EURO SEPTICS

Like many who participated at the time, I can’t honestly say the European Union loomed very large in my life (if at all) before the Referendum of June 2016. Yes, I occasionally wrote about it on here because it was a topical story, just as I was aware it had been a running sore on the Conservative Party for the best part of forty years, something that provoked intense – and what seemed to me, disproportionate – passions in separate Tory factions; but the EU was not something I personally lost sleep over or frothed at the mouth about. Like ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ or ‘Bake Off’, it was largely irrelevant to me; I didn’t really care one way or the other, and the fact I voted Remain reflected my ‘oh, well – better the devil you know’ attitude rather than revealing any deeply-held opinions. I only really took notice of the EU whenever the Tories returned to power and it proved to be the one factor that threatened to split the ranks and damage the brand. For them, it just wouldn’t go away.

Most looked on at this peculiar obsession and couldn’t really understand why it was an issue that got so many Tories so hot under the collar. When David Cameron announced there was to be a referendum on our membership of the Union, it appeared to be a move designed in response to two pressing factors, neither of which meant much to those without an investment in either. For one thing, the Tories were haemorrhaging votes to UKIP and their more traditional base was as opposed to Dave’s pro-Europe stance as it was to his socially liberal policies; secondly, the PM was evidently determined this issue would not bring him down as it had brought down previous Tory tenants of No.10, so here was an opportunity to finally lance the Brussels boil festering on the Conservative body politic once and for all with a (to quote Nicola Sturgeon) ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ vote. Thank God for that. It had become a very boring ongoing saga for far too long and was not a subject that would register much beyond Tory circles the moment it was done and dusted.

Imagine my surprise the day after the Referendum, then, when so many of my Facebook friends suddenly supplanted their regular profile pictures with the EU flag as though the EU were some über-cool band they’d just discovered; indeed, imagine my surprise when so many of them, who had previously never aired any political opinions on the forum, had transformed overnight into Great Political Thinkers, little Edmund Burkes, one and all. Grand pronouncements on the issue replaced enjoyably frivolous trivia, as if Facebook had abruptly changed channels from ‘The Generation Game’ to ‘The World at War’ with the flick of a switch. The unexpected rush of love for the EU on social media reminded me a little of the way in which the imminent closure of Woolies provoked a rash of sentimental shoppers to flood through doors they’d summarily ignored for decades. Yes, the usual suspects had been vocal in their support before the Referendum result, but now it seemed the majority of apolitical folk I followed had become possessed by this newfound passion that evoked unwelcome memories of the vicious tribal splits that characterised opposing camps during the Miners’ Strike of 1984; and their fury has multiplied as the rest of us who voted Remain have gradually realised just what a rotten shower the EU really is.

Since that moment, the approach to every issue has been cast in the black & white Brexit mould, whereby all is politicised in the most aggressive and divisive Us and Them ideology. We, the good people are virtuous, unsullied and pure; our enemies are the worst people who ever lived – like, literally Nazis. Brexit has narrowed, shaped and defined political and social discourse for five years now, and it appears there’s no letting up; even the pro-lockdown/anti-lockdown debate languishes in its toxic shadow. For many of us whose natural home had always been leaning towards the left, this atmosphere opened the floodgates for the lunatic fringe to seize control of the argument and edge the rest of us towards the no-man’s land of the middle ground, branded ‘far-right’ for not submitting to the propaganda, and painfully severed from friendships that had been fine before battle lines were drawn by the malignant hands of others. The instinctive response to BLM being put forward for the Nobel Peace Prize should be to wonder why the KKK haven’t received the same accolade, for there is no discernible difference between the ultimate aims of the two other than the former have successfully exploited the fear of being labelled racist by duping every conceivable institution and corporation in the West into supine compliance with their odious dogma. Yet whether through ignorance, reluctance to risk cancellation, or simple cowardice to reject the mantra of the herd because the herd offers an illusion of safety and security that social exclusion doesn’t, many continue to be blinded to the uncomfortable truth – and this is part of the 2016 fallout.

However, the past week has offered a sliver of hope that threatens to shatter the narrative. Unlike many Brits post-2016, I had never regarded ‘Europe’ as a single entity, which is what it suddenly became the day after the Referendum result – a myth the EU has always been keen to propagate in order to validate its existence. Personally, I like different European countries for their differences, just as I like the four constituent countries of the UK for the same reason. A huge landmass viewed as a de facto ‘One Nation’ that rides roughshod over independent sovereignty doesn’t work; it didn’t for Europe in the long run when much of it fell under the sprawling bureaucracy of the Holy Roman Empire, and history shows us how rarely it has successfully worked for the USA. The European Union has repeatedly tried to sell itself using the ‘one-size-fits-all’ idea, but it was always a sham. The way in which the institution has treated Ireland, Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal in recent years whilst simultaneously favouring Germany and France has made this blatantly obvious. Continents are not countries and the EU is not a democratically-elected government.

Attempts to apply its official principles to the issue of the coronavirus vaccine have exposed the unattractive reality of the EU to many of those who proclaimed their love for it five years ago. The leading cheerleaders of the EU project dragged their heels when it came to a vaccine rollout, forbidding member states to import vaccines without EU permission, and resulting in the European Commission pointing the finger at Oxford-AstraZeneca to obscure the fact that EU officials hadn’t moved with the same swiftness as the UK when it came to ordering the antidote. Both Germany and France have tried to cover Brussels backs by badmouthing the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab at a time when their respective populations sorely needed it; and then the EU badly misjudged the global mood by falling back on emotional blackmail and trying to use the vaccine as a weapon in Brexit trade wars, making it look petty and vindictive, prioritising trivial grievances over the lives of the European citizens in whose interests it has claimed to be acting.

The below-the-belt attempt to threaten the Northern Ireland Protocol, the survival of which has been central to disputes over Brexit, made it look like a hard border on the island of Ireland was something the EU was prepared to invoke whenever it suited them and brought the authentic EU attitude to Ireland into the open. For the last few years we’ve been repeatedly warned by Brussels how Brexit would be the harbinger for the Troubles Part II, yet the EU throwing its toys out of the pram by sanctioning vaccine for Eire and refusing it for Ulster, theoretically erecting the very hard border it has repeatedly claimed Brexit would disastrously lead to, managed the impressive feat of uniting the DUP and Sinn Féin in condemnation. The vaccine issue has been a PR disaster for the EU all across its fiefdoms, yet none more so than in the very ex-member state it has been determined to punish for having the nerve to expose its sales technique as bullshit. Five years on from Brexit, perhaps now is finally the moment when Leave voters can say ‘told you so’ without fear of a spontaneous backlash of the kind we’ve become accustomed to. Silver linings and all that…

© The Editor

TROUBLED WATERS

With the economy in meltdown, the threat of a hard border on the island of Ireland, a rocky relationship with mainland Europe, and the public enduring wartime restrictions on their freedoms, it often feels like the nation is in the midst of a most unwelcome 70s revival – minus the great music and wacky fashions that made that decade worth living through. The Three-Day Week and the Winter of Discontent were probably the last occasions remotely comparable to what we’ve had to put up with in 2020, and looking back on those (literally) dark days can no longer be entered into with the same sense of ‘can you believe people put up with all that?’ smug detachment. But the final icing on a quite unappetising cake of nasty nostalgia has now come via the latest chapter in the ongoing Brexit farce, i.e. the prospect of a potential Cod War all over again – or something as near to it as we’ve had since the UK and Iceland battled it out for fishing rights on the high seas. If anything, we’re going even further back in time as we appear to be squaring-up against the old enemy across the Channel, more than a century on from the Entente Cordiale that was supposed to have ended our ancient animosity towards our Gallic cousins.

