THE BLACK MARKET

City GentsA rare visit to the house I grew up in over the weekend was crystallised in the wee small hours of Sunday morning by me accessing buried treasure and rifling through yellowing copies of the first ever comic I purchased week in-week out half-a-century ago, ‘The Mighty World of Marvel’ (from October 1972 onwards). This inaugural outing for the British branch of the Marvel Corporation was an exciting introduction to that now-overexposed universe for a kid eager for visual stimulation 50 years ago; the fantastic imaginations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were exactly what I needed then, however much the thought of their creations as rendered by Hollywood fills me with indifference today. Anyway, the familiar sensation of turning childhood pages and re-encountering images permanently burned onto the memory banks of the half-formed mind was added to by a retrospective awareness of wider events that barely gatecrashed my infant consciousness at the time.

I noticed a comic that was priced at 5p from its launch in the autumn of ’72 abruptly shot up to 6p at the height of the Three-Day Week in January 1974 and then increased to 7p less than six months later; by the conclusion of the year it had risen to 8p, and once I’d reached the end of the pile (1977), the cover price was 10p. I appreciate that sounds like peanuts by today’s standards, but one has to take into account price comparisons between the cost of living then and now; indeed, ‘The Mighty World of Marvel’ was probably an expensive addition to the newsagents’ shelf and its bi-annual price increase from 1974 onwards evidently reflected the soaring inflation of the mid-70s, something that only impinged on me when I was informed my weekly stimulation needed to be cut back. Related searches through my numerous preserved files of vintage TV from the era revealed a report from ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ explaining the perilous position of the pound in relation to the dollar from October 1976; this served as a reminder of how current headlines surrounding similar issues are nothing new. We have been here before, even if many of us who lived through the last time we were here imagined we’d never be here again.

Forty-six years ago, John Craven and his team reported that the pound in 1972 had been worth $2 57₵; four years later, as the pound plunged to its then-lowest-ever level, this had dropped a dollar to $1 57₵. Alas, the news that the pound of 2022 has plummeted to a record low against the US dollar in the wake of new Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announcing his tax cuts fuelled by further borrowing has unfortunately added to the tiresome ‘Back to the 70s’ narrative that the MSM is currently indulging in. Threatened public sector strikes and the prospect of a candlelit winter hardly help matters, but the largest programme of tax cuts since Ted Heath tried (and failed) to repair the economic malaise of his own premiership have resulted in the weakest performance of the pound Vs the dollar since decimalisation in 1971. The Chancellor is clearly fixated on the mantra of ‘economic growth’ by arresting the rise in National Insurance Contributions, axing the additional rate of income tax and cutting stamp duty, but I would imagine the majority of this country’s workforce is now being confronted by diminishing returns for their hard work, something not aided by the prospect of the rich receiving further benefits courtesy of last week’s mini-budget.

The 1976 low of the pound – despite then-Chancellor Denis Healey going cap-in-hand to the IMF (leading to a defiant albeit bad hair day speech from the floor at that year’s Labour Party Conference) – was superseded in 1985, but the latest figures have exceeded even that; overnight trading by Monday morning saw sterling falling 5%, reduced to $1.0327. It’s worth remembering the devaluation of the pound by Harold Wilson in 1967 was greeted as a national calamity on a par with Dunkirk (and cost Chancellor Jim Callaghan his job), yet even though one could argue it led directly to Labour’s defeat at the 1970 General Election, it seems like a storm in a teacup when stood alongside the problems facing the new PM. Okay, so I know if you’re a layman like me, ‘the markets’ may as well be written in a foreign language; but the current climate has provoked an increased interest in something normally reserved for readers of the Financial Times; and Liz Truss herself has already come under criticism from within her own Party for her emergency economic measures, with one unnamed member of her predecessor’s Cabinet declaring, ‘Liz is f***ed. She’s taking on markets and the Bank of England’, adding the new PM and Treasury Ministers were ‘playing A-Level economics with people’s lives’.

This is the kind of story that used to bore the pants off my generation as children, perhaps because most of us imagined it was one of those headlines specific to time and place, not regarding it as one that would have any relevance in the future. Little did we know we’d eventually come full circle. The same anonymous Minister in Boris’s cabal added by concluding ‘Government fiscal policy is opposite to the Bank of England monetary policy – so they are fighting each other. What Kwasi gives, the Bank takes away…you cannot have monetary policy and fiscal policy at loggerheads’. In harmony with this mystery man is a senior investment analyst name of Susannah Streeter, whose opinion of the situation is that ‘the pound has been on a fast downwards track of a rollercoaster, plunging to record lows…as confidence in the Government’s economic management continues to evaporate. The fresh bout of panic appears to have been brought on by rumours that the Bank of England may step in with an emergency rate hike to try and shore up support’; referring to Kwasi Kwarteng threatening further tax cuts, Streeter added, ‘The worry is that not only will borrowing balloon to eye-watering levels, but that the fires of inflation will be fanned further by this tax giveaway, which offers higher earners the bigger tax break’.

Fears that Liz Truss will crash the economy have stoked the backbenches into action on the eve of the PM’s first speech as leader at the Conservative Party Conference. Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, Tory MP Mel Stride said, ‘One thing is for sure – it would be wise to take stock of how through time the markets weigh up recent economic announcements rather than immediately signalling more of the same in the near term’. However, rumours abound that Truss and her Chancellor will not stop here; the borrowing is set to extend into 2023 and Kwarteng has promised more is to come. Stories of further tax cuts for the rich even resulted in Gideon himself – George Osborne – criticising the ‘schizophrenic’ notion of cutting taxes along with more borrowing, and also prompted ye olde Hush Puppy-wearing, cigar-smoking, Ronnie Scott-loving Chancellor of a different era Ken Clarke to comment, ‘I’m afraid that’s the kind of thing that’s usually tried in Latin American countries without success’. The fact polls show Labour now has its largest lead over the Tories since 2001 suggests the incumbent Chancellor hasn’t made a great start.

It goes without saying that even those of us not in possession of a brain boasting an implant with a degree in advanced mathematics could see this coming when industry was plunged into mothballs during lockdown, so it’s no great surprise that our governing party of 12 years is confronted by an economic meltdown of unprecedented proportions. And the majority who tend not to follow the FT Index are now faced with the realities of it all when they venture down supermarket aisles and notice how much more expensive certain items are today than they were this time last year. Yes, a recent reunion with some of my childhood reading material may have reminded me that we’ve been here before, but I guess that’s not much comfort for those who weren’t forking out pocket money for ‘The Mighty World of Marvel’ in 1972.

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CULTURAL EXCHANGES

Iran 2Despite ‘The Sopranos’ and Scorsese movies, most Italian-Americans are not slaves to their inherited heritage, though they are selectively proud of it; like Irish-Americans, their affinity with an ancestral homeland they’re considerably distanced from by several generations and more than 100 years is really a sentimental ideal rather than something rooted in the lived experience of its realities. First and foremost, what they feel more than anything is American, probably because their immigrant forefathers didn’t want to be regarded as ‘others’; they wanted a piece of the American action and wanted to be integrated; their destination was a blank slate, unlike the homeland that had evidently offered them nothing. Some initially clung to the comfort blanket of the culture they’d left behind, but this gradually shifted into the background, only occasionally exhumed for a sporting event or a saint’s day. Descendants of Jewish communities in the US and over here have undergone a similar transformation; they too followed the same pattern, with each successive generation one further step away from those who coped with an alien environment by seeking solace in the religious symbolism, the mother tongue, and – perhaps the most enduring legacy – the food.

Likewise, distinctive dishes remain one of the most notable elements of a West Indian culture that has survived amongst a community with deep roots in the UK stretching back to the first decade after the War. The original pioneers of all these groups, but particularly the Afro-Caribbean, often found their new countries bewildering and occasionally hostile places to settle, yet they were eventually absorbed into their chosen home to the point whereby their children and grandchildren are today as native as the descendants of the indigenous population. Indeed, all the examples given could be regarded as ‘multicultural success stories’, for however strong the romanticised image of the original homeland remained as a badge of identity, it was to be gradually superseded in significance by the new society in which the first wave fought hard to have a stake. Slang has sometimes been adopted as a verbal nod to the old country, albeit purloined and twisted by youth; and sub-Jamaican patois eventually morphed into the standard lingo of adolescents of all colours attempting to cultivate a ‘street’ image, the one mercilessly parodied in the comic creation of Ali G. Innit.

