D’YE KEN ADOLF HITLER?

Ken 2Although a keen amateur scholar of British history, it had never previously occurred to me that Edward I was into Zionism. Think about, though – he issued the notorious Edict of Expulsion in 1290, a royal decree that expelled all Jews from England. It wasn’t revoked until one of Edward’s successors four-hundred years later lost his head; it took a commoner to take control of the country before Jews were permitted to return to these shores – yes, Oliver Cromwell. He wasn’t all bad, see. Mind you, neither was Hitler, of course; he built the autobahns, didn’t he? And, according to the latest historical revelations courtesy of Ken Livingstone, old Adolf was keen on the Zionist thing himself, due to the fact that he wanted the Jews of Germany to relocate en masse to the Holy Land. He hadn’t hatched the Final Solution at this point, so he was still clearly a reasonable and rational man.

It was interesting that all was quiet on the Corbyn Army front yesterday. For a moment, I was wondering if we were seeing the return of the old far-left wall of silence when confronted by an uncomfortable truth – y’know, the same state of denial that had been a convenient patch of sand for burying heads in when news of Stalin’s purges exposed the realities of Soviet Communism to the western left in the 30s. Time was evidently required to come up with an explanation, and it’s been tweeted today. Ken claims it’s all a smear campaign generated by a Tory press who’ve always had it in for him. Yes, Ken; you can’t possibly be held responsible for what you said. Oh, get real. This is the same Mr Livingstone, I presume, who compared a Jewish ‘Evening Standard’ reporter to an officer of the SS a few years back.

Ken Livingstone had supposedly leapt to the defence of under-fire Labour MP Naz Shah, whose ill-advised online comments about Israel from a couple of years ago – aired before she was elected to Westminster – resurfaced and forced her into issuing an apology in the Commons. Ms Shah had denied she was anti-Semitic in her apology and appeared to have adhered to every rule of parliamentary penance in the process. She didn’t really need Ken weighing in with his limited grasp of history, and his clumsy intervention has now resulted in his own suspension from the party, pending an internal investigation.

It is true that Tory sections of the press dislike Ken Livingstone; he embodies so much of precisely what they hate in the left. Mind you, he’s hardly universally beloved in the Labour Party, many believing he represents everything that will keep them out of office. The problem is that the party in now in the hands of those who think along Ken lines; his old backbench buddy Jezza is the bloody leader, for God’s sake, and bringing Ken into the fold was bound to cause ructions at some point. He does have a history of putting his foot in it.

Zac Goldsmith, the clueless Hooray Henry that the Tories have chosen to run for London Mayor, has been equally dim with some of the moves he’s made in his campaign, but Goldsmith doesn’t masquerade as a man of the people, so it’s really no great surprise. Ken Livingstone, along with the shower that have seized the Labour frontbench, does pose as ‘an ordinary bloke’, but the wing of the party he belongs to is essentially the yang to David Cameron’s yin. Iain Duncan Smith in his resignation letter claimed the Conservative Cabinet have no interest in those who don’t vote Tory; Ken Livingstone and his ilk have no interest in those who don’t belong to a perceived ‘persecuted minority’.

Naturally, any mini-crisis that engulfs one political party will be exploited by another for political gain, though it would be unwise for Tories to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude to this. It was only last year that Dave referred to Syrian asylum-seekers as a ‘swarm’ – before the body of a little boy was photographed washed-up on a beach, of course; and the pro-Rhodesia/Apartheid South Africa policy of the old Monday Club would be an unpleasant skeleton in any party’s closet. However, the problem of anti-Semitism within Labour is especially acute in that much of it emanates from the ‘grass roots’ level, that of student bodies and the Momentum group, i.e. the very people that propelled the incumbent Labour leadership to power. Amusing it may have been, but Labour MP John Mann’s theatrical confrontation with Ken before TV cameras yesterday was a mere sideshow to the real problem, much of which stems from Labour’s enthusiastic embrace of Islam and fear of offending its less palatable prejudices.

The need to be viewed as inclusive and eager to recruit from the largest immigrant communities within the UK is a hallmark of modern Labour principles, yet one that turns a blind eye to some attitudes and opinions that, were they to emanate from white lips, would be instantly condemned. The introduction of Blair’s faith-schools in the late 90s served to foster separatism and suspicion and put the brakes on integration for a generation that has come of age with an Us and Them philosophy; by ghettoising a community, Labour has created a climate that can foster anti-Semitism at best and radicalisation at worst. Not that any of Corbyn’s crowd would acknowledge this.

