REMEMBER, REMEMBER…

Once upon a time, I was in love with Joanna Lumley – for about a month, anyway. Sweethearts to children are no different from any other fad; boredom soon sets in and one pretty face is swiftly superseded by another, whether classmate or unattainable pin-up from the small screen. But it was fun while it lasted. In her breakthrough role of Purdey in ‘The New Avengers’, Joanna Lumley had what was once a prerequisite for a pop cultural icon – a distinctive and unique haircut; indeed, my attraction to Ms Lumley as Purdey remains one of the few occasions in which I’ve been attracted to a woman with short hair; but she was blonde, and after many subsequent years distracted by other shades, I eventually came home. Anyway, with ‘The New Avengers’ instantly installed as a Friday night fixture, pre-VCR days required being in the room when it aired; unfortunately, this necessity clashed with Bonfire Night festivities early in the series’ run. My protests fell on deaf ears and I was dragged along to a firework display because it was clearly what I was supposed to enjoy at that age. I probably sulked a bit, though I did get to see the ‘lost’ episode in the end, albeit a full ten years later during a repeat run.

I suppose Bonfire Night as an event has the greatest appeal to younger children; I don’t recall getting that excited about it after the ‘reluctantly foregoing Purdey’ incident of 1976, though occasional visits to public displays – usually in the grounds of working men’s clubs – continued for a few years thereafter. These were punctuated by the back garden private display, generally the most anticlimactic events of all; and it never helped that it was usually raining and freezing. The sulphurous odour in the air on November 5th does, however, remain one of the year’s signposts, even if the trend today seems to be to hold the public displays on the nearest Friday or Saturday to the actual day. Like anyone who lived a 70s childhood, fireworks were also heavily entwined with the shock-horror public information film portrayals of Bonfire Night; we were guaranteed never to forget the damage these miniature explosives could do in the wrong hands, though that didn’t prevent unscrupulous newsagents flogging bangers to the kind of ruffians who patrolled the playgrounds of Britain like prepubescent Al Capones.

Not having any four-legged pets as a child, the impact of fireworks on cats and dogs didn’t intrude into my own world until an adult; I then saw for myself what a torrid time they can have of it come November 5th – something not helped when one resides in (as I did at the time) a densely-populated urban neighbourhood with a good few weeks of constant explosions both before and after Bonfire Night. My cat in particular was less spooked by big bangs than by the shrieking, screeching whizz often accompanying them. Keeping an unsettled pet company indoors when four walls and double glazing prove pitifully ineffective at soundproofing made me feel quite useless in my protective role; it also fostered an irritability with the availability of fireworks to the general public. Some may regard the banning of their over (or under) the counter sale and limiting them to official, regulated public displays as a symptom of ‘political correctness gone mad’; but it’s one British tradition I actually wouldn’t mind being governed by the strictest of health & safety measures.

Bearing in mind its historical significance and fiery political roots, is it pure coincidence that Boris chose November 5th to plunge the country into its second nationwide lockdown, using the same emotional blackmail and discredited stats as before? Of course, during Lockdown 1 everybody had a great time, nobody started believing Twitter was real life, nobody rioted and nobody died, so this is evidently a laudable policy. In Lockdown 2, I should imagine firework displays – either public or private – will be cancelled along with Christmas, and it’s gonna be such fun. Mind you, fireworks as a metaphor can be applied to any news story unrelated to that luckless terrorist Guy Fawkes. Right now, a country that doesn’t celebrate the foiling of a plot to blow the English Parliament to kingdom come is in the middle of an inferno that has already spanned several months and seems set to span several months more. Whilst we nasty Brits beat them to it by burning down the White House way back in 1814, today’s flames may still cut a swathe along Pennsylvania Avenue before the year is out, and a remake of the 2000 debacle between Dubya and Gore could well constitute the climax of the democratic process before the ugly aftermath is over. It’s gonna be such fun.