Nevertheless, the rise of the hardest-working immigrants and their offspring up a social ladder to eventual acceptance succeeded because it eschewed ghettoisation, isolation and separatism. Sure, keep those cherished relics of granddad’s birthplace up in the attic or in the memory, but don’t weaponise them and let them hold you back from being a contributor to the society he fought to be a member of; instead, let those artefacts and those oral stories serve to show you how far you’ve come. That, surely, is what multiculturalism should mean? Not social apartheid, with self-contained, cocooned communities cut off from their neighbours of different races, inhabiting an imaginary facsimile of the homeland most have never lived in, having little or no contact with anyone beyond that community and being patted on the head by the white middle-classes for being so wonderfully ‘ethnic’.

The ‘Muslim Community’ is such a ghastly, catch-all term that lumps together many disparate groups who happen to share the same faith (regardless of its myriad forms), though it tends to operate in one context where the ruling cultural and political elite are concerned. And Muslims of a certain strain are the adopted pets of the elite – infantilised victims forever at the receiving end of this hideous, institutionally racist country that immigrants from numerous Muslim nations mysteriously decide to set up home in. Don’t even think about integrating to the point whereby you can progress all the way to holding one of the four Great Offices of State like a socially mobile opportunist! Stay in your lane.

What may well begin in cosseted faith schools and end in the industrialised grooming and raping of vulnerable ‘white trash’ children has been left to fester due to fear – fear harboured by the graduates of a system now entrusted with authority and reluctant to enforce it. Events in Leicester last weekend – and the East Midlands city itself is often held up as a multicultural success story by the usual suspects – showed the consequences of turning a blind eye. The kind of ancient sectarian hatred that has scarred the Indian Subcontinent for centuries – or has indeed done likewise via a different religion just across the Irish Sea – has now boiled over in the middle of England, with gangs of young Hindus and Muslims clashing like Mods and Rockers with God on their side. As police seemingly stood by and declined to intervene, the multicultural fantasy of the chattering classes went up in flames that have been fanned by decades of non-interference and appeasement.

Added to the combustible mix is a divisive dose of Identity Politics, whereby a single (and usually irrelevant) characteristic of the individual is multiplied across the group and thereafter utterly defines them all as one homogenous racial tribe pitted against another. And if it’s reported at all by the MSM, it’s seen through the manufactured prism of Islamophobia, with good guys (Muslims) being victimised by bad guys (Hindus). Ironic in a week which saw the majority of the nation feel more united than it has in a long time that this ugly side-effect of Identitarian separatism should erupt. Moreover, it’s equally ironic that this desecration of a cornerstone of the Woke manifesto should come at a moment when an actual Islamic State is seeing an angry uprising against the symbols of oppression the Guardianistas refuse to countenance as dehumanising at all. Young Muslim women are cutting their hair and burning the hijab, and they’re doing this on social media sites for all of Iran to see.

What sparked this wave of incredibly brave protest against the strictest interpretation of Islam’s doctrines was the death in ‘morality police’ custody of 22-year-old Masha Amini, who was arrested in Tehran for the heinous crime of displaying her hair in a public place. Within hours of being arrested, Amini’s State captors informed her family she’d fallen into a coma following a ‘heart attack’ and had been hospitalised; within three days, a perfectly healthy young woman with no history of heart trouble was dead. One imagines this is not an uncommon occurrence in Iran, yet the sudden death of Masha Amini has ignited tensions that have been simmering for a long time; dissatisfaction with severe measures that uphold Iran’s brand of Islam as dictated by the country’s rulers seemingly needed one grotesque incident to provoke civil unrest – and Iran now has it. Upwards of a dozen people have been killed during these violent street protests; riot police have opened fire on protestors, yet still the female population of a country that views them as second-class citizens are defying the weight of the State and tossing their hijabs en masse onto bonfires. One would think the democratic land of the free that is the West would celebrate and support this valiant rebellion against the ultimate repressive regime, no?

Well, unlike the disproportionate response to the admittedly brutal killing of a career criminal by a Minneapolis policeman, there have been no widespread Western protests over the death of Masha Amini or symbolic gestures of solidarity with the fearless female rebels of Iran; no, you won’t see footballers taking the knee for Masha or wearing shirts with Amini’s face plastered all over them. Sadly, unlike George Floyd – whose death nicely chimed with the Woke ‘White Supremacist’ narrative – Masha Amini was the ‘wrong’ kind of victim and the rigid league table of the Oppression Olympics doesn’t recognise the hijab as something that suppresses women’s rights, just like the misogyny of extreme Trans activism isn’t acknowledged. The twisted logic of the dogma in which all our institutions are indoctrinated is confronted by an insoluble conundrum when it comes to events in Iran, hence all those heads currently buried in the sand. One would like to think evidence all the way from Tehran to Leicester would highlight the gaping holes in the argument; but don’t hold your breath. Or burn your hijab.

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THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

FuneralOne of the main complaints from viewers who’ve followed one of those big sporting events that span two or three weeks like the World Cup or the Olympics during the wall-to-wall coverage usually comes the day after the tournament’s conclusion; suddenly it seems like there’s nothing to watch anymore. In a way, the ten or eleven days that began with schedules being suspiciously rearranged when Her Majesty’s health took a turn for the worse at Balmoral was the beginning of a similar domination of broadcasting hours that the nation became accustomed to very quickly. And now, having been witness to the climax of the event, it feels strange that all in telly-land is back to normal. Few would doubt the BBC’s inexhaustible anchor Huw Edwards deserves a holiday – he seems to have been on screen continuously ever since he announced the death of the Queen almost a fortnight ago; and it will be handy for those who still buy listings magazines to find what’s listed on the printed page once again accurately reflects what’s actually on TV. But the finality of the funeral sets the seal on so many different aspects of British life that seem to have been with us forever, not least what the nation watches.

Interestingly, the top ten most-watched broadcasts in British television history – a list so static for so many years – now contains three entries from this century; considering we’re supposed to be living through the century in which we abandoned the communal experience of sitting down to view the same programmes at the same time, that’s quite an achievement. For the record, the three 21st century broadcasts are the Euro 2020 England Vs Italy Final (which was held in 2021), Boris Johnson’s ‘stay at home’ lockdown speech from 2020, and the newest addition, which is (of course) the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. In a way, none of those inclusions are a great surprise. Finals and semi-finals involving the England football team traditionally draw huge audiences, as do royal occasions – whether weddings or funerals. But the build-up to Monday’s event was exceptional and unique in many respects; and it climaxed with perhaps the most expertly-choreographed public spectacle ever staged in this country, the Hollywood blockbuster of live outdoor broadcasts.

But it didn’t merely begin and end on the day Brenda was laid to rest. From the moment the hearse drifted through the gates at Balmoral and set off on its long journey to Holyrood, the stage was set for an extraordinary sequence of images. Quite possibly the most moving early on was the impromptu assembling of tractors lining-up side-by-side beside the road – a spontaneous gesture that allowed Scottish farmers to pay their respects, evoking memories of the dockers lowering their cranes as Churchill’s floating hearse made its way along the Thames in 1965. Thanks to the helicopter following the funeral cortege from above, we were able to see such a sight in a manner that wouldn’t have been quite as effective from ground level. Even the fact Her Majesty passed away north of the border and therefore had to travel all the way down to London seemed a brilliant plot device; it meant that the Scots rather than the English had the first opportunity to bid her farewell, serving as a reminder that she was Queen of all the UK as opposed to just England. Not that this fact would necessarily persuade the most committed Nationalist to see the bigger picture, but maybe it helped paper over a few of the cracks in the Union and momentarily healed a divide that some of the Queen’s Ministers on both sides of the border have exacerbated in recent decades.

