LAST TRAIN TO MAIDENHEAD

The temporary suspension of collective responsibility within a Cabinet by a serving Prime Minister is not a decision taken lightly by the man/woman in charge; more often than not, the ramifications of releasing the shackles of the party line can give the individual Ministers an appetite for expressing personal opinions that they remain reluctant to relinquish thereafter. At the time of the 1975 EEC Referendum, Harold Wilson may have got the eventual result he wanted; but it’s arguable the left/right divide within Labour that was given such a public platform during the campaign sowed the seeds for the split that did so much damage to the party in the 80s.

Similarly, David Cameron giving free rein to the Brexiteers within his own Cabinet last year continues to threaten unity at the highest level; not only did the result of the EU Referendum cost Dave his job, but it seems to have started a trend amongst Ministers to publicly disagree with one another on a regular basis, something the shaky outcome of the General Election seems to have exacerbated. Theresa May’s weak authority and inability to keep a lid on Cabinet conferences has played its part in the publicised bickering between prominent members of that Cabinet; Brexit remains the most divisive issue, but at the moment one feels as though if one person sat around the table at No.10 didn’t care much for the digestive biscuits provided, the nation would know about it within hours.

Chancellor Philip Hammond is the current target surrounding many of the leaks, accused by one unnamed colleague of trying to ‘f*** up Brexit’ and by another of claiming ‘even a woman can drive a train’ when public sector pay was under discussion. Of course, many of those feeding these stories from Downing Street to the press are rather eager to make the PM’s residence their address for the next four or five years, and the headlines reflect the struggle to topple Mrs May that is undeniably underway. She might hope threatening them with ‘it’s me or Corbyn’ will dampen the jostling for succession over the summer recess; but the hard slog of running a minority administration with a Cabinet of power-hungry backstabbers has the potential to break even a deluded martinet like Theresa May come the autumn.

Another divisive issue that has been around longer than Brexit and may well outlast it is that of HS2. The latest news of the proposed route for the white elephant express has added a layer of irony to a housing crisis in which not enough new or affordable homes are being built. It emerged yesterday that the planned eastern route of the line – from Leeds to Birmingham – will run east of Sheffield and not be served by any new stations in South Yorkshire; using Sheffield’s main city centre station means the route will plough through a newly-built housing estate in nearby Mexborough. The official Government statement claims only 16 of the 216 homes will make way for the line, but sceptical residents don’t accept this; they also question the compensation payments they’ll be entitled to that the Government initially said would enable them to purchase another home of equivalent value in the area.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling bigged-up the scheme yet again in the Commons yesterday and attempted to dismiss its numerous critics by reading from the usual ‘economic benefits’ script that accompanies any project in which people stand to lose both homes and businesses; but when one recalls Grayling’s abysmal performances in his previous Ministerial posts, any reassurances from him are hardly likely to fill those in HS2’s firing line with confidence. The South Yorkshire section of the route was unveiled a year ago, but confirmation of it yesterday prompted Rotherham’s Labour MP Sarah Champion to tweet ‘South Yorkshire will now get all of the disruption of HS2 without the benefit.’

As one resident of the new Mexborough estate that will be partially demolished to make way for the line said, ‘Bear in mind this is the construction of a viaduct that’s going to be 20ft in the sky coming within 10ft of your property, and they say, “it’s okay, your property isn’t one that has to be knocked down”.’ The construction of London’s Westway flyover in the late 60s caused similar damage as it cut a brutal swathe through North Kensington, whereas an entire centuries-old village was obliterated by the building of the Scammonden Dam and Reservoir that comprised the construction of the M62 motorway during the same period. Any project of this nature tends to dramatically alter the landscape and affect those that inhabit it, but such disruption in recent decades has largely been down to accommodating the motorcar; the railways were last the source of such opposition and upset in the nineteenth century.

HS2 was a contentious subject in Government circles long before Theresa May seized power and will remain so for her successor, whoever that may be. The route will pass through upwards of 70 Parliamentary constituencies and MPs have been inundated with demands from constituents to vote against the scheme, many of them Tories. The official Government line on HS2 is currently holding steady, but the PM’s failure to prevent leaks and to gag her most outspoken Ministers at the moment suggests if any issue that divides the public is just as likely to divide the Cabinet, chances are we’ll find out about it pretty quickly. When her position is somewhat perilous to say the least, Theresa May can ill-afford to allow the current state of play to continue; but it would appear she’s already lost the battle.

© The Editor

THE DOCTOR’S SURGERY

I suppose it can be seen either way – a natural progression or a politically-correct concession. I suspect most long-term viewers will see it as the latter, as it appears to chime with the BBC’s tiresome ‘diversity’ agenda. In case you didn’t know (or, quite possibly, you don’t care), it was announced today that the lead character in ‘Doctor Who’ will now be played by an actress…sorry, we’re not allowed to say actress now, are we? I meant, of course, female actor. Yes, TV’s Time Lord has had a sex change. Not only can his superior species regenerate their bodies when they reach the end of their lives and undergo metamorphosis into a younger model; they can now also change their genitals in the process.

Anyone still watching was given an indication this is possible for Time Lords via the transformation of the Doctor’s nemesis The Master into ‘Missy’, a female incarnation, a couple of years ago. Actually, Michelle Gomez played a rather good part and introduced a new dynamic into the old enemies’ relationship. In a way, this is partially why the people behind a series retrieved from the anorak convention circuit and dragged into the twenty-first century zeitgeist back in 2005 have opted for such a headline-grabbing gimmick. As much as I personally enjoyed Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor, ratings were a long way off the peak years under David Tenant – a combination of poor writing and haphazard scheduling – and what better way to give it one more reboot (or deliberately bury it) than to take the ultimate gamble?

