My apologies to anyone who’s tried to access this blog in the past week. They would have encountered either a blank, basic WordPress template devoid of any of the 500+ entries I’ve put on Blood and Porridge since 2012; or a signing-in page from WordPress demanding user names, passwords, etc. Thankfully, those good people in the technical support department at my web-hosting provider have managed to solve the problem and, not for the first time, have saved my blogging bacon.
Unfortunately, in the process, the most recent entries I’ve put on Blood and Porridge have been lost (and as some time has elapsed and they’re no longer topical, I see no point in reposting them). However, the issue seems now to be sorted and normal blogging will resume shortly.
Not unexpectedly, the Independent newspaper is to cease print production at the end of March. Thereafter, it plans to continue as a digital-only publication written by a handful of journalists retained from the print version. But most of its existing staff face redundancy.
The Independent’s demise as a physical entity comes 30 years after it was founded by a trio of journalists – Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds – in a bid to create a newspaper that didn’t have a proprietor and didn’t suffer from proprietorial interference and bias. Hence its title and the catchy marketing slogan that accompanied its 1986 launch: “It is. Are you?”
(c) The Guardian
It was a noble goal – and still is. Especially as the British print media is largely the property of multimillionaires – the 4th Viscount Rothermere, the Barclay Brothers, soft-porn magnate Richard Desmond and old-what’s-his-face, you know, Jerry Hall’s hunky bloke – whose enthusiasm for right-wing politics goes hand in hand with their enthusiasm for paying as little tax as possible.
The Independent had a happy childhood. At one point its circulation was above 400,000 and it managed to outsell the Times. And despite Private Eye dubbing it the ‘Indescribably Boring’, its reputation for journalistic integrity was clearly a selling point. I have to confess, though, that my reason for starting to read it while I was a 1980s college-student wasn’t because of its journalistic integrity. It was because I knew a girl who did read the Independent for its journalistic integrity, and I fancied her and wanted to impress her by reading it too.
Of course, claiming that a newspaper is entirely independent and neutral – “free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence” as its masthead used to say – is nonsense, as editors always have to take positions. Politically and culturally, the Independent belonged to the centre-left, which must have helped it lure a few readers away from the Guardian.
But it was also pro-market. This was possibly due to its existence being an indirect result of Rupert Murdoch’s actions. In 1986 Murdoch shifted his newspapers to a new high-tech printing plant at Wapping, East London, and subsequently won an industrial confrontation with the print-workers’ union. This supposedly freed British newspaper production from old and restrictive printing practices. Peter Wilby, one-time editor of the Independent’s sister-paper the Independent on Sunday, has written that at the time “it seemed that anyone with a bit of seed capital could set up and run a profitable newspaper.”
Ironically, of all the British newspapers that were born post-Wapping – a group that included not just the Independent but Today, the News on Sunday, the Sunday Correspondent and the European – only the tits-and-aliens-obsessed Sunday Sport will still be on our newsstands after March.
The Independent’s fortunes began to falter in 1993 when Murdoch tore a chunk out of its readership by slashing the price of the Times. By the mid-1990s it’d acquired what it was never supposed to acquire – a proprietor, in the form of Irish multimillionaire Tony O’Reilly. Later, in 2010, it passed into the hands of the Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev and at the same time it was rumoured that Rod Liddle, right-wing rentagob columnist in the Sunday Times and Spectator, was going to be its new editor. The rumour didn’t become reality – giving Liddle editorship of the Independent made as much sense as giving management of the British Museum to ISIS – but it did little to convey the impression that the Independent was now on securer ground.
Crazily, before the 2015 general election, the newspaper chose to back the existing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. This no doubt turned off readers who’d bought it because it and the Guardian were the only major daily newspapers reporting things from a centre-left perspective. (Its Wikipedia entry gives its current circulation at just under 58,000. But when I checked the Press Gazette, its January 2016 figure was 55,193, a drop of 10% in the past year.)
One late success story was the appearance in 2010 of its sister-paper the i, which initially cost 20 pence, was 56 tabloid-sized pages long and was intended as a mini-version of the Independent suitable for people in a hurry, such as commuters. Last month the i was selling 271,859 copies daily. However, it’s also been announced that Lebedev has sold the i to the publisher Johnson Press and I suspect its glory days are behind it too – Johnson Press acquired the Scotsman from Barclay Brothers in 2005 and managed the difficult feat of making it even more shit than it was when the terrible twins owned it.
I haven’t been impressed by the Independent for a long time, though admittedly I haven’t lived much in the UK recently and usually I’ve only looked at its website. And that website is pretty poor, which doesn’t bode well for its going completely online after March. The site is awkward to navigate and many of its stories are reminiscent of the dire UK edition of the Huffington Post, i.e. they look like they’ve been cobbled together from what the journalists read on Twitter. For instance, today’s online Independent headlines include YOKO ONO, YES, I’M A WITCH TOO; TENNENT’S ASKED WHY IT DOESN’T DO A LOW-CALORIE LAGER, GIVES A WONDERFULLY SCOTTISH REPLY; I’VE DONNED A WONDERWOMAN COSTUME FOR THE LAST TIME; and SHIA LaBEOUF ‘PUNCHES MAN IN THE FACE’ AT OXFORD LIFT STUNT. Probably not the sturdy journalistic stuff that 30 years ago Whittam Smith, Glover and Symonds envisioned their newspaper having.
