ALAS, POOR LAVINIA

It’s easy to forget now, but there was a time in the middle of the 1980s when all the artistic gains made in the name of 60s and 70s libertinism seemed in peril; we were on the cusp of a potential rewind back to the censorious era of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office and the Hays Code. Channel 4, which has made its early 80s name as a fearless purveyor of ‘anything goes in the name of Art’, was a frontrunner in this sudden and abrupt reversal of attitudes when it introduced its red triangle season of films circa 1986. These were movies that nowadays wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) provoke outrage, but at the time appeared shocking even by the easygoing standards of a TV station that had promoted the brief usage of an expletive such as ‘frigging’ in a primetime soap opera (‘Brookside’). The fact that characters on soaps are generally the only people in Britain who never swear was something ‘Brookside’ momentarily challenged until it became as blandly unrealistic as the rest of them.

Channel 4’s red triangle season featured TV premieres for the likes of Derek Jarman’s Romanesque gay fantasy, ‘Sebastiane’, as well as Dennis Hopper’s ‘Out of the Blue’; for those who weren’t around, the red triangle in question would be a permanent fixture in the top left of the TV screen whilst the movie aired, which allegedly served as an early warning system for the unsuspecting viewer who might switch over from something less contentious on ITV or BBC1. Most of the films screened as part of the short-lived season weren’t that different in content from what had already been shown on Channel 4 – it had premiered the infamous Sex Pistols movie, ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’, in 1985, for example; but the bizarre season can be seen in retrospect as a concession to the great moral backlash of the late Thatcher era, which also included Clause 28.

Back then, most of us watching thought that such unnecessary caution would be redundant by the time we reached the twenty-first century; we didn’t bank on our contemporaries raising children with so many layers of cotton wool wrapped around them that coming into contact with the classics by the time they reached university age would necessitate a revival of the same red triangle approach that Channel 4 had pioneered in the middle of the 80s. Lo and behold, however, the loathsome ‘trigger warnings’ have now even crept upon the works of one of England’s most revered wordsmiths like the kneejerk reorganization of the BBFC rules and regulations in the wake of the ‘Video Nasty’ moral panic of 35 years ago.

Apparently, students at Cambridge have been warned that certain masterpieces penned by an obscure playwright, name of William Shakespeare, might upset them; yes, the English lecture timetables have been marked with trigger warnings that take the shape of Ye Olde red triangle with accompanying exclamation marks. One play in particular has been singled out as specifically gory – and to be honest, it does read like the plot of an archetypal 80s Video Nasty in that a major female character is raped and then has her arms amputated by her rapists as well as having her tongue cut out.

Admittedly, ‘Titus Andronicus’ is a bit of a gore-fest, though is also one of the Bard’s most invigorating works, one in which the sibling perpetrators of the crime in question receive their just desserts by being baked in a pie that is then eaten by their mother. Elizabethan audiences were seemingly less squeamish than their equivalents 400 years later, perhaps because they didn’t question the eye-for-an-eye morality that was just as evident in the nursery rhymes they’d been raised on.

In defence, Cambridge University has claimed that such warnings are ‘at the lecturer’s own discretion’ and ‘not a faculty-wide policy’, though at the same time the esteemed academic establishment has admitted that ‘Any session containing material that could be deemed upsetting (and is not obvious from the title) is now marked with a symbol’. A representative from Derby University, Professor Dennis Hayes, commented ‘Once you get a few trigger warnings, lecturers will stop presenting anything that is controversial…gradually, there is no critical discussion.’ Critical discussion, for centuries a hallmark of university life, is now something to be avoided for fear of contaminating safe spaces. The impression given that universities today are akin to nurseries for mollycoddled adolescents who shirk from anything that contradicts the world as presented to them in infancy is hard to shake off when confronted by such ludicrous censorship; and if Shakespeare is fair game for the no-platform treatment, we really are f**ked.

The kind of guidelines familiar on the sleeves of DVDs now apparently apply to plays as well; if a sensitive seventeen-year-old objects to the content of something written by Shakespeare – and even the fastidious middle-aged Festival of Light brigade let the Bard off in the licentious 70s – chances are others will feel the need to be protected from centuries-old content that is hardly comparable to the kind of ‘adult’ material they’ve probably routinely scanned online. That ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ has been removed from some US school syllabuses on account of it being ‘uncomfortable’ is a classic example of illiterate idiots taking over the asylum; as some wag on Twitter pointed out in relation to the ‘uncomfortable’ factor in Harper Lee’s modern classic, ‘that’s the point’; but if even Shakespeare is targeted in this revisionist facelift, anybody seeking to say something about the here and now has no chance.

What that says about the world we live in, a world wherein British policemen are sent out wearing nail varnish to virtue-signal their stance against modern slavery when they’re in a better position to stamp out the practice than the rest of us, is profoundly depressing. But this be 2017 in the septic isle.

© The Editor

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DON’T HAVE NIGHTMARES

Catchphrases generally tend to be the province of comedians and sitcom characters, though they can also be attached to public figures, usually by impressionists looking for an angle. It’s questionable that Denis Healey ever said ‘Silly Billy’, and most now know that Humphrey Bogart’s famous line from ‘Casablanca’ wasn’t ‘Play it again, Sam’; but these things stick. One catchphrase that everyone of a certain age will always associate with the TV programme it sprang from is rarely misquoted because it was genuinely said at the end of each show – ‘Don’t have nightmares’.

If the announcement that the BBC is axing ‘Crimewatch’ after 33 years on air will provoke any protests, they will probably only be half-hearted and rooted in misguided nostalgia, as often happens whenever a long-running series that stretches back in the collective memory ends. But the audience figures speak volumes because few people are watching the series anymore; I don’t think I’ve seen it myself since the edition following the murder of Jill Dando in 1999. At its peak years during the 80s, it could attract upwards of 14 million viewers, though few shows can attract those kinds of numbers today anyway. However, as the premise of the programme has centred on audience interaction from its 1984 debut, an appeal to catch a criminal made before 14 million means the chances of the crook being caught are greater than if four and five million are appealed to; and those are the viewing figures the show can boast now.

