THE SOUND OF THE SUBURBS

Many of us – me included – would equate the word ‘normal’ with the word ‘boring’, but there is an accolade for which normality is rewarded in terms of a town or city. Following one of those endless statistical surveys that often seem to be undertaken by men without girlfriends, Didcot in Oxfordshire has been named ‘the most normal town in England’. Didcot has few claims to fame, which one suspects aids its qualification for this dubious title. Radiohead didn’t form in Didcot, but formed in nearby Abingdon (former Parliamentary constituency of Colditz survivor and terrorist victim, Airey Neave). It says everything about a town’s cultural landscape that one of the world’s biggest bands didn’t emanate from it, but formed ‘nearby’.

So, what put Didcot on the map? Well, not its glamorous old power station, which closed after 43 years of service in 2013. Okay, so what, then? Well, perhaps it makes sense to name the rest of the contenders for this award. To the strains of the ‘Pick of the Pops’ theme, here’s the top five: At No.5, it’s East Leake in Nottinghamshire; No.4 is Southwick, West Sussex; up to No.3, Worcester’s very own Bath Road area; a non-mover at No.2 for Droitwich Spa in Worcestershire; and straight in at No.1 goes Didcot – not ‘arf!

Chances are, unless you were either born in or reside in these locations, you’ve never heard of them; and I guess that’s the point. Didcot fits the bill more than any other town in England because it apparently embodies all the contemporary statistics of the nation’s averages – age, income, house prices, property ownership, marital status, ethnicity, employment, and (of course) Euro-scepticism. I suppose if an Ealing comedy about a dull suburban settlement was made today, Didcot would be the ideal location.

David Bowie once reflected on his time growing up in Bromley, the archetypal cultural wasteland of a Greater London suburb, by holding it responsible for his desperate desire to make his mark; despite Bowie’s discernible despair over the absence of excitement in his formative playground, his comments suggest it was the perfect place for him to be, in that it gave him a reason to escape. His parents obviously regarded it as a step-up from his birthplace of Brixton, and for them it was.

The suburbs meant something different for those who had fought the war, of course; for them, they represented progress and social-climbing, symbolic of how far they’d come – the ‘Shangri-La’ Ray Davies wrote of. A yearning for the quiet life was understandable after 1945 and all the elements that constituted such an existence for many with an eye on simple pleasures could be found in suburban living. I guess cleaning one’s car on a Sunday morning, followed by the ritual mowing of the lawn, was preferable to the beaches of Dunkirk or Normandy, though the children who didn’t have that experience to measure their own lives by could find their parents’ pebble-dashed Nirvana a stifling and repressive environment lacking the exotic allure of Hollywood or rock ‘n’ roll.

If the appeal of the suburbs for the wartime generation can therefore be explained, one wonders what their appeal remains for the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of that generation. Perhaps the ‘Broken Britain’ narrative of the Conservative Party in recent years, coupled with the horror stories of urban living as pedalled by the party’s Fleet Street representatives, has played its part in the rebirth of the suburbs as the preferred destination for those who can actually afford to purchase property there. The suburbs are seen as a safe place to raise children, and raising children is of course the patriotic duty of every Englishman and woman, lest the economy crashes for lack of future consumers.

A town such as Didcot appears to represent this ideal, and being awarded the title of ‘the most normal town in England’ has been greeted with euphoria by people whose job it is to promote the place. Steve Connel, the Mayor of Didcot, has referred to the conclusions of the survey as ‘tremendous’. In response to the findings, he said: ‘We have a very diverse group in Didcot…people who work hard, get on with their lives, and do everything they can to advance the community, and if the spirit represented in Didcot is considered normal across Britain, then I think we’re in tremendous shape.’ It sounds as if Nick Clegg’s ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ has its synchronised heartbeat in Didcot.

The suburbs tend to spawn some of our greatest creative mavericks and artistic innovators because the unique dullness of the suburbs provides rebels with something to kick against and get away from ASAP. It’s no great coincidence that another generation from the same location Bowie broke out of underwent the same sensations a decade-and-a bit later, including Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol and Poly Styrene. Much earlier, HG Wells had such contempt for his own suburban upbringing that he inflicted the ultimate revenge upon Woking by making it the site where the Martian invaders land in ‘The War of the Worlds’ and do their first damage to the planet.

Nevertheless, if it’s a quiet and uneventful life you crave and if you have the cash to fund it, why not head for Didcot? As long as friendly bombs are still falling on Slough alone, you should be alright.

© The Editor

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A MAJOR MISTAKE

Well, I wonder, have the ravens flown the Tower? Not as far as I know, but the sky isn’t raining a shower of bank notes down on the populace either. Theresa May today signed a document that could well define her time in Downing Street and could equally decide which direction the UK heads in for the next decade or so; nobody knows what will really happen – apart from Fleet Street, of course, which is telling us all exactly what we can look forward to; mind you, the Brexit battle bus did that too. The first step towards a not-so fond farewell to the EU is underway, but what precisely are we waving goodbye to?

John Major’s recent reappearance on the British political stage, following hot on the heels of his immediate successor Tony Blair, should have served as a potent reminder that what we now recognise as the European Union was established (and endorsed) during his premiership, rather than that of Edward Heath. Major’s early 70s PM predecessor tends to carry a great deal of retrospective blame for Britain’s eventful European adventure, though the Europe that Sailor Ted steered us towards had experienced a game-changing facelift in the thirty years since Heath himself had witnessed the devastation global conflict had wrought upon the continent.

The European Economic Community was an idealistic post-war project intended to do for European trade and industry what the United Nations intended to do for world peace; the triumph of the former, when measured against the limited success of the latter, naturally made it an attractive proposition to countries undergoing economic decline, with the UK foremost amongst them. Long before he led his party, Heath (unlike many Tories at the time) realised Britain urgently required a post-colonial role and he regarded membership of the EEC as the way to achieve one. It took the best part of a decade, but he eventually realised his ambition.

