Whatever | August 2010

Whatever | Guilty pleasures
They’re songs and books. What’s to feel guilty about?


In May 1933, when the Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund decided to collectively haul themselves out of bed before the Third Reich equivalent of Loose Women and organise a nationwide purge of “un-German” literature at universities across Germany, more than 25,000 titles were burned on bonfires which must have smelt powerfully musty. Around that time and under that particular regime in that particular swathe of Europe, if you chose to leaf through a play by Bertolt Brecht in the park, or a novel by Thomas Mann on the tram, or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front just about anywhere, you were by definition experiencing the illicit thrill of a guilty pleasure.

Similarly, your enjoyment in the old Soviet Union of The Gulag Archipelago, Doctor Zhivago or Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been laced with that bracing buzz of the forbidden, as each might have earned you the bracing buzz of a KGB show trial. In 2008, South Korea’s Ministry of Defence banned the military from reading an armful of “seditious” books, including that well-thumbed squaddies’ standby Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and The Secret History of Capitalism by Cambridge professor Ha-Joon Chang.

Even today, owning a copy of Dianetics by L Ron Hubbard in the new Russia carries a 3,000 rouble fine and a jail term of up to 15 days. (Most of the arch-Thetan’s canon was banned under a recent law, for “undermining the traditional spiritual values of the citizens of the Russian Federation.”) It remains illegal to read The Diary Of Anne Frank, Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List in Lebanon, all de-listed by the Sûreté General for portraying Jews, Israel or Zionism “favourably”. And The Da Vinci Code is conspicuous by its absence on the streets of Beirut, too, thanks to lobbying by Lebanon’s Catholic Information Center, who officially have nothing better to do.

Bear all of this in mind when you consider that in May 2010, the Guardian newspaper asked various browsers on a knoll at the Hay Literary Festival to reveal their “literary guilty pleasure”. Their willing responses included Marian Keyes, David Nicholls, Zadie Smith, Alan Bennett, “heavy metal biographies”, and The Kite Runner.


Why should anyone literate enough to attend a Guardian-sponsored book fair in a country that even Mark Thomas would be hard pushed to call a totalitarian state, feel guilty about reading Zadie Smith, or Marian Keyes, or a heavy metal biography? These answers, like the spurious questionnaire standby itself, may be lightly thrown but they reveal weightier truths about our national neurosis: we are rendered daft by keeping up appearances like a bunch of insecure teenagers. Though we have little to fear from secret police or religious junta, we merrily and self-mockingly go along with the flimsy pretext that some books, films and TV shows can be consumed without guilt, while others must be enjoyed behind locked doors. Such as, apparently, the Celebrity Come Dine With Me of literature, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Hey, people might think you’re reading a book about kites, rather than the rise of the Taliban in the power vacuum after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Incidentally, the popular film was banned in Afghanistan, making the DVD a cinematic guilty pleasure in Kabul.

In 2007, commissioned by the Costa Book Awards, a YouGov poll declared Stephen King “the UK’s favourite literary guilty pleasure.” UK readers also “freely admitted” to feeling a bit self-conscious about whipping out a Rowling, a Grisham or a Pratchett without first slipping it between the covers of a decoy copy of Fiesta or Knave. Expert comment on the coffee chain’s press release came from a contributing editor of The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures: 1001 Things You Hate To Love, published in hardback in 2006 and described by the Times Literary Supplement as “something of a guilty pleasure.” Its very opportunistic existence flagged up the phrase’s sudden marketability.

That this sado-masochistic concept should still linger in the popular imagination and across so many artforms is, I’m afraid, rock music’s fault, where lines are forever being drawn and redrawn in the dunes of credibility. It was enterprising London DJ Sean Rowley who first trademarked Guilty Pleasures™, which now covers an entire cheeky empire of club nights, compilation albums, SingStar tie-ins, a Fearne Cotton-fronted ITV1 karaoke show, and a mobile disco available for hire at festival tent, arena warm-up, corporate jolly and private function. Rowley was astute in locating the fecund no-man’s land between cool and uncool a few years back and bagging the salvage rights.


