THEM’S THE BREAKS

Boris AgainGoing, going…not quite gone yet. Okay, so Boris has resigned as leader of the Conservative Party but remains Prime Minister until the Tories decide which of their multiple planks can succeed him. After having appointed a string of Ministers who seemingly only accepted their new jobs in order to tweet their resignation letters a couple of days later, Boris has encountered the same two-faced treachery that he suffered when Michael Gove stabbed him in the back six years ago; Chancellor of the Exchequer for 48 hours, Nadhim Zahawi spent his first day at the Treasury praising the PM and the next recommending that he resign, which is a novel way of expressing gratitude towards the man who promoted you to the post. Mind you, Zahawi is the former Under-Secretary of State for Vaccine Deployment who repeatedly stressed Covid passports were most definitely not on the agenda during the pandemic and then bigged-up their domestic introduction a few months later, so it’s not as though he doesn’t have a track record of this kind of behaviour.

One Twitter-user pointed out that the roll-call of resignations which appear to run on like the credits at the end of a movie highlighted the unwieldy, cumbersome size of Government; indeed, with so many previously-unknown politicians with previously-unknown job titles on the list, I half-expected to see the Minister of Silly Walks somewhere in there. Reminiscent of when his first administration was reduced to a minority courtesy of defections to the Remainer cause, the PM woke up to be confronted by so many members of his Party quitting their positions this morning that he would have struggled to find anyone to fill those posts even if he’d attempted to stay put. As it was, Boris was left with no real option but to go, a decision which he announced to the nation from the familiar Downing Street lectern at 12.30 this afternoon. But, like his immediate predecessor at No.10, Johnson will hang on in the job for a while after falling on his sword; he hopes to stay until the Conservative Conference in October, yet even someone who wanted to be PM as much as Boris surely won’t relish remaining that long when he knows all bar a handful of Ministers he appointed want him out now.

Then again, Boris had a thinly-veiled dig at those who drifted away from him in his resignation announcement. ‘As we’ve seen at Westminster,’ he said, ‘the herd instinct is powerful and when the herd moves, it moves.’ After listing what he regarded as his achievements in office – Brexit, the vaccine rollout, support for Ukraine – he then momentarily acknowledged his disappointment at having to step aside. Referring to his failed attempt to persuade his colleagues it would be counterproductive to change leader midterm, he said, ‘I regret not to have been successful in those arguments and of course it’s painful not to be able to see through so many ideas and projects myself.’ He then added, ‘I know that there will be many people who are relieved, and perhaps quite a few who will also be disappointed. And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world.’

The breaking voice and crocodile tears that characterised the exits of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May weren’t present, yet it was evident to see in the PM’s body language that he was genuinely deflated at being forced to walk the plank. The third consecutive Prime Minister to quit without completing his term of office, Boris may have led the Tories to one of their greatest General Election victories in 2019, but he is undoubtedly the author of his own downfall. And it would appear the Chris Pincher affair was one scandal too far. Although the allegations that the Deputy Chief Whip sexually assaulted a couple of men when pissed out of his head at the Carlton Club dated from just over a week ago, it turned out Pincher had a history of bad behaviour of this nature, something Boris apparently knew of when he appointed the MP to the job. Of course, Boris being Boris he first publicly denied that he knew and was then forced to admit he’d known all along. But this was just another in a long line of lies and denials that have defined so much of his premiership from the pandemic onwards. He may have at least exhibited rare honesty when he said in response to those who wanted him to change his ways that he would not undergo a ‘psychological transformation’, and I suppose it was Boris’s inability to learn from his many mistakes and to imagine that he could bluster his way through every crisis by calling on his raffish charisma that in the end proved to be his undoing.

No doubt all those who abandoned Boris in his hour of need will be sickeningly singing his praises when he makes his final Commons appearance as PM, as they did with Theresa May three years ago; but such is the nature of the backstabbing beast. And one of them will emerge as Boris’s successor. At the time of writing the prospective contenders have yet to launch their respective campaigns, though the next few days will see a slew of hats being thrown into the ring. Out of Cabinet since Theresa May’s day, backbencher Jeremy Hunt would dearly love to succeed where he failed three years ago; and the two men whose resignations set this ball in motion, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, would also be favourites to run; despite being sacked by Boris last night, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michael bloody Gove having another go, even if he is a man extremely difficult to warm to; and one more Cabinet member who turned on the PM, Nadhim Zahawi, is also a possibility.

When it comes to Boris loyalists, I can imagine Liz Truss fancying her chances, though it’s interesting that the most popular contender amongst Conservative Party members is Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary whose memorably dim gung-ho warning to Putin wouldn’t fill the wider electorate with confidence re his capability for running the country. The YouGov poll that asked Tories to state their preferred candidate also threw up a surprise when it came to second favourite – former Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, the Brexiteer Royal Navy reservist best remembered by the general public as a contestant on ITV’s short-lived reality series set in a swimming pool, ‘Splash!’. Mordaunt is sufficiently far enough to the right on some issues to satisfy traditional Tories and leans Woke-ward on others to satisfy the more ‘liberal’ wing; she’s also ahead of Rishi Sunak in the quoted poll. Priti Patel and Dominic Raab rank surprisingly low as contenders, but so far only Attorney General Suella Braverman has confirmed she intends to run, so we shall see how her fellow runners and riders fare over the coming weeks.

One of Boris’s predecessors Sir John Major has joined the chorus demanding it would be in the best interests of the country for him to go immediately rather than hanging on till October. However, the former PM is a long-standing critic of Johnson and re-emerged as the Ghost of Tory Past at the height the Brexit Wars to reaffirm his Europhile credentials; other voices calling for Boris to leave Downing Street as soon as possible do so from a politically beneficial perspective, such as Keir Starmer – though one wonders if Boris was Labour’s key Election asset in the same way Michael Foot was regarded by the Tories in 1983. A new leader who proves competent and potentially popular might present the Labour Party with a far stiffer test in 2024 than Bo-Jo. But today’s events are something for which Starmer has been praying for a long time, so it’s no great surprise he’s putting the boot in.

Let’s face it – Boris as PM was always going to be a gamble; it was highly likely he’d bugger it up once in office, for his main political skill always seems to have been to win every contest he enters; that’s what he’s good at, rather than carrying out the job he’s elected to. Nobody wanted the job more than him, and nobody is sorrier to walk away from it than him.

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TUMBLING DICE

TwatzThis is one of those stories that writing about without the breathing space necessary to avoid irrelevance makes all the more harder. The Winegum not being a rolling news channel means I’m often hoping some major development fails to occur before publication; never have the delayed limitations of ye olde Fleet Street printing press seemed more applicable to penning a post on a blog like this than when the main headline of the day keeps shifting shape before one has the chance to complete a paragraph. Michael bloody Gove has f**ked-up what I’d already written by abruptly advising the PM to step down, though I should’ve known by now that what Gove says one day is not necessarily what Gove says the next. At the time I began writing this, the Secretary of State for Buggering Up, Housing and Communities was backing Boris; by the time I was careering towards the arse-end of the post, he’d adopted the opposite stance. Actually, the intended opening line of this post still makes sense, if only due to the fact it highlights the untrustworthy unreliability of Michael Gove.

Before I was rudely interrupted, I was poised to say that when you’ve got Michael Gove watching your back, you know you’re in trouble (which at least remains a potent observation). Boris’s back still bears the scars of the moment six years ago when the poisoned dwarf switched from supporting the leadership campaign of David Cameron’s wannabe successor to launching his own failed bid for No.10. And yet, in the turbulent hours following yesterday’s cataclysmic events, Gove was lining up alongside the likes of Patel, Truss, Raab and Dorries to back Boris. By contrast, a nondescript Minister, a Parliamentary Private Secretary, a trade envoy, and the Conservative Party Vice-Chairman have all quit in the last 24 hours, following on from two rather more high profile resignations and succeeded by the best part of 25 other minor walkouts as the rats belatedly gain the confidence to jump the sinking ship. All are now united in their demand that the PM goes, and one imagines a vote of no confidence might well give them the opportunity to marshal the troops and oust Johnson.

