Tuesday 29 December 2015

Uncle Bill: Discipline and sticky buns

I haven't posted anything here for a very long time. Partly this is because I've been busy, doing things that aren't suitable for a blog, and partly it's because when I have written something suitable, I've posted it elsewhere.

Here, for example, is a piece that I like very much about the broadcaster Bill Mitchell, who used to present children's programmes on BFBS radio in the 1960s and '70s. Unless you have experience of the British Army on the Rhine, you've extremely unlikely to have heard of him - but I think he's an intriguing figure anyway, and worth a few minutes of your time.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Armistice Day

I spent yesterday evening at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, giving a talk on the Last Post as part of the Richmond Literary Festival. And very enjoyable it was too.

For those who missed my Radio 4 programme on the same subject, it is now available on iPlayer. And there's also an article I wrote for the BBC website to accompany the show.

And finally, on the occasion of Armistice Day, a further plug for my piece about the National Union of Ex-Servicemen, the most radical of the campaigning groups in the aftermath of the First World War. This was the organisation that effectively made Douglas Haig found the British Legion, so worried was he by their revolutionary potential.

Monday 9 November 2015

National Union of Ex-Servicemen

One of the things that intrigued me when writing The Last Post was the role of the National Union of Ex-Servicemen. The NUX, as it was known, was by far the most radical, even revolutionary, of the veterans' groups that sprang up in the years immediately following the First World War. 'Instead of being the means to save capitalism,' declared the Union's general secretary, 'the organised ex-servicemen will now be the means of destroying it.'

Unfortunately, I had limited space to explore this in the book itself. So I've filled in some more details in an article about the NUX on the Lion & Unicorn website.

The Last Post previewed

Some further advance publicity for my Radio 4 show on Wednesday morning. Paul Donovan in the Sunday Times:
Other Armistice Day offerings include Alwyn Turner's melancholic history of The Last Post (R4 FM, 11am), just after the two-minute silence
The wonderful Gillian Reynolds in the Daily Telegraph:
Alwyn Turner tells the story of one of the world's most familiar tunes. Once it was just one of a dozen bugle calls played every day in British Army barracks. In the 1850s it became something played at soldiers' funerals. In the First World War, it gained its greatest resonance. Now it is played internationally to mark the passing of an era or to keep alive the memory of conflicts past and present. It has become the music of loss, an almost sacred anthem in an increasingly secular society.
and again in the Sunday Telegraph:
The Last Post began as a bugle call in British barracks, played to show all was secured at the close of day but, from the 19th century on, has become one of the world's most familiar tunes, played at funerals and state occasions. Alwyn Turner tells its story with the help of men who've played it. Its very simplicity makes it hard to play perfectly but, as we hear, there's something about it that uniquely signals sadness, solemnity, respect.
And finally Liam Williams in the Independent:
It started as just one of a couple of dozen bugle calls played every day in a British Amy barracks - then, in the 1850s, it found a new role, played at soldiers' funerals. Alwyn Turner tells the untold story of The Last Post.
Whoever is responsible at the BBC for promoting programmes is clearly doing a fine job, and I'm very grateful.

Saturday 7 November 2015

The Last Post - another plug

David Hepworth's preview of the week's radio in the Guardian rather wonderfully singles out my programme on the Last Post, which is broadcast next Wednesday:

My thanks to Mr Hepworth. And indeed to Tom Goulding, who I regret I didn't acknowledge when posting his piece from the Radio Times earlier in the week.

PS And here's a piece from the Daily Mail:

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Radio Times

A cutting from the new edition of the Radio Times, with a fine pick of programmes for next Wednesday, Armistice Day:

Wednesday 28 October 2015

The Last Post on the Home Service

I've been a bit quiet on this blog (and elsewhere) over recent weeks. Mostly this is a result of a lack of time, because in addition to normal stuff, I've been making a Radio 4 documentary about the story of the bugle call the Last Post. Which has been a fascinating but quite time-consuming experience.

It's also been completely new to me and I'm deeply grateful to the producer, the admirable Ben Crighton, who has steered me through the project.

Amongst other interviews, we spoke with Peter Wilson and Basil King, who sounded respectively the Last Post and Reveille at the 1965 funeral of Winston Churchill. We also interviewed Paul Field, who played the Last Post at the 1981 funeral of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands - I'm interested in the way that a British Army bugle call was played on both sides in the civil war in Northern Ireland, and this was a rare chance to ask one of those involved about his perception of the call.

Anyway, I'm listening to a recording of the show now, and it's sounding very fine to my ears. Do have a listen: we're on air two weeks today, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Last Post on the Bugle

Two weeks today - on Tuesday 10 November - I shall be doing a talk on the Last Post bugle call as part of the Richmond Literary Festival. I'm particularly pleased that this is being staged at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall in Twickenham, since I once wrote the history of the School. If you live in the vicinity, do drop in - it'll be good.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Three-minute heroes

I spent yesterday evening at the University of Warwick (which, obviously, is in Coventry), where they were staging a two-day Festival of the Imagination as part of the university's fiftieth birthday celebrations. I was appearing on a panel to discuss the Two-Tone movement that came of the city in 1979, appearing along with musicians Pauline Black and Horace Panter, novelist Catriona Troth and academics Trevor McCrisken and Jason Toynbee. It was, as I'd anticipated, tremendous fun.

Freddy Valentine

In a previous life, I used to have a website called Trash Fiction. Well, I still have the  site, but sadly I haven't had the time to update it for, oh, over a decade now. Despite which, I remain a self-proclaimed lover of pulp fiction and, in that capacity, I'd like to recommend a fabulous radio play/audiobook in the shape of David Chaudoir's Freddy Valentine and the Soho Ghoul.

On Trash Fiction I used to start with the blurb on the back of the book. This is the equivalent from iTunes:
Freddie Valentine is a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, coated in a purple paisley veneer. A record producer, a nightclub crooner, the one-time manager of the heavy metal band Satan's Claw, the bastard son of an eccentric aristocrat, a dabbler in the dark arts - some or none of this might be true. It was the year 2013 but the man dressed in a purple safari suit and stack-heeled boots, and his hair was a matted bird's nest of the Jimi Hendrix Experience variety. He spoke like an East End barrow boy, read trashy women's magazines and kept a budgie called Grayson.
Detective Chetwyn has a problem. He believes his chief superintendent might be a vampire. He believes that Valentine might be one as well, and that he's going to be bumped off by Valentine's Polish hard-man Osaki.
This kind of free-wheeling, over-the-top camp fantasy is a tricky act to pull off. It's all too easy for weird to shade into wacky, for humour to come across as smartarse smugness. Happily, Chaudoir gets it right. This is genuine, unadulterated, Grade A pulp writing.

