THE LAST LAP

hareTiming is everything in a race. The old cliché (usually applied to the football season) that it’s a marathon rather than a sprint, has certainly been proved true on endless occasions, not only when it comes to the national sport, but also when it comes to politics. The 1970 General Election, in which serving PM Harold Wilson was expected to extend his Labour premiership to a full decade, was derailed by adverse balance of payments figures published during election week, though many believe world champions England losing to West Germany in the quarter finals of the World Cup just days before polls opened also played its part in the electorate delivering Wilson a bloody nose. It served as a warning to all hares speeding ahead of competing tortoises that the winners are declared as such only on the final day of the contest.

The timing of the FBI’s decision to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s ‘email affair’ less than a fortnight before election day in the USA has been downplayed as a political ploy, though the FBI certainly has history; under its first director J Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was far from impartial. Democrat President Truman had observed Hoover’s stewardship of the FBI as the emergence of a private police force separate from presidential control. ‘We want no Gestapo or secret police,’ said Truman in the early 50s. ‘The FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. J Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressman and senators are afraid of him.’

Instigator of the ‘dirty tricks’ wing of the organisation, which became known as COINTELPRO, Hoover was in charge of the FBI from its 1935 inception until his death in 1972, and it is generally accepted that President Nixon refrained from removing Hoover from office over fears that Hoover would release the hounds; bearing in mind the skeletons that Nixon had nestling in his closet it was probably one of Tricky Dicky’s most astute decisions. Since Hoover’s death, the head of the FBI has been restricted to a 10-year tenure in order to avoid the perceived abuses of power Hoover oversaw; yet one cannot but feel the announcement to renew the entire Clinton email saga so close to polling day has been a concerted attempt to kindle fresh doubts in the minds of floating voters regarding Hillary’s suitability as President.

Prior to the weekend’s announcement by the FBI, Clinton had established a comfortable (albeit not exactly commanding) lead over Trump in the polls, though this has been slightly destabilised since. It goes without saying that Trump has revelled in the reopening of the investigation, claiming with customary melodrama that ‘this is bigger than Watergate’. However, as much as it appears to be appeasing the Republican candidate’s constant demands that Hillary be exposed as a crook, the FBI’s decision to once again stir up a controversy that has already been dealt with and dismissed presents us with yet another unedifying chapter in a gory story that has dominated world headlines for the past few months.

Donald Trump’s failure to present himself to the American public as something other than an egomaniacal sociopath telling the disgruntled and dispossessed what they want to hear (without any discernible solutions to the nation’s problems) has sorely required ammunition to aim at his opponent; and the former First Lady has gifted him with a succession of dodgy rumours that has turned their TV debates into a theatrical equivalent of constantly arguing parents.

As to what impact the FBI’s announcement will have on the outcome of the Presidential race, it’s too early to say. Trump has uttered enough contentious statements during the campaign to have fatally damaged most candidates, though his blunt speaking candour has appealed to a sizeable majority of the American public that is thoroughly sick of Washington spin. Whether the official stamp of approval on his opinion of his opponent will affect the outcome of the election depends upon the don’t knows out there who have yet to decide between the most experienced (albeit allegedly corrupt) practitioner of the Washington Dark Arts or a billionaire TV celebrity selling himself as an outsider in synch with public disillusionment over the way things have been run in the American capital in the post-war era. And Jennifer Lopez flashing her gargantuan arse at a Clinton rally probably won’t make much difference either way.

There’s no doubt that Trump moving into the White House would utterly obliterate the vice-like grip the professional politicians running both Democrat and Republican parties have on American governance, belonging as he does to no real traditions of either party and being in possession of an ego determined to dismantle an ancient network of cronyism that has done few favours to anyone residing beyond the borders of the District of Columbia; and I suspect many mischievous critics of the system would welcome his tearing down of the status quo. But the stark choice the American electorate faces is that of the known knowns or the unknown knowns (as another Donald once said), and whether or not they are prepared to gamble the future of the western world on the outcome probably has little to do with anything the FBI has to say. Our life is in their hands; and if that doesn’t fill you with dread, I don’t know what will.

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ALONE AGAIN (NATURALLY)

home-aloneAs if Michael Gove’s copybook wasn’t blotted enough via his perennial blunders as a Minister, not to mention his shameful, backstabbing bid for power in the aftermath of Cameron’s Brexit exit, he’s excelled himself now; he and his wife Sarah Vine – one of many Fleet Street columnists whose profile picture tells a thousand stories about the wonders of airbrushing – have committed a social and moral crime that conjures up horrific images in the minds of millions, images that will be hard to extinguish once they’ve appeared. I know it’s a gruesome thought, but it has to be said: Mr and Mrs Gove are party animals.

The one-time Prime Ministerial hopeful and his missus attended a function for SIX hours, one that would have involved drinking and dancing. If you can, just picture the scene. Not nice, is it? Oh, and while they were doing this, they left their 11-year-old son at the hotel they happened to be stopping at. I don’t know about you, but I think the 11-year-old being spared the sight of his mum and dad gettin’ jiggy to the strains of ‘Blurred Lines’ shows remarkably benign concern on the part of his parents.

The Goves apparently informed hotel staff they’d be back by 9.30pm and didn’t return till 1.30am; according to the Sunday Mirror, which broke the story, a concerned night porter found Gove Junior ‘wandering the corridors, asking where his parents were’. The image of the borderline-teenage son of a former Cabinet Minister checking with a porter at a £250-a-night Cheltenham hotel in order that he could delete his evening’s browsing history before his parents got back is one that evokes the worst kind of Dickensian poverty and is indeed a damning indictment on modern society. No wonder the country is up in arms at this latest act of despicable behaviour by the intellectual darling of the Notting Hill Tories.

As I suspect most reading this were, like me, raised by parents who regarded helicopters as necessary tools of air forces and rescue services as well as the playboy playthings of 70s Radio 1 DJs, the ‘shocking revelations’ courtesy of the Sunday Mirror will probably provoke little more than a shrug of the shoulders.

On my one and only trip to Spain when I was a few months away from making it to the age of eleven, my own parents ‘deserted’ my six-year-old brother and me for probably the same number of hours as the Goves abandoned their son in order that they could attend one of those do’s that came with the obligatory monochrome photo of a Spanish waiter pouring cheap plonk into said parents’ mouths from odd-shaped bottles.

