FLAGGED AS INAPPROPRIATE

geriThe news that a tourist souvenir shop in Muswell Hill, the sort that sells the kind of tacky tat that is of little interest to anyone who actually resides in the UK, has been targeted by the Puritan ‘ism’ brigade as some sort of retail outlet for ‘Britain First’ simply because the establishment happens to be called Really British is an interesting measure of how patriotism as manifested by an object bearing the national flag has once again been designated as the province of extremism and rendered a no-go area by the PC branch of the left. The symbolism of the Union Jack seems to swing back and forth every decade or so, and we now appear to have returned to what it represented in the 1980s.

I remember a classmate of mine once being sent home from school for arriving in a Union Jack T-shirt; it probably didn’t help his case that he had the kind of crew-cut then associated with skinheads and the far-right puppets the tribe had become in the early 80s. Today, of course, having a shaved head is no longer a pointer to one’s political stance, though I doubt the kid in question had any political stance other than getting off on the provocative lyrics spouted by the unlistenable ‘Oi’ bands he claimed to like, anyway. He was no doubt simply doing what a lot of teenagers do by selecting a musical style and fashion guaranteed to get up the noses of his elders.

Fifteen years earlier, the Union Jack had been appropriated by Swinging London and its musical foot-soldiers such as The Who as an ironic and characteristically cocky ‘up yours’ at the establishment in the same way that early Mods nicked the cranial crown of the upper classes, the bowler hat. The mock-military outfits available on Carnaby Street, which The Beatles later adapted for their Sgt Pepper alter-egos, were a similar tongue-in-cheek play upon Victorian and Edwardian Imperial costumes; it was all about dipping into Colonel Blimp’s dressing-up box rather than expressing affinity with an outdated and archaic ideology associated with an Empire that was already consigned to the history books. For a while, the Union Jack had become a cool visual insignia with the same kind of potency that the smiley face had for the Acid House generation at the end of the 80s.

Ten years later, the absorption of a youth cult that had once danced the night away to Jamaican Ska and Reggae into the thuggish embrace of the National Front rendered the national flag something to be ashamed of in a way that other nations would find baffling. The rise of the right-on alternative media and its po-faced spokespersons in the 80s further alienated the flag from polite conversation, reduced to the desperate jingoism of the chinless wonders who force their way to the front of the stage during the Last Night of the Proms on one hand and the ugly unapologetic racism of the far-right on the other.

This attitude still lingered as late as 1992, when Morrissey made the front cover of the NME for wrapping himself in the Union Jack on stage and igniting fresh controversy in the process. Within three or four years, however, the pendulum had swung back again.

From Noel Gallagher’s guitar to Geri Halliwell’s dress, the Union Jack was reclaimed by the apolitical in the middle of the 1990s and rebranded as the ensign of Cool Britannia. Britpop may have been manufactured as a movement by a cluster of music journalists too young to have experienced the negative connotations the national flag had possessed for well over a decade, but its return as a symbol of chic frivolity was something few saw coming. Twenty years on, the climate has changed to the point whereby it’s hard to imagine Harry Styles or Jessie J (or whoever it is the Kids are listening to these days) utilising it in a similar fashion without being bombarded by the same accusations that showered down on Morrissey in 1992.

According to Chris Ostwald, proprietor of Really British, one incensed (not to say unhinged) customer entered his shop and proclaimed the word ‘British’ should be banned because of what Jo Cox’s murderer allegedly shouted as he slaughtered her. Social media has also facilitated the tunnel vision intolerance of this mindset, with numerous comments along these ludicrous lines, and how long before a Facebook campaign is launched to boycott and ban the premises? It’s probably already happening as I write this.

The post-Brexit timing of the shop’s arrival on the streets of Muswell Hill is unfortunate in that some are actively seeking emblems of ‘hate crime’ to vindicate their desperate stance, and Mr Ostwald has delivered as far as they’re concerned. He can’t be accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ when it’s his own culture, so that culture has to be condemned one way or another.

Of course, London has always pandered to the misplaced sentimentality for Olde England that certain overseas visitors love and Really British is just another extension of that industry. For remoaners incapable of accepting the decision of the people to latch onto a shop as somehow embodying everything they regard as racist and unacceptable about this country will serve to drive any celebration of quaint, old-school Britishness back into the arms of the far-right, which is presumably what they want.

It’s only a matter of time before a delegation of Britain First morons lead a precession to the shop and claim it as their own. But in upholding the divide & rule tactics of the powers-that-be, both parties are playing into their hands and ensuring that fighting amongst each other will keep them from aiming their ire at the common enemy. And what could be more British than that?

© The Editor

A DIPLOMATIC PRECEDENT

gainsbourgDid Theresa May really not consider the potential banana skins when she appointed Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary? By airing his personal opinions on Britain’s dubious relationship with the appalling Saudi regime, Boris has contradicted official Government policy on the subject, even if few outside of Government would dispute his comments had more than a ring of truth about them. However, it was evident Boris was given the Foreign Office to neutralise the threat he may have presented to the PM from the backbenches; she probably presumed his natural talent for putting his foot in it might be curbed by the prospect of high office. It was a clever move on her part, though a considerable gamble; and by doing so, she was replicating the machinations of a predecessor in Downing Street who also handed the same prestigious post to a controversial rival – Harold Wilson.