I also find it hard to love its comment pages, which give prominence to the likes of arch-Blairite John Rentoul and cantankerous literary snob Howard Jacobson. Meanwhile, its comment-threads have been saturated in recent years with the rantings of xenophobic, UKIP-and-worse trolls. A skim down the racist and misogynistic vitriol posted below anything written by Uganda-born Shia Muslim journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is enough to make you give up hope for humanity.
Still, a few bright spots remain in the Independent during its twilight. The work of its Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, one of the few members of the British press knowledgeable about the Arab world, is always worth reading; and I’ve enjoyed Christopher Fowler’s column Invisible Ink in the culture pages of the Independent on Sunday about once-popular, now-forgotten authors. I hope that if they don’t resurface in the wholly-online Independent, both writers find new outlets. Though in Fisk’s case, given the extreme right-wing mind-set that possesses most of the remaining British press, I’m not holding my breath.
Various people had assured me that Delhi’s Qutab Minar was the tallest minaret in all of India, so I was slightly disappointed when I did some research and discovered that it was only the second tallest, after Fateh Burj in Punjab. But Qutab Minar, which towers above the Delhi neighbourhood served by the Metro station of the same name, is still pretty impressive. Started in 1192 but not completed until 1368, the minaret soars up from the middle of a site of ruins, courtyards, pillars, pavilions, lawns, hedgerows and trees called the Qutab Complex, which has been designated a UN World Heritage Site.
The 73-metre-tall Qutab Minar consists of five segments of grooved, pale-reddish sandstone and marble. It’s crowned by a circular viewing platform, although the public no longer have access to the stairs that climb up to this. Somebody told me that people aren’t allowed to ascend the minaret because, in the past, an occasional visitor would commit suicide by jumping off the top. Again, though, when I did some research, I was told something different. According to Qutab Minar’s Wikipedia entry, those stairs are out-of-bounds because 45 people, most of them children on a school excursion, died there in 1981. A power cut plunged the minaret’s interior into darkness and, in the ensuing panic, the stairs became the scene of a devastating stampede.
The Qutab Complex stands below the flight-paths of nearby Delhi Airport, and every five minutes or so while I was there an airplane would seem to narrowly buzz past its summit like a giant, fixed-in-its-course wasp.
Once you manage to stop admiring the minaret itself, there’s much more to see in the complex around it, including the remains of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, various tombs and a massive stump of packed rubble called Alai Minar that, during an audacious but never-realised building project in the early 14th century, was intended to form the core of a new tower that would have been twice the height of Qutab Minar.
Actually, you could spend a whole day just looking at the patterns engraved on the slabs of stone standing amid the ruins. These are astonishingly intricate – latticed, spiralling, gridded, knotted, whorled, weaving and petalled. As your eyes follow them up the stonework, however, you eventually reach a point where the patterns give way to broken, misshapen summits that are now the domain of pigeons, squirrels and occasional green-coloured parrots.
A word of warning is in order, though. If you want to study those amazing carvings, you’ll likely be exasperated by the never-ending stream of tourists who get in the way of your view. Countless folk will insist on posing for Smartphone pictures in front of the stonework, making peace signs and striking cutesy poses. Not for the first time – this thought has occurred to me too in Angkor Wat, Tunis and Rome, where my attempts to study some beautiful old ruins were similarly hampered by thousands of posing, self-obsessed ninnies with an insatiable hunger for having their photographs taken – I reflected darkly that in all probability the stonework will still be there, as gorgeous-looking as ever, long after those preening humans have aged, withered, died, rotted and crumbled into nothing.
Thankfully, the Qutab Complex is big enough to let visitors have some private, peaceful space away from the crowds. A trip there won’t necessarily unleash your inner sociopath. In fact, even if I hadn’t been interested in its historical side, the grounds – crisscrossed with long dark tree-shadows while the green spaces between them bake in the afternoon sunshine – would have made it a perfectly acceptable place to spend an hour in. Also, I couldn’t help noticing the cacophony of birdsong there. In becoming a UN World Heritage Site, the complex evidently turned into something of a wildlife sanctuary too.
Neal Ascherson, Derek Bateman, Ian Bell, Belle & Sebastian, Alan Bissett, Bjork, Frankie Boyle, Billy Bragg, Russell Brand, Kevin Bridges, Christopher Brookmyre, Tom Bryan, Dennis Canavan, Noam Chomsky, James Cosmo, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Sir Tom Devine, Winnie Ewing, Franz Ferdinand, Matthew Fitt, Frightened Rabbit, Janice Galloway, Dick Gaughan, Alasdair Gray, Chris Harvie, Patrick Harvie, Gerry Hassan, David Hayman, Greg Hemphill, Pat Kane, Billy Kay, James Kelman, A.L. Kennedy, Limmy, Liz Lochhead, Iain MacWhirter, John McAllion, Val McDermid, Alan McGee, William McIlvanney, Kevin McKenna, Kevin McKidd, Mogwai, George Monbiot, Morrissey, Peter Mullan, Craig Murray, John Niven, Karine Polwart, The Proclaimers, Eddie Reader, Lesley Riddich, James Robertson, Ricky Ross, Alex Salmond, Captain Sensible, Jim Sillars, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Elaine C. Smith, Judy Steel, Ken Stott, Charles Stross, Nicola Sturgeon, Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, Kevin Williamson, Ruth Wishart and Canon Kenyon Wright.