To hear that loathsome bully boy Tom Watson describing Ken Livingstone’s comments as though they were most despicable remarks ever to have been uttered by a member of his own party is rich when one recalls his own rumour-mongering tirade against the dying Leon Brittan a couple of years ago. But perhaps Corbyn’s blinkered team have belatedly realised this unedifying scenario is something that threatens to expose their sham opposition and are desperate to minimise the damage while they can.

If being anti-Zionist does not equate with anti-Semitism, then criticising Corbyn and Ken does not equate with a deep desire to suck Cameron’s toes. I just wish there were separate pots for them all to piss in, for it often seems Westminster provides just the one.

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ASHES TO VAPOURS

SmokerBy now, we’re all familiar with the canny political tactic of burying bad news while headlines are claimed by more upbeat events; but on a day when anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has led to two high-profile suspensions, some good news has been relegated to the footnote of bulletins. The news? Well, the Royal College of Physicians has declared e-cigarettes a positive aid in stopping smoking the real thing. Despite the familiar bullying and propaganda of the anti-tobacco lobby, the men whose day-job it is to study the health of the nation have found the spurious claims made by those who want to outlaw anything that remotely resembles a fag are bollocks. Most of us resistant to the finger-wagging war on personal freedoms already knew so, but it’s nice that the professionals have issued official confirmation.

In the space of barely two or three years the increasing popularity of e-cigs as a halfway house between tobacco and a nicotine-free constitution has gone from being universally lauded to utterly demonised. The cafes that sprang up to cater for the vanishing vapours in the absence of any indoor venue where lighting-up is permitted were initially viewed as a grown-up approach to a perennial problem. The negatives non-smokers associated with the Real McCoy – passive inhaling, the lingering odour of the smoke itself, the varnished teeth and fingernails of smokers – were rendered obsolete by this new method of overcoming the craving for baccy, and the health risks were virtually zilch.

However, the sight of people rejecting the accepted guidebook for giving up smoking in favour of an inventive alternative was evidently too reminiscent of the old discredited liberty for some. That public spaces which had been forced into sending naughty children outside for a cig were now colonised by new clouds of lookalike smoke – even if these particular clouds disappeared in seconds rather than clinging to every surface within a twelve-foot radius of the smoker – was obviously too close to the civilised days when adults were allowed to express their individual choices free from the admonishments of those in disagreement with them. Something had to be done!

Perhaps stung by their disastrous record of running the NHS, the Welsh Assembly struck first by proposing e-cigs be banned in public places on health grounds. There then followed a fresh assault on personal freedoms by a series of scaremongering stories claiming e-cigarettes were serving to ‘normalise’ the image of adults smoking in the eyes of those innocent angels born and bred in cotton wool, AKA children. Calls were made to ban the sale of e-cigs to under-18s, that pure, untainted demographic that has never tried the real thing, let alone the pretend version, nor had their precious, saintly bodies polluted by booze or weed, of course. The Kids were being encouraged to take up smoking by the sight of a harmless silver object in the mouths of their role models, and this could not be allowed to continue. The celebrated benefits of e-cigs in aiding over-18s to consign the genuine article to the permanent ashtray didn’t matter if it meant our babies could be led down the path to oblivion by their very existence. Perish the thought that the fat little potentates might look up from their Smart-phones or tablets and see their parents sucking on substitutes for cigarettes! Just imagine the horrific consequences.

According to the Royal College of Physicians, the great majority of the 2.6 million users of e-cigarettes in the UK are grown-ups employing the e-cig as a useful crutch while they work nicotine out of their system. The fallacy propagated by the anti-smoking lobby that e-cigs act as a child’s gateway to the wicked world of real cigs is rubbished by the facts; this is no more a widespread likelihood than the equally silly theory that the occasional spliff will inevitably result in the toker becoming a shivering smack-head within months of his or her first sustained drag. Apparently, the few teens that have tried e-cigs have simultaneously given the good old-fashioned fag a go and tend to prefer the former, suggesting the e-cigarette is an exit from the nightmare realm of the tobacco addict as painted by the health nannies instead of an entrance.