I don’t wish to poop the party: the pics on the Guilty Pleasures website suggest a sizable slice of ongoing camp, works-outing fun in nightclubs up and down the land – verily, it is the new School Disco. But in taking the notion so irretrievably overground, gurning wig-outs of allegiance to ELO or Journey or Japanese Boy obviate any need for guilt. We live in a world of pop pluralism and Glee glasnost, where nostalgia packages and tribute bands make everything alright and, for anyone over 30, the last vestiges of embarrassment have been cast aside like a pair of crutches at Lourdes. Now is not the time to transfer our guilt to books.

Among the Guilty Pleasures website’s “celebrity confessionals”, Russell Brand cleverly eschews the obligatory Toto or Wham and plumps for Gary Glitter. “I feel a bit guilty about this,” he declares. “What with him being a convicted paedophile.”

In the same spirit of literalism, three cheers too for Alex, 70, retired, from mid-Wales, the sole Guardian respondent at Hay to break ranks and say, “I don’t feel guilty about reading anything.” Nor should you. Now, where’s my copy of Mein Kampf? I need something to wrap around The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures on the bus.

There at the New Yorker


Thanks to an enterprising gentleman/scholar called Gavin Hogg, and his ongoing blog project to log all issues of the much-missed Word magazine, I have just re-read my autumn 2005 article on the New Yorker, which is my favourite current magazine and I suspect always will be. I don’t get commissioned to write “long-form” articles that much. The occasional meatier piece for Radio Times (I’m working on a Star Wars story right now, and I’m going on the set of Peaky Blinders this week), and the even more occasional feature for the Guardian or G2 (although the newspaper’s filo-pastry-like commissioning process is sometimes as impenetrably layered as the BBC’s!), but I mostly, these days, I seem to talking again – on the radio, on the Guardian website, on further talking head shows – and my writing work is all beneath the surface, in script form, in development. So, it was an education to re-read what turned out to be an educated three-page feature in its original – and rather fetching layout. I reprint it here, as – what the heck! – I’m rather proud of it. It was from the heart, and decently researched, and comes from a place of genuine love, which is always a good place to start. I wish Word magazine still existed, but remain truly thankful that it ever did.




I thought it time to publish my entire, exclusive, self-taken portfolio of Gogglebox portraits, which I collected on my Grand Tour, this spring, while writing Gogglebook: The Wit & Wisdom Of Gogglebox (Macmillan, £16.99 hardback, but cheaper if you order via Hive and support your local bookshop here). They are not, technically, selfies, but I took them myself, using what used to be known as a camera, and its “self timer” feature. I tried to stand my camera as close as possible to where the camera usually is when Gogglebox is being filmed. (Insight: at the Malones’ house in Manchester, I was invited to stand it on the box containing their dog Joe’s ashes – “Joe won’t mind,” Julie assured me.)

And then I inserted myself, Zelig style, into the frame. The results are mixed, artistically, but all record a unique, near-religious pilgrimage, which began at the Tappers’ in North London on April 26, and ended at the Michaels’ in Brighton on May 26. That represents a packed month of my life, and one I shall never forget. I calculated that I covered 1,942 miles as I zig-zagged from Nottinghamshire to Merseyside to Yorkshire to Derbyshire to Lancashire to Wiltshire to Greater London again and Sussex. It was achieved in a number of legs and took military planning. Not a single household let me down. (Except Steph and Dom, whose guest house I was unable to visit, due to their extra-curricular schedule.)

I hope you like the book. You have to be a Gogglebox fan to fully appreciate it, but if you are, there are delights both nostalgic and new within its covers, and the illustrations by Quinton Winter are phenomenal.

Here are the portraits, presented in the order in which they were taken.


What a rare and lovely month it was. I shall never forget it.

The little pic of me surrounded by Sandy and Sandra was taken by professional photographer Nicky Johnston for Radio Times.

On a rubbish tip


I’m not a serial restaurant user, as I rather resent how much they charge and I like cooking, but it’s nice to go out occasionally as a treat, and I have been to the large French eaterie chain Côte. They do an especially nice breakfast deal for a tenner. In fact, oddly, I went to the first ever Côte, before it was a chain. (Get me.) It now has 72 restaurants around Britain and is one of those brands that ensures that everywhere is the same. It was last year bought out by the statutory private equity firm. It is dead to me now.

