THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

FuneralOne of the main complaints from viewers who’ve followed one of those big sporting events that span two or three weeks like the World Cup or the Olympics during the wall-to-wall coverage usually comes the day after the tournament’s conclusion; suddenly it seems like there’s nothing to watch anymore. In a way, the ten or eleven days that began with schedules being suspiciously rearranged when Her Majesty’s health took a turn for the worse at Balmoral was the beginning of a similar domination of broadcasting hours that the nation became accustomed to very quickly. And now, having been witness to the climax of the event, it feels strange that all in telly-land is back to normal. Few would doubt the BBC’s inexhaustible anchor Huw Edwards deserves a holiday – he seems to have been on screen continuously ever since he announced the death of the Queen almost a fortnight ago; and it will be handy for those who still buy listings magazines to find what’s listed on the printed page once again accurately reflects what’s actually on TV. But the finality of the funeral sets the seal on so many different aspects of British life that seem to have been with us forever, not least what the nation watches.

Interestingly, the top ten most-watched broadcasts in British television history – a list so static for so many years – now contains three entries from this century; considering we’re supposed to be living through the century in which we abandoned the communal experience of sitting down to view the same programmes at the same time, that’s quite an achievement. For the record, the three 21st century broadcasts are the Euro 2020 England Vs Italy Final (which was held in 2021), Boris Johnson’s ‘stay at home’ lockdown speech from 2020, and the newest addition, which is (of course) the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. In a way, none of those inclusions are a great surprise. Finals and semi-finals involving the England football team traditionally draw huge audiences, as do royal occasions – whether weddings or funerals. But the build-up to Monday’s event was exceptional and unique in many respects; and it climaxed with perhaps the most expertly-choreographed public spectacle ever staged in this country, the Hollywood blockbuster of live outdoor broadcasts.

But it didn’t merely begin and end on the day Brenda was laid to rest. From the moment the hearse drifted through the gates at Balmoral and set off on its long journey to Holyrood, the stage was set for an extraordinary sequence of images. Quite possibly the most moving early on was the impromptu assembling of tractors lining-up side-by-side beside the road – a spontaneous gesture that allowed Scottish farmers to pay their respects, evoking memories of the dockers lowering their cranes as Churchill’s floating hearse made its way along the Thames in 1965. Thanks to the helicopter following the funeral cortege from above, we were able to see such a sight in a manner that wouldn’t have been quite as effective from ground level. Even the fact Her Majesty passed away north of the border and therefore had to travel all the way down to London seemed a brilliant plot device; it meant that the Scots rather than the English had the first opportunity to bid her farewell, serving as a reminder that she was Queen of all the UK as opposed to just England. Not that this fact would necessarily persuade the most committed Nationalist to see the bigger picture, but maybe it helped paper over a few of the cracks in the Union and momentarily healed a divide that some of the Queen’s Ministers on both sides of the border have exacerbated in recent decades.

Of course, the Queen herself wrote the screenplay for this production, and it’s not unlikely she knew the end was nigh and deliberately chose to retire to Balmoral, aware that doing so would give Scotland a head start over the auld enemy. Indeed, had she passed away at Windsor, the Scots would’ve been watching from afar like the Welsh and the Irish. Instead, they had a personal investment in the whole process and got to line the streets of their own capital long before the queues began forming for Westminster Hall. Despite the departure from Scotland being by air, another lengthy car journey represented the next stage of the procession. The heavens had opened and night had fallen when the multitudes first descended upon Buckingham Palace the day she died, but the shock many of those gathered outside the gates felt, which had dissipated by the time the cortege touched down on English soil, seemed to be reactivated for the return to her most celebrated London home. The sedate evening approach along the Mall was gifted yet another inspired visual stroke as the lights were switched-on in the hearse so that the coffin itself was visible in the darkness, a luminous regal firefly gliding past the crowds en route to its solemn absorption into the private enclaves behind the Palace facade.

Brian himself, in his new role as sovereign, wasted little time in touring the rest of the Kingdom as his mother’s mortal remains progressed from one stage to the next, faulty fountain pens not withstanding; after 70 years’ training, he knew what he had to do. The ongoing debate as to whether the Third Charles will fare better than the Second – and most definitely the First – appears to centre on his appetite for promoting causes in a way that doesn’t necessarily equate with the political impartiality of the monarch. But it’s feasible that he might simply accept his new duties and quietly leave that kind of thing to the new Prince of Wales. After all, during his prolonged stint as the Prince Regent, the eldest son of George III was a perennial thorn in his father’s side, gathering an alternative court around him – usually consisting of MPs the King wouldn’t countenance as Ministers – and generally behaving in the most dissipated and debauched manner imaginable. But, as soon as he became George IV, he abandoned his old partners-in-crime and attempted to mend his least kingly ways; alas, for the man Byron referred to as ‘the fourth of the fools and oppressors called George’, the damage had been done. Charles has at least had more time to attend to his own repairs.

King Charles III has also had more luck than King George IV in that his first week as monarch saw him in synch with the majority of his subjects, carried along on a wave of uncritical sympathy. The first sighting of family participation in the storyline was when Brenda’s coffin relocated from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall and her children and grandchildren walked behind it, faultlessly in step with the beat of the drum; the fact neither the disgraced Andrew nor the exiled Harry were given sentimental permission to don their discarded uniforms was a clever move by Charles, keeping the public on his side. And once the remarkable precision of the soldiers who delicately removed the coffin from the gun carriage and carried it into the Hall was perfectly executed, what followed saw the public themselves join the cast as extras. In fact, more extras than Cecil B. DeMille could command. The queue that stretched for miles and stretched round the clock was the last defining image of the event before the funeral itself, not even soiled by celebrity queue-jumpers.

Come the final act, the poignant presence of the orb, the sceptre and the crown on the coffin – totems symbolising the contrasting mood of the Coronation 69 years before and thus bookending the two landmark occasions – was a moving opening. Yes, it was fascinating to see all those world leaders gathered under one roof and it’s always undoubtedly entertaining to see how old so many past Prime Ministers now look; but the timeless grandeur of Westminster Abbey instantly reduced the tabloid soap operas of certain hangers-on to the ultimate here today-gone tomorrow irrelevancies they are in the historical scheme of things. One more masterstroke by the scriptwriter. Yet, it was really the relatively intimate surroundings of Windsor that seemed to do the send-off justice. Small albeit affecting touches – Brenda’s pony observing the cortege passing by and two of her corgis awaiting its arrival – somehow said more than Biden or Macron or Trudeau turning up at the Abbey. And then the unforgettable ending before the credits rolled: the breaking of the wand, the coffin’s graceful descent into the vault, and the lone piper gradually fading from hearing – beautifully produced elements of human theatre that worked so well and couldn’t have been bettered. There was no finer way to say it’s over as we exited the darkened cinema and stepped back into the blinding glare of real life – insecure, uncertain real life.

© The Editor

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IT’S BEEN AN AGE

Stones CricketAs a quaint, archaic phrase inextricably bound-up with the monochrome optimism of the immediate post-war 1950s, ‘The New Elizabethan Age’ hadn’t stood the test of time until its recent revival (for obvious reasons). However, with the passing of the Queen whose name this imaginary era had rented, do we now acknowledge it was an authentic epoch in itself or do we accept whatever achievements history might like to squeeze under such a convenient umbrella label simply took place on Her Majesty’s watch even when she wasn’t watching? Will the future file this age away so that the past 70 years will retrospectively group together everything from The Beatles to Brexit, Bond to Bowie, Coronation Street to Concorde, Thunderbirds to Thatcherism, Paddington to Punk Rock, and from Tommy Steele to Tim Berners-Lee? Well, it’s probably in the hands of the generations who never lived through it, though many of us who lived through at least half of it recognise whatever creative and cultural renaissance this country coincidentally experienced whilst Brenda occupied the throne drew to a close long before she breathed her last at Balmoral.

As if to confirm this, a video that did the rounds on Twitter this week featured the contemporary ‘star’ Rita Ora labouring under the misapprehension that she’s Aretha Franklin reincarnated as a lap-dancer. The focus of said video was Ora’s attempt to turn Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’, into a sub-Beyoncé vehicle for the extended – not to say excruciating – practicing of scales. On the video, Ora evidently believes what she’s doing marks her out as an artist of some repute; the sycophantic encouragement of an audience perpetuating her fantasy is as sad as Ora’s embarrassing conviction of her own greatness, though both are victims of low expectations and an inability to question the hype. The Auto-Tuned digital trickery that fools some into believing deluded marionettes with all the soul of The Archies are worthy of bracketing along with the genuine articles who shone so brightly and so far-reaching in the first half of the New Elizabethan Age is never more exposed than in the live arena; but so desensitised are the Spotified public to the charade that convinces them they’re witness to landmark talents rather than average mediocrities, it already feels like it’s too late to extinguish the artistic inferno our Rome has long been engulfed in.

