Wednesday, November 30, 2005

My Sinful Tendentiousness

It's no good me pretending that it's anything other than a deep-seated tendency. For as long as I can remember I have been prefacing statements with the word 'actually'. You may not have noticed this because I usually remove the word in the editing process. Speech is a very different matter, which is one reason I haven't ventured into the brave new world of podcasting.

I am telling you this because it would be gravely dishonest of me to conceal this tendency from you despite the fact that my readers, being mostly a tolerant bunch, would not regard this adverbial tic as a grave sin.
My sexuality, on the other hand, is essentially transitory. OK, it hasn't changed in fifty years but what is fifty years in the context of eternity? What was it that old Anglo-Saxon said about human life? That it was as brief as a sparrow flying in one window of a lighted barn and out the other side.

Oh God, why am I bothering with this heavy-handed sarcasm about the Vatican's report on gay priests? It has no relevance to my own life and is based on the kind of unscientific nonsense we expect from the Vatican.

One rather baffling aspect is that if, as the Church says, the priesthood is a vocation - i.e. people are called to the priesthood by God - then God is clearly calling many gay men to the priesthood and what right does the Church have to over-rule him?
(I nearly went back there and gave 'him' a capital 'H' but then I remembered he doesn't exist so I'm not going to wear out my shift key on hypothetical beings. Maybe I should have put 'god' but that's probably just being childish).

Coincidentally, Oliver James in his Observer column this week referred to studies that show that the number of exclusively gay men is much lower than Kinsey suggested - less than 4% of populations. The number who are bisexual is higher: between 5 and 7%. The Catholic church seems never to have heard of bisexuality. I subscribe to the 'spectrum' model of sexuality. A few percent are at the exclusively gay end, a much larger number are at the exclusively straight end but people can be at any point on that spectrum.

The problem with surveys is that most of them are based on self-evaluation. There are 'straight' men who sometimes have sex with other men who will not only deny they are gay but will deny that they are even slightly bisexual. I know because I have met such people. Some of them take the view that it's not gay if you don't kiss during sex. Such people are going to distort any research findings. Similarly, some Catholic priests argue that celibacy means not being married rather than not having sex and thereby pursue active and guilt-free sex lives. The human capacity for self-delusion is infinite.

There's a good round-up of various religions' attitudes to this subject by Emily Wilson in today's Guardian. She ends with the point that lesbians don't get much of a mention in all of this. Of course, they are less relevant to the Catholic church because it doesn't have women priests, but the Anglican church does.
The explanation can only lie in the mighty power of the penis. In a patriarchal society, sex without a penis is not real sex. Ditto, sex without penetration. Ditto, sex where one partner is not passive or submissive. Perhaps not surprisingly, many gay men, who grow up in this same culture, take the same view.

To criticise this attitude is not to criticise penetrative sex in any of its forms but to criticise the belief in its primacy and the view that anything else is not 'real sex'. This attitude is responsible not just for a patronising view of lesbianism but probably also for 'wanker' being a male term of abuse and mutual masturbation being regarded as 'kids' stuff'. But the quality of the sexual experience for both partners - and ideally there should be an equality of enjoyment - is more important than what you actually do with your bits and whether dangly bits are involved at all. And in fairness I should add that if submission/dominance is what rocks both your boats in a particular relationship, then that's fine too.
(To be filed under 'Things I Wish I'd Known When I Was Sixteen').

I was going to draw an analogy between attitudes to sexuality and capitalism and social structures but I'm sure that's old hat and Coronation Street starts soon and I have to get my priorities straight, even if nothing else in my life ever has been.

But before leaving the subject, if the Vatican's report was wholly predictable then the Guardian's warm words about it in a leading article today were truly breathtaking. Given the number of journalists on that paper with 'deep-seated tendencies' I think whoever wrote it would be well-advised to take some gardening leave.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Priest Idol: The Last Rites

Last time on Priest Idol (C4): the marketing campaign for new Church Lite was just being launched in an attempt to raise the congregation of a Barnsley parish into double figures.....

Like so many documentary series today, this one suffered from the curse of the endless recap. Not just at the beginning of each episode but after every ad break, as though we had the attention span of a goldfish. Some footage was recycled endlessly throughout the three episodes. If all the recaps had been removed the entire series would have fitted into two episodes. This is TV Lite: the same footage is spread like margarine across several episodes, a highly profitable modern version of that stunt that JC pulled with the loaves and fishes.

The new 'reflection room' in the church was completed and the Archdeacon thought it looked 'fab'. The Archdeacon finds many things 'fab', particularly soft furnishings and embroidered silk vestments. It's a word we all used in the sixties but in my experience is now mostly used by those manifesting a characteristic that is said to be exemplified by a row of pink tents.

Actually, the reflection room did look rather good although I've never understood why some people are unable to engage in reflection, meditation, or possibly masturbation, without lots of drapes and lighted candles. I find that lying down and closing my eyes is quite sufficient, certainly for the less than numinous reflections that precede these blog postings.
The Archdeacon had previously been concerned that the reflection room would look like a brothel. One couldn't help wondering how he would have known if it looked like a brothel.

The arrival of spray bottles of 'Magdalene Calming Spirits' was greeted with hilarity. The young vicar James who, whilst other young Americans had been sent to Iraq to save people from tyranny had been sent by God to Barnsley to save people from Bingo, went round the church spraying parish workers with this bottled tap water like a schoolboy with a water pistol. Nobody appeared to see the the shameful tackiness of this marketing gimmick.

The Archdeacon had set himself the task of finding a major celebrity to perform at the inaugural service of Church Lite. His first choice, not surprisingly, was Sir Cliff Richard but he pleaded a prior engagement. "There's only one Cliff Richard", sighed the Archdeacon. To which even atheists would respond 'and the Lord be thanked for that'.

One doubted the Archdeacon's skills with search engines when he announced that he had found a list of famous Jews on Google. And one wondered if Jesus Christ was on that list. Not that that would help very much since he ascended into Heaven two thousand years ago and would be unavailable for a low fee gig in Barnsley. On the other hand, his reappearance is long overdue and would have made Julian and Steve the most famous marketing men on the planet. But I'm not sure how the timid Rev. James, who confessed to a 'warm, tingling feeling' at the church firework display would have coped with a Second Coming.

Pondering the list of famous Jews - and oi vey, that must have been one hell of a long list - the Archdeacon rolled the words 'Barbra Streisand' round his tongue before announcing 'I suppose it should really be a Christian'. I suppose it's that kind of incisive insight that gets you to the rank of Archdeacon.

Even so, the Archdeacon had difficulty putting on one side his own female, musical icons. Shirley Bassey would be fab. 'I Who Have Nothing' he murmured wistfully as he sat in his well-appointed Achdeaconery. What about Gloria Gaynor? Even fabber. Perhaps the Archdeacon is famous for his karaoke 'I Will Survive' on the clergys' annual lads' night out in Blackpool?

Anyway, after he had spent an enjoyable few hours on the internet combing through the A and B lists of celebrity, the person who graced the inaugural service was - promise you won't laugh - Jimmy Cricket.
It's actually a very long time since anyone laughed at Jimmy Cricket because he hasn't been on television for many years. A clue to one possible reason for this was in the one joke that the producers left in the final edit: Jimmy takes a hammer to a Brillo Pad and sings 'Show me the way to hammer a Brillo.' Jimmy, we were told, is a 'committed Christian'. Perhaps not committed enough: he clearly hasn't yet found out who is the patron saint of comedians and spent long, prayerful hours on his knees to them.

That said, the presence of a well-known person was enough to fill the small church. The presence of a Channel 5 newsreader or one of those women in Coronation Street's knicker factory with a non-speaking role would have had a similar effect. James seemed unable to see this and reacted as though the people of Barnsley had finally seen the light, or the 'lite'.

Within two months the congregation had settled at around fifty. This was still considered a huge success since it was four times as many people as attended before the intensive and expensive marketing campaign. But fifty people out of a village population of six thousand is not exactly spectacular and would certainly not sustain any other kind of enterprise.

The elephant in the room throughout this series that nobody mentioned was the television camera. The same could be said of every documentary or reality series. But it is one of the great con tricks of the age that we all pretend that television cameras don't affect people's behaviour. In the context of this programme, I remember that when 'Songs of Praise' was broadcast from my own village church, the church was overflowing with people, many of whom had never previously crossed the threshold. It was also as though the Reformation had never happened since some of the local Catholics could be clearly seen at the Church of England service singing Protestant hymns with great conviction, determined not to miss their few seconds on television.

Why are we so ready to believe that we are magically eavesdropping on reality even when hidden cameras are not being used? One reason is that you will rarely see people look at the camera. As anyone who has ever done a TV interview knows, this is because you are specifically ordered not to. If you do glance at the camera, the piece will usually be re-shot. Only television reporters are allowed to look into the camera lens for they are the priesthood and only they are allowed to commune directly with the viewers.

So, entertaining though this series was, it was a confected piece of nonsense and in no sense a genuine experiment in the marketing of religion.
I should also have liked to know how much of the narrative constructed around the marketing campaign and its outcome, was dreamed up by the production company and to what extent, if any, they contributed to the cost.

