Saturday, 29 December 2012

Quote for the Week

'What's the fellow's name? Rees-Davies? Reis-Davies? You know, on The Times.'
'Rees-Mogg?' said Brooke.
'Mogg, that's it. Mogg. I knew it was something foreign. Dear God. It's the thin end of the wedge when you find a fellow called Mogg editing
The Times. I ask you. Is a fellow called Mogg likely to inspire confidence in the pound? Can you imagine nations trembling at the thunderings of a person called Mogg? Same with everything these days. BBC, C of E, MCC. They've all sold out. Nowadays it's all demonstrations, anarchy, pornography. Galloping paralysis, that's what it is.'
- Graham Lord, The Spider and the Fly (1974)

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Slight Return

It's been a month since I was last on this blog, but it hasn't been pure idleness on my part. Yesterday I submitted the text of my book on Britain in the 1990s, which I started writing in February. It's the longest thing I've ever written, and I've lost track of whether it works as a book or not, but I think some of it is alright.

I'll have a break from it now, and then come back in a spirit of hope that it might be okay.

Meanwhile, I'm enormously flattered to find that on the always excellent Brandish site, there's a list of fifteen people who are going to be influential in tech, style, sport and politics in 2013 and there, amidst genuine stars like Carl Jenkinson, Chuka Umanna and Jake Bugg, I find my own name. That's extraordinary. In a state of some bewilderment that I should be included in such company, I offer my thanks to Brandish.

On a completely unrelated note, I also wanted to record my radio highlight of the year: the appearance of Stan Stennett on the Today programme. I spoke with Stan when I was researching my book on Terry Nation and he's terrific value: one of the last survivors of the great generation of comedians who came out of ENSA in the 1940s.

Hearing him on the radio was wonderful, but even better was hearing him do a joke about being the driver for Ivy Benson's band: 'It wasn't much money,' he explained, 'but it was all I could afford.'

My main task over the next few months is to educate a class of students at Chichester University so that they appreciate those references.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Menswear


Nice to see a piece about the mighty Menswear on the Guardian site. Particularly since I wrote it myself...

I was listening to the band's 1995 debut album, Nuisance, yesterday as I was writing. And it's still very fine. Up there with the third Secret Affair album, at the very least.

Thanks to Philip Oltermann of the Guardian for his help, and - as ever - to Sam Harrison.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Top Ten: European sleepwalkers

Ed Miliband is making a speech today to warn us against Britain 'sleepwalking' out of the European Union. What is about Europe that induces sleepwalking?

1. ‘Because we won’t debate it [the Maastricht Treaty] we’re going to sleepwalk our way into it and we will handicap ourselves as a party thereby.’ – Bryan Gould, 1992

2. ‘[A Labour government] would sleepwalk us into a federal union.’ – John Redwood, 1995

3. ‘There are those in the Labour Party and across Europe sleepwalking their way along the dreamy road to a European superstate.’ – Michael Portillo, 1995

4. ‘England must have the right to vote on things that will change the destiny of the nation. To insist that these changes can come about without debate, and without a vote, is madness. It is sleepwalking into an electric saw.’ – James Goldsmith, 1996

5. ‘[Euro-fanatics] were hoping we would sleepwalk into their brave new world.’ – Richard Littlejohn, 1998

6. ‘If battle is not joined, and we sleepwalk into a single currency and a federal Europe, we will be taking the biggest gamble of all.’ – Michael Gove, 1998

7. ‘The idea that we simply sleepwalk into something as important as this would be an outrage from any government.’ – Richard Marsh, 1998

8. ‘[Tony Blair] has to confront the newspapers, he cannot sleepwalk to victory.’ – Simon Buckby, director of Britain in Europe, 2004

9. ‘Brussels appears to be happy to sleepwalk into this nightmare.’ – John Cridland, deputy director-general of CBI, 2007

10. ‘We must not sleepwalk into another crisis.’ – Jose Manuel Barroso, president European Commission, 2009

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Halfway to Paradise - the exhibition

Should you be in the vicinity of South Kensington in the next couple of months, I'd highly recommend a visit to the Theatre & Performance galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The exhibition of Harry Hammond's photographs is really very splendid indeed. Kate Bailey, Jim Fowler, Anna Landreth Strong and others have done a magnificent job.
 
There are a few events around the exhibition that might also be worth your attention, including an appearance by, er, me at 7 pm on Friday 7 December, when I will be talking with Amber Jane Butchard. It's free, but I think you're supposed to email Amber for a ticket.
 


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Crediting the designer

As Tyrone Jenkins points out in  a comment on this blog, the covers of both editions of The Man Who Invented the Daleks are really rather splendid. The hardback jacket, in particular, is the best cover I've ever had.

So my thanks to the excellent Mark Swan at kid-ethic.com for doing such a fine job on both.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Shiny Daleks


I've just received a copy of the paperback edition of The Man Who Invented the Daleks, my book about Terry Nation. And very shiny and splendid it is too. The paperback isn't actually published until January, which means there's still time to get the beautifully designed hardback - the perfect Christmas gift, surely?

Monday, 15 October 2012

Quote for the Week 17

Jack Regan: 'Thank God they're going independent. We'll be able to put that wall up again.'
- Troy Kennedy Martin, 'Hard Men', The Sweeney, 1978

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Halfway to Paradise

The Harry Hammond exhibition has now opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and it looks terrific. In particular there are some photos that have been blown up to wall-size to form a backdrop for the framed shots and they look even better the bigger they get. Free admission, as well.

Another conference season

That's it, then, is it? All the party conferences over and done with. Did anyone in the real world notice?

