FOLLOW THE LEADERS

It was akin to a rock festival where the two top-of-the-bill bands pull out at the last minute and the unlucky punters who have spent a small fortune to see them are stuck with those lower down the bill who they thought would be worth enduring as long as the big acts followed them. ITV’s leaders’ debate last night, following on from the well-remembered television events of 2010 and 2015, had five politicians on the podium. Two of them – Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon – won’t be standing for election at Westminster, whereas of the other three, Paul Nuttall probably won’t be elected to Westminster, Caroline Lucas will just about scrape by again as the sole Parliamentary representative of her party, and Tim Farron will most likely make it along with perhaps half-a-dozen other Lib Dems.

Our big chicken PM wasn’t present, of course; the thought of her participating in any debate she can’t control with the martinet tendencies of an old-school auteur film director is unimaginable; she can clearly only cope with a choreographed audience of Tory activists if her electioneering so far is anything to go by, so her absence was no great surprise. Having her policies placed under a spotlight she herself isn’t operating is something she is worryingly averse to. Those policies being scrutinised by her political opponents before a nationwide audience might be tolerable on the BBC Parliament Channel, where few but the most devoted political anoraks will be watching; but being exposed on ITV with an audience of millions fresh from ‘Emmerdale’? No chance!

And what of Jezza? He refused to take part if Mrs May refused to take part. The ‘Presidential approach’ to this General Election, in which the Conservative and Labour leaders are sold as candidates going head-to-head regardless of the rest, obviously isn’t merely the responsibility of the media; Corbyn clearly views May as his sole opponent and will only take on her. If she’s not there, neither is he. Mind you, Jezza enjoys preaching to the converted as well. Which 68-year-old man would choose facing a difficult audience of floating voter don’t-knows that might not be convinced by his messianic charisma when he can be welcomed by screaming girls that make him feel like Harry Styles at staged events in Labour strongholds across the country?

So, with the absence of the two party leaders that everyone with an interest would like to see confront each other on this type of programme, ITV had to make do with Ringo, Ringo, Ringo, Ringo and Ringo. Paul Nuttall, the nominated punch-bag of the other participants, lacks the comic talents of his predecessor as UKIP leader; Nigel’s blustering presence helped liven up the equivalent debate during the last General Election, yet Nuttall is the Syd Little to Farage’s Eddie Large. The only humorous contribution he made was accidental – referring to Leanne Wood as ‘Natalie’ more than once, confusing the Plaid Cymru leader with the former coughing commander-in-chief of the Greens, Ms Bennett.

Caroline Lucas took a leaf out of the Ed Miliband book by constantly addressing the camera whenever answering an audience question. She also played to the gallery when an elderly audience member suffering from MS mentioned her working life in the NHS and Lucas began her response by paying tribute to somebody she’d never met before to the expected round of applause. Her opinions stuck to the tried and untested Green manifesto, something that must appeal to those groovy hipsters living in Brighton but doesn’t seem appealing to the electorate on a national level. She hit the mark when bringing up the topic of the Lib Dems’ role in the Coalition as Tim Farron was droning on about the NHS, though that was the only real point she scored.

Leanne Wood has now dispensed with the ‘beehive’ that gave her a distinctive appearance last time round, a seemingly trivial touch that nevertheless made a politician with such a small backyard stand out from her better-known national rivals; and as happened to Mari Wilson’s chart career when she too dropped the same haircut, Ms Wood’s change of image strangely seems to have rendered her less effective as a performer. Plaid Cymru in Wales lack the clout of their ideological allies the SNP in Scotland, and any arguments Wood put forward as policies to cover the entire country can barely be supported in her own neck of the woods. She did have the most amusing exchanges with Paul Nuttall, but she appeared to be present last night just to make up the numbers.

Nicola Sturgeon took advantage of Theresa May’s absence perhaps more than any other participant in the programme, shrewdly highlighting the PM’s manifesto threat to remove free school meals when the subject of education was raised. But limited by the fact she only really cares about what happens in Scotland at the expense of the rest of the UK, her experience as an orator on more major platforms than some of those she shared last night’s with couldn’t be utilised for that very reason. The dominance of the SNP north of the border may have given her the authoritative demeanour that comes with power, though even making the occasional valid point on the subject of inequality was essentially ineffective in this context if one lives south of Berwick.

Tim Farron did his best without the guiding hand of Captain Birdseye and must have been relieved nobody asked a question about gay sex. He made the most of being ‘A Northerner’ and working-class as well as the fact he represents a constituency way up in Westmorland, which isn’t exactly home to the most thriving economy in the country; he also tried to steal Caroline Lucas’ thunder by shoehorning climate change into the debate. But as a public speaker he doesn’t possess the slickness of his predecessor as Lib Dem leader, even if that slickness did backfire on Mr Clegg in the end. Farron’s real problem remains that everything with him seems to come back to Brexit.

The host Julie Etchingham’s hair was a little longer than last time round and, along with dropping her serious specs, it didn’t give her the same Anne Robinson aura; events unfortunately weren’t interrupted by a stage invader dropping his pants, unlike the Eurovision last Saturday; and whilst a refreshing change from the standard dumb-ass fare ITV routinely serves-up between 8.00 and 10.00 of an evening, the no-show by the Tories and Labour reduced the spectacle to a minor sideshow in this General Election campaign.

© The Editor

THE GOLDEN GIRL

Anyone recall the immortal words of Mr Justice Caulfield, the judge at Jeffrey Archer’s libel trial against the Daily Star in 1987, in reference to Mrs Archer’s appearance in the witness-box? Let me remind you: ‘Your vision of her will never disappear,’ he said in his instructions to the jury. ‘Has she elegance? Has she fragrance? Would she have, without the strain of this trial, radiance?’ Before the sick bucket could be passed around the jury quickly enough, he expressed his evident incredulity that someone of Mr Archer’s standing would pay a prostitute to go abroad and not broadcast their illicit union to all and sundry. ‘Is he in need of cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex in a seedy hotel about quarter-to-one on a Tuesday morning after an evening at the Caprice?’ he asked. Perish the thought!

