Monday, 26 May 2008

Hostility to Wind Turbines: Why?

I have seen hostility to the introduction of wind turbines in two locations recently: on posters in a Hertfordshire village and then in a column in 'The Guardian' and it still remains something I cannot understand. People whine on about how wind turbines spoil the landscape and are spoiling the British landscape. I used to cycle a great deal in southern Oxfordshire and for miles and miles across that landscape all you can see is one thing: Didcot power station, well in fact it is two coal and gas burning power stations next to each other. That is the alternative to wind turbines, more of those, not only spoiling the view (the Didcot power station has been rated Britain's third worst eyesore) but also polluting the atmosphere. Now opponents to wind turbines say they only last 25 years, but how long do they think a coal-fired or nuclear power station lasts? Even then a wind turbine can be dismantled whereas other power stations leave radiation and chemical pollution in the soil around making the area unsuitable for cultivation or housing. They say that because wind turbines have to keep turning that they actually use up electricity. This is wrong. I regularly pass wind turbines in the UK and abroad which are actually static without any difficulty. Secondly, what do these people think happens at a nuclear power station when it stops generating electricity? It is not suddenly all switched off and closed up, it takes a great deal of electricity to maintain safely. People's views of coal and nuclear power station have long been misled so that they believe they are ever-lasting systems with minimal impact on the environment. Rather, they were a more or less necessary evil. When did you last hear of a melt-down or a chemical spill at a wind turbine?

Another factor is how beautiful people think the countryside is. You only have to drive or cycle around British counties to see that in fact it is full of what one might term agro-industry. There are tyres and plastic in every corner of Britain, piles of rusting machinery, vast featureless barns housing thousands of chickens or hundreds of cows. I went to a house in Oxfordshire which sat next to a barn which held 400 cows at any one time. They never leave the barn and there is a channel which funnels all their dung down to a huge silo which resembles a white coloured version of the old gas towers in towns. That holds their dung for a year then it is emptied. It sits above a village and even one of the farm labourers joked about what would happen if it began to leak or burst. This is the picture of much of the countryside of Britain. Like towns, it is a working place not a 'chocolate box' idyll. Another thing is, whenever I see wind turbines in Belgium or Germany they are generally along motorways, so the British can easily follow this model. The trouble is all of these residents of these little villages thinking they are going to be overshadowed by wind farms are obstructing the increase of wind turbines in the UK as a whole. In fact, as discussed below, demand is forcing up costs so most of these people who assume they will be having wind turbines in fact will not get any.

The other thing I do not understand is that compared to hydro-electric turbines which flood whole valleys and lead to the drowning of whole villages, why are wind turbines seen as being worse. I know locals who lose their houses dislike the HEP dams, but generally there was minimal opposition to them and in fact many people enjoy the lakes they create. Yet compare the size of a vast dam compared to a clutch of wind turbines: which distorts the landscape the most? Maybe it is an issue of time and because HEP dams have been around seventy years they are accepted. Perhaps by 2078, wind turbines will be as acceptable. Of course by then it might be too late. Possibly it is the marketing. I think the government is very poor at pushing wind turbines.

People often look back to the 18th and 19th centuries as representing the ideals for the rural landscape. If you were walking or riding around an English county, say, in 1848, what would you see? Hundreds of windmills. Norfolk had 400, Suffolk had 500 (17 of which could be seen from Ipswich alone) and Lincolnshire had another 500. Thus, you were unlikely to travel for more than a few miles in Britain without seeing one of the thousands of windmills that were dotted across the landscape milling flour, throwing it into the air making white factory-like clouds around them or pumping water. These days the number of standing windmills is around 20 per county, a small fraction of what you would have seen in the past. People have no problem with windmills, they want them preserved and restored. Yet, 160 years ago surely they were as much a visual blight as the wind turbines that people oppose now. Maybe the turbine makers have missed a trick and should wrap them up in white wooden slats or have red bricks around the base.

When I was growing up in the 1970s the price of oil rose sharply just as it is today. This was a result of Arab states realising had they had done increasingly certainly since the mid-1960s that they had an economic/political weapon which they could use against Western states who had kept them in an informal colonial relationship and were exploiting these countries for vast financial gain. The situation has different causes but the consequences are much the same. People spoke then about the 'oil shock' and it was seen as ending the post-war economic boom. Naturally people looked around for alternatives to oil and the bulk of the alternatives were the same today. There were biofuels, which people have known for decades can be grown, especially in tropical countries. There was solar, wind, wave and geothermal power just as there is today. Of course technology has advanced in the past thirty years, notably in terms of generating solar power. However, in the 1970s the UK was a leading country for the development of wave power and not bad in terms of wind power. Yet for some reason, because oil prices stabilised or vested interests in nuclear power pressed the government, these ideas did not. Now we are in a situation in which everyone is rushing for wind turbines, forcing up the costs immensely as demand outstrips supply. If in the 1970s the British had properly funded and developed wind power (and wave power where the British government effectively gave away our lead in technology) over the past thirty years it capacity could have risen steadily and at lower cost compared to rushing to do it now. It was not that no-one knew what was happening it was just they lacked the political will to do it.

Whining about wind turbines is foolish. It obstructs their development for yet more decades and in the meantime we will get more coal and oil and gas and nuclear-fuelled power stations, (a new coal-fired one was announced for Kent this March) which will mean in years to come the delightful villages these people think they are protecting will be partly flooded and covered with soot and be surrounded by fields of unhealthy crops and livestock due to the radiation. Of course the average Briton always wants the problem to go somewhere else. They want to fly more often but do not want the airport on their doorstep. They want more prisons but certainly do not want one built near them. They want mentally disabled and mentally ill people to be kept in institutions but would prefer the one close to them to be turned into luxury flats instead. In terms of power, they seem to expect everyone except themselves to be forced to have electricity shortages and somehow revert to the 18th century with all its poverty and early death. The British will reap what they sow and those who love the rural spaces should be rushing to embrace wind turbines as opposed to other forms of power generation, but of course they will not and they will suffer the consequences.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

I am the Final Person in My Family Ever to Go to University

I was trying to think of a clear title, what this is about is not the unlikelihood that I would have ever gone to university but the fact that no-one after me will ever get the chance to do so. These thoughts came about from two sources. First I was sitting in a waiting room yesterday waiting for the people I was supposed to be working with and picked up a leaflet for a university close to where I was sitting. It was aimed at parents of students rather than students themselves and clearly aimed to reassure parents about what they were going to be sending their children into. This in itself, I feel highlights how concerned parents are about letting their children out of their sight even when they reach the age of 18. The second thing relates back to my post yesterday that I had found due to the stupid residence laws that some time last August I acquired a common-law wife and common-law stepson of my housekeeper and her son, without me having done anything. This boy is 6 years old, and he says he wants to be a scientist, but reading this leaflet yesterday it was clear he stands no chance of that even now.

Now let us track back a bit. When Tony Blair came to power in 1997 he said his slogan was 'education, education, education' and in contrast to the proceeding Conservative governments rather than trying to make the UK into a low-wage manufacturing base, like the 'Taiwan of Europe' to paraphrase a Conservative MP of the time, rather a better educated, skilled country like our European neighbours. The aim was for 50% of 18-year olds and many others to go to University. Well it started reasonably well. The University sector had been rationalised since my days there in the 1980s when there had been universities and polytechnics, the latter giving more technically-focused degrees and of course with typical British snobbery they had been looked down upon as second class. From 1992 they were allowed to become universities and some have been very successful. Anyway, the idea was to get more people to university especially from socio-economic and ethnic groups that were under-represented in universities. When I went to University in 1987 6% of the UK population turning 18 that year went, now it is 40% but the level of working class people attending levelled off in 2002 so further increases have just been mopping up more of the middle classes. In 1987 you could get a very good job with 2 'A' levels, now with 'qualification inflation' you need at least a BA/BSc or even an MA/MSc. I found when I graduated that having a degree actually made me unemployable in many jobs and it was not until 2000, 13 years after I had graduated that I broke through the £10,000 (€12,600; US$19,200) per year salary level and then that was because I had 4 part-time jobs. Anyway, things have changed a lot since then. Most universities have four times the number of students they had in the late 1980s, in many cases crammed into the same number of buildings as they had back then and class sizes are far bigger. In my day you had 10-14 people in a seminar now apparently it is something like 40-50 people, so the quality of teaching or at least the amount of attention each student gets from a tutor must have fallen or substituted by online stuff. Of course the increase in student numbers have not been made up just by more UK students. All universities have increased the students they take from abroad, who pay three times the fees UK students pay. They are wonderful moneyspinners for the universities and it is unsurprising they bring in more and more. Apparently China is the golden goose for such students at the moment, but is likely to fade and be replaced by India in the next decade.

Now one thing I have always admired about the USA (and there are very few things) is that they have always valued education and seen it as a way for people to improve themselves. Given how beholden the UK has been to the USA (note current plans for an Armed Forces Day just like the USA) especially Tony Blair, it is unsurprising that the UK moved in that direction and it seems to have worked, though to a lesser extent than had been hoped for, at least more people can go to university than when I did. However, reading this leaflet yesterday it seems that period, of, say, a decade is at an end or perhaps it was shorter lived than that, beginning to come to an end in 2002. Now, it is not that universities have made it harder to get in, it comes down to money and this brings me back to the leaflet.

The leaflet outlined what students have to pay in fees. Fees were introduced for English students in 2006. Scotland and Wales decided that local students going to universities in those countries would not have to pay fees. However a Scot or Welsh person coming to an English university has to pay as does an English person going to Scotland and Wales. Students from abroad have always had to pay. Though non-repayable grants had been phased out in the 1980s and replaced by loans from 1991 onwards, up until 2006 UK students did not have to pay fees to study at university (except at the private University of Buckingham). Now, they have to pay £3,070 (€3868; US$5894) per year. Students from those odd bits of the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, all of which have their own governments have to pay £4,817-£19,267 as if they were foreign students. So, the cost of a 3-year course is now £9,210 (€11,604; US$17,683). Students can take out a loan to pay this and then begin paying it back once they earn more than £15,000 (€18,900; US$28,800) per year, which of course may not be the case for many of them given the average salary in the UK is £24,000 per year and in some regions like East Anglia only £19,000 per year, and 80% of the population earns this or less (which if 40% of 18-year olds are going to university, quite a few must fall into this category).

