COCK OF THE JUNGLE

Jungle CockAnyone looking for proof of Peter Capaldi’s gifts as an actor need not only recall the fact he continued to exude the necessary charisma and gravitas as Doctor Who despite the diminishing quality of the scripts and the Doctor’s impending exile on Planet Woke, but that he also gave us the memorably visceral Whitehall spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker in ‘The Thick of It’. There were dozens of scenes from the series in which Tucker’s hyperactive potty mouth scaled heights of genius linguistic obscenity, but Capaldi’s character was much more than just a viciously funny caricature of Alastair Campbell at his worst. I remember one episode in which Tucker had been toppled from his position of power and, suddenly deprived of his raison d’être, cut a lost, pathetic figure, realising he had little else to occupy his time; contacted by the producers of a reality TV show of the kind that seeks out has-beens and down-at-heel celebrities, Tucker swallows his pride and meets the producers. As the format of the programme is explained to him, Tucker’s despair at how low he’s sunk is writ large on his despondent countenance, and sympathy for a character who had previously elicited anything but is brilliantly coaxed out of the viewer. In the end, Malcolm Tucker walks out of the interview and shows his true grit by staging a successful comeback without recourse to reality television; perhaps Matt Hancock should have been taking notes.

The former Health Secretary, who presided over one of the most disastrous policy decisions in the history of the post, was fortunate to escape the post-Covid fallout with just the loss of his job; but at least the public received some consolation via the humiliating nature of his exit – caught on camera breaking social distancing rules in the most toe-curling manner by snogging and groping a female aide in a corridor like some geeky adolescent indulging in his first kiss at the High School Prom. Once exposed as a ‘love rat’ (as the tabloids used to say), Hancock left his wife and family for said aide and then embarked upon a fittingly embarrassing online ‘comeback’, responsible for soaring sales of sick buckets as he declared his love for his former bit on the side. Perhaps it’s therefore no surprise that Hancock has now succumbed to the lure of reality TV, recently announced as a contestant in the upcoming series of the show that seems destined to run until the bomb drops, ‘Help! I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here’. The reported fee of £400,000 probably helped too – that’s if he could read the cheque on account of his ‘dyslexia’, the convenient cause he claims his appearance on the programme will highlight.

When the subject of Hancock’s participation in the annual kangaroo-knackers banquet cropped-up on this weekend’s ‘The Week in Westminster’, columnist and broadcaster Matthew Parris attempted to defend Hancock, deflecting criticism of Hancock’s decision by dismissing it as snobbishness, citing past appearances by the likes of Nadine Dorries on reality TV whilst a serving MP. However, Parris eventually declared an interest by admitting ‘Cockers’ was a friend of his. Lest we forget, Matthew Parris first sprang to national prominence when, as a Conservative MP himself, he took part in a 1984 edition of ‘World in Action’. This famous experiment, which Mrs Thatcher advised him not to do, was a test to see if the promising young MP could live on the weekly social security benefit his Government said was perfectly adequate. Dispatched to a neighbourhood of Newcastle with a high rate of unemployment, Parris struggled to make it through the week on the dole and ended up running out of money for the meter before the seven days was over.

Parris stood down as an MP a couple of years after his first foray into television and took over from Brian Walden as host of ITV’s Sunday lunchtime institution, ‘Weekend World’; but he has often hinted his experience on ‘World in Action’ opened his eyes to not simply the world of broadcasting – he also received first-hand knowledge of how the other half live. Parris returned to Newcastle twenty years after his sobering education on the dole for a follow-up programme and discovered little improvement in the lives of the residents there; he found the legacy of the early 80s economic decimation of the city was that many in the community were now dependent on antidepressants. Both programmes validated Parris’s appearance in them, but particularly the first one; it was a serious, worthy attempt to test an advocate of Government policy by inviting him to try living under it himself – something that should actually be a compulsory course for anyone attempting to stand for Parliament. There’s a huge difference between the motivation behind ‘World in Action’ and the Ant & Dec circus, so I don’t really think Matt Hancock signing-up for that is any way comparable to Matthew Parris’s 80s venture into the North East.

Regardless of Hancock’s unconvincing attempts to justify his participation in the programme, the now-backbencher has had the whip suspended as a result, and though still a member of the Conservative Party, he now sits as an independent in the Commons. The fact Hancock chose to take part in the show with Parliament in session understandably didn’t go down well with his West Suffolk constituents either; I often think gaining an audience with a member of the Cabinet at their constituency surgery must be considerably harder than it would be with any ‘normal’ MP, but when that MP is no longer running a department there should be no excuses for their non-appearance. Not that the loss of power seems to make much difference to their accessibility within their constituencies, mind; after all, imagine if your local MP was Boris Johnson, needing to discuss a pressing problem with him in that capacity, yet being told he’s sunning his considerable bulk on some distant exotic shore. And now there’s the disgraced ex-Health Secretary to be found Down Under, hanging out with the usual leftovers from all the other reality shows when his constituents might actually require his assistance for the job he’s being paid to do on their behalf.

Ah, but he’s got estranged children to support as well as financing his love-nest with Gina Coladangelo, and the wages of a backbencher don’t quite match up to the ministerial salary. Overly-optimistic rumours of a return to Government under Rishi Sunak came to nothing, so Hancock has clearly chosen an option he seems to imagine will somehow rehabilitate his trashed reputation amongst the general public. And a man referred to as a ‘showbiz guru’ by the name of Jonathan Shalit reckons Hancock has a profitable celebrity career ahead of him, claiming ‘Cockers’ could earn up to £1 million a year if he plays his cards right. ‘I’m A Celebrity provides an opportunity to go on a new journey,’ says Shalit, foreseeing an increase in Hancock’s income if he performs well on the programme. ‘Someone like Matt can probably make about £1 million a year, quite often on weekends. For example, he could probably do three or four appearances for £10-15,000 each, minimum, if not up to £60-70,000.’ Yes, these guys do like to talk in numbers, but showbiz types share that with greedy Honourable Members, and someone did once say that politics is showbiz for ugly people, so there you go.

Matt Hancock’s deserved political downfall was a consequence of the double standards at play in Boris’s administration during the pandemic; this is the man who threatened to outlaw outdoor exercise if the plebs didn’t adhere to the social distancing rules he himself evidently regarded as unnecessary when indulging in a spot of buttock-clutching, who was photographed sans-mask when he told the rest of us to wear them at all times, and who handed out PPE contracts to his buddies – typical corruption of the kind we expect from our MPs, I guess. But the buck stopped with him when Covid-infected pensioners were returned from hospital to care home; if anyone killed granny, it was Matt Hancock. And no amount of Barrymore-esque efforts to court forgiveness via light entertainment will change that.

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WAKING FROM HOME

DroneA lockdown legacy one suspects those spellbound by the Chinese model didn’t anticipate was the fact many workers whose school-university-workplace conveyor belt hadn’t prepared them for an unscheduled interlude became converted to the unexpected absence of orders. After a lifetime of being told what to do and what to think by parents, teachers, lecturers and bosses, the drones were abruptly left to their own devices and abandoned by the authority figures they’d been meticulously taught to be subservient to from day one; they were initially as dazed and confused as North Koreans would be if deprived of the image of their glorious leader beaming down at them from every skyscraper. Big Brother was dead – or at the very least had been reincarnated as a scaremongering presence on TV and online informing us that any deviation from lockdown regulations would mean the blood of a thousand dying grannies would be on everyone’s hands. We now took our orders from medical experts on the Government payroll. Yet, at the same time, there were still all those scarily empty hours stretching ahead without edicts from Boris, Chris Whitty or…ahem…Neil Ferguson.

Bewildered wonderment at the familiar soundtrack of traffic congestion being replaced by birdsong overnight was routinely remarked upon, though this was swiftly usurped by a discernible panic on social media. Endless Facebook groups sprang up as those who had never experienced a sustained break from the norm were confronted by the sudden shock of having time on their hands that didn’t involve a foreign holiday or airport delays; they’d been taught a break from the 9-to-5 grind was restricted to the well-trodden path of the annual migration to overseas destinations for a fortnight; actual unlimited time in the home environment wasn’t in the script, so what to do? The wake-up call this imposed exile from the traditional workplace routine provoked was longer-lasting than that anticipated by those who masterminded it; when they gradually got a grip on the pandemic and the powers-that-be encouraged everyone to resume commuting, the reluctant embrace of this return to the previous pattern left the overlords in a state of panic, resorting to threatening fines and promises of an economic apocalypse if advice were spurned.