Picture this: Heavy Metal Kid Gary Holton as a decadent cockney fop with a talent for mind-reading; Richard Davies from Please Sir! as a Welsh copper, plagued with irritable bowel syndrome, who feels that his wife and daughters are conspiring to condemn him to premature middle age; and professional wrestler Mal 'King Kong' Kirk as a Polish misfit 'rumoured to have punched Lech Waleska in a bar fight in Gdansk'. All of them appearing in a story written by Arthur Brown (loosely adapted from an Arthur Machen original) and directed by Ken Russell.

Something like that anyway.

The central trio of characters are all splendidly ludicrous, the storyline is excessive without being (too) silly, and there's an unmistakeable intelligence at work. There are some fine turns of phrase: if the literary version of vampires were accurate, then the world would be plunged into a 'Mathusian fanged apocalypse'. And there are some lovely asides: the members of a golf club 'liked to have a senior police officer popping in now and again. It added to their misplaced sense of superiority.' In addition to which, I find it hard to resist a text that laments the state of modern cigarettes and yearns for the good old brands of Piccadilly, Woodbine and Gitane.

As far as I know, this is a home-made production, but it sounds professional enough: the narration and acting are convincing, and there are enough bits of music and sound effects to lift it.

I'd hope that this is the start of a continuing series (in whatever format) featuring the characters, but in the meantime, Freddy Valentine and the Soho Ghoul is available here.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Book reviews

I've never been very up-to-date in my reading. The majority of the books I own were bought in charity shops, which normally means I'm at least a decade behind the times.

But recently I've been doing some book reviewing, which has given me a chance to read newly published work. And very good a great deal of it is. Unfortunately, some of the reviews aren't available online - so you can't read my piece on Peter Doggett's fine Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the I-Phone - 125 Years of Pop Music unless you subscribe to the Literary Review

I would, though, direct you to my thoughts on a trio of excellent books: Charlotte Higgins's This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC, Philipp Blom's Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938 and Dominic Sandbrook's The Great British Dream Factory.

And on the subject of the latter, I would also cite the enthusiasm expressed by Jessie Thompson in the Huffington Post, in which she praises 'a book that is written with the same clarity, energy and humour as Alwyn W Turner's brilliant books on recent history'.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Theresa May: a portrait

Having written some profiles of various Labour figures, drawn from their press cuttings, I thought I'd try a Tory. So here's a portrait of the home secretary Theresa May. She's very dull, I know, but there are some points of interest in her story.

Saturday 26 September 2015

John McDonnell: a portrait

Following my profiles of Jeremy Corbyn and the other candidates in Labour's leadership and deputy leadership elections, I thought I should do the same for the new shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. It's now available on the Lion & Unicorn site. Do have a look.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Harry Greene

Yesterday was the sixtieth anniversary of the launch of ITV. Which means that it was also the sixtieth anniversary of Round at the Redways, the first ITV soap, starring real-life married couple Harry Greene (billed as Howard Greene) and Marjie Lawrence.

I never met Marjie, but Harry was one of the nicest men I've ever known. He was a friend of the great Welsh writer John Summers, which is enough to recommend him for a start, and - apart from his TV and film work - he was also the stage designer for Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in its early days.

And he knew Terry Nation, when Nation was a young comedian in Cardiff, which proved invaluable when I wrote a book on Nation's career. So much so that I dedicated the book to him and to the memory of John Summers.

Harry died in 2013 at the age of eighty-nine. This is him and Marjie in Round at the Redways:

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Leonine writing

While I'm unavoidably detained elsewhere on my duties, I'd like to take the opportunity to direct your feet to the sunny side of the street, to the website Lion & Unicorn. I sometimes write for this myself but, more importantly, so too do some other, very fine writers. It's good stuff, I promise.

Monday 21 September 2015

An interlude

I'm slightly surprised to see that it's only been just over a week since I last posted here. It feels like longer. I've been busy, trying to fit in my usual jobs with the recording of a radio documentary (on which, more later). But normal service will be resumed shortly, I hope.

Saturday 12 September 2015

American music - Mitch Ryder

Back in 1979, when I was living in Germany, the TV show Rockpalast put on a fine late-night gig, featuring Nils Lofgren, who was good, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, who were very good, and then finally Mitch Ryder. At the time I didn't know Ryder's work, beyond a couple of the Detroit Wheels hits from the mid-1960s, and had no image of him. But he was a revelation that night.

We first saw him in a live interview with presenter Alan Bangs, when he was clearly drunk and/or stoned already. Amongst his most coherent responses was to ask his own question: 'Have you ever seen two dogs fucking in the street?' Bangs decided it probably wasn't necessary to translate all his comments for the German audience.

By the time Ryder actually staggered on stage in the early hours of the morning - considerably later than scheduled, to the annoyance of the audience - he was even less together and had (we later learnt) just had a fist-fight with his band backstage. Despite that, the band was on good form, which was just as well since there were long, long passages to be filled with noodling, while Ryder stumbled around with a beatific look on his face as though he had no idea where he was. When he did sing, though, it was with the most beautiful voice: croaky and hoarse, ravaged and ruined, every word was slurred, but the phasing and feel was still impressive. If you want to see the gig, most of it is on YouTube, including the concluding 10-minute version of 'Soul Kitchen'.

Following the broadcast, I immediately went out and bought Ryder's newly released album, How I Spent My Vacation, which I learned was his first record for the best part of a decade. Unfortunately, it was a bit disappointing. There were a couple of interesting lyrics ('Cherry Poppin'', 'The Jon'), in which he discussed gay sex far more explicitly than - as far as I'm aware - any rock singer had done previously, but mostly the songwriting was unexceptional, and the music was pedestrian rock. And the cover art (see below) was simply dreadful.

This song, 'Passion's Wheel', however, was the standout, an uptempo acoustic number that I've loved now for over thirty-five years. Again, I don't think much of the arrangement, but Ryder's vocal performance is one of my favourite ever. From the opening line ('How much suffering must I endure?'), he sounds both defiant and desperate, like he's been to hell and still has hopes of getting back one day. Few have ever managed to get such anguish into their work. And what I particularly like is that somehow he imprisons this ragged howl of pain in such a confined and rigid little melody. For a man with one of the best white soul voices ever, there's a surprising absence of emoting.

Wrong, wrong, wrong

What a buffoon I am! All these weeks and months I've been saying that Jeremy Corbyn wouldn't be elected leader of the Labour Party. And now he has been. I was wrong, completely and hopelessly wrong.

In my defence, I did from the outset say that Corbyn should be taken seriously, that he wasn't a joke candidate. But it was my conviction was that when it actually came to the crunch, the party would decide that the example of Iain Duncan Smith was not one that it wished to follow. And I was wrong. As I so often am.

But, despite my poor track record on predictions, I can at least confidently predict that it's going to be entertaining. God bless the party and all who sail in her.