During my recent meanderings on YouTube, I came across a Yorkshire Television continuity clip from the turn-of-the 80s; the ads were suddenly – and somewhat dramatically – interrupted by a caption on a black background that read ‘POLICE MESSAGE’. The announcer appealing for help in locating a missing teenager did so in a fittingly sober tone that was quite a contrast with the usual light one adopted when introducing ‘Paint Along with Nancy’. I guess, pre-‘Crimewatch’, such occasional announcements served the same purpose as the old ‘SOS’ broadcasts did on the radio airwaves, and stumbling upon the clip almost 40 years on was a reminder of how television once did what social media can do today.

The clip also demonstrated that this aspect of the medium could be expanded in a classic example of TV’s public service remit, one it still regarded as important even as late as the 1980s. Shaw Taylor’s ‘Police 5’ had pioneered a similar idea in the ITV London region since 1962, though the fact the series wasn’t networked and only ran for five minutes at a time limited its ability to do what ‘Crimewatch’ aimed to; that said, Taylor’s own catchphrase, ‘Keep ‘em peeled’, became more well-known than the series itself due to it being repeated on numerous 70s sitcoms produced in the capital. ‘Crimewatch’ (or ‘Crimewatch UK’ as it was originally known) would be broadcast nationwide and would run for an hour.

Outside of ordinary people making fools of themselves on ‘The Generation Game’, the general public’s involvement in TV broadcasting was rare in the 70s. BBC2 had its ‘Open Door’ strand, in which a brief platform was given to anyone who had something to say – though they usually appeared to be unhinged eccentrics representing some bonkers fringe political party – and there was always ‘That’s Life’. But instant interaction was more or less unheard of until the debut of ‘The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’ in 1976. The backroom girls manning the phone-lines were in full view of the viewers, and those viewers (if they were lucky) could end up speaking live on the telephone to whichever star Noel Edmonds was interviewing. If this idea could be developed and transplanted to a serious factual programme, there could well be an appetite for it, though it took a further eight years before the BBC decided to try out the experiment.

Concerns that the police as well as victims of crime might be reluctant to share their stories with millions of viewers proved unfounded as ‘Crimewatch’ was an overnight success. Choosing trusted and dependable broadcasters Nick Ross and Sue Cook to anchor the show helped ease viewers into the unfamiliar format, though its formula soon caught on and became as recognisable as anything else on TV. The reconstructions of crimes using unknown actors were spared the melodramatic background music used on the likes of ‘America’s Most Wanted’, but the bad acting could undeniably make them unintentionally entertaining, despite the seriousness of the crime. When a routine by comedian Peter Kay years later drew upon the tedium of witness voiceovers accompanying these reconstructions, his audience groaned in unison, so familiar was the programme’s hallmark style by then.

There was a certain charm to the woodenness of police officers addressing the public on the show, emanating as they did from an age before media training was regarded as an important element of the job. But the absence of slickness on the part of Chief Supt. David Hatcher and his sidekick PC Helen Phelps reflected the fact that this was a programme in which professional presentation was secondary to getting results. That, at its height of popularity, the show drew in the kind of audiences that would today only gather round their sets to watch a talent show finale or an England World Cup match is another aspect of how the priorities of TV, both in terms of programme-makers and programme-watchers, have altered since 1984.

Unlike other factual crime shows on British TV today, which use the sensationalistic template of ‘America’s Most Wanted’ in chronicling a crime (and are usually presented by the loathsome Mark Williams Thomas), ‘Crimewatch’ wasn’t there to pander to the same vicarious impulses that keep the memoirs of cockney gangsters riding high in the bestsellers’ lists. It had a valid purpose. 1 in 3 ‘Crimewatch’ appeals have led to an arrest, whilst 1 in 5 have led to a conviction; of a third of cases solved via a ‘Crimewatch’ appeal, half have been as a direct result of viewers’ calls. In its first 25 years, the show had a part to play in the capture of 57 murderers as well as 53 sex offenders and 18 paedophiles.

Apparently, the series was most recently presented by Jeremy Vine, which is really the kiss of death for any programme; but the television medium as it exists in this century is a different beast to the one it was in the last century – as is the country itself. Nick Ross left ‘Crimewatch’ ten years ago; when did your nightmares begin?

© The Editor

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CASTING COUCH POTATOES

It’s less than two years since the Oscars Ceremony presented Lady GaGa’s ‘Victims Symphony’, complete with a chorus line of Survivors™ resplendent in concentration camp chic to tastefully hammer home the metaphor; and it’s less than a year since the Golden Globes provided a platform for Meryl Streep to play Meryl Streep by condemning the new tenant of the White House without naming him in a histrionic speech that ticked all the liberal Hollywood boxes. Last autumn, the red carpet residents sided with a woman complicit in covering-up her husband’s innumerable infidelities and opposed the election of a man caught on tape bragging about ‘pussy’ like a teenage boy who’d never been laid. And all the time, they were aware that one of their own was apparently even worse, but said nothing. Dame Meryl had even called him ‘God’.

If Meryl Streep’s least appealing role is Meryl Streep, nobody quite does Emma Thompson as a simpering-faced identity politician like Emma Thompson; she’s been at it this weekend in a video saturating social media, adding her wise-after-the-event voice to the sudden stampede to name and shame Harvey Weinstein now that it’s okay to do so. Perhaps the Tinsel Town elite are falling over each other to damn the deposed mogul because his supposedly sleazy activities have reminded the wider world that, for all the PC makeover it has received in recent years, Hollywood is – and always has been – a grubby little corner of California where glorified pimps like Weinstein have free rein to live out their Playboy Mansion fantasies safe in the knowledge that the biz will indulge them as long as the box-office is booming.

I doubt anyone outside of the Hollywood bubble was really surprised at the revelations that have erupted this past week; maybe the only real surprise has been the sheer number of allegations. They only usually happen here if the accused is already six feet under, though the Met must be rubbing its hands together at the thought of being involved in allegations concerning someone in the entertainment firmament who isn’t on his deathbed or dead already. But it’s not as though what Weinstein has apparently gotten away with throughout his career as a leading producer has no precedence in his seedy neck of the woods.

