THE GREEN, GREEN GRASS

Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning 2011 fantasy comedy, ‘Midnight in Paris’, features a lead character (played by Owen Wilson) resident in the here and now, whose holiday in the French capital takes a dreamlike turn when he gets lost in the backstreets one evening and finds himself stumbling into the Paris of the 1920s. Magically entering the time when Paris was the cultural epicentre of the western world, he encounters the likes of Cocteau, Dali, Picasso, Hemingway, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and various other creative luminaries of the decade. As a fan of the present they inhabit, the character attempts to convince them of the riches he sees in their era.

The cleverest moment in the movie comes when Picasso’s lover Adriana expresses her own personal opinion that the real era to be in was the so-called La Belle Époque period of the late nineteenth century; when she and the lead character somehow manage to travel back there, some of that period’s key figures they meet, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas, are in agreement that the only age to have been alive was the Renaissance. ‘Midnight in Paris’ is not only one of Woody Allen’s finest recent cinematic outings; it also shrewdly points out that golden ages are retrospective labels tagged onto episodes of history after the event.

Unless we can look back on a particular phase of our own individual lifetimes and recognise we lived through a special period ourselves, many of us have a fascination with a specific era that took place before we were born. Personally, I would have enjoyed being a dandy during the Regency or perhaps a fashion photographer in Swinging London; but I don’t reflect on any time I’ve actually been resident in throughout my thirty years as an adult and hanker after it with rose-tinted nostalgia; I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed any of it. Whether I would have enjoyed the Regency or Swinging London any more isn’t an issue because I’ll never be there; however, it remains a felicitous fantasy.

Last week, a survey commissioned by the Resolution Foundation was published; the subjects of the survey were ‘Millennials’, i.e. anyone born between 1981 and 2000 (those born this century have their own hideous demographic nickname). The findings of the survey declared that one in three Millennials would rather have lived through the era their parents were young in, despite the fact that would mean they’d have been deprived of the electronic creature comforts life is apparently unimaginable without. Over 2,000 people were surveyed between the ages of 16 and 75 and the general agreement reached was that anyone young today will never achieve the same standard of life as that which their parents have enjoyed.

In this case, the yearning to have been alive thirty or forty years ago doesn’t stem from the obvious attractions of superior pop culture to participate in, but the more practical desires of being able to buy one’s home and having job security that can pay for one. In the survey, graduates were just as pessimistic about the future as those regarded as high-earners. 57% of the former were convinced the youth of today have a worse standard of living than their parents to look forward to; 55% of the latter (earning above £55,000 a year) agreed with them. When it came to lower earners (£20,000 or less), 44% shared the same belief. It would seem technological advances don’t add up to much more than expensive sedatives.

And yet – the supposed higher standard of living the parents of Millennials have attained didn’t land in their laps overnight. They had to work for it. Thrift is a word one doesn’t hear much these days, but it was employed by the young who wanted to get on in the 60s and 70s when they saw the doors to social mobility opening before them; there was an entrance fee, however. The heavy industry that existed on a nationwide scale for perhaps the first forty years after the end of the Second World War has been reduced to a small smattering of industrial outposts this century, but it was once one of the dominant employers of the country’s workforce; Millennials are spared that, at least; though maybe there was a greater sense of job satisfaction at the end of the working day when having emerged from a pit or a steel foundry than can be found in having cold-called strangers whilst sitting on one’s arse for eight hours.

Even if their parents’ generation received what seems to have been a greater reward for their endeavours, the hours were put in whatever colour the collar of the job; additional part-time work would augment the main wage along with night-school courses as a means of ascending the next rung of the ladder. Socialising would be rationed, with the occasional trip to the cinema or football enjoyed sparingly when money was being put aside for the long-term. If one had a car, chances were it would be a second (or third) hand banger; if one had a house, it would be fitted out with second (or third) hand furniture – and on HP at that; telephones were a relative luxury; television sets were rented; holidays, if taken at all, would invariably take place within the British Isles, erratic climate or no. If one wanted must-have household appliances, one had to save up for them; and other things were regarded as more important, anyway.

Make do and mend, making ends meet, living within one’s means – awful old phrases the credit card seemed to have magically banished from the nation’s vocabulary; consumerism has a lot to answer for, yes; but one could argue many of the disputes that crippled industry in the 70s and 80s were at times motivated by a craving for consumer goods that were being marketed more aggressively than ever before at that point. Today, there’s no need to strike for them; your flexible friend can get them for you and then you can show them off on social media. Debt, once such a shameful stigma, is commonplace below a certain age; and none of the money reserved for paying it off is going towards saving up for somewhere to live.

There’s no doubt the opportunities for social mobility have narrowed considerably, and many degrees now are not worth the paper they’re written on; working hours are long and pay is poor. But hardships are endured by all generations looking for a better life; whether or not that better life is there at the end of the hardship is another matter altogether. It might have been there in 1957, 1967 or 1977; is it in 2017?

© The Editor

LAST CENTURY BOY

From the perspective of one group of individuals, the catalogue of pop cultural catastrophes that shattered the 60s kicked down a door they’d spent years trying (and failing) to prise open. A new decade was less than eighteen months old, yet it had already lost The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before The Rolling Stones hot-footed it to the South of France lest the taxman got his hands on them. There was a sizeable vacuum, but it was quickly filled by Elton John, Rod Stewart and Slade; all three had been biding their time for a long time and now their moment had arrived. Yet the man who made the biggest pop splash of 1971 had endured an apprenticeship stretching back way farther.

From the early 60s onwards, working-class cockney Mark Feld had been a star in search of an audience. He’d graced the glossy pages of magazines as a teenager modelling the Mod look; he’d tried the folk singer route in the wake of Dylan and Donovan’s impact; he’d had a crack at proto-Punk Art Rock as a member of John’s Children; he’d embraced the Summer of Love and achieved cult success as one half of an acoustic duo much-loved by John Peel. But what he wanted more than anything was mass acceptance, and it wasn’t hip to admit that at the end of the 60s. By this time, he’d changed his name to Marc Bolan.

