Friday, May 30, 2008

Position Number 4, please

There's little time left to blog before lunch.
It takes ten minutes to buy a paper in the newsagent because people are pratting around buying lottery tickets and lucky dips. (Some people scratch the cards off at the counter and then buy another one if they haven't won). Do you remember how quickly one got served before John Major introduced this elective tax on the poor?

Then to the Post Office.
Until recently I could have just whacked a first class stamp on the envelope. But it's an A4 envelope so it has to be measured and weighed and a premium paid.
That's if I ever reach the counter before nightfall.

People have brought bags full of parcels of stuff they've sold on fucking EBay. The laborious process of weighing, labelling and certifying postage is interrupted for a discussion of the contents of each package. Say what you like about car boot sales, they didn't impinge on anyone else or clog up the nation's Post Offices.

The elderly now have swipe cards to draw their pensions. But that means they need pin numbers and most of them can't remember what day of the week it is, let alone a fucking pin number. So it's try every relative's birth date and house number, followed by your old RAF number and the bus numbers that used to take you to and from school.

And Post Offices, as the anti-closure campaigners keep saying, are an important part of community life.
What this means is that old farts and fartesses, oblivious to the queue behind them, can tell the staff that little Wayne has started at nursery school, that Monica's funeral was a lovely service and did you see that girl on Britain's Got Talent last night......did I give you that airmail letter?'s not in my bag.......must have left it on the sideboard.....what am I like?
Several of us bite our lips in response to this question. Not only would 'pain in the arse' be disrespectful but somewhat short of the truth, for a pain in the arse does not emit a stream of inconsequential twaddle.

I finally reach the counter. Not having the right glasses on, I fumble with a pocketful of small change and drop some of it on the floor.
I start to leave, but it's a clever dummy move and I return to the counter to ask for a certificate of posting, forcing the fuming man behind me to return to the queue.
"Is that PO Box 745 or 145?" says the clerk.
"I'm not really sure", I say. "I haven't got my reading glasses with me. If it's a 7, it'll have a line through it like the French do. I used to work for a French company; that's why I write sevens like the French do. It's one of their more sensible ideas. But now you mention it, I'm sure it was PO Box 145, not 745. What am I like?"
The man behind me bites his lip.
I've become an irritating, time-wasting old fart myself.
But, as the French say, je m'en fou.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Getting Permissive With Joan

Last night the BBC Parliament Channel gave us one of its occasional Bank Holiday treats: an evening of archive programmes on the social reforms of the 1960s.
It had the rather strange title of 'Permissive Night, with Joan Bakewell.'
Many men of a certain age would like nothing better than a permissive night with Joan Bakewell, for she was famously described as "the thinking man's crumpet."

I only watched parts of it because at six hours it was quite a marathon and it would have meant time-shifting other programmes. But it contained some fascinating stuff and I hope it will be repeated with rather more pre-publicity.
It mainly covered the abolition of the death penalty and the reform of the laws on homosexuality, divorce and abortion.

People who should know better continue to credit the Wilson Governments with these reforms but they were nearly all Private Members' Bills. The Government's role, admittedly important, was to provide Parliamentary time and help with drafting. I've given up trying to correct the misrepresentation of these reforms as Government legislation because my corrections are never published. But at least Joan Bakewell made the position clear last night.

A 1966 report on capital punishment for 24 Hours (a forerunner of Newsnight) was by a young Michael Parkinson, looking, in some ways, older than he does now. His pieces to camera filmed in the street were intriguing because of the memories evoked by the background street scene. In one shot, four Triumph Heralds drove past, one after the other. For a moment, I thought it was a rally of Triumph Herald owners before remembering it was then one of the top selling cars. They were followed by a Mini Traveller and a Ford Anglia. My young boy's interest in makes of car had resurfaced after 40 years.

Then there was the High Street chemist's shop with a massive DUREX sign in the window. I'd forgotten how prominently condoms were advertised back then - oddly, more so than today.
Durex had a virtual monopoly of the market in those days and it was a brand name as familiar to us kids - even before we understood what a condom was - as McDonalds or Nike is today. We tended to use the word 'Durex' for 'condom' ( a term we'd never heard) in the same way that 'Hoover' was always used for 'vacuum cleaner'. The only other term we used was 'rubber johnny', although as far as I know there wasn't any other kind of johnny, such as plastic or, that sixties favourite, bakelite.

