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. 

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