Tuesday 30 June 2015

The Day of the Women

Now that Sandi Toksvig has finally left Radio 4's The News Quiz to put her energies into the Women's Equality Party, it's perhaps a good time to remember one of my favourite works of exploitation fiction: Pamela Kettle's The Day of the Women.
Published by the New English Library (who else?) in 1970, it tells the story of a new women-only political party called IMPULSE. The leader is named Diana Druce, and this is her telling her followers how to explain the party to their husbands:
Remind them that men have not found a way to lead this country out of trouble so far; that we have swung like a pendulum from crisis to crisis. In the past they have made war and even in victory have not known how to resolve peace. They have misused power over our economy and mishandled our international relationships. You know it is true. I know it is true. But we have to face up to the fact that your husbands are better informed politically than you are. They might confuse you with argument and you do not have the knowledge or experience to answer them back effectively. Not yet.
As the cover suggests, the party is instantly successful, sweeping into power at a general election. At which stage, obviously, the going gets a bit tougher.

It's not, to be honest, a great book, but maybe one day it'll earn itself a place in history as a prediction, forty-five years before the fact, of the inevitable rise of the Women's Equality Party.

Saturday 27 June 2015

How to leave a calling card

Next month it will be fifty years since the Conservative Party chose a new leader. Alec Douglas-Home had resigned - just ten months after losing the 1964 general election to Harold Wilson - and for the first time the party was staging a leadership election. Previously leaders had 'emerged' after informal soundings had been taken.

The front-runners this time were Reginald Maudling and Edward Heath. Maudling was a major figure, having been chancellor of the exchequer until the election defeat, while Heath was then little known to the public: his biggest jobs had mostly been behind the scenes, first as chief whip and then as Britain's chief negotiator in the country's unsuccessful attempt to join the European Community.

In the country, there would have been no doubt about the victor, but at this stage the electorate consisted solely of Tory MPs - and former chief whips tend to have a bit more sway in such circles.

So they went into the final day of campaigning with the result very much in doubt. 'Tory Big 2 Neck and Neck for Ballot No 1,' read the headline in the Daily Mirror, and the Daily Express agreed: 'It looks like a very close finish - perhaps deadlock.'

The rogue element was the third entry in the field, the former health minister Enoch Powell. No one expected him to get more than a couple of dozen votes, but that might have been enough to muddy the waters. If a candidate was to win on the first ballot, the rules required him (no one was thinking it might be 'her') to get over 50 per cent of the vote and to have a clear 15 per cent lead over the second-placed candidate. Powell's involvement might make that difficult, and mean that a second ballot could prove necessary.

It turned out that it wasn't. Heath got 150 votes (50.4 per cent) to Maudling's 133 (44.6 per cent), a result that didn't fulfill the second criterion, but was sufficient to persuade Maudling to withdraw from the contest, leaving Heath as the first grammar school-educated leader of the Conservative Party.
And what of Powell? Well, he didn't even meet the low expectations of his supporters. Just fifteen MPs cast their votes for him, although it's worth noting that a couple of them went on to better things: Nicholas Ridley and John Biffen were later to serve in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet. Powell had, he said, 'left his calling card', put down a marker that he'd be back. It didn't seem very likely, though: he was obscure before, and his profile hadn't been raised particularly during the campaigning.

Less than three years later, however, Powell had eclipsed both Heath and Maudling and had become the best known - if most controversial - politician in the country. The 1968 'rivers of blood' speech took him to undreamt-of heights. Just before that speech an opinion poll suggested that just 1 per cent of the public thought he should become leader in the event that Heath stood down. Run again after the speech, a similar poll showed him as the front runner.

And the lesson from this? Maybe that whoever loses the Labour Party leadership election this year shouldn't lose all hope. Or maybe not.

Friday 26 June 2015

MPs vote themselves a pay rise

With MPs about to receive their undoubtedly deserved 10 per cent pay rise, it's worth bearing in mind that there's nothing new about public dissatisfaction with politicians' wages. 

This is a cutting from the 25 May 1954 edition of the Daily Express, sixty-one years ago, mocking MPs as they cheerfully voted themselves more money, despite the professed opposition of the government:
I particularly like Bob Boothby's warning: 'We are reaching the stage when this House will be composed of company directors, trade union officials, journalists and a diminishing number of those with inherited wealth.' Trade union officials, indeed!

