28 DAYS LATER

trumpOn paper, it’s already beginning to resemble a bizarre social experiment – replace the time-honoured tradition of a country being run by career politicians schooled in years of public office and hand over the reins of power to a man whose sole working experience has been within the field of big business and entertainment. Light the blue-touch paper, stand at a safe distance and watch the fireworks.

It won’t be until next Monday that Donald Trump marks just one month as resident of the White House, yet so much has been crammed into the last four strange weeks that it feels much longer. Just this week has seen the first resignation from his administration – his National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, over allegations of uncomfortably close associations with the Russian Ambassador to the US; the FBI are currently investigating Flynn and perceiving his relationship with Sergey Kislyak as part of the ongoing suspicions over the Kremlin’s involvement in the Trump Presidency.

Trump has already set himself against the judiciary following the ramifications and legal challenges to his 90-day ban on visitors from seven selected Islamic countries, not to mention invoking the ire of those who were opposed to his Presidency from day one. Ordinarily, Americans will display inbred respect towards their President, whichever side of the political divide he stands on; all of this has been turned on its head by Trump; displaying that inbred respect in 2017 is the aberration, not the norm. Every policy so far announced has been a red rag to the liberal bull, yet every policy also appears to have reinforced the majority of his campaign promises – something most imagined would be quietly swept under the carpet once he took the oath of office. Even that bloody wall has been threatened. This isn’t what usually happens when people are elected.

Then again, under normal circumstances, when people are elected they’ve usually become so skilled in the art of saying one thing when in opposition and then doing another when in government that the public are accustomed to being let down. Lest we forget, however, these are not normal circumstances. Donald Trump is not a normal politician. In fact, I’d question whether or not he’d even find that job description as applicable to him, despite the lofty position he now finds himself in.

Previously, outsider was a term political observers had used to describe the likes of Jimmy Carter or Margaret Thatcher. In the case of Carter, he was a State Governor barely known outside of that State, but a country decimated by the fallout of Watergate turned to him as a break with the established Washington elite that had let the nation down; in the case of Thatcher, she may have had prior government experience, but she too was seen as a break with the recent past of continuous industrial turmoil that had characterised the British 70s; and, of course, she was a woman. Both were outsiders, albeit outsiders on the inside. The same could be said of Barack Obama, who was at least a State Senator before running for President. Trump has never been on the inside and that was his genuine outsider’s sales pitch; it worked.

Disillusionment with the old order has been gathering speed for the last decade, with the 2008 economic meltdown cited by many as the moment when the public realised things were not going to get better and the powers-that-be had no interest in making any country great again. The ground had been laid for a figure like Trump to come along a long time before he actually emerged as a candidate, yet a media machine in bed with those powers-that-be was not going to benefit from them being deposed; therefore, Trump’s campaign was understandably mocked and ridiculed from day one – an eventuality he himself aided and abetted with his behaviour. Even some of us not belonging to that media machine couldn’t really foresee Trump actually going all the way because it was such a dramatic severance of the world order as we had always known it that it seemed impossible to imagine that kind of surreal scenario. But it happened.

I often doubt the sanity of those who hanker after the highest office in the land, whether President or Prime Minister; we can all cite examples of past Presidents or PMs who were either chronically stupid or criminally devious – or both; the aphrodisiac of power has always eluded me, but there’s no doubt it serves as an irresistible element for the men or women in public office who crave it like a drug. That in itself suggests to me symptoms of mental disorder and potential demagoguery, so amateur diagnoses of Trump’s state of mind shouldn’t be restricted to him alone; they should be applied across the board.

Former Labour Foreign Secretary and founding member of the SDP, Dr David Owen combined his medical knowledge with his political experience by covering the subject in a couple of books, ‘The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power’ and ‘In Sickness and In Power: Illness in Heads of Government during the last 100 Years’; and I reckon the connections are entirely relevant. You’d have to be mad to want to run a country, and I guess that’s why so many world leaders are.

As for the Donald, what happens next is anyone’s guess. 2020 seems a hell of a long way off at the moment and right now it’s difficult to picture him reaching the end of four years, let alone contemplating a second term. But for all the wishful thinking by the left of impeachment, we shouldn’t forget his Vice President Mike Pence. Trump may be an outsider, but he’s chosen to surround himself with some Republican stalwarts whose narrow minds make Trump’s stated vision of America seem radically liberal. Many may not be comfortable with the thought of Trump’s finger hovering above the button, but the prospect of President Pence is considerably more concerning; Pence is an insider, the kind of establishment figure Trump was supposed to be a break with. So, be careful what you wish for, you Twitter Oswald’s.

© The Editor

SILLY LOVE SONGS

erosWhen John Lydon once declared ‘anger is an energy’, he had a point; anger is certainly a creatively fruitful source of motivation when it comes to writing so much. Few emotions can inspire a hammering of the keyboard in quite the same way, it has to be said; but shall we have a day-off and talk about something nice for a change? This year so far has naturally carried on where 2016 left off, and most of the stories to make the headlines and thus provoke posts on here have hardly celebrated the joy of life. Was there ever a time when the news wasn’t doom ‘n’ gloom? Bar the odd occasion, probably not. But today I proclaim a 24-hour armistice on Brexit and Trump and instead present a post that coincidentally happens to fall on February 14th. Okay, so it’s an obvious cash-in, but not entirely unwelcome.

Writing about things one loves, as opposed to hates, is easier than it sounds. Sure, well over half of the songs ever penned have been an ode to an object of desire, though they tend to work best when said object is unattainable or has so far proved impervious to the author’s desperate entreaties. Songs that sing of domestic harmony and mutual understanding between two people when the thrill of the chase is over tend to veer towards the twee and nauseating; and it’s also telling that many of the greatest love songs emanate from the end of an affair, whether heartbreakingly melancholy or spectacularly bitter.

Avoiding melancholia and bitterness narrows the field and risks heading in a direction that should really provide free sick buckets en route; therefore, I am steering an extremely delicate course here and will do my utmost to prevent the wheel from taking us to Vomit City.

So, what do you love? What makes you feel warm inside, lighting a soothing internal flame as though you’d just ingested a bowl of chocolate Ready Brek on a chilly, misty morning as a momentary respite from the dread of venturing out into the dim, dank day with an icy classroom as your destination? It’s something one has to think long and hard about, just as listing one’s most detested records is a simpler task than compiling a mere eight Desert Island Discs that one loves above all others. The seemingly never-ending run of a TV programme such as ‘Room 101’, as well as its one-time competitors like ‘Grumpy Old Men’, show how venting one’s spleen comes so easy whereas the opposite requires a little more contemplation.

