and simultaneously faithful to the old-school totems of Rock, we won’t see his like again because the context that created him will never happen again.

© The Editor

BROTHERS, SISTERS AND NON-BINARY INDIVIDUALS IN ARMS

‘To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life’ – Cecil Rhodes.

23On one hand, this quote by one of the great Victorian empire-builders could be seen as an affirmation of imperial supremacy; on the other, it could be seen as a celebration of certain democratic liberties that enable the British to question the status quo, fight for their rights and embrace free speech without fear of imprisonment, contrary to many European nations in the nineteenth century. Two-hundred years on, a western sense of democracy that Britain has always regarded as one its great international exports has once again been implemented into societies with no previous history of it, but the consequences of this implementation have been pretty disastrous.

Sticking the colonial flag in a foreign field and establishing the same political and social structures of the mother country, run by trained ex-pats from the mother country itself, is one thing; imposing such structures and then expecting natives with no prior experience to make them into a success independently is different. The naive failings at the heart of twenty-first century colonialism have spawned an extreme antidote that has stretched much further than the Mau-Mau ever managed.

Intolerance of anyone who doesn’t share their nihilistic worldview and of symbols representing the old order has become a hallmark of ISIS or whatever the media chooses to call them today – and labelling them a Death Cult isn’t going to strike much fear into western hearts, especially those who recall the early 80s Goth band by the same name. ISIS don’t merely declare war on the west; they also declare war on their own religion, seeing their interpretation of Muhammad’s preaching as purer than the rest, as though each different branch of Islam was a soap powder and the ISIS brand washes whiter. To prove this, they behead their perceived enemies and also destroy the monuments erected to Islam in a more enlightened past. And to criticise that faith in any medium is regarded as the signing of one’s own death warrant. Speech isn’t free; it costs – and the price is life itself.

Bar the beheading bit, all of this resembles another crypto-fascist crusade taking place at the moment, one that would be horrified by the comparisons whilst simultaneously reinforcing them. Just as the far-left and the far-right have more in common with each other than the moderate wings of their respective ideologies, ISIS share a kinship with the secular militant Puritans currently polluting the campuses of this country and those across the pond (not to mention certain corners of the Labour party), indoctrinating a generation with intolerant fanaticism.

When Muhammad Ali addressed a gathering of the Ku-Klux Klan in the 60s as a Nation of Islam representative, his presence wasn’t as incongruous as it might seem; both extreme groups shared the belief that black and white should lead separate lives. Both ISIS and the nameless coalition of blinkered Feminazis and ultra-PC serial censors that devote their time to being permanently offended are united in their aim to destroy the democratic right of free speech, free thought and free opinion.

ISIS regard homosexuality as an abomination; the Puritans regard heterosexuality as an abomination. ISIS attack anyone who dares to disagree with their brand of Islam; the Puritans attack anyone who dares to disagree with their demands on behalf of everyone who isn’t a straight white male. An ISIS aim is to eradicate evidence of a past that promotes a different perspective on Islam; a Puritan aim is to eradicate evidence of a past that promotes a different perspective on democracy. ISIS would rather resort to the blade and the bomb than negotiate with the enemy; the Puritans would rather resort to online vendettas than negotiate with the enemy. ISIS create a climate in which everyone is afraid to criticise the Koran; the Puritans create a climate in which everyone is afraid to criticise any non-white, non-male individual or ‘community’. ISIS monopolise public perception of Islam so that anyone who questions it is in bed with Donald Trump; the Puritans monopolise public perception of liberalism so that anyone who questions it is in bed with Donald Trump. ISIS exploit the political naivety and limited life experience of their recruits; the Puritans exploit the political naivety and limited life experience of their recruits. ISIS infantilise their followers by inspiring a childlike slavish devotion to a celestial father figure and promising a Paradise abundant with virgins; the Puritans infantilise their followers by inspiring a childlike inability to cope with an opposing opinion and promise panic rooms to recover from taking offence. Both absolve their disciples from adult responsibility and the ability to utilise reason by inculcating an unswerving belief that their actions are justifiable because opposition is wrong.

