A MEANS TO AN END

Jonathan Van-Tam might sound like some mullet-haired star of straight-to-video 80s action movies, but he’s actually England’s deputy chief medical officer. In his opinion – and how we’ve come to rely on the opinions of spotlight-relishing medical ‘experts’ of late – we can forget about a return to the old normal any time soon. Even with the Holy Grail of that miracle vaccine – which probably kills 99% of all household germs as well – we’ll still have to endure mask-wearing, social isolation and people without smiles for the foreseeable future. As with the ‘everything is racist’ narrative propagated by those for whom it provides a living, the likes of Jonathan Van-Tam would be pretty redundant it not for a pandemic; the longer this goes on, the better for him – along with all the others who have too much invested in the crisis to give it up. The world we’ve been forced to surrender this year officially ended the night Boris delivered his landmark address to the nation on 23 March. As endings go, it certainly had the requisite drama, only lacking the thunderous ‘Eastenders’ drums at the cliff-hanger to complete the picture. That was the end, beautiful friend.

I can think of better endings. ‘Michael Ellis’, for example – one of the few Monty Python episodes I was allowed to stay up and watch when it originally aired; dating from the final Python TV series in 1974, it was also one of the few in the series to feature a full-length story rather than a collection of unrelated sketches. Primarily set inside an old-fashioned department store, the episode focuses on Eric Idle and his quest to purchase a pet ant after becoming bored with the rest of his unconventional menagerie. With the closing credits appearing immediately after the opening titles this time round, the actual climax of the episode sees Terry Jones’ shop assistant offer Idle’s character a range of endings he can choose from; amongst the choices are a romantic stroll into the sunset, a slow fade-out, a dramatic chase to the ‘Dick Barton’ theme, or a sudden ending (which is the one that brings proceedings to an abrupt close). It’s a characteristically offbeat way of subverting the clichés of film and television as much as running the episode’s end credits barely a minute in.

Watching a lot of old – i.e. 1940s – movies lately, I noticed the refreshing absence of the kind of drawn-out contemporary credits that seem to go on forever when a film is over. In an old movie, you get all the details at the beginning and, bar the occasional brief cast-list, the end is just that – i.e. a caption that says ‘The End’; French films of the era say the same thing with the memorably brief ‘Fin’. I remember my mother telling me how her early cinema-going was marked by a stampede to the exit as soon as the last scene of a movie faded from the screen, basically to avoid the then-obligatory playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ that apparently had to be observed by those in attendance freezing on the spot. It shows how quickly films once drew to a close, for if today’s lengthy credits had been the norm then, everyone could have left the cinema in a leisurely fashion without fear of being trapped by the national anthem. I’m not sure at what point credits expanded to their current duration, though I do remember driving my parents mad as a child by insisting I sit through the credits of the latest Bond movie simply so I could learn the name of the next one, as they’d always finish with ‘James Bond will return in…’

Great endings to movies, such as (just to use a classic example) the big reveal in the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ when Charlton Heston stumbles upon the ruined Statue of Liberty and realises he’s been on Earth all the time, are rarer than we imagine; TV series, certainly the episodic blockbusters of recent years, often don’t know how to end and go on way past their sell-by date – the likes of ‘Lost’, ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘The Affair’ and ‘Heroes’, all of which began so promisingly, eventually dragged on to the point whereby I gave up and left them to fizzle out utterly un-mourned. The old showbiz adage of knowing when to leave the stage and therefore leaving the audience wanting more is a far better way; David Bowie knew that when he killed Ziggy Stardust at exactly the right moment, and Patrick McGoohan knew it when he curtailed ‘The Prisoner’ with such glorious ambiguity that its meaning continues to be debated to this very day. Ziggy’s lifespan was barely a year; No.6 concluded his story after just seventeen episodes. In their own unique way, both ended brilliantly.

Unless the whole story is mapped out from start to finish before a single line has been committed to the page, I’ve always found one of the trickiest tasks of writing a novel to be devising a satisfactory ending. The way I work around it is not to plan it. I tend to have a rough sketch of where a tale is going on the eve of beginning it, but find the exercise far more fulfilling an experience if events take me on a magical mystery tour as the various characters and plotlines develop in ways that are as unexpected to the author as they hopefully will be to the reader. This in turn can present a conclusion that wasn’t foreseen when the opening sentence (another tough nut to crack) was jotted down. It’s a more ‘organic’ process that suits me fine, one that feels more natural than meticulously plotting every move in advance as though the writing is little more than a mathematical puzzle or game of chess with one’s self.