Friday 11 September 2015

American music - The Rainmakers

By the mid-1980s there was very little coming out of American rock that brought me any pleasure. The Paisley Underground had run out of steam, and there seemed little joy to be found anywhere.

But the Rainmakers' one hit single, 'Let My People Go-Go' (1986) was fantastic: a witty conflation of Bible stories, rock 'n' roll mythology and sheer exuberance that I couldn't resist. I love the idea of Jesus reviving the Coasters' complaint: 'Why's everybody always picking on me?' And the singer wore a top hat, which is always A Good Thing.

Wikipedia claims that this is based on the old spiritual 'Go Down Moses', but that's just silly. The Rainmakers had none of the political dimension of that song at all. If anything, it's David Bowie's 'Starman' as filtered through the slang of Bob Dylan's 'Highway 61 Revisited'.

Sadly, the rest of the band's work, while okay, again reached the heights of this debut. But it's still one classic more than most ever achieve.

Thursday 10 September 2015

As voting closes...

Voting on the leadership and deputy-leadership of the Labour Party has just closed. And, as an interim guide to form, I've checked up on the traffic generated on this blog by the portraits I wrote of the various candidates. There are, it has to be said, no surprises.

The share of the total number of page views achieved by each candidate is as follows:

Jeremy Corbyn    58%
Andy Burnham    15%
Yvette Cooper     14%
Liz Kendall           13%

Deputy leader:
Angela Eagle        28%
Stella Creasy        26%
Caroline Flint        18%
Tom Watson        16%
Ben Bradshaw     13%

The order in the leadership category reflects the result that pretty much everyone expects, though I want to put on record one last time my dissenting view: I still think Yvette Cooper is going to win. I'm not sure what conventional wisdom says about the deputy leadership, but I believe Tom Watson is still favourite.

If it goes to form, then, by this time on Saturday, the Labour Party will be led by Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, two white men with an average age of 57, who both came into politics as unelected advisers to trade unions. Let no one say that the party hasn't embraced modern Britain in all its wondrous diversity.

American music - Southside Johnny

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes weren't very big in Britain, always struggling to be seen in the shadow of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, whose guitarist, Miami Steve Van Zandt, produced their early work. It's worth looking up their debut album I Don't Want to Go Home (1976), though, if you like some horn-driven good-time music.

One of the tracks on that album was a fine version of Henry Glover's song 'It Ain't the Meat (It's the Motion)', with guest vocals by drummer Kenny 'Popeye' Pentifallo. And this is an even better live version from a New Year's Eve gig in 1977, simultaneously sleazy and joyous. Lord knows what's wrong with the visuals, but the sound quality is unimpeachable.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

American music - Dion

In commercial terms, the 1970s weren't good years for the great Dion DiMucci, who'd already relaunched his career several times and would do so again. He released some great records in the decade, but even the magnificent Phil Spector-produced album Born to Be With You (1975) failed to sell many copies. Nor did The Return of the Wanderer (1978), from which this track comes.

The song will be familiar. '(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night' was one of Tom Waits's early classics, an atmospheric tale of riding downtown at the end of the working week, though - as ever with Waits - it's suffused with a tinge of sadness: the 'magic of the melancholy tear in your eye'.

Dion transforms the piece entirely, turning it into his own anthem so that it sounds like an effortless updating of his early 1960s work. He speeds it up and changes the lyrics from third-person to first-person. Most significantly, where Waits sounds like the loner, the outsider, trying to find romance in neon-lit loneliness, Dion is cruising in the company of his own gang. He may have his 'arm around my baby', but the backing vocals suggest that they're not alone: they own Saturday night.

This is celebratory rather than melancholy, and it's fantastic. I like Tom Waits, but I love Dion.

Purged! part three

When I signed up as a registered supporter of the Labour Party, Iain McNicol, the party's general secretary, wrote to me, saying how 'thrilled' he was to have received my application and how 'delighted' the entire party were to have me aboard:

It was a little disconcerting to be addressed bluntly as 'Alwyn', rather than 'Dear Mr Turner'. But I assumed that he was a busy man and that he had a lot of these personal messages to send out. Also, he's younger than me - maybe he's more comfortable than I am in using first names with those who he's never met. In any event I forgave him, because I was, of course, equally thrilled and delighted 'to be part of this movement'.

Mr McNicol also thanked me for for my three quid 'administration fee' which, he assured me, 'means you'll be able to vote in our leadership elections'.

Sadly, all this camaraderie and bonhomie was not destined to last. When I came to cast the votes that I'd been promised, I discovered that, in the words of the late blues musician Roy Hawkins, 'The Thrill Is Gone'.

You'll note that Mr McNicol and I are no longer on first-name terms. Indeed we're not on any-name terms. I'm now 'Applicant' and he's 'The Labour Party'. A very definite frost has settled on our former friendship.

There are two grounds offered for this rejection. It may be, it is suggested, that I am 'a supporter of an organisation opposed to the Labour Party'.

Well, we can clear that up straight away. I'm not. I am not a member or supporter of any other political party. I've never tried to conceal, however, that I have voted for other parties at various points in the thirty-five years since I was first entered on the electoral register, sometimes for tactical reasons, sometimes because I preferred the alternative candidate.

In 1983, for example, I voted for Anne Sofer of the SDP because I (wrongly) thought she had a better chance of dislodging the sitting Conservative MP in my constituency. And in 2000 I voted for Ken Livingstone to become mayor of London, because I thought he'd be better at it than the Labour candidate, Frank Dobson. But voting is not the same as supporting.

So if that's not the reason for my exclusion, it must be the other argument: that I 'do not support the aims and values of the Labour Party'. I'm not, it's worth stressing, required to be a supporter of the party itself, but merely to support its 'aims and values'.

And what are these 'aims and values'? Well happily they're spelt out in Clause IV of the party's constitution, which opens:
The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.
So far, so good. The only bit of that that I might feel like questioning is the assertion that Labour is 'a democratic socialist party'. But I do support the idea that that's what it ought to be.

The clause goes on to specify four key ambitions: a dynamic economy, a just society, an open democracy, a healthy environment. Yep, that's all fine with me.

Then we get the commitment to working with international bodies 'to secure peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection for all', and a commitment to working with British institutions as well. And it concludes: 'On the basis of these principles, Labour seeks the trust of the people to govern.'

I agree with all of that, as well. Even including the bit about needing 'the trust of the people to govern'. Indeed I made precisely that point in my piece about who I was intending to vote for.

The more I think about this, the more offended I am. Are the Labour Party seriously suggesting that I don't share their belief in 'peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection'? If so, is this libellous? Because it feels very close to being defamation.

