PARDON MY MEANDER

Blow UpFour days tends to be the average maximum between posts on here, though I have nothing to really say today – nothing concerning the usual suspects, that is. I haven’t been sufficiently motivated by either Covid-related stuff or Identity Politics to compose a post since the last one; and that’s how it usually works – I never intentionally sit down and think ‘I must write something about coronavirus transgender racism.’ Whatever gets written usually just appears; it’s rarely premeditated, but I know when a post is on its way. Inspiration when it hits is a bit like seeing the Bat Signal in the sky; suddenly, without warning, it’s there and I spring into action. Well, when there is no Bat Signal hovering over Gotham City that’s generally when we get to the four-day mark. I can’t even default to my familiar standby of reviewing an obscure TV series from the 70s today, as I’m not currently watching one of them that I haven’t already written about on here. However, rather than this ending up being the shortest Telegram from the Winegum of all time, I shall instead ramble and meander a little, just as I sometimes do when I venture outdoors.

Of late, I’ve found ‘the walk’ that we were all encouraged to indulge in during Lockdown Mk. I (as a means of presumably preventing the nation from sinking into couch potato obesity) has become something I succumb to maybe just once a week, mainly because I’ve more or less been everywhere within walking distance now. I suppose I’m more amenable to the idea when it’s a nice day, naturally, and after a few drizzly and chilly interludes bearing a closer resemblance to October rather than August, the weather feels summery again. Therefore, today I decided to embark upon a stroll with no specific destination in mind; I did, however, find myself being drawn back to a location I’ve walked round several times this summer – the empty grounds of a nearby university campus. I say empty only in relation to its term-time tenants, for most students are obviously absent this time of year. Indeed, much like the hospital staff on the episode of ‘Yes Minister’ who don’t feel the need to fill their workplace with actual patients, I can’t help but note what pleasant places campuses are without students getting in the way.

With the majority of this particular campus having being built in the 19th century, it does have an easy-on-the-eye aesthetic appeal in terms of its architecture, and the vast expanse of greenery surrounding the buildings also adds to the ambience. The grounds border a public park, which means the whole site conjures the illusion of being somewhere a long way from an urban environment; the fact it’s not much more than ten minutes on foot from my front door proves that it’s a lot closer than the serene mirage suggests, however. What also plays its part in making this place such a pleasant spot to stroll through is the fact the absence of students reduces the noise levels. This time of year, the campus is like a benign vortex, a silent oasis that it’s hard to believe is just a stone’s throw from a ridiculously busy thoroughfare; living on said thoroughfare means most of the day the only sounds that penetrate my den are manmade: car engines, car horns, car alarms, in-car sound systems, and more than anything else, sirens – bloody sirens. I therefore notice it when I’m somewhere that has none of these sonic abortions, and the campus in question has none of them.

The phrase ‘Whispering Grass’ may evoke memories of Windsor Davies and Don Estelle if you’re of a certain age, but it also fits this place. That’s how lovely it is when all you can hear other than birdsong is the gentle ripple of the lawns in the breeze; what we would call silence can only really be referred to as such when it has something to be compared to; and when compared to the cacophony I’m accustomed to most days, this is silence. But, of course, it’s not silent; it’s merely softer than the norm, and it’s blissful. There are tennis courts in the grounds, but they’re all bolted up and packed away until the more sporty students return; there’s also a space that looks big enough to contain a fair-size football pitch, though the whispering grass there isn’t currently short enough for a proper kickabout and there’s no markings present; I suspect that’ll be attended to by September. That none of the areas catering for students into sporting pursuits are maintained as such when they’re away means these areas are amongst the most quiet and utterly deserted on campus. Anyone familiar with the scenes in seminal Swinging London movie ‘Blow-Up’ when David Hemmings’ photographer character wanders through an empty park without any dialogue or background music getting in the way will recognise just how striking the sound of ‘silence’ is; in fact, this part of the campus reminds me a lot of those scenes bar the bit where he finds the body in the bushes.

The only other people I tend to see out and about up there are either mothers with pushchairs and toddlers who are at that age when they want to walk rather than be pushed, or dog-walkers. I saw a walker with a six-strong pack a couple of weeks back and laughed to myself when I spotted the one dog that every pack has, the obstinate bloody-minded one in possession of selective deafness, the one who always drifts just that little bit too far from the rest, the one whose name is called out more than any of the others; he had a bell on his collar precisely for that reason, I guess. He also caught my eye on account of him being a miniature schnauzer, which happens to be one of my favourite pedigrees; this breed usually produces memorable characters and I used to know one who was indeed just that. It didn’t surprise me that the pooch in this pack stubbornly doing his own thing happened to be a miniature schnauzer.

A cartoon in the last issue of ‘Private Eye’ pictured a man walking a dog being asked by another man what breed it was, to which the dog-walker replied ‘Dunno, I only got him so I don’t look like a pervert when I’m down the park.’ I got the joke because it is true one can feel a tad self-conscious when walking through a park alone and without even a canine companion; I probably feel this more so because there have been times when I’ve had dogs and my presence in the park has therefore seemed ‘legit’. Bereft of a dog, I ordinarily wouldn’t be there, but ever since the first lockdown there’s been a greater impetus to be out for reasons other than simply shopping. That said, self-consciousness when one doesn’t have a dog matters less when strolling through a quiet campus; for all anyone knows, I could be a post-graduate drifter with no home to go back to – or even a slightly eccentric tutor.

There’s a definite out-of-season seaside town vibe to a campus in the summer, though I should imagine anyone else who ventures into this delightful vacuum in July and August will be as conscious as me that our little secret garden won’t be secret for much longer. Once the gates of academia are reopened, the character of the campus will inevitably alter and it’ll cease to be such a tranquil retreat till next summer. I feel a bit like Looby Loo, knowing she can only dance around when Andy Pandy and Teddy are elsewhere; the minute she hears them returning, her brief window of self-indulgence slams shut and she reverts to a lifeless ragdoll. Never having been a student myself, I’ve only understood the appeal of dreaming spires as I’ve matured; and though this campus isn’t Oxford, it nevertheless has a similar atmosphere I’m partial to, as long as it’s empty of students. Hope you didn’t mind this meander, by the way; I’ve never considered travel writing on account of not doing much in the way of travelling (bit of a hindrance, that), so this is as near as I’ll get for the moment.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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THE TRACKS (AND TRACES) OF MY TIERS

Bisto KidsScent – that was what hit me yesterday. The scent of fruit and the scent of veg; the scent of freshly-baked buns and bread; the scent of girls walking past with their perfume reminding me what women smell like – indoor odours I haven’t inhaled on foreign soil for over a year. My sinuses weren’t even smacked by any unseemly B.O., which has long been a traditional and unfortunate by-product of venturing into a supermarket during a Great British heat-wave. To set foot in an interior outside of my home and not have the ability to smell my surroundings utterly constrained by a bloody mask was intoxicating as I became reacquainted with a sensation I’d been denied for too long; what a relief it was to expose this neglected sense to something other than my own breath. In fact, it’s frightening how quickly and effectively I had forgotten the aroma of freedom of choice; like the sudden restoration of so much we’ve been deprived of since the first lockdown, being reunited with such a simple gift it’s so easy to take for granted is something worthy of celebration – even if the awareness that this particular democratic right will probably be taken back with the same speed it was stolen in the first place remains uppermost amidst the celebration.

For me, being forced to cover my nose and mouth impacted more than any other Covid measure. Social distancing I could deal with, not being especially fond of crowds or being claustrophobically crammed into a confined space with other sardines; the initial queuing outside a shop I could deal with, as Brits have all had to queue somewhere at one time or another and are good at it; not being able to receive visitors or indulge in hugs I could deal with, as most of my friends being scattered across the country already negates playing regular host – and no longer being intimate enough with anybody anymore meant an embrace was but a memory, anyway. Add the difficulties I’ve long had breathing through my nose, and the prospect of having to hinder my breath via a suffocating cloth whenever I stepped into any indoor arena bar my home essentially stopped me going anywhere unless I absolutely had to. Yesterday, for one brief brilliant moment, monochrome Kansas was transformed into Technicolor Oz; that I could even utter such a statement about something so seemingly trivial perhaps shows just how deep the most apparently innocuous privation has cut over the last year.