Of course the £9,210 only covers the fees. The fact that struck me in the leaflet was the living expenses. Now I know the university in question in in the expensive South-East of England, but they reckoned living expenses cost £5,500 for the first year and that is when the students are living in student halls with meals thrown in, let alone when they have to move out into rented accommodation (and all the scams landlords try with taking deposits, etc.). So let us say £5,500 for first year + £7,500 for second year + £7,500 for third year = £20,500 for living. Now, I know students work a lot more these days (when I was at university you were restricted to 6 hours per week, I have heard that limit has been raised to 20 hours per week), but let us say they do 20 hours per week at minimum wage (the kind of service sector jobs they can get in call centres, bars and shops) which is set to rise to £5.73 per hour (€7.22; US$11 - the minimum wage in USA rises to US$6.55 per hour this July; the price of fuel, food and clothing in the USA is far cheaper though, in 2007 the average price of petrol rose to US$3 per gallon [US$0.66 per litre] = £0.34 per litre, whilst by the in the UK you were paying £1 per litre), so paying £114 per week before tax and £5959 per year, before tax. Of course they can probably go up to 40 hours per week over the vacations and may be able to get pay above minimum wage, but this would probably at most add £600-£1000 to the income over the year, and all of this is before tax. With the loss of the 10p tax band it is those people earning around the £4000-£7000 per year mark and unable to claim tax credits (as most young students cannot because they do not have children) who are deemed to be worse off.

There are loans upons loan available and student can apply for a loan of £1,230-£4,510 for the total three years of their study to pay all these living expenses, but as even the university shows that that is not enough to live a boring life for one year at university let alone that this is yet more debt.

So, if students are lucky they can work enough to cover their living expenses, but never go on holiday or buy a laptop or a car or even drink beer as the leaflet's costs left nothing for socialising. Of course if they live like that they will probably do well on their course (though having a laptop seems compulsory for study these days). My bosses' son who went to university in the North-West of England so a cheap area, came away with debts of £10,000, which apparently is seen as two-thirds of what he should have expected. I do not know if that includes the fees debt as well, but I expect not. Once over £15,000 they have to pay back 9% of their income per year, so £1,350 per year on £15,000, meaning 7 years to clear that debt, let alone whatever they owe to the bank.

This is fine for well off families like that of my boss, but coming back to the 6-year old who wants to be a scientist (and science courses can be more expensive, costing a third as much again as a humanities course), where is his mother on £10,000 per year plus tax credits going to find the money? In fact he is better off than if he was my son, because bursaries kick in for families earning less than £38,000 per year, but even this pays only £2,765. So local authorities give loans for families earning less than £30,000 per year and universities are supposed to pay bursaries of £1000 for those on less than £21,000, but how long is this going to last when you have to find housing deposits of £2000?

So, someone from a working class or even a middle class background is going to find themselves with potentially £19,720 of debt when they leave university, and that does not include overdrafts and credit cards and all other kinds of debt that they are facing. Now, they will then be under pressure to get a mortgage and to pay living expenses, all these high rents and utility bills. I earn £34,000 per year and I am having trouble paying this. How can a recent graduate with this much debt even earning the top of the average salary of £24,000 immediately after graduating, afford to pay back all of this money. What do they get in return? They have spent this money for something that now 4 out of 10, 21-year olds will have. It hardly marks them out in the labour market.

The other thing is that loans are fine, paid work is fine, but so much money is needed upfront and even my whole household would lack the money if the 6-year old was now 18, we could not afford to pay his deposits or help him feed himself through the weeks while he sought work. He could not even give up his job when the exams came up for fear of being evicted. So, it might be about education for all, but it soon becomes clear than unless your parents are earning double the national average salary each year, going to university is nearly impossible and even if you risk it, you could be burdening yourself with debt well into your 30s. No wonder so many people are going bankrupt and those turning up for university study is falling.

Of course my brother has no children and lives in Belgium anyway where things are very different. I have lost contact with my three cousins, but they all have 2-3 children each and it is unlikely given that they are predominantly farmers and gamekeepers than any of their children will ever be able to afford to attend university. Even my pseudo-son, it is clear, 12 years before he could even go, will never be able to fulfil his dream of being a scientist and probably will not even be able to afford a course to become a plumber or an electrician. The rhetoric has been about widening access, but when you begin to dig, you find in fact it is just about the same control of society as always. The rich can still study, the poor are increasingly kept out, not by visible barriers but by less visible economic ones. Of course that is just the way the super-rich of the UK want it. They do not want an educated population that may question their grip on power. They want people to be excluded from education so they can remain the cheap, flexible labour force dreamt of by the Thatcherites in the 1980s. Even those they let into universities will be so shackled by debt that they have to buckle down and accept the work they can get rather than trying to shake up the system. Unsurprising for Blair, under his populist rhetoric he has actually engineered another tool of societal control, an additional element in his desire for an authoritarian UK. No wonder people from the North of England are buying houses in Scotland. What we have seen with higher education is an expansion but so that more wealthy middle class people can go and Britain can draw the most intelligent and rich from across the world to come to the UK, rather than what Blair seemed to promise in 1997 which was an education system which provided a decent chance for anyone with the intelligence. In the 1970s with grants and no fees, there was actually a better chance for people from poorer backgrounds and certainly average middle class ones than there is now, even with limited numbers of places. Nowadays intelligence does not come into it, it is all about money.

Monday, 19 May 2008

I Now Pronounce You Inadvertent Husband and Wife

I was reading today on the BBC website, that 70% of people aged 20-35 and 79% of people living together hoped to get married. Despite social acceptance of unmarried couples, in fact the large majority of people who are probably in a position to find a spouse want to marry them. The main thing preventing them is the cost, with the average wedding in the UK costs £14,000 (€17,640; US$27,440) now, more than an average car (ten times what I paid for my last car), that is no surprise. The website did not say whether the survey question same-sex couples now that they can effectively marry though in the UK for the sake of old fashioned people it is called a civil partnership. I know at one time some gay men I knew saw marriage as the realm of the heterosexual and something they should not aspire to, but now that they can do it, it seems that many welcome the opportunity to sort things out legally in terms of their partner, for example in terms of dividing up property when they split, who inherits in the case of no will and things such as requests to turn off a life-support machine, rather than in the past this falling into the hands of quite often distant blood relatives. So, despite all the stuff about this being a promiscuous and thus immoral society, in fact, as for millenia, most people want a long-term established relationship.

Of course you can find yourself inadvertently in a marriage as I did this week. I do not mean in the sense of the current movie 'What Happens in Vegas' (2008) in that you wake up after a drunken night to find you have married someone. Rather, that in the UK under tighter 'common law' rules, if you live with another adult for two years you become their common law husband/wife. I assume it is two years because that rules out students who usually only share a house for one academic year. The woman who lives in my house despite her partial designation as my housekeeper and her other part as a business owner, is now apparently my common-law wife. Presumably that makes her son my common-law step son. I can understand that the law wants to give protection especially to women and children who come to depend on men who then disappear, but it is pretty insidious that you can sit there and become someone's husband/wife. In particular 'common law' is a pretty ugly term for people of my generation as in the news it used to often talk about men as having killed or assaulted their 'common law wife', when it would be better to say 'girlfriend', though I suppose the former term may have indicated that the man's access to the woman in question was easier as a girlfriend could live apart.

There do seem to be some difficulties with this common law arrangement. Putting aside that you miss out on a nice wedding and gifts, what happens if there are more than two people in the house. If I have a common law wife but then am actually having a relationship with a woman living elsewhere do I become a common-law adulterer? In the past elderly brothers and sisters often lived together, what does that mean now they get encompassed by this blunt rule? If I had two women in my house that I lived with for more than two years would I automatically become a common-law bigamist? What if they were a lesbian couple but not been through a civil ceremony, would one or other of them still be considered my common-law wife even though they actually wanted to be with each other. What if I happened to have another man in the house, would he be deemed my common-law civil partner even if I am not gay?

I suppose these rules come about to stop people claiming to be single parents and claiming benefit and then in fact being supported by someone else. When a civil servant I had a friend who had got in this position when his housemate had become redundant and they had to agree to having their house inspected, looking at things like beds, bedding, toothbrushes, etc. to verify that they were not a couple. It was like the reverse of those green card marriage scams in the USA, as in the movie 'Green Card' (1990) in which immigration inspectors who think the couple are simiply in a marriage of convenience to secure immigration rights into the USA question the couple extensively and search their house in order to check if it is actually a love match.

The trouble is, in most house shares, you have to share the bills, so become economically entwined even if you are not emotionally connected. As house prices and rents rise so fast in the UK it will be far more common for all kinds of combinations of people to live together and it is rather crude of the state to simply match them off in couples, especially as 6 million people in the UK live alone and many others would probably want to, but for financial reasons have to share. So, here is a warning, keep a careful check of when you move into a house share and make sure you or the other person moves out before two years are passed otherwise you may find yourself with a common-law wife/husband or possibly even more startling, a common-law lesbian/gay civil partner you never asked for.

