Would he lie to you?

Some late news just in. There was no cast iron reason for this country to defy the United Nations and invade Iraq on 20 March 2003, shoulder to shoulder ie. behind the United States, and alongside Australia and Poland. (In that initial phase, the USA sent 130,000 troops, the UK 28,000, Australia 2,000, and Poland 194.)  The Iraq Inquiry, better known as the Chilcot Report, revealed to the world the following things that I and millions of others personally knew in our bones in May 2003, and which were basically confirmed by subsequent events: that Saddam Hussein did not pose an “urgent threat” to British interests, that flaky intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was presented with “too much certainty” while its legal justification was “far from satisfactory”, that peaceful alternatives to war had not been fully explored, and that in invading Iraq the UK and the USA had “undermined the authority” of the UN. In short, the whole shit-show ought not to have happened.

Have we who believed Hans Blix and doubted the earnest words of Tony Blair wasted the last 14 years of our lives waiting to find out what we suspected all along? If so, we should be grateful that we had lives to waste; not everybody sucked into the conflict was so lucky. The families of the victims at Hillsborough (many of whom will have also opposed the war) will know this feeling: a combination of relief and fury after so many years being officially dismissed and discounted. No matter what the Dorian Grey painting of Tony Blair says, during those 14 years the world has unarguably become ever more dangerous and less secure, and thousands upon thousands of lives have been lost in the wars waged in the name of “stabilising” a region we – I hate to use that word, but it’s worth rubbing it in – we destabilised. The invasion may not have happened “in our name”, but I remain a citizen of the country that did it. An increasingly ashamed citizen. Many of today’s monsters were forged in the aftermath of the invasion, which, like a post-Brexit economy, nobody had properly planned for. So, rather than go over the coals one more time, or the Chilcot Report in mind-numbing detail, can we just consider the lies?


Historians often cite Watergate as a watershed moment when the public “lost faith” in its elected politicians. Certainly, the grotesque televised image of Richard Nixon declaiming in 1973, “I am not a crook” provided a pivot for this apparent awakening (a moment echoed by Bill Clinton’s similarly perjurious public address in 1998: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”). But not only was Nixon not the first dishonest politician, he was not the first dishonest president. They’re all at it. Because power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and, to quote Everything But The Girl, little Hitlers grow up into big Hitlers. The business of running a country, whether it’s as small as Iceland, or as vast as Russia, involves compromise. I guess it has to, like any relationship. In government or junta, commercial and civic interests must be served at the same time. An electorate, or a non-electorate, must be kept onside, for fear of deselection, or coup.

Sometimes, decisions made in the secret corridors of power have life or death consequences. Most of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t handle that. Indeed, the old truism that the very worst kind of people to be politicians are the people who want to be politicians resounds still. Running a country is an insane fantasy that most of us rehearse over breakfast (“If I was in charge … I’d making voting compulsory/ban mobiles in schools/put registration plates on bicycles/remove charity status from public schools/give automatic custodial sentences to internet trolls etc.”). We are currently going through a leadership election that will put someone else in charge of our country, at least one of whom will have been tied to a Leave campaign based on lies or assertions with no basis in fact. Whether she – and it is likely to be a she – is up to the job is only something we can discover by letting her do it. We came dangerously close to having Boris Johnson imposed upon us as our leader, thanks to the boneless leadership of David Cameron. The former is a man priapic on adulation who thought leading a country was his birthright; the latter seemed to treat the job as a sort of wheeze and couldn’t wait to put it behind him. Both are dangerous. Both went to the same schools. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, someone who was in the Bullingdon Club always gets in, right?


There is talk of a “disconnect” between people and politics. It’s why the inarticulate bully Donald Trump is presumptive Republican nominee when the commentariat dismissed him as a joke. It’s why the mild-mannered Jeremy Corbyn won a mandate from members of the Labour party in the vacuum after Ed Milliband and has since struggled to keep the Teflon-hearted Blarites within the PLP onside. And it’s why the Leave campaign’s parish magazines the Express and Mail were so effective in the peddling of myths. The balance of power now rests in the limbo between what politicians think they know about what ordinary voters know, and what ordinary voters know they know. It’s why we are one piece of paperwork away from leaving the EU after 43 years of growth and that racism has reared its ugly head again in a way not seen since the 70s – a decade which, by the way, wasn’t as good as the music, films or sitcoms made in it. Whether people are racists or simply voters struggling to replace the old certainties like jobs, security and community that have been taken away by successive administrations in hock to the free market and the City, they clearly don’t feel represented. Nor, by the way, do I. (My politics pretty much align with Corbyn’s, a man seemingly too Labour to be allowed to lead the Labour party.)