A Man Alive documentary on male homosexuals (the term 'gay' didn't exist then) had moments of great poignancy and was a reminder that in those days the preoccupation of every young, gay male was to meet another gay person, a quest that for many seemed as impossible as flying to the moon. It's hard to convey the sense of isolation and despair that people felt and the need to find someone - anyone - else who was gay wasn't predominantly about sex but to banish the feeling that you were the only gay person in the world.

This film, presented by someone called Jeremy James (which sounds like a music hall act) also had its amusing moments. There was much talk of 'homosexual tendencies', a common term back then. People weren't 'homosexual'. They had 'homosexual tendencies'.
The style was social anthropological, as though it were David Attenborough reporting on a tribe of people in the South Sea Islands.
"For many of us, this is revolting: men dancing with men" was the voice-over to a scene of some men in what was probably a small Soho club doing the twist.
It will surprise young gay men today to learn that, even in the 1970s after partial de-criminalisation, in London gay clubs, you could be thrown out for any form of physical contact on the dance floor. I know this because it happened to me when an arab boy did no more than put his hands on my shoulders. We were given two warnings by the management and then a final warning. I don't know why he looked so puzzled since in his own country he'd probably have been hanged in a public square.

In another scene, a distinguished middle-aged man sat in a leather armchair, smoking heavily. The voice-over said solemnly: "This man is a doctor. He is also a homosexual."
For me, that was the funniest line of the evening.
We also had this ludicrous insight into the distinguishing features of the homosexual: "Homosexuals dread getting old. They dread losing their looks." As opposed, presumably, to heterosexuals, who can't wait for old age and their hair and teeth falling out.
I also loved the bizarre phraseology of this question to a middle-aged 'clerk from a small market town': "Can you describe what it is about other men that makes you feel at home with them?"
There was the old line about most homosexuals being 'sensitive' and 'artistic', which is complete tosh - always has been and always will be. Even those gay men who start out as sensitive soon have most of the sensitivity crushed out of them. As an older man said to me when I was a teenager: "Don't worry, you'll grow about six extra skins."
And he was right. To put it bluntly, you become as hard as nails. It's the only way you survive.

The evening was rounded off with the first edition of 'Late Night Line-Up' since 1972, presented by Joan Bakewell. The guests were Peter Hitchens, Robert Winston, Margaret Drabble and Michael Howard, who chewed over the evening's programmes.
I realised why Joan Bakewell was such a good interviewer. She leaned forward and hung on people's every word. She even treated the bonkers right-winger Peter Hitchens as though he were a cross between Mahatma Ghandi and Einstein. No doubt that also explains her popularity with men. A woman who will look at them with delight and admiration even when they're describing how to drive from Oxford to Bedford using only B roads must be a pearl beyond price.
This was a reminder of how good an intelligent televison discussion programme can be. It should be re-commissioned immediately.

There were two highlights for me, both involving (Lord) Robert Winston.
Firstly, he shot Hitchens down in flames over Hitchen's mis-representation of the pre-1967 situation on abortion, based on Winston's own experience of working in obstetrics at that time. Unusually, Hitchens didn't come back at him, having decided he was in a hole and better stop digging.
Secondly, he revealed that at his London private day school (St Paul's, I've since discovered) in the 1950s, homosexuality was rife. And not just within the school. Boys would go off with older gay men in taxis. "But it was illegal then!", someone exclaimed. "I know", Winston said, "we used to joke about it being illegal." From the way he described it, it sounded as though in the 1950s some of the boys at one of London's most exclusive schools had a sideline as upmarket rent boys.
You could sense the discomfort in the studio as a stark and rather distasteful truth intruded on the fake reality of television documentaries and the misleading selectivity of the historical record.
It was the more dramatic because it came from a distinguished scientist who was raised as an orthodox Jew and is one of the contemporary 'great and good'.
There was a short silence in the studio. Joan Bakewell didn't actually say "moving swiftly on.....". But swiftly on she moved.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Tanked Up

I made reference yesterday to a think-tank called the Institute of Ideas.
Ideas being dangerous things, maybe it's a good thing for them to be kept in an institution. How one wishes that some of Tony Blair's ideas had merely been sent to an institute with a self-addressed envelope enclosed rather than inflicted on the wider world.

