Nairn 1Retracing the steps of the late, great architectural critic Ian Nairn is a tricky proposition that one has to plot carefully; take it too far and you’d end up drinking yourself to death as the man himself did at the age of 52 in 1983. His fondness for the public house, about which he wrote with such eloquent verve (especially in his classic 1966 guide to the capital, ‘Nairn’s London’), proved to be his downfall, bringing to a premature end a career that illuminated both the printed page and the television screen in the 60s and 70s. A superbly witty, poetic and passionate writer on architecture and environment, Nairn had sprung to prominence in the mid-50s with his acclaimed ‘Outrage’ edition of the ‘Architectural Review’ magazine, establishing the concept of Subtopia as a dreary development on the post-war landscape and adding his name to the list of the decade’s Angry Young Men.

Although the criminally few books he authored are worth investing in as an example of his skills, the majority of his writing could be found in the Observer in the 60s and then the Sunday Times in the 70s. By this time, he’d also begun a TV career, presenting several idiosyncratic, eccentric and thought-provoking series for the BBC that showcased him as a highly original and refreshingly individual voice. Nairn as a presenter is not a television natural, but his emotional response to the always-intriguing and never-obvious locations he chose to introduce to the viewer can be a compelling experience. His often lugubrious demeanour depended upon whether or not filming took place before or after opening hours, but when his hackles are raised by a depressingly predictable piece of ill-advised town planning characteristic of the era, it regularly appears as though he’s poised to burst into tears, so incensed is he by the loss of a building he evidently adores.

Buildings like the quirky Emporium Arcade in Northampton, which he praised and regarded as worthy of preservation, were swept away despite his pleas; and perhaps the most moving moment of his TV output came when he stood in the gutted carcass of Bolton’s St Saviour church and railed against the men responsible for its imminent demolition. ‘We talk about football vandalism,’ he says in quivering tones. ‘I don’t quite know how you would categorise the vandalism of the yobbos who did this; it makes me ashamed to be part of the same branch of biology.’ It’s as though the ruination of what he describes as one of the town’s ‘most noblest churches’ is the final blow to any hope he still harboured, reducing him to a tragic, Lear-like figure, close to breakdown as he roams from one wasteland to another. It’s rare to see a man’s soul laid bare in such a manner, and when it seemed so many of his heartfelt pleas to the developers to think again constantly fell on deaf ears, it’s reasonable to theorise – as many have – that his weariness with fighting a losing battle accelerated his slide into terminal alcoholism.

The segment in St Saviour church was part of a series Nairn presented in which he visited six unfashionable destinations more familiar as names on a pools coupon than for their architecture; each programme was a game of two halves as he contrasted a pair of ‘football towns’ by selecting places in them that he regarded as notable and interesting. The Bolton edition was coupled with a visit to Preston, with Nairn beginning at the North End home of its historical football club and then working his way into the town centre. Having watched this edition numerous times over the years – and so few of his TV programmes are available that one tends to view the same small number – I found myself in Preston last week, and it was inevitable I sought out the locations he had highlighted, wondering whether or not they’d improved or deteriorated in the half-century that had elapsed since his visit.

Although Preston is now officially a city, it still has the feel of a classic provincial town built on 19th century industry, albeit one with the ambition that eventually resulted in its promotion to that of metropolis. That ambition can be seen in the Guild Hall, a modern (1972) building Nairn singled out as a fine example of Preston’s refusal to rest on its Victorian laurels. Much of the original redbrick exterior of the Guild Hall has subsequently been clad in wood to perhaps bring it into line with contemporary tastes, though the confidence the building exudes, one that so caught Nairn’s eye, remains. Nairn’s judgement was never clouded by simple nostalgia; he was just as eager to celebrate the best of the new as he was to preserve the best of the old, and his enthusiasm for Preston’s modernist bus station is typical of how he could see the good in an edifice many traditionalists might have greeted with disdain. Bar one or two alterations to the outside, the dramatic sweeping concrete curves housing the multi-storey car-park above the bus station are intact.

Amongst Preston’s ‘heritage’ buildings to have happily survived is its distinctive market hall, which Nairn rightly praised due to its half-in/half-out appearance, with the cast iron roof protruding out into the street and open to the elements; a collection of market stalls which stood on the pedestrianised square in front of the town’s impressive slice of classic Victorian civic pride, the Harris Art Gallery and Museum, has now gone; but the square itself – including a towering cenotaph – seems largely untouched. When Nairn was there, the town centre was undergoing the introduction of a frustrating one-way system, which appears to discourage the sightseer from travelling around it as a motorist; the best way to really explore the place, as Nairn discovered, is on foot. And one of the best things about Preston from the point of view of the pedestrian is the fact that all the areas Nairn visited are within a short walking distance of each other. A side-street off the main shopping thoroughfare, which is now wholly pedestrianised, leads to a unique public square – a ‘sunken’ one.

Rather than the flat, neat Georgian squares one associates with London, Winkley Square was deliberately not levelled out and left as nature intended. A tranquil little oasis that provides office workers with a bucolic interlude from the urban hustle and bustle, it serves as a prelude to what is probably Preston’s best-kept secret just round the corner – and this was a location Nairn only gives a brief glimpse of on screen. For all the current (and clueless) fashion for portraying the Victorians as one-dimensional imperial heathens, there’s no disputing the lasting legacy they left on Britain’s best towns and cities, none more so than one of their most necessary innovations intended to be enjoyed by everyone, the public park; and Preston’s Avenham Park is one of the finest in the land. Outside of the capital, it’s quite unusual to find such a vast green space smack bang in a city centre rather than out in the suburbs, and the mere snippet that appears on Nairn’s ‘Football Towns’ series gives no real indication of the sheer scale of that space when one actually sets foot in it. It’s also clear from the 1970s programme that a good deal of loving restoration has taken place since the great man took a look at it; an imposing statue of three-times 19th century Lancastrian Prime Minister the Earl of Derby is included in the roll-call of sights to see, and the longest-serving leader of any British political party (22 years) did set me wondering if statues of any current party leaders might one day grace such a space. Somehow, I doubt it.

Ian Nairn ends his summary of Preston and Bolton by recommending the viewer makes the effort to visit these neglected towns and I’m pleased to say that, 30-odd years after my initial viewing of the programme, I finally made the effort. I may have been standing on the shoulders of a giant, but I did so sober, and the Gods shone down on me with an early burst of spring sunshine that made the jaunt all the more memorable. I can think of worse ways to spend a weekend.

© The Editor




FletcherI suppose Rishi Sunak’s first post-pandemic budget last week could’ve been a contender for an old New Labour innovation, that of appearing at a time conducive for burying bad news. Delivering a far-from optimistic message to the non-wealthy residents of the nation – i.e. nobody belonging to the Chancellor’s circle of family, friends and acquaintances – when so much attention is focused on a war taking place on the other side of Europe was a handy way of getting the bad news out there, though the reactions from those who have been struggling ever since Lockdown Mk. I have dragged some traditional Tory perspectives on the less well-off back into the spotlight. The gains made when the red wall came tumbling down in 2019 are only just still intact at the moment courtesy of the Opposition’s suicidal commitment to the Identity Politics agenda; were Labour more clued-up on the widespread dissatisfaction with the Conservative’s contemptuous approach to their newfound voters, they’d have reclaimed their natural territory and would be in a healthy position to fight the next Election.