Maybe I should have a word with my local MP, Sir Keir Starmer. He's a lawyer, he'll know whether this is actionable or not.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

American music - Mink DeVille

American band Mink DeVille had a top 20 hit in Britain with 'Spanish Stroll' from their 1977 debut album and then largely disappeared from view over here. Which was a shame because their third album, Le Chat Bleu (1980) is a masterpiece, keeping all the swagger and style of the earlier work but now combining it with the braying backing vocals and saxes of Dion DiMucci. It also had a strong French influence in places, having been recorded in Paris.

Willy DeVille wasn't technically the world's greatest singer, but his voice was distinctive and warm and he had taste, style and attitude in abundance. To prove it, he co-wrote some of the songs on Le Chat Bleu with Doc Pomus, and if Doc Pomus endorses you, you know you're onto something good.

This is a live version of the album's opening track, 'This Must Be the Night' and it's fabulous, wrapping up the entire history of New York rock 'n' roll in a single song of bruised street-punk romance. In addition to which, the roses climbing up the mike-stand are a genius bit of theatre, and Willy's hairdo is at its magnificent best.

Monday 7 September 2015

American music - The Blasters

There were some great debut albums in the 1980s, as acts as diverse as Dexys Midnight Runners, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Dwight Yoakum issued statements of intent that seemed almost designed to serve as manifestos. And then there were the Blasters with the title track of their 1980 debut American Music:
It's a howl from the desert,
a scream from the slums,
the Mississippi rollin' to the beat of the drums
The song appeared again on their second (major label) album The Blasters (1981), which is as magnificent a piece of work as The Ramones. It's got two fewer songs than that masterpiece and runs a minute longer, but the point is much the same: this is rock 'n' roll in its most beautiful and simple essence.

This version of 'American Music' comes from the 1985 Farm Aid gig and is faithful to the barnstorming original: just over two minutes, but still time for a couple of solos in there. Admire in particular, the way they leave the bridge passage till after the first solo and, above all else, marvel at the finest set of teeth in the history of rock 'n' roll. And remember: 'It's the greatest music that you ever knew'.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Purged! part two

When, in 2014, the Labour Party changed its rules to allow registered supporters, Andrew Rawnsley reported in The Observer: 'Mr Miliband has an ambition to get the number up to 100,000.' The idea of allowing people a vote in future leadership elections was to involve more people in the party, Rawnsley added:
What Mr Miliband is essentially proposing is what Americans call a "closed primary". You can't just walk in off the street to take part. You have to show some level of commitment to Labour. But you don't have to be a full-blown member to have a vote.
The proposal was passed by Labour's National Executive Committee in February last year by a vote of 28 votes to two. The dissenters were Dennis Skinner and Christine Shawcroft, probably the two most left-wing members of the NEC. Ed Miliband professed himself delighted with the result:
These changes will help bridge the gap between Westminster and the rest of Britain. They are about opening up the Labour Party so that more people from every walk of life can have more say on the issues which matter to them most.
At one point, in October, it seemed as though the price for being a registered supporter might be as high as £10, but that came in for a lot of criticism. Tessa Jowell - not then declared as a London mayoral candidate, but with that contest clearly in mind - said: '£10 sounds very high. In my view the charge should be set at the lowest level possible consistent with the proper administering of the primary.' So it came down to £3. And there it still is.

Which is why I signed up to it. I think a £10 charge would have deterred me, but I always liked the idea of primaries (of voting in anything, really) and I thought that seemed a reasonable level.

I also thought that I'm maybe sort of among the kind of people that they might want to participate: someone who's voted Labour in the past, but not consistently, i.e. a floating voter who could be won over, and therefore someone whose opinion on the leadership might be worth taking into consideration. And being a single, childless man with a natural inclination towards sloth, I thought I might offer a different perspective to all those hard-working families so beloved of politicians.

Evidently I was wrong, since I've been rejected. (No word yet, incidentally, on the return of my three quid.) Somewhere there is someone in the Holborn & St Pancras Labour Party who has checked up on me, taken against me, and put my name on a blacklist, so that as soon as I tried to cast a vote, I received a rejection email.

This doesn't leave me feeling bitter, in the way that some longstanding members and activists clearly - and justifiably - feel when they've been excluded. But it does tend to reinforce the impression that it's all a bit risible (hence the cheap sarcasm yesterday). And it does irritate me enough that I don't particularly wish the party well; surely it's a normal human reaction to respond, 'Well, if that's how you feel about it...'

Mostly, though, it leaves me genuinely baffled. If the 'opening up' of Labour doesn't include me, who does it include? Perhaps I misunderstood from the outset, and the intention was to attract solid Labour voters who'd never joined the party. In which case, Miliband was even more useless than I thought: they're not the ones you need to win over.

But maybe in writing that last sentence, I've answered my own question. I have been writing on this blog for several years that Miliband was useless and would never win a general election. I've also been very critical of Labour's policy and direction. That doesn't mean I don't support the 'aims and values' of the party - which is all I signed up to - but maybe they're feeling a bit sensitive right now.

I do like the bit in the rejection email that says I can appeal but only if I apply 'to join Labour as a full member'. Which obviously costs a lot more money. You'd have to be very cynical, however, to conclude that this was all a fund-raising exercise. I'm not sure the party's capable of thinking that far ahead.

Saturday 5 September 2015


This is, as Rupert Murdoch would say, the humblest day of my life. I just voted in the Labour leadership, deputy leadership and mayoral candidate elections. And by return of email, I got the following message, telling me that I simply wasn't wanted:

Woe! Woe is me. Woe, woe and thrice again woe. I've been debarred, expelled, banished, excluded. My voice has been silenced and I've been denied my democratic rights.

Maybe it was because I said that I didn't consider myself a Labour supporter. Maybe someone noted my claim that I voted for the Monster Raving Loony Party in the general election. Whatever the cause, the result is unequivocal and admits of no appeal: I've ended up on a blacklist. I am beyond the pale, an outcast from Eden. And now I truly know the meaning of shame. I have done those things I ought not to have done, and I have left undone those things that I ought to have done, and there is no health in me.

Obviously I've written back to ask how I go about reclaiming the thirty pieces of silver (well, the three quid) that I gave them when I registered. But that'll be scant compensation for the feeling of rejection I'm experiencing.

Just for the record my votes (spurned, spurned, all spurned) went to:

Leader: (1) Liz Kendall, (2) Yvette Cooper, (3) Jeremy Corbyn, (4) Andy Burnham

Deputy: (1) Stella Creasy, (2) Angela Eagle, (3) Ben Bradshaw, (4) Caroline Flint, (5) Tom Watson

Mayoralty: (1) Christian Wolmar, (2) Gareth Thomas, (3) David Lammy, (4) Tessa Jowell, (5) Diane Abbott, (6) Sadiq Khan

I do like that 'Kind Regards' sign-off, though. That's a nice touch, don't you think? Even if they are purging me.

