A REPEAT PERFORMANCE

The old complaint always used to be that there were too many repeats on television; but I suppose it depended on what was being repeated. A classic BBC series such as ‘The Forsyte Saga’ benefitted from being repeated, with the programme and the audience joint beneficiaries. It earned its household name popularity when receiving a repeat run on BBC1 in 1968, having originally been screened on BBC2 the year before. At the time, the majority of the country’s viewers couldn’t receive the Beeb’s second channel on their ageing 405-line sets, so it was a shrewd move by BBC1, intended to justify the considerable expense spent on the serial. One is made aware of just how poor the image quality must have been on those 60s tellies when watching ‘The Forsyte Saga’ on DVD today; some of the makeup used to age the actors doesn’t necessarily bear up to digital scrutiny.

Glancing through musty copies of the Radio Times from the early 70s, it’s surprising how few repeats there actually are in the listings, something that contradicts the complaints about repeats even then. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that complicated Equity rules regarding repeat fees throughout the 70s effectively limited how many programmes could actually be repeated; moreover, there was a gradual reluctance to rerun monochrome programmes from the 60s when the BBC and ITV were forever extolling the superior delights of colour television. And, lest we forget, the standard practice of wiping shows not long after their initial broadcast precluded them being seen again, anyway. Television had been, for most of its life, a transient medium that existed very much in the present; but that was about to change.

By the mid-70s, television had been around long enough to begin developing a sense of its own history, and the first wave of TV anniversary shows, such as the BBC’s ‘Forty Years’ in 1976, belatedly awakened the compilers of programmes reliant on archive material just how poorly-served the archives were. Added to this, there was an increasing interest in the back catalogues of long-running series like ‘Doctor Who’; even if there was no real medium available for the commercial release of the series’ archive, the salvaging of old episodes poised to be incinerated began in earnest during this period.

The arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 not only ushered in a fresh age of edgy broadcasting reflecting the here and now; it also revived several series that hadn’t had a decent repeat run in years, though the approach of this new kid on the broadcasting block to television’s heritage was as different to the regional ITV companies’ repeat policies as a charity shop is from a vintage one. The likes of ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Budgie’ and ‘Callan’ weren’t hidden away in the twilight hours, but given prime-time slots and elevated to the status of classics. Enough time had now passed since their first broadcasts to warrant the label.

The growth in the home video market from the early 80s onwards was initially focused on the produce of the movie industry, but television soon realised the potential too. VCRs sent many broadcasters scuttling in the direction of their depleted archives, hoping they could find the odd episode of a once-beloved series to stick out on VHS for twenty quid. Even if the rare case of a series preserved in its entirety meant it could have received a full video release, tapes were extremely expensive to buy at the time and could usually only hold a couple of episodes of anything at most. Many favourite series I now own in full on DVD were ones I just had a few episodes of on VHS releases for years; and in a lot of cases, the complete series on DVD cost about the same as two episodes on one tape would have cost me twenty-five years ago. Not all progress is bad.

The deregulation of TV in the wake of the 1990 Broadcasting Act meant there were many more channels suddenly available, though with numerous hours to fill, the cheapest way of filling them was to repeat old programmes. Yet, this also nicely chimed with an upsurge in nostalgia amongst 30-somethings for childhood shows; and when the more obvious and best-remembered of these finished their runs, one intriguing side-effect was that channels such as UK Gold and Granada Plus were then forced to excavate programmes that, in some cases, hadn’t been seen on British television for twenty years or more. Mid-90s off-air recordings of these can still sometimes surface on YouTube.

The arrival of the DVD and the innovation of the box-set finally took the decision of what old shows would or wouldn’t be repeated out of the hands of the broadcasters and did what even the VHS failed to do – it enabled fans to own the complete series of a favourite programme at a reasonable price, and usually (when old prints were digitally cleaned-up) in a better condition than even when they’d first been transmitted on TV. Companies like Simply Media, Acorn, 2 entertain and, best of all, Network have ploughed a similar path to the oldies channels of the 90s by following the release of the best-remembered series with the availability of the half-remembered and the near-forgotten; the half-remembered and the near-forgotten, however, are often worth investing in if one is interested in archive TV, as they regularly throw up pleasant surprises.

