THE 30-YEAR ITCH

sputnikA friend of mine celebrated his 30th birthday this week. Stuck for what to give him, I opted for compiling a CD of the best music to have been released during the year of his birth. But this was no easy task; as someone who was there (18 at the time), I remember 1986 as the lowest musical ebb of the entire 80s. My eighteenth year was an immense disappointment; just as I was expecting to participate in the Next Big Thing – the next Psychedelia or Punk – I was confronted by a scene that seemed to be on its last legs. The Bright Young Things that had illuminated the pop landscape of the early 80s had utterly run out of steam.

Boy George was in the depths of heroin addiction; Duran Duran had been stripped down to a threesome and appeared to have lost their mojo in the process; The Human League had sold their soul to the soulless Jam & Lewis production line in the US; Tears for Fears, like The Eurythmics, had swamped their synths in thundering drums that reflected their American popularity and rendered their sound indistinguishable from the likes of Pat Benatar; The Style Council still had the attitude, but the good tunes that had always been Paul Weller’s secret weapon had dried up; Dexys Midnight Runners’ eagerly-awaited comeback album ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ (released in the autumn of ’85) had bombed; George Michael had swapped his exuberant brand of pop for the pompous persona of a ‘serious artist’; Spandau Ballet had similarly attempted to ‘grow up’ with songs supposedly about Northern Ireland, but failed to convince; and others who had once seemed destined for lengthy careers such as Adam Ant, Toyah, ABC and Nick Heyward couldn’t get arrested.

The year that followed the game-changer that was Live Aid presented those who had been the big guns of the decade’s first half with something of a dilemma. Their raison d’être was the antithesis of the ‘message’ in pop, and suddenly acts whose tongues had never ventured in the direction of their cheeks, such as Sting, Dire Straits and U2, were selling bucket-loads of albums on the back of their performances at 1985’s Wembley showcase. Short-lived teen idols like King, Then Jericho and A-ha occupied the void for a while, but they were recycling a style of pop that now sounded stale and worn-out. Only Prince and Madonna were making pop music that sparkled with individual personality, even if the latter’s records were lapsing into formula as the brand seemed increasingly more important than the product.

With the album charts boosted by the newfangled CD and the wine-bar MOR Muzak it seemed especially suited for, the singles charts lacked focus and imagination. One alternative was the Goth subculture, but its chronic lack of humour seemed curious for a genre that specialised in the ridiculous, and its key acts like The Cult and The Sisters of Mercy offered little but archaic rock clichés. The music press desperately searched for something and grouped together a series of unrelated young bands under the C86 banner, but none bar Fuzzbox and Pop Will Eat Itself made any chart impact, and both much later than 1986 at that.

Some of the best hits of 1986 were one-off reminders of what pop could still offer – ‘E=mc²’ by Big Audio Dynamite, ‘Life’s what you Make it’ by Talk Talk, ‘Word Up’ by Cameo – but everyone seemed to be waiting for something to come along that would shake things up ala Punk Rock, vainly hoping for any remote Sex Pistols resemblance in a band like The Jesus and Mary Chain. They were looking in the wrong place.

The Smiths remained the outsiders’ choice, releasing one of ‘86’s seminal singles in ‘Panic’ as well as their most critically-acclaimed album, ‘The Queen is Dead’; but the No.1 hits never materialised as the gap between rock and pop continued to widen. Ten years later, Blur and Oasis could sit at the pinnacle of both singles and album charts, but such a feat was unimaginable in 1986 for a band like The Smiths. What was needed was an act to come along who could unite the great divide and scare mum and dad in the process. What we pop kids got was Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

When compiling the CD that was intended to assemble 1986’s major musical moments onto one piece of plastic, I reacquainted myself with ‘Love Missile F1-11’, the debut single by the Sputniks, and their only proper hit. Produced by none other than Giorgio Moroder and laden with clumsy samples from movies like ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘Terminator’, it sounds incredibly tinny by today’s production standards – an ancient Eddie Cochran riff played on a synth, interspersed with the occasional axe ejaculation. It wasn’t exactly ‘Anarchy in the UK’, though the hype that accompanied its release suggested otherwise. An NME front cover of the time featured Sputnik frontman Martin Degville with the tagline ‘Would you pay £1 million for this crap?’ – a reference to the amount EMI had allegedly signed the band for. The Sputniks had a lot to prove, but they were incapable of doing so because they were no more ‘real’ than The Monkees had been twenty years previously.

The only two members of Sigue Sigue Sputnik who anyone can remember are Degville and guitarist Tony James; neither were exactly hungry teenagers. James had been a member of pop-punksters Generation X, alongside Billy Idol, whereas Degville had been part of Boy George’s Blitz Kid circle back in the New Romantic era. Their embrace of that period’s visual excesses was the last glorious hurrah of mainstream pop stars as peacocks, and it all seemed a bit gimmicky even next to the rest of 1986’s sartorial mishaps; but then the whole enterprise was based on gimmickry and hyperbole sourced from the Malcolm McLaren manual, a cartoon band designed to shock without the tunes to support the shock factor. Music almost seemed secondary to the event, but few could get away with that for long in 1986.

