63-2As sure as night follows day, January is traditionally barely a week old before we receive the warning from our media overlords that we’re about to experience ‘the worst winter since 1963’. It’s become an annual tradition every New Year, and where would the poor old Daily Express be if it couldn’t stick a photo of vehicles struggling along a snowy motorway somewhere up in Scotland on its front cover? Even the images of Europe that have led the seasonal scaremongering over the last week have emanated from old Iron Curtain countries that do have something of a history where severe weather this time of year is concerned. But, of course, it only needs one piddling little snowfall of the kind that wouldn’t bat an eyelid in Moscow to bring Britain to a halt and herald the return of the word ‘chaos’ to the headlines.

In order to have a clear memory of the benchmark against which all subsequent winters have been judged, i.e. 1962/63, one would have to be at least sixty. I suspect the majority of the media soothsayers have yet to reach that age or else they wouldn’t be so quick to make comparisons. I can’t speak personally of 1962/63 either, but I have at least read enough about that winter to know we haven’t come close since – with the possible exception of 1981/82, which I remember very well indeed.

1962/63 surpassed the previous ‘worst winter’ scenario in the twentieth century, which (as far as the UK goes) had been at the height of post-war rationing and economic austerity in 1946/47, a winter so severe that it almost broke the Labour Government of Clement Attlee. Sixteen years later, the country slipped into the deep freeze in a way it hadn’t since the era of the Little Ice Age (roughly 1300-1850), the period that established traditions such as the frost fairs on the frozen Thames and gave birth to Charles Dickens’ vision of Christmas that continues to cast a mythical spell over advertisers.

The first heavy snow fell on Boxing Day 1962 and further snowfalls occurred as the year careered towards its end; by New Year’s Eve, snowdrifts of between 8 and 15 feet deep had submerged great swathes of the country, bringing genuine chaos to rural areas in particular. The Thames didn’t freeze in Central London, but did freeze outside of the capital, leading to skating and a car being driven over the river in Oxford. Even the sea froze – a mile out from Herne Bay in Kent and as far as four miles out across the Channel from Dunkirk. The sporting calendar was badly disrupted, with some football and rugby clubs not playing a fixture for two whole months in the days before the innovation of under-soil heating; racing was similarly affected.

Whilst some areas had already seen the snow turn to ice, there were more snowfalls in February; along with fog and gale force winds of up to 81 mph, the UK must have felt more like Russia for the first couple of months of 1963. There were gradual fears regarding food, as the frozen soil meant vegetables couldn’t be harvested and the prices of those that had been rocketed.

In London’s Primrose Hill, the 30-year-old American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath penned some evocative prose and verse on the conditions as she struggled to survive the big freeze with two young children and an absent husband, but she succumbed to her demons on February 11 by resting her head in the oven. With a history of depression and past suicide attempts, her death cannot necessarily be attributed to the winter, though it probably didn’t help. When the thaw came, it was quick, although it didn’t come until a month after Plath’s suicide.

As said earlier, the only real personal comparison I can make with 1962/63 is the winter of 1981/82. Although fourteen at the time, sledging still held an appeal – though improvisation reigned in the grounds of the nearby girls school every evening; bin-bags spread out could hold upwards of half-a-dozen brave souls prepared to ride down ‘the hill of death’, a bumpy rollercoaster that usually ended with the riders being jettisoned into the snow at the end of the journey.

One kid had a brand new moulded plastic sledge that provoked much envy; we told his mum he said we could use it when he was out one night; he hadn’t, but she believed us. Out deceit was rewarded as it cracked in half when three of us rode in it down ‘the hill of death’ and we spent the rest of that bloody winter clearing snow from driveways up and down the estate so we had enough cash to pay him back for a replacement.

It only takes one snowfall these days for schools to close their doors; in 1982, my school stayed annoyingly open, and even more annoyingly, my mum sent me there every bloody day. Having recently been caught bunking off, I was punished by having to attend a school that was half-empty for a couple of weeks; day-by-day, the numbers of pupils present diminished to the point where there were as few as five kids in my class at the height of the winter. However, I found the school a much less stressful place when all the head-cases were absent and it gave me a glimpse of what a superior institution it could have been if that were the norm.

Nobody who has lived through a really bad winter should be gripped by panic whenever forecasts of doom ‘n’ gloom fill all those long, empty hours on rolling news channels or generate tabloid front covers during a quiet news week; but some do, even though they should know better. So, brace yourselves for the worst winter…since last year’s.