Blogging the Blog 7: Leaving Traces

By chance working on someone else's computer today and not wanting to put in the URL into their system, I search for this blog through Google. Of course they could see what I have been searching for but only if they went out of the way, more lengthy than looking in the URL bar at the top. I was intrigued to see that this blog has been picked up by sites that monitor blogs. 'Clasped in an Iron Hand' seemed to have attracted most attention of these electronic viewers, but other postings such as the one about Chinese bloggers had been scooped into 'Sphereit' which seems to be a system that links blogs to the news stories they feature. I did wonder how the newspapers now pick up on bloggers' views of events. I guess they have their regulars but this no doubt draws their attention to others. Apparently my blog has an Authority rating of 1. I do not know how high the ratings go but I saw one which is rated 14.

Someone else had copied my posting What If? Art 3 into their blog about manipulating images and my Atals of Imaginary Worlds 7 not surprisingly is included in a list of blogs referring to the artist Kim Coles who I referred to in that posting. Another picked me up because I referred to both Aretha Franklin and 'Nessun Dorma' and apparently Aretha sung that song recently.

I have found other Rooksmoor references. There is apparently a Rostra & Rooksmoor gallery in Bath, a shame I missed it when I was in the city in March. Rooksmoor Autumn Tango is also the name of a particular labrador. Of course Rooksmoor itself is in Gloucestershire on the southern side of Stroud, so not that far from Bath, presumably where some of my long-lost relatives came from.

So, it is interesting what I said about blogs getting your ideas out there, though it seems often the only ones paying attention to them is search engines rather than people. It does raise the possibility that someone will stumble over my ideas. Clearly, though references to news items and to particular artists whether painters or singers, is likely to raise your profile a little.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Blogging the Blog 6: Self-Serving?

On Friday in an idle moment I followed up a few of the links on the 'Blogs of Note' from Blogger and came to 'When Tara Met Blog': http://www.tarametblog.com/ Now her blog could not be further away from mine, (though I do note her noting encounters with minor celebrities too), hers is all pink, almost anti-Goth (as in like anti-matter, not opposed to Goth) in its nature. Hers has been running for over three years, so she is well passed the usual life expectancy of a blog. She likes free giveaway items and twee things and has blogged about dating in New York and is now engaged in Los Angeles.

So, what was there to interest me on this blog? It is the posting of 8th May 2008, 'Are blogs self-serving?'. Apparently Tara had been challenged by a friend that her blog was simply there to serve herself. Tara defended her blog and like me she has found solace from blogging through the hard times. In this role it is no different to keeping a diary. Of course diaries may be seen as self-serving too, but the result of them is that the diarist/blogger is in a much better mental state to get on with their lives, so actually to be less of a burden to others. As she notes, you get feedback from people with an interest in similar things and often if you have a problem, are very supportive. If people are not interested then they do not have to read it. It is an excellent way to get out anger without harming anyone else. So, it is rather like a diary that you keep but you share with a therapy or help group.

I suppose we are in a generation in which everyone feels they have to be some sort of celebrity and it is interesting that celebrities are often keen bloggers, but maybe for the reverse effect, to show that they are real people under all the hype. So maybe blogging is our five minutes in the spotlight. However, given how much stuff is out there on the internet and how many blogs alone there are, it is hardly as if we are jabbing ourselves into everyone's lives. About 200 people have viewed my profile on this blog since it started a year ago, so I am hardly intruding into too many people's lives given how many people are active on the internet at any one time.

You could say that blogs are not so much about celebrity as about immortality. You can guarantee that even if you die tomorrow, your ideas will be recorded somewhere for people to stumble across for years to come. This is what motivated me to get my novels out there as I knew otherwise no-one would ever see them again and even if one person enjoys reading them or has thoughts stimulated by them, then that will be a gain for the world.

Of course the blogs that are run by families are very much like this, repositories for the life of a person/people. I have not seen anything about bloggers who have died, but I imagine there is something nice about having a blog to go and see Grandpa's/Grandma's thoughts especially in an age when we do not write letters to each other and photographs often are not even downloaded from the digital camera. We are in an incredibly ephemeral age which could easily be eliminated with an EMP blast in your neighbourhood. Of course, as with letters the condemnation of the departed may hang over you, but turning away from blogs is not a way to deal with that, it is just we have to learn new habits for the new facilities. Whilst pictures feature a great deal in blogs, at their base are words and I feel they are important for helping sustaining a literate culture.

I think ultimately blogs are not self-serving. They do certainly benefit the blogger, but in return for a lot of work being put in. I think they are vital as they expose millions of fragments of culture across the world. When searching for ideas and facts and opinions I come across so much on blogs which intrigues, entertains or infuriates me and that in turn stimulates my own thoughts. Society is about interchange of ideas and discussion. I know that in many parts of the globe such things are dismissed as unnecessary and I am not even thinking about the dictatorial states, but I think it is an element of what makes us human. So, blog on, you may be benefiting yourself, but you are also adding many pieces to the mosaic of humans on this planet.

P.P. Talking about my blog with a friend of mine who works in the media, he asked me how many subscribers I had to it and I said none. Consequently he dismissed it as a waste of time as clearly nothing that I said impacted on the 'media-sphere'. No wonder bloggers get a reputation for being self-serving if that is seen as the measure of the 'success' of a blog. Of course, that is not the criteria I use to judge mine.

Respect the Difficulties of Escaping Tyranny

Sorry that this is another posting prompted by an article in 'The Guardian', but these days with work calming down and me trying to stay off the roads to save on petrol, it is one major source of input into my thinking. Yesterday I read a very moving article by Julia Hollander about her great-grandfather, Moriz Hollander, a Jewish owner of distilleries in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia in the 1920s and 1930s. In her family this man is portrayed as foolish, one who invested poorly and was stupid enough not to leave Austria (which was absorbed into Nazi Germany in 1938) before he was carted off the Treblinka death camp where he was murdered. Julia Hollander, uncovered letters from him right from 1916 until February 1939, just seven months before war broke out. His wife and children were able to escape but he was later taken to Theresienstadt, a 'model' ghetto (which at first took elderly Jews like Moriz and those who had fought in the First World War) the Nazis had built in lands they had taken from Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and later was moved on to Treblinka.

From these letters it was clear that Julia's family had a very distorted view of this man. He had managed to keep his business going and even began moving into new lines right through the worst of the Depression. Austria was particularly hit, the collapse in 1931 of its Kreditanstalt bank in 1931 triggered off economic chaos across Central and Eastern Europe and mass unemployment. To maintain a business in those circumstances especially one dealing in luxury items was a very big challenge and thousands of businesses completely collapsed. As to escaping, this is an issue I will come on to later. However, though Moriz Hollander did not get away himself, all his family were able to get to Britain with sufficient funds to live on. He brought fake papers for his wife Minna that showed she was not a Jew, which allowed her to travel when Jews had had their papers taken from them. He also divorced his wife, so breaking her link to his Jewish background. All of these were measured steps to make his wife and children safer. Without him working so hard all of Julia Hollander's family would not now exist, so I agree with her, they are very hard on the memory of her great-grandfather.

Now from this story, I will turn to broader issues and especially how we look at people fleeing oppression. As is commonly known, the average British person despises asylum seekers, lumping them in with economic migrants and seeing both as parasites on the British economy. To some extent I think this is added to by an unstated unease at the courage of these people who have abandoned everything and gone through difficult circumstances to reach safety. These people have a 'get up and go' that most British people lack. There is also an unease at facing up to the horrors going on around the world, people generally do not want to think about torture or having members of your family disappear in the middle of the night and never knowing how they died. For the average British person, fortunately, these things are generally unknown and in most cases people do not want to know. Despite this hostility to asylum seekers there is a patronising attitude when looking back, especially to those who fell under Nazi Germany: 'why did they simply not leave?' too many people ask. Well there are many reasons.

The first is that Jews arriving in Britain in the 1930s received as much hostility as asylum seekers today. As foreigners anyway they were looked on suspiciously and anti-Semitism whilst not reaching the scale of that of Germany and Austria, was alive in Britain as had been seen in the anti-Semitic riots of 1911 in Wales, and across the country in 1915 and 1917, let alone the actions of Mosley's blackshirts in the 1930s. In addition, there was a great deal of what would not be called 'institutional racism', especially in the civil service, which made life difficult for refugees. Banks also exploited the refugees. Many began taking money out of Germany once Hitler came to power and with the pound, though increasingly rivalled by the dollar at the time, being one of the strongest currencies in the world, it was natural that they brought their money to London. Of course the banks levied special charges on them that sapped their savings and once war broke out and it was clear that the bulk of Jewish account holders from continental Europe were never going to collect their funds, they basically drained all of this accounts with impunity. Money is always a big issue. When people know you need to flee they will exploit you to the full. Even if you get to a country of asylum often you will be barred from working and you have support yourself and your family somehow. Your assets, like your house, equipment, most of your belongings have to be abandoned. This is why many of the people who escaped Germany in the 1930s were wealthy because it was only they who could afford to do so, ordinary middle class and certainly working class people were in no position to do that. It is a challenge to take yourself out of an established situation for a life of poverty elsewhere, especially when we are talking of a time where there was no free health care. Even today the UK is making it increasingly hard for people seeking asylum to come to the UK and survive. There is also an issue of language. I have lived abroad, it is loathsome, you really yearn to have someone speak in your own language, to read or watch something that you understand immediately rather than having to go through a schoolroom exercise each time, simply to understand. People in the country you go to make no allowances for you as a foreigner coming to live as opposed to being a tourist, both in terms of language and customs. Civil servants and business people always assume their ways of doing things are blatantly obvious and understandable, well of course often they are not even to the local population let alone for someone from abroad. So, do not patronise those who stay behind. They are not really 'staying' behind, they simply have no ability to leave.