I read some commentators claiming that Ed Miliband's speech was 'a game-changer', and then some others (though not so many) making the same claim for David Cameron.

Just in case it's not entirely obvious: neither of those things is true. Nothing happened.

For the Liberal Democrats, that's okay. Only bad stuff was ever a possibility, so no news was about as good as it was going to get.

For Labour, Miliband still doesn't look like a serious candidate to be prime minister. And all that stuff about 'one-nation Labour', haven't we heard that before? Yes we have, back in 1995 when John Prescott launched exactly the same slogan at the Labour conference. So Miliband is seeking to overcome the Blairite-Brownite legacy by outing himself as a Prescottian. There's progress for you.

But since purloining slogans is the sum total of modern political oratory, Cameron responded by declaring himself in favour of 'privilege for all', in the same way that Tony Blair used to talk about 'excellence for all'. Both cases insult the English language and the intelligence of the electorate in equal measure.

The truth is that this isn't a time for new policies. Politics itself is in suspended animation, waiting to see how long it will be before there's a genuine economic recovery (which is not the same as a set of quarterly figures showing a 0.2 per cent growth in GDP).

Is there any point to these conferences? They don't even get to the end of the week anymore, as though even they can't be bothered to make the effort. Nor is anyone else interested. Question Time last week got straight on to the real news story of the week: Jimmy Savile.

(Just in passing, there was a campaigner on the wireless last week arguing that those charged with underage sex shouldn't have a jury trial, because ordinary people don't understand the complexities of paedophile psychology. Instead he called for the equivalent of Diplock courts.)

Now that it's clear that the conferences are a waste of time, can't we save on the cost of televising and policing them? Let's have done with the pretence and adopt the American model of each party having just one big whooping rally in election year. We could fill up the television time with a three-week snooker tournament. In which case, I think my money would be on Nick Clegg.

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Savile Inquiry

So where have we got to after a week of stories about Jimmy Savile?

Well, firstly, it's now acknowledged that Savile's predatory habits when it came to teenage girls was an 'open secret'. That's certainly the case. Over the years I've interviewed a fair number of people who appeared on Top of the Pops in the 1960s and '70s, and the stories about Savile were widespread and all pretty much the same. The most commonly used word to describe the world of TotP was 'disgusting'.

Savile wasn't, though, unique. While his name was always the first to be mentioned, it wasn't the only one. Others, including some behind the cameras, have also cropped up more than once in conversation.

Obviously this is all hearsay and has no place in a court, even in one of public opinion. But then I'm no insider, I have no access to any special knowledge, and all I hear is the common gossip that circulated freely in pop circles. It is not exactly to the BBC's credit that it didn't pursue the truth or otherwise of allegations that they must have heard in rather more convincing form than I ever have.

But it's worth repeating. Savile wasn't the only one. In his own account, he implied the involvement of the police in his activities. It'll be interesting to see how much of that emerges from the Met's newly launched enquiry.

Meanwhile, there seem to be rather a lot of papers who have a commercial interest in attacking the BBC who are using the Savile case as an opportunity to, er, attack the BBC. And some of that is getting silly.

The Mail Online ran a photo at the end of last week of John Peel dressed in schoolgirl uniform, as it attempted to drag him in (as it were) to a story about paedophilia. The Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph also used the same photo.

This wasn't an 'open secret'. It was simply open. The photo was a (quite funny) publicity shot that was commonplace in the music press of the 1970s. But when the Mail ran it, I worried that all such imagery was now deemed to be suspect. Happily, when I then did a search for 'St Trinian's' on the Mail's site, it came up with page after page of results, many of them illustrated by photos of charming young ladies dressed as schoolgirls, complete with stockings and suspenders.

The story attached to the picture was hardly a secret either. The reason that anyone knows about Peel and teenage groupies in Texas in the early-1960s - or about his 15-year-old wife - is because he was always honest enough to talk about his life. Sometimes rather too openly, as anyone who heard his long on-air accounts in the 1970s of what was then called VD can testify. ('Just play a bloody record,' was the standard response, soon regretted when he put on side two of Meddle at the wrong speed.)

Meanwhile the story has taken a slight detour into the subject of sexism at the BBC in the old days. Undoubtedly true, though the Corporation was probably not the only employer where sexist attitudes prevailed into the 1980s. Not really in the same territory, however, as powerful men using a children's home as a supplier of sexual services.

There have also been attempts by some commentators to use the Savile case as a stick with which to beat the Leveson Inquiry. If press freedom is curtailed, runs this line, how could someone like Savile be exposed?

Well, the problem is that he wasn't exposed. The free press didn't help in this instance. Nor did it in the case of Gary Glitter. Glitter's trial in Britain on charges relating to underage sex resulted in a not-guilty verdict, largely because of the actions of the News of the World, who'd bought the story of the alleged victim.

There are arguments against the conduct of the Leveson Inquiry - and there will be arguments to be made whatever the findings of that inquiry - but Savile can't really be pressed into service on this.

We'll see where we go from here. My suspicion, however, is that this is rapidly turning into one of those stories that will miss the point, that Savile will be offered up as a sacrifice while a large number of other old men count their blessings that it wasn't them.

Friday, 5 October 2012

One for the Teenagers

I rather like Richard Littlejohn's suggestion that Ed Balls is 'the reincarnation of Ray Gunter'. Been a long time since I've seen a mention of Gunter.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Twilight of the Mavericks

Dan Atkinson's always excellent blog included this weekend a couple of fine quotes from fiction in the early 1970s about the way that the maverick was being forced out by unadventurous corporate thinking.

In Regan, the pilot TV movie that led to The Sweeney, a senior police officer spells it out: 'Jack, the days of the one-man band are over; now we're an orchestra.'