The experts have spoken, though this won’t make much difference to fanatical fascists as they will no doubt continue their campaign to hound any form of smoking to the fringes of society, even if it’s a form of smoking that is helping more smokers to quit than any other failed campaign of the past. Proper smokers making a legal purchase already have to request the opening of a cupboard hiding their poison from view while the little cherubs at their feet can focus their nascent gaze on sensational sexual headlines screaming from the covers of trashy magazines within their reach; yet even the ones that seek to quell the craving by switching to a pollutant-free aid to eventual abstinence are being browbeaten and blacklisted by illogical puritans who are supposed to have their healthy interests at heart. It stinks – and far more than an overflowing ashtray.

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TIME HEALS NO WOUNDS

1Timing counts for a lot, even if timing takes time. On the day a verdict was finally reached in the Hillsborough Inquest and the pitiful reputation of the South Yorkshire Police Force was dragged even deeper into the dirt, another law enforcement outfit with a similarly tarnished record, the Metropolitan Police Force, announced it was poised to wind down the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. It was as far back as April 1989 when 96 football fans lost their lives at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground; it was in 2007 when the four-year-old vanished without a trace from her family’s holiday hotel in Portugal. Neither case shares much other than the amount of headlines they have generated and the fact that both have threatened to challenge ‘The Mousetrap’ for longevity – nine years for Madeleine McCann and a staggering 27 for Hillsborough.

The Taylor Report into Hillsborough appeared as early as January 1990, just nine months after the tragedy. However, whilst instigated to establish the causes of the 96 deaths, it also had a wider remit for English football in general, covering such areas as terracing, the sale of alcohol within grounds, and crush barriers. The Taylor Report’s influence was far-reaching for football in this country, leading to all-seater stadia and the end of fans being fenced in to prevent pitch invasions and contain hooliganism. Its conclusion regarding the deaths was that the prime cause of the disaster was inadequate policing. The actual inquest into the lives lost recorded a verdict of accidental death in 1991 rather than unlawful killing and didn’t recommend charges of manslaughter be brought against the police officers who were pivotal to events, much to the dismay of the families involved.

When 20 years had passed, the dissatisfaction of bereaved families with nobody being held to account for events that day, as well as their awareness that vital documentary evidence had not been released to Lord Justice Taylor in 1989, led to the formation of the Hillsborough Independent Panel; backed by government support, the panel accessed previously-unavailable information and in 2012 concluded that Liverpool supporters were not responsible for the tragedy, contrary to the Sun’s accusations at the time.

Despite the conclusions of the panel eliciting public apologies from the relevant parties, those regarded as guilty remained unpunished and fresh demands for prosecutions of police officers on a variety of charges surfaced in the wake of the 2012 inquiry. Shortly after, the High Court quashed the verdict of the original inquest and obtained permission for a fresh inquest that began two years ago last month; when the jury reached its verdict today, all 96 deaths were found to be unlawful killings. Revelations of doctored statements by the South Yorkshire Police that have emerged in recent years had cast considerable doubt upon the original verdict, though the new verdict isn’t the end of a story that has spanned two-and-a half decades. The next stage surely has to constitute prosecutions against individual officers or even a charge of corporate manslaughter against South Yorkshire Police itself.

As for the sad saga of Madeleine McCann, the future seems less conclusive. If she is still alive, Madeleine will turn 13 in just over a couple of weeks from now; but there remains a large section of the media, both professional and social, convinced she is dead and that her blood is on the hands of her parents, Gerry and Kate. Inconclusive investigations by both Portuguese and British police, as well as private detectives, have thrown up endless speculation and false leads that have failed to establish any truth in what has become one of the twenty-first century’s great mysteries. The absence of evidence as to whether Madeleine is dead or alive, let alone any plausible murder suspects being put forward, is bound to keep the rumour mill in business when even Hillsborough has finally been put to bed.