Whilst the advent of Netflix and other similar systems are now being heralded as not only the end of old-style appointment TV on terrestrial channels but as the end of the DVD box-set as well, when it comes to archive television it would seem the DVD is still its most fitting home. Yes, it may also be its retirement home; but opting out of television’s endless peak-time talent contests by escaping into a parallel universe of personal choice is the same as rejecting the radio and sticking the music on that you want to hear rather than the music someone else is shoving down your throat. At the moment, I’m back with Edward Woodward and his hygienically-challenged sidekick Lonely as they slip in and out of their shadowy and seedy, vanished 70s landscape of Cold War wallpaper. And in 2017, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

© The Editor

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CLAD IN BLACK

I suppose there’s a genuinely valid point to be made about the manner in which Central London has descended into a shameless, superficial whore exclusively opening her legs for every disgustingly wealthy, greedy, grasping Oligarch and Arab to buy her favours and own her outright. Maybe. The appalling inferno that consumed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington in the wee small hours has led to a loss of life that we’ve yet to be told the extent of; but the suggestion that the spread of the fire may have been caused by the cladding recently installed around the tower’s exterior in order to make a characteristically ugly 70s council block more aesthetically easy on the eyes of the building’s luxury apartment neighbours could be summarised as the story of our capital city over the last twenty-five years in a nutshell.

The shocking extent of the blaze, engulfing what appeared to be the entire building, was reminiscent of a similarly horrific fire that destroyed the Summerland entertainment centre on the Isle of Man in 1973. Summerland had been opened for just two years, boasting swimming pools, games rooms, restaurants and dance halls all under one roof; it was intended to increase tourism by appealing to families, but the untested modern materials used in the building’s design proved to be fatal for those trapped inside when a fire broke out on 2 August 1973. The fact the fire exits were locked and bolted to prevent people sneaking-in without paying exacerbated the tragedy that unfolded, one that eventually claimed up to 53 lives – at the time, the worst loss of life via fire since the Blitz.

Images of the gruesome Summerland carcass were echoed in North Kensington today; the charred remains of Grenfell Tower even resemble a hideous evocation of HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War, whilst the horror of a tower block going so badly wrong is reminiscent of the Ronan Point disaster in Newham, East London, in 1968. And if the insulation wrapped around the building was indeed to blame for the speed with which flames swamped the building, there’s a hell of a lot of questions requiring answers.

Part of a social housing complex of the kind we will probably never see erected again – certainly not in Central London – Grenfell Tower has stood for 43 years. It was only last year that an £8.6 million refurbishment under the guise of ‘regeneration’ came to that corner of the capital, motivated in part by a desire to upgrade the appearance of the building, surrounded as it is by the architectural hallmarks of the mega-rich that have indulged in a ghastly game of Monopoly in recent decades. Planning documents for the regeneration of Grenfell Tower claimed the changes, little more than cheap cladding suggesting ‘gentrification’ of the shallowest order, was clearly intended to improve the view seen from apartments of a different nature in the nearby neighbourhoods.

It’s emerged in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that residents had repeatedly aired fears of the block’s safety relating to fire, and it’s not too far-fetched to speculate that the materials used to insulate the tower were not necessarily the expensive variety proven to be non-flammable; such cladding is apparently commonplace when it comes to representatives of an unfashionable architectural era and corners are undeniably cut, especially when the residents of such residences are amongst the poorest in London. Fires have broken out in other London tower blocks in the last few years, few of which actually contain sprinklers; but it would seem potential dangers have been overlooked and ignored. And look at where that has got us.

An early and somewhat unlikely story of the fire starting via a tenant’s exploding fridge appeared to be one of those that are usually circulated, especially in the 24/7 news age, before facts have been established. But it’s seeming more and more likely that the materials used for the cladding of the building played a large part in the terrible disaster that has reduced what was home to hundreds of people to a charcoal skeleton akin to those we’re familiar with seeing in archive film of the Blitz. An outsourced private company running the flats on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council had been criticised by residents associations online long before what happened last night, but ears have been deaf to such protests until now. And now it’s too late.

ANITA PALLENBERG (1944-2017)

A Swinging 60s It Girl and one of many women whose immersion in the unhealthy circle of The Rolling Stones both made her and came close to claiming her, Anita Pallenberg was one of her era’s most exotic and alluring butterflies. Of Italian and German descent, she’d been amongst the hangers-on at Andy Warhol’s Factory until leaving New York for London; she then became the woman on the arm of the Stones’ most stylish member, Brian Jones, with the couple morphing into the stunning Siamese Twins of what Twiggy’s mentor and manager Justin de Villeneuve referred to as ‘the new social aristocracy’.

