A CAT AND MOUSE ACT

Hindsight and distance do make it rather easy to lord it over past laws with a somewhat smug sense of superiority, as though our ancestors were either too soft or too stupid to endure the punishments and restrictions imposed upon them by the government of the day without putting up a fight – like they had a choice, like we have a choice. Whilst the random example of a window tax to help fund the Napoleonic Wars seems almost understandable when a costly conflict spanning almost two decades threatened Britain with invasion several times and therefore led to much desperate legislation, other nuggets from our history appear beyond defensible. ‘What, Cromwell cancelled Christmas, and they just let him do it?!’ ‘What, the Rump threatened married women who committed adultery with execution, and the people just accepted it?!’ ‘What, hunger-striking Suffragettes were force-fed in prison, and Parliament endorsed it?!’ ‘What, gay men were locked-up and given aversion therapy to cure them of their homosexual tendencies, and nobody complained the policy was inhuman?!’

Oh, we were so primitive back then and we’re so sophisticated now. However, tell me, in all honesty, that had some of the more extreme examples of Draconian measures currently being exercised in Albion been proposed this time twelve months ago, you would have accepted them without a second thought. No, of course not – yet here we are, accepting them. Without context, any curb on civil liberties and personal freedoms can seem outrageous to sensibilities detached from the climate that produced them. I’ve no doubt generations to come – if there happen to be any after all this – will look back on some of the rules and regulations imposed by government north and south of Hadrian’s Wall in 2020 and come to the conclusion we the people were a spineless mass of gullible sheep too scared of our own shadows to defy our lords and masters. Yes, at the moment it can feel like we’re living under a cross between the Protectorate and Sharia Law, but whether any damning future verdict on our acceptance of events will be right or wrong depends on who writes the history of all this, I guess – and whether or not they were here.

Despite the fact that a small handful of regional hotspots and the good folk in them are finally standing up to Westminster in the face of further local lockdowns, the kind of shock-horror propaganda campaign designed to scare the public into compliance continues and has, to a large extent, worked in bending the people to the governmental will. The first and oldest lesson in learning how to rule a disparate rabble is to divide them, and for all its incompetence in its handling of the pandemic, the one thing Boris’s Government has succeeded in doing is to split the public between the sceptical and the accepting. Anyone voicing doubts as to the ever-changing official line is invariably portrayed as a conspiracy theory-spouting Icke/MAGA lunatic (and borderline white supremacist, natch), whereas anyone who does as they’re told and questions nothing is a curtain-twitching, neighbour-grassing automaton.

At one time, and not so long ago, Fleet Street would have had the greatest influence over the population in pedalling or questioning the latest Whitehall edict as the indisputable truth; the role of most newspapers when it comes to the issues of the day has traditionally been to reinforce and endorse the beliefs of their readership rather than seek to challenge them. But whilst the dwindling readership of today still receives the same old service, most seek the endorsement of their opinions elsewhere – and they’re not exactly short of options to fire their imaginations. It didn’t take long before the mysterious origins of Covid-19 were explained as the result of clandestine Chinese experiments in developing a killer virus for use in chemical warfare, one that went disastrously wrong when it escaped confinement – or did it? Some hinted it may well have been deliberately leaked as part of Beijing’s long-term project to take over the world, as though Xi Jinping is nothing more than an oriental Dr Evil.

Easily dismissed when the majority were prepared to endure some novel social hardships under the belief it would all be over by Christmas, the gradual evaporation of trust in government to manage the unmanageable has enabled some of the wilder theories to gain a stronger foothold as part of a wider disillusionment with our elected representatives. Mind you, when Keir Starmer exhibits all the independent thought of a nodding dog in a car’s rear window whenever one more repressive measure is unveiled by the opposite side of the House to further limit social discourse, it’s no wonder so many people have lost all faith in the likelihood of an alternative approach to combat the coronavirus being put forth by a politician. A student confined to the campus fortress and swallowing his parents’ life-savings engaged in online tutorials that he could get for free via YouTube in the comfort of the family home is hardly going to express unshakable confidence in the powers-that-be; and the weak streak of posh piss that is Matt Hancock claiming granny’s blood will be on all our hands if we don’t do as we’re told is a bit rich when he was the one who allowed granny to return to the Petrie-dish of a care home that killed her in the first place.