If only that could…oh, hang on a minute – hasn’t that already happened and didn’t all bar 148 of them support Boris and keep him in a job? I wonder what they thought Boris would possibly achieve in the month since then to warrant their backing – something he hasn’t managed in the past three years, perhaps, to mend his crooked ways and emerge as a strong and stable leader with integrity and a vision for Britain. Well, there was the gift horse; they strolled over, looked in its mouth, and moved on – oh, and then yesterday happened. Whilst maybe lacking the drama of quitting in the middle of a Cabinet meeting ala Michael Heseltine, the twin resignations of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid nevertheless represented one of those moments when a path is set in motion that history tells us usually only ever ends one way. All those opportunists sticking with the status quo on the surface are publicly echoing the words uttered merely days ago by those just gone, yet it seems pretty clear that all of them are saying one thing both to the media and to each another whilst privately contemplating what doors this shaky state of affairs will open for them.

The voluntary exits of the Chancellor and the Health Secretary have narrowed Boris’s options even further, pushing their replacements into posts many reckon they’ll only occupy for a short space of time, like football coaches who step in as caretaker till the end of the season as the board searches for a permanent manager. I can’t help but think of Lord Carrington, recalling his role as Energy Secretary during the Three Day Week, stating he was in the job ‘for five minutes’ before the watershed General Election of February 1974. Aside from Priti Patel, who seems secure at the Home Office, it’s hard to think of any other Minister who has the room to breathe and implement any policies before they’re reshuffled elsewhere. Had details of Sunak’s tax-dodging family business not emerged a few months back, chances are he’d be odds-on to mount a leadership challenge and gather enough support to succeed; but golden Rishi’s star has become somewhat tarnished in the eyes of the electorate since his glory days as the guarantor of the furlough chequebook, and it’s more of a gamble now to place a bet on him being Boris’s definite successor than it was until relatively recently.

Mind you, both he and Sajid Javid have a history of association with banks and hedge funds that are hardly likely to endear either of them to the man in the street, who still credits the ruthless avarice of financial institutions with the fact he’s struggling to pay his bills. Sunak and Javid – like the Home Secretary – may have successfully contradicted the narrative of the Left by being children of immigrants who spurned the oppressed ethnic victim storyline so beloved by the Labour Party and have risen to high office regardless; but, unlike members of the Labour Party, their racial profile has never defined them and their reputation rests entirely on their deeds, none of which are particularly impressive.

Again, as has been stated on here many times before, Boris Johnson’s saving grace during his shambolic premiership has been the lack of a strong challenger waiting in the wings, the kind that Heseltine became to Thatcher; in some respects, he shares his good fortune with Gordon Brown. By the time the Iron Chancellor had the keys to No.10 handed to him in one of the smoothest transferences of power in British political history, all of the New Labour big guns of the 90s were effectively played out and past it, and the up-and-coming young guns were led by the Miliband brothers.

The fact Brown couldn’t capitalise on this was mainly due to his out-of-his-depth ineptitude, as has been the case with Boris. Both also found themselves confronted by unexpected crises merely months into their Downing Street tenure – Brown the financial crash of 2008 and Boris the pandemic – and whilst both emerged from their respective crises with a degree of credit in the eyes of the international community, their efforts registered less on home soil, where the aftermath was felt most keenly by the general public rather than the corporations that always appear to survive and thrive whatever the crisis.

Boris’s admittedly skilful manner of neutralising the Remoaner mafia within the Commons and the MSM won him plaudits amongst genuine democrats at the time and undoubtedly aided the Tories’ landslide victory of 2019, though the onset of Covid and all the double standards surrounding its numerous issues – many of which were only exposed after the event – have done irreparable damage to the Boris brand this year so far. The no confidence vote of June was intended to be the judgement by the Conservative Party on their leader’s pandemic performance, yet it turned out to be something of a damp squib for the wider public. Despite the endless tabloid revelations of what Boris and his cronies had been getting up to during a period in which the rest of us stood to be fined for indulging in perfectly normal social activities, Boris has clung on with the tacit support of the majority of his Party. Now, however, that support seems to be ebbing away.

I’ve no doubt that by the time I press the publish button on this post, Boris will probably have resigned and Putin will have launched nuclear missiles at the Isle of Wight; but I’ve no option but to try and comment on events as best I can, regardless of how fast-moving those events happen to be. The last time I can recall the speed of events overtaking my ability to chronicle them and comment on them was during the Tory leadership race of 2016, especially that two or three days when the contenders had been narrowed down to Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom and the latter suddenly withdrew her candidacy, leaving the field clear for the former. Stay tuned – I’ve a feeling I’ll probably be back tomorrow at this rate…

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CARELESS HANDS

Hay WainFaced with an obstinate Government boasting a string of broken promises, the women in the vanguard of the fight for the right to vote resorted to desperate, headline-grabbing incidents in the early 1910s; everything from choreographed window-smashing to arson to bombings became key components in the Suffragette arsenal, yet the increasingly militant elements of this period specialising in spectacular stunts invariably encouraged some part-timers for whom the issue was a convenient cause to hang their dilettante ‘radicalism’ on. That’s not necessarily something unique, of course; all crusades tend to attract the amateur agitator and anarchist when legitimate democratic means stall. Take Mary Richardson, a twisted fire-starter whose commitment to one cause was swiftly supplanted by another; once her stint as a suburban guerrilla ended, she moved on to champagne socialism and then fascism, specifically Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, whose organisation she ended up fronting the female section of. But if Mary Richardson remains remembered for anything, it is an act of vandalism undertaken in the name of suffrage – that of defacing The Rokeby Venus by Velázquez in 1914 as it hung in the National Gallery.

A rare nude produced during the era of the Inquisition, The Rokeby Venus is a portrait of the Goddess of love in a sublimely sensual pose of relaxation, seen from behind. Mary Richardson attacked the painting with a meat cleaver in a frenzy reported in the press at the time as though she’d attacked an actual woman, though the damage done was considerably restricted by the glass separating the canvas from the public. An action that was successfully neutralised due to the diligence of the National Gallery’s chief restorer, the stunt nevertheless resulted in a six-month prison sentence for the culprit and laid the foundations for every ‘activist’ assault on a work of art thereafter, legitimising the gesture in the process. Perhaps echoing the activism of a century ago, climate change protestors on Monday decided to make their own point re an iconic artwork by attacking one of the most recognisable British paintings of the 19th century, John Constable’s The Hay Wain, in the same venue Mary Richardson formulated the template in 1914.

The Hay Wain has been a magnet for protestors of one form or another before, however; a decade ago, a Fathers 4 Justice member stuck a photo onto the canvas, though the painting was not permanently damaged. This time round, a group calling themselves Just Stop Oil mirrored the middle-class luxury of having time on one’s hands characteristic of some of the more bourgeois Suffragettes by honing in on the painting and gluing themselves to the frame whilst attaching images of prominent polluters of the atmosphere such as aeroplanes to the canvas itself. Even the latter act has a stale obviousness about it. Terry Gilliam beat them to it by half-a-century, applying his manic creativity to the picture in one of his Python animations that saw the bucolic tranquillity of the serene scene rudely interrupted by industrial progress. Then again, unlike the protestors, Gilliam has more in common with Constable, being an artist himself, and one who immediately knows what inspired mischief he can inflict upon an image. Even Banksy has applied similar tactics to famous works of art without resorting to damaging the originals; but one wouldn’t expect ingenious intervention from philistines who can only destroy rather than create, which is a hallmark of contemporary ‘activism’.

The action provoked an evacuation of the National Gallery section housing The Hay Wain as the apparent leader of the group – who goes by the name of…er…Eben – announced ‘Art is important. It should be held by future generations to see, but when there is no food, what use is art? When there is no water, what use is art? When billions of people are in pain are suffering, what use then is art?’ Not much use, granted; but then, neither is a cheap stunt enacted by narcissistic doom-mongers incapable of making a point through artistic means and thus reduced to the defecation of genius that says more about their own absence of creative inspiration than it does the cause they profess to be promoting. Over the weekend, five members of the same organisation also disrupted the British Grand Prix, invading the Silverstone racetrack during the opening lap; they sat down on the tarmac and no doubt instilled the hope in spectators that the race would continue with the protestors seen as point-scoring obstacles to be mowed-down ala Roger Corman’s futuristic flick from the 70s, ‘Death Race 2000’. Whatever the outcome, the issues that spawn such activism will never be resolved by actions that alienate art-lovers, sports-goers and members of the general public alike. Interrupting art and entertainment in the name of a cause is something that only ever has a counterproductive effect on those it aims to ‘educate’.