Of course, transferring responsibility from employers to employees was a good buck-passing tactic that was endorsed by our incumbent PM when in his role as Chancellor, but the arrogant assumption that the workforce would simply revert to type following an unplanned taster of an alternative to the preordained programme was naive and short-sighted. Sure, the plebs on the bottom rung of the social ladder were expected to carry on regardless – those who had kept the economy functioning as ‘key workers’; but Amazon delivery-men and NHS staff dependent upon weekly rounds of applause as recognition of their service were not necessarily guaranteed to switch to default mode once the official tributes had been paid by those whose virtue had been signalled. The expectation that such a cataclysmic interruption to working lives upon which so much of society’s structure and functioning is reliant would prove to be a mere blip and all would magically resume once it was safe to step back outdoors was as short-sighted as expressing surprise that the cost of food – especially dairy produce and pasta – has risen astronomically post-lockdown. The disruption to the social ecosystem was bound to leave ruptures in the foundations, and they’re everywhere.

It’s noticeable at the moment there are numerous employers bemoaning the lack of a ready workforce to fill gaping vacancies in the hospitality industry; if they happen to be in possession of a particular political viewpoint – and many are – the blame is invariably apportioned to Brexit. A fair few of those in media circles promoting and supporting this theory were amongst the most vocally rabid advocates of constant lockdowns whenever infections rose above a certain level in the wake of restriction easing. Such figures whose jobs were easily adapted to the Zoom model didn’t give a flying f*** about the destruction of the hospitality industry or the effect of lockdown on the workforce back then; and now the wider ramifications of cafés, restaurants and hotels being mothballed for months on end are becoming evident, they’re bleating on about bloody Brexit again. Yes, the reason why there are 200,000 jobs waiting to be filled in hospitality is all because we can no longer depend on cheap migrant labour due to our departure from the EU. Simple. However, the hospitality industries of Spain, France and Germany are curiously experiencing similar staffing shortages at the moment, yet as far as I’m aware all three remain signed-up to the great European project; even the US is facing the same problems, and Brexit as a cause has even less relevance there than here.

Coincidentally, the one thing all four nations mentioned shared with the UK was the enforced closure of industry during lockdown – especially hospitality. In Blightly, the furlough scheme covered some (albeit not all) of the wages hospitality workers were earning pre-lockdown, and the time on their hands the workforce received courtesy of the Covid master-plan enabled many members of it to wonder whether the pittances they were working long, exhausting hours for were worth returning to once it was all over. Unsurprisingly, a huge number of them came to the conclusion that they weren’t. But they came to that conclusion when they had time to catch their breaths for the first time since beginning their working lives, the moment their bosses closed the doors of their workplace; and that was a factor of lockdown, not Brexit. Whilst Brexit remains the ultimate blame-game bogeyman for all of Britain’s ills, lockdown is almost given a royal pardon, particularly by those who were its loyalist cheerleaders. Indeed, some are even belatedly admitting it went too far – even Rishi Sunak.

The stigmatising of anyone who questioned or queried the wisdom of lockdown regulations as a pariah-cum-traitor during the bleakest periods of the pandemic has now been quietly glossed over by many of those who were doing the stigmatising. There has even been talk of a ‘pandemic amnesty’ by some, and that naturally means we skip over the necessary public inquiry into the damage done and everyone with genuine blood on their hands is first in the queue for the hand sanitizer, the brand known as ‘whitewash’. The over-zealous enforcement of social distancing we all saw at the time, which was a gift to society’s plentiful supply of Jobsworths and straightforward sadistic bastards, was nothing short of a disgrace at its most extreme and unnecessary – from police dispatching drones to name and shame dog-walkers in the wide open spaces of the Peak District to the insensitive officiousness of preventing distressed mourners embracing at funerals to the ‘Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition’ gate-crashing of religious services to the utterly unforgivable barring of family members from the deathbeds of loved ones. None of these outrages should be swept under the collective carpet as the guilty seek to cover their backs with the get-out-of-jail card of an amnesty, anymore than the seismic impact of lockdown on both industry and the workforce can be seamlessly transferred to Brexit.

Anyway, an amnesty won’t return us to where we were before; we’re already well on the road to the next fun-packed episode, currently being bombarded with promises of a new Age of Austerity, one that will make the Austerity ushered in by the Con-Dem Coalition a decade ago resemble the Bacchanalian excess of a Freddie Mercury birthday party from the 80s. The kamikaze rush for ‘growth’ attempted by Liz Truss, the woman Private Eye has referred to as ‘the Lady Jane Grey of Prime Ministers’, perhaps demonstrated just how devoid of solutions those who created this absolute bloody mess in the first place truly are. And even if we spurn the industries they destroyed, our lives are still in their hands.

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THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST

vlcsnap-2022-11-01-10h46m52s939Every innovation in television presentation eventually lapses into cliché – and the documentary genre is no exception. Perhaps because I’ve watched more documentaries than any other TV genre in the past 30-odd years I notice it more, but the tired tricks of the trade do niggle a little and you crave a more adventurous director to look for other ways of visually accompanying the narration. There’s the guaranteed aerial shot as the camera sweeps across the landscape – a trick made all the easier (not to say lazier) these days thanks to developments in drone technology; and, of course, there’s the shot of the presenter strolling down a crowded street, addressing a camera half-a-mile away as bemused members of the public stare at a stranger talking to themselves – although, having said that, we’re more inured to strangers having a conversation with the Invisible Man ever since earpieces and hands-free mobiles became widespread tools of annoyance. A history documentary sometimes resorts to the dreaded re-enactment of a significant historical moment by using unknown actors whose performances are usually guaranteed to secure their anonymity; and I recall around 20-25 years ago there was another documentary cliché that thankfully seems to have disappeared now, that of a past event under discussion being illustrated by fake, shaky Super-8 cine-film – and that technique was used over and over again.

And then there are, naturally, the presenters themselves – some of whom exude an excitable enthusiasm for their subject that suggests the old Saturday morning kids TV shows would once have been their rightful home. In the last 15-20 years there’s also been a rash of female presenters when it comes to history documentaries, almost as though they roll off a conveyor belt somewhere at the BBC and arrive as fully-formed, cut-glass minxes with a Nigella-esque, suggestive twinkle in their eyes – or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, when one becomes accustomed to these familiar factors, the viewer can’t help but be jolted out of apathy when a presenter appears who dispenses with the tiresome tropes and catches you utterly unawares – a presenter who says of presenters, ‘I despise the breed; they wave their arms around all the time and tell you they’re going on a f**king journey.’ But Jonathan Meades doesn’t really have to distance himself from his fellow presenters, for I doubt anyone would ever confuse him with belonging to the same species, nor confuse his programmes with the kind of documentaries they present.

The once-portly polymath who impressively lost seven stone in twelve months following a diagnosis of morbid obesity during his greed-fest as the Times’ restaurant critic has been a semi-regular on the more select TV screens since the late 80s. And although the work-rate has slowed down a little of late (he is 75, after all), it’s amazing what a body of television work he has to his name, as I’ve belatedly realised through revisiting some of his past documentaries via YouTube, some of which I saw at the time and some of which are new to me. Whilst he has made programmes on one of his pet subjects – food – Meades is primarily known for writing and presenting inspired, idiosyncratic and occasionally surreal documentaries about architecture. In fact, I first became aware of Meades around 1990 when he introduced a rerun of archive programmes by Ian Nairn, one of Meades’ inspirations; it was only natural I then began to tune in whenever Meades himself returned with one of his own shows. Yesterday I watched his 1998 film on Birmingham, ‘Heart By-Pass’, and laughed out loud more than I ever do at any alleged ‘comedy’ series produced for TV today.

