supermarketA story related to me yesterday proved something of a belated realisation of how choice – that buzzword so beloved of the Thatcherite mindset – can actually kill competition rather than encourage it, narrowing the field as opposed to widening it. Supermarket staff collected the day’s newspapers into a bundle, ready for return to the distributor, and commented upon the fact that not a single copy had been sold all day. Now, one could view this as yet another sign of how Fleet Street’s physical produce is increasingly redundant in the face of online news-surfing, especially when a rapidly dominant generation have grown-up without the daily paper as part of the household furniture; or one could view it as a telling comment on the paucity of good, authoritative and expert journalism in an industry that has pensioned off its veteran scribes in favour of zero-hour interns who source their scoops from websites; or one could even suggest it was simply a quiet news day, wherein tiresome scaremongering over Brexit or freak weather conditions or the Duchess of Cambridge’s new dress just weren’t intriguing enough headlines to warrant a purchase.

However, perhaps context played its part as well. The supermarket as an emporium of everything can subconsciously place every item on the same uninspiring level, so that a newspaper is no more essential or important than a can of alcohol-free lager or a dishcloth or a Pot Noodle – all mass-produced packaged products on display in an indistinguishable parade of mediocrity. The illusion given – and one that was often regularly noted by those raised in Eastern Bloc Communist countries of old when they first shopped in the West – is a dazzling selection of choice that is done with the customer in mind. Every item is available in half-a-dozen different brands, for one thing. But it only takes a few cursory trips up and down the aisles for one’s senses to be battered into choice overload, so that each brand actually blurs into the next and the overall effect is counterproductive for the manufacturers.

The first supermarkets I remember were the old-school sort – Hillards, Fine Fair, Safeway – small, proto-convenience stores that essentially specialised in tinned food. If you wanted a newspaper, magazine or comic, you had to go to the newsagents; if you wanted to read something more substantial, you had to go to a bookshop; if you wanted something to listen to, you had to go to a record shop; if you wanted something to wear, you had to go to a department store; if you wanted booze, you had to go to the off-license; and if you wanted a pint of milk, you had to wait till the milkman deposited one on your doorstep in the morning.

By the 1970s, television advertising and the supermarket were established enough fixtures for a generation to have risen with precious little knowledge that their pre-eminence within the culture of the country was a relatively new development. A clear sign that the supermarket was going from strength-to-strength came when the high-street was regarded as an unfit environment for containing the ambition of newcomers to the brand, such as Asda, a company originating in Leeds. In the early 70s, Asda began to open a string of huge superstores or ‘hypermarkets’ away from the cramped clutter of the high-street and geographically isolated from the competition. Just as the high-street supermarkets had undercut the corner-shop, the new superstores undercut the high-street supermarkets by offering an even greater range of goods at even cheaper prices. The ‘hyper’ prefix to these awesome retail monoliths came from the fact that they combined the traditional food-based stock of the supermarket with the wider selection of a department store, creating venues that housed all of the average shopper’s needs – needs that had always necessitated a trip to numerous different shops in the past – within the confines of one huge multi-purpose establishment. They were effectively a king-size corner-shop.

Whereas shopping had once been a daily tour of the high-street for the housewife, the social changes that had taken place within British society in the 60s and 70s had spawned the need for a new kind of shopping that catered for these changes. The superstores being erected on out-of-town land some distance from the high-street meant many were only accessible by car, and as most cars were very much boy’s toys at the time, hubby’s participation was required. Thus was born the weekly family shop. A full week’s worth of shopping couldn’t be carted home on the bus in a couple of carrier bags as the daily shop had, so a car was necessary to transport the amount of goods back to where they could be consumed.

It took a while for the arrival of the British hypermarket to seriously damage the high-street; even in the 70s, car ownership was still relatively small, and those lower down the social scale remained dependent on a shopping trip that could be undertaken on foot or by public transport. For the time being, high-street supermarket chains retained their place at the heart of the community, the place they had stolen from the corner-shop. The deregulation that went hand-in-hand with privatisation in the second and third Thatcher Governments, however, had a beneficial effect on the high-street supermarkets in that it enabled them to remake and remodel themselves as small-scale versions of the hypermarkets, expanding the range of choice available so that even pedestrians or users of public transport could theoretically purchase the same variety of goods as the motorist.

What this sea-change in choice did for specialist shops that previously had a monopoly on goods that had been unavailable in accessible-on-foot supermarkets was nothing short of disastrous. There is one remaining newsagent in my neighbourhood, whereas I can list perhaps half-a-dozen supermarkets off the top of my head – everything from Proles paradise Aldi to the Snob’s retail Nirvana, Waitrose. And I cannot remember when I last saw a pint of milk on a doorstep.

By contrast with the friendly, chatty ambience of the sole surviving newsagents I use, the supermarkets I know have an impersonal, disorientating effect on me; standing in line for the check-out whilst a pensioner dithers over her lottery tickets can end up being an existential exercise in pondering the futility of life, the universe and everything; and while I appreciate that could just be me, I surely can’t be alone? The supermarkets are now so huge and so powerful that they can not only threaten dairy farmers with bankruptcy by demanding their produce be sold at such a low price that profit is minimal; they also contribute to the overall homogenisation of the physical shopping experience and minimise the opportunity to enjoy the personal touch that the specialist shop can still give the customer if they’re allowed to keep trading. But I realise the masses like the convenience; and if it’s convenient for them, it’s convenient for everyone. That’s choice.

© The Editor


coltraneWell, it was only a matter of time in a British TV landscape devoted to revivals, retreads and rehashes; and if it had to be any television channel dramatising the facts of a project so stooped in fiction as Operation It Could Be Youtree, then one would naturally imagine it had to be ITV. After all, ITV essentially sponsored the whole witch-hunt from day one, what with Essex’s answer to Matthew Hopkins, Mark Williams-Thomas, and the tabloid sensationalism of his Jimmy Savile exposé in 2012 kick-starting a free-for-all that has ruined endless lives, careers and individuals unfortunate enough to have made a mark in public life prior to the revisionist’s paradise of the twenty-first century. However, the baton of shame has been passed on to Channel 4, that one-time home of radical and innovative television and now the channel that brings us property porn, poverty porn and naked dating shows.

