THE HYPOCRITICAL OATH

mooreThe regressive left must think all of its Christmases have come at once. How tedious it would have been had Britain voted to remain in the EU and Hillary Clinton had won the keys to the White House. There was precious little opportunity to raise a placard and embark upon a march when Martin Luther Mandela-Obama was President. Mr Charming could slaughter as many innocents as he liked with the odd drone, promise to close Guantanamo Bay without doing so, and bar citizens of certain Islamic nations from entering the US; but all of that could slip under the left’s radar because he was cool – a finger-snapping Jazz Dude President. Plenty of style on the surface and plenty of unpleasantness beneath it that goes with the office, whoever holds it; as long as the latter is carefully obscured by celebrity sheen, all is well with the world – though wasn’t that kind of superficial salesman-like take on politics the very thing we wanted an end to?

Twitterati who know no better (and plenty others who should) have been proclaiming the Apocalypse for the past seven days, having the time of their lives whilst doing so. Helium-inhaler Laurie Penny Dreadful blamed the resumption of her menstrual cycle on Trump’s inauguration; another woman claimed she was going to abort the baby she discovered she was carrying on the very same day because associations with the Donald would damn the child forevermore – though with a potential mother of that mentality, the unborn baby was at least spared a lifetime of being saddled with a new twist on the old Original Sin concept.

In case you missed it, Donald Trump isn’t merely a charmless, boorish bruiser who views his country as a failing business he intends to turn around and make a handsome profit from; no, he’s Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Lex Luthor, Ming the Merciless and Doctor Doom all rolled into one unappetising package – and he must be exterminated! Posing as those who care for their fellow-man, some openly advocate his assassination while a cowardly punch delivered by a masked thug to the head of an admittedly repugnant white supremacist on the streets of Washington is apparently something we are supposed to admire. Not for the weekend anarchist the Christopher Hitchens approach of destroying your enemies by destroying their argument, of course; that would require brains rather than brawn. Lest we forget, however, Black Panther H. Rap Brown once said ‘Violence is as American as cherry pie’, so I guess the current method of dealing with the problem makes sense.

‘We will repel bullies!’ cried actor David Harbour (who he?) at the Screen Actors Guild awards, the latest in the ongoing round of ceremonial self-indulgent back-slapping Hollywood vomit-fests leading up to the ultimate golden bucket of puke, the Oscars. ‘We will punch some people in the face!’ he screamed with characteristic humanity as the rest of his rant was submerged by a tsunami of rapturous applause. Peace ‘n’ love, eh? Violence is okay as long as it’s directed towards individuals the consensus has decreed worthy targets. Funnily enough, ISIS regards anyone who doesn’t subscribe to its nihilistic dogma in similar terms. There used to be a word for that, along with imposing views upon a populace and silencing dissenting voices. Oh, yeah – Fascism.

On this side of the pond, double-barrelled activists have been creaming their jeans at the prospect of a state visit by the Donald; it goes without saying there’s already a petition. Minor invites of the same nature to the leaders of Saudi Arabia or China don’t quite provoke the storm this one has, despite their abysmal human rights records surpassing America’s; and who was our PM cosying-up to after holding (little) hands with Trump? President Erdogan of Turkey, a man who has overseen a ruthless purge of anybody brave enough to question his regime; I haven’t heard many protests about that summit meeting from the usual suspects.

UKIP’s Raheem Kassam isn’t exactly the shy retiring type; his regular Twitter pronouncements appear to delight in provoking a vociferous response, yet his gleeful rejection of the perceived wisdom on Trump has inadvertently laid bare one important aspect of the regressive left’s attitude to multiculturalism. Yesterday he was accused of ‘betraying his culture’ by not frothing at the mouth over the news of Mr President’s ban on selected Islamic nationals entering the US; a lapsed Muslim, Kassam is a brown gentleman who refuses to submit to the nice little stereotype of a British Asian, and this upsets the multicultural model somewhat.

By spurning a Holy Book that, as with many, condemns the kind of personal practices the regressive left demands as a right, Raheem Kassam is a Bad Man rather than a mildly entertaining, attention-seeking contrarian. The left may imagine white guilt over our colonial history is eased by advertising its tolerance towards Islam whilst simultaneously overlooking hardline Islamic countries’ far-from tolerant suppression of women, gays and dissidents; but the toe-curling and patronising approach to Muslims who adhere to the victimised minority mindset, unable to defend themselves and therefore in need of kindly middle-class white Brits to come to their rescue and speak up on their behalf (their mastery of the English language is quite basic, you understand), is a head-patting exercise of a kind even our imperial forefathers would find appallingly condescending.

The marches and protests we’ve already been treated to, and will continue to be for the next few months, are the regressive left’s World Cup; they love ‘em, that’s why they’re so quick to take to the streets and chant as though they were in a stadium, announcing to a global TV audience that the referee likes playing with himself. It’s a wonder the whole spectacle isn’t presented live on BBC1 by Gary Lineker, ably assisted by Simon Schama and Lily Allen as pundits.

It’s time to get a grip and put things in perspective; and look at it this way – if Hillary had been elected, we’d have more U2 albums to endure. As it is, Saint Bono has threatened to release no new material until Trump is out of office. Here’s to two full terms, then. I say that not because I especially want it, but because the entertainment quota is virtually guaranteed from both camps on account of them being as unpleasant as each other.

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NOBODY EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION

spanishI remember catching a snatch of a wartime-set drama as a child, and though I’ve no idea what it was, one scene that sticks in the memory is of a Gestapo interrogation whereby the unfortunate prisoner has his fingernails pulled out. It unnerved me at the time, for I was instantly convinced it was difficult to imagine anything more painfully horrible; but it seemed part of the post-war narrative that emphasised how cruel the Nazis were and that their cruelty was both unprecedented and hadn’t been surpassed since. I could read of historical battles and be made aware of their undoubted brutality, but distance rendered them less brutal somehow; that the Gestapo had been pulling out fingernails just thirty years previously – and my grandfather had been a POW in East Germany – meant that the anguished screams of the interrogated could almost still be discerned on the North Wind in a way that the cries of the bludgeoned on the battlefield of Hastings couldn’t.

