A FAMILY AT WAR

kimAlthough I wasn’t exactly an avid follower of the news as a ten-year-old, I do remember the murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov on a London street in 1978. I suppose it was the unusual nature of his death that caught my ear, stabbed in the leg via the poisoned tip of an umbrella by an alleged KGB agent; it sounded like something straight out of an episode of ‘The Avengers’. Markov was working for the BBC World Service at the time, broadcasting vociferous critiques of the Soviet satellite state that his country had become; assassinated by such strangely surreal means whilst waiting for a bus, Markov died four days later, his death attributed to the drug ricin.

Echoes of Markov’s murder resurfaced almost thirty years later when another ‘dissident’, Alexander Litvinenko, was also poisoned in London; this time round, the victim was himself a former member of the KGB and its successor the FSB, so he knew all the dirty tricks. That didn’t prevent him from sipping tea spiked with polonium-210 in one of the capital’s sushi restaurants when meeting up with two other ex-KGB officers, just a couple of weeks after Litvinenko had accused Vladimir Putin of ordering the assassination of Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya.

The sinister spectre of both these infamously odd, seemingly state-sponsored killings has been revived in recent weeks following the murder of Kim Jong-nam, older half-brother of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur Airport on 13 February. Grainy CCTV footage of the incident in which a young woman approached the unfortunate 45-year-old exile from his country and appeared to splash liquid on his face emerged a few days later, though it is far-from conclusive evidence as to what actually happened. Nevertheless, arrests swiftly followed, and two women from Indonesia and Vietnam respectively are to be charged with the murder and could face Malaysia’s mandatory death sentence if found guilty.

Although Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong have received the most publicity in the aftermath of the assassination, Malaysian authorities have indicated as many as 10 were involved in the plot, with South Korea claiming at least four of the suspects are spies working for their next-door neighbour. The defence of the two young women poised to be charged is that they thought they were part of a TV prank, paid around £70 to smear the face of a stranger with what they were told was baby oil. It may sound an especially ludicrous explanation, though this story is riddled with bizarre elements.

North Korea is in denial that the Macau-based victim was even their supreme ruler’s sibling, though the poison applied to his countenance – toxic nerve agent VX – is not the kind to be found on your average high-street chemist’s shelf; it is classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the UN and has been banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention since 1993; its particular rarity means the likelihood of it being in any hands other than that of a government is disputable.

VX is an apparently odourless lethal liquid that assaults the transmission of nerve impulses and Kim Jong-nam died in great pain within 15-20 minutes of the attack, despite informing airport security of what had happened to him immediately thereafter. It was an unimaginably unpleasant way to go, though the half-brother of Kim Jong-un has been on the North Korean hit-list for several years.

He was the first-born son of the late Kim Jong-il and had been earmarked as the former ruler’s successor until apprehended trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001. Since then, he has established himself as a vocal critic of the country and of his younger half-brother’s regime. Considering the kind of regime Kim Jong-un oversees, it was perhaps inevitable that Kim Jong-nam’s life would end in tears.

Other high-profile fugitives from North Korea have gone to ground in the wake of the Kim Jong-nam murder, fearing for their own safety more than ever. So far, North Korea’s posturing has been manifested in its periodical nuclear testing, whereas this is a new and scary development for those who have managed to flee the most repressive nation on the planet. The two hapless girls who acted as Kim Jong-nam’s assassins would appear to be classic patsies, arriving in Malaysia with high hopes of fame and fortune before ending up working in massage parlours and as gentlemen’s escorts. Targeted to carry the can by whoever planned the operation, they are clearly not the masterminds behind the murder yet will still stand trial for it.

When it comes to assassinations of a thorn in a regime’s side, an unhinged individual can certainly strike when the mood takes them, but governments supported by a secret service network with a licence to kill are far more effective when it comes to liquidating their enemies. It doesn’t matter if it’s Obama taking the credit for ‘taking out’ Bin Laden or that nice Mr Cameron endorsing the murder of two British Jihadist suspects fighting on a foreign field, the end result is the same – as Tsar Vladimir and the crackpot running North Korea know only too well.

© The Editor

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THE GHOST OF LABOUR PAST

kaufmanHaving survived one by-election relatively unscathed whilst simultaneously suffering the embarrassment of losing another on the same night, the Labour Party is now confronted by the prospect of yet one more by-election at a time when it could have done without further scrutiny at the hands of the electorate. This latest return to the local hustings hasn’t been brought about by a resignation, however, but by the death of Gerald Kaufman at the age of 86. The Father of the House held the safe seat of Manchester Gorton with a majority of 24,079, so for Labour to lose this one would be little short of a catastrophe.

Kaufman, along with Dennis Skinner and Kenneth Clarke (who now succeeds Kaufman as Father of the House), was one-third of the trio of survivors from the 1970 General Election, a Parliamentary presence for almost half-a-century. Never coming across as the most cuddly of personalities, Kaufman was memorably portrayed as a Hannibal Lecter-style character on ‘Spitting Image’ in the 80s, though he himself was well-versed in the art of satire, having been a contributor to ‘Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life’, the BBC’s successor to ‘That Was the Week that Was’ in the 60s.

Hailing from the sizeable and influential Jewish community in Leeds, Kaufman followed a familiar path for many Labour MPs of his generation – grammar school, Oxford, the Fabian Society, and spells of journalism for both the Daily Mirror and the New Statesman. After two previous failed attempts to enter Parliament, Kaufman successfully stood for Manchester Ardwick in 1970, holding it and then its constituency successor Manchester Gorton at every General Election up to and including 2015. Although he never held a senior Ministerial post throughout his career in the Commons, he was a Junior Minister under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan and then served in the Shadow Cabinets of both Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.