Robbie Coltrane, the beached Caledonian whale whose serious acting career stalled after the end of ‘Cracker’ in the 1990s (and who has subsequently been reduced to those tedious travelogue showcases for 80s has-beens that ITV specialises in), is to play a beloved celebrity targeted by a Yewtree-style Historical Sex Crimes squad in a new C4 ‘drama’ titled ‘National Treasure’ this coming week. In order to hedge their bets, C4 have even recruited genuine National Treasure Julie Walters to play ‘the wife’; Judi Dench must have been otherwise engaged when the time for casting came around.

Plugging the programme he naturally hopes will salvage his dormant thespian ambitions, Coltrane has inserted the Savile caveat into the interview promoting the series in the current issue of the Radio Times, stressing the character he plays is in no way based upon Sir Jim. It’s merely the latest missive from the publicity circuit Coltrane has been on for the past couple of weeks, and photos released to the press that unnervingly recreate the images we’ve become sadly familiar with since 2012 must bring back such happy memories for the families of Dave Lee Travis and all those other ‘perverts hiding in plain sight’.

Echoing convenient sentiments previously uttered by another face from the past struggling to re-establish his ‘rebel’ credentials – John Lydon – Coltrane declares ‘Everyone knew Jimmy Savile was a creep. Everyone. I never met him but you’d watch him and you’d feel your skin crawl.’ Indeed – the millions who tuned into ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ every week in the 70s, 80s and 90s felt exactly the same back in the day whenever they set eyes upon that ‘wrong ‘un’, didn’t they, Robbie, which would explain why they kept tuning in. How it pays to be wise after the event.

In many respects, Robbie Coltrane is the perfect choice to play a fictitious figure whose past comes under present scrutiny in the drama; after all, he was a prominent member of the Alternative Comedy generation, those post-punk radicals whose slide into middle-aged respectability (and the establishment honours that come with it) has been utterly seamless. These early 80s undergraduates had a particular grudge against the working-class showbiz heroes of the 60s and 70s, easy targets for mock-satire as their envy of their targets’ achievements eventually led them all the way to writing appalling jukebox musicals based on the music of notable fellow radicals, Queen, on one hand, and relishing the opportunity to condemn them anew via Yewtree on the other.

It pays to remember that, whilst newspaper columnists from Hitchens to Littlejohn can today question the veracity of accusations levelled against personalities they themselves admire and revere, such voices were thin on the ground three or four years back. In the frenzied Yewtree cauldron of 2012/13/14, only thick-skinned brave bloggers dared to question the consensus during the height of the bonfire of the seventies, and they were written-off as crackpot obsessives for their troubles.

Even when the first few household names tentatively raised their heads above the parapet a couple of years ago – when, tellingly, it took the arrest of respectable broadcasters such as Paul Gambaccini to provoke them into action – it remained an unwritten rule that they had to distance themselves from Savile sympathies as they sprung to the defence of their showbiz buddies. Having been so successfully re-educated as to the ‘truth’ of the deceased eccentric charity fundraiser, the public would clearly have to be reminded that any accusation would not necessarily place the accused in the same sewer of filth as Savile. ‘Of course Jimmy Savile was an appalling human being, but…’ went the script recited ad infinitum by the fearless defenders of those caught in the net that the Met had widened.

‘National Treasure’ doesn’t come with the ‘Based on a true story’ attachment, though it’s not hard to foresee that those who still believe Fleet Street brings the Gospel to the masses will switch on and believe they’re essentially watching a documentary. Indeed, it will probably be difficult to distinguish between drama and documentary if one is a regular viewer of what passes for both on the mainstream channels, considering the recent efforts of our man from Billericay to portray himself as a cross between Roger Cook and James Bond over on ITV. I tried my best to ruin his career, but I clearly failed.

In a climate wherein Cliff Richard remains out on permanent ‘moral bail’ and questions over insecure convictions for the likes of Rolf Harris are successfully suppressed within the mainstream media, dramatising such a miserable episode in contemporary police procedure seems the apex of bad taste, though ratings are guaranteed with this kind of cynical exercise; and that’s what matters when the fate of ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ is so pivotal to the wellbeing of the nation.

There’s no doubt there is future scope for fictionalising the experience of the famous and non-famous alike where it comes to the imaginary crimes of the past impacting upon the present; but I have distinct doubts that viewers of ‘National Treasure’ will be exposed to anything other than a PR job for the Professional Victims’ lobby and the crusading integrity of both the Met and the CPS.

© The Editor


divorceIn the first of his two stints as Home Secretary during the mid-60s, Roy Jenkins oversaw perhaps the greatest reform to some of England’s most antiquated laws than any other person to hold that post in living memory – the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the legalisation of abortion, the abolition of the death penalty, and much-needed upgrading of the complex process surrounding divorce. Right-wing revisionists might like to lay the blame of the ‘Permissive Society’ and its subsequent social fallout at his door, but society had already changed even before Jenkins kick-started legislation to reflect the shift in mores. Of all the reforms Jenkins oversaw, perhaps the most historically neglected is the one concerning the dissolution of marriage. In some respects, I only wish he’d gone further and outlawed the whole rotten institution.

I admit I’m a biased cynic on the subject and this is a wholly subjective piece as well as an extremely cynical one. Please accept my apologies. I had to attend a lot of family and non-family weddings as a child and I yawned my way them all, even if attendance gained me a welcome day off school. And now your humble narrator has been named as co-respondent in a divorce case – well, I’m not actually named as such; I am ‘Mr X’, the wicked seducer in the cock-eyes of the law; and the law is a ass, as someone once famously observed. Actually, I bloody well wish said accuser would name me; what an addition to one’s Outlaw CV that would be! I demand to be named! Instead, I have to settle for anonymity and being a bystander in a case that needed instigating, even if it has been instigated on an utterly farcical premise that enables the accuser to maintain the moral high-ground.

If it can be said to end in farce, the beginning is no better. There may have been a little fashionable tweaking to the old ceremonial aspect of the union, but it essentially remains an archaic and outdated ritual that has no basis in the life to follow. Like Christmas Day, a wedding belongs to a fantasy industry that various parties with a vested interest in its continuation act as brainwashing cheerleaders for. Loathsome celebrity couples with more money than taste have served to promote it to a new generation of deluded little Disney princesses raised on a diet of Bridget Jones bollocks, though the inevitable nasty divorce that is the natural climax of the ill-matched marriage is something the starry-eyed in love with the theatre of the event always choose to turn a blind eye to.