When Heath signed the Treaty of Accession on 22 January 1972 (with Britain’s membership of the EEC coming into effect on 1 January 1973), the bleak situation in Blighty appeared to vindicate his decision. Just two days before Heath signed on the dotted line, unemployment had topped the one million mark; a little over a week later, Bloody Sunday happened. The country was also in the middle of the first official miners’ strike since 1926, one spanning seven weeks and including the infamous forced closure of Birmingham’s Saltley Coke Works; with the nation’s power supply perilously close to running out, the Government capitulated and the NUM recognised the dangerous strength of the cards it held.

Britain’s entry into Europe was marketed as an exciting new dawn for the country; there was even a special concert staged at the London Palladium to mark the occasion, headlined by the biggest band in Britain at the time, Slade. But beneath the PR, there was concern that the nation was surrendering sovereignty to Brussels without the people being consulted; yes, the Treaty of Accession was debated in Parliament and at the party conferences in the months leading up to its ratification, but the electorate had no say in the matter. A shared economic policy with Europe seemed sensible on paper, but when the NUM flexed its muscles again barely a year after Britain joining the Common Market, the country’s fortunes plummeted once more and Heath was out of office.

Following the EEC Referendum instigated by Harold Wilson’s Government in 1975, Britain’s position at the European table in the immediate years after was largely marked by debates over the size of sausages, the imperial Vs metric weights-and-measurements argument, and other silly season stories that were recycled whenever the UK required a lazy scapegoat to attribute its ills to. Margaret Thatcher rarely disguised her antipathy towards the EEC, securing the UK Rebate in 1985 that allowed Britain to reduce its contribution to the organisation’s budget; but it was her successor at No.10 whose actions one could say directly led us to where we are today.

When Britain became a member of the Common Market (on the same day as Ireland and Denmark), the membership of the EEC totalled nine nations; by 1986, only three more had been added. Twelve seemed a nice manageable number, but the dramatic alteration of the continent following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the early 90s not only ruined the Eurovision Song Contest; it had a considerable impact on the EEC. Moves to enlarge the remit of the EEC beyond mere economic issues had been afoot for a long time, but the newly independent nations queuing up to join after the fall of the Berlin Wall presented the Brussels powers-that-be with the opportunity for expansion they’d been looking for, the chance to build the United States of Europe that Churchill foresaw decades before.

John Major was the third successive Tory PM whose term in office was marked by arguments over Europe. When the Maastricht Treaty was drafted at the end of 1991, the prospect of greater European integration and the introduction of a shared currency filled many with horror, albeit not Mr Major. The main opposition to the implementation of Maastricht came from within his own party, the so-called Maastricht Rebels, as well as some members of his Cabinet, whom Major referred to as ‘the bastards’. His Government’s small majority (18) was compounded by 22 rebels, who spent the best part of a year deliberately sabotaging every attempt by Major to get the job done.

Mercifully, Major resisted signing the UK up to the Euro, though Blair was keen for a while; Maastricht was eventually ratified, however, and the bureaucratic monolith that is the EU came into being proper. Maastricht created what we are now divorcing ourselves from, rather than the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and further national powers being devolved to Brussels came with the amendments inherent in the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, followed by the Treaties of Nice and Lisbon.

John Major may well have misread the aims and intentions of the EU when Maastricht was drafted, but I don’t believe he was/is that stupid; he must have known what it would amount to and how difficult it would be for the UK to extract itself from the monster Maastricht manufactured. If any single individual could be said to have sold Britain’s sovereignty down the river – if indeed one views membership of the EU as representing just that – it was John Major, not Ted Heath.

© The Editor

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THE POUND IN YOUR POCKET

Just a few months on from the introduction of a radical little fiver that still seems strange, our wallets and purses are poised to receive another fresh face today via the arrival of the new-look £1 coin; the soon-to-be obsolete regular quid coin will cease to be legal tender in October. Although designs have occasionally altered in terms of what features on the reverse, the shape of the coin hasn’t changed since it replaced the old pound note in 1983. Now, however, the Royal Mint has decided to break with the familiar and go for the unfamiliar – or has it? The innovation is…wait for it…a twelve-sided coin! A twelve-sided coin? Er…they’ve already done that before.

Yes, anyone over a certain (pre-decimal) age might recall a long-gone coin known colloquially as the threepenny bit; it was worth 3d in old money, and from the late 1930s onwards, minted with the distinctive twelve sides it remains remembered for. I have a full set of £sd coinage and one factor that can’t be denied when comparing the collection to contemporary coins is how much heavier they seem than their decimal successors, the threepenny bit included. It makes one realise why braces were compulsory for holding up trousers; a pocketful of pre-decimal coins must have been a severe test on the strength of elastic.

For the first few years after decimalisation, many were convinced it was little more than a ruse to raise prices as the populace struggled to calculate what items should have cost in ‘old money’, convinced they were being ripped off. Coming just a couple of years before Britain joined the Common Market, some saw the introduction of decimal currency as symptomatic of changes being made by the powers-that-be without consulting the people. Perhaps there should have been a referendum? As a consequence, while ever pre-decimal generations outnumbered those with no memory of £sd, the old coinage maintained a sentimental grip on the nation’s psyche.

The farthing was the first familiar member of the £sd club to disappear from circulation in the decade leading up to decimalisation; a tiny bronze object slightly bigger than a modern-day 5p and (from 1937) boasting the famous picture of a wren on its reverse, four farthings made up an old penny and in today’s money one farthing would be the equivalent of between 2 and 7p. Last minted in 1956, the farthing ceased to be legal tender as of 1960. Having a coin that was only worth a quarter of a penny was deemed an unnecessary burden on shoppers and shopkeepers, not to mention bus-conductors confronted with a handful of them when pressing some snotty-nosed Ealing Comedy kids for payment on the top-deck.

