VIVA JEANNE!

The story goes that the American entertainment industry ruled the roost and dictated popular culture until The Beatles appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1964 and then attention switched to the other side of the Atlantic. There’s a degree of truth in that, but until the Fab Four delved into Victoriana and the rich tapestry of British folk and chamber music, their look and sound was a perfect synthesis of America and Europe; Hamburg made them a band, but Paris gave them a haircut and a continental style unique to the UK. The trio of German art students (including photographer Astrid Kirchherr) who befriended The Beatles in Hamburg were war-babies whose disgust with the actions of their parents’ generation led them to look to Paris for inspiration. And Paris was the place to be at the turn of the 60s.

In the late 50s, a group of critics at the French movie magazine, ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ – including the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol – decided they could make better films than the directors whose work they were reviewing, and once they began doing so they inadvertently created one of the most influential movements in movie history, the Nouvelle Vague. With its stark monochrome cinematography, untested actors, location shooting and documentary-style realism, the Nouvelle Vague (or ‘The New Wave’, as it was known in English), was a dramatic contrast to the majority of Hollywood’s output and inspired the up-and-coming crop of US directors who would shake Tinsel Town at the end of the 60s. It also helped kick-start Britain’s own ‘kitchen sink’ school of cinema.

Along with unknowns such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina and Jean-Pierre Léaud – whose careers were established via their roles in classics like ‘A Bout de Souffle’, ‘Une Femme est Une Femme’, and the peerless ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’ – emerged an actress whose impact owed a great deal to the Nouvelle Vague, yet transcended it so that she isn’t solely associated with that particular movement and has simply become recognised as one of the premier cinematic stars of her generation. I’m talking about, of course, the great – and now, sadly, late – Jeanne Moreau.

Words such as ‘legendary’ and ‘iconic’ are bandied about so freely these days that they have achieved the same level of meaninglessness as the tiresomely ubiquitous ‘awesome’; but Jeanne Moreau, who has died at the age of 89, was genuinely legendary and iconic. Her status as such largely stemmed from her role in Truffaut’s 1962 movie, ‘Jules et Jim’. The character she played in it, Catherine, is a free spirit who forms one-third of a love triangle around the outbreak of the First World War; although the film is set half-a-century earlier than when it was made, Catherine embodies the attitude associated with the youth poised to take centre stage in the 60s. It made Moreau an overnight international star.

Predating ‘Jules et Jim’ by three years, however, Moreau had given a remarkably moving and subtle performance in Louis Malle’s ‘Les Amants’, which remains perhaps the most exquisitely romantic movie I’ve ever seen; and it isn’t remotely soppy, just real – the hallmark of French cinema’s golden age. But the worldwide success of ‘Jules et Jim’ opened doors for Moreau that led her to working with the renowned likes of Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Elia Kazan, and Britain’s own Tony Richardson, who became so infatuated with Moreau during the two movies he made with her that he left his wife Vanessa Redgrave for her.

Jeanne Moreau didn’t abandon the cinema of her home country whilst building a career outside of France, however; she may have shared a screen with France’s other international cinematic icon Brigitte Bardot in 1965’s ‘Viva Maria’, but a far more substantial role came in 1974’s ‘Les Valseuses’. In this once-controversial black comedy, she plays a recently released prisoner who is seduced by a couple of hedonistic sexual vagabonds (one of whom is played by a young Gerard Depardieu). What makes her on-screen threesome with the pair relatively unusual even now is the fact that the ménage à trois consists of two men and one woman rather than the standard one man and two women. But it’s a scene that is oddly tender, even if it happens to be followed by one of the most awful methods of suicide to ever befall a character in a movie. Let’s just say a revolver is inserted into a part of the body only a woman could insert it into.

I remember a later role for Moreau in a 1993 BBC TV film called ‘A Foreign Field’, starring alongside Alec Guinness and Lauren Bacall, which dealt with the return of WWII veterans to Normandy, one of the last times the wartime generation were portrayed in the present tense. Although surrounded by some considerable acting heavyweights, Moreau’s part was pivotal to the drama, playing a woman two of the male characters had enjoyed romantic assignations with at the time of the D-Day landings. Again, she managed to imbue her performance with both a touching quality that made the viewer care what happened to her, as well as a mischievous aspect that showcased her talent for comedy.

Jeanne Moreau’s film debut was in 1950 – the same year Marlon Brando exploded onto the big screen in ‘The Men’ – and her final appearance was in 2012, just five years ago. Sixty-two years isn’t a bad run for a movie career, and it’s testament to Moreau that she was as good an actress as an old lady as she was when a young woman. She was pretty special and she’ll be missed.

© The Editor

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THE (SOUTH) AMERICAN DREAM

Well, voting is underway today – in Venezuela. The troubled South American nation hasn’t gone to the polls to vote for a new government, however, but a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. A few months ago, when these proposals were unveiled, an unofficial referendum was held in which seven million Venezuelans voted; 98% of them rejected the proposals, but the proposals are going ahead regardless. And Remoaners think they’ve got it bad here. The move to convene the constituent assembly followed the decision in March when the Supreme Court announced its intentions to take over the National Assembly, which is run by the opposition. Although the protests that greeted this announcement caused it to be reversed, President Nicolas Maduro was accused by the opposition of attempting to stage a coup, and it is Maduro’s determination to carry on regardless that seems to be tearing Venezuela apart, even if problems run much deeper and go back much further.

Venezuela is hardly unique amongst South American countries in experiencing ongoing difficulties when it comes to democracy, but external events have also contributed to its current crisis. With 95% of its export revenues dependent on oil, the diminishing global value of the commodity has hit it hard. Widespread food shortages have been the most devastating manifestation of the economic collapse, with figures estimating almost 75% of the population has lost an average of 8.7 kg in weight in the absence of proper nutrition, whereas only 15% of medicines are readily available. The hyperinflation that has struck the nation as of last year has seen consumer prices rise by a staggering 800% and the annual inflation rate has been estimated at 160%. As if things weren’t bad enough, the country also has an appalling murder rate.