The last monarch to occupy the throne for over half-a-century, Queen Victoria, of course gave her name to her age and was witness to her own revolution as a society transformed by industry – everything from the railways to the telegraph to the telephone and the internal combustion engine – also saw imperial and civic expansion as well as the codification and professionalism of sports that are still with us; and as literacy grew, it was fitting that the written word became the prominent artistic medium. The great novelists of the 19th century stamped their art on their era as much as musicians were to do in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. But just as few of the novelists who came after Victoria were able to make quite the same immense cultural impact enjoyed by the giants of her era, the musical survivors of the 1960s and 70s remain the biggest draws on a touring circuit which would struggle to break even without the profitable presence of ‘Heritage Rock’. Perhaps future generations will discern the decline of the dominant creative form of the New Elizabethan Age and tie its end in with the death of Elizabeth herself, despite the fact it was wielding a walking stick well in advance of Her Majesty.

Those who find themselves prominent movers and shakers during an age – or at the very least find themselves reporting from the frontline of it – tend not to name their eras; as a term, the New Elizabethan Age seems to have been bandied about a lot up to and around the 1953 Coronation by that day’s media, almost imposed on the populace in the hope it would catch on. But it doesn’t recur much thereafter. When England swung a decade later, you’d be hard pushed to find Carnaby Street referenced as emblematic of the New Elizabethan Age; and I’ve no doubt the groovy guys and gals haunting that particular thoroughfare would have laughed if anyone had tried to pin such an antiquated label on their party. It probably sounded terribly ‘square’ by 1966 – just another dated and discarded piece of slang when the verbal lexicon was moving at a pace those beyond the bubble could never hope to keep up with. But if one were to return to the beginning of the Queen’s reign, perhaps the undeniable boost to weary austerity Britain of having a young woman on the throne instead of an old man tapped into something that was already slowly taking shape, something that would lead all the way from the South Bank to Soho.

Looking back, it’s clear that the confident Modernist architecture which received a nationwide window at the 1951 Festival of Britain anticipated the first flowering of something new. The sky-scraping, Dan Dare-like futurism of the Skylon and the equally Space-Age flourishes of the Royal Festival Hall pointed the way towards related edifices of the early 60s such as the BBC Television Centre and Coventry Cathedral. The consecration of the latter in 1962 was accompanied by the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, an aptly moving piece aired in the shadow of the bombed-out ruin it replaced. Britten himself was perhaps the key artistic figure of that early Elizabethan Age, being an incredibly prolific and lionised composer nonetheless saddled with the antisocial urges of his sexuality at a time when the Law had yet to embrace the spirit of change. Like Philip Larkin, whose melancholy musings on the type of sexual intercourse that characterised the country after 1963 were laced with regret at missing out, Britten belonged to a generation still coping with the seismic interruption of global conflict to their lives, an experience that would always distance them from the kids searching for shrapnel on bombsites. Those kids were the ones in whose hands the glorious bloom of the New Elizabethan Age rested, and whose efforts would be most richly rewarded.

Britten’s sublime ‘Four Sea Interludes’ – which were originally composed as instrumental passages for his celebrated opera, ‘Peter Grimes’ – were already on my looped playlist before events at Victoria and Albert’s Highland hideaway pushed the New Elizabethan Age back onto the agenda. But as a suddenly poignant soundtrack, they seem to speak to something recent developments have reignited; they are the sound of an ancient island nation instinctively looking out to sea, evoking everything from the place names on the Shipping Forecast to the dying director Derek Jarman pottering about his garden as the toxic silhouette of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station loiters on the windswept horizon. It goes without saying that the history of these islands predates the awareness of those who dictate the popular narrative, so that any ‘age’ doesn’t take place in isolation; it usually has roots stretching back decades, even centuries. Maybe the passing of Her Majesty and the age to which she gave her name has simply brought everything we’ve taken for granted back into focus and provoked a little soul-searching. But we have been here before – just not for a long time.

Whether Vaughan Williams borrowing from Thomas Tallis, Fairport Convention electrifying traditional English Folk songs, or any updated production of Shakespeare you care to mention, little in British popular culture springs from the soil without having been planted there by our forefathers. And if the crown of the kingdom happens to remain on the same head for long enough, chances are history will round up every disparate collection of creative vagabonds and name the years through which they operated after the sovereign observing (and occasionally rewarding) their efforts. In this respect, the New Elizabethan Age was for real – a unique renaissance we’ve all been beneficiaries of.

© The Editor

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NON-TOXIC MASCULINITY

ProfessionalsThere’s been a lot of understandable talk these past few days of how her late Majesty gave the British people a sense of security when every other Great British bastion proved fallible; if all else failed, the Queen was always there. Now she’s gone, who can we rely on? Well, at one time – albeit over 40 years ago – we could rely on CI5. This uniquely hardline service, sandwiched between Special Branch and MI5, was established in the tumultuous climate of the 1970s to deal with the escalating threats to the British way of life from international terrorism and increasingly sophisticated espionage. Headed by the redoubtable Major George Cowley, CI5 drew on the best men from the armed forces and the police and rode roughshod over all the legal obstacles that hindered ordinary coppers from nailing their man. CI5 had a remit that precluded niceties and this was reflected in the guys that fronted it, especially agents Bodie and Doyle. The former was an ex-military man who’d earned his spurs as a mercenary-for-hire in Africa; the latter rose to the rank of DC in the Police Force. When partnered together, Bodie and Doyle proved to be the ideal combination to cope with the challenges that threatened Britannia’s borders as the country careered towards the 80s.

Of course, CI5 only existed in the parallel universe of the cathode ray tube between 1977 and 1983. George Cowley was Gordon Jackson, Bodie was Lewis Collins, and Doyle was Martin Shaw. But from the moment that car crashed through a plate glass window and arguably one of the most energising theme tunes in TV history pumped its testosterone-fuelled beats into the living room, CI5 was for real – well, for an hour every Sunday evening, anyway. ‘The Professionals’ was a film series produced for London Weekend Television, being the brainchild of Brian Clemens, the man who had developed ‘The Avengers’ into such a memorably quirky and stylish series ten years before; having recently revived it as ‘The New Avengers’, Clemens was eager to create something less eccentric and more pertinent to the brutal 1970s and he hatched the concept of CI5 as an organisation to hang his idea around.

The success of ‘The Sweeney’ (1975-78) had shown there was an appetite for a hard-hitting police series in which the protagonists might bend the rules to nail society’s nastiest bastards; the popularity of the swearing, smoking, shagging, punching and boozing Regan & Carter was a testament to the charismatic chemistry of the two leads (John Thaw and Dennis Waterman) and was enhanced by sharp, witty writing. The show was produced by Euston Films for Thames Television, holders of ITV’s weekday franchise in the capital, and networked across all the ITV regions. The capital’s franchise holder for weekends, LWT, was desperate to come up with something similar, and Clemens’ idea sounded like just the series the company was looking for, combining the familiar police elements with the spy factor that had proven successful in the past with the likes of ‘Callan’, and adding the terrorism angle that was a reality for the British people after several years of IRA bombs causing mayhem on the mainland. The show had the potential to capture the public’s imagination in the same way ‘The Sweeney’ had, but it all depended on recruiting the right men for the job.

Gordon Jackson certainly wouldn’t have been the obvious choice to play the brash, abrasive boss of CI5; he was a household name thanks to a very different kind of character indeed – Hudson, the urbane head butler on LWT’s internationally popular period soap, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. However, Jackson proved himself to be far more versatile an actor than people gave him credit for and was as capable of barking out orders at his subordinates as any Sergeant-Major on the parade ground. After first-choice Jon Finch decided against being tied to a series, Martin Shaw, whose grumblings about his time on the show have become part of the programme’s legend, was selected for the part of ex-copper Ray Doyle; Shaw had an impressive theatre and TV CV that had been steadily building throughout the 70s. Contrary to popular belief, his distinctive bubble-haired look predated ‘The Professionals’ – it’s evident in an episode of Nigel Kneale’s anthology series, ‘Beasts’, from the year before he joined CI5 – although Shaw’s concessions to the sartorial styles of the era perhaps placed the show in a time capsule that often distracts from its enduring strengths. Initially, he was pared with Anthony Andrews as Bodie – an actor whose aristocratic bearing proved ideal for the series that made him a household name in 1981, ‘Brideshead Revisited’; but Andrews’ attributes didn’t work for Bodie and the part was recast after several days of shooting.

