26 Apr

The Spine Election Podcast – Episode 6

After a long week and a few delays due to my being off on various jaunts, I’ve finally edited together the latest podcast. I’d like to thank  Bella Sassin who lent a real touch of professionalism to this production. Her acting makes me sound like the slow guy who hangs around the village well in eighteenth century novels set in Ireland.

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25 Apr

Why the hell Aston Villa?

The list of things that count as a ‘brain fade’ is pretty long. Forgetting the dates of battles, wars, victories, births, deaths, exams and appointments are just the beginning. It would be understandable if you forget your mother’s noodle recipe or the contents of that brown cardboard box on the top shelf in your shed. You might forget your National Insurance number or ever your car number plate. It’s easy to forget the name of films or books, even though you might claim they’re a favourite. It’s easier still to forget the name of that actor you like who only plays bit parts in films but always does with a certain manly swagger. In that case, you’re probably forgetting the name Ed Harris or Scott Glenn. Really, the list of things it’s okay to forget is extremely long and varied. But nowhere on it does it include the name of your football team.

I mean nobody, not even the recently lobotomised, forgets the name of their football team. It just doesn’t happen. Not even as a verbal slip. You don’t suddenly say ‘Manchester United’ if you mean Liverpool, ‘Everton’ if you support Leeds. It’s not simply a trick of a tired brain. You don’t have one thing in mind and accidentally say it, like you might say to somebody, ‘ pass me the knife’ when you meant spoon but you just happened to be holding a knife when you reached for the word. Those things are understandable. Forgetting your football team is about as likely as forgetting your own name. Never is my life have I introduced myself ‘Eric’ or ‘Bruce’ or ‘Norma’. I’m certain about that. 100% of the time I say that my name is David.

I wouldn’t image that David Cameron would ever introduce himself as Eric, Bruce or Norma Cameron  either, which makes it so hard to believe that today told an audience in Croydon that his favourite team is West Ham. For years he’s been telling us that it’s Aston Villa and how he is the nephew of a former Villa chairman who took him to his first match when he was 13.

The significance of the story is bigger than the details. What I love about this gaff is that it’s an apparently trivial mistake which might have big consequences. It’s the kind of story that will click with large portions of the electorate. It’s hard to judge a man based on economic predictions or the well practised spiel of a campaign speech. It’s much easier to judge what you think about a man who suddenly forgets which team he supports. Had this happened in any pub across the land, the victim of the ‘brain fade’ would be ribbed about it for months, years, perhaps even the rest of his life.

So, why did it happen?

It happened, I think, because of the character of the man. It is a small point but I think it reveals so much about Cameron and his convictions or, more precisely, lack of convictions. I’ve never seen him as a true conviction politician. Thatcher was deeply ideological. Blair less so but still in a large part driven by convictions. Brown was deeply rooted in his convictions that came through his Presbyterian upbringing. Cameron, I think, is almost completely lacking in deep political thought. To put it in slightly wet terms: politics seems to be a convenient point on his life journey. It was easy for him to go from Eton to Oxford and then into the world of Conservative politics. Leadership came just as easily. David Davies was tipped as the next leader and then Cameron gave a speech behind closed doors which turned everything around. And with typical Cameron luck, he rose to the leadership at a time when the Labour Party had exhausted the ideas of one generation and a world economic collapse compounded their problems, meaning that a change in government was always likely to happen. I can’t think of any party leader who went quite so quickly from obscurity to Number 10 via the ballot box.

His current ‘brain fade’ makes me think of Libya and the fall of Gaddafi. As revolutions go, it was a fairly easy one for a Prime Minister to cope with. It was easier still to head to Benghazi and take some of the credit and make some vague promises and we know how that turned out. We should only be lucky as he made that speech that he didn’t praise the people of Syria or Liberia or even West Ham.

The gaff happened because I doubt if Cameron is invested in following Aston Villa with the passion of a true football fan. ‘Aston Villa’ is just the convenient tag that he can scrawl in that blank box whenever he has to answer the ‘Favourite football team’ question on his regular Q&As with the readers of Heat magazine.

Yet one question remains. Why the hell did he pick Aston Villa?

I can’t get over the feeling that it’s just a shrewd political calculation. If I were a politician who was particularly prone to taking the popular angle and always wanting to be seen on the side of the majority, who would I claim to support?

According to a recent Guardian article, the biggest three teams in the UK  are Liverpool (15.21%), Arsenal (15.03%) and Manchester United (14.6%). However, at least two of those teams are great rivals. To support United or Liverpool would stain your character for supporters of the rival team. You might gain respect in the eyes of one 15% but you’d lost it in the eyes of another 15%. Chelsea, Tottenham, and Arsenal all have strong rivalries, as do teams such as Everton, Manchester City, and Leeds.

I suspect that a wily politician would choose a team that’s well known but not so successful that it has bred much resentment. Does Aston Villa fit that profile? It has the fifth highest in terms of major honours among English clubs but hasn’t won the top division since the 1980-81 season. Is it vanilla enough to be the team that breeds the most apathy in the league? I suspect it might. Choosing Aston Villa means that Cameron is only alienating the supporters of West Brom and Birmingham City in a heavily Labour supporting part of the country. Hostility towards Aston Villa doesn’t reach across the country in the same way as you find deep resentments about other major teams. In political terms, it’s as neutral a choice as it’s possible to find in the top division. The votes he would potentially lose are votes which would probably be Labour in the first place.

