A Fluffi-shambles

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From the National

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Last week was not an auspicious one for politicians who’ve served as Member of Parliament for Peebles, my hometown in Scotland. 

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Firstly, Lord David Steel, who was the town’s MP from 1965 until 1997 (while it was part of the constituencies of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles and then Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) and who is also a former leader of the Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats) found himself in some severe shit.  He admitted in a hearing for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that in 1979 he’d ‘assumed’ his fellow Liberal MP Cyril Smith was guilty of child abuse at a hostel in Smith’s constituency of Rochdale.  Not only did Steel appear to turn a blind eye to this matter at the time, but nine years later he recommended Smith for a knighthood.  Since Smith’s death in 2010, police have uncovered ‘overwhelming evidence’ that he was an abuser of young boys.  By Thursday last week, it’d been announced that “the office bearers of the Scottish Liberal Democrats have met and agreed that an investigation is needed.  The party membership of Lord Steel has been suspended pending the outcome of that investigation.”

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Then there were the desperate and undignified squirmings of David Mundell, the Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, a constituency that Peebles got lumped in with in 2005.  Since 2015, Mundell, or ‘Fluffy’ as he’s commonly known, has also served as Secretary of State for Scotland in the Conservative governments of David Cameron and Theresa May.  He didn’t win this position because of the possession of a stunning intellect, abilities or personality but because in 2015 he was the only Conservative MP left in Scotland.  (Back then, at the yearly Agricultural Show held in Peebles, the Conservative Party would invariably set up a tent and Mundell, aka The Only Tory MP In Scotland, would sit inside, ready to press the flesh with his constituents, should any present themselves.  Passers-by would invariably point and crack the well-worn joke: “Look, there’s the Rare Breeds Tent.”)

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Last week, it became clear that the UK government and parliament were in omni-shambles mode.  The parliament managed to vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, against the holding of a second Brexit referendum, against the UK leaving the European Union without a deal, against the so-called Malthouse Compromise and against parliament being allowed to take control of the whole sorry Brexit process.  But even in the midst of this omni-shambles, Mundell’s behaviour stood out as particularly shambolic – his was the Fluffi-shambles. 

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He found himself caught between the rock of his party’s enthusiasm for Brexit and the hard place of knowing, quietly, how damaging Brexit is likely to be for Scotland (which voted overwhelming against leaving Europe), for his heavily agriculture-dependent Scottish constituency and for his own re-election prospects.  Finally, he defied the government whip when the vote was called on ruling out an economically disastrous no-deal Brexit.  The Conservative government demanded he voted against it being ruled out, whereas Mundell wanted it ruled out.  Being spineless, though, he chose to abstain rather than vote the other way from his political peers and masters. 

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In ordinary times, even Mundell’s abstention would be treated as a defiance of government policy and a resigning matter for a minister.  However, in these extraordinary times, with Theresa May exerting about as much authority as a wet paper bag, Mundell got away with it without resigning.  Happily for him – the basic salary for an ordinary MP was £77,379 in 2018, but as Secretary of State for Scotland he can claim £67,505 on top of that (well, going by 2017 figures). 

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A subsequent interview saw Mundell give a less-than-polished account of himself: “I’m not, er, resigning because I support the Prime Minister in her course, er, of action.  Her course of action is, er, to leave, er, with a deal, er, in an orderly Brexit but I just… I’m very clear that I don’t support, er, a no-deal, er, Brexit and I’ve made, er, I’ve made that clear on numerous occasions, the House has made its view clear, and the government is responding and taking forward, er, the decision of the House today…  There are a number of cabinet ministers, ministerial colleagues, er, who didn’t wish to oppose what was clearly, er, the will of the House on not leaving, er, without, er, on not leaving with, er, in a no-deal, er, Brexit…”

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I’d say that during the interview Mundell looked like a rabbit frozen in some car headlights, but that would disparage the courage, grit and determination displayed by rabbits frozen in car headlights everywhere.  Indeed, Mundell’s snivelling performance would make the average rabbit frozen in car headlights look like Mel Gibson leading the Scottish forces into action at the Battle of Stirling in Braveheart (1995).

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Oddly, the ‘numerous occasions’ when Mundell made it clear he was against a no-deal Brexit didn’t extend to an amendment tabled in parliament in late February to rule out that very thing.  Mundell refused to support it, or even abstain on it, because those tabling the amendment were the Scottish National Party.  He dismissed this as a ‘stunt’ and claimed that the SNP actually want the chaos that a no-deal Brexit would cause.  Which is evidently why they proposed an amendment calling on the UK government to prevent a no-deal Brexit from happening…  What?

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From twitter.com / @scottishlabour

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When it comes to tying himself in knots like this, Mundell has form.  In October last year, he and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson threatened that they “would resign if Northern Ireland faces new controls that separate it from the rest of the UK” in some new Brexit deal.  Officially, this was because they feared it would “fuel the case for Scottish independence.”  Unofficially, I suspect they were playing to the hard-line Protestant, Glasgow Rangers-supporting gallery in the west of Scotland that has strong ties with the pro-British Protestant community in Northern Ireland, a gallery whose votes they’ve benefited from in recent years.  A few days later Mundell turned round and declared that he hadn’t intended to resign at all – and by mid-November May had indeed proposed a Brexit deal that might involve separate arrangements for Northern Ireland.  At least his £67,505 ministerial top-up salary was safe.

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In fact, whenever I see yet another cringing turn by David Mundell, I wonder why there’s any point in having a Secretary of State for Scotland at all.  After all, responsibility for the running of Scotland’s domestic affairs doesn’t lie with him but with the Scottish government, at the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, which was set up in 1999.  But the real reason why there’s a Secretary of State is obvious – the Scottish government is run by the pesky SNP and London feels the need to have the likes of David Mundell hovering in the background, looking on and harrumphing disapprovingly, like history’s crappest colonial governor ever. 

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And I sometimes wonder too if Theresa May, whose empathy, emotional intelligence and people skills are not thought to be large, even knows who poor old Mundell is.  It wouldn’t surprise me if she believes he’s some fluffy-faced Caledonian footman who’s on hand to tend to her whenever her advisors decree that she visits the God-forsaken northern regions of her domain. 

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Still, awesomely hapless though he is, at least last week Mundell didn’t vote to leave the door open for a no-deal Brexit, even though by abstaining he didn’t vote against it either.  That’s more than could be said for most of his dozen fellow Scottish Conservative MPs, who cravenly ignored the pro-EU wishes of their electorates and voted with the government.  These include such specimens as Kirstene Hair, the intellectually-challenged MP for Angus, who once admitted to not voting in the Brexit referendum because she found the choice on offer ‘very difficult’.  Or the splendidly unhinged Ross Thomson, MP for Aberdeen South, who last month got involved in a stushie in the UK parliament’s Strangers’ Bar, where he was accused of groping a number of people’s bottoms.  Thomson’s defence was that he’d been drinking for five hours and was merely grabbing those bottoms in order to stop himself falling over, like they were handles or ledges.  From this, I can only surmise that there are some very peculiarly shaped bottoms in the pubs of Westminster.

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Actually, should Mundell decide that he can’t take it any longer, don’t be surprised if Mad Ross ends up as the next Secretary of State for Scotland. It’s not as if he’ll have to live up to the reputation of a distinguished predecessor.

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From the Evening Times

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The full Sammy

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From beta.parliament.uk

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Generations from now – if, of course, there are generations from now – historians will look back at early-21st-century Britain and wonder how a reasonably powerful and respected country, with a reputation for stability and civility, could become embroiled in a crisis as ridiculous, demeaning and potentially ruinous as Brexit.  Moreover, they will wonder how the British people allowed Brexit, and the attendant prospect of becoming an international laughing stock, xenophobic backwater and  economic disaster zone, to be foisted upon them by a crew of crooks, clowns, chancers and cretins.

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And wow – what a crew!  There’s businessman and political donor Aaron Banks, whose insurance company and the political organisation he helps fund, Leave.EU, have just been fined £120,000 for data protection breaches by the Information Commissioner’s Office.  Leave.EU is also being investigated by the National Crimes Agency over alleged illegal donations.  There’s Nigel Farage, Donald Trump’s court jester and brown-noser in chief across the pond and an enthusiast for Nazi-style anti-immigration posters during the referendum campaign.  There’s Michael Gove, a man whose intellectual reasoning is based on the premise that you mustn’t listen to experts.  There’s Boris Johnson, a human and political catastrophe.  And there’s Jacob Rees Mogg, apparently the result of an experiment in splicing together DNA from a Victorian undertaker, a praying mantis and Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist (1839). 