In stepped Lewis Collins, a lesser ‘thespian’ as far as Martin Shaw was concerned, though an actor who had also established himself on the small-screen, albeit via the vehicle of the sitcom; in Collins’s case it was the mid-70s ITV show, ‘The Cuckoo Waltz’, co-starring the beautiful Diane Keen. Called upon to play it straight, Collins nevertheless injected a level of humour into the role of Bodie that helped give the show some light relief; the banter between Bodie and Doyle – especially during extended in-car scenes when the two were screeching tyres en route to their next assignment – oozed a natural camaraderie that gave the series a great deal of its appeal. Regardless of some rather chaotic behind-the-scenes shenanigans involving lack of money, delayed shooting schedules and scripts being rewritten at the eleventh hour, ‘The Professionals’ debuted across the ITV network at the end of December 1977. Despite premiering in that television no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year, the show proved to be pretty much an overnight success. By the opening months of 1978, the benefits of being seen by all ITV viewers at the same time – a luxury denied the ITC series of the 60s and early 70s – ensured high viewing figures and instant fame for the two main leads.

‘The Professionals’ drew upon a vast, rich pool of experienced TV dramatists for its stories – men who had cut their teeth on the long-running series British television specialised in at the time – and also inherited the crew from ‘The Sweeney’ when that drew to a close. The talent behind the camera combining with the talent on-screen made for a heady mix and there followed three or four years when ‘The Professionals’ was one of the highest-rated shows on TV. It had its critics – usually hurling accusations that it was mindless, misogynistic, macho entertainment; but it was very much a show of its time, and the exhilarating action elements didn’t detract from the routinely engaging relationship at the core of its success. Yes, violence was paramount, though, unlike ‘The Sweeney’, there was no what was then referred to as ‘bad language’. The only time ‘The Professionals’ crossed a line was in an episode called ‘Klansmen’; it was pulled from transmission at the last minute and has still never been seen on terrestrial television in this country. It’s been included on every VHS and DVD release of the series, but an episode that actually addresses the issue of racism in an intelligent and honest manner stands up as a good example of how there were more dimensions to ‘The Professionals’ than merely the one.

Currently viewing the series for the first time since the 1990s, I think the old-school charm often associated with any vintage show loaded with plenty of ‘well, you couldn’t get away with that today’ moments gives it a ‘guilty pleasure’ quality; but when stood beside so much of contemporary mainstream fare, ‘The Professionals’ comes across far better than it ever did in its heyday as every little boy’s favourite undemanding series. Standards were higher on TV in the late 70s and it certainly shows in 2022. Moreover, the virtues at which Bodie and Doyle excelled were actually valued at the time rather than dismissed and denigrated as ‘toxic’; and despite changing fashions dictated by a cultural elite obsessed with what the public ought to want as opposed to what they do, these are virtues still valued by the majority, who would no doubt warm to ‘The Professionals’ all over again if given the chance.

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SO, FAREWELL THEN

WarholQuite a week, eh? I’m not the first to point it out, though it bears repeating because it’s so historically unprecedented: this week began with Boris Johnson as PM and the Queen on the throne; it ends with Liz Truss as PM and the King on the throne. And having to now refer to the man formerly known as Prince Charles as ‘The King’ is just one of the strange changes we’ll have to get used to. Brand Brenda has always been all around us, so ubiquitous that her image is easily taken for granted – on our stamps, coins and banknotes, for one thing; to anybody born after 1952, she’s been part of the cultural wallpaper forever, giving rise to a sense of permanence on a par with Stonehenge. For that to suddenly end is very odd indeed. Sure, we’re all familiar – if not over-familiar – with the musical chairs at Westminster, especially ever since David Cameron fell on his Brexit sword six years ago; but the death of the Head of State is something one would have to be at least 75 to have a previous memory of. And anyone who had reached that age at the time of the Coronation in 1953 would’ve lived under six sovereigns; how different from today. The late Queen’s first Prime Minister was born in 1874; her last was born 101 years later. That curious fact alone perhaps underlines the extraordinary duration of her reign.

Earlier today, ‘The World at One’ closed with Katherine Jenkins singing ‘God Save the King’ – and, yes, it sounded weird; even if the National Anthem now has its original title again and the alteration of its lyrics returns them to what they were when written, it still didn’t seem quite right. But this is the world we now live in, one that came into being when Brenda breathed her last. We clearly weren’t told how serious her condition was yesterday, but the rush of her children and grandchildren to be at her bedside and the sudden blanket coverage on TV suggested this was no common cold. The actual announcement itself by the stoic Huw Edwards on the BBC was devoid of drama, spoken with measured calm – though in a way that made it all the more effective, not to say surreal. Just as surreal was the first reference to Brian as King Charles III; even if it’s a job he’s been rehearsing for all his life – something Private Eye has mercilessly played upon for years in its amusing ‘Heir of Sorrows’ feature – hearing him referred to by his new title remains bizarre.

And so we slip seamlessly into a period of national mourning. The weekend’s football fixtures have been postponed, regular television schedules have been shunted aside, and what has been a far-from vintage Proms season has aptly fizzled out like a damp squib with the cancellation of the Last Night tomorrow. London Bridge hasn’t fallen down, but it almost feels like it. One imagines the ravens at the Tower have been put in their coop for a few days – just to be on the safe side. Hostilities were even suspended in the Commons, giving MPs the opportunity to pay tribute to the Queen after a Prime Minister of barely three days opened proceedings; some of the speeches were pedestrian and packed with clichés and some were surprisingly good – Theresa May actually came across as having a sense of humour, something we didn’t exactly see much of when she was Prime Minister. And way beyond the cocoon of the Chamber, I noticed the normally-untouched rack containing the day’s newspapers was unusually threadbare in Sainsbury’s this morning; but it shows that when a major event occurs, even those who depend on their Smartphones for a news fix still crave a physical souvenir.

I was reminded of a line from ‘I, Claudius’ yesterday – Tiberius on the death of the Emperor Augustus declared, ‘The earth will shake’; the Romans weren’t averse to bringing about a sudden death if it suited them, of course; but even if the circumstances that have caused our own changing of the guard are very different, there remains an unsettling feeling that this event couldn’t have come at a worse time. To the statute-toppling, book-burning revisionists for whom this nation’s history is something to be ashamed of at best and utterly erased at worst, the Queen was an immovable obstacle to completing their seizure of the narrative, the beloved glue – as has probably been said elsewhere – that has held the basic core of the country’s traditional principles together for decades. For Brenda to pass away smack bang in the middle of increasingly vicious culture wars, ongoing political turmoil, a spiralling cost-of-living crisis, and dwindling faith and trust in so many of our institutions (particularly the police) – well, I guess it could have been timed better; but she was 96, when all’s said and done, so I suppose it couldn’t be helped. She looked undeniably frail during her brief appearances at the Jubilee festivities back in June and that whole spectacle had an ‘end of an era’ vibe to it; now, just a few months later, it’s officially all over. And we have one of her bloody kids in her place.

The last time such a lengthy reign drew to a close was in 1901, with the death of Queen Victoria after almost 64 years on the throne; amongst the visitors to Queen Victoria’s deathbed was her grandson, the German Kaiser. Victoria, of course, had married most of her children into the Royal Houses of Europe and had, in her own astute way, contributed to a degree of stability on the Continent that nevertheless began to disintegrate not long after her death. Again, she was viewed as the glue that held it all together; just 13 years after the Victorian era ended, Europe was plunged into World War and ‘Cousin Willie’ played no small part in bringing it about; the end of those Royal Houses was just one additional casualty of the carnage. Therefore, if we are to look at what happened next where Victoria is concerned and possibly use that as an example of where we go now, the omens aren’t especially promising.