“Protest vote” is a catch-all phrase, simultaneously stirring and active, and negative and self-isolating. It can mean something passionate and personal: voting for an independent candidate, let’s say, in a local election, or voting Green, as I have done, even though there appears statistically to be no way the candidate can get in. But voting Leave in a zero-sum referendum to show the politicians that you no longer have faith in them is a protest only in theory; in actual fact, it is a vote for uncertainty. A malignant symptom of the current democratic malaise, it led the 51.9%  to opt to leave the EU because they had genuine, concrete reasons for wanting to “take back control” from Europe, the promise they were made by politicians who could barely agree between themselves whether they were pro-Europe or not. I feel sad that many people, with good reason, believed that to “take back control” meant some kind of meaningful independence. The crushing irony is that in “taking back control” from those fabled Brussels bureaucrats, Leave voters “gave control” to the right wing of the Tory party, a party that despises the jobless and the poor, and is dismantling the very state that might look after them.

We’re so jaded we expect lies to be told in election campaigns. And yet, we swallow the lies. That the Tories care about “hardworking families”? That £350m of “our cash” (Johnson, Gove and the rest were clever to make it sound like bureaucrats were picking our pockets) would be given to the NHS? By a party that seeks to privatise the NHS? More lies. That Saddam Hussein could get a chemical weapon to the UK in 45 minutes?


Here’s the irony. Tony Blair, who was unfortunate to be given a surname that contains the letters L, I, A and R, seems to think he has been cleared by Chilcot of actually, literally telling a lie to us, while Alistair Campbell is smug about being cleared of “sexing up” the intelligence dossier, but in buttering up the electorate, and Parliament, for war, they implicitly lied from the moment Blair told Bush he was “with him, whatever” in the 28 July, 2002 memo. Thereafter, war was not an option, it was a foregone conclusion, and any speech or comment that Blair made after that date which did not reveal the deal he’d made is in my eyes rendered a lie.

Here’s the killing joke: I think he’s telling the truth when he says that, given the choice, he would invade Iraq all over again.




Being human


There’s a clear and present danger we’re becoming inured to newsreel footage and images of migrants from as far afield as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Albania, Kosovo and Nigeria squashed into boats, risking death as human contraband in waterways between North Africa and Italy, and Turkey and Greece. It has felt like a weekly, sometimes daily experience for those of us watching: frightened faces, capsizing vessels, the spinning radar of a coast guard ship, life jackets, hoodies, backpacks, helicopters, children, babies, bacofoil blankets, corpses in the surf. Which is why I think the Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi is making such a splash with his latest film Fire At Sea (which, if you’re not fortunate enough to live near an arthouse cinema, is now available to stream on that constant lifeline for cinephiles, Curzon Home Cinema).

I’m not au fait with Rosi’s previous work, but can’t wait to seek it out, if this is how he rolls. Fire At Sea is one of those documentaries that tells its tale not through narration or captioned talking heads (although some participants are clearly being interviewed by Rosi for the camera), but fixed shots of a landscape, or neatly composed glimpses of everyday life, which cumulatively build a bigger picture – or, you might say, a smaller or more intimate picture. It ostensibly presents a free-standing slice of life on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year hoping for a new life in Europe; a rare caption tells us that, unbelievably, 400,000 have passed through in the last 20 years. This is an island with a population of around 6,000, essentially a way-station, and the Italian coast guard is shown diligently and humanely processing what seems to be a constant flow of migrants. But this is not a film about the migrant crisis.


Rosi is not here to provide answers. He merely presents the facts as he, or his camera, sees them. If anyone is our guide, it’s 12-year-old Samuele, something of a tyke, the son of a fisherman, an artisan of the homemade catapult (with which he and his pal fire stones at cactuses and, we suspect, local birdlife), a proficient mime when it comes to the firing of imaginary assault weapons, and a kid with an old head on young shoulders. We see him explaining his symptoms to a doctor – the doctor, in fact, as the island appears only to have one – and not only does he use his hands and arms to express himself like an Italian man, he even seems to suffer from the hypochondria of a patient six times his age. (The doctor tells him that it’s stress-related, a very grown-up diagnosis. This is the doctor who later confesses his horror at having to cut off the finger of a dead migrant for reasons of later identification.)  You might say that in Samuele, Rosi has discovered “a star”, but again, it’s not about him, or any one person. That our boy seems to lead a relatively self-contained life among the scrub and low trees of his immediate landscape – as far as this film’s viewpoint suggests, utterly untouched by the boatloads of refugees being numbered, photographed and examined by the coast guard – illustrates the potential joy of a simple life.