Kaufman famously referred to Labour’s 1983 General Election manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’, an epithet revived at the last Election when Ed Miliband’s notorious ‘Ed Stone’ was referred to as ‘the heaviest suicide note in history’. A vocal opponent of the Tony Benn concept of socialism, Kaufman found the move towards the centre ground begun under Kinnock and completed under Blair more to his taste than the far-left rhetoric of Michael Foot; he was rewarded with the jobs of Shadow Home Secretary and Shadow Foreign Secretary during Kinnock’s leadership of the party. However, he withdrew to the backbenches after Kinnock’s resignation in 1992 and was never offered any post in Blair’s Government.

Kaufman may have been implicated in the Expenses’ Scandal (hardly marking him out as unique), and he voted for the Iraq War; but he also opposed fox-hunting and ignored the opposition whip ordering abstention when voting against the Welfare Reform Bill in 2015. He was intensely critical of Israel and was once labelled a self-hating Jew by the Board of Deputies of British Jews; his continuous criticism of the Israeli state’s Palestinian policies even ironically brought him into conflict with Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s shift leftwards in the wake of Corbyn’s capture of the party’s leadership was not something that met with Kaufman’s approval, though the expected tributes from the opposition frontbench following his death will temporarily paper over the ideological cracks that were so prevalent during his lifetime.

The main consequence of Kaufman’s death on the Labour Party is, of course, the upcoming Manchester Gorton by-election. This development arrives on Jezza’s doorstep the same day that his closest ally and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has declared a ‘soft coup’ against Corbyn is afoot; although individual members of the enemy within are unnamed, it’s fairly evident McDonnell is accusing the anti-Corbynista MPs, who he claims are in cahoots with the Murdoch media to undermine the Labour leader at every turn and eventually topple him from his position.

Considering the vice-like grip the Corbynistas now have on both the Labour membership and the NEC, it’s difficult to see how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP can dislodge the leader, whichever tactics they opt for. But paranoia and a persecution complex have marked Jezza’s leadership from day one, so even if McDonnell’s comments were more of a response to the intervention of Tony Blair in the Brexit debate, they are nothing new where the current Labour frontbench are concerned. One would imagine the priority for the party right now should be to focus their attention on another test of their mettle in their once-impregnable northern strongholds.

The Tories, who finished runners-up to the Greens in Manchester Gorton at the last General Election, may well be buoyed by their triumph in Copeland; but Kaufman’s majority is one hell of a winning margin to overturn; ditto UKIP, who may think twice before pushing Paul Nuttall forward for the seat this time. It’s probably safe to say Labour will hold it, but betting men best avoid politics at the moment and turn to easier ways of making money, such as putting their life savings on the next Grand National.

© The Editor

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TROLLING STONES

hells-granniesJust over a decade ago, when I was still paying attention, a pair of albums appeared from nowhere that seemed to suggest two new exciting, individual and idiosyncratic voices had arrived to give a much-needed kick up the arse to an increasingly stale music scene. Eleven years later, one of those voices has been silenced and the other appears to spend most of her time digging an online hole that grows deeper with each passing day. I’m talking, of course, about Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen.

Whereas ‘Back To Black’ was an unexpectedly dark diversion into classic soul that brilliantly scuppered Winehouse’s potential membership of the Radio 2 Easy Listening Jazz Club alongside the likes of Jamie Cullum, ‘Alright, Still’ was a cut-and-paste mosaic of vintage Ska and Reggae shot through with the kind of original lyrical wit sorely lacking from the vapid nursery rhymes of most female pop stars. Indeed, Allen was compared more to The Streets’ Mike Skinner than she was to the male-controlled marionettes or winsome singer-songwriters sharing the charts with her; image-wise, she also offered a refreshing alternative to the lap-dancer look that had become obligatory for so many of her contemporaries.

Allen quickly developed a reputation for a sharp tongue, and it was perhaps inevitable that music alone wouldn’t be enough of an outlet when it came to her evident talent for opening her mouth and not merely singing. After the initial praise and success that her debut album and its accompanying singles (particularly her chart-topping debut, ‘Smile’) brought, Allen then took a disappointing albeit prophetic turn by temporarily becoming a chat-show host on the frankly crap BBC3 series, ‘Lily Allen and Friends’; it looked as if she was in danger of turning into the middle-aged Cilla Black thirty years too early.

However, in 2008 she returned to the studio and produced her second album, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’, a far slicker musical outing than her first. Although her lyrics retained their ability to challenge conservative pop conventions, there were moments, such as the anti-Dubya ‘Fuck You’, when she seemed to be settling for complacent name-calling. The album’s lead single, ‘The Fear’, was a prescient, barbed comment on celebrity culture, though she simultaneously appeared to be part of what she was attacking.

Music has regularly taken a periodical backseat in her career, often due to unhappy personal experiences such as a miscarriage, a stillbirth and being pursued by a stalker for seven years, something that eventually climaxed with a conviction, despite the inaction of the Met. Having led the way by utilising nascent social media (particularly MySpace) to build a fan-base before she launched her professional recording career, Allen was a natural Twitter user from the off, and it currently seems the Twittersphere is the location into which Lily Allen appears to divert the majority of her energy.

At one time, the music press would serve as the mouthpiece for rent-a-quote musicians, with everyone from John Lennon and John Lydon to Morrissey and Noel Gallagher using it to issue statements about their fellow performers and the world in general, sparking debate and division amongst music fans. Now that the music press no longer exists, social media fulfils the same function for their outspoken successors, and Lily Allen has continued to use it while her career seems to be undergoing yet another Sabbatical.

Like many famous faces in the heated post-Brexit climate, Lily Allen’s opinions on Twitter have dragged her into endless online arguments of the kind even unlikely agitators such as chairperson of the ‘Harry Potter’ industry, JK Rowling, and ex-footballer and crisp salesman Gary Lineker have set themselves up for over the past few months. She was notably vocal with regards to the migrant crisis when it occupied the headlines last year and now she is under-fire again following her lazy demonisation of Britain’s elderly population, adopting the same petulant attitude as another hereditary celebrity, Giles Coren. According to Lily Allen – and I quote – ‘Can’t you see this country is being taken over by hate extremist pensioners?’ I can’t say I’d noticed myself, but the images evoked by the prospect seem oddly reminiscent of Python’s ‘Hell’s Grannies’ sketch.