The casting couch has been a permanent part of the furniture in the American movie business since the silents; Marilyn Monroe allegedly expressed that achieving stardom might hopefully mean that she wouldn’t have to suck anymore cocks. Fat, rich powerful men abusing and exploiting wide-eyed wannabe starlets fresh off the Greyhound Bus from Hicksville is a loathsome tradition woven into the foundations of the industry. Indeed, the only voices we aren’t hearing at the moment are those of the actresses who got where they are because they submitted to Weinstein’s advances.

Lest we forget, however, all we have so far are allegations and accusations, yet it’s testament to the times in which we live that Weinstein has been hung, drawn and quartered before any of this has reached a courtroom; mind you, it happened to Bill Cosby quick enough, so Weinstein knew what to expect when disowned by family, friends and the industry in record time. The fate awaiting Dirk Bogarde’s character in ‘Victim’ springs to mind; when his successful early 60s lawyer is threatened with the public exposure of his relationship with another man, he warns his wife that her intention to stand by him no matter what will result in utter social exclusion and the cold shoulders of friends and associates fearful of being tarred by the scandal.

Just as a virtual ‘conspiracy of silence’ appears to have enabled Weinstein to maintain his dubious lifestyle, the post-outing consensus has been set with remarkable speed. Fashion queen Donna Karan made the mistake of publicly contradicting the sudden about-turn and was forced to issue a hasty apology when swamped by a viciously hostile online reaction which only just stopped short of a mass bonfire of the designer gear Hollywood has clad itself in for decades. James Corden, a man whose comedic talents continue to elude anyone with a sense of humour, has also taken the Karan route of begging forgiveness to salvage his mystifying career following his ill-timed jokes on the subject. Saying nothing was the rule until a week or so ago; now if anything is said at all, it has to constitute absolute condemnation.

The difficulty for those not required to rush to judgement is that, having been subjected to multiple scandals of this nature over the past half-decade, every sensational addition to the roll-call of ‘hiding in plain sight’ villains inspires instant scepticism in some and utter conviction as to the guilt of the accused in others; we’ve had so many that it’s hard not to fall into a default mode. The pattern is so established now that being bombarded by the latest chapter in this thoroughly modern saga inevitably leads one to react in the same way as one reacted last time round.

As tends to be the case, initial accusations of impropriety swiftly move on to more serious allegations of rape, and one wonders how long it will take before Weinstein is accused of murdering one of the women he supposedly assaulted, let alone being a member of a Beverly Hills Satanic set indulging in ritual abuse and murder. Actually, Alex Jones is probably already bursting his lungs airing that theory on YouTube, thinking about it. The script is becoming as repetitive and predictable as the ones that make up most of the slurry the US film industry churns out these days; but it’s box-office dynamite, and that’s the currency of the movies. Hollywood, we have a franchise.

© The Editor

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DR. DIVERSITY’S CASEBOOK

Although I haven’t broadcasted it on here before, around two months ago I belatedly bowed to financial pressures and switched from smoking to vaping. My opinions on the rights of, and discrimination against, smokers haven’t altered; the decision wasn’t anything to do with me meekly surrendering to the fanatical anti-tobacco lobby, an admission that they were right and I was wrong all along; the simple fact is I couldn’t afford it anymore. The rising cost of a packet of fags – £10.50 for 20, last time I looked – hasn’t been in line with the price of everything else for a long time. The fact that, depending in which supermarket you shop, you can buy three bottles of wine for the same price as 20 cigarettes will cost you speaks volumes; and the drain on my finances was too much to sustain, so I stubbed out my final fag in August.

It helped that I instantly liked vaping and, as if to emphasise this, I still have a packet of Superkings containing four remaining fags that hasn’t been touched since the day I received my first e-cigarette; after almost 30 years of smoking between 30-40 cigs a day, I suppose that’s not bad going, and I can honestly say I don’t miss it at all. If the buzz from the drag is the key hook of the smoking process, I can get just the same nicotine hit from vaping and replicate the former gesture at a fraction of the cost. The vapours don’t linger in the room, they don’t discolour the fixtures and fittings, they don’t coat my clothes in a permanent odour, and they don’t dissuade non-smoking visitors anymore.

Immunity to the smell of cigarettes was a consequence of smoking them; only since I stopped have I become aware of it. It’s still entombed in my wardrobe because there are a lot of items on the coat-hangers there that haven’t been washed or worn since I ceased; but it’s amazing how strong the smell is on others now. When out and about, I can detect a cig from quite a distance, long before I see someone smoking it; and it’s remarkable how everyone I see with a fag hanging out of their mouth seems to be the most slovenly, scruffy slob imaginable; the archaic images of Marlene Dietrich or Lauren Bacall using cigarettes as a crucial element of their effortlessly cool personas aren’t being matched by the smokers I’m seeing. By contrast, the e-cigarette is a rather sexy, stylish object and, frankly, superior in all respects.

Not that the proven health (and financial) benefits of vaping deter the tobacco prohibitionists, who see it not as an escape route from smoking but as a gateway to the practice, the fools; the same limitations on ordinary cigarettes have been unfairly superimposed onto the e-cigarette, and I’m wondering when I’ll encounter opposition to it from the medical profession. I say this because the first time I remember being singled out by a GP for smoking was in the early 90s. I can’t remember the reason for being at the surgery, but I recall the doctor asking me if I smoked; when he received a reply in the affirmative, he placed a little sticker on the front of my file, which he presumably did for all smokers. Perhaps afterwards my file was slotted in a drawer along with the rest of his smoking patients, segregated from the non-smokers and downgraded in the case of an emergency when a choice might have to be made between the two groups.

Back then, it felt like a bit of an intrusion into my privacy, though smoking as heavily as I did was obviously a health risk, and I can understand to an extent that it would probably be in a GP’s remit to hint at what I already knew – i.e. smoking wasn’t good for me. What if it went further than that, though, into private areas that (unless the visit to the surgery was related to one’s ‘rude bits’) have no relation to one’s health in the same way? New NHS guidelines apparently imminent mean that health professionals will now be obliged to ask patients over-16 what their sexual orientation happens to be. It’s both a further extension of the nanny state’s nosy neighbour tendencies and the latest chapter in the ongoing ‘diversity’ agenda that has swept through every public body of late to seemingly appease a very small section of society with a very loud voice.