By the end of the year, the bigging-up of Sigue Sigue Sputnik as the future of rock ‘n’ roll already felt like a bad joke; but it was the last time such an audacious scam was hatched by those that promoted it in person. The production team of Stock, Aitken and Waterman were beginning to make inroads into the charts by cherry picking boys and girls-next-door whose contributions to the factory format were minimal in comparison to the clout that the three-headed duo at the mixing desk carried. The dull ordinariness of the S/A/W stable was crucial to its success; ‘image’, the byword for 80s pop for so long, was out. The commercial breakthrough of Run DMC via their collaboration with veteran US hard rockers Aerosmith reset the style template; the future would be clad in sportswear and sneakers.

A further blow to the pop star as outré alien came with the underground dance scene, which broke over-ground at the back-end of 1986 with Farley Jackmaster Funk’s ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’, the first acknowledged House hit. House and Techno reduced the concept of The Star to an all-time low; with their often sampled vocals, the records that constituted the chart dominance of Dance as the 80s drew to a close were largely the work of DJs, remixers and producers who revelled in their anonymity; and the audience weren’t bothered as long as they could dance to them.

1986, then – a crossroads between where we were and where we are; not a vintage year by any stretch of the imagination, and not one I’m in a great hurry to revisit again; but equally, a year it was undoubtedly fascinating to view from the kind of distance that enables its long-term consequences to be discerned.

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CONSENSUAL HEALING

coca-colaThe profile pictures of columnists in what used to be called the broadsheets are often an accurate pointer to the sanctimonious smugness of the scribe and his or her musings before the reader has even read them. The image of the Grauniad’s socialist-in-residence Owen Jones that appears on the paper’s webpage announcing the sacking of the crafty cockney Eric Bristow from his Sky Sports pundit job matches his pompous declaration that ‘Eric Bristow’s toxic tweets matter. These attitudes silence victims’ – a statement lifted from the piece I couldn’t bring myself to even look at. Like so many in his position who pose as an inquisitor of the consensus, Jones summarily fails to question any of the historical child abuse narrative and accepts it wholly as fact. The irrelevant viewpoint of an ex-darts player is a convenient red herring that gives Jones the green light to release the moral high-horse from his stable instead of addressing the actual issue.

The gruff opinion Eric Bristow tweeted in response to the spate of ex-footballer confessions over the past week or so is precisely what anyone with half-a-brain would expect a man of Bristow’s background and age to tweet; it wasn’t exactly ‘sensitive’, but if I want ‘sensitive’, I put Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ on the turntable, not 2 Live Crew. It is the unvarnished blokeiness of Bristow that has always been at the core of his appeal to those that like him, just as it is with Nigel Farage or Jeremy Clarkson. Maybe he should keep his opinions to his boozing buddies, but isn’t Twitter supposed to be a democratic forum where everybody is entitled to their say, a cyber Speaker’s Corner for the masses? That’s the theory, anyway.

When George Osborne copyrighted the phrase ‘We’re all in this together’ (one he should rightly be tarred with forever), the context in which he intended it to mean anything has been utterly transcended by everything else it can be applied to in this repressive, censorious society populated by timid, obedient schoolchildren masquerading as adults, terrified of being out of step with the rest of the class. Whether online, on campus, in media of both the print and broadcast variety and (especially) in public services, the fear of ostracism and exclusion from the crowd breeds the belief that if we all agree to pre-conditions in how we speak, think and respond then we’ll finally achieve the inclusive Utopia that Coca-Cola once portrayed when it tried to teach the world to sing.

Producing the next generation of consumers that will keep the economy on an even keel is a patriotic duty that opting out of risks vilification from the hypocritical harpies of Mumsnet, whose own concept of unity is rooted in an untruth because no mother dare admit her children have robbed her of her independence and taken away her identity. As someone whose morning routine is soundtracked by Radio 4, this is something I have never heard aired on ‘Woman’s Hour’, and I doubt I ever will. If Eric Bristow can lose his living because he tweeted something ‘offensive’, can you imagine the kind of punishment awaiting a prominent female in the public eye if she admitted she wished she’d never had the children that have become effective parasites draining her of all sense of who she is? Yes, we’re all in this together, none more so than that hotbed of competitive self-deception, motherhood.

Many of you may have read last week’s post, ‘A Social Disservice’, and this is a kind of sequel to that one, even if it might appear I’ve taken a roundabout route to it. But I think so much of the bureaucratic brickwork that the mother of the child I diplomatically referred to as X has come up against in an effort to retrieve a life for herself is mirrored in the wider world. It’s just more pronounced in the arena of social services and the detachment of management level, where patting one’s self on the back and earning Brownie points at dinner parties for proclaiming ‘I work with disabled children’ to an anticipated round of applause is the extent of actual involvement, as far removed from the reality of being cooped-up with a child suffering from extreme autism as WWI generals were from the trenches.