At that time, there was plenty on the news alerting me to the fact that man’s inhumanity to man didn’t end in 1945 – the aftermath of IRA bombs, reports of what Idi Amin kept in his freezer, carved-up corpses in Vietnam etc; but implicit in such gruesome reports was the message that the atrocities of the enemy were what distinguished us from them. I wasn’t to know then that what could be classed as torture techniques were being practiced on IRA suspects by the British Army in Northern Ireland, just as they had been in Kenya twenty years before.

Torture was something associated with ancient history – the rack, the thumbscrew, the iron maiden and the Spanish Inquisition; that was what people did to each other before civilisation intervened, wasn’t it? That’s what we were taught at school, anyway. Hell, there was plenty of it in the sadistic Old Testament, and the Bible was promoted as a design for life at yer average C-of-E school in the 70s. It’s no wonder one grew up thinking that this especially barbaric method of extracting information was a shameful episode in the learning curve of mankind. How was I to know it had never really gone out of fashion? It had merely retreated back to the secret shadows when the Geneva Convention and the United Nations barred it from the open air.

I suppose it wasn’t until the stories started coming out of Iraq that official confirmation finally hit the headlines that we – the ‘Good Guys’ – also indulged in the tactics that the ‘Bad Guys’ had a reputation for. The Axis of Evil was so defined by Bush and Blair in relation to the members of said Axis doing devilish things that we in the West grew out of centuries ago; but, lo and behold, it turns out we were just as bad. The dubious policy of ‘rendition’ was despicable enough; as to what was done to those unfortunate enough to be secretly bundled onto a plane from MI6 or CIA Airlines and flown to Libya, most are still awaiting an admission it actually happened, let alone an apology from the guilty parties.

As a method of getting to the truth, torture is inherently flawed. By inflicting pain upon a captive, the gradual desperation in them for the pain to end becomes so overwhelming that they will eventually tell you precisely what you want to hear, whether it’s the truth or not. How is that getting to the truth? Bloody Mary may have got the answers she wanted from the Protestants thar were subsequently burned alive in public, but it was always a foregone conclusion once they were dispatched to the in-house torturer at the Tower. Four-hundred and odd years later, the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad beat confessions out of a chosen half-dozen behind closed doors, another foregone conclusion once they’d been fingered; the Birmingham Six were spared their lives, but still lost sixteen years of those lives behind bars – all thanks to effective torture.

Donald Trump (yes, him again) added to his litany of contentious pre-election statements during his first week in the White House, with perhaps the dumbest being his assertion that he believes torture is…well…basically okay. He made this announcement before appointing his Secretary of Defence. According to Mr President, General James Mattis is opposed to torture and by handing ‘Mad Dog’ the post, he apparently gives the General the power to act independently of Trump’s own personal opinion on the subject. Trump clarified this when the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg became the latest TV politico auditioning for Paxman’s size nines by trying to cram half-a-dozen questions into one during the press conference after the Donald met Theresa May. But does that mean the US will actually adhere to international law when it comes to this particularly vile practice now?

New UKIP leader Paul Nuttall proved he’s as thick as his Scouse accent by concurring with Trump’s viewpoint on torture, though it could simply have been a Tim Farron-like attempt to remind the public he’s not dead yet. Either way, anyone who imagines Radical Islamic Terrorism can be vanquished by water-boarding a few Muslims from Tottenham or Burnley in order for them to vindicate their kidnapping by confessing all deserves a stint on the comfy chair.

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TRADING PLACES

mugabeAfter years of viewing it as a virtual irrelevance, an embarrassing colonial hangover not quite in synch with the Blairite vision of Britain, and as something with little more purpose than a means of Her Majesty being able to maintain a ceremonial superiority over the old imperial possessions, the Commonwealth has suddenly acquired fresh significance. Its potential importance to the UK in the wake of Brexit has belatedly awoken the Government to the value of overseas connections made at a time when our only contact with most of our nearest neighbours was on the battlefield. This renewed interest in an institution that has been under the noses of Government throughout the heated debate over the EU has drawn attention to the Commonwealth’s incumbent Secretary-General, Baroness Scotland.

Gordon Brown’s former Attorney General was elected to the post last year, though her leadership has attracted considerable criticism; she is accused both of appointing cronies to senior positions in the Commonwealth Secretariat and of lavishing funds on the refurbishment of her official residence. Dissatisfaction with Lady Scotland has even been connected to the fact the Queen will not be attending a Commonwealth function at Marlborough House in March – the kind of piss-up at which Brenda’s name would normally be first on the guest-list.

That a reject from an ineffective administration should end up running an organisation with more historical and sentimental ties to Britain than any other is not unlike the way in which the governorship of Hong Kong was handed to Chris Patten after losing his seat at the 1992 General Election. The Commonwealth was clearly regarded as low priority when Baroness Scotland was elected to the post of Secretary-General; why else would it be awarded to a politician with such a mediocre CV?

And yet, with fanciful talk of nations allegedly queuing up to sign trade deals with the UK once Article 50 is out of the way (don’t hold your breath) and with Theresa May falling over herself to pay homage to the Donald in the hope that Mr President will translate his apparent affection for Britain into action, the Commonwealth is already there, as it was long before Europe even had its ‘economic community’.

What eventually became the British Empire was a product of maritime trading to begin with; it therefore seems only fitting that it should come full circle and return to its original function, especially when the rest of those countries forming an orderly queue have got to hang around for an indefinite period before they can actually start signing any trade deals.

Since Britain signed up to the great European experiment in 1972, the Commonwealth’s role as a network of nations has been reduced to a half-pint Olympics every four years on one hand and (in the case of Hong Kong) an inconvenience to be crushed in the stampede to suck up to China on the other. We have been cutting off our nose to spite our face for decades where the Commonwealth is concerned.