Len Deighton's novel, Yesterday's Spy (1975), strikes much the same note: '"The days of the entrepreneur are over, Steve," I told him. "Now it's the organisation man who gets the Christmas bonus and the mileage allowance. People like you are called 'heroes', and don't mistake it for a compliment."'

The struggle between the misfit maverick and a faceless bureaucracy was one of the great themes of popular culture in the 1970s, and one that helped pave the way for the rise of Margaret Thatcher. But it also played into a much longer strand in British society about the decline of the nation. This is a paragraph from my book, The Man Who Invented the Daleks, in a section where I explore the childhood reading of Terry Nation:

'John Buchan’s novel, The Island of Sheep (1936), the last to feature his secret agent Richard Hannay, begins with our hero on a suburban train in southern England, reminiscing about the great days at the turn of the century when "the afterglow of Cecil Rhodes’s spell still lay on Africa, and men could dream dreams". As he looks "round the compartment at the flabby eupeptic faces" of commuters returning home from the City, he reflects melancholically on the realities of modern Britain: "Brains and high ambition had perished, and the world was for the comfortable folk like the man opposite me."'

The economic dimensions of that long decline are, as it happens, examined in the highyl recommended Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014, written by Dan and Larry Elliott.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Politico's

A couple of months ago, I was enthusing here about Iain Dale's publishing company, Biteback, and its predecessor, Politico's.

Rather splendidly, I read this week that Biteback has now bought the rights to the Politico's brand and that, 'under old management', it's back, calling itself 'the online political bookstore' and promising to carry the largest selection of political titles on the web. 'We want the site to become a destination for all political enthusiasts,' says Dale. Sounds good to me.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Janice Atkinson-Small vs Glam Rock

I am, as I've said before, a big fan of Janice Atkinson-Small, a UKIP member who blogs on the Daily Mail's Right Minds site. She's great fun, and there are few more entertaining things in the British media than her single-handed (and single-minded) assault on the English language.

Today, as far as one can discern her meaning, she seems to be rejoicing in Margaret Thatcher's reported dementia: 'For the first time I hope she is somewhere else in her mind when opening her newspapers and does not seek the sick joke of the bad-taste t-shirts sold by the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers' Centre at the TUC conference.'

(I'm reminded of the Bishop of Leicester, whose quote I included in Crisis? What Crisis?: 'I never thought I should give thanks to God for being blind, but since my wife has told me what she has seen in the film, The Devils, I am genuinely grateful that I have been spared that.')

Ms Atkinson-Small goes on to denounce 'the hard left' as: 'A spent force who have to result to shock tactics.' And she reflects that: 'My generation remember the demise the UK car manufacturing industry which as a direct result of union action closed down with the loss of thousands of skilled jobs.' (All syntax, punctuation and vocabulary, incidentally, are taken from the original.)

But then she goes too far, saying that apart from union militancy in the 1970s, 'the only other memorable things about that decade - equally bad - were Heath taking us into Europe and glam rock.'

Now that's just being provocative for the sake of it. The wisdom or otherwise of joining the European Economic Community is a matter of political opinion. But glam rock was - and I speak objectively here - the highest achievement of post-War British popular culture. If she really was around in the early 1970s and doesn't appreciate the beauty of glam, then I can only conclude that 'she is somewhere else in her mind'.


Saltaire


I was in Yorkshire on Tuesday, doing a talk about Terry Nation and the Daleks as part of the 10th Saltaire Festival. And very enjoyable it was too: a small but very welcoming group of people, and a stunningly beautiful town.

My thanks to David Ford, of the Saltaire Bookshop, who invited me and to him and his wife, Vanessa, for kindly putting me up for the night.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Daleks Daleks everywhere

As the BBC starts to gear itself up for the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who next year, the new series starts tomorrow with the return (yet again) of the Daleks, the enemy that keeps coming back for more.

To mark the occasion, there's a bit by me in the current edition of the New Statesman about the Daleks and their creator, Terry Nation. My thanks to Jonathan Derbyshire for commissioning the piece, and for giving it such a fabulous title: Sergeant Pepperpots.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Let Us Now Praise ... Rhodes Boyson

 

The death of Rhodes Boyson, former Labour councillor and long-time Conservative MP, failed to make it onto the news bulletins of Radio 5 Live, though it was mentioned on Radio 4. Perhaps that's inevitable. Boyson has been out of the political spotlight for a long time - when I was writing Crisis? What Crisis? five years ago, I tried to get an interview with him, but he was already too ill by that stage.

Insofar as he is remembered by the general public, it's probably as that strangely old-fashioned, mutton-chopped figure who appeared on Have I Got News for You and who agreed with Ali G that there was something to be said for children getting caned at school. Or, just possibly, there might be memories of him as the right-wing education minister in Margaret Thatcher's government.

In thinking Tory circles, meanwhile, he's still remembered for the Black Papers of the 1970s, in which he lambasted contemporary education theory, and did so from a position of some authority, having been headmaster of Robert Montefiore School and of Highbury Grove comprehensive.

But my interest in Boyson, and the reason I wanted to speak with him, was largely on the strength of a little book he edited, Right Turn (Churchill Press, London, 1970), published shortly after the election of Edward Heath as prime minister. It's a fascinating document, no bigger than a paperback and with just 150-odd pages, but in that space its various contributors - including Ralph Harris, Alfred Sherman and Ross McWhirter - provide a comprehensive blueprint for Thatcherism, half-a-decade before Thatcher came to the same conclusions.

The key contribution, from my perspective, was the introductory essay by Boyson himself. He was later to publish his memoirs, Speaking My Mind (1995), but some of the background was covered in this thirteen-page piece.

He came from a radical family. His grandfather was 'blacklisted for trade union activities in the mills of the late 1880s', his father 'believed that socialism would bring world brotherhood and peace' and was a conscientious objector in the Second World War, and he himself was brought up within the faith. Born in Lancashire in 1925, his education came within the Labour movement, with its traditions of self-education and internationalism: 'The volumes of the Left Book Club were devoured by those of us who grew up in the depressed areas as the first recipients must have read the epistles of Saint Paul.'

His conversion to conservatism came from a belief that socialism, and in particular the Labour Party, had lost its way, had become attached to the state, and in the process had damaged the moral fibre of society: 'It has become destructive of the self-reliance and responsibility which were the pride of the 19th-century nonconformists.'

You don't have to agree with his conclusions, or the policy positions he came to as a consequence, to recognise the power of his story. There were many formerly on the left who came to endorse Thatcher (from Woodrow Wyatt to Paul Johnson), but Boyson's background and experiences lifted him well beyond their shabby ranks. For anyone wanting to understand what happened to the Conservative Party in the 1980s and beyond, there's no better place to start. Because, even more than Enoch Powell, Boyson represented the soul of the Thatcherite revolution.
  

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Wales since 1939


I've been reading Martin Johnes's book Wales since 1939. And damn fine it is, too. Obviously it's going to be your first port of call if you have any interest at all in modern Welsh history, but it's also pretty essential if you're serious about post-War Britain.

There's a tendency - and I know I'm guilty of this - of not giving sufficient attention to Wales when looking at Britain more broadly; like Northern Ireland, it can be overlooked. So Johnes's book is welcome as a corrective to that, putting a mass of information on record about the changes wrought in the country over the last six decades.

Much of the ground is familiar as part of the UK story, but benefits enormously from having a different focus. The nationalisation of the coal industry, the advent of independent television, the entry into the EEC - it's fascinating and illuminating to see these developments from an angle too often neglected.

I was particularly fond of the chapter 'Promiscuous Living', on the social changes of the 1950s and '60s. Ignoring London and the handful of other English cities that always get examined, it's a joy to read about the impact of youth culture on Carmarthen and Cardigan, to hear Deke Leonard talking about his early days playing rock and roll, and to learn about an Aberystwyth group called Y Blew playing at the National Eisteddford in 1967 and calling for more groups 'prepared to twist and shout in Welsh'.

Perceptions of Wales changed in the 1990s, with the Cool Cymru moment and with the arrival of devolution - which is why I started reading this book, before getting sidetracked well beyond my immediate concerns - but Johnes is determined not to get carried away by an emerging sense of Welsh nationhood. His close analysis of statistics relating to, say, the revival of the Welsh language suggests a process still in its early days, while he's keen to draw attention to the fragility of the economic recovery during the long boom of 1994-2008: 'Wales did get wealthier; it was just that England got even wealthier even quicker'.

It's a terrific piece of political and social history, epic in its scope, fascinating in its detail, and splendidly readable.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Two hundred days later...

Yesterday was the two hundredth day since I  writing my book on the 1990s. Since I aim to average a thousand words a day, and since I was contracted to write a 200,000-word book, that should mean that I've finished.

Regrettably, I haven't.

I'm still keeping to my scheduled word-count, but the end is not yet in sight. It's going to be a long book, I fear. Indeed, it's already longer than anything I've previously written. Bits of it, however, are quite good.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Sid Waddell

The sad death of Sid Waddell, probably the most entertaining sports commentator we've ever had, is inevitably marked by collections of his sayings, such as this list. Included there is the classic: 'His eyes are bulging like the belly of a hungry chaffinch.'

But I've never seen quoted anywhere (except in my own Rejoice! Rejoice!) my all-time favourite, so I thought I'd add it to the mix: 'There's only one word for that - quintessential!'

What a man. Without him, darts would never have become a serious television sport.

A Close Shave

It was a great pleasure to hear Peter Hitchens on the Today programme this morning. I read his Mail on Sunday column yesterday, in which he warned that 'you can now be arrested for not smiling when an Olympic event is taking place', and I feared for his safety.

Happily it turns out that he hasn't yet been detained, and the worst that seems to have happened is that he's invited to discuss his thoughts with James Naughtie to an audience of millions.

It's good to know that the 'totalitarianism' Hitchens fears hasn't quite kicked in yet. He still sounded very cross, though. Almost as cross as his Mail colleague Stephen Glover, who was so upset by the opening ceremony with its 'Marxist version of our island history'.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Hills Have Eyes

I was reminded yesterday of what Paul Merton once called the 'spontaneous poetry' of live Teletext subtitles. I was waiting to be served in a pub and there was a feature on some local news programme that included a snippet from the Olympic opening ceremony; the bit that included William Blake's thoughts on the building of Jerusalem among the 'dark Satanic hills'.

Monday, 30 July 2012

A gratuitous plug

I assume that we all start from the position of seeing Danny Boyle's national pageant as a work of genius, an evening of terrific, mood-altering entertainment that cost around £27 million and, coincidentally, attracted a TV audience of around 27 million. For a quid a head, this is great value.* And the BBC are even good enough to offer a version on iPlayer without commentary.

It would be churlish to find fault with anything that was included (that's what we have backbench Tories for) and absurd to imagine that it could cover anything more than a tiny fraction of its potential subject-matter. Having said which...

My only regret is that the section celebrating British music, movies and television seemed to reinforce what's becoming a default position in the media: that popular culture started in 1963, 'between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP'.

And that's rather late for me. Just in terms of rock and roll, I'd have loved to have seen an acknowledgement of British pop in the pre-Beatles years: Rock Island Line, Move It, Maybe Tomorrow, Shakin' All Over, Telstar: that would have been sufficient.