However, Jones was a troubled soul and it would seem the pair weren’t exactly well-suited; an ill-fated trip to Morocco with Brian and Keith in 1968 saw Pallenberg swap partners; she and Keith were partners in both the romantic and narcotic sense for the best part of a decade, though she bore him three children. Early on in their relationship, she played one of Mick Jagger’s two female companions in the sublimely dark ‘Performance’, a part that Keith remains convinced wasn’t entirely acted.

Anita Pallenberg had a few more notable movie roles, including a deliciously sexy villainess in Roger Vadim’s ‘Barbarella’, but her reputation as a Swinging 60s survivor in the decades thereafter was largely based on ‘Performance’. I pen this brief obituary because that film, as disturbing as it occasionally is, remains one of the most unforgettable and irresistible cinematic temptations I’ve ever been seduced by. Part of me still wants to be Turner Purple and still wants to inhabit that malevolently erotic household; Anita Pallenberg sold a dream that was also a nightmare, but I can’t see anyone today opening such a lascivious portal to such a divinely decadent world; and our world is all the blander for it.

© The Editor

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THE 25-YEAR ITCH

Not that long since, I switched on the TV and BBC2 was showing a Dara O’Briain gig; it was only when the credits rolled at the end that I realised the programme was a repeat from five years previously. There was nothing visually on display to suggest it was that old; the appearance of the members of the audience and the star of the show himself implied it could have been recorded last week. I momentarily imagined it was 1981 and I was viewing a Jasper Carrott gig from 1976; the difference in the hairstyles and clothes would have been so glaring that it would have been instantly obvious this was five years old.

If we were to study photographs of street scenes taken over the last twenty years, I surmise it would probably be difficult to discern which images were oldest and which were most recent; the members of the public caught on camera wouldn’t look much different in any of them. Compare a street scene between, say, 1964 and 1974 or 1974 and 1984, however, and it would be instantly identifiable as to which decade the photos belonged in. Whenever ‘Starsky & Hutch’ was re-run in the mid-1980s, the dated dress-sense of the two lead characters marked it out from another era as much as the sleeve of the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack LP did, yet both were from less than ten years before.

Anyone who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s was given something of a false impression that popular culture was built on shifting sands, a fluid, ever-changing creature that existed in a permanent state of transition – or at least the impression given was that this would always be the case. It hadn’t been before, though. Compare (if you can) family photos from before and after the war; the men have regulation short-back-and-sides and are wearing suits on either side of the conflict; there’s little to distinguish the male figures in the images from the 30s and the 50s. With the women, there are subtle differences in their hairstyles and the height of their hemlines, but it’s not that dramatic. What would soon become ‘teenagers’ resemble Mini-Me versions of their parents; by the beginning of the 70s, it would be the parents looking to their children for tips on how to dress.

From the 60s onwards, the people mirrored the trend-setters in a way that was new. The death of haut-couture that was brought about by the likes of Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki took fashion from the exclusive houses of Paris and Rome and passed it down to the high-street – affordable for the masses because the masses had produced the trend-setters, whether Twiggy or Brian Jones. The growth of mass-media via television also brought this into living rooms and out of the pages of ‘Vogue’, no longer elite or expensive. It was social mobility’s sartorial incarnation and what had once been seen as the province of the ‘poofy’ and effeminate eventually reached defiantly masculine professions such as mining or football – all in the space of less than a decade.

From the dandified poseurs of 1968 to the scruffy hippie hobos of 1971, from the platform-heeled Glam wannabes of 1973 to the spiky-haired and safety-pinned Punks of 1977, and from the floppy-haired New Romantics of 1981 to the football hooligan sportswear chic of 1985’s Casuals, the pace of life as lived through its fashions was breathless. The soundtrack to this frenetic rummaging in the dressing-up-box was no less speedy. At the end of the 70s and into the 80s, it went from Punk, New Wave and Two-Tone to Synth-Pop in the space of around three years, with a figure such as Gary Numan acting as an effective bridge between the two decades, with one foot in both of them without really belonging to either as they have come to be retrospectively remembered. This wasn’t destined to last. It couldn’t.