Actually, disputes over territorial waters with other maritime nations are just as old as our rivalry with the French; and we can blame it on the Vikings. The Nordic rapists and pillagers introduced cod and other North Atlantic whitefish into the British diet, centuries before fish and chips became the national dish. So engrained was our appetite for these delicacies by the 15th century that voyages by English ships into the plentiful Icelandic fishing grounds prompted King Eric of Denmark (who ruled Iceland) into barring Icelanders from trading with the English. Despite efforts to diplomatically resolve what evolved into a long-running dispute, vessels continued to set sail from Blighty and head north for hundreds of years, venturing deeper into Icelandic territory with the advent of steam-power. Denmark eventually declared a fishing limit around Iceland and the Faroe Islands of 50 nautical miles, though this tended not to be observed by British ships. There were a series of clashes at the back end of the 19th century, leading to the 1901 ‘Anglo-Danish Territorial Waters Agreement’; however, British catches in Icelandic waters remained substantial for the first half of the 20th century.

When disagreements rose again in the immediate post-war period, British ports imposed a landing ban on Icelandic fish, a move which proved highly damaging to the Icelandic fishing industry; sensing a way-in, the USSR began to import fish from Iceland, whilst the US – fearful, as ever, of Soviet influence being extended beyond Eastern Europe – did likewise, a move that effectively neutralised the damage done by the British landing ban. When this latest round of the never-ending dispute resulted in the extension of Icelandic fishery limits in 1958, British trawlers largely ignored it and were accompanied for the first time by Royal Navy warships during their forays into Icelandic waters. The ill-feeling between the two nations escalated into what is regarded as the First Cod War, with clashes, collisions and shots fired; NATO ended up acting as a mediator and the conflict officially ended in 1961 with an agreement that allowed British vessels to visit specific Icelandic fishing grounds at specific times of the year. This uneasy truce lasted around a decade.

When what is referred to as the Second Cod War erupted in the autumn of 1972, it somewhat contradicted the image of European unity that the EEC (of which Britain would be a member as of New Year’s Day 1973) and PM Ted Heath were so eager to sell to the British public. Iceland had decided to extend its waters once again, with its new left-wing government spurning the treaty agreed to by its centre-right predecessor, which required the involvement of the International Court of Justice in the Hague should any further disputes arise; aggressive patrolling of the new limits and the cutting of British nets inevitably provoked retaliation. By the beginning of 1973, the Royal Navy had become involved and anti-British feeling was so strong in Iceland that the windows of the British Embassy in Reykjavik were smashed by a mob; but in increasingly harsh economic times, fishing communities on either side were prepared to fight gloves-off to keep their livelihoods going. NATO – which Iceland threatened to leave – eventually became involved again and an agreement was finally reached in November 1973, albeit one that limited British catches in Icelandic waters; this agreement only lasted a couple of years before hostilities resumed at the end of 1975.

Iceland extended the so-called ‘exclusion zone’ once again, and as Britain refused to recognise the extension, the Third Cod War broke out. This chapter of the trilogy proved to be the most violent, with several serious incidents that exceeded the tit-for-tat exchanges of the previous two conflicts. The situation became so dire that Iceland broke off diplomatic relations with the UK in February 1976; when an agreement was reached that June, it may have been one that officially ended hostilities but it was also one with stipulations that resulted in heavy redundancies in ports such as Hull and Grimsby, whose economies were almost exclusively dependent on fishing. What always sounded to me like some sort of ‘joke war’ when I was a child dipping into ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ – after all, I associated cod with chips, not wars – had severe repercussions on British industry at a time when it was hardly in the healthiest of shapes.

40 years on from the end of the Third Cod War, the decision by a majority of the British population to leave the EEC’s bloated successor didn’t initially throw up concerns regarding a revival of disputes over fishing rights. However, with the EU stating its desire to maintain access to fishing grounds within the British ‘exclusive economic zone’, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit would complicate matters; Britain’s cause also isn’t helped by the fact that more than half of England’s fishing quotas are in foreign ownership – though that shouldn’t come as a surprise when one considers what has happened to other British industries in recent years. The seemingly doomed talks in Brussels have provoked the promise of the Royal Navy being deployed once more to police British waters – this time in the English Channel. Although the Royal Navy tends to patrol the seas around Britain anyway, shots are rarely fired in anger; were they required to be, the constant cutting and trimming of the service over the past few decades means it is a shadow of what it was at the time of the Cod Wars, so expecting a fleet of warships to tackle illegal fishing by the French in the Channel is pretty unrealistic.

What has predictably been labelled ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in the wake of this threat could be viewed as the EU deliberately backing Boris into the kind of corner it knows he will react to with a futile jingoistic flourish. The EU has also refused to allow the PM to speak directly to Macron and Merkel, insisting he deal solely with Michel Barnier; indeed, events of this past week seem to have highlighted yet again how the EU is consciously punishing the UK for having the temerity to depart the club. Negotiations were destined to be difficult, but the EU needed them to be in order to make an example of Britain and further dissuade any other member state contemplating following suit. Southern Europe – Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece – has failed to reap the ‘benefits’ of both the Euro and free movement promoted as beneficial in France and Germany, but the less Britain emerges with from the melee, the less appealing the rewards of departure for anyone else. No, if anyone can lay claim to ruling the waves right now, it’s not Britannia, but Brussels.

© The Editor

A MEANS TO AN END

Jonathan Van-Tam might sound like some mullet-haired star of straight-to-video 80s action movies, but he’s actually England’s deputy chief medical officer. In his opinion – and how we’ve come to rely on the opinions of spotlight-relishing medical ‘experts’ of late – we can forget about a return to the old normal any time soon. Even with the Holy Grail of that miracle vaccine – which probably kills 99% of all household germs as well – we’ll still have to endure mask-wearing, social isolation and people without smiles for the foreseeable future. As with the ‘everything is racist’ narrative propagated by those for whom it provides a living, the likes of Jonathan Van-Tam would be pretty redundant it not for a pandemic; the longer this goes on, the better for him – along with all the others who have too much invested in the crisis to give it up. The world we’ve been forced to surrender this year officially ended the night Boris delivered his landmark address to the nation on 23 March. As endings go, it certainly had the requisite drama, only lacking the thunderous ‘Eastenders’ drums at the cliff-hanger to complete the picture. That was the end, beautiful friend.

I can think of better endings. ‘Michael Ellis’, for example – one of the few Monty Python episodes I was allowed to stay up and watch when it originally aired; dating from the final Python TV series in 1974, it was also one of the few in the series to feature a full-length story rather than a collection of unrelated sketches. Primarily set inside an old-fashioned department store, the episode focuses on Eric Idle and his quest to purchase a pet ant after becoming bored with the rest of his unconventional menagerie. With the closing credits appearing immediately after the opening titles this time round, the actual climax of the episode sees Terry Jones’ shop assistant offer Idle’s character a range of endings he can choose from; amongst the choices are a romantic stroll into the sunset, a slow fade-out, a dramatic chase to the ‘Dick Barton’ theme, or a sudden ending (which is the one that brings proceedings to an abrupt close). It’s a characteristically offbeat way of subverting the clichés of film and television as much as running the episode’s end credits barely a minute in.