The idea of a woman as a possession of the father that he then hands over ownership of to the husband is a ludicrous anachronism in this day and age, and has been for decades; yet still, even in Twenty-bloody-Sixteen, there has to be the father (or the next best thing) surrendering his property in a laughable mock-legal transaction. It may be chic for the condemned to now insert their own sappy vows in place of the official spiel, but beyond the day they’re uttered before an audience, their relevance is akin to a fading suntan two weeks after the return from an overseas holiday. But, hey, let’s not quibble over irrelevancies. Mum gets to wear her new hat and call on the Kleenex when the ceremony reaches its gut-wrenching apogee, and the local church is able to pay for the new roof as a consequence of hosting endless gatherings of this nature that are crammed with people who wouldn’t be seen within half-a-mile of the venue come Evensong. And let’s not forget there’s always the reception, the entertainment value of which consists of an aunt who drinks too much and an uncle who fondles a bridesmaid; and everyone plays their allocated part in a badly-scripted sitcom that should have been cancelled forty years before.

However, if one can just about stomach the OTT frivolity of the ceremony when two become one, what comes next is just as meaningless and has little to do with love; the breeding machine for the future society is switched-on and the wife endures ongoing physical traumas in order that the post-nuclear family can keep buggering on with its 2.4 children. The statistics regarding divorce demonstrate how futile an institution marriage really is – 42% of them in Britain end in divorce; and whilst divorce levels are currently at their lowest for 40 years, the failure rate remains high and the likelihood of a marriage lasting until one of the spouses passes away in old age is fairly rare these days, certainly since couples no longer have to be chained to one another till death do them part.

Before the reforms Roy Jenkins oversaw in the 1960s, divorce went through various stages of complicated legal and moral changes; indeed, until the middle of the nineteenth century it was the exclusive province of the Church of England and Parliament – an expensive and protracted process undertaken not by barristers, but by civil law advocates and proctors in Doctors’ Commons; an annulment required an Act of Parliament, which restricted divorce to the wealthy, if they were prepared to weather the scandal as their most intimate marital details were discussed in the House.

Anyone familiar with Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ will recall the agony of the working-class character Stephen Blackpool, whose estranged alcoholic wife walks back into his life and he cannot rid himself of her or marry the woman he loves until his parasitic spouse dies. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 at least made the process easier for women, even if the ridiculous employment of private detectives to prove infidelity kept divorce in the realm of the absurd; and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 – a direct result of Jenkins’ reforms – democratised it considerably. A marriage could be now dissolved after three years; the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 reduced that period to twelve months.

I find it hard to understand why anyone would feel the need to adhere to an irrelevance like marriage in 2016 when the old stigma of ‘living in sin’ has been mercifully consigned to history. The only question that passed through my mind when gay marriage was the hot topic keeping the classes chattering was ‘Why do gay couples even want to buy into this heterosexual museum piece?’

When the inevitable separation and eventual divorce comes, the legal minefield it opens up (and the pound signs it sparks in the eyes of solicitors) drags on and on to the point whereby both weary parties must find it hard to recall why on earth they bothered in the first place. Add children to the equation and you may as well look upon a marriage contract as a death warrant. The woman I stand accused of conspiring with in order to douse a deceased marriage in the flammable liquid of adultery will be free again one day, but until the day actually arrives the legacy of the tumour upon individual freedom that marriage represents will remain an impediment to that freedom. It is not ‘the wife’ who is the ball and chain, but marriage itself.

© The Editor


the-goodiesWhenever I sign out of my inbox, Yahoo automatically takes me to what passes for their ‘headlines’, which usually consist of the kind of showbiz fluff I cross oceans to avoid. One I saw today was referring to some actress in some movie where she apparently drags up (i.e. wears a fake beard); I only know because there was a photo of her. I didn’t bother reading it because I couldn’t care less, though the headline itself caught my eye because it claimed said actress ‘defends her trans-role.’ Curious choice of word – ‘defends’. Sorry, it was my understanding that the only people who have to defend their actions are those on trial for murder and other such serious crimes. Am I missing something? What is there to defend about playing a part, which is indeed the definition of being an actor?

‘Plumber defends his decision to unblock drain!’ ‘Mechanic defends changing tyre!’ ‘Postman defends delivering of letter!’ Any sillier than ‘Actress defends pretending to be a fictional character in a completely made-up story’? Not really, though public figures over the years have often had to answer to the archetypal ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ figure incensed by something they’ve seen on the TV, at the cinema or in the paper – or haven’t seen at all but have surmised they would find offensive. This seems to have expanded in recent years, perhaps a consequence of the democratisation of fame, so that those who grab their fifteen minutes also have to be scrutinised by Mr and Ms Disgusted, now firmly on the left where once they were on the right. It gives the impression that society as a whole has been transformed into one giant court of law, one in which we are all permanently on the defensive, having to justify every move in anticipation of criticism from the unofficial PC police who guard against offence.

This is a court bereft of statute books so that nobody is entirely sure what can and can’t be said and what can and can’t be done, hence the increase in habitual criminality. How helpful then, that we have our self-appointed online lawmakers who are on hand to recite the dos and don’ts, as well as intervening if we unknowingly break their laws. The novelist Lionel Shriver gave a lecture in Australia a few days ago, one that received publicity across all mediums; generally, the sense she spoke was well-received, though there was the predictable backlash from those that enjoy the lashing of backs. Shriver appeared on ‘Newsnight’ to…yes, you guessed it…defend what she had said.

Essentially, Lionel Shriver accused the scourge of so-called Identity Politics and accompanying disgust with Cultural Appropriation of stifling the creative and the imaginative – which those who propagate such Orwellian control are not. This is the attempted policing of creativity that says writers of fiction can only write from the point of view of their own gender, sexuality and race; and if ‘ethnic’ characters are introduced into their stories, they have to be non-caricatures and inoffensive, officially approved representatives of their individual ethnicity. What a remarkably philistine set of rules and regulations.

Any good novelist researches the background and environment of any character that isn’t based directly upon them or somebody they’ve known – or they simply use their imagination, which is one factor that distinguishes the writer of fiction from the writer of fact. Beatrix Potter couldn’t converse with ducks or mice, so she had to imagine what it would be like to be a duck or a mouse.