Doctors and nurses will now be recommended to inquire as to a patient’s sexual orientation at ‘every face-to-face contact with the patient, where no record of this data already exists’; what is horribly referred to as ‘sexual monitoring’ will be mandatory in England and Wales by 2019. Patients will be asked ‘Which of the following options best describes how you think of yourself – straight/gay or lesbian/bisexual/other sexual orientation’; presumably, the ‘other’ is paedophile or zoophile? Might I suggest an additional response on the part of the patient – ‘Mind your own f**king business’.

Thankfully, Dr Peter Swinyard, Chairman of the Family Doctor Association, was not impressed; in his opinion, the new guidelines were ‘potentially intrusive and offensive’, adding ‘Given the precious short amount of time a GP has with a patient, sexuality is not relevant’, rightly pointing out that sexual choice affected ‘relatively few medical conditions’. On the other hand, Paul Martin, chief executive of Manchester’s LGBT Foundation, says he is ‘so proud’ of the intrusion into patient’s private lives. His organisation has pushed for ‘sexual monitoring’, as it views the change as some kind of step forward to address perceived medical inequalities for those happy to be defined by the LGBT pigeonhole. Those patients who don’t want to disclose their sexual preferences – and why indeed should they? – will be placed in the ‘not stated’ category.

This compliance with the Equality Act 2010 by the medical profession is allegedly intended to ensure no patient is discriminated against; but if someone’s sexuality isn’t advertised on their file, no rush to judgement based upon it by a doctor who might hold prejudicial views can then be made – and doesn’t that make all patients equal? A doctor’s role is to treat whatever is wrong with the patient; a doctor doesn’t need further unnecessary data that bears no relation to the patient’s presence in their surgery – unless the patient smokes or vapes, of course; and then they deserve all the stickers their files can handle.

© The Editor

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REVOLUTION INC.

It’s testament to the impact the events of October 1917 had on the wider world that the idealistic concept of a society founded on the blueprint laid out by Marx in the nineteenth century survived the abuses of that blueprint by his ideological heirs. Stalin’s purges of the 1930s were overlooked by the left in the west with the same convenient nonchalance that enabled Che Guevara to become a pop cultural icon in the 60s and kept Trotsky a cult hero; even Mao could be held up as a symbol of revolution in 1968, regardless of the millions of innocent lives being lost in China at that very moment. Perhaps it’s a pointer to the dispossessed and dissatisfied that capitalism leaves in its wake that the search for an alternative inevitably led to the only proven alternative available for decades. At least there was an alternative available then.

Karl Marx was a noted admirer of Dickens in his day, praising the great fictional chronicler of the underclass at a time when the feudal societies of Europe and their belief in preordained Providence still held sway, despite the upsets of 1848; indeed, there’s a great deal in the Communist Manifesto that’s hard to disagree with, even now. The general gist of Marx’s radical rewrite of a society’s structure was seized upon as a viable solution to the failings of the decrepit autocracy that had governed the huge landmass of Russia for centuries in 1917, and it’s no surprise that this naturally excited outside observers, just as similar overseas events had in 1776 and 1789 respectively.

Ironically, it was the First World War – still a year away from the Armistice in 1917 – that dealt the killer blow to the old order rather than the efforts of Lenin. Of the four great Empires that entered into conflict in the summer of 1914 – Britain, Russia, Austro-Hungary and the Ottomans – only the British model survived intact after guns fell silent on the Western Front. Besides, there had been warning signs for years that the hereditary rule of the Tsars was something that couldn’t be sustained indefinitely; when the last Romanov ruler appealed to his cousin King George V for sanctuary following the sudden loss of his Absolutist privileges, it was telling that the constitutional British sovereign refused to help.

Just as the Declaration of Independence in 1776 didn’t abruptly curtail British rule of the 13 Colonies and the battle for them staggered on for another seven years, the October Revolution of 1917 didn’t transform Russia into a socialist state overnight. It took a further five years and a bloody civil war before the formation of the Soviet Union; the period of the so-called Red Terror that echoed the Terror following the French Revolution saw tactics of brutality for dispensing with enemies of the Bolsheviks that exceeded the far-from humane punishment practices of the Tsar, and it needs to be noted that this was undertaken on Lenin’s watch. However, when Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov died at the relatively young age of 53 in 1924, his deathbed reservations over his successor Stalin reflect concerns that Marx’s philosophies were poised to be further discarded in favour of a repressive, authoritarian regime that took the old order to a new level of state control over the individual.

The novelty of – on paper, at least – a Communist State that challenged both the democratic western models of the UK and (particularly) the US remained an alluring alternative to idealistic dreamers during the post-war era; this could encompass everyone from the Cambridge Spies to the counter-cultural figureheads of the 60s and 70s. It’s possible that many of these university-educated radicals were merely revelling in annoying their middle-class conservative parents; after all, the electorate as a whole in this country has always rejected the most extreme forms of Marxism, favouring a moderate compromise whenever it has lurched to the left, as in 1964 and 1974.

It’s also worth noting how the current crop of adolescent Corbynistas fail to see the ironies inherent in their anti-capitalist agenda when queuing up for a McDonald’s whilst scanning their Smartphones fresh from the latest march through Central London; perhaps it’s as symbolic of the times we live in as the fact that The Ramones have been reduced to a T-shirt brand worn by those who’ve never so much as whistled ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’. In the twenty-first century, everything that once meant anything has been marketed as a fashion statement for those members of the masses who seek to make an all-surface/no-substance point whilst imagining they’re somehow smashing the system. In a way, it’s no different from how a long-dead Hollywood star such as James Dean was sold as an eternal icon of cool for the generation that came of age in the 80s. As Jim Lea of Slade said in ‘Flame’, 1974’s seminal cinematic document of the rise and fall of Rock as an art-form distinguishable from the crassness of the advertising industry, ‘I’m no bloody fish-finger!’ In 2017, all heroes are fish-fingers.