A belated reaction to the way in which Covid was handled by an administration that evidently didn’t regard the coronavirus as dangerous as the advertising campaign it pumped into the paranoid minds of the public has fired the aforementioned dissatisfaction, along with the governing party’s manner of resuscitating an economy it summarily destroyed during the pandemic – and who will pay for the almighty mess? Yes, me and thee once again, just as we did in the austerity era of the Coalition a decade ago. When the anger of the public is articulated so that it pierces the thick Tory skin, the default Tory response is to fall back on antiquated opinions that are even present in the thought-processes of new recruits one might imagine would be more in-tune with the needs of their constituents than some of their party’s grandees.

Sunak’s refusal to restore Universal Credit’s £20 uplift at a time of rising inflation and soaring energy bills – factors that will hit those on the lowest incomes as usual – has tapped in to the disgust with the Tories that the whole ‘Partygate’ saga fuelled. Independent think-tank the Resolution Foundation has estimated around 1.3 million members of the public (500,000 of them children) will plunge into absolute poverty this year; it predicts the incomes of those lucky enough to be in work will plummet 4% by 2023, despite the Chancellor’s trumpeted cuts to fuel duty and National Insurance. One might almost cynically wonder if Sunak is more concerned with putting on a good show for the party faithful in the event of a leadership contest rather than aiding the hardest hit by the policies instigated by his Government in 2020 and 2021. Not that the greenest Tory evangelists have passed on the concerns of their angry constituents to Central Office, however; some have endorsed the party line with sycophantic stupidity.

The revival of a Tory attitude towards those teetering on the brink of poverty, an attitude reminiscent of George Osborne in his cuddly prime, surfaced on one of those Sunday lunchtime regional politics shows on the BBC this weekend. It came from the MP for South Ribble, a certain Katherine Fletcher, only elected in December 2019, and someone who has risen without a trace ever since. Active on social media, Ms Fletcher’s Facebook page is full of tokenistic nods to whatever this week’s good cause happens to be – the NHS, cancer awareness, Holocaust Memorial Day, Ukraine etc. etc. – and photographic evidence of her ‘constituency duties’ appears to portray her as akin to an old-school Lord Mayor whose hand-shaking and ribbon-snipping photo-ops seemed guaranteed to make the front page of the local rag. The irate comments left on Fletcher’s facile FB posts by people who are clearly not on her payroll tend to elicit the response of somebody incapable of engaging with those she is supposed to represent at Westminster: she doesn’t reply and then she removes the comments whilst blocking the commenter. And according to reliable sources, it’d be easier to get straight through to a human employee of yer average utility company on the telephone than it would be to arrange an in-person audience with the Honourable Member for South Ribble in order to express any grievances that are verboten on Facebook.

On camera, Katherine Fletcher comes across as a detached receptionist at a GP’s surgery, the kind who looks down her nose at the patients as though she’s on a level playing field with the doctors working there. Her response to the Queen’s Speech in 2021 was memorably forgettable with the exception of her fatuous reference to Her Majesty as ‘flipping ace’ – a description of Brenda one might have expected from an ill-educated cast member of ‘Grange Hill’ in the early 80s, but not from a grownup Member of Parliament elected in 2019. Her route to Westminster came via the familiar gravy train of the town council and she didn’t necessarily endear herself to her local branch of the party when, upon being elected, she had her name emblazoned on the front of their office in the Lancashire town of Leyland, as though it was a shop and she was the proprietor. The laughably large sign was relocated to the side of the building after complaints were raised, but perhaps the egotistical gesture spoke volumes as to the woman’s opinion of herself – one not exactly shared by her constituents.

When she appeared on BBC1’s ‘Politics North West’, Katherine Fletcher dismissed the predictions of the Resolution Foundation – whose executive chairman is the former Tory MP David Willetts – and sneered that people were ‘sitting on benefits’; when presented with claims that those actually in work were confronted by levels of poverty more commonly associated with the unemployed, Fletcher denied this and said ‘You get any job, you get a better job, you get a career.’ She stopped short of recommending that her less fortunate constituents acquire a bike so that they might be able to cycle to the nearest Job Centre, but the general tone was one of an out-of-touch and arrogant Tory MP that the triumph of 2019 suggested had long since been put out to pasture in the Lords.

The reaction to her TV appearance has provoked the kind of comments on her Facebook wall that will no doubt shortly be erased. ‘My friend works two jobs,’ said one. ‘She’s 60, has health problems, and I have to buy her food and help her with heating costs. How is she sat on benefits? Two jobs and she’s still in poverty. She works 7 days a week. How can you explain this?’ Another comment says ‘How dare you preach to us. Give your head a wobble and enjoy what time you can squander being an MP because after your comments you have lost! APOLOGISE for your actions!’ And then one that no doubt hits home: ‘People are sitting on benefits, are they? It seems like you’ve claimed a lot on your expenses over the past couple of years – £224,791 to be exact. Looks like MPs are sitting/sleeping on some extortionate benefits, as well as on the job. Gross.’ Another – left by the carer of a pensioner with Parkinson’s and dementia – suggested a job swap with the MP, inviting her to ‘come and clean up my uncle’s chronic diarrhoea at 5am.’

The general consensus amongst the constituents who comment on Katherine Fletcher’s Facebook account is that she is reciting from a manual many foolishly imagined MPs representing her party no longer subscribe to. And South Ribble isn’t even a former red wall constituency; yes, like many traditionally Conservative areas, it had a Labour MP during the Blair era, but David Borrow was an anomaly in what has otherwise been a solidly Tory stronghold from its inception in 1983. When even an MP representing such a safe seat can provoke such hostility, the popular perception that the Tories are as out-of-touch in 2022 as they were in 1997 is evidently not limited to the Labour front-bench. But as for that Labour front-bench…

© The Editor




Zaghari RatcliffeHow many Foreign Secretaries does it take to change a light-bulb? Not entirely certain, but probably not as many as it took to secure last week’s joint release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori after they’d served six and five years respectively in Iranian detention. When Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested on trumped-up spying charges in 2016, Philip Hammond held the post of Foreign Secretary; during her detention, Zaghari-Ratcliffe has watched the revolving door at the Foreign Office from a distance and observed Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab and – finally – Liz Truss all pass through it. It’s no great surprise that she has expressed a degree of understandable bitterness that it took until the incumbent holder of the post before she managed to be released and returned to the UK. But her release – and that of Ashoori – was achieved through brokering a deal that can be seen as a last resort on the part of the British Government.

And the deal wot dun it? Repaying a debt stretching all the way back to the Shah of Iran during the last years of his reign in the 1970s, that’s wot. This was the period when, despite being an unelected Absolute Monarch running a ruthless regime fairly intolerant of any opposition, the Shah was the West’s man in the Middle East. Photos that routinely pop-up online of the stylish Western fashions worn by pretty Iranian girls who could’ve just as easily been in Milan as Tehran are often used as pre-1979 evidence of sartorial freedoms being exhibited without fear of condemnation, assault or imprisonment. What we now tend to think of as the characteristic (and considerably less uninhibited) standard uniform issued to all members of the female sex in Iran is conspicuously absent from images that portray the country as an exotic and glamorous destination for the beautiful people. But Iran experienced its own Industrial Revolution during the last Shah’s modernising 38-year reign, creating a prosperous and educated middle-class; the country also capitalised on the energy crisis of the mid-70s, placing it in a strong economic position during its dealings with the West.