Happily, the artists who made those records - and many, many more - will feature in the exhibition of Harry Hammond's photographs, Halfway to Paradise, which finally reaches the V&A in London this October, after touring the country for two years. And it will be accompanied by a reissue of the book of the same name.

Just thought I should take the opportunity to plug one of my own books.

*Just by way of comparison: Liverpool paid £35 million for Andy Carroll and are currently trying to off-load him for £20 million, after just 56 appearances for the club. Assuming they get that figure (which they probably won't), and assuming that half those appearances were at the 45,000-capacity Anfield, that works out at £11 a head. (There is another way of evaluating his contribution: since Carroll's job is to score goals, and he's scored eleven times for the club, perhaps one should see the return as being somewhere around £1.3 million per goal.)

Friday, 27 July 2012

Apostrophe's

It's obviously not worth getting too upset by the misuse of apostrophes in modern society, but even so I feel that this example is too good to pass by without note:



It comes, splendidly enough, from an article by Peter Hitchens (who, I suspect, rather cares about such things), published in the Daily Mail's Right Minds pages, which are edited by Simon Heffer (who very definitely cares).

Sunday, 22 July 2012

An Absolute Disgrace

All day the news bulletins on BBC Radio Five Live have been reporting the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, as saying that the proposed strike by border staff at Heathrow scheduled for next Thursday is 'an absolute disgrace'. Well, he did say that, but a little context might help.

The comment came from an interview conducted by Garry Richardson on the Sportsweek programme this morning. Richardson seemed to lose sight of the fact that he's supposed to be an unbiased, impartial reporter working for the unbiased, impartial BBC. But this was serious stuff. Someone was failing to be swept up in the BBC-sponsored Olympic fervour, and Richardson was having none of it.

'They're a disgrace, aren't they?' he demanded of Hunt, and Hunt duly accepted the words being put in his mouth, albeit with a significant change in pronoun: 'It's an absolute disgrace.'

Richardson wasn't finished. 'A quick thought for you,' he offered. 'Why not just let those people go on strike, and when they want to come back after they've done all their disruption, say: Sorry, your job's not there anymore. Sack 'em.'

Hunt tried to explain that he was keen not to escalate the conflict with such talk, but Richardson was even more keen that it should be escalated: 'The real militant ones, you'd love to see them sacked,'  he urged.

There have been some very dodgy political repercussions to having the Olympics in London, but I never expected a situation in which a Conservative minister is obliged to try to calm down a BBC reporter demanding that workers be sacked for engaging in a legal strike action.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Spice of Life


I’ve written before about political diaries – one of my favourite forms of literature – and I’ve just been reading another example of the genre in the form of Michael Spicer’s The Spicer Diaries, published earlier this year by Biteback Publishing.

First, a word about Biteback itself. It’s terrific. Back in the good days of Politico’s Publishing, when it was still run by Iain Dale, you could be sure of getting hold of political memoirs and studies of current affairs that no one else wanted to touch, because sales were never likely to be sufficient to pique the interest of a major publisher.

This was particularly the case with books about the Tories at a time when the Conservative Party was at its lowest ebb. Politico’s published biographies of Ann Widdecombe and William Hague (by Nicholas Kochan and Jo-Anne Nadler respectively), reflections on the nature of office by Gillian Shephard, and Simon Walters’s magnificent account of the Hague years, Tory Wars. None of these were huge hits, but they made a major contribution to the historical record, for which I – amongst many others – am extremely grateful.

Biteback is a continuation of Politico’s by other means. Again run by Iain Dale, it’s again putting out books that other publishers would turn down without a second thought. Including this one.

Michael Spicer was one of the key figures in the failed Tory rebellion against the Maastricht Treaty in the early-1990s and a leading backbench Eurosceptic. He wasn’t as well known to the public as some of his noisier colleagues, say Bill Cash and Teresa Gorman, but as he explained: ‘If you want to be effective, don’t go for recognition.’

The Diaries are, to be honest, more useful than they are interesting. Spicer doesn’t have the eye for gossip and human detail that makes for a genuinely great diarist. Instead we get over six hundred pages chronicling an endless round of meetings and telephone calls, many of them concerned with episodes and issues that barely touched the public consciousness at the time. A few years on, it’s hard to care a great deal about a letter that the MP Christopher Gill wrote (but didn’t send) to the Daily Telegraph concerning fishing policy; but it still warrants a page of its own, dutifully recording discussions on the question with Michael Howard, John Redwood, Eric Forth and John Townend.

As I was reading it, I was constantly reminded of Woodrow Wyatt’s diaries and for a while I couldn’t quite work out why. After all, Wyatt – despite the irritating snobbishness and the tedious stuff about wine and horse-racing – was at heart a social-climbing gossip. But then it twigged. With the exception (in both cases) of Margaret Thatcher, none of the key collaborators or interlocutors are women. The likes of Teresa Gorman, Ann Widdecombe, Edwina Currie and Theresa May wander past occasionally, but they really don’t interest Spicer at all.

Instead, this is an almost exclusively male vision of high politics, as practised in the back-corridors of power, in gentlemen’s clubs and at private dinners.

It’s also striking that there is hardly any mention of Spicer’s electorate, just the occasional reference to local party officials in his Worcestershire constituency. There's not much about the media, either, since Spicer was seldom to be seen or heard on television or radio, and hardly a glimmer of humour anywhere to be found. Consequently, it feels like a terribly old-fashioned account of a political life.

So it’s not really a book for the general reader. But then that’s the point of Biteback. When historians look back at the Maastricht debate and its fallout, they’ll be grateful that The Spicer Diaries exist.