The McCann case seems to be more a story of our times than Hillsborough, which is essentially a lingering legacy of another era altogether, as was the equally drawn-out Bloody Sunday Inquiry before it. The patent lies that were pedalled by both certain tabloid papers and the South Yorkshire Police in 1989 seem mild in comparison to the hysterical obsession of Fleet Street and Twitter with Madeleine McCann. Again, timing played its part. Following the high-profile kidnapping and murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne by a convicted child sex-offender in 2000, child abduction with the prospect of a paedophilic element was big news both for an industry desperate to combat plummeting sales and for the newest kid on the media block. Once Jimmy Savile became the Great British Bogeyman in 2012, the dead DJ could be linked to every child abduction or murder case of the past half-century, connecting individual and utterly unrelated stories to a bigger and far more salacious fantasy of institutionalised abuse allegedly stretching back decades.

The fake abduction of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews, staged less than a year after Madeleine McCann’s disappearance by her publicity-desperate mother, was symptomatic of an age in which the narcotic of fifteen-minute fame had polluted the thought processes of even the thickest people in the country and that this craving could encompass any beyond-the-pale stunt. Whereas Kate McCann was endlessly pilloried for not displaying her private grief in public – as has been compulsory ever since weeping Diana groupies besieged the gates of Kensington Palace in 1997– Karen Matthews shed the requisite tears; that hers were of the crocodile variety didn’t appear to alter the consensus that grief is no longer the province of those with a first-hand claim to it but is now something that has to be shared across the entire vicarious spectrum of contemporary communication.

The widespread belief that the public are being lied to by the powerful, whether police or politicians, can be attributed in part to the corruption and ineptitude of those institutions themselves, but it has become more entrenched in the national consciousness courtesy of social media, turning every cock-up or wilful deception into another conspiracy theory to occupy empty lives. Hillsborough may be on the brink of resolution at last, but Madeleine McCann is set to run and run, regardless of the damage done to those whose actual concern it still is.

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CHIRPY CHIRPY CHEAP STREET

BHSAutomatic doors that open and close when we enter and exit shops are so commonplace now that it’s easy to forget what a novelty they once were. The first such doors I ever encountered were in the mid-70s and in Huddersfield, of all places. I remember stepping in and out of the premises over and over again just to experience the sensation which seemed to me straight out of the USSS Enterprise. The shop in question was British Home Stores. A year or two later, a brand new ‘shopping precinct’ (as they used to be called) emerged on Boar Lane in Leeds, complete with a bizarre plastic tube housing an outdoor escalator that again seemed to have arrived directly from a sci-fi show. The main shop at the forefront of this futuristic retail behemoth was British Home Stores. One of my first forays into it revealed they even had a record department. Those were, indeed, the days.

The news that BHS – as the business gradually became known (acronyms are so ‘street’) – is to go cap in hand to the Receiver, with the potential loss of 11,000 jobs, is a reminder that George Osborne’s LTER (that’s Long Term Economic Recovery to those of you not ‘street’ enough) hasn’t been much use to the traditional residents of the city centre high-street. On Gideon’s watch, the likes of Comet, Clintons and JJB Sports (all 2012), Blockbuster Video (2013) and Phones 4u (2014) have all disappeared, joining the likes of Virgin (2007) and Woolworths (2008), which vanished while Gordon Brown was moving his furniture from No.11 to No.10. The past decade has seen a radical facelift of the high-street, one in which most of the chain-stores to have superseded the old mainstays are either endless, interchangeable coffee shops or the discount and pound stores.

The rapid rise of the latter is symptomatic of an age wherein people want to pay, at best, as little as possible for anything or, at worst, nothing at all. A glance at thirty or forty-year-old ads for long-gone department stores that are easily located online can be surprisingly revelatory in that so many goods, from food and clothing to electronic accessories, tend to be more expensive than they are today or more or less the same price. In the 60s and 70s it was to be expected that the customer paid handsomely for quality – whether a pair of slacks or a colour telly – because the purchase would be an investment in something that was intended to last for years rather than months. The ascendancy of the designer label in the 80s again placed emphasis on the quality of the item, even if the item itself was secondary to the label in importance.

If there is a key difference between the increasing cost of living since the financial crash of 2008 and the economic crisis of the mid-70s it’s the fact that during the Three Day-Week era, prices rose in unison across the board while wages stalled. Today, whereas the charges of energy suppliers are even greater in relative terms than they were in 1973/74, the overall cost of essentials such as food and clothing has actually fallen. The likes of Waitrose may have cornered the market in selling a largely expensive range of edibles, though the customer prepared (or able) to pay is actually paying for something worth eating. Ever since the pioneering no-frills cheap foodstuffs of Netto in the 90s – 10p for a tin of spaghetti! – those in the lower-income bracket have had a far wider range of choice than back in the era of Fine Fare, Hillards and Safeway; what that choice entails, however, may or may not be linked to the truth that we are a far fatter nation than we were forty years ago.