I recall we relished the freedom to roam a hotel free from parental eyes; we only wandered the corridors in the sense that we enacted scenes from ‘Starsky and Hutch’ and ‘The Professionals’. We were left a bit of cash so we could scoff crisps, drink pop and play on the pinball machines. I remember it as the highlight of the holiday.

Post-McCann, of course, parents leaving their children alone for more than a minute means they are failing in their duties and breaking the sacred code of modern parenting. That Gove Junior had been left behind to look after the family pooches actually shows his mater and pater to be responsible dog-owners, but even that admirable gesture will be swept aside in the chorus of condemnation by professional parents within media circles as their avowed aim to infantilise their offspring even when they’re on the cusp of adolescence is challenged. Again, I cannot help but think back to my own formative years and how many times I found myself home alone.

‘Don’t open the door to anyone while I’m gone’ was the extent of the advice issued by my grandma as she prepared to depart for her bingo night with her friend Jean. My granddad was at the pub, but even at the age of eight, I was deemed sensible enough to be left in their house for a few hours on my own during my regular school holiday stays there. My grandma wasn’t going to surrender her weekly outing just because I happened to be present, and my granddad wasn’t going to do likewise re the local hostelry. I had complete control of the TV set in their absence, which itself was a rare treat when I’d become accustomed to my father strolling into our living room at home and abruptly switching off whatever children’s programme I’d been watching so that he could catch the end of the cricket.

I wasn’t ‘abandoned’ or ‘neglected’ by my grandparents; they didn’t chain me to a piss-soaked bed in the cellar while they pursued their usual socialising. They saw nothing wrong in trusting an eight-year-old to be left in their house of an evening, confident he wouldn’t scream the place down or phone the police, and they were right to do so. I loved it. It made me feel grown-up.

A couple of years later, when my parents were both working well beyond the time school closed for the day, it would be my responsibility to collect my younger brother from the infants school opposite my own and take him home (a spare key was obviously required for me to enter the premises); it would probably be an hour or so before my mother was the first parent to arrive back, and neither she nor I thought the arrangement a sign of parental neglect because it wasn’t.

Three or four years before that arrangement was established, my parents would occasionally pop over to another house on the street and spend a few hours with neighbours whilst my brother slept on oblivious and I was allowed to read in bed; they saw this as perfectly reasonable parenting, and I can see now that being given a small sense of self-sufficient independence at a young age helps to stretch the apron strings so that they eventually snap of their own accord at the correct time.

Deeply unfashionable opinion it may well be in this age of cotton wool mollycoddling, but continue to treat children as though they were three or four-years-old when they’re into double figures by denying them both time to themselves and some form of responsibility will leave them utterly unprepared for standing on their own two feet, not to mention being utterly incapable of being able to cope with their own company. But if adolescence has now been expanded well into one’s 20s, I suppose it is logical that childhood is expanded well into one’s adolescence. Yet again, it would seem Michael Gove is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

© The Editor

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A CLASS ACT

classHierarchies seem especially integral to the way this country operates; beyond the old class structures, they can be found in every environment, if only as a means of measuring the individual’s sense of worth and importance when compared to whoever happens to be below him or her. What often appears to escape their attention is that they may only be once-removed from their immediate neighbour on the next highest rung of the ladder, but the distance between them and their immediate neighbour on the next lowest rung of the ladder is the same. Keeping one’s focus upwards serves as a useful blinker indeed.

Transfer this to the workplace and one finds endless Little Hitler’s answerable to a higher power on the next management level, but who at least have underlings beneath them upon whom they can exercise their limited authority, and they consequently feel better about themselves when they do so. They may be all-too aware of being passed over for promotion and have come to the conclusion their life is going nowhere; but there are still lower forms of life to inflict all their pent-up frustration on, and a small modicum of self-respect can be garnered from cracking the whip.

Your average Mail or Express reader, perennially disgruntled that they may not be high-flying high-earners, draw solace from their perused pages, plastered as they are with tall tales of the dregs down at the bottom; cocooned in smug security and the conviction that, as bad as things seem when the retirement nest egg is emptied to fund junior’s university education, they are at least superior to the pond-life plebs whose problems are self-inflicted and remain a million miles from their own concerns. Prejudices reinforced by their reading material, they are little more than oblivious pawns in a narrative scripted by hands that care not to point out that their faith in a future free from social depravation is utterly groundless in a society built on shifting sands. They are one step from losing their jobs, losing their homes and being dumped alongside the undeserving poor they’ve been taught are responsible for their predicament; but never let them know that or else the whole bloody structure will collapse.

Half-a-century on from ‘Cathy Come Home’, Ken Loach’s new film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ has been received by many on the middle rungs of the ladder as socialist propaganda; no great surprise, for the majority of the critics making the accusation have been led to believe ‘those people’ are to blame for their misfortune anyway. With their comfortable columnist status handed down the nepotism network, they’ve been spared entombment in a Job Centre or DWP office; they’ve avoided being threatened and addressed by condescending pre-programmed messengers from the Gods as though they were naughty six-year-olds being ticked off by the headmistress; they’ve avoided their income hanging on which direction the thumbs of glorified Roman Emperors will go; they’ve avoided juggling threadbare funds to decide which bill won’t be paid in order that dinner will still be served. And any storyteller who shines a light on this alien landscape that the ignorant have formed unrealistic opinions about is naturally spinning lefty lies; that Dickens was performing the same invaluable service 150 years ago doesn’t count, of course, because the costumes are lovely.

When ‘Cathy Come Home’ aired as part of the BBC’s ‘Wednesday Play’ in 1966, the strand had already attracted criticism not only from the likes of Mary Whitehouse (who had objected to ‘bad language’, ‘loose sexual morals’ and the backstreet abortion scene in the previous year’s ‘Up the Junction’), but from those on the right that accused television of wallowing in a working-class netherworld of misery that had been solely manufactured by Marxist playwrights as part of their Class War campaign. Had that been the case, the viewing public (who have always been immune to that kind of champagne socialist lecturing) wouldn’t have tuned-in in their millions and wouldn’t have recognised the truth of their own experience in the best of the plays that were broadcast on both ‘The Wednesday Play’ and its 70s equivalent, ‘Play for Today’.