Whipping off a mask as soon as I step out of a shop has been the usual routine since face coverings were imposed on shoppers, but smell dissipates in the great urban outdoors, where the black hole of traffic fumes swallows up individual odours. It’s different when you set foot in a supermarket, when smell has less escape routes; yes, it’s no great surprise viruses do better indoors when one thinks of all that breath circulating with nowhere to go. But the status of a mask as little more than a psychological comfort blanket is pretty well established now, so there was no way I was going to wear imaginary armour when it was no longer mandatory. I saw perhaps half-a-dozen fellow shoppers prepared to take the plunge, which was a relief. I almost felt a shared sense of kinship there, an unspoken, nodding recognition and admiration of their determination not to submit now they could no longer be fined for resisting. After all, I’d had silly images of walking into Sainsbury’s sans-masque and being chased straight out again by a pitchfork-carrying masked mob calling me a granny-killer.

Granny’s mouth remained covered, which was to be expected; but the vast majority of shoppers I saw were no older than 25 and very few of them were uncovered. Living in a large student area means visiting a supermarket on ‘Freedom Day’ is a good barometer of how the young are actually reacting to the loosening of restrictions. Despite the MSM stereotype of young ‘uns as irresponsible ravers partying like it’s 1989 even when the rest of the country is masked-up and socially distanced, what I witnessed yesterday were fully paid-up consumers of Project Fear not willing to risk it. Considering the latest Covid Passport U-turn by the Government, it’s no surprise. Youth – a demographic least susceptible to the lethal elements of the coronavirus – are now in their sights. After months of denial that such a corruption of a free society will ever be contemplated, Boris announced yesterday that ‘proof of a negative test will no longer be enough’; taking a leaf out of President Macron’s book, the PM said that once all over-18s have had the opportunity to be double jabbed, full vaccination will be required to gain entry into nightclubs and ‘other venues where large crowds gather’. Looks like Freedom Day was so called because it marked the day when freedom was outlawed as a right. Show me your papers indeed.

Compulsory vaccination is something I’m sure many would approve of, and even though the powers-that-be haven’t quite crossed that line, by preventing anyone from approximating a normal social existence without the jab they’re essentially forcing perpetual vaccines on everybody who isn’t a professional hermit. Under this prohibition of life, don’t be surprised if new ‘speakeasies’ begin to appear as what used to be the kind of freedoms the citizens of Eastern Bloc countries viewed with envious eyes go underground in the very nations that used to boast of them as a selling point. If a Covid Passport is produced as a physical object rather than a mere app, will we eventually see them being publicly set alight as happened with draft cards during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations? And will those caught on camera burning them be denounced and demonised as the ‘long-haired’ draft-dodgers were by the American MSM in the mid-60s, before Walter Cronkite’s damning indictment on the conflict in 1968 helped turn the tide of mainstream opinion in the direction of the anti-war movement?

Interestingly, the Liberal Democrats have stuck their necks on the line and come out against Covid Passports. Could this be another small step on the road returning the party to the role of a credible alternative? If the Lib Dems can successfully rein in their Woke elements (in a way the Labour Party seems incapable), perhaps. I personally hope so, because British politics desperately needs an alternative now more than at any other time I can ever remember; and if it has to be a party with a hell of a lot to answer for over the past ten years, so be it; not one of them can cover themselves in glory based on their record in the last decade, anyhow, and we don’t have much in the way of choice at the moment. It’s a shame there are such a small amount of Lib Dem MPs, as it means the likes of the chronically-annoying Layla Moran has a higher profile than she deserves; but name me a mainstream political party that doesn’t have its fair share of embarrassing aunts and uncles. Maybe we just notice the Lib Dems’ madwomen in the attic because there are so few Lib Dems to go round.

There are some who say it’s no big deal to have to wear a mask, just as there are some who feel it’s no big deal to be double jabbed; both things are seen as a transaction in the cost of freedom, a freedom that we have never previously had to pay for; also, the popular opinion lingers that this is a necessary sacrifice to be made at an unprecedented moment in recent history. But wartime restrictions should be scrapped when the war is over. Yes, Covid-19 is still with us, but it always will be; whether through natural immunity or regular vaccination, we shall have to live with it forever. There will never be a time now without coronavirus cases, and placing such heavy emphasis on them when deaths are dwindling is blatant fear-mongering to justify further curtailments of civil liberties. We cannot allow emergency restrictions such as the ones we’ve had to deal with for over a year to become the default government response to any crisis. Whichever side of the divide you reside in, we’re all entitled to be the Bisto Kids if we want to.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

BUILDING SITES

SpiderI’ve almost forgotten now, but around six or seven years back I set up my first website; it was essentially established to sell a DVD box-set of ‘Exposure’, my satirical take on Operation Yewtree hysteria. The 14-part series was the first I’d posted on YouTube that wasn’t so much a slow-burner as an overnight sensation, so it had a guaranteed fan-base. Online, ‘Exposure’ had scored viewing figures I’d never previously achieved and had put me in touch with many like-minds who turned out to be much-needed kindred spirits. Unfortunately, the DVD didn’t sell in the numbers that the persistent requests for it suggested and I eventually closed the site, having sold perhaps less than a dozen copies. I’d never really thought about a website again until a few months ago, when the sudden and thoroughly unexpected upsurge of interest in my video output swelled the ranks of the biggest audience my numerous creative outlets can call upon.

Although I know for sure there have been a few curious crossovers, my respective audiences are generally ignorant of one another. Some follow my output on YT and Vimeo, some read this here blog, and there are even some that occasionally buy one of my books; I know of some who have tried all three, but I’m conscious that there are probably thousands to have devoured the likes of ‘Buggernation Street’ who aren’t aware there’s such a thing as the Winegum Telegram (scandalous, I know) or that I’ve penned and published novels, poetry collections, essays, non-fiction and so on. I suddenly felt I was guilty of doing something I detest in contemporary media, i.e. the splitting and streaming of different interests into specialist ghettos rather than offering an abundance of choice under one all-encompassing umbrella. Why not construct a solitary basket for housing every egg? Hey! Didn’t I once have a website?

Whereas my first website was devoted to one project, this new effort would contain the lot – features on my books, my videos, this here blog, and – of course – ‘Buggernation Street’. I figured as the YT audience is by far the largest, it made sense to lure the crowd to the website by giving them the humour they’re familiar with and then when they’ve wiped the tears from their eyes and put their split sides back together, they might just wonder what else I can do. With this in mind, I thought it might be amusing to invent an entire back-story for the Telegram, very much in tune with the kind of thing the video viewers would expect. In this parallel universe version of the blog, the Winegum Telegram enjoyed a century as a physical publication before becoming online only as of December 2015 (when the enterprise actually really began).

In the alternative history of the Winegum Telegram, it was launched in 1915 with Lord Kitchener as the first cover star and was founded by ‘Victor Lucas’, a confectionary tycoon responsible for inventing the modern Winegum. He recruited writers of the calibre of W.C. Armitage (who wrote under the penname ‘Shanks’) as well as Beatrice Liberty-Bodice and Apollo Arkwright. When Victor Lucas Jr superseded his father as captain of the ship on the eve of WWII, he steered the publication into its most successful era sales-wise. In the 1950s, only the Beano sold more copies, though with talented scribes such as Anthony Polari, Sylvia Harris-Tweed and Oliver Buslingthorpe, that’s no great surprise. The Telegram remained in the control of the Lucas family until industrial unrest characteristic of the turbulent 1970s left the publication vulnerable to Aussie media magnate Barry Possum, who bought the Telegram in 1982 and put his stamp on it by remaking it in his own image. Yes, it almost sounds believable.