I've been thinking about think-tanks recently, which I suppose qualifies as a form of meta-thinking. They seem to have proliferated in recent years and are widely treated as authoritative by the media.
But before considering think-tanks in general, I took a closer look at the Institute of Ideas. The abbreviation is 'IoI', which is almost indistinguishable from 'lol'.
And 'lol' I did when I looked at their website.

They organise "conferences, discussions and salons".
Have you ever attended a 'salon'? No, me neither. I even get my hair cut at a traditional barbers rather than a salon, although some heated debate takes place there: whether Town will be relegated this year, the price of houses in the village, that kind of thing.
But I rather fancy reclining on a chaise longue in a Georgian town house, wearing a velvet smoking jacket and removing the Du Maurier cigarette from my lips to give a devestating critique of Marx's epistemology.

The Institute also organises "open and robust debate, in which ideas can be interrogated."
How the fuck do you interrogate an idea?
"For the benefit of the tape, you say your name is Liberty. But since Liberty is impossible without Equality, you cannot have acted alone. We'll get Equality sooner or later, so if you value your freedom, start talking."

It also "challenges irrational social panics."
Don't you just hate those irrational social panics?
Give me a rational panic any day.

It is committed to "civil liberties, with no ifs and buts."
What the hell does that mean?
I've been committed to civil liberties all my life but only the most extreme and demented libertarian would argue for unrestricted freedom of speech and action.

The Institute is closely involved with the Pfizer Debating Matters Forum for 6th Form students.
Not, you will note, the Bertrand Russell or Albert Einstein or John Rawls Debating Matters Forum.
No, that's Pfizer, the world's largest pharmaceuticals company, manufacturer of Viagra.
So do the 6th formers debate the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry? Might they discuss the $7 billion damages claim brought against Pfizer by the Nigerian Government for the alleged deaths of children in drugs trials? Or this month's claims that hundreds of Americans have suffered serious side-effects from Pfizer's anti-smoking drug, which airline pilots have been banned from taking?
No, that's one of my sillier ideas.

The reason I got thinking about think-tanks was that recently the media reported with a straight face that one of them had discovered that poor teaching could lead to students doing less well in their exams.
How much thinking did it take to come up with that one?
Yet these obscure and unaccountable organisations get shed-loads of money thrown at them.

I'm thinking of starting one myself. It will be more lucrative than blogging and will take up only about five minutes a day.
I shall announce that dry summers are more likely to result in a hosepipe ban.
That jumping from high buildings can cause death or serious injury.
On one of my lazier days, I might announce that my research has revealed that the sun rises in the east.
And with the right sponsorship deals I might even be able to trouser some free Viagra.
A free packet goes to the first of you to say "You think-tanker!"

Friday's Fumblings

The result of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election was encouraging for the Tories and not too bad for Labour.
If that doesn't accord with what the mainstream media are saying it's because, as a blogger, I don't have to create stories or peddle sensationalism.
By-elections, like local council elections, only have meaning retrospectively - i.e., when you look back at them after a subsequent general election. At the time they happen, they mean almost nothing.
And, having studied politics nerdishly for at least 45 years, I've seen numerous spectacular by-election wins that, with the benefit of hindsight, told us nothing meaningful at all.

My view on Crewe was that if Labour dropped below a 30% share of the vote they'd be in serious trouble and Brown's position might be at risk. But they got 31% of the vote. Not good, but not a total disaster.
The 17% swing to the Tories was high but in an historical context not at the top of the Richter scale. In 1976, the Tories took Walsall North with a 22.6% swing. In 1994, the Labour opposition took Dudley West with a 29% swing.