To make one both laugh and think at the same time is a unique gift indeed, yet Meades manages it with his simultaneously intelligent and irreverent scripts, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Meades has been a distinctively witty (not to say deadpan) voice in literary circles for half-a-century. But, as good as the scripts are the best thing he brings to his highly original shows is the caustic character of Jonathan Meades he created for television, the plump refugee from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ with the comic timing of Benny Hill; the RADA graduate who decided he didn’t have what it took to become an actor at least put his training to good use in the end – formulating a style he himself compared to a hybrid of lecture hall and music hall, a perfect marriage of high and low art. Moreover, working with a collaborator on the same quirky wavelength – director Francis Hanly – has enabled Meades’ programmes to have a look and feel quite unlike any others on TV made in the last 30 years. One can never drift away watching a Jonathan Meades documentary, for you never quite know what’s coming next; every time you think you’ve got him sussed he surprises you. This is not a man who was designed to host leisurely strolls through nice buildings for BBC1 on a Sunday evening; if a series devoted to the eternally-divisive architectural subspecies of Modernism called Brutalism belongs anywhere, its natural home is BBC4, and its natural host is Jonathan Meades.

The most recent Jonathan Meades documentary that springs to mind was his brilliantly incisive investigation into jargon, as used by the press, politicians, contemporary artists, broadcasters and football pundits, to name but a few miscreants. Such programmes warrant repeated views, as it’s very easy to miss a serious, salient point whilst laughing at the preceding sardonic observation, so overflowing is the information contained within them. Often during his shows, a fantastic word will emerge from his lips – usually a word the viewer has never heard emerge from anyone’s lips before. True, some do pluck words from obscurity merely to demonstrate how clever they are, but one never gets that impression with Meades; you know the word emerged because he felt it was the most expressive word to embellish the point he was trying to make, and he is a something of a sorcerer in search of an apprentice when it comes to the English language, hoping the more curious viewer will be prompted to reach for the dictionary and perhaps may even one day integrate some of his linguistic gems into their personal lexicon. That’s the kind of thing teachers are supposed to do, though few teachers most of us had ever did. This is why Jonathan Meades is a special presence on a medium weighed down by the witless and the intellectually-challenged.

Until catching the date at the end of the ‘Jonathan Meades on Jargon’ documentary – which I watched again a couple of weeks ago – I didn’t realise it was made as far back as 2018. Since then, Meades has produced only one further programme. In 2019, he added to his characteristically mischievous occasional series on the architecture born of Totalitarian regimes by profiling the buildings of Spain that appeared during the rule of General Franco, having already done a similar job on Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Like Ian Nairn before him, Meades possesses a perverse delight in praising the kind of buildings most view with either disdain or disinterest; and in the same way that Nairn was enamoured of the terminally-unfashionable Belgium, Meades once produced a programme celebrating the less chic corners of Northern Europe. And why not? Haven’t we all seen enough travelogues on the obvious destinations?

Meades himself once observed that he and his programme-making team had gradually received less money to make their shows from the BBC, saying ‘We used to be a convoy; now we are a Smart car’, and there’s always the sneaking suspicion that genuinely original voices are pushed further to the margins of television in the desperate rush to appeal to the mass audience. At one time, Meades was the quintessential character BBC2 was created to host, whereas now even his migration to BBC4 is under threat as that once-great alternative is downgraded to little more than a repeat channel. Perhaps we’ve no choice but to accept Meades has done his bit and has earned his retirement, and we can always revisit his best bits online, after all. But nobody is holding their breath that an heir is waiting in the wings.

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GREAT BALLS

I recaJerry Lee Lewisll saying to a friend a decade or so ago that the 60s generation of musicians would begin dying of natural causes within ten or twelve years and the 50s generation would probably be gone for good by then; well, we’re more or less there now. As the survivors of the 60s generation gently morph into octogenarians, those who inspired them to pick up a guitar are pretty much gone, something that the death of Jerry Lee Lewis at the age of 87 has confirmed. The fact he passed away with wife No.7 by his side seems to suggest his lascivious reputation hadn’t been softened by advancing years. Indeed, Jerry Lee Lewis was in many respects the template for every bad boy that came after him. If Keith Moon and Ozzy Osbourne remain the role models for each aspiring rocker with an attitude, it shouldn’t be forgotten that they didn’t emerge from nowhere; Jerry Lee Lewis had prepared the ground for them and had often exceeded them; after all, this is a man who once turned up at the gates of Graceland waving a pistol and demanding an audience with Elvis. Had he been a Brit, it’s hard to imagine him being earmarked for a knighthood.

Yeah, Jerry Lee Lewis – what does that name make you think of? Chances are it’s his brief, curtailed 1958 tour of the UK in which his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin was exposed, and it’s impossible to avoid the subject when his name crops up. This shock-horror revelation may have made the 22-year-old rock ‘n’ roller a notorious example of precisely how degenerate the new wave of performers were in the eyes of the parent generation; but it also underlined the fact that Rock ‘n’ Roll itself was rooted in a culture not only alien to European audiences, but to most Americans beyond the South. Rock ‘n’ Roll couldn’t have come from Hollywood or New York; it was born in circumstances unique to its own particular corner of America, and the moment both heartlands of the entertainment industry got hold of it, the format was diluted and castrated. Elvis was neutered by the movies, though his willingness to play the showbiz game kept him in the public eye whilst his uncompromising contemporaries faded from view. The Elvis of 1960 was a different animal from the Elvis of 1956, whereas the Jerry Lee Lewis of 1960 was the same as the Jerry Lee Lewis of 1956.

Any attempts to mould Lewis into an all-round entertainer would’ve been stymied by the fact the man himself was an uncontrollable force of nature; his missus being a schoolgirl wouldn’t have helped either. The recent loss of Kentucky-born Country singer Loretta Lynn at the age of 90 reminded us she herself was wed as a pregnant 15-year-old, and the variations from State to State when it came to consent was something that appeared to add an extra layer of notoriety to the emerging rock ‘n’ rollers of the era and the female company they kept. There is, of course, the infamous anecdote of Chuck Berry being chased by the police as he desperately tried (and failed) to cross the Stateline, keen to reach a place where his underage passenger would no longer be legally recognised as such. With all of this in mind, it’s evident Jerry Lee Lewis was very much a product of his environment rather than a pioneering pop paedo; had there been a Colonel Tom Parker type smoothing his rough edges, perhaps things might have turned out differently. After all, Elvis may have courted his future bride when she was 14, but he waited till she was 21 before marrying her. Two Southern boys with the same outlook, but one adhered to society’s moral mores whilst the other remained true to his roots. Elvis was the King, whilst Jerry Lee was the Killer.

The original man who didn’t give a f*** was born in Louisiana in 1935; his piano-playing talent was evident from an early age, as was his troublesome failure to distinguish between the sacred and the profane. Despite his family’s hopes of his musical abilities being harnessed to the service of the church, Jerry Lee couldn’t help being seduced by the Devil’s best tunes and it led to his expulsion from school. Fortunately for him, the South was a receptive hotbed for his specific skills at the time and Lewis was hired as a session player at Sun studios in Memphis in 1956, playing on landmark records for the likes of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. He was also cutting his own discs at the same time, and one of them – ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ – followed the route of many Rock ‘n’ Roll records of the mid-50s by becoming a hit outside of the South. As this new hybrid of established underground sounds happened to break through at a moment when the rise of television enabled regional scenes to go nationwide in a way that hadn’t previously been possible, Jerry Lee Lewis capitalised on national exposure by developing his flamboyantly outrageous stage act. No piano-player had attacked his instrument with such unrestrained aggression and provoked such hysterical female reaction since Franz Liszt, and Jerry Lee Lewis quickly became the personification of everything Eisenhower’s America loathed about Rock ‘n’ Roll. No self-respecting dad would’ve let Jerry Lee within a thousand miles of his daughter, so it was just as well Lewis kept it in the family.

With American pop culture globally dominant at the moment Rock ‘n’ Roll broke out of the South, it was inevitable that the sound and its stars would speedily cross the Atlantic. Bill Haley’s inaugural tour of the UK in 1957 mapped out a route for the younger (and less sanitised) rock ‘n’ rollers, and all bar Elvis followed that route in the late 50s. Jerry Lee Lewis had quickly made an impact on British record-buyers, with ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ hitting No.8 and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ going all the way to the top of the charts. Therefore, it was no surprise that Jerry Lee headed for the UK in 1958. With wife Myra beside him, Lewis was expecting to embark upon a nationwide tour; however, the tour and the man himself received unprecedented publicity as soon as the truth of Myra’s tender years was broken by the tabloid press. Lewis became a household name overnight and the outrage that followed caused the tour to be cancelled after a mere three shows; it was the first real example of Fleet Street generating a moral panic around a pop star, something it would specialise in thereafter; but hounding the bewildered ‘cradle snatcher’ out of the country started this salacious ball rolling.

