THE DRUGS DON’T WORK

SoldierSide-effects are one of the prices paid for the positive outcome of any prescribed medication; indeed, many of these are specified in small print via the folded-up leaflets that accompany the packages. Some are as long as shopping lists; every unwelcome addition to daily hang-ups over physical appearance seem to be possibilities – weight-gain, mood swings, spots, insomnia, loss of appetite, drowsiness, dehydration etc.; you name it, it’s a potential side-effect. In fact, the roll-call of probable side-effects is so ridiculously varied and vague that it does often make one wonder if the drugs companies are either utterly clueless or simply hedging their bets when it comes to future litigation on the part of the consumer.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that medication intended to combat a disease as serious as malaria is bound to contain its fair share of side-effects; and Lariam appears to boast an abundance of the worst kind. However, it is its regular use by the Ministry of Defence for immunising troops dispatched to parts of the world where malaria tends to strike that has hit the headlines today – particularly with the admission by former head of the British Army Lord Dannatt that, though he was running the show whilst soldiers were being given Lariam, he himself wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.

To justify his aversion, Dannatt cites the negative experience of his own son with the drug after taking it as a precaution prior to an African holiday in the 90s; Dannatt says the side-effects made his son withdrawn and depressed, common side-effects where Lariam is concerned, along with suicidal thoughts and violent outbursts. Although Lariam isn’t the sole drug deployed to combat malaria, it was the standard anti-malarial drug given by the MoD to troops from 2007-15 – upwards of 17,000 soldiers. Lord Dannatt was in overall charge of the British Army from 2006-9, at a time when Lariam was being used, yet despite his awareness of the damage it could do, he said nothing.

Bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan during Dannatt’s tenure as head of the British Army, the issue of anti-malarial drugs was pushed on the backburner due to the troops largely engaged in conflict in areas where malaria wasn’t prominent. One ex-soldier who has gone public was dispatched to Sierra Leone in 2000, though, and such precautions were necessary in that case. He claims Lariam had an immediate impact, turning him into an ‘ogre’; it’s not an especially comforting image to realise trained armed men were on a foreign field in a precarious mental condition, though in response the MoD says that Lariam has only been given to troops after ‘individual risk assessments’ since 2013.

Dannatt has tentatively apologised for any damage done by the drug to British soldiers on his watch, though it obviously didn’t damage every troop exposed to it; the vagueness of potential side-effects as listed in the leaflets that are included in every box of prescribed medication cover all eventualities, though as a regular user of prescribed medication myself I recognise that few of the myriad side-effects conjured up in print have surfaced whenever I’ve been following the recommended course. Both the World Health Organisation and Public Health England endorse Lariam as an effective aid against malaria, and the company that manufactures it has issued a statement reinforcing its faith in the MoD to prescribe the drug with due care. This doesn’t detract from the fact that some of the more disturbing side-effects in the case of Lariam have indeed ruined lives, and Lord Dannatt’s belated public acknowledgment of this will probably be little comfort to its sufferers. Mind you, the military does have a history of caring for their cannon-fodder with somewhat casual nonchalance – particularly when it comes to chemical-related matters.

The original 1962 movie of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ reflected the concurrent experimental tests by the CIA that sprang from a sordid little project known as Operation Paperclip, whereby their response to alleged Soviet mind-control was to hire scientists who were actually Nazi war criminals and use unknowing military personnel as guinea pigs. The film depicts a character played by Laurence Harvey as an ex-US Marine captured by the enemy during the Korean War and brainwashed into becoming a sleeper assassin, triggered into action years later. It’s all Cold War paranoia, of course, but Operation Paperclip and its various illegal offshoots that contradicted the Nuremberg Code agreed to by the US in the aftermath of the Second World War were all-too real. Long before its elevation to compulsory recreation by the hippies, LSD was a regular drug of choice for such experiments, though the thought of attempting to issue orders to anyone tripping off their tits on Acid does seem like an exceptionally futile exercise.

Whilst the use of Lariam by the British Army pales next to the appalling operations indulged in by the CIA in the 50s, that Lord Dannatt has waited until now to come clean about his reservations is perhaps more indicative of the mindset within the MoD that sent British troops into war-zones ill-quipped and under-funded. If a country asks young men to lay down their lives for it, the least that country can do is to safeguard against that likelihood as best it can. In so many cases, those running the British Army have come up short too many times. And that’s simply not good enough.

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VIVE LA MAMELLE

MarianneViewed as the latest faux-pas by a French politician in the Silly Season’s ongoing Burkini debate, the comment of France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls that the Republic’s Britannia-like national symbol Marianne is a more accurate portrayal of Gallic freedom than an imposed veil because her breasts are bared has ignited another episode of controversy. Marianne ironically tends to be painted or sculpted with her head covered, and though the headgear is the Phrygian cap associated with 1789, a covered head is surely something France’s female Muslim population could relate to. But it is Marianne’s breasts that are the contentious issue here.

Perhaps the most famous artistic interpretation of Marianne is in Eugene Delacroix’s allegorical painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ – and yes, her tits are out for les gars. Painted in 1830, it celebrates the July Revolution of the same year, which saw the overthrow of Charles X. One more revolution eighteen years later saw the forced abdication of his usurper, Louis-Philippe, and Marianne was invoked yet again. A familiar figure on the pre-Euro French coins the Centime and the Franc, Marianne also became something of a pop culture icon in the late twentieth century when the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve were used as models for her.

The bare-breasted version of Marianne was always favoured by radicals; it implied a wave of female emancipation that had relevance in 1789, when women had helped spark the uprising in the first place and were eventually rewarded with progressive legislation unique in Europe. The Napoleonic era saw the erosion of these hard-won civil rights, though Marianne herself remained a regular embodiment of liberated womanhood whenever the revolutionary spirit took hold of the country – as it frequently did throughout the nineteenth century.