If I ever use a chain restaurant and the service charge is not automatically included, I will ask the waiter if they still get the tip if I add it to my bill on my credit card and then start doing the maths. I assume they are not lying if they tell me that they do. Or at least I did. No longer. Because, thanks to an exposé in my local free newspaper, I now know that Côte, which adds the “optional” 12.5% service charge, does not pass this onto its staff. It goes straight to the company instead of being kept by workers at the restaurant where the diner dined.

The chain defended this practice in the article, saying it “allows them to pay restaurant staff an hourly rate of around £7.50-£8, above the national minimum wage of £6.50 for over 21s.” (Good luck with that in London, where the Living Wage is £9.15.) A whisleblower told the Evening Standard One that the staff are supposed to be “grateful, but most of us would prefer earning the minimum wage and take home our tips for the hard work we do.”


The worst part of all this – and it’s probably occurring in every restaurant chain run by a fucking loveless, food-hating, bottom-line-chasing private equity firm – is that Côte staff are “told to tell customers who ask where the service charges goes that it is given out between workers.” They are being instructed to lie in order that they don’t get to keep their tips. It’s like living in Ripper Street times. I know, you can technically ask for the “optional” charge to be removed, and then put your tip, in cash, into the palm of your waiter’s hand. That’s the only way to get round it. Except that in Côte, management have got this covered. They said that waiting staff can “decide” whether to keep any cash tips left on top of the service charge or put it into a general pot to be shared with other members of staff. So the service charge doesn’t cover service.

One staff member told the Standard they were “told to hand over cash tips”. I’m sure there’s small print in the waiting staff’s contracts to cover this, otherwise it would be theft. One sympathetic politician failed to see his own joke when he told the newspaper, “This seems to be the tip of the iceberg.”

Or the tip for the iceberg lettuce. Côte’s profits rose 27% last year to £16.3 million. I bet private equity firm BC Partners went out for a nice meal at somewhere other than Côte. It’s all bullshit. Pizza Express, Strada, Zizzi and Ask Italian charge between 10% and 8% to staff to claim back their tips paid on cards, making up some flimsy excuse about having the pay for the administration of taking credit cards. Don’t take credits cards then and see how many customers you lose. Does anybody care about their staff? Of course they don’t. Staff are expendable units of labour

Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t stand for it.


The king is dead


Cecil was, we are told, “famous.” A protected resident of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, the 13-year-old male lion wore a GPS tracking collar and was, we are told, an “attraction” for visitors to the game reserve, the largest in the country, identifiable by his black mane. That black mane now sits on a head that was severed from his dead body, presumably awaiting a taxidermist in Minnesota to stuff it and mount it for the wall of a dentist’s surgery. Around 40 hours before his head was removed, the still living Cecil was tempted outside the national park’s boundaries using bait and shot with a crossbow.

The dentist who shot him is Walter Palmer, the grinning fucking bastard in the shot that was shared all around the world, who now claims. “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favourite … and part of a study until the end of the hunt.” So no remorse for shooting a lion with a crossbow and causing it untold pain for 40 hours before it was eventually put out of its misery with a bullet, but some remorse for doing so to a “local favourite.” He says he “relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.” It’s legal to shoot lions, just not this one. It’s interesting that even when speaking in his own defence, Palmer uses the verb “took” when he admits to killing the lion (“I had no idea that the lion I took was …”). He can’t even say the word for what he did.

I don’t care whether Cecil was “famous” or not. I don’t care whether he was tagged or not. I don’t care whether he was or wasn’t within an arbitrary “protected” area or not. What are sentient human beings doing “legally” shooting lions in Zimbabwe, other than feeding the local economy and giving themselves a hard-on? That the possibly impotent Palmer is an American rather feeds into an existing archetype of trigger-happy Yanks whose rifles will have to be prised out of their cold dead hands before surrendering them. But I don’t care what nationality he was, or what job he does (or did, when he’s been run out of Minnesota by an angry mob – or would be, if that angry mob ever left their houses); I only care that he seemed to be pretty pleased with himself for mortally wounding a large wild animal.


