28 Mar

How Ed Miliband Would Win The Election

My fevers, aches and coughing fits finally eased last night so I finally had the energy and concentration to sit down and watch the Sky News/Channel 4 interviews with the leaders of the two main parties.

The first thing to say is that I thought David Cameron won on the night but it was a hollow victory. All the interesting things that need to be said are about Miliband. Miliband might have come second but that’s purely a political score. If it were a football match, Cameron was Stoke City parking eleven players in front of the net and going through on away goals. Miliband was on the losing side but he played the better football. If you were to follow a team based on just this performance, glory seekers might support Cameron. Fans of good football would want to follow the red team.

But let’s begin with Cameron. Even if the novelty wore off years ago, I’m often surprised at how personable David Cameron can be. He says warm friendly things with such a practised conviction that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that he’s been in charge of the government for the past five years. Over that time, the Tories have lost none of their ‘Nasty Party’ vibe and, in fact, they seem to have enhanced it. In a sense, it’s an amazing skill to develop. I’m not quite sure how Cameron, the Prime Minister, managed to somehow distance himself from the government of Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne. He is, I suppose, the velvet glove disguising the iron fist. I read recently that he considers himself a One Nation Tory yet his idol was Baroness Thatcher. That is a big clue to the man and perhaps explains what has happened to the nation under his watch.

On screen, he’s the smiling face, well groomed hair, with compassionate answers which you know he’s practised ad nauseum in the mirror. He’s one of those politicians trained never to point but to use that strange thumb to knuckle gesture that irritates you once you spot it being used. He’s another politician who believes that his family shouldn’t be used to make political points yet he’s another who happily uses his family to make political points. He also plays the One Nation Tory so well. He’s the Etonian toff who wants to dedicate a few years to the national service of ‘saving the nation’ before he goes off to make his fortune. The reality is that he’s a Thatcherite at heart; the leader of a deeply radical government that believes that the market is the best arbiter for government as well as business. He is the merciless opponent of real standards and that ‘closed shop’ mentality brought about by such ‘outmoded’ concepts as professional qualifications or experience. His government repeatedly helps the rich and uses the poor as the red meat to feed their braying constituency. Paxman’s question about zero hour contacts was the best of the night but the consequences of that weren’t taken to their logical conclusions, exploding the reality of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture of government and (I suppose) the media. Miliband is regularly attacked because of the proposed ‘Mansion Tax’ that might hit the super wealthy but Cameron rarely has to defend the real ‘Bedroom Tax’ which is already hurting poor people. Instead, the charm of the man carried him through the evening. He laughed and smiled and said we’re all in this together and let’s jolly well get the chuffing job finished! At the end of the hour, the audience knew no more about him or what the next five years might truly entail.

One of the only things to really note about the first half of the show was that Kay Burley was too sycophantic to the PM. She has a track record, of course. Her career at Sky News has been marked by repeated examples of her allowing her impartiality to slip. She often gives authorities an easy ride, her saccharin interviewing technique landing many one-on-ones with people in power. Yet, to anybody disadvantaged or protesting against the status quo, it’s a quite different style that emerges: she becomes combinative, bullying, hectoring, her interviews laced with tart asides and last word quips, usually all followed by a knowing look to camera once the interview is over. She channels the Fox News spirit into a British sphere and it’s wholly unwelcome. Given her past history, there wasn’t a presenter I thought less suited to this debate and so it proved as she punctuated the Miliband session with editorial judgements such as ‘that’s a politician’s answer’ and the moment she interjected ‘let’s not talk about the conservatives, let’s talk about what you do. I’m sure members of the audience remember about […] the note that was left behind’. Why Sky chose Burley just baffles me when they also have the wonderful Anna Jones.

By the time Miliband appeared on stage, my feeling was that Cameron had set the bar pretty low. Miliband only needed to turn up to win an easy victory. Only, it didn’t turn out like that.

His preparation was Miliband’s undoing. He had a deliberate strategy, which was clearly the product of whatever awful ‘people’ people the Labour HQ are currently employing. He’s clearly gone through the media friendly drills: ask the audience member their name and preface every answer with little lead in phrases such as ‘let me explain why’. It made for a polished performance but, really, it stripped him of his personality. He was attempting to play the game by Cameron’s rules and highlighted the strange dichotomy that exists between what we want of our politicians and what we probably deserve.

There’s a phenomenon in current British politics that’s barely been explained. The rise of the New Right is not simply a seismic shift of political allegiance. UKIP membership is not simply the far right of the Tory party. If it were, they wouldn’t command 20% in the polls. Instead, they’ve eaten into Labour and Lib Dems support. The shifts are fluid, of course, and go many ways. Some Lib Dems might have moved to Labour but a surprising number of old Labour supporters now throwing their votes towards UKIP.

