LIBRARY PICTURES

A hidden track on his first solo album and a single that understandably failed to pick up much in the way of airplay, ‘Running the World’ by Jarvis Cocker achieved modest notoriety via its catchy chorus, which repeated the simple phrase ‘C***s are still running the world’. One could argue the lyrical sentiment of the song should qualify it as a far more apt number to be covered by a multi-artist ensemble for victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster than an obvious, irrelevant anthem like ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’. But what else can we expect when a clueless cretin like Simon Cowell, a man for whom music is merely a means to a big car and a big house, is the mastermind behind assembling so many practitioners of the vocally histrionic and emotionally sentimental under one roof?

Yes, it’s been a good year for c***s so far. One I’ve referenced in the odd past post, instigator of divorce proceedings that labelled me as an ‘adulterous unknown’ and somebody who also hired a mate from the Met to trawl through my private records without cause or permission, has proven himself king of the c***s yet again with recent actions, though that’s neither a surprise nor something I can elaborate on, unfortunately. But the Karma Police will get him in the end (woah, going backwards to the previous post for a mo there, sorry). Anyway, the wider world has its fair share of the C U Next Tuesday brigade, whether they subscribe to Radical Islam or the EDL, so why go on about it if we all know, eh?

No, I’m not here to moan or whinge or dwell on the dark side; I thought I’d let a little glimmer of hope slip through the bleakness for one post at least. The image accompanying this post was one I captured on camera earlier today, having passed it yesterday. I don’t know who is responsible, but they deserve a medal for making me feel all is not lost, for their glorious creation served as a reminder that, even if c***s are still running the world, some of those not running it are bloody marvellous.

A wooden cabinet attached to a post fixed into the grass beside the pavement, and inside the cabinet, two shelves of books. Seemingly hand-painted in exquisite florid bird motifs, the cabinet announces itself as a ‘Little Free Library’; the only other words on it are ‘Take a book’ and ‘Leave a book’. Apparently commonplace in some corners of the world – friends in Canada tell me they’ve come across them in their neck of the woods – this innovation is new to me and it made my day. Put simply, what a lovely idea.

A couple of hundred years ago, libraries were the province of the academic and the wealthy, incorporated into universities, civic buildings and country houses that excluded the common man, and not just because more often than not he couldn’t actually read. Then came the Victorians with their evangelical zeal for self-improvement in both body and mind; it may be easy and fashionable to mock them, but boy did they leave a hell of a legacy behind them. The Public Libraries Act 1850 was arguably one of the greatest pieces of legislation to come out of the nineteenth century, enabling local boroughs across Britain to establish free public libraries, opening the book of knowledge to all. Further amendments to the Act within a decade of it becoming law extended the reach of that knowledge so that a public library became one of the fixtures and fittings of every village, town and city in the UK; a settlement would appear as incomplete without one as it would without a church, a pub or a post office.

We take libraries for granted at our peril, and it’s no coincidence an army of volunteers has regularly stepped up to the job of running them without payment when the local library has been threatened with closure; and a hell of a lot have been threatened with closure in the last decade. The attitude of our so-called superiors in government is that public libraries, as with the Arts, don’t really matter unless one attended the right school or university, probably because enriching one’s intellect isn’t necessarily related to making a profit, which of course matters more than anything else. Alan Bennett compared the closure of public libraries as tantamount to child abuse; he was quite viciously criticised and condemned by philistine Ministers entrusted with the job of closing them, and while his description was possibly a tad melodramatic the sentiment behind the statement was understandable. For a child, free access to books is as important a right as free access to education.

I became a member of my first local library aged around seven, a majestic Victorian edifice with a Gothic clock-tower; and throughout my childhood, whenever my mother ventured to the ‘town street’ to shop when I was at school, she’d pop into the library and pick something up for me she reckoned I’d like. When I was in my teens, this library was one I visited alone, selecting books from the shelf that reflected my changing tastes. Ironically, this was actually the very same library that had been Alan Bennett’s local one when he was growing up, one he returned to in a recent biography on BBC2. I haven’t been there myself now for the best part of 25 years or more (it’s no longer my local), but I’m pleased it’s still there and hopefully providing the next generation of readers with their introductions to the magic of the written word and its occasional illustrations.

Even with the revolutionary arrival of Penguin and their sixpence paperbacks in the 1930s, the price of books has always been beyond the reach of many, meaning public libraries remained the main route to reading for great swathes of the population. But, of course, they also existed for pensioners to go somewhere warm and scan the daily papers on cold winter mornings; more recent decades have seen them expand their portfolio to incorporate records, CDs and DVDs as well as housing photocopiers, printers and the internet – all of which can provide an invaluable service for so many that to write them off as expensive luxuries unworthy of investment or maintenance is to raise earthly bread over heavenly bread.