The nation that popularised topless sunbathing clearly regards the bare breast in a different light to its old nudge-nudge wink-wink enemy on the other side of the Channel, though the French PM’s opinion has not chimed with some of his countrywomen. Female French historian Mathilde Larrere labelled Monsieur Valls’ comment as ‘moronic’, yet both points of view seem to reflect a wider debate regarding the naked breast that stretches way beyond France. If we put the endless contrasting attitudes towards public breast-feeding to one side, last weekend’s Go Topless Day in New York was a good example of the double standards surrounding that awful word, ‘empowering’.

This event is an annual occurrence staged on the nearest weekend to Women’s Equality Day and there was a parade featuring an abundance of exposed American bosoms. What happened next was utterly unpredictable and incredibly shocking. Lots of fully-clothed men brandishing mobile phones descended upon the parade and took photos and videos, the sick perverts! What on earth did the participants think was going to happen? As is usually the case with zealots, self-righteous conviction is blind to any contradictory opinion and everyone is expected to fall into line. The thought that some men catching sight of tits on display in the middle of the day might actually be turned on by the prospect served to sour the empowerment somewhat. But what is the real difference between baring all on a PC parade and doing likewise on page 3?

A glamour model who goes topless for a living and makes a healthy income through it is regarded as the plaything of wicked male lust, yet go topless for charity or to make some spurious point about exploitation and that is somehow morally superior. Both are down to personal choice, and both will inevitably attract the same male arousal, which doesn’t particular care about the context as long as a pair of boobs is out. It is naive and short-sighted to imagine this will never be a factor, whatever the reason behind the exposure. Marianne’s ample assets are not supposed to represent sexuality, but it’s hard not to envisage anticipatory excitement back in the 60s and 70s when Bardot and Deneuve were announced as models for France’s very own Lady Liberty. And anyone who has seen ‘Les Valseuses’, the glorious 1974 black comedy starring Gerard Depardieu, will realise that some men even get excited when they stumble upon breast-feeding. Fancy that!


GENE WILDER (1933-2016)

WilderThe death of Gene Wilder at the age of 83 yesterday is worth a mention, if only for the string of superlative cinematic comedies Wilder illuminated in a golden period from the late 60s to the late 70s. Rooted in the same great tradition of American Jewish humour as Woody Allen, Larry David and Mel Brooks, Wilder enjoyed his most fruitful on-screen era in collaboration with the latter. His film debut was a cameo in the far-from comedic 1967 drama, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, though he is so funny in the small role of Eugene Grizzard that it was obvious here was a great new talent with plenty of potential. He proved it in Brooks’ ‘The Producers’ the following year, playing Leo Bloom, the neurotic accountant with a Linus-like attachment to a blanket.

Between ‘The Producers’ and the full flowering of his creative partnership with Mel Brooks, he played Willy Wonka in the first movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and also made a memorable appearance as a man in love with a sheep in Woody Allen’s ‘Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)’. Reunited with Brooks, he starred in arguably the director’s two greatest films, ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘Blazing Saddles’, both superb pastiches of two of Hollywood’s most enduring genres, Horror and The Western.

Wilder then formed another creative partnership that spanned four successful films, this time with Richard Pryor, movies that served to transcend Pryor’s cult popularity and turn him into a box-office star. By the early 90s, however, the work dried up and the last twenty years of Wilder’s life were spent absent from the medium that made him, which was a tragic loss for the big screen. I mourn his passing in that he was one of the few actors – Peter Sellers being another – who made me laugh whenever I saw his face; he didn’t even have to say a line, for his impish countenance simply possessed a quality that was imbued with anticipatory laughter on the part of the audience; when he appeared in a movie, you knew he was going to cheer you up, and that’s a very special gift. I can’t pay him a greater compliment than that.

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FIFTY YEARS OF HURT

EscobarAnyone remember the World Cup in Colombia in 1986? If you do, you must have been ingesting a sizeable amount of hallucinogenics at the time, for it never happened. It was certainly scheduled as such following Spain in 1982, but the established pattern of never awarding the event to a country that had previously staged it was finally broken when FIFA opted for Mexico (hosts in 1970) at the eleventh hour. Up to that point, the World Cup tended to alternate between the soil of South America and Europe, the traditional powerhouse continents of world football; the first such tournament had been held in Uruguay, after all.

Having had Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Argentina all host the World Cup, Colombia was the next South American name out of the hat – winning the bid as far back as 1974; but by the time the 1982 tournament had ended, it became apparent that Colombia was in no fit state to take on the challenge four years later. Economic reasons were cited, but there was a hell of a lot more to it than that. The brutal murder of Colombian international Andres Escobar upon his return home from scoring an own-goal at the 1994 World Cup sadly proved FIFA all too right.

Today’s announcement of a ceasefire between the largest rebel forces of the left (FARC) and the Colombian Government could potentially end a conflict that has spanned a staggering 52 years. FARC (an acronym derived from the Spanish spelling of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) formed in 1964 as the paramilitary wing of the Colombian Communist Party and has largely based itself in the plentiful rural areas of the country for the past half-century, springing as it did from an impoverished agricultural community confronted by immense inequalities and suppression of all subversion within Colombian society. However, any hopes that FARC could replicate recent revolutionary events in Cuba at the time of its formation were dashed by the pact between the Colombian Government and wealthy landowners, who had already guaranteed US support against any guerrilla rebellion. Instead, the whole unedifying bloodbath has dragged on and on for five devastating decades.