The current target for Oxford wing of the secular militant Puritans is Cecil Rhodes. Yes, that’s right – someone who’s been dead for almost 114 years. There clearly aren’t enough living and breathing ‘villains’ around to get angry about today. The Puritans see Rhodes as embodying everything they find offensive, an old-school imperialist at the vanguard of the British Empire; a man of his time whose beliefs are at odds with contemporary thinking, as could be said of most that made their mark in previous centuries. In other words, an utterly irrelevant objection. They have honed in on a statue of Rhodes and a plaque dedicated to the man who bequeathed the majority of his estate to Oxford University and established the Rhodes scholarship, something many students from former colonies have benefitted from. They want both removed because they find them offensive, just as ISIS want all historic monuments to Islam removed.

This isn’t necessarily new. I recall attacks on a statue of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris in the 80s, made by those who hadn’t lived through six years of war and had no concept of what the Luftwaffe had done to this country’s major metropolises and the people who lived in them; my great-grandmother, then in her 90s, responded to the graffiti sprayed over the head of RAF Bomber Command’s statue with barely-concealed contempt. Harris died as late as 1984, whereas Rhodes is a man nobody alive today will have known.

If we’re going to start taking offence at statues of long-dead men because their outlook doesn’t square with contemporary mores, then why not remove statues of Washington or Jefferson, early US Presidents who made a handsome profit from plantations manned by slaves? Where does one stop and how far back does one go? Ask ISIS; they took offence at the ancient antiquities of Nimrud and destroyed them. Best keep an eye on Stonehenge, then; those scum druids sacrificed innocent women, children and transgender eunuchs, so why are we still allowing the scene of their offensive crimes to stand?

Residing in a perpetual present, where there is nothing remaining from the past to offend or upset that present and where language, thought and behaviour are all subject to stringent monitoring, seriously undermines the prospect of a future in which mankind can progress and develop as it always has done bar those moments when it is overwhelmed by dark forces. After all, nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition.

© The Editor

A WARNING FROM HISTORY

ArbuckleA major celebrity is accused of rape; the media report on the accusation and subsequent trial with sensational relish, exhibiting the worst aspects of what was once called ‘yellow journalism’ by portraying the accused as a monster and preempting a verdict by assuming guilt; puritanical pressure groups call for his execution and colleagues are warned not to speak up on his behalf at the risk of damaging their own popularity and being implicated by association; the prosecutor at the celebrity’s trial has ulterior motives, pressurising witnesses to make false statements and concluding the accused is guilty after being fed lurid stories from a convicted fraudster, successfully blackening the accused’s character in the process; the end result is a mistrial and the case is drawn out into two further trials, almost as though the powers-that-be are more concerned with establishing guilt than accepting innocence in order to save face; the publicity causes the celebrity’s work to be censored and excised from circulation, in some cases destroyed completely; his career is ruined and his reputation permanently tarnished as a consequence, even though eventually cleared of all charges; the legal cost of the three trials forces him to sell his house and places him on the brink of bankruptcy without the means of earning a living from his former career.

Although this sorry story may seem uncomfortably prescient, it actually stems from over ninety years ago and the celebrity in question was silent movie star, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. Learning nothing from history seems to be a contemporary curse and in the case of poor old Arbuckle, everything that has become commonplace in courtrooms over the past couple of years already had precedents stretching back to the early 1920s. Oscar Wilde is a name that is frequently evoked when describing some recent show trials involving accusations of historical sex crimes, but the closer one studies the case of Fatty Arbuckle, the closer the parallels with present day miscarriages of justice seem.

A century ago, silent cinema’s obvious absence of onscreen dialogue meant that it crossed all language barriers in a way that ‘talkies’ never have and the stars it produced became international household names with remarkable rapidity at a time when there was no comparable competition in terms of mass media. Someone such as Charlie Chaplin at the peak of his popularity was perhaps the most recognisable man on the planet, enjoying a level of worldwide fame that only The Beatles and Diana, Princess of Wales have experienced in recent decades.

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was up there with Chaplin and Keaton in the 1910s, mentoring the former and discovering the latter (as well as giving an early break to a young comedian by the name of Bob Hope). A former child prodigy, ironically famed for his powerful singing voice, Arbuckle’s natural comedic talent saw him progress to the Vaudeville circuit whilst still in his teens. As a means of subsidising his stage career, he made extra cash appearing in the nascent Hollywood movie industry’s comedy shorts, including the famous Mack Sennett Keystone Cops series. He soon rose through the ranks, as was possible in those early days, to found his own film company and take complete control of his increasingly profitable output. Audiences responded favourably and by the turn of the 20s, ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was known and loved across the globe. Then it all came crashing down.