More or less the same size as a modern 2p, the halfpenny coin adopted the Golden Hind as its most recognisable reverse image the same year the wren first appeared on the farthing, though the halfpenny as legal tender lasted nine years longer than the sibling it ranked two places above in the currency charts. The old penny itself was larger than any coin in current usage and bore the iconic portrait of Britannia; the reason Britannia switched to the new 50p coin in the countdown to Decimal Day was allegedly due to a public outcry over the loss of the nation’s symbolic heroine from the penny, though 1d still disappeared for good in February 1971.

The sixpence was earmarked for obsolescence on Decimal Day, though the star of the traditional nursery rhyme became the subject of a tabloid campaign to save it in an early example of newspapers adopting patriotic fervour when a symbol of Olde England faces the chop. Amazingly, the campaign worked and the sixpence remained legal tender until 1980. As a decimal child in the 70s, I remember the sixpence, though I found its name confusing when a grandparent handed one over for an outing to the sweetshop in that it wasn’t actually worth six new pence, but 2½p. With the one shilling and two shilling coins sharing the size and monetary value of five and ten new pence respectively, they too continued to be legal tender in the immediate decimal era until finally ceasing to be so as remarkably late as 1991, twenty years after decimalisation.

The threepenny bit joined the old halfpenny, penny and half-crown coins down the decimal plughole, though it was the only one of the £sd family to bear such an odd design, making it instantly missed the moment it vanished. Perhaps the team behind the new pound coin were old enough to remember it and decided to revive the distinctive shape for the generations who never knew its distant predecessor – or maybe they figured it won’t be long before it’s worth about as much. The 50p and 20p coins both stand out as unusual deviations from the standard circular coin shape, but the twelve-sided design seems undeniably fresh, especially to anyone too young to remember the threepenny bit (your humble narrator included).

Of course, technology today being the smart-arse it is means the new £1 coin can’t simply be just a coin; it apparently contains several security precautions that have been added to prevent it from being a victim of the counterfeiter. One in forty of the existing pound coins are thought to be counterfeits, so its successor boasts some secret ingredient inside the coin that can only be recognised when electronically scanned, though the Royal Mint isn’t saying what. Not that most of us would notice the fake from the Real McCoy; most new coins tend to resemble Monopoly money when we first handle them, anyway, and their value has a habit of diminishing to more or less the same.

© The Editor

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TRIGGER WARNING

I really honestly do not miss David Cameron at all; but I confess I miss taking the piss out of him. He was such a gift – a posh boy desperately trying not to be a posh boy and failing miserably, albeit hilariously. Blair might have looked like the archetypal trendy vicar twit when armed with his guitar, but it was impossible to doubt his deluded sincerity in genuinely believing it made him ‘cool’. By contrast, whenever Dave had a crack at playing the pleb, whether pretending to enjoy a pasty or deciding his favourite football team wore claret-and-blue (West Ham or Aston Villa?), he so was clearly chronically uncomfortable that watching him squirm was comedy gold.

Yes, there’s still Boris to send up, but Boris has cleverly created a character in which it appears he’s already sending himself up long before you get the chance to do likewise. The Foreign Secretary took the joke toff route from day one and has got away with it because being Bertie Wooster is a canny strategy; the Proles can suppress their instinctive antagonism towards the upper classes if the aristocracy’s poster boy is a superficially harmless bumbling buffoon who can laugh at himself along with the rest of us.

Which leaves us with the Duchess of Dullsville, Theresa May, the middle-class God-bothering matron of British politics. Of course, those who put her where she is (not the electorate, of course) regarded her as ‘a safe pair of hands’, that Westminster code-word for someone who inspires little more than a shrug of the shoulders and a yawn in a crisis like the one taking place during her swift rise to power. In the panicky, post-Referendum cauldron of last summer, the frightening prospect of an untrustworthy little backstabber like Gove, an unknown nonentity like Leadsom, or bloody Bo-Jo being given the keys to No.10 meant May seemed the only sensible option. Her talent for provoking indifference proved to be her secret weapon as she sneaked in on the inside and slipped past the finishing post.

Ironically, May’s invisibility during the Referendum campaign and her ‘don’t quote me on that’ caution when it came to publicly supporting the Remain camp – a stance surpassed only by Jeremy Corbyn’s own dynamic role in proceedings – has resulted in the responsibility for extracting the UK from the EU matrix falling on her shoulders rather than a prominent Brexiteer like Gove. It’s no wonder the most fervent Europhobes in the Conservative Party have frequently expressed doubts as to the strength of her commitment to the cause. Europe has been the single most divisive issue in Tory circles for forty years, yet overseeing the far-from simplistic process is not in the hands of someone who has decried the European Union throughout her career but someone whose dedication to the task has largely been limited to saying ‘Brexit means Brexit’ a lot since she became PM.

However, this is the week, or should I say the week, when Theresa May switches from Mrs Bouquet to Boudicca; yup, it’s all about to get exciting! The language used to describe ‘the triggering’ of Article 50 is evidently intended to add some Ian Fleming-penned thrills and spills to what is essentially a dull diplomatic procedure, as though Article 50 is a huge missile secretly nestled beneath the rim of a dormant volcano. Agent 006½ has bravely battled her way through an army of EU bureaucrats guarding said missile and now stands poised to launch it at the dark heart of Brussels by triggering the mechanism that has kept it immobile since 1975. Whatever you do, don’t miss this heart-stopping, page-turning adventure when it’s serialised in this week’s Daily Mail!

The problem with this particular Bond movie – ‘From Maidenhead with Love’ or ’Doctor Don’t-Know’ – is that it threatens to be the longest-running episode in the entire series, lasting so long that even the most diehard Bond fan won’t sit through the credits for the ‘James Bond will return in…’ pointer to the next adventure at the end. Naturally, none of this boring detail accompanied the straightforward Remain/Leave option on the ballot paper last June, though probably because nobody behind the decision to stage the EU Referendum planned for the possibility of a Leave vote, something David Davis virtually confirmed a couple of weeks ago; and he’s one of the three men entrusted to deal with it.