With such blatant directing of the jury by Mr Justice Caulfield, it was no wonder Archer got off first time round. However, as we all know, in 2001 Archer was found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice at his original 1987 trial and received a four-year sentence (half of which was served). At the 1987 trial, the judge’s aghast attitude at the very suggestion such a prominent member of the establishment might enjoy an extra-marital affair with a common girl on the game doesn’t so much imply naivety as articulate an in-built refusal to accept that ‘one of ours’ could be capable of such sleazy activities, especially one married to a lady as ‘fragrant’ as Mrs Archer.

Similar prejudices had been aired at the trial of another high-profile politician eighteen years earlier, Jeremy Thorpe. Despite leaving many questions unanswered regarding the conspiracy to murder the ex-Liberal leader’s clandestine gay lover Norman Scott, Thorpe was found not guilty, with the judge referring to Thorpe as ‘a national figure with a very distinguished public record’ and a man of ‘hitherto unblemished reputation’. Scott, on the other hand, was ‘a fraud, a sponger, a whiner and a parasite’. As Stephen Fry said retrospectively, ‘It is fantastic how judges still have this extraordinary propensity to believe someone because they have an Old Etonian tie or because they’re a peer of the realm or because they are the establishment.’

A very different kind of case was reported this week that shone another unflattering light on how looks and, to use a very old-fashioned phrase, ‘breeding’ can have an impact on the path of justice when our faultless legal system is confronted by a crime whose perpetrator doesn’t fit the necessary profile. It concerns a very pretty and photogenic blonde-haired blue-eyed girl.

Lavinia Woodward is a 24-year-old student at Christ Church College, Oxford whose ultimate aim is to become a surgeon. She is described as ‘bright’, someone who already has articles published in medical journals to her name. The only obstacle to the glittering future ahead of her is the fact that she attacked her boyfriend in a vicious outburst whilst off her tits last September. She hurled a glass, a laptop and a jam jar at him before punching him in the face and topping off the attack by stabbing him in the leg with a breadknife. Quite a serious assault one would imagine and one worthy of at least a custodial sentence. Hold on a mo, though.

Judge Ian Pringle is of the opinion that any sentence arising from the incident would be unfair due to the possibility it might ruin her intended career. ‘It seems to me that if this was a one-off,’ he said, ‘to prevent this extraordinarily able young lady from not following her long-held desire to enter the profession she wishes to, would be a sentence which would be too severe.’ Her defence barrister pleaded that his client’s dreams of being a surgeon would be ‘almost impossible’ to fulfil due to the necessary disclosure of any conviction of this nature when applying for such a post. Christ Church itself clearly holds no grudges, as it has allowed her to return in the autumn because she’s apparently ‘that bright’. Woodward isn’t due to be sentenced until September, though the most she has received as a result of what she did is a restraining order whilst being advised to stay ‘drug free’. It certainly appears, going by the judge’s comments, anyway, that Miss Woodward could well be spared a sentence.

What if Lavinia Woodward hadn’t been regarded as an ‘extraordinarily able young lady’ and perhaps stacked shelves in a supermarket, with no greater career prospects to look forward to than promotion to the tills? Would the likelihood of being spared a sentence for such a serious assault as stabbing someone in the leg with a breadknife be on the cards then? Or what if she was a he? Going by the atmosphere on many university campuses these days, I somehow don’t feel that a male student attacking his girlfriend with a breadknife would be welcomed back to any seat of learning after being in court on such a charge, do you? I suspect there’d be one or two demonstrations objecting to his return and numerous social media campaigns to prevent it.

Now, of course, none of us other than Miss Woodward and her unfortunate ex know the true ins and outs of what happened last September; we only know what’s been reported in the press and media. I’m not of the ‘hanging’s too good for ‘em’ opinion when it comes to crime and punishment, and Lavinia Woodward definitely sounds as if she needs some form of drug rehabilitation, not to mention anger management; that in the long run could achieve far more for her as a person than prison.

If what she did results in a spell behind bars and, as a consequence, this means she can’t achieve her dreams of becoming a surgeon, yes, that’s tough; but she should be given equal billing in the eyes of the law, on the same level as anyone else, regardless of sex or background. She committed a serious crime and should receive adequate punishment for it, just like a less ‘bright’ individual charged with the same crime would. But that’s not how the law works where the extraordinarily able and fragrant are concerned, alas.

© The Editor

COMPUTER SAYS NO

The original 1975 BBC version of Terry Nation’s ‘Survivors’ dealt with the aftermath of an unnamed virus that swept across the civilised world and severely depleted the human population of the planet. The focus in the programme was, unsurprisingly, on England as we followed several disparate characters coming together to form a pre-Industrial community amidst the ruins. In the memorable opening episode, much is made of mankind’s risky dependency on modern technology, though this dependency is minimal in comparison to the dependency on today’s version; the kind of virus required to bugger everything up for the human race in 2017 doesn’t even need to be an organic one.

There’s a plethora of old sayings that could be evoked when reading of belated responses to the viral pandemic that infected 200,000 computers in 150 countries last week and rendered info inaccessible unless submitting to a ransom demand – despite warnings issued months ago that went unheeded. I’m thinking stuff about locking the stable door after the horse has bolted and so on. But I think the one concerning all the eggs being contained in a solitary basket seems most applicable. When every relevant document and file only exists in the cyber ether, without any other format serving as back-up in the likelihood of an online meltdown, the over-reliance on such a vulnerable storage system as digital technology is symptomatic of a mindset where the easiest option is taken when it’s not necessarily the safest.

This has certainly been a long time coming. What the NHS computers experienced here at the weekend was an A&E waiting to happen ever since the majority of paper documentation used by the sector was transferred to the PC. Most of us will probably remember attending our local GP’s surgeries for decades and seeing the shelves behind the reception desk crammed with cards in which each individual patient’s records were contained. Yes, they obviously took up a great deal of room, but with the exception of a fire breaking out, they were immune to the kind of damage their storage successor has proven susceptible to.

Some may recall news footage of the ‘Ripper department’ of the West Yorkshire Police Force in Leeds during the time Peter Sutcliffe was on the loose; the floor housing the collected material on the potential suspects became so weighed down with the crates stuffed full of paper information that it had to be reinforced to cope with the structural strain. Today, all of that info could, of course, be stored on one memory stick so small that a toddler could swallow it; but who’s to say some mischievous hacker wouldn’t tap into it and essentially be a cyber incarnation of notorious hoaxer ‘Wearside Jack’ in the process?