From the off, the role of female characters in ‘Doctor Who’ was as clearly defined as female characters in most TV dramas that began in the early 60s (with the honourable exceptions of Honor Blackman in ‘The Avengers’ and the women of ‘Coronation Street’). The Doctor’s first sidekick-in-a-skirt was his ‘granddaughter’ Susan, who established the screaming tradition when confronted by an alien adversary like The Daleks. This remained more or less the standard pattern until the arrival of Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah-Jane Smith in 1973, who pointed the way towards more ‘liberated’ and gutsy female companions such as Ace (who was one of the few bright spots in the dreary Sylvester McCoy era) and Billie Piper’s Rose, who was crucial to the spectacular re-launch with Christopher Ecclestone.

Although the masterminding of the show’s revival in the noughties was largely down to a long-time devotee of the series, Russell T Davies, the conscious post-modern approach to the revival was a key element of its overnight success; the ‘naff’ label that had been attached to it in the 80s – not entirely unwarranted when one recalls the presence of Bonnie Langford – required some serious surgery to render it relevant again. This approach succeeded by cleverly blending the behind-the-sofa creepiness that had been important in its original appeal to children with some arch humour designed to catch the ears of adolescents onwards; and it worked.

Ecclestone’s brief one-series stint in the role was followed by David Tenant, who took the show to heights of popularity it hadn’t seen since the Tom Baker era; Tenant’s portrayal itself was a winning one, and the standard of writing was particularly high for a drama aired at teatime. He was superseded by the far younger Matt Smith as the show also changed hands at a production level when Russell T Davies made way for Stephen Moffat. After an encouraging start – and the introduction of a female companion guaranteed to give many little boys their first TV crush in the shape of Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond – the writing style of Moffat (also evident in his simultaneous ‘Sherlock’), by which he both baffles and bewilders viewers with layers of complexity that often add up to bugger all, served to alienate the audience and hardcore fans alike.

The strength of ‘Doctor Who’ as an ongoing series that has been on our screens since 1963 (bar a sixteen-year break between 1989 and 2005) is the ingenious device that marked the retirement of William Hartnell from the role in 1966 – the fact that the Doctor can change his appearance whilst maintaining the same mind. Patrick Troughton was the first actor to be the ‘new’ Doctor and brilliantly mastered the art of this highly original solution to changing the lead actor at periodical intervals that has been the blueprint ever since. Other long-running series, such as the James Bond movies, don’t have this advantage; M never comments on the fact that 007 looks like a different bloke after every three or four films, for example.

The most recent companion for the Doctor was ‘Bill’, a mixed-raced lesbian (as was no doubt pointed out with outrage online at the time); and whilst there’s no reason why a character in such a high-profile series can’t be a mixed-raced lesbian, there’s always the suspicion of a PC quota or the same agenda to the arrival of a character whose ethnicity or sexuality is so well advertised that has been a hallmark of ‘Eastenders’ from day one. The fact that the Doctor him/herself is now to be a woman emits a similar cynical odour.

I have a feeling Jodie Whittaker (the new Doctor) doesn’t quite know what she’s let herself in for; an online assault is inevitable, long before she even utters her first line. Yes, Doctor Who is a fairly unique character in that he/she adheres to few conventions, so a considerable degree of slack can be cut. But I certainly don’t envy the ‘actress’ entrusted with the make-or-break responsibility of winning over an audience that – outside of feminist campaigners who will inevitably shower the Beeb in praise at this announcement – has begun to drift away from a show that has enough flexibility inherent in its format to make it fresh with every change in direction. This is one hell of a change and the jury will be out for quite some time. The success or failure of its future is now in the hands of one woman – as it ironically was in 1963, when Verity Lambert produced it. For the superstitious among you, Jodie Whittaker will be the thirteenth Doctor…

© The Editor

B-DAY

It’s been quite another eventful week for the B word – the one that has no doubt already earned its inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary because of its ubiquitous presence on so many tongues; I wasn’t even going to write about it again today, but how can one ignore it when that retired Messiah Mr Blair has intervened yet again? His long exile from the political arena apparently over now, Blair’s intervention in the ongoing debate has kept it at the forefront of popular discourse. Discredited by adventures in Iraq he may be, but Tony knows when he speaks, people pay attention; whether or not what he has to say is what people want to hear is debatable.

Blair’s own concept of a ‘Soft Brexit’ was aired today as he put forth the notion of the UK remaining in the single market with an EU compromise on the contentious issue of free movement. His idea of an ‘outer circle’, a one foot in/one foot out proposal he believes would suit the Remain crowd whilst simultaneously satisfying moderate Brexiteers is not one that most would regard as remotely feasible.

Tony’s latest light-bulb looks on the surface like an unrealistic and unrealisable fantasy that is essentially rejecting the will of the British people (or at least the majority that voted Leave) and hinges its hopes on Emmanuel Macron’s promises of far-reaching EU reforms that many on this side of the Channel would take with a pinch of Great British salt. It has no more credibility than the EU assurances given to David Cameron during his desperate attempts to secure a new deal for the UK in Brussels before the Referendum.

This new crumb of comfort for Remoaners comes at the end of a week in which the so-called Repeal Bill has been unveiled in a cauldron of controversy. Opposition from the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales has been complemented by Labour demands for no opting out of the European Convention of Human Rights – something the Government denies is part of the process, anyway. For Labour, of course, the autumn debate on the issue presents it with an opportunity to trigger another General Election should its promise to vote against the proposed bill as it stands receive enough support to defeat it in the Commons. That would effectively be a vote of no confidence in the Government, and the outcome could be catastrophic for the Tories.

So much emphasis has been placed on the much-publicised (and criticised) mock-coalition with the DUP, some might think the bribery involved can carry any legislation through Parliament; but the ‘repatriation’ of certain EU laws to the British statue book being the first crucial stage of the post-Article 50 Brexit process means a good deal of future aspects of the process hinge on its success – and that success is in no way guaranteed at the moment, DUP support or no. A week that began with a minor aristocrat being reprimanded in the courts for essentially offering to finance a hit-and-run of Gina Miller, whether or not it was a tasteless tongue-in-cheek quip on social media, demonstrates that this issue continues to enflame passions on both sides.