Bolan’s butterfly flitting from one scene to another betrayed his hunger for success on the same scale as the 60s giants whose influence remained a potent one. Few imagined it would come to him, though; Bolan had an odd, quirky vocal style and wrote elaborate Tolkien-esque lyrics that matched the esoteric Syd Barrett-meets-The Incredible String Band stew he cooked-up with his bongo-playing partner. Calling his outfit Tyrannosaurus Rex because he wanted them to be the biggest thing since the biggest animal ever to walk the earth was characteristically ambitious Bolan immodesty; but when Bolan unexpectedly penned an irresistibly infectious pop gem that necessitated a controversial switch to the electric guitar, he finally found what he’d been looking for.

Lyrically, ‘Ride A White Swan’ retained Bolan’s poetic imagery, though this time he married it to a unique commercial sound that was only kept from the No.1 spot by Clive Dunn’s ‘Grandad’ as the Christmas spirit hung over the beginning of 1971. Come the follow-up, Bolan expanded the band with a drummer and bass-player that helped push ‘Hot Love’ one place higher in the charts. His first stint at No.1 was promoted on ‘Top of the Pops’ by one of the great moments of inspiration in pop history: Bolan sprinkled glitter on his cheeks, bestowing a glow upon his elfin face that caught the camera with every shake of the head. The nation’s teenage girls fell in love overnight. The band’s name had been shortened to the far easier mouthful of T.Rex, and Britain suddenly had its first proper pop star in years.

Seeking to spread his musical wings, Bolan went for a bigger, slicker sound on his next single, ‘Get it On’. Whilst the music press accused him of selling-out, Bolan took over the No.1 spot for six weeks that summer and also gatecrashed the upper echelons of the Billboard Hot 100. That autumn, he was top of the LP charts with ‘Electric Warrior’, and his eccentric take on primitive Rock ‘n’ Roll stripped away the layers of complexity threatening to suffocate Rock, appealing to a new generation of record-buyers too young for the 60s and eager for heroes that hadn’t been handed down by older brothers. T.Rex revitalised the singles chart and Bolan’s striking flirtation with cosmetics challenged the macho consensus as well as sparking a new genre christened Glam Rock. At his best, Bolan outshone the competition with charisma, panache and a string of pearls that sound even fresher today than they did at the time.

T.Rex spent more weeks on the UK charts in 1972 than any other act; they had two more chart-toppers (‘Telegram Sam’ and ‘Metal Guru’), and with Bolan’s lyrics now peppered with references to fast cars, the hippie underground he’d long outgrown was swept away as a cultural touchstone by a fresh wave of theatrical Rock that encompassed everyone from Alice Cooper and Roxy Music to The Sweet and Gary Glitter. But it was the re-emergence of David Bowie as his exotic alter-ego of Ziggy Stardust that took Bolan’s template onto another level altogether. For a moment, the two old friends were bitter rivals in a Beatles Vs Stones fashion, but a bigger threat to Bolan was the wholesome US teen idols such as Donny Osmond and David Cassidy, who fatally lured away his vital female fan-base.

By the back-end of 1973, Bolan was being usurped by the Glam Rockers who had none of his artistic pretensions; but Bolan himself appeared to be rapidly losing his mojo. He fled to temporary tax-exile in Monaco, dissolved the classic T.Rex line-up, and committed a cardinal sin for a pop star by getting fat. It seemed as if he had descended to Vegas Elvis in record time. His singles started falling short of the top ten and many of them weren’t that good anymore either. Come the mid-70s, he was regarded as a has-been and had to watch from the sidelines as the scene he’d inadvertently inspired carried on without him. But Glam Rock was now a bandwagon with too many passengers; when it ran out of steam, Bolan was still standing and the kids who’d made him a star in 1971 were now forming their own bands.

The Punk generation venerated Bolan and he returned the compliment. He toured with The Damned and when he was given his own teatime TV show by Granada in 1977, he invited the likes of Generation X, The Boomtown Rats and The Jam onto it as guests. The final edition of the series even saw a long-term rift healed when Bowie appeared and played his one and only duet with Bolan as the credits rolled. By the time the episode aired, however, Bolan was already dead, killed in a car crash forty years ago today, just a fortnight short of his 30th birthday.

Marc Bolan was the product of an era in which Rock stars were otherworldly creatures who existed to escort their audience to alternate dimensions of endless possibilities, just as movie stars had before them. The grim climate of early 70s Britain needed their superlative escapism. As Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones later said of his adolescence, ‘I thought Rock stars fell from the sky.’ Bolan was the first pop phenomenon of the 70s as well as the first to reconnect with the trashy glamour and primal simplicity of 50s Rock ‘n’ Roll; he was his own creation from a time before stylists and before the resurrection of the cynical Svengali prepared to package any old formulaic crap as long as it made money. We won’t see his like again because the world doesn’t live there anymore.

© The Editor

TUNNEL VISION

Considering all the cynical baggage accumulated on life’s journey, retaining a little lingering magic in relation to a specific source of childhood fascination doesn’t do any harm; even if utterly illogical, it serves a purpose as a welcome interlude from the grown-up grind. I’ve often found that magic via the London Underground. Yes, we’re all aware of its numerous faults and no sane person would use it during the rush hour unless work made doing so an unavoidable necessity; but for me it’s the nearest non-Time Lords can get to owning a Tardis. You arrive in one station, jump on the train, you arrive at another station that looks like the one you just left, you travel up the steps and you’re in a completely different corner of the capital without having witnessed the route from A to B as one would over-ground. I’m well aware of the science, but it’s still magical to me.

However, from its innovative inception in 1863, the London Underground has regularly inspired as much dread in some as it has magic in others. A train service that could travel below the surface of the great metropolis naturally provoked shivers; perhaps it was the thought of people being ferried about in a neighbourhood previously reserved for the dead. These kinds of associations have continued to exert an influence over popular culture’s view of the Tube, something the numerous abandoned lines and ‘ghost stations’ have aided and abetted.

The 1967 ‘Doctor Who’ story, ‘The Web of Fear’, played on these old superstitions by taking Patrick Troughton’s Doctor and his companions deep underground, where the alien Yeti were plotting world domination; and anyone who has seen the 1972 horror movie, ‘Death Line’, will never have heard the familiar Tube phrase ‘Mind the Gap’ in quite the same way since. But there have also been occasions in which genuine horrors have visited these subterranean departure lounges; and while they remain amongst the most used suicide sites in London (643 were attempted across the network in the decade from 2000-10), death has often struck without premeditation.