A hundred years on from the October Revolution, we now have the knowledge of how those initial admirable ideals were corrupted by the seduction of absolute power, and we have the depressing evidence of how capitalism triumphs all, regardless of the efforts of Cuba, China and Venezuela. It’s a sobering realisation that what could, and should, have been a welcome respite from the often appalling process of how capitalism crushes the individual has simply shown that avaricious human nature dictates the outcome of each ideological advance so that it always reverts to type. We desperately need an alternative, but it seems our species is incapable of coming up with one.

© The Editor

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INSIDE STORY

Another report, another series of warnings that will probably go unheeded because we’re dealing with society’s least desirable citizens – well, after those who spend their days lounging around Westminster; yes, we’re talking Her Majesty’s Prisons yet again. This time, the review into the average conditions of Britain’s penal institutions has been conducted by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, producing findings that would appear (in several cases) to contradict the rules of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. 200 years on from Elizabeth Fry’s landmark visit to Newgate Gaol, it seems prison conditions remain abysmal, relative to the conditions in which the rest of us live.

Out of those currently incarcerated (numbering 85,000), upwards of 21,000 have complained of living in an overcrowded environment; conditions in cells also comprise poor ventilation, a lack of heating in the winter months, damp and vermin. When you’re banged-up in a small enclosed space for 22 hours a day, the indignities of having to take a dump a few feet away from a cellmate is neither enjoyable for the person on the throne or the person hearing and smelling the process. The picture painted by this latest report isn’t exactly the holiday camp model regularly referenced in the likes of the Daily Mail.

According to the report, single cells just about meet the specifications outlined by the CPT, whereas multi-occupancy ones fail dismally. HMP Birmingham has even managed to squeeze as many as four to six inmates in cells that were probably designed to fit three at the very most. As the prison population continues to rise year-on-year, the prisons simply cannot cope. A severe shortage of prison staff isn’t helping either, meaning inmates are spending less of the recommended time out of their cells because there aren’t enough screws to keep an eye on them. To while the long hours away, many prisoners naturally turn to drugs whilst others turn to the Koran – radicalised in time for release.

The Director of the Prison Reform Trust, Peter Dawson, reacted to the revelations in the report by calling them ‘shameful’, whereas the President of the Prison Governors Association, Andrea Albutt, said ‘The Government must be brave and reduce the prison population, and don’t worry about votes.’ Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, added ‘The aspirations of the prison reform programme will not be met if prisoners are confined in conditions that embitter and demoralise, leaving them unable to access rehabilitative activities and, all too often, turning to illicit drugs to break the boredom born of long periods locked in their cells’.

Punishment is pivotal, of course; I would’ve thought being there amounted to pretty severe punishment in itself; I certainly can’t imagine anything worse, but then I haven’t committed a crime serious enough to warrant being detained at Brenda’s pleasure – or at least not one that’s recognised as such, yet. An astronomical increase in the list of offences since the Blair era, the upsurge in terrorist activities, and the habit of the CPS in pursuing allegations stretching back decades have all undoubtedly contributed to the dire state of affairs. At the moment, the prison population is barely a thousand below what is regarded as the ‘useable operational capacity’.

But then there’s rehabilitation; quite important if we are to prevent reoffending and a return to the same cramped cell in the same overcrowded nick. The successful rehabilitation of criminals whose previously closed minds were expanded in the prison library wasn’t helped by the intervention of that dumbbell Chris Grayling when prisons were part of his remit, but education either of an academic or a practical nature is surely a crucial stage in the transformation of the con into a member of society with a purpose. ‘Purposeful activity’ is supposed to constitute at least 10 hours of out-of-cell time a day, though just 14% of inmates in the report claim to have received this, with 21% of them alleging their daily break from the cell amounts to little more than a couple of hours.

The Ministry of Justice has responded to the findings by declaring the Government is indulging in its favourite hobby of tossing money at a problem in the hope it will go away. ‘We are investing £1.3bn to modernise the prison estate,’ said a spokesman. ‘Our work in this area is supported by a drive to recruit an extra 2,500 prison officers, who will boost the frontline and help turn our prisons into places of reform’. Exacerbating the situation, however, today was also the day when the DPP Alison Saunders proudly trumpeted the fact that sex offence prosecutions are at a record high, with more sex offenders being prosecuted ‘than ever before’!

As well as half of the cases coming before courts in 2017 being sex crimes, they now also account for a fifth of the annual CPS caseload, and one wonders how many of them result in a sound conviction, let alone how many should have even ended up before a jury in the first place; according to Saunders, however, ‘Just because they’re cleared doesn’t mean it’s made up’. It’s also telling that cases of domestic abuse making it to court have dropped since the last stats were published, suggesting the majority of the success stories Ms Saunders is so eager to take credit for are either in the ‘stranger danger’ category or are ‘historical’; and the CPS loves to time travel. Perhaps the least surprising revelation is that there hasn’t been a single prosecution for Female Genital Mutilation during the past year, regardless of NHS England claiming 5,000 new cases over the last twelve months. Ah, those funny foreigners and their funny ways.

© The Editor

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SPANISH SIGHS

A day after around 350,000 anti-independence Catalans (or non-Catalans bussed in from out of town) swamped the streets of Barcelona to declare their unity with Spain, France has declared it will not recognise an independent Catalonia and that it should be expelled from the EU. Would that be expulsion free from the divorce fees demanded of Brexit? If so, go for it! Rumours of big businesses discussing relocating from the Catalan heartland in the event of the autonomous regional government proclaiming separation from Spain will be familiar to anyone in this country; powerful corporations imagining issuing threats will somehow force the people round to their way of thinking is a futile exercise that will only strengthen pro-independence sentiments in the same way Madrid’s response to last week’s referendum did.

At the height of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-60s, white residents of America’s Deep South were prone to remarking the rest of the US didn’t understand their corner of the country; it’s true that the old Confederate States retained their archaic identity well into the twentieth century, in defiance of the self-image the USA had created as an international export, and the same could be said of both Catalonia and the Basque region in relation to modern-day Spain. Enforcing the authority of the National Government by dispatching the militaristic wing of the Spanish police force and battering anyone in sight is not the best way to send out a message to either Catalans or the watching world that the rest of Spain is Catalonia’s friend.