© The Editor


trumpEver since Gettysburg, the Great American Speech has not only been the aim of every US politician seeking to define their time and enshrine their place in it; the moment talking pictures appeared, the movie industry realised few tactics served better as the denouement of a drama than the lead character pausing to passionately speak his mind to an assembled group of characters (and the audience) in a highly theatrical manner, as though he too was on a podium addressing the nation. This week has seen two examples of this enduring gesture – one coming from an outgoing President and the other coming from an ageing actress.

Like Barack Obama and his predecessors, Meryl Streep’s field of expertise is speaking lines written for her by somebody else. Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley sang lines written for them by somebody else; they were aware they didn’t possess the talent to write their own, so they focused on what they did best and didn’t lose any sleep over it. But professional actors are a different breed of entertainer and they often make the mistake of believing the adulation and awards that shower down on them for doing their job is somehow a reflection of them as individuals rather than the characters they’ve portrayed. When they sever the strings of the scriptwriter and, like Pinocchio, imagine they’re flesh-and-blood instead of wood, the illusion is shattered and the audience winces.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Charlton Heston cheerleading for the NRA, Clint Eastwood interviewing an invisible Obama, Michael Caine endorsing Cameron, Sean Penn intervening in the Falklands or the conveniently-distanced George Clooney lecturing Europe on its refugee crisis, the impact is the same. We belatedly (not to say disappointingly) realise they’re not who we thought they were when we watched them on the big screen. Tell an actor he’s wonderful and he’ll do anything for you – something those who benefit from a celebrity endorsement know all too well.

With last year’s PC Nuremberg Rally masquerading as the Oscars ceremony still sending a lingering shudder down the spine, 2017 hasn’t even got as far as the Academy Awards before the same narcissistic urges have claimed centre-stage again. The Golden Globes is the Song for Europe to the Oscars’ Eurovision, but the woman one US critic referred to as ‘America’s Judi Dench’ decided to pre-empt the biggest bash in cinema’s calendar by using the Golden Globes as her own personal platform, knowing full well she was playing to the adoring converted.

Actors will become increasingly dispensable in the next few years; the CGI ‘reanimations’ of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in the latest ‘Star Wars’ movie are probably the shape of things to come, and as the technology advances more and more thespians will have to specify beforehand whether or not they consent to their image being resurrected in the event of their death. Therefore, Streep, as the reigning grande dame of Hollywood, grabbed the headlines with her own words in a way a CGI version of herself from twenty years hence would be incapable of; she never said the words ‘President-Elect’ or ‘Donald Trump’, but her target was implicit in the speech. She delivered it with the kind of faux-earnestness she’s called upon in a hundred movies – the final scene in which a solitary piano accompaniment gradually builds up into a rousing, swooping crescendo of soupy strings cynically engineered to provoke tears and applause. She may have had a salient point hidden behind the hammy window-dressing, but it was buried beneath a landslide of emotional apple pie.

As a man who has yet to come to terms with at least the pretence of dignity that is supposed to compliment his office, Donald Trump responded to Streep’s speech in the style of a petulant Twitter troll, oblivious to the fact he should be above all that by now. He’s no longer merely a reality TV star anymore, lest we forget. But Trump is at war with anyone who mocks or criticises him; he’s Richard Nixon taken to an online level, not simply dismissing his knockers with foul-mouthed vitriol behind closed doors, but engaging with them in unedifying internet fisticuffs in full view of the world.

He could have made Meryl Streep look even more foolishly self-indulgent had he just ignored her; but what he shares with Hollywood royalty is his inability to relent from imposing his opinions upon a populace he genuinely believes is enamoured with everything he says or does. In this respect, Trump and the red carpet A-listers should be natural allies, for their conceit and vanity is their dominant mutual personality trait.

As with the pyjama-clad slovenly shoppers captured on camera last weekend, who responded to being rightly shamed by crying racism, the majority of Trump’s most vociferous critics fall back on wearisome buzzwords that ironically mirror the similarly simplistic and crude playground taunts of the man himself. By contrast, Hollywood’s pampered starlets, labouring under the misapprehension that their public edicts carry the kind of weight ordinary Americans lack the intellectual capacity to articulate, clearly imagine that the audiences who pay good money to watch their overhyped brain-dead blockbusters will instinctively agree with their anti-Trump rhetoric just because they have achieved the wealth and privilege every US citizen is duped into believing they too can attain.