Although the sheer number of foreign migrants passing through the lens of this film – many are dead, or on the point of death through dehydration – means that we do not get to know them with anything like the same intimacy with which we commune with Samuele’s father, his grandmother, an unnamed diver, the doctor, and a local DJ who plays the song Fire At Sea as a request for a fisherman’s wife – but that, I guess, is the point. The local people are fully integrated into their environment. The fisherman catches a squid (we see it breathe its last on the deck of a boat); the squid is de-inked and chopped into a stew by Samuele’s grandmother; then eaten as a hearty, life-giving meal by a family of three generations. The circle of life. The grandmother, who keeps reminding Samuele he’s still young, asks only for “a little health” when she kisses the heads of her icons of the Virgin Mary and a saint in her spartan bedroom. The people who “belong” on Lampedusa – as opposed to the migrants who fundamentally don’t, but are welcomed, temporarily, with compassion and without argument – do not ask for much. Samuele is happy with a twig from a tree. His father is happy to be home from sea. His grandfather is happy to be served a mid-morning espresso at the kitchen table, gone in one sip. The migrants have little more than the t-shirt on their backs, or the scarves wrapped around their heads, but they are grateful for a sip of water when they are unloaded onto the rescue ship, some of them also potentially breathing their last, like the squid.


There are a number of especially profound sequences in Fire At Sea, chanced upon by Rosi in the time he spent on the island: one of Samuele literally having to acclimatise himself to life at sea by facing down his seasickness: a creature of the land attempting to adapt to the ocean, in a perhaps cruel echo of the Africans forced off terra firma onto barely seaworthy boats, not to fish to survive, but to survive. In many ways, his options are limited; following in his father’s footsteps is a prescriptive path, and he’s not a natural seafarer (he’s sick over the side of his dad’s boat and turns the colour of paste). The options on Lampedusa are few, and the modern, interconnected world far away (the modernity of the doctor’s Apple monitor jars). This 12-year-old might understandably wish to leave for the mainland one day. He would, indeed, hop on a boat to achieve that. But he will be a willing migrant, not a refugee. It’s not necessarily a revolutionary visual and thematic link to make – refugees coming in, a native heading out – but it’s typical of Rosi’s sense of visual poetry.


Another profound image is that of Samuele’s lazy eye. Again, it’s an accident that Rosi captured this milestone in a young boy’s life. But when he is prescribed a flesh-coloured eye patch to help “correct” the eye that’s not functioning properly, it’s actually impossible not to read all sorts of subtext into it. Do we, in the comfortable West, view the migrant situation with half an eye? We see the constant news footage – footage nothing like as aesthetically beautiful and patiently composed as Rosi’s, by the way – but do we actually process it? Or does it go by in a blur? Is anyone fooled by the fleshy illlusion of the rubber patch?

Fire At Sea is a film about seeing. Samuele uses his trusty slingshot with the patch fixed to the inside of his new glasses and he misses the target. He must adapt to survive (if we take his weapon as an ancient tool of survival, rather than a toy), but his adaptation is intimate, personal. The adaptation of the North Africans fleeing their country is more profound, and more deadly. Their boy is no toy. They are fleeing the weapons of others.


I loved this film. Some critics have questioned the balance of its gaze. While Samuele and his family are viewed in close up, we never hear from the migrants, who are presented en masse. But that, I feel, is the point, and a fair point. We see them, exhausted, confused, thirsty and yet relieved, being photographed by the Italian coast guard (all wearing masks and gloves for fear of infection, which makes them anonymous), and each migrant is assigned a number, which is held next to their head in the photo for identification. They are a number and yet they are “free” in the sense that they have left a war zone or persecution behind. If this “dehumanises” them, then it is not Rosi who does this, it’s the world. Also, he takes care to include a frankly joyous scene in which African migrants in the concrete yard of a detention centre, awaiting the next stage of transit to what they hope is a better life, play football against a team of Syrians – with, poignantly, two empty water bottles as goalposts. They cheer and shout, united by the international detente of sport. They are free, but they are also locked up. Contradictions fall from the sky.

The image that moved me the most was towards the end, when Samuele goes out hunting by the light of the moon (hunting not for food, but for sport). He seems to lure a tiny young bird by imitating its tweets. But by torchlight, as he gently approaches the bird, he either changes his mind, or he was never hunting it in the first place, and he gently strokes the bird on the head. Humanity is on the doorstep. Just look for it.

Your country needs EU


Nigel Farage, a man who is not even an MP, and whose party only has one MP in the House of Commons, is the most influential politician in Britain. Farage need only sit in a snug bar somewhere on the Kent coast, telling stories of his days as a commodities broker to other members of his golf club over a succession of pints, between now and the EU referendum vote on June 23 and his supreme power will be unabated. He did this.