Few people today – certainly those whose only experience of a phone means a mobile rather than a landline – could recite the telephone numbers of their nearest and dearest because they’ve never had to dial them; add the numbers to the mobile’s memory banks upon purchasing it and they’re all stored away without the need to memorise them; a solitary button is pressed to access the desired number. All very convenient, but what happens if something goes wrong with the phone and the list is lost? Suddenly, the user is made aware he or she has no idea what any of the numbers they call the most actually are. Chances are they never thought to jot these numbers down in an extremely old-fashioned object known as an address book.

The digital network that is the repository for so many of the files that western civilisation deems necessary to keep the wheels of society turning has the potential to be a modern-day clerical equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. The destruction of Ancient Egypt’s most celebrated temple of collected knowledge via fire (whether deliberate or accidental) resulted in the loss of thousands of exclusive scrolls and volumes that were irretrievable on account of Alexandria being their sole home. Its vulnerability to attack was evident, just as IT systems are today. Cyber criminals – hackers and virus-producers alike – are engaged in a permanent battle with the traffic cops of the information superhighway, and the ramifications of these battles can be found in the disruption across doctors’ surgeries and hospitals this week as dependence on the systems they target has left the digitised structure of the sector in sore need of repair.

The Government insists the NHS received fair warning about the threat to its IT soft-wear, passing the buck to the NHS Trusts, yet a contract to upgrade the NHS’s IT system wasn’t renewed two years ago in a wave of Government cuts. Only yesterday, the Department of Health’s National Data Guardian additionally criticised the NHS for a deal it cut with the Google ‘patient app’ DeepMind, which enables the NHS to share 1.6 million patient records with third parties for direct patient care – a deal cut without the consent of patients. In response, Google said ‘The data used to provide the app has been strictly controlled by the Royal Free Hospital and has never been used for commercial purposes or combined with Google services, products or ads’, but after events over the weekend, one cannot help being sceptical.

Apparently, this particular cyber attack emanated from flaws in Windows identified by the US National Security Agency, a discovery it would seem the NSA failed to disclose to Microsoft before it fell into the hands of hackers. However, despite Microsoft making a free ‘fix’ available two months ago, the sloth-like response to upgrading IT security by many institutions meant the systems earmarked as open goals were attacked.

Whoever is ultimately at fault for this incident, the fact remains that it’s something that will never go away; like the painting of the Forth Bridge, upgrading security and antivirus soft-wear is a permanent exercise. If industry and individuals insist on hoarding their most valuable data on a solitary form of preservation, they’d best ensure it’s pretty secure. Pen and paper, anyone?

© The Editor

DESPICABLE HIM

A friend of mine once described a childhood visit to the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s by recalling the indelible impression made upon her by the sight of a characteristically creepy John Christie indulging in a spot of wallpapering at 10 Rillington Place. The Notting Hill serial killer may have been hanged in 1953, but it seems his likeness being immortalised in wax was as recent as the famed tourist haunt was prepared to go in the 1970s with regards to the world’s most notorious murderers. There must have been a specific cut-off point whereby Madame Tussaud’s figured offence might be caused and litigation might ensue. The further the embodiment of horror was from living memory, the less the likelihood of survivors who could raise objections.

Jack the Ripper’s brief reign of terror only spanned a few months in the summer of 1888, but the penny dreadfuls of the time sensationalised the killings attributed to him that his eternal anonymity perpetuated. Even within the lifetime of his murderous spree, he had been transformed into an urban bogeyman in a way that the photographic evidence of his stomach-churning brutality failed to demystify. The enduring image of the mad hatter emerging through the Victorian fog armed with a knife has served to bracket Jack the Ripper alongside fictitious nineteenth century villains and in turn to minimise the appalling severity of what he did. Not so his late twentieth century successors. Not yet, anyway.

Perhaps the passage of time and the demise of living memory serves to elevate history’s most infamous killers into the realms of the unreal, so that Genghis Khan, Vlad the Impaler, Hitler and Christie inhabit the same parallel world as Dracula, Darth Vader, Doctor Doom and the Daleks – neutered fantasy figures from effective fairy tales. How long before Harold Shipman, Peter Sutcliffe and Fred West join them in the pantheon of larger-than-life cartoon baddies? Hopefully when we’re all dead and gone, though I don’t doubt it will eventually happen. What then of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley? The last surviving member of the duo whose crimes remain the benchmark of the unspeakable and unimaginable died yesterday at the age of 79.

For the last half-century (and especially since the death of his partner-in-crime in 2002), Brady has been Britain’s most reviled permanent prisoner. Not for him the inexplicable ‘cool’ kudos afforded the likes of Charles Manson; Brady has been beyond the pale for fifty years, a figure of universal loathing whose offences that led to his conviction in 1966 have not been diminished by decades. Despite the plethora of books, newspaper articles and documentaries devoted to the Moors Murderers, pop culture largely steered clear bar the odd token shock tactic from the likes of Malcolm McLaren and YBA Marcus Harvey. There were a couple of TV dramas in the 2000s that dealt with Brady and Hindley’s crimes and their aftermath, but the fact that forty years had been allowed to elapse since conviction and dramatisation perhaps spoke volumes as to the ongoing sensitivity surrounding what they did.

When Brady and Hindley were sentenced to life for the torture and murder of three children (admission of five only came from Brady later), the police mug-shots taken of the pair after their arrest inadvertently became as iconic an image of the decade as the professional portraits of Christine Keeler and the Krays. For everyone born after they were placed behind bars, the gruesome twosome frozen in time with their greasy quiff and peroxide bouffant were perennial presences across tabloid pages, regularly evoked as ghastly hate figures even for those too young to be aware of the extent of their sadistic depravity. That the pair utilised the technology of the time by audio recording and photographing their deplorable deeds showed them to be nauseating pioneers of contemporary trends amongst psychopaths for either videoing or streaming their crimes online.