X was collected from four days in the care of the State last Friday and once back in the bosom of the family home reverted to feral type, reminding her mother why she’d deposited her in that care the previous weekend. X’s deterioration over just the last six months has rendered even the limited tricks that could once be used to momentarily occupy her completely redundant. In care, an entire team are employed to reduce X’s appetite for destruction, but the social services expect her mother to do the work of four or five people around the clock, 24/7, subjecting herself to continual assaults of biting, scratching and screaming for all of X’s waking hours. The individual members of staff attending to her in care have been subject to the same treatment, yet have to make excuses for it in order to accentuate the non-existent positivity that their box-ticking training requires.

X’s mother was informed a panel would review her situation at an unspecified future date, a Star Chamber hearing at which she would not be allowed to present her case nor provide the video evidence of X’s behaviour. Instead, an inexperienced social worker who has never even met X in the flesh would be there on her behalf, to submit a report compiled from an interview with X’s mother that (unsurprisingly) wouldn’t suggest any members of that panel take X into their homes for 24 hours to see for themselves precisely what X’s mother has to deal with. This virtual Soviet trial would then decide the future of someone not entitled to attend, with the umpteenth social worker to have dealt with X’s case during her short life being the mother’s proxy representative. This is the kind of farce that forces parents such as X’s mother into taking dramatic action.

The authorities are not accustomed to parents challenging their authority and questioning their wisdom because the parents are usually so mentally and physically browbeaten by the experience of looking after their problem children that they have no energy to fight back. X’s mother knows if she doesn’t take this stand then her life is effectively over. On Sunday, she rang the same emergency number she’d rung the previous weekend and after the phone was answered by a human being, the moment she explained the situation she was immediately transferred to an answer-machine. So staggeringly ineffective are the social services, someone in a similar position even advised X’s mother to dial 999 instead. She didn’t, but she dispatched an email to all parties with a vested interest in her continuing to endure a nightmarish excuse for a life and made it clear she wouldn’t be collecting X from school again on Monday. She stuck to her word and refuses to collect her at the end of the week.

The pressures on X’s mother following her actions, not only from the facsimile togetherness of the mother’s union, but from a system that expects her to fulfil a duty no sane person could stomach for as long as she already has before heading for the nearest bridge, is a consequence of a mindset that demands subservience to a consensus nobody signed-up for. And yet the consensus is there – in the social services, the DWP, the NHS, the police force, the media, online, f***ing everywhere. Oppose it at one’s peril, but for God’s sake oppose it. If you don’t, we’re finished; and the future will be a boot stamping on a human face, forever – although O’Brien neglected to mention it will be a smiley one. After all, we wouldn’t want to frighten the children.

© The Editor

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THE LIVES OF EVERYONE

ddrOne of life’s unwritten rules is that you don’t read somebody else’s diary – the exception being the plethora of published journals from politicians and writers who have printed their day-to-day experiences for public consumption. There’s a world of difference between picking up one of those in a book shop and snooping through the diary of a spouse, friend or family member that they have deliberately stuffed under a pillow or inside a drawer to hide from prying eyes. Privacy does not necessarily equate with secrecy; we are all entitled to record what goes on in our heads for our own specific reasons and have no need to justify doing so. There’s nothing criminal in having something to hide if what you’re hiding is your innermost thoughts.

Diaries strip away the facade we present to the rest of the world and are unique personal time capsules that capture a moment in ways that posed photographs don’t. After penning our thought for the day, it can be years before we even return to what we wrote; the Radio 4 series ‘My Teenage Diary’, in which noted names voluntarily read aloud the adolescent angst they documented decades before, often reveals as much to the author as to the audience. But the prospect of others perusing them while the ink has barely dried on the page is a gross invasion of privacy on a par with burglary. Like many (I suspect), I suffered that indignity as a teenager and didn’t begin writing a diary again until I was well into my thirties and living alone.

As a renowned God-botherer, Theresa May clearly thinks she was put on this earth to do His work, and her self-righteous missionary zeal was evident in her dismissive attitude to personal privacy and the rights of the ordinary citizen during her six-year stint as Home Secretary. With the convenient smokescreen of combating cyberspace Paedos and home-grown Jihadists, she was forever pushing for greater access to the public’s online activity, as though it was her divine right to be an omnipotent presence in every aspect of our lives. Now that she is top of the political pile she has even greater clout to play Big Brother – or Big Mama. She’s the nosy mother who stumbles upon your teenage diary when she’s Hoovering your bedroom and sits down on the bed to have a good read of it.