Of course, the Queen herself wrote the screenplay for this production, and it’s not unlikely she knew the end was nigh and deliberately chose to retire to Balmoral, aware that doing so would give Scotland a head start over the auld enemy. Indeed, had she passed away at Windsor, the Scots would’ve been watching from afar like the Welsh and the Irish. Instead, they had a personal investment in the whole process and got to line the streets of their own capital long before the queues began forming for Westminster Hall. Despite the departure from Scotland being by air, another lengthy car journey represented the next stage of the procession. The heavens had opened and night had fallen when the multitudes first descended upon Buckingham Palace the day she died, but the shock many of those gathered outside the gates felt, which had dissipated by the time the cortege touched down on English soil, seemed to be reactivated for the return to her most celebrated London home. The sedate evening approach along the Mall was gifted yet another inspired visual stroke as the lights were switched-on in the hearse so that the coffin itself was visible in the darkness, a luminous regal firefly gliding past the crowds en route to its solemn absorption into the private enclaves behind the Palace facade.

Brian himself, in his new role as sovereign, wasted little time in touring the rest of the Kingdom as his mother’s mortal remains progressed from one stage to the next, faulty fountain pens not withstanding; after 70 years’ training, he knew what he had to do. The ongoing debate as to whether the Third Charles will fare better than the Second – and most definitely the First – appears to centre on his appetite for promoting causes in a way that doesn’t necessarily equate with the political impartiality of the monarch. But it’s feasible that he might simply accept his new duties and quietly leave that kind of thing to the new Prince of Wales. After all, during his prolonged stint as the Prince Regent, the eldest son of George III was a perennial thorn in his father’s side, gathering an alternative court around him – usually consisting of MPs the King wouldn’t countenance as Ministers – and generally behaving in the most dissipated and debauched manner imaginable. But, as soon as he became George IV, he abandoned his old partners-in-crime and attempted to mend his least kingly ways; alas, for the man Byron referred to as ‘the fourth of the fools and oppressors called George’, the damage had been done. Charles has at least had more time to attend to his own repairs.

King Charles III has also had more luck than King George IV in that his first week as monarch saw him in synch with the majority of his subjects, carried along on a wave of uncritical sympathy. The first sighting of family participation in the storyline was when Brenda’s coffin relocated from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall and her children and grandchildren walked behind it, faultlessly in step with the beat of the drum; the fact neither the disgraced Andrew nor the exiled Harry were given sentimental permission to don their discarded uniforms was a clever move by Charles, keeping the public on his side. And once the remarkable precision of the soldiers who delicately removed the coffin from the gun carriage and carried it into the Hall was perfectly executed, what followed saw the public themselves join the cast as extras. In fact, more extras than Cecil B. DeMille could command. The queue that stretched for miles and stretched round the clock was the last defining image of the event before the funeral itself, not even soiled by celebrity queue-jumpers.

Come the final act, the poignant presence of the orb, the sceptre and the crown on the coffin – totems symbolising the contrasting mood of the Coronation 69 years before and thus bookending the two landmark occasions – was a moving opening. Yes, it was fascinating to see all those world leaders gathered under one roof and it’s always undoubtedly entertaining to see how old so many past Prime Ministers now look; but the timeless grandeur of Westminster Abbey instantly reduced the tabloid soap operas of certain hangers-on to the ultimate here today-gone tomorrow irrelevancies they are in the historical scheme of things. One more masterstroke by the scriptwriter. Yet, it was really the relatively intimate surroundings of Windsor that seemed to do the send-off justice. Small albeit affecting touches – Brenda’s pony observing the cortege passing by and two of her corgis awaiting its arrival – somehow said more than Biden or Macron or Trudeau turning up at the Abbey. And then the unforgettable ending before the credits rolled: the breaking of the wand, the coffin’s graceful descent into the vault, and the lone piper gradually fading from hearing – beautifully produced elements of human theatre that worked so well and couldn’t have been bettered. There was no finer way to say it’s over as we exited the darkened cinema and stepped back into the blinding glare of real life – insecure, uncertain real life.

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IT’S BEEN AN AGE

Stones CricketAs a quaint, archaic phrase inextricably bound-up with the monochrome optimism of the immediate post-war 1950s, ‘The New Elizabethan Age’ hadn’t stood the test of time until its recent revival (for obvious reasons). However, with the passing of the Queen whose name this imaginary era had rented, do we now acknowledge it was an authentic epoch in itself or do we accept whatever achievements history might like to squeeze under such a convenient umbrella label simply took place on Her Majesty’s watch even when she wasn’t watching? Will the future file this age away so that the past 70 years will retrospectively group together everything from The Beatles to Brexit, Bond to Bowie, Coronation Street to Concorde, Thunderbirds to Thatcherism, Paddington to Punk Rock, and from Tommy Steele to Tim Berners-Lee? Well, it’s probably in the hands of the generations who never lived through it, though many of us who lived through at least half of it recognise whatever creative and cultural renaissance this country coincidentally experienced whilst Brenda occupied the throne drew to a close long before she breathed her last at Balmoral.

As if to confirm this, a video that did the rounds on Twitter this week featured the contemporary ‘star’ Rita Ora labouring under the misapprehension that she’s Aretha Franklin reincarnated as a lap-dancer. The focus of said video was Ora’s attempt to turn Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’, into a sub-Beyoncé vehicle for the extended – not to say excruciating – practicing of scales. On the video, Ora evidently believes what she’s doing marks her out as an artist of some repute; the sycophantic encouragement of an audience perpetuating her fantasy is as sad as Ora’s embarrassing conviction of her own greatness, though both are victims of low expectations and an inability to question the hype. The Auto-Tuned digital trickery that fools some into believing deluded marionettes with all the soul of The Archies are worthy of bracketing along with the genuine articles who shone so brightly and so far-reaching in the first half of the New Elizabethan Age is never more exposed than in the live arena; but so desensitised are the Spotified public to the charade that convinces them they’re witness to landmark talents rather than average mediocrities, it already feels like it’s too late to extinguish the artistic inferno our Rome has long been engulfed in.

The last monarch to occupy the throne for over half-a-century, Queen Victoria, of course gave her name to her age and was witness to her own revolution as a society transformed by industry – everything from the railways to the telegraph to the telephone and the internal combustion engine – also saw imperial and civic expansion as well as the codification and professionalism of sports that are still with us; and as literacy grew, it was fitting that the written word became the prominent artistic medium. The great novelists of the 19th century stamped their art on their era as much as musicians were to do in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. But just as few of the novelists who came after Victoria were able to make quite the same immense cultural impact enjoyed by the giants of her era, the musical survivors of the 1960s and 70s remain the biggest draws on a touring circuit which would struggle to break even without the profitable presence of ‘Heritage Rock’. Perhaps future generations will discern the decline of the dominant creative form of the New Elizabethan Age and tie its end in with the death of Elizabeth herself, despite the fact it was wielding a walking stick well in advance of Her Majesty.

Those who find themselves prominent movers and shakers during an age – or at the very least find themselves reporting from the frontline of it – tend not to name their eras; as a term, the New Elizabethan Age seems to have been bandied about a lot up to and around the 1953 Coronation by that day’s media, almost imposed on the populace in the hope it would catch on. But it doesn’t recur much thereafter. When England swung a decade later, you’d be hard pushed to find Carnaby Street referenced as emblematic of the New Elizabethan Age; and I’ve no doubt the groovy guys and gals haunting that particular thoroughfare would have laughed if anyone had tried to pin such an antiquated label on their party. It probably sounded terribly ‘square’ by 1966 – just another dated and discarded piece of slang when the verbal lexicon was moving at a pace those beyond the bubble could never hope to keep up with. But if one were to return to the beginning of the Queen’s reign, perhaps the undeniable boost to weary austerity Britain of having a young woman on the throne instead of an old man tapped into something that was already slowly taking shape, something that would lead all the way from the South Bank to Soho.

Looking back, it’s clear that the confident Modernist architecture which received a nationwide window at the 1951 Festival of Britain anticipated the first flowering of something new. The sky-scraping, Dan Dare-like futurism of the Skylon and the equally Space-Age flourishes of the Royal Festival Hall pointed the way towards related edifices of the early 60s such as the BBC Television Centre and Coventry Cathedral. The consecration of the latter in 1962 was accompanied by the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, an aptly moving piece aired in the shadow of the bombed-out ruin it replaced. Britten himself was perhaps the key artistic figure of that early Elizabethan Age, being an incredibly prolific and lionised composer nonetheless saddled with the antisocial urges of his sexuality at a time when the Law had yet to embrace the spirit of change. Like Philip Larkin, whose melancholy musings on the type of sexual intercourse that characterised the country after 1963 were laced with regret at missing out, Britten belonged to a generation still coping with the seismic interruption of global conflict to their lives, an experience that would always distance them from the kids searching for shrapnel on bombsites. Those kids were the ones in whose hands the glorious bloom of the New Elizabethan Age rested, and whose efforts would be most richly rewarded.