Anyone who happens to be a regular listener of Radio 4’s wonderfully eye-opening institution, ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, will be familiar with Venezuela’s decline in recent years, though the powder keg atmosphere has finally erupted into violent protest this year and the country now appears to be at breaking point. The portrait of society in a state of collapse that ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ has documented often seems uncomfortably reminiscent of the chaotic circumstances in Germany after the First World War, the ones that created the conditions for the rise of Nazism.

Nicolas Maduro’s predecessor in the Presidential office, the late Hugo Chavez, had written the Venezuelan constitution in 1999 that his successor now seeks to overturn. Chavez used to carry the constitution around in his pocket, the ‘little blue book’ he was prone to brandishing whenever a camera was on hand. As architect of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, which had ideological allies in other Socialist South American nations such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, Chavez embodied the classic anti-imperialist revolutionary leader in a Castro vein that has regularly proven popular amongst those opposing the foreign policies of South America’s northern neighbour. When the great Socialist experiment invariably runs into a brick wall, blaming US intervention in the country’s affairs in remains the default excuse, and Chavez knew how to play that one.

The legacy of Chavez’s populist reforms, which were initiated when the Venezuelan economy was riding high on astronomical oil revenues – and included the nationalisation of major industries, excessive public spending, and the establishment of social programmes to improve the health and education of the population – began to reveal themselves in a less benign light at the point when Chavez lost his battle against cancer in 2013. They may have appeared admirable on paper, but Chavez failed to curb endemic corruption in public office and the police force, not to mention lowering the murder rate; a master of propaganda like Hugo Chavez was able to paper-over these cracks in his Socialist vision, but his successor has not been so fortunate. In many respects, Nicolas Maduro inherited an unenviable economic time-bomb not unlike the poisoned chalice Tony Blair handed over to Gordon Brown in 2007, though one suspects UK-style austerity would seem like affluence to most Venezuelans today.

Nicolas Maduro’s response to the crisis has been perceived as the President desperately trying to save his own skin rather than putting the interests of the country first. The aborted attempt to silence the opposition by taking over the National Assembly hasn’t deterred his determination to convene a constituent assembly that will have the power to override the democratic institution he failed to seize control of. Over 6,000 candidates are standing for the constituent assembly, none of them from the opposition, which has boycotted it wholesale. But while international condemnation of the election has been summarily ignored, one of Venezuela’s prominent neighbours Colombia – only just emerging from its own turbulence – has also refused to recognise the result when it comes.

The President hasn’t done himself any favours by cracking-down on more physical opposition to his power; since street protests began in April, upwards of 3,000 protestors have been detained and dozens have been killed. The most high-profile presence on these protests has belonged to ‘The Resistance’, a masked group claiming to be the protectors of peaceful protestors; they generally head the marches and are prepared to fight fire with fire when confronted by police and security guards. A ban on demonstrations hasn’t had much of an impact, with the barricades manned again on streets in the capital Caracas as the government continues to insist the constituent assembly will be the only solution to the anarchy of recent months. But Venezuela has so many more problems than that, and genuine solutions are in short supply.

© The Editor

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BACK (STABBING) IN THE USA

All too often, that celebrated US sitcom known as ‘The Trump Presidency’ hits heights worthy of a script penned by Larry David. With the disappointing departure of wacky White House Spokesman Sean Spicer, it seemed the loss of such a colourful cast-member risked the show never being the same again; lo and behold, however, the Donald hired his replacement on the same day, and Anthony Scaramucci has quickly settled into Spicer’s shoes by proving to be instantly popular with viewers. Mr Scaramucci made an immediate impact in a classic episode that saw him interviewed by Emily Maitlis, and has also maintained the tradition of washing dirty linen in public by launching a personal attack on White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus – with hilarious, as they say, consequences.

Beyond the fourth wall, the serious business of running the USA hasn’t been quite so side-splitting. Over on Capitol Hill last night, it was drama rather than comedy that dominated proceedings as the Senate debated the President’s repeal of ‘Obamacare’. This was the third attempt to repeal the healthcare act of Trump’s predecessor, and the third failure. The bill became known as the ‘Skinny’ repeal, due to it being a scaled-down version of a total repeal that it was reckoned all Senate Republicans could agree to. Had the bill succeeded, it would still have left an estimated 16 million Americans losing their health insurance within a decade as well as a 20% increase in insurance premiums for those fortunate enough to keep it.

What made the defeat an especially bitter pill for the Trump administration to swallow is that three prominent Republican Senators – Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and former Presidential candidate John McCain – voted against the bill and contributed significantly to its defeat in the process; the latter member of the trio was apparently badgered by Vice President Mike Pence for the best part of 20 minutes in a desperate attempt to get the veteran Republican to vote according to the President’s wishes, before taking his place alongside a group of enthusiastic Democrats as the bill was voted down by the tantalisingly tight margin of 51 votes to 49. Trump’s response was to claim all three Republican turncoats ‘let America down’; but for McCain in particular it was an opportunity for revenge.

During his run for the Presidency in 2008, much was made of John McCain’s Vietnam War record. After being shot down on a bombing raid over Hanoi in 1967, McCain was a Prisoner of War for six years and suffered appalling torture at the hands of his captors that has left him with lifelong physical disabilities, most famously the fact he cannot raise his hands fully above his head. McCain entered politics a decade after his return from Vietnam, but has long had something of a reputation as a ‘maverick’, not always prone to toeing the party line. His run for the Presidency in 2008 saw him lose to Barack Obama, though his cause probably wasn’t helped by the selection of the execrable Sarah Palin as his running-mate. Nevertheless, he has remained one of the most recognisable and respected Washington veterans – not that this counted for much where Donald Trump was concerned.

During the embryonic stages of his efforts to gain the Republican nomination for 2016, Trump mocked McCain’s record in Vietnam by saying he preferred ‘heroes who weren’t captured’. It should be noted that, though of an eligible age, Trump himself conveniently avoided the Vietnam draft like one of his White House predecessors, Dubya; he also didn’t enlist as a volunteer or consider joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps; as a student, he obtained four deferments and was given a further medical deferment when threatened with the draft in 1968 on the grounds of ‘heel spurs’, which was nice.