While the lives lived in such productions were undoubtedly hard and often grim, an underlying black humour was always present, as it continued to be in cinematic successors such as ‘Kes’ as well as later portrayals on television like ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’. Having recently watched the latter anew, I approached it with trepidation, remembering the bleakness in Yosser’s story; yet, even that has some great laugh-out-loud lines in it, as proved to be the case with ‘I, Daniel Blake’.

Television has now largely abandoned telling these kind of stories, preferring instead to divert its dramatic resources into imitating the serial killer chic of Scandi-Noir or to revert to music hall-type caricatures of working-class characters, as in the numerous Kay Mellor ‘Jolly Northern Women having a lark’ series. In recent years, only Jimmy McGovern’s superb ‘The Street’ offered an alternative that was neither patronising nor cosily fantasising. The small-screen ghetto now reserved for non-middle-class characters is the cheap documentary and the Jeremy Kyle circus ring, with each wannabe reality hopeful playing the idle dole-scrounger so the Mail and the Express can continue the narrative their readers expect.

Regardless of his personal politics, Ken Loach has always been first and foremost a storyteller; that he chooses to tell the stories of those who are rarely afforded the chance of their lives being seen by anyone outside their own demographic is something that should be applauded – and applause spontaneously broke out in the cinema where I saw ‘I, Daniel Blake’ last night as the end credits rolled. It was a beautiful, compassionate, witty and moving film as well as a damning indictment of a country that likes to airbrush its myriad faults, and one that only a hard-hearted cynic who has never personally experienced any of the predicaments it documents could sneer at. I suspect everyone in that cinema had either been in one of the positions its characters found themselves in or knew someone who had, but that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for appreciation; and nor should it be an excuse for tiresome and tedious token contrariness by self-appointed cultural commentators who want their hierarchies, and the illusion of order they generate, to remain intact.

© The Editor

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COME FLY WITH ME

stewardessNever quite sure on the exactness of the ‘once removed/twice removed’ distinction, but the easiest way to put it is that my father once had a cousin who lived in Maidenhead, Berkshire – the Parliamentary constituency currently represented by our Glorious Leader. When I spent a couple of nights at my dad’s cousin’s home as a nine-year-old in 1977, the nearest comparison I had at the time re the residence and neighbourhood was that of Margot and Jerry’s abode on ‘The Good Life’. Like Paul Eddington’s character, her husband also worked in London and commuted back to the suburbs each evening; their neighbours included Diana Dors, Michael Parkinson and Frank Bough (oo-er) and I remember her once telling me she could get me tickets for ‘Top of the Pops’ if I wanted to be a member of the audience once I was old enough. I only wish I’d taken her up on the offer.

The teenage record collections of her grown-up son and daughter that had been left behind when they’d flown the nest were ones I recall spinning on the family turntable, including the likes of Sweet, T. Rex and early Queen. They provided an invigorating alternative to Roger Whitaker and The Carpenters, which were the standard vinyl fare back home. That the same holiday also encompassed my inaugural stroll around the capital enshrines it as one of the few childhood vacations I can recall with fondness.

What has this got to do with anything, you may ask? Well, I only use the remembrance of an introduction to a different world as a roundabout means of leading into the story of Heathrow’s third runway. The house in question – which was, incidentally, the first I ever set foot in that had en-suite bathrooms – was directly beneath the flight path of what was then the world’s busiest airport. In ‘Remember Me’, Melvyn Bragg’s moving account of his first marriage, he writes of the mental trauma the noise of planes overhead caused his wife in their marital home in Kew, though I became accustomed to the sound during the short time I spent in Maidenhead. The aircraft quickly assumed the status of background ambience for me, though I appreciate this isn’t always the case for those residing in the vicinity for longer than 48 hours.

The news that the government has finally reached a decision on gifting Heathrow a third runway was bound to open a can of worms, and the first headline-grabbing consequence of the belated thumbs-up is the earth-shattering blow that Zac Goldsmith will be standing down as an MP due to his long-standing opposition to the move. The failed London Mayoral candidate announced he will honour his pledge to campaign against the expansion of Heathrow by resigning his Richmond seat. Whilst this may not necessarily be regarded amongst Theresa May’s Tory circles as a great loss, it is an indication that the Prime Minister’s final word on the long-running saga is a contentious one.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has long been a vocal opponent of a third runway at Heathrow, harbouring his own unrealisable ambitions for a completely new London airport during his stint as the capital’s Mayor, and he has already labelled the announcement as ‘undeliverable’. Education Secretary Justine Greening is also in the Boris camp, while Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (whose own constituency includes Heathrow) has reacted with a predictable lack of enthusiasm to the news.

Theresa May’s predecessor ducked the issue throughout his premiership, under pressure from assorted NIMBY lobby groups as well as party members with constituencies that would be affected, though the PM coming out with a decision so early into her tenure at No.10 perhaps suggests an end to dithering on a subject that has been something of a hot potato in the South East for years. Adding a new runway to Gatwick was viewed as a less incendiary decision, as was extending the existing Heathrow ones rather than building a third. Now that the go-ahead for runway No.3 has been given, the saga is set to continue for several years, with first reports indicating it could be as late as 2020 before work even begins on building it; and who knows who will be in Downing Street by then?

A third runway promises upwards of 260,000 more flights into Heathrow per year (which will no doubt please those living nearby), though the cost of constructing it is rumoured to be upwards of £17.6bn, not to mention the demolition of an estimated 783 homes in the way of the redevelopment. With London currently experiencing the most severe housing crisis in its history, this is hardly the kind of news Londoners wanted to hear. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has added his voice to the condemnation, as have Greenpeace, with the organisation’s UK chief John Sauven claiming the decision will increase pollution; some union leaders, however, such TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, have backed the proposals by viewing them as a boost to jobs and the economy. That this kind of statement allies the unions with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is evidence that the third runway is something that cuts across party lines with Marmite-like precision.

Of course, if one doesn’t reside beneath the Heathrow flight path or faces eventual eviction as a result of the expansion, yesterday’s announcement has no impact upon day-to-day doings whatsoever. But for the residents of a small Middlesex village called Harmondsworth, much of which stands to disappear once building work begins, there is a weary resignation that two decades of campaigning against the third runway has resulted in defeat. Some are happy to be making a mint from the compulsory purchase of their properties, whereas others are understandably devastated – particularly the ones whose homes won’t make way for the runway and will therefore be essentially worthless as property investments once it arrives.