Britten’s sublime ‘Four Sea Interludes’ – which were originally composed as instrumental passages for his celebrated opera, ‘Peter Grimes’ – were already on my looped playlist before events at Victoria and Albert’s Highland hideaway pushed the New Elizabethan Age back onto the agenda. But as a suddenly poignant soundtrack, they seem to speak to something recent developments have reignited; they are the sound of an ancient island nation instinctively looking out to sea, evoking everything from the place names on the Shipping Forecast to the dying director Derek Jarman pottering about his garden as the toxic silhouette of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station loiters on the windswept horizon. It goes without saying that the history of these islands predates the awareness of those who dictate the popular narrative, so that any ‘age’ doesn’t take place in isolation; it usually has roots stretching back decades, even centuries. Maybe the passing of Her Majesty and the age to which she gave her name has simply brought everything we’ve taken for granted back into focus and provoked a little soul-searching. But we have been here before – just not for a long time.

Whether Vaughan Williams borrowing from Thomas Tallis, Fairport Convention electrifying traditional English Folk songs, or any updated production of Shakespeare you care to mention, little in British popular culture springs from the soil without having been planted there by our forefathers. And if the crown of the kingdom happens to remain on the same head for long enough, chances are history will round up every disparate collection of creative vagabonds and name the years through which they operated after the sovereign observing (and occasionally rewarding) their efforts. In this respect, the New Elizabethan Age was for real – a unique renaissance we’ve all been beneficiaries of.

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MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE JUNGLE…

BearIn the wake of other (somewhat distracting) events over the past seven days, footage that has snuck largely under the radar nevertheless glaringly highlights the contradiction in the narrative the Kremlin has been pedalling ever since the Russian military encroached into sovereign territory earlier this year. Fancy that! Yes, some may recall the fairy stories of ‘Far-Right Nazis’ running riot through the former Soviet outpost that the Ukrainian people begged to be liberated from (fairy stories served-up as one element of the justification for invasion), though the reaction of the Ukrainian people via videos posted on social media as Ukrainian forces stormed into town and retook territory didn’t necessarily portray a terrified populace bereft at losing their Russian liberators. In many respects, the footage evoked archive of the French people reacting to Allied Forces recapturing Paris in 1944 – with little old ladies in headscarves tearfully embracing Ukrainian troops and giving every impression they were actually pleased to see the ‘Nazis’ back in town.

The disorientated Russian units fleeing the land-grabs seized in the first flush of invasion have employed a variation on the old ‘scorched earth’ policy on their way out: They’ve bombed civilian infrastructure, targeting power-plants, electricity substations and water supplies as they exit with their tails between their legs, provoking blackouts in the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions en route. Just yesterday, cruise missiles hit a reservoir dam of no military value in Kryvyi Rih, flooding hundreds of homes. Even as the tide momentarily appears to have turned in this conflict, Russia’s achievement in exterminating centuries of kinship and shared cultural ties between the Russian and Ukrainian people – something even the disintegration of the USSR couldn’t eradicate – is arguably as significant as any military loss; Putin’s war machine has managed this in just six months. The legacy of the damage done will probably linger a little longer, however, though at least the impressive victory of the Ukrainian counterattack has humiliated the supposed, superior military might of the motherland and strengthened Ukraine’s spirit in the process.

Unverified stats from the Ukrainian Army claim 20 villages were taken back in less than 48 hours, though indisputable territorial gains for Ukraine in the past week have undoubtedly put a massive dent in the Russian armour that appeared impregnable when the operation began. The State flag has been raised again in the city of Izyum and Russian troops are reported to have spurned orders from Moscow by shedding official uniforms and resorting to donning civilian threads in order to save their individual skins in a manner that has uncomfortable echoes of the actual Nazis during the period when the death camps were being liberated over 70 years ago. Reports suggest considerable Russian ammunition has been abandoned in the evacuation of the north by the retreating regiments; clearly, unlike the carcasses of the US military hardware that littered the countryside of Vietnam for decades, Ukraine is making use of what its uninvited guest left behind. The actions of the Ukrainian military have also shown that being able to call upon the assistance and support of every Western nation will pay off as long as you have the tactical nous to use their weapons wisely – and the bulk of American weaponry hasn’t even been delivered yet.

Ukraine claims it has recaptured 1,158 square miles of occupied land from Russia and even some Russians in Ukraine are going on the record by stating the Ukrainians outnumber them by eight to one in the key regions following the Kharkiv counterattack. It can at least be verified that in a matter of days, 70 kilometres of Ukrainian soil that was in Russian hands has returned to its rightful owners. The institutionally corrupt Russian Army appears to have overstretched itself in certain strategic quarters of the country and the Ukrainians have expertly exploited their enemy where it was at its weakest. Yes, around a fifth of Ukraine remains occupied, but it seems the momentum is currently firmly with the invaded rather than the invader. Needless to say, anyone who thinks it’s all over will no doubt be in for a long wait before they can cry ‘Is it now!’ But recent gains by Ukraine have been a significant reversal of Russian fortunes that deserve noting. A canny strategy by the Ukrainian forces to spread rumours of an attack on vulnerable Russian troops in the south via social media sent Russian reinforcements pouring into the region, only to leave the Russians exposed in the north, which is how the Ukrainians were able to launch their successful counteroffensive in that part of the country. Clever.

The morale-sapped Russians are even attempting to step back from the borderline genocide-speak some espoused early on by romanticising the traditional connections between the two nations that the invasion has severed with such ruthlessness; but it’s too late. Reports of brutality beyond the rules of engagement have emerged in the wake of the towns and villages being liberated, including the Kharkiv city of Balakliya, where a six-month occupation by Russian troops saw the police station used as an interrogation centre by the occupying forces. Grim accounts of torture involving electric shocks have been relayed to the outside world by those who suffered in the temporary Russian HQ and by those who heard the cries of the tortured ringing across the neighbourhood – something the Russians made sure were broadcast by switching off the loud ventilation system in the building. The liberation of many towns has also revealed hundreds of civilian corpses, atrocities representing the final nail in the coffin of Russian/Ukrainian ‘brotherly love’.

The contrast between defender and attacker in terms of their approach to this conflict is perhaps best highlighted by how Russia is pretending it’s not engaged in a war – after all, Vlad insisted he was ‘liberating’ Ukraine from those pesky invisible Nazis, not perpetrating an act of aggression against an independent neighbour; the majority of the Russian people, spoon-fed propaganda by state media, have accepted this premise and haven’t been mobilised onto a war footing. Their perception of the truth being shaped by this platform for Putin has also enabled the great dictator to avoid the kind of resistance he anticipates should he exhibit actual honesty. The Ukrainian forces, on the other hand, have recognised Russia’s actions for what they are and have risen to the challenge, galvanising the entire nation into fighting back against an almighty aggressor. Russia might have begun the war with the superior hardware, but the dysfunctional structure of its Army means it was ill-prepared for a prolonged conflict. In part, it’s almost reminiscent of how the British Army once was, with its incompetent aristocrats leading regiments simply because they bought a commission – before the worst calamities of the Crimean War belatedly brought about some much-needed change.

Thankfully, six months of this hasn’t anaesthetised outsiders to the horrors inflicted upon the Ukrainian people; the sheer visceral revulsion provoked by some of the images that have made it to Western screens hasn’t descended into the fatigue the American public allegedly experienced when Vietnam was recognised as the first televised war in the late 60s. Some of the snippets I’ve caught on TV or online have stayed with me for days, as I’m sure they have millions of others – mainly the footage of town centres peppered with people trying to go about their daily business as missiles hit and the carnage unfolds in real-time. Such images strengthen convictions that what Russia is doing is wrong, convictions that will remain strong. Yes, of course, propaganda is not a tool invented by (or exclusively used by) Russia in times of war; but they’re so much better at it than anyone else because Putin has excelled in its usage to justify every crime he and his regime have committed for years. However, if you happen to find yourself in Russia and point this out, probably best to make sure you steer clear of standing near a window in a tall building.