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Of teds and suchlike

I started writing a book last night. Or perhaps I should say a potential book. I don't have a contract for it, so it may never happen. But I think it will.

The concept is still very loose: it's about the 1950s, I know that much, but that's about as far as I've got. I'm writing about teddy boys to start with, and I shall see where I go from there. This does allow me to try on a different narrative tone - that of the 1950s popular press - which is entertaining me at the moment.

Tuesday 23 June 2015


I shall be appearing as part of a day of events at the Grundy Gallery in Blackpool on Saturday 4 July. It's tied in to The Unspeakable Freedom Device, described by its creator, Jennet Thomas, as 'an experimental narrative film and multimedia sculptural installation'.

Also appearing on the day are Esther Leslie, Sally O'Reilly, Jennifer Thatcher and Martin Rowson. The work of the latter, of course, can be found not only in the Guardian, but also on some fine book jackets, such as this one:
Further information on the event can be found here.

Monday 22 June 2015

The age of consent

Seventeen years ago tonight, the House of Commons voted for the reduction of the age of consent for male homosexuality from eighteen to sixteen, the same as it was for heterosexuals. As a matter of conscience, MPs were permitted to vote however they wished on this measure, and it passed with a majority of 207.

Broadly speaking, the Labour Party was in favour, and the prime minister Tony Blair and home secretary Jack Straw led the way into the Yes lobby. Just thirteen Labour MPs voted against - not very big names though their number did include Stuart Bell, Tam Dalyell and Gwyneth Dunwoody. Then there were the eleven members of the cabinet who, for one reason or another, did not vote either way: Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Gordon Brown, David Clark, Robin Cook, Jack Cunningham, Donald Dewar, Frank Dobson, Mo Mowlam, John Morris and Ann Taylor.

And, broadly speaking, the Conservative Party opposed the change in the law, though seventeen did vote in favour of the motion. Most notable amongst these was former prime minister Edward Heath, alongside the likes of Alan Duncan, Michael Fabricant and Shaun Woodward. Also voting for the reduction in the age of consent were Peter Bottomley and Alastair Goodlad, neither of whose names is remotely funny in this context.

'Satan's bearded folk singer' *

In the article published in the Sunday Times yesterday and signed by both George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith, they begin by quoting David Blunkett's views on the benefits system: 'bonkers'.

I've always had a lot of time for Blunkett. I seldom agree with him, but he's generally worth listening to (except when he's claiming that Ed Miliband was the new Clement Attlee). His instincts are those of the old working class, which made him an unusual figure in the New Labour Party. He was clearly aware of that position, that he was out of step with the modern leadership, which is why - for all his reputation as a plain-speaker - he buttoned his lip on some subjects altogether: when, for example, was the last time you heard him mention homosexuality?

More broadly, however, he has consistently voiced perceptions that challenge any sense of left-wing complacency. And, as the excitement over the Labour leadership election mounts, I'm reminded of a line from 2000, published in his book The Blunkett Tapes:
'The liberal left believe that if they think hard enough that the world is with them, then somehow it is, whereas the very opposite is true. Britain is an innately conservative country and we need to win people over to progressive politics.'
* The 'Satan's bearded folk singer' quote comes, of course, from the late Linda Smith.

Saturday 20 June 2015

Britain and Europe (slight return)

Twenty-five years ago, the Schengen Convention began the process of abolishing all border controls between states in what was then still the European Community. Britain, however, decided not to participate, prompting the Daily Mirror to lament our blinkered attitude in a stinging editorial published on 20 June 1990:

Friday 19 June 2015

Aren't you the famous Giles Fraser?

One of the problems with having newspapers like the Mail, the Guardian and the Telegraph online is that one finds oneself reading pieces that one would be so much better off ignoring. The work, for example, of Giles Fraser.

This week, Fraser contributed to the Guardian an article hinged on a book by Linda Dorigo and Andrea Milluzzi titled Rifugio: Christians of the Middle East. According to the blurb on the book jacket, the authors 'travelled through Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Turkey and Syria'.

It covers, then, a huge amount of physical and cultural ground, but I'm not sure this is the impression you'd get from Fraser's piece.