The other thing, is that it is easy with hindsight to argue that 'well they must have known what was going to happen'. Again this is foolish. At the moment, the UK is not moving to being a Nazi state, but it is becoming quickly authoritarian. Do I leave the UK now? No-one in Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, etc. would give me asylum at the moment. It is not when you judge that the country has become a tyranny it is when the officials of foreign countries do. The UK has an appalling record of sending people back to regimes like Zimbabwe or Saudi Arabia or China and a score of others, which the average person knows are horrific but to the government are not quite dangerous enough to warrant granting asylum. So when should I leave? When police start rounding up people in the night and taking them away to unknown destinations? You could say, yes, but of course until my life is in direct threat then again foreign governments would not even consider my application. By that time, it is too late. Either I am disappeared or my passport is taken away. I can probably no longer hold down a job and so lack the money I need to flee. With the onset of an authoritarian state it is always far worse for the people experiencing it than it is perceived by outsiders whether in that country itself or most certainly abroad. The other factor, is of course, is that we are optimists, we always hope it will not be as bad as it turns out to be. These days when genocide seems an annual occurrence, we are more likely to be aware. In the 1930s the only known genocide had been of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915 a model that did not seem applicable to Germany at all, despite the rhetoric of the Nazis. No-one could have envisaged the industrialised slaughter of millions of people in the way that occurred from 1942 onwards. Even then that was nine years after the Nazi state had been established and as I have noted before there was no direct march to the death camps, it was a twisted and at times ad hoc path.

So to flee a country you gamble your whole livelihood, your standing, your money, your security on the chance that the regime will become so extreme and you will fall within its oppression. This is a hard gamble to take especially when you have a family who may not see things the same as you do. The woman living in my house has no belief in my warnings about the UK becoming authoritarian despite the fact she has relatives across the world to whom she could flee, something I lack. I cannot give up this house and liquidate my assets without her approval and so I cannot even enter into the gamble. Now, back in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy or Bolshevik Russia or Francoist Spain or Salazarian Portugal, or a hundred other dictatorships, millions of people had to face up to such decisions. Is it any suprise that in fact the numbers of people seeking asylum compared to the numbers of people facing oppression is really small. China has a population of 1.3 billion people, even if one thousandth of them decided to flee the oppression, that would be 1.3 million people. The number of people who can or do not escape always far outweighs those who stay and suffer.

In my view asylum seekers should be commended for achieving what they do, for the sake of themselves and their families. Britain has long been a refuge for those seeking safety, but in the past 100 years the attitudes have hardened. Maybe we have been spoilt by long periods of democracy and low levels of violence. We are now too happy to make deals with horrific tyrannies such as China and Saudi Arabia and to despise the people who flee from those states rather than the rulers who have forced them to go. I am glad Julia Hollander has recovered the true history of her great-grandfather and I hope we can move to a similar more positive perception of those seeking asylum rather treat them with almost as much hostility as the people they have fled.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Two Pop Songs That Annoy Me Due to One Lyric in Each

Hearing two particular pop songs two days ago, very close to each other while driving in southern England reminded me how much they irk me. I had forgotten about both of them. The reason why each of them irritates me differs greatly but they both riled me and hearing them so soon one after the other led me to turn my radio off. Let me explain. The two songs were 'One of Us' by Joan Osborne (1995) and 'Little Red Corvette' by Prince (1983).

Now, I imagine the Osborne song was quite controversial because it likens God to a slob. It is also pretty dreary anyway. Neither of these things are what irritate me. It is the lines 'seeing meant that you had to believe in things like Heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets?'. Of course meeting God does not mean you have to believe in any of those other things. One may accept that God can only live in Heaven, but people were believing in God before Jesus even turned up. Muslims believe in God and accept Jesus as one of the prophets but not God's son, so they believe in him but not the way Osborne implies it. Jews also believe in God but most of them do not believe Jesus was his son either, though they accept he was alive. As for the saints many Protestants do not believe in them or that they were anything more special than good people. Few people have much problem with the prophets. However, Osborne's implication is that you have to accept this whole, pretty much Roman Catholic package or nothing at all. This is reinforced by the final line about ''cept for the Pope in Rome'. That both implies that the Pope has a particular connection to God lacking for other Christian leaders and he is the only one who tries to get in touch with God. Of course millions of Christians, Jews and Muslims communicate with God daily, the Pope certainly has no monopoly on this. I have no problem with Roman Catholics, but I was irritated by this song which raised the question of meeting God in such a one-dimensional way, assuming all the listeners are Roman Catholic (even though the USA where Osborne is from is predominantly Protestant) and these issues could not be addressed by people of other denominations or by non-Christians.

The lyrics:

If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with Him in all His glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?

Chorus:
And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin' to make his way home?
If God had a face what would it look like?
And would you want to see if, seeing meant
That you would have to believe in things like Heaven
And in Jesus and the saints, and all the prophets?

Chorus

Back up to Heaven all alone
No, nobody calling on the phone
No, just tryin' to make his way home
Nobody calling on the phone
'Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome


From one extreme to the other. I have no problem with 'Little Red Corvette' being an analogy for a woman's genitals, whether it is her vulva, clitoris or whatever. Likening cars and driving them to sexual activity is fine. There are also horse racing analogies too. The story of the song is interesting about a man feeling uncertain about having sexual relations with a clearly promiscuous woman who flaunts how many sexual partners she has had and is even taunting of the narrator 'Baby have you got enough gas?'. Given Prince's very sexual identity it is interesting that this song which is credited with breaking him through into the big time is about a man plagued with uncertainty in a sexual situation and about a woman who is clearly far more confident, assertive, even in this context. The narrator is warning the woman, not so much about the dangers of risky sex, it is clear she uses condoms (Trojans) so this is not like 'Sign o' the Times' (1987) with 'a big disease with a little name', it seems to be more a warning about the emotional impact of continued promiscuity. Anyway, all that aside the one line in this song which makes me want to vomit is 'you had a pocket full of horses, Trojan, and some of them used'. Now what woman even a promiscuous one carries around used condoms? If any of us encountered a woman like that you would have major doubts about her. What was she doing, keeping them as trophies? She already has photographs of her conquests. Is she trying to collect sperm samples? Clearly she does not want to get pregnant otherwise she would get her sexual partners to use condoms. This woman is clearly seriously screwed up. The main thing it reminded me of was an elderly gay man I encountered in East London in the late 1990s who used to go around Victoria Park collecting used condoms apparently for some vicarious pleasure at this evidence of sex because his days of such activity seemed to be over. Well, that would hardly apply to the woman in this song who is clearly getting more than enough sex. So my advice to the narrator would be 'walk away, this woman is not simply promiscuous, she is screwed up and that is a real risk'. Due to that line this is actually a very unnerving song.

The lyrics:

I guess I shoulda known by the way you parked your car sideways
That it wouldn't last
See you're the kinda person that believes in makin' out once
Love 'em and leave 'em fast
I guess I must be dumb
'Cuz you had a pocket full of horses
Trojan and some of them used
But it was Saturday night, I guess that makes it all right
And you say what have I got to lose?
And honey I say

Little red corvette
Baby you're much too fast
Little red corvette
You need a love that's gonna last

I guess I shoulda closed my eyes
When you drove me to the place where your horses run free
'Cuz I felt a little ill
When I saw all the pictures
Of the jockeys that were there before me
Believe it or notI started to worry
I wondered if I had enough class
But it was Saturday night, I guess that makes it all right
And you say, "Baby, have you got enough gas?"
Oh yeah

Little red corvette
Baby you're much too fast, yes your Little red corvette
You need to find a love that's gonna last, oh-oh

A body like yours
Oughta be in jail
'Cuz it's on the verge of bein' obscene
Move over baby, gimme the keys
I'm gonna try to tame your little red love machine

Little red corvette
Baby you're much to fast
Little red corvette
You need to find a love that's gonna last
Little red corvette
Honey you got to slow down
Little red corvette'
Cuz if you don't your gonna run little red corvette right in the ground
Honey you got to slow down
You, you, you got to slow down
You're movin' much to fast
You need to find a love that's gonna last

Girl, you got an ass like I never seen
And the ride... I say the ride is so smooth
you must be a limousine

Baby you're much too fast
Little red corvette
You need a love,
You need a love that's, that's gonna last, oh oh
You got to slow down
Little red corvette
'Cuz if you don't, 'cuz if you don't,
You gonna run your body right into the ground
Right into the ground
Right into the ground
Little red corvette, baby, oh

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Women and Toilet Seats

One thing which I have never understood is why women get so very upset when men leave toilet seats up. They make such a fuss about this issue that it has entered popular culture as a factor and I heard it included on a radio advertisement today as something ensured to infuriate women. Maybe someone can write in and tell me what the problem is. Do women reverse up to toilets without looking at the situation first? As a man I come at the toilet face first even if I am to defecate, I do not take my trousers down and reverse into the toilet. Of course it may be that not only the seat is down or not down, but also the lid as well. Men are considerate when the left the toilet seat when urinating, it is only young boys who do not and run the risk of getting urine on the seat and surely that is far worse than women taking a few seconds to put down a seat that is up. Is this simply a British issue? Is it because we would rather chide each other about manners and household rules than discuss politics or the state of the World?

I developed a principle in my youth that how I left the toilet seat depended on the gender balance of the house I was visiting. It was what I called the '49% principle', that is if the make up of the household was 49% or more female, then I would put it down. If the female percentage was less than 49% then I left it up. This erred on the side of caution, as if I went to a house with simply a husband and a wife, this is a 50%/50% balance between the genders so on my principle the seat would go down, but if the couple had a son, then the female ratio would have fallen to 33.3% and the seat stayed up. Of course for many women they just do not care, if they are only 1% of the household which is otherwise male, they still get angry that the seat is left up. What always astounds me is the level of fury about this issue over something so trivial. It is equivalent to not taking your shoes off when you enter the house or not washing your hands when you sit down to a meal or not waiting for grace before a meal: in some houses these are things that are not done in others they are vital, but as a guest if you get it wrong you are not shrieked at and it is not referred to repeatedly through the rest of the day. (As an aside, my priestly manner, not something I cultivate but seemed to have been lumbered with not only means that people confess things to me but also often expect me to say grace before a meal, which is ironic given the only church services I attend are weddings and the occasional funeral and have not been to either since the start of the 2000s). These days I have given up on trying to please anyone and rather than refraining from using the toilet on all visits to people's houses, I now simply put down everything, the seat, the lid, the full works. Ironically no-one complains about that, presumably assuming that constantly my faeces are malodorous. This is despite the fact that for all users whether male or female having to lift the lid expends more energy that simply lowering the seat.