I’ve written stories myself that have been set in, say, Georgian London. I was born 200 years too late to have lived in Georgian London and to have known anyone who did. So I research. I get the historical facts right in terms of surroundings, social manners, dress, diet, language et al – in short, making sure my characters and the world they inhabit are as accurate as somebody living in the twenty-first century can possibly portray them. Graft contemporary mores onto the past and you end up with an invented ideal that says more about now than then. Hollywood does it all the time because America doesn’t want to accept that many of its revered Founding Fathers were slave-owners.

The ludicrous ‘outrage’ a couple of weeks ago over a funny line in ‘Coronation Street’ provoked a silly storm in an even sillier teacup, whereby a reference to a character from ‘Roots’ was deemed to be racist. Considering the amount of black and gay characters in Weatherfield, there’s a surprising absence of racism or homophobia from those who fall into neither camp. I would hazard a guess that the majority of those who were sufficiently outraged were white and probably of middle-class descent.

It’s that familiar condescending middle-class white guilt which prompts such people to speak ‘on behalf’ of the perceived persecuted minority, which ironically makes them sound more colonial in their attitudes than those who don’t take offence if a campus ‘Mexican’ night deigns that wearing a sombrero is crucial to the event. They feel compelled to appoint themselves as spokesmen and women, as though the minority in question are incapable of articulating any outrage themselves. A verbal pat on the head which says ‘Don’t worry, poor ignorant little coloured person; we can be your mouthpiece, what with you being denied our privileged education’. It’s laughable.

I’ve cheered myself up of late by watching episodes of ‘The Goodies’. Aside from the nostalgia factor and the surreal madcap humour which still makes me laugh, one element that really struck me was the freedom the trio had to poke fun at anyone and anything. A series that was unfairly regarded at the time as ‘Python-Lite’ today seems incredibly subversive. Indeed, it’s hard to watch it now and not mentally note all the jokes that could no longer be made on television, let alone the piss-taking of celebrities we’re not allowed to mention anymore, such as Rolf Harris, Clement Freud or Jimmy Savile. There’s no what used to be called ‘bad language’ on any episode of ‘The Goodies’ whatsoever, yet whilst one can now swear to one’s heart’s content on TV comedy today, the field has narrowed beyond belief as to targets of jokes.

As regular readers will know, my sideline online identity as a purveyor of satirical and silly videos enables me to get away with things that television would no longer permit. Comments often say ‘You should have your own TV show; you’re funnier than anything currently on telly’, which is immensely flattering, but also misses the point. I’m not on the telly because nobody would dare commission anything of a humorous nature that refuses to acknowledge the boundaries established that define what can and can’t be laughed at. Well, sorry. I’m not prepared to defend myself or my work to people I neither respect nor recognise as creative peers. You either find it funny or you don’t; and if you don’t, I’m not especially bothered; go and watch ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’.

Any unwritten rules when it comes to any artistic medium stinks of puritanical censorship and the policing of creativity by the non-creative. Sorry if I offend, but you can go f**k yourself. I’m not living under Stalin, the Stasi or the Spanish Inquisition, so your opinion carries no weight and has no authority.

© The Editor


gainsbourgPaper money – once so ubiquitous that shifting hefty amounts of it required several armoured vehicles that were nevertheless extremely vulnerable to a certain criminal element; no British TV cop series of the 70s was complete without at least one episode devoted to a ‘blag’, most of which were inspired by endless and regular real-life robberies that were inevitable when all money was physical and banks and businesses had no other way of transferring cash from A to B. Everyone carried a purse or wallet stuffed with paper as opposed to cards back before the ‘invisible money’ that constitutes so many transactions today became the norm. In many respects, it is the old-school appeal of paper money that now renders it almost quaint or, dare I say it, kitsch.

A new £5 note goes into circulation today. Not only does it have a new face gracing the flipside of Her Majesty – Sir Winston Churchill – but it is also smaller than the current model and comes in a new format; no longer bog-standard paper, but polymer. Polymer is a form of plastic that has been introduced in order to give the new fiver a lifespan longer than that commonly associated with the usual paper banknote, particularly the £5. The average fiver has just less than two years in circulation before being withdrawn and reissued, probably because it’s the most used of all the banknotes; during that period, it will be exchanged approximately 258 times. Tenners last slightly longer, around three years; just fewer than six is the average for £20 notes, whereas that rare beast the £50 note is estimated to last about 40 years. When polymer eventually becomes the standard material of which British banknotes are made, the lifecycle of the £50 note is expected to stretch to a century.

Anyone old enough to remember the old £1 note might recall the final incarnation of it, introduced in 1978; Sir Isaac Newton was on the reverse, the one and only time the lowest denomination note featured anyone other than the Queen. Considerably smaller than its predecessor – in fact, closer in size to the pre-decimal Ten Bob note – it was finally withdrawn from circulation ten years after its introduction, succeeded by the pound coin. I remember cursing the change when I lost one of the first pound coins to find itself in my wallet, surmising I’d dropped it on the soft carpet of a book shop once I realised it was gone; my theory at the time was that I’d never have lost a pound note in the same way. Possibly true, but I think I was also mourning the loss of the first banknote to vanish in my lifetime – the first banknote I had regular access to when even a fiver had a magical aura around it, the first banknote that would occasionally appear in birthday cards from generous relatives. I even preserved one in a plastic folder just before it disappeared for good. If it had been made of polymer, perhaps it might still be with us.

The need to upgrade and update banknotes in terms of design and the materials from which they’re made is a relatively recent development. As an iconic aesthetic object, the banknote has come on in leaps and bounds from the centuries when it was little more than a piece of paper with a fancy script printed upon it. The monarch’s face has only been seen on notes since 1960, though her presence is exclusive to Bank of England notes issued in England and Wales; she is noticeably absent from those issued in Scotland and Northern Ireland – though most of us in this part of the UK would find it hard to imagine such an absence. Prior to the debut of Brenda on the banknote, this aspect of the currency was a fairly anonymous-looking article. As for Great British cultural figures on the flipside, they’re an even more recent innovation.