He spends the first 250 of his 600 words on the plight of Palestinian Christians, struggling because 'The Israeli occupation has left them little prospects [sic] in their home town'. He moves on to discuss how 'the US invasion was a disaster for indigenous Christians' in Iraq. Then, and only then, towards the end of his piece, does he spare a couple of sentences to note that the oppression of Christians is nothing new: 'to be fair,' he concedes, 'it long pre-dates the US invasion.'

There is a desperately important story here that attracts far too little attention in the British media. Of all the global issues that might be of concern to Western churches, it should - one would think - be pretty high up the list.

But Fraser simply can't help himself. He can't stop his second-hand, third-rate political agenda, his hatred of Israel and America,  from overwhelming all other considerations. Consequently, there's a condemnation of Islamic State but not of any current Islamic state. The closest we get is a reference to the near extinction of Armenian Christians as a result of Ottoman persecution a century ago.

The book itself, on the other hand, looks like a fine collection of images, and I should - however grudgingly - record my gratitude to Fraser for bringing it to my attention.

Thursday 18 June 2015

The Sign of Four

Some first impressions from last night's Labour leadership debate...

There are some Conservative MPs, supporters and commentators who have found the candidature of Jeremy Corbyn to be really too terribly amusing. They would be wise to stop their chortling. First because it comes over as smart young people bullying an old man, which is the kind of impression Tories shouldn't be giving. And secondly because Corbyn speaks for Britain much more convincingly than they do.

Just to be clear. Obviously I don't think Corbyn is going to win the leadership. Nor do I think he should - he'd be a disaster beyond the nightmares of Iain Duncan Smith. The electorate wouldn't accept him for a moment and Labour would be destroyed.

Forget policies, however, and the values he espouses are not too far removed from the image the British have of ourselves as a nation. When he talks of principles of fairness and equality, of community and public services, he resonates in a way that Ed Miliband never achieved.

To take a more obvious example: Tony Benn was adopted as the nation's sweetheart when it became clear that his politics were never going to be implemented, so we could simply bask in the warm glow of his values. Corbyn is no Benn - he lacks the charisma and the easy humour - but he's as close as we've got, and his status will be raised by this campaign.

He knows he's not going to win the poll, but there's another process going on at the moment, a quest for the soul of the party, and he's making his contribution to that. He may at least change the rhetoric, which would be a start.

Of the others, Andy Burnham still comes across as a lightweight, as does Liz Kendall - though presumably there's some grit there, given her determination to be a candidate when she has so little to suggest she's a leader. And the most convincing of the four was Yvette Cooper.

I commented on Twitter earlier this week that none of the four candidates would have made it into one of Harold Wilson's cabinets, and that none would become prime minister. I should like to amend that a little. Cooper would have done well in Wilson's time. At her age she'd only be a minister of state right now, but a cabinet seat would be confidently predicted for her in a few years' time.

On the other hand, I still can't see her - or any of the others - as prime minister.

But these are early days. The only thing we know about the 2020 election is that the Tories won't be led by David Cameron. Like most people, I think George Osborne will be prime minister and that he'll win the next general election. But all sorts of things can go wrong. What if the Tories are stupid enough to choose Boris Johnson as their leader? Cooper could beat him.

One other thing: I'm glad that Labour is finally getting round to thinking about the idea that sometimes leaders have to be removed. The Conservatives are wonderful at this - they even got rid of Margaret Thatcher when they realised she'd become a liability (which she had). At various times there was plotting in Labour ranks against Harold Wilson, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband - and not one person was ever prepared to stand against any of them. It can't go on.

Oh, and one other, other thing: I am aware of the many criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn - and the Left more widely - about how his hatred of Israel has led him into bed with some deeply unpleasant political figures and groups. Those criticisms are entirely justified. But I don't think that, for the public, this will damage the impression of a decent, principled man. (Unless he actually began to look like a serious candidate, of course...)

And, because I like him, I would like to note in his defence that he was one of the few MPs who still came to the non-stop picket of the South African embassy back in the 1980s, even though the group who organised that demonstration had been expelled from the mainstream Anti-Apartheid Movement. I spent quite a lot of time on those pavements and his support was a very good thing.

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Thought for the day

This is the first in a series of improving quotations to meditate upon. Today, as the Labour Party considers where things went wrong, our text comes from Hanif Kureishi's novel Intimacy (Faber & Faber, 1998):

'We were dismissive and contemptuous of Thatcherism, but so captivated by our own ideological obsessions that we couldn't see its appeal.'