Never an international organisation with military or economic clout along the lines of NATO or the EU, the Commonwealth has always exuded the air of an old-school Pall Mall gentleman’s club, though more recent reforms – such as the introduction of a constitution in 2012 – have attempted to add a more professional edge to its amateurish ambience. The Queen has regarded heading the Commonwealth as a vital aspect of her job description since 1952, but successive governments from the 60s onwards have undervalued its potential and have viewed it more through the prism of post-imperial shame rather than recognise the possibilities it presents to a country that has relied for too long on the empty promises of Europe.

Chiming with the belated awareness of its new relevance, the Department for International Development has declared the Commonwealth is in urgent need of reform, with particular off-the-record reference to Baroness Scotland’s leadership. Complimenting this opinion is the Government’s decision to appoint a handful of experienced diplomatic heavyweights to oversee the next Commonwealth summit – a sign of the changing attitude towards what the Commonwealth actually represents.

The unpredictable President Trump should serve as a warning to the PM not to place all Britain’s trading eggs in one economic basket, especially when we already have 52 countries that don’t have to endure the interminable withdrawal from Europe before their signatures can be added to the dotted line.


MARY TYLER MOORE (1936-2017)

mtm‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’, which ran on US TV from 1970-77, wasn’t the first American sitcom to feature a woman as its lead character; but unlike its illustrious 50s predecessor, ‘I Love Lucy’, the series fronted by the actress who had played ‘the wife’ in ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ focused on a single, childless woman in her early 30s with a career. It might not sound like a ground-breaking premise today, but in 1970 – after twenty years of the ‘Hi, Honey; I’m home’ formula – it was.

And while the series shied away from overtly ‘feminist’ labelling, it was undoubtedly a trailblazer that both mirrored its times and pointed the way to the future.

Perhaps more than dramas, it has often been American sitcoms that have captured the zeitgeist of US society and have ended up becoming cherished institutions by the end of their runs. ‘M*A*S*H’, ‘Cheers’, ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ all climaxed with record-breaking viewing figures as the nation said a collective goodbye to their surrogate families; but it’s probably fair to say none of them would have aired in the first place had not ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ laid the foundations for them.

Mary Tyler Moore’s star vehicle wouldn’t have worked quite so well had it relied on her own comic charisma alone; it also contained the ingredients that other sitcoms followed, with a strong ensemble cast of quirky characters, several of whom proved so popular that they started the vogue for the spin-off series, the most successful being ‘Rhoda’. The show centred on the staff behind the scenes at a TV newsroom in the unfamiliar city of Minneapolis, with Moore playing the associate producer; but it was not so much the go-getting setting as some of the subject matters that tentatively broke new ground for a mainstream sitcom.

Reflecting the relaxation of strict morality in the US during the immediate post-60s, ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ touched upon the likes of sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, infertility and prostitution. Few would bat any eyelids today, but back at a time when sponsors would threaten to pull out at the merest hint of anything not strictly ‘family friendly’, it was an admirable risk-taking move forward; moreover, when contrasted with the absence of such topics from British sitcoms at the same time, it was relatively unique.

One reason why the show was able to challenge the staid subject matters that preceded it was that it was produced by Moore’s own production company, MTM; when the series finished its run, MTM continued to provide the American networks with a string of hits like ‘Hill Street Blues’, ‘St Elsewhere’ and ‘Newhart’.

Although Mary Tyler Moore never quite recaptured the success she enjoyed in the 70s, she continued to work in cinema and TV until the early 2010s. Her death at the age of 80 may bring her mortal existence to an end, but like anyone fortunate to have worked in Moore’s chosen medium, the career is immortal; and somewhere in the world, probably right now, there’ll be a channel showing an episode of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’. There no doubt always will be.

© The Editor

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BACKSTREET STORIES

vera-drakeTo be frank, I don’t really want to write about screeching millennial cry babies with pink hair stamping their feet and unable to comprehend you can’t always get what you want; and I don’t want to write about bloody Trump or bloody Brexit again. So, where does that leave me? Well, loath as I am to devote this blog to endless anniversaries – the last post, in case you missed it, marked fifty years since the arrival of Milton Keynes on the Buckinghamshire landscape – I couldn’t help but notice the same year in which the biggest New Town of them all appeared, a piece of legislation was introduced that eventually changed the lives of women in this country in a way that few pieces of legislation ever have.

The 1967 Abortion Act brought to an end (on the British mainland at least) the grim scenarios that were frequently fictionalised in British cinema during the years leading up to the Act. The sole moment in archetypal mid-60s Brit-flick ‘Alfie’ that Michael Caine’s title character loses his arrogant cocksure swagger is when, having impregnated the wife of a friend, he gazes at the aborted foetus ‘delivered’ by a loathsome backstreet abortionist and bursts into tears. By eavesdropping upon Alfie confronted by the consequences of his reckless actions, we see the male realisation of abortion’s ugly realities, just as the female perspective was graphically portrayed in the BBC TV play, ‘Up the Junction’, a year earlier.

As with the imprisonment of male homosexuals and the death penalty, the laws surrounding abortion immediately prior to the 1967 Act were in dire and urgent need of reform. Ineffective DIY remedies involving hot baths, knitting needles and a bottle of gin had been familiar means of attempting to induce miscarriages for years, along with more extreme practices such as engineering a fall down a flight of stairs. If all else failed, the ‘Vera Drake’ amateur abortionist was a familiar figure amongst women in the know throughout working-class neighbourhoods, whereas those with enough money could procure an illegal operation on Harley Street.

Although the contraceptive pill had been introduced in the early 60s, fears of encouraging unmarried promiscuity meant that it was only available to women with a ring on the third finger of their left hand; but even abstinence from pre-marital sex or avoiding embarking upon an affair couldn’t prevent the occasional unwanted pregnancy within a monogamous marriage, especially if social and financial circumstances meant the prospect of another mouth to feed filled the mother-to-be with horror.