Well, that’s my theory. I have no way of knowing if it’s real or not. I just expect the Tory party’s media unit to now go into overdrive to prove that Cameron is a true Aston Villa fan. Expect to see the buttock tattoo before the end of the campaign. In the case of any other politician, I would have written that line thinking it a good joke to end. In Cameron’s case, I’m not so sure it’s a joke.

 

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24 Apr

Coming down from the Spire

I always rub my boots on the back of my trouser legs before I walk into these places. In poker terms, it’s what’s known as ‘a tell’. I also suppose it’s a ridiculous thing to do. People don’t really judge you by the shine of your toecaps but my toecaps have no shine and I always feel absolutely ashamed by them. I feel an overwhelming wish to explain and confess my life to these people when I arrive on their doorstep, as though I can somehow justify myself by my writing, my books, my cartoons, or my education. Yet none of that matters. No matter how many degrees you have, books published, or blog posts read, they only judge you by one criteria and, in my case, it’s a criteria accurately summarised by the shabby state of my boots.

In the last few years, my boots have trod the carpets in too many hospital receptions. For reasons too complicated to go into, I’ve spent half a decade accompanying my sister to her various appointments. I could give you a long medical history but books the length of ‘War and Peace’ are no longer in vogue unless they’re about spanking, dwarves, or both. The flash non-fiction version of the story is that my sister has some problem which the NHS are still struggling to identify. We occasionally see consultants privately but that route is a truly horrifying financial strain. So we bounce through the system.

This week, she’s felt so ill that she became desperate and desperation usually means expense. She decided to have her blood tested done privately. Nine months ago, a consultant requested that certain tests be done and we had them done on the NHS. They’re tricky tests, which require all manner of arcane magic that you normally only see done in vampire movies starring Wesley Snipes. So we had blood samples taken at the local GP’s surgery and the local GP’s surgery proceeded to lose the blood samples. We only discovered this after waiting six months for the results. Naturally, we had the tests repeated but, three months later, we’ve still not got the results and nobody has a record of what happened to the samples. Which is why we decided to have them done again but this time privately, meaning the results should be available within a week.

Yet all of that is mere backstory to explain why I was up at seven o’clock this morning and sitting in traffic-locked taxi cab in the heart of Warrington by eight. What I wanted to write about was the experience of ‘going private’ from the perspective of the guy sitting next to his sick sister who nobody is willing to help. I thought it would be fun to do that because the contrast is so enormous as to be faintly comical, whilst it also says so much about our country and our culture.

Yet this isn’t going to be about medical procedures. I rarely go in ‘the room’. This is just my perspective on the experience of somebody sitting waiting outside and drawing cartoons whilst trying not to feel too out of place whilst surrounded by people from a different plane of existence. And, believe me,  their extra-planar credentials are never in question.

Take, for example, this morning and the woman sitting across from me. She was clearly ‘in the money’ and her buttocks obviously knew their way around a Caribbean Lilo. Even her shins were wrinkled from the sun. I’ve never seen wrinkled shins before. I never knew shins could wrinkle. And I mean wrinkle more than anything in this world could wrinkle with the exception, perhaps, of Keith Richard’s scrotum. I was thinking of drawing her shins, Robert Crumb style, or at least including them in a future cartoon. They really need immortalising. That woman’s shins are the sort of thing that, once witnessed, inform an artist’s vision for the rest of his life.

She was with her husband who was of that upper-managerial type that dominates the landscape south of Warrington: red faced, elderly, and in his best weekend golf gear despite it only being a Friday. I’ve worked for the type. They dress for golf on a Friday but still turn up at the office to remind their employees that, whilst it is still only Friday, the boss is free to play golf.

As I noted all this, a replica of the gent walked in: same clothes, stance, attitude. This one looked like my favourite art critic, Brian Sewell, a scarf wrapped around his neck in a fashion that you rarely see men adopting since Oscar Wilde made it passé at the same time as he invented sodomy around the start of the last century. It’s all typical stuff for Tory heartlands and by that I guess I mean the wrinkles, the scarves, and the sodomy. I later spent the thirty five minute ride home talking to the taxi driver about politics. We’d struck lucky and found the only taxi driver in the country who is as big an Andrew Neil fan and This Week as myself and he was happy to talk about the general election. He pointed out all the Tory signs (not even posters but proper on-a-stick-stuck-in-the-herbaceous-border signs) and explained how Warrington South is a marginal being fiercely contested by the sitting MP David Mowat. The Tories are clearly pouring their hedge fund cash into the area. The signs were like triffids peering out of every expensively trimmed garden hedge otherwise shielding the expensive houses from the road.

I suppose it’s wrong to say that all these people all the same but there’s much that’s shared between the residents. They are no doubt good people but representatives of that Britain that is succeeding. They’re the people doing well out of the economy and their money is sensibly being put to good use looking after themselves inside the private healthcare system. I don’t dislike them. In many respects, they’re people like myself: cultured, quiet, believers in politeness and some notion of right and wrong. The gulf between us is perhaps more about outcomes, opportunities and, of course, service.

For example, when I go to our local GP’s surgery I usually deal with some nose-breathing servant of Sauron, who can barely restrain her utter distain for me as though I’m a wood elf from a Murkwood slum. In contrast, go privately and you get to meet The Most Beautiful Woman In The World and, if that sounds like an exaggeration, let me assure you that it’s not. It happens too often for it not to be a universal truth about private healthcare. Private hospitals have a direct line to God. This morning, the Most Beautiful Woman In The World had hipster glasses and a Monroe air. She should have been in movies. Scarlett Johansson has the face of a blistered dingo compared to her.