The Acid House scene that went over-ground in 1988 was the grand finale of the era that had begun with the moral panic of Rock ‘n’ Roll thirty years previously. The whole Rave culture remained the cutting-edge until around 1992, when The Shamen’s chart-topping ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ signalled it was essentially over as a subversive sound, despite the controversy surrounding the single’s drug wordplay. Running parallel with the Dance dominance as the 80s gave way to the 90s was the mainstream breakthrough of Hip Hop, something that had slowly grown in influence throughout the decade. In a sartorial sense, the Hip Hop look proved to be the blueprint for the street-wear that has been the default style of youth for the last twenty-five years.

As their circulation figures plummeted in the face of online competition, the old music papers struggled to invent cults in the established traditions as the twenty-first century staggered into a cultural cul-de-sac. ‘Hoodies’ were not comparable to Mods and Rockers, as a hoodie is simply an item of clothing that can be worn by anyone under a certain age and is not tribally specific. Similarly, what is held up as an example of a contemporary cutting-edge sound such as Grime is not necessarily doing anything that the likes of So Solid Crew weren’t doing fifteen years ago. When a product-placement multi-millionaire showbiz businessman like Jay-Z is a role model (basically Victor Kiam with a break-beat) where be the Revolution?

Now that a quarter-of-a-century has passed since the last old-school youth-quake that was Acid House ended and the evidence that pop culture has entered an era of suspended animation is right there in the world outside your window with every passer-by, perhaps it’s time to admit an epoch is over and we are living in musical and sartorial stasis. The age of constant change that characterised the 50s up until the 90s now feels like an aberration in cultural terms; the world has reverted to type, a world in which every development is merely an exercise in recycling and therefore takes us round in ever-decreasing circles. For those of us who were either in the thick of it or caught the coat-tails of it, we should count ourselves lucky.

© The Editor

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THE ANNIVERSARY WALTZER

With one especially grim event dominating the headlines at the expense of everything else this week (an event that has already been covered in three out of the last four posts), I am actively seeking alternative subjects to lift the spirits a little and serve as a necessary distraction. A good anniversary ordinarily suffices, so why not? Long-term readers may recall a post from last summer in which I marked the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’, so it seems only fitting I should follow suit with the half-century of that landmark LP’s sequel. The actual anniversary fell yesterday (May 26), but what’s in a day? And what can I add to all the endless column inches that have been written about ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’? Well, I’ll give it my best shot.

As I was born the year the album was released, I am of the generation that grew up in its shadow; as a tiny tot watching Slade and Sweet on ‘Top of the Pops’, this curious, rather quaint relic of another era resting in my parents’ LP collection hardly seemed relevant and yet it remained the yardstick by which innovative pop music was measured throughout the 1970s – or at least until a new generation temporarily usurped the reverential millstone it seemed to have become around the necks of anyone seeking to take pop forward with the same hunger The Beatles themselves had achieved a decade earlier.

It was hard for an eleven-year-old viewing ‘Are Friends Electric?’ on TOTP and rightly seeing it as the defining cutting-edge sound of the fast-moving moment to appreciate the impact of ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ on the listening public twelve years previously. It seemed to have no bearing on what I was hearing. After all, I had been raised in a pop culture in which there were clear demarcation lines – Serious Rock ala Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis in the album charts/Pop ala Abba, 10cc and ELO in the singles charts; it mattered not that both camps were capable of matching the other when it came to their respective musical merits; the way the divisions were sold to the record-buying public was a direct result of the late 60s split ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ indirectly led to.

Earlier in the same year that ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ was released, the last pop package tour of any real note took place; coming to a theatre near you for the princely sum of a few shillings, it was possible to see a bill featuring The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Move – and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. If it seems an inconceivable line-up now, it began to dawn on those who attended the tour that it was pretty inconceivable even then. But it’s not hard to see why some enterprising promoter put the bill together. There was no ‘Rock Circuit’ then and no festival schedule of the kind we take for granted today.

The Beatles, The Stones and everyone who had made a mark in the mid-60s had all trod the boards with multiple showbiz crooners on such packages; that was the way things had been done since Rock ‘n’ Roll had been imported into the UK in the mid-50s. It was only when it became obvious that very different audiences were buying records that had all been labelled ‘Pop’ that the error of the promoter’s ways became apparent.

As late as 1968, in the BBC TV presentation of Cream’s farewell concert at the Albert Hall, the band are constantly referred to by the narrator throughout as ‘Pop’. ‘Rock’ as a term that drew a distinction between King Crimson and Clodagh Rodgers appears to have come in shortly afterwards. But the release of ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ on the eve of ‘The Summer of Love’ marked the beginning of this division; the breadth of ambition and refusal to be constricted by what could and couldn’t be done saw the Fab Four blur boundaries and serve 1967 up in one all-encompassing Psychedelic soufflé. There was so much to choose from on there that other artists took separate snippets from it that they could build careers around without needing to acknowledge what they didn’t get.