Whilst what we do and where we go online is a different kettle of fish from jotting down what we’re thinking in a diary, it’s still something we engage in on our own and don’t broadcast to the nation for various reasons; it’s nobody’s business but ours. The common cliché of private browsing being a euphemism for jerking off to porn sites is misleading, but misleading in a way that suits the Investigatory Powers Bill (the so-called ‘Snoopers Charter’) that the Government is determined will become law. Of course, the most embarrassing internet surfing in terms of it being shared with strangers usually does involve detours down ‘adult’ avenues, though the legislation that has already passed unopposed through the Lords doesn’t concern itself solely with money shots or DIY explosives manuals; it covers everything.

The Investigatory Powers Bill is the kind of outrageously intrusive legislation one takes as a given in China, Russia or North Korea and would have accepted as par for the course had the internet existed in the era of the GDR or USSR. When (rather than if) it becomes law, the Government and their affiliated security services will have easy access to your personal phone records and internet traffic, and service providers will be forced to preserve your browsing data for twelve months, obliged to hand over that information to the authorities should they request it. However, there is a telling caveat, one that emphasises the Us and Them divide between Westminster and the electorate in the same way that the one drinking den exempt from the smoking ban happened to be situated in the Houses of Parliament – MPs will not be subject to such mandatory snooping. Sounds like a fair deal, doesn’t it?

Millions of people in the United Kingdom already have endless personal details on the files of internet service providers, banks, insurance companies, eBay, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter et al – whether through choice or necessity – so the info is there waiting to be perused by Government agencies like the untapped natural resource of a colonised country; the Investigatory Powers Bill will legitimise their reasons for perusing it. It brands everyone as a potential threat to the Realm in the same way a CRB check brands every adult seeking to educate children a potential paedophile.

News of the proposals in the legislation was masterfully buried beneath the extended convulsions that followed Trump’s triumph in the US Presidential Election, and had an online petition opposed to its implementation not appeared, it’s doubtful many would even be aware of it. I don’t recall it attaining headline status on any news or current affairs show on any mainstream broadcaster, oddly enough.

I’m under no illusions that those nice chaps at GCHQ already do what the hell they like with our privacy regardless of what the law currently says, and I know from personal experience that employees of a certain police force can dig in search of dirt to their heart’s content, whether or not they’re legally entitled to do so. But with the Investigatory Powers Bill just weeks away from gaining Royal Assent and then being added to the statue book, no longer will the spies, spooks and snoopers have to officially circumnavigate their way around our rights to keep an eye on us. The law will give them carte-blanche to do so, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This might help, however…

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/173199

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THE UGLY GAME

police-boxJust when you thought it was safe to put the Paedo back in the box, the blighter has escaped again. Someone call the cops! Not to worry – cometh the Paedo, cometh the Chief Constable; this time it’s the turn of Norfolk’s main man, Simon Bailey. The No.1 Bobby from the land of big-eared boys on farms also happens to be ‘lead for child protection’ of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, so he obviously knows his stuff.

Chief Constable Bailey declared on Saturday that there will be a significant increase in numbers coming forward to report historical sexual abuse in sports other than football. Without even heading for the hat-stand in the hallway and reaching for the headgear marked ‘cynic’, it’s hard not to detect the palpable relish in a statement that means we will once again see the nation’s individual police forces devoting their resources to investigating alleged crimes committed twenty, thirty or forty years ago rather than coping with the far more difficult task of solving crimes committed in the here and now. It’s the crime-fighting equivalent of opting for the cosy familiarity of Radio 2’s playlist instead of taking a risk with 6 Music because the memory-laden soundtrack of the past is easier on the ears and easier to deal with than the unpredictability of the contemporary.

In what our law-enforcers know is a tried-and-trusted self-fulfilling prophesy, the announcement by a prominent policeman (at least in his own neck of the woods) that he suspects ‘there will be other sporting governing bodies…who will come forward and who will identify the fact that they have similar problems’ is guaranteed to unleash the kind of workload the police are evidently in sore need of as well as fuelling this nation’s insatiable appetite for the subject it clearly can’t get enough of. The words ‘credible’ and ‘true’ have yet to be bandied about, but other hackneyed phrases that constitute the lexicon of the historical child abuse narrative have reappeared, just as we all knew they would.

‘Brave’ and ‘Courageous’ were employed to describe the sad TV confessions of a group of ex-footballers fulfilling the moral obligation of the moment by providing a voyeuristic public and a salacious media with the most intimate and explicit personal details of their pasts; and, of course, ‘other victims coming forward’, that other old chestnut, was wheeled out for one more encore. As we are informed that four separate forces are stepping into their customised police boxes for further journeys back in time following last week’s high-profile revelations of a former youth coach who has already served time and is recognised as a past offender, the farcical national inquiry into child sex abuse has said it is ‘watching events closely’, perhaps intending to add football to its itinerary in around three or four years time.