As for Boris, playing the blame game in order to deflect attention from his own failings is allowing us all to see the Eton schoolboy dobbing his chums in it before the headmaster to save his own skin. And, of course, we have SNP MPs and Jeremy Corbyn dinner-party guests, who were all quick to denounce the rule-breaking activities of Dominic Cummings, doing exactly the same thing and keeping their jobs just like Boris’s Svengali did when they were all screaming ‘off with his head’. Hell, the PM can’t even remember what the rules are when asked, so God knows how the rest of us are expected to. Not that this encourages Cummings-like flaunting of them amongst many; so effective has the Covid Project Fear operation been, there are plenty who imagine a seventh person crossing their threshold will trigger an alarm in their local nick that will lead to an Armed Response Unit kicking down their front door within a matter of minutes. Ah, if only Plod could be so prompt in the event of a burglary.

The cat-and-mouse game of hide-and-seek we’ve now been subjected to for seven long months is destined to carry on indefinitely as restrictions are lifted, the virus returns, restrictions are reintroduced and the virus retreats – and so on and so on. And all the while, the immense financial, psychological and social cost of this futile exercise is creating one hell of a bumpy carpet, for there’s only so much that can be swept under it before someone trips over and does themselves a serious injury. As long as the genuinely at-risk are protected and effective testing and track-and-trace systems can actually be introduced, we appear to have no choice but to learn to live with Covid-19 just as we have learnt to live with the common cold, seasonal influenza and a dozen other ailments that might be fatal to visiting Martians but will spare the majority of earthlings. Sweden’s treatment of their care home residents was as catastrophic as our own, but most of that country’s coronavirus fatalities seem to have come in that particular sector; by and large, the Swedish model of ‘herd immunity’ will probably stand Swedes in good stead when the rest of the western world is still furtively searching for a paddle on its never-ending journey up Shit Creek.

© The Editor

NEW CASTLE DIVIDED

So, as one Utopian experiment dies before our eyes – i.e. the United States of America – following the first unedifying debate between two corrupt cadavers (and all those hoping Trump cops it are as much a part of that slow death as the man himself), another kind of Utopia gradually vanishes whilst nobody’s looking. This one is part of an ongoing process to erase a uniquely 20th century concept of Utopia from the landscape, and the latest chapter will be underway once the bulldozers belatedly move in to begin a demolition that has been on the cards for the best part of a decade – that of the perennially-controversial eyesore known as the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Even if this particular precinct isn’t personally known to the reader, it represents a specific shopping experience familiar to anyone born and raised in any British city during the first half-century of the post-war era.

The Elephant and Castle seems to have specialised in retail outlets for a hundred years or more. Before the Second World War, it was a highly-regarded destination for shoppers, nicknamed ‘the Piccadilly of South London’; it boasted several cinemas, a branch of Burtons, and also had its very own illustrious department store, something which – much like malls in more recent times – no neighbourhood claiming to be a leading shopping epicentre could be complete without. However, as was the case with great swathes of the capital, the Blitz laid waste to the locality and Elephant and Castle was earmarked for redevelopment; along with new housing, the planners intended to provide grandiose leisure facilities which were inevitably dominated by that ubiquitous addition to the post-war urban landscape, the newfangled shopping centre complex.

London wasn’t unique when it came to these concoctions, but it being London, everything had to be on a far larger scale than anywhere else. Belonging to a generation of architects inspired by the futuristic – if impractical – cityscapes of Le Corbusier, the designers of Elephant and Castle’s contribution to the concrete jungles of the New Elizabethan Age weren’t short on ambition, even if predictable budgetary restraints somewhat diluted the drawing-board sketches. Opened for business in 1965, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre shared similar hopes for housing a dozen old streets of shops under one roof as Birmingham’s equally optimistic Bull Ring Centre around the same time. Both suffered from a scaling down of their original vision. Pre-opening hype at the Elephant and Castle may well have boasted of 120 shop units on three levels, but by the time it opened, only 29 were filled; the Bull Ring faced the same problems, with the high rentals there dissuading the old market traders from relocating indoors.

Even a Brutalist enthusiast – and they do exist – would be hard-pushed to make an aesthetic case for the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. It’s a tatty sow’s ear of a building that no amount of tinkering over the years has managed to transform into a silk purse. It has no real architectural shape or form, with the various tacked-on ‘improvements’ having enhanced its irredeemable ugliness whilst failing to improve upon what photographs show was far-from impressive even at the time of its initial opening. As with the simultaneous decline and fall of the neighbouring Heygate Estate – another product of well-meaning but poorly-executed post-war town planning – the Shopping Centre gradually acquired an unsavoury, rather grubby reputation that deterred the big chain-store names from investing in it. However, the one unintended benefit of the precinct being shunned by high-street giants was that it enabled independent traders to plug the gaps, creating something of a community ambience, especially for the area’s notable Latin American population. So, in a wholly unexpected way, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre eventually became that which it was originally intended as – a community hub for the community that live in the area.