In the golden age of OPEC, when the ruling elites of Arab nations belatedly began to take control of their natural resources and recognise the advantage they suddenly had over the struggling European powers, the figure of the chauffer-driven sheik buying up large chunks of London became a familiar one in popular culture. At a time when the Arabs appeared to be in possession of the strongest hand, pro-Western Middle Eastern countries were courted by Europe and America, and the Shah of Iran was one of the favourite rulers to flatter and enter into business with. When the British economy was making one of its perennial journeys up Shit Creek, the mouth-watering prospect of the Shah ordering UK military hardware for the princely sum of around £650 million was a nice little earner for the beleaguered sick man of Europe, and the first batch (185) of an intended 1,500 Chieftain tanks and 250 Armoured Recovery Vehicles was delivered to Iran.

The full payment for the entire order was received by a MoD subsidiary company, International Military Services, and then the Iranian Revolution occurred; the Shah was deposed, and the rest of the tanks remained on home soil; the rest of the money, however, was not returned when the tanks failed to be delivered. Selling arms to a hardline Islamic Republic that seized American hostages and held them against their will for 444 days wouldn’t have been seen as a good move, and the economic sanctions imposed on Iran also served as a convenient excuse for not repaying the debt from a British perspective. Iran’s efforts to recoup the money owed then dragged on for years; at one point, the International Chamber of Commerce found in favour of Iran, though the agreed payment of £328.5 million from IMS was prevented from being dispatched due to the ongoing sanctions. And this has been the stalemate position for over a decade – until now. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe claims that her captors once offered the unpaid debt as a reason for her detainment; in 2021 Jeremy Hunt also raised the possibility the two cases may be connected, though Boris Johnson denied this. Considering the absolute bloody mess he made of resolving Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s situation during his own disastrous stint as Foreign Secretary, his denial must have added further fuel to her despair over the diplomatic failings of Britain to secure her release.

Relieved that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release at least took place on his watch (if not the watch he was on when her plight was his responsibility), the PM enthusiastically praised Liz Truss for managing to achieve something he himself failed miserably to do when in her job; but the freed prisoner herself was less complimentary and asked why any of Truss’s immediate predecessors couldn’t have done likewise. ‘I have seen five Foreign Secretaries change over the course of six years,’ she said in a press conference on Monday. ‘How many Foreign Secretaries does it take for someone to come home? We all know how I came home. It should have happened exactly six years ago.’ Zaghari-Ratcliffe gave more credit to the ceaseless campaigning of her husband Richard, and her lack of ‘gratitude’ towards the UK Government was at least accepted as reasonable by Jeremy Hunt, who tweeted ‘Those criticising Nazanin have got it so wrong. She doesn’t owe us gratitude: we owe her an explanation.’

Like Anoosheh Ashoori, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has dual British-Iranian nationality, and the 43-year-old London-based charity worker was visiting family in Iran with her infant daughter in 2016 when she was arrested as a spy and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. The sentence became one of house arrest when she was allowed to switch from a prison cell to her parents’ home courtesy of Covid in 2020, though a year later she was the victim of a fresh albeit equally dubious charge of planning to topple the Iranian Government and was sentenced to a further five years. She lost her appeal against this additional conviction and it has taken until Foreign Secretary No.5 before Zaghari-Ratcliffe has finally been able to leave Iran and return home to her husband and child. Her case has been one of the most high-profile over the past six years – thanks in the main to social media campaigning and the ineptitude of the UK Government in negotiating her release; but she wasn’t alone.

There are dozens of holders of dual nationality passports currently behind Iranian bars, many of whom are American-Iranians, though one – Morad Tahbaz – has British-American-Iranian citizenship, something of a double-whammy where the Iranian Government is concerned. The 66-year-old wildlife conservationist was arrested along with seven colleagues in Iran in 2018 on espionage charges whilst they were in the country to track and film endangered species. Although he was released from prison ‘on furlough’ the same day as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, he was back inside within just two days and remains there, despite British Government assurances to his family. In reference to this particular case, the ever-active Jeremy Hunt has said Iran is ‘using an innocent person as a pawn in a diplomatic game’, adding he felt the American element of Mr Tahbaz’s nationality was a major factor in Iran’s reluctance to release him before some bargaining can be concocted.

The welcome freedom Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe can now enjoy after six years is something which a good deal of behind-the-scenes work has undoubtedly ensured, though her captivity was ill-timed in that it has taken place during the most woeful era of Ministers in living memory. Few of us would place our trust in Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab, let alone put our lives in their hands, yet Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had no choice but to do precisely that. In short, she’s bloody well earned her freedom.

© The Editor




ProtestNow there’s no longer anyone left alive to separate fact from fiction, we’re pretty much stuck with the myth of the World War I Home Front, whereby each Zeppelin raid was followed by the communal kicking of Dachshunds on the street and the smashing of shop windows bearing Germanic names. Whether or not this actually happened doesn’t seem to matter anymore because all our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers (who might have been witness to such incidents) are gone; it’s become absorbed into the second-hand narrative of a conflict too far away to bear any relevance to the here and now. But we do know for certain that anti-German sentiments forced our very own royal household to change their family name, wary that Saxe-Coburg–Gotha was a tad too Teutonic a moniker to rally round when the King’s own cousin was responsible for starting the whole bloody mess in the first place; if the newly-christened House of Windsor could decline sanctuary to the Tsar (when he was supposed to be our ally), its commitment to the preservation of Albion in the face of foreign aggression seemed pretty sound – and few foreigners were more aggressive towards Albion in the 20th century than the Germans. Chances are, then, some of the myths re opposition to all things German are rooted in truth; war has a habit of legitimising bigotry, after all.

At this moment in time, when war rages in Europe once again, the division between the good guys and the bad guys is as crystal clear as ever and it is now officially OK to badmouth Russians without fear of an Identitarian comeback. Whilst mocking or criticising China – whose terrible human rights record far exceeds that of Russia – leaves the guilty party open to accusations of racist punching-down, doing likewise to the Russian people and their culture is perfectly acceptable; indeed, it’s practically compulsory. Just as any prominent black spokesperson (especially in the US) is fair game to be subjected to old-fashioned racism in the emperor’s new clothes of anti-racism should they dare offer a critique of the BLM agenda or deny the perceived oppression that comes with the colour of their skin, to voice the opinion that anything Russian isn’t necessarily tainted by the Putin brand is to unleash the contents of one’s bladder on the Ukrainian flag, which (lest we forget) is this season’s must-have fashion accessory.

I’m not really surprised that the illiterate stupidity of the present day has bled into the invasion of Ukraine and reduced it to merely another branch of the culture wars from the West’s perspective; but the facile nature of the popular response is depressingly symptomatic as to how everything today has to be translated into black & white symbolism bereft of any shades of grey. I wonder how many of those advocating the blacklisting of all things Russian have even read anything by Dostoevsky or listened to anything by Tchaikovsky or watched anything by Eisenstein. It’s like being a fan of The Beatles means you’re a cheerleader for Boris Johnson, simply because both are Brits (even though our PM was actually born in NYC); it’s infantile, ignorant and ill-informed, and the current vogue for associating anything Russian (however antique) with Vlad’s war machine is as vacuous a gesture as Sainsbury’s shelves being stripped of vodka. Maybe we should all wait for St Bono to write another poem on the topic, whereby he can compare Volodymyr Zelensky to any acceptable cultural hero undamaged by SWJ revisionism; and then we can have that deluded and deranged cadaver Nancy Pelosi recite it live on CNN.