That one unknown individual or group of individuals took it upon themselves to plant their own miniature library alongside the pavement, offering a wonderful alternative to the dog turds, dried sick and broken glass lining that pavement, is such an inspired and touching gesture that it’s almost enough to restore one’s tried and tested faith in humanity. And that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

© The Editor

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THE LAST WALTZ

A few weeks ago I marked the half-century of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in a post intended as a little nostalgic interlude from the contemporary doom ‘n’ gloom that has invariably continued to dominate posts ever since. Although I’m not adhering to precise dates, another landmark album – albeit one that characterised the ‘post-Rock’ age we still reside in – also appeared in the month of June, thirty years after The Beatles’ magnum opus and twenty years away from today, Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’. The media may have neglected to mark the occasion, but in many respects, ‘OK Computer’ is the landmark album the media doesn’t like to talk about. I’d almost forgotten two decades had elapsed since its release, for it still sounds like the soundtrack to the here and now.

Where ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ marked the optimistic maturity of a new musical form that had come on in adventurous leaps and bounds over a brief period of four years, ‘OK Computer’ carried the history of the generation raised in the shadow of the 60s on its weary shoulders and tried to look forward in the process; what it saw ahead of it wasn’t exactly cause for celebration. Yet, appearing as it did at the fag-end of ‘Cool Britannia’ and barely a month after New Labour were elected into office, the album marked the decisive end of a period of false hope by anticipating not only the corrupt charade of Blair and the mass hysteria of Diana’s death, but essentially the mood of the century we’re lumbered with.

The two years leading up to the release of ‘OK Computer’ had been a curious albeit conscious diversion from the grim alternative of Grunge, which had culminated in the suicide of its most articulate and charismatic spokesman. Oasis wanted to ‘Live Forever’ and Blur wanted to escape into an imaginary musical universe where Madness starred in ‘Help!’ instead of the Fab Four. It was fun, frivolous and a breath of fresh air whereby bands once destined for the Indie ghetto temporarily usurped the tedious test-tube boy-bands at the top of the charts. Yet even when Britpop was dominant, Radiohead were striking a more dissonant chord with 1995’s ‘The Bends’, a stunningly brilliant album that had combined critical acclaim with commercial success without conceding to the prevailing trends. Two years later, when Liam, Noel, Damon and Jarvis were unlikely tabloid darlings, Radiohead re-emerged with a record that both caught the mood of the moment and predicted what was to come.

I purchased ‘OK Computer’ on the day of its release, given an inkling of what to expect by the trailer of ‘Paranoid Android’, a bizarre beast of a single that bore more relation to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ than ‘Wonderwall’, though the LP still surprised me when the needle touched down on the vinyl. At the time, I was living in a crack-den-cum-brothel that wasn’t exactly the ‘Country House’ Blur had sarcastically sung the praises of in a promo video reminiscent of a Benny Hill sketch; if ever an album said (to turn Morrissey’s lyrical quote on its head) something to me about my life, ‘OK Computer’ seemed to more than any other in 1997. Things couldn’t only get better – not for the moment, anyhow.

Whilst the mass media’s eyes were focused on the narcissistic vacuum of Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’, Radiohead sneaked under the mainstream radar with a record that was less about wallowing in a self-indulgent, coke-fuelled cul-de-sac as it was about the morning after the Britpop party. It pre-dated the NME’s calling out of Blair with its ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ cover and mirrored the sudden change in mood heralded by Blur’s inspired retreat into lo-fi darkness with their eponymous fifth album and then reiterated by the bleak grandiosity of The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’. Greeted with more or less unanimous critical praise upon release, ‘OK Computer’ shot straight to the top of the UK LP charts and soundtracked what proved to be a strange summer.

Lazy summaries of Radiohead as a band (ones that continue to dog them) appear to have their foundations in ‘OK Computer’, which is perceived as a depressing album in a late Pink Floyd vein, usually by those who haven’t actually heard it. Most of the music on it is staggeringly beautiful, but in a challenging manner that demands the listener re-evaluates their concept of beauty. ‘No Surprises’ echoes the sweetness and light of The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’ but retains the melancholic undercurrent that runs through the album, whereas ‘Karma Police’ borrows a chord sequence from The Beatles’ ‘Sexy Sadie’, reinforcing the fact that the British music scene of the mid-90s had bypassed a revival of Psychedelia and had gone straight to the less joyous landscape of ‘the White Album’.