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And let’s not forget the Democratic Unionist Party – the Northern Irish party consisting largely of dimwits whose political education stopped at the year 1690 and / or bible-thumpers who believe that the reason why there are no dinosaurs around today is because they were too big to get on board Noah’s Ark.   Thanks to a fluke result in the last general election the DUP holds the balance of power in Westminster and is, if anything, even more dementedly in favour of Brexit than the gallery of rogues described above.  As I wrote in a previous blog post, the DUP would “saw off their own legs and strangle their own grandmothers if they thought it’d make them more British”; and the thought of post-Brexit Northern Ireland going down the proverbial swanny is fine with them so long as it’s part of Britain going down the swanny.  (Though the DUP’s obsession with being British doesn’t extend to it wanting Northern Ireland to have British-style laws permitting abortion and same-sex marriage.) 

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Anyway, it was no surprise when last week when Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, finally lost patience with this shower of Brexiting nincompoops and tweeted: “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan about how to carry it out safely.”

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Tusk’s comment provoked angry reactions from the usual Brexiting suspects, who claimed that Tusk had wished Britain itself in hell.  He hadn’t, of course.  He’d made no insinuation that the British people belonged in hell or that even the 17.4 million Britons who’d voted for Brexit belonged there.  He’d merely insinuated that the likes of Banks, Farage, Gove and co who’d orchestrated the Brexit campaign and got the result they’d wanted without a thought to the consequences deserved to be in a lake of fire, getting red-hot pokers shoved up their arses.  Which is harsh, but understandable.

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From redbubble.com

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Leading the outrage against Donald Tusk’s tweet was the DUP MP and former Mayor of Belfast Sammy Wilson, who called Tusk a ‘devilish, trident-wielding euro maniac’ and said on social media: “Donald Tusk once again shows his contempt for the 17.4 million people who voted to escape the corruption of the EU and seek the paradise of a free and prosperous Kingdom.  This devilish euro maniac is doing his best to keep the United Kingdom bound by the chains of EU bureaucracy and control…  All he will do is stiffen the resolve of those who have exercised their choice to be free of Tusk and his trident wielding cabal.” 

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The vivid religious imagery in Wilson’s comments – devils, tridents – was in keeping with a tradition among DUP politicians whereby the EU is associated with the forces of darkness of Christian theology.  The DUP’s founder, the late Reverend Ian Paisley, liked to identify the multi-state EU, or the European Economic Community as it was back in his day, as the multi-headed beast forecast to rise out of the sea in the Book of Revelation.  Mind you, Paisley’s antipathy to the EEC / EU didn’t stop him from becoming a Member of the European Parliament and drawing a hefty salary from Brussels.

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My first reaction to Wilson’s diatribe was to think it a bit rich of a DUP member to accuse anyone else of corruption.  The party is led by Arlene Foster, responsible for the infamous Renewable Heat Incentive, or ‘cash-for-ash’ scheme, which was introduced in 2012 while she ran Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.  Officially supposed to encourage people to change from fossil fuel to biomass heating systems, it was in fact a way for DUP-voting farmers to install such heating systems in empty sheds and outhouses and then claim back £1.60 for every £1 they spent, a scam that ended up costing taxpayers in the region of £400 million.  Then there were the accusations of impropriety aimed at former DUP leader and former First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson and his missus Iris, whose multiple incomes have resulted in them being nicknamed ‘the Swish Family Robinson’; and at Ian Paisley Jr, the MP for North Antrim, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.  And there was a £435,000 donation to the DUP from the dodgy anti-Scottish-independence organisation the Constitutional Research Council which, rumours say, may have originated in Saudi Arabia or India.  In 2016, the DUP spent £282,000 of this on a ‘Vote Leave’ advertisement in a newspaper not actually published in Northern Ireland.

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(c) The Belfast Telegraph

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Incidentally, even by the DUP’s standards, Wilson is what you’d euphemistically describe as a ‘colourful’ character.  1994 saw him condoning a recommendation by a Protestant paramilitary organisation that Northern Ireland be subjected to ethnic cleansing to create a wholly Protestant (and wholly Roman Catholic-free) province.  And 1996 saw him embroiled in a different sort of stushie when the Sunday World newspaper published photos of him and his ex-girlfriend romping nakedly during a holiday in France – which was a tad hypocritical of Wilson seeing as he’d opposed allowing nude bathing at municipal swimming pools in Belfast.  The Reverend Ian Paisley, usually known for an uncompromising stance on public morals, was strangely forgiving in this case and said: “What a man does in his private life, whether I agree with it or not, is a matter entirely for himself and, in final accountability, for his maker.”  Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph opined that it wouldn’t have published the photos, partly because “they would have been inappropriate for this newspaper (which has traditionally been read by all members of the family, including the young).”  Quite right, Belfast Telegraph – you wouldn’t want youngsters to be traumatised for the rest of their lives by seeing graphic pictures of Sammy Wilson in the buff.

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Thanks to some astounding, mind-melting anti-logic of which the DUP is always capable, Wilson, a denier of man-made climate change, became Environment Minister at the Northern Irish Assembly from 2008 to 2009.  During his tenure, he blocked a government advertising campaign designed to encourage people to cut their energy consumption and reduce C02 emissions.  He also described climate activists as a ‘hysterical pseudo-religion’ and claimed, “The tactic used by the ‘green gang is to label anyone who dares disagree with their view of climate change as some kind of nutcase who denies scientific fact.”  Well, as 97% of actively-publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming in the past century is highly likely because of human activities, I guess we can indeed label Wilson as a nutcase who denies scientific fact. 

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And before Brexit fervour put a new wind in his sails, Wilson found time to denounce the allowing of breast-feeding in the House of Commons, a practice he described as ‘voyeuristic’.  (In Wilson’s world-view, it’s obvious that bare boobs during naked holiday romps = good,but bare boobs for feeding hungry babies = bad.)

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As an atheist, a non-believer in God, heaven and hell, I find Tusk’s comments amusing – even if the context of Brexit in which they were made is depressing and tragic.  I suppose, though, they touched a nerve in Sammy Wilson because as a DUP member he sees himself as a staunch Christian; and he sees hell, a place to which godless sinners (like atheists, EU officials, Roman Catholics, environmentalists, homosexuals, etc.) are destined to go, as a place where he definitely won’t be going.  I have to say, though, that if there was a God powerful enough to create the entire universe, and to create a system of after-lives to which the souls of all the universe’s inhabitants migrate following their physical demises, I would expect Him, or Her, or It, to be a wee bit more intellectual and broader-minded and more empathetic than His / Her / Its worshippers in the DUP. 

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And if you were that awesomely powerful, universe-building supreme being up in heaven, and after Sammy Wilson had expired in the mortal world, would you really want to spend the rest of eternity there listening to him jabbering away about devilish trident-wielding euro maniacs and green pseudo-religions and voyeuristic boobs?  No.  You’d probably politely ask him to pack his bags and take himself to the other place.

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From magnoliabox.com

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It’s all Scotland’s fault

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(c) BBC

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One of the least edifying sights of the past week has been that of moderate and pro-European Union Conservative MP Anna Soubry attempting to walk to the Houses of Parliament, her workplace, while a pack of far-right, anti-EU protestors wearing yellow high-visibility jackets – a gimmick that with no sense of irony they’ve borrowed from the gilets jaunes protestors in France, a country in the EU – follow her and bray into her face that she’s a ‘Nazi’.  Not only are these tactics bullying, intimidating and generally horrible but, I’ve learned recently, they’re also Scottish. 

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Yes, as many respected politicians, commentators and media outlets have reminded us over the years, only bad things come out of Scotland.  Historically, these bad things have included: Sawney Bean; the failed scheme to colonise Darien in central America; failed Jacobite uprisings; the Highland Clearances; Burke and Hare; Angus McMillan who left Skye for Australia and led the Gippsland massacres of Aborigines in the 1840s; unscrupulous 19th century opium-trading company Jardine Matheson & Co; and Thomas Dickson, whose 1905 novel The Clansman became the basis for the notoriously racist 1915 movie Birth of a Nation and helped revive the Ku Klux Klan.

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And let’s not forget such horrors as: bagpipe music; Andy Stewart records; the Bay City Rollers; the Krankies; teeth-rotting amber-coloured fizzy drinks; deep-fried Mars Bars; deep-fried pizzas; Andy Murray’s hipbone; catastrophic World Cup campaigns; and Mary Anne MacLeod of the Isle of Lewis, who married Fred Trump and gifted the world with little Donald.

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Yet more, terrible things to emerge from Scotland include ghastly and unpopular drinks like whisky and foodstuffs like salmon, which British supermarkets have lately been kind enough to slap Union Jacks on and rebrand as ‘British’ rather than ‘Scottish’ to spare us embarrassment.  Then there’s that hellish commodity North Sea oil, which during the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, we were assured, was totally worthless and would bankrupt an independent Scotland’s economy.  (Mind you, now that the referendum is past, the Daily Telegraph has been enthusing about how North Sea oil will be important part of the economy of post-Brexit Britain.)  And there’s the hideous Scottish renewable energy industry which, the Times informed us recently, is riddled with ‘perverse incentives’ – while, per head of population, it only produces 18 times as much as energy as its English equivalent.