Welcome to Europe: The Final Countdown. Our dearly beleaguered Prime Minister, David Cameron, sort of accidentally made a manifesto pledge before the general election to hold an EU referendum in this parliament, solely to stop those on the right of the Tory vote from emigrating to UKIP, whose leader continues to be the kind of bloke you’d like to have a pint with, something no Tory can claim to imitate. If ever a man can congratulate himself on undue national and international influence from a position of relative electoral obscurity, it’s Nigel Farage, without even being electable in South Thanet in 2015, where the oast houses have spikes mounted on them to repel parachuting foreign invaders. Farage has forced the Conservatives to hold a referendum that their leader, their chancellor, and 25 members of their 30-member cabinet did not want to hold. Well done, Nigel. Mine’s an imported European lager.


And yet opinion across the country – crucially among the tiny percentage of the electorate who will bother to drag their arses out of bed on June 23 to place their democratic cross in one of two boxes and change the future of the country forever – still seems evenly split. In which case, there is a very real chance that this country will vote to leave the European Union after 43 years of membership, in a couple of weeks’ time because of one powerful, elected politician’s fear of another one, whose only mandate is to be a member of the European Parliament he wants not to be a member of with every fibre of his being . The whole thing is a giant pisstake. And the joke’s on us.


We have the sitting government, “officially” neutral but no such thing, with its electoral mandate, desperately trying to get the voters of Great Britain and Gibraltar to vote “remain”. (I am a big fan of lettuce, and I wish to vote “Romaine”.) But some rather noisy and famous members of the Tory bloc – including one of the noisiest men in Britain, Boris Johnson; the ghoulish IDS; the one who can’t stop laughing, Michael Gove; the man with a cardboard box full of his belongings ready on his desk, John Whittingdale; grey Chris Grayling; entitled Zac Goldsmith (who has gone mysteriously quiet since throwing the London Mayoral election away by pretending to like Bollywood films when he hasn’t seen one); Liam Fox; Priti Patel; and assorted former Chancellors now in the Lords – are currently, and persuasively, filling their compliant parish magazines ie. the Eurosceptic news media (specifically: the Times, the Telegraph, the Sun, but most pantingly the Mail, the Express) with stories of “CRISIS”, “HARM”, “INVASION” and “EU KILLERS AND RAPISTS”, which work on a very primal level, and have little to do with the “leave” campaign’s refrain, “We want to make our own laws, and not have them made for us by a coterie of cheese-eaters in Brussels.” They have largely to do with fear. Fear of foreigners, specifically Turks and Albanians currently. Fear of invasion. Fear of our “way of life” being threatened by boatloads of Bulgarian pickpockets.


A sensible debate needs to occur on immigration, and our role in the current global displacement crisis. But there’s no time to do this properly between now and June 23, which is under three weeks away. And while Cameron fairly sensibly but never passionately states the case, as he did over and over again on Sky’s EU Debate last night to an audience who wouldn’t stop shouting out before the roving mic arrived, that leaving the single market would damage the UK economy (something most economists pretty much agree on in principle), it’s not getting through to those in zero-hours jobs or less-than-zero-hours no-jobs, or indeed those in actual jobs that don’t cover the cost of living (“the working poor” is a phrase that should strike fear into the hearts of all of us). Or people who live on the south coast. One photo of a row of tents battered by the coastal winds on a clifftop in Calais, each one containing at least one Albanian with an eye on the coffee shops of Dymchurch, beats a hundred statements from the Treasury or letters in the Telegraph signed by a slimy coterie of CEOs.


Personally, I’d stay in, if only for the employment rights enshrined into European law that the Johnson regime would rip up within days of entering Parliament. I have nothing personal to gain from the EU, but it feels better to be in it than not in it. This country is small-minded and insular enough already, without literally becoming an island. (It was during the dangerous George W Bush years that I really started to believe in Europe as a necessary political counterweight to US neocon insanity – which hasn’t exactly gone away, has it?) I have no love of the financial services industry, or of “big business”, and I certainly have no love of David Cameron and his chums, and as such it feels weird to agree with them on anything, but that’s how I feel in my bones. I despise the Tories. But I actually fear Boris and the “leavers”. And if there’s one thing that seems to be driving this debate, it’s fear.

The king is dead


Here are the facts. While his parents weren’t looking, a small boy accidentally fell into the moat of a gorilla enclosure at a zoo. The gorilla showed great interest in the boy, who was conscious. He made as if to protect and guard the boy. Keepers and a member of an ambulance crew entered the enclosure and removed the boy. The gorilla kept its distance. No animals were harmed in the making of this new story.