The history of South and Central America is, with a few exceptions, largely a lesson of post-colonial mismanagement of the most disastrous manner over the last century and-a-half. Back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the various British trading outposts dotted around the globe had yet to morph into overseas territories, the Spanish Empire was at its height, ruling over great swathes of land in the Americas; but by the turn of the nineteenth century, Spain was in terminal decline as a world power, overtaken by Britain and (especially) Napoleonic France. The Peninsular War of 1807-14 was a decisive conflict contributing towards the eventual defeat of Bonaparte, but only Britain emerged from it stronger than it had been before; the strain of the Napoleonic Wars on Spain and Portugal was a precursor of the strain of the Second World War on the UK, resulting in the loss of colonies neither country could afford to govern when in turmoil at home.

The independence of South American countries previously under Spanish and Portuguese rule in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century has parallels with the loss of British colonies in Africa during the mid-to-late twentieth century, and what happened next also has a ring of familiarity to it. The country that became Colombia had, under Spanish rule, been known as the Viceroy of New Granada, a huge colonial possession that also comprised modern-day Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela as well as parts of Brazil, Peru and Guyana. Left to its own devices following Spanish withdrawal in 1819, the future Colombia went through a series of name changes that must have given rise to several headaches for cartographers of the era – the Republic of New Granada, the Granadine Confederation, the United States of Colombia and finally, in 1886, the Republic of Colombia. There was a split with Panama, following the Thousand Days’ War of 1899-1902, when the borders of modern-day Colombia were established, but the constant changing of names reflected a deeper degree of uncertainty in the country as to its identity.

The USA had played a part in the split with Panama, tied-in with the construction of the Panama Canal, and despite a subsequent war with Peru, the new nation of Colombia was largely peaceful until the period of the late 40s and early 50s known as ‘The Violence’, when the country’s two major political parties engaged in a civil war and claimed the lives of over 180,000 people. The cessation of hostilities in the 1960s gave rise to somewhat superficial peace, though various guerrilla groups of both left and right below the surface were forming to take violence onto a new and bloodier level altogether.

The current conflict – though after half-a-century of it, the term ‘historic’ could also be applied – is reputed to boast a death-toll of more than 260,000, so any indications of genuine peace on the horizon are bound to be imbued with a great deal of good-will and optimistic hope on the part of the long-suffering Colombian people. As a continent, South America is oozing untapped potential and possesses the ingredients to eventually emerge from the lengthy shadows cast by drug barons, civil wars, pseudo-Marxist dictators and unhealthy US interference in the same way that Eastern Europe began to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Bloc at the end of the twentieth century. But so much damage has been done since it wrestled itself free from Spanish and Portuguese rule that it could take at least another couple of generations before anything remotely resembling success can be discerned.

In the case of Colombia, a country with a richness of biodiversity that encompasses the Andes, Amazonian rainforests and coastlines on both the Caribbean and the Pacific as well as a healthy ethnic and linguistic mix, one can only hope some kind of stability can be achieved that will help it rise anew from decades of unnecessary bloodshed. Who knows, perhaps it can one day get round to staging the World Cup it was forced to surrender back in 1986. The world is crossing its fingers for a long overdue happy ending.

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MONDAY BLOODY MONDAY

RainIt’s raining outside, so that must mean the Bank Holiday weekend is officially underway. I was never mad keen on a Bank Holiday Monday that fell during the school summer holidays as a kid; it felt like we’d been cheated of a day off, as we were already enjoying six weeks of that. My dad would be at home and took charge of the telly, interrupting the regular BBC1 morning viewing aimed at me and sticking on ITV for coverage of the Roses match between Yorkshire and Lancashire; this broadcast usually opened with a wide shot of an empty cricket ground bathed in a grey sky and drenched in an unwelcome shower. Regular schedules were temporarily on ice, anyway.

The usual regional news programmes were cut in half and the normal Monday children’s line-up made way for ‘Disney Time’ and a highlights compilation of the most recent ‘Blue Peter’ expedition to a foreign field. Venturing outdoors on a Bank Holiday Monday in my childhood predated the advent of the mega-theme park (a small mercy for which I am thankful), so it would generally encompass an excursion to some deathly dull garden centre, which seemed to be the only store open for business on a Bank Holiday back then – well, that and the odd Asian-owned corner shop. The high-street was an abandoned retail graveyard, an extension of the traditional Sunday state of affairs. The country would effectively close down in a way that would be unimaginable today.

The history of Bank Holidays in the UK is somewhat convoluted, with up to 33 saints’ days and other religious festivals observed as holidays by the Bank of England until 1834, when these were dramatically cut to four. The Bank Holidays Act of 1871 specified these four days (in England, Wales and Ireland) would be Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. Christmas Day and Good Friday didn’t fall under this legislation, as they had both been public holidays for centuries. St Patrick’s Day was made an Ireland-only holiday in 1903, whereas New Year’s Day wasn’t included as a holiday in England and Wales until as late as 1974 – which must have made English and Welsh workplaces on January 1 a repository for the walking wounded before then. The Scots, on the other hand, made their own rules and regulations regarding public holidays.

A century on from the first legislation, a further act in 1971 regulated Bank Holidays, making a few alterations that have largely lasted to the present day. August Bank Holiday was shifted from the beginning of the month to the end, the old Whit Monday was superseded by Spring Bank (the last Monday in May), and May Day (the first Monday in May) joined the list in England and Wales as of 1978. St Andrew’s Day (falling at the end of November) has subsequently become a Bank Holiday in Scotland, though neither patron saints of England or Wales have yet to be gifted with their own.