George Brown may only be mostly remembered now by those who were around when he was a prominent Minister, but in his day was as divisive and colourful a character as Boris. A working-class hero in the traditional Labour mould, Brown had left school at 15 to earn a living and harboured a grudge over the privileged and university-educated thereafter; he’d come up through the Trades Union ranks and could rely on their support when selected for the seat of Belper near Derby at the 1945 General Election, which he duly won. Mentored by Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour during the wartime coalition, Brown wasted little time in making enemies by plotting to remove Labour PM Clement Attlee, something Attlee responded to by giving Brown a Ministerial post to keep him busy whilst keeping an eye on him.

Dismissive of Labour’s left-wing, Brown was opposed to the failed coup to install Aneurin Bevan as leader during the fall-out from losing the 1951 General Election; when his ideological comrade Hugh Gaitskell was elected Labour leader, Brown was promoted to the Shadow Cabinet, but his erratic temperament didn’t always win friends or influence people. Brown was, in the phraseology of the time, an ‘old soak’ – that is, he drank to excess; and this excessive consumption exacerbated his somewhat bullish manner. Despite this drawback, he became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1960 and fought off challenges from both Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson during his tenure in the job.

When the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell prompted a Labour leadership contest in 1963, Brown seemed to be the natural successor, but his combative approach and – especially – his fondness for the bottle worked against him. Labour’s leading intellectual of the right, Anthony Crosland, famously reacted to the front-runners (Wilson and Brown) by claiming the party was faced with ‘a choice between a crook and a drunk.’ In the end, the crook won and Brown retained the Deputy Leader post, regaining respect within the party by playing a prominent part in organising Labour’s successful 1964 General Election campaign. Wilson rewarded him by creating the Department of Economic Affairs, an office about as much use as the Department of Administrative Affairs in ‘Yes Minister’; but, again, it kept Brown busy.

Following a post-financial crisis reshuffle, Harold Wilson raised a few eyebrows by appointing George Brown Foreign Secretary, a position for which a deal of diplomatic tact is generally required. After leading Britain’s failed attempted to join the Common Market in 1967, he publicly insulted the wife of Britain’s Ambassador to France; he resigned from the job following a drink-induced shouting match with Wilson, and the familiar ‘Private Eye’ euphemism for pissed MPs, ‘tired and emotional’, was first coined in reference to Brown. Brown lost his seat by over 2,000 votes at the 1970 General Election, though was elevated to the peerage more or less immediately after. His drinking continued to be a source of public embarrassment, infamously captured on camera when he fell into the gutter in 1976, though by this time he was perceived as a harmless has-been, admired for being ‘a bit of a character’ more than for anything he had achieved politically.

Despite leaving the Labour Party and supporting the formation of the Social Democratic Party, Brown’s old Labour colleagues who had broken away to set up the SDP thought his reputation would be more of a hindrance than a help and he only officially joined the SDP the year he died, 1985. His death, unsurprisingly, was due to cirrhosis of the liver. He was 70.

Whether Theresa May’s decision to promote Boris Johnson to the same post Harold Wilson appointed George Brown to fifty years before will result in an eventual resignation prompted by some ill-timed slip of the tongue remains to be seen. But the decision was a similar gamble taken for similar reasons. Nevertheless, Boris has made a promising start and I look forward to watching his progress.


GREG LAKE (1947-2016)

lake2016 has not been a good year for Prog Rock’s most contentious supergroup, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In March, keyboardist Keith Emerson committed suicide and now we learn the band’s guitarist and vocalist Greg Lake has passed away at the age of 69 from cancer.

Whilst his longest association with any group of musicians was with Emerson and drummer Carl Palmer, Lake first came to prominence as singer with the original line-up of King Crimson, providing the vocals on their landmark debut LP in 1969, ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’. Neither Crimson nor ELP were ever destined to be a hit singles act; their musical vision was far too expansive to be condensed into the three-minute pop song and they arrived at a moment when the album was considered rock’s premier art form.

Ironically, however, the two tracks Greg Lake is most associated with in the public eye were both massive hits, both peaking at the No.2 position in the singles chart – ELP’s instrumental, ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, and his own solo hit two years before, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’. Thanks to the now obligatory promotion of archive seasonal smashes via the extension of Christmas from a week to a full month, it’s hard to leave one’s home in December and not hear Lake’s 1975 monster blaring out somewhere. Pipped to the No.1 spot by ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ is no throwaway novelty ditty, sharing its grandiose musical structure with Prog by borrowing a melody from a classical composer (in this case, Prokofiev) and employing a full orchestra. The only miracle is that he manages to cram it all into 3 minutes, 31 seconds.

Though pretty much sick to death of Christmas hits now, even those less sentimental ones that illuminated my childhood, I retain a soft spot for ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’; and if I hear it playing in Sainsbury’s tomorrow I’ll probably exit the shop humming it – and, for once, not hating myself for doing so.

