DECLINE AND FALL

Coppers indulging in cringe-inducing ‘dad dancing’ at Gay Pride parades or the Notting Hill Carnival; does anybody really want to see that? A dad’s authority extends no further than his family, whereas the police have it over thousands of people. To see them shedding their remaining shreds of dignity on so public a platform could be perceived as an ill-advised attempt to make them approachable; but it has the same effect as seeing Tony Blair saying ‘Am I bovvered?’ on a Comic Relief sketch. A few years prior to starring alongside Catherine Tate, the most media-savvy PM of all time had coined a phrase that has been endlessly exhumed of late.

Having avoided the glut of Diana ‘tributes’ on TV, I’m not sure if there’s been any programme that has examined those events bereft of the fawning ‘People’s Princess’ script; probably not. I doubt any have taken the long view of how our society has significantly altered since – and as a consequence of – August 31 1997. At the time, the coverage of Diana’s death complemented the coverage of Diana’s life; it followed the same narrative and also felt like a media construct. The theory goes that the mass hysteria came not from the media, but from the people; yet the media had created the Diana monster for the people in 1980 and the people had bought it. Therefore, when the public received its lifestyle manual from the media during that week between Paris and Westminster Abbey, it was taught how to react to her death in the same way the media had taught it to be interested in Diana to begin with.

The transformation was remarkably rapid. The way in which Brenda was perceived as being cold and inhuman simply because she wasn’t bursting into tears whenever a camera was pointed in her direction was a good pointer to how a society could change in the space of just a few days. Two decades on, when teenage girls greet their exam results by wafting their tearful faces with a hand acting as a fan to visually articulate their emotional response – just as TV talent contestants do – it chimes with the long-term impact of these changes. That they willingly do so free from any embarrassment, despite knowing they will be transmitted into the nation’s living rooms, isn’t an issue for them when they’ll probably upload videos of themselves doing likewise on social media, anyway. The private is now public – and that extends to every private function, taken even way beyond Diana’s appetite for publicity via ‘I’m A Celebrity Big Brother Island’.

The pernicious trend for television news reporters to persistently ask witnesses to tragedies how what they witnessed has made them feel also reflects this; the triumph of heart over head and the need to seek an emotional rather than intellectual response to upsetting events can be traced back to that first week of September 1997. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes letting one’s heart dictate a response, of course; we are all human, after all. But the heart is not always a reliable organ in a tight spot; handing it life’s steering wheel can often result in reckless actions that provoke regret and a retrospective wish that the head had taken control at the crucial moment.

The cavernous black hole Diana left in our mainstream media was swiftly filled by a series of nominees nominated by Fleet Street in the way Holy Roman Emperors were once selected by the elite Prince-Electors of Vienna. Posh and Becks were the first to be elevated to the obsessive level Diana had occupied for a good seventeen years, eventually followed by the likes of Jordan/Peter Andre and a swift succession of even greater cretins, each more insubstantial than their predecessors and each possessing a shorter lifespan. Not that the excess of coverage has reflected these diminishing returns; advances in technology have intensified it, despite every nominee being akin to a photocopy of the Diana blueprint with the ink cartridge gradually running out as someone from ‘Geordie Shore’ fills the final sheet of paper in the machine.

In her search for something to do with a little substance, Diana may have gradually embraced laudable causes and broken taboos that needed breaking, but her initial appearance in the public spotlight required little more than simply having the right look for the moment. She was the role model for the modern media darlings who are famous for being famous, appearing just as that role was poised to acquire considerable cache. Her successors have regularly viewed the ‘good causes’ clause as surplus to requirements, yet we are still supposed to be interested in them for reasons that appear utterly mystifying other than they prevent the masses contemplating anything with any depth, lest that prompt them into asking awkward questions.

The ground for 1997 had already been laid by the same media that manufactured Diana. Rupert Murdoch’s mission to remake his first adopted country in his own image, to dumb down its population by stealth and reduce it to his own coarse, crude, anti-intellectual level, had been a calculated campaign of creeping corrosion from the moment he installed Kelvin McKenzie as editor of the Sun in the year of the Royal Wedding. By his own admission, McKenzie was a fairly inept journalist, but he was a man with a gift for an eye-catching headline, however ludicrous – a bullish Barnum of bullshit. As editor of Murdoch’s tabloid flagship, McKenzie expanded Murdoch’s philosophy and took it to unprecedented extremes of outrageously gross bad taste and celebratory idiocy. If the chosen paper of the average working man is devoted to telling him what an idiot he is every weekday, chances are he’ll eventually come to believe it and will never know he has the potential to aim a little higher.

Under the stewardship of Kelvin McKenzie, the Sun became ever more reckless in its promotion of stupidity as a virtue; the huge sales figures gave the paper carte-blanche to venture into territory that even the Digger would have initially avoided, and its malignant influence has been immense across the media as well as, it has to be said, the media’s ravenous consumers. The extent to which one of the nation’s windows onto itself – television – has reflected the dumbing down process was highlighted to me when I stumbled upon an edition of ‘Parkinson’ from 1973 on YouTube a couple of nights ago.