As was the case with so many aspects of British life in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Bank Holidays were also established throughout the Empire. As each colony gained independence from the Mother Country, these Bank Holidays were retained in Commonwealth countries but added to with other public holidays reflective of the individual nation’s culture. In fact, most of the former colonies have far more public holidays than the UK can boast; we have no Independence Day, for obvious reasons, but even significant military victories or the birthdays of historical national figures aren’t observed here in ways they are abroad, though there are occasional exceptions to the rule. Bar extra Bank Holidays for royal events such as jubilees or weddings, however, these tend to involve rearranging an existing Bank Holiday, as when May Day was shifted to mark the 50th anniversary of VE Day in 1995.

The term Bank Holiday itself is such a British cultural institution that our most British of bands, Blur, even named one of the more frenetic tracks on their seminal ‘Parklife’ album after it, providing their US record company with another excuse as to why the LP would make no sense across the pond. The song paints a portrait of rather desperate excess, peppered with people determined to enjoy the day off work whatever the weather, a sensation familiar to anyone who grew up in this country, anyone who probably possesses more memories of damp, drizzly Bank Holiday Mondays than ones where the sun shone all day long. And we’re back to the Roses match again.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, this weekend marks the last Bank Holiday of the year; Scotland has its celebration of St Andrew in November, and then (with the exception of Christmas and New Year) there’s nothing that’s nationwide again until Good Friday. For some, Bank Holidays are a welcome breather; for others, they’re an inconvenience. But at least most of the shops are open now, should we run out of milk, bread, tampons or condoms; and our viewing habits are no longer governed by the broadcasters should our personal tastes not stretch to whatever crappy family film they stick on in the middle of the afternoon or indeed the Roses match – which is probably the province of the pay-per-view media moguls now, anyway. So, enjoy yourself. You have to. It’s the law.

© The Editor

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MAKING PLANS FOR NIGEL

FarageWhere does one go once a lifetime’s ambition has been achieved? A singer who finally scores a No.1 single after years of trying, an Olympian who finally grabs gold following endless failures, a footballer who finally gets his hands on a cup winner’s medal, an actor who finally earns an Oscar – well, a career as a TV talking head might await, forever reliving that one former glory on nostalgia shows, eternally associated with a solitary victory in the public consciousness. It’s a living.

Alas, poor Nigel. Mr Farage saw his long-held dream realised when the UK voted to exit the European Union a couple of months ago, a dream few ever really imagined would come true when he embarked upon his career as an alternative politician with one fixed aim in mind several years ago. It took a good decade or so before the majority of the country came round to his way of thinking, but he managed a remarkable moment of synchronisation with public opinion in June, aided and abetted by an anti-EU tabloid press and a disgruntled mass who took a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to deliver a devastating bloody nose to the smug cosmopolitan countenance of a globalised elite that had shit on them from a great height for the best part of two decades.

So, now what? Resigning as UKIP leader for the second time in twelve months after Brexit, Farage took a month off and returned with an unbecoming moustache that provoked such ridicule on social media that it was hastily erased from the profile in record time. His party was left to stagger on without its sole selling point, desperately searching for available replacement leaders by delving in the booby-prize bag for the kind of people you’d studiously avoid at a social gathering, the kind of people in possession of prickly five o’clock shadows and slobbering lips you wouldn’t want within half-a-mile of your genitals.

Nige could continue to be the contentious rent-a-gob panellist on ‘Question Time’ if he so wished, but he has decided to take time out from his media career by giving a leg-up to Donald Trump, seemingly sighting kinship with the blustering billionaire’s efforts to claim temporary ownership of the White House. Addressing probably a far larger (and far more fanatical) audience than he has ever addressed before, Farage extolling the virtues of playing the political outsider to the converted – a converted with no real idea as to who he was – remains one of the most dispiriting sights to have ‘gone viral’ this week, and at the height of a very silly Silly Season to boot.

Whatever limited respect was afforded Farage in the wake of Brexit – and I mean limited – has been totally blown out of the water by his endorsement of Trump. Sharing a stage with a man whose cynical exploitation of disaffected voters makes Farage’s ill-advised ‘immigrants’ billboard resemble an 80s recruitment ad for the GLC is a bad move in anyone’s book. His error in allying himself with someone he mistakenly imagines is somehow representing the great political outsider that the western world has turned to after rejecting the ruling class of the last couple of decades raises fresh questions about his own personal judgement and makes him look like a character in search of a plot now that everything he set out to achieve has been achieved.

There’s no doubting the fact that there is a vast pool of previously-untapped frustration with our elected representatives out there; but how that is utilised by the renegade politician all-too often steers the electorate down unsavoury avenues of both ideological extremes – the neo-Trotskyite throwback of the Corbynistas over here or the gun-crazy, armchair redneck rhetoric over there. So-called outsiders are as adept at manipulating dissatisfaction with the old order as the old order itself, telling the dissatisfied what they want to hear without offering them a genuine alternative that challenges their prejudices. It’s an echo chamber of self-destructive dead-ends that will only ultimately benefit the promoted prophet, yet the fact that the prophet in question is portrayed as the Antichrist to the opposition is deemed sufficient to ensure the vote of the man or woman left behind by the perceived enemy who let them down before. It’s the political equivalent of a Daily Mail editorial, confirming every belief held by the reader and never once suggesting that vehement hatred of one political system is not necessarily enough in itself to bring about change that can improve the lives of all. There has to be more to it than that, but none of these rebel figureheads have a dream; they simply sell the electorate’s nightmares back to them.

Nigel Farage was a gift to satirists, cartoonists and impressionists after years of being subjected to interchangeable identikit Westminster androids straight off the Spad production line, a unique personality of a kind that catches the public imagination by virtue of his contrast with the mainstream produce, a Marmite man loved and loathed in equal measure. There have been past precedents, from Enoch Powell and Jeremy Thorpe to Sir Gerald Nabarro and Dennis Skinner, but the gradual eradication of these political ‘broken biscuits’ by the major parties helped to emphasise Farage’s uniqueness in an arena increasingly devoid of personality.