For everyone who enjoyed ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ or ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, there were just as many who opted for ‘Within You, Without You’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. After ‘Sgt Pepper’s’, few attempted to present such a wide canvas again. Sub-genres abounded in its wake and there was no unifying force drawing all those disparate elements together once John, Paul, George and Ringo had abdicated.

The effective ‘trailer’ for what The Beatles had up their sleeves had come at the beginning of 1967 when, amidst rumours that their retirement from the stage meant they were finished, they released the double A-sided single, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’. The initial idea for a concept album on the theme of childhood that these two tracks were the intended starting pistol for meant they never made it to ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ when the concept was abandoned. McCartney’s breezy, optimistic ode to a nondescript Liverpool street possessed the same uplifting suburban sing-a-long spirit as The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ from the year before, whereas Lennon’s dreamy, druggy, surrealistic reimagining of a childhood haunt adhered to no previous formula on 45. It was telling the single was kept from the top spot by Engelbert’s ‘Release Me’; but as a taster for what was to come, it suggested The Beatles were far from finished.

When the long-awaited follow-up to ‘Revolver’ hit the record racks at the end of May 1967, it seems ridiculous now that the gap between the two albums was less than ten months; but the industry as it had been up to that point demanded two LPs a year and perhaps three or four stand-alone singles in addition. The Beatles yet again refused to bow to convention; they didn’t need to; they were imbued with such confidence and, yes, arrogance, that they could do whatever the hell they liked. The sleeve of the album, so instantly recognisable that it has been parodied more times than I care to mention, reflected this attitude; as did the fact they printed the lyrics on the back of it and that they didn’t release any of its songs as singles. They didn’t need to. The album sold as many copies as any single would have and in turn transformed the LP into what would become the premier art form of the next decade.

What’s easy to forget in the glut of anniversary waffle that will no doubt swamp the media over the next week or so is that this was a record release categorised as ‘Pop’ that was produced by four young men, none of whom were yet thirty, and yet was as adventurous a recording as any emanating from fields the critics had previously praised, such as Avant-Garde Classical or Jazz. It demonstrated Pop could outdo any other genre, however fragmented Pop itself would soon become as a result of the dazzling variety The Beatles were offering.

In an age when the Tin Pan Alley sensibilities The Beatles helped overthrow have been reinstated with little in the way of resistance, it’s somewhat sad to realise that half-a-century ago, the Svengali had been shown the door and the creative lunatics had taken over the musical asylum. To be an inmate there remains preferable to Care in Cowell’s Community.

© The Editor

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BACKSTREET STORIES

vera-drakeTo be frank, I don’t really want to write about screeching millennial cry babies with pink hair stamping their feet and unable to comprehend you can’t always get what you want; and I don’t want to write about bloody Trump or bloody Brexit again. So, where does that leave me? Well, loath as I am to devote this blog to endless anniversaries – the last post, in case you missed it, marked fifty years since the arrival of Milton Keynes on the Buckinghamshire landscape – I couldn’t help but notice the same year in which the biggest New Town of them all appeared, a piece of legislation was introduced that eventually changed the lives of women in this country in a way that few pieces of legislation ever have.

The 1967 Abortion Act brought to an end (on the British mainland at least) the grim scenarios that were frequently fictionalised in British cinema during the years leading up to the Act. The sole moment in archetypal mid-60s Brit-flick ‘Alfie’ that Michael Caine’s title character loses his arrogant cocksure swagger is when, having impregnated the wife of a friend, he gazes at the aborted foetus ‘delivered’ by a loathsome backstreet abortionist and bursts into tears. By eavesdropping upon Alfie confronted by the consequences of his reckless actions, we see the male realisation of abortion’s ugly realities, just as the female perspective was graphically portrayed in the BBC TV play, ‘Up the Junction’, a year earlier.

As with the imprisonment of male homosexuals and the death penalty, the laws surrounding abortion immediately prior to the 1967 Act were in dire and urgent need of reform. Ineffective DIY remedies involving hot baths, knitting needles and a bottle of gin had been familiar means of attempting to induce miscarriages for years, along with more extreme practices such as engineering a fall down a flight of stairs. If all else failed, the ‘Vera Drake’ amateur abortionist was a familiar figure amongst women in the know throughout working-class neighbourhoods, whereas those with enough money could procure an illegal operation on Harley Street.