Over 150 years ago, the even greater destruction of Camden Town during the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway was documented in Charles Dickens’ ‘Dombey and Son’, and despite the author’s reservations over industrial progress, the railways were a necessary great leap forward; it would seem a third runway at Heathrow representing similar progress ultimately depends upon whether or not one stands to profit from it. And there, in a sentence, is the story of our times. The best and the worst.

© The Editor

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STRANDED IN THE JUNGLE

61Whatever words may be used to describe the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, as far as France is concerned, ‘unprecedented’ shouldn’t be one of them. It only seems so from a British perspective, and it has to be said that the considerable headlines the Jungle has garnered in this country have been largely due to its uncomfortable proximity – the fact that only the Channel separates ‘us’ and ‘them’, thus bringing something close to Britannia’s borders that is largely alien to the British experience in terms of immigration. To the French, this is certainly not the case.

The messy (to put it mildly) partition of India that accompanied independence in 1947 didn’t really have an impact on the British people until the first substantial wave of Asian immigrants arrived on British soil twenty years later; the pattern established once they were here was to house many in declining industrial towns in the north or midlands as well as similarly rundown areas of London. Whilst this policy often gifted natives faced with diminishing employment opportunities the excuse that the immigrants were ‘takin’ our jobs’, the immigrants themselves knuckled down and worked extremely hard, forging new thriving communities in the process. Many were allocated admittedly poor housing, though these were still recognisable houses. The contrast with the ramifications that followed the end of France’s colonial adventure is stark.

The trauma the French went through over the loss of Algeria in the early 60s has no real parallels with the disintegration of the British Empire; none of Britain’s imperial possessions were near enough to the mainland to present Britain with the first-hand fallout of surrendering colonies to home-grown rulers who soon adopted a pseudo-Marxist approach to governance. As the distance between Paris and Algiers is just 837 miles, the four rebel French Generals who attempted to seize power in the face of imminent Algerian independence in 1961 were close enough to France for their threat to launch missiles at Paris from Algiers to be taken seriously. The belief that Algeria was an integral part of France bred such fanatical actions, though the Algerians that attempted to set up home in the Mother Country found that the French themselves didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms.

The appalling Paris Massacre of 1961 was spearheaded by Head of the Parisian Police Maurice Papon, a man whose later conviction for participation in the wartime Vichy regime seems highly in keeping with his behaviour on 17 October that year. He directed the police to respond to a demonstration by 30,000 Algerians on the streets of the capital with such callous brutality that even now nobody is entirely sure how many of the demonstrators were murdered. Only 40 deaths have been officially recognised, though some estimate as many as between 100 and 300 were killed that night; the Seine was said to be a genuine river of blood, with dozens of Algerian corpses floating in it.

Nobody was ever prosecuted for their role in the Paris Massacre, due to it being regarded as part of the Algerian War of Independence and therefore subject to the amnesty that was supposed to draw a line under the crimes committed during it. That the incident isn’t internationally recognised as belonging in the same unwanted pantheon as Bloody Sunday remains a mystery, though the way in which the guilty evaded justice was characteristic of the climate.

Most North Africans aiming to relocate to mainland France managed to avoid being massacred, but their eventual destination was usually the kind of residence Brits tend not to associate with the perceived sophistication of our Gallic cousins – shanty towns, or what the French called Bidonvilles. These proto-Jungle dwellings were largely invisible to overseas visitors and were understandably afforded little if any coverage abroad, though there were as many as 89 scattered around the outskirts of Paris in the late 60s. Although Portuguese immigrants constituted a large proportion of the population in such basic accommodation, many non-white arrivals to French shores could expect to end up there. No other Western European nation in the post-war era had such a severe segregation between natives and immigrants as France during this period.

There was a concerted effort to remove what were regarded as embarrassing eyesores from the mid-60s onwards, though as late as 1973 reports claimed as many as 8,600 people were still living in them. As the 70s progressed, the Bidonvilles were gradually cleared away from around Paris, but they still exist on the peripheries of several French cities and the Jungle is just the latest in a long line of them. The worldwide publicity the Jungle has received in comparison to all the Bidonvilles that preceded it is probably down to the excessive coverage of post-Iraq War events in the Middle East, and public interest in what becomes of those fleeing the region. Add the substantial number of migrants risking life and limb whilst escaping similarly dangerous environments in Africa and it’s a combustible mix guaranteed to generate tabloid scaremongering. But to react as though the Jungle was some new unpleasant innovation is to do a disservice to all those who inhabited the previous miserable Bidonvilles decades ago and were ignored by the wider world.

The closure of the Jungle that began on Monday has essentially been brought about by the media attention and clamour for ‘something to be done’, and I’ve no doubt Fleet Street will issue three cheers now that this particular problem has been pushed back from the coast of Northern France. There’s also the small matter of a Presidential Election in France next year and Monsieur Hollande is in sore need of a few popularity points.

The curious legacy of European colonialism is a reversal of the nineteenth century model, whereby Europeans feasted on foreign resources without first being invited to do so; ex-colonial subjects reciprocating the gesture 100 years later by turning up for dinner unannounced, however, is seen as something of a social faux pas – ditto those who were never colonial subjects, but whose presence on the doorstep is a direct consequence of more recent European gatecrashing. One could talk about reaping and sowing, but I won’t. The French have always had their own way of dealing with uninvited dinner guests, and while dumping successful asylum-seekers in Parisian suburbs that have already become ghettos left to their own devices may be merely a means of shifting the problem from one location to another, even those concrete jungles don’t conjure up quite the same visual misery as a Bidonville does. Get rid of them and the world can believe the dilemma has been solved. If only it were that simple.