The only notable song penned about Brady and Hindley remains ‘Suffer Little Children’ by The Smiths, which first appeared on the band’s eponymous 1984 debut album; it caused minor outrage at the time of its release, though the track is more of a baleful comment on the uneasy atmosphere an entire generation of Mancunians were raised in, one in which the shadows of the Moors Murderers hung over their childhoods with the toxic pallor of factory fumes in a Lowry painting. It also reflected the Fleet Street fascination with keeping the couple in the public eye rather than letting them rot away behind bars; the outrage surrounding the song was ironically generated by the press rather than the families of the Moors Murderers’ victims.

Myra Hindley’s role in the ugly affair seemed so contradictory to the maternal instinct we are constantly reminded is harboured in the breast of every woman that it served to maintain her high profile until her death. Some of the slavering articles on the subject of her sex life in gaol were far more disturbing than the lyrical content of ‘Suffer Little Children’, and the manner of reportage that continued to pollute the pages of the press in the decades after the pair were banged-up was often as sensationalistic as that which accompanied Jack the Ripper’s activities a century earlier.

Few people, if anyone, will mourn the passing of Ian Brady. There’s no reason why they should. That he took the burial location of one victim to his grave, depriving Keith Bennett’s surviving family members of the smallest semblance of solace, is testament to his indifference to the suffering he caused. His inevitable absorption into the future Chamber of Horrors may still be a long way off, but now that he can no longer be a source of shock-horror headlines from his long-term deathbed, such headlines will gradually cease and the families he destroyed over fifty years ago can achieve some form of peace, however minimal it may be.

© The Editor

CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?

Around twenty years ago, a friend of mine who was a student at the time we met graduated from university; her degree enabled her to enter the profession she wanted to and within three or four years of doing so she bought a house. The timescale of this progression is inconceivable now, yet it happened to her when this very century was still in nappies (i.e. not that long ago). She was from an unremarkable working-class background – indeed, her family home was on the fringes of an estate you wouldn’t want to walk through on a dark night – and her parents were hardly ‘wealthy’ by today’s terms; they certainly didn’t play a part in her rise from student to homeowner; it was all down to her own endeavours. It struck me when I thought about it that her story is one we probably won’t be told again for a long time. It reads like a blast from a past that is now firmly out of reach.

Sobering statistics aired last week spell out how the climate has changed in such a short space of time. In London, over two-thirds of average earners’ income is now spent on rent. By the time the original scheduled date of the imminent General Election comes around (2020), it’s estimated that first-time buyers will need to be earning the best part of £60,000 a year in order to buy their own home; the current average annual UK wage is £27,271 – though David Cameron can set £25,000 aside to erect a shed in his back garden for the purpose of writing his memoirs; I’m pretty sure an estate agent could market that as a ‘micro bijou residence ideal for a small family’.

Another factor worthy of mentioning concerns the domicile status of many homeowners in this country. In the centre of the capital, 28% of buyers purchasing property don’t reside there, and almost 10% of this country’s entire housing stock is currently in the hands of foreign investors – those who view houses not as an essential roof over a homeless head, but as bargaining chips on the gaming tables of the international capitalist casino. Unlike many other countries around the world, there are no rules in place here to limit home ownership to tax-paying residents of this country. When so much of UKIP and Tory energies have been devoted to scapegoating foreign workers ‘coming over here and taking our jobs’ in recent years, it’s odd that rich overseas homeowners taking our houses without even coming over here have evaded attention for so long.

Amongst all the issues being bandied about as crucial to the Election – Brexit, the NHS, education etc. – for me personally, housing is the most pressing of them all; whilst much has been made of the fact nurses are using food banks, few are pointing out it’s probably because the majority of their income is going on rent. Yes, the Tories made a big announcement on housing over the weekend, but the Government has recently changed public investment in housing from social rent (falling much lower than the market level) to so-called ‘affordable rent’ and ownership schemes. It also intends to put pressure on local councils to sell upwards of a third of their empty homes to draw Housing Association tenants into the Right to Buy project. Currently, for every five council homes sold under Right to Buy, one solitary replacement council house is being built.

At the same time, local councils spent over £840 million on temporary accommodation for the homeless last year alone, which amounts to a 46% increase in just five years. Add the removal of Housing Benefit for unemployed 18-21 year-olds and the cap on the same benefit for those in sheltered housing and it’s plain to see how highly this issue really ranks on the list of priorities penned by the powers-that-be.

Despite a few vague promises, housing hasn’t been at the forefront of the electioneering so far. I suspect the fear of losing votes from homeowners paranoid that their investments will diminish in value should house prices drop has played its part in this criminal neglect by the leading parties, though that simply isn’t good enough. Maybe if the UK was on the same level as, say, Bangladesh, our housing crisis would be regarded as an improvement on past statistics; but as far as the world’s fifth richest economy is concerned, there’s no excuse. Compare then and now – then being the first twenty-five years after the end of the Second World War, when this country embarked upon the most radical programme of public building since the Roman occupation.

Whilst the creation of New Towns, the erection of sprawling council estates and the demolition of slum housing condemned before the war (many of which survived into the 50s and 60s) was a necessary response to the damage done by the Luftwaffe, this key policy of Attlee’s reforming administration nevertheless became a long-term project carried on by Tory Governments led by Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Home before finally drawing to a close under Harold Wilson. In the space of a quarter-of-a century, a housing crisis was dealt with as consensus politics weren’t affected by a change of colour at the top. The common good was recognised by all. Yes, some of it may have been shoddy and some of it may have left an aesthetic blot on the nation’s landscape, but the motivation behind it was laudable. The housing crisis of the twenty-first century may be down to massively different circumstances, but the need to resolve it is no less urgent, even if few in public office dare to admit it to the electorate.

I know I’ve written about this topic on numerous past occasions, but I find it baffling how housing isn’t at the forefront of the party manifestoes, even if the fact it isn’t doesn’t really surprise me. Yes, it’s being mentioned now that the individual party policies are being unveiled as media events day-by-day, but it’s not exactly dominated conversation in the campaign to date. Other than ensuring British citizens – or subjects, if you prefer – have enough food in their bellies, I can’t think of anything else more important than the right of each and every one of us to have a roof over our heads. Or is it just me?