Although the contraceptive pill had been introduced in the early 60s, fears of encouraging unmarried promiscuity meant that it was only available to women with a ring on the third finger of their left hand; but even abstinence from pre-marital sex or avoiding embarking upon an affair couldn’t prevent the occasional unwanted pregnancy within a monogamous marriage, especially if social and financial circumstances meant the prospect of another mouth to feed filled the mother-to-be with horror.

The backstreet abortionist – often a qualified doctor who had either been struck off the medical register or one who greedily supplemented his income with an operation he knew could land him in prison – was an odious urban shadow haunting the netherworld of British society as much as the blackmailer of homosexuals in the first half of the twentieth century. At best, he could leave the women who went to him because they had nowhere else to go with permanent physical damage; at worst, he could kill them.

The grisly truth of the dearth of choice women had in this period was brought home to listeners on ‘Woman’s Hour’ yesterday, when an archive interview from the mid-60s was broadcast; in it, a working-class woman from Tyneside spoke candidly of her own experience of a backstreet abortion. That her account was told bereft of the tearful emotion that would probably accompany such a confession today somehow made that account all the more chilling, as did the juxtaposition of its grimness with the jolly chimes of an ice-cream van that could be detected in the distance as she recalled what had happened to her. It was far-from being an easy listen, but as an eye-opener of what women had to endure prior to 1967, it was a remarkable piece of radio.

Future Liberal leader David Steel, then a little-known backbencher, was the MP who introduced the Private Member’s Bill to legalise the termination of pregnancy, though he was supported by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government; it appointed Sir John Peel (President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the man who had delivered both Prince Andrew and Prince Edward) to chair a committee that recommended the Bill become law. After a debate in Parliament in which passionate opinions on both sides of the argument were aired, a free vote saw the proposal passed and it gained Royal Assent on 27 October 1967, becoming law as of 27 April 1968.

With the exception of Northern Ireland, the new law legalised abortion throughout Great Britain with a gestation cut-off point of 24 weeks. After the Act was passed, deaths as a result of abortions plummeted and the hideous spectre of the backstreet abortionist faded into history. The moral objections that accompanied the passage of the legislation through Parliament resurfaced as fanatical pressure groups, often of a religious bent; but fewer unwanted children were being born as a result, and fewer women were prematurely dying.

Yes, there is an irony that the anniversary of this British legislation’s introduction should coincide with the new tenant of the White House reviving Ronald Reagan’s old policy of cutting US funding for non-governmental organisations that offer advice on (or include) abortions in their overseas portfolios. As with promoting contraception in the developing world, such a service is one of the few ways in which the planet’s swelling population can be reduced; Christopher Hitchens made that point when justifying his campaign against Mother Theresa. But, while pro and anti camps will probably never be reconciled on this issue, the rights British women acquired half-a-century ago at least gave them something far more emancipating than tax-free tampons – actual control of their own bodies.

© The Editor

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BRAVE NEW WORLD

cowsNewtown was not only the name of the fictitious Merseyside metropolis in which ‘Z-Cars’ was set; it was also the name of a track on ‘Cut’, the debut album by reggae-fied punkettes The Slits. In the case of the former, the backdrop was supposed to reflect the Utopian housing developments of the early 60s (despite the apparently high crime-rate); whereas the latter chronicled the dull urban deserts such idealistic schemes had descended into by the late 70s – a cultural vacuum where everything was closed, boarded-up and abandoned as the populace stayed indoors and watched the telly.

The New Town was an innovative solution to Britain’s post-war housing crisis that spanned the first twenty-five years after the end of the Second World War, the New Jerusalem envisaged in the wake of the 1945 General Election; and it’s telling how quickly the powers-that-be got on with it. Stevenage in Hertfordshire was the first designated New Town in 1946, swiftly followed by the likes of Crawley, Corby, Basildon, Cwmbran, Cumbernauld, East Kilbride and numerous others up to 1970.

One of the final pieces in the New Town jigsaw was designated as such half-a-century ago today, a shiny space-age settlement occupying what had previously consisted of several small towns, villages and farmland in rural Buckinghamshire. It was named after one of the old villages it swallowed-up: Milton Keynes.