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NON-TOXIC MASCULINITY

ProfessionalsThere’s been a lot of understandable talk these past few days of how her late Majesty gave the British people a sense of security when every other Great British bastion proved fallible; if all else failed, the Queen was always there. Now she’s gone, who can we rely on? Well, at one time – albeit over 40 years ago – we could rely on CI5. This uniquely hardline service, sandwiched between Special Branch and MI5, was established in the tumultuous climate of the 1970s to deal with the escalating threats to the British way of life from international terrorism and increasingly sophisticated espionage. Headed by the redoubtable Major George Cowley, CI5 drew on the best men from the armed forces and the police and rode roughshod over all the legal obstacles that hindered ordinary coppers from nailing their man. CI5 had a remit that precluded niceties and this was reflected in the guys that fronted it, especially agents Bodie and Doyle. The former was an ex-military man who’d earned his spurs as a mercenary-for-hire in Africa; the latter rose to the rank of DC in the Police Force. When partnered together, Bodie and Doyle proved to be the ideal combination to cope with the challenges that threatened Britannia’s borders as the country careered towards the 80s.

Of course, CI5 only existed in the parallel universe of the cathode ray tube between 1977 and 1983. George Cowley was Gordon Jackson, Bodie was Lewis Collins, and Doyle was Martin Shaw. But from the moment that car crashed through a plate glass window and arguably one of the most energising theme tunes in TV history pumped its testosterone-fuelled beats into the living room, CI5 was for real – well, for an hour every Sunday evening, anyway. ‘The Professionals’ was a film series produced for London Weekend Television, being the brainchild of Brian Clemens, the man who had developed ‘The Avengers’ into such a memorably quirky and stylish series ten years before; having recently revived it as ‘The New Avengers’, Clemens was eager to create something less eccentric and more pertinent to the brutal 1970s and he hatched the concept of CI5 as an organisation to hang his idea around.

The success of ‘The Sweeney’ (1975-78) had shown there was an appetite for a hard-hitting police series in which the protagonists might bend the rules to nail society’s nastiest bastards; the popularity of the swearing, smoking, shagging, punching and boozing Regan & Carter was a testament to the charismatic chemistry of the two leads (John Thaw and Dennis Waterman) and was enhanced by sharp, witty writing. The show was produced by Euston Films for Thames Television, holders of ITV’s weekday franchise in the capital, and networked across all the ITV regions. The capital’s franchise holder for weekends, LWT, was desperate to come up with something similar, and Clemens’ idea sounded like just the series the company was looking for, combining the familiar police elements with the spy factor that had proven successful in the past with the likes of ‘Callan’, and adding the terrorism angle that was a reality for the British people after several years of IRA bombs causing mayhem on the mainland. The show had the potential to capture the public’s imagination in the same way ‘The Sweeney’ had, but it all depended on recruiting the right men for the job.

Gordon Jackson certainly wouldn’t have been the obvious choice to play the brash, abrasive boss of CI5; he was a household name thanks to a very different kind of character indeed – Hudson, the urbane head butler on LWT’s internationally popular period soap, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. However, Jackson proved himself to be far more versatile an actor than people gave him credit for and was as capable of barking out orders at his subordinates as any Sergeant-Major on the parade ground. After first-choice Jon Finch decided against being tied to a series, Martin Shaw, whose grumblings about his time on the show have become part of the programme’s legend, was selected for the part of ex-copper Ray Doyle; Shaw had an impressive theatre and TV CV that had been steadily building throughout the 70s. Contrary to popular belief, his distinctive bubble-haired look predated ‘The Professionals’ – it’s evident in an episode of Nigel Kneale’s anthology series, ‘Beasts’, from the year before he joined CI5 – although Shaw’s concessions to the sartorial styles of the era perhaps placed the show in a time capsule that often distracts from its enduring strengths. Initially, he was pared with Anthony Andrews as Bodie – an actor whose aristocratic bearing proved ideal for the series that made him a household name in 1981, ‘Brideshead Revisited’; but Andrews’ attributes didn’t work for Bodie and the part was recast after several days of shooting.

In stepped Lewis Collins, a lesser ‘thespian’ as far as Martin Shaw was concerned, though an actor who had also established himself on the small-screen, albeit via the vehicle of the sitcom; in Collins’s case it was the mid-70s ITV show, ‘The Cuckoo Waltz’, co-starring the beautiful Diane Keen. Called upon to play it straight, Collins nevertheless injected a level of humour into the role of Bodie that helped give the show some light relief; the banter between Bodie and Doyle – especially during extended in-car scenes when the two were screeching tyres en route to their next assignment – oozed a natural camaraderie that gave the series a great deal of its appeal. Regardless of some rather chaotic behind-the-scenes shenanigans involving lack of money, delayed shooting schedules and scripts being rewritten at the eleventh hour, ‘The Professionals’ debuted across the ITV network at the end of December 1977. Despite premiering in that television no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year, the show proved to be pretty much an overnight success. By the opening months of 1978, the benefits of being seen by all ITV viewers at the same time – a luxury denied the ITC series of the 60s and early 70s – ensured high viewing figures and instant fame for the two main leads.

‘The Professionals’ drew upon a vast, rich pool of experienced TV dramatists for its stories – men who had cut their teeth on the long-running series British television specialised in at the time – and also inherited the crew from ‘The Sweeney’ when that drew to a close. The talent behind the camera combining with the talent on-screen made for a heady mix and there followed three or four years when ‘The Professionals’ was one of the highest-rated shows on TV. It had its critics – usually hurling accusations that it was mindless, misogynistic, macho entertainment; but it was very much a show of its time, and the exhilarating action elements didn’t detract from the routinely engaging relationship at the core of its success. Yes, violence was paramount, though, unlike ‘The Sweeney’, there was no what was then referred to as ‘bad language’. The only time ‘The Professionals’ crossed a line was in an episode called ‘Klansmen’; it was pulled from transmission at the last minute and has still never been seen on terrestrial television in this country. It’s been included on every VHS and DVD release of the series, but an episode that actually addresses the issue of racism in an intelligent and honest manner stands up as a good example of how there were more dimensions to ‘The Professionals’ than merely the one.

Currently viewing the series for the first time since the 1990s, I think the old-school charm often associated with any vintage show loaded with plenty of ‘well, you couldn’t get away with that today’ moments gives it a ‘guilty pleasure’ quality; but when stood beside so much of contemporary mainstream fare, ‘The Professionals’ comes across far better than it ever did in its heyday as every little boy’s favourite undemanding series. Standards were higher on TV in the late 70s and it certainly shows in 2022. Moreover, the virtues at which Bodie and Doyle excelled were actually valued at the time rather than dismissed and denigrated as ‘toxic’; and despite changing fashions dictated by a cultural elite obsessed with what the public ought to want as opposed to what they do, these are virtues still valued by the majority, who would no doubt warm to ‘The Professionals’ all over again if given the chance.

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SO, FAREWELL THEN

WarholQuite a week, eh? I’m not the first to point it out, though it bears repeating because it’s so historically unprecedented: this week began with Boris Johnson as PM and the Queen on the throne; it ends with Liz Truss as PM and the King on the throne. And having to now refer to the man formerly known as Prince Charles as ‘The King’ is just one of the strange changes we’ll have to get used to. Brand Brenda has always been all around us, so ubiquitous that her image is easily taken for granted – on our stamps, coins and banknotes, for one thing; to anybody born after 1952, she’s been part of the cultural wallpaper forever, giving rise to a sense of permanence on a par with Stonehenge. For that to suddenly end is very odd indeed. Sure, we’re all familiar – if not over-familiar – with the musical chairs at Westminster, especially ever since David Cameron fell on his Brexit sword six years ago; but the death of the Head of State is something one would have to be at least 75 to have a previous memory of. And anyone who had reached that age at the time of the Coronation in 1953 would’ve lived under six sovereigns; how different from today. The late Queen’s first Prime Minister was born in 1874; her last was born 101 years later. That curious fact alone perhaps underlines the extraordinary duration of her reign.