© The Editor

A SONG FOR EUROPE

Ah, for the days of Katie Boyle in a sequinned gown speaking French with an RP accent as a crackling line from the distant Balkans announced the votes of the Yugoslavian jury – yes, along with Wogan’s wry interjections during an especially surreal performance and the oompah rhythm of a Germanic fairground ringing around the theatre; for most of us, that’s what the Eurovision Song Contest represented when we were first exposed to it. It was a musical event unlike any other aired live on TV; it couldn’t be compared to either the Proms or ‘Top of the Pops’; it existed in its own impenetrable and often inexplicable bubble.

Britain’s relationship with the Eurovision Song Contest is almost a microcosm of our relationship with Europe as a whole, rarely treating it with the reverence mainland Europeans themselves do. We’ve often regarded it as a joke and this has been mirrored by many of the most famous UK entries, the majority of which have plumbed the depths of pop banality; in recent years, our attitude towards it has combined the excavation of old-timers like Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler with singers so crap they couldn’t even win the bloody ‘X-Factor’, which speaks volumes. It also doesn’t help that we enter it with the knowledge we won’t win it.

At the beginning of Britain’s earliest European adventure, we had misplaced confidence on a par with the similar absence of realism that characterised England’s inaugural foray into the World Cup in 1950. The curious novelty of a live broadcast that crossed the Channel in the competition’s early days gave a rare platform to the strange music of ‘funny foreigners’ when there was less of a homogenous culture on the continent; we figured we could do better, though the superiority complex the contest bred in Brits wasn’t backed-up until our first triumph courtesy of Sandie Shaw in 1967. Abba’s game-changing win in 1974 was the first year when countries no longer had to sing in their native language, and that altered the feel of the contest thereafter. Those cheeky buggers were now singing in English – and Abba themselves had successfully hijacked the British Glam stomp of Wizzard with ‘Waterloo’, proving Europeans could take us on at our own game.

For the first thirty years of the Eurovision, the UK finished outside the top ten placed songs on just one occasion – 1978, when ‘The Bad Old Days’ by Co-Co (featuring future Bucks Fizz winner Cheryl Baker) slumped to eleventh thanks to a shaky live vocal performance; we won it four times from 1967 to 1981 and finished second ten times from our first appearance in 1957 to 1977. We were runners-up again on five more occasions (the last being in 1998), though we haven’t claimed the Eurovision crown now for twenty years. Since Katrina and the Waves won in 1997, the British entry has only made the top ten at the end of the night on three occasions and has finished rock bottom the same number of times.

Anyone doubting that politics play a part in the way nations vote need only look at the example of 2003, when tuneless duo Jemini not only became the first British entry to finish last but the only one to date to receive the dreaded nul points. Yes, their vocal performance was so flat and off-key that they didn’t deserve much when it came to the voting section of the show, but there was more to it than that. The 2003 Eurovision was staged two months after the UK joined forces with the US to invade Iraq. This transatlantic alliance played badly with our nearest neighbours and it’s entirely feasible to speculate one way that Europe could make its feelings known outside of a summit meeting was to give the Brits a kicking on a programme transmitted across the continent.

What awaits poor Lucie Jones in Kiev tonight, God only knows. This is, of course, the first Eurovision to be staged since Brexit. Theresa May’s chilly reception in Brussels when she made her debut visit to the EU lion’s den as PM said everything about the way the continent views these islands now, so we can hardly expect this year’s entry to be welcomed with open arms. However, the result of last June’s EU Referendum merely gives Europe an official excuse to take revenge on us via Eurovision voting; they’ve been down on us for a long time as it is. We haven’t had an entry placed in the top ten since 2009, and that entry itself – ‘It’s My Time’ by Jade Ewen (No, me neither) – was out first top ten placing in eleven years.

The Eurovision has changed a hell of a lot over the last twenty years as it is; the growing list of entrants – which now bizarrely includes Australia – has swelled to the point whereby semi-finals are held to reduce the length of the actual contest on the night, and Eastern European nations (who didn’t participate during the Cold War) have come to dominate the event ever since they were admitted in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. The continuing presence of some of the countries that ruled the roost prior to the demise of the Eastern Bloc – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and us – is due to the fact the so-called ‘Big 5’ automatically qualify every year on account of them being the largest financial contributors to the European Broadcasting Union.

Fifty years on from the barefoot dollybird’s win with ‘Puppet on a String’, the UK’s role in one of our most uniquely eccentric annual events is perhaps more in doubt than it ever has been. We can stay put, pushing forward more Cowell rejects in the absence of anyone else and hoping to reach the dizzying heights of 24th place (as Joe and Jake managed last year), or we can finally bow out of a competition that pre-dates the EU as a naive experiment to unite a divided continent. Personally, if we’re going to go, I think we should go out with a bang. I suggest The KLF’s incendiary performance alongside Extreme Noise Terror at the 1992 Brit Awards as a blueprint for our European exit. Any takers?

© The Editor

BONFIRE OF THE SEVENTIES

Anyone remember the Big Society? In conjunction with David Cameron’s grand scheme to get us all collective (bit Socialist-sounding, really) there was a survey carried out intended to establish a ‘happiness scale’; there had been precedents, though. Previous surveys along similar lines had come to unexpected conclusions. According to records, the happiest the British populace has ever been recorded as being was in 1976. That’s right – the year when Labour Chancellor Denis Healey went cap-in-hand to the IMF for a loan to prevent Britain’s bankruptcy and Punk emerged as youth culture’s reaction to the perilous state of the nation. Lest we forget, however (if we’re old enough, of course), it was also the year of the Long Hot Summer; whether or not the survey was undertaken when the country was basking in the sunshine history doesn’t record, though it might explain the surprising results.

All of which leads us nicely into the shock-horror headlines on the front of today’s Mail and Telegraph, announcing Jezza’s apparent intentions to take us back to that much-maligned decade; aside from me wondering whether or not a journalist from those esteemed organs had stumbled upon the video I attached to a post on here a couple of days ago, my first thought was that their opposition to the prospect was understandable from a Tory perspective. Bar three-and-a-half years between June 1970 and February 1974 as well as the last seven months of 1979, the Conservative Party was out of office; and its 1970-74 government was led by the perennially-discredited Edward Heath. Mrs T came into office too late to make a real mark on the 70s. To regard a return to the 70s as the worst nightmare of the said papers and their readership is something of an understatement.