Labour’s own take on Brexit has never really been as clearly defined as the Conservative one; Jeremy Corbyn’s invisibility during the Referendum campaign last year was much commented on at the time and arguably played its part in the doomed challenge to his leadership from Owen Smith that followed. Perhaps reflecting Jezza’s new strength as Labour leader, he met with the EU’s chief negotiator Michael Barnier in Brussels a couple of days ago; the meeting would suggest Corbyn reckons he’ll soon be in a position to orchestrate the direction of the UK’s Brexit strategy. Theresa May’s own position is so precarious, even after the cry for help to Ulster, that it would be a surprise if Corbyn hadn’t made approaches to Brussels to set his own party’s stall out on Brexit.

Yes, there are undoubtedly more Remainers within the Labour Party than on the Tory backbenches, but their eternal opposition to Jezza’s leadership had little bearing on the party’s performance in June’s General Election; if another Election is called before the year is out, their voices will be largely irrelevant in the overall picture when it comes to Labour’s Brexit stance, relegated to the same unloved echo chamber as the Lib Dems. Unless the most vocal Remainers of all parties unite their grievances under a new party banner soon, their constant interference in the democratic process will serve to further alienate the electorate from Parliament and further erode trust in the ability of Westminster to do its duty.

Boris Johnson, displaying his usual bullish theatricality in the Commons, declared the EU could ‘go whistle’ if it expected an ‘extortionate’ payment from the UK as part of the divorce bill; yet David Davis appeared to contradict the Foreign Secretary’s comedy Churchillian turn yesterday by admitting the cost of the divorce would probably be rather extortionate after all. Conflicting statements such as these emanating from the same Cabinet don’t really help clarify matters, though perhaps they reflect the absence of certainties that continue to bedevil the whole issue.

© The Editor

THIS CORROSION

A notorious scene in the cult crime serial from the late 60s, ‘Big Breadwinner Hog’, jammed ITV switchboards at the time of its original broadcast; in it, a gangster throws acid in the face of a rival. The scene is unusually violent for 1969 and still seems pretty horrific today; indeed, the relative rarity of such a vile crime gives it added shock value. Unfortunately, the stringent gun laws in this country and the heavy sentences for knife crime have now forced real-life villains into utilising what was an unusual weapon in a make-believe drama fifty years ago, making it a grim and gruesome reality.

It doesn’t really do much for one’s diminishing faith in human nature when human beings are so inventive at devising new and unpleasant means of inflicting pain upon their fellow man. The news that two teenagers (aged just 15 and 16 respectively) have been arrested in the unlovely London borough of Hackney following five separate and unimaginably awful acid-throwing sprees from a moped last night is the latest in an increasing series of robberies and attacks involving corrosive substances in the capital; while some are believed to be gang-related, others appear callously random, done without either knowledge of or, (more likely) an absolute disregard of, the serious disfiguring damage acid can cause.

Throwing acid is not a specific crime in itself; most arrested for it have been charged with GBH, whereas knife attacks are regarded as attempted murder. The easy availability of corrosive substances and the fact sentencing isn’t in line with knife crime combine with relative ignorance of the long-term effects acid can have on victims of it. In a week in which some brain-dead chavvy dimwit hit the headlines by subjecting her baby to utterly unnecessary and unbelievably cruel cosmetic surgery in the shape of ear-piercing, it’s worth realising surgery of a different nature is the usual aftermath of an acid attack; the most serious injuries can require upwards of 20 painful plastic surgery operations, and even then the legacy of the damage done is usually evident somewhere on the body.

There is also understandable psychological damage caused by acid attacks, something partially dealt with by a charity called Acid Survivors Trust International. Although there have been a small handful of well-publicised acid attacks in recent years, many have been on pretty girls whose jilted lovers or spurned stalkers have sought to ruin the looks of. The current rise of such attacks in London has largely been reserved for men, and the increase now means, according to the Acid Survivors Trust International, the UK is the shameful world leader in them.

In this country, there are no age restrictions on purchasing household cleaning products that contain acid; some of the few restrictions are related to bulk-buying of such goods for businesses, something that falls under ‘explosives, precursors and poisons’ rules; another restriction is on the sale of sulphuric acid, though mainly due to its status as a potential ingredient in the manufacture of explosives. Otherwise, anyone can buy a bottle that can easily become a dangerous weapon, though why would anyone be carrying a bottle in their jacket pocket unless intending a premeditated attack? Only last month, two men were seriously maimed when acid was thrown at them through their car window; and there was an equally appalling attack at a Hackney nightclub in April that left 20 people with severe burns and two blinded in one eye.

Police figures released earlier this year showed acid attacks had risen from 261 in 2015 to 458 in 2016; a third of them took place in the east London borough of Newham, with few making it to trial. 74% of cases from 2014 onwards were abandoned due to the reluctance of many victims to press charges, which would certainly support the theory that corrosive substances have become key weapons in gang-related violence. Still, since 2010, there have been 1,800 reported cases, which make for pretty depressing reading.

Gang culture itself is a side-effect of poverty and urban depravation, when those who feel they have nothing will grab at anything that provides them with the status and importance that cleaning tables wearing a paper hat probably doesn’t. Not much gang-related crime in Chipping Norton, one imagines. And, of course, gang culture as a product of poverty is nothing new; some of the worst poverty-stricken areas of the UK have had gang violence as part of their makeup for centuries; one could go back to the infamous Gorbals tenements of Glasgow in the 1930s or even to Fagin’s den of thieves in ‘Oliver Twist’ for evidence of that. The weapons of choice have depended on how far gangs have progressed to professional organised crime ala the Krays or the Richardsons, from razors to knives to guns and now to corrosive liquids.