As far as the most basic sensations go, then of course it’s hard to beat that outdoor stroll when spring has surfaced for the first moment of the year. Winter’s main drawback for me is not so much the cold or the lousy weather – more the way everything looks drained of life, with the bare trees, the hard ground, the absence of flowers, and most of the day resembling the middle of the night. When spring hits, somebody switches the daylight on again and we’re striding through a landscape straight out of a Ladybird book, like the transition when Dorothy leaves monochrome Kansas and arrives in Technicolor Oz.

Conversely, I also embrace the autumn. For many, it is a depressing curtailment of summer; for me, it is one last glorious hurrah of rich, deep colour injected into the landscape and a dash back to the hearth with the anticipation of a warm meal. These sensations take root in childhood and tend to remain there even when the surroundings change, though this has now been extended into a cottage industry. Recently, there has been a rare incursion of a Scandinavian word into the English language that has been on the tip of trendy tongues over the last twelve months – Hygge.

In case it’s passed you by, Hygge has become the latest publishing fad, with several books of less substance than the coffee-tables they were designed to rest upon rush-released to cash-in on the craze before it burns itself out. Hygge emanates from Denmark and seems to be summed-up as a retreat back to a pre-electronic world of simple uncomplicated pleasures – candles, open fires, reading a book, walking the dog, and generally chilling out in a smug New Age Nirvana. Hygge shouldn’t naturally lead to cynicism, but it smells too much like a pre-prepared diet associated with the kind of people who tend not to appeal to one’s best instincts. Package a mood for mass consumption and you kill it. Few sounds put me at ease more than the contented purr of a cat in my lap, but the fact that you can’t bottle and sell it keeps it precious.

Other serene sedatives for me include the speaking voice of Oliver Postgate and the singing voice of Sandy Denny; but not all the things I love lull me into seductive torpor. Who (at least over a certain age) doesn’t enjoy the occasional four-minute air-guitar indulgence behind closed doors? For me, few provide better work-outs on the invisible fret-board than ‘Hocus Pocus’ by legendary fuzzy Dutch Prog-rockers Focus; but I’m sure you all have your own personal favourites. I also used to love spinning the likes of Bizarre Inc, Altern-8, The Prodigy and numerous others when I felt like staging an indoor Rave with an audience of one back in the day – the day being roundabout 1991; releases a fair bit of ‘positive’ energy when you can leap around like a lunatic for a bit – in moderation and with due consideration for one’s neighbours, of course.

What else? I love a cigarette (or 40), as regulars will be aware; and I love a glass of Scotch-on-the-rocks as a liquid accompaniment, just like all those Real Men used to in ‘The Professionals’. I love a bottle of wine with a good meal, though the good meal is a pleasure more sparing in my schedule, usually once-a-week. Snacks were basically made with me in mind. I love a good book as well – something that was an early passion and then lapsed for a shameful decadent decade or so before I got my arse in gear and decided the best way to conquer my voluntary illiteracy was to devour the library of nineteenth century classics.

I love Larry David and the way he can make me laugh like few others have these past ten years, and I love the elegant brushstrokes of Thomas Gainsborough, the stark black & white French and English cinema of the early 60s, architecture from the Georgian to Art Deco, British history from the Civil War to the Second World War, the aesthetic beauty of a dress cut by Ossie Clark, and – to quote the late, great Jake Thackray – I love a good bum on a woman, it makes my day. No, this isn’t me applying for a dating agency, though I know it’s beginning to sound that way. So I shall call time on this brief interlude between the grimness we’ve become accustomed to and leave the floor clear for you and your loves. That wasn’t too painful, was it?

© The Editor

WALLS HAVE EARS

wwiiA story appeared in the Mail last week that, on the surface, reiterated the regular ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’ narrative so familiar to Alan Partridge’s favourite Fleet Street rag, but contained within it a grain of what worries so many who wouldn’t ordinarily fork out for Mr Dacre’s flag-waving cancer-watch daily. It concerned a retired railway enthusiast whose voluntary duties included the twice-weekly winding-up of the iconic clock used in Noel Coward’s legendary 1945 weepie, ‘Brief Encounter’, restored to the platform of Carnforth Station in Lancashire 13 years ago. Since its restoration, a Mr Jim Walker has had the official role of keeping the clock in working order – though no longer. Mr Walker has been relieved of his duties on account of a busybody overhearing him having a private conversation.

Mr Walker is now ‘banned’ from entering certain areas of the station he has been an unpaid worker at for more than a decade because a visitor eavesdropped upon his comments during a private conversation (yes, I’ll say that once again), comments stating he regarded the migrants from Calais as unworthy of comparison with the Jewish child refugees who arrived in the UK before the Second World War. Hardly an opinion nobody else has expressed of late, but so grossly offensive that it warranted reporting, with the upshot being that the Carnforth Station Trust has now taken action.

According to a solicitor’s letter Mr Walker received, there was a ‘serious complaint’ made by a family at the station in regards to ‘loud, offensive remarks’ that consisted of ‘inflammatory and highly abusive language’; in the words of the Carnforth Station Trust, this was categorised as ‘a very serious incident which could have involved the police.’ For the third time, I’ll just remind you this was a private conversation Mr Walker was engaged in with another individual; he wasn’t adopting the guise of a town-crier on the station platform and broadcasting his own personal opinion on the subject of immigration to everyone present. Nevertheless, expressing free speech in a private conversation (one last time) is now seemingly a criminal offence, as long as there are people at whom it isn’t directed who are prepared to go crying to the authorities. UK or GDR? You decide.

I guess we all have our run-ins with those who seek to impose their self-righteousness on the rest of us; just today I returned home to discover I’d been sold the wrong brand of cigarettes on account of them all looking identical since it was decided hiding them behind a cupboard and placing photos of gammy feet on the front would dissuade smokers. I wonder why chocolate bars don’t feature images of the obese on their wrappers or alcohol doesn’t come with a photograph of a wino in the gutter stuck to the bottle? Perhaps the prohibitionist lobby isn’t quite as fanatical where other unhealthy stimulants are concerned.

Anyway, I digress; back to Mr Martin. His personal point of view on a contentious subject (if, indeed, it was as innocuous as the Mail declared), not to mention the response to it, is one that seems certain to enflame passions on both sides. The Government’s decision to reduce the number of Syrian refugee children from entering the country on one hand seems like basic meanness and a pandering to the post-Brexit consensus of the Leave camp that often appears to legitimise the worst kind of ‘England for the English’ throwback; on the other hand, the bumfluff profiles of the ‘children’ apparently benefitting from the scheme that were plastered across the likes of the Mail suggests they’re not all as cute as the little boy whose washed-up corpse provoked a swift turnaround in Murdoch and Dacre-Land a couple of years ago.

Both points of view can no longer be expressed without vociferous reactions from its opposing opinion – bleeding-heart liberal Vs xenophobic racist etc. – neither of which helps the issue when it comes to addressing it; and yet the methods by which one side enforces its opinion have become increasingly worrisome, especially in terms of free speech and fair play.