It’s interesting how an otherwise-despised strain of jingoism, so derided when it waves the Union Jack during the Last Night of the Proms, can receive a free pass when it comes to anti-Russian feeling; we might be ashamed to celebrate our own nation’s achievements, but it’s fine to denounce those of another in the name of ‘freedom’. Coming as this does from countries whose governments have done their utmost to obliterate civil liberties over the past couple of years of pandemic paranoia, it’s hard not to greet such developments with cynicism. I suppose, though, this is the natural outcome of an age in which cancel culture is second nature; that all Russian cultural exports – whether they emanate from pre-Soviet Russia or the USSR itself (neither of which have any bearing on present-day Russia) – are subject to a blanket ban simply due to their geographical origins is patently ridiculous, but it’s not really that different from the way in which the artist is now regarded as inseparable from his art – one thinks of the likes of Phil Spector, for example. Any hopelessly naive hopes that the Woke mindset would be extinguished by Covid have been dashed once again by the fact that every reaction to every crisis now is merely a further extension of the Identity Politics philosophy, whereby everyone is defined by increasingly narrow criteria, lumped in together on the basis of race, gender, sexuality or nationality, whether or not that has any relation to their individual personas.

Apparently, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is the latest posthumous victim of the current wave of Russophobia; true, the vapid virtue signalling that demands the anglicised spelling of Kiev becomes the more native Kyiv in the context of a dish that has little to do with the location it derives its name from is partially understandable from the point of view of the contemporary Western diet; but what on earth does the first man in space – who died as long ago as 1968 – have to do with any of this? Ah, but he’s Russian, so it’s okay to belittle his considerable achievements – achievements that would’ve made it undeniably harder for Neil Armstrong’s one small step to take place just eight years after Gagarin completed a full orbit of Earth in the Vostok 1 capsule and became the most famous man on the planet overnight at the height of Cold War tensions in the early 60s.

Gagarin’s sole venture into outer space took place the same year of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and just the year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, yet the humiliation he inadvertently heaped upon the West didn’t dent his global popularity; people were grownup enough back then to recognise Gagarin was being manipulated as a Soviet propaganda tool and didn’t hold his birthright against him. Admittedly, 60 years ago it was something of a thorn in the side of the American Dream that the USSR appeared to be leading the way in the Space Race; Gagarin’s groundbreaking exploration of the atmosphere came hot on the heels of Sputnik paving the way for the satellite age, all of which piled pressure upon NASA to fulfil the promise of JFK during his inauguration speech, that of putting an American man on the Moon before the end of the decade. But Yuri Gagarin rose above the East-West politics of the era, with his achievement accepted on a human scale that transcended nationality; film footage of the rapturous reception he received for a visit to characteristically rainy Manchester just three months after his historic flight into orbit is testament to his universal popularity.

Kennedy may have barred Gagarin from making a similar jaunt to the US, but that was simply politicking; most saw Gagarin for what he was – an international hero whose nationality was secondary to his place in mankind’s history. However, the current climate will probably bar any eulogising of Laika – the brave little oblivious pooch whose doomed 1957 journey into space enabled Yuri Gagarin to follow suit – before too long, for an annual event organised by the Space Foundation in America that ordinarily honours Gagarin by calling it ‘Yuri’s Night’ has dropped his name from the get-together; at the same time, a statue of Gagarin in Luxembourg (again, demonstrating how his appeal stretched way beyond national or ideological boundaries) has been covered up, presumably lest the sight of him suggests the Grand Duchy is pro-Putin. Cultural boycotts of apolitical Russian exports didn’t take place during Cold War I, so we certainly don’t need them in Cold War II. If anything, the ‘1812 Overture’ should be the theme tune of the moment, proving as it does that there’s far more to a nation than any warmongering philistine who happens to control it.

© The Editor




Peter BowlesThe opening Winegum post of 2022 paid affectionate tribute to that omnipotent repertory company of actors without whom the British television landscape of the 1960s, 70s and 80s would’ve been considerably colourless; as I said at the time, they were the actors whose faces were more familiar than their names – and it’s only because the output of this era has provided the backbone of my viewing experience over the past few years that I’ve come to know those names. I cited the likes of Ron Pember (who sadly passed away barely a week ago) as a great example of an actor who made an immense contribution to the rich tapestry of one-off characters to grace the small screen and infuse it with the kind of lived-in authenticity sorely absent in our own on-demand age of faux-cinematic melodrama. I pointed out that a small number of this rep company eventually graduated to top-of-the-bill status, including the likes of Martin Shaw and Bob Hoskins, both of whom routinely popped-up in the period’s mainstay series long before the name matched the face in the nation’s households.

Added to this small circle of actors who made the leap from chorus line to leading man could be that embodiment of caddish charm and upper-class rakishness, Peter Bowles, whose death at the age of 85 was announced yesterday. As was stated in the aforementioned post, each of these actors were called upon to portray a particular archetype recognisable to the viewer from real life – stern authority figure, small-time villain and so on; and like many of the supporting cast that gave British television its uniquely appealing depiction of reality, Bowles gradually settled into playing variations on the same character as his lengthy career progressed. And it was a character he played with such effortless ease that his name would probably be top of the list whenever the director required a smooth, somewhat shifty gentleman, capable of charming the birds out of the trees whilst simultaneously making off with their life savings. His was the kind of character that now only exists as a vintage cultural figure, like the spiv or the avuncular Bobby-on-the-beat – the kind that can no longer be found beyond the confines of the cathode ray tube.

As with Paul Eddington and Fulton Mackay, Peter Bowles was a drama student at the television university who went on to achieve household name status via the sitcom. His early TV appearances are almost exclusively in dramatic productions, often playing a slightly swarthy villain with the kind of ‘foreign’ accent actors weren’t afraid to have a crack at in the era before their wings were clipped by the curse of ‘cultural appropriation’. He was especially active in the engaging roll-call of escapist ITC dramas produced on glossy film in the 60s, regularly showing his distinctively-shaped face in the likes of ‘The Saint’, ‘The Baron’, ‘Danger Man’, ‘Department S’, ‘The Persuaders’ and ‘The Protectors’; he also made a quartet of memorable appearances in ‘The Avengers’ and was equally effective in an episode of ‘The Prisoner’. He was even cast as the aristocratic assassin Toby Meres in the original ‘Armchair Theatre’ pilot of ‘Callan’, though when the series was commissioned he was replaced in the part by Anthony Valentine.

Into the 70s, the acquisition of the moustache that remained crucial to his persona thereafter pushed him more into the cad-like roles he played with such immaculately-tailored panache. In an episode of ‘Public Eye’ from 1975 he is cast as a philandering middle-class businessman who impregnates a younger woman and then abandons her, leaving her with a mountain of bills to pay as he returns to his wealthy wife; when his trail of devious deception is uncovered by Alfred Burke’s inquiry agent Frank Marker, Bowles’ character denies any wrongdoing and makes it clear he has no intention of honouring his debts. In many respects, this particular part seems to epitomise the character Bowles began to nail in the first half of that decade. However, in 1975 he also played the more sympathetic part of Carolyn Seymour’s husband in the first episode of Terry Nation’s apocalyptic classic, ‘Survivors’, succumbing to the plague halfway through the story when viewers didn’t expect him to die. The following year he was to be found amongst the unforgettable ensemble cast that portrayed Ancient Rome with the kind of bloodthirsty relish unseen since in ‘I, Claudius’.