It's arguable that the only winner in Priest Idol was Jimmy Cricket who, however briefly, was able to get back on television without having to go into the Australian rainforest and eat Kangaroo testicles.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Smokey In Chokey

I pointed out some time ago that making prisons exempt from the forthcoming smoking ban would mean that if you flouted the ban and refused to pay the fine you could find yourself allowed to do in prison the very thing for which you were imprisoned in the first place.

I consider this to be the Labour Government's finest legislative achievement. If you manage to engineer something so triumphantly bonkers it is best to leave it at that and not try to add little sub-jokes that might detract from the central absurdity. But this Government never knows when to stop.

To be fair, they are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, a prison cell is regarded in law as someone's 'home' and to ban smoking there would be an extreme denial of their liberties. Or such few liberties as a prisoner has left. On the other hand, the Government fears 'passive smoking' legal claims from non-smokers forced to share cells with smokers. And since 80% of prisoners smoke, to ban smoking entirely would cause riots to erupt in every jail in the country. So what to do?

Well, if you are as divorced from reality as either someone in a Broadmoor padded cell or a New Labour Minister you announce that prisoners will be encouraged to "make arrangements to suit each other, such as the smoker agreeing to only smoke outdoors - say in the exercise yard."

As it happens, this very scenario is recorded in the prison diaries of my old solicitor chum Jonathan Trumpington-Browne which came into my possession after he was found hanging from the bars of his cell:

17th May

Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, I was moved into a cell with 'Slasher' Simpson who rules the roost on D Wing and who, as one of the prison officers confided to me, should really be in a special hospital with all the other psychos.

This afternoon I said to him "Look Slasher, I'm sorry to be a bore and all that but would you mind not smoking in the cell? Maybe you could just have a social cigarette when you're out in the yard? I know that's only one hour in every twenty-four but think of the money you'll save. You could afford a lot more phone cards to ring your old mother in Edmonton. And I'm quite happy to make a reciprocal sacrifice and give you first crack at the Guardian crossword. Otherwise, this passive smoking is going to make me ill. I've been a martyr to bronchitis ever since prep school. The dorms weren't heated like these prison wings, you know."

Slasher sat on his bunk and smiled at me, twisting a large gold ring round and round his little finger. After several minutes he said "You know the cigarette I really enjoy? The cigarette I smoke after sex." He stood up and placed his tobacco tin and cigarette papers next to my pillow. "Passive smoker, are you? Don't worry, only five hours to lights out."

While I was digesting the implications of these remarks, Slasher picked up my crossword and lay on his bunk.
"That six across, eight letters, beginning with 'c', mentioned on the first page of an Anthony Burgess novel. Think you'll find it's 'catamite'. Dear me, that must have been a crap school you went to. Pass me the pen and my snout, Johnno. We'll finish it together. Something to do until bedtime. We're going to get on just fine, you and me".

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Cheating Bastards

So, the Government is to issue guidance to parents on how much they can help children with course work that counts towards their exams. Parents are apparently unsure about what constitutes cheating in this context.
Dad, how do you spell bollocks?

The increase in continuous assessment and in course work that constitutes a large proportion of the overall marks in exams has been a significant factor in increasing the bias in educational achievement towards the middle classes.
I've seen this phenomenon from several angles. I saw it happening during the brief time I was a teacher and I've seen it when I was in other employment and professional, middle class parents would contact me to ask me to help with their child's project when it was on my own subject of expertise.

Some companies almost need to employ a designated member of staff to deal with requests for help with school projects. Some of the children and parents can be very demanding and aggressive. If you say you're rather busy just at the moment with the work you are actually employed to do you'll get the response: "But it's got to be finished by the end of the week!"
And because education is such a sacred cow today, any reluctance or inability to help is regarded as a crime against society.

The idea that parents are unaware what constitutes cheating is ludicrous. I've known several teachers who have done most of the work on their childrens' school projects without the slightest twinge of guilt.

I'm no lover of traditional, formal examinations but at least children sitting in rows in school halls are on a level playing field. To pursue the analogy, you wouldn't let little Johnny's father come on and take the penalty for him in the school football tournament. But that is effectively what is happening today in the examination system. And if the bias was towards working class families on council estates, there'd have been an uproar about it long ago, probably in the pages of the Daily Mail. After all, those at the bottom of the heap spend their whole lives cheating the system. But as everyone knows, tax avoidance and white collar crime are something entirely different.

OK, now I've got my A*, I can come clean.
I'm not really a middle-aged man at all. This blog was created as part of an English project. My real name is Tristan. Most of this blog was written by my Dad. He wrote a lot of it at work. He says he did it in his lunch hour. He must have very long lunch hours.

He won't let my Mum read it because he pretended to be gay and she might get the wrong idea. He only did that because someone at his golf club told him my English teacher was gay. Anyway, my English teacher said I got inside the skin of another character brilliantly and that I should think about a writing career. When I told my Dad that he nearly pissed himself and said I couldn't write a shopping list.
But he's so pleased with 'his' A* in English and my place at Uni that he's taking us to the Seychelles for Christmas. When I got my results he said "You've got a lot to thank your Dad's Willie for, Tristan" which I thought was gross. But kind of funny too.

I better delete this blog now before anyone reads the truth. Thanks Dad. And if you are a bit gay, that's cool. Well, that's what Jemima, my gf, said anyway.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Exceedingly Good Corrie

To support I'm A Celebrity..... and blitz the BBC, ITV are piling on extra episodes of Coronation Street this week. Not that we Corrieistas are complaining.

There were three episodes last night, all by different writers.
My vote goes to the middle episode for which Carmel Morgan delivered a sparkling script. She has also contributed to Shameless and has just written a stage play for Dawn French.
A Catherine Tate catchphrase provided a good link to the real world outside the Street when David Platt said "Blackmail? How very dare you!"

Then Kipling joined the long list of poets who have been quoted in Corrie in recent years, including Larkin, Wilfred Owen and William Blake, among others. Perhaps the writers have some kind of competition going and will eventually work through the entire canon of English poetry. Who says popular television has to be as moronic as I'm A Celebrity.....?
Carmel Morgan couldn't resist a joke about Mr Kipling cakes, but then which of us could have done? It's just fortunate that the writers are exempt from the rules on product placement.

Shobna Gulati (Sunita) revealed in an interview this week that in the corner shop they spend hours turning the labels round on the shelves.
It wasn't always thus. For years, Berkeley cigarettes were prominent behind the counter in both the corner shop and in Rita's newsagent. Now, in an idiotic departure from realism, cigarettes, if displayed at all, have the packets reversed so that only the 'Smoking Kills' message is visible.
Even more unforgiveably, Corrie recently linked a storyline to a Government campaign to encourage people to volunteer for community projects. For God's sake, let's keep social engineering and subliminal messages out of fictional entertainment. Particularly when the messages are so contradictory and inconsistent. The people of Coronation Street spend all their leisure hours drinking in the Rover's Return, many of them have multiple sexual partners and a long history of failed marriages and illegitimate children and they are constantly in Roy's cafe tucking into a large fry-up.
We've just learned that Roy's fried bread is fried in bacon fat and his toast is always coated in real butter. Incredibly, thus far only Jack Duckworth has had a heart attack and nobody has died from liver disease or HIV. Indeed, in Corrie the greatest threat to your life is being driven into the canal by a suicidal psychopath or burned to a cinder in an exploding car or building.
Not that we'd want it any other way.

Let There Be Lite

And lo, it was written in the second book of Priest Idol (Channel 4) that the marketing men (Julian and Steve) came down from the mountain and said 'Church Lite! You know it makes sense!' and 'Church Lite! It washes whiter!'
Actually, they said neither. They said 'Church Lite. It's better for you!' which I thought was rather weak.

The Archdeacon got more agitated about the spelling than the principle. '"Lite' is American" he said. "Well I'm American", replied the pale and uninteresting curate James, who has been sent by God to save a Barnsley parish from bingo, binge-drinking and buggery. (We haven't yet seen any evidence of the last in Barnsley but I ran out of Bs).

James would be perfect casting for the Dustin Hoffman role in a re-make of The Graduate. But one can't quite see any of the ladies of the Parochial Church Council in the Anne Bancroft role. Neither prosthetics nor depilation techniques have progressed quite that far. Then again, one could believe that Dustin Hoffman had reached the other side of puberty whereas with James one can't be entirely sure.
"I've kissed more women in the last two weeks than in my entire life", he said, which may explain why he often has a rather shell-shocked expression. His High Camp - sorry, High Church - predecessor had set a challenging benchmark in the kissing stakes. One noticed that he kissed some of the ladies of the parish on the lips as well as the cheek in a rather theatrical way. Only a gay man can get away with that kind of thing. Or a priest. Or a gay priest. But I'm not implying anything by that.

A voice coach has been teaching James to sing. She made him say 'fluffy, floppy, puppy'. I think 'portly, poofy prelates' would have worked equally well. But I'm still not implying anything.