Some novels I’ve read have an almost perfect symmetry in the manner of their endings, whereas others peter out and leave the reader coming away with a feeling of anticlimax that implies the investment in the story demanded something better. I suspect we expect fiction to give us the kind of endings unreliable real life rarely offers, and when it seems too close to disappointing reality it ceases to do its duty. An audience always wants endings penned by screenwriters or novelists to be fitting climaxes that a good story requires. Those for which life is the author can be frustratingly damp squibs, with an absence of swelling strings and the numerous options Terry Jones offered Eric Idle in 1974. Life’s chapters regularly have a habit of closing with the kind of deflating flatness no film producer would ever sanction if he wants a good reception once those elongated credits begin to roll. That said, I’ve only ever seen two films at the cinema in my entire life that were granted a spontaneous round of applause from all present when the end came – ‘Toy Story 3’ and ‘I, Daniel Blake’; hard to think of two more different movies on paper, yet both had something to say about the fragility of life and how it so often fails to live up to the desired script.

Exactly five years ago today I penned the inaugural post on this here blog, and I read it for the first time in a long time today. It’s only brief, and has the feel of a manifesto. But at the moment of its composition, I’d just experienced an ending that was rather painful (to put it mildly) and it’s evident to me now a brave face was being put on in order to positively harness the emotional force of the upset and rise above it. I think I took a good few posts to find my feet, but as soon as David Cameron announced the date of the EU Referendum in February 2016, I was handed a gift-wrapped grenade that I’ve been pulling the pin out of ever since. It was just the sort of story this type of enterprise needed; for once, life and I were harmoniously synchronised. The Brexit issue is ongoing, as is – seemingly – the saga that has stolen its thunder in 2020; when it comes to both, the one thing that doesn’t appear to be in sight is an ending. The fat lady has lost her voice, and as long as she keeps schtum, we remain open for business.

© The Editor

SING A SONG OF SIXPENCE

In the mid-1960s, pop musicians were laying an abundance of golden eggs for grateful record companies, promoters, managers and merchandisers and getting very little in return. And even if the biggest earners in the business had a better time of it on paper than the opening act for Freddie and the Dreamers, the Wilson Government’s very own superhero, Taxman, was taking nineteen shillings from every twenty made. Pre-60s entertainers hadn’t made much money from record sales either; back then, performers had earned their livings by performing, whilst the majority of the royalties from a big-seller went to the professional songwriters who penned it; and in the era of the Standard, a dozen different singers could sell millions of copies of the same song, further boosting the income of the composer as opposed to the performer. With the rise of the writer/performer in the wake of The Beatles, the additional compositional income helped a little, but the contracts the bands were locked into weren’t that different from the kinds of tied land/cottage deals endured by centuries of agricultural labourers.

Having lost a fortune courtesy of Brian Epstein’s business naivety, The Beatles attempted to break the stranglehold others had over their accumulated earnings by forming the Apple organisation in 1968; but their reluctance to involve anyone with genuine financial acumen left the shambolic field clear for Allen Klein, the archetypal showbiz shyster, to eventually steam in and pocket the pieces; he’d already shafted the Stones, after all. It wasn’t until the arrival of Led Zeppelin and their visionary manager Peter Grant at the end of the 60s that bands began to earn the kind of big bucks that would set them up for life. At the same time as Led Zep were flying around the world on their private jet, Stevie Wonder was turning 21 and renegotiating his contract with Motown, gaining an unprecedented degree of control over his recorded output. However, the rise of the powerful artist in command of his or her destiny didn’t end the traditional factory farm system, with the likes of The Bay City Rollers being royally ripped-off by their manager, the notorious Tam Paton. The exploitation of youth – both performer and audience – still constituted a hefty chunk of the music industry’s business plan.

The phenomenal record sales of the 70s and 80s paid for many a Rolls Royce, country estate and penthouse suite, but the boom dramatically turned to bust with the advent of Napster and file-sharing at the very end of the 20th century. Home taping may not have killed music, but free illegal downloading certainly killed the old music industry – and denied any rising star the prospect of following in the footsteps of their millionaire predecessors. With falling record sales and the increasing irrelevance of the singles chart, contemporary acts reverted to the bread-and-butter of their 50s ancestors by hitting the road. The astronomical rise in the price of tickets for big gigs thereafter became the main way an artist could at least make a decent living from music, whilst the place of recorded income was taken by the industry cornering the streaming market, belatedly latching onto the fact it was the one remaining area they could recoup some of the billions they lost when physical sales began to plummet.