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To this list of Caledonian-spawned infamy we now must add the strategy of making political points by mobbing, yelling at and intimidating opponents while they innocently try to walk to work.  I know this because a few days ago the broadcaster, journalist, author, businessperson, hillwalker and trustee of the Glasgow School of Art Muriel Gray tweeted her abhorrence at a “repugnant new style of personal abuse / pile-ons / harassment and hate-mongering (that) began as far back as the run-up to the referendum in 2014 and was consequently adopted as the norm.”

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Muriel Gray is absolutely right.  Prior to that repugnant, hate-mongering business of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, there was no unpleasantness involved in politics in the United Kingdom, anywhere, at all. 

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From libcom.org

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Admittedly, I spent the 1970s in Northern Ireland and I do have memories of Northern Irish politics then being full of abuse, hatred, bullying, etc.  But as the Scots hadn’t invented that stuff yet, those memories must be false.  I don’t know why I have a particular memory of my elderly grandmother on the day of an election (and shortly after my grandfather had died) phoning up my Dad in tears to tell him that some political activists had coerced her into crossing the box on her ballot paper for a candidate she hadn’t intended to vote for; but somehow, wrongly, I do.

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And all my memories of politics in the 1980s – of Labour Party Deputy Leader Dennis Healey being shouted down by members of Militant Tendency; of the long-lasting, often violent and acrimonious miners’ strike instigated by Maggie Thatcher’s Year Zero economic policies; of Peter Tatchell being slandered by the media and his Liberal Party opponents for being a homosexual when he stood as Labour Party candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election; of the Federation of Conservative Students on my university campus shouting “F**k the Pope!” and “Hang Nelson Mandela!” and making life as unpleasant as possible for gay students – are surely fake memories too.  Because as Muriel Gray has implied, British politics were all sweetness and light before that awful Scottish independence referendum happened.

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What else do I mis-remember about British politics?  The Poll Tax riot in London that helped to do for Maggie Thatcher?  Can’t have happened.  John Major referring to his anti-EU tormentors in the Conservative Party as ‘bastards’?  I’m sure he never said that, really.  Scottish Labour party councillor Susan Dalgety using the 1998 Omagh bombing atrocity to liken the SNP to the IRA?  I’m sure she never said that, either.  The industrial-strength lies generated by Tony Blair and his gang as they led the country into the 2003 invasion of Iraq?  Just my imagination, surely.

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(c) STV / From amazon.com

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Or what about the hot-headed young lady who used to write columns for the Scotland on Sunday in the early 1990s and excoriate establishment right-wingers like Andrew Neil and Sir Nicholas Fairburn, plus obscenely-wealthy landowners who owned huge tracts of the Scottish countryside and kept them for themselves and their equally-rich pals to shoot grouse on, instead of letting hillwalkers roam across them?  She must have been a figment of my imagination too…  Still, it’s just as well Twitter didn’t exist back then.  Otherwise, people like this imaginary columnist would surely have been directing abuse, pile-ons and harassment at poor old Andrew, and Sir Nicholas, and Lord So-and-So of Glen-Whatever, via social media.  (Now I remember this columnist’s name – Muriel Gray.)

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But I’m wrong.  Because all politicians, political activists and political commentators were as good as gold, and as gentle as lambs, and as pure as the driven snow towards each other in those idyllic, far-off days before 2014.

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Seriously, though…  I don’t pretend that there wasn’t the odd bit of nastiness during the 2014 referendum campaign, though I feel the egg that was chucked at Jim Murphy got blown out of all proportion considering that eggs had been thrown previously at Harold Wilson, Michael Heseltine, John Major, Norman Tebbit, John Prescott, George Galloway and others with far less fanfare.  But it was a stroll in the park compared to what happened before – the murder of an MP – and after – the surge in racist incidents across Britain – the 2016 Brexit referendum.

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(c) STV

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Two last points.  If Ms Gray wants to blame someone or something for the uncivility that prevails in British politics at the moment, she’d do well to point a finger at Britain’s mainstream and mostly right-wing media, which has always been quick to coarsen political discourse and has become worse than ever in recent years.  Witness the screeds of anti-immigrant headlines and the general demonization of anybody who isn’t a right-wing, Brexit-supporting Tory in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and so on.  But of course, the mainstream media is a clique to which she belongs and many of her good buddies on Twitter are or have been writers for the same rabble-rousing newspapers.  So that isn’t going to happen.

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Secondly, it seems to me that those Unionists, like Ms Gray, who won the 2014 referendum and ensured that Scotland stuck with the United Kingdom are, not to put too fine a point on it, shitting themselves in 2019.  In the past four years they’ve seen the UK that they exhorted Scottish voters to remain in, because it was supposedly a beacon of enlightenment, tolerance, liberalism, economic health and social order, turn into a basket-case over Brexit.  And they know that if there is another referendum on Scottish independence – which I’m pretty sure there will be, sooner or later – the yes side is going to be in with a much better shout of winning it.  (The 45% of the vote they polled last time was far higher than anyone on the no side had initially expected.) 

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With the prospect of another referendum looming, it’s in their interests to exaggerate and distort the conduct of the previous one; to rewrite history and turn the event into a nightmare that no one in their right mind would want to go through again; and to generally make out that the vote on Scottish independence was the worst thing since…  Well, since the last worst thing that came out of Scotland. 

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Deathlog 2018: Part 2

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(c) Smallfilms

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Continuing my tribute to the many people who entertained and inspired me and who passed away in 2018…

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For connoisseurs of a gentle, eccentric and particularly British form of whimsy, July 2018 got off to a sad start when on the first day of the month Peter Firmin died.  A puppeteer, illustrator and engraver, Firmin ran the production company Smallfilms with Oliver Postgate. From the 1950s to 1970s Smallfilms gifted British children’s television with such beguiling programmes as The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959-65), Ivor the Engine (1959 and 1975-77) and Bagpuss (1974).  Best of all in my opinion was The Clangers (1969-72), the tale of pink-knitted extra-terrestrial rodents who, despite inhabiting a barren asteroid covered with dustbin lids, have established utopia through apparently living on a diet of soup and being nice to each other.

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Also departing in July were…  On the 8th, 1950s and 60s American movie heartthrob Tab Hunter. I liked Hunter best as Todd Tomorrow in John Waters’ scabrous 1981 black comedy Polyester, which was filmed in ‘Odorama’ and enabled you to smell such odours as farts, glue, skunks and old shoes when they occurred in the film…  On the 10th, children’s author Clive King, responsible for the brilliant Stig of the Dump (1963)…  Also on the 10th, fencer and movie fight-choreographer William Hobbs, whose energetic sword-fights were highlights of such films as The Three and Four Musketeers (1973 and 74), Captain KronosVampire Hunter (1974), The Duellists (1977), Flash Gordon (1979), Excalibur (1981) and Ladyhawke (1985)…  And on the 27th, Bernard Hepton, another hardworking character actor who never seemed to be off British TV screens in the 1960s and 1970s.

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August 5th saw the death of Barry Chuckle, one half of slapstick comedy duo the Chuckle Brothers, a staple of British children’s TV entertainment since the 1980s.  In 2007, ‘the Chuckle Brothers’ also became a nickname for the unlikely ruling partnership at Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly, i.e. First Minister Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein.  August 11th and 12th saw the demise of two writers working in very different fields: firstly, the Trinidadian-British literary heavyweight V.S. Naipaul, knighted in 1990 and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001; and secondly the Scottish fantasy and science-fiction author Michael Scott Rohan, who claimed the medieval Scottish scholar, mathematician, astrologer and (in legend) sorcerer Michael Scott as an ancestor.

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(c) British Lion Films

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Jill Janus, singer with American heavy-metal band Huntress, took her own life on August 14th, while American soul legend and civil rights activist Aretha Franklin died two days later.  August 25th saw the passing of British dancer, mime artist, choreographer and actor Lindsay Kemp.  Among many other things, Kemp played the sneaky Alder MacGregor, landlord of the Green Man pub and father of Britt Ekland, in the masterly 1973 folk-horror movie The Wicker Man.  Tony Award-winning and much-filmed American playwright Neil Simon died on August 26th.

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September 2018 was a particularly death-filled month.  The Grim Reaper went into full-scale harvesting mode.  Among the victims were…  Conway Savage (September 2nd), the piano and organ-playing member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from 1990 onwards…  Carry On movie actress Liz Fraser (September 3rd)…  Frequently moustached and Stetson-wearing Hollywood beefcake Burt Reynolds (September 6th), known for provoking spectacular car chases and winding up redneck law officers in movies like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and The Cannonball Run (1981), but also a star of John Boorman’s brilliant Deliverance (1972)…  Algerian musical genius Rachid Taha (September 12th)…  Burmese-born British actress Zienia Merton (September 14th), best remembered for playing Sandra Benes in Gerry Anderson’s science-fiction TV series Space: 1999 (1973-76)…  And actor Dudley Sutton (September 15th), popular as Ian McShane’s sidekick Tinker in the light-hearted antiques-themed TV drama Lovejoy (1986-94), although he showed his acting chops in movies as hard-hitting as Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971).