By the late 70s, Peter Bowles was entering his 40s as an established character actor who was part of television’s dramatic wallpaper. His highly entertaining appearance as a camp thespian conman in one of the best ‘Rising Damp’ episodes gave TV audiences a rare opportunity to see his versatility as an actor, though his comic timing had been apparent to casting directors in his early career on stage; he was earmarked for the part of Jerry Leadbetter in ‘The Good Life’ before his turning down the role left the field clear for Paul Eddington. However, he eventually ended up sharing the screen with Penelope Keith in an even more successful sitcom (certainly in terms of its staggering viewing figures) from 1979-81, ‘To the Manor Born’. Bowles played Richard DeVere, a flashy, nouveau riche millionaire who purchases the estate of struggling aristocrat Lady Audrey fforbes-Hamilton whilst she is reduced to living in the neighbouring lodge house; rooted in the classic class conflict so intrinsic to British sitcoms of the era, the series finally made Bowles a household name.

The year before ‘To the Manor Born’ began Bowles had first appeared in the part that is my own personal favourite of his roles, that of the pompous QC Guthrie Featherstone in ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’; Bowles was a semi-regular throughout the series’ impressive 14-year run. As with many members of Rumpole’s chambers, Featherstone regularly mocks the shabby, eccentric Rumpole until confronted by a crisis and then realises, for all his lack of social graces, Rumpole is the only character he can turn to and trust. Although a drama, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ was never short on comic relief, and Bowles provided a fair proportion of it in his preordained progression to the judge’s bench.

By the turn of the 80s, Peter Bowles was one of the most in-demand actors on TV. He continued to add to his sitcom CV with ITV’s hospital-based ‘Only When I Laugh’, appearing alongside other stalwarts of the genre like James Bolam and Richard Wilson, as well as ‘The Bounder’, which co-starred George Cole. He also starred in one of Channel 4’s early successes, playing another upper-class role (Major Sinclair Yeates) in the comedy drama, ‘The Irish R.M.’. Despite now being known for mostly comedy portrayals, Bowles showed he could still do drama in ‘Lytton’s Diary’, a series he himself devised about a Fleet Street gossip columnist; he also co-created (and starred in) the comedy drama series, ‘Perfect Scoundrels’, in which he played to his strengths as a well-spoken and well-turned-out confidence trickster.

Even though his days as a leading man in a hit series slowly came to an end as the 1990s wore on, Bowles’ regular earner as a guest artiste in various shows continued; often called upon to give a touch of class to such programmes, Bowles always delivered and the sight of him never failed to provide the viewer with a warm awareness they were in a safe pair of hands. The last series I can recall spotting him in was ITV’s soapy portrait of the young queen, ‘Victoria’, in which he played the ageing Duke of Wellington; it featured a rare instance of the actor revering to his original clean-shaven persona, and wasn’t a bad way to sign-off a small screen career that stretched all the way back to the medium’s monochrome origins. It can’t be denied Peter Bowles had a jolly good innings; 85 is a fine age to bow out and he left behind a wonderful body of work which he illuminated with beautiful comic timing and an ineffable sense of very English style.

© The Editor




BewitchedThink about it for a moment: when the Leader of the Opposition can’t even define what a woman is, we have to accept we’re somewhere we haven’t been before. A war, by contrast, seems disturbingly familiar, something as regular as night following day; an instinctive revulsion towards conflict is as old and deep-rooted as conflict itself, so our collective response to it is a relatively universal one. Yet to have a prominent political figure with ambitions to be Prime Minister incapable of publicly admitting that men don’t have cervixes and don’t menstruate is the kind of development to which we have no prepared reaction on account of few anticipating we would get to this plateau of preposterousness. Even those of us who picked up on the genesis of the unhinged religion that is Identity Politics long before it seized control parodied it in the assumption a spoof would never be out-spoofed by real life. However, numerous satirical shorts of my own, produced back in the distant days of the 2010s – when we hadn’t quite scaled what Rod Liddle has referred to as ‘Peak Wank’ – are routinely discovered by newcomers to my YT channel, shocked and amazed that videos up to four or five years old can seem so relevant to the here and now.

The fact is I was satirising the embryonic Identity Politics of the era, exaggerating them beyond reality and knowing all the time my takes on them were deliberately ridiculous. Fast forward to 2022 and not only do we have the man who wants to rule the country struggling to own up to biological fact, but his increasingly deranged Caledonian comrade north of the border is surpassing satire once again. Anyone who remembers my ’25 Hour News’ series might recall a story in which the Met were poised to charge half-a-dozen dead Vikings with gang-raping a dead Saxon maiden, overlooking the fact all parties had been deceased for several centuries. Another video was a BBC1 trailer informing viewers of various virtue signalling acts in remembrance of events that occurred long before living memory – a minute’s silence for victims of the Black Death, a memorial service to honour the victims of the Battle of Waterloo, a tribute concert to the victims of the Thirty Years’ War, a charity football match raising money for the victims of the Battle of Agincourt and so on. All patently ludicrous, but parodying the contemporary vogue for wallowing in victimhood, misery and suffering, regardless of how irrelevant the pain of the past is to the present day.

Ah, yes – the present day, the day in which satire is rendered redundant (and, knowing the Scottish National Party’s penchant for criminalising humour, probably outlawed). Step forward once more, wee Ms Krankie. Considering the damage done to Scotland by the SNP’s pandemic policies – not to mention all the nation’s problems that were being summarily neglected with spectacular ineptitude even before the coronavirus exposed Nicola Sturgeon’s totalitarian tartan – the latest public announcement from the First Minister exceeds all expectations. Last week, Sturgeon decided now is the right time to issue a public apology on behalf of the Scottish Government for those unfortunate Scots tried and executed as witches. In case you’d forgotten – which is understandable, considering you had yet to be born – the last recorded evidence of a Scottish person being put to death for the crime of witchcraft was in the Year of Our Lord Seventeen Hundred and Six; just to clarify the urgency of the apology, that’s 316 years ago.

Well, witch-hunting was even more popular in Scotland than England back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with three times as many witchcraft prosecutions taking place there than south of the border; it’s estimated around 1,500 ‘witches’ were put to death by the State in Scotland, helped in no small part by the first sovereign to rule both kingdoms, James I of England (and VI of Scotland). Obsessed with the threat of the occult and the presence of necromancy in the country of his birth, James established royal commissions to hunt down witches, he supervised the torture of them when captured, and he even wrote a melodramatic book on the subject, ‘Daemonologie’; as kings were then viewed as God’s representatives on earth, his rant was taken by many as Gospel. The only positive legacy of the book is that it allegedly served as an inspiration for ‘Macbeth’; its more immediate impact was to further legitimise James’s beliefs and reinforce the barbaric punishments inflicted upon those suspected of supernatural practices that had been enshrined in law since the passing of the Witchcraft Act of 1563 – an Act not finally repealed until 1736.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the fatal punishments inflicted upon those convicted of witchcraft were brutal – though it also has to be remembered that most executions at the time were not necessarily renowned for their humane manner: hanging, drawing and quartering, being burned alive at the stake, beheading – all featured in the executioner’s handbook and offered spectators a wide variety of blood-sports when they turned out in vast numbers come match-day. Torture was deemed a legitimate means of extracting a confession before the accused met his or her maker, usually achieved through employing sleep deprivation or the occasional tools of the torture chamber such as the crushing of feet in an instrument known as ‘the boots’ – a treatment memorably endured by Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’.