The backstreet abortionist – often a qualified doctor who had either been struck off the medical register or one who greedily supplemented his income with an operation he knew could land him in prison – was an odious urban shadow haunting the netherworld of British society as much as the blackmailer of homosexuals in the first half of the twentieth century. At best, he could leave the women who went to him because they had nowhere else to go with permanent physical damage; at worst, he could kill them.

The grisly truth of the dearth of choice women had in this period was brought home to listeners on ‘Woman’s Hour’ yesterday, when an archive interview from the mid-60s was broadcast; in it, a working-class woman from Tyneside spoke candidly of her own experience of a backstreet abortion. That her account was told bereft of the tearful emotion that would probably accompany such a confession today somehow made that account all the more chilling, as did the juxtaposition of its grimness with the jolly chimes of an ice-cream van that could be detected in the distance as she recalled what had happened to her. It was far-from being an easy listen, but as an eye-opener of what women had to endure prior to 1967, it was a remarkable piece of radio.

Future Liberal leader David Steel, then a little-known backbencher, was the MP who introduced the Private Member’s Bill to legalise the termination of pregnancy, though he was supported by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government; it appointed Sir John Peel (President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the man who had delivered both Prince Andrew and Prince Edward) to chair a committee that recommended the Bill become law. After a debate in Parliament in which passionate opinions on both sides of the argument were aired, a free vote saw the proposal passed and it gained Royal Assent on 27 October 1967, becoming law as of 27 April 1968.

With the exception of Northern Ireland, the new law legalised abortion throughout Great Britain with a gestation cut-off point of 24 weeks. After the Act was passed, deaths as a result of abortions plummeted and the hideous spectre of the backstreet abortionist faded into history. The moral objections that accompanied the passage of the legislation through Parliament resurfaced as fanatical pressure groups, often of a religious bent; but fewer unwanted children were being born as a result, and fewer women were prematurely dying.

Yes, there is an irony that the anniversary of this British legislation’s introduction should coincide with the new tenant of the White House reviving Ronald Reagan’s old policy of cutting US funding for non-governmental organisations that offer advice on (or include) abortions in their overseas portfolios. As with promoting contraception in the developing world, such a service is one of the few ways in which the planet’s swelling population can be reduced; Christopher Hitchens made that point when justifying his campaign against Mother Theresa. But, while pro and anti camps will probably never be reconciled on this issue, the rights British women acquired half-a-century ago at least gave them something far more emancipating than tax-free tampons – actual control of their own bodies.

© The Editor

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BRAVE NEW WORLD

cowsNewtown was not only the name of the fictitious Merseyside metropolis in which ‘Z-Cars’ was set; it was also the name of a track on ‘Cut’, the debut album by reggae-fied punkettes The Slits. In the case of the former, the backdrop was supposed to reflect the Utopian housing developments of the early 60s (despite the apparently high crime-rate); whereas the latter chronicled the dull urban deserts such idealistic schemes had descended into by the late 70s – a cultural vacuum where everything was closed, boarded-up and abandoned as the populace stayed indoors and watched the telly.

The New Town was an innovative solution to Britain’s post-war housing crisis that spanned the first twenty-five years after the end of the Second World War, the New Jerusalem envisaged in the wake of the 1945 General Election; and it’s telling how quickly the powers-that-be got on with it. Stevenage in Hertfordshire was the first designated New Town in 1946, swiftly followed by the likes of Crawley, Corby, Basildon, Cwmbran, Cumbernauld, East Kilbride and numerous others up to 1970.

One of the final pieces in the New Town jigsaw was designated as such half-a-century ago today, a shiny space-age settlement occupying what had previously consisted of several small towns, villages and farmland in rural Buckinghamshire. It was named after one of the old villages it swallowed-up: Milton Keynes.

It’s interesting to recall that the last time the country experienced a housing crisis (courtesy of Adolf), the Government actually tried to do something about it by embarking on an unprecedented building programme that not only swept away both slum housing and bombed-out neighbourhoods in existing towns and cities but also created fresh hamlets from scratch, many of which would house the overspill population from densely-populated areas. Taking their cue from the pre-war ‘garden cities’, on the drawing board these New Towns embodied the optimistic determination of the Attlee administration to provide homes for heroes.

Shopping centres and workplaces were distanced from housing, with wide open spaces to compensate for the loss of the Greenbelt land as well as offering those relocated from cramped urban environments a facsimile of the country. The design faults in the original housing that was constructed with haste and inevitably led to corners being cut wasn’t evident to begin with; most of the citizens of the New Towns had come from overcrowded Victorian tenements and felt as though their new homes, with indoor bathrooms and all mod cons, were little palaces. Cinema newsreels of the time, acting almost as PR for the New Town scheme, extolled the benefits of these residential Nirvanas and painted a bright picture of a nation looking forward rather than back.

By the late 60s, the project was close to winding down, but experienced one great last hurrah with Milton Keynes. 21,850 acres were set aside for Buckinghamshire’s very own Brasilia, with a target population of 250,000; the aim was for Milton Keynes to be the biggest New Town of them all and architects were allowed to let their imaginations run riot in the distinct Modernist design of the buildings, viewing the town as a unique opportunity for an experiment on a grand scale that the limited space in existing cities prevented.

A revolutionary grid system for the plans was imported from the US to add a further alien sheen to the ambitious operation, and though skyscrapers were initially opposed, tall buildings eventually rose in the central business district. Milton Keynes, above all its New Town predecessors, eschewed the traditional layout of British towns and accurately anticipated an increase in car ownership as the motorway network gradually began to link-up the major cities.

Milton Keynes was an ongoing work-in-progress throughout the 70s and 80s; eager to acquire culture, it opened its first music venue, The Stables, sponsored by the premier couple of British Jazz, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, in 1970; but perhaps the most well-known addition was very much out-of-doors – what was originally known as the Milton Keynes Bowl, opening in 1979. The national sport belatedly came to Milton Keynes in 2004 with the controversial formation of Milton Keynes Dons FC; by putting the town on the pools coupon, it seemed as if it was finally accepted by outsiders as a ‘proper town’, though for a location that was the culmination of Labour’s New Jerusalem vision, as soon as Milton Keynes became a Parliamentary constituency in 1983 it ironically voted Tory.