Watching a lot of old – i.e. 1940s – movies lately, I noticed the refreshing absence of the kind of drawn-out contemporary credits that seem to go on forever when a film is over. In an old movie, you get all the details at the beginning and, bar the occasional brief cast-list, the end is just that – i.e. a caption that says ‘The End’; French films of the era say the same thing with the memorably brief ‘Fin’. I remember my mother telling me how her early cinema-going was marked by a stampede to the exit as soon as the last scene of a movie faded from the screen, basically to avoid the then-obligatory playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ that apparently had to be observed by those in attendance freezing on the spot. It shows how quickly films once drew to a close, for if today’s lengthy credits had been the norm then, everyone could have left the cinema in a leisurely fashion without fear of being trapped by the national anthem. I’m not sure at what point credits expanded to their current duration, though I do remember driving my parents mad as a child by insisting I sit through the credits of the latest Bond movie simply so I could learn the name of the next one, as they’d always finish with ‘James Bond will return in…’

Great endings to movies, such as (just to use a classic example) the big reveal in the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ when Charlton Heston stumbles upon the ruined Statue of Liberty and realises he’s been on Earth all the time, are rarer than we imagine; TV series, certainly the episodic blockbusters of recent years, often don’t know how to end and go on way past their sell-by date – the likes of ‘Lost’, ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘The Affair’ and ‘Heroes’, all of which began so promisingly, eventually dragged on to the point whereby I gave up and left them to fizzle out utterly un-mourned. The old showbiz adage of knowing when to leave the stage and therefore leaving the audience wanting more is a far better way; David Bowie knew that when he killed Ziggy Stardust at exactly the right moment, and Patrick McGoohan knew it when he curtailed ‘The Prisoner’ with such glorious ambiguity that its meaning continues to be debated to this very day. Ziggy’s lifespan was barely a year; No.6 concluded his story after just seventeen episodes. In their own unique way, both ended brilliantly.

Unless the whole story is mapped out from start to finish before a single line has been committed to the page, I’ve always found one of the trickiest tasks of writing a novel to be devising a satisfactory ending. The way I work around it is not to plan it. I tend to have a rough sketch of where a tale is going on the eve of beginning it, but find the exercise far more fulfilling an experience if events take me on a magical mystery tour as the various characters and plotlines develop in ways that are as unexpected to the author as they hopefully will be to the reader. This in turn can present a conclusion that wasn’t foreseen when the opening sentence (another tough nut to crack) was jotted down. It’s a more ‘organic’ process that suits me fine, one that feels more natural than meticulously plotting every move in advance as though the writing is little more than a mathematical puzzle or game of chess with one’s self.

Some novels I’ve read have an almost perfect symmetry in the manner of their endings, whereas others peter out and leave the reader coming away with a feeling of anticlimax that implies the investment in the story demanded something better. I suspect we expect fiction to give us the kind of endings unreliable real life rarely offers, and when it seems too close to disappointing reality it ceases to do its duty. An audience always wants endings penned by screenwriters or novelists to be fitting climaxes that a good story requires. Those for which life is the author can be frustratingly damp squibs, with an absence of swelling strings and the numerous options Terry Jones offered Eric Idle in 1974. Life’s chapters regularly have a habit of closing with the kind of deflating flatness no film producer would ever sanction if he wants a good reception once those elongated credits begin to roll. That said, I’ve only ever seen two films at the cinema in my entire life that were granted a spontaneous round of applause from all present when the end came – ‘Toy Story 3’ and ‘I, Daniel Blake’; hard to think of two more different movies on paper, yet both had something to say about the fragility of life and how it so often fails to live up to the desired script.

Exactly five years ago today I penned the inaugural post on this here blog, and I read it for the first time in a long time today. It’s only brief, and has the feel of a manifesto. But at the moment of its composition, I’d just experienced an ending that was rather painful (to put it mildly) and it’s evident to me now a brave face was being put on in order to positively harness the emotional force of the upset and rise above it. I think I took a good few posts to find my feet, but as soon as David Cameron announced the date of the EU Referendum in February 2016, I was handed a gift-wrapped grenade that I’ve been pulling the pin out of ever since. It was just the sort of story this type of enterprise needed; for once, life and I were harmoniously synchronised. The Brexit issue is ongoing, as is – seemingly – the saga that has stolen its thunder in 2020; when it comes to both, the one thing that doesn’t appear to be in sight is an ending. The fat lady has lost her voice, and as long as she keeps schtum, we remain open for business.

© The Editor

A POLAR EXPEDITION

Perhaps one reason why the national outbreak of weekly clapping caught on was that it helped generate a sense of community – however superficial – at a moment when many suddenly felt extremely isolated and detached from wider society. However, it’s arguable that in many cases the lockdown merely lifted a lid on pre-existing isolation and detachment rather than manufacturing them from scratch. Along with the pre-Cummings ‘were all in this together’ mantra (which a majority desperately wanted to believe, if only to give credence to the sacrifices being made), there was a hope that the polarisation exacerbated by Brexit might just be put into perspective. If we were all in this together, we could stop hurling poison darts at each other from either side of the tribal barricades; we could cease hostilities and, even if we couldn’t shake hands due to social distancing guidelines, we could at least stop screaming at one another.

There was a very brief moment early on when it looked as if all the fatuous issues that had dominated discourse on social media for the past couple of years had mercifully been put to bed; there was a new, far more dramatic issue to capture the imagination. The extreme decision to bring everything to a grinding halt should, in theory, have united the warring factions; this was far more serious than gender pronouns or whatever else had provoked such inexplicable anger online and, unlike trivial first-world obsessions, it affected everybody. But it was naively optimistic to expect those who have an investment in division to abruptly abandon it. It feels now like the polarisation runs so deep that not even an event as life-changing (or threatening) as a global pandemic can overcome enmities that seem set in stone.

It wasn’t long before the familiar racial and gender factors began to surface in the coronavirus narrative, almost as if it wasn’t enough that we were all in it together; some of us had to be in it more than others as the Oppression Olympics proceeded regardless and the scramble to grab the gold medal of victimhood reasserted itself. Those who see everything through such distorted prisms simply couldn’t help themselves from applying their usual worldview to the picture once the momentarily unifying shock of the lockdown subsided. Even when faced with the greatest leveller of all, there has to be an Identity Politics angle to hone in on; it appears to have become the default setting, whatever the circumstances.

And then it took the Dominic Cummings revelation, hot on the heels of Neil Ferguson’s exposure, to bring the full polarising fury that characterised the Brexit saga back onto the front pages. Remoaners never forget, and the prospect of hanging out to dry the detested Svengali regarded as an architect of the peasants’ revolt of 2016 was too good an opportunity to resist. The staggeringly disproportionate coverage by, and behaviour of, the mainstream media over this issue has demonstrated that what divides us will continue to do so even when attention should really be focused elsewhere. It was the final nail in the coffin of a promising pause that had suggested a major event like lockdown would lead to a temporary ceasefire that, in time, would become permanent as people gradually grew-up and moved on. No such luck, alas. Twitter today is just as packed with vicious, vociferous fanatics on both sides as it was before Covid-19 winged its merry way from east to west.

Following representatives of the two extremes on Twitter, I observe this toxic tennis match between left and right with increasing despair; it’s a grand-slam final that seems set to play on with little prospect of ever reaching match-point; both opponents are refusing to concede an inch. The loss of a middle ground not only in politics, but in society as a whole, has helped generate a scenario in which one has to take an extreme position on every burning issue. If one attempts to be balanced and see the good and bad in everyone, that’s not acceptable; the enemy must be utterly condemned. If one says anything remotely positive about a policy decision made by Boris or Trump – not easy, I admit, but not impossible – one is immediately shot down and branded a ‘Nazi sympathiser’ or whatever chosen insult is trending this week. It’s like a kid in the playground who intervenes when another kid is being picked on, and then those doing the picking instantly accuse the kid who intervened of harbouring unrequited love for the kid being picked on. It’s that infantile.