It happened in 1986, at Jersey Zoo on the Channel Island of the same name, these days rebranded Durrell Wildlife Park after its famous founder, conservationist Gerald Durrell (whose early life was recently dramatised on ITV in The Durrells). I happened to be in Jersey that summer, working on a bursary art project and capturing the holiday island in drawings, photographs and collages. I wasn’t at the zoo on that day – although had been in the course of my research – but it was big news, nationally and internationally. To me it all felt very local, and I painted a picture of the 25-year-old male gorilla Jambo protecting the five-year-old male human, Levan Merritt, which I wish I had access to. With YouTube, social media, citizen journalism and mobile phones still years into the next century, it’s amazing that this potentially dangerous event was captured at all, but it was, thanks to an American with a camcorder from the future. (An American news report has been loaded to YouTube here. It’s quite distressing to watch, as the spectators are powerless to help and the poor boy is clearly in pain and distress from the fall, but Jambo behaves impeccably. A simian babysitter.


I don’t  know if it’s just health-and-safety culture, or American fear of litigation or bad publicity in the iPhone age, but things played out very differently at Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday when the exact same thing happened. This time, it was a four-year-old, who also slipped into the moat while his parents weren’t looking and was immediately attended to by Harambe, a 17-year-old silverback gorilla. It’s interesting to compare the Cincinnati phone footage to the Jersey film. In both cases, the ape reacts the same way, with curiosity and an apparent protectiveness. In Cincinnati, onlookers squeal and overreact, as if they’re on America’s Got Talent. In Jersey, in the mid-80s, they remain stoic and calm, and it’s only when the boy starts to cry that his mother becomes hysterical in her helplessness – ironically, the boy’s cries send the gorillas away, leaving the paramedic and keepers to step in. In Cincinnati, of course, the endangered silverback was shot dead.


I was captivated by animals as a boy. As such, I was captivated by zoos, where I could see those animals face to face. I was taken to Whipsnade, Woburn Abbey and London Zoo. I loved seeing big cats, elephants and other large African and Indian mammals, especially rhinos and hippos. Their size sent shivers down the spine. I respected the animals, and was in awe of them, and my tiny brain was not sophisticated enough to spot the irony of my awe: I was seeing these beautiful creatures hundreds of miles away from where they lived. They had been caught, kidnapped, incarcerated, imprisoned, enslaved. David Attenborough recently bookended some unearthed colour footage from three 1950s episodes of Zoo Quest, in which he travelled the wild tracking tasty-looking exotica to take back to London Zoo; he described what he was doing as “kidnapping” and felt some shame. I feel the same way about my willing participation as a visitor to zoos.

I understand that zoos now operate fully under the banner of “conservation” and have put their exploitative Victorian pasts behind them, working with charities and other selfless organisations to improve their image. Zoos no longer seem to want to be called zoos; they’re “parks” and “gardens” and “experiences” that “conserve” endangered species. But in doing so, however noble a cause that may seem, they must also put them on display for public pleasure and as gift-shop bait. They breed wild animals in captivity because it keeps the numbers up in a less hospitable natural world. But you’ll never convince me that animals bred away from their natural habitat is a good thing. I was thrilled to see a hippo, close up, in a stinky looking pond at Whipsnade Zoo as a schoolboy. But a hippo shouldn’t have been in Dunstable.


I suspect that everyone who works in a zoo loves animals. You’d have to. I cast no aspersions on the people who work with animals, or even the administrators of zoos. And I make a moral exception for sanctuaries for rescued, orphaned or injured creatures that are sited in the home country of the animals themselves. I just think we ought to move on from zoos as animal theatre. No more dolphin displays, please. No more feeding time. Cincinnati Zoo’s YouTube channel is currently hyping a future attraction, which is a massive enclosure for two hippos. Hippos shouldn’t be in Ohio either. I saw a massive polar bear in the tiny zoo in New York’s Central Park. I could barely believe what I was seeing. “Wrong” doesn’t describe it. Leave them be.

The silverback is an endangered species. As are the eastern gorilla, the mountain gorilla and the western gorilla, threatened by human destruction of their natural habitat, and human commerce around bushmeat. (The Ebola virus also kills gorillas in central Africa.) They face extinction from many quarters. Some might argue that giving them a safe home in a zoo is better than leaving them to the poachers. I say go the source. We’re endangering them. Let’s stop doing that.

Because shooting a blameless gorilla dead in a zoo designed to conserve it may be the saddest irony I have ever heard.




God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen. The national anthem has its two primary wishes, assuming you believe that a supreme being, more supreme than a ruling monarch, played a hand in her long life of nobility. The British monarch, Elizabeth II according to the list of numerical monarchs stretching back to Alfred the Great who reigned between the years 871 and 899 at a time when Greatness was more enshrined and objective, is 90 years old today. That’s a good age. She should be applauded for reaching 90 and to apparently be in such good shape, both physically and mentally.