UKIP’s success, I would argue, isn’t merely about a current concern with immigration. It’s surprising to see many people professing their support for UKIP when previously they’d have been staunchly Labour. The explanation is that it’s not simply about policy. UKIP are more Tory than the Tories and many of their votes would never have voted Tory in their lives. Instead, it’s about language and the nature of British political debate which started with Tony Blair. Iraq might be the legacy that most people associate with Blair but, for me, it was the neutering of the political arena. Blair’s government were master manipulators of the message. They used the techniques of PR to convince people that they were right. Ministers were told to remove beards and use key phrases. It led to a bastardized politics that remains to this day. It’s the politics of the coming election when argument will be replaced by billboards, sound bites and cheap smears. We already hear the key phrases such as ‘long term economic plan’ and ‘for hardworking people’. It’s Pavlovian politics, whereby you repeat an untruth enough times that it takes on the permanence of a truth.

It’s a political strategy that suits Cameron immensely and he plays it supremely well. David Miliband would have also played it well but brother Ed is not suited to the game. In fact, not only should he not play it but not playing that game might be his greatest strength.

I contest that UKIP’s success is primarily down to the figure of Nigel Farage, an odd looking man, often seen standing in a pub his huge ugly teeth on show as he laughs open mouthed. He’s graceless, without much sense of fashion. He’s exactly the opposite of Cameron and, here’s the important part, people love him because of that. His virtue is that he’s not cut from the same cloth as David Cameron or Tony Blair. He’s a throwback not just to a bygone England but to a former political style. He appeals to many people who simply feel that politicians talk over them, in cleverly rehearsed rhetoric which never answers a single question. Farage is popular because he’s one of the few alternatives to vanilla party politics. Yet on the basis of last night’s performance, Ed Miliband is about 90% of the way towards having a similar common touch. It’s just that 10% of polish which gets in the way.

For example, at one point, Paxman demanded that Miliband set a figure for the potential population of the UK in the coming years. 70 million? 75 million? 80 million? Miliband tried to play the game. He refused to provide a number and instead tried to move the debate on to the question about our membership of the EU. ‘I haven’t mentioned the European Union,’ waited Paxman. ‘You’re making up questions yourself’.

It was the lowest point of the evening as the audience sniggered. Having been the subject of enough schoolyard bullying in my life, I recognised it for what it was. Somebody asks you to name your favourite band and no matter what you answer, you become a laughing stock to a crowd all too ready to follow the example set by bully. I’ve always liked Paxman but I thought he went too far. Perhaps he knew that himself given that we could faintly hear him ask ‘Are you okay, Ed?’ as the credit’s rolled.

Yet oddly it was the bulling that seemed to break Miliband’s nerve. His temper frayed and Miliband rose to another level. The last five minutes of his interview had more conviction than the rest of the show. Had he been that passionate and informal in the preceding mannered minutes, the night would have been his.

What struck me about the debate was that perhaps Miliband’s greatest virtue might be that he’s nothing like Cameron. Large portions of the electorate are turned off politics because politicians don’t answer straight questions with straight answers. Miliband could turn that to his advantage. John Major did exactly that when he deployed his stupid crate of oranges that everybody thought a ridiculous ploy until it connected with the nation in an odd but meaningful way.

I’m not sure if Miliband need a crate of oranges but I think he simply needs to find that edge. He needs to stop listening to his ‘people’ people and stop being so damn nice. He’s not going to out-nice Cameron. What he could do is galvanise an electorate who are sick of political sock puppetry. He could talk to a nation largely unrepresented by an Etonian elite running the country from the heart of a city that feels ever more remote to the rest of the nation. He should turn the debate from the questions the media want to ask to the questions that the rest of the country want to hear answered. You do not win the country simply by winning London. The only question is how Labour go about doing that. If they play the election on Cameron’s terms, they won’t been seen as a viable alternative. They should instead play the game as Farage plays it: with self-deprecating humour,  spontaneous moments of genuine character, off the cuff encounters with common people even if that means having those ‘media’ moments with dissenters. I caught just a hint of it last night but for the first time I realised that Miliband’s lack of polish and willingness to engage the electorate might be the very thing that just might win him the forthcoming election. It’s only a matter of whether Labour have the wits to realise this.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather
27 Mar

Sickbed Doodles, Sickbed Logic

Prince Charles

I drew this one at 5.30am when I’d finally given up attempting to sleep and decided that I might as well do something more productive with my time. I’m not going to claim it’s satire or art when it’s really just the feverish scribbling of a man stick of listening to the dawn chorus. I think I should have spent more time on the chin. It’s too fat, though that’s what I wanted but not to this extent.