From all accounts, Arbuckle was a kindly gentleman whose shyness around the opposite sex maybe stemmed from his huge bulk; but he made his name in an industry that was attracting the attention of fanatical moral lobbyists that were finding examples of depravity and decadence in all aspects of popular culture, whether jazz, the movies or alcohol; they were already responsible for outlawing the latter and when a sordid story emerged from a San Francisco party in 1921, one at which Arbuckle was present, they viewed it as symptomatic of Hollywood’s corrupting influence on the nation. It was just the scandal they, and the newspapers of William Randolph Hurst (the Murdoch of his day), had been waiting for.

A minor actress named Virginia Rappe was also at the said party; when the illicit hooch being served had a dramatic effect on her, the doctor resident at the hotel at which the party was held dispensed morphine to calm her down; what the medical man was unaware of was that Rappe suffered from a condition that alcohol exacerbated. She already had a reputation for drinking too much and then ripping off her clothes when afflicted by the resulting pain and was also in poor physical health due to a series of botched abortions. She wasn’t hospitalised until two days after the San Francisco party, by which time it was too late. Rappe died of peritonitis courtesy of a ruptured bladder. Prior to her death, Rappe’s friend Bambina Maud Delmont claimed Rappe had been raped by Arbuckle, despite an examination revealing no evidence. The police came to the decision that Rappe’s bladder had been ruptured by the weight of Arbuckle and arrested him on charges of rape and manslaughter.

When the case went to trial, the world’s media reported it in a manner we’d find all-too familiar today. The prosecutor had ambitions to run for governor and derived most of his accusations against Arbuckle from Bambina Maud Delmont’s vivid imagination; that she had a track record of numerous dubious activities of an illegal nature perhaps prevented the prosecutor from allowing her to take the stand, which would have undoubtedly exposed her as an unreliable witness. After two weeks, the jury’s indecision was underlined by the presence of a juror connected to the DA’s office who had claimed she was determined to find Arbuckle guilty. Unsurprisingly, the jury failed to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared.

Arbuckle had to endure a second trial whilst fantastically gruesome accounts of him raping Rappe with a bottle circulated in the Hearst press. One of the prosecution witnesses was an ex-studio security guard who it eventually transpired was in the middle of being charged with sexual abuse of a minor, yet even this revelation and the fact that Rappe’s history of drunken promiscuity was documented couldn’t alter the bias against Arbuckle after months of sensational headlines. The jury was again unable to decide and only after a third trial, by which time Bambina Maud Delmont was touring the country and exploiting her infamy, was Arbuckle finally acquitted.

Arbuckle left court a free man, but the legacy of the trial was something he couldn’t shake off. He was temporarily banned from making movies by the man who introduced the notorious Hays Code to clean-up Hollywood and received financial assistance from Buster Keaton until the ban was lifted. The effect of everything he’d been through led to Arbuckle to seek solace in the bottle and the little movie work he could find in the years after the trials couldn’t return him to the status he’d enjoyed before them. He died from a heart attack in 1933, aged just 46, unable to live down the scandal that had also resulted in the prints of many of his movies being incinerated, lost forever.

What Roscoe Arbuckle went through almost a hundred years ago has unnerving echoes in the present day. The inconsistencies and holes in the evidence against him, not to mention the unreliability of the witnesses and jurors as well as the ulterior motives of the prosecutor, the influence of moral crusaders, the deliberate destruction of his work and the biased reporting of the press, all appear to constitute a user manual for future witch-hunts. There are many lessons that could have been learned from the fate meted out to Fatty Arbuckle; unfortunately, the wrong side learned them.

© The Editor

DON’T PLAY THAT SONG AGAIN

vlcsnap-2015-12-20-22h07m29s100Question: What do the following songs have in common? ‘I Feel Fine’, The Beatles; ‘I Hear You Knocking’, Dave Edmunds; ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, Queen; ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, Pink Floyd; ‘Don’t You Want Me’, The Human League; ‘Killing in The Name’, Rage Against The Machine. Answer: They all topped the UK singles chart at Christmastime. For the amateur Paul Gambaccini’s amongst you, the years concerned were 1964, 1970, 1975, 1979, 1981 and 2009 respectively.