Wherever one stands re this issue – Union Jack waistcoat-wearing Euro-sceptic or placard-waving Remoaner – the decision of the majority, for good or ill, was final and now has to be enacted. That the enacting of this decision has left the Government floundering in unfamiliar waters is testament to their woeful lack of preparation and hardly fills one with confidence over their ability to deliver the best outcome for the country. Not that Theresa May appears unduly concerned. She’s keeping calm and carrying on.

The PM is obviously doing her best to project positivity, but her assertion that Brexit will make the UK a more united nation flies in the face of such basic evidence to the contrary that her public opinion borders on delusional. Britain right now is probably more divided on social, economic, racial, religious and nationalist grounds than it has been at any time since the early years of Thatcher’s reign; the seeds for this division were planted long ago, but the idea that two long drawn-out years exiting the EU will somehow serve as a tonic for the nation’s ills is laughable. It may well make those outside of London, Scotland and Northern Ireland happy, but unless all three shut up and put up, the European Union isn’t the only union we’ll be waving bye-bye to en route to the Promised Land of 2019.

© The Editor

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THE BIG BAD WOLF

The legend of the Lone Wolf in recent history can probably be traced back to Lee Harvey Oswald, though he was more commonly referred to as the Lone Gunman, a label that became so embedded in popular culture that a team of conspiracy theory geeks in ‘The X-Files’ named themselves after it. A Lone Wolf or Gunman has always been a difficult concept for the general public to wrestle with, as though the thought of an attack at the heart of democracy surely requires a complex network of vested interests. After all, John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, was part of a plot involving a team of individuals intending to revive the fading Confederate cause by killing the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State. Only Wilkes Booth succeeded in his aim and his is the sole name history records from the aborted operation.

Even further back than Lincoln’s assassination, Spencer Perceval – the solitary British PM to have been assassinated – was murdered by a Lone Gunman named John Bellingham in 1812. No doubt at the time newspapers cast doubts over Bellingham’s singular role in the assassination and speculated as to a wider plot being afoot in such unstable times. Just eight years later, the Cato Street Conspiracy was a genuine team effort to murder PM Lord Liverpool and his entire Cabinet, hatched by a group already regarded as a revolutionary organisation; it was foiled courtesy of a police informant, though reinforced the common belief that such audacious schemes couldn’t be attributed to one individual.

The speculative industry that has grown around events on 22 November 1963 largely refuses to countenance the idea that one man could execute a plot to take out the President, even if there has never been concrete evidence of CIA, FBI, KGB, Cuban or Mafia involvement in Oswald’s actions that day. It often feels reminiscent of the theory that an oik from the sticks was incapable of penning the greatest theatrical canon in the English language, as though the genius of Shakespeare or the nerve of Oswald somehow highlights both the mediocrity of the masses and their absence of nihilistic ambition. There had to have been more than one man because we couldn’t do what he did without a team behind us.

The gradual realisation that last week’s 24-hour Public Enemy Number One, Adrian Russell Elms (AKA Khalid Masood), appears to have acted alone and not as part of a group hell-bent on attacking the Mother of All Parliaments has again raised these same issues. But the amateurish and ill-thought-out nature of his attempt strikes me as the classic clueless desperation of a disturbed individual with nothing to live for but the prospect of trashy infamy. Professional terrorists would surely have managed more than this useless member of society, whose random victims were indistinguishable from those yer average knife-wielding maniac might have slaughtered down the road in Hackney, something that probably wouldn’t have been labelled a ‘terror incident’.

When the Irish National Liberation Army murdered MP Airey Neave via a car-bomb as he drove out of the underground car-park at the Palace of Westminster in 1979, it was clearly a meticulously-planned team operation that achieved its extremely precise and specific aim. Thanks to the bullets of an armed policeman, we will probably never know what the aim of Khalid Masood was, though it’s possible he himself didn’t really know either.

When no evidence of group involvement can be uncovered, the search for an answer then hones in on whatever it was that may have influenced the motivation behind something that claimed lives within yards of the very place the Gunpowder Plotters failed to obliterate. The current blame game lays responsibility on the doorstep of the internet, though literature largely escaped censure when Lone Gunman Mark Chapman famously murdered John Lennon after identifying with Holden Caulfield, antihero of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’.

Nevertheless, the medium of the moment will always fall under suspicion when so many struggle with the fact that some individuals have the capacity to do – or to attempt to do – what most would shy away from. Just as it’s thankfully incomprehensible to the majority that one could become a serial killer bereft of all empathy or compassion where one’s fellow human beings are concerned, it’s equally hard to comprehend how somebody could callously mow down pedestrians in a car and then stab a policeman to death en route to some muddled destination; there has to be some great answer at the root of the individual’s actions, and it may as well be the internet.

What so many cannot accept is the alien idea that some individuals have gradually grown so far apart from the consensus of a society rooted in fair play, mutual respect and shared democratic aims that they can commit a crime so opposed to the foundations that society is built upon; that such a crime can easily only require the planning and participation of one person merely adds to the conundrum. When MP Jo Cox was murdered on the streets of her constituency last summer, her murderer Thomas Mair was subject to the usual speculation as to his membership of far-right groups from both press and police before it emerged he was acting alone. For some reason, it’s easier to envisage something so horrible emanating from an organisation, whether the IRA or ISIS, than the Lone Wolf, as if it takes a team of individuals egging each other on to even invent a scenario of that nature.

The fact is, however, that an organised conspiracy to destroy western civilisation is effectively in the hands (and mind) of the individual rather than a structured criminal underworld recognisable from a Bond movie; but the governments running western civilisation will continue to propagate the SPECTRE theory as long as it gives them more power to act as a cyber lollipop man intercepting your online traffic. Remember – it’s for your own good.