Even if one takes gang culture into account where the current upsurge in acid attacks is concerned, however, the likelihood of someone who has no connection with gangs being targeted just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time seems extremely high. When gang members are busy killing each other or their rivals, it’s easy to step back and leave them to it; when members of the public are added to the hit-list, as appeared to be the case in the barbaric series of assaults in Hackney last night, then it becomes particularly scary for everyone. And that’s when action is usually taken. We can only hope that this time it is.

© The Editor

DIG FOR VICTORY

Trump and Russia – it’s the gift that keeps giving and one that continues to give hope to those who couldn’t accept the Donald’s victory last November. Fake news issues aside, the problem with the constant insinuations and rumours that have bedevilled the Trump presidency ever since before the inauguration is that they simply won’t go away; even if there has yet to be any absolute and indisputable proof that Russia played its part in Trump’s triumph, small scraps are being constantly thrown up as teasing trailers for the Big Reveal. How long do we have to wait for it, though? Shouldn’t we have had it by now?

There are too many with a vested interest in Trump’s removal from office to let the Russia connection slip off the radar, and their constant carping in media circles makes it hard to sometimes see the wood for the trees. How deep does Russian involvement in Trump’s victory go, and was there any real involvement at all? Some of us just want the facts, but there are so many conflicting elements at the heart of this ongoing story that it’s often difficult to decide what genuine crimes have been committed and what angles are being promoted merely to undermine the current administration at the White House.

President Trump’s son Donald Jr meeting a Russian lawyer during the Presidential Election campaign and being promised ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton was something daddy’s boy decided to confirm to the media this week as a pre-emptive strike against the New York Times. Even if Trump Jr claims the meeting was ‘a wasted 20 minutes’ and excavated no desired dirt, the release of emails confirming the heir to the Trump fortune did indeed meet with a certain Natalia Veselnitskaya during the campaign in the hope of gaining an advantage over his father’s opponent can be viewed as further proof that the Kremlin had an influence on the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election – or not. Ms Veselnitskaya apparently carries no weight whatsoever in Russian government circles.

Those of us who remember the ‘hanging chads’ debacle of 2000 will know by now that long-running sagas arising from contentious Presidential Elections are nothing new, and the allegations surrounding Russia and Trump are the latest in a series of awkward associations that perhaps stretch as far back as JFK’s Mafia connections in 1960. Unless definite evidence emerges one way or the other, the rumours will linger as long as people are interested enough to pursue them, and Trump has so many enemies in America that the interests of those who are desperately seeking any advantage they can gain over the Donald will naturally receive excessive media coverage, whether rooted in genuine fact or not.

The President has unsurprisingly leapt to his son’s defence this week via the medium that Trump Senior depends upon as a means of sidestepping what he perceives as a perennially hostile press – Twitter; he regards coverage of Trump Junior’s confession as ‘the great witch-hunt in political history’. At the same time, the Kremlin has denied the lawyer who had dealings with Trump’s son had any damaging info on Clinton, while the lawyer herself also claims she wasn’t in possession of the kind of goods that could have been useful to the Trump campaign, despite the fact that she met the President Elect’s son at Trump Tower in June 2016.

It goes without saying that any kind of dirt on one’s political opponent can be regarded as an advantage during a campaign, so if Trump’s son thought he had the likelihood of receiving any last year he’d have been foolish to spurn the opportunity; but Hillary Clinton had such an impressive back catalogue of accessible dirt already available in the public arena that one cannot but wonder why Team Trump had to enter into any association with Russian representatives to add to that back catalogue. One can only assume naivety played its part, perhaps; after all, this was one of the most inexperienced teams in terms of public office ever to run for the White House. Then again, that’s assuming there was any collusion between Trump and Russia in 2016, and the jury remains out on it.

2016’s no-holds-barred campaign was characterised by dirt-digging; yes, dirt is an integral element of political campaigning, but both sides dug deeper for it in 2016 than had ever been seen before. The bizarre line-up of women pushed forward who claimed to have been sexually preyed upon by either Trump or Mr Clinton was just one ugly aspect of the campaign that marked it out as uniquely amoral. But a foreign government allegedly intervening in a US Presidential Election is a new development; lest we forget, it’s a tactic usually reserved for the US itself, certainly where numerous South American countries have been concerned over the decades.

Trump claims he asked Putin if Russia had intervened when the pair met in person for the first time during last week’s G20 summit; naturally, Vlad denied the allegations, and the President appears satisfied with that denial. He also claims he had no idea his son met the Russian lawyer until a few days ago, though added he wouldn’t have objected had he known at the time. It must be endlessly frustrating for Trump’s opponents that they just can’t get hold of what they really want; maybe they never will because it simply isn’t out there. But I’ve no doubt they’ll keep digging.

© The Editor

WORD UP

OK, those easily offended, look away now. Actually, if you were the easily offended type, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog anyway, so no need for a BBC announcer-style warning. It may have been designated Phrase of the Day by the press, but ‘Nigger in the woodpile’ is not a phrase I’ve ever heard used by anyone, though as I don’t count any backbench Tory MPs amongst my friends, it’s no wonder it’s not one I’m familiar with. I suspect out in the blue-rinsed Shires it may well be the kind of expression that often accompanies a grouse-shoot or a fox-hunt, which means the majority of the population are not likely to use it; this isn’t necessarily due to any racist element, but more the fact that most people in this country aren’t ‘six-toed, born-to-rule pony-f***ers’ (as a character on ‘The Thick of It’ once eloquently put it).

Conservative MP for the mean streets of Newton Abbot in Devon, Anne Marie Morris was captured on tape using the phrase in a Brexit debate held at the East India Club: ‘Now we get to the real nigger in the woodpile, which, in two years what happens if there is no deal?’ Recorded by the Huffington Post, Ms Morris’s words hit the headlines and the floodgates of outrage opened. She may have issued an apology within an hour of them going viral, but the fact she nonchalantly used such a term in the first place says more about a particular mindset that still exists in some Tory circles. It’s the same mindset that was evident when Carol Thatcher was ousted from a regular TV spot for referring to someone as a ‘golliwog’.