And of course, him:
(c) Eon Productions
And, if you’re to believe the reports about a tweet he sent yesterday, him:
Spring 2014 is not proving to be a good season for the remaining handful of British politicians who choose to show an independent cast of mind and follow their own consciences, rather than obsequiously toe a party line – even if such independence and integrity costs them a lucrative political career and dooms them to a lifetime of outsider-status.
A few weeks back, the venerable socialist Tony Benn shuffled off this mortal coil. Ostracised by his own Labour Party in the 1980s while it was bidding to make itself ‘electable’, Benn’s left-wing zeal now seems refreshingly honest and honourable, especially when it’s measured against the cynicism and opportunism of those who rose to power in Labour after he’d been shunted into the sidings – that of the notorious trough-feeder Neil Kinnock and of the even more loathsome Tony Blair.
Then, last week, there was the news that Margo MacDonald, the one-time Scottish National Party MP and more lately an independent member of the Scottish Parliament, had succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, against which she’d been battling for many years.
Margo became an MP in November 1973 at the age of 30, after winning the Glaswegian constituency of Govan for the SNP in a by-election. Her victory was memorable because it shattered the Labour Party’s assumption that the vote in urban working-class Scotland would always be in its pocket. It was memorable too because Margo’s background was anything but the norm for a Westminster MP. She was a mother of two who’d never been to university. She’d trained as a Physical Education teacher but had more recently been working as a barmaid.
She lost the seat the following year, though. This was seemingly a harbinger of how the fortunes of the SNP, and the morale of Scotland generally, would deflate during the second half of the 1970s, culminating in the travesty of the 1979 Scottish devolution vote (a majority voted for a devolved Scottish parliament but due to backroom politicking it wasn’t delivered) and then the Westminster ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher (who seemed happy to run Scotland like it was a colonial territory). I’ve seen a depressing clip of Margo campaigning in 1978, trying to engage some miserable-looking people who were clearly suffering from a massive dose of the Scottish cringe. One woman started heckling her, lamenting that Scotland could never survive as an independent country because all it would be fit to do would be to ‘pump oil.’ Oh aye, pumping oil. That’d be fatal for a country’s economy…
But thanks to her gregarious personality and many media appearances – she was on TV a lot and, if memory serves me correctly, she even had regular columns in the fervently pro-Labour Daily Record and Sunday Mail newspapers – she stayed in the public consciousness. When the Scottish Parliament was finally set up – 20 years late, many would grouse – she was a shoo-in as one of the new MSPs. By now her days as the SNP’s bubbly and Abba-esque ‘blonde bombshell’ were behind her. She’d matured into a doughty and formidable matriarch. Fond of a laugh, but plain-speaking and at times bloody-minded, she was somebody you’d love to love to have as a pal, but at the same time you really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her. I suspect she was most Scottish people’s notion of what the ideal mum would be like.
Her relationship with the SNP ended acrimoniously in 2003. She didn’t get on with the party’s ultra-cautious then-leader John Swinney and she was eventually expelled. However, she seemed more than happy to re-invent herself as an independent and the people of Lothian region were more than happy to re-elect her to the Scottish Parliament as such.
Her maverick status paralleled that of her second husband, the one-time SNP MP Jim Sillars, who ended up having his own feud with the party and headed off to plough his own lonely furrow. Indeed, Sillars, who in the late 1980s had been ubiquitous on the Scottish political scene, seemed to vanish entirely off the radar for a while. (With the Scottish independence vote this September approaching, I’m pleased to say that Jim Sillars has been visible again of late. A few weeks ago, I saw him take part in a televised debate about independence with the preening and increasingly ludicrous George Galloway. Sillars quietly made mincemeat of Galloway, whose only way of dealing with criticism and argument these days is to shout, “That’s nonsense on stilts!”)
Being an independent MSP – albeit one still committed to independence, as she’d been in her SNP days – suited Margo down to the ground and it allowed her to get on with her own personal campaigns. She tried to get to the bottom of the fiasco surrounding the construction of the new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, a project that ended up costing £414 million, about ten times its original estimated price, and that nearly wrecked the credibility of the parliament as an institution before it’d properly started operating. She fought for the rights and safety of workers in Scotland’s sex industry at a time when the police’s policy seemed to be to turn them out onto the streets. And she championed an Assisted Suicide Bill to permit the terminally ill in Scotland to end their lives at their own choosing – a cause that’d come increasingly close to her heart after she was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease in the late 1990s.
Her death a few days ago brought tributes from across the political spectrum. Even Alan Cochrane, the Daily Telegraph’s rabidly independence-hating Scottish correspondent, penned a moving eulogy to her – although I suspect that if Margo had read his previous column (in which Cochrane used a tragedy at an Edinburgh school where a 12-year-old pupil had been killed by a collapsing changing-room wall as an excuse to condemn the Scottish Parliament), she’d have run him down with the mobility scooter she’d been using towards the end of her life and then drove it over the top of his head. Meanwhile, she was also the subject of an obituary written for the Independent newspaper by the lugubrious, fiercely-his-own-man and much-loved former Labour MP Tam Dalyell. Actually, in this post-Benn, post-MacDonald era, Tam is possibly the last of the Mohicans.
Dalyell concluded his piece by admitting that, in the last Scottish election, he’d actually voted for her. What, Tam Dalyell voting for a pro-Scottish-independence politician? Only Margo could do that.