© The Editor

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BARRY ISLAND

Alas, poor Barry; I knew him well. I knew a few, actually, though most belonged to the parent generation when I was a kid; I can only recall one Barry I was at school with, and even then his name seemed curiously old-fashioned for someone my own age. I imagine if every other classmate of mine didn’t have a dad called Barry, they most likely had an Uncle Barry or their father had a ‘mate’ called Barry; it was a defiantly adult name, and there were lots of prominent Barry’s at the time – singers Gibb, White, Manilow, McGuire and Ryan; actor Foster (AKA Van Der Valk); sports commentator Davies; comedians Cryer and Humphries; film critic Norman; and ‘Points of View’ presenter Took to name a few.

Virtually all of the above listed were born in the 1930s or 40s, a time when Barry as a Christian name was at its most popular amongst bouncing babies. It seems to have gone into decline as a name to bestow upon newborns in the post-war era, though the plentiful supply of adult Barry’s placed it at No.61 in the top 100 names in 1962; it continued to feature in the charts throughout the 70s, but recent decades have seen a swift decline. Barry hasn’t even figured in the top 1000 of late, with its last appearance being back in 2004, when it peaked at a lowly No.963. Had the concept of naming a digital TV channel ‘Dave’ taken place in the 70s (the thinking being every bloke has a mate called Dave), chances are the station would have been called ‘Barry’.

Barry, as with contemporaries such as Brian and Trevor, not to mention successors such as Gary and Darren, has fallen out of favour, with the holders of the name so few and far between under a certain age that one almost feels it to be on a par with those increasingly rare breeds of giant tortoises. Perhaps the answer to the question where have all the Barry’s gone could be that the remaining Barry’s now all reside on a distant, largely inaccessible island, dwindling year-by-year as the extinction of their species beckons. And, of course, the name of the island is a given. I would imagine there are possibly neighbouring islands reserved for ageing ladies who once resided in Weatherfield like Audrey, Deirdre, Rita and Hilda.

Mind you, there are many Christian names that were popular when I was at school forty years ago that have vanished off the radar where children are concerned. Tracie, in its various spelling permutations, doesn’t seem so common now, yet every other little girl I knew when I was a little boy appeared to be called Tracie. Then again, names like Tracie or Sharon – along with Kevin, another 70s playground perennial – have been somewhat tarnished in a snob assault over the last couple of decades, associated with ‘the common people’ and perceived as lacking class. This snooty ridiculing of certain names has definitely had a knock-on effect in the places where they were once virtually compulsory; and nobody wants their name to be associated with the butt of jokes.

The class factor is highly relevant, for glancing through some of the top contemporary baby names for both sexes shows a resurgence of Victorian-era names that were traditionally the province of the middle or upper classes or had some Biblical connotations – Oliver, Hugo, Noah, Jacob, Ethan, Silas, Abel, Gideon, Lucian, Isaiah, Oscar and the inevitable Muhammad for boys; Sophia, Isabella, Emily, Penelope, Annabel, Eleanor, Madeline, Juliet, Arabella for girls. It’s almost as though parents today believe gifting their bundle of joy with a vaguely pretentious moniker that implies ‘class’ is giving them a head start in the lifelong (and now essentially futile) race known as social-climbing.

At the same time, there has also been an unlikely revival of names nobody under fifty had when I was a kid – Alfie, Archie, Harry, Jack, Charlie, Lily, Elsie, Molly – ones I would have once categorised as ‘old biddy names’. Although these are all traditional working-class names, they’re ones that haven’t been around for generations, and I suspect the parents who have reintroduced them are too young to have the flat-cap or hairnet associations they evoke in me. They probably also regard these ones as classy.

Of course, names come in and out of fashion with each generation, and pop culture is often a barometer of when one was born; I suppose there’s a sizeable amount of thirty-something Kylie’s in the UK today, and it’s a fair bet that few of them were born before a certain Aussie soap debuted on the BBC in 1986. And staying with our antipodean cousins, apparently the early 70s popularity of ‘Jason King’ down under led to Jason becoming one of the most widespread boys’ names there; if that meant today’s Australian forty-somethings were prone to swanning around in smoking jackets and speaking with Peter Wyngarde accents, what a wonderful world it would be. But I think it underlines how whatever happens to be in a name is no real pointer to what life has lined-up for the sprog lumbered with it.

At one time, a ‘poncy’ Christian name in a hardcore working-class environment would lead to situations at school that parents stubbornly refused to foresee when gathered around the font. I remember a classmate called Kenneth being regularly ribbed simply because his name sounded a bit ‘posh’, though I would imagine it was hardly uncommon at public schools during the same era. Today, however, there is such an abundance of once-poncy names in the state classroom that anybody called Kevin or Sharon is more likely to be a target for sticks and stones than an Oliver or a Penelope.

Having said that, spare a thought for the dying breed that is the Barry; will he ever be reintroduced to society, where he can perhaps go forth and multiply so that once again his numbers have risen and he can walk amongst his fellow Brian’s and Trevor’s and re-inherit the earth? Only time – and fashion – will tell. Until then, RIP Barry. I knew you well.

© The Editor

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A BRIDGE TOO FAR

Viewed now almost as an appendage to Parliament, Westminster Bridge was once a tourist attraction for all the right reasons. During the construction of the original in the 1740s, the fact it was only the second major bridge erected in central London since Roman times provoked both excitement and opposition. The latter came from the Thames watermen, whose taxi service ferrying people from one side of the river to the other was perceived to be under threat; for centuries, old London Bridge, that marvellous medieval bottleneck crammed with houses and shops and permanently congested with traffic, had been the sole man-made edifice enabling the Thames to be crossed without the need for hailing a boat.