Mind you, it doesn’t help when Mr President so often exhibits the same childish combative approach to any crisis. He could have phrased his intention to curb the rioting in Minneapolis better, of course, but few expect dignified gravitas from a man who lacks the eloquence of tact. It’s a given that the National Guard are going to be called in when civil disturbance grows so serious that the situation necessitates their intervention; but there are ways and means of calming chaos. What provoked the anger that inspired the rioting in the first place was undoubtedly horrible if sadly unsurprising where the attitude of some US police forces are concerned; the sadistic idiot responsible for the death of George Floyd is one more contaminated product of America’s ongoing problem with race, a problem that stretches from inbred racial prejudice on one side to the assumption that every non-white has to vote Democrat as part of their duty as oppressed minorities on the other.

And as so often happens in the aftermath of such a gruesome incident as the killing of George Floyd, professional agitators move in to exploit and enflame the anger. The likes of Antifa and Black Lives Matter give every impression of being partners in anarchy whose ultimate aims may differ, but whose means of achieving those aims are similar; if they share anything beyond capitalising on discontent, it is to enhance and widen even further the divisions that would only render their respective organisations null and void if – God forbid – they should ever be healed. The former seek to destabilise the system whenever they sniff a powder-keg bubbling and sod the consequences for those caught in the crossfire; the latter have an investment in the continuation of racial tensions that justify their own existence. Neither group is concerned with the genuine grievances that they hitch a ride on; like a nihilistic travelling circus, they arrive in town, stoke unrest and then depart when the town is in ruins.

The message is drilled into the masses via generous MSM coverage which preaches the narrative that skin colour or sexual preference utterly define an individual above all else and will naturally divide us because we’re not all the same. Mankind will never progress beyond the barrier of colour if it is constantly being reinforced by those who require its perpetual presence in order to survive and prosper. Social media is currently awash with race-baiting propaganda appealing to the guilty consciences of the self-flagellating white Woke folk who carry the crimes of their forefathers on their backs. You are a racist and 2+2=5. To dispute this logic is to place you in sympathy with the cop who killed George Floyd; and Donald Trump; and Boris Johnson; and Nigel Farage; and Vote Leave; and so on and so on. What timing, mind – a frustrated people driven half-crazed by lockdown measures were primed for parasites preying on their grievances, and the plan is working. We are divided and we are falling. At least it’s not that long a way down, though.

© The Editor

THE ELEVENTH HOUR

The diminishing post-war role of Britain on the world stage must have been evident to anyone who was a regular cinema-goer in the 50s and 60s, though the manner in which this message was received would have been unintentional. A fixture of the Pathé News bulletins for a good 20 years after 1947 was the independence ceremony; the sight of euphoric natives celebrating a colony finally standing on its own two feet was presented in characteristically jolly fashion by these optimistic interludes between the support picture and the main feature. The Queen’s presence implied a gracious acceptance of independence, even if the apparent benevolence of the mother country disguised relief at the breaking-up of an Empire it could no longer afford to run. Yet, for all the dressing-up of such events in a positive style, there’s no doubt the increasingly regular sight of the Union Jack descending down one more flagpole on a foreign field must have had a subconscious psychological impact on national morale – and one that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Bar the 1997 Hong Kong Handover, the last time an occasion of this nature took place was in Rhodesia in 1980. By then, the cinema news bulletin had long been superseded by TV reports reaching the nation’s living rooms via satellite; moreover, there were few people left in the country who clung to the image of Britain that had been inherited from the imperial forefathers. Even before Zimbabwe was dragged kicking and screaming from the Commonwealth womb, Britain had already reduced its global ambition and had settled for a future much closer to home – Europe. The continent had welcomed belated British membership of the Common Market, but the economic woes that plagued the nation throughout the first decade of so of Britain’s seat at the EEC table were something that seemed to give our neighbours a sense of superiority over the ‘sick man’; and the condescending perception of an incurably ill member state lingered.

Britain as a minor Brussels suburb was something the British public never truly embraced wholeheartedly, and it could be argued our mainland neighbours never really regarded us as ‘proper Europeans’ either. Middle-class Brits liked it because it fitted their image of themselves as sophisticated continentals a cut above the native yahoos; but for most in the UK, the Great European Project – especially when the organisation progressed from being a simple trading partnership to a reincarnation of the Holy Roman Empire – began to seem like an unnecessary encumbrance that made us feel like a naughty schoolboy permanently stationed outside the headmaster’s office. Yet, anyone observing the sudden rebranding by some Brits as instant Europeans in June 2016 may have thought otherwise. They reminded me a little of my cousin in 1977, whose bedroom wall became a shrine to Elvis Presley the minute he died, despite there being no sign of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll up there the day before.

England and Wales were the two constituent countries of the UK that sealed the deal in 2016, and will probably play host to the most celebratory reactions when the clocks strike eleven. Even here, however, I suspect celebrations will be muted mainly because the polarised fault-lines now run so deep. The recourse of Remoaners to lazy name-calling of the most basic nature – Nazi, Racist, Fascist etc. – evokes the way in which ‘Scab’ became the ubiquitous buzzword when one side verbally attacked the other during the similarly divisive Miners’ Strike of 1984/5; and just as there were ‘Quiet Tories’ not broadcasting their voting preference at the 2017 General Election, there’s no doubt there are ‘Quiet Leavers’ declining to be drawn into Remain-dominated discourse on the likes of Facebook today for fear of being cast out of the village.

North of the border, the EU has been adopted by the ruling party as a handy addition to the independence portfolio. Indeed, the most obstinate, head-in-the-sand English Remoaners took their cue from those Scots who never accepted the 2014 Referendum result when echoing their demands for a rerun because it didn’t turn out the way they wanted. The SNP promotional brochure that the rest of the UK receives glosses over the fact that during the 1975 EEC Referendum, the SNP was as virulently anti-Common Market as the Brexit Party is anti-EU today; the Salmond/Sturgeon incarnation of the SNP, on the other hand, makes the Lib Dems resemble UKIP. This curious juxtaposition of the desire to be an independent nation yet still chained to a Union that offers it far less leeway than the Union it has been part of for 300 years is not the only contradiction at the heart of Holyrood.

It’s no real surprise the EU is so appealing to Sturgeon’s tartan army. The SNP as a political force contains all the elitist ‘executive’ elements that so alienated 17.4 million voters when it came to the People’s Vote campaign – the same sense of sneering, superior entitlement embodied south of the border in the likes of Lord Adonis or Anna Soubry; it boasts all the worst aspects of Identity Politics that has cost Labour so much of its traditional support; and it has a finger-wagging tendency to persistently incur into people’s private lives by attempting to regulate what they eat and drink, how they chastise their children, and to punish them for smoking – to prioritise Nanny State interference over the far-from impressive condition of many of Scotland’s public services. Yet, like Labour in England, the SNP is keen to sell itself as a ‘party of the people’, picking up the Stop Brexit banner with far more success than any other political party in the UK.

Across the Irish Sea, the resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont comes at an opportune moment; the peace process, along with the province as a whole, finds itself at something of a crossroads. Many of those who played a pivotal part in the Good Friday Agreement and the crucial early days of power-sharing are no longer around. Paisley and McGuinness are both dead, John Hume is now lost to the No Man’s Land of dementia, and Seamus Mallon passed away barely a week ago. Enough time has now elapsed since 1998 to place the future of Ulster in the hands of a generation who weren’t manning the barricades at the height of the Troubles; and just as significant is the fact that December’s General Election saw Northern Ireland elect more Nationalist MPs to Westminster than Unionists for the first time ever. For those seeking a united Ireland, the prospects have rarely looked brighter.