© The Editor

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CARRY ON UP THE AMAZON

wwAnyone who watched ‘The Day Today’, ‘Brass Eye’ or even the more obscure ‘Jam’ several years ago may have wondered of late where Chris Morris is. After his involvement in the prophetic ‘Nathan Barley’ and suicide bomber comedy ‘Four Lions’, he seems to have been inactive; not true, of course. I suspect he’s currently the criminal mastermind behind the world we live in, creator of comic characters as wide-ranging as Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson, and perhaps his greatest work of fiction, Donald Trump. He also scripted the long-running saga of Samsung’s exploding mobiles and the recent clown craze, and was even making his mark at the United Nations last week by pulling off a magnificently mischievous conceptual art stunt in persuading that august institution to make a comic-book superhero an ambassador.

Okay, so there’s no evidence Mr Morris was involved, but surely he had to be, right? Wonder Woman belongs to the same DC universe as Superman, Batman, The Flash and The Green Lantern – in other words, she exists only when an artist draws her. She’s not real. She was played on the small screen by Lynda Carter in the 70s and will shortly be portrayed by another actress on the big screen as the Wonder Woman character is added to the never-ending superhero cinema franchise. Yet, the key point is that neither Lynda Carter nor the weirdly-named Gal Gadot has been nominated as a UN Ambassador, whereas the character they’ve played has. Imagine Sherlock Holmes being given a peerage. Granted, probably more deserving than most recipients, but that’s the ball-park of unreality we’re in.

For all the Nobel Prize Committee’s whinging about Bob Dylan’s silence on winning the literature gong, Bob’s failure to fly down to Stockholm and collect his award was probably to be expected, knowing the kind of erratic and unpredictable individual he is; but the UN will be waiting forever if it expects Wonder Woman to take up her ambassadorial role for the simple reason that she doesn’t actually exist.

The official title that the creation of William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth has had bestowed upon her by the UN is that of ‘honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls’; giving that role to a fictitious character suggests either the UN doesn’t regard it as an important task or that an organisation formed to be the ultimate arbitration service between warring nations has been reduced to a subservient marketing tool for the forthcoming Wonder Woman movie.

Wonder Woman will be used to promote women’s rights and gender equality, apparently; this is one of the UN’s ‘sustainable development goals’. The UN’s Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information (yes, unlike Female Superhero, that really is a job title), Cristina Gallach, was quoted as saying ‘Gender equality is a fundamental human right and a foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.’ And the way to achieve it is to hire a cartoon woman with the vital statistics of a young Pamela Anderson, who walks around in nothing more than a bodice, skin-tight knickers and knee-high boots. The UN couldn’t have scored a greater own-goal if it had borrowed a couple of bunny-girls from the Playboy Mansion.

The initial early 40s creation of Wonder Woman by a prominent psychologist and his missus, both of whom were involved in a polyamorous relationship with the same woman, was supposed to introduce an emancipated feminist heroine into the men-only club of superheroes; in that respect, their creation was genuinely groundbreaking, especially when the best a female character in a comic-book could hope for at that time was to be the Lois Lane girlfriend figure. But the character has developed such ridiculously perfect physical proportions over the decades (mirroring the similar transformation of her male counterparts) that for her to make the transition to the movies an actress probably has to submit herself to the kind of intense daily work-out regime beyond the budget and available leisure time of most girls who will see the film. She is as unattainable a physical ideal as Barbie, and this is one of the more prominent objections to her adoption by the UN – once the fact she doesn’t exist is put to one side, that is.

An in-house petition by UN staff protesting against the decision cites this aspect, claiming ‘It is alarming that the United Nations would consider using a character with an overtly sexualised image at a time when the headline news in the United States and the world is the objectification of women and girls.’ Some of those behind the petition turned their backs on the ceremony (attended by Lynda Carter) announcing Wonder Woman’s appointment, and there was a predictable storm on social media decrying the decision, coming as it did in the aftermath of the latest ‘Trump tape’ revelations.

If the aim is to move away from the common media and advertising image of a woman’s sole role outside of motherhood as being a desirable sex symbol, a character whose visual appearance embodies the latter certainly seems a strange choice. But for me it is the simple fact that the UN opted for a fictional character rather than a living breathing human being that remains the oddest element of this whole PR disaster. Then again, at least they recruited Wonder Woman rather than that other fictional character and parody of feminine assets, one who doesn’t even possess any super-powers, Kim Kardashian.


JIMMY PERRY (1923-2016)

perryI’m actually old enough to remember seeing some ‘Dad’s Army’ episodes when they first aired. I only say this because there will now be more than one generation tuning in to the most beloved of British sitcoms who have only ever known it as a classic series; the permanent rerun slot on a Saturday evening has a devoted following, perhaps amongst those allergic to the mystifying charms of the talent show. But as much as I enjoyed ‘Dad’s Army’ as a child, I was never as devoted to it as, say, ‘The Goodies’. Like fine wine, it has matured along with me, so that I can now genuinely appreciate the genius of the casting and the undoubted genius in the writing. The combination of the two is a truly magical alchemy that doesn’t happen on television very often, and the last living half of the writing side has now joined the majority of the cast in the cathode ray Necropolis where TV immortality is the reward for gifting the viewing public with such a gem.

The death of Jimmy Perry at the age of 93 brings to an end the era of the TV comedy scriptwriter whose University of Life was the battlefield. As with contemporaries such as Eric Sykes and Johnny Speight, Jimmy Perry’s youth was shaped by the Second World War, and Perry drew on that experience to forge some of the BBC’s most successful sitcoms. Like Private Pike, he had been in the Home Guard at the outbreak of conflict; his time serving in Burma inspired ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ (now rarely seen due to the PC brigade’s disapproval); and his stint as a Butlin’s redcoat was recalled when he created ‘Hi De Hi’. Working on all three with long-term collaborator David Croft, Perry was responsible for numerous memorable comic characters in an ensemble setting that belonged to an age when the compulsion to ‘shock’ was not an essential ingredient within the TV comedy framework. It was about character and the interaction between those characters – between Mainwaring and Wilson, between Williams and Lofty, and between Jeffrey and Gladys. You have been watching, and will continue to watch.

© The Editor

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SICK AS A PARROT

linekerNow, then – were we pre-modern before we were post-modern? Or were we simply modern? Whatever the correct term, there once was a time when presenters of television sports programmes were a straight, serious bunch in suits. These bastions of broadcasting for several decades were not beyond the occasional joke, usually when a comedian appeared as a guest on the less formal ambience of a Christmas special or those Cup Final shows that had hours to fill before the ref blew his whistle at 3.00. Largely, however, they had the same avuncular trustworthiness of the era’s newsreaders. It was hard to envisage any of them having a life outside of the studio or sports arena. I don’t think any of their political views or opinions on the day’s issues were ever expressed during a broadcast; they were there solely to air their views on the sport they were covering and the sportsmen and women participating in them.