Here she is, by the way, speaking at the pro-independence rally on September 22nd, 2012:
As animals learn to recognise the sounds of danger and take flight on hearing those sounds, so when I was six years old I learned to take flight when I heard a certain sound coming from the television on Saturday teatimes. It was a weird, pulsating sound that went diddly-dink, diddly-dink, diddly-dink and it was the start of the famous electronic music of the BBC’s flagship science-fiction show Doctor Who. However, such was the monstrousness of the aliens encountered by the Doctor and his companions while they explored the universe in the Tardis, his police box-shaped space / time machine, that to me it seemed more like a horror show. Legend has it that Britain’s entire juvenile population would take refuge from the show’s monsters by hiding behind their sofas, but I didn’t, because in our living room there wasn’t enough space to hide behind the sofa. Instead, I’d run into the adjoining kitchen and sneak frightened glances back at the TV from the kitchen doorway.
However, like a character in a Joseph Conrad story, I eventually realised that the only way to conquer my fears was to confront them. So I forced myself to stay in the living room when Doctor Who came on TV and watch it. This was during the period when the Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee and, during his last couple of seasons, I did become reasonably immune to the show’s scary bits. But then in 1974 a new production team took over and new Doctor, Tom Baker, inherited the lead role. They decided to make the show as frightening as possible – well, as frightening as they could get away with on a teatime TV series watched largely by primary-school-age kids. And suddenly I found myself watching it from the kitchen doorway again.
The show was long-running even then. It’s far longer-running now and today, November 23rd, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of its first episode being broadcast in 1963. Writer-actor Mark Gatiss recently wrote a TV play about how the show was created – courtesy of Sydney Newman, the BBC’s then head of drama, Verity Lambert, a young female producer, and William Hartnell, the flinty character actor who was the first person to play the Doctor. Gatiss’s play, An Adventure in Space and Time, was shown on BBC2 two evenings ago and starred craggy Dundonian actor Brian Cox as Newman, actress Jessica Raine as Lambert and HarryPotter actor David Bradley as Hartnell. An Adventure… nostalgically recreates both the tweedy boardrooms and the sweaty studios of the BBC in the early 1960s and is clearly a loving tribute by a massive fan of the show (which Gatiss avowedly is). Also, it’s the best thing the BBC has done so far to celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.
(Other celebratory items have included Doctor Who: the Ultimate Guide on BBC3, the corporation’s teen / twenty-something channel, which treated us to the opinions of such experts on the show as useless teenybop-rock band McFly. There was also an optimistically-titled special called The Science of Doctor Who, hosted by Brian Cox. That’s Brian Cox the famous physicist, not Brian Cox the craggy Dundonian actor.)
(c) Royal Mail
William Hartnell was 55 when he took on the role in 1963, but if you’ve seen him in movies like Carry On Sergeant or Hell Drivers, you’ll know that he belonged to a wartime generation of British actors who seemed like tough, leathery old men no matter what their real age was. Accordingly, Hartnell often played the Doctor as a cranky pensioner (although he mellowed later on). Indeed, in the show’s early episodes, he’s quite unheroic. He comes across as a devious old shite and on one occasion, when he picks up a rock intending to stove in the head of an injured man, seems almost psychotic. I wish that in the show’s modern incarnation, where there’s much bleating about the Doctor’s pacifism and his unwillingness to use physical force, the programme-makers would cast their minds back to how the character behaved originally.
One nice thing about Gatiss’s play is that it shows the change Doctor Who wreaked in Hartnell’s life after 1963. He’d become typecast as a hard-man character capable only of playing crooks and army sergeants, he wasn’t in the best of health and he was possibly at the end of his acting career. Then he found himself in a wildly popular TV show, one unlike anything he’d done before, and suddenly he became an instantly-recognisable hero to the nation’s children. Sadly, he didn’t have long to enjoy his fame. After three years his declining health – he found it increasingly difficult to remember his lines, especially the show’s sci-fi technobabble – forced him to quit.
But it wasn’t Hartnell that made DoctorWho a huge success. It was the saltshaker-shaped, croak-voiced and homicidal Daleks that trundled into view at the end of its fifth episode that sent ratings through the roof. The Daleks were created by Terry Nation, who till then was known as a comedy writer. Nation almost didn’t write for DoctorWho, as he was already lined up to work with the legendary TV comic Tony Hancock. However, as happened so often with Hancock and his writers – see also Ray Galton and Alan Simpson – he and Nation fell out, and Nation accepted the invitation to write for Doctor Who after all. Thereafter, Nation’s work was mostly fantastical – he worked as script-editor on The Avengers and in the 1970s created the shows Survivors and Blake’s 7 – and he became one of the most influential figures in British TV science fiction.
In 1966, with Hartnell unable to continue in the role, someone hit on the idea that the Doctor – a super-intelligent, centuries-old alien – should, once his current body had worn itself out, be able to regenerate himself. This meant the show could go on with different actors inhabiting the lead role. Each new actor would give the Doctor his own quirks, tics and gimmicks but he also had to persuade audiences that he was at heart (or hearts – the Doctor has two) the same character.