But perhaps there is one saving grace to emerge from this sad little war of words between America’s ultimate showbiz elite and a President-Elect who himself is more showbiz than political: George Clooney has hinted Hollywood will go ‘on strike’ until the President-Elect is booted out of office. Just think about it – no mainstream Tinsel Town popcorn slopping around the multiplex aircraft hangers like a celluloid slick for four years! Go for it, George!

Everyone is acting out their preordained parts because none of the participants are smart or shrewd enough to see that they’re doing so; their egos are too immense to discern anything beyond the shadows they cast to recognise the clichés. Like two competing B-movies at the local fleapit, the right-on left and the rabid right are back where they belong, engaged in a tired battle neither will concede and neither will win. They both deserve to drown in a perpetual golden shower.

© The Editor


leatherI envy anyone stupid enough to have thought this would all be done and dusted by June 24 last year. The Brexit saga seems set to run and run as though Brian Rix was at the helm; all that’s missing is a pair of trousers round the ankles, though if I could I’d gladly pay whatever Theresa May’s designer leather pants cost to be spared the sight of them occupying the traditional Whitehall position. The weekend was full of headlines on the subject, beginning with Nicola Sturgeon’s latest desperate attempt to assert what she regards as her authority by aiming another threat in the direction of Westminster.

Acutely aware that the climate isn’t quite ready for a Scottish Independence Referendum she hopes will this time gain her the result to justify both her own career and her party’s existence, Scotland’s First Minister has declared she’s prepared to put a rerun on the backburner if the PM can fix it so that the UK remains part of the European Single Market. Oh, it’s still on the cards, but Sturgeon promises she’ll put it off for a bit – not unlike the Brexit negotiations, then. Yes, they may have opted for Remain north of the border, but in the seven months since the EU Referendum, the majority decision of England and Wales to vote Leave hasn’t seen the upsurge in renewed demand for Scottish independence that Sturgeon anticipated, so it’s hardly a great sacrifice on her part to delay.

It was obvious even before the votes were cast last June that Sturgeon would be praying for the Sassenachs to go for the Brexit option and she wasted little time in exploiting the situation, quick off the blocks by announcing the decision of 2014 would not be one she’d honour for long. However, the First Minister’s opportunism, whilst galvanising the bad losers afresh, has failed to gain many new recruits. The unexpected success of the Tories in Scotland under Ruth Davidson on the eve of the EU Referendum was something few saw coming, least of all Sturgeon; and Davidson is hardly likely to be a fellow cheerleader for a second referendum that could reduce Scotland’s outside economic benefits even further at a time when separation from Europe has already been voted for.

The climate is uniquely conducive to Nicola Sturgeon’s somewhat crass headline-grabbing tactics, though – largely due to the continuing uncertainty over what flavour Brexit the country will go for: hard, soft, crunchy, chewy? One can’t really blame the SNP leader for capitalising on the confusion. It doesn’t help that Theresa May has mostly limited her public pronouncements on the topic by repeating ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and not much more.

In many respects, it’s difficult to think of a previous occupant of No.10 who’s been resident for as long as six whole months keeping such a low profile at a moment when what used to be called ‘strong leadership’ seems so essential. May appears to have taken a strange approach to the job, as if content to keep her head down and hide behind the now-irrelevant mandate achieved by her predecessor until it expires in 2020.

Her reluctance to challenge the fixed parliamentary term established by the Coalition after 2010 suggests a curious lack of confidence in defeating an opposition party more divided than it has been in over thirty years or it says she’s a ditherer. Neither indicates we currently have the forceful figure we apparently need if we are to successfully navigate the minefield that all those European treaties of the 90s marooned us in.

Of course, the weekend saw the first major TV interview the Prime Minister has given on Brexit, probably timed as a riposte to the UK’s outgoing ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, whose parting gesture was to accuse the Government of ‘muddled thinking’ over the issue; Nicola Sturgeon cannily preempted May’s big moment, and though the PM talked at length, she skirted around clarity by resorting to recycling the empty, sloganeering rhetoric about ‘taking back our borders’ that characterised her years at the Home Office. May says she’ll be ‘setting out more details in the coming weeks’, but many no doubt came away from the Sky chat no clearer on what will happen than they were before it aired.