And be wary of professional psephologists, or at least the ones who rent out their opinions to the media. I'm not accusing them of dishonesty but they know that their retainers will vanish as quickly as a by-election majority if they say that the result tells us fuck-all about the next general election.

The psephologists tell us that no Prime Minister has won a General Election after a by-election defeat on this scale.
They also tell us that no opposition has ever achieved the swing that will be necessary for the Tories to win the next election.
Do we infer from those two assertions that the next election will produce a hung Parliament?
Well, only if you believe that the unprecedented can never happen in politics. But in politics, as in life, the unprecedented sometimes happens and new precedents are created.
So do I think Labour can still win in 2010? Yes, of course.
Do I think the Tories can win in 2010? Yes, of course.
Might there be a hung Parliament? Quite possibly.
Is there any evidence for any of these outcomes? Don't be silly.


When I left the house this morning, the Today programme was talking about the castration of teenage transgender boys in Thailand.
On returning to the house, I heard James Naughtie saying to a woman interviewee: "Never do it with children or animals. But you've been doing it with animals all your life, haven't you?"
Ye Gods! Had the Today programme turned into a radio version of a late night cable channel?
It was a relief to discover that Mr Naughtie was talking about acting with children and animals.
But I still think it's a mistake to subject crusty old Colonels to descriptions of Thai ladyboys over the Oxford marmalade.
"I've been thinking about our holiday, Marjorie. Bangkok's very nice at this time of year...."


When Dermot O'Leary pronounced 'hyperbole' as 'hyperbowl' on TV last year I thought he might be making some kind of pun, what with Big Brother being like a goldfish bowl. Then I remembered that Dermot O'Leary is an idiot.
But then last night on Radio Four, some bloke from a think-tank called the 'Institute of Ideas' also said 'hyperbowl'.
From an air-headed TV presenter to the intelligentsia in just a few months. By next year it will be in the Oxford English Dictionary.


Telephoning a call centre yesterday, the usual thing happened: I was shunted from wrong department to wrong department. The agony was prolonged because each person took all my details and went through numerous security questions before deciding I was in the wrong place.
Not for the first time, one chap greeted my every answer with "Brilliant!"
I give my postcode: "That's brilliant!"
I give my date of birth: "Brilliant!"
It was as though he were giving encouragement to a retarded child.
I was tempted to tell him that I can also tie my own shoe laces, use a knife and fork and even know the correct pronunciation of 'hyperbole'.
Maybe next time.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Yesterday in Parliament

I made the time to watch quite a lot of the debates on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the Commons, since it's not very often that Parliament debates these kind of moral issues.

There were some good speeches, including one or two from people who took a different view from my own. But generally the standard was very poor.

Let's start with Sir Gerald Kaufman, speaking in the debate on hybrid embryos. Sir Gerald was Harold Wilson's spinmeister and is an expert on films and musicals. But clearly no moral philosopher. He chose to deploy the 'thin end of the wedge' argument. But virtually anything can be characterised as 'the thin end of the wedge'. My only acknowledgement of my birthday this year was to eat a smoked salmon sandwich. Had Sir Gerald been there he would no doubt have said: "This is the thin end of the wedge! Soon you'll be ordering crates of Beluga caviar from Fortnum and Mason!"
But I wouldn't. I don't particularly like caviar and, even if I did, I couldn't afford it. It's an argument that is both bogus and desperate.

In both the embryology and abortion debates I was struck by the fact that many of those MPs who expressed deep concern for both microscopic collections of cells and foetuses in the womb had voted for the invasion of Iraq and the consequent slaughter and maiming of thousands of children, including babies and pregnant mothers. Some of them even had the nerve, in the context of finding cures for diseases, to use the 'end doesn't justify the means' argument. But for them it clearly did when waging an illegal war.

This Bill was hijacked by the anti-abortion lobby and reducing the time limit for abortions should never have been part of the debate. It would have been perfectly proper to hold a separate debate on that issue and that would have given more time for detailed consideration of the issues. As the votes turned out, the anti-abortionists rather shot themselves in the foot because it will now be difficult for them to return to the issue in the near future.