The remarkable sight of local fire-fighters protecting the public from outside policemen supposed to be on the same side was one of many startling images to emerge from the chaos of referendum day. From the pictures most of us saw, it seemed those wishing to exercise their democratic (or illegal) vote were largely non-violent, whereas the police regiments were the ones throwing their weight around; the Catalan constabulary, standing alongside the fire-fighters to shield the crowd, looked stunned by the level of force their Madrid counterparts were employing to prevent the referendum from going ahead. The region’s chief of police has even been charged with ‘sedition’ for failing to protect the invaders from protestors. But the EU responded by declaring ‘reasonable force’ was perfectly fine as a means of the National Government keeping the country together. Bring on that expulsion from Brussels now.

There are right ways and there are wrong ways of dealing with a troublesome neighbourhood of a nation that was pieced together from constituent parts over a century before. As a response to three years of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Ted Heath’s Government granted a plebiscite to the people of Ulster in 1972, offering them the opportunity to vote on whether or not they wanted to remain in the United Kingdom; when the vote took place the following year, the result was a landslide for ‘remain’, though this was probably aided considerably by the fact that the majority of Nationalists boycotted the referendum. In 2014, when the Scots were finally given their chance to decide once and for all if they wanted their independence, they also voted to stay with the rest of us; as we all know, the losers continue to whinge about the result, but Westminster didn’t dispatch riot police to Edinburgh. If it had, chances are Alex Salmond would not now be out of a job.

During the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, many local constabularies maintained cordial relations with strikers in the early stages of the dispute; it was only when Mrs Thatcher sent in the Met, foreign troops looking upon the inhabitants of the communities they invaded as sub-human pond-life, that the picket-line violence escalated and the likes of Orgreave occurred. The Guardia Civil appear to exhibit the same contempt towards Catalans as the Met exhibited towards the miners in 1984, and in the process have probably boosted separatist support when previous polls had suggested, though close, most Catalans didn’t favour independence after all.

The latest statistics from the disputed referendum suggest 90% of Catalans voted for independence, though the turn-out was 43% and it’s believed the majority of ‘No’ voters didn’t visit the polling station; perhaps they were exposed to the same level of intimidation as Scots wishing to remain in the UK allegedly experienced in 2014 and opted out as a consequence. Some of the pro-Spain protestors that made their voices heard at the weekend may well have been sponsored by Madrid, but it’s equally possible many of them were genuine Catalans who don’t buy into the separatist agenda. If we again cast our minds back to events north of the border three years ago, the independence crowd certainly shouted the loudest, giving the impression they were speaking on behalf of the majority if one recalls the amount of airtime they received. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the same applies in Catalonia.

The Catalan President Carles Puigdemont will be addressing the region’s parliament tomorrow, and though there are no signs of any diplomatic compromise with Madrid yet being reached, the anticipated declaration of independence hasn’t appeared either. Lest we forget, however, the economic stability of the region in comparison to many areas of Spain post-2008 is a valuable bargaining chip for the Catalans, something that makes the National Government’s approach to dealing with the separatists a baffling blunder. If Madrid wants to keep the country intact, it’ll have to devise a different method of doing so.

© The Editor

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SEX EDUCATION

A couple of weeks after a photogenic Oxford student with a conveyor belt career smoothly lined-up for her received a suspended sentence for stabbing her boyfriend whilst under the influence, a woman one year younger than Lavinia Woodward hasn’t been granted similar clemency from our judiciary. 23-year-old Alice McBrearty has been sentenced to 16 months for having a ‘full-blown (unfortunate turn of phrase) sexual relationship’ with a 15-year-old schoolboy. Eight years between the seducer and the seduced isn’t that great an age gap when compared to, say, Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone and his third wife Fabiana (a staggering 47 years his junior), Billy Joel and his current missus (33 years’ difference) or Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall (25 years); but, lest we forget, the pupil was under-16 by a few months, so that means Ms McBrearty is officially a Paedo.

The defence barrister in the case said that her client ‘is not sexually attracted to children,’ before adding ‘She will of course be branded a paedophile for the rest of her life. She is a sex offender’. As a result of pleading guilty to seven counts of sexual activity with a child while in a position of trust, Alice McBrearty is bracketed in the same legal category as a loathsome individual like Ian Watkins. After sentencing, a lawyer representing our old friends at the CPS said ‘We would like to thank the victim for coming forward and for supporting this prosecution during what has been a difficult time for him and his family.’ However, it was the father of the ‘victim’ who intervened in the affair and contacted the police rather than the boy himself. Of course, such an intervention would have severely altered the wistful ambience of Bobby Goldsboro’s 1973 hit, ‘Summer (The First Time)’, but this isn’t 1973.

One wonders how much longer the sentence Alice McBrearty received would’ve been in the reversal of this case’s gender roles; a 23-year-old man seducing a 15-year-old girl would certainly have received a prison sentence, though recent patterns in such cases suggest he’d have been looking at a tenure behind bars considerably more extensive than 16 months. Not that gender imbalance diminishes other double standards on display where this particular case is concerned. The fact remains that, going by current legal definitions, inflicting serious physical injury upon a partner is a lesser offence than providing them with practical sex education – an extracurricular lesson that it’s hard to imagine the ‘victim’ being an unwilling scholar of.

According to slavering press reports, the female teacher at a school in East London had a four-month affair with the unnamed male pupil – indulging in classroom snogging, sex acts in her car (which may have constituted the ‘full-blown’ aspect of the relationship), and the inevitable hotel rendezvous; she even got her leg over with him at her parents’ home. The judge’s summary included the observation that ‘I accept you truly believed this was a great romance, that you were in love with him and vice versa, and that age didn’t matter; but it did.’

When, way back in the 80s, I and a fellow 19-year-old were advertising for musicians to form a band, being contacted by a 23-year-old bass-player led to a shared immediate opinion that this ‘old man’ was a bit suspect, believing if he hadn’t found fame and fortune at the advanced age of 23 he was evidently doomed to obscurity. Remembering this serves as a reminder of how a mere four-year gap makes a difference at 19, something that was brought back to me not so long ago when I overheard a conversation between two student girls mulling over whether or not to accept the offer of a potential flatmate also aged 23; ‘He sounds a bit weird’ opined one of them, a character summary which appeared to be solely based on his age. The chasm is perhaps wider than one cares to recall when distanced from the adolescent mindset – though I’ve no doubt this was part of the attraction for the boy inducted into a world he probably craved to be a member of when he encountered Alice McBrearty.