Winegum 5 - CopyI surmised one way to enhance the illusion was to illustrate it by presenting a range of past ‘front covers’ from the publication’s physical era – issues portraying landmark events from the last 100 years, covering everything from VE Day to the Coronation, from JFK’s assassination to the Moon Landing, and from New Labour to 9/11. I can’t deny I had a jolly good time creating them and tried to make them look as convincing as possible. Again, the end result could almost be real. It’s quite a fancy little fantasy, anyway. However, I bring the reader very much back into this reality at the end of the feature by giving them access to a selection of genuine Winegum stories that might serve as an appetiser for following the blog should their curiosity be sufficiently piqued. But this particular section of the website, which I focus on here for obvious reasons, is just one element of something I hope will help make the site one of those you lose track of time on. We shall see.

I began work on the website in April and yesterday, after two months’ hard work building it up, I finally regarded it as being ready to go. Of course, it will be routinely added to, but for now the basic foundation stone is there for the world and his wife to point at. The home page capitalises on the trio of different online guises I’ve used over the years by speculating whether Johnny Monroe, Victoria Lucas and Petunia Winegum are three separate individuals or simply the shared aliases of the same criminal mastermind, and then the separate categories are lined-up for perusal: Profile, Books, Videos, Blog, Verse, Buggernation Street. The Profile is dominated by a spoof Grauniad evisceration of yours truly and a button that – if clicked – takes the visitor on a tour of imaginary charity shop LP purchases which are, naturally, in the worst possible taste. The presence of buttons to be clicked that then place the reader on a fresh page comes into its own in the Books section, in which the cover of each published book of mine is shown; anyone wanting to know a little more can click said button and will be treated to a description, a review by a reader (if there happens to be one other than me), and an opportunity to buy the chosen volume on Amazon.

AnnualI also employed the buttons to great effect on the ‘Verse’ section, in which four poetry collections are previewed via a trio of sample poems from each one – all of which had to be one-page poems for reasons of space. If you like your verse in bite-sized slices, they give you a taste of what to expect and rival Milky Way as a sweet you can eat between meals without ruining your appetite. The button facility also proved handy for the Buggernation Street page, enabling me to do a separate ‘memorabilia’ feature that serves as a further example of my fondness for fiddling with the past; front covers from a range of magazines one would have seen on the shelves of newsagent’s in the mid-70s are all given a ‘Buggernation’ twist. If the thought of living in a world where Albert Tatlock was the cover star of ‘Jackie’ or Len Fairclough got the same gig for ‘Look-In’ appeals, I suggest you pay it a visit. I appreciate some reading this won’t know what the hell I’m on about, but taking a look will help if that’s the case, and that’s what the website is all about, I guess – introducing those who only know one thing I can do to another.

This might seem like an extended advertisement for your humble narrator, but there’s even a page on the website that effectively is precisely that; if you remember ye olde high-street supermarket Fine-Fare, you might be surprised to see some of the items it used to sell by taking my name in vain. Anyway, as a welcome interlude from Covid, Identity Politics and the rest, I thought I’d publicise the website in a post on here and encourage you to pay it a visit. You might be pleasantly surprised and healthily horrified in equal measure.

© The Editor

RUNNING MAN

Tom CourtenayWell, anybody who fell for that clearly hasn’t learnt anything from the Covid narrative – and if you haven’t learnt anything by now, you never will. Only an idiot foresaw an uninterrupted march towards 21 June in the expectation the last lingering lockdown vestiges would definitely be lifted; of course that glorious liberation has been postponed; anyone with half-a-brain knew a new variant would appear on the eve of Freedom Day and the SAGE boffins would throw a spanner in the works right at the point when their unelected influence over Government policy was threatened. Putting back the final removal of restrictions by ‘a month’ was apparently based on scientific advice re the Narnia Variant – ‘thousands of potential deaths’ or so they say; cheers once again, Professor Ferguson. Incidentally, as the official christening of variants now shies away from naming the latest one after its country of origin, I’ve decided that every new addition to the variant pantheon will henceforth be named after an imaginary realm on this here blog. What the MSM used to call the Indian Variant and now refers to as the Delta Variant will be known as the Narnia Variant at Winegum Towers.

I suppose one could feel a modicum of sympathy for those who did fall for it, but only a modicum and no more. Twitter has been abundant in video statements from the likes of Matt ‘Cockers’ Hancock over the last 24 hours, all emanating from last year and all full of ‘it’ll be over by Christmas’-type promises as evidence of taking each forecast – good and bad – with enough pinches of salt to sculpt a Biblical pillar. When it’s down to Theresa May to make a speech in Parliament that absolutely nails the futility of the Government/SAGE approach, you know the game is up. Anyway, perhaps that tediously familiar phrase ‘herd immunity’ should really be applied to the unquestioning adherence to the advice that the herd entered into with the best of intentions, placing misplaced faith in their elected representatives to deliver. The immunity of the herd is immunity to common sense, willing to sacrifice long-term freedoms for short-term gain, handing over personal data via vaccine passports in order to enjoy a social activity that won’t kill them, never once considering that this info will be collated, catalogued and inevitably leaked.

The pressure to conform has always been a prominent element of every society, especially those that purport to be free ones; basically, they’re far easier to govern if everyone does as they’re told – only, don’t let on this is the case. In a free society, the herd is gently persuaded into conformity not through the strong-arm tactics of a police state, but through subliminal social manipulation, something particularly effective if there’s a moral tone. Pandemic Britain has seen conformity take on a pseudo-patriotic quality in which opposition to conformity is almost regarded as treasonous. The pressure to conform in this unhealthy atmosphere has infiltrated all aspects of daily discourse so that individual choice is secondary to the collectivist consensus, and any deviation from it is tantamount to criminal.

The doctrines of the coronavirus consensus have been embraced by some as choice, whereas many others have opted out and simply submitted. Following the guidelines, shopping your neighbours if you suspect them of not following the guidelines, taking the vaccine even if in doubt, disowning your unvaccinated friends, clapping for the NHS, living in fear for your life and so on and so on; I sometimes wonder if anyone who has stuck religiously to all the advice has actually come out the other end feeling it was a worthwhile endeavour – or are they now too far gone to evaluate their sacrifice? The herd adapts to whatever demands are placed upon it as a misguided means of self-preservation and survival, but imagined safety in numbers often means insulation from those aspects of life that make it worth living. What we have seen over the past year or so has been an extreme example of the state selling conformity as a panacea, though the practice has always been there.

I recently watched the 1962 film of Alan Sillitoe’s ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ for the first time in quite a while, and it has a lot to say on the struggle to resist conformity. The author took the corruption of the amateur ethos central to the Olympic ideal and used it as a metaphor for how the integrity of the individual is sacrificed to the continuation of a society that has done him few favours. The Borstal boy played by Tom Courtenay finds a personal, internal freedom when his athletic ability elevates him above his miserable home life, the petty crime sprees that resulted in his incarceration, and the incarceration itself. The Borstal Governor, however, is essentially training him like a racehorse in order to win a cup on a sports day event against a public school, with Courtenay’s individuality subsumed by him representing the entire institution – just as the society outside its wire fences demanded his submission to a communal conformity.

The sports day sequence itself has an antiquated pomp and circumstance that now looks like the dying breath of the Empire; the film appeared just a couple of years after the end of National Service, and the fact Tom Courtenay had his acting apprenticeship interrupted by the pointless peacetime exercise of playing soldiers perhaps gives his inspired casting an additional edge. Compulsory conscription – rather than voluntary – was a contemporary example of state-sponsored conformity, though Courtenay’s character also sees the era’s ‘you’ve never had it so good’ consumer boom as merely another illusion of freedom, memorably setting fire to a pound note as his mother goes on a spending spree after receiving the money bequeathed to her by her late husband. While the rest of the family sits mesmerised by the novel new television set, the pre-Borstal Courtenay only feels alive when he’s thieving.