The first non-Royal face to feature on a Bank of England note was William Shakespeare, who debuted on the £20 note on the eve of decimalisation in 1970; he held the spot for a record-breaking 23 years until finally replaced by Michael Faraday, whose decade on the note was ended by Elgar. The composer made way for the current star Adam Smith at the beginning of the 2010s, though the Scottish economist himself will be superseded by JMW Turner around 2020.

The two that stand out from childhood for me were – tellingly – on lower denomination notes, and a pair that also had a lengthy run: the Duke of Wellington and Florence Nightingale. Appearing on the £5 (from 1971) and the £10 (from 1975), these nineteenth century giants enjoyed a couple of decades on the reverse of their respective notes and became so associated with them that it was difficult to envisage anyone else in their place. But Wellington was succeeded by George Stephenson and Elizabeth Fry, whilst Nightingale was replaced by Dickens and then Darwin.

The ludicrous storm that broke when the campaign to get the face of Jane Austen on the flipside of the tenner was announced as a success unleashed some extraordinary vile bile online, which either proves a) There are a lot of nasty bastards out there; b) There are even more out there who are too thick to read books with the kind of superlative wit and expert study of human nature that Austen mastered; or c) People still care passionately about their paper money. It’d be nice to think the third of those options was the case, but I imagine the unpleasant furore probably owes more to the first two. Having said that, I have a feeling people do still care about paper money.

Whilst those with a vested interest in the alternatives are forever predicting the demise of paper money, it nevertheless soldiers on and the arrival of a new and apparently more durable version suggests it will be with us for some time to come. And I for one am quite happy with that; there’s still nothing quite like that crispy note in your hand to make you feel like you’ve won the Pools – even if you haven’t.

© The Editor


fdr-and-hillaryThe health concerns surrounding Hillary Clinton now that she and Donald Trump are embarking upon the final phase of their run for the US Presidency – the coughing fits, the fainting at this weekend’s 9/11 anniversary ceremony, and the eventual diagnosis of pneumonia – are a reminder of the stamina required to hold the highest office in the land; and she hasn’t even made it to the White House yet. Ronald Reagan was 69 when elected in 1980, and if Mrs Clinton is elected in November she will have reached the same age – an age at which the majority would be enjoying retirement rather than beginning one of the most demanding jobs on the planet. She has so far brushed off any rumours of serious illness, though if the race itself proves to be a strain, how would she cope once behind the desk of the Oval Office (as opposed being under it, which was the preferred position of her husband’s female aides)? Aside from Kennedy, McKinley, Garfield and Lincoln – whose demises came as a consequence of assassin’s bullets – four other US Presidents have died in office.

First up was William Henry Harrison in 1841. An American Whig and ex-Major General, Harrison holds several notable records: He was the last US President born a British subject (1773), the first serving President to have his photograph taken, the oldest man elected to the job until Reagan (aged 68), and the first to die in office; his tenure at the White House also remains the shortest on record, just 30 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes; he died from pneumonia after catching a cold three weeks on from his inauguration. Less than a decade later, President Zachary Taylor died of suspected cholera, believed to have been infected by the open sewers of Washington; another Whig and former Major General, Taylor was just seventeen months into office when he passed away.

Warren G Harding had served barely two-and-a-half years as President when he died of either a heart attack or a stroke in 1923 (the cause remains debatable). Not only did none of these three men serve a full term of office; their deaths were all surrounded by speculation and rumour, proving that the JFK conspiracy industry had precedents. Zachary Taylor’s remains were even exhumed in 1991 to finally resolve the mystery of his death.

Perhaps the most famous non-assassinated President to die in office was Franklin D Roosevelt, who passed away on the eve of the Second World War’s ending in April 1945. Stricken by polio at a relatively late age (39), the then-practicing lawyer was paralysed by the disease from the waist down and could no longer walk or stand without assistance. Determined not to be broken by the paralysis, Roosevelt worked hard at walking again, supported by a cane and wearing iron braces on his legs; he was frequently wheelchair-bound behind closed doors, though he was careful never to be seen so physically incapacitated in public. Roosevelt tried various alternative therapies to mask the extremities of his disability and found the warm springs in Georgia conducive to improving his condition.

Roosevelt already had a career in public office before his debilitating illness in 1921 and he re-entered politics by successfully running for the Governorship of New York in 1928; his physical difficulties were no secret, though the extent of them was. Whilst sometimes supported by crutches or one of his aides when speaking in public, he could stand alone on a podium by gripping a strong lectern; the need to keep hold of it led to his trademark animated head gestures when making a speech. After being elected US President for the first of four record-breaking occasions in 1932, Roosevelt was careful to minimise the damage that his frailty could have on public opinion, avoiding the media when arriving at events in order that his difficulties in getting in and out of vehicles wouldn’t be publicised. Any photographers that attempted to capture the President at his most vulnerable allegedly had their photos censured by the Secret Service.

The heavy strain of the War years took a further toll on FDR’s health; running for his historic fourth term in 1944, it was evident to those around him that he was not a well man, though it’s possible he may have wanted to see WWII through to its conclusion. He was eventually elected, but the three months he served before his death were characterised by the need to broker peace in anticipation of victory; he attended the famous Yalta Conference with Churchill and Stalin in February 1945, returning home a month later. It was then that his increasing ill-health could be hidden no longer, especially when he was forced to address Congress sitting down. A few weeks later he was dead at the age of 63 – five years younger than Hillary Clinton is now.

That Roosevelt became the most dominant American politician of his generation and was the White House resident for twelve years is testament to his tremendous determination to overcome a crippling illness that would have broken many men. It also shows how badly some crave high office in the face of potentially impossible obstacles. The manner in which the media, both professional and social, has become so flustered over Hillary Clinton’s health makes one wonder how far FDR would have been able to hide his considerably more serious ailments from the prying eyes permanently peering into the modern goldfish bowl. Even John F Kennedy managed to keep his own chronic back pain from all but his closest friends, family and advisers, the severity of it (and the amount of drugs required to numb it) not becoming public knowledge until years after his death.

The pressures public figures – particularly politicians – are placed under in the 24-hour 365-days-a-year spotlight when compared to their distant predecessors are undoubtedly something ‘private’ figures are relieved to be spared. However, entering public life is largely down to individual choice, unless circumstances push the anonymous onto the front pages; and today the general public as well as the politicians choose to do so, whether running for office and having the miniature of one’s entire life forensically scrutinised or posting a gallery of selfies and being exposed to the wrath of trolls. And nobody yet knows if Hillary Clinton’s decision to try to get her hands on the Presidency will ultimately do her more damage than it will her country.