Along with Scotland, of course, Northern Ireland voted Remain; the DUP may have been the cheerleaders for Brexit during the period when they made up the numbers for Theresa May’s threadbare Tories, but they were hardly representative of the majority in Ulster. The loss of Nigel Dodds at Westminster was an additional blow for a party that punched way above its weight when the British Government needed it; but the British Government doesn’t need it anymore, and one wonders how much longer Unionism can survive as a potent political force when the momentum appears to be with Nationalism. Belated alignment with the more enlightened social policies of the Republic has recently come despite DUP opposition, and it’ll be interesting to see how events develop at Stormont during the next twelve months.

Nationwide, the next twelve months will be just as interesting, if considerably less intense than the last three years. Wherever one stands, this was what the majority voted for and that should always have been reason enough for implementing it. It’s only taken us so long to get here because some just couldn’t accept it; and I don’t think they ever will. Some of us who voted Remain did. We might not have liked it, but hey, that’s democracy. Au revoir.

© The Editor

POUNDS, SHILLINGS AND PETULANCE

The belated pensioning-off of my VCR a couple of years ago was followed by the eventual clear-out of hundreds of VHS tapes, the earliest of which stretched back to the beginning of the 1990s. Whilst this has been beneficial in terms of space, I often notice the absence of what was effectively a comprehensive visual library when I feel the need to check a fact I can’t verify anywhere else. Without a machine to play them on, there was little point retaining these tapes – many of which contained numerous documentaries and factual series that will never see the light of day as commercial releases – so I often scour YouTube to see if any have surfaced courtesy of those who had the equipment to upload obscurities they’d also recorded off-air. Sometimes I find them; other times, I don’t. One such programme I’ve never found again was a documentary transmitted on Channel 4 in 2001, looking back on the day Britain went Decimal.

In it, there was an archive interview with a shopkeeper who refused to go with the flow and accept the currency change. Now unable to re-watch this programme, I can’t name him or the location of his shop and therefore have to rely on memory, though the nature of his protest is easy enough to recall. Footage of him standing his increasingly shrinking ground two years after decimalisation displayed his doomed defiance as he continued to insist his premises wouldn’t accept ‘new money’. By 1973, most of his loyal customers had probably exhausted their un-renewable supplies of defunct coinage and one would imagine his obstinacy cost him his business in the end. But for people of his generation, the loss of traditional £sd, a mere year before Ted Heath signed the country into the Common Market, was symbolic of something greater.

Often, the powerless seize upon something of apparent triviality when they feel the bigger picture is beyond their grasp. We’ve seen it with the so-called ‘metric martyrs’ in more recent years as, for some, the European Union has acquired the autocratic qualities once reserved for longer-established institutions that have wielded widespread influence and power over millions for centuries, such as the church, absolute monarchies or totalitarian regimes. Unable to attack these behemoths with bazookas, the incensed tend to resort to slingshots. Although decimalisation was planned and prepared long before the EEC finally accepted British membership – and the former certainly had a far more immediate impact on ordinary people’s lives – the two were linked in the minds of older generations for whom basic (and seemingly unnecessary) inconvenience was coupled with the loss of omnipotent signposts that had helped define in their minds what it meant to be British.

Naturally, what it means to be British can vary between different demographics. To those largely on the left for whom being British is a rather distasteful notion, Brexit represented their ultimate nightmare come true. As we all know, many of them – unlike the anti-decimal 70s shopkeeper – just happened to be in positions of power and spent the best part of three years abusing that power to try and overturn a democratic mandate. However, if the result of December’s General Election achieved anything of lasting significance, it could well be that it has ironically reduced the over-powerful Remain lobby to the same level as that poor deluded shopkeeper whose own protest was coming from a different place altogether. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the delicious desperation of the arrogant entitled clique whose perception of its own importance was made possible by a neutered minority administration now finds the ultimate manifestation of its inability to accept the inevitable comes via a coin.

The so-called Brexit 50 pence piece has already had a somewhat troubled history; first optimistically announced to commemorate the original departure date of 31 October last year, the predictable delay forced a swift change of plan. Apparently, 10 million were intended to be minted; whether or not any sneaked out will probably keep collectors of rare coins busy for decades, but the ‘recycled’ version was confidently unveiled shortly after the Conservative victory on 12 December and will enter circulation at the end of this month when overdue departure is finally confirmed. And so, denied the illusion of clout they achieved during the high summer of their opposition to the majority, Remoaners have now fixated on the humble 50p as representative of everything they hate about Britain.

The 50p has become something of a sandwich board for historic anniversaries or celebrations of Great British icons in recent years – everything from public libraries and Paddington Bear to Beatrix Potter and the Battles of Britain and Hastings have been featured on the coin; and it’s interesting that the first such variation on the standard Britannia design to appear came with the memorable Common Market ‘joined hands’ version issued in 1973. The Brexit 50p could be viewed as an inversion of that particular coin’s fraternal message, yet its inscription of ‘Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations’ essentially conveys the same spirit of international brotherhood as the visual equivalent from 1973 – with or without an ‘Oxford comma’.

The accusation of a grammatical error was made by author (and noted Remainer) Philip Pullman, though one suspects his objection runs deeper. The reaction to the coin amongst the pettiest bad losers within the Remoaner camp is undoubtedly entertaining and has made them look more like Little Englanders in their attitude than those they routinely label as such. Pullman claims he will ‘boycott’ the coin, though does this mean he will vigorously examine his change when being served in a busy shop and then demand a replacement for a Brexit 50p as though it’s one of those ‘funny foreign coins’? The ever-laughable Alistair Campbell echoed Pullman’s sentiments, and it is truly something to see a man who once pulled so many powerful strings with such pig-headed arrogance now taking out his frustrations on a little bit of copper-nickel. Sometimes, the falling of the mighty is worthy of celebration. Maybe a commemorative coin could be minted to mark the occasion?

But perhaps the most extreme example of Remoaner excesses at their OTT worst came from some wag on Twitter yesterday, one who had the insensitive gall to deface the image of the coin with a swastika – on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. His point was that the Brexit 50p and the occasion it commemorated were somehow on a par with the rise of the Nazis and all that led to. Yes, that’s how corrosive the effects of being denied getting their own way has become for some. In many respects, such a response to something as inconsequential as a commemorative coin chimes with the ongoing narrative re the desperate search for something to vindicate victimhood, a trait generally reserved for the privileged and the bourgeois. And the loudest voices on the Remain side of this debate have invariably hailed from that camp. Oh, well. Maybe when we ‘crash out’ and the economic apocalypse leaves them begging for spare change in shop doorways, take pity and slip them a coin. 50p should suffice.

© The Editor

VIEW FROM A DITCH

There are some things in life with an eternal longevity that serves as an inexplicably curious comfort; we may not devote much attention to them, but it’s still a source of satisfaction knowing they’re there. The Shipping Forecast, for example – or Ken Bruce. Then there are others that appear in annoying possession of an undeserved immortality that outlasts any relevance they once had. ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ was one of those for what felt like centuries before receiving a belated mercy killing; yet we’ve still got ‘Later with Jools Holland’. And added to that listless list could be this current Parliament, which seems set to go on and on and on until every member of the electorate over 40 is pushing up the daisies. By then, the young – all of whom are unquestionably of a Remainer persuasion, of course – will have inherited the ballot-box and it should be safe to hold a General Election again without fear the result of the 2016 Referendum will be honoured or that we will actually leave the EU.