The second Doctor, Patrick Troughton (who in An Adventure… was played by Mark Gatiss’s old League of Gentlemen colleague Reece Shearsmith), was a long-serving character actor, often in British horror movies like The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), The Phantom of the Opera (1963) and The Black Torment (1964). Later, he returned to the genre, with Scars of Dracula (1970), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) and The Omen (1976), in which he played a priest who got memorably skewered by a lightning rod falling off a church. (That scene still chills me – films in which Doctor Who gets killed off always seem hard-core to me.) Troughton’s Doctor was an impish and dishevelled character, part hobo and part hippy, with a fleeting resemblance to Mo in the Three Stooges. Most subsequent actors in the role have named him as their favourite Doctor and some (including current incumbent Matt Smith) have borrowed from him.
The producers during the Troughton years, Innes Lloyd and then Peter Bryant, abandoned the ‘historical adventure’ stories common in the Hartnell era, in which the Doctor met the likes of Marco Polo, Emperor Nero and the Aztecs and the only science-fiction element was the Tardis. Instead, they pushed the show towards out-and-out science fiction and monsters. They developed the Doctor’s second-deadliest enemies, the Cybermen, who started off as sinister gimp-like figures in silvery body-stockings and evolved into the hulking, blank-faced, handled-headed baddies that they’re familiar as today.
Also, the show featured more stories set on contemporary earth, for example, with Cybermen stomping down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and, more incongruously, yeti marauding through the London Underground. No doubt this was due to budgetary restrictions, modern-day earth (well, London) being cheaper to film than the historical past or the distant future. But it was also due to the producers realising that audiences found it more unnerving when the Doctor’s monstrous foes popped up in settings they were familiar with. Debuting during this time was the long-running and admirably unflappable army-officer character, Brigadier (initially Colonel) Alistair Lethbridge Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney, who helped Troughton and four subsequent Doctors against invading aliens.
In 1969, Troughton quit too and the BBC had to decide whether to end the show after a respectable seven-year run or to continue it with a new actor. It opted for the latter course but made changes to the format. The Doctor’s race, the all-powerful and isolationist Time Lords, were introduced. The Doctor, it transpired, had stolen the Tardis from his home planet and nipped off in it to see the universe. Worse, he’d broken the Time Lords’ non-interventionist code by meddling in events (for the good, obviously) at every place he’d landed. Troughton’s tenure ended with the Time Lords capturing him, exiling him to earth – with the Tardis disabled – and making him regenerate again.
Stranded on earth and played now by Jon Pertwee, the Doctor fell in with the Brigadier again and started working for his anti-alien military organisation UNIT (which stood once for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce; though after the real United Nations complained, the programme-makers changed it to the United Intelligence Taskforce). Much crap has been written about Jon Pertwee by the show’s more intellectual fans. Although until then Pertwee’s background had mostly been in comedy, he stands accused of making the character too much like a straightforward action hero – his Doctor wore a cape and often overcame the villains by using on them a futuristic martial art called Vensuvian Aikido. Allegedly too, he made the character right-wing and authoritarian by working for the military-industrial complex, i.e. the Brigadier and UNIT. It’s even claimed he turned the character into a petrol-head because his Doctor had a fondness for driving vintage cars. Pertwee’s real personality – from all accounts he was a bit of a prima-donna – probably hasn’t helped his reputation.
To that I can only say that during his tenure from 1970 to 1974, Pertwee’s impact was immense on kids like me. To us, he was The Main Man. Every Monday at school would be spent discussing what he’d got up to – what alien or monster he’d karate-chopped – on the previous Saturday’s episode. (These discussions required considerable play-acting from me, as I’d been too scared to watch much of the episodes. But to preserve my reputation for manliness I had to pretend that I had.) No doubt it did Pertwee’s considerable ego no harm to know that, for a large section of the British population, he was the Greatest Bloke in the Universe.
As the Doctor and the Brigadier were in a Holmes / Watson-type relationship, producer Barry Letts and script-editor Terrance Dicks gave them a Moriarty in the shape of the Master, another renegade Time Lord, one who was as evil as the Doctor was good. Playing the Master initially was the excellent Roger Delgado, a Cockney in real life although Spanish and Belgian in his parentage, which gave him the necessary amount of foreignness to be a British TV villain at the time.
This was also when the show’s greatest writer, Robert Holmes, became prominent. He was responsible for such traumatising stories as Terror of the Autons, which featured murderous sentient plastic in various forms: murderous plastic dummies, dolls, armchairs, flowers and telephone leads. Also creeping me out during this period was a non-Holmes story called The Daemons, which had the Master unleash ancient and evil forces from an English country church and which was in the tradition of 1970s British folk-horror movies like The Wicker Man. A sequence where a malevolent group of Morris Dancers try to suffocate Pertwee by pinning him against a maypole and wrapping him with the pole’s ribbons while they dance around him has left me with a lifelong fear of Morris Dancers.
This period also saw The Three Doctors, an adventure marking the show’s tenth anniversary in 1973. It brought together all three characters who’d played the character by that point: Pertwee, Troughton and (a very ailing) Hartnell. This set the style for future anniversary / reunion adventures such as The Five Doctors (1983), The Two Doctors (1985), Time Crash (2007) and one that’s being shown tonight, featuring the tenth and eleventh Doctors, Day of the Doctor. In these, the Doctors assemble through some strange kink in the space-time continuum, bicker, get on each other’s nerves and insult each other’s interior-design sense in the Tardis control room. (“You’ve done this place up. I don’t like it.”) The Three Doctors saw Pertwee and co save the Time Lords from destruction and in gratitude they lifted his exile, allowing him to go wandering again.