Another development which could be viewed as an extension of the busybody shit-stirrer into private discourse is the instigation of Northumberland’s horrific ‘Crime Commissioner’, the newly-ennobled Vera Baird. Bemoaning the lack of rapes reported to police, Dame Vera once proclaimed this wasn’t good enough and more or less ordered every woman to get themselves down to their nearest police station and report a sexual assault, something that sounded akin to a virtual call-to-arms to ambulance-chasing law firms and female barristers with an axe to grind where the male of the species is concerned.

Fun-loving party animal Dame Vera has now taken this tactic a step further when it comes to rape trials; at her behest, an ongoing experiment in Newcastle has seen the addition of a dozen observers to the courtroom landscape. For the past two years, a committee of professional do-gooders who seem to spend their days sitting on panels that decide the futures of people they’ll never meet (the usual Star Chamber suspects of social workers, counsellors and academics) has been present at such events and has issued recommendations to senior judges presiding over them, something that must fill the accused in the dock with confidence.

On one of my four failed driving tests in the 80s, I remember there was an observer present on the backseat, taking notes on the performance of the examiner; any minor error I made was hardly likely to be overlooked by the man testing me when he himself was being tested, so the odds were pretty much stacked against my achieving a pass. Similarly, how anyone accused of rape can expect a fair trial when confronted by a coven of self-appointed experts with an evident agenda putting pressure on the judge is questionable.

The infantilisation of women at a Rape Crisis centre in the city unfortunate enough to be under Dame Vera’s regime is emphasised by the addition of children’s toys which the female visitors are encouraged to use as an aid to ‘recovering’ the memory of dim and distant sexual encounters, part of the drive to increase rape convictions at all costs. If guilty men are finally sentenced, fair enough; but the false allegation industry doesn’t seem to care about wrongful convictions as long as the statistics look good on the spreadsheet at the end of each year.

Vera Baird and her storm-troopers are of the same mindset as whoever conspired to deprive a pensioner of his harmless hobby at Carnforth Station – acting as unofficial moral watchdogs and exploiting a climate whereby deviations from the accepted consensus are greeted with fear and hysteria. If the US Government could paint Colonel Gaddafi as the Blofeld-figure he never was, it’s hardly surprising that Jimmy Savile could be posthumously rebranded the Most Wicked Man Ever or Ordinary Joe can be hung out to dry by Nosy Parkers whose sinister mantra is seeping into everyday life with unchecked stealth and is aided by the complicity of those to whom questions are a burden. Watch what you say – you never know who might be listening.

© The Editor

LESS HOMAGE, ALBION

avengersBack in 2011, David Cameron’s desperation to be Barack Obama’s Bezzy Mate was a predictable move from an unpopular Prime Minister in relation to a popular President, serving burgers in the back garden of No.10 in the hope that some of Obama’s movie star sheen would rub off on him. By contrast, Theresa May’s quick-off-the-mark dash to get to Donald Trump before any other world leader made sense in the context of an uncertain post-Brexit future, though both actions tell a familiar story where the Special Relationship is concerned. With the odd rare exception, the wartime scenario of the gum-chewing GIs that swept a generation of British girls off their feet seems to have been the blueprint for summit meetings between UK PMs and US Presidents ever since. Culturally, the same pattern has been replicated in recent years, though it hasn’t always been the case.

Take Gerry Anderson. ‘Stingray’, ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons’ may well be the notable Supermarionation series that spring to mind whenever the name of Gerry Anderson is evoked, but how many of you remember ‘The Secret Service’?

‘The Secret Service’ was commonly regarded as Gerry Anderson’s first flop. It was the last series he made with puppets in the 1960s and was only seen on Southern and ATV back in the days when ITV was a collection of competing regional broadcasters that often went their own obstinate ways when it came to scheduling. If you don’t know much, or anything, about this near-forgotten series, ‘The Secret Service’ was a bizarre mix of puppetry and live action; the close-ups are puppets whereas the long shots, including a character stepping out of a car and walking up to a door, are all live action. The master of gobbledygook, Professor Stanley Unwin, plays himself as a country vicar who also happens to be a secret agent – yes, that’s right! It was the 60s, after all.

‘The Secret Service’ taps into that strange, brief period in the 60s when a very English eccentricity was given a kitsch Technicolor makeover and was actually chic for a while. It’s also there in ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’ as well as hit records of the era, from Syd Barrett’s Psychedelic nursery rhymes on the first Pink Floyd LP to the story of Grocer Jack in Keith West’s ‘Excerpt from a Teenage Opera’ – quirky, whimsical, nostalgic and childlike. It was even reflected in British comics produced during this period, with surreal characters of the calibre of Robot Archie, Adam Eterno, and The Spyder, all of whom illuminated drizzly childhood Saturday afternoons as they appeared in the pages of ‘Lion’ and ‘Valiant’. A decade ago, when some of these characters were revived in the comic miniseries and graphic novel, ‘Albion’, penned by Alan Moore’s daughter Leah, she made a valid point justifying their resurrection.

‘The British sensibility from those times has been imprisoned’, she said when ‘Albion’ was published in 2006. ‘The anarchic silliness and weirdness of the comics was just part of the way we saw the world back then. Sadly, we’ve lost that, along with some of our civil liberties.’

Speaking at a moment when Tony Blair was still extending his insidious reach into so many facets of British society, on one hand Leah Moore’s statement expresses a subliminal longing for an irretrievable Golden Age – a common thread in English art and literature stretching all the way back to ‘Paradise Lost’ and even evident in the soothingly melancholic Oliver Postgate series such as ‘Noggin the Nog’ and ‘Bagpuss’; but in reviving comic characters she was probably too young to recall from her own childhood, she demonstrated a refreshing awareness of a once singularly English identity within home-grown pop culture that has been gradually eroded by an unstoppable tidal wave of American cultural colonialism. It has to be said, however, that we have been complicit in this.

In the immediate post-war era, the juvenile crime-wave that saw young men who had been raised in the absence of fathers imitating stars of US gangster flicks like Cagney, Bogart, Raft and Robinson was portrayed on-screen in ‘The Blue Lamp’, the movie that introduced Sgt Dixon to popular culture; it also set the scene for one of the great miscarriages of justice in British legal history, the hanging of Derek Bentley after his pal Christopher Craig shot dead a policeman in an early example of ‘Gun Crime’. After the gangsters came Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll as well as every iconic American television series from ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Star Trek’ to ‘Batman’ and ‘Starsky and Hutch’ – all entertaining, all worthwhile in their own right. They competed for our attention along with The Beatles, Monty Python, James Bond and Doctor Who; we were still capable of holding our own.

Over the past twenty-five to thirty years, though, we seem to have conceded defeat. Yes, there have been small-scale and determined revivals, whether the self-conscious Englishness of Britpop or even the short-lived vogue for cock-er-nee gangster movies shot by Guy Richie; but the subtle and stealthy immersion of purely American cultural traditions into the British way of life, especially for anyone born after around 1980, has been steady and consistent.