In the abortion debate, that old chestnut about murdering potential geniuses cropped up but with a new twist when one Tory MP claimed we might be wiping out potential members of the English cricket team. That gives a whole new meaning to 'Lie back and think of England.'
It's a strange argument when you consider how much human DNA is wasted each year, both by natural processes and human means. Logically, one would need to make both masturbation and contraception illegal. But let's not put ideas into the fundamentalists' heads.

The debate on whether IVF treatment should be conditional on the existence of both a mother and father produced contributions from the Knights of the Shires and others that were beyond parody.
The views of the man in The Dog and Duck in Staffordshire were cited as the benchmark of what is 'normal' and 'natural'. Sir Patrick Cormack, for it was he, implied that lesbian mothers were an aberration confined to Islington and unknown in the rolling acres of Staffordshire.
No doubt he might concede, if pressed on the point, that Staffordshire has its share of tweedy ladies who live together purely for companionship. But you would never find them wielding a turkey baster for a purpose for which it was never intended nor allowing the presence of a surrogate sprog to interfere with their organisation of the annual Conservative Party Garden party.

One of the amendments proposed the need for either a father or another male role model. It was never explained who this other role model might be.
One Lib Dem MP asked if David Beckham might fulfil this role, though not presumably in person because he's a busy man. But I suppose you could stick some posters of Becks on little Tara or Tarquin's bedroom wall and hope for the best.
Some lesbian couples have gay men as close friends. Would Duncan Smith and his chums accept them as suitable male role models? I rather doubt it.

It was during this debate that a fearsome, female, Democratic Unionist MP reared up and asserted the literal truth of woman having been created from Adam's rib. She became enraged when Members on the opposite benches laughed at this. They were certainly braver men than me. For this woman seemed to have been created from the rib of a Brontosaurus. Or perhaps from one of Ian Paisley's spare ribs, but that's much the same thing.
"Do Christians have no human rights?" she bellowed. Sadly for her, neither the Human Rights Act nor the European Convention mention any right not to be laughed at.

The only other overtly Biblical reference came from the Labour MP Chris Bryant, who is both gay and a former Church of England priest. His claim to fame is that he was the first MP to appear on the Gaydar website in his Y-fronts. So it wasn't entirely surprising that the quotation he flung at the Tory benches was "Judge not lest ye be judged!"
The camera cut away to Sir Patrick Cormack, sitting glowering and smouldering like a pocket Mount Etna. For a moment, I thought we would witness the first case of spontaneous combustion in the House of Commons.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Backbreaking Boredom

My best friend at school when I was about six or seven was a large, ruddy-cheeked boy who looked like a farmer's son, though he was in fact the scion of an ironmongering family.
A fan of cowboy films, he cantered everywhere, holding invisible reins and slapping his thigh. If we were late for school he would break into a gallop and I would jog along behind without him being aware that I was not also on horseback. When he pointed his fingers at little old ladies, who were presumably surrogate Indians, and shot them I pretended I wasn't with him. I didn't much care for Wild West fantasies and certainly didn't want to draw attention to myself by role-play on the public highway.
At that age I was already converting reality into prose in my head, sometimes embellishing it, sometimes fictionalising it, sometimes as straight reportage. That was probably because I was more likely to be found reading a book than watching The Lone Ranger. It might also explain why I once walked into a lampost and gave myself a nosebleed. Who says that writing is not a dangerous occupation?

This reminiscence is solely to pad out what should have been a review of Brokeback Mountain, which had its first terrestrial showing on Channel 4 last night.
But I managed to stick with it for only the first 50 minutes. These were among the most boring 50 minutes of my life. And when I get bored I get angry. So the soundtrack in my living living room consisted of 35 oh, for fuck's sakes and 23 get on with its.

It confirmed my belief that film is the most self-indulgent of mediums. How long should I be expected to look at an opening shot of a man waiting outside an office trailer? Why do I need to see the same shot filmed through the undercarriage of a passing train? How many times do I need to see the two characters sitting around cooking beans on a camp fire as the days pass by and, in the real world, night falls and dozens of my brain cells lose the will to live? (Not a good idea to trigger memories of the famous Blazing Saddles farting scene, by the way).
An appropriate caption would have been: we apologise for the delay to the plot but in the meantime here's some beautiful scenery to look at.

