Thursday, 7 November 2013

The shadow lengthens...

Just appeared on the internet is my review for BBC History magazine of the first volume of  Charles Moore's biography of Margaret Thatcher. It has its virtues, but I'd recommend Jonathan Aitkens in preference.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The long shadow of Margaret Thatcher

I had the great pleasure on Sunday of appearing with Beatrix Campbell and Richard Weight at the Southbank Centre, talking about the impact and legacy of Thatcherism.

Coincidentally, the previous day my review of Jonathan Aitken's new book on Margaret Thatcher appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

My thanks to Steve Thomas of the Southbank, and to Sameer Rahim of the Daily Telegraph.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Dylan and the Daleks

I had a splendid time in Swansea today, speaking about Terry Nation and the Daleks at the Dylan Thomas Festival's special Doctor Who day. Many thanks to Leslie McMurty for making it such fun, and to Matthew Kilburn, who was wonderful.

In the event that Tyrone is reading this: grand to see you - please email me sometime via my website.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Buffoon of the Week

Richard Dawkins in this week's New Statesman: 'I read novels for entertainment rather than for edification. I never quite understood why you would read fiction to understand the human condition.'

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Illtyd Harrington on A Classless Society

I've never met Illtyd Harrington, but I've been an admirer of his for years, both for his time in London politics and for his writing in my local newspaper, the Camden New Journal. And there he is this week, reviewing A Classless Society:

'I was captivated, almost smothered by the incessant flow of facts, opinion and conclusion. Turner, as he proved in the other two books, can sew events together seamlessly ... This is a wonderful panorama of the 1990s, as fluid as a mountain stream with encyclopaedic ripples, a strict adherence to the facts, and all 600 pages as readable as a letter from your mother.'

My many thanks to Mr Harrington for his generous words.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Pointless Politicians

An edition of the TV game show Pointless this week had a round based on 100 people naming as many politicians as they could remember who had served in the Labour cabinets of either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. That is, any cabinet member between 1997 and 2010.

The game, of course, is for contestants to find someone who wasn't named by anyone, so I came up with Ivor Richard, thinking he was suitably obscure. But I needed have aimed so low. It's not a scientifically selected sample, but even so the results suggest just how completely uninterested in politics the public are.

Top of the list was John Prescott, named by just 15 out of the 100 people. Then came:

Ed Miliband - 13 out of 100
Ed Balls - 13 out of 100
David Miliband - 12 out of 100
Jack Straw - 7 out of 100
Alistair Darling - 7 out of 100
Peter Mandelson - 4 out of 100
David Blunkett - 4 out of 100
Clare Short - 2 out of 100
Mo Mowlam - 1 out of 100
Margaret Beckett - 1 out of 100

We never found out whether my nominee, Ivor Richard, made it into the pointless category, because there were simply too many names to go through. But amongst those who rated not a single mention were: Andrew Adonis, Andy Burnham, Jack Cunningham, Charlie Falconer, Patricia Hewitt, Derry Irvine, Donald Dewar, Frank Dobson, Geoff Hoon, Margaret Jay, Alan Milburn and James Purnell.

I believe this is what's known as a reality check. Alternatively, all those politicians, so convinced that they're very important people indeed, might think of it as being - in Rupert Murdoch's phrase - the most humble day of their lives. Thirteen years in power, and hardly anyone cares or remembers who any of you were.

I'm reminded of an exchange in Pamela Hansford Johnson's great novel An Error of Judgement, way back in 1962.

'Could it really be that I am the only person in the world bored stiff, bored pallid, by politics?' a character asks, and is immediately put straight by another: 'No, we all are, those of us who aren't politicians. That's why we're the prey of the silly men, the posturing men. They don't get bored, not ever. We are the victims of their professional excitement.'

Friday, 11 October 2013

Yesterday's Papers

Nice to see the Hereford Journal come out against the rise of knife-crime. The paper laments 'the sad change which has taken place in England recently in the moral feeling and courage of the people, who now so commonly use the knife instead of the fist.' This was in 1839, of course.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Dandies in the Underworld

Round about twenty years ago, I began work on a book about the glam rock era. It didn't happen. I've tried on several occasions since, and it's never happened.

Until this week, when the V&A published my book Glam Rock: Dandies in the Underworld.

And I'm glad I waited. Because no one would have done it as well as the V&A. I'm indebted to Mark Eastment, Frances Ambler, Geoffrey Marsh and everyone. It looks wonderful.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Edwina Curie writes...

Edwina Currie's endorsement of A Classless Society:

'Tremendous! His judgements on Blair and Major are brilliant. The conclusion, on the gap between the meritocratic instinct of both compared with the anti-establishment tone of the decade is masterly. The book deserves to become a classic.'

My thanks to Edwina for her kind words. And my thanks too to Choice magazine, for a review of A Classless Society together with the paperback reissues of Crisis? What Crisis? and Rejoice! Rejoice!: 'taken as a whole, this trilogy is about the most authoritative account of the late 20th century you are likely to get.'

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Quote for the Week

'It is a fact that the Labour leaders are, in practice, opposed to Left policies, even now, when they are in opposition, and will be even more opposed if and when they find themselves in government, and subject to the immense pressures which office generates.'
- Ralph Miliband, 1985

Yet Another Conference Season

That's it, then. The three main parties have done their conferring. And are we any further on?

Well, the Liberal Democrats came and went pretty much without anyone noticing. Which is probably as much as they can hope for at this stage. I still think they're going to do better in the next election than many are currently predicting, but that's not going to be achieved by conferences; it'll be because of the work they put into the constituencies where they're strong.

The Labour conference was dominated entirely by Ed Miliband. His speech managed to avoid mentioning his shadow cabinet colleagues, pretty much avoided the Labour Party entirely, and had nothing to say about a number of issues that some people consider quite important: immigration, for example, and education, and crime...

But he was busy selling himself and he made a decent fist of it. He doesn't look like a prime minister in waiting, doesn't even look much like a convincing leader of the opposition, but he did enough to keep himself in the job. And he saw the Labour Party enjoy a little rise in the polls.

And that's more than David Cameron is going to have achieved with his speech today. He wasn't exactly inspiring, though he did tick all the boxes Miliband ignored: he celebrated his team (George Osborne, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, William Hague, Boris Johnson all got mentioned) and covered a wide range of policy areas. He also tried to revive his old 'let sunshine win the day' persona. Despite which, he was clunky and unimpressive.

None of this is going to be remembered by the electorate in a month's time, let alone in eighteen months as we head into the election campaign. But it feels to me like Cameron still has the better narrative: Labour screwed up the economy, we're not done fixing it yet, give us the chance to finish the job. Miliband's account - it's only the rich who are benefitting - is strong, but I'm not convinced it's enough.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all the dullness, the most entertaining story by a considerable margin has been the spat between Miliband and the Daily Mail. And I've been enjoying that enormously. It's trivial nonsense, of course, but it's fun. So much so that, for the first time in years, I actually watched Alastair Campbell on television; normally I find myself switching off whenever he makes an appearance.

Just to be clear: both sides are in the wrong. Having made repeated reference to his father, Miliband has no real right to complain when his opponents decide to make the man an issue. And the Daily Mail's interpretation of Ralph Miliband displayed little insight into the subtleties of Marxist thought. Nor did they turn up anything worth reading: a teenage diary-entry and an attack on public schools and Pall Mall clubs isn't exactly conclusive evidence.