Jonathan, the Archdeacon, assisted the makeover by arriving at James's house and making him try on some fab new vestments. He flung open the wardrobe to reveal a collection of garments that Elton John had probably rejected as too outrageous.
James said that a lurid pink number looked 'Moo Moo'. He explained that in America this meant something worn by fat people. I didn't believe him for one moment, not least because if that were true then half the population of America would be walking around in billowing, pink, embroidered smocks.
James was eventually persuaded to try something in magnolia, or possibly ivory, that matched his complexion. "Lift your arms up!" shouted Jonathan who was clearly enjoying himself, before reaching down some giant hat boxes and producing a black hat of such flamboyance that if James ever wore it outside his closet there'd be a traffic pile-up on the streets of Barnsley.
I'm still not implying anything.

In the circumstances, the reason that James gave for sometimes pining for Pittsburgh seemed slightly disingenuous. "I'm tired of having to say my 't's. I just want to say 'bu_er' and 'wa_er' and be an American sometimes."
Now I know that Barnsley is a long way from the Thames Estuary but I can't believe it's not bu_er in Barnsley just as it is in the rest of this consonant-lite country. The remark suggests James has some way to go before connecting with street culture.

The serious point in this gem of a documentary series is whether the church should embrace modern marketing techniques. I'm not sure this particular experiment will give a definitive answer, if only because 'Church Lite' is so sickeningly cheesy.

Surely the unique selling point of religion is that it offers depth and meaning to life. It's the very antithesis of 'lite'. And I say that as an atheist, for God's sake.

Another atheist has just put a comment on my last review of 'Priest Idol'. He says:

"I find the increasing commodification of every aspect of human life repellent. To reduce Christian thought to a brand is to cheapen not just the church but all of humanity. If the most sacred and profound beliefs can be replaced with slogans and marketing demographics then we are truly without hope. If getting people through the doors at any cost is the answer, then turn Church into a shopping mall, but this seems to miss the point somehow. If we are more godless as a nation these days it is precisely because we have devalued everything through relentless marketing. To "sell" God this way is to truly make a pact with the devil."

I think that's a valid point. Modern capitalism doesn't just 'commidify' everything. It also turns everything and everybody into a 'brand'. It's not just the church in Barnsley that is being 'rebranded'. It's also James the curate. Although James is never going to set the world on fire, there's an honesty and authenticity about him that should not be lightly sacrificed. Or should that be 'litely' sacrificed? Actually James is so lite already, both physically and in personality, that if they make him any liter he'll float away over the Barnsley rooftops like Mary Poppins.

The one element in all this that the marketing men haven't attempted to rebrand is Barnsley itself. And in the tourist industry today, every city, town and village is a brand. Local authorities and tourist boards spend millions of pounds every year attempting to rebrand places. But how do you rebrand something that has evolved over hundreds or even thousands of years?
Well, in so far as you can, it's because advertising deals in image rather than reality. And therein lies the problem of rebranding something like religion which, like a place, has evolved over time and has many layers of reality, ritual, folklore and perceptions.
Marketing places and marketing churches both present a different challenge from marketing most consumer brands. Most consumer products are taken to the consumer via the shelves of their local supermarket. With places and churches you have to persuade the consumer to come to you, which involves a much higher degree of commitment and investment of time. And in both cases a false prospectus is going to seriously backfire, whether you're selling Luton as Las Vegas or a church as a branch of Starbucks.

You can drop the dreary hymns and turn the Lady Chapel into a chill-out zone but eventually reality will break through the snappy slogans.
Religion isn't only about love and happy-clappy hokum. It's about sin and guilt and the everlasting fires of Hell. It's frequently about a denial of gender equality and the sinfulness of both homosexuality and sex outside marriage and the assertion of the primacy and unique truthfulness of your own religion over all other religions or belief systems.
They might not express it in quite those terms but deep down the secular working class of Barnsley, existing in a convivial, and mostly non-criminal, fraternity of pubs and clubs and bingo, know the true nature of religion with as much certainty as they know that Luton is not Las Vegas and Budget Cola is not Coke and margarine is not butter.

Football Memories

Mention of football yesterday set me wondering why football is the only sport I ever watch on television. The answer is in that old phrase 'Catch 'em young'.
At the age of about 10 or 11 I stood on the terraces of my local football club, decked in team scarf and rosette and clutching one of those large wooden rattles that today would be confiscated as an offensive weapon. The same two records were always played over the tannoy every week before the match: The Night Has A Thousand Eyes and Frank Ifield's I Believe In You.

After the match we kids stood outside the Players' Entrance with our scrapbooks filled with players' photos cut out of the local newspaper. When the players of our lowly Third Division side emerged we got them to sign these photos. We got the same players to sign our scrapbooks week after week.
It so happened that the Captain was a family friend so always greeted me by name. If the term 'street cred' had existed in the early sixties, mine would have shot off the graph every time this happened. Despite the fact that I could have got his autograph whenever he visited my parents, I still made him sign my book at the Players' Entrance every Saturday afternoon. It was as rigid and meaningless a ritual as going to church on Sunday.

One year my parents bought me a season ticket in the stand as a birthday present. The Team Captain, who also helped out in the office, gave me a personal tour of the stands and allowed me to choose my own seat.
Whilst I was there he had a heated conversation with the coach about another player. "Tell him to pull his....." He stopped abruptly and looked at me. "Do you do Latin at school?" he asked. I said I didn't. "Tell him 'extractum digit'" he said to the coach. They both laughed at this and I took to saying it to my mates when we played football although I had no idea what it meant.

The season ticket was a generous and well-intentioned gift by my parents but it removed me from the other kids on the terraces. I had always stood at the front by the corner flag and I missed the strong smell of resin when a player came to take a corner and the mud flying through the air as a player crashed into the fence in front of us. In the stand I was seated with elderly men. I think the presence of a child meant they had to censor their language. In those days, that simply meant not saying 'bloody'.
It's hard to believe now but then people really did shout at the referee: "What a diabolical liberty!" and "Get your eyes tested, Ref!"
I don't know if it was a peculiarity of the team that I followed but the home fans only ever shouted abuse at their own team. If a player who was regarded as rather lazy broke into a sprint, the old man next to me shouted "Steady on, Briggsy, you might have a heart attack!" This old man specialised in heavy sarcasm but it wasn't always appreciated by the players. One of our players regularly raised two fingers in our direction and on one occasion dropped his shorts and mooned at us. He didn't get a yellow card. Referees took a much more relaxed view of such things in those days.

The old men around me were constantly passing me sweets - mints, bullseyes and liquorice allsorts - none of which I liked but felt obliged to accept out of politeness. Sometimes these sweets had gone gooey in their raincoat pockets and had fragments of pipe tobacco adhering to them. Maybe that's where I got my taste for nicotine. In any case, the old wooden stand was a dense smog of cigarette and pipe smoke.

Then, one Saturday afternoon, the cosy innocence of those times cracked and shattered and it was the team Captain who allowed me to glimpse through a keyhole the reality that lay beneath appearances.
He was a player in the Gary Lineker mould who had never been cautioned or booked. But on this ocasion a misunderstanding with another player allowed the other side to score. The saintly Captain, who had translated 'Pull your finger out' into Latin to protect my young ears, stood in the goalmouth and a torrent of 'fucks' and 'fuckings' poured from his mouth. The crowd fell silent. It was like discovering that the Moors Murders had been committed by Val Doonican.

It wasn't the first time I'd heard the word. My best friend had once startled me when we were playing with his Meccano set by suddenly asking "Do you think men and women really fuck or do they just have children naturally?" I thought he had failed to grasp the concept of 'naturally' in the context of human reproduction but diplomatically changed the subject and asked if I could borrow his Beano annual. But the sight of the mild-mannered Captain and family friend shouting 'fuck' in front of 20,000 people was the most unnatural and shocking thing I had ever witnessed.

It wasn't just an aspect of the adult world that was revealed on that Saturday afternoon in the early sixties but also a glimpse of a future where people could say 'fuck' on the BBC and where people could indeed have children without fucking. But would we have been any less surprised to know that people wouldn't be allowed to smoke at football matches? I know what the old men in the stand would have said: "What a diabolical liberty!"

Monday, November 21, 2005

Monday Mixdown

In my last post I mentioned a Channel 4 News film about the Tory party but two small details got squeezed out.
Firstly, a tiny injustice that is being done to David Davis. In the endlessly repeated footage of delegates sleeping through his conference speech, one of the close-ups is on a political reporter from BBC News 24. This particular reporter is blind so has little incentive to keep his eyes open.

Of course, there were plenty of other, sighted people having a snooze. But as someone who has given talks to members of the country's gerontocracy, I know that if you can keep the number of sleepers in single figures you're doing well. The only way to keep the entire audience awake is to blow a whistle at regular intervals or intersperse your speech with snatches of rap music played at 120 decibels.

The most offputting thing is when one of the elderly slumberers is dirrectly in front of you in the front row. I used to find myself wondering if they might have quietly died and if the last voice they heard was not one of their loved ones but my own less than mellifluous tones.
One tactic was to tell a joke and see if the laughter roused them. If this failed, one just had to wait to see if they stood up to sing Jerusalem or Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven and, if not, to leave the hall quickly in case boring someone to death counted as manslaughter.