Okay, so McDonald’s is an obvious conquering invader; but what of high-school proms or sleep-overs or baby showers? None of these have any connection to this country other than their persistent appearance in the US movies that constituted video rental shop viewing in the 80s and 90s and the US TV shows that have filled-up the schedules of 24-hour television since the same period. So pervasive have they become in the lives of anyone under 35 that many cannot imagine Britain without them. This is equally applicable to the dolt whose call to the emergency services resulted in him dialling 911 as it is to the sudden pronunciation of the letter ‘a’ in ‘patriotism’ switching from lower case to upper case.

All Hallows Eve is a classic example; as a festival, it predates any American element and yet one could imagine it was invented by the US sometime in the 80s, almost in the same way Christmas has been refashioned by Disney and Coca-Cola, whereby rosy-cheeked Santa Claus has usurped the druid-like spectre of Pagan Father Christmas. I was exposed to ‘trick or treat’ as a kid in a memorable ‘Charlie Brown’ cartoon, where poor Linus sits out all night in the pumpkin patch, awaiting the arrival of the Great Pumpkin; but nothing of that kind happened here on Halloween then. Lo and behold, by the time I’d progressed from ‘Peanuts’ to subtitled French movies on BBC2 in the hope (usually realised) of seeing some naked mademoiselle, the younger residents of the street had suddenly taken up trick or treat as an annual tradition.

I’m not necessarily advocating a Morris Dancing tournament to replace the OTT Americanisation of Halloween as it’s been here for the last quarter-of-a-century, but there are enough weird and wonderful native traditions without importing another cynical retail shindig to these shores. Mind you, Brits seem so permanently in awe of anything American (as long as it’s not Donald Trump) that this has even extended to a UK TV series such as ‘Peaky Blinders’, which owes so much to HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ that it borders on embarrassing.

With some of the best non-Scandinavian TV shows I’ve seen in recent years emanating from the States, I’m not opposed to US culture at all; but I do resent the way in which it has served to obliterate so much of what once made us so distinctive from our old colony. As far as the Special Relationship stands, Britain seems to have become the nation equivalent of a 1970s TOTP covers LP. Do we still possess the ability to stem the tide or have we surrendered as shamefully as Theresa May?

© The Editor

BORN TO RULE

prick-2The year is 2035 and there’s a General Election in what remains of the United Kingdom since Scotland split and Ireland united; the Labour Government led by Prime Minister Cat Smith is low in the polls and faces a challenge from a resurgent Conservative Party and its new leader Ronald Coyne. However, during the campaign, archive footage emerges from Coyne’s student days at Cambridge 18 years before that could prove to be disastrous.

A short video in which Coyne sets fire to a £20 note in front of a homeless man ‘goes viral’ (to coin a quaint old phrase) and Cambridge contemporaries of the time crawl out of the woodwork to recall the incident that led to Coyne being expelled from the Cambridge University Conservative Association. A clearly embarrassed Coyne is relentlessly eviscerated across the media, but denies he is a throwback to the early twenty-first century Tory toffs who comprised the Cabinet of the late Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton. He claims to severely regret his actions when ‘a foolish youth’ and says the incident was an isolated one-off that in no way formed part of his initiation ceremony into an elite organisation akin to Oxford’s Bullingdon Club.

Tories accuse Labour of ‘dirty tricks’ for digging up the footage and leaking it to the media, but after a frenzied 48 hours in which there are calls for Coyne to quit as leader he recovers his composure, stating his commitment to improving the lives of everyone in England and Wales is undimmed. ‘I am not someone whose privileges blind me to the problems of the less affluent and the socially deprived,’ he declares. ‘I believe we are stronger together as one nation, not a nation divided along social, economic, religious or ethnic grounds. It is my avowed mission to unite the people of England and Wales, and one distant moment of adolescent madness excavated by a Labour Party desperate to cling onto power does not alter that fact.’

Did a shameful episode from the Tory leader’s past scupper his chances of gaining the keys to No.10? Tune-in around eighteen years from now to find out!

Of course, this is just me playing with a crystal ball; but when one sees a photo of named-and-shamed Cambridge student Ronald Coyne, he already looks every inch the future leader of the Conservative Party. He has the chinless countenance that virtually ensures him a front-row seat at the Last Night of the Proms, suggesting the Hooray Henry caricature is alive and kicking within young Tory circles; and the disgraceful behaviour captured on camera that has resulted in his university kicking him out of their Conservative society echoes the comments of Andrew Mitchell when describing his prime contact with the homeless as stepping over them to get to the opera.

It seems the enduring image of the fox-hunting Tory toff living in a Downtown Abbey fantasy that couldn’t care less about those on the bottom rung of society’s ladder will never be dispelled; but there’s a certain kind of Tory that is a middle-aged reactionary from around the mid-teens onwards and Ronald Coyne would appear to be the latest model.

The student was unlucky that his arrogant disregard for those less fortunate than himself was recorded, thus singling him out as a special case; but I doubt he’s alone in his attitude, which appears to be endemic and incurable amongst some branches of what ‘The Thick of It’ labelled ‘six-toed, born-to-rule pony-f***ers’, even in 2017. Cameron and Osborne’s thinly-veiled contempt for anyone outside of their own enclosed world was obvious throughout their tenure at the top, reserving their most punitive punishments for the poor and the ill whilst enabling their wealthy City and banking pals to avoid/evade tax time and time again. Their utter inability to comprehend or even try to understand the realities of day-to-day existence on benefits or the minimum wage was reflected in the way they penalised the plebs trapped in that miserable existence under the guise of ‘austerity’.

Naturally, not every member of the Nasty Party adheres to the stereotype, at least regarding their origins – David Davis was raised by a single mother on a council estate and even our old friend little John Bercow is the son of a cabbie; and I think in politics, as with other walks of life, it’s not so much where you come from as where you are now. The Labour Party has its fair share of toffs and smarmy snobs, lest we forget – the oily Chuka Umunna has had his own telling moments where comments about the lower orders are concerned, and there’s always ‘Lady Nugee’ Emily Thornberry, of course.

Despite the visible presence of those who trade on their working-class roots and wear them as a virtue signalling T-shirt, the worst offenders in Corbyn’s camp aren’t so much upper-class or middle-class as Parliamentary-class, a separate strand of detached, out-of-touch wankers that have more in common with Cameron, Osborne and Boris than they have with the majority of the electorate; and they seem to be the only people in the country unaware of it. That’s probably why so many of them were left dumbfounded by the result of the EU Referendum last year. The main difference between them and their enemies on the opposing benches is that Tories start thinking that way before they’ve even been elected to Parliament, as John Mortimer recalled when facing a string of future Tory Ministers who already bore the smug self-satisfied demeanour of the frontbench during his Oxford debating days.