The motivation behind so much of the 1960s housing and retail stock that is disappearing from view with remarkable rapidity was undeniably laudable; if WWII air-raids could be said to have had any positive impact on Britain’s cities, they at least forced councils and elected representatives to address urban environmental issues that had required urgent attention for decades. Not only was there a concerted attempt to improve the nation’s homes, high-streets and road network, but it was a project in which the lives of everybody were included. As with the political consensus that lingered until the arrival of Thatcherism, this hangover from the One Nation approach required to repel Hitler meant the great housing schemes of the era were built to provide homes for anybody in need of one, regardless of social demographic league tables. That so much of this ambitious and brave concept failed to deliver really is something of a tragedy.

Cut corners, cheap materials, shoddy workmanship, poor designs, diminishing budgets and behind-the-scenes corruption all played their part in the collapse of this admirable Utopian operation, as did the almost manic verve with which perfectly sound streets, houses and civic buildings were bulldozed not because they were bomb-damaged or decrepit but simply because they were old and didn’t fit the master-plan. A blend of old and new complementing each other would have been the best solution, but local councils and politicians became drunk on redevelopment and saddled any Brutalist building with the same undesirable label as those that were the worst, most unloved examples of the school – which is why so many of them have gone in the past couple of decades.

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre closed its doors for good at the end of September; the whole area is to be redeveloped yet again, with the ominous spectre of ‘gentrification’ looming over the locals. Many of the traders that served to give the kiss of life to the Shopping Centre have not been offered units in the emporium scheduled to replace it, but I’m guessing the usual suspects will move in to make its replacement just like every other mall anywhere on the planet. Southwark Council have promised 35% of the dwellings accompanying this new retail hub will consist of social housing, but one can’t help but think non-dom Chinamen, Arabs and Oligarchs are probably already top of this particular housing list. At least the 1960s redevelopments, however much they got it wrong, were designed with ‘ordinary people’ in mind. Today, the plebs have to be content with whatever scraps are leftover from the rich pickings overseas investors at the head of the queue get their hands on.

Many similar heroic failures have bitten the dust this century – the old Bull Ring met the wrecking-ball almost 20 years ago whilst Portsmouth’s equally-ambitious Tricorn Centre (described by Prince Charles as ‘a mildewed lump of elephant droppings’) was demolished in 2004. Love them or loathe them, such buildings embodied a vision sorely lacking today. They may have become – like the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre – distinctly shabby within a very short space of time; but they had character, something that 21st century redevelopment does its damndest to smoothly iron out.

© The Editor

SPITTING HEIRS

I guess if your idea of satire is ‘The Mash Report’ or BBC ‘comedy’ panel shows, you’re never going to get what the remit behind ‘Spitting Image’ was/is. Satire? That means laughing at everyone with the wrong opinions, yeah? – y’know, the other side AKA the dark side, the ones who think differently from us and are therefore evil, thick and racist, yeah? In satire, you reserve all your venom for them and you don’t so much ring-fence your own side – the morally superior side beyond reproach and above criticism – as exempt it to the point whereby to even contemplate a dig in the shape of a gag is tantamount to heresy. Because genuine satire has been absent from our mainstream screens for so long, allowing the gap to be filled by humourless partisan tribalism via a very different medium, it’s no wonder a revival of the most acerbic satirical TV show of the 1980s has provoked instant outrage from a generation that has grown up ignorant of the fact no prisoners are taken in satire.

Anyone old enough to remember the fuss first time round will recall what fuss there was emanated largely from the right, as was the norm back then. When ‘Spitting Image’ originally aired in 1984, veteran clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse was still active and still the go-to voice of moral outrage whenever something ‘controversial’ was broadcast on television. A programme screened in ITV’s post-watershed Sunday night slot then reserved for ‘edgy’ comedy – the exceedingly black and bleak ‘Whoops, Apocalypse’ had preceded it – was bound to attract attention. What made ‘Spitting Image’ something of an ingenious Trojan Horse was the puppets themselves, a factor that perhaps enabled the show to get away with more than it would’ve managed had the cast consisted of actors and comedians as in ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’. Still, making fun of the Royal Family and assorted National Treasures in 1984 was guaranteed to stir the ire of those easily offended.