The Channel 4 film also included an interview with a dotty old Tory lady who was wearing multi-coloured trousers and clutching a Union Jack. Her features resembled a pickled walnut that had entered a face-painting competition.
Despite being the deepest blue in tooth and claw, she revealed a political pragmatism that would have heartened the two Davids. Asked about modern, compassionate Conservatism she said: "It's a vote winner! .......if you say you love the gays and the coloured people and the ethnic folk!"
But her best line was when she said "Look at me........listen to my voice. I'm Tory to the tilt!"
This was nearly as good as the woman I overheard in a London pub thirty years ago who said: "You know the man I mean......the man who walks with a lisp."


I always vow not to watch 'I'm A Celebrity....' and then get sucked into it. Last night's opener was certainly quite entertaining. But it seems as though the only people who can be recruited to take part are those who have never seen the programme. Why else would all these people state that they have a phobia of insects or snakes or heights?
One soap actress was so traumatised by her high wire walk that in the following 24 hours she twice collapsed and eventually had to be taken to hospital. One wonders how long it will be before some celebrity has a heart attack and dies. And if that happens will it be a case of 'the show must go on'? Noel Edmonds' Saturday night show never recovered from a member of the public being killed in a stunt that went wrong.

There was one colossal editorial misjudgement in last night's show. A night vision camera showed Carol Thatcher getting out of bed in the night, pulling down her knickers and squatting down to have a pee.
Although the participants surrender any editorial control, I doubt that she'll be pleased to discover that was broadcast to millions of people in primetime.
The Government recently created a new criminal offence of voyeurism to prevent people taking just this kind of footage with camcorders and mobile phones. It is, after all, a common sexual fetish. I don't doubt that last night's footage will quickly appear on special interest internet sites. I admit that I don't like lavatorial humour of any kind but here I also felt that I was unwillingly invading someone's privacy without their consent in the grossest possible way.
I hope Carol Thatcher sues the programme makers. I think she'd have a strong case in arguing that the release form she signed did not cover the broadcast of footage that in any other context would be a criminal offence.

The piece I wrote last week about 'Priest Idol', despite being very sarcastic about the church and religion, got a link on a blog by a Methodist preacher. Fair play to that particular God Botherer is all I can say.

I was even more delighted to be quoted on a Newcastle United fans' blog, after my piece about television football commentators. Not that I'm a Newcastle fan but because I think Newcastle is the finest city in our corner of the Milky Way.
I think I shall write about football a bit more and become the thinking lad's lads' blog. You never know, St James Park may one day echo to the chant of 'there's only one Willie Lupin.'

Friday, November 18, 2005

Top Tory In Pink Pussy Scandal

It's official: David Cameron is a winker.
No, that's not a typo, although a change of vowel would not diminish the veracity of that sentence.
I bring you this exclusive revelation after close study of a film report on Channel 4 News last night.
David Cameron was standing in the foyer of the Blackpool Winter Gardens when someone he knew walked past and Cameron winked at him.

It wasn't one of those histrionic winks that involve a sideways motion of the head. It was a very quick wink, as fast as the shutter action on my Fuji Finepix. Blink and you would have missed it. But it was a wink nonetheless.

I would never vote for someone who was a winker, even if he wasn't a Tory.
I am deeply distrustful of people who acknowledge your presence not by a nod or a smile but by a wink.
You know the scenario: you catch the eye of someone you slightly know in the pub or in the office Team Meeting and they give you a quick wink.
This makes me very uneasy. Are you supposed to wink back? To do so might imply some furtive sexual relationship between you. And what if they weren't winking but had some kind of nervous facial tick? They would then think you were taking the piss.

There's a kind of faux-mateyness about this kind of winking which I resent when it comes from someone I don't know very well.
There's also something inherently conspiratorial about a wink that doesn't exist with a nod or a spoken greeting. It implies that the winker and I have some knowledge that is not shared by the rest of the group. Or that we alone are down-to-earth blokes who know this is all nonsense but we're pretending to take it seriously because in half an hour the PowerPoint presentation will be over and we can sneak off to the smoking room and talk about that bird who got her tits out on last night's Big Brother.

A wink is the body language equivalent of someone I hardly know calling me 'Buddy' or 'Pal' or 'Bruv'.
Someone I knew who wasn't averse to a punch-up, used to reply to such appellations "I'm not your fucking pal!" or "I'm not your fucking brother and if I was I'd shoot myself!" I don't know how he responded to a wink. He probably closed the offending eyelid on a permanent basis. Which probably explains why he spent much of his youth in young offender institutions and demonstrates that one should keep these kind of sensitivities in proportion.

That said, I still reject the old saying that a nod is as good as a wink. A nod is infinitely preferable to a wink. Except of course where the latter has a sexual connotation, although in this age of the more direct approach I suspect the line between a winker and a wanker is considered to be a fine one.


Both David Cameron's eyes were wide open at Jeremy Paxman's first question in last night's Newsnight interview. Paxman is famous for his opening questions. Last night's was "Do you know what Pink Pussy is?"
Cameron didn't. And if he didn't actually turn pink, he certainly looked like a pussy that had got its tail caught in the cat flap.

Pink Pussy turned out to be a drink served in the pub chain of which Cameron was until recently a director. These are those 'vertical drinking' pubs that target the youth market and are at the centre of the controversy over binge drinking.
Pink Pussy was a highly potent cocktail that was sold at £8 per bucket. Paxman felt that Cameron's involvement with this company sat uneasily with his opposition to the extension of licensing hours. Cameron said he agreed with extending opening hours. He just felt we shouldn't do it until after Christmas. This is an absurd argument because pubs have always been allowed extensions at Christmas and New Year anyway.

Cameron attacked Paxman for his aggressive style and constant interruptions in what was clearly a pre-planned tactic. But if Paxman hadn't tried to pin Cameron down we would have had even more of the vacuous waffle that is Cameron's trademark.

Unfortunately, Paxman often misses a trick. He didn't challenge Cameron's endless mantra that he will share economic growth between investment in public services and tax cuts.
What does this actually mean, apart from being a way of avoiding any firm commitment to do either?
What does 'share' mean in this context? If I say I'll share a bar of chocolate with you I might give you one segment and eat the rest myself. So far as I know, Cameron has never said in what proportions the proceeds of hypothetical growth will be shared between the public services and tax cuts.

Paxman asked Cameron if he thought gay couples should be allowed to adopt children. He said that he did.
This surprised me because, as I've written here before, Cameron voted against it in the Commons. When Paxman put this to him he said he had abstained and implied this wasn't deliberate but because he was absent from the Commons that day.
After the interview, Newsnight checked with Hansard and found that whilst Cameron had once abstained he had voted against this specific clause on two other occasions.
So there's a surprise: Top Tory Caught Lying Through His Teeth.

But don't worry. I've thought of a suitable punishment for the smoothie-chops Old Etonian. Traditional and Shakespearean but with a contemporary twist.
You may remember that in Richard III the Duke of Clarence was drowned in a butt of Malmsey. I suggest that Tory Boy is frogmarched into one of his binge-drinking pubs and drowned in a bucket of Pink Pussy.
Only the bubbles would be winking then. For as the poet Keats put it:

'With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen
And with thee fade away into the forest dim.'

Thursday, November 17, 2005

What Are You Looking At?

I wrote about the commentary on the England v Argentina match on Monday. Today, The Guardian's Marina Hyde did the same but took a slightly different tack.
She turns most of her fire on Graeme Le Saux and suggests, without any evidence whatsoever, that, contrary to legend, he doesn't really read The Guardian but said that he did to make himself look clever. She says "it is perfectly reasonable to assume" this. Why? Because nobody who allowed Hello! to photograph their home could possibly read The Guardian.
Well, if Hello! want to pay half a million to photograph my home I'll happily take it and still read The Guardian, although I probably wouldn't live in this shithole for very much longer.

Ms Hyde is oddly indulgent towards the ramblings of Motson, saying he was "on comfortably deranged form". It proves my point that Motson has become above criticism, like the Queen Mother used to be in most quarters. When a man in a pub once said of the Queen Mother "I hate that old bitch", I was so delightedly shocked that I bought him a drink. On the other hand, I've almost been ejected from pubs for saying Motson was an irritating little nerd.

But the part of Marina Hyde's article that made me think she was a Marina who'd lost her moorings was when she wrote about the studio pundits. Actually, she's at least the second female columnist who has complained about Alan Hansen et al sitting with their legs apart and who has stated that she cannot take her eyes off their crotches.
What in God's name is wrong with young women today?
She says they should be trained to sit in a way that was "even approaching demure". But how demure does she think it is for a young woman to stare at a gentleman's bulge? It lends a whole new meaning to that common studio phrase "I watched your package with interest." And would it be acceptable for a male Guardian columnist to write about a female pundit's tits or visible panty line?