In a way, Jimmy Hill was the first break with the formula; his initial appearances on London Weekend’s ‘The Big Match’ portrayed him as a bit of an arrogant dandy, with his beard, bushy, long-ish hair, and Carnaby Street-style neckerchief. His naturally combative style as a pundit also set him apart from the genial gentleman’s club of the comb-over crowd; that haircut seemed to be a requisite coiffured touch at the time, worn by such stalwarts as David Coleman, Frank Bough, Harry Carpenter and Brian Moore. Once Jimmy Hill moved into the presenter’s seat, he toned down his opinionated spiel, but I’ve no doubt that if social media had existed in the 1970s, Hill and the likes of Brian Clough (who became a household name mainly through his blunt speaking TV punditry) would have utilised it to get their egos across to as wide an audience as possible.

Would they, however, have engaged in the kind of non-football arguments Gary Lineker has engaged in on Twitter this week? Having kicked-off the season hosting ‘Match of the Day’ in his pants, Lineker is certainly cut from a different cloth to his predecessors. David Coleman in a similar situation that led to Lineker’s unappetising striptease would probably have said he’d eat his hat if Leicester City won the league, though Coleman belonged to the generation that would have actually worn a hat. But Lineker, plying his trade on the pitch through the 80s and into the 90s, belongs to the generation that sought to shed the archaic image of footballers who headed for the golf course to the strains of Robert Palmer or Dire Straits and were polite young men when interviewed by father figures.

In the 90s, ‘Fantasy Football League’ and ‘Under the Moon’ were new, late-night post-modern commentaries on sport that brought the irony prevalent in both the music press and magazines like ‘Loaded’ to a TV genre that had previously been in the hands of dads. Building on the success of Saint and Greavsie on ITV in the 80s, Sky had established its own even cruder double act in the shape of Richard Keys and Andy Gray, though their humour was essentially old-school and certainly didn’t equate with the post-graduate atmosphere that rejected both the starchy presentation of the Beeb and the ‘Wheeltappers and Shunters’ coarseness of its satellite competition.

As for the BBC, it took the retirement of that smooth silver fox Des Lynam from ‘Match of the Day’ for the vacancy to be filled by Lineker, who dispensed with the desk and imported a polished version of ‘TFI Friday’-type presentation to proceedings. The days when Des would soberly don his glasses to speak seriously on the subject of Eric Cantona scissor-kicking hecklers hurling abuse at him were long gone.

With the exception of Frank Bough and the somewhat racy escapades he’d much rather have kept out of the headlines, BBC sports presenters used to keep a low profile off-screen; their non-sports opinions were certainly kept to themselves. But in the Twitter age, Lineker has an online voice as loud as the current players whose performances he analyses on ‘Match of the Day’. Were he to reserve his tweets for the sport he played and presents, his opinions would only be of interest to football fans; but in expanding his Twitter portfolio by commenting on wider events in the world, he has been drawn into the murky waters of trolldom and the instant outrage agenda that generates it.

Making an enemy of UKIP and the EDL, not to mention the Sun – a paper whose track record when it comes to football tragedies alone is hardly something to shout about – won’t necessarily end Lineker’s career; if anything, it could well prolong it. Murdoch’s masses mouthpiece demanding ‘the jug-eared lefty luvvie’ be sacked for questioning the nasty, scaremongering reporting of the refugee ‘children’ arriving on British shores from Calais is a bit rich; but the Sun ascending the moral high-ground is always amusing. Lineker played into their hands by foolishly labelling anyone disagreeing with his own viewpoint as racist, though it was no more stupid than Tory MP David Davies describing Lineker’s response as ‘emotive and controversial views’.

The Sun resorting to playground taunts on the size of Lineker’s ears is just about the level this particular spat has descended to, leaving the actual subject under discussion the province of the prejudiced on one side and the apologists on the other, with no middle ground – again.

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SUFFER THE CHILDREN

aberfanWhen one hears the word avalanche, chances are it might evoke the image of James Bond or the Milk Tray man skiing down the impossibly pristine white slope of an Alpine mountain while a powdery cloud tumbles down towards him; we know he’ll evade it at the last moment, but the excitement of watching him do so is complimented by the picturesque glacial vista surrounding him. An avalanche tends not to be associated with an obscene, oily, swampy slurry as black as a hole in space that swallows the infants school of a Welsh mining village, killing 116 of its pupils as well as 28 adults; but that was the avalanche that wreaked inconceivable horrors half-a-century ago today.

Like the Moors Murderers and England winning the World Cup, Aberfan was one of those headlines from the year before I was born that my formative years were lived in the shadow of, relayed to me by my parents as a landmark moment of the recent past that I hadn’t experienced. Aberfan first made itself known to me when I joined a few pals at impromptu mountaineering as we stumbled upon a colossal ebony peak next to a decrepit Sunday League football ground my dad’s team were playing at. Roped along on an unappetising day out, discovering this unexpected challenge was a short-lived adventure; the huge slag heap that must have been connected to a neighbouring pit was one my mother hastily called us down from as she pointed out the danger by briefly summarising what had happened on October 21 1966.

To be fair, briefly summarising those events may do the people involved a severe disservice, but the events remain so appalling that it sometimes seems the only way one can actually accept them is by skimming through them as quickly as possible; to go into great detail is to document such a tragic disaster that one almost doesn’t even want to contemplate it. The madness of the scenario before that immense mountain of debris collapsed and careered downhill in a lethal landslide was so clearly an accident waiting to happen, yet the National Coal Board had spent fifty years depositing its excavated waste from the Merthyr Vale Colliery upon the steep hill that towered over the village of Aberfan. It was industry practice, and it would appear those who ran the industry never once considered the likelihood of an avalanche as the tip continued to grow to frightening proportions.