That is something I sometimes find as shocking as I find it profound. Reflect deeply on Fate and you see that there’s so little that separates each of us except for a few twisted threads of DNA and a whole lot of circumstance. How often do you see Hollywood stars interviewed and asked ‘what would you be doing if you’d not become a movie star?’ ‘Oh,’ they’ll smile, ‘I’d be frying chicken in a mall and giving everybody listeria’. Audiences laugh yet behind the laughter is the realisation of a greater truth. It’s the tragedy of that person who should be a movie star but is trapped working in reception somewhere. It can whither a man’s soul if he contemplates it too long. It was like our taxi driver who was articulate, knowledgeable, and passionate about politics. He was perfectly suited to a life representing the people of Warrington but, instead, he is scraping a living driving around his home town whilst a chartered accountant born in Ruby serves as his local MP.

I suppose, at some point, the whole thing became an act of self-reflection and I began to feel so utterly sob-wrecking depressed as I sat there, staring at my shabby boots and contemplating the parts of this that I hadn’t worked out until later. Life is about the fairy tales we’re told and the fairy tales we believe, such as the one about ‘hard work bringing just rewards’. I’ve always worked obsessively hard but I now see it as vile malicious bullshit whispered in our hamster ears so we’ll keep running in the wheel. It all comes down to a toss of a coin, the turn of a county border, the direction that water once ran off an upland field and decided the course of a river through the heart of a county. Life might be there to direct as we will but it can only be steered so much. Sometimes there are greater forces limiting your options. Sometimes there are simply no options.

So, I as sat there, I listened to the hum of Sky News in the background, periodically broken by the beguiling accent of the TMBWITW in the hipster glasses which I tried hard to ignore because it would mean looking that way and burning my soul on something no mortal eyes should really see. And for a brief moment, I did wonder what life’s like in that world or even if that world is real and not imagined.

Is it real if you pay people to be kind, considerate, and display such good manners that they ask if you’d like a cup of coffee whilst you wait? When asked by hipster movie star, I said ‘no’ because I really appreciated the gesture but I wouldn’t put somebody to such trouble. Besides, I might have blurted out something crazy like the entirety of Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’. Yet had fate been different, I might have been the type of person to click my fingers, wink and say ‘Sure thing, gorgeous, because the world is my playground and I can afford the fees!’

But people like us can’t afford the fees and therein lies the difference.

I didn’t say ‘yes’. I just remembered the details. I noticed the way the chairs seemed to have lost their plumpness and had been laid low by overuse by big behinds. They weren’t as comfortable nor luxurious as those in Chester’s Nuffield and nothing seemed as relaxing. The place was darker with too much noise and too many patients crowded next to the reception, so that those of us waiting could hear too much about other people’s ailments. Thankfully, there was free wi-fi available without the need to go ask movie stars for passwords, so I searched the surprisingly responsive web for source images of ugly politicians and I doodled a picture. Then I watched a doctor arrive in his sports car and, in that moment, the whole experience was perfectly summed up.

Doctors in private healthcare don’t look like NHS doctors. Doctors in the NHS look like the nerd you knew at school who went into medicine, started to earn a fortune, and likes to remind the world that they were bullied in school but now they hold the power.

Doctors in private healthcare look like the guys who used to deal out the beatings in school. I watched one arrive and he utterly fitted his fitted suits with their ridiculously Apollonian proportions. He also had a ‘fuck yeah, life is good’ swagger which matched his features, wide and flat like something peeled from a movie poster. He looked like cricketer Graham Hick, a less scarred version of Harrison Ford. Again, you could argue about fate dealing him a bad hand but it’s hard to feel quite as despondent when that person is a high wizard of healthcare driving a pornstar sports car and with a complete Mastery of the Elements vibe. I didn’t feel so bad that he won’t be the next Indiana Jones. I didn’t even look to see if the receptionist swooned as he walked past. That would have been too much to bear. Because private healthcare might be there to improve your health, but, deep down, none of this makes you feel good. You might have a good soul but you know what you look like naked and it’s not a pretty. Your body goes out where his goes in and in where his goes out. You’re at opposite ends of the colour chart. If you were colours by Dulux, you’d be ‘Bjork alabaster’. He’d be ‘Tom Jones circa 1974′. It’s all so utterly demoralising.

It would be easy here to be bitter and surmise that he’d be bad at his job but you could tell the opposite. Watching his manner as he greeted his first patient, I saw the biggest difference of the day. The last NHS consultant my sister saw spoke to her for about five minutes, scribbled something on a sheet, and dismissed her with a cursory word. Six months wait for five minutes of indifference and I was left to deal with all the tears and the hurt. These guys come out and greet you with a warm handshake. They smile and ask you how you’re doing.

Try to imagine that. Doctors who ask you how you’re doing…

It’s a sad measure of our country’s decline when you don’t expect such things. Sadder still when these things only happen when you pay for them.

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22 Apr

One of those posts, more like a diary entry…

Not stopped today except to type this and even this can hardly be called stopping.

The day didn’t begin well when the fire alarm woke me at 7am. It sounded for about four seconds before it fell silent. Yet in the four seconds, I’d jumped out of bed and stood there like a startled rabbit whose brain couldn’t understand the beams of the oncoming lorry.

I’m not sure why fire alarms are quite so loud. Ours is wired into the mains, so it has plenty of juice to produce its ear breaking scream. I’m certain it’s not good for the health and I’m also sure that it serves no real purpose. If it had been slightly quieter, I might have had the capacity to think rationally and escape the building. As it was, I was more concerned with the noise that I was with any potential fire. I couldn’t have been more disarmed if a SWAT team had just lobbed stun grenades through the window. I was ready to ‘assume the position’ and tell them everything they wanted to know.