As his time at Borstal progresses, Courtenay’s character gives every impression his contempt for authority has been softened by the privileges bestowed upon him when training for the race; yet when he’s within a few yards of the finishing line on the day, he deliberately stops running and allows his posh-boy opponent to catch-up, overtake him and win it. His final and most devastating act of defiance is sealed by a knowing smile aimed at the furious, humiliated Governor. Some are baffled by this ending, but it always made perfect sense to me. After being dispatched to Borstal, it’s the only ‘fuck you’ opportunity the character has left to him.

Another name for Borstal was ‘approved school’, and whilst it’s closer to a cross between a prison and army barracks, there are parallels with state schools of the period. Today, there’s a lot of concern regarding what some view as the ‘Woke indoctrination’ apparently rampant in the education system; were I a parent, I’d probably be concerned too. But to me schools have always been conformist training camps, teaching children to grow up to become good little obedient citizens – Pink Floyd pointed that out over 40 years ago, after all. The majority of kids I was at school with were indoctrinated, it’s just that the ideology then was a different one; but the aim was the same. I rebelled and resisted, and I’ve no doubt there are kids today doing likewise. The rebels are always in the minority, for the majority prefer the herd mentality. I can understand its appeal – I suppose life must be far easier if you simply go with the flow, just as it can be far harder when you instinctively rebel and resist. But I do believe it must be even harder to follow that path today – and, of course, there was no social media when I began my own journey on that path, one which will stretch way beyond 21 June.

© The Editor

SPIRITS OF ’71

Wyngarde Sketch - CopyIn between flexing like a whore and falling wanking to the floor, time still manages to squeeze a few goalpost-moving chores into the mix as well. Yes, I know I’ve written about it before, but even if it doesn’t go the whole hog and blow my mind, it never fails to at least light a little fuse there whenever I measure distance. If I was to look back, say, fifty years from the date of my birth, I would find myself either on the Western Front or storming the gates of the Winter Palace. Today, the same span returns you to 1971; and because some of my earliest recollections stem from that year, the factor of living memory makes it feel so much closer than half-a-century away. Naturally, my 1971 would have been considerably different from yours if you were approaching adulthood or were already there. My 1971 retrospectively resembles the set of a public information film; that’s how it looks to me now, anyway. My world was shot on 16mm. It was small-scale, compressed into compressed little houses on compressed little streets with compressed outside privies and compressed corner shops. But as I was only knee-high to a midget at the time, it didn’t seem especially claustrophobic.

EnaAll doors were open to a 3-4 year-old on that street; I can still picture the interiors of most houses because I seemed to have a free pass into all of them. I must have been a likeable kid, I guess. Despite my easy familiarity with them, however, every adult was formally addressed as ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ bar an old lady in a permanent headscarf who was known to all the children as ‘Auntie’. There was a middle-aged woman called Mrs Sharp a few doors down and I remember I always addressed her as Mrs Sharples; I can’t recall if she looked like Ena, but she didn’t appear to mind my confusion. Actually, considering it bore more than a passing resemblance to a certain street on the other side of the Pennines, the residents didn’t disappoint. I remember there being an equivalent Minnie Caldwell and Albert Tatlock and Elsie Tanner, but I suppose they came with the furniture back then. Any available neighbour was happy to look after me if the need arose, and it often did. Other than the ones who were drawing their pensions, many of the adults playing central roles in my 1971 were probably half the age I am now, which is a sobering thought.

Charlie GeorgeFor me, 1971 was the last year before school, so it retains a sense of innocence and purity in the memory, coated in infant amber that contrasts with the wider world of 1971 that I learnt of gradually, long after my personal experience of the year had slipped into history. I can’t, for example, recall any major news story of 1971 from the actual time. Even decimalisation, which dramatically changed the country’s century-old currency in February, didn’t register because I was simply too young to have acquainted myself with the old money before it had gone. The Ibrox Stadium disaster; the disastrous introduction of Internment in Ulster; the generational culture war of the ‘Oz’ obscenity trial; the devastating famine in Bangladesh; Idi Amin seizing power in Uganda; the death of Jim Morrison – all events too huge to inhabit my little head, all events that needed me to grow a bit more before I had the space to take them on board. Even Charlie George’s memorable FA Cup Final winner that sealed the Double for Arsenal – and it’s exactly fifty years ago tomorrow when the lanky, long-haired legend lay flat out on the Wembley turf after scoring it – yes, even that passed me by in 1971, though my father was at the game.

BolanAt least my ear was picking up signals from elsewhere. Pop music was connecting me to otherworldly places that only telly, comics, and astronaut-driven moon-buggies were otherwise informing me existed; pop impacted in a way that news stories from the year didn’t. There are a remarkable number of hits from 1971 that take me back there, and it was a richly varied year for music. The first stirrings of Glam Rock were infiltrating the singles chart and illuminating ‘Top of the Pops’, with both T.Rex and Slade scoring their inaugural No.1s; Elton John and Rod Stewart also broke through to a scene where the giants of the decade just-gone were still the standard bearers, though for perhaps the final time. The recent cultural earthquake of the Beatles’ break-up saw a flurry of eagerly-anticipated solo releases, yet a bickering Lennon & McCartney were overshadowed by the feel-good vibes of George Harrison. Both The Who and The Rolling Stones delivered the goods again with landmark releases, whilst acts to whom the 60s was merely a launch-pad, such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Joni Mitchell, went from strength-to-strength by unleashing albums that remain classics in what turned out to be quite a year for LPs that have stood the test of time. And while all this was going on, David Bowie and Alice Cooper were waiting in the wings, preparing to catch 1972 unawares.

8Hair was fashionably long for both sexes in 1971 – and there were only two then. Skirts were shorter than before or since; if you’re a leg man, watching any TV series from the beginning of the 70s means you’re in for a treat. The term ‘Metrosexual’ had yet to be coined, but many of the leading men on television in 1971 that the ladies liked were undeniably well-groomed. Two of the most preposterous albeit enjoyable series from the ITC stable of flamboyant escapism premiered that year, ‘The Persuaders’ and ‘Jason King’. The former saw Roger Moore essentially auditioning for the Bond role, though the character of Lord Brett Sinclair was perhaps a little too effete to fill 007’s squarer shoes. Similarly, the immortal Peter Wyngarde as the hilarious novelist-cum-secret agent who’d first appeared in ‘Department S’ a couple of years before was far too camp to convince as someone you’d trust with a licence to kill; but within the confines of his imaginary international playboy/espionage landscape, he made perfect sense. A world of your own was something I could relate to myself in 1971.

OzWhen the pages of ‘Oz’ were dissected at the Old Bailey that summer, the moral majority recoiled in horror at what the youth were getting up to, but the Christian backlash against ‘The Permissive Society’ was gathering pace via the likes of the Festival of Light; it also had plenty to object to when Stanley Kubrick released ‘A Clockwork Orange’ at the end of the year, despite the fact that the story itself is actually as moral as anything a Bible-basher would recognise from his book of choice. The violence perpetrated by Alex and his Droogs seemed to cause less palpitations to Mary Whitehouse and her God-fearing cohorts than the sexual element in the movie, yet violence was a greater threat to the stability of the streets, what with the emergence of that working-class terrorist, the Skinhead. The new urban bogeyman was making his mark on the football terraces in 1971, with hooliganism becoming the latest social menace. But it wouldn’t be a flash in the 1971 pan; it would outlast both the year and the Skinhead himself.

002For all the moral panic fuelling Fleet Street, however, the wave of self-confidence carried over from the heyday of England’s swinging seems to have still been largely intact in 1971 – a last hurrah for faith in the future. Maybe it only began to finally, belatedly disintegrate with the chill economic wind of the following year, the one that whipped-up Britannia’s skirts to reveal the moth-eaten, make-do-and-mend underwear of a grand old lady whose best days were behind her. Stitching up the holes in her knickers by candlelight in 1972, she must have wondered what went wrong. Her one-time protégé on the other side of the Atlantic by the name of Uncle Sam had his own problems at the time, but doesn’t everybody, whatever the year? It is always the worst of times for one person as much as the best of times for another; it just depends where you’re at. Where I was at in 1971 is on scratchy and grainy subconscious celluloid now, but the impression made by it is as sharp and vivid as ever. Some good stuff came out of that year, and I’m glad I was there, half-a-century ago.