News of the uproar didn’t play well back in the States and Jerry Lee Lewis’s career as a chart star never really recovered from the scandal. Lewis had already been married twice before he wed Myra, though his third marriage was characterised by accusations of physical and psychological abuse on Jerry Lee’s part and ended in 1970, with a further four wives to come. By the beginning of the 60s, Rock ‘n’ Roll had largely fizzled out in the US, with a string of wholesome teen idols replacing the disreputable rockers on the Hot 100; although the music remained a popular live attraction in Europe, America offered little to the trailblazers and Jerry Lee Lewis turned to Country in order to keep the wolves from the door. This proved to be a relatively profitable career move, though the mid-60s British Invasion reawakened interest in the acts who’d inspired the Brits and a full-scale Rock ‘n’ Roll revival at the end of the 60s was something he seized upon. Perhaps the peak of this period was the legendary Rock ‘n’ Roll Show at Wembley Stadium in 1972, with Lewis appearing alongside Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Bo Diddley and Screaming Lord Sutch before an enthusiastic audience of ageing Teds and younger Hell’s Angels.

By the time of the Wembley show, the scandal of 1958 had been superseded numerous times by other scandals involving other pop stars and Jerry Lee Lewis was sufficiently rehabilitated by the late 70s to even play live on ‘Blue Peter’. But he never quite lost his capacity for bad behaviour and stories of this are legion. However, it is his electrifying presence as a dynamic live performer at his 50s peak that should be regarded as the real legacy of Jerry Lee Lewis, showing crooners the door and turning the stage into a platform for later live acts to both smash and burn their guitars as well as stoking the odd moral panic along the way.

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A BOY NAMED SUNAK

Brian and Rishi III guess I could muse on the least-taxing passage to No.10 for 15 years, ever since Tony Blair passed the poisoned parcel to Gordon Brown. Indeed, I could wax lyrically on the smashing of Labour’s Identitarian narrative of poor little oppressed minorities needing university-educated white folk rushing to their ignorant aid now that a practising Hindu has reached the pinnacle of political power without a contest even being staged. I could also ponder on the fact Sunak’s rise to the top contradicts the Left’s conviction that Britain today is a rampantly racist society on a par with Apartheid-era South Africa, due to the fact that most people couldn’t give a flying f*** about the new Prime Minister’s ethnicity; that’s the last thing that concerns the majority at this moment in time, no more than Disraeli’s Jewish identity bothered Victorian voters. The former Chancellor’s financial affairs – particularly his marriage to a billionaire’s daughter who enjoyed tax-free non-dom status until exposed – appear to be more of a pointer to his detachment from ‘the man in the street’ than his racial background; at the same time, it’s worth recalling the eloquent reply of Sid Vicious when asked if he sang for ‘the man in the street’. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ve met the man in the street, and he’s a c***.’

The controversial rewriting of the rulebook when it comes to selecting a new Tory leader – in order to accommodate the unique circumstances of the moment – has undoubtedly facilitated Rishi Sunak’s speedy relocation from backbench to Downing Street; but disgruntled Conservative Party members cancelling their memberships in protest at being denied a say need to remember they had their say in the summer – and look what they lumbered us with. Sure, none of the process that enabled Sunak to become an overnight Prime Minister smacks of anything remotely democratic; but another drawn-out interregnum of the kind we endured between Boris and Truss just wouldn’t have been appropriate right now. Sunak was fortunate that he acquired the necessary 100 backers in 24 hours and the only other candidate – Penny Mordaunt – came nowhere near; we were informed in advance that if only one candidate had the required 100 nominations come the Monday deadline, he or she would be the winner. Sunak duly achieved this and therefore, he’s straight in at No.10 with a bullet.

Along with Penny Mordaunt’s failure to reach the threshold of 100, Boris Johnson’s decision to pull out – a first for Boris; Boom! Boom! – presented Rishi with a clear path to power, and it’s been hilarious to watch prominent Tory creeps and crawlers chopping and changing their allegiances in the hope of keeping their Cabinet posts. Over the weekend, Nadhim Zahawi – the five-minute Chancellor who publicly called for Boris to quit a couple of days after Johnson had appointed him – was suddenly a born-again Boris groupie, tweeting his support for the ex-PM to return to office; and then, when it became apparent Boris couldn’t secure the numbers – or lost his bottle – Rishi was immediately installed as the man to unite the Party and save the country in the eyes of such desperate, fair-weather careerists. Here was the most blatant example yet of how these self-serving cretins shamelessly put personal interests ahead of Party (let alone country), and gave us official confirmation that all should forevermore be treated with the utter contempt they’ve earned.

It’s worth remembering there was a time – brief, granted – that Rishi Sunak was seen as the golden boy of British politics. Mid-pandemic, there was no escaping the fact that he radiated a confident, healthy glow that made him resemble a male model when stood beside shabby, flabby Boris; I seem to remember comparing them to the before-and-after images in an ad for a slimming aid. And, even though wise men recognised the Government paying the idle workforce what amounted to lockdown benefits meant a costly day of reckoning would strike sooner rather than later, the furlough scheme Rishi acted as salesman for came as a welcome financial injection to millions struggling because earning a living had been put on ice. Yet by last spring, when a damp squib of a budget combined with revelations of his missus’s tax affairs and a fine for lockdown-breaking, Sunak’s star was descending rapidly; swept up in the whole ‘Partygate’ scandal that engulfed Boris’s administration, it seemed Rishi Sunak was destined to join George Osborne as a Chancellor earmarked for an eventual move next-door that never arrived. And then he was portrayed by Boris disciples as the reincarnation of Michael Heseltine in the reboot of the Thatcher drama, masterminding the PM’s downfall to seize the crown for himself. Boris was dragged from No.10 and Rishi battled it out with Liz Truss, the Johnson-ite choice seemingly selected to fail once installed in Downing Street so that the Messiah could stroll back in again. Well, these are bad times for a betting man, for nothing lately has gone according to the form book; Boris is not returning, and Rishi Sunak has grabbed the top job without even breaking sweat beneath the bright lights of a leadership debate.

As the grandson of Indian immigrants from the pre-partition Punjab, Rishi Sunak’s effortless entrance into 10 Downing Street has naturally been received well in ‘the old country’. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered congratulations and tweeted ‘As you become UK PM, I look forward to working closely together on global issues…special Diwali wishes to the living bridge of UK Indians, as we transform our historic ties into a modern partnership.’ Back home, whilst reluctantly paying tribute to Sunak’s achievement through gritted teeth, uniformly white opposition politicians have instead focused on the new PM’s immense wealth as the stick with which to beat him; the usual social media suspects may already be implying Sunak is ‘the wrong kind of brown person’ due to the fact he doesn’t adhere to the rule that all non-whites have to be left-leaning, but in the rush to counteract the characteristic racism of ‘anti-racism’, ignorance still abounds on the other side. Wee Nicola Sturgeon deleted a tweet describing Sunak as the UK’s first ‘ethnic minority PM’ when the origins of Benjamin Disraeli were pointed out to her.

Mind you, a lack of research is hardly restricted to Sunak’s ethnic background; claims he could be the first Prime Minister not to live ‘above the shop’ are contradicted by the fact Harold Wilson neglected to move back into No.10 during his second stint as PM from 1974 to 1976. But why let facts get in the way of a headline? Anyway, whether or not Sunak decides to call upon Pickfords, there was still the matter of the current tenant moving out. Before her farewell audience with Brian, Liz Truss indulged in a brief final lectern speech; as she struggled to think of her administration’s ‘achievements’, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an early exit from a reality TV show as a contestant’s ‘best bits’ montage set to a dreary Dad Rock dirge take up all of a minute’s screen-time. The speed of the handover from Truss to Sunak was necessary given the circumstances, yet it also seemed to emphasise the staggering failure of Rishi’s immediate predecessor; even the embarrassingly small removal van parked outside Downing Street suggested Truss’s chattels could’ve been packed into an overnight bag, so brief was her tenancy of No.10.