I’m also completely uncertain why it went off for four seconds. I suspect it was to mark the execution of some bug that had crawled across its circuitry and fried in a small but loud puff of the divine soul. Of course, the fact it did go off without reason, now makes me nervous that the same will happen again. Maybe it’s linked to that fact that we’re now in the season of the bug.

The rest of the day has been consumed with what are euphemistically called ‘jobs’ but in real life amount to those terrible routines we’re all locked into once it hits spring. I even mowed a lawn, which is among my least favourite of chores on account of the fact that mowing a lawn for the first time in the year encourages the bloody lawn to grow even quicker. This will now turn into a fortnightly routine which my good conscience won’t allow me to stretch to once a month. Then I fixed things that I’d been putting off fixing for the entirety of winter. Naturally, this involve a quality of blood lost from my right index finger. Then there was programming, web fixes. And amid all that, posting today’s cartoon which has earned me about two hits. Well worth the effort…

Anyway, my next podcast is nearly finished. I’ve recorded my part and I’m delighted to say that I’ve found an extremely able volunteer who has agreed to voice a second part and highlight how badly I act. Hopefully it will be edited together sometime in the coming days. I think it’s one of the best yet but who am I to judge these things?

Head down. Keep going.

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20 Apr

Meet Paul Richardson, My Conservative Candidate for St Helens North

Busy writing a podcast so I wasn’t intending on posting to the blog today. Also, I fell asleep drawing last night’s cartoon. Must try harder…

The good news is that my voting slip just arrived and I was surprised to see that our Conservative candidate is local.

I know! I’m really lost for words. I was ready to be so cynical about the whole operation…

Of course, when I say local, I mean a 142 mile hop, skip and one ruddy big jump ‘local’. I live in the St Helens North constituency and the poor bastard the Tories have put up for election lives in Tring in Hertfordshire. Not a person I’ve told today hasn’t curled over in laughter at the news. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Here’s a picture of Paul Richardson standing outside our Town Hall in St Helens. I haven’t visited St Helens in a couple of years, which says much about the town and the geography of our constituency. Posing beside one of their flower beds was never going to win me over…

Paul-Richardson (1)

The first thing to say note about the picture is that nobody in these parts wears a jacket like that. It’s a beginner’s mistake, of course. People need to tell Paul to do more research. Go with something neutral which doesn’t reek of privilege and class. When locals see that kind of jacket, what we really see is this:

Paul-Richardson

The second thing to note is the way he stands. If I’m not mistaken, that’s the pose of a man about to heel it back to his Audi so he can get back home.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical. I genuinely have no gripe with Paul Richardson. He’s probably a good man doing an honorable thing. He’s trying to make a difference. Perhaps Paul Richardson actually lives or works inside the constituency. He claims to have ‘spent so much of my life here’. Maybe he was born here but lives in Hertfordshire. Perhaps he’d be a fantastic MP who would work hard to improve our region.

Or maybe he’s just in it for the experience because the Tories know that hell will go polar before anybody other than Labour (or, maybe in years past, the Lib Dems) could win in these parts.

Yet none of that matters to me. I’m pretty centrist in my political views. Over the course of my life, I’ve voted a whole variety of ways. My vote is always winnable. All that I ask is that a political party doesn’t treat me with utter disdain by dropping some aspiring MP into the region just so he can get a sniff of a real voter. Are there really no Tory candidates who might be more suitable? Maybe one who was… I don’t know… Perhaps born in the North? I’m not even asking for a candidate from a local town. Perhaps just one of the surrounding counties? Maybe even Liverpool or Manchester? Seriously, there’s no county more certain to raise the local ire than sodding Hertfordshire…

And while I’m mocking the Tories, I should note that Labour aren’t above this kind of shameful game. The MP for St Helens South has, until recently, been Shaun Woodward, who I doubt spent a single night under the small terraced house he bought in the town.

All of it shames the system and shows that my election is really over before it began. The parties don’t take this constituency seriously. I might as well tear up my ballot form. I’m going back to writing my podcast. Even in a small insignificant way, it’s the only way my voice will be heard at this election.

 

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19 Apr

So I tried to write the most vicious thing about Katie Hopkins you could hope to read today

KatieHopkins

Katie Hopkins is a large blank in my life and I intend to ensure that blankness continues after today and this single post. I don’t read ‘The Sun’ and I’ve rarely (to point of it being never) watched ‘The Apprentice’. I only knew about her because I’d previously noticed that sensible people seem to hate her with a deep happy intensity.

I had no opinion about Ms. Hopkins until I read what she’d written yesterday about the situation off the coast of North Africa. It was pretty strong stuff but I was sadly not surprised. It wasn’t eloquent in any way. As far as firebrands go, it wasn’t particularly scalding. The article contained essentially mundane ideas presented in a mundane way by what is quite obviously a mundane mind.

I thought I might write a response in a more fiery fashion but about three seconds into my attempt I realised that I couldn’t bring myself to call for the Royal Navy to sink Katie Hopkins off the coast of Gibraltar. I couldn’t write any line that suggested that I’d be indifferent if I saw her corpse bobbing up and down in the sea. I’m better than that. Unlike Katie Hopkins, I’ve retained a touch of humanity. I would not want to wish her ill.

So, instead, I thought I’d try a different line of attack and I began by drawing a picture that I hoped any of her defenders might find offensive. Should you not see it attached to this brief essay, it’s of a bony Hopkins, her withered teats sagging over a malnourished body, her legs splayed apart as Hitler crawls from the stretched vagina. Had I better skills, Hitler wouldn’t have been alone. I wanted Stalin, Pol Pot, and every tyrant I could recall crawling from her bloodied chamber.