The claim of Corbyn’s intent derives from the leaked Labour manifesto for the upcoming General Election that hardly contained much in the way of surprises. Renationalising the railways has been a stated policy ever since Jezza became Labour leader and one that many old Tories – Peter Hitchens included – have no ideological argument with; privatisation of the railways was not one of the most successful or celebrated privatisations, after all. Reversing part-privatisation of the NHS is another policy few would dispute; Blair’s public-private partnership project is one whose disastrous legacy is all-too evident. And then there’s the abolition of tuition fees; when a generation of journos and politicos who enjoyed the luxury of state student grants oppose the revival of the system they benefitted from, one cannot but question their opposition.

The right and the left’s negative narrative of the 1970s has merged in recent years so that the decade has been rebranded as an era when bolshie commie unions held the country to ransom whilst the establishment allowed them to get away with it because it was too preoccupied with molesting children on an industrial scale; the people, on the other hand, turned a blind eye because their attention was distracted by the desire to acquire the latest must-have household appliances and dressing like the Diddy Men, preventing them from sitting up and taking notice. Operations Yewtree, Midland and Conifer have all played their pernicious parts in this historical revisionism, along with endless ‘wise-after-the-event’ clips programmes on crap channels fronted by talking heads who weren’t even around at the time. Like any negative narrative, however, there is an alternative viewpoint.

One could cite the democratisation of popular culture, when the 60s revolution enjoyed by an elite few finally filtered down to the masses and Joe Public experienced a brief liberation from both sartorial and moral straitjackets, as a plus; ditto the increased significance of that popular culture in daily life, where it had an importance above and beyond the leisure industry it now represents. New releases by David Bowie or Pink Floyd were artistic events rather than coffee-table merchandise; ditto small-screen landmarks such as ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ or ‘Roots’, giving a voice and opening eyes to those who had previously been denied a wider spotlight, reflecting the genuine and valid rise in political awareness of women, gays and ethnic minorities.

The police force may have been inherently bent and guilty of persecuting said minorities, but no more than they are in the twenty-first century. A female head of the Met means bugger all beyond politically-correct tokenism, particularly when Cressida Dick’s role in the disgraceful Jean Charles de Menezes affair is taken into account.

For the Mail and the Telegraph, a return to the values and ethos of the most revised and reviled decade of recent history being the ultimate horror story makes logical sense from their perspective, though no politician can turn back the clock in the way their headlines imply. If that was literally possible, then I’d have to head back to my primary school in the autumn, even though it closed about ten years ago. Whilst getting ready for school, I’d be able to switch on the radio and be faced with a choice of Noel Edmonds or Terry Wogan, and the only telly I’d see before the late afternoon would either be a solitary schools programme in the library or (if I decided to go home for dinner) ‘Pipkins’ and ‘Farmhouse Kitchen’. I’d also not have to concern myself with bills and rent, though 50p-a-week pocket-money might just cover them, anyway.

Yes, that’s how silly this storm-in-a-teacup really is; and if this is the best the right-wing press can come up with to combat a threat from Labour that they’re simultaneously telling us isn’t a threat at all when Theresa May’s coronation is a nailed-on certainty, one has to wonder what all the fuss is about. It couldn’t be that they actually believe the unthinkable is possible, could it?

© The Editor

MEETING AND GREETING

The images of electioneering that political parties naturally prefer the media to broadcast are not the unscripted interventions by angry members of the public confronting party leaders on the street, situations where the politicians rarely come off best; more favoured are the stage-managed set-pieces with party activists who enthusiastically applaud every utterance of their leader, choreographed events widely circulated to give the uninitiated viewer the impression such gatherings embody the particular leader’s nationwide popularity – even if they’re rooted in the kind of realism one would find in a West End theatre staging an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical.

When said angry member of the public doorsteps a politician in front of cameras, both know the confrontation will be the leading headline on the day’s news bulletins; the member of the public may feel it’s their only opportunity to express their anger with a specific issue relevant to the politician in question – whether Blair and the NHS, Brown and immigration or Tim Farron and Brexit – or they could just be simply seeking their fifteen minutes when they know the cameras are rolling. Either way, the politician’s dread of such a stunt has reduced their willingness to go on a walkabout, even if some (I’m thinking John Prescott) are more than capable of handling themselves. It’s far easier to stick to the party events that have a clearly defined running order and no room for spontaneity.

Theresa May taken this tactic to a new level so far, reflecting her deserved reputation as something of a control freak; it’s impossible to imagine her standing on a soap-box in a market square ala John Major’s inspired gimmick during the 1992 General Election campaign, for that would require her coming into contact with the public, a species she appears allergic to. A May press conference yesterday saw complaints on Twitter from the veteran thorn in many a campaigning politician’s side, Michael Crick, who claimed only pre-arranged journalists with pre-arranged questions were allowed to speak. Perhaps Mrs May’s speedy jaunt to Washington when the Donald had barely got his hands on the keys to the White House taught her a few lessons in how to house-train the press.

A cosy chinwag on the cosy ‘One Show’ sofa with cosy hubby was a preferable comfort zone for the PM, selling the image of the ‘everywoman’ to those sections of the electorate who willingly sit through such banal mental chewing-gum without being compelled to take an axe to their TV set; she was well aware it was not the kind of environment whereby she’d be quizzed on the subject of food banks, for example, thus exposing her utter cluelessness on the reasons for their existence again. A photograph of our incumbent PM recently appeared on social media in which she was attending a meeting in the Harehills area of Leeds, a neighbourhood containing a majority Asian population; it was blatantly obvious not so many (if any) members of that community featured on the photograph, however. Chances are, if the locality had been represented there, it might not have received Mrs May that enthusiastically.

It seems to be fear of close scrutiny, thus shattering her carefully constructed facade of ‘strength and stability’, that’s driving the Prime Minister’s fervent determination to control every aspect of her role in the campaign; from her refusal to be involved in any TV debates to the manner in which she forced the media’s complicity in yesterday’s press conference, one suspects if the PM was faced with a question she hadn’t already prepared an answer for she’d stick her fingers in her ears and babble incoherently until the nasty journo had gone away. She evidently prefers for that scenario not to arise, so she avoids its possibility.