Thankfully, the mood of the nation doesn’t appear to be approaching the hysteria that accompanied the death of Diana; it’s a bit more dignified, perhaps reflecting the fact we’ve lost an old woman due to natural causes rather than a young one due to a car crash/professional hit (take your pick). Yet, despite her advanced years, it’s still something of a shock and it’s understandable that even those of us who aren’t avid royalists feel a little disorientated today. For some reason, I actually wanted to hear the bells ringing at noon and nipped up the road to the nearest church; I don’t know why I was summoned by bells, but a sound that is only ever silenced by World Wars and lockdowns was something I just wanted to experience at that moment. I didn’t enter the church, just strolled around its Victorian exterior for a bit and then sat down with my back to a cricket pitch; it was a quintessentially ‘English’ scene and one that felt apt; I was only a hundred yards from a busy road pumping non-stop noise pollution into the atmosphere, yet the pealing prodded me into a rather serene, pseudo-bucolic vortex for while. It was an unusual detour, but one I’m glad I took.

I’ve managed to avoid fatigue with TV coverage so far by rationing it; how I’ll feel by the time we get to the funeral is a different matter. There’s bound to be a sizeable surfeit of nauseating ‘Queen of Hearts’ cant in the days to come from the usual royal experts and biographers, but it’s to be expected because none of them have been here before and all they have in their arsenal is the tried-and-trusted weapons. In some respects, it’s easier to write about the late Queen if one isn’t an arse-kissing monarchist, but if one isn’t a hardline republican either, it’s difficult to put into words what one actually feels at such a strange time like this. I was once teasing a Canadian friend when it was mooted that Harry & Meghan might relocate to Canada; she was not amused at the prospect and I remember telling her she was welcome to them. I said to her that ‘basically, Brits love their dear old Queen and couldn’t care less about her offspring’. I don’t think the death of Her Majesty has changed that.

© The Editor

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FAR BEYOND THE PALE HORIZON

Roxy 2When it comes to pop music, familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt, but repetition can block the ears to the sensation that comes with hearing something for the first time; it’s almost impossible to recapture that sensation unless enough years go by in which the ears are spared further exposure to it – and tuning in to the predictable playlists of ‘oldies’ stations is something of a hindrance to the process. One doesn’t necessarily have to have been around at the time of the record’s release to have experienced said sensation, though perhaps to fully appreciate just how groundbreaking a piece of music was in its day, it probably helps if you haven’t already heard everything that came after it. Anyway, as we continue along the path of years being characterised by how many landmark anniversaries they contain rather than whatever the current excuse for pop music happens to be doing when nobody’s listening, this year contains the usual multitude of significant dates. A record that might easily be overlooked from the anniversary list takes us back half-a-century, which is difficult to comprehend when the track in question still sounds like the future, albeit a future we never reached. I’m talking about ‘Virginia Plain’ by Roxy Music.

Released 50 years ago this month, the debut single by the intriguing Art Rock band with the unique potential to appeal to viewers of ‘Top of the Pops’ as much as ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ followed hot on the heels of Roxy Music’s first (eponymous) LP, which was climbing up to its peak position of No.10 on the albums chart. Throughout 1972, the band had been steadily building a reputation as ‘one to watch’, cannily supporting breakthrough man-of-the-moment David Bowie at the prestigious Rainbow Theatre and catching the eyes and ears of a music press eager for the Next Big Thing. The divisions between Rock and Pop were becoming wider in the early 70s, with huge acts like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd flourishing on album sales alone, not even needing the regular stimulus of a hit single to keep them in the public eye as bands in the 60s had; in the singles chart, the likes of Gary Glitter, Sweet, Slade and T. Rex were cleaning up as a consequence, and it seemed as though Glam was for the teenyboppers whilst Prog was reserved for the students – one was made for the affordable 45, the other was made for the expensive LP.

However, with the release of his ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album (and its accompanying hit single, ‘Starman’), David Bowie paved the way for a strain of Glam that elevated the genre above the primal stomp and gave it a few musical and lyrical A-levels in the process. Roxy Music were able to capitalise on this climate, producing esoteric and eclectic sounds infused with pure pop melodies and presenting the package in the kind of kitsch, exotic dress-sense that was anathema to the dominant denim-clad Hard Rock brigade. But Bryan Ferry, the band’s founder member and frontman, had come up through the art school route with an appreciation of the visual and recognition of its importance in selling a band brand. The gatefold sleeve of the band’s debut album featured glamorous Ossie Clark catwalk model Kari-Ann Muller, whilst the individual portraits of the band inside complemented the cover, especially those of Ferry himself, synthesizer scholar Brian Eno and woodwind wizard Andy McKay.

As was fairly common at the time, no tracks were lifted from the debut LP as singles, even though several of them would have performed well if they had, encapsulating as they did Roxy’s unique blend of all pop that had gone before and all that was to come. With Bryan Ferry’s distinctive vocal delivery drawing on pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll stylists such as the crooners of the 40s & 50s as well as the quintessential English camp of Noel Coward, it was plain here was a band breaking with the recent past by borrowing from the distant past; but the inclusion of Eno’s experimental soundscapes looked forward, whilst Phil Manzanera’s guitar riffs and Andy McKay’s frenetic saxophone kept the band just about moored in 1972. It was an original and exhilarating mix that, coupled with Roxy’s louche, decadent twist on Glam fashion, made them stand out like a sore sequin. The fact they were prepared to launch an assault on the singles chart reflected Bryan Ferry’s passion for the three-minute pop song, and when it eventually appeared Roxy’s debut 45 was destined to be no run-of-the-mill hit. It had to distil everything that had made the LP such a vibrant and exciting listen into a short enough timespan to earn the band the coveted ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance. And Roxy rose to the challenge in style.

A TOTP audience that was still recovering from the seismic shock of Bowie’s ‘Starman’ performance barely a month before was ill-prepared for the debut of Roxy Music on the show, which was broadcast on 24 August. Phil Manzanera’s ‘fly’ sunglasses, Brian Eno’s glistening gloves, drummer Paul Thompson dressed as a circus strongman in ‘Clockwork Orange’ mascara, Andy McKay playing the oboe with his hair tied back as though a Samurai warrior, bassist Rik Kenton passing for a gawky schoolboy, and a surreally suave Bryan Ferry in glittering eye-shadow and a sparkly jacket designed by Anthony Price. They resembled regal aliens beamed down from an early 70s idea of what pop stars in the Year 2000 would look like. And if the presentation of ‘Virginia Plain’ was a treat for the eyes, the record itself was a blistering banquet of sonic delights.

Subverting the standard formula of the pop single, ‘Virginia Plain’ fades in and ends abruptly rather than the other way round; but it’s also a song without a chorus, a song whose title only surfaces as the very last line. The first verse follows what sounds like an autobiography of the band struggling to get a recording deal, yet ‘We’ve been around a long time’ wasn’t necessarily the case, as Roxy didn’t spend years paying their dues on the college circuit; they were far more ambitious and went for the music business jugular from the off. As the song goes on, Ferry’s lyrics expand to encompass the kind of jet-set lifestyle the singer hopes success will bring – ‘Flavours of the mountain streamline/midnight blue casino floors/Dance the cha-cha through till sunrise/opens up exclusive doors’; this continues to the final verse – ‘Far beyond the pale horizon/some place near the desert strand/Where my Studebaker takes me/that’s where I’ll make my stand’. In the song that introduced the majority of the record-buying public to Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry sets his stall out and plots his future for all to see.

Whereas in later years, the prefix ‘Bryan Ferry and…’ became commonplace – largely due both to the public’s failure to distinguish between Roxy Music and Ferry’s concurrent solo career and Ferry’s eventual dominance of the band – early Roxy is very much a team effort. ‘Remake/Remodel’, the opening track on their debut album, contains tongue-in-cheek passages where each member of the band has two bars to showcase their individual instrumental skills; and ‘Virginia Plain’ offers similar opportunities to demonstrate they’re far from a one-man band, especially the instrumental section building up to the final verse, where Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno both shine. There’s no audible kitchen sink in ‘Virginia Plain’, but it sounds like pretty much everything else is present. 50 years old and it remains one of the great debut singles, probably because not only does it not sound like anything else from 1972, it still doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve ever heard.

The single served as the launch-pad for twelve months in which Roxy Music were the most innovative and inventive band in Britain; their second album, ‘For Your Pleasure’, was released in March 1973 and is arguably the band’s finest LP, with ‘Do The Strand’, ‘The Bogus Man’ and ‘In Every Dream Home, A Heartache’ all masterpieces of Roxy’s sublime blend of pop and the avant-garde. Then the strain of containing two such gigantic artistic egos as Ferry and Eno finally provoked a split in the ranks and the latter left the fold; although there were innumerable great songs to follow, Roxy Music were never quite the same again. And no other hit quite matched the superlative originality of their first – half a bloody century ago.