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The carnage continued during the month’s second half…  Multi-instrumentalist Maartin Allcock (September 16th), who played with such folk-rock combos as Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull but also, fascinatingly, with 1980s Goth-rock behemoths the Mission…  British comedy writer, TV presenter and all-round wit Dennis Norden (September 19th)…  Chas Hodges (September 22nd), one half of much-loved, rumbustious Cockney pub-singalong specialists Chas ‘n’ Dave, whose fans included The Libertines’ Pete Docherty…  Actor Al Matthews (September 22nd), whose finest cinematic hour came playing Apone, the rock-solid platoon sergeant in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) – it was literally an hour, for when the aliens get Apone halfway through the film, it scarily signifies that they’ve gained the upper hand…  Star Wars movies producer Gary Kurtz (September 23rd)…  And Marty Balin (September 27th), singer, songwriter and musician with the mighty Jefferson Airplane and its less mighty 1970s incarnation Jefferson Starship.  At least Balin bailed out before Jefferson Starship morphed again, into those 1980s purveyors of musical ghastliness, Starship.

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(c) BBC
(c) Anglo-Amalgamated / Peter Rogers Productions

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Finally, September 2018 saw the deaths of two sublime British actresses.  On September 3rd, Jacqueline Pearce passed away.  As well as being a fetching starlet for Hammer Films in 1966’s Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, she played the devastating Supreme Commander Servalan in the BBC’s science-fiction series Blake’s 7 (1978-81) – Servalan ruled the universe with a combination of sociopathy, ruthlessness, murderousness, high heels, flowing white evening gowns, sequins, pearls, fancy hats and general glam-ness.  Eight days later, the seductively husky-voiced actress Fenella Fielding died.  I feel guilty not going into her long, varied and distinguished stage and screen career in detail and merely focusing on the fact that she appeared in a Carry On movie – but as the gloriously vampish Valeria Watt in 1966’s Carry On Screaming, let’s just say she made a big impression on my adolescent self.

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The first day of October marked the deaths of legendary French crooner Charles Aznavour; the legendary (in British comic-book circles) Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra; and British children’s TV personality Geoffrey Hayes, who gained unlikely cult status as presenter of the camp, puppet-ridden and oddly sinister show Rainbow (1972-97).  Ray Galton, who with the late Alan Simpson scripted such gems as Steptoe and Son (1962-74) and much of Tony Hancock’s TV and radio output, died on September 5th.  And three American actors with horror-genre connections passed away in October: Scott Wilson, who was lately popular as the kindly Herschel in the TV zombie series The Walking Dead (2011-14) but was also a veteran of such movies as In the Heat of the Night (1967), In Cold Blood (1967), The Grissom Gang (1971) and the William Peter Blatty-directed The Ninth Configuration (1980) and The Exorcist III (1980), died on October 6th; Celeste Yarnell, who played the kooky, dune-buggy-driving title character in Stephanie Rothman’s dreamy The Velvet Vampire (1971), died on October 7th; and James Karen, who played the affably hapless Frank in Return of the Living Dead (1985), died on October 23rd.

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(c) AMC Networks

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November saw the departures of two major movie directors, Bernardo Bertolucci of Last Tango in Paris (1971), The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990) fame on the 26th and the fabulous Nicolas Roeg on the 23rd.  Also bowing out this month were another pair of seasoned British TV character actors: John Bluthal, whose work ranged from the low-brow sitcom Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width (1967-71) to several projects with anarchic comedy genius Spike Milligan, died on November 15th; while George A. Cooper, for many years British television’s go-to man if a grumpy and abrasive Yorkshireman was needed, died one day later. 

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Meanwhile, Hong Kong movie mogul Raymond Chow, who founded Golden Harvest productions and helped turn Bruce Lee into an international star, died on November 2nd; American actress Sondra Locke, partner to and collaborator with Clint Eastwood for a time, died on November 3rd; actor Douglas Rain, who provided the simultaneously emotionless and demented voice of the computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), died on November 11th; and Marvel Comics supremo Stan Lee died on November 12th.

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(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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On November 16th, we bade adieu to author and screenwriter William Goldman, whose career highlights included Oscar-winning scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President’s Men (1976), as well as scripts for Marathon Man (1976), Magic (1978) and the amusing, charming and influential The Princess Bride (1987), based on his novels published in 1975, 1976 and 1973 respectively.  Goldman also penned Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), an insider’s guide to Hollywood that butchered more than a few sacred cows and whose pronouncements – most notably, “Nobody knows anything” – still hold true today.

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December got off to a melancholy start with the death on the 6th of Pete Shelley, frontman and guitarist with the Buzzcocks and surely a role model for the young Steven Patrick Morrissey.  Scottish poet Tom Leonard died on December 21st  and the following day saw the death of politician Paddy Ashdown, who led the Liberal Democrats for 11 years until 1999 – back in the days when they had some integrity and credibility, things that were destroyed by Nick Clegg in 2010 when he entered the party into a coalition that facilitated a Conservative government, David Cameron and, indirectly, Brexit. 

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Also passing this month were two film directors who deserve to be better known in the English-speaking world: Spaniard Jorge Grau, who died on the 27th and who made the atmospheric, grisly and laudably environmentally-themed zombie movie, 1974’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (which, despite its title, was set in the Lake District); and Hong Kong director, producer and scriptwriter Ringo Lam, whose hefty filmography includes City on Fire (1987), a clear influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1993).  The venerable English actress and comic performer June Whitfield, whose career stretched some six decades from working with Noel Coward, Tony Hancock and Arthur Askey to starring in the satirical fashion / PR sitcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012) and David Tennant-era Doctor Who (2009-10), died on December 28th.

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And finally, December 20th saw the demise of the excellent character actor Donald Moffat. As the beleaguered Commander Garry in John Carpenter’s classic science-fiction / horror movie The Thing (1982), he spoke the film’s best lines: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot.  And if you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS F**KING COUCH!”  Moffat also played two US presidents in his career, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1983’s The Right Stuff and the fictional President Bennet in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger.  I have to say he wasn’t the President Donald I wanted to say goodbye to in 2018.

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(c) Universal Pictures

Nothing’s gonna save us now

    

                                       © Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

    

As the sorry events of Brexit have unfolded over the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve heard a voice in my head.  It’s the voice of Private Hudson, a character in the masterly James Cameron-directed action / sci-fi / horror film Aliens (1986) who was played by the late, great Bill Paxton.  Before the aliens show up, Hudson is a swaggering, show-offy git.  After they show up, he becomes a quivering, whiny git.  In the process, thanks to Paxton’s entertaining performance, he provides the film with most of its memorable lines.  And these lines make an appropriate narration to each stage of the Brexit process as things go from bad to worse to catastrophic.

     

So in the run-up to the referendum when Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Nigel Farage and co were spouting nonsense about how a ‘leave’ vote would free the United Kingdom from the shackles of European Union bureaucracy and officialdom and send it on a new course as a swashbuckling, buccaneering, entrepreneurial, low-regulation economy sailing the seas of international trade and commerce like a cross between Singapore and Captain Blackbeard, I heard the early-on-in-Aliens Hudson bragging: “I’m ready, man.  Check it out.  I am the ultimate badass!  State of the art badass!  You do not want to f**k with me…!  We got tactical smart missiles, phase plasma pulse rifles and we got sonic electronic ballbreakers!  We got nukes, knives, sharp sticks!

     

However, once the aliens, sorry, the EU negotiators turned up, the tone rapidly changed.  Each time I’ve seen the waxen-faced Theresa May trudge back from another unsuccessful round of talks in Brussels, I’ve heard the later-in-Aliens Hudson lament: “Maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked, pal!

 

And now, with May’s hapless cabinet in panic mode and attempting to start preparations for an increasingly likely no-deal Brexit – potentially just 100 days away – I’m hearing Hudson’s even-more desperate voice: “That’s great!  That’s just f**king great, man!  What the f**k are we supposed to do?  We’re in some real pretty shit now, man!  Game over, man!  Game f**king over!  What the f**k are we gonna do?  What are we gonna do?

    

No doubt if (more probably when) we arrive at a no-deal Brexit on the cut-off date of March 29th next year, the voice I’ll be hearing will be Hudson in full-scale meltdown: “They’re coming outta the walls!  They’re coming outta the goddamn walls!  We are F**KED!

    

Seriously, things are looking bad.  With a meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit plan, which most Westminster politicians seem to hate whether they’re in favour of Brexit or not, pushed back to January, meaning there’ll be bugger-all time to come with an alternative before the end of March, the spectre of a no-deal Brexit looms horribly large.  The cabinet has been reported as making two billion pounds available for emergency no-deal preparations, including such things as the worrying-sounding provision of clean drinking water.  (The chemicals and gases needed for water purification are currently imported from the EU.)  Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has just admitted to putting 3500 British soldiers on standby, presumably in case, among other reasons, food shortages lead to civil disorder.  In the midst of all this, business organisations like the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses have professed to be ‘watching in horror’.

