AN IMPOSSIBLE ALMANAC

crystal-ballNot even Nostradamus or Mother Shipton would have collected a few quid from their local turf accountant this year; 2016 seemed to delight in the unexpected, turning perceived wisdom on its head, confounding pundits and pollsters, and smearing an unprecedented number of countenances in eggs. Few observers twelve months ago would have predicted Leicester City winning the Premier League, David Cameron resigning or Donald Trump acquiring the keys to the White House – yet some did sense the way the wind was blowing and made what appeared to be audacious claims at the time, claims that now seem like shrewd studying of the form book.

As with most developments, both culturally and politically, foundations are usually laid years in advance, generally without much fuss or widespread notice; nothing happens out of the blue, though the mainstream media can be so slow on the uptake that it can easily feel that way. Trump couldn’t have become the most unlikely US President in history had his predecessors not summarily ignored and neglected the silent majority he courted and persuaded he was speaking for; similarly, the UK electorate would never have voted to leave the EU had the residents of Westminster Village not looked upon their constituents as irrelevant pond-life whose concerns were secondary to their own self-preservation.

Hindsight is only a useful tool for those who learn from the lessons of history rather than ignoring them, and when the definitive chronicle of the early twenty-first century is written, all the dots will be neatly joined up as though the connections were evident to one and all at the time. However, in an age of information overload, the intimidating task of attempting to see the wider picture can risk pandering to the conspiracy theorist mindset; one can mistake speculation for fact or hearsay for evidence. There’s sometimes so much shit to sift through that the temptation to leave the job to the self-appointed experts is the easy option; and then they get it wrong.

It probably doesn’t help matters that we’re living in perhaps the most polarising era for at least three decades, something that makes any effort to discern the truth of any situation even harder. There is no middle ground and there’s no fence dividing the barricades that one can sit on for a bit in order to gain a little perspective. Shades of grey have been swept away by the absolute certainties of black and white, and one cannot have a foot in both camps. You’re either for us or against us. You’re with Corbyn or you’re a Blairite Tory. You’re a Brexiteer or you’re a Remoaner. You’re a feminist or you’re a rapist. You believe black lives matter or you’re a racist. Raise your head above the parapet and say something that others disagree with and you’re shot down as an enemy of the people. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.

Trying to look ahead to 2017 and anticipate events with any sort of accuracy would seem like compiling an impossible almanac; but there are probably a few predictable patterns. No doubt there will be another stupid, here today/gone tomorrow moronic trend along the lines of past fads such as the flash-mob, the clown craze, the ice-bucket challenge or the mannequin challenge, though I can’t see the intellectual challenge being one of them. There’ll be ridiculously OTT reactions to contestants in a TV talent show, from hysterical online arguments to tabloid headlines to a nondescript backbench MP eager to get their face on camera by issuing a ‘witty’ comment to show how in touch they are with the plebs. There’ll be a merchandise marketing exercise masquerading as a movie and it’ll break all box-office records despite leaving those who queued up to see it at their local multiplex utterly empty.

There’ll be a new boy-band/girl-group manufactured by the cultural puppet masters to keep the teenyboppers preoccupied; there’ll be another ‘new Adele’ specially designed by Jools Holland and Lauren Laverne to be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and win a cluster of Brit Awards; there’ll be a celebrity couple splitting and another getting together; and there’ll be the naming and shaming of a less fortunate over-the-hill celebrity as a Paedo/rapist while the Chief Constable of a mediocre provincial constabulary urges other victims to come forward as the guilty-till-proven innocent star’s oeuvre is excised from the archives of the nation’s broadcasters.

There’ll probably be a couple of high-profile resignations from Theresa May’s Cabinet and I suspect President Trump will commit a series of appalling gaffes; ISIS will probably be responsible for a string of terrorist atrocities on European soil, aiding Marine le Pen’s victory in the French Presidential Elections and Angela Merkel’s downfall in Germany; Putin and Assad will finally pull their respective trousers up after completing the rape of Syria while the US and UK will continue to fund Saudi Arabia’s parallel destruction of Yemen; and Article 50 will remain unrevoked as the vested interests in Brussels’ very own Holy Roman Empire keep the gravy train on the rails. Oh, and quite a few famous people will die.