I feel pleased for anyone who makes it past 70 without succumbing to debilitating disease or the need to be hooked up to machines. Queen Elizabeth II seems not to be an evil person. She likes horses and dogs, so she can’t be all bad. Some would say she has “given” her life, or much of it, to her subjects, which is us. But it’s not a job she applied for. She was promoted from within the family firm, and given little choice in the matter. I would be gracious enough to say that she adapted well to her duties. I would also argue that it’s a lot easier to get to 90 if you don’t have to worry about anything. Few of us, her subjects, get to live a life that is all laid out for us by other people, where we don’t have to squeeze our own toothpaste out of its tube if we don’t feel like it, and are essentially on holiday all year round, in the sense that we are often abroad, and in transit, but without the faff of having to book, or wait around. It must be nice not to have to worry about money. I would guess that money worries are the number one cause of stress – and stress-related illness – in our society. To literally never have to worry about where the next penny is coming from is most people’s idea of a good life. The Queen has lived that life for 90 years.


On the occasion of her 90th birthday, the BBC’s royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell (or “poor old Nicholas Witchell”, to give him his full title) interviewed her second eldest grandson, Prince Harry’s brother William, who is second in line to the throne. Witchell did so with the usual, required deference of commoners in the presence of the royals, and asked Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, what “sort of king” he thought he would be. If I had been called upon to ask Prince William this question, I fear I would have been unable not to burst into maniacal laughter at the very thought of asking a 33-year-old man about becoming “a king.” I watch Game Of Thrones, and I am captivated by the complex issues of succession in its interlocking kingdoms, a world of kings, princes, princesses and masters of coin. I am captivated because it is fiction. There are, by my finger-count, 42 monarchies in the real world, the one that we live in, in the 21st century, although quite a lot of them are “ruled” by the same royal family, our one. That’s because there was once a British Empire, “ruled” by Queen Victoria for the most part. Queen Elizabeth is, excuse my maths, the great, great, great granddaughter of Queen Victoria. This is all she had to be, to get the job of a lifetime, for a lifetime.


All of this bothers me. I live on a small island, which once commanded a huge chunk of the globe through the might of its trading power and the modernity of its arms. By the time I was born, less than ten years after Elizabeth was crowned Queen, this Empire was pretty much done. The flag had been lowered in most of its former colonies as independence started to seem like a better and more modern option. I saw Hong Kong handed back on the news. There are still some dependencies and protectorates dotted around; they’re the ones that keep getting namechecked in news stories about tax evasion. And Australia and New Zealand. At least Australia’s citizens had a vote on whether or not to keep the Queen in 1999, when around 55% of them said yes, and 45% said no. You kind of have to abide by this. I have never been able to vote on the same matter, and I doubt I ever will. I have to abide by that. But I don’t have to like it.

Victoria Wood, a talented woman loved by millions who had the same first name as the Queen’s great, great, great grandmother (I think), died yesterday after a short battle with cancer. She was 62. This would be a tragedy for anyone, but it’s one that touched those of us who’d never met Victoria Wood but saw her on the television, and merited headline news. The Queen has already lived 28 years longer than her, possibly because she never had to squeeze her own toothpaste out of its tube or run to a departure lounge. Today’s national newspapers found themselves with a dilemma. Because Victoria Wood, who got where she did through sheer force of talent and will, and possibly sacrifice, was clearly beloved, the non-republican newspapers had to squeeze their carefully planned Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations into half a front page or less to accommodate the inconvenient death of an adored public figure.

This adjustment was its own testament to the popularity of one woman, versus the perceived popularity of another (although few tabloids can resist a “battle” with cancer). We witnessed a rare ray of commonsense amid what feels like hysteria about a person’s birthday – or one of their birthdays. The Queen’s ability to procreate, and for her children to procreate, and for their children to procreate, is presented as an achievement almost magical in its exceptionalism. Look at the apparently left-leaning Daily Mirror‘s front cover and try to keep your dinner down.


The queen is known as “Gan Gan” to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This might be sweet within the family, in private, but it feels over-familiar and inappropriate out in the public glare. By definition it infantalises us all, her subjects. The Daily Mirror can’t call her “Gan Gan”. Off with their heads, I say.

All of this shows how far we haven’t come as a nation. The death of Princes Diana, the Queen’s daughter-in-law, was supposed to change things forever. But it changed very little, except our national aversion to expressing our feelings or having a cry in public, which is seemingly a thing of the past. Queens, princesses, princes and masters of coin ought too to be things of the past. In my humble opinion. (That final qualification was for anyone on social media who thinks that opinions have to be declared, for fear of those opinions being read as objective, legislative fact, even if they are typed next to a small picture of your head and your name.)