A man such as McCain, with over thirty years in politics, will have developed an extremely thick skin by now, but a crass comment along the lines of the one Trump made was bound to rankle; last night, he had the chance to give the President the finger and he took it. Trump’s avowed intention to get rid of Obamacare now seemingly stands in tatters, largely thanks to a man whose recent diagnosis with a serious brain tumour means he really doesn’t have anything to lose. That he returned to active politics just a couple of weeks after brain surgery shows he’s quite a tough cookie.

Ironically, McCain had spoken out against Obamacare and the need for it to be replaced during his re-election campaign in 2016, though by the time he came to cast a decisive vote yesterday evening, his opposition to the proposals on the table appeared to stem more from his disapproval of the clandestine manner in which the bill was prepared. McCain made a speech a couple of days before last night’s vote calling for a ‘return to regular order’ when it comes to lawmaking, so it was perhaps no surprise that – coupled with the urge to get one over the President – McCain should side with Democrats at the eleventh hour.

The ‘Skinny’ repeal compromise was regarded as the only version Republicans might be able to get through Congress; its defeat means there are no other prospective bills on the cards to repeal Obamacare; despite this, Trump tweeted in the aftermath of the vote ‘As I said from the beginning, let Obamacare implode, then deal.’ At the same time, one of Trump’s early rivals for last year’s Republican nomination, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, declared ‘Mark my words, this journey is not yet done.’ It probably won’t be in the long-term, but for now it is; and the Republicans have one of their own to thank for it.

© The Editor

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A FALL BEFORE PRIDE

One of a series of programmes spread across the television networks to mark the 1967 Sexual Offences Act’s fiftieth anniversary, ‘Against the Law’ was a drama-documentary that aired on BBC2 last night. It dramatised the infamous 1954 Montagu Trial, in which Lord Montagu, his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers and journalist Peter Wildeblood were tried on charges of gross indecency and (to simplify matters) ‘buggery’; they were found guilty, with Montagu serving 12 months and the other two 18 months. The dramatised sections of the programme were interspersed with the recollections of gay men who were old enough to have been affected by the laws surrounding homosexuality as they then stood; and men were the exclusive targets of this law. Lesbianism was never illegal in this country.

These fascinating interludes could have been jarring intrusions into the drama, but actually served to strengthen it as their reminiscences gave the viewer a clearer idea of the parallel universe Britain they inhabited and the dangers of that parallel universe colliding with ‘straight society’. In the late 50s, there were more than a thousand men in British prisons serving sentences for ‘homosexual offences’, yet the police continued to make the arrest and prosecution of gay men a priority; the brutal medical treatments offered as a ‘cure’ for the condition mirrored the establishment line that this was a sickness within society and one it was the establishment’s place to eradicate.

However, what one appreciated yet again in watching this programme was the unique classlessness of the gay underworld in the pre-decriminalisation 50s and 60s, when a peer of the realm could mix and mingle with ‘the lower orders’ in a way that had few contemporary equivalents at the time. It could be argued that the establishment’s fear of this social melting pot – existing long before the over-ground breaking down of class barriers that took place in the Swinging decade – played no small part in the ruthless campaign against gay men that seemed to reach its apogee (or nadir) in the years after the war. The Profumo Scandal of 1963 exposed the hypocrisy and double-standards of the ruling class and was crucial in the death of deference, but the Montagu Trial was also significant in that it reflected the antiquated notion of social superiors ‘setting a good example’ (in public, at least); the outcome also demonstrated a distinct divergence of opinion on homosexuality between the classes.

The prosecution, with the full weight of the police force and the then-Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe behind it, imagined the case would unite the nation in revulsion as the trial of Oscar Wilde had sixty years previously; but the assault backfired. It emerged the police were pursuing Lord Montagu in a virtual vendetta; having failed to succeed in an earlier conviction, they may have achieved their aim in 1954, but many members of the general public couldn’t see why their taxes were being spent on locking up what were (in the phraseology of the time) ‘consenting adults in private’. The ramifications of the Montagu Trial led to the setting up of the Wolfenden Committee to look into the laws on homosexuality, and although it took a further decade before the Wolfenden recommendations were implemented in law, the ball had been set in motion.

With his private life made public during the trial, Peter Wildeblood decided there was little point in pretending anymore and openly admitted he was homosexual. Upon his release, he was interviewed by the Wolfenden Committee and aired his belief that his type of gay man should be the main beneficiary of reforms to the law – that is, the type seeking to conduct his business behind closed doors with a man over-21 without fear of prosecution and imprisonment. He made clear distinctions between the camp, effeminate queens, the pederasts and the ‘straight’ gay men like himself. It was to be the third group whose voices were loudest as the campaign to change the law gathered pace in the 60s, the thinking being that the public would accept the more ‘normal’ sort as convincing salesmen for the changes; and the majority within society gradually came round to this way of thinking, ending the ‘blackmailer’s charter’ at last.

When watching ‘Against the Law’, there were undoubted parallels evoked in relation to the police prioritising of this particular offence with the more recent and ongoing pursuit of ‘historical’ sex offenders. Just substitute ‘Pansy’ with ‘Paedo’. Jonathan King himself drew the same parallels when sentenced on charges of dubious authenticity in the first such high profile case of this nature fifteen or so years ago. Comparing his conviction to that of Oscar Wilde appeared a tad egocentric when the claim was made, though subsequent witch-hunts of old celebrities – and the persistent attempts to ‘get’ the ones that were cleared of charges by marching them back into court on new ones – seem to back-up King’s comparison. And, of course, we’re only aware of the famous names doing time for historical crimes.

The 1967 Sexual Offences Act didn’t change everything overnight, however. It may have enabled gay men of the Peter Wildeblood ilk to enter into happy, long-term relationships without having to conduct their affairs in the shadows, but the police continued to crack down on ‘cottaging’ well into the 1980s (especially via entrapment) and raids on gay bars, along with the lingering belief that youth remained susceptible to corruption, was memorably chronicled in Tom Robinson’s seminal protest song, ‘Glad to be Gay’ in the late 70s. As recent as the 90s, what would now be unimaginable language and anti-gay opinions were expressed in media circles, particularly the right-wing press; they must have viewed the onset of AIDS as a God-send to give credence to such beliefs.