© The Editor

THE OPEN ALL HOURS UNIVERSITY

YTAs BBC1 litters its post-‘10 O’Clock News’ weekday schedule with cheap, tacky BBC3 drivel and wonders why niche, minority interests are attracting niche, minority audiences, the abject failure of the senior visual broadcast medium to entertain the nation during lockdown is evident in spades; and blowing the seizure of the day has perhaps fatally weakened its already-diminishing clout. BBC1 during the hours I would be most likely to switch-on now reminds me of that old 90s Channel 4 show, ‘Eurotrash’, a programme that was a kitsch giggle during its day, but not one I imagined would serve as a blueprint for the national broadcaster 20-odd years down the line. At least ‘Eurotrash’ never pretended to be anything other than a frivolous celebration of the absurdly camp, though; it didn’t come with a fatuous political ‘message’, AKA a lecture in BBC Diversity to demonstrate just how on trend the Guardianistas running the Corporation really are. And they can’t understand why millions of licence fee-payers are turning away quicker than you can say ‘Normal service is being suspended because the Duke of Edinburgh has conked-out’.

Where are they going? Well, a sizeable chunk of the audience has found on YouTube what it once used to find on television – innovative, original, educational, informative and entertaining output. Not everything on YT is worth watching, of course; but there’s a hell of a lot more worth watching on there than can currently be found on terrestrial television. I must spend at least 85% of my viewing time on YT as opposed to TV and there are ‘favourite programmes’, as it were – channels to which I subscribe and look forward to their new videos appearing every few days. Some are remarkably professional, whilst others are endearing in their amateurishness, where an absence of media-training slickness comes as a welcome breather because it allows the heart, soul and personality of the presenter to shine through (not to mention the fact they actually possess such attributes), just like TV used to do back when it could attract the likes of John Noakes or Fred Dibnah.

Some YT channels have viewing figures that jaded TV execs still living off the back of ratings achieved in the 80s and 90s can only dream about today, which is further proof of how people are rejecting television and finding their entertainment elsewhere. I’ve seen with my own YT channel just how this works. Having quit YT a couple of years ago in the wake of all my videos being demonetised and constantly blocked and banned, I’ve recently returned with two new instalments of my most popular ongoing series simply due to the unprecedented and overwhelming demand for more in the last few months, a clamour I eventually realised I’d be foolish to ignore when so many have told me my old output has brightened-up dreary lockdown days. With the innovative ‘premiere’ system now a feature that didn’t exist during my uploading heyday, I’ve been able to set a fixed time at which a new video will appear and a window relaying live comments as it plays enables me to gauge an instant, real-time reaction from viewers. The latest video premiered at 6.00 last Sunday evening; within less than 24 hours, it had accumulated over 24,000 views. Four days later, it’s now on 48K.

But fear not – this isn’t merely a solo trumpet recital, for I spend far more time watching other people’s videos than making my own. There’s Joolz and his eccentric excursions into fascinating corners of the capital; Jago Hazzard and his arch, knowingly-nerdish tales from the Tube; John Heaton and his laidback dissections of Classic Rock back catalogues; light relief canine capers with Reuben the Bulldog and Oliver the Beagle; and (of course) the ‘controversial’ chat on ‘Triggernometry’. And those are just some of the ones I subscribe to and view each new video from. There are dozens of others I regularly come across and routinely dip in and out of, just as there used to be TV shows I’d watch intermittently without tuning in religiously every week. I can’t remember the last time television provided me with this abundance of viewing. At the moment it seems like every few weeks I stumble upon yet another YT channel that engages me and makes me search through the channel’s individual archive.

A few months back, I got into a genre of video that seemed the ideal tonic for anyone itching to venture farther afield than their own neighbourhood at a time when doing so was verboten. These ones are little travelogues without an on-screen presence; instead, the host has a camera attached somewhere on their person – hard to say where; possibly hidden in a hat, for no pedestrian they pass reacts in the way they would to a visible camera – and they walk on a set route for between half-an-hour to an hour. We see what they see; in fact, the picture is so seamlessly steady, it feels like we’re a drone gliding through the streets of London – and the ones I watch tend to be in the capital. Last summer there was a wonderful one strolling around Hampstead Heath (albeit not the route George Michael used to take); this was during the day at the height of a mini-heat-wave; another from the same time glided around Soho in the evening as the heavens opened. Hearing only the sound of the public, traffic, and the rain made the experience one of near-virtual reality – and reminded me of an updated interlude; this was ‘Slow TV’ that moved.

One character I discovered recently goes by the name of John Rogers. He has the quiet charm – and appearance – of Richard Thompson; but rather than treating us to an obscure English folk tune, he embarks upon intriguing walks in various uncelebrated areas around the outskirts of London. I watched one yesterday in which he visited the medieval village of Harmondsworth, which sits on the Western periphery of the capital. Harmondsworth comes across as something of a forgotten oasis surrounded by the environmentally-toxic M25 and M4, not to mention Heathrow itself on the doorstep. A sizeable chunk – over 700 homes – of Harmondsworth stands in the way of plans to build Heathrow’s third runway and opposition there is understandable. It’s ironic at a time when ‘Green’ is the favourite colour to spew forth from the scripted lips of politicians that such a carve-up of characteristically picturesque semi-rural England could be countenanced, and for a notoriously polluting industry that many have been happy to see put on ice due to you-know-what.

The building of Heathrow Airport back in the late 40s necessitated the obliteration of at least one centuries-old hamlet, and if the third runway eventually goes ahead, the entire village of Longford will also fall beneath the wrecking-ball. The area already had a history that the airport wiped from the map, including one of the myths of Middlesex, concerning ‘the last wolf in England’, which legend had it was killed in a wooded labyrinth on Hounslow Heath called Perry Oaks – a location that now lays buried beneath Terminal Five at Heathrow. I learnt all this just from watching the video, but the one-man band nature of these outings, whereby a solitary unskilled presenter with a naturally intimate, chummy style draws the viewer in and tells a fascinating story, is what makes them such a sedate and seductive format. BBC4 is still capable of producing similar programmes, but it’s been noticeable of late how much of that vital channel’s budget has been siphoned off to fund the trashy produce of BBC3, leaving many an evening schedule on BBC4 a veritable ‘greatest hits’ of its laudable music documentaries.

Then again, who needs TV? The old catchphrase of an annoyingly memorable theme tune once declared ‘Why don’t you just switch off your television set and go and do something less boring instead?’ – and it seems plenty of us are doing just that. Television only has itself to blame.

© The Editor

WE COULD BE HEROES

FrankWhen the death was announced last week of Frank Worthington, it was the latest passing in a disconcerting recent run of former footballers who were more or less all gracing the field of play at the same time forty-fifty years ago. The fantastically flamboyant Worthington was one of the great entertainers of the game when football’s great entertainers were Nureyev on the pitch and Robin Askwith off it – a generation inspired to express their extrovert personalities by following the trail blazed by George Best, those for whom giving punters their money’s worth mattered more than winning at all costs. Perhaps not entirely unconnected to this attitude was the fact Worthington never played for a club challenging for honours; his best years were at Huddersfield Town, Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers in the 1970s, though he came within a whisker of signing for Shankly’s Liverpool. Perhaps his reluctance to moderate his appetite for extracurricular excesses cost him there, but Frank Worthington’s often-breathtaking skills at least earned him a small handful of England caps, even if he was one of those players for whom anecdotes in the bank rated higher than trophies in the cabinet.