© The Editor

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FINAL SCORE

Football RadioSure, it’s not the end of the world; but it’s the end of something. The BBC’s decision to drop the classified football results from the long-running ‘Sports Report’ sounds like one of those crass decisions made by a new controller of the station in question (5 Live) who’s keen to make his mark and shake things up a bit. It’s a familiar pattern on BBC radio, like when the Radio 4 UK Theme was axed back in 2006. Commissioned in 1978 to open the station every morning after the handover from the World Service, the medley of traditional English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish melodies heralded the dawn of the day’s broadcasting and quickly became as much of a wireless institution as the theme tune to ‘The Archers’ or the sound of ‘Sailing By’ announcing the arrival of the Shipping Forecast. The man who wielded the axe for the UK Theme was the then-controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer; many were suspicious this was an action motivated by embarrassment within the ivory corridors of Broadcasting House that such a popular piece of music didn’t reflect the way the BBC likes to think of the nation, though Damazer claimed what he described as ‘a pacy news briefing’ was what listeners wanted first thing on a morning. Well, perhaps it was what the BBC overlords felt they ought to want first thing on a morning. After all, they know what’s best for us.

At a time when theme tunes introduced virtually all radio shows, the debut of ‘Sports Report’ in January 1948 naturally came with its own sonic calling card. ‘Out of the Blue’ was in the same vein as other jaunty themes to be found on the BBC Light Programme during this era, such as ‘Music While You Work’ or ‘Top of the Form’; it fitted perfectly into its times, yet along with the aforementioned theme from ‘The Archers’ and ‘Sailing By’ – as well as the theme to ‘Desert Island Discs’ – it’s one of the few to survive into the 21st century. ‘Out of the Blue’ has long since passed the stage of being regarded as old-fashioned, and its anachronistic sound is now recognised as the aural equivalent of a vintage item of clothing, cherished precisely because it is so antiquated and out of step with the here and now. In a sense, such a tune becomes timeless if it sticks around long enough; had it been replaced in the 80s or 90s, those replacement tunes would now sound more dated and old-fashioned than ‘Out of the Blue’ ever will.

The theme to ‘Sports Report’ is one of those pieces of music so bound up with the time and day of its transmission that it becomes inseparable from it, so utterly woven is it into the fabric of the Saturday teatime experience. Indeed, it’s as impossible to imagine hearing it on any other day as it would be to listen to a Christmas song in the middle of July. But it’s not simply ‘Out of the Blue’ itself that has been regarded as a time signal for millions of listeners for more than 70 years; what have always traditionally followed it are the classified football results. Remarkably, this weekly roll-call of winners and losers has only ever been recited by three different voices for the entire run of ‘Sports Report’. John Webster held the post from 1948 to 1974; James Alexander Gordon was the reader from 1974 to 2013; and Charlotte Green succeeded him, occupying the hot seat until the decision to drop the results was suddenly announced. The man in the middle of this trio with golden vocal chords is the one most of us grew up with. James Alexander Gordon’s famous delivery, in which his intonation would rise and fall to indicate whether the home team had won, drawn or lost before revealing how many goals they’d scored or conceded, was a hallmark of listening to the classifieds for almost 40 years, and one that left the listener eager to hear every result, not just the one involving their own team.

Even with the advent of ‘Grandstand’ on TV and its super-fast ‘tele-printer’ bringing the results to the viewer in the comfort of their living room, the classified football results on the radio were still a vital source of information for the supporters, especially those on the long journey home from an away game. If one were lucky enough to be making that journey home by car after a cold, wet fixture in some drab provincial town, the sound of the afternoon’s results being read by James Alexander Gordon would be as soothing to the occupants of the vehicle as a roaring fire would be to the fair-weather fan who stayed at home. I suppose it is this warm association that has given the results on the radio such an affectionate place in their hearts of football followers for decades, and why their abrupt removal has been met with the same kind of anger that the axing of the Radio 4 UK Theme provoked in 2006. A couple of years ago, a book I wrote about the 1970 FA Cup Final – ‘No Place for Boys’ – contained a passage on the subject of how significant the reading of the classified results on ‘Sports Report’ has continued to be, and I reproduce it here to spell it out…

For generations of football fans, even those who can now access every result via their Smartphones seconds after the final whistles have been blown, tuning in is still key to the experience of following the sport in Britain. If football is a religion, then the ritual of catching ‘Sports Report’ late on a Saturday afternoon is one of its holiest ceremonies. In a curious way, hearing all those score-lines coming in from across the country is one of the rare moments when that country actually feels like the otherwise-mythical One Nation, with millions of its citizens sharing the same sensations at the same time – all the way from Elgin City FC down to Plymouth Argyle. And whichever end of the country you’re at, all you need is a radio and you’re part of it.

The reason the BBC has given for dropping the classified football results from ‘Sports Report’ is that live commentary on the Premier League fixture at 5.30pm means the programme has been shortened and there’s no room for the results in the mix anymore. Sounds a bit like ‘the pacy news briefing’ excuse Mark Damazer used. This particular excuse was also expanded upon in a rather predictable way, citing the availability of other, faster means of accessing the day’s results than the traditional practice of waiting to hear them at 5.00. This misses the point entirely. Just as far more landlubbers tune into the Shipping Forecast than fishermen – who could access all the shipping news they need in a superior form to ye olde Long Wave via satellite tracking systems – the fanatical Sky Sports subscriber who rarely takes his eyes from the screen as scores are flooding in throughout the afternoon is not the target; many listeners who couldn’t care less about the sport switch on simply to hear the names being recited. In the flesh, Crewe Alexandra or Queen of the South are no more exotic locations on the map than Cromarty or German Bight, but when their names are joined together for the recital, they acquire a uniquely poetic resonance that renders them almost romantic. And there’s not a lot of romance about in 2022.

Expecting anyone at the BBC today to remotely understand their listeners is a tall order; dropping the classified football results is merely another example of not only how out-of-touch the Beeb is with its audience, but how it continues to view it with condescending contempt. When the ground beneath the feet is as insecure and unstable as it is at uncertain and often unnerving times like these, people tend to be naturally drawn to the few remaining signposts they feel they can rely on to reassure them all is not lost. During that first bewildering lockdown, millions retreated into the safe womb of nostalgic telly, music and pastimes, desperately seeking something that could take their minds off the horrors of the present day. We may be through the worst now, but the scars of that unsettling time run deep and variations on the Project Fear formula are keeping many in a state of emergency. The yearning for the kind of security that is connected to less stressful and more innocent times remains potent. The classified football results were a fixed point at a fixed time on a fixed day, and had been since most of our parents were in short pants. Taking them away now is not a great idea.

© The Editor

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TO HULL AND BACK

Cover - CopyConsidering the vast personality chasm between them during their lifetimes, there’s an irony to the fact Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes have been involuntary united in the afterlife by finding themselves on the hit-list of the permanently offended, those fanatical rewriters of history who are determined to find fault with any revered figures of the past who don’t reflect their contemporary dogma back at them. Mind you, both Larkin and Hughes had their detractors when they were alive and kicking. The latter was targeted by extreme activists of the feminist persuasion, convinced he drove his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, to an early grave – despite the fact the troubled Plath had attempted suicide ten years before she succeeded, and at a time when she had yet to meet her future husband. Hughes became Poet Laureate back when it was a job for life, though he only replaced Larkin’s friend John Betjeman in 1984 because first choice Larkin had turned down the honour; as it turned out, Larkin himself died just a year after Betjeman, so it was probably just as well the post went to the man Larkin referred to as ‘The Incredible Hulk’.

Criticism of Philip Larkin in his lifetime tended to be criticism of his actual poetry; misreading of this led to the man himself being (inaccurately) portrayed as a miserable curmudgeon. It was only when his private letters were published several years after his death that the more familiar criticism of the kind that is levelled at him with more ferocity today emerged. He’s considered ‘problematic’ because he’s viewed as right-wing, racist and misogynistic. As far as being right-wing goes, it is true that his father – who was extremely right-wing – was a fan of Adolph and went so far as to take his young son on a tour of Nazi Germany before the War, even attending the Nuremburg rallies. Yet, one of the curious ironies of Larkin’s life is that his private grumblings about ‘immigrants’ went hand-in-hand with his passionate love of Jazz and its practitioners, most of whom were black. The record he said he’d rescue from the waves on ‘Desert Island Discs’ was by Bessie Smith.