Apparently, Allen posted a poll asking which social demographic posed the greater threat to the UK – Muslims or the aforementioned senile delinquents – a blatantly obvious own-goal gift to serial trolls and Twitter mischief-makers; when the results of said poll didn’t go the way she anticipated, Allen momentarily stormed off Twitter in a huff. She hired a friend to take over in her absence and attend to ‘a hate blocking spree’, which basically means deleting anyone who disagrees with or questions our Lily’s pronouncements. The sensible option would surely have been to simply give Twitter a rest for a bit, but it would appear an online presence is today required 24/7 or everyone assumes you’re dead.

Twitter to me is the same as YouTube or Facebook; I use it as a PR platform for my work. I’ve never once used it to air an opinion on anything that can’t be expressed in a blog or a video. Lily Allen is more than capable of making her feelings felt via the medium of music; that she is choosing to spurn what she does best in favour of locking horns with others who also can’t live outside of cyberspace is surrendering to an argument you can never win. These people do it for a living, Lily; you don’t. They’ve got nothing else going on in their lives; you have. Why not capitalise on that and rise above the pit instead of languishing in it? Otherwise, there’s little to distinguish them from you.

© The Editor

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HELLO GOODBYE

gainsbourg-2On a night when Paul Nuttall, British politics’ very own Walter Mitty, followed in the illustrious footsteps of his predecessor as UKIP leader by failing to gain entry to Westminster, there were mixed messages again for Jeremy Corbyn. Had Labour failed to retain Stoke-on-Trent Central, a seat they’ve held since its inception in 1950, chances are we may have had to endure yet another leadership election; as it turned out, Labour didn’t lose the by-election triggered by the recent resignation of Tristram Hunt, but it was a different story up in Cumbria.

Until the early hours of this morning, 1982 was the last time a sitting government won a by-election in a constituency held by the opposition; that the Tories took Copeland from a Labour Party that has clung onto the seat since 1935 either suggests Theresa May is the most successful Prime Minister since Mrs T or that the Conservatives are blessed to be up against such weak opposition. I suspect the latter is closer to the truth, though various factors played their part in this upset.

With the Sellafield Nuclear Power Station being a major employer in the constituency, it’s possible Jeremy Corbyn’s famous aversion to nuclear power influenced the 6% swing away from Labour towards the Tories. The Conservative candidate Trudy Harrison overturned a Labour majority of 2,564, which is an achievement not to be sniffed at; the last time a sitting government enjoyed such an impressive by-election victory was in January 1966, a win for Labour in Hull North that filled Harold Wilson with enough confidence to call a General Election that March. Confronted by a Labour Party incapable of holding onto a seat it has owned since the days of Clement Attlee, maybe Theresa May will attempt to strike before 2020 after all.

Had Labour lost Stoke Central, it’d be feasible to claim Corbyn isn’t working beyond his London heartland; as it is, holding at least one traditional Labour seat has given the beleaguered leader a breather, but for how much longer? Yes, he is beloved by the faithful, but half of Corbyn’s own MPs can’t abide him, and his message isn’t exactly sweeping the country when the party in power is hardly the most popular to ever hold office. It seems to be a damning indictment of the dearth of talent Labour can call upon that it has nobody capable of realistically challenging Jezza or of connecting with the electorate outside of metropolitan enclaves. The prospects aren’t great, whenever the next General Election takes place.

Equally, UKIP may have taken the runner-up prize in Stoke, but their hopes were considerably higher in a city that voted overwhelmingly Leave in last year’s EU Referendum; if it can’t win there, where can it win? Answers on a postcard to Bongo-Bongo Land. Being the permanent bridesmaid doesn’t amount to much in an electoral system that continues to adhere to a first-past-the-post policy, and for all their headline-grabbing PR it’s hard to envisage that situation changing – especially when the one thing UKIP formed for in the first place has actually happened now.

So, what do last night’s events tell us about the current political landscape? Well, it confirmed UKIP as the No.1 protest vote party again, an honour once held for decades by the Lib Dems; it confirmed Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to invigorate voters outside of those who see the sun every time he bends over; and it confirmed that even a Government that, in one shape or another, has steered the country through seven bloody awful years can still keep winning when the competition is so piss-poor. The Revolution has been postponed for the moment.


LeicesterThe decision of the Leicester City FC board to dispense with the services of their manager Claudio Ranieri is the latest example of how the cut-and-thrust tactics that were once the hallmark of continental football have infiltrated the Premier League. The man who achieved arguably the most remarkable miracle in English soccer since Brian Clough captured the league championship with newly-promoted Nottingham Forest in 1978 is now out of job, barely nine months after leading his team to an unimaginable pinnacle.

With last season’s champions now hovering just a point above the bottom three, the Leicester board have panicked and sacked the man whose Midas Touch has deserted the club in a ridiculously short time. But the players deserve to carry the can for the disaster as much as the manager; their performances have been largely lacklustre this season. Perhaps the shock transition from making up the numbers to suddenly being amongst the big-money prima donnas has gone to their heads. Maybe; but there’s precious little other excuses they could come up with to justify their appalling lack of commitment to the cause of defending their title. And now the man who masterminded that title has paid the price for their on-the-pitch indolence.

A sign of how times have changed is that when Leeds United won the league in 1992, they too followed it with an embarrassingly bad defence, finishing the following season in a pathetic 17th position after failing to win a single away game and allowing Eric Cantona to be picked-up by arch-rivals Manchester United for a mere £1 million. Yet manager Howard Wilkinson kept his job for another three years before being shown the door; had today’s rules applied, he’d have bitten the bullet before the end of the 1992/93 season.

Moreover, Alex Ferguson would never have lasted three-and-a-half years at Old Trafford until winning the FA Cup in 1990 were he at the helm for the same period without success today. The great money chasm between the Premier League and the Championship has instilled a fear in the boards of the top division’s clubs that provokes knee-jerk responses when relegation or an empty trophy cabinet stare them in the face. But it negates building the foundations for long-term success when football adopts a quick-fix mentality. That it should happen to a decent man such as Ranieri and at a club all neutrals were delighted to see crowned champions last May says a great deal about the national sport at a domestic level.