I've read that, at cinema showings, many people walked out. I assume this wasn't because of the sex scenes but because they decided that life is too short and they despaired of a sex scene happening within the next three weeks.
The first sex scene, and the only one I saw, was the 'any port in a storm' scenario, the kind of animalistic sex that happens in prisons and other all-male institutions. I suppose it's possible that this can develop into an emotional attachment or 'love', but that's probably the exception rather than the rule.
But lengthy analysis of this particular relationship is a waste of time because it was fictional, it was written by a woman and it was portrayed by two straight actors. And boy, how they made sure that the public knew they were straight.
One of them said that the characters weren't gay; they were two straight guys who fell in love. Presumably he'd never heard of bisexuality or that sexuality is a spectrum rather than an either/or.

Anyway, I surrendered my right to review the film properly when I switched it off. By 9.50 pm the thought of lying in bed and listening to The Westminster Hour with the delightful Carolyn Quinn became irresistable. Carolyn Quinn being the programme's presenter, not the woman sharing my bed, I should point out.
I was never confused.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Phil the Greek

People sometimes ask: if you're a republican, why do you watch films about the Royal Family?
Well, I also watch programmes about serial killers but that doesn't mean I think society benefits from the existence of serial killers.
There's actually a similarity there: both are aberrations. Both are like us and yet not like us. And both are the subject of a weird fascination.

ITV's The Duke, a portrait of Prince Philip, was one of the worst examples of the genre. It was monumentally boring, economical with the truth and sycophantic. As with similar documentaries about the Queen, we had a succession of servants, friends and family making him sound like some kind of polymath. Not forgetting his distinguished naval career, his sporting prowess, his sparkling wit, etc, etc.
And, according to one contributor, my title is incorrect because he's not Greek but Danish. Does anyone care?

The programme told us that Philip had invented a role for the Queen's consort. But it didn't tell us that he had no choice but to re-invent the role because from the very beginning he was marginalised and kept firmly in his place by the Queen.

The first break with precedent was that the royal house and the Queen's children did not take Philip's surname. This contrasts with what happened in the case of Victoria and Albert, where the royal family took the name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (until it was changed to Windsor because of the First World War.) But, partly through pressure from the Cabinet, the name did not change from Windsor to Mountbatten, to the anger of Philip and the even greater fury of his uncle, Lord Mountbatten.

The other difference from the situation with Prince Albert is that the Queen has always kept Philip away from her consitutional duties as Head of State and not given him access to the State papers that she has to work on every day. In contrast, Albert acted as Victoria's private secretary and was intimately involved with affairs of state. Indeed, it almost amounted to a joint monarchy.

I can share one previously unpublished, if trivial, story that contradicts the programme's assertion that the Queen is content that Philip is the one who wears the trousers.
Someone who worked in the hotel industry told me that about 50 years ago the Queen and Philip were attending a function together. Several times the Queen signalled to Philip that she was ready to leave. He was enjoying himself and ignored her. Eventually she summoned a waiter and gave him a folded piece of paper and told him to deliver it to Prince Philip. The waiter, as you would, managed to surreptitiously unfold and read the note. It bore the curt message: "The Queen will be leaving in three minutes."

Monday, May 12, 2008

It Won't Stand Up In Court

A few months back I said there would be another hiatus in this blog because I was moving house. Sadly, my proposed move has gone pear-shaped and become a saga of epic proportions involving duplicity, greed, corruption and illegality. If I don't post quite so frequently at the moment it's because I'm embroiled in this nightmare that has been facilitated by our old friend the capitalist system.
On the other hand, as my friend Cello once said, blogging can be a 'displacement activity'. When you're indulging in clever-dickery at the keyboard, it takes your mind off other problems in your life.

I won't regale you with the details of my aborted property transaction (a collective sigh of relief whistles through cyberspace), not least because matters may end up in the hands of m'learned friends. Anonymous though this blog is, I wouldn't wish it to be cited in a court of law..........