© The Editor

I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S BUTTER

brandoPerhaps it says a lot about the current state of cinema that a movie responsible for hysteria at the time of its release has resurfaced as a source of outrage forty-five years later, presumably in the absence of any contemporary equivalent. The renewed hysteria in 2016 also serves as a shrewd comment on the swinging moral barometer since ‘Last Tango in Paris’ was originally released in 1972. First time round, it was largely the serial censors of the right that singled out Bertolucci’s art-house masterpiece as a reprehensible artefact of the Permissive Society, the Whitehouse/Longford/Muggeridge Festival of Light brigade that had already got its C of E knickers in a twist over ‘Oh! Calcutta’ and ‘Oz’; today, it is the so-called ‘liberal’ left and its legion of affiliated victims, survivors and martyrs that is in an uproar. It does make me wonder how many of them have actually seen the film.

The fuss began when someone stumbled upon an interview with renowned old-school European Auteur Bernardo Bertolucci, in which he bigged-up the legend of his own movie by claiming actress Maria Schneider, whose ‘Last Tango’ character engages in a loveless affair with Brando’s grieving widower as he expresses his complex self-loathing, had no idea the film’s most infamous scene was going to happen. In it, Brando seemingly buggers her using a certain dairy product as a lubricant. Some would argue a scene in which she shoves her fingers up his arse at his request was a tad more contentious, though that didn’t follow Brando around as the butter scene dogged Schneider throughout the rest of a career that hardly set the silver screen alight. And, lest we forget, if there’s a victim, it has to be a woman.

‘Last Tango’ was one of the final gems to emerge from European cinema’s post-war golden age, an era whose films often specialised in pseudo-documentary realism at a time when the first three or four hours on the day’s shoot of a Hollywood movie were devoted to setting up the lights so that all the old actresses looked beautiful. Italian and then French cinema stripped away the soft-focus facade in the same way that the raw simplicity of Punk erased Prog’s elaborate embellishments. It produced a generation of directors whose names remain revered – Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini, Pasolini, Bunuel, Truffaut and Godard, to name just a few – and their movies still regularly fill-up critics’ lists of the greatest works of art ever committed to celluloid.

The influence of European cinema also helped revitalise Hollywood at the end of the 60s when a new wave of cinematic scholars such as Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola gate-crashed the mainstream when television had stolen American cinema’s thunder. Few of the great movies to emerge from this fruitful pre-‘Star Wars’ period of adult creativity – ‘The Godfather’, ‘Network’, ‘All the President’s Men’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, ‘The Parallax View’, ‘Taxi Driver’ – have been surpassed since, and the post-Hayes Code era when Hollywood grew-up (before dumbing down) owed its existence to the cinema of Italy, France and Spain.

By casting Marlon Brando in ‘Last Tango’, Bertolucci was consciously playing the conductor of a marriage ceremony between European cinema and an American actor whose obstinate rejection of the star system had seen his cache plummet in the 60s; Brando had only just completed the film that would turn out to revive his career, ‘The Godfather’, when he received the call, so it was still a gamble on the director’s part to hire him. In the end, it was a perfect marriage; Brando arguably gave his greatest ever performance in the scene in which he confronts his wife’s body and unleashes all the rage he kept suppressed whilst she was alive.

But it wasn’t that scene that upset the Puritans when the film hit American and British screens at the beginning of 1973. What the US and UK referred to as ‘explicit sex scenes’ raised few eyebrows on the continent. Wily Bertolucci knew what would happen, of course, and he milked the outrage for all it was worth, as he has continued to do in the decades since. The idea that Maria Schneider had no idea that the ‘butter scene’ was coming or that Brando actually raped her on camera is the kind of PR hyperbole that bestowed notoriety in the 70s, but times have changed and are considerably more conservative – especially in that corner of California that has utterly lost the ability to make a movie that appeals to anyone over the mental age of twelve.

Apparently there’s an actor called Chris Evans (yes, I thought the same when I heard that name) whose CV includes the Shakespearean challenge of portraying Captain America in the latest popcorn Marvel franchise. When he caught sight of the bandwagon rolling into town he hitched a ride and proclaimed ‘I feel rage’ on Twitter, adding ‘I will never look at this film, Bertolucci and Brando in the same way again…this is beyond disgusting…they should be in jail.’

Not to be outdone, an actress we’ve all heard of called Jessica Chastain weighed in with her own public service announcement: ‘To all the people that love this film – you’re watching a 19-year-old being raped by a 48-year-old man. The director planned her attack. I feel sick.’ Another household name, Evan Rachel Wood, whose recent career move consisted of revealing she’d been raped twice, declared ‘This is heartbreaking and outrageous. The two of them are very sick individuals to think that was OK.’

Rape remains defined as penetration; as far as we know, Brando didn’t penetrate Schneider; they were acting; they were actors. It’s pretend. Maybe the current crop of ‘stars’ are so accustomed to CGI and every film belonging in fantasy-land that they can’t tell the difference between documentary and movies rooted in documentary realism. Equally, the confessional atmosphere of American showbiz and its embrace of victimhood – which reached its apex of nausea at last year’s Oscars – means a non-story such as this will inevitably be exploited by people too stupid and too wrapped-up in their own politically-correct moral crusading to appreciate a film such as ‘Last Tango in Paris’. They don’t deserve it.