What century is this? In the ugly days of Empire, colonialists thought nothing of entering a foreign land and shooting anything unusual they found there, including the native humans. (And if that didn’t finish them off, they gave them diseases they’d brought overseas with them.) But we live in more enlightened times, now. We appreciate that the earth’s resources – animal, vegetable and mineral – are finite. The African lion is not an officially endangered species (the Asian lion is), but it is categorised as Vulnerable (“faces a high risk of extinction in the near future) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And anyway, it’s being hunted in Zimbabwe and elsewhere for sport. A special sport whereby the opposing team have no equipment and you do. Palmer was not intending to eat Cecil for survival or wear his skin for warmth, as far as I know.

The only good to potentially come of Cecil’s brutal and sadistic death by a serial killer is that the image speaks louder than words, and who knows, maybe it will seriously raise international consciousness about conservation not just of wildlife, but of the wild they live their lives in. He was not called Cecil. Other lions did not know him as Cecil. Humans who at least wished only to study him and trace his movements and conserve him named him “Cecil” to make it easier to log him. They meant no harm.


Lesson one: let us not tar all dentists as inhuman murderers. Lesson two: let us not use the death of #CecilTheLion to get all high and mighty about who cares the most about what and whom. I’ve seen a lot of largely American traffic on Twitter calling for people sharing the Cecil hashtag and their outrage to “REEVALUATE” (often typed in caps) and spare a thought for Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African-American woman who died in a Texas jail on July 13 after being arrested for a minor traffic violation. I have spared many thoughts for her since learning about her death and seeing the dashcam footage of state trooper Brian Encinia threatening her (“I will light you up”). It is possible to care about a lion and a woman. I suspect I am not alone in this regard. I wish it wasn’t always men who wreak this violence.

Postscript: I trod on a snail on Monday, by accident, after the rain brought them out. I killed it. I am able to use the word for what I did. But I didn’t pay anybody for the pleasure, and in fact experienced only sorrow and regret. Nor did I get a selfie with its corpse.


May the left man win


I won’t be voting for Jeremy Corbyn MP in the Labour leadership election.

Why? Because I’m not a member of the Labour party. Nor am I able to become an “affiliate” member for £3 as I am already a member of another party. However, I wish to declare that I support Corbyn with every bone of my body and every stab of my social media-using fingers.

Having long been disenfranchised from mainstream British politics – and not having placed my cross next to one of what used to be the three main political parties in the polling booth since 1997 – I find myself animated and exercised by the ongoing Corbyn “surge”. The elected member of Parliament for Islington North in London since 1983 is far and away the most-talked-about candidate for the leadership, a contest that even his most ardently Blairite detractors would have to admit is a lot more interesting with him in it.

The other three candidates, whose politics range right across the centre ground, are the otherwise fairly blameless careerists Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham, who has the most marketable accent. If I felt in my bones like these three were identikit power-brokers whose principles come a close second to winning and Corbyn was a “big tent” outsider once all had declared, then this was made flesh when Cooper, Kendall and Burnham abstained from voting against the Tories’ dastardly and brazen Welfare Bill, while Corbyn simply voted against it, abstaining only from abstention. Here was some clear blue sky between them. I firmly believe that the Labour party – of which I was an idealistic member in 1992 – need to move to the left. In the argot of the right-wing media, this would be a “lurch.” See how they implant ideas?


I’ve found myself in heated debate on social media in recent days, which I find healthy and bracing. The crux of my apparent disagreement with assorted Blairite pragmatists seems to rest on Corbyn’s “electability.” If he won’t win the 2020 general election in five years’ time, they ask, then what’s the point of having him as the leader of the Labour Party? What, they ask again with a prod to the chest, is the point?

First of all, who’s to know a) how Corbyn would do in a general election (it’s not science, this, it’s fumbling around in the dark and hoping for the best), and b) whether he would still be leader in 2020. Second, let us look at the word “electable.” Blairite pragmatists, who believe that what Blair did in the mid-90s, when he tore a pound of flesh out of Labour’s chest and made the party “electable”, is what the new leader must do again now; they seem to wish victory at any cost. Me? I’m a utopian. A sentimental, soppy, principled utopian who instinctively votes instinctively. I believe – unless you live in a constituency were a tactical vote really might make a difference – you should vote with your heart, not your head. Vote with your gut, not a slide rule. Without principles and ideology, what have we got?