   

If it wasn’t so terrifying, it’d be hilarious to compare the musings on a no-deal Brexit made by Tory politicians in the past, when it seemed just a remote possibility, and now.   Only months ago, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt described a no-deal Brexit as ‘a mistake we would regret for generations.’  Interviewed in the most recent Sunday Telegraph, Hunt has suddenly become unconvincingly chipper: “I’ve always thought that even in a no-deal situation, this is a great country, we’ll find a way to flourish and prosper.”

      

                                                                                        © Daily Mirror

      

Still, while I’ve marvelled at the astronomical incompetence of Tory politicians over this, I’ve also had to marvel at the epic uselessness of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party and the supposed official opposition in parliament.

     

As I’ve said in the past, there have been aspects of Corbyn I’ve quite admired – but when it comes to Brexit, I’ve been suspicious of his motives ever since he imposed a three-line whip in the House of Commons to make his MPs vote in favour of the activation of Article 50, which triggered the whole Brexit process.  Since then, Labour’s approach has veered between the incoherent, with Corbyn and his Brexit secretary Keir Starmer contradicting each other, and themselves, constantly; and the maddening, with Corbyn missing countless open-goals at Prime Minister’s Questions over May’s dire Brexit record; and the galling, as it’s gradually dawned on me that Corbyn actually wants Brexit to happen.

    

It shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose.  For all his endorsements of a ‘remain’ vote before the 2016 Brexit referendum, Corbyn has never really liked the EU that much.  He’s been anti-Europe at various times in the past, opposing Britain’s membership of the then-EEC in the 1975 European Communities Referendum, opposing the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s and opposing the Lisbon Treaty in the 2000s.  I doubt if his attitude differs much from that of his old left-wing guru the late Tony Benn, who once claimed that “Britain’s continuing membership of the (European) Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation.”

   

At the moment, I’ve read so many conflicting accounts of Labour’s response at Westminster to the postponement of the meaningful vote that my head has begun to hurt.  It appears that Corbyn has tabled a motion of no-confidence in Theresa May, as opposed to no-confidence in May’s government.  The second of these no-confidence motions would have been binding – a vote would have to be taken – and, if passed, would have resulted in a general election.  However, the no-confidence motion in May that Corbyn is proposing isn’t binding and May doesn’t have to allocate it parliamentary time.  And even if it’s passed, it won’t cause the fall of the Conservative government.

    

I’d have thought that with all the dire predictions about what will happen in the event of a no-deal Brexit at the end of March – twenty-mile lorry tailbacks at Dover, airplanes grounded, supermarkets running out of food, hospitals running out of medicine, the pound going through the floor, the economy going belly-up – Labour would be throwing everything at Theresa May’s government just now, up to and including the kitchen sink.  Sure, people have pointed out that if there was a no-confidence vote in the government, the Conservatives (and their friends in the DUP) would probably close ranks and win the vote with slightly-superior numbers.  But it’d only take a few Tory MPs with a sense of public duty to vote the other way for the motion to win.  And sure, Labour has been scraping behind the Tories in opinion polls recently and aren’t guaranteed to win an election just now.  But if they committed themselves to holding a second referendum on Brexit (which is what most Labour activists and supporters want), wouldn’t they stand to pick up many extra votes from frustrated and frightened Remainers? 

     

Surely initiating a no-confidence vote – with the distant chance that a party pledged to holding a second referendum that might end the madness wins power – is better than doing nothing?

     

But no, Corbyn is just faffing around and pretending to be doing something while secretly waiting for the clock to count down.  Then he’ll get the Brexit that, as a traditional leftie, he quietly wants; and, he reckons, the Conservative Party will be so discredited in the ensuing economic chaos that the British population, impoverished and hungry, will suddenly embrace his brand of socialism.  Then, like disaster capitalists in reverse, Jeremy and his gang get to build a socialist utopia out of the ruins.  How they find the funds to do that, with the post-Brexit economy tanking, is anyone’s guess. 

     

                                   © 20thCentury Fox

        

Seeing Corbyn’s non-oppositional, sit-on-his-hands approach to the Conservative government and its Brexit policies, I find myself thinking of another movie, Philip Kaufman’s Rising Sun (1993), in which Sean Connery recites an old proverb to Wesley Snipes: “If you sit by the river long enough… you will see the body of your enemy floating by.”

     

Trouble is, the whole riverbank on which Corbyn and the country generally are sitting is in serious danger of detaching itself and crashing cataclysmically into the river before the bodies of any Tory governments go floating by. 

     

The absolute (Secretary of) State of this

 

© The Belfast Telegraph

 

At certain eras in history, for certain sections of humanity, there were places to which you really didn’t want to go – places whose very name filled you with dread.

 

For members of the British underworld in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was Sydney Cove, Norfolk Island, Port Arthur, Van Diemen’s Land and the other brutal penal colonies that’d been established in Australia, to which you could be transported if you were convicted of anything worse than pinching five shillings-worth of goods.  For criminals in the Second French Empire between 1852 and 1953, the place that was synonymous with hell was another penal colony, the pitiless one at Cayenne, or Devil’s Island as it was better known.  And for German soldiers in the Wehrmacht during World War II, there were surely frequent nightmares about the prospect of being sent to the freezing and carnage-filled Russian Front.

 

Meanwhile, for members of the British government over the past half-century, the equivalent of the worst penal colony devised by the British or French Empires, or of the Russian Front, is surely Northern Ireland.

 

Political satirists have long been aware of this.  A 1984 episode of the BBC political comedy Yes, Minister had the British Prime Minister resigning and two ruthless politicians competing to take over as PM.  Both men threatened hapless minister Jim Hacker that they’d make him Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if they ended up winning and he hadn’t publicly backed their campaigns.  A generation later, a 2012 episode of a more abrasive TV satire, The Thick of It, showed slow-witted politician Ben Swain responding warily when he was offered the job of Foreign Secretary: “And you mean Foreign Secretary?  That isn’t code for Northern Ireland?  I’m not f**king going there.”

 

The position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland came into being in 1972, when the old Northern Irish government at Stormont was suspended following the start of the long period of bloodshed and mayhem that became known as the Troubles, and when direct rule was imposed from London.  The first holder of the post was Conservative MP Willie Whitelaw, who set the template for many secretaries of state to come.  He was stiff and crusty, looked like he’d be more at home wearing tweeds and trudging around a grouse moor, and seemed perplexed that the half-dozen local Catholic and Protestant terrorist organisations and the mob of unruly local politicians wouldn’t play by Queensberry Rules.

 

Whitelaw wouldn’t be the first Secretary of State to look ill-at-ease in a province where though the two native communities were at each other’s throats, they had one thing in common, which was that they both hated his guts.  Nationalist Catholics saw him and his successors as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to oppress them and keep them imprisoned in the United Kingdom.  Unionist Protestants saw them as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to betray them and abandon them to a united Ireland.

 

From Polldaddy.com

 

Actually, I recall seeing, when I was a wee boy in Northern Ireland and just after Whitelaw’s appointment, satirical posters pasted everywhere depicting him as a grim-faced Wild West sheriff stalking nervously into an unsavoury-looking establishment called The Dead-End Saloon.  However, unlike many of his successors, Whitelaw’s political career didn’t come to a dead-end after Northern Ireland.  He served as British Home Secretary from 1979 to 1983 and became a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, who once said of him gruesomely, “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie.”

 

I also remember from my boyhood some political satire involving another 1970s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – the Labour Party MP Roy Mason, who served there during James Callaghan’s three-year tenure as Prime Minister.  The Belfast Telegraph featured a cartoon caricaturing him as Henry II while the Reverend Ian Paisley loomed behind him caricatured as Thomas Beckett.  Mason lamented, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”  However, unlike Thomas Beckett, who was murdered by knights soon after Henry II made this plea, Paisley lived until 2014 and made life a misery for a further 14 secretaries of state.

 

After the Conservatives had returned to power under Margaret Thatcher, Northern Ireland had as its Secretary of State the luckless Jim Prior.  Prior was a leading member of the ‘wets’ – the moderates – in the Conservative Party and when he dared to question his boss’s economic policies, his fate was sealed.  Empress Thatcher had him banished to Devil’s Island.

 

I also remember – for the wrong reasons – Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the early 1990s.  One day in 1992, an IRA bomb slaughtered seven construction workers.  That evening, Brooke appeared on Raidió Teilifis Éireann’s chat show The Late Late Show and unwisely allowed its host, the twinkly-eyed shit-stirrer Gay Byrne, to talk him into singing Oh My Darling Clementine live on air.  And with that, Brooke’s political credibility was gone.  To quote the song: ‘lost and gone forever / Dreadful sorry, Clementine.’