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Black sections

The noisy controversy over Rachel Dolezal’s self-defining ethnicity in the last few days reminded me of the furore about black sections in the Labour Party in the mid-1980s. This is an extract from my book Rejoice! Rejoice!:

The conflict between the new identity politics and the Labour leadership was evident in the issue of black sections that arose in the middle of the decade. Black activists, particularly in London, began to call in 1983 for separate sections to be organized within constituency Labour parties, based on the model of the existing women’s sections.

They met with immediate opposition, both from the left – Eric Heffer and Militant were opposed in their own ways – and from above: ‘It would create significant problems of racial definition which could lead only too easily to endless unproductive acrimony,’ pronounced Neil Kinnock in 1984.

The following year, two of the leading campaigners, Sharon Atkin and Diane Abbott, met Kinnock to press their case, but again found themselves rebuffed. He asked who would be eligible to join, and was told that the sections would be open to anyone who considered themselves black. ‘Can I consider myself black?’ he asked, and they replied: ‘Patently not, because you’re so obviously white.’ He later told the press: ‘I consider, and so do most other people, the idea of a segregated section on the basis of colour or racial origin to be repellent.’

Despite the opposition, several local parties did set up unofficial black sections, starting with Vauxhall and Lewisham East in London, though their contribution didn’t always seem to be characterized by compromise and comradeship.

‘The Labour Party itself perpetuates racism,’ claimed a booklet produced by the Vauxhall branch for the 1984 conference. ‘It is an institution rooted in a racist society and its own routine practices, customs and forms of organization exclude black people from the structures of power as effectively as if they were barred from membership.’ A conference resolution that year to set up official black sections was rejected by the union block votes.

It was a contentious issue and one that produced a series of anomalies. The Enfield and Barnet branch of the far-right National Front passed a resolution welcoming the idea ‘as the first stage in the realignment of British politics on racial lines,’ adding that: ‘These sections clearly indicate both the inability and unwillingness of blacks to integrate into British society.’

Meanwhile a selection meeting in the Brent South constituency chose Paul Boateng as its parliamentary candidate, but was faced by a demonstration led by Sharon Atkin because the local party didn’t have a black section, even though all those on the shortlist were themselves black.

The controversy died down almost as swiftly as it had arisen. The gradual adoption of leading black figures as parliamentary candidates – Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz, Russell Profitt (who had been the party’s only black candidate in 1979) – took much of the steam out of the campaign, leading some to conclude that all along it had been, in Roy Hattersley’s words, ‘really a vehicle for promoting the parliamentary ambitions of metropolitan, middle-class professionals’.

Monday 15 June 2015

Labour leadership and the Magna Carta

The Labour government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was not noted for its liberal tendencies. During Blair's premiership, this was symbolised by the attempt in 2006 to allow the state to detain 'terror suspects' for up to ninety days without charge. Just like in apartheid South Africa.

That attempt failed, but two years later - with Brown now prime minister - a new Counter-Terrorism Act plucked another figure out of the air, and sought to increase the maximum period of detention without charge from twenty-eight to forty-two days.

Thirty-six Labour MPs rebelled against this in a Commons vote, but it sneaked through when the Democratic Unionist Party ('the political wing of the 17th century, according to Owen Jones) was bribed by the Labour government to support the measure. It was not until the House of Lords voted against that the government dropped the proposal.

This occurs to me today for two reasons. One is that it's the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, which brings to mind Tony Benn's response to that Commons vote: 'I never thought I would be in the House of Commons on the day the Magna Carta was repealed.'

And the other reason is that today is the day that nominations close for the leadership of the Labour Party. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall already have enough to ensure that their names go on the ballot paper; at the time of writing, the support for Jeremy Corbyn's campaign is unsure.

Kendall was not a member of parliament in 2008, so didn't have a chance to express her opinion, but no one will be surprised that Burnham and Cooper happily trotted through the lobbies to support the forty-two days rule - this simply wasn't something worth risking their political careers on. Corbyn, equally unsurprising, was one of the rebels.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Now that's what I call a Labour leadership election

Final nominations are due in tomorrow for candidates wishing to stand for the Labour leadership. Which inevitably brings comparison with the best slate of candidates who ever stood for the job, back in 1976 when Harold Wilson unexpectedly resigned as prime minister. The following is an extract from my book Crisis? What Crisis?...