© The Editor

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO US

cakeI suppose it would have been neater to open proceedings on January 1, yet if I had I would’ve missed the emergence of Donald Trump as a Republican contender, the hysteria over Tyson Fury’s inclusion in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year line-up, the Christmas floods and the death of Lemmy. Okay, so the closing weeks of 2015 seem quite tame when one examines the seismic shifts of 2016 as an almost-whole, but it was exactly one year ago today when the first edition of the Winegum Telegram was published, and I felt like marking that anniversary by casting my retrospective eye over the past twelve months before we reach the end of what has been an eventful (if rarely enjoyable) year.

Gruesome reports of gang-rapes attributed to Middle Eastern migrants in Cologne on New Year’s Eve opened the year with further questions raised over Angela Merkel’s ‘open door’ immigration policy, and that wouldn’t be the end of the issue as 2016 rolled on. The biggest, not to say saddest, cultural event of January was the unexpected death of David Bowie. For those of us whose adolescent identity – and indeed adult one – was shaped by the multi-layered impact of this unique artist, his passing was one of those rare occasions when the death of an individual one has never personally met can impact as much as the death of a friend.

February marked the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring, with the shock waves of the shake-up continuing to reverberate throughout the year in virtually every country in the Middle East and beyond. The month also saw the surprise arrival of Bernie Sanders as a leading Democratic candidate in the US Presidential race, giving Hillary Clinton the kind of challenge she hadn’t anticipated; if only things had turned out differently. The same could be said from the perspective of David Cameron, who announced the date for the EU Referendum in February, firing the starting pistol of a marathon that would end with his resignation. If only the entire nauseating collective of Hollywood A-listers had taken a leaf out of Cameron’s book and retired from public life before staging the politically-correct Nuremberg Rally masquerading as the Oscars ceremony on the last day of the month, with the biggest bucket of vomit reserved for Lady GaGa’s Victim’s Symphony.

March saw the wave of Puritan censorship and intolerance of free speech contaminating North American and UK universities continue to grab headlines after the unpleasant experience of Canadian journalist Lauren Southern in Vancouver, whilst other notable departures from a more open-minded age included ‘Coronation Street’ creator Tony Warren, Beatles producer George Martin, Prog Rock’s premier keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson, legendary Dutch football auteur Johan Cruyff, and the print edition of the Independent. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith quit the Cabinet in the wake of the latest George Osborne attack on the claimants of disability benefits, realising he would be the man carrying the can when the shit hit the fan; he quickly threw in his lot with the Leave team in a bid to rescue his career. However, next to the carnage unleashed on the streets of Brussels by yet more European Jihadists, IDS’s hissy fit was rightly relegated to a footnote of 2016.

The Referendum campaign gathered pace in April, though internal wrangles within both major parties served as a distraction, such as Ken Livingstone’s ill-advised comments that kick-started Labour’s anti-Semitism row. BHS, Victoria Wood and Prince were added to 2016’s dearly departed, though Her Majesty reached a milestone by overtaking Queen Victoria as the country’s longest-serving sovereign. Meanwhile, a belated verdict in the Hillsborough Inquiry reminded the public that our police forces have been riddled with corruption for almost as long as Elizabeth II has been on the throne.

Whilst supporters of Leicester City FC celebrated their fantastic achievement in winning the Premier League, May saw further rejections of Corbyn’s Labour Party in the local elections, though Sadiq Khan’s capture of the London Mayoral office was one Labour victory of note in a year to forget for HM Opposition. However, it was in June that politics really grabbed centre-stage again when the countdown to the EU Referendum was marked by a no-holds barred campaign of unprecedented viciousness that reached its appalling nadir with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox on the streets of her constituency. Undeterred by this awful event, the British people delivered the bloodiest blow to a generation of Europhile politicians by voting to leave the EU. The ramifications of this decision are still with us, but the greatest scalp in the immediate aftermath was that of PM David Cameron. Another in a long line of American massacres, this time in Orlando, inadvertently impacted upon the Presidential Election, whilst the same nation mourned the passing of Muhammad Ali.

Rumours of a coup against Jeremy Corbyn opened July as most of his Shadow Cabinet walked out on him, and an official challenge to his leadership came in the unlikely shape of Angela Eagle; women were making a big political mark during the summer, with the two contenders for the Tory leadership being virtual unknown Andrea Leadsom and Home Secretary Theresa May. We were guaranteed our second female Prime Minister. July also saw the spectre of a former PM resurrected when the Chilcot Inquiry was finally published, whilst fresh blood was shed in the US (the turn of Dallas) and in Turkey, with a failed coup giving President Erdogan an excuse to extend his grip from democracy to dictatorship. Owen Smith replaced Angela Eagle as the challenger to Corbyn before July ended, but for me personally the month was marked by the death of my constant feline companion of 18 long years.