By the 80s, Milton Keynes was widely derided for its somewhat sterile and faceless ambience; The Style Council famously mocked it in their 1985 hit ‘Come to Milton Keynes’, and the factors that for many make the best British cities so special – the mix of old and new, the sense of history and character, seemingly random accidents such as narrow side-streets veering off on a tangent, the Medieval dirt beneath the manicured fingernails, if you like – are utterly absent from Milton Keynes.

Yet, for such a daring break with the characteristic British town, the aesthetic elements of Milton Keynes have proven to be the blueprint for virtually every redevelopment and extension of major towns and cities across the UK ever since. The Lego-like add-ons that spring up like a bland barrier encircling today’s metropolis are undoubtedly created in the Milton Keynes image.

For all its faults, however, the concept of the New Town was an ingenious and effective means of solving an acute crisis in housing; and what have we done on such a scale since? Considering how acute the current crisis in housing really is, bugger all.

© The Editor

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THE LAST POST

001My neighbourhood has one post office – a relatively large one in comparison to some, and very rarely empty; its solitary presence means those seeking the service it offers have nowhere else within walking distance, and it is a genuine oasis surrounded by a desert of trendy bars, coffee shops, pizza emporiums, foreign food outlets and numerous other businesses that exploit obesity. However, rumours recently reached me that whichever horrible corporation owns the premises it has occupied for decades has trebled the rent over the last twelve months in a bid to force the post office out, and this essential community hub now either has to be reduced to sub status in a supermarket or simply disappear forever.

62 post office branches were earmarked for closure last year; a further 37 have been pencilled-in for the same fate this year with an estimated 420 jobs to go. The network of post offices across the country has shrunk around 30% over the past three decades, though the service still has upwards of 17 million customers a week. The increasing trend towards buying and sellng online should, in theory, have revitalised an industry whose traditional income was based around that quaint archaic practice of sending letters, yet continuously falling revenue gave the Government an excuse to capitalise on the situation four years ago.

A public institution aged 500 years young was deemed to be a source of shameless profit for our friends in Whitehall when they took the decision to sell off Royal Mail, thanks in no small part to the persistent pushing of Westminster’s very own Iago, Mr Mandelson, after deregulation opened the market to competition in 2006. Like so much privatisation since the mass closing down sale instigated by Mrs T back in the day, the benefits for the humble customer in the event of a family silver auction have been secondary to private profiteering where the post office has been concerned.

Following the notorious sale of Royal Mail in 2013, a report by the National Audit Office claimed the Government’s hasty flogging of the business cost taxpayers an estimated £750 in just one day. Deliberately undervaluing the share price, the Government entrusted the sale to Old Mother Cable in his role as Business Secretary under the Coalition; disregarding warnings from the City, Cable went ahead with his intentions to float Royal Mail at 330p a share and set aside 16 long-term investors to have priority access. Almost half of these investors sold their shares a matter of weeks later, many to the same hedge funds that Cable had labelled ‘spivs’, making a handsome profit in the process. The Government followed suit in 2015, selling its remaining 30% stake, formally ending its centuries-old connection to the service in the most unedifying fashion. I don’t claim to understand the intricacies of privatisation, floatation and the FTSE 100; but I recognise a rip-off when I see it.

For all the flak they continue to take from revisionists, the Victorians’ sense of Christian zeal when embarking upon their moral reform of the nation’s wellbeing wasn’t restricted to a specifically religious mantra. The codification and new professionalism of sports such as association football and rugby league; the right of every child, whatever their social origins, to receive education for free; the laying out of landscaped civic parkland; the creation of public libraries and public swimming baths – all were designed to open doors to intellectual and physical improvement that only the moneyed classes had previously had access to.

Although the postal service became available to the public under the reign of Charles I, the advent of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840, along with the introduction of pillar boxes twenty years later, chimed with the reforming spirit of the age – one that our supposedly enlightened era would find utterly alien. The formation of the National Health Service in 1948 was perhaps the last grand gesture of benevolence by the State in the nineteenth century tradition, devised by men born during Victoria’s reign and influenced by the ethos of their childhoods. The decline and fall of the NHS over the last couple of decades is, amongst many other things, a cracked mirror on the death of the concept of the common good.

The farming out of public services (or ‘outsourcing’, to use the official title), whether contracting the running of prisons to private companies or switching every customer helpline of your energy supplier to the broken English of the Indian Subcontinent, may seem unrelated; but each development of this nature in its own little way contributes towards the alienation and detachment from institutions many feel today, an alienation and detachment less prevalent when public ownership of public services gave everyone a sense of having a stake in society, even if they were down to their last couple of quid.

One small example came my way recently when a friend applied to work in the care sector; because the pay is so poor, jobs aren’t hard to come by, though she will have to wait upwards of two months to actually begin work due to the endless CRB-type checks she now has to undergo, the sort familiar to anyone working with society’s most vulnerable. These checks are in the hands of – wait for it – none other than the Metropolitan Police Force!

If that doesn’t fill you with confidence, it’s interesting to note that the overseas employees she’ll be working alongside (largely from Eastern Europe) aren’t investigated re their employment history in the country of their origin and are essentially ‘fast-tracked’ into the job. Whilst the unblemished record of a native is subject to scrutiny that instantly assumes all Brits are sadistic Paedos in the making, an immigrant worker who may have previously committed the kind of crimes CRB checks are supposed to safeguard against can effectively walk into a position without any additional delays. Of course, that’s not to say an immigrant worker is any more likely to have a dodgy past than any home-grown employee in the care sector, though surely the same rules should apply to all.