The concept of the hand-me-down, whereby each child inherits the former outfit of its elder sibling, arose from times when new clothes were expensive and any wear and tear was patched-up and stitched-up to extend the lifespan of the ensemble as much as possible. These days, with the proliferation of stores selling cheap gear and an abundance of charity shops, the necessity of making do and mending has been reduced to near-extinction in all but the very poorest of households. Thanks to Asian sweatshops unburdened by silly things like worker’s rights, trade unions and a fixed eight-hour working day, an entire wardrobe can now be purchased on a regular basis at an affordable price; when it inevitably begins to fall apart, the low cost of replacing it renders the sewing box redundant.

Many of these factors have played a part in the impending collapse of British Home Stores, not to mention the dubious business dealings of the company’s fat cat owners and shareholders helping themselves to upwards of £586 million of profits in recent years, according to the latest revelations. That many middle-aged shoppers have relied on BHS, as they do Marks & Spencer, when so many of the cheaper high-street upstarts primarily target a younger customer base, has been viewed by many as a reason for its rather fusty and old-fashioned image; the thought that older consumers might have a favoured retail outlet that ‘the kids’ avoid is indeed an utterly hideous notion, and we can’t have that on our bargain basement boulevards.

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THE BRITISH PLAY

WillThat the final visit to British shores of President Obama as leader of ‘the free world’ should fall on a weekend when our nation marks the 400th anniversary of its greatest writer’s passing is one of those neat strokes of fate, coming at a moment when the country is perched perilously on the crossroads between alleged integration and alleged isolation. Obama’s unsurprising pro-EU stance, whether his sentiments were given a canny nudge by Dave or not, have proved to be a sly stroke on the part of the Remain camp; regardless of his fairly unremarkable record in his day-job, Obama is a popular figure here, and no amount of crying foul play by the Brexit bunch will really alter that.

Neither Boris nor Farage have issued anything beyond petulant retorts to Obama’s veiled threat as to America’s position should the UK vote ‘no’. There is a certain irony, however, that such a professional patriot as Nigel should possess a frankly flimsy grasp of history. Accusing the incumbent President of being the most anti-British tenant of the White House is somewhat curious considering that just over 200 years ago one of his predecessors – James Madison – declared war on the US’s former colonial overlord. The War of 1812 may now be regarded as a footnote to the far greater Napoleonic conflicts by European historians, but it surely represents a bleaker low point in the Special Relationship than Obama indicating Britain will be shoved to the back of the trading queue if she chooses to retreat from the brotherhood of her nearest neighbours.

I at least expected a myriad of quotes from ‘Henry V’ to constitute the Brexit response to Obama this weekend. Regularly plucked from the text to provoke patriotism at best and jingoism at worst, the words the Bard placed in the mouth of the victor of Agincourt have become a default mechanism for the nation when it perceives itself as being under threat. And there is, of course, a case of the pot calling the kettle black in America preaching European harmony and anti-isolationism when it has spent so much of its existence masquerading as a country breaking with traditional Old World aggression by avoiding excessive participation in world affairs – on the surface, at least. A cursory glance at an enlightening article which appeared online a year ago reveals the US has enjoyed a mere total of 21 years of peace since 1776. In fact, America has never lasted so much as a solitary decade without being involved in some military conflict or another from the moment when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.

‘And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain, and I hate the idle pleasure of these days’; so said Richard III in the hands of Shakespeare’s quill. While the gung-ho war-cry of Henry V may well be evoked to galvanise those who feel Britain’s precious sovereignty is forever in peril from some Brussels directive whilst we remain chained to treaties signed in the 80s and 90s, one could argue a withdrawal from the continent places us back in the role of detached observer on European activities, cast in the role of villain, mistrusted anew by the advocates of the great European project and consequently reinforcing our geographical separation from the mainland. This wasn’t a problem back in the days of the Empire, and we still have a network of connections to our ex-imperial possessions in the Far East, Africa and the Indian Subcontinent that, historically, should have precedence over the neighbours we’ve spent most of our lifetime fighting. After all, we only have a land border with just one country – the Republic of Ireland – which is itself further from Europe than even we are in terms of miles.