Over 700 signatures have already been accumulated on a petition to have Ronald Coyne sent down, whilst his mother has expressed surprise at her son’s behaviour, claiming he volunteered at a homeless charity whilst still at school; she also denies the family are toffs. Personally, I believe exposure of this nature is punishment enough for Ronald Coyne; he’s been made to look a heartless, arrogant privileged prick and it’s up to him to prove he isn’t. There’s already enough banning and censorship on campus without adding to it. Mind you, I still think he’s got all the makings of a future Tory leader, so we shouldn’t feel too sorry for him.

© The Editor

THE DESCENT OF WOMAN

taraAlthough the common theory tends to go that the kind of vapid, all-surface-no substance role model directly uploaded to the DNA of the western world’s young women didn’t exist until the age of Instagram and other online mediums, it’s worth recognising each development has its roots somewhere further back in time. In the case of the female evolutionary scale that has led us all the way down to a ghastly Bride of Frankenstein such as Kim Kardashian, we need to rewind a couple of decades and remember that this is a phenomenon that existed before widespread digital democracy created the lemon-sucking Facebook profile picture.

The death of one-time international socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson at the age of 45 from an apparent brain tumour, whilst sad in someone so young, served to remind most (I would imagine) of her existence. If one is old enough, her death could provoke the memory of how it was once impossible to open a paper or switch on the TV without seeing her face. Twenty years ago, she was one of the so-called ‘It Girls’ that kept the paparazzi occupied when their sojourns in Paris tunnels had backfired somewhat. Nocturnal creatures who only came to life at midnight – like Cinderella in reverse – the It Girls were party animals whose sole role seemed to be to live out their lives across tabloid pages, their coked-up hedonism occasionally interrupted via their season-tickets at the Priory before resuming the high life and then eventually being snapped-up by flabby-faced old rockers old enough to be their fathers and turned into breeding machines. And that was the 90s.

Cometh the new century, cometh the new breed; whilst the 90s It Girls largely emanated from wealthy dynasties, their post-millennium successors were of humbler stock, working-class girls made good. Their influence filtered down to the masses in a way Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s posh blueprint never could. Once the 90s party was over, Tara and her contemporaries Tamara Beckwith and the Hervey sisters (Lady Victoria and Lady Isabella) found the only way to maintain a high-profile was to join TV’s burgeoning celebrity circuit, making up the numbers on renowned turd-polishing exercises such as ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’, ‘Come Dine with Me’, ‘Celebrity Masterchef’, ‘The Farm’, ‘The Jump’, ‘Love Island’, ‘Dancing on Ice’ et al. Trading on their past notoriety and their chronic lack of evident talent, it seemed an obvious progression.

Their celebrated equivalents in the 60s already had careers before receiving a similar level of attention and labelled as exotic appendages to male movers and shakers – Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy were models, Marianne Faithful was a singer, Jane Asher was an actress – but the 90s It Girls had more in common with their immediate predecessors, the late 80s Wild Children such as Mandy Smith and Amanda de Cadenet. Looks and attitude that chimed with the mores of the moment sealed their success rather than an ability to do anything more challenging than could be achieved by your average shop-girl in Newcastle city centre on a Saturday night. Daddy’s credit card simply opened doors that were then out-of-bounds to those whose moment would come with the advent of reality television.

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s shambolic appearance on comedian Frank Skinner’s chat show in 1999, in which she seemed to be on another planet to the host, is one of those TV car-crashes that routinely feature alongside Sam Fox at the Brit Awards or endless Oliver Reed piss-ups on cheap and shoddy ‘100 Greatest/Worst’ compilation shows; but it acted as a reminder of how even rich 24-hour party people have a breaking point. I recall seeing it when it aired and feeling unexpectedly sorry for a young woman whose willingness to play the performing seal for the media would have unpleasant consequences both for her and for the young women to come.

By the first decade of the twenty-first century, appallingly exploitative programmes such as ‘Geordie Shore’ were already highlighting the pernicious effect the likes of Katie Price and Jodie Marsh were having on the mindset of young women who would never enjoy the material benefits of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. Encouraged by manipulative middle-class television producers to out-gross each other in terms of profanity and promiscuity (puppet-masters who viewed them as a separate species in a manner that echoes the way David Attenborough analyses the animal kingdom), the gullible pawns in the freak show game that reality TV morphed into were the 90s It Girls reborn as council estate slappers.

Once the internet superseded television as the prime medium for youth interaction, the resurrected ethos of everything a young woman has to offer revolving around how she looks had become so entrenched that it gave birth to the synthetic images that continue to clog-up online discourse. Trading on the traditional insecurities teenage girls under a permanent spotlight that judges their merits solely on appearance are afflicted by, the rise of Facebook in particular requires a standard look in which a heavy dose of cosmetics and easily-available photographic trickery manufacture a strange, alien-like impression of the opposite sex that bears little relation to the reality. The emaciated bodies and what a girlfriend of mine refers to as ‘oversized lollipop heads’ have transformed the desired female frame into a unrealisable ideal that even Barbie would regard as impossible to achieve.

WAGs, Paris Hilton, Sheryl Cole, and the hideous Kardashian clan have taken what was once the province of a frivolous elite to which Tara Palmer-Tomkinson belonged and have remodelled it as a regressive role model that elevates appearance over intellect, reversing half-a-century of feminist advancement and returning the aspirations of our sisters, daughters and nieces to that of ensnaring a male partner by exaggerating physical feminine traits to a cartoonish level that any man with a semblance of taste would ironically run a mile from.

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and her ilk were having a good time when they were young because they could afford it and they knew they had nothing else in their armoury; that this good time happened to coincide with a post-Diana craving for Bright Young Things with nothing to say was pure serendipity. They weren’t to know that their excesses receiving out-of-proportion national coverage would lead to the next generation taking their lead as a dispiriting design for life.

© The Editor

SPEAKER’S CORNER

bercowMP David Davis is currently known for forming one-third of an uneasy trio with Bo-Jo and Dr Fox to which Theresa May has assigned the tricky task of extricating the UK from the EU; plucked from the backbenches he had inhabited ever since his highly-publicised stunt of quitting Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet in 2008, resigning his seat and then standing for it again, Davis now has the kind of responsibility his 30-year career in Parliament has often hinted at but has never previously seemed likely. However, when he’d only been in the job for a couple of years, he wrote a book timed to coincide with the long-awaited televising of the Commons.

‘The BBC Viewer’s Guide to Parliament’ is a slim little volume penned by Davis and published in 1989. I picked it off the Oxfam bookshelf around five years ago and have to admit it is a handy layman’s introduction to the beguiling institution, one that deciphers some of the more incomprehensible traditions and phrases that regularly crop up both in the press and on TV, the kind that are rarely explained by political anoraks because the assumption is that everybody reading or watching must understand them or wouldn’t be reading or watching in the first place. The cover features ‘Punch’-like caricatures of Thatcher, Kinnock, Lawson, Hattersley, Howe and Robin Cook as well as the then-Speaker of the House, Bernard Weatherill.