Meanwhile, in other news…having controversially illuminated Wimbledon with his antagonistic form of gamesmanship, Australian tennis-player Nick Kyrgios is reported to have been summoned for an appearance in a different kind of court next month. The quarter-finalist has been scheduled to face Canberra magistrates in August in relation to a charge of common assault on a former girlfriend last year. Naturally, the spectre of Amber Heard and her Oscar-winning performance as a professional victim hangs over any allegations of domestic abuse made against a celebrity ex, though the timing of this story has come at a moment when bad behaviour on the part of male figures in a position of influence is once again headline news.

As with Alex Salmond, any rumour of how power in male hands can be manifested as a sexual weapon naturally provides the MeToo narrative with ammunition. The former Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood is currently confronted by a slew of accusations regarding his sexual misconduct towards women whilst presenting a show on the station for the best part of 20 years from the early 90s to the early 2010s. Personally, I always found the Ali G-like ‘street’ patois of the son of the Bishop of Peterborough a bit toe-curling during his stint on the airwaves, though recent revelations come as far more embarrassing to the Beeb than Westwood’s waffle on his long-running rap show. After all, the BBC are still attempting to portray their dirty old men employees as strictly belonging to a generation most prevalent back in the 1970s. Westwood was supposed to be the ‘cool’ alternative to the bomber jacket-wearing old guard that used to be naff fixtures on the Radio 1 Roadshow.

Half-a-dozen allegations against Westwood were grouped together and made public for the first time in a BBC3 documentary and whilst the veteran DJ (he’s 64) has refuted the allegations, it’s now emerged the BBC had received these complaints whilst previously denying all knowledge of them. BBC DG Tim Davie – who was in control of the Corporation’s radio output whilst Westwood was still on Radio 1 – had claimed he’d seen no evidence of complaints following the broadcast of the programme publicising them, though if the allegations were known internally at the Beeb, the situation has parallels with Downing Street, where a civil servant has come out and stated Boris Johnson had received advance warning of Tory MP Chris Pincher before his appointment as Deputy Chief Whip, a job Pincher quit last week.

With a surname reminiscent of a ‘Carry On’ character, Pincher’s peccadilloes leaned towards gentlemen rather than ladies – he’s accused of groping a couple of guys at the Carlton Club; but if Boris knew and still gave Pincher the job, don’t expect our PM to admit it. Mind you, does anyone expect Boris to exhibit honesty when it comes to what he did or didn’t know about anything anymore? I doubt it.

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PET PROJECTS

Macca and Martha‘Oh, I’m looking after my girlfriend’s dog again while she’s at work’; ‘I think that cat lives next-door and it keeps coming in every time I leave the backdoor open’ – just two of the excuses I routinely used when I had both a canine and feline companion when living in rented accommodation and the owner of the property turned up unannounced. Keeping quiet about one’s benefits was one thing – ‘No DHSS’ was something landlords were allowed to state in the same way they’d once infamously stated ‘No Irish, no dogs, no blacks’ – but pets were the ultimate no-no. That said, I lived in three different premises with my cat and dog and wasn’t officially entitled to have either of them whilst living there. Some landlords were more tolerant than others. A landlady I had over 20 years ago insisted on collecting the rent in person and would call every Thursday evening at the same time; but she didn’t just take the money at the door; she’d come in, sit down and natter. Throughout this weekly endurance test I’d have to make sure the cat was out and I’d ask a friend to sit in the kitchen with the dog, bribing him with treats to prevent him from barking.

Potential damage as well as the noise – and possibly odour – of animals appears to be one reason private landlords have always had a downer on them; and, to be fair, there are plenty of irresponsible pet-owners who don’t empty the litter tray and don’t take the dog out for a walk when it needs to do its business. As a pet-owner myself, I was permanently conscious that I wasn’t adhering to my rental agreement by having them and did my best to guarantee they didn’t disrupt the lives of other tenants; but I would’ve attended to my pets’ needs even if I’d bought the property, and the dog barking whenever the doorbell rang would still have been something I’d have attempted to discourage. Not all pet-owners are so conscientious, of course, and I suspect these are the ones to blame for the rest being tarred with the same unfair brush by the majority of landlords.

According to the latest stats released by rental platform Goodlord, just 5% of landlords today allow pets to be kept by tenants renting their properties; when one considers just how essential pets can be in providing the lonely or the socially-challenged with companionship, it seems especially mean. Landlords will tend to fall back on the reasons already mentioned if they’re opposed to pet ownership on their property, and if faced with a choice between a tenant with pets or one without, they’ll usually opt for the latter every time. And even money can’t swing it. A story emerged recently that a far-from skint prospective tenant offered a landlord £3,300 a week for a penthouse apartment for which the landlord was asking £3000, simply because the prospective tenant in question had four dachshunds and figured offering to pay more than the asking price might override any objections; in the end, the landlord accepted a lower offer from a pet-free tenant instead.

However, all this could be about to change. In the past couple of weeks, a white paper has been published to address some of the issues faced by renters. The long-overdue abolition of the contentious ‘no fault’ Section 21 evictions is proposed – this is the system whereby a landlord can give notice to a tenant to leave the property without first providing a reason for the eviction – and not before time; 22% of renters who left their homes in the past twelve months did so without it being their choice. But the Renters Reform Bill also attempts to allow tenants the right to have pets in their rented homes, the first time this will be enshrined in law. No longer will landlords be able to specify those with pets will be barred from renting from them; and, as someone who spent the best part of 20 years living in rented accommodation with one pet or another – and being acutely aware of the risks I was taking – I cannot help but welcome these changes. Considering the boom in pet ownership spawned by the unique conditions of lockdown – and the belated realisation of what a difference a cat or dog can make to those abruptly deprived of social interaction with other people – this is something that needed to be addressed.

If I’d been threatened with eviction whilst a pet-owner, I would’ve found somewhere else to live rather than part with my four-legged friends, and a survey by the Deposit Protection Service recently revealed 30% of pet-owning renters had done precisely that of late. This bill nonetheless includes a caveat for concerned landlords, all the same; reports indicate Housing Secretary Michael Gove plans to grant powers to landlords so they can request their pet-owning tenants have insurance in the event of any damage done to the property by their pet, something that has eased the worries of the National Residential Landlords Association – particularly as landlords are limited when it comes to the amount of a deposit they can hold onto as insurance against pet damage; the Tenant Fees Act of 2019 restricts that amount to five weeks’ rent. NRLA representative Chris Morris said, ‘Our biggest concern has always been that the law, as it currently stands, prevents landlords requiring insurance to cover the significant risk of pets creating damage to a property. We welcome reports that the Government has listened and responded positively to our concerns.’

The Renters Reform Bill will also extend the so-called Decent Homes Standard into the rented sector for the first time, apparently guaranteeing renters the right to a ‘safe and warm home’; as someone who has never rented property with central heating, I look forward to a winter in a ‘warm’ home, though how this bill will make my home warm is a tad vague. Anxious landlords receive additional eases to their concerns with a promise that the bill will enable them to evict antisocial tenants or renters who are wilfully failing to pay rent in ways that are far easier than the rules currently in place allow. But tenants are liberated by the changes too; rogue landlords will face unlimited fines if they don’t live up to the standards expected of them. ‘This is all part of our plans to level up communities and improve the life chances of people from all corners of the country,’ said Michael Gove. ‘Too many renters are living in damp, unsafe and cold homes, powerless to put it right and under the threat of sudden eviction. The New Deal for renters will help to end this injustice, improving conditions and rights for millions of renters.’