However, the fact the country’s youngest Prime Minister in 200 years is the first since Clement Attlee not to have served under Queen Elizabeth II in a way says more about where we are now than Sunak’s ethnicity. His rise to power is not so much a comment on how things have changed over the past half-century, but how they’ve changed over the past couple of months. This has been a remarkable period to live through in terms of history happening before one’s eyes, and even the breathing space of two years before the next General Election – and it will be two years – doesn’t mean the fat lady has started singing yet.

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I AM THE RESURRECTION

BorisComebacks are the last refuge of the desperate and deluded. Bands who were great 20 or 30 years ago reunite and the old fans, as terrified by the encroaching spectre of middle-age as the band members themselves, rejoice while they cling to the nostalgia of recapturing their youth; long-suffering supporters of a once-dominant football club celebrate the return of the manager who masterminded that dominance, convincing themselves a resurrection of the glory days is just around the corner. It rarely works out. Time has moved on, the world has changed, and the Messiah is no longer younger than yesterday. Lightning rarely strikes more than the once. Not that the narcissism, ego and vanity of someone as in love with the sound of his own voice and the prestige of power as Boris Johnson would acknowledge these truisms, nor would those in denial of the man’s multiple faults, the very same faults that contributed to his downfall. No! It was a coup, they claim, a coup led by Rishi Sunak; Boris was blameless, stitched-up by the very backstabbing ingrate now poised to launch a fresh bid for the suddenly-vacant No.10. Only one man can stop him – our hero, our saviour, our Boris!

When the original King Charles was executed outside the Banqueting House in 1649, many believed it was his obstinacy and hubris that had plunged the country into a devastating Civil War spanning the best part of a decade; he was seen as more responsible than any other individual for ripping the country apart and causing untold damage and misery; the blood of the nation was on his hands and his death sentence was utterly justified. Yet, a man who had apparently struggled to convey regal majesty throughout his reign saved the best till last, giving a brilliant performance as he approached the block. The King wore two shirts to combat the January chill and therefore avoided shivering – something which could have been interpreted as fear. The calm composure and dignity with which he confronted his fate altered opinion of Charles amongst the crowd, and his beheading was greeted with shocked silence. Swiftly thereafter, Charles I achieved instant martyr status and a cult grew around him that spread to the point whereby 10 years on from his execution, Charles’s exiled son could be welcomed home as Charles II, the merry monarch who would vanquish the grim Puritan austerity of Cromwell’s Commonwealth.

As befits our 24/7 news age, the cult of Boris has been condensed into just a few weeks rather than a decade, and his dedicated disciples have conveniently forgotten the facts that led to Boris officially exiting Downing Street at the beginning of last month. There’s no point reciting the breathtaking litany of black marks against his name all over again; you hardly need to scroll back that far to revisit them on the Winegum posts I wrote at the time. Besides, some are so deeply in denial that they receive any reports of Boris behaving badly as fake news – just like the man himself. Indeed, it’s now blatantly obvious that the maniacal members of the Boris cult were to blame for what came next: the absolute bloody chaos of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it premiership that beggars belief in its utter, unprecedented incompetence. So desperate were they for the man they saw as the wielder of the dagger with Boris’s name on it not to grab the crown, they pushed a patsy forward who they knew lacked every quality necessary to become a successful Prime Minister. And they knew Liz Truss, with her gormless lust for power, would be the perfect fall girl for the mission.

Liz Truss should never have got within a million miles of Downing Street. In each and every televised debate of the summer’s leadership contest, she failed to impress. Even Rishi Sunak’s bland, double-glazing salesman shtick came across as appealing when placed against the clueless, vapid jargon of a woman incapable of transmitting any confidence in her credentials as a serious contender; she looked and sounded like precisely what she was – a dim, minor league politician totally out of her depth, and one who wouldn’t submit to an Andrew Neil grilling because she knew it would expose her myriad shortcomings for the job she’d been led to believe she could do. But she had a powerful PR machine behind her, the kind that can polish a turd so expertly that its beholders could see the reflection of Margaret Thatcher in it. The Mail and the Express bombarded the Tory membership with promises of the second coming of Maggie, and the behind-the-scenes shit-spreaders successfully removed Penny Mordaunt from the race by subjecting her to a dirty tricks campaign; all that remained was to convince the grass-roots. They did, and look what happened. Liz Truss crashed and burned in the space of 44 days and the Messiah is now flying back from the Caribbean to save the nation like King Arthur en route from Avalon.

The Daily Telegraph claims Boris has already begun to woo backbenchers with a charm offensive, glossing over the reasons for his forced departure and reminding them of 2019. Ah, yes – the Glorious Landslide, aided and abetted by the undemocratic shenanigans of the Remoaner mafia and a Labour leader whose own mystifying cult didn’t stretch beyond his fanatical fan-base. The collapse of the Red Wall, which could probably be attributed as much to Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum as Boris Johnson, gave rise to the persistent myth that Boris’s charisma was solely responsible, yet stats tell a different story. Boris’s popularity amongst the general public was actually at its highest, 29%, when he was hospitalised with Covid and appeared to be suffering along with the people, something that his subsequent lockdown-breaking behaviour quickly dispelled. By the beginning of this year, Boris’s approval ratings had slumped to -52%, lower than either Theresa May or David Cameron ever managed at their worst. Even if Boris can rightly claim he never plunged as low as the -70% achieved by Liz Truss on the eve of her resignation, that’s still like pointing out Reggie Kray was a vicious, sadistic thug but at least he wasn’t as much of a twisted psychopath as Ronnie.

But it is Boris’s triumph in 2019 that is serving as a misguided comforter for Tories staring into the black hole of electoral oblivion; according to some, if a General Election were held tomorrow the Conservative Party could be reduced to as few as 60-70 seats, which would virtually signal the end of the most successful political party in the history of the Western world. Parties don’t come back from that kind of decimation. It happened to the Liberals in 1924, and they never recovered. Ah, but only Boris can win it! And winning it is the Tory obsession; that’s all they want to do. No matter that winning it is followed by having to actually govern, for they’ve completely forgotten how to do that – and nobody embodies this fact better than Boris. Okay, so one can argue that Boris’s hero Churchill as well as Harold Wilson both returned to Downing Street, though neither had been ousted as party leader between their separate stints as PM. In fact, one has to go all the way back to Gladstone to find a party leader who left the job and then returned to lead his party to government again – even if the gap from resignation to return was five whole years.

Many harbour understandable and legitimate concerns about Keir Starmer and the Labour Party, but the fiscal reputation the Tories have always fallen back on has been comprehensively trashed this month and few now trust them with their finances; the likelihood is the Conservative Party could well be kicked out of office with the same overwhelming thumbs-down as Corbyn’s Labour received in 2019 – unless Boris waves his magic wand, of course. At the time of writing, only Penny Mordaunt has thrown her hat in the ring, though Rishi Sunak is expected to follow suit any day now. As for Boris, his supporters have all-but convinced themselves their hero will be back at No.10 by this time next week. No. No. And thrice no. We have suffered enough, haven’t we?

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DELIVERANCE

Truss Yet AgainOh, you bastard! Does Liz Truss think I’ve got nothing better to do? Barely has the imaginary ink dried on the post I published yesterday, and now I’m back to document a fall from (dis)grace that we all knew was inevitable, yet one I could’ve done with 24 hours’ breathing space to prepare for. Minus the partridge in a pear tree Harvey Proctor wryly referenced on Twitter yesterday, we’ve had four Chancellors, three Home Secretaries, two Prime Ministers and two monarchs since July. No, doesn’t sound very ‘strong and stable’, does it? Just as well the country is so united and in such a healthy state at the moment, else all this could be cause for concern. Yes, the Daily Star’s live-stream on YT, which positioned a lettuce alongside a photograph of the Prime Minister to see which of the two would enjoy the longest lifespan, has proven to be a more accurate barometer of our turbulent times than any boring old political TV show you’d care to mention. Take that, Peston! I mean, as Mudplugger himself pointed out in a comment less than 24 hours ago, this Whitehall farce would be side-splitting were the ramifications of it not so worrying for the British people.