Bethnal Green 1943, Moorgate 1975 and King’s Cross 1987 – three stations and three dates that marked a trio of disasters. The first was an awful accident, a stampede to Bethnal Green Tube Station’s wartime use as a makeshift air-raid shelter when the crowd mistakenly believed an air-raid was taking place; 173 were crushed in the panic, mostly women and children. It’s believed to be the largest single loss of civilian life during WWII on the home-front. The cause of the Moorgate tragedy of 1975 remains disputed, though many have accepted the driver drove into the tunnel end beyond the platform, killing himself and 43 passengers in an act of suicide. The King’s Cross fire of 1987 killed 31 and was thought to have begun when a lit match or cigarette ignited debris beneath the wooden escalators that were subsequently replaced; the incident also marked the start of a more rigorous enforcement of the Tube’s smoking ban.

There have also been more deliberate attempts at slaughter below street level. The IRA had a crack as far back as 1939, during a mainland bombing campaign that tends to be overshadowed by other events of that year; their more well-known assault on the city from 1973-76 saw various stations targeted, though the intended roll-call of casualties was mercifully small. It wasn’t until the 7/7 attacks of 2005 that the London Underground was the scene of a successful terrorist outrage, with an overall death-toll of 52. For many, the carnage of 7 July 2005 served as a good reason to avoid the Tube altogether, though as we have come to belatedly realise this year, any location in which crowds of people are liable to gather will suffice. Perhaps it’s the instinctive fear of being trapped underground that imbues this particular method of transport with such horrific resonance for many.

Today’s events at Parsons Green seem to have been the work of an amateur or maybe the mechanism simply cocked-up at the crucial moment. The home-made device was planted in a bucket inside a carrier bag in a carriage travelling along the District Line from Wimbledon and was detonated as the train was pulling into the station; its detonation appeared to cause what has been described as a ‘wall of fire’ that left 22 commuters with burns. Taking place at the height of the rush hour (around 8.20am), the device was obviously designed to provoke greater damage than it turned out to and police have already claimed to have identified a suspect via CCTV footage.

I think we can all probably write the script of what follows next, though the surname of the suspect and the mosque he frequented will remain a mystery until all is eventually revealed as the event continues to play out on rolling news channels for the next 24 hours. The well-oiled counter-terrorist machine rattled into action minutes after panicked passengers exited Parsons Green and the obligatory COBRA summit was arranged in record time. But will any of that mean we can sleep easy in our beds? Well, I reckon those of us who don’t suffer from insomnia probably do so regardless of whatever lunacy is currently gripping the waking world. The real concern surrounds public, rather than private, places.

For some it’s simply a convenient means to get from one part of London to another; for others it’s an unnatural incursion into a netherworld that should never have been disturbed; for some it’s a nightmarish, claustrophobic approximation of life as a sardine; and for others it’s one of the greatest engineering achievements those ingenious Victorians left behind for us. It’s all of these things and more, both good and bad. All that life can afford, as Dr Johnson might have said.

© The Editor

A BED FOR LIFE

One of the many memorable individual stories in the superb 1990s BBC drama ‘Our Friends in the North’ was the decline and fall of the character Geordie Peacock, played by Daniel Craig. The son of a mentally ill and violent father, Geordie flees his native Newcastle and eventually tastes the good life as the right-hand man of a Soho porn baron played by Malcolm McDowell; as with the other characters in the series, we follow Geordie’s trials and tribulations from the 60s to the 90s, but Geordie’s journey is an especially traumatic one as he gradually slides into alcoholism and begins to exhibit traits inherited from his father. After a spell living on the streets, Geordie sets fire to his bed in a homeless shelter and receives a seemingly disproportionate life sentence for his moment of madness.

I only reference what is one of my favourite British TV dramas of all time due to the fact that news broke today of a man whose sentence for a virtually identical act of arson is poised to be curtailed. Like the fictitious Geordie Peacock, 32-year-old James Ward from Nottinghamshire has suffered from mental health issues, though when he set fire to his bed it was in a prison cell. He was behind bars serving a 22-month sentence in 2006 for Actual Bodily Harm following a fight with his father; on the eve of release, he set the mattress in his prison cell alight and was then resentenced under the now-scrapped Imprisonment for Public Protection scheme. The additional sentence was for a minimum of 10 months. Only 11 years later is Ward finally about to be released.

Imprisonment for Public Protection – IPP for short – was one of the last of the draconian Blair Government’s endlessly damaging additions to the Law; introduced in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, it came into effect in 2005 as a means of keeping prisoners inside whose crimes weren’t serious enough to warrant a life sentence but who were regarded as too dangerous to be let loose on society. Indeterminate sentences were nothing new, of course; successive Home Secretaries made it clear the likes of Brady, Hindley and Sutcliffe would never see life outside of gaol again, ensuring parole wouldn’t be a possibility for any of them. While few would dispute the logic of that, beyond a straightforward life sentence there were no provisions for those earmarked as a risk to the public without having committed a crime to justify this opinion. IPP was supposed to be the answer.

However, as early as 2007, the Queen’s Bench division of the High Court concluded that prisoners serving indeterminate sentences under IPP were victims of an unlawful system, particularly where prisons lacked the adequate facilities to accurately assess an IPP prisoner’s suitability for release; the temptation to simply keep the prisoner incarcerated was both adding to prison overcrowding and denying freedom to those who had served far more time than their minimum sentence specified. The findings of a 2010 report into IPP declared it to be unsustainable and it was discontinued in 2012, just seven years after it began to be implemented.

‘The IPP continues to cast a long shadow over our justice system,’ said Mark Day, the head of policy and communications at the Prison Reform Trust, in response to the news of James Ward’s case. ‘Despite recent welcome efforts by the Parole Board and prison service to speed up the release of the remaining IPP prison population, without legislative action there will still be thousands of people caught in indefinite detention by 2020. The onus is now on the Government to put into action the sensible recommendations made by the Parole Board and other senior policymakers and finally put an end to this unfair and unjust sentence.’

Ward brought attention to this shady corner of the criminal justice system himself when he contacted Radio 4’s Today programme last year. ‘Prison is not fit to accommodate people like me with mental health problems,’ he wrote. ‘It’s made me worse. How can I change in a place like this? I wake up every morning scared of what the day may hold.’ Ward’s sister has campaigned for his release for years. ‘James is not a risk to the public,’ she says. ‘He’s only ever been a risk to himself, and with the right support we can get him there. I hope the IPP prisoners who are way over their tariff can now also be released. I don’t like to think about what would have happened if they’d decided against letting James out. He had given up.’