Such a farcical scenario may not appear to be connected to the imminent closure of my local post office, or indeed the disappearance of hundreds of post offices throughout Britain since 2013; but it does seem indicative of the cheap, selfish, suspicious, mistrustful, nasty little country we’ve become and how inequality in all its myriad forms has seen Us and Them assert itself as the dominant narrative of the day.

© The Editor

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TRUMPETTY-TRUMP

trumpWell, what can I say? Donald Trump is now officially President Trump; no great surprise, as his inauguration was advertised well in advance of the event. The talking point in the week leading up to it was the paucity of performers willing to participate, though I was relieved to be spared all that as a viewer. A Presidential inauguration ceremony isn’t half-time at the Superbowl, and I don’t recall entertainers being an intrinsic element of the ritual on the steps of the Capitol Building before the ‘Rumours’ Fleetwood Mac line-up reunited for Bill Clinton’s first bash in 1993 – or perhaps the Glenn Miller Band played at one of FDR’s numerous inaugurations and I was unaware of it.

The anticipated protests took place on the streets of Washington, but didn’t get anywhere near the parade route; as far as I can tell, the activities of the masked men were limited to smashing a few windows and – Shock! Horror! – pushing a few bins over. That should send out one hell of a message to the Donald that he’s up against a formidable enemy; ditto that chinless cinematic faux-anarchist Michael Moore, a man who pleaded on camera for Hillary Clinton not to become the Democratic nominee as he listed her failings and then pleaded on camera for the American electorate to vote for her when she did become the Democratic nominee, failings still intact.

The initial entertainment factor at Trump’s inauguration, rather than coming from pop stars, largely emanated from spotting ancient ex-Presidents arriving, none more so than Jimmy Carter, 92 years young; the only living post-Carter President absent was George Bush Senior, currently in hospital. Seeing Clinton, Bush Jr and Obama sharing the same podium did have the look of a ‘Doctor Who’ story when the Timelord’s previous incarnations get together; but it is strange when one considers Trump was sworn-in for the first time when he’s already the same age as his distant predecessors Bush Jr and Clinton are today. After eight years of a President born during JFK’s era, we’re back to the Truman generation.

Watching Trump hold up his little hand and repeat those famous lines certainly had more than a touch of parallel universe unreality about it; everyone knew it was coming, but it needed to be seen to be believed, to finally confirm it had really happened. When rain began to fall as soon as Trump had taken the oath of office and prepared to make his speech, no doubt some would melodramatically claim the Washington skies were symbolically weeping, though watching on TV, all I could think of was wondering what shape his hair might take when exposed to the elements.

Trump’s speech stuck to the core rhetoric at the heart of his campaign when going head-to-head with Hillary – the promise to revitalise the dead industries of America’s rustbelt, to end inner-city gang warfare and to give the country back to the people; what Obama must have thought when the inaugural address of his successor implied his Presidency had achieved very little on the home front probably won’t be known till the 44th President gets round to writing his memoirs; but I doubt Obama was reflecting on all the innocent lives his drones had extinguished during his two terms.

The headline-grabbing statements and choreographed controversies Trump specialised in during both his run for the Republican nomination and his clash with Hillary was akin to the chest-beating bravado that boxers exhibit at the weigh-in before their bout; come the moment he finally achieved the impossible by ascending to the White House, it was expected he no longer had any need to employ such contentious and divisive tactics, something that his unexpected conciliatory attitude towards his opponent re the fate he threatened her with during the Presidential Election seemed to point towards once he won the Presidency. However, Trump’s ongoing Twitter spats suggest it’s simply not in him to tone down his naturally combative nature, even when installed in the Oval Office.

How this nature will play out on the world stage, let alone domestic politics, remains to be seen; and I suppose it is the unpredictability of such an erratic character attaining the ultimate seat of power that is the main cause for concern when it comes to his detractors. At the same time, after years of persistent accusations that politicians are a bland breed straight off the android conveyor belt, having someone as the western world’s unofficial leader who bucks that trend with such brash vulgarity is part of Trump’s appeal, not dissimilar to the way in which many people find the eccentric persona Boris Johnson has cultivated a refreshing alternative to his fellow Parliamentarians.

The curious traditions of the US Presidency, whereby the new man at the top doesn’t take charge till two months after winning the Election, present the incoming holder of the office with customary American theatrically on the day he can actually be addressed as Mr President. As someone who has become a household name as the star of a reality TV show, it seemed fitting for Donald Trump to begin his reign in such settings, though what comes next is something that even Trump has never experienced before – the genuine power to affect the lives of millions who’ve never even seen his crappy television programme. So, strap yourselves in; it’s going to be a very interesting ride.

© The Editor

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HARD TIMES

britannia-statue1Ooh, it’s hard – it’s really hard! Yes, porn-speak infiltrates political discourse and, guess what, the SNP, Sinn Fein and the Lib Dems aren’t happy. Finally, the PM emerges from her Downing Street bunker and outlines her Brexit strategy. It’s only taken Theresa May the best part of six months to come up with some sort of speech to get the classes chattering at Westminster, Holyrood and Stormont, but she’s done it at last.

Yesterday, Our Beloved Leader announced that the UK will be leaving the European Single Market as part of our exit from the EU, confirmation of something that had been anticipated and (in the self-interested case of Nicola Sturgeon) hoped-for. Free movement of goods, services and capital without the free movement of people isn’t going to happen, so the Prime Minister had little option but to include this as a key part of her speech. It goes without saying that prominent Remainers in Parliament took the news badly; Tim Farron described being removed from the single market as ‘a theft of democracy’ and ‘not something proposed to the British people’. In case he’s already forgotten, nothing other than Leave or Remain was on the ballot paper last June; that was the extent of the detail.

The PM said Parliament would indeed vote on the final deal once unveiled, though a majority of votes by MPs and Peers against it wouldn’t alter the deal being enacted, which renders the laborious process of debating the issue in the Commons and the Lords somewhat redundant; I suppose it’ll serve as a token gesture to the Great British Sovereignty that a Leave vote was allegedly intended to return us to the bosom of, and it’ll also waste more time as the negotiations drag on and on, of course.