Negative reactions to May’s vague waffle both from Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Mr Plastic Man himself, Keir Starmer, as well as the Lib Dem leader (and fellow resident of Planet Mediocre) Tim Farron, were predictable but understandable when nobody seems to really know what comes next. The plain fact is that none of the political class expected this result and therefore didn’t plan ahead for it.

The simplicity of the two choices on the ballot paper when the country spoke on June 23 2016 didn’t specify anything beyond ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’, which could be seen as a means of duping the electorate into believing it genuinely was that simple or as a case of shrewdly avoiding the technical complexities of an actual exit from the EU, something the Government figured it wouldn’t have to deal with anyway.

Joining what was then the European Economic Community was a long-drawn out affair spanning a decade, and nothing has so far suggested leaving its leviathan successor will be any speedier a process. Naturally, the longer the delays, the more the opportunities for those eager to throw a spanner in the works have to cast doubt on the wisdom of the decision; but, as with the striking railwaymen clinging to their Luddite tendencies amidst the unstoppable encroachment of automation, one cannot help but feel opposition to the inevitable is futile on a level unseen since King Canute took his seat on the beach. It’ll happen; we just don’t know when. And I don’t think Theresa May does either.

© The Editor


rumpoleWhen John Mortimer created the character of Horace Rumpole, he admitted his ultimate motivation was to come up with a Sherlock Holmes or a James Bond, a fictitious figure whose popularity could span a series of books that would keep the author financially comfortable in his old age. In the end, it was the television incarnation of Rumpole as played to utterly convincing perfection by Leo McKern in the ITV series, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, which ran from 1978-1992, that provided Mortimer with his retirement nest-egg.

Mortimer was himself a barrister and he drew inspiration from some of the ‘Old Bailey hacks’ he had encountered during his legal career, those who regarded their role as a moral duty, one that honoured the inscription on the pediment above the portico of the Central Criminal Court – ‘Defend the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoer’. Like them, Rumpole had no career ambitions to climb the legal greasy pole, to become a QC or Circuit Judge; he was a firm believer in the presumption of innocence and favoured legal aid cases that few other barristers of his experience would touch.

As a barrister, John Mortimer gained a reputation for defending what many saw as the indefensible, famously on the side of the ‘Oz’ editors charged with obscenity in 1971, ‘Gay News’ for blasphemous libel in 1976, and Virgin Records over the furore concerning the public display of the word ‘bollocks’ on the sleeve of the debut Sex Pistols LP in 1977. Although he cited his criminal barrister father as another influence on the character of Rumpole, there was certainly more than a touch of the author in his creation’s wilful embrace of the underdog up against the powers-that-be.

Interestingly, Rumpole baulked at prosecution, though there were occasions when even if he knew his client was guilty, he still entered a ‘not guilty’ plea; for all his noble dedication to ‘the golden thread of British justice’, Rumpole’s cherished ethics occasionally encompassed the lies that so many in his profession propagate in order to secure success. Rumpole’s career was back in pre-CPS days, so he had no need to court favour with the Clown Prosecution Service in the hope that he could one day prosecute on their behalf; he never deliberately threw a defence case by withholding vital evidence he knew couldn’t be used in an appeal, thus ensuring a dubious CPS conviction. The old boy network was one Rumpole revelled in standing outside of.

As unconventional and borderline Dickensian a character as Horace Rumpole was, he nevertheless represented a recurrent strand in British television when dealing with the most revered professions within British society, that of the heroic crusader seeking justice for the little man when confronted by those with the weight of the establishment behind them. Such a character had already become familiar in the genre of the police drama. Sgt George Dixon was far from being a rebel, but he personified the honest copper children had been brought up to believe was there to protect them. Stratford Johns’ bullish CID colossus Barlow (‘Z-Cars’ and ‘Softy Softly’) was a different proposition, but still essentially a good guy when it came to the innocent. If we ever found ourselves in a tight corner, we wanted Sgt Dixon, DCS Barlow and Rumpole to be there for us.

These effective TV PR jobs for the police and the Law presented the public with an idealised and unrealisable vision of crime and punishment that viewers who had no first-hand contact with either came to believe was the truth. It wasn’t until GF Newman’s uncompromising ‘Law and Order’ was broadcast on the BBC the same year that ITV aired the first series of ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ (1978) that television uncovered the less reassuring reality of how the system actually worked.