Judge Sheelagh Canavan said that Ms McBrearty was ‘a bright, intelligent and gifted young woman who knew right from wrong’ who nevertheless committed ‘the grossest breach of trust’. The judge accepted the ‘victim’ was consenting, adding ‘What 15-year-old schoolboy would turn down such an attractive offer?’ That the judge acknowledged the boy’s willing participation in the affair with a woman eight years his senior speaks volumes; but as things stand, the law is there in black-and-white, and Alice McBrearty knew it was – as did her besotted ‘victim’. The CPS interpreted their relationship from the legal perspective, as is their wont, stating ‘She conducted a sexual relationship for months with a boy, despite knowing he was under-age and she was committing a crime; she groomed him on social media and bought him gifts before having sex with him in her home, at a hotel and in her car.’

Of the two traditional sexual fantasies that tend to occupy male minds – schoolgirls and older women – the former has now been discredited as latent paedophilia whereas the latter retains its potent allure, even if it becomes redundant as the decades roll by and the only older women resemble Vera Lynn. For the average teenage boy, however, the attraction remains as relevant as the opposite does for his female equivalent; in the turbulent maelstrom of the teenage thought processes, the desire to be over-16 is predominant; the teenager in question will gravitate towards any adult prepared to treat them as a fellow adult, and that includes on a sexual level. That the genuine adult should know better is the real issue. Alice McBrearty at 23 was quite possibly as emotionally immature as the 15-year-old she seduced and may not have been the scheming predator the 16 month sentence will portray her as; but does that make her a sex offender? As the law stands, yes.

© The Editor

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MAY TO OCTOBER

Let’s face it – this hasn’t been the best of weeks for Tory leaders past or present. A day after the incumbent coughed and spluttered her way through what was supposed to be the moment at this year’s Conservative Party Conference when she reasserted her authority, a predecessor not even alive to combat his critics has seen his name dragged through the mud once again by a provincial police force desperately seeking straws to clutch that it hopes will justify the vast expense squandered on its futile investigation into him. Heath cannot change history; that duty is in the hands of the revisionists. But Theresa May has had ample opportunities to change the present and she seems utterly incapable of doing so; like Gordon Brown before her, poor old Mrs May stumbles into one farcical cock-up after another with the disaster-prone finesse of a classic sitcom character – the sitcom in question being, of course, ‘The Thick of It’.

‘Building a country that works or everyone’ isn’t the most coherent message for the Government to employ as reassurance that the country is in safe hands, but that was the slogan behind the PM when she staged her painful performance in front of the faithful. Party Conference slogans are usually meaningless combinations of words probably concocted by highly-paid strategists during ‘brainstorming’ sessions, but the loss of an F on the one used yesterday actually worked if one interprets it as a fitting symbol for the clueless shower running the show at the moment. Even if one overlooks the dubious attractions of a week-long event with a speech by Theresa May as its intended highlight, the Conservative Party Conference 2017 has been bad by any party standards.

What with Boris Johnson not even bothering to conceal his credentials as a successor and a ‘comedy terrorist’ interrupting the PM by handing her a P45, the whole shambles has been a fitting funeral ceremony for the May administration. Whilst there might have been a degree of sympathy in the hall for the Prime Minister as someone way out of their depth struggled yet again to convince anyone beyond the most sycophantic toadies that she’s the right woman for the job, Tories are not renowned for sentiment when it comes to their leaders. At times, the PM’s speech was reminiscent of an especially bad ‘Dragon’s Den’ pitch, and backstage rumblings of a coup are gathering pace once more as the house of Conservative cards is perilously close to collapsing.

In some respects, many Tories must be relieved the ghost of one of Mrs May’s predecessors has resurfaced, mired in murky hearsay that makes her misdemeanours appear all the more comical. It probably helps too that Edward Heath remains the Conservative Prime Minister whose unpopularity in the party remains as mysteriously potent as it was when he lost two successive General Elections in 1974; the passage of time has not diminished the antipathy he inspired. Indeed, what is a remarkably awful keynote speech when sharing column inches with a headline such as the one I came across on Yahoo News today: Former PM ‘raped 11 year-old boy’? The inverted commas were in place, but that was simple libel-preventing common sense where an unproven accusation is concerned; not that many seeing such a headline will pay much attention to inverted commas.

Operation Conifer, the retarded country cousin of Operation Midland which has spent the last couple of years Hoovering up most of the dead wood from that discredited witch-hunt via the congenital liar ‘Nick’, has come to the conclusion that Ted Heath would have been interviewed during the £1.5 million inquiry had he still been alive; and that kind of curious, nonsensical logic could be applied to practically any situation that didn’t actually happen.

Had Hitler not committed suicide in his bunker, he would have stood trial for war crimes at Nuremburg; had Gordon Smith not fluffed it in front of goal during the dying seconds of the 1983 FA Cup Final, Brighton and Hove Albion would have beaten Manchester United and won the trophy; had I been born twenty-five years earlier in Liverpool, I could have been the fifth Beatle. But, lest we forget, the Wiltshire Constabulary carried out their fishing party not to address the issue of Heath’s guilt or innocence, but to see whether there was a substantial amount of evidence to have interviewed the former Prime Minister, even though he inconveniently died a decade before they began it. Why didn’t they just reunite the ‘Time Team’ crowd and let them dig-up Heath’s back garden?

Are the tax-payers of Wiltshire so financially secure that they can afford the luxury of an existential police force? The county’s boys in blue have devoted the past couple of years to pondering on what they view as a perplexing conundrum – would Ted Heath have been interviewed under caution over allegations he raped an 11-year-old boy in 1961 if he were still alive? Hmmm, that’s a tricky one; let’s spend over a million quid coming up with the answer. Two years down the line, they’ve decided seven of the accusations would have warranted an interview under caution. Well done, lads. A pity the Woodentop who stood in front of Heath’s home and encouraged ‘victims to come forward’ isn’t around to crack open the bubbly, what with him being signed-off on long-term sick leave, but you can’t have everything.