Now that Farage’s mission has been completed, however – and without him even having claimed a constituency, lest we forget (which perhaps makes his achievement even more astonishing) – what next for the man with a pint and a fag for every honest Englishman? Chat show, reality show, panel show – take your pick; but Donald Trump? I think not. In many respects, the Brexit vote was perhaps the worst thing that could ever have happened to Nige; it’s left him without his designated role in British public life. Had it gone the other way, he could have carried on forever stating the case for rejecting Brussels; yet seeing him reduced to acting as plucky little cheerleader for Trump was his own version of the Bush/Blair poodle parade. Time to hire a new PR firm, Nigel.

© The Editor

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BATHING BEAUTY

VictorianA society that imposes a dress code upon its citizens would be one we’d probably regard as far from democratic. The spectre of Peter the Great, the reforming early eighteenth century Tsar, hovers above sartorial legislation, banning the beard in order to drag his medieval nation closer in line with the Western Europe he was exposed to on his travels; and autocratic feudal Tsarist Russia would hardly constitute a democracy in anyone’s books.

Dress is so subjective that personal opinion could only ever render attempts to introduce laws censoring a particular item of clothing utterly biased. I imagine it’s easier to do so today than it would have been, say, forty years ago in that there is now a greater public consensus on dress; there remain tribal factions, but the so-called ‘alternative’ is as conservative in its mindset as the modest apparel of the masses, with anyone not adhering to the tattoo & piercing uniform mocked behind their backs. It goes without saying that there have always been a small and select few bucking every trend, but the gauntlet they have to run as a consequence is limited to insults on the street and, on occasions, the fist and feet of the mob. The law may not approve, but it does not effectively censure.

The images that appeared this week of armed policemen forcing a woman to disrobe on a French beach took sartorial legislation to a new level, however. Any dress code dictated by religion as opposed to State presents the State with a problem, particularly a secular State like France. For a country once so entwined with the Church of Rome, France post-1789 has consciously taken a step back from the severest edicts of Catholicism and perhaps earned its reputation as a far more easier-going and less uptight nation than its old enemy across the Channel. The convulsions of the Revolution for the traditional State religion were even more traumatic than the Reformation had been here, and Church and State were eventually formally separated in 1905. Secularism may be a choice in the UK, but in France it’s practically State policy. In order to maintain this, a faith with such strong visual insignias as Islam has given the laissez-faire attitude France revels in a genuine challenge. And one could argue France has made a bit of a mess of the whole business.

Personally, I find tracksuit bottoms or crop-tops far more offensive than the Burqa, but we’re back to subjective opinion again. The French Government thought differently when it decided to ban the Burqa five years ago.

Whenever ‘security’ is employed as a reason for any new law that concerns the individual rather than an institution, my suspicious hackles are raised, and France came to the conclusion that the face being covered in the name of religion constituted a security risk. Whilst naturally viewed as a law specifically relating to Muslim headgear primarily worn by women, this also extends to anyone whose face is covered in a public place – though obviously not on a motorcycle. Breaking the law can result in a fine and the threat of ‘Citizenship Education’ (how very Orwellian), and if anyone is found guilty of forcing another to cover their face against their will, a prison sentence of twelve months is on the cards.

Interestingly, this law came into being long before the Islamic terrorist attacks that have struck France over the past year or so, thus proving that exposing the faces of Muslim women in public since 2011 clearly worked as a security measure to prevent such acts. In the wake of recent events, France couldn’t really add to a ban that predated them, though that obnoxious, corrupt midget Nicolas Sarkozy has been stirring it again in his attempt to return to public office, exploiting the understandable paranoia surrounding Islam in a way that allies him with the likes of Marine Le Pen. In response to external pressures, the government of incumbent and under-fire President Francois Hollande has raised no objections to the controversial bans of the so-called Burkini by several French holiday resorts, resulting in this week’s images of police enforcing the ban by ensuring women wearing it remove it.

Ironically, a glance at photographs of late nineteenth and early twentieth century female bathing suits shows a distinct aesthetic connection between those and the Burkini. If a woman’s modesty was considered worthy of preserving on the beach a hundred years ago, why should a woman have to have everything on display in 2016? The problem with the Burkini is its close association with Islamic dress, which is evidently a delicate issue in France today, especially considering that Nice, one of the country’s top seaside resorts, suffered the most recent Islamic-related terrorist atrocity.

However, imposing a ban on an item of clothing that doesn’t even hide the face and therefore doesn’t contradict the Burqa ban of 2011, seems a rather ridiculous way to respond to a State of Emergency and appears even more ridiculous when one compares the Burkini to the virtually identical wetsuits worn by some members of the French Olympic swimming squad in Rio this summer. Context is apparently everything where clothing in France is concerned. And here’s me, a repressed Englishman, thinking the French, who gave the world Brigitte Bardot, were so much more laidback than that.

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NIGHT SCHOOL

TeacherIn retrospect, Miss Pitts wasn’t exactly a bubbling cauldron of constrained and suppressed sexual tension; she wasn’t even – with respect – someone I’d look at twice today. But to a school containing many a sweaty, spotty boy in the throes of nascent pubescent lust, she was an object of desire, a real woman amongst girls. This was a desire that culminated in an ad-hoc end-of-term play in which a scene she participated in saw her exploit her object status by wrapping the flesh of her nether regions in a deliberately teasing slit-skirt that conformed to the laws of gravity when it fell to the ground as she fought off a pretend attacker, gifting the male members of the audience a glimpse of fully-developed female thigh. The response was a resounding cheer and, I suspect, a wave of amateur erections.