Similarly, his allegedly ‘sexist’ attitude towards women derives largely from his fondness for soft porn revealed in his published letters, yet this accusation is contradicted by the fact he loved women so much that at one time he had three on the go; and one of this trio, university lecturer Monica Jones, was the longest love of Larkin’s life. Their relationship spanned almost 40 years. Despite their intellectual and emotional compatibility, the only time they actually lived together was during the last couple of years of Larkin’s life, when he cared for Monica following a spell she’d had in hospital. For a man who physically resembled a gawky Eric Morecambe, Larkin evidently possessed an abundance of charm and charisma that attracted women, something that the caricature of him as a grumpy old git would have negated were it true. I suppose one could say conducting three simultaneous affairs doesn’t necessarily hold him up as ideal husband material, but all of Larkin’s faults and foibles when it comes to the three factors that remain sticks to beat him with simply show him for what he was – a human being capable (as are we all) of ‘unclean thoughts’. And it is this humanity that comes across so vividly in his verse.

It’s not unreasonable to surmise that one reason why Larkin was sometimes received less than enthusiastically by the literary establishment in his lifetime was the fact he largely shunned the creative cliques of the cocooned capital. Larkin was a poet of the provinces, the finest poetic commentator on the mood and mores of immediate post-war Britain as it existed outside of London. But then, he was a product of the provinces, born in Coventry 100 years ago this month. Once he’d escaped the stranglehold of Auden and Yeats as key influences on his early work, Larkin gradually began to develop a uniquely individual voice that combined the melancholy beauty of a fellow poet like Betjeman with the bleak black comedy of a playwright like John Osborne. His words flow with a literary flourish, but they also speak in simple and often blunt English that anyone born after 1945 can relate to. Indeed, what qualifies Larkin as a poet whose reputation in terms of his art remains so strong is that, along with Betjeman, he’s one of the few poets of recent decades whose lines are routinely quoted by those not necessarily regarded as bookworms.

One of the most quoted is from ‘Annus Mirabilis’, his astute observation on being too old to be a participant in the Swinging decade he just missed out on, something many born on the wrong side of WWII must have mused upon in the 60s – ‘Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me)/Between the end of the Chatterley ban and The Beatles’ first LP’; as he was someone who had to navigate the oppressive etiquette that dictated clandestine courtship in the 1950s, it must indeed have been frustrating to watch a generation emerge who weren’t bound by such rigid regulations. Then of course, there are the infamous opening lines of ‘This Be The Verse’ – ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad/they don’t mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/and add some extra, just for you.’ A misconstrued poem, certainly; it has nothing to do with the juvenile sensibilities of some anti-parent pop song, but actually offers a sympathetic perspective on how an individual inherits both the good and bad that their own parents themselves inherited. ‘They were fucked up in their turn’, he goes on to say, before concluding, ‘Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf/Get out as early as you can/and don’t have any kids yourself.’

His two most famous poems quoted in the previous paragraph were penned in 1967 and 1971 respectively; by the time Larkin was offered the laureateship in 1984, his purple patch had somewhat run dry and he himself felt all his best poems had probably been written. He was also averse to the pressures that being Poet Laureate could possibly heap upon the creative juices, something he expressed to John Betjeman in a profile for the BBC’s ‘Monitor’ series in 1964. The idea of having to compose ‘on demand’ was not something that appealed to him, and even the most devoted disciple of Betjeman or Hughes could hardly claim the two poets’ finest works were the ones they were obliged to write as part of their Laureate duties when responding to a royal event, whether that be a marriage, a birth or a jubilee. Such a duty would have been anathema to Larkin, who recognised the greatest poets created in response to impulsive flashes of inspiration not dictated by outside forces, but by the erratic influence of the Muse. Betjeman also envied Larkin’s day job, that of head librarian at Hull University, a post he accepted in 1955 and held until his death at the age of 63 thirty years later.

His qualifications for the job were past stints working in the university libraries of Leicester and Belfast, but in Hull he found the perfect city for his particular worldview, being situated (as it often feels to its inhabitants) on the edge of the world, with endless grey vistas looking out onto a void where the nearest landmass is Scandinavia. Although already a published author, Larkin felt he needed more to his day than wrestling with the Muse; as he wrote in the poem ‘Toads Revisited’, ‘No, give me my in-tray, my loaf-haired secretary/my shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir/What else can I answer, when the lights come on at four/at the end of another year?’ And his post in Hull was no vanity project; he threw himself into it with gusto and oversaw the reconstruction of the building as well as instigating the installation of a computerised records system years before it became common practice. Perhaps the fact he had a life beyond the written word, one that infused his poetry with such wry observations on the human condition (something that eludes many poets permanently positioned as ‘outsiders’) gave him an accessibility that continues to speak to anyone who acutely feels the limitations of life whilst also seeing the unsung joy it occasionally throws up with the kind of laconic humour entirely absent from those who seek to block, ban, censor, and cancel.

© The Editor

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THEIR SATANIC TRAGEDIES

Book BurningA painfully prescient quote from Salman Rushdie appeared on Twitter yesterday – ‘The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.’ I’ve no idea how old this quote is, but it’s reasonable to assume it was written in the long shadow cast by the fatwa of 1989. Since that groundbreaking moment of intolerance on the part of an entire State, intolerance towards freedom of both thought and speech, whereby any individual expressing an opinion deemed ‘wrong’ is fair game to be brought to heel by whatever means are at their opponents’ disposal, has filtered down to the masses, facilitated and fuelled by the ubiquitous social media that didn’t exist when Rushdie wrote ‘The Satanic Verses’ in 1988. Previously, a novelist in the West faced potential censure from publishers or book stores if they penned a work regarded as ‘controversial’, yet having a price placed on their head by the Islamic Mafiosi running Iran was a new development; just as the 1570 declaration of Pope Pius V that Queen Elizabeth I was a ‘heretic’ gave the green light to radical Catholics of the 16th century, the edict issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini five months after the publication of Rushdie’s novel not only placed the writer’s life in peril, it legitimised violent reprisals on the part of any mental fundamentalist if they felt their outrage was justifiable.

Amongst numerous other atrocities committed over the past two or three decades, the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ massacre of 2015 can be traced back to the 1989 fatwa, providing yet one more extreme example of how the offended believe they are entitled to exact revenge to ease their offence. At the other end of the scale, Hollywood bigwig Will Smith felt similarly entitled to stroll up to comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars in the middle of his routine and sock him on the jaw simply because he didn’t like what the comic was saying about his missus. In comparison to the serious attempt on Salman Rushdie’s life at an event in New York State yesterday, Smith’s petulant punch seems trivial, yet both he and the lunatic who stabbed Rushdie and left him in a critical condition felt their actions were justified because they’d been offended. Where that leaves either a vulnerable novelist or a comedian when alone on stage, self-censoring their freedom of expression for fear an audience member might take offence at something they say and then leap onstage wielding a weapon or a fist, is worrying when a belief in one’s own self-righteous entitlement has spread from the ivory towers of a hardline Islamic regime to any disgruntled member of the public. An unpleasant precedent has been set.

It may be a blink in the eye of the elephantine memories of Radical Islamists – after all, that has a vintage of centuries – but 33 years have now passed since the Ayatollah delivered his death sentence on Salman Rushdie in absentia; therefore, the understandable security precautions that were taken in the early days of the author’s exile from polite society have been largely relaxed since. A famous story emanating from those days concerns a visit from celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, who was cooking a meal for Rushdie when said foodstuff ‘exploded’ in the oven, causing Rushdie to dive under the sofa in a manner reminiscent of citizens sheltering from the Blitz. It’s no wonder he was jumpy. Various people associated with his most notorious novel have met far worse fates in the last 30-odd years, and Rushdie naturally figured he was through the worst; he even parodied his situation on an episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, when Larry David sought advice as he went into hiding following his announcement he intended to produce a musical based on the fatwa. Unfortunately, that joke isn’t funny anymore.