So, Liz Truss has fallen on her Prime Ministerial sword after a mere 44 days at No.10. What a remarkable administration she’s presided over: The shortest-serving Home Secretary since 1783; the shortest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer whose career wasn’t curtailed by the Grim Reaper; and now the shortest-serving Prime Minister in UK history. The previous holder of this record was our old friend George Canning, whose 119 days in office were prematurely ended by his death; but his immediate successor, the Viscount Goderich, had the shortest run as PM of anyone who walked away from the job alive until Liz Truss. He lasted 144 days, which now sounds like quite an impressive term of office compared to the current crop of Ministers. What’s interesting looking at the bottom of the pops, though, is that, of the ten shortest-serving PMs only one – Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1964 – was actually forced to leave the job courtesy of a people’s vote, i.e. a General Election. The rest resigned, were replaced, or died. And those stats aren’t about to alter with this latest change of leader; for the fourth occasion in a row, a tiny elite of Tory MPs and Party members will choose our next PM. This is just becoming ridiculous.

Even the 1922 Committee recognises nobody will tolerate yet another lengthy leadership contest so soon after the last one, so it seems a swift coronation is in order that promises to install Truss’s replacement by 28 October. The mechanics of this appear to be being made up on the spot, so no one really knows yet if those who received the silver and bronze medals in the summer will automatically qualify for some sort of instant playoff final. Either way, it looks as though it’ll probably be Rishi Sunak or Penny Mordaunt standing at the battered Downing Street lectern by this time next week, for the Chancellor of less than a week has apparently ruled himself out of the contest. But it is interesting just how easily a party leader and PM can be forced out by the combination of an internal rebellion and a mainstream media sympathetic to the rebels’ cause. The powers invested in the Prime Minister must be very limited indeed if all this can happen so quickly after it last happened, rendering he or she little more than a constitutional sovereign as opposed to an Absolute Monarch; the idea that the Conservative Party can do to Liz Truss what it did to her two immediate predecessors – and do it in the space of just 44 bloody days – begs the question, what is the point of having a Prime Minister at all?

The system for electing a Tory leader must be at fault too, for the Tories appear to have been lumbered with a leader none of them really wanted – or at least a vast proportion of them didn’t. Naturally, none of this would make much difference beyond Tory circles if they weren’t in government, of course; we all remember how Iain Duncan Smith was unceremoniously ousted once it dawned on the Party that it had made a mistake, but the damage done by both electing and then axing him was only felt by the Party; Labour were still in power, Blair was still PM, and the Tories were a joke, a feeble shadow of the once-dominant force in British politics and utterly unelectable. It’s a totally different picture when the kind of shambolic chopping and changing we’ve seen over the past five or six years is made by the actual Government; when this is the case, it doesn’t just impact on Tory MPs or Tory Party members; it impacts on everybody. If there’s constant instability at the centre of British political life, it spreads out from Westminster like the ricocheting ripples on the surface of a lake as a pebble skims across it. People are already in a state of acute anxiety over so many issues that government is supposed to be there to deal with on our behalf; and these issues are not being dealt with because there’s no bloody stability at the centre of British political life.

An early General Election would undoubtedly give the impression that here is the one opportunity the people have to get involved in a process that currently seems to be the exclusive property of the Conservative Party. But a ‘Crisis Election’ doesn’t necessarily work as a cure-all, overnight panacea. The great gamble of February 1974 that cost Ted Heath the premiership when he still had over a year before he had to call an Election was Heath’s ill-advised attempt to assert his authority over a particular trade union – the NUM – that had already humiliated him; the gamble backfired for Ted, as we all know, but what followed was five years of Labour administrations that struggled to improve the lives of the British people, and ended crashing and burning in the Winter of Discontent, ultimately giving us Mrs Thatcher and everything good and bad that reign entailed. Fast-forward to the ‘Crisis Election’ of December 2019; it may have seen an overwhelming rejection of the Remoaner elite and delivered the Tories a landslide; but look where we are now, less than three years later. What a waste.

There’s absolutely no guarantee a snap Election will make Britain Great Again; a Labour Government will simply inherit the shit the Tories have spent the last 12 years depositing on all our doorsteps; and few outside of the Labour Party have much faith that Starmer and his cronies are capable of clearing up the mess without adding to it. Yes, it will unquestionably be a relief to see the back of this shower, and who indeed would mourn their loss? But the notion that kicking out the Tories will somehow lead to an instant replay of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ is pure fantasy. But then, all of this speculation is based on the slim chance that whoever the Tories push forward next week will have the balls to put choice back in the hands of the electorate – and it’s hard to see that happening right now. Mind you, who could’ve predicted the events of the past month or so when that famous photo was published of the two Elizabeths, the one that captured the moment when Boris’s replacement shook hands with the ailing Queen? Seems like so much longer ago than 44 days, doesn’t it.

As has been pointed out before, the dearth of great men and women in politics today is indisputable, and it’s certainly evident on the Tory frontbench; the fact Liz Truss had to recall a pair of lightweight has-beens like Jeremy Hunt and Grant Shapps in a desperate attempt to reverse her dwindling authority showed how little talent was available to her. In that sense, it’s no wonder a dud so lacking in gravitas, intelligence and political nous as Liz Truss ended up as PM; it’s no wonder she ended up making such a mess of everything from the off; and it’s no wonder she ended up walking the plank a mere 44 days into the job.

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FALLING APART AT THE SEAMS

Truss Again‘The Girl is Mine’, unarguably the weakest track on the biggest-selling album of all-time, was a duet between Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson that enforced suspicions as to the occasionally sappy tendencies of the former and the treacly shortcomings of the latter. Perhaps the key moment in this gooey ballad came towards the end with a toe-curling spoken passage in which Jacko claimed ‘I’m a lover, not a fighter’. Bizarrely, the track was issued as a single ahead of ‘Billie Jean’, a worldwide chart-topper which gave a clearer picture of the jukebox smashes ‘Thriller’ actually contained. But that sick-bucket line, ‘I’m a lover, not a fighter’, returned to my head today when I heard Liz Truss had claimed ‘I’m a fighter, not a quitter’ with an absence of convincing conviction. Yeah, I guess most might think more of Richard Nixon declaring ‘I have never been a quitter’ just before he announced his resignation from the White House – or maybe even his similarly hollow ‘I am not a crook’ declaration the year before; but I thought of Michael Jackson.

Not that the Prime Minister can look forward to her own equivalent of the pop cultural domination Michael Jackson enjoyed in the wake of his 1982 album’s global success; if anything, her career seems set to be as short as La Toya Jackson or one of those other minor members of the Jackson clan that embarked upon ill-advised solo outings. This week has seen Liz Truss’s dwindling power diminished even further by what effectively amounts to a Downing Street coup; the relocation of Remoaner technocrat Jeremy Hunt from the backbenches to Downing Street, who then proceeded to bin the majority of the promises made by his predecessor at No.11 in his ‘courageous’ mini-budget, has reduced the hapless Truss to little more than a redundant figurehead living on borrowed time. A piece in ‘Spiked’ compared Hunt’s inaugural statement as Chancellor to a broadcast by a general who had just installed himself as President of a banana republic, and Truss’s immediate absence from the Commons following Hunt’s takeover, leaving Penny Mordaunt to do a far better job as an eleventh-hour substitute, prompted further questions as to the PM’s ability to govern.

And then, having lost her Chancellor in record time, Truss loses her Home Secretary, with Suella Braverman quitting after 43 days, apparently in disagreement with Truss over that old Tory chestnut, immigration. Kwasi Kwarteng became the shortest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer whose term in office wasn’t curtailed by death, and Braverman’s brief run at the Home Office is only outdone in the record books by George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, who held the post for four days in December 1783 – and I looked through the list to confirm this; plenty only did the job for a few months, but nobody else in the past 239 years who wasn’t a caretaker has had so short a stint at Braverman. Yes, it’s sadly inevitable: I’m going to have to paraphrase Lady Bracknell, for to lose one Minister may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. Just over a month in the job and ‘Team Truss’ has already seen two holders of the Four Great Offices of State gone. With each passing day it seems Liz Truss’s position is weakened even further, and one cannot but wonder how much longer she can cling on to what now is merely the illusion of power.

So, the parcel is passed yet again as one unelected PM essentially makes way for another in all-but name; considering the amount of options flying around social media – Sunak installed as PM, Hunt installed as PM, Boris reinstated as PM etc. – it certainly appears the Conservative Party imagines it can simply keep chopping and changing leaders at will without any recourse to the electorate. Six interminable weeks that felt more like six interminable months of a private leadership contest and they’re not happy with the lame duck they selected; well, tough shit. Most of us who aren’t members of the Conservative Party aren’t happy either, but we didn’t have a say. You chose her; you grin and bear it with her. The way things are going, even the drawn-out tedium of a leadership contest seems poised to be sidestepped if the feverish Westminster gossip is to be believed, which makes the current political system feel even more like that of China; should Truss be ousted and replaced by one more PM the country had no say in the choosing of, why don’t the opposition parties get together and table a motion of No Confidence in His Majesty’s Government? Chances are they’d win with a far bigger majority than the solitary vote that swung it for Thatcher’s Tories in 1979. Or maybe they’re just revelling in the chaos and are anticipating things getting worse – all the better for them, of course.