Earlier today, ‘The World at One’ closed with Katherine Jenkins singing ‘God Save the King’ – and, yes, it sounded weird; even if the National Anthem now has its original title again and the alteration of its lyrics returns them to what they were when written, it still didn’t seem quite right. But this is the world we now live in, one that came into being when Brenda breathed her last. We clearly weren’t told how serious her condition was yesterday, but the rush of her children and grandchildren to be at her bedside and the sudden blanket coverage on TV suggested this was no common cold. The actual announcement itself by the stoic Huw Edwards on the BBC was devoid of drama, spoken with measured calm – though in a way that made it all the more effective, not to say surreal. Just as surreal was the first reference to Brian as King Charles III; even if it’s a job he’s been rehearsing for all his life – something Private Eye has mercilessly played upon for years in its amusing ‘Heir of Sorrows’ feature – hearing him referred to by his new title remains bizarre.

And so we slip seamlessly into a period of national mourning. The weekend’s football fixtures have been postponed, regular television schedules have been shunted aside, and what has been a far-from vintage Proms season has aptly fizzled out like a damp squib with the cancellation of the Last Night tomorrow. London Bridge hasn’t fallen down, but it almost feels like it. One imagines the ravens at the Tower have been put in their coop for a few days – just to be on the safe side. Hostilities were even suspended in the Commons, giving MPs the opportunity to pay tribute to the Queen after a Prime Minister of barely three days opened proceedings; some of the speeches were pedestrian and packed with clichés and some were surprisingly good – Theresa May actually came across as having a sense of humour, something we didn’t exactly see much of when she was Prime Minister. And way beyond the cocoon of the Chamber, I noticed the normally-untouched rack containing the day’s newspapers was unusually threadbare in Sainsbury’s this morning; but it shows that when a major event occurs, even those who depend on their Smartphones for a news fix still crave a physical souvenir.

I was reminded of a line from ‘I, Claudius’ yesterday – Tiberius on the death of the Emperor Augustus declared, ‘The earth will shake’; the Romans weren’t averse to bringing about a sudden death if it suited them, of course; but even if the circumstances that have caused our own changing of the guard are very different, there remains an unsettling feeling that this event couldn’t have come at a worse time. To the statute-toppling, book-burning revisionists for whom this nation’s history is something to be ashamed of at best and utterly erased at worst, the Queen was an immovable obstacle to completing their seizure of the narrative, the beloved glue – as has probably been said elsewhere – that has held the basic core of the country’s traditional principles together for decades. For Brenda to pass away smack bang in the middle of increasingly vicious culture wars, ongoing political turmoil, a spiralling cost-of-living crisis, and dwindling faith and trust in so many of our institutions (particularly the police) – well, I guess it could have been timed better; but she was 96, when all’s said and done, so I suppose it couldn’t be helped. She looked undeniably frail during her brief appearances at the Jubilee festivities back in June and that whole spectacle had an ‘end of an era’ vibe to it; now, just a few months later, it’s officially all over. And we have one of her bloody kids in her place.

The last time such a lengthy reign drew to a close was in 1901, with the death of Queen Victoria after almost 64 years on the throne; amongst the visitors to Queen Victoria’s deathbed was her grandson, the German Kaiser. Victoria, of course, had married most of her children into the Royal Houses of Europe and had, in her own astute way, contributed to a degree of stability on the Continent that nevertheless began to disintegrate not long after her death. Again, she was viewed as the glue that held it all together; just 13 years after the Victorian era ended, Europe was plunged into World War and ‘Cousin Willie’ played no small part in bringing it about; the end of those Royal Houses was just one additional casualty of the carnage. Therefore, if we are to look at what happened next where Victoria is concerned and possibly use that as an example of where we go now, the omens aren’t especially promising.

Thankfully, the mood of the nation doesn’t appear to be approaching the hysteria that accompanied the death of Diana; it’s a bit more dignified, perhaps reflecting the fact we’ve lost an old woman due to natural causes rather than a young one due to a car crash/professional hit (take your pick). Yet, despite her advanced years, it’s still something of a shock and it’s understandable that even those of us who aren’t avid royalists feel a little disorientated today. For some reason, I actually wanted to hear the bells ringing at noon and nipped up the road to the nearest church; I don’t know why I was summoned by bells, but a sound that is only ever silenced by World Wars and lockdowns was something I just wanted to experience at that moment. I didn’t enter the church, just strolled around its Victorian exterior for a bit and then sat down with my back to a cricket pitch; it was a quintessentially ‘English’ scene and one that felt apt; I was only a hundred yards from a busy road pumping non-stop noise pollution into the atmosphere, yet the pealing prodded me into a rather serene, pseudo-bucolic vortex for while. It was an unusual detour, but one I’m glad I took.

I’ve managed to avoid fatigue with TV coverage so far by rationing it; how I’ll feel by the time we get to the funeral is a different matter. There’s bound to be a sizeable surfeit of nauseating ‘Queen of Hearts’ cant in the days to come from the usual royal experts and biographers, but it’s to be expected because none of them have been here before and all they have in their arsenal is the tried-and-trusted weapons. In some respects, it’s easier to write about the late Queen if one isn’t an arse-kissing monarchist, but if one isn’t a hardline republican either, it’s difficult to put into words what one actually feels at such a strange time like this. I was once teasing a Canadian friend when it was mooted that Harry & Meghan might relocate to Canada; she was not amused at the prospect and I remember telling her she was welcome to them. I said to her that ‘basically, Brits love their dear old Queen and couldn’t care less about her offspring’. I don’t think the death of Her Majesty has changed that.

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DAY AFTER DEJA VU

Sigh!The performance of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet over the past couple of seasons didn’t exactly mark them out as potential champions; they played the game with all the flair of a Sunday League squad of pot-bellied bruisers nursing hangovers. True, the old boss splashed out the cash, but the team’s form has dramatically dipped since the title triumph of 2019, with tactical ineptitude leaving them engaged in a permanent relegation battle. Nevertheless, in footballing terms, the electoral success of the Conservative Party over the past decade-and-a-bit still puts them in the Manchester City or Liverpool category, though the recent downward spiral doesn’t appear as though it’ll suddenly be reversed by sacking the manager; a glance at today’s team-sheet suggests most of the major signings made by the new boss are of a Third Division calibre. And they still expect to remain in the Premier League with this team of mediocrities? Okay, so it’s a stretch of the imagination to imagine the likes of Therese Coffey running for 90 seconds, let alone 90 minutes; the footie analogy would maybe stretch to her standing in goal. But appointing such a visibly unhealthy individual as Health Secretary is like hiring a woman with a lazy eye to man the receptionist’s desk at Specsavers.

Still, at least the re-jigged composition of the four Great Offices of State will leave the Identitarian Left struggling to uphold the ‘Racist Tories’ narrative; for the first time in history, not one of those posts is held by an evil white man; that’s one in the eye for the Labour Party, I guess. The fact this even warrants a mention perhaps underlines how difficult it is to salvage any positives from this lame rearranging of the Titanic furniture. Moreover, if Ms Liz wants to persuade the electorate that hers is a true new broom, one thing she needs to refrain from doing is kissing Boris’s arse; lavishing praise upon her predecessor, something she did in both her acceptance speech and her lectern lecture yesterday, will not win her any converts; closely associating herself with Boris is like Ford pardoning Nixon; as an introductory strategy, it simply says to the public that she believes the man she replaced was innocent of all charges and we’re in for more of the same. Mind you, the nauseating fawning of the No.10 staff as Boris and his overdressed missus embarked on a final lap of dishonour yesterday morning demonstrated that in the eyes of some, Boris can do no wrong.

Boris indulged himself one more time in the longest farewell tour since Elton John’s last by addressing assembled groupies in the pissing rain outside No.10 before jetting off to see the Queen (inconveniently seeing out her days north of the Border). He again snuck in a bitter and thinly-veiled reference to being ousted by his party peers and mumbled something about some Ancient Greek again, and then – at last – it was all over; well, they thought it was. I’m not sure at what point this kind of drawn-out hello/goodbye ritual became compulsory for arriving and departing Prime Ministers, but it often feels like having to sit through an Olympic Games opening ceremony these days; one almost expects Beyoncé to dance on, plugging her latest single. Anyway, by the time Boris’s successor nabbed the lectern, fatigue caused both by the interminable wait and by the fact we’ve had to suffer this routine three times in the past six years meant that few were remotely surprised to find Truss’s opening speech crammed with the usual meaningless, superficial clichés that sound positive on the page and say nothing to no one when uttered out loud.