The overriding theme of ‘OK Computer’ is one of disillusionment, something that registered as much with me while I staggered through the dying months of my 20s as it did the generation behind me, who were about to be dropped like a stone by the new government they’d been wooed by that spring. It taps into the paranoia and fear of the future that surfaced as the Millennium edged closer on the horizon and does so with a musical tapestry that is rooted in the familiar whilst simultaneously stretching to develop a new narrative for a form weighed down by its illustrious past. The cold detachment of the Stephen Hawkin-like electronic vocal on ‘Fitter Happier’ chimes with the lyrical content of the record, which seems to second-guess the isolating impact of the internet as well as the impending collapse of corporate globalisation. ‘OK Computer’ may have been of its time, but it was also ahead of its time; it’s arguable no act since its release has commented on the present as effectively as Radiohead managed before that present had even arrived.

Radiohead’s performance at Glastonbury the summer of the album’s release was probably one of the last occasions in which the festival was headlined by a band at the peak of their creative powers, marking the end of an era in more ways than one. One could even go as far as to say ‘OK Computer’ was the last time a contemporary band tuned a cracked mirror on its era and reflected that era back at its audience. Like The Beatles and Bowie before them, Radiohead looked beyond the limitations of their peers operating in the same genre and tried to incorporate elements of other genres, in Radiohead’s case the electronica of DJ Shadow and the trip-hop of Portishead. The end result may have sounded like neither influence, but ended up as a unique hybrid of both blended with more formulaic Rock insignias. Who has even attempted that since?

It wasn’t twenty years ago today that Sgt Yorke told his band to play, but it’s near enough; at the same time, it’s a long time ago. And I find that fact increasingly hard to believe; but then, I’m old enough to have been there. And it amazes me more that I’m still here to state that fact, for I certainly didn’t think I would be in 1997. But I doubt Sgt Yorke thought his band would be either. It turns out there were surprises, after all.

© The Editor

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SUMMER IN THE CITY

‘Forces of anarchy, wreckers of law and order: Communists, Maoists, Trotskyists, neo-Trotskyists, crypto-Trotskyists, union leaders, Communist union leaders, atheists, agnostics, long-haired weirdos, short-haired weirdos, vandals, hooligans, football supporters, namby-pamby probation officers, rapists, papists, papist rapists, foreign surgeons, head-shrinkers – who ought to be locked-up; Wedgewood-Benn, keg bitter, punk rock, glue-sniffers, Play for Today, squatters, Clive Jenkins, Roy Jenkins, up Jenkins, up everybody, Chinese restaurants…’

The famous rant from ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ by Reggie’s unhinged ex-army brother-in-law Jimmy (a man forever experiencing a ‘bit of a cock-up on the catering front’) is counteracted by Reggie himself, who points out the kind of people Jimmy’s proposed right-wing private army will attract – ‘Thugs, bully-boys, psychopaths, sacked policemen, security guards, sacked security guards, racialists, paki-bashers, queer-bashers, chink-bashers…rear-admirals, queer admirals, vice-admirals, fascists, neo-fascists, crypto-fascists, loyalists, neo-loyalists, crypto-loyalists.’

The figures of hate may have changed in forty years, but an equivalent rant could easily be penned today, whether one’s parting is on the left or on the right. The level of anger and awareness of his own impotence in changing the world for what he perceives to be the better that’s implicit in Jimmy’s rant forces him into contemplating a doomed military coup, albeit an unspecified idealistic one he knows hasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of success; but he’s willing to give it a go, anyway, because there’s nothing else keeping him alive but hatred. It’s the sole emotion that makes him feel anything anymore. He’s been laid off by the army, the only profession he ever knew; he’s redundant and looks around at a society he doesn’t recognise, and hatred is the one thing he’s got. That at least retains its relevance.

There are a good few people in society today whose passions are fuelled by hatred in the absence of anything else, propelled towards extreme actions by the media message (or holy book) they decide supports and validates their viewpoint. There are many more that mercifully baulk at extreme actions but nevertheless focus on what they regard as the source of their misery with an intensity that is as illogical as it is understandable. John Lennon’s bitter recollection of the petty arguments that marred the ‘Let it Be’ sessions – whereby a bum note by one Beatle is responsible for why another Beatle’s life is lousy – highlights a simplistic blame game that appears to be the default mindset of many right now. Angry people in North Kensington blame government; angry people in Birstall blame immigration; angry people on London Bridge blame western civilisation; angry people in Finsbury Park blame Allah.