The villagers themselves as well as some of their council representatives had made various approaches to the NCB about the potential threat of the spoil heap above their village in the early 60s, though nothing was done. A gradual build up of water in the rock and shale that constituted the tip had made it increasingly unstable by 1966, dumped as it was on top of porous sandstone with springs beneath it. Heavy rain leading up to the morning of October 21 exacerbated an already perilous situation and at 9.15am, saturated debris began to slide down the hill, gathering speed as it headed towards the oblivious Aberfan.

With the village drenched in fog that rendered visibility of the high ground surrounding it nonexistent, nobody saw anything until it was too late; they heard the terrifying noise of it, alright, but the pace of the awesome avalanche was so fast that those in its path would have required a superhuman response to escape it. By the time it hit the village, debris measuring 1,400,000 cubic feet had become a 40 foot-deep slurry that enveloped a farm and a row of terraced homes before burying Pantglas Junior School in suffocating sludge and rubble.

Water and mud continued to pour into the village even when the landslide itself reached its destination and the villagers desperately rushed to the ruin of the school to dig out the trapped children, creating a uniquely awful set of circumstances that made the terrible task even harder. Within hours, hundreds had descended upon Aberfan to help, but nobody was pulled out of the wreckage alive after 11am, just one hour and forty-five minutes from the beginning of the avalanche. Whilst the world watched on, a heroic rescue attempt was ultimately fruitless, and it took a full week before all the bodies had been recovered. When the full scale of the loss of life emerged, and the fact that almost an entire generation of the village’s children had been wiped out in one devastating blow, the inquest into the causes of the disaster began.

This was when the National Coal Board embarked upon a shameless face-saving exercise that has horribly familiar echoes with the way in which the South Yorkshire Police attempted to evade responsibility for Hillsborough twenty-three years later. NCB Chairman Lord Robens was especially insensitive, provoking the fury of the bereaved families; even when the NCB were found to be entirely culpable, Robens was reluctant to accept the verdict. The NCB shelled out £160,000 in compensation, but further salt was rubbed into the wound when some of the money raised in an appeal fund for the community was used to finally remove the tips from above Aberfan, a belated necessity that either the NCB or the Government should have paid for had they been in possession of any decency.

The children that survived the catastrophe lived with survivors’ guilt and mental disorders for decades, and the resentment of families that had lost children towards those whose children lived soured relations in the village for years. Aberfan was a man-made disaster that could have been averted, but the appalling negligence of the National Coal Board has been repeated in other industrial disasters in other parts of the world, particularly the Bhopal Disaster of 1984. When profit comes at the expense of human lives, there are few more unacceptable faces of capitalism.

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DRIVE TIME

2000Watching any movie or TV drama from forty-odd years ago in which there is a location scene shot in an urban environment, the first thought that nearly always strikes the viewer is the paucity of vehicles on the road. Of course, it is a sensible and time-honoured practice for film crews to shoot outdoors at the crack of dawn, usually during the summer months when the sun rises especially early, and in some cases (depending on the budget) a road is closed off to prevent pedestrians or motorists wandering into focus and unintentionally interfering with the production. But even if these factors are taken into consideration, there is the undoubted evidence of streets unencumbered by parked cars outside private residences. If one ever wants proof of how car ownership has increased since the 1970s, one only has to compare the average street decor in terms of vehicles then to the same kind of location today, whereby single file traffic is often the only way of navigating one’s way through a road narrowed by nose-to-tail stationary cars on both sides.

Regardless of the long-running PR campaigns dissuading people from driving – whether from the green angle, encouraging the use of bicycles, or from the congestion angle, encouraging the use of public transport – a car of one’s own remains a must-have accessory for the majority. At one time, particularly when women had clearly defined roles within a marriage, one car per family would suffice, and was generally the husband’s toy; then it became commonplace for both spouses to have a car each; that children generally fly the nest later these days, and that economic factors mean many of them return after a university sojourn, has resulted in a third car parked outside the house in many cases. I’m sure garages for hire must still exist, though it would seem few use them anymore.

Figures published at the beginning of this year found that the number of cars on the country’s roads rose by almost 600,000 in the space of twelve months, with 25.8 million licensed cars in the third quarter of 2015. The year before, the figure had been 25.2 million. Affluent south-east England (which can claim 561 cars for every 1,000 people) saw the largest regional increase, with 373,200 more cars over five years, and the British motor industry, for so many decades one of our most under-performing, reported 2.63 million new cars had been produced in 2015, a 6.3% rise on 2014 as production reached a seven-year high.

As ever, a greater demand in goods brings down their price, which is indisputable when one considers there were 21 million cars on British roads in 1995 and twenty years later this had risen to 31 million; had the cost of a car stood still, such an increase would have been impossible. Statistics from the Department of Transport say there is now at least one car for every two people in five out of nine English regions.

The construction of the M62 between Yorkshire and Lancashire in the late 60s, the aim of which had been (like most early motorways) to alleviate traffic on overcrowded old A and B roads and to cut short long journeys, has ultimately been a failure simply because the level of car ownership at the time of its opening in the early 70s was a fraction of what it is now. The men who planned it evidently didn’t foresee a future in which the great liberator of the trans-Pennine motorist would end up as one of the country’s most congested roads. An average flow of 70,000 a day in just 1999 had increased to 100,000 by 2006. The M62 is naturally used by HGV lorries and other commercial traffic, so the blame on the increase cannot be laid solely at the private motorist; but without the substantial growth in car ownership over the last forty years there’s no question the congestion that afflicts the likes of the M62 would be nowhere near as bad as it is today.

In the midst of the growth of car ownership, cuts to public transport have undermined it as an alternative. Over the last six years, the use of buses has fallen across two-thirds of English council areas; as with the railways, rising prices and unreliable services have seen numbers diminish, with a drop from 5.7 to 4.1 million journeys. Out of 89 transport authority areas, only 29 reported a rise in passengers in the most recent survey. Deregulation of bus services has had an impact on both quality of service and passenger numbers, not to mention the cost of travelling by bus, though it has to be noted that there are (as the Radio Times used to say) regional variations where these statistics are concerned.

Whereas Redcar and Cleveland saw 27% fewer bus journeys made in 2015 in comparison to 2010, West Berkshire saw a 44% rise during the same period. Perhaps it’s telling that the West Midlands and Black Country have experienced a drop from 294 million to 275 million journeys in the last five years whilst fares have been hiked up from £1.80 to £2.30, even as diesel prices have fallen to a six-year low. Meanwhile, the Beeching Axe that decimated the rail network in the mid-60s is something that particular form of public transport has never really recovered from in presenting itself as a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine; privatisation of the industry has also contributed to its continuing disappointment when it could, and should, be so much better than it is.