One Twitter wag pointed out that Her Majesty had the worst of both worlds during the changing of the guard; not only did Brenda have to endure one last audience with Boris, but she also had to endure her first with Liz Truss. And she probably thought she’d be spared all that in her retirement home up at Balmoral. Then, courtesy of the private jet lifestyle the two PMs have special licence to live whilst the rest of us are castigated for polluting the atmosphere with multiple carbon footprints, it was back to the capital and on with the show. The new Cabinet was unveiled with little time to spare, put together behind the scenes as the heavens opened and Larry languidly pottered about, exuding the only snippet of wisdom in the vicinity. It seems Ms Liz has chosen not to adhere to the old Lincoln policy of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer; unlike Obama’s shrewd move to make Hillary Clinton Secretary of State, Truss hasn’t offered a post to her fellow leadership contender Rishi. Exiling a rival like Sunak to the backbenches is a risk that previous PMs have come to rue – one thinks of Thatcher and Heseltine or Theresa May and Boris. Time will tell if it costs her.

Other notable big guns from the last few years – especially Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Grant Shapps and Dominic Raab – have also been excluded from this new Cabinet. Whilst it’s probably true to say few (if any) of them will be missed, their replacements don’t necessarily cause the heart to skip a beat. The survivors of the cull include Jacob Rees-Mogg – Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary (catchy job title, that); failed leadership candidate Suella Braverman is promoted from Attorney General to Home Secretary; Nadhim Zahawi is demoted from his five minutes as Chancellor of the Exchequer to Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; James Cleverly replaces Truss herself at the Foreign Office following his own five minutes at Education; ex-Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is promoted to the Treasury; Brandon Lewis is relocated from Northern Ireland to become Lord Chancellor; Ben Wallace stays put as Defence Secretary; and early leadership contenders Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt are back as Trade Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons respectively.

There was some minor uproar with the quiet removal of the Minister for Women job – though it emanated rather predictably from the Labour Party, which is ironic considering its official position is not even being able to define what a woman actually is. In reality, the post always had a patronising ring to it, anyway, reducing half of the population to a special niche minority; and with both a woman as PM and Home Secretary, one may as well have a special Ministry for Men as carry on with such an outdated and irrelevant office. Naturally, the underwhelmed response to Truss’s banal and forgettable ‘inaugural address’ of motivational-speak bullshit has been summarily brushed aside by Party toadies; one unnamed Downing Street crawler puffed, ‘Containing no other than five other candidates from the recent leadership election, this is a Cabinet which will unify the Party, get our economy growing and deliver for the British people.’ Nothing wrong with a bit of misplaced optimism, I suppose; but I’ve no idea which speech said crawler had been listening to on Tuesday – not the one the rest of us heard.

So, as has been pointed out in yet one more wave of hackneyed and endlessly-recycled media phrases, the new PM has quite an in-tray to look forward to when she sits down behind her desk at No.10. The hubris which certainly seems to be a hallmark of every resident to enter Downing Street with promises that things can only get better has been much in evidence, though the ego that convinces each of them that they and they alone have the solution to the nation’s chronic problems can only ever be crushed in the process – even if (like Boris) they eventually exit the job utterly in denial that they were wrong after all. In a weird way, the unprecedentedly low expectations greeting this new arrival may work in her favour; any minor success will feel like a major triumph when nobody anticipates anything other than failure. But the overwhelming air of apathy will take one hell of a miracle to disperse, and who believes in miracles anymore?

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WHO GIVES A S**T?

TrussThe title of this post – without the asterisks – used to be the title of a feature on the weekly video series I produced under the title ‘25 Hour News’ between 2014 and 2015 (or thereabouts); this satirical swipe at the banality of rolling news channels sometimes climaxed with said feature, usually consisting of one brief non-story about a vacuous celebrity, thus invoking the phrase ‘Who gives a shit?’ I guess this segment was a comment on the kind of non-stories about vacuous celebrities that still appear amongst the online headlines of Yahoo News, which hasn’t changed in a decade. You know the kind of thing – ‘Amanda Holden wears revealing low-cut dress at film premiere!’ and all that bollocks. However, perhaps the one thing that has changed in the past decade is that politics have gradually sunk to the same level as Amanda Holden’s revealing low-cut dress so that one can just as easily apply the ‘Who gives a shit?’ tag to our elected representatives. A sequence of what one might call Reality Television politicians – ‘characters’ like Boris who have used their loud personalities to capture the public vote much as contestants in the Big Brother House used to do – have dragged the standing of their profession to the lowly status it currently occupies, sharing the spotlight with Amanda Holden’s cleavage.

It goes without saying that spouting facile buzzwords and papering over the absence of ideas with meaningless pseudo-‘Birt-speak’ has been a hallmark of leading politicians since the slick and heavily-spun New Labour period; but the practice has certainly intensified in the 24-hour news and social media era so that what a Cabinet Minister or the Leader of the Opposition has to say about ‘Strictly’ is discussed in a manner that implies it matters as much as the more serious stuff they should actually be talking about. Failing that, just wear a T-shirt bearing the infantile legend, ‘Never Kissed a Tory’ and snigger at the back of the class. I suppose the ultimate triumph of this trend was the election of sitcom toff Boris Johnson as both Conservative leader and Prime Minister in 2019; and now three disastrous years later Bo-Jo has officially (if reluctantly) handed the reins of power to his Foreign Secretary, the frighteningly lightweight Liz Truss, whose lack of an OTT comic persona is compensated for by her undeniably hilarious inability to convey gravitas.

Ms Liz’s elevation to Prime Minister, following an interminably lengthy hustings campaign undertaken when the need for an effective, actual leader of the country has never been quite so urgent, was a thoroughly underwhelming spectacle; and now we have a new PM who few bar the most deluded Tory members expect anything from or even give a flying f**k about. Like the new Doctor Who or the new James Bond, who really cares who the new Prime Minister is anymore? We’ve had so many of them over the past 15 years – and all bloody useless – that it’s hard to summon up anything other than shoulder-shrugging indifference, knowing already that the only change they’ll make to our lives will be to make them worse. Indeed, some of the more cuckoo Boris groupies unimpressed by the two lacklustre contenders that were shortlisted to succeed him seem to imagine if Liz loses the next General Election, the Messiah will return from the wilderness and lead them back to the Promised Land. Interestingly, Boris himself has also hinted at this as a possibility, not quite releasing that a) we don’t have a Presidential system in this country and b) he’s not Donald Trump. Mind you, there are precedents.

Take the former Prime Minister Edward Heath: from the moment of his toppling by Margaret Thatcher in 1975 and right up until the shakiest moments of her first term at No.10 five years later, Heath remained convinced the Conservative Party would eventually crawl to him cap-in-hand and beg him to return to Downing Street. That said, this conviction was largely in Ted’s head and wasn’t shared by any of his fellow backbenchers; the fact that some of today’s more nondescript Tory MPs are so despondent at the prospect of a Truss premiership – not to mention still blinded by Boris’s tarnished charisma – that they are petitioning for their hero to come back shows just how successfully the all-surface/no-substance brand of politician has been sold as the answer. Naturally, with the overbearing nature of his carefully-cultivated character still obscuring for some the gaping moral void behind the facade, Boris is the most extreme example; yet there’s no more substance to either of the final two who battled it out to take his place. Whoever had won it was destined to be greeted by a chorus of ‘whatever’ from the wider electorate; perhaps having no say in the matter also added to this apathy.

Expectations have never been lower for a new Prime Minister and yet the need for a fresh tenant of No.10 to act on the many pressing issues facing the country has rarely been greater. I remember when Barack Obama was sworn-in as US President for the first time in January 2009, with the financial crash of the year just gone hanging over the ceremony like the blackest of black clouds. A lot of hope had been invested in Obama as a new dawn after the divisive Bush years, yet perhaps the scale of the task was too immense even for a man who had galvanised the American electorate into believing again; Liz Truss has no such hope resting on her shoulders, and she also comes into office knowing she has barely two years at the most before she has to call a General Election. If she’s to achieve anything at all, she has to act fast.

All US Presidents have to deal with the gauntlet thrown down by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the one that measures the potential effectiveness of a President by how he performs in his first 100 days; but few had entered the White House since FDR with such economic challenges facing them as Obama was confronted by in 2009. Truss has a similar set of challenges before her today, but she can’t hold the previous administration responsible in the way Obama could, what with her being a prominent member of the previous administration – and she was notably the only contender on the early televised debates to refrain from apportioning any blame to her predecessor (indeed, she even paid tribute to him in her acceptance speech upon winning the contest, greeted by momentary silence until someone was prompted to provoke a muted round of applause).