© The Editor

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DAYS OF FUTURE/PAST

2000ad40 years ago this week, any little boys whose sole highlight of being dragged to the shops by their mother was to scan the shelves in the newsagents and see which comic caught the eye were greeted by a new arrival. Although I enjoyed the ‘funnies’ produced by both DC Thompson and IPC, my preferred choice was usually the superhero weeklies that emanated from Marvel’s UK division – monochrome reprints of the company’s US classics, albeit with strikingly colourful cover illustrations accompanying a mouth-watering range of titles. No home-grown comic could compete with the Marvel Universe when it came to imaginary escapism – until February 1977, that is, when a new IPC publication created its own universe of spectacular heroes and villains, one set in a distant future that wouldn’t be the present for another 23 years.

There had never been a British comic quite like ‘2000AD’. The nearest to date had been ‘Action’, a title that had hit the headlines a year or so previously due to its excessive violence; in a pre-‘Video Nasty’ era, when children’s reading material was regularly held up as the inspiration for delinquency and vandalism, ‘Action’ was met with such widespread adult condemnation that IPC were forced to cancel the comic for several months until resurrecting it in a diluted fashion; it didn’t last long after that.

However, many of the artists and writers who had their fingers burned on ‘Action’ reunited at the beginning of 1977, having come up with the canny ruse of replicating the excitement of ‘Action’ in a futuristic context, figuring no grown-up would notice if the same rhetoric was cloaked in the unreality of a sci-fi landscape. Ironically, appearing on the newsstands just a couple of months after Bill Grundy’s summit meeting with The Sex Pistols, ‘2000AD’ may have been looking far ahead, but it was very much a product of its times.

The front cover of issue No.1 was partially obscured by the obligatory free gift (a futuristic Frisbee taped to it), but concessions to past, present and future were present: one was a new-look Dan Dare, the comic hero of my father’s childhood; another was M.A.C.H. 1, a bionic hero shamelessly ripping off ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’; and hidden behind the free gift was Tharg, the alien editor of the comic. I had no idea this intriguing newcomer was arriving; it seemed to drop from the stars out of nowhere. I managed to persuade my mum to part with the princely sum of 8p and I was transported to another planet.

Along with the two strips already mentioned, there was the gory ‘Flesh’, in which a future food shortage saw time-travel utilised to farm dinosaurs for human consumption; there was ‘Harlem Heroes’, following the fortunes of a team playing a violent sport clearly based on the movie, ‘Rollerball’; and there was also ‘Invasion’, set two years before the date of the comic’s title and dealing with a Soviet-style nation invading the UK; I remember one panel in particular showing an aged Prince Charles (complete with moustache) fleeing the country and addressed as Your Majesty. The writers obviously couldn’t envisage a Queen poised to celebrate her Silver Jubilee would still be on the throne at the end of the twentieth century, let alone into the twenty-first.

The character associated with ‘2000AD’ more than any other didn’t appear until the second issue, and this was when the comic really set itself apart from the competition. Judge Dredd may have taken his name from a comedy British reggae act (albeit spelt differently), but he was unlike any other UK comic hero there’d ever been. He was cop, judge, jury and executioner embodied in a sadistic hybrid of Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s character from ‘Death Wish’, fighting crime in the dystopian American metropolis of Mega City One.

With an unseen face permanently shielded by the distinctive helmet that was crucial to the uniform of this militaristic cop, Dredd was a classic anti-hero that was new to British readers. As with the other strips in the comic, the artwork was superb, the nearest Brits had come to the great Marvel artists, manufacturing a nightmarish vision of what was to come that nevertheless reflected contemporary concerns about the western world’s urban jungles.

‘2000AD’ appeared just a few months before ‘Star Wars’ hit UK cinema screens, but even though it capitalised on the sci-fi craze of the late 70s, the content of the comic owed more to the adult sci-fi movies of the early 70s in that it was less concerned with far-off worlds and more focused on the world we already knew, maximising present day fears and turning them up to eleven. By the beginning of the 80s, its influence stretched way beyond these shores, attracting attention across the pond. Marvel and DC, beginning to look a little jaded by comparison, started poaching the talented team of writers and artists working on ‘2000AD’ and hired them to revitalise their own universes.

The likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman received early breaks on ‘2000AD’, but rather than simply succumbing to the easy dollar of the superhero comic, they served to transform the medium by helping create the graphic novel. This new grown-up incarnation of the comic book had its roots in the early pioneering days of ‘2000AD’; in fact, the sprawling 1978 Judge Dredd epic, ‘The Cursed Earth’ (originally spanning 25 issues), laid the foundations for the modern graphic novel in its ambitious narrative scale. British comics would never be the same again.

‘2000AD’ marked a turning point in this country, whereby comics ceased to be aimed solely at a prepubescent readership and began to be appreciated as an art-form appealing to all ages. However, one could argue a major casualty of this change has been the prepubescent readership itself; just compare the dazzling variety of graphic novels on sale in bookshops to the paucity of children’s comics available at your local newsagent. The graphic novel is where the money’s at for aspiring comic artists and writers; the rich British tradition of the essential, not to say affordable, weekly is essentially over. Perhaps ‘2000AD’ was its last hurrah, both rejuvenating and killing it. In some respects, the publication’s now rather anachronistic title seemed to predict an end rather than a beginning.

© The Editor

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WHISPERING GRASS

dog-sweepSafe in the assumption you’ve probably digested your breakfast by now, I shall proceed. Dog-mess, the most polite term I can come up with, has always been a fixture of pavements as far back as I can remember. It was certainly a key element of the urban landscape in the 1970s, though there seemed to be a greater variance of shades then – white being the chic alternative to industry standard brown at the time. It shared sidewalk space with routine rubbish – empty crisp packets, smashed bottles, closing-time sick, discarded pages from ‘Playbirds’ et al – though the pavements then still didn’t seem quite as depressing-looking as today; the aesthetic carbuncle of the wheelie-bin line-up competes with the nose-to-tail parked car parade in a competition to decide which has rendered our streets the uglier.