Then again, I could be wrong. Years in which a great deal happened are often followed by less remarkable ones. In this very decade, think of a year like 2011 – the Arab Spring, Hack-gate, the riots, the assassination of Bin Laden – and then we get 2012; all that comes to mind from that year is the London Olympics. So, we could be in for a quiet twelve months or we could be in for part two of the apocalypse. Watch this space.

© The Editor

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO US

cakeI suppose it would have been neater to open proceedings on January 1, yet if I had I would’ve missed the emergence of Donald Trump as a Republican contender, the hysteria over Tyson Fury’s inclusion in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year line-up, the Christmas floods and the death of Lemmy. Okay, so the closing weeks of 2015 seem quite tame when one examines the seismic shifts of 2016 as an almost-whole, but it was exactly one year ago today when the first edition of the Winegum Telegram was published, and I felt like marking that anniversary by casting my retrospective eye over the past twelve months before we reach the end of what has been an eventful (if rarely enjoyable) year.

Gruesome reports of gang-rapes attributed to Middle Eastern migrants in Cologne on New Year’s Eve opened the year with further questions raised over Angela Merkel’s ‘open door’ immigration policy, and that wouldn’t be the end of the issue as 2016 rolled on. The biggest, not to say saddest, cultural event of January was the unexpected death of David Bowie. For those of us whose adolescent identity – and indeed adult one – was shaped by the multi-layered impact of this unique artist, his passing was one of those rare occasions when the death of an individual one has never personally met can impact as much as the death of a friend.

February marked the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring, with the shock waves of the shake-up continuing to reverberate throughout the year in virtually every country in the Middle East and beyond. The month also saw the surprise arrival of Bernie Sanders as a leading Democratic candidate in the US Presidential race, giving Hillary Clinton the kind of challenge she hadn’t anticipated; if only things had turned out differently. The same could be said from the perspective of David Cameron, who announced the date for the EU Referendum in February, firing the starting pistol of a marathon that would end with his resignation. If only the entire nauseating collective of Hollywood A-listers had taken a leaf out of Cameron’s book and retired from public life before staging the politically-correct Nuremberg Rally masquerading as the Oscars ceremony on the last day of the month, with the biggest bucket of vomit reserved for Lady GaGa’s Victim’s Symphony.

March saw the wave of Puritan censorship and intolerance of free speech contaminating North American and UK universities continue to grab headlines after the unpleasant experience of Canadian journalist Lauren Southern in Vancouver, whilst other notable departures from a more open-minded age included ‘Coronation Street’ creator Tony Warren, Beatles producer George Martin, Prog Rock’s premier keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson, legendary Dutch football auteur Johan Cruyff, and the print edition of the Independent. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith quit the Cabinet in the wake of the latest George Osborne attack on the claimants of disability benefits, realising he would be the man carrying the can when the shit hit the fan; he quickly threw in his lot with the Leave team in a bid to rescue his career. However, next to the carnage unleashed on the streets of Brussels by yet more European Jihadists, IDS’s hissy fit was rightly relegated to a footnote of 2016.

The Referendum campaign gathered pace in April, though internal wrangles within both major parties served as a distraction, such as Ken Livingstone’s ill-advised comments that kick-started Labour’s anti-Semitism row. BHS, Victoria Wood and Prince were added to 2016’s dearly departed, though Her Majesty reached a milestone by overtaking Queen Victoria as the country’s longest-serving sovereign. Meanwhile, a belated verdict in the Hillsborough Inquiry reminded the public that our police forces have been riddled with corruption for almost as long as Elizabeth II has been on the throne.