Considering 4.4 million households constitute the private rented sector, finally tackling some of the iniquities prevalent in the system is one of those rare occasions when it’s possible to applaud this Government for actually doing something good. The Decent Homes Standard places a legal obligation on landlords to improve properties in such an insanitary state that they affect the physical and mental health of tenants; this will also cut the best part of £3 billion’s worth of Housing Benefit a year that finds itself in the pockets of these rogue landlords, as well as sparing the NHS from the £340 million it annually forks out for in order to treat the ill-health of tenants hospitalised due to the dire conditions they’re living in. Also, disputes between tenants and landlords are to be kept out of court by the intervention of a new Private Renters’ Ombudsman – what a wonderful word that is, Ombudsman (one of the few Scandinavian ones to have settled into modern English, apparently); he will settle such disputes quickly.

But it is the section of the Renters Reform Bill covering the ownership of pets in rented accommodation that will probably register with the most people. For far too long, the healing effects of domesticated animals on their owners has been effectively criminalised by the renting system; the odd bad apple in the barrel shouldn’t brand all pet owners as ‘problem tenants’ and it’s about time this antiquated discrimination was finally outlawed. Looks like that time has come.

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IN A SAFE SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM

vlcsnap-2022-06-28-01h10m06s215Whilst checking out Paul McCartney’s set on TV over the weekend and simultaneously ignoring predictably disparaging online commentaries (you’ll only be praising the few living legends left once they’re gone, guys), I eventually began to weary a little of the endless cutaways of Sebastian and Jocasta sitting on the shoulders of their uni sweethearts. I suspended my instinctive hostilities towards the gap-year gig-goers until remarking to a friend that the Glastonbury Festival was essentially Glyndebourne in a leather jacket; this followed on from my summary of it a decade ago as the indie scene’s equivalent of the Royal Variety Performance. The latter observation appears irrelevant now considering the said scene has failed to throw up a suitable headliner capable of drawing the punters in like the old guard, whose reliance on backing singers to ‘carry them’ is the best we can hope for when taking their advanced years into account, not to mention the inability of their lamentable heirs to deliver the goods. At the same time, all are within their rights to criticise, regardless of their ignorance.

After all, viewers of any live showbiz event in this day and age have to endure the tiresome parade of pop star and movie star f**kwits giving their ill-informed opinions on complex political situations of which their celebrity status – amazingly – does not necessarily translate as in-depth knowledge, regardless of their misplaced conviction we should sit in reverential silence and listen to their sermons. If these idiots are allowed a platform to air their half-arsed expertise, I see no reason why equally ignorant amateurs shouldn’t be able to do likewise on social media. It’s always those who know the least on the subject under discussion that want to lecture others on it, anyway, so the non-famous are just as qualified as the famous. Ironically, many of these were induced into hysteria at the prospect of bonkers billionaire Elon Musk purchasing Twitter; his stated intent to restore traditional interpretations of free speech to an outlet infamous for curtailing contradictions to the consensus in recent years provoked a memorably OTT reaction, though I do wonder if it was all simply a publicity stunt on the part of Musk to raise his profile even further – or a deliberately mischievous wind-up.

Many of the hilariously foaming-at-the-mouth responses to the Musk bid came from the same people who compared the Union Jacks draped in displays across London thoroughfares during the Jubilee to Swastikas in Nazi Germany – those who mysteriously don’t come to the same conclusions when the flying flag is the bloody rainbow one flapping in everybody’s face. There’s an argument to be made that the flag of a nation has a divine right to be displayed whereas a pretend flag has to earn its status through something other than enforced emotional blackmail; but it’s a point we’re evidently not allowed to make when each and every corporation and institution cynically latches on to the ubiquitous LGBTXYZ agenda as though they really ‘care’ and every terrified pleb is scared of being ostracised on Facebook if they don’t stress their support via profile pics.

I suppose when Boris undergoes a rare moment of truth-telling and states that women are not actually born with a penis, it gives such chickens a chance to criticise an easy target and restore their status as being on ‘the right side of history’, but this is an insecure security that is symptomatic of the age in which we live. Smugly delusional in their denial of reality, such cowards imagine the agents of social justice will somehow cease their crusade once all ‘undesirables’ are cancelled, yet they don’t seem to realise such agents won’t stop once they’ve excised ‘the enemy’, which is a shape-shifting entity with no end in sight. I won’t evoke the French Revolution simply because I make the assumption readers will be aware of how that particular historical event progressed from admirable idealism to ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ in an exceedingly short space of time; yet, the recent case of comedian Joe Lycett – visited by Plod courtesy of a solitary complaint by one offended punter – shows how even the most on-song Woke troubadours are just as vulnerable to cancellation as those who don’t buy into the prevailing trend, something that perhaps underlines just how worthless signing-up to the prevailing trend really is.

Tapping into this climate, the Government’s proposed ‘Online Safety Bill’ has received a mixed response from those who stand to be affected by its proposals – whether conscious or no – and even a one-time Minister has now weighed-in with his size nines. Lord Frost, the former Brexit Minister, has urged his former Cabinet colleagues to think again when proceeding with this lamentable piece of kneejerk legislation. ‘A Conservative Government,’ he said, ‘should not be putting this view into law. The best thing the Government could do would be to slim down the Bill so they can proceed rapidly with the genuinely uncontroversial aspects and consign the rest to where it belongs – the wastepaper basket.’ He added that the proposed Bill was both ‘unsatisfactory’ and ‘un-Conservative’ and that it would be highly damaging to free speech as well as benefiting the ‘perennially offended’ seeking to be permanently protected from anything they happen to disagree with.

Frost makes the point that the Bill threatens to outlaw comments online that would be perfectly legitimate offline, and he’s not alone in his concerns. Other former prominent Tories such as Liam Fox and David Davis have been similarly frank in their assessment of the proposals. ‘The Bill could end up being one of the most significant accidental infringements on free speech in modern times,’ said Davis, though one can’t help but suspect the Woke mole in the heart of Government, Carrie Antoinette, is pushing the PM into giving his support. The Institute of Economic Affairs reckons the intended law has ‘scope, complexity and reach that are breathtaking’, for whilst it puts pressure on tech giants to curb odious online content re child pornography and ‘hate crime offences’, the interpretation of the latter is utterly subjective and down to where one stands. The Labour Party, whose leader can’t bring himself to own up to biological fact for fear of alienating potential metropolitan voters, is keeping quiet about the Bill, though that’s no great surprise.

I noticed Sir Keir was quick to virtue signal re the recent overturning of the Roe Vs Wade judgement of 50 years ago in the US, though – as some troublesome wag on Twitter pointed out – the Labour leader was curiously reluctant to voice women’s rights when it came to denouncing those named and shamed in the report into South Yorkshire grooming gangs belatedly published last week, most of which took place in towns and cities run by Labour councils. Similarly, professional virtue signaller and renowned smarmy creep Justin Trudeau was quick to register his outrage re Roe Vs Wade, yet – as was also highlighted on Twitter – the Canadian PM wasn’t so ‘your body, your choice’-friendly when it came to how those with-child were treated during the pandemic. ‘You tried to mandate I take a vaccine with unknown fetal side-effects while I was PREGNANT,’ said one tweet. ‘You sure as hell don’t care about bodily autonomy’.

Such tweets emphasis how vital online platforms can be as a method of registering dissent, and whilst Boris’s rancid administration has routinely demonstrated its skill in deflecting attention from guilty parties, attempting to sneak this inconsistent and ill-thought out legislation through Parliament is burying bad news on a grand scale. The damage such a Bill stands to do to a nation that established the notion of free speech throughout the Anglosphere is incalculable, though maybe the damage has already been done and this is simply the official seal of approval.