Ms Hyde says that on Saturday Alan Shearer was emulating Alan Hansen "by sitting in a manner which foregrounded the contents of his trousers".
Now there's nothing about either Alan that has ever led my eyes to wander southwards during their analysis of the match. But I think I might have noticed if any blatantly rule-breaking tackle had been on display. It's true that both Alans got rather excited by England's stunning victory but I don't think it was the kind of excitement that would have led to tumescence, or what the Young People now call a 'stiffy'.
(Incidentally, the upper classes always called an invitation card a 'stiffy'. Do they still do so? 'The Colonel put a stiffy through my letterbox this morning' could be open to misinterpretation).

I think Marina Hyde is missing something here. Or possibly not missing enough. Anyway, the two Alans are simply adopting the standard posture of the 'normal, red-blooded male' - a phrase that translates as 'not a fucking gay'. No footballer is ever going to cross his legs when sitting down because that would be equivalent to driving down Old Compton Street in an open-topped pink Cadillac singing 'I Am What I Am' with Will Young on his lap.

And sitting with your legs apart only becomes an aggressively sexual posture if:
a) You sit low in the seat with your legs very wide apart
b) You are wearing provocatively tight jeans
c) Your flies are open to reveal an obscene invitation embroidered on your briefs
d) You have the aforementioned 'stiffy'
e) In the absence of (d), you have sewn a length of hosepipe into your jeans, as Elvis used to do.

None of the above apply to Gary Lineker and chums. Well, I don't know about Lineker because he sits at a desk, although one suspects that he is able to reproduce without the use of front bottoms, rather like Ken and Barbie.

So, I think the fault here lies with Ms Hyde who probably needs to get out more. But she better start practising some eye discipline first because there are a lot of pubs where the lads with their legs akimbo are going to think she's well up for it.
In fact, a bird who can discuss the merits of the diamond formation AND can't take her eyes off your packet - they'd think all their Christmases had come at once.

7/7: The Never-Ending Story

If the BBC had a fictional film or drama on the shelf about terrorists putting bombs on London tubes and buses you can be pretty sure that they would feel it was inappropriate to broadcast it so soon after 7th July.
Yet last night they broadcast an hour long documentary about 'the day the bombs came', with 'previously unseen footage' and 'reconstructions'.
Ah, but this was a serious documentary. Well yes, but everything that appears on television is entertainment, regardless of how it is described. That includes Horizon on genetics and a Newsnight report on the public sector borrowing requirement. That is simply the nature of the medium. Why else would The Daily Politics this week have a huge graphic of some animated false teeth biting chunks out of Government legislation?
And last night's programme told you little that you didn't know already, unless you'd been on holiday in another universe.

One amusing detail for anyone who has been following the increasingly vicious fight between Sky News and BBC News 24 was that the programme included clips from Sky News coverage of the breaking story. Not only that, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner said 'We switched on Sky, like everyone does at such times'.
He was right, of course, although in my naiveté I thought that Sir Ian Blair might have had some 'inside information' at such a time and not be watching the speculation on Sky like the rest of us. To be fair, he did say he was able to have shots from traffic cameras piped into his office and that these indicated that something serious was happening because there were a lot of police cars outside Liverpool Street Station.

Sir Ian Blair's endorsement of Sky may have been revenge for his disgraceful treatment on the day by a BBC News Wallah (that's a clue to the newsreader involved). Sir Ian went on each of the news channels to make a short public announcement. The BBC chap saw this as an opportunity for a Paxmanesque interview and repeatedly pressed Sir Ian on who had carried out the attack. Eventually Sir Ian took his mike off and walked out. It was one of the most crass misjudgements I have ever seen by a presenter.

The one serious point to emerge from this programme was how long it took the authorities to comprehend that there had been a bomb attack. On the day itself, I thought that all the talk about 'power surges' on the Underground was a deliberate ploy to stop people panicking. But it seems this wasn't so. When someone in a tube tunnel radioed in that the train had severe bomb damage, the control room said 'Can you repeat that? Did you say 'bomb damage'?'
It was only the explosion on the bus that dispelled any doubt. As Sir Ian Blair said: 'I knew that when a bus has its roof blown off that's not due to a power surge.' He wasn't a detective all those years for nothing.

What I find odd about this is that the police had been telling us for years that a terrorist attack in London was a certainty. Yet when it happened, bombs seemed to be at the bottom of the list of explanations for three simultaneous incidents on the Underground, after power surges, derailments and crashes.

The other thing that concerns me is how much encouragement our reaction to even quite minor attacks must give to potential terrorists. Extended news coverage on the day is perfectly justified. But then there's all the ongoing coverage and the Remembrance Service with the Royal Family and leading politicians. There's also the absurd claim that this was 'our 9/11' when it was clearly in no way comparable.
This is not to belittle the awfulness of what happened in London. But if these relatively amateur home-grown terrorists can achieve such an impact with a level of casualties that is happening almost daily in Iraq, we are surely granting them the very status and importance that they crave.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Keep Your Chocolate Eclair Away From My Eggs

This week's Corrie revealed the rather alarming fact that I have something in common with Roy Cropper. No, I don't carry an old shopping bag nor am I married to a transgender person. But we use the same method of cooking poached eggs.

I call this the 'whirlpool method', which sounds like some arcane form of Catholic contraception.
Roy calls it the 'vortex method'. He has been demonstrating his culinary skills to an award-winning chef. Vera was very puzzled. When he offered to show the man his vortex she thought he had some kind of alien in the kitchen.

Some people add vinegar to the water to make the egg whites congeal. Even some top chefs do this. They should be horsewhipped. And I don't say that just because I'm allergic to vinegar.
With the whirlpool/vortex method, you bring the water to the boil, remove it from the heat, then rotate a spoon very rapidly in the water to create a vortex. Before it loses momentum, quickly drop the egg into the centre of the vortex. The white of the egg will then curl itself around the yolk.
Return the pan to the heat and bring back to boiling temperature, then reduce the heat or remove the pan from the hob and allow the egg to simmer for two to three minutes, according to taste and dependent on your resistance to salmonella.
Perfection guaranteed. Almost. To paraphrase the curate: 'All of this egg is excellent'.

I follow my usual practice of crediting the writer: Debbie Oates. I assume it is she who uses the vortex method and what a shining example of womanhood she must be.

Meanwhile, we discovered that corner shop owner Dev has been spreading his DNA around with Stakhanovite dedication and has now produced enough offspring to cast another spin-off soap on a children's channel.
These revelations led Dame Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian to make a joke that must have shocked her many admirers.

Like me, she has been puzzling for 45 years over Ena Sharples' aversion to chocolate eclairs. I think it was the very first episode when Ena walked into the corner shop and said "Half a dozen fancies and NO ECLAIRS."
Now, in the light of Asian Dev's heroic performance as a peripatetic sperm bank for the women of Weatherfield, Nancy says she knows why Ena Sharples kept chocolate eclairs at arm's length.
Try as I will, I cannot think of an innocent meaning to Nancy's little joke.
Ooh, Nancy, you are awful! But we love you.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

God and Michael Moore Go AWOL

Two very odd programmes last night.
In a way, something not happening was central to both of them.

Priest Idol (Channel 4) should have been about priests competing to be appointed to a moribund Church of England parish in Barnsley. But when only one person applied the programme makers decided to go ahead with the series anyway and stick with the same title.
The sole applicant was a young chap from America - not one of your Charismatic Christians in any sense of that adjective.

He was shown round by the departing incumbent, a portly, High Church, rather camp man who gave much better camera, if there is such an expression. Well, there is now.
At his interview, the young American, who had an appearance of pre-pubescent asexuality rather than any more problematic leanings, was asked his view on homosexual bishops. He was against them. His predesessor said they were tough questions: "I'm glad I wasn't him".
Bet you were, said the viewers in unison, like a liturgical response.

This was apparently the most godless parish in England. Just in case a church attendance that rarely reached double figures didn't make the point, someone had helpfully painted 'Fuck God' on one of the church buildings. It was spelt correctly too, so the Government's literacy programme must be working.

There was plenty of slightly guilty schadenfreude for secularists. After a week of intensive leafleting and door-knocking, church attendance increased by three. I can't remember if that figure included the new priest's parents who had flown over from America where seven out of ten people attend church regularly.

God featured prominently, not just in the graffiti, but as always his ways were mysterious. The young American had been called to Barnsley by God. On the scale of divine messages, this was fairly innocuous, certainly when compared with God telling George Bush to invade Iraq. When the Archdeacon was asked if the insipid American was the right man to convert the Chavs of south Yorkshire, he simply said that God had sent him. I think he added 'Praise be!' The Archdeacon is much given to saying 'Praise be!', a curiously incomplete ejaculation. Praise be what?