What angers me is women who are regularly humiliated in public by their husbands never seem to contest that, but then if their husband leaves the seat up they go at him severely. This begs the question, why on that issue and not on everything else far worse that he is doing? This has led me to surmise that women see the toilet seat issue as one on which they can 'legitimately' get back at men on. Is our society still so constrained or men's responses so violent that women feel they cannot challenge men's behaviour in any other sphere?

Women need to calm down about toilet seats and do not, if this in fact the case (and no woman I have witnessed using a toilet does so) walk in backwards not paying attention to the set up of the toilet. If you have a problem with the man in your life do not simply go on to him about what he does with the seat, challenge his other behaviour, which generally says a great deal more about your relationship than what he or your visitors do with the toilet seat.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Encountering Minor Celebrities

I guess my mind must be overly active at the moment and seemingly has a need to dump out all these quirky things that have been floating around in it for many years, like the Aeneid-Jimmy Ruffin parallels posting. Over the years I have 'encountered' quite a few minor celebrities, people from television and movies and some politicians. Generally I never talk to them but typically am in the same space as them for a while and get to see the extent to which they are or are not like how they appear on television and to some extent how much they look like ordinary people. Of course, often they are trying to appear like ordinary people anyway. I am not one of these people who runs up and asks for autographs or even engages the person in conversation, but I suppose I cannot shake off my curiosity with celebrities as people rather than as celebrities. Yet, it is the fact of them being celebrities that marks them out to my attention among the mass of other people I pass. This is just a list of those people I have encountered who could be called celebrities and an explanation of where I met them. The when is generally more vague, but I will give it a shot.


My earliest memory of encountering a celebrity is of seeing Richard Beckinsale (1947-79) with his daughter Samantha Beckinsale (born 1966). He was famous for appearing in the sitcoms 'Porridge' and 'Rising Damp' and she would later appear in various less successful sitcoms and in the firefighter drama 'London's Burning'. I remember a girl in our group (we were standing at the entrance to Woking swimming pool built in 1973) running to get his autograph. Until recently I assumed it was Kate Beckinsale (born 1973), Samantha's half-sister I had seen, but I now know she would have been too young.

In 1979 I stood next to Michael Foot (born 1913) [died 2010] in a public toilet in Guildford in Surrey. He was a Labour MP at the time and became leader of the Labour Party 1980-83. I ran into him again in the late 1990s in Bloomsbury and again on Charing Cross Road. Other politicians I went on to meet included Edward Heath (1916-2005) the former Conservative Prime Minister in Stepney in 1995 (he was an absolutely huge man physically), James Callaghan (1912-2005) former Labour Prime Minister in Bloomsbury in 1996. Tony Banks (1943-2006), Labour MP for Stratford, in Mile End, just down the road from his constituency. Tony Benn I met in Mile End in the mid-1990s and in Bedford in the mid-2000s (he comes over as an incredibly honest man and has a supportive interest in everyone who talks to him, especially children). William Waldegrave (born 1946) a former Conservative minister 1990-7 once sat down next to me in a cafe in London. He came across far less of the silly public schoolboy he appeared in the media at the time and I discussed his policies to grant easier access to government documents, which he had done in the early 1990s. I am not certain of the date but it was sometime between 1995-8, I guess after 1997 when he was out of office and free to sit in cafes.

I also met Alan Clark (1928-99), a Conservative MP renowned for his sexual exploits, driving a Citroen DS and being a diarist. He was very tall and like myself had gone to the wrong venue to hear his talk, probably in 1996-7, we were both in Mile End and were supposed to be in Bloomsbury. I went there by tube, he by car and I got there ahead of him to tell the assembled audience that he was on his way. He was a character probably 200 years too late, you could really have seen him as a Georgian rake. At the other end of the spectrum, though with a similar rather rogueish demeanour was George Galloway (born 1954), former controversial Labour MP and then MP for the Respect Party. I met him in 2003 in Shepherd's Bush around the time of the Iraq War. He comes across rather light-hearted and was a fool to appear on the 'Big Brother' series, but in real life you detect his sincerity and the passion of his beliefs. This came out strongly when he saw down that US committee that was effectively putting him on trial, but probably because the media dislike him, this serious side is minimised when you see him in the media, but comes out immediately when you meet the man face-to-face. I sat at the table in a restaurant next to Chancellor Helmut Kohl (born 1930) in 1985 in Bad Hersfeld in West Germany, he was helping an elderly woman, maybe a relative, with her lunch. Kohl, of course, was as huge as he appears on the television, rather dwarfing the small restaurant.

It was in a cafe, in Hampstead this time, that I met Sylvester McCoy (born 1943; real name I found out was Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith) who is probably most renowned for being the 7th Doctor Who in the long-running series. He looked smaller than on the television and seemed very pensive so I did not disturb him. I had almost run over the 5th Doctor Who, Peter Davison (born 1951) also famous for his role as Tristan Farenon in 'All Creatures Great and Small' in the 1970s. He was also in 'Campion' in the late 1980s and has had a second wind appearing as 'The Last Detective' and 'At Home with the Braithwaites' in the 2000s. He stepped out right in front of me whilst I was cycling through Woking (where he lived in his youth) in about 1984. I encountered the 6th Doctor Who, Colin Baker (born 1943) in Blackpool last October which I suppose is suitable because that is where the Doctor Who museum is housed. I have also spoken with Sophie Aldred (born 1962) who played the 7th Doctor's assistant Ace; she looks about 15 years younger than she actually is, incredibly well preserved, and at the same time saw Kenny Baker (born 1934) the man who was inside R2D2 in the 'Star Wars' movies, he too looks far younger than 74.


Before I get ahead of myself another British actor who stepped out in front of my bicycle was Nigel Havers (born 1949); this was in Oxford in 1992-3. He is a quintessential British actor as shown in series like 'A Horseman Riding By' and 'The Gentleman Thief', I liked him in 'Sleepers' (1991) in which he played a Soviet agent facing up to the end of the Cold War. Also known from being in the movies 'Chariots of Fire' (1981) and 'A Passage to India' (1984) and 'Empire of the Sun' (1987). Slightly further up the same road on another occasion while cycling, I came across the author Michael Moorcock (born 1939), someone I really admire, who, I think, had just emerged from a restaurant. In Oxford, on the station in fact, in about 1993 I met Freddie Jones (born 1927), a British actor who has been appearing in movies and television series since the late 1960s and internationally is probably best known for 'Firefox' (1982), 'Dune' (1984) and 'Wild At Heart' (1990); he played The Earl in the 'Neverwhere' series (1996). In 1993 he appeared in the Jeremy Brett fronted series 'The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes' in the story called 'The Last Vampyre'. He had appeared earlier in the same series at the stage of 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' in a story called 'Wisteria Lodge' so was the only actor to appear in more than one role in the series.


Some areas, especially in London, are good for meeting minor celebrities. A television actress I also encountered in Hampstead, was Samantha Janus (born 1972). She seems to have not been out of work at all in the 2000s appearing in numerous drama series and most latterly in the soap opera 'Eastenders'. She looked identical to how she appears on television. In almost exactly the same place, on another occasion, I encountered Stephen Greif (born 1944) who though born in Hertfordshire and his ancestors were from Hungary, Poland and Lithuania has often portrayed people of Mediterranean background [P.P. he recently played a French UN neotiator in 'Spooks']. He has been appearing on stage and television since 1970 and seems to be constantly working. His deep, rich voice has meant work in adverts and voiceovers and I came to know his voice well through playing 'Medieval Total War' and 'Medieval II Total War' as he has a suitable voice for medieval characters especially the Italian and Greek factions. Also in Hampstead I encountered Peter Barkworth (1929-2006) there in about 1999, unsurprising as I was standing outside his house having it pointed out as part of a walking tour of the area I was part of at the time.  He happened to come out of this front door to find a group of us there.  He appeared in various television series such as 'Telford's Change' in the mid-1980s but I remember him best as one of the British traitors in 'Where Eagles Dare' (1968).


Another area is Kew. Here I met local resident Ray Brooks (born 1939) who featured prominently in my youth as the narrator of the children's series 'Mr. Benn' and in the movie in the Doctor Who film 'Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD' (1966), his role in that movie as David a resistance leader was a role I aspired to in my youth. He was in numerous television series in the 1960s right up to the 2000s, having left 'Eastenders' this year. His greatest television success was in 'Big Deal' (1984-6) in which he starred. I also encountered Oliver Ford Davis (born 1939) who has been appearing in television series since 1972 (including 'A Very British Coup') and is probably best known for 'Kavanagh QC' (1995-9) and appearing in 'Star Wars - The Phantom Menace' (1999); 'Star Wars - Attack of the Clones' (2002) and 'Star Wars - Revenge of the Sith' (2005). Again he looked just as he does on the movies.

Before I forget, another minor celebrity I ran into in Woking, Surrey, was Buster Merryfield most renowned for being Uncle Albert (1920-99) in the decade-spanning comedy series 'Only Fools and Horses', this was sometime probably 1983 (in fact it must have been much later as he only joined the series in 1984, but it could not have been later than 1987 that I saw him) when he was at the height of his success. Not far from there, in Weybridge, I met Bernard Cribbins (born 1928) on a stall at a fete. He used to do adverts for the local fishing tackle shop on the radio in that area too. Cribbins has been working in the media since 1960 appearing in numerous movies, including 'Casino Royale' (1967), 'The Mouse on the Moon' (1962), with Peter Sellers in 'Two Way Stretch' (1960) and a couple of the Carry On movies. Notably he was also in 'Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD' alongside Ray Brooks. Cribbins returned to 'Doctor Who' appearing as Donna's grandfather in the 2007/08 season of the series. It would be interesting to also have Brooks back for an episode or two. In the television version of the Dalek Invasion story, the Doctor's granddaughter who was in her late teens stays on Earth in 2150 with the resistance leader. In the movie version she was only a small girl and goes off with her grandfather instead. Given recent references in the recent series to the Doctor's partner and creating a daughter, perhaps returning to visit his granddaughter would be an interesting twist.