When announcing the General Election, Theresa May made it clear she regarded any opposition to her policies as borderline treason, which seemed a strange stance to take when head of a democratically-elected government; but maybe the fact her administration wasn’t elected by the public has played its part in this apparent demagoguery. Moreover, that she is also confronted by the weakest example of HM Opposition any Prime Minister has probably had to face in over thirty years has perhaps bred a belief that opposition is ineffective and essentially unnecessary. The ridiculous lead the Tories have over Labour in the polls has convinced her she’ll win without breaking sweat, so why bother breaking sweat at all?

Corbyn is a more visible presence, though he too is prone to performing at events at which he is top of the bill – and his team seem keener on keeping him away from fellow Labour MPs than the public. His Tory opponent, however, may find her policy backfires somewhat; her lead might seem unassailable, but preferring to present herself to the public as a distant dictator who won’t engage with them in the kind of impromptu fashion that any seasoned parliamentarian should be able to navigate projects the image of someone who holds them in contempt.

As a postscript, however, a fillip for May came today with the news that those nice people at the Clown Prosecution Service won’t be bringing any charges against the Tories implicated in the abuse of electoral expenses two years ago. What a mighty independent crusader for justice the CPS is! To imply it buckled under pressure from Downing Street would, of course, be a most unjust accusation, what with its track record being so impeccable. What can go wrong for Theresa Jong Un, eh?

© The Editor

CIVIL RITES

Yes, we’ve taken back control from Brussels and their consistent efforts to curb and censor our personal liberties in the most nitpicking petty little fashion! Those dirty, filthy vapers will be aware of how the EU has already interfered in their harmless habit by banning various products associated with it despite there being no concrete medical evidence of any damage to the users’ health. But why worry about the bloody Brussels Jobsworths when we’re more than capable of producing our own? When it comes to the fanatical anti-smoking lobby, we’ve never needed the EU to play the perennial party-poopers. Plans to ban smoking in prisons were announced last week and now we are told proposals are afoot to impose similar punishments upon council tenants.

New tenants of local authority or housing association homes could be forced to sign smoke-free agreements forbidding them to light-up on the property. The reason given is an old chestnut that has little relevance for many residing in council houses – it’s for the children. As with the infuriating lids on bottles of tablets seemingly designed to avoid being opened by anyone (regardless of age), taking children into account fails to acknowledge not every household has one. But, of course, we cannot question the motivations where kids are concerned; we all have to fall into line and put the precious cherubs before ourselves, even if we’d rather have rabies than babies.

The proposals regarding HM Prisons and council homes are merely the latest example of how the anti-smoking prohibitionists won’t be content until the freedom to choose one’s legal vice has been completely removed. Haringey Council last week put forward the notion of banning smoking from pub beer gardens and restaurant terraces, extending the interior ban to the point whereby smokers won’t be allowed within a hundred yards of the premises in question. Considering the endless column inches devoted to celebrating liberation from the worst kind of intervention in people’s private lives attributed to Brussels bureaucracy, it’s notable that smokers don’t count where this brave new Britain independent of the EU is concerned. We are effectively one notch above Paedos and bankers on the bedpost of shame.

Simon Clark, director of the pro-smoking group Forest (an organisation which has yet to be bracketed in the same undesirable category as the Paedophile Information Exchange, but give it time) said the proposed council tenant smoking ban ‘would penalise unfairly those who can’t afford to buy their own homes’, and that lucky homeowners will be excluded from these punitive proposals does evoke memories of Iain Duncan Smith’s idea that anyone claiming benefits should pay for their fags and booze via a card with a limited amount of money on it. It obviously hasn’t occurred to those who have never been detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure or have been rooted at the bottom of society’s heap that being in such a trough might require a little liquid or chemical stimulation to simply get through the soul-destroying grind of the day. But if one’s concept of fags and booze is restricted to a bottle of Beaujolais nouveau with the evening meal and a cigar after it, empathy is hardly to be expected.

The fact that smokers being cast outdoors places them in the same permanently polluted environment as any non-smoking pedestrian, inhaling petrol exhaust carcinogens that can pump out more damage in just an hour than a smoker can inhale in a lifetime, means nothing when the rigid tunnel-vision of the anti-smoking lobby takes hold of public opinion. New Labour may have many crimes to answer for, but I’ll never forgive them and Blair’s blinkered crusading Public Health Minister Caroline Flint for forcing through the smoking ban – a ban which miraculously didn’t extend to the bars in the House of Commons, funnily enough. The previous sensible (and fair) approach of having smoking and non-smoking bars in pubs, therefore catering for the tastes of both parties, evidently didn’t fit the narrative of the smoker being the lowest of the low.

Since that ban came into being exactly ten years ago, the closure of public houses has accelerated at an alarming rate as smoking drinkers prefer to stay at home to indulge instead of being forced to shiver outside (this country’s climate wasn’t considered, of course), yet this clearly wasn’t enough for the anti-smoking brigade; they now feel the need to besiege the castle of the Englishman as well. Thanks to them, public places also now include bus shelters and station platforms, while drivers in the privacy of their own cars can no longer smoke should anyone under-18 be present in the vehicle (though can said under-18 smoke if he or she fancies a fag?). Censoring smoking in public places has given them the confidence to push a little further, to encroach deeper into the rights of the individual to live his or her life within the boundaries of the law – and lest we forget, purchasing and smoking cigarettes is still legal, even when they’re hidden behind closed doors and their packaging is now so uniform that the wrong brand is often sold to the customer.

When vaping was unveiled as a healthy alternative to the cigarette, they couldn’t even tolerate that and have successfully campaigned to also ban the e-cig from bars, shops and restaurants. Will Self has a theory that the most self-righteous puritanical zealots promoting anti-smoking are able to derive a smug sense of superiority when looking down at a small crowd of smokers huddled outside pubs and signing their own death warrants in the process, but when confronted by a vaper producing an e-cig indoors it’s such an affront to that superiority that the vaper may as well (in his own words) be ‘having a little wank in public’.