The gloomy prognosis of Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation counter-extremism think-tank is that both far-right and Islamic extremists threaten a virtual civil war if events of the past month are allowed to escalate further. ISIS-inspired or sponsored attacks are designed to polarise and Nawaz predicts they’ll continue to do so unless certain fundamental issues are addressed; and if trying to address them is greeted with cries of racism or Islamophobia (usually from non-Muslims on the left for whom Muslims are their pet Victims) then we ain’t get gonna get anywhere. ‘The desire to impose Islam and the desire to ban Islam are simply two ends to a lit fuse that can only lead to chaos,’ says Nawaz.

It doesn’t help that it’s so bloody hot at the moment either. Excessively warm weather doesn’t itself provoke chaos, but it can exacerbate simmering tensions; it did in 1976 at the Notting Hill Carnival, just as it did in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981; and, lest we’ve already forgotten, a host of cities across the country in 2011. All occurred during the uniquely claustrophobic cauldron of an urban English summer, when people are denied the need to breathe that the wide open spaces of rural areas afford their residents. The current heat-wave comes at an extremely perilous and unstable moment in this nation’s modern history.

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower, the indecisive General Election result, the weekly terrorist atrocities, the Brexit negotiations, the perceived indifference to austerity by those untouched by it – all ingredients in a combustible recipe that has the potential to boil over; and bringing in COBRA to keep an eye on the kitchen won’t necessarily turn down the temperature. Let’s hope we’re in for a cold spell, then.

ISIS destroying ancient monuments in Syria and a Momentum stormtrooper burning two-dozen copies of the Sun on social media may be worlds apart, but both are demonstrations of the same self-righteous arrogance and forcible imposition of a belief system that criticism of is forbidden. After the last terrorist incident – though I am losing track of them now, to be honest – I wrote a post I opened with a quote from Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919): ‘Freedom is the freedom to think otherwise’. That quote should be scrawled on campus walls, inscribed on the first page of the Koran, and carved into the front door of 10 Downing Street. The majority of people in this country probably agree with the sentiment, but those that don’t have the loudest voices. And they’re angry.

BRIAN CANT (1933-2017)

Only three weeks ago I penned a post in tribute to childhood giant John Noakes and mentioned how Noakes’ memorable persona was in the ‘daft uncle’ tradition so prevalent on children’s television in the 1970s. A name that cropped up in this post was that of Brian Cant; and now Cant too has gone. He was the same age as Noakes – 83 – and was held in the same affectionate esteem by those of us who watched him as kids.

One of the longest-serving presenters of ‘Play School’ – for a staggering 21 years – Cant also starred in its more madcap Saturday afternoon incarnation, ‘Play Away’, for 13 years; but it was narrating Gordon Murray’s ‘Trumptonshire’ trilogy of ‘Camberwick Green’, ‘Trumpton’ and ‘Chigley’ that earned his reputation as the owner of golden vocal chords that remain music to the ears of anyone for whom those magical little shows were pivotal to the pre-school experience. Along with Oliver Postgate, Richard Baker, Arthur Lowe and Ray Brooks, the voice of Brian Cant is one guaranteed to instil serenity in a way few pharmaceutical indulgences can.

We need our daft uncles more than ever right now, and they’re leaving us. It’s shit growing-up.

© The Editor

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A REPEAT PERFORMANCE

The old complaint always used to be that there were too many repeats on television; but I suppose it depended on what was being repeated. A classic BBC series such as ‘The Forsyte Saga’ benefitted from being repeated, with the programme and the audience joint beneficiaries. It earned its household name popularity when receiving a repeat run on BBC1 in 1968, having originally been screened on BBC2 the year before. At the time, the majority of the country’s viewers couldn’t receive the Beeb’s second channel on their ageing 405-line sets, so it was a shrewd move by BBC1, intended to justify the considerable expense spent on the serial. One is made aware of just how poor the image quality must have been on those 60s tellies when watching ‘The Forsyte Saga’ on DVD today; some of the makeup used to age the actors doesn’t necessarily bear up to digital scrutiny.

Glancing through musty copies of the Radio Times from the early 70s, it’s surprising how few repeats there actually are in the listings, something that contradicts the complaints about repeats even then. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that complicated Equity rules regarding repeat fees throughout the 70s effectively limited how many programmes could actually be repeated; moreover, there was a gradual reluctance to rerun monochrome programmes from the 60s when the BBC and ITV were forever extolling the superior delights of colour television. And, lest we forget, the standard practice of wiping shows not long after their initial broadcast precluded them being seen again, anyway. Television had been, for most of its life, a transient medium that existed very much in the present; but that was about to change.