None of those numbers are what could really be classified as ‘seasonal’; indeed, of the 63 singles to have been top of the charts on December 25, only 14 have been specifically Christmas or ‘party’-themed, and of those 14, three were the same song (albeit a trio of different recordings), Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’ Lest we forget, last year’s fourth version was released so ridiculously early that we had a song about Christmas at No.1 during the last week in November, so it doesn’t count. The truth is the enduring appeal of ‘the Christmas song’ – at least if the supermarket playlists are anything to go by – is not necessarily complimented by a roll-call of chart-toppers. Some of the most popular hits wrapped in tinsel – ‘I Wish it could be Christmas Everyday’, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’, ‘Stop the Cavalry’, ‘Last Christmas’, ‘Fairytale of New York’ – failed to make the top spot. Many were prevented from reaching No.1 by records that had little to do with the time of year.

In the early years of the UK singles charts, a trio of what could be termed Christmas songs made it to No.1 – Winifred Atwell’s ‘Let’s Have Another Party’, Dickie Valentine’s ‘Christmas Alphabet’ and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ by Harry Belafonte; but there was no room for the Xmas genre at the top spot throughout the 60s. A trend of sorts was instigated at the very end of the decade when The Scaffold’s ‘Lily the Pink’ sparked the notion of the novelty Christmas chart-topper, something that was followed by the likes of Benny Hill, Little Jimmy Osmond, St Winifred’s School Choir and Renee & Renato in the 70s and into the 80s.

What we now view as the archetypal Christmas No.1 first appeared with Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ in 1973. Something that had long been the province of cheesy, cardigan-clad crooners was now deemed a fitting subject for a contemporary rock act. John Lennon had coated the season in a credible musical sheen the previous year and Slade decided to give it a Glam makeover twelve months later.

Singles sales were so high in the 70s that a million-seller could occur at any time of the year, but as the 80s progressed and a gradual decline in the amount of sales required to top the charts set in, record companies latched onto the fact that Christmas alone was the one period when a single could still clock up a million, and they began to pour their resources into the month leading up to December 25. The Christmas No.1 then acquired the Holy Grail status it held for a decade or more.

When the first Band Aid record was launched in a blitz of publicity at the end of 1984 and subsequently became the biggest-selling single in the history of the UK charts up to that time, another ingredient was added to the recipe, the one that stated it was ‘all in a good cause’. The two other occasions that Geldof & Ure’s anthem claimed the Christmas top spot paved the way for the likes of 2011’s Military Wives and 2012’s Justice Collective. Criticisms of the records were beyond-the-pale, as they were for ‘charadee’.

What for many killed the element of surprise where the Xmas chart-topper was concerned – seasonal sing-along, charity plea or novelty dirge? – came in 2002 when Girls Aloud hit No.1 over the festive period with their debut single, ‘Sound of the Underground’; they were the first product of the Cowell industry to grab the top spot at Christmas and out of the twelve records to be No.1 on December 25 since then, seven have emerged from the same get-rich-quick/here today-gone tomorrow talent show conveyor belt.

Simon Cowell has been accused of buying the Christmas No.1 as though he somehow stole something precious from the nation; but it is the nation that buys the produce he produces, after all, and he is ruthless enough to exploit the gullibility of the nation without giving a toss if nobody can even remember who won ‘The X-Factor’ by time Easter comes around. An admirable rebellion against his dominance came via the newfangled protest vehicle of the online campaign in 2009, which propelled the least likely Christmas No.1 in the shape of veteran US rap metal act Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing in The Name’ to the toppermost of the poppermost; but subsequent attempts to spike Cowell’s Christmas pud have failed.

The notion that the Christmas No.1 was once a platform for a song that united the country and kept the home-fires burning is largely a myth perpetuated by the Xmas edition of ‘TOTP2’ and all those 70s and 80s tracks on a loop in Sainsbury’s from the end of November till New Year’s Day. If Simon Cowell wants it, let him have it. The vast majority of his acts have a lifespan not much longer than the yuletide binge, anyway. They were made for each other.

© The Editor

THE NEW POWER GENERATION

GumbyIt shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise that the fresh intake of young MPs that entered the House in the wake of last May’s General Election contains a large contingent of airhead dipsticks. They are the first full wave of newcomers elected to Parliament that belong to the social media generation, the first to have lived their entire adult lives online and to have obsessively indulged in the juvenilia that constitutes debate, the first to represent the extended adolescence that now grinds to a halt around forty. They are the first to have graduated from university when academia had ceased to be the route to intellectual expansion and had instead become an inclusive alternative to the minimum wage, providing frivolous courses and worthless degrees for classroom clowns. They are the first to have had their political eyes opened in an ideologically bankrupt age where savage cynicism renders nothing below the belt, an age without principles, conviction or conscience. Many have little or no memory of the pre-Blair and pre-Campbell Westminster landscape, where there was often substance beneath style, and the best were defined more by what they stood for than what they were against.