Today we do indeed live in a very different kind of society to the one portrayed in ‘Against the Law’, but plenty of men are still imprisoned on charges of sexual offences that a politicised police force and an avaricious legal profession pursue with the same kind of crusading vindictiveness that gay men were once the target of. Indeed, with an estimated half of 2017’s court cases centred around sexual offences and the fastest growing age category in British prisons being the over-60s, there’s no reason to exhibit smugness at society’s supposedly more enlightened attitude towards what men do or don’t do with their willies.

© The Editor

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QUIET NEWS DAYS

One of those characteristically simplistic questions children often pose to their parents emanated from my mouth as a child when I remember asking my dad what the TV news bulletins would do if one day there was no news. I can’t recall his reply, unfortunately, but I didn’t realise then that, in the event of such a freak occurrence, that itself would be the news story. Forty years on, the instant availability of news through far more mediums than were present when I posed my question means there’s never any danger of there being a day free from it. Today the news is a billion-dollar industry. TV channels entirely devoted to it have 24 hours to fill, and many stories that would hardly have been classed as such before the current industry existed make it to headline status as a consequence.

The kind of banal filler that editors of local newspapers traditionally had to cram their regional rags with simply to use up the page count now seems to have become the blueprint for rolling news channels and online news sources. Finding enough stories to fill a local paper if the locality happens to be a sleepy backwater naturally means the columns will consist of parochial obscurities, but when it comes to TV or internet channels covering international events, one would imagine there’d be no such problems with content. When hours and pages require a seemingly unlimited supply of stories, however, it does have the curious effect – especially on quiet news days – of reducing international news to the level of local news.

The number of times the comments section on some online news outlets bemoan the ‘story’ they’ve just spent half-a-minute reading and rightly dismiss it as a non-story could be applied to so much of the output that constitutes the medium, yet the perceived demand for news leads to this state of affairs. I’ve no idea what the quota of stories required for the likes of Yahoo News or Google News is on a daily basis, but there don’t seem to be enough to satisfy the demand presumably from anxious proprietors with one eye permanently fixed on the competition. I suppose there’s the argument – where cyberspace is concerned – that the short attention spans of those who scan online headlines want to see constant updates and want them in bite-sizes rather than the lengthy articles associated with newspapers, let alone what they regard as ‘news’ – North Korea or Love Island?

For newspapers, the situation is compounded by falling sales, forcing them into alternatives that deviate from actual news even further. One example is the eternally fawning aspect to coverage of the Royal Family – or at least those members of it that Fleet Street has declared to be its darlings, which is an unusual diversion from news in that I don’t really believe anyone under, say, 60 is really that bothered about William or Kate or their kids. Both broadsheets and tabloids have an unhealthy obsession with the Windsor’s that isn’t really reflective of the country as a whole, yet they continue to plaster their front covers with images of them, labouring under the misapprehension that someone gives a shit. There’s an added bonus this year, with the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death imminent, something that the Daily Express in particular must have been counting down the days to since roundabout…oh…1997. Outside of this royal brown-nosing, the papers have more recently found other ways of filling their pages.

The Sun regularly has a ‘wraparound’ on its cover, plugging some other Murdoch enterprise, whereas its film and TV reviewers tend to reserve their greatest enthusiasm for produce emanating from yet another company owned by the Digger. Similarly, broadsheets are paid handsome amounts to publish gushing PR for various nations with dubious human rights records like China or Turkey, but clumsily attempt to pass this PR off as an actual news story. When it comes to their online incarnations, papers such as the Mail tend to receive enviable amounts of visitors, even if most are drawn to the crass ‘sidebar of shame’ and its relentless slavering over scantily-clad starlets rather than the genuine headlines.

The cliché of there being a thousand-and-one TV channels in the post-deregulation age and yet there’s still nothing worth watching on any of them could also often be applied to the dazzling array of news outlets. Indeed, the sole reason for writing this post was due to my scouring these various outlets over the last couple of days and finding nothing of interest to write about. Sure, there are bona-fide news stories on offer, though most are variations upon themes I’ve covered on here many times before; the alternative is to write about the desperately sad Charlie Gard story, but I’ve a feeling that anger over doctors playing God would impair objectivity. There’s also the depressing conclusion that parents are merely the custodians of children and it’s the State that really has the final say over us from cradle to grave

Naturally, we shouldn’t forget we are in the middle of the so-called silly season as well, so there’s bound to be an upsurge of guff posing as news. Parliament is now in recess and all the political intrigues that spanned a good couple of months after Theresa May called the snap General Election have also gone into hibernation until September. No doubt something will catch my eye shortly, but for now writing about having nothing to write about is what I’m writing about.

© The Editor

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TIME’S ARROW

Who is the Prime Minister? Apparently, that’s one of the opening questions doctors use as a test for dementia amongst their patients, though most of the country would probably have struggled to answer it following the last General Election, to be honest. Anyway, I don’t know if my grandmother was asked that particular question during her last illness, but I do recall being told she couldn’t correctly say what year it was when asked. The ongoing debate over care for the elderly is, I’ve no doubt, largely motivated (on the public side, at least) by genuine concern that senior citizens are almost discarded as an expensive embarrassment; but I think it also reflects a consensus of fear over the fate that awaits us.

Larkin’s notorious poem, ‘The Old Fools’ is – as with his other most infamous offering, ‘This Be The Verse’ – often misconstrued; sometimes perceived as revulsion when confronted by the elderly, it couples lines such as ‘Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines’ with ‘Do they suppose it’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools, and you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember who called this morning?’ As with much of Larkin’s output, it is devoid of sentimentality and looks at an uncomfortable aspect of life with brutal honesty. The chilling closing line, when after having posed a series of questions on the topic of ageing, Larkin says ‘Well, we shall find out’, is a more accurate barometer of what the poem is actually saying.

A man not known for celebrating the joy of life, Larkin’s melancholic pessimism was present when he remained a relatively young man, something fairly unusual outside of Goth and Emo subculture; then again, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters was aged just 29 when he wrote the wistfully bleak Larkin-esque line in ‘Time’ on ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ – ‘Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way’. Both Ray Davies and Morrissey have, at different times, contradicted the eternal adolescence that has been a hallmark of the genre they sprang from by shining a light on the neglected perspective of the elderly outsider, something Paul McCartney did even more successfully with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ before addressing ageing in a lighter tone with ‘When I’m 64’. He was in his mid-20s at the time.