The NSPCC, supposedly a children’s charity, has become the unofficial sponsor of the grown men whose miserable childhoods took place decades ago; the usual ambulance-chasing law firms have pricked-up their ears at a development that holds the prospect of fresh exploitation as well as financial salvation; and Crewe Alexandra, the perennial lower-league dwellers who once employed Barry Bennell, the man at the centre of these allegations, are apparently launching their own investigation into the unpleasant affair to boot. The wheels of the industry are being oiled anew and timing, as ever, is everything.

The BBC has given extensive coverage to this story, excitedly rounding-up the ex-pros to spill the beans on Victoria Derbyshire’s coffee-table chinwag in classic Oprah Winfrey fashion; one can’t help but suspect the Corporation is rubbing its hands together as it has done on numerous occasions post-Savile, eager to prove it wasn’t alone in allowing rampant Paedos to fiddle about to their dark heart’s content on their premises in the past. And, of course, the boys in blue, still smarting from the justifiable condemnation they received following the publication of the report into Operation Midland, are desperate to deflect attention away from their own ineptitude and corruption of justice, hoping they can win back the public’s trust in them by embarking upon a new mission against the common enemy.

As the most extreme extension of the ‘they’re all at it’ conspiracy theory conviction, the historical child abuse industry has been one of the few post-2008 success stories in the UK over the last five years; and like every booming business, it has a network of individuals and institutions that are financially dependent upon it. What would become of the arms industry, after all, if there were no wars taking place in which the latest weaponry was required?

Likewise, having exhausted the respective worlds of showbiz, politics, academia and various branches of Christianity, this particular industry has spent a great deal of time and energy engaged in a search for the next untapped source of revenue. So far, sport – usually bogged-down with match-fixing or drug-taking scandals – has evaded the shadow of historic abuse. Now, however, its time has arrived.

Like many detached observers witnessing yet another chapter in this saga unfolding, I often ponder on how and why we got here. I sometimes wonder if the obsession of Britain with a rare sexual peccadillo and the belief that every outlet of ‘the establishment’ has been a haven for its practitioners due to institutionalised blind eyes betrays a deep grievance with this society’s social and financial inequality. Intense envy of the rich, the famous and the powerful has grown in line with the dramatic decrease of social mobility; and as economic divisions widen rather than narrow it would appear the only way in which many can deal with the harsh truth that they will die in possible poverty and undoubted obscurity is to take the rich, famous and powerful down with them. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of this nihilistic approach to a hopeless situation are themselves, if not famous, then increasingly rich and increasingly powerful.

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THE REVOLUTION IS OVER

castroThere’s an episode of ‘Jason King’ in which Kate O’Mara perhaps inevitably plays the obligatory eye candy for the world’s most effete novelist-cum-international crime-fighter; in it, Peter Wyngarde’s flamboyant alter-ego becomes embroiled in the affairs of a fictitious Latin American country, languidly stumbling into a story as he so often does and used as a pawn by both El Presidente and the revolutionaries seeking to grab power for the people. O’Mara is probably the sexiest revolutionary ever to don the one-size-too-small requisite rebel uniform, but such plotlines were a staple of British and American spy/adventure series throughout the 60s and into the 70s. Late 1950s events in Cuba cast more of a cultural than political shadow in the popular western imagination.

Although he never attained the iconic status of his one-time fellow revolutionary Che Guevara (probably because he lived far too long), the death of Fidel Castro at the age of 90 nevertheless draws a line under an era in which isolated pockets of resistance to global American domination became a beacon for wannabe radicals in student union bars everywhere. Castro’s undoubted charisma as a young firebrand whose role in the toppling of a terrible tin-pot dictator made him a worldwide household name continued to exert a powerful hold over outsiders for decades, something that even his dubious human rights record as President couldn’t demystify.

Following in the footsteps of other musicians who had flouted the unofficial boycott of Cuban culture by the west, The Manic Street Preachers’ 2001 visit to the Caribbean island just 90 miles from the coast of Florida also included a meeting with Castro himself. On the video that documented the encounter, visibly overwhelmed guitarist Nicky Wire turned to the camera and proudly declared ‘Noel Gallagher met Tony Blair and we’ve met Fidel f***ing Castro!’ A man who had easily repelled America’s clumsy attempt to recapture Cuba forty years previously had by then outlasted eight US Presidents, though the fact this perennial thorn in America’s side was still in power in 2001 spoke volumes about the nature of democracy on Cuba. It was, however, always thus.

The country Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born into in 1926 had travelled a familiar colonial path during its lifetime. After 400 years of Spanish rule and several failed attempts to overthrow its imperial masters, Cuba was ceded to the USA following the Spanish-American War of 1898 (along with the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico); although America’s official role was to oversee the transition of Cuba from a Spanish colony to an independent nation (the Republic of Cuba was founded in 1902), American economic interests in the island rendered genuine independence something of a falsehood. The terms of the Cuban Republic’s independence were such that the US remained entitled to intervene in its affairs, which it proceeded to do on numerous occasions as democracy struggled to take hold.