At that age, any female teacher – however retrospectively unattractive – will suffice in the absence of anything else. And I would imagine the same applies for the girls re the male employees of such an establishment; at that age, your imaginative libido will take anything it can get.

Miss Pitts had been the girls’ games teacher at my middle-school, which was mixed. At my all-boys high-school, there were two female teachers I remember. Both became the focus of fantasies that never crossed the line into reality; graffiti on toilet walls and in exercise books were as far as these primitive fantasies went, sketched by boys with no real idea as to what a physical encounter genuinely entailed. There was no hardcore internet porn to provide pointers; big brother’s hidden stash of ‘lorry drivers’ magazines’ was the sole source material. Not that this prevented the tall tales of elder boys as to what had happened one quiet evening during detention, of course. Embellished bullshit abounded where the female teachers were concerned, though pop culture had already capitalised on this. One thinks of the line from ‘Maggie May’ by Rod Stewart, which hints at the seduction of a youngster by an older woman – ‘It’s late September/and I really should be back at school’.

Somebody who did cross the line that nobody I was at school with crossed has this week been rewarded a record £4 million (or whatever the US equivalent currently stands at) and is, by his own dubious admission, ‘scarred for life’ by the experience. The fact that the teacher in question became pregnant by her pupil helped complicate matters. One could instinctively blame him for not wearing a condom, but – as the senior party – one should really blame her for not being on the pill. Whoever is ultimately responsible, the outcome of one pupil who genuinely got what every schoolboy yearns for was an unexpected baby, and that takes the affair onto another level altogether.

This case climaxed in a Californian courtroom and resulted in the record-breaking payout for the ‘traumatised’ boy while his seducer can look forward to twelve months behind bars and a lifetime on the American sex offenders’ register. Both parties were culpable, but a law that fails to take into account that some are older than others when a particular legal age is within a whisker heaps the majority of the responsibility on the shoulders of the elder participant. The pernicious US virus of serial litigation has already crossed the Atlantic, so there’s no point in adopting a superior attitude where our American cousins are concerned. The same outcome would probably happen here now; and that’s nothing to celebrate.

31-year-old Laura Whitehurst, who was described in characteristically subtle fashion by the Daily Mirror as ‘sex-crazed’, faced a potential sentence of 29 years, which was reduced by 28 after she did a deal by admitting six counts. Her momentary ‘other half’ (the scarred-for-life party) will receive his payout from his local education authority, who he sued for being negligent and complicit in his affair with Ms Whitehurst. He had claimed other teachers at the school knew about his ‘abuse’, but turned a blind eye. It’s hard not to envisage the vested interests of other parties after the event – specifically parents and law firms – and come to the conclusion that a boy who was 16 at the beginning of his romance with his teacher has repaid the woman who provided him with the desired extracurricular education in a pretty shitty fashion.

As soon as the case went to trial, the oh-so familiar factor of ‘other victims coming forward’ reared its ugly head, especially when the whiff of filthy lucre was in the air. Two former pupils hedged their bets by claiming similar ABUSE on the part of Ms Whitehurst, one of whom alleged he’d received a blowjob from her in the classroom whilst he was at the tender age of 14. By contrast, the boy who took the case to court was a couple of years older at the time his after-school lessons with Ms Whitehurst began – old enough to be recruited by the Armed Forces and old enough to earn his living.

We’ve had similar cases here over the past couple of years, and it’s time a line was drawn between the playground patroller who lives by the maxim that a finger of fudge is just enough to give the kids a treat and the older woman (or man) who responds to the hormonal approaches of a teenager by giving them what they want. Neither is morally ‘right’, but there are distinct differences between the two that the law needs to recognise, and fast. Otherwise, this farcical state of affairs can only get worse – or better, if you’re working for a law firm that stands to benefit. But I’m guessing most people reading this don’t.

© The Editor

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THE PEOPLE’S FRIEND

Andy CappBilly Connolly once observed that, regardless of some within it purporting to be ‘at one with the People’, showbiz wasn’t real life; if it was then a joiner fixing a table would be top of the bill at the London Palladium. I remembered this quote (which, alas, I’m forced to paraphrase) when a music press rumour in the early 1990s claimed that a member of Scouse ‘baggy’ band The Farm had hired a less-affluent friend’s council flat for an interview with a London journalist, in order to pass it off as his own and therefore maintain their contrived image as being ‘the People’s band’. Regardless of their presumed dole-queue origins, such tactics when a degree of commercial success has been achieved are as crass and phony as David Cameron pretending to enjoy a pasty.

Which brings us nicely to our old pal and Keeper of the Socialist Flame, Mr Corbyn. I suppose by being incapable of resisting the urge to criticise him again means I’m part of the media conspiracy with its avowed mission to ‘get’ Jeremy, but he does set himself up for it, alas. How we – The People – cheered last week when Jezza was pictured by a wide-eyed volunteer member of his PR team apparently sat on the floor of a jam-packed, crowded commuter train, suffering for our sins, showing solidarity with the workers by spurning a private first-class compartment and highlighting the plight of passengers deprived of seats on our overcrowded and over-expensive rail network. What a guy! He’s One of Us!

Only, the owner of the train in question, Virgin, today revealed that CCTV footage from Corbyn’s carriage tells a rather different story. Now, of course, Virgin is the company of that Thatcherite Blairite capitalist cheerleader, Richard bloody Branson, who’s clearly part of the conspiracy himself; but we’ll overlook that fact for the moment. Apparently, what the CCTV footage reveals contradicts Corbyn’s theatrical martyr act by showing him and his posse strolling past vacant and unreserved seats in order to find a suitably uncomfortable corner to capture Jezza’s empathetic gesture for commuters/potential voters.