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NO SURPRISES

Lib DemIn their former guise as non-Democrats, the Liberals once presided over one of the most celebrated results in by-election history – and it happened exactly 60 years ago, when Eric Lubbock overturned a Tory majority of 14,760 in Orpington and transformed a safe Conservative seat into a 7,855 majority for the Liberal Party. The Tories had been in government for 11 years at that point, yet had already acquired the weary detachment from the electorate that is often a by-product of a decade in office; the familiar whiff of a sex scandal that can accompany such tired longevity was just round the corner, though in 1962 the name John Profumo had yet to become a household one; ditto Christine Keeler. Last night in Tiverton and Honiton, it would appear history was going through one of its routine habits of repeating itself as the Lib Dems inflicted one of the most comprehensive and humiliating defeats on the Conservative Party ever seen at a by-election as former Army Major Richard Foord triumphed over the Tory candidate, wiping out a majority of 24,239 in a seat that had never been free from Conservative hands since its creation. And the by-election only happened because the sitting Tory MP Neil Parish was forced to quit after he’d been outed for watching porn on his phone in the Commons.

On the same night a second Tory seat fell, this time to Labour; Wakefield, one of the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies captured by the Conservatives in 2019, returned to its traditional home. This by-election was also provoked by a resignation connected to a sex scandal; fittingly, the last time a government suffered simultaneous defeat in two by-elections was during the John Major era, which was also the last time such a sleazy collection of reprehensible individuals constituted the ruling Party. Even by past standards of sleaze, however, the case of Imran Ahmad Khan is especially unpleasant; Khan was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy, though he didn’t resign his seat until convicted. He’ll be spending the next 18 months being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Considering Wakefield voted Leave in 2016 (as did Tiverton and Honiton in its Mid Devon guise), it was no great surprise its voters spurned Remoaner Labour in 2019; yet a Tory reverting to type is perhaps as predictable an outcome as last night’s results, and Wakefield turned red again whilst Tiverton and Honiton turned orange for the first time.

According to some sources, the Tory defeat in Tiverton and Honiton is officially the largest majority ever to be overturned at a British by-election, one that even exceeds the Lib Dems’ huge victory in North Shropshire last year. However, only the most gormlessly deluded Tory wouldn’t have seen this coming; most Conservative MPs returning to the Shires during the extended Jubilee Bank Holiday were confronted by angry constituents who’d had enough of the leadership, yet only 148 acted on their constituents’ behalf by registering their dissatisfaction with Boris in the confidence vote a couple of weeks ago. With a majority of Tories deciding to keep the PM in a job, it was left to the Lib Dem’s victorious candidate to say out loud what the 148 who voted against Boris declined to. He declared the voters of Tiverton and Honiton had spoken for the whole country by sending out a clear message. ‘It’s time for Boris Johnson to go – and go now,’ said Major Foord. ‘Every day Boris Johnson clings to office, he brings further shame, chaos and neglect. Communities like ours are on their knees. I also have a simple message for those Conservative MPs propping up this failing Prime Minister: the Liberal Democrats are coming.’

Okay, so there’s a slight element of ‘go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’ about that last statement, though in the thick of Lib Dem euphoria, it was probably understandable. This was one hell of a blow inflicted on a sitting administration, with the even-more predictable defeat in Wakefield the icing on the cake. The Liberal Democrats under the leadership of Ed Davey have been fortunate that the far-from enthusiastic response to Keir Starmer’s lacklustre Labour Party has enabled them to reinvent themselves yet again, emerging from the disastrous shadows of Jo Swinson’s Remain crusade and capitalising on widespread disillusionment with the two main Parties; it’s precisely what the Lib Dems did so well under Charles Kennedy, and when the alternatives are as uninspiring as Boris and Sir Keir – not to mention the motley crews assembled on the respective front benches of the pair – it’s no wonder the tide has turned for the Lib Dems again. Considering the likes of Dominic Raab and Michael Gove have smaller leads over the Lib Dems than that which the Tories had boasted in Tiverton and Honiton until last night, perhaps the new Lib Dem MP’s melodramatic warning should be heeded after all.

Boris had wisely kept a low profile during the by-election campaigns in the two constituencies; as with the increasingly-unpopular Ted Heath during the October 1974 General Election, the Prime Minister was noticeably absent from the promotional literature delivered by the hapless footsloggers trying in vain to court votes on behalf of their doomed candidate and attempting not to mention the Party leader on the doorstep. A not-dissimilar policy was tried by Labour canvassers in 2019, as I found out when I made my feelings on Corbyn and his cronies clear when confronted by one at the time. Anyway, Boris wasn’t at home to make excuses; at the moment, he’s in Rwanda, officially to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government shindig, but it’s possible he might be checking out the Kigali B&Bs earmarked for those pesky illegal immigrants. In his absence, the Conservative Party co-chairman Oliver Dowden became the latest Tory to walk a plank Boris refuses to countenance even exists.

Dowden’s resignation is the most high-profile response to two heavy defeats irrefutably linked to the ongoing fallout from Partygate. ‘We cannot continue with business as usual,’ wrote Dowden in his letter, though the PM is unlikely to receive that statement as advice. On the eve of an anticipated wipe-out at the two by-elections, Boris simply said ‘Governing parties generally do not win by-elections, particularly not in mid-term.’ Not the most encouraging message to the troops, but at least one rooted in realism; the Tories were seemingly prepared for defeat, if not what turned out to be the scale of defeat in Tiverton and Honiton. The Wakefield loss was no more of a surprise than the other seat, though tactical voting at Tiverton and Honiton saw Labour lose its deposit. There was also pre-by-election unrest at Wakefield’s Labour constituency branch when the entire committee resigned in protest at their preferred candidate, trade unionist Kate Dearden, being excluded in favour of a candidate parachuted in by the NEC; not that Keir Starmer will be bringing that up as he attempts to bask in the glow of his winner, Simon Lightwood.

When one considers the Labour and Lib Dem perspectives on Brexit, they’ll no doubt adopt a ‘don’t mention the war’ attitude now that two Leave constituencies are in their hands; even without the Partygate revelations, it’s possible the promise to ‘get Brexit done’ that enabled the Tories to triumph in the two seats in 2019 was regarded by voters in Wakefield and Tiverton as a done deal in 2022 and it was time to move on to other pressing issues, such as the cost of living; maybe they figured the Tories couldn’t deliver on that, considering the Tories’ policies in the pandemic provoked it. But it’s hard to escape the undeniable influence of what Boris and his cohorts got up to during the most testing period for the public in post-war British history when it comes to this pair of results. Let’s face it, though, Boris Johnson is a very lucky Prime Minister; he doesn’t have to call another General Election until 2024.

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OLD GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS

Kate BushIt’d be easy to be unaware of the fact the UK singles chart still exists in 2022; the kind of coverage this one-time essential pop cultural institution was once afforded is long gone, with its traditional trio of promotional tools – ‘Top of the Pops’, Radio 1’s Sunday teatime Top 40, and the music press – all now part of the over-40s collective memory bank rather than a living, breathing barometer of where it’s at. It seems the sole reason the singles chart survives as a redundant relic of another era is simply its ongoing role as a yardstick for the music industry to measure its reach in terms of sales; to the general public for whom it once held as much fascination as the Premier League table, however, it means nothing. Being able to name the week’s No.1 hit isn’t even something most teenagers could probably manage today, and the chart appears to retain the ‘singles’ prefix simply to distinguish its content from the album chart – although any song is eligible for inclusion as long as it’s downloaded enough times, official ‘single’ or not.

Therefore, the sudden presence of 63-year-old Kate Bush at the top of the singles chart with a 36-year-old song in 2022 should be something that barely raises an eyebrow. Yet, the return of Kate Bush to a position she hasn’t occupied since her 1978 debut hit, ‘Wuthering Heights’, has received extensive media reportage in the last few days; ‘Woman’s Hour’ even managed the coup of a down-the-line interview with the reclusive Kate – though the fact it was conducted via Ms Bush’s landline telephone was a nice touch that seemed to emphasise a somewhat quaint analogue element adding to her mystique. The vintage slice of Kate Bush’s oeuvre that currently sits atop the singles chart is ‘Running Up That Hill’, the lead single from her 1985 album, ‘Hounds of Love’. The track originally peaked at No.3, kick-starting Bush’s commercial renaissance following a fallow period in which her increasingly adventurous vision failed to connect with the record-buying public. Its elevation two places higher in 2022 is apparently due to heavy rotation in a Netflix series called ‘Stranger Things’.