A four-part series whose grim brutality showed up ‘The Sweeney’ for the admittedly enjoyable escapism it really was, ‘Law and Order’ featured a corrupt police detective (Derek Martin of later ‘Eastenders’ fame) faced with finding the guilty parties behind an armed robbery. Although this proves a relatively simple task, the urge to frame a career villain (Peter Dean AKA Albert Square’s Pete Beale) who has evaded arrest for several other jobs sees the detective cajole and persuade the men responsible for the crime to name said villain as a member of their crew even though he had no involvement with them or their ‘blag’. The man was ‘due’ and is duly found guilty, sent down for several years for something he didn’t do; in the eyes of the copper, this is justice.

The bias of the judge in directing the jury to reject the outrageous notion that the police could possibly be liars, the hopeless predicament of the low-rent lawyer entrusted to keep the accused innocent from prison, and the smug satisfaction of the detective in removing a persistent offender from his books are all complemented by perhaps the most graphic portrayal of prison life ever seen on TV up to that point.

‘Law and Order’ doesn’t make for easy viewing, but I would recommend it to anyone who remains in denial that the judiciary and the police aren’t always on our side. Yes, we want to believe in Rumpole and Dixon in the same way we want to believe every newspaper journalist is on a par with Woodward & Bernstein. The sad fact is that when we encounter them we find this isn’t necessarily the case.

Only this week in promoting the ITV police drama, ‘Unforgotten’, its author spoke on the radio of deliberately portraying the police as ‘nice people doing a tough job’ and it would seem endless toxic headlines of police corruption and ineptitude have resulted in TV returning to a more feel-good formula that assures its viewers that not every apple in the barrel is rotten. Try telling that to the innocents who have been on the receiving end of a system that purports to live by the principle carved on that Old Bailey pediment and yet is found wanting when the maintenance of the status quo from which its beneficiaries thrive and prosper becomes the prime objective, along with increasingly insidious politicisation that has made ‘guilty till proven innocent’ the rule rather than the exception. Be careful out there – you’re on your own.

© The Editor


chaplinLong-term followers of my ‘oeuvre’ may recall a weekly YouTube series of mine that spanned a year from the spring of 2014 to 2015; called ‘25 Hour News’, it parodied rolling news channels by presenting a satirical spin on the headlines of the preceding seven days. Although most episodes have since been deleted on account of their irrelevance to the here and now (not to mention a few ‘copyright’ issues), there are still a small handful of specials available, including my takes on both the Scottish Independence Referendum and the 2015 General Election as well as a compilation review of 2014. Revelling in freedom from the permanently anxious censorship committees that police the potential for offence re most television comedies these days, I viewed everyone as fair game for having the urine extracted from them.

At the time when ISIS decided American journalists would function better by having their heads removed, I recall concocting a spoof on a certain 70s game show called ‘Muhammad Forsyth and the Decapitation Game’; I only put together the opening titles and a description of what the programme consisted and that was that – job done. The audience was in the thousands rather than the millions, so I didn’t have to respond to the kind of ludicrous Twitter outrage that this week greeted a rare comedy parody of our friends in the Middle East.

The blurb in the Radio Times accompanying the new BBC2 series ‘Revolting’ painted it as a hidden prank show, to which my reaction was ‘just what the world needs – a hipster Beadle’s About’; it wasn’t until the online serial offence-takers kicked up a fuss yesterday over a sketch from the show spoofing those horrific reality TV ‘rich wives’ programmes that I realised the series apparently amounted to more than a ‘Candid Camera’ for the Instagram generation.

The skit in question was called ‘Real Housewives of ISIS’ and was, I thought, a pretty funny piss-take of both a nauseating television genre and the equally nauseating principles of those stupid enough to seek salvation by selling themselves into Jihadi slavery. Lest we forget, British Muslim women who have made the journey from the UK to Syria haven’t been kidnapped; they volunteered. And if they’re dumb enough to fall for the ISIS PR, they’re worthy of ridicule, as is the organisation nobody forced them to join. Considering the absence of sensitivity to non-believers and infidels that the ISIS philosophy promotes, why should anyone spare them the deserved scythe of satire? According to the ISIS apologists on the left, however (those for whom Israel is the only Middle Eastern nation that has blood on its hands), this sketch was beyond the pale.