Whilst supporters of Leicester City FC celebrated their fantastic achievement in winning the Premier League, May saw further rejections of Corbyn’s Labour Party in the local elections, though Sadiq Khan’s capture of the London Mayoral office was one Labour victory of note in a year to forget for HM Opposition. However, it was in June that politics really grabbed centre-stage again when the countdown to the EU Referendum was marked by a no-holds barred campaign of unprecedented viciousness that reached its appalling nadir with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox on the streets of her constituency. Undeterred by this awful event, the British people delivered the bloodiest blow to a generation of Europhile politicians by voting to leave the EU. The ramifications of this decision are still with us, but the greatest scalp in the immediate aftermath was that of PM David Cameron. Another in a long line of American massacres, this time in Orlando, inadvertently impacted upon the Presidential Election, whilst the same nation mourned the passing of Muhammad Ali.

Rumours of a coup against Jeremy Corbyn opened July as most of his Shadow Cabinet walked out on him, and an official challenge to his leadership came in the unlikely shape of Angela Eagle; women were making a big political mark during the summer, with the two contenders for the Tory leadership being virtual unknown Andrea Leadsom and Home Secretary Theresa May. We were guaranteed our second female Prime Minister. July also saw the spectre of a former PM resurrected when the Chilcot Inquiry was finally published, whilst fresh blood was shed in the US (the turn of Dallas) and in Turkey, with a failed coup giving President Erdogan an excuse to extend his grip from democracy to dictatorship. Owen Smith replaced Angela Eagle as the challenger to Corbyn before July ended, but for me personally the month was marked by the death of my constant feline companion of 18 long years.

Despite Theresa May now being in Downing Street, political attention remained fixed on the Labour Party in August, though it wasn’t until September that the leadership challenge was resolved with another resounding victory for Corbyn. That same month, an increasingly ugly US Presidential Election campaign plumbed further depths as two of the most despised candidates in American history went head-to-head for the first of three TV debates. Mind you, online responses to Trump and Clinton were mild compared to those awaiting footballer Ched Evans when he walked away from prison a free man after serving half of a quashed five-year sentence for rape in October. Gary Lineker may have been spared that, but he was hung, drawn and quartered by certain quarters of Twitter as the imminent closure of Calais’ Jungle refugee camp provoked contrasting responses.

November saw screaming tabloid protests when a wealthy individual intervened in the ongoing Brexit saga, and the decision of judges that Parliament should have its say in the process led to remarkably hysterical headlines. In a month that the liberal left’s worst nightmares were realised when Donald Trump was elected US President, few of its more vocal representatives spoke out against the increasingly farcical police fishing parties into historical child abuse, such as the one targeted at deceased PM Edward Heath; moreover, none questioned the motives of former footballers when they gave the historical child abuse industry a new outlet in the shape of the national sport and its dead or dying villains. A year of numerous breaks with the past ends with a return to the narrative that has constituted so much of this decade so far. Somehow, I expected it probably would. Time to blow out that single candle on the cake.

© The Editor

SKETCHES OF JANUARY

PilotNew Year’s Day on the beach whilst elsewhere the bush burns; that’s January 1 in Australia; a touring England cricket team thrash the hosts on their home ground beneath blazing sunshine; that’s January 1 in South Africa. It never sounds quite right, but that’s the consequence of living one’s life in Northern Europe. Although ice and snow have been thin on the British ground this time round, that’s not entirely unusual; the Dickensian White Christmas shoved down our throats by television and cinema only existed in Dickens’ childhood as he endured the final years of the Little Ice Age, an era that ended circa 1850. All the same, many of the hallmarks we associate with the opening of a year are in place.

The trees are naked, their bare branches akin to talons scratching the colourless, cloudless sky; breath is a visible emission that makes every outdoor conversation reminiscent of a Rick Wakeman gig at the Empire Pool; pigmentation is pale or pink, depending on the strength of the wind; a day never gets going, looking like evening in the morning; people drink more when confronted by a gloomy Scandinavian ambience (like the Scandinavians all year round), while the New Year’s Resolution is a fruitless exercise in combating seasonal depression. The enforced Yuletide jollity, when the law of the land specifies it’s legit to behave in a manner that would lead to arrest any other time of the year, has already faded and faces have reverted to blank canvasses of indifference to their fellow-man, no longer obliged to treat every stranger like an old chum.