I put the proliferation of dog-mess during my childhood down to the way in which man’s best friend (as with children back then) was free to roam in a way that is unimaginable now. What were usually called stray dogs were more often than not family pets that were let out of the house and left to their own devices as only cats are today. These latch-key canines ran wild through neighbourhoods, impregnating bitches at will, getting into territorial tussles with other mutts, striking fear into the hearts of kids who were instinctively scared of them, and even occasionally (as old ‘Match of the Day’ footage proves) finding their way onto football pitches in the middle of a match.

By contrast, a dog wandering alone now is such an unusual sight that people’s first thought is that the creature is lost, either having broken free of its lead when being walked or having escaped from its home without its owner’s knowledge. And that’s one aspect of British life that has undoubtedly changed for the better, both for the dogs and the people. So why is dog-mess still with us?

The best dog-owners today are a more conscientious bunch than their predecessors, preferring to escort their pets around local parks rather than letting them prowl the neighbourhood; and the arrival of the so-called ‘poo-bag’ has persuaded them to clean-up after their dog has done the business. Of course, not everyone adheres to this unwritten rule, and it is these pillocks that are the problem. At the same time, anybody who walks a dog regularly knows that sometimes the poo-bags are accidentally left at home, resulting in grass or leaves acting as makeshift camouflage in such an event; but overall, there’s definitely a greater impetus to exert that kind of responsibility than there ever used to be.

However, the wilfully defiant and the accidental amnesiac are grouped together in law when it comes to dog-fouling. Of late, local authorities have intervened, with the most recently vocal being the Mayor of Liverpool, who last week proclaimed that anyone providing evidence of dog owners failing to bag their pooch’s plop would be exempt from paying council tax for a year. Why not a weekend for two in Paris? Mayor Jon Anderson – who obviously turned to local politics when being the frontman of Yes finally caused him the same pain as it often has record-buyers – told a city cabinet meeting that ‘My wife was walking our dog the other day and came back with dog muck all over her shoes!’ He didn’t specify if counselling was available to his unfortunate missus, but our thoughts go out to Mrs Anderson.

The Mayor of Liverpool claimed his proposal was about restoring civic pride to his city; his idea is that people should provide the authorities with video or photographic proof that could lead to a criminal conviction, thus earning their reward. Fines of up to £1000 for dog-fouling already exist without the employment of grasses to do the council’s dirty work for them, but Mr Anderson believes his brainwave will bring communities together. A strange interpretation of the end result, for sure; dangling the council tax carrot before non-dog owners struggling to make ends meet and bribing them to turn into spies and snitches seems a funny way to bring communities together. Further divisions would seem more inevitable to me.

I once knew of someone who grassed a friend to the DHSS for simultaneously signing-on and working part-time, purely out of spite on account of said friend wanting to become a vicar while the grass was a fanatical atheist. It struck me as an especially shitty thing to do to someone who was supposed to be a friend; though the reasons themselves were ludicrous, just making that nasty phone-call evoked images of ‘collaborators’ in Nazi-occupied France. Okay, so that might sound a bit OTT, but who amongst us has never broken a little law, safe in the knowledge we could get away with it? When the music industry told us ‘home taping is killing music’ in the 80s, did it actually stop anyone copying songs onto a cassette from an LP? And has anyone buying a batch of fags from a bloke in a pub ever been that troubled by the lorry they fell off the back of?

Sure, dog owners who don’t pick up their pet’s mess from the park or pavement give other dog owners a bad name, and if they deliberately avoid cleaning up after Rover, it serves them right if they end up being fined. But Britain’s fractured communities don’t need a cynical incentive from local government to divide them further. The abundance of trashy TV shows that goad warring neighbours into action for cheap entertainment are bad enough; and then there are the warnings to keep an eye on next-door just in case a potential Paedo or Jihadist happens to be on the other side of the wall, advice in danger of turning us all into informers complicit in the surveillance state. It stinks – and the smell is far more pungent than a dog turd.

© The Editor

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RIGHT-HAND MAN

wildersMuting the volume on the television set is something of a habit. On the rare occasions I happen to be watching a programme on a commercial channel it’s second nature to press the mute button when the ads intrude; for those of you familiar with Virgin’s catch-up service, venturing into the realm of catch-up when searching for a missed show requires another press of mute in order to silence the cacophony of crap trailers on a loop that appear the second you enter that realm. Similarly, if the phone rings, it’s mute that’s called upon again; if it’s a programme I’m watching, I can still see the image albeit without the soundtrack.

This happened the other week when ‘Newsnight’ was about to begin; being distracted by the phone conversation, I looked up at the screen and seriously thought I was seeing a trailer for a new Harry Enfield series; Enfield was playing an unfamiliar suited and booted character being pursued by cameras, possibly a politician, with a bizarre haircut somewhere between boxing promoter Don King and early 60s Brit rocker Heinz. Then I saw the ‘Newsnight’ titles and realised it wasn’t Harry after all, but far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders. It didn’t seem quite as funny then.

Geert Wilders, he of the aforementioned peroxide mane, is the leader and founder of Holland’s Freedom Party, and is hoping to become Prime Minister of the Netherlands when their parliamentary elections take place three weeks from now. He’s made a name for himself by spouting simplistic, rabble-rousing sound-bites that he uses to galvanise the same marginalised natives that both Brexit and the triumph of Trump have been attributed to. His inflammatory opinions are hardly unique in his homeland, but the Dutch no longer have South Africa to act as a more conducive climate for their more extreme and outspoken sons. In 2017, they’re stuck with them. Another colonial enclave, the Dutch East Indies, forms half of Wilders’ lineage as his mother was Indonesian, so it’s true to say he has the old Dutch approach to governance in his blood.