 

When Tony Blair entered Number 10 Downing Street and 1998’s Good Friday Agreement was on the cards, Northern Ireland finally got a Secretary of State of some substance: Mo Mowlam, also the first woman in the role.  The down-to-earth and bluntly-spoken Mowlam helped to knock heads together in the run-up to the agreement, although she earned herself the displeasure of the Protestant politicians and was eventually side-lined by Blair.  When Bill Clinton flew in to grab a piece of the glory, she grumbled to him that her role had become that of ‘tea lady’.

 

© BBC

 

The Good Friday Agreement paved the way for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which came into being while Peter Mandelson was the province’s Secretary of State.  An operator best described as an oil-slick in a suit, Mandelson had been a key ally and advisor of Tony Blair but he’d fallen from grace thanks to a scandal involving a dodgy home loan.  To rehabilitate himself, he had to do the political equivalent of donning sackcloth and ashes and beating himself with a scourge, which meant taking the Northern Ireland portfolio.  I imagine that Mandelson, a gay man, had his patience stretched to the limit by having to deal with Ian Paisley, who in 1977 had launched the infamous Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign.

 

With the Assembly up and running and its members responsible for the province’s governance, Mandelson’s successors as Northern Irish Secretary of State had less to do.  However, the Assembly collapsed early in 2017 because of a spat between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein and since then London has had to administer things again.  The Secretary of State on whose watch this happened was James Brokenshire, who surely had the most appropriate surname of anyone ever to take on the job: broken shire.

 

Brokenshire stood down at the start of this year for health reasons – not, as you might expect, mental health reasons, but because he needed to have an operation on his lung.  And this brings me to his replacement, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley.

 

Last week Bradley hit the headlines when she confessed in an interview that she accepted the Northern Irish brief whilst having a knowledge of Northern Irish politics that was less than encyclopaedic.  “I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland.  I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought… people who are Nationalists don’t vote for Unionist parties and vice-versa.  So, the parties fight for the election within their own community.  Actually, the Unionist parties fight the elections against each other in Unionist communities and Nationalists in Nationalist communities. That’s a very different world from the world I came from.”

 

Oh, come on.  Bradley was born in 1970, which means she grew up in a Britain where the Northern Irish Troubles raged continually in the background – and sometimes in the foreground, for the IRA also set off bombs in England, including the Brighton one in 1984 that killed five members of Bradley’s Conservative Party and nearly took out Margaret Thatcher.  And she makes a living as a politician.  You’d expect her to be aware of political arrangements in the UK’s four corners and have some inkling who the Alliance Party, DUP, Official Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein and their supporters are.  Especially as her party has been propped up in government by ten MPs from Ian Paisley’s old outfit the DUP (in return for a 1.5 billion-pound bribe) since the 2017 general election.

 

Are we really to believe she flew to Belfast to become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ignorant of such facts as most Protestant households don’t have framed, signed photographs of Martin McGuinness sitting on their mantelpieces and Roman Catholic support for Arlene Foster’s DUP is somewhat on the scant side?

 

© The Irish Examiner

 

Then again, Bradley’s ignorance is no worse than that displayed by many members of the Conservative Party these days, especially Brexiters like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.  These are people whose attitudes towards the post-Brexit condition of the Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland border – all squiggly, wriggly 310 miles of it, crossing towns, farms, fields and loughs and crossed itself by more than 200 public roads – suggest I.Q.s that are at basement-level.  They proclaim that the border isn’t important enough to worry about, or it can be policed the way it was back in the days of the Troubles (and what happy days those were), or – Boris Johnson’s opinion – all the immigration and customs issues on the border arising from Brexit can be solved with technology.  Maybe Johnson is proposing using drones.   Or maybe he’s thinking about using toy airplanes with cameras fixed to them that can be piloted by leprechauns.  He’s probably heard that there are still a few leprechauns on the go in Ireland.  And what jolly little fellows they are too.

 

The selection of Karen Bradley to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must have been because she sings from the same hymnbook as many of her fellow Tories.  And that’s a hymnbook from the Church of Stupid.

 

Le Cirque de Salmond

 

© Daily Record

 

I’d always assumed there was no dirt to dig up on Alex Salmond, ex-leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland from 2007 to 2014.  I assumed this for the simple reason that if there had been, his countless enemies in the old Scottish establishment and the Scottish press – the latter largely a sub-set of the former – would have dug it up and used it to wreck his reputation long ago.

 

Thus, it came as a surprise when last Thursday the Daily Record reported allegations of Salmond sexually harassing two female Scottish government employees while he was First Minister, which have recently been the subject of an inquiry by the Scottish government and have now been passed on to the police.

 

What didn’t surprise me was the absolute circus in Scotland’s newspapers that followed the disclosure of these allegations.  ‘SALMOND SCANDAL,’ screamed one headline.  ‘ECK SEX PROBE,’ barked another.  ‘BOOZED-UP SALMOND “TOUCHED WOMAN’S BREASTS,”’ brayed a third.

 

You got the impression the hacks were throwing so much muck at Salmond because they hoped that, even if the allegations against him weren’t proven, the muck would still stick and besmirch his reputation forever after.  Occasionally the coverage went beyond even that.  From some headlines, you’d have thought Salmond wasn’t just under investigation but had been already tried, found guilty and sentenced.  The Scottish Sun claimed that he was in a ‘Shakespearean play’s final act’ and had ‘gone from national hero to laughing stock’.  In the Times, a piece by Alex Massie bore the headline, ‘WHATEVER HAPPENS, IT’S OVER FOR SALMOND’.  No wonder some people on Twitter likened the sentiments to the old approach for detecting witches, i.e. by chucking them into the river.  If you float, you’re a witch, and you’re dead.  Whereas if you sink, you’re not a witch, but you’re still dead.

 

Before I continue, let me warn that, like most of the press coverage, this post is going to be all about Salmond.  There’ll be little reference to the women who’ve made the allegations, even though they may well be the victims in this ugly affair – but they’re difficult to focus on as they’re currently staying anonymous.   Also, let me say that if Salmond is proven guilty of harassment, I believe he deserves everything he gets.  Politically, legally and reputationally, he should be strung up by the balls.

 

But I can’t see how the reporting of the story so far, reeking of score-settling, vendettas and political partisanship, is going to help anyone involved.  Not only Salmond, who’s still supposed to be innocent until proven otherwise; but also the women making the allegations.  If there’s substance to what they are saying – and again there may well be – then they’ll surely want the process of the investigation to appear measured and impartial.  They’ll want Salmond to be convicted after a fair hearing.  They’ll not want biased press coverage giving it the shrill trappings of a witch-hunt, because that’ll leave people believing the guilty party isn’t really guilty but is the victim of a stitch-up.

 

It’s long been obvious that many influential citizens in Scotland have hated Salmond’s guts.  I remember living in London in the early 1990s after Salmond had been made SNP leader, and drinking occasionally with a Labour Party spin doctor, also from Scotland.  He had no inhibitions about telling me, at every opportunity, what a detestable creep he thought Salmond was.  With his smart-Alec manner (ouch) and his habitual smirk, which frequently expanded into a Cheshire-cat grin, and his arrogance that no doubt came from knowing he was intellectually streets ahead of the numpties making up the majority of Westminster’s Scottish MPs, you could understand how Salmond was an annoyance to his opponents.  But back then the SNP had just three MPs, so he at least could be dismissed as a minor annoyance.

 

How long ago that seems now.  In those far-off days, the Labour Party controlled much of Scotland at council level, provided the lion’s share of Scottish MPs for Westminster and, when it arrived in 1999, dominated the Scottish parliament too.  If their party also happened to be in power at Westminster, which it was occasionally, Scottish Labour-ites must have felt like lords of all they surveyed.  If the Conservatives were in power at Westminster, which they were most of the time, those Scottish Labour-ites grumbled a bit, but diplomatically kept their heads down while right-wing Tory policies were imposed on Scotland.

 

This suited Scotland’s newspapers, owned by magnates and companies that were sympathetic to either the Labour party or the Conservative one.  The Tory papers could rest easy because although Scotland was a Labour fiefdom, they knew the party’s Scottish branch wasn’t going to kick up a big fuss about Scotland’s political will being kept subservient to that of London.  Meanwhile, the relationship between Scottish journalists and Scottish politicians was ickily close.  As Iain Macwhirter observed in his book Disunited Kingdom (2015), “Scottish journalism is almost as tribal as Scottish politics, and Labour has traditionally called the shots in the Scottish media through its extensive patronage networks.”  And if you were a columnist in a Scottish newspaper, you could have a high conceit of yourself indeed – luxuriating as a big, opinion-forming fish in a safe, wee political pool.

 

Then in 2007 the sky fell in.  Salmond’s SNP won the biggest majority of seats in the Scottish parliament.  They’ve remained in power there during the 11 years and two Scottish parliamentary elections since.  They also won the majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats in the UK general elections in 2015 and 2017 (admittedly a lower number in 2017, but still more than all the other parties’ Scottish seats put together).  They lost the independence referendum in 2014 – an event that led to Salmond resigning as First Minister – but the percentage of the vote they got, 45%, was still far more than what anyone had expected at the campaign’s start.