The key difference between Weatherill and his three successors in the Speaker’s Chair, Betty Boothroyd, Michael Martin and John Bercow, is evident in his caricature on the cover of the book; he’s depicted wearing the long judge’s wig that had formed part of the Speaker’s traditional uniform for centuries. When the House of Commons finally made it to TV screens, he did indeed appear in the customary apparel and added to the theatre of the spectacle in the process, as befitting the holder of one of Parliament’s oldest posts (dating back to at least 1258).

When Boothroyd became the first female Speaker in 1992, she decided to dispense with the wig and neither of the two men to follow her has chosen to revive it; perhaps television exposure gave the public the impression that the archaic visual trimmings of the Commons were an indication of how out-of-touch Parliament was, and the ‘modernising’ approach from Blair’s Government onwards seems to have mistaken window dressing for content when it comes to how Parliament is perceived by the man-in-the-street. Personally, I believe the grandiose Gothic setting of the Palace of Westminster is entirely suited to powdered periwigs and foppish finery, and no amount of sartorial modernisation can compensate for fixing the factors that provoke genuine grievances in the average member of the electorate.

The last Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, was infamously and unceremoniously ousted in 2009, when he was embroiled in the Expenses’ Scandal, the first Speaker to have been forced out in such a manner since 1659. His successor, the divisive John Bercow, has held the post ever since, despite his widespread unpopularity amongst fellow Tories. Once a member of the notorious, borderline racist far-right Conservative Monday Club, the pint-sized Tory has drifted towards the centre over the past decade or so and has usually found more support within Labour and Lib Dem ranks as a consequence.

As a member of Ian Duncan Smith’s Shadow Cabinet in 2002, Bercow defied IDS’s three-line whip ordering the Tories to vote against Labour’s bill to give unmarried gay and heterosexual couples the right to adopt; his resignation as a result confirmed his embrace of a more socially liberal agenda. The enmity felt towards him by members of his own party was later highlighted during his election as Speaker when it was alleged as few as three Tory MPs voted for him; his election was largely achieved via Labour MPs, who were well aware of the dislike of Bercow in Conservative circles.

The Tory-led Coalition attempted a sneaky ruse to depose Bercow in 2015, proposing a secret ballot vote on the Speaker’s re-election after the upcoming General Election, a motion introduced on the eve of Parliament’s dissolution and in the absence of several Labour MPs who had already headed back to their constituencies. It failed and Bercow was re-elected following the Election.

Two incidents in the Commons yesterday underlined Bercow’s curious relationship with the Conservative Party. The first followed Theresa May referring to one of Jeremy Corbyn’s front-bench London clique, Emily Thornberry, by her actual title of ‘Lady Nugee’; the Shadow Foreign Secretary who sneered at the working-class with her White Van Tweet of 2014 and sent her son to a ‘partially selective’ school (ala noted migraine-sufferer Diane Abbott), clearly regarded this as an insult that doesn’t sit comfortably on her socialist shoulders. She simmered and stewed before crying to teacher, prompting the Speaker to intervene and rebuke the PM.

Bercow grabbed more headlines, however, with his assertion that he would oppose any invitation to President Trump to address both Houses in Westminster Hall; he reminded the Commons this was an entirely optional honour and not necessarily an obligatory one, but he also managed to emphasise his own personal opposition to the Donald’s current travel ban concerning citizens of several Muslim countries. Labour, Lib Dem and SNP MPs who supported the Speaker’s outburst claimed Bercow was saying what many of them thought re the State Visit of the US President, filling the vacuum left by the Prime Minister’s hasty jaunt to Washington and apparent ease in overlooking contentious policies in her desperation to secure a trade deal; prominent Tories, on the other hand, accused Bercow of playing to the gallery and seeking publicity by jumping on the anti-Trump bandwagon.

The impartiality of the Speaker of the House, regardless of which party he or she belongs to, is supposed to be one of the position’s job descriptions, and Bercow has been deemed by some as overstepping the mark with his comments on Trump. One could say he was echoing the sentiments of the majority of the public where Trump is concerned; others could say he and his missus are a little too fond of the limelight and should keep their opinions to themselves. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, there’s no denying that in this 24-hour media age, the post that is almost as ancient as Parliament itself hasn’t been rendered irrelevant by the passage of time, retaining the ability to make itself heard in a way that David Davis’s little guidebook failed to foresee nearly thirty years ago.

© The Editor

BLACK HOLE SUNSET

sabbathA friend recently gave me three books of Charlie Brooker’s TV reviews going back a decade or more – ideal lavatory reading material, as it turns out, and that’s where I keep them. As amusingly acerbic as ever, Brooker’s musings on what his job forced him to watch on the box are nevertheless significant pointers as to the transient disposability of contemporary pop culture. I would probably laugh out even louder were I able to recall any of the programmes or personalities he rips to shred with such witty malevolence, yet the fact that I’m stumped when he describes a particular ‘Big Brother’ contestant or some doomed ITV celebrity circus makes the reading experience a tad frustrating.

Like looking at old copies of ‘Private Eye’ from the 90s (I have a few) and trying to remember some obscure Minister in Major’s Government who’s been caught with his trousers down or his hand in the till, leafing through Brooker’s early noughties time capsules reminds me how the lifespan of even the most entertaining critiques of the here and now is as limited as the figures they mock.

Judging by the already meaningless accounts of events going back barely a decade, it’s probably fair to say very few (if any) of the characters that dominate today’s media mediums will still be on the tip of the masses’ tongues 47 years from now. It’s testament to the enduring appeal and remarkable staying power of their predecessors, however, that the apparently final performance of Black Sabbath yesterday made the headlines.

Some say the combination of the words Heavy and Metal first appeared in a late 60s review of a Jimi Hendrix gig – ‘like heavy metal falling from the sky’ was the phrase Hendrix’s manager Chas Chandler recalled; some trace it back to Steppenwolf’s 1968 biker anthem, ‘Born to be Wild’ (‘Heavy metal thunder’); but as a musical genre, even acknowledging the influence of Hendrix and Cream’s turbo-charged psychedelic blues, it’s possibly fair to pinpoint the beginnings of Heavy Metal to the arrival of Black Sabbath.

Led Zeppelin always disassociated themselves from the term, and to be fair, the virtuoso musicality of Led Zep offered up a good deal more than just the riffs that continue to inspire air-guitarists the world over; similarly, the quasi-classical leanings of Deep Purple often aligned them with nascent Prog Rock as much as guitar-led Hard Rock, so they too can’t be held solely responsible. When it comes to Sabbath, though, there’s no doubt every band to have launched an axe attack upon the eardrums of teenage boys (and their parents) ever since owes them a colossal debt.