The fortnight when businesses shut down and nobody can be reached on the phone mercifully comes to an end and normality is resumed after a few shaky days of hangover-nursing, weight-watching and acclimatisation. Surprisingly, New Year’s Day has only been a public holiday in this country since 1974 – though sparing us the sight of zombie-like employees stumbling about the workplace on January 1 wouldn’t necessarily have been cause for much celebration on that first day off, coming as it did when Ted Heath’s Three-Day Week officially began. Perhaps the holiday was merely instigated as a means of pacifying the public and preparing industry for the tough times ahead. Now that New Year’s Day is so fixed in the national psyche as one more twenty-four hour period in which only those involved in the January Sales make the effort to get out of bed, its relatively recent origins are understandably lost in the mists of time.

Mind you, the January Sales themselves no longer have the element of uniqueness they once possessed, not in an age of Sunday trading and the insidious introduction of the pre-Xmas consumerist hyperbole of Black Friday. A memorable ‘Coronation Street’ storyline in the 70s had luckless Hilda Ogden sleeping overnight outside a Weatherfield department store, determined to get her hands on a colour television set. Of course, Hilda being Hilda, by the time she woke up the next morning, the store had already opened and she was beaten to the ultimate symbol of contemporary acquisitiveness by another housewife desperate to keep up with the Jones’s. Besides, January 1 has been rendered unremarkable in the shopping calendar now that the Sales tend to begin proper on Boxing Day.

At one time, the minute Christmas Day was over, ITV was flooded with ads for holidays, as though being bombarded by images of sunny climes was the only way in which Brits could cope with the frosty imminence of January. Even if the avuncular thumbs up of Fred Pontin reminding those prepared to gamble on the unpredictable British summer that they had to ‘Book Early’ is the only one that sticks in the memory, the BBC also had its Sunday teatime ‘Holiday’ programme incongruously airing when whole weeks would pass by without sunlight. Presented by Cliff Michelmore, who always gave the impression he was far too lofty a broadcaster to sully his hands with such populist trash, the show never felt to me like a window on the summer – more like rubbing your nose in the fact that the season was still many long months away. It also formed part of that dreary BBC1 Sunday line-up along with ‘Songs of Praise’ and ‘That’s Life’, both of which seemed to serve as a proto-trigger warning that the weekend was over and it was school in the morning.

The first Saturday in January traditionally plays host to the 3rd Round of the FA Cup, when the big guns from the Premier League are drawn against lower-league ‘minnows’ and the kind of David & Goliath shocks so beloved of excitable match commentators are on the cards. Get ready to relive Ronnie Radford’s 1972 rocket for Hereford against Newcastle, not to mention Mickey Thomas’s similar thunderbolt for Wrexham against Arsenal in 1992 – perennial replays that the month would be bereft without, even if the quagmires upon which those moments of individual inspiration took place have been condemned to the same football graveyard as rattles and terracing.

‘Getting through’ January is almost viewed as a test of British grit; anybody who absolves themselves of the endurance is ostracised and regarded as a coward. As Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan made the fatal mistake of attending a summit of world leaders in the Caribbean as the rest of the country endured the 1978/79 Winter of Discontent and the electorate punished him for it the following May. The British like to feel their suffering is shared equally. But once January is over, we’re stuck with February, a nothing month with something of an identity crisis, neither one thing nor the other, not even good enough to stretch to 30 days; only in March, with the dawning of spring, does the veil lift and (to paraphrase George Harrison) the smiles return to the faces. That longing for sunshine does rob the year of at least two months, however; rather than grinning and bearing it, maybe we should make the most of it while it’s here. Yes, it’s cold, wet, dark and miserable-looking by the accepted standards of what constitutes natural beauty. But there is a beauty there; it just doesn’t conform to the narrow definition of the travel brochures.

© The Editor