Not until the early 20s did the influx of American tourists and American investment in Cuba serve to transform the island into the decadent playground for foreigners it gradually gained an unsavoury reputation for. Casinos, hotels, restaurants and brothels boomed and the Mafia gained a foothold in the capital Havana that was to last for over thirty years. The contentious figure of Fulgencio Batista first made his mark in Cuban politics during this period, and by the time Batista staged a coup and declared himself President for a second time in 1952, the divisions in Cuban society between rich and poor were glaring, though the island remained an attractive prospect for the worst US imports of crime, corruption and corporate exploitation.

For Fidel Castro, a failed lawyer and active activist whose Marxist political principles were at odds with Batista’s increasing anti-Communism (which won him greater US support as the Cold War intensified), the country was in dire need of liberation from a repressive dictatorship bankrolled by America. He formed a guerrilla group called The Movement and embarked upon a series of subversive activities that landed him in prison following a high-profile trial in which he used the platform to expose the rape of his nation to the world. Released early as the result of an amnesty on political prisoners, he emerged from gaol committed to the overthrow of Batista and the expulsion of American companies from Cuba. He plotted this after fleeing to Mexico and recruiting Argentine exile Che Guevara to the cause, eventually returning to Cuba with just 80 other recruits in 1956.

A two-year campaign against Batista’s forces was staged from Castro’s base in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, picking up the invaluable support of Cuba’s peasantry in the process. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, the US slowly began to withdraw its support for Batista at a time when Florida was beginning to overflow with Cubans who had fled the regime and were loudly proclaiming their belief in Castro as the country’s saviour. The US imposed an arms embargo on Cuba, weakening Batista’s military stranglehold and enabling Castro’s much smaller forces to sweep towards Havana on an unstoppable tide of revolutionary fervour that climaxed with Castro’s army’s triumphant entry into the capital on 2 January 1959 and Batista’s flight.

With the extent of Batista’s corrupt rule now public knowledge, Castro’s achievement was widely welcomed, though events that followed soured initial optimism. The rushed trials and executions of those who had constituted Batista’s military, police and secret service seemed no different from the brutal punishments the deposed President had himself overseen, and it began to feel like a case of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. Castro’s unashamed Communism did him no favours stateside, nor did his nationalisation of all Cuba’s foreign-owned properties. It was inevitable that Castro’s rejection by the US would send him into the arms of the opportunistic USSR, and ill-advised efforts to reverse the revolution by America such as the disastrous Bay of Pigs affair, not to mention the CIA’s mind-boggling schemes for Castro’s assassination, opened the doors for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to begin shipping missiles to the island. We all know what happened next – or, to be more accurate, what didn’t happen. If it had, we probably wouldn’t be here now.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, America’s focus shifted to a certain country in South East Asia and Fidel Castro began to implement the educational, agricultural and healthcare reforms for the Cuban people that have often won him the kind of plaudits from those who have not been so favourable towards the methods he employed to hold onto power. Investment from the USSR continued to play a vital part in Cuba’s success story, though the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the early 90s dealt a severe blow to the Cuban economy that emphasised the damage of America’s long-standing economic embargo.

Fidel Castro finally retired as Cuban President ten years ago; the fact he handed over the reins of power to his brother Raul when doing so emphasised the absence of democracy as the west would recognise it, though whatever means Castro used to assert his authority haven’t dimmed his legend as the heroic liberator of Cuba. A regime that has become the blueprint of every revolutionary-turned-President since is not necessarily a legacy anyone with genuine care for human rights would praise, though were he remembered solely for what he achieved in 1958/9, that would be a fitting obituary. Sadly, there’s far more to the story than that.

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ODD MAN OUT

telephone-boxCharlie Brooker’s anthology series ‘Black Mirror’ could easily have been called ‘Play for Tomorrow’, dealing as it does with an unspecified near-future in which personal technology has taken another leap forward; and each leap taken is uncomfortably believable in the most sinister fashion. An earlier episode, such as the one where a cartoon character enters the political arena, was judged by some to be a precursor to Russell Brand’s spell as an internet activist; and as for one in which the Prime Minister is forced into having sex with a pig – say no more.

Having recently transferred from Channel 4 to Netflix, ‘Black Mirror’ is now something that can constitute binge-viewing, with the whole series available to download in one go, rather than the more traditional practice of having to wait a week between episodes, as dictated by the broadcaster. I saw the opening episode of the new series a couple of nights ago and knew Brooker was playing with our fears for the future once again. In this one, the ratings system familiar to anybody who routinely monitors their views on YouTube, their re-tweets on Twitter or their number of friends on Facebook, had become the means by which an individual’s value is judged in all walks of life. Purchasing an aeroplane ticket, a hire car or even a house was utterly dependent on how high one’s online ratings were. Failure to adhere to the system could result in pariah status and second-class citizenship.