At the same time, 3,300 men and women remain in gaol on IPP sentences; as was the case with the Joint Enterprise law until a series of campaigns highlighted its injustices, Imprisonment for Public Protection is one of those aspects of law and order in this country that most are largely ignorant of. We tend to assume the punishment fits the crime, yet who really knows how fairly IPP was applied during the years when it was an option? Do we have enough faith in those making such life-changing decisions to do the right thing, or have the numerous exposés of corruption and ineptitude to have seeped out in recent years bred suspicion that those in a position to make these decisions simply cannot be trusted?

Public bodies that exert immense power over people’s lives – whether the police, social services or the prison system – essentially have carte-blanche to use the tools at their disposal, often free from independent scrutiny; and in the case of James Ward, it would certainly seem some form of mental health care would have been a far more fitting solution to his evident problems. But his story is just one of thousands waiting to be told.

© The Editor

WHAT A WASTE

The convenient aspects of plastic, at least from the corporate perspective, have facilitated its compulsory usage in all manner of household goods over the last half-century, though the belief that plastic goods have easy disposability when compared to the wood, glass or tin objects that preceded them is something of a fallacy when it comes to their actual disposal. The substance in its myriad forms possesses a notoriously slow rate of decomposition, and one that has served to inflict long-term damage on our oceans as well as even the world beyond our earthbound atmosphere. Any manned spacecraft launching into space has to contend with the proliferation of plastic-based junk jettisoned by earlier missions and the perennial dangers of discarded plastic trash on undersea life-forms is one that the creatures we share our planet with have to contend with on a daily basis.

There are occasions, however, when we are confronted by the realities of plastic’s ‘convenience’ – or at least those whose job it is to deal with the ramifications of our dependence on it are. The revolutionary and intricate London sewer system, devised by the visionary Joseph Bazalgette in the 1860s, arose from decades of open sewers and indoor cesspits in the capital that gave rise to regular outbreaks of cholera amongst the poor, not to mention the notorious Great Stink of 1858, when the accumulated combination of human effluence and animal carcasses that flooded into the Thames doused London in a noxious odour that, once it breached the barriers of Parliament, prompted belated action.

Londoners had become begrudgingly accustomed to the nauseous aromas that infected the city every summer by the middle of the nineteenth century; but advances in medical science and a growing awareness that the traditional theory of disease being transmitted on the air was little more than a glorified old wives’ tale led to demands for something to be done. It’s also worth noting that the establishment of cemeteries in this country came about due to the increasingly limited burial space in churchyards; when bodies were being piled so high that they were barely a few feet from the surface, any serious flooding could cause recently-interred cadavers to be uprooted and swept away, usually finding their final resting place in the river, a major source of London’s drinking water. Hygiene was certainly in short supply at the time, but have we advanced much since?

150 years later, though the sewer network Bazalgette mapped-out remains an effective barrier to outbreaks of diseases that were once commonplace in this country, it is nevertheless struggling to cope with a factor Bazalgette couldn’t have foreseen – the legacy of the contemporary dependency on plastics. In 2013, the London sewer system was faced with a new phenomenon called a ‘fatberg’. For those not in the know, a fatberg is perhaps the most apt physical manifestation of the consumer society and the inbuilt obsolescence of its produce: a hideous greasy ball of wet wipes, used nappies, condoms and other undesirable articles that hundreds of idiots flushed down the toilet rather than chuck in the bin – all assembling into one repugnant juggernaut of garbage that was out of sight and out of mind to those free from the job of dealing with it.

This particular congealed turd weighed 15 tonnes and was the size of a Routemaster bus, blocking a tunnel in Kingston-upon-Thames and presenting sewer staff with quite a challenge. Four years on, another colossal accumulation of Londoners’ carelessness has clogged-up one more corner of Bazalgette’s network, this time in Whitechapel. The latest fatberg is estimated at 250 metres long and is reckoned to weigh the best part of 130 tonnes. To put that into perspective, this fatberg is the equivalent weight of 520,000 packets of lard or 11 double-decker buses; it measures 6 metres longer than Tower Bridge.

Matt Rimmer, one of the lucky souls entrusted with removing the vile discharge of twenty-first century acquisitiveness, describes it as ‘a total monster’, adding ‘It’s basically like trying to break up concrete.’ The unenviable task of dislodging the oily carbuncle is in the hands of eight men charged with the responsibility. To do so, they need to call upon high-pressure hoses they hope will suck it bit-by-bit into tankers that they then intend to drive to a Stratford recycling site. Recruitment ads for their particular profession wouldn’t be the easiest sell imaginable.

The London sewer system proved to be a blueprint for the provincial metropolises that sprouted in the wake of the Industrial Revolution; a growing population naturally required a greater emphasis on waste disposal, though this initially centred on the waste emanating from the human body. Few could have anticipated a system superbly tailored for this kind of waste would eventually have to cope with disposable goods, for disposable goods on the scale we’re used to today were largely unknown at the time of its design. The convenience of these goods only covers the period in which we make use of them; once they need replacing, we want rid of them ASAP. What becomes of them thereafter is someone else’s problem. That’s the theory, anyway; the reality is considerably more gruesome.

© The Editor

A JACOBEAN COMEDY

Hard to believe now, but ITV’s late afternoon schedule once consisted of programmes aimed at an audience of schoolchildren, programmes regularly of the same high standard that appealed to the same viewers over on BBC1. Amidst the drama serials, comedies, cartoons and pop shows were documentaries, one of which in the early 1980s featured a precocious posh boy whose prematurely adult demeanour and stated ambition to be Prime Minister had my brother and me in stitches as we watched him being chauffeur driven to school whilst he perused the Financial Times. Not only did he seem to be a middle-aged Tory MP occupying the body of a young boy (probably not the first time that’s ever happened), but he was that most unenviable pubescent pariah – the Swot.