I would guess they might find the cartoon offensive because they would fail to understand my point which is about how Hitler came into existence. Culture presents Hitler as a monster beyond the context of the early twentieth century. You rarely (if ever) hear anybody talk about Hitler’s mother or family (Norman Mailer’s novel, The Castle in the Forest, being one notable exception), presumably because it’s inconvenient to conceive of such evil being born in a human way.

Yet Hitler was born like all of us in a sudden flood of blood and embryonic waters and his ideas were born in similarly crass and messy ways. People wrongly attribute the evil ideology of the Nazi regime to the writings of Nietzsche but that, again, is to push them to the sidelines as the warped ideas of  an intensely mad intelligence gone awry. Hitler was not Nietzsche. His morality was cretinous, dumb and servile to a completely fictitious notion of Teutonic history, fed to him via German Romanticism. He succeeded not because he had better wits than the rest but because he rode to power on an ugly popularism which swept through a largely unthinking Germany only too happy to attribute its problems to its most vulnerable members.

It’s why we should not simply be insulted by the kind of lowbrow mean-spirited hate spewed by the vapid Katie Hopkins. It’s why we should not simply marginalise her for the barbaric troll she is. She is something new that we’ve not seen before, or, at least, haven’t seen for a very long time. She is making money and fame by putting a flame beneath people’s fears. She speaks a language that divests humanity of that vital quality that makes us more than flesh and blood. Instead of speaking about lives lost, families ruined, individuals dying in a terribly tragic way, she has reduced the argument to lumps of meat rotting on the shore. She is not serving a public good by supposedly speaking truths that nobody dare speak. She is harming the public good by replacing our natural compassion with an artificial fear, manufactured anger, and a supposedly ‘comic’ indifference. It’s a long time since we’ve had such a public commentator use language that dehumanises vulnerable people in such a way. Hopkins’ language is not simply toxic. It is the diseased language of the sociopath, a person who feels no empathy and is capable of doing great evil.

Her sport is obvious. She throws her saddle on a problem and rides the poor beast until blood is frothing with snot in its dead distended nostrils. Migration of the North Africa is a problem that any commentator has the right to address. The arguments against immigration are similarly valid, as are arguments that suggest that people attempting to cross the Med should be turned back. None of that is beyond debate. It is the very matter of the debate we should be having.

Yet to talk about human beings as ‘feral’ and ‘cockroaches’ is something beyond rhetoric. It is dangerous. To talk dispassionately about ‘coffins’, ‘bodies floating in water’, and ‘skinny people looking sad’ is the language of a severely diseased mind that should not have a public forum in which to spread such a morally bankrupt message. It is a message dangerously voiced because there are others who revel in such language, who are susceptible to the festering ideas of inchoate totalitarianism. They are the people with a deep moral sickness that leads them to groups such as Isis, where human brutality has found a new dispassionate host. They are the people willing to lead mobs to the gates of the lawmakers and demand satisfaction in blood.

Can nobody see that terrors begin not with mad eyed loons but with figures who profess respectability and the common good? What history has taught us in every century of our existence is that evil is not beyond us. It is within us always and we must guard carefully against the fools who would tempt it out in the name of entertainment, fame and wealth.

So, let me end with a plea. Don’t read ‘The Sun’ so long as this hag faced screeching scagbitch is getting money for her bile-filled screeds. Don’t make fear popular again. No action is justified if the victims of that action are somehow considered less human than we are. Beyond her well tamed hair, her glitzy TV smile, and soaked-in-brine tan, Katie Hopkins is a soulless harridan of neo-fascist propaganda. Her confident swagger, the jaunty turn of her head at the top of the page, the slight glow she exudes: it’s all a facade that disguises a pitiful human being. I was tempted to reach for the worst words I know to describe her but I decided that would be to stoop to her level. She is somebody about whom I would never wish ill. Just somebody who I hope finds help, illumination or (failing that) censorship, before her sickness infects that yobbish unthinking segment of our society who would do bad things in the name of decency and the common good.

 

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18 Apr

These 10 Hollywood stars were born with tusks

I don’t know who first said that all writing is an expression of loneliness so I suppose, in a way, I said it first. Writing is, after all, the most alienating experience a person can have without being forced to visit Ipswich on a Sunday.

I think of writing as the act of standing naked at a hotel window. Very few people would ever think of standing naked at a hotel window or, at least, you don’t go ‘junk free’ unless you’re an exhibitionist or you hold a Scandinavian passport. Writing makes you feel vulnerable and putting those words into a public space feels like it should be a very risky thing to do. However, like standing naked at a hotel window, you’re probably not understanding the context of your public exposure.

I often look at the vast expanse of windows in the big hotels I find around the cities I occasionally visit. From the point of view of looking at the hotel, you’d be hard pressed to spot which window frames a naked person gazing back at you. Of course, nobody will ever read this so perhaps now is the time to confess that I only look at the windows in hotels hoping to see one of those glamour models looking back down at me as she poses for some candid shots. In all the years I’ve been engaged in this noble enterprise, I can sadly report that I’ve never seen a glamour model looking back down at me. I’ve seen the pictures on the internet so I know that kind of thing happens quite a lot in hotel windows. I’ve therefore come to the conclusion that I’m looking at the wrong hotels or simply looking at the wrong time of day.

Yet whilst I struggle to spot the beautiful models pouting and bending, the people who do pose in hotels windows probably believe that everybody can see their nakedness yet the reality is so very different.