The three principal candidates of the right in the election were Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Anthony Crosland, who had respectively voted for, voted against and abstained in the crucial 1971 Commons debate on entry into Europe. The rivalry between them ensured that there was no single figure around whom the right could comfortably coalesce, though the election did go some way towards resolving the issue for the future.

In the first ballot Crosland was decisively beaten into last place with barely 5 per cent of the 314 votes cast by Labour MPs (who then made up the entire constituency), and was therefore automatically knocked out.

Jenkins came third in a field of six but, distraught at having got only fifty-six votes, withdrew from the race, to the undisguised glee of his arch-enemy: ‘When I think of the fantastic press that man has had, year in year out, and all the banging I’ve had, it is gratifying that he should have only got eighteen votes more than me,’ exulted Tony Benn, who had already announced his own withdrawal.

It was indeed a disastrous performance by Jenkins; ninety Labour MPs were considered at the time to be strongly pro-European and yet the man who had risked his career by defying the party whip on the issue, and should therefore by rights have been the leader of that group, attracted little more than half of them.
Healey, however, coming second to last, with a paltry thirty votes to his name, refused even to consider withdrawing, and thereby enhanced his position for the future. Where Jenkins looked like a beaten man, Healey was revealed as a born fighter, determined to stay in the ring until forcibly ejected from it – next time round, it was clear, he would be the champion of the right and would probably be the favourite to win.

Crosland’s analysis of the contest summed up the shifting fortunes of the also-rans: it was, he said, ‘A year too soon for Denis. Four years too late for Roy. Five years too soon for Tony. Two years and one job too soon for me.’

The left was also split, despite the performance of Michael Foot. He came top in the first ballot, getting three times as many votes as Benn, but Benn was able to take comfort from a Sunday Times poll that showed him as the second-placed candidate among Labour voters, clearly ahead of Foot. Amongst Labour activists it is to be assumed that his support was stronger still, such was the growing gap between the old left in Parliament and the younger, more radical factions in the party outside, who looked to Benn as their tribune.

Foot had only joined the front bench in 1974, after many years on the backbenches, and though he brought with him a history as the conscience of the left and as the passionate defender of the memory of the sainted Nye Bevan, whose constituency he had inherited, he was starting to seem like something of a relic, a platform orator in a world shaped by the mass media. Moreover he was a man whose fierce loyalty to the party ensured that he would always side with the leadership in moments of crisis, a fact that was anathema to the idealist Jerusalem-builders two generations below him.
For it wasn’t just the attitudes that were looking elderly; now approaching his sixty-third birthday, Foot was older than Wilson himself. Even so, he was still younger than the man who beat him in the third and final ballot. (Healey had been knocked out in the interim round, gaining just one vote more than Benn had on the first ballot, which again gave the latter ‘great pleasure’.)

James Callaghan, the ultimate victor in the contest, was in many ways an outsider in the race, overcoming the handicaps of birth and circumstance. ‘Prime minister, and I never even went to university,’ he marvelled in his moment of triumph, revelling in his defeat of five Oxford graduates.

He had succeeded largely by remaining outside the fray; aligned with the factions of neither left nor right, but instead establishing himself as the master of the party machine, he carried no ideological baggage, just a reputation as a safe, if unadventurous, pair of hands. By these means he had already occupied the other three great offices of state – chancellor, home secretary and foreign secretary – before ascending to the highest position of all.

As Claudius put it in the recently screened BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, when he finally became emperor and was accused of being half-witted: ‘I have survived to middle age with half my wits, while thousands have died with all theirs intact. Evidently quality of wits is more important than quantity.’

Saturday 13 June 2015

Making your way in the world today...

Some extracts from an article written by Paul Waugh and published in the Independent on 17 February 2001:

'Tony Blair faced more accusations of "control freakery" last night when activists claimed that Labour was preparing to parachute a cabinet aide into one of the party's safest seats at the election.

'The constituency of Leigh in Lancashire had its selection process suspended this week when it looked as though the local party would exclude Andy Burnham, a special adviser to Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport…

'Officials from the Labour North West regional party intervened when Leigh Constituency Labour Party's executive committee voted on Tuesday for a shortlist of just four candidates...

