Sunday, 24 February 2013

The politics of indifference. Part one: why nothing matters.

Once upon a time, not long before school, when I was still tiny enough for my father to carry me to bed, I’d nod off on the sofa in the evening while he’d watch endless news and current affairs programmes. I remember thinking that all those people in suits on television seemed preoccupied with something I thought for years was called ‘polytex.’ It sounds like something you use to paper over the cracks. Well, insert your own shrewd social observation here

Politics never fascinated me as a career choice, an active profession. The Seventies were dominated by overweight middle-aged men in ill-fitting suits and wayward hairstyles — seriously, no exaggeration, do a Google search — or Mrs Thatcher and Shirley Williams. These people were never going to be lifestyle icons to the switched-on supercool hipcat I thought I was, evidently, and I suspected the conversation would be limited and dull. It all came over as so grown-up, so earnest. 

By the time I was a teenager, politics for me had social currency, but really only by way of being the main target of derision of so many ‘alternative’ acts in that most fecund of decades for stand-up comedy. It may seem hard to believe that Ben Elton was funny in those days, given his poor showings on more recent TV, but he was, yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen. Funny, quick-witted, impassioned and if he seemed a bit preachy from time to time… well, maybe I needed a little of that too. Margaret Thatcher in Elton’s hands became ‘Mrs Thatch’, indivisible from her coruscatingly insane, bouffanted and vulture-faced Spitting Image puppet, surrounded by hopeless eunuchs or equally insane wannabes. Like practically everyone my age, I got behind all the alternative comedians and their largely left-wing invective because it was cool, it was happening and it seemed to annoy the older generation, not least the stand-up variety acts — or at least those who lacked the courage to accept that things had moved on, socially speaking, and moreover felt their livelihoods were threatened. Comedy had indeed become the new rock’n’roll. Yet, still I was skirting around discussing any real politics, actual matters of Parliamentary policy. I didn’t know much about politics, but I knew for certain what I didn’t like. 

This vague, contrary conviction hardened up a little by the end of my time at school, when a number of my chums joined their local Young Conservatives Club. My grasp of Tory party policy was tenuous, but considering I’d spent the best part of the decade laughing at the contemptible Conservatives and their monstrous leader, I found this determination in my colleagues to vote for the designated bad guys (once they were of legal age, remember) baffling at least. It’s entirely possible that they were encouraged to join a social club that met with parental approval, the better to meet girls and be out of the house for a few hours — but all that besides, they really were, in my eyes, the most pathetic specimens in the Sixth Form: one of their number had the nickname ‘Square’ in recognition of his achievements in the dullest aspects of mathematics and the other, it was well-known, had embarked on a weird insect torturing-and-killing spree after being dumped by a girlfriend of four days. Not exactly ideal poster boys for the Blue team I’m sure you’ll agree — but interestingly, none of this made me want to vote Labour by way of contrast, either. I had a sneaking suspicion their shindigs would be populated by Red Flaggers just as inept, awkward and boring. 

The situation became more intriguing at college where I witnessed firsthand the active abuse of politics by individuals for personal ends. I’m talking about sex of course — it seemed so blatant to me that shaking a tin to raise money for a campaign to stop atrocities in Bosnia (this should date my time at University for you all) was done less out of sympathy for the people of the former Yugoslavia and mostly to get that redheaded Student Secretary for Social Justice into the sack. I have alluded to this before (here) and should point out instantly that I was as much a party to this hypocrisy as anyone. Believe me, my desire to attend a ‘die-in’ at Trafalgar Square in the mid-Nineties was motivated more by a shapely pair of pins and long blonde hair (neither my own, I hasten to add) than any previously apparent (or indeed subsequent) outrage at French Pacific Nuclear Testing. Apparently Greenpeace is 80% female membership, you know. However, as surely as I recognise this hypocrisy in myself, I’ve always been doubtful, in my dealings with people, of the motives in making their political affiliations overt.

Having said ALL of this, I find as I get older that my genial fence-sitting of old to be frankly rather spineless and increasingly feel the need to make a decision. After all, no-one’s truly apolitical, are they? It’s all just a question of whether an issue affects you, and/or if you allow it to do so. So, I’ll leave you with the promise that I have a countering essay lined up to argue this drivel. 

In the meantime, allow me to tell you a brief story of political terrorism that I perpetrated during my time at College. 

The end of the Spring Term of my first year at College coincided with the election of a new President for the Student Union and several ancillary positions on the Student Council. This was relatively exciting as I happened to know several of the candidates who went up for these posts. There was a tall, handsome, long-haired and cheerful chap called Wayne and his ever-present mate, Matty, who contrasted pleasingly enough by being shorter, fatter and bald, if no less jovial. There was another skinny, blandly earnest chap and a rather enthusiastic girl taking the number of Presidential Candidates up to four. Memory fails me on their names, but let’s call them, er, Phil and Clare. 