All I can say is that at least there are no spelling mistakes. It’s a sign of how little sleep I had last night that the heading to my previous article was ‘Becow’ instead of ‘Bercow’. Sounded more like an abbreviation Bart Simpson might use…

The oddest thing about it is that I actually quite like Prince Charles, though I know you’re not supposed to mutter such confessions too loudly. It’s the old Jeremy Clarkson syndrome: I know I should have plenty of reasons to dislike the man but there’s something that holds me back.

My attitude to the monarchy swings with every argument that’s made. My mind tells me that I’m a Republican because I don’t like systems in which elites hold an advantage at birth. Yet, at the same time, I’m not so naive to assume that all Republics are without their elites. America, our supposed great model of egalitarianism, is regularly ruled by dynasties at all levels but the Roosevelt, Bush, Adams, Kennedy, and Clinton dynasties are the most memorable. A constitutional monarchy feels like a good compromise. If we’re going to have a ruling dynasty, we might as well stick with just one and strip them of all power. You could argue it’s a cruel duty to impose on somebody but, really, there are far more cruel duties that life imposes on all of us.

In that sense, I’m generally in favour of our monarchy and the alternative would be a dozen times more irritating. It’s rare the Queen does anything to piss us off and even if Charles is a little too quick to offer advice to governments, it’s a damn sight less headache inducing that having a system like America where there’d be an elected second trough around which we could line up twice as many high-priced pigs.

Even if you accept Charles’ meddling, there are other reasons to dislike him which I’m sympathetic to but largely choose to ignore. His support for holistic medicine is one. Another is the nonsense about defending all faiths, given that half the world is in flames because of faiths contesting for the soul of every Joe Pigfarm scraping a living out of the land.

So, yes, Charles is a somewhat bonkers relic of an outdated system which perhaps doesn’t represent a modern nation. Yet human life isn’t always run by logic alone. There should always been room for a little craziness in the world. We all have to take a one too many nips of the cough syrup and start to draw pointless things at 5.30 in the morning. Charles is anti-modernity, he’s never been hip in his life, and he wants to be highbrow and believe in highbrow things. He’s a bit like Clarkson: likely to piss of a lot of people who don’t believe in his values. Yet it’s good to know that there are people who still believe in certain things like British engineering and a kind of rebellious swimming against the tide. It might make us uneasy to defend people like that but he alternative would be a rush for the bottom and a wholesale ubiquity.


facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather
27 Mar

A Bercow/Hague Cartoon


I drew this in the time it took me to watch Question Time last night. I wish Question Time had been longer, though it was nearly 3am by the time it finished. I was up for another five hours, unable to sleep because of the strange sensations going on in my throat. Sleeping sitting up never works for me so I ended up watching random things on the BBC iPlayer. I didn’t have any means of watching the leader’s ‘debate’ otherwise I’d have watched that. However, I understand it was pretty bad (though Paxman was good) and that Kay Burley did her usual stunt of sucking up to the rich and powerful and going all in to hammer the relatively weak or powerless. I have to see if I can find it online. I simply forgot it was on last night. (And, in fact, I was about to delete the comment about Kay Burley since I didn’t see it myself and it was sister (politically pretty neutral) who told me and was really indignant about it. Then I saw this and figured it sounded pretty typical.)

Away from politics, I’m pretty certain I know what’s been wrong with me.  I thought I had a cold. I’m now sure I picked up a viral throat infection at some point in Chester. I’ve had all the symptoms and an absence of cold and flu symptoms. It’s still not turned into a proper cold and I don’t feel as bad as I’d usually feel with a cold and an almost total absence of solid sleep. More amusingly, my Barry White voice has gone because I can no longer string more than two words together before it leaps into the higher octaves, only audible to dogs and Liberal Democrats. Not sure if this is now technically laryngitis but my family think it’s highly amusing.

Anyway, I hit the websites looking for cures. Green tea and honey was supposed to be good. I’m sure it is if you stomach the stuff. The slowly brewed yeast off a mouldy old badger wouldn’t have tasted so bad.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather
26 Mar


Still a little under the weather but trying to get my eye and hand back into the game. Not entirely sure how to feel about today’s vote in the House of Commons. I’m tempted to write to Kate Emms to ask what she thinks I should think. Ever since I mentioned Kate Emms in my review of the Commons documentary, the name ‘Kate Emms’ has eclipsed all others when it comes to bringing visitors from Google. I’m still not convinced there isn’t another Kate Emms who is a shadowy member of One Direction…

Anyway, William Hague’s ploy did seem a little underhand but it’s Cameron I really despise for trying to destroy Bercow simply because the Speaker dare stand up to the Prime Minister. It’s precisely the same flaw in the PM’s character that has been exposed by the debate about the leader’s debate. Power seems to have corrupted him to the point where he can’t bear to hear dissent but dissent is usually the best barometer of a democracy.