London pubs can also be good locations for encountering celebrities if you get the right ones. I encountered Richard Harris (1930-2002) in a pub on the Mall the name of which I have forgotten, this must have been 1998. He was surrounded by young men no doubt in awe of his larger than life and drinking character. Harris had been a singer in the 1960s and 1970s and in movies since the 1950s, latterly best known for being Dumbledore in 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001) and 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' (2002). Also in the late 1990s I encountered Ewan McGregor (born 1971) and John Hannah (born 1962) together in an argument with a member of the public in 'The French House' in Soho. McGregor is famous for 'Trainspotting' (1995), 'Moulin Rouge' (2001), the Star Wars movies mentioned above and riding his motorbike all over the world; John Hannah for 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' (1994), 'The Mummy' movies and playing Inspector Rebus on television.

In Heal's the interior design store on Tottenham Court Road, I came across Marc Warren (born 1967), best known for his role in 'Hustle' (2004-) but was also in a particular episode of  'Doctor Who' in 2006 and was Mr. Teatime in the television adaptation of Terry Pratchett's 'Hogfather' (2006).  He seemed to be looking at beds.  Not far from there I met Ken Campbell (1941-2008), distinctive actor, playwright and comedian, walking down Charing Cross Road, not too surprising as he was appearing in a play there, probably his History of Comedy which was on in 2003. He was very much as he appeared on television, really full of life. A few streets from there on another occasion I think about 1998, Peter Stringfellow (born 1941), the nightclub owner and minor celebrity who still dresses and has the weird California beach haircut that he has long sported, as if he had been frozen in time as a minor 1980s pop singer. He looked as over-the-top grinning as he does on television. I must say he does seem genuinely happy with life, that aspect did not seem artificial. As he emerged alone, however, without any entourage, it did seem as if he had stepped through the wrong door on the way back from the toilet and had found himself inadvertently on the street rather than somewhere else in the building.

On trains out of Euston station I encountered Terry Christian (born 1963) one-time infamous television presenter of youth programme 'The Word' and now a radio presenter, he looked very well preserved, and given this was the early 2000s not much different to a decade before. At the same station catching the same train on another day I encountered Richard Griffiths (born 1947) who was famously in 'Withnail and I' (1987) and has been in all but one of the Harry Potter films as Harry Potter's uncle, and had a successful television series in which he was the star, 'Pie in the Sky' (1994-7); he looked terribly sad which was a shame.


On aeroplanes in 1985 I encountered pop group 'The Christians' flying to the Netherlands and in 2004 'Right Said Fred' flying to Berlin. I also walked beside Robert Smith (born 1959) of 'The Cure' in Belgium in the early 2000s. He was another person who is actually huge in all directions when you meet him in real life. His big hair adds to that. I ran into Victoria Beckham (born 1974) of The Spice Girls with her husband David Beckham (born 1975 - footballer) at Victoria railway station in about 1997 on a day when David was bunking training. They were the celebrities who most looked like celebrities with a ring of men in dark coats around them it was as if they had carved out a bit of the air and made it their private zone. This is in sharp contrast to the others I have mentioned who were all generally approachable and certainly seemed to be going about their business. Aside from David Beckham the only other sports person I encountered was Duncan Goodhew (born 1957), the British Olympic swimmer, who was next to me in a tube train carriage going through Angel, Islington.


There are a couple of authors, Mike Phillips I admire his thrillers set in London, I met him in 1991 in Norwich along with actor Brian Bovell (born 1959) who appeared in the dramatisation of Phillips's 'Blood Rights' (book 1989; drama 1990) and in 'Prospects' (1986) and loads of television series latterly 'The Bill' and 'Hollyoaks'. Both were unassuming men you could chat with easily and have a beer with. Jeff Noon (born 1957) author of British kind of cyberpunk/surreal novels I met in a London bookshop in the early 2000s. He was far more craggy than I expected but interesting to talk to and with a real glint of excitement of ideas in his eyes. Kim Stanley Robinson (born 1952), science fiction author, I met him in Milton Keynes (the branch of Ottakar's there is the best in the country for meeting authors) in 2002 promoting 'Years of Rice and Salt' an epic counter-factual novel about if more people were killed by the Black Death of the 14th century. Again very down to earth and interested in the people talking to him and alert to their knowledge.

I met Andrew Roberts (born 1963) the Conservative historian and author in 1994 and again about five years later. He is much smaller than he appears on the television. He seems to have an addiction to twiglets. Despite his political leanings, he is interesting to talk to, his manner would seem fitted better to the world of Winston Churchill who he has written about. He does find counter-factuals interesting and we had a discussion about where a ghetto would have been located in London if the Germans had invaded Britain in 1940/1, given at the time we were in the East End which had had a large Jewish population at the time. I also met Mark Thomas (born 1963) last year in Southampton, he is a comedian, author and increasingly a political activist. He has good things to say about Goths which is excellent and is really sincere and a relaxed guy to talk to and very funny, a unique man.


I encountered Queen Elizabeth II twice on the same day in 1992 by accident as she was visiting Oxford and I went to the railway station to buy a ticket and she was arriving there and passed in arm's reach of me, and then I cycled back across town and she went through the complex traffic system so I was stopped outside Christchurch college and she went passed me again bestowing another wave and smile on me.


Other people who are not celebrities but I felt honoured to meet were the head of the British Red Cross who sat down next to me on a coach to Lincoln again in the late 1990s and a former paratrooper on a train to Euston who had been dropped on Sicily and at Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden and had survived. I could have talked to him for days. I also met a man who had run with Sir Roger Bannister when he broke the four-minute mile in Oxford in 1954, that was in Oxford. I also met a man who had been captured in Hong Kong in 1941 and had spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp, but then had worked for 20 years in Japan. He really showed me what forgiveness was, and also, he pointed out, that you cannot blame a whole people for the atrocities of their leaders and their military; within any population there are good people. In 1996 in Whitechapel I also met three German men who had fought in the Spanish Civil War in the International Brigades. These people were all both ordinary and incredible at the same time and on reflection I would trade meeting a thousand celebrities for meeting such people.


For someone who is not a celebrity-seeker I do seem to run into quite a few. I imagine certainly now I have left London and even Milton Keynes that it will occur less. In my experience, most celebrities are pretty ordinary, usually smart and well turned out, either much older than you expect or exactly the same as you expect their appearance to be. Maybe celebrity in itself is a perserver or maybe they can just afford to buy products that keep them looking good. I am certainly stunned to have found Sophie Aldred is five years older than me, I imagined her far younger from her appearance.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Dead In Seconds 2: Now You Tell Me

One thing I forgot in my recent posting about the unfairness of PC first/third person shooting games are the ones in which you get right to the end and you find that somewhere around three-quarters of the way through you should have picked up something you need at the end. I have just reached the closing scene of 'Gun'. This was quite a controversial game (rated 18) when released in 2005 as it features a cowboy who shoots lots of native Americans and then it turns out that he is in fact one himself. Anyway, it has a decent story as you uncover the plots of a former Confederate general Magruder who killed your step-father and your biological family before that. He is hunting for a gold mine whose secret is hidden in a cross from the time of the Spanish conquerors. It also has side missions so you can go off and be the pony express or a bounty hunter or simply work on a ranch hurding cattle. I have battled through camps, towns and mines to reach the final stage. I have got a decent pair of revolvers and a powerful rifle and then in the final cave facing Magruder I find that he is immune to all of these weapons and despite pouring scores of bullets into him I inflict no damage whereas he has a very fast loading volley gun which kills me with one firing. I have tried repeatedly to inflict some damage on him without any effect so I had to check a walkthrough and I find that actually back before I even came upon his headquarters rather than keeping the revolvers and rifle I should have discarded these for a bow which can fire arrows tipped with dynamite. This means I have to go back and play the last quarter of the game again simply so that this time I can pick up the right weapon. This needs no skill or intelligence, it needs some power of being able to see into the future and it has spoilt what was otherwise a very good game. Also how can a man be immune to bullets? I know they want the final 'boss' to be tough but why make him invincible, especially in a game which has quite accurate reflections of human frailties.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Parallels between 'What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?' and Book 6 of 'The Aeneid'

Now, this blog started as a way for me to purge all those weird an wonderful thoughts about things that I have been carrying around in my mind for the last few decades. The blog has gone off in many other directions since then but has retained this function too, and very successfully. I find writing this blog very therapeutic and it has helped me to deal with many of the challenges I have faced in the past year. You may say that with over 230 postings in 12 months I have a lot going on, but of course, this blog has also become rather a scrapbook too as well as a response to political, social and economic developments as they appear. Today I am going back to that first purpose and this is going to seem an oddity, because I am going to write about what I see the parallels being between the pop song, 'What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?' and Book 6 of 'The Aeneid'. I cannot think of many pop songs with a Classical connection, the only others are possibly 'The Back Stabbers' by The O'Jays (1972) which may have a tenuous link to the murder of Julius Caesar and 'Delilah' by Tom Jones (1968) with its Biblical story.