Wilders has paid a price for his controversial public image. He lives surrounded by armed guards 24/7 for his own safety, with perennial death threats the consequence of having made shit-stirring into an art form by referring to Holland’s Moroccan population as ‘scum’ whilst promising to ban the Koran and close mosques should he succeed in his aim; however, the need to campaign has led to him emerging from hiding and adding to his contentious statements. They may garner him a devoted following, but render him a cult figure that has little appeal beyond circles that rarely recognise shades of grey.

Although Wilders describes himself as a right-wing liberal and has claimed his biggest political inspiration is Margaret Thatcher, his stated policies have naturally attracted a far-right following; it’s a wonder he doesn’t take to the stage with the strains of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ as a warm-up tune. Whatever salient points he may have to make about the various failures of mass immigration and assimilation of immigrants into Dutch society are utterly lost in the headline-grabbing cheap shots that are guaranteed to alienate as many as they attract. He advocates freedom of speech, which is laudable, and sees his own virtual imprisonment as evidence it is under threat; yet he contradicts the freedom of speech principle by advocating the banning of the Koran. It’s supposed to work both ways, as Voltaire pointed out over two-hundred years ago.

Wilders made a name for himself outside of the Netherlands with his 2008 film short, ‘Fitna’, which focused on the loathsome agenda of Radical Islam; amounting to fifteen minutes of stating the bleedin’ obvious, the film provoked predictable responses on both sides of the divide that Wilders would clearly prefer to remain intact. The extremist Islamists fell into his trap, as he knew they would, and then he was able to point to their reaction as an example of how he was right about Islam all along. Essentially, the film confirmed what we already knew and offered nothing that could be seen as a positive way out of a miserable cultural cul-de-sac.

A figure such as Wilders is symptomatic of a particular breed of European politician whose views, having been written off as beyond the pale for years, are now suddenly in synch with a Europe-wide craving to topple the ruling elite; but these views are straightforward old-school divide-and-rule tactics that acknowledge a problem without suggesting an alternative from which all concerned can benefit.

It’s hard, as with Marine Le Pen, not to regard Wilders as a cynical opportunist exploiting the current uncertainties in Europe; even if one admits there are genuine problems that excessive immigration can bring into communities, figures such as Le Pen and Wilders seem more content to fan the flames of intolerance rather than attempting to resolve the difficulties that have arisen in many European countries over the last decade. Tackling the latter is a far harder task than simply saying ‘ban the Koran’; much easier to appeal to concerns by adopting a ‘Shock Jock’ persona and telling certain sections of the electorate what they want to hear, opting for simple solutions to complex situations that require more than Wilders is capable of delivering.

© The Editor

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THICK AS A BRICK

pc-mcgarryBack in the dark days of the Sunday Sport, if the pair of tits decorating the front cover didn’t catch the eye from the newsstand, the ludicrous headline alongside said mammaries usually did; long before the term Fake News was even coined, the Sport specialised in the silly and patently untrue. I suppose ‘Post-Modern’ could be applied to the Sunday Sport if one was inclined to be kind and view it as a parody of a Fleet Street weekend tabloid in the same way that Viz continues to spoof those trashy mags that clog-up the waiting rooms of GP’s surgeries with uncanny accuracy. These days, it’s often difficult to distinguish between the Real McCoy and the pastiche, particularly when it is the attention-grabbing headline that provokes heated debate, whether or not the causal shopper opts for the paper.

Take yesterday’s Mail on Sunday. Emblazoned across its cover was the dramatic announcement – ‘POLICE CHIEF: HEATH WAS A PAEDOPHILE’! Those that see nothing beyond that headline therefore have every suspicion confirmed. They may not even notice the ‘POLICE CHIEF’ prefix; but the headline says a former Prime Minister who never married and was never successfully outed as gay was definitely fond of little boys. There you go, job done. Mr and Mrs Public don’t need to pursue the story any further; everything they need to know is there in those four little words uttered by yet another Chief Constable from a nondescript provincial police force desperate to justify the vast expense devoted to grave-pissing. It’s there in black-and-white, in print; it’s true.

It matters not that the Mail on Sunday has actually exhibited a degree of bravery in its recent efforts at debunking some of the urban myths that have sprouted online wings where the sexual peccadilloes of dead or elderly household names are concerned; with that one crass headline, they would appear to have undone months of hard investigative work that has exposed the stupidity of the police in giving airtime to fantasists from the outer limits of the internet. To most, the word of a Chief Constable means jack shit in 2017; who in possession of half-a-brain would believe anything the police say anymore? They are inherently corrupt and terminally corruptible. Yet, some out there are willing to take the word of Wiltshire Police’s Mike Veale as Gospel. Then again, is this an ingenious ruse by the paper to highlight just how dense the men running our police forces really are?

There have evidently been no lessons learnt from the notorious ‘credible and true’ gaffe when a thick senior officer takes it upon himself to deflect criticisms of police manpower being redirected to fishing parties by making a personal opinion official before the pointless investigation has even been completed. Despite the fantasy of the so-called Westminster Paedophile Ring being utterly trashed, Mike Veale will not let it go; he claims those who have ‘come forward’ in relation to Ted Heath’s alleged hobby have made allegations that are remarkably similar. Fancy that! It’s not as though any of these tired old tales haven’t been doing the rounds in the cyber kangaroo courts for years, with members of various forums sharing their lurid fantasies and upping the satanic angle with every retelling, is it?

Mike Veale declares he has ‘120%’ conviction about the allegations against the dead PM; but even the language used advertises his level of intelligence. ‘120%’ is the language of the dim, the language of the footballer being interviewed after he’s just stepped off the pitch, like saying ‘literally’ when you don’t mean literally. Yet after the Chief Plod issued his ‘120% conviction’ to the press, subsequent PR statements from the Wiltshire Police make a mockery of Veale’s comments.