Like most famous faces admired from afar and never listed in one’s own personal address book, I didn’t actually know Frank Worthington; I’ve a feeling I may have once asked for (and received) his autograph when he was playing for a struggling Leeds United side en route to relegation in the early 80s, but that would’ve been the closest I came to sharing his space. Otherwise, he and I occupied very different worlds. However, his death – coming so soon after the passing of other greats from the same footballing era such as Peter Lorimer and Colin Bell – nevertheless resonates beyond the online obituary or 30-second news headline followed by the weather forecast. Why? Well, he and they were Gods of youth, walking tall at a time when I was small. An impressionable kid saw these guys in the pages of ‘Shoot’, watched them exhibit their talents on TV, attempted to replicate those talents with jumpers for goalposts, and sometimes pinned their pictures to his wall. They were partners in a childhood contract that nobody who’s risen to prominence in the last 30 years could ever enter into.

Such glamorous luminaries were in their prime when eyes were wide and in need of an exciting alternative to adult role models whose austere authoritarianism hardly worked as a great PR campaign for the grownup world that kid would one day have no choice but to belong to. They had a head start over later members of the household name fraternity, in possession of a sentimental seniority that will always place them in a very special elite constellation of stars. They were pivotal to a period in which they were the key ambassadors of the future, representing a wholly positive and inspirational idea of the future as a land of limitless possibilities. Sometimes it’s often hard to recall a moment when the future wasn’t an ominous spectre hovering over the present, a malignant shadow suggesting more of the same but even worse; yet, the autumnal adult perspective hasn’t always been the sole viewpoint. It just feels that way. No, there was once another concept of tomorrow, one that every personality to drift into one’s nascent vision during formative years pointed the way towards.

As a child, you are quickly made aware you are not the finished article, that you will eventually be the same height (or even higher) than the parent towering over you, that you won’t be at school forever (thank God), and that – on paper, at least – you could become anything you want to; you just need someone somewhere to present you with a range of tantalising options. Yes, you too may one day juggle a ball like Frank Worthington or play guitar like Ziggy played guitar; you may climb Nelson’s Column without a harness like John Noakes or wander around quarries in Surrey, escaping alien life-forms with a mini-skirted sidekick and dressed in a velvet jacket-and-cape ensemble – like Jon Pertwee. These guys made you believe the future was worth waiting for as long as it was their future and not the dull, workmanlike future of the teacher or the parent or the priest, or whichever everyday adult figure dispensed discipline and attempted to indoctrinate the child with a dreary design for life that had no appeal at all. These colourful characters were vital as living, breathing, indisputable evidence that the adult world didn’t necessarily equate with mortgages and insurance policies and a dozen other fatal attractions. They planted a seed that we continue to carry around inside us even if we’re not always aware it’s there. Whatever destiny lay in wait for us once we graduate from the University of Life at which they were our tutors, the interior imprint they left behind remains a precious, indelible stamp reminding us who we once were when they were helping to mould us in the most benign of fashions.

Often I see the individual on his or her path through life as a giant Airfix kit in the process of being put together by a team of people over time; the team is an ever-changing unit – as one person leaves, they’re replaced by another; and whilst some drift in and contribute one piece to the kit before drifting out again, others stick to the job at hand for several years. And, of course, the kit is never finished; new bits are constantly being added and other bits that used to fit but no longer do are removed. Sometimes people can enter our lives, dramatically reshape it, and are then gone in a blink; yet they have often altered us far deeper than someone who studiously stuck around much longer. Similarly, those we never met and simply observed from a distance can exert a significant influence by hovering over us for decades, with their point of entry enhanced for life if it came early enough in proceedings.

I think this is why we occasionally feel deeply affected when a person of note we never personally knew passes away, especially if they’ve been an omnipotent fixture that has always been there and always should be. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be the passing of a huge pop cultural figure whose influence was undeniable – a David Bowie, for example; sometimes we’re caught by surprise when it’s somebody we didn’t even realise meant something to us; sometimes it can be a minor character we never imagined was as intrinsic to that tapestry as the characters dominating the foreground – an actor, a TV presenter, a comedian, and even a politician. As long as they were present at our birth or in the room as we began to explore it, they count, whether we know it or not; indeed, we often only know it when we hear they’ve gone, because when they’ve gone that little piece of them inside us is gone too – and that was part of us.

It’s bad enough watching those who are still around get old. We don’t want them to age; we want them to always be at the peak of their powers; we want to them to remain frozen in their prime, even if that means we’ll gradually catch up with them and eventually overtake them. Their dismaying deterioration acts as an uncomfortable mirror on our own and their fate serves as a depressing premonition; if they didn’t wrinkle and wither, maybe we wouldn’t either. I don’t want Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger or Keith Richards or Bob Dylan to be pushing 80; it just doesn’t seem right. And when a character like Frank Worthington leaves the pitch, the childhood XI loses another irreplaceable player at a time when the sub’s bench is noticeably empty. I dunno. I guess the best we can hope for is extra-time – and maybe a replay. It’s a game of two halves, after all.

© The Editor

CARRY ON CALEDONIA

SNP - CopyYou can’t keep a bad man down, eh? I should imagine Nicola Sturgeon is probably thinking that today as she continues to feel the breath of her predecessor on the back of her neck, much the same as that breath quite possibly graced a few lady necks during Alex Salmond’s stint at First Minister – allegedly, of course. It’s a been a testing week for the incumbent First Minister, even though she appears – on the surface, at least – to have come through it largely unscathed. What the week’s events have done for the long-term reputation of both her and her party is in the hands of the Scottish electorate; but she remains Nicola, Queen of Scots for the time being and gives every impression of staying put till the bitter end. As a result of recent unedifying revelations, one would like to think some Scots voters have belatedly had their eyes opened to the seedy shower of crooks and charlatans that has mismanaged their nation for far too long. But there’s a certain incurable MAGA-like passion for the SNP in certain quarters of their supporters, willing to back a staggeringly draconian – not to say Orwellian – Hate Crime bill, one that effectively outlaws criticising anyone in either public or private, whilst simultaneously feeling free to demonise the English at will because it’s such a canny smokescreen when it comes to the SNP mantra.

Having been cleared of misleading the Scottish Parliament by James Hamilton QC, Nicola Sturgeon was then found guilty of doing just that in parts of her evidence by the committee investigating how the Scottish Government dealt with the complaints against Salmond. The latter’s conclusions were something of a minor miracle considering the committee was 5-4 pro-Sturgeon; but the committee found her administration’s handling of the Salmond complaints ‘seriously flawed’ and the First Minister’s dubious grasp of the truth was enough to prompt a motion of no confidence in her leadership by MSPs. She survived this just as she survived the publication of the ‘independent’ report into her conduct, published the day before the committee’s findings, though that was hardly earth-shattering. James Hamilton QC – coincidentally, her legal advisor on the ministerial code since 2015 – unsurprisingly found Wee Ms Krankie not guilty.

On paper, Sturgeon’s survival could portray her grip on power as being so strong it has remained intact despite the most serious challenge to it so far. Soviet Scotland looks like a corrupt one-party state more than ever after this week, and even when veteran Tory MP David Davis recently used Parliamentary Privilege in Westminster to heap further pressure on the nonexistent morality of the Edinburgh Politburo – a privilege not available at Holyrood – it was a case of ‘Move on, nothing to see here’ from the SNP. A weak Labour Opposition distracted by the irrelevant triviality of metropolitan Identity Politics and an increasingly authoritarian Conservative Government with an appetite for imposing and prolonging restrictions on civil liberties undoubtedly plays into SNP hands; but the SNP is effectively a combination of the two dominant parties south of the border whilst dishonestly selling itself as an alternative to the gruesome twosome it has cherry-picked the worst aspects of to strengthen the vice it holds the collective Scottish knackers in.

But whilst Nicola Sturgeon is momentarily secure on the throne, the man who would be king is refusing to allow her reign to progress smoothly. Just as he stood for a Scottish seat in Westminster following his post-Independence Referendum resignation as First Minister, Alex Salmond getting knocked down is followed by him getting back up again; the ex-FM is determined to return to frontline politics by taking the route previously traversed by the likes of George Galloway and Nigel Farage by setting up his own political party. Four candidates will be representing ‘Alba’ in May’s Holyrood elections. Interesting choice of name for Salmond’s vanity project, for Alba is the Gaelic word for Scotland. How fittingly romantic and characteristic of the man’s vision; his speech launching the party was redolent in such clichés – ‘Today Alba is hoisting a flag in the wind, planting our Saltire on a hill.’ Cue sweeping strings as Salmond’s Saltire-clutching silhouette stands atop Ben Nevis. Oh, do me a bloody favour.