What's revealing is where this story is playing big. The Guardian led on it today, while the BBC took it very seriously, all the way down to Radio Five Live having an hour-long phone-in on the subject this morning. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph and The Times didn't seem much interested. Which would seem to suggest that everyone realizes that Miliband is likely to be the winner here. There's nothing to be lost from attacking the Mail.

Because the Daily Mail long since overtook the Sun as the favoured target for the left (in the widest sense of that term). And mostly what this conference season has been about is both Labour and Tories trying to shore up their core constituencies: the half-hearted price controls of Miliband, the home-ownership and married couples tax-allowance of Cameron.

At the last election, nearly sixteen million people who were registered to vote decided not to bother. Neither party seems very sanguine about winning over any of those people. Instead they're keen to keep their own supporters on board, calculating that it'll be enough. And maybe it will. After all, in 2005 Tony Blair won an election with the endorsement of barely one-in-five of the electorate.

Monday, 30 September 2013

The Bridget Jones Test

With the imminent arrival of a new Bridget Jones novel, some of the papers have been dusting off the old David Willetts comment about how the Tories needed to pass the Bridget Jones test to prove that they'd decontaminated the brand.

Which seems like an ideal opportunity to mention a piece I wrote last week for the Waterstones blog about how deeply loathed the Tories were in the 1990s world depicted by Helen Fielding and Nick Hornby.

There was a time, when David Cameron was still leader of the opposition, when he could probably have won Bridget over. Now, I doubt it somehow. We seem a long way from the days of hug-a-husky.

There's also a piece by me that I don't think I've mentioned before in the Yorkshire Post, intended to mark the 21st anniversary of Black Wednesday.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The return of Gillian Freeman

Valancourt Books are a very fine American publishing house who specialise in reprinting classic and lost novels. Rather wonderfully, they've acquired the rights to republish three novels by the great Gillian Freeman and - even better - have invited me to write an introduction to one of them.

I first read The Leader back in the 1970s - a decade or so after it was written - and I've loved it ever since. I also try to promote it whenever I can, so it turns up on my Trash Fiction site, gets mentioned in a couple of my books and frequently appears in lectures. So I'm thrilled to be asked to write a few words to accompany Ms Freeman's work. My thanks to James D. Jenkins for the invitation.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Harry Goodwin

I have to record the news that Harry Goodwin has died.

Harry was the resident photographer on Top of the Pops for the first decade of that programme, from 1964 to 1973. Since his job was to shoot everyone who appeared on the show, and since that meant virtually everyone in British and American pop music (with the exception of Elvis), he ended up with a portfolio that was probably unique in its breadth, covering everyone from the Beatles to Bowie, Jimi Hendrix to the Jackson Five.

I worked with Harry on My Generation, a book of his photos published to accompany an exhibition of his work at the V&A. The main problem we had was his reluctance to let me use some of his better stories about Top of the Pops - he could be infuriatingly discreet. In due course, the tales will no doubt emerge.

Technically, he was - to be honest - not a great photographer, but his irrepressible enthusiasm did ensure that most of his subjects were put at ease, and the results were often really rather charming. So in memory of the late Harry Goodwin, here's one of my favourite photos of his, Brian Jones looking anything but a tragic figure. As Harry would have said, 'It's a Rembrandt.'

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Dan Atkinson

One of the best accounts of how we ended up with Tony Blair - rather than, say, a Labour prime minister - was The Age of Insecurity, the first book by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, published back in 1998, but still a rewarding read. To put it another way: I've re-read it as part of the preparation for each of the three books I've written on the story of modern Britain. And then I read it again for the module I'm teaching at Chichester University

Like I say, it's still a rewarding read.

So obviously I'm pleased that Dan has written a review for Lobster magazine of my most recent book, A Classless Society. Well, not simply a review, more like a rather splendid essay on the 1990s. Happily for me, he likes the book, but adds some typically good stuff of his own, including a fabulous comment from Douglas Jay on John Major: 'The Conservatives have found their Attlee.' I wish I'd known that quote when writing.

My thanks to Dan for his kind words and for continuing to be a source of inspiration.

I should also note that his always excellent blog has moved address and can now be found here.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Compare and contrast

'No return to boom and bust.' - Kenneth Clarke, Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, 1995.

'The real complacency is promising to end boom and bust.' - David Cameron, Conservative prime minister, 2013.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Irvine Welsh and others

Of all the programmes taking a lightly satirical look at the week's news, the one I always had a fondness for was The Treatment on Radio Five Live, presented by Stuart Maconie in the late-1990s. I liked it enough that I went to a recording to celebrate my birthday one year. So I was a little saddened when Maconie gave my book, A Classless Society, a less-than-enthusiastic review in the New Statesman.

Ah well, you can't win 'em all over. And he does write: 'it is readable and accessible to a degree that may make the sniffier critics suspicious ... It is an entertaining read.'

The same day that was published came a four-star review by Anthony Cummins in Metro: 'His many-tentacled frame of reference is staggering ... Scarcely a paragraph goes by without a killer detail or illuminating anecdote ... The value of this book lies, above all, in the extraordinary amount of material it synthesises. It's easy to see it becoming still more essential as time goes on.'

And then today comes an unsigned review in The Economist: 'the relationship between politics and popular culture [is] meticulously and magnificently described.'

All of which builds rather splendidly to the review that will appear in tomorrow's Daily Telegraph and already available online, in which the great Irvine Welsh gives his view:

'Turner writes brilliantly, creating a compelling narrative of the decade, weaving contrasting elements together with a natural storyteller's aplomb ... In A Classless Society, Turner has produced an amazing work. However, I confess that I'm not looking forward to any book about the 2000s in Britain. I'm at a loss to fathom how any work dedicated to our history in that decade could possibly be as engaging and unique.'

That's just wonderful. I'm extremely grateful to Mr Welsh and to whoever at the Telegraph had the inspired idea of asking him to review the book.

So the current score amongst critics is 10-2: Craig Brown, Anthony Cummins, Matthew Engel, Roger Lewis, Andrew Neather, Richard Ryder, Dominic Sandbrook, David Stenhouse, Irvine Welsh and The Economist in favour; David Aaronovitch and Stuart Maconie against. I think that's a points victory at least.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

'Twas the night before publication

Tomorrow is the official publication date for A Classless Society. In fact, of course, it's been available for a couple of weeks now, rushed forward in response to the first reviews.

A couple of those reviews have said that I take too parochial a view, that I'm overly focussed on Britain. Which is certainly true, but then the subtitle of the book is Britain in the 1990s, which kind of gives the game away. There is a chapter on foreign policy and one on Europe (a theme which runs through much of the rest as well), but the emphasis is very definitely on the home front. That's what interests me.

And, in the 1990s, it was what interested the public as well. 'The TV programmes, the music, the films he discusses are all British,' complained David Aaronovitch in The Times; 'the popular culture the British people actually consumed wasn't.'

But Aaronovitch is wrong. The biggest groups of the decade (in Britain) were Take That and the Spice Girls, Blur, Oasis and Radiohead. The most watched TV shows remained EastEnders and Coronation Street, alongside The Darling Buds of May and One Foot in the Grave. Even the British film industry came up with Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Full Monty and Trainspotting, all of which did remarkably good business at the box-office. Of course they didn't eclipse the takings of Titanic, but even I would struggle to find anything to say about Titanic, except that it confirms what we've always known - that people like a massive disaster movie, particularly if it's got a romantic subject.