The unique Scottish approach to detecting witchcraft included a method known as ‘pricking’, whereby the belief that a witch could feel no physical pain enabled professional pricks – or prickers – to insert needles and pins into the accused’s flesh, although the sadistic fraudulence of this practice eventually played its part in bringing about the end of witchcraft as a crime punishable by death. Yes, it was a horrible and hysterical period of British – and particularly Scottish – history, characterised by waves of superstitious fervour such as the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597, when around 200 people were executed over a period of seven months.

Although some men were tried and put to death as warlocks, most of the victims were women, and modern perception of the whole bloody escapade is to view it through the prism of the historical oppression of women by men. Yes, it is true that these incidents tended to take place during times of economic crises, the times when scapegoats are often sought by authorities as sacrificial lambs in order to deflect attention from their own failings; but the fact women suffered far more than men suggests a pervasive fear of women asserting any form of independence within communities, such as being midwives. The nature of the charges also implied a deep-rooted paranoia surrounding female sexuality, as many of the examples of ‘witchcraft’ cited were connected to sexual spells allegedly cast upon blameless men by the wicked accused.

In recent years historical witch-hunts have become inserted into the feminist narrative, and the religious-like fanaticism of extreme activists dedicated to the Identity Politics faith has been manifested in the targeting of blasphemous heathens, using tactics that are reminiscent of the way witch-finders pursued their victims; at the same time, the cult of victimhood so central to the Identity Politics philosophy has portrayed the pursuers as the victims rather than the pursued. In this respect, a revival of interest in ye olde witch-hunts is certainly timely. So deep were the scars left by this era that the term ‘witch-hunt’ remains one still used whenever the mob is stirred into illogical mania by an irresponsible individual or group of individuals with a vested personal interest in the persecution of innocents, though the continued use of the phrase doesn’t mean the age of the actual witch-hunts has any relevance to, or bearing on, the lives of anybody lived in the last three centuries. One would imagine there are more pressing issues pertinent to 2022, though someone forgot to inform Nicola Sturgeon.

© The Editor




Old WomanIt wasn’t so long ago – barely a year – that the British people were barred from allowing more than six people into their abodes. They couldn’t visit ailing family members in hospitals or care homes; they could only attend funerals in small, specified numbers – and heavy-handed Jobsworths were on hand to gleefully ensure there was no physical contact between the grievers; they couldn’t gather in the open to mark Remembrance Sunday; they couldn’t celebrate Christmas together; they couldn’t hold a vigil for a murdered woman in an outdoor environment without the police treating them like violent protestors; they couldn’t stage a demonstration unless their cause was one approved by the authorities – climate change or BLM, yes/anti-lockdown or anti-vax, no; they couldn’t even worship in churches whose doors were bolted. Small businesses went to the wall, crippled by both enforced closure and then uneconomic restrictions when tentatively reopening (if they’d managed to survive).

The damaging legacy of the past couple of years remains blatantly evident in the rising unemployment figures and the breathtaking level of national debt, not to mention the amount of folk continuing to wear masks in safe environments such as on the street or in the privacy of their own bloody cars, their brains fried by the pandemic propaganda of Project Fear. One wonders if they mask-up on the loo, in the bath or in bed. Probably. Yet, while it would be natural to imagine the unsurprising and hypocritical revelations of what those lying bastards who imposed such rules on the populace were getting up to behind closed doors at the height of the pandemic had served as a wake-up call on how conned the people were, so deep is the psychological damage done by lockdown and its affiliated curbs on civil liberties that the illogical neurosis of millions remains something that will probably take years to heal.

So, how strange that the same people who had to conduct conversations with family and friends from ridiculous distances – and out of doors, at that – are now being battered anew with fresh emotional blackmail that encourages them to open their previously hermetically-sealed homes to complete strangers, as though 2020 and ’21 never happened. Memories of the Syrian ‘children’ with their remarkably advanced examples of male grooming have been smoothly erased as the request for impromptu landlords goes out again. Of course, the awful humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine naturally stirs deep feelings in anyone who has a heart; for some, this provokes a desire to tackle the forces of oppression head-on by signing-up for an International Brigades-like foreign legion of fighters to repel the Russian invasion; for others, it’s marked via a boycott of Russian goods or cultural exports; and for others again, it manifests itself as a craving to offer a safe roof over the heads of those faced with no option but to flee their own homes thousands of miles away. Yesterday, the British Government announced it would offer UK homeowners £350 a month to take in Ukrainian refugees, with Housing Secretary Michael Gove unveiling the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

After so many recent exposés of precisely how untrustworthy and slippery our elected leaders are, people can be forgiven for greeting this announcement with cynicism and discerning something more than motives emanating from the goodness of politicians’ hearts; one now finds it difficult to take any such move at face value and not detect an ulterior motive. In the case of the current administration – and, it has to be said, its predecessors over the last couple of decades – this kind of response to an appalling situation cannot entirely eradicate the lax attitude towards the dirty money fuelling the Russian war machine which has been a hallmark of British governments for a long time. The amount of desirable British properties in the hands of offshore shell companies engaged in money laundering both in the UK and its more luxurious overseas territories has been mirrored in the close ties forged between British politicians and institutions and those Russians who have taken advantage of the so-called ‘golden visa’ scheme. Perish the thought, but could certain members of the Government and the Conservative Party be covering their own corrupt backs by utilising the same emotional blackmail tactics employed during Covid to persuade the people to open hearts and doors to Ukrainian refugees as they themselves gloss over their cosiness with representatives of the regime responsible for the crisis?

Just how deeply governing bodies with pound signs for pupils have allowed countries with dubious reputations to become embedded in the fabric of British life was highlighted when Chelsea played Newcastle Utd at Stamford Bridge on Sunday; the home fans chanted the name of the now-toxic Putin bitch Roman Abramovich, whereas the away fans cheered their own suddenly-wealthy club’s Saudi owners, emanating as they do from a regime that executed a staggering 81 individuals the day before the match in a ruthless display of despotic inhumanity. What a glorious advert for the beautiful game, one that no token knee-taking will ease the grubby stain of. Football fans desperate for success will seemingly overlook the source of the financial fuel filling their trophy cabinets, though they’ve hardly been set a good example by their social ‘betters’. The filthy lucre floating around the national sport at the highest level is one more noticeable consequence of the golden visa rule introduced by a Labour Government in the wake of Peter Mandelson quaffing champers on the yacht of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, one that has allowed Russia to get its feet under the establishment table with very little in the way of opposition.