Friday 4 September 2015

This just in...

I see Newsweek magazine is running what it calls an 'exclusive':

Reading down a bit further, however, it turns out that it's not quite an exclusive, since the writer, Barney Guiton, does credit this blog with having found the story in the first place, for which my thanks.

Postscript: Following the appearance of this article, the TimesArchive Twitter account tweeted the following:

Theatricals - David Bowie

David Bowie's appearance in the title role of Bertolt Brecht's play Baal, broadcast on BBC television in 1982, wasn't one of his greatest acing performances. It's not much of a play either, to be honest, but then it was Brecht's first and he was only twenty when he wrote it. Quite why the BBC thought it was a good idea to revive such a minor piece remains a mystery, though you can see why they cast Bowie.

To accompany the production, Bowie recorded a five-track EP of songs from the show, his final release for RCA Records and Cassettes. And last up in the running order was this very short but very good track, 'The Dirty Song'.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Theatricals - David Courtney

David Courtney is probably best known for discovering Leo Sayer and producing the first two albums (the good ones). I've written about this connection elsewhere. Courtney also co-wrote and co-produced Roger Daltrey's first album.

This song, though, comes from his own debut album, First Day (1975). According to the original sleeve-notes, written by Anne Nightingale, 'David Courtney's music is self-evident'. I'm not sure about that. This song in particular sounds to me like it belongs on a film soundtrack, a kind of easy-listening prog, as though the Walker Brothers were covering Pink Floyd. This impression is helped along, no doubt, by the fact that Barry Morgan (drums) and Alan Parker (acoustic guitar) both played on the Walkers' comeback album, No Regrets, the same year, while the lead guitar is by Dave Gilmour.

Who this was supposed to appeal to, I have no idea. But I like it. So this is the closing track from the album, 'When Your Life Is Your Own'.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Brother, don't you walk away

Yvette Cooper's speech yesterday, in which she called on the government to respond more positively to the refugee crisis spilling over from the Arabic world, has rightly been acclaimed for its statement of basic humanity. But there's one bit that I think is a little misleading.

'Hungary and Sweden have had three times the number of asylum claims as Britain,' she pointed out, 'even though they are smaller countries.'

Well, yes, that's true, but is it relevant? Is land area the correct measure for the proper allocation of refugees? Other people have recently attempted to shame Britain by producing figures showing number of refugees accepted in relation to national population. And again, that doesn't necessarily seem relevant.

Personally, I don't think it's sensible or right to try to make such comparisons at all. Cooper's core argument is sufficient - that it's simply wrong to turn away from such a crisis: 'It's immoral, it's cowardly and it's not the British way.' This attempt to quantify our obligations is misguided.

Apart from anything else, if we are to draw up league tables, then neither area nor population is sufficient, since these don't confront the most commonly heard claim: that 'Britain is full'. If we're going to use a measure to compare countries, then surely the more appropriate method would be to factor in both area and population, by looking at density.

So I thought I'd post some graphs, to see if it helped at all. These are the population densities of the fifteen most populous countries in the European Union:

The UK is the third most densely populated of the major European nations, though it should be noted that there's a pretty steep fall-off after the top two. But you can see the pointlessness of Cooper's comment about Sweden: the geography of the place means it's not really comparable, so why compare?

If we then break down the constituent countries of the UK, you get this result:

To put that in the context of the first graph: Wales and Northern Ireland would come between Italy and the Czech Republic in the top half, while Scotland comes in just above Sweden at the bottom. England, meanwhile, has almost exactly the same population density as the Netherlands, despite having an area more than three times the size.

But that's not really enough information either, because of the vastly disproportionate size of England compared to the others. So, breaking it down further, we can separate out the English regions and include them along with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland:

Which would suggest that London is somewhat skewing the figures. London really is full, while Scotland's virtually empty.

Apart from that, I'm not sure we get very far. As I say, I'm not convinced that these things help any discussion of immigration or asylum. Better to stick with Cooper's moral message: 'How can we be proud of our history of helping those who fled conflict if our generation turns its back?'

Theatricals - Alan Price

The 1970s were an odd time for Alan Price. The previous decade he'd formed the Animals, who were terrific but (I always felt) a little tame on record, thanks to Mickie Most's production, as compared to their live act. And then he'd led the Alan Price Set who recorded a few good tracks and a whole lot more that were harmless.

So having done the pop star thing, Price began to branch out in the 1970s, and got into movies. Most famously he and his band appeared on screen repeatedly in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man (1973), providing a musical counterpoint to the story. Less famously, and certainly less advisedly, he took on the role of Alfie Elkins in Alfie Darling (1976); his performance didn't exactly eclipse Michael Caine's interpretation of the character. By the end of the decade he was writing a musical based on Andy Capp.

His finest moment, though, was on the 1974 album Between Today and Yesterday, half of which was a stunning evocation of his childhood in the north east, accompanied by the superb arrangements of Derek Wadsworth. Contained here was the basis for a genuinely great musical, had he wished to pursue it.

This is 'Between Today and Yesterday' itself, in a version released on the 1976 live album Performing Price. If I'd been making the TV series Our Friends in the North (1996), this is the song I would have ended with, rather than Oasis's 'Don't Look Back in Anger'.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Theatricals - Peter Straker

According to Wikipedia, Peter Straker is 'best known for appearances in Doctor Who and the 1985 ITV series Connie.' Is he? Round my way he's best known for being in the 1968 original London cast of the musical Hair, for his collaborations with Freddie Mercury, and for his fabulous androgynous role in the 1971 film Girl Stroke Boy (he's involved in 'a relationship that is as godless as it is fashionable').

Where we're all agreed, then, is that he's not best known for his 1972 debut album Private Parts. But he probably should be, because it's a fine album.

It was written and produced by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, who had earlier brought us Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich and the Herd. Now, despite having made their name with the simplistic stomp of 'Have I the Right' for the Honeycombs, Howard and Blaikley had pretensions and aspirations. Which is why some of their others hits referenced subjects such as Milton ('Paradise Lost'), Coleridge ('The Legend of Xanadu') and Orpheus ('From the Underworld').

And on Private Parts, they decided to go for arrangements that would match their imagination. The songs are surprisingly non-immediate, but they grow on you, they grow. And the main selling-point is Straker's fantastic voice.

This is 'When Love Was Hard to Come By'. Somewhere there's a West End musical missing its big show-stopping ballad.

Monday 31 August 2015


One of the things I write is a game called Who's in the Bag?, which is a simple - but effective - little thing. There's a bag full of cards, on each of which there are three names and, without actually speaking the names themselves, you have to get your team-mates to guess who they are. There's a timer as well. It sells well and has done for a couple of decades now.