Off with my head.




Make America Hate Again


It almost feels like shooting a racist in a barrel, taking aim at Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for president 2016. He’s a boorish, entitled, non-thinking, vain, preening, loud-mouthed, bullying, hectoring, ill-informed, historically and politically illiterate, ungracious, repetitive, spiritually ugly, self-serving, self-centred, self-aggrandising, self-loving, self-mythologising, showboating, grandstanding, oafish, blinkered, simplistic, dishonest, misogynistic, sexist, homophobic, disablist, xenophobic, misanthropic, reactionary, vicious, voluminous, hate-filled, hate-spewing, inciteful, insightless, uncaring, myopic, deluded, lowest-common-denominator, divisive, simplistic, dangerous, inflammatory, rude, galling, pumped-up, far-right, destructive, deluded, deluding, uncouth, untrustworthy, rogue bad-haired Onanist who used to be on TV, and is now never off the TV. He also used to be a joke. Not any more. He’s now a threat. To – potentially – all of us. He is, after all, a man whose foreign policy is to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”, thinks that the violence he explicitly incites from his bully pulpit is “nothing to do with him” and who actually inferred he had a large penis in a televised debate. And he looks like Donald Trump.


As you may know, I’m a keen follower of US politics, especially every four years, and if I had a vote, I’d lean to the Democrats. No surprise there. In my bones I know I’d be for Bernie Sanders, the Jeremy Corbyn of the American left. And yet, with Trump in the seemingly unstoppable ascendancy, I think that Hillary Clinton may be commonsense’s only hope. (Although one CNN poll found that Sanders would stand a better chance of beating Trump than Clinton.) It’s literally not up to me. I can only push my nose up against the glass and watch, helpless, as a polarised electorate, alienated from dynastic DC party politics at both ends, decide the fate of a divided nation after, let’s face it, eight pretty disappointing years of emollient talk and executive cool but too little great change from Obama, kneecapped as a Democrat President so often is by a Republican Congress. You win, you lose.


Enter the reality TV star, so rich (“part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich”) he doesn’t need private donors, already a caricature of himself and thus beyond satire, and apparently on the side of the ordinary working- and middle-class voters who’ve lost their jobs due to the globalised free market waived in by libertarian, deregulating Republican administrations (and allowed to flourish by liberal, not-nearly-regulating-enough Democratic ones). He makes a powerful case to the disenfranchised of those United States: he’s going to stop corporations from upping sticks to China and Mexico if and when he’s President, before building a wall around the place, to stop Muslims coming in, and business going out. It’s a binary way of looking at the world, like Trump is a giant baby mesmerised by the pretty shapes a revolving nightlight projects on the nursery wall, and it’s more than gaining traction with the economically vulnerable. It’s also turning white America against the America of colour (as if the rednecks need any encouragement).

Divide and rule is nothing new. Donald Trump seems so ill-read and ill-versed in history and geopolitics, it’s a terrifying thought that he could ever hold any office outside of an office he already owns. (He’s the kind of American who believes that nothing can’t be bought, including democratic power.) It used to be tee-hee-hee amusing that daft old downhome George W Bush couldn’t name any other world leaders and basically wanted to play golf while he settled some Oedipal family score by being President, but Trump wouldn’t even feel the need to name any other world leaders and would surely wear his ignorance as a badge of honour (he’s “very rich”, you see, that’s the “beauty” of him, so he doesn’t need to memorise names of foreigners because he has no donors to dance for). It would earn him approval points among his desired, non-passport-holding demographic if he started a call-and-response that went: “Who’s stupid and PROUD of it?” “WE are!”


I’ll say it again, I hardly feel as if I am going out on a limb expressing bemusement, bewilderment and fear at the thought of Trump wielding any kind of jurisdiction outside of a reality TV show, but it’s an unedifying sight either way watching his endless victory speeches and seeing the hatred and violence in the eyes of his supporters. (Some of them have violence in their fists and elbows, too; give these people enough rope and strange fruit will be swinging from a tree.) It seems quaint now that we worried about Nigel Farage in this country – who, on paper, rode the same bandwagon here, appealing to the more purple-faced on the right – as he now feels a bit like a single-issue figure of fun again. One hopes in one’s heart that Trump will fail in his bid to do something that he only really wants to do to see if he can do it. In any event, he would quickly tire of the minutiae of the job by about, ooh, half-ten the morning after he enters the White House. Bored now, what’s next?