Unlike, say, some rabid Britain First fanatic, what Anne Marie Morris said was said without malice, just an absolute lack of awareness that such a phrase would cause any offence to anyone. Even though Theresa May has ordered the Tory chief whip to suspend Mrs Morris, there are probably plenty of ladies and gentlemen on the golf courses of the Home Counties today who can’t understand what all the fuss is about. The reaction from Anne Marie Morris’s fellow Parliamentarians isn’t, as some may suggest, the OTT reaction of a metropolitan PC elite quick to take offence at the drop of a hat; I would imagine it stretches way beyond that as the nation is reminded once again how the other half not so much live as think.

To be fair to Theresa May, I don’t believe her response was the familiar knee-jerk one leading politicians often resort to, the kind provoked by the need to be seen to adhere to the social consensus. Rather, like many Tories to have sprung from a middle-class provincial background, she no doubt winces every time one of the gentry branch of the party utters some archaic expression that is probably still common parlance on the playing fields of Eton, the sort that instantly reveals how cocooned they remain from what is usually referred to as ‘the real world’. Tory Peer Lord Dixon-Smith also said ‘nigger in the woodpile’ during a Lords debate almost ten years ago, and David Cameron stood by him.

As soon as she took charge of the Conservative Party, one of Theresa May’s first tasks was to try to detoxify it of the privileged public schoolboy image it had acquired under Cameron and Osborne, for she knew all too well that it was a factor that alienated the electorate. The problem for the PM is that her party is dependent on that particular Tory element, and not just financially. Yes, she’ll gladly take their money, but she has no choice but to acknowledge their footslogging during an Election campaign because she knows they keep Toryism going, even if – like an embarrassing uncle with wandering hands when he’s had a drop too much at a wedding reception – she’d prefer it if they didn’t come out in the open and frighten the horses.

Yes, the ever-annoying Caroline Lucas was wearing her most simpering Harriet Harman face and stating the bleedin’ obvious as per on the telly, and a rash of MPs of all parties have roundly condemned what was said; but even if the usual suspects were queuing up to make their outrage public, most people outside of Parliament simply wouldn’t use such an antiquated and denigrated word anymore and would find the fact anyone would as representative of both their background and their detachment from the majority. Even as a kid in the 1970s, ‘nigger’ wasn’t heard as much in my neck of the woods as ‘nig-nog’, which was regularly aired on the likes of ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and therefore exposed to the Plebs.

It’s true that, over the last two or three decades, ‘nigger’ has become a reclaimed word, but only in specific circles. A few years back, a white middle-class girl who referred to a black member of the ‘Big Brother’ household as ‘ma nigger’ simply because she wanted to appear ‘cool’ and ‘street’ was ejected in an instant; but the casual use of it amongst black youths has never sat comfortably on the shoulders of their parents, who had to endure it as an insult for most of their lives. Similarly, when ‘Queer’ was reclaimed by some younger gay men in the 90s, quite a few older ones weren’t exactly ecstatic about it.

Context counts; and in the context of a backbench Tory MP from a certain social demographic, a phrase like ‘nigger in the woodpile’ will be said unthinkingly and without a clue as to its ramifications beyond that demographic. I don’t necessarily believe using the phrase makes Anne Marie Morris a card-carrying racist; it just makes her look f***ing stupid.

© The Editor

NON-STOP ECSTATIC CROONING

I wouldn’t ordinarily mark a birthday on here, but I make an honourable exception today because I felt like it. Marc Almond is 60 today – yes, you heard it right. Bloody sixty! Anyone witness to the dramatic debut of the twenty-something Soft Cell on ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1981 will probably struggle to accept that fact, but it’s true. In a way, however, Marc Almond has grown into his middle-aged skin rather well; a noted admirer of older performers such as Scott Walker and the whole torch-song genre, Almond never possessed the juvenile mindset of Rock ‘n’ Roll and its desperate search for a fountain of youth. He seemed suited to the crooner persona, and you can’t be a crooner in skinny jeans.

To have made it to 60 at all is quite an achievement for Almond. In 2004 he was involved in a potentially-fatal road accident when he was thrown from his motorbike near St Paul’s Cathedral, leaving him in a coma for several weeks. It was quite disconcerting watching the regional news on Yorkshire Television at the time this happened, as the accident was presented as a virtual obituary. Thankfully, Almond pulled through, and the proper obituaries could be shelved for another day. The fact YTV covered the accident in such a major way reflected the impact as a ‘local act’ Soft Cell had in the early 80s; but they had quite an impact nationwide.

Gary Numan had pioneered the escape of electronic music from the experimental, avant-garde ghetto it had long been assigned all the way to the top of the charts. ‘Are Friends Electric?’ hitting No.1 in the summer of 1979 was a pivotal moment in the transformation of synthesizers being merely rock band decoration to becoming lead instruments in their own right and it proved such a sound was commercial dynamite in the right hands. It took a year or two for Numan to be joined by other electronic (or ‘Synth Pop’) acts, but 1981 was a crucial year in the change. It began with Ultravox’s grandiose ballad ‘Vienna’ stuck behind Joe bloody Dolce at No.2 and ended with The Human League occupying the pinnacle with ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ In between these two events was a minor revolution.

Along with the arrival of a band such as Depeche Mode, who dispensed with the guitar-bass-and drums formula altogether in favour of a purely electronic armoury, there was a rash of painted faces gate-crashing stale pop programmes that signified a sea-change. Inspired by the ‘anyone can do it’ DIY Punk ethic as well as the synthesized soundscapes of Kraftwerk and the arty Glam of the previous decade (as represented by Bowie and Roxy), the newcomers were often lumped in with London’s New Romantic movement and its most striking spokesman, Steve Strange of Visage. But the likes of Phil Oakey, David Sylvian and Marc Almond had been operating in isolation on the underground grapevine for quite some time, biding their time until the mainstream caught up with them. And in 1981 it did.