Other than ‘Poof’, Swot was perhaps the biggest insult that could be hurled in the direction of a pupil at the school of hard knocks that was my educational establishment. To actually derive pleasure from learning was definitely a no-no in the popularity stakes. Popularity was earned via three routes: being good at football, being good at fighting, and being a class comedian. I opted for the latter because of my lack of ability in the other two. It goes without saying that an appetite for knowledge being frowned upon is now something I realise denied me a great deal later in life, yet school for me and many of my contemporaries was more a case of survival than education. I knew the young chap starring on the aforementioned ITV documentary wouldn’t have lasted a day at my school, yet look where he is now.

It took a good thirty years or more before a reunion with a snippet of this documentary made me belatedly aware its star was Jacob Rees-Mogg. I was more aware of his father in the years immediately following its broadcast, largely as a result of William Rees-Mogg’s famous contribution to British pop culture when editor of the Times via his key intervention in the infamous attempt to imprison Mick Jagger on flimsy drug possession charges in 1967. His son was already well on the way to the path he’d outlined in the early 80s documentary, famously canvassing for a constituency in 1997 with the assistance of his nanny. He eventually entered Parliament at the 2010 General Election when he won the secure Tory heartland of North-East Somerset.

Post-New Labour, the careerist, conveyor-belt politician whose blatant and shameless thirst for power requires he or she to chime with public opinion in the most cynical fashion has become something of a catch-all criticism of MPs in general where the electorate are concerned. The popularity of the few genuine characters in today’s politics, the rare breed that eschew the formula and are defiantly independent of the perceived consensus – whether Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage – should come as no great surprise when their contemporaries are so interchangeably bland; the unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader appeared to be the ultimate triumph over the politician bereft of any ideological beliefs, yet it is the right that has produced the majority of these mavericks, of which Jacob Rees-Mogg is the latest PG Wodehouse creation to ensnare the popular imagination.

Like the much-missed art critic Brian Sewell before him, a large proportion of the attention Rees-Mogg has been able to command is based on the quaint way he speaks. Ever since Harry Enfield parodied the old-school RP accent once obligatory for BBC announcers and RADA graduates, the Queen’s English has been a source of humour and ridicule. Prior to the revolutionary impact of both ‘Coronation Street’ and The Beatles in the early 60s, anybody who emerged from what used to be called ‘humble origins’ would consciously modify and hide their regional accent if seeking a career in public office or the public eye. That changed forever fifty years ago, and even Old Etonians whose prevalence across politics and the media has reasserted itself in recent years avoid the speech patterns of their predecessors today; Cameron and Gideon both swung towards hideous ‘Estuary English’ when seeking the vote of the common man, and the current crop of public school Luvvies that dominate stage and screen could never be mistaken for Noel Coward.

When Jacob Rees-Mogg was running for Parliament in 2010, he was described by Camilla Long in the Sunday Times as ‘David Cameron’s worst nightmare’, representing every privileged Conservative cliché Dave was desperate to sweep under the carpet in his bid to re-establish One Nation Toryism; but the public could see through Cameron’s dishonest efforts at playing the bloke card; he couldn’t even remember which team he supported, after all. Nobody could ever imagine Jacob Rees-Mogg even being aware either Aston Villa or West Ham are football clubs because with Rees-Mogg there’s no pretence. He is a posh boy and isn’t ashamed of the fact he’s out of step with contemporary mores; his nickname of Minister for the Eighteenth Century probably isn’t one he objects to.

A Conservative Party understandably dissatisfied with the woeful leadership of Theresa May has recently been indulging in one of its perennial fantasy beauty contests as to who should replace the current lame duck at the helm; Rees-Mogg was a surprise front-runner, undoubtedly because he’s a ‘character’ and so odd that he stands out from the grey crowd. However, when quizzed on the weak spot of his religion, Rees-Mogg has stood his ground, preferring to stick rigidly to Catholic doctrine on the likes of abortion and homosexuality despite its potential damage to his fanciful Prime Ministerial ambitions. As I wrote when ex-Lib Dem leader Tim Farron came under similar fire, however, why not be fair and apply this interrogation to prominent Muslim politicians such as Sadiq Khan? Christianity is hardly unique amongst prehistoric faiths where certain issues are concerned.

Granted, if Rees-Mogg is so devout, why hasn’t he applied the approach of Jesus towards the poor and underprivileged when it comes to Tory cuts in those areas? As with many who proudly confess their devotion to religious scriptures, he often comes across as a cherry-picker of the bits that complement his own personal beliefs and conveniently overlooks those that don’t. One could argue he’s the token joke candidate in a leadership contest that isn’t even on the agenda at the moment, but that’s exactly what Corbyn was regarded as by many, so there’s no call for complacency. That said, the backbench is always far more conducive to the maverick mischief-maker; and Jacob Rees-Mogg has his natural home there, where he can sing the praises of the Corn Laws and filibuster his way into the wee small hours while the sun never sets on the Empire.

© The Editor

THE SUNDAY POST

‘Sunday Bloody Sunday really encapsulates the frustration of a Sunday. You wake up in the morning, you’ve got to read all the Sunday papers, the kids are running round, you’ve got to mow the lawn, wash the car, and you think – Sunday Bloody Sunday!’

Alan Partridge’s characteristic misinterpretation of the U2 song inspired by the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry inadvertently highlights how the so-called ‘Day of Rest’ traditionally had a unique identity of its own, the genuine oddity in the seven-day calendar; but does it retain its uniqueness in an age when many shops are open all week round and a generation has come of age without an awareness or experience of what Sundays used to represent to the majority? Well, perhaps in our minds more than in reality.

It’s only natural that we associate certain days of the week with our first exposure to them; what’s interesting is how these initial associations can colour our view of them for good, and what they once represented proves to be surprisingly durable. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to Sunday, our image of it remains to an extent frozen in childhood amber, or at least when Sunday is imminent. More often than not, the prospect of it coming round tends to produce a weary sigh. In retrospect, that one more precious day free from school – something that should have made it as exciting as a Saturday to wake-up to – seemed to be shrouded in such an incurably drab torpor is curious; maybe Sunday was Saturday’s perennially poor relation because we knew we’d be back at school the following day, and so much of it seemed to be preparing us for that inevitability because it was so bizarrely boring.