When one bears in mind that Michael Parkinson’s long-running chat-show aired on BBC1 and was produced by the light entertainment department, the edition in question seems even more remarkable; it centres around a discussion between Kenneth Williams and union leader Jimmy Reid on the state of the nation. In a pre-‘Question Time’ innovation, it also draws members of the studio audience into the debate and is utterly compelling television that runs for an hour and twelve minutes. The jarring contrast between the level of intelligence from all concerned on the programme and 2017’s equivalent – the inane Hollywood PR charade that is ‘The Graham Norton Show’ – is so stark that it makes ‘Question Time’ resemble ‘Loose Women’. As a barometer of measuring how low we’ve sunk in the space of four decades, it even surpasses disco-dancing constables.

© The Editor

GARDENERS’ QUESTION TIME

Maybe a glorified paddling pool was the most fitting tribute to our ‘Queen of Hearts’; the Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, which opened to an underwhelming fanfare in 2004, was, like the public image of the woman it was supposed to be a tribute to, an impressive triumph of style over substance. In the years immediately following the premature death of the former Princess of Wales, many such fanciful schemes were suggested, some considerably abstract and bearing little obvious relation to the woman herself. Perhaps the unintentionally hilarious statue of Diana and Dodi in Harrods was at the forefront of the minds concocting these prospective memorials.

Joanna Lumley, an actress who doesn’t seem to act very much anymore, suggested a ‘floating paradise’ as one more bizarre tribute to Diana barely a year after events in Paris; this somewhat vague concept eventually morphed into the notion of a bridge that also doubled up as a garden – with or without the Diana brand attached to it. Following her successful campaign to gain Gurkhas the right to settle in the UK, Lumley suddenly had a public platform that proved immensely attractive to politicians hoping some of Purdey’s star quality would rub off on them. One such politician was the ex-London Mayor Boris Johnson. Riding high on the PR victory of the 2012 London Olympics, Bo-Jo gave the green light to what became the London Garden Bridge project.

Ah, yes – the Garden Bridge. It is now officially an ex-bridge, bereft of life and all that. The ambitious (if rather impractical) idea of another shortcut across the Thames that would serve as a novel rural facsimile in the heart of the capital looked good on paper, yes; but the proposed location wasn’t a part of London in desperate need of another bridge and the locals whose lives would be disrupted by its protracted construction weren’t even consulted as Boris took it upon himself to be the project’s salesman; when he gained planning permission in 2014, Johnson’s record in facilitating the ongoing despoiling of the capital’s skyline by constantly ruling in favour of developers over opposition didn’t give cause for optimism.

Initially, the public were told the bridge would be financed by private investors, but the struggle to raise the required funds necessitated the diverting of taxpayers’ money into the project – a total that now stands at around an estimated £46.4m. As Chancellor, George Osborne promised Boris £30m from the public purse, and a chunk of that squandered cash found its way into the black hole of the Garden Bridge courtesy of David Cameron; Dave ignored the advice of his civil servants by throwing more taxpayer’s money at it when the failure of recruiting enough private investors revealed a £56m shortfall in the accounts of the trust set up to handle the lucre.

The Garden Bridge had its critics from day one; they viewed it as an expensive vanity project that could be to Cameron’s Government what the Millennium Dome was to Blair’s. Its proponents, such as chairman of the trust, Lord Davies, claimed the Bridge would be a ‘beautiful new green space in the heart of London’; but it’s not as though Central London, for all its traffic bottlenecks and overcrowded pavements, doesn’t already have an abundance of spacious parks and green squares to breathe in – most of which have been part of the London landscape for well over a century.

The Garden Bridge could well have gone ahead as a felicitous white elephant for Japanese tourists if enough private investors had been prepared to pay for its construction as well as the projected £3m a year needed for maintenance once open; but for so much public money to have been squandered on ‘a public space’ without public consultation is outrageous, especially now the whole thing has been abandoned.

A review into the project chaired by Dame Margaret Hodge was severely critical of the methods of raising money for it and also of Boris Johnson for his inability to justify the public expense; Hodge’s conclusion was that it would be better to call time on the Garden Bridge before any further costs were unwittingly incurred by taxpayers. Johnson’s successor as London Mayor Sadiq Khan has finally pulled the plug on it following the findings of the review, though some say he could have spared even more expense had he done so earlier; his predecessor claims Khan has killed the Bridge out of spite, saying ‘The Garden Bridge was a beautiful project and could have been easily financed’, though his own failure to finance it without regular recourse to the public purse hardly backs up his response to the Mayor’s belated decision.

As another cheerleader for the Garden Bridge, even Lord Davies admitted earlier this year that the project was not currently ‘a going concern’. The trust still hadn’t purchased the land on the South Bank of the Thames that would serve as the bridge’s southern landing and no private investors have been persuaded to part with their pennies for a full twelve months. The total provided by private investors is alleged to be around £70m, though how much of the public money wasted on the project was spent on courting potential private investors is unknown.