Since God wasn't being much help in increasing church attendance ( and faith is supposed to be a gift from God, after all), the church called in the marketing men. I suspect it was actually the production company that called in the marketing men, given that their initial concept had collapsed and they desperately needed a narrative for a three part series.
Julian and Sandy - sorry, Julian and Steve - roared into the derelict church precincts in what looked like a Porsche. God must have been hovering somewhere in the backgound because when they came out it was still there and so were its wheels.
They asked the young priest if he wanted to target low-hanging fruit and young James was understandably relieved to learn that this phrase meant increasing the number of older people coming to church.
But hey, Our Lord never went for the easy option. Walking on water and rising from the dead was serious stuff. So James spurned the low-hanging, soft fruit of the over-50s and the easy-peasy windfalls of the under-12s and said he wanted to climb heavenwards to the topmost branches of the demographic tree and harvest the teenagers - the hoodie-wearing, smack-injecting, graffiti-writing, serial-shagging hordes who had filled his churchyard with empty Fosters cans and discarded underwear.
Julian and Steve walked away scratching their heads. One of them said "Why are they always so keen to get young people into their church?" There's a distasteful and in this case unwarranted answer to that one which I shall avoid.
"It's because they're the future" said the other marketing man before laughing and choking on the cliché.

The attempt to engage with young people provided the most excruciating footage in this film. One gambit was serving free pizza in the church hall after school. Another was going into local schools to talk to children.
Most of these children were not apostates who had drifted away from religion. They had never known religion and the gulf was unbridgeable. They couldn't understand why an American had come to Barnsley, not realising that there are places in America that make Barnsley seem like New York. They couldn't understand why James didn't go out at weekends and get pissed or why he was prepared to work for a low salary. But most of all they couldn't understand why someone who appeared sane and rational believed in God. Indeed, one boy asked one of the marketing people if the new vicar believed in God. The apparent absurdity of that question just emphasised the depth of his incomprehension. Since it's an incomprehension I share I had rather more empathy with the Barnsley youth sucking on his Argos necklace than the hapless vicar did.

This was a poor community with high unemployment. It was surprising to see smoke belching from the chimneys of so many houses, perhaps a hang-over from the now defunct mining industry, but something you rarely see down south now. But although the clergy might not have high salaries they do get free housing and I doubt they burn coal. The new priest had been provided with a smart new house in the most affluent part of the village. His predecessor's home would also not have looked out of place in one of the Sunday supplements. The contrast with the lifestyles of many of their parishioners and with the shabby, decaying church could not have been more striking. One felt there was more than just a spiritual gulf here between the churchmen and their flock.
And when young James tried to show a schoolboy who was umbilically connected to the consumer society that there was no connection between material possessions and happiness, my mind wandered to the Church of England's shareholdings and I remembered that they were major stakeholders in Gateshead's temple of consumerism, the giant Metrocentre shopping complex.
Pots and kettles, motes and beams.......Priest Idol or False Idols?
Vote now on 08008.........sorry, wrong programme.


Not much room left for Janet Street-Porter's hatchet job on Michael Moore on Murdoch's Sky One.
This was built around Michael Moore not meeting Street-Porter to be interviewed. It was like looking for God in Barnsley. Since one of her tactics was to stand at the end of his very long driveway and holler into the trees like a fishwife, she's lucky not to have been taken away by men in white coats.

The gist of it was that Michael Moore has a giant ego and can be very rude to people. Or so claimed Janet Street-Porter. Yes, I know. Pots and kettles again.
Oh, and some of his films are guilty of chronological inexactitudes. Not that his films have caused as many deaths as the factual inaccuracies that justified the war in Iraq of course.

I'm quite prepared to believe that Michael Moore can be deeply unpleasant. I just don't see the relevance of that to his opinions. He's never claimed to be Jesus Christ. And if he can be elusive and is surrounded by bodyguards, that seems eminently sensible behaviour in someone who has taken on the American right and the National Rifle Association.

A mostly pointless programme, except for Janet Street-Porter who got to swan around America and do some shopping in New York and presumably got a fat cheque as well. Glad it was Rupert's money and not the BBC's.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Monday Melange

At last! The Costa Del Middle England has had an overnight frost. Maybe now my summer plants will die and I can dig them out.
When I walked down the garden this week the following plants had just flowered again: nasturtiums, antirrhinums, busy lizzies, geraniums, roses.
I also encountered a wasp.
This is beginning to sound like one of those tedious letters in the Guardian: we've got frog spawn in the Outer Hebrides, acres of golden daffodils and this morning I heard a cuckoo.
So I'll desist.


On Saturday the funny old beautiful game was at its most beautiful and surprising. Never mind 'I Can't Believe It's Not Butter'. It was a case of 'I Can't Believe We Haven't Won The World Cup'. A year early.

The icing on the cake would be if John Motson were to be pensioned off before next year's World Cup Finals. I can't understand why this imbecile has now joined the several thousand other people described as 'national treasures'.
A typical Motty phrase, used again on Saturday, is "You may be wondering at home....." This is typically followed by something like: ".......when was the last time a Bolton Wanderers player in an England match had to leave the pitch because a stud had come off his left boot. Well, I can tell you it was in 1956 and on that occasion England went on to beat Hungary 2-1. Could that be a good omen, Graeme?"
No, Motty. We weren't wondering anything. We were just trying to watch the fucking football match.

Another Motty phrase is "Now then!", uttered when an England forward breaks through the defence. "Now then!" was always the concluding phrase of a bollocking from my grandmother when I was a child. It's obviously a popular phrase with old women.

Then there's "We're going to have to come back to that one later, Graeme, because Rooney has just dribbled round the Argentine goalkeeper".
If you'd stuck to commentating on the game instead of embarking on a long discussion about possible substitutions, you wouldn't have nearly missed a goal.

If you think this is unfair, watch a video of a match from the sixties or early seventies. There was just a single commentator who mostly confined himself to naming the players. They didn't have long, rambling conversations with a sidekick and they understood that with television, where the viewer can see what's happening, it's important to know when to keep quiet. Commentators then uttered only about 20% of the verbiage that pours incessantly from Motson's mouth.
If you're wondering why I don't just turn the sound off, it's because you then lose the ambient sound and the atmosphere. But it must be possible with digital TV to have an option that just removes the commentary.
Either that or bring back David Coleman. All is forgiven.

The final part of 'Girls and Boys: Sex and British Pop' (BBC2) covered the 1990s. It didn't tell us much that was new. You would have had to have spent the past decade on Mars not to know that Take That were initially marketed at a gay audience.
And, like any 'serious' analysis of a subject that is inherently frivolous, we got vacuous phrases like Oasis 'capturing the mood of the nation'. Does a nation have moods? What percentage of the nation did the music of Oasis ever impinge on?
But this series has been a better than average exercise in nostalgia.

I realised I'm never going to master Estuary English. A songwriter last night said 'sexuali_y' without pronouncing the 't'. Maybe you can't teach an old dog new tricks because I find that as difficult to do as I would the practise of heterosexuali_y.

On the subject of sexuality, Boy George made the interesting point that when Ecstasy entered the club scene, people who would previously have beaten up gay men became filled with unconditional and undiscriminating love for their fellow man and started putting their arms round them instead.
So maybe we could halt the epidemic of homophobic bullying in our schools by sneaking some Ecstasy into those Turkey Twizzlers they serve at school dinners. Disguised as yet another E number, nobody would notice.
Better still, add Ecstasy to the country's water supply. No more hate crimes. No more fighting on the city centre streets. Now that really would change the mood of the nation.

The Wonder of the Internet: if you return to the comment box of my last extract from my mother's diaries about our trip to Paris, you'll see a comment from the grand-daughter of the fire-eating gentleman with whom my mother and I shared a train compartment over 40 years ago.
My gob has never been more soundly smacked nor my flabber more thoroughly ghasted.
It seems her grandfather, Dani Almond, appeared in the Beatles film 'Help!' I have a vague recollection of such a character in that film but had no idea it was him.
The irony is that, for a twelve year old boy, Mr Almond completely upstaged the Paris trip. Meeting a man who could eat fire and lie on a bed of nails was far more exciting than going up the Eiffel Tower.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Friday Extra

I couldn't resist last night's ITV celebration of The Avengers. I was briefly an addict, mostly during the Diana Rigg period.
But, from the clips shown last night, The Avengers was even more bonkers than I remembered.
Of course, there's always something appealing about any work of fiction that exists in a world sufficient unto itself. That's one of the charms of P.G. Wodehouse, although compared to The Avengers, Wodehouse was gritty social realism.

To be honest, I mainly watched it for the signature tune. I always got rather impatient with all that nonsense in the middle. But in the final scene the theme would start up slowly like a ticking clock......Da Da DA DA.....Da Da DA DA...... before finally erupting in all its plangent glory as Steed and Peel drove off into the sunset.
Maybe that's another piece of music to have played at my funeral. But it would really only work if, at the final crescendo, I burst out of the coffin waving an umbrella and kicked the priest in the goolies.

Patrick McNee and others said the programme was so successful because it was very, very good. I disagree. It was popular because it was so very bad. Last night's programme proved that with some examples of apalling dialogue and very hammy acting. It was kitsch with knobs on but hugely enjoyable.