The sudden appearance of a new bridge was so novel a sight that during one of the periodical winters when the Thames froze over and a frost-fair was held on the river, the incomplete piers of Westminster Bridge served as part of the entertainment as visitors paid to stand atop them for a unique view of the city. This version of Westminster Bridge survived for just over a century before the current model replaced it, but it remains the oldest working bridge still in use in the capital.

Moving on, say the words Westminster Bridge to TV viewers of a certain age and chances are they’ll think of that iconic shot of the Daleks from the 1964 ‘Doctor Who’ story, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’; the Time Lord’s arch-enemies gliding along the bridge with Big Ben behind them seemed to enhance their menace. A Surrey quarry masquerading as an alien landscape was one thing, but the natives of Skaro intruding on home territory convinced children they could turn a corner and run into a Dalek on their own high-street.

Of course, Westminster Bridge has now been added to the annals of infamous London locations on account of events that took place there yesterday, effectively erasing all past associations from the popular imagination. The Daleks are the kind of fantasy embodiment of evil we can understand and be excited by, just as we can Dracula or Darth Vader; but the greatest evil, as always, is harboured within man himself, not the creatures he creates. Patrick McGoohan got that when he revealed Number One in the controversial climax of ‘The Prisoner’ as being Number Six all along.

Any individual who can deliberately drive a car into a random selection of pedestrians and then stab a man to death either because he was wearing a particular uniform or simply because he got in the way inhabits a different league altogether, one that provokes repulsion and bewilderment because it bears so little relation to the evil of fiction that we’ve been familiar with ever since being told the story of the Big Bad Wolf’s encounter with Little Red Riding Hood as children. The real bogeyman isn’t a comfortable caricature, but too close to the realities of the dark side in all of us. Just make sure you get his name right.

Yes, it seems apt, considering the topic of the previous post, that the rush to be first with the facts following yesterday’s incident resulted in a catastrophic faux-pas on the part of ‘cool’ Channel 4 News, which tries so hard to be the ‘Magpie’ to Newsnight’s ‘Blue Peter’. With veteran host Jon Snow at the helm, a man who seeks to combine the broadcasting gravitas of David Dimbleby with the wacky tie wardrobe of Richard Whiteley, ably assisted by both Cathy Newman (a woman whose serious news presenter credentials have often been undermined by the occasional glimpse of stocking-top – check YouTube for evidence) and Krishnan Guru-Murthy (a man whose fat neck seems in constant danger of absorbing his entire head), the programme was caught out as it jumped the gun far too early in the aftermath of the afternoon’s confusion by naming the assailant.

Unfortunately, the man they named – Trevor Brooks AKA Abu Izadeen, a disciple of fellow jail-bird Anjem Choudary – happens to be serving a prison sentence at the moment and therefore couldn’t have been behind the wheel on Westminster Bridge. But he’s a fat ‘coloured’ bloke with a big beard, so the cock-up is understandable, eh? Sacrificing fact-checking and journalistic integrity in order to be first off the blocks in the perennial battle with Sky and the Beeb, Channel 4 News blew it big time and became a Twitter laughing-stock last night, even removing the offending section from the sixty-minute delay of the Channel 4 +1 service so their glaring error couldn’t be watched again. But the damage was already done.

As expected, the trickle of misinformation that occupied the hours following yesterday’s events was eventually superseded by a clearer picture of what happened and who was actually involved. The dead have been named, as has the perpetrator of the incident, and his name isn’t either Trevor Brooks or Abu Izadeen, surprisingly. It should serve as a warning to rolling news channels and all media outlets that deal with the news to make sure they get their facts right before broadcasting them, though I doubt they’ll take heed of the warning; the competition is too intense and the self-inflicted pressure to get a scoop to the public before the competitors do so precludes any old-school attention to detail.

© The Editor

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SPECULATE TO ILLUMINATE

Rolling news channels tend to break big stories in a melodramatic manner that invariably recalls the ‘War!’ episode of ‘The Day Today’ because rolling news channels for most of the time are about as thrilling a viewing experience as the test card – so many hours need filling and there’s often so little to work with. Therefore, when A Major Incident occurs, they can barely contain their excitement. At last, something to justify their existence! The first rule in the Major Incident manual is that the anchors abruptly disappear from the screen and effectively become radio presenters, as though seeing their perma-tanned countenances and lacquered coiffures will somehow belittle the gravitas of the news story.

The second rule in the Major Incident manual is to cut to a reporter on the spot, often one fairly low in the reporter pecking order, but the nearest on hand. Conscious this could be their Kate Adie-in-Tiananmen Square moment, their lack of experience is evident in the way they can’t keep a lid on the hyperbole by describing events in terms of ‘nothing like this has ever happened before’; there are also usually awkward-on-camera eyewitnesses shoved into shot for said reporter to quiz, ones whose accounts climax with the reporter asking them ‘how they feel’, as though they’ve just spoken to the Queen on a royal walkabout.

The visual lexicon of rolling news clichés roll on – there’s mobile phone footage shot in the wrong aspect ratio; there’s an expert in the studio the presenter can interview; there’s another expert down the line; there’s the distracting Sky Sports ‘Soccer Saturday’-style info blazing a trail along the bottom of the screen, basically repeating what we’ve already been told; there’s a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of images lasting around three minutes – aerial shots, people running away from whatever happened, police and ambulance crews doing for real what they’ve been though in endless hours of training, general panic and confusion – and it’s played out on a loop as speculation reigns. Throw in the phrase ‘Terror Incident’ to hammer home how serious this all is for good measure. As a means of finding out precisely what the hell is going on, one might as well consult the entrails of a sheep.

Following a phone-call, I stuck BBC1 on this afternoon and found it had turned into the BBC News Channel. From what I could gather, some nutter had driven his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, exited his vehicle brandishing a knife, stabbed a copper, ran towards the Palace of Westminster, stabbed another copper, and was then cut down by an armed copper before he could get anywhere near Parliament. There was a report one member of the public was dead as a result of what happened on Westminster Bridge and an equally grim report that there was a body in the Thames. It would seem this was classified as a ‘terror incident’ rather than a knife crime on account of the incident’s location. I don’t know if there’s some sort of invisible demarcation line in London whereby, depending what side of it you’re on, the distinction is evident.