The point of cultural history is not simply to list what was big and successful; that's what reference books are for. It's to understand how popular culture reflects and shapes society. That means that a premium is bound to be placed on home-grown products, unless they seem to represent a wider trend: Dallas and Dynasty, say, or the films of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the 1980s.

One other complaint that has surfaced is the lack of space accorded to the internet. There might be some truth in this, but I think it's worth remembering that I end my account in the middle of 2001. The internet was then by no means universal, and most of those British homes that were connected to what some were still calling the information superhighway relied on dial-up modems.

This was before the launch, for example, of MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006). Most of those off-line companies that had an internet presence had little or no idea what to do with their sites - they just felt they ought to have them. It was clear that the internet was going to change things, possibly in a way not seen since the invention of printing, but it was far from obvious how this would manifest itself. Indeed, I think it's still far too early to say.

So I mention the internet as a looming presence on the horizon, but since my (self-appointed) brief is to document how things seemed at the time, it's not much more than that.

The one place where the internet was a really serious issue was in the world of the news media, which were both enthusiastic about the new medium and fearful of what it might bring. I wonder whether those reviewers who identify my lack of coverage have a slightly distorted perception of its scale in 1990s Britain because they were working in an industry that was so closely affected.

Whilst writing about the reviews thus far, I ought to thank a couple of reviewers who have contacted me personally. Richard Ryder very courteously wrote to explain that his review had been subbed and his good words about the book had been lost. Matthew Engel wrote to point out some errors that had crept in. I'd wrongly referred to Alan Clark's wife as Anne rather than Jane, and talked about Lord Salisbury in 1812 instead of Lord Liverpool (well, you've seen one cathedral city...) - these will be changed in subsequent editions.

But mostly I want to thank all those who have been kind enough to read the book and review it. It's had more widespread coverage than I've ever received before, and for that I am deeply indebted to Jessica Axe at Aurum, who has been absolutely splendid and tireless.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Craig Brown on A Classless Society

Craig Brown is the best humourist in the country. He inherited the title twelve years ago, on the death of Auberon Waugh. Indeed Waugh himself called Brown a genius:

That cover illustrates part of why I rate him: having written some of the most acute satires of the time, he packages it like a Top of the Pops album from the 1970s. That's just magnificent, drawing inspiration equally from high politics and low culture. And, as I've written here before, he was one of the few to comment intelligently about Gary Glitter, back in the days when Glitter was the great tabloid hate-figure.

I've loved Brown's writing for so long that I was deeply apprehensive when I heard he was reviewing my book A Classless Society for the Mail on Sunday. With all due respect (as footballers say, but in this instance meant sincerely) to anyone else who might read the book, it was his good opinion that I really wanted.

And, happily, here's his review: 'the field of instant history now attracts some of this country's liveliest and most intelligent writers [and] Alwyn W Turner ranks high among them: ravenously inquisitive, darkly comical and coolly undeceived.' He says more nice things as well, and he gives the book five stars.

Five stars from the man who created the TV parody Norman Ormal, one of the definitive works of the 1990s! I'm overjoyed. I'm very grateful to Mr Brown and to the Mail on Sunday.

Nice too that they mentioned my forthcoming appearance at the Henley Literary Festival.

I'd also like to thank Matthew Engel and the Financial Times for his review of the book: 'very readable and enjoyable ... Reading A Classless Society is like a safari through vaguely familiar country, illuminated by a shrewd, fair-minded guide with an elephantine memory.'

I like that. Particularly the 'elephantine' bit.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Andrew Neather on A Classless Society

My thanks to Andrew Neather for a fine review in London's Evening Standard of my book A Classless Society, and to the paper for splashing it so big. He quite reasonably points out that it's a bit early for a definitive account of the 1990s, but concludes that the book is 'a very credible first draft'. He says I have 'a good ear for political gossip', and he singles out for mention the 'entertaining chapter on the royal family' - which is probably my favourite bit.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Roger Lewis on A Classless Society

I've been a fan of Roger Lewis ever since I read his fabulous book on Charles Hawtrey, published in 2001, which is as eccentric as its subject. (Do check it out.) He's also said very nice things about some of my previous books. And now he does so again, when reviewing A Classless Society for the Daily Mail: 'this rich and encyclopaedic survey,' he writes; 'this wonderful, hilarious book.'

My thanks to him and to the Daily Mail, for their continuing support.

Richard Ryder on A Classless Society

Richard Ryder had perhaps the most thankless task in modern British politics: he was the government chief whip while the Conservative Party was ripping itself to shreds over the Maastricht Treaty. It might reasonably be assumed, therefore, that he doesn't have particularly fond memories of the 1990s.

And that certainly seems to be the tone of his review in The Spectator of my book A Classless Society. He doesn't say much about the book at all, in fact (though I'm pleased he shares my enthusiasm for A.N. Wilson's novel The Vicar of Sorrows), but at least he doesn't say anything negative about it.

My thanks to Mr Ryder and to The Spectator for their coverage.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The new Clement Attlee?

David Blunkett was on Today this morning talking about the state of the Labour Party, and he suggested that Ed Miliband's uncharismatic placidity was reminiscent of Clement Attlee. It's a comparison that has been made by others - most notably by Ken Livingstone - and it's easy to see the appeal of such a claim. But does it hold water?

To start with, there are difference of experience between the two men.

Attlee had been an MP for 23 years by the time he got to be prime minister; assuming Miliband wins the next election (which I've never believed), he'll have been an MP for just ten. Attlee had served in the governments of Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s and '30s, and been deputy prime minister for three years under Winston Churchill; Miliband had less than two years as secretary for energy and climate change under Gordon Brown.

If one were being cruel, one might also add that Attlee saw active service - and was wounded - in the First World War, at an age when Miliband was the junior member of Gordon Brown's inner circle.

But the crucial difference is surely that Attlee was surrounded by a team of big hitters. Miliband can hardly claim the same. Here are perhaps the key members of Attlee's government in 1945, with their modern Labour front-bench counterparts in brackets afterwards:

Chancellor: Hugh Dalton (Ed Balls)
Foreign affairs: Ernest Bevin (Douglas Alexander)
Home affairs: James Chuter Ede (Yvette Cooper)
Health: Aneurin Bevan (Andy Burnham)
Education: Ellen Wilkinson (Stephen Twigg)
Trade: Stafford Cripps (Chuka Umunna)
Commons leader: Herbert Morrison (Angela Eagle)
Fuel and power: Manny Shinwell (Caroline Flint)
Lord chancellor: William Jowitt (Sadiq Khan)

If you were drawing up a dream team from members of Attlee's cabinet and Miliband's shadow cabinet, how many of the latter would you include?

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Dominic Sandbrook on A Classless Society

Following hard on the heels of David Aaronovitch's review comes Dominic Sandbrook's take on my A Classless Society, this time in the Sunday Times. And I'm very happy to say that he likes the book more than Aaronovitch does: 'tremendously entertaining,' he says.

There's more: 'The author of two excellent but underrated books on the 1970s and 1980s, Turner really ought to be better known. He has a nice dry style, a prodigious appetite for popular culture and, above all, a lovely eye for outrageous quotations.'