The conglomerates that gobbled up the old record companies – Universal, Sony and Warner – today own the vast majority of popular music people want to hear and can make on average a good $20 million a day from streaming; whatever crumbs are left (13% of an estimated annual £1bn in the UK alone) go to lesser-known, independent artists, and as streaming sites lean towards acts that have a proven track record of success, the marginalisation of new artists trying to make headway is inevitable. The little they earn from streaming leaves them no better off than the 60s acts making a pittance from record sales due to the miserly contracts they signed. But at least there was always touring to depend on for paying the rent, even if the number of small venues for up-and-coming acts is a pale shadow of the circuit there used to be 30 or 40 years ago. Alas, even that hit a brick wall this year thanks to a certain virus. 2020 has seen the one lifeline most musicians who aren’t Ed Sheeran or Adele had as their main income completely wiped out. Sure, those who enjoy live music are being deprived in lockdown land, but if performing is what you do, what do you do when there’s nowhere to perform anymore? Chances are relying on streaming isn’t the answer.

Streaming royalties don’t work the same way as radio airplay; at a time when more are accessing the likes of BBC Sounds to tune into playlists whenever they feel like it, most are probably unaware (or don’t care) that the artist’s royalty payment for featuring on the BBC Sounds app goes direct to the artist’s label rather than the artist. This is because of a legal loophole whereby the broadcast is regarded as ‘interactive’ and therefore not subject to the older, fairer system; it empowers the labels further, turning them into an old-fashioned housewife in charge of her husband’s wage-packet and dispensing the contents as she sees fit. There is no cast-iron guarantee the artist will receive any kind of substantial payment for the privilege of being included in such a playlist, and with the lifeblood of the live performance suddenly removed from the picture, many musicians are struggling. This week, ‘Private Eye’ gives the example of classical violinist Tasmin Little, receiving 5m Spotify streamings of her work over six months and earning the princely sum of…£12. Both the Performing Rights Society and the Musicians Union are making the right sounds, but they may as well be Oliver Twist requesting an extra bowl of gruel.

Last week, a group of concerned musicians – including Ed O’Brien of Radiohead and Guy Garvey of Elbow – gave evidence to a Commons Select Committee of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; also present was Nadine Shah, a singer-songwriter belonging to a younger, more vulnerable musical generation. As she herself made clear, many less-established acts still on their way up are reluctant to speak out against the unfairness of streaming for fear of being blacklisted by the all-powerful streaming sites; at such a perilous time for musicians, one can understand their fears. The musicians appearing at the DCMS inquiry into the streaming business put forward the suggestion that artists be granted rights by Government to earn a decent percentage from streaming of the kind they would be legally entitled to from radio and TV airplay. Bands such as Radiohead and Elbow were amongst the last wave of acts who were able to build their careers in the pre-streaming age and are, I would imagine, relatively secure in financial terms; the same cannot be said of those at the mercy of the streaming overlords when they have no past royalties to fall back on.

I know myself that the publishing industry is notoriously stingy when it comes to royalty payments, and the music biz is no better. There was a brief window of around 30 years – between, say, the release of Led Zeppelin’s first album and Oasis’s third – when a small fortune could be made by artist as well as record company should an act capture the public imagination; but those that came before the window was open and those who came after it was closed tell a different story. Of course, no musician has a divine right to end up as a member of the landed gentry; but many wouldn’t want that, anyway. Some just want to be able to earn enough not to have to worry about the bailiffs on the doorstep. Most were just about managing before lockdown curtailed the live scene overnight; now they’ve no choice but to rely on a system that treats them as effective serfs, just like the system that existed before all those golden eggs started to be laid back in the 60s. Who knew that the brave new world of ‘digital content’ would end up taking us full circle?

© The Editor

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

When the 70th anniversary of the atom bomb falling on Hiroshima came around in 2015, I recall writing about the subject for my previous place of cyber employment, as seemed only right. However, I took a slightly different approach to what remains an emotive moment in history by highlighting my connection to the pilot of the Enola Gay, Col. Paul Tibbets. I’m related to him via the American branch of my mother’s family, though it would take a dedicated genealogist to establish the precise bloodline linking us, for all those who could have provided the details are dead and gone. Suffice to say, being a relative of the man who pressed the button that changed the world in the worst possible way is something I’m never quite sure if I should say out loud or not, particularly when the crimes of one’s ancestors now apparently have to be answered for by their living descendants. Where does Col. Tibbets rank on the Woke scale of irredeemably unspeakable skeletons in the family closet, I wonder? And what kind of penance must I pay when it comes to my trial for crimes against humanity, even if I didn’t personally commit any?

Yes, this North Korean-style retrospective punishment is all the rage now that the keys of the asylum have been placed in the hands of the lunatics. The British Library, repository of the nation’s greatest literary legacies, is just one more institution to have surrendered guardianship of the family silver to those who would just as happily toss it into a furnace as flog it. Even the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes has been added to the blacklist catalogue compiled in the wake of the Library’s self-flagellating surrender to the Church of BLM. Why? Well, as if enduring endless vitriolic assaults during his lifetime by unhinged radical feminists holding him responsible for the suicide of his first wife Sylvia Plath wasn’t bad enough, we now learn of another blot on the reputation of a man who died in 1998. Yes, Ted Hughes apparently had a distant ancestor who lived over 200 years before his own birth, one with some involvement in ‘colonialism’ back in the days of the British American colonies – and that is enough to condemn him. Funnily enough, Ted Hughes wasn’t born into wealth built on the profits of slavery and probably had no idea he was infected with the Original Sin of white supremacy, which we now thankfully know to be something all inherently evil non-BAME bastards carry. This is how insane it’s become.