First some background. 'What Becomes of the Brokenhearted' was released on the Motown record label in 1966 by Jimmy Ruffin, it proved to be his most successful song. The backing was provided by two groups, The Originals and The Adantes and the music came from the Motown in-house band The Funk Brothers. The lyrics are:

As I walk this land with broken dreams
I have visions of many things
Love's happiness is just an illusion
Filled with sadness and confusion,

What becomes of the broken hearted
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find
Some kind of peace of mind
Maybe.

The fruits of love grow all around
But for me they come a tumblin' down.
Every day heartaches grow a little stronger
I can't stand this pain much longer
I walk in shadows
Searching for light
Cold and alone
No comfort in sight,
Hoping and praying for someone to care
Always moving and goin' nowhere

What becomes of the broken hearted
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find
Some kind of peace of mind
Maybe.

I'm searching though I don't succeed,
But someone look, there's a growing need.
Oh, he is lost, there's no place for beginning,
All that's left is an unhappy ending.

Now what's become of the broken-hearted
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find
Some kind of peace of mind

I'll be searching everywhere
Just to find someone to care.
I'll be looking everyday
I know I'm gonna find a way
Nothing's gonna stop me now
I'll find a way somehow
I'll be searching everywhere
Just to find someone to care
I'l be looking every day
I know I'm gonna find a way
Nothing's gonna stop me now
I'll find a way somehow

What becomes of the broken hearted
Who have love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find
Some kind of peace of mind
Maybe, please.

'The Aeneid' was produced around 29-19 BCE by Greek poet Virgil (70-19 BCE). It is in 12 books and recounts the adventures of Aeneas, a Trojan who escapes Troy after it has been captured by the Greeks in the Trojan war. He travels the Mediterranean and eventually settles in Italy conquering the Latins and setting up the foundations for what was to become Rome. In Book 6 of the poem, Aeneas goes into the Underworld to find out useful knowledge about the future, something Odysseus does took in Book 11 of 'The Odyssey' by Homer (Odysseus is a Greek warrior who takes 10 years returning from the Trojan War and like Aeneas is buffeted to various locations around the Mediterranean). In Greek and Roman myths after you died your spirit crossed the River Styx and went into the underworld ruled over by the god Hades (Pluto in the Roman myths). There was no distinct heaven or hell, all spirits ended up in the underworld but allocated to different areas either to live in luxury as on the Elysian Fields or to be punished in areas like Tatareus in very similar ways to one might expect in the Christian Hell depending on your behaviour during life. The underworld was also full of spirits of people who had not done wrong but were dissatisfied because they had died tragically or had been betrayed. Aeneas meets Dido a woman who had fallen in love with him in Carthage but he deserted to continue on his journey. These spirits, often called 'shades', are like ghosts in our modern perception. In Virgil's portrayal of the underworld there also spirits waiting to be born and Aeneas meets the spirits of Romulus and Remus (legendary founders of the City of Rome) and the Roman Emperors Augustus (emperor 27BCE-16CE) and Julius Caesar (emperor 49-45 BCE).

Anyway I had to study Book 6 of 'The Aeneid' when I was a teenager and whenever I heard the Jimmy Ruffin song, which still gets played a surprising amount I always felt there were parallels with what I was reading. Ruffin's song is quite unusual as it portrays 'a land of broken dreams' in which he 'walk[s] in shadows' and 'see[s] visions of many things' and 'happiness is only an illusion filled with sadness and confusion'. This to me summed up the environment of shadowy shades in the underworld many, notably Dido ('love that has now departed'), are sad. The underworld itself seems full of lots of illusion and a great deal of sadness and Aeneas sees visions not only of the past but of the future too. Ruffin also sings about 'always moving' which is what Aeneas experiences in all the time covered by the stories. It is a passionate song that moves along strongly and I could feel Aeneas feeling like that in turns upset and frustrated but also determined to continue.

I know that Greek myths are popular on the curricula of American schools and colleges and I will probably never find out if the writers of the song, William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser, and James Dean were influenced by 'The Aeneid', but that is not going to shake me from thinking about it whenever I hear the song.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Harry Perkins for Prime Minister

This title of this posting comes from a piece of graffitti I saw on a wall in Coventry in 1988. I took a photo of it but that was lost when I was living in West Germany the following year. It refers to a character in a television series, 'A Very British Coup' written by Alan Plater (1988) which was shown on Channel 4. It is based on a novel by Chris Mullin written in 1982.

In the series, set, it was assumed, in 1991 (when the next election was due) features an old fashioned Labour prime minister, Harry Perkins (played by Ray McAnally (1926-89)) coming to power and following policies that seemed to be both modern (his government borrows money from the Russians who at the time were opening up to capitalism) and yet traditional Labour policies (when asked if he will scrap first class travel on trains [Perkins favours train travel over official cars] he says 'No, I will abolish second class: aren't we all first class?'). Some of the policies which at the time seemed to be a Labour dream, such as a minimum wage, of course, have become actual policy in the UK subsequently. Crucially for the fate of his government, Perkins moves the UK away from the special relationship with the USA, including scheduling all US military bases to be removed within two years.  The Americans threaten to overthrow him unless he adopts policies which are more sympathetic to the American New Right attitudes of the time. Perkins promises to do this, but sticks to his own line and the end of the series sees the US military invading the UK to overthrow the Perkins government.

Interestingly, there is a king on the British throne in the story, suggesting that Queen Elizabeth II has stepped down, perhaps in 1986 when she turned 60 (the retirement age permitted for women in the UK at the time) or in 1991 at the age of 65, the standard retirement age, and her son Prince Charles has come to the throne. Of course, in fact she is still ruling at the age of 83 and looks set to beat the length of Queen Victoria's reign of 64 years, which she will do if she is still on the throne in 2017. Given that her mother lived to 101, it seems quite possible Elizabeth can remain on the throne until she is 90 or even longer. As Charles is already 60 there is a chance he will die before his mother and will never become king or will feel he is too old to take the job by then and it will go to his son, Prince William.

Some of the elements echo back to the pressure that faced even Harold Wilson, who, these days with hindsight, hardly looks a radical. The pressure from the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in 1976 on the Labour government to introduce public spending cut-backs in order to secure loans happened for real and appears again in 'A Very British Coup'. Wilson, and especially Callaghan who followed, effectively ended Keynesian economic approaches for Britain primarily because of what the IMF had compelled. Back in the mid-1960s when Wilson have headed two governments running 1964-70, many of his plans for modernising the British economy were scuppered by financial pressures, notably on the value of the pound, which, at the time, was seen as a serious issue. Someone has written into Wikipedia entry on Wilson conspiracy theories, that 'A Very British Coup' was based on the actual attempts to overthrow Wilson and that simply the names have been changed. In fact, the series owes far more to the sensibilities of the 1980s than those of the 1970s, not surprising really.

Though clearly rooted in aspects of the 1980s, some elements seem painfully appropriate today. Perkins manages to win a landslide election in 1991 through exposing scandal among 'fat cat' bosses especially in the City of London (i.e. the UK financial sector) in 1988. Many of his policies are about reining in the greed of such employers who he sees as having bankrolled the Conservatives and benefited while industry has declined, raising unemployment. Such rhetoric could be easily used today. The problem has not gone away at all, though perhaps Labour has lacked the courage to go after these leeches on the British economy, truly growing fat (still) while others become unemployed. Of course, when scandals are revealed whether around the Guinness family, the Maxwells or half-a-dozen others, it seems to make very little difference to how the British economy is allowed to be run. While all the specific paranoia of the Cold War might now seem history, greedy corrupt big business is alive and well.

Another interesting policy is one that no politician would have the courage to put forward but is featured in the series is 'one man, one newspaper'. This particularly galls with Sir George Fison, played by Philip Madoc, who owns a newspaper consortium and is probably modelled on Rupert Murdoch and/or Robert Maxwell. Of course, we know how powerful Murdoch has become in shaping the choices of the British electorate and that Tony Blair had to effectively pay court to him before he was able to become prime minister. Murdoch, his family and agents have not had to face down a one person - one newspaper restriction but James Murdoch complained that the BBC was 'land grabbing'. Despite that view, Sky, owned by his father, has a near monopoly on satellite broadcasting in the UK, yet the Murdochs clearly feel there is too much competititon to their control of UK media. While no-one will come forward with a policy which will control Murdoch's ever-increasing power because they know they will lose an election if they try, this issue remains one that is current. The extreme, of course, is the situation in Italy where Silvio Berlusconi has a strong grasp over television media, reinforced once he became prime minister and privatised part of the state company RAI in 2004.

Contemporarily-set or near-future series were very popular in the UK in the mid-late 1980s. Examples include 'Defence of the Realm' (1985) and especially 'Edge of Darkness' (1986; fascinatingly to be remade as a Hollywood movie starring Mel Gibson; the star of which, Bob Peck (1945-99) had a run of roles in such series about conspiracies including 'Centrepoint' (1990) and 'Natural Lies' (1992; about infected beef). Partly, I think they were popular then because they appeared credible given what we were hearing in the news. In that way we have recently had a few similarly driven dramas since the 'War on Terror', notably 'The Grid' (2004) and 'Britz' (2007). In line with the current news, these have often focused on UK relations with the Middle East/South Asia rather than simply domestic oppression.

In the Thatcher years there was a sense that the state was flexing its muscles, particularly following the Miners' Strike 1984-5 and the stopping of free movement of people connected with that; the shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and attacks on the anti-nuclear weapons movement throughout the 1980s. The USA appeared (as it has done again since 2001) as the country with a forceful agenda against the people it did not like, whether they were Communists (now read al-Qaeda) or not and through that approach was shaping, or even forcing, British policy in a more authoritarian direction. In addition, there appeared to be not only state suppression but that concealment of the truth by big business too. Many of these stories feature sinister businessmen seeking to suppress information on things in the public interest such as about BSE ('mad cow' disease) in beef (another I remember in that ilk was 'Jute City' (1991) partly due to its haunting sound track).