At its most extreme, fear of growing old – at least manifested in its physical form – has led to the horrific cosmetic surgery industry and Hollywood’s plastic parade of deluded veterans that battle against the ageing process to extend their acting careers. Conversely, renowned actresses that have resisted the surgeon’s knife – such as Charlotte Rampling or Helen Mirren – tend to be celebrated for the fact their beauty has matured like fine wine and has been allowed to mature free from visible vanity courtesy of the same medical men who butchered the face of Michael Jackson.

Speaking to a friend the other day, she commented on some programme she’d seen on TV about a murder case in the 1990s; the documentary was accompanied by archive footage of the time, and even though the 90s feels extremely recent if you were actually there, she was still struck by how different things looked on said footage. The way in which technology has transformed all our lives in such a short space of time post-1999 has relegated certain sights that had always been commonplace on our streets to the same cultural landfill as gas lamps and public toilets, and I suspect those streets as represented by news archive of the time in this programme perhaps showed what already appears to be a different world.

I only have to cast my mind back twenty years to recall one of the numerous downsides to living in a neighbourhood with a sizeable student population was when the fresh intake of scholars needed to ring home after a week or so in their new homes. A queue of a good four or five people would be a familiar sight outside a telephone box in early September; but this is one of those ‘numerous downsides’ that has now completely vanished from the landscape – along with most of the phone boxes. Of course, to say ‘casting my mind back twenty years’ is in itself an admission of ageing that bears little relevance to the majority of the same university’s current crop, few of whom were a twinkle in the milkman’s eye twenty years ago – when we probably still had a few milkmen left.

In a sense, that’s part of the problem. I have been an official legal adult now for almost 32 years, and I find in my memory that everything I recall from that point onwards still doesn’t seem like that long ago. By contrast, anything from my childhood decade of the 70s feels incredibly distant and may as well be a hundred years ago for all the bearing it has had on my lengthy spell as an adult. At times, 1987, 1997 and 2007 appear almost interchangeable despite the superficial changes in fashion, music, pop culture et al that separate those years; I was an adult during all the years listed, and whilst I’d like to think a little acquired wisdom separates the person I was in 1987, 1997 or 2007, the core composition of the time-stream I inhabit doesn’t seem to have altered. It all feels ‘present tense’.

When we have family or friends we don’t see that often who sire offspring, we recall said offspring being babies; then we maybe see them again as toddlers or little kids; and the next occasion in which they’re mentioned, we learn they’re at high school or in higher education. In our heads, they remain frozen as children, but the rapid maturity that takes place elsewhere can remind us how time is passing more than what the mirror on the wall might tell us. Sometimes, it’s easier to measure time by the change in others than the change in our ourselves, which can be as difficult to observe as the movement of hands on a clock-face.

Four months from now I hit one of those ‘landmark birthdays’ that we all, whether we care to admit it or not, dread the arrival of. I guess we each have our own different take on what they do or don’t mean and if they hold any significance at all. For me personally it’s not a question of wanting to cling to a youth I didn’t especially enjoy or revel in, more a question of inevitable summarising of the story so far, the kind of self-assessment I’d rather avoid due to the fact that on paper I appear to have achieved nothing and have become everything I hate. Despite the anticipated bombardment of reminders I’ll receive from well-meaning well-wishers, the only real element worth celebrating is that I’ve actually made it this far. Being English, I expect I shall hang on, though I suspect the desperation won’t be so quiet; I remain determined to rage against that dying light. Thank God for a little bit of Celtic blood.

© The Editor

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SECOND CITY SOUNDS

As the late, great Barry Norman might have said (or maybe he didn’t): ‘And why not?’ This post marks no anniversary and comments on no particular current affair; it’s merely a bit of musical meandering; and it’s a Sunday, so why not indeed? Well, it’s no great surprise that when it comes to the musical map of Britain that London, Liverpool and Manchester generally tend to take the lion’s share of the plaudits and are largely given credit for putting this nation on Pop’s international stage, a position it continues to occupy, even if most of its reputation is built upon pioneers from half-a-century ago. But spare a thought for a corner of the country that, for me, is an unsung creative hub of far more than most imagine; it remains an unfashionable area to evoke in discourse on Pop culture, yet has provided those tuning into the Global Village’s radio station with so many listening riches over the last few decades that it seems an apt time to make a case for the Midlands.

In the early 60s, Birmingham had perhaps the most active live music scene outside of Merseyside; there were hundreds of bands on the Second City’s thriving club circuit and it was only a matter of time before at least one of them hit the top spot. It finally happened at the beginning of 1965, when The Moody Blues reached No.1 with their emotive cover of the Bessie Banks ball-buster, ‘Go Now’. Although it bears little relation to the lush, symphonic Rock the band would later become more renowned for, ‘Go Now’ is one of the key records of an era in which it seemed every week brought a new, exciting twist on the Beat Boom formula.

Almost exactly a year later, another band from Brum followed the Moodies to the top of the charts when The Spencer Davis Group reached the summit with their dynamic cover of Jackie Edwards’ ‘Keep on Running’. The band was led by the prodigiously-gifted teenage Steve Winwood, whose soulful vocals sounded like they came from a far older man, and a black one at that. The Spencer Davis Group managed to follow-up their chart-topping debut more successfully than The Moody Blues had, releasing a string of top-tenners (including another No.1) over the next twelve months until Winwood left to form the Psychedelic Pop act Traffic.

The last band to emerge from the Birmingham Beat Boom of the 60s were The Move, effectively a Brum ‘Supergroup’ comprising musicians who had all been members of successful local live acts; they scored their first hit at the beginning of 1967 with ‘Night of Fear’, a track built around the main melody of the 1812 Overture, and soon blossomed into one of the finest purveyors of the unique British take on Psychedelia; they also possessed a manager who specialised in PR stunts characteristic of the age, being sued by the Prime Minister when they used Harold Wilson in a controversial cartoon to promote ‘Flowers in the Rain’, the first single ever played on Radio 1. Their secret weapon was the songwriting genius of Roy Wood, a man whose contribution to British Pop is today unfairly restricted to his association with one of the perennial Christmas hits of the 70s; Wood deserves belated recognition as one of those rare, gifted musicians who can bang out a good tune on any instrument they stumble upon.