Along with leaving the European Single Market, the UK will wave bye-bye to the EU Customs Union, with the PM claiming it restricts Britain from being able to cut trade deals with non-EU member states; at the same time, she said she wanted the UK to have a new tariff-free trading relationship with the EU. It looks like Mrs May wants that cake and she’s determined to eat the bloody thing! It was this aspect of the PM’s plans that particularly upset the Nationalist parties in Ulster, with Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd declaring the decision ‘creates a hard border on the island of Ireland’. However, May did add that a crucial element of her intentions for Brexit in relation to Northern Ireland would be that the Common Travel Area between the UK and Eire remains.

At this moment in time, with the power-sharing Executive suspended pending an election, Northern Ireland would seem to have more pressing matters; not so Scotland, of course – according to the SNP, anyway. The PM may have said all the devolved UK administrations would have a part to play in formulating the Brexit strategy, but Nicola Sturgeon wants a ‘special deal’ for Scotland that flies in the face of May’s rejection of the European Single Market. The First Minister may be publicly stressing she believes Scotland remaining attached to the EU is in Scotland’s economic interests, but it’s been evident ever since she succeeded Alex Salmond that she intends to overturn the Independence Referendum result of 2014 at the first opportunity; and now it would appear that Theresa May’s speech has presented it to her.

Perhaps still stung by Obama’s threat of the UK being at the back of the queue when it comes to trade deals should the country dare to exit the EU, the Government now seems to be hinging a lot of post-European optimism on maximising ‘the special relationship’ again. The President-Elect wants to be our friend, or at least that’s what we’ve been led to believe via the Donald’s stated fondness for Britain, his thumbs-up for Brexit and his apparent willingness to do deals with us. Toe-curling snapshots alongside the likes of Farage and Gove probably shouldn’t be taken as an indication that this is where the majority of our global trading future lies, however.

Enthusiastic Brexiteer Boris Johnson has played down any over-reliance on the US by claiming endless other nations will be queuing up to sign trade deals with the UK once the death warrant on our EU membership known as Article 50 has been triggered – well, once the expected two-year process is over and done with. The Foreign Secretary added that ‘we are not slamming the door to migrants or hauling up the drawbridge’. But for all Bo-Jo’s bravura, nothing is as clear-cut as he and his ilk are liable to paint it; and one of the few straws Jeremy Corbyn could clutch at yesterday was his conviction that extricating ourselves from the EU might take a little longer than a couple of years.

Whether that means all those countries forming an orderly queue to trade with us are prepared to wait that long, only time will tell; and all of this is undoubtedly going to take time.

© The Editor

PS We can still console ourselves as to the integrity of our Great British Institutions, however…


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FAKING IT

journoFake News is a buzzword of the moment; let’s face it, there’s always one or two buzzing around, and Fake News is currently a favourite for debate on TV and in the press. The CIA’s conviction that Fake News had a detrimental part to play in the recent US Presidential Election has been manifested as a finger-pointing exercise in the direction of Russia. However, the WikiLeaks revelations over American phone-tapping of prominent world leaders such as Angela Merkel that emerged a couple of years ago has been conveniently absent from the CIA narrative in this holier-than-thou exchange of playground taunts on the part of the super-powers.

The presumption by professional media people re Fake News is that Joe Public, denied the privilege of his parents paying for his education and therefore not being very bright, lacks the intellectual capacity to distinguish between the real and unreal when it comes to headlines and must be ‘protected’ from his stupidity by introducing regulation. Satirical news sites may pedal evidently untrue joke stories along the lines of those that constitute the middle section of Private Eye, with most being so patently ludicrous that only a complete cretin would mistake them for the genuine article; but these are not the sites in the sights of the would-be saviours of the plebs.

Curiously, those that seek to crush Fake News consider it a solely online stain on their honourable profession; the blatantly Fake News that Fleet Street and TV have promoted for decades has evaded their critical radar. The personal agenda of a newspaper or television station proprietor has a direct influence on its editorial, however much the media outlet denies it, and this facilitates Fake News on a grand scale. Ever since the ‘exposure’ of Jimmy Savile as the most evil human being ever to walk the earth in a tracksuit five years ago, the proliferation of Fake News that has spewed forth from the mainstream media has far exceeded the previous lies generated about Hillsborough or the McCann’s.

The cost-cutting pensioning-off of many of Fleet Street’s finest veteran scribes has seen them replaced by a generation for whom enough ‘victims coming forward’ in an ejaculation of juicy hearsay is sufficient verification for the accuracy of a story. Should the target be a dead man, all the better; but death is no impediment to Fake News, mainstream media style; and the latest ageing entertainer to earn the unenviable nickname ‘The Octopus’ is duly hung, drawn and quartered by the Court of Public Opinion as presided over by the press even before an actual Court of Law has had its say.

The notorious and utterly reprehensible BBC TV coverage of the police raid on the home of Cliff Richard probably did a good deal more damage to Sir Cliff’s reputation than a thousand online rumours simply because BBC TV reaches the kind of audiences an internet conspiracy theorist can only dream of. Consequently, to have the mainstream media and the political class laying the blame of society’s ills on the doorstep of social media is an astonishingly hypocritical accusation that underlines the arrogance of the mainstream media and its fear of competition emanating from the world outside the bubble.

The Old Boy Network that cannot be infiltrated by people who weren’t born into journalistic dynasties resents the usurper that has exposed its members as the lazy laurel-dwellers they are; the thought that state-educated Proles can string together a sentence and garner an audience in the process is the most dangerous threat their cosy clique has ever faced. As the representative of another clique destabilised by the changes in the democratic landscape, Labour MP Chi Onwurah (yes, her!), remarked on television over the weekend that social media ‘has empowered…the WRONG people’; she also advocated sanctions and regulation.