Of course, there has always been a sizeable chunk of MPs who are in it to feather their nests as well as a minority on both sides whose reasons for standing are motivated by a genuine desire to effect change for the better. But if the Commons exists to represent the people, it’s no wonder that some of the latest recruits are as dim as those they represent.

In an ideal world, the left and the right would be personified by heavyweights along the lines of Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, whose clash on US TV’s Dick Cavett talk show in the early 70s stands as a timely reminder of how celebrated public figures have dumbed down beyond comprehension. Compare it not only to a contemporary edition of Graham Norton’s equivalent programme, but to the kind of gleefully lowbrow thought processes of those looking to gain access to the political arena today. An MPs hinterland once encompassed classical music (Ted Heath), historical literature (Churchill) or photography (Denis Healey); today, bar the inevitable exceptions, many unwind by tweeting running commentary on ‘The X Factor’, ‘Gogglebox’, f***ing ‘TOWIE’ or ‘Strictly Come Dancing’; some even stoop to appearing on the latter – stand up, Old Mother Cable.

It’s hard to resist the temptation to regard the upsurge in low art that has characterised the past couple of decades as something that has been socially engineered to enable those in power to get away with murder while the Yahoos are distracted by addictive trivia. That some from amongst those ranks have now progressed to the Lower House is a natural development that seems preordained. We already have a lightweight at No.10 who by his own admission is not an especially deep ideological person, issuing a stream of vacuous sound-bites his Spads assure him chime with public opinion whilst his Ministers sell the family silver to China and offshore tax-exiles as well as handing over the remaining beauty spots to industries whose drilling will complete the country’s transformation into a landfill of hope and glory.

With self-aggrandising bullies on one side and venomous gangsters on the other, the Commons is a microcosm of the rotten society it is supposed to speak on the behalf of – a society in which the police, the judiciary and the CPS are in thrall to bureaucratic box-ticking and PC pressure groups, refusing to acknowledge innocence even when a jury has awarded it; a society in which self-appointed moral watchdogs monitor speech and issue severe guidelines on what can and can’t be said; a society in which name-calling constitutes a crime and the recipients are encouraged to revert to helpless infancy rather than displaying the dignity of an adult above the insult; a society in which women are ordered to simultaneously be ball-breaking glass ceiling-smashers, Virgin Mary’s with babies at their breasts, chaste Victorian maidens and sexually promiscuous skanks whose bedroom recklessness can either be curtailed by an STD or crying rape; a society in which every man is a potential paedophile and every child is in eternal peril from the male of the species.

A society in which the plebs are supposed to be grateful that their living wage or zero-hours contract is helping the Government get to grips with the deficit whilst they are taught to view those unable or unwilling to settle for any old shit as scrounging scum deserving of the punitive punishments devised to dehumanise them; a society in which previously beyond-the-pale far-right, ill-informed opinions of immigrants are sold as perfectly acceptable and reasonable viewpoints – as long as the immigrants in question are penniless and can’t buy ministerial favour with a sack full of rubles or yuans; a society in which the few who enjoy a perfectly legal form of intoxicating relaxation are pursued and pilloried by hypocritical, fascistic lobbyists and a series of discriminatory curbs on their civil liberties; a society in which public libraries are seen as expensive luxuries when the needs of the lower orders can be met by fried chicken or pound shops; a society in which idiocy is a virtue and intelligence is mistrusted and frowned upon; a society that those born before around 1990 no longer recognise.

Whenever BBC Parliament transmits live proceedings from the Commons and new arrivals get their moment in the spotlight, I despair. At one time, I used to look at politicians and even if I disagreed with what they had to say, I could tell they’d lived a full life before donning the ministerial mantle and had come to their particular opinion via a combination of experience and education. They had earned their position. I no longer feel that. I see people I’d cross the road to avoid, people I’d want to throttle within minutes were I stuck next to them in a supermarket queue, people who are inherently stupid and devoid of both common sense and personality. Welcome to the future.

© The Editor

VIDEO KILLED THE VIDEO STAR

Corrie MajorcaYouTube has changed a great deal over the five years or so in which I’ve had an account with it. These days, every time I post a new video, I anticipate ‘Third Party Matching Content’ being slapped upon it within seconds of it appearing. At one time, using a soundtrack from a video you ‘sampled’ could land you in hot water, so I’d mute the original audio and overdub my own; then even the visuals began to be subject to copyright infringement. It begs the question what is YT for? Is it still supposed to be a platform for the powerless and unknown to make themselves heard or is it merely another corporate tool that serves the rich and famous?