© The Editor


koreaIt has to be said – old-school crackpot dictators are a little thinner on the ground than they used to be. Yes, there’s Assad, but as far as psychopaths go he’s rather a weedy-looking runt of a man, short on insane charisma and therefore hardly worthy of comparison to Idi Amin, Ferdinand Marcos or Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Ever since Gaddafi received rough justice at the hands of the Libyan people, nutters in theatrical military dress or ones staging extravagant coronation ceremonies that bankrupted their country appear to be on the wane. And, mad though he may be, Donald Trump is aiming for democratic election as his nation’s leader as opposed to seizing power in a coup. Ah, but there’s still North Korea; and there’s still Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-un ticks a fair few of the crackpot dictator boxes, for sure. He’s never seen in anything other than his regulation Mao-style uniform; he has that strangely severe crop with little at the sides or back but plenty on top that was once de rigueur for members of bands clogging up the 80s indie charts; he has an unsettlingly smooth, plastic countenance that Hollywood has-beens would die for; he inherited the physical leadership of North Korea from his late father, who nevertheless remains celestial leader of the country for all eternity; he holds more official titles than he can probably even list; he has presided over numerous purges and executions on a whim, including members of his own family; he is head of an archaic Stalinist regime that controls every aspect of its oppressed subjects’ lives, as though (as Christopher Hitchens once memorably observed) using ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ as an instruction manual; he is provocatively antagonistic towards the USA and the West; and he also now has his finger on the nuclear button. Yes, I think he’s worthy of a spot in the pantheon under discussion.

North Korea’s much-publicised nuclear programme has hit the headlines again over the past few days, but it now has an official history that stretches back a decade – according to the not-necessarily reliable PR machine of the ‘Democratic Republic’, at least. A 2006 underground explosion was detected by outside sources, and the North Koreans claimed it was their first nuclear test. Reports that the country was indeed a nuclear power followed over the coming months and years as the alleged underground hydrogen bomb explosions continued to register on monitoring mechanisms way beyond the borders of the secret state that is Kim Jong-un’s private kingdom.

During the Cold War, North Korea allegedly requested assistance in developing nuclear power from both the Soviet Union and China, though only the former gave any kind of help, acting in an advisory capacity to build research reactors from the mid-60s to the late 70s. At the time, North Korea was a pretty minor member of the Communist club, with most of Eastern Europe answerable to Moscow, and China the dominant power behind the so-called Bamboo Curtain when it and the USSR were at odds with each other.

However, in the twenty-first century, the changing landscape of political ideology has pushed North Korea to the forefront of global tensions, with this last obstinate bastion of increasingly isolated designs for life being one of the few remaining countries still basing itself on an outdated model long since discarded by former Soviet satellite states and even China, following its phenomenally successful move into the free market. There is a novelty factor in place today, both in terms of the country itself and its worryingly Loony Tunes leader. North Korea is a curious anachronism in the Global Village, with only the testimony of the few to have escaped its clutches serving as reportage from the forbidden zone.

One unsung area of the North Korean economy has been its export of ballistic missiles, though speaking as an Englishman whose own nation’s booming arms industry is currently profiting from Saudi strikes on Yemen I have no grounds to display superior smugness. Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Iran and Syria have all benefitted from North Korea’s militaristic hardware, yet the United Nations has still imposed sanctions against the country without any discernible impact upon Kim Jong-un’s oblivious and immune regime. Too-close-for-comfort neighbour South Korea has become understandably jumpy with such an unstable enemy on its doorstep and has been forced to issue details of its plans to obliterate the North Korean capital of Pyongyang if its half-brother extends its nuclear experiments to the point where it can be perceived as a serious threat to its genuinely democratic sibling, claiming Pyongyang will be ‘reduced to ashes and removed from the map.’

Earlier this year, North Korea declared it had sent a satellite into space, provoking condemnation from the US as well as near-neighbour Japan, and even China – traditionally the country’s staunchest ally in the region. China’s support remains crucial to North Korea’s continuing existence as a bonkers rogue nation, and in theory China could bring North Korea to its knees without a single shot being fired. But Beijing is playing a very clever slow game where its Communist kindergarten colleague is concerned and the jury is out on how far it will allow the country to go when China itself is so preoccupied with building bridges in the West and expanding its business interests in Africa.

How much longer China’s attempts at projecting a professional and reformed image whilst supporting an embarrassing throwback like North Korea will last remains to be seen; but if North Korea keeps on generating so much bad publicity, it’s only a matter of time. As for the rest of the world, we can only observe events from afar and hope that the Supreme Leader meets his maker before his evident insanity curtails our own future ambitions.

Anyway, if you require an antidote to that gloomy prognosis, here’s some satire…

© The Editor


74I watched the Manchester derby a couple of days ago – no, not the Utd Vs City clash from this weekend, where the majority of the hype surrounding it emanated from the rival managers rather than the players. It was from April 1974 and far more was at stake that Saturday afternoon, for the Reds were looking relegation from the top flight of English football square in the face. Amazing as it may seem today, the dreaded drop came; and who should deliver the killer blow? In one of football’s cruellest ironies, it was none other than ex-King of the Stretford End, Denis Law. Deemed surplus to requirements at Old Trafford, the last survivor of the legendary 60s triumvirate completed by Best and Charlton had been sold to United’s neighbourhood nemesis and returned to haunt the club that made him by scoring the goal that sent them down.

Law’s despair was immediately evident, and as his strike sparked a pitch invasion, he was substituted. Deciding to retire before the beginning of the next season, his crucial goal in the most dramatic derby of them all was his last ever touch in league football. Yet, even that momentous moment was ultimately overshadowed by the mass encroachment upon the players’ turf by the fans. Twice the match was stopped by the referee – the first time to clear the pitch before the game could be restarted and the second time to bring both teams off for their own safety. They never came back on, the result stood and Manchester United would be playing their fixtures in Division Two during the 1974/75 season.