Marc Almond and David Ball were both refugees from rundown British seaside towns (Southport and Blackpool respectively) who forged an alliance at Leeds University in the late 70s, a seat of learning receptive to musical misfits at the time; Scritti Politti were formed there more or less simultaneously with Soft Cell. Ball and Almond’s project was initially more of an experimental performance outfit; few would’ve earmarked the pair for future pop stardom. But the kitsch theatrical garishness they embraced, combined with Ball’s synths and Almond’s outré appearance, was soon to cross over from limited cult appeal to the top ten because the top ten was suddenly ready for them.

Signing to one of the numerous thriving indie labels of the era, Soft Cell’s recording career began inauspiciously with a characteristically uncommercial electronic work-out called ‘Memorabilia’; but following a headline-grabbing turn at Leeds’ Futurama Festival, one of the must-see showcases for new ‘alternative’ acts at the turn of the 80s, they covered a little-known Northern Soul classic called ‘Tainted Love’. Marc Almond had been introduced to the track via his teenage devotion to T.Rex; Marc Bolan’s girlfriend Gloria Jones had sung the original. Released in the summer of ’81, the rise of ‘Tainted Love’ gathered pace when – as happened so often back then – Soft Cell were invited on to ‘Top of the Pops’.

The Sex Pistols remained the benchmark for outrage at the beginning of the 80s and few thought their particular brand of it could be surpassed. But 1981 was the year of a new kind of subversion, and – along with Phil Oakey’s unique haircut and pierced nipple – few did it better than Soft Cell. Clad in black and camp as a row of tents, Marc Almond provoked an instant generational divide in the nation’s households, one that accelerated when ‘Tainted Love’ went all the way to No.1 and ended up as the year’s best-selling single. It even made the US top ten, spending more weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 than ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (excuse the Paul Gambaccini moment).

The first duo to have such an impact on the charts since the equally eccentric Sparks in the 70s, Soft Cell became an overnight sensation, following ‘Tainted Love’ with a string of top tenners over the next year, including the brilliantly overwrought ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ and the fantastic ‘Torch’. Their foray into the US charts enabled them to become regulars on New York’s club scene, where they sampled ecstasy years before it became the clubbers’ drug of choice this side of the pond; but the unexpected pop stardom they were hardly prepared for punctured the left-field principles their generation still held dear, and they embarked upon a somewhat self-destructive path; this was particularly evident on the superbly fractured albums, ‘The Art of Falling Apart’ and ‘This Last Night in Sodom’.

Already fronting Marc and the Mambas when Soft Cell were still operational, the band’s split in 1984 saw Almond establish an idiosyncratic solo career that has remained his trademark ever since. He stubbornly follows his own path, occasionally gracing the upper echelons of the charts and even returning to the top spot in a duet with Gene Pitney in 1989; but what makes Almond special is that he belongs to that elite group whose members have included the likes of Julian Cope, Roy Harper, Richard Thompson and Billy MacKenzie, the Great British Musical Outsiders who do what they want to do, whether the wider public wants it or not.

Almond’s sexuality, whilst as obvious as Freddie Mercury’s, remained something that was left to the imagination to begin with; being openly gay was still perceived as career suicide in the early 80s; even Boy George avoided the issue. Come 1984 and the arrival of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bronski Beat, however, the closet door had been kicked open and Almond no longer had to change the subject. But their breakthrough wouldn’t have been possible had not Marc Almond invaded our living rooms before them. Lest we forget, the gloriously kinky ‘Sex Dwarf’ video appeared two years prior to ‘Relax’. We live in different times today, and it’s thanks to the likes of Marc Almond that we do. So raise a glass to one of our one-offs. They’re fewer and far between in 2017, so we need to cherish the ones we’ve still got.

© The Editor

THE HUMAN TOUCH

A couple of days ago I walked into my local bank and saw a sign on the counter informing customers this particular branch would be closing in November. It’s been my ‘local’ for about fifteen years, and whilst I don’t use it as much as I once did (online banking, what can I say?), the fact it’s disappearing from a provincial high-street that, like most, would at one time have boasted perhaps half-a-dozen different banks says a good deal about…well…the here and now. The provincial high-street in question used to contain a variety of businesses that are now becoming increasingly rare sights – banks, post offices, gas showrooms, pubs, newsagents etc; but, as befitting a nation of fat bastards, there’s no shortage of places to eat there today. Every other shop seems to cater for the appetite.

Not so long ago, every financial transaction required interaction with another human being. If one needed to pay a bill or withdraw cash or receive some form of benefit, one had to visit a building and queue-up to enter into said transaction. There was no choice; everyone had to do it because that’s the way it was done. There wasn’t the generational divide that now exists – the one between those who are internet-literate and those over a certain age, who aren’t online and who are finding the transformation of every service into a virtual one a minefield of misunderstanding. Often, the latter are also reliant on public transport; the news that the closing branch of my local bank means any in-person dealings with it will now require a journey of several miles to the next nearest branch is symbolic of a change that arrogantly assumes everyone has one foot in cyberspace, when they don’t.

As far as banks go in the rapidly changing high-street landscape, the status of the branch’s top dog has been severely diminished. The bank manager, as with the GP or publican, was once a prominent figure within communities; he was the regular butt of jokes and a familiar presence on sitcoms, whereby characters would visit him in the hope of a loan, usually to be rebuffed. He was portrayed as pompous, somewhat self-important and authoritarian in a headmasterly manner. Lest we forget, Captain Mainwaring’s day-job was a bank manager. These days, the bank manager as a symbol of a certain kind of old-school British seniority has all-but vanished from the culture, along with the physical incarnation of the institution he represented.

When I started school at five, I recall every pupil being given a bank account and a little bankbook to go with it. This curious system wasn’t extended to any other school I attended, and there probably wasn’t much more than 50p in our respective accounts; but I remembered this quaint story the other day and realised the humble bankbook now seems poised to go the same way as the black & white TV set. I pay my rent at the bank and have my bankbook updated in the process, though ever since I started banking online I tend to check what’s gone in and what’s gone out that way rather than checking my bankbook. Yes, I’m as guilty as the next man.