The defacing of a Queen Victoria statue in Leeds at the height of the first wave of insanity back in the summer not only exposed the misogyny of the ‘artist’ but also highlighted his/her lack of education, linking Victoria to the slave trade when the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 – one that outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire bar a few outposts administered by the East India Company – was passed four years before Victoria came to the throne. But, hey, let’s not let any facts get in the way of the narrative, eh? And let’s not mention William Wilberforce or that this country led the way on abolitionism for the best part of half-a-century before finally achieving its aim. It’s probably worth mentioning that Britain didn’t invent slavery either and maybe make the point that it was still a highly profitable industry when Britain ended it. What always gets overlooked – one might almost say deliberately – is that before the advent of the more ruthless archetypal imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes, the British Empire was being shaped by the kind of middle-class, paternalistic do-gooders which the contemporary Woke crowd have more in common with than the British Library and its SJW affiliates would ever dare admit.

They would have regarded themselves as liberal, and they had a champion in the imposing figure of William Ewart Gladstone, Liberal with a capital L. The man who served four different terms as British Prime Minister was a passionate advocate of civilising savages with the Bible, a Victorian missionary in all-but name. He believed he was doing God’s work in converting heathen natives both home and abroad to a proper, Christian way of living, and his disciples set off for far-flung corners of the Empire to spread the Gospel. The colonies that had evolved from trading posts rather than claimed by invading armies were well-versed in the mantra of Free Trade, and those who governed the Empire during its middle period were fuelled by well-meaning, evangelical good intentions. As long as the natives were willing to be converted, they could be ruled by benign overlords with their best interests at heart. Secure in their righteous conviction that they were placed on earth to educate the less fortunate and that their selfless benevolence was sanctioned by the Almighty, they genuinely believed their way was the right way; and compared to, say, the Belgian approach to imperial governance, mid-Victorian imperialists were undoubtedly liberal.

Today’s equivalents have no Empire in terms of physical landmass; but they’ve conquered our public institutions and services – the schools, the universities, the medical profession, the police force, the Law – as well as tech companies, the corporate world, the arts, the mainstream media and politics; so, they basically control the majority of information reaching the masses as well as dictating social discourse and mores. I think that’s the nearest thing to an Empire this century can command without a shot being fired in anger. They’re as possessed by the same absolute, unshakable belief in their own moral righteousness as their Victorian forefathers and they also share their crusading mission to convert non-believers. They may have rejected God in Heaven, but they have their joint earthly religions of Identity Politics and Climate Change; they promote Globalisation with the same zealous fervour as the Imperial Victorians promoted Free Trade; and they place great emphasis on racial categorisation, believing one race is superior to the other; indeed, their belief in keeping the skin colours separate is as strong as that practiced and preached by the distant colonials they profess to detest. What a delicious irony.

The artist Grayson Perry once opined ordinary contemporary Brits bear more of a passing resemblance in spirit to the raucous Georgians than the virtuous Victorians; and the parallels between the way in which the Victorians were ashamed of their uncouth historical predecessors and the way in which the Woke cheerleaders look down on the ‘lower orders’ (i.e. Brexit bigots) are glaring. The Victorian lower orders were just as fun-loving and eager to have a good time as both their Georgian ancestors and their present day descendants, but the growing middle classes were controlling the narrative, just as they do today – as well as controlling the soul-destroying industries those beneath them toiled in, just as they do today. The pious propriety of this group and the pressures placed upon people to fall in line with their way of thinking are no different in 2020; and these Victorians had their own ‘cancel culture’ should one of their young women have a child out of wedlock or one of their young men be caught in the arms of another young man; their narrow moral code could destroy an individual with the same callous efficiency as any outraged Twitter troll today.

A key difference is that the Victorian liberals were at least able to channel their fanatical vigour for self-improvement into invention, innovation, and technological progress that did indeed improve millions of lives. The Woke crowd are more interested in destroying than creating; they have the same narcissistic nihilism as the extreme wings of the Reformation, their destructive actions echoing the whitewashing of Saints from church interiors and the tearing down of Catholic icons. They lack both the vision and the compassion of the Victorians at their best, and if that generation of Brits couldn’t keep their Empire together, there’s hope yet that the sun will set on this anti-cultural Woke Empire before long.

© The Editor