‘Real Housewives of ISIS? Wow, the BBC got some explaining to do’; ‘The Real Housewives of ISIS is so distasteful. Lowest of the low from BBC2’; ‘Sick, you are truly sick in the head and morally bankrupt’ – just a small selection of the Twitter comments that followed the programme’s broadcast. I suppose the ‘morally bankrupt’ accusation is the one that stands out; morally bankrupt by taking the piss as opposed to the unimpeachable morality of the suicide bomber? One can’t help but think that the same voices would probably have reacted in similar fashion to ‘The Great Dictator’ had Twitter existed in 1940. ‘Chaplin, you are morally bankrupt 4 attacking Nazis and Hitler’!

To be fair, Chaplin himself later admitted that had he known of the Final Solution when he made ‘The Great Dictator’, he wouldn’t have poked fun at Adolf in quite the same way, but by making a movie satirising Hitler in the US at a time when America had yet to enter the Second World War, he was putting himself out on something of a limb. The great exodus of European Jews from the continental film industry to Hollywood bore fruit for American cinema in the years to come, but the stories they told upon arrival were ones Chaplin absorbed when formulating the concept of ‘The Great Dictator’; he’d also viewed Leni Riefenstahl’s grandiose Nazi propaganda movie, ‘Triumph of the Will’, and had apparently found it unintentionally hilarious. The end result of these influences was one of the first comedic takes on Hitler and the Nazis, but not the last; as the conflict escalated, Chaplin was hardly alone in mocking the Führer.

Cartoons and comics aimed at children were crammed with humorous interpretations of Hitler and Mussolini throughout the war years; wartime strips in The Dandy and The Beano included ‘Addie and Hermy, the Nasty Nazis’ (Hitler and Goering reborn as archetypal DC Thompson dimwits) and ‘Musso the Wop (He’s A Big-A-Da-Flop)’. It’s an age-old truism that one way an enemy can be belittled by those not in a position to take them on with force is to laugh at them; just look at James Gillray’s caricatures of Napoleon in the early nineteenth century, whereby the physically inaccurate portrayal of Bonaparte as a short-arse literally belittled him and established the myth of the French Emperor’s size that still lingers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this image contributed towards Napoleon’s eventual overthrow, but it definitely served to make him less of a bogeyman in the popular imagination and defused the fear of him that he undoubtedly drew strength from.

It’s a measure of how effective the PC intelligentsia have been in dictating to TV companies what we can and can’t laugh at that something such as the ‘Real Housewives of ISIS’ sketch is seen as outrageous. A fashionably dismissed comedy from the 70s like ‘The Goodies’ had a dig at Apartheid in an episode simply called ‘South Africa’, one scene of which features a spoof travel ad for the country wherein the Black & White Minstrels act as salesmen for the system that had its fair share of appeasers in Europe at the time. It all sounds very radical and daring by today’s standards, but this was a pre-watershed mainstream series that was even regarded as lightweight back then.

There are so many aspects of contemporary life that often seem more like parody than the real thing, and I sometimes think the architect of the present day’s culture is not some great political thinker, but Chris Morris. And, as the old adage goes, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Laughter is an essential salvation at times like these, and the BBC should actually be applauded for allowing ‘Real Housewives of ISIS’ to air; they’ve nothing to defend or apologise for.

© The Editor


buskerAround five years ago I was approached in a local supermarket by an apparent stranger who asked me if I used to be in a band; I told him I was once, ‘a long time ago’. It turned out he already knew this, for he’d been in the band with me. As I took a closer look, I recognised somebody I’d jammed alongside and played onstage with, albeit somebody I hadn’t met since 1989. Actually, it wasn’t the first time our paths had crossed since then; I realised he’d been busking outside said supermarket for a few days; I just hadn’t noticed the identity of the busker because I hadn’t been looking.

Apologising for my accidental rudeness, I then got into a long chat with him and asked how his life had panned-out in the intervening twenty-odd years; it was an interesting and unexpected catch-up. Like many of those capable of producing a tune from a stringed instrument, he regularly busks to add a little to his limited income and he periodically returns to the same spot armed with his banjo, not making enough to live on, but enough to buy him a few bargain basement food items to see him through the next couple of days. He doesn’t live on the streets, but the musical talent that couldn’t provide him with a rock star lifestyle nevertheless comes to his rescue and saves him from the streets.