When I was about 19 someone took me to dinner at the home of one of The Avengers scriptwriters. I'm fairly certain that The Avengers was never mentioned which, in retrospect, seems very odd. The scriptwriter was working on some project about the Spanish Civil War and kept asking me what I knew about it. I knew nothing about the Spanish Civil War and just mumbled awkwardly into my pasta. My friend said "Willie doesn't say much. He's writing a novel." I assume this was some kind of cover story I used at that time. I really wanted to talk about The Avengers but, although that programme had paid for the hi-tech flat we were in and a yacht in the south of France, I had the impression that it would be vulgar to mention it. It would be like reminding some Tory grandee that his family's wealth had come from the manufacture of condoms.
This may be unfair. He might have been very proud of his Avengers scripts and not without reason. It certainly gave pleasure to more people than many more worthy pieces of drama.

Friday Bonus

I omitted to put any pictures on my last post.

So here are some pics of the actor Joe Absalom.

Not that I fancy him or anything.

But if anyone does, these should brighten their day.

If you'd have preferred pics of David Davis, contact your therapist immediately.

Friday's Fumblings

The lobbying of MPs by police officers over the Terrorism Bill, which I complained about a few days ago, has now moved up the mainstream agenda and is going to be looked at by a Commons committee.
Last night, an audience member on Question Time on BBC1 exposed the double standards of the Government's 'the police know best' argument with a point that I wish I had thought of myself.
The police have complained strongly to the Government about the extension of licensing hours. I think some of them have called this lunacy, in view of the current levels of alcohol-related crime and disorder.
Has the Government accepted what in this instance is quite a well-argued police case? No, of course not. They've politely told them to bugger off and said the same to ambulance drivers, staff in A & E departments and other health professionals.

Incidentally, alcohol-fuelled crime is not just a problem in itself but has a knock-on effect on the police's ability to deal with other types of crime. Police officers who have spent all night dealing with drunks on the streets are not available the following day to deal with burglaries and other crimes. Like the binge drinkers, they're in bed catching up on their sleep.


I've always thought that the day I use the phrase 'political correctness gone mad' is the day I will press that Blogger button that says 'Delete Blog'.
You see, I love political correctness although the term itself is absurd and derogatory and comes from the political right. I love the idea of a society where people respect diversity and are sensitive to other people's feelings. I don't mind too much if people take a pop at my attitudes and beliefs and call me a cynical old bastard or a loony left wanker. But I'd rather not be called a queer or a poof or 'four-eyes' because I wear glasses.
On the other hand, I can't deny that there are a few imbeciles who will always take things to extremes.

I first became aware of this at university when the 'GaySoc' put on a disco. There were long and agonised discussions about what records could be played. The women in particular vetoed any song whose lyrics were either sexist or heterosexist. Not surprisingly, this ruled out almost every pop song ever written. At one point it looked as though we'd all be dancing to the Glenn Miller Band and doing the jitterbug to 'String of Pearls'. Or perhaps not.

I was so annoyed by this that at the disco, having put myself on the outside of a large quantity of Smirnoff, I asked a lesbian who was carrying a bicycle pump if she used it to pump up her breasts. When her partner turned red with rage I asked her if she was flushing because it was her time of the month. I am not proud of this and it showed a reckless disregard for my own safety. It was a large bicycle pump and made of steel. But I have an inexplicable knack of getting away with such things. People decided I was engaging in some highly amusing post-modernist irony and urged me on to even greater excesses. Indeed, one young astrophysicist who had only just come out was so impressed by this badinage that he fell instantly in love with me and that could lead to only one thing. That's right: the line 'Is that a telescope in your pocket or are you........' (Make up your own Big Bang jokes and leave me with some self-respect).

I didn't hear the interview on Woman's Hour this week but there has been a mini-brouhaha over Tory leadership contender David Davis saying that he preferred blondes to brunettes. The President of a Conservative women's organisation said it was patronising.
I assume he was responding to a question from the presenter, Martha Kearney, who is also Newsnight's Political Editor. If anything, the fault lies with her. She also asked the two candidates what kind of underwear they wore. One can't imagine Jeremy Paxman asking Ann Widdecombe about her preferences in knickers.

But try as I might, I cannot see why a man expressing a preference for blondes should be described as a 'gaffe' or why it should be described as 'patronising'. Are 'intra-gender' preferences any more sexist or patronising than saying you prefer men to women or vice-versa?
Gay men must be guilty of more '' prejudices than anybody. For if you look at gay personal ads you'll find hundreds of different preferences stated, from age and skin colour to the wearing of glasses or tracksuits. It sometimes seems that not being content with a restriction of partners to 5 - 10% of the population, gay men then want to narrow their choices even further to the kind of detailed specifications you get with a luxury car - electric windows, power steering, sun roof, 0 - 60 in 7.8 seconds.

But so what? We all have different turn-ons, from mild preferences to compulsive fetishes.
I wish I had a pound for every time I've had to switch the conversation back to football when a straight man has asked me if I'm a 'tit man' or a 'leg man'. And young women today seem to be always commenting on some male sex object's 'nice bum'. Only last night on the safe and cosy comedy drama 'Doc Martin' (yawn) a young woman was admiring the Joe Absalom character's bum. Sadly, we never saw the said bum but he smiled sweetly and thanked her. (Smiling sweetly, if gormlessly, is Joe Absalom's USP). But if he'd told her she had great tits she'd probably have accused him of sexual harrassment, assuming it wasn't edited out of the script.

I've almost forgotten what my point was and I nearly descended into the tabloid columnist's 'Why don't we all grow up?'
I suppose my argument is that a sexual preference or a sexual compliment, however ineptly or grossly expressed, is neither insulting nor sexist.
And that there should be equal freedom of expression for the goose and the gander.
And that context and intent are crucial - shouting sexual comments at complete strangers, whether male or female, is just ill-mannered.
But if just talking about sexual attraction and sexual preferences is going to produce howls of protest then it won't be long before the activity itself is regarded as sexist, patronising and demeaning and we'll just have to get our pleasure alone in one of those 'orgasmatrons' that featured in a Woody Allen film.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

April In Paris

More from my mother's diaries:
When I was 12 my mother took me to Paris for a few days. Overseas holidays were far less common then and this was a huge adventure for both of us. From my mother's meticulous records I see that our five days in Paris cost £12, 12 shillings and sixpence each, which included travel "by rail and steamer", hotel accommodation, travel between the station and the hotel....... and free luggage labels. We stayed at the 'Hotel De Milan' which boasted 'Tout Le Confort' and an 'Ascenseur'.
Casual dress had not been invented in 1963 and I wore my Grammar School uniform throughout the holiday. This meant I stood out in Paris like a pork butcher in Tel Aviv.
My mother gives a fairly straight account of this holiday so I have added some of the details that stand out in my memory.

31st March, 1963

Apart from getting up at 4.30 am, the clocks were put on to summer time so that was really 3.30. We took a taxi to the station only to find that the 5.20 train was running at pre-summer time and was therefore an hour late. An hour's wait in an unheated waiting room on a filthy station was not an auspicious start.
However, our compartment companion made up for it. He was an Indian yogi who had been performing at Bristol Hippodrome - fire-eating, lying on a bed of nails, etc. 'Dani Almond' by name and very charming, he often appears on TV, knows many stars, and is also a clairvoyant and a judo black belt trained in Japan. He had been present when Gandhi had been assassinated.
[The train compartment stank of paraffin from the fire-eating equipment in his suitcase].

We sailed from Newhaven at 11.30. It was a French boat with French waiters and crew and it was nice to be in a French environment straight away. But the boat was so crowded we couldn't get a seat. We had a chicken lunch on board (12 shillings each). [60p]. It was too cold on deck for me but Willie spent a lot of time up there.
Then it was a two and a half hour train journey to Paris.
[At one of the stops on this train journey I announced to the whole compartment that we had arrived at a station called 'Hommes'. My mother told me I was looking at the sign outside the men's lavatory and everyone laughed. This embarrassment put me off speaking foreign languages for life.]

On the Sunday evening we had a walk around and tried to sort out our French coins. Willie was brave and started using his French straightaway, asking the prices and doing his own shopping. We had a meal in a small restaurant. The atmosphere made us feel we were in a Maigret story.

1st April 1963

We were late returning to the hotel and at nearly midnight in the Metro tunnel where we changed trains we heard a voice shouting "Anglais! Anglais!" excitedly and turned to see a workman appearing a little the worse for drink and pointing at Willie. He came up to us and I had quite a conversation with him. It was fun. He knew we were English because of Willie's school cap. He had worked in the circus and been in many different countries. He ranted on abut the brotherhood of man and about us all having the same blood in our veins.

[Not understanding the conversation, I had been terrified. In making his point, the drunken man had grabbed my hand and pointed at the veins in my wrist. I thought he was going to slash my wrist. But my mother was just glad to be able to practise her French and clearly enjoyed the encounter.]