According to stats in the most recent issue of Private Eye, since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, 406 wealthy Russians have bought their way into Britain via the required £2 million, with a mere 20 refusals; following the 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, 92 golden visas have been issued, with just six refusals; eight were even issued at the back end of last year, a time when Vlad’s intentions re Ukraine were well-known. At times, the Russian infiltration of British politics and all its interconnected entrails are reminiscent of the way in which Nigel Kneale’s 1950s TV series ‘Quatermass’ featured collaborators with the alien invaders in the upper echelons of British society as a knowing nod to the pre-war ruling class’s flirtation with fascism. The abrupt about-turn on oligarchs by this government as everyone with Russian skeletons in their closet seeks to distance themselves from Uncle Vlad’s activities is something that understandably provokes cynicism, though being offered cash incentives to house those who have suffered most from these activities seems another cynical move by an administration that inspires little else but cynicism.

Local councils who have spent the past two years pleading poverty, cutting public services to the bone and yet simultaneously feathering their own personal nests are also having a tempting carrot dangled in their direction re refugees. One cannot help but wonder if they will spend the money wisely. Considering how well GPs’ surgeries have managed to avoid doing their jobs and yet have continued to bleat about being overwhelmed during the coronavirus, how will a sudden influx of immigrants with obvious ailments affect the dereliction of duties the medical profession has achieved since Lockdown Mk I? It goes without saying that those whose needs are attended to on Harley Street won’t be affected, though the calamitous disappearance of the cheap household labour that Brexit brought about may at least be solved.

Materially comfortable individuals with the spare rooms to welcome refugees should be in a position to carry out their intentions without their kindness necessitating a financial reward, and those whose sadness with the situation in Ukraine doesn’t stretch that far shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for choosing not to do so, despite the lure of being paid in a scheme that will undoubtedly be open to abuse. One can’t blame many for being reluctant to invite strangers into their homes when they were faced with heavy fines and possible prison sentences for extending a similar invitation to people they actually know not so long ago. Funny old world innit.

© The Editor




BeatlesMomentary escapism from a world that seems to relish serving up a fresh dish of despair and despondency to its population every passing year seems an essential panacea right now. It can be manifested in many different ways, specifically tailored to suit the unique tastes of each individual, and its position on the scale of trivia is immaterial. Whatever simple pleasure makes you happy is worth indulging in at times like these. During Lockdown Mk I and beyond, I found walking a friend’s dog once a week was the best breath of fresh air and the most unpretentious reward for a week entombed indoors on offer; and even with the present-tense pandemic receding (albeit not its long-term legacy), the latest crisis has necessitated the need for time-out, whether that be a few hours away from social media – or penning a post. Dog-sitting the same pooch that provided light relief when outdoor excursions were being rationed has become an occasional outlet of late, but the home I dog-sit in also contains another window into a world a million miles from 2022 – well, 53 years, to be precise.

When Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’ project was premiered on the Disney + digital channel at the back end of last year, it was accompanied by a deluge of YouTube reviews from people who had hurriedly subscribed to a streaming service usually patronised by parents to little ‘uns obsessed with ‘Frozen’ and the like. Suddenly, it had become attractive to an entirely different demographic, one fired by the media previews of the cleaned-up, Hi-Definition incarnation of footage that had been slogging around the bootleg circuit in appalling picture quality for decades. Not prepared to temporarily add another channel to the dozens I never watch, I was waiting for an eventual DVD release to finally view a series spread into three tantalising movie-length episodes; but dog-sitting in a house containing Disney + has given me an opportunity to catch up with something most Beatles fans rushed to watch together a few months back. And it was worth the wait as, for once, the hype is justified.

For the few still wallowing in ignorance, ‘Get Back’ was the original title of what eventually became the Beatles’ uneven swansong, ‘Let it Be’. At the beginning of 1969, less than two months after releasing the White Album, the band sought to capitalise on the recent energising experience of recording the ‘Hey Jude’ promo, with its novel audience participation; eager to keep the creative juices flowing, Paul McCartney felt this might be a way for the band to return to live performance. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg had just filmed ‘The Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’, showing there were new means of playing live for acts that had been scarred by screaming girls on the touring treadmill. Conceived as a TV documentary of the band rehearsing new numbers that would climax with a live show before an invited audience, the ambitious ‘Get Back’ didn’t work out as planned and was swiftly reduced to a posthumous album and movie, released a year after its making and at a moment when the former Fab Four were not exactly on speaking terms. It wasn’t the most impressive of obituaries, and the cynical way the film was edited by Lindsay-Hogg established a narrative that had remained intact for half-a-century.

True, there was an infamous ‘argument’ between Paul McCartney and George Harrison captured on camera; true, George walked out on the band for a few days thereafter; true, the chilly environs of Twickenham film studios early in the morning were not especially conducive to harmonious vibes; true, McCartney came across as an overbearing martinet; true, the constant presence of Yoko Ono at John Lennon’s side appeared to be an impediment to recreating the spirit of the band that the project was intended to deliver. All of this was portrayed with funereal finality in the original movie and the fact none of the ex-Beatles in the years following its release had a good word to say about it helped perpetuate the narrative seemingly forevermore. Its sole saving grace was the legendary ‘rooftop concert’ on a cold, wet January morning atop the Apple HQ on Savile Row; but opportunities to see it after the movie’s 1970 release were limited to clips in documentaries or bootleg copies of an early 80s home video version of the film, with the piss-poor visuals and sound quality adding to the negative perception of the enterprise.

Plans to restore and re-release ‘Let it Be’ in recent decades have been repeatedly stymied by one ex-Beatle (or ex-Beatle widow) or another, leaving the film as a bit of an absent friend in the Beatles’ story. The unexpected invitation for director-turned-documentary-maker Peter Jackson to wade through hundreds of hours of unused footage from the ‘Let it Be’ sessions was probably inspired by the astonishing job he did on presenting the First World War as a full-colour conflict in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’. For Beatles fan Jackson, all his Christmases came at once as he took on the challenge of retelling a tale that had never been fully told and making it the kind of visual and musical experience that the 1970 film failed so badly to achieve. The global pandemic delayed the scheduled 50th anniversary release, albeit giving Jackson and his team more breathing space to develop new ways of improving the audio and expanding the running time. The first results of their efforts were trailed online last year and the thumbs-up was universal – it looked and sounded amazing. Gone were the grainy, murky washed-out shades of the tenth-generation VHS versions and in came colour of the Blu-ray variety, HD-sharp with a clarity that put the viewer in the room with the Fab Four – a laughing, convivial Fab Four contradicting the hand-me-down myth of the ‘Let it Be’ project.

The series shows that the shared sense of humour which had been such a vital component of what made those four individuals gel as a unit hadn’t been dealt a mortal blow by Yoko’s presence after all. Far from being savagely sardonic and disinterested, Lennon appears as lively and witty as ever; moreover, McCartney comes across as less of a control freak and more of an artist at the peak of his powers, oozing magic melodies from every pore. There were concerns Jackson’s facelift might present a sanitised rewrite of the story, but moments of tension remain in the final cut, especially the day after George’s exit; when it looks as if Lennon won’t be showing-up either, the horrible realisation dawns on McCartney that everything might be about to collapse. The camera zooms in on his tearful countenance as he almost whispers ‘And then there were two’. It’s a remarkably moving moment.