Today’s proceedings did, perhaps, explain why Hague had been moved to Leader of the House in the last reshuffle. Previously, I couldn’t understand the move. Had Cameron planned this all along? If so, it was a nasty little business to pass off to Hague whose career had, thus far, deserved something better. I have no idea why Hague is quitting but that too seems odd except he’s another (like Portillo) whose status increases the further he gets from power. He would have made a fine Prime Minister and would have been Prime Minister had fate not given him that head with that voice. I think exactly the same is true of Ed Miliband as I’ve said before. It’s cruel but a fact about large portions of the voting public who are led almost as much by looks as they are by policy.

As for Bercow (note to self: must draw him for tomorrow), I don’t know what to think. He seemed genuinely moved when the ‘No’s won and that means I was genuinely moved. In his favour, the backbenchers seem (or perhaps tend) to like him. However, I can’t get over the fact that I probably wouldn’t like the man and he can sometimes strike me as a grade ‘A’ pillock, with pomposity his worst (and greatest) quality. He’s pompous to the point that my family spontaneously burst into laughter whenever he comes on TV, strutting alongside the great, good, and powerful. However I don’t have to deal with him and I imagine dealing with him on a daily basis is like trying to manhandle a greased sealion into a golf bag.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather
26 Mar

Old Man River… That Old Man River…

The distinctions between colds and flu seem to be terribly arbitrary. I’m pretty sure that I’ve had a cold, though it’s been an odd cold that hasn’t developed how most of my colds develop. I’m not at all snuffly, though I’m now talking with a Barry White voice. Oh yes, baby! You heard me. I say Barry White… Ooh yeah!

Sorry, though I’m not really that sorry. I love my ‘cold voice’ because it usually drops a couple of octaves and I spend my days singing ‘Old Man River’ for no reason other than I can.

Old Man Riveeeeeeer….

But as I was saying… I think I’ve had a cold yet all the literature about colds say that you don’t get aches and fevers. That’s probably why I get zero sympathy. I tell people that I have a cold and they go: oh, right, well keep away from me. No note of sympathy or anything.

However, at 1am this morning, I was curled up in bed feeling really achy, freezing cold and generally crappy. By 3am I was really hot. I didn’t take my temperature for fear of frightening the crap out of myself but I felt hotter than I’ve ever felt yet I wasn’t sweating. Not sweating was the thing that worried me so I knew the best course of action would be a couple of paracetamol to induce the sweating, even though I knew it meant I wouldn’t sleep for a few hours. So, 3.30, I stuck ‘Anchorman 2′ on (yet again) and settled in for the inevitable.

Half an hour late the sweating began and by 4.15am I was wet through. The pillows were wet, the sheets were wet, even the wallpaper was beginning to curl at the edges. At some point, I did finally fall asleep and the sweating continued profusely, to judge by the soggy mess that awoke some hours later. I’m amazed I didn’t wake up a rake; the reverse Captain America process except replace the well honed body of the Captain with my slightly less well-honed body.

Anyway, when I did wake up, I felt better. The aches have gone and my energy is back. Still no obvious cold (a slight cough and feeling a little under the weather) which makes we wonder what the hell I’ve had. I nipped to the corner shop and bought myself some Lucozade, a throwback from my childhood give that illness in the house was the only time we ever bought Lucozade. I want to get back to my cartooning, though I’m a bit worried about my beloved tablet. A sign of how ill I was last night, I accidentally dropped my tablet and watched it bounce down a full set of stairs. It seems to work (no cracked screen, thank god) but I’ve not fully tested it. Losing my tablet would be the spectacularly cruel end to a momentously bad month.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather
25 Mar

Man Flu

Christ! I feel rough. I’m told I have ‘a cold’ but I think it’s technically called ‘man flu’ by we sufferers. I get zero sympathy from the women in my life.

What I don’t understand is that a cold isn’t supposed to make you feel so achy or give you such low energy that I’m struggling to even type this. I have both, though my sore throat of last night has eased and I feel the usual symptoms of a cold building in my head. It’s not (as far as I can tell) flu because the really bad symptoms aren’t there. Hence my diagnosis of ‘man flu’.

Anyway, a tip of my slightly infected hat to the BBC executives. I didn’t think they’d do it but they of course had no alternative but to sake Jeremy Clarkson once a bloodied lip entered into the picture. Having a high moral stance it what we want of our national broadcaster, yet I can’t help but feel that something has been lost and lost to Rupert Murdoch.