By the mid-70s, television had been around long enough to begin developing a sense of its own history, and the first wave of TV anniversary shows, such as the BBC’s ‘Forty Years’ in 1976, belatedly awakened the compilers of programmes reliant on archive material just how poorly-served the archives were. Added to this, there was an increasing interest in the back catalogues of long-running series like ‘Doctor Who’; even if there was no real medium available for the commercial release of the series’ archive, the salvaging of old episodes poised to be incinerated began in earnest during this period.

The arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 not only ushered in a fresh age of edgy broadcasting reflecting the here and now; it also revived several series that hadn’t had a decent repeat run in years, though the approach of this new kid on the broadcasting block to television’s heritage was as different to the regional ITV companies’ repeat policies as a charity shop is from a vintage one. The likes of ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Budgie’ and ‘Callan’ weren’t hidden away in the twilight hours, but given prime-time slots and elevated to the status of classics. Enough time had now passed since their first broadcasts to warrant the label.

The growth in the home video market from the early 80s onwards was initially focused on the produce of the movie industry, but television soon realised the potential too. VCRs sent many broadcasters scuttling in the direction of their depleted archives, hoping they could find the odd episode of a once-beloved series to stick out on VHS for twenty quid. Even if the rare case of a series preserved in its entirety meant it could have received a full video release, tapes were extremely expensive to buy at the time and could usually only hold a couple of episodes of anything at most. Many favourite series I now own in full on DVD were ones I just had a few episodes of on VHS releases for years; and in a lot of cases, the complete series on DVD cost about the same as two episodes on one tape would have cost me twenty-five years ago. Not all progress is bad.

The deregulation of TV in the wake of the 1990 Broadcasting Act meant there were many more channels suddenly available, though with numerous hours to fill, the cheapest way of filling them was to repeat old programmes. Yet, this also nicely chimed with an upsurge in nostalgia amongst 30-somethings for childhood shows; and when the more obvious and best-remembered of these finished their runs, one intriguing side-effect was that channels such as UK Gold and Granada Plus were then forced to excavate programmes that, in some cases, hadn’t been seen on British television for twenty years or more. Mid-90s off-air recordings of these can still sometimes surface on YouTube.

The arrival of the DVD and the innovation of the box-set finally took the decision of what old shows would or wouldn’t be repeated out of the hands of the broadcasters and did what even the VHS failed to do – it enabled fans to own the complete series of a favourite programme at a reasonable price, and usually (when old prints were digitally cleaned-up) in a better condition than even when they’d first been transmitted on TV. Companies like Simply Media, Acorn, 2 entertain and, best of all, Network have ploughed a similar path to the oldies channels of the 90s by following the release of the best-remembered series with the availability of the half-remembered and the near-forgotten; the half-remembered and the near-forgotten, however, are often worth investing in if one is interested in archive TV, as they regularly throw up pleasant surprises.

Whilst the advent of Netflix and other similar systems are now being heralded as not only the end of old-style appointment TV on terrestrial channels but as the end of the DVD box-set as well, when it comes to archive television it would seem the DVD is still its most fitting home. Yes, it may also be its retirement home; but opting out of television’s endless peak-time talent contests by escaping into a parallel universe of personal choice is the same as rejecting the radio and sticking the music on that you want to hear rather than the music someone else is shoving down your throat. At the moment, I’m back with Edward Woodward and his hygienically-challenged sidekick Lonely as they slip in and out of their shadowy and seedy, vanished 70s landscape of Cold War wallpaper. And in 2017, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

© The Editor

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CLAD IN BLACK

I suppose there’s a genuinely valid point to be made about the manner in which Central London has descended into a shameless, superficial whore exclusively opening her legs for every disgustingly wealthy, greedy, grasping Oligarch and Arab to buy her favours and own her outright. Maybe. The appalling inferno that consumed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington in the wee small hours has led to a loss of life that we’ve yet to be told the extent of; but the suggestion that the spread of the fire may have been caused by the cladding recently installed around the tower’s exterior in order to make a characteristically ugly 70s council block more aesthetically easy on the eyes of the building’s luxury apartment neighbours could be summarised as the story of our capital city over the last twenty-five years in a nutshell.

The shocking extent of the blaze, engulfing what appeared to be the entire building, was reminiscent of a similarly horrific fire that destroyed the Summerland entertainment centre on the Isle of Man in 1973. Summerland had been opened for just two years, boasting swimming pools, games rooms, restaurants and dance halls all under one roof; it was intended to increase tourism by appealing to families, but the untested modern materials used in the building’s design proved to be fatal for those trapped inside when a fire broke out on 2 August 1973. The fact the fire exits were locked and bolted to prevent people sneaking-in without paying exacerbated the tragedy that unfolded, one that eventually claimed up to 53 lives – at the time, the worst loss of life via fire since the Blitz.