Actually, choosing the name of Alba to stir misguided patriotic passions in the heart of every Scotsman reminds me of BBC Alba, the minority Gaelic TV channel funded by the nationwide licence-fee payer. It’s worth remembering, of the 5.2 million Scots actually residing in Scotland, barely 55,000 (i.e. 1%) speak Gaelic – and those Gaelic-speakers also speak English; there’s nobody left in Scotland today for whom Gaelic is their only language. Promoting it as an authentic native tongue is a form of luxury ethnicity that perfectly fits in with Alex Salmond’s appropriation of meaningless symbolism that conveniently obscures the reality of an ‘Independent’ Scotland subservient to a Union far less beneficial to the Scottish people than the one that has stood it in good stead for 300 years. If there is any glimmer of hope in this miserable circus, it’s the fact that the founding of the Alba Party raises the prospect of the SNP vote being split for the first time; if anything can weaken the SNP hegemony in Holyrood, perhaps this is it. Anyway, I digress…

I thought I’d point out that effectively renting a platform such as this has its pluses and minuses. Being the good guy I am, I resist playing the Peter Butterworth ‘Carry on Camping’ character at the gate, charging campers ‘a parnd’ for every amenity before they even set foot on the site. Although I don’t see any ads here myself, I’m told visitors are denied the perks of the creator; to get rid of ads altogether would apparently require my demanding ‘a parnd’, so it’s either put up or pay up; it seems like a small sacrifice. However, being the creator doesn’t mean I’m the freeholder; I’m essentially a tenant and was reminded of this fact when abruptly waking up in an online apartment that has been redecorated during the night. I remember reading one of the unnerving ‘gags’ Charles Manson and his gang engaged in before opting for slaughtering innocent people in their own homes was to stage nocturnal raids on occupied properties and simply move the living room furniture around without stealing a thing; the residents would therefore come downstairs the next morning and be instantly unsettled by the unforeseen alterations to their surroundings.

Mercifully, what’s happened here is not quite the same, though it’s still a pain in the arse to see the whole backstage design of the Telegram has been changed without my permission. It’s always strange how any upgrade undertaken without consultation is never as satisfactory as what preceded it. Yes, change always comes as something that takes getting used to, but it’s nice to have the option to choose change rather than having it thrust upon you with no say in the matter. If anything on here therefore appears different in style or presentation, bear in mind it’s nothing to do with me. I’ve spent the last couple of days doing my best to keep everything familiar. It’s frustrating that it now takes twice as long to achieve the complementary marriage of image and text at the top of the article that could previously be achieved in the blink of a mouse click; but this is the best I could manage. Ah, anonymous others making decisions on behalf of the individual and removing all autonomy in the process – at least this is a dilemma to which many have become accustomed of late.

© The Editor

COUNTDOWN TO CLOSEDOWN

Diaries as time capsules of a moment can be invaluable and irrefutable evidence of what our real-time response was to something that distance and hindsight can judge differently. Perused long after the event, they’re often quite an eye-opener, for few things in life have the capacity to be as unconsciously revisionist as memory. Being a former diary-keeper who abandoned the long-term practice overnight in 2017, I’ve subsequently found it’s often difficult to pin down recent events to specific dates without the handy diary reference. In this respect, the Telegram archive can be the next best thing to an old-school journal. Bearing in mind we’re approaching the first anniversary of the day the drawbridge descended on the old normal, I was curious as to the order of events in March 2020 and decided to flick through the Winegum posts from twelve months ago to recall the countdown to closedown.

The first post of that month to focus on Covid, ‘Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases’ appeared on 6.3.20; the opening paragraph mentions approximately ‘160 confirmed cases in the UK’ and goes on to say ‘and so far there have been two fatalities’; there are references to the latest Bond movie being suspended mid-production and airlines going into administration, suggesting the spreading coronavirus was already beginning to have an international impact on big business. At one point, I mention that the only people I’d seen on the streets wearing ‘surgical masks’ were a group of Chinese students; at the time, they couldn’t have attracted more stares from other pedestrians if they’d been strolling around without trousers. It would seem precautionary advice was in the process of being issued – basic general tips about hand-washing and using handkerchiefs in public that should’ve been a given, anyway; but life was very much carrying on as usual in the UK.

Five days later, a post appeared with the title ‘The Ides of March’; the accompanying illustration of the famous costumed character with ‘the beak’ from the time of the Plague outbreak of the 1660s suggests the scale of hysteria had advanced rapidly less than a week after the previous post on the subject. This post contains various references to the melodramatic reportage of the MSM, especially where empty supermarket shelves were concerned, something I myself had yet to encounter at this stage (therefore wondering if the media were promoting panic buying in the hope it would become a self-fulfilling prophesy). Self-isolation was evidently being heavily recommended at this point – though still not enforced by law; the choice remained in the hands of the responsible autonomous individual, not the State. There’s a telling mention of the first Premier League fixture being postponed due to coronavirus issues, but otherwise it’s as you were, albeit with a dose of caution.

‘Read My Lips’ (13.3.20) documents my debut as a ‘performing poet’ as I describe reciting a trio of self-penned poems at a local open mic night in a nearby Arts Centre a day or so before. A crowded room, a shared microphone, no masks, no social distancing, no panic; everyone was aware of the rumours, but stoic scepticism largely governed discourse. The next open mic event was scheduled for a month’s time; uncertainty reigned, but most still couldn’t countenance the kind of clampdowns that were beginning to take place elsewhere. However, 24 hours later a post called ‘They Think It’s All Over’ discussed the suspension of the football season. This, for me, was the real sign that we were entering a far more serious phase. One’s interest in the national game was immaterial; the fact an English football season had only ever ground to an across-the-board halt twice before in its 132-year history courtesy of two World Wars said to me that this was a significant development. I remember making this point to a close friend as I accompanied her on her dog-walking duties, something we’d had as a weekly arrangement for over a decade; it could well have been the last such occasion we engaged in this social get-together, for it too – like so much else – was being indefinitely mothballed. The crisis was beginning to personally impact now.

The next post, ‘The Fallout Shelter Diaries’, appeared exactly one year ago today; I depicted Boris as the Grim Reaper in the photo heading the article and this is the first post to explicitly describe the sudden plummet into bona-fide pandemic panic as I experienced the reality of everything the MSM had been excitedly imagining for weeks. The situation had finally hit home; for some reason, toilet rolls were the target purchase as the country prepared to collectively crap itself. The Government was advising people to avoid the hospitality sector and theatres and cinemas voluntarily closed their doors as the State’s usual support network of police and paramedics at public events was withdrawn in a case of ‘on your own head be it’; news of the Grand National, Euro 2020 and the Tokyo Olympics being cancelled suggested we were careering towards unprecedented global suspended animation in which all the annual signposts in the cultural and sporting calendar that we’d taken for granted were coronavirus casualties; it seemed only a matter of days before the curfew was officially implemented.