Here’s my prediction. A new Clarkson/May/Hammond vehicle (no pun intended) will launch on Sky, obviously helping increase Sky’s subscribers and bringing vast amounts of money into the Murdoch coffers which would have previously gone into the BBC coffers where it has been helping them produce more innovative and marginal TV than the old ‘Top Gear’.

Meanwhile, the new BBC ‘Top Gear’ will probably carry on much as before. Against most people’s expectations, I think the BBC will try to keep the jaundiced grumpy middle age vibe, with just a few less racial slurs. It will probably do okay and the Sky one will do okay. I expect to hate the new show because they will cherry pick the most annoying presenters, taking them from my well circulated list of ‘people who make David hiss with fury’. Chris Evans, Danny Dyer, and Stephen Fry. How much more toxic could they get? Oh, I know. They’ll make one of them a woman and the woman will be Caitlan Moran, who I insist hasn’t a funny bone in her body. Of course, the moment you say that, there’s always somebody who’ll say ‘oh, but you’re bound to say that because you’re the kind of man that dear Caitlan has been mocking for all these years.’ To which I’d reply: sod you. I have man flu, remember. I’m not likely to remember my language.

Anyway, I feel too rough to lament Clarkson’s lot in life. How the hell does a man so well off seem to feel like the world is as wrong as he claims. He’s one of life’s winners. He was’t to come view life from this end of the long shit stick.

Pardon my language again. It’s the man flue.

Besides, in a few years, we’ll probably we watching Clarkson, May and Hammond (five years older but looking ten years younger) migrate back to the BBC where the whole ridiculous circus will begin again.

And just what was James May thinking about when he wore that hat for the camera’s today. Made him look like an effete Tommy Trinder.


facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather
25 Mar

My March Jinx

My internet’s back after about 36 hours of moderate hell trying to figure out the problem. It’s why I resorted to attempting to use my Samsung tablet with an Apple bluetooth keyboard last night. I hate technology. Never works how it should…

The internet always seems to go at the most inconvenient times. Yesterday, I had a really important job to do when it flaked out and it all came down to a frayed cable which, like most bad cables, was in about the most inaccessible place. That’s bad at the best of times but I’m being assaulted on two fronts. Firstly, I had work outstanding from last week which I couldn’t do because of somebody being deliberately obstructive because they refused to communicate with the company I occasionally work. The company I occasionally work for had landed a contract which this person had previously won, meaning he refused to hand over any of the relevant passwords. I watched it all from afar but it’s amazing to see how childish businessmen can behave.

The second assault has come in the form of a last minute gift from Chester. I was in the crowds on Saturday and Monday night I started to feel like I’d caught another cold, which, for me, is typical of this time of year. I read somewhere that you’re less likely to get a cold during spring and autumn, but my experience is that I *always* catch a cold as the weather changes from/to bitterly cold to/from moderately mild.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Dumb, the election is beginning to warm up. I watched with mild incredulity the interview that Cameron did for the BBC or (more accurately) his old Eton chum, James Lansdale. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such sycophancy trying to pass itself off as real journalism. Yet, five minutes later, the BBC were reporting on some small scam at a company training bodyguards, ending with the guy operating the scam running down the street being perused by reporters wielding hard questions. Obvious, the scam was bad but it impacted so few people that nobody cared how much they chased the grifter. Cameron, on the other hand, seems to get away without any hard questions. I’m pretty disgusted that we’re not getting proper leaders debates, especially since Cameron was a beneficiary of them at the last election. I was no fan of Gordon Brown (though I have found myself warming to him since he left office) but at least Brown had the balls to stand in front of the nation, knowing, as he surely did, that it could (and probably did) become his Nixon moment. No Prime Minister had fewer personal skills than Brown but he stood up when it mattered.

I’m not sure what we’ll make of the coming election. This far out, I suspect it might be a pretty dull one, with Cameron doing Tony Blair’s old trick of only appearing in front of heavily vetted audiences. At the moment, I’m feeling too rough to really rouse my anger or to draw a cartoon. March has been a really bad month and I’m feeling spiritually as well as physically under the weather.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather
24 Mar

Api fun…

Slightly absent, today. I’ve been racking up the hours programming the eBay API with the result after about four days that I can now create listings. Given that this work was meant to be a little project to help our a friend, it’s become something else. I really need to stop allowing my enthusiasm to take over. I’ve not had chance to write or draw properly since my slightly overlong critique of Chester. I don’t have time to write now. I’m using my Samsung Note with an Apple Wireless keyboard, which I thought would make a great laptop replacment allowing me to blog tonight. However, I’ve just discovered why I didn’t do this before. The Note seems to have a bug with its Bluetooth which means it keeps disconnecting the keyboard every minute or two… That wouldn’t be to… Long pause as the keyboard reconnects… too bad if I could anticipate the disconnections but I can and it’s already driving me mad.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather
23 Mar

A Question about the Post Office

I was in the Post Office, posting a parcel so I walked up to the desk.