Monday, 16 July 2012

What I Shouldn't Have Said in Cardiff


I was in Cardiff at the weekend as the guest of Llafur, the Society for Welsh People's History, at the invitation of Dr Martin Johnes from Swansea University.

Martin was giving a talk on changes in Wales in the post-War years (he recently published a book on the subject, Wales Since 1939), which was superb. Some of the developments he was talking about - the growth of material comfort accompanied by a rise in spiritual insecurity - are applicable to Britain as a whole, but other parts are specific to Wales: particularly the transformation of the physical landscape in the wake of the Aberfan disaster.

He was followed by Rhodri Morgan, former First Minister, whose personal reflections on Wales during that priod were fascinating. I've never heard him speak at length before, but he's hugely entertaining and funny and insightful. I was especially taken with parallels he drew between the mood of the 1940s (a determination never to return to the Hungry Thirties) and the creation of the Welsh Assembly half-a-century later, with a feeling that it could provide 'insurance against the return of Margaret Thatcher, against the return of John Redwood'.

And then I did my bit, a talk entitled The Gramophone Is in the Home, rambling through some stories about the early days of cinema, radio, record-players and television in Britain more generally. Which was okay, except that my laptop cut out halfway through and had to be rebooted, and except that I still haven't quite got the hang of speaking in public and misjudged the length of my talk.

This meant that I didn't have time to develop what was supposed to be my conclusion. That running right through all the developments in entertainment technology in the last century has been a struggle between an elite establishment, in thrall to a refined Western European concept of culture, and a mass of the people who would actually prefer to make common cause with American popular culture. And that the Left has - wrongly - sided with the elite on every occasion.

It's wrong, firstly, because if you seek to represent the people, you shouldn't be quite so keen to express contempt at their cultural expression. And secondly, because it means you're always on the losing side: despite Maynard Keynes's concept and creation of the Arts Council, the general public still preferred Hollywood to opera and ballet. There are a lot of people who would rather visit EuroDisney in Paris than spend a week in Provence, and I think it's worth acknowledging and trying to understand that, instead of just railing against American cultural imperialism.

It seems to me that, at a time when the internet is making the issue of participatory culture so significant, we should have moved on beyond simple denunciations of popular taste. As Luke Haines pointed out recently in the context of modern art, the relevant question isn't 'But is it art?' Rather, it should be, 'But is it good art or bad art?'

I'm reminded of a friend who was told in the early-1980s by a member of Militant that there was no objective difference between Dallas and the Sex Pistols. That sort of thinking fails to win converts to the cause.

However, I ran out of time, garbled a few random words and made a bit of a mess of coherent thought. On reflection, I would have better off stopping before that point. Instead of leaving much of the audience to conclude that I was attacking the BBC (I was kind of taking it as read that we all broadly approved of the Corporation).

On the other hand, there were a number of contributions from people that centred on how appalling is the fare that's being foisted on the public: all cookery shows and reality television. People don't choose this; it's all made solely in pursuit of profit. Which did sort of illustrate my point. These are the same condemnations that were made of Hollywood in the 1930s, American comics in the 1940s and rock and roll in the 1950s.

So, anyway, I was a bit annoyed with myself for lacking the craft and professionalism of Martin Johnes and Rhodri Morgan. It's all still new to me, and being on stage facing an audience isn't my natural habitat. But I'm starting to feel a bit more comfortable with the idea.

I also ought to thank Christine Chapman, the Assembly Member who hosted the event, and the good people of Llafur, who were wonderfully welcoming and kind. I really enjoyed it all, despite cocking up the ending.

Monday, 9 July 2012

What I Should Have Said on Panorama

My thanks to Adam Shaw and Mark Alden for being so kind to me in the filming and editing of the interview I did for this evening's Panorama. I liked the programme, and it made think further...

Much of what I write is the story of modern British politics, as filtered through popular culture. And the justification for this approach is that I think the changing mood of the nation can be detected through its sitcoms and soaps, pop music and pornography.

I claim to be a historian, rather than a commentator on the present, since my knowledge of contemporary culture really isn't extensive enough. And I'd add that the one thing that can be learnt from history is never to make predictions. But, for the purposes of this blog, let's ignore those two caveats...

It feels to me that the last fifteen to twenty years have seen a fairly major shift in popular culture away from elitism and towards a celebration of the everyday. On television, for example, you can see the trend start with the toe-in-the-water docusoaps of Airport, The Cruise and Driving School, before moving into full-blown reality TV with Big Brother and its derivatives, and on to The Only Way Is Essex.

You can see it in music, with the notion of stardom being replaced by overblown karaoke contests on mainstream TV. You can see it in the British response to American porn. You can see it in the making of Jade Goody into an ersatz star.

And, most of all, you can see it in the rise of the internet, particularly those parts that look like a local radio phone-in writ large.

Running parallel to the democratisation of culture, however, has been the rise of a super-rich elite. Wealth inequality is back to levels not seen since the 1920s, and is widening on a daily basis.

There's an inherent tension between these two forces, which was okay during the long period of growth from 1992 to 2008. But now, with the economy likely to stagnate for years to come, I'm not sure that the current arrangement is sustainable anymore. Self-evidently we are not all in this together.

Politicians, from Tony Blair onwards, have sought to keep up with these developments. But they fall between the two stools, and all they've done is persuade ever increasing numbers to turn away from Westminster politics altogether. They try to use the imagery of mass culture, but fail because they simply don't belong to the same world (the picture of Ed Miliband in Gregg's is hard to forget). In any event, they are inevitably attracted more towards the super-elite.