‘Home Entertainment’, the post issued on 20.3.20 talks about ‘home schooling’ for the first time, so I can discern that the classrooms had been emptied as a prelude to the workplace following suit. Bit-by-bit, each successive post of this eventful month depicts another window closing. Three days later, ‘The State of Emergency’ speaks of Rishi Sunak’s first emergency financial package and there are ominous warnings of legislation being rushed through Parliament with little in the way of scrutiny, giving the Government unlimited powers to curb civil liberties at will; there are also salient warnings of how similar measures in both France and Hong Kong had brought an abrupt and effective end to the street protests that had proven to be such a thorn in the sides of those nation’s respective leaders over the previous year. It’s not too great a stretch of the imagination to suggest Boris, having successfully expelled troublemakers from his own party a few months before, now realised here was a canny way to crush opposition to his administration in its most basic, democratic form. One year on, with even peaceful public vigils provoking a physical response from the police closer to what we’d expect on an 80s picket line, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

On 23 March, the PM had his ‘Neville Chamberlain moment’ and addressed the nation across all TV stations from his Downing Street bunker; 27 million of us tuned in at the same time to receive confirmation that something we’d been expecting was now official – we were locked-in and locked-down. And we did as we were told; the days that followed this announcement saw traffic vanish from the roads and shops vanish from the high-streets. Four days after his emergency broadcast, Boris himself was stricken with the virus and by all accounts came closer to the Grim Reaper than even my Photoshop mock-up ten days earlier had imagined. For those members of the public uninfected, however, this was the tranquil ‘phony war’ of the lockdown, in which wild animals ventured into the desolate urban environment and nature quickly reclaimed the surroundings vacated by humans. The novelty of indoor leisure and the eminently sensible outdoor practice of masks being optional rather than mandatory made up for the supermarket shortages and the queuing. A brief respite in the summer was superseded by hardcore Lockdown 2 come winter and we are where we are – a surveillance state so subservient to authority that another draconian bill is poised to pass into law with the same unhindered ease as the SNP’s Hate Crime cobblers last week.

A year on, it’s still too soon for the true story of this remarkable twelve month period in our history to be told – indeed, it probably won’t be properly told for decades, if ever. We only have our own personal stories to tell. Lest we forget, there are 67 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.

© The Editor

DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET?

The sanctity of the confessional undoubtedly upholds its mystique. Indeed, a clichéd plotline of many a detective drama is the frustrated copper trying to persuade a priest to hint at what was said between him and a suspect, despite the refusal repeatedly stressed by the man of the cloth. For the alleged suspect, knowing there is someone with whom he can share his demons safe in the knowledge the recipient’s lips will be sealed thereafter is evidently a rare comfort. But the confessional is more than merely an over-familiar trope routinely dredged up to embellish works of fiction. To anyone raised outside of the Catholic faith, the confidential confines of the confessional is perhaps one of the Church of Rome’s most alluring and attractive elements, though I appreciate the luxury of choice for non-believers is not necessarily something many chained to tiresome and intrusive religious rituals may view quite so benignly. Many years ago, a friend of mine confronted by a taxing personal dilemma that burdened her with more information than she could handle considered popping into the confessional just to get it all off her chest; but being utterly agnostic meant she too only knew the routine from the movies and bemoaned the fact there wasn’t a secular equivalent available – and an optional one at that.

Although some Anglican branches boasting Anglo-Catholic orientation have a similar set-up, it’s a wonder this particular aspect of Catholicism didn’t become a cornerstone feature of Protestant worship in Britain; it seems especially pertinent to the old British reluctance to wash dirty linen in public. A TV show such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ could never have existed half-a-century ago, for example, with the exposure of private family secrets used as a selling point completely alien to the traditional British character; a more fitting version of the programme produced at one time would have been more accurately titled ‘Mind Your Own Bloody Business’. How many of us grew up in families with shadowy figures on the fringes of photos whose names had been consciously forgotten, rumours whispered out of the ear-shot of children, contradictory evidence on clandestine birth certificates, a mysterious absence of a marriage licence and so on? The thought of all that airing on a primetime TV programme was anathema to those sensibilities. Yes, it is certainly an improvement that these secrets apparently can now be said out loud within families, but broadcasting them is still a step too far for some – though a lot seems to depend on which generation one belongs to.

Reading a description of the hotel facilities facing those forced to self-isolate at great expense upon returning to the UK from abroad, the inclusion of a TV set in the tomb – sorry, room – was clearly mentioned because it’s a given the item is as much a necessity as a bed. I haven’t been in a hotel room for a long time, but I can’t imagine a TV set would be much comfort in my confinement; it’d probably make me feel worse, receiving a horrifying premonition of a care home future in which I’m left to vegetate before endless gardening, cookery and antique exercises intended to extend inertia. Raised on seaside holidays in which the B&B boasted a communal ‘television room’ to serve that particular need, the novelty of a set in each individual room wasn’t something I encountered until my first visit to the States in 1980. I actually couldn’t wait to switch on back then, excited to see how different the service was. Looking back, I can see now that the dubious thrill of a hundred channels transmitting 24/7 was a glimpse into what awaited British viewers – as was the content.

One programme that stands out in the memory was so at odds with what I was used to that it almost seemed like a parody. I remember a weak steak of piss with a Gilbert O’Sullivan haircut sat around in a circle with maybe half-a-dozen people who were quite willing to discuss intimate problems and more than willing to burst into tears, leading to the inevitable ‘group hug’. My response to this conspicuous expression of emotions was laughter, but more so discomfort, feeling as though I was eavesdropping on something that I felt should’ve been conducted in private rather than public. It was probably some local PBS channel watched by fewer viewers than the number of people it took to produce the programme, but the apparent benefits those participating appeared to have received from the ‘therapy’ to me were outweighed by the very English threat of ‘everybody knowing their business’. I didn’t see the appeal for either participant or viewer. This was a new strain of television in which the confessional had opened its doors, a dream come true for that urban and suburban bogeyman (and woman), the nosy neighbour.

Previously better known for her small (but effective) role in ‘The Colour Purple’ and soon to become better known for the merry-go-round of her Liz Taylor-like weight loss/weight gain routine, Oprah Winfrey’s day-job was the host of a TV chat show specialising in audience participation. This wasn’t ‘The Generation Game’ or ‘That’s Life’, however; members of the public weren’t present to compare carrots to penises or make fools of themselves on the potter’s wheel; they were there to share things that had previously only been shared with intimate confidants and trusted friends – not only with everyone else in the studio but with millions watching at home. It would’ve been easy to write this off as an alien ‘Americanism’, but the sheer strangeness of such an approach to personal problems naturally gave it a car-crash cachet with British viewers, and British TV decided to have a crack at it.

Suddenly, from the mid-80s onwards, we had ‘Kilroy’ on BBC1 and ‘The Time, The Place’ on ITV. Then we had ‘This Morning with Richard & Judy’, ‘Trisha’, ‘Vanessa’, and probably numerous others long-forgotten in which people were encouraged to confess every sexual or mental hang-up in public. As Brits were making use of extended broadcasting hours by waiving rules on subjects that could and couldn’t be discussed before the watershed, the Americans were taking the format into extreme areas with the grotesque bear-baiting of ‘The Jerry Springer Show’; and, as had happened with the Oprah brand, we copied the format, lowering the bar way beyond anywhere the bar had ever sunk before by installing Jeremy Kyle as the gatekeeper of Bedlam so everyone could poke fun at the freaks. By now, reality television had already shown the narcissist and the exhibitionist that a lack of shame was no impediment to fame and fortune; but running parallel with this was the supposedly more dignified one-on-one interview conducted in earnest tones, a way for established celebrities to beg forgiveness for their misdemeanours and salvage their careers. Every household name from Frank Bough to Michael Barrymore followed in the footsteps of Princess Diana by adopting a faux-reserved manner to confessing their sins in public

Which brings us full circle, to the summit meeting of a woman who could lay claim to instigating this pernicious trend and a man who married his mother; the latter isn’t to be taken literally of course – after all, Jeremy Kyle has now been banished from the small screen; but you know what I mean. Considering areas where this here blog has ventured on occasion, I nevertheless deny it is also a symptom of such a trend. As a writer, I regard myself as operating in a particular tradition whereby the artist informs the art. Every novel has a sizeable slice of the novelist in it, ditto the poem and the poet, ditto the polemic and the polemicist – and I do all three. No cards are being played to elicit sympathy in the process, and there’s a world of difference between self-expression via the written word and holding out the emotional begging-bowl whilst sat in a Californian garden large enough to host gymkhana events. But this is an age in which the cameraman is closer to gynaecologist than priest and the confessional operates an open door policy in the arena of social media.

© The Editor