Ah, yes – fun. Remember that? There’s an uncomfortable TV interview with Sid Vicious filmed shortly before his death, one in which the interviewer asks him what he’d like to do in the coming months. Vicious replies, ‘I’d like to have fun’; it’s a curiously childlike reply, yet oddly affecting when remembering he was barely 21 at the time and succumbed to a fatal heroin overdose not long after. Maybe that was his idea of fun by then, though having lived in that world a long, long time ago, I don’t recall much fun myself bar the occasional shot of the blackest strain of gallows humour. And perhaps I was ahead of the game; there’s as much fun floating around these islands at the moment as can be found in your average crack-den on a bleak midwinter’s afternoon. The external world has finally caught up with my internal one and I can’t say it’s something that imbues me with a sense of satisfaction. Call me naive, but I expected better.

And how cruel this of all days was selected as the latest doomed D-Day by a gaggle of intellectual dwarves and their ‘opposition’ numbers, for Purdey or no, there was once a kind of magic to November 5th. If its aroma was one of sulphur, its taste was a toffee apple or a slice of parkin, and its place as a bright light on a childhood calendar otherwise only illuminated by individual birthdays and communal Christmas was assured. Maybe the dangerous elements so driven home by public information films added to its unique status; if a TV drama happened to feature a Bonfire Night storyline, you knew in advance a child was going to be maimed by a firework in it. At least one ‘Coronation Street’ episode from the 70s saw this happen, and the ‘Blue Peter’ team would always remind the audience to ‘take care’ on the edition closest to November 5th in a manner that still appears sincere. The message has now become characteristic of an all-year-round catchphrase for our own times – one that shares the same sentiment but is often said with the kind of conviction that accompanies ‘Have a nice day’.

The tactics the Central Office of Information employed to scare the public into submission on November 5th are now employed for less benign purposes, and at least there were laughs to be had with the PIF melodramas as you spotted minor actors who’d appeared in ‘The Sweeney’; there may have been a Project Fear factor involved, but there was no Project Browbeat, Defeat and Demoralise. Masks may shield a smile, but just look at the eyes – ain’t no laughing to be found there. Yes, there was once magic on this day, and however much magic is trashed and tarnished by events and their orchestrators, the things we hold closest to our hearts are fiercely immune to it; they can’t take away everything. Sparks have flown and the Earth has moved on November 5th; toffee apples have been scoffed, Catherine wheels have failed to spin, hands have been held and dreams have been woven. Take a bunch of bangers, Boris and Sir Keir; I know you’re both extremely thick, but I don’t need to tell you where you can shove them. Dream on.

© The Editor

KNIVES AND FAWKES

Yeah, I remember (remember) the fifth of November. How could I forget? One fifth of November not so long ago mine eyes did see the light – to paraphrase the final speech of a late lamented orator – and this wholly secular illumination finally toppled a distant and previously unchallenged blink of elation from its long-held pole position in the memory banks. That had occurred on a sunny day in 1974 when I first mastered the tricky task of propelling myself on two wheels without falling over; alas, the applause and cheers that rang in my ears upon pedalling the short distance to liberation from the tricycle now feel as far away as its belated successor does from the bottomless pit that life decided I would be more at home in. All I can hear from here is the discharge of gunpowder in the annual celebration of a plot that failed to succeed and left us with what we have today, four-hundred and odd years later. Is that really worthy of celebration?

With so many appalling institutions to choose from, so many that were established in idealistic circumstances and have betrayed their original intent, afraid I have to hone in on the one that hogs more headlines than any other. Yes, some things in life are sacred and their betrayal cuts deeper than the sharpest scythe; but I wonder if my increasingly incurable cynicism towards our elected representatives and their motives is simply a symptom of my own personal (and undeniably unhealthy) state of mind or merely the inevitable outcome of a fairly traumatic political decade.

I know MPs are easy targets, but to be fair, they do ask for it. It’s less than ten years since the Expenses’ Scandal, exactly a year since the most recent ‘sex scandal’ (one that cost the jobs of two members of the Cabinet), and allegations of bullying within Westminster are ongoing. And I’m sure I’m not the only outside observer weary with it all. A financial crash, punitive austerity, a coalition government, two incredibly divisive referendums, the Brexit balls-up, and the endless splitting of vitriolic factions that only ever aids a divide-and-rule agenda; my gut reaction can’t help but evoke the spirit of Roy Castle amending his theme song – ‘generalisation, that’s what you need.’ I dunno. Maybe politicians just seem to be bigger bastards the longer one pays attention and the more one is inevitably let down. Even if the blatant efforts of so many to derail a democratic mandate and preserve a thoroughly rotten status quo wasn’t such a classic example of why they languish amongst the lowest subspecies of the human race, it’s not as though it’s the only one.