Judge: What is a blog?
Counsel: It's an abbreviation of 'weblog', Your Honour. It's a form of online diary popular with the younger generation.
Judge: Your client looks a bit long in the tooth for such frippery.
Counsel: My client is young at heart and has a good sense of humour.
Judge: This is a court of law, Mr Barraclough, not a dating agency.
Counsel: You started it, Your Honour.
Judge: Mr Barraclough! I expect better from counsel of your experience. This blog which is an abbreviation of weblog which is a form of online diary.......does it contain reference to matters that are before this court?
Counsel: Obliquely, Your Honour. Tangentially. And, most importantly, anonymously. The defendant's real name was not given.
Judge: But the defendant was referred to?
Counsel: Yes. As a thieving bastard.
Judge: Anything else?
Counsel: Yes. With apologies to Your Honour and to the court, he is variously described as a duplicitous little shitbag, a greedy, unprincipled wide-boy and a cunting little capitalist crook.
Judge: Disgraceful! There is no such adjective as 'cunting'.
Counsel: My client, in our pre-trial conversations, cited a colloquial reference from 1542. It is a back-formation from the noun with which Your Honour will be familiar.
Judge: It is not for you to presume with which nouns and their referents I am familiar. And does this sprog or blog or whatever it is called enjoy a wide circulation?
Counsel: A blog does not circulate, Your Honour. It is on the World Wide Web and accessible through an internet connection.
Judge: But does anybody read it?
Counsel: I believe it has a modest readership and it carries an endorsement from a columnist on The Guardian newspaper.
Judge: Did you say The Guardian, Mr Barraclough?
Counsel: I did, Your Honour.
Judge: The Guardian! I sentence your client to a minimum term of eight years.
Counsel: With respect, Your Honour, my client is the plaintiff in this case, not the defendant.
Judge: Whatever. Take him down!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

UK Youth Parliament

A word of praise for Gordon Brown in what are bleak times for him. One of his first acts as Prime Minister was to allow the UK Youth Parliament to use the Palace of Westminster when MPs and Peers were not sitting. So at the beginning of this month the Youth Parliament held debates in the House of Lords chamber and last night some of these were shown on the Parliament Channel.

I intended to take only a quick look but ended up watching the entire programme. It was the best thing on TV last night and proved that Britain's Got Talent more convincingly than the programme of that name.

The debates were chaired by the real House of Lords Speaker, Baroness Hayman. She mostly managed to avoid being patronising but did at one point come out with the Joyce Grenfell-like exclamation "that's naughty!" Unfortunately, there was no close-up to reveal what youthful indiscretion was taking place, although one rather hopes that the next time Baroness Thatcher takes her place in the Lords she finds a piece of chewing gum adhering to her arse.

The Speaker reminded the MYPs that applauding speeches was not normal in Parliament and suggested they adopt the convention of growling 'Hear, hear!'.
The first time they did this, they erupted in laughter at the sound it produced. Then, after a short time, they ignored her instruction and reverted to applauding speakers.
Youth of Britain: 1 Old Farts: 0.

Will Britain ever produce its own Barack Obama? Well, if it does, there's a fair chance his name will be Acie Marshall.
This black youth from London stood at the despatch box and made a barnstorming speech on the environment. He received a long standing ovation from the entire House.
(Tony Blair was Prime Minister for ten years before the House of Commons, on his final day, broke with convention and gave him a standing ovation.)
Shortly after Acie's speech, another MYP stood up and said he was intending to speak against the motion but had changed his mind after hearing Acie's speech. Because Acie seemed such a consummate politician, I couldn't help wondering if this was a plant.

The environment debate was closed by the youngest MYP. I didn't record his name but he couldn't have been more than 10 or 11 and made a moving speech that included a swipe at the irrelevance of status and titles - in that particular arena, a bit like giving a reading from Richard Dawkins in Westminster Cathedral. When he concluded, Acie and his acolytes pinned him to the leather benches and fell on top of him as though he'd scored the winning goal in the FA Cup Final.

As always in such a forum, it was disturbing to listen to those who evoked memories of the teenage William Hague and who argued in favour of university fees. And it would be easy to sneer at those who looked stereotypically nerdish. But for the most part they looked and sounded like the kids who hang around outside your corner shop. Except that they were sitting in the Mother of Parliaments and speaking fluently and intelligently about education, transport and the environment.