In 1974 the Doctor regenerated again, Pertwee being replaced by Tom Baker. Like Troughton, Baker had served time in British horror and fantasy films like Vault of Horror, Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Frankenstein: the True Story and the mind-boggling sleaze-fest The Mutations, and he was also a raconteur well-known for his drinking exploits in the less salubrious pubs of Soho with the likes of Francis Bacon. Eccentric, wild-eyed, endowed with a voice and manner that made him seem like a Shakespearean version of Groucho Marx, and wearing the definite Doctor Who outfit of a wide-brimmed hat and super-long multi-coloured scarf, he became the franchise’s signature Doctor. When TheSimpsons do a DoctorWho gag these days, it invariably features Baker’s fourth Doctor.
With Baker as the definite Doctor, an ambitious young producer called Philip Hinchcliffe at the helm, and the show’s best writer, Robert Holmes, as script-editor, the next three years were the show’s Golden Age. Hinchcliffe and Holmes borrowed ideas from all manner of British horror and adventure fiction, such as Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer, Agatha Christie, Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as from the Hammer horror films and Quatermass, and they produced a slew of classic (and, for me, terrifying) adventures: The Ark in Space, Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars, Brain of Morbius, Masque of Mandragora, The Deadly Assassin, Robots of Death and Talons of Weng Chiang.
During this era my all-time favourite Who adventure was broadcast, The Seeds of Doom, which concerned alien seed-pods that germinated, infected their human victims and then slowly transformed them into hideous, flesh-eating plant-monsters. One pod falls into the hands of a crazed millionaire plant-lover called Harrison Chase – played by Tony Beckley, a familiar face from cult British movies like Get Carter and The Italian Job – and Chase wastes no time in getting it to germinate. The scenes where slowly-transforming botanist Arnold Keeler is chained to a bed, futilely begging Chase to give him medical help, while Chase is more interested in aiding his metamorphosis by feeding him protein (i.e. slices of raw meat), is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever watched on TV.
Alas, all good things come to an end. By 1976 Britain’s self-appointed moral guardian Mrs Mary Whitehouse was on the warpath about the show’s horror and violence – she was particularly upset by an episode of The Deadly Assassin that seemingly ended with Tom Baker being drowned. So the BBC took Hinchcliffe off the show and instructed its next producer, Graham Williams, to tone things down. Consequently, Williams’ era is seen as the start of a long period of decline for the show, the stories being pitched at a much younger audience and Baker being encouraged to play up the Doctor’s comedic aspects. Most painfully, a cute and intensely annoying robot dog called K9 was added to the cast. One of the creators of K9 was writer Bob Baker, who since then has co-written the Wallace and Gromit films with Nick Park. I can only say that, as heroic dogs go, K9 is not fit to sniff Gromit’s bottom.
That said, I still found some of the Williams-era Doctor Who entertaining. This was largely because towards the end of it the great Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, was appointed script editor, which upped the level of wit in the writing. Also, Tom Baker received some good dramatic support, both from his regular cast (which included Lalla Ward, now better known as Mrs Richard Dawkins) and from his guest stars, which included such classy characters actors as Iain Cuthbertson, Valentine Dyall, Peter Jeffrey, John Woodvine and Julian Glover. Glover, in fact, was the villain in the best adventure of this period, The City of Death, which was set in Paris and co-written by Adams. At one point The City of Death managed to attract some 16 million viewers, showing that, even if the show was declining in quality, the Great British public was still watching it in droves.
A year later, however, another new producer arrived and a terrible thing happened. For the first time, DoctorWho became conscious of its fans.
Rather than just reporting the news, Britain’s newspapers have been making much of the news lately. Last Wednesday a royal charter that would deal with regulation of the British press, and that had the support of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, was granted by Her Majesty’s Privy Council. The charter would be voluntary, and from the noises made by the editors of the country’s various national newspapers, it’s unlikely that any newspaper would actually volunteer to be regulated by it. As an alternative to the royal charter, the newspapers themselves have been working on creating their own regulator called the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
This flurry of deliberations among politicians and editors has come in the wake of Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into press behaviour. If nothing else, the Leveson inquiry demonstrated that the current body for controlling that behaviour, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), is clearly not up to the job.
At the same time, during the past few days, the main evidence for believing that the PCC is a joke and that the country’s newspapers are out of control has been on display at the Old Bailey. Former chief executive at News International and ex-News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, ex-spin doctor to David Cameron and also ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson, and ex-News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner are on trial for hacking telephones between 2000 and 2006. Most notoriously they are charged with hacking into the voicemail of the missing 13-year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002, before it was found that she’d been murdered.
The sight of the red-haired, Medusa-like Brooks – who, at the height of her power and influence, was chums both with Gordon and Sarah Brown (Ms Brown once invited her to a ‘sleepover’ of female friends at Chequer’s) and with David and Samantha Cameron (during the Leveson inquiry Brooks let it be known that David Cameron, who regularly texted her, thought that LOL meant ‘lots of love’ and not ‘laugh out loud’) – always reminds me of the famous science-fiction / horror short story Shambleau, which was written by the remarkable American pulp writer Catherine L. Moore. If you haven’t read Moore’s story and don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a link to it: https://archive.org/stream/Shambleau19331948/ShambleauByC.L.Moore1948#page/n1/mode/2up.