And there's a problem here. Through the twentieth century, the parliamentary system continued its pretence of being representative, even though it was originally constructed with a far smaller electorate in mind, and with the intention of keeping the power of the monarchy in check. The democractic deficit was made up by the media, which held politicians to account in the name of the people.

Now, politics and the conventional media have effectively merged to form a single class. And it is fast losing its claim to democratic legitimacy.

Where we go from here is a mystery to me. History takes odd, unexpected turns. I don't think it was obvious in the 1970s that the crisis of confidence in politics would have resulted in the oldest and most successful party in the country being hijacked by the entirely alien forces of Thatcherism.

Where we should be now is in a different political landscape altogether.

When Paddy Ashdown was in talks with Tony Blair in the 1990s, he argued for a realignment of parties. What we needed, he thought, was a Eurosceptic Conservative Party, a centre party that included Blair, Kenneth Clarke and Ashdown himself, and a Labour Party that retained its union links. But it didn't happen and instead we have three parties chasing the same, dwindling band of swing voters. And increasing numbers of people feeling disenfranchised.

I don't believe this can continue. New political forces will emerge, whether within the existing parties or outside of them.

As I said, predictions are futile. But it feels to me that there is a parallel with the 1970s, and that things are about to change quite radically.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Bankers

This seems an appropriate time to celebrate the artwork of Josh Cedar, who does a nice line in portraits of bankers:

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Ring of No-Confidence



I'm delighted to find this photograph on the blog Viv's View. The ring was bought at Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok and is as fine a piece of jewellery as I've ever seen.

ZZ Top


With the European Championship being not terribly inspiring this time round, I've given up watching and instead taken to celebrating the 40th birthday this week of my favourite foreign player by watching old footage of the very beautiful Zinedine Zidane.

Above is a photo I took in Marseilles a decade or so back, when the great man was in his pomp. And these are some of the reasons why European football's not as good without him:


Thursday, 21 June 2012

John Gouriet

I worry sometimes that I don't really keep up with current events. I spend so much time trying to think myself back into the period I'm writing about - the 1990s, at the moment - that things come and go without my ever noticing them.

Even so, it's pushing it even by my standards that it's taken until this evening for me to notice the sad passing of John Gouriet nearly two years ago.

I interviewed Mr Gouriet when I was researching my book about the 1970s, Crisis? What Crisis?, because he was the last surviving of the four founder members of the Freedom Association. We got on rather well, once I told him that my father had been the bandmaster of the 15th/19th King's Royal Hussars back in the days when Mr Gouriet was an officer in the regiment.

He was honest, courteous and completely bonkers. Undoubtedly the most right-wing man I've ever met, he explained with absolute certainty that not only was Edward Heath an enthusiastic cottager, but that he was also a KGB sleeper agent.

I'm fairly sure they don't make them like that any more.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Don't Cook, Don't Cook

There's an advert running on the radio at the moment by the Fire Brigade, warning us about the danger of housefires that start in the kitchen. It's hinged around the European Football Championship and suggests that after we've come back from the pub, watching the match, the last thing we should do is try to cook. 'Show your kitchen the red card,' it urges, 'and score a goal with a takeaway instead.'

I'm sure that these 'campaigns' make no difference whatsoever. I still cherish the adverts last year telling us that stepping in front of an oncoming train at a level crossing probably isn't a wise move.

(Why is public money still being wasted on this nonsense? I seem to recall the current government promising that this stuff was being cut back after the Blairite Golden Age for advertisers.)

But assuming that we do need to be patronised, isn't there enough of a problem with the nation's inability to cook already, without the Fire Brigade joining in? The government's always keen to tell us that we have an obesity crisis on our hands. Which doesn't sit particularly well with state-funded propaganda encouraging us to augment our lager intake with fast food.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Going South


Back in 2001 a German diplomat named Tilman Hanckel upset some of the British media with an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, in which he noted: ‘I only came to London in July and in a way it is my first Third World posting.'

It was meant as a joke, though that got lost on British journalists who’ve never got the hang of the German sense of humour. But Hanckel’s comments were made more than a decade ago, and since then the UK has been continuing its long-term decline, to such an extent that we are now on the brink of his words becoming reality.

Just how close we are to this fate is the subject of Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014, the new book by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, published today.

Elliott and Atkinson have been issuing warnings of catastrophe ever since their off-message classic The Age of Insecurity (1998) in the early days of the New Labour government. Most famously, their book Fantasy Island (2007) took the opportunity of Tony Blair’s departure from office to point out that the financial boom which we’d been enjoying for a decade-and-a-half was built on the quicksand of debt and was entirely unsustainable.

Now, however, they’ve revised that position a little. ‘Fantasy Island was wrong,’ they admit: ‘it was not nearly gloomy enough.’

Not to worry, however, because this latest instalment really is gloomy.

Elliott and Atkinson have always been unconvinced by the optimistic froth spouting from the lips of whichever plausible young men are currently in the ascendancy in Westminster, insisting that the underlying economic tides have been turning against Britain for decades.

Unfashionably, they still pay attention to those things that used to worry us, but which now seldom make the news, as politicians attempt to persuade us that everything will turn out alright – things like the balance of payments deficit, for example, or the level of personal debt.

Their analysis of where we are now doesn’t offer much hope for the future: ‘Britain is in deep trouble and ready to blow,’ they conclude.

There’s a little comfort to be derived from their belief that ‘a total breakdown of organized society, along the lines of the 1970s television dramas Survivors and Quatermass, is not on the cards’. But that’s immediately followed by warnings of ‘brownouts and blackouts with regard to the electricity supply, water shortages, interruptions to gas supplies and breaks in the coverage of fixed-line and mobile telephone services’.