Every few years, though, it has to be updated to allow for changing tastes and fashions. Some people - say, Winston Churchill, Jane Austen, Stevie Wonder - are likely to stay in every edition. But others pass their sell-by date and have to be dropped. Robert Kilroy-Silk, for instance: he was thrown out of the Bag some time ago. Liam Gallagher more recently. For other reasons, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris won't be in the Bag this time. And meanwhile some new people will have emerged since the last version, who need to be added.

I'm now working on a new edition of both the main game and the add-on pack of cards. Which means I have to come up with over 1,200 names that I can reasonably expect to be recognised, or that are possible to guess even if they're not recognisable. Donald Trump, for example, is an easy name to convey, even if you've never heard of him. (Lucky you.) Similarly, Mary Beard, Nicola Sturgeon and Paddy Power.

The other factor is that this will probably still be in print in 2020. So there's an element of prediction here. Will Ed Sheeran still be a thing in five years time, or will he have faded in the same way as - oh, I don't know - Jake Bugg seems to have done? What about Harry Kane? Jennifer Lawrence? Will Katie Hopkins become big enough to warrant being put in the Bag?

It's a bit like a low-budget version of Madame Tussaud's selection process. I mentioned in my book A Classless Society that we knew Iain Duncan Smith was doomed as Tory leader when Tussaud's said he wouldn't get an effigy. 'He is not in the papers very much and you never hear his name,' said a spokesperson. 'We are not sure if our visitors will recognise him.' It was a damning verdict.

And the question that's currently troubling me is the parallel case of the Labour leadership. Whoever wins gets put in the Bag, of course. But the losers? If Andy Burnham doesn't get to be leader, is he going to become a household name? How about Jeremy Corbyn? Flavour of the month now, but if he fails to win this election, how big will his public profile be in a couple of years? Politicians generally aren't instantly familiar, as Pointless discovered a couple of years ago.

Much safer is the process of discarding people. Amongst those who I've thrown out of the Bag this time are Ed Balls, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Rebekah Brooks, Nick Clegg, Abu Hamza, Harriet Harman, Martin McGuinness, Peter Mandelson and Ian Paisley. These are, in my estimation, yesterday's men and women. There's a dangerous sense of power that comes with writing this game...

Any suggestions for people who have become famous in the last three years would be most appreciated.

Theatricals - Anthony Newley

Anthony Newley's extraordinary and wondrous life is too big a story to be told here. But the idea that a cockney kid from the East End could take on the musical, the most American of art forms, and make it his own, without compromising his origins; that he could turn himself into a major international star, commanding the respect of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr et al - this is truly inspiring. His achievement in conquering Broadway with Stop the World - I Want to Get Off (1961) is in some ways more impressive even than the British Invasion of the Beatles and the Stones.

This song, though, is from a much later date. By the mid-1970s, Newley's career was drifting, and he seemed an increasingly isolated figure, a leftover from an earlier era of entertainment. In particular, the musical was seemingly moribund, with his own latest attempt - the 1975 film Mister Quilp - failing to revive the genre. And there had been no new records since 1972's Ain't It Funny.

It'd be nice to say that his 1977 album The Singer and His Songs reversed that trend and re-established him as one of the key players on the world stage. But it didn't. It largely went unnoticed, so much so that, as far as I know, it's not been released on CD. It was, however, perhaps the finest collection of songs he ever recorded. And this - 'The Man Who Makes You Laugh' - is the last track on the album.

This live performance was recorded in cabaret at Monte Carlo, and it's fabulous. Newley's sense of the theatrical requires no make-up or costumes; he just lets the character take over his body.

Sunday 30 August 2015

Powerpop - Robyn Hitchcock

Well, you don't need me to tell you that Robyn Hitchcock is one of the finest songwriters Britain ever produced, or that his group the Soft Boys (featuring Kimberley Rew on guitar) were the best band of the post-punk era. These things are obvious - simple statements of fact.

So rich is Hitchcock's back catalogue, however, that there are some overlooked gems in there. And none of them are greater than this song. In 1984 Hitchcock released a 12-inch single on which the lead song was an okay copy of the Byrds' version of 'Bells of Rhymney' (lyrics by Idris Davies). And hiding behind it was this swooning piece of autumnal melancholia, 'Falling Leaves'. Honestly, it's gorgeous.

Saturday 29 August 2015

Powerpop - the Flamin' Groovies

For those of us who were still in primary school when the Flamin' Groovies released their classic albums Flamingo and Teenage Head, and weren't hip to that kind of thing, the first track we ever heard by them was their 1976 single 'Shake Some Action'. And nothing would ever be as good again. Of course we then explored the back catalogue and marvelled at the menacing garage rock of 'Comin' After Me', 'Teenage Head' and 'Slow Death', but 'Shake Some Action' remained in a class of its own, a masterpiece that took the spirit of 1965 and reinvented it for a new era.

Slightly overlooked, though, was the B-side of that single. For most bands, 'Teenage Confidential' would have constituted their highest achievement, a stunningly beautiful piece that's all jangly guitars and vocal harmonies, like the Byrds taking on Big Star. The song's a little slight in itself, but this recording is a masterpiece: Dave Edmunds's production positively shimmers, while the modulation to the minor key, two minutes in, during the instrumental outro, is a stroke of genius.

Like the A-side, 'Teenage Confidential' was co-written by group founder Cyril Jordan and by Chris Wilson, who'd come in as a replacement for Roy A Loney. Wilson, of course, went on to join the Barracudas, of whom more yesterday.

Friday 28 August 2015

Teresa Gorman

In memory of Teresa Gorman, who died yesterday, I thought I would post an extract from my book A Classless Society about the Maastricht rebellion, in which she was such a prominent feature. Apart from anything else, it's good to remember that both major parties have had long-standing dissidents, who party managers feel probably shouldn't be allowed out in public too much.

The attempt to get Maastricht ratified in the Commons dominated politics in the first half of 1993. In a series of votes a stubborn group of Conservative backbenchers fought every line of the Bill, often siding with the Labour Party in what John Major called ‘a mad-hatter coalition’. The ensuing bitterness soured the party for years to come. ‘In the voting lobbies it was not unknown for one Conservative MP to spit at another,’ remembered Michael Spicer. ‘Physical violence occurred during the course of one or two crucial votes.’ He also recalled a senior MP being dragged by his hair into the government’s lobby. 

Spicer was a key figure in the rebellion, but one who insisted on maintaining good relations with the whips and the leadership. He was also reluctant to attract attention to himself at a time when the open voicing of dissent guaranteed publicity. Indeed, Maastricht made media stars of several backbenchers who would otherwise have languished in obscurity.