As well as the tracks that ended up on ‘Let it Be’, the January 1969 sessions also feature numerous songs that constituted a large chunk of ‘Abbey Road’, not to mention a sizeable amount of material that would only see the light of day on the post-split solo albums of 1970 and ’71. When one hears The Beatles work through Lennon’s ‘Gimme Some Truth’ or Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’, it’s immediately evident these great songs would’ve been even greater had the four recorded them together. Far from being the creative cul-de-sac of legend, the ‘Get Back’ sessions find the band in the thick of a stunning purple patch; it also underlines the theory that all their finest material – even what became solo stuff – was written when they were still together. One of the joys of the fly-on-the-wall element of ‘Get Back’ is witnessing the genesis of songs happen before one’s eyes. The title track itself appears out of nowhere as a chugging McCartney riff, morphs into a satirical comment on Enoch Powell’s recent ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and gradually takes shape before our eyes and ears as the song we’re all familiar with. It’s a real privilege to share the journey.

‘Get Back’ is as essential an addition to the Beatles legacy as anything released during the band’s lifetime, and far superior to Apple’s endless repackaging and needless remixing of material already available. What’s incredible to realise when watching is not one of the band is yet 30 as we see them in the dazzling twilight of their time together as cultural ambassadors in whose hands our culture was safe; and when Ringo gazes awe-struck at Paul picking gems out of thin air at the keyboard, his touching comment to his band-mate, ‘I could watch you play the piano all day’, sums up a special chemistry of which we all continue to be grateful beneficiaries. And it’s certainly worth reconnecting with the best mankind can offer at a moment when all we seem to be surrounded by is the worst.

© The Editor




VladWhen a long (ish) life means you find yourself with feet on either side of a divide that separates one era from another, it can be interesting to realise how a personal living memory is little more than a Wikipedia entry to those who emerge in the years and decades after the world map is redrawn. Unencumbered by any remembrance of how things used to be, those for whom the Iron Curtain or Apartheid are as irrelevant to the here and now as Ancient Egypt or the Incas invariably see the past in a completely different light. I guess for anyone of a certain age – i.e. over 40 – the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela had an immense significance that is difficult to articulate to someone born after 1990; and, to be honest, it can sometimes be easy to forget the way things were even if you were there. I remember once watching a documentary about Live Aid in which a member of Paul Weller’s Style Council recalled how the band had a testing journey to reach Wembley Stadium on the day, flying from an overseas tour that required taking the long way round on account of not being able to venture into Soviet airspace. The recollection served as a reminder of just how different the global situation was then.

A couple of decades earlier, when television satellite technology was in its infancy, an attempt to link up the four corners of the globe for the first time in the groundbreaking ‘Our World’ broadcast was confronted by an effective no-fly zone when Eastern Europe declined to participate; the programme may best be remembered for the unveiling of ‘All You Need is Love’, but the ambitious aim of the enterprise was squandered by the opting out of Iron Curtain countries. Back then, the Eurovision Song Contest was the optimistic TV showcase for post-war European harmony, though no East European countries ever took part bar Yugoslavia. At the same time, however, Eastern Bloc sportsmen and athletes competed in events such as European club football tournaments and the Olympic Games, and there was also the cerebral Cold War clash on the chessboard that came with the infamous battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972; so at least the East had a degree of visibility denied South Africa during the 70s and 80s.

Often it was sport that provided the most high profile example of South Africa’s international isolation, notably cricket and rugby union, when regular tours by South African teams were scrubbed off the sporting schedule from the early 70s onwards – a situation it had actually taken a surprisingly long time for the rest of the world to agree on. Once agreed, however, the boycott was enforced with a heavy dose of moral and emotional pressure imposed on those who wavered from it. Hard to remember the uproar now when so-called ‘rebel tours’ of South Africa by cricketers took place in the 80s or when the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Queen, Status Quo, Sinatra and even Shirley Bassey played profitable gigs in Sun City. Anyone named and shamed for participating in breaking the boycott was severely criticised thereafter; Freddie Mercury and the lads were added to the UN’s blacklist of sanctions-breakers following their ill-timed 1984 concert at the luxury resort, which took place at a point when serious civil unrest in South Africa had highlighted the injustices of the regime for the world to see once again.

The cultural Apartheid could also extend into some bizarre areas. Clout were a relatively inoffensive all-female rock band – itself something of a novelty in the 70s – who enjoyed the dubious status of one-hit wonders via their 1978 smash by the name of ‘Substitute’; the record stalled at the No.2 spot behind the immovable ‘You’re The One That I Want’ for several weeks that summer, yet ‘Top of the Pops’ had to settle for airing a clip of the band on a foreign TV show as the blanket ban on all things South African meant Clout were prevented by the Musicians’ Union from appearing in-person on the nation’s most-watched music show. The anti-Apartheid crusade was a particular passion for the Left in the 80s, and then – as now – the Left tended to monopolise the creative industries, meaning the boycott was the leading cause of the day in a way Palestine has become in the 21st century. Artists were expected to fall into line and most of those with any sort of conscience did so. The white South African was a cultural bogeyman during this period, so much so that a South African-born actor like the recently-deceased Anthony Sher was in denial of his origins when trying to make it as a thespian in the UK, conscious that he’d be confronted by a degree of prejudice that could jeopardise his ambitions.

Perhaps more than any other form of sanctions, a cultural boycott tends to be effective. A country’s art, along with its sport, can often be the way it successfully sells itself on the world stage. For example, what do most people immediately think of when they think of a country like Brazil? The Bossa Nova might spring to mind, but chances are the Brazilian football team will get there first every time. Likewise, during the era of the Soviet Union it was Russian composers and musicians sharing the international spotlight with athletes like Olga Korbut that offered a far more positive image than Leonid Brezhnev observing the parade of nuclear missiles on May Day. The USSR may be defunct as a nation now, but Russia has continued this tradition to project a less-toxic brand to the world; the coup of hosting what turned out to be a highly enjoyable World Cup in 2018 was a great leap forward that even managed to edge the country’s appalling record of using performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics off the back pages. Recent events have put the brakes on this progress.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the universal cultural condemnation has been swift and fairly unprecedented – nowhere more than on the football pitch. After announcing that the prestigious Champions League Final, scheduled to be staged in St Petersburg, has been moved to Paris, UEFA then linked arms with FIFA and barred all Russian clubs and the national side from competing in domestic and international competitions as well as the former dropping its sponsorship deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom. The close ties many oligarchs and Russian corporations have developed with numerous Premier League clubs in this country has been uncomfortably underlined this past week, resulting in Manchester United and Everton cancelling sponsorship deals with Russian companies; but perhaps Roman Abramovich deciding to put Chelsea up for sale is the most notable rat looking for the lifeboats.

Elsewhere in the world of sport, the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix has been cancelled whilst Russia and its warmongering sidekick Belarus have both been banned from rugby union competitions by the sport’s governing body. The International Olympic Committee may have taken away the rights of Russia and Belarus to host sporting events, but initially allowing the nations to compete in Olympic tournaments under a ‘neutral’ flag received such severe criticism that the IOC has now announced the two countries will not be participating in the upcoming Winter Paralympics. In the arts, a prominent scalp came in the sacking of Valery Gergiev as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic; Gergiev, known to be favourable towards Putin, failed to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and after the orchestra was confronted by a string of cancellations, the Mayor of Munich fired him from his position.

Unlike the usual suspects of ill-informed Hollywood halfwits queuing-up to signal their virtue, the cultural boycott when applied across the board has a habit of hitting the target where it hurts. It can’t stop a war, but it can rob those in whose name the war is being fought of all the things that can truly enhance life. It’s worth a try.

© The Editor