Obscure gems excavated by movies, ads and TV series have provided many unjustly-overlooked musicians with a delayed pay-check in recent times, yet neither Kate Bush nor ‘Running Up That Hill’ fall into that category. Her career has spanned the best part of 45 years and constitutes dozens of hit singles and several chart-topping albums, beginning when she was just 19. She’s been a household name to more than one generation, and her exceedingly rare return to the stage in 2014 was greeted by some fans as the Second Coming; the fact her live show consisted of 22 nights at the same theatre – the Hammersmith Apollo – seemed to once more single her out as a unique performer unwilling to embark upon the touring treadmill, despite being away from the stage for 35 years. As a survivor of an era that produced such gifted and original talent, Kate Bush remains something of a national treasure, and for her to be back at No.1 – however meaningless an achievement that might now be – is indicative of not just an enduring affection for her, but symbolises something wider in pop culture.

30 years ago, the late music writer Ian MacDonald could sense which way the wind was blowing with remarkable prescience. When referring to the contemporary rap and dance scenes at the turn-of-the-90s, he wrote ‘The effect of presenting rhythms by drum machines and later by drum samplers, slave to sequencers, has been to elevate the groove over every other musical priority; at its simplest, this means that songs are now written from the rhythm track upwards, rather from the melodic, harmonic idea as was the case in almost all 60s music.’ For all its generous electronic enhancement – and Kate Bush was always ahead of the game on that score – the technology that enabled ‘Running Up That Hill’ to sound cutting edge in 1985 doesn’t overwhelm the human element, with Kate Bush’s distinctive voice and its inherent humanity shining above and beyond the pseudo-tribal drumbeat. Even the notoriously soulless production values of the mid-80s can’t entirely erase the personality of the performer in the way the Auto-tuned, mechanised music of the 21st century has managed to squeeze it out. And to a new generation discovering the Kate Bush back catalogue via Netflix exposure, perhaps it is this quality – and the novel structure of songs not ‘written from the rhythm track upwards’ – that makes her sound so refreshing to unaccustomed ears.

When contemporary pop bows to the need for melody to give its monotonous rhythm track an earworm, more often than not the earworm chosen is either a sample from an organic, analogue track of 50-odd years ago – which adds the aforementioned human element lacking from the present day toolbox – or a ‘new’ melody that borrows so heavily from an old one that it’s just a few bars away from accusations of plagiarism and an inevitable appearance in the copyright court; the ‘Blurred Lines’ case of 2015 ruled in favour of Marvin Gaye’s estate, following claims the Robin Thicke track leaned a little too close to Gaye’s 1977 hit, ‘Got to Give it Up’. ‘Blurred Lines’ was a hit largely on the back of its infamous video, the uncensored version of which featured a topless model; considering my own YT channel was recently terminated on spurious grounds of ‘nudity’, the said video was still on there just a few months ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it still is. Anyway, I digress…

It’s interesting that Kate Bush’s overnight rediscovery is no isolated incident. An article by Ted Gioia that recently appeared in the Atlantic magazine quoted stats stating ‘old songs’ now constitute 70% of the US music market according to the latest data – yes, 70%. It seems you can’t keep an old song down, especially when new songs are found wanting in the qualities that have made old songs evergreen; the article goes on to say that the 200 most popular new tracks on the likes of Spotify actually account for less than 5% of total streams, a rate that was twice as high a mere three years ago. ‘Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact,’ writes Gioia. ‘Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona-fide hits can pass by unnoticed by much of the population.’

Some of the more vintage acts remaining alive and kicking have decided to capitalise on ongoing interest in their body of work by selling-off their back catalogues, making one last mint from the family silver whilst they’re still around to enjoy it, especially when royalties from streaming sites are so pitiful. Prominent veterans such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen have all taken this path recently, and they’re fortunate they have those back catalogues; no artist of their grandchildren’s generation has that advantage.

Old and deceased musicians also satisfy cravings for the classics by transcending the physical and hitting the road as holograms – Elvis Presley and Abba have both been reborn as live acts utilising such technology, and we can probably look forward to the trend becoming the norm as more of the golden generation of musicians shuffle off this mortal coil. Paul McCartney may be physically headlining this year’s Glastonbury merely days into his tenure as an octogenarian, but he’ll probably still be headlining the festival 20 years from now as a 3D CGI facsimile. Perhaps Her Majesty could try a similar approach, if it prevents Charles from a reign few outside of Clarence House are looking forward to.

Along with the findings revealed in the Ted Gioia Atlantic article regarding the dominance of old songs on streaming sites, the best-selling physical format in music right now is the vinyl LP. And Kate Bush is No.1 in the singles chart. Perhaps, just as bookworms were still reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ in 1978 – 130 years after its publication – music lovers will still be listening to ‘Wuthering Heights’ in 2108. Nobody today would junk Beethoven or Bach from the Proms on the grounds they’re ‘old’, so maybe we shouldn’t expect 20th century music to be excised from playlists either. Perhaps this is the beginning of its elevation to permanent ‘classic’ status, where it will probably remain as long as people want to listen.

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TRAIN OF THOUGHT

ThomasA woman with two dogs allowing the delayed Euston train to depart without her because she’d booked a reserved seat (presumably canine-friendly) on the next one, whenever it might arrive; a woman whose long day had begun at the crack of dawn travelling from Manchester to Glasgow and back again – just two commuters I spoke to yesterday following the cancellation of my own direct express. Relocated to another platform, I had to journey to Manchester Piccadilly and then change, missing a train by a matter of minutes and then hanging around for half-an-hour for the long-awaited ride home. The ticket inspector on the first train informed me I should have waited for the next, as my ticket was apparently invalid on this one, what with it being a different company (God bless privatisation and deregulation, eh?); however, I was fortunate to be spared a Jobsworth; perhaps she was sympathetic to the palpable desperation of passengers to get back before the drawbridge came down and strike action got underway. An absence of a ticket inspector on the second train made life easier, considering both my experience on the first and the fact the empty seats on the second seemed to be either reserved for the Invisible Man or exclusively for those of a disabled persuasion; carefully extricating the reserved sign from the top of the seat, I breathed a sigh of relief on a sparsely-occupied carriage and hoped my presence would pass by unnoticed; mercifully, it did.

With the dates pencilled-in for the rail strike made public a week or so before they came into being, I imagined I myself would be safe from any travel disruption, though I was maybe pushing it a bit choosing to journey home from a weekend away less than 24 hours before it all kicked-in. Anyway, I made it in the end, albeit an hour later than planned. Others might not be so lucky in the days ahead. As history has shown us – whether or not the ‘within living memory’ element counts to anyone under-40 – industrial action taken by one workforce has a habit of triggering a chain reaction so that each public sector union enters into a competition with others to see who can extract a sufficient volume of blood from the management stone. Cost-of-living crises tend to spawn such situations, so perhaps it’s no surprise we find ourselves where we are following two years of exceptional circumstances, not to mention a decade of austerity and underinvestment.

Where the railways are concerned, of course, the fact British Rail is now a distant memory has left us in a different predicament to that which anyone old enough to have lived through the 1970s can recall; a caller on an LBC phone-in pointed out the differences early on Tuesday morning, going viral on Twitter and bringing her points to a far wider audience than that which ordinarily tunes-in to LBC phone-ins. She referenced the £4 million in tax payers’ money that kept Northern Rail afloat in 2014, £36 million of which found its way into shareholders’ pockets; she referenced the fact numerous rail firms paid out £1 billion in shareholders’ dividends in 2019 whilst simultaneously raising fares by 36%; and she referenced the fact that in 2021 – after the Government had stepped-in to prop-up the train companies when so few were given dispensation to travel by rail during the pandemic – the Network Rail CEO took home over three times the Prime Minister’s salary, with his company still paying £20 million of dividends to shareholders as it gratefully accepted a £11 billion rescue package. A natural consequence of privatisation we’ve now lived with for 30 years or more, yes – but always worth stating as Ministers shy away from doing likewise.