According to a police spokesman, Veale is determined to ‘ensure the investigation is proportionate, measured and legal’ and the purpose of it all is to ‘impartially investigate allegations without fear of favour and go where the evidence takes us. It is not the role of the police to judge the guilt or innocence of people in our criminal justice system’. How does that square with a Chief Constable making his prejudices public in the midst of an ongoing investigation? And are the deceased included amongst those people ‘in our criminal justice system’?

Mike Veale’s idiocy was apparent from day one, when he launched his force’s foray into time-travelling from outside Ted Heath’s former home and later denied it was a witch-hunt as the cost began to rise towards £1 million. Investigative officers even turned up at the HQ of Private Eye to peruse back issues of the magazine and see if they could uncover any suspicious references to Heath’s unmarried status; yes, I know, this is a development straight out of Private Eye’s satirical middle section, but it really happened. Where next? The home of Eric Idle because he wrote a comedy novel in the mid-70s called ‘Hello Sailor’, which featured a gay Prime Minister? Don’t rule it out.

There have been fewer easier targets than Ted Heath when it comes to this kind of posthumous character assassination; as with Jimmy Savile, he had no wife or children to take the accusers and their allies in the police and law firms to task. Also, like Savile, his sexuality was the subject of much hearsay and gossip during his lifetime; and both were disliked by many. Death and the diminishing ‘outrage’ of homosexuality as a means of ruining a public figure have simply released hounds of an even more malicious nature. And if the prominent can be ripped to shreds with such callous ease it’s no wonder the ordinary are so susceptible to the same treatment.

Come the Revolution, as Wolfie Smith used to say, maybe some of our most detestable misery-mongers will find themselves up against the wall for the bop-bop-bop treatment; added to the likes of past offenders such as Mark Williams-Thomas, Keir Starmer, Tom Watson, Liz Dux, Vera Baird, Mark Watts and ‘Nick’, we may well see the name Mike Veale. I reckon his presence could be justified, judging by his recent behaviour. I’m convinced, anyway…120%.

© The Editor

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THE RESURRECTION SHUFFLE

blairThere are some things the world could really do without – war, poverty, slavery, famine, fascism, religious fundamentalism, Gary Barlow’s Saturday night talent show, ‘Let it Shine’, and, to be blunt, the chubby, tax-evading Tory balladeer himself. Add to that list the return of Tony Blair. Like a stubborn genital wart that no amount of medicated ointment will ever truly extinguish, Blair is back. Just when you thought everything that could ever be said about Tony Blair had been said, here is is again. We’ve all been waiting for the Messiah to deliver us from evil, haven’t we? Just look at how the world has degenerated in the decade since he waved goodbye to Downing Street; yes, as long as we conveniently forget how awful the first seven years of the twenty-first century were, something Tony had a considerable hand in. How have we coped without him?

Tony’s been keeping himself busy since 2007, of course. He was a highly successful Middle East Peace Envoy, which was a bit like putting Harold Shipman in charge of a retirement home; he set up his Faith Foundation, which has served to bring the world’s religions together under one harmonious multi-faith umbrella; he has enjoyed the regular hospitality of numerous tin-pot despots presiding over some of the globe’s worst human rights abuses; he has raked in millions by giving glorified after-dinner speeches at exclusive corporate events; and he has remained utterly in denial that he ever did anything wrong throughout his lengthy career in the public eye. What a guy!

However, his post-2007 life has taken him away from the Great British Public, an evident emotional wrench that was destined to take its toll on his conscience; Tony knew we’d struggle without the wisdom of his guiding hand, and how we’ve struggled! Just look at last summer. The subconscious call went out to the wilderness that we needed rescuing from the folly of our actions on June 23 2016, and lo and behold, witness the Resurrection. Tony has come back to lecture us on where we went wrong, why we went wrong, and how we can fix it so that we’re reunited with his own worldview. Oh, praise the Lord!

From his natural home in the City of London, Mr Blair has taken the opportunity to stage his great comeback by making a speech to pro-Europe group Open Britain, a speech that he himself announced as being part of a ‘mission’ – yes, an important word, that. Had Blair been born a century earlier, I’ve no doubt he would have been a Christian Missionary, dispatched to the African colonies to educate the natives and show the savages the error of their ways. Make no bones about it – that’s exactly what he’s doing now; and we are the Fuzzy-Wuzzies.

We must rise up and change our minds on Brexit! Tony says that ‘this is the beginning of the debate’, though I thought that was the actual day we voted. Pro-Europeans need to build a movement, says Tony, one that cuts across party lines; as if to emphasise this crossbench unity, ex-Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg proclaimed he agreed with every word Tony spoke. Tony’s old party colours were revived when he had a go at the Government, stressing that Brexit would blind the Tories to all the other issues concerning the country, such as the NHS and education; that these vital elements of society are up shit creek largely due to the way Blair’s administration changed them for the worst has obviously eluded Tony. But accepting responsibility for the God-awful mess he left our once-cherished institutions in is not something anybody would ever expect from Tony Blair.

It is our right to change our minds and it is Tony’s mission to persuade us to do so. The decision to vote Leave was based on ‘imperfect knowledge’ – whether ours or that of those who planned the referendum wasn’t stated; but if we don’t succeed in overturning the decision, Tony warns we will suffer ‘a rancorous verdict from future generations’ – possibly along the same lines as the rancorous verdict Tony himself can look forward to when his own record in office is scrutinised by those same future generations. When taking a break from his globe-trotting jaunts of the past decade, Tony’s time back in Blighty has been spent in the company of rich, detached-from-reality men like himself, so he should know all about the factors that prompted the ignorant masses to vote Leave, shouldn’t he?

The speech has prompted predictably scathing responses from the current crop of politicos, many of whom, to be frank, provoke similar nausea in me as Tony himself does – Boris, Nigel and IDS being especially vocal. But that was to be expected. After Thatcher, Tony Blair is the most divisive Prime Minister this country has produced since the Second World War; and as with Maggie, the majority that decries him and the damage he did are accompanied by a minority who still believe he was up there with the greats; the parallels with Mrs T are relevant in their case too, for the Blair believers are the ones who did alright out of his reign – i.e., not me and thee.