The perceived importance of a European Economic Community, not to mention a military one, was passionately promoted by Churchill even before such institutions came into being, but it was Sir Winston’s misfortune to be born too early to participate in the construction of the initial incarnation of the operation. The historical and sentimental ties with the Commonwealth somewhat got in the way of Europe’s post-war destination from Britain’s point of view, leaving the French and the Germans to take control and relegate us to a permanent periphery, even when Ted Heath achieved his long-term ambition of gaining us a place at the table in 1972. Lest we forget, the formation of the Common Market (along with NATO) took place while Europe remained divided between East and West, but the fall of the Berlin Wall, pushing back the borders of democratic Europe to the edges of Russia, changed the makeup of the EU, and the Referendum of June 23 this year will decide our role in an organisation that is a radically different animal to the one it was in 1975.

The Brexit camp contains those who recognise the differences between the modern-day EU and the old EEC as well as those who have always been opposed to any integration with Europe, while even the Remain gang recognise something has to change in order for our continued membership to be something worth fighting for. President Obama’s sentiments are obviously influenced by American interests, but his intervention probably hasn’t helped make the minds up of any don’t knows out there. As with a General Election, notions of doing something in the country’s best interests will largely be supplanted by individual concerns. As someone whose shopping is mostly done online, I would begrudge the addition of import tax on buying overseas goods that EU countries are currently exempt from if we leave, whilst a friend has already decided she will vote ‘out’ due to EU interference in the e-cigarette issue. I suspect this will be a pattern we will all follow come June, and Obama’s opinion will count for little when we visit our nearest polling station.

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PRINCE CHARMING

PrinceI didn’t think I’d have to do this just 48 hours after giving honourable mention to Victoria Wood, but this year doesn’t give me much choice. So, let’s go back to 1988, eh? The history books will tell you everyone under 30 was digesting E for breakfast and spending all day and night raving away in a derelict warehouse. Of course, that was 1988 for some, but very much a minority, just as the Roxy club had played host to a minority in 1977 and the UFO club had done likewise in 1967. In 1988 I was still entombed in a bedroom at my mother’s house, surrounded by own mini-gallery of pop cultural icons; most were of a generation before my time, as by this late stage the 80s had petered out into a dreary wasteland with Goths at one end and Stock Aitken and Waterman at the other, and not a lot to get excited about in the middle.

One notable and fairly unique exception was a man who still embodied all that had been great about pop’s past, a man who absorbed the spirit of everyone from Little Richard and Sly Stone to Stevie Wonder and Marc Bolan, a man whose nude portrait dominated the wall my bed was shoved against. I only mention this in that the giant poster of the ‘Lovesexy’ sleeve I had somehow acquired from its display at either the nearest HMV or Virgin (I can’t remember which now) proved to be a talking point when my windows were being replaced by a bunch of archetypal gruff Yorkshire workmen.

‘Dunt it make ye feel sick?’ asked one of them when confronted by an image of glorious androgyny that was beyond his own experience. ‘Dunt it make ye feel sick, though, seeing Prince wi’ nowt on?’ I just laughed; I should have said, ‘As a matter of fact, I wank myself to sleep looking at that every night’, but figured it wouldn’t have gone down well; besides, I just wanted the new bloody windows putting in so I could have my room back ASAP. I loved the fact, however, that a contemporary figure rather than someone whose best work was twenty years behind him had provoked a bit of mini-outrage that showed the generation gap was still clinging on for dear life.

That same year, I attended the best live show I’ve ever been witness to by far when my mate Paul and I saw Prince in the flesh (though not quite as abundant as on the ‘Lovesexy’ sleeve) at Wembley Arena. We’d become Big Gig-goers over the past twelve months, seeing Bowie twice and Dylan once; this brief phase would climax a couple of years later when we’d see the Stones, but when we caught the coach down to the capital that summer, it was the only time we ever saw someone who was at the peak of his powers. Unlike the other legends whose concerts we attended, when Prince played songs from his new album, we wanted to hear them as much as the old stuff; he was still ‘present tense’, and if his previous LP, ‘Sign ‘O’ the Times’ had been his ‘What’s Going On’, ‘Lovesexy’ was his ‘Let’s Get it On’. We knew we were seeing something that was rooted in the here and now when we spotted Patricia Morrison from The Sisters of Mercy stood outside the venue as though she was waiting for Andrew Eldritch to turn up with the tickets.