Images of the gruesome Summerland carcass were echoed in North Kensington today; the charred remains of Grenfell Tower even resemble a hideous evocation of HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War, whilst the horror of a tower block going so badly wrong is reminiscent of the Ronan Point disaster in Newham, East London, in 1968. And if the insulation wrapped around the building was indeed to blame for the speed with which flames swamped the building, there’s a hell of a lot of questions requiring answers.

Part of a social housing complex of the kind we will probably never see erected again – certainly not in Central London – Grenfell Tower has stood for 43 years. It was only last year that an £8.6 million refurbishment under the guise of ‘regeneration’ came to that corner of the capital, motivated in part by a desire to upgrade the appearance of the building, surrounded as it is by the architectural hallmarks of the mega-rich that have indulged in a ghastly game of Monopoly in recent decades. Planning documents for the regeneration of Grenfell Tower claimed the changes, little more than cheap cladding suggesting ‘gentrification’ of the shallowest order, was clearly intended to improve the view seen from apartments of a different nature in the nearby neighbourhoods.

It’s emerged in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that residents had repeatedly aired fears of the block’s safety relating to fire, and it’s not too far-fetched to speculate that the materials used to insulate the tower were not necessarily the expensive variety proven to be non-flammable; such cladding is apparently commonplace when it comes to representatives of an unfashionable architectural era and corners are undeniably cut, especially when the residents of such residences are amongst the poorest in London. Fires have broken out in other London tower blocks in the last few years, few of which actually contain sprinklers; but it would seem potential dangers have been overlooked and ignored. And look at where that has got us.

An early and somewhat unlikely story of the fire starting via a tenant’s exploding fridge appeared to be one of those that are usually circulated, especially in the 24/7 news age, before facts have been established. But it’s seeming more and more likely that the materials used for the cladding of the building played a large part in the terrible disaster that has reduced what was home to hundreds of people to a charcoal skeleton akin to those we’re familiar with seeing in archive film of the Blitz. An outsourced private company running the flats on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council had been criticised by residents associations online long before what happened last night, but ears have been deaf to such protests until now. And now it’s too late.

ANITA PALLENBERG (1944-2017)

A Swinging 60s It Girl and one of many women whose immersion in the unhealthy circle of The Rolling Stones both made her and came close to claiming her, Anita Pallenberg was one of her era’s most exotic and alluring butterflies. Of Italian and German descent, she’d been amongst the hangers-on at Andy Warhol’s Factory until leaving New York for London; she then became the woman on the arm of the Stones’ most stylish member, Brian Jones, with the couple morphing into the stunning Siamese Twins of what Twiggy’s mentor and manager Justin de Villeneuve referred to as ‘the new social aristocracy’.

However, Jones was a troubled soul and it would seem the pair weren’t exactly well-suited; an ill-fated trip to Morocco with Brian and Keith in 1968 saw Pallenberg swap partners; she and Keith were partners in both the romantic and narcotic sense for the best part of a decade, though she bore him three children. Early on in their relationship, she played one of Mick Jagger’s two female companions in the sublimely dark ‘Performance’, a part that Keith remains convinced wasn’t entirely acted.

Anita Pallenberg had a few more notable movie roles, including a deliciously sexy villainess in Roger Vadim’s ‘Barbarella’, but her reputation as a Swinging 60s survivor in the decades thereafter was largely based on ‘Performance’. I pen this brief obituary because that film, as disturbing as it occasionally is, remains one of the most unforgettable and irresistible cinematic temptations I’ve ever been seduced by. Part of me still wants to be Turner Purple and still wants to inhabit that malevolently erotic household; Anita Pallenberg sold a dream that was also a nightmare, but I can’t see anyone today opening such a lascivious portal to such a divinely decadent world; and our world is all the blander for it.

© The Editor

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THE 25-YEAR ITCH

Not that long since, I switched on the TV and BBC2 was showing a Dara O’Briain gig; it was only when the credits rolled at the end that I realised the programme was a repeat from five years previously. There was nothing visually on display to suggest it was that old; the appearance of the members of the audience and the star of the show himself implied it could have been recorded last week. I momentarily imagined it was 1981 and I was viewing a Jasper Carrott gig from 1976; the difference in the hairstyles and clothes would have been so glaring that it would have been instantly obvious this was five years old.