Chris Mullin, a former journalist and since 1987, a Labour MP, published the book, 'A Very British Coup' in 1982. He had edited work by leading Labour MP and former minister, Tony Benn. He campaigned for the release of the wrongly-imprisoned Birmingham 6 and was editor of Labour journal 'Tribune' 1982-4. His was on the Home Affairs Select Committee 1992-9 and chaired it from 1997. He was a Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions 1999-2001, at Department for International Development 2001-3 (ironically being transferred before Hilary Benn, Tony Benn's son, took up the post of Secretary of State there) and the Foreign Office 2003-5. He is not standing at the next election. He is one of the MPs who has claimed the least in expenses and it was revealed that he has only a black and white television in his second home.

 wonder if Mullin wrote 'A Very British Coup' as a bit of a counter to Anthony Burgess's '1985' (1978) which portrayed an authoritarian state run by trade unions or the television series '1990' (1977-8) by Wilfred Greatorex (1922-2002) which showed a left-wing dictatorship of Britain in the 1980s following an economic collapse. Certainly in the television series, Perkins emphasises that he only seeks to carry out the policies he does because he has a clear electoral mandate and so the policies are the 'will of the people'. To some degree, unfortunately, I think Mullin has a charitable view of the British electorate and I fear that their 'will' if it was ever enforced in its entirety would lead to a bigoted, isolationist state with public capital punishment.

Anyway, so we have to see 'A Very British Coup' in that background. Why then do I come back to it today? Well, I wonder if, now that they are set to remake 'Edge of Darkness' no doubt updated for the technology of the late 2000s, we are not going to see another 'A Very British Coup' for real in the UK. Gordon Brown is not Harry Perkins, this is not the early 1990s. Even a Conservative government in 1991 would have found it hard to stomach 28 days' detention without charge (let alone 42 days or 90 days) and the amount of CCTV (Closed-Circuit Television) - there are 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the UK, higher than any other country in Europe we have. However, Brown is probably the last Labour leader who can probably claim any right to the title 'Labour' in his job description.


It was interesting to hear today that Tony Blair is giving advice to Brown on how to stay in office. Apparently Blair would have stepped down sooner, his wife said, if Brown had demonstrated a commitment to city academies (business-run schools which are in fact not thriving), foundation hospitals (again, another step towards privatisation) and pension reforms (which are depriving so many workers of any secure future). It is to Brown's credit that he contested all of those things. However, in doing so, he has demonstrated himself to those who really hold the reins of power that he is not Blair's heir and in fact is trying to move Labour more back to what it once stood for which is equality and social justice. Blair, in fact, with all the schemes for (faith) schools and different hospitals was promoting a more divided society and his lying to Parliament and his forcing of the UK to fight in Iraq showed he was no different towards the Americans than Margaret Thatcher had been. As I have said before, Blair was simply head of the Blairite Party and now its power has waned those with power are seeking someone else.

So, in the next two years you will see a series in front of your eyes. The 'Very British Coup 2008-10' has begun with the over-exaggerated pressure on Brown following the local elections and if he manages to hold on in 2010 you will see the stepping up of policies to remove him. There are various methods, notably a few terrorist attacks or even just threats, engineered to undermine him and all this sustained bad mouthing of him in the press. They can also resort to the electoral fraud of the kind which was practised in a number of constituencies, especially in South-West England in the 1992 election. Of course, if the wheels of democracy do keep in place, then we may see, come 2010, something resembling the final scenes of 'A Very British Coup'; look out for the markings on that passing Chinook helicopter it might not be Prince William but the US Marine Corps.

P.P. 12/10/2009: For those of us lucky enough to get the Yesterday channel on our Freeview boxes, currently we can watch a repeat of 'A Very British Coup' being shown at 10.00 and 15.00 across this week and I highly recommend everyone whether you have seen it or not seen before to go and record/watch it. Of course, twenty-one years on, the actors, many of whom are still familiar faces today, look incredibly young. The technology, notably the computers of 1988 projected forward into 1992, look very primitive and no-one has a mobile phone. This
applies to any programme made in the era, but perhaps it is because we associate a certain politics with a certain time period that the technology signalling that period seems so important.

Interestingly, aside from Perkins using 'comrade' which probably was abandoned by anyone in Labour circles even before Blair took over the party, the kind of people portrayed as sitting in his Cabinet could easily have been in Blair's or Brown's Cabinet. Interestingly having a woman as Home Secretary and, in this story, de facto deputy to the prime minister, seemed radical at the time, but now with Jacqui Smith as home secretary 2007-9 it seems not that exceptional. On reflection, though, it is probably to the UK's embarrassment it took 19 years after the portrayal of a women home secretary for the country to get one, and she is only the third woman after Margaret Thatcher as prime minister (1979-90) and Margaret Beckett as foreign secretary (2006-7) to hold one of the four main ministerial ranks (the other being the Chancellor of the Exchequer). It took the USA less time between portrayal and actuality to get a black President (seen in 'Armageddon' (1998) and '24' broadcast 2002-3 to Obama becoming president in 2009).

It might have been more apt to show the series when George Bush was still US President, perhaps Yesterday did, but I was unaware of it it. Bush's foreign policy and certainly his bullying of European countries to comply with that policy especially over the Middle East, but also over Russia, was just like the way the USA's approach to Britain on its foreign policy choices is portrayed in the series. I certainly could envisage Bush ordering an invasion of the UK if it had diverged too far from his view on the 'War on Terror'.

The one thing that struck me in the credits was the list of advisors. Of course, Duncan Campbell is there, the investigative journalist who has exposed deficiencies in British public life especially in the use of surveillance. He was notable for having been sacked from the BBC in 1987 for his series 'Secret Society' on the instigation of the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, so was a hero of the liberal left at the time 'A Very British Coup' was produced. Even more fascinating is the name which is listed above Duncan Campbell, Alastair Campbell. This Campbell was an advisor to Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party 1983-92, the man who came closest to being like Perkins in reality. When Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994 he already had connections to Alastair Campbell and became Chief Press Secretary 1997-2000 and Director of Communications 2000-3 before resigning during the Hutton Inquiry into the murder of Dr. David Kelly.

Campbell was very involved in Labour's publicity during the elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005. The commentary about Campbell you tend to find on the internet these days is pretty mild, but he was seen by the 'spin doctor supreme' of New Labour under Blair and his role in 'sexing up' intelligence reports about what the regime of Saddam Hussain was doing in Iraq to encourage the British to back the US invasion led to harsh criticism. As with Lord Mandelson, a man he worked with closely especially in 1997, his smug, self-satisfied and patronising manner has done nothing to endear him to the British electorate, though George W. Bush seems to have liked him.

I wonder what Alastair Campbell's input was into 'A Very British Coup' and what lessons he took from the series. Maybe he genuinely believed any Labour government had to toe the US line precisely or face an invasion. Perhaps that was why he worked so hard to weld the UK to all US policy no matter how insane it was. Maybe Campbell had had dreams of some Perkins-like government only to have this dashed in 1991 when Kinnock seemingly had victory snatched from him. Perhaps Campbell had under-estimated the powerful conservative forces in the UK that had no need for US assistance to bring about what they wanted. The fall of Perkins in 'A Very British Coup' could easily have been portrayed as happening in the way Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile in 1973 with local pressure financially backed by the USA, rather than a military invasion. However, that element was shown as less important than the US direct action, perhaps because that would raise the ire of British nationalists of the right as well as left-wingers in a way that an Establishment coup, as was regularly dreamed up in opposition to Harold Wilson 1974-6, would not have done.



I wonder if Alastair Campbell foresaw his future in the character of Frederick Thompson played by Keith Allen. Thompson has been imprisoned for exposing scandals in the Ministry of Defence but on his release becomes Perkins's press secretary and, interestingly, also his monitor of both Cabinet members and the upper echelons of the civil service. This kind of defender of the prime ministerial role portrayed by Allen is very similar to how Campbell acted when in post under Blair. I think, at the end of the day, Alastair Campbell simply loves bathing in the reflected light of 'great' men or men he thinks will be great, as he was not only associated with Kinnock but also larger-than-life proprietor of the 'Daily Mirror' Robert Maxwell. By working with these men, most notably Blair and making their glory all the greater it clearly casts more light on himself. These days he seems to relish light shining more directly on him: he is an active blogger!


P.P. Interestingly, the version of 'A Very British Coup' shown on Yesterday seemed to have been edited by a few seconds so rather than seeing the US uniform the screen faded to black, though the voices on the military radio heard in the background had American accents. It was a subtle change but meant that you are left with the impression that their has been a coup by the British military, perhaps backed by US forces, rather than an all-out US invasion of the UK.

P.P. 25/01/2010: I see the movie of 'Edge of Darkness' has now been released in the UK.  I hope it prompts a re-run of the series.  I have not read anything yet about this version.  The trailer with Mel Gibson's character accusing someone of killing his daughter seemed in step with the original.  However, but was immediately put out by the poster which shows Gibson's character as pointing a gun at someone.  He has a US police badge on his belt too.  I have less problem with him being a police officer than using the gun, because one thing about Peck's roles in all of the conspiracy dramas he was in was that he came across as an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances; the prime weapon he used in the series was two pieces of radioactive material that he struck together in front of the main 'bad guy'.  I guess one factor is that the UK police generally do not carry guns and the ones that did were smaller in number back in 1986 than they are now. 

Showing Gibson's character as an American seems to undermine an important strand of the original story, that a lot of the conspiracy was driven by Americans influencing the British Establishment to behave in a particular way. This seemed very sinister in the Reagan years when the series came out and perhaps this latest version will be set during the George W. Bush presidencies when the Americans bullying other states to follow the particular US line became common again.  It would have been better to transpose the latest movie, say, to Canada (or even back in Gibson's home country of Australia) rather than have it in the USA so allowing that aspect of an external force on a government to remain in the story.  It might not be a good movie but I am interested to see how the plot has been altered for 2010s USA.