And the bit I like best: 'His book has plenty of acute insights, as well as a sensible thesis that the 1990s saw a new post-Thatcher settlement, based on economic and social liberalism. But the stories are just so good, and often so funny, that you keep forgetting about the argument.'

That's pretty much what I try to aim at. Aaronovitch complained that I didn't include enough comments by 'sociologists, demographers, statisticians or academics', but I'd rather have the book described as being 'enjoyable'.

My thanks to Mr Sandbrook and to whoever at the Sunday Times made it the lead review for the week.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

David Aaronovitch on A Classless Society

The first official review of my 1990s book, A Classless Society, is published in today's issue of The Times. Sadly, David Aaronovitch isn't impressed. He evidently doesn't share my belief that popular culture not only reflects social change but shapes it. 'If you believe this,' he writes, 'then Jack Dee, say, becomes as significant as the Governor of the Bank of England.' Or indeed, I'd suggest, quite possibly more significant.

To take a longer perspective (because Jack Dee may not prove to be the key figure), I'd certainly argue that Spike Milligan changed Britain more than did Cameron Cobbold. The latter, in case the name's not immediately familiar, was Governor of the Bank of England in the 1950s during the period that The Goon Show was laying the foundations for the cultural revolution that was to come.

Inevitably, as always with reviews, attention is drawn to those things I neglected to mention. There's no reference, as Aaronovitch points out, to Srebrenica. He's probably right and there should have been, but I was trying to keep my focus on Britain, and there's a limit to what you can include. By the same token, one might point out that, so keen is Aaronovitch to attack my criticism of Tony Blair, that he doesn't once mention John Major, whose government occupies more pages than does that of Blair.

Ah well. He does at least say that my writing is 'amusing [and] perceptive', and that goes a long way, as far as I'm concerned. And the review does take up a full-page at the front of the books section.

Above all, I'm grateful to Mr Aaronovitch for taking the book seriously enough to criticise its failings. My thanks to him and to The Times.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The best Doctor we never had

I was reading about the music hall legend Dan Leno last night, and found myself regretting that Doctor Who wasn't around in the 1890s to avail itself of the services of the greatest comedian of his era. Where's the secret of time travel when you need it?

And, on the subject of the good Doctor, I shall be signing copies of my Terry Nation book at a Doctor Who event in Norwich this Sunday afternoon. If you look out for the long queues - they'll be for Colin Baker. I'll be the one sitting quietly in the corner.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

David Kynaston on A Classless Society

As far as I can tell, everyone is agreed that the best historian of modern Britain is - by some considerable margin - David Kynaston. So I'm deeply flattered by his kind words about my available-next-week book, A Classless Society:

'John Major may have struggled to create a country at ease with itself, but Alwyn Turner's seductive blend of political analysis, social reportage and cultural immersion puts him wonderfully at ease with his readers.'

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Alan Moore on A Classless Society

The world of comics isn't exactly my specialist subject, but I do read, own and greatly like the work of the great Alan Moore.

So I'm extremely pleased that he's read an advance copy of A Classless Society, my imminent book on the 1990s. Let alone that he should say such nice things about it:

'Refusing to separate the bigger social and political narrative from its attendant pop-culture minutiae, Alwyn Turner comprehensively explodes the notion that knowing so much about the 20th century makes a coherent historical account impossible. Deftly picking its way through a decade that commenced with the rise of a grey man and culminated in a sea of cellophane and colour lapping at the railings of Kensington Palace, A Classless Society is an illuminating, admirably inclusive and perhaps essential guide to understanding what just happened. An invaluable English document.'

Thursday, 8 August 2013

From the Cutting Room Floor - the Death of Lymeswold

Even in a book as vast as my forthcoming work on Britain in the 1990s, there's not room for everything, and some stuff got cut at an early stage. But I'm loath to lose things, so here's a passage from the first draft that got excised:

...The good news came in 1992 when it was announced that production of Lymeswold was to cease. The product had been launched with great fanfare a decade earlier, the first new British cheese for two hundred years, at the behest of the Milk Marketing Board and with the endorsement of the agriculture minister, Peter Walker. It was given a fictitious name that was supposed to evoke an ideal English village ('The Americans are crazy for that sort of thing,' explained a sales director, as British hearts sank) and, rather implausibly, it was intended to be capable of exporting to France, as though that country didn't have enough creamy blue cheeses of its own.

This latter aspect of the project foundered almost immediately when it was discovered that that the word Lymeswold was virtually unpronounceable for the French, but even a rebranding overseas as Westminster Blue didn't help since the product itself was so bland and tasteless. The domestic market was similarly unimpressed, particularly since Lymeswold was more expensive than many imported French cheeses.

After a decade of underperformance, the Milk Marketing Board gave up the struggle and closed down the factory in Birmingham that had been making the stuff, with the loss of thirty-eight jobs.

There was a free-market moral to be learned here, opined The Times in a leading article: 'Politicians and civil servants and nationalised industries have their uses, but cheese-making is not one of them.' Private enterprise, however, was not always much better than the bureaucrats. The following year saw the launch of Emmerdale, an equally unimpressive cheese, in a licensing deal with Yorkshire Television, the company that made the soap opera of the same name. (Its elder soap sister, Coronation Street, had blazed this trail by licensing to Carlsberg Tetley the name of Newton & Ridley, the fictional brewers who supplied the Rover's Return.)

Even beyond such mass-market monstrosities, there were major structural problems with the cheese industry. Britain was importing five times as much 'cheddar' from its European partners as it was exporting, and unpasturised cheese had almost entirely disappeared, hunted out of existence by officials concerned that it breached health and safety guidelines. A 1993 episode of the Lenny Henry sitcom Chef! was centred on the search for under-the-counter unpateurised Stilton.

Hope, however, was at hand, in the shape of an unforeseen boom in dedicated, independent cheese-makers, embraced by a foodie minority in the same way that the real ale campaign was finally winning converts. And increasingly this seemed like the polarised future of food more generally: a rise in highly processed ready-meals (sales grew by 70 per cent in the ten years from 1994), accompanied by a growing diversity of choice at the top end and in the specialist fringes...

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Toby Young writes...

It's very pleasing to read Toby Young in The Spectator saying some nice things about my forthcoming book, A Classless Society. Still a few weeks to go before publication, but meantime here's Mr Young: 'I enjoyed Alwyn Turner's book a great deal.'

Monday, 29 July 2013

If you're in the area...

A couple of places I'll be in the autumn:
At the Henley Literary Festival on Saturday 5 October - talking about the 1990s.
At the Dylan Thomas Festival in Swansea on 2 November - talking about Terry Nation as a Welsh writer.

Do come, if you're at a loose end.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Thatcher and the BBC

The new issue of BBC History magazine is out today, a fact which I only mention because it includes my review of Charles Moore's biography of Margaret Thatcher. It's a bit late, of course, but that's because the book was published so opportunistically as soon as she drew her last breath - magazines have longer lead-in times and can't respond with such indecent haste.

The review isn't available online, but in broad terms: I didn't concur with the other reviews that I've seen. I don't think it's a definitive account of her life and works up to the Falklands War (where this volume stops). I still rate Hugo Young's One of Us as the best account.