At the time of writing, the assailant’s identity has not been revealed. If he’s called Mohammed, I would guess that fits the terrorist bill; but as with any story of this gruesome nature, I wouldn’t expect to know many details so early after it taking place. Tuning into a rolling news channel in the thick of it is probably the worst way of trying to find out; the dazzling recycling of the same images over and over again intensifies rather than eases the viewer’s sense of bewilderment, while reporters not much more informed than the members of the public surrounding them are trying their best to give the impression they are. It’s like they’ve bragged they can recite a particularly lengthy poem, but when they get the chance to do so they don’t actually know it word-for-word.

JG Ballard famously opined that, for him, sensationalistic reportage of violent events began with the JFK assassination, which may well be true, though he lived most of his adult life in a pre-24 hour news TV age. Bar the old-school newsflash, which would interrupt a scheduled programme for a few minutes to report a breaking news story and then announce more details would follow on ‘The Nine O’Clock News’ a few hours later, the first time I remember a live event taking over the telly was the climax of the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980, when the dramatic actions of the SAS in rescuing the hostages were just about Bond-like enough to vindicate the interruption and keep viewers watching. But it was a hardly a regular occurrence, more of an aberration in the way stories were covered.

As far as I can recall, the inaugural moment when the style of presentation viewers were again served up today gate-crashed mainstream television was 9/11; since then, any sign of an incident that can have ‘terror’ attached to it has warranted the same treatment. The problem is that nobody really knows what’s going on, certainly not in the first couple of hours following it, anyway. Sometimes, a degree of distance is required to provide a more measured response, but competing rolling news channels can’t afford to do that, so they have to keep showing the same images, repeating the same unconfirmed reports and indulging in speculative guess-work based on what they have so far. It’s not a very satisfactory source of information, to say the least.

It’s pointless me joining in the speculation with this post because I’m no more clued-up than you (if you’re reading it not long after I posted it, of course); I wrote it because I just find the reporting of these events in the immediate aftermath of them taking place incredibly frustrating and liable to induce the feeling of how the world is going to hell in a handcart, something I might not necessarily feel a few hours later when a clearer picture emerges. But the sad fact is we’re now all programmed to reach for the TV remote when we hear A Major Incident has happened, even if doing so leaves us none the wiser.

© The Editor

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THE HISTORY MAN

It’s an old saying, but it seems especially applicable today – one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Martin McGuinness, who has died at the age of 66, will be remembered as both warmonger and peacemaker, a visionary who paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement and a murderer who prolonged the bloodshed until he belatedly realised there was nowhere left to run. In a divided community, few figures continue to generate more division than the mass of contradictions that was Martin McGuinness, and it’s doubtful that death will alter any fixed opinions of someone whose remarkable journey took him from the Bogside to Stormont, from IRA Commander to Deputy First Minister.

Even when he was regarded as a dangerously intransigent paramilitary by the security services, he and Gerry Adams were flown to London for top-secret discussions with the British Government at a house in Chelsea’s exclusive Cheyne Walk. The talks, chaired by then-Northern Ireland Secretary Willie Whitelaw, were undertaken during a brief IRA ceasefire in the summer of 1972; they collapsed in failure, but McGuinness had already been earmarked by MI5 as a man the Government could work with. Many might say it was a pity it took another twenty-five years, and the loss of hundreds more lives, before that came to pass.

That McGuinness could rise through IRA ranks with such speed and reach such a prominent position when still in his early twenties is testament to the dangerous life he’d chosen for himself; one-by-one, his superiors were killed in the line of duty as the violence intensified following the formation of the Provisional IRA in 1969. A Nationalist community under siege from Loyalist mobs strongly opposed to Catholic calls for civil rights had welcomed the British Army as peacekeepers in the absence of their traditional protectors; the effectively defunct IRA had been mocked as I Ran Away. The new Provisional wing embarked on a bombing campaign in Belfast and Londonderry, targeting city centre businesses to draw troops and the RUC away from the neighbourhoods where the organisation had to rebuild trust and support. It worked, aided by the increasingly clumsy joint policies instigated by both Stormont and Westminster.

A string of disasters during the early years of the Troubles, from Internment to Bloody Sunday, served as effective recruitment drives for the IRA, and while the abolition of the Unionist stronghold at Stormont may have provoked cheers on one side of the sectarian divide, the imposition of Direct Rule and the continuing presence of the British Army on the streets of Ulster galvanised the Republican call to arms that eventually crossed over to the mainland and brought the war to London and Birmingham. A year after the British Government had hoped McGuinness was someone they could work with, he was behind bars on terrorism charges in Eire; after his release, he took his first tentative steps into the political arena by becoming involved with Sinn Fein, a position that gave him indirect contact with British intelligence during the 1981 Maze Hunger Strikes. He remained someone with the potential to bring about change without the bomb, but there was still a long way to go.

The IRA ceasefire of 1994 marked a turning point both in the life of Martin McGuinness and the politics of Northern Ireland; there suddenly seemed a viable way forward that didn’t involve Armalite. In 1997 he was elected MP for Mid-Ulster and was Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator during the peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement. When the power-sharing executive was established at Stormont, he became Minister for Education, but it was his ten-year tenure as Deputy First Minister, establishing an unlikely and unexpectedly convivial working relationship with his one-time nemesis Ian Paisley as First Minister, that suggested McGuinness’ progression mirrored the progression of the province as a whole.

Another indication of the will to move on came with his regular condemnation of Republican dissident splinter groups and their recurrent attempts to revive the tactics of old. McGuinness’ landmark 2012 meeting with HM the Queen was potent with symbolism for both parties, though the fact it happened at all speaks volumes as to how far both McGuinness and Northern Ireland itself had travelled in two decades.