Listening to Black Sabbath’s most famous and biggest hit, 1970’s ‘Paranoid’, it’s evident that this was a band whose natural allies were not Led Zep or Purple, but The Stooges. Like Iggy Pop’s band of brothers, Sabbath emerged from the unfashionable industrial heartlands – in the case of The Stooges, Detroit, and in the case of Ozzy’s gang, Birmingham. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Sabbath didn’t enjoy the Art School route to pop stardom and all the esoteric influences such a leg-up afforded, but were genuine working-class heroes, far more genuine than, say, The Clash. They grew up in a tough, dirty city and endured an underprivileged background of hard menial labour and dysfunctional families scarred by war. They had nothing to lose.

Guitarist Tony Iommi was working in a sheet metal factory when he lost the tips of two fingers on his right hand, but used the accident to develop his distinctive sound as he and his band Earth became a draw in the Birmingham clubs that had earlier proved to be a fruitful cradle for bands such as The Moody Blues, The Move and The Spencer Davis Group. A name change came when their shared love for horror movies and Dennis Wheatley novels produced a song titled ‘Black Sabbath’ that encapsulated everything that made them so unique.

The astonishingly guttural drone of Iommi’s riffs that never leave the ear once lodged there, working in tandem with Geezer Butler’s bowel-shattering bass-lines and Bill Ward’s frenetic drums were complimented by Ozzy Osbourne’s raw, untutored vocal delivery. Unlike the thuggish showmanship of The Who’s Roger Daltrey and the preening Sex God posing of Led Zep’s Robert Plant, Ozzy kept his stage excesses to a minimum and the band never indulged in cock-rockery. The ear-splitting power of the music didn’t need it.

London-based critics were instantly hostile to these uncouth oiks from the midlands, but the brilliantly hairy ambassadors of rock stripped to its bare, uncompromising bones revelled in their outsider status when the commercial success that came in the wake of the unexpected top five chart placing of ‘Paranoid’ rocketed them into the big league and all the trappings that went with it in the 70s. Their on-the-road activities became the stuff of legend, but their musical influence outlasted the exit of Ozzy at the end of the decade that made them and ushered in a less inspiring era when they were fronted by the likes of Ronnie Dio and even (briefly) Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan.

Black Sabbath can be seen as the Godfathers of Metal, Goth, Grunge and even Punk, but by the time Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career and then unlikely reality TV stardom made him a universal household name, the respect that had always evaded Sabbath belatedly resulted in the bizarre spectacle of Osbourne and Iommi performing ‘Paranoid’ in the grounds of Buckingham Palace at HM the Queen’s Golden Jubilee bash in 2002. A long-overdue reunion of the original line-up led to the 2013 No.1 album, ‘13’, whose chart-topping status in their homeland broke a record of gaps between No.1 albums previously held by Bob Dylan. The band were finally recognised as the groundbreaking innovators they always had been.

A couple of weeks ago, a few friends of mine saw Sabbath live and commented that it was akin to seeing some of the greatest musicians ever, fronted by ‘my granddad’. This is a comment largely based on Ozzy’s OAP manner of staggering across the stage, though his vocals were apparently on form. One could say the legacy of past chemical indulgence may have left its mark on Sabbath’s frontman, but we shouldn’t also forget Mr Osbourne is pushing seventy now. Just think of how ancient Sinatra looked at the same age, and note how alert and refreshingly witty Ozzy is in interviews; as with many who share his refined years, his mind is often let down by his body.

Sabbath fittingly signed off on stage in Birmingham to the strains of (inevitably) ‘Paranoid’. The audience was witness to the final act of a career that none of its members could ever have expected to span almost half-a-century, but what the band achieved in a near-fifty year existence is something none of the current contenders will ever manage because Black Sabbath rightly take their place in a pantheon of pop culture that defined an epoch that has passed and has yet to be surpassed; it still defines the age we live in, even if its practitioners are all granddads. The bostin’ boys done good.

© The Editor

TOSH AND BECKS

beyonceJust in case you haven’t caught much Radio 4 this week, let me provide you with some programme highlights. On Sunday morning, ‘Desert Island Discs’ celebrated its 75th anniversary by inviting David Beckham onto the show; on Tuesday, ‘A Good Read’ asked what the favourite books were of Melanie Sykes and Alan Carr; on Thursday, flagship Arts series ‘Front Row’ opened with the news that Beyoncé posted her ‘pregnancy portrait’ on Instagram, one that has apparently become the most ‘liked’ post in that medium’s short distinguished history; the 7.2 million ‘likes’ even exceeded the 6.3 million that ‘liked’ the selfie posted by Selena Gomez (Yes, I know what you’re thinking; I’d ask my daughter if I had one).

‘We would like to share our love and happiness’, declared Beyoncé in the nauseating blurb that accompanied her narcissistic and characteristically humourless image as she cradled the belly carrying the double act whose media careers we’ll have to endure around fifteen years from now. ‘We have been blessed two times over.’ Nice of her to share that with the world, wasn’t it. Judging by the response, it clearly was nice of her; it demonstrates her recognition of just how beloved she is and how the world waits with bated breath for the next earth-shattering bullet fired from Jay-Z’s loins.

If I might be permitted to backtrack a little, when it came to my listening habits at the beginning of this century I believed R&B was the sole cutting-edge sound within pop music, the natural successor to a dying Dance scene that had disappeared up its own backside in the late 90s; I will still argue that the prematurely-late Aaliyah’s eponymous 2001 album is one of the great records of that era, but the era didn’t last long. It used to take around half-a-decade before an era-defining musical genre stopped progressing and started to slide backwards into repetition and cliché, but the pace of life in the twenty-first century has speeded up the process; R&B was a spent force within a couple of years of it being at the top of its game. The pioneers and innovators left the stage and the unimaginative bandwagon-jumping recyclers moved in.

Beyoncé (as a member of Destiny’s Child) was briefly part of R&B at its peak, though only in the way David Bowie was briefly a music hall act during his Anthony Newley phase. There was always a sneaking suspicion Beyoncé was a bit of an R&B tourist and that her ultimate ambition was to be Mariah Carey. Sappy ballads of a kind Michael Jackson at his syrupy worst would have baulked at were a regular fixture of her repertoire, and when she jettisoned her Destiny sisters to embark upon the inevitable solo career, any pretensions to anything other than full-blown showbiz were jettisoned along with them.

Since the demise of Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé has gradually become insufferable – a vain, vacuous diva posing as someone with something to say yet offering nothing more than lyrical motivational poster bilge in snappy sound-bites for the sisterhood. At times, she’s made Jennifer Lopez or Britney Spears seem deeply profound.