When even the likes of Peter Hitchens can find himself in an unlikely alliance with the likes of Jeremy Corbyn when it comes to the re-nationalisation of the railways, it’s not so easy to dismiss the proposal as a left-wing fantasy; but rail strikes were a routine occurrence during the era of British Rail, lest we forget – the most significant one taking place at the beginning of 1973, several months before the Three Day Week; the tactic resurfaced during the notorious Winter of Discontent at the end of that troubled decade, but every other public service seemed to be striking then, so the effects of it can easily be swallowed-up by memories of the collective inconveniences endured by the general public at that time. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher implementing a variation on the legislation Barbara Castle proposed (and the Labour Party bottled out of) a decade earlier, trade unions no longer have the kind of clout they possessed 40 or 50 years ago, yet – as happened with the fire-fighters’ unions in the early 2000s – they retain the ability to disrupt the public and shame the Government when their actions are so unusual that they receive the kind of coverage they were denied in the 70s and early 80s, when such events were so routine that few batted a weary eyelid.

The fact is that the 24-hour news services of the 21st century are largely unaccustomed to such scenarios, and therefore report this sort of story with the same hysterical fervour that they greet each and every development in current affairs. An unintentionally hilarious down-the-line interview conducted by Sky’s Kay Burley with Mick Lynch, Secretary-General of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (or RMT to the layman) was a case in point; Burley – she’s the one who led a birthday conga through London bars when the capital was in ‘Tier Three’ lockdown at the end of 2020, you might recall – furtively pressed a calm and composed Lynch what his nefarious plans would be should bussed-in agency workers attempt to cross said picket-lines; she even excitedly evoked the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike, as though every placid picket-line outside a railway station would suddenly erupt into a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave. Lynch received Burley’s silly attempts at egging him on with the contempt they deserved and she responded by behaving as though he had committed a hate crime against her. It was a telling exchange that said a great deal about where we are – whether or not those employed by privately-owned rail companies can be viewed as public sector workers anymore.

At the same time, the BBC News online headline declared ‘Huge rail strike will cause misery for millions’, yet I don’t remember a similar one decrying the policies of the Government a year or two ago that caused far more short-term misery for millions (and far more long-term damage) than any storm-in-a-teacup industrial dispute probably will. Yes, a rail strike coming with petrol prices at a 17-year high (courtesy of taxes, that Ukraine business and, not forgetting, the emotional blackmail of a ‘Green’ intervention in domestic oil supplies) is a major disruption to the general public, forcing commuters to turn to a public transport system decimated by a decade-long ruthless pruning of services, yet it was inevitable some unions would revert to strike action when their members are feeling the pinch as much as anyone else. And, after a year or more of working from home, the return of the workforce to a dependence on bus or rail services to get them to the workplace on time was the perfect moment to hit – from the perspective of the unions representing such services, anyway; it was as inevitable a move as the post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis itself.

Boris has issued a scaremongering, pre-emptive warning that the country ought to prepare itself for a ‘summer of strikes’, whilst various Labour MPs have entered into point-scoring by joining rail workers on picket-lines (presumably keen to show they haven’t entirely lost touch with ‘ordinary people’ in the midst of their Identity Politics obsession). The Government appears determined not to bow to the rail workers’ demands for fear that other unions will also do an Oliver Twist and ask Sir for more, and they will be acutely aware that public anger with unions can swiftly be redirected towards Ministers should the strikes spread. Either way, it’s yet another disruption to already-disrupted lives and, whether or not one’s sympathies are firmly with the strikers, for most it’s one more pain in an increasingly painful arse.

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MOONAGE DAYDREAMS

Bowie 72 DHard to believe now, but there was once a time when David Bowie was regarded as a one-hit wonder; this was when, after a testing, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful journey as an aspiring pop star throughout the 60s, Bowie finally gatecrashed the Top 5 at the very end of the decade. ‘Space Oddity’ launched him into the charts by capitalising on the 1969 Moon Landing, even if this atmospheric and unsettling song chronicling the doomed mission of an astronaut lost in space was at odds with the global euphoria that greeted Neil Armstrong’s achievement. It marked him out as one to watch, which must have made it all the more dispiriting for Bowie himself to then follow Major Tom into a black hole and fail to come up with that all-important second hit. At the beginning of the 70s, Bowie vanished off the public radar he’d spent so long trying to be picked up on and his career progressed largely unnoticed by record-buyers; during this period, his restlessness manifested itself as intriguing flirtations with musical trends then prevalent in that uncertain post-Beatles world.

His 1970 album, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, was an electrifying excursion into the dark heart of Hard Rock, a timely move in a year dominated by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But Bowie’s exceptional intellect elevated the lyrical concerns of the album above the usual Blues Rock clichés, making for a uniquely original take on a style of music not renowned for highbrow content. Despite featuring the debut of Mick Ronson, the axe-man who would become Bowie’s priceless sidekick for the next three years, Bowie seemed to sabotage any potential success for the LP when he decided to pose for the sleeve wearing a dress. Mick Jagger may have got away with briefly donning a man’s frock in Hyde Park the year before, but he was a household name with carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted. Bowie was still only known for the one hit and had yet to build himself a fan-base that could translate into sustained commercial success. An album cover with him resembling a stoned Veronica Lake languidly lounging on the sofa was not one guaranteed to win him the favour of the denim crowd, despite the music on it delivering the goods. It flopped.

The next album, 1971’s ‘Hunky Dory’, tapped into the vogue for the singer-songwriter, with heavy reliance on acoustic guitar and piano. Despite it containing some of his most memorably melodic gems – including ‘Changes’, ‘Oh, You Pretty Things’, and the epic ‘Life on Mars’ – this album also failed to chart upon initial release. But one song on there, the Velvet Underground-influenced adrenalin rush of ‘Queen Bitch’, pointed the way to the future. A promotional visit to the US in which he made the acquaintance of Andy Warhol and Iggy Pop fired Bowie’s imagination and he returned home brimming with ideas for a persona combining the alluring artifice of transsexual Warhol Superstars like Candy Darling with the raw power and theatrical nihilism of The Stooges. Bowie’s wife Angie was a hustler on her husband’s behalf during this crucial stage of his career and her wide circle of outré associates provoked the transformation that was the first step towards the realisation of his new persona. Scissors were taken to Bowie’s flowing locks and the jagged thatch that remained was dyed an unnatural orange. Dragging his backing band into the spotlight, Bowie then generated a group image with outfits inspired by ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The Spiders from Mars were born.

It helped that Bowie was writing new songs at a phenomenal rate. Even before the release of ‘Hunky Dory’, he and the Spiders entered the studio to record them with another album in mind. Loosely linked to form a narrative, the songs told the tale of the character Bowie envisaged as the ultimate rock icon when such figures were pop cultural Gods, Ziggy Stardust. His new image also reflected the growing resurgence of a trashy, old-school rock ‘n’ roll glamour unseen since the heyday of Billy Fury a decade before, and one that was at odds with the fashion as the 70s opened; the music scene then was all about authenticity, rejecting showbiz and looking like a hobo. However, the emergence of former hippie minstrel Marc Bolan as a major chart act in 1971 – scoring two No.1s with his band T. Rex – was another key inspiration for Bowie; Bolan’s music was deliberately primitive yet undeniably invigorating, whilst his image was of a well-groomed androgynous elf; Bolan’s breakthrough opened the floodgates for many acts who became the leading lights of Glam Rock, and for Bowie it convinced him his ingenious idea had a ready-made, hungry audience. He was right, but he also had to convince a sceptical music press.

Casually proclaiming himself bisexual in a Melody Maker interview in early 1972, Bowie sent nervous ripples throughout a music scene still wary of gender-bending despite the great leaps forward of the 60s. But it garnered the outrage, shock, horror and headlines Bowie required as he and the Spiders hit the road and began bringing their exhilarating set-list to the curious kids. The combination of this exotic alien creature quite unlike anything anyone had seen on stage before with a catalogue of riff-tastic instant rock classics was the magic recipe for success Bowie had spent a decade furtively searching for, one that the false dawn of ‘Space Oddity’ made him determined not to let slip through his fingers. None of the attention Bowie’s striking image attracted would have lasted long had he not possessed the musical mettle to back it up, however – and he did.