Yes, it may be true that many of those whose voices ring loudest and with the greatest unexpurgated rage on social media are the same unhinged individuals who once reserved their incandescent anger for aiming at passing buses; yet what are so many of our high-and-mighty Fleet Street residents but the same unhinged individuals, albeit ones fortunate enough to have a father/grandfather/godfather/uncle able to bequeath a lofty tabloid platform to them in their last will and testament?

Often, the content of the daily column is as nasty and unpleasant as any to be found online; the Glenda Slagg types revel in their grotesque cartoon personas, as cosseted from the targets of their vitriol as a motorist is from the pedestrian he aims abuse at from the safety of his driving seat or the most malevolent keyboard warriors singled out as uniquely beyond the pale. The distinction as viewed by the mainstream media is that the newspaper troll is somehow superior to the social media troll, despite the fact that neither is more qualified than the other to dispense bile.

When it comes to Fake News, the ability to generate malicious mischief usually based on some in-built prejudice or intense dislike of a person or group of people is essentially classless. That doesn’t justify its most appalling moments; it merely demonstrates how the internet has enabled the poacher to become the gamekeeper.

© The Editor

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A TALE OF TWO ISLANDS

chuckle-brosTwo divided islands have been back in the headlines this week, and we – that is, us Brits – have something of a history with both of them; in fact, we maintain an interest that means neither has never really fallen off our national radar. I’m talking about Ireland and Cyprus. One has been a crucial, not to say a controversial, element of this little land mass’s story for centuries, whereas the other is a military legacy of our imperial adventures when we began punching above our weight on a staggering scale. One appears poised to descend into depressingly familiar factions as another shaky coalition collapses, whereas the other finally seems to have reached a point whereby some form of reunification is being cautiously discussed.

In the case of Northern Ireland, the structure of the power-sharing Executive at Stormont means the resignation of decade-long Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will have to be followed by the resignation of First Minister Arlene Foster, thus triggering an election. Sinn Fein have seven days to nominate a replacement for McGuinness, but they’ve dug their heels in and refuse to do so. One of the ironic consequences of the veteran republican’s decision is that, as of Monday, direct rule from Westminster will return to Ulster as the Northern Ireland Secretary takes charge; James Brokenshire then has six weeks in which to call an election.

Since the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, every election has seen the DUP win the majority vote, relegating Sinn Fein to second place on each occasion. But the fact that running Stormont is a joint office means they can still bring the Executive to a standstill if they so wish; and they have.

This latest disagreement between the two parties has been brewing for quite some time. It stems from the Renewable Heat Incentive, a 2012 policy instigated by Arlene Foster when she held the post of Enterprise Minister; she introduced the ‘green energy’ scheme that became something of a black hole for the Executive’s limited funds and could eventually cost taxpayers an estimated £490m; Sinn Fein understandably reckoned she should take some responsibility for the disaster, while the DUP have responded by accusing Sinn Fein of deliberately sabotaging the continuation of the Executive with McGuinness’ resignation.

Despite the unexpected cordiality of relations between McGuinness and then-First Deputy Ian Paisley when they first worked together in 2007 (AKA ‘The Chuckle Brothers’), tensions are never far from the surface at Stormont; indeed, it’s been something of a minor miracle that the Executive has survived this long considering the intractable differences between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Having said that, the traditional enmities dividing Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland have at least been put aside for the sake of the country over the last decade-and-a half; the same can’t really be said when it comes to an island in the Mediterranean with an equally troubled history.

In the aftermath of the 1877/78 Russo-Turkish War, Britain’s mistrust of Russia led to a clandestine deal between the UK and the Ottoman Empire in which the running of Cyprus was ceded to Britain; the Ottomans needed an ally in the region to provide military support in the face of repeated Russian aggression, and Cyprus was a handy stop-off point on the route to India. Both parties were apparently happy until the outbreak of the Great War, when the Ottoman Empire threw in its lot with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria), prompting Britain to annex Cyprus and make it a Crown Colony. Its significance as a military base proved vital over the following forty years. As the majority of the island’s population was Greek, long-held grievances over Turkish domination meant that British rule was deemed the lesser of two evils.

However, it didn’t take long before the Greek Cypriots began demanding the island be unified with Greece, leading to several violent protests in the 1930s not eased by the repressive regime instigated by the colony’s governor of the time. The Second World War suppressed such protests, with 30,000 Cypriots joining the British war effort; but the post-war era saw Greece drumming up international support for unification with Cyprus, something Britain resisted as the island’s Turks feared the worst.

The formation of the Greek Cypriot guerrilla organisation EOKA in the mid-50s unleashed a bloody campaign that became Britain’s key colonial battle in the Mediterranean following the withdrawal from Egypt. After Suez, Britain decided it would be preferable to grant Cyprus independence if it could maintain its military bases and this eventually came to pass in 1960. Britain’s military presence was called upon during a fresh outbreak of Greek-Cypriot violence in 1964, but the situation deteriorated further a decade later when Greeks overthrew the Cypriot President in a coup, prompting Turkey to invade Cyprus. The ultimate outcome of 1974 was the effective division of the island into Northern Cyprus (Turkish) and Southern Cyprus (Greek); and this state of affairs has been upheld ever since.

As Britain maintains Sovereign Base Areas in both Northern and Southern Cyprus, our commitment to the island lingers and, along with Greek and Turkey, we remain guarantor powers of Cyprus’ independence. Talks in Geneva at the moment are intended to review the situation and discuss possible reunification of the island, but the legacy of past clashes between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is a grim one that will take a considerable effort to resolve.

Over 2,000 members of both communities have been officially listed as missing persons for almost half-a-century; in recent years, the remains of more than 700 bodies have been exhumed, all victims of the atrocities that events in both 1964 and 1974 led to. If there is to be a resolution to Cyprus’ troubled history, there is still a hell of a lot to resolve.

On one hand, it could be said Northern Ireland is further along the road to recovery than Cyprus; and then we have to remember that we’re talking about just one half of a country that has been officially divided for ninety-five years, and the picture suddenly doesn’t seem much better at all. There’s a long way to go yet.

© The Editor

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