The last time I can recall a Prime Minister being under such pressure from her own Party to walk the plank wasn’t so much Boris barely a few months ago, but Theresa May in 2019; the difference here is that May had been PM for almost three years at that point, whereas Truss has been in the job for little more than a month. Even if one were to go easy on her and regard this phase as ‘teething troubles’, the absolute unmitigated f***-up of a country she’s spectacularly failing to lead makes the desperate need for someone to act decisively even more urgent. Everywhere one turns at the moment, it’s impossible not to conclude we’re trapped in an irreversible decline. From empty supermarket shelves to soaring prices to public sector strikes to the impossibility of securing a GPs appointment to the police standing by and applauding their ideologically-compatible activist pals disrupting daily life to the prospect of a revival of the Three-Day Week’s candlelit suppers – and then look at the utter shower of shit allegedly running the show. People’s spirits may have been broken by lockdown, but how much more can we take of this?

Naturally, these are great days for Sir Keir Starmer. Because we’re lumbered with a depressing choice between two parties to lead us, the abysmal Labour alternative would probably achieve a landslide were a General Election to be called tomorrow. The man who thinks it’s wrong to state the biological fact that only women have cervixes, who took the knee before George Floyd was cold, and who nominated his despicable old sidekick Tom Watson for a peerage – thus rendering the House of Lords an even more disreputable retirement home for crooked freeloaders than it is already – looks set to be Prime Minister as things stand. Chances are we’ll probably have two or three more Tories in No.10 before we actually get to 2024, but the fact Starmer is closing in on Downing Street and it’s less than three years since the Conservative Party won an outstanding majority that gifted them one hell of a platform just shows how impressively the Tories have squandered their gains of 2019. Boris was given a mandate by the electorate; but Boris is gone now, and that mandate has gone with him.

It goes without saying that it’s not easy attempting to write a post on this subject and get it to you before more shit hits the fan and everything I’ve written is already out of date. News of Suella Braverman’s resignation broke when I was about four paragraphs in, forcing me to backtrack and insert a fresh paragraph including the news. As I write this final paragraph, I see a vote is to be taken this evening on the Government’s energy policy, with a specific reference to reintroducing fracking; from what I can gather, many Tory MPs face losing the whip if they carry out their intentions to vote against the PM’s wishes; and if they lose the whip, their letters to the 1922 Committee demanding the PM’s removal will be rendered null and void, thus giving Truss breathing space. But it’ll still only be a brief pause before what looks like an inevitable exit. Who knows? Maybe by the time you read this, she’ll be gone anyway. A General Election won’t solve all our problems, if any; but if there’s to be another change at the top, the electorate have to decide, not the Tory backbenches.

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UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND

7Turning on, tuning in and dropping out may have been the mantra of American Psychedelic salesman-cum-guru Timothy Leary, but who wouldn’t want to turn on, tune in and drop out of 2022? Which will live a longer life – Liz Truss as PM or a lettuce? Pink-haired, privately-educated Titanias and Ptolemys defacing beauty because they have none in their souls – f*** the lot of ‘em; I’d rather take a welcome diversion from the here and now by reflecting my recent listening habits. No idea why, but I’ve been drawn towards Psychedelia of late, albeit the British brand. And it was the Brits for me who really stamped their personality on this endearing episode in the pop narrative of the 1960s. Gary Brooker, singer and keyboardist with Procol Harum, once offered a feasible explanation as to why so many UK bands whose roots were deep in Americana abruptly dropped their tribute act routines; after two or three years of selling coals to Newcastle during the ‘British Invasion’ of the Billboard Hot 100, the same cultural exchange that enabled our artists to touch down on US soil bore fruit on this side of the Atlantic when numerous American acts of the Blues/R&B persuasion played over here and made the white boys realise there was no point with the real deal in town.

Many took a leaf out of Ray Davies’s book, who, following the four-year ban of The Kinks from any further Stateside tours by the American Federation of Musicians, turned away from US influences and looked inwards – or backwards, back to the recurring theme of a long-lost Albion that has regularly resurfaced throughout English literature, art and music for the best part of 200 years or more. The pop musical strain of this was evident as early as 1965 – in The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Play with Fire’, two songs that oozed a sonic sensibility more reminiscent of the English Baroque than the black American sounds that had provided the launch-pad for both bands. The Yardbirds were another British band whose basic R&B live set was junked for their far more adventurous 45s, and the sitar-like tunings of the guitars on The Kinks’ single ‘See My Friends’ swiftly infiltrated the playing style of Yardbirds axe-man Jeff Beck before George Harrison and Brian Jones sourced the actual instrument and embellished their respective bands with Eastern exotica.

The innovation of stream-of-consciousness lyricism via Bob Dylan into the expanding palette of pop echoed the nonsense poetry of John Lennon, with the latter realising he could write songs employing the same wordplay he’d published as poetry rather than relying on the boy-meets-girl formula that had been a winner so far. The dependable fuel that had propelled the Beat Boom bands from subterranean clubs to the nation’s theatres was also proving inadequate for the grinding package tour circuit of the era; The Beatles had become accustomed to alternative stimulants during their Hamburg apprenticeship, and when Dylan introduced them to ‘pot’, alcohol ceased to be the go-to drug of choice before and after a gig. Marijuana permeated the pop scene from the mid-60s onwards as it had Jazz 20-odd years before, and its laidback effects were discernible in The Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ album at the end of ’65. By the following year, pot had given the leading British acts an appetite for other illicit substances; and once LSD wormed its way into the recreational hours of bands seeking a break from showbiz demands, the hallucinogenic properties of the latest speakeasy fad inevitably infected the creative process.

The inaugural outing for the influence of Acid came with several tracks on The Beatles’ 1966 LP ‘Revolver’, when the groundbreaking manipulation of electronic trickery previously only used by the likes of Musique concrète pioneers or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop found its way into mainstream pop for the first time. Over in the US, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was proving himself to be on the same wavelength as his British counterparts, but his increasing isolation from his bandmates and eventual breakdown halted the progress he was making. The field was clear for The Beatles to build upon the likes of ‘Rain’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ by the time 1966 turned to 1967, and they emerged from Abbey Road with facial hair and far-out threads to promote ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Coupled with Paul McCartney’s joyous slice of uplifting suburban pop, ‘Penny Lane’, the hazy, Alice in Wonderland-like aural tapestry of Lennon’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ probably played its part in – as Philip Larkin noted – losing The Beatles the undying love of the secretaries who’d frequented lunchtime gigs at The Cavern; but it served to elevate pop music to the level of Art that only Jazz and Classical had previously been afforded. It laid the ground for the unprecedented cultural impact of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and also drew a line in the sand between Pop and Rock that was highlighted by the fact this double A-sided single was kept from the top spot by Engelbert Humperdinck’s ballad, ‘Release Me’.

Engelbert himself encountered the sudden schism in pop when he participated in a memorable package tour in early ’67, sharing a bill with The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens…and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The latter had been brought to the Mecca of Swinging London by ex-Animals bassist Chas Chandler and launched upon an unsuspecting UK pop scene with a string of instant hits that helped bring the word ‘Psychedelic’ into the mainstream as an overnight genre that came with its own distinctive weaponry: Fab gear from Carnaby Street (and accompanying coiffure); groups with strange names that sounded like Victorian medicines; backwards guitars and unusual instrumentation; lyrical subject matter rooted in a very Edwardian idea of an Arcadian childhood; and allusions to hallucinatory experiences that both sound and vision attempted to replicate, whether in groovy outfits, Art Nouveau-influenced album sleeves, or the obligatory sitar. New acts sprang up like magic mushrooms and established acts embraced the changes. Suddenly, pop no longer equated with Herman’s Hermits headlining ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium’.