 

This stuck in a great many craws – not just in those of the Scottish Labour Party, with its historical sense of entitlement, but in those of the majority of Scotland’s newspapers, who discovered to their horror that no matter how negatively they reported the SNP and its performance as the new Scottish government, a significantly large proportion of the Scottish public ignored them and kept on voting SNP.   All that, plus a catastrophic drop in Scottish newspaper sales during the 21st century – the Herald, for instance, declining from a circulation of 85,000 in 2003 to one of 30,000 in 2016.  Scottish journalistic teeth gnashed frenziedly while their influence dwindled.  Meanwhile, the grin of Alex Salmond, the bastard who seemed emblematic of the good times coming to an end, grew even wider, his mood grew ever merrier and his girth grew ever more Falstaffian.

 

 From twitter.com

 

Of course, Salmond’s media and political foes have been desperate to get back at him and he’s looked increasingly vulnerable since he lost his Westminster seat in the middle of 2017.  To be honest, lately, Salmond hasn’t just given his detractors ammunition for this.  He’s handed them a whole arsenal.  In August 2017, he put on at the Edinburgh Festival a chat-show called Alex Salmond: Unleashed, which from all accounts was a graceless, self-indulgent and ego-driven affair.  Mind you, those accounts were mostly published in the Scottish press, so they weren’t ever going to be positive.

 

Soon after, to cries of outrage, he developed his stage-show into a programme called The Alex Salmond Show, which was broadcast on RT, Russia’s international English-language news channel.  The show has featured some interesting guests, including Charles Puigdemont, Alastair Campbell, Bertie Ahern, Mary McAleese, Peter Tatchell, Brian Cox, Doddie Weir and Jackie Stewart.  And there’s been plenty of stone-throwing in glass houses among the show’s many political critics – after all, both Conservative and Labour MPs have accepted payments to appear on RT in the past, and UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has happily shown his face on Iran’s notorious Press TV, and former Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Lembit Opik still hosts a show for the same outfit.  Nonetheless, despite all the humbug, associating himself with Vladimir Putin’s televisual voice to the world was neither a wise nor ethical move on Salmond’s part.

 

Still, now, it would be edifying if Scotland’s politicos and pundits could stand back and quietly allow the police investigation of Salmond to run its course, so that the truth can be finally and convincingly arrived at – and if there’s been criminal behavior, it gets punished, and if people have suffered from criminal behavior, amends are made to them.  A lot of folk would do well to wind their necks in for a while.  But that won’t happen, will it?  The next few months in the Scottish media are going to be a circus of lurid Alex Salmond headlines – le Cirque de Salmond.

 

How to talk Scots to Trump

 

© Stewart Bremner

 

Well, following last night’s 2-1 defeat at the hands (or feet) of the Croats, England are now out of the World Cup.  And today, what can the heartbroken people of England look forward to as a way of cheering them up?

 

A visit from US President Donald Trump, that’s what.

 

At least the English need to grit their teeth for barely more than a day.  Tomorrow evening, provided everything goes according to plan – i.e. Trump can refrain from grabbing the Queen by the pussy when he meets her at Windsor Castle – the most ignorant, obnoxious and morally bankrupt American Commander in Chief since James Buchanan will fly north of the border to Scotland and it’ll be the turn of the Scots to have to share their sovereign territory with the slobbering orange tyrant.  There, he’ll devote yet another wodge of his presidential time to playing golf, on one of his Scottish golf courses.  I suspect this is more likely to be Turnberry, as the breeze coming in from the offshore wind-turbines that Alex Salmond cheekily planted close to his course at Balmedie runs a serious risk of playing havoc with his combover.

 

Anti-Trump protests have been organised across the UK, with Scottish ones planned for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeenshire.  I look forward to seeing the placards that the multitudes of Scottish demonstrators will be carrying because (a) they will surely be highly derisive about President Chump and (b) they will no doubt draw heavily on the Scottish vernacular to be derisive.

 

To my mind, there is no language more suited to insulting people than the Scots one.  Ice-T once rapped: “Words thrillin’, so real they’re chillin’, the hit author / Getting’ louder than a gunshot…”  But Ice, if the words in question were abusive Scots ones, they’d not only be louder than a gunshot, they’d be louder than an atomic bomb-blast.

 

For example, I expect there will be signs and placards at the Scottish protests referring to Trump as an arsepiece, an arsepipe, a balloon, a bampot, a bawheid, a chugmerchant, a cockwomble, a diddy, a dobber, a dunderheid, a fanny, a fannybaws, a fud, a jobby, a lavvyheid, a numpty, a nyaff, a plaster, a poultice, a puddock, a roaster, a rocket, a shitgibbon, a spoon, a tadger, a toalie, a tool, a tube, a walloper, a wankstain, a weapon and, of course, my favourite abusive Scots noun, a bawbag, which strictly speaking translates as ‘scrotum’.

 

Bawbag has already been successfully deployed in the struggle against alt-right nincompoop demagogues, because a few years ago a group of protestors laid siege to then UKIP leader and now shameless-brownnosing-Trump-cheerleader Nigel Farage while he was visiting Edinburgh.  Chanting “Nigel, ye’re a bawbag!”, they forced Farage to take refuge in the Canon’s Gait bar on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, which in turn prompted a priceless tweet by comedian Frankie Boyle: “Nigel Farage tried to escape Scottish protesters by hiding in a pub. Which is like trying to hide from a lion by putting on a zebra costume.”

 

I hope that this weekend someone has an extra-big sign that not only calls Trump a bawbag, but prefaces it with some choice Scots adjectives too, i.e. declaring Trump a barkit, boakin, bowfin, clarty, doaty, foostie, glaikit, hackit, howlin, mawkit, mingin, reekin, sleekit bawbag.”

 

There are also some inventive and graphic Scots phrases for insulting people.  If anyone needs inspiration for what to write on their anti-Trump placard, here are my top ten:

 

Awaw an bile yer heid.”

Awaw an shite.”  (Or even better, “Awaw an take yer face fir a shite.”)

Hope yer next shite’s a hedgehog.”

Ye look like a dug lickin pish aff a nettle.”

Yer bum’s oot the windae.”

Yer da’s yer ma.”

Yer da sells Avon.”

Yer heid’s foo o mince.”

Yer ma’s got baws an yer da loves it.”

Ye’ve an arse like a bag o washin.”

Ye’ve a face like a meltit wellie.”

 

However, that’s not to say that English English – as opposed to Scots English – is incapable of mustering the vitriol necessary to deal with the horror-show that is Trump.  In fact, back in December 2015, when Trump still seemed like a buffoonish comedy candidate who had no chance of ever winning the presidency, I seem to remember someone tweeting a memorable insult that quoted lines from Henry IV, Part 1 by England’s greatest bard, William Shakespeare: “Trump’s a clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch, right?”

 

That 2015 tweeter was Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson, whose boss Theresa May will be welcoming Trump to the UK today and will no doubt be kowtowing to him in the hope that, amid all the off-message humiliations and embarrassments he heaps upon her, he’ll grant her some sort of dubious post-Brexit US-UK trade deal; and whose Conservative colleague and Secretary of State for Scotland, the hapless David Mundell, has the job of greeting him / acting as his doormat in Scotland tomorrow.  So I expect to see the always principled, unyielding and truthful Ruth Davidson wielding a placard calling Trump a clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, etc., at one of Scotland’s anti-Trump protests this weekend.

 

© Stewart Bremner

 

The illustrations accompanying this post are by the graphic artist Stewart Bremner.  Free downloadable, printable versions of his anti-Trump designs are available here.  And to purchase other examples of his craft, please go here

 

Koko the gorilla versus Koko the clown

 

© Elaine Thompson / Associated Press

© CNN

 

A piece of sad news last week was that of the death of Koko the gorilla, the female primate who lived at the Gorilla Foundation in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains and, during her 46-year life, was said to have learned over a thousand items in sign language and to understand about 2000 words of spoken English.

 

Among the other things that made Koko remarkable was her empathy for her fellow creatures.  According to her Wikipedia entry, she cared for a total of five cats – All Ball, Lipstick, Smoky, Miss Black and Miss Grey – from the age of 13.  She also became buddies with the likes of Robin Williams, venerable actress Betty White, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and children’s TV personality Fred Rogers and in 2014 was clearly upset to hear about Williams’ death.  Koko, in other words, was proof that animals are capable not only of thought and communication but also of compassion.

 

Compassion, though, is not a word that immediately springs to mind when you consider one of last week’s other news stories – the scandal of how in the last month-and-a-half the Trump administration has overseen the separation of some 2000 migrant children from their parents (often fleeing turmoil in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras) on the southern US border, with the kids being kept in cages in detention centres with no indication of when or if they’ll see their parents again.  Yes, as Trump and his supporters have been blabbing frantically, the legislation that allows this to happen had been in place under previous presidents, dating back to the Bush Jr years.  But it’s been Trump’s rhetoric and his creation of a ‘hostile environment’ (to use a phrase that’s lately become notorious on the other side of the Atlantic) towards immigrants, outsiders and foreigners that’s enabled it to escalate into a modern-day atrocity.