Naturally, this system revolved around the ubiquitous mobile phone, with the object possessing even more power than people credit it with in the present day. The fatuous and facile, style-over-substance mindset so prevalent in numerous online outlets may have already made the lives of millions a vapid popularity contest, but here it was the difference between being an accepted member of society and an utter outcast. The authorities’ punishment for a minor indiscretion was no longer a fine, but a deduction of online points that henceforth barred the unfortunate miscreant from participating in the communal summer camp society had evolved into.

I know it shouldn’t, but whenever I watch an episode of ‘Black Mirror’ that deals with this kind of thing it merely confirms my lingering suspicions over the mobile phone. I have a confession to make. I don’t own one. I never have and I never want to.

I must stress this isn’t a Luddite protest. Being online has had huge benefits for me that I could never have dreamed of just a decade ago. It has enabled me to garner an appreciative audience for DIY videos which aren’t to everyone’s taste but are enjoyed by many; it has given me a platform for my writing via blogs such as this and my other, ‘Looking for Alison’, that I never previously had when all my efforts were read by a very small circle of friends as well as publishers that rejected them; it has facilitated cherished friendships with people I’ve never met in the flesh due to their geographical distance; and it has made communications easier in ways that the old expense of the telephone conversation or the waiting game of the posted letter couldn’t compete with. It has widened my world considerably, and I have managed all of this without ownership of the tool we are led to believe life isn’t worth living without.

Not being on friendly terms with any Yuppies in the 80s, the first people I knew who had mobiles were drug users and drug dealers in the 90s. Paranoia over the tapping of landline phones (or just phones as they were known then) made the mobile the perceived safe option when it came to arranging exchanges. They were also handy as a means of speeding up an exchange when ‘waiting for the man’ and the man was late in getting to the rendezvous. The neighbourhood I lived in back then had a high student quota, yet this was still an era in which the beginning of a new university term would see queues outside public call boxes as the latest crop of fresh arrivals needed to ring home and assure their parents all was well. When was the last time you saw a queue outside a public call box? Few students I knew then could afford a car, let alone a mobile phone. How times change.

We now, of course, have a generation that has reached adulthood (in theory, anyway) that has never known life without their electronic equivalent of a baby’s dummy and cannot imagine such a surreal scenario as being out and about alone and rendered unreachable on the other end of the line. What – going for a walk or shopping and nobody can actually get hold of you until you get back home? Not only that, just think of all the things you’ll miss on social media in your absence! You won’t be able to chronicle your exciting journey with a selfie recording the great event either, never mind inviting the world to marvel at your pasty or to announce which coffee shop you’re having your cuppa at. What kind of caveman are you?

I recall a salesman from my internet provider trying to flog me a package with which a free mobile phone came. He had clearly been trained to believe that such an offer could not be resisted by any customer, so when I informed him I didn’t want it he went into a hysterical meltdown, responding to every rejection on my part by extolling the virtues of the object with an increasingly manic sales-pitch; I suspect he probably had to take a few days’ sick-leave to recover from the shock of a polite refusal. I suppose it was that experience that made me realise how odd I was in not worshipping at the enslaved altar of the zeitgeist, but I liked the feeling.

I don’t need a mobile phone any more than I need a carrier pigeon or smoke signals; I just need a landline telephone so I can be reached when I’m at home and I can’t when I’m out. I like the liberation from being voluntarily tagged and monitored when not at home. I can’t do anything about the surveillance state in terms of CCTV cameras, but I do have a choice when it comes to the mobile. I can just say no. And I do.

© The Editor

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A SOCIAL DISSERVICE

virgin-maryKeeping wild animals as pets is never advisable, though it has been a regular affectation of the wealthy and eccentric; Dickens had a pet raven, Byron had a pet fox, Josephine Baker had a pet leopard, and there was the famous story of Christian, the lion cub purchased from Harrods (!) in the late 1960s by John Rendall and Anthony Burke, who kept the big cat at their home in London for more than a year until the difficulties of the arrangement became insurmountable. Christian was eventually reintroduced to the wild by George and Joy Adamson, the right environment for a creature unsuited to the enclosed spaces of the urban jungle. The feral characteristics of a wild animal whose natural instincts are in conflict with those of their human owners and the living conditions humans favour make such unnatural captivity ill-advised.

Children are supposed to be the antithesis of wild animals in the home, though the place of the most badly-behaved in it is sometimes indistinguishable from wild animals; children are essentially indulged pets for the first few years of their existence – at least until they start school. Many children are now able to get away with a good deal more than their parents could when they were the same age, for the unfashionable implementation of discipline and respect as administered during the childhoods of most reading this post has diminished with each successive generation. The deification of children by the media and its celebrity whores has elevated the mother figure back up to the level of the medieval Virgin Mary and the children themselves to the saintly cherub embodied by Baby Jesus. Any contradiction to the consensus condemns mothers who can’t keep up with the standards set by the Breastapo, whilst the child itself can rule the roost in open denial of its angelic status.

But what if the child is ten-years-old with the mental age of a nine-month-old baby? We all know how useless and essentially boring babies are – wailing, nappy-filling tyrants who can’t even stand on their own two feet – yet imagine what they could do with their limited intelligence were we to transplant their underdeveloped brains into the body of a fully-grown child. Every random thought that entered their head when confronted by the unfamiliar and the new would be something they could physically react to rather than stare and cry at. Chaos would ensue. And that’s precisely what happens with the mercifully-rare extreme autism some unfortunate children are afflicted by at birth – the ten-year-old with the nine-month-old mental age mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. This particular child exists and we shall call her X.

X has profound learning difficulties that are incurable. She has no social skills and her ability to interact with others is severely limited. Her incompatibility with other children means her relationship with her siblings (from whom she is segregated) is minimal. She will never be able to lead a normal life. She cannot speak and can only express herself verbally through the most basic vocal noises. If the day’s routine veers from the pattern X dictates, usually by accident than design, an incendiary tantrum erupts. At such moments, X lashes out at herself and her mother with a fearsome strength that will increase as she grows – biting, scratching, punching and kicking. It is extremely difficult to reason with X or to explain a situation to her. She lacks the mental capacity to process such information and cannot understand why her mother won’t simply drive her around in the car, going nowhere for hours on end.

X puts many non-foodstuffs into her mouth, and is doubly incontinent. She views bodily waste as no different from any other substance. Her sleep does not adhere to any regular pattern. She can wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and expect the day to progress as though it were 8 or 9. X has to be watched every moment of her waking day, placing an exhaustive burden upon her mother; her behaviour and the need to monitor her at all times makes a normal life for her single parent mother impossible and X’s mother has no extended family to call on for support.

Even a relaxing necessity such as eating a meal, watching TV or reading a book uninterrupted, something the rest of us take for granted, is impossible to undertake in X’s presence. X attends a special needs school during term time, with her needs attended to by a team. When the holidays come, however, X’s mother copes alone with occasional support staff. Bereft of her term team, school holidays are a challenge for X and her mother. Changes to X’s routine induce anxiety and upset, increasing incidents of both self-harm and harm inflicted upon those around her. X’s oblivious antisocial behaviour limits the time she can spend outdoors and amongst the public, narrowing her world considerably. Her quality of life is as poor as any able-bodied person could possibly experience.

But, of course, we have our wonderful Welfare State and its social service offshoot to aid and assist mothers of children such as X, don’t we? That unimpeachable gift to the nation that only wicked Tories and right-wing advocates of private healthcare dare to criticise is there to help, no? Think again. Oh, if your idea of a way of helping the mothers of children like X is to throw money at them because it’s cheaper to do that than to entrust the lifetime care of X to the State, fair enough. Overburdened by unnecessary referrals in the fallout from both Savile and Baby P, run along the lines of box-ticking bureaucracy with timid, naive staff trained in rigidly upbeat false positivity that negates common-sense realism, and weighed down by the layers of management that provide its beneficiaries with a comfortable career of paid holiday, pension-guaranteed detachment from the frontline parental war zone, the whole rotten system is the Circumlocution Office turned up to eleven.

This weekend, confronted by a relentless physical assault from a child whose rage is vocally manifested as the kind of screaming that makes a car alarm sound like Beethoven’s Ninth, the sleep-deprived, battered and bruised mother of X removed her earplugs and called the social services to take the wild animal masquerading as her daughter away into permanent care. Nobody rings such a number unless they have reached absolute breaking point, yet the response of the social services confronted by their worst nightmare was to try to dissuade X’s mother; when that failed, she then received a lecture in which the threat of ‘child abandonment’ accusations was implicit. Let the ivory tower-dwelling management Olympians take X into their home for 48 hours and see how they cope. It won’t happen. X’s mother has been astute enough to video X’s rages as evidence, and glass houses are susceptible to stones, after all.

I have been a long-distance recipient of X’s worsening behaviour over the last twelve months, and the fact that she has to sleep within an effective cage in order to prevent her from running away emphasises how unhappy she is with her living arrangements. The physically and mentally drained mother of X has undertaken her maternal duties above and beyond the call of duty, living a life few could possibly picture unless in the same situation. She has done everything humanly possible to appease X’s unimaginable condition, but she has finally arrived at the point of no return. If the social services cannot be there for children such as X, what is the bloody point? And, better still, how the hell can we retain outdated pride in it? If X was an adult in a relationship and had treated her spouse as X had treated her mother, the police would have been involved and there would no doubt have been a high-profile court-case. But a child? No, children don’t do that. They’re angels. And their mothers fail the audition at their peril.

© The Editor

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