By the late 60s, the regional aspect of the British music scene, in which every major city’s bands were grouped together under one umbrella label, had essentially dissipated as most headed towards the capital for fame and fortune, losing their local identity in the process. Acts such as Chicken Shack – featuring future Fleetwood Mac member Christine Perfect – had a big hit without their Birmingham origins being a factor in their success, and Nick Drake hailing from the southern end of the Midlands, in Stratford-on-Avon, seemed incidental to his talent. Similarly, the fact that one half of Led Zeppelin comprised Midlands men (Robert Plant and John Bonham) had little bearing on their phenomenal success.

Hot on the heels of Led Zep’s radical reinvention of the Blues came Birmingham’s Black Sabbath, whose brutally brilliant approach to the genre laid the foundations for what was to become Heavy Metal, a musical style that had further Midlands exponents later in the 70s via Judas Priest. The top ten monster of ‘Paranoid’ aside, Sabbath’s success was album-based, whereas a band from a neighbouring neck of the woods (Wolverhampton and Walsall) went on to become Britain’s biggest singles act of the first half of the decade, Slade. Between 1971 and 1973, Noddy Holder, Jim Lea, Dave Hill and Don Powell hit the top of the charts on six separate occasions, more than any other home-grown act in the 70s.

Vying for the top spot with Slade in the early 70s were Wizzard, the colourful new outfit led by The Move’s Roy Wood and responsible for the aforementioned Xmas standard, ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’. Wizzard had appeared when Wood left the Move spin-off project, The Electric Light Orchestra, with whom he recorded one album; his sidekick in the band, Jeff Lynne, saw a long-term career in ELO and opted to take the helm before ironing out their experimental edges and honing them into one of the decade’s seminal singles acts. An immigrant from the West Indies who had made the West Midlands her home became the region’s main representative in the singer-songwriter genre, Joan Armatrading; hers wasn’t the only black voice in the neighbourhood, however, as Reggae act Steel Pulse proved. Birmingham also had a folk scene in the 70s, though the most notable graduate from it became better known as a comedian, Jasper Carrott.

No Punk band from the Midlands made much of an impression, but the post-Punk era was fruitful for the region, even if attention turned from the West Midlands to the East Midlands, when Coventry’s energetic hybrid of Punk and Jamaican Ska, reflecting the diverse melting pot of cultures courtesy of immigration, had a huge impact in the shape of the 2-Tone movement. The Specials were the front-runners, but Birmingham’s The Beat were also crucial to the scene; unrelated, but playing a similar blend of socially-conscious, mixed-race music (in the beginning, at least) were UB40. Concurrent with the rise of 2-Tone (and largely appealing to the same audience) were Dexy’s Midnight Runners, whose success was international rather than merely national. At the same time, Birmingham even spawned one of the few non-London mega-bands to emerge from the New Romantic movement, none other than Duran Duran; Birmingham also produced the short-lived (if briefly spectacular) career of Musical Youth.

By the end of the 80s, the likes of The Wonder Stuff, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Fuzzbox and Pop Will Eat Itself were Indie darlings and shortly crossed over to ‘Top of the Pops’, as did Brummies Ocean Colour Scene in the 90s, ensuring one of the country’s most overlooked musical hotbeds maintained a foothold in the charts. If one were to excise the Midlands from the UK’s Pop history, there would be some gaping holes in the story, so let’s acknowledge its role in that story. It’s quite a bostin’ one when all’s said and done.

© The Editor

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THEY’RE ALL GOING ON A SUMMER HOLIDAY

It may not be a long hot summer ahead of us – give or take the odd ‘phew, what a scorcher’ day – but it promises to be one in which our nation’s elected representatives plan and plot their enticing battle strategies for the autumn. As Westminster covers its furniture for a couple of months, MPs return to their constituencies and prepare not so much for government as for the next stage of the war. Being an observer and writer on events of this nature, I find these are invigorating times to be doing so. In the last three years, we’ve had two referendums (one regional, one national) and two General Elections; and none appear to have resolved any of the issues that prompted them in the first place. We seem to be in a permanent, if fascinating, state of flux.

I was talking to a friend the other day on how cinema and television mirror the political uncertainties of the day in their output; current offerings from ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ to ‘The Walking Dead’ and even the revived ‘Planet of the Apes’ series seem to me to reflect the mistrust and diminishing faith in the institutions that govern western society, a factor that has gathered pace post-9/11 and in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Interestingly, the last time this trend was so prominent was back in the 70s – with everything from ‘Survivors’ and ‘The Changes’ on the small screen to ‘Network’, ‘The Omega Man’, ‘Logan’s Run’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ on the big screen, dystopian portrayals of the near-future that characterised the contemporary concerns of the era that produced them.

Go back to the 50s – supposedly a far more stable era – yet we have the likes of ‘Invasion of the Body-Snatchers’ acting as a metaphor for McCarthyism, ‘Quatermass’ satirising the pre-war establishment’s flirtations with fascism as the British ruling class is infiltrated by aliens, and the post-Hiroshima fear of what the Atom Bomb left in its wake manifested as mutant creatures in ‘Tarantula’ or the Godzilla movies. After a rare bout of international optimism in the 90s – following celebrated events such as the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid that followed it – the shift in mood that for those on the left has been exacerbated by Brexit or the election of Trump has resulted in a return to the apocalyptic narrative in fiction.

How this relates to the current state of play in Blighty is easier to describe in escapist terms via the fresh upsurge in fantasy trash such as ‘Love Island’ or the ongoing and increasingly desperate talent show franchise acting as television ostriches with heads firmly buried in the sand. When the TV news is so relentless in its assault on the lingering shreds of naive belief that things can only get better, however, it’s no wonder the populace turns to the modern-day equivalent of the dance marathons of the Great Depression for superficial consolation or even the comforting embrace of Regency England in the likes of ‘Poldark’.