In his own way, Self may have hit the nail on the head – or in the coffin. The humourless narcissists who worship at the altar of their body temples – who don’t drink or smoke, who jog religiously, who spend all their leisure time in gyms, who monitor everything they eat and drink with obsessive fastidiousness, who control their lives with a strict regime that would be regarded as a bit extreme even by North Korean standards – cannot compute that some folk receive highs that can be achieved with such miniscule effort that it rubbishes their own back-breaking drive for perfection and proves that the shortness of life can at least be punctuated by simple pleasures that make it tolerable and render fitness fascism irrelevant.

How do they deal with this crushing realisation? They embark on a crusade to deny others the pleasures they themselves are incapable of enjoying by imposing their regime on everyone – and when they have a powerful lobby behind them, the age when grown-ups were treated as grown-ups (visible in any archive TV drama produced in the last century) evaporates quicker than the vapours from an e-cig. Whether or not one smokes, the persistent chipping away of the already limited rights of those that do should be of concern if personal liberties count for anything in a so-called free society.

© The Editor

LAUGH? I NEARLY PAID MY LICENCE FEE

Anyone ancient enough may find the title of this post evokes misty memories of a half-remembered comedy series from a good 35 years ago; the truth is I nicked the title from the programme, though the title sticks in the head more than the content. From what I can remember, the satirical sketch show in question starred Robbie Coltrane before he became a ‘serious actor’, and followed a similar path to a predecessor called ‘A Kick up The 80s’, which had given an early break to Tracey Ullman. These BBC2 shows from the first half of the 80s essentially revamped the format of mid-60s TW3 sequels like ‘Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life’ and ‘BBC-3’, produced at a time when Alternative Comedy had gatecrashed the Light Entertainment fortress. TV welcomed it with open arms and an open mind.

If you perused yesterday’s post, you may have also viewed the video tagged onto it, which was my ‘satirical take’ on the upcoming General Election, using the well-oiled vehicle of the party political broadcast. Some of the comments that accompanied the video on YouTube repeated a complimentary phrase I’ve received on previous occasions, one I mention not to boost my ego, but because it has a relevance to this particular post – ‘You should be on the telly.’

The telly’s comedy schedule the day I posted this video on YT consisted of Keith Lemon and Paddy McGuinness on ITV, whereas BBC1 offered Michael McIntyre and Mrs Brown. Of course, comedy is subjective; what causes one person to soil their Y-fronts causes another to reach for the remote, but the view I personally have of these comedic offerings from the mainstream is that they are today’s equivalent of the Bernard Manning/Jim Davidson/Frank Carson working-men’s club school that Alternative Comedy reacted against at the turn of the 80s. If ‘comedy on the telly’ is what ITV and the BBC were serving up on Saturday evening, and that’s the company I’m supposed to crave, I’d rather not bother.

It’s hard enough trying to get a book published, so I’m certainly not prepared to promote what I consider to be a sideline by bombarding TV producers and then having to be funnelled through focus groups and committees; neither am I prepared to go to the Edinburgh Festival and spend a fortune playing to three or four people in a tiny theatre. The comedy circuit in terms of live performance remains a provider of new faces for television, but those who make up the numbers on endless panel shows are the Ed Sheeran’s of comedy; their ultimate aim is to play arenas, and it’s evident in their routines. For Irishmen and mothers-in-law as subject matters, substitute ‘My girlfriend/boyfriend said to me the other day…’ It’s what Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer referred to as comedy for parties of office workers – comedy intended to make the audience echo George Osborne’s belief that we’re all in it together.

This is the kind of comedy TV commissioners want. Nobody in their position today would commission something as alien to the ‘communal comedy’ mindset as ‘Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out’, let alone Spike Milligan’s ‘Q’, ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ or even later ventures into the surreal such as ‘The League of Gentlemen’. Every generation once had its comedy series, though just as the music scene seems to have abandoned its old practice of ripping it up and starting again, the expectation that each decade would produce one defining comedy series no longer applies. And the reason appears to be that television has lost its bottle. Even when it tries to do something moderately daring, such as the ‘Real Wives of ISIS’ sketch that appeared on the BBC’s ‘Revolting’ earlier this year, the conservatism of an audience raised on the lame comedy of the last ten years produces a hostile reaction that causes commissioners to stick to playing it safe. The fact that an established home for unconventional comedy such as BBC3 is now solely online speaks volumes.

Yet this situation has only really arisen in the past decade or so. As recent as 2002 and 2005, BBC2 produced ‘Look Around You’, the brilliant parody of firstly 70s schools programmes and then early 80s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ from Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper. I can’t remember the last time I saw either on mainstream TV; but they’re active online. Another occasional compliment I’ve received in the comments section on YT has been ‘Are you Peter Serafinowicz?’ – which is incredibly flattering, but perhaps reflects the fact he and I are operating in a similar area, the area being not merely making videos cut from the same cloth of humour, but the fact we’re online and not on TV.

Yes, there are undoubtedly many amateurish and pretty unfunny attempts at comedy on YT as there probably are on the telly, if not more; but at the same time, there are some very talented comic performers whose work is only available online; you rarely, if ever, see them on the goggle box.

Steve Riks is an impressionist who specialises in impersonating rock stars and putting them in unlikely situations; one of the most recent videos of his I watched was a short sketch in which Jeff Lynne rings up both Roy Wood and Noddy Holder, neither of whom want to speak to him. It was funny and simultaneously supremely silly, and Riks played all three parts. He’s also a dab hand at John, Paul, George and Ringo; but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him on TV and I don’t really expect to. How would he even pitch a premise like that to a TV commissioner looking for the next Michael McIntyre? The days when Galton & Simpson would be offered 13 weeks in a prime-time slot to write whatever they wanted are long gone.

Opinionated news reporter Jonathan Pie, who launches into a rant on politics when he imagines the camera has been switched-off, is another comedian whose work is only known to me via YouTube. The Russia Today/RT logo always appears on his videos, so his shorts may well be broadcast on the channel; but it’s not exactly the mainstream, is it? As with music, I no longer believe television is the definitive showcase for comedy today; by relying on the tired modern-day music hall-in-its-death throes vacuum of the comedy club, TV commissioners are looking in the wrong place.

© The Editor