Unless one were a farmer, clergyman, foreign language student or devotee of creaky monochrome movies about the war, television was usually best avoided; even that ordinarily reliable provider of entertainment appeared impotent on Sunday and was only generally switched-on in the middle of the afternoon so dad could watch ITV’s regional football show. The radio grabbed the spotlight from the telly as a consequence: Ed Stewpot and his set-in-stone set-list of prehistoric nursery ditties – ‘The Laughing Policeman’, ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’, ‘Nellie the Elephant’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’ et al – sound-tracked the Sunday morning experience for more than one generation.

Jimmy Savile’s ‘Old Record Club’ enlivened the early afternoon with its top ten replays from the 60s, sparking nostalgia in parents and introducing kids to classics that contrasted with the more familiar contemporary chart sounds; and as for the top 40, that would dominate tea-time listening, even if the fact that the new chart had already been covered three days before on TOTP robbed it of any drama. Still, knowing which position one’s favourite records were at made recording them onto audiotape easier (a practice that may have ‘killed music’, but came in handy when pocket-money only stretched to one single from Woolie’s per fortnight).

But such aural distractions couldn’t wrench Sunday away from the strangely soporific rituals that really made it so distinctive from every other day. This usually began with a couple of newspapers popping through the letterbox – thicker and more expensive than the weekday dailies; many households had a healthy schizophrenia when it came to Sunday reading habits. One paper would usually be the trashy titillation of the News of the World/Sunday Mirror/Sunday People brand, the kind I remember being full of call-girl confessions, Rod Stewart’s latest blonde and Princess Margaret’s latest beau; the other would tend to be the more sombre Sunday Times/Observer type, with one balancing out the other and establishing an odd equilibrium as mum and dad chose their weapons whilst defiantly remaining in bed. Of course, for those raised in a religious household, the church still played a major part in the Sunday routine – either the morning service, evensong, or the insidious institution of Sunday School, seemingly established so that mum and dad could engineer the arrival of a little brother or sister.

As far as secular upbringings went, however, Sunday was a day in which the whole family realised the advantages of spending the rest of the week leading their own lives; everyone appeared to resent the presence of everyone else. In the case of mum and dad, both eagerly embraced their designated roles; for him, this meant washing the car or attending to DIY; for her, this meant ironing or sticking a roast in the oven, where it would cook on a low light for what seemed like about six months, its aroma sweeping through the house with the creeping stealth of mustard gas and seeping into the bricks and mortar like Oxo-flavoured napalm. Occasionally, there would be variations to the routine, but even these couldn’t provoke any emotion other than shoulder-shrugging resignation.

Most of these centred around a ‘ride out’ in the car, a depressing excursion through a desolate landscape that bordered on post-apocalyptic, a journey that either led to a local beauty spot rendered ugly by rotten weather, a minor stately home, the stultifying tedium of the garden centre – and the fact that this emporium of inertia was the only shop open for business somehow intensified Sunday’s terminal dullness – or grandma’s house, where sometimes cousins would call and there would at least be an opportunity to indulge in much-needed play.

Play! Ah, yes – the one saving grace of Sunday. The generations starved of mass-marketed virtual-stimulation turned to their imaginations and transformed their uninspiring surroundings with little in the way of corporate assistance. Such activities could alleviate boredom until boredom intervened again via a bath and supper in the company of Esther Rantzen and Doc Cox. With school to look forward to in the morning, Sunday had felt like a lacklustre prologue to the resumption of the norm, a bridge between the compassionate leave of Saturday and the re-imprisonment of Monday.

It’s cruelly ironic that John Major, a man who romanticised the mythical Albion image of a Sunday, was the Prime Minister who delivered the killer blow to it. The passing of the Sunday Trading law in 1994 enabled high-street chain-stores to open their doors and facilitated the rise of out-of-town retail parks, finally making Sundays resemble every other day, at least in terms of the consumer society. There isn’t time for boredom on a Sunday anymore, and whilst many would regard that as cause for celebration, others might argue that the loss of the archaic eccentricities that once made Sunday such a unique day are worthy of mourning – even if they were bloody boring.

© The Editor

CHILD’S PLAY

There’s an episode of the peerless 70s sitcom ‘Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads’ in which Bob and Terry are forced to share a bed on the eve of the former’s marriage to Thelma on account of every other available bed in the house being occupied by relatives visiting for the nuptials. Bob’s insomnia, brought about by nerves over the upcoming occasion, is momentarily eased by Terry’s advice to imagine a sexual fantasy as an aid to sleep; Bob does his best, conjuring up an exotic erotic interlude that he describes vividly to his receptive bedfellow. Unfortunately, as the identity of the mystery woman on the Caribbean beach is finally revealed, Terry’s expectation of Ursula Andress is ruined by Bob’s revelation that she is actually Thelma. Terry’s insistence that sexual fantasies are the one thing married life cannot rob a man of is backed-up by reference to his own marriage. ‘My wife was there when I went to sleep,’ he says, ‘and she was there when I woke-up; but in-between, she never got a look in.’

Some of the other shared fantasies hinted at by Bob and Terry include such off-limits ones that are no longer allowed to be aired in public – usually involving schoolgirls. Cue shocked expressions by twenty-first century so-called comedians on some crappy clips programme ridiculing the TV of a decade that produced genuinely funny comedy series that today’s woeful crop are incapable of matching. The post-Swinging 60s ‘Permissive Society’ enabled a few outré fantasies to creep into mainstream television as oblique references as well as figure in dramas that featured caricatures of contemporary Soho porn barons as lead characters, such as Charlie Endell in ‘Budgie’; but the more extreme end of the sexual fantasy underworld – S&M, for example – was easier to accept as a nudge-nudge/wink-wink aside on a sitcom rather than confronting in documentary fashion.

Sexual fantasies are private unless we decide to share them. Because they take place in the head, not even the Speech Police monitoring what we say out loud can outlaw them – not yet, anyway. Physical manifestations of sexual fantasies, such as sex dolls, nipple clamps, strap-on dildos, manacles, whips and baby outfits for adults, are items that appeal to a fairly small minority and are entered into consensually by over-18s; they provide the means to make a fantasy reality, to a small degree, anyway. That’s the thing with sexual fantasies, however; they’re utterly subjective. What turns on one person repels another.

The traditional inflatable model of the sex doll was another recurring symbol of the new permissiveness that occasionally surfaced in 70s comedy, but advances in technology – inevitably emanating from Japan – have seen the sad substitute for a living, breathing human being recently transform into an eerily lifelike android object of kinky desire; and considering the Japanese pop culture predilection for schoolgirls, it was only a matter of time before these creepy creations took on an even younger appearance to cater for that particular fancy.