America can be a scary country, with its guns, and its flag, and its belief in God, but for every rally it holds in the name of reductive ethnic stereotyping and baseball-cap fascism, a bunch of protesters will challenge that poisonously antithetical orthodoxy, even risking a remorseless thump in the head for enacting their unalienable right to do so. I’ve just watched the third part of CNN’s fascinating newsreel-based documentary series The Seventies on Sky Arts, headed Peace With Honour, which covered the last, glory-free five years of the Vietnam war, and it made you proud to see so many ordinary Americans, from students to veterans, protesting Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia and other outrages, literally risking life and limb in the process. Let us think of the United States as a nation of questioning, constitutional dissent. What Trump is whipping up is not dissent, it is fear. The only questions he asks are ones to which he has a pre-prepared answer. “Who’s gonna pay for the wall?”


Simon Heffer has written a good piece from on the ground in the New Statesman about the Trump effect, and he rightly points the finger at Obama for the shortfall between his “elevated rhetoric” and the “lower reality”. He also noted that America is “an unhappy nation.” The cards are stacked in favour of a no-nonsense (or so the disillusioned think) demagogue who promises to fix the problem. He also reminds us that Trump “is not a politician … [he] has never served in the military or held political office.” He’s the sort of golf-club bore most of us would edge away from in a bar, but we’re not everybody in America. Desperate times – and for millions they are fucking desperate – require desperate candidates.

Commie Roots


Thatcher Stole My Trousers | Alexei Sayle Bloomsbury Circus £16.99

I applied to Chelsea School Art in 1984 for its reputation, location and the fact that its prospectus arrogantly contained no photographs, a brutalism I found appealing. The clincher, though, was Alexei Sayle, the angry stand-up described in an early review in the London Review of Books as a “portly, spring-heeled Liverpudlian with an Oliver Hardy suit.” I’d identified him as a Chelsea alumnus in a 1983 episode of BBC1 documentary series Comic Roots, in which the thirty-ish Sayle was filmed drinking in the union bar bemoaning the “three years of total nonsense” he spent at the school between 1971 and 1974.

It was thus with some solidarity that I devoured the first chapters of Sayle’s terrific second volume of memoirs (the first, 2010’s Stalin Ate My Homework, mined his family’s Commie roots and left him on a foundation course in Southport). Through parental influence a card-carrying member of the carefully named Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) since short trousers, he was drawn to London by “all the rock gigs, exhibitions and plays … I didn’t actually want to go to any of them, I just wanted to live in a place where they were on.” This will ring true to anyone who has ever gravitated towards the capital. Now 63, he writes with the wisdom of someone taking stock and retrospectively hymns Chelsea as “a wonderful and humane institution” – the Soviet-sounding “painting council” declined to throw him off the degree course after he showed them a film he’d made satirising them.

A deft writer whose short stories led Clive James to compare him to Guy de Maupassant, Sayle is a genial, self-deprecating tour guide on this second voyage around himself and not as didactic or hectoring as his high-blood-pressure comic persona might suggest. On his journey from post-graduate miasma and jobs at the DHSS and in teaching via community theatre to fame and fortune during the so-called Alternative Comedy boom at the birth of the 80s, he finds time to disparage the Arts Council for its remit “to give money only to things that were unpopular”, and the Design Centre as “an Arts Council for teapots.” He thumbnails the infant Channel 4, which gave him and his comedy pals their big break in The Comic Strip Presents in 1982, as a magnet for advertisers of “wines from Bulgaria and different kinds of cheese.” And as a former beneficiary of social housing, he remains bothered by the notion that “if you were a council tenant there were no consequences to your actions, as if you were a big baby.”

Gently mocking his own granite political convictions, he praises the “high quality of snacks” as “a little known benefit of revolutionary politics,” and sees the funny side of his domineering Maoist mother Molly sending Christmas cards in the late 70s bearing the legend “Season’s Greetings from H Block” at the time of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ dirty protests.

Like all comedians’ autobiographies, once the career takes off and the hardships fade the prose slides into a list of tour anecdotes and meetings with commissioning editors. But there is insightful reportage on location in Helsinki for his first film role in thriller Gorky Park, observing “dark green trains decorated with Cyrillic script” and “beautiful Estonian prostitutes with hair the colour of butter.” His admission to a semi-religious “sense of wonder” about TV studios is also beautifully illuminated: “the images on monitors glowed brighter than the paintings of Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.”

This instalment ends circa “the first summer of the Miners’ Strike,” around the time Sayle was asked to film the edition of Comic Roots that drew at least one teenaged comedy fan to Chelsea School of Art. Thatcher stole his trousers, but he changed my life.

Kindly reprinted from the Mail On Sunday, 13 March 2016