But this is a recurring problem when a governing party internally elects a Prime Minister, locking the electorate out of the democratic process; it’s something that generates the belief that nothing has really changed despite the change at the top – and the Tories have now done it three times in the last six years. It’s possibly another reason why the foregone conclusion of Truss’s promotion elicits such a lack of enthusiasm. Maybe the electorate is equally underwhelmed in the knowledge that when the next General Election comes in 2024, the choice will be between Liz Truss and Keir Starmer, presenting the people with an even more uninspiring option than we had last time round with Boris and Jezza.

Even if we weren’t being beaten into permanent pessimism on a daily basis by predictions of every crisis laying in wait for us, the future looms on the horizon like a worse version of the present. The understandable allure of the past was highlighted in an excellent ‘Spiked’ post penned in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s death last week, in which it referred to the 1990s as ‘a holiday from history’. This brief calm before the unrelenting storm of the 21st century oozed hope, from the release and post-Apartheid presidency of Nelson Mandela to the end of the Soviet Union to the false dawns of Clinton and Blair; even the decade’s crises retrospectively seem minor compared to what we’ve endured since. No wonder those who came of age during the 90s now look back on it with the same feel-good nostalgia as Boomers recall the Swinging 60s. Anyway, back to 2022 – Liz Truss is Prime Minister, and who gives a shit? Well, we all should, I guess, but it’s no surprise so few of us do.

© The Editor

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YESTERDAY’S MAN

Gorbachev and VladHe was always good at timing, Mikhail Gorbachev. His elevation to de facto Soviet leader in 1985 was good timing for a West wearying of four decades playing a chess-game with only one potential checkmate in sight; he offered a far more optimistic future than the diehard dodderers he succeeded and arrived in office right at the very moment when his opposite number in the White House was open to de-escalating the arms race. His death at the age of 91 has reminded the world there once was a time when Russia was led by a man who (to paraphrase Mrs Thatcher) the West ‘could do business with’ – as opposed to a warmongering megalomaniac turning back the clock that Gorbachev stopped. And his death comes at a point when his most despotic successor is doing his utmost to trash the progress made by one of the world’s last great statesmen; after all, if any single individual deserves credit for accelerating the end of what I guess we must now refer to as the First Cold War, it was Mikhail Gorbachev.

Ghosts have an inconvenient habit of haunting the headlines and giving those left behind an inconvenient reminder of how lowly they languish in the long shadows these apparitions cast. For the last Premier of the Soviet Union to shuffle off this mortal coil when one of the worst legacies of the Soviet era is currently waging an old-school imperial war in Ukraine, dismantling every achievement of his far more illustrious predecessor, is a sad irony. But for a moment, we pause and recall that it wasn’t always like this. Unlike Putin, who has an incurable appetite for starting conflict, Gorbachev actually brought a phenomenally futile military engagement to an end (Afghanistan) and also oversaw the death throes of another long-running farce with innumerable casualties, the USSR.

By the mid-80s, it was evident to anyone not spoon-fed Soviet propaganda that the Iron Curtain was so corroded by ideological rust that it could crumble away with little in the way of pressure; if it were to be removed as painlessly as possible, the task required a man whose vision was not clouded by misguided nostalgia for – and blind faith in – a system not fit for purpose. Both Gorbachev and Putin were schooled in this system, yet one realised its days were numbered and sought to reinvent it while the other is desperate to bring those ‘glory’ days back, regardless of the collateral damage along the way. Gorbachev was a consummate politician, whereas Putin is a military man with a one-track mind. How Russia went from one man to the other probably has something to do with the corrupt, pissed-up disaster wedged historically between them – Boris Yeltsin – as well as the fact the Russian people never forgave Gorbachev for waking them up from the comforting dream of the Soviet Empire.

Born in 1931 to peasant stock of Ukrainian descent, Mikhail Gorbachev was raised in a country suffering from the stranglehold of Stalin, yet by the time Gorbachev had graduated from Moscow State University with a Law degree, Stalin was dead and Nikita Khrushchev was attempting to reform the nation with a process of de-Stalinization that was to be echoed on a far wider scale 30 years later when Gorbachev himself instigated unheard-of freedoms of speech without fear of arrest and imprisonment known as glasnost. Although beginning his political career loyal to the principles of Communism, the deposing of Khrushchev in 1964 and his replacement with the less flexible and far more hardline Leonid Brezhnev perhaps indicated to the ambitious young politician it would take longer to wrestle the nation free from the grip of traditional totalitarian approaches to governance. This awareness was also expanded during Gorbachev’s visits to Western Europe as he climbed the greasy pole and was regarded as safe enough to venture beyond the Eastern Bloc. The shock of seeing how the other half lived in West Germany and, particularly, France – where he experienced open criticism of government that wouldn’t be tolerated in the USSR – caused him to make comparisons that his more isolated, not to say insulated, colleagues back home were denied.

Gorbachev’s rise up the ranks was aided by the death of Brezhnev in 1982 and by his replacement Yuri Andropov, who served as Gorbachev’s mentor and was clearly grooming his pupil to succeed him; it seemed the ultimate prize was within Gorbachev’s grasp. However, Andropov had barely a year as Soviet Premier before he too passed away, and the Central Committee demonstrated their timidity and lack of vision by opting for an ageing Brezhnev leftover called Konstantin Chernenko as Andropov’s successor rather than take a chance on the younger man; this move seems to have parallels with the election of Joe Biden as US President – an elderly, ailing and ineffective individual too old and bewildered to achieve anything in office other than having the correct credentials for a governing party incapable of looking to the future. As it turned out, Chernenko’s unremarkable rule lasted not much more than a paltry twelve months and Mikhail Gorbachev’s moment finally arrived, elected as de facto Soviet leader by the Politburo. Nobody, not even Gorbachev himself, had any idea at the time that the new man would be the last leader the country would ever have.

Realising that if the Soviet Union was to survive then it had to move away from the detached distance of the out-of-touch fossils in the Kremlin, Gorbachev certainly created a different impression than the men who came before him. The distinctive birthmark that baldness revealed made him immediately identifiable to a global public and he seemed possessed by a youthful dynamism that especially found the kind of favour in the West that no other previous Soviet leader had achieved. In order to bring in the reforms he knew the nation needed, Gorbachev filled the Politburo with allies and began relaxing some of the more severe curbs on personal freedoms, even releasing notable dissidents who would otherwise have seen out their days in Gulags. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 provided Gorbachev with a further opportunity to publicly air his views on decades of Soviet mismanagement and incompetence, confident the public would henceforth understand the urgent need for change.

Gorbachev was made for the world stage, charming America’s NATO allies en route to his first summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan and enjoying tea and crumpets with Her Majesty; despite mistrust and suspicion on both sides from the aides and advisers surrounding Reagan and Gorbachev, several summits took place and though neither man entirely warmed to the other in the beginning, by the end of Regan’s term in the White House relations between the two Cold War superpowers were undoubtedly better than they had been in decades. At home, however, Gorbachev received it in the neck from both liberals (who thought his reforms not far-reaching enough) and hardline Communists (who thought his reforms were too close to capitalism for comfort); he was also criticised for standing back and allowing the old Soviet satellite states to rise up and reject the system that had kept them under Moscow’s thumb since the end of the Second World War.

Boris Yeltsin, a man Gorbachev had promoted, turned out to be a persistent thorn in his side during this period and the fact Yeltsin was credited with successfully extinguishing the attempted coup d’état by Communist hardliners in August 1991 further weakened Gorbachev’s position. The writing was on the wall for both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. He resigned as President on Christmas Day 1991 and the USSR itself ceased to exist on New Year’s Eve. What followed is another story for another day, but like any loss of a world leader whose era now seems a long way away, one can’t help but make comparisons – not just between Gorbachev and the psychopath who today wears his shoes, but with all the other excuses for world leaders we have in 2022. From Boris to Biden and from Macron to Trudeau, this is not an age of great men, and greatness can obscure a multitude of sins that utterly exposes those without it.

© The Editor

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