72-year-old David Turner was today gaoled for 16 months for the crime of importing one of these pre-pubescent pieces of plastic into the UK. One wonders if he’d stuck a drawing of a child’s face on the handle of his Hoover and then inserted his manhood into it if that would also count as a crime. As it is, Mr Turner was charged under an archaic law in the absence of any on the statue book that cater for unnatural sexual urges towards inanimate objects – the Customs Consolidation Act of 1876, to be precise. Granted, Turner was also found in possession of indecent images of little girls, but it is the sex doll story that will grab the headlines.

The National Crime Agency and Border Force have seized over a hundred of the Far East child sex dolls imported into Britain since March 2016, and though seven people have subsequently been done for importing, it’s actually not an offence to make, distribute or possess them. No wonder the NCA has to dust down nineteenth century legislation to secure a conviction; it must have come as a relief that David Turner could be additionally nailed on charges more familiar to Paedo Hunters. Apparently, Mr Turner also had 29 ‘fictional stories which described the rape of children’, though these couldn’t even fall under the remit of the Obscene Publications Act. ‘Fictional stories’ is an important distinction, however; it matters not how badly-written they may have been, for they were pretend, just like role-play pornography, fake fannies, tits and willies – or sex dolls.

In response to David Turner’s sentencing, Hazel Stewart of the NCA claims ‘Child sex robots are just around the corner!’ And if that is indeed the case, which ancient law will cover that innovation? Even with a face and a design that might seek to replicate the look and feel of flesh, they will still be as far removed from the real thing as your laptop or your Smartphone are. If you stuck your dick in those, would that count as a similar offence? I have a feeling this is another of those future shock narratives scripted by either Chris Morris or Charlie Brooker.

The argument against sentencing people for importing these dolls into the country is that they act as a safer option for latent paedophilic tendencies to express themselves without any child coming to harm; the argument for is that such articles pander to these feelings and are the first step towards eventual abuse. Personally, I can’t see them as any different to all the other facsimile body parts mentioned in this post that are used in a sexual fantasy context; if they’re not real, no abuse is taking place. Therefore, why not enable unhealthy urges to be got out of the system with a doll if it prevents the real thing being targeted? I’ve even come across bloody plastic severed feet with a convenient hole in them to satisfy the cravings of those with a foot fetish, so it’s not as though technology can’t cover all bases.

As with the anti-smoking lobby’s illogical opposition to vaping, however, any sensible debate on such a subject seems unlikely to receive a fair hearing. These silicon infants are merely the latest manifestation of the multifaceted human capacity for finding eroticism in areas that will always be anathema to the majority. But a make-believe alternative to the gruesome horrors of the reality is surely preferable unless all such desires can be eradicated through the electric chair. After all, ‘anging’s too good for ’em, innit.

© The Editor

VILLAGE IDIOTS

At the point in the nineteenth century when Britain completed its transformation from a largely agricultural to a predominantly industrial economy, another transformation was all-but complete as a consequence of the changes. Every industry eventually had its own accompanying metropolis, boasting recognisably Victorian town centres resplendent with civic buildings, statues and squares, adhering to a familiar formula that also stretched to housing, encompassing both suburb and slum. The speed with which industry facilitated the urbanisation of the landscape gave the impression such locations were prototypes for the mid-twentieth century ‘New Towns’, as though they had sprung-up overnight, going direct from an architect’s drawing board to land that had previously been little more than mere fields.

The truth was, however, that most British cities had grown organically, at first filling in the empty spaces dividing networks of ancient villages and then swallowing the villages whole, absorbing them into the bigger picture. Although the areas of some cities today retain their village roots solely in terms of the rivalries between different neighbourhoods – sometimes even varying in their interpretation of the locality’s accent – there are others that defiantly cling to a townie’s ideal of village life, complete with the conveniences genuine village living lacks and missing all the inconveniences that come with the country.

A friend of mine once lived in such a ‘village’ on the outskirts of a certain town famed for its production of footwear. Her account of the so-called community seems like an accurate barometer of those who want the best of both worlds. The majority of homes were hidden from view behind high hedges and fences; everyone resident there travelled to and from their castles via the internal combustion engine, so anybody passing through on foot would be immediately suspected of being up to no good. Children playing on the street were notable by their absence on account of so many being dispatched to private schools, and the high price of housing meant anyone born and raised there couldn’t afford to retain their roots in the vicinity, anyway.

Communication between dwellers of these miniature citadels would be limited to sharing complaints about planning applications to build a genuine village necessity such as a shop, i.e. something that threatened to despoil the pseudo-rural facsimile; otherwise, nothing beyond a communal gripe could unite the disparate residents. Once the commute from the workplace was done for the day, inhabitants would retreat behind doors that caused a regular headache for the postman on account of lacking something as common as a number. This ‘commuter community’ was essentially a collection of isolated properties populated by people for whom the substance of the environment in which their home was situated would be restricted to its superficial surface.

All to a man were city expats that had fed into the urban notion of countryside, one that the actual countryside isn’t exactly conducive to. Natives often comment on how new arrivals to rural neighbourhoods tend to moan about sonic disruption from cockerels at the crack of dawn or church bells indulging in Sunday morning pealing; they whinge to farmers about the aroma of manure and view traditional country practices vital to the agricultural calendar as disruptive to the bucolic idyll derived from TV shows wherein smug, moneyed middle-class couples convert decrepit barns into homes possessing all the mod cons their past address possessed, basically transplanting their London life to prettier surroundings with no attempt to adapt to those surroundings at all.

When her house was on the market, it seemed at one stage that my friend’s home would be purchased by a pikey-ish Irish builder bearing more than a passing resemblance to the late lamented actor Brian Glover, a man not known for playing urbane sophisticates. I think the prospect of the upset such a gruff and ‘uncouth’ character – along with his brood of children and grandchildren – would cause her snooty neighbours appealed to her mischievous side, though the exchange unfortunately fell through due to the builder’s eagerness to do a cash-in-hand deal because he didn’t have a bank account.