Social media is today awash with reminders of how Boris Johnson once declared something or other and has now outrageously gone back on his word – as though reciting the PM’s catalogue of U-turns proves without doubt that he’s not a man to be trusted. In most cases, his record both in and out of politics shows, yes, he probably isn’t a man to be trusted; but when it comes to Brexit, he hasn’t really been left with any option but to reverse every public pronouncement on the subject courtesy of a Commons that clearly takes perverse delight in thwarting him seemingly just because he’s Boris. But whilst MPs of all opposition parties – not to mention many in Boris’s own – are having fun playing parliamentary parlour games, the rest of us are watching on with weary exasperation, thoroughly sick and tired of the entire repulsive circus.

Given what we have seen this year, did anyone really believe the Halloween deadline day would be adhered to? I’ve already lost track of how many deadline days we’ve bypassed in 2019, so the news that the EU has granted yet another extension against Boris’s declared wishes hardly warrants the Prime Minister being regarded as the reincarnation of Richard Nixon. Even if his own incompetence undoubtedly played a part, the fact is that yet again he was confronted by a brick wall of Remainers whose self-serving obstinacy is having the counter-productive effect of making the PM a sympathetic figure; rightly or wrongly, and whatever the true motivation of his actions, to the public it appears he’s the one person trying to implement what a majority of the electorate voted for over three years ago. In their eyes, he is not the one to blame for the latest in a long, long line of delays; we all know who is, and the guilty parties know we know – which is why they won’t give us the chance to vote them out of office.

Oh, sorry! I forgot. The Lib Dems and SNP have now colluded to dangle a carrot that may at least present the Government with the opportunity to override the support of the Labour Party that the wretched Fixed Term Parliaments Act requires. And amen to that. For all there is to admire in some of Labour’s proposals when it comes to those areas of social policy the Tories have shamefully disregarded over the past decade, it is Labour’s deluded stance on Brexit that will probably cost them dear at the nation’s polling stations. Throwing in its lot with the cosseted concerns of the metropolitan Parliamentary Labour Party is a catastrophic misjudgement of the opinions of all the lifelong Labour voters a long way from London – the disillusioned diehard that has no more in common with the champagne socialism of Starmer, Watson and Thornberry than it does with Oliver bloody Letwin.

Labour’s pitiful position in the polls after probably the most disastrous couple of years for the Conservative Party since the mid-1990s speaks volumes as to its prospects on the hustings to come – and delaying a General Election is as much a tactic of self-preservation for Labour as kicking Brexit into the endless long grass is for the Liberal Democrats. If Boris Johnson has a habit of shooting himself in the foot whenever his fortunes appear to have taken a turn for the better, Jeremy Corbyn has been equally accident-prone; the anti-Semitism issue has been swept under the carpet time and time again, yet it keeps coming back to further tarnish the Momentum bandwagon.

The remarkably close-run thing of 2017 is currently being exhumed by media Labour luvvies as an example of how the polls shouldn’t be relied upon as a pointer to the party’s performance. But Jezza was an unknown quantity to the electorate two years ago, when we were approaching a full decade since the financial crash and people were wearying of Austerity; his voice doesn’t sound quite so fresh now. Neil Kinnock’s failure in 1992 has often been put down to the fact he’d been Leader of the Opposition for too long – nine years at that time; Corbyn has held the same post for four, but it already seems so much longer.

The fanaticism of the Corbyn cult that characterised the 2017 General Election campaign has dwindled back to the hardcore now – as was inevitable with Corbyn not being crowned PM, despite his undeniably impressive, against-all-odds effort. Whipping-up the giddy enthusiasm of first-time voters by selling Jezza as a rock star was a policy destined to meet the same fate that befalls many a rock star whose zillion-selling debut album floods the charity shops when fashion moves on; the ‘difficult second album’ is not exactly eagerly-anticipated by the wider public. Indeed, for all its romanticising by the faithful, 2017 could actually be viewed in the same despondent light as the missed opportunity of 1992. Had Labour managed to win an outright majority and ousted Theresa May before her own party beat them to it, we wouldn’t have had a Hung Parliament, and therefore wouldn’t be trapped in this bloody Groundhog deadlock.

At least, for all their dominance in media circles, the People’s Vote mafia will invariably be split come Election Day, and this may well be their merciful undoing. A General Election should be fought on more than a single issue, but this one is bound to be even more Brexit-themed than the last; and that is not the fault of the electorate, but our elected representatives. The Second Referendum brigade are all-too aware that the problem when Parliament is overwhelmingly in synch with Remainer sensibilities is that voters are left with a dangerous variety of multiple choices – thus a ‘People’s Vote’ is the preferred option; that way, parties don’t come into it and they can all unite under the EU flag. With a General Election, however, the voters can only pick one pro-Remain faction, knowing another faction will suffer as a consequence – and there are so many to choose from! Leavers, on the other hand, largely only have the Tories or the Brexit Party – which is a profoundly depressing choice in itself; but such is life when you’re dead in a ditch.

© The Editor

FOSTER CHILDREN

Certain phrases that shouldn’t be taken literally nonetheless have a habit of painting vividly silly and very literate pictures in my strange head. Mention a customs border in the middle of the Irish Sea and I immediately see a sad, lonely little Jobsworth with a clipboard standing on a floating Checkpoint Charlie midway between Liverpool and Belfast; I then see goods being dragged onto said edifice by teams of burly individuals as though it were a swimming pool-based prop on some insane Brexit-themed edition of ‘It’s A Knockout’. Actually, more ‘Jeux Sans Frontières’, thinking about it. But I digress before I begin. Naturally, DUP opposition to Boris’s deal brought me here.

It goes without saying that the Democratic Unionist Party has been punching way above its weight for the past couple of years. The dominant force in Ulster Unionism, which was elevated to a position of unprecedented prominence at Westminster in order for Theresa May to shamelessly make up the Tory numbers in 2017, played a key, calamitous role in events leading up to the suspension of regular Stormont business almost three years ago; but Mrs May’s magic money tree rescued Arlene Foster and her henchmen from the fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive affair and gave them disproportionate clout at the Commons whilst the party’s rightful home of the Northern Ireland Assembly remained mothballed.

The DUP’s main objection to the current PM’s solution to the backstop problem seems to be based upon the drawing of a distinct line between the mainland and Northern Ireland where Brexit is concerned. The DUP doesn’t want the special concessions that keep Ulster’s ties to the EU far tighter than the rest of the UK’s will be; DUP thinking is that the nation’s future relationship with the EU should be the same across the whole of the United Kingdom, as though the overemphasis on ‘Britishness’ that is a traditional hallmark of Unionism implies there has never been any divergence between Northern Ireland and the other three constituent countries of the UK – and any sign of one now is somehow selling-out to Nationalists or, even worse, the dreaded Dublin.

Which is, of course, bollocks. Ulster Unionism has always been quick to raise the Union Jack, but it’s a pick ‘n’ mix patriotism in which Northern Ireland gets to choose which bits of Britain it fancies and disregards all the bits it doesn’t. The liberal removal of many illiberal, archaic British laws that began during Roy Jenkins’s social reforming tenure as Home Secretary in the 1960s never crossed the Irish Sea at all; even when the old Northern Ireland Parliament was abolished in 1972 and the province was governed from London for the next quarter-of-a century, there was little social reforming in Ulster. Mind you, it could be said there were perhaps more pressing issues there at the time.

Social (and what is no doubt regarded as moral) conservatism has typified Protestant Northern Ireland and its political face for decades; at one time, such an approach was also regarded as being characteristic of Catholic Northern Ireland – just as it was of Catholic Eire. Listening to a radio adaptation of Edna O’Brien’s ‘Country Girls Trilogy’ the other day reminded me of how young women in particular – especially those from rural Ireland – were utterly infantilised by the considerable, corrosive power once wielded throughout the Catholic community by the Church of Rome. However, the irreparable damage done by the child abuse scandals, which have undoubtedly contributed towards the church’s waning influence, could well have played a part in creating the kind of climate conducive to the radical reforms that have taken place in the Republic recently.