A cursory excursion around the outskirts of most major towns and cities highlights the concessions that have been made to the motorist, with many neighbourhoods that once comprised thriving communities having being bulldozed into mini-motorways oozing bewildering mazes of winding roads to accommodate the nonstop flow of traffic. It can have the effect of making a passenger – or driver (though I fall into the former category) – feel as though he or she is trapped in a 70s JG Ballard novel, a dystopian concrete racetrack with no beginning or end, merely an eternal middle from which there is no escape. But, hey, this is the age in which we live – and drive; and drive; and drive.

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FOLLOW THE NARRATIVE

vlcsnap-2016-10-18-22h23m36s55‘I remembered the stories that I had heard over the years working in newspapers about Jimmy Savile…I’d interviewed Savile back in the late 1970s and I thought he was a deeply unpleasant man, that his public face was very different from the face that he showed when it was just the two of us together…we could never tell the story at the time ‘cause we could never get enough weight of credible evidence against him. I thought, well this is a story I can tell in fiction.’

Those are the words of crime fiction novelist and former newspaper journalist Val McDermid, speaking about her 1997 book, ‘The Wire in the Blood’; in it, a famous TV personality is revealed as a secret serial killer who gets away with his crimes on account of his celebrity. The interview came from a BBC4 programme aired at the beginning of this week in which Andrew Marr focuses on three of the most popular literary genres – crime, fantasy and spy. He prefaced his chat with McDermid by making the connection between her horrific creation Jacko Vance and Jimmy Savile, reiterating ‘what we all now know’ about Sir Jim beforehand and letting the author reinforce the accepted post-2012 narrative as she discussed her novel. Oddly enough, this section of the programme made no mention of the incident that took place during a book-signing session McDermid participated in at the University of Sunderland in December 2012, when a member of the public asked her to sign a photo of Savile from a ‘Top of the Pops’ annual and then proceeded to throw ink at her.

McDermid ticks a lot of boxes in that she’s a lesbian in a civil partnership with a child born of donor insemination; she also writes books that specialise in graphic (some might say voyeuristic) depictions of sadistic violence and torture. We can’t condemn her for the latter on account of her being such a good egg when it comes to the former. After all, her conveniently suitable opinion of Savile as being ‘a deeply unpleasant man’ echoes the words of Savile’s former TOTP co-host Tony Blackburn when he quickly sought to distance himself from an ex-colleague by referring to him as ‘a horrendous man’; this was, of course, long before Blackburn himself was sacked from the BBC after being wrongly linked to an unsavoury incident from the 70s that had the popular image of Savile stamped all over it.

It was interesting that McDermid should use the excuse of creating a fictional character rather than falling back on her journalistic experience to tell ‘the truth’ about Savile because ‘we could never get enough weight of credible evidence against him’. No, she couldn’t; and nor has anyone since – unless hearsay and unverifiable accusations against a dead man count as credible evidence, of course. Oh, sorry, I forgot – they do. Coming from a journo like McDermid who was supposedly in search of a scoop 24/7, it does sound like something of a cop-out; the same could be said, however, for every journalist who is now wise after the event.

For a public figure who apparently spent the majority of his lengthy career surrounded by unseemly rumours, it was rather miraculous that Jimmy Savile was never exposed in his lifetime as the man he was exposed as posthumously. Since when have newspaper journalists ever shied away from exposing public figures as being contrary to the image they project to the masses? Even in the deferential early 60s they dared to go for the jugular of the Minister for War, someone ranking a little higher in the country’s social hierarchy than a TV and radio personality.

But Val McDermid is sticking to the story we’ve been told for the past four years and I don’t believe anyone would expect her to do anything else. Imagine if she’d described Savile as ‘a really nice guy I immediately warmed to’. No, I can’t imagine it either. It has become an unwritten rule that Jimmy Savile now has to be spoken of in such terms and the narrative cannot be questioned or contradicted. The numerous TV programmes he hosted on the BBC for over thirty years can now only be exhumed from the archives if they’re to be used in a ‘serial paedophile’ context on a news broadcast or documentary; otherwise, they must never be transmitted as mere entertainment again, lest the very sight of him provokes the awakening of a repressed abuse memory. Veer from the narrative at one’s peril, and forget ever getting to the actual ‘did he?/didn’t he?’ truth as a consequence.

The media that had lauded Jimmy Savile as a Great British Eccentric while he was still with us – despite the blunt fact that a lot of people never cared much for him at all – is the same media that now demands we accept the reverse opinion; whereas pre-2012, dissenting voices weren’t given a platform, the change to the narrative since then ironically sees an identical scenario. Few – if any – dared to go public with their suspicions when he was alive, and now few – if any – dare to publicly question the perceived wisdom on Savile now he has been reborn as the Great British Paedo. Oh, I know there’s plenty of it online; but good luck if you try saying it on the telly or the wireless. The ability to question the consensus free from persecution or litigation should be one of the foundation stones of a democracy, though it’s interesting to look back almost twenty years ago, when The Conet Project began releasing recordings of clandestine Numbers Stations on CD. The prophetic sleeve-notes penned by compiler Akin O Fernandez referenced the fear that greeted his decision to commercially release tapes of something every government denies the existence of.

‘The depth of fear we have encountered in otherwise psychologically normal people is incredible,’ he wrote. ‘What kind of nation is it that has people second guessing their every action to check its legal status?’ ‘We are living in a time of widespread fear,’ he continued. ‘This level of paranoia used to be exhibited (with good reason) in the Eastern Bloc states; now this virulent plague has crept into the western mindset. It has oozed in very slowly, which is how it seems to have been able to take such a firm and widespread grip on the population without anyone really noticing that anything has changed…in 100 years time when we are all dead and shortwave radio is a memory, our recordings and log books will be an invaluable resource to future researchers who will laugh out loud at the Wireless and Telegraphy Act when they study the insane asylum known as the twentieth century.’

Change the century and the subject, and those words could have been penned in 2016, never mind 1997.

© The Editor

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