The cash-machine has been with us far longer than we tend to imagine, with the first UK model appearing in 1967; ‘On the Buses’ star Reg Varney famously earned his place in history as the first person in this country to withdraw money from an ATM (at the Enfield branch of Barclays). But while this now commonplace sight may be fifty years old, it’s fair to say it didn’t acquire the omnipotence it possesses today until perhaps the 1990s, when it became far more abundant outside supermarkets as well as banks themselves; most still visited the bank to get their hands on their money. But the proliferation of cash-machines was the first pre-internet step in detaching customers from human contact.

There’s a mid-60s episode of ‘The Avengers’ in which a mad scientist played by Michael Gough is determined to make all businesses fully automated; the novelty of entering business premises in which human beings are absent and a card is required to open doors and access goods is evident in Steed’s reaction. But while Gough’s character may have been ahead of his time, the downside to his vision is that he has also created a race of robotic humanoids he calls Cybernauts to do the manual labour his business needs; this being ‘The Avengers’, these Cybernauts naturally do a good deal more than merely lifting boxes. However, when one bears in mind the episode aired at a time when the production lines of the nation’s motor industry were still dependent on men putting the hours in, it now looks extremely prescient.

The writing team on ‘The Avengers’ probably didn’t anticipate that automated industry would eventually stretch to so many areas of our future lives, but the onset of the internet has accelerated the transformation of society from the manual to the automated far more than even they could have guessed. Don’t get me wrong; cyber-shopping has made life a hell of a lot easier for me personally. I now buy the likes of CDs and DVDs more or less exclusively online, which is a Godsend because I hate shopping. When I think about it, though, it’s not so much shopping I detest as the places I’d have to do it in if I couldn’t do it online, such as ghastly malls. My aversion to crowds is a deterrent too; I now no longer have to enter that arena thanks to cyberspace, for which I am grateful.

For some transactions, however, the human touch remains something strangely reassuring, and the closure of a local bank branch is not dissimilar to another depressingly contemporary development, i.e. the closure of a local pub. The retirement of one’s GP, necessitating relocation to a ‘medical centre’ where one is shoved before a different doctor on each visit, thus preventing the development of a long-term relationship between GP and patient, is also characteristic of this trend. But, hey, that’s progress; we have to take the rough with the smooth. At the same time though, I can’t help but feel every replacement of a human with an anonymous internet transaction is reducing our contact with people even more and making us more isolated from each other in the process.

© The Editor

THE SHE-WOLF THAT CRIED

Compared to the far more discreet coverage sexual assault cases once received within mainstream media – with the sole exception being those served-up as sensationalist scraps in the shock-horror Sunday tabloids – the change in recent years, one that has both facilitated and supported the confessional strain of daytime television, has undoubtedly been a double-edged sword. On one hand, it has enabled women who previously would have suffered in silence to open up about their grim experiences and to achieve long-overdue justice as a consequence; on the other, it has gifted publicity-seeking narcissists with an opportunity to spin extremely damaging yarns that, in a culture whereby every woman is now believed and every man is disbelieved, has the proven potential to ruin lives and forever brand the innocent as guilty.

Because the lopsided coverage within the media has been dictated and exploited by the extreme wing of the women’s movement and its spokeswomen in a position of power (such as the loathsome Vera Baird), an undisputed narrative has been established. In this narrative, all men are rabid sex-maniacs and all women are wilting Victorian wallflowers forever at the mercy of these marauding molesters. A dangerous climate has been fostered and encouraged that was bound to give rise to the inevitable serial liar; and it comes as a considerable relief that one such despicable character has finally received her just desserts at last.

25-year-old Jemma Beale accused no less than fifteen men of raping or sexually assaulting her over a period of three years – and every time she made her utterly false allegations she was believed on each occasion without dispute because the police forces in this country have been instructed to accept an accuser’s word as gospel at the expense of evidence. Beale said she was seriously sexually assaulted by six different men and raped by a further nine. Her lies resulted in the wrongful conviction of one man and led to another fleeing the country, but a couple of days ago at Southwark Crown Court – ironically the venue for numerous high-profile trials re ‘historical sex crimes’ – Beale was found guilty of four counts of perjury and four counts of perverting the cause of justice.

Beale claims to be a lesbian – a good career move from the perspective of her allegations – and first made herself known to the police when she accused Mahad Cassim of raping her when he gave her a lift home. Cassim was found guilty in 2010 and sentenced to seven years; during his trial, Beale said ‘I feel that any sentence he receives will never reflect the life sentence that he gave me’, a statement straight out of the approved Victims’ Handbook; for her pains, Beale received compensation payments upwards of £11,000. However, an ex-girlfriend of Beale cast doubt upon Beale’s claims in 2013, provoking the Met’s Sexual Offences, Exploitation and Child Abuse Command (bit of a mouthful) to launch an investigation into the multiple allegations Beale had made.

Beale had also alleged she’d been gang-raped by a group of men in a car-park, an allegation that was undergoing a separate investigation at the time the SOECA decided to look into the Cassim case. It soon became evident – albeit belatedly – that Beale’s accusations bore a remarkable similarity to one another and boasted virtually identical discrepancies that should have been obvious before Mahad Cassim was even tried; but in the current climate, it’s no great surprise they weren’t. Mercifully, Cassim’s conviction was quashed on appeal in 2015. By then, Beale herself had already been arrested as suspicions grew around the accuracy of her allegations.

At Southwark Crown Court two days ago, Judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith referenced Beale’s ‘attention seeking’ and it comes as something of a surreal relief to hear a police officer openly discussing the lies of a false allegator. The copper in charge of the investigation into Beale’s bullshit, Detective Sergeant Kevin Lynott, said ‘Beale is responsible for fabricating a series of extremely serious allegations…her manipulation of the criminal justice system has caused police to direct serious amounts of resource into investigating her bogus complaints as well as her own offending. She has also significantly impacted on the NHS as a result of her complaints and used up many other limited resources that are relied upon by genuine survivors. Not only that, but then she went on to give false testimony at court, which resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of a completely innocent man.’