Principles and morals – not exactly essential qualifications for entering the hallowed environs of Parliament these days, one concludes (if they ever were). Just take a cursory glance through the ‘serious’ section of Private Eye and marvel at the endless litany of obscene amounts paid to Honourable Members as company directors or corporate consultants in addition to their Westminster wages and fiddled expenses; not much belt-tightening on display, and even MPs one would generally like to credit with a bit of integrity have hardly suffered during the Age of Austerity (which, lest we forget, is now officially over). If they’re not receiving back-handers from lobbyists, they’re being flown out on junkets to tax havens or Middle Eastern oases by undemocratic regimes courting their favour and eager for a little influence in the corridors of power. And these regimes know how easy it is because the people they’re dealing with are almost as unscrupulously immoral as they are, albeit considerably vainer and dimmer.

That kindergarten of corruption, the local council, is the breeding ground for many of those who then make the leap to the parliamentary hustings; all of the toxic trappings of Parliament are present on a smaller scale, serving as a virtual training camp for the worst Westminster can offer. Just ask the good people of Northamptonshire. At times, it’s hard not to surmise that anyone seeking promotion to the political premier league from the rotten boroughs is little more than a conceited, self-aggrandising sociopath only out for themselves and prepared to ruthlessly clamber over anyone – friend or foe – to get where they want to be, essentially poison ivy to whom others are convenient trellises. I can’t sleep at night, true; but I’ve no idea how most MPs do. I don’t know how the majority of the mendacious hypocrites have the nerve to stand up and lecture the rest of us on how to live our lives, quite frankly. They are the least qualified members of society to do so, yet they do – constantly.

Those of us immune to the appeal of politics as a profession make friendships and alliances in life that we hope will be of long-lasting significance; we do so with no motive other than the desire to spend time in good company because we enjoy it, not because we see this company as something that can facilitate a move somewhere else, using people as a climbing frame and callously dispensing with them when they’ve ceased to be of any further use. If we behaved that way in daily life we’d rightly be regarded as a bit of a shit. In politics, however – as in business, which is often indistinguishable from it – such behaviour is applauded as a sign of strength, especially when it comes to government.

The unedifying backstabbing that took place in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation a couple of years ago was a case in point. True, it was already difficult to warm to the likes of Boris and Gove, but the way in which they laid down their friends for their lives was indeed a telling lesson in the dark arts of party politics and should have earned both the eternal contempt they deserve. And thanks to their stint as pantomime villains, we ended up with Motherfucker Theresa – the last woman standing as the Tories re-staged the climax to ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Then again, maybe the desperation that ensued when Dave departed reflected a wider crisis; maybe politicians have become worse because they’re terrified they’re bordering on extinction now that the world is run by corporations rather than elected representatives; maybe we’re witnessing their Nero moment.

At the same time, I suppose there’s an argument to be made that Parliament enables the intellectually-challenged to have something to keep them busy; after all, where else could a retarded dumpling of a redundant turd such as Chris Grayling find a role in society? He’s akin to the thick third son of an old-school aristocrat, earmarked for a career in the clergy. If their actions didn’t affect the lives of so many others, we could perhaps leave them to play in their Victorian Gothic nursery like the privileged special needs cases they are, safe in the knowledge they’re only harming themselves. Unfortunately, they’re not. Even the relatively inoffensive ‘silent majority’ of constituency MPs (most of whom we vote for every four or five years) may start out with high hopes and the best of intentions, but should they end up far higher than they imagined – well, as the old saying goes, all power…you know the rest. It’s not for nothing that Guy Fawkes was once referred to as ‘the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.’

Of course, I may well warm a little towards the current crop once they’re out of politics. Portillo I find occasionally engaging as a presenter, and I even admit to quite enjoying Balls and Osborne’s Saint & Greavsie routine last Election night. But, as stated previously, right now I’m not in a position to pass judgement with balance and fairness on those who raise my spiky hackles, so perhaps it’s probably for the best that I withdraw and leave the nation to roll over as Universal Credit rolls out. Maybe we’re all Nero now.

PS I may make the point better in this video, even though the corporate safe-space YT has become will no longer allow me to make a penny from it or any other…

© The Editor