But Beyoncé is blessed, for she finds herself in an age when she can bestride a plethora of platforms. There are more outlets for the Beckhams and Beyoncés of this world than their famous predecessors could ever have dreamt of: The entire cultural wasteland of breakfast and daytime TV, MTV, Channel 5, the tabloid press, ‘Vogue’, ‘Vanity Fair’, ‘Marie Claire’, ‘OK!’, ‘Hello’, ‘Heat’, Radio 1, ‘The One Show’, the numerous products they promote and sponsor, and, of course, the internet; their ilk have completely and comprehensively colonised each and every facet of the entertainment industry so that one cannot step outdoors and venture to the local parade of shops without being made aware of their existence.

They’ll be on the supermarket soundtrack as well as staring out from the magazine and newspaper racks; they’ll be in the windows of the Superdrug-type stores advertising their scents; and their look will be worn by dozens of dedicated disciples you’ll bypass getting to the shops and back; then, when you get home and go online, there they are again. Beckham and Beyoncé are watching you, as are all those who followed in their wake.

High Art and Low Art have often collided and the end results have regularly been supremely entertaining. Andy Warhol knew that when he filled galleries with his silkscreen prints of banal household objects over half-a-century ago; and what made Glam Rock so irresistible was the fact that it could encompass everyone from dumb Gary Glitter to erudite Roxy Music. But Low Art has never been more widespread, accessible and available than it is today. It’s bloody everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with Low Art at all; it has its place and that place covers 99% of the globe. To me, it seems only fair that there should also be an alternative, a refuge from its overwhelming dominance – one little corner of the modern world that does not welcome it.

On paper, we have Radios 3 & 4 and BBC4, and I suppose, Sky Arts. That’s more or less it. Not much to ask for, really, yet the edited highlights of this week’s Radio 4 schedule that were contained within the opening paragraph would suggest there is no escape, no relief and no hiding place from something that already owns every other media outlet. Quite frankly, I was always happy to watch David Beckham don an England shirt, but I’ve never had the slightest interest in anything else about him; similarly, I don’t care what books Melanie Sykes or Alan Carr like to read anymore than I care whether or not a 35-year-old woman has a couple of buns in her oven. If I did, I know where to look, and I shouldn’t have to look in one of the few cultural bunkers we have left. Of course, that makes me a Snob, doesn’t it?

© The Editor

THE FINGER OF SUSPICION

10524678_10154392772245324_8312222850693804832_n2-copy-copyThe granting of effective pardons to deceased men convicted of ‘homosexual offences’ prior to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in 1967 may be deemed a Good Thing by those who have long promoted such an event; but when one considers the thousands incarcerated in British prisons on such charges before the long overdue change to the law, it’s worth remembering how many of them are still with us. For them, this is little more than an empty gesture. Any amendments to the change to include the living on the list of the exonerated – and the potential minefield of whether a post-1967 conviction for sex with any man under the then-consenting age of 21 could be wiped from the records – were prevented by cynical filibustering. Apparently, one can always apply to the Home Office, but I suppose that august department knows most of those applying will probably be six feet under by the time the paperwork is completed.

Convictions of the non-dead for homosexual offences both before and after 1967 remain on their CVs, and thanks to the advent of CRB (now DBS) checks, the one-time crimes that death would erase the existence of retain the power to prevent the living from working in any profession in which contact with society’s ‘vulnerable’ is paramount. Even the Rehabilitation Offenders Act 1974, which introduced a time limit on a past criminal conviction so that it would cease to be a blot on an individual’s future career chances after a specified period of rehabilitation, included numerous caveats in the shape of exemption from it where certain professions are concerned.

However, a system of scrutiny that once only applied to ex-cons now encompasses a far wider section of the population. A criminal check on a prospective employee, as with a credit check by a bank, is regarded by the advocates of the system as a sensible precaution, though many others may see it as an infringement of their civil liberties that places them under unwarranted suspicion, faced with an interminable wait for the process to clear a name that didn’t require clearing in the first place. Doctors, nurses, teachers, youth-workers and care-workers (to name just a few) are all under this suspicion until their innocence has been established.

Anybody passing a Disclosure and Barring Service check is awarded with a certificate that essentially proclaims ‘I am officially not a Paedo or pervert’, confirmation that the individual the system presumes to be guilty is actually innocent. In a Court of Law, the onus is not on the defence to prove the accused didn’t commit the crime they’ve been charged with, but on the prosecution to prove they did – and beyond reasonable doubt. When it comes to a DBS check, the process works the other way round. It temporarily criminalises great swathes of the workforce, marooning them in an unemployable limbo for months, keeping them hanging on for the moment when they receive notification that they are not what they knew they weren’t all along.

Following several high-profile cases whereby a genuine rapist/Paedo/murderer slipped through the net and committed their favourite crime again, the restrictions imposed by DBS checks have been tightened to such a degree that the implication for anyone having to endure a DBS check is that these rare occasions are judged to be the rule rather than the exception. Primary schools are struggling to recruit male teachers as a consequence, and it has also had a detrimental effect on organisations like the Girl Guides, who are suffering a shortage of adult volunteers. Who would even want to work with children under such circumstances?

Putting the private business of employers and employees in the hands of an institution as corrupt and untrustworthy as the Police Force was destined to be a recipe for disaster. One may as well hand over the running of social media to the Stasi. Ten years ago, the Home Office revealed almost 3,000 people had been accidentally labelled as criminals following CRB checks, whereas it emerged in 2009 that any minor contact with police, even when there wasn’t so much as a caution involved, would be present on an individual’s ‘Enhanced’ CRB or DBS file (the one reserved for those seeking to work with children, the elderly or disabled adults). So, if you once had to give your name and address to a woodentop when he saw you waiting for a taxi and judged you to be loitering before moving you on, it’ll be in there.

There is also an immense backlog of checks building up as the net widens to include more professions. Recent statistics exposed the worst performing Force when it came to backlogs; it was – surprise, surprise – the Met; another persistent offender, the South Yorkshire Police Force, was also in the top five. Last year it was reported that as many as 150,000 people with jobs lined-up were prevented from beginning these jobs due to DBS checks taking upwards of four months – and this despite Police Forces being set a target of processing at least 85% of applications over a period of 14 days. Labour blames the delays on Tory cuts, but it would hardly make much difference whoever happened to be running the country. The system itself is the problem.

Mind you, if you’ve already been through the process and are keen to move to another job in the same sector, it’s now possible (for the annual sum of £13) to re-use the same DBS certificate you were awarded last time round; move into another sector, however, and you’ll have to go through it all over again.

We have allowed the powers-that-be to criminalise us because we’ve been gullible enough to swallow the ‘it’s for your own good and the good of your children’ guff, and look where it has left us – suspicious, wary, mistrustful, seeing only the bad in people, encouraged to snoop and snitch, leaving vital professions under-staffed and starved of those who could make a massive difference; but, hey, some dead men convicted of things that were actually illegal at the time can now rest easy in their graves, so we can be proud of our country once again.

© The Editor