Once within the hallowed walls of the Arena, we realised somebody was sat in the shit seats we’d been allocated half-a-mile away from the stage; we then embarked upon a game of musical chairs that eventually took us into the sacred press enclosure when the security guards were too mesmerised by the show to notice our presence. We had the best bloody view in the house as Prince gyrated on a giant bed with one of his impossibly sexy dancers midway through another contemporary classic – and he hadn’t yet reached the stage of his career when his set-list could contain any duff numbers. He was playing his greatest hits and not one of them stretched back further than five years.

Unfortunately, there was an intermission that brought the house-lights up and our lack of press passes meant we had to find somewhere else to sit that wasn’t quite as close. But we’d had a good half-hour with the man himself within touching distance; at that moment in time, there was no other performer under 30 in possession of the genuine otherworldly star quality that had been spread evenly amongst Prince’s predecessors. He was out there on his own and he revelled in ruling the world. As a performer, he remained pretty damn peerless for the rest of his life; but as a recording artist, I think he had peaked. His next project was the disappointing soundtrack for the first ‘Batman’ movie the following year, and bar a few great singles in the early 90s, he never again came close to the heights he’d scaled on vinyl in the 80s.

He’d always operated in his own universe, but the disappearance of the entertaining element of the 80s that died a death at Live Aid left the field clear for Prince to fill the void and he grabbed it with such gusto that no one else came close. It took Madonna until the end of the decade before she approached his greatness on record, and who should she collaborate with on one of the tracks on ‘Like a Prayer’ but the little genius from Minneapolis himself. While she went on to produce her finest album ten years later, Prince concentrated on doing his own thing; if the record-buying public wanted it, fair enough; if they didn’t, he didn’t care; he carried on doing it regardless.

Every online obituary will recite his achievements in detail, but this isn’t a list; it’s merely me recalling how important he was to me and many others starved of stars at a point in pop culture history that seemed bad at the time, yet seems positively golden by today’s standards. Self-contained singer-songwriters who labour under the misapprehension that their trivial middle-class angst is a source of fascination to others beyond their own narcissistic navel-gazing are ten-a-penny these days; but none of them can also get funky, dress like a dandy, ooze sex appeal to both sexes and do it all with such flamboyant witty panache as the man who has inexplicably left the stage at 57. Of course we won’t see his like again; we won’t see the likes of anyone who makes music with more depth than a bloody ringtone anymore. The rules of the game have changed and with every light extinguished, the firmament moves one step closer to total blackout.

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RETURN TO BRENDA

Brenda and the BeatlesA royal record is poised to be broken, though unlike the publicity afforded Queen Elizabeth II’s overtaking of Queen Victoria last September, this one ‘officially’ doesn’t count and probably won’t get much in the way of coverage. Brenda may turn 90 today, solidifying her position as the oldest sovereign Britain has ever had; but if she makes it to May 11, she will have surpassed the titular reign of James III, the reign that never was. History knows him as The Old Pretender, but the King across the Water was never crowned, his birth as a Catholic heir leading to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. To those loyal to the Jacobite cause, James Francis Edward Stuart was always recognised as the legitimate King of England, Scotland and Ireland, and as such reigned in a parallel universe for 64 years.

James succeeded his dethroned father James II aged just 13. By contrast, Brenda was 25 when she ascended to the throne in 1952, seven years older than Victoria had been when she became queen in 1837. But her maternal genes are made of strong stuff; the Queen Mother was over 100 when she died, lest we forget, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that there could even be an unprecedented Platinum Jubilee on the horizon. I don’t suppose anyone anticipated this when Princess Elizabeth was informed of her father’s death whilst on a royal tour of Kenya. George VI had reigned for just sixteen years. In fact, anyone over, say, fifty-three the day we entered what was trumpeted as the New Elizabethan Age would have already seen five different monarchs occupying the throne; by contrast, to have been born just before the reign of Elizabeth II began, one would now be within a year or two of retirement age.