I should point out that this makes it sound like a depressing book. And indeed it is. But it’s also a terrifically entertaining read, romping through a century of fantasy and folly to show that politicians and experts, as well as self-interested institutions like the CBI and Bank of England, have been in pursuit of a mirage for the whole of living memory.

Nothing much has changed, and certainly nothing has changed for the better. ‘We have now finished the story of Bleak House and are sitting down this afternoon to enjoy the first chapter of Great Expectations.’ That was Neville Chamberlain, as chancellor of the exchequer, in 1934, but – with cultural references suitably adjusted for less elevated times (something about how Britain's Got Talent, probably) – it might as well be George Osborne today.

Despite the excellent diversions into history, most of the book is centred on the present and on the immediate future. And for those of us who aren’t as economically literate as the authors, there’s real pleasure to be derived from having the financial and industrial state of the nation being laid out in such clear, readable prose.

It confirms pretty much what we’ve all suspected: that we’ve been living in a state of self-delusion for a very long time. Even the much-vaunted City of London, one of the few ‘success’ stories of modern Britain, suffers from ‘the so-called Wimbledon effect, in which London hosts the world’s best but lacks domestic champions of its own’.

It’s wonderful stuff, and an essential corrective to a culture in which ‘the fantasy lives on that the United Kingdom is just a couple of policy reforms and a slice of luck away from a seat at the top table’.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Lee Enfield: Song for Bill Haley

So this is a video that I made with my friend Paul Thomas of a track titled Song for Bill Haley. We're recording under the name Lee Enfield:

Jubilations

So what about this Jubilee business? asks Tyrone Jenkins in a comment on an earlier blog posting.

I remember the silver jubilee of 1977 as being a very odd week. I'd bought God Save the Queen, of course, though to be honest - while I liked the words - I didn't think the song itself was a patch on Anarchy in the UK, and wasn't as good as the b-side, Did You No Wrong.

And the best lyrics weren't those about the Queen, anyway, but the wider stuff: 'Where there's no future, how can there be sin?' There's a phenomenal line to put in a best-selling pop single. He was a fine lyricist, that Johnny Rotten, as well having one of the great rock and roll voices.

So that was mostly my soundtrack to jubilee week. But it wasn't the only thing I was listening to. Because that week my dad was conducting the massed bands of the Prince of Wales's Division in a Beating Retreat gig on Horseguards Parade. So I went to that, the same evening that Prince Charles went (he presented my dad with a Jubilee Medal), and very good it was too. Ended with an excellent arrangement of the Evening Hymn and Last Post.

A week of split personality, then. Though, looking back, what punk and a military band spectacular had in common was that my hair didn't fit in with either: too long for punk, and very definitely too long for the Army.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Skintology

For those who were listening to the more experimental end of the British post-punk in the early-1980s, the name of 23 Skidoo looms large. Their debut album, Seven Songs, was recently reissued and is 'more essential than ever', according to Ian Harrison in Mojo.

The drummer in Skidoo was Fritz Catlin, and his most recent project is the very excellent Skintologists and I like them very much. Think: 1970s dub, funk, jazz, Can, that sort of thing.

Here's a preview of their album Dubble Trubble, and here's a track from that album:

Saturday, 26 May 2012

The best of British?

I have no faith in the United Kingdom winning the Eurovision Song Contest this evening, but at least it's an excuse to remind myself of my favourite photo of Engelbert Humperdinck, wearing a suit of two halves:


The photo is by Harry Goodwin and comes from the book My Generation: The Glory Years of British Rock, published by the V&A.

Friday, 18 May 2012

A hundred days later...

Today is the hundredth day since I started to write my book on the 1990s, the sequel to Crisis? What Crisis? and Rejoice! Rejoice!. And it currently stands at just over 105,000 words, which means that I'm five days ahead of schedule, since I aim to average a thousand words a day.

And that's good news, because back on day 25, I was four days behind schedule, with a daily average of just 852 words.

I'm not entirely sure it's healthy that I should know such things. But I keep an Excel spreadsheet, into which I enter the wordcount every day, and which then calculates daily and weekly averages. A touch Aspergian perhaps, but it does entertain me when I get to the end of a long night's writing, so I shall continue.

Obviously I don't want to spoil the ending for any potential readers, but I have to say that John Major's grip on power is looking very insecure at the moment.

Monday, 14 May 2012

As a matter of fact, he's back

I've written about Gary Glitter on this blog before. He was a terrific rock and roll star, responsible for some of the best singles of the 1970s. Not solely responsible, of course, since he had the brilliance of producer Mike Leander and the fine support of the Glitter Band to assist him. But it was his concept and we shouldn't lose sight of just how good he was.

It's difficult, though, because there's effectively been a ban on his music for years now, ever since the jail sentence for possessing paedophile pornography.

So, all credit to the BBC for finally lifting the corner of that ban with its broadcast of a 1977 edition of Top of the Pops. Not the most obvious place to start with Gary's work, but I always rated that single, It Takes All Night Long - one of his sleazier recordings from one of the early comebacks:


There's been a lot of criticism, of course, but for once the BBC have got it right on this issue: 'It would be inappropriate for the BBC to rewrite history, so the programme was shown in its entirety.' Quite right, too. That should have been the position for the last decade and more.

The best comment I ever read on the subject came from Craig Brown in the Daily Telegraph back in November 2005:

'Around the time that Gary Glitter was riding so high, Bernard Levin was busy writing articles in The Times about Wagner. As far as I can remember, he would argue that it was perfectly possible and legitimate to deplore the thoughts and actions of the artist while continuing to rejoice in his art. The same must surely be true of the equally rumbustious sounds of Gary Glitter.'