We had the hustings one lunchtime, where the four candidates stood up and stated their suitability. Phil came across as the crushingly mediocre kind of chap to run the Union like a business. He’s probably doing something tedious but well-paid in the City these days, in his forties like me. Clare sadly hadn’t really thought out her strategy but had been clearly put up for the job by being harmless, approachable and energetic. We won’t hear any more from her. But Matty and Wayne had the proceedings sewn up. Wayne outlined his plans to get bigger indie acts to play at the end-of-term College Ball — the rock’n’roll President card. Matty promised better funding for outdoor events, Extreme Sports Societies and other healthy fun. Both came off to the kind of applause a headline act normally gets at a gig. They were gonna give the people what they wanted

That evening I realised that Matty and Wayne had played their parts in the hustings almost as a double act. My feelings on who actually got voted in was secondary to my feeling that something didn’t seem right. I got out a pad of post-it notes and wrote on one of them, using block capital letters and writing upside-down, the better to hide my left-handedness further:


I wrote on a second note: 


My dormitory was part of the same building as the College refectory (it was a Catholic Convent, fascinatingly enough). An easy enough task to sneak downstairs in the wee small hours in stockinged feet, in near-darkness, and place the post-its respectively on Matty and Wayne’s candidacy posters on prominent display in the refectory lobby. I snuck back to my room and even destroyed the underlying post-it notes on the pad I’d written. Then went to sleep. The refectory opened at 8am the following morning. 

I padded downstairs at about 9am to considerable hubbub. It was hardly V For Vendetta, but I felt a thrill nonetheless as I queued for my breakfast to have one of my friends remark despairingly to me, “…but it’s sabotage!” and I nodded sagely. Oh, how I nodded sagely. Feigned ignorance. And felt mildly, deliciously naughty.  

Do you know, I think Wayne got voted in on a landslide majority. But I had expressed my pointless point of view.

I have never told anyone I did this until now. So feel honoured! 


Now listening:
Radio 3 as standard. And lots of Maria Callas. 

Now watching: 
Monty Python And The Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975) 
Monty Python's Life Of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

Doctor Who: The Ark In Space (BBC, 1975) — Top-form Tom Baker. Indomitable. 

Ashes To Ashes: series two and three (BBC 2009, 2010): after some wobbles in the first series the characters hit their marks and the plots are more engaging in the last two series, with a genuinely elegaic ending to round things off. Splendid and satisfying. 

Monday, 4 February 2013

Rant-wank for 2013.

It has to be said upfront, if the title of this essay didn’t convince, that your generally gentle and hopefully genial correspondent is not enjoying his 2013 so far. This time last year I wrote an article that expressed my fears for the future of HMV. It was hardly the most adroit piece of prophecy, but the news of past weeks still arrived with a degree of shock and suddenness; finally, this most eminent and estimable of music retail institutions is going into administration, its outcome uncertain. My main fear, voiced last year as now, is that without worthy shopping establishments and the opportunities they afford people to venture out into the Big Wide World and Deal With Other People (Possibly Strangers), we will find instead that the West End — the very heart of London for many — will become a deader place to inhabit. Sure, they could always open another restaurant on the site, but that’s all it will be — another restaurant.  

I’m reminded of a sketch Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie performed on their supreme Nineties TV show A Bit Of Fry & Laurie which involved a discussion about the then-burgeoning broadcast deregulation legislation that inaugurated the Satellite television era: the fear expressed was that while the acquisition of dozens more channels would offer more choice, and a break from the perceived ‘tyranny’ of the UK’s terrestrial televisual tetralogy (BBCs 1&2, ITV and Channel 4. We only had four channels on telly in those days. Yep, four. All terrestrial) we would be getting less quality overall as the new channels would be full of shit, to put it… er, much as it turned out. The corollary, as Fry & Laurie imagined, would be analogous to asking a waiter in a posh restaurant to exchange a single, dirty, solid silver spoon for a bin filled to the brim with thin plastic coffee stirrers. They may be all crap, so the punchline went, but at least you’ve got choice, haven’t you?


If truth be told, I wasn’t enjoying 2013 even before it had arrived. It’s strictly personal, not stuff I’m prepared to discuss, I’m afraid, as much as I suspect it would unburden me to do so. Please take my assurance that I have resolved, beside my New Year Resolutions, not to wallow in past problems and try to take this year as I find it.

As to the matter of those pesky Resolutions, I confess I did not make it easy for myself this year. Two this time around: no messing, no philosophy, both tangible and publicly achievable ventures. The first was simple in its unambiguity: Drink No Alcohol Throughout January. You may appreciate that the weeks leading up to and including Christmas involved a prodigious amount of jovial cavorting and carousing, to the extent that I presume my liver never caught so much as a whiff of a day of unqualified cleanness and sobriety throughout. All this Bacchic revelry ended, not with a bang but with a bit of a pop, on the evening of January 1st 2013, with the last of the inaugural bubbles and a valedictory cup of mead.