One thing I wanted to mention, but didn't have space in the review is the convention of adding a biographical footnote to everyone when they make their first appearance. This is a tendency that can be bathetically entertaining - I still cherish, for example, the reference in Joe Orton's diaries to Joseph Goebbels, where the editor John Lahr added a note to tell us that the Nazi propaganda minister got a PhD from Heidelberg University.

What irritated me in the Thatcher biography is a variation on the same theme: a scrupulous insistence on recording what school everyone went to. Does it really matter that much? Maybe it does to Charles Moore (Eton; Trinity College, Cambridge), but amongst grown-ups I rather feel that there comes a time to put away childish things and to be defined by something a bit more substantial.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Return of Mister Cain

I have a website called Trash Fiction, which reviews the contents of my bookshelves. Admittedly, I haven't added to it for several years, for various reasons (mostly because I've been busy elsewhere, and also because it's becoming increasingly difficult to track down the kind of stuff I like at a reasonable price: charity shops simply aren't what they were). Even so, I still have a great fondness for the popular fiction of earlier times, particularly that of Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.

And I've long had a fantasy of getting some of this stuff back in circulation. Not the real trash, you understand, but the books that have been neglected for a couple of decades or more and shouldn't have been. Popular fiction that's well written, entertaining and revealing of its time.

The existence of e-publishing makes this a real possibility. And I'm pleased to say that over the last few weeks I've been helping Brian Freeborn make available on Kindle the two novels he published in the mid-1970s: Good Luck Mister Cain and Ten Days Mister Cain?

And now there they are, available for download at Amazon.

They're genuinely great books: classic thrillers that would still be a fine basis for a movie, and also perfectly of their time. They're set in London and make no concessions in terms of language and attitude to anyone else, but still managed to get ecstatic reviews in the New York Times, as well as in the British press. (Incidentally, it's a sign of the times that this was an era when even the Daily Mirror had a decent book-review page.)

I'm hoping that this is the start of a longer project, in which other lost masterpieces can be reclaimed. But even if it isn't and my energy flags, it's been worth it just to bring Mister Cain back to life.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Genesis of a Hero

When I wrote a book about Terry Nation a couple of years back, I obviously spent a chapter talking about his great 1970s post-apocalyptic series Survivors. And within that was a discussion of Nation's novelisation of the story, which was an alternative version of the first season.

What mostly got excluded was the sequel to Nation's novel, Survivors: Genesis of a Hero. This was published in 1977 under the name John Eyres, about whom I could find nothing, though it was obviously a pen-name. More recently, however, I've been in touch with Peter Hill, the man who actually wrote that book and who was also responsible for several other novels in the period under his own name.

And I'm happy to say that Peter Hill is still writing and that his most recent work, a near-future thriller titled Killing Tomorrow, is now available via Kindle.

So I thought I'd take this opportunity to publish the passage, which got cut for reasons of space, about the second Survivors novel from my original text for The Man Who Invented the Daleks...
Survivors: Genesis of a Hero emerged in 1977, though it had no involvement from Nation himself, and was written instead by John Eyres. Unable to use the continuing story from television, he starts at the point that Nation's book had left off, on the beach near Dover, where Peter Grant has just shot his mother, not realising who she was until after he had fired. It then follows Peter as, traumatised by his act of matricide and believing himself to be emotionally dead forever, he rises rapidly through the ranks of the military society being built by the National Unity Force. Discovering a talent for military tactics, and guided by a hazy sense of destiny, he helps suppress rival groups in the west and north and in London, before falling foul of court politics and defecting over the border to Wales, where he finds personal salvation and is transformed into a legendary hero of the survivors.

The main character from the television series to feature in this account is Tom Price, whose path runs in parallel to that of Peter. But there is also a brief cameo by Arthur Wormley, now ensconced in luxury in Windsor Castle as the president of the NUF, until he is assassinated by the head of his secret police. His mistress, who then attaches herself to his successor, is Sarah Boyer (the character known as Anne Tranter in the screen version). The others from Nation's novel - Greg and Jenny and the rest - are presumably making their way south through France, though we never hear of them at all.

In short, Genesis of a Hero has nothing to do with the television series whatsoever. It is, though, something of a neglected gem of 1970s pulp fiction, an entertaining romp through a post-industrial, near-barbaric future, with Peter Grant looking like nothing so much as a prototype for John Connor, the similarly pre-ordained leader of the resistance in James Cameron's film The Terminator (1984) and its sequels and spin-offs. In the final chapters, things take a mystical turn and Peter is welcomed into the New Society by a trio comprising a black priest, an Amazonian warrior who looks like his mother, and a hunchbacked dwarf with the gift of clairvoyance; but even at this point, with the the whole thing threatening to tip over into absurdity, the gleeful rush of the storytelling carries it off.

It is, in some ways, a more enjoyable piece of work than Nation's own novel, accepting its limitations much more happily and concentrating on a tightly focussed, well-paced narrative...

I'd stand by that assessment. It's a great little book and well worth tracking down. The only thing I'd add is that it's also of interest as another of the 1970s works of popular fiction that saw Wales as an escapist refuge - see also, for example, the Hell's Angels novels of Mick Norman.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Nick Cohen on comedy - PS

Today I've been reading a collection of Max Beerbohm's theatre reviews (and what a beautiful writer he was, by the way), which includes a piece from 1898 about the state of the modern Music Hall. Needless to say, Beerbohm is displeased by the way that novelty acts are nowadays getting in the way of the songs, but the bit that I thought was relevant was his reflection on watching a performance by Tom Costello:

'It is one of the old traditions of the Music Hall that the male comedians must make themselves as unsightly as they can. Indeed, ugliness, physical or moral, always seems to be the chief feature of the characters represented by the male artists. The aim of the Music Hall is, in fact, to cheer the lower classes up by showing them a life that is uglier and more sordid than their own. The mass of people, when it seeks pleasure, does not want to be elevated: it wants to laugh at something beneath its own level.'

I'm not entirely convinced by this. I know that Beerbohm went to the Halls a great deal, from a very early age, whereas I obviously never have, but even so it doesn't seem right. Surely part of the point, even of the coster comedians, like Albert Chevalier and Gus Elen, was to express a reality that much of the audience would have known and recognised and of which they were a part. And it's the stoic response to the hardships of life - as Beerbohm himself pointed out in a 1903 piece about Harry Freeman - that provided the heart of Music Hall.

Anyway, I thought Beerbohm's observations made an interesting historical counterpoint to Nick Cohen's thoughts on modern comedy.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Nick Cohen on comedy

I'd recommend this fine article in the new edition of Standpoint by Nick Cohen about the state of broadcast comedy.

He argues that, despite Daily Mail columnists and their ilk claiming that the BBC favours left-wing comedians, those charges are misplaced. Because, he says, the comedians who make regular appearances on The News Quiz, Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You are not really very left-wing at all: 'The reverse side of the coin that sees them damn Mail readers as provincial bigots is the strong dislike of the urban poor ... Today's political comedy is the laughter of the privileged scoffing at those beneath them.'

I think he has a very fair point, and it's related to the increasingly middle-class nature of popular culture.

I should also note that Cohen makes reference to my forthcoming book, A Classless Society. He's one of the few people who's read it, and I'm enormously pleased - and relieved - that he seems to like it.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Neglected Glam Albums 1 - Another Pretty Face

Having spent some time in the last year living in the world of glam rock, one of the great pleasures has been revisiting old albums and - even better - finding work that I didn't previously know from the period. So here's the first item in what's intended to turn into a series...