It’s interesting to recall that the last time the country experienced a housing crisis (courtesy of Adolf), the Government actually tried to do something about it by embarking on an unprecedented building programme that not only swept away both slum housing and bombed-out neighbourhoods in existing towns and cities but also created fresh hamlets from scratch, many of which would house the overspill population from densely-populated areas. Taking their cue from the pre-war ‘garden cities’, on the drawing board these New Towns embodied the optimistic determination of the Attlee administration to provide homes for heroes.

Shopping centres and workplaces were distanced from housing, with wide open spaces to compensate for the loss of the Greenbelt land as well as offering those relocated from cramped urban environments a facsimile of the country. The design faults in the original housing that was constructed with haste and inevitably led to corners being cut wasn’t evident to begin with; most of the citizens of the New Towns had come from overcrowded Victorian tenements and felt as though their new homes, with indoor bathrooms and all mod cons, were little palaces. Cinema newsreels of the time, acting almost as PR for the New Town scheme, extolled the benefits of these residential Nirvanas and painted a bright picture of a nation looking forward rather than back.

By the late 60s, the project was close to winding down, but experienced one great last hurrah with Milton Keynes. 21,850 acres were set aside for Buckinghamshire’s very own Brasilia, with a target population of 250,000; the aim was for Milton Keynes to be the biggest New Town of them all and architects were allowed to let their imaginations run riot in the distinct Modernist design of the buildings, viewing the town as a unique opportunity for an experiment on a grand scale that the limited space and invariable compromises in existing cities prevented.

A revolutionary grid system for the plans was imported from the US to add a further alien sheen to the ambitious operation, and though skyscrapers were initially opposed, tall buildings eventually rose in the central business district. Milton Keynes, above all its New Town predecessors, eschewed the traditional layout of British towns and accurately anticipated an increase in car ownership as the motorway network gradually began to link-up the major cities.

Milton Keynes was an ongoing work-in-progress throughout the 70s and 80s; eager to acquire culture, it opened its first music venue, The Stables, sponsored by the premier couple of British Jazz, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, in 1970; but perhaps the most well-known addition was very much out-of-doors – what was originally known as the Milton Keynes Bowl, opening in 1979. The national sport belatedly came to Milton Keynes in 2004 with the controversial formation of Milton Keynes Dons FC; by putting the town on the pools coupon, it seemed as if it was finally accepted by outsiders as a ‘proper town’, though for a location that was the culmination of Labour’s New Jerusalem vision, as soon as Milton Keynes became a Parliamentary constituency in 1983 it ironically voted Tory.

By the 80s, Milton Keynes was widely derided for its somewhat sterile and faceless ambience; The Style Council famously mocked it in their 1985 hit ‘Come to Milton Keynes’, and the factors that for many make the best British cities so special – the mix of old and new, the sense of history and character, seemingly random accidents such as narrow side-streets veering off on a tangent, the Medieval dirt beneath the manicured fingernails, if you like – are utterly absent from Milton Keynes.

Yet, for such a daring break with the characteristic British town, the aesthetic elements of Milton Keynes have proven to be the blueprint for virtually every redevelopment and extension of major towns and cities across the UK ever since. The Lego-like add-ons that spring up like a bland barrier encircling today’s metropolis are undoubtedly created in the Milton Keynes image.

For all its faults, however, the concept of the New Town was an ingenious and effective means of solving an acute crisis in housing; and what have we done on such a scale since? Considering how acute the current crisis in housing really is, bugger all.

© The Editor

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HAPPY EVER AFTER

divorceIn the first of his two stints as Home Secretary during the mid-60s, Roy Jenkins oversaw perhaps the greatest reform to some of England’s most antiquated laws than any other person to hold that post in living memory – the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the legalisation of abortion, the abolition of the death penalty, and much-needed upgrading of the complex process surrounding divorce. Right-wing revisionists might like to lay the blame of the ‘Permissive Society’ and its subsequent social fallout at his door, but society had already changed even before Jenkins kick-started legislation to reflect the shift in mores. Of all the reforms Jenkins oversaw, perhaps the most historically neglected is the one concerning the dissolution of marriage. In some respects, I only wish he’d gone further and outlawed the whole rotten institution.

I admit I’m a biased cynic on the subject and this is a wholly subjective piece as well as an extremely cynical one. Please accept my apologies. I had to attend a lot of family and non-family weddings as a child and I yawned my way them all, even if attendance gained me a welcome day off school. And now your humble narrator has been named as co-respondent in a divorce case – well, I’m not actually named as such; I am ‘Mr X’, the wicked seducer in the cock-eyes of the law; and the law is a ass, as someone once famously observed. Actually, I bloody well wish said accuser would name me; what an addition to one’s Outlaw CV that would be! I demand to be named! Instead, I have to settle for anonymity and being a bystander in a case that needed instigating, even if it has been instigated on an utterly farcical premise that enables the accuser to maintain the moral high-ground.