 

Koko the gorilla displayed heart-warming levels of empathy for members of other species.  Trump and his courtiers, fixers, and minions, on the other hand, have shown about as much empathy for members of their own species as a falling slab of rock shows for the person whose head it’s hurtling towards.  We already knew that Trump has the emotional intelligence of a blocked drain – back in 2016, when he wasn’t mocking people for being disabled or having his thoughts about how to charm women (“Grab ’em by the pussy!”) aired on tape, he was busy dehumanising Mexican immigrants by describing them as criminals, drug-dealers and rapists.  But this time, for sheer callousness, he’s had stiff competition.  His wife Melania jetted off to spread some love among the kids penned up at a detention facility in Texas, but the gesture was spoiled a wee bit by her insistence on wearing a Zara jacket that said on the back, ‘I REALLY DON’T CARE.  DO U?’

 

Meanwhile, Trump admirer and extreme right-wing horror-show Ann Coulter dismissed the kids in the news reports from the detention centres as ‘child actors’ who are “given scripts to read by liberals”; while another Trump-eteer, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, ghoulishly likened the centres to ‘summer camps’.  And Trump’s resident Britannic cheerleader / court jester / arse-licker Nigel Farage moaned about all “the screams coming from the liberal media’, which seemingly bothered him far more than the screams coming from the kids.

 

Trump and co. really give me the impression these days that humanity is de-evolving.  Our species is losing the qualities of love, kindness, kinship, understanding and so on that originally made us, well, human.  Maybe it’s time for homo sapiens to give up the pretence that they’re the most advanced species on the planet, get out of the way and allow some other type of creature – like Koko’s gorillas – a chance to take up the mantle of dominant life-form on earth for a while.  Yes, maybe we should just let the primates take over.  Then the world would become like the Planet of the Apes movies, where the simians enjoy all the perks of civilisation, like clothes, cutlery and indoor plumbing, while the humans exist in a state of bestial savagery out in the fields.

 

It wouldn’t last forever, of course.  After being the Alpha Life-Form for a time, I have no doubt that the apes would let their supremacy go to their heads too and they’d become as emotionally barren as human beings seem to be today.  Actually, if you’ve seen the second of the original series of Planet of the Apes movies, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, you’ll know that it’s set 2000 years into the future and chronicles the end of the apes’ civilisation.  By then, the earth is heading for nuclear annihilation, the apes’ society is full of loutish gorillas swaggering around waving guns, and it’s ruled by an orangutan with crazy hair.

 

Come to think of it, considering what’s happening just now, that far-future scenario may well be a case of history repeating itself.

 

© 20th Century Fox / APJAC Productions

From gandara.rferl.org

 

Joke nation

 

© The Public Library Ltd / From the Daily Record

 

Tomorrow is April 1st, better known in the United Kingdom as April Fool’s Day.  Traditionally it’s a day when British people play jokes on one another – interior decorators send hapless apprentices off to the shops with instructions to buy ‘a tin of black and white paint’ or ‘straight hooks’, the BBC broadcasts a news report about a drought threatening this year’s spaghetti harvest in Italy, and so on.

 

This is because British people love jokes.  But that’s not to say Britain itself is a joke nation.  No, quite the reverse.  With just one year remaining until the UK Brexits from the European Union and takes on the world on its own again, it stands poised to show what a totally serious, formidable, non-ridiculous, non-joke place it is.

 

I know this because Jacob Rees Mogg, that undertaker-like darling of the Brexiting Conservative Party right, wrote an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph on March 18th stating that Tory Prime Minister Theresa May would soon “lay out the facts to the EU: Britain isn’t a joke nation and Brexit will mean Brexit.”  Right on, Jacob.  I mean, look at what’s happened in the UK this past month of March 2018.  How could anyone conclude that Britain is anything other than a deadly serious nation?

 

Jacob himself proved this on March 21st when he was part of a protest at the UK government’s agreement to stay in the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy for an additional 21 months after Brexit officially happens next year.  The protest took the form of him and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage heading out onto the Thames in a trawler and bunging some dead haddock into the water as a symbol of their displeasure.  Well, Jacob would have headed out in the trawler and dumped the haddock, but it transpired that said trawler didn’t have a permit from the London transport authority to moor anywhere and was unable to pick him up from the quay.  So after a quick press conference by the river, Jacob had to leg it back to the Houses of Parliament while the trawler, dead haddock and Nigel Farage were left chugging about the Thames looking for a place to dock.

 

That was unfortunate.  But obviously, nothing resembling a joke.

 

Revelations this month about Jacob Rees Mogg’s Conservative colleague and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson weren’t remotely joke-like either.  Boris had condemned Vladimir Putin and the Russian authorities after the poisoning of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on March 4th.  Then it became public knowledge that Lubin Chernukhin, a Russian banker and the wife of Putin’s former deputy finance minister, had once paid the Tory party £160,000 for the honour of playing a game of tennis with Boris, supposed Scourge of the Russkies.

 

Yes, if a lesser politician had been embroiled in an episode like this, it would have looked like a giant, stupid joke.  But since a man of Boris’s stature and dignity was involved, it didn’t.

 

© Sky Sports / From the Daily Mirror

 

March 11th saw Conservative Party participation in another sporting event.  A bruising footballing encounter between bitter rivals Glasgow Celtic and the famously pro-British, famously Union Jack-waving, famously loyal-to-the-throne Glasgow Rangers took place at Rangers’ home ground of Ibrox Stadium.  Acting as one of the linesmen that day was Douglas Ross, the Tory MP for Moray, who’s a football official as well as a politician.  Dougie helped get Celtic’s Jozo Simunovic sent off after he allegedly elbowed Rangers’ Alfredo Morelos.  He was heard screaming “Red card!  Red card!” from the line, even though as a match official he could have communicated in quieter tones with the referee using their mics and earpieces.  Afterwards, many wags remarked on how despite playing at home, and having their opponents reduced to ten men, and having a Tory MP manning the line, Rangers still managed to lose.

 

Note how I said ‘remarked on’ there.  Not ‘joked about’.  Because Britain isn’t a joke nation.

 

What other non-joke things are there to report this month?  Well, there’s the dodgy affair of the British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, who’ve played controversial roles in the Leave EU referendum campaign and Trump election campaign.  Cambridge Analytica were helped in their work by a data breach involving the personal details of about 50 million people, ‘inappropriately’ taken from Facebook.  Then, on March 19th, Channel 4 aired a secretly-filmed clip of the firm’s CEO Alexander Nix bragging to a potential client that during elections his company could compromise certain politicians by setting them up with prostitutes and filming the results with hidden cameras.

 

Nix saying this whilst being filmed with a hidden camera himself was ironic.  But not funny.  Because Cambridge Analytica is a British company and Britain, as we know, isn’t a joke nation.

 

Obviously, anti-Semitism is no joking matter.  So what should we make of the row about it that engulfed Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in March?  Corbyn, we learned, had once defended a political mural on a London wall that’d been accused of demonising Jews.  Now Corbyn claims that he hadn’t looked at the mural closely enough at the time to realise it was Jew-bashing.  What’s that, Jeremy – a picture of disgusting rich capitalists playing Monopoly on top of the bodies of the bowed naked proletariat, capitalists with prominent noses, spectacles and bushy Fagin-like beards?  Why, sure.  Anyone could have missed suggestions of anti-Semitism in that.

 

© Mike Kemp via Getty Images / From the Guardian 

 

So no jokes please about Jeremy and his apparent myopia here.  He’s leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition in the not-a-joke nation of Britain.

 

Meanwhile, Britain’s newspapers have done nothing joke-like this month either.  Certainly not the Daily Mail, which reacted with apoplectic rage to the news that Britain’s post-Brexit, just-liberated-from-the-European-Union, patriotically-blue passports would be produced by a FrenchDutch company.  “Why,” it demanded of Britain’s ruling class on its front page, “DO you hate our country, its history, culture and the people’s sense of identity?”  And on March 29th, with precisely one year to go until Brexit, the Mail’s right-wing Siamese twin the Daily Express published on its front page a big picture of the White Cliffs of Dover.  Not to imply that one year from now the UK would be careering over a cliff, but to illustrate a stirring quote by Boris Johnson: “Our national journey out of the EU is almost over and a glorious view awaits.”  The photographer who’d originally taken that picture of the cliffs later pointed out on Twitter that the cliffs weren’t as white as they’d appeared in the Express.  Evidently the newspaper had photoshopped extra whiteness over their mossy green cliff-faces: “If anything sums up #Brexit – it’s the Daily Express making my pic of Britain look whiter than it is.”

 

That almost sounds like a joke, you know.  But it can’t be.  Because this is 2018 Britain: most definitely not a joke nation.

 

© From twitter.com