Despite Theresa May now being in Downing Street, political attention remained fixed on the Labour Party in August, though it wasn’t until September that the leadership challenge was resolved with another resounding victory for Corbyn. That same month, an increasingly ugly US Presidential Election campaign plumbed further depths as two of the most despised candidates in American history went head-to-head for the first of three TV debates. Mind you, online responses to Trump and Clinton were mild compared to those awaiting footballer Ched Evans when he walked away from prison a free man after serving half of a quashed five-year sentence for rape in October. Gary Lineker may have been spared that, but he was hung, drawn and quartered by certain quarters of Twitter as the imminent closure of Calais’ Jungle refugee camp provoked contrasting responses.

November saw screaming tabloid protests when a wealthy individual intervened in the ongoing Brexit saga, and the decision of judges that Parliament should have its say in the process led to remarkably hysterical headlines. In a month that the liberal left’s worst nightmares were realised when Donald Trump was elected US President, few of its more vocal representatives spoke out against the increasingly farcical police fishing parties into historical child abuse, such as the one targeted at deceased PM Edward Heath; moreover, none questioned the motives of former footballers when they gave the historical child abuse industry a new outlet in the shape of the national sport and its dead or dying villains. A year of numerous breaks with the past ends with a return to the narrative that has constituted so much of this decade so far. Somehow, I expected it probably would. Time to blow out that single candle on the cake.

© The Editor

CRISI? QUALE CRISI?

italyIt’s probably fair to say that Italy has never been the most politically stable of European nations. The year after Il Duce was strung up from the roof of a petrol station in Milan, the Italian monarchy was abolished and a constitutional republic established. With a President as Head of State and a Prime Minister as Head of Government, the prospect of a democratic division between ceremonial and political seemed to offer a country emerging from the fascist jackboot the chance to succeed where other democracies in which ceremonial and political were both devolved to one man – the USA, for example – had produced an unsatisfactory system. However, it didn’t quite work out like that.

Perhaps reflecting the shaky unity of the independent kingdoms and nation states that had been grouped together under the banner of one country at the end of the nineteenth century, the post-war Italian constitution granted semi-autonomous status to five regions in the hope it would suppress separatist movements and ensure greater stability. Again, this hasn’t really worked out as intended. Since the republic was established, there have been 61 different governments with 41 different Prime Ministers; in Britain, by comparison, there have been just 14 Prime Ministers over the same time span.

The bizarre contradiction to the incessant turnover at the pinnacle of politics in Italy, however, is that the first half-century after 1946 saw the country controlled by largely the one party, the Christian Democrats, whose absolute dominance (despite frequent leadership changes) was due in part to a deliberate policy preventing the Italian Communist Party from taking power. This hardly democratic situation eventually inspired a decade of terrorism on the streets of Italy by extremist groups of both far-left and far-right, culminating in the kidnapping and execution of twice-Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in 1978.

Even when what the Italians refer to as ‘The years of Lead’ (as in bullets) ended, corruption in public office remained a perennial stain on Italian politics, not to mention malignant Mafiosi infiltration; a series of referendums throughout the 1990s sought to reform the system, but instead brought a certain Silvio Berlusconi to power for the first time. Berlusconi’s chequered political career, in which he dragged Italy’s already tattered reputation to the kind of low Donald Trump can only dream of, finally ended with conviction for tax-fraud in 2013, though his advanced age enabled him to evade imprisonment.

The election of 39-year-old Matteo Renzi as Prime Minister in 2014 seemed to suggest a new dawn for Italy; the youngest-ever PM in the history of the nation, Renzi made it clear from the off that reform of the system was his top priority and he wasted little time in keeping to his word, possibly aware that Italian PMs traditionally have a short lifespan. One wonders if the success he enjoyed in implementing various changes made Renzi a tad overconfident; his announcement of yet another referendum, this time on constitutional law, was something he naturally assumed the Italian electorate would embrace.

The ambitious aim was to give the governance of Italy the most comprehensive shake-up since the establishment of the republic in 1946, bringing all the decades of instability to an end at last; ironically, the result appears to have kick-started the instability again, as the Italian people voted No. Like David Cameron before him, Matteo Renzi now has little option but to fall on his sword.

The rejection of his master-plan (40.89% voted for it, whilst 59.11% voted against) suggests either the accusations that the proposed alterations to the constitution would have given his government too much power were believed or that the Italians are averse to the kind of changes that appear long overdue to outsiders. Whatever the reasons, Matteo Renzi had gambled his premiership on the outcome and now he joins the long list of Italian PMs to not even make it to three years in office before having to vacate the post. Having said that, it’s a measure of how things work in Italian politics that Renzi was the 4th longest-serving PM since 1990.

The post-Brexit timing of – and the worldwide publicity given to – this result is unfortunate, but despite extravagant and opportunistic claims from anti-EU politicians in neighbouring nations (step forward Madame Le Pen), this was not a referendum on Italy’s membership of the European Union; even the most vociferous opponents of Renzi’s proposals aren’t opposed to EU membership, and early uncertainties on the part of the markets in the first few hours following the result haven’t led to any sustained panic. Besides, Italy has the third largest economy in the Eurozone, even if it is considerably more fragile than it was prior to 2008 (then again, which European economy bar Germany isn’t?). The No camp are already demanding a General Election on the back of the referendum result, but it seems more likely a caretaker premiership of the same governing party will lead the country until the next scheduled Election in 2018.

A nation accustomed to constant turbulence where its political leaders are concerned is hardly bound to go into meltdown as a consequence of this outcome; so don’t expect to see Matteo Renzi hanging upside down from a petrol station roof in the next few days.

© The Editor

MAN IN THE MIDDLE

reggie-perrinSince being recognised as a symptom, the mid-life crisis has manifested itself in different forms for each successive generation to reach the point at which there’s more of your life behind you than in front of you. In the mid-1970s, a time when the phrase ‘a job for life’ still applied to heavy industry, it was a truism also relevant for the white-collar worker, not just the blue one. Two concurrent BBC sitcoms of that era reflected this in contrasting ways. They present the conundrum from the male viewpoint because that was the viewpoint of the moment they were made, but their message is not ‘gender specific’.

‘The Good Life’, which debuted in 1975, focused on Tom Good, whose dissatisfaction with his materialistic lot fired his imagination when hitting his 40th birthday – which was then a significant marker for taking stock and judging whether one’s life could be filed under success or failure. Tom quit his office job and persuaded his wife Barbara they could carve out a self-sufficient lifestyle in Surbiton, much to the horror of neighbours Margot and Jerry. A year later saw another take on the mid-life crisis theme that was considerably more subversive, despite being cloaked in the deceptive dressing of the familiar suburban sitcom so commonplace on middle-class screens in the 70s, ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’.

Adapted by experienced TV comedy writer David Nobbs from his earlier novel, ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ dealt with the unexpected rebellion of the archetypal white-collar middle-management yes-man who had formed the backbone of the post-war British rat-race, commuting to work on the train from the suburbs clad with brolly, briefcase and the requisite copy of the Times. Reginald Perrin had a comfortable home, a dutiful wife, a couple of grown-up children, a secretary about whom he harboured unrealisable sexual fantasies, and a terrifying boss in the dreary business that had employed him for 25 years who he despised but was utterly subservient to.

Reggie was representative of millions of middle-aged men (as 46 was then regarded) across the country when the show first aired – too young to have participated in global conflict (which could at least be seen as a worthy contribution to something of value) and too old to have let their hair down with the rest of the 60s swingers. Instead, Reggie was the beneficiary of an acquisitive society that alienated rather than embraced him. He had every material benefit he had worked for at his fingertips, but it wasn’t enough.

On paper, it doesn’t sound remotely radical, yet the opening titles of the show didn’t highlight the domestic bliss prevalent in other sitcoms of the period. We saw a figure we presumed was Reggie strolling along the seashore before abruptly removing his clothes and heading for a watery grave – a poignant image just a couple of years after middle-aged Labour MP John Stonehouse had faked his suicide on a Miami beach, hoping to swim away from the criminal proceedings awaiting him. Viewers moderately disturbed by this beginning were lulled into a false sense of security as the programme unfolded and seemed to conform to standard sitcom fare – until they were allowed to eavesdrop upon Reggie’s thoughts and private opinions of the world he occupied and the people surrounding him. His contempt for them for eagerly leaping upon the same unfulfilling conveyor belt he himself was trapped on gradually saw him sabotage his security with masochistic relish.

After years as a busy character actor on stage, screen and television – he appeared in Nigel Kneale’s seminal TV play ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’ in 1968 and in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ the same year – Leonard Rossiter had finally become a household name in 1974 playing seedy landlord Rigsby in Yorkshire Television’s sitcom ‘Rising Damp’, but it was as Reggie Perrin that Rossiter gave perhaps his greatest performance, brilliantly portraying the meltdown of a man whose suppressed spirit was boxed-in by the comfy circumstances that had enslaved him since completing his National Service. A sitcom whose lead character regarded his enclosed world as one populated by pompous idiots and clueless crawlers as deluded and deceived by the system he had been deluded and deceived by wasn’t necessarily one that guaranteed success, yet it struck a chord with viewers and eventually spanned three series.

‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ was crammed with the kind of catchphrases that had become the hallmark of the renowned Perry & Croft sitcoms – ‘Great’, ‘Super’, ‘I didn’t get where I am today…’, ‘Bit of a cock-up on the catering front’, ‘I don’t like people; I’m not a people person’ – yet that too was part of its clever ruse to mask the message in accessible insignias. In an ongoing narrative unique to 70s sitcoms, we witness Reggie’s slow descent into madness, which climaxes with him ‘doing a Stonehouse’ and faking his suicide before re-emerging into the life he left behind disguised in a curly wig and facial hair, posing as an old friend of Reggie. After being offered a job at his old employers he comes clean and returns as Reggie, though the same problems resurface and his response to being sacked by Sunshine Desserts sees him start his own business.

A shrewd comment on consumerist gullibility, Reggie’s chain of ‘Grot’ shops – selling items that are of no use whatsoever, such as square hoops, square footballs, tennis racquets with no strings, eggcups too large to hold eggs, tins of melted snow, and his son-in-law Tom’s ghastly homemade wine – results in Reggie ascending to the status of a millionaire entrepreneur and enjoying the table-turning coup of employing his former boss, CJ; however, even this doesn’t give him the contentment he craves anymore than his old life did and he walks away from that as well. Reggie Perrin is a businessman allergic to business.

Watching ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ exactly forty years on, there’s no denying it exudes the same nostalgic period charm as other shows of its era, yet the underlying rage and determination of its hero to break free of a life cycle he had been led to believe would provide all the answers remains a relevant topic; Reggie’s own life cycle may today be one that belongs in another age altogether, but there are just as many (if not more) careering towards fifty in the twenty-first century who undergo the life-changing realisation that there’s more to living than making a living. And we all, in our own differing ways, have a little bit of Reggie in us.

© The Editor

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES

ian-duryAt one time, days designated as ‘special’ – dedicated to a particular indigenous custom or religious festival – were traditionally dictated by Church or State and were dotted sparingly across the calendar; as children, many of us were made aware of the day events such as Shrove Tuesday fell upon by observing John Noakes making a balls-up of tossing a pancake on ‘Blue Peter’ while Shep lingered at his feet in the hope of his master dropping it onto the studio floor. By contrast, Bonfire Night was something we didn’t need to be reminded of, brought up on the ‘Remember remember the fifth of November’ rhyme and bombarded with public information films featuring the scarred countenances of children who had chucked bangers at each other.

In recent decades, however, it seems as though everything and everyone has their own special day to the point whereby there are fewer of the 365 we get most years that aren’t actually set aside as anything special at all. The United Nations leads the way in international observance days, though doesn’t have a monopoly on them. Some of the more well-known ones that are currently crammed into the calendar include Holocaust Remembrance Day, World Cancer Day, International Women’s Day, International Children’s Day, World Refugee Day, World Mental Health Day, World AIDS Day, and International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3).

Alongside these sit some lesser known special days – and how many are you familiar with? I promise I haven’t made any up, by the way, so try these for size: World Puppetry Day, International Jazz Day, Geek Pride Day, Global Wind Day, International Day of Yoga, International Beer Day, International Lefthanders Day, National Boss Day, World Vasectomy Day (ouch!), Global Hand-washing Day, World Statistics Day, World Tripe Day, World Smile Day, World Hello Day and International Cello Day. It would appear if there’s a fanatical enough lobby pressing for it, being awarded a special day is fairly easy now.

Whereas some, such as National No-Smoking Day, enable the finger-waggers to be even more insufferable than usual for 24 hours, the sheer abundance of others that are frankly irrelevant means many pass us by completely – being of no interest to anyone beyond those who actively demanded them in the first place. I don’t suppose it’ll be too far in the future when every day of the year has been allocated to ‘raising awareness’ of something, though I’d argue my awareness of tripe is advanced enough to know the thought of eating it could produce a substance probably a tad more appetising than tripe itself.

The transformation of charity’s image from the duffle coat of the little old lady rattling a can outside the supermarket to the expensive designer jacket of the celebrity began in earnest in the wake of Live Aid, and the Geldof approach to altering an indifferent public to a neglected issue was adapted to promote high-profile campaigns and events like the Hands Across America link-up of 1986 (apparently to combat homelessness) and Just Say No (which warned kids of dabbling with that nasty heroin like poor Zammo). Whilst awareness – and in some cases, money – was raised, how long-lasting was that awareness once the world turned its attention to the next cause, I wonder?

This butterfly attitude has migrated to social media today, where aggressive emotional blackmail is often employed to provoke guilt should some resist the urge to publicly proclaim their raised awareness before the clocks strike twelve and another issue has its own day to mark.

Back when the UN also used to devote entire twelve-month cycles to awareness-raising, Ian Dury was asked to compose a song to celebrate the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981; as a prominent victim of childhood polio, Dury hadn’t used that misfortune as a selling point to mark himself out as ‘special’, relying on his distinctive stage persona and witty lyrical ability to do it for him rather than advertising his disability so that people would pity him and express sorrow for his predicament. Dury viewed the notion of an officially designated year for the disabled as a grandiose patronising pat on the head, understandably wondering if all awareness would cease on January 1 1982.

His response was not to write a saccharine-laced soft-rock plea for tolerance ideal for montages at the climax of the Paralympics, but an unapologetically angry anthem in ‘Spasticus Autisticus’. Inevitably, the BBC duly banned it because it obviously didn’t correspond to the concept of the disabled as dependent on the kindness of strangers and forever gushing with gratitude. Of course, gratitude is an emotional response implicitly expected from the recipients of awareness-raising, presumably overwhelmed that others have set aside one whole day to pause for thought and perhaps donate a few quid in the process.

One of the problems with special days of this nature is, whilst they have the potential to awake a conscience that might just last a little longer than 24 hours in some (which one presumes is the purpose), for many they serve as one more means of achieving moral superiority over the Jones’s. And what of the disabled or homeless or HIV-positive or mentally-ill person who joins the club when the can-rattlers have moved on? None of these conditions should be judged as ‘so last year’ like a pair of trousers that are suddenly unfashionable; but it would seem the only way to highlight certain issues that are prone to public neglect is to give them their own day, even if most require much more than that. Perhaps indicative of how this practice has ultimately failed is that these days are still necessary thirty-five years on from ‘Spasticus Autisticus’.