Chief amongst them was Bill Cash, whose slight frame, unflattering pinstripe suits, greying hair and glasses made him look like Major’s Eurosceptic doppelganger. He was ‘the biggest bore in the House of Commons’, according to his colleague Julian Critchley, though another Tory MP, Teddy Taylor, disagreed: ‘I am the biggest Euro-bore there ever was.’ Cash managed to vote against his government forty-seven times during the Maastricht debates, with a further thirteen abstentions, and did what he was told just twice. 

He was rivalled in coverage only by Teresa Gorman, the MP for Billericay whose vocal enthusiasm for hormone replacement therapy, never knowingly understated dress sense and tattooed eyebrows (to conceal the fact that her real ones hadn’t grown back after being shaved) were matched only by her splendid quotability. ‘The Conservative establishment,’ she once announced, ‘has always treated women as nannies, grannies and fannies.’ 

There was an equally oddball supporting cast, with notable contributions from the married couple Ann and Nicholas Winterton, dismissed scornfully by Michael Heseltine as having a knack for stumbling upon ‘a populist cause waiting for a voice’. Their fellow MP Nicholas Soames was less restrained: ‘You’re cunts,’ he told them after one Commons rebellion, ‘and ugly ones to boot.’

This group of mavericks and misfits – a hard core of around twenty-five, with a similar number on the fringes – were undoubtedly motivated by high principle, albeit in some cases only recently discovered. This, however, was neither the first nor the lasting impression they made on a television audience. Every time they conducted yet another round of interviews on College Green, they came across as slightly strange, obsessed with an issue that simply didn’t feel like a priority to most of the electorate. They were not, for many viewers, very endearing...

Powerpop - The Barracudas

The Barracudas were a fabulous band. They started out playing surf music, which was at least distinctive in London in 1979. Bizarrely, they got signed to EMI at a time when the record industry was at a loss to know what was happening to music, and they even had a minor hit single with 'Summer Fun'. Shortly afterwards, however, they abandoned surf in favour of 1960s psych-punk, and decided to become one of the world's legendary cult garage bands instead - a bit like the Flamin' Groovies perhaps.

Consequently their debut album, Drop Out with the Barracudas (1980) contained not just the bouncy summer stuff that was expected of them, but also a cover of 'Codeine' and originals like 'I Saw My Death in a Dream Last Night' and 'We're Living in Violent Times' (I used the latter as a chapter title in my book Rejoice! Rejoice!). EMI clearly figured that, whatever it was that was happening to music, it probably wasn't this, and let them go.

At which point the Barracudas really did turn into one of the legendary cult garage bands, particularly in light of them recruiting Chris Wilson, who actually had been in the Flamin' Groovies. This was, after all, the man who'd co-written 'Shake Some Action', and now he was playing with the Barracudas. The best fanzine of the time, Bucketfull of Brains, quite rightly loved them.

They carried on gigging and eventually re-emerged on Closer Records with two excellent albums, Mean Time (1983) and Endeavour to Persevere (1984). This track, 'Shades of Today', comes from the first of those, and it's a nice piece of Byrds-influenced garage pop.

I have to say, though, that it would have been more obviously poppy in the hands of another singer. Canadian vocalist Jeremy Gluck was a truly wonderful live performer, and never gave anything less than a fully committed performance, but his voice wasn't really the most subtle of instruments. Which was part of their ragged charm. I liked them a great deal.

Thursday 27 August 2015

There'll Always Be an England

As a contribution to the growing fascination with early-eighties leftist politics and culture, I thought I'd post here my review of David Pinner's 1984 novel There'll Always Be an England. I wrote this some fifteen years ago for a site called Trash Fiction, which is now preserved under some dust-sheets in the attic:

David Pinner was originally an actor (he starred in The Mousetrap) before becoming a writer, principally of stage-plays such as Lenin In Love and Potsdam Quartet. He also, however, wrote the novel Ritual, which became the legendary film The Wicker Man in 1973 with a script by Anthony Shaffer. And he wrote this curio from the 1980s. I don't know anything about his politics but I suspect he's a traditionalist Labour man, since the temporary (as they turned out) successes of the left in the Labour Party of the early-1980s clearly scared the Bejesus out of him.

The whole of the novel is a diatribe against Trotskyist infiltration into the Labour Party and the inability or unwillingness of mainstream Labour to defend itself. The protagonists - old-school MP Roy Hampton, and Militantesque Terry McMasters - exist as mouthpieces for political positions rather than as characters, and the same is true of just about everyone else in the book. This, for example, is Hampton's ex-girlfriend engaging in dinner conversation with a clergyman who makes the mistake of saying that Marxism and Christianity have a lot in common; she's explaining where he's gone wrong:
For instance, Marx wrote an article called On The Jewish Question, which reminds me of another 'great' German's credo. For in this particular article Marx affirmed: 'What is the secular basis of Judaism? Self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. We recognise in Judaism, therefore, a general anti-social element of the present time.' And the Great Man ended his particular tirade with a sentiment which would have done credit to Hitler and Stalin, who as you know, Vicar, were both dedicated anti-Semites. For Marx proclaimed: 'Once society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism - huckstering and its preconditions - the Jew will have become impossible!'
I don't know people who talk like that over dinner. Considering that Pinner is primarily a dramatist, his dialogue is a little clunky. After a couple more drinks, the same character makes her - and the book's - position perfectly clear:
...although I would be the first to admit that Thatcher's authoritarian right-wing Toryism is potentially dangerous, it's the totalitarian left wing of the Labour Party which is the greater threat to the continuance of our democracy. If the hard left ever come to power in this country, which they may well do in the next ten years or so, they will be much harder to remove from office than Mrs Thatcher's present administration.
Of course, it turned out we didn't need to worry. The hard left was so damn unpopular that it couldn't even have got elected in 1997. But if you want to revisit the nightmares Tony Benn inspired in the 1980s - before he became the venerable old democrat that we pretend he is today - then this is just the book for you.

Powerpop - Bram Tchaikovsky

Bram Tchaikovsky (not his real name) was the guitarist in the Motors, of 'Dancing the Night Away' and 'Airport' fame. He left them in 1978 for a solo career that didn't really take off as it might have done. His most celebrated single was 'Girl of My Dreams' (1979), a fine piece of powerpop that was a top 40 hit in America, but it was a hit to which he never found a successful follow-up.

His best moment, though, was 'Sarah Smiles', the solo debut released in 1978, which is all about him: his songwriting, vocals and guitar. Well, him and Nick Garvey, also of the Motors (and formerly of Ducks Deluxe), who contributes the slightly odd production. Garvey clearly doesn't like to leave a sound untreated, so everything blends together into a breathless rush. And it's lovely - there are echoes, I think, of the kind of noise that Eno made on Here Come the Warm Jets. Apart from everything else, it features one of my favourite things: a guitar solo accompanied by wordless backing vocals.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Powerpop - the Autographs

Back in 1977 there was a band called the Stukas, who released a couple of singles, most famously 'I Like Sport' (produced by our old friend Pat Collier). In a parallel universe, this is earning its writers a fortune as the theme tune to a hugely popular TV game show.