In some respects, one cannot help but marvel at an individual whose brass-neck and unswerving faith in his own righteousness renders him completely deaf to any valid criticism of him personally and of the policies he embarked upon both at home and abroad during his tenure at No.10; that he can still take to the stage and deliver a lecture that tells us why we wrong and why he is right, after everything that has been done in his name, takes some bloody nerve.

But watching an ageing deluded sociopath in action has an undeniable car-crash appeal that is quite shameful if ultimately irresistible. It’s the same reason why millions tuned into live TV programmes on which Oliver Reed was a guest in the 80s and 90s – so let Tony keep doing it, oblivious to the real reasons why anybody might be listening. That’s entertainment.

© The Editor

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THOROUGHLY MODERN MINI

mini-2At one time, TV documentaries opened viewers’ eyes to previously-hidden worlds rather than simply reflecting their own prejudices about a particular social demographic back at them. A good example was the award-winning ‘Gale is Dead’ in 1970, which shone an unflattering light on the grim underground subculture of heroin addiction and the tragic demise of an unloved teenage graduate of the children’s home conveyor belt that succumbed to it. Five years later, another programme in a similarly sympathetic vein profiled an eleven-year-old boy from County Durham who was being held at a secure unit for disturbed children on account of him being a prepubescent pyromaniac. Anyone who witnessed the TV debut of Michael ‘Mini’ Cooper would have been instantly aware that here was a remarkably intelligent, sharp, and charismatic young individual that society didn’t know what to do with.

Mini emanated from a working-class background with a God-fearing Irish mother and an archetypal Northern English father who disciplined his children in the way he himself had been disciplined – the parents of Larkin’s ‘This be the Verse’ writ large. His rebellious instincts asserted themselves at an early age, traversing a familiar path of shoplifting and playing truant before settling on the unusual outlet of starting fires; one such fire took place in Mini’s own home which, unbeknownst to him at the time, was occupied by his father. This resulted in him being taken out of a normal school environment and placed in the kind of institution that was a dumping ground for children who kicked against the pricks without knowing why.

Franc Roddam, the director of the 1975 documentary (who later progressed to the likes of ‘Quadrophenia’), had the kind of access to closed-door institutions that would be unimaginable now; he was able to film inside the secure unit Mini was being held at and record the rehabilitation process of the time as it was practiced not just on the programme’s ‘star’, but also the other inmates, whose faces aren’t pixilated. We see the chillingly cold panel that decided Mini’s fate and condemned him to an adolescence under the strictest supervision, keeping him away from the society they regard him as a danger to; and we see the way in which the psychiatric profession used children like Mini as guinea pigs for the latest experimental techniques, without any real care and consideration for how little they would prepare him for release back into the community as an adult.

I first became aware of Mini a decade after his initial television exposure, when the memorable BBC2 documentary strand ‘Forty Minutes’ broadcasted a follow-up film to the 1975 original; in it, we caught up with Mini ten years on, viewing his eleven-year-old self on camera for the first time and struggling to deal with the real world after a lengthy spell being utterly institutionalised by the facsimile society of the care system.

He was making a lonely living as a Butlin’s-style entertainer, performing a magician’s act before bored holiday-makers and trying his best to cope with an environment that the system hadn’t prepared him for. The programme ended on an uncertain note, with the viewer left hoping that Mini would manage to forge a future for himself that would see him finally bury his demons.

We might like to imagine we’ve moved on in the forty-plus years since Mini’s TV debut; but data relating to the children in this country currently being detained whilst another Star Chamber – or ‘Youth Offending Team’ – decides what to do with them suggests not a lot has been learnt in the intervening half-century. There are 10 secure children’s homes in the UK, some of which have held the likes of Mary Bell and the James Bulger killers, Robert Thompson and John Venables. The real problems seem to arise when the children reach 15 and are then eligible to be transferred to a Young Offender Institution. The statistics speak for themselves. Under the old-school Borstal system in the 1930s, the average re-offending rate was around 30%, whereas the modern equivalent is closer to 75%. It doesn’t sound as though its successor is working.

As with the early Nick Broomfield production, ‘Juvenile Liaison Officer’ (made the same year, but deemed too controversial to transmit at the time), the access granted to the director of the original documentary on Mini Cooper – perhaps in an aim to highlight the ‘progressive’ nature of the reformed post-Borstal system – wouldn’t be the same today. Fear of litigation born of this country’s compensation culture and an increasing inclination to cloak so many of our invisible institutions in a veil of secrecy under the guise of security means fewer of us are actually aware of what goes on behind those doors than we were forty years ago.

But these developments imply they have something to hide. The public sector homes don’t wish to expose their management’s inflexible adherence to a rulebook they stick to with fastidious arrogance, regardless of how much damage it might do to those in their care; and the private sector’s natural sense of competition means they don’t want their competitors to take notes when they get it wrong. How can either attitude fill the parents of children in care, let alone society at large, with confidence in the system?

When filmed at eleven, Mini Cooper wasn’t to know he’d eventually be released back into a society he wouldn’t be an active member for years; at that age, each week seems to span a month, and his upset at being informed of the committee’s decision to keep him under lock and key is heartbreaking. His struggles to survive in that society ever since his release hardly suggest the system prepared him for it. He clearly had potential for greatness; that much is evident on-screen. But the fact that society had no defined role for him to slot into, no available means of harnessing his intelligence, is a damning indictment of that society; locking him up until he came of age was a short-term solution leading to a long-term problem.

Thankfully, for Mini Cooper at least, he finally found his niche in life by turning to writing, chronicling his eventful life in the book, ‘Mini and Me’; anyone who has followed his fortunes via the series of follow-up documentaries to the original has been rooting for him all the way, and there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing him succeed at last. But how many Minis didn’t? How many secure unit survivors have been in and out of prison during the same time frame, nabbed as kids and never breaking the cycle, offered nothing more by the system than being another minimum wage drone because rehabilitation as it stands makes the mistake of trying to turn such kids into everything they rebelled against in the first place?

© The Editor

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