The Iranian Government has distanced itself from the Ayatollah’s decree since around 1998, though so far-reaching was the initial proclamation that the growth of Radical Islamist networks and various terrorist collectives this century has meant the message has never really gone away; there was even a bounty of $3 million offered by an Iranian religious foundation in 2012, meaning Rushdie has continued to exercise a degree of caution when it comes to public speaking. It’s interesting that the provocative burning of books on British streets in certain cities with a large Muslim population first became a regular sight in the wake of the furore surrounding ‘The Satanic Verses’, as did the appearance of those openly advocating the assassination of Rushdie on British television without being challenged – including the otherwise moderate Muslim convert Yusuf Islam, AKA singer Cat Stevens; these stunts went unpunished by police reluctant to be accused of racism.

One might say the inaction of authorities then has left a devastating legacy in the UK since; everything from the terrorist cells responsible for appalling carnage in London and Manchester in the 2010s to turning a blind eye to the insidious ‘grooming gangs’ in Rochdale to the teacher in Batley whose school was besieged by the local Muslim Gestapo in 2020 and remains in hiding due to a glaring absence of support from teaching unions – there’s a direct connection stretching all the way back to failure to act in 1989. Even the response of some of Rushdie’s fellow creative artists at the time saw the debut of the kind of gutless self-preservation that has subsequently become a hallmark of the artistic fraternity during the age of ‘cancel culture’, with even fewer prepared to stand up and be counted when the online hounds are unleashed to silence any artist who has dared to venture an opinion contrary to the consensus. Silence is compliance when one of your own is under threat; and the misguided solidarity shown towards a terrorist organisation like Hamas by the far-left in the West merely because their arch-enemy is Israel – remember ‘Queers for Palestine’? – is another risible strain of this; I’m just wondering how the Pride flag-waving zealots will react when the next World Cup is held in a Middle Eastern autocracy where freedom of expression is effectively outlawed – ‘Queers for Qatar’?

According to police, Salman Rushdie was poised to speak at the large outdoor amphitheatre at the Chautauqua Institution in New York State on the ironic topic of artistic freedom when a man ran on stage and stabbed him in the neck and torso; the attacker was swiftly – if belatedly – apprehended by security and Rushdie was rushed to hospital by helicopter. He is currently on a ventilator after surgery, with the author’s spokesperson telling the press that ‘Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.’ The culprit was arrested and is apparently sympathetic to the Iranian Government; if the attack was fatwa-influenced, the Iranian Government he’s seemingly sympathetic to must be the one of 1989, but Radical Islamists tend to live in the past so perhaps that’s no great revelation. I suppose the fact Salman Rushdie was one of the first artists to be exposed to the unhinged wrath of extreme opponents to the foundation stone of Western democracies means this grotesque attack coming at a time when everyone is susceptible to assault if they dare to speak their mind gives it the grim feel of a full circle being reached.

Voltaire’s famous quote on freedom of speech tends to be exhumed for paraphrasing yet again at moments such as this, even if many who spout about freedom of speech don’t necessarily live by Voltaire’s words; for far too many today, free speech is fine as long as it chimes with one’s own opinions; when it doesn’t, it’s deserving of censure, either by organising an online campaign of vile trolldom or going one further, as the head-case who attacked Rushdie did. If hate crime exists at all, surely something like this is the most barbaric example of it, not misgendering some delicate non-binary nitwit on Twitter. As a human being suffering such a brutal attack, one hopes Salman Rushdie survives it; as an increasingly-rare artist advocating freedom of thought, speech and expression, it’s absolutely vital he does.

© The Editor

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PHYSICAL GRAFFITI

OliviaNext year’s Eurovision being staged in Blighty by default isn’t necessarily a unique event; the tradition of one year’s winning nation hosting the following year’s Contest has been disrupted several times in the past, and the UK has stepped in to host proceedings as a substitute more than once, usually when the winning nation has found staging the contest an impossibility, the last time (until 2023) being 1974. Luxembourg had claimed the crown in 1973, but the Grand Duchy’s second consecutive win proved to be a financial bridge too far for the principality and Britain stepped in again, nominating the Brighton Dome as a venue. Of course, a certain four-piece from Sweden eventually captured the headlines with a stomping slice of sub-Glam Rock called ‘Waterloo’, and every other performance that year tends to linger in Abba’s shadow, despite the 1974 Eurovision producing a record number of UK hits. Aside from the celebrated chart-topping winner, the runner-up – Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti with ‘Si’ – reached No.8; Holland’s third-placed entry, ‘I See a Star’ by Mouth & MacNeal, peaked at the same position; and the UK’s very own ‘Long Live Love’ made the charts at No.11; the singer of that song was Olivia Newton-John.

The sad news that the British-born Aussie siren has passed away following a long on-off battle with cancer at the age of 73 is bound to provoke a bout of melancholic nostalgia in anyone of a certain age, particularly those (like me) whose bedroom walls she provided the first female presence upon. Remember poster magazines? They were regular fixtures on newsagents’ shelves in the 70s; they’d contain text on each page and would then be unfolded to reveal a huge poster of the featured subject on the flipside of the text. Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong had been the first such poster magazine stars of my own personal childhood gallery until the 1978 movie version of ‘Grease’ came along and ushered in a different era, whereby pop stars replaced fantasy figures on the wall. Olivia Newton-John in the black satin pants she apparently had to be sewn-into for ‘You’re the One That I Want’ decorated said wall for a few months that year, upholding the appeal of the ‘bad girl’ that Suzi Quatro had monopolised with such memorable sensual vitality a few years earlier.

This Olivia was in direct contrast with the sweet girl-next-door version of ‘Sandy’ that constituted the majority of ‘Grease’, providing the movie with a climax that those who were around at the time tend to remember as the most iconic sequence of the film. Like the rest of the cast of the original high-school musical, Olivia Newton-John was more than a decade away from school age when making it (she was pushing 30), but it gave her two of the best-selling singles in UK chart history in 1978, both of which were duets with co-star John Travolta. ‘You’re the One That I Want’ was No.1 for nine weeks, whilst ‘Summer Nights’ managed seven. A couple of years later, ‘Xanadu’ may have been a movie savaged by the critics, yet it still produced another chart-topper in collaboration with the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO’s only No.1); and the following year, Olivia’s star was in the ascendancy on the other side of the Atlantic when she pushed the sexuality of satin pants Sandy into more dubious lyrical territory with ‘Physical’, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for ten weeks.

It was all a far cry from the wholesome songstress whose first hit was a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘If Not For You’ a decade before, a breakthrough followed by forays into radio-friendly Country Pop like ‘Banks of the Ohio’ and ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. She’d arrived back in her homeland after spending the majority of her childhood in Australia, making the same return journey as The Bee Gees around the same time. Born in Cambridge in 1948, the daughter of an MI5 officer who’d been on the Bletchley Park Enigma code-cracking team during WWII, she attempted to slot into the showbiz style of the biggest Brit female stars such as Lulu, Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield once she returned to the UK as the winner of an Aussie talent contest. All had progressed from the charts to hosting their own prime-time BBC variety showcases, whereas Olivia quickly found herself effectively adopted by Cliff Richard and The Shadows, appearing regularly on Cliff’s early 70s TV show and becoming romantically involved with Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch; when she ended the relationship, a devastated Welch attempted suicide. Thankfully, the attempt failed and Olivia Newton-John continued to progress along the path established for UK pop ‘dollybirds’ by being selected to represent the nation at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974.

Like Sandie Shaw and Lulu before her, Olivia wasn’t keen on the song the public voted for her to perform at the Eurovision, but she did her duty and gave her all to a plodder that was very much in a staid tradition that Abba blew out of the water overnight. A fourth-placed finish would’ve been hailed as a triumph in more recent years, but in 1974 it was regarded as a bit humiliating. Thereafter, Olivia moved away from the MOR circuit and resumed her flirtation with Country and Western-flavoured sounds; this paid off in the US, where she scored a No.1 hit in 1974 with ‘I Honestly Love You’; the success of this song in the States – and its chart-topping follow-up, ’Have You Never Been Mellow’ – prompted her to relocate there in the mid-70s as her British hits dried up. It was a timely move. Aside from 1977’s ‘Sam’, which reached No.6 in the UK, Olivia didn’t trouble the British charts again until the phenomenal success of all the ‘Grease’ singles in 1978, including her solo ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, which was kept off the No.1 spot by The Boomtown Rats’ ‘Rat Trap’.