Over the past five years, I’ve produced several series on YouTube. First up was a parody of a 1970s ITV regional company magazine show, ‘Cumberland at Six’; this was followed by (among others) the spoof documentary ‘Exposure’, the weekly ’25 Hour News’ bulletins, various ‘Top of the Pops’ spoofs, and what has undoubtedly been my most popular saga (in terms of views and audience response), ‘Buggernation Street’, an ongoing soap opera in which any resemblance to another ongoing soap opera is purely intentional.

‘Buggernation Street’ is not for the faint-hearted; the humour is bawdy and near-the-knuckle, but is a graduate of the same Great British academy of licentious satire as James Gillray, George Cruickshank and the Earl of Rochester – even Derek and Clive. Every resident of this grubby terraced street is engaged in some illicit sexual practice, and a good deal of the humour arises from descriptions of these activities being discussed in broad Lancashire accents by the most unlikeliest practitioners of them imaginable. The footage is drawn from early 70s ‘Coronation Street’ episodes, invoking instant nostalgia if you’re old enough to have been watching back then; for those who remember long-gone characters such as Jerry Booth or Alan Howard, it’s a twisted trip down Memory Lane; for those who don’t, it doesn’t really matter. The parody takes on a life of its own and can be enjoyed by anyone not easily offended. Albert Tatlock, for example, was always a grumpy old git; but in my take on the character, he becomes a foul-mouthed bullshitter who calls a spade a f***ing spade. The utter ridiculousness of the likes of him or Ena Sharples or Minnie Caldwell talking about intimate personal (and invariably sexual) subjects is partly what makes it funny.

Putting together each episode was no straightforward re-dubbing exercise. Simply placing rude words into the mouths of the characters wasn’t enough; there had to be a storyline to follow as well. And because I had certain favourite characters, I would try to ensure they appeared each time, something that necessitated upwards of six or seven different old ‘Corrie’ episodes being recut into one ‘Buggernation’. Working without a script, I’d improvise dialogue once I’d worked out how each sampled clip could be segued into the next. There would usually be a central plot with a couple of subplots underneath it; and there was continuity too. Dipping into one episode randomly, the viewer could be confronted by references to events that had occurred several episodes previously, so it paid to follow the saga from the beginning. As an avid viewer pointed out, the emphasis on ‘Dad’s Army’-style catchphrases and the anticipation of them appearing also played its part.

‘Buggernation Street’ survived intact online for a good three years, spanning 28 episodes, until recently. ‘ITV plc’ has begun cracking down on the show, forcing me to remove the all-important pilot episode that introduces the cast because it was ‘blocked worldwide’. There was supposed to have been an EU ruling that allowed the use of copyrighted footage for purposes of satire, but I’ve yet to see this ruling prevent the censorious (not to say humourless) intervention of ‘The Man’. I monetise my videos, making a miniscule amount of money from each one if it acquires a sizeable amount of views; but if there is any copyright infringement, this stops. Fair enough; I can accept that as long as the video can still be seen. When even this isn’t enough to satisfy the claimant, the said video then receives the ‘blocked worldwide’ tag and I’ve no option but to take it down.

For me, the YouTube video is an outlet for a certain type of ‘artistic expression’ (for want of a less poncy word) that is supposed to represent the democracy of the internet. At the moment, this democracy feels more like it’s based on the Chinese model, with a glut of ‘official’ videos from the likes of Vevo and others clogging up the system and pushing the amateur to the periphery. A recent video of mine was blocked due to the BBC claiming copyright infringement simply because I used about ten seconds of the BBC4 logo at the beginning of something that ran for over 20 minutes; for the first time, I disputed the copyright claim and the video has been restored until the dispute is resolved. I’d put a lot of work into the video and it had been an instant success, not even gaining one single notorious ‘thumbs down’ on the way past 1000 views. It seemed a petty objection to me and I wasn’t prepared to concede defeat.

The way things are going, YT could end up as bland and predictable as MTV within five years, completely negating its initial intent. It wasn’t supposed to be one more promotional juggernaut for record companies or movie studios, but that’s what it’s on the road to becoming. Enjoy while you can…

© The Editor