The busker is a beggar in clown’s clothing – and I don’t mean that in a nasty way; but the fact is that the principle is the same; it is only the method of ‘crowd-funding’ that differs. People will generally toss a few coins in the hat if they feel they their money is rewarding an effort to entertain them, whereas a hunched figure sat on the pavement doesn’t appear to be even trying. There is a mindset that sees giving money to a stranger as something that should amount to an exchange; it’s not unlike the Python sketch where the can-rattling Terry Jones tries to prise a donation to charity from John Cleese’s businessman, whose bemused attitude to the alien concept of receiving no financial incentive is ‘What’s in it for me?’

There’s one theory that reckons street beggars, whether the genuine homeless or the terminally helpless, exist as an example to the rest of us, much as the ominous spectre of the workhouse or debtor’s gaol did in the nineteenth century – a visual warning of the fate that awaits should we neglect to pull our socks up and contribute towards society in the accepted fashion, presumably by spending all our free time and money in the shops outside which the beggar begs and thus boosting the economy. To hand a fiver to the beggar instead of spending it on some useless piece of mass-produced tat is therefore an act of consumerist treason.

Then again, there’s another theory that beggars are vermin that need to be excised from our streets as though they were little more than unsightly graffiti. This appears to have gathered pace in recent years, with certain local authorities in London erecting ‘sloping’ park benches to dissuade the homeless from viewing them as impromptu beds and installing spikes in shop doorways to prevent the space being occupied when business closes for the evening. Down in Bath and Southampton, this punitive approach has been taken to another level altogether.

Southampton City Council has implemented what it calls Public Space Protection Orders, which ban begging from five city locations; a £100 fine is the penalty for breaking the PSPO, with failure to pay up within a fortnight guaranteeing a court appearance and a possible criminal record. Chelmsford City Council had tried a similar scheme before an online campaign persuaded them to drop such penalties for the destitute and amended their begging ban so that it only applied to ‘aggressive begging’. I’ve never been ‘aggressively begged’, but I have been aggressively set upon by unnaturally upbeat Greenpeace recruiters, giving me no choice but to cross the road to avoid them and to avoid verbally expressing my annoyance at them being in my face via colourful language.

In Bath, a homeless woman called Jenny Dinmore was last year sentenced to eight weeks in prison for begging on the streets, an activity from which she had been banned on account of ‘repeat offending’. Interestingly, when those ‘pretend coppers’ known as Police Community Support Officers grassed her up to a proper copper after apparently overhearing her asking passers-by for change, the professional woodentop asked Ms Dinmore if she was singing or whistling (which could be interpreted as busking); Ms Dinmore replied in the negative and was promptly arrested. If only she’d had a banjo on hand.

Jenny Dinmore had experienced severe drug problems in the past, but denied this was the motivation for begging; she would certainly have required more than the measly few pence she could expect from begging were she hoping to score a wrap of rocks. The drug aspect of her criminal history neatly fits the stereotype of the homeless beggar as a crack-head charlatan, but smack, crack or alcopops aren’t necessarily to blame for all the mental disturbances that many street-dwellers suffer from.

A small handful of shelters and centres staffed by volunteers and financed either by charities, the church or a limited number of local authorities do their bit, but the State has effectively absolved itself of intervention as the austerity axe has fallen on so many social services whilst simultaneously funding the far higher cost of court appearances and prison sentences. For some, the humiliating indignity of begging is the sole solution and the current approach doesn’t seem to be offering an alternative.

The fact that I had walked past a former band-mate busking on several occasions perhaps shows how conditioned society has become to acquiring a blind-spot where the visible needy are concerned; but at least I know the banjo-man isn’t in so deep a hole that he is forced to trade in his instrument in order that he can eat. He’s luckier than some.

© The Editor


knighthoodOkay, so it’s 2017 at last; and rather than dwell on the most recent and sadly predictable terrorist atrocity on European soil (one I seem to recall I hinted might happen in the last post of 2016), let’s instead try to avoid beginning anew with the same old depressing developments. We can always opt for a lighter touch by taking a look at the perennial opener to the year that tends to receive disproportionate attention in that dead news week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Yes, come the New Year, come the New Year’s Honours List.

The familiar faces from the world of sport and entertainment have grabbed the headlines as per usual, including Knighthoods for Great British sporting heroes such as Andy Murray and Mo Farah (the immigrant it’s okay for Daily Mail readers to eat between meals without ruining their appetites), while Jessica Ennis-Hill becomes a Dame and other Olympians Jason and Laura Kenny are handed CBEs. Ken Dodd’s dalliance with the taxman a few years ago clearly hasn’t affected his standing, as he also garnered a Knighthood, as has renowned thespian Mark Rylance at the same time as good old Mrs Bouquet Patricia Routledge is elevated to a Dame. Actors lower down the scale like Naomie Harris and Helen McCrory received OBEs, as did Wales football manager Chris Coleman.