When I was going through some old music papers a few years back, I came across a couple of one-sentence mentions in 1974 editions of the Melody Maker to a Boston band called Another Pretty Face. The reports simply mentioned that they covered songs by T. Rex and Roxy Music and noted that 'The lead singer imitates David Bowie depresingly well.' As far as I'm aware, this was their sole coverage in the British music press.

And then I found this album. As a neglected work of glam genius, it's in a class of its own. Recorded in 1973, it wasn't even released until 2004. Which might make you worry that it's going to be a ragged collection of demos and lo-fi live recordings. It's nothing of the sort - it's a fully fledged, lavishly produced, perfectly sequenced nine-track masterpiece.

To start with, those Bowie comparisons are perhaps inevitable. Particularly if you're going to open with a seven-minute epic titled 'Planet Earth' that uses science fiction imagery to explore sexuality. But the singer and main writer Terry Roth (known throughout as T. Roth, maybe in tribute to Bolan's band) is no copyist. Nor does he sit on the fence. One of the stand-out songs is 'Little Boys', which spells out its agenda in unmistakeable fashion:

People always say I only do this for the money
or I do it for the mass adoration.
Then there are the ones who assume that I'm crazy
or I'm doing it for gay liberation.
No, not me, I don't want these joys -
I only do it for the little boys.

This is accompanied, it should be said, by a wonderfully trashy bit of rock with early-1960s backing vocals of the 'bop-sho-wop' variety, in a way that the New York Dolls would recognize, had they not been so addicted to garage guitars and had they enjoyed the services of a more sympathetic producer. (The man responsible here is Ed Stasium, shortly to work with the likes of the Ramones and Talking Heads.)

Elsewhere the music veers between the swaggering horn-riffing Stones-rock of 'Stuck On You' to the Cockney Rebel posing of 'Girl Crazy'. Without deviating too far from the basic blueprint of classic rock, driven by the melodic guitar of Rob Nevitte, each song retains its own identity, assisted by guest musicians, so that there's always some variation on the keyboard textures.

I'm not sure about the Roxy Music connexion mentioned in tht Melody Maker reference, but the bonus tracks here (also produced by Stasium) include a cover of T. Rex's 'Get It On' (under its American title 'Bang a Gong'), which is fun if a little too faithful. The only other cover is 'Da Doo Ron Ron' with the gender of the subject unchanged.

This is as good as American rock got in the 1970s, dominated by Roth's arrogantly confident vocal performance. Perhaps, though, he was the problem. At a time when even Bowie was seen as too gay for mainstream America, Roth was never going to achieve the stardom he deserved. So, better late than never, this is the best glam album you never heard. And in case you don't take my word for it, the sleeve notes feature tributes by David Fricke and Lenny Kaye, who ought to know - 'cute and deadly,' says the latter.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Political class

There's a good article by Steve Richards in the Independent about the way that our leading politicians have concluded that the state should intervene in other countries but stay out of domestic policy. And he rightly identifies this as part of the new consensus that unites Tony Blair and David Cameron and their followers.

Amongst those followers, he refers to a number of journalists: 'The writer Julian Glover gave up a column to work for Cameron. The former Blair adviser Philip Collins became a columnist. Daniel Finkelstein entered the world of commentary from the Conservative Party.' His point is that they all share much the same positions.

But there's another conclusion one might draw. One that would also find room to mention others who have moved between politics and journalism: the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Daniel Hannan, Ed Vaizey... Or, behind the scenes, Steve Hilton (ex-Guardian) and Andy Coulson (ex-News of the World), who used to be so important to Cameron, or Tom Baldwin (ex-Times) and Bob Roberts (ex-Daily Mirror), who are key members of Ed Miliband's inner circle.

In all the media analysis of the political class, the growing covergence between Westminster and Fleet Street tends not to get mentioned as much as perhaps it should be.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Forthcoming books - part two

Out this autumn from V&A Publishing is my book Glam Rock: Dandies in the Underworld.
This has been a dream of mine for around two decades. I love the glam rock of the early-1970s. I regard it as the highest point of British popular culture, a fantastic collision of all the best bits of the previous century or more: experimental populism, proletarian pretentiousness, low budget theatricality, seasoned showmanship - it's all in there. Never has the avant-garde been so accessible.
It's long been a source of irritation to me that while the shelves of bookshops fill up with volumes about punk, glam has languished, neglected and ignored. But I was always keen that if I did finally get the chance to do a book on the subject, then it should be a beautiful object in its own right, as befitted the music. And - thanks to the good people at the V&A - I think we've achieved that.
So it's a large-format, heavily illustrated romp through the glory years of glam.
Perhaps I should add that this is glam as I define it, because there are acts covered that don't normally get included in discussions of the genre: not just David Bowie and Roxy Music but also Sailor and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. I think it all makes sense; others will disagree.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Forthcoming books - part one

This autumn will see the publication by Aurum of the third (and very definitely final) volume in my series about the building of a new political and cultural consensus in Britain. A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s covers the period of John Major's premiership and takes the story up to 2001 with the re-election of Tony Blair.

It's an interesting period, and a slightly difficult one to assess at so short a distance. There's a strong temptation to see it all in terms of today, but I've tried to resist that; there was a different atmosphere in the country at the time, and I think it does constitute a distinct era in its own right. Above all, it was a time when politics ran hard to keep up with cultural change.

To coincide with the new book, there will be paperback reprints of the first two volumes in the trilogy: Crisis? What Crisis? and Rejoice! Rejoice!

Monday, 17 June 2013

Very British Dystopias

Radio 4 had an excellent episode of Archive On 4 last night about political dystopias in post-war Britain. Admittedly, it did have some contributions by me, but apart from that it's very good and worth listening to on the BBC iPlayer.

It was made and presented by Steven Fielding from the University of Nottingham, to whom I'm very grateful for the opportunity to talk about Daleks and other things. My thanks too to the producer Jane Ashley, who did a fine job.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Pussy Riot

As I gradually emerge from six months of self-imposed isolation, desperately trying to get work finished (two new books out in the autumn), I went to see a screening of the documentary movie Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer the other evening. And very fine it is too - well worth catching on a big screen before it turns up on BBC Four.

Its greatest strength is the absence of a voice-over, instead allowing a series of participants and interested parties to speak directly to the cameras. Principally, of course, this means that the voices are heard of the three members of Pussy Riot who were prosecuted for their actions in a cathedral. And they turn out to be not only courageous and intelligent women - as one would expect - but also very funny. As indeed are the members of the Russian Orthodox church, though in their case the humour is not quite so deliberate: some of the more militant members look like slightly deranged fans of Zodiac Mindwarp, wearing skull-festooned T-shirts bearing slogans like 'Orthodoxy or Death'. (A little reminiscent of the old 17th/21st Lancers cap-badge.)

It's not perfect as a documentary - it accepts too readily the self-aggrandising of performance artists, it leaves hanging the question of class, and it makes a frankly silly comparison with the Show Trials of the late-1930s - but it's a fascinating piece that provides an intriguing sidelight into modern Russia. And it's confident enough in its argument that it leaves scope for those offended by Pussy Riot's actions to have their say.