In a way, it’s no great surprise that this has happened when the public look to their leaders for guidance and see people at the top who appear to have such a slender grip on power that it could slip away at any given moment. When one considers we have a minority Government led by a Prime Minister so in denial of her own shortcomings and eager to enter into deals with anyone that can provide her administration with the illusion of strength and stability, whether Trump, the DUP or Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t inspire much in the way of confidence. Theresa May now takes time out from what must have been a personally devastating couple of months for her to calculate how she can survive until the end of the Brexit negotiations two years hence. She’ll dust herself down for the party conference season in September, but she knows the knives are out within her own Cabinet and she’s very much living on borrowed time. Who would envy her?

A year ago, it was Jeremy Corbyn who was facing assaults from his own side, yet Jezza has emerged from the wreckage of the General Election with his position undoubtedly strengthened and his Labour opponents weakened. His remarkable winning over of the general public from such a lowly starting point has both shown the irrelevance of Fleet Street in dictating opinion and how people respond positively to the relative novelty of a politician who seems to have genuine beliefs that aren’t necessarily dependent on the shifting sands of the consensus. His response to recent terrorist events and Grenfell have captured the public mood far more effectively than May’s awkward and stilted reaction, something that won’t do him any harm come the next visit to the polling station, whenever that may be.

The euphoric mood of the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party right now couldn’t contrast greater with the shambolic infighting of the Tories, and it certainly feels that electioneering for them didn’t end on June 8. Few would argue that should the realistic possibility of another General Election at any time over the next few months come to pass, Labour appear more likely to win it than the Conservatives; and the Conservatives are all-too aware of this, which is why they’re putting the inevitable leadership contest on hold for the time being. It doesn’t say much for their prospects that the attitude they’ve adopted seems to be ‘any Prime Minister is better than no Prime Minister’.

The reduced ambition of the Lib Dems, despite moderately increasing their Parliamentary head-count after the wipe-out of 2015, has been reflected in the unopposed election of Vince Cable as leader; this backwards step is reminiscent of when the Tories had Michael Howard in the hot-seat after William Hague’s retirement in 2001, almost an admission of irrelevance. Pursuing an anti-Brexit policy that includes a desire for another EU Referendum might win them a few fans amongst diehard Remainers, but the wider electorate have already accepted Brexit and just want it to be over and done with as quickly as possible.

So, the recess is with us and the respective parties are taking a break from daily duties in the Commons; but as Mrs May heads off for a hike in the Welsh mountains and Mr Corbyn retreats to his allotment, I doubt either will view the summer as a holiday. Both have challenges ahead of them that negate putting their feet up, and the business of either running the country or preparing to run it won’t pause just because there are sandcastles waiting to be built.

© The Editor

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REMAKE/REMODEL (RETRIAL)

I think I can probably say with a degree of shameful confidence that I was not the only man – or woman, come to that – whose first response upon hearing the bizarre case of Gayle Newland was ‘Why didn’t she video it?’ Okay, so it’s not something most would be especially proud of, but as sexual fantasies go it was certainly an original one and would have been a good deal more entertaining than the majority of those that stretch the nation’s broadband connections to breaking point in the wee small hours. Beyond the admirable dedication to deception by both parties (lest we forget), this particularly strange incident highlights the muddied moral and legal waters physical intimacy has become bogged down in.

For those not in the know, 27-year-old Gayle Newland seduced an allegedly unknowing female friend by entering into a post-‘Fifty Shades’ fantasy whereby the online (male) identity she had cultivated since the age of 13 arranged to meet with said friend. However, to maintain the mystery that ‘Miss X’ willingly entered into, somewhat kinky rules were laid down that the lady accepted from the off. We are told ‘Miss X’ had no idea who the man was that demanded she wear a blindfold even before the pair of them got down and dirty. A woman who only knows someone from (presumably) fruity online chinwags and then crosses the cyber boundary by meeting up with them in person agrees to never actually look the fellow in the eye? A complete stranger she voluntarily puts herself in the hands of with no regards for her personal safety whatsoever? Miss X is either the thickest woman on the planet or her claims of being deceived should’ve been thrown out of court on day one of the original trial.

Firstly, Gayle Newland must be a remarkable mimic. Some women are gifted with irresistibly sexy husky voices, but even the vocal talents of Joan Greenwood, Tara Fitzgerald or Fenella Fielding at their 40-a-day huskiest could hardly be confused with those of Barry White. There’s a world of tonal difference between the two that could only ever fool someone who either wants to be fooled or chooses to ignore the aural evidence. Even if she employed the technical tricks used by the likes of ‘Anonymous’ in disguising her voice, surely that should have set alarm bells ringing?

Secondly, Miss Newland’s elaborate tactics once her ‘victim’ acquiesced with her mystery man’s desire to get his leg over – binding her breasts and donning a strap-on dildo – would have brought Miss X’s other senses to the fore. Even if she couldn’t see the deception with her own eyes, she must be incredibly inexperienced in carnal matters if she cannot tell the difference between a facsimile penis and the real thing. And despite Newland’s best efforts, a woman’s body undoubtedly feels and smells different to a man’s – not quite as hairy, for one thing, especially at a time when anything pubic is verboten where the young female form is concerned.

So, we have a scenario wherein a woman embarks upon a sexual relationship with an anonymous stranger she initially met online and yet never lays eyes upon him, a sexual relationship that spanned at least ten different rounds of bedroom gymnastics, and yet all the time Miss X unswervingly believed she was being given one by a member of the opposite sex? Do me a favour! The whole assignation was wrapped in knowing fantasy from the moment the inaugural exchanges took place on the internet. This was implicit before the two even met in person, let alone when they did meet, and Miss X was never once allowed to see her seducer. Yet Gayle Newland received an eight–year prison sentence in 2015 and has just received a six-and-a-half year one after a retrial following an appeal.

There was an infamous case around twenty years back when a bunch of sadomasochistic gay guys were done for deliberately inflicting pain upon one another during a private gang-bang – something involving hammers, nails and other DIY tools that Black & Decker didn’t specifically design for such an occasion – and the general public’s response to the intervention of the police and the judiciary was largely that neither had any business interfering in something the participants entered into with full knowledge of what it would entail.