If it can be said to end in farce, the beginning is no better. There may have been a little fashionable tweaking to the old ceremonial aspect of the union, but it essentially remains an archaic and outdated ritual that has no basis in the life to follow. Like Christmas Day, a wedding belongs to a fantasy industry that various parties with a vested interest in its continuation act as brainwashing cheerleaders for. Loathsome celebrity couples with more money than taste have served to promote it to a new generation of deluded little Disney princesses raised on a diet of Bridget Jones bollocks, though the inevitable nasty divorce that is the natural climax of the ill-matched marriage is something the starry-eyed in love with the theatre of the event always choose to turn a blind eye to.

The idea of a woman as a possession of the father that he then hands over ownership of to the husband is a ludicrous anachronism in this day and age, and has been for decades; yet still, even in Twenty-bloody-Sixteen, there has to be the father (or the next best thing) surrendering his property in a laughable mock-legal transaction. It may be chic for the condemned to now insert their own sappy vows in place of the official spiel, but beyond the day they’re uttered before an audience, their relevance is akin to a fading suntan two weeks after the return from an overseas holiday. But, hey, let’s not quibble over irrelevancies. Mum gets to wear her new hat and call on the Kleenex when the ceremony reaches its gut-wrenching apogee, and the local church is able to pay for the new roof as a consequence of hosting endless gatherings of this nature that are crammed with people who wouldn’t be seen within half-a-mile of the venue come Evensong. And let’s not forget there’s always the reception, the entertainment value of which consists of an aunt who drinks too much and an uncle who fondles a bridesmaid; and everyone plays their allocated part in a badly-scripted sitcom that should have been cancelled forty years before.

However, if one can just about stomach the OTT frivolity of the ceremony when two become one, what comes next is just as meaningless and has little to do with love; the breeding machine for the future society is switched-on and the wife endures ongoing physical traumas in order that the post-nuclear family can keep buggering on with its 2.4 children. The statistics regarding divorce demonstrate how futile an institution marriage really is – 42% of them in Britain end in divorce; and whilst divorce levels are currently at their lowest for 40 years, the failure rate remains high and the likelihood of a marriage lasting until one of the spouses passes away in old age is fairly rare these days, certainly since couples no longer have to be chained to one another till death do them part.

Before the reforms Roy Jenkins oversaw in the 1960s, divorce went through various stages of complicated legal and moral changes; indeed, until the middle of the nineteenth century it was the exclusive province of the Church of England and Parliament – an expensive and protracted process undertaken not by barristers, but by civil law advocates and proctors in Doctors’ Commons; an annulment required an Act of Parliament, which restricted divorce to the wealthy, if they were prepared to weather the scandal as their most intimate marital details were discussed in the House.

Anyone familiar with Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ will recall the agony of the working-class character Stephen Blackpool, whose estranged alcoholic wife walks back into his life and he cannot rid himself of her or marry the woman he loves until his parasitic spouse dies. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 at least made the process easier for women, even if the ridiculous employment of private detectives to prove infidelity kept divorce in the realm of the absurd; and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 – a direct result of Jenkins’ reforms – democratised it considerably. A marriage could be now dissolved after three years; the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 reduced that period to twelve months.

I find it hard to understand why anyone would feel the need to adhere to an irrelevance like marriage in 2016 when the old stigma of ‘living in sin’ has been mercifully consigned to history. The only question that passed through my mind when gay marriage was the hot topic keeping the classes chattering was ‘Why do gay couples even want to buy into this heterosexual museum piece?’

When the inevitable separation and eventual divorce comes, the legal minefield it opens up (and the pound signs it sparks in the eyes of solicitors) drags on and on to the point whereby both weary parties must find it hard to recall why on earth they bothered in the first place. Add children to the equation and you may as well look upon a marriage contract as a death warrant. The woman I stand accused of conspiring with in order to douse a deceased marriage in the flammable liquid of adultery will be free again one day, but until the day actually arrives the legacy of the tumour upon individual freedom that marriage represents will remain an impediment to that freedom. It is not ‘the wife’ who is the ball and chain, but marriage itself.

© The Editor

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