Forty or fifty years ago this programme would have been shown on a main channel, not perhaps in peak-time but maybe on a Sunday afternoon. Buried on one of the least-watched minority channels, few will have seen it. And that's a pity because it wasn't just 'worthy' but hugely entertaining and a welcome antidote to the current demonisation of young people.

And remember this name: William Acie Marshall.
Charm, charisma, eloquence and, it has to be said, just a little bit scary.
Just promise me, Acie, that if you become our first black Prime Minister, you won't be a Conservative Prime Minister.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Footloose and Flummoxed

There's been a row about an Annie Leibovitz photo of a Disney starlet called Miley Cyrus.
This trivia has impinged on my consciousness because yesterday's Guardian had four (four!) articles on the subject, three in G2 and one in the Comment section.

The photo itself shows a young girl clutching a sheet and revealing only the flesh of her back. She looks as though she has just washed her hair. Surely even the Victorians would have considered this to be the softest of porn?

As you would expect, one of the Guardian articles was by Germaine Greer. She must be able to write this stuff in her sleep by now. They often read as though she did write them in her sleep.
Not for the first time, Ms Greer uses the term "fuck-me shoes".
I'm still none the wiser as to what a fuck-me shoe looks like when it's at home. Or when it's pounding the dark city streets.

Can women go into shoe shops and ask to see their range of fuck-me shoes?
"I'm looking for a fuck-me shoe in black, size four. I like these court shoes but I've been wearing them for weeks and I haven't had so much as a grope."

Can men spot a fuck-me shoe at a hundred paces?
Living in a heterosexist culture, I've had to spend a lot of time in the company of leering heterosexual men, listening to their fantasies. But I've never known one to nod in the direction of a woman's footwear and say "Look at those! She's obviously gagging for it!"

Might an innocent woman don a fuck-me shoe inadvertently, leading to embarrassing misunderstandings?
"I'm sorry love, but I only put my hand down your pants because you're wearing those fuck-me shoes."

I'm sorry, readers, but the questions keep on coming.
Is there a male version of the fuck-me shoe?
Would my brown, Oxford brogues imply that I was as horny as a butcher's dog? Looking at them, I find that hard to believe.
What about my black loafers? Well, no. The clue is in the name. Not fucking but loafing.
Actually, I once rounded on someone who called them loafers. In Britain they were traditionally known as 'slip-ons'. But certainly not 'slip-one-ins'.

Today most males, even of my age, wear trainers, unless they're at a wedding or appearing in court. I do not posess any trainers because I am not training for anything. I have a literal turn of mind like that.
But amongst the thousands of varieties of trainers (albeit all looking the same to me) and their complex semiotics, there may well be some with an 'up for it' factor that is recognisable to the cognescenti.

Implicit in the existence of a fuck-me shoe, whatever it looks like, is the existence of its opposite, the 'don't fuck me' shoe.
For women, I suppose these would be the 'sensible shoe', the shoes in which, in John Major's phrase, old maids cycled to Holy Communion on misty mornings.
But in those cases the speech bubble emanating from the shoe might be more one of resignation than proscription: "I've given up on anyone fucking me so I'm going to stop torturing my feet and save a fortune on chiropidist's bills."

For me, the 'don't fuck me' shoe would be the flip-flop. I have a morbid fear of flip-flops. If someone was sex-on-legs but had flip-flops on their feet I would run a mile. Or as far as my Oxford brogues would carry me.
Flip-flops make that awful flapping, clattering sound. They are a half-finished shoe. If you bought a shoe that wouldn't stay on your feet you would normally take it back and ask for a refund. But hanging precariously from your toes is the inexplicable unique selling-point of the flip-flop.

I may well feel the same about espadrilles but will say no more because, to be honest, I'm not sure whether they are a type of shoe or a spicy Mexican dish.
But that's not surprising for a man who doesn't know a fuck-me shoe from a zip-up bootee slipper and who would be as much use at a shoe fetishists' convention as a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party.