What I’m trying to say is that writing a blog feels like standing naked in one of those windows. The reality is that there are a billion other windows and that nobody is actually looking back at you or reading what I write. I could yawn, stretch my arms wide, rock back and forward on my heels like so, my pen and pencil case swinging back and fro in the breeze and nobody can see a thing. It’s would be liberating if it weren’t so damn depressing because, frankly, what is the point of standing naked at a window if not a single person knows that you’re there? It’s that age old philosophical question: if you wiggle your junk in a forest and nobody sees them wiggling, does your junk even exist? The answer, of course, is that of course it bloody exists and the judge will also take into consideration the twenty two other indecency charges before deciding your sentence.

***

When I was pimpled and naive, the fashion among my generation was to wear ridiculously tight trousers and big puffy jackets that I never did own. I came from a relatively poor working class family where every penny counted. Yet I was at school with the sons of local farmers and businessmen who had their own cars at thirteen and everything at fourteen that a fourteen old boy could every possibly wish to own.

I had none of those things. I had normal straight-legged trousers and some humble non-inflatable coat which therefore made me one of the unfashionable kids deserving only scorn and the occasional beating for being so deflated and straight-legged. My pants didn’t cut off the circulation to my testicles and my coat was black when the fashion was for lime green with vanilla blazes. I imagine now that there are men my age suffering for the fashions of their fashionable youth. I like to think of some old schoolyard nemesis being told that his testicles were damaged by the drainpipe tight trousers he wore all those years ago and that’s the reason why his lime green bud earphones pop out every time he crosses his legs.

As an adult, I think back on the misery of those years and realise that, oddly, my fashion back then was exactly what was subsequently considered cool. If I’d been born a decade or so later, I’d have been the coolest kid in the school. I looked and dressed like Kurt Cobain before grunge was acceptable. I was also dressing like a hipster in reefer jackets and desert boots long before either of them became the norm. I’ll probably be wearing them still when they drop out of fashion again but I really don’t care. Because I was so miserably aware of fashion as a teenager, I’ve never followed fashion as an adult. My natural instinct is to turn away from anything that’s popular and that really sets me at odds with the internet.

***

The two threads of this barely cogent essay are really one and the same. It’s about the writer’s need for attention when the reality is that having the instincts of a writer makes you as popular as a septic cold sore in a cramped locker room.

There are some bloggers, of course, who are read and are popular. They’re very often the kind of bloggers whose faces appear on the TV news above the caption ‘Writer and Critic’ or ‘Editor of the Harvard Nose Review’ or ‘Scholar, Lover, Highly Gifted on the Flute’. They’re the self-confident types who seem to emerge from university at the age of 24 and walk through the door of The Spectator and straight onto our TV screens with a fully formed world view. Watching the election coverage, I’m shocked by how many of that type there are out there and how they all look and sound the same. The men have narrow lofty heads, great teeth and bland Oxbridge opinions; the women have big broad faces and expensively casual Chelsea hair which they have to keep stroking over an ear whilst explaining the bleeding obvious. It’s the breezy confidence they have and the certainty that they all have fresh minty breath and body odour undetectable by a bomb squad dog. Today they’re dictating the news agenda, tomorrow they’re announcing their retirement from Twitter due to continual abuse  which they then turn into a 2000 word article that wins them the Pulitzer and 24 hour protection from Special Branch.

Journalism has entered into the Buzzfeed age where everyone is playing the same schoolyard game. I long to be one of those cool people but my trousers aren’t tight fitting. I guess I’m still too straight legged.  Yet that also means that I don’t want to join in. I want to write long rambling essays that aren’t structured around lists. I want to give my articles titles that are uncool and don’t immediately attract a reader with a false promise of some amazing revelations about butter. I don’t want to ever find myself posting an essay titled:

‘These 10 Hollywood stars were born with tusks’ [Damn! Failed again!]

‘See the woman with Dick Tracy walkie-talkie tits’

‘Eighteen ways to train your knees to launch you over a car!’

‘Scientists plan to soundproof Canada’

‘Read the secret Vatican evidence that the Pope is Korean’

‘Do your earlobes prove that you’re descended from the Russian Royal Family?’

They’re fun titles, of course, but they’re too easy to write…

‘Turn your nut allergy into your super power’

‘Man born with big toe that resembles Billy Crystal’

‘What your arsehole says about your career choice.’

If none of my madness makes sense, it’s because I don’t expect anybody to gaze this direction and find me standing here ball-shine crazy in my hotel window. I write too often that I hate blogging but it’s not the blogging I hate. It’s not the effort of writing, the struggle with words, the lack of a theme or even a conclusion. I don’t even mind standing here naked. I don’t feel particularly fragile or exposed or compromised or any of those things that an ordinary person would probably feel if they confessed these muddled things.

The reason I find myself hating blogging is that sometimes it just reinforces the loneliness. A blog is the corner of the school field where the lonely writer goes to gaze through the iron railings wishing they were somewhere else when, deep down, knowing that they really want to be back with the cool kids. Back with the privileged few, in their tight trousers and lime green puffy jackets with vanilla blazes, whose dumb inarticulate cries rally their adoring fans for yet another assault on anybody or anything that dares to be different or strange.

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17 Apr

The Harrison Ford Shaped Hole

There’s nothing I can say about the new Star Wars trailer that hasn’t already been said by people much nerdier than me and with a much better collection of action figures (and all, no doubt, still in their original packaging). For the record, I don’t actually own any Star Wars action figures and I don’t think I even owned any of the official merchandise, with perhaps the exception of some old dusty paperbacks and a super deluxe collector’s edition box set of the original VHS tapes probably now not worth shelf dust.