The Sexual Offences Act of 2003 states that a person agrees to sexual activity ‘if she/he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice’. Miss X agreed to sexual activity with Gayle Newland in her male alter-ego; granted, she didn’t realise she was being rogered by a woman she regarded as a platonic pal; but surely the thrill of the unknown was a key element of the gamble she decided to take when complying with the unconventional circumstances in the first place? After all, the mystery man could’ve been her father, for all she knew.

Gayle Newland was hardly alone in adopting a persona for online correspondence. Every contributor to this here blog, author and commentator, uses a pseudonym when posting, for example; and there are various long-established sites that take this one step further as nom-de-plumes are expanded into fictitious personas that enter into fantasy affairs with their fellow fantasists. One could argue both are harmless fun in which awareness on both sides invalidates accusations of deception. By transferring this kind of interaction from mobile or monitor to the bedroom, the two participants have to be conscious of what they’re doing; and by Miss X acquiescing with Newland’s admittedly odd demands, she was preparing to take a risk she ultimately took.

Had Gayle Newland killed Miss X in a hit-and-run accident, the sentence she received could well have been half the length of the original sentence she received in 2015 (as well as the one she received today) for having sex with her; had she inadvertently strangled her during one of their sex sessions, the sentence probably wouldn’t have been much longer than eight years. So, one has to ask the question why a consensual act of sexual intercourse – remember, Miss X didn’t object – has resulted in a mentally confused young woman addicted to the make-believe realm of cyberspace (hardly unique in 2017) being twice condemned to years behind bars. Is she being punished for what she did or the times in which she did it?

© The Editor

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YOU SAY, WE PAY

The amount of money people are paid in relation to the job they do has been quite a hot topic over the past year or so; the public sector pay issue is the one that won’t go away, and the series of strikes by junior doctors last year shone a spotlight on the subject that has intensified in its glaring luminance via the row over the Government’s refusal to budge on its public sector pay cap. Doctors, nurses, fire fighters, the police – all deemed to be engaged in occupations that we all benefit from and would struggle without. Recent terrorist atrocities and disasters have brought their front-line contribution into focus yet again, though we do live in a country in which envy and mistrust of the successful is easily translated into resentment of the money such figures earn.

The Daily Mail, one of many Fleet Street titles owned by billionaires registered as non-doms who avoid paying millions in tax on an annual basis as a consequence, has nevertheless added to its long-time anti-BBC agenda of late by excitedly speculating on the pay of its biggest stars. Former Culture Secretary John ‘Whiplash’ Whittingdale was one of the motivators behind a new contractual obligation when negotiating the BBC’s Royal Charter a couple of years ago, one that specified the corporation would have to reveal the wages of its highest earners. Any who earned over £150,000 would be ‘named and shamed’.

I noticed the story was the Mail’s front cover today and will probably fill the first three or four pages of the rag tomorrow. It makes the assumption people care about these things, and to be fair, I’m pretty sure many do; I can’t say I’m one of them, but I don’t read the Daily Mail either. In comparison to what, say, Premier League footballers earn on a weekly basis, even the annual salaries of the BBC’s highest-paid employees probably seem like loose change. But, lest we forget, the BBC is financed by those of us who pay our TV licences, so it counts as a special case.

Michael Grade, a man whose working life has more or less been spent entirely in television, points out that revealing these BBC salaries will inflate those salaries thereafter as commercial competitors will now know how much to tempt stars away with; not that this will concern the Daily Mail, naturally. ‘If the Government was concerned the BBC wasn’t giving value for money,’ said Grade, ‘then they should have cut the licence fee, and not intervened in people’s privacy and their own private affairs about what they’re paid.’

There is undoubtedly a curtain-twitching, nosy neighbour element to this story; the need to know what other people are paid can either be used as yardstick to measure the chasm between Us and Them or can provide an excuse to start a rant about nurses using food banks. Of course, nurses using food banks has little to do with how much Chris Evans is paid and a tad more to do with the Westminster villagers who insisted revealing the pay of the top earners when renegotiating the BBC Charter; but this fact won’t register when the nation’s curtain-twitchers are rooting around through Gary Lineker’s pay-cheques.

As I’m one of the few people I know who does actually pay for a TV licence, what concerns me isn’t really what the BBC pays its big guns out of the licence fee – and that’s all we’re getting via these revelations, by the way; additional payments from independent production companies don’t count. For me, it’s more a question of getting my money’s worth; when Tony Hall waffles on about ‘culture’ and simultaneously slashes the budget for BBC4 or Radio 4 whilst lashing out God-knows how much on endless variations of ‘Bake Off’ and the rest of the talent show circus, I don’t feel I’m receiving value. Content is what irks me, not payment; by trying to out-ITV ITV, the BBC is failing to do what it’s there for. It’s supposed to educate and inform as well as entertain. And droning on about ‘diversity’ once again is not the response to these revelations I want.

I wouldn’t expect the likes of Graham Norton or Claudia Winkleman to receive the same amount of money for doing what they do as someone receiving benefits in Scunthorpe. The entertainment world has always rewarded its stars way out of proportion to what they actually do; that’s why those stars live in nice parts of the country and most of us don’t. Millions of Americans may have been struggling knee-deep in poverty during the Great Depression of the 1930s, yet Hollywood treated its celluloid heroes and heroines like kings and queens. They lived in immense luxury in comparison to those marooned in the Midwest dustbowls, but the population still crammed into the cinemas to watch them. Does the Mail imagine knowing that Chris Evans is paid £2.2 million will suddenly provoke a massive fall in his Radio 2 listening figures?

Some jobs are paid better than others; that’s a simple fact. Hedge-fund managers and top City people earn astronomical amounts by average standards, and politicians don’t do badly out of the various directorships they can boast on top of their MPs salaries, not to mention the fees they receive for public speaking; just ask Gideon. Are any of them doing work more valuable than fighting fires and crime or healing the sick? So what are we supposed to make of the fact that some of the most famous names in television and radio earn a lot as well? It can hardly have come as a great surprise to any of us. Anyone with ambition would obviously like to earn enough money to live in relative comfort and to not have to worry about paying the rent; but only a small handful of professions facilitate that ambition. It’s not great, but it’s life.

© The Editor

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