(c) The Guardian
(c) J’ai Lu
Much of the time, when I’m in a particular frame of mind, I’d like to see politicians fashion some iron-fisted royal charter that’d brutally smash the newspapers into submission and deny them the freedom to do anything other than report the weather, report the Queen’s supermarket-opening schedule and report the football results in the Vauxhall Conference League. This is because I hate Britain’s national newspapers. The Daily Mail may have alleged recently that Ralph Miliband, the deceased father of Labour leader Ed Miliband, hated Britain; but believe me, any distaste that Miliband Sr felt for his adopted country is only a tiny fraction of the loathing I feel for this country’s press.
For a start, I hate its prurient nosiness and insatiable appetite for tittle-tattle. I don’t want to know the latest gossip about which knob-end millionaire footballer is dating which Z-list celebrity model. I have better things to do with my time than spend it in a continual state of obsession with the personal circumstances of people I only know from the telly. And I only wish those millions whose insatiable thirst for such trivia keeps the Daily Star, Sun, Daily Express, etc., in business would get over it and go out and get a life instead. Alas, thanks to decades of brainwashing by the British press, such people now believe that that is life – that life is a giant television, permanently tuned to ITV2 and showing a never-ending celebrity show hosted by Keith Lemon.
I also hate its belief that you are inconsequential if you don’t live in London. You could, for instance, spend months reading the Sunday Times, living in the trendy cosmopolitan worlds of such journalistic colossi as India Knight, Minette Marrin, A.A. Gill and, um, Jeremy Clarkson, and believe that the United Kingdom, if not the entire world, consists of a tiny wodge of heavily-developed and massively expensive land contained within the M25. It’s not that the English provinces, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland fail to register on the radar. No one, it seems, even bothers to send radar signals out into those dark, medieval hinterlands. It’s not just the right-wing newspapers I’m slagging off here, incidentally – the leftie ones like the Guardian and the Independent, which are slightly more in tune with my thinking, are often guilty of this parochialism too.
(Also, don’t get me started on the quaint little world conjured up by the writers of the Daily Telegraph. From it, you get the impression that if you don’t belong to the 7% of the British population that was privately educated, you’re the social and intellectual equivalent of beginning-of-the-evolutionary-process protoplasm.)
And I hate its pig-ignorance. The right-wing members of the British newspaper fraternity (i.e. most of them) have done their best recently to discredit the, oh, 97% of the scientific community who’ve taken a stance on global warming and who say that it’s happening. At the forefront of those global-warming deniers is, inevitably, that bastion of scientific objectivity and rationalism, the Daily Mail. It’s worth remembering what Francis Wheen wrote about the Mail in his 2004 book How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World. “(I)ts appetite for mystical gibberish is gluttonous. During the 1990s, scarcely a week went by without an enthralled feature on the Turin Shroud, the Knights Templar, the Ark of the Covenant, Nostradamus, Mayan prophecies or the lost city of Atlantis.”
And I hate its bitchiness. I know that this has been a tradition of the British press for generations, ever since the days when Jean Rook and Lynda Lee Potter rattled their tails, flicked their forked tongues and oozed venom from their fangs in their columns in the Daily Mail and Daily Express. But just because something has been a tradition doesn’t mean it’s a good thing – for many years slavery was a great British tradition too. Reading the screeds of poison penned by the likes of Julie Burchill, Jan Moir, Amanda Platell and Allison Pearson, I get a feeling akin to being kept behind after school and stuck in detention amid a squad of the worst, most gossipy, most sniping and back-stabbing brats whom I was unlucky enough to share my schooldays with.
And I hate its constant bleating against censorship. It bemoans censorship both from politicians, via the proposed royal charter, and from ‘the left’, in the name of that hated evil, political correctness. In fact, for decades, Britain’s newspapers have rarely stopped calling for other things to be censored: comics, horror films, computer games, the Internet, half the programmes on the newspapers’ great bête noir, the BBC. (I well remember the 1980s, when the bare-breast-laden Sun would fulminate against the TV plays of the late Dennis Potter.) Small wonder that the stereotypical front-page headline for the Daily Mail has become BAN THIS SICK FILTH!
I could bang on about those newspapers – about their homophobia, Europhobia and Islamophobia; about their obsession with dead princesses (step forward the Daily Express); about their instant blackening of the character of anyone under suspicion of committing a crime, long before that person has been found guilty or innocent (again, step forward the Daily Express, with its treatment of Kate and Gerry McCann); about their brainwashing of parents into believing that the country is overrun with drooling paedophiles (even while the Daily Mail slathers its websites with photographs of young ladies under the age of 16 in revealing costumes – but they’re celebrities’ daughters, so that’s okay.) These multitudinous crimes against ethics and the intellect have resulted in a coarsening, dumbing-down and increasing mean-spiritedness of British society. If the standard of public discourse in this country is represented by the headlines screaming at us every day from the newspaper racks, we’re in a sorry state indeed.
And yet… And yet… Although I detest Britain’s newspapers, and though the idea that politicians should slap draconian rules on them to make them get their house in order sometimes appeals to me, at the end of the day I don’t agree with there being a royal charter. That would be a type of censorship; and I think censorship of Britain’s newspapers, no matter how pathetic and hypocritical they might be, is wrong. Those newspapers may be ignorant and offensive, but I think their ongoing freedom to be ignorant and offensive is a necessary evil in a democratic society. And as the recent revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency in the USA (leaked by Edward Snowden) have indicated, the very last thing we need is more regulation, control and censorship of information by politicians. Politicians, after all, have been free and easy about harvesting information about us.