Fear of the rougher element they imagined they’d left behind in the city bringing down the tone of their new neighbourhood is extended to the locals on occasion by these nouveau-riche villagers. One such local is stable-owner Linda Watson, whose exasperation with the attitude of those who have colonised her village in Cambridgeshire led to her publicly declaring they were ‘up their own arses’ following council rejection of her plans to build temporary accommodation for her stable workers thanks to village opposition. In response, she has tapped into their deepest fears by offering to sell her land to travellers, provoking a further storm of protest in the process.

The plot in question has an estimated value of £350,000 and Linda Watson says she’s already been flooded with calls since she made an announcement which sounds more of a cry for help. ‘I have had it up to here and I want to leave and move abroad,’ she says. ‘I can’t do this any longer. I would be a bastard to offer this land to a family that wants to use the land for stables because the neighbours make keeping horses here a nightmare.’ She does add a conciliatory note, however, by saying ‘I would welcome any villager to come and see me and talk to me and know that I’m not an ogre. I’m just at my wit’s end and I have had no support from the village.’

Relocating to the rural is a luxury of the wealthy, but the relocation is on their own terms; they often bring little to what’s already there, especially if it doesn’t square with their idea of what the rural represents. But in their attempt to remodel the rural in their own image, they’re ironically killing what made it such an alternative to the urban in the first place.

© The Editor

SCHOOL’S IN

A school uniform may be resented by those with no choice but to wear it, yet the sullen adolescents slouching against bus-shelters this morning have merely exchanged one uniform for another – one day dressed in their regulation designer teenage attire and the next back in the straitjacket dictated by the educational institution selected by their parents due to its standing in the league tables. One mass-produced outfit trades on the illusion of individuality and the other is sold as a constricting concession to The Man, but both cynically feed the consumer appetite, either that of parent or child. The latter I sighted earlier today are now at the stage Alice Cooper once sang of – ‘I’m in the middle without any plans/I’m a boy/and I’m a man’. Envy them? Thought not.

The aforementioned veteran shock-rocker has regularly cited the inspiration for his biggest hit as being the moments leading up to the last school bell that heralds the summer holidays, moments he rightly recalled as being amongst the highlights of childhood. Even a childless person can’t help but notice those moments have been and gone for another year now, however; a sudden alteration in the apparel of the urban parade as of today is something one can’t help but notice, though I must stress at this stage of proceedings I have no midlife leanings towards the female variety resuming the route to the academy. Who would dare these days, anyway?

No, I was simply made aware that school was no longer out because of the proliferation of identikit brats cluttering the pavements in the manner of chattering wheelie-bins. Mercifully, most of my social media brothers and sisters have either avoided or have passed the proud parent bombardment, so I haven’t had to endure any forced smile mug-shots of their offspring in freshly-ironed and starched blazers this week. Not that I don’t feel sorry for those caught in the competitive crossfire of parental one-upmanship; in fact, I have no qualms in declaring I’d much rather have been a schoolboy then than now – even if then would seem virtually Victorian to today’s press-ganged classroom crew.

Assembly – the daily induction: a hymn to sing, a fable from the Bible, a round-up of results involving the numerous school sports teams, a slap across the skull from a patrolling teacher as swift punishment for talking, the occasional gust of wind provoking sniggering, and every once in a while a lecture on the evils of some vandalism committed by a villain nobody will name – all conducted in the chilly environs of a hall that can double-up as a dining room three hours later. Not long after the half-asleep multitudes are herded off to their respective classes, the unmistakable aroma of boiled slurry begins to seep into the space, though the belly will have to wait for the dubious gastronomic treats; lucky belly.

Those wooden rubbers designed to erase chalk text from the blackboard could very nearly have an eye out, as they would have said on ‘Blue Peter’ if the school experience had been realistically portrayed on the programme. As a teacher’s weapon, the wooden rubbers competed with a ruler or a register when deciding which would serve as the quickest means of altering a daydreaming pupil to the lesson when hurled in their direction. Running the gauntlet of staff sadism was a tricky business that, if done with the correct amount of cheeky chappie nerve, could ensure a legend that would last a lunchtime; if done wrong, detention alongside the swivel-eyed school yahoos awaited.

Those I knew who did as they were told and got on with their work probably enjoyed careers of clerical social-climbing and mobility once graduating from our glorified Borstal; they were fortunate they could do so while it was still possible. Their equivalents today can look forward to university (which was a rare privilege at my alma mater), albeit bankrupting their parents in the process and saddling themselves with decades of debt as their degree qualifies them for soul-destroying telesales that won’t even pay their astronomical rent, never mind entitle them to a home of their own. Some progress.

We are also intermittently informed by our tabloid press that today’s schools are hotbeds of violence – both physical and sexual; coppers are often on site; bullying initiatives are part and parcel of the curriculum; CCTV and weapons searches are apparently regular fixtures. Never had any of that at my school, but I fail to see how the violence could possibly be any more vicious and endemic than it was during my tenure. The most severe punishment a teacher can dish out to an unruly ‘student’ today is temporary suspension; they can’t administer six-of-the-best let alone a clip round the lughole, yet they could more or less indulge in any assault when I was at school, and it was sometimes hard to decide who were the scariest – the staff or the more psychotic pupils.

Okay, so institutionalised violence emanating from the staff-room may have been outlawed, but pupil power has its own downside. Not that any parent would want to accept this could be the case at their own child’s school – after all the trouble they went to when moving into the right catchment area and ferrying their offspring to the gates in Chelsea Tractors? No wonder they react to any fictional portrayals of school that dwell on this violence with such fury. ‘Grange Hill’ was the bête noir of parents for the first few years of its existence; surely characters such as Gripper Stebson were pure fantasy? Yet, the kids recognised this council estate Flashman in an instant. Only when the cast were applauded for the ‘Just Say No’ campaign did the show achieve the parental pat on the back.

I doubt schooldays were the best days of anyone’s life, merely an introductory episode to the equally joyous workplace or dole queue; I certainly don’t look back at mine with any fondness, that’s for sure. Yet, at the same time, I wouldn’t swap places with the poor sods enduring it today. I would imagine the environment they currently inhabit is a good deal less intimidating than the one I inhabited at their age, but the prospect of joining a workforce with the longest hours in Europe and diminishing rewards at the end of it makes one wonder why the whole lot of them aren’t bunking off. Mind you, that would put their parents in prison, wouldn’t it? I guess not all new laws are bad.

© The Editor