‘Can I send this second class, please,’ I ask, putting the parcel on the scales.

The woman looked up at me. ‘And can I ask what in the parcel for security reasons?’

‘It’s a book,’ I answer, cursing myself that I didn’t plump for one of the ‘funny’ replies I always have ready. It’s not just the obvious ‘yes, you can ask me what’s in the parcel’ or even the pedantic ‘there’s nothing in it for security reasons’. I mean the answers I have like ‘some frilly underwear that was chafing me when I bend over’ or ‘the Big Book of British Soup’.  There are a few more vulgar that always tempt me. I sometimes wonder what they’d say if I replied ‘a partially masticated butt plug’ or ‘a pair of prosthetic buttocks’. If I could sit down (on my prosthetic buttocks), I’m sure I could come up with some pretty imaginative answers but I haven’t and so I didn’t. Instead I just added a bland:

‘I keep thinking I should give you a silly reply.’

‘Oh,’ said the woman. ‘We get loads of them.’

‘Really?’ I ask, a little surprised.

‘Most people say it’s a bomb.’

I did a double take.

‘Did you say bomb?’

‘Yes,’ she smiled. ‘Most people just say they’re sending a bomb.’

‘Don’t they get into trouble?’

‘Oh no,’ she laughed as she affixed the label. ‘Good job we don’t take them seriously!’

Which made me think. The Post Office are always asking us what’s in the parcels for security reasons, to make sure that it’s not a bomb. Yet when you tell them it’s a bomb, they don’t take it seriously. Which begs the question: what kind of reply would make them really suspicious?

[Addendum. It suddenly struck me that perhaps bombs aren’t actually on the list of objects you’re prohibited from sending through the post. They keep showing me the list and I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a bomb of that sheet. Perhaps it should. I’d even suggest that it should be at the top of the form.]

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather
22 Mar

Why I Despise the City of Chester

Chester is a city which doesn’t exactly feel like how a city should feel. It’s small, condensed, and in a very good way, totally haphazard. To describe it best, I could quote Gormenghast:

Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracts. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river. Deep in a fist of stone a doll’s hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm. A shadow shifts its length. A spider stirs … And darkness winds between the characters.

Yet it’s also a city that announces its age at every opportunity and, unless you travel there for the heritage, that heritage can sometimes plainly wear on your nerves. I think of it as a city that wants to play me for a fool; where the price of everything is inflated to maintain the mock Elizabethan standards.

The moment you step out of the station, you’re greeted by paralyzed history. The arch over the entrance to the Queen Hotel car park proclaims ‘Carriages & Post Horses For Hire’, whilst across the road another hotel, one of the city’s many listed buildings, is proudly titled the ‘Town Crier’. Everything wears history but it’s a history that only a naive fool (or American) would believe is real. Wikipedia dates the building to only 1865, originally titled either the ‘Queen Commercial Hotel’ or the ‘Albion Hotel’, whilst the role of the city’s town crier it itself a recent re-innovation, reappearing sometime in the 1990s. None of this really matters, of course. Not to the tourists.

I’ve never been a tourist. I’ve visited Chester so regularly since childhood that I no longer have any sense of its novelty. At one point, I was hoping to get a lecturing job in the English department at the university (I didn’t) and at another point I was working on the city’s outskirts, often travelling into the city on my half-days to enjoy the shopping. It’s distant enough to be only an occasional day out but close enough to be completely familiar.

There was a time when English towns retained some distinctive quality but every town in the UK resembles every other town and Chester, despite its pretensions, is still really more town that city. There are the ubiquitous shops and anything more is usually worth disregarding or cherishing intensely. Whether it’s the self-important town criers, the struggling actors dressed as Roman centurions, or the old fashioned open-topped bus that carries tourists around, Chester is different and yet, for people who aren’t tourists, there’s also something about it that feels wrong. It’s a veneer of special which really doesn’t run that deep. This is that vintage England which you’re not entirely sure is real or an illusion.

Because, these days, my visits to Chester are usually to support my sister who makes occasional visits to see a consultant there, we often use Abbey Taxies on Foregate Street. It’s a small office, wedged between a couple of cafes, Argos and a Bargain Booze across the road, all the buildings like much of the city centre: a mixture of styles but with the popular black and white timber the dominant theme. Inside there’s a cattle-pen turnstyle arrangement, which I assume is for weekend use, where drunks probably stack up for their taxis home. However, it’s always empty during the day and you walk straight through to an office at the rear, ask for a taxi, and you are then directed through the building towards the street at the back. You emerge in an alley that resembles grubby backstreets everywhere and the city’s Tudor spell is immediately broken by the endless red brick. The timber history, you realise, was skin deep and the real history is to be found elsewhere in the Roman ruins dotted around the outskirts of the city centre.