Phone hacking and invasions of privacy are criminal, of course, but there are already laws in place in Britain to deal with these. Otherwise, Brooks, Coulson and Kuttner wouldn’t be in court at the moment.
In any case, British politicians may not need to enact legislation to bring the newspapers to heel. The market – which our mostly right-wing press seems to worship as if it’s a deity – may eventually kill them off anyway. The newspapers’ readership figures are sliding while more and more people turn to the Internet to get their news, free of charge. It may well be that this is a bad thing, because often the news available on the Internet is even less well-researched and even more biased than it is in the newspapers. But as far as I’m concerned, Britain’s newspapers have had their chance to set a moral example in news-reporting and, for the most part, they’ve blown it. They’ve sacrificed their journalistic integrity in their rush into the maelstrom of trivia, tittle-tattle, prurience, bitchiness and snobbery that prevails today.
If all Britain’s newspapers have died on their arses in 10 or 20 years’ time, I shan’t miss them.
Although the United Kingdom has been in recession for the past five years and many high-street shops are currently derelict and hidden behind sheets of hardboard, I doubt if the average British retailing street looks much worse now than it did when all its shops were open. Composed of soulless modern frontages, plastic chain-store logos, sterile internal lighting and huge blank panes of glass, those shops were eyesores even before the economic rot set in and many of them closed down.
One of the little pleasures offered by my recent jaunt to Barcelona was the chance to stop on a street now and then and admire a traditional shop, with an ornate and antiquated façade, whose windows displayed a handsome arrangement of goods that suggested that the art of window-dressing was not yet dead, at least on the Iberian peninsula. On a British street, no doubt, these lovely little establishments would have long ago been ripped open, gutted and transformed into a branch of Boots the Chemist’s or W.H. Smith’s.
Here are photographs of a few Barcelona shops that caught my fancy.
Firstly, here’s the magic shop El Rei de la Magia (www.elreydelamagia.com) at Number 11, Carrer Princesa, which was founded by the conjurer Joaquim Partagas in 1881 and sells stage-magic tricks and paraphernalia and practical jokes. For a long time, it was the only shop of its kind in Spain.
Lurking at the back of one of the shop’s display-windows is a poster for a show by the early 20th-century magician Harry Jansen, a Dane who performed under the stage name of Dante. Jansen used the supposedly magical words ‘Sim Sala Bim’ as his stage catchphrase and appeared in the 1942 comedy movie A-Haunting We will Go alongside Laurel and Hardy.
At Number 7 on the same street is Arlequi Mascares (www.arlequimask.com), which is famed for its production of Venetian-style carnival masks. Looking at the wares in its windows, I felt that if the late, great Angela Carter had gone into the retailing trade instead of making a living writing baroque gothic fantasy stories, she would probably have opened an establishment like this one.
Meanwhile, up at Placa del Pi is Ganiveteria Roca (www.ganiveteriaroca.com), a shop that sells and repairs knives. Its windows contain the most intricate displays of tools for cutting, slicing, chopping, peeling, trimming and (potentially) stabbing that you could ever hope to set eyes on.
Its collection of shaving utensils gives pride-of-place to several gorgeous but lethal-looking cut-throat razors, the likes of which I’d only seen before in a Jack the Ripper movie.
Finally, here’s an interior photograph of Cereria Subira, a candle shop that has been on the go since 1761, although it moved into its current premises at Number 7, Baixada de la Libreteria, in the relatively recent year of 1847. Inevitably, its products have changed with the times and nowadays it sells a lot of scented, novelty and New Age-y candles; but at one point its main business was supplying candles for ceremonies in Barcelona’s many churches and cathedrals.
Before leaving Tunisia the other week to take a short break in Barcelona, I needed to get some cash out of my bank account at BIAT, the Banque Internationale Arabe de Tunisie. As the Tunisian dinar is non-convertible, I asked for the money in the form of ‘hard’ currency. I was not thrilled when the guy at the counter told me that he could only give me euros – and all he had in the way of euros were 500-euro notes.
“Don’t worry,” he told me. “You can change it at any bank in Europe.”
That, however, was not my experience when I got to Barcelona, where the only bank that seemed willing to touch the gargantuan 500-euro note was the Banco de Espana on the corner of Placa de Catalunya and the Avenue Portal de l’Angel. Even then, there was a fair amount of form-filling, ID checking and hanging around to do before I got the thing broken down into something less unwieldy.
Why on earth is such a bill printed if most banks blanch at the sight of it? I get the impression that it was invented to keep the wheels moving in the lucrative financial sector that services the needs of drug barons, money launderers, international terrorists and super-rich tax fiddlers. An illicit fortune in 500-euro notes is a lot easier to conceal and carry around with you than, say, the equivalent sum in 20-pound notes. And surely it’s no coincidence that the only bank-bill in the world that’s higher in value is to be found in that nation of dodgy bank accounts, Switzerland, which has a 1000-Swiss-franc note.
Perhaps that’s why there are still 500-euro notes swirling around the financial institutions of Tunisia. In the days of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose in-laws the Trabelsi family ran Tunisia like a Mafia fiefdom, the 500-euro note was no doubt the ruling family’s currency of convenience. When the Tunisian revolution happened in early 2011 and the wretched clan had to scramble onto a plane bound for Saudi Arabia, I wonder how many 500-euro notes the ex-first lady Leila Trabelsi had stuffed down the back of her knickers.