Jeremy Corbyn MP is fundementally “electable”. He’s been “elected” by his North London constituents in seven general elections. Seven! How much more electable can he be? Somebody out there likes him. The Labour party are only “electable” if you wish to elect them. I haven’t been able to vote for them since 1997, because of their betrayals directly after being “elected”. To me, they are unelectable. With Corbyn at the controls, could they tempt me back? A leftist Labour party (imagine that!) would be one worth backing. I’ve voted Green because their policies align most closely with my own, because I believed in them, not because my vote would get them “elected”. That is democracy in action, at least under the stultifying first-past-the-post system.


Corbyn’s critics on the centre-left, and they are vocal, see him as a danger to party unity. But what use is a party united behind the Tories’ welfare cuts? What use is a party united behind the Tories’ soft touch with big business? For all the good New Labour did while in power – and I’m not rewriting history: they can be proud of the Northern Irish peace process, tax credits, the minimum wage – they pissed the rest of it up the wall, ceding public services to private investment, failing to reverse privatisation, introducing tuition fees, looking after their new “filthy rich” friends, allowing banks to continue unregulated, and, oh yes, taking us into an illegal war, whose ugly after-effects continue to plume acrid smoke high above the planet today. I don’t want that Labour party to be in power.

What I want, and what I think this country needs, is a strong, noisy, principled opposition. The kind that Ed Miliband wasn’t. The kind that David Miliband never would have been (so stow that retrofitted fantasy). The kind that Andy Burnham will never be, if he’s not even prepared to stand up and be counted against the Welfare Bill.

Jeremy Corbyn is Old Labour. He has a beard, and wears a “beige” jacket, and a vest under his shirt, and supports unilateral disarmament, and carries a bag. For many like me, this is a refreshing change from the interchangeable policy wonks with carefully placed glottal stops who constitute modern Labour candidates. For others, it’s an outrage. What I relish most about Corbyn is the way he riles the others and causes them to lose their cool, who denounce his backers as “morons” and mock his “Lenin cap” (as if that matters), or, in the case of disgraceful Jacqui Smith on Sky News the other night, belittle the “principles” of his supporters within her own party, shrieking, “That’s not principle, that’s barmy!” High level of debate.


When they wheel out the dessicated Tony Blair to denounce him, you know Labour are in trouble. (Blair is the only man in Britain who has forgotten that he dragged this country illegally into Iraq on falsified evidence; is he preparing for some sort of dementia defence in a future war crimes tribunal we don’t yet know about?) In a snarky, scripted comment, he advised Labour members voting for Corbyn from the heart to “get a transplant.” (You need a heart to vote with it, Tony. Or get a transplant.) When your critics are reduced to name-calling, the moral high ground is yours. Jeremy Corbyn has strident views, but doesn’t feel the need to shout them at the top of his voice. He needs to learn to stop being riled by TV interviewers when they interrupt him, but please don’t let him be “media trained” out of a all recognition.

The old Labour that Corbyn is old enough to remember fell into disrepute when, after defeats for Michael Foot (who dared not to be photogenic and lost support with the SDP defections) and Neil Kinnock (who made plenty of concessions towards “electability” but fudged his position on the miners, and started to believe his own theme music), the party seemed in the wilderness. This is what critics think Corbyn will do to Labour come September: either split it or finish it off. And there are parallels: the Tories were comparably rampant in the 80s (although after Thatcher resigned, Labour were looking at an open goal, and might have scored had it not been for a very clever Sun front page).


To wish for a Corbyn leadership is not to call for a return to the past. Between now and 2020, think how many young people will become eligible to vote. Some of them, surely, will look at baying, bollocking Westminster politics, and yearn for something different.

Andy Burnham is not something different. He is something the same.

First …


First they came for BBC Three, and I did not speak out –
because I don’t watch Snog, Marry, Avoid.

Then they came for BBC Worldwide, and I did not speak out –
because I don’t really know what that is, or does.

Then they came for Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice, and I did not speak out –
because I mainly listen to Radio 4 and watch BBC Two and Wimbledon and Question Time.

Then they came for the whole of the BBC, including Radio 4 and BBC Two and Wimbledon and Question Time and Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice
and there was no one left to broadcast that fact in a trustworthy manner.

After Pastor Martin Niemöller, 1946