Having done his duty, the director of this fantasy flick yelled ‘cut’, after which Jeremy and gang easily located some comfy chairs to recline in for a good couple of hours before the train arrived at its destination, their work done. What the media – AKA the Guardian – and Jezza’s social media disciples got was precisely what Corbyn’s puppet-masters wanted them to get; and, naturally, they fell for it. The fact that evidence has emerged that proves the whole incident was a choreographed stunt of a kind that all politicians – yes, even St Jeremy – indulge in won’t be accepted, however. It’ll be written off as just another attempt by the establishment elite to blacken Corbyn’s character. Basically, a photo could appear on the front of the Morning Star showing Jezza sharing a bottle of the most astronomically-priced plonk on the market with Prince Charles on board Sir Philip Green’s yacht and they’d still be in denial.

Once an image has been created and circulated, it can be hard to live up to, though that doesn’t prevent the myth-makers behind the scenes doing their damndest to maintain the illusion. Dusty Springfield’s sexuality was always suspected though publicly denied; in the 60s, her team would arrange for her to be photographed at events arm-in-arm with clean-cut and hunky male pop star Eden Kane, complete with ‘are they or aren’t they getting engaged’ gossip drip-fed to the journos present.

The Hollywood publicity machine was in permanent overdrive doing likewise for Rock Hudson at a time when he was so deep in the closet that he practically had one foot in Narnia. In less enlightened eras, such subterfuge was understandable, but now that cynicism accompanies every step a politician takes, who is really surprised at the exposure of Jezza’s cheap shot at playing One of the People? Corbyn’s Svengali Squad knew the billions who’ve supposedly signed-up to Team Jeremy in the last few months would buy it because it was what they wanted to believe, but the general public?

The detachment between People and the person in the spotlight begins the moment the spotlight falls upon them. Corbyn can take to a stage and receive the rapturous reception from his acolytes that was once the preserve of rock stars; none of his acolytes can do likewise, so there’s an instant divide between him and them straight away. Director Richard Lester cleverly played upon this in the Beatles’ film ‘Help!’, when the Fab Four are observed by a couple of housewives heading for their respective front doors in the homes situated next to each other on the same red-bricked terrace; once said housewives have commented how nice it is that John, Paul, George and Ringo haven’t left their working-class roots behind, we see the view from the other side of those four doors and discover they are merely a facade and it’s actually one huge house with four doors side-by-side.

Lester and The Beatles knew it was a fallacy to pretend any member of the band would still be travelling on public transport or popping down to the local corner shop for a packet of fags without being bothered by the real People. And if they knew that fifty years ago, why doesn’t Jeremy Corbyn now?

© The Editor

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PROFIT AND FAITH

Euston StationHistory was made at the International Criminal Court in The Hague today when a man was found guilty of Cultural Destruction. His name was Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi and he was charged with leading the Radical Islamist group that destroyed invaluable antiquities in a mosque and numerous mausoleums at a World Heritage site in Timbuktu four years ago. Some of the artefacts he destroyed covered subjects such as astronomy and were exquisite examples of Islam’s cultural flowering, an age Islamic Fundamentalists regard as a heretical aberration, so determined are they to eradicate any evidence that contradicts their own twisted take on their chosen faith as they present that to both Believers and Infidels alike as the only incarnation of Islam.

The actions of the thugs Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi led mirror those of endless others terrorising the Middle East and parts of Africa in the present day, though they also mirror the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism that took place within Christianity five-hundred years ago, when similarly ‘idolatrous’ images were brutally vandalised by the philistine foot-soldiers of sovereigns such as our very own Edward VI. Unusually, today’s accused vandal apologised for his actions and entered a guilty plea, though this won’t save him from an expected sentence of around 30 years.

Anyone who saw the appalling videos documenting the barbarians of ISIS when they rampaged through the glorious site of Nimrud in Iraq last year will feel little sympathy for Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi when he receives his sentence later this week. The discredited practice of nineteenth and twentieth century archaeologists shipping buried treasure from such sites to European museums now seems quite benevolent in the light of more recent acts of vandalism on the artefacts they left behind, preserving what would otherwise be lost forever when so many of these locations are situated in some of the world’s most perilous trouble-spots. The tumultuous events in Egypt over the past five years have even placed that nation’s prized possessions in danger, so any unlicensed ‘theft’ on the part of western archaeologists can appear considerably less like the colonial burglary that the ignorant and ill-educated are prone to pointing the finger at.

For the ICC to stage such a trial as the one that climaxed with the guilty verdict today is a positive development, a long-overdue recognition that the destruction of the planet’s cultural heritage is as criminal as all the other wanton destruction perpetuated by terrorist groups. Mind you, were those responsible for the similarly senseless erasure of architectural jewels in this country to be consigned the dock, The Hague wouldn’t be able to squeeze in any war criminals due to the town-planners and architects clogging up the courtroom. Their vandalism may be motivated by profit and greed rather than religious fanaticism, but the damage they leave in their wake is no less destructive.

What of men like Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his Transport Secretary Ernest Marples, who ignored all schemes and suggestions to save London’s Euston Arch in the early 60s, when that landmark monument to the pioneering power of Britain’s nineteenth century railways was dismantled and discarded in favour of a faceless and forgettable facade for the new-look Euston Station? What of Bolton Corporation, who gave the green light to raise the superb Victorian Gothic majesty of St Saviour’s church to the ground in the 70s, an act of desecration that provoked one of architectural critic Ian Nairn’s most impassioned critiques when he stood in the ruins during one of his memorable BBC TV films of the era? Reading Nairn’s London guidebook (published in 1966), I became aware of the sheer volume of churches Christopher Wren built in the City of London, and while the Blitz was to blame of the disappearance of so many, ‘progress’ was equally responsible for finishing off what the Luftwaffe failed to do.