There's an interview with the directors (from the always excellent Roast Beef Productions) on the Guardian website.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Quote for the Week

'Why do I share a party with those who advocate sodomite marriage?'
- Norman Tebbit, 1997

Tuesday, 23 April 2013


For the last three months or so, I've been spending my Tuesdays at the University of Chichester, where I've been teaching a course on post-War British culture. Today was the last session.

It's been enormous fun. I'm extremely grateful to a splendid group of students for making me feel welcome, and to Hugo Frey - the head of the History department - for inviting me in the first place. I think I'm going back next year, when I trust it will be a pleasure all over again.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Still angry after all these years

A week on, and millions of words having been devoted to the subject, is there anything left unsaid about the late Margaret Thatcher? More pertinently to me right now, is there anything else I want to say about her, given that I've written well over 100,000 words about her and her influence?

Well, here's one thought that I haven't seen expressed. She was born in 1925. That puts her smack in the middle of the Angry Young Men generation of the 1950s. Kingsley Amis and John Braine were born in 1922, Alan Sillitoe in 1928 and John Osborne in 1929.

The archetypal Angry Young Man in fiction is a lower-middle class, provincial, grammar-school educated, Oxbridge graduate who marries above his social station and rails against the establishment and the old boy network. Which sounds familiar, somehow.

In 1977 Kingsley Amis had dinner with Thatcher and wrote to Philip Larkin about his impressions of her: 'I thought her bright and tough and nice, and by God she doesn't half hate lefties. All in all a tonic.'

Monday, 8 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher

To mark the passing of Margaret Thatcher, here’s an extract from my book Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s:

With Keith Joseph ruling himself out of the running, even before the race had started, Thatcher decided to rule herself in, on the grounds that ‘someone who represents our viewpoint has to stand’. In November 1974 she announced that she would be challenging Edward Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

She was not an obvious choice, partly because she, following Joseph, had begun to espouse the unfashionable cause of monetarism, and partly because the policies she had pursued in her previous incarnation as education secretary under Heath had led to her being dubbed by the Sun ‘the most unpopular woman in Britain’. In retrospect, given the controversy she subsequently attracted, this was something of an overstatement. Her supposed offence was absurdly innocuous – under pressure from the Treasury, the statutory provision of free milk for schoolchildren was ended on her watch – but the tabloid sobriquet ‘Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’ had a pleasing enough ring, and it lingered long in the memory.

An entry in Kenneth Williams’s diary in January 1972 captured some of the reaction to her time at education, as well as offering a foretaste of future protests: ‘There were barriers at Downing Street and mounted police. It depressed me very much. The bawling long-haired youths shouting “Thatcher Out!” and carrying coffins expressing sentiments like “Maggie Dead” etc was the spectacle of only another form of fascism.’

Mostly, though, Thatcher was an improbable candidate for the simple reason that she was a woman. That was, for the media, the overriding issue, and coverage of her tended to be couched in terms of her appearance, with a particular focus on her headwear. When she was education secretary, the Sunday Telegraph had described her as being ‘sometimes rather pretentious and given to the smart hat and neat pearls favoured by suburban ladies coming to Tory conferences for the first time’, and the image still dominated the declaration of her candidacy.

‘Try to forget her plummy voice and her extravagant hats and her Dresden-shepherdess appearance,’ advised the Daily Mirror. ‘She is the toughest member of the Shadow Cabinet, and even if she doesn’t win the battle for the Tory leadership she may yet be responsible for bringing down Ted Heath.’ But even Enoch Powell, who had as good a claim as any to be her trailblazer, had trouble forgetting these things, insisting that the Tories couldn’t possibly elect her: ‘They wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent,’ he shuddered. It was an image of which she was well aware, describing herself defiantly as ‘a middle-aged lady who likes hats’.

It was noticeable that when she did emerge as Heath’s successor, in February 1975, it was the handful of women Labour MPs who were the first to celebrate the achievement. ‘I am very pleased,’ said Gwyneth Dunwoody, while Joyce Butler went further: ‘Absolutely splendid. I am delighted. It is time we had women in the top jobs.’ And Shirley Williams added, ‘I cannot help admitting privately, as a woman, being pleased to see that in the Tory Party, of all parties, a woman has broken through.’

Thatcher’s victory in the 1975 leadership contest was no great endorsement of monetarism. Indeed it is doubtful how many of those who voted for her in the first ballot (when she defeated Heath), let alone in the second, when she saw off all other challengers, understood or believed her deeply held, if newly acquired, convictions on economics. The support was instead predicated on her courage in volunteering to bell the cat: ‘She’s the only man among them,’ was the phrase going around Westminster.

‘Suddenly Mrs Thatcher stands out among the Tory dwarfs like a life-size Snow White,’ editorialized the Daily Mirror before the first ballot. ‘A very tough Snow White.’ But it warned that if she became leader, the Conservatives would be taking on an image that was ‘Dominatingly middle-class. Suburban. Anti-union. Even more Southern English than it is now.’ It was precisely this image that excited those who sought hope in Thatcher’s election. The Daily Mail leader column that welcomed her arrival put it in the context of the great enemy of the right: ‘The majority of the British people do not want socialism. They do not want Bennery.’ The only question was whether this bold experiment of having a female leader might misfire and inadvertently hand the future to Tony Benn.


Saturday, 6 April 2013

Nearly Classless

Yesterday I submitted the revised text for my forthcoming book, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s. Doesn't mean it's quite finished yet, but it's nearly there, two years after I submited the first proposal. It's very long.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Quote for the Week

Good to hear a UKIP supporter on Radio Five Live this morning explaining that the party spoke for the silent majority who weren't being listened to.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Gay Marriage: the European Connection

I really like Christopher Booker's column in the Sunday Telegraph. I'm always impressed by his ability to see pretty much everything that's wrong with the world as being a manifestation of one of his long-ridden hobby-horses.

So it was something of a disappointment to find this week that not even he had managed to link gay marriage with wind farms. Some comfort could be found, however, by discovering that instead it's all about Europe, as explained in Gay Marriage: the French Connection. The reason the government is so concerned to introduce this legislation, according to Booker, is that if it hadn't done so voluntarily, it would soon be forced into the measure by the European Court of Human Rights.

I'm not so sure. It seems to me that the main reason why David Cameron, George Osborne, Boris Johnson and the rest of the modernising wing of the Conservative Party are so keen to bring in a pro-homosexual piece of legislation has more to do with the fact that it was their party that made gay rights such an issue quarter of a century ago.

Back then, there were plenty of Tories who loathed the liberalism associated with the 1960s, the chain of changes that had been made in the first government of Harold Wilson, including the legalisation of abortion and male homosexuality, the ending of capital punishment and censorship of the stage, the restraint of racism, and the relaxation of the divorce procedure. In that chain, homosexuality seemed to be the weak link. And why? Because of the hysteria over AIDS, which many on the right saw as a heaven-sent opportunity to mount an assault on the legacy of the '60s.

And so a concerted campaign was launched that had at its centre the passing of Section 28 of the Local Government Act in 1988. The intention was to make homosexuality unacceptable. 'I think Clause 28 will help outlaw it and the rest will be done by AIDS, with a substantial number of homosexuals dying of AIDS,' said the Leicester MP Peter Bruinvels. 'I think that’s the best way.'