In the public perception, these social liberalisations have tended to make the Republic resemble a vivacious party animal who happens to live next door to a curmudgeonly middle-aged man forever complaining about the noise. They have made Northern Ireland look as much of an anachronism to Dublin as it is to London, yet with Stormont in a state of suspended animation ever since the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister in January 2017, members of the Assembly (who continue to draw their salaries, by the way) haven’t exactly been in a position to address such issues.

Ironically, their absence from Stormont and the return of effective direct rule from Westminster has enabled certain policies to be imposed on Ulster that, had the DUP been more active on home soil, would probably have struggled to get a foot in the door. And the one Great British social reform of 1967 that even the Republic has now adopted was the one whose glaring omission from the Northern Ireland statute book made a mockery of Unionist objections to any Brexit deal making a clear distinction between Ulster and the mainland. Indeed, that very omission showed there have always been very clear distinctions. However, as of midnight last night, abortion is no longer a criminal offence in Northern Ireland.

As Suzanne Breen from the Belfast Telegraph pointed out on ‘Newsnight’ yesterday, the hypothetical (albeit plausible) scenario in which a rape victim risked receiving a longer prison sentence than her rapist should she terminate an unwanted pregnancy provoked by the rape has now been belatedly consigned to history, along with the Victorian legislation that has kept Northern Ireland out of step with the mainland for 52 years. The fact that the DUP were strong enough in their opposition to go so far as to recall the power-sharing Executive said a great deal about the party’s priorities; the less headline-grabbing, albeit important, issues affecting the Northern Ireland electorate were not deemed significant enough to warrant reconvening at Stormont, yet offer women the same ownership of their bodies as they have in England, Scotland and Wales, never mind the Republic, and the DUP are there.

Mercifully, they left it too late. Their failure to stem the march of progress also merely highlighted how detached they are from wider public opinion beyond the hardcore Unionist enclaves; temporarily resuming business at Stormont to debate a single issue ended in farce with petulant walkouts that emptied the chamber. The fact that Ulster will also be brought into line with the rest of the UK (and the rest of Ireland) on the legal standing of same-sex marriage must have been an additional kick in the teeth for the DUP. For some reason, I can’t help but remember Mo Mowlam’s recollection of Ian Paisley’s fire-and-brimstone reaction to the news that Elton John had been invited to play at the ceremony marking the founding of the Northern Ireland Assembly – ‘Sodomites at Stormont!’ All that remains for the DUP now is to lick their wounds and return to Westminster, where – unlike at Stormont – the party’s appetite for destruction at least has numerous sympathetic allies.

© The Editor

TISWAS DAY

Recent late-night drama at the Commons may have made for compelling entertainment in its combination of contemporary political jousting and bafflingly archaic ceremony; but such events are relatively rare there, as is the high level of attendance seen when these occasions come around. The day-to-day routine at Westminster seems closer to those somewhat disorientating debates we’ve all caught live on BBC Parliament, when the significance of the subject under discussion is downgraded by the empty seats and an anonymous MP droning on whilst an undercurrent of chatter distracts the viewer – not to mention the sight of other MPs wandering in and out as though they’re looking for the loos. The hours might be flexible, but Parliament largely operates as a Monday-Friday enterprise.

The prospect of an exceedingly unusual Saturday sitting coming up has inevitably exhumed the ghosts of past weekends in the debating chamber. Most of these took place on the eve of (or during) landmark moments in the Great British history book – the Falklands, Suez, and World War II; according to one account I read, the future President Kennedy was present in the gallery at the 1939 debate, though JFK’s father was, of course, US Ambassador to the UK at the time. The fact that Brexit will now take its place alongside events that both made and shamed us is perhaps a measure of just how defining the era we’re currently living through may prove to be; but MPs being recalled to the workplace outside of standard working hours also shines a light on the curious anomaly that is a Saturday.

Doing what I do, where I’m not constrained by the rigidity of the set working week and all its attendant weekend rituals, it’s odd that Saturday still feels…dare I say it…special. I suppose, like so much in life, the associations formed in formative years are hard to shake. If one was not especially enamoured with school, Friday home-time was the polar opposite of Monday morning, a brief window of release in which one received a 48-hour pass to a parallel universe where the children’s schedule was not governed by an educational timetable. Friday night often saw bedtime pushed back a little, and then there was the prospect of a lie-in till at least 9.30.

The arrival of ‘The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’ on BBC1 in the autumn of 1976 was quite a game-changer for my generation; whilst the notion of three hours’ live TV anchored by Noel Edmonds might not necessarily be something I’d stumble out of bed for in 2019, it certainly did the trick for nine-year-old me. I remember Saturday morning TV pre-‘Swap Shop’ being an uneven, pre-recorded mix of cartoons, silent comedies and earnest ‘how to play badminton’-type instructional shows; by contrast, the fact the BBC was then prepared to invest in a programme as ambitiously innovative as ‘Swap Shop’ made it feel as though the younger viewer mattered as much as the dads and their ‘Grandstand’/’World of Sport’ marathons. There was a proliferation of pop promos, for one thing; I was introduced to both Blondie and Kate Bush due to ‘Swap Shop’ airing the videos for their debut hits before even TOTP got them; but it was the novel interactive element that really made the programme something new.

From the warmth of TV Centre, Noel would link to Keith ‘Cheggers’ Chegwin, usually freezing his balls off in some unseasonal coastal resort, yet nevertheless engulfed by a swarm of kids eager to brave the elements just to get their faces on camera and engage in a communal swap; but the greatest appeal was back in the studio, when pop stars and assorted 70s celebrities would actually speak to viewers lucky enough to get through on chic Trimphones. Today, whenever I dispatch an item to a fresh address via Amazon and I can’t complete the order without providing a phone-number for the delivery man (one I often don’t possess), I always give 01 8118055, the old ‘Swap Shop’ number everyone of a certain age remembers. I sometimes wonder if said delivery man ever rings it and Noel Edmonds answers at the other end – ‘Hello, you’re through to Suzi Quatro. What would you like to ask her?’

At the end of the 70s, ATV’s long-running regional rival, ‘Tiswas’, received a belated network promotion and provided Saturday mornings with a more anarchic flavour; legend has it there was a Beatles Vs Stones-like loyalty demanded of the viewer when it came to choosing between Posh Paws and Spit the Dog, but I suspect most (like me) would constantly change channels for the two hours the two shows went head-to-head. It also goes without saying that the luxury of lounging around in pyjamas watching Showaddywaddy being plastered in custard pies was dependent upon whether or not one’s mother was intent on dragging her children around the shops.

My abject boredom with C&A, M&S and all the rest could be pacified by reading material in the shape of a comic or – on special occasions – a paperback from the extensive library then available in Boots. What I obviously didn’t appreciate then was that Saturday was also a parental release from 9-to-5; my mother’s escape was to do the city centre rounds, whereas my father would either go watch a football match or play in one. The industry of leisure can characterise a Saturday; whatever one’s idea of leisure happens to be, a Saturday can cater for it. The jaunty theme tune of ‘Sports Report’ and the melodic recital of the football results by James Alexander Gordon was an occasion unique to a Saturday, as was the fact that thousands of hardcore punters up and down the country made the pilgrimage to windswept terraces to watch their local teams kick-off simultaneously at 3.00. If they were lucky, they might get to relive the spectacle on ‘Match of the Day’ later that evening.