The 100-page ‘summary closure report’ into Operation Conifer claims ‘no inference of guilt’ should arise from the fact Heath would have been interviewed under caution where seven of the 42 accusations are concerned; moreover, Dr Rachel Hoskins examined the so-called evidence last November and came to the conclusion that it ‘exposed a catalogue of fabrication’; she also dismissed the widely-publicised ‘Satanic’ angle so beloved of Icke disciples, advising the police to abandon the investigation. The police ignored her advice, and Operation Conifer has neither proven nor dispelled any of the rumours surrounding Heath whilst costing a small fortune in the process. All we know from its findings is that Ted kept his hands to himself throughout his tenure at No.10, as none of the allegations date from that period, funnily enough. He wasn’t daft, was he?

So, whatever Theresa May puts her foot in next, she can at least be content with the fact that it can’t top Satanic ritual abuse of minors. However, let’s see where we stand forty years hence. They’re a funny lot, those Tories, so you never know…

© The Editor

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STATE AND THE UNION

It’s official. I am a dysfunctional human being and I am a problem for society. These are facts I’ve long suspected, but I required confirmation from an expert – preferably a happily-married rich man who lives on land owned by his even richer father-in-law. According to this expert, I frequently have inherently unstable relationships because I’ve never tied the knot; as a consequence of this, I commit crimes, I drink too much, I take drugs and I have fathered multiple children. Considering yesterday’s post dealt with the legacy of IDS in his stint at the DWP, it’s nice that the old egghead has provided me with something to talk about today as well as giving these often disparate posts a semblance of continuity. You can’t keep a good man down, even when his CV is illuminated by a stint as leader of his party so ineffective that he was axed before he had the chance to fight a General Election.

The notion that the root cause of society’s ills is down to ‘cohabitating couples’ deciding not to have their union certified by an archaic, style-over-substance ceremony in a House of God or a registry office is one I should imagine cartoon characters like Jacob Rees Mogg fully endorse – as long as the couples in question are of the opposite sex, of course; but it would seem the IDS theory conveniently excludes poverty, piss-poor job opportunities, low wages, long working hours, lack of affordable housing and a world in which putting the hours in has little or no rewards. The have-not drones are expected to be content with their lot when the haves parade their tax-free gains across the media, rubbing the nose of the plebs in it as they do so. Unless they get married, naturally; all their problems would be solved in an instant then.

The stock of IDS has now sadly sunk so low that he is reduced to speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference rather than the official corporate shindig itself; but at least it gives him free rein to expound upon his increasingly detached-from-reality theories allegedly formed via his spell as Work and Pensions Tsar under David Cameron. He eventually walked out on this post, claiming Dave and Gideon couldn’t care less about anyone who didn’t attend even a minor public school in his resignation letter; stating the bleedin’ obvious, maybe, but a pre-emptive strike that nicely facilitated the IDS role as a prominent Leave cheerleader during the EU Referendum. The Brexit sitcom may be an ongoing Whitehall farce, though Mr Duncan Smith has no part to play at Government level, so is forced into falling back onto his former favourite subject as a means of garnering self-publicity.

IDS claimed men unbound by the burden of wedlock were ‘released to do all the things they wouldn’t normally do’; this implies married men are impeccable models of respectable probity, the kind of gentlemen who wouldn’t dream of cheating on their spouses, so bound are they by the contract they enter into as though it had the God-fearing authority of a Medieval oath. ‘They are out,’ he said, ‘no longer having to bring something in for their family…so levels of addiction, levels of high criminal activity, issues around dysfunctional behaviour, multiple parenting – all these things are as a result of the un-anchoring of the young man to a responsibility that keeps them stable and eventually makes them more happy.’

It’s rather quaint that IDS firmly believes the kind of irresponsible men he speaks of somehow didn’t exist when any cohabitating couples siring offspring required a ring on the third fingers of their respective left hands. The idea that this acted as a preventative aid to men who don’t have it in them to play the husband/father role from wandering and philandering is a tad amusing; in actual fact, it merely kept the wife in a state of permanent misery, unable to hook up with a far more suitable candidate because she was tied to a waste of space courtesy of the social contract that marriage represented in less enlightened days.

The mistake made time and time again by the likes of IDS or Peter Hitchens at his reactionary worst is that a union sanctified preferably by the Church of England is one that will be honoured by both parties; a pleasant, Ladybird book ideal that doesn’t necessarily equate with reality, the belief that a partnership sanctioned by the state has a stamp of legitimacy that negates the kind of activities IDS blames on ‘common law marriage’ is one that may well play to traditional Tory principles, but has no basis in fact. Being married to the ‘fragrant’ Mary didn’t serve as an obstacle to Jeffrey Archer playing away with a prostitute, after all.

Twenty years ago next February (on Friday 13th – an ominous omen if ever there was one), I came within a whisker of officially certifying a union that was destined to collapse into chaos courtesy of the other half; had she not changed her mind at the eleventh hour, I doubt it would have lasted much longer than Cher’s union with Duane Allman, one that resulted in the former filing for divorce within nine days of the wedding in 1975. This was long before the Posh & Becks/Jordan & Peter Andre showbiz blueprint of the wedding ceremony that has descended into a tacky festival of bad taste via Reality TV and its PR publications, proving to be a pernicious influence on the mindset of the young and responsible for vast fortunes squandered on ceremonies hosted by country hotels and stately homes that often have little bearing on the actual relationship.

As it happens, Mr Duncan Smith, I’ve never been married and I’ve never indulged in parenting of any kind (multiple or no); my addictions and criminal activity have been limited to a level that wouldn’t have troubled the tabloids, let alone the boys in blue; and tarring everyone from a low-income demographic with lazy clichés that suit your self-image as a patrician lecturer based upon a reforming nineteenth century model simply isn’t good enough in the twenty-first century. IDS says one in five dependent children have no father figure at home, adding ‘A child in Britain is more likely to experience family breakdown than anywhere else in the world’; that may well be true, but a sanctified C-of-E union isn’t the solution, and believing it is simply shows a genuine lack of understanding of (as someone once said) crime and the causes of crime.

© The Editor

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