Anyway, I sat down today to watch the new Star Wars trailer and my first conscious thought was about the opening shot of the Star Destroyer, lying ruined in a rocky desert on some unknown planet. I should imagine on the big screen it will have the same ‘wow’ factor that the opening shot from the original movie apparently had on audiences in 1977. That shot established mythology, history, scale, wonder and was just possibly the most evocative way of introducing the series beyond the familiar strains of John William’s score.

sw1

My second thought was about that strangely mangled Darth Vader helmet. I think it’s because it seems to have strange teeth that I found it slightly creepy but also mildly amusing. For no explicable reason, I thought ‘melted Chuckle Brother‘ and I now can’t get that image from out of my mind.

sw2

What followed, though, really told me nothing about the movie. More X wings flying through water, men whooping, a noticeably young, pretty but (I thought ) bland set of casting choices, vaguely defined bad guys with red light sabres, and the whole thing having a slightly modern vibe, with chromium troopers reminding me of the original series of Battlestar Galatica. And none of that really excited me.

Then I heard the voice I recognised and I felt a shiver.

sw3

Sure, he’s looking older but he’s in no bad shape. I know this is Harrison Ford pre the plane crash Harrison Ford but I’m not sure if it’s the post-broken ankle Harrison Ford. I know my Fords but I struggle to identify vintages to that level of specificity.

This leads me to my revealing and slightly sad confession of the week: I’ve been checking for progress reports on Harrison Ford every morning since he went propeller-first into a golf course. I’ve probably not missed a day checking Google for news. On quite a few days, it might even be the first thing I do when walking up, sometimes even before checking my email. I know. I know. It’s pathetic. I can’t explain myself. I didn’t even realise that I was this much of a Harrison Ford fan.

Yet there’s always been something about Ford which defies logic. There are certainly better actors out there, many with more personable personalities. And though Ford is the star of some great movies, he has also, admittedly, made some stinkers too (‘Hollywood Homicide’, 2003). He’s an actor who seems to have a particularly difficult sense of his best qualities and sometimes seems to go out of his way to infuriate his fans. For a time, he thought of himself as romantic lead, making many of his fans (myself included) pull out our hair in frustration. I mean, what the hell was he thinking when he made ‘Sabrina’ (I’m not even going to bother looking up its year)? Then there was ‘the earring’, which, I confess, I’ve never totally excused or accepted. There was no rhyme nor reason behind it, so I resorted to telling myself firmly postmodern arguments such as ‘well, he’s ironically commentating on his place in male culture… He’s so far over on the manliness spectrum, he’s started to come back around the other way…’ Or something like that…

Ford has often been his own worst enemy, which is itself an endearing quality. It’s only recently that he’s been anything other than dismissive about ‘Blade Runner’, a film celebrated for its production design but a film I only go back to because of the stars: Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, and Daryl Hannah and, well, just about every speaking role in the film, filled with exceptional talents. People talk about the look of the film but I maintain it’s the cast, all of them great, but the whole thing is held together by Ford.

Ford is best when he’s not the straightforward hero. Sure, I love Indiana Jones and I’ll watch the new Star Wars films with eager anticipation. But they’re franchises and I rarely get excited by marketing. They’re certainly not the films I reach for when I’m having a bad day or week and want to cheer myself up. My favourite Harrison Ford movies were not even blockbusters when they were released and they aren’t even all that highly rated now except by myself. My favourites are movies like ‘Frantic’ (1988) and ‘Patriot Games’ (1992), films that are generally forgotten but, for me at least, are better because they lack the lights and show.

They have Harrison Ford and Ford fits the shape of my world. He’s complicated and truculent, largely hostile to the spin machine that operates everywhere these days. He plays the lead without the swagger you get in most movie leads these days. I’m sure he knows which is his ‘best side’ but I hope he’d never dare suggest as much to a director of photography. Ford is a man of the short quip, the demoralising put down, the cutting admission that he’s been lucky in a bat shit crazy world. As he was recently quoted to have told actor Oscar Isaac about ‘flying’ in the new movie: ‘It’s fake. And it’s in space, so none of that applies, really.’

The defining quality, I guess, is that ability to express our very modern frustrations. He shines when trying to explain his troubles to inept policemen or bureaucratic officials. My favourite Ford moments are those when he’s struggling to explain the world. I love the way he manhandles John Mahoney around the office in ‘Frantic’, sticking his fingers into his ribs imitating a gun. It’s an almost bullying  physical presence but a presence made bullying by the inability of the world to follow his logic.

frantic

So when Harrison Ford crashes an old World War 2 plane on a golf course, the world asks why he’s flying such junk around in a residential area. My answer to that is: I don’t care and I hope he doesn’t care either. The scar on the golf course is like the scar on his chin and (no doubt) the scars now on his head. People do dumb things that are fun and there’s no point in trying to apply health and safety to the human spirit. It’s a just a fact of the real world that people like doing the sometimes crazy things that define us as people. Screw Justin Beiber and screw his tattoos that mean nothing beyond his vain ego. It’s the real scars that mean everything.