Naturally, time moved on along with Brucie and Parky, and the Saturdays of 70s children became defined by Techno rather than the Tardis. Many a dazed clubber can recall 90s Saturday nights ending sometime on Sunday morning, where a stint on ‘Bamboozle’ would be followed by crashing-out and waking-up to a half-eaten pizza and the suddenly-perfectly logical world of the Teletubbies. Or was that just people I used to know? Anyway, I’m aware (courtesy of my student neighbours) that this ritual survives albeit in a slightly modified fashion – proof that Saturday maintains its distinctive identity whilst surrounded by increasingly indistinguishable weekdays; and that cannot be a bad thing.

A Commons sitting on a Saturday is therefore a somewhat incongruous scenario, but we live in strange times. Boris is trumpeting his Brexit deal when it could well boast all the failings of his predecessor’s by keeping us tied to some of the more contentious aspects of EU membership, yet leaving us without a voice in Brussels; and, of course, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP will all vote against it because ‘crashing out’ with No Deal and blaming everything on the Tories is better for their election prospects. And then there’s those beacons of eternal sunshine, the DUP. Saturday will probably end up being a bit of a damp squib in Westminster, but for many other people around the country the workplace won’t impinge on it at all. And for a country with some of the longest working hours in Europe, maybe that’s what makes Saturday special.

© The Editor

SPIRITS OF ’74

Impeachment proceedings against the US President set in motion; ongoing tensions between a hostile Israel and its hostile neighbours; Britain experiencing its worst economic crisis ‘since the war’ and a minority government unable to stem the rising tide of electoral disillusionment; increasing awareness of the damage being done to the environment by pollution and the time limit on natural resources; pop stars either churned-out by TV talent shows or taking to the stage carrying severed heads to shock Daily Mail readers. Anyway, that’s the world of 45 years ago for you; good job we’re in a better place now, innit.

1974 may seem like a long time ago – it certainly does if you were 6/7 at the time – but some of the exasperated media reactions to yesterday’s chaotic Commons resumption evidently came from those unaware that things were hardly more refined in the Westminster bear-pit of the early 70s. When unemployment hit the 1 million mark just a couple of years before 1974, the debate following the publication of the figures was so incendiary that the Speaker of the era blew his whistle and ordered both teams off the pitch until they’d cooled down. Even Bercow hasn’t stretched his authority that far, so one can only imagine how bad it must have been. We may be dependent upon Hansard for records of proceedings in the days before Parliament was broadcast either on radio or television, but at least the proof is there in black & white.

1974 started as it meant to go on. 1 January 1974 may have been the first occasion in which New Year was marked as a national holiday, though the timing of this distracting day-off was certainly convenient; 1 January 1974 also marked the inauguration of Ted Heath’s Three-Day Week. A few copies of the Radio Times are the only physical documents I have from that period, but they give a good indication of just how severe the restrictions imposed by the PM’s policy were. A magazine that on a good week could run to over 90 pages (Price 5p!) is reduced to a measly 32 (albeit without a reduction in the price) and the usual practice of printing separate editions for the different BBC regions has been suspended in favour of ‘All Editions’. However, even in a pre-24-hour TV age, it’s still strange to note that both BBC1 and BBC2 broadcasts (no ‘commercial’ channels listed in the publication then) close for business no later than 10.30pm. No VHS, DVD or YT to prolong the entertainment, either. I wonder if a lot of babies were born in the autumn of ’74.

References to the state of the nation pepper the dialogue in popular sitcoms of 1974, from ‘Rising Damp’ and ‘Porridge’ to ‘Steptoe and Son’ and ‘Till Death Us Do Part’; the latter even devoted an entire episode to the ‘Silly Moo’ played by Dandy Nichols announcing she was going on her own Three-Day Week, much to Alf Garnett’s consternation; and this episode aired in January itself, smack bang in the middle of events. Restrictions on electricity usage and street lighting further hammered home the sense of crisis to the public, as did an across-the-board pay-freeze while prices nonetheless continued to rise; and some football matches were even switched to a Sunday (Shock! Horror!) as a means of working around the floodlit ban on midweek games.

The Three-Day Week was also tapping into what was called ‘The Energy Crisis’ at the time, largely accelerated by the ramifications of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when western nations’ support of Israel prompted the Arab oil-producers to quadruple the price of their supplies as they belatedly realised the strength of their hand. No-motoring Sundays in Holland and President Nixon advising Americans to turn down the thermostat were echoed in the British public information films produced during the Three-Day Week with their authoritarian catchphrase of S.O.S (‘Switch Off Something’). Perhaps my most vivid personal memory is that of visiting an aunt living in a concrete jungle of a tower block complex when there was a power-cut; I remember looking out on all the surrounding flats suddenly plunged into darkness – and it was a pretty intimidating place even when fully illuminated. My aunt couldn’t switch the fire on because none of the apartments had gas in the wake of Ronan Point, so we sat in the cold and dark and lit candles; we probably played cards.

Heath’s cynical ploy was blatantly intended to hold striking miners responsible for the situation, yet he completely misjudged the enduring grip the miners as a special breed of working-class hero had on the public’s sentimental imagination; when Ted called a snap General Election in February, he watched as his majority was whittled away quicker than you could say Theresa May. He desperately tried to cling on by cobbling together a coalition with Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals, for the latter’s reward for upwards of 6 million votes was a paltry 14 seats; it didn’t work out, but 6 million voters were understandably disillusioned to see Harold Wilson back at No.10 – almost as if 6 million votes counted for nothing; just like 17.4, eh?

Labour’s lack of a majority made a second General Election unavoidable and it came in October, making 1974 the only year of the 20th century other than 1910 to contain two outings to the hustings; I wonder what Brenda from Bristol would’ve made of that. In the end, Wilson remained in power with a hardly overwhelming majority of 3. Aside from the political uncertainties, the feeling of the country going to Hell in a handcart was further compounded by the IRA’s most effective mainland cell making its savage mark in Guildford and Birmingham. Small-scale fascism was also making its presence felt via the National Front capitalising on the tendency to scapegoat immigrants as the cause of the nation’s ills; a student protestor called Kevin Gately was killed during a clash with the NF in London’s Red Lion Square in June, earning him the unenviable distinction of being the first person to die at a British demonstration in 55 years.

The streets may have been lower on knife or acid crime in 1974, but Britain was still a pretty violent place. As Stuart Maconie once reflected, giving the wrong answer to the question ‘Do you like Slade or T.Rex?’ posed by a stranger at a bus-stop could lead to a knuckle sandwich. Even as a six-year-old wandering either alone or with a pal, it was rare indeed to turn a corner and not be challenged to a fight by the snotty-nosed cock of the street in question.

It was no coincidence the year ended with two melancholy seasonal hits jostling for the No.1 spot. Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’ and ‘Streets of London’ by Ralph McTell were quite a contrast with the boisterous, upbeat equivalents twelve months earlier, ‘I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day’ by Wizzard and Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’; but the nation was knackered. The best music of 1974 is infused with an existential weariness, from Bowie’s apocalyptic ‘Diamond Dogs’ LP to Brian Protheroe’s sleepless-in-Soho one-hit wonder, ‘Pinball’ – yet, for all the post-Punk revisionism, the bar was still set remarkably high, give or take the occasional novelty hit. America’s own sense of crisis was best reflected in its cinema – from Warren Beatty’s paranoiac ‘The Parallax View’ to Bob Fosse’s Dustin Hoffman vehicle celebrating the decline and fall of a drug-addled comedian engaged in a doomed rage against the machine, ‘Lenny’. The fact that one of the biggest box-office smashes in the US was ‘Deep Throat’ said something itself.

So, yeah – the world is f***ed, but sometimes it seems it always has been. And I’ve no doubt that, had social media existed in 1974, maybe someone would be reminding the more hysterical tweeters that 1931 had been a bit grim too.

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© The Editor