If we were to study photographs of street scenes taken over the last twenty years, I surmise it would probably be difficult to discern which images were oldest and which were most recent; the members of the public caught on camera wouldn’t look much different in any of them. Compare a street scene between, say, 1964 and 1974 or 1974 and 1984, however, and it would be instantly identifiable as to which decade the photos belonged in. Whenever ‘Starsky & Hutch’ was re-run in the mid-1980s, the dated dress-sense of the two lead characters marked it out from another era as much as the sleeve of the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack LP did, yet both were from less than ten years before.

Anyone who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s was given something of a false impression that popular culture was built on shifting sands, a fluid, ever-changing creature that existed in a permanent state of transition – or at least the impression given was that this would always be the case. It hadn’t been before, though. Compare (if you can) family photos from before and after the war; the men have regulation short-back-and-sides and are wearing suits on either side of the conflict; there’s little to distinguish the male figures in the images from the 30s and the 50s. With the women, there are subtle differences in their hairstyles and the height of their hemlines, but it’s not that dramatic. What would soon become ‘teenagers’ resemble Mini-Me versions of their parents; by the beginning of the 70s, it would be the parents looking to their children for tips on how to dress.

From the 60s onwards, the people mirrored the trend-setters in a way that was new. The death of haut-couture that was brought about by the likes of Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki took fashion from the exclusive houses of Paris and Rome and passed it down to the high-street – affordable for the masses because the masses had produced the trend-setters, whether Twiggy or Brian Jones. The growth of mass-media via television also brought this into living rooms and out of the pages of ‘Vogue’, no longer elite or expensive. It was social mobility’s sartorial incarnation and what had once been seen as the province of the ‘poofy’ and effeminate eventually reached defiantly masculine professions such as mining or football – all in the space of less than a decade.

From the dandified poseurs of 1968 to the scruffy hippie hobos of 1971, from the platform-heeled Glam wannabes of 1973 to the spiky-haired and safety-pinned Punks of 1977, and from the floppy-haired New Romantics of 1981 to the football hooligan sportswear chic of 1985’s Casuals, the pace of life as lived through its fashions was breathless. The soundtrack to this frenetic rummaging in the dressing-up-box was no less speedy. At the end of the 70s and into the 80s, it went from Punk, New Wave and Two-Tone to Synth-Pop in the space of around three years, with a figure such as Gary Numan acting as an effective bridge between the two decades, with one foot in both of them without really belonging to either as they have come to be retrospectively remembered. This wasn’t destined to last. It couldn’t.

The Acid House scene that went over-ground in 1988 was the grand finale of the era that had begun with the moral panic of Rock ‘n’ Roll thirty years previously. The whole Rave culture remained the cutting-edge until around 1992, when The Shamen’s chart-topping ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ signalled it was essentially over as a subversive sound, despite the controversy surrounding the single’s drug wordplay. Running parallel with the Dance dominance as the 80s gave way to the 90s was the mainstream breakthrough of Hip Hop, something that had slowly grown in influence throughout the decade. In a sartorial sense, the Hip Hop look proved to be the blueprint for the street-wear that has been the default style of youth for the last twenty-five years.

As their circulation figures plummeted in the face of online competition, the old music papers struggled to invent cults in the established traditions as the twenty-first century staggered into a cultural cul-de-sac. ‘Hoodies’ were not comparable to Mods and Rockers, as a hoodie is simply an item of clothing that can be worn by anyone under a certain age and is not tribally specific. Similarly, what is held up as an example of a contemporary cutting-edge sound such as Grime is not necessarily doing anything that the likes of So Solid Crew weren’t doing fifteen years ago. When a product-placement multi-millionaire showbiz businessman like Jay-Z is a role model (basically Victor Kiam with a break-beat) where be the Revolution?

Now that a quarter-of-a-century has passed since the last old-school youth-quake that was Acid House ended and the evidence that pop culture has entered an era of suspended animation is right there in the world outside your window with every passer-by, perhaps it’s time to admit an epoch is over and we are living in musical and sartorial stasis. The age of constant change that characterised the 50s up until the 90s now feels like an aberration in cultural terms; the world has reverted to type, a world in which every development is merely an exercise in recycling and therefore takes us round in ever-decreasing circles. For those of us who were either in the thick of it or caught the coat-tails of it, we should count ourselves lucky.

© The Editor

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GONE WITH NOAKES

Before hyperactive twenty-somethings, uncles used to be the model – lacking the stern authority of father-figures, managing to earn respect with lingering juvenile slapstick silliness; when I was the child watching, uncles were everywhere. Derek Griffiths and Brian Cant on ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’; Tony Hart on ‘Vision On’; Johnny Morris on ‘Animal Magic’; Roy Castle on ‘Record Breakers’; yes…Rolf Harris; and then there were John Noakes and Peter Purves on ‘Blue Peter’. With the news that Noakes has passed away at the age of 83, having mercifully evaded the pernicious net of malicious revisionism that hangs over his television era, those of my generation cannot help but recall how much he meant to us at the time.