But now — it’s February and I have completed my task. Only on one day over the whole of the previous month did I imbibe, and since this was due to a friend’s birthday celebration — a day I had predetermined I would allow before I even embarked on this crazy venture — I can consider myself clean and sober for just over five weeks. Boy, were they long weeks. During the first fortnight on the wagon I would have told you that out of all my attempts at a health drive, this one was a right fucker and no mistake. Richard Harris once memorably referred in interview to the ‘fourteen boring years’ he spent on the Temperance Train and in some small way, I received an insight into how that felt. That sinking feeling that descended each and every time I realised that a particularly bad day at work could not be mitigated with a pint at lunchtime or several afterwards. The prospect of a sociable lubricant on a congenial Friday or Saturday night with friends — gone. I found myself spending more evenings in at home in January than I probably spent in the previous three months put together — and with that, a comcomitant insularity. Fortunately, I had Mrs M as my guardo camino, my co-traveller on the road to purity. I have to say that she seemed to operate as evenly and as sweetly-natured as ever she did, with none of my fuss and mithering — for which I was not only grateful, but quietly impressed. She is evidently a tougher cookie than I am, and a better person for all that too.

As for any physiological effects, well, I admit I did look forward with a morbid — albeit undeniably excited — trepidation to the prospect that I may wake shaking in tremulous delirium of a morning several days in. This has not happened. There have been two notable changes in my bodily function. First off, I have visibly lost some weight, mainly in my face, hands and about four inches off my waist. My double chin has receded to the point where I appear to have a discernible jawline. This has been a few years in remission, so it was a strange feeling, upon trimming my beard, to notice parts of my face that go in where previously they went out. I have knucklebones instead of dimples on my hands, and my fingers closely resemble those of my octogenarian mother, a detail pointed out to me by Mrs M and one I find delightful and reassuring.

The second change has been in my sleeping pattern. Whereas I used to be a strict 7am riser irrespective of workdays or weekends, I have found that I lie in dozing much as I last did as a teenager, and if left unchecked of a Saturday morning will awake some time after 9am. On more than one occasion I’ve not set foot on bedroom carpet before 10.30am, and frankly this appalls me. There aren’t enough hours in my spare time as it is. However, it has shown me that my main motivation in getting up was mostly dictated by hangover — and that’s not a good reason to spring out of bed prematurely. I do like my sleep, in its place.  

Anyway, while this hasn’t exactly been the most exciting thing in my life at the moment, I thought it would prove to be quite a useful thing to chronicle, given that it’s not been lost on me these past weeks that my announcement to undertake a month off the sauce was greeted in most camps with incredulity and a distinct whiff of scepticism. Before I took this on, I wouldn’t class myself as pathologically addicted to drink. Well, now I know for certain that I am not. It seems I have simply not tried hard enough in my alcoholic efforts. Well, good-oh for that.

Oh, my second New Year Resolution: learn to read and write music. It may come as a surprise to some of you that I have about as much technical aptitude in music as a spoon knows the taste of soup. As a child I remember learning the road signs depicted in The Highway Code. The colours and graphics fascinated me, but clearly not so much as to make me take up driving. Well, it’s time I learned how to navigate the High Cs, if you’ll forgive me. I’ve been crotchety of late, but now I’m positively quavering with anticipation. I used to stop at the pub and now I’m going to rest at the end of a bar. You’re not paying extra for these tortuous musical puns, you know.

Thank you, you’ve been kind. I’ll go now. 

But first, a drink.


Now listening:
Lots of Radio 3. Like, lots of Radio 3.

Khovanshchina by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). Exotically orchestrated Russian opera, written by a gifted man frustrated by his day job and consequently driven to drink. Well, aren’t we all?

Now watching:
Doctor Who: The Reign Of Terror (BBC, 1964) — The magical, mercurial William Hartnell as the original Time Lord, in a story set in Revolutionary France and featuring two episodes restored with stylish animation.

Doctor Who: Legacy Boxset (BBC 1979, 1993) — A fascinating odds-and-sods collection of documentaries and all extant footage of the ‘legendary’ unfinished Who story, 1979’s Shada, with the magnificent and unmatchable Tom Baker as the Doctor.

Life On Mars: series one and two (BBC 2006/2007): splendidly pungent and frequently hilarious 1970s procedural cop/time travel drama, with Philip Glenister’s immense portrayal of non-PC DCI Gene Hunt a standout creation.

Ashes To Ashes: series one (BBC 2008): the not-as-good but still-worthy sequel to Life On Mars.

Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool (1971-1988): Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry canon. Seemed appropriate after all that Gene Hunt.