Watching this game forty-two years on from when it was played, what struck me most about the pitch invasions was the age of the supporters participating in them. I doubt many were over eighteen. They all appeared to be young boys around 13-17 and could easily have passed for members of The Bay City Rollers going by their haircuts and dress sense. Even before they grabbed their fifteen minutes, they were visible in great numbers every time the camera closed in on either goalkeeper. The ground seemed to be packed with no supporters representing any other age group, as if the pop star following George Best had brought to Old Trafford had permanently lowered the average age of the average fan, even though the wayward Irish genius had already drifted off into the last wasted decade of his career.

Even the pitch invasions themselves, though obviously planned to disrupt the match should the result go against the home side, had a shambolic, almost anarchic feel to them; there was a distinct absence of the pseudo-militaristic organisation that became the hallmark of the slightly older ‘professional’ football hooligans that characterised a good deal of the 1980s, and the mobile police wall that was formed to herd the fans back into the stands didn’t provoke any fisticuffs. Hindsight naturally comes to the fore when viewing an archive example of the troubles that plagued the national sport for more than a decade thereafter, with Brian Moore (the host of the programme showing the game) decrying the hooliganism and advocating the erection of fencing to prevent further incidents of this nature – something that took a few more seasons to happen. Nobody clearly had any idea of how much worse the situation would become.

The more physical followers of Manchester United had a bad reputation for a long time, though were gradually superseded by similar-minded supporters of other clubs by the end of the 70s. I have no doubt that many of that decade’s young hooligans grew up to be older (though far from wiser) hooligans in the next decade, yet the fact they started so young and were allowed to run riot for so long says a great deal about the way the game changed in the 70s.

Yes, the Best phenomenon certainly played its part in attracting more youngsters to matches, but the absence of the older father figures that had always indoctrinated their sons with a passion for the sport so that they would keep their team supported for years to come meant there was no longer anyone present to admonish the youngsters. Early retirement from match-day was encouraged by increasing leisure pursuits for the older man and fan, and many were dissuaded from returning to full-time supporter status by the far-from family atmosphere that had developed on the terraces. The great tribal clashes of the 60s, particularly the Mods and Rockers, appeared to have relocated from seaside resort to football ground, even if the only thing that now divided the enemies in terms of dress was the colour of their respective scarves.

How big a hole did the cost of supporting one’s chosen team eat into the pocket-money or wages of those kids on the Old Trafford pitch in 1974, one wonders? It can’t have been that great an amount or else they would have been priced out of football and would have had no option but to divert their adolescent aggression elsewhere. They certainly couldn’t enact the same ritual at Old Trafford today, nor at any other ground in the Premier League. All-seater stadia has probably served to reduce the potential for trouble in a way the old terraces couldn’t, but the cost of attending regular football matches in the twenty-first century precludes the presence of unescorted youngsters in such high numbers. There was apparently ‘a bit of trouble’ at the West Ham Vs Watford game on Saturday, but hooliganism is so rare in top flight football today that any inkling of it receives the kind of coverage major incidents would have in the past. And I’ve a feeling those involved would have all been over-18.

If old-school hooliganism exists on any scale in English football in 2016 it is usually in the lower leagues, at clubs where ticket prices remain low and attendance at one’s local ground doesn’t help to subsidise the weekly income of foreign millionaires. The least attractive element of 70s soccer survives out there in the wilds of what used to be the Third and Fourth Divisions, though should a team rise through the ranks and reach the Promised Land of the Premier League, it soon evaporates. Better grounds, better pitches that enable better football to be played, the virtual outlawing of the contact sport, and the higher skill factor that overseas players have brought to the game have all raised the bar beyond anything that could have been foreseen forty years ago; and one sometimes only notices the breadth of the changes when one peers into the curiously brutal portal that replays the game as it used to be.

© The Editor


robotsYou know the nights will shortly be drawing in when the television mainstays that mark the non-summer months return. Putting the Saturday shower aside (Saturday being a byword for bollocks, whatever the season) this week saw normal Thursday service resumed when ‘Question Time’ returned. Always a mixed-bag depending on the blend of panellists, the programme reconvened with the autumnal evening schedule via a special debate between Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his challenger Owen Smith. The debate part, when the two men addressed each other and put one another on the spot, was actually quite good; and one could see the germ of a potentially fascinating programme. Had it not fallen under the ‘Question Time’ banner, which necessitates audience participation, this could have been the case. But every time it looked as though things were about to get interesting, proceedings were interrupted by Dimbleby and another question from an audience member.

This tactic works within the usual context of ‘Question Time’, sparking most of the programme’s best bits, particularly when the panel contains a contentious cat amongst the party pigeons, such as Starkey, Galloway or Hitchens; but in this case, as with the now-customary pre-General Election or leadership contest debates, the need for constant audience interjections stymies the politicians from taking each other to task and the end result is ultimately unsatisfactory.

Although in his introduction to this special edition David Dimbleby assured viewers the assembled audience was divided between Corbynistas, Smith supporters and a mix of other party voters, the Jezza element lived up to its bullish reputation by loudly booing Smith and enthusiastically cheering their hero. One young female audience member spoke of the studio atmosphere as being a microcosm of the party itself at the moment, going against the stereotype of the student Corbyn groupie as she did so; but the palpable hint of aggressive intimidation persisted, even if Corbyn himself was again at pains to distance himself from those who intimidate in his name, especially when it came to the sensitive subject of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. Smith seemed to face a more hostile reception than his opponent, though his insistence on demanding a second EU Referendum when the programme was coming from Oldham didn’t really work as well as it perhaps would have done had it been broadcast from London.

As is so often the case with televised ‘debates’ between two or more participants, there was a generous amount of scripted common-sense platitudes emanating from the stage that nobody with half-a-brain would dispute or disagree with. These stock statements are produced by those under the spotlight because they know they’ll take up time that might otherwise be available for possibly awkward moments where they have to resort to instant answers to questions they weren’t expecting. Owen Smith has dropped his fair share of impromptu clangers during his leadership challenge, though he managed to avoid putting his foot in it this time round.