Anyway, one of the Stukas was singer Chris Gent, who'd been knocking around the music scene for a couple of years, sometimes under the patronage of Mike Batt. If you remember the Milk Marketing Board's advertising campaign 'There's a Humphrey about', you may conceivably also recall 'The Humphrey Song' written by Batt and released under the name the Mad Hatters in 1976 - that was Chris Gent.

It was another pop mogul, though, who gave Gent what should have been his big break. The tycoon of teen Mickie Most - trying to find himself a niche in this era of punk and new wave - saw a Stukas gig, and liked the material, particularly one of Gent's songs 'While I'm Still Young'. He wanted to sign the band, but it was too late: they had already decided to split up and this was their final gig. So Most signed up Gent and guitarist Raggy Lewis, who then recruited guitarist Jim Ward, bassist Dave Spicer and drummer Pete Tulley and named themselves the Autographs.

Released on Most's RAK Records in 1978, their debut single, 'While I'm Still Young', came with still further pop pedigree, being produced by Richard Hartley and Tommy Boyce - the former was the original musical director of The Rocky Horror Show, the latter co-wrote all the best Monkees songs.

Obviously my perception of this single is shaped by when I first heard it, but I don't know any record that captures the unfocussed hormonal rush of adolescence with quite such joyous energy. I'm convinced it's one of the great pop classics and should've been a massive hit. But it wasn't, and the Autographs never released another single.

Chris Gent himself went on to become lead singer of Will Birch's band the Records, in time for their third album, Music on Both Sides, but he's probably heard most often as the saxophonist on Secret Affair's debut single, 'Time for Action'.

Harvey Proctor - a footnote

In the Harvey Proctor piece I posted yesterday, I included a Daily Mirror front  page from the time of his 1987 trial. Excluded from that image for reasons of space was this bit from the top-right hand corner of the page, which I think illustrates public attitudes of the time towards homosexuality and towards Proctor's travails:
You see what they've done there? They've got a photo of him passing a clothes shop and they point out - sniggering and chortling - that the sign says L'Uomo Elegante. Well, that may be Italian for 'the elegant man', which 'aptly described the dapper MP', but it also sounds a bit like 'homo'. And that's apt as well. Because he's a homo, isn't he?

You might care to bear in mind that this is the Daily Mirror, the more enlightened of our tabloids in the 1980s.

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Harvey Proctor

It is not easy to feel sorry for Harvey Proctor.

In 1987 he stepped down as a Conservative MP when he was charged for gross indecency, having been caught in a tabloid sting that involved flagellation games with rent boys. At the time, the age of consent for male homosexual practices was twenty-one, and the evidence was clear that Proctor genuinely believed that his partners were not only consenting but of age. They weren't, though they were over sixteen, our current age of consent.

Many of those who might have supported him, as the victim of press intrusion and of an unjust law, were reluctant to do so, since his attitude to race and immigration had already alienated most of civilised society. And many of those who had previously supported him precisely because of that attitude - well, they were now alienated by the revelation of his sexual proclivities.

Daily Mirror 21 May 1987
So, not many people have ever sympathised with Harvey Proctor. Nonetheless, it is worth reading the statement he issued yesterday, denying any involvement in an alleged child-sex ring at Westminster.

In the statement, he quotes extensively from what he says is 'the police disclosure document given to my solicitors two days before my first interview with the police'. And when you read the allegations as bald statements, you can see Proctor's point: 'My situation has transformed from Kafka-esque bewilderment to black-farce incredulity.'

Because it is alleged that the circle of abusers included a (current or former) prime minister, home secretary, head of MI5, head of MI6 and chief of the general staff. These men would gather in private houses where they would rape, torture and kill young boys.

I wouldn't deny that there have been, and are, men who take sexual pleasure in the torturing to death of children, but they are vanishingly few in number, surely? For so many of them to have reached such senior positions in society simply defies belief. They didn't manage to do so in the Third Reich, but they did in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s? It's implausible that the holders of these posts were all homosexual, highly improbable that they were all paedophiles, and frankly impossible that they should all be homosexual, paedophile, sadistic murderers.

The only way of believing such a thing is to go the full distance and claim that the establishment is staffed by an alien species with an entirely different sexuality to that of human beings.

Yet even that wouldn't explain why this circle, if it did exist, would welcome the likes of Proctor. He himself admits that 'Edward Heath despised me', and adds: 'As an ex-secondary modern school boy from Yorkshire, I was not a part of the establishment.'

This is surely true. He was just about tolerated on the Tory backbenches in Margaret Thatcher's second term, but even there many regarded him as being an unpleasant oik. It's difficult to see such an impressive cast of grandees inviting Proctor into their homes in the first place, let alone encouraging him to join them in 'punching and kicking' a young boy to death.

The allegations are self-evidently absurd. And they run the risk of making all enquiries into old cases of paedophile abuse seem absurd by association.

There certainly were paedophiles in the upper ranks of the establishment. I wrote about the case of Sir Peter Hayman, for example, last year. And certainly things were covered up. But however appalling we find paedophilia, it is still in a different class of behaviour to child-killing. And however shocking we find it that action was not taken, averting one's gaze is in a different class of behaviour to participating in a murderous orgy.

The police, it is said, have a duty to investigate complaints, and obviously this is a sensitive area and a difficult time. Even so, this sort of nonsense surely shouldn't take too long to dismiss. Instead Proctor has had the allegations hanging over him for months, allegations that he personally murdered two children, and connived at the killing of a third. He has twice been interviewed at length over the claims.

It's not easy to feel sorry for Harvey Proctor, but for once in his life he deserves sympathy.

Postscript: I posted this just as Newsnight started, which included an interview with Harvey Proctor. There is perhaps one thing that should be added. He was asked by Evan Davis why he thought his name had been mentioned in the allegations, and he replied that perhaps it was because he was homosexual and had once pleaded guilty to indecency charges, albeit for offences that are no longer offences.

Well, yes, but there is the nature of the offences as well. He admitted paying teenage prostitutes, less than half his age, so that he could beat them. If I were concocting a story of sadistic pederasts in 1980s Westminster, his name might well come to my mind.

It's still nonsense, of course. Even more so. If he had access to twelve-year-olds who he could rape and murder to his heart's content, why was he still playing Trivial Pursuit with nineteen-year-olds and spanking them when they got the answers wrong? That's a different psychology entirely.

But it's worth bearing the facts in mind when he protests that the police are pursuing a 'homosexual witch hunt'. Because that's a daft claim as well.