2nd April 1963

We went to buy theatre tickets and had our meal near the Mogador Theatre at 'Le Gaulois'. Willie had made up his mind to try everything, even to eating snails, so he bravely ordered 'Escargots de Boulogne'. In spite of plenty of French bread and washing them down with lots of white wine, he didn't like them. I had Sole Meuniere. Then we were ready for the show at the Mogador - 'La Veuve Joyeuse' [The Merry Widow] which was excellent. It was nearly midnight when we came out and nearly one o'clock when we got to bed.
[I found the snails nauseating but repeatedly told the waiter they were excellent. Not wanting the waiter to think I was lying, I surreptitiously kept dropping snails into a paper bag in my lap and then put this bag into my mother's shopping bag. In the heat of the theatre auditorium, the bag of garlic snails began to smell dreadfully and several people moved from our row to other seats. En plus, as the French say, I was felling very ill from the few snails I had ingested and the copious amounts of white wine I had washed them down with, so several times I had to leave my seat to be sick in the toilets. To this day, the music of 'The Merry Widow' makes me feel nauseous.]

Keeping a 12 year old out on the town until 1 am and giving him white wine - today my mother would probably get one of the Government's new Parenting Orders.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Small Earthquake

Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Government's decisive defeat on 90 days detention without charge, I would say it is a small to medium earthquake on the political Richter scale. Only time will tell whether history regards it as a much larger earthquake that hastened Blair's departure from office.
Ignore those politicians and commentators who are trying to play this down. It's the first defeat since Labour came to power in 1997 and the first defeat of a governing party for ten years. Like many others, I thought that the Government would scrape through by a handful of votes. A defeat by 31 votes is astonishing.

This vote is a vindication of those of us who defected from Labour to the Liberal Democrats at the last election. This was precisely why we did so: to reduce Blair's majority in the hope that his own party would put a brake on his more extreme policies.
We were told that we were being irresponsible and might allow the Tories into office. Indeed, Polly Toynbee sent me an email saying I wouldn't be so pleased when Michael Howard walked into Downing Street. But that was never likely to happen.
The person who is making a future Tory victory more likely is Tony Blair and today we saw one of his biggest misjudgements.

There is worse to come for Blair. As Diane Abbott pointed out last Thursday, legislation to cut benefits and changes to the health and education systems have a much more direct and personal effect on Labour MPs' constituents than anti-terror legislation. And today those MPs were actually going against the views of many of their constituents, if opinion polls are accurate. If backbenchers were prepared to face down Blair today, what chance does he have of pushing through deeply unpopular legislation on other issues?

Today was a good day for the rule of law, a good day for Parliament and a good day for the Labour Party.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Dreams and Nightmares

The Government must be desperate if it's pointing to the opinion polls in support of its Terrorism Bill. Since the polls are frequently against Government policies (e.g., the Iraq War), the Government usually take the line 'You can't govern by opinion poll. You have to do what you think is right.' But now that the polls coincide with Blair's own view, they are being used to put pressure on Labour backbenchers.

One reason the polls should be treated with caution is apparent if you listen to the emails and phone calls to radio and television programmes. These often refer to 'locking up terrorists for 90 days'. People don't seem to grasp the distinction between a 'terrorist' and a 'suspected terrorist'. Yet it's not long since a 'suspected terrorist' was shot dead on the London Underground, so you would think people might have grasped the importance of that distinction by now.
And people seem to think that most people arrested as 'suspected terrorists' are in fact terrorists and will be charged once all the evidence is assembled. But if you look at the figures the opposite is true. Most people arrested under terrorist legislation are subsequently released without charge. Even some of those charged have been acquitted by juries because the evidence was so unconvincing.

Another aspect of this issue that amazes me is the apparent acceptance that the police are entitled to engage in public political campaigning. It's perfectly right for the police to give their opinion to Government as part of normal consultation processes. But here we have the Metropolitan Police Commissioner writing populist, campaigning articles for the Murdoch tabloids in support of a Government policy. The police, even the mighty Sir Ian Blair, are public servants and should keep out of the political process.
Did you know that it's against the law for most local government officers to engage in party political activity, including writing a letter to a newspaper about a matter of party controversy or holding office in their local political party? Yet it seems that the police can engage in direct lobbying of MPs and intensive media campaigns to influence legislation.

A common mantra of those who hold civil liberties in contempt (unless it's their own civil liberties) is that the innocent have nothing to fear.
Try telling that to the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four or the Maguire Seven who rotted in prison for 20 years or more after the last time a Government and a police force confronted a terrorist campaign in Britain.

But surely the chances of such a catastrophic mistake, exacerbated by police malpractice, happening to me or you are remote?
Well, probably.....but then again.........

I recently realised that I had something in my home that linked me to a terrorist bombing. It is not dissimilar to the kind of 'evidence' that leads to people being held in Belmarsh Prison under anti-terrorist legislation. The explanation is an odd one, so bear with me.

I sometimes have vivid dreams about major disasters like train crashes a few days or weeks before they happen. Before you ask what has happened to my sceptical rationalism, I don't claim that these are prophetic dreams or that I have some psychic gift. They may be just coincidences. But they have happened often enough for me to be intrigued by them and even a little bit 'spooked' and to watch the news with some apprehension afterwards.
I'm always intending to write them down, if only to prove that I'm not making it up although I've only ever mentioned them to one or two family members.

Only once did I write something down. That's why I have in my house a scrap of paper referring to a dockland bombing. A few landscape features are mentioned and the word 'Southampton?' The dreams are never specific about place or time and as the dockland area in the dream was unfamiliar to me I was trying to guess where it might be. This dream occurred shortly before the bombing of Canary Wharf in London but like many people I don't immediately associate docks with London which is why I made a guess at Southampton.

Those scrappy and disjointed notes that I made are indistinguishable from the kind of notes that might be made by a terrorist planning a bomb attack.
It's not difficult to imagine the reaction of the police if I gave them the true explanation for those notes.
And if the case ever came to trial I think we can be sure that there would be 'laughter in court' when the Defence outlined their case.

But, you may say, such a tenuous piece of evidence would never lead to charges being brought. Maybe not, but it would be sufficient to bang me up for 90 days while the police looked for more evidence.
Ah, you say, but you're just a left-wing blogger with no terrorist sympathies or associations so it wouldn't take 90 days for the police to realise you were just a nutter who writes down his dreams.
Well yes.
But then again, no.

As a teenager I was on the mailing list of several far-left organisations. It would be most surprising if the security services at the time didn't have copies of those mailing lists.
At university I belonged to the student Labour Club. It's well-known that the provincial Special Branches, for want of anything better to do, used to keep a close eye on university Labour Clubs. At that time I had a mysterious break-in at my flat where nothing was stolen. There may well have been nothing sinister about it but at the time I was living in a poor area with 70% unemployment and it wasn't usual for burglars to be too picky about the brand of stereo or television.

If all this sounds slightly paranoid, just remember that there are members of this Government who have security service files on them - like that well-known revolutionary Jack Straw, a former student union leader. And in the days when terrorism was less of a threat, organisations like the National Council of Civil Liberties (now called Liberty) were undoubtedly closely monitored. Although never an activist, I went to their AGMs and parties at their London offices and knew several board members.

So, lefty blogger with long history of association with left-wing groups has notes about a terrorist attack in his house. May have come to Special Branch notice in the past. Not counting the time I shared a bed with a Special Branch officer, but we'll draw a thick duvet over that one if you don't mind. (The answer to that old line 'Is that a gun in your pocket or.....' turned out to be 'It's a gun' in that case).
Innocent though I am, there's enough there to warrant a bit more probing. Which, come to think of it, is what that Special Branch chap said before I kicked him out. But I wasn't going to talk about that.

Anyway, I'm off now to find that scrap of paper and shred the bloody thing. The 'Middle England One' has a certain ring to it but I doubt that I'd get my Assam tea or my favourite chutney in Belmarsh.
So, to the boys at GCHQ: I am not now nor have ever been a terrorist nor an enemy of the State. And Mr Special Branch, who was both pleased to see me and had a gun in his pocket, would be either retired or dead by now; and he didn't tell me anything other than that I had nice eyes.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Krankies In TV Comeback

Yes, I was surprised too.
But it turned out to be Charles Clarke and Hazel Blears. They came out of the Home Office this morning to speak to the press about the Terrorism Bill.

Charles Clarke is very large. The top of his head was touching the top of the TV screen.
New Labour animatron Hazel Blears is exceedingly small. Proof that microchips and circuitry have got smaller, she's a pocket-size avatar.
But this meant that television viewers could see only the top of her head poking above the News 24 caption block at the bottom of the screen.

Having rejected the Krankies theory, I decided that Charles Clarke had taken his young daughter to work because he couldn't get a babysitter.
Then the people at News 24, realising how ludicrous this looked, shrank the caption at the foot of the screen to half its size. Now we could just about see Hazel Blear's head, making those odd bird-like darting movements as though she were about to pluck a worm from the lawn.
She didn't say anything, probably because it was such a rapidly developing situation that there wasn't time to re-program her sound files.

Afterwards they turned and walked slowly back into the Home Office, Charles Clarke from the rear looking like a disgruntled bear that needed a shit but couldn't find the woods.
One half expected him to hold little Hazel by the hand and for her to ask him for an ice cream.
The whole thing looked so bizarre that I haven't a clue what Clarke said. I think I'll have to start getting my 'breaking news' from the radio.