© The Editor

THE COMEDY OF TERRORS

lewisLike it or not, cities under siege have always been a regular aspect of warfare, from Londonderry in the seventeenth century to Stalingrad and Sarajevo in the twentieth; there are countless other accidental fortresses that could be listed, but if we are to set our time machines for 2016, the city unfortunate enough to be subject to that unenviable status is Aleppo, historically Syria’s largest metropolis and one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. Archaeological records show that it has been populated since at least the 3rd millennium BC, which makes it all the more sad that one of the goons so dim that he made the other contenders in the US Presidential primaries seem like leading intellectuals didn’t even know what Aleppo was.

The constantly shifting geographical changes in the region, such as the advent of the Suez Canal in the late nineteenth century and the encroachment of Turkey into Syria following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, had somewhat isolated Aleppo whilst helping to preserve its numerous antiquities in the process. Being awarded the Islamic Capital of Culture award ten years ago underlined Aleppo’s pioneering place at the heart of ancient human civilisation, yet recent events in Syria have turned a jewel in Islam’s cultural crown into a charnel house of death and destruction that we probably won’t know the true horrific extent of until the shooting has stopped.

Different reports put the death toll of this week’s heaviest bombardment of Aleppo somewhere between 25 and 45, and that was on just the one day. Opposing sides in the conflict release contrasting figures in order to suit their own agenda, whereas even independent observers struggle to compile accurate statistics due to the chaos on the ground. Just a couple of months ago, viewers of ‘Newsnight’ were witness to a remarkable life-saving operation undertaken in an Aleppo hospital basement which was dictated via Skype by a surgeon in London, but even that level of inspired improvisation seems impossible now.

A UN envoy this week declared Aleppo risks becoming ‘one giant graveyard’ during an emergency meeting of the Security Council, yet the current carnage in Syria once again highlights the impotence and absolute inability of the UN to make any difference to the lives of those caught in the middle of a bloody conflict, just as it has failed to do throughout its seventy-year existence.

When the roll-call of casualties and fatalities in the Syrian Civil War and a comprehensive account of the bloodshed inflicted upon Aleppo are neatly compiled into a book a decade or so from now, the thousands of names lost as a consequence will melt into each other so that only the survivors will recognise them. Buried amongst the tragically anonymous will be the name of Anas al-Basha, whose death as the result of a Russian-sponsored Syrian Government airstrike on Aleppo was announced yesterday.

Anas al-Basha wasn’t one of those western gap-year gits who volunteer to work in some of the world’s trouble spots solely to add some gravitas to their CVs despite spending the majority of their time there getting pissed and generally doing bugger all to improve the situation. In contrast with some of the jokers dressing as clowns and causing a momentary moral panic both in the UK and US, al-Basha donned the same costume not to scare the shit out of strangers in some overgrown schoolboy prank, but to put a smile on the faces of the children subjected to the relentless pounding the city has received over the last few months – of which there are an estimated 100, 000.

One could be cynical and come to the conclusion that a city without any functioning hospitals and dwindling food supplies doesn’t necessarily need a home-grown volunteer clad in clown gear to inject some silliness into a nightmarish scenario; but the fact that al-Basha was prepared to stay put when 25,000 have fled, purely to bring a little cheer into lives without any at all, shows how the human instinct to laugh in the face of extreme adversity cannot even be extinguished by circumstances that would test the funny bone of the most committed comedian. What Anas al-Basha was doing was, to put it as simply as possible, something selfless and rather nice. It would have been easy (not to say understandable) had he joined the exodus from Aleppo when confronted by the kind of pounding few could tolerate on a daily basis, but he saw a way to temporarily alleviate unimaginable anguish and went for it. And now he’s dead.

At a time when words such as ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ are severely devalued by being bandied about carelessly to describe pawns in an exploitative game who shed tears on daytime TV when recalling alleged events that took place decades ago, it’s worth remembering that in the here and now there are people in the world who are making the ultimate sacrifice just for the sake of raising a smile. They don’t beg for sympathy with puppy-dog eyes and they don’t give half-a-dozen idle police forces the excuse to spurn current crimes in favour of fishing expeditions to the safe haven of the past; they do what they do because they have a heart and they place the happiness of others above their own selfish concerns. If only the serial protestors could switch their attention to the real issues instead of hysteria over trivia, perhaps Aleppo could figure higher on their radar than it currently does.

Come the Syrian Day of Judgement, one would like to think the guilty will answer for their crimes, even if the example of Nuremburg has been distilled by the slo-mo legalities of The Hague. Chances are the contributions of Anas al-Basha to the pitiful peace process probably won’t figure as an antidote to the list of atrocities on both sides, but sometimes it’s worth noting those who put their neck on the line because they came face-to-face with man’s inhumanity to man and did what they could to neutralise its appalling effect upon the next generation of extremists. We can but hope.

© The Editor