John Noakes joined ‘Blue Peter’ as a very young-looking 30-year-old when his far-from spectacular acting career was floundering. Becoming the third member of the team in 1965, he was quite unlike anyone to have appeared on children’s TV previously. Christopher Trace and Valerie Singleton were very much in a 50s parental mould – RP-speaking, frightfully middle-class and sensible; they represented the norm. Noakes was Northern and didn’t hide his Yorkshire accent, for one thing; and he never talked down to the audience, communicating with them in their own language. It never looked as if Noakes’ mother took a comb to his hair, so he was definitely ‘one of us’.

John Noakes was also child-like in his anarchic recklessness, quickly earning a reputation as something of an amateur daredevil that saw him put in situations that would today provoke a cardiac arrest in most Health and Safety Officers. He climbed up one of the chimneys at Fulham Power Station, up Nelson’s Column, up the mast 127 feet above the deck of HMS Ganges; he skydived with the RAF; and had a lucky escape when tobogganing at 90mph. There was a fearlessness to him that seemed to echo the tree-climbing zest for life his core viewing public were encouraged to believe they would one day grow out of. He clearly hadn’t grown out of it, so there was hope for all of us.

It later emerged that Noakes’ popularity with the young audience was something of an irritant to his on-screen sidekick Peter Purves. Not that the two men didn’t get on – far from it; but it seems Purves resented having to play ‘the straight man’ to Noakes’ comedy character; perhaps that’s why Purves went for the cool dude look, straight out of Carnaby Street. It was then up to Valerie Singleton to play the responsible parent to an unruly rascal and a coiffured dandy, keeping the boys in order. Singleton was the studio representative of the show’s backstage editor Biddy Baxter, whose strict headmistress persona often clashed with Noakes’ instinctive rebel. But the off-screen tensions benefitted the programme, as Noakes became (and remains) the longest-serving presenter in its history, clocking-in at 12 years 6 months.

One of the more ingenious ideas ‘Blue Peter’ came up with was to introduce dogs and cats as surrogate pets for those children watching whose parents wouldn’t allow them to keep either (me included). It was also an astute move in that animals are one of the best ways in for children to learn about the cycle of life in that they die after a few short years. Petra and Jason were the original dog and cat members of the line-up and when the series decided to keep one of Petra’s puppies Patch as the second canine star of the show, Noakes was entrusted to look after him. The first lesson of the life cycle came for ‘Blue Peter’ viewers in 1971 when Patch suddenly died after catching a rare disease during location filming. A few months later, his replacement appeared and a legendary double-act was born in the process, John Noakes and Shep.

The Border collie appeared to be the perfect best friend for a man like John Noakes; he was just as silly and loveable as Noakes himself. In fact, the two were so inseparable that they even gained their own spin-off series, ‘Go with Noakes’, in which John and Shep went on their travels around the country, usually indulging in the more energetic rural pursuits. By the mid-70s, John Noakes was one of the most famous faces on British television and it was all-but impossible to imagine ‘Blue Peter’ without him. However, that moment came in June 1978, barely three months after Peter Purves had also walked; for the children watching, both ‘Blue Peter’ and children’s television would never be quite the same again.

The clash between Noakes and Biddy Baxter wasn’t eased by his departure; although Shep was technically ‘BBC property’, Noakes was told he could take Shep with him when he left the programme as long as he didn’t capitalise on their celebrity by advertising products on ITV. Noakes agreed and then promptly did a dog food commercial with a Shep lookalike, infuriating Baxter. The ill-feeling lasted a long time, with Noakes refusing to participate in any of the programme’s anniversary reunions until Baxter had herself retired. The feud was a shame in that both contributed hugely to the success of the show and made it one of the jewels in the BBC’s children’s crown during a genuine golden age.

In the years after his ‘Blue Peter’ career ended, Noakes appeared occasionally on TV, presenting a regional series called ‘Country Calendar’ for Yorkshire Television in the early 80s and then largely popping up as a guest blast from the past here and there. His public bitterness about his ‘Blue Peter’ years was, to those of us for whom he was a hero, a bit like finding out your dad had been having an affair throughout his marriage to your mum. It sours the memory a little, but can’t take away the warmth that memory continues to generate. Patch and Shep were my dogs, Jason was my cat, and John Noakes was my daft uncle. Just as they all were to everyone else my age. RIP.

© The Editor

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