'However, Kevin Lees, a regional official, warned the constituency party that unless it backed a larger shortlist of six or eight, he would suspend the selection process.

'When the local members ignored his advice, Mr Lees formally suspended proceedings and ordered that the party's ruling National Executive Committee should draw up the shortlist instead.

'The sanction of imposing a shortlist is a tough measure, normally used when there are allegations of infighting or militancy in a local party.

'Local members are convinced that the reason Millbank wants a larger shortlist is to include Mr Burnham and Jenny Smith, a former aide to Bill Morris, the general secretary of the T&G union…

'An angry party member told the Independent: "This is jobs for the boys, and it's making a mockery of democracy. We've had our mines closed and the area desperately needs regeneration, and we need a local person to represent local people. The views of the local constituency are being overruled by a regional body about their choice of future Labour candidate. It stinks to high heaven."'

Friday 12 June 2015

It was fifty years ago today...

...that the Labour government of Harold Wilson announced the awarding of MBEs to each of the four Beatles. To mark the occasion, here's an extract from my book My Generation:
The awards prompted a wave of outrage and of honours being returned in protest by previous recipients; a former RAF squadron leader who sent back his MBE summed up the mood: ‘I feel that when people like the Beatles are given the MBE the whole thing becomes debased and cheapened.’ 

Cabinet minister Barbara Castle recorded that Labour MPs were unimpressed (‘The reaction was wholly unfavourable, the word “gimmick” being prominent’), and the artistic establishment was no less displeased, with Noel Coward noting: ‘Some other decoration should have been selected to reward them for their talentless but considerable contribution to the exchequer.’ Meanwhile the Downing Street mailbag revealed that disapproving letters outnumbered those in support by a ratio of two to one, though since a good many were from fans of other bands that had somehow been overlooked, that fact wasn’t perhaps overly significant.

Given that the same honours list awarded OBEs to singer Frankie Vaughan and to television actor Jack Warner of Dixon of Dock Green fame, it wasn’t entirely clear what the fuss was about. Certainly the Beatles were younger than most recipients, but then their foreign earnings – which had been what prompted the award – were considerably greater. 

A more serious concern was that put by another cabinet minister, Anthony Wedgwood Benn: ‘The plain truth is that the Beatles have done more for the royal family by accepting MBEs than the royal family have done for the Beatles by giving them,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Nobody goes to see the Beatles because they’ve got MBEs but the royal family love the idea that the honours list is popular because it all helps to buttress them, and indirectly their influence is used to strengthen all the forces of conservatism in society.’ 

He needn’t have worried: the award did little to make the establishment fashionable. If anything the danger was in the other direction, a fear expressed by Elkan Allan, co-creator of Ready Steady Go!: ‘When the Beatles got the MBE, pop music just became too respectable.’ The playwright Joe Orton, commissioned to write a screenplay for a Beatles film that sadly never happened, made the same point, albeit obliquely, to Paul McCartney: ‘The theatre started going downhill when Queen Victoria knighted Henry Irving. Too fucking respectable.’

But even those fears didn’t really materialize. The Beatles managed to carry off the MBEs episode without seeming to have made any concessions to the establishment, and subsequently claimed that they’d smoked a joint in the lavatories while waiting.

Wilson himself was to comment in later years that: ‘They were regarded as clean-living lads during the time they were getting established, whatever may have gone on later.’ Which suggested that perhaps he wasn’t quite as in touch as he liked to appear...

Thursday 11 June 2015

Lee Enfield - Forty Years

I make music sometimes, with my friend Paul Thomas, under the collective name of Lee Enfield. This is a video I made of one of our songs, 'Forty Years', which owes something to the likes of Johnny Cash:

School sign's out

In 1955 John Boyd-Carpenter, transport minister in the Conservative government of Anthony Eden, introduced some new road signs to Britain. They weren't destined to last long - superseded in just a few years by the celebrated work of designer Margaret Calvert - but they did mark a significant change in British signage.

In particular there is the one illustrated here, extracted from the Daily Express in September 1955. The old symbol for a School - a flaming torch - was replaced by a much more literal depiction: probably safer, but perhaps lacking in poetry?
What I hadn't previously realised is that this change was an attempt by Britain to fit in with the ways of our continental cousins. Which just goes to show that you really can't trust the Conservatives on Europe: Britain entry into the Eurovision Song Contest, decimal currency, the Single European Act, and now this - all on the Tory watch.