Yet, the illusion is not entirely why I never enjoy visiting Chester. It’s hard to criticise any place that tries to be different in these days of mass produced shop fronts and, despite my cynicism, I know much of the history is real and I always feel a thrill when I remember that my favourite poet, John Donne, attended the funeral of Sir Thomas Egerton at the Cathedral. What I suppose I dislike is the ethos of the place. There was a time when there was a free bus that ran from the station into the city centre. Manchester has that and I think many other great cities have the same. It’s a small thing but it makes you feel welcome. Chester now charges visitors for this honour and I begrudge the £1 you have to pay for each five minute journey on the cramped bus, four additional pounds for the two of us in addition to the already exorbitant train fare. It means that right from the moment you leave the station, Chester doesn’t feel welcoming and it gets no better once you arrive in the city centre.

For the average person, Chester flaunts both its wealth and your lack of it. It’s the only place I know where I feel genuinely poor. On Eastgate Street, in the shadow of the famous clock (erected 1769, or so it says in the Latin pressed in gold onto the red sandstone), stands the Chester Grosvenor Hotel. It’s the kind of hotel that has men in uniforms guarding the entrance with a rigid smile and ex-military menace. It offers an eight course ‘Tasting Menu’ for ‘just’ £59 per person, with a ‘Tasting Wine Menu Selection’ for only another £45. If I’d wanted to stay there tonight, the cheapest room is £195 for the ‘Classic Bedroom’ or £455 for the ‘Deluxe Suite’. I’d have to hope they also offer a ‘Standard Broom Closet’.

I know there’s no reason to begrudge the rich their privileges but the problem is that Chester makes that ostentation so public. Because the hotel’s entrance opens right onto the main shopping thoroughfare, the wedding parties often mix with the tourists and locals in a strange blend of real wealth and absolute poverty. You can quickly find yourself walking through a wedding shot or pushing past some huge Rolls Royce or horse-drawn cart thick with garlands. Handsome people are daily seen posing in their perfect lives at perfect weddings you suspect will end in a messy divorce six months later. Often the confetti (every piece cut into a heart shape, no less) sticks to your boots, in the lapel of your coat, in the creases of your hat. Today, there was a bright red Jag, a stunning F-Type Coupe, pushing its way through the crowds; it’s deep throated roar clearing a path. I’ve never been so close to one as I was when its exquisite nose nudged me out of the way.

Yet for all the money, the pretty people in their fashionable clothes and their clipped accents, Chester has very little class. Get there late in the afternoon and you discover that most places close at five PM and the local baristas (the friendliest people in the city, especially those in the two Neros on the streets Eastgate and Foregate) tell me that the city is pretty starved of culture at night. Anywhere that stays open is catering to the stag parties or muscled gangsters hot on their winning streaks from the racetrack. At night, Chester is a place where women wear very little very brazenly, where there’s as much wealth on show as there is flesh. Often, the clothes are of the leopard skin variety, as bereft of ideas as the wearers are bereft of manners. Today, I’d just emerged from Waterstones (I’d found a Kliban Cat calendar dumped in the bargain bin for £1) and I was walking along the Rows, which if you don’t know Chester, are a raised pedestrian area a level up from the street, forming a continuous walkway cut into fabric of the buildings. It’s all carved timber like the innards of the Mary Rose, winding and rising and falling as the constantly unique architecture changes from shop to shop. It’s probably one of the city’s great attractions, the stuff that makes Americans boldly declare ‘quaint’. Yet it’s also extremely unfriendly for anybody infirm or pushing a pram. So, at one of the many old well-heeled stone steps you find at the end of the Rows, a woman was standing with a baby in a buggy. She was trying to figure out how to get her pram down the steep steps. I was a good distance away, so I knew somebody would stop and help before I got there. In a city like Liverpool — supposedly a tough working class city but the reality is that it’s about the friendliest city you’ll find anywhere — somebody would help her in an instant. Yet that didn’t happen today in Chester. It was some time before I reached her yet I found her still struggling. I stopped and helped her carry the buggy down to the street and I say that not because I’m particularly virtuous because I’m not. But it’s what you do when nobody else will stop and help and Chester doesn’t feel like a place where people help each other very often.

People are rich and with wealth comes a certain attitude which pervades the place. In reminds me of London in the way that people shove each other out of the way, rarely signal for you to go first and instead take every space as if it’s already their own. On my rare visits to London, I’ve felt like Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, smiling at unfriendly strangers and apologising should I step in their way. Hold a door open for somebody in Manchester or Liverpool and people usually smile and say ‘thank you’. Hold a door open for somebody in London (or Chester) and they assume you’re there to hold the door open for them. It’s not deliberate. Taking you for granted is a habit of mind.