After establishing herself as the predominant female pop star in the US with ‘Physical’, Olivia Newton-John’s stateside star surprisingly faded swiftly thereafter, overtaken by younger upstarts such as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. After taking time out to marry her long-time boyfriend Matt Lattanzi and become a mother, she returned later in the 80s, but found even younger newcomers like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany occupying the ground she’d previously dominated, and she never regained that ground despite staging various comebacks that carried her into the 90s. However, all of this was placed on ice when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. Despite winning that stage of the battle, the cancer returned both in 2013 and 2017; the latter proved to be a tougher opponent than her previous bouts and it ended up spreading to her bones, causing her so much pain that she turned to cannabis for relief and ended up becoming a vocal advocate for its medicinal use.

Aside from Bruce Welch’s attempted suicide, the most notable incident in Olivia Newton-John’s personal life was the strange disappearance of her post-divorce, on-off boyfriend Patrick McDermott, who mysteriously vanished from a fishing boat off the coast of Los Angeles in 2005; persistent rumours that he faked his own death have been compounded by the fact that his body has never been found. Their relationship had already ended around the time of his disappearance and she married again in 2008, a union that lasted all the way to her death. I guess the announcement that the cancer which had bedevilled her for the best part of 30 years has finally claimed her provides a poignant opportunity to reassess her lengthy career now that there will be no further comebacks.

Although not an ‘artist’ in the vein of a Joni Mitchell or a Kate Bush, Olivia Newton-John nevertheless had a fascinating journey that took her all the way from Australia to BBC light-entertainment and from Hollywood to US pop royalty – and one could say she paved the way for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Whatever her legacy, Olivia Newton-John made a mark that, for a brief period, placed her at the top of a showbiz tree that is no mean feat to reach. And the image of her stubbing out her cigarette beneath stilettos is one that will remain a potent snapshot of 20th century pop culture for however long the shadow cast by 20th century pop culture lingers. Right now, it seems like it will linger for a hell of a while.

© The Editor

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THE TOWPATH TO WIGAN PIER

Anal JourneysDavid Warner, Bernard Cribbins, Nichelle Nichols – they’re dropping like flies again; and in tandem with the passing of familiar famous faces whose finest performances evoke inevitable nostalgia, a purely unrelated excursion on my part has involved delving into a retro-scented environment as redolent of a disappearing world as those dearly departed characters were. Over the past month, I’ve followed a route carved-out by navvies more than 200 years ago and ended up at a landmark George Orwell immortalised in 1937, despite the fact even he arrived too late to catch the decrepit remnants of an old music-hall gag. A lengthy post-war restoration of our man-made waterways has perhaps neutered their industrial origins, yet a wooden jetty erected to assist the loading of coal onto working barges was labelled a pier as an ironic dig at a town sorely lacking in the gaudy glamour that the coastal escape routes offered the colliers whose booty the vanished edifice was once weighed down by. The fact a functional construction was jokingly compared to a seaside stalwart highlights how the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, upon which the actual Wigan Pier stood, was very much a workplace for the majority of its existence, something it’s easy to forget when one strolls beside it today.

The Canal cuts a sublime swathe across the Pennines for 127 miles, and almost half-a-century ago a small segment of it provided yours truly with a picturesque playground during seemingly endless school holidays; back then, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was on my doorstep, and improvised summer outings along the towpath left a lifelong love of the location it’s been nice to revive. This time round I’ve followed that path on the other side of the geographical divide, however, with the starting point being the West Lancashire town of Burscough. Although less than 10 miles from Wigan, walking all the way using the Canal as a route is a method of getting from A to B that consciously makes journey’s end something to prolong. Unlike the internal combustion engine – rendering the journey itself an inconvenience to be got through as quickly as possible – when one walks along a canal, it’s all about the journey rather than the destination. In terms of reaching the finishing post, it’s far more tortoise than hare. Leisurely is the word.

Indeed, the leisurely pace of a canal trek is something that again emphasises the changing purpose of this country’s waterway network. When barges are sighted on canals today, nine out of ten times they’re either pleasure cruisers or alternative dwellings for the eccentric; the former come and go as must-have accessories, with the barges belonging to some of the more faddish wannabe shipping magnates betraying their sell-by dates via their shabby, neglected state as they sit permanently moored and gathering dust. Of course, if the more zealous members of the green lobby get their way, a century from now we may well see road vehicles as we now see canal vessels; perhaps a visitation of future transport-for-all came courtesy of the occasional cyclists along the canal path that required rather tiresome standing aside at certain points of the route. At least some cyclists had bells on their bikes to warn pedestrians they were creeping up from behind, whereas others exhibited the same entitled arrogance the revamped Highway Code has misguidedly legitimised on the roads. Either way, the mess that tyres have made of the path is something that a drop of rain can exacerbate, making the journey on foot one in which veering too close to the edge is even more ill-advised.

Actually, any rainfall that took place didn’t occur whilst I was walking the towpath; I was fortunate that each leg of this journey was staged on days when the sun had got his hat on. As if to underline the prosaic nature of the trek, the walk from Burscough to Wigan was undertaken in isolated episodes spread over several weeks. Also, a pattern was established whereby the end of every stage would then see the immediate retracing of steps after a drink and bite to eat; for example, stage one was from Burscough to the village of Parbold, though once this said hamlet had been reached it was then followed by backtracking to Burscough (where the car was parked). Stage two on a different day began at Parbold and went all the way to the commuter village of Appley Bridge; when that was achieved, a return visit to Parbold was then in order – and so on. Stage three: Appley Bridge to Gathurst, a district of the township of Shevington; and stage four consisted of Gathurst to Wigan. The inspiration for this undertaking was the late, great Ian Nairn, whose 1972 trilogy of documentaries for the BBC saw him travel from London to Manchester by road, Manchester to Leeds by canal, and Leeds to Edinburgh by rail. The canal seemed the more economic option in these cost-of-living crisis days, not to mention providing a suitably serene travelling experience.

Certain sections of the route were marked by blissful vortexes of natural quiet, often spanning a good ten-fifteen minutes without sight or sound of another human being or the noise pollution of traffic. Indeed, it was these sedate passages that most evoked childhood memories; there’s something inescapably calming about a location with an abundance of wild flowers on one side and water on the other that taps into an impression of summer as seen through a child’s eyes as much as the mellifluous commentary of John Arlott transmitting on Long Wave represents the season’s sound in the imagination. Other than cyclists, the only interruption would come via the occasional fisherman positioned by the side of the canal or the odd dog-walker and his/her canine companion. Long periods of untouched nature would be periodically intruded upon by affluent settlements – old tied cottages refurbished for the nouveau riche and new-builds attempting to blend in to the surroundings, with the regular incursion of archaic coaching inns remodelled as gastro-pubs making the most of having survived both the smoking ban and lockdown. All of these somehow seemed integral to the landscape, however; even a motorway bridge that crossed the canal during the stage with Gathurst as its finishing post could be admired as a feat of engineering as impressive as the canal itself rather than an unwelcome 20th century gate-crasher.

When the end of the line was eventually reached, I experienced a similar sense of anticlimax as Eric Blair himself must have felt 85 years ago; where be Wigan Pier? Well, the site that bears that famous name today largely consists of several expensive-looking ‘luxury apartments’ or work units that sadly stand unoccupied. In a way, this serves as a melancholy metaphor for the town of Wigan itself. A cursory online exploration reveals a settlement that Ian Nairn particularly praised in the 1960s as a fine example of a thriving Northern enclave that had transcended its industrial roots once boasted a characteristic Victorian market hall that embodied the spirit of the place. Alas, like many such locations during a period in which town councillors became drunk on the unrealisable visions of town planners, Wigan suffered from over-ambition, and even the ‘Casino’ that put Northern Soul on the map in the 70s has long since fallen beneath the dubious wrecking-ball of progress.

My previous visit to Wigan – only in the dying days of 2021 – found the old market’s replacement still open to the public, even if most of the shops housed in it were closed for business; seven months later, the entire area has been boarded-up and blocked-off; ‘1989’ is the giveaway year of its erection imprinted in the architecture, though the fact the town’s beating heart was swept away to accommodate a misguided attempt at urban regeneration was mirrored in the plethora of lunchtime pissheads and mobility scooters for the clinically obese that left the saddest impression on the visitor. Thankfully, the established order of my canal trek meant a dispiriting Wigan was followed by a return to the less-depressing environs of Gathurst. Overall, though, the lingering impact of an impromptu journey was of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal itself as opposed to the town at the end of it. The timeless appeal of this country’s unsung waterways remains unpolluted by ‘progress’, and as a method of seeing the country in a refreshingly alternate light, I can’t think of anything better.

© The Editor

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