The novelty of using puppets as a vehicle for digs at the great and the good of the day probably helped ‘Spitting Image’ maintain its position as the most razor-sharp of satirical rapiers until the early 90s. There was quite simply nothing else like it on TV, and the show’s heyday was at a time when the viewing options were still pretty limited, guaranteeing it a huge audience. Being immortalised in foam and latex soon became recognised as the litmus test of whether or not a public figure had made it, the 80s equivalent of being ‘done’ by Mike Yarwood in the 70s. Politicians apparently not paying attention to the lines being spoken by their puppets professed to be big fans of the way they were portrayed; Norman Tebbit as a sinister, leather-jacketed cockney hard-man was one thing, however – little David Steel sat on the shoulder of David Owen was another. The latter claimed this damaging caricature of the two men leading the SDP-Liberal Alliance played a part in the party’s failure to breakthrough at the 1987 General Election.

I have to admit to being somewhat underwhelmed when I heard the series was being revived; I’m not into high-school reunions and this to me felt like an admission that there were no new ideas anymore – as though it was comedy’s own version of ‘Heritage Rock’, whereby musicians with a 50-year + vintage fill the more cavernous music venues because no musicians young enough to be their grandchildren are good enough to do likewise. After all, nobody would’ve considered resurrecting ‘That Was The Week That Was’ in the 1990s and passing it off as cutting-edge satire, not in the age of Chris Morris & co. However, it can probably be viewed as a sign of today’s times that, rather than commission a completely fresh satirical series, ‘Spitting Image’ is regarded as a safe option. The motivators behind the revival maybe figured the nature of what passes for satire in 2020 would mean none of the over-sensitive Woke mafia would fall within the firing line, surely not with the likes of Boris and Trump to target, eh?

How refreshing, then, that one of the prospective puppets unveiled as a character in the resurrected series is of Greta Thunberg. As a product of satire as it used to be, the co-creator of ‘Spitting Image’, Roger Law denied the new version would avoid taking the piss out of anyone on the left; after all, as much as Margaret Thatcher was the prime target of the original series, Neil Kinnock was hardly spared a regular evisceration. If a new ‘Spitting Image’ is to be true to the spirit of the old, it has to have a go at all sides; otherwise, it’ll be no more effective than ‘Mock the Week’. The idea of the team behind the programme being issued with a check-list of public figures beyond parody is anathema and would have rendered a revival a non-starter from the off.

Let’s face it – we’re not short of public figures in 2020 who are asking for the kind of kicking ‘Spitting Image’ would dish out to anyone and everyone back in the 1980s. In a world with a pair of patronising, privileged preachers as far up their own arses as the Duke and Duchess of Neverland routinely lecturing the proles from a mansion or a private jet with such a staggering lack of self-awareness, for ‘Spitting Image’ to leave them be would be a complete abdication of the programme’s raison d’être. If people are prepared to push themselves forward and put themselves in the public eye, fair enough; but if they then start to express a sense of superiority born of their fame and fortune by starting to tell us all how to live our lives with a permanently wagging finger, they deserve everything ‘Spitting Image’ can throw at them.

As one of the deities of the Woke world, Saint Greta has been elevated to such a rarefied stratosphere that she should be utterly impervious to criticism, yet as was once the case with having a go at the Pope, it would appear that daring to take a dig at her is no better than aiming at the favourite target of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ – and we all know what happened there. But today’s teenage and twenty-something heirs to the Whitehouse mantle are not amused. ‘The fact Spitting Image have decided it’s acceptable to mock a 17 year-old with autism is disgusting in itself,’ cried one ‘disgusted of Islington’ on social media. Another wailed ‘Greta Thunberg is 17 years-old and has autism. You think attacking an autistic kid is satire? You’ve lost the plot, Spitting Image!’ Funny, but you can almost read those comments in one of those exasperated voices they used to employ on ‘Points of View’.

If Greta Thunberg was an unknown adolescent who had featured in a documentary on autism and that was the sole reason she had any kind of public profile, it would then of course be utterly unforgivable for anyone posing as a satirist to ridicule her for having an unpleasant medical condition, just as it would be for them to mock someone dying of cancer. But autism is not the reason why Greta Thunberg is included amongst the grotesques comprising the cast of a new ‘Spitting Image’; and surely if her autism is such a crucial factor in her rise to prominence, perhaps there should be a tad more attention given to her parents, who have allowed her to hog the spotlight with very little apparent restraint or thought for her mental wellbeing. No, let’s not beat about the bush; her presence in latex and foam – or whatever form today’s puppets take – has no more to do with autism than autism has to do with her fame. Not that I’d expect the outraged to acknowledge this. Their concept of satire is so removed from the real thing that they don’t realise no cows should be sacred. And if they are, it ain’t satire.

© The Editor