The same unfriendliness is carried over into the shops. Chester is the only city where I’ve ever been physically thrown out of a bookshop. It was some years ago now. I was about to go back to university to study English and I was in the classics section of W.H. Smith. I remember I was trying to figure out which edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays to buy. If you’ve ever studied Shakespeare seriously, you’d know it’s an important decision not to be made quickly. A young assistant came up to me. He asked me what I was doing. I said I was browsing the books. ‘They have libraries for that,’ he replied.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘If you want to browse books, you should go to the library.’

‘But I’m looking at these books intending to buy one.’ I’d been stood there about five minutes and with student loan money in my pocket to buy my copy.

‘Yes and we’ve had a lot of trouble with people like you…’

And then he escorted me out of the shop, despite my protests and requests to speak to the manager. I know I should have stood my ground but, also knowing Chester, I’d have probably ended up in the nick. I was too far from home to make a scene, plus, I guess, part of me felt like he was right. I didn’t belong. A stinking letter to W.H. Smiths’ head office did nothing. I suspect they’d mistaken me for somebody else. I never did find out. It was years before I even used that W.H. Smiths again.

Yet that’s Chester. Despite the charm, there’s a tricky undercurrent to the place. Walk the Rows and peer into the shops and you often see unfriendly faces looking back at you. Or, perhaps, just at me. I know the problem is partly how I look. I am shabby. I wear the clothes of my profession: lifelong student, writer, cartoonist, programmer, naive dreamer. And I know I dress a certain way because I want people to misjudge me because I also know that the suits and the tans mean very little in life. Or they mean very little to me. I want to be judged for who I am and not how I look. Yet the irony is that many of the shops contain the things I cherish. I now don’t even bother trying to enter the few antiquarian bookshops. I stick to the charity shops. I don’t enter the art galleries and I don’t even go into the Cartoon Gallery, which is up on the Rows on Watergate Street. It should be one of my favourite places in the North West but I stopped visiting. Whenever I’ve gone in there in the past, I felt so out of place. Not that I’ve ever been made to feel out of place. The owners smile at me but I somehow know it’s not for me. It’s a shop made for golfing executives and their wives, not for would-be cartoonists only there to look at all the Bill Stott originals and, besides, Bill Stott gave me one of his originals. He’s a good man. I suspect all cartoonist are, as I bet Albert is. Albert the Punch cartoonist who sits working at his desk at the back of the shop.

Yet I don’t really know why I feel apart in the place I should feel most at home. Perhaps it makes me bitter to think that the guy there to buy an expensive cartoon for his den wall can’t identify a Stott from a Bestie, a Mike Williams from a Bill Tidy.

And perhaps that’s why I always leave Chester feeling disappointed. I know it’s not really the city that disappoints me. I guess the disappointment is with myself. I realised this today.

We all go through life occasionally glimpsing lost souls, somehow outmaneuvered by fate. I saw a couple today, walking past me. They were obviously a couple and both wore glasses with extremely strong prescriptions. The boy looked cumbersome. The girl was attractive but in a slightly forlorn way and you know that she in no way would ever think herself attractive and you know that’s one of life’s small tragedies. She had a prettier face than many of those caked in fake tan and lip gloss. You might say the couple were a perfect match, each of them so ever slightly odd, and  that forced me to mutter a lament of ‘poor buggers’ as they walked past. Yet Chester also makes me realise that I’m another of the ‘poor buggers’, only there because my sister needed another hospital appointment because she continues to be extremely unwell, continually failed by the NHS, having just endured another six months of suffering because the local GP managed to lose two blood samples she’d given without informing us, meaning that, six months later, we had to face a consultant explaining how the important blood work hadn’t been done and she’d have to do it again, involving another six month wait… Two poor buggers in Chester and never a lucky break between them.

And that, I suppose is the problem I have with Chester. Chester really makes me hate myself and makes me hate my life, which is unforgivable. I can’t think of another place that ever makes me feel so utterly abject, glad to be home but also sad to be home. It’s not simply the fraud of the history, the wilful ignorance of the people. It’s the sense that life really is a lottery and some of us can afford the great suits, the expensive hotels, the bright red cars, the cartoon originals, the first editions, and, most of all, the private healthcare. The rest of us are stuck with shit luck, the NHS, and the knowledge that no matter how hard you work, how kind you are, how noble your dreams, or how generous your spirit, you can still be heeling along at the bottom wondering when life will give you a break.

‘Antiqui colant antiquum dierum’ is the City of Chester’s motto. ‘Let the ancients worship the ancient of days.’

As far as I’m concerned, the ancients are welcome to them.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather