AN IMPOSSIBLE ALMANAC

crystal-ballNot even Nostradamus or Mother Shipton would have collected a few quid from their local turf accountant this year; 2016 seemed to delight in the unexpected, turning perceived wisdom on its head, confounding pundits and pollsters, and smearing an unprecedented number of countenances in eggs. Few observers twelve months ago would have predicted Leicester City winning the Premier League, David Cameron resigning or Donald Trump acquiring the keys to the White House – yet some did sense the way the wind was blowing and made what appeared to be audacious claims at the time, claims that now seem like shrewd studying of the form book.

As with most developments, both culturally and politically, foundations are usually laid years in advance, generally without much fuss or widespread notice; nothing happens out of the blue, though the mainstream media can be so slow on the uptake that it can easily feel that way. Trump couldn’t have become the most unlikely US President in history had his predecessors not summarily ignored and neglected the silent majority he courted and persuaded he was speaking for; similarly, the UK electorate would never have voted to leave the EU had the residents of Westminster Village not looked upon their constituents as irrelevant pond-life whose concerns were secondary to their own self-preservation.

Hindsight is only a useful tool for those who learn from the lessons of history rather than ignoring them, and when the definitive chronicle of the early twenty-first century is written, all the dots will be neatly joined up as though the connections were evident to one and all at the time. However, in an age of information overload, the intimidating task of attempting to see the wider picture can risk pandering to the conspiracy theorist mindset; one can mistake speculation for fact or hearsay for evidence. There’s sometimes so much shit to sift through that the temptation to leave the job to the self-appointed experts is the easy option; and then they get it wrong.

It probably doesn’t help matters that we’re living in perhaps the most polarising era for at least three decades, something that makes any effort to discern the truth of any situation even harder. There is no middle ground and there’s no fence dividing the barricades that one can sit on for a bit in order to gain a little perspective. Shades of grey have been swept away by the absolute certainties of black and white, and one cannot have a foot in both camps. You’re either for us or against us. You’re with Corbyn or you’re a Blairite Tory. You’re a Brexiteer or you’re a Remoaner. You’re a feminist or you’re a rapist. You believe black lives matter or you’re a racist. Raise your head above the parapet and say something that others disagree with and you’re shot down as an enemy of the people. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.

Trying to look ahead to 2017 and anticipate events with any sort of accuracy would seem like compiling an impossible almanac; but there are probably a few predictable patterns. No doubt there will be another stupid, here today/gone tomorrow moronic trend along the lines of past fads such as the flash-mob, the clown craze, the ice-bucket challenge or the mannequin challenge, though I can’t see the intellectual challenge being one of them. There’ll be ridiculously OTT reactions to contestants in a TV talent show, from hysterical online arguments to tabloid headlines to a nondescript backbench MP eager to get their face on camera by issuing a ‘witty’ comment to show how in touch they are with the plebs. There’ll be a merchandise marketing exercise masquerading as a movie and it’ll break all box-office records despite leaving those who queued up to see it at their local multiplex utterly empty.

There’ll be a new boy-band/girl-group manufactured by the cultural puppet masters to keep the teenyboppers preoccupied; there’ll be another ‘new Adele’ specially designed by Jools Holland and Lauren Laverne to be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and win a cluster of Brit Awards; there’ll be a celebrity couple splitting and another getting together; and there’ll be the naming and shaming of a less fortunate over-the-hill celebrity as a Paedo/rapist while the Chief Constable of a mediocre provincial constabulary urges other victims to come forward as the guilty-till-proven innocent star’s oeuvre is excised from the archives of the nation’s broadcasters.

There’ll probably be a couple of high-profile resignations from Theresa May’s Cabinet and I suspect President Trump will commit a series of appalling gaffes; ISIS will probably be responsible for a string of terrorist atrocities on European soil, aiding Marine le Pen’s victory in the French Presidential Elections and Angela Merkel’s downfall in Germany; Putin and Assad will finally pull their respective trousers up after completing the rape of Syria while the US and UK will continue to fund Saudi Arabia’s parallel destruction of Yemen; and Article 50 will remain unrevoked as the vested interests in Brussels’ very own Holy Roman Empire keep the gravy train on the rails. Oh, and quite a few famous people will die.

Then again, I could be wrong. Years in which a great deal happened are often followed by less remarkable ones. In this very decade, think of a year like 2011 – the Arab Spring, Hack-gate, the riots, the assassination of Bin Laden – and then we get 2012; all that comes to mind from that year is the London Olympics. So, we could be in for a quiet twelve months or we could be in for part two of the apocalypse. Watch this space.

© The Editor

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SO, FAREWELL THEN

slave-girl-leia1Why wait till New Year’s Eve when everybody will be out anyway? I’ve already done my ‘review of the year’ for what it’s worth, stuck together when this blog marked twelve months online at the beginning of December; it was when compiling it that I realised Lemmy actually passed away during the dying days of 2015, despite the fact that every roll-call of the Grim Reaper’s chosen ones in 2016 seems to have included the Motorhead frontman. Somebody please sort this out. It’s getting bloody annoying now.

Mind you, it’s no real surprise Lemmy keeps getting lumped in with the astonishing catalogue of pop cultural kings and queens that have bitten the dust this year; the body count has been so extensive that it seems hard to conceive of anyone who mattered passing away in a year that wasn’t 2016. Since the last post just over a week ago, notable names like George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Rick Parfitt have joined the Choir Invisible; all three suffered from largely self-inflicted health problems in recent years as a result of youthful excesses, though the demise of the ex-Wham heart-throb still felt like a surprise.

Too old and the wrong sex to be a Wham fan in the 1980s, I nevertheless liked the exuberance of their debut hit, ‘Young Guns (Go for It)’ in 1982, and ‘Wham Rap’, their first release (which became a top ten hit when reissued in 1983), anticipated everything Paul Weller was poised to attempt with The Style Council albeit without the po-faced preaching that marred the Jam man’s second chart project. Too poppy for me at the time, the rest of Wham’s output wasn’t something I cared for much, and when Michael capitalised on the 1984 solo success of ‘Careless Whisper’, his decision to offload the spare part that was Andrew Ridgeley saw his reinvention as a Serious Artist. His timing, coming as it did in the wake of Live Aid and the swift decline of the lightweight pop he and his contemporaries had been pedalling during the first half of the 80s, was spot on.

This persona, which carried him through to the beginning of the 90s, portrayed him as a rather pompous individual yearning to produce Art and acting as though he already held a season ticket for the pantheon of The Greats. As his work-rate slowed down in the early 90s (partly due to a court battle with his record company), it took until 1996 before the release of what was perhaps his finest album, ‘Older’. Though overall both lyrically and musically melancholy, he seemed to have achieved a balance between his poppy instincts and his desire to be recognised as an Artist; one of its singles, ‘Fastlove’, was luminously funky, though its sorry story of casual sex was hardly celebratory. But it was the promo video for ‘Outside’ in 1998, whereby a public convenience is transformed into a kitsch disco full of gay cops, that showed Michael had a sense of humour, coming hot on the heels of his arrest for importuning and final belated emergence from the closet.

His last few years included one more album of new material, a string of singles that combined social commentary with his distinctive flair for toe-tapping grooves, and several non-musical incidents involving illicit substances when at the wheel of his car as well as further adventures in public conveniences. It was often easy to forget what George Michael was actually famous for. His death on Christmas Day aged just 53 was accompanied by the usual initial online sensational speculation before being superseded by refreshing revelations of his quiet generosity, something he relented from using as a marketing tool in contrast with many of his ilk. He rarely seems to have been a happy man, but it would appear he managed to make others happy, which isn’t a bad legacy to leave behind.

Rick Parfitt had a good fifteen year chart start on George Michael; as rhythm guitarist with one of the UK Top 40’s institutions in the 70s and 80s, Francis Rossi’s Status Quo sidekick occasionally took microphone duties, though his role was usually as contributor to the band’s no-frills approach to hard rock, one containing enough memorable melodies to make them ‘Top of the Pops’ regulars for three decades. Although Status Quo began to take on cabaret qualities from around the time original bassist Alan Lancaster departed in 1984, their best work demonstrated a rare ability to successfully walk the line between Metal and Pop, an achievement few others (with the possible exception of Thin Lizzy) managed in the 70s.

Parfitt’s prodigious cocaine and vodka intake at the height of the Quo’s success left its mark on his body; he endured a quadruple heart bypass operation in 1997, though it took further heart attacks before he adopted a more sober lifestyle. Alas, his one-time residency in the fast lane finally caught up with him the day before George Michael’s body was discovered, and 2016’s litany of musical casualties had acquired another recruit. When Parfitt’s death was announced late on Christmas Eve, the day had begun with news that actress Carrie Fisher had been admitted to hospital after suffering a heart attack; for a few hours, it seemed she would be next on the hit-list, though she hung on for a couple of days before the inevitable.

Although not a musical figure, Fisher’s role as Princess Leia in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise made her a pop culture icon on a pop music scale, something she eventually (not to say reluctantly) came to terms with. A product of showbiz parents in the shape of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher’s acting career had an impressive start when she played a spoiled Hollywood brat alongside Warren Beatty in 1975’s ‘Shampoo’, yet it was being cast in the first instalment of George Lucas’s space opera series that branded her in the public eye thereafter. Returning to the role of Leia in the two initial ‘Star Wars’ sequels, the part and the phenomenon overshadowed her other work, though the success of her semi-autobiographical book and screenplay, ‘Postcards from the Edge’, won her plaudits by highlighting the same dedication to drug use that similarly afflicted the two other names to predecease her over the festive period.

In recent years, Fisher became noticeably resigned to the fact she would never escape Princess Leia and ironically her final acting performance was as the same character in the next yet-to-be-released episode. As with both George Michael and Rick Parfitt, she came across in interviews as a likeable person in possession of a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour; whether or not one will miss this trio depends on where you stand as regards their work, but the world will seem a less colourful place without them – and don’t we need colour right now?

© The Editor

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IT’S NOT OVER YET

cunt-2The decision of the ‘Newsnight’ production team and presenters to take an early holiday as of last Friday seemed to suggest 2016 had finished slinging shit at the world; paid vacations for BBC freeloaders doesn’t mean the most unpleasant twelve months in living memory has completed its catalogue of carnage, however, as yesterday’s events both in the centre and on the fringes of Europe indicated in the worst possible way. The assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in full view of TV cameras, swiftly followed by another horrible massacre – this time on the streets of a city with its fair share of past atrocities, Berlin – confirmed this year’s obituaries have been prematurely penned.

Not dissimilar to the gruesome scenes that accompanied the murder of Lee Rigby three years ago, the brazen pride in the killer of Andrei Karlov as he waved his weapon and ranted whilst the dying ambassador lay at his feet was an irredeemably ugly exhibition that suggested the secular constitution of Turkey isn’t merely under threat from the country’s dictatorial President Erdogan. The assassin, disconcertingly dressed like an extra from ‘Reservoir Dogs’, was apparently a serving police officer who quickly met the same fate as the man he shot in the back once Turkish security forces gate-crashed the incongruous surroundings of the Ankara art gallery where the murder took place.

Turkey has been a tense nation (to put it mildly) since the failed coup several months ago, but the ongoing crisis in Syria has added to the strained relations between the Turks and the Russians; lest we forget, it was only a year ago that a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkey on the border with Syria. As Syria is on Turkey’s doorstep, a leader who makes no bones about his religious leanings, not to mention having purged the police, armed forces and judiciary of his enemies, is hardly in a position to dissuade his underlings from expressing similar beliefs with the kind of violent force Russia has unsurprisingly labelled ‘terrorism’.

Barely had the international community had the chance to react to that awful act before news began breaking of the latest slaughter of civilians on a European street. Echoing appalling events in Nice last July, the same method of murder was employed in an effort to maximise the body count, i.e. a lorry ploughing pedestrians down. Mercifully, the numbers killed at the Berlin Christmas Market were far lower than the 89 in France, but the incident will no doubt place further pressure upon Frau Merkel and her benign approach to immigration on the eve of a General Election in Germany, not to mention gifting Madame le Pen a fresh batch of headlines rich in exploitative potential when she prepares to sell herself to France’s own electorate next year.

Neither incident yesterday has yet to be connected to ISIS or any other Middle Eastern paramilitary organisation with a grudge against the west, though the one in Berlin does bear all the hallmarks. Mevlut Mert Altintas, the assassin of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, had included the words ‘Syria’ and ‘Aleppo’ in his post-assassination rant as well as the popular Radical Islam catchphrase ‘Allahu Akbar’, yet his actions seem more reflective of anti-Assad, anti-Russia/pro-Syrian Rebel Forces protests in Turkey over the days leading up to the murder rather than any suggestions of ISIS sympathies. Nevertheless, all major European cities are on high alert again, anticipating sleeper cells being triggered into action by news from Berlin in particular.

If 2016 has taught us anything it’s that all the worst bits of 2015 have simply been taken to the next level, and there’s little evidence that 2017 will see any improvement. Those keen to see the back of this year will probably find next year just as gloomy, but to turn Harold Macmillan’s trademark sound-bite on its head and say we’ve never had it so bad is to betray an ignorance of the past. The world has been here before, but I suppose to anyone born after, say, 1985, the current global turmoil is unprecedented within that short lifetime.

On a trivial, mildly inconvenient level, the concerns that claim tabloid column inches such as train and postal strikes were considerably more far-reaching forty-odd years ago. In the case of Southern Rail’s ongoing chaos, a nationalised railway industry would have seen the entire nationwide workforce come out in solidarity with their London colleagues and the whole country would have been affected over the Christmas holidays rather than just the capital and its Metroland commuter belt. But I wouldn’t expect people who weren’t even a twinkle in the milkman’s eye in 1974 to grasp that fact. Equally, the Daily Mail mindset that is forever lecturing those struggling in a zero-hours minimum wage ghetto where owning one’s home is a pipe-dream merely shows how long some have resided in a cosseted cocoon from the harsh realities of trying to make an honest living when wages and prices are such distant bedfellows.

It would be jumping the gun to compare 2016 to other seismic shifts in the world order – 1848 being the most obvious; a degree of distance is really required in order to measure the after-effects once the dust has settled, and we’re still too in the thick of it to make neat summaries of how this or that event altered things forever thereafter. But the pace of change, and the periodic bursts of violence that have characterised the change as it has unfolded with relentless aggression would, as I pointed out in a post a few months ago, make for a cracking edition of ‘The Rock n Roll Years’ were we lucky enough to have some decent Rock n Roll; that we’re not seems to emphasise the absence of alternatives to the grim world about us; we’ve had to make do with overgrown school-kids dressing as clowns and people playing at statues for yet another tedious selfie fad; so much for cultural salvation.

Anyway, as the previous post attracted little in the way of attention, I’m optimistic enough to put that down to people having several distractions during a time of year when there are numerous demands on their time rather than attributing it to an especially uninspiring piece of writing. With that in mind, it’s probably best if I take a few days off myself – not that I don’t expect something else characteristically awful to occur before we hit January 1; and if it does, I’ll probably be compelled to comment, whether or not anyone is listening. Merry Xmas everybody.

© The Editor

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MAY THE FAITH BE WITH YOU

yodaIt doesn’t quite carry the same dramatic weight as an evil intergalactic empire, but the forces of the Jedi have been vanquished…by the Charity Commission; that august institution may not be headed by a heavy-breathing psychopath in a black cowl and cape, but it has successfully rejected desperate appeals for Jediism to be registered as a religion. And this is despite 177,000 people listing that as their faith on the 2011 Census – more than listed Rastafarianism, which itself took decades to be accepted as a religion (something many still dispute).

There are many ways of looking at this demand on the part of ‘Star Wars’ devotees. It could be viewed as one more dispiriting example of ‘Kidult-hood’ and the clinging to the totems of childhood in a wilful reluctance to grow up rather than finally stashing the toy-box in the parental attic; it could be viewed as a characteristically quirky prank on the part of agnostic Brits refusing to take such a question seriously; or it could be viewed as evidence that even if orthodox religion has been rejected by vast swathes of the population, the need to look up to the stars for some form of salvation still exists; just as the mythology of Ancient Greece and Rome, the Norsemen, Christianity and Islam provided comfort in the past (and continues to in the present where the latter two are concerned), the craving for celestial beings to worship seems to be an instinctive human desire.

Prior to the release of ‘Star Wars’ in 1977, science fiction as a cinematic genre had, as with most others in that last Golden Age of Hollywood, a distinctly adult feel to it. Movies from the first half of the 70s with a futuristic or sci-fi slant, such as ‘Soylent Green’, ‘Rollerball’, ‘The Omega Man’, ‘Westworld’ and ‘Logan’s Run’, reflected the maturity of sci-fi that came in the wake of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Even George Lucas himself had followed the trend with his 1971 directorial debut, ‘THX 1138’, another in a long line of Ballard-esque Dystopian views of the future that bore little relation to Lucas’s wish to revive the ‘space opera’ serial of the 30s, ‘Flash Gordon’.

Lucas’s failure to acquire the rights to ‘Flash Gordon’ resulted in him developing his own equivalent over a three-year period, and when ‘Star Wars’ finally arrived at cinemas, the absence of competition in terms of big-budget adventure films for all the family enabled the movie to clean up at the box-office. In the mid-70s, it was only really the ‘disaster’ strain of cinema that pulled in the punters, with the likes of ‘Earthquake’, ‘The Towering Inferno’, ‘Jaws’ and the ‘Airport’ series; but the craze had run out of steam by 1977 and Lucas’s timing was perfect.

It’s undeniable to see now that the revolutionary blend of a simplistic B-picture plot with cutting-edge special effects created the formula that remains with us today where the ‘Blockbuster’ picture is concerned; the only real difference is that, almost forty years on, space Cowboys & Indians have been superseded by superheroes. The crucial distinction between ‘Star Wars’ and the franchises that have pursued the same path since 1977, however, is that almost from the very beginning there were some who took the lightweight fun very seriously indeed.

News footage of the queues outside the cinema when ‘Star Wars’ arrived in Britain at the end of 1977 shows a sizeable proportion of young men in their late teens and early twenties present as well as the expected children (who, like me, had received advanced warning of this event via promotion in American Marvel comics); the presence of over-18s suggested an audience that George Lucas hadn’t anticipated. I remember going to see the film as a ten-year-old in early 1978 and it defined that year for me as a childhood fad. The merchandise swamped the shops, from bubblegum cards, comics and stationary to the ridiculously expensive action figures, though I never owned any of the latter.

By 1979, I’d moved onto something else, as tended to happen with me then; I was actually becoming more interested in pop music and the 99p seven-inches assembled into their chart positions on the wall of my local Woolies. I did go to see ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in 1980, an eleventh hour childhood moment on the cusp of adolescence, but by the time ‘The Return of the Jedi’ hit cinema screens three years later, not even Princess Leia’s slave girl outfit could tempt me back; my prepubescent fascination with the George Lucas universe has never been rekindled.

I realise my experience as a brief ‘Star Wars’ fan is not necessarily the common route many have taken once exposed to the saga. Imaginary worlds such as those created by Tolkien already had a dedicated adult following of largely male fanatics before ‘Star Wars’, but Lucas’s invention has spawned even greater fanaticism to the point whereby some use it as a design for life; attempting to elevate the cult of the Jedi, the movie series’ monastic Samurai-like warriors, to the level of an actual religion, is perhaps taking things a little too far. Although the man-made mythology of the Jedi is no more fantastical than that of actual bona-fide religions, one can’t help but wonder why the world needs another religion when the ones we’ve had for thousands of years have hardly left a legacy of peace and harmony.

The decision of the Charity Commission to turn down charitable status for the so-called Temple of the Jedi Order seems like a victory for common sense, though when one studies the myths and legends of the ‘legit’ faiths that have far more followers than the Temple of the Jedi Order can boast around the world, there’s not much to separate them. Until some bright spark invents genuine light sabres, the Jedi’s capacity for violence would at least be subdued in comparison to the competition; and Jedi Jihadists remain restricted to a galaxy far, far away, which can’t be bad.

© The Editor

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WITHIN THESE WALLS

orangeConsidering the law of averages, I would imagine that most reading this (like me) have known at least one person to have been detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, though I’ve mercifully evaded the honour myself; and let’s face it, few issues spark such incandescent fury as the subject of prison conditions. On one side, there is the ‘short, sharp shock’ mindset that will routinely declare with mortification – ‘They have television sets in their cells!’ – something that strikes me as an empty argument; imagine being stuck in a cell for the first half of the day and having nothing to do but watch ‘Jeremy Kyle’, ‘Loose Women’ and ‘Cash in the Attic’; that sounds a pretty severe punishment regime to me. The other side is more about humane treatment and actual rehabilitation so that reoffending is minimised; but this, of course, stinks of lily-livered liberalism a long way from ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’.

The Minister of the Interior in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ who utilises the technological brutality of Ludovico’s Technique as a fast-track means of rehabilitation, rides a wave of electoral populism that ignores the loss of free will in the process; though penned in the early 60s, Anthony Burgess’s novel anticipates a desperate government solution to rising crime that rings truer now it did at the time of its writing, let alone Kubrick’s movie adaptation of the book a decade later. Reducing the prison population whilst simultaneously satisfying the public clamour for lowering the crime rates makes the likelihood of a similar system to that devised by Burgess an ever-present possibility, though it hasn’t happened yet.

A pause for statistics, I think. Okay – the UK prison population is around 86,000; less than 4,000 are women, as men are 22 times as likely to be imprisoned as women. In 2009 it was said 8,500 former servicemen were behind bars – 10% of the prison population; prisoners over the age of 60 rose a staggering 130% between 2002 and 2013 – four out of ten of more than 4,000 over-60s in UK gaols have been imprisoned for historic sex offences, now the fastest growing age group in the prison estate; only a couple of days ago, a 101-year-old man (Ralph Clarke) was sentenced for historic sex offences, lest we forget.

14 prisons have closed their doors for good in the last 20 years, yet David Cameron’s solution whilst cutting prison staff by almost a third as PM was to propose reviving the antiquated tradition of ‘prison ships’, those decommissioned hulks that figured highly in nineteenth century literature’s landscape, perhaps most famously with the character of Magwitch in Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’; what should have been more of a concern to Cameron’s law & order policy was the fact that during the first four years of the Coalition, there was a 29% drop in the numbers of prison staff.

At the same time as the above statistics were collated, 239 men and women died in prison, a 6% increase from the year before and 29% higher than five years before that; in the four years from 2010 to 2014 there was also a 28% increase in assaults on prison staff, whilst just this year the prison population shot up by more than a thousand between September and November; the increasing use of indeterminate sentences and long determinable sentences have served to double the prison population in the last 20 years.

Statistics issued by the Ministry of Justice a couple of years ago reported the average week in an average prison constitutes 70 assaults on staff, four to five prisoner deaths (of which one or two are suicides), and 500 self-harm incidents – and these statistics are restricted to prisons in England and Wales alone. That hackneyed old phrase ‘powder keg’ has never seemed more relevant, and events in HMP Birmingham over the last 48 hours seem to back this up.

Toss in claustrophobic confinement, contraband legal highs, and the increasing sectarian tensions resulting from the upsurge in sentences relating to Islamic terrorist offences, and you have a soufflé of simmering discontent with a system on its last legs that inevitably leads to riot. It happened 26 years ago at Strangeways and it would seem little has changed in the intervening two and-a-half decades other than a continuing conversation between public and politicians to equate punishment with a pseudo-medieval notion of eye-for-an-eye vengeance.

The institutionalisation effects of prison life on recently-released inmates – the sudden removal from day-to-day life of a rigid routine that is easy to submit to whilst simultaneously yearning for liberation from it – and the failure of the parole system to steer them away from returning to the environment that put them behind bars to begin with, is a conundrum of crime and punishment that has yet to be resolved. Neither hardline prison reform nor concerted attempts to elevate the imprisoned above the level of cattle has produced the desired effect. But it’s not just those coming out; those going in are also part of the problem – largely because there are too many of them. The endless number of laws added to the statue book from the Blair era onwards, not to mention the twin tabloid scourges of home-grown Jihadists and pensionable Paedos, has served to cram this country’s gaols to breaking point.

What happened in Birmingham, as what happened at HMP Ashwell in Rutland seven years ago (albeit without accompanying hysterical publicity), is something that shouldn’t be seen as an isolated incident or an aberration; in many respects, it’s a miracle it doesn’t occur more often – though I’ve a strong suspicion it will become a greater recurrence over the next few years. Sure, we’ve had the expected strong words from the Justice Secretary, but at least the Minister for the Interior who selected Alex de Large for special treatment had a crowd-pleasing solution up his sleeve; all Liz Truss has to fall back on is archaic Victorian Values rhetoric that promises to crack down on the unruly rabble who should be grateful to be spared the retribution of the hangman. And that won’t make our streets any safer for Us than it will for Them once we’re all sharing them again.

© The Editor

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PS Allow me an indulgence – here’s a link to my appearance on Radio 4’s ‘iPM’ on 17.12.16…

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0850blp

MISSING IN ACTION

christopher-hitchensBrexit, Syria, and (especially) Trump Vs Clinton – three of 2016’s biggest stories that have generated endless column inches as well as sparking debate after debate online, on TV and on the wireless. We’ve been exposed to some knowledgeable and intellectual opinions on all three as well as plenty ill-informed ignorance, but there has been a gaping hole in the middle of the words printed, published and spoken on the subjects that has been there for the last half-decade, waiting to be filled and simultaneously unable to be filled. Each constituent part of this year’s trio of top topics was tailor-made for a voice that would have illuminated and infuriated in equal measure (depending on which side of the argument had decided to take offence); but that voice was silenced five years ago today, when the death of Christopher Hitchens was announced.

When one considers how the climate has changed since the untimely passing of Hitch and the way in which questioning the consensus now provokes the kind of online ire that even surpasses the level of bile he himself received when he dared to aim his contrarian revolver at some of the world’s sacred cows, it’s tempting to imagine how he would have responded to the curbs on free speech and restriction of opinion that have contaminated debate since 2011. I have a strong feeling he would have relished the challenge.

Hitch never shied away from controversy or speaking out when he saw something his gut instinct told him was wrong, even if it upset and enraged those for whom the likes of Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, the Clintons, Kissinger and (particularly) organised religion were above and beyond criticism. His assaults on public figures and institutions were never nasty or done simply to shock ala Katie Hopkins; there was always a reasoned and articulate argument behind the undoubted enjoyment he derived from prodding these untouchables and he usually wiped the floor with anyone foolish enough to take him on whenever he dared to do so.

Like many of his generation (born 1949), Hitchens’ initial political leanings were formed by the Labour victory at the 1964 General Election and the prospect of a break with the Tory patrician past; however, Harold Wilson’s reticence to criticise US policy in Vietnam and the growth of the counter-cultural left on campus in the late 60s pushed him away from mainstream politics. Wearing his Trotsky T-shirt with pride, his first notable journalistic work was undertaken for the magazine ‘International Socialism’, mouthpiece of the International Socialists; he eventually progressed to become the in-house lefty for the New Statesman, reporting from early 70s trouble-spots such as Northern Ireland, Libya, Cyprus and Greece.

Although a long-time admirer of Orwell, the persona Hitch developed during his years at the New Statesman was closer to that of the decadent, hedonistic coterie of writers and artists that had congregated around the drinking dens of Soho in the 50s, forming enduring friendships with his fellow dissolute scribes Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. But it was his loan spell at American magazine The Nation in the early 80s that brought him to prominence on the other side of the pond and enabled him to flower as the transatlantic polemicist par excellence that was to be his public image for the rest of his life. He became a US citizen in 2007.

Keeping a close, cynical eye on US events, his mistrust and dislike of the Clintons at the height of their popularity struck some as opportunistic contrarianism, but throughout his tenure on Vanity Fair (which began in 1992), he continued to reject the ‘alternative’ consensus by rubbishing 9/11 conspiracy theories and then supporting the western invasion of Iraq. Whatever stance one expected he might take, Hitch often took the opposite, expanding his ideas and what many perceived as contentious views in a series of books that gave him a wider audience than his numerous magazine columns.

His meticulous dissections of the aforementioned public figures and the skeletons they preferred to be permanently in the closet brought him both praise and condemnation, but he was always prepared to meet his critics head-to-head and engaged in high-profile televised debates with them, especially when it came to the subject of religion. Hitch’s views on the latter topic also served to drive a wedge between him and his younger (though no less outspoken) brother, Peter.

In 2010, Hitch revealed he was receiving treatment for esophageal cancer, the same disease that had killed his father; he continued to write and to appear at public debates whenever well enough, though the illness claimed his life in December 2011, robbing the world of the kind of character prepared to say what he thought regardless of how many people didn’t want to hear it that few (if any) in the five years since have managed to do with such witty, incisive and intelligent artistry. You didn’t have to agree with every opinion he expressed, but he did so with such passionate conviction that you couldn’t help but admire his gall and guts for daring to say it.

The scope for debate has narrowed frighteningly since we lost Hitch, with every minor deviation from what can and can’t be said leading to manic demands for heads to roll and the gibbet to swing. The irony is that most of what is reacted to today with such vociferous frothing-at-the-mouth would have barely raised an eyebrow in Hitch’s heyday, which is yet another indication of our continuing retreat back to the timidity of church mice; few geese are greeted with a boo in 2016, for who would dare upset the goose community?

© The Editor

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MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS

hypnotistDuring the filming of the retrospective Beatles documentary, ‘Anthology’, in the early 90s, Paul, George and Ringo were largely interviewed individually and it was noticeable on occasion that each recalled certain key incidents thirty years on very differently. It seemed to highlight the difficulties when more than two people recall a particular event at which they were all present; which is the genuine recollection – all or none?

We naturally view the world from our own unique perspective, so it’s inevitable that if two or three witness the same event, recalling it in the immediate aftermath will differ slightly, though not as much as when recalled days, weeks, months and years (even decades) on. By then, they are so removed from the moment that each successive recollection is a photocopy of its predecessor, so – as somebody once pointed out – we’re not remembering the event, but remembering the last time we remembered it. Distance alters the event in our heads and does so differently for each individual witness. To use just one seemingly trivial example, if we were present at the event with people we still see regularly, in our recollection they don’t look exactly as they looked at the time; we see them essentially as they are now, which clearly isn’t the same as viewing a photograph or cine-film of the event, when we notice the different hairstyles or clothes that were specific to that era.

Similarly, when we summon up an incident from childhood, rarely do we recall factors that would hit us immediately were we to be suddenly transported back into our prepubescent bodies – i.e. how small we were and how big our surroundings were, not to mention the adults towering above us. Such a sensation is something memory appears to have a problem dealing with, and the physical distinctions between then and now only strike us if we happen to revisit our old infants’ school and see how tiny the chairs we sat in were. Our minds reconstruct the event of forty-odd years before to a degree of accuracy, but do so in a context we can relate to in the here and now; it’s extremely difficult to envisage something as significant as being several feet smaller than we have been for the entirety of our adult lives.

Our household didn’t acquire a colour television until 1976; prior to that, everything I saw on TV at home was in monochrome – yet my vivid memory of Jon Pertwee regenerating into Tom Baker in 1974 is one of sitting by the telly and watching the landmark moment in colour, perhaps because I’ve subsequently seen the transformation many times since in colour. Another simple example of how memory shouldn’t be trusted implicitly comes with the case of a favourite film one has viewed so many times that quoting lines from it just before the actors speak them is second nature; yet the recital is rarely word-perfect. It’s only when we watch again that we realise we got the odd word wrong or added a word that isn’t actually there in the script. Every time we repeat what we believe to be the quote, we’re subconsciously rewriting the lines based on the recollection of what we said last time we recited it.

Taking all of this into account, it’s worth noting how much reliance is placed upon remembrance of an event, especially when the police question witnesses to a crime, which is why they’re supposed to be trained not to influence the witness during questioning if there’s an uncertain pause, hence the tradition of the identity parade rather than the police simply producing a photo of the man they know did it and saying ‘Is this the man?’ The person helping the police with their inquiries may have run through the event in their heads several times before committing it to an official statement, and the natural instinct of memory is to iron out inconsistencies and any illogical elements so that it can be recounted with a cohesive clarity that makes sense when said out loud.

When recalling a visit to the school careers officer during his Sheffield adolescence, Michael Palin once remarked the officer’s response to every pupil’s career ambitions when asked what they wanted to do was met with a straightforward ‘I think it’s Pilkington’s Glass for you, young man’, reflecting his blatant role as a recruiter for one of the city’s chief employers.

The psychoanalytical branch of medicine over the last twenty-five years has been taught to make similarly lazy assumptions where memory is concerned, with shrinks resorting to any anxiety their patients express as being rooted in a childhood trauma usually centred on sexual abuse by a family member. And I know this to definitely be the case, for I was pressurised into manufacturing such a memory myself when in therapy. Thankfully, I rejected this because I was convinced had something of that nature happened there was no way I wouldn’t have remembered it all my life.

The magician Derren Brown always makes the point that there is no magic involved in his ingenious scams involving members of the public, merely psychological suggestions he knows people are susceptible to. When one considers the shifting sands that constitute memory’s flexible foundations, and how vulnerable it can be to such suggestions, it’s rather worrying to realise the level of importance that is placed upon it in legal circles these days, condemning men to lengthy prison sentences for crimes that, in many cases, have only the unreliable witness of memory as evidence.

American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has probably done more research into the untrustworthy nature of memory and the way in which it can be manipulated than anyone else over the last forty years; her work at the Department of Transportation opened her eyes to the variations in separate accounts from those who’d been witness to the same traffic accidents and she realised how easy it was to implant suggestions as to what had happened. She expanded this into a series of experiments that were not a million miles from the mind games of Derren Brown.

Her pioneering work in the field of false memory led to her becoming an expert witness in criminal court cases that rested on eyewitness evidence, some of which had been the result of hypnosis. She remains convinced that a mass moral panic along the lines of the Salem-like ‘Satanic Abuse’ crazes of the 90s usually has its roots in the manipulation of memory and the dangerous reliance upon it as cast-iron evidence.

More recent events on this side of the Atlantic appear to vindicate Elizabeth Loftus’ findings, but we only have to reunite with old friends or family members in a communal trip down Memory Lane to be aware of how our individual recollections change as we age. Could we swear for sure our own memories are the definitive article and everyone else has simply got it wrong when theirs contradict ours? Take that uncertainty into a Court of Law and you’re on very rocky ground indeed.

© The Editor

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