Kinks frontman Ray Davies was the most notable winner from Pop, being made a Sir; personally, I believe if Bob Dylan can be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Davies should have become Poet Laureate; but I’m sure he’ll gladly take the Knighthood. Ex-Spice Girl Victoria Beckham used to be a singer (allegedly), though her OBE is in the post for ‘services to the fashion industry’ rather than for the considerable achievement of staying married to her husband for almost twenty years.

We are informed over a thousand individuals were named in the Queen’s latest roll-call of winners (presumably dictated from Brenda’s sickbed), but the media is only interested in the stars, of course. The majority of New Year gongs are handed out to those whose achievements amount to improving the lives of people within their respective communities on a small scale, acts that nevertheless render this otherwise anachronistic system of honours still worthwhile. As David Cameron’s loathsome retirement honours list demonstrated, the tendency for cronyism when Her Majesty’s name isn’t attached makes that branch of the awards business especially despicable and deserving of abolition, though one wonders why celebrities who have already established a reputation within popular culture, and have also been made financially secure as a consequence, require additional recognition in the New Year.

The first official New Year’s Honours List appeared in January 1890 during the latter era of Queen Victoria’s reign, though these gongs were restricted to politicians, military men and colonial civil servants. Marie Lloyd, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley were notable by their absence. It took a long time before a popular household name who’d emerged from ‘humble origins’ without entering politics or treading the boards received a major honour of the kind that were routinely dished out to the ilk that constituted the inaugural New Year’s Honours List; one of the first ‘people’s choices’ was footballer Stanley Matthews, who was knighted whilst still a player in 1965 (even though he was approaching 50 at the time). He remains the only footballing Knight to take to the pitch.

Since the Wizard of the Wing was dubbed Sir Stanley, the showbiz aspect of the New Year’s Honours has come to almost act as a justification for the system’s continuation by the media, though many famous faces refused to accept their proposed nominations: David Bowie, Alan Bennett, Albert Finney, Aldous Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, Humphrey Lyttelton, Peter O’Toole, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, John Osborne and Ralph Vaughan Williams, to name just a few. Painter of matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs LS Lowry holds the record for turning down the most honours, with an impressive five rejections. Others, with John Lennon perhaps being the most well-known, have reluctantly accepted an honour only to later return it.

I suppose either accepting or rejecting an honour of this nature depends on issues such as one’s political standpoint, one’s opinion of such a seemingly archaic policy for recognising achievements, and possibly the company one might keep as a result of being made a Sir, a Dame or a Member of the British Empire. However, I’m sure there are plenty of lollipop ladies this week who are overjoyed at being given an award with so much history attached to it, so maybe we should in future reserve it for them. Otherwise, what’s the real point?

JOHN BERGER (1926-2017)

vlcsnap-2017-01-03-00h28m56s156Back in the day when media Marxists were actually proud of their political beliefs instead of living in public denial, art critic, painter and novelist John Berger, whose death at the age of 90 was announced yesterday, wore his chic radicalism with pride, famously donating half of the proceeds from his Booker Prize in 1972 to the British wing of the Black Panther party. This characteristic gesture came the same year his seminal arts series, ‘Ways of Seeing’, aired on the BBC; a deliberate contrast with Kenneth Clark’s more universally-celebrated ‘Civilisation’, ‘Ways of Seeing’ was one of those occasional arts essays on television that invite viewers to see the familiar through a new pair of eyes, and succeeded thanks in part to the flamboyant panache of the presenter.

Berger was an intelligent and charismatic communicator as well as one of the first TV arts presenters to eschew the donnish approach of his headmasterly predecessor; whereas Clark came across as an old-school authority figure who one felt might hurl a blackboard rubber at the viewing public if they weren’t paying attention, Berger was the groovy polytechnic lecturer who preferred to sit amongst his class and address them by their Christian names. The book that accompanied ‘Ways of Seeing’ has outlived the contemporary popularity of the rarely-screened TV series by becoming a set text for art history, and though Berger went on to pen many more books, he never returned to television as the presenter of a regular series, which was television’s loss.

© The Editor