Corbyn himself appeared far more confident in his role as incumbent leader than he regularly appears in the Commons, projecting the image of someone finally – if belatedly – comfortable doing the job he was elected to do. But his challenger also came across as less unconvincing than he did at the initial launch of his campaign, when he unwisely sought to stress how ‘normal’ he was by calling on the services of his wife and kids to emphasise that normality, a ploy reminiscent of the ‘Little Britain’ politician using his family in the same way before the press pack on his doorstep when offering a perfectly reasonable explanation for his encounters with young men on the street during the twilight hours. Having said that, one audience member was honest enough to express his absence of confidence in both men to lead Labour back into government, reflecting the opinion shared by many without a vested interest in the Labour Party. The response of Corbyn and Smith when confronted by this was to fall back on those dependable old platitudes again. When asked if the loser would accept a job in the winner’s Shadow Cabinet, Corbyn’s belief in the likelihood of a victory was mirrored in his willingness to offer Smith a post, whereas Smith made it clear he wouldn’t accept such an offer. The latter also denied a mass exodus from the party should he fail to take charge, though the audience didn’t appear to believe him.

I can’t really imagine any floating voter coming away from this QT curtain-raiser being won over by either man; the Corbynistas believe Jezza can do no wrong whatever he does next, so it didn’t really matter how good or bad he performed on the programme; and the majority of Labour MPs backing Smith are doing so because there’s nobody else for them to throw their weight behind. Non-party members probably won’t care who wins come the actual election because they don’t discern anyone capable of getting one over a far-from united Conservative Party whoever faces Theresa May across the dispatch box once the conference season is out of the way. This programme was a moderately entertaining partial glimpse into the disintegration of opposition and not much more.

© The Editor


star-trekYes, it’s anniversary time again, though the pop culture institution that notches-up half-a-century today didn’t reach British shores until after it had already been cancelled by the US TV network that had commissioned it three years earlier. The original ‘Star Trek’ debuted on BBC1 as a summer replacement for ‘Doctor Who’ in the week of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, whereas it disappeared from NBC just weeks before Neil Armstrong’s one small step for man. As the 60s gave way to the 70s and men were beginning to feel at home on the moon, ‘Star Trek’ looked very much of the moment during its first run in the UK. The series had been made on top-notch film and in colour, giving it a glossy cinematic sheen no home-grown show could compete with, but a quality that was ideal when the BBC was eager to promote the benefits of colour television.

‘Star Trek’ must have been one of the earliest spin-off merchandise generators, with the familiar faces of Kirk, Spock, Scotty, McCoy and co gracing everything from breakfast cereal boxes to comics, annuals and all the assorted paraphernalia of a 70s childhood. The show’s catchphrases entered common parlance in record time, no telly impressionist was worth a toss if he couldn’t parody the programme, and any kid at school with vaguely pointy ears had an instant readymade nickname whether he liked it or not. First time round, it was always the possibility of an alien species that would guarantee my attention, whereas repeat runs later in the decade made me aware there was a little more depth to it than that. Only three seasons of that classic original series were produced, though it never seemed to be off screens for long, giving the impression it ran for much longer.

American television has a proud history of innovative and adult-themed series rooted in fantasy with sci-fi elements. ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘The Outer Limits’ in the monochrome early 60s had been trailblazers, though ex-WWII fighter pilot Gene Roddenberry felt there was room to combine the intelligent writing of those with something that would also appeal to a wider audience, including children. Having become a full-time TV scriptwriter upon leaving the LAPD, Roddenberry had honed his craft by the time he conceived what he pitched as ‘Wagon Train in Space’. He interested Desilu, the company formed by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who commissioned a pilot. Titled ‘The Cage’, this pilot contained the majority of the factors that became familiar to viewers, though only Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock was a crew-member on this initial outing.

A few necessary changes were made and the introduction of Canadian actor William Shatner as Captain Kirk was pivotal when it came to a second pilot. He was joined by a cast that reflected Roddenberry’s optimistic view of future human beings on a five-year mission to boldly go where no man had gone before. At odds with the fashion for dystopian sci-fi in the 60s, the USSS Enterprise’s international crew implied the planet would be able to rise above contemporary troubles to present a united front when confronting aliens – though pity the poor anonymous crew-member who beamed down to a planet with the regulars. We all knew he was doomed the moment he set foot on it.

Spock was, of course, half-human and half-Vulcan, which made him the most intriguing character; Kirk was dependably square-jawed and expert at holding in his pot belly; McCoy could be cantankerous when tested by Spock’s Vulcan side; Scotty was gruff but good in a crisis; Chekov was Russian with a Beatle wig; Sulu was Japanese; and Uhuru was a black woman – even if she had no choice but to join the other female crew-members in wearing the compulsory uniform of mini-skirt and knee-high leather boots. The multi-national crew was quite an on-screen mix during the age of the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam; but it worked. The banter between them created a chemistry that made you care about what happened to them, and the writing was generally of a high standard until it tailed off a bit near the end.

One particular episode, in which the crew find themselves travelling back in time to the 1930s, sees Captain Kirk fall for a character played by Joan Collins; in order not to change the course of history, Spock prevents him from saving her life in the road accident they know will kill her. In another, a fault with the transporter room mechanism as Kirk is beamed back up to the ship sees him transported to a parallel universe Enterprise wherein every regular crew member is considerably more sinister than their usual selves. Then there’s the one where Kirk is split into two halves – the good Kirk and the evil Kirk (the evil one wears eyeliner). ‘Star Trek’ was good at playing with the viewers’ heads.

In a way, ‘Star Trek’ belonged to that great generation of US TV fantasy series that encompassed everything from ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘The Man from UNCLE’ to ‘Batman’ and ‘Bewitched’ – even ‘The Monkees’; but it was also apart from them. It featured US TV’s first interracial kiss, for one thing – between Kirk and Uhuru. But Kirk always got the girl, after all; and the girl when seen through Kirk’s eyes was usually shot in a soft-focus lens. None of this saved the show from the axe, however. By the end of the 60s, fantasy TV as a mainstream attraction appeared to have had its day, and cop shows gradually superseded in it in the 70s.

In America, the real cult of ‘Star Trek’ began more or less immediately after its 1969 cancellation when the show went into syndication and was rerun on a loop, playing to a new and enthusiastic audience on a nightly basis at the same time as British viewers were taking it to their hearts. This posthumous popularity led to an exceptionally good animated series in 1973 and finally culminated in the first ‘Star Trek’ movie in 1979. From then on, it has become a franchise both on TV and at the cinema; but I would argue none of the subsequent spin-offs and revivals have come near that original series, which remains in a league – or galaxy – of its own. Happy birthday, even if ye cannae take it.

© The Editor