While there is a valid argument for not preserving every single building simply because it’s old, there is a fine line between unnecessary demolition and necessary redevelopment. It was only after the Euston Arch had been torn down, for example, that it was discovered that the new Euston Station would have had the space to simply relocate the monument elsewhere after all. Too late, alas – although there is an ongoing campaign to resurrect one of the capital’s great lost architectural achievements, thanks in part to the tireless investigations to locate the stones of the original monument by TV historian Dan Cruickshank.

We like to think that the worst of the demolition in the UK largely took place in the 60s and 70s, as though we’re somehow superior to our predecessors in recognising commercial interests over aesthetic ones when we see them today; but the sneaky tricks employed by the planners and developers in the twenty-first century are merely more cunning and less blatant than those employed in the twentieth, and they don’t need a Holy Book to justify their vandalism when it rips the heart out of a city centre. If only Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi had proposed replacing Timbuktu’s antiquities with a glass complex incorporating restaurants, cinemas, cafes, shops, bistros and various other ‘leisure facilities’, he might not now be looking at three decades behind bars.

© The Editor

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THINK OF A NUMBER

TowerWhen the world was a far bigger (not to say more mysterious) place than it is today, information on a subject that didn’t receive mass media coverage was often acquired from some dusty volume in the local library – if you were lucky. Some subjects, it appeared, remained uncovered and unnoticed. Take what could be found on the outer limits of the wireless. Before the colonisation of the family home by FM units incorporated into swanky hi-fi sound systems, the humble portable radio had several options at the flick of a switch that FM ultimately downgraded.

There was medium-wave, which was the option of the masses – home to all four national BBC radio stations, not to mention the local BBC ones, wherever you happened to be in the country, and the ILR alternative. There was long-wave, primarily the choice of the cricket devotee tuning into ‘Test Match Special’, as well as providing the BBC with split slots when glamorous new FM began to reserve the popular programmes for itself. And then there was the enigmatic poor relation, shortwave. I was always intrigued by shortwave because its presence on the airwaves made no sense. Medium-wave, long-wave and FM schedules were listed in the Radio Times – nothing on shortwave was. It seemed to be a repository for the odd, the eccentric and the quirky; and, needless to say, I found it fascinating.

I remember early family holidays on the Continent, furtively moving the dial around the radio that had come along for the ride, trying to pick up Radio 1 or anything broadcasting in English; I usually located the World Service at various times, but it was prone to drifting in and out of hearing as though the transmitter was fixed to a pendulum. The snap, crackle and pop of the reception, the atmospheric SOS of the Morse code messages that could be discerned in the distance, and the strange stew of foreign tongues that babbled for a handful of seconds before disappearing again created a uniquely alluring and anarchic audio mosaic that seemingly had no structure whatsoever. Even when music was stumbled upon, it was usually in French or German and had more than a touch of the Eurovision about it.

Those wonderful old radios had the names of stations printed in a little panel on the front, where turning the dial moved what resembled the clapometer from ‘Opportunity Knocks’, gliding in and out of the stations listed without them ever actually being situated where the panel claimed. Nevertheless, the names themselves were in possession of a curious, archaic exotic quality that is utterly redundant today. FM rendered them redundant to a degree, and relegated the old family radio to my bedroom, where I had free rein to explore the parallel universe of shortwave. It was during this period that I began to come across some sounds that were disturbingly weird even by shortwave standards.

I wasn’t to know then that shortwave’s ability to broadcast across far greater distances than any other radio frequencies meant that I was picking up stuff from thousands of miles away, though what sounded to me like distorted Russian voices certainly suggested I was hearing something emanating from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. I began to notice these voices regularly, usually in the early evening; sometimes they sounded more Chinese than Russian, but always they had a detached and chilly element to them that evoked all kinds of spy movie clichés, particularly as the Cold War was still in full swing. They were often infiltrated by what my imagination pictured as flying radioactive jellyfish falling from the sky and landing on the earth’s surface – well that was the image that entered my head whenever the voices were interrupted by an alien sound I had no reference point for. On other occasions, what I can only describe as Tom & Jerry incidental music being performed by a Krautrock band would break up the voices. At the time, I had no idea I was listening to ‘Jamming’; but at the time I had no idea what I was listening to at all.

The voices were almost robotic; even if I’d been able to speak the lingo, I suspect I’d have struggled to decipher what was being said. One thing I could make out, however, was that numbers were being recited and repeated with unwavering monotony night-after-night. I thought I was the only person on the planet tuning into this bizarre medley of spoken word gibberish, and though I often recorded some of it onto a cassette, I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing likewise.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I now know I most certainly wasn’t alone. Thanks to the internet, I discovered the sounds I’d been tuning into were unofficially recognised as Numbers Stations, the means by which secret service agencies communicated with their spies in the field behind enemy lines. No government has ever publicly admitted they exist, but there is now a plethora of information and background out there on this clandestine phenomenon. And while many of the old ones have subsequently vanished from the airwaves, an outfit called The Conet Project have released several CDs of recordings over the last ten-fifteen years, many of which are far creepier than anything I heard when I used to tune in.

If some of us not involved in the spying game have just cause to sometimes suspect we’re being monitored by anonymous nosy parkers, the Numbers Stations can be viewed as symbolic of a more innocent age, an age when only those operating in an arena one entered into with full knowledge of its dangers could expect to be exposed to the all-seeing eye of the secret state.

© The Editor

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