The longer the reign, the more potential for change in the wider society, and it could be argued the changes that have taken place since 1952 are on a par with those that took place during the Victorian Age. When Victoria became queen upon the death of her uncle William IV, she was the only legitimate living child sired by any of her grandfather George III’s notoriously rakish sons. She was born into a transitional era that had seen both the end of Napoleonic domination of Europe and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, with the pendulum of power swinging away from France towards Britain. The woman who ended up being associated with a strain of prudish Puritanism was actually a product of the Regency and was in possession of all the hedonistic frivolity that went with it during her spell as Europe’s most envied marital prize. It was strait-laced husband Albert (the son of a philandering rake himself) and his determination not to repeat his father’s mistakes that redesigned the image of a battered brand and turned the royal household from a hotbed of disreputable debauchery to the nation’s moral barometer.

With Victoria as the figurehead, Britain spread its imperial wings and was ruling over almost a quarter of the world’s population by the time of her death aged 81. Its navy acted as the maritime world police and its language, culture and industry circumnavigated the globe. After Bonaparte, Victoria became one of the first internationally recognisable public figures, with her iconic properties as the reincarnation of Britannia the nineteenth century’s equivalent of the Che Guevara poster that used to be an obligatory addition to the bedroom walls of every campus dormitory. When she celebrated her 1897 Diamond Jubilee, the event was marked everywhere from Calcutta to Cape Town, from Sydney to Singapore, and from Montreal to Malta.

During Victoria’s reign, transport went from horsepower to steam power and then the internal combustion engine. Advances in industry built railways and laid cables under the ocean to open up a new lines of communication, whilst advances in science and medicine saved lives and (in the case of Darwin) rewrote the history of mankind; social reformers attempted to do something about the kind of poverty we’d now associate with the Third World; the working-class was given a voice with the formation of trade unions and extension of the voting franchise; demands for women’s rights became organised; and the flourishing of the Arts in particular helped establish Britain as the cultural capital of the world. Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontes, Eliot, Gaskell, Trollope, Hardy, Lear, Carroll and Wilde all produced their literary masterpieces on Victoria’s watch; the Pre-Raphaelites rocked the galleries and Elgar embarked upon his distinguished musical journey, whilst photography and then moving pictures brought us one step closer to the twentieth century. The formation of police forces and improvements in street lighting via gas and, eventually, electricity made the streets safer, the Gothic Revival gave dramatic new architectural skylines to the towns and cities in which those streets were situated, and rising literacy levels, not to mention civic museums, libraries and swimming baths as well as the codification and new professionalism of sports such as cricket, tennis, golf, association football and both strains of rugby aided in the intellectual and physical improvement of Victoria’s subjects. When she finally passed away in January 1901, the country that mourned her was very different to what it had been in 1819.

And what of the country inherited by Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter half-a-century later? The slow recovery from the ravages of war was still a work-in-progress with many of the new queen’s subjects living in housing that had been condemned as unfit for human habitation decades before, the class system had been temporarily fractured by conflict and was attempting to revert to its pre-war distinctions, television had yet to supplant radio or the cinema as the medium of the masses, corporal and capital punishment were still enforced, National Service continued to interrupt male civilian lives, homosexuality and abortion remained illegal acts punishable with prison sentences, illegitimate birth was a social stigma, mass immigration from the colonies hadn’t yet altered what was a predominantly white society, and the nation’s Prime Minister, Churchill, was approaching eighty. Sixty-four years later, the same monarch presides over a different country in a different century.

The year of Elizabeth II’s Coronation saw Crick and Watson discover the structure of DNA, an early sign that the new queen was about to begin her reign on the cusp of changes that would radically transform the monochrome kingdom in ways comparable to those that Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother had overseen. These changes are perhaps more evident and within living memory, so don’t necessary need to be recited like the ones that occurred during Victoria’s reign; but even those of us whose lifetimes haven’t yet spanned fifty years have witnessed dramatic alterations to everyday life that in many cases would have been pure sci-fi in 1952. The technology that enables me to write this piece as well as enabling you to read it, wherever on the planet you happen to be, is just one.

Whatever one’s opinion of her or the institution of monarchy in general, Elizabeth II’s place in the history books is already ensured, with the next landmark on the list being just three weeks away. It would therefore be somewhat churlish not to wish her a happy birthday on yet another day in which we’ve all seen her face again – even if that was only due to pulling change from our wallets and purses.

© The Editor

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