This new scene had its own press (the International Times and Oz), its own club – the UFO on Tottenham Court Road – and a slew of new bands, the most commercially successful being Pink Floyd and Procol Harum. Bandwagon-jumpers were naturally aplenty, but at its best British Psychedelia represented the first real break with America. The US version was less musically experimental and tended to have a harder, radical edge that enabled it to soundtrack opposition to the Vietnam War. Deprived of such a cause, Brits instead took a trip to an imaginary village green and some (such as Syd Barrett) never came back. In a sense, the seeds of Psychedelia’s short lifespan were present in some of its brightest stars. The Bach-like vibes of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ – along with the flamboyant virtuosity of The Nice and the symphonic pomp of The Moody Blues – paved the way for Prog Rock; the turbo-charged Psychedelic Blues of power trio Cream (as well as Hendrix) laid the foundations for Hard Rock; and the surrealistic whimsy of Donovan and the Incredible String Band helped the likes of Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span to give Folk a hippie makeover by the time the 60s drew to a close.

When The Beatles and Stones rounded-off ’67 with the last glorious hurrahs for British Psychedelia with ‘I Am The Walrus’ and ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ respectively, the writing was already on the wall. Both the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ TV movie and the Stones’ unfairly-maligned album were savaged by critics and audiences alike; after The Beatles’ Indian sojourn at the feet of the Maharishi in early ’68, they returned with a stripped-down sound that rejected the elaborate soundscapes of the past two years, and the Stones followed suit. The mainstream pop scene staggered on in its Psychedelic wardrobe for another few months, but by the end of ’68 the portal to Wonderland had been sealed up. Having said that, it’s still hidden in the woods for any curious musical tomb-raiders; and right now, I’m one of them.

© The Editor

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PANIC STATIONS

Truss and KwasiIt’s fair to say the Commons chamber hasn’t been quite the same since the departure of Dennis Skinner. The Beast of Bolsover lost his seat in the Red Wall wipe-out of 2019, just a few months short of completing a remarkable half-century as an MP. His comical quips – particularly at the State Opening of Parliament – became, for many, the main reason to sit through the interminable ritual of the occasion, providing some much-needed light relief from the ceremonial pantomime. Perhaps one of his most memorable digs at the Tories came during the Con-Dem Coalition years, when he referenced a Cabinet reshuffle brought on by some cock-up characteristic of appointing mediocrities to positions of power. Skinner aimed his barb at David Cameron and George Osborne, accusing them of being true to character by doing what toffs always do – they ‘blame it on the servants’. The political partnerships, of which the Cameron/Osborne double act was an example in the Blair/Brown mould, no longer seem to be the currency in Westminster. Power appears to be increasingly centralised in the person of an isolated individual like Theresa May or Boris…or Liz Truss. And has our incumbent PM blamed it on a servant by abruptly dismissing her Chancellor?

At least Kwasi Kwarteng has secured himself a place in history by being sacked after just 38 days – the shortest-ever run as Chancellor of the Exchequer that wasn’t caused by the holder of the office dropping dead, as happened to the unfortunate Ian Macleod within 30 days of Ted Heath’s General Election victory of 1970. Truss’s brainwave of handing posts to close friends, allies and those who publicly backed her during the leadership contest – regardless of their competency for the job at hand – spectacularly backfired with Kwarteng, who has become the patsy for the disastrous mini-budget earmarked as the PM’s first major act once the post-Brenda dust had settled. News broke of the swift sacking just before Truss held an emergency press conference at which she was expected to prove the lady’s for turning after all. The press conference spanned a mere eight minutes, during which she avoided questions over her own perilous position and speedily exited without responding to a request to ‘apologise for trashing the Tories’ reputation’. To be fair, that reputation was trashed long before Liz Truss grabbed the poisoned chalice, but she’s seemingly done her best to keep up the good work begun by her predecessor.

There’s no doubt the MSM is having fun speculating on who will replace Truss – surely a record time-span for such speculation to begin appearing? – and pressure on the Prime Minister to go when she’s barely had the chance to start work is akin to the new manager of a football club finding the fans on his back by opening his account with three defeats in a row. But Truss still being in the top job means she can fire the assistant manager, essentially ‘blaming it on the servant’ and lumbering him with carrying a can that nonetheless has her name on it by virtue of her own poor judgement in appointing Kwarteng in the first place. Rumour has it a divergence of opinion between the PM and her Chancellor on how to reverse the economic master-plan that provoked such panic in the markets and sent ripples through the Tory backbenches has been brewing for days, but Truss being in the senior position enabled her – in the legendary words of Jeremy Thorpe – to lay down her friends for her life. Whatever the dubious right of the far-from saintly City to intervene in the democratic process and reject Government policy, the PM evidently had to do something to calm the situation, and sacking Kwarteng was deemed the best option.

The ex-Chancellor himself will obviously reserve his true feelings for his future memoirs; the bland statement he issued was typically, uncritically sober. ‘You have asked me to stand aside as Chancellor,’ he tweeted. ‘I have accepted…I deeply respect the decision you have taken today. You have put the national interest first.’ Well, she certainly put the interests of Liz Truss first, but Kwarteng went on to try and defend the mini-budget as well as he could by claiming ‘following the status quo was simply not an option’ before adding ‘the economic situation has changed rapidly since we set out the growth plan on 23 September. In response, together with the Bank of England and excellent officials at the Treasury, we have responded to those events and I commend my officials for their dedication.’ On the positive side – for Mr Kwarteng – he’ll probably receive more from being paid-off (i.e. three months’ salary) than he pocketed from his month as Chancellor. Swings and roundabouts, eh? That’s undoubtedly true for the man who has eagerly stepped into Kwarteng’s shoes, none other than the former Foreign Secretary, Health Secretary and serial failed leadership contender, Jeremy Hunt. Stranded on the backbenches since 2019, Hunt is back in business, probably provoking palpitations in political presenters across the MSM as they attempt to stop their tongues slipping. Where’s James Naughtie when you need him?

If one were to count Rishi Sunak’s last few weeks at No.11 and include Nadhim Zahawi in his brief stint as ‘caretaker’, we’ve had four Chancellors in the space of three months. If ever evidence were required as to what a bloody shambles this shower of a governing party has descended into, look no further. I always thought only Italy ever had such unstable government, yet if the media and large swathes of the Conservative Party get their way and oust Truss, she herself will be in competition with George Canning as the shortest-serving Prime Minister in UK history. Canning held the top job for a mere 119 days between April and August 1827, though his term of office was inconveniently curtailed by his death. Canning, who had already been Foreign Secretary and Chancellor, was 57 when he became PM; he’d famously had a duel with fellow Minister Lord Castlereagh several years before, and his selection as Prime Minister by George IV deprived him of the talents of the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel (neither of whom would serve under him). If the talent available to Liz Truss seems so threadbare as to warrant the recall of Jeremy Hunt, Canning himself struggled to recruit Tories and resorted to Whigs, so severe was the split in Tory ranks at the time. Yes, we have been here before.

Canning died of consumption on 8 August 1827, four days short of just four months in office. Liz Truss’s physical health appears to be an improvement on that of her distant Tory predecessor; her mental health is another issue altogether – though maybe it’s not the done thing to mock the stupid these days. The same lame and meaningless buzzwords lifted from the politicians’ book of vapid platitudes tumbled out of her mouth during her brief post-Kwarteng press conference as she managed the admirable achievement of saying nothing for eight minutes. The PM ‘answered’ an impressive four questions, declaring she remains determined to deliver on all the pledges she made during the leadership campaign whilst refusing to say sorry for the chaos she’s presided over in the last few weeks. ‘I am absolutely determined to see through what I have promised,’ she said, ‘to deliver a higher growth, more prosperous United Kingdom, to see us through the storm we face.’ And then she was gone, presumably in a determined fashion – for that would seem to be her favourite word.

If one considers that the first fortnight of her tenure at No.10 was placed on ice by the national mourning for the Queen, and was then followed by the holiday that is the Conference season, Liz Truss has probably only been at work for not much more than a couple of weeks. In one respect, she’s achieved a hell of a lot in an extremely short space of time; few imagined anyone could surpass Boris in terms of uselessness, but you can’t argue she’s given it her best shot. Naturally, opposition parties are having a field day over this Tory meltdown, but I couldn’t care less what Keir Starmer or Ed Davey have to say; if Dennis Skinner was still in the Commons, mind…

© The Editor

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