Sunday 7 June 2015

The horror, the horror

'The best horror stories,' writes Charles Moore, 'are the ones where the monstrous, frightening thing never quite takes a clear shape.'

And somehow you know that he's talking about The Turn of the Screw and a couple of M.R. James stories. Because people who make that argument always are; they're never talking about H.P. Lovecraft. Which is why it's such an irritating thing to say. It's also not true: the monstrous takes a very definite shape indeed in a great deal of the best horror fiction.

The rest of the article, incidentally, is yet another moan about the 1960s, the decade that some on the right view as the source of all that's wrong in the world. (Just as some on the left view Thatcherism.) How many more of these do we actually need?

Friday 5 June 2015

Yesterday Once More: Tougher sanctions are needed

This just in...

'Welfare reforms which will compel lone parents and the disabled to attend repeated job advice interviews or forfeit benefit will confront head-on the "poverty of expectation" sidelining thousands of Britain's poorest people, the government insisted yesterday...

'Ministers argue that it is reasonable to make a job advice interview a condition of claiming benefits, since many claimants are unaware of support the state can provide to help them avoid the poverty trap. Tougher sanctions are needed, they believe, to encourage the one million lone parents on income support and 2.8 million people on disability benefits back into work...

'He added: "It is the poverty of ambition and poverty of expectation that is debilitating. If you are going to crack that, you have got to confront it and do some things which people think are tough..."

'Mencap and the mental health charity Mind yesterday claimed compulsory interviews would leave millions of vulnerable disabled people in fear of losing benefits.

'There was anger from disability campaigners over plans to tighten the criteria for incapacity benefit, which ministers suspect is abused as an early retirement subsidy. Campaigners fear many genuinely disabled people will no longer qualify...

'The Tories accused the government of "talking tough" but not "acting tough". Shadow social security secretary Iain Duncan Smith said the whole success of the welfare-to-work programme depended on new jobs being created. But new employment legislation was boosting the burden on business.'

- extracted from Lucy Ward, '"Harsh" rules to benefit poor',
Guardian 11 February 1999
Note: The 'He' who is quoted in the third paragraph is Alistair Darling, then social security secretary in Tony Blair's Labour government.

Thursday 4 June 2015

Radio Times

The traditional way of presenting a radio show in the early hours of the morning is to adopt a slightly laid-back tone, assuming that many of those listening want to be lulled to sleep. That's not the approach favoured by The Two Mikes, broadcast on TalkSport from 1 am on weekdays.

Presented by ex-tabloid journalists Mike Graham and Mike Parry, the show features the two men talking at high volume, mostly simultaneously as they try (in vain) to bludgeon the other into silence and submission. They fight, they bicker, they hurl insults, they pick up on every little slip and error, they interrupt, they try to distract the other's train of thought, and they're the best comedy double-act I know of on British radio.

The main attraction, of course, is Mike 'Porky' Parry, who is an extraordinary broadcaster. His most obvious characteristic is the way his mouth always operates at least a sentence-and-a-half before his brain. This produces a relentless stream of Spoonerisms, mixed metaphors, contractions ('the Beefa, er, the FIFA Board') and malapropisms: 'We all know Billy Bremner was an avaricious drinker.'

It also means that he'll start down a path without the faintest idea of where he's headed. So he'll try to make a passing comment about poachers turned gamekeepers and then tie himself in knots trying to work out where he stands in this equation, before catching up with himself and declaring in triumph: 'I'm a poacher - by profession, by nature and by instinct.' By which stage, of course, he's forgotten the point he originally intended to make.

He also has the ability to run in several different directions simultaneously. So in the first hour last night (all the comments in this post relate to that one hour), the agenda was clearly that they would cover three subjects: Jack Warner threatening to spill the beans on FIFA, Jack Wilshere's behaviour at Arsenal's victory parade, and the appointment of Rafa Benitez as the manager of Real Madrid.

What we actually got was Parry rambling about everything under the sun, from how he was once reduced to poverty after a tax demand, right through to his account of how Chester (his home town) used to be the world's biggest port until 'a guy from China' threw some seaweed in the River Dee.

He also told us that he regretted the time when he described Spain as being full of peasants with bread under their arm, walking alongside donkeys wearing straw hats. And he insisted that he could speak with some expertise on the subject of badgers because: 'I've got a mate who once went to Cirencester Agricultural College.'

And all the way through, Mike Graham - the straight man of the outfit - is taunting and teasing and mocking Parry's doomed battle with the English language, his imprecision with facts, and his inability to follow a train of thought. 'You're talking absolute cobblers,' Graham concluded at the end of the first hour. And he was right.

Interrupting this endless squabble, they managed to take one phone call from a listener, who also talked non-stop, adding his voice to the two already fighting to be heard. And they spent a few minutes on the line to a Russian journalist, who was trying to make some points about FIFA, though it was hard to tell quite what he was saying, since his contribution simply gave Parry the chance to share his thoughts on what a beautiful country Russia was: 'I love the architecture of Moscow and Leningrad and St Petersburg...'

If Parry is the star, then Graham deserves a great deal of credit as well. Parry's had other partners before. Many have fond memories of his double-act with Andy Townsend, an ex-footballer whose nagging suspicion of his own intellectual shortcomings meant that he never quite knew when to challenge Parry's flights of contorted rhetoric. But Graham - a good, opinionated broadcaster in his own right - is the perfect foil.

And despite all the squabbling, there's a genuine affection in there. On occasion, normally later on in the night, they can get into dewy-eyed reminiscences of the old days of journalism, proving yet again that there's nothing quite as sentimental as an aging tabloid hack.

Although all the above quotes come from the first hour of last night's show, I can't resist including the all-time greatest Parryism, as revived regularly by Paul Hawksbee and Andy Jacobs, in which the great man described Bordeaux: 'You know, where the tapestry comes from.'

I'm not saying that Mike Parry is a genius. But he might just be a work of genius.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Charles Kennedy and Tony Blair

Much of the coverage of Charles Kennedy's death has focussed on his drinking and the end of his tenure as leader of the Liberal Democrats. By way of balance, this is an extract from my book A Classless Society, about the fine start he made to his leadership, immediately distancing himself from Tony Blair:

In 1999, after eleven years in office, Paddy Ashdown announced that he was stepping down as leader of the Liberal Democrats. From the messy wreckage left behind by the 1988 merger of the Liberals and the SDP, he had managed to salvage a workable third party, and to build its representation substantially in the Commons. His association with Blair had yielded some fruit – legislation on human rights and freedom of information were partly due to Lib Dem campaigning – but the ultimate goal remained as elusive as ever.

The party, in its various guises, had been waiting to achieve a share of power longer than Britain had been waiting for a men’s singles champion at Wimbledon, and still it hadn’t materialised.

Perhaps his successor, the much younger Charles Kennedy, might be the one to make the breakthrough, though Ashdown didn’t seem very convinced. Kennedy was ‘a very attractive personality but he could be lazy and foolhardy’, was the verdict he delivered to Blair, who was later to come to the same conclusion: ‘All that talent. Why is he so idle?’

On the day he was elected leader, Kennedy received a phone call from Blair with an invitation to a private dinner that evening. His casually unimpressed response set the tone of his new style: ‘Terribly sorry; I’m already fixed up.’

When he did finally meet Blair in Downing Street, his first question was, ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’, deliberately breaking the ban on cigarettes imposed by Cherie. He subsequently began to pull away from Labour, opening the possibility that the Lib Dems might now return to being a party of opposition...

Charles Kennedy: some quotes

Some of my favourite quotes from the late Charles Kennedy:

On aggression: 'The Liberal Democrats are nobody's poodles. But we are not Rottweilers either.' (1999)

On Tony Blair's government: 'An illiberal home secretary, an unethical foreign secretary, a conservative chancellor and a chameleon prime minister.' (2000)

On leadership: 'You never quite know what's going to happen next, but you try to give the impression that you do.' (2000)

On turnout: 'I don't think voter apathy is a problem for us.' (2001)

On smoking: 'After prime minister's questions, one of my first thoughts is that it would be nice to have a puff.' (2002)

On changing policies: 'What we go into the next general election with may not obviously make sense in terms of what we were saying at a previous general election.' (2002)

On lifelong heroes: 'There are some perks of this job - getting to meet David Bowie was one of them, I can tell you.' (2003)