This wasn't simply a political operation, but one in which the police joined with great enthusiasm. 1988 also saw a greater number of convictions and cautions for indecency and soliciting by gay men than there had been since the mid-1950s, when male homosexuality was illegal. (This was at the time when James Anderton, the chief constable of Greater Manchester, was talking about gay men 'swirling around in a human cesspit of their own making'.)

There were plenty in the press keen to lend their voices too: 'active homosexuals are potential murderers,' according to George Gale in the Daily Express; 'the act of buggery kills.' And then there was the usual chorus of religious leaders, including the prime minister's favourite, the Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits: 'AIDS is the consequence of marital infidelity, premarital adventures, sexual deviation and social irresponsibility – putting pleasure before duty and discipline.'

The public response suggested that this was a campaign that might be successful. In the last years of the 1980s, the British Social Attitudes survey showed an increase in the proportion of the population who believed homosexual relationships to be always or mostly wrong, rising from 62 per cent to 74 per cent in the space of five years. It did, for a short while, seem possible that the liberalising trend evident for two decades could be reversed. In one of her last speeches as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher talked about 'the waning fashions of the permissive 1960s'.

She spoke too soon. A fightback, defending social liberalism and seeking to advance it still further, was mounted, primarily on a cultural front, as discussed in my essay Things Can Only Get Bitter (and as explored in considerably greater depth in my forthcoming book, A Classless Society). The result was to leave the Tories looking like the 'nasty party'.

For the current Conservative leadership, this is the legacy they've been left with. It's pointless for those on the right of the party to insist that this isn't an important enough issue when the country's facing years of economic stagnation. It was they, and their predecessors, who made it an issue, not Cameron. He's simply trying to discard the hand he was dealt.

But there is one area where I think Booker gets it right. Because there is a connection with Europe. Just not neccesarily the one he identifies.

In 1994 an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill was proposed by Conservative MP Edwina Currie that would see the homosexual age of consent reduced from twenty-one (as it then was) to sixteen, the same as that for heterosexuals. Her initiative outraged many in her party. 'What Mrs Currie is seeking to do is to get this House to vote to legalise the buggery of adolescent men,' thundered the Northampton MP Tony Marlow.

Currie's proposal was rejected by the Commons, and a compromise was passed instead that reduced the age to eighteen. Even that was too far for some, and a number of Tory MPs voted against any change in the law at all. What was intriguing was the correlation between voting on this issue and the tendency towards Euroscepticism.

The big question of the time had been the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, introduced by John Major, but opposed by many of his backbenchers, who staged a series of rebellions in Commons votes. When it came to the question of reducing the age of homosexual consent to eighteen, a majority of Conservative MPs supported the measure: 169 voted for, 134 against. But of the 45 MPs who had rebelled against Maastricht, an overwhelming majority (32 of the 45) voted against any reduction at all. The same phenomenon could be observed in the press, where it was writers on the most Eurosceptic papers who argued against changing the law.

Quite why there should be such a strong overlap between Euroscepticism and opponents of gay rights is surely a question that Christopher Booker could profitably explore.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

What we missed in 1992

I've enthused on here before both about Bryan Gould and about the Inane Ramblings of a History Graduate blog. I'm very happy, therefore, to see the two come together in a counterfactual account of what Britain might have been like had the Labour Party made the right decision in 1992 and chosen Gould as leader, rather than John Smith.

It's great stuff, and I don't think I disagree with any of the conclusions. In particular, I can't argue with the idea that a Gould-led Labour government from 1997 would have been so much more progressive than how things actually turned out. And I particularly like the idea that the Millennium Dome project would have been cancelled in favour of a decent fireworks display. That would have been sufficient.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Please don't call me Reg (it's not my name)

I still find it a little disconcerting when Radio 4 news programmes pretend to be interested in popular music. But there they were again today, passing on the fact that Reg Presley of the Troggs has died.

Presley was one of the very best rock stars we ever had. And the Troggs were the subject of the first piece of rock history I ever had published in a book - I wrote the entry for the Rough Guide to Rock, back in the 1990s. That was three decades on from their chart career, but they were a band that made more sense as time went on.

Primitive even by the standards of 1960s garage rock, they really came into their own when the Ramones turned up, doing much the same thing: stripping pop music down to its essential components and forging new songs from the same basic three chords. Which is why their Live at Max's Kansas City album, recorded in the late 1970s, is one of the really great live albums. Not quite at the same level as Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, of course, but then nothing is. Maybe somewhere around the Modern Lovers Live.

And they were, at that stage, still capable of coming up with new classics, even if the public weren't paying much attention. The 1973 single Strange Movies, about porn films, is one of their finest records. It's trumped only by the magnificent Night of the Long Grass, from 1967, when it was assumed to have drug connotations. It didn't, of course. 'None of us were drug-mad,' observed guitarist Chris Britton. 'We had enough trouble with beer and scotch.' Instead, Night of the Long Grass was a buccolic dream about sex, just as most of Reg's songs were.

Similarly, I always thought that Love Is All Around wasn't an anthem about hippy dippy love, but rather Reg trying to get off with a woman by pleading that free love was the norm these days: 'If you really love me, come on and let it show.'

In fact, he only really had the one subject, did Reg. And on stage he was a wonderfully lascivious figure, while the Troggs were a joyously liberating force of nature.

This photograph was taken by Harry Goodwin and comes from My Generation: The Glory Years of British Rock.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Death and a Toe-rag

The death of a celebrity is seldom the occasion of any personal reminiscences on my part, since I don't know any celebrities. At least, not as the term is commonly understood. The fact that in 1998 I conducted what I believe was the last ever interview given by Johnny Moore of the Drifters means a great deal to me, though I suspect his name rarely troubles the lips of the 3 A.M. Girls.

I did, however, encounter Michael Winner, whose death has just been announced.

A few years ago, one of the murder dinner parties that I write for Paul Lamond Games called for the inclusion of a DVD, and Winner was booked as the guest star.

He behaved like an arse, making a loud, complaining entrance, even though it was apparent that we in the middle of a take with the main actor in the piece. He also proved to be a completely dreadful actor. He did, though, deliver the lines as written. And it gave me some pleasure to hear him doing several takes of a very brief script which included him dismissing one of the characters with the epithet: 'Toe-rag.'

Happily, we don't have DVDs in these games anymore. So your chances of buying one and inadvertently encountering the ghost of Mr Winner over dinner are greatly diminished.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Parish Notices

Things were supposed to get easier once I'd submitted the manuscript of my book on the 1990s, but as it turns out, everything's still a bit hectic.

Apart from my proper work (the stuff that pays a living wage), I've been engaged this week on various things that will emerge over the next couple of months. In chronological order, then, here's some notes for my diary:

On Saturday lunchtime, I'll be in Islington for Crunch the News, along with people who are younger, funnier and cleverer than I am: Helen Lewis, Nadia Kamil, Josie Long and John Luke Roberts.

On Friday 15 March I'll be doing a talk at Glamourama!, an event being staged in connection with the Glam exhibition at the Tate Liverpool.

And at some as yet undetermined point, I'll be on the fine television show Flog It with Paul Martin, talking about the work of Harry Hammond. Incidentally, the exhibition of Harry's work is still on at the V&A, where I gave a lunchtime lecture last week. My thanks to Bryony Smith, who invited me to speak there.