So, when I check first thing every morning, it frustrates me to not really know how Harrison Ford is doing. Yet I accept the reasons why nobody really tells us about his progress. I find it frustrating but, at the same time, I find it reassuring that he’s not become the victim to the witless TMZ generation. He’s not been pursued into his local grocers when he’s buying beer or lactose free yogurt. Knowing about the earring was too much for me. I don’t want to see him in yoga bottoms. I want to think that Ford is the few ordinary guys in an extraordinary business. He has something that no special effect or clever piece of production design can replicate. What he brings to a film isn’t polish. It’s something that’s harder to define but is more essential. The second Star Wars trilogy films were fun, enjoyable (I’m one of their few defenders) but they were always lacking something. It was the Ford quality. For want of a better phrase, it’s knuckle spit. It’s that great big ‘screw you’ attitude that an otherwise bland uniform world would hammer out of all of us.

Currently it feels like there’s a Harrison Ford shape hole in the world. I just hope he’s doing well and will soon be fit enough to fill it again.

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17 Apr

Friday Notes

Posting my ‘daily cartoon’ the next day is the worst part of drawing them. Firstly, it’s a mark that you’re finished with one and that you have to start another. Secondly, you hope for feedback saying it’s the best cartoon you’ve ever drawn when the reality is that it’s barely looked at and, even when it is looked at, it’s often passed over with a shrug of the shoulders. This feels particularly bad when you do happen to think that it is the best cartoon you’ve ever drawn

Last night’s was one of those rare cartoons when I thought I’d ticked my personal boxes. Perhaps I’m just pleased because my cross hatching worked out and that the cartoon tried to say something. I don’t know if I can judge. The left side could do with more work and I’m not satisfied with colour. It looked good in black and white but colour, for me, distracts. Yet colour is expected so I needed to add some…

I’ve been providing some cartoons for Tim Marshall’s new venture over at The What and the Why. Because the focus is on international affairs, I’ve been trying to spot cartoons with a world theme. It’s not always easy but it’s helpful to me because it forces me to draw things and people I wouldn’t normally be drawn to satirise or even think about. Today’s cartoon was different. A vain president jailing cartoonists would always draw my attention. Apparently Turkey’s Erdogan doesn’t like to be ridiculed (explanatory BBC news report in the link), which seems like an eminently good reason to ridicule him. My first attempt was probably a stretch too far. I started drawing jowls and, naturally, I thought I’d see how far I could take them. By 11pm last night, I realised I’d probably taken them too far so I tried again.

Erdogandraft

 

 

As I redrew the majority of the cartoon, I watched the challenger’s debate from earlier in the evening, followed by hours of analysis. Some of it made sense. Much of it didn’t. The parties were engaged in their typical spin operations and sometimes even the strongest will struggles to avoid following their bad logic down the rabbit hole of political bias.

I thought the biggest loser of the evening was (surprisingly) David Cameron. I hadn’t expected the Prime Minister’s absence to hurt him so bad. Yet listening to him claiming credit for the debate earlier in the day was simply nauseating. He spoke of unblocking the logjam when he’d been the cause of the logjam in the beginning. It made the resulting debate feel like justice in that it was an hour and a half of solid government bashing. No having somebody on the stage to defend their record might well be one of the biggest miscalculations of the election. It was bruising stuff.

Of the participants, my verdict was as follows.

Ed Miliband

Miliband didn’t need to do much and just stay clear of trouble. He’d won the evening by simply turning up. What followed was, to use a cricket metaphor, a display of playing every ball with straight bat. He never looked like edging a ball to slip but, then, his opponents were hardly steaming in with their fastest deliveries. He ensured his victory at the end by challenging Cameron to a debate. It was a win-win move. If Cameron refuses, he looks week and undemocratic. If he accepts, Miliband gets to debate with Cameron who seems singularly uninterested into entering into any democratic process. From Cameron’s point of view, he can’t win either way but I think he stands more of a chance by debating.

Natalie Bennett

I can’t explain why I have a soft spot for Bennett. Everything should go against her: that accent, those policies, a few woeful performances in various media spotlights. Yet each time she stands up to speak, I find myself surprised by how much I both like her and how much I agree with her. She was the only person to speak up for people who are too sick to be considered ‘hardworking’. That, for me, spoke volumes. I know the Green manifesto is filled with risible nonsense. Andew Neil has done enough this election to prove that. However, Bennett has a knack of speaking about things which the other parties don’t address. Not sure any of that makes sense but I’m not sure I can explain why Bennett keeps impressing me.

Leanne Wood

Wood attempted to relive her success of the opening leader’s debate and she probably suffered for that. She seemed eager to lay into Farage, no doubt knowing it was the thing that she was praised for the last time they met. Beyond that, she spoke to her audience in Wales and about that I’m not really qualified to comment. She doesn’t have that connection to English voters that Sturgeon has oddly seemed to have fashioned.

Nichola Sturgeon

People have constantly praised her performance throughout the campaign’s debates but last night was the first time I sat up and thought she was something special. She repeatedly had the best answers on the night, though perhaps too few hard questions were directed her way. I can see why she appeals to so many. She has become the face of the election and has replaced Farage as the fashionable outsider that non-voters would like to vote for if they’re in England and will vote for if they’re north of the border.

Nigel ‘Nige’ Farage

Not so much a one-trick pony as  a pony who has learned a few good tricks which he performs every time he’s trotted out onto the national stage. Last night was more of the same from Nige. His tactic is clear. He wants to lose the studio but win the living room. Turning on the audience was probably a masterstroke. He obviously needed the boos to make his point. He wanted to portray himself as the man who speaks for the common folk who never get their opinions aired on TV. He summed it up with his line about ‘I say what many of you are probably thinking’. He effectively acknowledged that ninety percent of the people in the room would dislike him and never vote UKIP. He took that fact and turned it to his advantage, reaching out to his core voters to remind them why UKIP is different to the rest.

 

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