The understandable cries of betrayal on both sides when the Northern Ireland Assembly was formed in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement nevertheless failed to sway the determination of former enemies to work together for the common good; and men laying down their arms in favour of portfolios wasn’t necessarily unprecedented. The immediate post-war governments of France contained many who could once have been labelled terrorists, as did the first government of Israel; and there’s always post-Apartheid South Africa. Martin McGuinness was pivotal to the peace process, whatever his past activities had done to prevent peace, and this has been recognised in the statements issued by British politicians today, particularly those who played their own part in it.

Many feel (as with Gerry Adams’ similar comments) that the repeated denials by McGuinness as to the degree of his involvement with the IRA long after he claimed to have left it amounted to evasive revisionism designed to enhance his newfound status as a respectable politician. Many can never find it in them to forgive his role in a campaign of carnage that killed and maimed hundreds over a quarter of a century. One could argue most significant political leaders have blood on their hands, though it tends to come with the elevation to political power; McGuinness did it in reverse.

In death, as in life, he will always be a controversial character, albeit one that undoubtedly made an indelible mark on his times, for good or ill. Where Martin McGuinness is concerned, it seems the jury is permanently out.

© The Editor

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MR. GREEDY

When newspapers were king, it was only natural the country’s capital had two competing titles. The Evening News was London’s long-standing rival to the Evening Standard for decades; many might still recall its memorable masthead, a red sun setting over a silhouetted skyline of prominent London landmarks (including the dome of St Paul’s); but the rivalry ended in 1980 when the Evening News was forced to merge with the paper it had comprehensively outsold during the 60s. Since then, short-lived rivals, such as Robert Maxwell’s ill-fated London Daily News, have failed to challenge the supremacy of the Standard.

A sign of changing times in the capital came in 2009 when ex-KGB oligarch Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny (who already owned The Independent) purchased the paper and within a matter of months relaunched it as a freebie. Previously, free newspapers had been cheap rags along the lines of Metro; that a paper with as long a history as the Standard could join the ranks of the giveaway titles seemed to suggest a demise was imminent, though the combined wealth of Lebedev and son could afford to keep the Standard as a non-profit making venture without any initial noticeable decline in journalistic content.

The Standard’s blatant cheerleading for the Conservative Party has certainly increased during the reign of Lebedev Junior (or ‘Two Beards’ as Private Eye is fond of calling him), culminating in far-from balanced coverage of last year’s London Mayoral Election; granted, it’s fairly customary for a paper to nail its political colours to the mast, but with the capital only boasting the one local paper, Londoners were presented with a rather lopsided view of the contest between Khan and Goldsmith. Lebedev also has a distinct appetite for advertising his famous friends, and his capacity for self-promotion has extended to endless plugs in the Standard for his vanity project, the London Live TV channel.

However, Lebedev’s latest move where the Evening Standard is concerned has surprised even his staunchest critics – the appointment of a serving Tory MP as editor of the paper, a man who up until last summer was Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Gideon’s appointment has raised several issues. Whilst it’s not unusual for MPs to pen columns for Fleet Street titles or to have been editors of papers or magazines prior to ascending to the Cabinet, it is fairly unprecedented to have such a prominent politician at the helm of a paper, especially one whose demotion to the backbenches hasn’t exactly dented his income.

Osborne has earned £771,000 from public speaking since leaving the Cabinet – including £85,396 for just one speech last November; it lasted three hours, but I suppose anyone forced to sit and listen to it would probably have gladly trebled the fee to shorten the speech to three minutes. He has an annual salary of £650,000 as an adviser to Black Rock Investments – working one day a week (nice work if you can get it). He also receives £120,000 from being a ‘Kissinger Fellow’ at the McCain Institute, a think-tank based in Washington; that’s on top of his MP’s salary of £74,000 and whatever it is he’ll be paid for ‘editing’ the Evening Standard, a job Gideon seems to believe he can tackle first thing on a morning before breezing off to the Commons in the afternoon.

Losing one’s seat in Parliament, whether voluntarily or being voted out by the electorate, isn’t exactly the end of the world for most MPs. Labour’s Tristram Hunt recently stepped down from his Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency and walked straight into a lucrative job as Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and many MPs already have extremely well-paid directorships of numerous companies long before they exit Westminster for good. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a great shock to discover George Osborne has managed to supplement his Parliamentary income with various sideline projects for a long time.

When it comes to a conflict of interests with his new appointment, the imagined impartiality of a newspaper editor is perhaps more wishful thinking on the part of the public when one considers how biased in favour of one particular political party most papers are, though Gideon’s Remainer stance when it comes to Brexit doesn’t suggest he’ll give the woman who sacked him last year an easy ride.

I would presume many journalists feel Osborne has been parachuted in by Lebedev as a celebrity editor – another of his well-publicised famous friends – over the heads of more qualified candidates, and their grievances are understandable. Fellow MPs are worried that Gideon’s greed in accepting payment for so many different jobs intensifies the public’s perception that most Parliamentarians aren’t necessarily committed to their roles as public servants and are more concerned with making as much as possible from their outside interests. Osborne’s constituents in Tatton, Cheshire probably wonder how much time he can devote to them and their town when his heart (or whatever stone-based object circulates the cold blood around his body) is so clearly in the capital. And with Osborne’s contemptuous attitude towards the sick and the poor in society from his time as Chancellor still fresh in the memory, this latest promotion paints him even more as a self-centred archangel of avarice.

A free newspaper with a serving MP as its editor – one with zero experience of what he’s been hired to do – might seem like a storm in a teacup, and in some respects it is; rich people handing posts to other rich people for the benefit of nobody but rich people. Why should we even care? But I suppose it’s hard not to get wound-up when confronted by another nauseating example of how the other half live and how we’re all in it together, with the exception of Evgeny Lebedev and his famous friends.

© The Editor

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