Ultimately, the London Garden Bridge can join a list of other intended attractions for the capital that never made it beyond the drawing board, though some came closer to succeeding. Watkin’s Tower, London’s planned answer to the Eiffel Tower in the 1890s which, had it been completed, would still be taller than the Shard, made it as far as 154ft before being abandoned and then demolished, eventually making way for Wembley Stadium. But it’s interesting to note that one of the proposed ideas for the Wembley site prior to the partial construction of the Tower was a replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza, in which food would be grown in hanging gardens. Perhaps the committee responsible for the Garden Bridge should have studied their London history books beforehand.

© The Editor

VAPID RESPONSE

Vapid ResponseA 1999 Jeremy Paxman interview with David Bowie excavated and aired anew during this past week sees the man whose abrupt withdrawal from the stage takes some getting used to make some remarkably prescient predictions about the way in which the then-infant internet would alter the cultural landscape. Music’s method of delivery has arguably undergone the greatest change of all in the seventeen years since a cynical Paxo doubted Bowie’s foresight; but when the visionary interviewee warned cyberspace had the potential to generate both good and bad, the reactions on social and antisocial media to the week’s events vindicated his soothsaying.

‘Channel 4 News’ anchor Jon Snow is the cause of the latest online lather for attempting to inject a tediously obvious gag into a discussion with actor Richard Wilson on the premature passing of fellow thespian Alan Rickman. When Wilson guest-starred as himself in a classic ‘Father Ted’ episode, losing his rag as his ‘One Foot in the Grave’ catchphrase was barked in his face at an inappropriate moment, Victor Meldrew was still on screen at the time and ‘I don’t believe it’ was an omnipotent uttering within popular culture. For Jon Snow to ask Wilson if he believed it when hearing of Rickman’s death is an example of an ageing media man presuming the catchphrase retains its relevance; not that this has been acknowledged by Outraged of Everywhere, however.

Actress Emma Watson has also been castigated for her response to Rickman’s death, this time accused of exploiting it to push her own agenda. Her crime was to post a quote on feminism by her ‘Harry Potter’ co-star as a tribute; as Watson is known for her own feminist beliefs, should it really come as a great surprise that she used a quote that chimes with her opinions and thus emphasises why she was fond of the late actor? Facebook and Twitter were both awash with David Bowie quotes that were selected because whoever posted them felt they possessed the most relevance to their own lives.

I found Watson’s online tribute considerably less nauseating than the rash of crass tokenisms that routinely appear whenever a public figure passes away. The likes of David Cameron has no choice; as Prime Minister, it is a given that the death of a cultural giant such as David Bowie will result in the subject being raised when a microphone is stuck in his face, and he has to respond in the way both media and public expect him to. When John Lennon died in 1980, incoming US President Ronald Reagan was asked for his reaction, as was 60s PM Harold Wilson; it’s hard to imagine either politician putting their feet up of an evening and listening to ‘Plastic Ono Band’ just as the thought of Cameron nodding his head to side 2 of ‘Low’ is pure fantasy. These men are required to have pat buzzwords on standby for every such occasion; that is their excuse.

Where non-politicians are concerned, the standard ‘OMG – our thoughts go out to his/her family’ comment has become so familiar that the absolute absence of genuine emotion or feeling in the statement tends to be overlooked. What matters is that the poster has adhered to the unwritten law of social media by saying something, however meaningless and devoid of personal sentiment. That is what counts now, yet another legacy of the vicarious grief pioneered during the Diana hysteria of 1997. Ever since Her Majesty was condemned for not making an official comment within hours of the fatal journey into the Paris tunnel, the need to be seen issuing an official comment by everyone indulging in online life is compulsory.

If someone famous I detest were to suddenly drop dead tomorrow, whether Kelvin McKenzie or James Corden, I would not be declaring on Facebook or Twitter how gutted I was merely because it’s become the given thing to do; it would be dishonest and disingenuous, akin to the fawning ramblings that emanated from ancient peers in the Lords when Thatcher died, something that even annoyed Norman Tebbitt, especially when they came from the lips of those whose loyalty to the Iron Lady was in short supply at the time she was deposed.

One of the many problems with social media’s virtual friendships is that expressions of upset can also inhabit the virtual world, emotional holograms that have all the heartfelt authenticity of the gooey verse in a greetings card. For those whose social interaction has been shaped by cyberspace and have no memory of life without it, a pre-programmed response to death that is characterised by its vacuous content and the fact it actually says nothing about the person who has died is something that may as well be included in the terms and conditions form nobody bothers reading when signing-up, so obligatory is it now. The impenetrable glut of such comments also makes it hard to spot the actual genuine article when someone attempts to pay an individual tribute; Emma Watson did that and look at how it was received. Don’t veer from the script, dear.

© The Editor