Lynott added ‘Beale has been exposed as a serial liar and I can only think that she was motivated partly by financial reward, but mainly the attention and control over her partners and family at the time she made the allegations. The impact on those she falsely accused had been devastating. However, hopefully the outcome now fully exonerates all the men she accused of such heinous crimes.’

Jemma Beale is hardly unique, but the verdict of her trial is certainly that; it has brought to the attention of both the judiciary and the wider public the dangers of introducing a system that predetermines the guilt or innocence of both accused and accuser and has offered financial and moral incentives for Victims whilst condemning the targeted to years behind bars, whether or not they did the deed. One can only hope her case sets a precedent, but I suspect the law has been distorted to such an extent that any cases in a similar vein will be few and far between in the future. Too many parties have a vested interest in the opposite outcome to make them commonplace.

© The Editor

NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL

The ominous spectre of a totalitarian regime transplanted to a western setting was a regular feature of dystopian post-war fiction for decades, covering everything from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ through to television dramas like ‘1990’ (produced by BBC2 in 1977). The worst development for a democratic society was perceived to be adopting the Eastern Bloc model, though it proved to be a fruitful source of material for dramatists. Watching any new broadcasts from North Korea in 2017 – especially in the last couple of days – one cannot help but shiver at the way in which they appropriate all the clichés from futuristic fiction produced in the late twentieth century and come across as especially toe-curling. Then the viewer remembers that, for North Korean viewers, this is actually the real deal; this is what they see whenever they switch their TV sets on.

The news that North Korea’s latest foray into punching above its limited weight has been manifested as the launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile a couple of days ago has added further layers to increasing tensions in the Far East, arguably the world’s most prescient powder-keg whilst the planet’s eyes remain focused on the Middle East. Yes, the pre-inauguration promises of The Donald to ‘deal’ with the issue of North Korea reflected an awareness of the problem the tiny rogue nation poses to world peace; but it’s probably true to say so much attention has been devoted to instability in Middle Eastern hotspots ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq that Kim Jong-un and his bizarre regime has been allowed to progress to nuclear power status largely unimpeded.

Trump expects China to pull its finger out and lay the law down to North Korea in a way that complements its long-time role as one of the country’s few allies; but, to be fair China’s real investment in North Korea expired several years ago. Kim Jong-un’s kingdom today largely exists on its own terms, without recourse to Beijing. China has too much money and good will invested in western powers (as well as Africa) to fall back on old alliances with archaic Stalinist states that have outlived their usefulness. Prior to Nixon’s groundbreaking approaches to Maoist China in the early 70s, Peking’s isolation from Moscow had forced it to forge allegiances behind the Bamboo Curtain; today, this no longer applies. It has friends in far higher places. In many respects, North Korea is viewed by China as an embarrassing throwback to old-school Communism that has little relevance to its own free-market interpretation of Marxism.

Since the distant days of Mao and Nixon, China has healed its rifts with Russia, and the Kremlin has exploited American fears of a nuclear arsenal that could reach as far from Pyongyang to Alaska by urging both sides to stop flexing their military muscles. The implicit accusation is that both sides are as bad as each other, and with such an unpredictable character as Trump in the White House, Russia could have a point. Then again, how is the US supposed to react when one of its own states is within the sights of Kim Jong-un’s toys? When an even closer nuclear arsenal was spotted on Cuba in 1962, America’s response could have had cataclysmic consequences for the world had not Kennedy successfully called Khrushchev’s bluff. The thought of Donald Trump being placed in a similar situation is not one guaranteed to ease sleepless nights.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that ‘it is perfectly clear to Russia and China that any attempts to justify the use of force by referring to the UN Security Council resolutions are unacceptable, and will lead to unpredictable consequences in this region which borders both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China’. Yes, at times, North Korea, with its endless military parades and penchant for showing off its big missiles, is reminiscent of a man constantly stressing how hard he is without actually putting his money where his mouth is; but being able to distinguish between the reality of its threat and the propaganda is difficult when few outsiders can gain access to it.

Fifteen years on from being bracketed along with Iran and Iraq as ‘The Axis of Evil’, North Korea remains a stubborn sore on the planet’s backside, led by a man even more unhinged than his late father. The phrase itself was credited to George W Bush’s speechwriter David Frum, and it reeks of old world order certainties, whereby ‘rogue states’ were headed by unelected dictators redefined as cartoon Bond villains; they ruled over specific landmasses with clearly defined borders that could be found on maps of the world. It’s no coincidence that ‘Axis of Evil’ sounds like a team of Marvel super-villains that can only be defeated by the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. Such terms simplify antiquated concepts of evil and make them palatable to a western audience raised on Good Vs Evil battles in black & white terms via the movies and the inherited memories of the Second World War, when we knew who our friends and enemies were.

It was telling that Dubya reserved his ire for Iraq above the other two members of the club, extending the simplicity of his language to describe the ‘Axis’ by assuming the problem of Iraq could be solved simply by invading the country and removing Saddam Hussein from power. Ironically, the consequences of Dubya’s intervention there have probably served to dilute his monochrome vision of evil so that what we have today is the likes of ISIS – a fluid, multi-headed, stateless organisation that may view itself as a state even if it’s no more a state as we would recognise it than Israel was before 1948. At least we can still understand North Korea. It adheres to the traditional template.

President Trump said today ‘something will have to be done’ about North Korea in response to its ‘very bad behaviour’; what that ‘something’ is remains to be seen, though America’s recent record when dealing with small, insignificant Asian countries that stand up to it isn’t exactly a blueprint for success. As the Sun said a few years back in one of its occasionally inspired front-page headlines, how do you solve a problem like Korea? It would appear nobody yet has the answer.

© The Editor