The release of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ exactly 50 years ago today was the foundation stone of a commercial career that lasted all the way to Bowie’s premature passing 44 years later. It became the first LP of his to chart in the UK and eventually peaked at No.5 whilst continuing to sell for decades thereafter. Its success was also aided by the single lifted from it, ‘Starman’. Having not troubled the singles charts for three years, viewers with a vague memory of a bubble-haired folkie were left open-jawed when Bowie returned to ‘Top of the Pops’ and unveiled Ziggy before an unprepared nation. As Bowie suggestively slung his arm around Mick Ronson, the shockwaves could be felt in every school playground in Britain the following day; it told many a confused kid it was chic to be a freak and gave them the confidence to follow suit. Many of them took the Bowie template and expanded it when they became glamorous chart regulars themselves a decade later.

The ‘Ziggy’ LP didn’t necessarily break new musical ground in the way Bowie went on to do, but it was a good place to start; by contributing his own intoxicating collision of high and low art to the nascent Glam scene, he enabled the Art School crew of Roxy Music, Sparks and Cockney Rebel to storm the charts and take the sound beyond the more basic appeal of Gary Glitter. Even Lou Reed managed to score a Top 10 hit courtesy of the Bowie connection, and the leper messiah also generously gave Mott the Hoople one of his pivotal numbers of the era, ‘All the Young Dudes’. With such pearls as ‘Five Years’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ and the LP’s title track, Bowie had announced his arrival in style and by the following spring, the release of the ‘Aladdin Sane’ album was heralded with an instant No.1 and a sold-out tour that saw his star in a seemingly unstoppable ascendancy.

The clever move of killing Ziggy on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973 didn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t an afterlife. Ziggy lingered for a good year or so in Bowie’s haircut and music until he finally buried him by embracing ‘Plastic Soul’ in 1975 with the release of ‘Young Americans’. But Ziggy had been Bowie’s Open Sesame to the masses and would never be forgotten either by the generation that fell in love with him first time round or all the generations to come for whom he would prove to be a stellar inspiration. Half-a-century on, it remains yet another landmark in a long-gone age overflowing with them.

© The Editor

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LIVES, INTERRUPTED

Grenfell 2022It’s a measure of just how long this here Winegum has been going now that when a five-year anniversary of a major news story comes around, I can point to an actual Telegram post reacting to it at the time it happened. Such is the case with the Grenfell fire half-a-decade ago today. 72 dead, hundreds of lives cruelly and brutally interrupted, a tower block reduced to a charred carcass – a grotesque blot on the London skyline that says so much about the capital’s priorities; and nobody yet behind bars following an interminable pass-the-parcel blame game that remains ongoing. Glancing at the 2017 Winegum response to the tragedy earlier today – a post grimly titled ‘Clad in Black’ – it’s interesting that the rumour which emerged early on, the one that hinted the horrific inferno was sparked by a fridge catching fire in one of the block’s apartments, was a rumour I was understandably sceptical about; in the 24-hour news age, such fevered speculation often accompanies a story when the full facts have yet to be established.

Ironically, it turned out the beginnings of the blaze were genuinely caused by this incident; however, the easy speed by which the flames swiftly engulfed the whole building – reaching the top floor in a mere 18 minutes – was entirely due to the superficial cladding that had been cheaply tacked-on to Grenfell Tower’s exterior to make this aesthetically ugly example of 1970s social housing more palatable to the panoramic views of the wealthy neighbours that had colonised Kensington since Grenfell’s distant construction. For those who lived at Grenfell and survived the tragedy, the fire has been one of those life-changing moments that have altered them forevermore; they will never again be the people they were before that day, and the fire has discoloured everything thereafter, almost coming to define the individuals they have been ever since 14 June 2017; most struggle with the kind of survivors’ guilt familiar to veterans of wars, wondering why they are still here and their comrades (or friends and neighbours) aren’t.

And these fortunate few only made it out of the building because they ignored the perceived wisdom of the fire service and didn’t stay entombed in their flats; those that did paid the price with their lives – all 72 of them. The fact Grenfell Tower is still standing serves as a potent reminder of the tragedy that is impossible to avoid whenever travelling through West London. Its gruesome wounds may now be hidden by cladding which is less flammable than the cladding that enabled the fire to spread with such lethal haste; but its continuous presence as a melancholy beacon for the neighbourhood’s less-affluent community is a damning comment on the corner-cutting contempt for them that seems to symbolise so much of modern urban living in Britain today. As was pointed out in a ‘Newsnight’ feature on the tragedy aired on the eve of its five-year anniversary, any attempts at closure by survivors are inexorably linked with justice, something that appears as remote five years on as it did in the dazed and confused days following the fire.

The inquiry into Grenfell has yet to conclude, and as a consequence there have been no charges and nobody has even been found accountable for what happened. Clearly, somebody must be responsible; unlike, say, 9/11, where the perpetrators were instantly identifiable and quickly named and shamed as deliberate instigators of a massacre, with Grenfell there has been shameless buck-passing from even before the government inquiry set up by Theresa May in 2017 began. The frenzied 999 calls from that night which were aired during the early days of the inquiry make for a heartbreaking listen as the residents are repeatedly told not to leave their homes; later calls that inform the emergency services that flames are outside the door then lead to belated advice that now is the time to go, however frightening a prospect it must have been for residents forced to fight through the fire when they could have exited long before it reached their floor.

The survivors may still be with us to recount their own personal stories of that night five years ago, but their survival comes with physical (on top of mental) scars that remain poignant obstacles to their futures. The appalling amount of toxic fumes inhaled during the inferno continue to affect their wellbeing, and long-term health issues are difficult to assess when there is still so much mystery surrounding the chemical nature of the materials used to ‘gentrify’ Grenfell for the benefit of those incapable of avoiding North Kensington when reclining on their South Kensington balconies. The radioactive traces of Hiroshima that everyone born after 1945 carries inside them via the contaminated atomic atmosphere has odious echoes in the lungs of Grenfell survivors, whose hopes of a long life are severely compromised by the poison they inadvertently ingested.

The tragedy has also emotionally separated survivors in the aftermath, with the understandable reluctance to be reminded of what happened leading to estrangements and divorces as attempts to rebuild lives often require the expulsion of anyone whose presence is a painful reminder of the old lives that can never be returned to. The more tangible fallout of Grenfell was easy to see in the months immediately following the fire; before the physical damage was gradually removed from the landscape, there was a lengthy period in which it served as a gory memorial both to the 72 who lost their lives and those who survived but have never been able to recapture the lives they led prior to the fire. The scale of the wreckage in all its myriad forms is incalculable, which makes the likelihood of simple financial slaps on the wrist for the accused come the conclusion of the inquiry intolerable for these survivors. They need someone to properly answer for the crime that they are the living victims of, and the immoral avoidance of that crime by the guilty parties has been one of the more unedifying examples of the vast chasm between the haves and have-nots seen in recent years.

Central and local government, cladding manufacturers, the outsourced contractors entrusted with ‘refurbishing’ Grenfell – all played their part in the build-up to the tragedy by turning a blind eye (or, more accurately, focusing that blind eye on profit) that in retrospect feels like it could only ever end one awful way. The prevailing 21st century trend seems to be for visually prettier materials to be glued on to the outside of unfashionable 20th century edifices in order to render them easier on the eye, though proper checks were spurned en route by inefficient regulators when confronted by cladding that manufacturers lied about the safety of, and by politicians always eager to take the cost-cutting option when it comes to social housing. And all have played the ‘It weren’t me, guv’ card when their role in the tragedy has been highlighted.

Yet, as research has subsequently revealed, Grenfell’s cladding was not some unique exception to the rule; there are dozens of residential buildings up and down the country still coated in similarly dangerous cladding that was added to exteriors with full knowledge of its potential risks, simply because it was a cheaper alternative for people too poor to give a flying f**k about. In many respects, it’s a miracle Grenfell hasn’t been repeated on numerous occasions ever since 2017, though the fatal potential is present in each and every one of them. Five years on, distance has not dimmed the anger of those on the frontline of the tragedy, as can happen with anyone whose life is derailed by an event that never really goes away, especially if justice is frustratingly elusive and may well remain unresolved by the time the legal process completes its ineffective journey.

© The Editor

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